May 2015 in Review

This is an index and summary of the things I’ve talked about over the last month. Links for multi-post subjects go to the first post (even if it’s before this month), you can follow the internal navigation links from there.



“The Sea Thy Mistress” Elizabeth Bear – third book in the Edda of Burdens series. New.

Total: 1


All Seeing.

And I Must Scream …

Look to the Stars.

Looking for the Greener Grass.

Symbols of Power.

Total: 5


The Photon – In Our Time episode about light & photons.

Total: 1


“The Ark Tablet: How the Life of an Assyriologist Could be Transformed by a Single Tablet with Sixty Lines of Writing” Irving Finkel – the fourth talk in the BSS Study Day on cuneiform.

“Egyptian Fortifications in Canaan” Rupert Chapman – talk at the May EEG meeting.

“The Royal Game of Ur: From Ancient Grave to Modern Rebirth” Irving Finkel – the third part of the BSS Study Day on cuneiform.

Total: 3



Cleopatra: A Timewatch Guide – a rather substandard programme about how our ideas of Cleopatra have changed over the years.

Total: 1


Egypt Holiday 2014: Seti I Temple at Abydos.

Egypt Holiday 2014: Ramesses II Temple at Abydos.

Egypt Holiday 2014: Dendara Temple.

Total: 3

“The Ark Tablet: How the Life of an Assyriologist Could be Transformed by a Single Tablet with Sixty Lines of Writing” Irving Finkel (Part 4 of BSS Study Day)

The last talk in the Bloomsbury Summer School’s Cuneiform Study Day was about the ark tablet that Irving Finkel has recently published a book about. There was also a TV documentary about the discovery of the tablet, and the building of a boat using the information in the tablet as a starting point (which I’ve written about before). The talk was mostly unconcerned with the TV programme, but about halfway through Finkel did go on a digression about the awfulness of it (as he saw it) – the “turning it into ‘good’ TV” process made it shallow and theatrical in all sorts of ways he didn’t like. He did think the boat was cool, tho!

Finkel started off by giving us some context for Flood Stories in cuneiform texts (which is exactly what I complained the TV programme didn’t do). George Smith in 1852 was the first person to read a cuneiform tablet containing a version of the Ark Story. This was the first time it was shown that a Biblical story pre-dated the Bible. The impact of this in society at the time was huge (much larger than it would be today), as it’s such a fundamental Old Testament story. There are close & specific links between the story that Smith read and the Biblical version, too. One of these is the releasing of the two birds to see if there is any land yet. However the boat as described in that text is cubical, so those who were particularly upset said that showed it was all a coincidence. The tablet that Smith read is part of the Epic of Gilgamesh, and is actually one of the more recent cuneiform texts with a Flood Story. Since Smith’s discovery other (older) versions have been found. Although details differ, including the protagonist, they all share a common point that the gods had decided that the creation of humanity had been a mistake. The gods thus cause a flood to wipe them away, but one man is saved by one god warning him.

The new tablet that Finkel has translated & published dates to around 1800BC. It was initially brought to the British Museum along with various other bits & pieces by a man who’d inherited it from his father (who’d picked up these things on various trips). Finkel thought it was a letter at first glance, but then when he read the first lines it was clear that it was a Babylonian Flood Story and it didn’t match the ones he’d seen before. Which was very exciting, but sadly the chap who owned it took it away again and it was a while before Finkel had the chance to properly study it.

This version of the story includes a “How To” manual for building the ark. Unusually it describes a boat that is round – shaped like a coracle. Coracles are normally pretty small scale, but this one is much bigger. Finkel made the point that it didn’t need to go anywhere (coracles are normally propelled by oars, so it might be difficult to move a larger one) – for the occupants to survive the flood it only needed to float. The numbers and instructions in the text are surprisingly specific – not like mythological numbers generally are. If you calculate how much of the materials you would need to make a boat of that design the figures come out within 1% of those in the text. And the instructions match up well with those in a book published in the 1930s (AD) talking about coracle building in the more modern Middle East. So this is effectively the story being interrupted for an (accurate) info-dump about boat building. Finkel pointed out that this would’ve been of interest to the audience for the story, particularly if it was told orally (as it probably was) – there would be many fishermen and other river-goers who might want to know just how big this big boat was and so on. (It made me think of things like Tom Clancy’s novels where the story gets interrupted for a loving description of exactly what sort of gun is being used).

