October 2014

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. (TV shows without full posts will not be linked, but will be listed.)

Books

Fiction

"Dust" Elizabeth Bear. Part of Read All the Fiction. This is the first book in a trilogy set on a generation ship. Kept.

Total: 1

Non-Fiction

"Plantagenet England 1225-1360" Michael Prestwich. Part of the New Oxford History of England.

Total: 1

Museums

Ming: 50 Years that Changed China - British Museum exhibition.

Total: 1

Photos

Butterfly.

Inside and Out.

Me and My Shadow

A Moment of Reflection.

Total: 4

Radio

Battle of Talas - In Our Time episode about the battle between Arabian and Chinese forces in 751AD.

Julius Caesar - In Our Time episode about Caesar's life.

Rudyard Kipling - In Our Time episode about the life and work of Rudyard Kipling.

Total: 3

Talks

"Beyond Indiana Jones: The Ark of the Covenant and Egyptian Ritual Processional Furniture" David Falk - October EEG meeting talk.

Total: 1

Television

Fiction

Doctor Who: Kill the Moon.

Doctor Who: Mummy on the Orient Express.

Doctor Who: Flatline.

Doctor Who: The Forest of the Night.

Total: 4

Non-Fiction

The Boats that Built Britain - Tom Cunliffe sails six boats that were important in British history.

Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds: A Tale of Three Cities - 3 part series looking at three key cities each in a different key year in the 20th Century.

A History of Art in Three Colours - James Fox looking at the history of art through the lens of three different colours, gold, white and blue.

Jungle Atlantis - two part series about new archaeological discoveries at Angkor Wat.

Kate Adie's Women of World War One - a one off programme about what British women did during the war, and the difficulties and prejudices they faced in doing it. And also about how that taste of freedom and demonstration of their capability did change women's lives in the future, no matter how much the establishment tried to return to the status quo after the war.

Lost Kingdoms of Central America - Jago Cooper talks about four different ancient civilisations in Central America.

Harlots, Housewives and Heroines: A 17th Century History for Girls - Lucy Worsley talking about late 17th Century British women.

Oh! You Pretty Things - series about the relationship between pop music and fashion in Britain from the 1960s onwards.

Rwanda's Untold Story - part of the This World series. Jane Corbin examining the evidence that Paul Kagame's regime in Rwanda is not what it seems. The conventional story of the Rwandan genocide is that Kagame's troops stopped the violence and that since he has been in power there have been no massacres. This programme looked at the evidence that Kagame was involved in the shooting down of the previous President of Rwanda's plane, which was the event that sparked the 1994 massacres of Tutsis by Hutus. And at the evidence that Kagame and his regime have been involved in the systematic massacre of Hutus as reprisals.

Sacred Rivers - Simon Reeve travelling along three rivers that have been or are regarded as sacred.

Science Britannica - Brian Cox looking at the history of science in Britain.

Swallowed by the Sea: Ancient Egypt's Greatest Lost City - programme about the underwater excavations at Heraclion, which vanished into the sea in the 2nd Century BC.

Treasures Decoded - Channel 4 series looking at puzzles and potential solutions around some well known archaeological sites or artifacts.

Tutankhamun: The Truth Uncovered - rather poor documentary rehash of the 2010 Hawass et al paper.

Wild China - series about Chinese wildlife & people.

The Wonder of Animals - Chris Packham exploring what about particular groups of animals makes them so fit for their environments and lifestyles.

The World's War: Forgotten Soldiers of Empire - two part series about the soldiers from the Empires of the European powers who fought in World War One.

Total: 17

Tags: Admin

I must confess when I read the blurb on the BBC for their new Tutankhamun programme, Tutankhamun: The Truth Uncovered, I was not entirely impressed. It talks about "new scientific research" and how "presenter Dallas Campbell [...] carries out unique experiments to get to the truth." and then proceeds to talk about stuff that sounds like a re-hash of the 2010 Hawass et al paper ( JAMA. 2010;303(7):638-647). So I was sceptical going in about the likelihood of it being anything new. Interestingly, Zahi Hawass is not mentioned once during the programme, but some of the other authors of that paper (Ashraf Selim and Albert Zink, if I remember correctly) are extensively interviewed. So my overall impression is that this is a second go at making a layperson-accessible documentary based on the 2010 paper, with the intention of distancing itself from Hawass who has now fallen from grace.

