Back in the summer while In Our Time wasn't airing new episodes we dug back through the archives and found a (rare) Egyptian related one that we didn't think we'd listened to before - about Akhenaten, which aired in 2009. The experts on the programme were Richard Parkinson (British Museum), Elizabeth Frood (University of Oxford) and Kate Spence (University of Cambridge). (As it's so old affiliations of the experts have probably changed.)

They started with a little bit of scene setting and overview of Akhenaten's reign, placing him in context. He was one of the Pharaohs of the 18th Dynasty in the New Kingdom period. This was a particularly prosperous time in Egypt's history, Akhenaten's father Amenhotep III in particular can be considered as ruling over a Golden Age. When Akhenaten came to the throne he seemed much like a conventional Pharaoh. He initially used the more traditional name Amenhotep IV, and built and decorated traditional seeming temple architecture. But the experts pointed out that one initial sign of the differences that were to come is that his temple decoration only has scenes of himself offering to solar deities rather than to the full suite of the Egyptian pantheon. After only a few years his reign becomes more unconventional - first he starts to transition from the old state religion to a new one that only worships the Aten (the sun disc) via himself and his wife. Then he moves the capital from Thebes to a brand new city he orders built at the site we now call Amarna. The old religion is abolished, and the name of Amun (the previous chief deity) is removed from all inscriptions. When Akhenaten died in Year 17 of his reign (c.1335 BCE) there was a period of chaos which ended with the restoration of the old religion, and an attempt to remove Akhenaten's name from history.

As you can tell from that précis Akhenaten made sweeping changes to Egyptian life and culture. The way they discussed it on the programme made me think of Pol Pot in Cambodia, or Mao's Cultural Revolution in China: a top down concerted effort to erase and reset the cultural history of a nation. Most of the rest of the programme was spent discussing these changes and the impact they had on Egyptians of the time. They broke down the changes into four major areas: changes to the religion, changes to the art, changes to the language, and the movement of the political centre of the country.

Religious change had happened in Egypt before, but generally as a slow process involving different gods becoming more or less prominent over a long period of time (for instance Amun wasn't always the main state god and didn't really move into that position until the New Kingdom). Akhenaten's changes were abrupt and went far beyond just which god was most important. The large pantheon was replaced with the single god, the Aten. Gone were anthropomorphic representations of deities - the Aten was only to be shown as a sun disc with rays reaching to give life to the Pharaoh and his wife. And gone was all the accumulated mythology associated with the old gods. Even the architectural style of the temples was different - the old temples were dark enclosed places, the new ones were larger, exposed to the sunlight and more airy in feel. The changes were all designed to honour the sun as the source of everything needed for life. One of the experts (Frood, I think?) suggested that Akhenaten's new belief system might even have been more of a natural philosophy than a religion - that he was something more akin to an atheist than we generally think. There was also a general consensus amongst the experts that there was a megalomaniac flavour to his new religion - the Pharaoh was now centred in both the religion and the art. Instead of symbolic scenes of hunting or fishing one the walls nobles' tombs from this era there are scenes of the Pharaoh giving gifts to the noble in question. The cult is as much about Akhenaten as it is about the Aten.

The art of Akhenaten's reign is also a great departure from previous Egyptian art styles. Once he changes the state religion depictions of the Pharaoh become really quite weird to our eyes. He is depicted with pendulous breasts, wide hips and a strangely elongated face. At one time scholars thought that this meant Akhenaten was deformed, but nowadays the consensus is that it was just an art style not a direct representation of how he really looked. Backing this up is that Nefertiti is also depicted that way in some places. But in other ways the new art feels less alien to us than the standard Egyptian style. Akhenaten and Nefertiti are frequently depicted with their children, sharing tender family moments, rather than just in formal unrealistic poses. The linguistic changes in the Akhenaten era also follow this increased informality - even texts such as the Hymn to the Aten, which is very much in a formal context, are written with an informal style. The experts suggested that this might reflect the actual speech patterns of the time.

On the boundary stelae for the new city at Amarna Akhenaten justifies the move of his capital by referring things having been "bad" at Thebes - tho he doesn't explain what he means by bad. He also says that the site was picked because the Aten told him to build his city there. It's notable that from the river at that point there's a stretch of the cliff face that looks like a horizon hieroglyph, which may be one of the ways that the Aten indicated the right site. More pragmatically, it's in a central location between Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt, which is politically useful. The site hadn't been used for settlement before, and wasn't afterwards until much much closer to the modern day. One of the experts (I forget who) said that that's because it's a stupid place to put a city! It's poor in resources, and mostly desert, so didn't long outlast Akhenaten himself. This is rather good for modern archaeologists, as it gives a snapshot of Egypt at a particular brief time period and it's not been significantly disturbed or built on since.

The impact of all these changes on the elite of society was significant, and probably rather traumatic. The Egyptian culture was very conservative. Their concept of Ma'at, or order, made a religious necessity out of doing things they way they had been done before. So normally a Pharaoh would make a big deal out of how he was doing things as his father and his father's father etc had done before him. Even if what he was doing wasn't actually the same as what his father had done ... But Akhenaten was overtly bringing in something new and saying it was better than what had gone before. Not everyone would've been upset, of course, and some may well have welcomed the changes - there are definitely high ranking individuals who change their names to reflect the new beliefs, although we can't tell if this was for pragmatic reasons or religious belief. But the old certainties were gone, the festivals that measured out the year weren't happening, the familiar symbolism wasn't used any more, and the comforting idea of an afterlife forever with the gods wasn't there any more. They did talk about the lower levels of society a bit - but didn't really talk about how the loss of the festivals would affect them, which I was a bit surprised by. I'd've thought that would've been one of the areas that would have a lot of impact on your average peasant - measuring out the year by when you see the priests process with the god's shrine. They did talk about the shrines to the old gods that have been found in private houses in Akhenaten's new city - signs that the change from old to new religion wasn't complete. But they didn't talk about the idea that the household and state religions were separate things - so I'm not sure if they disagreed with this or if there just wasn't time to discuss it.

One thing they did discuss is how we know just enough about this period and it's just familiar enough in feel that people project their own desires onto the evidence we do have. For instance, Akhenaten has often been held up as the "world's first monotheist" and then turned into Moses or inspiration for Moses or something that lets the theoriser believe that "obviously" he's prefiguring Judaism or even Christianity with his new religion. The experts then danced delicately round the point that Akhenaten being an atheist or natural philosopher is also one of these situations - it's just it's the one that appeals most to modern archaeologists rather than early 20th Century ones.

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

"King's Dragon" 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

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy - exhibition at the British Library to mark the 800th anniversary of the original issuing of Magna Carta by King John.

Painting Paradise: The Art of the Garden - exhibition in The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace. Representations of gardens through history.

Total: 2

Papers

Radio

Aesop. In Our Time episode about both Aesop's fables and whether or not the man himself existed.

The Augustan Age. In Our Time episode about the reign of Augustus as Emperor of Rome.

Extremophiles. In Our Time episode about extremophiles and what they till us about the search for extraterrestrial life.

Frederick the Great - In Our Time episode about his life.

Total: 4

Talks

"At the Gate of the Ancestors: Saint Cults and the Politics of the Past at Abydos" Janet Richards - the 2015 Sackler Lecture, given at the British Museum.

"The Sacred Site of 'Quesna': Multi-disciplinary Investigations and Analyses in the Cemetery and Falcon Necropolis" Joanne Rowland - talk at the February meeting of the Essex Egyptology Group.

