Monday, January 31, 2011

Trajan's Column

This monument is our best visual record of the Roman Army at the height of the empire. You can peruse the whole unwinding scroll of images here. One thing I find interesting is that the soldiers on the column, like those in Trajan's army, spend a lot more time building things than fighting.

Conservatism and Nostalgia

Reviewing a collection of Irving Kristol's essays, Paul Berman points out that his "conservatism" often boils down to a nostalgia for the America of his youth:
In his picture of American life, the virtues of long ago invariably seem more virtuous than the virtues of the present, and even the vices of the past turn out to be roguishly preferable to vices of more recent times.

America as a whole used to be more public spirited. In New York City, “street crime was practically unheard of.” Religious sermons used to be more challenging; trade unions less selfish; schools, untroubled. “In general, the political handling of controversial religious and moral issues in the United States prior to World War II was a triumph of reasoned experience over abstract dogmatism” — a sentence from an essay provocatively called “On the Political Stupidity of the Jews” (whose stupidity consists, it would seem, of failing to agree with Kristol that life in America was better back in the days when anti-Semitism was still an acceptable ­prejudice).

On the side of vice, Las Vegas used to be more attractively seedy than it later became. And the arts have steadily declined, morally speaking, ever since the 19th century. (The superiority of T. S. Eliot’s later poetry to his earlier poetry appears to be an anomaly.) “The feminization of social policy” has undermined the previously superior, “masculine” welfare state. The decline of Greek and Latin instruction seems to him catastrophic: “Future historians may yet decide that one of the crucial events of our century, perhaps decisive for its cultural and political destiny, was the gradual dissolution and abandonment of the study of the classics as the core of the school curriculum.”

The passion that he brought to these arguments seems to have left him, at times, a little unhinged, such that, like a desperate man fending off a mob, he ends up hurling everything in sight at the hated liberals. In an essay called, slightly paranoically, “ ‘Human Rights’: The Hidden Agenda,” from 1986-87, he presents the human rights movement as a cryptofriend of Communism, dedicated to weakening America — from which you would never guess that, in 1989, the human rights movement’s closest allies in Eastern Europe would end up leading the pro-­American revolutions that overthrew Communism. Still another essay deplores “the secular, social democratic” notion of the welfare state in the 20th century, which, upon being put into effect, strikes him as potentially “the saddest of political tragedies in our tragic century” — though he adds, by way of nuance (as if troubled by the absurdity of what he had just written), “not the bloodiest, of course, but merely the saddest.”

Of course, when Kristol actually lived in pre-World War II America he thought capitalism had failed and the social order was on the verge of collapse, and he longed for a Troskyite revolution. Which makes me wonder what I will forget that I once knew. I suppose one benefit of having grown up in the 70s is that I am unlikely ever to become nostalgic for the days of Watergate, disco, stagflation, and oil embargoes.

Octopus Saves the Day

If I were an octopus I would use my arms to fight crims. When I see a shark triing to eat a fish, pow!!! The shark swims away and the fish is saff. The fish sase thank you. P.S. my name is frank.

To the Tyrants of the World

According to al Jazeera, this poem, by early 20th-century Tunisian poet Abu al-Qasim al-Shabihas, has been read at protests in both Tunisian and Egypt:

Hey you, the unfair tyrants...
You the lovers of the darkness...
You the enemies of life...
You've made fun of innocent people's wounds; and your palm is covered with their blood
You kept walking while you were deforming the charm of existence and growing seeds of sadness in their land

Wait, don't let the spring, the clearness of the sky and the shine of the morning light fool you...
Because the darkness, the thunder rumble and the blowing of the wind are coming toward you from the horizon
Beware because there is a fire underneath the ash

Who grows thorns will reap wounds
You've taken off heads of people and the flowers of hope; and watered the cure of the sand with blood and tears until it was drunk
The blood's river will sweep you away and you will be burned by the fiery storm.

Applebaum on Egypt

Anne Applebaum is optimistic that political change in Egypt could unleash great energy in the Arab world:
The dictators we have supported, or anyway tolerated, have stayed in power by preventing economic development, silencing free speech, keeping tight control of education and above all by stamping down hard on anything resembling civil society. More books are translated every year into Greek - a language spoken by 10 million people - than into Arabic, a language spoken by more than 220 million. Independent organizations of all kinds, from political parties and private businesses to women's groups and academic societies, have been watched, harassed or banned altogether.

The result: Egypt, like many Arab societies, has a wealthy and well-armed elite at the top and a fanatical and well-organized Islamic fundamentalist movement at the bottom. In between lies a large and unorganized body of people who have never participated in politics, whose business activities have been limited by corruption and nepotism, and whose access to the outside world has been hampered by stupid laws and suspicious bureaucrats.
I have been trying to imagine what it would be like to be a member of a new government coming to power in such circumstances, trying to sweep away a repressive, corrupt, bureaucratic system. What would you change first? Would you fire all of the police? How would you go about getting low-level bureaucrats to stop impeding every part of life -- something even the freest countries have trouble with? It is an exciting prospect.