The programme started with a bit of scene setting - about how Tutankhamun was discovered. This included a bit about how Tutankhamun's death must've been unexpected, drawing on the small size of the tomb and the mould on the decoration of the tomb as evidence.

The meat of the programme had three main threads: what his physical condition was in life, how he died, who he was related to. The physical condition section was mostly concerned with the clubfoot that the 2010 paper identified, and with the deterioration of some of the toe joints on that foot (which indicate a degenerative bone disease called Köhler disease). Although they used a virtual autopsy table to display the CT scan data, I still thought it was difficult for the untrained eye (i.e. mine) to pick out the features Selim was showing us. I'd've appreciated some diagrams of "this is what it normally looks like" and "this is the disease state" or something of that sort. They also had done a CGI reconstruction of Tutankhamun based on this skeletal data - which was well into uncanny valley territory!

When discussing his cause of death Campbell discussed a couple of previous theories - one debunked ages ago (blow to back of head), although you wouldn't know it from the programme. The other was the idea that Tutankhamun was thrown from a chariot, which seems hard to believe if he did have a clubfoot and a painful foot disease as chariots require good balance and strength to drive. In this section of the programme they also talked about which of the bits of damage to Tutankhamun's mummy were potential injuries at the time of death. I was a bit disappointed that Selim just dismissed in a sentence or two pretty much all the damage as modern damage caused by Howard Carter. I know from a talk given by Chris Naunton that there's a least one anatomist out there who thinks the damage to the ribcage must be at least soon post-mortem if not pre- or peri-mortem due to the nature of the fractures. I guess that might be a case of simplifying the story for television, but it feels a bit cavalier. However, he did identify a fracture to the femur above the right knee as occurring pre-mummification and late enough in life that it hadn't healed (as you can see resin along the fracture). The theory is that an accident capable of causing this fracture would be traumatic enough to be the cause of death.

There weren't any surprises in the genetic data, it was all straight from the Hawass et al paper. They show that Tutankhamun was the son of KV55 and "the younger lady", who were full blood siblings and the children of Amenhotep III and Tiye. I felt the genetic data was very poorly presented. I'm not convinced that someone who didn't already have a basic idea how the genetic testing worked would understand it after this - maybe it's expecting too much to have a decent explanation in the time they had but it'd've been nice if I'd had a sense that they'd tried. I was also disappointed in their handling of the discussion of who Tutankhamun's father was. The DNA evidence shows that his father is the skeleton referred to as KV55. There are at least two theories as to the identity of this skeleton - Smenkhare or Akhenaten - and no conclusive evidence one way or the other. So it was a real shame to hear the programme state that KV55 is Akhenaten as if it were fact. That is definitely one of the plausible hypotheses, but it's certainly not proven and perhaps never will be. At best a misleading simplification, at worst intellectually dishonest.

The three threads were tied up with a theory proposed by a medic whose name I've sadly forgotten. He had three lines of evidence for his theory: the four Pharaohs up to and including Tutankhamun died at ever younger ages; the art style of the Amarna period; the visions recorded by Tutmosis IV and Akhenaten on stelae. He put these together to suggest that Tutankhamun's death was caused by a particularly bad fall caused by temporal lobe epilepsy. I didn't buy it from the way it was presented. My main stumbling blocks are firstly that I don't see why the Amarna art style needs to be considered as a literal representation of the way Akhenaten looked. And I thought the Hawass paper had ruled out some of the representation being literal (due to various skulls not being deformed as represented) - but I can't remember for sure. The other stumbling block was that he was thinking about the idea of Pharaohs recording visions from the gods on public proclamations from a very modern context - i.e. thinking it must be something pathological rather than appropriate to its culture. Maybe he's right, but I wasn't convinced.

