In Our Time: Aesop

Aesop’s Fables are so deeply embedded into our culture that references to them are common parts of the language – “sour grapes”, “crying wolf” and so on. But we don’t often think about who Aesop was, where these stories originated or what the point of them is – or at least, I certainly didn’t! Discussing Aesop and the fables attributed to him on In Our Time were Pavlos Avlamis (Trinity College, University of Oxford), Simon Goldhill (University of Cambridge), and Lucy Grig (University of Edinburgh).

Aesop almost certainly didn’t really exist. He’s a myth or archetype in a similar fashion to Robin Hood – there’s a general shape to the myth but the other details often vary. What Aesop has in common across all references is that he’s ugly, he’s a slave, he’s clever and he speaks truth to power. Even the earliest mentions of Aesop say he’s been dead for a century – he’s a mythic figure from the past whenever you are. One of the most complete stories about Aesop himself that we have is a story from the 1st Century AD called the Romance of Aesop. In this narrative Aesop is an ugly slave whose master is a philosopher – but he frequently outwits his master. For instance his master goes to the baths, and asks Aesop to bring the oil flask. When Aesop does, his master asks why there’s no oil in it … and Aesop replies that he wasn’t asked to bring any oil! This sort of quickwitted trickery is the reverse of audience expectations for the story – after all, isn’t the master a philosopher who should be both clever and quick thinking? And outward appearances were expected to mirror the internal qualities of a man – so who would expect an ugly man to be clever? It’s also pretty subversive – lots of acts of petty rebellion which make the master’s life a misery.

Given that Aesop is probably a mythic character it’s unlikely that he actually wrote the fables he’s credited as the author of! They are most likely an oral tradition dating back to at least the 5th Century BC in Greece. It’s possible that they originated in Mesopotamia before that and if there was a historical Aesop then he was perhaps a slave from that region who told their fables to Greeks. The fables were written down later, but the repertoire changes over the centuries so there’s still an oral tradition running alongside the written one. During antiquity the fables spread from Greece to the Roman world and throughout the Roman controlled territories. They even got as far as the edge of China – there’s a version known that was written down in a Turkic language from Chinese controlled territory. In the Renaissance Aesop’s Fables were rediscovered and translated into many European languges, where they’ve remained current since. This rediscovery wasn’t limited to Europe – the new translations of the Fables spread to Japan as well.

Fables are a specific genre of stories – they are short, generally told with animal or stock characters with a moral attached. The moral doesn’t necessarily come at the end, it can be at the beginning or even in the middle. Different tellings of the same story can have different morals attached. And interestingly the moral doesn’t necessarily have to match the scenario in the story – the cognitive dissonance this causes can be part of what makes the fable memorable and/or useful. You do find the stories from fables turning up without morals, in joke compilations, but I think the experts were saying they don’t count as fables then. So what’s the point of these fables? They’re not just entertainment (although obviously that’s part of the point) – in modern times they’re children’s stories and that was always part of their use. They teach lessons about how the world works, in bite-sized and amusing chunks. The stories and morals are often about power relationships, approached from a bottom up perspective (and the Romance of Aesop is a sort of meta-fable fitting into this category). So they teach children (and adults) how to navigate a hierarchial society like the Roman one. In antiquity they might also be used by adults as a subtler and politer way of getting a point across to someone more powerful than oneself.

The programme finished up by considering the wider connections of fables – mostly this section was about how there are interesting similarities between Aesop & his fables and Jesus’s parables. The stories themselves are not the same, but they’re the same genre – short tales, with a moral, about power and told with a bottom up perspective. While I was writing up this blog post I also wondered if Br’er Rabbit fits into this genre – I can’t remember enough of any Br’er Rabbit story to be sure it fits the genre, tho.