Total: 2

Tags: Admin

The Middle East book is starting to get into the realm of real dates for events, and so I'm including some reference points for what else is happening in the world c.2900BCE to c.2200BCE. For this chapter my only points of comparison are in Egypt - the earliest potentially datable Chinese dynasty were the Xia in 2100BCE so a little later on.

Orientation dates:

  • c.3150-2686 BCE - Early Dynastic Egypt, the first two dynasties.
  • 2686-2181 BCE - Old Kingdom Egypt
  • c.2560 BCE - building of the Great Pyramid at Giza

The Emergence of City States

Despite the title of this section of the chapter it is not so much about the birth of city states as a concept (that was the last bit of the chapter) but more about the growth of these and the first couple of unified empires in Mesopotamia. At first the early city states were independent of each other, and were frequently in conflict over the limited agricultural resources of the region. This Early Dynastic Period (2900-2300 BCE) is characterised by rivalries between the city states. The first to establish itself as a major centre for the surrounding region was Uruk, with Lagash and Umma developing into such after 2500 BCE. Some cities became more symbolically important - like Nippur (which was where the shrine of Enlil (a major deity) was), or Kish. In both cases being able to say you were king of the city implied that you were endorsed by their gods and so "should" have sovereignty over other cities. The first ruler over a unified Sumeria came from Umma and reigned from 2375 BCE to 2350 BCE, but Lugalzagesi's empire didn't outlive him. The first lasting empire was that of Sargon, ruler of Akkad, who proclaimed himself King of Sumer and Akkad (a title that was used for the next 200 years).

The Royal Standard of Ur (see pic below) dates from this era (c. 2600-2400 BCE) and there's a small sidebar in the book about warfare in Sumeria illustrated by the decoration on this object. Most of the soldiers would've been foot soldiers - but they did also have chariots of a sort. They were drawn by onagers (wild asses) and were heavier than later chariots, so probably actually used as mobile observation platforms than as battle weapons. At first the military leadership was separate from the city rulership, but as warfare became more important the two roles merged.

Royal Standard of Ur

Again the book is a trifle confused in its organisation as the next double page spread about the city of Uruk reiterates much of the info that the previous section of this chapter gave us (but with new pictures). The key point for this era is that Uruk's political importance decreased in the Mesopotamian Early Dynastic Period. However, the increasing importance of the legends of Uruk's foundation by Gilgamesh indicate that the city continued to have religious significance.

The city state of Lagash rose to prominence during this era. The state of Lagash had three centres: the economic one was the city of Lagash itself, Girsu was the religious and political centre and there was a further temple precinct at Nina. The people of Lagash seem to've been particularly keen on war, as evidenced by their local patron gods. One was their version of the war god Ninurta, called Ningirsu - who was also patron of irrigation (a key area of conflict with the nearby city state of Umma). And the other patron god was the war and fertility goddess Nina, who was related to Inanna/Ishtar. As well a belligerence against their neighbours this is also the first place where a revolt against the city rulers is recorded, and the king instated after the revolt is thought to've created the first law code in Mesopotamia. Sadly no dates given for this king, Urukagina, but as it's mentioned he's several hundred years pre-Sargon of Akkad he must've reigned long before 2350 BCE. Perhaps contemporary with the 4th Dynasty Pharaoh Khufu or maybe even earlier than that.

As well as the Sumerians and the Akkadians there were other cultures in and around Mesopotamia during this period. The Amorites were one of these - the name we use for them derives from the Sumerian word for westerner (amurru), and they initially lived between the Sumerians and the Cananites & Egyptians. The Sumerians regarded the Amorites as barbarians, but evidence from their cities (such as Mari or Ebla) suggests otherwise. These cities had extensive libraries and there is evidence they were hubs on the trade networks running between Mesopotamia and Old Kingdom Egypt. The Amorites may also have founded Bablyon (although Sargon of Akkad is later credited with this) - this would be after the Akkadian Empire collapsed when the Amorites were filling the local power vacuum. There were also Hatti in central Anatolia (who were not the cultural ancestors of the Hittites despite the face we use the same name for the two cultures), and the Elamites who lived to the east of Sumer.

The Akkadians lived to the north of the Sumerians, and even before the Akkadians ruled Sumer there was a lot of cultural contact. The Akkadian language is a Semitic language, so from a completely different family to the Sumerian language, but there is evidence of word borrowing between them. In particular the Akkadians picked up words for writing and gardening from the Sumerians, whereas the Sumerians picked up words for war, herding and religion from their neighbours. The most obvious cultural exchange between the two peoples was that the Akkadians learnt and used the Sumerian writing system (cuneiform). This was to continue long after the Akkadian Empire collapsed - Akkadian written in cuneiform was to be the diplomatic language for the next couple of millennia in the region. It's been suggested that in the reverse direction the Sumerians acquired elements of Akkadian theology. They began to worship some of the same gods (notably Shamash and Ishtar). The conceptualisation of the gods as capricious or malicious may also have been Akkadian in origin. As an aside the book notes that while in the Old Testament flood story God floods the world because of mankind's wickedness, in the Sumerian version of the myth the gods do it because humanity is too noisy!

Sargon of Akkad established the world's first empire c.2350 BCE, and unsurprisingly we don't have much concrete information about his rise to power. Legends about him are reminiscent of later biblical stories (for instance like the stories of King David). His conquests started with Kish (in the north of Sumeria) and then Umma, which was one of the largest Sumerian city states at the time. Despite the need to constantly put down rebellions in previously conquered city states Sargon extended his empire to the Levant and to the Taurus mountains in Turkey. The rebellions eventually lead him to change the government in the city states he conquered - he installed his sons as the new governors and his daughters as high priestesses. There is little written about Sargon in contemporary sources - he only appears in the records of Susa (the Elamite capital city). Most of our information comes from later legends and King Lists. These say that he reigned for 56 years, and it was a turbulent period as he was unable to stabilise his control of his empire and was constantly fire-fighting against rebellions. The next four rulers of the empire reigned for 86 years between them. These kings included Sargon's son (with a reign of only 9 years) and his grandson Naram-Sin who reigned for 30 years. The office of chief priestess of Sin (the Akkadian's primary god) also became hereditary and was always a daughter of the king.

The empire was never particularly stable - all the kings had to frequently wage war to enforce taxation and tribute requirements from the regions outside their core area of Babylonia, and to protect necessary trade routes. However one area of success was in the organisation of agricultural production. Competition for agricultural resources had been one of the major sources of rivalry between independent city states, and so the Akkadian empire centralised (and protected) the storage of grain and distributed it as rations throughout their empire. This meant that there were no famines for over a hundred years despite decreasing rainfall and flooding in the highlands - the continued rainfall in the lowlands enabled sufficient grain production to keep the empire fed.

After 150 years the Akkadian Empire abruptly collapsed for reasons that are unclear. Previous hypotheses have focussed on the internal turbulence of the empire - suggesting potential problems such as the cost of all the military campaigns that were necessary. The book dismisses these theories as "logical but unconvincing", in large part because these problems were the same throughout the whole of the empire's history. A more recent hypothesis is to do with climate change (which is, of course, the trendy theory for collapses of civilisation these days ...). There is evidence from sediment cores that suggests that around the time of the Akkadian Empire's collapse there was a sudden shift towards more arid conditions. This same shift is seen across a wider region than just Mesopotamia - it's a current hypothesis to explain the collapse of the Old Kingdom in Egypt as well. Backing this up is archaeological evidence from Tell Leilan in northern Mesopotamia, where the remains of domesticated sheep & cattle from this period show signs of extreme water deprivation. Textually the climate change hypothesis is backed up by ancient sources that blame the fall of the Empire on the displeasure of the gods with Naram-Sin who attacked the city of Nippur and sacked the temple of Enlil. And so the gods cursed Akkad and "... the great agricultural tracts produced no grain. The irrigated orchards produced neither syrup nor wine. The gathered clouds did not rain... People were flailing at themselves from hunger.".

