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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other TV watched this week:

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

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

A Tudor Feast

One of the programmes we watched this week was something originally from 2007, but repeated this summer – A Tudor Feast. It was a one hour standalone programme, and the main presenters have gone on since to do several serieses about farming in various historic programmes (including Wartime Farm which we watched last year (post) and Tudor Monastery Farm which we’re watching at the moment but I haven’t yet written about). In fact it was slightly odd watching this, because we’re watching something 6 years newer so both Ruth Goodman & Peter Ginn looked jarringly younger than in the other programmes!

The premise of the show was to cook a Tudor feast using only authentic recipes and ingredients, and only the techniques the Tudor cooks would’ve had available to them. So it was (like the $TIME Farm serieses) a mixture of pseudo-re-enactment and documentary. For instance all the people involved were dressed up in Tudor clothes, as well as explaining how to do things Tudor style. The programme was filmed in Haddon Hall, which still has Tudor era kitchens (I think they said those hadn’t been used in 400 years, presumably new kitchens have been built at various points over the years). And they picked a specific period where they have some records of the occupants of the house at the time – the 1590s. So as well as the modern recreation we got shown a list of the food used for a feast during that time.

One of the things this programme made clear was why this food was luxury food and only for the nobility. Some things were conventionally expensive – like cinnamon, because it came from far away, or gold because it’s rare. But much of it was expensive because it required a lot of labour to make. For instance one of the centrepiece items they put together was a marchpane dessert. This was basically marzipan, that was then gilded and decorated. Which sounds quite simple, but the recipe started with sugar (already conventionally expensive) that had to be ground into powder by hand. Then grind your almonds. Then finally make the marchpane with these two and rosewater. That’s hours of work, probably carried out by the mistress of the house or trusted servants under close supervision. And you haven’t carefully iced or gilded it yet, let alone constructed the decoration.

Another of their centrepiece items was a peacock pie – not a bird one eats nowadays. The programme was concentrating on the food prep – the “downstairs” side of the feast – but they did discuss the taste of things a bit. In particular Goodman mentioned that peacock is often said not to be a good eating bird, but she’s liked it when she’s tried it. This pie looked like a conventional pie until the very end stage – and then (having taken great care to select a good looking peacock and to take his skin off in one go) they put the peacock skin over the pie, with a support structure (not sure quite what, twigs? wire?), to look like a peacock once more. When that was served up they put something burning in its mouth, following a period suggestion, so it looked very spectacular when carried to the table.

They also showed us how the table was set and discussed proper manners (“courtesy”, the word etiquette wasn’t in use yet). Where you sat was determined by social status, and top table got the most impressive dishes – the centrepieces I talked about above (and others like a boar head with an apple in its mouth), the better meat, the better cutlery and tableware etc. People were given napkins, which I didn’t realise were a thing that went back that far. But instead of putting it on one’s lap or tucking it into one’s neck it was to go on the left shoulder. There it was conveniently placed to wipe your hands (most food was cut up with the knife then eaten with the fingers) and to clean your lips. Food was served not in courses like we would today, but in what were called “removes”. Instead of everyone getting their own portion of the current dish, a variety of dishes would be set out on the table and you’d help yourself to what you fancied that was near you. There’d probably be 2 or 3 removes – this feast they did two, one of primarily savoury things and one of sweeter things. Choice was part of the conspicuous display of wealth that was the point of a feast – poorer people didn’t tend to get a choice in what they ate.

I enjoyed this programme (like I do everything I’ve watched from this team). Lots of little bits & pieces I didn’t know before, and sometimes you don’t really realise what things were like till you see them done even if you’ve read about them. I’m now curious what peacock tastes like … and I rather like the idea of a centrepiece at the dinner table of a fire breathing bird containing a pie! Not quite enough to buy a turkey with its skin on for Christmas dinner, however 😉

Other TV watched this week:

Episodes 1 and 2 of Byzantium: A Tale of Three Cities – history of Byzantium aka Constantinople aka Istanbul presented by Simon Sebag Montefiore.

The Bridges that Built London with Dan Cruickshank – one off programme telling the history of London’s bridges across the Thames. Interesting, but got a bit woo-woo at times towards the end.

