“Vikings: Life and Legend” Thomas Williams (Lecture at British Museum Members’ Open Evening, 16/6/2014)

The most recent British Museum Members’ Open Evening was in mid-June, just before the Vikings exhibition finished. As part of the evening they had a lecture from the Project Curator, Thomas Williams. As we’d already seen the exhibition twice (post) and seen the Vikings Live film they did (post) I was more expecting to get another perspective on the exhibition rather than anything completely new, and this was the case. So I’m just going to pick out a small handful of things that particularly struck me about his talk, rather than try & recap it.

Williams was a very entertaining speaker. He opened with a drawing of stereotypical (mythical) Vikings – men on a boat, complete with horns on helmets, double headed axes, and overly muscled blonde men wearing “barbarian” outfits (fur loin cloths & cloaks). He then spent a little while explaining how pretty much everything in that was wrong, except the fact they were on the sea (but even the shape of the boat was wrong)! So one of the jumping off points for the exhibition is that it was to present an overview of what we really know about the Vikings. This is a much harder task than it had been thirty-something years ago when the last British Museum exhibition about Vikings was held – scholarship has moved on a lot since then. One of the things Williams pointed out over & over during his talk was how recently many of the items on display had been discovered. The other jumping off point for the exhibition was Roskilde 6, the ship that was the centrepiece – another relatively recent discovery (in 1997). So the exhibition was centred around what the ships were used for – in particular the interactions of the Vikings with other surrounding cultures, as traders, as settlers and of course as raiders.

As well as pointing out the many new discoveries on show in the exhibition Williams also talked about how new work has lead to re-evaluation of older finds. One of the big changes is in the evaluation of the position & status of women in the Viking culture. One aspect of this that’s very revealing about previous archaeologists’ assumptions is that early excavations of Viking burials seemed to show a distinct gender imbalance with many more men than women. On later more detailed analysis of the bones it turns out there’s about a 50:50 split of men:women, the thing that confused the first excavators is that a not insignificant number of women were buried with swords. He said it isn’t certain if these women used the swords, or if the swords were in their graves as in indication of high status.

Women also played a role in the religious/magical life of the communities. High status female burials sometimes contain decorated iron rods, which are now identified with the iron staffs that female Viking shamans were said to carry. The evidence for what exactly these women did and what part they played in their communities is fragmentary but is similar to what is known of shamanic practices in the nomadic peoples who live(d) along the northern edge of Scandinavia & Russia etc. Williams also talked about how what we think we know about Norse mythology might not be the whole story. Most of what we know is what was written down post-conversion to Christianity, and there are all sorts of obvious ways that might be biased – both from people distancing themselves from the “old bad religion”, and from people trying to make their ancestors’ beliefs not look too “wrong” by the new standards. One thing Williams speculated about was whether the attitude to women in the medieval church (i.e. temptresses, sin starting with Eve & the apple) meant that some of the powers associated with women in Norse mythology got merged in with more “acceptable” male deities. The object that he used to illustrate this idea is a small statue of what might be Odin with his two ravens sitting on either side of his throne. But the figure is dressed in female clothes. Williams was suggesting, I think, that maybe it’s a feminised Odin to reflect the feminine nature of the shamanic powers (represented by the ravens), or not Odin at all but a female deity or shaman who was later merged in the written down mythology with Odin.

A very entertaining talk – glad we went to see it.

Vikings Live

Last Thursday we went out to the cinema to see a live broadcast from the current British Museum exhibition about the Vikings (which I’ve already written about here). Cineworld Ipswich sadly managed not to switch the screen on in time for the start of the broadcast, but we only missed the first few minutes. The format of the live part of the show was Bettany Hughes and Michael Wood looking at various of the items on display in the exhibition and talking to experts about them (including Gareth Williams, the curator of the exhibition). There were also a couple of segments of chat with the director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, about the exhibition and the objects. These live sections were interspersed with pre-recorded stuff – presumably partly to allow presenters and camera crews time to reorganise themselves for the next bit!

It was an interesting counterpoint to the exhibition itself. I felt the exhibition emphasised the non-raiding, non-marauding parts of the Viking story, and was trying to position them more as traders and colonisers. Whereas the broadcast wholeheartedly embraced the raiding and warlike side of the Vikings, while also pointing out their softer, more civilised side (sometimes). It also had more of a sense of fun to it than the exhibition itself – perhaps just because it’s easier to convey that enthusiasm in person than in a museum label.

Each segment of the broadcast was introduced with a dramatic declamation of (translated) Viking poetry, by a man dressed up as a Viking, followed by a burst of fire revealing the title (like “War” or “Raiding” or “Women”). Obviously these were part of the pre-recorded stuff, I thought they were rather well done. We also got to see the exhibition curator dressed up as a Viking warrior – apparently he does re-enactment as well as museum curation! He was particularly enthusiastic at showing Michael Wood how you could use a long knife from below a shield wall to gut your enemies … And the show piece at the end of the broadcast was some footage of a (re-enacted) Viking ship burial, which I think for me suffered from the amount they’d been hyping that in advance – sadly not quite as spectacular a I was expecting.

As well as all that sort of thing we also got treated to a much closer look at some of the artifacts than was possible in the exhibition itself. In the case of many of the smaller pieces (like the little ship brooch that opens the exhibition) this meant we got to see them at many many times life size and so could really see the detail. One thing that struck me in all the explanations of the objects was that a lot of them have been relatively recently discovered. The ship burial that they had from Scotland, for instance, hadn’t been completely conserved yet (making it incredibly fragile and difficult to display). And there was a tiny silver figurine of a female warrior(? valkyrie?) with a sword that had only been dug up last year!

