February 2015

The Towns

Having covered the landowners and the rural populace in previous chapters Prestwich now moves on to the urban population of England at this time. He starts by considering how to define a town, which as with so many things in historical research isn't as easy as it might sound. At first sight one might think it easiest to just use whatever designations the contemporary population used - only they weren't particularly consistent and places are referred to differently in different documents and at different times. One possible criterion is which places sent representatives to parliament - but this varies from parliament to parliament. Or perhaps use taxation status - but then there's the example of Boston in Lincolnshire which was still taxed as a village even when it was the fifth wealthiest place in England and the second largest port for wool exports. Legal definitions can include looking at the sort of tenure that the land was held by - but some places used burgage tenure when they weren't actually towns by any other definition. A possible economic definition is that in a town most people should be involved in trade and manufacturing, rather than agriculture - again this works much better in theory than it does when you look at specific examples.

Taking the various criteria together and applying some judgement to the results Prestwich arrives at an approximation of 100-150 towns in England in this period, with a further 500 places that had some urban characteristics. This wasn't a static figure, and in fact the 13th Century was a period where many new towns were established (not all of which were successful). Turning a village into a town, or starting one de novo, was good for a landlord as the revenue from a town in terms of tolls and taxes was much higher than for a rural community. New Salisbury is an example of a successful town foundation from this time. Later in the period this book covers there were fewer new town foundations - the potential urban population was already living in towns, so it was harder to attract settlers to a new one. The economy was also in a poorer state in the early 14th Century so there wasn't as much fervour for new costly projects.

Prestwich moves on to discuss the townspeople themselves. If it's hard to count towns, it's even harder to count their population. The evidence for the people who lived in towns is even more scarce than for their rural contemporaries. By modern standards they were pretty small - London was the largest and the only one that was comparable to the great Continental cities of the time. It probably had a population of somewhere between 40,000 and 100,000 in 1300, Prestwich says 70,000 seems a reasonable estimate. For reference and comparison the populations of some towns I've lived in are (according to wikipedia, in 2011): Oxford - 150,200; Cambridge - 122,700; Ipswich - 133,400. I don't think of any of those as "all that big" and yet even the highest estimates for London in 1300 are far short of those three towns today.

The population of a town of the period probably wasn't self-sustaining - conditions were less healthy than in the country, and people tended to die off more quickly. So towns effectively had a catchment area where new immigrants moved from, the size of which depended on the size and prestige of the town. The makeup of the urban population wasn't the same as the rural population - the higher levels of society didn't live in towns (although barons might have a town house in London). There were no villeins or unfree people in towns, either - in fact living in a town for a year and a day conferred freedom regardless of your previous status. The townspeople weren't homogenous, however. They thought of themselves as divided into 3 sorts - the great men, those of middling status and the poor. The great men might be very wealthy merchants, trading internationally. The artisans and smaller traders would be the middling sort. There was a greater variety of occupations in a town than in a village, a lot of which were to do with production and sale of food and drink. Prior to their expulsion from the country in 1290 the Jews were also a significant feature of towns. They were among the wealthier inhabitants, due to their ability to lend money at interest (which was forbidden to Christians). And even prior to the worst persecution they were poorly treated by the rest of the community and kept themselves to themselves as not really a part of the town community.

Towns were frequently self-governing and separate from the county system. This was more likely to be the case if the landlord was the King - if the landlord was a lord he was more likely to want the increased prestige & authority that came with direct control. Relations between town (self-governing or not) and landlord weren't always smooth with records of rebellions and of court cases. Conflict also occurred within the town community (unsurprisingly), sometimes arising from class conflicts and other times from more personal quarrels. Often the wealthy elite of the town would come into conflict with the rest of the townspeople by using their wealth and social/political status to ensure they got the best trading opportunities etc.

Towns were important in the medieval economy. In spite of being separate in some legal senses they were a critical part of the overall economy of the country. One way in which they were important for the rural economy was in consuming food. This need to feed the urban population had a significant effect on the viability of agriculture as a way for the rural population to support themselves (beyond subsistence). Towns also provided opportunities for people to specialise in particular manufacturing trades - providing a place to sell your goods as well as support yourself while doing so (like having more places to buy food etc). Towns also hosted markets and annual trading fairs, both of which made them into trading hubs for a wider area.

Guilds and fraternities were an important part of urban organisation & economy, but there's not that much evidence left about them. They mostly appear to've been formed during the 13th Century (Prestwich says 14th but then contradicts himself so I think that was a mistake) - at the beginning of the 13th Century most towns had a guild merchant and a weaver's guild, by the early 14th Century there are records of more diverse guilds. London guilds were formed earlier, and also suppressed at various times due to being a threat to the pre-existing power structure of the city. Guilds in general protected trades and crafts, while also providing a social focus.

Towns had lots of regulations and laws - due to being crowded places. Prestwich gives several examples of rules about sanitation and building regulations. Pest control also was important - although not always how you might think. For instance there were regulations against shooting pigeons in London in the 1320s, because the arrows and stones used tended to break windows or injure people. Public order needed to be maintained, too - including many attempts to drive out prostitutes, a particularly urban problem.

Religious life in towns was also important - with many parish churches, fraternities and friaries in towns. Friars were generally an urban phenomenon as basing themselves in towns meant they could preach to the greatest numbers of people.

Prestwich finishes the chapter by considering the impact of war on towns during this time period. For inland towns there's not much effect but ports were more significantly impacted. Both by the requirements of the Crown for shipping, and by raids by the French.

Giza Pyramids
Giza Pyramids

The second site of the holiday was the pyramids at Giza, where we not only saw the pyramids from the outside but also got to go into the Great Pyramid, plus an Old Kingdom royal lady's tomb nearby. The photos in this post are a selection from the whole set which is up on flickr click here to get to it or on any photo. You aren't allowed to take photos inside the pyramids or other tombs, so these are all of the outsides and the surrounding views. (The plan of the plateau is one I found on Wikipedia with a licence that meant I could use it, if you click on it you go to it's own page.)

Great PyramidGreat Pyramid with Satellite Pyramid
Great Pyramid

As you can see on the plan below the ticket office is placed so that you walk from there towards the Great Pyramid to get the full effect of the sheer size of it! As I said we managed to get tickets to go inside it - a benefit of the general reduction in tourist numbers is that even in the afternoon there are still tickets available. I don't think I'd bother going in a second time, but it was well worth doing once. The entrance that the tourists go in is a little way up the northern face of the pyramid, and at first it's a fairly rough tunnel but you soon get to one of the real internal passages which is made of properly smoothed stone. My overriding impression of the passageways is that they were steep, low or both - but nowhere near as claustrophobic as I'd expected from what I'd read or been told.