After his digression about the TV programme Finkel talked about his interest in the broader picture into which this tablet fits. Primarily – how did this ancient Mesopotamian legend end up retold in the Jewish Bible? Clearly the Exile of the Jews in Babylon must have something to do with it. Judea is invaded twice by Nebuchadnezzar, and this is documented in both the Old Testament and in the bureaucratic records of the Babylonian Empire. The texts corroborate each other to a pretty high degree – for instance there are people named in the text of the Hebrew Bible who are also mentioned in Babylonian documents. The second invasion of Judea is when Jerusalem was sacked and the bulk of the Jews were forcibly marched to Babylon. Finkel talked a bit here about what it must’ve been like for the Jews – his analogy was that in terms of culture shock it must’ve been much like it was for the rural Eastern European Jews who emigrated to New York in the 1930s.

The Book of Daniel talks about the young nobles of the Judeans being instructed in the language and literature of the Babylonians during the exile. This was a policy on the part of the Babylonians intended to indoctrinate the Judean elite with Babylonian culture, so that they would be less likely to rebel and instead be assimilated. Evidence from the Bablyonian side of the education of the Judeans includes a tablet which lists the Aramaic alphabet in cuneiform signs. The cross-cultural mixing went both ways – written around this time is a Babylonian tablet musing about monotheism and postulating that all the other gods are manifestations of Marduk. I.e. that Adad is “Marduk of the Rain” and so on.

At the time one of the ways students learnt to read & write was copying out set texts. From student tablets that have been found archaeologists have some idea of the school curriculum of the time that the Judeans were in Babylon. The stories they would’ve been copying included not only the Flood Story, but also one with a baby discovered in bulrushes and other legends of early rulers who lived unfeasibly long lives. And these all have parallels that end up in the Hebrew Bible.

This was a good talk to end the day on, and answered several of the things I was curious about after the TV programme. I intend at some point to read his book about the tablet, too. Overall this was a very interesting study day. Finkel is a very good speaker – my write-ups of his talks are sadly a rather dry rendition of the actual performance.

“The Sea Thy Mistress” Elizabeth Bear

The Sea Thy Mistress is the third book in Elizabeth Bear’s The Edda of Burdens series, following on from the end of both of the preceding books (All the Windwracked Stars (post) and By the Mountain Bound (post)). It’s pretty much impossible to talk about this book without some spoilers for the other two, so be warned there are spoilers ahead even for this one.

Both the previous books are stories about the end of the world, whether it be by a bang (BtMB) or a long drawn out whimper (AtWS). The Sea Thy Mistress is about a new beginning, and the tension comes from the vulnerability of the newborn world. At the end of All the Windwracked Stars Muire willing took up the role of Bearer of Burdens and brought life back to the world. But the Lady Heythe has ridden out of the first ending of the world into this new beginning. The world changed while she wasn’t there but she only aims to finish the job she started in By the Mountain Bound.

This story is also Cathoair’s story. With Strifbjorn’s soul but not Strifbjorn’s memories he’s an apt central character for this part of the trilogy. He (and the world) are at root the same as the previous man (world) but he (and the world) is also distinct and his (its) own individual self (world). And I hadn’t thought about it till writing this, but I think there’s a similar resonance for the world & the protagonist of each of the previous books. Muire & the world didn’t quietly give up & die in All the Windwracked Stars, instead they kept on going and even appearing to live despite the despair and/or dying that was concealed inside. I find it harder to articulate how the Wolf and the world match in By the Mountain Bound, but I still feel they do – something about being broken by someone using their very nature against them.