Mixed Race America

A few years ago I did some internet research for an essay about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings that I never got around to writing. Typing "Sally Hemmings" into the search box took me to a whole world of blogs, web sites, and discussion groups for Americans who consider themselves "mixed race." What struck me was not that such people exist, which is pretty obvious, but the depth of their attachment to a mixed identity. They spoke of mixed-race people as "we," and some of them seemed to feel that mixed-race people ought to have a position on the Jefferson-Hemmings question-- what should we be saying about this? What does this mean for us?

The New York times has a feature article by Susan Saulny on mixed-race America that has become the "most e-mailed" story on the site, which is another sign of how much interest mixed-race Americans have in their identities. This article is full of statistics, all of which point toward a huge growth in the number of mixed-race Americans; according to the Pew Center, 1 in 7 American marriages is between people of different ethnicities, and most of the children of those marriages are likely to consider themselves mixed rather than settling into one or the other identity.

The people who spend too much time thinking about issues like this -- e.g., the ones who went to court to try to stop the census bureau from allowing people to check more than one race on the form-- are wondering what this will mean for America; will it help us get "beyond race" and stop obsessing about racial categories, or will it lead (as it long did in Brazil) to the stigmatizing of the purely black as the lowest of the low? I think these speculations take the matter too seriously. Boundaries between American racial and ethnic groups have been growing fuzzier and less important for decades -- which is why we now have so many mixed-race marriages. I doubt racial feelings in America will be changed much, one way or the other, but the rise of a "mixed race" identity. If it helps young people feel like they have a place where they really belong, great. It won't end our racial problems any time soon, but I can't see what harm it is doing, either.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Celts to Vikings 2b; Augustine's Mother

Students always have an easy time with Roman attitudes toward women – my biggest problem is convincing them that not everyone in the ancient world had the same expectations. They think that the Roman attitude is “traditional,” and no matter how many times I explain that the northern European attitude is just as old, if not older, they keep telling me that the Roman way is the traditional way.

The epitaph of one Roman woman tells us that “praise for all good women is simple and similar.” Indeed the same words come up over and over whenever Mediterranean men praised a woman: kind, loyal, obedient, grateful, industrious, chaste. One “dearest mother” was lauded by her son as
deserving of the greatest praise, since in modesty, propriety, chastity, obedience, wool-working, industry, and loyalty she was on an equal level with other good women, nor did she take second place to any woman in virtue, work and wisdom in times of danger.
That last bit hints that women’s lives were often a lot more complicated than simple words of praise could convey. Even those who never experienced violence or social turmoil might have less dramatic difficulties. I think one of the most interesting accounts of a Roman woman is St. Augustine’s description of his mother Monica. She was a deeply devout Christian as well as a follower of the old Roman strictures about female behavior. (Expectations about women was one part of Mediterranean culture that Christianity did not change at all.) Her personal trial was a husband, chosen by her family, who was indifferent to Christianity and had a violent temper. Monica was no coward, as she proved when one of those justly forgotten late western emperors threatened to arrest her bishop, St. Ambrose. She joined a throng of his followers keeping vigil in his church, ready to be arrested or even die to protect him. But with her husband she followed a path of mildness and obedience. “Thee” in this passage is God, to whom Augustine addressed his Confessions.
Thus modestly and soberly brought up, she was made subject to her parents by thee, rather more than by her parents to thee. She arrived at a marriageable age, and she was given to a husband whom she served as her lord. And she busied herself to gain him to thee, preaching thee to him by her behavior, in which thou madest her fair and reverently amiable, and admirable to her husband. For she endured with patience his infidelity and never had any dissension with her husband on this account. For she waited for thy mercy upon him until, by believing in thee, he might become chaste.
Moreover, even though he was earnest in friendship, he was also violent in anger; but she had learned that an angry husband should not be resisted, either in deed or in word. But as soon as he had grown calm and was tranquil, and she saw a fitting moment, she would give him a reason for her conduct, if he had been excited unreasonably. As a result, while many matrons whose husbands were more gentle than hers bore the marks of blows on their disfigured faces, and would in private talk blame the behavior of their husbands, she would blame their tongues, admonishing them seriously--though in a jesting manner--that from the hour they heard what are called the matrimonial tablets read to them, they should think of them as instruments by which they were made servants. So, always being mindful of their condition, they ought not to set themselves up in opposition to their lords. And, knowing what a furious, bad-tempered husband she endured, they marveled that it had never been rumored, nor was there any mark to show, that Patricius had ever beaten his wife, or that there had been any domestic strife between them, even for a day. And when they asked her confidentially the reason for this, she taught them the rule I have mentioned. Those who observed it confirmed the wisdom of it and rejoiced; those who did not observe it were bullied and vexed.
Not only is meek obedience the right thing for a woman to do, Augustine says, it works. It is through submission that a woman navigates the perils of life in a patriarchal society where wife-beating was not just legal but pretty much expected. Monica’s husband came to love her deeply and even converted to her religion – this act of converting her husband by submission is how she became a Catholic saint, held up as a model for other Christian wives.