Defining Beauty (Exhibition at the British Museum)

Back in April J and I visited the Defining Beauty exhibition at the British Museum which finished in early July. It’s the only one of their exhibitions where I’ve been as ambivalent about it on the way out as I was on the way in – which says rather more about me than the exhibition, I think. The subject of the exhibition was Ancient Greek sculpture and the incredible impact it has had on the modern Western definition of beauty. And I’m afraid that when it comes to Greek sculpture I’m somewhat of a heretic – I find all those gleaming white idealised bodies rather … bland. Even as I grant that it has indeed had a major impact on the art of more modern times (modern here meaning in the last five or six hundred years) and a worthwhile subject for an exhibition.

(You might be asking why on earth I went to see it! But there’s been exhibitions at the British Museum in the past where I’ve not been enthused in advance but have been by the end, so it was worth a try. And as we’re Members we have free entry so it’s easy to pop into an exhibition just because it’s there.)

The exhibition opened with a bit of scene setting. Part of this was a map of the extent of the Greek world in Alexander the Great’s time (after he did his conquering bit) – despite knowing he conquered vast swathes of the known world I’m always a bit taken aback at how big that is on a map. The other piece of information that particularly struck me was that what’s known about Greek sculpture mostly comes from Roman copies of Greek originals. And one of the pieces in this room was Lely’s Venus (normally on display near the Assyrian Galleries in the BM), which is one of these Roman copies. The other sculptures in this introductory room illustrated the range of styles of sculpture – using three pieces by three different artists who were all training & active in the 5th Century BC. The variation came in whether they were interested in things like mathematically perfect proportions of bodies, or representing the fluidity of movement.

The first half of the next room was the stand out highlight of the exhibition for me. They had half a dozen replicas of sculptures painted as we think they would’ve been at the time. And given my “complaint” about this art form is that it strikes me as bland, well this was anything but. Perhaps a little garish, but so much more interesting. One of the pieces was a large (plaster replica of a) bronze of Athena – it’s easy to remind oneself that the dull green of bronze was once a shiny gold, but it’s quite another thing to see it. I also liked an Athene wearing her snake-trimmed cloak, in a vivid green with the snake heads picked out in colours. And did you know the Persians wore brightly coloured onesies? Me neither!

The next room looked at what made Greek art different from other contemporary (or just older) cultures art styles. One section was a compare and contrast with Egyptian and Cypriot sculpture – three statues in a row each of a young man striding forward, one from each culture. The Greek one was noticeably more natural in appearance, with the Egyptian and Cypriot ones looking very stiff and stilted in comparison. The Greek one was also naked, which came up again in more detail in the other compare & contrast – this time between Assyrian reliefs and Greek reliefs. Again the subject matter was similar, both reliefs were battle scenes – and again the Greek example had more fluidity and motion. The use and meaning of nudity was markedly different between the two cultures. In the Assyrian example it was the defeated prisoners who were naked – a sign of their low statues, shame & humiliation. In the Greek example the heroes are naked to show off their virility and their virtue.

The third room also had a few other themes, although they made slightly odd bedfellows. One of these was a case talking about women in Classical Greek art – most of what I remember from this is the juxtaposition of male nudity as virtue and women clothed for their virtue. There was also a section about representation of the gods, where the key point was that the gods were people. Impossibly beautiful, divine people, but people nonetheless.

The next room started with a look at representation of the stages of life, and ended with the erotic in art – again a slightly odd juxtaposition. The stages of life looked at were birth, marriage and death and my favourite piece in this section was a stunning representation of a baby. The labels here talked about how representation of childhood and children as they really were was a departure from previous art styles. The section on marriage was mostly concerned with how marriage was thought of for women – analogised with abduction (which I was previously aware was a trope) and with death. Having side by side pieces where women are moving from girlhood to wifehood as if they’d died next to gravestones for young warriors slain in battle was quite striking.