After the collapse of the Akkadian Empire the next power to rise up in the region was a Sumerian dynasty - the Third Dynasty of Ur - which formed the only Sumerian Empire. And that's what the next section of the chapter is about.

I've read Kate Elliott's "King's Dragon" before - at least twice - and both times stalled out on the series before I got to the end, either because I couldn't get the books at the library or because I hadn't quite decided whether to buy or borrow them. Last time I read it I reviewed it in this blog too (post). So when I needed to think of some books to get on my kindle to take away with me (last spring!) this series came to mind as unfinished business. I finished reading this one in July 2015, and am writing it up (from notes made at the time) in January 2016 by which point I've finished the series, so this is not going to be the post you'd've got if I'd been more diligent about writing it! :) It's also not a review as such (and if you haven't read the books my previous review gives a bit more detail about the set up and characters), and there will be spoilers ahead for the whole series even tho I'm concentrating on this book in this post.

One of the things I wrote about before, and remembered as particularly liking, is that this series starts out with a fairly familiar set of epic fantasy tropes which it then proceeds to do something more interesting with than what one might expect. Our main point of view characters are a couple of Chosen One archetypes who live in a version of medieval Europe. Alain is a farm boy of uncertain parentage, destined for the Church but yearning for adventure. Liath is on the run with her father, learning philosophy, astronomy and magic but unable to ever settle down for fear they'll be killed by those who chase them. And the world around them has kings and princes, court intrigue, wars fought on horseback with swords, and a powerful Church. It isn't, however, generic and nor are any of the characters. One of the things I appreciated about this whole series is that it felt like a real world, and like the implications of the world building had been thought through.

An example of this is the religion of this world - it's flavoured with Christianity, although with many differences the key of which is that the orthodox opinion is that God is plural and they are both male and female. The senior officials of the Church, the biscops and the skopos (Pope equivalent), are all female. Mayors of towns are female. And there's a reasonable amount of the sort of casual sexism you'd expect from the characters about how men are unsuited for such roles. But, women still have the biological vulnerabilities that they have in reality - and just because women are "in power" in some arenas doesn't turn the society into something fluffy and peace loving. Which I appreciated, because every time I see someone say something about "if women ruled the world we wouldn't have X injustice happening" I wince - women are people too, and setting us up as inherently superior to men is no more right than as inherently inferior. So it was nice to see a world where women did have power and yet the world wasn't full of magical unicorns.

I felt that family was one of the dominant themes of the book (and series). People didn't just introduce themselves by name, but also by lineage. Legitimacy or otherwise is also important - bastards don't inherit, which is one of the key factors in Sanglant's story. And even though we see the action primarily via Alain and Liath, Sanglant is one of the key characters - the book is named after him, and his relationship with his father is critical to the politics. If his father didn't love him so much, then a lot of the events throughout the series wouldn't've happened. Returning to the theme of family - Liath and Alain are both set apart by their lack of claimable family. Liath doesn't know who her parents are related to, and Alain doesn't even know who his parents are for sure. Liath's family relationships become one of the linchpins of the entire series, precisely who she is matters more to the world (both everyday and magical) than she realises at this point.

Another thing I really liked about this world was that the religion and the magic felt as solidly real as the politics. I mentioned above about the differences in the Church affecting the society around it, but I also liked that the Church is not a monolith and not stocked solely with either pious clergy or scheming fraudsters. There are differences of opinion on what the scriptures mean and on precisely what people believe in (and a heresy touched on in this book and will have repercussions throughout the series). The clergy are people - some are devout, some are not; some are in their positions because of their secular rank, some are not. And those are two separate axes. It's a complicated mess of an institution, as you'd expect for a religion that's a few centuries old.

Magic is officially regarded as evil by the church (as in our world) but it actually works (unlike our world). It's a very medieval sort of magic - alchemy rather than abracadabra. Liath is learning the theory, and she is learning from books and constructing her own memory palace in her mind where she can walk through to retrieve facts. She's also learning astronomy, mathematics and so on, which is all linked just like alchemists thought it would be in our world. It's a magical system based on knowing or intuiting the secrets and fundamental principles of the universe. It's also not without limitations & flaws. For instance, in practical terms one of the more useful pieces of magic we see is the ability to see through fire for a vision of what's happening elsewhere to someone. And it's limited by what you see (literally) when you look - if someone is passed out cold on the floor somewhere with wounds all over him, you'll probably think he's dead. So this provides a way of getting more information about far off events more quickly than you can by mundane methods, but it can also provide disinformation.

I'm glad I finally got round to getting the whole series - there's definitely re-read potential here, just looking stuff up for this post I've remembered a few things I thought were background at this point that turn out to be much more important later on.

The Augustan Age is the period between 27BCE and 14CE when the Emperor Augustus ruled the Roman Empire. It was discussed on In Our Time (in 2009) by Catharine Edwards (Birkbeck College, University of London), Duncan Kennedy (University of Bristol) and Mary Beard (Cambridge University). They were primarily considering the politics and arts of the Emperor Augustus's reign and how these were linked. Politically speaking it's the beginning of the Roman Empire and a period of peace after the instability of the civil war that marked the end of the Roman Republic. And in terms of the arts this period includes some of the names that one thinks of when one thinks of Roman literature: Virgil, Ovid, Horace.

The Emperor Augustus was called Octavian before he became Emperor and was the adopted son of Julius Caesar (so is sometimes referred to as Caesar). He was named heir in Julius Caesar's will, but when Julius Caesar was murdered Mark Anthony tried to grab power and civil war broke out. When the dust settled Octavian didn't restore the Republic, instead he became the Emperor Augustus and inaugurated the Roman Empire. He managed to leave the Senate a sense of dignity and respect (thus heading off the likelihood of an end like Julius Caesar's) whilst actually retaining sole control himself. For instance he chose a role from the standard Roman Republic's kit to hold in perpetuity (Tribune) that was actually one of the more junior roles but it was also the one that spoke first in the Senate allowing him to direct the proceedings. He also made a point of knowing all of the Senators, and Beard said that he's supposed to've greeted them all by name at the beginning of each session - which, as she pointed out, must've come across as rather fake & tedious to the Senators who weren't whole-heartedly buying into the cult of Augustus.

His propaganda characterised his reign as a return to the good old fashioned Roman virtues - a bit like the Tory Party narrative of "family values" in modern politics, looking back to an idealised 1950s that never was. Augustus cast the civil war and turmoil as being the result of Rome and the Roman citizens' fall from virtue over the preceding decades. The bedrock of Roman virtue is the mythos of the farmer-general who leaves his plough to lead the armies of Rome to glory. It's rooted in rural and agricultural life, and military values; and this is juxtaposed with the sins of decadent urban life where citizens live in luxury. Which I found quite amusing as the way we remember the Roman Empire includes quite a lot of salacious scandal about "my goodness what those Emperors and their families got up to!". And it seems that Augustus would be horrified by this image of his Empire. He envisaged his family's role as playing the part of "Good Old Fashioned Roman Family" as an example for everyone else to live up to. For instance his wife spun the cloth that made his clothes, just as a good Roman housewife should. He was not entirely successful in achieving the family image he intended (see below), but he did succeed in successfully re-inventing himself. Which was quite an achievement, as during the civil war Octavian had been somewhat of a young thug. There are multiple stories of his ruthlessness and cruelty, including one tale of him ripping out someone's eyes with his bare hands! Not quite the good and virtuous first-amongst-equals farmer-general of his later propaganda.

