“Figurines in Ancient China: From Prehistory to the First Emperor” Sascha Priewe

Last Thursday we went to the British Museum to go to a talk about Chinese figurines (and we’d hoped to go to another talk later the same day but it was sold out). In this talk Sascha Priewe (a curator at the British Museum) was talking about traditions of figurine making in ancient China and how this did (or didn’t) lead to the First Emperor’s terracotta army. He started by talking briefly about the Ice Age Art exhibition that had been in the British Museum last year (post). This had several examples of small figurines made in Europe more than 10,000 years ago, and you can trace the development and traditions of these figures (again in Europe and also in the Middle East) through the intervening time. This tradition eventually leads to things like Greek statues. However in China it seems (at least from a Western perspective) that the terracotta army buried with the First Emperor appears almost from nowhere in the 200s BC. So his talk was exploring whether or not this was actually the case, and what evidence there is for figurines before these notable (and large and numerous) examples.

The bulk of his talk was an overview of Neolithic and Bronze Age archaeology in China, looking at sites where 3D figures have been found. There is a tradition of female figurines found in the northern part of the country during the Neolithic – that may be reminiscent of the earlier European female figurines. But he stressed that this could be an artifact of it being the same people discussing them rather than inherent to the figures. Also during the Neolithic there is a tradition of making phallus models, this is in a different geographical area – the Yellow River valley, if I remember correctly. There’s no indication that these are parts of whole body representations – instead they appear to’ve been created as just a phallus. A little later in (I think) the same area of the country you also find what look like pot lids with a modelled human head on them. Again there isn’t any indication that these are broken off a bigger statue – they appear to be complete as they are. Priewe then talked a bit about the Bronze Age artifacts. There are some developments of art in the round – like the bronze funerary vessels – but in many ways these seem to be 2D art wrapped around a 3D object rather than inherently 3D. While there are some representations of animals during this period (in some places) there are still not large numbers of human figurines.

So the First Emperor’s terracotta army does actually appear to’ve been the start of this tradition in Chinese art. Priewe next turned his attention to where it might’ve come from if not growing out of previous traditions. One suggestion, although he didn’t seem to think it was terribly plausible for the sole reason, was that the First Emperor and/or his immediate predecessors in the Qin culture had learnt of Greek statuary via trade routes across to the area of modern Afghanistan (which would put them in contact with Alexander the Great’s Hellenic empire). His preferred explanation is that the terracotta figures were reflecting a growing shift in funerary beliefs. In the Qin culture immediately before the First Emperor there are indications of human sacrifices buried with leaders. Priewe said that he thinks the terracotta army are a shift from burying your servants to take them with you (which was a recentish development), to burying symbolic figures of your army and your servants. A more cost effective way of ensuring you had the proper entourage in the afterlife than killing a whole lot of trained soldiers etc.

Priewe finished the talk by moving forward in time from the First Emperor showing how this tradition of providing for the afterlife via symbolic figurines and models continued and even extends to the modern day. So he showed us some of the Han dynasty tomb goods (that were on display in Cambridge a while ago (post)) including the toilet for the use of the deceased … He also talked about the Tang Dynasty figurines a bit. And he finished up by noting that in modern Chinese funerals people will burn model houses and money, and even viagra, so that the deceased can take these things with them into the afterlife.

At the beginning of the talk I was a bit worried that it was either going to be too academic or too disorganised to follow easily. But once he got going it was an interesting talk 🙂

This Week’s TV including Games, Antigua, Vikings, Ottomans, and Iron Age & 20th Century Britons

Games Britannia

This is a three part series about the history of games in Britain, presented by Benjamin Woolley – we only recorded the first one which was the earlier history. Just as well, I think as he got closer to the modern day I’d’ve got more irritated with him (a throwaway remark in his intro to the theme of the series about how “these days teenage boys play video games” put my hackles up …). Other infelicities included showing a picture from an Egyptian relief of a game of senet and talking about it as if it was an ancestor of chess (unlikely, I think it’s believed to be more like a race game than a war game). And an assumption that an Iron Age game board must’ve been for divination purposes and meant this burial was of a druid … which, er, why does everything “primitive people” do have to have deep religious significance? Can’t a game be a game?

Otherwise it was an interesting survey of games from Iron Age Britain to late Victorian times. The earlier periods are represented by a small handful of games we don’t really know the rules for any more, except Nine Men’s Morris – which you find boards for scratched into the stonework in cathedral cloisters & so on, and it’s a game that is found in some variant form or another right across the world. The games we’d recognise today start to come in after contact with the east – some brought back by crusaders etc and later from India. I didn’t know that Snakes & Ladders derived from a Hindu game that was more of a teaching tool about the Hindu religion that a game per se. Odd to note that this game was altered to remove the message behind it during the same time period that teaching games were being churned out by Victorian moralists – lots of games where the point was to race to the end and there’d be various moral snares along the way (“You landed in a tavern, miss two goes”).

Nelson’s Caribbean Hell-hole: An Eighteenth Century Navy Graveyard Uncovered

A hurricane in 2010 uncovered 18th Century bones on a beach in Antigua – a place that Horatio Nelson once referred to as a “vile place” and a “dreadful hole”. In this programme Sam Willis followed the (fairly short) archaeological excavation that followed the discovery & told us a bit about the history of Antigua and why it was such an appalling place in the 18th Century. Antigua was important to the British Empire – both strategically and because it, in common with the other Caribbean islands, was where sugar was produced. The beach where the bones were found is in a place now called English Harbour – a natural harbour surrounded by hills where ships could shelter from the hurricanes. An obvious place to make your main base for the area – a couple of forts near the entrance & you can make the whole thing a safe place for your fleet. But the lack of wind & currents causes other problems – anything flung in the water just stays there. Parts of the seabed in the harbour today are feet thick in rubbish, industrial waste from the dockyards went in, any waste from the ships moored there including sewage. So instead of the pretty & clean beach of today the harbour would’ve been a stinking miasma of polluted water & air. Then you add in all the tropical diseases the sailors were exposed to, and the high mortality rate starts to seem reasonable. But then Willis talked to several archaeologists who have an additional theory about what was killing the sailors – lead poisoning from rum. Part of the sugar cane harvest was made into rum, and this was a staple drink for the sailors – they’d have a pint a day as part of their rations. But the rum was made in lead piping and lead distillation tanks, and the people Willis spoke to said the rum would’ve been contaminated. Perhaps not a problem if you had a bit now & again, but for the sailors it would’ve built up quickly.

The archaeological side of the programme was well covered, but was made at an early stage of the investigation – they had a few days of excavation but obviously hadn’t done any further analysis by the time the programme was made. But in that 5 days or so they got half a dozen skeletons from one small trench in the beach – the thought is that if a sailor died on board a ship in the harbour then he’d be hurriedly buried on the beach.

The Viking Sagas

This programme about the Viking Sagas wasn’t one of Janina Ramirez’s better programmes – somewhat padded out with lots of gushing about how wonderful the sagas were (rather than more discussion of the things themselves) at the start and some odd choices for imagery. It did get better as the programme went on, however, as we moved from generic “ooh this is wonderful” to a discussion of one saga in particular. The saga she chose was the Laxdæla saga, a story of lust, love & revenge. The point Ramirez was drawing out was that the Viking sagas were much more realistic than contemporary European literature which was heavy on tales of courtly love, and virtue being rewarded. The sagas are based on real events (in real places) with only a thin veneer of Christian moralising added at a later stage (like Guðrún, one of the protagonists, withdrawing to a nunnery at the end of her life in repentance). Ramirez also made a point of how British people were among those who settled Iceland (mostly women brought as concubines, i.e. sex slaves). And the sagas also influenced more modern British writers – Blake and Tolkein were the examples used.

Worth watching for the scenery & to hear bits of the saga read aloud (in Icelandic, with subtitles) in said scenery. But the In Our Time we listened to earlier in the year on the same subject was more informative (post).

