“The Middle East: The Cradle of Civilisation Revealed” Stephen Bourke (Part 9)

The last part of this chapter of the Middle East book covers the end of the 2nd Millennium BCE, it first looks at the return of Assyria as a power in the region. Then it talks about Bronze Age Collapse which occurs in the 12th Century BCE and ushers in what is sometimes called a “dark age”. The big powers (Egypt, Assyria) wobble but many of the smaller states suffer a severe crisis. The power vacuum this leaves sets the stage for the “Age of Empires” as the next chapter of the book refers to it.

Orientation Dates:

  • 1600-1046 BCE: The Shang Dynasty of China (post).
  • 1550-1069 BCE: The New Kingdom in Egypt.
  • 1351–1334 BCE: Reign of Akhenaten in Egypt.
  • 1332–1323 BCE: Reign of Tutankhamun in Egypt.
  • 1279–1213 BCE: Reign of Ramesses II in Egypt.
  • 1186-1155 BCE: Reign of Ramesses III in Egypt.

Power Struggles: The Rise of Assyria

Assyria had been a notable power in the region around 1800 BCE, but by 1750 BCE it was practically a vassal to the Babylonians – although there is some limited evidence that there might’ve been a greater degree of autonomy than the term vassal would suggest. At some point in the 16th Century BCE Assyria becomes a vassal of the Mitanni – although the (later) Assyrian King List keeps on listing names of kings for this period there are no contemporary Assyrian royal inscriptions at all from this period. So the “kings” may well’ve been governors installed by the Mitanni in some sense. There’s also some textual evidence to suggest that the Assyrian kingdom wasn’t a cohesive whole during this time – it may’ve been fragmented into several vassal kingdoms of the Mitanni.

Assyrian royal inscriptions reappear in the archaeological record around 1420 BCE, and they start to appear in the diplomatic record again shortly afterwards. By the time Ashuruballit I takes the throne in c.1363 BCE Assyria regards itself as an independent state, capable of participating in diplomatic gift exchanges with Egypt (as recorded in the Amarna letters). 50 years later the Assyrian kings are once again styling themselves “Mighty King, King of Assyria”, reflecting Assyria’s return to the status of major power in the region.

Under Adad-nirari I (ruled c.1305-1274 BCE) the Assyrians conquered the Syrian region where the Mitanni kingdom had once been – not once, but twice. The Mitannian kingdom had given way to a new state called Hanigalbat, and Adad-nirari I’s first campaign against them was justified as retaliation for hostilities committed by the Hanigalbatean king Shattuara. Shattuara was captured and “encouraged” to become an Assyrian vassal, but his son requested help from the Hittites which prompted Adad-nirari I to invade once more, this time finishing the job and retaining control of the region. Adad-nirari I also successfully campaigned against the Kassite rulers of Babylon, pushing the border back into what had previously been Babylonian territory. But culturally speaking the Assyrians looked to Babylon – using Standard Babylonian in written texts (instead of the Assyrian dialect of Akkadian) and revering Babylonian gods. And Adad-nirari I also managed to get himself accepted as an equal of the Hittite king Hattusili III, with all their diplomatic correspondence addressing each other as “brother”. So by the end of his reign Assyria was once more the equal or superior of any of the major powers in the region.

Shalmaneser I succeeded his father as king of Assyria in c.1273 BCE and continued the military expansion of the Assyrian kingdom. As well as putting down another revolt in the Hanigalbat kingdom to the west, Shalmaneser I also campaigned to the north of Assyria. The peoples he fought there were the Urartians, which is the first time they are documented – in later centuries they were to become a powerful kingdom but at this point they were apparently not yet unified. Relationships with the Hittites cooled during Shalmaneser I’s reign – the Hittites attempted to encourage an economic embargo against the Assyrians. Shalmaneser I was also notable for beginning the practice of systematically deporting conquered peoples, using them as an important part of the workforce in the kingdom’s heartland.

Shalmaneser I was succeeded by his son Takulti-ninurta I, who may be the real person behind the biblical stories of Nimrod or the stories of the Greek king Nino or Ninus.* Takulti-ninurta I ruled for a long time, 36 years, and expanded the Assyrian territory further into Anatolia and Babylon. After he had conquered Babylon he install Assyrian governors to directly rule the city, and also uprooted several of the religious artifacts from that city and transported them (and some of the associated ritual practices) to Assur. This did not go down well with the Babylonians, nor with the Assyrians. Perhaps due to tensions with the elite in Assur Takulti-ninurta I founded a new capital across the river Tigris from Assur, making a big deal that it was founded on virgin soil. Much of what is known about his reign comes from an Epic that was composed to celebrate his victory over the Kassite rulers of Babylon (presumably commissioned by Takulti-ninurta I). It’s very much a justification of his moral superiority over the defeated foe. Takulti-ninurta I almost certainly died by assassination, and Assyria went into decline for about a century after his death in c.1208 BCE.

*Or so the book says, in a single sentence starting with “Some have viewed” and then promptly drops the info on the floor and fails to explain who views, why they view or indeed any points of similarity. Oh well. It let them use a 17th Century Dutch painting of Semiramis tho, who isn’t mentioned anywhere in the text in this section and later in the book is noted as having been married to someone else *rolls eyes*

The next important ruler of Assyria was Tiglath-pileser I, who ruled from c.1115-1077 BCE, who reorganised the military and set about re-expanding the Assyrian kingdom. He’s the first Assyrian king that we know to have recorded annals for his reign. They’re not dated, nor are lengths of the campaigns mentioned, but his military campaigns are listed in chronological order in these annals. I’m not sure how they know it’s chronological if there are no dates – perhaps internal evidence from the text? He campaigned in the same regions that his predecessors had done – against the people to the north (who at this point were the Mushki), into Anatolia amongst the Neo-Hittite kingdoms, against the peoples in modern day Syria (including Arameans living near the Euphrates), and against the Babylonians. He’s also known to modern archaeologists for gathering together a collection of documents we now call the Middle Assyrian Laws. These seem to’ve been his library copy of a selection of original texts written 300 or so years before his time, covering a wide variety of subjects including things like blasphemy, abortion, inheritance, maritime traffic. He was probably also assassinated, and once again the Assyrian kingdom went into decline for around a century.

The book now breaks from its chronological trot through the rise of the Assyrians to talk about the Sea Peoples, the fall of the Hittites and the ensuing Dark Age. The name “the Sea Peoples” comes from Egyptian texts, starting with sporadic mentions in the time of Ramesses II (reigned c.1279-1213 BCE) through to more frequent mentions in the time of Ramesses III (reigned c.1184-1153 BCE) who had to fight a series of battles against them (which he records on the walls of the temple at Medinet Habu). There are also references in texts from countries in the Middle East of destruction around this time period, and there is archaeological evidence of increased destruction taking place – archaeologists presume that both of these strands of evidence are referencing the same peoples as the Egyptian texts. So who were the Sea Peoples? The short answer is that we’re not entirely certain but there’s a reasonable amount of evidence to link specific named groups of Sea Peoples to people who had previously been living in the Aegean and Anatolian areas. There’s also archaeological evidence of abandonment of settlements in Mycenaea around this time. It’s not at all clear why these peoples were on the move – the reliefs at Medinet Habu depict not just soldiers but families, so it seems that this was migration rather than purely military expeditions. Famine or sudden climate change have been put forward as potential explanations for the migrations, but there’s no consensus. There’s also no consensus on how much of an effect the Sea People’s migrations had on the region – although it seems plausible that they did contribute to the destabilisation that occurred in this time period.

