We've developed a tradition of listening to a podcast of a recent In Our Time episode while we eat our breakfast on Sundays. This week we moved it to Saturday morning as we were off to see the Tour of Britain start on Sunday (of which more another time), and the programme we listened to was about Scepticism.

A brief note on the format, in case you haven't listened to any of the In Our Time programmes - it's a BBC Radio 4 series where each week Melvyn Bragg invites 3 experts on a particular subject to come on the programme and they discuss that subject live on air for 45 minutes. The subjects cover all sorts of things - philosophy, history, the sciences, art etc. It's generally presented at a level where you don't need to know anything about the subject in advance, but it still feels like it gets into the details. Some programmes are very narrowly focused (someone's life & works, or a particular event in history, or a particular concept), some are more broad - like this one about the philosophical idea of Scepticism.

The experts this week were Peter Millican (Professor of Philosophy at Hertford College, Oxford), Melissa Lane (Professor of Politics at Princeton University) and Jill Kraye (Professor of the History of Renaissance Philosophy and Librarian at the Warburg Institute, University of London). They started the programme by discussing what the philosophical concept of Scepticism actually is - the idea that it isn't possible to be certain about anything, including whether or not the external world is real. They then moved on to discuss the origins of the philosophy in ancient Greece, and how it is opposed to more dogmatic movements that insist that some things can be assumed to be truth. The second half of the programme followed the rediscovery of this philosophy in medieval Europe & the impact that this had on the Renaissance & Enlightment eras (and on our own world). For instance Descartes philosophy (the man who decided "I think, therefore I am") came from an examination of Sceptic ideas. And modern science is heavily influenced by Scepticism - instead of dogmatically insisting one "knows" something, to come up with hypotheses that fit what's been observed & then keep asking questions, being sceptical.

The new Rock Band game came out on my birthday! :) It's a return to more of the pre-Guitar Hero gameplay from Amplitude which was a game Harmonix released about 10 years ago - I remember we were playing it on the New Year's holiday we took with Rachel, Ellen, Gordon & Ainsley and that was New Year '03 iirc. So there are no fancy controllers needed, you play it with the standard PS3 (or Xbox) controller, and it's a single player game as far as the actual playing experience goes.

photo of J playing Rock Band Blitz

Dreadful quality picture of J playing Rock Band Blitz.

You move between the different tracks (drums, guitar etc), and on each track you have to press the two buttons in time with the displayed pattern (which is generated to feel "right" for the sound of the part). Unlike Amplitude all the parts are playing all the time, with the track you're on being higher in the mix. As you play notes in a track you increase the multiplier up to the cap for that track. Then at a checkpoint the multiplier cap is raised based on how far up the lowest track is - so you try to make sure each track multiplier is maxed out before the checkpoints. And you score for every note correctly hit - so you try & play tracks with lots of notes. There's no concept of failing, it's just higher or lower scores at the end.

At the end of a track you get your stars/points for the track and also "Coins" and "Blitz Credit". The credit just unlocks the power-ups you can choose from, and that seemed to happen quite quickly, and I don't really see the point of it after that. Coins are more interesting and are tied in with the power-ups. You have 3 power-up slots for 3 different types, and before starting a song you decide whether to use a power-up in each slot, and if so which. It costs coins to assign a power-up to a slot, and at the end of the song each star earns you 100 coins. So you have the choice of not using any power-ups and getting a lower score but gaining more coins, or using power-ups so getting a better score but maybe still losing coins. They can tweak that economy server-side (and have done so already) so they can find a balance between having to grind too much or having power-ups be too cheap (and thus coins irrelevant).

The three sorts of power-up are those you have to build up energy to use, those that rely on you hitting specific special notes & those that increase the score of notes on a particular track. My current loadout tends to be the Bandmate energy power-up (set it off on one track and play another, earn points from both while the power-up runs); Flame notes (hey, I'm a pyro - but it's also high scoring if you get it right, hit a flame note & get a score bonus and also set fire to another one, perhaps on a different track, hit that & get a higher bonus and set fire to another one etc); and a points-increaser on whichever track has most notes.

It comes with a set of tracks, and it works with all the Rock Band DLC or exported songs from previous games. That means J & I have ~500 songs to choose from right away. The Blitz tracks will also work in Rock Band 3 (tho we've not been to play them in that yet). The only thing you don't get is the Rock Band 3 tracks to play in it, as there's no way to export them (yet?). It also gives a different perspective on buying more DLC tracks, as there's some where we like the song but haven't bought the DLC because it looks like a pain in the arse to play in Rock Band, but now we can get them for Blitz.

