The Etruscans were one of the other cultures to live in Italy in the 1st Millenium BCE. They are often overlooked in favour of the Romans (who conquered them), but they were a power in their day and even ruled over Rome for a while early in its history. They were the subject of an In Our Time episode from 2011 which we listened to recently, and discussing Etruscan history and culture were Phil Perkins (Open University), David Ridgway (University of London) and Corinna Riva (University College London).

The Etruscan culture began around 800 BCE and lasted for the next 800 or so years. They lived north of Rome in an area roughly the same as modern Tuscany - the similarity of the words Etruscan and Tuscany is not a coincidence. Their origins are obscure, Herodotus said they came from Lydia (in modern Turkey) and there is some controversial DNA evidence that suggests a Middle Eastern origin but as described by Perkins* this is unconvincing. The study only looked at Y chromosome sequences from modern inhabitants of Tuscany, and it's not clear how (or if) they decided who was likely to've been descended from the Etruscans. Nor did their results give any indication of when this Middle Eastern origin was so it's not clear if it has any bearing on distinguishing the Etruscans from other inhabitants of Italy - after all, most of our ancestors in Europe came via the Middle East on the way out of Africa many 10s of millennia ago! The consensus from the experts on the programme was that this was all rather implausible, and it was more likely that their immediately preceding history was as inhabitants of Italy. Interestingly, however, their language is not an Indo-European language and has no modern relatives.

*Perkins didn't explain it terribly well though - I wasn't clear if he didn't understand it very well or if he just wasn't producing a coherent explanation.

There is not much surviving textual evidence from the Etruscans themselves - most of what is written down is by the Romans. There is no surviving Etruscan literature at all, and only a few inscriptions. These are in both temples and tombs and written in a modified Greek alphabet, but they just tend to name people or gods and give genealogies. Why there is no literature is an interesting question with no clear answer. It seems implausible that they didn't produce any written literature - given the time and place where they lived, and the level of sophistication, wealth and power shown by the archaeological evidence. This implies that the literature was destroyed - and one persistent theory is that there was a purge during the time of the Roman Empire (after Claudius was Emperor, I think they said) to wipe out the memory of their rival civilisation. Nobody on the programme was willing to say that this was true, but they seemed to agree that it was pretty plausible it's just there's no evidence for it one way or the other.

In contrast to the paucity of texts from the Etruscans there is a wealth of archaeological evidence. The way they phrased it on the programme was that in Tuscany it's not the Roman ruins you go to see, it's the Etruscan ones. Even by the standards of Italy this is an area rich in ancient sites. Tombs and graveyards are the main sources of information about the Etruscans - these sites include grave goods, wall paintings and some inscriptions. A few temples and city buildings have also been excavated.

Thinking of the Etruscans as a state is anachronistic. Like Greek culture of the time they were a group of independent city states which shared a common language, culture and religion. Their religion is only known from what the Romans wrote about it, but it appears to've been different in emphasis to the surrounding cultures. The origin story for their religion is someone (a mythical/mystical figure) teaching them how to interpret the omens. The worshipper doesn't pray to the gods and ask them for help or favours. Instead one's religious duty is to interpret the messages the gods are sending via signs & portents - a one way route of communication.

The 6th Century BCE was the heyday of the Etruscan culture. The hills of Tuscany have rich mineral deposits including both tin and copper. Together these metals make bronze - and so were much sought after at the time. The Etruscans could not only outfit their own people with weapons and tools, but also traded extensively around the Mediterranean. They were later called a warlike people, but the consensus on the programme was that there's no evidence of them being worse than anyone else at the time. This was, after all, a warlike period. Their artistic culture is sometimes dismissed as "copying the Greeks but getting it wrong" but the experts were unanimous in declaring this bobbins (rather more politely tho). The Etruscans had a sophisticated artistic and architectural style, which had clearly been influenced by the Greeks but was also uniquely their own. They did often employ imported Greek artists, as they were seen as the best of their day. Ridgway referred to their style as being less bland than the Classical Greek style.

The Etruscans had an influence on Roman art, culture and politics. This is not surprising, as Rome is not very far from Etruscan territory and early in its history it was "just another city state" rather than being the juggernaut of empire that it later became. Early in Roman history they were even ruled by one of the Etruscan city states. Later however the Romans conquered and assimilated the Etruscans. As pointed out above, the Etruscans weren't one cohesive unit so the Romans could conquer them a bit at a time rather than face all of them en masse. They had influence in the Roman political arena much later than one might expect, given they were conquered by Rome around the 4th Century BCE. The Emperor Augustus was supported during the civil war (preceding him becoming Emperor) by several old Etruscan families. These families were the aristocracy of the old Etruscan city states but had been assimilated into the Roman society and political elite by this point. However they were seen as a distinct and influential cultural bloc, that was necessary to get "on side" if you were making a power play. Later still Claudius was married to the daughter of one of these families (who persuaded him to write a history of the Etruscans, now sadly vanished without trace).

I knew pretty much nothing about the Etruscans before I listened to this programme, beyond the simple fact of their existence. I know the British Museum has a room displaying their culture, and this programme has made me want to have a proper look at it sometime.

On Sunday Ana Tavares co-Field Director of Ancient Egypt Research Associates (AERA) came to talk to us at the Essex Egyptology Group about her work on two 4th Dynasty towns on the Giza Plateau near the Pyramids which she's currently writing up as her PhD thesis. Her talk focussed on the town near Queen Khentkawes's monument, with some comparisons to the other town at Heit el Ghurab (also called the Lost City of the Pyramids, which is where the builders of the Pyramids lived).

Below you can see a plan of the Giza Plateau (that I found on wikipedia last year when I was writing about my visit there in November 2014). Heit el Ghurab isn't marked - but it lies southeast of Khafre & Menkaure's pyramid complexes (so the bottom right hand corner). The tomb of Queen Khentkawes is labelled towards the bottom right, and the pink L shape that comes out of the square tomb is where the town lies.

Plan of Giza Plateau made by wikipedia user MesserWoland
Plan of Giza Plateau made by MesserWoland

Tavares started her talk by showing us an old photo of the area when the inundation still happened, and explaining what she meant by her title. Liminal means border or threshold, and so a liminal zone is a transitional space. In this case the town of Khentkawes is situated between the desert and the cultivated land. It is also a space which serves both the living (the priests and their households that live there) and the dead (the cult of Khentkawes). And this means it's also a space that is both secular and sacred.

AERA started work on the site in 2005, but this wasn't the first time it had been excavated. In the early 1930s an Egyptian archaeologist called Selim Hassan excavated across the site in a single season, cleaning the monument and some of the priests' houses. In 1943 he published this work, describing the monument and one of the priests' houses (they all look very similar so he picked one as a "generic" house from the site). So why come back to a relatively recently excavated and published site? The primary reason was conservation of the site, which had become pressing for two reasons. Firstly, as you can see on the plan, there is a modern cemetery just to the south of the town which was beginning to encroach further onto the site. The Ministry of Antiquities had put a wall up around the site, but nonetheless AERA thought it would be wise to start excavating there before any further encroachment. The other reason is that in the 1930s it wasn't common practice to backfill a site when excavation was over (i.e. cover the site up with sand). This means that the mudbrick walls that Hassan had uncovered had deteriorated considerably just through exposure to the elements. Tavares showed us some pictures from the 1930s and some from their own excavations and the difference was striking. Walls that had been knee high when Hassan uncovered them were now only an inch high if that.