The fall of the Hittites is a part of that destabilisation. The deterioration of the state appears to’ve started during the reign of Tudhaliya IV (c.1237-1209 BCE), and the last of the Hittite kings was Suppiluliuma II (c.1207-1190 BCE). The causes are unclear – conflict with the Assyrians certainly played a part, and probably so did conflict with the Sea Peoples. One key military conflict during Suppliluliuma II’s reign was with people based on Cyprus, to protect grain shipments heading from modern Syria into the Hittite kingdom. The people on Cyprus at the time may or may not’ve been Sea Peoples who’d settled there. Ultimately the Hittites were unable to sufficiently protect their grain shipments, and that caused famine. There’s even a reference in an Egyptian text (dating to the reign of Merenptah) to a shipment of grain being sent to the Hittites as aid. What exactly the coup de grace that finished off the Hittites was is unknown – some cities show evidence of destruction as would be caused by an invasion, some cities show evidence of abandonment instead.

The next 300 years or so (c.1200-900 BCE) is referred to as a Dark Age – as with other Dark Ages this is because of a lack of textual evidence for the era in question. The Babylonian and Hittite kingdoms had both collapsed, and Egypt and Assyria were both weakened. This meant that there was a power vacuum and new players rose to prominence. In Babylon (which had been ruled by a Kassite dynasty) a new local dynasty rose to prominence, although it wasn’t a match in power for its predecessors. Harassing both this Babylonian dynasty and the Assyrians were the Aramean peoples who were spreading into Mesopotamia proper from Syria where they had settled. In the long term they were very succesful at infiltrating into Mesopotamia – their language, culture and alphabetic script all rose to prominence in the 1st Millennium BCE.

The chapter finishes with a four page spread about the Bible and its relation to the history of this period. Parts of this section read like one person wrote it, and another went through scattering “if it really happened” and other such phrases at judicious intervals! Which makes it quite hard to sum up, as almost every paragraph ends by undermining everything it just said. There are possible linguistic and cultural similarities between what the Old Testament says about the Patriarchs and the city of Mari on the Euphrates. There are possibly cultural parallels with Ugarit (in particular Ugaritic poetry), and the Ugaritic language is very similar to Biblical Hebrew. The author here spends a while trying to place the time period of the Exodus – whilst saying that there’s “no evidence but”. They settle on 19th Dynasty prior to the reign of Merenptah, as far as I can tell. They note that the Biblical laws are remarkably similar to the laws of earlier times in Mesopotamia. Interestingly the key difference is that the Mesopotamian ones are generated by the king (and then offered to the gods for approval) but the Israelite laws are created by God who presents them to humanity (as a take it or leave it deal, not for approval). There were, I think, more nuggets of interesting information in this bit of the chapter than I’ve presented here – but something about the tone of it set my teeth on edge (as I’m sure is apparent).

The next chapter of the book will start by returning to Assyria – the Age of Empires is about to begin.

Celts: Art and Identity (British Museum Exhibition)

At the end of 2015 the British Museum put on an exhibition about the Celts, looking at both the original culture in its historical context and the way it was later re-imagined. The overall take home message from the exhibition was that the ancient people we now call Celts probably didn’t think of themselves as such, and the modern peoples who we call Celts don’t necessarily have that much to do with the ancient Celts. The Greeks were the first to refer to “the Celts”, and the Romans later took up the term. They used it for the barbarians to the North and East of Greece & Rome – in modern day Spain, France, Eastern Europe and Turkey; not Britain (at least not intially). It’s not known if the Celts saw themselves as single culture, nor if they used the term Celts to describe themselves, but it seems unlikely.

To set the tone the exhibition opened with three iconic (modern) Celtic symbols: an Irish harp, the Druid’s flag and a Pictish stone. And then around the corner were some examples of ancient Celtic art, and video showing the changes in what Celt has meant through the ages – covering along the way the noble barbarians of Roman writings, the Christian monks of Ireland, the national folk heroes of the 19th Century. After this the exhibition fell into two parts: first the historical Celts and then the later re-imagining of Celtic identity.

The ancient Celtic artifacts were laid out in several cases in one long sweeping room, with curved trails on the ceiling which you could use as a guide for how to travel between the cases. I hope they did that on purpose (I’m sure they did), because it seemed awfully thematically appropriate. The central theme of this whole room was that the ancient Celts were many different peoples & tribes, but they were linked by shared culture, art style and languages. So it seemed appropriate to be moving between the disparate cases following a line drawn from their art style. An important difference between Celtic art and the contemporary Greek art was that the Celts weren’t interested in naturalistic representations. Of course the abstract swirls and so on aren’t naturalistic, but even their portrayals of animals (as in the jug I have a picture of below) are stylised rather than realistic. (That jug is one of the Basse-Yutz Flagons, found in France dating to 400-360BCE – I took this picture a couple of years ago, one of the pair is on display in the Iron Age Europe room in the British Museum, and it’s one of my favourite items to go & see.)

Jug With Hunting Dogs and Duck Decoration

The items in this room were grouped thematically rather than by culture, to emphasise the commonalities. Near the beginning of the space was a reminder that they shared so much because the world was a connected world then as it is now – trade links people – and one of the cases that was particularly striking was a selection of torcs from right across the Celtic region. They were all recognisably the same thing, but different areas had different styles. Some were big and powerful looking, some were beautiful and delicately made. I particularly liked a big silver one from southwest Germany which had bulls heads as the terminals. And then as counterpoint to that case there was a hoard of torcs that was discovered in Scotland – there are several different styles of torc in this hoard, but all were made locally and inspired by exotic foreign designs.

As well as traders the Celts were also warriors. One of the items in the exhibition for this theme was a carynx – a boar headed warhorn. They had both an original and a replica, and a recording of a replica being played, which was rather cool. They also had a replica chariot, based on fittings found in a grave in Wetwang, Yorkshire dating to c.200 BCE, which I was a bit surprised to see had some basic sort of suspension rather than being completely solid.

The Celts also went in for feasting in a big way – the Greek writers thought the Celts were very fond of their wine. And to serve their feasts they had ornate vessels, some of which have also been discovered in graves for feasting in the afterlife. The pièce de résistance here was the Grundestrup Cauldron, which I would’ve loved to’ve taken photos of but had to settle for a postcard instead – which shows the same bit of decoration as the photo below (which I found on wikipedia with a licence that meant I could use it). It’s not actually my favourite bit of the decoration – that was the bit with the warriors playing carynxs.

Picture of the Gundestrup Cauldron
Gundestrup Cauldron Decoration, photo by Malene Thyssen.

The next section of the exhibition looked at the impact of Roman conquest on Celtic art, and identity. In continental Europe the Celtic style pretty much vanished in favour of Roman art. The situation in Britain was more complex – Britain was conquered relatively late, and never completely, so it was more of a frontier and never fully assimilated culturally into the Empire. There was definitely some Roman art in Britain of course – for instance they had on display a statue of Nero found in East Anglia around the time of Boudicea. And there was also some amalgamation of gods (and associated iconography). But Celtic art styles and culture also became a badge of “not Roman”, particularly around the periphery of the Empire on both sides of the border. Torcs, for instance, became more elaborate and are used as a statement of cultural identity (as opposed to just of status within the culture).

