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.

"Extremophiles" is a bit of a parochial term - this is the name for organisms that live happily in environments that we consider extreme. Too cold, too hot, too acid, too something to support life, in our terms. Studying the lifeforms that disagree with us on what is a good place to live has started a new field of astrobiology and a new appreciation of the possibility of life existing in the wider universe. Discussing this on In Our Time were Monica Grady (Open University), Ian Crawford (Birkbeck University of London) and Nick Lane (University College London).

The study of extremophiles started with the discovery of a rich ecosystem based on extremophiles living at hydrothermal vents in the sea floor near the Galapagos Islands (an amusing coincidence that it's these islands in particular). The discovery was made by the scientific crew of a submersible called Alvin in 1977, and was a revelation as although extremophiles were known to exist this was the first evidence that there were more than a few outlier species. Previous assumptions about the requirements for life were shaken up by this discovery. The experts emphasised that we (and organisms like us) live in the "extreme" environments when compared to the universe as a whole - we require conditions that generally don't exist. So the discovery that life could exist in more "usual" conditions meant that it's more plausible that life might exist somewhere other than on Earth.

The science of astrobiology was started by these discoveries - this is a multidisciplinary field, which the experts positioned as being part of a trend in modern science. The 20th Century was in many ways about increasing specialisation in the sciences, but now there is a move towards seeing the bigger picture with more collaborations between groups with different specialities. Astrobiology is not exobiology - that would be the study of alien lifeforms and we haven't found any (yet). Instead astrobiology is the search for life elsewhere.

One of the assumptions that was overturned by the extremophiles found by Alvin was that sunlight was critical for life. Knowing that it's possible for life to cope with no sun* opens up the possibility that life might exist on Jupiter's moon Europa, for instance. Europa has a hot core (due to the friction generated by the various gravitational forces exerted on it) and an icy shell, with liquid in between. It also probably has hydrothermal vents. It just wouldn't have sunlight under the shell, but that might not matter after all.

*They did mention in passing later in the programme that parts of the ecosystem at those vents makes use of the oxygen dissolved in the sea, which wouldn't be there without sunlight (as it's a by-product of photosynthesis, which uses the sun for energy). So the current population is evolved to handle a post-photosynthesis world. But I think the idea is that if there wasn't any dissolved oxygen then it'd just be a different ecosystem of extremophiles rather than no ecosystem at all.

Another foundational insight for the field of astrobiology was the work of Carl Woese in the 1970s on developing a Tree of Life based on genetic data. The traditional view of the high level groupings of organisms is five kingdoms: animals, plants, fungi, protists, bacteria. But Woese's work showed that the real high level division is into 3 kingdoms: bacteria, archaebacteria and eukaryotes. Eukaryotes include all multicellular organisms (plus some single celled ones). Archaebacteria include the extremophiles and were once thought to be just a subset of bacteria - but the genetic data shows that they are as unrelated to bacteria as we are. They also arose first - bacteria and eukaryotes diverged from them later.

Astrobiology is not the same as SETI - the latter is searching for signs of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, but astrobiologists will be overjoyed to discover a single celled organism existing somewhere other than Earth. The experts spent a bit of time discussing the Drake Equation and how astrobiology fits within that framework. The Drake Equation is an answer (of sorts) to the question of how many extraterrestrial civilisations we might be able to communicate with. I say "of sorts" because, as Bragg pointed out on the programme, the terms of the equation started out as all unknowns. What the equation is useful for is breaking down the question into manageable chunks that can then be investigated. So one term is "how many stars have planets", and since Drake formulated his equation it's been found that pretty much all stars have planets - so clearly that's not a limiting factor. The question that astrobiologists are working on is "how common is life of any sort?" - which is a couple of the terms in the Drake Equation: the average number of planets that are capable of supporting life per star that has planets and the number of these capable planets that actually develop life.