The multiplayer, and replay value, of the game comes in the competitive scoring. As well as always making it clear what the rankings are among your console friends, it also has Score Wars - for these you challenge a friend (or a random stranger) on a particular song, and over the next 3 days you each try to beat the other's score. You get Coins & Credit for doing so - and a lesser amount for losing. If the other person never plays then that one is forfeit & no-one gets anything. These are pretty good for getting you to replay a track several times looking for the ways to squeeze just a few more points out to beat the other guy - J & I have done several so far (he normally wins, but I've got one at the moment where I think he's not going to beat me ("I Turn My Camera On" by Spoon) as I'm ~40k points ahead of him and we're #1 & #2 on the worldwide PS3 scoreboard at the moment ;) (OK, there's only ~120 people on the scoreboard for PS3+Xbox combined & it's an easy song, but still, I think I got bragging rights ;) ).

It also hooks into a Facebook app, that lets you see stats & such (which is where I got the number of people on the combined scoreboard for that Spoon song from). And that also lets you set "goals" which earn you more coins when you complete them (like get 12 stars in a particular genre across as many songs as you wish). And it lets you set up score wars with your facebook friends (if they're on the same platform).

Like all Harmonix games it seems to've fallen down just a little bit on the social/multiplayer side of it, I don't know how come they consistently seem to just not quite make it work well, but once again they've mananged it. My niggles are that from the game itself you can only start Score Wars with the person & song it's recommending - and it doesn't seem to perform any check for if they have the full game or have just played the demo. And it doesn't perform any check for if they own the song you are challenging them on. So the automation actually means you have a decent chance of filling up your Score War slots (you can only have 10 at any time) with useless ones. At least they only last 3 days before they expire. It also seems fixated on some of our songs - almost all the recommendations I'm getting are for Spoon songs and Bob Marley songs, sometimes repeating one that J & I have had a score war on before. You'd think with 500 songs there'd be a bit more variety (perhaps it shouldn't actually be random, perhaps they should've weighted it towards things you haven't played before or haven't played recently). Some way of manually choosing person and song would be good, you can on the facebook app so they've thought of it in one context, just not this one.

As well as this the facebook app doesn't seem to quite work properly - you should be able to join together to do a goal in a group, and when J & I tried that it didn't actually seem to work, it put us in seperate groups. And once you've started a goal you can't join someone else's group to do it. That may've been fixed, Score War display in the app seems less flaky now than it was on release so perhaps some work happened behind the scenes.

However, niggles aside this is a good game! Both J & I have been playing a lot since we got it. And at under £10 we've had our money's worth several times over :) Definitely recommended if you're at all into music/rhythm games.

This is the image I am currently using as my desktop background, it's made from 3 pictures I took in the Japanese Galleries at the British Museum on Monday. In the middle is Monju Bosatsu (Boddhisatva Manjusri), whose lion roars with the sound of Buddhist law. To the left is the deity Fudõ Myõ-õ whose fierce appearance shows his intolerance of wickedness. To the right is Aizen Myõ-õ who has the power to crush desire.

Boddhisatva and Deities

I've put more pictures from the Japanese galleries up on flickr, here.

We went out for dinner last night, but recorded Doctor Who so we could watch it when we got home. Spoilers in the rest of this post - hover mouse over text to read, or read on entry page :)

I'll confess to being a bit anxious when I saw that it was a Chibnall episode - he was the show runner for Torchwood during seasons 1 & 2 and those weren't exactly bastions of quality television, even though watchable. But I needn't've worried, this was a fun episode & felt like there was some thinking behind it too.

Nefertiti was good, I liked the way the clothes & jewellery etc that she was wearing looked authentic enough plus also looking like they were something someone would wear. I also liked her characterisation as being competent and expecting to be taken seriously. Her ending up in Edwardian wherever it was was also kinda cool, coz it's not actually known when she died - she just vanishes from the historical record, possibly dead, possibly in disgrace, possibly changes her name to Smenkhare & rules after Akhenaten dies. So why not time-travel? ;)

Riddell was amusing comic-relief, and faced with all these competent women he does seem to realise the foolishness of his prejudice - certainly in his future with Nefertiti I don't get the impression that he's going to be the one in charge ;) The gender stuff showed signs of having been thought through in general this episode - there's not just Riddell being confronted with women who are at least as useful if not more so than him, but also the by-play between Rory & his Dad. "What sort of man doesn't carry a trowel with him?" ... well, how about the sort of man that's a nurse & carries a first aid kit. Both as useful as each other, and better to play to one's strengths than some gender-defined role.