Plan of Giza Plateau made by wikipedia user MesserWoland
Plan of Giza Plateau made by MesserWoland

There are two rooms that you get to see inside the Pyramid - neither of them decorated (as that didn't start to happen until the 5th Dynasty). The first of these is the grand gallery which has a high corbelled ceiling. Then you go through a passageway where the portcullis blocks were (to seal off the burial chamber) into the burial chamber itself. This is a large rectangular room made of dark stone, with only the (damaged) sarcophagus of Khufu left in it. Somehow it was being in this room more than anything else that brought home just how very very big the Great Pyramid is - here we were in somewhere that's a pretty small part of the whole structure, but compared to the size of me it was a large room.

Entrance to the Tomb of Meresankh IIIOn the Way Out from the Tomb of Meresankh III
Outside the Tomb of Meresankh III

Our next stop was the tomb of Meresankh III, which is in the Eastern Cemetery (on the map above it's just below the "y" of "Cemetery"). Despite this being one of the standard extra tickets that you could buy on arrival it still needed to be specially unlocked for us, which I found a little odd. The tomb itself is on two levels - "upstairs" (i.e. the level you enter it on) is a decorated tomb chapel and "downstairs" is the undecorated burial chamber, nowadays reached by a wooden staircase in the shaft down to it. The walls in the tomb chapel were mostly covered with low relief carvings, including scenes of animals being lead to the tomb and of birds being caught. There were also several figures carved into the wall - not quite statues as they were still attached to the wall at the back of the figure. These dominated the right hand end of the chapel (looking from the door). Meresankh's titles included King's Wife and King's Daughter. We knew she was Khafre's wife, and speculated at the time about whose daughter she was - but I've since looked her up and she wasn't actually a Pharaoh's daughter, she was a granddaughter who had the title anyway. So she was Khufu's granddaughter, her parents were Hetepheres II and Kawab (both children of Khufu) and she subsequently married her uncle Khafre. She wasn't the mother of the next Pharaoh.

J at the PyramidsView Across Giza
Views from the Viewing Point

After this we headed off to the viewing point (to the west of the plateau, not on the plan above) as our last port of call at Giza, to take more photos of the Pyramids. This is a slightly raised area that gives the impression there aren't any people around the Pyramids. En route to there I also took some pictures of other things - camels, views across Giza and other pyramids that you can see from Giza (those at Saqqara, including the Step Pyramid).

CamelView to Saqqara Pyramids
Camel and Saqqara Pyramid View
Racing Past the Sphinx
Racing Past the Sphinx

The next book in my project of re-reading all the fiction I own (that is still on the shelves) is All the Windwracked Stars, by Elizabeth Bear. I actually replaced it with a Kindle version before re-reading it, along with buying the next two in the series (the series as a whole is called The Edda of Burdens). I know I've read this before, as I at least recognised the names of the protagonists and something of the world it is set in, but I remembered very little of the actual story so I might as well've been reading it for the first time.

We open with the end of the world in the aftermath of an apocalyptic battle, with the survivors - Kasimir, valraven steed of a slain waelcyrge; Muire, child of the Light, one of the wardens of Valdyrgard, poet, historian, metalworker; the Wolf, older than the world itself and has played his part in the ending of it. And after a chapter that establishes the characters (particularly Muire) the story jumps forward nearly two & a half thousand years to the aftermath of another apocalypse. As the book puts it:

Worlds, like gods, are a long time dying, and the deathblow dealt the children of the Light did not stop a civilization of mortal men from rising in their place, inventing medicine and philosophy, metallurgy and space flight.

Until they in turn fell, two-hundred-odd years ago, in a Desolation that left all Valdyrgard a salted garden. All of it, that is, except the two cities - Freimarc and Eiledon - that lingered. Life is tenacious. Even on the brink of death, it holds the battlements and snarls.

And in this end of the world, Muire, Kasimir and the Wolf still live among the shattered remnants of the human civilisation. It's a world of both technology and magic - where at one moment there are recognisable computing devices, and at another we're meeting a modified catwoman created from a cat, sorcery and a relic of the past or a modified ratman mage-engineer. The story is primarily Muire's, although parts are from other points of view. But she's the central figure, and we follow her from grief-stricken survivor's guilt through to a realisation that perhaps the world can be reborn (albeit at great cost to herself).

Muire is the linchpin round which the story turns, but I think there are two other legs the plot rests on - the Grey Wolf and Cathoair. The Wolf I've already mentioned, he starts in the position of an antagonist - and where Muire feels she should not have survived but somehow can't help but keep surviving, the Wolf is looking for death and not finding it. He's been drawn to Eiledon by a sense that a piece of his past is being misused by the mortal ruler of the city, and although he's no longer part of the company of the children of the Light he's still not willing to let such things be misused.

Cathoair is a different sort of character - at first sight less mythic, more everyday survivor. He's one of the mortal inhabitants of Eiledon, living in the slums and making a living in the fighting ring and as a prostitute. But his soul is that of one of Muire's brothers, returned to life at another ending of the world (although Cathoair never knows about his past life). He gets caught up in the conflict between Muire and the Grey Wolf, as they're both irresistibly drawn to the presence of someone they had both loved in the past. But he quickly becomes important in his own right, as even ordinary people can make a difference particularly when the world is ending.

The story takes place in a secondary world that is thoroughly steeped in Scandinavian mythology - as is presumably obvious just from the names of people and of things that I've mentioned in this review so far. The prose style also has something of that feel to it - recognising the subject matter as Norse in origin predisposes me to think this, but it often feels like some other language's poetry translated into English prose. Not all of it by any means, but bits like this do:

The song still burns through his mind, scourging, polishing. Stripping him clean.

Madness is nothing. Madness is an old friend, a comfort to him. He is the son of a god and a giantess. He is a god-monster. He is the Sun-eater. He was born to destruction, to mayhem, to wrath. The world is full of things that want destroying, and also full of those who do not covet destruction. So he was chained to the end of the world. There was a poem that was also a prophecy, and he lived it. The wolf, till world's end.

And now he is a wolf driven by the goad and the hunt, crazed by the cage and the chain. He is the wolf run mad --

One thing I particularly like about the world it's set in is that magic and technology aren't mutually exclusive. The bulk of the story is set in the remnants of a world that's at least as technologically advanced as ours, if not more so. But it also has working magic, and some of (all of?) the technology is magic based - magic doesn't replace the need for tech, nor vice versa. Which I think grows out of the Norse underpinnings of the world building - magic here is based on the word (runes, poetry, song) and also on metalworking. Muire as poet, historian, smith is also a mage, in a way that seems to go without saying. Some workings require music, some require working at the forge.