In the penultimate room we moved forward in time past the golden age of idealised beauty (or blandness, depending on taste) to sculptures that had more differentiation. Faces in particular began to look like real people – although quite probably not the person they’re were supposed to be. The room ended with a pair of pieces representing knucklebone players, with very different flavours. One of these was two girls playing a peaceful friendly game as a last hurrah before marriage and womanly respectability. And the other was the remains of piece where two boys had come to blows over a disagreement about the game. Only one of the boys was still intact, all that remained of the other was the arm that the first boy was biting – which made the piece very striking in a way the artist wouldnt’ve expected.

That room also had a case looking at the representations of (North?) Africans in Greek sculpture – sometimes as caricature, but sometimes in a more nuanced and human fashion. The piece that caught my eye here was a centrepiece for a table of an acrobat and a crocodile. This part of the room neatly segued into the start of the last room, which looked at the way that Greek art changed as it met the other cultures that Alexander the Great brought into the Hellenistic world – in particular India.

The exhibition finished with two large reclining male nudes which had a particular impact on the Renaissance. The thematic statement for the exhibition, if you will. These pieces when discovered changed the way artists represented bodies in Western art. Think of the way that Medieval art has these stiff clothes horses that don’t really look like they’d move like people, and then think of the art of Michaelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci and you’ll see what a difference this renewed interest in the idealised beauty of Greek sculpture had.

As I said at the beginning, this exhibition wasn’t really my cup of tea. Which doesn’t mean it was bad, far from it – just I’m a bit of an uncultured barbarian 😉 What I came away from it thinking was that I would like to see more of the painted replicas – knowing they were painted and seeing what they looked like are two very different things.

In Our Time: Strabo’s Geographica

Strabo was a Greek scholar who lived in Rome (and other parts of the Roman world) from the 1st Century BC to the 1st Century AD. During this time he wrote his Geographica which was a large work describing the “known world” of the Romans. Discussing it on In Our Time were Paul Cartledge (University of Cambridge), Maria Pretzler (Swansea University) and Benet Salway (UCL).

They started the programme with some context for both Strabo and the world he lived in. He was born in what is now Turkey in around 64BC, which at the time was a part of the Greek world. He lived through a time of great expansion of Roman territory, and the change from Republic to Empire. Not long after he was born the Romans expanded eastwards past his homeland, when he was around 30 Egypt became a part of the Roman empire, and Julius Caesar’s first campaigns in Britain were within his lifetime too. So this is a time when the geography of the Roman territory was changing rapidly, and also a time when a lot of Greek intellectuals like Strabo were incorporated into Roman culture. We don’t know much about Strabo himself, Cartledge (I think) noted in passing that we don’t even know his full name. Strabo means something like “squinty eyed” and would once have been a nickname, but got incorporated into Roman names as a cognomen. Strabo first came to Rome when he was around 20 for his education, and also spent time in Alexandria which was one of the other major intellectual centres of the classical world. As well as the Geographica Strabo is known to have written a history – which has not survived. It was also an ambitious work and it updated a previous work to bring it up to the “present day” of Strabo’s time.

The Geographica is about 17 volumes, and as I said in the opening paragraph it covers the “known world”. The Romans were aware that the Earth is a globe, and Pretzler said that they were even fairly close to being right about the size of the world (although I think she implied that the calculations used were wrong but they got to the right answer anyway). So they were aware that there was a lot of world unaccounted for – their known world was about a quarter of the globe. There were different theories at the time about what else was there – one was that there was ocean filling the rest of the space. This lead some Romans to be dubious about the existence of Britain even after Julius Caesar had campaigned there – it wasn’t logical, because it was off the edge of the land. And Strabo wasn’t convinced by reports from an explorer of islands to the west of Britain – what we now know as Ireland and Iceland.

The first couple of volumes are introductory in nature. This is, in fact, where most biographical details about Strabo come from. The text also says that Strabo is very widely travelled and knows much of the world first hand, but Pretzler explained that this was a standard thing for geographers and historians of the time to say. It was intended to give them some authority but wasn’t necessarily true. She said that you can make some reasonable guesses about which bits were first hand and which weren’t – in part because the first hand bits are so much more vivid (and accurate). In these introductory chapters Strabo also explains the many sources he has consulted – I think they said it was a couple of hundred, of course only a few of these are his major sources. He also takes the time to write about Homer’s geographical knowledge in the Iliad and the Odyssey. These volumes of the Geographica also go into the theory of geography of the time, and the mathematical principles behind drawing maps.

