In Our Time: Pitt-Rivers

The Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford is one of my favourite museums, because it’s so crammed full of things to see. So I was pleased there was an In Our Time programme about the man behind it – Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers. The experts who discussed him were Adam Kuper, (Boston University), Richard Bradley (University of Reading) and Dan Hicks (Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford).

Pitt-Rivers was born Augustus Henry Lane-Fox in 1827, a younger son of a younger son. His father died when he was very young, and his mother moved them to London & then there’s not much sign that he had any formal education at all apart from a brief enrolment at Sandhurst (which was a public school at the time not a post-graduate military academy). He had a career in the military, where he was put in charge of musketry and his obsession with collecting objects started during that time – possibly after visiting the Great Exhibition in 1851. He married “above his station”, and it was his wife’s family & social connections that got him contacts in the scientific circles of the time. When he was about 50 he unexpectedly inherited a large estate & a fortune – they said in today’s money it would be on the order of £2 million per year to spend. This was the Rivers estate, I think they said it was the largest estate outside the aristocracy. As a condition of this inheritance he had to take the surname Pitt-Rivers.

Pitt-Rivers was interested in collecting everyday objects, and in comparing them between cultures. A large amount of his collection was donated to Oxford University in the 1880s, forming the Pitt-Rivers Museum. Inspired by Darwin he was interested in figuring out the evolutionary path of the objects we use – like sticks -> spears -> muskets. So he grouped his objects by type and tried to order them from primitive to sophisticated. And as well as ordering the objects this way he (and Western society in general at the time) ordered cultures in a similar fashion. He & others believed that “primitive” cultures in the modern world corresponded to the ancestral cultures of nations like Britain. Towards the end of the programme the experts were talking about Pitt-Rivers’ legacy and all agreed that his anthropological ideas were considered out-of-date (possibly even by the man himself) before his death.

As well as his collection Pitt-Rivers is remembered for his contributions to archaeology. They were joking that once he inherited the Pitt-Rivers estates he didn’t have to travel outside his estates to excavate prehistoric sites. He did, but also did a lot of excavations on his own lands. He kept his focus on everyday items as opposed to the antiquarian’s desire to find treasure or monuments from the Classical world. His contribution to archaeology is more long lasting than that to anthropology, because he was a very methodological excavator. One of the experts (and I forget which) said that a Bronze Age settlement that Pitt-Rivers had excavated was returned to in modern times because the documentation meant that they knew where to look to extend their knowledge of the site.

Pitt-Rivers saw himself as a scientist, but the experts on the programme were fairly dismissive of his theoretical achievements. Where he excelled was in the practical and organisational sides of things. And his wife’s social connections meant that he was involved in the scientific societies of the day, often in a organisational role. This included becoming the first Inspector of Ancient Monuments, which involved both the sort of cataloguing that he was so good at and the prevention of damage to the monuments.

Somehow a very Victorian story – both in the collection and the details like the unexpected inheritance of a fortune.

Archaeology: A Secret History

On Friday we started watching a new series about the history of archaelogy presented by Richard Miles. He started the first episode by talking about the Empress Helena’s trip to the Holy Land to dig up relics – which, if you stretch, can be considered the first ever archaeological expedition! At the very least it was an understanding that objects dug out of the ground can be used to understand the past.

We then moved briskly along to the Renaissance & an Italian called Pizzicolli. This is a very European history of archaeology (no mention of the Chinese, for instance, who were doing stuff that was at least as archaeological as the Empress Helena if not the Enlightenment era Europeans by the 7th Century AD). Anyway, Pizzicolli lived in the early 15th Century AD and became fascinated by the traces of the past that were all around the Mediterranean. He didn’t dig things up, but he’s still often referred to as the Father of Archaeology. What he did was to visit old ruins and to draw & describe them, and to collect the inscriptions and so on and try to figure out what these ruins were and who’d built them.

Miles touched on another couple of Renaissance era figures before moving on to the Enlightenment. Here we started with John Aubrey’s accurate scale drawing of the Avebury stone circle. During this era it was becoming clear that the history of Brtain stretched back further than expected – that these stone circles were the signs of a culture before the Romans. It was fashionable in the 18th Century for people (gentlemen mostly) to collect curiosities & Miles went to visit a large Cabinet of Curiosities and showed us some of the items in it. (Unfortunately I’ve completely forgotten where it was except I think in the north-west of England.) They covered a wide range of things, including bits of rock, fossils, and historic & pre-historic items.

During the Enlightenment there were also advances in other sciences that helped along the new discipline of archaeology. Miles trotted out the story of Archbishop Usher who’d counted up the years in the Bible and declared the date of creation to be 23 October 4004BC. Usher did this just as the modern ideas of geology were taking hold in the scientific world, so particularly poor timing on his part. The discoveries of geology and new ideas about how rocks were formed helped to give an idea of how old things were (in a relative sort of way) when they were dug out of different depths of earth. This started to stretch the length of time that we knew people were living in Britain. In particular a discovery of hand axes deep in a quarry in England showed that people were here long before the recorded history of the Romans & the Celts.

