First Pylon at Medinet Habu

The temple at Medinet Habu is one of the best preserved temples in Egypt. It was Ramesses III's memorial temple, known in Ancient Egypt as the Mansion of Millions of Years of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt User-Ma'at-Ra-Mery-Amun in the Estate of Amun on the West of Thebes. And typing out a name like that always makes me wonder if it was significantly shorter in Ancient Egyptian or if they had shorter names to refer to the temples by! The design of this temple is quite similar to the other mortuary temples we visited earlier in the trip - those of Seti I and Ramesses II. Possibly a standard design, although Kent Weeks in his Luxor guidebook ascribes it to being another instance of Ramesses III emulating Ramesses II (along with naming his sons the same things as Ramesses II named his and so on).

My photos from this site are, as always, on flickr and you can click here for the full set or on any photo to go to it on flickr.

The Gateway at Medinet Habu

We started our visit with a bit of explanation from Medhat about the temple, mostly concentrating on the harem and the entrance to the temple. The gate that leads into the temple enclosure is much more like a fortification than one would expect for a religious site. This might be a case of literalising a metaphorical concept of the enclosure wall protecting the sacred space from profane contamination, or it might be that the unsettled political and economic climate of Ramesses III's time necessitated protection. This is the time of the Sea Peoples, a mass migration of people across the Mediterranean that caused disruption in several of the more settled countries in North Africa and the Middle East. It was also a time of domestic problems - including possibly a successful assassination of Ramesses III himself. (There was a paper three years ago about this which I wrote about at the time, where they claimed to've identified the fatal wound and the killer's mummy.) The fortified gate includes windows at a high level which had stone heads along the window sills. Medhat told us that these, like the design of the gate, are based on Assyrian structures. But executed in a typical Egyptian fashion - where the Assyrians used real human heads cut off their enemies, the Egyptians made stone ones so that their enemies were symbolically mutilated and displayed for eternity.

Palace at Medinet Habu

After this we were let loose to explore ourselves. John and I started by having a brief look at the palace to the southwest of the temple proper. The walls of this have been partially restored so you do get a sense of the shapes of the rooms (although not of how it would've looked - as it's difficult to imagine how the ruined half-walls looked when decorated and lived within). These included an audience chamber where Ramesses III would've held court. And it even has an en-suite toilet in a small chamber on one side, all mod cons!

First Courtyard, Medinet Habu

After looking at the palace we moved back to look more at the temple itself. As well as looking at the front of the temple and the outside walls we spent a lot of time in the First and Second Courts. The outside of the First Pylon has the traditional scenes of the Pharaoh smiting his enemies, and the military theme is continued within the First Court which was not only part of the temple but also the forecourt for the palace. Around the walls of the court are scenes of defeated enemies, and the penises and hands of dead enemies (not attached). Unlike Ramesses II who had his one battle that he liked to depict everywhere (Kadesh), Ramesses III had several campaigns he wanted represented. These included fighting against the Sea Peoples who attempted to invade during his eighth regnal year, and a campaign in Syria against an Amorite settlement.

First Pylon at Medinet Habu

One thing that's really noticeable about the reliefs in this temple compared to other sites we visited is the depth of some of the heiroglyphs. They vary from very shallow sunk relief to very deep indeed - so deep that pigeons can sit in the holes. I find this fascinating - the different depths are jumbled together and I feel like there must've been some scheme or rationale behind the differences. But I don't think anyone knows the reasons - I did ask both Dylan and Medhat and they didn't know.

Second Courtyard, Medinet Habu

The Second Court reliefs still retain a lot of their original colour - particularly under the colonnade. We spent a lot of time in here just admiring them and photographing them. I also found some graffiti - there is always graffiti, this stuff was mostly early 19th Century. Once through this court the temple is suddenly roofless. It feels like someone came along and sliced the top off with a (very large) knife. The Kent Weeks Luxor book says that the stone was removed by later builders using the temple as a quarry, as so often happens when a building falls into disuse over the centuries. The temple guardians in this section were fairly predatory and had closed off some of the side chapels with fences in the hope they could con us tourists into handing over extra money to see things that should've been freely accessible. One of the other people in our group (the other Margaret) managed to talk one of them into changing his tune by saying she'd report them to the Ministry, and so we did get to go into a chapel we would otherwise have missed out on. It had some interesting scenes in it of the Pharaoh reaping corn and ploughing fields - I don't think I've seen reliefs like that before in a temple.

Medinet Habu

Medinet Habu is a huge temple and has loads of well preserved things to see, so we didn't have nearly enough time here. But we'd've had to miss out other things to get more time and I don't think I could pick one to do without!

Medinet Habu

Before I listened to this episode of In Our Time I had no idea that the American Civil War had caused hardship to so many people in Britain. The cessation of cotton imports from the Southern USA after war broke out led to the cotton mills in Lancashire shutting down, and several hundred thousand of people became unemployed. And yet the directly affected workers were still overwhelmingly on the side of the Northern USA, and for the ending of slavery. Discussing this on In Our Time were Lawrence Goldman (University of London), Emma Griffin (University of East Anglia) and David Brown (University of Manchester).