It’s cool that the British Museum are doing this sort of thing. I think as a broadcast it would work whether or not you had a chance to see the exhibition in person. I’m glad we went to see it, and I think it’s a shame we somehow didn’t go to the Pompeii Live one last year – I’ll definitely keep an eye out for these sorts of tie-in broadcasts in future.

Treasures of Ancient Egypt (Ep 1); The Art of the Vikings

There’s a new series just started called Treasures of Ancient Egypt, so of course we’re watching it not long after it airs (the day after, actually, but because of the way I’ve scheduled my blog posts this post has gone live 8 days after). The series is presented by Alastair Sooke, and is similar in format to the Treasures of Ancient Rome series that he did a while ago (post). It is a chronological survey of the art of Ancient Egypt from the early pre-dynastic through to Cleopatra, each episode will have 10 “treasures” and this first episode covered the period up till the end of the Old Kingdom.

I’m not going to name check each piece of art, but he covered quite a wide range of types and styles. Some were well known iconic pieces (like the Great Pyramid or the Narmer palette), and some were less well known. Although having said that, I think we thought we’d seen most (but not all) of the items in the flesh – we have seen rather more than the average number of Egyptian museum collections tho! He started with petroglyphs out in the Sahara dating from before the Sahara was a desert, which pre-dates the association of the people who will later become the Egyptians with the Nile. But he was able to point out features in this carvings that anticipate the later art style we expect (like figures with front facing torsos but legs in profile). Because he was looking at each piece as a piece of art rather than in terms of what it tells us about the historical context there were things I’d not thought of before. For instance he used the Meidum geese (a personal favourite of mine) to illustrate how the Egyptian artists used small variations in their strict symmetry to stop it looking sterile and boring – so with the geese there are differences in tail position etc that keep it interesting. There were also a handful of segments with modern Egyptian artists working in the same mediums as the ancient artists, which to be honest I found less interesting.

The next episode will cover the Middle Kingdom & the New Kingdom – so I imagine we’ll have Akhenaten-era stuff and something of Tutankhamun’s as our well known items.

Amongst the other programmes we watched over the week was a one-off programme presented by Janina Ramirez about Viking art, called The Art of the Vikings (part of the Secret Knowledge series, which are all one-off half hour programmes, I only recorded this one). Ramirez was showing us the Viking items from an exhibition in Edinburgh, and giving us some context for them – demonstrating that the Vikings weren’t solely the destroyers of popular culture. There wasn’t particularly any new information (to me), but it was nice to see the objects. Especially fine was a large silver brooch (for holding a cloak shut), and I also liked the bead necklaces.

But I mostly mention this programme because it was somewhat startlingly amateur. Ramirez was a good presenter as she generally is, and the filming was also good – but the sound was very variable, with some bits sounding like Ramirez was recorded in a bathroom. And the onscreen titles were dreadful – the chosen font/layout had really weird spacing between the letters, with every “i” seemingly suspended in space making words like “Ramirez” read more like “Ram i rez”.

Other TV watched this week:

Episodes 1 & 2 of Strange Days: Cold War Britain – series about Britain and British culture during the Cold War, presented by Dominic Sandbrook.

Episode 2 of Rise of the Continents – series about the geology of the continents and how that’s shaped them and their wildlife (and us) presented by Iain Stewart. This episode was about Australia.

Episode 5 of Tudor Monastery Farm – part re-enactment, part documentary about what life would be like living on and running a farm in 1500.

Episode 1 of Sacred Wonders of Britain – Neil Oliver visits several sacred sites in Britain dating from prehistoric times through to the Reformation.

The Truth About Immigration – one-off programme presented by Nick Robinson about immigration into the UK. He talked to immigrants, Brits, employers & politicians, and got across how complicated the subject is and how little it’s actually debated in an informed fashion.

This Week’s TV including Games, Antigua, Vikings, Ottomans, and Iron Age & 20th Century Britons

Games Britannia

This is a three part series about the history of games in Britain, presented by Benjamin Woolley – we only recorded the first one which was the earlier history. Just as well, I think as he got closer to the modern day I’d’ve got more irritated with him (a throwaway remark in his intro to the theme of the series about how “these days teenage boys play video games” put my hackles up …). Other infelicities included showing a picture from an Egyptian relief of a game of senet and talking about it as if it was an ancestor of chess (unlikely, I think it’s believed to be more like a race game than a war game). And an assumption that an Iron Age game board must’ve been for divination purposes and meant this burial was of a druid … which, er, why does everything “primitive people” do have to have deep religious significance? Can’t a game be a game?

Otherwise it was an interesting survey of games from Iron Age Britain to late Victorian times. The earlier periods are represented by a small handful of games we don’t really know the rules for any more, except Nine Men’s Morris – which you find boards for scratched into the stonework in cathedral cloisters & so on, and it’s a game that is found in some variant form or another right across the world. The games we’d recognise today start to come in after contact with the east – some brought back by crusaders etc and later from India. I didn’t know that Snakes & Ladders derived from a Hindu game that was more of a teaching tool about the Hindu religion that a game per se. Odd to note that this game was altered to remove the message behind it during the same time period that teaching games were being churned out by Victorian moralists – lots of games where the point was to race to the end and there’d be various moral snares along the way (“You landed in a tavern, miss two goes”).