And Miles finished up this episode by going to visit the first Neanderthal skeleton that was ever found. This (once it was believed) was a discovery that completely broke with any idea that the Bible might give a literal account of creation and the rise of the human species. Not only was it far older than the calculated dates for the entire age of the Earth, but it also it was another human species.

Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind (British Museum Exihibition)

The British Museum’s current large exhibition is about Ice Age Art, and we went to see it earlier this month (just before we went away on holiday in fact, which is why the delay in writing about it 🙂 ).


Modern humans (ie Homo sapiens) migrated out of Africa from around 70,000 years ago, and have inhabited Europe since at least 40,000 years ago. At that time the world was in a warmer phase of the Ice Age (tho still colder than today), and the ice sheets left lots of space in Europe for people to live. By around 20,000 years ago the world had cooled down more, and the ice sheets advanced down into Europe before retreating again (and the Ice Age “ended” about 10,000 years ago). The exhibition is about the art that has been found in Europe from that time period, which is the oldest art known from Europe.

The Exhibition

The exhibition is arranged chronologically – so you start with some of the oldest pieces dating from nearly 40,000 years ago, and move to things that are a mere 10-15,000 years old and date back to only a short time before agriculture & civilisation start. It is also grouped by type in many cases, so you see several small statues of abstract women together or several small animal sculptures together. There’s a strong emphasis on how these things are made by people, just like us – I thought they did a good job of conveying that particularly by putting in some pieces of modern art in the same room. Like a sculpture by Henry Moore that’s got a similar feel & aesthetic to the curves of the 30,000 year old small female nudes.

One thing that’s very striking about the objects in the exhibition is that they are so well made – these are not “cave people banging rocks together”. These are for the most part the works of artists who are skilled at creating the carvings, and as good at representational or abstract art as any artist today. Human figures seem to’ve been mostly represented in an abstract or generalised fashion rather than being portraits, but the animal carvings tended to be representational and look very like the thing they were representing. Which is interesting because art seems to have arrived fully fledged – even the oldest pieces (like the 35,000 year old lion man statue for instance) are well made. Maybe this is sampling bias – obviously very little actually survives from such a long ago time, but do we also discard the “banging rocks together” level of experimentation because we don’t see it as art when we see it? The lion man, or the female figurines, or the horses etc etc are very obviously created and created as art so we know what we’re looking at when it’s found.

Most of the objects in the exhibition are small sculptures or tools – physical & three dimensional objects. Obviously we know of two dimensional art from the era, from cave paintings, but you can’t pick them up and move them to a museum. They did have a room with an audiovisual display of some of the cave art, which was a good addition – although I wasn’t keen on the way it was set up as you walked in from a door under the projection so you ended up facing the people watching it and it felt like to find a seat or place to stand you had to walk across people’s view. There was also some indication of other forms of art – like music. One of the objects on display was a small flute made from the rib of a bird (I think it was a vulture) – again it’s sophisticated, in that the holes have clearly been measured (there are faint orientation marks) and precisely placed. The exhibition suggested that the overall bias to small portable things is also probably a true reflection of the time. People during the Ice Age lived a nomadic lifestyle, so you needed to be able to pack up your belongings and move them with you. So even if some of your art is designed to stay in one place the more personal stuff needs to be small.

One striking thing through the whole exhibition was that the vast majority of the human representations were of women – I can only remember a couple that weren’t. In the earlier Ice Age these are nude figures of older women who’ve had children or who are pregnant, with breasts, stomachs & hips/bottom emphasised. Not in a sexualised way, but fertility is clearly part of it. The more recent ones (ie ~20,000 years ago) are also of younger more obviously “sexy” women. There’s an interesting video clip on the museum’s page about the exhibition where the curator & an artist discuss how these figurines seem to represent more the female gaze than the male gaze we’re more accustomed to think about female nudes via. Less “look at the tits & ass on that” and more about the physical experiences of being pregnant or whatever. Their conclusion is that possibly these figurines were made by women and were something to do with rites of passage (puberty, pregnancy, childbirth, motherhood etc) of women. But obviously we’ll never know.

Which last sentence neatly segues into the next thing I wanted to mention – I really liked the way the labelling was so clear about “we think this may’ve been used for that purpose but we don’t know”. Because we don’t, and can’t. The best we can do is to remember that these people were people just like us, and to think about how we’d use such things or what we’d make such things for. Some things must’ve been significant – like the lion man statue which would take ~800 hours to make with the tools of the time. That’s a major investment of time, so maybe it had some religious or spiritual importance. Or maybe this is one person’s life’s work of art that they did an hour at a time because they were an artist and that was what they felt a need to create? Other items looked less well made, some tools had pictures of animals etched into the surface by a less practiced & less artistic hand – was this someone making their spear straightener look more elegant/prettier/more their own by decorating it themself? Or was this important in a magical sense – that you drew your own bison on your own spear straightener because then you‘d catch bison with the spears you made? We don’t know & we can’t know, we can just guess because these were people.

