“The Middle East: The Cradle of Civilisation Revealed” Stephen Bourke (Part 3)

This is the second half of the second chapter of this book (I’ve read a lot more of it I promise you, it’s just the blog posts are lagging behind both in terms of being written and in terms of being published; you never know, I may’ve finished the book before you read this!).

The Fertile Crescent

Neolithic Era

We now move into the Neolithic era – the first farmers, who definitely live in permanent settlements and grow their own food (both plant and animal). There is also a shift from relatively small groups to larger communities and a move from an egalitarian society to a stratified one. Archaeologists divide the Neolithic into four phases. The first two of these are called Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA) and Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB) – not the most catchy of names, but the important point here is that pottery develops relatively late compared to agriculture or sedentarism. PPNA runs from c.9800-8800BC, PPNB is the next couple of thousand years (8800-6800BCE). This sequence is based on excavations at Jericho, which is thought to be the oldest site where agriculture is found. During PPNA Jericho was a regional centre, covering 6 acres with satellite villages within a day or two’s walk. Anatolian obsidian and imported greenstone artifacts have been found at Jericho, as well as the first monumental structures: a stone tower approximately 8m high with an internal staircase, which was used as a burial place. Göbleki Tepe was another regional centre during this period.

During PPNB communities became much larger, the villages from this period are around 34 acres in size. The Neolithic way of life was spreading outside the Levantine area. Burial practices were becoming more elaborate. Since late Natufian times people were buried with their heads removed then placed in the grave. During PPNB some skulls would be disintered and plastered and decorated. After some time (“after long usage” says the book) the decorated skulls would be reburied in groups. Society was also becoming more stratified – a consequence of the closer proximity of larger numbers of people. Archaeologists can tell that by things like the variation in house sizes, and access to useful resources (like burnt lime in this case). The larger social groups also lead to more widespread use of art and cult objects – to bind people together with shared cultural experiences. There’s evidence of some sort of magical use of cattle figurines (perhaps to ensure success in hunting). There are also signs of ancestor cults – see above about the decorated skulls, but also large statues that are interpreted as divine ancestors. Which the book notes are reminiscent of biblical and Sumerian legends about the creation of mankind from the earth, being made of mud and plaster.

During the Pottery Neolithic periods (c. 6800BC-5800BC) the new technology of pottery changes how households are organised – it gives more options for preparing, cooking and storing food. Sites from this period have more rubbish dumps and more storage areas as people have more possessions. Over time there is an increase in complexity of Neolithic settlements – each village gets bigger, and the houses get larger. Dwellings were now built around courtyards – a style that’s still used in the Middle East today – with from 8 to 24 rooms around the courtyard, suitable for housing an extended family rather than just a nuclear family (as was the case with pre-pottery Neolithic dwellings).

Having introduced the Neolithic cultures in overview, the book now moves on to consider a couple of aspects of Neolithic life in more detail, plus a couple of the cultures of the late pre-Pottery Neolithic/early pottery Neolithic period. The first section is about the domestication of animals. This happened after the beginnings of farming, and took a few millenia before people had the suite of animals available that we expect today. It can be a bit difficult to tell when and where an animal species begins to be domesticated, but progress of domestication can be tracked to a fair degree from archaeological evidence. At first it was a case of keeping wild animals in a protective environment, but then inbreeding, and human selection, began to change the domesticated species towards smaller & less aggressive animals (which can be seen through things like horn size). I’d always assumed that a food animal would be the first domesticated species but it turns out that domestication of the dog began significantly before other animals – c.12,000BCE which is during the Natufian culture at the end of the Paleolithic period. Sheep and goats were next, c.9,000BCE, followed by pigs and cattle over the next 3000 years. The various beasts of burden were much later – donkeys c.4000BCE, horses c.1500BCE (in the Middle East, earlier elsewhere) and camels 1200BCE. Domestication of food animals also allowed the agricultural way of life to spread into the more arid areas of the region – with nomadic pastorialism becoming the main way of life in the desert regions by the end of PPNB.