Having forgotten most of the story, I'd also forgotten how much I liked this book. I'm not sure why I didn't get round to buying the other two in the series till now, but at halfway through the next one I'm pleased I finally got round to it :)

Britain's Bloodiest Dynasty was a Channel 5 series about the Plantagenets, presented by Dan Jones. I've been vaguely aware of Jones as an author for a while and I've heard good things about him, but not read any of his books. So despite my dubiousness about a Channel 5 documentary series I took a chance on recording it - it did turn out to be a pretty fun watch, even if nothing earth shatteringly new. It was part Jones walking around significant sites, and part re-enactment. I rather liked the fact that they had the characters all speak French for most of it - as, after all, they would've. Of course, I suspect it wasn't the right French, but I've no idea how that language has changed over the last 700 or so years to be able to tell. I've seen comment elsewhere that the clothing was also inaccurate, I'm not up enough on the details of fashion of that era to tell that either.

The four programmes of the series each covered a different Plantagenet monarch - Henry II, Henry III, Edward II and Richard II. This was very much history as soap opera, each programme covered the life of the king in question with an emphasis on personality, relationships and how he screwed things up (or had things screwed up for him). Whilst politics or war were touched on it was more in terms of the personal interactions involved rather than any nitty-gritty detail. The reasons for choosing each king seemed to be about who would give the best story - I imagine the only difficult choice was whether it should be John or Henry III. Henry II starts the dynasty, and has the most dysfunctional family ever with not only 4 sons but also his wife rebelling against him. Henry III has the crisis & civil war with Simon de Montfort - his brother-in-law and once his best mate. Edward II - well, you can't miss out the "buggered with a red hot poker" murder story, even if it wasn't true (and Jones was quite clear about that being untrue on the programme). And Richard II ends the dynasty with a headlong rush of a life from Golden Boy King to Tyrant Who Gets Deposed. Fun to watch, and without (as far as I could tell) playing fast and loose with the facts. The Henry III and Edward II programmes overlapped with the current non-fiction book I'm reading which is a much more sober look at the history of England between 1225 & 1360. So particularly with those episodes I could see the gaps where Jones had missed things out, but there wasn't anything that made me wince and disagree with him.

I said in the last paragraph this was history as soap opera, I think it's actually accurate to say that this was a direct response to the popularity of Games of Thrones. This was Jones showing us how real history can be as exciting, brutal and bloody as anything from GRRM's series (which Jones pretty much says outright in the intro without naming the series). And so the programme did dwell a bit too gleefully on the torture scenes for my tastes. The thing that I found particularly irritating, however, was Jones's script was heavily larded with Upworthy headline-esque phrasing. By that I mean lots of things like "and what happened next was incredible". It came across as a bit too heavy handedly trying to be down with the kids. But who knows, perhaps I'm just not enough down with the kids to know that that's how the kids speak these days? ;)

Overall, as I said at the start: a fun series, but if you already have an idea of the history of this dynasty you won't learn anything new from it.

Our very first trip of the holiday was to the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo. There's no photography allowed inside the museum, so I didn't even take my big camera off the coach, but I did take a few photos outside the museum with my phone (up on flickr here).

Outside Cairo Museum
Cairo Museum

Once inside the museum the group split into those who wanted to have a tour from our guide, Medhat Saad, or those who wanted to just explore themselves. We opted for the tour to make sure we saw a decent overview of the interesting pieces, rather than just seeing things we already knew were there or wandering round randomly.

Medhat spent about two hours taking us around the ground floor in roughly chronological order. We started with the Narmer Palette, which seems appropriate as that's from the start of Egypt as a unified country. Near the case with the palette are pre-Dynastic and prehistoric objects - we looked at some fragments of the Libyan Palette which possibly pre-dates the Narmer Palette (and is to do with payment of tribute to Egypt from some Libyan towns, hence the name). We also looked at a prehistoric flint sword, which was the biggest flint knife I've seen - I had no idea they were ever made at sword size. I've not made a note if it was thought to be ceremonial or functional, perhaps Medhat didn't say. Despite being distracted by the prehistoric instrument of pointy death (I do like swords!) I also noticed the labels in the same case, with early examples of hieroglyphs on them.

We moved on from there to a statue of Djoser, who is a 3rd Dynasty Pharaoh. It has his name in a cartouche on the statue, and this is the era when the cartouche was just beginning to be used. Before the 3rd Dynasty you only ever see the Pharaoh's name in a serekh - the palace facade with a falcon on top. Presumably this is when the Pharaoh's official names start multiplying as I know they still have Horus names throughout the rest of Egyptian history, so it's not a replacement of one form with another.

We jumped forward in time again for the next objects we looked at, which were some really lovely 6th Dynasty statues of servants from tombs at Meir. These statues look like they might be true representations of actual people rather than just idealised "male servant" or "female servant". One of the statues is of a dwarf, another of a hunchback. My favourite of these was a messenger who was carrying a case of documents on his back with a (painted) leopard throw over it. In this area we also looked at some 5th Dynasty scribe statues, before moving on to the next room.

The next objects were a collection of triad statues of Menkaure which we had seen last time, and which J was particularly looking forward to seeing again. Menkaure was a 5th Dynasty Pharaoh - the builder of the last of the three big pyramids at Giza, grandson of Khufu. These statues each have Menkaure in the centre, flanked by two deities one of whom is a Nome deity (so a regional one). I think both J and I had remembered them as being larger than they are - but they're only around a metre tall.

Another very fine piece we'd remembered from last time was the statue of Khafre (Khufu's son, Menkaure's father, builder of the second pyramid). This greywacke piece has a falcon (Horus) on the back of Khafre's head protecting him. Medhat used this statue as a jumping off point to talk about how Ra (or Re) was now becoming more important and often a part of the Pharaoh's name - before Khafre and Menkaure it's not something that's seen. In the same room as this piece were also the Meidum geese (a favourite of mine), the statue of the 4th Dynasty Prince Rahotep and his wife Nefret which is very fine, and also an unusual lifesize bronze statue of Pepi I (a 6th Dynasty Pharaoh).

We then moved on to see the grave goods of Hetepheres, which I'd wanted to see again. She was the mother of Khufu, wife of Sneferu, daughter of Huni. Her grave goods were found in a shaft on the Giza plateau near Khufu's pyramid (not in her original tomb) and include her bed and other bits of her bedroom furniture, and a sedan chair. They were on Joann Fletcher's recent programme about female Pharaohs (post) which had reminded me of them so I'd been looking forward to seeing the real things again.

The Old Kingdom section of Medhat's tour was now over and we moved on to a few Middle Kingdom pieces starting with a statue of Montuhotep that I remember referring to as "old elephant legs" before - it has particularly large legs, perhaps for symbolic reasons. Also from this period we looked at a rather fine wooden statue of Senwosret I, and several seated statues of a Pharaoh (who I've noted down as possibly being Senwosret I but I'm not sure). These seated statues were most interesting for having an unusual unification symbol on the side of the throne - they have a rare depiction of Set as the representative god for Lower Egypt (with Horus as his Upper Egypt counterpart as is usual). Although there's a later Egyptian (and modern) tendency to cast Set as "evil" or equivalent to the devil this isn't the way that the Ancient Egyptians saw him. He was an important part of the balance of the world and a regional god for Lower Egypt.