This was a fascinating exhibition which both managed to remind you how old these things were, and how like us these people were. These objects come from a long period – three or four times the length of civilisation itself (not just our civilisation, but everything from the agricultural revolution onwards). And that’s mind-boggling. We think of a couple of hundred years ago as “history”, recent maybe, but history even so – people were different then, the past is a different country etc. We think of the Greeks & Romans as a long time ago, the Ancient Egyptians as longer still. But that’s all the last little bit of humankind – these pieces of Ice Age art are the representatives of the majority of human art in terms of time. And yet for all their age these people and their art are still recognisable – they just grew up in a different time and place.

The exhibition’s on till 26th May, and I’d definitely recommend a visit.

Other Stuff

Retail: Bought the book already (and definitely on my list to read). They had some very cool looking stuff, in particular a mug with a painting of a deer on it that became 3D to make the handle out of its head. We didn’t buy anything though.

Other Exhibits: Only a brief trot through the Egyptian rooms, with Ellen & Ady after we’d met up with them.

Other Things: As mentioned above, met Ellen in the museum by design, Ady by accident (well, we didn’t know for sure he was coming to the gig let alone where he’d meet us) and then Paul after we came out. Then off to a gig (about which more another time) via dinner at a place called Pasta Brown, which was rather nice even if they did take rather a long time to bring the bill when we were done.

Lost Kingdoms of South America; Rome: A History of the Eternal City

The last episode of Lost Kingdoms of South America looked at the Chimú people and their Kingdom of Chimor. They lived in the coastal areas of Peru from around 800AD through to 1400AD when they were conquered by the Incas. The coast of Peru is a desert broken up by river valleys created by the melt water from the Andes running down to the Pacific Ocean.

Cooper started the programme in the ruins of Chan Chan – the capital city of Chimor, which was fairly large & would’ve been inhabited by ~35,000 people at its peak. I’m not sure if this was just the people who lived inside the city (the elite in palaces, and the artisans in houses squeezed in between) or if it also included the poorer people who lived around the walled city & grew food etc. The city is now a tourist attraction & actually a lot of what you can see is reconstruction based on photos & drawings from the past.

The Chimú had arisen after the collapse of a preceding civilisation, the Moche. They grew from a small settlement to a medium sized kingdom on the basis of their irrigation works. Cooper spoke to an archaeologist who works on this, and he was saying that the biggest problem the Chimú faced was that “if all you do is add water to the desert, then you get nothing but wet desert”. Which made me giggle a bit, I liked the turn of phrase. Basically they had to bring in top soil from the river valleys as well as build canals. And unlike our canals which are built straight they built their canals with twists & turns to slow down the water & prevent it eroding the land so much.

The management skills that the culture had to develop to build up their irrigation systems translated well to the management of an empire, and the Chimú set out to conquer themselves one. One neat thing while watching this programme was that J & I had been talking just beforehand about something we’d seen a while ago about some other South American culture (the Lambayque people) and then it turned out they were one of the people’s the Chimú conquered. Cooper told us one reason the Chimú kept conquering was that each new monarch inherited the title from his or her predecessor, but the wealth was inherited by other members of the family. They had to make their own reputation to receive tribute, and the best way to do this was to conquer somewhere new & prove you were worth giving food & wealth to.

Before we watched this episode J & I had been laughing about how all the previous episodes had been dwelling on the happy, happy, hippy side of the cultures, and how all the cultures chosen had apparently got no or little hierarchy. But then this one was the complete opposite – the Chimú had a very strict hierarchy, and you couldn’t change the class you were born into. They even had it built into their creation legend – the commoners came from a copper egg, the women of the royal families came from silver egg, and the men of the royal families from a golden egg. The King was so important he walked on crushed Spondylus shells (which were even more valuable to the Chimú than gold).

And it seems that they practised human sacrifice, of children. The remains of some children between 10 & 14 years old, and in good health, have been found – each was bound and then had their chests cut open & the ribcage forced open. So here we’re back to the gruesome sorts of things one thinks of about Mesoamerican & South American cultures – like the Aztecs & the Incas. The sacrifices were probably due to the extreme weather events that the Chimú land suffered – during an el Niño year the desert can experience extraordinarily heavy rainfall. Around the time the child sacrifices were made there is a band of clay (wet desert!) in the strata, indicating a particularly bad spell of this sort of rainfall.

Overall this was a good series & Jago Cooper is a good presenter. I enjoyed seeing the remains of the different cultures & the scenery of the places they lived – and I thought they did well with emphasising both the differences between the sorts of lives these various people’s lived & our own, and with making them feel like real people. Perhaps a bit too much emphasis on the happy, happy hippy thing in some of the episodes (particularly the one about the Tiwanaku).

We finished off two series this week, because the third episode of Rome: A History of the Eternal City was also the last. This covered the 600 years or so of Rome’s history – at a gallop! It started where it left off last time – with the Papacy leaving Rome to take up residence in Avignon. Montefiore told us how St. Catherine of Siena was so horrified about the Papacy not being in Rome that she wrote several letters practically commanding the Pope to return, and then eventually travelled to Avignon herself and brought the Pope back.