The remaining volumes cover the actual geography – not just the physical geography but what we would now call political and social geography: what the countries/provinces are, what the people are like. The text was organised following the then current convention of moving around the coast of the Mediterranean from Spain to the east of the sea, and the back westwards along the north coast of Africa. Obviously to fit in the whole of the known world of the time Strabo also needs to take a couple of detours – one when he fits in Asia Minor up to around Afghanistan, and one to cover India.

The contemporary audience for the work would’ve been fairly wide. Cartledge said that it was written in a style that would be accessible to the general literate & educated population of the time. Strabo himself made the assertion that he intended it to be of particular use to generals and politicians. Remember this was a time of expansion for the Roman Empire, and although we know in hindsight that it had reached its furthest extent during Strabo’s lifetime that wasn’t clear at the time. Strabo was making the point that if you know the geography & the sorts of peoples living in each part of the world then you can better plan your conquests, and your ruling of the territory afterwards.

After Strabo’s death the Geographica isn’t cited much for the next few centuries – in part because the conventions of the time were not to cite recent works. People were keen to root their new works deeply in the classical past, and Strabo was too recent. I think the experts thought he was probably read by these later authors just not referenced. The only mentions of Strabo’s work from that sort of era are by Josephus, the Jewish Roman historian. Strabo’s Geographica was rediscovered in the Renaissance, and had an influence on map making for a couple of centuries after that. One of the experts (possibly Salway?) was saying that even into the 18th Century there would be maps made, for instance of Africa, where the coasts were done with the new modern mapmaking methods, but the inland regions might come straight out of Strabo.

Monday Link Salad

Mary Beard recently gave a lecture on the long cultural history of silencing women’s voices, the text is online. Which juxtaposed well (in the sense that it’s similar cultural roots) with the programme we just watched on how Greek attitudes to luxury still affect our own. And juxtaposed in a timely fashion with the bigotry in SFWA thing that’s been rumbling on for the last year – the latest iteration of which blew up just recently and includes someone critiquing a woman’s appearance as a part of a rationale for dismissing her. Having read the lecture just before I read about the SFWA thing it was interesting to see how many times I saw it linked in comments.

Ben Goldacre on the NHS data sharing plan – he says with well thought out arguments and evidence things that match my gut feel on it. Having the data available to medicine would be extremely useful and is a Good Thing, it’s a shame they’re botching the explanation and the regulatory side of it :/

Reshaping Reality has a post up on how science works, the fundamental uncertainties at the roots of physics & thus the whole of science and why scientific literacy matters which includes a list of blogs and books about science.

James Nicoll’s micro reviews of the Science Fiction Book Club books of July 2000 – the one that caught my eye was SUBURBAN GODS (2-in-1 of HOW LIKE A GOD and DOORS OF DEATH AND LIFE) by Brenda W. Clough, that he recommends and I’ve never heard of.

Also from James Nicoll some potential reading list generators – list of women authors who debuted in the 1970s, and 1980s with recommendations from people about books of theirs to read. Mine are in comments on those posts. Lots of them I’ve not read anything by, gonna give the lists a little time to multiply then construct myself a list of books to look for.

Ever wondered what the cryptic spray paint marks are on UK pavements?

In the “OMG I’m old, how’d that happen?” department is this: Descent is 19 years old!! Not a game I ever really got the hang of, I remember J liking it a lot tho. While we were at uni. Which is clearly only yesterday.

Also off RPS (I’m a bit behind on reading it) is confirmation that Steam Tags really are as bad an idea as I thought they would be. They do seem to’ve added functionality so you can report tags but what rock have they been hiding under for the last decade or two to not realise that unmoderated open to all tagging on the internet was going to generate problems?