Our last Middle Kingdom pieces were statues of Amenemhat as a sphinx - which had particularly lion-like human faces. And our first New Kingdom piece was a sphinx of Hatshepsut, as well as another statue of her. We then paused next to a rather fine white statuette of Tutmosis III for Medhat to explain the history that gets us from the Hyksos ruling Egypt (during the Second Intermediate Period) to Tutmosis III ruling over a unified and expanding Egyptian Empire. We stayed with Tutmosis III and Hatshepsut for a little while longer, looking at the originals of some of the reliefs on Hatshepsut's Mortuary Temple at Deir el Bahri - these include some of the famous scenes of the expedition to Punt (there are replicas in situ at the temple). In the same room in the museum is also a chapel dedicated to Hathor by Tutmosis III which also comes from Deir el Bahri.

We then jumped forward a bit to the Amarna era. Medhat pointed out several interesting pieces including the coffin from KV55 which is thought to be Akhenaten's. It was damaged when the tomb was flooded (in antiquity), and so fragments of the base of it have been painstakingly pieced back together on a plastic support. It has no name on it, those have been chiselled out and the assumption is that this was part of the supression of the Great Heresy of Akhenaten. Another thing in this room I was particularly struck by was the selection of painted floor fragments which give an impression of the opulence of the palaces at Amarna.

Medhat's tour now skipped the rest of the New Kingdom going straight to a stela from the Late Period, showing the Nubian Pharaoh Piankhi with several of the self-styled Pharaohs of the Delta region bowing before him. After this we were shown a very fine fragment of a statue of Meritamun, and that was the end of the mostly chronological tour. Before he turned us loose to explore Medhat finished up by showing us a small exhibition of artifacts recovered by the museum after being removed in a variety of circumstances. Some were recovered from looters who stole things from the museum itself, some were recovered from items stolen from elsewhere in Egypt or dug up illegally & then sold on the international market. Some were recovered from international museums who'd acquired things in more dubious circumstances in the past than is permitted today. After we'd looked at that Medhat took us upstairs and gave us a sense of the layout of the 1st Floor before turning us loose to explore for ourselves.

We had about an hour to see some of the other exhibits in the museum, which wasn't nearly long enough - but then we could've had a week and we still wouldn't've seen everything there was to see! J had a selection of things he particularly wanted to see that we hadn't seen yet, and I had a couple of things as well (one of which overlapped with his list). So we quite briskly trotted round the museum trying to balance wanting to see all the things with not spending too little time on the things we did see.

Our first port of call was the Royal Mummy rooms - last time we were in the museum we hadn't realised there were two, so we only saw one. So this time we started with the one we'd seen before then moved on to the other one. The first room is dynasty 18 and 19 royals - of particular note given the later itinerary of the tour were Seti I and Ramesses II. The putative mummy of Hatshepsut is in this room as well. The other room has dynasty 20 royals, as well as high priests of Amun and their queens. Of note in here for the later itinerary was the mummy of Ramesses III. In the lobby area for this room there were also the two mummies of Tutankhamun's parents, as identified by the Hawass paper from 2010. That's the male skeleton from KV55 (which may or may not be Akhenaten) and the younger female mummy from KV35.

After the mummies we got a bit distracted by the royal coffins just outside the second room, but eventually tore ourselves away to head for the Tutankhamun galleries, where we saw the shrines and so on - and of course the mask, which must've had its bodged epoxy repair job by then, but we didn't notice. After that we looked at the stuff from Tanis which was on J's list of things to see: when we'd been in the museum last some of the objects were out on loan. Including the mask he particularly wanted to see, but this time it was there. This is the golden mask of Psusennes I, a 21st Dynasty Pharaoh - and J remembers seeing it at an exhibition in Edinburgh around 30 years ago. Another of the objects in this room was also particularly striking - the unusual hawk-headed silver coffin of Sheshonq II.

Next we walked fairly briskly past more of Tutankhamun's grave goods on our way to see the items from Yuya and Thuya's tomb. Including all of their coffins, and several rather beautiful pots and jars. We were moving fairly quickly by this stage as we were running out of time but we did manage to get in a quick look around the animal mummy room which was the other thing I'd particularly wanted to see. Mostly because I remembered the large crocodile mummy, with attendant baby crocodile mummies and wanted to see that again. They also had several cat mummies, as you would expect - including a sarcophagus for a prince's pet cat!

Akhenaten's Sarcophagus
Akhenaten's Sarcophagus

We'd very much run out of time by this stage, so we just glanced through doors at intriguing objects (like a room full of papyri!) as we made our way to the exit. It's a bit sad that the gift shop and the coffee shop are shut up - it looks rather run down on the way out. Once back out in the open air we made our way past the fragments of Akhenaten's outer granite sarcophagus (which is reminiscent in some ways of Tutankhamun's equivalent one, unsurprisingly) and back to the bus.

My main present this Christmas was a Kindle - I've finally entered the 21st Century ;) And as part of the present I got three new ebooks to start me off, I chose Elizabeth Bear's Eternal Sky trilogy which I've had on my to-buy list for a while. The three books are Range of Ghosts, Shattered Pillars and Steles of the Sky and they are fantasy, set in a world that is not our own with a strong Asian flavour.

The series opens in the aftermath of a battle. Temur, who is one of the protagonists of the story, is one of the defeated side and lucky to be alive - surviving mostly because he looked dead already. The battle was part of a civil war: Temur's people are very Mongol-like and this is a succession war that breaks out after the Khagan has died between his successors (much like after Genghis Khan's death in the real world). Temur is now one of the few claimants left alive. At first he's not concerned with that, he joins with some of the refugees and seems almost content to settle into anonymity. But it becomes clear that there is more going on than first meets the eye. Edene, the girl Temur is falling in love with, is stolen away from the refugee camp by blood ghosts called up from the dead of the battle by a sorcerer allied with the other side of the civil war. He sets off to rescue her and along the way discovers the sorcerer's schemes will have a wider impact than just on his own family and his own country, and resolves to stop him.

And so far, that sounds very bog standard epic fantasy - chosen one (male) goes off to rescue girl, take back throne and stop the evil sorcerer. But that's really not what this series is like. For starters, it's much more of an ensemble cast than the paragraph above makes it sound and a lot of the ensemble are women. For instance rescuing Edene might be Temur's initial motivation to set off - but Edene isn't just a pretty damsel in distress who waits in the fortress for Temur's arrival. She takes action herself to escape, and she's very definitely the hero of her own story - even tho at first she is playing into the antagonist's schemes. Another member of the cast is Hrahima, a female Cho-tse - a sentient tiger (which is a bit like calling a human a sentient monkey). The antagonist is also not just one evil man with minions although I suspect he'd like to think he is - but the "minions" are people who again are the heroes of their own stories.