During the Renaissance the Popes and the elite families of Rome indulged themselves in decadent & lavish palaces full of works of art. This is the time of the Borgia Popes, and the time of Michaelangelo etc. And even the Papal residences began mingling classical pagan themes with Christian themes in their decoration. To add to all this expensive building & decoration Pope Julius II (chosing his papal name partly in honour of Julius Caesar) decided it was time St. Peter’s Basilica was rebuilt in a suitable style. To pay for these works the Church sold indulgences – forgiveness for your sins (even the ones you hadn’t committed yet). And this is what so incensed Martin Luther that he kicked off the Reformation.

Because the subject of this series is Rome Montefiore then told us about the counter Reformation – the Catholic Church’s own answer to the excesses of the Renaissance. Although that didn’t mean giving up the lavish art habit – Pope Fig Leaf as Montefiore said he’s remembered (real name Pope Clement XIII) just had them paint over the genitalia in the Renaissance art so the paintings were more modest. And Montefiore went to a church which had a large Baroque statue of the Ecstasy of St. Theresa which might have everyone clothed, but it’s still spectacular & lavish & sensuous.

Montefiore moved us pretty briskly through the rest of Rome’s history picking out just a detail here & there. The sack of Rome by unpaid mercenaries at the end of the Reformation period was used to highlight the ludicrousness of a more modern Pope’s flouncing about being “practically a prisoner” when he wasn’t nearly so threatened (personally or physically). But the threat was still there as this was the end of the Church’s domination of Rome – the fascist Mussolini dealt the death blow when he confined the Pope’s authority to the area of the Vatican State, and the rest of Rome was then under secular Italian rule. And that’s pretty much where we left the story.

I did enjoy this series, but it felt very rushed to fit the whole three millennia into 3 episodes. Even though the theme was the religious history of Rome it felt a bit too much like a history of the papacy for the last couple of episodes.

Lost Kingdoms of South America; Rome: A History of the Eternal City

The third episode of Lost Kingdoms of South America was about El Dorado – and the cultures that might’ve been the truth behind this Spanish legend. The legend as we know it today is about a golden city, but the original Spanish writers talk about a man who scatters gold dust over himself “as if it were salt” and washes it off in a sacred lake – a man who regards the wearing of solid gold ornaments as “vulgar”.

The culture that probably gave rise to these legends are the Muisca who lived in southern Colombia until around 1600AD. They were a couple of loose confederations of villages covering quite a large area – no single leader for the whole group, but they shared a culture. There’s DNA evidence from burials that’ve been excavated which shows that the elite were not a hereditary caste – the burials with lots of grave goods aren’t more related to each other than they are to the burials without grave goods. The archaeologist telling us about this bit said they also didn’t use violence to determine who had power, but I’m not sure what he was basing that on.

They didn’t appear to regard gold as valuable in itself, nor did they wear gold ornaments. Gold is also not found on Muisca lands. But they did trade salt they mined from their land for gold from other peoples – and they ascribed spiritual significance to it and used it to make offerings to their gods. Cooper spoke to a man whose people carried on some of the ancient traditions and their stories tell that one of the rituals took place on a sacred lake, and this could well be the source of the El Dorado legend.

The form of their offerings (well, the ones that have survived) were little flat figures, each one uniquely decorated. They were made by the lost wax method of casting, where first you make a wax model of the thing you want to make, then you encase it in clay and fire that (so that the wax evapourates) and then pour in the molten metal. When it sets, you break it out of the mould. Cooper visited a man who makes replicas of these today, which was kinda neat – he used a blowtorch to melt the gold 🙂 The figurines are distinctive not just in decoration but because they don’t really seem finished – as they were never worn or displayed they haven’t been polished and there are still rough edges from breaking it out of the mould.

Cooper also talked about the Tairona culture who lived in north eastern Colombia on the Caribbean coast. They were a culture that had a common ancestral language & culture with the Muisca, that had originated in Mesoamerica. The Tairona also put spiritual significance on gold, but expressed this differently – their gold ornaments were very different in style (including reclining bat-men as fertility symbols) and they were finished & polished. Their significance was to do with their shininess, and other shiny things were also spiritually significant. There are descendents of the Tairona still living in Colombia today, and still living in traditional villages – there was a segment of the programme in one of their villages with Cooper talking to one of the few of the villagers who spoke Spanish.

The second episode of Rome: A History of the Eternal City covered the rise & fall of Christian Rome from the beginnings of Christianity until the Popes left Rome for France in the 14th Century. At the beginnings of Christianity’s presence in Rome it was just another one of the many small cults that had sprung up in the empire (like the Mithras cult we listened to an In Our Time about the other day). The thing that set Christianity apart was that Christians refused to make the proper sacrifices to the state gods (like the Emperor) and so when scapegoats were needed it was easy to see them as unpatriotic. So they were persecuted and their deaths were often public spectacles – especially during the reign of Diocletian.

