Treasures of Ancient Egypt (Ep 3); Sacred Wonders of Britain; Tudor Monastery Farm; The Brain: A Secret History

The third and final episode of Treasures of Ancient Egypt covered the period from Ramesses II through to Cleopatra. In terms of the history of the period this can be seen as a long slow decline from the height of New Kingdom power through several foreign dynasties to the annexing of Egypt by the Roman Empire. Alastair Sooke’s thesis was that in terms of the art this was a new dawn – fuelled in part by foreign Pharaohs’ desires to be more Egyptian than the Egyptians, and during times of self-rule by a renewed sense of national pride and connection with their history.

This pieces he looked at were again a mix of iconic objects we all know about, and other less well known objects. This time there were several temples – starting with the temple at Abu Simbel, and later showing us the temple of Horus at Edfu and the temple at Dendera. One of the threads he used to hold the programme together was the gradual introduction of more realism to the art – for instance he looked at the art under the Nubian Pharaohs, and pointed out how the faces were much more lifelike. And this is taken further under the Ptolemies when there is some merging between the naturalistic Greek style and the more stylised Egyptian art. One of the places he took us to illustrate this was a tomb chapel that had the traditional layout and scene types that one would expect, but the figures were drawn in a much more lifelike fashion and looked almost Greek.

The interludes with modern artists were particularly good this week. I liked the chance to see how faience and faience shabtis were made. Faience shabtis as a group were one of his treasures, the first mass produced art in the world. The expert from UCL that he talked to about this first showed him some of the shabtis in the Petrie Museum, and then showed him how he made his own shabti inspired art. The other modern artist was a graffiti artist in Cairo who has taken inspiration from both the official iconography of ancient Egypt (like the Pharaoh smiting his enemies scenes) and from the ostraca found at Deir el Medina. Inspired by the latter he paints topsy-turvy scenes with the cat & mouse instead of people. His art also had a political twist – and he talked about how the same was true for the ancient Egyptians.

This has been a very good series. Although there were a few over simplified pieces of history Sooke generally did a good job of providing enough historical info for context without turning it into a history lesson. As I’m often approaching the objects from a perspective of learning about the history that produced them it was interesting to have someone talk about them as art in their own right. I thought the mix of objects chosen was good too. The “obvious” iconic pieces were there (but looked at from a fresh perspective) and there were several less obvious pieces so the whole thing didn’t feel like we’d seen it all before. At first I was dubious about the bits where Sooke talked to modern artists, but some of the later segments of that sort were really cool.

We finished three other serieses this week, so I shall try & keep my commentary brief! The first of these was Sacred Wonders of Britain – a Neil Oliver series that looked at sacred places in Britain from earliest prehistory through to the Reformation. This is quite a large sweep of time, and I thought the last episode was the weakest of the three. In part because it didn’t feel like it was quite Oliver’s thing, being history not archaeology, and in part because they were having to take account of the fact that Christianity is a current faith. As always with a programme presented by Oliver I thought he went too far off into flights of fancy at times – taking the expert opinion of “maybe” and turning it into a long imagined story of how it “was”.

However, criticisms aside I do like his programmes overall and this series was no exception. There were a lot of places shown that I’d not heard of or seen before which was cool to see. I was particularly struck by the prehistoric flint mine which at first didn’t seem like it was a particularly good candidate for sacred. But as the archaeologists pointed out there was plenty of flint available on the surface in the very same location of the same quality as that from the mines. There were several tools left behind in the mines which didn’t seem in poor condition, and the few skeletons that have been found (in cave ins) were of young people on the cusp of adulthood. Taking all of that together they think it might’ve been some sort of rite of passage.

Another series we finished was Tudor Monastery Farm. This was part re-enactment and part documentary, presented by Ruth Goodman, Peter Ginn and Tom Pinfold. It’s part of a collection of serieses called SOMETHING Farm, each taking a different period of history and telling us about farming during that time, we’ve previously watched Wartime Farm (post). This was the first of these serieses that Tom Pinfold had been in – in the previous ones the third presenter was Alex Langlands – and sadly I didn’t think he had much on screen chemistry with anyone. From a quick look around the BBC website it seems he’s pretty new to being a presenter, so perhaps he’ll improve as he relaxes into the job.

There were 6 episodes in the regular series covering the whole year of farming and life as it would have been in the year 1500, and one special afterwards which looked at Christmas festivities. They’d picked this year as it was pre-Reformation and post-Wars of the Roses. So it was a peaceful, settled era and the people still observed all the Catholic rites. The farm type they were recreating was a farm owned by a monastery, but worked by prosperous lay people. One of the key themes of the series was that farming in this period was beginning to change – more and more the tenant farmers were growing grain and raising animals to sell as well as to feed themselves and give to the monastery. One of the things I like about these serieses is that the re-enactment portion of it really shows how things worked – like how you build a fence if you’re a Tudor farmer – and the documentary side of it fills in the little details you wouldn’t get just by looking at it (which woods you choose and how you get them, in the case of the fence).

Because this was about such a long ago period of time they didn’t just cover farming. There were, of course, a lot of details about everyday life (like clothes, or how they cooked). And they also covered more specialist things like how to make a stained glass window, how you mined and purified lead, how salt was produced, how they made fireworks and so on. All in all a rather good series 🙂

And we also finished up what we had recorded of The Brain: A Secret History – we were missing the first of the three episodes. It was a series about how the brain works and how we found out about it, presented by Michael Mosley. Of the two episodes we watched one dealt with emotions, and the other with mapping bits of the brain to functions. The emotions one was at times hard to watch as the sorts of experiments done to figure out how emotions work were generally not very nice – like frightening a young child to see if phobias could be induced (they can), or shutting up baby monkeys in too-small isolation cages to see what effect that has on their adult psyches (a bad effect). The other episode had more “wow, that’s weird” moments and less trauma – however it had a lot of footage from somebody’s brain surgery which I was too squeamish to look at (yeah, I’m a wimp).

So at times difficult to watch for a variety of reasons (and I think from the clips in the intro segment we missed the most disturbing episode) – but it was an interesting couple of programmes. There were a lot of “neat facts” about how our brains work, and the ethical quagmires of how one does experiments to find these out were well explained.

Other TV watched this week:

Episode 1 of Survivors: Nature’s Indestructible Creatures – series presented by Richard Fortey looking at three mass extinction events and showing us modern examples of the species that survived them.

Episode 1 of Pilgrimage with Simon Reeve – a programme about the history of (Christian) pilgrimage, pilgrimage sites and the modern incarnation of it.