The Ottomans: Europe’s Muslim Emperors

In the second episode of this series about the Ottoman Empire, Rageh Omaar covers the second half of the empire from Suleiman the Magnificent (or Suleiman the Lawgiver) in the 16th Century through to Abdul Hamid II and the “Sick Old Man of Europe” (nickname for the empire) in the 19th Century. Omaar continues to be more of an apologist for the Ottoman Empire than I’d like (lots of “it was a tolerant place” while glossing over second class citizenship for non-Muslims & children of non-Muslims being taken to be slaves). It was during Suleiman’s time that the Mamluk Empire was conquered – bringing the heartlands of Islam under Ottoman control. Prior to this the Ottomans were only really nominally Muslim, and ruled over a predominantly Christian territory, afterwards they moved more towards embracing their Islamic faith as a mark of their legitimacy as rulers. The Sultan was now also the Caliph, and they imposed a hierarchy on the Islamic clergy where there was previously no such thing. Under Suleiman and his immediate successors the Ottoman Empire pushed its expansion westward – ending up at the gates of Vienna, where they were only defeated by all of Christendom coming together (in effect) to drive them back. The Turks were feared across Europe & from the perspective of Europeans it was very much a Holy War (but not so from the Ottoman perspective, that was about territory). Omaar pointed out that this historical legacy influences the way the more eastern countries of Europe see the prospect of Turkey joining the European Union to this day.

Suleiman’s Ottoman Empire was at its peak, after him & his immediate successors their technological advantage started to be outstripped by a Europe undergoing the Industrial Revolution and entering the Enlightenment era. When Napoleon took his army to Egypt the initial Ottoman reaction was an assumption they were clearly the superior civilisation so their rout by the French & the loss of Egypt was a complete shock. It’s all downhill from there – the Ottomans end up referred to as the Sick Old Man of Europe, and rising nationalist feelings start to tear apart the cohesion of the Empire. The Ottoman dynasty is also seen by parts of the Empire as not Muslim enough – a fundamentalist Muslim group rising in what’s now Saudi Arabia took control of Mecca & Medina for a while, and whilst their rebellion was put down by the Ottomans it was a sign of what was to come.

Which is presumably the subject of the next episode.

Metal: How it Works

Metal: How it Works is the first of a three part series (all called X: How it Works) presented by Mark Miodownik which look at the materials our civilisation is based on. It was a combination of history, engineering & metallurgy, and while it could’ve been quite dry it was saved by the fact that Miodownik is engagingly enthusiastic about the subject. Miodownik took us through the history of metal-working from the early discovery of copper, and then bronze, through iron-working to steel and more modern metals. Along the way he talked about what it is about the atomic structure of metals that makes them behave the way they do (atoms in a crystal lattice, but one where the atoms can slide along and bunch up). As well as the enthusiastic bits about what metal working has let us do there were also a couple of segments about times when our ambition outreached our knowledge & skills. The first of these was about the railway bridge across the Tay, which collapsed under a train during a storm killing everyone on board. Which was the impetus for figuring out steel production – because it was the first indication for Victorian engineers that iron alone wasn’t necessarily the answer to all the world’s engineering problems. And the second was the first passenger planes, where tragically the stresses that repeated pressurisation & depressurisation put on the metal fuselages of planes was only worked out after several catastrophic mid-air failures.

Stories from the Dark Earth: Meet the Ancestors Revisited

The third episode of Stories from the Dark Earth was a very padded hour about two Iron Age burials. Very very padded. Bourton-on-the-Water is a village in the Cotswolds that I’ve been to several times as a child, and apparently underneath its primary school there is a fairly large Iron Age site. As the school has expanded they’ve had archaeologists come in and excavate before they put new buildings up, so much has been unearthed. The original burial (a girl in a rubbish pit) was thought to be singular and perhaps a sign of human sacrifice – so the updated info was first debunking that theory and then discussing the other burials they found in the area. All were of women or girls who were in some way diseased or disabled – they speculate that this may’ve been what set these women apart so that they were buried rather than excarnated (left to decompose before burying the bones). One of the bodies was of an older woman who had clearly been paralysed below the waist for several years (her leg bones were withered) but was otherwise in good health (as far as they could detect) which is an indication that these women were well looked after.

The other burial was a chariot burial found in Yorkshire in a village called Wetwang. Subsequent to the original excavation they’ve found evidence that the chariot was in use before death – ie it wasn’t just for burying the woman with, it was her vehicle in life. The woman in the grave was also disfigured, her skull was lopsided – probably pushed that way by a fairly large hemangioma on one of her cheeks. (Wikipedia says haemangiomas disappear over time mostly going by age 10, so perhaps I misremember what they said on the programme as they seemed to be saying it would still be visible in her later years.) She was buried with a mirror, which they’ve now discovered may’ve been kept in an otter fur bag – which may have symbolic status.

We’ll have a gap before we can watch the fourth episode, for some reason it didn’t record last time it aired so I need to wait till it airs again (soon, I think). In it, I suspect he’ll tell us several hundred times how it’s been “over N years since” the original excavations 😉

A Hundred Years of Us

The third episode of A Hundred Years of Us was more of the same mixture as the other two. Phil Tufnell was irritating as a butler this time (but the butler teaching him was too polite to outright laugh). More interesting was the segment on motorways – brand shiny new in the 1950s and requiring informational films about how you shouldn’t do a U-turn if you missed your exit nor have a picnic on the hard shoulder. And they were empty! There was also an interview with a man who’d moved from Jamaica to England in the early 60s (not on the Windrush, his parents moved over on the Windrush). He talked about both the culture shock and the racism he faced – like how he’d corresponded with an agricultural college when he was still in Jamaica to organise becoming a student once he moved to England. But once he turned up (and turned out black) there was magically no space in any of the classes. He ended up having to get a job as a bus conductor in Birmingham. He was keen to stress how much England has changed for the better since he arrived (although this segment also covered how much it got worse before it got better).

TV Including Greeks, Indian Railways, Sweets, Ottomans, Neolithic Britons and 20th Century Britons

Ancient Greece: The Greatest Show on Earth

The last part of Michael Scott’s series about Greek drama looked at what happened after Greece was conquered by Rome. It felt a little less focussed than the previous two episodes, possibly because the Romans aren’t as much his thing as the Greeks? The theme was that Rome both preserved this art form (and Greek plays, too) and also changed it along the way. Early Roman culture frequently mimicked Greek culture. Scott positioned this as them seeing the Greeks as “this is how a civilised culture acts” and so imitating it to make sure everyone knew they were civilised too. Then later there’s more of an element of “we can do it bigger & better” – the temples & monuments still have that classical style but they’re much more over the top. So drama got a foothold in Roman culture as it conquered the Greek city states in Italy, and gradually became a common sort of entertainment. In Greece drama had been closely connected to the political process & the people who produced it (playwrights, actors etc) had high status. In Rome drama was only entertainment, and while playwrights might still command respect actors were much lower status. And woe betide the playwright who took too obvious a dig at the powers that be, much better to stick to safe subjects.

An interesting series about something I didn’t know that much about 🙂

John Sergeant on Tracks of Empire

In the second & final part of John Sergeant’s trip on the Indian railway he travelled from north to south. Along the way he talked about the construction of the railways. I hadn’t realised everything was shipped across to India from Britain, because there wasn’t the industrial capability in India to build it. This includes not just the tracks and so on, but the actual trains themselves. He also visited a Maharajah’s palace – once upon a time the train ran direct to the door, as part of the British Empire keeping the Indian Princes onside.

The railways revolutionised Indian transport – prior to the British building them transport for most people was by foot or by animal. The increased mobility both connects people to the wider country, and allows for a lot more trade. Obviously the British benefited from that first, but modern Indian businessmen still use the same railways for their goods transport. The railways also generated a lot of jobs (and many of those jobs went to people who would otherwise have been shunned – Anglo-Indians for instance who weren’t welcomed in either English or Indian societies). And this is still true today. Sergeant visited a laundry facility (where it seemed it was all done by hand) and a leather workshop (again, handmade bags for all the railway employees/business).