I've been pretty negative so far - this programme pushed several of my buttons about how to present science and/or controversial ideas in general, and as I said at the beginning of this post I went into it cynical. However, there were some good things about it. For instance, Campbell is always an engaging presenter. And there were some very well done CGI reconstructions of buildings, particularly in Amarna that, as J said while we were watching, were worth watching the programme for. They didn't quite look real, but I think they were the best I've seen in a programme. And Campbell got the walking between the (non-existent) pillars looking around at the splendour thing just right.


Other TV watched last week:

Episode 1 of Science Britannica - Brian Cox looking at the history of science in Britain.

Episode 1 of Sacred Rivers - Simon Reeve travelling along three rivers that have been or are regarded as sacred.

Episode 3 of A History of Art in Three Colours - James Fox looking at the history of art through the lens of three different colours, gold, white and blue.

Episode 2 of Oh! You Pretty Things - series about the relationship between pop music and fashion in Britain from the 1960s onwards.

Episode 1 of The Wonder of Animals - Chris Packham exploring what about particular groups of animals makes them so fit for their environments and lifestyles.

I thought this Doctor Who episode was rather charming, in a fairytale sort of way. Which isn't necessarily a universally held opinion, as I've seen at least one "Worst. Episode. Ever" post! A non-spoilery way to sum it up might be that if you hated the science in Kill the Moon (post) then you probably wouldn't like this episode either.

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

I liked the opener with Maebh running through the forest to look for the Doctor, and I loved the way her name and her costuming and her behaviour throughout the episode back up the fairy tale feel of the episode. Mind you, I suspect if you've actually had auditory hallucinations as part of a mental illness then you might find the "she's tuned into another channel" stuff rather irritating - it's a bit too dismissive of what is an actual problem for some people not just a fairytale plot device. However, even given my misgivings about that, I think it was apt for the mystical feel of the story.

The bit with the wolves, then tiger, was a funny set piece but felt fairly disconnected from the rest of the story - I guess left in to hammer home the Little Red Riding Hood motif, and to show Danny as good at the Doctor style stuff. Overall I thought this episode did a really good job of showing how Danny and Clara both have strengths when dealing with the mundane type stuff (the teachery looking after the kids stuff) and the adventure type stuff. But they have such very different priorities - and it was clear both were right, but right from different perspectives. Clara might say she finds Danny's priorities attractive, but I don't really buy that she believes that deep down. Or rather, I think she likes the idea that he's a stable place to come home to, but has no intention of settling down.

Interesting juxtaposition between this episode and the previous one - in Flatline the Doctor hopes the monsters aren't monsters, but they are. In this the Doctor assumes the forest grew for nefarious reasons, and it hadn't. I was reminded by the overall plot of something I've been mildly amused by in a much more mundane setting recently. Our cat has a flea infestation so we're grooming him regularly which he isn't keen on, and I reckon he's thinking to himself "if it isn't bad enough having fleas biting me, now the humans keep combing me too, couldn't they wait till I was over the fleas?!". And the arc of this episode was "first a forest grows overnight, next a solar flare, couldn't the trees have waited till some other time?!". And yeah, much the same reasons - the forest/grooming is because of and intended to solve the solar flare/fleas. Of course, trees growing like that and vanishing afterwards with no ill effects is frankly ludicrous, and wouldn't protect from a solar flare either. As with Kill the Moon the very fairytale unreality of it makes me wonder about the reality of the universe this season is set in.

And next is the start of the season finale! :) Looking forward to seeing where the Missy stuff has been going (and if the fairytale stuff is significant or not). I'm not going to speculate out loud about any of that tho - J's pretty spoilerphobic so doesn't watch the trailers for next week each time. And I don't think I could speculate without drawing on that. On that note please don't discuss spoilers from the trailer in comments anywhere.