The cotton industry was one of the biggest industries in Britain during the 1850s and 1860s. Cotton was imported and made into textiles in mills in the new industrial towns like Manchester and other places in the North West of England. Nowadays factory jobs are low status, and low paid, but at that time these jobs were skilled labour and were well paid. The factory production of textiles replaced the older piece work system, where weavers worked in their own homes. In the new system there were potential jobs for the whole family, from quite an early age, so families were relatively well off as compared to their rural counterparts.

The south of the US had a climate that was particularly suitable for growing high quality cotton, and so 90% of the cotton that entered Britain came from the slave plantations in the US. Thus the outbreak of war in 1861 had the potential to cause significant disruption to the cotton industry. The North blockaded the ports of the South preventing the export of cotton - and the South also didn't make much effort to break the blockade because they misjudged the mood of Britain vis-à-vis the continuance of slavery. At first the lack of cotton imports didn't cause many problems. The owners of the mills had been able to see which way the wind was blowing and had stockpiled cotton in case there was a problem. This was only an extension of normal business practice - having reserves in case the harvest failed was common practice. But by 1862 these reserves were running out and mills started to first slow down operations and then shut down all together. At first families could attempt to minimise the effects. As they were relatively prosperous they might well have savings, and providing they could keep one member of the family in a job then that income plus savings might tide them over for a while. Eventually, however, the hardship affected most mill workers and their families.

As I mentioned in the last paragraph the South had misjudged the political and economic situation in the UK and the public antipathy for slavery. They had assumed that the UK government would intervene to protect the cotton supply, so decided to hasten that by not trying terribly hard to break through the blockade. However cotton wasn't the only important part of the British economy, and some of the other key pieces relied on trade with the North (for instance a lot of the nascent financial industry was heavily invested in Northern US business opportunities). There were also other potential sources of cotton - a bit of lead time was necessary to diversify and to improve the quantity & quality of these alternatives, but they were viable in the long term. Politically speaking the Establishment did have some sympathy with the South (a sort of fellow feeling for another aristocratic based system). But other factions in Parliament were more radical and more anti-slavery. The Government as a whole were also inclined to caution - intervening on the losing side of a civil war could be disastrous for future relations. And their caution was wise - after a while it became clear that the South were losing.

The general public was quite well informed about what slavery in the Southern US meant. There were articles and editorials in newspapers, and ex-slaves would tour the country giving talks and raising funds for the anti-slavery cause. Some escaped slaves even had their freedom bought by funds donated by mill owners & their workers. The strength of anti-slavery feeling was such that during the Cotton Famine a mill workers' association wrote to Lincoln to encourage him to continue the fight against the slave-owners, despite the effect it was having on their livelihoods. Their general sentiment was that while it was awful to be out of work, it was more important for slavery to be eradicated.

Obviously public opinion wasn't completely one-note, there are exceptions to every generalisation and there were also pockets of pro-South feeling in Britain even outside the Establishment. One place that was more pro-South was the city of Liverpool. It was here that the cotton arrived, so there were representatives from the South living there and working as factors involved in trading the cotton. This meant more contact with Southerners as people rather than as the far away subjects of anti-slavery speeches. The experts suggested that this is one of the roots of the Liverpool/Manchester rivalry - different parts of this cotton industry with different priorities finding themselves on opposite sides of a conflict (ideologically even if not actually).

The consequences of the Cotton Famine on British culture were surprisingly far reaching. For instance it began changing the way the public and the Government thought about welfare. When several hundred people were suddenly out of work the existing poor laws were found to be inadequate. One reform brought in after this was that legislation was passed to allow councils to employ the unemployed to build public works. And rather than letting people starve or putting them in workhouses (which would've been completely overwhelmed) funds were raised to be distributed amongst the unemployed so that they could buy food.

The dignity and unselfish way that the workers behaved during this period of hardship also changed the way the working class were thought and talked about at the time. There was a feeling that obviously the "working man" would riot if he had no food nor employment, and would be unable to see past his own needs to that of other people. But during the Cotton Famine there was only one riot - and that was when one town decided to distribute funds as tokens rather than money to "save" the people from the temptation of misusing the money. It was the disrespect that caused offence. And as mentioned above the mill workers were to a large extent pro-North and anti-slavery in sentiment, despite their own hardship. The overall behaviour of the mill workers during this period undermined one of the main arguments against extending the franchise to all men. Clearly the common man actually was capable of seeing beyond his own self-interest to the bigger picture. So although change didn't happen immediately, the seeds of it were beginning to be sown.

So from a conflict over slavery on the other side of the world came the first steps towards universal suffrage and a welfare state! Not something I had previously realised.

William the Marshal is one of the men responsible for the Magna Carta as we now know it. His seal is on the re-issuing of the charter in 1217 by Henry III, in his role as Regent for the king. His statue stands in the House of Lords behind the monarch's throne defending the monarchy as he did in life. Earlier this year we watched a programme that was a biography of him, which rather surprisingly wasn't part of the Magna Carta anniversary programmes that the BBC put on to coincide with 800 years (since the charter was first signed) as it was first aired in early 2014. The programme was presented by Thomas Ashbridge whose series on the Crusades we'd previously been less than impressed with (post). This programme was rather good, tho :)

After William the Marshal's death his family commissioned a biography of him in verse form, which still survives. The text is in Norman French as one might expect for a member of the nobility of the time. Ashbridge opened the programme by showing us this book and telling us a little about it. Of course, as he said, it's not all to be taken as literally true - it's primary purpose is to demonstrate what an illustrious ancestor the family had. I assume Ashbridge used other sources to corroborate the information in the programme, but he didn't say what those were.