This story might take place a few decades after the end of All the Windwracked Stars, but it’s still a direct sequel. Cathoair hasn’t got over the traumatic events of the end that story. Muire is still gone, Astrid is still dead by his hand. He’s an immortal now – a new angel for a new world, and as such has a purpose and is alive. But he’s not really alive, more going through the motions. That starts to change when he becomes responsible for bringing up his son – Muire was pregnant by Cathoair when she made her sacrifice and the babe has been born and sent back to the living world (the Bearer of Burdens is presumably not a role that meshes well with bringing up even an immortal child).

And it is into this new life that Heythe walks. Of course the reader knows more than the protagonists do about Heythe – except the Wolf, but the Wolf is not trusted by Cathoair. And so Heythe has the cracks and flaws in Cathoair & the world that she needs to drive her wedges in and try to prise it all apart again. But this book is not a tragedy, and this new world is not as fragile as it first seems – there’s genuine hope at the end that the wounds of the last world are healed.

This has been one of my favourite of Bear’s series that I’ve read. I like what she’s done with Norse mythology, and I like the world & the people she’s created to inhabit it. I left it a bit long to write up this book, so I think I’ve forgotten some of the things I wanted to say about it, which is a shame. But I’m sure I’ll re-read it some day 🙂

In Our Time: The Photon

The episode on In Our Time about photons was summed up near the end by all the experts agreeing with an Einstein quote that if you think you understand what a photon is then you’re deluding yourself! So that makes it a trifle daunting to write up the episode but is reassuring in that the reason the subject feels slippery & hard to grasp is because it is 🙂 The three experts who joined Melvyn Bragg in discussing photons were Frank Close (University of Oxford), Wendy Flavell (University of Manchester) and Susan Cartwright (University of Sheffield).

Close opened the discussion by giving a summary of the 19th Century view of light. The key idea at this time was that light was a part of the electromagnetic spectrum. The electromagnetic spectrum is the name given to waves formed electromagnetically – an electrical field builds up, which generates a magnetic field, the electrical field fades away as the magnetic field builds up, and a new electrical field builds up as the magnetic field fades away. These waves can have any frequency, and scientists showed the light was a part of this spectrum (i.e. that this is what light is). The existence of non-visible frequencies was predicted after this.

This didn’t, however, explain all the known observations of light. Cartwright discussed the “black body problem”: as you heat something up it starts to emit light, first red, then yellow and so on up to the bluer wavelengths. Planck figured out that this sequence can be explained if you assume that the light comes in little packets of energy (quanta), and that the amount of energy in each packet is determined by the frequency of the electromagnetic light wave. I don’t think I’d heard of the “black body problem” before, but I was aware of the existence of Planck’s constant – which is part of this theory.

At the time Planck was thinking about this problem it was assumed that the quanta were a property of the heated object and not of light itself – after all it was “known” that light was a wave and waves don’t come in discrete particles. Flavell explained that Einstein suggested that light might need to be thought of as a particle as well, but most people thought that was ludicrous. It wasn’t until after experiments done by Compton on interference patterns, which produced results that could only be caused by light being made up of particles, that it became accepted that photons are both waves and particles.

Having brought us up to speed on the history behind the theory of light’s paradoxical existence as both a wave & a particle the experts moved on to discuss more of the properties of photons. Photons are massless, consisting only of energy. This is why they travel at “the speed of light” – that’s the speed of a massless particle, anything with mass must travel slower. Photons are bosons one of the two broad classes of particles – the other being fermions. The classes are distinguished by how many can exist in the same quantum state at the same time. There can only be one fermion in each quantum state (and this is why we don’t fall through matter), but there can be more than one boson in each quantum state. Photons are also the mechanism by which the electromagnetic force is transferred around between objects.

The wave/particle duality of photons is one of the pairs of things that can’t be measured at the same time. This is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which I had heard of before but hadn’t realised applied to more than position/speed of particles. The experiments that demonstrate this practically are some of the weirder experimental data I’ve heard of, a proper demonstration of the counter-intuitive nature of quantum physics. If you look at light passing through a diffraction grate, then you see interference patterns – this is light acting as a wave. However, if you measure it at the level of single photons passing through, then you have “forced” the light to act like a particle by counting them and there are no interference patterns. And bizarrely if you measure like this and then delete the data the patterns reappear!?