4,000-Year-Old Cold Case: The Body in the Bog. One off programme about the discovery and investigation of a body in an Irish bog. This particular one was dated to 4,000 years ago, most across north-west Europe are from about 1,500 years later. They tried to present a theory for how & why these people were killed & buried – got a bit Discovery Channel (they Solved The Mystery and Proved The Theory), and a bit unclear how general their idea was but nonetheless interesting.

Episode 1 of Shipwrecks: Britain’s Sunken History – Sam Willis talking about shipwrecks around Britain or involving British ships, their impact on history and our culture.

Episode 3 of Tudor Monastery Farm – part re-enactment, part documentary about what life would be like living on and running a farm in 1500.

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 Including Dogs, Shakespeare, Evolutionary Vertebrates, Greek Drama & Jewish History

The Wonder of Dogs

More about dogs – this episode concentrated on their senses & intelligence. This included demonstrations of how good their hearing, smell & eyesight is (in particular that a dog’s field of view is much wider than a human’s). They also talked about the sorts of behaviours that dogs have been bred for – using gun dogs as the primary example. The desired behaviour has changed over time, as gun tech & hunting styles changed. So at first it was pointers (who found and pointed to the game) then spaniels (to bounce around and flush the game out) and finally retrievers like labradors (to bring the game back to the hunter). And they demonstrated how training is needed as well as the innate behaviour using one of Kate Humble’s dogs – who is a herding breed, but who wasn’t a very useful sheepdog after only one lesson (although very enthusiastic).

They also had a bit on how intelligent dogs are, including a German group who are studying dog intelligence by getting them to push pictures to get treats. They’re offered a choice of a dog picture & a landscape picture each time, and they learn that dog pictures get treats. Which is quite an abstract level of thought – it’s not one dog v. one landscape, it’s a variety of pictures of a variety of scenes & dogs. I wanted to know if dogs could tell the difference between, say, cats & dogs for getting treats.

Shakespeare in Italy

This is a two part series about Shakespeare’s connections with Italy that we’ve had on the PVR for ages. It’s languished there in part because I find the presenter, Francesco da Mosto, irritating (irrational on my part, I’m sure, his style just sets my teeth on edge). But despite that it was still interesting enough to watch the second part.

This episode was about Shakespeare using Italian places (and stories) to tell stories about love. The plays he talked about were Taming of the Shrew (marriage for money not love), Romeo & Juliet (obviously, tragic love), Much Ado About Nothing (rom com) and Othello (love turned to jealousy). Along the way he visited various places mentioned in the plays, and talked about the Italian stories they were based on. He also discussed how Shakespeare might’ve visited Italy – there’s no record of him doing so but there’s also 7 years where he’s missing from any records. So perhaps. Of note, tho, is that the British Museum Shakespeare exhibition that we went to last year (post) was sure that Shakespeare didn’t visit Italy but instead talked to people who had. And there was also a somewhat nutty theory put forward by a town in Sicily that Shakespeare was actually Sicilian – some playwright or poet whose name translates to Shake Spear who goes to London. I’m not sure if or how they tried to reconcile this with the Shakespeare who exists in records prior to this Italian’s arrival …

The second part was looking at how Shakespeare set plays in Italy to give himself a layer of plausible deniability when writing about politically sensitive subjects. So he talked about The Merchant of Venice as being (among other things) about law & the rule of law. And Julius Caesar, set not just in Rome but in long ago Rome, is a commentary on tyrants and if it’s ever justified to assassinate them – a particularly touchy subject at the time, as there were many assassination attempts on Queen Elizabeth and the England of the time was very repressive. Italy was also the country of the future – da Mosto made much of how the Renaissance was in full swing in Italy but England was lagging behind. Anthony & Cleopatra was an example of a play where Shakespeare was exploring new ideas to come out of Italy – in this case how a ruler should act and da Mosto said it owed much to Machiavelli. The final play he talked about was The Tempest – based in part on a well known alchemist or sorcerer in Naples at around that time. Again a touchy subject – James I was paranoid about witchcraft – but it was also the way of the future (in that alchemy leads to science in a while).

I’m a bit conflicted about this series – it was an interesting subject, but I still found the presenter irritating.