None of which is to say that most Roman women were really like this. Yet stories about them are quite different than stories about northern women. Even women of the greatest Roman families were less brash and commanding in public than the average Viking princess, and some of the most famous and powerful Roman women played up their roles as mothers and long-suffering wives for political gain. Their world was constrained by these expectations, and they made their lives within the boundaries set by Mediterranean expectations about how women should act.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Meanwhile, in Tunisia

As protests go on in Egypt, the editors of Nature checked in with Tunisian scientists to find out how their revolution is working out for them.

Tunisian scientists contacted by Nature could barely contain their emotions about the uprising that this month overthrew President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the dictator who had ruled their country for the past 23 years. Although aware of the challenges ahead, many are convinced that a new era of democracy, human rights and academic freedom will prevail — and help to unleash a surge of creative and entrepreneurial forces among a highly qualified but repressed Tunisian population. . . .

Students and intellectuals are often in the vanguard of revolutions, but this was not the case in Tunisia. Instead, broad segments of Tunisia's relatively highly educated youth rose up to protest against high levels of unemployment, government corruption and a dearth of human rights, says Abdelaziz Chikhaoui, an engineering scientist at the University of Provence Aix-Marseille in France, and president of the Association of Tunisian Researchers and Lecturers in France (ACETEF).

"The revolution was unexpected both in intensity and rapidity, we were all surprised by the movement," says Hamed Ben Dhia, president of Tunisia's University of Sfax, who is considered by colleagues to be relatively independent of the Ben Ali regime. Many academics and intellectuals soon rallied to the cause and, on 11 January, the regime shut the universities and schools to stop protests spreading there.

Tunisian researchers are now free to express their frustration with the regime's suppression of human rights — and its management of the higher-education and research system. To judge from publication rates and other metrics, the country has a fairly strong science and higher-education base, which compares favourably with its Arab neighbours. Although proud of the figures, scientists argue that they mask a reality that is much less upbeat.

The scientists complain that under Ben Ali the government micro-managed their institutions, paying them decent salaries but demanding conformity to an agenda that, they say, ultimately stymied the development of Tunisian science and higher education more broadly.

It is good to hear that educated Tunisians are still so upbeat about their revolution, but I feel a little cynical about the hope that more freedom will make everything better. One of the causes of the revolution was the economic stagnation of North Africa and most of the Middle East, and it will not be easy for Tunisia, Egypt or any other Arab country to turn this around and provide the jobs that their large cohorts of young people need. In the short term a democratic government may cut science funding to provide more help to the poor. I wonder how these scientists will feel about the revolution in two or three years. I hope that, eventually, things will improve for all Tunisians, but freedom itself will not make that happen.

Great Coffee Table Books

Writing about The Past from Above put me in mind of other great coffee table books I have known, books that can be enjoyed as collections of pictures and short quotations but that also contain much real data about the past. I think picture books are a great format for presenting history, because I like to have visuals for the past. I like to see people's houses and cities and works of art. Pictures are especially important for any society that we know largely through archaeology, because things like town plans and tomb layouts can be appreciated much better through illustrations. So here is a sample of my favorite coffee table history books:

James Campbell, The Anglo-Saxons. This is the high academic end of the genre, a learned book making sophisticated arguments that depend a great deal on on the art objects and archaeological diagrams presented. I think it is the best available introductory book on Anglo-Saxon England, and it is wonderfully illustrated.

Simon James, The World of the Celts. (2005) This is a medium-format book that I just discovered at my public library. It has many, many illustrations of archaeological discoveries and sites, including some that I had never seen before. The text is excellent and highly readable.

Malcolm Jones, The Secret Middle Ages: Discovering the Real Medieval World. (2002) This delightful book presents a social history of later Medieval Europe from objects like muffin tins and pilgrims' badges. Perhaps it has too high a ratio of text to pictures to belong on this list, but much of the text is about things like dirty jokes and underwear.

Elizabeth Hallam, Editor. Four Gothic Kings: The Turbulent History of Medieval England and the Plantagenet Kings (1216-1377) Henry III, Edward I, Edward II, Edward III. When I want to check some detail of English history or life in this period, say for my novel, this is the book I turn to first. The text includes numerous page-length quotations from original sources and there are tons of pictures of lovely Gothic art.

