"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.

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On Sunday Rosalind Park talked to the Essex Egyptology Group about the Dendara Zodiac ceiling, and astrology in Ancient Egypt. The Dendara Zodiac was originally in one of the chapels on the roof of the Hathor Temple at Dendara. When discovered by Napoleon's expedition in 1799 it was removed from the temple (with gunpowder!) and brought back to France. It's now on display in the Louvre (see the picture below that I took when I visited in 2011). And in its place in Dendara is a plaster cast (which has been painted black to mimic the original). It's a pretty big visitor attraction in the Louvre but it has been largely ignored by Egyptologists.

Zodiac Ceiling from Dendara

When the ceiling was discovered hieroglyphs hadn't been deciphered, but some of the astronomical/astrological symbols on the ceiling were recognisable as ones that have been passed down to Western culture via the Greeks (like a crab, which I think you should be able to (just) see in the photo above). A lot of previous work on the Zodiac has interpreted it as a purely astronomical depiction of the heavens, without much serious consideration. The "definitive" book on the astronomy of the Ancient Egyptians published in the 1960s has a lot of oddities in the description & identification of the symbols on the Zodiac. For instance it identifies one male figure with the planet we now call Venus, but on other astronomical scenes the authors identify the same figure as the planet we call Mercury. Park's own research shows that the whole thing makes more sense if this figure is indeed Mercury as he is elsewhere. This rather casts into doubt the authors' conclusions about what the scenes mean!

Parks believes that it's a "fear of astrology" that has hindered the study of the Dendara Zodiac. Academic archaeologists & historians want to distance themselves from any accusations of believing in that sort of mysticism (I imagine in large part because Egyptology does attract a lot of cranks - while writing this post I looked for line drawings of the Dendara Zodiac on the internet and I ran into more than one site explaining earnestly how this all proves that aliens built the pyramids!?). But it's important to remember than in antiquity (and even closer to the modern day) there wasn't such a hard line dividing the science of astronomy from the mysticism of astrology. And it's also important to think about objects from the perspective of the culture that created the object if you want to understand what the object meant and what its original purpose might've been.

One of the striking features of the Zodiac that one notices immediately is that it doesn't fit the standard rectangular grid that "all" Egyptian art is based upon. If you're expecting squares & straight lines of figures in rows it looks like a bit of a mess. Parks proposes an alternate canon for art in Egypt based on circles, of which the Dendara Zodiac is an example. You can draw an evenly spaced series of concentric rings from the centre outward that contain the figures (equivalent to registers on a rectangular wall painting), and these can be divided into evenly spaced segments with radial lines from the centre. Once you superimpose this sort of grid on the Dendara Zodiac it is clear that it is an ordered design. Parks next showed us a horoscope from 16th Century CE Europe, with the same circular grid drawn on it - and it was strikingly similar to the Dendara Zodiac. This is because the toolkit of astrologers has not actually changed much since Hellenistic times, even though the details have (like what the planets are called and what the constellations are).

After our coffee & cake break there was a brief interlude about astronomy and how it relates to astrology, presented by Park's husband Gordon Falconer. He started by showing us a star map and pointing out that if it only has stars on it then it is accurate over multiple days (at a specific time of day and place). However as soon as you put on the positions of the planets and moon it is tied to one specific date as well. This is important for Park's research on the Dendara Zodiac as it is how she has been able to date it. Falconer's next point was that stars and planets are real, whereas constellations* are imagined. We create these patterns and there are many different ways the dots can be joined up - which he illustrated by comparing "our" (Greek) constellations with those of a Tang Dynasty China star map. Again this is important for Park's research as it makes it much harder for her to figure out which Egyptian constellations match up with which stars, it's not just a case of the names having changed.

*Technically the term is "asterism" because the word "constellation" has a different definition within the field of astronomy. But probably no-one outside professional astronomers uses asterism.