William was born during the Anarchy, the civil war between the Empress Mathilda and Stephen de Blois. He was the second son of a minor noble and his father was on Mathilda's side - or at least, not on Stephen's. When William was 4 he was taken hostage by Stephen's forces and Stephen attempted to win a seige of William's father's stronghold by threatening to kill the child. William's father was not cowed by this threat, replying that he had the equipment to make more sons and leaving William to his fate. Clearly Stephen was bluffing, as William survived the encounter! You can't help but think it must've been pretty traumatic, tho - it included William being paraded back & forth in front of the castle whilst his life was threatened.

In his adolescence he went across the channel to France to a relative of his mother's to train as a knight. Ashbridge pointed out that during this time period the cross-channel connections for the nobility were still very strong and this would not be like going to a different country. Knights were a pretty new part of the culture and warfare of the time, and the stirrup was the new cutting edge technology of the day. It was a role that was really only available to the nobility, as you had to have an expensive horse. Ashbridge talked a bit about knights in general, and also showed some representations of them from this era. They were reminiscent of the Lewis Chessmen and of Norse berserker imagery - which isn't entirely a surprise given the origins of the Normans. I think I hadn't expected it to be quite noticeable in depictions of knights, because the mental image I have of "a knight" is from a later more courtly era.

The biography of William creates an image of a somewhat greedy and lazy teenager during these years (it's not entirely a hagiography)! But once he was knighted (perhaps on the eve of battle, I can't remember what Ashbridge said) he began to win a name for himself in tourneys. These are not the stylised and formal affairs of the later high medieval period, instead they are wide-ranging fairly brutal fights between groups of knights. The primary aim to was to capture some of the opposing side, who you could then ransom for a nice little cash bonus. William's biography tries to claim he was only interested in honour and victory, but it does also mention his accountant who kept track of the ransoms he was paid. So clearly William was also interested in the money to be made, and made sufficient to employ someone to look after it for him!

William entered the court of Henry the Young King via Henry's mother Eleanor of Acquitaine. (Henry the Young King was the eldest son of Henry II and Eleanor, and was crowned in his father's lifetime.) William was part of his master's entourage escorting Eleanor somewhere when they were ambushed. Most of the escort died but William and the other survivors managed to fight off the enemy forces for long enough for Eleanor to escape. He was captured, but once she was in safety she ransomed him and brought him to court. Once in the Young King's court he rises to prominence as the best knight at court.

The politics of the court is a perilous game for William to negotiate, particularly with his status as the best knight. His biography states that at one point he is exiled due to a whispering campaign about himself and the Young King's wife with hints that perhaps there was some degree of truth to it. This sounds very Lancelot & Guinevere, and may be a complete work of fantasy on the biographer's part - after all by the time the text was written all the protagonists were safely dead so no offence could be given by a bit of nudge-nudge-wink-wink-the-queen-fancied-him. This was one point in particular where I wish Ashbridge had brought in other sources and talked about how plausible this was in terms of historical fact. He did talk to another historian who made the point that the Arthur/Lancelot/Guinevere love triangle story reflects a very real anxiety of a Prince of that era. Court society at the time had a combination of a meritocracy of sorts (the knights) and a hereditary monarchy - the King or Prince was unlikely to be both the son of the right man and the best knight in his court. And if prowess at knighthood is the definition of the perfect man, then why wouldn't the King's wife be attracted to the best knight?

The next phase of William's life is in the Holy Land as a Crusader. This is just before the time of Saladin and Richard III. Obviously Richard III is not yet in the Holy Land - he is Henry the Young King's younger brother and didn't go on Crusade until around the time he became King after both Henry II and Henry the Young King's deaths. However Saladin is one of the key players at this stage. Not much is known about William's time as a Crusader, other than that it happened - however he seems to've done well at it, and increased his reputation.

William then returns to Henry the Young King's court, where he remains until the Young King's death in 1183. He then enters the service of the Young King's father, Henry II. Again he rises to prominence as the best knight at court. Henry II gives him an heiress to marry, and grants him lands - William is now a baron, a member of the landed aristocracy with a household and a retinue of knights of his own. Not bad for the second son of a minor noble. William remains a loyal servant of Henry II's until the very end - in the last rebellion of Richard I (Richard Coeur de Lion) against Henry II William fought on Henry's side. The biography says that at one point he was fighting one-to-one against Richard, and had the opportunity to kill him but at the last moment turned his lance aside and killed Richard's horse instead. When Henry II died during this rebellion (although not directly by violence) William remained loyal even after death - Henry's other servants fled, taking what they could, but William remained to see to Henry's proper burial.