So the railways have brought much good to India, but it was at a high price. Sergeant visited Bhore Ghat just south of Mumbai where the engineering difficulties of building a railway through a mountain range in a hot country with Victorian technology lead to a lot of deaths. Europeans tended to die of fevers, the engineer who was supposed to be running the project died not long after he arrived in India but his wife took over the project management and it was still completed on time & under budget. The Indians tended to die from industrial accidents and many more of them died.

Nigel Slater: Life is Sweets

This programme was a combination of a history & survey of British sweets, and personal reminiscences by Nigel Slater. I think I would’ve preferred more history/survey & less autobiography – particularly as I only have the vaguest idea who Nigel Slater is. But it did fit the primary theme of the programme, that sweets can be very good memory triggers. And as the programme went on I definitely had my own trips down memory lane – sweets I remembered, adverts I remembered, memories associated with particular sweets (in particular I hadn’t thought about peppermint creams at xmas for years, I don’t remember when Dad last made them either. Marzipan fruits too!). The bits & pieces of history were also interesting – I don’t think I ever knew that cocoa (the drink) was being pushed by the Quakers as an alternative to alcohol in a part of the Temperance Movement in the Victorian era. Which “explains” the Quaker origins of the chocolate companies. I also didn’t know that UFOs and aniseed balls both derive from medicine packaging of a bygone era.

Fun, but I’m not sure how much appeal it would have if you aren’t of the right age & country to remember the sweets.

The Ottomans: Europe’s Muslim Emperors

This is a recent series covering the history of the Ottoman empire, with an emphasis on how this history affects the current politics & unrest in the Middle East today. In the first episode Rageh Omaar covers the beginnings of the Ottoman Empire, the first two hundred years or so. A lot new here for me, I don’t really know much about the history of the Ottomans. They start as a nomadic tribe of horseback warriors, who fight as mercenaries as part of how they survive. From settling down in 1300-ish near the Turkish town of Sogut they start to conquer the lands around them, and construct a settled Ottoman state. At first this included a lot of the land around Constantinople but not the city itself, but in 1453 Mehmed II’s army succeeded (with the help of their superior military tech – cannons) to capture the city and turn it into Istanbul (here, have a free They Might Be Giants earworm. You’re welcome)*. This was a hugely symbolic moment – it was seen as the victory of Islam over Christianity. This was also the point where the Ottoman state began to turn into the Ottoman Empire. So far the Ottomans had been fighting Christians, and fighting other Muslim states was not the done thing – this changed when tensions increased between the Ottomans & the Safavid Empire. As the Safavids were Shiite and the Ottomans were Sunni the “obvious” solution was to declare the Shiites heretics, and then they were fine to go to war with – which is still having repercussions today.

*Omaar gave the impression the Ottomans changed the name of the city, but while I was looking for that vid I ran across a few mentions that it might’ve been the Turks after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. I don’t know which is right, but I still got that earworm during the programme 🙂

Omaar also talked a bit about life in the Empire in this period – the Sultan with his harem of concubines, fratricide between rival sons of the Sultan, Christians as tolerated but second class citizens. In his eagerness to emphasise that life in the Ottoman Empire wasn’t as bad as later history might suggest (i.e. the folk history of the peoples in Greece & Bulgaria etc who were conquered by the Ottomans) I think Omaar went a bit too far towards apologising for them. In particular the “it wasn’t that bad” of children being taken from (Christian) conquered families as slaves – army for the boys, concubines for the girls) – was a bit tenuous: they wouldn’t take your last son! it was quite a good life! Or the comparison of the fratricide to the succession wars in Europe in the same time period (Wars of the Roses, Hundred Years War) – doing your killing by policy rather than sometimes having wars isn’t quite a good v. bad distinction to me 😉 How about two shades of grey?

Stories from the Dark Earth: Meet the Ancestors Revisited

The second episode of Stories from the Dark Earth was desperately padded, with not much new stuff – if I’d seen the older series I think I’d’ve been rather disappointed. The two excavations were both of neolithic burials – one in Dorset & one in Orkney. The Dorset one is near a great earthwork called the Dorset Caucus – function unknown, and probably unknowable. One reason this burial is notable (apart from just because neolithic burials are only rarely found) is that in the original work they used isotope analysis of the teeth of the four skeletons to show that two had grown up in one area and two in the area where they were buried – the woman and the youngest child weren’t local, the two older children were. This was apparently the first proof of concept for using this sort of analysis on teeth, and all the problems that the PhD student (at the time) had had getting people to let her do analysis on their skeletons suddenly vanished once she’d been on telly. I suspect the way it was presented in the programme is likely to’ve been simplified to make a nice story 😉 One new thing for that burial was that in the last 15 years someone has done analysis of snail shell fragments in soil samples across the area, these have changed the perception of the landscape the people lived in – not dense forest across the whole region, but changing from wooded to cleared at the Dorset Caucus. The other new thing is that by correlating radiocarbon dates with archaeological evidence they’ve figured out there’s a 45% chance that the woman was alive when the earthwork was being constructed. A datapoint I was a trifle underwhelmed with (as I was also underwhelmed with the DNA evidence shown earlier about relationships between the woman & children) – the narrative of the show presented this as far more conclusive than it actually sounded like.

The Orkney burial had been in a pretty poor condition when discovered – fragile rotted bones & lots of missing bits. Originally assumed to’ve been as a result of a burial rite that involved letting the bones be picked clean by animals before interring them. But they’re now pretty sure this can’t’ve been the case – the missing bits include the bigger bones, not just the small ones. Some other bones from the area (and time period?) have had holes drilled in them after they’d been interred for a while, so clearly this culture had a different attitude to dead people than we do. No “rest in peace” here. And that was pretty much it for this half, only it was dragged out to about half an hour somehow. Oh, there was also something about a new tomb discovery only the excavations there aren’t very advanced yet.

A Hundred Years of Us

The second episode of this series was a mix of the fascinating and the banal. Banal included Phil Tufnell being a cheery chappy and finding out that Working On A Farm Is Hard (with c.1911 techniques) – not exactly news. But the segment on tuberculosis, and the start of the NHS, was fascinating – they had interviews with a woman who’d been a nurse in a sanatorium in 1948 and with a surviving patient from that sanatorium. The patient had been about 15 years old in 1948 and was one of the first people to be given streptomycin after the NHS started – if it had been left much longer she’d’ve died, and 12 weeks after treatment she was well enough to leave the sanatorium and go back home. If the NHS hadn’t been formed there’s no way she or her family could’ve afforded treatment, that’s why she was in the sanatorium waiting to die in the first place.

Other topics for the episode ranged from holidays (and the rise & fall of the Butlins style holiday camp), hats, to the end of rationing after WWII. There was some peculiar editing of the sat-on-the-sofa-chatting segments that meant people got obviously cut off and it didn’t look very smooth.

This Week’s TV Including Dogs, Evolution of Mammals, Greek Drama, Indian Railways, Roman Britain & the 20th Century

The Wonder of Dogs

The last episode of the dogs series was about dog personalities & dogs as pets. It made the point that although breeds have tendencies towards personality traits each dog is an individual. And that the first few weeks/months of a dog’s life are critical for enabling it to bond with people. They also talked about how it’s not that particular breeds are particularly prone to attacking people, but more the differences in what the dog does if it is badly trained/badly behaved – a labrador will tend to bite hands & arms and to bite & release. That’s much more survivable than the way a pit bull will go for face & neck and bite & hold on. So pit bulls have a reputation for being vicious when the average pit bull isn’t – the badly trained ones cause more problems tho.

They talked about the top 10 breeds kept as pets in the UK, and what about dogs makes them such good pets. Which basically boils down to the fact that we’ve bred them into forming close bonds with their owners. They showed us the classic owner-leaves-the-room experiments where the dog is visibly concerned until their person comes back. There was also demonstration of the fact that dogs generally want to comfort people – a researcher who hadn’t met the dogs before was faking crying, and each dog they tested went over to her to try & lick her face & cheer her up.