I liked the Indians as being the ones with the Space Defense Agency that was going to fire on the ship - 50 years ago when Doctor Who started it'd've been the US or the Russians but these days India or China make more sense, and India resonates more with a British audience. Particularly with Riddell as a tail-end-of-empire character to remind us of how it has changed. I don't think we got reaction shots of him when he finds out it's not just a woman in charge of the military organisation firing on the ship, but also an Indian woman. I suspect that would've broken his head even more than Nefertiti or Amy.

Solomon the genocidal pirate was a bit cartoon evil as the big bad, I think. He doesn't have any redeeming features, just camp nannybots for comic relief ("ooh, you're going straight on the naughty step" made me giggle). We know he's bad news from the start - he hurts people to get himself healed, he thinks only of the monetary value of everything. We then find out he killed all the Silurians (and it was neat that Amy did the solving of that half of the mystery - her subplot was all about Amy==Doctor, companions & all). And then he explicitly objectifies Nefertiti, and kills the triceratops & frankly by the end we know he's a worthless piece of scum with no "good side". A shame there wasn't something more nuanced about him.

I liked the dinosaurs, just coz dinosaurs are cool :) But also making it a Silurian Ark ship gave them a reason to be there that felt like it made sense. And I noticed on wikipedia that Chibnall wrote the Silurian two-parter a couple of years ago, so kinda nice of him to bring them back (albeit dead off-screen). I particularly liked what they did with the triceratops - that first scene works all on it's own as a comedy moment with the triceratops in the role of that sort of obnoxious dog that goes up to everyone & sniffs their crotches. But that also establishes that the triceratops wants to play fetch, and shows us two golf balls ... setting up the next scene where they ride the triceratops to safety following the second golf ball. And both of those establish the triceratops as effectively a puppy. And thus Solomon is not just an evil bastard, but he kicks (kills) puppies too!! While I'd like more nuance to the big bad, if you are going to go for one-note character, you may as well go for it whole hog ;)

The combination of the name of Solomon & the sort of character Riddell was made me think of H. Rider Haggard & I did wonder if Riddell would turn out to be the name of one of his characters. But a quick scan of the wikipedia entries for King Solomon's Mines and She turned up nothing. And H. Rider Haggard was writing earlier. But still, the resonance was there for me. (Tho I should say that I don't think I've read any Haggard, so perhaps his explorer characters were nothing like the stereotype that Riddell was embodying, I wouldn't know.)

I liked the Amy/Rory stuff this episode. The juxtaposition of the start with Amy's indignant questioning of if they've been replaced and the end with Rory's desire to go straight home shows the fault lines in their relationship again. Amy's clearly only really happy when she's out adventuring & fighting Daleks or accessing Silurian data records. She'd travel with the Doctor forever if she could, and that conversation with the Doctor was weird. Why'd he react so oddly to the idea that he'd outlive her - obviously he outlives his companions, that's come up before, he's 900 years old after all. So what does he know that Amy (and us) don't?

Monday evening was the September British Museum Members Open Evening & this was really why we'd come into London that day. We'd booked on the gallery talk about Chinese horses, given by Carol Michaelson, a (partially?) retired curator at the museum. She gave us a 45 minute overview of a vast swathe of Chinese history from prehistoric times through to the Tang dynasty (~9th Century AD), focusing on horses. Apparently because the Chinese have very little pasture land they never actually managed to successfully maintain a breeding population of fast horses (the Arabian type of horse that the Horse exhibition had been about) despite needing them for cavalry soldiers to defend against the northern & western nomadic tribes that frequently attacked the Chinese Empire. So one of the reasons for the Silk Route being an important part of Chinese trade was that the Chinese were frequently needing to buy more horses from the area in the Middle East that was breeding them.

The museum doesn't actually have many models of horses from China, so instead she mostly showed us pieces of chariots & horse tack, and pictures of things from other collections. And recommended the Han exhibition that we'd just been to on Friday.