Falconer then moved on to tell us about some other features of the star map that can be used to help date and geographically locate horoscopes. One of these are the circumpolar stars. These are the stars that don't rise and set, whatever time of night you look they are there (and during the day too, just you can't see them because of the sun). Which stars are circumpolar and how many there are of them depends on your latitude and on the date. If you are near the pole, more stars are always visible, if you are near the equator fewer are. Which stars these are changes over the millennia - the Earth does not just rotate around its axis it also wobbles a bit (like a spinning top does). This is called precession of the Earth's axis, and it has a period of 25,800 years. One effect of this is that whilst Polaris is directly at the North Pole now, it wasn't before our time and won't be after (until 25,800 years have gone by). If you look at star or constellation maps from even as recently as 500 years ago (Falconer illustrated this with one drawn by Dürer) then Polaris is not on the pole. I knew this before, but I didn't realise you could see the effect within such recent historical time!

Another concept that can be used for dating is the Vernal Equinox. This is the point when the ecliptic crosses the celestial equator. The ecliptic is the apparent path of the sun (at noon?) on the celestial sphere over a year, the celestial equator is the line you get if you mirror the earth's equator on the celestial sphere. The celestial sphere itself is an old idea that the stars (and planets and sun) are in effect stuck on the inside of a massive globe around the earth. It's (obviously) been shown to be wrong, but it's still a useful concept in astronomy as it lets you give stars co-ordinates (and it's still used in astrology for similar purposes). The Vernal Equinox changes over time, and this changes which constellation of the zodiac it occurs in. About 3,500 years ago the Vernal Equinox was in Taurus, 2,000 years ago it was in Aries and now it is in Pisces - and nearly in Aquarius, hence the Age of Aquarius stuff.

The rest of the talk was Park explaining some of the work she has done to identify the date and time of the Dendara Zodiac. To do this she had to figure out what the various constellations were, and also which symbols were being used to represent which planets (and the moon & sun). She talked about a few examples, including one that is not only a representation of a constellation but also a piece of political satire on the part of the horoscope creator. One of the constellations is a lion, standing on an altar - in our constellation schema those stars are part of Centaurus. This lion is probably the Lion of Judah (and she showed us representations of the Lion of Judah from other sources that look similar to the one on the Dendara Zodiac). It looks like it's turning round and sticking its tongue out at the constellation behind it - a beast with a pot-belly, a scorpion tail, canine legs wearing one of the royal crowns of Egypt. Park has identified this as Ptolemy VIII, who was a thoroughly unpleasant piece of work even for a Ptolemy - for instance he murdered his 12 year old son and sent the dismembered bits to the boy's mother as a "birthday present" for her! Notably he was also anti-intellectual (including disliking astronomers/astrologers) and anti-Semitic (in part because the Jewish community was on the side of his wife). And so showing the Lion of Judah on a horoscope taunting Ptolemy VIII the beast would've been a topical reference to (relatively) recent history.

As a result of her detailed study of the Dendara Zodiac Park has come to the conclusion that it was originally made for the date of the conception of Cleopatra & Caesar's son Caesarion. This original design missed off the Horus planets (which I think she said were the ones that are associated with masculinity in Egyptian astrology) and also misses off constellations associated with dangerous creatures (like the crocodile). I think Park said this was for two reasons - firstly it would be protective of the subject of the horoscope (Caesarion), and secondly the Hathor temple is generally associated with feminine attributes (conception, birth, motherhood and so on) so it was appropriate in that context. Later, the horoscope was usurped and altered by Caesar Augustus - he had the Horus planets added which adjusts the date to a significant one in his life.

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.



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

Total: 1


Prester John - In Our Time episode about this mythical Eastern Christian King.

The Science of Glass - In Our Time episode about glassmaking, both the science of it and the history.

Total: 2


"New Light on the Narmer Palette with Advanced Digital Imaging" Kathryn E. Piquette - talk at the November EEG meeting.

Total: 1


Egypt Holiday 2014: Site at el Kab.

Egypt Holiday 2014: el Tod.

