Category Archives: Archaeology

Queens of the Wild

I received this book via NetGalley. It’s out at the end of May, 2022.

As an Arts student of the late 90s, who did do some mythology-type subjects, I have vaguely come across some of the ideas that Hutton explodes here. So that was quite the trip.

The main idea: that the four concepts, or beings, or narrative tools – Mother Earth, the Fairy Queen, The Lady of the Night, and the Cailleach – are in no way part of a pagan religion that has survived sin Europe since pre-Christian times. No matter all the stories about witches as pagans or Beltane feasts.

In the opening Hutton revives a differentiation (first proposed by himself in 1991) between two concepts: ‘surviving paganism’, where a pre-Christian religion has actually survived beneath/within Christianity; and ‘pagan survival’, where a belief of object has been redeployed from a pre-Christian to a Christian religious context.

This book has a LOT of historiography, as Hutton explores some of the why and some of the how for the development of the idea that four specific concepts have a long, pagan, pedigree. The very first chapter was probably my favourite, as he explores the development of the study of folklore and how various academic and non-academic types explored and theorised beliefs – especially peasant beliefs – and how attitudes to those sorts of things changed over time. Following the thread from one person to another – occasionally from just one article to an explosion of theories, books, films, and other academic articles – was astonishing.

In the four main chapters, Hutton seeks to find the four characters he has chosen to interrogate – to find the earliest mentions, to find their possible connections to pre-Christian ideas, to find the ways in which they’ve been used in the academic literature. In every case, he comes to the conclusion that none of these are true ‘surviving paganism’ – always with the caveat that more information may be found, and that of course there’s a dearth of written information for so much of the early part of the pre-Christian/Christian boundary. He’s pretty convincing, unsurprisingly.

Moderately academic, but I think accessible for a reader with only a basic knowledge of both the historiography and the characters he explores (which is me).

Persians: the Age of the Great Kings

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out in April 2022.

I really, really wanted to love this book.

(That, children, is called ‘foreshadowing’. You can almost see the BUT looming behind those words.)

A book that’s basically the postcolonialist version of Persian history we’ve all been waiting for! A view on Persian history that’s not just repeating the Greek and Roman commentaries that were absolutely written with a very particular perspective! YES PLEASE. And even more when Llewellyn-Jones makes the acerbic comment in the introduction about how the concept of European superiority can be dated back to Herodotus etc and the way they presented the terrifying East. So yes, let’s have a version of Persian history that is largely based on Persian sources, or uses the Greek sources very carefully – to find the Persian reality behind the Greek propaganda.

And it starts so well. There’s a discussion about Persia vs Iran as a name – and I’m not sure whether his explanation of the political nuances there are accurate, so I defer to others on that, but it seemed to make sense within what I do know. There’s a discussion about the archaeological activities that give historians what they know from Persepolis etc, and a candid admission about the lack of sources. The Persian history proper starts with a discussion of the movement of different peoples into the area we know today as Iran, and some speculation about how they interacted etc. Then it moves into discussing the development of the Persian empire as empire, and interaction with the Medes. All of this section was intriguing and the use of inscriptions was well done. I did start to get a bit uncomfortable about the lack of reference to other sources – like other historians; I understand that getting the balance of what can seem to be most approachable, and what can seem too scholarly, may revolve around footnotes etc but… there’s just no way the author didn’t use other references.

I also started to get a bit uncomfortable when the author claimed that Cyrus’ mother “delighted in singing Median nursery rhymes to him” (p60 of the e-version), because that seems… weirdly specific? And then I got to the description of him as “lean and good-looking in that way that Persian men are uniquely handsome” (p63 of the e-version) and I had to stop and blink and decide whether to laugh or cry. What happened to treating the Persians as real people and not exoticising them, which I thought was part of the postcolonial agenda? I also have a problem with the statement that “A society that requires such codes of respectful behaviour” (obeisance before the monarch, etc) “is very likely to have autocratic political organisation, characterised by the coercive power of a king” (pp194-5). It just seems too blanket a statement.