The new lifestyle of the Neolithic – farming and permanent settlements – allowed populations to grow beyond the limits the hunter-gather lifestyle had imposed. This didn’t just mean that villages increased in size, it also meant that there was pressure for people to move to new areas and set up new villages there. There’s a suite of technologies that are sometimes called “the Neolithic Package” which are first seen in the Levant, and then spread from there through Asia, Europe and Africa. As outside the Levant everything seems to arrive at once in any given area it’s assumed that this whole way of life spread (with people?) from the Levant. The technologies are domesticated plants (wheat, barley, peas), domesticated animals (goats, sheep, cattle and pigs), three flint tool types (arrowheads, sickle-blades and axes), digging wells for water supplies, various cultic characteristics (Mother Goddess figurines and dancing scenes). And later pottery is part of the mix. (Note (as the book does) that domestication of plants and animals did take place independently in China.) This period (PPNB) is also when the Mediterranean islands of Cyprus and Crete were colonised – there’s evidence of flourishing villages with all the technology of the day. I find this faintly astonishing – boats feel like sophisticated technology to me, so the idea that people could sail the Mediterranean before they had knowledge of pottery is surprising.

‘Ain Ghazal is a major Neolithic site near modern Amman in Jordan. It starts as a normal small village but during the PPNB period it reaches 35 acres in size – one of the largest settlements of the time. Each house was made up of one or two rectangular rooms, with floors and walls plastered with lime plaster. There are also round storage spaces. Burials of the community show evidence of stratification – some individuals have richer burials than others in “better” sites. The skulls may be removed and decorated – sometimes the decoration is removed and buried again (without the skull, which may’ve been redecorated). The more elaborate burials were under the floors of the houses, less elaborate ones were in pits outside houses. And still others appear to’ve been placed in rubbish dumps. The most important discoveries from ‘Ain Ghazal are the art objects – lots of animal figurines, mostly cattle. And some of the earliest statues of humans – made from reed frames which are coated with plaster and hae painted features. The book notes in passing that some of these have 6 fingers or toes, which seems odd to me. After the PPNB period ‘Ain Ghazal declines – it shrinks, and the number of art objects discovered also drop off.

Çatal Hüyük (in modern Anatolia) is the next Neolithic site discussed in the book, but the two page spread feels rather like it’s been rather brutally edited down from a larger piece and the remaining text isn’t quite coherent. There are no dates for the site in the text, although they refer to it as the “earliest city”. It had around 5,000 inhabitants, in houses that are packed so closely together there’s no ground between them – access is from the roof via ladders. There are lots of burials within the houses, under the sleeping platforms. These are described as family groups in the book, but a TV series we watched recently (Ascent of Woman) interviewed an archaeologist currently working on the site who says that recent DNA evidence shows the groups are no more related with in the group than across the whole population. Which he interpreted as children being fostered out to other familes – interesting if so as that’s not really a social pattern we see any more (I think!). Some famous figurines have been found at this site too – including statuettes of a woman (the Mother Goddess?) giving birth on a chair/throne flanked by two leopards or lions. The really exciting thing about the Çatal Hüyük site is that there aren’t just figurines but also wall paintings. Although there appears to have been some doubt about the reality of these? There’s an off-hand reference in the text to newer excavations finding evidence that “Mellaart’s initial claims […] to be more reliably based than first suspected.”. Which is … an interesting turn of phrase, particularly after they mention that Mellaart got chucked out of Turkey when he fell out with the authorities there over this excavation. But I do rather wish this section had told us more about the city and dropped fewer hints about scandals of archaeology! A tangent to follow up on one day! 🙂

The last few sections of this chapter start narrowing the focus down to Mesopotamia – as the following chapter is about early urbanisation in that region. The Late Neolithic (pottery Neolithic) looks in retrospect like a filler period between two stages in cultural development – it’s after the “Neolithic Revolution” of agriculture and before the “Urban Revolution”. I’m not sure I like this way of thinking about it but the book does go on to explain that we don’t know much about the period – mostly it’s characterised by different types of pottery without much other feel for the cultures. Interestingly administration and a concept of property exist during this period – I’d assumed that came in with cities – but there’s evidence from 6,000BCE from Tell Sabi Abyad in Syria of clay sealings for jars or rooms which show if someone who shouldn’t have has opened it. The period is divided into four broad cultures – pre-Hassuna, Hassuna , Samarra and Halaf. The latter three are named after the sites the cultures were first discovered. The Samarran culture is the one that Tell Sabi Abyad belongs to – the book positions it as a sort of proto-Sumerian culture. Not only are there the clay sealings there are also clay tokens that may be the very early antecedents of cuneiform writing. And some symbolism may prefigure later Mesopotamian religious iconography – particularly scorpion motifs (later associated with the goddess Ishtar).