Total: 2

The next chapter of this book covers the vast swathes of prehistory in the Middle East, taking us from the first migrations of pre-homo sapiens humans out of Africa all the way through to about 6000 years ago just before the first cities of Mesopotamia. Which is rather a lot of ground to cover! So much so that I have split the chapter into two blog posts, the first of which covers the Paleolithic cultures and the second will cover the Neolithic.

The Fertile Crescent

This is not just the story of the Middle East over this period, but also the story of humanity as we go from early humans to modern humans, and from nomadic hunter-gatherer to farmers living in permanent settlements. The introductory 2 page spread for this chapter suggests that one reason everything seems to happen first in the Middle East is due to geography. It's on a crossroads between Africa, Europe and Asia, so it was the best informed region - all knowledge flowed through there as it spread. And then could be combined with the other new ideas from other areas to produce leaps in technology.

Paleolithic Era

Early humans (Homo erectus) begin to spread outside Africa within a few hundred thousand years of their evolution. The earliest traces of humans date to 2.6 million years ago (in Ethiopia) and the earliest non-African evidence is from Dmanisi in Southern Georgia dating to 1.8 million years ago. These hominids presumably migrated via the Levantine corridor, as the only land route between the two areas. The next oldest site where human tools (and three teeth) have been found is in the Jordan Valley. Judging by the tools found at a wide variety of sites across the Middle East there were three or four different waves of migration out of Africa by Homo erectus. One of these migration waves also provides evidence of the first controlled use of fire - which I think I should've known pre-dated modern humans, but if I did know I had forgotten.

The Middle Paleolithic era lasted from around 250,000 to 45,000 years ago, and it was during this period that Homo erectus was replaced by Homo sapiens sapiens and Homo sapiens neanderthalensis. The dominant theory 40 years ago (based on archaeological evidence from Europe) was that first came the Neanderthals and they were then replaced by our own species before 40,000 years ago. Excavations in the Levant have changed this picture significantly. There are Homo sapiens sapiens remains as old as 100,000 years ago at site in the Levant, and Homo sapiens neanderthalensisas young as 50,000 years ago. There have also been skeletons found that display different combinations of characteristics from the two groups. What's more the tools produced in the various different sorts of sites show no significant difference between the sites in terms of material culture and way of life. So perhaps the two species co-existed (for around 50,000 years or so). The double page spread about this era ends with a set of questions we don't know the answers to yet - including whether or not the Neanderthals were actually a separate species.

The boundary between the Middle Paleolithic and the Upper Paleolithic (c.45,000-50,000 years ago) is marked by changes in tool technology. The shift was from tools formed as flakes or points to elongated blades which have a better edge-to-mass ratio and can be more efficiently produced. Interestingly as well as a local development of this tool culture (or perhaps brought by newcomers from Africa) there is also evidence of migration* into the area from Europe. The tools these immigrants brought with them are also blade based, but not the same as the ones produced in the Levant. These migrants are relatively restricted to one geographical region and one time period (32,000 to 30,000 years ago). An oddity of the Levantine Upper Paleolithic culture is that there is no evidence of art: no cave paintings, no figurines, no engravings. If I remember right the same is also true of Chinese prehistory ... is art another of those ideas that is thought of only rarely and then spreads to become universal? Although having said that, we are very limited in what we can find evidence of - music, singing, dancing, drama and so on aren't necessarily going to leave traces in the archaeological record.

*I'm not quite sure from the book why they know (if they know) that it's the tool users that migrated rather than just the technology moving.

The next period of Middle Eastern prehistory is referred to as the Natufian period, and once again it's characterised by a particular sort of tool. They give a technical description in the book, but basically the main form is small crescent-moon shaped tools for hunting and food preparation. The Natufian period falls into two phases: early from ~15,000-13,000 years ago and late from 13,000-11,500 years ago. This culture shows the first signs of sedentarism - with permanent, year-round villages. The communities still seem to have been hunter-gatherers, which was interesting as I previously thought the general idea was that settlement and agriculture happened the other way round. During the second phases of this period there's actually more mobility in the communities, but they seem to have more clearly defined territories even if they're not sedentary. I'm not actually sure what the evidence for this is, they don't mention it in the book. However the authors do say that the second phase lines up with a signicantly drier period and so perhaps there wasn't sufficient food at any given site to support a permanent population. Agriculture may or may not have begun during this period (experts are divided) but taming and domestication of the dog were definitely begun by the Natufians.