And then! We have Darius’ half-sister and wife described as “a Lady Macbeth-like villainess, hellbent on power and ruthless in her bloody ambition” (p288) and I really started to wonder whether it was now a different author, or if he had been to sexy the book up. Next we have “years of adoration and unnaturally demonstrative mother love meant that [Darius] was self-centred, cruel, vindictive, and brutal” (p292); and that mothers experience “that particular twang of jealousy… when their sons give their hearts to other women” (p294). In case we worried that it was about misogyny, we then have a eunuch described as “a veritable creature of the court” (uh, eunuchs who are made eunuchs to BE at court are literally that??) who was “born to corruption, whose ambitions were for the very highest office of state” (p333) and I just can’t even. The author then has the temerity to accuse the Greeks of employing the “topos of the wicked eunuch” and I need to ask some questions about self-awareness.

So. I am ambivalent about this book. It’s a super necessary idea, and the use of Persian inscriptions and the way some of the Greek sources are handled is a really good example of how to read through sources to get more than they think they’re saying. On the other hand, some of the descriptions are clearly ridiculous (robes of “chiffon-like linen, gauzy cotton, and shimmering silk” (p293) – not to mention that nursery rhyme – really need some evidence!). And the bits quoted above are enough to make me despair. Did I learn something about the Persian empire and the kings who ruled, and the way it all worked? Absolutely. Is this the last word in Persian imperial history? I sure hope not.

Would not recommend to someone who is completely new to the history of this area and time, or to someone who is naive in reading historical books. For those looking to deepen their knowledge, it’s useful – with the caveats above.

The Nile: A New History of the World’s Greatest River

I received this book courtesy of NetGalley.

I should start by saying that this book is not quite the book I expected. Given it’s the Nile, and given the blurb, I expected the book to be much more about the swathes of history involved in that region of the world. There is, of course, discussion about the role of the Nile in the grand sweep of ancient Egyptian history, and what might be called “medieval” history for want of a better term. There’s mention of ancient Nubia, and some commentary on “medieval” Ethiopia, as well as the Rift Valley and the Olduvai Gorge. However, the reality is that the vast majority of this book is focused on European, and in particular British, colonialism – efforts to control the various parts of the Nile for their own purposes. So I was surprised by that, and occasionally disappointed that it was so modern in focus.

This is also not “just” a history book, and in general this is a good thing. It has aspects of a travel memoir; the author has travelled to every country he mentions, I think, and to most of the parts of the Nile and its tributaries discussed. So there are sections where Tvedt is quite personal in his writing, reflecting on his own experiences and how this matches – or doesn’t – with historical or literary representations of the places. This aspect I enjoyed a lot.

As well, there are aspects of historical theorising that I found quite intriguing. The author challenges Edward Said’s theories about ‘orientalism’ and whether it’s appropriate for this challenge to apply to all aspects of European writing; and challenges most historians in their refusal to consider the very solid, material, and geographic nature of a river like the Nile. I don’t know that much about the theories he’s challenging so I can’t say with full confidence whether he makes perfect sense; but certainly many of the ideas he raises seem fair.

But overall, the book is indeed about the Nile: as something that has shaped geography, as something that has shaped the civilisations that exist along its banks and those of its tributaries, as something that has contributed hugely to political tensions over the last 150 years or so. I had no idea there was a 1929 Agreement that basically said upstream countries could do nothing with the Nile unless Egypt agreed! And of course for most of those upstream countries, this was signed by the imperialist powers then in control… so since the 1960s there’s been argument about whether those powers had the right to sign on behalf of these now-existing countries. Nor had I ever considered the notion of the Nile as a weapon (withhold water, or release too much if you’ve got a dam); or the idea that the Suez Canal crisis can also be linked to control of the Nile.