The other primary protagonist (alongside Temur & Edene) is the wizard Samarkar - she is a Once-Princess of Rasa who has chosen to become part of an order of wizards where the price for power is sterilisation. For men this is a relatively easy operation, but for women it's at the limits of the medical technology of the day - so we first meet Samarkar as she is discovering she will live and recover from the operation. And it's only after you pay the price that you discover if you will gain power - one of the other supporting cast is a wizard who never gained her power (but nonetheless she's still respected as one of the best theoreticians of the order). She meets (and rescues) Temur near the beginning of his journey to find Edene. The wizards are very curious about the world in a scientific way - knowledge is power, knowing how things work lets you figure out how to manipulate them. When Temur swears a blood-vow Samarkar realises no-one has recorded the progress of one of these through from the very start, and so she decides to travel with Temur. Quickly she moves to be a participant rather than merely an observer, as she & Temur become first friends and then more.

As I said at the beginning of this review this is Asian flavoured fantasy. By that I mean it uses the cultures and mythology of various parts of Asia as the underpinnings of the story in the same way that a lot of fantasy uses a sort of medieval European "lords, ladies, castles, knights, damsels" bedrock as its foundation. But it's not an indistinct mishmash of pseudo-Asian culture - there are several countries in the world and they have distinct cultures which are recognisably riffing off distinct cultures in our world. For instance as I've already mentioned Temur's people are akin to the Mongols - I recognised a China analogue (of the right era) and a very obvious analogue of the Islamic Caliphate (in the same way that pseudo-Euro fantasy often has a religion that is Christianity-in-all-but-name here we have an Islam). I think the Rasa might be Tibetan analogues but I don't know enough about Tibet's history to be sure.

The world, however, is not just a thinly veiled version of our own. It's not just that magic works, the sky is also very different. What sky you see reflects the ruler of the land you're in. When a regime changes so does the sky, when you cross a country's borders the sky changes, Although there are mentions of this being over-ruled sometime by the ideology of the people (rather than their ruler) if it's deep-seated enough. It's not necessarily just a change in colour or something petty like that - the sun might rise in a different direction, or be much much brighter. And the night sky will also change. In the land ruled by the Khagan of Temur's people you see a moon for every potential heir to the throne - as each is born a new moon is also born. As any of them die then their moon dies with them. Which means in the first part of the first book Temur is able to track the progress of the civil war even after he's left for dead on the battlefield - by counting moons. And obviously so can the other side ...

I've often read defences of the lack of women with agency in epic fantasy that boil down to "well, it's a medieval world, women aren't able to do anything in that sort of society". And this series demonstrates very well just how much bollocks that is. The vast majority of the societies in the world of the Eternal Sky are patriarchal and the roles women are permitted to fulfil are limited and mostly decorative. In theory. But in practice the women in this story drive a lot of the plot along whether they act openly in their own interests or more indirectly. Even the slave-poetess who is literally inside a box for large chunks of the time she's present in the story is not just sitting there waiting to be done to, she's doing.

A criticism I'd make is that the antagonists are from the Islamic analogue culture, and that doesn't sit well with me. I think I can see why it ended up like that - the whole set up is a sort of mirror of the standard Euro-fantasy with the Asian cultures occupying the role that Western cultures normally do. There's even mentions in passing of exotic white skinned people from the West in the same way one might find mentions of exotic people from the East. And if you reflect around the centre then the Caliphate will end up playing the same role in both cases. I just don't like that it plays into the current political demonisation of the Muslim world.

I thoroughly recommend the books (other than that one criticism) - I've talked about them all at once because I read them back to back and finished all three within four days, they were very engrossing :) I think they'll also reward re-reading, and there's a lot of stuff I didn't mention in this review about themes & patterns that might well be even clearer on a re-read.

The third and final part of the film adaptation of The Hobbit was out over Christmas and we managed to get to the last 3D showing in Ipswich before it went 2D only. Normally I'm a fan of watching films in 3D where possible (not that I see many films ...) but in this case I think I might rather've seen it in 2D. There were several scenes (including some right near the beginning) where the action seemed to be moving too fast for the projection to keep up - particularly apparent when there were close-up shots panning across lots of people rushing around. And some of the subtitles felt out of focus. So that was a shame. I'm not sure if that was Ipswich Cineworld being crap or a fault of the film itself though.

I'm not going to put a spoiler cut - I think it's been out for long enough by the time I'm writing, and I suspect by the time this post goes live it won't even be on at the cinema any more. So this is your warning not to read on if you want to avoid spoilers. The rest of this post is not so much a review but a collection of thoughts about the film.

I continue to think they've done a pretty good job with these adaptations. I suspect I might not be quite so in favour if I'd read the book more recently, or more often when I was a kid, but to me it feels like they have the overall plot that I remember plus a flavour of the Lord of the Rings films and so it works for me even when they've made changes. The most obvious change that even I notice are that there are some speaking parts for female characters. It's a shame that Tauriel was mostly there to be the love interest, but at least she also got to kick ass :) In fact there was a bit of a sub-theme of "never piss off an elfwoman" in this film, when you think about Tauriel & Galadriel's scenes.

I really liked the way they portrayed Thorin's slide into gold-sickness and madness, particularly the reusing of lines that Smaug had also used. And the way the other dwarves are so visibly caught between knowing he's off his rocker, but still feeling loyalty and duty towards him as both King and friend. Also good were the few quieter moments where you felt like Bilbo might almost be able to talk him out of it - which means his epiphany about his behaviour later doesn't come out of nowhere. All those scenes also showed how much Bilbo had changed - whilst he always had a moral compass, you can't quite imagine the fussy, somewhat prissy hobbit we first met would put himself in danger like that for the sake of doing the right thing. I mean, he'd still've known what the right thing was but he'd've had some rationale for why someone else needed to do it.

I really liked the way they did the compare and contrast between the dwarves and the elves, I thought there was a real sense that despite their differences there are a lot of similarities between the two races. Like the two juxtaposed scenes of the leaders losing their mount and attacking the surrounding orcs, where there's a lot of similarity except that Thranduil moves like he's dancing and Dain headbutts his opponents. (I'd forgotten Billy Connolly was cast as Dain so that was an entertaining surprise.) The film also emphasises that their differences complement each other making them a good team if only either side would see it. Like when the orcs first attack and the dwarves form their shield wall and the elves come charging over to take the orcs by surprise.

I guess the elves/dwarves at loggerheads thing is part of a general theme running through all the films (and perhaps the books too, it's been a while since I've read them): true evil works together towards the common goal (presumably because of coercion) but those who oppose it not. Free will means not everyone is going to choose to do the right thing, but it wouldn't mean so much if it wasn't something one had to choose? Not sure I'm articulating that well, but hopefully the idea comes across :)

On that sort of note - I saw pointed out elsewhere that one of the threads running through this film is people standing up to their (respected) leaders when they were doing the wrong thing. In stories it's easy to show people as heroic by making them face off against "the bad guy doing the bad things", but several of the moments of heroism here are someone going to someone they like and respect and saying "no, this time I think you've got it wrong" instead of giving them a pass because they're normally right.

