At the beginning of this month Lee Young came to the Essex Egyptology Group to talk about Howard Carter as an artist (rather than as an archaeologist). She is an independent researcher associated with the Griffith Institute in Oxford where the bulk of Carter's notes and archives are kept. Although she was talking to us today about Carter she said that her real research interest is in the female artists whose works are represented in the Griffith Institute collections.

She began by sketching us a quick verbal picture of Howard Carter's character: he was contrary, stubborn, opinionated and sometimes rude. He was short-tempered and didn't suffer fools gladly. He also had a chip on his shoulder about his humble origins - going so far in later years as to re-write his background into something that he felt was more "suitable". But to offset this picture of a proud man Young pointed out that Carter's work recording the Egyptian reliefs required a great degree of artistic humility as he had to bury his own skill & artistic style in the service of accurately recording the ancient artists' skills.

Howard Carter was born on 9th May 1874 in London, as the youngest son of a large family. His parents, Samuel Carter and Martha Joyce Carter were both originally from Swaffham in Norfolk. His grandfather (Carter) was a gamekeeper there, and parts of the family still lived there. Samuel Carter had moved to London to work as an artist, and the whole family were very artistic. Samuel Carter painted in a high Victorian style and his work was well regarded at the time. He mostly painted animal portraits for the gentry but he also worked as the principal animal illustrator for the London Illustrated News for 20 years.

Howard was a sickly child, and as a result of this was poorly educated. What schooling he did get was in a day school rather than a public school, which caused friction in his dealings with the Victorian elite in later life (and contributed to his embarrassment at his origins). As an older child he was sent to live in Norfolk with some of his aunts and he learnt to love nature there, spending a lot of time painting the wildlife. He was particularly interested in birds (and I think Young also said insects). However he wasn't able to follow up on this interest, instead returning to London to work in the family business painting pets. Apparently despite generally liking animals he loathed lapdogs, which were often the subjects he was hired to paint.

In 1890 the Egypt Exploration Fund (precursor of the Egypt Exploration Society) were setting up a project to archaeologically survey the monuments in Egypt because there were fears that they would also soon be so damaged there'd be nothing left. The first season a team headed by Percy Newberry went to Beni Hassan to begin work there, and initially it was hoped they'd finish that site in a season and move on the following year. However the work took much longer that anticipated and it was decided to spend the following year there as well, and take along another artist. Howard Carter got the job - through the recommendation of Lord Amherst, who Carter had painted pictures for and who had encouraged Carter's interest in Amherst's Egyptian collection. Carter was considered particularly suitable for the job as he was not a gentleman - the job was unpaid but expenses were covered and the EEF thought a gentleman might run up larger bills than they wanted to pay!

Before Carter went to Egypt he was given time to study for his new role - he had a pass to permit him to draw in the British Museum and he also studied the work of Robert Hay. Hay had recorded several monuments & inscriptions in the early 19th Century, and after studying those records Carter regarded Hay as better than many of Carter's contemporaries. In 1891, at the age of only 17, Carter travelled to Egypt for the first time. He first stayed in Cairo for a while - visiting the Pyramids of course, and the Museum and also spent a lot of time drawing and painting animals in the zoo. He also met Petrie for the first time in Cairo, and liked him & his attitude.

Once in Beni Hassan Carter was put to work by Percy Newberry on recording the reliefs in the Oryx Nomarch tombs. Young told us that Carter liked the views at Beni Hassan, and the archaeological site, but the accommodation was just "good enough for those who aren't too fussy"! However Carter didn't approve of the methods used by Newberry to record the reliefs - the technique he was using involved tracing the reliefs then sending them back to England to be inked in in black by people who'd never seen the originals and weren't trained artists. The drawings were then reproduced at a much smaller scale for publication and so even those fine details that he had managed to record were lost. At first Carter did as he was told, and impressed Newberry with his diligence and the speed with which he worked. As the work was progressing quickly Carter was also instructed to paint watercolour facsimiles of parts of the scenes. Young showed us several examples of these, including many birds and other animals. The photo below is one I took when the EEG visited the Egypt Exploration Society a couple of years ago - during that visit we saw several of Carter's drawings that the EES have in their archives.

One of Howard Carter's Drawings

The next site Carter went to was Deir el Bersha, which is near Beni Hassan - one of the scenes at this site is the famous one that shows an extremely large (6.8m tall) statue being moved by a large team of Egyptian workers. While working on recording the reliefs here he was able to exercise more control over the finished product. The figures were no longer blacked in as they had previously been, and Carter managed to arrange for the published drawings to be a larger scale so the fine details were more visible. His paintings and drawings from this site are still very useful to archaeologists today as they show details that no longer exist - the site at Deir el Bersha has suffered a lot of damage over time from rock falls to vandalism.

In the late 19th Century the big goal of Egyptologists was to find Akhenaten's tomb. When it was found Petrie went to see it, and took Carter with him. Young said that one of the drawings that Carter made at the site was his first published archaeological drawing. After this trip Carter went to Amarna with Petrie to work as his apprentice. He got the job by accident - the original candidate, Marcus Blackden, had been sent home in disgrace and Carter was the available person. Petrie was, famously, initially unimpressed with Carter - too much an artist, too little an archaeologist. But Carter turned out to be more useful than that initial impression.

In 1893 Carter was assigned by the EEF to Deir el Bahri as the principle epigrapher. Young reminded us at this point of how little time had passed - Carter is still only 19 years old. But as principle epigrapher he had a lot more control over how the work was done. He used his artistic abilities to draw the scenes freehand, and was able over the 6 years he was at the site to employ assistants who were also artistic enough to work in the same fashion (including one of his brothers). The EEF eventually published 6 volumes of plates from Carter and his team's work at Deir el Bahri, to great acclaim, and the standard of work was much better than previous expeditions had produced.

After his time at Deir el Bahri Carter was appointed as the Chief Inspector of Antiquities for Upper Egypt - a prestigious appointment that served to reinforce his liking for archaeology. During these years he was still working as an artist - in particular he did the drawings for Theodore Davis's publication of Yuya & Tuya's tomb. Carter was regarded as very efficient and capable in his position as Inspector, but after he was transferred to Lower Egypt he famously fell out with the authorities. Young told us the story briefly, as it's so well known - some French tourists went on a rampage damaging both monuments and their Egyptian guardians. Carter took the side of the Egyptians, feeling that they were doing their jobs and the tourists were undeniably causing damage. However permitting the guardians to defend themselves was regarded as insulting to French dignity. When Carter refused to apologise he was transferred to a less prestigious post and then subsequently resigned feeling humiliated.

From his resignation in late 1905 to 1909 (when he started work for Lord Carnarvon) Carter lived off his wits and through selling paintings. Young showed us several examples of the sort of work he did. This ranged from landscapes and the major monuments for tourists, through to work destined for archaeological publications. She told us that a lot of the information about Carter during these years comes from his correspondence with Mrs Mars, a wealthy client of his for whom he painted several paintings.

Carter joined Lord Carnarvon's third season in Egypt, although for some of time initially he was actually working doing drawings for a project of Alan Gardiner's. This didn't suit Carter, as he was not fond of Gardiner - Young explained that Carter thought Gardiner had been making insinuations against Carter's friends. Gardiner's project was never finished, but he kept the drawings and they are now in the Griffith Institute. Young said that not only are they still a useful reference for modern archaeologists but they also showcase Carter's maturity and skill as an artist.

In 1922 Carter made the discovery that made him famous - that of Tutankhamun's tomb. Young said that Carter drew everything during the excavations. His record cards for every object have little sketches of said object, carefully annotated and also beautiful. As well as showing us several of these cards Young also showed us some of the newly colourised versions of Burton's photos of the excavation - a little tangential but interesting to see!