The exhibition then moved on to a time after the Romans left and after the Anglo-Saxons arrived. In this period the Celts were once again the periphery of the main culture of the British Isles – the “not Anglo-Saxon” peoples living at the western & northern edges. These post-Roman Celts were Christians, and their Christianity had an art & devotional style that was distinctively Celtic. The items that caught my eye in this section were a large (replica) stone cross from Iona, and at the other end of the scale the St Chad Gospels. For all their Christianity they still kept telling some of their original mythological stories – we know this because they were written down later in the medieval period in manuscripts like the Book of the White Earl.

The last couple of sections of the exhibition left behind the historical Celts and moved on to the later rediscovery & re-imagining of Celtic identity. There’s no evidence that the historical Celts ever thought of themselves as Celtic, and once the Romans had left Britain no-one else called them Celts either. This changed with the Renaissance, when scholars returned the old Greek/Roman term to use, but redefined it as specifically the people of the north-west of the British Isles rather than a Europe-wide culture. Books from the 17th Century tended to depict the ancient Celts in a very similar way to the way contemporary artists depicted Native Americans, and this theme continued through to some Victorian art as well. Even down to skin tone in some cases, as if the peoples met on the other side of the world had to be physically similar to ancient peoples because all were considered “noble savages”! The mind boggles.

From the 1750’s onwards the Celts and their mythology & history were retold in romanticised tales. For instance in 1760 there was a book publised by James Macpherson which purported to be a translation of work by the Celtic bard Ossiam. It was enormously popular, inspiring paintings and sculpture, and admired across Europe by people such as Goethe & Napoleon. Even after it was revealed to be the fabrication of Macpherson and not remotely ancient nor Celtic it still retained a lot of influence. The later 19th Century Celtic Revival was based a little bit more in fact – archaeological discoveries like the Tara brooch inspired jewellery designs and pattern books. Rennie Mackintosh’s work is a part of this movement and the part that I like. The part that I’m rather less fond of is what I’d characterise as Victorian twee-ness, and they had several examples of such things. There’d been a Victorian statue of Caractacus earlier in the exhibition that fell into this category, and also a few rather twee paintings of Celtic myths (like John Duncan’s The Riders of the Sidhe). And they also had the regalia of the National Eistedfodd in the exhibition, all my notes say is “Victorian invention, twee beyond belief!”.

The exhibition finished with a look at Celtic identity today. Again, it’s political and political in a “we’re not that lot” sense just as it was back in Anglo-Saxon times or Roman times. Nowadays of course it’s English that a Celt is not. As the English born & brought up child of Scottish parents I personally don’t see myself as either English or Scottish, preferring to call myself British. But the parts of the Celtic diaspora that headed to the US in particular have a different way to look at it. The exhibition noted that there are more people who identify as Irish in the US than there are in Ireland! And in Ireland itself Celtic identity is a powerful political statement – the mythological Irish hero Cúchulainn is now a big part of Irish Nationalist identity.

I really liked this exhibition (I even went to see it twice!), although I preferred the earlier sections about the historical Celts to the later parts about the re-imagined Celtic identity 🙂

“The Middle East: The Cradle of Civilisation Revealed” Stephen Bourke (Part 8)

The next section of this chapter of the Middle East book covers the second half of the 2nd Millennium BCE and focuses on the kingdoms in the west of the region – for instance the Hittites & the Mitanni. It also looks at their interactions with Egypt, because this is the era of the Amarna letters and the era of the Battle of Qadesh.

Orientation Dates:

  • 1600-1046 BCE: The Shang Dynasty of China (post).
  • 1650-1550 BCE: The Second Intermediate Period in Egypt.
  • 1550-1069 BCE: The New Kingdom in Egypt.
  • 1479–1458 BCE: Reign of Hatshepsut in Egypt.
  • 1351–1334 BCE: Reign of Akhenaten in Egypt.
  • 1332–1323 BCE: Reign of Tutankhamun in Egypt.
  • 1279–1213 BCE: Reign of Ramesses II in Egypt.

Power Struggles: The Western States

We start with the Old Hittite Kingdom in which parts of Anatolia, northern Syria and Upper Mesopotamia were ruled over by Hittite kings from their capital in Hattusa. It last from around 1650 BCE to 1400 BCE, and is known from their own records: thousands of cuneiform texts were found in Hattusa dating from this period. The original origins of the Hittite people isn’t known, but they had probably been living in Anatolia for a few centuries by the time the Old Hittite Kingdom rose to prominence – Assyrian texts from before this period mention individuals with Hittite names in Anatolian cities. The Hittite language is an Indo-European language (so from the same broad family as English, Latin, Greek, Sanskrit etc). Most of the other peoples in the region spoke Semitic languages (like Egyptian and Akkadian), or spoke Sumerian (which is a language with no known relatives). Rather conveniently for modern scholars some of the records discovered in Hattusa were bilingual and written in both Hittite and Akkadian.

The first king of the 15 or so who ruled the Old Hittite Kingdom was Huttusili I who conquered territory as far as the Euphrates River. His successor Mursili extended the kingdom as far southeast as Babylon but after his assassination the Hittites abandoned the territory across the Euphrates River. The next few kings all took the throne by assassinating their predecessor (or his heirs) and knowledge of this period mostly comes from a text known as the Proclamation of Telepinu. In this the new king (Telepinu) attempts to lay out rules for how the succession should work in the future, making it a strictly patrilinear succession. However he died without a direct male heir, and so these rules failed at the first hurdle. The second hundred years of the Old Hittite Kingdom seems to’ve been almost as turbulent politically as the first!

The kingdom of Mitanni is the next state the book considers. They started out as a confederation of Hurrian states in inland Syria & northern Iraq around 1600 BCE. The Hurrian language is part of a now extinct language group, and the people who spoke it are believed to’ve migrated from the Trans-Caucasus region. By 1450 BCE the Mitanni Kingdom was a prominent player in Upper Mesopotamia. Sadly none of their own records have been discovered so they’re mostly known from what the Hittites & Egyptians had to say about (and to) them. By 1500 BCE the Mitanni state had expanded into most of Syria, and this later brought them into conflict with an expanding Egypt (during the reign of Tutmosis III). Relations between the Mitanni and the Egyptians were somewhat warmer by the reign of Akhenaten – perhaps because the Hittites and Assyrians were both expanding again by this stage, and with these northern neighbours the Mitanni could do with southern allies. But not long after this the Mitanni state began to fragment and was subsequently defeated by the New Hittite Kingdom. It did continue to exist as a small buffer state between the Hittites and the Assyrians until around 1290 BCE, but the Mitanni’s days as a major state were over.

The power vacuum left in Babylon by the sacking of the city by the Old Hittite ruler Mursili was eventually filled by a Kassite dynasty who ruled c. 1570-1155 BCE. Quite a lot of evidence for these kings comes from their diplomatic correspondence (and diplomatic marriages) with the rulers of nearby states including the Egyptians and the Hittites. As well as the diplomatic evidence for these kings internal affairs are known from the administrative archives of Nippur. The Kassite people originally came from north-eastern Syria and had migrated into Mesopotamia sometime around the 18th Century BCE. The Kassite rulers of Babylon were thoroughly Babylonised, building temples to Babylonian gods, collecting & creating the Babylonian literary canon and preserving the Babylonian scribal tradition.