Swallowed by the Sea: Ancient Egypt's Greatest Lost City was a one-off programme presented by Lucy Blue about the city of Heraclion which existed at one of the mouths of the Nile for around a thousand years. It vanished beneath the waves in the 2nd Century BC, and in modern times it was thought to be purely mythical. However at the beginning of the 21st Century a team of French underwater archaeologists discovered the site off the modern coast of Egypt and have been excavating it ever since. Towards the end of the programme they discussed why it might've sunk - the best hypothesis is liquefaction of the islands it was built on, due perhaps to an otherwise minor earthquake. This means that this region - several islands - would've suddenly subsided, and ended up under sea level. And this is pretty exciting from an archaeological point of view. The site is a snapshot of what a Ptolemaic era trading port looked like - there's (obviously) been no rebuilding or demolition and no treasure hunting or retrieval of people's possessions.

The bulk of the programme focussed on what they've learnt about the layout of the city, and the artifacts they've been able to bring up to the surface. The whole city covered an area of around 2km2, built across several islands. There were many temples as well as more mundane buildings (including homes, and the apparatus of a port town). The finds range from tiny to enormous (including some huge statues). One of the interesting classes of find are the many boats they've found. These include functional boats of course. More interestingly it includes the first example of a ceremonial barque of a type that's been seen in many inscriptions, but never before discovered. There are also remnants of rituals carried out around this boat - bowls containing burnt offerings that had been carefully slid into the river under the boat. Other interesting finds are coins - particularly interesting as the Egyptians' didn't use coins in their own economy. These coins look like Greek coins, but were struck locally (they've found the moulds) and used to pay the mercenaries hired to protect the city.

I wasn't very keen on the way the programme tried to make out that Heraclion was somehow a centrally important Egyptian city. I didn't really follow the explanation for why Blue believed it to be linked to conferring kingship on the Pharaoh, and I didn't think the programme needed a "it's the bestest city ever" hook to make it interesting. Other than that I enjoyed the programme, worth watching.


Lost Kingdoms of Central America was a four part series presented by Jago Cooper about four different pre-Colombus civilisations in Central America. It was a follow up to his series about South American cultures (Lost Kingdoms of South America, post). The cultures presented in this series ranged from the earliest known civilisation in Central America (the Olmec people), through to the culture that Columbus met when he discovered the West Indies (the Taino). The other two were the people who lived in what is now Costa Rica at a time when this was an independent region between the empires of the Aztecs and the Incans. And lastly the people who built Teotihuacan - not the Aztecs, as I first thought it was going to be, but the people who lived there first. In fact when the Aztecs later came to Teotihuacan they thought it was the work of giants or gods.

An interesting and enjoyable series. I didn't always come away from an episode thinking I'd learnt much about the culture in question - but I think that was because not much is known in many cases.


Treasures Decoded was a six-part Channel 4 series, that we missed the first episode of. The format of each episode was that they looked at a particular ancient object (or building) which has some sort of iconic status, and then discussed what's known (via several expert talking heads) about it. There was also always some "Controversy?!" angle to the programme - of varying degrees of dubiousness - which I guess was there to provide drama. (Previous sentence needs to be read with an image in mind of me rolling my eyes ;) )

We'd only originally intended to watch the second episode - about the Great Pyramid at Giza - but then the next one was about the bust of Nefertiti and after that our completist urges kicked in and we finished the series. The Great Pyramid one had quite a lot of info about how and why the Pyramid was built - what sort of stone and how it was worked and so on. The controversy was provided by an engineer who speculates that the Pyramid is in fact a shell filled with rubble - conventional wisdom is that it is fully built out of shaped blocks of stone. His angle was that it would be easier to build that way, but the egyptologists interviewed felt it was important not to impose our own cultural mindset on the Egyptians. I.e. they may well've done it the hard way because it mattered that much more to them.

The one about the bust of Nefertiti avoided the obvious controversy (did the archaeologist who found it smuggle it out of Egypt) in favour of a convicted fraudster's opinion that it was clearly a fake. The conman was convincing enough whilst talking, but my belief in him was undermined somewhat by the fact that as a previously successful conman he was bound to be convincing. If it is a fake, then it was done to such a high standard that it would pass modern forensic tests on the pigments used which any forger of the early 20th Century wouldn't even know he needed to avoid.