So the first six seasons on the site were spent painstakingly cleaning, recording and then covering up the site. This also let them generate maps of the site, which they've then digitised. These have then been overlaid onto Hassan's original plans and satellite imagery, generating a very detailed map of the whole site. As well as maps they also laser scanned the monument - which is a technique that's becoming more commonplace now, but at the time they did it it was at the cutting edge. Basically this technique uses lasers to very accurately measure all aspects of a physical space, and then these measurements are used to generate a 3D image on the computer which lets you examine the site from angles you can't achieve in person. Tavares showed us the one they've made of the monument, she had a little video she'd made a of a fly past - around the monument a couple of times then up and over the top of it for an aerial view. I thought it was a rather cool way to look at the building!

Tavares pointed out some interesting features while we watched the fly past. Like the Sphinx, Khentkawes monument is carved from the bedrock. It's actually a piece of rock that was left behind in a quarry that was used to build one of the main pyramids on the plateau. Each pyramid is primarily constructed of local stone, which was quarried in each case to the south/south-east of the pyramid in question. After the pyramid was finished this quarry area would be used for the mastaba field associated with that pyramid. Khentkawes monument was constructed from this knoll of rock, with the corners built out to be square (where they weren't already). A palace facade feature was carved into the south side of it, which would then have been covered with a limestone casing. There were then granite elements added - a chapel, a gate. This use of granite links Khentkawes's monument (and herself) with the era of Menkaure.

A big question in Old Kingdom Egyptology is "the Khentkawes problem". Some of it has been sorted out - there turn out to be two women named Khentkawes, one named here in Giza associated with the late 4th Dynasty Pharaohs, and another elsewhere. But what precisely her title means is still unclear. The title associated with her is: mut niswt bity niswt bity. "Mut" means "mother" and "niswt bity" means "King of Upper and Lower Egypt". Tavares explained that this can be interpreted in two different ways - Khentkawes might've been the mother of two kings, or she might've been the mother of a king who also ruled as a king herself. As they excavated and mapped the area around her monument the team found that the site has many features that also show up in kingly pyramid complexes - the monument with the causeway leading from it to a temple, a harbour, and a pyramid town, for instance. The team is divided on whether or not this is evidence that Khentkawes ruled as a king - Tavares seemed inclined to say that yes it does.

As well as mapping work they have been able to excavate new areas of the town - some under the buildings uncovered by Hassan, and some structures further to the east of the town. The latter included the harbour area I alluded to above. The work they have done on the site has shown three phases of building & occupation there during the 4th Dynasty. First there was a large building (which they excavated below the causeway that Hassan found). Next there were large houses laid out along a wide street. And following this the causeway was put in - it was narrower than the previous street, and it cut off some parts of the houses from the rest of the settlement. There was then a tunnel built under the causeway so that they were connected again, which implies that the causeway was put in as the result of a top-down decision rather than growing organically out of changing use by the site's inhabitants. The site was abandoned after the 4th Dynasty, but then re-occupied in the 6th Dynasty. This happened in a formal fashion rather than as a shanty town - the buildings were reconstructed and the enclosure wall was too.

The team have excavated one of the houses (House E) more thoroughly, and Tavares told us a little bit more detail of these phases of occupation. When the house was first built it looked much like all the other houses on the street - they all have the same modular design. The big street was to the south and there was a door at both the north & south ends of the house. Later when the causeway was put in (where the street had been) the north door of the house was also blocked off - which seems rather inconvenient as now access to the rear of the house meant you had to go round all the other houses. Later still there are grain silos built in the northern areas of the house. Grain silos are an indication of wealth - grain is the currency (as such) of Egypt at the time, and having a lot of it not only means you're wealthy but also that you are probably distributing rations to other people (so are high status). Interestingly the silos are in House E's space, but are only accessibly from House F. The rest of House E has amalgamated with House D on the other side.

After our break for coffee (and cake!) Tavares talked to us a bit more generally about Egyptian houses of the 4th Dynasty (using plans from Heit el Ghurab as her examples). Tavares also got us to measure out some rooms of houses in the hall with tape measures and string so that we got a feel for the sorts of sizes she was talking about. The group I was in measured out the main room of one of the smaller houses - which seemed a reasonable size until we were told that probably 6 people lived in that house! (Which was an estimate using data from a Middle Kingdom census of the town at Lahun.) Unlike the town at Khentkawes's monument the houses of Heit el Ghurab come in several different sizes. The lowest status type are actually pretty large buildings - 35m long by 5m wide. At the front end is a standard looking house, and then the rest of the space consists of a barracks like arrangement of two rows of bed platforms. This would be where the lowest status workers slept, the men who were there to build a pyramid as part of their labour obligation to the state.

The next size up were (very) small estates - each had an L-shaped main room (about 5mx2m) with a bed platform in the short arm of the L (which is the room we measured out). This was surrounded by small courtyards in which a lot of daily life would've gone on (rather than inside the house per se). The biggest houses belonged to administrators, the largest of which covered 400m2 - which is the largest Old Kingdom house that have been excavated. These larger estates didn't just have a main room for sleeping in, they also had other rooms for business and living quarters as well as a bakery and a brewery attached to the house. The main rooms were richly decorated - the team found remains of painted plaster, and also the bed platform in the largest one had the foot end of it shaped into two different style ("his'n'hers" as Tavares put it).

Tavares ended her talk by talking about Pyramid Towns more generally, where Khentkawes town fits into this, and the difficulties in getting the textual evidence for these towns to match the archaeological evidence. The term "Pyramid Town" is actually the Ancient Egyptian term - which I hadn't realised. They're referred to in texts about tax exemptions - for instance in Pepi II's reign the Pyramid Town of Menkaure's Pyramid is exempt from taxation. But the archaeological evidence clearly shows that after Menkaure's Pyramid was finished the town that the workers lived in (Heit el Ghurab) was carefully dismantled and abandoned - the valuable fabric of the town, the wood, bricks and stone, were removed for reuse. So where does the Pyramid Town in Pepi II's time come from? Tavares said it's likely to be the shanty town that grew up within the Menkaure Temple (which was excavated in 1908/9 rather than the formal sort of place one would expect from the texts.

Khentkawes's Pyramid Town also has discrepancies between the textual evidence and the archaeology, but in the opposite direction. There are no textual references to a Pyramid Town associated with her monument, but the archaeology (as we saw in this talk) demonstrates that there was a formal, planned town there. Tavares said that Khentkawes's complex is on the cusp of the changes between the 4th Dynasty and the 5th Dynasty. It really isn't the same sort of thing as either the pyramid builders town nor the shanty town that later grows up associated with Menkaure's Pyramid. Instead of having a variety of housing types for a variety of social groups, like Heit el Ghurab has, Khentkawes's town has only one type of house. Tavares suggested that it shouldn't really be called a town - it's a single purpose institution, with several priests (and presumably their households given the size of the houses) all of whom were the same rank and were there to do the same job.

This was a fascinating talk, and Tavares is a good speaker - she really brought to life what could've been some rather dry archaeology and gave us a feel for the places she was talking about as living towns.