It might've been thought that Richard I would exile or otherwise punish William as he had fought against Richard during the rebellion. However Richard saw William's actions as the honourable actions of a knight - he had remained loyal to his lord, and even after death did not dishonour his memory. And so William entered Richard's service, and was subsequently a member of King John's court when he in turn inherited the throne.

When John died in 1215 William was an old man in his mid-70s, and had pretty much retired from the life of the court. At the time of John's death the country was in a perilous state - civil war was raging and the French King's son had invaded (with the support of much of the English nobility) and ruled over half the country. Despite William's age it was to him that the new King, Henry III a boy of 9 years old, turned. When he flung himself on William's mercy William pledged to serve him despite the risks of failure because that was what his honour demanded. If William and the new King had failed to prevail in the civil war then William wasn't just risking death, he was also risking the ruin of his family and household. And even at the end of his life he lived up to his reputation - he rallied support to the new King, he turned around the civil war and drove out the French. He was Regent for Henry III until his death in 1219, and as I said at the beginning of this post his seal is on Henry III's first re-issuance of the Magna Carta.

This was a really interesting programme - I didn't know much about William the Marshal before, although I knew the name, so I learnt lot from it.

Deir el Medina

View across the Village at Deir el Medina

The ancient Egyptian village at Deir el Medina was the home of the people who worked on the tombs of the Pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings. The families who lived there were relatively high status (for common people) as they were skilled craftsmen. They were also kept isolated from the general population because they knew where tombs were and the materials they worked with were also valuable. The village also had a high literacy level, and so a lot is known about their lives from the discarded ostraca (bits & pieces of pottery & limestone) that they used to write notes.

My photos from this site are up on flickr, as always, click here for the full set, and on any photo in the post for the larger version on flickr. Flickr have changed the way their embed links work in a way that breaks my layout for small photos so I've fewer (but larger) pictures in this post and have linked a few from the text to illustrate specific things.

Deir el Medina

Village Walls

We started our visit by the side of the village proper. It's actually pretty difficult to a get a feel for it from ground level - all that's visible are the remains of the walls and it just looks like a confusing maze. Striking in an abstract visual sense, but not very informative. I think the photos J took from the mountain the day before we visited (like this one) give more of a sense of the layout. We didn't spend much time looking at the village itself tho, which was a bit of a shame - but I'm not sure you're ever allowed to go wandering in among the walls.

Ptolemaic Era Temple at Deir el Medina

Walls Around the Temple

At the far end of the site from where we started is a temple. It's enclosed within a mudbrick wall, as are the remains of other smaller buildings. The temple is a Ptolemaic era replacement of the New Kingdom temple(s) on this site. The whole site was subsequently used as a Christian monastery, and so there's a lot of Coptic graffiti on the walls of the temple. Inside the decoration still has a lot of colour and some unusual scenes for a temple. In one of the chapels is a relief showing a weighing of the heart scene, familiar from Book of the Dead papyri and tombs but rare in temples. There are also two columns with representations of historical personages who were later deified. One of these is Imhotep, the architect of the Step Pyramid some two & a half thousand years before this temple was built. The other was Amenhotep, son of Hapu, who may've built an earlier temple on this site during the New Kingdom period.

Ptolemaic Era Temple at Deir el Medina

Weighing of the Heart Scene

After we'd looked around the temple we came out of its enclosure and went round to the north away from the village to look at the Great Pit. This was originally dug to be a well, during the 18th Dynasty (I think), but they never reached the water table. It's enormous - the Kent Weeks book gives the dimensions as 50m deep and 30m in diameter, which seems implausibly large for a well (in width). Even tho it's not clear why it was built like this, it is clear that once they failed to find water the only use for the pit was as a rubbish dump. From this were excavated large numbers of pottery shards and limestone fragments originally used for writing notes. These have provided archaeologists with a fascinating insight into the daily lives and concerns of this group of high status craftspeople. There's nothing to actually see here, except a chance to boggle at the size of the pit. I still found it fascinating.

The Great Pit at Deir el Medina

Great Pit

We finished our visit to Deir el Medina by looking at two tombs of craftsmen who had lived here. As one would expect these are decorated with high quality art - this was after all the village where the best artists lived. Two tombs are open to visitors, one belonging to Inerkha and one to Sennedjem. They were very small and the passages leading down into them were twisty and steep. The scene that particularly caught my eye in Inerkha's tomb was of a cat cutting off a snake's head with a knife. There was a scene like that in Sennedjem's tomb as well, but the striking one here was an image of Hathor in a sycamore tree where the tree's trunk ended in a giant foot!

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.



"Plantagenet England 1225-1360" Michael Prestwich. Part of the New Oxford History of England.

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

Total: 2


Defining Beauty (Exhibition at the British Museum) - Greek sculpture as aesthetic objects.

Indigenous Australia Enduring Civilisation - Exhibition at the British Museum about Australian art and culture as a continuous thing before and after the British arrived.

Total: 2


Brunel - In Our Time episode about Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the Victorian engineer.

The Earth's Core - In Our Time episode about what is known about the Earth's core and how we know it.

Matteo Ricci and the Ming Dynasty - In Our Time episode about the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci who went to China in the 16th Century.

Sappho - In Our Time episode about Sappho, the ancient Greek poetess.