Tang dynasty model horses

This was an interesting talk - these gallery talks are always pretty fascinating, because it's not formal at all it's just an expert in some field talking about something they're enthusiastic about (and generally only sticking fairly loosely to the advertised theme). And she was a good speaker too.

After the talk we decided to take a look at the new Members Room that was opening for the first time that evening, and to relax with a nice glass of wine (we'd got the train so J could have one too). And a small spot of retail therapy - J got a fluffy Ankh that he's threatening to hang from the car rearview mirror, and we picked up books for the exhibitions we'd been to.

On Monday afternoon we went to look at the free exhibition the British Museum have on till the end of September about horses. To be honest I was much less interested in this in advance than other exhibitions we've been to, but it turned out to be more interesting than I'd expected.

Context

This exhibition was part of commemorating the Diamond Jubilee, and as such I think part of the context was "The Queen likes & owns race horses". And the Saudia Arabian royal family were involved in sponsoring it, so even the broader view than thoroughbred race horses was still fairly focused on Arabian horses.

The Exhibition

It felt very much like an exhibition of two halves, and of the two I much prefered the first which focused more generally on horses in the ancient Middle East. The three rooms devoted to this covered a time period from the earliest references to horses about 5000 years ago to the medieval Islamic Middle East. The ancient era section had a few iconic items - like the Royal Standard of Ur, and some of the Amarna letters - as well as several Assyrian wall fragments (decorated with horses, and lion hunts) and pieces of ancient horse tack. Particularly striking in this section was the model horse head with the pieces of bridle etc put in their proper places, as a non-horsey person I appreciated the chance to see what things actually were rather than relying on my understanding of the technical terms.

It was also interesting to see how some of Egyptian culture clearly permeated through other parts of the Middle East - there were some Phoenician horse cheek guards which had lotus flowers or eyes of Horus on them. And model chariots or horses seemed to frequently have Bes faces (an Egyptian protective deity) on them.

The last room of this half had a model horse & rider in Sassanian style, in metal armour. And also some textile armour for both people & horses in the Islamic medieval period - as J said this looked like a horse-cosy, very like a tea-cosy! There were also some Korans (I'm not entirely sure why), and several paintings of people on horses from Islamic Middle Eastern countries.

And then the next room went back to prehistoric times, but this time in the Arabian peninsula, with a display of rock carvings of horses & neolithic Arabian tools loosely connected with horses. I think it would've been more interesting if this part and the bit with the Korans had been replaced with a bit about the horse in British society in general - as the next parts were about racehorses and Arabian purebred horses in the UK.

I didn't know before this exhibition but pretty much all racehorses these days are thoroughbreds descended from 3 Arabian sires brought to the UK in around the 17th century and bred with native mares. These crosses turned out to be faster than the other horses in the races and came to dominate the racing scene. This part of the exhibition contained several paintings of famous horses, some pedigrees of particular lines and several things loaned by Her Majesty the Queen - like a set of silks (the jockey's racing gear). I was particularly amused to see the paintings of the horse Pot8os - so named because when the groom was asked to write the name "potatoes" on the horse's stall he wrote "Pot oooo oooo" and the owner was sufficiently amused to keep it as the actual name. The first ever txtspk! (in Victorian times, iirc.)

I spent a while at the end sitting infront of the small film of "horses in action" that they had, while I was waiting for J to catch up ... particularly amusing (second only to the dancing horses of dressage) was the Queen jumping up in delight as her horse won something in 1954 and the gentleman next to her looked like he stood up because you can't sit while the Queen stands, not for any other reason.

Other Stuff

Retail: We dithered about whether or not to pick up the book of the exhibition, but in the end decided we would. We also got a mug with a picture of Sassanian horses on it, and I looked at (but didn't buy) lots of other nice but expensive things.

Other exhibits: We had a quick look at the Olympic medals display in the museum - this has the medals for this year plus a short explanation of the design & manufacture of them. And some medals and memorabilia of previous London games. I've got a small selection of photos up on flickr, of which this is a taster:

2012 Olympic Medals

Also while J went back to the Shakespeare exhibition and then looked at Egyptian stuff, I went to look at the Japanese galleries more for the purpose of taking photos than looking at the labels. Photos to come at some future date :)

Other things: Dinner at Pizza Express, then back to the museum for the Members Open Evening, of which more another time.