One of the things Augustus does to return virtue to Rome is to pass new laws enforcing proper moral behaviour. Notably these included laws against adultery. This was the area in which his family fell short of the image he was hoping they'd convey. Augustus's daughter Julia had been married off "advantageously" but clearly not to her tastes - she committed adultery in a particularly noticeable and notorious fashion. Augustus was forced to take action using his own laws, and she was exiled and some of her lovers executed. Then a decade later Julia's daughter (also called Julia) went on to do much the same thing as her mother - with much the same consequences. So much for the Good & Virtuous first family!

Augustus poured money into the city of Rome - he is said to've come to Rome as a city of brick and left it a city of marble. His building projects were wide-ranging and numerous, and many of the buildings we think of as Ancient Rome come from his infrastructure overhaul. This is notably not a return to the "Good Old Days" - we listened to an In Our Time episode about the Roman Republic about three weeks after we listened to this one, and it made the point that the ephemerality of power was a key concept in the Republic. So building infrastructure out of ostentatious and permanent marble was a change of paradigm, reflecting the difference between Republic and Empire as governmental systems.

The flowering of literature and poetry during the Augustan Age is tied into Augustus's propaganda machinery. It's a part of the return to the old virtues and of the idea of making Rome great again. Augustus was definitely a patron of the arts - it's not known how much he paid the writers, but there's evidence that he did pay them, and pay them well. He also writes some of his own poetry, but there's no evidence one way or the other about whether or not he also "collaborated" on the others' poetry. Some of the well known works that survive to the present also have Augustan propaganda as part of their subject matter. For instance Virgil's Aeneid has a section early on where Jupiter prophesies the future of the city Aeneas has founded (which is Rome). This details the future of Rome through to Augustus as the necessary, pivotal and inevitable Emperor, after whom Rome will rule the world forever. It situates everything Augustus did to gain power and how he is now ruling as the things that are necessary for the future glory of Rome (rather than self-serving). Augustus also traces his ancestry to Aeneas (just like medieval English kings will later link themselves to Brutus and/or King Arthur).

Horace's poetry is also a part of the propaganda machinery (on the family values side of it) but Ovid is less obviously a part of this. His work is lighter and more comedic than the other two poets, and much more about sex than the new morality of the Augustan Age is really comfortable with. There's also evidence that Ovid himself didn't sit comfortably in this new morality - he was perhaps a part of the Younger Julia's disgrace, and was exiled from Rome. He missed Rome while in exile, considering it the only place worth living - even if his work was more light-hearted than the tone of the age, he was still very emotionally invested in the new Rome that Augustus had built.

Near the beginning of the programme they mentioned the Elizabethan Age (of Elizabeth I of England) as a way of explaining the term "Augustan Age", and once one's mind has been drawn to it there are some coincidences in more than the terminology we use for the era. Both are periods of calm after a period of chaos and disunity, the leadership of each country is presented as benign yet is actually pretty tyrannical, both have a flowering of literature which is state-controlled propaganda as well as art. And Elizabeth I was crowned on nearly the same day as Augustus took power (only 1585 years and 1 day later...).

Mesopotamia: The Cradle of Civilisation

The next chapter of this book deals with the wave of urbanisation in Mesopotamia starting around 6,000 years ago, and the emergence of city states. This is the rise of what we call civilisation - urban culture as opposed to village/farming culture. Obviously as with any dividing line it's reasonably arbitrary: the Ubaid culture discussed at the end of the previous chapter (post) consists of large villages with public buildings, sometimes surrounded by smaller satellite settlements. There's a hierarchy within the population, and indications of centralised administration of resources. This is well on the way to the same sort of city organisation that characterises the urban cultures of this chapter - it's just not quite as well developed as it becomes after this arbitrary line in the sand.

The chapter is divided into three parts (and I'm only really writing about the first one in this blog post). Firstly it covers the early Sumerian period where true city dwelling develops and writing is invented. Next is the emergence of city states, and the first empire (the Akkadian Empire). And lastly the return to prominence of the Sumerian city of Ur after the collapse of the Akkadian Empire.

An Urban Explosion

This section of the chapter opens with a double page spread on "The Sumerian Question", to which scholars apparently have no clear answer: where did they come from? Were they the people who had always lived in southern Mesopotamia (since there were people there), or did they migrate into the area in the 4th Millennium BCE? Or were they a combination culture of the indigenous hunters & fishers, merged with incoming farmers from the north, or from Bahrain*? There are various bits of evidence that hint at one or another of these possibilities. For instance there are indications of a pre-Sumerian culture in the area with links to the Samarrans in the north of Mesopotamia. And there are loan words from other (unknown) languages in the Sumerian vocabulary, indicating contact with some other culture. The Sumerian language is a language isolate. This means that it has no living relatives, and in fact there are no other dead languages that appear to be related to Sumerian. Other languages spoken in Mesopotamia after this period are all Semitic languages (it's a bit hard to tell for sure what was spoken contemporaneously with Sumerian as only Sumerian was being written down at this time). The writing that the Sumerians invented long outlasted their language - cuneiform was still being used in the first centuries CE, but spoken Sumerian began to die out in the 2nd Millennium BCE. After this it lingered on as the language of religion and epic poetry but gradually became more & more obscure until dying out, entirely.

*This is not quite as out of left field as it might sound, Sumerian legends mention Dilmun (modern day Bahrain) so there's a potential link to there.

The initial part of this urbanisation of Mesopotamia is referred to as the Uruk Period, because it was dominated by the city of Uruk which became the first city state. This era is characterised by increasing social stratification, regulated agriculture and the development of writing. The latter two of these go together as the earliest use of writing in the region was keeping track of goods - the early cities in Mesopotamia were well organised economically compared to the earlier and contemporary villages. These cities relied on domestic agriculture for food and trade for many of the other necessities of civilisation. So Sumerian trade colonies spread throughout the rest of the region. Uruk and the other Sumerian cities of this period were centred around temples and ruled by priestly officials. This structure was not spread to other surrounding cultures, which did develop cities similar to the Sumerian model except ruled by secular authorities.

Archaeological evidence at Uruk shows the development of an improved pottery wheel, wheeled vehicles, the plough and the pottery kiln. The new pottery wheels changed the material culture of the region significantly - in the Ubaid Period pottery was distinctively painted, but in the Uruk Period this was replaced by mass-produced unpainted wares. There is also archaeological evidence of an increase in the scale of slave labour - in particular of forced migrations of peoples from many different places into Sumeria. Settlement sizes and numbers increased dramatically during the Uruk Period across the whole of Mesopotamia and later in the period many of these have fortifications, indicating a rise in militarisation. An interesting unanswered question about this period is what the relations between the main cities of the region were. Were they all mostly-independent regional centres, with Uruk the largest of them with a limited central administrative role? Or was there a form of pre-imperialism whereby Uruk was in some sense ruling over the other cities? At the end of the period there was a collapse of whatever sort of organisation existed and the region fragmented into several smaller polities - so clearly there was some degree of organisation above the city level.