I'll begin this blog post with a note on the author of the book: Marion Zimmer Bradley. I've been dragging my heels on moving along with my re-read of all the fiction on the shelves, and it's because Bradley was next up and a little while ago I learnt a couple of unpleasant things about her. Firstly, her second husband (Walter Breen) was convicted twice and eventually imprisoned for child sex abuse, and Bradley was aware of and aided his actions. Secondly, once discussion of Breen became current again in 2014 the daughter of Bradley and Breen came forward to say that Bradley was herself an abuser.

Immediately on reading about this I could think of at least one character and situation in her Darkover series that I would re-evaluate with this new information. And more generally - one of the things I'd liked about the Darkover books was that I thought she'd been portraying a world where just like the real one you can't always spot the monsters at first glance. Effectively, I used to think she was saying "just because someone does good things too, doesn't stop them being a monster"; and now I think she just had a different working definition of "monster". So not only has someone who was one of my favourite authors fallen off her pedestal and been revealed as a thoroughly unpleasant person; but also even before starting my re-read I'm pretty sure that the artist can't be separated from her art in this case. I decided to re-read them anyway, because they were favourites and I'd rather see what I actually think rather than make assumptions based on memories from a decade or so ago when I last read them. But having started this re-read: they're definitely coming off the shelves once I've re-read them (into a box rather than disposed of, for nostalgia for the perspective I can't read them with any more).

So, onward to the book. Darkover Landfall is the first in the internal chronology of the Darkover series, but was the 7th of them to be published (in 1972). I generally prefer to re-read series in chronological order, even if I buy the books in publication order - not that I did that in this case, I didn't start buying them till the 90s and picked them up as I saw them in shops. The basic premise of the Darkover series is that a colony ship sent out from Earth goes off course and crashlands on the planet Darkover. They have no contact with Earth for over(? around? the chronology is unclear) a thousand years during which they develop their own civilisation, which is heavily influenced by the Gaelic roots of the original colonists & crew. And on this planet psychic powers such as telepathy work - this is part innate human talent (it's a very 60s sort of series in origin), part due to interbreeding with a native species (see previous parenthetical remark), part due to the plants and geology of the planet (ditto). So you have this pseudo-feudal society with psychic technology who forget they came from anywhere but Darkover, and eventually the Terran multi-planet Empire rediscover them. The novels set after that deal in large part with culture shock and culture clash - mind-powers vs. science, the different sorts of sexism in the two societies, etc.

It's a series that hits a lot of my buttons - things I'm a sucker for in science fiction include: generation ships or lost colonies, psychic powers as a replacement for tech, culture shock and looking at our own culture through the eyes of the alien. Bradley also manages a sense of time and history - something I wrote about when I talked about Walter M. Miller Jr.'s A Canticle for Leibowitz. The way later characters talk about past events is never quite the same as the way the book about those events told the story - things pass from current affairs, to history, to fable and you can see it happening in the books.

I think if I'd started with Darkover Landfall, I wouldn't've continued reading the series - to me any appeal it had relies on enjoying reading about the way things "really happened" as opposed to how they're later remembered. The story itself I've always found rather unsettling and odd. Once their ship crash lands on the wrong planet the crew & colonists have to come to terms with the fact that they're now stranded on this rather inhospitable world: it has a climate that is only just habitable all year round, and it is very metal poor meaning their advanced tech won't be viable for long. There's the obvious conflict between "must make the best of what we have" and "must devote all resources to getting the hell outta here", and nobody is particularly happy with the situation. And then the kireseth flowers bloom - their pollen is a potent hallucinogen that also lowers your inhibitions and enchances any latent psychic talent. Some members of the crew just have lots of happy sex, one meets a chieri (a native and reclusive intelligent species of the planet) and then has happy sex, others have sex they're not happy with (to varying degrees of unhappy ranging from "oh dear" to "oh my dear god no what have I done!!?!"). It's a very 60s/70s sort of story ...

The way I remembered this book was "it's the 'alien sex pollen makes them do it' one", which is a pretty accurate summary to be honest. But on the plus side, it was nowhere near as rape-y as I'd feared, in that all the sex we're told about is things that the participants wanted to do even if in some cases they were suppressing that desire until the kireseth bloomed. On the other hand ... just because you want to, doesn't mean you should. And in the light of the child sex abuse allegations and convictions for Bradley and her husband it's to say the least an unsettling theme for the book.

To my eyes reading it now it was atrociously sexist. Not just a little bit here and there, but woven right through the entire fabric of the novel. Which surprised me, because Bradley is often held up as a feminist SFF author and this book comes across as far from feminist. It's possible that as I wasn't even born when the book was written I'm missing the nuance that would tell me she was critiquing the sexism and not buying into it ... but if there's nuance and critique there, it's pretty well buried. It's not just stuff like Rafe MacAran thinking of women as inherently incapable of any manual labour or physical exertion, where Bradley might be making the point that he's wrong. It's also stuff like the way Judy (who has sex with the chieri) isn't believed by anyone - yes, this might be because it happens under the influence of a hallucinogenic drug; but in context it also comes across as dismissing her as a silly woman who's obviously making shit up. And it's stuff like the paean to the joys of motherhood as the one true path to fulfilment for all women and doubly necessary here because it's also the strict duty of every woman of childbearing age to pop out the sprogs now and forever more so that the colony survives. Any woman who isn't joyous at the thought of pregnancy and babies is psychologically damaged and brainwashed. And this is one of the ways in which the society of Earth is sick. Apparently. Again, this is in the mouths and minds of the characters of the novel, and perhaps Bradley was intending one to see it as ludicrous. I just don't think that comes across tho - if this was a trope she was intending to undermine, I don't think she succeeded.

It made me think, as I was reading it, of "We Who Are About to..." by Joanna Russ which was published 4 years after Darkover Landfall. I've not actually read Russ's book, but I know the plot from osmosis (and a double check on wikipedia that I had the right book in mind!). In it a spaceship crash lands on a remote planet with no rescue forthcoming. The men propose that they should all make babies and build a civilisation, but the female protagonist sees that there is no way they can survive long term and has no intention of spending the rest of her fertile life being an unwilling baby-machine to no purpose. It escalates (violently) from there. Was Darkover Landfall one of the books Russ was reacting to? There are definitely resonances between the two books (as far as I can tell having not read one of them, of course).

I was going to say more about specific scenes and so on, but I think I'm just going around in circles. I never was particularly keen on this book, but I think that's moved into active dislike now I'm a bit older and bit more critical about what I read (rather than just swallowing it whole).

Back in the summer while In Our Time wasn't airing new episodes we dug back through the archives and found a (rare) Egyptian related one that we didn't think we'd listened to before - about Akhenaten, which aired in 2009. The experts on the programme were Richard Parkinson (British Museum), Elizabeth Frood (University of Oxford) and Kate Spence (University of Cambridge). (As it's so old affiliations of the experts have probably changed.)

They started with a little bit of scene setting and overview of Akhenaten's reign, placing him in context. He was one of the Pharaohs of the 18th Dynasty in the New Kingdom period. This was a particularly prosperous time in Egypt's history, Akhenaten's father Amenhotep III in particular can be considered as ruling over a Golden Age. When Akhenaten came to the throne he seemed much like a conventional Pharaoh. He initially used the more traditional name Amenhotep IV, and built and decorated traditional seeming temple architecture. But the experts pointed out that one initial sign of the differences that were to come is that his temple decoration only has scenes of himself offering to solar deities rather than to the full suite of the Egyptian pantheon. After only a few years his reign becomes more unconventional - first he starts to transition from the old state religion to a new one that only worships the Aten (the sun disc) via himself and his wife. Then he moves the capital from Thebes to a brand new city he orders built at the site we now call Amarna. The old religion is abolished, and the name of Amun (the previous chief deity) is removed from all inscriptions. When Akhenaten died in Year 17 of his reign (c.1335 BCE) there was a period of chaos which ended with the restoration of the old religion, and an attempt to remove Akhenaten's name from history.