With the arrival of pottery archaeology gets quite a bit easier. Pottery doesn’t decay, even if broken, and large amounts of it are made (and thrown out). Functional vessels can be made in a large variety of styles, and different cultures tend to have different fashions & traditions. This gives you information about trade networks and about how cultures evolved over time. Different styles within a culture can also demonstrate things about social stratification. In the Halufian culture of Late Neolithic Mesopotamia in particular very fine pottery was used as elite status symbols. Pottery at the time would’ve been the (relatively) new technology and also the exotic metals or other materials (such as ivory) used for later status objects weren’t as available.

The Halaf culture was primarily in the north of Mesopotamia, and overlapping slightly with them were the southern Mesopotamia based Ubaid culture. This is the last of the pre-urban (and pre-historic) cultures that the book considers. Ubaid culture begins in the south and then spreads throughout the rest of Mesopotamia and beyond – whether by migration of people or trading of objects & ideas is unclear. As well as the physical artifacts this culture is characterised by the development of the first irrigation canal networks. This is an important stepping stone on the way to urbanisation in Mesopotamia. The canals make agriculture a bit easier, thus freeing up labour for other purposes like crafting or bureaucracy. They also require a more complex degree of social organisation – someone(s) needs to make decisions about what is built, someone(s) needs to organise the labour force and so on.

The next chapter of the book moves on to the rise of true urban settlements – as well as the development of writing and the beginning of city states.

“The Middle East: The Cradle of Civilisation Revealed” Stephen Bourke (Part 2)

The next chapter of this book covers the vast swathes of prehistory in the Middle East, taking us from the first migrations of pre-homo sapiens humans out of Africa all the way through to about 6000 years ago just before the first cities of Mesopotamia. Which is rather a lot of ground to cover! So much so that I have split the chapter into two blog posts, the first of which covers the Paleolithic cultures and the second will cover the Neolithic.

The Fertile Crescent

This is not just the story of the Middle East over this period, but also the story of humanity as we go from early humans to modern humans, and from nomadic hunter-gatherer to farmers living in permanent settlements. The introductory 2 page spread for this chapter suggests that one reason everything seems to happen first in the Middle East is due to geography. It’s on a crossroads between Africa, Europe and Asia, so it was the best informed region – all knowledge flowed through there as it spread. And then could be combined with the other new ideas from other areas to produce leaps in technology.

Paleolithic Era

Early humans (Homo erectus) begin to spread outside Africa within a few hundred thousand years of their evolution. The earliest traces of humans date to 2.6 million years ago (in Ethiopia) and the earliest non-African evidence is from Dmanisi in Southern Georgia dating to 1.8 million years ago. These hominids presumably migrated via the Levantine corridor, as the only land route between the two areas. The next oldest site where human tools (and three teeth) have been found is in the Jordan Valley. Judging by the tools found at a wide variety of sites across the Middle East there were three or four different waves of migration out of Africa by Homo erectus. One of these migration waves also provides evidence of the first controlled use of fire – which I think I should’ve known pre-dated modern humans, but if I did know I had forgotten.

The Middle Paleolithic era lasted from around 250,000 to 45,000 years ago, and it was during this period that Homo erectus was replaced by Homo sapiens sapiens and Homo sapiens neanderthalensis. The dominant theory 40 years ago (based on archaeological evidence from Europe) was that first came the Neanderthals and they were then replaced by our own species before 40,000 years ago. Excavations in the Levant have changed this picture significantly. There are Homo sapiens sapiens remains as old as 100,000 years ago at site in the Levant, and Homo sapiens neanderthalensisas young as 50,000 years ago. There have also been skeletons found that display different combinations of characteristics from the two groups. What’s more the tools produced in the various different sorts of sites show no significant difference between the sites in terms of material culture and way of life. So perhaps the two species co-existed (for around 50,000 years or so). The double page spread about this era ends with a set of questions we don’t know the answers to yet – including whether or not the Neanderthals were actually a separate species.

The boundary between the Middle Paleolithic and the Upper Paleolithic (c.45,000-50,000 years ago) is marked by changes in tool technology. The shift was from tools formed as flakes or points to elongated blades which have a better edge-to-mass ratio and can be more efficiently produced. Interestingly as well as a local development of this tool culture (or perhaps brought by newcomers from Africa) there is also evidence of migration* into the area from Europe. The tools these immigrants brought with them are also blade based, but not the same as the ones produced in the Levant. These migrants are relatively restricted to one geographical region and one time period (32,000 to 30,000 years ago). An oddity of the Levantine Upper Paleolithic culture is that there is no evidence of art: no cave paintings, no figurines, no engravings. If I remember right the same is also true of Chinese prehistory … is art another of those ideas that is thought of only rarely and then spreads to become universal? Although having said that, we are very limited in what we can find evidence of – music, singing, dancing, drama and so on aren’t necessarily going to leave traces in the archaeological record.