Young finished her talk by telling us Carter's own thoughts on the copying of reliefs. In later life he wrote several essays with a view to a possible autobiography. These included his firm opinion that the epigraphy work needed to be done by a proper artist - that this was the only way to not only capture all the detail but also give a proper appreciation of and respect for the skill of the ancient artists. As Young pointed out, it's not clear that he would approve of modern techniques - which are a return to the tracing of reliefs that he'd so disapproved of when he first went to Egypt.

This was an interesting talk - often one hears about Carter as archaeologist with a footnote that he was an accomplished artist, but here Young showed that you can tell the story of his life with the opposite emphasis with just as much justification.

Exhibition

When we visited New York last year we timed our visit to coincide with the opening of an exhibition that the Metropolitan Museum of Art was putting on: Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom. The Middle Kingdom was regarded by later Ancient Egyptians as their "classical" age - for instance one of the teaching texts from the New Kingdom is about this era. It was probably composed in the 18th Dynasty, but it tells of a vision that Senwosret I has of his father Amenemhat I after Amenemhat's death. In that vision Amenemhat I talks about the proper ways to be a king. We often almost overlook the Middle Kingdom nowdays, as being "just" that bit between the Giza Pyramids and the time of the Valley of the Kings. Certainly I don't think I've been to another large exhibition concentrating on this era.

They let us take photos inside the exhibition, so I have a small set up on flickr here, or click on any photo to go to it on flickr.

The exhibition opened with a room that looked at the history of the early Middle Kingdom, and at the broad sweep of the development of artistic styles over this period. After the end of the Old Kingdom centralised government had broken down in Egypt and although there were Pharaohs in name they didn't rule the whole country in practice. The reunification of Egypt took place during the 11th Dynasty, in the reign of Montuhotep II. Before reunification Montuhotep II's power base was in Thebes, and he ruled the southern part of the country. The art style associated with Montuhotep II is initially a local Theban style, but once he's conquered the northern part of the country there is a change to incorporate Old Kingdom styles and themes into the art. The key features of art from his reign are crisp outlines, thick lips and muscular limbs (I think the first trip I took to Egypt our tour guide referred to a statue of Montuhotep II as "Old Elephant Legs" - he wasn't a fan of this style!). In the 12th Dynasty Amenemhat I moved the capital north to modern day Lisht, which is about 20 miles south of Memphis. This is when the Pharaohs restarted building Pyramids for the tombs. The art from his reign was generally in low relief, and had much more delicate moulding.

Statue of Senwosret III as a Sphinx

The next room of the exhibition covered the later Middle Kingdom, with a particular emphasis on statuary of the Pharaoh. The Ancient Egyptians were fond of seeing the world as made up of dualities, and their theories of kingship were no exception to this. The Pharaoh had a dual nature, and was both divine and human. During the Middle Kingdom the representation of the Pharaoh in this dual manner reached a peak. Many more statues of the Pharaoh were made as compared to earlier periods (which can be seen as a manifestation of the power of the Pharaoh). In these statues the Pharaoh was represented both as a divinity and as a worshipper. During the 12th Dynasty there was a change in representation of the Pharaoh from youthful features to more mature and careworn features (a visual reflection of a change in their ideas about kingship) - for instance statues of Senwosret III display this new style. The last great Pharaoh of the Middle Kingdom was Senwosret III's son Amenemhat III (who ruled as a co-regent with his father for 20 years). After this the 13th Dynasty was composed of several Pharaohs with short reigns, and often not related to their predecessor. And the art changes again, gone are the individualised representations of mature Pharaohs and back are youthful features this time coupled with a more stylised image which doesn't seem to be of an individual.

Model of the Pyramid Complex of Senwosret III, Dashur

Having established the chronology, and the broad changes in the art, the next room of the exhibition looked at how we know about this period. Or rather, specifically how the Met Museum comes to have so many Middle Kingdom artifacts. The Museum has been involved in many excavations in Egypt, of note in this context are their work at Middle Kingdom pyramid complexes at both Lisht and Dashur. In this room there was a video showing some of the excavations, and a large (modern) model of the pyramid complex of Senwosret III at Dashur which I spent some time looking at. A couple of bits of information from the labelling struck me in particular - firstly that evidence from graffiti shows that the complex remained standing until the late New Kingdom. And secondly that despite having this pyramid complex built and a sarcophagus put in it Senwosret III wasn't buried here, he was buried in Abydos. Which seems like an awful lot of effort to go to "just" for the symbolism (I assume), but that does seem a constant of Egyptian culture.

The next couple of rooms looked at the representations and roles of the elite other than the Pharaoh - starting with the royal women. It's noticeable that these women are all defined by their relationship to the Pharaoh - they are all titled things like "King's Wife" or "King's Daughter". Egypt sometimes gets held up as being a "more egalitarian" society by ancient standards, and it was compared to the later Athenian Greeks for instance, but that's a pretty low bar by modern standards. The women acted as the glue that bound the elite to the king (particularly in the 13th Dynasty) as the Pharaoh's wives frequently came from the elite families. They also had a religious role - the mythology of kingship held that the king is the son of his actual mother and a god, so she was an important part of this narrative (if a rather passive one). Royal women were also linked with Hathor, who brings up Horus in various of the myths (and the Pharaoh is an embodiment of Horus). Of the jewellery in this section I was particularly struck by the similarity in styles/motifs between this stuff and some jewellery we'd seen earlier on our visits to the Met belonging to minor wives of Tutmosis III who lived some five centuries after these Middle Kingdom women.

Bracelet of Princess Sithathoryunet

The level of power & the roles of the Pharaoh's officials varied across the time period of the Middle Kingdom. At first the country was still fairly decentralised, much as it had been in the First Intermediate Period. Control was brought more & more into the hands of a centralised government over the 12th Dynasty. Then in the 13th Dynasty the Pharaohs were weak and the elite effectively ran the country. This section of the exhibition had quite a few statues & stelae from the Pharaoh's non-royal subjects - including relatively low ranking officials. The Middle Kingdom was a time when even lower ranking officials and the non-elite were more likely to be able to commission relatively good quality statues.

In the iconography of Egyptian art how the country interacts with foreigners is clear: they are defeated, and then the Pharaoh smites them. Of course the truth is more nuanced and complicated than that. Some conquest (and colonisation) does take place - Nubia is conquered in Senwosret I's time, for instance. But there's also a lot of evidence of co-existence with other peoples. The Egyptians traded with Greece & with the Levant, and foreigners lived within Egyptian borders. One of the pieces in this section was a stela with the Tale of Sinhue carved on it, which is one of the great pieces of Egyptian literature and is set at the time of Senwosret I's accession. The protagonist flees into self-imposed exile outside of Egypt for much of the story, making it particularly relevant for another look at how the ancient Egyptians regarded the outside world. (Of course, the thing I photographed was the battle axe, because battle axe!)

Battle-axe and Stela

The next section of the exhibition was about life in the Middle Kingdom - illustrated using objects from burials, including some tomb models. Of course the Egyptians put them in their tombs to provide themselves with food and other necessities for their eternal afterlife. But from a modern persons' perspective they're useful to tell us what the life of an Egyptian was really like, and how they organised the various production systems - like slaughterhouses, granaries and so on. Burials might also include animal figurines - some to provide food, some for symbolic reasons and some to provide pets in the afterlife. They noted in the labelling that cats weren't yet fully domesticated at this point, although were definitely on the road towards it. Family and community were clearly important to the Middle Kingdom Egyptians - given the way that figurines & stelae generally depict not just the primary tomb owner but also their spouse and children.