I learned a lot about the realities of European colonialism and imperialism in the Nile basin – primarily the British, but also German and Italian (I didn’t learn anything new about Belgium, and Leopold). The machinations made me sick all over again: water for Egypt so Egypt can grow cotton to supply to England for the cotton mills…

In terms of structure, the book basically flows from the Nile Delta (seriously under pressure thanks to climate change) to the various sources of the Blue and White Niles (hello, Stanley and others). So it’s not chronological; I quite liked this geographical perspective, though, and it certainly makes sense in the context. Each chapter is broken into what are basically vignettes. It means the author doesn’t have to make one solid narrative for each geographical area, but instead takes various different issues and treats them in sometimes one, sometimes five, pages.

This is a thoroughly researched, detailed, meticulous and very clever story of the Nile.

Sutton Hoo and The Dig

Last year, I got to fulfil one of my longest-held, quite esoteric, dreams.

I got to visit Sutton Hoo.

I have been fascinated by this place for longer than I can remember. It’s the site of a ship burial and other grave mounds from the Anglo-Saxon period, and the origin of some of the most beautiful archaeological pieces dug up in England. Every time I’ve been to England I’ve wanted to visit, and it’s just never worked out. But this time – this time I made it work.

Making it work wasn’t easy. We had to catch two trains – one from Cambridge to Ipswich, and then another to Melton, the closest station. Except on the day we were travelling, our train to Ipswich was cancelled, so we caught a train to Ely in order to get a different train going to Ipswich. Ely is in the completely opposite direction from Melton. All of this took a bit over 2 hours.

Notice I said “we”. For reasons that are still beyond my ken, my friend living in Cambridge decided to accompany me, as did her somewhat-bemused husband whom I had known for exactly seven minutes at this point.

From the Melton station it’s about a half-hour walk to Sutton Hoo. Through a village, and then along a main road with dubious pedestrian access. But then… oh, then.

You see this, a replica of the ship that was buried. And you see the visitor’s centre with its replicas of the great treasures – all of which are now in the British Museum, because the original owner of the property made them a gift; which means I’ve seen the helmet and the shield and every else a number of times. But now I was actually there, where they were found. It’s fair to say my friends thought I was a bit off my nut.

Usually, I understand, visitors get to go up an observation tower, to see the grave mounds from on high. But this was unavailable on the day we visited. Instead, we got to walk amongst the grave mounds themselves – something that is usually not allowed, and won’t be allowed again. So that was remarkable. The whole setting is remarkable, and glorious. And I finally got there.

Photo c/ my very generous friend

All of this came back to mind when I watched The Dig on Netflix. I was astonished, to be honest, that the story of an archaeological dig got made into a film with relatively big names – Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan – and has had a fair bit of press. Maybe here in Australia I don’t appreciate that the British public actually does know about the finds there? I also didn’t know there was a novel about it, which is the source material for the film. They couldn’t film at Sutton Hoo – it’s open all year – but it certainly felt to me that they recreated the area well. And I know that aspects are dramatised; much of the personal friction is narrative rather than history. But the fact that they showed archaeologists being meticulous – no Indys here – and the excitement about tiny pieces of iron or gold was just wonderful. The entire film, in fact, is beautifully made. And the story, too – a meditation on death and the place of humans in history and the cosmos (the Fiennes character, Basil Brown, is also an amateur astronomer… well, “amateur”; he wrote about astronomical maps and atlases). The events are very consciously placed in the eve of WW2 – there’s constant reference to war coming, men being called up, and so on – which adds that extra layer of immediacy, needing to get on with things, and also of extraordinary events occurring: the find, and the war. Plus the illness of Edith Pretty, instigator of the whole dig.

Highly, highly recommended as a film. And if you are in, or can get to, England – go visit Sutton Hoo.

Gertrude Bell

164972.jpgEvery now and then I come across a new historical figure and I think

HOW IS IT POSSIBLE THAT I HAVE NEVER HEARD OF THIS PERSON WHAT HAS THE WORLD BEEN DOING THIS JUST SHOWS HOW MUCH STUFF GETS LOST

Usually that person is a woman, although not always. Gertrude Bell is the most recent of these people. I don’t even remember how I heard about her – it might have been in passing in a podcast or something? – at any rate the moment I heard about her I went online to see if there was a biography about her. There are two, I think, modern biogs; this seemed to be the better rated, and so I immediately bought it. Since then my mother has read it, since I always have too many books to be read, and she loved it; then we spent some time together which just happened to coincide with Nicole Kidman’s movie about Bell being at the cinema, so we went to see it and I was pushed to move my reading of this bio to the front of the reading queue.