My write-up of this has definitely not done the subject justice – physics is my weakest subject by far, especially quantum physics. Still interesting to learn a bit about, tho 🙂

“The Royal Game of Ur: From Ancient Grave to Modern Rebirth” Irving Finkel (Part 3 of BSS Study Day)

The third talk of the Bloomsbury Summer School Study Day about cuneiform was all about the Royal Game of Ur. Irving Finkel is interested in board games as well as being an expert on ancient Mesopotamian cultures and so this game is of particular interest to him. There were six boards for it found the Royal Cemetery of Ur (in southern Iraq) by Leonard Woolley. The photo below is one that I took of the board on display in the British Museum. These boards date from around 2600BC and for a long time they were the only game boards of this sort to be found. Other similar examples are now known from around the same sort of time (for example from eastern Iran, and from the Indus Valley).

The Royal Game of Ur
Board for the Royal Game of Ur

The game is a race game, and the probable route is that the players start their pieces at the right hand end of the big block of squares and proceed horizontally leftwards to the rosette squares – one player at the top, one at the bottom. They then both move along the central line all the way to the right, where they separate and each follow their own track to the final rosette on the lefthand end of the small block of squares where they leave the board.

Somewhere around about the transition from the 2nd Millennium BC to the 1st Millennium BC the board changes shape. Instead of the two players separating and looping back at the end of the central run the run is extended by a further four squares. This shift in design takes place everywhere the game is played at around the same time. Finkel said this is probably because it makes the end of the game more exciting – in the original layout once you got to the split point then you probably knew you couldn’t be prevented from winning, but you still had to play out the last whatever moves before you actually won. The game spread even further with this changed layout. When the Hyksos invaded Egypt (in the Second Intermediate Period) they brought the game with them. In fact the game boxes from Tutankhamun’s grave have senet on one face and the modified Game of Ur board on the other face. Finkel took great delight in tweaking the noses of the Egyptologists in the room at this point – he pointed out that when the hieroglyphs on the sides are the right way up then the senet board is face down. So he thinks that makes it likely that the Game of Ur was the primary game not the Egyptian game of Senet!

Bringing this back to cuneiform writing Finkel discussed the first known written rules for a board game – which are on a cuneiform tablet dating to 119BC right near the end of the period that cuneiform was used. The front of the tablet has a 4×3 grid, each square of which has a zodiac sign & an inscription in. This seems to be some form of divination game – fling the dice, read off your fortune. On the reverse there are the rules for a “game fit for nobles” called the Game of Pack of Dogs. The first part of the text is a library tag written by the scribe who wrote the tablet explaining what it is and where it was copied from, the rest is the rules of the game. The rules talk about different pieces for each side, and they start in different places depending on type and on the dice roll. For instance if you roll a 5 the piece called the Storm Bird will start on square 5. There are also rules for when each type of piece lands on one of the special squares (marked with rosettes on the game board above). The rules are full of puns/jokes based on the fact that the phrase for “pack of dogs” also means “troop of soldiers”.

These are believed to be the rules for a descendent of the Royal Game of Ur, because of similarities to the only known modern survival of the game. There is a Jewish community in India who are descendants of Jews who moved there in the 1st Millennium BC from Babylon. They play a game on a board similar to the second layout for this game, using rules that are similar to the ones from the cuneiform tablet.

Game of Ur Board Scratched at Gate Guardian's Feet
Game Board Scratched at Gate Guardian’s Feet

Finkel finished up by talking a bit about the spread & popularity of the game. He believes it was invented in the Indus Valley in the 3rd Millenium BC, and rapidly spread through the surrounding area – to Iran and then Iraq, and through India into Sri Lanka. As mentioned before the board changes in the 1st Millennium BC and this change propagates through the whole of the game playing region. It was widely played – game boards are found scratched in floors all over the region, even between the feet of the Winged Assyrian Bull gate guardians that are in the British Museum. However it was replaced almost entirely by backgammon – leaving only that one survival discussed above.