The structure of this chapter is a little confused as after talking about Uruk it then jumps back in time for a brief discussion of Eridu, which was the first temple town. The foundation of Eridu pre-dates Uruk by at least a thousand years and it was an important ceremonial centre during the Ubaid period. Sumerian mythology describes Eridu as having been founded before the flood (as detailed in the Epic of Gilgamesh). However despite the early founding of Eridu, Uruk became a city state first and Eridu only later. Rather frustratingly the book doesn't clearly say what makes a city a city and a large village a large village. Perhaps it's a "you know it when you see it" sort of thing? What the text does get across is that it's the complexity of the society that matters - elites supported by the agricultural output of the farmland around, including priestly, political and military classes as well as artists and craftspeople. Cities could be pretty large, as well: some had populations numbering in the tens of thousands.

Temple towns developed on the rivers of the region, and water-borne trade was important in providing the resources needed to build their public buildings as well as the water itself being used to irrigate the fields. The towns and cities were dominated by temples built in the shape of artificial mountains. These ziggurats were a form of sacred architecture used in Mesopotamia for thousands of years after this. The administrative buildings of the city were associated with the temples. Urban life had existed for a few hundred years before writing was invented - which then made the bureaucracy of the cities much more efficient (as well as enabling accurate communication across large distances or times). An aside in the text here mentions that their counting system was based on base 60 and we still use it for time and angles, which I knew before but I still find a bit astonishing how that has persisted over such a long time and over such a vast cultural gulf.

Each city had at least one temple, and thus a patron god. All the Sumerian cities revered the same pantheon of deities but religious practice was focussed on the god to which the city's shrine was dedicated. These gods included Anu (father of the gods, with a temple in Uruk), Inanna/Ishtar (queen of the gods, with a temple in Uruk too), Enki (god of wisdom & water, with a temple in Eridu), Ninurta (war god, Lagash), Sin (moon, Ur), Nabu (wisdom, Borsippa) and Shara (minor war god, Umma). Education and art in Sumer were associated with the temples. Libraries were maintained in temples by priests and scribes, and decorative arts were dedicated to the gods (and later to the rulers of cities).

Sumerian society was highly stratified, and had a very high regard for ownership of property. Writing developed, as I said, to track goods and later many of the texts we have are related to property transactions and lawsuits. I've just started translating very simple examples of these sorts of things in my Akkadian course (so from a bit later on in time from the Sumerian period). These give an impression of a pretty litigious society in their matter of factness about such things e.g.: "Takūm-mātum daughter of Amurrûm and her mother, Rabbatum, bought a field from Ãlikum son of Arwûm. Ãlikum son of Arwûm, Sumu-ramê and all his sons sued Takūm-mātum and the judges of the house of Shamash rejected their lawsuits." It's not just ownership of property that the Sumerian society was keen to control and codify - the book also mentions increasingly complicated systems for recording the passing of time and for recording boundaries, goods and services.

This section of the chapter ends with a double page spread about cuneiform writing. The book says it was the first writing system, but I believe the jury is still out on whether the Sumerians or the Egyptians got there first (and on whether or not these two systems developed wholly independently or whether one copied the other). Although cuneiform started out as pictographs over time it was simplified into clusters of wedge shapes for each sign - I think of it as looking like a drunk bird staggered across the surface (although a pretty regimented drunk bird, as the signs are generally in neat rows). I also find them hard to memorise because there's a lot of them that are pretty similar to each other, and they all come in many forms. Complicating this writing system still further is the fact that each sign may have multiple different logographic (whole word) or syllabic meanings assigned to it. The converse is also true - there may be more than one sign for any given syllable. Although developed for Sumerian cuneiform was adapted to write several other languages, most importantly Akkadian. Akkadian took on a role in the ancient Middle East similar to that of Latin in medieval Europe. It was the language of bureaucracy, scholarship and of diplomatic correspondence, and the use of it long outlasted the culture and empire that originally spread it across the region.

While I was in a London for a few days in July 2015 I visited the Magna Carta: Law, Liberty and Legacy exhibition at the British Library, which was put on to mark the 800th anniversary of the original issue of the charter. The items displayed in the exhibition were mostly written documents (as you might expect in a library) although there were also some other things, including paintings and examples of seals. There were also several short films each of which had someone talking about a particular aspect of the charter & its legacy. The talking heads were a variety of historians, lawyers and politicians. I did like these, they added quite a bit to the exhibition, but they also broke up the flow a bit - there wasn't always enough space for people to walk past those who were standing and watching them, so at times the galleries felt clogged up.

The first section of the exhibition put Magna Carta into its original historical context. There were some examples of charters issued by previous kings (such as one by Henry I), and some contemporary accounts of King John. One of these was written by Matthew Paris, who really didn't much approve of John - something he wrote after John's death included the quote: "Hell foul as it is, is made fouler still by presence of John"! In this section they also displayed some earlier drafts of the charter, made as it was being negotiated at Runnymead. And they had several examples of seals, including the one used by John to seal the Magna Carta. Almost immediately after the Magna Carta was issued John repealed it - asking the Pope to declare it invalid in a Papal Bull (which was there to see in the exhibition). When he unexpectedly died during the ensuing civil war his young son Henry came to the throne at the age of 9. He began a period of using reissuing the Magna Carta as a means of legitimising the authority of the King which continued over the next century or so.

They had a rather neat animated graphic in the exhibition which showed the various clauses being weeded out over time until only the last few more general ones remained. This covered up until the modern day, despite it's placement at this point in the exhibition - I think because after this the exhibition moved on to looking at the legacy rather than the actual thing itself. The common theme tying together the rest of the exhibition was that "Magna Carta" came to represent more as an idea and a totem than was actually present in the original document.

After the 13th Century the importance of the Magna Carta faded - to the extent that when Shakespeare wrote his play about King John in the 16th Century he didn't even reference the document. There was a revival of interest in it in the 17th Century which is the beginning of the modern prominence of the document. It was used to justify rebellion against a tyrant King during the run up to the Civil War and subsequently used against Parliament when they were felt to be becoming tyrants.

Magna Carta has become extremely important both in US culture and US law. The Declaration of Independence draws on the charter and uses language that directly references it. Even before that the laws of the early colonies were based on Magna Carta. It's still important in the US legal tradition today - one of the talking head videos was explaining that it has been used as part of the legal argument against the incarceration of people in Guantanamo Bay.

During the 18th & 19th Centuries radicals within the UK continue to use Magna Carta when challenging the government, for instance the Chartists write a new revised version suitable for their times (and agenda). Magna Carta was generally not applicable in the British Empire, and one of the things that the 20th Century sees is the the newly independent ex-colony states issuing documents to grant these rights to their citizens. And there's a tendency for grants of legal rights to be referred to as the Something Magna Carta (i.e. the Maori Magna Carta) even tho the content of the documents is very far from the content of the original Magna Carta (which is really quite specific and parochial in scope despite the later reputation). More recently it has also been invoked by Nelson Mandela and by Aung San Suu Kyi. In contrast to Shakespeare's day the Magna Carta is now also likely to show up in popular culture. The penultimate section of the exhibition displayed several examples of this - including thoroughly anacronistic representations of King John signing the charter!

The exhibition then finished with the showpieces - two original copies of the Magna Carta. One of these was from Canterbury and had been very damaged, whereas the other one was in much better condition. Of course, it was in Latin (and abbreviated wherever possible) so even being able to see the text didn't mean I could read it!

It was an interesting exhibition - although I think I was more interested in the beginning sections about the medieval history (and the very end) rather than the bits about the legacy. I was interested enough overall to buy the book tho! :)

I'd heard of Frederick the Great before I listened to this In Our Time programme about him - I knew he was an 18th Century ruler of Prussia, and I knew he was a flautist (having seen a painting of him playing the flute). What I wasn't aware of before was that he was obsessed with being famous, and had quite serious Daddy issues. The experts who discussed him on the programme were Tim Blanning (University of Cambridge), Katrin Kohl (University of Oxford) and Thomas Biskup (University of Hull).