In contrast to the earlier Levantine cultures the Natufians are art producers. They produced both standalone things (like decorated bowls and slabs as well as figurines) and personal accessories (like necklaces, belts, etc). And the beginnings of trade are visible - for instance artifacts made of Anatolian obsidian have been found in the core Natufian region (the Levant from the Mediterranean coast to the Jordan Valley). Natufian sites also have evidence of the first large scale cemetaries. There isn't really a pattern to how bodies were treated. Generally the body was buried in a flexed position, sometimes in a single occupant grave, sometimes in a larger grave. Some bodies have decoration and/or ornaments, some graves have carefully place stones, others are just a pit refilled after burial. The book doesn't speculate at all about potential elite/non-elite distinctions - perhaps it's clearly random when you look at the data?

Temple at el Tod

The last site we visited in Egypt last November was a temple dedicated to Montu, which is in the modern village of el Tod. I don't think it gets many tourists - our bus had a bit of trouble getting through the winding streets of the village and we had to walk the last little bit. My main memory of the place is that it was very peaceful, despite being in the middle of the village. There were palm trees throughout the site and it was a little oasis of calm. Even the guardians here were pretty laid back!

My photos from this site are on flickr: click here for the full set, or on any photo in this post for the larger version on flickr.

Temple at el Tod

When you go into the site the first thing you come to is a block storage area with loose bits of the temple that have been tidied up (effectively). Medhat paused here to explain a bit about the history of this temple, using some of the blocks to illustrate his points. The temple was originally built in the Middle Kingdom and early New Kingdom - with later usurping of cartouches by Ramesses II. These parts of the temple are finely decorated and made of limestone. Later during the Ptolemaic era the temple was added to, and the additions are more crudely decorated on lower quality sandstone. Looking round the temple we also found a place where new decoration had been carved over the old. When painted it must've looked OK, but now that the paint has gone it looked a bit odd with columns of hieroglyphs running straight over a scene. As well as the temple proper the site also had the remains of a quay - the Nile or a canal must've once run past the end of this site but now it's landlocked. And a small barque shrine, with quite a lot of decoration. Of course I was also looking for graffiti, and as everywhere in Egypt there was some to be found.

Temple at el Tod

It was quite a small and ruined site, and so I don't have much to say about it. But it deserved its own post as the small peaceful finale to this series of posts as well as the holiday :) It had been a very good holiday.

Temple at el Tod

Prester John was the greatest Christian King who never lived. All through the Middle Ages there were persistent legends (sometimes backed up by apparent documentation) about this powerful priest-king in the East who was ready to bring his powerful armies to attack the Muslims in concert with the Western Crusaders. The experts who discussed these legends on In Our Time were Marianne O'Doherty (University of Southampton), Martin Palmer (Director of the International Consultancy on Religion, Education, and Culture) and Amanda Power (University of Sheffield).

They opened the programme with a bit of a discussion about the historical truths in which these legends might've been rooted. During the early Middle Ages there was a large Christian population in the Middle East and in India. There's evidence that Western Christians were in contact with them - for instance King Alfred (of England) sent some people to India. It's written about as if the journey wasn't anything particularly special - a long way, and a relatively rare event but perfectly doable. These Christians weren't from the same branch of Christianity as the Western Church, and the two Churches would've regarded each other as heretics. They are sometimes referred to as Nestorian Christians, but that is a bit of a derogatory term and it's politer to refer to them as the Church of the East or the Syrian Church. The schism between this Church and Western Christianity hinges round a theological point about the nature(s) of Christ. Western Christianity (or monophysitism) holds that Jesus's human nature was absorbed into his divinity and he had only one nature. However those who followed Nestorious believed that Jesus had two natures that were only loosely connected (this is called dyophysitism) - he was both divine and human and those were separate from each other. So there was a substantial Christian population in the East (probably larger than in the West), which dwindled after the rise of Islam - after which the legends of Prester John began to develop.