Marisa Ranieri Panetta, Editor. Pompeii: the History, Life, and Art of the Buried City. Blow-me-away beautiful pictures, with very informative little text blocks about everything from religion to mixing paint.

Richard F. Townsend, Editor. Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South. (2004) This is the catalog from an exhibition of ancient American Indian Art, focusing mainly on the Mississippians. The pictures are fabulous and the numerous essays are an excellent introduction of Mississippian civilization.

Off to the Tea Party

Mary on her way to a tea party at a friend's house today.


We are seeking a change of regime. President Mubarak should step down. We should head towards a democratic state through a new government and free democratic elections...The whole world should realize that the Egyptians are not going home until their demands are realized...We are talking about taking down the Pharaonic dictatorship.

--Mohamed ElBaradei

Zeta Ophiuci

Zeta Ophiuci, the bright blue star right under the red cloud in the center of the picture is a runaway star shooting through the galaxy a speed of 87,000 kilometers per second (relative to the stars around it.) Most likely it was blasted through space by a supernova. The picture was taken in infrared light by from NASA's WISE satellite.

Young Japanese Fleeing the System

In Japan, the aging population is creating major social and economic problems:

While many nations have aging populations, Japan’s demographic crisis is truly dire, with forecasts showing that 40 percent of the population will be 65 and over by 2055. Some of the consequences have been long foreseen, like deflation: as more Japanese retire and live off their savings, they spend less, further depressing Japan’s anemic levels of domestic consumption. But a less anticipated outcome has been the appearance of generational inequalities.

These disparities manifest themselves in many ways. As Mr. Horie discovered, there are corporations that hire all too many young people for low-paying, dead-end jobs — in effect, forcing them to shoulder the costs of preserving cushier jobs for older employees. Others point to an underfinanced pension system so skewed in favor of older Japanese that many younger workers simply refuse to pay; a “silver democracy” that spends far more on the elderly than on education and child care — an issue that is familiar to Americans; and outdated hiring practices that have created a new “lost generation” of disenfranchised youth.

Young Japanese, aware that the pension system is stacked against them, are dropping out:
The result is that young Japanese are fleeing the program in droves: half of workers below the age of 35 now fail to make their legally mandated payments, even though that means they must face the future with no pension at all.
Which makes the shortfall in the pension system even worse. This, unfortunately, is the kind of problem that democracies are bad at handling. The elderly are reliable voters, and they are only asking for the things that were promised to them all their working lives. So this will continue to be a huge challenge for the Japanese, and a major drain on their economic future.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Past from Above

My favorite Christmas present has turned out to be a book called The Past from Above. This is a collection of aerial photographs by Georg Gerster, edited by Charlotte Trumpler. The sites span the world, from Peru to Siberia. Not only is the book beautiful and fun to look through, I feel like I have learned a lot just by seeing all these sites from a new perspective.

There is a paragraph of text about each site, bringing you up to speed on the less familiar ones.

I can only agree with the Guardian reviewer, quoted on the back, who said, "If Kublai Khan had a library in Xanadu, he would have this book on permanent display."

Top, the Pictish broch of Gurness, Scotland; center, the neolithic Maltese temple of Hagar Qim; bottom, a stone labyrinth on a Swedish island. The date of the labyrinth is not known, because it has been regularly maintained by the locals for at least the past 150 years. Some think the labyrinth is about that old, but others think it goes back to the Iron Age.


Volcanic lightning at Japan's Kirishima volcano.

Working Less, Feeling Worse

Since I just reported on a survey that says college freshmen and sophomores doe 10 hours less studying per week than they did 40 years ago, I feel compelled to post this survey that shows doing less work is not making students any happier. The same survey finds that 75 percent of students think they are working harder than average.

The declining emotional health of undergraduates is a great puzzle to me. Part of my problem is that I loved college and have never been happier, so I have trouble understanding why other people find it so miserable. College is a time to revel in being young, and to imagine great things for the future. So why are so many students sad?

From talking to other professors I get a sense that many students these days are very bound up in their home lives; professors tell me they regularly get excuses like, "My sister was sick so I had to go home to be with my family." Perhaps a generation of people so wrapped up in family life find it traumatic to leave home. The other thing that occurs to me is the thing I harp on all the time, how the freedom young people now have to shape their own lives is experienced mainly as anxiety about how to find work, love, and home.

I am pleased to report that my eldest son is helping to keep down the number of boys who feel "overwhelmed" during their senior year of high school.