Gertrude Bell might be described as the ‘female Lawrence of Arabia’, but really it would be more accurate to say that he was the male Gertrude Bell, since I think she had more adventures and was more involved in the immediate post-WW1 decisions regarding Mesopotamia.

Continue reading →

Galactic Suburbia: the Tiptree biography spoilerific

Galactic Suburbia Spoilerific – James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips

phillips tiptree

In which we celebrate Alli Sheldon’s centenary with the first of our James Tiptree Jr spoilerific episodes and stand in awe of her extraordinary life, and the hard work of her biographer, Julie Phillips.

You can get us at iTunes or Galactic Suburbia.

James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips

It’s Tiptree month, and this spoilerific is a bit different from our usual ones because we’re focussing on a biography – Julie Phillips’ biography of Alice James Raccoona Bradley Davies Tiptree Sheldon. Her life sounds a bit like a novel and it’s all the more amazing for being real…

Join us for our next episode when we talk about some of Tiptree’s short works, including

Houston, Houston, Do you Read? and

“Your Faces, O my Sisters! Your Faces filled of Light!”

(both are available in the Tiptree collection Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, and Tansy particularly recommends the ebook which is nicely laid out)

IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT: Galactic Suburbia now has Messagebank on its Skype number, so you can leave us audio feedback. I know, right??? This month, we would particularly appreciate comments about your favourite Tiptree work, thoughts on the Julie Phillips biography, or on the short fiction we’ll be discussing later this month. We would love to be able to include your audio feedback in future episodes (so make sure to let us know if your comment is not something you wish to be broadcast).

03 90164171 (within Australia)
+613 90164171 (from overseas)

You can order the upcoming Letters to Tiptree from Twelfth Planet Press – a selection of thoughtful letters written by science fiction and fantasy’s writers, editors, critics and fans to celebrate her, to recognise her work, and in some cases to finish conversations set aside nearly thirty years ago. The book also contains archived letters between Tiptree and some of her dearest correspondents.

Please send feedback to us at galacticsuburbia@gmail.com, follow us on Twitter at @galacticsuburbs, check out Galactic Suburbia Podcast on Facebook, support us at Patreon; and don’t forget to leave a review on iTunes if you love us!

Indy vs Henry

imagesI love Indiana Jones, but there’s a lot to dislike in Dr Henry Jones Jr. And that’s without considering the gender and race aspects of his stories.

Indiana Jones, as an adventurer, is pretty much awesome. The whip, the hat, the jacket. Rescuing people, finding artifacts, rescuing his dad – all of these things make great movies and a man who is often admirable. (Like I said, this is ignoring the problematic stereotypes, which are not my focus here.) Unknown

Dr Henry Jones, though, is meant to be an archaeologist. A reputable one. An academic at a prestigious university. And this is where, on recently watching The Last Crusade, I got a bit sad and discovered some Suck Fairy dust. Because basically, Jones is Schliemann. He’s an adventurer, he’s single minded, and he’s destructive. To get to a tomb that might exist in catacombs that might be under a converted church, he destroys a library’s floor – presumably a floor that dates to the Middle Ages, if we’re expected to believe the trail of clues. And when he’s in danger for his life, he destroys a thousand-year old tomb (ok maybe that one is almost acceptable). So like Schliemann, Jones is only interested in preserving the bit of old stuff that he cares about. Never is there concern for the provenance of artifacts, of preserving the context in which items exist. And those items do end up in museums, which is good – but they’re not museums in the countries where the items were discovered, or even vaguely associated. 

