February 2016

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

The Fertile Crescent

Neolithic Era

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Painting Paradise Exhibition

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

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

Painting Paradise Exhibition

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

Painting Paradise Exhibition

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

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

Painting Paradise Exhibition

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

Painting Paradise Exhibition

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

Painting Paradise Exhibition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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