Next episode was Blackbeard's ship - it has almost certainly been discovered off the coast of America where it is known to have sunk. At the very least there is a ship of the right era and type in the right sort of place which is being excavated. The controversy was a bit weak even by the standards of the series, hinging round disagreements about whether it had sunk accidentally or been deliberately run aground by Blackbeard.

The last couple of episodes were a bit cringemaking, to be honest - I think we rolled our eyes all the way through both to some degree or another. One was about the Ark of the Covenant and suffered from us watching it the same week that we had a talk about it at the EEG (post). The programme focussed heavily on the (controversial) idea that the Ark was nicked from the Temple by Solomon's son's priests who brought it to Ethiopia where it has remained every since. I wasn't convinced. The last episode was Christ's Holy Spear, which is in a museum case in Vienna. Now, about halfway through the programme they did admit that all the evidence suggests it was made about 8 centuries after Christ, so the real point of the programme was about how the actual object was made and came to gain its reputation. Which was actually interesting, but not only did they take far too long going "oh but could it be Roman and really be the lance that pierced His side on the cross", but also there were random Nazi and Hitler references the whole way through because apparently Hitler was obsessed with it. And no, Hitler didn't commit suicide the very same moment the Spear was captured by the Allies.

A bit of a mixed bag, the better episodes were both not religious relic based and were the ones where I knew enough about the subject in hand to navigate my way between solid opinion and flights of fancy. Not recommended.


Other TV watched last week:

Episode 2 of A History of Art in Three Colours - James Fox looking at the history of art through the lens of three different colours, gold, white and blue.

Episode 1 of Oh! You Pretty Things - series about the relationship between pop music and fashion in Britain from the 1960s onwards.

Rudyard Kipling is one of the most well known British writers of the late 19th & early 20th Century - I suspect nearly everyone has heard of something he wrote ("The Jungle Book", "If--", "Tommy" ...). His reputation as a great writer in modern times has been overshadowed by the fact that he was an apologist for the British Empire with the sort of racist views that that entails. Discussing his life and works on In Our Time were Howard Booth (University of Manchester), Daniel Karlin (University of Bristol) and Jan Montefiore (University of Kent).

Kipling was born in India in 1865 to British parents, and his early childhood seems to've been idyllic. He was primarily brought up by an Indian nanny, and in his memoirs recalled that Hindi was his first language - he relates being sent in to see his parents with the firm instruction to remember to speak English to them, and having to laboriously translate it out of the Hindi he thought in.

At the age of 6 he was taken to England where he and his younger sister boarded with a couple in Southsea for the next 6 or 7 years. This wasn't unusual - it was customary for the children of English families in India to be sent "home" at that sort of age. What was unusual was that he and his sister didn't stay with family. One of the experts (Karlin?) suggested that Kipling's mother felt that her siblings weren't likely to treat her children well. This was a traumatic time for Kipling and not just in contrast with the life he'd left in India. The couple he was living with were abusive, the woman in particular. She firmly believed that Kipling was evil and going to hell, and treated him accordingly. One of the experts said that the only good thing in this time was that Kipling didn't lose his closeness with his sister, despite the differences in the way the two children were treated.

Kipling was reprieved when he reached his teens, as he was sent to a minor public school (again, as was usual for a child of his social class). He thrived there, and this was the first time during his life when he actually had the opportunity to make friends. While at school he became involved with the school newspaper, which was the beginning of his career as a writer. When he was 17 instead of going on to university he left school and returned to India. He began work as a journalist both reporting news and writing stories for the paper. The experts speculated that this was why the short story was his preferred length - he'd learnt his skills writing to a restrictive word limit and this is what he became best at.

Having made something of a name for himself as an Anglo-Indian writer by his mid-twenties he returned to England with an eye to making a name for himself outside that rather narrow remit. He established himself in London, and began what the experts presented as a calculated campaign to establish himself as a writer. At the time London was something of a literary hotspot, and he met many of the big names of the day - including Henry James who was much taken with Kipling (and vice versa). He published prolifically - both short stories and poems - and was fortunate to write at a time when copyright had been legally codified. Between his constant stream of new material, and his ability to make money from his back catalogue by publishing collections and reprints, he made a lot of money over his lifetime.