Nelson’s Caribbean Hell-hole: An Eighteenth Century Navy Graveyard Uncovered

A hurricane in 2010 uncovered 18th Century bones on a beach in Antigua – a place that Horatio Nelson once referred to as a “vile place” and a “dreadful hole”. In this programme Sam Willis followed the (fairly short) archaeological excavation that followed the discovery & told us a bit about the history of Antigua and why it was such an appalling place in the 18th Century. Antigua was important to the British Empire – both strategically and because it, in common with the other Caribbean islands, was where sugar was produced. The beach where the bones were found is in a place now called English Harbour – a natural harbour surrounded by hills where ships could shelter from the hurricanes. An obvious place to make your main base for the area – a couple of forts near the entrance & you can make the whole thing a safe place for your fleet. But the lack of wind & currents causes other problems – anything flung in the water just stays there. Parts of the seabed in the harbour today are feet thick in rubbish, industrial waste from the dockyards went in, any waste from the ships moored there including sewage. So instead of the pretty & clean beach of today the harbour would’ve been a stinking miasma of polluted water & air. Then you add in all the tropical diseases the sailors were exposed to, and the high mortality rate starts to seem reasonable. But then Willis talked to several archaeologists who have an additional theory about what was killing the sailors – lead poisoning from rum. Part of the sugar cane harvest was made into rum, and this was a staple drink for the sailors – they’d have a pint a day as part of their rations. But the rum was made in lead piping and lead distillation tanks, and the people Willis spoke to said the rum would’ve been contaminated. Perhaps not a problem if you had a bit now & again, but for the sailors it would’ve built up quickly.

The archaeological side of the programme was well covered, but was made at an early stage of the investigation – they had a few days of excavation but obviously hadn’t done any further analysis by the time the programme was made. But in that 5 days or so they got half a dozen skeletons from one small trench in the beach – the thought is that if a sailor died on board a ship in the harbour then he’d be hurriedly buried on the beach.

The Viking Sagas

This programme about the Viking Sagas wasn’t one of Janina Ramirez’s better programmes – somewhat padded out with lots of gushing about how wonderful the sagas were (rather than more discussion of the things themselves) at the start and some odd choices for imagery. It did get better as the programme went on, however, as we moved from generic “ooh this is wonderful” to a discussion of one saga in particular. The saga she chose was the Laxdæla saga, a story of lust, love & revenge. The point Ramirez was drawing out was that the Viking sagas were much more realistic than contemporary European literature which was heavy on tales of courtly love, and virtue being rewarded. The sagas are based on real events (in real places) with only a thin veneer of Christian moralising added at a later stage (like Guðrún, one of the protagonists, withdrawing to a nunnery at the end of her life in repentance). Ramirez also made a point of how British people were among those who settled Iceland (mostly women brought as concubines, i.e. sex slaves). And the sagas also influenced more modern British writers – Blake and Tolkein were the examples used.

Worth watching for the scenery & to hear bits of the saga read aloud (in Icelandic, with subtitles) in said scenery. But the In Our Time we listened to earlier in the year on the same subject was more informative (post).

The Ottomans: Europe’s Muslim Emperors

In the second episode of this series about the Ottoman Empire, Rageh Omaar covers the second half of the empire from Suleiman the Magnificent (or Suleiman the Lawgiver) in the 16th Century through to Abdul Hamid II and the “Sick Old Man of Europe” (nickname for the empire) in the 19th Century. Omaar continues to be more of an apologist for the Ottoman Empire than I’d like (lots of “it was a tolerant place” while glossing over second class citizenship for non-Muslims & children of non-Muslims being taken to be slaves). It was during Suleiman’s time that the Mamluk Empire was conquered – bringing the heartlands of Islam under Ottoman control. Prior to this the Ottomans were only really nominally Muslim, and ruled over a predominantly Christian territory, afterwards they moved more towards embracing their Islamic faith as a mark of their legitimacy as rulers. The Sultan was now also the Caliph, and they imposed a hierarchy on the Islamic clergy where there was previously no such thing. Under Suleiman and his immediate successors the Ottoman Empire pushed its expansion westward – ending up at the gates of Vienna, where they were only defeated by all of Christendom coming together (in effect) to drive them back. The Turks were feared across Europe & from the perspective of Europeans it was very much a Holy War (but not so from the Ottoman perspective, that was about territory). Omaar pointed out that this historical legacy influences the way the more eastern countries of Europe see the prospect of Turkey joining the European Union to this day.

Suleiman’s Ottoman Empire was at its peak, after him & his immediate successors their technological advantage started to be outstripped by a Europe undergoing the Industrial Revolution and entering the Enlightenment era. When Napoleon took his army to Egypt the initial Ottoman reaction was an assumption they were clearly the superior civilisation so their rout by the French & the loss of Egypt was a complete shock. It’s all downhill from there – the Ottomans end up referred to as the Sick Old Man of Europe, and rising nationalist feelings start to tear apart the cohesion of the Empire. The Ottoman dynasty is also seen by parts of the Empire as not Muslim enough – a fundamentalist Muslim group rising in what’s now Saudi Arabia took control of Mecca & Medina for a while, and whilst their rebellion was put down by the Ottomans it was a sign of what was to come.

Which is presumably the subject of the next episode.

