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.

Ice Age Giants; Brazil with Michael Palin; Guts: The Strange and Mysterious World of the Human Stomach

The second episode of Ice Age Giants was about the large mammals in Europe during the Ice Age. Roberts started by visiting Transylvania where there is a cave that contains fossil cave bears. The caves also have patches of the walls that have been worn smooth by the bears passing through the caves. These bears were larger than grizzly bears, and were vegetarians. As with modern bears they hibernated, and the animals found in the caves are mostly those that didn’t make it through the winter. But the cave bear specialist showing Roberts these also showed her two that seem to’ve slipped down a steep slope in the cave & failed to make their way out – there are scratch marks in the mud on the cave walls that look like the two bears, an adult & a cub, failing to scramble back up.

Also found in this cave is a cave lion skull. These were one of the top predators of the European continent and mostly ate medium size herbivores like deer. But it seems this one, through desperation or foolishness, had tried to sneak up on a hibernating bear and found it still awake. They had done a CGI fight between the bear & the lion which looked very impressive but not quite real enough. The lion’s skull showed signs of damage from teeth which is why it was thought to have died in a fight.

Cave bears were common early in the ice age, but became rarer as the temperature got colder and eventually became extinct at the beginning of the last glacial maximum. But some animals thrived in the colder weather and the first of these that Roberts talked about was the Woolly Rhinoceros. These animals looked exactly as you’d expect – a rhino with wool, with a bigger horn than a modern rhino. A well preserved one has been found near a remote town in Siberia so they know what the wool looked like as well as the skeleton. Preserved woolly mammoths have also been found in this area, including a baby one that I’m pretty sure we’ve seen before in another Alice Roberts programme.

Both the rhinos and the mammoths were herbivores, and ranged over a wide area from England to Canada – due to how much water was locked up in ice at the time Britain was linked to the continent via a land bridge, and Alaska & Russia were also linked. You’d think that during the ice age herbivores would have problems in the winter due to snow, but actually there was little snow across this area again due to the amount of water locked up in ice sheets. The Mammoth Steppe, as it is called, was an open grassland with lots of flowering plants. This is known from work done in Canada examining the contents of fossilised ground squirrel nests. The squirrels hibernated and stocked their nests with food for the spring before they slept. The nests of ones that failed to make it through the winter obviously still have their spring food store in them when they are excavated and this lets scientists see what seeds and fruits were around at this time.

The last animal discussed were human species. Starting with Neanderthals who are known to’ve killed & butchered mammoths. The expert Roberts talked to thought that they probably did this by herding one down a dead-end gorge and then flinging rocks down from above to kill it. The CGI for this bit was a little less than convincing, which was a shame. The other human species at this time was our own one, and Roberts looked at evidence that they used the mammoths for more than just food. It’s though that they built houses from mammoth tusks (as the tent poles) with hides stretched over them for a roof. Roberts also looked at a piece of carved ivory, in the shape of a bison, from this time.

In the third episode of Brazil with Michael Palin he travelled through the south east of Brazil to Rio de Janeiro. First up was an old gold mine and a current iron mine – this region is a source of a lot of Brazil’s mineral wealth. The gold was mostly mined on behalf of the British (I almost said “by the British” but that’s very much not true). There was a brief stop off at a couple of places, one of which was a farm where a man had a cow with 5 legs and two digestive systems, which was actually mostly to show us how the rural poor lived I think.

Then on to Rio de Janeiro where the rest of the programme was set. Palin didn’t just visit the rich bits of the city but also the poorer areas. The Brazilian government is making a huge effort to clear up these areas and drive the drug lords out and drag the communities into the 21st Century before the World Cup and the Olympics. First armed troops go in for the “Pacification” and then there is investment in the infrastructure and projects like schools and boxing clubs for the youth.

And in last episode he visited places in the far south and the south-west of Brazil. He started by visiting a current heir to the no longer existent Brazilian throne … I hadn’t even been aware that Brazil had been an independent monarchy, apparently they’re descended from the Portuguese royal family. And from that leftover from the past he went on to visit an aeroplane making company, very much an example of Brazil’s future.

Palin then spent some time in Sao Paolo, concentrating mostly on the poorer side of the city, and also pointing out how many Japanese immigrants there are in this part of Brazil. He then went to a town that was like a theme park Germany transplanted to Brazil – Blumenau. Obviously they’d dressed up to do their traditional dances for the benefit of the cameras, but when he then talked to some of the residents of the area they were saying they felt German first & Brazilian second, even though they weren’t necessarily first generation immigrants.