For the ending - I knew Thorin died from my memory of the book, but I wonder how many people who hadn't read the book (recently enough) got faked out by the bit where the orc is under the ice? I'd forgotten Fili & Kili died though, so that took me by surprise. I felt a bit sorry for Fili - the other two got a proper death scene with at least one person mourning, Fili just gets chucked off the tower & forgotten.

Kinda sad there's not going to be any more films (or at least I'm assuming that's extremely unlikely!). But then again, there's going to be new Star Wars films soon, so that probably fills in my "one film a year" slot ;)

Medinet Habu
Medinet Habu

The last three days of the trip include two of the advertised highlights of the tour - the tomb of Seti I and the tomb of Nefertari. The photos for this overview series are up on flickr, in a set here, they are about half taken by me and half taken by J. Not all of the photos in the set are in these posts, so do go look at the rest :) If you click on any photo it'll go to its flickr page. Maps are linked to a custom Google map with all the places on, click on any map to go to it. Once there you can click on the place names in the key to the left to zoom to them or turn on & off the visibility of the layers to see particular days on their own. Hotels are green marks, sites are red.

21st November

map of places visited on 21st November

Another early start, this time we were in the Valley of the Kings by 6:30am having crossed the river on a motorboat and been taken by coach to the Valley itself. I was beginning to get if not comfortable with the boat trips, at least not as stressed out ;) (I Don't Do Boats, generally, unless they're so big it's not really a boat any more like a cruise boat.)

In the Valley of the Kings we were first let loose to explore three tombs ourselves, plus any of the extra ticket ones. J and I had a lot of choice for tombs we hadn't seen before, only having been once before! We picked an 18th, 19th and 20th Dynasty tomb, to cover the range - which narrowed the choice down a bit out of the 9 available as only one 18th Dynasty tomb was open. So the ones we picked were Tutmosis IV, Tawosret & Sethnakte (buried in the same tomb) and Ramesses III. We'd also bought the extra ticket for the tomb of Ramesses V and VI (again, a two-in-one-tomb affair). It turned out we'd chosen our order well as this took us from least decorated to most impressive, each one more wonderful than the next. And then we got to go into Seti I's tomb, which is generally closed to the public - and that was the crowning glory! It's been damaged by flood water, but is still beautiful.

MeA Geology Lesson
Walking Across the Mountain

The next bit of the day was walking from the Valley of the Kings to Deir el Medina over the mountain. Along the "easy" route, which also follows the probable path that the workers on the tombs would've commuted along. I had worried this might be a bit beyond me - I'm bad with heights and haven't got the best balance in the world - but actually it was OK and I enjoyed it. I didn't take any photos except a few on my phone, didn't even take my camera, but J took several.

Coming Down off the Mountain
End of the Walk to Deir el Medina

We were met at Deir el Medina by the coach and the non-walkers, and were taken to the Moon Valley Restaurant for lunch and a well earned cold beer :D After this we were taken to the Colossi of Memnon, which I'm afraid I still find rather underwhelming. Next were more Nobles Tombs - this time of Roy, Shuroy and Amenemopet (who I kept jokingly refering to as Om-nom-nom-pet, but I think this internet reference was a bit too "young" for our companions to find as funny as I did :P ).

We finished the sightseeing portion of the day with another temple - this one the Mortuary Temple of Seti I (so a bit of a Seti themed day). This temple was similar in plan to the Ramesseum and Medinet Habu, and having been started by Seti I it had some very finely carved decoration (and being finished off by Ramesses II it had some less fine stuff too!).

Colossi of MemnonMortuary Temple of Seti I
Colossi of Memnon (L) and Mortuary Temple of Seti I (R)

Once we got back to the hotel we had a bit of time to kill before it was dinner time, and so we went along with some of the others to a bookshop called Aboudi Bookstore. Despite spending a lot of time looking at all the books (mostly Egyptology books in the shop, of course) we didn't actually buy any this time. We did buy a couple of prints of old photos of Egypt tho, and on the way back to the hotel we went into Gaddis (giftshop right next to the hotel entrance) and bought some old postcards (after a thorough look round the shop).

Dinner was in the Royal Bar again - this time with company: Dylan, Eileen, Margaret, Jan and John, if I remember correctly. And Dan and Tammy joined us later for a drink. Eating there twice in a row highlighted how limited their menu selection was, as we ended up repeating the club sandwich and having chicken skewers with it.

22nd November

map of places visited on 22nd November

We had a later start this morning as we didn't need to leave the hotel till 8am. It's amazing how quickly we'd acclimatised, a 6am wake up time felt like a lie in!

The first site of the day was the Valley of the Queens, including the top-billed highlight of the tour: the tomb of Nefertari which is not generally open to the public. It was spectacular, the colours are still so vibrant and fresh looking - pictures in books really don't do it justice. After that we visited another 3 tombs in the Valley, one for a wife of Ramesses III and two for sons of his. Whilst these were well decorated I felt they suffered a bit for us seeing them just after Nefertari's tomb, I think if we'd done them the other way round I'd've been more impressed by them :)

Finding ShadeDeir el Medina
Deir el Medina

Next we went back to Deir el Medina for more of a look at it, concentrating on the tombs & temple. We started at the far end of it, with a look at the Ptolemaic era temple and the Great Pit behind it. The Great Pit was a lot bigger than I'd envisaged (it's a failed well later used as rubbish dump, and contains a lot of pottery shards with writing on, the equivalent of post-it notes for the ancient villagers). We walked back through the village to the tombs of two of the craftsmen (Inerkha and Sennedjem), which are very well decorated as you'd expect given that they were made by the same people who also worked on the tombs of the Pharaohs over in the Valley of the Kings. There was also a bookshop here, set up outside the tombs, but we only bought some postcards.

The Great PitMe with a Fragment of a Pottery Bread Mould
Deir el Medina

Our last site before lunch was Medinet Habu, which is the Mortuary Temple of Ramesses III. J and I had been here last time we went to Egypt, but I'd forgotten just how much colour is still left in parts of the temple. It's really quite spectacular in places.

Medinet HabuMedinet Habu
Medinet Habu

After lunch (at the Moon Valley Restaurant again) we visited Hatshepsut's temple at Deir el Bahri - which felt pretty busy after having had most of the sites to ourselves (still just a fraction of the tourist numbers of 5 years ago though). J & I mostly looked at the first tier - at the Hathor temple, the Punt reliefs and the Anubis temple.

Deir el BahriDeir el Bahri
Deir el Bahri

In the evening we headed back out to the Aboudi bookshop again, and actually bought something this time! We had dinner with some of the others in the hotel buffet (which was nice, but nothing special) before having a few drinks at the pool side bar.