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

This is a new two part David Attenborough series, all about the evolution of vertebrates. The first part, From the Seas to the Skies, covered the first vertebrates and the major developments leading to the evolution of fish, amphibians, reptiles (including dinosaurs) & birds. It was a rather good mix of fossils, modern animals and cgi reconstructions of ancient animals. I was particularly fond of the tiktaalik taking it’s first waddly steps across the land. The gliding feathered dinosaurs were also neat. I don’t think I learnt anything new in terms of concepts or the overall story, but there were several new details – like the tiktaalik as the first animal to get onto land (I’m sure I learnt about lungfish escaping predators in the past), or the Chinese fossil beds that pre-date the Burgess Shale ones that I knew about (and contain the first known chordate, ancestor of modern vertebrates).

If I’ve got one quibble is that the language used emphasises progress too much. I’m probably over-sensitive to this, tho. But I do think it’s important that there’s no inevitability about the evolution of any species or group, and that there’s no progress – modern lampreys aren’t “primitive” for instance, they’re well suited to the places they live. Lacking most of the features we think of as common to the vertebrates (like jaws, fins or limbs) doesn’t make them worse it just makes them different. But it’s very hard to avoid because when talking about these things it’s easiest and clearest to tell a story, which leads to language that implies progression and purpose. So in this programme Attenborough talks about problems needing to be solved before vertebrates could move onto the land. Which makes me wince because there wasn’t any working towards a goal involved.

Ancient Greece: The Greatest Show on Earth

This is a recent series from Michael Scott, about the development of drama & theatre in Ancient Greece. The first episode looked at how the development of drama as an artform is intertwined with the development of democracy. Both have their roots in Athens, in the 5th & 6th Centuries BC and at the smaller local level debates & plays would even happen in the same assembly spaces. Greeks had three sorts of plays, two of which we still have. These were tragedy, comedy & satyr plays – the last were bawdy, farcical plays which were used as a sort of palate cleanser after a cycle of tragedies. Tragedies in a modern sense are stories with a sad ending, but Scott said Greek ones were more about posing questions about situations. One of the experts he spoke to characterised tragedies as setting up problems caused by bad luck or bad decisions, and suggesting how they might be dealt with while getting the audience to think about what would they do in this or similar situations. Plays were often based on myths, but the stories told were topical and relevant to recent politics domestically & abroad. And the audience for the plays would be the same men who would then vote on how Athens was run & how it reacted to events. Scott was saying that this close link between the subjects of plays and the real life decisions that were being made meant that plays can be seen as educating the Athenians about democracy and as a part of how democracy evolved. Comedies were also important in this process – they weren’t just funny stories, they were generally pointedly aimed at particular political figures. Who would be right there watching thinly veiled versions of themselves be publicly mocked. Scott said this was part of how the boundaries on what was & wasn’t appropriate behaviour were enforced.

The Story of the Jews

The last episode of Simon Schama’s series about Jewish history looked at the formation & history of the modern state of Israel. He started with the Holocaust and the plight of the Jewish refugees during & after that horror. He talked about how even those fighting against Germany in the war were not willing to do much for the Jews – lots of sympathetic noises not much if any actual support. And how this led to more Zionism in the Jewish population – if no-one else will aid you or want you, then you are even more in need of a homeland of your own. And then Schama moved back to trace the steps towards the formation of the modern Israel – starting with the Zionist movement in the early 20th Century getting the British Empire on board with granting the Jews a homeland within Palestine. Apparently in the early days post WWI there were even some glimmers of hope that a future Israel and the existing Arab nations might co-exist in some form of peace. Sadly, as we now know, this was not to be – the influx of Jews post-WWII being a contributing factor, with the British Empire’s poor handling of the situation pre & post war also being important. (Promising the same real estate to two groups of people as “their own nation” isn’t ever going to end well …). Schama then discussed the history of Israel since independence, and how over time (and after two wars, more persecution of Jews in Arab nations & violence and terrorist attacks on Israelis in Israel) the politics & sentiment inside Israel has calcified into hatred & mistrust of Arabs. Schama talked to someone involved in the Settler movement, who was disturbing in his starry-eyed rhetoric about how the Jews were entitled to the land up to the biblical borders by God given right. And Schama visited the wall built to keep the Palestinians out of Israel, or at least only allow them through under strict observation.

I found this series thought provoking & well worth watching, although frequently grimly depressing. As well as the subject matter itself it was an interesting reminder that so much of the stuff we watch is from our own perspective – this very much wasn’t, it was Simon Schama’s take on Jewish history from the perspective of a member of the culture whose history it was.