*I’m not quite sure from the book why they know (if they know) that it’s the tool users that migrated rather than just the technology moving.

The next period of Middle Eastern prehistory is referred to as the Natufian period, and once again it’s characterised by a particular sort of tool. They give a technical description in the book, but basically the main form is small crescent-moon shaped tools for hunting and food preparation. The Natufian period falls into two phases: early from ~15,000-13,000 years ago and late from 13,000-11,500 years ago. This culture shows the first signs of sedentarism – with permanent, year-round villages. The communities still seem to have been hunter-gatherers, which was interesting as I previously thought the general idea was that settlement and agriculture happened the other way round. During the second phases of this period there’s actually more mobility in the communities, but they seem to have more clearly defined territories even if they’re not sedentary. I’m not actually sure what the evidence for this is, they don’t mention it in the book. However the authors do say that the second phase lines up with a signicantly drier period and so perhaps there wasn’t sufficient food at any given site to support a permanent population. Agriculture may or may not have begun during this period (experts are divided) but taming and domestication of the dog were definitely begun by the Natufians.

In contrast to the earlier Levantine cultures the Natufians are art producers. They produced both standalone things (like decorated bowls and slabs as well as figurines) and personal accessories (like necklaces, belts, etc). And the beginnings of trade are visible – for instance artifacts made of Anatolian obsidian have been found in the core Natufian region (the Levant from the Mediterranean coast to the Jordan Valley). Natufian sites also have evidence of the first large scale cemetaries. There isn’t really a pattern to how bodies were treated. Generally the body was buried in a flexed position, sometimes in a single occupant grave, sometimes in a larger grave. Some bodies have decoration and/or ornaments, some graves have carefully place stones, others are just a pit refilled after burial. The book doesn’t speculate at all about potential elite/non-elite distinctions – perhaps it’s clearly random when you look at the data?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Exhibition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Stuff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

“China: The World’s Oldest Civilisation Revealed” John Makeham (Part 2)

The “Three Dynasties”: The Ancient Kingdoms

The first Chinese historian, Sima Qian, wrote a history of China around about 100BC and he starts with Five Emperors who’re pretty much considered these days to be mythical (although the book says there are attempts to tie them to particular Neolithic groups). After these Emperors he writes of three early Dynasties who ruled “all China” – the Xia, the Shang and the Zhou. These were also originally dismissed by Western Europeans as legends, but the Shang and the Zhou have left incontrovertible archaeological evidence for their existence – they had writing and so are historical. The Xia are less solidly identified but there is thought to be some truth to the account of them. These dynasties didn’t rule over as wide a territory as later China, and the Xia and the Shang probably didn’t directly rule over much territory outside their capitals.

The general model for the history of this whole period from the archaeology is that the Xia, Shang and Zhou all co-existed throughout the period in different areas and the different groups rose to prominence at different times. The Xia were (probably) in the central Yellow River basin, the Zhou in the Wei River valley in the west & the Shang from the eastern Yellow River region.

So this chapter covers the first three dynasties of China, the Xia (2100BC-1600BC), the Shang (1600BC-1046BC) and the Zhou and their aftermath (1046BC-221BC). For context here’s some dates of events in other parts of the world, starting with some Ancient Egyptian stuff coz that’s probably what I know best in the ancient world (tho I still needed to check the exact dates of them). Khufu (whose tomb is the Great Pyramid at Giza) pre-dates the Xia, he reigned from 2470BC to 2447BC. The Middle Kingdom era in Egypt is 2066BC-1650BC roughly concurrent with the Xia. The New Kingdom (1549BC-1044BC) is roughly concurrent with the Shang, and Tutankhamun (1343BC-1333BC) and Ramesses II (1279BC-1212BC) are in the middle of that. After that in Egypt it’s the bit that I think of as the complicated bit – but a point of reference is that Alexander the Great ruled Egypt 332BC-323BC. All of those Egyptian dates are taken from “The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt” by Aidan Dodson & Dyan Hilton (which I had a note of for my post about shabtis from a while ago).