There's still only one example of a life-bearing planet, so it's hard to extrapolate much about the origins of life and how common an occurrence it might be. One thing that might have bearing on the problem is that life only arose once on Earth - all organisms share a common ancestor. I did wonder, although they didn't discuss it, if we can be sure it only arose once - is it possible to disambiguate that from multiple origins only one of which survived? But even if we are sure that it was a one-off event on Earth this may not be because it's hard to do per se. It might be that once life gets going once it uses up the raw materials that it arose from, preventing subsequent developments of life. This is an idea that goes back even to Darwin although other parts of his "small warm pond" concept of the origin of life are no longer thought plausible.

The origins of life aren't the only thing that we only have one example of on Earth (with relevance to the Drake Equation). The jump from the simpler cells of archaebacteria and bacteria to the more complex cells of eukaryotes has only occurred once. Multicellular organisms have also only evolved once, ditto intelligence capable of building a technological civilisation. So even if it turns out that there are many planets supporting life of a sort out there in the universe, intelligence may still be very rare or even unique.

Panspermia is another hypothesis about how life got to Earth - or conversely how it may have got/will get to other places. This is the idea that life is spread through the universe via meteors etc, and so life may not've originated on Earth. There are several things that suggest that this is possible, even if we don't know if it actually happened. For instance we do find bits of rocks on Earth that originated on other planets (the Manchester Museum has a small piece of the Moon and a small piece of Mars that got to Earth as meteorites). There are also micro-organisms on Earth that can live within rocks. And we know from experiments done on space missions that some micro-organisms can live through the heat of entry into the Earth's atmosphere. At this point in the discussion Bragg mentioned Fred Hoyle had been laughed out of the scientific community for proposing something similar many decades ago. Grady pointed out that one reason this sort of theory is looked down is that all it does is shift the question up one level: What's the origin of life on Earth? Space! What's the origin of life in space? Dunno. The modern concept of panspermia is also not the same as Hoyle's - which involved free-floating life seeds travelling over large distances, rather than accidental transfer between planets via meteorite. (This whole section of the discussion made me think of the start of the film Prometheus, which of course is another reason people raise their eyebrows at panspermia - all too often it comes with a side order of "and that's how the aliens made us".)

Finding life on other planets is made more difficult because we don't entirely know what we're looking for. There was a meteorite discovered in Australia that was thought might have fossil micro-organisms in it that hadn't originated on Earth. Eventually it was decided that these weren't the first signs of extraterrestrial life, but it was controversial for a long time. Grady noted that it was easier to figure out in that particular case because it was a rock that had landed on Earth - the task gets much more difficult when another sample means another round trip to Mars. However the only way we're likely to find out if there's life elsewhere is by going and looking - whether that's with robotic explorers or human explorers.

As the Australian meteorite case shows there is a high level of proof required before astrobiologists will be willing to agree that they have found signs of life that are definitely of non-Earth origin. However the experts felt that they (as a field) are getting better at figuring out what to look for. The essential requirements for life are now thought to be water and carbon, but even with those requirements in common with Earth life extraterrestrial life might look very different. The experts emphasised how much chance is involved in evolution - even if you could re-run the history of the Earth it would look completely different despite starting with the same conditions.

This programme felt oddly mis-named - not often the case for In Our Time episodes which generally stay on topic rather well. But this wasn't really about extremophiles, it was about the search for non-Earth life.

This is the second half of the second chapter of this book (I've read a lot more of it I promise you, it's just the blog posts are lagging behind both in terms of being written and in terms of being published; you never know, I may've finished the book before you read this!).

The Fertile Crescent

Neolithic Era

We now move into the Neolithic era - the first farmers, who definitely live in permanent settlements and grow their own food (both plant and animal). There is also a shift from relatively small groups to larger communities and a move from an egalitarian society to a stratified one. Archaeologists divide the Neolithic into four phases. The first two of these are called Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA) and Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB) - not the most catchy of names, but the important point here is that pottery develops relatively late compared to agriculture or sedentarism. PPNA runs from c.9800-8800BC, PPNB is the next couple of thousand years (8800-6800BCE). This sequence is based on excavations at Jericho, which is thought to be the oldest site where agriculture is found. During PPNA Jericho was a regional centre, covering 6 acres with satellite villages within a day or two's walk. Anatolian obsidian and imported greenstone artifacts have been found at Jericho, as well as the first monumental structures: a stone tower approximately 8m high with an internal staircase, which was used as a burial place. Göbleki Tepe was another regional centre during this period.