Having used tomb goods to look at what they tell us about life the next section was about death - and I was particularly struck by the coffin with a mummy in that they had. For all that I knew already that they laid the dead on their sides during the Middle Kingdom period it was still striking to see it. Death for the Egyptians was a journey between two worlds and although ideas changed during the Middle Kingdom they stayed within that framework of the deceased going to somewhere else. During the early Middle Kingdom the emphasis was on offerings and providing an eternal supply of food. Later on in the Middle Kingdom the emphasis shifts to the rebirth of the dead (and this is when the Coffin Texts start to appear). This period is also when the first shabtis are made, and when the heart scarabs become important. Royal symbols start to appear in the tombs of non-royal individuals, as part of linking the deceased with Osiris.

Model Sailboat

By the Middle Kingdom the Egyptians had come to believe that the god Osiris was buried in one of the tombs at Abydos - we now know that the tomb they picked was the tomb of Djer who was the 3rd Pharaoh of the 1st Dynasty. Abydos therefore became an important cult site during this period, and many people made pilgrimages there. They often left stelae as offerings, or statues, so that they would be a permanent spectator or part of the processions there. This pilgrimage was also represented in the tomb with model boats so that they could continue to undertake it in the afterlife.

The next to last part of the exhibition was about temples. It's always important to remember that temples in the ancient Egyptian religion didn't have the same function as a Christian church - very much not a place where the public worshipped. Instead temples were secluded places where the god resided, and where the king could go and perform the appropriate & necessary rituals. The king was always the "true actor" in temple rituals, even though in practice the priests stand in for him. In some ways it was a mutual appreciation society: the king worshipped the god and in return the god blessed the king. In the Middle Kingdom temples were commissioned by the Pharaoh, for instance the White Chapel of Senwosret I at Karnak, in earlier periods it was less centralised and more down to the local communities. Right near the end of this section was one of my favourite bits of statuary from the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, on loan to the exhibition - a head of the god Sobek! Nice to see a "friendly" face from home amongst the treasures the Met Museum owns :)

Head of a Statue of the God Sobek Shedeti

The exhibition finished by considering what happened to the Middle Kingdom monuments and statuary in later years. The statues might be buried once they were superfluous - they were sacred objects so you couldn't destroy them. But there's only space for so many statues of Pharaohs in any given space so after a while you need to move the old ones out to make space for the new Pharaoh. And temples and statues alike might be usurped by a later Pharaoh (particularly Ramesses II) chiselling off the original name and writing his own name in its place. This wasn't just a case of thrift - it was also because the Egyptians looked back to the Middle Kingdom (and the 12th Dynasty in particular) with pride. Claiming its monuments as your own, would link you with this cultural high point.

I'm glad we got a chance to see this exhibition - as I said at the beginning of this post I don't think I've seen another exhibition that focusses on the Middle Kingdom. And of course many of these objects were from the Met Museum's own collections so we wouldn't've had the chance to see them elsewhere anyway.

This is an index and summary of the things I've talked about over the last month. Links for multi-post subjects go to the first post (even if it's before this month), you can follow the internal navigation links from there.

Books

Fiction

"The Burning Stone" Kate Elliott. Epic fantasy set in an analogue of medieval Europe, part of the Crown of Stars series. New.

Total: 1

Non-Fiction

"The Middle East: The Cradle of Civilisation Revealed" Stephen Bourke. Part of the Thames & Hudson Ancient Civilisations series.

Total: 1

Museums

Celts: Art and Identity - an exhibition at the British Museum about historical Celts and modern Celtic identity.

Total: 1

Radio

P v NP - In Our Time episode about P v NP problems.

Total: 1

Talks

"Seeking Senenmut: Statues, Status and Scandal" Campbell Price - talk at the June meeting of the Essex Egyptology Group.

Total: 1

The last part of this chapter of the Middle East book covers the end of the 2nd Millennium BCE, it first looks at the return of Assyria as a power in the region. Then it talks about Bronze Age Collapse which occurs in the 12th Century BCE and ushers in what is sometimes called a "dark age". The big powers (Egypt, Assyria) wobble but many of the smaller states suffer a severe crisis. The power vacuum this leaves sets the stage for the "Age of Empires" as the next chapter of the book refers to it.

Orientation Dates:

  • 1600-1046 BCE: The Shang Dynasty of China (post).
  • 1550-1069 BCE: The New Kingdom in Egypt.
  • 1351–1334 BCE: Reign of Akhenaten in Egypt.
  • 1332–1323 BCE: Reign of Tutankhamun in Egypt.
  • 1279–1213 BCE: Reign of Ramesses II in Egypt.
  • 1186-1155 BCE: Reign of Ramesses III in Egypt.

Power Struggles: The Rise of Assyria

Assyria had been a notable power in the region around 1800 BCE, but by 1750 BCE it was practically a vassal to the Babylonians - although there is some limited evidence that there might've been a greater degree of autonomy than the term vassal would suggest. At some point in the 16th Century BCE Assyria becomes a vassal of the Mitanni - although the (later) Assyrian King List keeps on listing names of kings for this period there are no contemporary Assyrian royal inscriptions at all from this period. So the "kings" may well've been governors installed by the Mitanni in some sense. There's also some textual evidence to suggest that the Assyrian kingdom wasn't a cohesive whole during this time - it may've been fragmented into several vassal kingdoms of the Mitanni.

Assyrian royal inscriptions reappear in the archaeological record around 1420 BCE, and they start to appear in the diplomatic record again shortly afterwards. By the time Ashuruballit I takes the throne in c.1363 BCE Assyria regards itself as an independent state, capable of participating in diplomatic gift exchanges with Egypt (as recorded in the Amarna letters). 50 years later the Assyrian kings are once again styling themselves "Mighty King, King of Assyria", reflecting Assyria's return to the status of major power in the region.

Under Adad-nirari I (ruled c.1305-1274 BCE) the Assyrians conquered the Syrian region where the Mitanni kingdom had once been - not once, but twice. The Mitannian kingdom had given way to a new state called Hanigalbat, and Adad-nirari I's first campaign against them was justified as retaliation for hostilities committed by the Hanigalbatean king Shattuara. Shattuara was captured and "encouraged" to become an Assyrian vassal, but his son requested help from the Hittites which prompted Adad-nirari I to invade once more, this time finishing the job and retaining control of the region. Adad-nirari I also successfully campaigned against the Kassite rulers of Babylon, pushing the border back into what had previously been Babylonian territory. But culturally speaking the Assyrians looked to Babylon - using Standard Babylonian in written texts (instead of the Assyrian dialect of Akkadian) and revering Babylonian gods. And Adad-nirari I also managed to get himself accepted as an equal of the Hittite king Hattusili III, with all their diplomatic correspondence addressing each other as "brother". So by the end of his reign Assyria was once more the equal or superior of any of the major powers in the region.

Shalmaneser I succeeded his father as king of Assyria in c.1273 BCE and continued the military expansion of the Assyrian kingdom. As well as putting down another revolt in the Hanigalbat kingdom to the west, Shalmaneser I also campaigned to the north of Assyria. The peoples he fought there were the Urartians, which is the first time they are documented - in later centuries they were to become a powerful kingdom but at this point they were apparently not yet unified. Relationships with the Hittites cooled during Shalmaneser I's reign - the Hittites attempted to encourage an economic embargo against the Assyrians. Shalmaneser I was also notable for beginning the practice of systematically deporting conquered peoples, using them as an important part of the workforce in the kingdom's heartland.