This changed when the Emperor Constantine won an impressive victory after ordering his soldiers to display the sign of the cross. After this he tolerated, and promoted, Christianity within the western Roman Empire – even converting himself on his death bed. One of the things Montefiore showed us in the programme was one of the relics that the Emperor’s mother brought from Jerusalem to Rome. I knew she’d brought what she thought to be the cross that Jesus was crucified on to Rome, but I hadn’t known she’d brought a staircase back with her! This is apparently the staircase that Jesus walked up on the way to his trial by Pontius Pilate, and even today pilgrims come to go up it on their knees so that they have touched the place that Jesus put his feet.

St Peter (one of the apostles) was one of the early Christian martyrs in Rome – the obelisk he was crucified in front of still stands outside the church that was built over his tomb (St Peter’s Basilica). The Roman bishops used this link with St Peter to strengthen their position in the church – saying that they were better than other bishops because they were the successors of an apostle. Montefiore showed us the tombs of the early bishops of Rome, which have their title “Papa” which as their status increased gradually became the title of the supreme head of the (latin) Church.

The programme covered the next thousand or so years pretty quickly, dwelling on just a few stories. The first of these was the fall of Rome – sacked by the barbarians, who were actually also Christians (albeit of a different type). And another was the period around the 10th Century which is sometimes called the Pornocracy (it really is! or at least wikipedia agrees with my recollection of the programme). This was a scandalous period with a family that makes the Borgia legend seem tame – one of the key figures was a woman who was the lover of at least one Pope, had at least one Pope murdered and made sure her son (by a Pope) was raised to be Pope himself. Other Popes of the time were related to her family as well – one was her grandson.

Ice Age Art: A Culture Show Special; Rome: A History of the Eternal City

There is an exhibition that’s just started at the British Museum about Ice Age Art and to tie in with this there was a Culture Show special covering both the exhibition and Ice Age art in general. The presenter was Andrew Graham-Dixon – we’ve watched a few of his programmes before including something about the art of Spain, and also something about the Treasures of Heaven exhibition at the British Museum a couple of years ago.

The two themes of the programme were firstly an emphasis on just how old all of these objects are, and secondly how these people were people just like us and much more sophisticated than the stereotype of a “prehistoric caveman” would lead us to expect. The programme looked at these themes by showing us some of the objects in the British Museum exhibition (and talking to the curators etc about them) and by showing us some of the cave paintings – particularly some in Northern Spain.

There was also a segment of the programme where Graham-Dixon met with an experimental archaeologist who makes replicas of some of these objects using the same techniques and types of tools that the originals were made with. I found this particularly fascinating, and it was astonishing how long it took – he was saying that the smaller pieces took about 80 hours each, but a larger piece might take on the order of 400 hours or more. He (and several of the other people interviewed) was saying that the time it took together with the skill & artistic talent shown in the pieces we’ve found imply that being an artist was a specialised profession in the hunter-gatherer societies of the time.

And they were also saying that art was clearly important to these societies – you don’t put that much effort and resources into something you don’t think much of. Perhaps it tied into their religion(s) – in particular the female figures seem to be biased towards representations of fertility, which might have religious significance. Perhaps it was also a means of communicating between groups of people, or over time – the subjects of the art are normally the natural world, the animals that they would hunt and that they shared their environment with. And in a world where people were significantly outnumbered by animals, and where they depended so much on the environment around them for survival, close observation of nature would be a necessity and showing each other what they’d seen would be important. This then shows up in the art – the detail & life-like rendering of animals in some of the pieces is astonishing.

On the subject of people being outnumbered by animals – at one point Graham-Dixon said that the population living outside Africa during this era was something like 100,000, less than the medieval population of Paris. And if the numbers of people are astonishingly small, the time spans are astonishingly large. The range of dates for cave-paintings or objects are from 40,000 years ago to 13,000 years ago – the whole of “history” is small compared to that. And these objects are as ancient to the ancient Greeks as they are to us, to all intents and purposes.

I’m looking forward to seeing the exhibition at the British Museum even more after seeing this programme 🙂

In an attempt to clear some stuff of our PVR (which is why we’ve had a bonus TV night or two this weekend in addition to our normal Wednesday night) we started watching one of the series we’ve got recorded in HD. Rome: A History of the Eternal City is a look at the history of Rome from a religious perspective, presented by Simon Sebag Montefiore who we’ve previously seen present a programme on Jerusalem. This first episode covered ancient Rome from foundation through to just before the conversion of the Empire to Christianity – a large amount of ground to cover in an hour!

The programme opened with some scenes from modern Christian Rome – the crowds coming to watch a statue of the Virgin Mary being paraded around the city first by boat and later through the streets. Montefiore then pointed out that this pageantry had roots in pagan Rome, and explained that Rome has always been a sacred city. He then went on to re-tell the Roman foundation myth – the story of Romulus and Remus, twins who were suckled by a she-wolf after they were abandoned at birth. As adults they were to found a city, but fell out over where it should be sited – both saw omens from the gods indicating that their preferred site was the favoured one. The dispute was only resolved when Romulus killed his brother, and founded the city of Rome on the Palatine hill. The archaeological and historical evidence is that Rome grew out of the union of villages in this region, but from very early in its history it was a sacred area. The dead could not be buried inside the walls of Rome, and soldiers could not bear arms there. This sacredness extended even below ground, and Montefiore visited the sewer that had existed since ancient times (and is still part of the sewer system today). This originally drained the Forum, which flooded frequently, and also symbolised the purification of the city. There were rituals about washing things away in the sewers, including the body of at least one Emperor.