23rd November

map of places visited on 23rd November

This was the last full day of the tour, and the sites we visited on it were an optional extra. Most of us had decided to do them, I think it was just Jan who had opted for a day by the pool to relax before returning home. It was another very early start, leaving the hotel at 6am again, to travel south this time.

Walking to the Amenhotep III Temple at el KabApproaching Vulture Rock
Amenhotep III Temple at el Kab (L) and Vulture Rock

We started at el Kab, which had four different sites within it. First we went to a small temple from the reign of Amenhotep III. Next was Vulture Rock (which was my favourite of the sites we visited on this day) - it is a rocky outcrop by what was once an important trade route and a quarrying site, and it is covered in rock carvings with dates ranging from pre-Dynastic through to the 5th & 6th Dynasties. Everywhere you looked on the rock, and on another nearby rocky outcrop, there were carvings - some of them in proper raised relief, so not just someone's doodles. After that we went to another temple - this one Ptolemaic - before looking at four 18th Dynasty nobles tombs, one of which has a text that gives a lot of information about the 17th Dynasty conquests (rather usefully for archaeologists!).

Ptolemaic Temple at el KabOutside the Nobles' Tombs at Karanis
Ptolemaic Temple (L) and Nobles' Tombs (R) at el Kab

Next was another tomb - the tomb of Ankhtifi at Mo'alla. This dates back to the 1st Intermediate Period, and is the tomb of the governor of the local region who in the absence of a strong Pharaoh was practically a king in his own right. This site was also noteworthy for having half a dozen official looking chaps in leather jackets keeping an eye on the guardians while we were there - inside the tomb felt very crowded!

Eileen Contemplating the Tomb of Ankhtifi
The Approach to Ankhtifi's Tomb

On the journey from Mo'alla to el Tod we had our packed lunches and then we arrived at the final site of the holiday, which was rather sad. We visited the temple of Montu, which is right in the middle of a modern village but despite that it was very peaceful. Some of it dates from the Middle Kingdom, some of it was more recent from the New Kingdom and quite a lot of Ptolemaic era parts.

Temple of Khonsu at el TodTemple of Khonsu at el Tod
Temple at el Tod

It was mid-afternoon when we got back to the hotel, so J & I thought we'd walk along to Luxor Museum to see if the gift shop there was still open (we knew the museum itself would be shut). Not our best decision, not only was the shop not open but also we got harassed by locals trying to get us to have taxi or caleche or boat rides all the way there and all the way back. So we got back to the hotel a trifle frazzled and decided instead of being virtuous and packing we'd sit by the pool with a beer first :)

In the evening Dylan gave us a talk about Nefertari and her tomb, and then most of us went across to the West Bank for a meal (organised by the other Margaret) as a sort of farewell do. Diane & Julian didn't join us (as they'd already eaten before the talk), Kathrine & Michael had been unwell since the Karnak day (so were under doctor's orders not to eat anything exciting) and we were likely to be too late back for Dan's tastes, but everyone else came along. It was fun - good food & good company, but a bit sad as it was the end of the holiday. When we got back to the hotel we still weren't virtuous about packing, and instead headed to the Royal Bar for a couple more beers with Dylan, Jan and Tammy. We finally packed sometime around midnight ...

Dinner on the Last EveningDinner on the Last Evening
Dinner on the last evening

24th November

Our lack of virtuousness regarding packing came home to roost as we had to get up at 4am having had less than four hours sleep, but it was just a day of travelling so that wasn't too bad. The flight was delayed a bit, but otherwise uneventful. We said our goodbyes to most of the people at the luggage carousel at Heathrow, then headed home.

Grail is the final book in Elizabeth Bear's Jacob's Ladder trilogy. I've posted about the previous two here and here. The first time I read the book I read the first couple of pages, then double checked I had the right book - the start is completely different from what I was expecting! (I should've been a bit more trusting, it's clear by halfway down page 3 that it's the right book ...)

As with Chill it's a bit hard to talk about the plot of this one without spoilers for the plot of the previous ones. The overall structure of the trilogy is that book one is about beginning (resuming) the journey, book two is making the journey and now book three is arrival. Well, one of the overall structures :) So in Grail the generation ship Jacob's Ladder arrives at the destination planet they picked out, only to discover that in the meantime humanity has spread and overtaken them. There's a colony on the planet already, and it's not clear if they'll be welcome. Both from the perspective of the amount of resources needed to absorb a sudden increase in population, and from the perspective of how much both cultures have changed since their common origin many centuries ago. The story isn't just about the meeting and interaction of these two cultures - the antagonists from books 1 & 2 are still present and have their own answers to the question of whether the population of Jacob's Ladder should settle on this new planet.

Bear again uses the narrative trick I mentioned when I talked about Carnival several months ago (post). Both cultures have things that are familiar to us and things that are not, and the things that the current point of view character regards as Other are often the familiar things. But the stuff they take for granted is often the things that feel alien to us. Of course in this case it's also a chance for Bear to remind us that these characters we've got comfortable with across the last two books would look and feel very very alien if we were actually to meet them.

I find myself unsatisfied with the ending. I can see how it grows organically out of the story so far, and I can see how it mirrors the ending of the first book of the trilogy (a choice made in extremis to save the population by changing them into something else, perhaps against their will). I can even see how it fits in with a central idea of the trilogy - sometimes all the choices suck, but you still have to choose and accept the consequences of that choice. And all three books have endings that involve finding a way to shift the paradigm to improve your choices (however this doesn't contradict my previous sentence!). I just find it unsatisfying, somehow. I guess perhaps I'd prefer to imagine the two cultures co-existing uneasily and having to deal with each other, than a solution that avoids that?

There's also a narrative thread that felt like it went nowhere much. The existence of other intelligences than the human ones in this book felt like it was only present to highlight how both human cultures had blindspots and a somewhat hubristic approach to their place in the greater universe. This is as opposed to book 2 where I felt the alien life form gave a sense of a wider and more wondrous universe outside the confines of the Jacob's Ladder.

Overall, I enjoyed the book, don't be fooled by the last couple of paragraphs!

On Sunday Sarah Doherty came to talk to the Essex Egyptology Group about the ongoing excavations at Gebel Silsila (or Gebel el Silsila, her slides used the two name interchangeably). She split her talk into two halves (so we could have tea and cake in the middle) - the first half was about the work done at the site in 2012 and 2013, the second half covered 2014 and the plans for the future. The first half was also something of an overview of why the site is interesting, and the second half included more details on the day to day life of the archaeologists working there.