As you can tell from that précis Akhenaten made sweeping changes to Egyptian life and culture. The way they discussed it on the programme made me think of Pol Pot in Cambodia, or Mao's Cultural Revolution in China: a top down concerted effort to erase and reset the cultural history of a nation. Most of the rest of the programme was spent discussing these changes and the impact they had on Egyptians of the time. They broke down the changes into four major areas: changes to the religion, changes to the art, changes to the language, and the movement of the political centre of the country.

Religious change had happened in Egypt before, but generally as a slow process involving different gods becoming more or less prominent over a long period of time (for instance Amun wasn't always the main state god and didn't really move into that position until the New Kingdom). Akhenaten's changes were abrupt and went far beyond just which god was most important. The large pantheon was replaced with the single god, the Aten. Gone were anthropomorphic representations of deities - the Aten was only to be shown as a sun disc with rays reaching to give life to the Pharaoh and his wife. And gone was all the accumulated mythology associated with the old gods. Even the architectural style of the temples was different - the old temples were dark enclosed places, the new ones were larger, exposed to the sunlight and more airy in feel. The changes were all designed to honour the sun as the source of everything needed for life. One of the experts (Frood, I think?) suggested that Akhenaten's new belief system might even have been more of a natural philosophy than a religion - that he was something more akin to an atheist than we generally think. There was also a general consensus amongst the experts that there was a megalomaniac flavour to his new religion - the Pharaoh was now centred in both the religion and the art. Instead of symbolic scenes of hunting or fishing one the walls nobles' tombs from this era there are scenes of the Pharaoh giving gifts to the noble in question. The cult is as much about Akhenaten as it is about the Aten.

The art of Akhenaten's reign is also a great departure from previous Egyptian art styles. Once he changes the state religion depictions of the Pharaoh become really quite weird to our eyes. He is depicted with pendulous breasts, wide hips and a strangely elongated face. At one time scholars thought that this meant Akhenaten was deformed, but nowadays the consensus is that it was just an art style not a direct representation of how he really looked. Backing this up is that Nefertiti is also depicted that way in some places. But in other ways the new art feels less alien to us than the standard Egyptian style. Akhenaten and Nefertiti are frequently depicted with their children, sharing tender family moments, rather than just in formal unrealistic poses. The linguistic changes in the Akhenaten era also follow this increased informality - even texts such as the Hymn to the Aten, which is very much in a formal context, are written with an informal style. The experts suggested that this might reflect the actual speech patterns of the time.

On the boundary stelae for the new city at Amarna Akhenaten justifies the move of his capital by referring things having been "bad" at Thebes - tho he doesn't explain what he means by bad. He also says that the site was picked because the Aten told him to build his city there. It's notable that from the river at that point there's a stretch of the cliff face that looks like a horizon hieroglyph, which may be one of the ways that the Aten indicated the right site. More pragmatically, it's in a central location between Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt, which is politically useful. The site hadn't been used for settlement before, and wasn't afterwards until much much closer to the modern day. One of the experts (I forget who) said that that's because it's a stupid place to put a city! It's poor in resources, and mostly desert, so didn't long outlast Akhenaten himself. This is rather good for modern archaeologists, as it gives a snapshot of Egypt at a particular brief time period and it's not been significantly disturbed or built on since.

The impact of all these changes on the elite of society was significant, and probably rather traumatic. The Egyptian culture was very conservative. Their concept of Ma'at, or order, made a religious necessity out of doing things they way they had been done before. So normally a Pharaoh would make a big deal out of how he was doing things as his father and his father's father etc had done before him. Even if what he was doing wasn't actually the same as what his father had done ... But Akhenaten was overtly bringing in something new and saying it was better than what had gone before. Not everyone would've been upset, of course, and some may well have welcomed the changes - there are definitely high ranking individuals who change their names to reflect the new beliefs, although we can't tell if this was for pragmatic reasons or religious belief. But the old certainties were gone, the festivals that measured out the year weren't happening, the familiar symbolism wasn't used any more, and the comforting idea of an afterlife forever with the gods wasn't there any more. They did talk about the lower levels of society a bit - but didn't really talk about how the loss of the festivals would affect them, which I was a bit surprised by. I'd've thought that would've been one of the areas that would have a lot of impact on your average peasant - measuring out the year by when you see the priests process with the god's shrine. They did talk about the shrines to the old gods that have been found in private houses in Akhenaten's new city - signs that the change from old to new religion wasn't complete. But they didn't talk about the idea that the household and state religions were separate things - so I'm not sure if they disagreed with this or if there just wasn't time to discuss it.

One thing they did discuss is how we know just enough about this period and it's just familiar enough in feel that people project their own desires onto the evidence we do have. For instance, Akhenaten has often been held up as the "world's first monotheist" and then turned into Moses or inspiration for Moses or something that lets the theoriser believe that "obviously" he's prefiguring Judaism or even Christianity with his new religion. The experts then danced delicately round the point that Akhenaten being an atheist or natural philosopher is also one of these situations - it's just it's the one that appeals most to modern archaeologists rather than early 20th Century ones.

This is an index and summary of the things I've talked about over the last month. Links for multi-post subjects go to the first post (even if it's before this month), you can follow the internal navigation links from there.



"King's Dragon" Kate Elliott. Epic fantasy set in an analogue of medieval Europe, part of the Crown of Stars series. New.

Total: 1


"The Middle East: The Cradle of Civilisation Revealed" Stephen Bourke. Part of the Thames & Hudson Ancient Civilisations series.

Total: 1


Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy - exhibition at the British Library to mark the 800th anniversary of the original issuing of Magna Carta by King John.

Painting Paradise: The Art of the Garden - exhibition in The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace. Representations of gardens through history.

Total: 2



Aesop. In Our Time episode about both Aesop's fables and whether or not the man himself existed.

The Augustan Age. In Our Time episode about the reign of Augustus as Emperor of Rome.

Extremophiles. In Our Time episode about extremophiles and what they till us about the search for extraterrestrial life.

Frederick the Great - In Our Time episode about his life.

Total: 4


"At the Gate of the Ancestors: Saint Cults and the Politics of the Past at Abydos" Janet Richards - the 2015 Sackler Lecture, given at the British Museum.

"The Sacred Site of 'Quesna': Multi-disciplinary Investigations and Analyses in the Cemetery and Falcon Necropolis" Joanne Rowland - talk at the February meeting of the Essex Egyptology Group.

Total: 2

Tags: Admin

The Middle East book is starting to get into the realm of real dates for events, and so I'm including some reference points for what else is happening in the world c.2900BCE to c.2200BCE. For this chapter my only points of comparison are in Egypt - the earliest potentially datable Chinese dynasty were the Xia in 2100BCE so a little later on.