We then had a (fairly brisk) trot through the history of ancient Rome, with an emphasis on how the secular and the religious intertwined. He talked about how the priesthood influenced decisions during the early period when Rome was a monarchy – we got a demonstration of how the omens were read in the liver of a sheep (this being a modern sheep the liver wasn’t particularly blemished, I imagine a less healthy sheep would give more interesting (but less good) omens). Even once Rome was a republic many of the same religious ideas were still present – that the city was sacred, and that they had some divine right to conquer. The Senate even finished off a temple planned during the reign of the last King – it was a replacement of secular power that didn’t affect the religious life of the city. The Romans worshipped many gods & goddesses & would incorporate foreign ones into their worship. The programme noted in particular the Magna Mater, originally a foreign goddess, whose worship & priesthood was brought to the city after omens suggested that she was the only way to save the city from Hannibal during the Second Punic War. The arrival of the Magna Mater was in a ceremony very reminiscent of the modern day procession of the Virgin Mary that the programme opened with.

At the point where the Republic turned into an Empire there were also changes to the religious landscape. Over his reign Augustus gradually set up the Imperial cult – partly by deifying Julius Caesar, and then adding “son of a god” to his own titles. And by setting up altars around the city which emphasised the divinity of the Imperial family, and encouraged people to make sacrifices to him. This was alongside the other gods & goddesses, but still served to help the political elevation of the Emperor as sole ruler.

An interesting programme, although I think that many of the details have escaped me – in part because it covered so much in just an hour.

Richard III: The King in the Car Park

For TV night this week we watched the documentary about the finding of Richard III’s remains that was aired on Monday evening on Channel 4. It was presented by someone I didn’t really recognise – Simon Farnaby – who turns out to be a comedian who does the Horrible Histories programmes (which I haven’t watched, but know about). The format of the programme was that Farnaby & a camera crew showed up at key moments of the excavation and subsequent analysis of the skeleton & so we got to see what happened & what they discovered as it happened. There were also segments of the programme where Farnaby told us about the relevant history.

The project to excavate the car park in Leicester where the remains were found started with Phillipa Langley & the Richard III Society who did the preliminary work of figuring out where to dig, and funded the dig. So Langley was also present at all the key moments, and a fair amount of attention was paid to her (and her fellow society members’) reactions to what was discovered. Which I felt was overdone – she was quite clearly a nut, and was over-emotional at all possible moments. I would’ve preferred a bit more about the science behind the identification & a bit less of looking at some woman break down in tears seeing the skeleton of a man who’d been dead 500 years.

So, Richard III is the last king before the Tudors at the end period of the Wars of the Roses. He took the throne after his brother Edward IV died – usurping it from Edward IV’s son. Edward IV’s sons were locked up in the Tower of London and subsequently were not seen again, the Tudors claim Richard III killed them and various partisans of Richard’s right down to the modern day say that this is a lie put about for propaganda purposes. Richard only reigned for about 2 years, before he was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. The victor at this battle was Henry Tudor, who then took the throne as Henry VII. Obviously his and his descendants’ regime had good reason to cast Richard III as a terrible despot who deserved to be overthrown (but contemporary accounts suggest he was better liked than that), and also had good reason to insist that the Princes in the Tower were dead (as their claim to the throne would be better than Henry’s). The image of Richard III that’s come down to us via Shakespeare of a hunchbacked, murdering tyrant therefore needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. And the Richard III Society is devoted to the idea that he had no physical deformities, was a wise etc etc ruler & didn’t murder anyone. There was a segment of the programme that showed Farnaby talking to various of the society members on skype or something like that, and they were all very passionately saying things like “he would have nothing to gain from murdering the princes” and so on. Which made me roll my eyes somewhat, it has to be said. Of course there was probably some carefully chosen editing going on here – the programme did seem keen to play up the “aren’t these people weird?” theme. Perhaps to an unkind degree.

Langley & her fellow society members might’ve been nuts, but they were nuts that had done their homework. One of the legends surrounding the death of Richard III was that his body had been chucked in the river, but this was a later invention by a writer who’d visited the wrong church & found no signs of the grave so made something up to explain it. Langley had tracked down (with help from historians) more contemporary sources which said he had been buried in Greyfriars Church in Leicester, and she also tracked down where (geographically) that church had once been. And then we had another of the more “nutty woo-woo” bits, as she told us how she’d gone there and stood in the car park that was now there and stood at the parking bay labelled with an R and “felt something”.