Frederick was born in 1712 and had what sounds like a rather appalling childhood. The first part, until the age of 7, when he lived in his mother's court was the better part. It was during this time that he acquired his interest in and love of literature, philosophy and the arts. He also forged a strong bond with one of his sisters in particular - so much so that in later life he built a temple to friendship for her with a statue of her in it. But the court was full of intrigue and he and his siblings were frequently pawns in the schemes of various factions. So as well as the arts he also learnt to live his life on display and to cultivate an image that he wished to present to the rest of the world.

His later childhood and early adulthood were spent at his father's court. Frederick Wilhelm I was a parsimonious Calvinist, a pious, frugal man who was also keenly interested in military matters. He had spent his reign building up Prussia's military and treasury. His son shared none of his interests nor his Calvinist virtues and resented the pressure to become a chip off the old block. Frederick Sr would abuse his son both in private and in public, by beatings and by humiliating the young man. During his teenage years Frederick once attempted to escape his father's court. He and some friends concocted a plan to escape from their military assignment and flee to Britain - the experts described this as a fiasco that failed almost before it began. Frederick and one of his friends were captured and locked up. For some time Frederick was allowed to believe he would be executed for desertion - this (obviously) did not happen, but his friend was executed. Frederick was forced to watch this execution which left him somewhat traumatised - the friend was someone Frederick was very close to, perhaps even his boyfriend.

Summing up this section the experts all agreed that a childhood such as Frederick had has the potential to be psychologically damaging - and that in Frederick's later behaviour there is evidence that he was indeed damaged by it.

When his father died in 1740 Frederick inherited the throne of Prussia. At the time Prussia was too big to count as a minor European state, but too small to be a major power. It did, however, have a fantastic military and a large treasury - due to Frederick Wilhelm I's frugal military obsessiveness. However the military hadn't actually been used - and so practically the first thing Frederick did on coming to the throne was invade Silesia, in part to prove himself a mightier man than his father. It wasn't just a response to his Daddy issues - it was also an astute political move. At the time the Hapsburg dynasty was undergoing a crisis so it was a good time to try and snap up a few territories whilst they were otherwise occupied. Silesia was near Prussia, and rich, so a good choice for Frederick. The initial campaign went very well, and this was the beginning of several military campaigns. By one point Frederick's Prussia stood almost alone against all the other powers of Europe who had allied against him - his only ally was Britain. Despite being vastly outnumbered Prussia had the advantage that Frederick was the sole decision maker and was actually on the scene. The other countries all had different aims, which hampered co-ordination between them, and they had to send communications long distances between the commanders on the field and the decision makers at home. Although of course this advantage for Prussia could also backfire if Frederick's decisions were unwise!

Napoleon regarded Frederick as a great strategist - I imagine he saw Frederick's standing alone against the other European powers as mirroring his own situation. However the experts were firm in their disagreement with this assessment - one of them (I forget who) dismissed it with the words "Napoleon was wrong about a lot of things"! The consensus was that Frederick was a great warlord - charismatic and capable of leading his troops - but not a particularly good general. Frederick's brother was a better general, and never lost a battle - however he would've lost Silesia in the first campaign by (sensibly, based on the situation at the time) taking the peace deal that involved handing the territory back. Frederick had the drive and desire to win at all costs, and because of his charisma the army would follow him and he lead them to greater gains.

One key success was the capture of West Prussia. The kingdom that Frederick inherited was made up of two geographically separated territories and annexing West Prussia made his country contiguous. In retrospect this was the beginning of the partition of the territories making up Poland between the surrounding countries until there was no Poland left.

Frederick was obsessed with gaining fame and status - he wanted to be remembered himself, and he also wanted Prussia to be a major player in European politics. After the successful campaign in Silesia he instructed the media to refer to him as Frederick the Great (which was a successful PR move as we still refer to him like that today). He carefully crafted other aspects of his image to gain recognition. His patronage and participation in the arts was partly driven by this. He wrote poetry in French which was rather conventional, and whilst not bad it was also not good either. He also, as I mentioned before, played the flute. But art was not just a matter of image for Frederick, it was also his spiritual core. He was not religious himself, and was scathing about religious belief. Art and music were his ways of connecting with a sense of transcendence. He wasn't, however, particularly interested in German language literature - and the experts said his primary influence in this area was ignoring it enough for independent thinkers to flourish.

His court was renowned for its tolerance and for being a centre of learning. Of course that's tolerance in a very 18th Century sense - in this case in particular it meant that philosophers who spoke against religion were welcome there after their own countries had hounded them out. Courtier for a while at Frederick's court was Voltaire - one of the most famous philosophers of the age. He corresponded with Frederick for decades - he was older and something of a mentor to Frederick, including correcting his French (including his poetry). Like Frederick, Voltaire was keen to gain fame and be remembered, and the two collaborated on polishing each other's images. Despite the long running correspondence Voltaire was only at Frederick's court for a few years. In person the two big egos did not get along as well as they hoped. Frederick didn't treat Voltaire with enough respect for Voltaire's tastes. And Voltaire got mixed up in shady business dealings that embarrassed his host. After 3 years he moved on, but they kept corresponding.

Frederick was almost certainly gay. As I alluded to above his father executed a man who was perhaps his boyfriend whilst Frederick was a teenager. Frederick did marry - a match arranged by his father, and initially it was probably welcome to him. It meant that as a young adult he was able to set up his own court (as a married man) rather than continuing to live in his father's court. However once Frederick's father died he had no incentive to continue the charade - the two never lived together again. I don't think they talked on the programme about what Frederick's wife thought this (it would be a bit off-topic). She kept court in Berlin after they separated - which was the capital of Prussia, so needed a royal presence. Frederick hated the city (his Daddy issues rearing their head again) and so he had no inclination to live there himself. The experts felt reasonably sure that people at the time were aware of Frederick's sexuality. The terms "gay" and "homosexual" didn't exist in their modern sense, but his favourites were referred to as being "like a royal mistress" which implies awareness of his intimacy with them.

Ultimately Frederick was successful in his search for lasting fame. He has been remembered since his death in 1786 as the man who put Prussia on the map. Over the years various groups have held him up as an icon or hero - for his tolerance, for his military successes, for the arts, for the sciences, for pushing on at all costs, etc. After the Second World War (and Hitler's appropriation of his image for the Third Reich's propaganda) his star dimmed somewhat, but there has been a more modern resurgence of interest in him. The programme ended with the note that whilst he's nowadays held up as a proto-Bismarck and pre-figurer of a united Germany, he regarded himself as a Prussian nationalist not a German one.

On Sunday Joanne Rowland came to talk to us at the Essex Egyptology Group about her work on two sites in the Nile Delta. Her talk was split into two parts - the first was about her work at Quesna (with the title that I've used on this blog post) on Old Kingdom and Ptolemaic era structures. After our coffee break she moved on to telling us about work she's done at the nearby Wadi Gamal looking at much older prehistoric sites.