Chroma looks interesting, but a bit of an odd idea … could be good, could be terrible, have to wait & see. And Doom 4 looks like it’s going to be a thing … can’t work out if that’s exciting or not, I got more into Quake (3 and 4) than any of the Dooms.

Trying to read old Scottish documents? This might help – via my father, who managed to decipher the 17th Century marriage record that I completely failed to read 🙂

Cats taking selfies … because the internet is for cat pictures.

“The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August” by Claire North is a book I’d like to read – similar underlying premise as Kate Atkinson’s “Life After Life” (post) but goes in a different direction. Link via Lady Business.

Apps installed recently include Crowdsourced Weather which uses the sensors on your phone to detect local weather data. Doesn’t seem to have many people using it yet according to the map, but I now have on my phone something that tells me the barometric pressure, the magnetic field of the earth where I am, the temperature (using an algorithm to figure it out from battery temp, a little flaky) and how light it is. This may not be particularly useful but it makes me happy 🙂

Also using Muzei, which gives you a new backdrop every day or so, each one is a famous work of art. A little bit of art appreciation on my phone 🙂 There’s plenty of plugins for things like NASA’s APOD too.

And finally got round to installing Untappd, which lets you track which different beers you’ve tried. It also lets you spam facebook/twitter/foursquare with what you drink, but I’m not doing that 😉

The TV programmes I told the PVR to record this week are rather WW1 heavy:

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

Indian Ocean with Simon Reeve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Were the Greeks?

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

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

Britain’s Stone Age Tsunami

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

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

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

Ancient Apocalypse: Sodom & Gomorrah

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

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

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

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

The Week’s TV Including Greeks, Romans, the Indian Ocean, Apocalyptic Volcanoes & More

I’ve decided to change the way I’m writing about TV programmes, because we’ve increased the amount of TV we’re watching (to try not to run out of space on the PVR) and it’s been taking a lot of time to write long posts about each programme. So instead I’m going to do a post a week of mini-reviews of what we watched, and perhaps every now & then a longer post about something that particularly catches my attention.

The Mystery of Rome’s X Tomb

This one off documentary was about a relatively recently discovered tomb in the catacombs under Rome. In 6 linked chambers there were the remains of about 2000 bodies, and at first the discoverers had no idea who they were, when they’d lived or what they’d died from. Michael Scott presented the work that’s been done in the last 10 years to try & find out some answers – it’s still a work in progress so he offered no “proof” or “solution” just the theories so far.

The bodies definitely weren’t all interred at the same time – not enough space in the chambers, carbon dating shows a range of dates & the few bits of jewellery & coins do too. So they seem to date from the 1st to 3rd Centuries AD, in several batches. There are no signs of violence, particularly not the sorts of trauma that end lives. Work has just started on trying to identify any pathogens from DNA traces left in teeth. Most of the bodies are young adults or teenagers, both men & women. They were buried in a high status fashion. The chambers are directly underneath what’s known to be the burial ground for an elite cavalry unit, and Scott speculated that these mass burials could’ve been members of this unit and their families & slaves who succumbed to plagues that swept through Rome in this era. He also speculated that these chambers might’ve been the nucleus of the later custom of burying people in catacombs under Rome.

Interesting, and also nice to watch a programme about a historical & archaeological mystery that didn’t “solve the mystery” but instead was willing to present the theories so far.

Indian Ocean with Simon Reeve

The BBC just recently re-showed an older Simon Reeve series about the Indian Ocean. The first episode covered the region from the tip of South Africa to the island of Zanzibar. As seems to be Reeve’s style we saw not just the beautiful scenery etc, but also the less savoury side of life round the coast. In South Africa and in Mozambique this was centered around trade in luxury foods to China – abalone in the former case & shark fins in the latter. The abalone trade is particularly unsavoury as it’s linked to the drug trade – both in that addicts poach the shellfish & sell it to the drug gangs to afford to buy drugs, and in that the drug gangs are involved in smuggling the abalone out as well as the drugs in. There was also foreshadowing for Somali pirates showing up in a later episode. But on a bit more of an optimistic note Reeve visited an old hotel in Mozambique which is now a refugee camp – the optimism comes from how it’s formed into a functional mini-state, with elected officials & rules, so the people have more stable lives than one might expect.