This Week’s TV Including Anglo-Saxons, Jewish History, Dogs & the A303

King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons

The last episode of Michael Wood’s series about King Alfred & his descendants was about Æthelstan. He was the only of King Alfred’s grandsons to be born while Alfred was still alive, and was the son of Edward who was King of Wessex after Alfred. Yet his ascension to the throne was still controversial. Edward had 14 children, by three different women – two of whom were crowned Queen (consecutively, I imagine, but Wood didn’t say). Æthelstan’s mother wasn’t one of these more important wives, and so Edward’s designated heir was one of his younger sons. However Æthelstan believed himself to’ve been chosen by Alfred (having met the man, and been “knighted” by him). He was brought up in Mercia by his aunt Æthelflæd, the Lady of Mercia, and after Edward’s death he lost no time in taking control of first Mercia and then Wessex. He was crowned in Kingston on the border of the two countries. He didn’t stop there, either – he was the first King of all the English, fulfilling Alfred’s dream. He claimed overlordship of the King of Scotland and the Kings of the Welsh too, although that may’ve looked different from the perspective of those countries than it was represented by Æthelstan in his charters etc 😉 He was a King in his grandfather’s mould – both warrior & learned. He too looked to Rome for a certain degree of legitimacy, and was well read in religious texts. He had no children, Wood suggested that this might’ve been as the result of negotiation with one of his brothers – that Æthelstan would rule, but his brother’s children would inherit.

I enjoyed this series 🙂 One thing I particularly liked which I’ve not mentioned so far is that there was a lot of reading from the original texts in Anglo-Saxon (with subtitles, obviously). I like the way the language sounds, alien yet just on the edge of familiarity.

The Story of the Jews

In this episode of Simon Schama’s Story of the Jews he discussed the Jews of Eastern Europe & their impact on the world. Schama’s mother’s family were Lithuanian Jews so this was personal history for him. A lot of Jews had moved to Poland during the period where that kingdom was one of the more tolerant places on the continent. After Poland was partitioned between Prussia, Austria & Russia at the end of the 18th Century it became less welcoming to Jews, but many still lived there (of course) – mostly restricted to an area known as the Pale of Settlement. Schama described how finding joy in the harsh environment of the Pale lead to the development of Hasidic Judaism – an ecstatic & less rigid form of the religion than more orthodox traditions.

The harsh conditions, and increasing pogroms, lead to many Jews emigrating from the Pale to the USA – seen by many as a promised land where they could be people rather than outsiders. There they had a large impact on US culture. Schama talked about the lower East Side of New York where many of these emigrants lived, and he talked about the many song-writers who came from that area and wrote some of the memorable songs of early 20th Century US music. Names like Gershwin and Harburg, songs like “Over the Rainbow”, and “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”.

The programme was bookended by the Holocaust, so despite the moments of beauty & joy in the middle it was still a sobering piece of viewing.

The Wonder of Dogs

Having finished off several series recently we started up a new one. When I’d spotted The Wonder of Dogs in the listings we’d not been quite sure about it, so we started watching it soon after recording so that we could cancel it if we wanted to. No need to worry tho, this first episode was entertaining & interesting. In the series Kate Humble, Steve Leonard & Ruth Goodman are talking about all things canine – they are based in a village in England and are using the dogs of the village to illustrate many different aspects of canine biology & history, and also talking to various experts. So in this programme they were mostly looking at the astonishing variety of dogs.. Goodman looked at the history of a few of the different breeds – like chihuahuas, greyhounds and bulldogs. Up until Victorian times dog breeds weren’t really formalised, there were different sorts of dogs for different sorts of jobs (or fashion accessories) but there weren’t defined types. They also looked at the underlying biology of the dog – how the bone structure is always the same, just different in scale or precise configuration. Humble talked to an genetic expert who said that all the variety in modern dogs is down to just 50 or so genes, and that the rest of the dog genome is the same as their wild grey wolf ancestors. Quite a lot of “look at the cute dog” to the programme, but some interesting facts in there too 🙂

A303: Highway to the Sun

This programme was a one-off that we’ve had sitting on the PVR for months & months and never quite got round to watching. I’m not sure it was quite what I was expecting, but this was rather fun 🙂 Tom Fort (who I’d not heard of before) drove a Morris Minor Traveller along the A303 from start to end, stopping at places with historical significance and covering approximately 5000 years of the history of England. So we had the Amesbury Man for prehistoric stuff as well as Stonehenge, we had some stuff about the Romans where the road runs along the old Roman road, we had some stuff about Alfred (someone’s 18th Century folly on the site of a battle of Alfred’s), and more modern stuff like toll roads and even the many many attempts to shift the position of the A303 away from Stonehenge (which have all failed so far). Fort also met a variety of interesting people … including a man who uses the A303 as the perfect place to collect roadkill for his dinner.