Metal: How it Works

Metal: How it Works is the first of a three part series (all called X: How it Works) presented by Mark Miodownik which look at the materials our civilisation is based on. It was a combination of history, engineering & metallurgy, and while it could’ve been quite dry it was saved by the fact that Miodownik is engagingly enthusiastic about the subject. Miodownik took us through the history of metal-working from the early discovery of copper, and then bronze, through iron-working to steel and more modern metals. Along the way he talked about what it is about the atomic structure of metals that makes them behave the way they do (atoms in a crystal lattice, but one where the atoms can slide along and bunch up). As well as the enthusiastic bits about what metal working has let us do there were also a couple of segments about times when our ambition outreached our knowledge & skills. The first of these was about the railway bridge across the Tay, which collapsed under a train during a storm killing everyone on board. Which was the impetus for figuring out steel production – because it was the first indication for Victorian engineers that iron alone wasn’t necessarily the answer to all the world’s engineering problems. And the second was the first passenger planes, where tragically the stresses that repeated pressurisation & depressurisation put on the metal fuselages of planes was only worked out after several catastrophic mid-air failures.

Stories from the Dark Earth: Meet the Ancestors Revisited

The third episode of Stories from the Dark Earth was a very padded hour about two Iron Age burials. Very very padded. Bourton-on-the-Water is a village in the Cotswolds that I’ve been to several times as a child, and apparently underneath its primary school there is a fairly large Iron Age site. As the school has expanded they’ve had archaeologists come in and excavate before they put new buildings up, so much has been unearthed. The original burial (a girl in a rubbish pit) was thought to be singular and perhaps a sign of human sacrifice – so the updated info was first debunking that theory and then discussing the other burials they found in the area. All were of women or girls who were in some way diseased or disabled – they speculate that this may’ve been what set these women apart so that they were buried rather than excarnated (left to decompose before burying the bones). One of the bodies was of an older woman who had clearly been paralysed below the waist for several years (her leg bones were withered) but was otherwise in good health (as far as they could detect) which is an indication that these women were well looked after.

The other burial was a chariot burial found in Yorkshire in a village called Wetwang. Subsequent to the original excavation they’ve found evidence that the chariot was in use before death – ie it wasn’t just for burying the woman with, it was her vehicle in life. The woman in the grave was also disfigured, her skull was lopsided – probably pushed that way by a fairly large hemangioma on one of her cheeks. (Wikipedia says haemangiomas disappear over time mostly going by age 10, so perhaps I misremember what they said on the programme as they seemed to be saying it would still be visible in her later years.) She was buried with a mirror, which they’ve now discovered may’ve been kept in an otter fur bag – which may have symbolic status.

We’ll have a gap before we can watch the fourth episode, for some reason it didn’t record last time it aired so I need to wait till it airs again (soon, I think). In it, I suspect he’ll tell us several hundred times how it’s been “over N years since” the original excavations 😉

A Hundred Years of Us

The third episode of A Hundred Years of Us was more of the same mixture as the other two. Phil Tufnell was irritating as a butler this time (but the butler teaching him was too polite to outright laugh). More interesting was the segment on motorways – brand shiny new in the 1950s and requiring informational films about how you shouldn’t do a U-turn if you missed your exit nor have a picnic on the hard shoulder. And they were empty! There was also an interview with a man who’d moved from Jamaica to England in the early 60s (not on the Windrush, his parents moved over on the Windrush). He talked about both the culture shock and the racism he faced – like how he’d corresponded with an agricultural college when he was still in Jamaica to organise becoming a student once he moved to England. But once he turned up (and turned out black) there was magically no space in any of the classes. He ended up having to get a job as a bus conductor in Birmingham. He was keen to stress how much England has changed for the better since he arrived (although this segment also covered how much it got worse before it got better).

Howard Goodall’s Story of Music; The Dark Ages: An Age of Light

“The Age of Tragedy” was the title of the fourth episode of Howard Goodall’s Story of Music and it was all about music of death and destiny (and doom!). Even the more light-hearted stuff from the late 19th Century could have these sorts of themes. Goodall opened the programme with Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique which can be seen as the inspiration for these themes – and we got to hear some of while being shown the sorts of paintings of hell & tormented souls & demons that inspired this type of music.

He then moved on to Italian opera, including the stuff of Verdi, which at first seemed out of place for his primary theme but let him introduce one of the secondary themes of the programme. He talked about how this was the mainstream entertainment of the day – not just expensive seats & toffs in top hats, but the middle classes also went to the opera. And the tunes and songs were written in a lively, memorable style, they were picked up by barrel organ players & played in the streets for anyone passing by. These were the songs everyone knew the words to – just like pop music or a musical of today. Classical wasn’t yet something for “the serious people” – which is the theme he returned to at the end of this programme. Tying it back to the death and destiny theme he pointed out how these operas (like La Traviata) let good respectable Victorian-type people have their cake & eat it – you get to enjoy seeing the people in the story acting scandalously, and then they get their comeuppance by dying miserable, so the moral order was upheld.

We then returned to more Germanic music and the majority of the programme focussed on the music (primarily concerned with death and destiny) and innovations of Liszt – Goodall structured this section around a list of Liszt’s innovations (yes, the pun was clearly intentional, like all the puns Goodall has managed to get into this series 🙂 ). It was quite a long list, fittingly as Liszt had a long & prolific career. He was also one of the first international superstars of music – Goodall told us that women frequently became hysterical at performances (implied tho not stated was the comparison with Beatlemania).

One of Liszt’s innovations was the symphonic poem – instead of a whole four movement, 40 minute symphony these were shorter one movement pieces. They were normally based on a particular non-musical artwork, so Goodall talked us through one piece that was about a particular painting (of the defeat of Attila the Hun in about the only battle where he was defeated) showing us how the musical motifs were related to the elements of the image. He then developed this further by relating it to a more modern form – this can be thought of as the origins of film scores.