The New Hittite Kingdom starts immediately after the end of the Old Hittite Kingdom, but it sounds like the first three or four kings are more of a transitional period. The true start of the return to prominence of the Hittites comes when Suppiluliuma I successfully carries out a coup against his brother in 1344 BCE. Most of what is known about this ruler comes from “The Deeds of Suppiluliuma”, which was written during the reign of his second successor. He ruled for nearly 20 years, and re-established the Hittite kingdom as a marjor state. He not only re-conquered Anatolia, he also conquered the Mitanni and several other kingdoms in Syria, and forced these states to sign long lasting peace treaties. He is also the King of the Hittites who a Queen of Egypt apparently wrote to asking for one of his sons to marry after the death of her husband (the Pharaoh) without an heir so that she could avoid being forced to marry a commoner. Suppiluliuma I is said to’ve been suspicious, but then sent one of his sons who was promptly murdered after he crossed the border – and this is the justification for subsequent tensions between the Hittites and the Egyptians. The Queen in question is often supposed to be Ankhesenamun (Tutankhamun’s widow). However (and the book sadly doesn’t mention this) the story is only known from one text dating from the reign of one of Suppiluliuma I’s successors, and I think there’s significant doubts about its truthfulness – it’s actually more likely to be Hittite propaganda. (Charlotte Booth talked about this a bit in the talk she gave to the EEG in July about Horemheb.)

According to texts from his son Mursili II’s reign called the Plague Prayers, Suppiluliuma I and his son (and first successor) Arnuwanda II both died of an epidemic of plague brought back with captives from a successful Syro-Palestinian military campaign. Which Mursili II believed was due to divine disfavour regarding the fratricide which let his father take the throne, and the campaign itself being in violation of a treaty with Egypt. This latter concern didn’t stop Musili II’s successor Muwatalli II from antagonising the Egyptians further, resulting in the Battle of Qadesh (more on this later in this post). The treaty after the battle was signed between Ramesses II and Hattusili III, who had usurped the throne from Muwatalli II’s son. Quite a lot of what we know about his reign (and his immediate predecessor’s) comes from his “Apology”, an autobiographical text that explains why he thought he should depose his nephew (who subsequently fled to Egypt, much to Hattusili III’s disgust). Hattusili III’s wife is also known from texts – in particular letters between herself and Ramesses II after Hattusili III’s death. She was acting at that point as Queen Mother, and is accorded the same sort of respect as Hattusili III by Ramesses II. It’s not clear if she was unusually respected for a Queen Mother, or if it’s just that she’s the only Hittite Queen Mother whose correspondence survives.

The capital of the Hittite kingdom was the city of Hattusa, which was located near the modern town of Bazkoy in northeast Central Anatolia (in Turkey). It was founded at some point early in the 2nd Millennium BCE, and was originally relatively small compared to other ancient Near Eastern cities. It was sacked a couple of times between 1750 BCE and 1400 BCE, then rebuilt extensively by Suppiluliuma I. This later city had two main regions: the royal acropolis (including large temples), and the lower city. Population estimates for this period range from 10,000 to 40,000 inhabitants.

Having made a comprehensive tour of the major players in the western part of the Middle East during this period the book now devotes a few pages to the minor Mediterranean and Syro-Palestinian states each of whom get a couple of paragraphs. I’m pretty much going to name check them here, rather than devote much attention to them. Ahhiyawa is considered a diplomatic equal to the Hittites, given the correspondence during the New Hittite Kingdom period. Both textual and archaeological evidence suggests these people may be the Mycenean Greeks. The Luwians lived in Western Anatolia and were at times a vassal state of the Hittites, and the language (a close relative of Hittite) was dominant in the region after the fall of the New Hittite Kingdom. Carchemis and Aleppo were both part of the array of small Syro-Palestinian states, as were Astata, Alasiya (modern Cyprus) and Alalakh. All of these states were at times vassals of the Hittites and at times more independent. The state of Ugarit was caught between the two superpowers of the Hittites & the Egyptians – and thus were courted by both with offers of support against the other. The Amurru people were further south, and in the Egyptian sphere of influence – and a thorn in the sides of their neighbours, who complained to the their mutual overlords about the Amurran’s employment of bands of mercenary warriors known as the ‘Apiru to harass their neighbours.

The last couple of double-page spreads of this section look more closely at the interactions of the Middle East with their Egyptian neighbours. The first of these talks about the Amarna Letters – a collection of cuneiform tablets discovered in the Egyptian city of Akhetaten (modern Tell el-Amarna) which was briefly the capital of Egypt during Akhenaten’s reign (and only existed for that 20 years). 90% of the 380 surviving tablets are copies of the diplomatic correspondence between Egypt and their neighbours from Year 30 of Amenhotep III’s reign through Akhenaten’s reign, Smenkhare’s reign and into the first year of Tutankhamun’s reign. Most of them are the incoming correspondence, although some are outgoing (either unsent or copies, it’s not known which), and all are composed in Akkadian which was the diplomatic lingua franca of the era. Some of these letters are to rulers that the Egyptians at least superficially regarded as their peers – addressing each other as “brother”. However it’s notable that in the marriage alliances Egyptian women never married foreign princes, instead the default was vice versa. Other letters are between Egypt and its vassal states.

The Battle of Kadesh

And the section finished with a closer look at the Battle of Qadesh – which Ramesses II depicted on several temple reliefs (the above picture is from the Ramasseum). The site of the battle was strategically important – it sat on the crossroads of two major trade routes, and dominated the fords of the Orontes River. It had been significant in Egyptian foreign affairs even before Ramesses II’s campaign – for instance it lead the coalition of rebellious towns that Tutmosis III defeated at Megiddo c.1457 BCE. During the reign of Akhenaten the Egyptians made two unsuccessful attempts to remove the Hittites from the region, and for the next generation or so the city swapped allegiances several times. By the time of Ramesses II the Egyptians felt it necessary to make a concerted effort to recover Qadesh and reassert their power in the region. The Battle of Qadesh took place in c.1275 BCE, and the Egyptians record several accounts of it – all of which talk about Ramesses II annihilating the Hittites. But if you read between the lines, and remember that the Egyptians didn’t tend to write down bad things, you can see that the truth is more of an inconclusive draw. About 15-20 years after this the two sides signed a peace treaty – which rather astonishingly not only survives in both Hittite and Egyptian documents, but the two versions are also in agreement with each other! There was indeed peace (relatively speaking) for the remainder of the time that the Hittite state existed. This section of the chapter finishes with the note that “Soon thereafter, Qadesh was destroyed, probably by the Sea Peoples”. I don’t imagine the Qadeshian citizens had enjoyed any of its turbulent history, however!

The next (and last) part of this chapter of the book is about the rise of the Assyrians, on their way to be the first large scale empire in the Middle East.

“The Middle East: The Cradle of Civilisation Revealed” Stephen Bourke (Part 7)

After the collapse of the Ur III Dynasty in the Middle East around 2000 BCE the region fragmented into several different rival states which fought amongst themselves trying to establish overall political control. This lasted throughout the Middle Bronze Age and the Late Bronze Age, until the Assyrian Empire rose to control the whole region in the late 8th Century BCE. This chapter of the book is split into three sections, and this blog post is only really about the first of these which covers the earlier and more southern & eastern states in the region.