Shalmaneser I was succeeded by his son Takulti-ninurta I, who may be the real person behind the biblical stories of Nimrod or the stories of the Greek king Nino or Ninus.* Takulti-ninurta I ruled for a long time, 36 years, and expanded the Assyrian territory further into Anatolia and Babylon. After he had conquered Babylon he install Assyrian governors to directly rule the city, and also uprooted several of the religious artifacts from that city and transported them (and some of the associated ritual practices) to Assur. This did not go down well with the Babylonians, nor with the Assyrians. Perhaps due to tensions with the elite in Assur Takulti-ninurta I founded a new capital across the river Tigris from Assur, making a big deal that it was founded on virgin soil. Much of what is known about his reign comes from an Epic that was composed to celebrate his victory over the Kassite rulers of Babylon (presumably commissioned by Takulti-ninurta I). It's very much a justification of his moral superiority over the defeated foe. Takulti-ninurta I almost certainly died by assassination, and Assyria went into decline for about a century after his death in c.1208 BCE.

*Or so the book says, in a single sentence starting with "Some have viewed" and then promptly drops the info on the floor and fails to explain who views, why they view or indeed any points of similarity. Oh well. It let them use a 17th Century Dutch painting of Semiramis tho, who isn't mentioned anywhere in the text in this section and later in the book is noted as having been married to someone else *rolls eyes*

The next important ruler of Assyria was Tiglath-pileser I, who ruled from c.1115-1077 BCE, who reorganised the military and set about re-expanding the Assyrian kingdom. He's the first Assyrian king that we know to have recorded annals for his reign. They're not dated, nor are lengths of the campaigns mentioned, but his military campaigns are listed in chronological order in these annals. I'm not sure how they know it's chronological if there are no dates - perhaps internal evidence from the text? He campaigned in the same regions that his predecessors had done - against the people to the north (who at this point were the Mushki), into Anatolia amongst the Neo-Hittite kingdoms, against the peoples in modern day Syria (including Arameans living near the Euphrates), and against the Babylonians. He's also known to modern archaeologists for gathering together a collection of documents we now call the Middle Assyrian Laws. These seem to've been his library copy of a selection of original texts written 300 or so years before his time, covering a wide variety of subjects including things like blasphemy, abortion, inheritance, maritime traffic. He was probably also assassinated, and once again the Assyrian kingdom went into decline for around a century.

The book now breaks from its chronological trot through the rise of the Assyrians to talk about the Sea Peoples, the fall of the Hittites and the ensuing Dark Age. The name "the Sea Peoples" comes from Egyptian texts, starting with sporadic mentions in the time of Ramesses II (reigned c.1279-1213 BCE) through to more frequent mentions in the time of Ramesses III (reigned c.1184-1153 BCE) who had to fight a series of battles against them (which he records on the walls of the temple at Medinet Habu). There are also references in texts from countries in the Middle East of destruction around this time period, and there is archaeological evidence of increased destruction taking place - archaeologists presume that both of these strands of evidence are referencing the same peoples as the Egyptian texts. So who were the Sea Peoples? The short answer is that we're not entirely certain but there's a reasonable amount of evidence to link specific named groups of Sea Peoples to people who had previously been living in the Aegean and Anatolian areas. There's also archaeological evidence of abandonment of settlements in Mycenaea around this time. It's not at all clear why these peoples were on the move - the reliefs at Medinet Habu depict not just soldiers but families, so it seems that this was migration rather than purely military expeditions. Famine or sudden climate change have been put forward as potential explanations for the migrations, but there's no consensus. There's also no consensus on how much of an effect the Sea People's migrations had on the region - although it seems plausible that they did contribute to the destabilisation that occurred in this time period.

The fall of the Hittites is a part of that destabilisation. The deterioration of the state appears to've started during the reign of Tudhaliya IV (c.1237-1209 BCE), and the last of the Hittite kings was Suppiluliuma II (c.1207-1190 BCE). The causes are unclear - conflict with the Assyrians certainly played a part, and probably so did conflict with the Sea Peoples. One key military conflict during Suppliluliuma II's reign was with people based on Cyprus, to protect grain shipments heading from modern Syria into the Hittite kingdom. The people on Cyprus at the time may or may not've been Sea Peoples who'd settled there. Ultimately the Hittites were unable to sufficiently protect their grain shipments, and that caused famine. There's even a reference in an Egyptian text (dating to the reign of Merenptah) to a shipment of grain being sent to the Hittites as aid. What exactly the coup de grace that finished off the Hittites was is unknown - some cities show evidence of destruction as would be caused by an invasion, some cities show evidence of abandonment instead.

The next 300 years or so (c.1200-900 BCE) is referred to as a Dark Age - as with other Dark Ages this is because of a lack of textual evidence for the era in question. The Babylonian and Hittite kingdoms had both collapsed, and Egypt and Assyria were both weakened. This meant that there was a power vacuum and new players rose to prominence. In Babylon (which had been ruled by a Kassite dynasty) a new local dynasty rose to prominence, although it wasn't a match in power for its predecessors. Harassing both this Babylonian dynasty and the Assyrians were the Aramean peoples who were spreading into Mesopotamia proper from Syria where they had settled. In the long term they were very succesful at infiltrating into Mesopotamia - their language, culture and alphabetic script all rose to prominence in the 1st Millennium BCE.

The chapter finishes with a four page spread about the Bible and its relation to the history of this period. Parts of this section read like one person wrote it, and another went through scattering "if it really happened" and other such phrases at judicious intervals! Which makes it quite hard to sum up, as almost every paragraph ends by undermining everything it just said. There are possible linguistic and cultural similarities between what the Old Testament says about the Patriarchs and the city of Mari on the Euphrates. There are possibly cultural parallels with Ugarit (in particular Ugaritic poetry), and the Ugaritic language is very similar to Biblical Hebrew. The author here spends a while trying to place the time period of the Exodus - whilst saying that there's "no evidence but". They settle on 19th Dynasty prior to the reign of Merenptah, as far as I can tell. They note that the Biblical laws are remarkably similar to the laws of earlier times in Mesopotamia. Interestingly the key difference is that the Mesopotamian ones are generated by the king (and then offered to the gods for approval) but the Israelite laws are created by God who presents them to humanity (as a take it or leave it deal, not for approval). There were, I think, more nuggets of interesting information in this bit of the chapter than I've presented here - but something about the tone of it set my teeth on edge (as I'm sure is apparent).

The next chapter of the book will start by returning to Assyria - the Age of Empires is about to begin.

At the end of 2015 the British Museum put on an exhibition about the Celts, looking at both the original culture in its historical context and the way it was later re-imagined. The overall take home message from the exhibition was that the ancient people we now call Celts probably didn't think of themselves as such, and the modern peoples who we call Celts don't necessarily have that much to do with the ancient Celts. The Greeks were the first to refer to "the Celts", and the Romans later took up the term. They used it for the barbarians to the North and East of Greece & Rome - in modern day Spain, France, Eastern Europe and Turkey; not Britain (at least not intially). It's not known if the Celts saw themselves as single culture, nor if they used the term Celts to describe themselves, but it seems unlikely.

To set the tone the exhibition opened with three iconic (modern) Celtic symbols: an Irish harp, the Druid's flag and a Pictish stone. And then around the corner were some examples of ancient Celtic art, and video showing the changes in what Celt has meant through the ages - covering along the way the noble barbarians of Roman writings, the Christian monks of Ireland, the national folk heroes of the 19th Century. After this the exhibition fell into two parts: first the historical Celts and then the later re-imagining of Celtic identity.

The ancient Celtic artifacts were laid out in several cases in one long sweeping room, with curved trails on the ceiling which you could use as a guide for how to travel between the cases. I hope they did that on purpose (I'm sure they did), because it seemed awfully thematically appropriate. The central theme of this whole room was that the ancient Celts were many different peoples & tribes, but they were linked by shared culture, art style and languages. So it seemed appropriate to be moving between the disparate cases following a line drawn from their art style. An important difference between Celtic art and the contemporary Greek art was that the Celts weren't interested in naturalistic representations. Of course the abstract swirls and so on aren't naturalistic, but even their portrayals of animals (as in the jug I have a picture of below) are stylised rather than realistic. (That jug is one of the Basse-Yutz Flagons, found in France dating to 400-360BCE - I took this picture a couple of years ago, one of the pair is on display in the Iron Age Europe room in the British Museum, and it's one of my favourite items to go & see.)