Total: 4


"The Slaughter Court in Sety I Temple, Abydos" Mohammed Abu el-Yezid - talk at the August EEG meeting.

Total: 1


Egypt Holiday 2014: Walk from the Valley of the Kings to Deir el Medina.

Egypt Holiday 2014: Colossi of Memnon.

Egypt Holiday 2014: Mortuary Temple of Seti I.

Egypt Holiday 2014: Valley of the Queens.

Total: 4

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Despite being relatively close to us the inside of the Earth, and particularly the core of the Earth, is difficult to investigate. Primarily because we can't just look at it - and the deepest mines or boreholes are only 10km deep which is tiny compared to the 6,000km that is the Earth's radius. So everything needs to be logically deduced from the readings that we can take. Discussing what we know about the Earth's core and how we know it on In Our Time were Stephen Blundell (University of Oxford), Arwen Deuss (Utrecht University) and Simon Redfern (University of Cambridge).

Prior to the 19th Century the assumption was that the Earth was the same all the way through - rocks where we can see, so rocks everywhere. But in the 19th Century scientists realised that the theory of gravity required a denser Earth than is possible if it's just rocks and so they postulated an iron core. This was also the time when scientists began to be interested in how the Earth was formed. The consensus at the time was that it formed by condensation out of a hot cloud, and it was still cooling. This explained (at a time when radioactivity wasn't known) why it got warmer the further you went underground. So at the time the best explanation for the structure of the Earth was that it had a hot liquid iron rich core surrounded by a rocky shell.

However even in the 19th Century it was clear that there were problems with this explanation. If you spin an uncooked egg, it wobbles - so why doesn't the earth? During the 20th Century it began to be postulated that the core was two phase - a solid core with a liquid coating. One of the experts on the programme, Arwen Deuss, used seismological readings to show that this was the case. When there is an earthquake seismographs on the other side of the Earth detect the shockwaves that have travelled through the planet. Before Deuss's work it was thought that there was a shadowzone where no waves were detected because they had failed to pass directly through the centre of the Earth - so it was thought that the core was a different phase to the rest of the planet and the waves couldn't travel through it. Deuss showed that there are very faint delayed waves detectable in that shadow zone, and that mathematically the best model to describe how these waves are delayed and how they are diminished is one where the core is solid but it is surrounded by liquid. The seismic waves cannot travel through liquid in the same state as they travel through solid, and each transition between states uses up some of the energy in the wave. A wave that travels directly through the core will transition from solid to liquid to solid to liquid and lastly to solid again. As well as each transition using up energy it takes time (hence the delay) and changes direction (so the waves aren't in quite the same places you'd expect if they had no transitions).

The current theory is that the inner core is an iron crystal that is forming out of a less pure molten iron fluid around it. This iron crystal is about the size of the Moon, a fact which I find mind-boggling. The crystal is still growing and this is not a consistent process, sometimes it grows more quickly and sometimes more slowly. The experts said there is evidence of some sort of discontinuity that formed 500 million years ago, but no-one knows what caused it. The crystal is also split into two pieces. One of the experts made an analogy with the land/sea divide up here on the crust, but I didn't really follow that. The crystal is also different in the north/south direction as compared to the east/west direction - seismic waves take longer to travel east & west than they do north & south. It's not known why this is: perhaps to do with crystal alignment, or perhaps it tells us something about the shape of the core.

This solid iron crystal is rotating within the liquid it sits in, I think at a slightly different (quicker?) speed than the whole of the Earth rotates. It's this rotation that is the cause of our magnetic field (which is another piece of evidence in favour of the two phase theory). And the magnetic field is what protects us from cosmic radiation so in some sense you can say that the two-phase spinning core of the Earth is why there is life on Earth. The current theory is that Mars and Venus have cores that are too solid or too small to generate enough of a magnetic field to protect against radiation. That's an untested hypothesis, and so Deuss would like to put seismographs on one (or both) of the other planets to see what she can detect about their internal structure.

Bragg closed up the programme by attempting to encourage them to talk about practical uses that have come out of this blue-skies research - but it seems at the moment this is still in the blue-skies phase.

In June we visited the Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation exhibition at the British Museum. The premise of the exhibition was to display the art and showcase the culture of the indigenous peoples of mainland Australia & the Torres Straits Islands from their own perspective. Whilst the later sections of the exhibition inevitably looked at the impact of the arrival of the British the exhibition didn't begin there as if it was the British discovery of the continent that mattered. Instead it started with the art & traditions that had existed for millennia before that.

The opening section of the exhibition had two purposes - it was trying to convey a sense of the scale and diversity of the continent, and it was introducing the key concept of country. It's easy (from the perspective of all the way over here) to think of modern White Australia as a monolithic entity - beaches, barbies, sunshine, ex-pats & their descendents. So down one wall of the first section of the exhibition was a series of exhibits to point out the diversity in terms of environment and culture across the continent. This included a set of videos of different parts of Australia, with Aboriginal people walking through them or living in them. It also included a map of Australia divided up by the languages spoken at the time the first Western explorers came to the continent. The other side of this area had several pieces of art by several different groups of Aboriginal people. These showcased the variety of styles across the continent, and also began to introduce the idea of country.