No-Man are one of those bands that I like, but never really listen to much on record unless J plays it. For ages they didn't tour, but the last few years they've played about a gig a year in the UK and I think J & I have been to all of them. This one was at the Islington Assembly Hall which isn't a venue I've been to before, quite nice inside although not terribly memorable. It did have good beer on offer, though - bottles of Hobgoblin, Adnams Bitter or Fursty Ferret. As it was a seated gig without assigned seats we'd organised to meet Paul in the queue about half an hour before doors, he got there just a little before us & had got a spot nearish the front of the queue. We ended up a couple of rows from the front :) Surprisingly so, as it was apparently a sold out gig but most people hadn't shown up early it seems.

The support act was one of the guys from Anathema, Danny Cavanagh. I've never bought a ticket specifically to see Anathema but nonetheless I've seen them or members of them nearly a dozen times doing support slots for various bands (mostly Steven Wilson related ones in some sense, like this one as he's in No-Man). I do like some of their stuff, but not enough to want to go see them play so for a while I'd got rather burnt out on having them as the support act. But I've got over that, and this was just the one guy with a guitar so it felt quite different. It was a good set, and he did some neat stuff with loops to provide percussion & additional layers of guitar. And ended with a cover of a Pink Floyd song :)

Then it was No-Man, who were awesome. I thought they seemed more relaxed as a band this gig - probably because this was at the end of a (short) European tour, rather than the first gig for several months. Their aesthetic for the evening was clearly black-shirts-with-dark-trousers, and the simplicity of that fits the music which I tend to think of as sparse even tho often it's not. (I don't know if that makes sense outside my head ;) ). There weren't any flashy visuals or showy lights, just the band playing - but they still kept everyone's attention focused through the gig.

I'm not good at remembering set-lists for gigs (I'm generally not good at naming songs even if I know them well ...), but I do remember that they played "Time Travel in Texas" which is one of my favourite tracks live. Here's a youtube vid of it recorded at their gig in 2011:

They also played a brand new track, which sounded very promising for whenever they next release an album.

A good evening :)

The exhibition we went to on Sunday was one of the two currently on at the British Museum - this one was the Shakespeare related one & it's on till mid-November.

Context

Shakespeare was actually the context for this exhibition not the subject. So his life (1564-1616) and works were the background to a collection of objects that told us about the people who came to see the plays, and the things that were going on in the world around him that informed his choice of subject matter.

The Exhibition

The exhibition itself felt very information dense (in a good way) - a combination of history lesson, insight into the way the people of the time thought of the world around them, insight into the ideas the plays were trying to convey, excerpts from the plays to listen to (and watch) and lots of paintings to admire.

I wasn't expecting the large number of paintings, and they were a highlight for me. In particular the iconic image of Richard II (in the room focusing on the history plays) which I've seen many times in books but I don't think I've seen the real thing before. Another one which especially caught my eye was the diptych showing old St Paul's Cathedral - on the back of the left painting was James VI & I processing to church, then the left panel showed the Bishop preaching to the crowd in front of the King & Cathedral, and the right hand panel showed the Bishop's vision of a restored Cathedral with angels all around. The spire of the Cathedral had been damaged some time prior, but we know with the hindsight of history that it wasn't ever replaced and in fact old St Paul's itself was replaced after the Great Fire of London (1666) with the current cathedral designed by Wren. In the painting one detail that amused me was the words coming from the angels' mouths were written forwards or backwards depending which way the angel was facing!

And many more paintings, I think part of why I took quite a while to go round the exhibition was because I kept stopping in front of paintings to admire them :)

The first couple of rooms concentrated on the audience & the city of London, and after that each room focussed on one of the themes running through the plays - for instance the natural world (Shakespeare was, after all, a country boy) or the history of the country (England in earlier plays, Britain in later). Each of the themed rooms had one or more excerpts from a relevant play read by a well known actor (most also with a large video screen of the actor doing the reading). And each of these was also worth standing and paying attention to (increasing the time we spent in the exhibition - J actually had to go back in on Monday to finish it off!).

This era of English history is part of the time period I'm most interested in (roughly Wars of the Roses through to the Civil Wars), so I was already familiar with the broad sweep of events. There were still lots of interesting bits & pieces I wasn't aware of before (like how it was fashionable to be "melancholy" - goths existed even then ;) ). And it was good to see the actual objects. Of the non-paintings some of the highlights for me were the very fine embroidered jacket, the model ship that James VI & I had made to give thanks for not being drowned by witches, an exotic cup set in the shape of a head (you lifted the top of the head off which made one cup and the bulk of the head was another - really quite odd). Also nice was to see the objects that had been featured on the radio series that was on Radio 4 before the exhibition opened (Shakespeare's Restless World).