Jug With Hunting Dogs and Duck Decoration

The items in this room were grouped thematically rather than by culture, to emphasise the commonalities. Near the beginning of the space was a reminder that they shared so much because the world was a connected world then as it is now - trade links people - and one of the cases that was particularly striking was a selection of torcs from right across the Celtic region. They were all recognisably the same thing, but different areas had different styles. Some were big and powerful looking, some were beautiful and delicately made. I particularly liked a big silver one from southwest Germany which had bulls heads as the terminals. And then as counterpoint to that case there was a hoard of torcs that was discovered in Scotland - there are several different styles of torc in this hoard, but all were made locally and inspired by exotic foreign designs.

As well as traders the Celts were also warriors. One of the items in the exhibition for this theme was a carynx - a boar headed warhorn. They had both an original and a replica, and a recording of a replica being played, which was rather cool. They also had a replica chariot, based on fittings found in a grave in Wetwang, Yorkshire dating to c.200 BCE, which I was a bit surprised to see had some basic sort of suspension rather than being completely solid.

The Celts also went in for feasting in a big way - the Greek writers thought the Celts were very fond of their wine. And to serve their feasts they had ornate vessels, some of which have also been discovered in graves for feasting in the afterlife. The pièce de résistance here was the Grundestrup Cauldron, which I would've loved to've taken photos of but had to settle for a postcard instead - which shows the same bit of decoration as the photo below (which I found on wikipedia with a licence that meant I could use it). It's not actually my favourite bit of the decoration - that was the bit with the warriors playing carynxs.

Picture of the Gundestrup Cauldron
Gundestrup Cauldron Decoration, photo by Malene Thyssen.

The next section of the exhibition looked at the impact of Roman conquest on Celtic art, and identity. In continental Europe the Celtic style pretty much vanished in favour of Roman art. The situation in Britain was more complex - Britain was conquered relatively late, and never completely, so it was more of a frontier and never fully assimilated culturally into the Empire. There was definitely some Roman art in Britain of course - for instance they had on display a statue of Nero found in East Anglia around the time of Boudicea. And there was also some amalgamation of gods (and associated iconography). But Celtic art styles and culture also became a badge of "not Roman", particularly around the periphery of the Empire on both sides of the border. Torcs, for instance, became more elaborate and are used as a statement of cultural identity (as opposed to just of status within the culture).

The exhibition then moved on to a time after the Romans left and after the Anglo-Saxons arrived. In this period the Celts were once again the periphery of the main culture of the British Isles - the "not Anglo-Saxon" peoples living at the western & northern edges. These post-Roman Celts were Christians, and their Christianity had an art & devotional style that was distinctively Celtic. The items that caught my eye in this section were a large (replica) stone cross from Iona, and at the other end of the scale the St Chad Gospels. For all their Christianity they still kept telling some of their original mythological stories - we know this because they were written down later in the medieval period in manuscripts like the Book of the White Earl.

The last couple of sections of the exhibition left behind the historical Celts and moved on to the later rediscovery & re-imagining of Celtic identity. There's no evidence that the historical Celts ever thought of themselves as Celtic, and once the Romans had left Britain no-one else called them Celts either. This changed with the Renaissance, when scholars returned the old Greek/Roman term to use, but redefined it as specifically the people of the north-west of the British Isles rather than a Europe-wide culture. Books from the 17th Century tended to depict the ancient Celts in a very similar way to the way contemporary artists depicted Native Americans, and this theme continued through to some Victorian art as well. Even down to skin tone in some cases, as if the peoples met on the other side of the world had to be physically similar to ancient peoples because all were considered "noble savages"! The mind boggles.

From the 1750's onwards the Celts and their mythology & history were retold in romanticised tales. For instance in 1760 there was a book publised by James Macpherson which purported to be a translation of work by the Celtic bard Ossiam. It was enormously popular, inspiring paintings and sculpture, and admired across Europe by people such as Goethe & Napoleon. Even after it was revealed to be the fabrication of Macpherson and not remotely ancient nor Celtic it still retained a lot of influence. The later 19th Century Celtic Revival was based a little bit more in fact - archaeological discoveries like the Tara brooch inspired jewellery designs and pattern books. Rennie Mackintosh's work is a part of this movement and the part that I like. The part that I'm rather less fond of is what I'd characterise as Victorian twee-ness, and they had several examples of such things. There'd been a Victorian statue of Caractacus earlier in the exhibition that fell into this category, and also a few rather twee paintings of Celtic myths (like John Duncan's The Riders of the Sidhe). And they also had the regalia of the National Eistedfodd in the exhibition, all my notes say is "Victorian invention, twee beyond belief!".

The exhibition finished with a look at Celtic identity today. Again, it's political and political in a "we're not that lot" sense just as it was back in Anglo-Saxon times or Roman times. Nowadays of course it's English that a Celt is not. As the English born & brought up child of Scottish parents I personally don't see myself as either English or Scottish, preferring to call myself British. But the parts of the Celtic diaspora that headed to the US in particular have a different way to look at it. The exhibition noted that there are more people who identify as Irish in the US than there are in Ireland! And in Ireland itself Celtic identity is a powerful political statement - the mythological Irish hero Cúchulainn is now a big part of Irish Nationalist identity.

I really liked this exhibition (I even went to see it twice!), although I preferred the earlier sections about the historical Celts to the later parts about the re-imagined Celtic identity :)

At the beginning of June Campbell Price, the curator of Egypt and Sudan at Manchester Museum, came to talk to the Essex Egyptology Group about one of the senior officials in Pharaoh Hatshepsut's court: Senenmut. Hatshepsut ruled Egypt from 1473-1458 BCE, and she generally seemed to do things differently to her predecessors & successors. Technically she was ruling first as regent for then alongside Tutmosis III - but in reality she was the sole ruler of Egypt, surrounded by a small group of male advisors. Price made the comparison a couple of times in his talk to Elizabeth I (of England) - single woman as the ruler taking a traditionally male role, with a small collection of highly trusted male courtiers none of whom mention their wives terribly often when in the presence of their ruler.

In autobiographical texts Senenmut claims to be a rags-to-riches story, but Price pointed out that we need to take this with a pinch of salt. An Ancient Egyptian's autobiography is always written so as to make himself look particularly special and saying that you were promoted from obscurity to a high rank is a very good way to claim to be good at your job. But there is some corroborating evidence. He comes from Armant (that's the modern name) near Thebes, so near the religious centre of Egypt at the time. His parents' tomb was discovered almost intact (and the contents are now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, so J and I saw then when we visited last October). His father Ramose probably wasn't part of the elite - he never seems to be referred to by high status titles. When Senenmut's mother Hatnofer died Ramose was reburied in her tomb - and she was buried with impressive grave goods. It seems likely that Hatnofer died after Senenmut had gained wealth & status and so he buried both his parents more lavishly than Ramose's original burial had been.

Senenmut may have had some sort of military background prior to his entering the historical record. But Price noted that this is based on a single scene in one of Senenmut's tombs which might be there for symbolic reasons rather than autobiographical ones, so we can't be sure. Senenmut's first known job is as a tutor to Neferure, the daughter of Hatshepsut and her husband Tutmosis II (perhaps their only child). Being a tutor to royalty indicated that you were highly trusted, and gave you power through the close relationship with your charge. Senenmut references this job frequently in both texts and statues. One particularly unusual statue, which is now in the British Museum, shows Senenmut hugging the Princess protectively. This is an extremely unusual pose - it's unusual to see a commoner touching royalty at all, in fact it was a privilege to be allowed to be depicted kissing the Pharaoh's feet rather than the ground in front of his feet. So this statue shows that Senenmut is now very trusted and close to the royal family. The statue dates to a period before Hatshepsut becomes Pharaoh - when she's still using the title God's Wife of Amun instead (which is a title held by a particularly high ranking woman, normally the King's wife, that has religious and economic power (as it comes with estates, the source of wealth in Ancient Egypt)). Senenmut is clearly trusted from early in Hatshepsut's reign.