The Aboriginal idea that we translate as the word "country" isn't the same as the normal meaning of the English word, it's not country like England is a country. The concept isn't about a nation-state or a large scale political division of land, nor is it a sort of land (as in countryside). It includes not only land but also the people, animals, plants and other resources on that piece of land. It also includes the myths and the stories associated with that place. There's a sense of ownership to it - a person or a family has "their country" - but that goes both ways, the people also belong to the land as much as the land belongs to them. A lot (all?) of the artwork in the exhibition was also tightly linked to the country of the artist(s). The art is a visual representation of the mythology and the geography of country. Several of the larger artworks were created by more than one artist - this is because each person paints their own country so as a story or artwork moves across different countries different people are involved. The exact meanings of the symbolism in the art will also only be known to the people whose country it is. Only the senior members of those people will know all the nuances - possibly not even then, as men and women may have different knowledge of their country. Which meant that while some things were explained in the exhibition labels other things were noted as something private to the artists.

I'm not sure I've explained country very well - it feels slippery to me because it's a completely different way of looking at the universe so neither I nor the language I use have the right words for the concepts. I'm also not personally particularly attached to places - less so than J, for instance - so I only grasp the idea on an intellectual level not an emotional one. Starting the exhibition with country as the key idea helped to put the last part of the exhibition - after the arrival of the Westerners - into sharper relief. Taking land from Aboriginal people, displacing communities, taking and using up the resources of the land isn't just about forced removal of property and inadequate compensation. It's also damaging and breaking something fundamental about how people's sense of self is structured.

The next two sections of the exhibition looked at using country (resources, trade) and tending country. Nobody's country has every resource, so trade between countries and even outside the continent was an important part of the economy. And it was an economy of reciprocal gift-giving with expectations and understandings about obligation which wouldn't necessarily (ever?) be spelt out - which lead to miscommunication once the British arrived. In order to make best use of the resources country needs to be tended both ritually and physically (although I suspect that's a division that isn't made). So this section of the exhibition included examples of ritual actions but also discussion of things like setting controlled fires to stimulate new growth of the local plant life. One of the exhibits was a photo of a chap in his ceremonial gear, sat on a chair taking a selfie with his iPad. While I was looking at it, I overheard a somewhat posh sounding older lady remarking to her companion "I suppose that's one time when it would be permissible to take a selfie!" which made me laugh (not out loud tho).

At the centre point of the exhibition, marking the transition from the Aboriginal Australia to the Colonial Australia was a memorial pole. These pieces of art were once funerary pieces for individuals the artist & his or her community wanted to remember, but in more modern times they've changed to be less associated with a particular person. This one had two figures at the top, one on each side of the pole. Both figures were planting a staff which ran down the whole of the pole through the rest of the design. One of these figures is an important ancestor of the artist, and his staff represents the law of the indigenous people enforced on the land. The other figure represents Captain Cook planting the British flag and enforcing the law of Britain on the land. The artist hasn't said which figure is which. It was a striking and thought provoking piece (once the symbolism was explained).

And so then the exhibition moved on to the era of British and White Australian rule over the continent. This was divided into two sections - first "encounters in country" which looked at the early settlement days, and then the exhibition finished with a look at post-independence Australia. The early settlement section had as one of its main themes how the indigenous people have been written out of the narrative of this period. Like the reports of explorers discovering new bits of the continent as if they'd gone out and walked alone through the wilderness. When actually they'd been taken by guides, along pre-existing trade routes to communities who they had negotiated to visit. And of course the claiming of the continent for Britain by Cook as it was "owned by nobody" when in actual fact every piece of land was somebody's country. One of the most striking pieces of art in this section was a modern painting done in an old-fashioned Western style - the ship on the ocean with its sails aflutter, the beach and the heroic figure in 18th Century uniform clearly having just landed on virgin territory. And yet this is not Cook the intrepid Westerner, this is an Aboriginal man.

The last part of the exhibition was pretty grim viewing - it documented the ways in which the Aboriginal peoples of Australia have been treated as less than human since independence. Starting with the constitution of the new country which outright states that when you do a census you don't count indigenous people. Until shockingly recently Indigenous people weren't citizens - they were "wards of the state" who were much more restricted in what they were permitted to do, as if they were children. There was art in this section relating to the forced removal of people from their country, of the massacres of Aboriginal people and of the Lost Generation who were systematically removed from their families and adopted by White families to break the cultural ties of these children. Again the exhibition took care to remind us that Australia is not one monolithic place and there were many experiences of colonialism by different communities - in some cases these things were long enough ago that they are history; in others it has happened within living memory. Just before the end of the exhibition the timeline moved on to contemporary times, and highlighted both the ways that things are getting better and the debate within Aboriginal communities nowadays about their art in our museums. As the art and the artifacts are so closely linked to country some people feel that they shouldn't be taken away and put in a museum somewhere else. But others feel that so long as there is respect for the meaning of the piece and so long as there is an attempt to educate the people who come to see it (not just "oh look at this exotic thing from foreign parts") then it's OK. I didn't, however, really get the impression of enthusiasm for the idea from any of the stated positions ... which made for a rather uncomfortable sensation having just walked through this exhibition.