Doctor Who Live: The Next Doctor

This programme doesn’t really belong in either fact or fiction so I’ll just include it here. The BBC announced who the next Doctor was going to be live on telly – we hadn’t really planned to watch it, but did anyway. The build up involved interviews with random celebrity fans (more than half of whom I failed to recognise), and also past Doctors & companions. I also didn’t recognise Peter Capaldi’s name, but J pointed out we saw him play one of the politician/civil servant people in the Torchwood Children of Earth series, so that’s why I vaguely recognised the way he looked.

I’m already tired of the “is he gonna swear as the Doctor *teehee*” meme based on whatever it is he’s famous for … the man’s an actor, I’m sure he can play different characters differently, he’d not be very good otherwise.

Ancient Apocalypse

Mystery of the Minoans

We’d watched the first episode of this series some time ago, possibly not long after it aired (in April last year, when I wasn’t writing up TV I’d watched). It was about the end of the Old Kingdom in Egypt, hence why we watched it so quickly, but the other episodes are about other apocalypses. Mystery of the Minoans was about the end of the Minoan civilisation on Crete.

The basic idea is one we’d seen before (in a Bettany Hughes programme we watched in 2010 (post on LJ)) – the island of Thera (modern day Santorini) is the remains of a volcano that erupted 3500 years ago, just a few decades before Minoan civilisation collapsed and was conquered by the Myceneans. The various experts in this programme showed us evidence of how massive the eruption was (possibly bigger than had previously been thought) and what effects that would’ve had both immediately & more long term. Immediate effects included wiping out the towns on Thera itself, which were an important part of the Minoan trade network. They also included devastating tsunami that hit Crete, and would’ve destroyed a lot of towns & infrastructure and killed a lot of people. Longer term there was a noticeable effect on the climate – for instance we were shown tree rings from preserved tree trunks in the Irish bogs which showed no or very little growth for 10 years after the eruption.

It felt a little shallow, which was a problem with the first episode too if I remember correctly. Not dreadfully so, but more than once I’d’ve liked a little more detail on the data they were presenting – for example a brief explanation of how they had dated their tree trunks so precisely would’ve been nice. Or giving the date ranges for the various different bits of evidence so we could judge for ourselves how much it all added up. (Possibly I expect too much here 😉 )

The Maya Collapse

Sadly the third episode, about the collapse of the Mayan civilisation was more shallow rather than less. The worst piece of padding was when we got a couple of minutes of jaunty mexican music while our hero archaeologist walked up a set of stairs and then back down. With the camera lingering on his cowboy boots because he was a Texan. But there were several other bits of fluff that could’ve been cut out as well and replaced with a bit more info about the subject of the programme.

It concentrated on the end of the Mayan civilisation which appears to have been rapid and comprehensive – about 1200 years ago there were Mayans, and then the cities & villages are abandoned with only a few people who survived. The archaeologist we followed (I’ve forgotten his name :/ ) was an ex-banker who’d become obsessed with the question of what happened & after his bank collapsed had gone back to university & got an archaeology degree so he could work on the question. He actually came across rather well, despite the attempts of the programme to shoehorn this into a “those academics were too hidebound it took an outsider to think of the answer” story.

The apocalypse in this case was drought. The Yucatan region has no rivers or lakes & so the people who live there both then & now are completely dependent on the rainy season to fill up man made reservoirs. If the rains fail, disaster strikes. The archaeologist looked at various different bits of evidence (ice cores, climate models, old records of past climate, mud cores and more) and discovered that around the time of the Mayan civilisation vanishing there was the worst drought in the last 7000 years. In addition to the lack of water directly killing off people there is some evidence that the priests were blamed for failing to get the gods to make it rain, and so were violently killed – and also for society in general descending into violence & unrest.