Senenmut rises to high status at an interesting time. When Hatshepsut's husband Tutmosis II died his heir, Tutmosis III, was an infant and Hatshepsut (Tutmosis III's step mother) was in her late teens. There was nothing unusual in an older female relative becoming regent for an infant Pharaoh, but Hatshepsut took more power into her own hands than was usual. She also never remarried, so Price said there was a sort of male power vacuum at the top which Senenmut stepped in to fill. He was older than Hatshepsut, and clearly trusted, so it seems she felt she could rely on him. Although he started as tutor to Neferure he gained many more titles over his lifetime, including several which refer to him as a steward of one thing or another and several which refer to him as overseer of works for various things. These include titles that give him oversight of the wealth of the Pharaoh - he's connected with the treasury, with the gardens, with cattle, all of which are a part of wealth in this non-monetary society.

Senenmut may have been an architect as well, in particular he is credited as the creative mind behind Hatshepsut's mortuary temple at Deir el Bahri. Although we don't know how much of the actual nitty-gritty of the designing he did. Part of the evidence for this is that foundation deposits from some buildings from Hatshepsut's time contain name beads which have the names of both Hatshepsut and of Senenmut. In texts about himself Senenmut boasts about being an innovator, and about doing things that are new. This is unusual for an Ancient Egyptian, as they are generally very keen to talk about how they are upholding the proper order by doing things exactly as their forefathers did (regardless of the truth of that statement!). An example that Price gave us of this was Senenmut combining hieroglyphs into new cryptographic symbols - for instance one of Hatshepsut's names was Ma'atkare and there's a frieze decoration (I think in Deir el Bahri) of repeated units of a snake (a form of Ma'at) sitting on a ka hieroglyph wearing a sun disk (Re). So Hatshepsut's name is therefore embedded into the decoration of her temple. There's also a statue of Senenmut protectively embracing this cryptographic form of Ma'atkare.

Senenmut had more than one tomb built for himself. As with other contemporary tombs of the elite the decoration boasts about his possession or access to fashionable exotic luxury goods and people. The decoration also boasts about his knowledge. In the interior of one of the tombs there is a star clock on the ceiling, which is intended to show that he's a man who has access to knowledge and to learning. Interestingly this is not a room that any living person would have access to - it's intended to demonstrate to the gods that Senenmut is a wise man. His sarcophagus is now in the Met Museum displayed near his parents' tomb contents. It has been badly damaged, but it's still easy to see that it's an oval shape. This is a case of him (a private individual) usurping a royal perogative - sarcophagi of this shape were supposed to be just for the Pharaohs. Another indication of the high status he had achieved.

There are a lot of surviving statues of Senenmut, which means there must've been even more made. He says in texts that he wants to commission a lot of statues so that he will be remembered after his death. He had no wife nor children, so if there weren't images of him in the temples then who would remember his name? But sadly for Senenmut his name and image were defaced after his death, along with those of Hatshepsut. There's only one surviving full writing of his name left in his tombs (next to a curse on anyone who damages his tomb!). It's clear from the sorts of damage (like a line through an image of him that separates his head from his body) that he was deliberately attacked posthumously but it's not entirely clear why. It may be because he was personally disliked, Or perhaps his closeness to royalty was thought inappropriate. Or maybe he was just caught up in the posthumous destruction of Hatshepsut's name - as her closest advisor he too was attacked.

His memory did survive for a few hundred years in some form or another. There's a statue fragment (in Geneva now) which Price believes to be a 22nd Dynasty piece which makes a reference to Senenmut. And in modern times there have been a variety of fictional treatments of Senenmut, and in particular his relationship with Hatshepsut with "torrid love affair" being a favourite way to portray this. Price pointed out that there's actually no real evidence for this - even the famous graffiti in a cave near the temple at Deir el Bahri that is often described as a satirical representation of Hatshepsut & Senenmut having sex isn't actually labelled with names. And in the larger context of the wall it's on there are other doodles and so on that would seem to have nothing to do with Senenmut & Hatshepsut so it seems pretty unlikely as "evidence". There are also even weirder modern associations - like a US college fraternity named after him!

After this overview of the life of Senenmut we had a break for coffee & cake, and then Price returned to the subject of Senenmut's statues. Senenmut has the highest number of surviving statues for a non-royal Egyptian, and he also appears to've invented or popularised some of the later standard poses. For instance he popularised the statues where a person kneels presenting a god. As Price mentioned nearer the start of the talk Senenmut also had some very unusual statues like the one of him protectively hugging Neferure. The point of a statue in Ancient Egyptian times was to stand in a temple and receive offerings & attention from the living to keep the deceased happy in the afterlife - and so having an unusual statue would draw attention to itself.

Price finished his talk by telling us about an exciting discovery that he'd made in the storerooms at Manchester Museum. They have a large collection of Ancient Egyptian artifacts, around 18,000, not all of which have been exhaustively studied. They are generally provenanced as they were acquired from the Museum's support of archaeological expeditions - so it's known where they came from. One of the archaeologists that was supported by the museum was Naville who excavated at Deir el Bahri. Price said that Naville wasn't a particularly good archaeologist by the standards of his own day let alone the modern day - he didn't keep good records of what he found. So there's a fragment of statuary in the Manchester Museum storerooms that was probably found in the temple of Montuhotep II at Deir el Bahri, which was just recorded as "Middle Kingdom statue fragment" and put away & mostly forgotten about.

Price has been re-examining (or more accurately examining for the first time) this statue - particularly the texts. Most are the standard sorts of prayers and titles for the owner of the piece, but one is very unusual. There's a phrase that means "gift of the king" that appears only on 45 statues out of all the many many Ancient Egyptian statues that have been found. And 6 of those statues are Senenmut's statues. So that intrigued Price and he had a much closer look at the statue. Looking more closely at the "gift of the..." text, which is quite damaged towards the end, it became clear that it wasn't "gift of the King" but instead was "gift of the God's Wife of Amun". Which was Hatshepsut's title before she began to rule as King. And Senenmut has two statues with that text on it. There is also a title on the statue that only Senenmut is recorded as having held.

However there was one potential problem: one of the pieces of text appeared to name the owner as "the Priest of Amun, Userhat". Which is not Senenmut. But Price talked to someone who is particularly expert in reading hieroglyphs who pointed out that the barque (boat) in which the statue of Amun is carried on procession is called "Amun-Userhat" and that was a different potential reading of the hieroglyphs. So perhaps not a problem after all.

The fragmentary statue has many stylistic similarities with the one of Senenmut cuddling Neferure (which also has the text about "gift of the God's Wife of Amun" on it). So Price believes that the two were a pair - one set in Karnak and one set in Deir el Bahri, facing each other across the Nile. Of course that just opens up even more questions, like: what was it doing in the Middle Kingdom temple (if it indeed was found there)? the one in Karnak is known to've been made before Deir el Bahri was built, was the pair moved there later? or was Deir el Bahri started earlier in Hatshepsut's reign than previously thought?

This was a really interesting talk - Price is a good speaker, and he closed with a very intriguing piece of detective work. I always like the glimpses of how things are actually figured out!