Other Stuff

Retail: We'd picked up the book of the exhibition earlier this year when there was an extra discount for BM Members at one of the Open Evenings. After seeing the exhibition we didn't really have time to browse the souvenirs (and forgot to go back & look on Monday!), but we did buy ourselves a copy of the RSC edition of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare (which is annotated & has essays on the plays too).

Stuff I should know more about: Shakespeare's plays! Hence the book purchase above - I do know the rough plots of most of them, but hearing the excerpts in the exhibition made it clear how I don't know enough about the details, and I enjoyed listening to the words.

Other places: Dinner at Wagamamas then off to Islington for a No-man gig (of which more another time).

New Doctor Who! It snuck up on me a bit, hadn't realised it was quite so soon this autumn - but found out in time. Tho it feels weird having half a series now and half a series next year, even if that is just the same as they did last time. Many spoilers ahead, read at own risk. (And kindly don't spoil things for later episodes in comments here or facebook/G+ coz J's extremely spoilerphobic.)

Hover mouse over text to read, or read on entry page:

Not a review, more rambly thoughts.

I'd managed to be almost completely unspoiled for this, so I wasn't expecting Daleks & I'd forgotten that they'd shown pics of the new companion who arrives later in the season so I wasn't quite as "wow" about that surprise as I think the showrunners would've liked ;) Presumably it's not been an elaborate fake-out & she actually will be the new companion later. Hopefully with (some of?) the same personality coz I quite like the idea of shaking up the Doctor/Companion dynamic a bit in New Who by having a non-21stC Earth companion & someone who considers herself as clever as him. (Yes, I know that River & to a lesser extent Jack probably fit into that category but I mean a full time longer-lasting companion.)

The plot itself was nicely creepy, I thought. Particularly when they're first on the planet & they find the shipwreck. And with some well-done foreshadowing, like the eggs->exterminate bit.

I did like the twist about Oswin being a Dalek in one sense - once J'd reminded me she's the next companion I really wasn't expecting her to be converted & then exploded. But that whole side of the plot doesn't really fit with Daleks - aren't they all about race purity? So while I could buy into them converting people into tools & security systems (coz that's not really a Dalek) I didn't really buy that they would do a full conversion of anyone even a genuis. I'd think they'd be too blinkered to consider that someone of another species would be capable of being in any way as good as a Dalek. Effectively it felt Cyberman-y rather than Dalek-y.

I liked the Daleks thinking of the Doctor as "the Predator" and kidnapping him to deal with the problem they were too scared to deal with. I also liked the asylum idea & the finding hatred beautiful idea. Although perhaps I'll not consider too closely how it fits in with previous Dalek stuff ;)

I also liked how the Daleks were made to forget the Doctor, yet more unravelling of the "Doctor is a universal celebrity" concept we'd ended up with. And because of how they were partly what they were through fear of/fighting the Doctor (but then don't poke to closely at that, as they were genocidal pre-Doctor I thought). Though of course time travel makes that "forgetting" fairly useless longterm because he'll just meet earlier Daleks, or given Daleks can time travel too (presumably) then earlier Daleks will tell later Daleks & the status quo will be restored.

Overall I was rather "meh" about the Amy/Rory plot, tho nice to see some sort of consequences of the stolen baby part of the plot from last season. And the bit near the start where Amy gives a running commentary on what's going through the Doctor's mind was rather neat.

I'm not really going to speculate about how we get that actress playing the Companion later - last season's finale felt a bit limp to me coz I thought I'd come up with cleverer ideas to resolve the dangling threads of the season arc than we actually got on-screen. I suspect it'll just turn out to be someone that looks like Oswin, not Oswin herself (which would be a shame in some ways).

Yesterday we went to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge to see their current exhibition of items from the tombs of Han Chinese royalty, which runs until November sometime.

Context

In China: The Han dynasty ruled China from approximately 200BC through to approximately 200AD. Most of the items in the exhibition were from the Western Han period, which was the first 200 years of the Han dynasty. China had been unified about 20 or so years before the Han came to power, under the Qin emperor who ruled for 10 years. After he died there was a period of civil war, followed by the first of the Han emperors taking power. Prior to the Qin emperor was a time called the Warring States Period.