Orientation Dates

  • 2100-1600 BCE – the Xia Dynasty in China (post)
  • 2055-1650 BCE – Egypt’s Middle Kingdom

Power Struggles: Kingdoms at War

The chapter as a whole is positioned as being about power struggles between the various polities, although it is mostly a geographical and temporal survey of the states in question. In fairness to the book it seems hard to draw out a narrative for this period that covers the whole region. Before there were either a collection of culturally related but politically distinct city states, or the Akkadian Empire or Ur III Dynasty empire. After this, there will be the Assyrian Empire, the Babylonian Empire and then the Persian Empire. But this intermediate period has some key players and a whole selection of minor or temporary states – followed by the rise of the Assyrians (which is interrupted by the Bronze Age Collapse around 1200 BCE). So despite my increasing tendency to judge this book harshly (it really needed a stronger editorial hand at the tiller) it also seems a complex period to distil into a single chapter overview.

The Growth of City States

One of the themes immediately after the collapse of the Ur III Dynasty is that the Amorites infiltrate into the pre-existing settlements and city states of the region. The Amorites are a cultural group from what’s now Syria and in contrast to the many city states of Mesopotamia they were still nomadic to some degree until the Middle Bronze Age. They first show up in the historical record during the Akkadian Empire, and are also one of the peoples against whom the Ur III kings built their walls. During the Middle Bronze Age they seem to have had a knack for integrating into and coming to dominate the elites of many city states. For instance there are 17 Amorite “kings who dwelt in tents” who become part of the Assyrian King List, despite the fact that they are clearly not from Assur and not Assyrian.

One of the cities the Amorites ruled was Eshnunna – located in the Diyala River Valley in modern east central Iraq, with a modern name of Tell Asmar. This city had been a significant Sumerian city in the Early Dynastic period, but after becoming independent from the Ur III Dynasty c.2017 BCE it is ruled over by a series of 19 Amorite kings. The penultimate one of these was Dadusha who issued a legal code that has survived in two copies. Like the slightly later (but better known) code of Hammurabi the laws are of the format “if X occurs, then Y shall be done”. The 60 or so laws cover a wide variety of subjects from loans and deposits to sexual offences and marital rights.

Around 1766 BCE Eshnunna was captured by the Elamites whose heartland was to the north in modern southwestern Iran. The Elamites had been ruled over first by the Akkadians and then the Ur III Dynasty, from whom they won their independence around the same time as Eshnunna did. They spoke a language that is an isolate with no known relatives either modern or ancient. Their conquest of Eshnunna and thus foothold in Mesopotamia made them a “power-broker” in the politics of the region. But c.1500 BCE their ruling dynasty collapses (for unknown reasons) and subsequently they are less important politically. They continue to exist as a culture, however – 500 years later Elamite archers are referred to as an important part of the Persian army.

The city of Assur was captured by Amorites around 1814 BCE, the conqueror (Shamshi-adad I) went on to add most of Upper Mesopotamia to his kingdom before he died in c.1781 BCE. Before he took over Assur he was king of an Amorite city to the south by the bank of the Tigris River. However, the Eshnunna discussed above captured his city driving him into exile in Babylon. Once he returned and captured Assur he took pains to retroactively integrate himself and his father into the pre-existing Assyrian elite – both of them appear on the later Assyrian King List and he claimed descent from the earlier rulers of Assur. He reigned as “Great King” or “King of the Universe”, installing his sons as subsiduary kings in strategic locations (one in his original city, and one in Mari which was a prominent city on the Euphrates River). His empire didn’t long outlast him – his sons failed to rule the territory as a cohesive unit and some of their subject cities took advantage of the disruption. One of these sons (Ishme-dagan) was put back on his throne in Ekallatum with the help of Hammurabi but this reduced his status from king in his own right to a vassal of the Babylonians.

Hammurabi had come to the throne of Babylon c.1792 BCE when it was a small state surrounded by more powerful rivals – by the time he died in c.1750 BCE he ruled over the whole of Mesopotamia proper. He wasn’t the first ruler of the First Dynasty of Babylon, but we don’t know much about the rulers for the hundred or so years preceding him. Judging by Hammurabi’s name, and the names of some of his predecessors they are likely to’ve been Amorites originally. At the start of Hammurabi’s reign he concentrated on internal affairs – infrastructure, his code of laws – rather than on expansion of his empire. Babylon was at this time a “junior partner” in an alliance with Shamshi-adad I of Assyria, a situation to be reversed later in Hammurabi’s reign as I discussed above. By 1763 BCE Hammurabi was starting to flex his muscles (metaphorically speaking), and he unified Southern Mesopotamia under his rule shortly after – starting to call himself King of Sumer and Akkad in the style of the Akkadian empire from the 3rd Millennium BCE. He went on to conquer much of the north as well over the next decade. When he died his large state didn’t long outlast him with various territories declaring independence during the reign of his successor. However the book (rather vaguely) still positions this as the start of some sort of continuity for the next 1,000 years of Babylon as a key political player in the region albeit with interruptions and changes of dynasty.

Documentary sources for life in Hammurabi’s Babylonian state come from a couple of different sources. One of these is a large number (thousands) of legal contracts discovered at several different sites throughout southern Mesopotamia. These cover subjects such as purchase of property, loans of silver or barley, marriages, divorces and so on. As well as contracts there are also lawsuits, and most famously the Code of Laws set down by Hammurabi in the early years of his reign. These give evidence of the day to day life of the state which is complemented by a collection of hundreds of letters between Hammurabi and his subordinates (and amongst those subordinates). The letters mostly date to the last dozen or so years when the empire was at its largest and discuss things such as tax collection, the repair & dredging of canals and so on – the bureaucratic minutiae of running a large empire. A third source is less bureaucratic – the literature of the era also survives, including copies the scribes made of literature from earlier times. This includes the creation of the Epic of Gilgamesh from several different earlier Sumerian sources. The scribes didn’t just translate or copy the original Sumerian stories, they wove them together into a cohesive single narrative.

This section of the chapter also includes a double page spread about iron. The Iron Age isn’t considered to start in the Near East till around 1200 BCE, later than the scope of this chapter, but there is some sporadic use of iron before this (even going back as far as the 5th Millennium BCE) . This is known both from objects that’ve been discovered by archaeologists, and also by textual references (such as a gift of an iron ring from the King of Mari to a neighbouring king around 1780 BCE). Early iron objects were probably mostly made from meteoric iron, but some iron would also have been produced as a by-product of copper smelting. Even at the time iron was considered superior to bronze, it was just harder to produce and to work. Once the appropriate techniques had been discovered they remained specialised knowledge in a few regions before gradually spreading throughout the Middle East in the late 2nd Millennium BCE. The book also mentions in passing that the current chronology of iron working may be too conservative – there are iron working installations discovered in Georgia that at the time this book was written were tentatively dated to 1500 BCE, which pushes back the iron age in that area by a few centuries.

“The Middle East: The Cradle of Civilisation Revealed” Stephen Bourke (Part 6)

The last part of the Mesopotamia chapter in this book covers the Third Dynasty of Ur, which was a Sumerian empire that arose a short time after the fall of the Akkadian Empire. The book doesn’t give dates for the empire – having looked at the wikipedia page I think that’s because there’s a high degree of uncertainty about when the dates were. Two different possibilities are 2112-2004 BCE or 2055-1940 BCE.