Fun, and worth watching 🙂

Prehistoric Autopsy; Wartime Farm

The second episode of Prehistoric Autopsy was all about Homo erectus, and they were building a model of Nariokotome Boy. This is a 1.5 million year old near complete Homo erectus skeleton & the most complete one ever found. They started off with context, again – Homo erectus only died out relatively recently, but was around for 2 million years, which is the longest of any human species. It’s also one of the first hominids that can be thought of as human, and we and all the other ones that were around in the recent (geologically speaking) past are descended from them. They also lived outside Africa, and were the first hominids to do so.

Homo erectus co-existed with several different hominid species over time – they talked in detail about one, Paranthropus boisei. The skull they showed had a massive jaw, a skull ridge and very flared cheekbones to fit the chewing muscles behind. A diet of particularly solid things seems plausible, like nuts and seeds. As well as that sort of food there’s evidence of wear from grasses on their teeth.

They showed us research into the climate over the time period – I loved this bit, there’s just something so neat about being able to find out what the world was like so long ago with such a simple concept. They do it using samples taken of the sediment on the ocean floor. It’s laid down layer upon layer over time, and you can look at things like the sort of mud it is and the sorts of plant seeds/pollen you find in it to build up an idea of what the weather and landscape was like on nearby continents. We got shown a particular example of a core where you could see a colour change in the mud from top (~5000 years ago) to bottom (~10,000 years ago), and told us that the changes correspond to a change in the nearby climate (East Africa, if I remember right) from wetter to more dry. Over the 2 million years that Homo erectus existed the climate seems to’ve undergone lots of swings between hotter & colder or wetter & dryer conditions and they speculate that why Homo erectus survived and the other hominids didn’t is that Homo erectus was more adaptable.

And that they were more adaptable because of their bigger brains and because of the different way they interacted with the environment around them. There’s evidence that Homo erectus used fire, and they cooked their food (at least at the end of the time period, I wasn’t clear if there was no evidence from earlier on or if they hadn’t done the analysis (yet)). Their tools are more sophisticated than earlier hominid tools – instead of just breaking rocks for a sharp edge their tools are carefully shaped and show evidence of being planned and involving skill to make. So Homo erectus seems to’ve had the cognitive ability to shape the environment to suit themselves, rather than put up with the environment they find themselves in. There’s also evidence that they took care of older members of their groups – a skull has been found where the individual lost their teeth a few years before death, and quite clearly wouldn’t’ve survived without help.

Because of the model building the programme also spent some time discussing the probable physique of Nariokotome Boy. Homo erectus show many adaptions for running, and were probably lean and hairless (to the extent that modern humans are hairless, I mean). Because of the lack of hair they’d’ve had dark skins to protect themselves from the UV of the African sun – and this limited their spread north, they don’t seem to’ve got the low melanin mutation that permitted us to live in more northern climates. Also in this section they showed us evidence that Homo erectus may’ve suffered from tuberculosis, which is astonishing – it is a disease that we get from cattle originally, and was assumed to’ve become a human disease only more recently when modern humans started living in close proximity to cattle because they’d become herders. The marks and signs on the Homo erectus skull they were looking at (not Nariokotome Boy, another one) were very similar to the ones on a modern human who’d died of TB, so seemed convincing evidence. Which raises all sorts of interesting questions.

We also watched the last episode of Wartime Farm, which unsurprisingly covered 1945 and the immediate aftermath of the war, as well as wrapping up with a “what we’ve learnt” segment. So they were mostly concentrating on the fact that once the war was won, that didn’t mean life returned to how it had been pre-war – not only did people still need fed, but in some ways the situation was even more precarious because Britain was close to bankrupt and couldn’t afford to import food yet the fields were becoming less fertile due to a lack of manure and from being over-farmed. They also talked about the celebrations that people had (and the thing they dramatised was a firework elephant, which was awesome 😀 ). And they harvested the wheat crop they’d spent the year growing, using a brand new combine harvester (well, 70 year old one …).