The Hallaton Guardian

The Hallaton Treasure is a remarkable horde of Iron Age coins and other valuable objects buried in the British midlands when the Roman were in the process of conquering the island, around 50 AD. It includes thousands of British coins and a few Roman ones, as well as other valuable objects like this silver bowl and the fragments of an iron helmet covered in silver leaf. The Harborough Museum has a nice slide show of the important finds.

The treasure was buried within an "enclosure." This is what archaeologists call features that were common in Europe from the Neolithic to the Iron Age, round or square things that look vaguely like forts until you realize that the ditches, banks, or fences surrounding them were far too feeble to be defensible. We think they were sacred areas of some kind. They come in all sizes from 20 feet across to Stonehenge. The enclosure at Hallaton had been a sacred site for at least a century when the leaders of the Corieltavi, a British tribe, buried their treasure. Two blue glass lozenges that might be eyes and some gold leaf were also found, and the excavators think this was the remains of a wooden statue. Were the Corieltavi making a desperate plea for divine help in the face of near certain Roman conquest, or were they hiding their valuable for possible future retrieval, perhaps to help fund a revolt?

The cheek piece of the elaborate helmet emerges from the ground. The helmet is of Roman make and may have come to the Corieltavian king as a diplomatic gift.

The possible statue remains.

The treasure is back in the news because of a new find, a dog skeleton buried near the pits that contained the treasure. The dog has been interpreted as a spirit guardian, interred to keep watch over the enclosure and the treasures buried there. After two thousand years in the ground, his skeleton is being moved to the museum, where he can continue to keep his charge.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Forest in Winter

In the woods this morning, a wonderland of snow and trees.

Freedom of the Press

NY Times editor Bill Keller has a long, interesting article about his dealings with Julian Assange and the wikileaks documents. He defends his behavior against pro-secrecy critics with this passage from Hugo Black's concurring opinion in the Pentagon Papers case:
The government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


More than half a foot on the ground and still falling fast.

Celts to Vikings 2a; Roman Busts

Whenever I introduce the Romans, I show pictures of Roman portrait busts. I love Roman portrait busts. I also think it is very interesting that the Romans liked to portray themselves in such a warts-and-all way. Now this can't be from a lack of vanity; if they had no vanity they wouldn't have had busts made. It must, therefore, be because the ugliness of these portraits flattered them in some way. These noble Romans liked to be seen as serious people, people with better things to do than worry about how they looked. They wanted to be seen as tough warriors, clever politicians, stalwart friends, bitter enemies. Not as popinjays.

Celts to Vikings 2; the Romans

Tonight was supposed to be my second Celts to Vikings class, but Hood is closed because of the snow, so my students will have to wait until Monday. But not going to class means I have more time to blog.

For the next four classes I plan to take up the Romans. I have several reasons for this. First, the barbarians were the barbarians by comparison to the Romans; the Romans saw them as the Other, the people who were not like themselves. Some of the barbarians, as I will argue later on, saw themselves as the "not Romans," too. It is hard to get your mind around what this meant without some idea of what the Romans were like -- and, especially, how they saw themselves. Also, many of our more factual sources on the barbarians are Roman writers, and it helps to understand what Caesar and Tacitus were about, in Roman terms, before trying to use them to understand something else. Besides, the legacy of Rome does dominate the early Middle Ages.

In four classes I can only deal with Rome in a very cursory way, but while teaching Western Civ I have honed several techniques for getting something across about the Romans very quickly. Fortunately the Romans themselves had a fondness for stories and characters that, they thought, expressed something about them, so one can start from these. I assigned one such story, which goes by the name "The Commands of Manlius." Manlius was a consul, elected leader of the Roman state, and after a prophetic dream at the start of a war he and the other consul agreed that they would insist on strict obedience from their soldiers and punish anyone who advanced without orders. (Rome had two consuls, probably because the state depended on a balance of power among aristocratic families and for one man to hold the supreme power himself might upset that balance.) A certain young Roman cavalry officer saw an opportunity to strike a decisive blow with a quick charge and did so, without waiting for orders. Instead of rewarding him, Manlius had him executed. The officer was Manlius' son. Before issuing the fatal order, Manlius upbraided his son for forcing him to choose between the state and his own family-- these were the two poles of a Roman's world, the two most sacred things. Like a good Roman, Manlius put the state first.

This devotion to the state distinguishes the Romans, and some of the Greeks, from almost everyone in the Middle Ages. When forced to choose, most medieval people chose their families. One reason the Roman Republic rose to such eminence was that although the leading families competed fiercely for power, they did so (until the last bloody decades) through service to the state. Instead of dueling or feuding, they manipulated elections so they would get to lead Rome's armies against its enemies. Eventually the system broke down and the Republic fell, leading to the Empire, but for 450 years it worked pretty well.