Gebel Silsila is a large site in Upper Egypt where sandstone has been quarried throughout the majority of Egypt's history. It's situated about 40 miles north of Aswan and 500 miles south of Cairo, near Kom Ombo. The site itself is enormous - covering 2.5km of either side of the Nile. Some of the quarries on the site can be seen in Google's satellite imagery - I've stitched together a couple of screenshots below. The red marker is in the same place on both zoom levels and in the zoomed in insert you can see a bit up and to the left of the red marker a jagged line that is the edge of one of the quarry workings. Unusually for Egypt the site is mostly unworked - Petrie was there briefly, and a later French archaeologist, but most of the site is completely untouched.

map of Gebel Silsila
Location of Gebel Silsila

Doherty told us that there are several objectives for the team who are working there. These are to do an epigraphic survey (i.e. catalogue the inscriptions and graffiti at the site); to do topographical documentation of the site; to analyse the ceramics at the site (Doherty's own speciality); to survey the prehistoric rock art; to investigate the quarry marks found at the site; to investigate the quarrying techniques used by the Ancient Egyptians.

A lot of work was done in 2012 on mapping the East Bank and numbering the various quarries - Q1 to Q51. The main quarry is Q34 (it's the visible one in the Google imagery) and there are around 4000 epigraphic inscriptions in the quarry, including quarry marks, graffiti pictures and textual inscriptions. Doherty returned to Q34 later in the second half of the talk for a bit more detail. 2013 saw more documentation of epigraphic inscriptions in the Roman era and Ramesside era quarries, and the beginnings of a site wide rock art survey. Rock art is recorded by photography, and also by copying it onto an acetate overlay - both of these are non-destructive methods.

The earliest of the rock art is around 11,000 years old - dating from just after the last Ice Age. The pieces from 9500BC to 6500BC are referred to as epipaleolithic, and are generally created from rows of dots pecked into the sandstone. The designs may be geometric, or some might represent objects like fishtraps. Doherty said they are similar to designs found in other Wadi sites in Upper Egypt. The next most recent class of rock art is the Predynastic stuff - this dates from the Naqada I period, around 4000BC - 3600BC. This often depicts what is now Ethiopian fauna but at the time was also present in Egypt. She told us about one rock that they refer to as "giraffe rock" which has depictions of 6 giraffes, plus some ostriches and a crocodile. The scenes are like those found on Naqada I pottery, and in the painted tomb at Hierakonpolis.

From Dynastic times there are both pictorial and textual inscriptions - covering the whole period from early Dynastic to the Late Period. The pictures include human figures for the first time and generally look like crude versions of official art from temples & tombs. There are a lot of inscriptions from the Graeco-Roman period. Again there's a mixture of literate and non-literate inscriptions. The non-literate ones include quarry marks and lots of drawings of feet (a sort of "Kilroy woz here" of the Graeco-Roman world). The literate ones include lots of demotic inscriptions. There are also a few bits and pieces from later eras - some Coptic crosses, some French (I think she said they were from the Napoleonic expedition?) and even Howard Carter's initials.

Doherty started the second half of the talk by giving us an idea of the everyday life of an archaeologist on the team. They live on a boat moored on the Nile at the site and generally get up at 6am. They have to make their own breakfast as their chef doesn't get up till later! After a 6:30am breakfast they get their kit together for the day then each head off to the area they're working on. Depending on where on the huge site they're based they might travel by foot or by boat (not the living boat, another one). They then work until lunch at 10am, after which it's back to work. She said they generally finish at 2pm and return to the boat with their discoveries of the day. The evening meal is at 3:30pm, after which they do more analytical work in the evening. Or maybe take some time for a swim in the Nile.

Doherty has spent two seasons with the team - March-Apr 2014 and Nov-Dec 2014. The second season differed from the first as there is now also a baby in the team! The team leader and her husband (also a member of the team) had a baby last summer who they brought with them. Doherty said she spends a lot of her time walking about the site. Partly for archaeological reasons: mapping, topological surveys and finding new sites (she's particularly looking for where the workers lived). But also for more pragmatic reasons: as with every arcaeological site in Egypt at present looting is a concern, and so the team are keeping an eye on the area to see if there are signs of illegal digging or anything else that needs reporting to the authorities.

The major part of Doherty's work is doing a survey of the ceramics at the site - as she'd mentioned earlier in the talk the site hasn't really been excavated before, so the pottery has pretty much not been touched since the Romans left and so there is a lot she will be able find out from it. On a huge site like this there are tens of thousands of pottery shards (as well as the thousands of inscriptions). In the November to December season last year she analysed around 5,000 shards from Q34 so she was explaining how it's important to record and categorise the data as they go along. Each pottery shard she collects is bagged up, sorted and categorised. She categorises them by a variety of properties - starting with broad categories like "bowl", "jar" etc, and sub categories like "base", "handle" and so on. She also separates them out according to the composition of the clay used to make them. For Roman era pottery this is very instructive - she can date pottery quite narrowly by what sort of clay is used. This means she knows that most pottery from Q34 is from the early 1st Century AD. She does also find some older pottery, including the occasional New Kingdom piece. Some of this is blue painted ware, like that found in Amarna - it's generally thought to be used by the elite of Egyptian society but Doherty thinks that finding it at Gebel Silsila suggests it's not as elite as all that.

Doherty also told us about some of the sites where she's found worker huts. These aren't permanent living quarters - she says there's no evidence for people living at the site full time. The sites appear to be organised by function. In one place (above one of the narrow corridors into Q34) she has found evidence of pots used for cooking, another place (that's she's calling Pottery Hill) has little evidence for cooking but does have a lot of food storage vessels. Yet another site (Mo's Tavern) has the remains of vessels that contained beer.

Quarry Marks are one of the types of inscriptions found in the site, and there are a lot of them in the Q34 quarry. They come in different types, some of them look a bit like hieroglyphs but some of them don't. The question the team are trying to answer is what they mean - are they stone masons' marks? Are they religious? Both? The answer seems to be that it depends on context. Even for the ones that are practical in nature there are differences in different contexts. On the walls of the quarry they often find height/width/depth marks indicating where a block needs to be cut, or other functional mason marks. On cut blocks there are marks to do with transportation, with quality control and with destination and ownership. In answer to a question at the end of the talk she said these same marks are found on blocks in temples - primarily at Kom Ombo but other places too.

She finished up by talking a little bit about the issues the site faces and about plans for the future. As well as the "normal" problems of looting, vandalism and accidental destruction by tourists there are other problems that the site faces. For instance it is now illegal to quarry at the site, but in practice the local people do still come and quarry sandstone there. In terms of their future plans one thing they are working on is 3D laser scanning of the rock art which will let them look at it much more closely than is possible on site (she showed us a video demonstrating how you can easily alter the light source over a virtual image of a piece of rock art to bring out details). They are also hoping to make better facilities for tourism - both to keep the tourists where it's safe for the archaeology, and to inform them about more of the site. Another plan is to provide a field school for the local Egyptian Inspectors, who often have little chance for hands-on training in modern archaeology during their schooling.