The first forms of the legend are known from the 12th Century AD. One of these is an account of a visit to the Pope in 1122 by an emissary from Prester John. It's not clear to modern scholars what, if anything, this is actually based on - if there was any visit from anyone that got garbled in the reporting or if someone just made it all up. The emissary purportedly says that he has come form Prester John's kingdom to the east, and that Prester John had been leading a force to aid the Christians at Jerusalem. However the army had been unable to cross a river on the way, and had been forced to turn back. The account of this emissary's visit gives details of the fabulous force that Prester John had available, and gave hope they would make another attempt to join the Crusaders.

Another early piece of "evidence" for Prester John was a letter that was purportedly sent from Prester John to the Byzantine Emperor in 1165, and subsequently translated into German and forwarded on to the Holy Roman Emperor. This letter goes into detail about what life is supposedly like in the land that Prester John rules. It's an earthly paradise, full of wondrous beasts. Everyone lives long and virtuous lives, and after death they don't rot and will return to life at the Day of Judgement. The kings are always called Prester John and combine the roles of secular and religious leaders in one person. The experts on the programme said that it's extremely likely that this letter was originally written in German - it doesn't read like translated Greek. There's also no obvious reason why the Byzantine Emperor would be forwarding his post on to the Germans! The most plausible explanation for the letter is that it's a piece of propaganda produced by the Holy Roman Emperor's court. At the time he and the Pope were embroiled in a power struggle, and a document that explained how perfect everything would be if the secular leader of a country was also the spiritual leader was rather useful for the Holy Roman Emperor.

It seems odd to us as modern people to think that these tales of an earthly paradise (of an incredible nature) were so easily believable, but the programme pointed out that during this era there was a large body of literature of tales of wondrous lands beyond the known world. This is the period where maps have areas labelled as where the Doghead people live, and where the people live who have their faces in their torsos. Around the 12th Century and onwards this begins to change, as more people travel and write more accurate travelogues. It's a slow change though - not all the early travelogues are written by people who've actually been where they claimed to be. For instance the author John Mandeville apparently travelled to Prester John's land and met him - but a lot of other things in Mandeville's book are made up, and most of the rest appears to've been copied from other books. There's no indication Mandeville actually went anywhere! He's not the only example of this from the time, either.

The rise of the Mongols changes the legends of Prester John a bit. There are some stories about Prester John being conquered, but other stories suggest that maybe he was never in Central Asia and his land is actually in India. Another blow to the believability of the legends is that travellers visit the Mongols from Europe, and whilst they meet Christians they don't meet or find any evidence of Prester John. (Nor do they find any wondrous beasts, or Dogheads etc.) They do try and make an alliance with the Mongols against the Muslims, but this doesn't interest the Mongols.

And later still as China becomes more well known to Europeans it becomes ever more implausible that Prester John and his kingdom could be anywhere in Asia. By the 14th Century AD the legend of Prester John has shifted to Africa, and Ethiopia is the new focal point. As an aside one of the experts (I forget which one) said that you could think of the 14th Century as "the century when Ethiopia discovered the West". Ethiopia had been Christian since the early AD period, and in the 14th Century they sent emissaries to the Pope and to some of the European kings. They seemed to fit in with some of the Prester John stories - in particular the "long lost Christian Kingdom" aspects of it. And they also seemed to fit other legends about the Queen of Sheba. But the legends still weren't true. Which apparently didn't stop European travellers from visiting Ethiopia and asking the rather bemused locals about Prester John.

They finished up the programme by talking about whether or not people actually believed the stories at the time. I think the overall conclusion was that mostly they probably didn't, it was just a good story or a useful one for propaganda purposes. However there were examples of people who did believe - for instance during the Crusades some commanders made strategic errors because they believed they were about to be joined by Prester John's army any time now.


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