P v. NP is one of the unsolved problems in computer science, essentially the question is: can all problems whose answer can be quickly checked for correctness by a computer also be quickly solved by a computer? At the moment the consensus is "no" but there is a $1million reward for anyone who finds an algorithm that works, and if someone does then current computer security measures are all compromised because encrypted passwords will become trivially crackable. The experts discussing it on In Our Time were Colva Roney-Dougal (University of St Andrews), Timothy Gowers (University of Cambridge) and Leslie Ann Goldberg (University of Oxford).

This was a bit of an odd episode of In Our Time, as it felt like Melvyn Bragg was significantly more out of his depth than usual. Whilst his role is to ask the Everyman type questions, in this one he seemed to be asking for clarification on the wrong things - like wanting to know why algorithms are so-called rather than accepting it as technical jargon. Or repeatedly wanting clarification on why NP problems are hard because he clearly hadn't grasped the issue - although the experts are partly to blame here because I think they didn't put enough emphasis on wanting the optimal solution to their example problems rather than the sort of "good enough" answer that we actually use in everyday life. Because of this I didn't really feel like I learnt anything much from the programme & I don't consider myself particularly well educated on the subject (just see my clumsy summary at the beginning of this post for evidence of that!).

The programme started with a couple of bits of background information - first the invention of computers (as a theoretical idea) by Alan Turing. He imagined a machine that accepted inputs, generated outputs and at any given point would know what to do based solely on its current state and the symbol it was currently looking at. This is the theoretical underpinning for how all computers work. This segment felt a little detached from the later discussion, but I think the linking idea was that Turing also realised that even with this sort of computing machine (which would do calculations much more rapidly than a person could) there would still be algorithms that would fail to finish in a sensible time (like before the end of the universe).

The other piece of background information was a brief discussion of what algorithms are. In essence an algorithm is a series of instructions, Roney-Dougal used the example of a cooking recipe as an algorithm for making some specific food. It was stressed that algorithms generally aren't entirely linear - they'll loop back on themselves to run through several steps multiple times.

The difference between P and NP problems boils down to how the time taken to solve the problem scales when you increase the number of items in the problem (n). As I said above, what wasn't stressed on the programme was that by "solved" they meant "found the best possible answer". P problems scale in a polynomial fashion - hence the P nomenclature, although Gowers said you could also think of them as Practical. As n increases the time taken increases by some polynomial amount, for instance n2: i.e. if there's one item then the algorithm takes 1 unit of time (whatever that might be); if there are 2 items, then it takes 4 units; 3 items = 9 units and so on. So the amount of time taken increases faster than the number of items does, but relatively slowly and given sufficient computing power the algorithm will finish running in a useful timescale for practical applications. Goldberg gave an example of this sort of problem: say you have a group of people and you want them to work together in pairs, but not everyone likes everyone else. As the number of people in the group increases then the number of combinations you have to look through to check whether it's the optimal solution or not goes up. But it goes up in a polynomial fashion so an algorithm that does that checking of possible combinations will finish in a sensible time.

NP problems are those that are not P. The number of possible solutions increases exponentially rather than polynomially, and as n increases a "dumb" algorithm that just checks every one in turn will very quickly get to the point where it will take billions of years to complete. (And if computing power increases then all you do is push that point just a little further out, but not far enough to make a practical difference.) The P v NP question is concerned with a sub-group of the NP problems that are called "NP complete" - these are the ones where a potential answer can be easily checked for correctness by a computer, but the answer cannot be trivially found. And the question is: can we figure out a clever algorithmic "trick" to turn an NP complete problem into a P problem, hence making it solvable.

They discussed a few examples of NP complete problems - one of the better known variants is the Travelling Salesman problem. In this you have a number of cities (n) linked by roads, and the salesman wants to travel to each one once and only once, and use the shortest possible route to do so. With small n you can figure out the answer by inspecting all the possible solutions and discovering which one's best. But as n increases the number of routes goes up exponentially and this becomes a non-viable way of attacking the problem. Obviously for this specific scenario we find "good enough" answers for real world purposes (deliveries from central warehouses to local retail outlets, for instance). But if any of those answers is the optimal solution then that's by chance rather than because the distributor figured it out.

To give another example, Goldberg returned to her example of a P problem - dividing up a large group into pairs of people working together optimising it for most people ending up working with the best possible partner. When it's pairs, it's a P problem ... but if you're looking to divide them into groups of three then it's an NP problem. Another example is seating wedding guests when many of them hate many of the others, and optimising for fewest arguments. And all modern cryptography is based on an NP complete problem - passwords & so on are encrypted using a method involving multiplying together two very large prime numbers. To reverse engineer that (i.e. crack the encryption) you have to find the prime factors of a very very large number, which is an NP complete problem, so a brute force approach won't complete until long after the lifetime of the person who might find it useful. (Decoding it by the intended recipient is a case of checking an answer you've been provided, which is easily done for NP complete problems.)

Although these examples of NP complete problems all sound quite different mathematically speaking they collapse to the same underlying problem. You have a collection of nodes (cities, guests, whatever) which are joined by links of varying lengths (roads, levels of hatred, etc) and you're looking for the shortest route between them. So if someone figures out an algorithm that turns one NP complete problem into a P problem (i.e. finds that P = NP) then all NP complete problems are solved. Which has both good and bad implications for how our modern world works. On the bad side, all our encryption is broken so no more secure payment sites, no secure online banking (amongst many other effects). But on the other side many products may become cheaper - it's pretty likely that our "good enough" answers to the Travelling Salesman problem aren't the optimal one, and once you can move things around optimally then logistics gets a lot more efficient. Circuit design also gets a lot more efficient.

However, most mathematicians think that we won't find a solution to NP complete problems (i.e. that P != NP). As yet no clever ideas have played out, but there is that $1million reward if someone does find a solution. The experts briefly mentioned that quantum computing had once seemed a promising lead - using quantum entanglement to make the right answer somehow pop out without needing the time to do the calculations. But this was another lead that didn't go anywhere. (Although cynical me did think that if it had been made to work by some government agency or another, then we'd not know it had ...)

The Burning Stone is the third book in Kate Elliott's seven book series, The Crown of Stars. As I finished the last one in the series at the end of December last year I was starting to think I should write the rest of them up in one post. But when I looked at my notes, I think I've enough to say about each one that I don't want to miss out that it would end up a huge post and need splitting back into individual posts! So this post will remain a collection of thoughts about The Burning Stone. (Spoilery both forwards and backwards in the series, but it's not new so I shan't put spoiler tags.)

At the end of book 2 (The Prince of Dogs, post) the series could've stopped with a sense of a "happy ending" albeit not one with all loose ends tied up. Alain has been acknowledged his father's son, legitimised, become heir and married a princess he actually loves. Liath and Sanglant are reunited, he's free, she has a place amongst the Eagles, and they have declared their love to each other. And this book takes that potential happy ending and shows you what happens after the story "ends" - not the last time Elliott does that in this series.

Alain's plotline is the working out of unintended consequences of good (and otherwise) deeds. At the end of the previous book Alain and Levastine had lead the army that defeated Bloodhand, ending the threat to the kingdom (which is what got them their rewards), a good and useful thing to do. But when they killed Bloodhand his curse on his killer was unleashed, and one by one five of the dogs and the Levastine himself succumb. Alain is now Count, but almost immediately his cousin (who would've inherited if Alain was not legitimised) brings a case against Alain saying that he's not really Levastine's son. At the hearing, everything rests on whether or not his wife will stick up for him. She carries enough clout, and this is a society where having family and kin matter, that she would turn the tide of opinion. But she not only doesn't stand by him, she lets everyone know that their marriage isn't really a marriage at all: it's not consummated. And why isn't is consummated? Alain was unwilling to rape her, instead he was wooing her and hoping one day she'd love him enough to want to sleep with him. And this now backfires on him, and leads to him ending up stripped of his countship and with his marriage annulled he's sent to serve with the Lions (the king's army). Of course, his wife (Tallia) doesn't get what she wanted either ... she naively thought that once single again she'd be sent back to her life as a cleric, whereas she actually gets married off to someone else that her mother wants an alliance with and her plotline in this book ends with her new husband doing what Alain would not, and raping her.