Academically Adrift

The NY Times asked several educators to comment on a recent book, Academically Adrift by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, that finds students learning a lot less in the first two years of college than they used to. Not surprising, I would say, since the average amount of time students spend studying has fallen from 24 hours per week in the 1960s to 14 hours per week today. All of the experts are scathing about both the amount of work being put in by their students and the education being offered to them by universities. Here is Leon Bottstein, conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra and President of Bard College:
Why is anyone surprised to find that standards and expectations in our colleges are too low? High school graduates — a rapidly dwindling elite — come to college entirely unaccustomed to close reading, habits of disciplined analysis, skills in writing reasoned arguments and a basic grasp of the conduct, methods and purposes of science.

All many of them know is rote learning, and fear of mediocre standardized tests and grades. No vital connection between learning and life has been forged in our schools, much less any affection for voluntarily using one’s mind in the rigorous, sustained and frequently counterintuitive way that leads to innovation and the advancement of knowledge.

But our colleges and universities do pitifully little about combating student passivity and absence of curiosity.
The others hit these same themes: high school doesn't prepare students for college, colleges don't do enough to bring them up to speed, students don't want to work, and professors, who are evaluated on everything but their actual teaching success, don't have any incentive to motivate or crack down on them. My impression is that these academics see their problems as symptoms of major social changes, rather then something specific to higher education, and I agree. Higher education has become the middle class default, something that neither demands particular qualities for entry nor promises much of a reward for completion. Come to college with no ambition, leave for a dreary job in a cubicle. But be sure to attend lots of parties and football games in between.

Of course, complaints that sound vaguely like these are a human universal, so we should beware of taking them too seriously. But I can't lose the nagging feeling that our experiment with higher education for the masses isn't working out very well.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Cassiopeia A

A supernova remnant, photograph by NASA's Chandra x-ray telescope. Click to enlarge.

Celts to Vikings 1

Last night was the first meeting of the class I am teaching at Hood College this semester, Celts to Vikings. This is a 300-level history course on Europe in the early Middle Ages. I believe the title was dreamed up to draw more students into a fairly standard sort of early medieval survey, but I have decided to take it literally and put my focus very heavily on the "barbarian" peoples of the north, from the Gauls who fought with Caesar to the Vikings who settled Iceland. I have 14 students, ten undergraduates and four graduate students who are technically taking this as an Independent Study and will have to do some extra work.

Some of my friends have asked me to reproduce a sample of my teaching here on this blog, so they can follow along, and I will do so as best I can. I will be posting an html version of my syllabus with lots of links to, I hope tonight. Since the documents we are reading are old and well known, versions of most of them are available online, and I will provide links for anyone who is really curious.

I began the class last night by telling the story of Art Mac Conn, the son of Conn of the Hundred Battles. Conn was the most famous of the ancient Irish kings and figures in many epics and stories. His son Art has his own little epic, which tells of how he lost a chess game with a goddess and was sent on a quest to find and marry a semi-divine woman imprisoned on an island far to the west of Ireland. He succeeds, acquiring both the woman and a druidic staff that between them seem to represent the male and female halves of the sovereignty of Ireland, so he becomes a great king.

Besides being an amusing tale full of things like a bronze fortress surrounded by severed heads mounted on stakes, the story interests me because Art and his father Conn may well have been real people. They are attested in the Irish royal genealogies and mentioned in the annals. But beyond the bare facts of their likely existence, our sources tell us nothing at all about Art that we find believable. Instead, we get this fantastic legend. This is the challenge of learning about the history of the barbarian peoples: their storytellers had little interest in what really happened, but were more concerned to shape their past into myths and epics that fit their notions of how the world ought to be. I will spend much time in this class exploring what we can learn about the ancient Celts and Germans from sources like the Irish legends.

I went on to explain something of my rationale for this class. In the version of Western Civ they were taught in the eighth grade, civilization arose in Mesopotamia and Egypt and spread to Palestine and Greece and thence to Rome and thence to northern Europe. And many things did spread in just this way: agriculture, writing, Christianity. But that is not the only channel by which people and ideas entered Europe. I went briefly over the spread of the Indo-European languages and the genetic evidence that is bringing back theories of an Indo-European invasion, and then I talked about some artistic themes, stories, and inventions that seem to have spread into Europe from central Asia, or from China and India by way of central Asia: the three rabbits motif, Cinderella, horse riding, the wheelbarrow. Many things spread across Eurasia in ways that left no trace in our written records, and I think this is an important fact about the European past.