Around the rest of the world: In Egypt we're in the Ptolemaic period, so into the decline of the ancient Egyptian civilisation. In Europe the Romans are doing their thing - the Han era covers the time from around about the end of the wars with Carthage through to the end of the Republic (approximately the same time as the end of the Western Han period). Then the Eastern Han period is across the same time as the Roman Empire proper, until approximately the time of the reign of the Emperor Septimus Severus (about 50-100 years before the Roman Empire splits into Western & Eastern parts). Cribbing heavily from Wikipedia here for the Roman bit.

The Exhibition

No illustrations, coz the Fitzwilliam Museum don't let you take pictures in the museum :(

The items on display were nearly all excavated either from tombs of members of the Han royalty or from the tombs of the royalty of the nearby kingdom of Nanyue. Nanyue was semi-automomous in this time period (but assimilated into China later), and their stuff was very clearly modelled on the Han items, but generally not quite as good quality.

The exhibition was laid out roughly following the layout of a tomb - so first was an antechamber with model warriors to protect the occupant. I was particularly struck by these - they even had some that were still painted & each was apparently made as an individual, because they believed that they would come to life in the afterlife so needed to be "people". This area also showed how the tombs were intended to be protected from looting (including door locks & tales of killing all the workers on the tomb to protect the secret).

Next were a couple of rooms that contained items from the "palace rooms" part of the tomb - each tomb contained kitchens & entertainment rooms and even toilets with proper lifesize toilets in. Which I think was the most mindboggling part of the whole thing - their life in the afterlife clearly wasn't going to be idealised, they were still going to need to do the less pleasant parts of real life like excretion! This area of the exhibition also included a lot of kitchenware, including ginger graters as well as several differents sorts of pots. Some of the pots were clearly heirlooms, as they were of older styles than the Han era, which was kinda cool :) Also in this part of the exibition were models of entertainers - dancers & musicians - and models and/or real musical instruments and games. Also in this area of a tomb would be buried servants of the king, like his Food Inspector (and they had their own toilets in the tomb).

The next two rooms were "burial chambers" - one contained some of the funerary goods of a king of Nanyue (including his seals, some of which claimed he was Emperor, which probably didn't go down that well with the Han Emperor who thought Nanyue was a vassal kingdom). The main item was a jade suit, which had contained the body of the king. Jade was both precious & symbolically important. It was thought to interact magically with the spirit world, and to protect the corpse from corruption. As well as this jade suit there were various jade ornaments around the body (and out in the first room there had been jade weapons for the tomb occupant to protect himself against the spirit world, as well as bronze & iron weapons for more mundane threats).

And the final room had the jade suit & jade coffin of a Han Emperor - good to see them in this order, as it immediately became clear that the Han items were much better quality. I admit I was a little underwhelmed by the jade coffin - I think for the Chinese of the time it would be more impressive because it was both magically and extremely expensive, but to me it looked like a tiled box. There were also more funerary goods - like jade ornaments, jade covered "pillows".

I'll criticise a bit here about the labelling - I thought the labels were often not obvious to find & weren't always particularly informative. This is partly my fault, as I'm sure the audio guide had more info but I really dislike audio guides so I don't use them. (Pacing is the problem, mostly, and often it seems to be only extra info on the stuff I wasn't intrigued by.)

Overall a very interesting exhibition, I learnt a lot about that era of Chinese history that I didn't know before & there were some very impressive items. I think my favourites were the painted terracotta warriors & some of the beautifully carved jades.

Other Stuff

Retail: I picked up the book of the exhibition (only available in hardcover, a shame), and some postcards. There were also quite a lot of classy souvenirs too, tho mostly out of my price range for a whim :)

Stuff I should know more about: Chinese history in general - I need to get a book covering the whole sweep of it, I know very little & it's pretty patchy.

Other exhibits: I also went to look at their small exhibition of pottery from medieval Cyprus. Which generally wasn't to my taste, but I thought the display of how the patterns were made and what the glazing techniques were was interesting.

We also looked at the Egyptian stuff (surprise surprise) - in particular the lid of Rameses III's sarcophagus (the base is in the Louvre), and a coffin set from the 21st Dynasty.

Other places: A trip to Cambridge isn't complete with some nostalgia side-trips ... so lunch in Tatties (not the same as it was when we were there), a drink in The Mitre & dinner at Browns :)

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