And although it’s only shown briefly, there’s also Jones’ position as a lecturer. I’m sure he’s a great lecturer, and he’s clearly very knowledgeable. But does he care about teaching? Or even research? Doesn’t seem that way. There’s dozens of students waiting to speak to him after class, and a huge stack of papers that haven’t been graded yet, and what does Jones do? Legs it out the window. Oh, so responsible.

Lara Croft behaving like Indiana bugs me far less. She never pretends to be anything other than an adventurer and opportunist (in the best possible way). You can’t expect her to be concerned about provenance; it doesn’t matter, in her context. But Jones should know better. Especially given how often he is shown to be morally outraged by the careless abandon with which the villains treat the objects that they’re both after – right from when as a young River Phoenix he’s indignant at the removal of an object that “belongs in a museum.”

Does this stop me from loving the Indiana Jones movies? No. It’s a sign of love that I can critique something while watching it for the umpteenth time (as I am doing right now, sitting in a guest house while my darling is off on a mountain bike somewhere. And I’ve sadly run out of wool in the middle of two different projects). And this issues deserves critique.

Iris, Troy and other classical things

A while back, I became a member of the Classical Association of Victoria. I figured I should, since I go to a lot of their public lectures, and it’s not exactly expensive. As a bonus, members get a copy of Iris when it’s published – the CAV journal. I gather that this is something of a haphazard production, because everyone involved has full-time jobs and Iris isn’t it. Nonetheless, it gets produced, and I got my first copy on Friday (bent in half thanks to the postie shoving it through the little slit, instead of lifting the lid for the mailbox…).

Firstly, there’s an editorial, basically explaining why Iris was delayed and ruminating a little on the fate of Classics at various tertiary institutes (I hadn’t realised it resurrected itself at Monash; hurrah!). This is followed by a short intro to Jenny Webb, the new president of the CAV.

The first article – peer-reviewed and all – is “The Making of the Wooden Horse,” by Miriam Riverlea. It feels too short for its material, but is essentially looking at the treatment of the actual making of the horse at Troy, as the title suggests – how this is largely skimmed over by ancient sources, especially, and that there are variations on the theme. She suggests that like epic poetry, as part of the oral tradition, means a story is never told exactly the same way twice, the horse itself is constantly refashioned… at least, I think that’s what she meant. She finishes with a really cool look at two modern examples of the horse. The first is the horse in Troy, the building of which is shown in painstaking detail; and the object itself is now at Canakkale, the closest modern town to the suggested site of Troy (which she points out is hilarious itself – the Turks accepting a wooden horse from strangers… and she parallels this with the Chaser boys trying to get their wooden horse into various places, and it working everywhere – except the Turkish consulte.) The second example is a LEGO version, which some academic apparently finds ridiculous (no sons or brothers?): the creator took eight years to agree to posting the instructions, but now everyone can DIY….

The second peer-reviewed article is by John Whitehouse, who was my tutor way back when and to whom I owe a lot. This, I think, is a paper from his MA: it’s about the similarities between Thucydides and Tacitus, as “Historians of Disillusionment”: Tacitus disillusioned with the Roman Principate, Thucydides with war (after/during the Peloponnesian one). Interesting stuff, especially the question about how deliberately/consciously the parallels are in each from their predecessors.

I must admit to skipping the next article, by Jenny Webb: I’m just not up enough on archaeology to appreciate “Tracking Gender and Technology in Prehistory,” specifically on Cyprus in the Early Bronze Age. I did really enjoy the fourth article, though: called “‘Which of the Gods is this?’ Dionysus in the Homeric Hymns,” it does just that – tracks what the Hymns say about Dionysus (number 1, 7 and 26 if you’re curious) and examine how he is justified as being an Olympian god, despite having a mortal mother (generally this makes you a demigod, and mortal). Very cool – but I was a bit sad it was just a survey of the hymns, and didn’t actually make persuasive arguments about the repercussions on Dionysian worship, for example, or on the origins of Dionysian myth.