As a sort of palette cleanser the exhibition finished with a short but charming video of a man who is one of the last master basket weavers of particular type of basket we'd seen earlier in the exhibition. We also went to a short talk that evening by one of the curators, Lissant Bolton, who gave us a sense of the artists who'd made some of the contemporary art we'd seen in the exhibition. One thing she said that stuck with me was that it was notable that when she was visiting Australia during the set up phase of the exhibition she would bring objects and they would reciprocate by taking her to country associated with them. A sort of micro-scale view of the difference in the two cultures.

The top billed trip out of the whole of our Egypt holiday's itinerary was the visit to Nefertari's tomb in the Valley of the Queens. As with Seti I's tomb in the Valley of the Kings (post) this tomb is not generally open to the public. Although clearly they do open it often enough to make it worth their while designing and printing tickets for it! I don't think I've mentioned the tickets for sites in Egypt in my blog posts yet - they're generally rather well done and souvenirs in their own right, and the Nefertari tomb one was no exception.

Originally we weren't visiting any of the other tombs in the Valley, but at the last minute Medhat changed some things around on the itinerary so that we could. Which was cool, because I'd not had the chance to see them before. As with the Valley of the Kings we had a ticket that let us into any three open tombs - but that didn't actually give us any choices, there were only three open ones so that was what we visited. Another similarity with the Kings' Valley was that photography was strictly forbidden - so no photos of the tombs. So I've picked out some Nefertari related ones from my Turin Egyptian Museum photos to illustrate this post.

The Tomb of Nefertari (QV66)

Model of Nefertari's Tomb

Model of Nefertari's Tomb

Nefertari was the Great Royal Wife (i.e. senior wife) of Ramesses II, and her tomb was discovered in 1904 by Schiaparelli (of the Turin Egyptian Museum). It had been robbed in antiquity, and so there weren't many artifacts there for Schiaparelli to excavate. The decoration, however, was still in pretty good nick and is stunningly beautiful. The tomb used to be open to the general public, but the humidity caused by people breathing was found to be damaging the plaster that the decoration is painted onto. To stop this deterioration of the tomb it is kept in a protective atmosphere which must be replaced by pumping air in before the doors are opened. Visitor numbers are restricted with only a few small groups of tourists per year are allowed in for 10 minutes at a time.

It's hard to know quite how to describe the tomb. Photos I'd seen in books beforehand really don't do justice to the reality of the place and certainly the wee model we'd seen in the Turin Egyptian Museum (above) didn't! The colours are still very vibrant and although it's damaged in places the effect when you're actually there is that it's exactly as it was when the painters finished work. One thing I particularly looked at in the decoration was all the differences in the various representations of Nefertari. She's got different outfits on, and different earrings and other jewellery. Another bit that caught my eye was that the staircases not only had snakes with wings, but also a pair of rather fine Anubises sitting on shrines.

Nefertari's Shabtis

Nefertari's Shabtis

On the last evening of our holiday Dylan gave us a talk about Nefertari and her tomb to complement this visit. I didn't take notes at the time, so can't go into much detail but I do remember the gist of it (hopefully accurately enough!). He started by talking about the Valley of the Queens in general, and the discoveries of the tombs there including Nefertari's tomb. The second half of his talk was about what's known about Nefertari the woman - in brief, not a lot but some inferences can be drawn from the evidence we do have. She's often presented as the love of Ramesses II's life, with people citing the temple at Abu Simbel and the tomb as evidence for true love. Dylan thinks it's more likely to've been a political match, and that her connections were an important part of what made her a favourite. The other senior wife is not as favoured, but there is some degree of positioning her as Nefertari's equal. For instance in the reliefs where you see the long line of Ramesses II's sons processing somewhere they alternate sons of each mother, one Nefertari's son, one the other senior wife and so on. It seems implausible that the two women's pregnancies were that well co-ordinated, instead it's likely to be intended to convey their respective status. As I said, most of the tomb contents had been looted before Schiaperelli discovered Nefertari's tomb, but some pieces were overlooked. Some of these (like the blue button in the picture below) have Ay's name on them - the Pharaoh who succeeded Tutankhamun. Dylan talked about how there are similarities in the names of Ay, Tuya, Yuya, Nefertiti, Nefertari and others. His theory is that Nefertari is a part of a family that's been very important in the military for generations, and has provided many consorts to Pharaohs (and even the occasional Pharaoh). And that her political importance is to do with linking Ramesses II and the still relatively new 19th Dynasty (at the time of his marriage) to this family.

Faience Pommel with Cartouche of Ay

Faience Pommel with Cartouche of Ay

Other Tombs in the Valley of the Queens (QV44, QV52, QV55)

After visiting Nefertari's tomb we moved on to look at the other three tombs that were open in the Valley. Doing them in this order meant that we didn't appreciate these other three as much as we might've if we hadn't just seen the best tomb! The three are all linked to Ramesses III - two sons and a wife. The princes were both named after sons of Ramesses II which makes it a bit confusing - the elder one was Khaemwaset (buried in QV44) and his younger half-brother was Amunherkhepshef (QV55). The queen was Tyti, and her tomb (QV52) is a neighbour of Khaemwaset's tomb - perhaps suggesting she was his mother.