Orientation dates:

  • c.3150-2686 BCE - Early Dynastic Egypt, the first two dynasties.
  • 2686-2181 BCE - Old Kingdom Egypt
  • c.2560 BCE - building of the Great Pyramid at Giza

The Emergence of City States

Despite the title of this section of the chapter it is not so much about the birth of city states as a concept (that was the last bit of the chapter) but more about the growth of these and the first couple of unified empires in Mesopotamia. At first the early city states were independent of each other, and were frequently in conflict over the limited agricultural resources of the region. This Early Dynastic Period (2900-2300 BCE) is characterised by rivalries between the city states. The first to establish itself as a major centre for the surrounding region was Uruk, with Lagash and Umma developing into such after 2500 BCE. Some cities became more symbolically important - like Nippur (which was where the shrine of Enlil (a major deity) was), or Kish. In both cases being able to say you were king of the city implied that you were endorsed by their gods and so "should" have sovereignty over other cities. The first ruler over a unified Sumeria came from Umma and reigned from 2375 BCE to 2350 BCE, but Lugalzagesi's empire didn't outlive him. The first lasting empire was that of Sargon, ruler of Akkad, who proclaimed himself King of Sumer and Akkad (a title that was used for the next 200 years).

The Royal Standard of Ur (see pic below) dates from this era (c. 2600-2400 BCE) and there's a small sidebar in the book about warfare in Sumeria illustrated by the decoration on this object. Most of the soldiers would've been foot soldiers - but they did also have chariots of a sort. They were drawn by onagers (wild asses) and were heavier than later chariots, so probably actually used as mobile observation platforms than as battle weapons. At first the military leadership was separate from the city rulership, but as warfare became more important the two roles merged.

Royal Standard of Ur

Again the book is a trifle confused in its organisation as the next double page spread about the city of Uruk reiterates much of the info that the previous section of this chapter gave us (but with new pictures). The key point for this era is that Uruk's political importance decreased in the Mesopotamian Early Dynastic Period. However, the increasing importance of the legends of Uruk's foundation by Gilgamesh indicate that the city continued to have religious significance.

The city state of Lagash rose to prominence during this era. The state of Lagash had three centres: the economic one was the city of Lagash itself, Girsu was the religious and political centre and there was a further temple precinct at Nina. The people of Lagash seem to've been particularly keen on war, as evidenced by their local patron gods. One was their version of the war god Ninurta, called Ningirsu - who was also patron of irrigation (a key area of conflict with the nearby city state of Umma). And the other patron god was the war and fertility goddess Nina, who was related to Inanna/Ishtar. As well a belligerence against their neighbours this is also the first place where a revolt against the city rulers is recorded, and the king instated after the revolt is thought to've created the first law code in Mesopotamia. Sadly no dates given for this king, Urukagina, but as it's mentioned he's several hundred years pre-Sargon of Akkad he must've reigned long before 2350 BCE. Perhaps contemporary with the 4th Dynasty Pharaoh Khufu or maybe even earlier than that.

As well as the Sumerians and the Akkadians there were other cultures in and around Mesopotamia during this period. The Amorites were one of these - the name we use for them derives from the Sumerian word for westerner (amurru), and they initially lived between the Sumerians and the Cananites & Egyptians. The Sumerians regarded the Amorites as barbarians, but evidence from their cities (such as Mari or Ebla) suggests otherwise. These cities had extensive libraries and there is evidence they were hubs on the trade networks running between Mesopotamia and Old Kingdom Egypt. The Amorites may also have founded Bablyon (although Sargon of Akkad is later credited with this) - this would be after the Akkadian Empire collapsed when the Amorites were filling the local power vacuum. There were also Hatti in central Anatolia (who were not the cultural ancestors of the Hittites despite the face we use the same name for the two cultures), and the Elamites who lived to the east of Sumer.

The Akkadians lived to the north of the Sumerians, and even before the Akkadians ruled Sumer there was a lot of cultural contact. The Akkadian language is a Semitic language, so from a completely different family to the Sumerian language, but there is evidence of word borrowing between them. In particular the Akkadians picked up words for writing and gardening from the Sumerians, whereas the Sumerians picked up words for war, herding and religion from their neighbours. The most obvious cultural exchange between the two peoples was that the Akkadians learnt and used the Sumerian writing system (cuneiform). This was to continue long after the Akkadian Empire collapsed - Akkadian written in cuneiform was to be the diplomatic language for the next couple of millennia in the region. It's been suggested that in the reverse direction the Sumerians acquired elements of Akkadian theology. They began to worship some of the same gods (notably Shamash and Ishtar). The conceptualisation of the gods as capricious or malicious may also have been Akkadian in origin. As an aside the book notes that while in the Old Testament flood story God floods the world because of mankind's wickedness, in the Sumerian version of the myth the gods do it because humanity is too noisy!

Sargon of Akkad established the world's first empire c.2350 BCE, and unsurprisingly we don't have much concrete information about his rise to power. Legends about him are reminiscent of later biblical stories (for instance like the stories of King David). His conquests started with Kish (in the north of Sumeria) and then Umma, which was one of the largest Sumerian city states at the time. Despite the need to constantly put down rebellions in previously conquered city states Sargon extended his empire to the Levant and to the Taurus mountains in Turkey. The rebellions eventually lead him to change the government in the city states he conquered - he installed his sons as the new governors and his daughters as high priestesses. There is little written about Sargon in contemporary sources - he only appears in the records of Susa (the Elamite capital city). Most of our information comes from later legends and King Lists. These say that he reigned for 56 years, and it was a turbulent period as he was unable to stabilise his control of his empire and was constantly fire-fighting against rebellions. The next four rulers of the empire reigned for 86 years between them. These kings included Sargon's son (with a reign of only 9 years) and his grandson Naram-Sin who reigned for 30 years. The office of chief priestess of Sin (the Akkadian's primary god) also became hereditary and was always a daughter of the king.

The empire was never particularly stable - all the kings had to frequently wage war to enforce taxation and tribute requirements from the regions outside their core area of Babylonia, and to protect necessary trade routes. However one area of success was in the organisation of agricultural production. Competition for agricultural resources had been one of the major sources of rivalry between independent city states, and so the Akkadian empire centralised (and protected) the storage of grain and distributed it as rations throughout their empire. This meant that there were no famines for over a hundred years despite decreasing rainfall and flooding in the highlands - the continued rainfall in the lowlands enabled sufficient grain production to keep the empire fed.

After 150 years the Akkadian Empire abruptly collapsed for reasons that are unclear. Previous hypotheses have focussed on the internal turbulence of the empire - suggesting potential problems such as the cost of all the military campaigns that were necessary. The book dismisses these theories as "logical but unconvincing", in large part because these problems were the same throughout the whole of the empire's history. A more recent hypothesis is to do with climate change (which is, of course, the trendy theory for collapses of civilisation these days ...). There is evidence from sediment cores that suggests that around the time of the Akkadian Empire's collapse there was a sudden shift towards more arid conditions. This same shift is seen across a wider region than just Mesopotamia - it's a current hypothesis to explain the collapse of the Old Kingdom in Egypt as well. Backing this up is archaeological evidence from Tell Leilan in northern Mesopotamia, where the remains of domesticated sheep & cattle from this period show signs of extreme water deprivation. Textually the climate change hypothesis is backed up by ancient sources that blame the fall of the Empire on the displeasure of the gods with Naram-Sin who attacked the city of Nippur and sacked the temple of Enlil. And so the gods cursed Akkad and "... the great agricultural tracts produced no grain. The irrigated orchards produced neither syrup nor wine. The gathered clouds did not rain... People were flailing at themselves from hunger.".