Kipling married an American woman, who was the sister of his best friend, and they lived for several years in the US in the 1890s. On the programme they talked about how much Kipling liked America - both the countryside and the people - but didn't really discuss why they returned to the UK. After he and his family returned it seems that Kipling became more involved in politics, using his writing to deliver political messages. He was a great supporter of the Empire, in a paternalistically racist sort of way (the need to look after the poor savages). In the early years of the 20th Century, after the Boer War, he also began to talk about how the British Army needed to be improved (and better treated). He was one of the members of the establishment who saw Germany as a looming threat that Britain would end up in conflict with sooner or later.

I confess I'd somehow assumed that Kipling died long before the First World War, but this is not the case - he lived until 1936. During the war Kipling was involved in a couple of different ways. He was involved in writing propaganda for the war effort, and then after his son's death in 1915 he was also heavily involved in the committee that organised the memorials and graveyards for the war dead. He was responsible for the choice of wording on the gravestones and memorials. And for the way the names on the memorials were organised - in alphabetical order instead of by rank, and including the missing-presumed-dead as well as those whose bodies were found (his own son's body was not found).

This programme felt oddly rushed - in particular we didn't get to hear much about his work (although a bit more than I've recapped here). While writing this blog post I checked the wikipedia article to make sure I had my dates correct, as I usually do, and I noticed that there seem to be several bits of Kipling's life that are a bit glossed over. I guess it was just a bit of a bigger subject than would easily fit in 45 minutes.

Another good episode. And as always around this point of the season I'm running out of things to say above the spoiler cut ...

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

I liked the monsters, particularly the gradual ramping up of their abilities as the reconnaissance missions gave them results and taught them about 3 dimensions. And the whole "they're in the walls" thing was creepy, and well done - you twig to the floor thing just before the characters do. Although I'm not quite sure why they'd want to invade/kill people other than "because", but I guess that's a time honoured Doctor Who baddy rationale. And I liked the way their tech? powers? were used to accidentally mess with the TARDIS's external dimensions - I'm not sure that's been done before in the series. I do tend to like it when the TARDIS's abilities and attributes are used for more than just a glorified taxi service in the story.

The tiny TARDIS in the handbag, with the Doctor's hand handing out gadgets and tools as she needed them was pretty funny, too :)

Clara's been learning well from the Doctor about how to take charge of a situation and project confidence in her "plan" whilst she makes it up as she goes along. And I liked that she does step up to the challenge, and she does well - she keeps most people alive after all. As with last week though I think we get hints that she's not necessarily learning the right things from her association with the Doctor. This isn't entirely a companion that's becoming her best possible self due to the Doctor's influence is it? She's getting the arrogance and the external shell of pragmatism, but it's not clear that she's continuing to care on the inside. Just a bit too cavalier about the deaths she couldn't prevent, just a bit too quick to lie and manipulate. Mind you, she's not very good at lying when it isn't a life or death situation - witness how quickly she's caught out by both Danny and the Doctor for the lie at the end of last episode. I had assumed the storyline there was to be Clara+Danny4eva, but I'm not so sure any more - I find it hard to see how she can salvage the relationship from here. Unless Danny is as stupid as she treats him as, of course ... which would be a shame.

I'm also reconsidering where the Missy plot-line is going, too. That scene at the end where she talks about having chosen Clara well is intriguing. And does, I think, make it obvious that she's the lady who gave Clara the TARDIS phone number way back in the first episode with this Clara. Only 3 episodes left in the season so I guess we get to find out what it's all about soon! Hopefully it'll be a bit less nonsensical than previous Moffat season finales - it's definitely done with a lighter touch throughout this time round.