This was a good series, although I’ve struggled to write more than a paragraph per episode. I’m not quite sure why, but I guess partly because there was a lot of “look at how we did things” which isn’t easy to transform into text. I did feel that they spread it all too thin, perhaps they couldn’t do it half the number of episodes, but I do think they could’ve cut it down a bit. The format of half-dramatising, half-telling still feels like it shouldn’t’ve worked, but they pulled it off very well.

Prehistoric Autopsy; Wartime Farm

Last night we watched the first part of Prehistoric Autopsy which was all about the Neanderthals. This is a three part series presented by Alice Roberts & George McGavin plus a whole team of experts – the format is that they have a “lab” set up with various different experts & they demonstrate some of the research that’s been or is being done about three different human/ancestral species and use this knowledge to build a life-size replica of the species in question. It suffers a little from “staged conversations” syndrome & an almost complete lack of on-screen chemistry between the two primary presenters but other than those two niggles it was a fascinating programme.

So they started by giving us context for Neanderthals – not that long ago by palaeontological standards we weren’t the only human species on the planet. If you go back to ~70,000 years ago there were 4 species as well as Homo sapiens: Homo floresiensis (who died out about 12,000 years ago, which is about the same time as the Chinese were starting to make pottery), Denisova hominin (who I’d never heard of before, wikipedia tells me this is a branch from Neanderthals), Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthals, died out around 30,000 years ago), Homo erectus (died out around 70,000 years ago). Neanderthals moved out of Africa & lived in Europe, then Homo sapiens evolved in Africa and independently moved into Europe later on.

They then talked us through lots of different evidence for what the Neanderthals looked like & how they lived, whilst at the same time showing us the building of the replica (based on an actual individual skeleton). Lots of fascinating things, quite a lot of stuff I didn’t know before, so I shan’t try & list everything that made me think “ooh, neat” 🙂 I knew that there’d been work that showed we (northern Europeans) are more related to Neanderthals than you might think, but I hadn’t realised that they’d actually sequenced the whole Neanderthal genome. And the data they showed for relatedness was quite impressive – looking at 500 people of West African descent & you see under 2% relatedness to Neanderthals (with a nice normal distribution) and then looking at 500 people of Northern European descent and you see 2-4% relatedness to Neanderthals (again, nice normal distribution that doesn’t overlap the West African one). Looks pretty clear there was interbreeding going on in Europe 30,000 years ago.

Neanderthals also had more culture than one might’ve thought – there’s a painted shell with a hole that looks like where you’d put one if you were making a pendant, that was found in association with Neanderthal remains. There’s also a cave-painting that has had some of the paint dated to ~15,000 years before the first signs of Homo sapiens. They spent some time considering if Neanderthals could talk, too – but that was a little less convincing. They also looked at how Neanderthals hunted, and how they made clothes. You can tell from tools found that they must’ve scraped hides to make them pliable for making clothes, and you can also tell this from the arm bones of the skeleton. You could also tell from the wear on the teeth that they worked the hides with their teeth too.

Oh, and thinking of teeth – one of the really neat bits was that there’s a group that have examined Neanderthal teeth from a skeleton of a young girl, using a synchrotron. The images generated allow them to see and count the growth lines in the teeth – at a resolution of 1 per day. That means they could count up how long the girl had lived since her teeth came in, and instead of the 6 years estimated from the state of the bones it turns out she’d lived for about 3 years. So Neanderthals matured at a much quicker rate than us, and they speculated in the programme that this might be part of why we still exist and are thriving & the Neanderthals aren’t. That we have more time to learn while we grow up, and this makes us more adaptable & gives us an edge in competition.

I could ramble on for longer, but I shall stop there. I’m looking forward to the other two programmes when we get to them & I’d definitely recommend watching this one if you have the chance (and are interested in that sort of thing).

The other programme of the evening was the seventh episode of Wartime Farm – covering 1944. We had carrier pigeon training (because they were extensively used during the war in particular to relay messages during the D-Day landing), POWs being used as farm labour (the expert on this segment was a German chap whose Grandad had been one of those POWs which was a neat touch), the troops gathering pre-D-Day, basket making, flax harvesting. Oh and some terrible German bread – bread was never rationed here, but it was in Germany. And in desperation there were recipes for wartime black bread that were appalling – the one they demonstrated was silage, grass clippings, sawdust, fermented rye (better hope for no ergot!) and honey. It looked a bit like black bread once it had been cooked, and they ate it and said it didn’t taste too bad – but pretty much it was the sort of thing you’d eat if you were reduced to eating grass, this was at least a palatable way to do it.