"The Sacred Site of 'Quesna': Multi-disciplinary Investigations and Analyses in the Cemetery and Falcon Necropolis"

Quesna is situated towards the southern edge of the Nile Delta, between two sites known to have been Nome capitals: Athribis and Busiris. It sits on a sand formation called a Gezira (I think) or turtleback, which sticks out above the silt deposited by the Nile floods. The site was discovered in 1989, and the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities carried out some excavations there between 1989 and 2000 revealing primarily Ptolemaic and Roman period structures including a falcon necropolis. Rowland and her colleagues have been working at the site since 2006. They started with a magnetic survey of the area, which reveals where structures lie beneath the ground as they show up differently to the survey equipment. They also did an auger survey, which involves taking cores from different areas to see what's there.

Old Kingdom Mastaba

The full magnetic survey took a few years, and the very last bit they surveyed revealed a previously unsuspected structure lay beneath the sand. They started to excavate it in 2014, and the first indication that this was something different was that there were Old Kingdom pottery shards. Rowland explained that this is exciting because there isn't much evidence from the Old Kingdom period in the Delta. There are a small handful of places surrounding Quesna with Old Kingdom sites, and there are also some early textual references to Athribis and Busiris. They excavated across the top of the whole structure in that first season. The parts of the structure that would once have been above ground have long since gone - "mined" for mudbricks to reuse. But the parts that were below ground are still relatively cohesive and revealed the structure to be a mastaba tomb.

Rowland showed us several slides with comparisons of the layout of this tomb with layouts of other tombs from roughly the same era to show how similar they were. In common with the other tombs this mastaba had a rubble mound at the back of the structure, which represented the primeval mound, and the burial chambers were below this. They found two chambers in this tomb, each with its own shaft. Along the east side of the structure there were corridor chapels, an offering niche and a serdab space (where a statue of the tomb owner(s) would've sat). There were also three other burials within the structure that weren't part of the original use of the tomb - one was contemporary with the tomb owners and the other two were later.

The tombs had been robbed in antiquity - they found evidence of the way the robbers had entered the burial chambers via a pit cut through the corridor chapels. The insides of the burial chambers and the other rooms of the tomb had beads and broken pottery & other small bits & pieces scattered across them - so probably just as well it was discovered in the modern era when we're interested in that stuff too! Rowland showed us pictures of some examples of the finds - including lots and lots of tiny white faience beads. She said those are so small you need a 2mm sieve to find them, archaeological digs in the past would've used much coarser sieves and missed these altogether. They also found things that might be inlays for boxes or furniture, and broken bits of sickle blades. And a lot of pottery fragments, including a lot of beer jars mostly from a room at the northern (entrance) end of the structure. These are particularly useful for dating the site: they are of a distinctive style which was used from the late 3rd Dynasty to the early 4th Dynasty. The most exciting find was that of a small inscribed object that was in one of the burial chambers. It has on it the serekh of the Pharaoh Khaba, who was the penultimate Pharaoh of the 3rd Dynasty. (A serekh is analogous to a cartouche, in that it surrounds the name of the Pharaoh. But instead of the rope loop of the cartouche, a serekh has a palace facade with a falcon sitting on top of it.) There are only 5 or 6 other objects with the name of the Pharaoh Khaba on them (one of which is a bowl in the Manchester Museum) so this was a very exciting find.

Sadly there's no evidence for who was buried in the mastaba. There were no inscribed objects left with the tomb owner's name or titles, and even though traces of plaster were found in the corridor chapels there was no writing on that either. The most plausible suggestion is that it was for an official or priest (and his wife) from either Athribis or Busiris.

The Falcon Necropolis

The falcon necropolis was partially excavated first by the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities, and Rowland's team have been working there since 2006. It dates from late in Ancient Egyptian history - to the Ptolemaic and Roman periods. The team haven't excavated all of it, but have done quite a lot so far - they're currently trying to get funding for more work there. One thing they have done is map out the whole of the structure from above ground - both via the magnetic survey I mentioned above and via ground penetrating radar. Rowland explained that one of the benefits of the latter technique is that it not only tells you that there's something down there but also how far down it is. The structure is pretty large, and consists of corridors with rooms off the sides. There's evidence that it wasn't all built at once: occasionally there are places where the corridor wall is actually two adjoining walls built right next to each other but not joined on. Probably a sign that one existed already, and the other one is extending the structure onwards.

In some parts of the structure the rooms to the sides are full of falcon mummies. They are stacked in there in layers: first a layer of mummies, then resin poured on top of them covered by sand, and then a new layer of mummies, etc. Not all of the falcon mummies are still intact - some rooms just have burnt bits of bone. Apparently the mummies can occasionally spontaneously combust! The mummies (whether intact or otherwise) consist of a wide range of species, including kestrels, peregrines, kites, eagles, hawks and harriers. Rowland said they have also discovered hollow bronze falcon figures with bones inside, and bronze beaks and feet (which may've been attached to wooden bodies originally). Interestingly there were also elephant shrew remains. This rodent is a nocturnal manifestation of Horus, hence why they were appropriate offerings to be placed in the falcon necropolis.

In other parts of the structure there were niches - some with falcon mummies in, and some with ceramic jars full of falcon eggs. These were sealed with mud, and the team found 90 seal impressions from these jars which give some answers as to which of the nearby cities was involved in founding this place. There are frequent references on the seals to Athribis as the "home of the gods", so that suggests it was linked with that city and not Busiris. Corroborating this is a reference (from elsewhere) to "the necropolis on the North of the Athribite Nome" and to the falcon embalming house there - Quesna is 7km north of Athribis so fits this description.

Rowland also told us briefly about some human burials they have excavated at the falcon necropolis. These are especially interesting at they have anatomical oddities. Two different ways of figuring out the age of the remains give two different answers. The teeth suggest an individual that is much older than the fusion of the long bones would indicate. These individuals might've had some sort of genetic defect that prevented their long bones from fusing. Another possibility is that these were eunuchs as they can have these sorts of anomalous features.

Living Off the Land(scape) on the Western Delta Fringes: Relationships Between Humans and Their Natural Environment Around Merimde Beni Salama In Prehistory

The second half of Rowland's talk was about a much much earlier time period. She and her team have been working at the site of Merimde Beni Salama in the Wadi Gamal, which is on the western edge of the Nile Delta not that far from Quesna. It's been known for around 100 years that there is a Neolithic village at this site, which is the earliest known farming settlement in North Africa. Her interest in this site is both in the Neolithic village and in looking for evidence from the earlier Middle Palaeolithic in the area adjacent to the village. This latter is because when human migration out of Africa early in our prehistory is discussed (as the way we spread around the world) Egypt is a region that people point to as a plausible migration route. So it would be nice to have evidence of people in Egypt in the Middle Palaeolithic.

They started by taking soil cores from across the site to look at the environment over time. The Middle Paleolithic era was before the climate of the region became dryer, so the land was green rather than desert. The Nile Delta didn't exist as such - there was only one branch of the Nile at the time. The next stage of the work was to do a surface survey of stone tools - basically dividing the area they were interested in into a grid and then picking a sample set of grid squares (rather than doing the whole large area) and counting the types of tools that they found in the square. This work found tools such as small handaxes, and also Levallois points, flakes and cores. The name Levallois refers to a specific (and distinctive) way of making stone tools that was in use in the Paleolithic period.

They also dug test pits across their area of interest to see what was beneath the surface. Almost immediately under the surface are Neolithic finds in situ (meaning that they had been on the ground when last used, and the ground level had risen and covered them over since). Quite some way under them (around 80cm) was the start of a very dense deposit of Middle Paleolithic tools & tool fragments. They've been undisturbed since that time, and Rowland was saying that they are in such good condition that they "looked like they were made yesterday". Some of the fragments even look like they might fit back together (flakes onto the cores they were flaked off, for instance), which suggests this was an area where the stone tools were made.