It was a good series, although I think it’s a little unfair that dogs got a three part series & cats got a programme & a half on Horizon for a similar thing! 😉

David Attenborough’s Rise of the Animals: Triumph of the Vertebrates

The second & last part of the recent David Attenborough series about evolution of the vertebrates concentrated on the mammals. As with the first episode I have reservations about the language used – too much of a sense of purpose & direction to what’s a much more random process than was implied. However it was still a neat programme – I liked the mix of CGI and fossils. In particular the shrew-like early mammal skull that they showed turning into a little skeleton walking around on David Attenborough’s fingers. This episode had fewer surprises for me than the previous one – it name checked all the critical mammalian features (fur, warm-blooded, live young, milk) and took in the monotremes & marsupials on the way to placental mammals and eventually apes & humans.

Ancient Greece: The Greatest Show on Earth

The second part of Michael Scott’s series about Greek drama & Greek history talk about how when democracy & Athenian supremacy wobbled drama managed to broaden its appeal & go from strength to strength. One of the changes was the rise to prominence of actors, and the restaging of old plays – when drama first started it was the playwright who was the only named individual involved (in terms of records that come down to us) and the plays performed were the new ones for the festival that year. But over the 4th Century BC there begin to be awards for actors at the festival, and often the old classics are staged after the new plays. And this is really why we have copies of the surviving plays – the old classics were copied out many times, and so managed to survive intact.

Comedy also shifted in form – at the start of the period they were bawdy and pointedly aimed at current personages & situations whilst being nominally about myths. Whereas by the end of the period the bawdiness was toned down (no more strap on phalluses, as Scott put it) and the tone had shifted to being about ordinary people and stock character types. Much closer to modern comedy, in fact. This was part of how drama’s appeal was broadening as Athens and its democracy ceased to be the centre of the Greek world. Drama was becoming entertainment rather than a part of the political process. And that increased popularity across the Greek world meant that when the Macedonians (under first Philip & then Alexander) were taking over much of the known world they also spread theatres and drama throughout the empire.

The next part promises to be about the Romans, and their reaction to/inheritance of Greek drama.

John Sergeant on Tracks of Empire

This is a two part series about the railways in India. The premise is that John Sergeant travels the length and breadth of India on the train, and talks about the history both of the railroad and of India during and post British Empire. In this episode he travelled from Calcutta west & north-west towards the Pakistan border. Along the way he talked about the railway towns that grew up to house the men who worked on the railway. He met some of the modern day railworkers, who are devoted to the job of keeping the network running – regarding it as a vital service to their country. He also talked about modern disruption to the rail network by violent protests (blowing up bits of track etc) and about past violence. This included visiting a house besieged during the “Indian Mutiny”. He’s more pro-Empire than is currently fashionable, and this segment made me wince a bit because he was playing up the clueless Englishman abroad thing with “but don’t you think the British soldiers were heroic” while talking to a group of Indians who regarded the leader of the siege as the true hero – the start of the fight for independence. And I felt it came across as a bit patronising, particularly in the context of “paternalistic” attitudes from the British Empire back in its heyday.

The programme finished at the India/Pakistan border. He talked to some people who’d lived through the appalling violence after the partition of India post-independence, which was particularly disturbing to watch. And the next & last segment was filmed at the border itself – the two armies in their fancy uniforms prancing around like something out of a Monty Python sketch, while citizens of each country chanted encouragement like they were at a football match. For all it was funny to see, it was sobering too – keeping the tribalism going and the wounds open.

Stories from the Dark Earth: Meet the Ancestors Revisited

The premise of this series is Julian Richards revisiting the finds from some archaeological digs he’d been part of over a decade ago – ones that were filmed as part of a series called Meet the Ancestors. The episodes are interspersing the original footage with new work that’s been done on the finds. The first episode was about two Roman burials dating from the 4th Century AD. He’d been discovered in a lead coffin, and was buried in a way that showed he had (or his family had) pagan beliefs. More recent analysis of his teeth has shown that he was definitely a local man. A survey off all the Roman era bodies that’ve been found in Winchester showed that about 30% of them weren’t local – and who was who didn’t always match the theories that had been based on grave goods. Then, as now, some immigrants assimilated and some families kept their “home” traditions generations after they arrived.

The second burial was of a high status woman found in a lead coffin & stone sarcophagus in Spitalfields, London. We’d actually seen the coffin etc in the London Museum when we visited earlier this year, so kinda neat to see that (and a reminder I’ve not yet sorted out my photos from that trip!). When discovered she’d been thought to be Christian, but more recently it’s been suggested she was a member of a mystery cult possibly dedicated to Bacchus. Very recently analysis of her teeth has shown she grew up in Rome itself – which makes her the first (only?) Rome born Roman to be found buried in Britain. Quite exciting, and Richards was speculating that perhaps she was involved with bringing the cult of Bacchus to Britain.

A Hundred Years of Us

This series was originally aired in 2011 just after the census, and it’s a retrospective of how life has changed over the last hundred years. The format is Michael Aspell in a studio talking to guests, interspersed with bits of video about various topics. The primary guest in the first episode was Pete Waterman, which I initially rolled my eyes at, but he was actually pretty interesting. They also have a family of four generations, the eldest of which have been on every census back to the 1911 one – and so we got some reminiscences of WWI and the 20s & 30s in this episode. The programme started by talking about the 11 plus – using a pair of twins as examples of how passing or failing could change your life. There was also a segment about food and how that’s changed – in particular the influx of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent and our national love affair with curry. Somebody (Phil Tufnell? who wikipedia tells me is a cricketer) went down a mine to see how coal mining was done in the early 20th Century – backbreaking labour, and the 75 year old man who had worked in mining since he was 13 was not impressed by the ability of this “young” man 😉 Oh, and a bit about tea, and how we love to drink it.

It’s a pretty fluffy programme but it is entertaining, we’re going to finish watching the series.

This Week’s TV with Buried Treasure, Historic London, King Arthur & the Indian Ocean

Secrets of the Saxon Gold

This is another Time Team special this time about the Staffordshire hoard which was discovered in 2009. It was (one of?) the largest collection of Saxon gold to be found in Britain, and so is interesting both to the general public & to archaeologists – hence this Time Team special. Even after a year of examining the items at the point this programme was made there’re still a lot of unknowns – Tony Robinson did his best to nail down a theory for why the hoard was buried, for instance, but really the answer is “don’t know”. I think they all agreed the best guess is it was gathered to be melted down & remade, and buried during a crisis then the owner never returned through death or other misadventure.

But there was also a lot of other information that had been found. Like they’d managed to date it to within about 50 years (after the last datable coin of ~650AD, before the art style changed in ~710AD). So that’s contemporary with Sutton Hoo. They had also managed to trace where the gold & garnets had come from – reinforcing the knowledge that the Saxons were connected to a large trade network stretching across Europe & Asia. And because a lot of the pieces were damaged already they can learn more about how these items are made.

London: A Tale of Two Cities with Dan Cruickshank

This programme about London in the 17th Century was presented by Dan Cruickshank & looked at the changes between two published surveys of London. The first was written by John Stow & published in 1598, the second was an updated edition by John Strype & published in 1720. Between these two years you have the Civil Wars, the Plague of 1665 & the Great Fire of London in 1666. You also have a change in England’s place in the world, which is reflected in the ways the two surveys talk about the Thames. In 1598 it’s all about defence – you would be able to see invaders sailing up the river in time to do something about them. In 1720 it’s more about access to trade & the rest of the world. As well as a potted history of the century Cruickshank also talked about how the geography of London changed – not so much in the centre despite the fire, apparently a lot of people rebuilt their houses where they’d once stood. Instead the changes were in the outward expansion of the city – to the east this was driven by the new docks at Deptford & Blackwall, and the need for closer housing for the workers. To the west it was driven by new homes built for the gentry, and their demand for suitable places to shop and entertainment.

Interesting programme – and a neat way to look at the history of the city during this period.