Empire of the Seas; Wartime Farm

The third episode of “Empire of the Seas: How the Navy Forged the Modern World” started in the 1770s when the British had just made peace with the French, and went through to the aftermath of the Battle of Trafalgar (when the British again made peace with the French after a couple more wars). The thread used to tie the whole episode together was the life of Horatio Nelson – who started his career as a midshipman in 1771 at the age of 12, and died as he commanded the British victory at Trafalgar in 1805. (Although we didn’t get told that much about Nelson, just that he was mentioned in each segment of the programme.)

At the beginning of this period the Navy was in decline – no wars means less money for the military, and ships were being mothballed. One of the things the Navy was tasked with during this time was to explore the Pacific – Captain Cook’s voyages were part of this. They were part scientific expedition, but were also about expanding the British Empire by laying claim to whatever lands they found which turned out to include Australia. A French explorer had nearly discovered Australia the year before Cook, but had turned back at the Great Barrier Reef because it was too dangerous – I imagine he was pretty upset later when he realised he could’ve claimed a continent for France. Another way the Navy earnt their pay during this time was to enforce the customs duties charged on goods entering the American colonies, which of course lead to the American War of Independence. Dan Snow implied that actually the loss of the colonies that became the US wasn’t really that much of a loss – by far the more important part of the war (with France) that started with the Americas was when the French attacked the British colonies in the Caribbean – if the British lost those their economy would’ve been crippled. The French didn’t learn from this defeat any more than the last one, and after the revolution they declared war on England again – this conflict would end with the defeat of the French & Spanish at Trafalgar.

One of the themes of this series is how the needs of the Navy have had an impact on the social, economic & political history of Britain – so in this programme we learnt that income tax was originally instituted as a temporary measure to fund the Navy. And part of the driving force behind the industrialisation of the country was the decision to sheathe the Navy ships in copper – this was proposed as a way to protect merchant ships from ship-worm and the dragging effects of seaweed, and a bureaucrat (Middleton) in charge of the Navy realised that this should also make the ships more manoeuvrable. Middleton persuaded the King that this was a good idea, and the needs of mining enough copper and turning it into sheets to be bolted onto the ships helped drive technological advances for mining (both for copper and coal) and to generate more jobs on land. And then the faster ships were decisive in keeping the Caribbean colonies in British hands.

In the sixth episode of Wartime Farm we were up to 1943, which was just before the turning point in the war. Morale was low, as rationing was getting ever tighter and farmers were trying to grow ever more food even though they had already stretched production far beyond pre-war levels. This programme had segments on such diverse things as hay-making from grass in the churchyard (because the rest of the land was growing crops instead of grass, but the dairy herd still need hay for their winter feed), children who were sent out to camps to provide labour for farms during harvest, collecting herbs to sell to pharmaceutical companies and clothing, make-up & entertainment in the 40s. And other things too. I was particularly struck by the idea that mascara was originally for men’s beards, not for ladies’ eyelashes!

Empire of the Seas; Wartime Farm

The second episode of “Empire of the Seas: How the Navy Forged the Modern World” started with the defeat of the English Navy by the French in 1690 – still one of the most humiliating defeats of the Navy. At this time the French were the dominant sea-going nation, and the programme covered the recovery of the Navy over the following 70 years until in 1759 it really could be said that Britannia ruled the waves.

Along the way it covered how the country reorganised both financially and in terms of industry in order to better support the Navy. I hadn’t realised that the Bank of England was initially set up to loan money to the government for the Navy (and as a side note, I really should find myself a (readable) book about economics one of these days because I don’t really understand it). The industrial side was entrepreneurs doing things like moving nail production to the north-east where the coal for the forges was, and employing several blacksmiths in workshops near the river Tyne so that the nails were easily shipped to the shipyards in the south.

We also got told about the life of a sailor during this time – mostly unpleasant and full of hard work. The presenter, Dan Snow, tried some of the food that these sailors would’ve eaten – it looked pretty repulsive (tho the biscuit he had wasn’t full of weevils, it wasn’t that accurate) and apparently tasted as bad as one would expect. It also wasn’t a balanced diet, and one of the challenges that faced the Navy was getting their military campaigns done before the sailors got too ill from disease and malnutrition. He took us on a modern Navy ship to show how it’s dealt with these days (walk-in -20°C freezers full of about 90 days worth of food), and told us about a successful campaign where the British fleet blockaded the French Navy’s headquarters for 6 months by actually figuring out how to ship fresh food to the fleet and keep the sailors healthy.