Jungle Atlantis was a two part series about the medieval city of Angkor, in modern day Cambodia. This is the city that contains the temple complex Angkor Wat, whose ruins have been known to the western world since the 19th Century. The programmes focussed on recent archaeological work in the area, which has been making use of the new technique of LIDAR. This involves an aerial survey of an area using technology similar to RADAR which can accurately map the topography of the land underneath whatever vegetation cover is present. So it's very good at getting a broader picture of a forested or agricultural site than is possible with conventional archaeology or aerial photography. It's also very convenient when large parts of your site of interest are covered in land mines, as Cambodia still is.

The temple complex of Angkor Wat was one of several temple complexes in the city, mostly built in the 12th Century AD under the reign of Jayavarman VII. The programme covered a bit of the history of the Khmer Empire around this period - Jayavarman came to power after a particularly brutal civil war, and enforced a change of state religion from Hinduism to Buddhism (signs of which can be seen on the temple decoration as it was started before his reign). The temples are built in stone, and were not just religious institutions but were also administrative centres for the regime. They are where taxes were collected and also where people were educated (those that were).

All the other buildings of the city were made from wood and thatch and have long since vanished. It had previously been assumed that there was a city to go with the temple complexes and traces have been detected with conventional archaeological methods, but it wasn't clear how far it extended. LIDAR has shown that there was a vast megacity surrounding the temples and extending out quite some way. It was served by a complex infrastructure of wide roads and canals. They repeatedly said in the programmes that this new evidence meant that it's likely that Angkor was the largest city in the world at the time - I think they said it might've had a population of up to 1 million. They kept comparing it to London (which was tiny at the time, we're talking about just post-Norman conquest here), but never to the cities of the period which were actually large. I looked it up in my historical atlas, and that has Hangzhou in China as the largest city of the 12th Century with a population of approximately 500,000. So if these estimates for Angkor are correct then it was truly huge by the standards of the day.

Angkor, and the Khmer Empire in general, thrived and was successful during a particularly good period climatewise. The monsoon generally didn't fail, nor was it so excessive as to cause problems. The Khmer people had complicated and extensive waterways and reservoirs which stored the water and channelled it to the fields and to people's houses. This meant that they could get three or four rice crops a year, growing during the dry season as well as the wet season. The programme showed several of the waterworks which you can still tell are man-made from the straight edges. The decline of the city came after a prolonged period of poor weather. The archaeologists have used tree cores across the region to find this out - basically rather than cut the tree down and count the rings you drill out a rod of wood and count the rings. Rather more convenient to store, as well as less damaging. These show that around when the city declined there had been about 3 decades of poor monsoons and less growth of the trees. This was followed by a particularly bad monsoon which probably caused a lot of destruction when forced through the artificial canals.

This was an interesting two-part series, about a bit of the world I don't know all that much about. But it did suffer from a lot of padding - I don't know how many times they told us how LIDAR worked, and showed the same CGI reconstruction of bits of the city, but it was far too many. I suspect they had a little over an hour of material and when faced with a decision between cutting and padding went for the latter.


Episode 5 of Treasures Decoded - Channel 4 series looking at puzzles and potential solutions around some well known archaeological sites or artifacts.

Episode 3 of Lost Kingdoms of Central America - Jago Cooper talks about four different ancient civilisations in Central America.

Episode 1 of A History of Art in Three Colours - James Fox looking at the history of art through the lens of three different colours, gold, white and blue.

Rwanda's Untold Story - part of the This World series. Jane Corbin examining the evidence that Paul Kagame's regime in Rwanda is not what it seems. The conventional story of the Rwandan genocide is that Kagame's troops stopped the violence and that since he has been in power there have been no massacres. This programme looked at the evidence that Kagame was involved in the shooting down of the previous President of Rwanda's plane, which was the event that sparked the 1994 massacres of Tutsis by Hutus. And at the evidence that Kagame and his regime have been involved in the systematic massacre of Hutus as reprisals.

Episode 2 of The Boats that Built Britain - Tom Cunliffe sails six boats that were important in British history.