For the rest of the world (er, by this I mean the Mediterranean …) I’m just going to pull a few dates quickly out of wikipedia (and one thing writing these books up in more detail will hopefully help me do is not have to go to wikipedia for stuff like that – I now have orientation dates for China, for instance). The Minoan civilisation on Crete is approx 2200BC to 1450BC and Linear B script is written (by Mycenean Greeks on Crete) around 1700BC-1500BC. The collapse of several eastern Mediterranean civilisations known as the Bronze Age collapse occurs around 1200BC, and the “Greek Dark Ages” run from then until 750BC. Archaic Greece is the period from 800BC to 480BC (includes Pythagoras), and Classical Greece after that until 323BC. Classical Greece is effectively the bit with most of the names one knows – Plato, Aristotle etc – and it ends with Alexander. Rome is founded in the 8th Century BC (their origin myth states 753BC) – the Roman Republic (as opposed to the initial Roman Kingdom) is formed in 509BC. The first Punic War (Rome v. Carthage) begins in 264BC, so just within our time frame – the second Punic War (Rome v. Carthage round 2, the time of Hannibal) begins in 218BC so just outside this time.

The Xia

Whether or not the Xia as Sima Qian writes about them actually existed is in doubt – they didn’t have writing (or at least not any that’s been found) and so there’s nothing to definitively tie a particular Bronze Age culture to the Xia. There is a site in Erlitou, western Henan, that existed at the right time in the right sort of place so it is identified as the probable Xia. Which seems a little circular to me as evidence for the existence of a Xia dynasty (and the book does point this out – the two double-page spreads on the Xia seem to be dancing carefully around the need to acknowledge both that the Xia are an important part of Chinese cultural identity and the lack of concrete evidence for them). The most compelling bit of evidence that they present (in my eyes) is the bronze ceremonial vessels – 20 of them have been found, and they’re a lot simpler than the later Shang & Zhou ones but they have similarities & are more complex and sophisticated than the previous Neolithic bronzes that have been found.

The legend of the Xia ties into and probably creates the narrative paradigm that is used by later Chinese historians to describe the dynastic cycle of later dynasties. It starts with Yu who is all that is good & wise in a ruler and then ends with a terrible tyrant (Jie) who is all that is dreadful in a ruler and who is then overthrown by the start of the next dynasty. So the classical view of the dynastic cycle is “from growth to decline”. Yu is the hero who is credited with figuring out how to ameliorate the floods of the Yellow River by digging channels to divert the flow – and is probably almost entirely mythical. The next rulers seem more plausibly real people – with petty scheming and succession struggles as well as more benign stories. Jie is again probably mythical, and the books says the stories of his tyranny & replacement were probably a way for the Zhou dynasty to give a precedent for their own usurpation of the Shang.

The Shang

The Shang definitely existed – in the early 20th Century their oracle bones were discovered. These bones were used in divination rituals by the King, and the results of the divination were then written down on the bone. These provide a wealth of data about the later Shang (which is the period when they were used) because for a while the King didn’t make any major decisions without consulting the ancestors first. Sometimes even minor decisions were only taken after consultation. The oracle bones were in some ways astonishingly easy to decipher, in comparison to other ancient texts – this is because the writing system (and written language) used are directly related to modern Chinese script & languages. So a lot easier than getting ancient Egyptian and trying to figure it out. The oracle bones are used during the later Shang period, but towards the very end the range of questions narrows & the use of them starts to die out.

The Shang social/political structure was very much based around kinship & lineages – the King ruled because he was senior member of the senior lineage. Sub-regions of the kingdom were ruled by the next most senior branches of the lineage, sub-regions of these by junior branches of the sub-region’s ruling lineage etc etc. They also appear to have had a mechanism to make sure there was always a mature ruler – you get succession to a king’s brothers (down the line of seniority) until his son is old enough to rule. Which sounds fascinating because it feels like it shouldn’t work (why wouldn’t the brother want his own sons to inherit – the rules about seniority must’ve been very ingrained). The King wasn’t just senior in political terms, but also in religious terms. Every lineage could worship its own ancestors but as the King was head of the senior lineage his ancestors were the most important ones. The state wasn’t particularly cohesive, but it was bound together by this network of kinship & seniority.