It is my personal belief that medieval Europe was not just an extension of classical, Mediterranean civilization, and that part of the reason was that the barbarians brought something of their own way of thinking and acting into the mix. The most obvious difference between the developing civilizations of northern Europe and the classical past is in the status of women. Women had much greater public roles and more legal freedom in the Celtic and Germanic worlds than in any other Iron Age civilization I am aware of, and this legacy continues to be strong even now. If you asked me why the Norwegian Parliament was the first in the world to have a majority of female members, my answer would go back to the Vikings. Beyond that it is harder to point to concrete contributions by the barbarians, but I still think that something of the style of medieval Europe, so different from the Roman style, came from them. The barbarian legacy was strong in medieval literature, and something of that style passed from Arthurian legends and Irish tall tales into modern literature. Their artistic vision nearly disappeared for centuries, but when in the nineteenth century European artists went looking for alternatives to classicism many of them turned to barbarian art for inspiration. And perhaps, although here I wander into the far reaches of speculative psycho-babble, something of the modern European obsession with freedom also traces back to those British, Irish, Saxon and Frankish warriors who would rather have died than submit to anyone.

Update: syllabus here.

Mysterious Dacian Gold

Ten years ago some Romanian men were caught trying to sell gold bracelets that appeared to be ancient (one is shown above). The men denied that they had dug the bracelets out of the ground, saying that a deceased friend had made them from melted Greek coins, intending to pass them off as lost originals. But the Romanian authorities always thought the men had looted them from graves, and now a study from the Romanian National History Museum confirms this. According to the museum's curators, the gold has a distinctly different elemental profile from that used in Greek or Macedonian coins, and furthermore whoever made the bracelets used a lot more metal than was really necessary. Most of the twelve bracelets that have been recovered weigh more than a kilogram (2.2 pounds). Surely, they say, a modern forger dependent on melted Greek coins for his metal would have chosen designs that used less gold. So it seems that these bracelets are actual treasures of the Dacian people, who occupied the Romanian basin before the Romans conquered them in the 2nd century AD.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Last Minute Preservation Rarely Works

Preservationists are in court this week trying to block the construction of a Walmart at the site of the Battle of the Wilderness. Historian James McPherson released an advance text of his testimony, which says that the fighting during the battle
included areas very close to the Walmart site. And the historical record makes clear that the land on or adjacent to that site was the immediate rear of the fighting. where significant events occurred that were an integral part of the battle. Among other things, thousands of wounded and dying soldiers occupied the then open fields that included the Walmart site, which is where many of the Union Army hospital tents were located during the battle.
McPherson also notes that Grant's headquarters were only a quarter mile from the Walmart site and calls it part of the "nerve center" of the Union Army. (Click on the map above to enlarge.)

I would be very happy to see any attempt to build a Walmart on farmland fail, but this sort of last minute preservation hardly ever works. This site is already zoned for commercial use, and there are several other businesses nearby. Preservation has to be done in the trenches of zoning board decisions and planning meetings, and it has to be done years in advance of any actual plan to develop the property. Civil War battles like the Wilderness involved tens of thousands of men and spread out across miles of countryside, and they often involved action at crossroads that are still key nodes of regional road networks. There is already a national park at the Wilderness, which includes the land considered most crucial to understanding and interpreting the battle. Can the people behind this effort draw a boundary around the area they think should be preserved? How do they propose to compensate the people whose property lies within this boundary for the lost value of their land? Do they have a long-term plan for how this part of Orange County should develop? These are all hard questions, and without answers the land will soon be covered with somebody's buildings even if Walmart decides to pull out.

The Library Hawk

This Cooper's Hawk has taken up residence inside the main reading room of the Library of Congress; you can follow its adventures at the LOC blog. So far, attempts to trap it have failed, since it ignored snares set with live bait and stole the frozen quail that it did find interesting. A net has been stretched across the bottom of the dome to keep the hawk from unfortunate encounters with reading room patrons.


An Air Force Delta IV rocket blasts off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California last week.

The New Museum on the Mall

Kate Taylor in the Times takes a look at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, soon to begin building on the Mall here in Washington. According to the existing long-range plan, this will be the last building built on the Mall, occupying the last space available for a museum. And what, exactly, is the museum supposed to do?
What story will it tell? As part of the Smithsonian, the museum bears the burden of being the “official” — that is, the government’s — version of black history, but it will also carry the hopes and aspirations of African-Americans. Will its tale be primarily one of pain, focused on America’s history of slavery and racial oppression, and memorializing black suffering? Or will it emphasize the uplifting part of the story, highlighting the richness of African-American culture, celebrating the bravery of civil rights heroes and documenting black “firsts” in fields like music, art, science and sports? Will the story end with the country’s having overcome its shameful history and approaching a state of racial harmony and equality? Or will the museum argue that the legacy of racism is still dominant — and, if so, how will it make that case?
The museum's director, Lonnie G. Bunch III, had this to say:

This is not being built as a museum by African-Americans for African-Americans. The notion that is so important here is that African-American culture is used as a lens to understand what it means to be an American . . . We want to make sure people see this is not an ancillary story, but it’s really the central story of the American experience.