So the Richard III Society raised the money (over £10,000) to fund an excavation by Leicester University to see if they could find the bones of Richard III. They double checked the info, and started by digging three trenches in the car park. The first thing they found, in the first trench, right under the letter R were human bones. The rest of the archaeological evidence (which mapped out where the church was) subsequently showed that these were a likely candidate for the bones of the very man they were looking for! I was a little annoyed that the woo-woo had lucked out 😉 But it was good for the excavation because the slim chance had actually paid off – it’s the sort of thing you couldn’t put in a story because no-one would believe the coincidence.

These bones were then properly excavated (with a slip-up of damaging the skull :/ but only that one slip-up) and taken off to Leicester University for analysis. Another more nutty bit was Langley’s insistence that the box containing the bones be transported drapped in the standard of Richard III. But anyway, once at the university they were subjected to all sorts of analysis. The first thing we were told about was the analysis of a piece of metal found near the spine – unfortunately this turned out to be a Roman nail that just happened to be in the soil there.

They also CT scanned the bones & could do quite a bit of analysis from that. The first, most striking, thing was that he did have a curvature of the spine – which was very upsetting for Langley. But this scoliosis seems to’ve been in the same plane as the torso and was probably not particularly visible when he was clothed. Maybe one of his shoulders would’ve been a bit raised, but not by much. And definitely no withered arm. So this shows us that the later Tudor propaganda about the deformities – hunchback, withered arm – was based on a kernel of truth and then exaggerated to fit the purposes of the Tudors. (Bear in mind that at this time any deformity would be seen as a punishment from God, and to indicate something about your moral character.) One other notable thing about the skeleton is that he seemed to have quite feminine features to his bone structure – more gracile than the average male and some particular features of the pelvis were towards the feminine end of the spectrum.

They could also see the causes of death from the bones. The notable wounds included a hole in the top of the skull made by a dagger pounded down through it and a blow that had sliced off a piece of the skull to an extent that would’ve exposed the brain. Clearly these were not survivable wounds (even with modern medicine) – tho it can’t be determined which one was the one that killed him as both happened at or very soon after death. They also said that there was a wound on his pelvis that had occurred after death – a knife thrust through the buttocks. These wounds fit the contemporary stories about how Richard had died – surrounded in the melee fighting and killed then, and subsequently his body was found and carried to Henry VII tied over a horse (for display to prove he was truly dead before he was buried). The buttock wound might well have occurred while he was tied over this horse.

They also carbon dated the bones. The first estimate came out a bit early (by about 50 years) but they then said that given he was a part of the elite he’d’ve had a diet rich in marine food. This would change the estimate, and the range of the new one covered the right date.

And they did the DNA testing, to see if it was an acceptable match of a known descendant of one of Richard III’s sisters. I was disappointed with this bit of the programme because it didn’t actually give us any details, just said that the “the DNA was a match”. Er, right, not much info there. Couldn’t we’ve cut some of the weepy woman stuff & talked a bit about what testing they did? I found more from the Leicester University website for the project – it seems they looked at the mitochondrial DNA extracted from the bones and compared it to two descendants in an unbroken maternal line from Anne Neville (Richard’s sister). A somewhat simplified explanation of this – mitochondria are the bits in a cell that provide the cell with energy, and once upon a time they were free living bacteria that now live in symbiosis inside other cells. This means that they still have some vestigial remains of their own DNA, which is distinct from the DNA of the main cell. Mitochondria are always inherited from one’s mother – they are present in the egg cell pre-fertilisation. So if you look at markers in the mitochondrial DNA then people who share a common maternal ancestor will share those markers (barring mutation, which is a relatively rare occurrence). So when they looked at the markers of the two maternal line descendants of Richard’s mother (via his sister) and compared it to the mitochondrial DNA extracted from the bones they found that the markers were the same. Interestingly the website also mentions that the three samples share a particularly rare form of one of markers, making it even more convincing that these are relatives in the maternal line (i.e. this gets even less likely to be a case of coincidence).

The website also mentions looking at the paternal line (i.e. looking at Y-chromosome markers that are only passed down from father to son) but then it just says that this is harder because it’s more clear-cut who someone’s mother is (as birth generally takes place in front of witnesses particularly at that level of society), but it’s harder to be sure who the father is (as conception happens in private and may not be accurately reported). So I guess that didn’t pan out with any of the putative direct male line descendants (of Richard’s father).

So each piece of evidence they showed isn’t completely convincing in itself. But taken all together it seems that this is extremely likely to be Richard III’s skeleton. He died at the right time, in the right way, he had the right sort of physical deformities, he was buried in the right place and he is of the right maternal line. Which is pretty awesome 🙂

They also did a reconstruction of his face from the skull, but I kept wondering about confirmation bias – it turned out to look quite like the portraits, and how much of that is because consciously or unconsciously any time there was a choice the one that made it look more like the portraits was chosen? This bit also drew the somewhat daft observation from Langley that “this wasn’t the face of a tyrant” – I’m not sure you can really say anything about his personality from a model of a computer reconstruction of a long dead man.