Orientation Dates:

  • 2181-2055 BCE – Egypt’s First Intermediate Period
  • 2100-1600 BCE – the Xia dynasty of China (post)
  • 2055-1650 BCE – Egypt’s Middle Kingdom

The City of Ur

The Third Dynasty of Ur rose to prominence in Mesopotamia a little while after the Akkadian Empire fell. In between the region was dominated by the Gutians, who were a mountain people and we know little about them. The ruler of Uruk eventually raised an army to drive out the Gutians, but it was Ur-Nammu from the city of Ur who founded a new empire. It’s not clear how Ur-Nammu actually came to power – there’s evidence he might’ve been a governor under the king of Uruk, or perhaps a military leader. And then he either inherited from or lead a coup against the king of Uruk and founded the only Sumerian Empire in Mesopotamia’s history. The empire (often referred to as Ur III) reached as far as Syria and Elam and was divided into two parts. The core of the empire was under the king’s direct rule, and the peripheral territories were independently ruled but economically controlled by the empire (i.e. paying tribute).

When Ur-Nammu died (perhaps in battle) after a reign of 17 years he was succeeded by his son Shulgi, who reigned for 48 years. One of these two rulers wrote a code of laws that still survives in fragmentary form, and is the first we know to’ve existed. Traditionally it’s ascribed to Ur-Nammu, but the book suggests that Shulgi is more plausible given his longer reign (over an empire that already existed rather than needing to be conquered). Shulgi also reorganised the administration of the empire – under his rule the city state rulers became governors with no military power, and he stationed garrisons in particularly troublesome regions. He instituted a practice of using an army of foreign mercenaries to control the outlying territories. He was deified during his lifetime, although most of his achievements as listed in the book seem prosaic rather than godly! These included standardising tax collection, developing state archives and a state army.

Shulgi was succeeded by his son Amar-Sin, who fought many wars against the Amorites and the Hurrians. He only reigned for 10 years before dying of natural causes and being succeeded by his brother Shu-Sin. The Amorites continued to fight against the Ur III empire, and pushed them back to their heartlands. Shu-Sin actually constructed a wall between the two rivers to try and hold back the Amorites. The book doesn’t say if this worked or not … After Shu-Sin died (after a decade on the throne) he was succeeded by his son Ibbi-Sin who was to be the last of the kings of Ur III. He built walls too, round cities rather than between rivers however. Despite a fairly long reign (perhaps 20 years) he wasn’t a strong king and the empire began to crumble almost immediately.

At its height the empire of the Ur III dynasty was a sophisticated and prosperous society. Taxes were collected across the empire on crops, livestock, labour and land. Any surpluses (I’m unclear if the book meant from the taxation or more generally) were redistributed fairly – not just to the temple bureaucracies but also to the poor. How much the common people actually benefited from the prosperity of the empire isn’t entirely clear, nor is their precise place in society. An older theory is that they were pretty much just indentured servants, but more recent analysis is that it’s more complicated. In theory it should be possible to find out a lot about the Ur III economy as thousands of texts detailing commercial transactions such as loans, leases of land and slave purchases etc have been found from this period. But the book says that no-one has done a systematic analysis of them in order to gain a complete picture (reading between the lines it sounds like the author of this particular section doesn’t agree with what analysis has been done). One thing these texts demonstrate at even a cursory level of analysis is that despite this being a Sumerian Empire, Akkadian is the language of administration. The book says that Sumerian was still the language of literature and every literate citizen had to learn it, but Akkadian was the language that people actually used for their day to day lives.

Why did the Ur III empire fall? The book says that it might better to cast this as “how did it ever succeed in the first place?”, but sadly doesn’t answer that question but goes on to consider why it fell. The suggestion is that it was a perfect storm of adverse conditions including climate change, attacks from nomadic groups from outside the empire (for instance the Amorites) and urban restlessness, combined with a king whose administrative & leadership weren’t up to the (admittedly difficult) job. Despite the broad brush strokes being unclear the details of the last king’s downfall are quite well known – royal correspondence, poetry and an administrative archive from the period have all survived. Ibbi-Sin had been persuaded to appoint Ishbi-Erra as governor of some of the cities of the empire whilst Ibbi-Sin was away fighting the Elamites. Ishbi-Erra began to assume royal privileges and he eventually proclaimed himself ruler over all of southern Mesopotamia including Ur itself where Ibbi-Sin still ruled. The Ur III empire took another 14 or so years to properly fizzle out, finished off by a famine. There’s surviving poetry recording the end of the empire that is similar to the later Book of Lamentations in the bible.

As well as this historical trot through the rise & fall of Ur III this section of the book also includes a couple of sections on the arts & architecture of this period. The first of these is about ziggurats which were the longest lasting temple designs in the Middle East: the earliest known date to at least the 4th Millennium BCE and they were still being built in the 6th Century BCE. They are monumental structures composed of two to seven tiers of platforms rising high into the sky. Access was via ramps, and at the topmost level there was an altar for making burnt offerings (or alternatively for cooking meals for the gods). As with Egyptian temples (and in contrast to Christian churches) these were not places for public worship, instead they were a place for the god to live. The platforms emphasised the separation from humanity on the ground and the gods in the sky, and only priests and rulers were permitted to go up to the top.

Replica Headdress & Jewellery

The last double page spread of the chapter looks at the precious metal working and jewellery of Mesopotamia from it’s earliest known examples through to the end of the Ur III empire (I think, the dating isn’t clear in the text). Gold and silver aren’t found in Mesopotamia, but precious metal working still starts early in the 4th Millennium BCE with imported raw materials. The preferred designs were natural and geometric motifs, like leaves or spirals. Jewellery was made from gold or silver leaf and set with semi-precious stones. It was worn by both men & women, and possibly children too, as well as by statues of the gods. Jewellery might confer protection on the wearer – for instance lapis lazuli items meant you were protected by the sky god Anu. The picture above shows a replica of a headdress found by Leonard Woolley in the 1920s in the royal tombs at Ur (it’s in the British Museum now). These tombs are the source of a lot of our knowledge of Sumerian jewellery, in particular the tomb of Queen Pu’abi (and all her (young, healthy) attendants who were all interred at the same time).

The fall of the Ur III empire is considered the dividing line between the Early Bronze Age and the Middle Bronze Age, and the next chapter on the book is about the power struggles between the various kingdoms of that period.

Swallowed by the Sea: Ancient Egypt’s Greatest Lost City; Lost Kingdoms of Central America;Treasures Decoded

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other TV watched last week:

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

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

Operation Stonehenge: What Lies Beneath; British Great War

Operation Stonehenge: What Lies Beneath was a rather disappointing two part series about new work on the site around Stonehenge. The basic premise was that Stonehenge shouldn’t be considered in isolation, instead it’s important to understand the whole area around it. So a team of archaeologists from Austria have done a site wide survey of 10km2 using non-invasive modern techniques – geophys and the like. The programmes were heavy on shots of archaeologists driving tractors with scientific equipment attached, and computer reconstructions of possible buildings, and very light on explaining where their theories came from. For instance they confidently told us about the sequence of the various things that had been detected, but never mentioned how they were dating them – something inherent in the data? style of building corresponds to an era? pulled a number out of thin air? They were also pretty good at taking speculation and presenting it as close to factual. Like the confident pronouncement that the site in general was sacred because there’s a weird chemical reaction between something in the river and flint that means flint from the river goes bright pink after it dries. But a) we don’t know if that weirdness happened then (or maybe we do, but they just didn’t explain it well enough) and b) it’s a possibility, but really we still have no idea why the site became sacred.