And the series finished up with a trip through some of the more unspoiled areas of wilderness in the south. J commented while we were watching that one of the places was the sort of place an Ancient Egyptian might want to end up. Pantanal is an area of wetlands, that floods annually. The residents farm cattle and the wildlife includes species of ibis.

Guts: The Strange and Mysterious World of the Human Stomach was a programme we’d recorded a while ago, but I wasn’t sure if I was going to be too squeamish to watch. In the end it turned out to be mostly OK – just one sequence where I kept my eyes shut most of the time, and only a couple of contenders for “worst job ever” 😉

The thread tying the whole programme together was a demonstration Michael Mosley had done at the Science Museum. He swallowed a small camera which transmitted pictures from his digestive system over the course of the day. First it travelled down his oesophagus into his stomach, and spent a while there. They supplemented this batch of pictures with a set from a more high resolution camera on a tube that went down his nose, and he ate a selection of brightly coloured veg so that we could see them arrive in the stomach and start to mix with the gastric juices. Then after that second camera was removed he ate a large meal, and there were pictures of that being digested – most of what you could see was the veg, the steak had pretty much disintegrated by the time it got to the stomach. After that the camera moved through the small intestine, where we could see the intestinal villi which are little frondy projections from the surface of the small intestine to increase the surface area available for absorbing food. The stat they quoted was that the surface area of the inside of the human small intestine is about the size of a tennis court. Then the camera proceeded into the large intestine where it mingled with the faeces.

In between the various pictures of Mosley’s insides there were a series of short segments about related things. In the first of these he visited a historian who told him about the discovery of the composition of gastric juices. This was fairly astonishing – a doctor (William Beaumont) in Canada had a patient who had been shot in the stomach, and when the wound healed it left behind a small (inch or two diameter) hole in his flesh straight into the stomach. So afterwards the doctor did various experiments both putting things through the hole into the gastric juices to see what happened, and also drawing out some of the gastric juices to do other tests. Before that digestion was thought to be purely a mechanical process, but this doctor showed that the chemical action of the acidic gastric juices was a critical part of it. There was also a very brief segment just after this where Mosley dipped a coin in a beaker of artificially made up gastric juices and saw that it cleaned the coin.

Still on the subject of the stomach there was a segment about gastric bypass surgery. Which is the one I shut my eyes for most of – I can cope with pictures of someone’s insides, but not so much with surgical stuff stuck into someone. The operation we watched (or in my case listened to) was on a severely overweight man who’d had a heart attack in his late 20s, after a couple of years of unsuccessfully trying to shift the weight his doctors decided that gastric bypass surgery was the best option. I didn’t know before that what actually makes most of the difference after these operations is that there are behavioural changes. Partly because a hormone secreting part of the stomach is segregated from food so doesn’t do its normal job with increasing appetite, and partly because the bit of the small intestine that sends signals to say “full now” is closer to the stomach so the signal is sent sooner after eating starts. 6 weeks after the surgery the patient was saying he’d lost 3 stone, and had gone from never feeling full to being satisfied after eating quite small meals.

When talking about the small intestine there was a segment on perception of gastric pain, and the correlation with differences in personality. For this Mosley filled in a personality test then went through some pain tests (tube down the nose, balloon inflated in oesophagus till it hurt) while hooked up to blood pressure & heart rate monitors. The doctor doing the research was classifying people into either neurotic or extrovert categories, and he had found that the two groups had different responses to pain. Neurotics (like Mosley) showed reduced blood pressure and reduced heart rate. That’s not at all the expectation Mosley went into the test with – the textbook reaction to pain is increased heart rate & blood pressure, which is what extroverts show. The doctor was saying this has implications for treatment of gastric pain – different treatments will work better with different types of patients.

Moving on to the large intestine we had the two candidates for “worst job ever”. First up was the woman who cultures samples of faeces in the lab to look at the types of bacteria they contain. The ecosystem of the large intestine is very complex, with a large number of different types of bacteria. These can aid us in our digestion by breaking down the things we can’t, or they can be the cause of problems. She also talked about flatulence (which is a by-product of a healthy digestive system) and how the differing smells of farts is down to differing compositions of bacteria in the large intestine. Smelly ones are down to having more hydrogen sulphide producing species. Flammable ones down to having more methane producing species. Second candidates were the two people who were doing faecal transplants – in these faeces from a healthy person are mixed with salt water and put into an unwell person’s stomach via a tube down the nose. This can introduce a better mix of bacteria to the gut.

So this turned out to be quite an interesting programme, although I was somewhat glad that we ate our pudding during the other programme we watched on Wednesday rather than during this one!