Overall I enjoyed this programme, even if I felt they could’ve cut quite a bit of Langley’s emotions and replaced it with the science. Farnaby was a good presenter – he narrated it with a sense of humour (unsurprisingly for a comedian) but this wasn’t at the expense of presenting the actual information.

“China: The World’s Oldest Civilisation Revealed” John Makeham (Part 1)

I’ve decided to write up notes on the non-fiction books I’m reading in chunks, coz frequently that’s how I read them – in sections, with fiction in between to clear the palate, so’s to speak 🙂

The book I’ve just started was a birthday present from my parents and is an overview of the history of China from pre-Homo sapiens right through to the last Emperor who died in 1967. So quite a lot of ground to cover there! It’s part of a Thames & Hudson series of books called Ancient Civilisations and is written with contributions from 17 people, but lists John Makeham as “Chief Consultant” so I’m putting him down as the author. It’s a big glossy book with lots of illustrations & the format (like the others in the series) is that within the chapters each double-page spread covers a particular topic.

Introducing China

The first chapter is a brief overview of China as a whole – 5 double-pages covering the geography, art and science associated with the region. And also the history of archaeology in China. Oddly there isn’t an overall map of China – I would’ve expected one in this section particularly when they were talking about the geography, I had to use google maps to let me figure out where they were talking about. The take home message about the geography is that China is big enough to have noticeably different climates in north & south, with different advantages & challenges for living in & feeding people. The three great rivers are also important (and I confess I didn’t previously know the name of the Pearl River, which is the southern one, although I knew the Yellow River (north) and Yangzi River (central) existed). For art & other cultural treasures of China they mention silk, porcelain, lacquer & paper in particular, all dating back startlingly far. In terms of agriculture I knew about rice (obviously), but I didn’t realise that in the north of China (particularly the Yellow River valley) the staple crop is millet. Until the Mongols took over (13th Century AD) China was the innovator for new scientific & technological advances – but once more global trading of ideas & devices took place the Chinese ideas helped to kick-start the European Renaissance which eventually led to Europe pulling ahead in innovation. It didn’t mention it here but I guess the Chinese also have to have become more hidebound as well.

Proto-archaeology, ie the sort of collection of antiquities equivalent to the sorts of things happening in the Enlightenment era in Europe started relatively early in China’s history – by the 7th Century AD. But it didn’t develop into any sort of science of archaeology that we’d recognise until the 19th & 20th Centuries.

Origins: Prehistoric China

They start with some discussion of Palaeolithic China – there were definitely hominids in China before Homo sapiens, Peking Man is a famous Homo erectus skeleton discovered near Beijing. And then there’s archaic modern humans – like Neanderthals (which it says are European only – I didn’t know that before), but not Neanderthals. And then after that we get fully modern humans. I thought the prevailing theory was that Homo sapiens was a different species to Homo erectus, and that the separateness of the Neanderthals was in doubt (ie Homo sapiens may’ve been able to interbreed with them). But this book is saying that it’s also possible that Homo erectus is the same species as us – and then modern humans evolved in multiple places with interbreeding between the populations – the evidence is in anatomical features in Homo erectus that’re different in different geographical areas and are similarly different in the Homo sapiens skeletons from these different areas.

The Neolithic is the period of pre-history where ancient peoples settled down, started to farm, started to make pottery. China’s one of the places that independently developed agriculture, and the Neolithic revolution happened in a different order here to that in the Middle East – something I didn’t know before. In the Middle East the sequence is settle down -> agriculture -> pottery. Whereas in China it was pottery -> agriculture -> settle down. I was astonished how much of the stuff that is quintessentially Chinese was developed during the Neolithic – high quality pottery, silkworms were domesticated & silk was made, jade was used for grave goods/ritual items, even dragon imagery. Agriculture was possibly developed twice – millet grown on dry land in the Yellow River valley and rice grown in wet paddy-fields in the Yangzi River valley. It was a slow process getting from nomadic hunter/gatherers without pottery to fully sedentary agrarian villages with pottery – starting around or before 10,000-11,000BC (there are pottery fragments dating to this time), and really only fully developed around 5000BC. I’ve got 6000BC in my head for agriculture being developed in the Middle East, so definitely sounds like the Chinese were starting the process a lot earlier. I know that one of the things shifting to agriculture for food production does is to free up some people’s time to spend on other things – dedicated artisans, and ruling elites, start to exist. This happens in China too – early Neolithic villages have houses that all look similar, and the graves of the people are all much the same. But later Neolithic villages have evidence of a hierarchy in their buildings, and in the grave goods of the people. The book says that some of the features distinguishing the houses are common through Chinese history – enclosures around the elite buildings, and significant buildings on platforms.

Writing is also starting to be developed by the end of this period, but it’s not clear if the systems seen are actually related to the writing system that later developed. What’s seen is seen on pots and stone objects, but there’s later textual evidence that perishable surfaces might’ve been used for writing (bundles of bamboo strips).

Tangents to follow up on: Homo sapiens evolution. Middle Eastern development of agriculture/Neolithic era technology. Conveniently I think I’ve got books in the queue already that deal with both of those 🙂