The Making of King Arthur with Simon Armitage

The Making of King Arthur was originally part of the BBC’s Norman Season a couple of years ago and has been sitting on our PVR ever since. In it Simon Armitage looks at the development the Arthurian legend, from the perspective of how the story evolved rather than whether or not there’s any truth behind it. After a bit of scene setting about how the Arthurian legend is still told in the present day Armitage starts with the appropriation of the Welsh stories of Arthur by the Norman conquerors. From Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Normanification of the legend it gets further Frenchified by poets across the channel. They introduce some of the key elements of the legend we remember – like the quest for the holy grail, and the Lancelot/Guinevere love story. And then it comes back to England & English with Thomas Malory’s Mort d’Arthur (which we listened to an In Our Time about a while ago (post)). Throughout the whole programme Armitage had people reading from the various works he was talking about – normally chosen to thematically fit the work or point Armitage was making. Like the lady who works at Monmouth Priory reading a bit from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s book, or a man (Erwin James) whose writing career started whilst in prison reading from part of Malory’s book. Slightly bizarrely Armitage also visited a woman who keeps the remnants of what she believes to be the Holy Grail – this is said to be the cup that was kept in Glastonbury Abbey until it was dissolved in 1528. It then passed into the keeping of the Powell family until the 1950s, when it moved again to a hidden location. (This is the Nanteos Cup, to disambiguate it from other claimed Holy Grails.)

Indian Ocean with Simon Reeve

The fourth episode of Simon Reeve’s series about the Indian Ocean started in Oman & ended in the Maldives. In Oman he showed us Iranian smugglers, and a remote village on an island that still live in a traditional way catching fish. He skipped over Iran other than to talk about it, and moved on to India where he visited Mumbai. As always we got both sides of the city. First a festival of Ganesh showing the touristy-happy side of life, and then visiting the people whose fishing village has been subsumed into the city for the seedy underbelly. How humankind is fucking up the oceans was the theme for the rest of the programme. First over-fishing in India, where even the captains of the fishing boats say catches are going down year on year yet the industry is expanding. Then on to the Maldives where the coral is suffering from changes in the temperature of the ocean – even a small change of temperature can kill the coral polyps and the death of the whole section of reef is not far behind. And finishing with a visit to the island where the rubbish goes – which is basically a heap of rubbish, bits rotting, bits burning, seeping into the sea through the sand & falling off the edge of the beaches. There were highpoints to that section of the programme too – line & pole tuna fishing, for instance, for a sustainable way to harvest food from the ocean. Also a project to regrow the coral in the ocean and keep the reefs alive.

The Week’s TV Including Greeks, the Indian Ocean & a Couple of Apocalyptic Events

Indian Ocean with Simon Reeve

The second leg of Simon Reeve’s trip round the Indian Ocean covered three island nations off the coast of East Africa. For Madagascar Reeve concentrated on the bits of the island that aren’t protected wildlife preserves, so in contrast to the imagery one normally sees there were a lot of shots of deforested farmland. And that deforestation has had the predictable results of altering water flow patterns, causing flooding & destruction. (There were some shot of cute lemurs as well, but very much not the primary focus.)

From poverty & environmental destruction in Madagascar he moved on to wealth & … environmental destruction in Mauritius. Tuna fishing was the primary culprit here – the sort of dredge up everything in the sea and sort the tuna fish out later approach to fishing. He’d originally been given permission to film in the harbour, but that was withdrawn.

As a contrast the Seychelles segment was mostly focussing on environmental re-creation. Reeve visited a British man who bought an island in the Seychelles in the 1960s for around £8000, and he’s spent the time since then making the island into a perfect habit for himself and his giant tortoises. It wasn’t clear if there was any other people on the island with him, but definitely lots of tortoises!

That episode finished up with a segment about Somali pirates & the Dutch soldiers who’re trying to rescue the boats captured by these pirates. This lead nicely into the next episode which we watched a few days later. In it Reeve travelled from Kenya through Somalia to Somaliland, finishing off the African leg of his journey. Throughout the programme there was an air of suppressed hysteria, because for the middle part of it Reeve was visiting Mogadishu, the capital city of Somalia.

The Kenya leg of the journey was mostly focussed on an area of abundant & impressive wildlife – the Tana River Delta. Sadly a lot of the land is being given over to sugar cane plantations, which not only gets rid of all the wildlife, but also involves moving on the people who make their homes there. Reeve also visited a village at the northern end of the Kenyan coastline where the villagers earn their livings by making flipflops that wash up on their beaches into ornaments & toys. That’s only a fraction of the plastic that washes up on the shoreline, but it’s the bit they’ve come up with a way to make money from.

The men in that last village no longer fish because of piracy, which led nicely into the next segment where Reeve went to Mogadishu. Much respect to Reeve for going there – it looked terrifying. He was with one of the AMISOM regiments (the African Union peacekeeping force that’s there), as that was safest, and they took him out to the front lines in the city – at one point moving him & his camera crew away quickly because it looked like the Somali al-Shabab militants were about to attack. He also visited a food station – a lot of refugees have come to Mogadishu because there are places they can get food (foreign aid has been prevented from reaching other parts of the country), and despite how dreadful conditions are in the capital they are still better than elsewhere in the country.

From there Reeve flew to Somaliland, which has broken away from Somalia but is not recognised as a separate country by the UN. So it’s in a sort of limbo, but it’s a limbo that has law & order and a much more functional state apparatus than war-torn Somalia. Here Reeve didn’t just visit & talk to refugees from Somalia, he also talked to a Somali pirate who has been captured & jailed in Somaliland. The man was completely unrepentant. While he spun it as “we’re just trying to protect our fishing rights from the big corporate tankers” for the start of piracy, he was also completely upfront that there was money to be made in taking people hostage or taking their goods and felt that was a reasonable thing to be doing. He was sort of justifying it by saying that because his country was so war torn there’s no other way to make money to get food/whatever so terrorising the seas was the obvious choice.

Who Were the Greeks?

The second & final episode of Who Were the Greeks? was more focussed on the things that have left a lasting legacy down to our time. So he looked at things like the Olympics, which are both like our current games and very much not. For instance one difference was that winning was all that mattered in Ancient Greece, none of this “it’s the taking part that counts” or doing your best, you either won or you didn’t. Another thing he looked at was the architecture & sculpture that has survived since Ancient Greek times, concentrating particularly on how our ideas about what it looks like are heavily influenced by the fact that the paint has disappeared over time. There was an interview with one expert who said he rather hoped that people forget again about the paint (as has apparently happened before) so that future generations can have the joy of this discovery. I was unconvinced, it has to be said 😉 Maybe if they remember the paint they might have the joy of other discoveries we haven’t got to yet rather than just repeating the past.

And he finished up the programme by looking at how come Greek culture spread so far from Greece. Part of this is down to Alexander the Great, who in the process of conquering a lot of the then known world managed to spread Greek culture behind him as he went. And then after the Romans conquered the Greeks they assimilated Greek culture into their own & spread it further still.

Britain’s Stone Age Tsunami

Another Time Team Special that we had recorded was one about a tsunami that hit Britain 8000 years ago. This event played a part in the splitting of Britain from mainland Europe. There’s definitely evidence for some sort of catastrophic flooding event in the north-eastern coast of Britain, in the form of a layer of sand which contains deep sea diatoms. The tsunami was triggered by an undersea earthquake out somewhere north of Norway, it in its turn was likely triggered by changes in the crust due to the retreating glaciers.

The people living in Britain & Doggerland (the name of the land linking Britain to the European mainland) at the time are often thought of as “primitive hunter gatherers”, but there’s increasing evidence that this was not the case. A major part of this programme was talking to the woman running an excavation in York of a Mesolithic village. It dates to around the same time as the tsunami & is a least a semi-permanent settlement with houses constructed from timber.

A minimum amount of padding in this programme, although we did roll our eyes somewhat when they suddenly launched into a flight of fancy about how something was “clearly” a spiritual item used by shamans. Well, you can’t tell, can you? It’s not like they left a little note next to it saying “holy object” 😉

Ancient Apocalypse: Sodom & Gomorrah

Sadly the last episode of the Ancient Apocalypse series had enough padding to bring the average padding/programme for all the other programmes we watched this week back up to “high”. It was about the biblical story of Sodom & Gomorrah, and whether or not it was based on a real event. And this retired engineer had a theory, but needed facts to prove it. And then he talked to some scientists. They thought he had a theory, but needed facts to prove it. They found some facts. He had a theory, and needed facts to prove it. Someone did an experiment. He had a theory, but needed facts to prove it. Oh look, this theory fits the facts, but it’s not proven yet. Each time they explained the theory it was the same one, they were really just spinning their wheels.