Another innovation was the movement for “nationalistic” music – so for Liszt this was taking the Hungarian folk music tunes of his own country & writing music based on them. This became a important strand of classical composition, but didn’t bear much resemblance to the actual folk music of the countries concerned beyond tunes that were vaguely reminiscent. This leads to concerns about appropriation in cases where the composer isn’t relying on their own country’s tradition – for instance Dvorák’s New World Symphony uses themes that are inspired by African-American music or Native American music. Which is a debate that’s been relevant ever since – coming up again with blues & with jazz & with world music.

And this list of Liszt’s innovations moved onto the last section of the programme by listing Wagner. Wagner was clearly inspired by Liszt and Goodall went through many of the innovations that Wagner is credited with and pointed out how Liszt had in fact done it first. However he did point out that even if Wagner wasn’t as innovative as his devotees would like to think, he had better tunes! He also spent time talking about the way that Wagner changed the format of opera from the lighter more variety performance like Italian operas. Wagner was writing operas that were one coherent piece of music, rather than a selection of songs – and he made great use of leitmotifs for each character or concept in the story to bring the music together and to enhance the visual and storytelling aspects of the opera. And he used parts of the opera Parsifal to showcase this. Again you can see the comparisons with modern films.

And as Goodall was talking about Wagner and giving him credit for the good things in the music and operas he wrote I kept thinking “he’s not a Wagner fan”. And just before the programme got to the point, I remembered why one doesn’t like Wagner – he was appallingly anti-Semitic (and racist) and not in a “oh well, product of his time” sort of way. Even by the standards of his anti-Semitic culture he was regarded as an extremist, and he published things that suggested the best course of action to the newly unified Germany was to get rid of all the Jews. After his death his music was used by the Nazi regime as part of their national mythology and Hitler was a big fan of the music, the programme showed us footage of the surviving Wagner family welcoming Hitler to their house.

And after that sobering segment Goodall closed the programme by talking about how he feels that Liszt & Wagner’s devotees have had a long-lasting impact on the perception of classical music. Their music is held up as serious music for serious people, who think about things and understand the true meaning of art. Not like that popular frothy stuff written by people like Gilbert & Sullivan, or those Italian operas, or the music of Offenbach. So a split developed between highbrow “worthwhile” music, and the rest which was looked down on by those who approved of the highbrow stuff.

Waldemar Januszczak’s series about the Dark Ages finished up with an episode about the Men of the North – which in this case means not just the Vikings but also the Anglo-Saxons and the Carolingians. Discussion of the three cultures were woven together through the programme, but I think it’s easier for me to seperate them out when I’m writing about it.

The Carolingians were really only briefly mentioned – this is the name of the ruling dynasty of the Franks at a time when the Frankish empire grew to stretch across a large part of Europe. Charlemagne is one of the most famous Carolingians, and Janusczcak showed us the throne of marble and the chapel that he had built. It was designed as an answer to the Cordoba mosque, so has some similar motifs (like the stripey arches, in this case in black & white not red & white). But as a whole it’s very different – more heavy and more brutal. The more portable art of the period was very opulent with lots of gold, and encrusted with jewels. This was all a reflection of the mindset of the culture – God was on their side because they were just that special.

The segments on the Vikings showed us some of the same art work that we’d seen in the Neil Oliver series (post) – in particular a boat which had been part of a burial, and a stone that commemorates the conversion of the Danes to Christianity. Unlike the Oliver series this series doesn’t do the high amounts of messing about with depth of field, so we actually got a proper look at carvings on the boat which are very impressive 🙂 The themes were also somewhat similar to the Oliver programmes – the reputation the Vikings had wasn’t the whole story, they were also artisans as well as looters.

In the sections on the Anglo-Saxons Januszczak showed us the Lindisfarne Gospels, paying particular attention to the celtic influences in the art – the interweaving patterns in the borders & the illuminated capitals. He also showed us a grave-marker from this time – a cross with this interwoven patterns – and that lead to one of the giggle-out-loud moments of the programme. He said, as he was describing it, that it was his favourite because “it’s not quite right, a bit wonky, and you just want to hug it”! We also got the Sutton Hoo treasure – you really can’t miss it out if you’re talking about spectacular Anglo-Saxon art. And Januszczak also showed us a modern craftsman (who used to be a forger, but now makes original designs) making a silver brooch of a style akin to the Alfred jewel (which we also got shown).

I’ve enjoyed this series, and it’s a shame it’s finished now. I do have my doubts about the historical accuracy (see my post about the first episode for an example) but it was entertaining and nice to see all the various objects & buildings. Januszczak was a good presenter and his quirkiness grew on me.

Andrew Marr’s History of the World; Wartime Farm

The fourth episode of Andrew Marr’s History of the World was mostly about the European Renaissance – but not about what happened during it. Instead it was about what happened in the rest of the world that made it possible for Europe to go from being a cultural backwater to a vibrant civilisation with pretensions towards becoming one of the dominant cultures of the world. We did open with the Vikings, tho, who were a little shoehorned into the theme (but you can’t really miss them out). In 10 minutes it only had time to skim over the ground covered in Neil Oliver’s 3 part series – the emphasis here was firmly on the founding of Russia when the Vikings took over the area around Kiev (founding Kiev itself) and ruling the native Slavs. I think the relationship to the theme was supposed to be how Russia provided a large (Orthodox) Christian country to the east of Europe, expanding Christendom considerably & insulating northern & western Europe from the various empires to the East.