They practiced human sacrifice – some victims buried in tombs, some in foundations of buildings, others in pits that seem to be just to bury victims. The book suggests this was in large part about defining the Shang as “the people” and outsiders (in particular Qiang tribes people who they warred against) as “others” who were fit only for decapitation. The tomb burials were also about providing the recently deceased with a proper retinue for their life after death – death wasn’t an end of a person, it was a relocation to the land of the ancestors, so important to send along all one would need. Ritual offerings of food & drink (and human sacrifices) were then used to communicate with the ancestor (as well as the oracle bones used only by the King). The book describes the religion as “increasingly bureaucratic” – the sorts of questions that could be asked were, over time, narrowed down to particular things. The rituals that could be performed were determined by the day of the week etc.

The Shang Dynasty ends with a tyrant, of course – called Zhouxin. Actual evidence from the time period is minimal, most of what’s known is later spin designed to make the Zhou look good initially. And in later periods designed to make their own rulers “not as bad as Zhouxin so not worthy of being overthrown” (which is an interesting way that the “current” time affects the writing of history). But the actual evidence is more that the state of the Shang had disintegrated – there are fewer alliances mentioned between the King & outer regions, for instance. So their power was fading and the Zhou rush in to fill the gap.

The Zhou

The whole rest of this period is lumped in as “the Zhou dynasty” but actually only the first bit of it fits into the concept of a dynasty as I’d normally think about it – the rest of the time it’s fractured into small states which war between themselves in various combinations. The Zhou seem to’ve started out as a polity on the fringes of the Shang ruled area, who took on the culture & religion of the Shang. When the Shang started to disintegrate they took advantage and overthrew the Shang. While their culture was mostly the same they stopped the large scale human sacrifice & stopped using oracle bones for divination. Another departure was that their religion had a supreme deity “Heaven” which legitimised the rulers not based on their lineage but based on their worthiness. This legitimised the overthrow of the last Shang King, but later when the rule of the Zhou was beginning to collapse it meant that the people expected a new morally upright leader to emerge and to overthrow the Zhou.

After about 300 years this Western Zhou regime collapsed (there is a tyrant “responsible” for it but it’s not that simple) and over the next five centuries various states occupied the Chinese territory. The first period is the “Spring and Autumn Period”, and there are two main superpowers with lots of smaller allied states – the Jin in the north & the Chu in the south. Even tho they warred and were different countries there was still continuity of culture across the aristocracy of all of what had been the Zhou lands. This period lasted for 300 years and then the Jin collapsed into smaller states, and this period of about 200 years is known as the Warring States Period. During this time the small states coalesced into 7 large states. These expanded to cover between them the whole of the territory that would become China.

The Warring States Period moved from the kinship based state apparatus & hierarchy to a bureaucratic one – the beginning of what we might think of as how the Chinese state works. There was more social mobility, as officials were appointed based more on merit than ancestry, and because they were paid in money rather than land the positions didn’t tend towards becoming hereditary as they had before. This diluted the aristocratic culture that had characterised the Spring and Autumn Period, but there were still cultural norms that were common across the seven states due to contact between them including officials moving to work in other states.

This period was one of the formative periods of what we now think of as typical Chinese culture – Confucius and Laozi (the founder of Daoism) were both products of the rich intellectual life of the era. There was a great emphasis on the practical in the philosophies of the time, because of the way this is a period of both collapse of the old order & rising of a new one. And the fragmented political situation also led to development of philosophies of warfare – Sun Tzu wrote his “Art of War” during this time, and the development of conscript armies changed the way wars were fought. The need for lots of peasant conscripts also meant that states encouraged people to breed (by taxing unmarried youths) and to encourage immigration.

It is also the time during which cities started to grow. Previously cities in China had been more religious and political centres but during this time they also became the sort of economic hubs that we expect when we think of a city, and had many more people living in them. The Iron Age began during the Spring and Autumn Period, but it was in the Warring States Period that it developed to its full – the book says that the Chinese were casting high quality iron tools a millennium and a half before the rest of the world. I guess that’s carefully chosen phrasing – obviously the Iron Age starts everywhere around this time, but these must’ve been a particular level of technique or craftsmanship that the Chinese reached at this time before anywhere else.

Coins began to be minted during this period, with each of the seven states having their own particular coins. Several states moved to collecting their taxes in coin rather than goods, which revolutionised the economy. And despite having different currencies for each state they did all recognise each other’s coins as valid – so another way that despite being fragmented there was still a common culture across the region.