After the collapse of the Akkadian Empire the next power to rise up in the region was a Sumerian dynasty - the Third Dynasty of Ur - which formed the only Sumerian Empire. And that's what the next section of the chapter is about.

I've read Kate Elliott's "King's Dragon" before - at least twice - and both times stalled out on the series before I got to the end, either because I couldn't get the books at the library or because I hadn't quite decided whether to buy or borrow them. Last time I read it I reviewed it in this blog too (post). So when I needed to think of some books to get on my kindle to take away with me (last spring!) this series came to mind as unfinished business. I finished reading this one in July 2015, and am writing it up (from notes made at the time) in January 2016 by which point I've finished the series, so this is not going to be the post you'd've got if I'd been more diligent about writing it! :) It's also not a review as such (and if you haven't read the books my previous review gives a bit more detail about the set up and characters), and there will be spoilers ahead for the whole series even tho I'm concentrating on this book in this post.

One of the things I wrote about before, and remembered as particularly liking, is that this series starts out with a fairly familiar set of epic fantasy tropes which it then proceeds to do something more interesting with than what one might expect. Our main point of view characters are a couple of Chosen One archetypes who live in a version of medieval Europe. Alain is a farm boy of uncertain parentage, destined for the Church but yearning for adventure. Liath is on the run with her father, learning philosophy, astronomy and magic but unable to ever settle down for fear they'll be killed by those who chase them. And the world around them has kings and princes, court intrigue, wars fought on horseback with swords, and a powerful Church. It isn't, however, generic and nor are any of the characters. One of the things I appreciated about this whole series is that it felt like a real world, and like the implications of the world building had been thought through.

An example of this is the religion of this world - it's flavoured with Christianity, although with many differences the key of which is that the orthodox opinion is that God is plural and they are both male and female. The senior officials of the Church, the biscops and the skopos (Pope equivalent), are all female. Mayors of towns are female. And there's a reasonable amount of the sort of casual sexism you'd expect from the characters about how men are unsuited for such roles. But, women still have the biological vulnerabilities that they have in reality - and just because women are "in power" in some arenas doesn't turn the society into something fluffy and peace loving. Which I appreciated, because every time I see someone say something about "if women ruled the world we wouldn't have X injustice happening" I wince - women are people too, and setting us up as inherently superior to men is no more right than as inherently inferior. So it was nice to see a world where women did have power and yet the world wasn't full of magical unicorns.

I felt that family was one of the dominant themes of the book (and series). People didn't just introduce themselves by name, but also by lineage. Legitimacy or otherwise is also important - bastards don't inherit, which is one of the key factors in Sanglant's story. And even though we see the action primarily via Alain and Liath, Sanglant is one of the key characters - the book is named after him, and his relationship with his father is critical to the politics. If his father didn't love him so much, then a lot of the events throughout the series wouldn't've happened. Returning to the theme of family - Liath and Alain are both set apart by their lack of claimable family. Liath doesn't know who her parents are related to, and Alain doesn't even know who his parents are for sure. Liath's family relationships become one of the linchpins of the entire series, precisely who she is matters more to the world (both everyday and magical) than she realises at this point.

Another thing I really liked about this world was that the religion and the magic felt as solidly real as the politics. I mentioned above about the differences in the Church affecting the society around it, but I also liked that the Church is not a monolith and not stocked solely with either pious clergy or scheming fraudsters. There are differences of opinion on what the scriptures mean and on precisely what people believe in (and a heresy touched on in this book and will have repercussions throughout the series). The clergy are people - some are devout, some are not; some are in their positions because of their secular rank, some are not. And those are two separate axes. It's a complicated mess of an institution, as you'd expect for a religion that's a few centuries old.

Magic is officially regarded as evil by the church (as in our world) but it actually works (unlike our world). It's a very medieval sort of magic - alchemy rather than abracadabra. Liath is learning the theory, and she is learning from books and constructing her own memory palace in her mind where she can walk through to retrieve facts. She's also learning astronomy, mathematics and so on, which is all linked just like alchemists thought it would be in our world. It's a magical system based on knowing or intuiting the secrets and fundamental principles of the universe. It's also not without limitations & flaws. For instance, in practical terms one of the more useful pieces of magic we see is the ability to see through fire for a vision of what's happening elsewhere to someone. And it's limited by what you see (literally) when you look - if someone is passed out cold on the floor somewhere with wounds all over him, you'll probably think he's dead. So this provides a way of getting more information about far off events more quickly than you can by mundane methods, but it can also provide disinformation.

I'm glad I finally got round to getting the whole series - there's definitely re-read potential here, just looking stuff up for this post I've remembered a few things I thought were background at this point that turn out to be much more important later on.

The Augustan Age is the period between 27BCE and 14CE when the Emperor Augustus ruled the Roman Empire. It was discussed on In Our Time (in 2009) by Catharine Edwards (Birkbeck College, University of London), Duncan Kennedy (University of Bristol) and Mary Beard (Cambridge University). They were primarily considering the politics and arts of the Emperor Augustus's reign and how these were linked. Politically speaking it's the beginning of the Roman Empire and a period of peace after the instability of the civil war that marked the end of the Roman Republic. And in terms of the arts this period includes some of the names that one thinks of when one thinks of Roman literature: Virgil, Ovid, Horace.

The Emperor Augustus was called Octavian before he became Emperor and was the adopted son of Julius Caesar (so is sometimes referred to as Caesar). He was named heir in Julius Caesar's will, but when Julius Caesar was murdered Mark Anthony tried to grab power and civil war broke out. When the dust settled Octavian didn't restore the Republic, instead he became the Emperor Augustus and inaugurated the Roman Empire. He managed to leave the Senate a sense of dignity and respect (thus heading off the likelihood of an end like Julius Caesar's) whilst actually retaining sole control himself. For instance he chose a role from the standard Roman Republic's kit to hold in perpetuity (Tribune) that was actually one of the more junior roles but it was also the one that spoke first in the Senate allowing him to direct the proceedings. He also made a point of knowing all of the Senators, and Beard said that he's supposed to've greeted them all by name at the beginning of each session - which, as she pointed out, must've come across as rather fake & tedious to the Senators who weren't whole-heartedly buying into the cult of Augustus.

His propaganda characterised his reign as a return to the good old fashioned Roman virtues - a bit like the Tory Party narrative of "family values" in modern politics, looking back to an idealised 1950s that never was. Augustus cast the civil war and turmoil as being the result of Rome and the Roman citizens' fall from virtue over the preceding decades. The bedrock of Roman virtue is the mythos of the farmer-general who leaves his plough to lead the armies of Rome to glory. It's rooted in rural and agricultural life, and military values; and this is juxtaposed with the sins of decadent urban life where citizens live in luxury. Which I found quite amusing as the way we remember the Roman Empire includes quite a lot of salacious scandal about "my goodness what those Emperors and their families got up to!". And it seems that Augustus would be horrified by this image of his Empire. He envisaged his family's role as playing the part of "Good Old Fashioned Roman Family" as an example for everyone else to live up to. For instance his wife spun the cloth that made his clothes, just as a good Roman housewife should. He was not entirely successful in achieving the family image he intended (see below), but he did succeed in successfully re-inventing himself. Which was quite an achievement, as during the civil war Octavian had been somewhat of a young thug. There are multiple stories of his ruthlessness and cruelty, including one tale of him ripping out someone's eyes with his bare hands! Not quite the good and virtuous first-amongst-equals farmer-general of his later propaganda.