Who Were the Greeks?

This is a two part series about the Greeks presented by Michael Scott (the same one who presented the programme about a Roman tomb I wrote about above). He’s taking as his jumping off point the idea that we all think we know about the Ancient Greeks – they were philosophers, the first scientists, artists, inventors of democracy. And in this first episode at least he was telling us about how they were also a culture that seems completely alien to our modern eyes. So the first part of the programme was about the Greeks as warriors – not just Sparta (although he discussed Spartans at length) but also the other city states including Athens. He also talked about the Greek notions of sexuality, which are not the same as our modern ones at all. There wasn’t this distinction between straight and gay, instead there were differences due to a man’s age – a young unmarried man was expected to want to form a relationship with a young teenage boy. Then he was expected to grow out of this (in the same way he’d grown out of being the boy in such a relationship) and to marry by the time he was 35. There were also cultural rules about what sort of sex was appropriate with one’s wife and that was different to what was appropriate with one’s mistress or a prostitute.

Scott also discussed the blurring between what we’d consider the seperate domains of science & religion – no actual concept of religion as we know it in Greek culture at the time. Instead the gods & their involvement in the world were just a part of the way the world is, and you could both expect the gods to come to you in a dream to cure you of an illness whilst also seeing a physician who prescribe treatments more like what we’d recognise today. He also talked about slavery, and how even the democratic society of Athens was built on a slave-holding society – sure it was a democracy, but only male citizens had rights & a vote.

One of his other themes for the programme was the way Greek society put a high premium on perfection – both of the body & of the mind. Babies were exposed if they were imperfect & weren’t expected to live, men were expected to work on their physique, and were expected to display their education & ability to think. Life was lived mostly in public, and scrutinised by your peers.

Royal Institute Christmas Lectures: Meet Your Brain

The last lecture in the series was mostly concerned with the social aspects of how our brains work. So there was some stuff about empathy & about how we develop a theory of the mind as we get older (I’m always surprised when I remember it kicks in as late as 3 or 4 years old). Both of which are a sort of mind-reading that lets one fit into groups better, by being able to work out what other people might be thinking or how they might react. And there was also a magician who did a few tricks during the lecture – using the way we instinctively follow someone’s gaze or look where they’re pointing to direct our attention away from where the substitutions & so on were being performed.

It’s been a bit odd watching this – I remember when I was a kid the Christmas Lectures were awesome and I didn’t think they were very “child oriented”, but now it seems very much aimed at the kids. But still quite fun to watch the series.

The Secret History of Genghis Khan

The Secret History of Genghis Khan was a programme we’ve had sitting on the PVR for a while. It was a mixture of re-enactment with voice-over and a few talking heads. The narrative was based on a text written after Genghis Khan’s death by his adopted son, which was part hagiography & part teaching tool for his successors. It has survived only in a Chinese copy discovered some centuries after it was written. The programme as a whole felt a little too uncritical of it’s source to me. Yes, it did present a different (and more nuanced) view of Genghis Khan to the traditional Western memory of him as solely a brutal butcher. And they did mention that it was written for a purpose rather than necessarily accurate, but I think it would’ve been nice to have more of an attempt to point out which bits were backed up by other evidence or not (for instance). It was definitely entertaining to watch, tho – the live action re-enactment scenes had a vaguely Monty Python air to them. Like the scene with a priest blessing the Christian knights before they went into battle who suddenly turns round with wide, startled eyes to see the Mongol army riding at him right now.

(More than once they had shots of people playing big drums and the music had drumbeats that sounded like they should be from those drums … but visuals & noises didn’t match up. Didn’t bother me that much, but it was driving J bananas!)