The programme then moved on to look at the rise of the Mongols – Marr told us some of Temujin’s early life story, before he became Ghengis Khan. Then looked at how after the conquest of China (impressive in its own right) the Mongol army took on Chinese war technology and this combination of the horse nomad warriors & the great siege machines led to them sacking several of the core cities of the eastern Islamic world. Which obviously weakened the Islamic empire – allowing those pesky European crusading knights to have more successes than they otherwise would have. (The Crusades weren’t really touched on much in the programme, the emphasis was on showing more of the stuff we probably didn’t already know about the era.) And also opened up the Silk Road more – ruled over now by a Mongol Empire. The next sequence was about Marco Polo who travelled from Venice to the heart of China during the time it was ruled by Kublai Khan, and acted as an ambassador for the Khan for a while. (If he is to be believed, or indeed even existed …) And this opening up of trade across the whole of Europe & Asia also had the unfortunate side-effect of bringing diseases across the whole land – the Black Death originally broke out in China, and was spread by traders across the whole landmass. Moving on in history he also covered the final fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks.

Other subjects covered were the mathematical & scientific golden age of the Islamic world during the period we call in Europe as “the Dark Ages” – concentrating on the work of Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī (I totally copied that spelling from wikipedia, so I hope it’s right! He’s the chap whose work was developed into the modern concept of algorithms, so called from the Europeanisation of his last name.) And the meeting between the Mali Empire & the rest of the world (effectively) when Mansa Musa visited Cairo en route to Mecca when he was performing the Hajj. This both collapsed Cairo’s economy (he and his entourage gave away so much gold that the price of gold plummeted and took 10 years to recover), and introduced the Europeans & the Middle East to someone to buy gold from. I think he said that within a century 20% of the gold in Europe came from mines in Mali.

And we finished with Leonardo da Vinci & the painting of the Last Supper – which (along with lots of Leonardo’s other interests) in many ways draws upon & expands the artistic, mathematical and scientific knowledge gained by the Europeans trading with the Islamic world & beyond.

This is one of my favourite bits of history, so it wasn’t a surprise I already sort of knew most of it already (still fun to watch, though 🙂 ). But I was amused to note how many of the names of people I knew as leaders in the game Civilization IV 🙂

For the second programme of the evening we watched the first episode of Wartime Farm. We’d been a little dubious about this from the description, so were prepared to bail if we decided we didn’t like it. But actually it was a really interesting programme with less dramatisation than I’d feared. The premise is a group of historians/archaeologists living on a farm for a year working the land the way that it would’ve been done during the Second World War. For this first episode they were mostly concentrating on the first year or so of the war, and on how farms throughout Britain were being reorganised in a massive agricultural revolution to double their food output. Most of Britain’s food was imported pre-war & the threat of a U-boat blockade meant that this couldn’t continue after war was declared. The presenters told us about things from a mix of a modern & an in character perspective, melding the two together during any single section. Which sounds like it should end up a mess & hard to follow, but actually worked really well. So Ruth Goodman told us about the kitchen conveniences she was getting both by showing us how they worked in a way that wouldn’t quite’ve been necessary for people of the time (pointing out how much quicker it is to mop a lino floor than scrub a stone one), but also exclaiming over how modern things were (like the paraffin heated stove rather than a range). The “modernisation” of the farm included using a tractor instead of horses – much quicker to plough once you got it going. Once you got it going … easier said than done, it seemed. And getting an oil driven electricity generator, that let you charge up big batteries and then have lights on after dark!

There were also interviews with people who either remembered the war (an old chap who’d been 7 and a farmer’s son when war broke out, and remembered the switch to using tractors etc) or were experts on parts of the history of it. The bit that was most startling to me was that I had no idea that there were trained guerilla groups made up mostly of farmers (it was a reserved occupation) and farmer’s wives (in the intelligence arm of the organisation). These were top secret at the time, and were effectively a resistance movement in waiting – and people kept it very very secret, they told us that there were couples who were both in the organisation but didn’t tell each other until decades after the end of the war. And the historian who was telling us about that bit said he had done interviews with surviving members who would only discuss people who had already died, not any still living ex-members. It really brought home how much they believed that Britain was going to be invaded, which it’s easy to gloss over from my perspective as someone born about 30 years after the war ended – it’s history to me & I know we won without being invaded, and you hear more about the Blitz and D-Day than you do the rest of the war.

Vikings; Andrew Marr’s History of the World

We watched the third & last episode of Vikings last night. This one was split into two – firstly Oliver covered the Vikings’ exploration to the West and then in the second half he looked at how the Vikings stopped being Vikings. So the programme started off by looking at Viking ocean-going ships, and a bit of sailing & rowing in a replica, and talked about how you had to be a bit flexible in your destination given their navigational technology. And sometimes when you were heading for Shetland you might end up in Orkney, but that’s OK. And sometimes you might end up somewhere completely different – as happened when a boat blown off-course discovered Iceland. I think he was saying that Iceland was a complete accident, but after they found out there might be new lands out in the ocean they deliberately went looking for them. So they settled Greenland and even made it to the east coast of North America. The further flung colonies died off, but the Icelandic people are descended from those Viking colonisers and even some of their traditions lasted into modern times (like their government was a proto-democracy from as long ago as the Viking era). There was an amusing segment of Oliver having to eat various traditional Viking “delicacies” (in a restuarant in Iceland that has this as its theme), like “rotten shark” and various bits of a sheep one doesn’t normally eat (testicles, brains). Accompanied by descriptions from an Icelandic man who was dressed up like a Viking and very much in “torment the foreigner” mode 😉

The second half looked at how and why the Vikings stopped being what we think of as Vikings. Some of this came down to conversion to Christianity – while there’d been Christians in Denmark from fairly early on in the Viking era it wasn’t until the late 900s that Harald Bluetooth (the King of Denmark) converted and made Christianity the official religion of the kingdom. This was apparently largely for political reasons, as it made it less possible for the Holy Roman Emperor to add Denmark to his territories if that meant he was attacking a fellow Christian ruler rather than a godless heathen people. Other rulers in Scandinavia followed suit, and the differences between the old religion and the new changed the focus of the people. No longer was life all about heroic deeds and gaining enough glory so that when you died in battle you went to Valhalla. Now you should focus on living as good (and meek & mild) a life as possible to avoid eternal damnation in the hereafter.