So Rowland and her team have found a lot of evidence for occupation during the Middle Paleolithic, which fits with the timing of human migration out of Africa. There have been multiple waves of migrations, for instance one was 120,000 years ago and another was 60,000 years ago. The team plan to date some of their finds (if they can get permission to take them out of the country) using a technique called Optically Stimulated Luminescence. This is a technique that can be used to determine the last time a piece of stone (such as quartz or some other minerals) was exposed to the light. So they had to be very careful to quickly excavate the samples for this into opaque tubes so they don't get contaminated by light while they're dug up!

Rowland has also been working at the Neolithic village site - although a lot of it is under cultivation now her team were able to do a magnetic survey across a wider area than had originally been excavated in the 1930s. The site turns out to be four or five times larger than originally thought. It appears to've moved over time, sort of drifting with new structures built next to the existing ones and then the abandoned ones getting reused as a burial ground. The sorts of finds the team discovered in the bits they were able to excavate included grinding stones, pottery and fragments from stone tool making. One of the questions Rowland is interested in is what the settling down process looked like at this site. Moving from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a sedentary one isn't something that happens like a switch has been flicked, it's a gradual process and the early phases are more like permanent (perhaps seasonal) camps. So in future she hopes to look at the climate of the site with a much finer focus (using pollen data from the cores), and see how that correlates with evidence of occupation. And also to try and see if there's evidence that people were coming here at particular times of year. Of course, this is all supposing that the site is not destroyed by construction work, which is sadly an imminent possibility.

This was an interesting talk about some very current archaeological work and I don't think we've had quite such a wide date range discussed in one afternoon before!

The 2015 Raymond and Beverly Sackler Foundation Distinguished Lecture in Egyptology was given by Janet Richards, on the subject of saint cults in general and specifically the one of Idy at Abydos and how that fits into the wider sacred landscape there. The lecture was part of a colloquium about Abydos in general, which I didn't go to (although J did) and I remember the lecture as including a lot of references back to things they'd discussed in the colloquium. I'm rather more reliant on my notes than usual when writing this up - as it's nearly half a year since I went to the talk at the time of writing (and you're reading this about 2 months after that).

Richards is interested in saint cults in ancient Egypt, but in the introductory part of her talk she contextualised them for us in more modern terms (which was very useful for me!). There are saint cults all over the world - generally they are place bound, there is some supernatural element (they bless the living) and they are transactional in nature (you worship, the saint blesses). The focuses of them are not just saints as we think of them in a Christian tradition, but also local heroes and local gods. In modern Egypt there are small saint shrines that give charity to the local population - they are apolitical and small scale, rather than being tied to the big picture cultural narrative. This is another general feature of saint cults, but they can also be co-opted by the elite to link the large scale politics/religion of the country with the local population's concerns. She gave us an example of a modern saint cult from the US, I think chosen to remind us that we're not talking about official religion here. At the University of Michigan a(n American) football coach (I think deceased or retired) is the focus of a saint cult - he's invoked in some way by home fans to try to ensure victory, or his memorial is desecrated by the away fans to ritually ensure their own victory. (This makes me think of the Bobby Robson statue in Ipswich outside the football stadium, I bet he counts as focus of a saint cult either here or in Newcastle.) In a speech President Obama gave when he visited the University of Michigan he linked this football coach (the local saint) with JFK (a national saint) in a way that linked himself with these two icons (thus co-option by the elite for their own political advancement).

In ancient Egypt in late Old Kingdom times there's evidence of several saint cults starting up. At this period in Egyptian history the religion is in transition. It used to be that just the King had access to the gods, but during this time more "normal" people felt they were able to do things like write letters to the gods. I put scare quotes around normal, because obviously if they are writing letters then they are literate and educated which puts them into a different category than the bulk of the population. However these are people who are not part of the true elite hierarchy. And during this time saint cults begin to spring up around the periphery of the nation. One example she gave was of Heqaib at Elephantine, who was the Governor of the Nome. His saint cult is one of the best documented - it begins in the Old Kingdom and continues for several hundred years. His powers as a saint are related to his work during life (organising protection of expeditions) and his long-life itself. He was venerated both at his grave and in a hall built in the town. At the end of the First Intermediate Period the cult begins to receive royal attention, which continues throughout the Middle Kingdom. In each case the Pharaoh in question emphasises how he brought order out of chaos by restoring the shrine of the saint to its former glory - thus linking himself with the saint, which is part of legitimising his authority as Pharaoh. There is also mention in the inscriptions of a quid pro quo - the saint in return will bless the Pharaoh with a long life and smooth his eventual passage into the afterlife. My notes don't say that Richards mentioned this explicitly - but it reminded me of the order out of chaos narrative of other texts from that era, like in Ankhtifi's tomb.

Richards' own work has been on the tomb and cult of Idy, who was an Old Kingdom official who was buried at Abydos. The cult hall for Idy must've been excavated by Henry Salt in the 19th Century - Richards has identified some objects in the British Museum's collection that came from the site via Salt. However she didn't know this when she first started excavating it! Her work on the tomb and the hall has uncovered an outline of how the cult of Idy developed over the centuries.

He was a local official, who married into a more senior family and subsequently rose through the ranks of the central government. He was one of the last officials of that era to be buried in that part of Abydos, and was deified before the end of the Old Kingdom. There was a cult hall built near his tomb, and his cult survived for centuries after his death. As central authority began to break down in the early First Intermediate Period there begin to be surface burials of lower status individuals near Idy's tomb - associating themselves with the saint in death. There is then a gap in the pottery chronology of the site between the early and late First Intermediate Period. This may well be a true gap in the cult - a text of this period mentions a "desecration event": burning in the town and burning in the cemetery. This matches well with the burnt limestone statue of Idy in the British Museum's collection.

When Richards excavated Idy's tomb there were several oddities. The name on the outside lintel was not Idy, and there were limestone blocks covering the name on the inner lintel. The floor was also oddly high, and the coffin was not of a similar quality to the decoration on the walls. It became clear that a late First Intermediate Period burial had usurped Idy's tomb, probably after Idy's tomb had been robbed. The usurping individual was an official in Intef III's government called Nekhty. He says (on an inscription on a stela I think - I don't have a note) that he "restored the tomb and set up his house in the entrance". This is similar to the ruin to restoration rhetoric associated with Heqaib's cult. And it's now clear that the "house in the entrance" is a reference to usurping the tomb! Which he states he did to be "near Idy and to follow him". He also says that he bought a boat for Idy so that he could join processions - a textual reference to the statue of Idy going on ritual processions, just as other gods do.

Later votive chapels are built around Idy's tomb, and other people are buried nearby with their tombs aligned towards his. As with Heqaib there are references to Pharaohs using Idy's cult to legitimise themselves - for instance Senwosret III. By the time of the Pharaoh Tutmosis III in the 18th Dynasty the cult has faded away sometime before and the limestone chapels are dismantled. In one of these dismantled chapels there is an 18th Dynasty era burial of an infant, next to a block with a scene of a cow & calf. Richards speculates that this burial was done by one of the people doing the dismantling, and that an 18th Dynasty figurine found in the main temple of the Idy saint cult is linked to this. She believes that it's evidence that even though the cult was long gone there were still echoes of it remembered locally.

An interesting talk about a side of the Egyptian religion I don't really know much about - the aspects of it that aren't linked with the state and the major gods of their pantheon. It was also fascinating to think about saint cults in our own modern era as having similar underpinnings to these Egyptian ones - despite us thinking of that celebrity/hero worship as secular and very distinct from religion.

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