In 751AD Arabian and Chinese forces met in battle at a river called Talas in Central Asia. This was to mark the end of the eastward expansion of the Islamic Empire, and the westward expansion of the Chinese Empire. Discussing it on In Our Time were Hilde de Weerdt (Leiden University), Michael Höckelmann (King's College London) and Hugh Kennedy (SOAS, University of London).

Kennedy started the discussion by setting the scene for what was happening in the Arab Empire at this time. Since the Prophet's death in 632AD his followers had conquered incredible amounts of territory very quickly, and by 751AD the Islamic Empire stretched from Spain & Morocco in the west to what is now Iran in the east. Until shortly before the time of the Battle of Talas the Umayyad Caliphate was in power, with their capital in Damascus. In 750AD the Ummayyad were replaced by the Abbasid Caliphate who ruled from Baghdad. The Abbasids' power base was further east than the Ummayyads', with particularly strong support in what is now north-east Iran. The push to expand the Empire east in both cases was not just ideological, it was also economic and born out of a desire to control the lucrative trade routes to the east.

China at this time was ruled over by the Tang dynasty. Under their rulership the Chinese Empire reached its largest extent (before the Qing era), extending up to Central Asia. The Chinese were looking to protect their lucrative land trade routes - the Silk Road. So they not only had troops on their western borders, but also formed alliances with key leaders of regions along the Silk Road. What I'm refering to as Central Asia is the region that includes modern Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. During the time period in question this was not really an area with nations or any sort of cohesive state - instead there were several princes & chiefs who ruled over particular areas or tribes. The Chinese had alliances with the ones through which the traderoutes generally ran. The experts characterised these are not quite conquest, not quite alliance - in that the Chinese pretty much left the princes to rule as they pleased but had troops stationed nearby to make sure it was suitable.

So that's the set up for this battle - the area was a volatile one with several leaders vying for power and influence. Some of these were allied with the Chinese, some of these looked more to the Arabs. Neither the Chinese nor the Arabs really wanted to extend centralised control over the region, but did want to continue to influence it. They are drawn into conflict, because one of the Chinese allies has some sort of falling out with another chief. Said chief appeals to his Arab allies for protection, and now the Chinese and the Islamic Empires are in a situation where they need to fight each other in order to hold up their own ends of their alliances.

The battle itself took place on the river Talas in July 751, I think they said it lasted five days. The Chinese forces suffered a humiliating defeat, with much of their army captured or killed. Sources on both sides give what the experts think are likely to be highly inflated casualty rates for the Chinese. The Arab sources make their own army sound small, against a larger Chinese force of around 100,000. And the Chinese sources reverse that, saying they had 30,000 (10,000 Chinese, 20,000 mercenaries) and the Arabs had 200,000. Both would be exaggerating to suit their own propaganda needs, the experts said a few tens of thousands on each side sounds plausible. The Chinese were actually defeated in large part through treachery. The actual Chinese forces were about a third of their army, the rest was made up of mercenaries from one of the Turkic peoples. During the battle these mercenaries betrayed the Chinese who were then surrounded with the Arab army on one side and the mercenary army on the other. Arab sources imply this wasn't pre-planned.

In the aftermath of this battle many many Chinese prisoners were brought to Baghdad and other parts of the Islamic Empire. One of the Chinese sources for this battle is a man who was captured and later made his way back to China, and wrote a book about his time in Baghdad. This event is sometimes credited with bringing paper-making technology to the Islamic Empire because of these prisoners. Two of the experts (Höckelmann and de Weerdt, I think) weren't convinced by this, Kennedy (I think) was more keen on it.

The battle can be held up as a big clash between East & West, and at first glance might seem to cause the halt in expansion of both these Empires. However that doesn't appear to be the case. More important is the political situation in China. Four years after the Battle of Talas was the An Lushan rebellion, which nearly deposed the Tang dynasty - so troops were called back from the frontiers and politics in China became more inward facing for a while. The land trade routes were also less lucrative because the sea ones were becoming more important. The Islamic Empire's interest in the region lessened because it was no long as economically important. So a battle that at first seems a key moment in global politics is really just a footnote.

Pages