Both sons appear to've died young, and the decoration features Ramesses III introducing the boy to the various gods rather than the tomb occupant meeting them on his own as one would normally expect. In Khaemwaset's tomb I was mostly looking at the various demons with their knives. In Amunherkhepshef's tomb I was a bit distracted from the artwork by the bonus mummified fetus in a case in one of the rooms! This mummy wasn't found in the tomb, and as far as I know has nothing to with Ramesses III's family - it's just displayed here for lack of a better idea of what to do with it. Tyti's tomb decoration is in a poorer state than the other two tombs. However there were still some interesting things to look at - like a rather fine set of the four sons of Horus in one of the side chambers.

The name Isambard Kingdom Brunel conjures up thoughts of the Great Western Railway, and other successful engineering projects that are still well regarded today. But on the the In Our Time episode about him Julia Elton (former President of the Newcomen Society for the History of Engineering and Technology), Ben Marsden (University of Aberdeen) and Crosbie Smith (University of Kent) explained that this is not all there was to Brunel, and he wasn't always as successful as his modern reputation suggests. His reputation during his lifetime was mixed - he was an innovator, but also prone to over-reach.

They started the programme by briefly discussing Isambard Kingdom Brunel's father, Marc Isambard Brunel, who was born in France before the French Revolution. He fled to the US as a refugee during the Revolution, and subsequently moved to England. He married Sophia Kingdom, an English woman who he'd met in France during the Revolution. He was a highly successful engineer, and he educated his son to follow in his footsteps.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was born in England, and his early education was biased towards science, maths & engineering and came from his father. He was then sent to school to get a proper gentleman's education to complement this (Greek, Latin and so on). Afterwards he spent some time abroad before returning to England to work as an engineer with his father. The big project that they were working on was a tunnel under the Thames river. This didn't go as well as was initially hoped, although it was ultimately successful. The ground under the river is not very good for tunnelling through - instead of the clay they hoped for it was gravel. This meant that the progress of tunnelling operations was slow and also dangerous.

Brunel chafed at working in his father's shadow and was very keen to make a name for himself independently. While he was in Bristol convalescing from an accident during work on the Thames Tunnel he got involved in a project to build a bridge there. This was funded by money left in someone's will which had been invested until the interest earnt meant that it was enough to cover the project, and then there was a competition for the design of the bridge. Brunel put his own design in, and won - although the bridge that was built was a slight redesign of his idea, because a Grand Old Man of engineering (whose name I forget :/) said that Brunel's design wouldn't work. I'm not quite clear if this expert was right or not - bucking the conventional wisdom was to be a noticeable Brunel trait, and often he was right. His approach to engineering was a scientific one - to work from first principles, to experiment and to keep meticulous records. This could be a double edged sword, "the way things have always been done" is not necessarily wrong. This project also highlighted another of Brunel's key traits - his showmanship. Despite the project running out of money before the bridge was finished, the grand opening still went ahead as Brunel planned.

As I said at the beginning of this post, the Great Western Railway is what I particularly remember Brunel for, and this was his next big project. Unsurprisingly, his winning bid flung out all the precedents for railway design and started over from scratch - much to Stephenson's disgust. Brunel was aiming for the luxury end of the railway market and so ended up with a design incompatible with other parts of the evolving rail network - his track was a wider guage and his trains were larger than those in the rest of the country. Brunel was initially in charge not only of the engineering of the railway but also of the locomotives, and once again he started over from first principles. Sadly this was not a success, and an inquiry set up to investigate his failures ended by taking control of locomotive design away from him.

Having had overall success in his foray into railway engineering Brunel moved into ship building. This was a natural extension of the Great Western Railway - the idea being you'd travel from London to Bristol by GWR train and thence to the USA by a GWS ship. This project started out as a very nice example of the good in Brunel's approach to engineering. Here conventional wisdom said that if you built a bigger steam ship it would sink, for what are in retrospect silly reasons. Brunel's start from scratch approach meant that he challenged that assumption and discovered that big ships will float. This meant that Brunel's ships could carry more fuel, and so weren't cutting it quite so fine when crossing the Atlantic on a single tank of fuel.

But then he gets carried away and keeps increasing the size of the ships - not all of these larger ones were successful. Although I'm not sure if this was all down to bad design, or if bad luck also played a part - because once he had some bad luck then his mixed reputation would lead to people assuming it was obviously his fault. When his designs and business ventures worked, they worked pretty well, but as soon as something stopped working public confidence in his abilities dropped. And even when things did work there were always niggles and things that might've been better designed differently - like the railway that wasn't compatible with the other networks. His reputation during his lifetime and immediately after his death was decidedly mixed.

One of the experts on the programme, Julia Elton, summed up Brunel's modern reputation as fitting into a narrative we like - the lone heroic figure taking on the establishment and succeeding when they said he'd fail. She thinks that Stephenson was a much better engineer - but Brunel was a better showman. Brunel also kept diaries throughout his life - one set of personal ones, one set of engineering "lab books" - which meant that when his descendants wanted to promote his memory they had ample material to work with.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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