Overall, not terribly impressed.

We also finished off another of the World War I series which was aired earlier this year – Britain’s Great War. This series focused on what happened in Britain during the war – so while there were some segments about the actual fighting in France and elsewhere, these were mostly to provide context and very focussed on what happened to British people and British families as a result. Some of the ground covered was stuff I already knew of, but there was a lot of stuff that was new to me. This included things like the development of plastic surgery due to the high number of casualties with mutilated faces. Another example from the last episode was the rise in seances after the war.

As well as reporting the historical facts, Paxman’s main point was to show that modern Britain was born during the First World War – that the upheaval and changes to society that were driven by the war underpin our current society. Some of this is good – more equality for women for instance, because they’d had to work during the war and more of them were independent after the war. The lives of the poor were also improved – for some it was because if they’d survived war then they’d had four years of real meals so returned more fit and capable than they’d been before. For some it was because the government started to intervene to prevent rapacious rent increases. Some things were less good – much more government intervention and interest in people’s lives, like who they slept with or whether they went out drinking (and if so, when & how much). This had been seen as necessary to avoid lost work hours during the war due to diseases or hangovers.

A good series although frequently rather grim viewing, and a good counterpoint to the other WWI series we recorded at the same time (The First World War, the second section in this post).

Other TV watched this week:

Episode 2 of Treasures Decoded – Channel 4 series looking at puzzles and potential solutions around some well known archaeological sites or artifacts.

Episode 2 of Harlots, Housewives and Heroines: A 17th Century History for Girls – Lucy Worsley talking about late 17th Century British women.

Episode 3 of Wild China – series about Chinese wildlife & people.

Archaeology of Portus: Exploring the Lost Harbour of Ancient Rome (Course on Future Learn)

The third course I’ve done on Future Learn was about archaeology & the Roman port Portus. And sadly I found it a bit disappointing. The course was run by Southampton University, whose archaeology department are one of the partners in the excavation of the site at Portus. Portus is in Italy, near Rome & to the west of it. From the 1st Century AD it was the main port serving the city of Rome, remaining in use until the 7th Century. Since then the coastline of Italy has changed and the whole site is now inland. Portus was one of the sites that featured in Rome’s Lost Empire which we watched over a year ago (post) and that’s part of what drew me to this course.

Over the first 5 of the 6 weeks that the course ran they had three strands of information. One of these was following the development of Portus from its foundation by Claudius in the 1st Century AD through to its use by the Ostrogothic rulers of Rome after the Western Roman Empire had fallen. The second strand was putting the port in context with the wider Roman (and post-Roman) world – looking not only at things like what sorts of goods & from where passed through the port but also at what was going on in historical terms at the time. The third strand was about archaeological methods – ranging from really basic stuff covered on any archaeology documentary, through to descriptions of cutting edge techniques. The final week was intended to pull the whole thing together and to get us involved with actual work going on right then at the site. It had a section where you could ask them to photograph things on site or answer questions about particular things. And the assignment was to look at some actual data & try and draw some conclusions.

As I said at the beginning I was rather disappointed, and in fact I never finished the final week. In part this was because it didn’t feel like it was pitched at people like me. I found the way the material was presented somewhat patronising on more than one occasion, and over all I felt they were interacting with us as pupils rather than as fellow adults (if that makes sense). This is in contrast to the other Future Learn courses I’ve done (or am doing) – the two Shakespeare ones and the English literature one I’m currently doing have managed to present technical terminology and explain details of their subject without resorting to phrases like “Well, I seem to be using a lot of big words in this one!”. I’d hesitate to say that to a primary school child for fear of offending them, let alone to a large group of adults.

I found the material in the course itself felt somewhat repetitive, and thus a bit shallow. I think that was an artifact of the way it was presented rather than actually being the case. Most sections had both a short video and a short article, with a lot of overlap in the material but some unique pieces of information in each. So to get all the information you had to watch the video and read the article, hence the feeling of repetition. Some videos were better than others – the ones where one of the educators was talking to camera on their own were the best. The ones where a student was conducting a very staged feeling interview with the educator in question were the worst – it was a good idea, I just think they failed to pull it off.

On the positive side they did give a lot of links to further information in each section. I confess I rarely followed them, because I wasn’t feeling particularly engaged with the course. There were also extra “Advanced” sections where they explained some techniques in more detail, and some of those were the more interesting parts of the course.

Overall, a rather disappointing experience. I was too put off by the tone and the feeling of repetition to ever really get properly into the subject matter.

The Somme: Secret Tunnel Wars

Continuing with our recent WWI theme we watched a one-off programme about the tunnels under the Somme battlefield presented by Peter Barton. The title (The Somme: Secret Tunnel Wars) and a bit of the introductory segment have an air of Discovery Channel-esque “we will Solve The Mystery!”, but the programme as a whole steered away from that and was very interesting. It combined the history (who built the tunnels & why) with footage from an archaeological dig at the site which included people going into the tunnels for the first time since the battle of the Somme itself.

The conventional image of WWI fighting is of men in trenches, going over the top, barbed wire, and artillery bombardments. What’s often forgotten or not known (and certainly I hadn’t really thought about before) is that both sides also tunnelled under the enemy trenches and detonated explosives underneath them. This happened all along the Western Front, but Barton was concentrating on telling us about the Somme battlefield (because of the archaeological dig, I assume) where the mining was also planned to play a large part in the battle of the Somme. Mining has been a part of siege warfare for centuries, if not millennia, and Barton showed us some mines under the walls of the castle at St Andrews, Scotland which had been dug in the 16th Century. He said that the way mines were dug hadn’t really changed in that time – dig under the enemy fortifications hopefully without being heard, hollow out a big chamber and stuff it with explosives, blow up the enemy above you. And the counter tactics are also much the same – listen for tunneling, dig towards the noise (from below if you can, above if you must), enter their tunnels or blow them up first. So if you took a 16th Century miner and dropped him into a WWI group of miners he wouldn’t need much training to get the hang of the few technological differences.

The British miners were not drawn from the Army. Instead they were firstly sewer diggers (claykickers) and later coal miners who were brought into the army structure & given uniforms, but really just there to do their one job – dig tunnels (quietly). Often these were men who’d been refused when they tried to join the infantry – generally as they were too old, which for this job meant only that they were more experienced. Barton spent a bit of time showing us (with the help of some demonstraters) how they built the tunnels through clay or through chalk, and also gave us an idea of the physical difficulties and dangers the men faced. There were all the risks that are normally associated with tunneling or mining, but also the constant fear of being detected. Barton pointed out that mining was one of the most brutal aspects of a brutal war. It had significant effects on the morale of the normal infantry, knowing that their trenches might suddenly be blown up. And for the miners it was worse. If one side detected the other mining, they would tunnel to underneath them and then detonate explosives directly under they enemy tunnel. But first they would wait and listen till as many men as possible were in the tunnel above. And once the first explosion was done, they’d dig out a new chamber to fill with explosives, then once they heard the rescue party come along for the first casualties they’d blow out the second chamber. All about maximising the dead from a single detection of a tunnel. During the war detection technology increased in sophistication. At first it was simply a matter of listening through a pipe, or setting out a tray of water and watching for ripples. But later much more sophisticated detectors were invented that could detect tunnelling at up to 100 feet away in clay, or 250 feet in chalk.