In Our Time: The Amazons

The Amazons are a staple of Greek mythology. The In Our Time episode about them talked about the sorts of myths that were told about them, whether there was any factual basis for these myths and how they’ve lasted into the modern day. The experts talking about them were Paul Cartledge (Cambridge University), Chiara Franceschini (University College London and the Warburg Institute) and Caroline Vout (Christ’s College, Cambridge).

The Amazons are mentioned in Homer’s poems in a couple of places, and stories are told about them through into Roman times – so they have about a thousand years of appearing in “current” mythology. The feel was consistent across the centuries, although the details often changed. They were a tribe of warrior women who are always situated somewhere on the periphery of the known world – where exactly depends on what parts of the world are best known. Even down to close to the modern day this is true – the Amazon river is named after this myth because an early European explorer came back with tales of being attacked by warrior women as he travelled down the river.

As well as “the people on the periphery” Amazons are women who live apart from men, and so women fulfil the functions that in “proper” Greek society are filled by men – they are warriors and leaders. Vout made the point that the Amazons are one of the “others” that the ancient Greeks defined themselves against. There are reliefs and art depicting Amazons in the same way and the same places that there are reliefs and art of Centaurs. Centaurs are the barbaric people that the Greeks are not – Cartledge told the myth where the Centaurs attend a human wedding and get drunk & try to rape the female guests, sparking a battle. That’s a display of “how not to behave”, the moral is to be Greek not barbarian. In a similar fashion the Amazons are the feminine against which the Greeks prove their masculinity. All three experts talked about particular myths where a Greek hero goes to visit the Amazons & wins over the Amazons or falls in love & brings home an Amazon Queen. The specific legends they mentioned were Hercules stealing the belt of Hippolyta, Penthesilea and Achilles fighting but falling in love as (or after) Achilles kills her, Theseus bringing Hippolyta back to Athens to marry her.

Franceschini talked about the iconography of the Amazons – they are always shown fully dressed. At first in Greek style clothing, but later in a style of outfit that she described as like a jumpsuit. They carried weapons, normally bows & arrows. They were often (particularly later) shown on horseback.

Herodotus was sure they existed – he places them towards the Black Sea, intermarrying with the Scythians. This is one of the legends as to how they managed to have children, another is that often they are depicted as living on an island where men cannot go and they go out into the world to find a man to become pregnant by. Girls are brought up by the Amazons, boys are killed or returned to their fathers depending on the legend.

Cartledge was keen to say that he thought the myths were complete invention – that the Greeks needed no “kernel of reality” to make up their stories from. But there is archaeological evidence in the area roughly where Herodotus places the Amazons for a culture where 20% of the fighting force were women and Vout (I think it was) said she thought this might be the origins of the initial stories. (And that percentage reminded me of this article about how it shouldn’t be a surprise to find women in fighting forces stretching right through history, yet somehow the stories we tell ignore this.)

The programme ended by very briskly moving us up from Roman times to the modern day, talking about how the myths have changed yet stayed a part of the culture. Franceschini was talking about how Queens were often represented with iconography that recalls that of the Amazons – concealing clothing, weapons, on horseback. She said that the chastity of the Amazons (often one of their virtues in myths) is what was intended to be evoked with this. Right at the end Cartledge name checked Xena: Warrior Princess for a modern representation of Amazons.

I was left at the end wondering about other modern re-workings of the Amazons – there’s a sub-genre of SFF that I tag in my head as “worlds run by women”, that’s feminist science fiction written in the 70s or so. A brief look on wikipedia backs me up that this is actually a thing not my invention. Which is just as well coz I can’t actually remember the names of any specific books I’ve read that precisely fit that category. However, what springs to mind are Sherri S. Tepper’s “The Gate to Women’s Country” and Elizabeth Bear’s “Carnival” which are both more recent than the 70s and more in dialogue with that sub-genre than part of it from what I recall. Anyway, I was left curious what debt that sub-genre owes to the Amazon myth and what is “convergent evolution” so’s to speak.