Another segment was about the execution of Admiral Byng – which I knew the “catchphrase” from, but had never actually heard the story before. Byng was tasked to come to the aid of the British troops on Minorca who were being attacked by the French in 1756, but felt that an attack was unlikely to succeed so withdrew. He was court-martialed for this, under the regulations against cowardice in battle and executed by firing squad. Voltaire wrote satirically about it (in Candide) – “Dans ce pays-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres.” (“In this country, it is good to kill an admiral from time to time, in order to encourage the others.” – French taken from wikipedia, so hopefully it’s accurate). It did indeed encourage the others – the aggression of the Navy was unmatched, and Snow told us about a couple of examples of times when this undid them. But overall the Navy grew from a ruined and bankrupt fleet at the start of the period, to the première naval force in the world.

The fifth episode of Wartime Farm covered what life was like in 1942. Even more shortages of food and petrol meant that ever smaller scraps of land were being reclaimed to grow crops & ever more ingenious solutions were being devised to run vehicles. I was very impressed by the coal burning furnace that they fitted to an old ambulance so that they could use it as a general purpose truck on the farm without using any petrol. Basically they bolted a coal furnace on the front and ran a pipe from the top through another container filled with heather to purify the coal gas produced, then that went into the engine. They also showed us some old footage of vehicles in towns that had been adapted to run off gas from the mains – they had great balloons on top filled with the gas, and we both winced watching the driver light up his cigarette as he got back in the truck after refilling the gas bag. They also told us about the coal miners – Bevin Boys – who were conscripted for the army and ended up working down the mines instead. I knew that happened, but I hadn’t realised it was 10% of the recruits for the army that did that.

Empire of the Seas; Wartime Farm

Started TV night off last week with the first episode in a series we’d recorded back in February – “Empire of the Seas: How the Navy Forged the Modern World”. The theme of the series is the history of Britain over the last 400 years, seen through the lens of the Royal Navy. This first episode (Heart of Oak) started with the growth of the navy from a loose coalition of mostly independent ships through to something that is more akin to the modern navy at the end of the 17th Century. The presenter, Dan Snow, started by telling us about the defeat of the Spanish Armada – or rather by telling us about the context for the Spanish Armada. So he told us about Francis Drake’s early career as a slave trader, and of an incident where the Spanish caught him & his cousin trading slaves in Spanish territory in the Americas (which was forbidden to foreigners) and attacked his ships, capturing and executing many of his crew. Drake bore a grudge about this, which he indulged (and was encouraged by the state to indulge) by attacking Spanish shipping and Spanish ports such as Cordoba – and by stealing their treasure. The Armada was thus partly a retaliation for this state sanctioned piracy.

The successful defeat of the Armada encouraged later Stuart adventures such as sending the Navy to harass Cordoba again, but this was an abject failure – because there was no charismatic leader like Drake, and the individual ship captains did what they wanted to do when they wanted to do it. And this lack of co-ordination, and lack of planning, meant they were not successful. Snow then told us that the first rebellions of Parliament against Charles I were about this poor organisation and funding of the Navy, which isn’t something I’d heard before. After the Restoration Samuel Pepys (the man with the diary) was Chief Secretary to the Admiralty, which meant he was in charge of all the administration of the Navy. His talent for organisation was instrumental in starting to form the Navy into a professional military organisation rather than a collection of individual vessels.

It’s an interestingly different take on the history of this period – as it draws out different aspects of things I already knew about. Like I wasn’t aware that Drake had been involved in the slave trade, nor was I aware just how important Pepys was to the Navy. Looking forward to watching the rest of the series.

Episode four of Wartime Farm was primarily about the government inspections of farms during the war to see if they were producing food efficiently enough. By midway through the war the War Agricultural Executive Committees had the power to remove farmers from their land if they weren’t productive enough. Apparently 2000 farmers had their farms taken over during the war, and the programme included the story of one man who refused to be put off his land and in the end died after a siege & a shoot out with police. Not at all the sort of thing I associate with WWII.