During PPNB communities became much larger, the villages from this period are around 34 acres in size. The Neolithic way of life was spreading outside the Levantine area. Burial practices were becoming more elaborate. Since late Natufian times people were buried with their heads removed then placed in the grave. During PPNB some skulls would be disintered and plastered and decorated. After some time ("after long usage" says the book) the decorated skulls would be reburied in groups. Society was also becoming more stratified - a consequence of the closer proximity of larger numbers of people. Archaeologists can tell that by things like the variation in house sizes, and access to useful resources (like burnt lime in this case). The larger social groups also lead to more widespread use of art and cult objects - to bind people together with shared cultural experiences. There's evidence of some sort of magical use of cattle figurines (perhaps to ensure success in hunting). There are also signs of ancestor cults - see above about the decorated skulls, but also large statues that are interpreted as divine ancestors. Which the book notes are reminiscent of biblical and Sumerian legends about the creation of mankind from the earth, being made of mud and plaster.

During the Pottery Neolithic periods (c. 6800BC-5800BC) the new technology of pottery changes how households are organised - it gives more options for preparing, cooking and storing food. Sites from this period have more rubbish dumps and more storage areas as people have more possessions. Over time there is an increase in complexity of Neolithic settlements - each village gets bigger, and the houses get larger. Dwellings were now built around courtyards - a style that's still used in the Middle East today - with from 8 to 24 rooms around the courtyard, suitable for housing an extended family rather than just a nuclear family (as was the case with pre-pottery Neolithic dwellings).

Having introduced the Neolithic cultures in overview, the book now moves on to consider a couple of aspects of Neolithic life in more detail, plus a couple of the cultures of the late pre-Pottery Neolithic/early pottery Neolithic period. The first section is about the domestication of animals. This happened after the beginnings of farming, and took a few millenia before people had the suite of animals available that we expect today. It can be a bit difficult to tell when and where an animal species begins to be domesticated, but progress of domestication can be tracked to a fair degree from archaeological evidence. At first it was a case of keeping wild animals in a protective environment, but then inbreeding, and human selection, began to change the domesticated species towards smaller & less aggressive animals (which can be seen through things like horn size). I'd always assumed that a food animal would be the first domesticated species but it turns out that domestication of the dog began significantly before other animals - c.12,000BCE which is during the Natufian culture at the end of the Paleolithic period. Sheep and goats were next, c.9,000BCE, followed by pigs and cattle over the next 3000 years. The various beasts of burden were much later - donkeys c.4000BCE, horses c.1500BCE (in the Middle East, earlier elsewhere) and camels 1200BCE. Domestication of food animals also allowed the agricultural way of life to spread into the more arid areas of the region - with nomadic pastorialism becoming the main way of life in the desert regions by the end of PPNB.

The new lifestyle of the Neolithic - farming and permanent settlements - allowed populations to grow beyond the limits the hunter-gather lifestyle had imposed. This didn't just mean that villages increased in size, it also meant that there was pressure for people to move to new areas and set up new villages there. There's a suite of technologies that are sometimes called "the Neolithic Package" which are first seen in the Levant, and then spread from there through Asia, Europe and Africa. As outside the Levant everything seems to arrive at once in any given area it's assumed that this whole way of life spread (with people?) from the Levant. The technologies are domesticated plants (wheat, barley, peas), domesticated animals (goats, sheep, cattle and pigs), three flint tool types (arrowheads, sickle-blades and axes), digging wells for water supplies, various cultic characteristics (Mother Goddess figurines and dancing scenes). And later pottery is part of the mix. (Note (as the book does) that domestication of plants and animals did take place independently in China.) This period (PPNB) is also when the Mediterranean islands of Cyprus and Crete were colonised - there's evidence of flourishing villages with all the technology of the day. I find this faintly astonishing - boats feel like sophisticated technology to me, so the idea that people could sail the Mediterranean before they had knowledge of pottery is surprising.