I also skipped KO Chong-Gossard’s “On Teaching Euripides’ Medea,” since I’m not likely to do that any time soon, but did enjoy Peter Mountford’s “From Fantasy to Reality in Epic Duels – Iliad 22 and Aeneid 12.” Like Whitehouse, this is a comparison of two ancient texts – but here they’re being compared directly. Mountford’s basic idea, as the title suggests, is that Virgil is more real than Homer, especially in his use and the role of the gods – or lack thereof – in the duels between Aeneas and Turnus, on the one hand, and Achilles and Hektor. It’s a very interesting demonstration of how much Virgil is indebted to Homer – which I already knew, but hadn’t realised how textually that was true: similes, etc, are all borrowed and, generally, re-shaped. I haven’t read The Aeneid since about third year, and didn’t like it as much as The Iliad anyway, but it’s a very engaging article.

The final, very short article is by Meg McPherson. Called “A Perfect Post,” it outlines some of the things she has done in teaching Latin at primary school! It blows my mind to think there’s a primary school that would do that. I had a very brief discussion with someone the other about the point of learning Latin (they suggested there wasn’t one); and I resolutely stayed out of a discussion the other day about whether learning a language had a point at all. Latin at primary school seems indulgent; mostly in a good way, but indulgent nonetheless.

So that’s Iris for 2008. Actually it says 2007 on the cover, but is copyright 2008, so I’m not sure if they run a year behind or what. I think I will definitely continue to support the CAV, and look forward to reading more of their journal.

Ah, voyeurism

I missed all of the “Who do you think you are?” episodes on SBS – UK and Aussie – and I was a bit sad about that, because although it’s not entirely my thing I do like a bit of this sort of personal history. Fortunately, my darling mother (she of the apricots) taped those of Bill Oddie and Nigella Lawson. I’ve just now got around to watching them, having had the video waiting for me for weeks. Bill Oddie’s was quite sad – his mother in a “sanitorium,” or asylum, for much of his childhood; he has very few memories of her, and basically no good ones. It was quite interesting hearing his reasons for researching his past.

Nigella comes from a tradition of caterers, which I think is hilarious. I didn’t know she was Jewish, so that was fascinating too: her great grandparents came, respectively, from now west Germany and Amsterdam. The history of Jewish migration and experience is one I know little about, and I wonder just how well researched it is; I would guess fairly well. It gives quite a different view on early modern history in Europe (and, I am sure, on medieval too) from what you get if you simply focus on the Christian European experience.

too much Stargate? Never!

I am lucky enough at the moment to have little bit of what I choose to call play money. My natural Scrooge tendencies are too painful to go into here, but suffice to say that splurging – even on thins that I really want and will get a lot of joy out of – is something I struggle with. So I thought long and hard, and eventually decided it would be worth it: I bought the 59 DVD box of Stargate: SG-1. This is a crazy extravagance; I know someone with them already – although theirs are pirated, and of course I don’t have easy access to them. Plus, this comes in a lovely big box, complete with tacky raised circle (aka stargate) on the front.

Anyway, it arrived on Thursday. We watched the entire first season on the weekend – my love didn’t get into show until about season 2 or 3 when we watched it the first time (oh, did I mention that I’ve already seen the whole lot?), so he enjoyed watching that; I also discovered that first time through I missed a disc – three or four episodes, including the wonderful Antarctic episode. We’re now into the second season, and we’re trying to limit ourselves to only two… or so… episodes a night. Hard, though…

Couple of things of note:
* Samantha is cringingly nerdy in the first couple of episodes. I am so glad they sophisticated her.
* Teal’c is fairly painful in these first few seasons; his facial expressions are just ridiculous. And not always convincing.
* Michael Shanks. Daniel Jackson. *sigh* Wonderful!
* Richard Dean Anderson. Jack O’Neill. As above!

I said something to my love as we watched an episode – something about enjoying the interaction between Jack and Samantha – and he turned to me, in ridicule, and asked whether I had bought 59 DVDs just for the sake of a few, frustratingly brief, interactions between the two.

Well, duh.