However, mockery aside there was a kernel of a programme there. The basic idea was that when Genesis came to be written down it included folk tales that were fitted into the overall Jewish-centric narrative. One of these might’ve been a memory of a devastating earthquake in the Dead Sea region that is turned into an example of God’s wrath striking down the wicked. Over the course of the programme they did show evidence that there were settlements we could call cities in the Dead Sea region in the early Bronze Age. They also showed that this was & is an earthquake prone zone, with signs that an earthquake did happen around the right time for it to affect the people in the cities. There were also a couple of added bonus destructive properties over “normal” earthquakes. The first of these is that there’s a lot of methane trapped in the rocks underground, which an earthquake could release to ignite fires (hence the fire & brimstone bit of the tale). The second is that the ground around the Dead Sea is made up of rock that will liquefy under earthquake conditions, which could then trigger a landslide tipping the houses of a settlement into the Dead Sea if they were close enough. The cities might be close enough because you can harvest asphalt out of the Dead Sea and that was a valuable trade item at the time. So maybe all of that happened, and was passed down as a folk tale that made it into the Bible. But there’s no proof, just a lot of it-could-be-possibles.

But it felt like at least half of the 50 minute programme was taken up with telling us this man had a theory, telling us what the theory was, and telling us he needed facts to prove it. Then a bit of shaky cam stuff to make us think about the earth shaking.

I was disappointed with the series overall, it felt like a good idea let down by an overly padded and gee-whiz execution.

She Wolves: England’s Early Queens; Secrets of the Arabian Nights; The Secrets of Stonehenge: A Time Team Special

The second episode of Helen Castor’s She Wolves: England’s Early Queens was about Isabella of France & Margaret of Anjou. Neither of these women ruled England in their own right, but both ruled in the name of a man (son & husband respectively) and neither have been remembered kindly by history. Rather unfairly, I think (although Isabella brought it on herself to some degree).

Isabella was the daughter of the King of France & was married to Edward II when she was only 12 years old. The marriage didn’t get off to an auspicious start when Edward sat his favourite, Piers Gaveston, closer to Edward at the feast than Isabella was and they ignored her to concentrate on each other. Even at this young age Isabella was very aware of the respect due to herself as a daughter of a King and a Queen herself. However, despite the fact that Edward was besotted with his favourite, Isabella set out to behave like the perfect Queen & wife.

Gaveston’s behaviour and indulgence by the King wasn’t just annoying & insulting to Isabella, it also wasn’t going down well with the nobles at court. Eventually the situation deteriorated to the point where the barons took up arms against Edward & his favourite, and they had to flee – with Isabella in tow. The situation was only resolved with the capture & execution of Gaveston. Relations between Isabella & Edward must’ve got better after this – if nothing else they started having children including the future Edward III. Isabella had therefore performed one of the critical duties of a Queen in ensuring the succession, she also played the Queenly role of peacemaker in mediating between Edward & the rebel barons.

However she was to play a critical role in the re-emergence of hostilities. She was travelling with her household when they were caught in a storm, and sought shelter at Leeds Castle (in Kent). The Lord of the castle had been one of the rebels but he was away, and his wife refused Isabella entry. Isabella was furious and ordered her men to force their way in, at which point the soldiers in Leeds Castle fought back (as you would) and six of Isabella’s men died. Edward called this insult to his Queen treason & used it as an excuse to beseige the castle, eventually capturing it & imprisoning the lady & her children. The lady’s husband was executed. I’ve got chronology muddled a bit here (I don’t think Castor did tho) and by this stage Edward II had already taken up with his next poor idea for a favourite – Hugh Despenser. Castor characterised Despenser as a political predator (and we got nice visuals of a raptor of some sort flying about and tearing at some sort of prey). She also said that she believes that relationship to’ve been platonic, unlike the one with Gaveston.

So now relations between Edward & the country are deteriorating & so are those between Edward & Isabella. Tensions are rising between England & France, too. Isabella seizes her chance when her brother (now King of France) wants to negotiate a peace – she volunteers to go to France to negotiate on England’s behalf. Once in Paris she organises for her son Edward to join her, and instead of returning to England as a dutiful wife she returns at the head of an army, fighting to depose Edward II & set Edward III in his place. She’s practically welcomed in, Edward II’s reign had become tyrannical and unpopular. Once Edward II was captured Edward III was crowned & Isabella ruled as his regent. Edward II subsequently died, almost certainly at Isabella’s orders (but not via the red hot poker of later myth). Isabella was widely regarded as the saviour of England at the time.

But she’d already sown the seeds of her downfall. Whilst in Paris she’d also taken up with a knight called Roger Mortimer (Castor made a lot of use of chess metaphors in this programme, in particular referring to the Queen making her move with her Knight & Pawn (Edward III)). So when she started to rule as regent she had her own favourite by her side, not quite what the nobles wanted to see. And she had always been very aware of her own majesty, and this only got worse when she was running the country – she and Mortimer enriched themselves at the Crown’s expense. So in the end Isabella was overthrown in her turn, by her son. Mortimer was executed, but Isabella was allowed to live on.

(Isabella is one of the viewpoint characters in “Iron King” by Maurice Druon that I read earlier this year, it’s set around the time of Edward III’s birth. Druon has her & Mortimer (very much pre any relationship) conspiring to catch her sisters in the act of adultery, oh the irony.)

The second half of the programme was devoted to Margaret of Anjou – the French bride of Henry VI. Henry had been King since he was 9 months old, when his father Henry V died. Unfortunately at the time Margaret of Anjou married him he still wasn’t showing much signs of capability to rule – he was 23 by then. And it got worse – Margaret became pregnant, but shortly before the baby was born Henry slipped into a catatonic state. The court was already divided into factions – one centred round the Duke of York (who had his own claim to the throne), one centred round the Duke of Somerset (who was pro-Henry). Castor was telling us that Margaret would’ve prefered that she was named regent – she felt she had the right as the King’s wife & that she was a more neutral choice than the other two. However it was the Duke of York who got the job. This is where the Wars of the Roses begin to properly kick off.

Henry did recover his wits (such as they ever had been), so the Duke of York was no longer regent. However relations between the Yorkist & Lancastrians had deteriorated to the point where civil war broke out. Margaret was firmly in the Lancastrian camp, keen to protect her husband & son’s right to the throne. Henry was fought over & captured/released and generally passed around like pass the parcel. Castor told us of the king sitting in the centre of St Albans, guarded by soldiers, while the fighting raged through the town – not participating, just bewildered as he was fought over. In the end York won, not to control the king but to rule in his own name. (By this stage it’s not the original Duke of York, it’s his son Edward who ruled as Edward IV.) Margaret & her son (and husband? I can’t remember where Castor said Henry was) fled the country. Whilst in France she worked tirelessly to drum up support for her husband’s cause, but not very successfully.

Eventually the chance she’d been waiting for arrived – one of the major Yorkists, the Earl of Warwick, became dissatisfied with the King he’d put on the throne. Warwick regarded himself as “Kingmaker” and felt that if this one wasn’t working out, why all he needed to do was put a new one on the throne. So he switched sides, and promised Margaret that he’d work to return her husband to his rightful throne. Margaret was quite canny about this, she accepted his aid and then waited with her son in France until Warwick had delivered on his promise. Only then did she set out for England.

Sadly for Margaret just as she and her son were landing in England the Yorkists re-grouped and retook the crown. Margaret & her forces were forced into a battle in which her son took part for the first time. He died and as he was Henry VI’s only heir, with him died the hopes of Margaret for keeping her husband’s line on the throne. Henry VI was a Yorkist captive again, and died shortly afterwards in the Tower of London. Margaret lived the rest of her life in France.