'Ain Ghazal is a major Neolithic site near modern Amman in Jordan. It starts as a normal small village but during the PPNB period it reaches 35 acres in size - one of the largest settlements of the time. Each house was made up of one or two rectangular rooms, with floors and walls plastered with lime plaster. There are also round storage spaces. Burials of the community show evidence of stratification - some individuals have richer burials than others in "better" sites. The skulls may be removed and decorated - sometimes the decoration is removed and buried again (without the skull, which may've been redecorated). The more elaborate burials were under the floors of the houses, less elaborate ones were in pits outside houses. And still others appear to've been placed in rubbish dumps. The most important discoveries from 'Ain Ghazal are the art objects - lots of animal figurines, mostly cattle. And some of the earliest statues of humans - made from reed frames which are coated with plaster and hae painted features. The book notes in passing that some of these have 6 fingers or toes, which seems odd to me. After the PPNB period 'Ain Ghazal declines - it shrinks, and the number of art objects discovered also drop off.

Çatal Hüyük (in modern Anatolia) is the next Neolithic site discussed in the book, but the two page spread feels rather like it's been rather brutally edited down from a larger piece and the remaining text isn't quite coherent. There are no dates for the site in the text, although they refer to it as the "earliest city". It had around 5,000 inhabitants, in houses that are packed so closely together there's no ground between them - access is from the roof via ladders. There are lots of burials within the houses, under the sleeping platforms. These are described as family groups in the book, but a TV series we watched recently (Ascent of Woman) interviewed an archaeologist currently working on the site who says that recent DNA evidence shows the groups are no more related with in the group than across the whole population. Which he interpreted as children being fostered out to other familes - interesting if so as that's not really a social pattern we see any more (I think!). Some famous figurines have been found at this site too - including statuettes of a woman (the Mother Goddess?) giving birth on a chair/throne flanked by two leopards or lions. The really exciting thing about the Çatal Hüyük site is that there aren't just figurines but also wall paintings. Although there appears to have been some doubt about the reality of these? There's an off-hand reference in the text to newer excavations finding evidence that "Mellaart's initial claims [...] to be more reliably based than first suspected.". Which is ... an interesting turn of phrase, particularly after they mention that Mellaart got chucked out of Turkey when he fell out with the authorities there over this excavation. But I do rather wish this section had told us more about the city and dropped fewer hints about scandals of archaeology! A tangent to follow up on one day! :)

The last few sections of this chapter start narrowing the focus down to Mesopotamia - as the following chapter is about early urbanisation in that region. The Late Neolithic (pottery Neolithic) looks in retrospect like a filler period between two stages in cultural development - it's after the "Neolithic Revolution" of agriculture and before the "Urban Revolution". I'm not sure I like this way of thinking about it but the book does go on to explain that we don't know much about the period - mostly it's characterised by different types of pottery without much other feel for the cultures. Interestingly administration and a concept of property exist during this period - I'd assumed that came in with cities - but there's evidence from 6,000BCE from Tell Sabi Abyad in Syria of clay sealings for jars or rooms which show if someone who shouldn't have has opened it. The period is divided into four broad cultures - pre-Hassuna, Hassuna , Samarra and Halaf. The latter three are named after the sites the cultures were first discovered. The Samarran culture is the one that Tell Sabi Abyad belongs to - the book positions it as a sort of proto-Sumerian culture. Not only are there the clay sealings there are also clay tokens that may be the very early antecedents of cuneiform writing. And some symbolism may prefigure later Mesopotamian religious iconography - particularly scorpion motifs (later associated with the goddess Ishtar).

With the arrival of pottery archaeology gets quite a bit easier. Pottery doesn't decay, even if broken, and large amounts of it are made (and thrown out). Functional vessels can be made in a large variety of styles, and different cultures tend to have different fashions & traditions. This gives you information about trade networks and about how cultures evolved over time. Different styles within a culture can also demonstrate things about social stratification. In the Halufian culture of Late Neolithic Mesopotamia in particular very fine pottery was used as elite status symbols. Pottery at the time would've been the (relatively) new technology and also the exotic metals or other materials (such as ivory) used for later status objects weren't as available.