One of the things Augustus does to return virtue to Rome is to pass new laws enforcing proper moral behaviour. Notably these included laws against adultery. This was the area in which his family fell short of the image he was hoping they'd convey. Augustus's daughter Julia had been married off "advantageously" but clearly not to her tastes - she committed adultery in a particularly noticeable and notorious fashion. Augustus was forced to take action using his own laws, and she was exiled and some of her lovers executed. Then a decade later Julia's daughter (also called Julia) went on to do much the same thing as her mother - with much the same consequences. So much for the Good & Virtuous first family!

Augustus poured money into the city of Rome - he is said to've come to Rome as a city of brick and left it a city of marble. His building projects were wide-ranging and numerous, and many of the buildings we think of as Ancient Rome come from his infrastructure overhaul. This is notably not a return to the "Good Old Days" - we listened to an In Our Time episode about the Roman Republic about three weeks after we listened to this one, and it made the point that the ephemerality of power was a key concept in the Republic. So building infrastructure out of ostentatious and permanent marble was a change of paradigm, reflecting the difference between Republic and Empire as governmental systems.

The flowering of literature and poetry during the Augustan Age is tied into Augustus's propaganda machinery. It's a part of the return to the old virtues and of the idea of making Rome great again. Augustus was definitely a patron of the arts - it's not known how much he paid the writers, but there's evidence that he did pay them, and pay them well. He also writes some of his own poetry, but there's no evidence one way or the other about whether or not he also "collaborated" on the others' poetry. Some of the well known works that survive to the present also have Augustan propaganda as part of their subject matter. For instance Virgil's Aeneid has a section early on where Jupiter prophesies the future of the city Aeneas has founded (which is Rome). This details the future of Rome through to Augustus as the necessary, pivotal and inevitable Emperor, after whom Rome will rule the world forever. It situates everything Augustus did to gain power and how he is now ruling as the things that are necessary for the future glory of Rome (rather than self-serving). Augustus also traces his ancestry to Aeneas (just like medieval English kings will later link themselves to Brutus and/or King Arthur).

Horace's poetry is also a part of the propaganda machinery (on the family values side of it) but Ovid is less obviously a part of this. His work is lighter and more comedic than the other two poets, and much more about sex than the new morality of the Augustan Age is really comfortable with. There's also evidence that Ovid himself didn't sit comfortably in this new morality - he was perhaps a part of the Younger Julia's disgrace, and was exiled from Rome. He missed Rome while in exile, considering it the only place worth living - even if his work was more light-hearted than the tone of the age, he was still very emotionally invested in the new Rome that Augustus had built.

Near the beginning of the programme they mentioned the Elizabethan Age (of Elizabeth I of England) as a way of explaining the term "Augustan Age", and once one's mind has been drawn to it there are some coincidences in more than the terminology we use for the era. Both are periods of calm after a period of chaos and disunity, the leadership of each country is presented as benign yet is actually pretty tyrannical, both have a flowering of literature which is state-controlled propaganda as well as art. And Elizabeth I was crowned on nearly the same day as Augustus took power (only 1585 years and 1 day later...).

Mesopotamia: The Cradle of Civilisation

The next chapter of this book deals with the wave of urbanisation in Mesopotamia starting around 6,000 years ago, and the emergence of city states. This is the rise of what we call civilisation - urban culture as opposed to village/farming culture. Obviously as with any dividing line it's reasonably arbitrary: the Ubaid culture discussed at the end of the previous chapter (post) consists of large villages with public buildings, sometimes surrounded by smaller satellite settlements. There's a hierarchy within the population, and indications of centralised administration of resources. This is well on the way to the same sort of city organisation that characterises the urban cultures of this chapter - it's just not quite as well developed as it becomes after this arbitrary line in the sand.

The chapter is divided into three parts (and I'm only really writing about the first one in this blog post). Firstly it covers the early Sumerian period where true city dwelling develops and writing is invented. Next is the emergence of city states, and the first empire (the Akkadian Empire). And lastly the return to prominence of the Sumerian city of Ur after the collapse of the Akkadian Empire.

An Urban Explosion

This section of the chapter opens with a double page spread on "The Sumerian Question", to which scholars apparently have no clear answer: where did they come from? Were they the people who had always lived in southern Mesopotamia (since there were people there), or did they migrate into the area in the 4th Millennium BCE? Or were they a combination culture of the indigenous hunters & fishers, merged with incoming farmers from the north, or from Bahrain*? There are various bits of evidence that hint at one or another of these possibilities. For instance there are indications of a pre-Sumerian culture in the area with links to the Samarrans in the north of Mesopotamia. And there are loan words from other (unknown) languages in the Sumerian vocabulary, indicating contact with some other culture. The Sumerian language is a language isolate. This means that it has no living relatives, and in fact there are no other dead languages that appear to be related to Sumerian. Other languages spoken in Mesopotamia after this period are all Semitic languages (it's a bit hard to tell for sure what was spoken contemporaneously with Sumerian as only Sumerian was being written down at this time). The writing that the Sumerians invented long outlasted their language - cuneiform was still being used in the first centuries CE, but spoken Sumerian began to die out in the 2nd Millennium BCE. After this it lingered on as the language of religion and epic poetry but gradually became more & more obscure until dying out, entirely.

*This is not quite as out of left field as it might sound, Sumerian legends mention Dilmun (modern day Bahrain) so there's a potential link to there.

The initial part of this urbanisation of Mesopotamia is referred to as the Uruk Period, because it was dominated by the city of Uruk which became the first city state. This era is characterised by increasing social stratification, regulated agriculture and the development of writing. The latter two of these go together as the earliest use of writing in the region was keeping track of goods - the early cities in Mesopotamia were well organised economically compared to the earlier and contemporary villages. These cities relied on domestic agriculture for food and trade for many of the other necessities of civilisation. So Sumerian trade colonies spread throughout the rest of the region. Uruk and the other Sumerian cities of this period were centred around temples and ruled by priestly officials. This structure was not spread to other surrounding cultures, which did develop cities similar to the Sumerian model except ruled by secular authorities.

Archaeological evidence at Uruk shows the development of an improved pottery wheel, wheeled vehicles, the plough and the pottery kiln. The new pottery wheels changed the material culture of the region significantly - in the Ubaid Period pottery was distinctively painted, but in the Uruk Period this was replaced by mass-produced unpainted wares. There is also archaeological evidence of an increase in the scale of slave labour - in particular of forced migrations of peoples from many different places into Sumeria. Settlement sizes and numbers increased dramatically during the Uruk Period across the whole of Mesopotamia and later in the period many of these have fortifications, indicating a rise in militarisation. An interesting unanswered question about this period is what the relations between the main cities of the region were. Were they all mostly-independent regional centres, with Uruk the largest of them with a limited central administrative role? Or was there a form of pre-imperialism whereby Uruk was in some sense ruling over the other cities? At the end of the period there was a collapse of whatever sort of organisation existed and the region fragmented into several smaller polities - so clearly there was some degree of organisation above the city level.