And it finished up by looking at the re-conquest of England by Canute (grandson of Harald Bluetooth), and how his empire of most of Scandinavia and England gave him social status within Europe to a degree where the son of the Holy Roman Emperor married Canute’s daughter. I was vaguely entertained by them spelling Canute like that, as I thought we spelt it “Cnut” these days … perhaps that’s easily mis-read? 😉

A good series overall 🙂 I think it’s a shame it was done in three episodes, it made some of it feel quite shallow. In particular I think this episode could have been split into two and filled out an hour for each very easily. I’d’ve liked to hear more about the Greenland and Newfoundland colonies in the first half, and seen some of the evidence for them. And I’d’ve liked a bit more about the legacy of the Vikings in the second half – a particular thing I felt was missing was that the Normans are descended from Vikings (if I remember correctly) and this wasn’t even mentioned.

The second episode of Andrew Marr’s History of the World covered “the Age of Empires”, starting with the Assyrians and stopping just short of the Romans … which seemed an odd choice of stopping point given the title, but I guess we cover the Romans next time. As well as the Assyrians it covered the Persians, Alexander the Great, Athens & their democracy, and a very well juxtaposed series of segments on the Buddha, Confucious and Socrates. The primary theme was how this era was defined largely by war and brutal conflicts between peoples, and how this wasn’t unmitigatedly bad for society. Teachings & innovations that are still followed today grew out of people dealing with this violence.

So he looked at how both the Persians and later Alexander the Great tried to integrate their empires of disparate peoples, which could be viewed as the first attempts at a multicultural society (after the violence & slaughter that lead to the empires). Obviously the democracy of Athens was held up as the birth of the government type most in use throughout the West – but he didn’t shy away from pointing out how it wasn’t quite what we think of as democracy, and in many ways only worked because those who could vote had free time to do so because their slaves were doing the work. And Marr also highlighted the accidental nature of history here – if the Persians had conquered Athens like they tried to do then perhaps we’d have a different form of government now, at the very least it wouldn’t be called democracy. Another accident of this sort is that the Persian King Cyrus freed the Jews from their exile in Babylon, and this had a large impact on the development of Judaism. Were Cyrus not to have conquered Babylon, or not to’ve sent the Jews home, then again the world might be very different today.

The pieces about the Buddha, Confucious and Socrates looked at how these men had such different impacts on their societies but started in many ways from similar places. All were a reaction of sorts to the violent world around them. The Buddha went out from his privileged life, and sought answers to what the meaning of life was and how one should best live. He reached Enlightenment and taught and promoted a peaceful inward looking religion with no hierarchy or restrictions on who could follow it. Confucious also went out from a privileged life to walk and teach among the people, but his message was about creating a peaceful well-ordered society by conforming to the rules for appropriate behaviour. Heavy on respect and outward appearances, focused on the good of the whole people rather than the salvation of a single person. Socrates wasn’t leaving a life of privilege but he was reacting to the violent and uncertain world around him – Athens and in particular its democratic form of government felt under threat. But he didn’t react by conforming, or by retreating from the world to seek inner peace, he reacted by questioning and pushing at the boundaries of what was proper or traditional. Trying to shape a better world by never being satisfied with the easy answers. And then this lead to his death, executed as a traitor in a situation which no society since has had answers to either – if you allow free speech, at what point do the needs of the society outweigh this? What should society do when someone’s right to question runs into the society as a whole’s needs?

While I enjoyed most of the episode, and also found it thought provoking in places, there was one bit that made me roll my eyes a bit. There was a segment on the development of the alphabet, which managed to make it seem like the Phoenicians were the first (and only) people ever to connect what was written down with the sounds that were made. So it ignored completely the evidence of syllabic writing systems (like Linear B where every sign is a particular consonant+vowel combination), which can also be read back by sounding out the symbols. The difference with the alphabet as we use it is the flexibility it gives, where you can phonetically write down languages not constructed in the same way as the language the alphabet was originally designed for (this is harder to do with syllabic systems if the syllables are not the same across the languages – think about Linear B and then think of how English isn’t always consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel). I guess that segment was just very simplified, but it was almost to the point of being wrong.

The dramatic reconstructions continue to amuse me with their irreverence and melodrama. Croesus about to be burnt to death was particularly amusingly done. I’m really not normally a fan of playacting bits in history programmes, so I feel the need to mention again how entertaining they are 🙂

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 🙂

Britain’s Secret Treasures; Vikings

The first TV night for a while, since we’ve been away or J’s been out or we’ve both been out on a Wednesday for several weeks. We started off with the last in the Britain’s Secret Treasures series that was broadcast on ITV a while ago. A technical niggle first – I don’t know if it’s our PVR or if it’s the channel itself, but the sound and images on ITV HD always seem just slightly out of sync. I noticed it during the World Cup and now with this series, it’s not a problem most of the time but with close-ups of people talking it’s a little disorienting.