The Halaf culture was primarily in the north of Mesopotamia, and overlapping slightly with them were the southern Mesopotamia based Ubaid culture. This is the last of the pre-urban (and pre-historic) cultures that the book considers. Ubaid culture begins in the south and then spreads throughout the rest of Mesopotamia and beyond - whether by migration of people or trading of objects & ideas is unclear. As well as the physical artifacts this culture is characterised by the development of the first irrigation canal networks. This is an important stepping stone on the way to urbanisation in Mesopotamia. The canals make agriculture a bit easier, thus freeing up labour for other purposes like crafting or bureaucracy. They also require a more complex degree of social organisation - someone(s) needs to make decisions about what is built, someone(s) needs to organise the labour force and so on.

The next chapter of the book moves on to the rise of true urban settlements - as well as the development of writing and the beginning of city states.

Painting Paradise Exhibition

Last summer I went to an exhibition about paintings of gardens - Painting Paradise: The Art of the Garden - in the Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace. Mostly I went because I had free entry to it (having been to the From Cairo to Constantinople exhibition earlier in the year (post)), and I was in London for a few days. I'm not entirely sure what I was expecting, but there were some interesting paintings to see. I think they way they do these exhibition is to pick a theme, see what the Queen owns that fits, and then put together some sort of coherent narrative for the exhibition. So this was all about gardens, and there was art ranging from Persian garden scenes through to paintings of Royal Garden Parties of the Victorian era. The narrative thread holding it together was the changing way that gardens are perceived over time. In general I liked the first couple of rooms of the exhibition, and found it got duller & twee-er as we got towards the later Hanoverans and Victoria. This quite possibly just reflects my biases about what history I find most interesting, rather than the exhibition ;)

It started with a couple of Persian garden scenes to set the scene and to explain the title of the exhibition. The word "paradise" comes in to English from Persian via Greek. The Greek word paradeisos (παράδεισος) is of Persian origin, based on two words meaning "to form" and "around". The key features of a Persian garden are that it had walls around it, and a water feature. So a somewhat different conception of garden than the modern one, which has much more of an emphasis on plants.

Painting Paradise Exhibition

The main part of the first room concentrated on the Renaissance Garden - much to my tastes, particularly as one side of the room was dominated by a large painting of Henry VIII and family (with the gardens of Whitehall visible behind them; sadly I couldn't get a decent straight on photo of it). The themes explored were: the garden as an expression of princely power (as in said painting); the garden as a religious symbol; the garden as a place to grow exotic and/or useful plants. Obviously the religious symbolism of the garden ties in to the title of the exhibition - the garden of Eden as an earthly paradise. But gardens also show up in the art of the time in reference to the image of Christ as a gardener (both symbolically and to illustrate Mary Magdalene mistaking the risen Christ for a gardener when she came his tomb). And the Virgin Mary is often painted in a garden. As well as important symbolism tapestries depicting gardens were used to bring colour & life to interiors particularly in the winter.

Painting Paradise Exhibition

The next little section of the exhibition displayed some (rather ugly) china (in my view) with garden themed decoration. And some stunningly beautiful Fabergé flowers, which I liked a lot.

The next room looked at the Baroque garden - in particular the formal gardens of the Stuarts and the early Hanoverans. Gardens in this period were still primarily expressions of princely power and status - "look how well I bend the world to my whim". There was a particularly striking picture of Hampton Court Gardens during the time of William III: a birds eye view of how well nature had been tamed and formally organised. I also liked the tulip vases - pagoda-like structures with each flower in a separate hole.

Painting Paradise Exhibition

The Hanovers continued into the next room - more pictures of rigidly laid out gardens, where it almost seemed like the plants were an irrelevant extra. I confess to spending rather more time looking at the sunflower clock in the middle of the room, which was surrounded by a large number of rather fine porcelain flowers.

Painting Paradise Exhibition

Gardens gradually became more informal, and the paintings also change to suit this new perspective - eye level and intimate views rather than overhead or otherwise formal points of view. By the Victorian era a garden was seen as a place of family relaxation. This was also the period when the culture of Royal Garden Parties started, and so the Royal Collection has paintings of those as well as of Victoria and her family enjoying their garden.