Secrets of the Arabian Nights was a standalone programme presented by Richard E. Grant all about the stories of the Arabian Nights. He traced their origins in the Middle East & beyond, and how they got to the West. He also talked to several critics & others about the impact they still have in both East & West today. And we also got treated to some retellings of some of the stories.

The stories come from a thriving oral tradition originating with merchants travelling the Silk Road & other trade routes across Asia. The prominence of merchants in many of the stories is a legacy of that. These stories were subsequently fitted within the Scheherazade frame story, and written down as The 1000 Stories. They came to the West via a Frenchman called Antoine Galland in the 18th Century – he was fluent in Arabic & Persian & other Middle Eastern languages, and he translated an Arabic form of the stories into French & published it. The book was a great success – partly because it was exotic and new, with sorts of stories & magic that aren’t the common tropes of Western literature (flying carpets were an example Grant mentioned repeatedly). And partly because it was the right thing at the right time – there was already a fashion for fairytales, and these stories fitted into that niche. Due to the success of the stories Galland was pressured to provide more, and he did – he said he’d heard the stories from contacts in the Middle East, but Grant pointed out that this was pretty dubious. It’s more likely that Galland invented them or significantly embellished them. I knew already that what we have in the West isn’t quite the same as the original, but I hadn’t realised that Aladdin & Ali Baba were among the extras.

Galland’s book was translated into English where again it was a success and helped establish the craze for “oriental” fashions in Britain. It was also disapproved of by the more strait-laced – Grant quote one lord who felt that it was encouraging the “Desdemona complex” (which is every bit as racist as you might imagine). And then in Victorian times the Arabian Nights stories were significantly bowdlerised & re-purposed as children’s stories. Which is really the form that most of us English speakers run into them first today.

Grant spent some time talking to a variety of critics both European & not. They were mostly in agreement that one of the themes of the book as a whole (in the original) is female sexuality & desire. They also drew out a feminist theme to the collection of stories. The framing story of Scheherazade is about a king whose wife betrays him, so after killing her he goes on to marry & then execute a woman every night. As revenge. Scheherazade uses her wits & her storytelling abilities to not just save herself but to slowly change the King’s attitudes. They were saying at the beginning the stories she tells fit with the King’s misogynistic & vengeful ideas, but over the course of the stories she emphasises wisdom & reflection over vengeance, and seeing women as people.

In the Middle East today (well, 2011 or 2010 when this was filmed) the book is controversial. It’s regarded by some as immoral – too much drinking, too much sex, people aren’t rewarded for being good they’re rewarded for being lucky, and so on. Grant talked to an Egyptian author & publisher (Gamal al Ghitani) who has published a new edition of the stories – he has received death threats & there was pressure on the government to ban the book because it was indecent & not Islamic enough. Gamal al Ghitani was clear that he felt this was rubbish, that the extremely conservative Islamist groups weren’t right about the only way to be a Muslim. And that these stories are an important part of Arabic heritage & should be read & learnt about by modern people.

It was a good programme, interesting & the dramatic re-tellings of stories were fun 🙂

Secrets of Stonehenge was a Time Team special we’d recorded several years ago, about a team excavating at and near Stonehenge. It felt very padded, in what I think of as “Discovery channel style” – i.e. the sequence went: cliff-hanger, ad break, re-cap, small bit of something else, next cliff-hanger etc. And while it did belabour the point about theories only lasting so long as there’s evidence to support them, it also made a lot of use of “and now they’ve proved” language *rolls eyes*. However. It was fun to watch, as Time Team generally is. A particularly amusing moment was when Robinson said “to help the archaeologist Time Team has built a life size replica of the henge at Durrington” … well, no, I think you did it so you had something cool to show on the telly 🙂

The excavations were led by a chap called Mike Parker Pearson, and his pet theory (which evolved over the 6 years of excavations) was that Stonehenge fit into a ritual landscape involving a progression from life to death. The henge at Durrington, built of wood, was a place where people came to feast each midwinter. They then travelled down the river Avon and along the avenue to Stonehenge, which was the place of the dead. There they buried some of their ancestors (mostly adult males, who were relatively fit – Pearson speculated this was a royal line). Some of this left me hoping it was based on better evidence than they showed us (i.e. that the people would process along the river scattering ashes?), some of it was more compelling (i.e. evidence of feasting on pigs of a particular age at the Durrington site implies feasting at a particular time of year).

Another strand of the programme talked about the previous excavations at the site – it was a minor enough theme I wouldn’t’ve mentioned it except that I wanted to make a note of one rather appalling part. One of the modern excavators, back in the 50s, was a man called Richard Atkinson. Although he did a lot of work on the site none was recorded and none was published – so effectively he dug it up & disturbed it all for no gain. Not what you expect from the modern era! Wikipedia is somewhat kinder to the man citing overwork & illness, so perhaps that too was hammed up to make “good telly”.

Overall I’d say it was fun but not necessarily accurate (or nuanced).

Time Team: The Hollow Way; Michael Wood on Beowulf

We decided to watch a couple of programmes that we’ve had on our PVR for 3 or 4 years and somehow never got round to actually watching before. First was an episode of Time Team about a medieval village that used to exist around a farmhouse at Ulnaby, County Durham. Obviously being Time Team they only had 3 days to do a fairly superficial excavation of a handful of areas around the site. But what they did manage to discover was that the peak of the occupation seemed to be around the 13th to 14th Centuries – finding pottery & house walls, and also references in documents. The original assumption had been that it had been deserted in the Black Death (1348) or as land use throughout the country was re-organised in the 15th Century with many villages evicted. However their digging found evidence of occupation up to the 17th Century (lots of tobacco pipes) and there was also documentary evidence for the village up till then as well (names of people pardoned for being involved in the Rising of the North in 1569 (by supporters of Mary Queen of Scots against Elizabeth I). So their conclusion was that it had petered out gradually around & after that time.

And not really much else to say about it – Time Team tends to be fairly superficial, but it’s normally fun to watch.

Another programme we’d had sitting around for a while was Michael Wood on Beowulf. This was partly a retelling of the Beowulf story and partly about the poem & the world the poem was written for. The retelling part of the programme featured Julian Glover reciting/acting a modern English translation of the poem to an audience of Anglo-Saxon re-enactors in Kent who were all dressed up in their reconstruction royal hall, and had just had a feast. So that was very much “as it would’ve been” (except cleaner, lighter, politer & less drunk, I expect! 😉 ).

For the parts of the programme about the world of the Anglo-Saxons & the origins of the poem Wood spent a lot of time in East Anglia, where the earliest Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in England were. As he said, the Anglo-Saxon presence here was an immigrant one, and the poem looks back to their ancestral homelands in Denmark & Sweden. He compared it to tales of “the Old Country” told by Irish-Americans or Italian-Americans these days. He visited Sutton Hoo (of course) and talked about how there are ship burials in the poem and that’s what was famously discovered at Sutton Hoo. The King who was buried there was probably Rædwald who was not just a local King but was overlord of all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in Britain. And he & his lineage (and subjects) were probably the target audience for the original incarnation of the poem. Wood told us that there are references to ancestors of Rædwald at various points in the poem, so it seems likely the original poet was well informed about Rædwald’s genealogy (and wanted to associate him with the heroes of old).

One of the things that is interesting about Beowulf in context is that the world it was composed for was a Christian world, but the world it was about was a pagan world. So the hero Beowulf & his companions are all presented as old pagan heroes, but there is some interestingly Christian imagery & crossover. For instance the monsters, Grendel & his mother, are referred to as the seed of Cain (so the descendants of Adam’s son Cain who kills his brother Abel). Wood visited Northumberland to talk about Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which is a very Christian & Anglo-Saxon history. And also to tell us about The Dream of the Rood, which is an Anglo-Saxon poem which is overtly Christian & about a dream about talking to Christ on the Cross. It has a certain amount of pagan imagery, in a sort of mirroring of the Christian imagery in Beowulf. Wood was explaining this sort of cross fertilisation between the pagan & Christian worldviews as being part of the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity and of fitting the new religion into their history.