The series was looking at the top 50 objects that have been found in recentish years by members of the public, chosen and ordered by Bettany Hughes and a panel of fellow experts. The programmes were presented primarily by Bettany Hughes & Michael Buerk … and I’m not entirely clear why Michael Buerk. He didn’t seem to’ve been involved in the choice or anything, effectively he was there to be a “pretty face” (or alternatively to provide an authoritative male figure for those who’d think Hughes too female to count?). Perhaps I’m over cynical here. Each object then had a short segment of film where some tenuously linked celebrity (like Michael Portillo looked at a Roman coin because it had an emperor on it and Portillo used to be the Defense Secretary so that’s all the same sort of thing – seriously, that’s what they said!) or an expert in the subject went off to the site it was found, and/or somewhere relevant, and told us about the object and why it was significant, and maybe interviewed some experts on the subject.

The best thing about the series was the chance to see all these lovely things, and to hear the stories about the lucky finds. And in general I thought the objects were well chosen – I don’t know if they’d be my top 50, not only am I not an expert but I don’t know what the choice was from, but I thought they were a good top 50 if that makes sense. And I don’t regret watching the programmes.

But – and you could tell there was a “but” coming, couldn’t you? But I think there were some odd choices in the presentation of the series. By necessity it was a shallow look at the objects, but some choices of what to dwell on and what to gloss over were odd. The one that sticks particularly in my mind is the programme where we had a 5 minute segment of Hughes scuba diving in a river looking for coins (the objects this was related to had been covered earlier for 5 minutes already), and there was at least one object in that programme that got about 2 sentences & moved away from. Personally I’d’ve skipped the diving and looked at the actual objects more. There were also some odd choices of experts – particularly this last programme where both J and I were spluttering over the choice of a priest to talk about a 4000 year old gold cup. Yes, it was found in what was probably a temple, but I don’t think a spiritual leader of Christianity has any special insight into possible religious practices of people who lived in Britain around 2000BC, and leaping from how the rituals around the chalice in Christianity are about both communion with God and communion with the community to how this cup must’ve also been part of a communion ritual seemed like a very good example of bringing one’s own cultural blinkers along. (I’m not saying it’s not true, I don’t actually know anything about the subject, but I am saying I thought it was a poor argument.)

So in summary, good to have seen but at times eye-rolling to listen to.

Our second programme of the evening was the first episode of Neil Oliver’s new series, Vikings. This is actually only timeshifted by a little over a week, quite prompt for us!

I’ll start with the negative, and get it out of the way – I don’t like the stylistic choices of the director and/or cameraperson for this and the other recent Neil Oliver serieses (the one about the Bronze Age and before & the one about the Iron Age, I can’t remember what they were called). Basically they make me notice the camera too much, my preference for a documentary is for it not to try too hard to be “arty”. They do stuff like when they’re showing you an object they have a narrow depth of field and shift the focal plane around – and I just want to see the whole thing, damnit. Also shaky cam while he’s walking along talking to the camera, which I think is supposed to make it feel intimate but just reminds me there’s a cameraperson there. Having said that – both of those were toned down from the previous serieses. They’d added a new trick though, shots that made everything look minature – street shots where it looked like little mobile dolls walking between dolls houses. Which I found deeply deeply creepy in a visceral fashion.

However, that’s enough bitching about the filming. The programme itself was interesting, and it promises to be an enjoyable series. The premise is to look at the Vikings from the Viking point of view & this first programme was setting the scene. First we had a brief section reminding us of the things “we all know” about Vikings, just to get us all on the same page at the start. So he spent a little bit of time in York with a few wee toy models of Vikings and some kids dressed up with helmets & swords playfighting, pointing out that most of this is later myth. And then we were off to Scandinavia to look at both the land the Vikings came from, and their history before the first raids on Europe.

The land obviously shapes the society that lives in it – and particularly in the far north of Scandinavia, like Norway, there isn’t much arable land. Clearly over time this leads to population pressure, so a culture of young men going out adventuring would ease this both by killing some of them off and by having them bring back wealth from other more fertile regions. This and the amount of coast also makes seafaring important – during the sort of time period that Stonehenge was built, the people on Gotland were building stone ship shapes. An integral part of their culture even in the Bronze Age.

He also made the point that Scandinavia was never part of the Roman Empire, and this shaped the people & culture by not shaping them. The Scandinavians kept their old gods, rather than being integrated into Roman religion and then later into Christianity. And their gods and religion emphasised that while you will inevitably die your reputation will live forever. I wish I could remember the exact words – there was a segment of the programme where he talked to a scholar who was an expert on the old religion & she read out some of what I think was an Old Norse book about it, and translated it into English for us. It was much more poetic than how I phrased it. And what mattered to a Viking about his reputation was that he wasn’t a coward – honour and glory were what would keep your memory alive.

As well as keeping their own religion they also weren’t urbanised by the Romans – so while the south of Scandinavia (Denmark) had wealthy individuals and even regional kings, they weren’t organised in towns. I think the point here was that this is a contrast to the way that the ex-Roman Empire parts of Europe thought that a society was automatically organised. As part of this section he also showed us objects that demonstrated that the southern Vikings at least did have trade connections to quite far afield. Some very impressive silver cups which I think were from the Mediterranean and were decorated in a Roman style with scenes from the Iliad. Also the bones of two women from a ship burial just before the time of the first Viking raids on Britain – and one of these women DNA analysis has shown that she may’ve had some connection to Middle Eastern peoples. (I was unclear if he meant that she herself was from the Middle East or if she had ancestors from the Middle East, perhaps because that’s not actually known.)

So that was a fairly brisk sweep through a vast swathe of history & geography to give us a flavour of where the Vikings came from both culturally & physically. Next I guess we’re on to what the Vikings actually did 🙂