(It's odd how my reaction to the Marion Zimmer Bradley books is omg-so-rapey, and my reaction to these isn't despite there still being quite a bit of rape. I'm not sure why, so I'll just note that and think about it a bit more.)

Tallia is one of the characters that Elliott uses to highlight Alain's saintliness. I like how she does this - we're not told that Alain is a saint, but we are shown how people who believe themselves to be saints behave and then that's juxtaposed with Alain and his unfailing kindness and humility. Tallia has had a revelation about the nature of God, she's got stigmata and is regarded (by herself and some others) as a pious saint. But Alain discovers the rusty nail she's using to create the stigmata, and even without that smoking gun her behaviour is clearly that of a zealot and not a holy woman. Which is another way in which the religion in these books is realistically and interestingly messy & complicated - by the end of the series the heresy that Tallia is fanning the flames of becomes orthodox, and there's an indication that it was the original orthodoxy that was lost over time (tho aren't they always the "one true way"?). So she might've been a fraud but her ideas still took root.

Liath's plotline in this book parallels Alain's in many ways, both by being the same and by showing a contrast. The two marriages are the most obvious contrast - there are some similarities, after all Sanglant and Liath didn't really know each other well before they married. But as compared to Alain and Tallia there is a mutual attraction and a mutual desire to make it work out despite the difficulties. Another of the themes that's shared between Alain & Liath's stories is about fathers - the blood relationship is what the world sees as most important but is that really what matters? Alain may've met Count Levastine in adolescence, but they form a bond nonetheless and Alain is sad to have that ripped away. Liath's memories of her childhood are all about being on the run with her father - but she meets a woman in this book who claims to be her mother, and that her father was no such thing. Yet he's still the man who brought her up and cared for her and loved her, all utterly alien concepts to this cold and severe mother she's met. And both Alain and Liath end up ... elsewhere. The next book shows that this is necessary for both of them in their different ways to learn the things they need to know, but at the end here it's very much an involuntary severing of bonds.

And I've wittered on now for about a thousand words and I've only really talked about some of the things from this book. They've got great re-read potential for me, on this read through I was most interested in Alain, in Liath and in the magical plotline that's just starting to take off in this book. But there's a lot of other stuff going on, for instance the whole religious schism that I've only mentioned in passing.

This is an index and summary of the things I've talked about over the last month. Links for multi-post subjects go to the first post (even if it's before this month), you can follow the internal navigation links from there.

Radio

The Empire of Mali - In Our Time episode about this African empire which flourish in the mid-2nd Millennium CE.

Total: 1

Talks

"Historical Egypt in Photographs" Marcel Maessen - talk at the May EEG meeting.

Total: 1

Tags: Admin

The Empire of Mali flourished between 1200 & 1600 CE, in sub-Saharan West Africa. At one point the Empire was so wealthy that when its ruler, Mansa Musa, travelled through Egypt on his Hajj he reduced the value of gold in Egypt with the amount he gave away. Discussing the empire on In Our Time were Amira Bennison (University of Cambridge), Marie Rodet (SOAS) and Kevin MacDonald (University College, London).

The beginnings of the Empire of Mali (c.1200 CE) are only known from an epic which survives in the oral tradition of the region. There was a prophecy that Sundiata Keita's mother would bear a son who would become a powerful king, and so the ruling king married her (I think despite her ugliness in some versions). Sundiata was crippled at birth, which cast the prophecy into doubt, but he later was miraculously cured. When his father died, his older half-brother took the throne and sent Sundiata and his mother into exile. Sundiata grew up in a neighbouring kingdom and became a renowned warrior. He eventually returned to Mali to liberate the people and take his rightful place as king - founding the empire that would last the next 400 or so years.

The experts discussed how this is more an origin myth than factual. It's part of the oral tradition, and is intended for performance and each performance is tailored to a greater or lesser extent to it's audience. For instance places that are referenced tend to be locally relevant. And there are things that can be picked out as definitely having changed since the original composition. In many versions Sundiata is Muslim, but we know that Islam didn't make significant inroads into Mali culture until later in its history. In some versions he's even supposed to be descended from a companion of the Prophet Mohammed's who was a freed black slave, and other versions don't give him that sort of genealogy at all.

Another part of the oral tradition surrounding the foundation of the Empire is that Sundiata Keita laid out a constitution for how the Empire should be run. Amongst other things it set down how the justice system should work, and the details of the caste system. In the late 20th Century CE this was written down, it is now categorised as a piece of World Heritage and sometimes referred to as Mali's Magna Carta. The experts were keen to point out that because it's an oral tradition you have to exercise care in how you interpret it. As an analogy (which I don't think they used on the programme) the English Magna Carta survives in a couple of original written documents, and when you compare that to what it's become in our national mythology you can see that the latter is based on the former but they are definitely not identical.

The Mali Empire covered a large east-west expanse of West Africa, running from the Atlantic coast to Gao. Like most empires it consisted of a core territory that was ruled directly by the Emperor and this was surrounded by client states ruled by client kings. The primary source of Mali's wealth was gold - they had the largest gold mines in the world at this time. They also traded with the Islamic world across the Sahara Desert - the nomadic Berbers of North Africa traded with Mali for both gold and grain.

Over time the Mali Empire gradually became Islamic. This doesn't seem to've happened as the result of direct efforts to convert them, instead the religion arrived with Berber traders some of whom settled in Mali and practised their religion. Once the emperors became Muslim it spread more quickly through the Empire, mixing as it went with their traditional animist beliefs. As I said in the introduction to this post one of those Emperors, Mansa Musa, went on Hajj. He travelled in state over land via Egypt accompanied by a large number of his court, and took with him plenty of gold for gifts to the places he passed through. He wasn't just fulfilling his religious obligations, he was also searching for Muslim scholars who would be willing to take employment in his court and travel back to Mali with him. One of these scholars who came back is credited with having founded hundreds of mosques all across Mali - which seems unlikely to've actually happened. Some perhaps were state foundations, although they are still unlikely to've been founded by this one outsider. And they generally have local architectural styles, rather than Arabic or Spanish designs. It seems much more likely that these are instances of towns trying to gain prestige by claiming a famous origin story for their mosque.

The majority of evidence for the Mali Empire, and its inner workings, is second hand. Much of the written evidence for the empire comes from these Muslim scholars discussed above and others who travelled to Mali. Other evidence comes from the Songhai Empire which replaced the Mali. The Muslim scholars seemed to've regarded Mali as somewhere different, but nonetheless civilised. For instance when writing about their justice system it is described as effective, even if it wasn't what the observer was expecting.

The Mali Empire began to disintegrate in the 17th Century CE. The experts said that this was down to it becoming overstretched "like all empires". Control of the periphery began to decline, and territories started to break off and become independent. One of these was Songhai, and this ex-vassal would go on to conquer the territory of the Mali piece by piece from the West. Another factor in the decline of the Mali Empire were the destabilising interactions with Europeans on the Atlantic coast of the empire. They noted on the programme that one of the commodities that the Mali traded in was slaves, and the selling of slaves to Europeans began the transatlantic slave trade.

Until relatively recently historians were dismissive of the Mali Empire - for instance it was assumed it was ruled by Muslim Berbers, rather than the people who actually lived in the country. This unthinking rejection of sub-Saharan African civilisation was bolstered by a lack of archaeological evidence to contradict it. However more recently there has been a resurgence of interest in African history in general and the Mali Empire has become something worth researching. This has lead to new information, including archaeological discoveries, particularly in the region where the capital city of the Empire was.

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