Tangents to follow up: Not really any as such, but the Shang sound interesting to know more about … sometime when I’m done with several of the other books I have lined up I shall pick up a book on them.

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

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

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

Introducing China

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

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

Origins: Prehistoric China

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

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

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

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

Vikings; Andrew Marr’s History of the World

Started off TV night with the second episode of Vikings – it’s only a 3 episode series, which seems a shame. This middle one talked about the Vikings as traders which is something more Anglo-centric views of the Vikings tend to forget. He started by telling us about the eastern Vikings (from what’s now Sweden) and how they spread through Russia setting up small settlements on the way. They traded as far afield as Constantinople and with parts of the Islamic world. One of the things we were shown was an Arabic book describing the appearance of the Vikings (both men & women on these trading missions) and calling them Rus (I think he said it meant “rowers”) – which is where the word Russia comes from. They were allowed to trade in Constantinople, which was hard to get permission to do and some clearly settled there. He also showed us some graffiti in the Hagia Sophia from the 9th Century in Viking runes, which apparently says something like “Halfdan was here” 🙂 The Vikings brought silks and spices and other luxury goods back from the east, to places like Birka (near Stockholm) where grave goods etc that have been found show that this was a wealthy market town. The Vikings exported amber & furs which are found in abundance in the north, but also slaves. The programme made a big big deal out of that, but I didn’t think it was that surprising. I guess the story we tell about Vikings is normally more kill-rape-plunder not kill-capture-plunder-sell.

The second half of the programme expanded on that – the western Vikings (from what’s now Norway) and their settlements in Dublin in particular (an important hub of their slave trade). And then moved a bit away from their trading activities to talk about their conquest & settlement of a large part of England. This being different to what they had done in Russia & in Ireland, because the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms at the time in England were wealthier and more organised. So it wasn’t so much a case of setting up a settlement and being the most sophisticated group in the area, more that they first had to fight to take the places and then live there in greater numbers & with a more organised occupation of the area. It felt a little odd the way we suddenly went Anglo-centric again after focusing so much on the Viking point of view earlier, but I guess it is a big part of the Viking story.

Second programme of the evening is another one we’re not timeshifting much! Andrew Marr is doing a series about the whole history of the world, in 8 one hour episodes. Which is quite a tall order, as the article on bbc news that alerted us to this admitted. So part of the interest is seeing just how they manage it 🙂 And also we’ve liked Marr’s previous serieses that we’ve watched – two about the history of the last 100 years in Britain, one about mega-cities and one about the Queen. This feels like a big budget programme, there are a lot of dramatic re-enactments and a lot of CGI as well as exotic locations. The re-enactments I thought had just the right level of irreverence, given particularly at the beginning they’re not exactly going to be accurate representations of a particular event so instead they’re little vignettes with a degree of melodrama or humour. Which fit well with Marr’s narration, being as that was full of snark and cynical one-liners as well as facts.

This first episode covered a vast swathe of time, from the first humans leaving Africa approximately 70,000 years ago through to the end of the Minoan civilisation about 3500 years ago. Which is pretty impressive when you think about it 😉 The title was “Survival” and the theme was exactly that – we had people spreading out and surviving against all the odds no matter what nature flung at us. The broad sweep of the story is something I already know, but the stories picked out did highlight things I didn’t know or cast a different light on things I do. For instance I hadn’t really thought about how the development of the needle was a great step forward in hunting technology in the Ice Age, because fitted clothes in layers protect against the weather better than just wrapping an animal skin round you. So you can stay out longer in the Ice Age weather while hunting. And the retelling of a Chinese legend about the man who organised a great civil engineering programme to dig channels to dissipate the force of the Yellow River floods which damaged so much of the land & people was completely new to me.

The programme didn’t present it as all progress all the time, either – stressing, for instance, how agriculture is good for feeding extra mouths but the consequences of doing the work of farming and living closer to each other & to the livestock actually reduces people’s life spans. And how while our tribalism was our great strength as hunter-gatherers (enabling us to work together in groups of the right size for survival), it’s not so good once we start to settle down and perhaps need to work together with other tribes to get things done.

Oh, and bonus Egypt – telling the story of a trial in Deir El Medina in the time when that village was the place where the workers on the tombs in the Valley of the Kings lived. The vignette for that was particularly hammed up I thought (and well done, too), making it seem almost more soap opera-ish than it already was.

A good programme, looking forward to the rest of the series 🙂