So the programme has visited areas near where we currently live and areas near where J grew up, and in discussing the relationship of the Anglo-Saxons to the history of the world around them Wood visited Weyland’s Smithy which is in Oxfordshire which completed the set (as it’s an area near where I grew up). What Wood was talking about here was that the Anglo-Saxons knew they lived in an old world – they saw the Bronze Age monuments & burial mounds in the landscape & peopled them with gods & heroes. And it is this old world that Beowulf fits into & explains.

The poem was written down around 1000AD, but was probably composed some time earlier & passed down orally. Despite being an East Anglian work (probably) the version that’s survived is written in a West Saxon dialect, as part of a compilation of “texts about monsters”. Wood visited the British Library to see the original manuscript, which was damaged in a fire in the 18th Century and is very fragile.

A good programme, I’m glad we kept it. I do have one quibble about the filming of it – all the exterior shots were very heavily processed & vignetted. Sometimes that worked (particularly on shots of bleak fenland while Wood was telling parts of the Beowulf story), but often it felt overdone.

Archaeology: A Secret History

The main theme of the third episode of Archaeology: A Secret History was that the ideology of the archaeologist affects not only the things they look for but also the things they see when they find stuff. Miles also continued with some of the themes of the last episode – the increasing use of science in archaeology and the continuing move from looking at Kings & Emperors to looking at the lives of the common people.

Miles used V. Gordon Childe & Marija Gimbutas as two examples of archaeologists whose ideology we can easily see showing through their work. Childe excavated Skara Brae, a prehistoric village in Orkney (which we’ve seen in a couple of other TV programmes as well). In this village all the houses are approximately the same size. Childe was a Marxist & interpreted this as being a Neolithic communist paradise. Gimbutas was an American woman who worked on prehistoric Europe, and was particularly interested in the female figurines found across the continent. You can see her feminism and the political context of the USA in the 60s & 70s (like the Vietnam War) shining through her interpretation of that prehistoric culture as a peaceful society run by women with no weapons of war – feminist utopia before the men got in charge & spoilt it all. (Miles was keen to stress that while her ideas might not have much favour now, she was a pioneering woman in what had been a predominantly male field and her work drew attention to the importance of considering women’s lives in the past.)

Other ways ideology influenced archaeology are less noble. The obvious example here is the Nazi regime’s desire to find the origins of the Aryan race (in Scandinavia) and “prove” their “superiority”. But another example is the one Miles opened the programme with: the skull of Piltdown Man, “discovered” by Charles Dawson in Sussex in 1912. This skull was claimed as evidence of a “missing link” between humans and apes, and (not so) coincidentally an older ancestor than the Neanderthals discovered in Germany. This meant Britain had the first known human ancestors, how glorious! But in the 1950s more modern scientific tests finally proved that the skull was a fake – it was constructed from human and ape bones, which were stained, painted and broken and planted in the quarry (perhaps by Dawson, perhaps he was just duped).

The revelation of Piltdown Man as a hoax is an example of a feature of late 20th Century & modern archaeology – revolutions of technique can be used to re-examine previous finds. The meticulous labelling, recording and preserving of artifacts means you can go back to something and apply your new scientific tests. Examinations are never completely finished, there’s always more to find.

There was also another thread running through the programme – PR and spin. These days archaeologists present programmes on TV (like Miles himself) or have other public out-reach things, designed both to interest people and to get funding for further projects & investigations. This can be seen as something that develops through the 20th Century – he used Howard Carter and the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb as an early example of this. Carter had a dig diary that was the real one, and another one that was written with the idea that it was going to be read. The photos from the dig include staged ones of Carter investigating, and Carnarvon sold the rights to the story of the dig to the Times.

Overall I’ve enjoyed this series, but with such a lot of ground to cover in just three programmes it’s not surprising that it feels like he painted everything with very broad brush strokes. J was disappointed there wasn’t more about Egypt, in particular that there was no mention of Petrie in the whole series. Which was surprising because he developed the technique of using pottery styles to put sites into relative chronological order. Also as a consequence of the high level view all the archaeologists got reduced to a particular quirk or one-note charicature – for instance I know a bit more about Howard Carter and he wasn’t just (or even mostly) a man with a good grasp on PR. And in skimming through the wikipedia articles for the people I’ve mentioned in my write-ups for this series I can see that all of the other archaeologists are more complex that Miles presented them as. So I think the series could’ve done with a bit more space to let the complexities of the subject shine through, but it was a good very high level overview.

Archaeology: A Secret History

The second episode of Archaeology: A Secret History covered the 18th & 19th Centuries. Two linked themes running through this era were the move from treasure hunting to scientific archaeology and the the move from wanting to own the past to wanting to understand the past. The third thread that tied the programme together was the move from investigating the Classical World of the Greeks & Romans, to looking further back for the history of civilisation before that era, or even in other places.

Miles started the programme by walking through the tunnels dug by Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre’s excavation of Herculaneum. This Spanish engineer was the first serious excavator of the city, but he wasn’t interested in the things that a modern archaeologist would be interested in. Instead he was after statues and other fine objects. So there are places where statues were taken out of their niches in the theatre they discovered, but the plinths they stood on are still there with the inscriptions that tell us who the statues were. That was considered boring.

In a similar treasure hunting vein was Napolean’s survey of Egypt. This was a military venture, but as well as an army he brought surveyors and they catalogued the country too. And took the best bits of the statues and so on that they found, planning to ship them back to France for the glory of the French Empire. When the British defeated the French they took the statuary etc back to England instead, for the glory of the British Empire. This statuary is the start of the British Museum’s Egyptian collections – and a lot of it is still on display in the Egyptian Statue Gallery at the BM, including the Rosetta Stone. The deciphering of hieroglyphs (using the Rosetta Stone as its starting point) not only let archaeologists learn about Egypt itself but also showed that civilisation existed long before the time of the Greeks and Romans. This was further backed up by the deciphering of cuneiform, and excavations in Mesopotamia.

Miles also talked briefly about Belzoni – the Italian circus strongman who excavated statues in Egypt and brought them back to Europe – but then we moved on to the discovery of ancient civilisations in the jungles of Mexico & South America. I forget which site in particular he showed us (I think it was a Mayan one), but the take home message was that this showed archaeologists that the history civilisation was more complicated than a simple progression from primitive to advanced in a single place.

In the 19th Century archaeology began to become an academic subject, no longer the sole preserve of rich enthusiasts or empire builders after a bit of bling to prove their worth. Miles talked about this a bit (with some footage shot in Cambridge), but then the last two personalities he told us about were still more in the gentleman amateur mould than academics. The first of these was Heinrich Schliemann, a German who went looking for Troy. Received wisdom at the time was that the Troy of Homer was a myth and had never really existed, but Schliemann found the site of Troy and then dug down past more recent remains to uncover much older sites. He actually overshot and the stuff he dug up was older than the era that Homer wrote about. By today’s standards he was a bit of a cowboy – having his wife dress up in the jewellery he found was probably the least of his sins. He is also thought to’ve added items to the cache of items that he identified as Priam’s treasure, and although not mentioned in the programme J remembers reading something about individual items that may’ve been altered to look more like what they were “supposed to”. But the take home message for this programme was that Schliemann pioneered using scientific techniques to investigate the objects he’d found. In particular analysis of the composition of the gold that made up the objects from Troy and the gold mask in Mycenae – and he believed this showed a link between the two settlements (necessary if you’re looking for proof of the Trojan War).

And Miles finished the programme by talking about Pitt-Rivers, which was particularly good from our perspective as we’ve just listened to the In Our Time episode about him (post). Rather than mention the museum Miles told us about Pitt-Rivers’ excavations, showing us not only a marker stone he put up on his land where he’d done an excavation but also the maps, models, detailed drawings and descriptions of what he’d found. Pitt-Rivers was a pioneer of systematic documented excavations. He details things like precisely where he found an artifact and recorded all the things he found not just the “interesting” ones. He was also more interested in the everyday artifacts, all in all a long way from the sort of excavation done by earlier people like de Alcubierre whose excavation of Herculaneum opened the programme.