Painting Paradise Exhibition

For me the exhibition gradually tailed off - the last bit was pictures of floral borders or baskets of flowers. Some of which were painted by members of the Royal Family, I think. But not nearly as interesting to me as the first couple of rooms had been.

As well as the photos in this post I have a small album of photos up on flickr, here.

Aesop's Fables are so deeply embedded into our culture that references to them are common parts of the language - "sour grapes", "crying wolf" and so on. But we don't often think about who Aesop was, where these stories originated or what the point of them is - or at least, I certainly didn't! Discussing Aesop and the fables attributed to him on In Our Time were Pavlos Avlamis (Trinity College, University of Oxford), Simon Goldhill (University of Cambridge), and Lucy Grig (University of Edinburgh).

Aesop almost certainly didn't really exist. He's a myth or archetype in a similar fashion to Robin Hood - there's a general shape to the myth but the other details often vary. What Aesop has in common across all references is that he's ugly, he's a slave, he's clever and he speaks truth to power. Even the earliest mentions of Aesop say he's been dead for a century - he's a mythic figure from the past whenever you are. One of the most complete stories about Aesop himself that we have is a story from the 1st Century AD called the Romance of Aesop. In this narrative Aesop is an ugly slave whose master is a philosopher - but he frequently outwits his master. For instance his master goes to the baths, and asks Aesop to bring the oil flask. When Aesop does, his master asks why there's no oil in it ... and Aesop replies that he wasn't asked to bring any oil! This sort of quickwitted trickery is the reverse of audience expectations for the story - after all, isn't the master a philosopher who should be both clever and quick thinking? And outward appearances were expected to mirror the internal qualities of a man - so who would expect an ugly man to be clever? It's also pretty subversive - lots of acts of petty rebellion which make the master's life a misery.

Given that Aesop is probably a mythic character it's unlikely that he actually wrote the fables he's credited as the author of! They are most likely an oral tradition dating back to at least the 5th Century BC in Greece. It's possible that they originated in Mesopotamia before that and if there was a historical Aesop then he was perhaps a slave from that region who told their fables to Greeks. The fables were written down later, but the repertoire changes over the centuries so there's still an oral tradition running alongside the written one. During antiquity the fables spread from Greece to the Roman world and throughout the Roman controlled territories. They even got as far as the edge of China - there's a version known that was written down in a Turkic language from Chinese controlled territory. In the Renaissance Aesop's Fables were rediscovered and translated into many European languges, where they've remained current since. This rediscovery wasn't limited to Europe - the new translations of the Fables spread to Japan as well.

Fables are a specific genre of stories - they are short, generally told with animal or stock characters with a moral attached. The moral doesn't necessarily come at the end, it can be at the beginning or even in the middle. Different tellings of the same story can have different morals attached. And interestingly the moral doesn't necessarily have to match the scenario in the story - the cognitive dissonance this causes can be part of what makes the fable memorable and/or useful. You do find the stories from fables turning up without morals, in joke compilations, but I think the experts were saying they don't count as fables then. So what's the point of these fables? They're not just entertainment (although obviously that's part of the point) - in modern times they're children's stories and that was always part of their use. They teach lessons about how the world works, in bite-sized and amusing chunks. The stories and morals are often about power relationships, approached from a bottom up perspective (and the Romance of Aesop is a sort of meta-fable fitting into this category). So they teach children (and adults) how to navigate a hierarchial society like the Roman one. In antiquity they might also be used by adults as a subtler and politer way of getting a point across to someone more powerful than oneself.

The programme finished up by considering the wider connections of fables - mostly this section was about how there are interesting similarities between Aesop & his fables and Jesus's parables. The stories themselves are not the same, but they're the same genre - short tales, with a moral, about power and told with a bottom up perspective. While I was writing up this blog post I also wondered if Br'er Rabbit fits into this genre - I can't remember enough of any Br'er Rabbit story to be sure it fits the genre, tho.

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.


"Reflections on the Dendara Zodiac: Addressing the What, When and Why" Rosalind Park - talk at the December EEG meeting.

Total: 1

Tags: Admin


Subscribe to