The plan for the battle of the Somme included two extremely large quantities of explosives under the German trenches, which would break the German lines and also take out some troublesome machinegun posts. One tunnel was dug as planned, the other couldn’t quite get close enough so two chambers were built at that end with enough explosive that the distance didn’t matter. And all the explosives were detonated as intended – Barton walked round the top of one of the craters that still exists today, it’s absolutely huge. But through no fault of the tunnellers it was not enough – in particular the one under the machinegun post had been detected late in the process and the Germans had evacuated their guns and troops, then set up again once the explosion was over. The other explosion also didn’t do as much damage to the German troops or their morale as the planners had hoped. And so the easy victory the British Army had hoped for turned into one of the biggest disasters of the war, with more than 10,000 casualties on the British side in the first day alone.

A sobering programme, as WWI programmes often are. Barton did a good job of not just explaining the facts, but also of getting across something of what it would’ve been like to be there.

We watched very little TV last week, the only other things was episode 2 of A Very British Murder with Lucy Worsley – series about the popular fascination with murder in late Victorian & Edwardian times.

The Plantagenets; Return of the Black Death: Secret History

The Plantagenets was a three part series about this dynasty of English monarchs presented by Robert Bartlett. He points out that this is the longest running dynasty of English kings, which I hadn’t realised – they stretch from Henry II (who takes the throne in 1154) right the way through to Richard III (who dies in battle in 1485). Bartlett covered them in chronological fashion, conveying some feel for the politics of the time and for the dysfunctional soap opera-like personalities and family relationships of the Plantagenets.

The first episode pretty much covered the context and then the first two generations of Plantagenets. Henry II actually ruled over a fairly large empire including not just England but quite a lot of what’s now France, which he’d acquired via inheritance and marriage. This part of the family is one of the more soap opera like bits – Bartlett explained the various rebellions against Henry by his own sons and even his wife. It wasn’t all internal family bickering however – this is also the time of Thomas Beckett and his murder after he fell out with Henry. The bickering and power struggles don’t stop after Henry’s death either. Richard the Lionheart rules England mostly in absentia and via first his mother then his younger brother John, with varying degrees of success. John succeeds Richard in a somewhat dubious fashion (a nephew, Arthur of Brittany, had a better claim but eventually meets with an “accident” in custody). John is also notable for annoying most of the aristocracy (this is the time of the Magna Carta) and for losing the bulk of the dynasty’s French lands.

The second episode covered the same era that my current non-fiction book is covering – from Henry III through to Edward III. But definitely aimed at a different audience in that Prestwich’s book is fairly dry and focused on the details and nittygritty of the politics, but Bartlett is pitching the TV series more towards the broad picture end of the spectrum. The focus of this era is shifting from the very French focus of the first part of the dynasty to a more English identity. Largely out of necessity, as John had lost most of the French lands. Conflicts between King & nobles in this time lead to the formation of Parliament as a key player in government. And the English Kings also start to look to the rest of the British Isles to satisfy their empire building tendencies – Edward I’s conquest of Wales, and the repeated attempts to control Scotland.

The third episode Bartlett called “The Death of Kings” – this is the decline of the Plantagenet dynasty into particularly bloody disaster. We start with Richard II, who was a great believer in the divine right of Kings and rather predictably alienated the aristocracy with this belief. He was deposed by a cousin of his – and was starved to death in custody. Bartlett positioned this as the first precedent of the deposition and killing of an anointed King, and thus the beginning of the end for the dynasty. I’d quibble, in that I’d see the deposition of Edward II as the first time that had happened in the Plantagenet dynasty – prior to that (like when Henry III lost a civil war) the King always remained King just not powerful in practice. But J pointed out that Bartlett was maybe drawing a distinction between being deposed in the name of your heir (ie Edward II -> Edward III) and being deposed by a relative who wouldn’t otherwise inherit. It does, at first, seem to’ve been a successful gambit by Henry IV and his son Henry V leads the dynasty to a new highpoint. Henry reignited a hot phase of the war with France, and was sufficiently successful to get himself declared the heir. Sadly he dies young (of dysentry) and while his infant son Henry VI does get crowned King in both England and France it isn’t to last – Henry VI isn’t a warrior King, in fact he’s pretty useless as a King at all. Bartlett didn’t have much time left in this programme to cover the Wars of the Roses in detail, instead focusing on the human side of it and getting us quickly to Richard III and the end of the Plantagenets.

I enjoyed this series – we’ve seen a few series Bartlett has presented and they’re always both entertaining and informative. It was slightly odd watching it at a point where I’ve recently read a much more detailed account of part of it because I did find myself thinking “well, yes, but what about …” rather more often than I would normally.

Keeping with the same general historical era we also watched Return of the Black Death: Secret History this week. This was right on the edge between interesting and irritatingly shallow. The most irritating bit was that before each ad break they did a little sequence of empty streets of modern London with a sinister figure standing on a rooftop and whispering the names of the dead. Once would’ve been OK, but over and over just felt like padding on an already pretty shallow programme.

The jumping off point for the programme was the excavation of some victims of the 1349 Black Death epidemic in London during the construction of Crossrail. They then talked about the extent of the epidemic, why we now think so many people died and what lessons we can learn in the modern era from this disaster. The programme showcased one historian’s research into the Wills of London merchants and tradespeople of the time – he’d used these to extrapolate to get a figure for the number dead. As presented on the programme it seemed somewhat of a stretch, so I rather hope that this was simplified too far! One bit of gimmickry that was actually very effective was that they staged readings of some of these Wills by people who looked like modern versions of the beneficiary of the will – like a teenage girl whose parents had both died within a month of each other. It was tastefully done and did humanise the data. They did some other chronicles and texts in a similar style, which was also effective.

The estimate they used was that 60% of the London population at the time died, and they all died within a few months. Londoners at the time were likely to be particularly vulnerable to disease because there had been a period of poor weather and bad harvests. But from talking to modern disease experts this is too fast for normal bubonic plague to spread and kill even taking that into account, so at first it was assumed this was a particular mutant form of the disease. However the skeletons that were dug up still had the disease present in their teeth, which meant that it could be sequenced and compared to the modern form. Surprisingly they were identical. The explanation was illustrated using some cases of plague from the early 20th Century in Shotley (near Felixstowe) – this too spread quickly and killed fast, and it’s known that this was a pneumonic form of the plague. The standard infection is spread by rats and their fleas, but if an infected person develops the pneumonic form then it is easily transferred from person to person – same disease, just a different place of infection and mechanism of spread. So this is likely what devastated London in 1349.

As well as using a modern example to look for explanations for the rapid spread, they also talked about how Edward III’s government’s response was not that far off a modern idea of how to handle things. Apart from the lack of good medical knowledge, of course. The particular example was that a cemetery was set aside for victims and steps taken to ensure the dead were buried rapidly but with proper ceremony. The expert from Porton Down talked about how this is necessary to keep morale up in the survivors, and indicated there are similar sorts of plans drawn up in case of disaster today.

Overall, a bit shallow and gimmicky but presented some interesting perspectives.

Other TV watched this week:

Episode 2 of Monkey Planet – series about the biology and behaviour of primates.

Episode 7 of The First World War – a 10 part series covering the whole of the war.

Episode 5 of Pagans & Pilgrims – series about the sacred places of Britain, presented by Ifor ap Glyn.

Britpop at the BBC – nostaglia programme about Britpop, using footage filmed by the BBC, mostly for Top of the Pops.