The structure of this chapter is a little confused as after talking about Uruk it then jumps back in time for a brief discussion of Eridu, which was the first temple town. The foundation of Eridu pre-dates Uruk by at least a thousand years and it was an important ceremonial centre during the Ubaid period. Sumerian mythology describes Eridu as having been founded before the flood (as detailed in the Epic of Gilgamesh). However despite the early founding of Eridu, Uruk became a city state first and Eridu only later. Rather frustratingly the book doesn't clearly say what makes a city a city and a large village a large village. Perhaps it's a "you know it when you see it" sort of thing? What the text does get across is that it's the complexity of the society that matters - elites supported by the agricultural output of the farmland around, including priestly, political and military classes as well as artists and craftspeople. Cities could be pretty large, as well: some had populations numbering in the tens of thousands.

Temple towns developed on the rivers of the region, and water-borne trade was important in providing the resources needed to build their public buildings as well as the water itself being used to irrigate the fields. The towns and cities were dominated by temples built in the shape of artificial mountains. These ziggurats were a form of sacred architecture used in Mesopotamia for thousands of years after this. The administrative buildings of the city were associated with the temples. Urban life had existed for a few hundred years before writing was invented - which then made the bureaucracy of the cities much more efficient (as well as enabling accurate communication across large distances or times). An aside in the text here mentions that their counting system was based on base 60 and we still use it for time and angles, which I knew before but I still find a bit astonishing how that has persisted over such a long time and over such a vast cultural gulf.

Each city had at least one temple, and thus a patron god. All the Sumerian cities revered the same pantheon of deities but religious practice was focussed on the god to which the city's shrine was dedicated. These gods included Anu (father of the gods, with a temple in Uruk), Inanna/Ishtar (queen of the gods, with a temple in Uruk too), Enki (god of wisdom & water, with a temple in Eridu), Ninurta (war god, Lagash), Sin (moon, Ur), Nabu (wisdom, Borsippa) and Shara (minor war god, Umma). Education and art in Sumer were associated with the temples. Libraries were maintained in temples by priests and scribes, and decorative arts were dedicated to the gods (and later to the rulers of cities).

Sumerian society was highly stratified, and had a very high regard for ownership of property. Writing developed, as I said, to track goods and later many of the texts we have are related to property transactions and lawsuits. I've just started translating very simple examples of these sorts of things in my Akkadian course (so from a bit later on in time from the Sumerian period). These give an impression of a pretty litigious society in their matter of factness about such things e.g.: "Takūm-mātum daughter of Amurrûm and her mother, Rabbatum, bought a field from Ãlikum son of Arwûm. Ãlikum son of Arwûm, Sumu-ramê and all his sons sued Takūm-mātum and the judges of the house of Shamash rejected their lawsuits." It's not just ownership of property that the Sumerian society was keen to control and codify - the book also mentions increasingly complicated systems for recording the passing of time and for recording boundaries, goods and services.

This section of the chapter ends with a double page spread about cuneiform writing. The book says it was the first writing system, but I believe the jury is still out on whether the Sumerians or the Egyptians got there first (and on whether or not these two systems developed wholly independently or whether one copied the other). Although cuneiform started out as pictographs over time it was simplified into clusters of wedge shapes for each sign - I think of it as looking like a drunk bird staggered across the surface (although a pretty regimented drunk bird, as the signs are generally in neat rows). I also find them hard to memorise because there's a lot of them that are pretty similar to each other, and they all come in many forms. Complicating this writing system still further is the fact that each sign may have multiple different logographic (whole word) or syllabic meanings assigned to it. The converse is also true - there may be more than one sign for any given syllable. Although developed for Sumerian cuneiform was adapted to write several other languages, most importantly Akkadian. Akkadian took on a role in the ancient Middle East similar to that of Latin in medieval Europe. It was the language of bureaucracy, scholarship and of diplomatic correspondence, and the use of it long outlasted the culture and empire that originally spread it across the region.

While I was in a London for a few days in July 2015 I visited the Magna Carta: Law, Liberty and Legacy exhibition at the British Library, which was put on to mark the 800th anniversary of the original issue of the charter. The items displayed in the exhibition were mostly written documents (as you might expect in a library) although there were also some other things, including paintings and examples of seals. There were also several short films each of which had someone talking about a particular aspect of the charter & its legacy. The talking heads were a variety of historians, lawyers and politicians. I did like these, they added quite a bit to the exhibition, but they also broke up the flow a bit - there wasn't always enough space for people to walk past those who were standing and watching them, so at times the galleries felt clogged up.

The first section of the exhibition put Magna Carta into its original historical context. There were some examples of charters issued by previous kings (such as one by Henry I), and some contemporary accounts of King John. One of these was written by Matthew Paris, who really didn't much approve of John - something he wrote after John's death included the quote: "Hell foul as it is, is made fouler still by presence of John"! In this section they also displayed some earlier drafts of the charter, made as it was being negotiated at Runnymead. And they had several examples of seals, including the one used by John to seal the Magna Carta. Almost immediately after the Magna Carta was issued John repealed it - asking the Pope to declare it invalid in a Papal Bull (which was there to see in the exhibition). When he unexpectedly died during the ensuing civil war his young son Henry came to the throne at the age of 9. He began a period of using reissuing the Magna Carta as a means of legitimising the authority of the King which continued over the next century or so.

They had a rather neat animated graphic in the exhibition which showed the various clauses being weeded out over time until only the last few more general ones remained. This covered up until the modern day, despite it's placement at this point in the exhibition - I think because after this the exhibition moved on to looking at the legacy rather than the actual thing itself. The common theme tying together the rest of the exhibition was that "Magna Carta" came to represent more as an idea and a totem than was actually present in the original document.

After the 13th Century the importance of the Magna Carta faded - to the extent that when Shakespeare wrote his play about King John in the 16th Century he didn't even reference the document. There was a revival of interest in it in the 17th Century which is the beginning of the modern prominence of the document. It was used to justify rebellion against a tyrant King during the run up to the Civil War and subsequently used against Parliament when they were felt to be becoming tyrants.

Magna Carta has become extremely important both in US culture and US law. The Declaration of Independence draws on the charter and uses language that directly references it. Even before that the laws of the early colonies were based on Magna Carta. It's still important in the US legal tradition today - one of the talking head videos was explaining that it has been used as part of the legal argument against the incarceration of people in Guantanamo Bay.

During the 18th & 19th Centuries radicals within the UK continue to use Magna Carta when challenging the government, for instance the Chartists write a new revised version suitable for their times (and agenda). Magna Carta was generally not applicable in the British Empire, and one of the things that the 20th Century sees is the the newly independent ex-colony states issuing documents to grant these rights to their citizens. And there's a tendency for grants of legal rights to be referred to as the Something Magna Carta (i.e. the Maori Magna Carta) even tho the content of the documents is very far from the content of the original Magna Carta (which is really quite specific and parochial in scope despite the later reputation). More recently it has also been invoked by Nelson Mandela and by Aung San Suu Kyi. In contrast to Shakespeare's day the Magna Carta is now also likely to show up in popular culture. The penultimate section of the exhibition displayed several examples of this - including thoroughly anacronistic representations of King John signing the charter!

The exhibition then finished with the showpieces - two original copies of the Magna Carta. One of these was from Canterbury and had been very damaged, whereas the other one was in much better condition. Of course, it was in Latin (and abbreviated wherever possible) so even being able to see the text didn't mean I could read it!

It was an interesting exhibition - although I think I was more interested in the beginning sections about the medieval history (and the very end) rather than the bits about the legacy. I was interested enough overall to buy the book tho! :)


Subscribe to