In which case, as Taylor asks, why have a separate museum walled off from the National Museum of American History down the street?

I have to say that I am dubious about this effort. I know the scholars involved want to take on the problem of race in America, with all the ugliness, conflict, and misunderstanding that would involve, but this is going to run smack into political pressure: the pressure to extol black achievement, to shove intense racism as far into the past as possible, to paint slavery as an unmitigated evil, to tell an uplifting story of escape from bondage, and to get lots of visitors so as to compete better for funds with other very crowded museums. I fear a bland mishmash.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Marc Loret

Boat Wrecks (Epave de Bateau), a series of haunting photographs.

Gustave Doré's Paradise Lost

Satan's fall; Satan enthroned; Hell; a Divine Messenger on his way to Earth

Practical Politics

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed—and thus clamorous to be led to safety—by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

—H. L. Mencken

Saturday, January 22, 2011

David Smith, "Lunar Arcs on One Leg"

Perusing I came across this picture of David Smith's "Lunar Arcs on Two Legs." I liked it and went searching for other images. It seems that this is far from the most popular of David Smith's works, since it doesn't show up within the first 10 pages of Google images under "David Smith Sculptor." So I spent a few minutes looking at pictures of Smith's other work, which I find pleasingly whimsical:

I have to say, though, that while these other works are clever and amusing, nothing else I saw strikes me like "Lunar Arcs" did. This work is not clever or amusing, but beautiful, and that is what touches my soul:

Tetris and Soviet History

This is kind of brilliant

Season of Sorrow

How winter seems to me today on this cold gray morning:
Bitter pain seized her heart, and she rent the covering upon her divine hair with her dear hands: her dark cloak she cast down from both her shoulders and sped, like a wild-bird, over the firm land and yielding sea, seeking her child. But no one would tell her the truth, neither god nor mortal man; and of the birds of omen none came with true news for her. Then for nine days queenly Deo wandered over the earth with flaming torches in her hands, so grieved that she never tasted ambrosia and the sweet draught of nectar, nor sprinkled her body with water. . . .

Golden-haired Demeter sat there apart from all the blessed gods and stayed, wasting with yearning for her deep-bosomed daughter. Then she caused a most dreadful and cruel year for mankind over the all-nourishing earth: the ground would not make the seed sprout, for rich-crowned Demeter kept it hid. In the fields the oxen drew many a curved plough in vain, and much white barley was cast upon the land without avail. . . . .for she vowed that she would never set foot on fragrant Olympus nor let fruit spring out of the ground, until she beheld with her eyes her own fair-faced daughter.

--Hymn to Demeter, 7th century BC

Thomas is 14

Pictures from his family party on Thursday. Last night he had ten friends in the basement, doing I shudder to think what. An unknown fraction of them spent the night, and when I woke briefly at 3:30 AM energetic voices were still rising through the heating ducts.

Friday, January 21, 2011


The face of a statue of Ulysses emerges from the ground in Roman Portus.

Aurora Borealis

January 7, Tromso, Norway

What Can be Done with Lidar

I already called attention to the remarkable capability of airborne Lidar mapping for archaeology. Today I stumbled across this little article on a Lidar survey carried out in France, where the maps show features like stone walls, field boundaries, mounds, ditches, and even charcoal hearths.

What Historians Do

This will mainly be of interest only to historians and other academics.

It strikes me that there are two ways of conceiving what historians do. Most active, much-published historians see themselves as engaged in a conversation. They discuss and debate the past with other historians, mainly those who are their contemporaries. They take positions within this conversation, try to change its direction, strive to be relevant to what their peers are interested in. For many (but not all) historians this conversation is largely political, both in a philosophical sense and in the sense of contemporary party politics and university power struggles.

Other historians see themselves as engaged primarily in an encounter with the past. By reading old things, they try to understand what happened a long time ago. They like to imagine themselves working essentially alone, and they understand their work as a personal encounter with documents that often become dear to their hearts.

Now, obviously, even the most contemporary-minded historian has some contact with the past, and no scholar is so lonely that his work is not influenced by the ideas and trends of his day. But I find that keeping this distinction in mind explains much that happens among historians.

For example, I recently had an article rejected because I had not included sufficient discussion of contemporary scholarship that the editor considered relevant. I would have been much more miffed had I not instantly spotted the editor as one of those historians most engaged in history as a conversation; I had not located myself within any ongoing conversation, therefore what I said had no relevance. To me, nothing being said in the journals makes much difference to this particular piece of work, which grew very directly out of the eight months I spent in the Public Record Office reading medieval court rolls. The sense of medieval life I got from that reading was strikingly different from the sense I got from the major secondary works I read before going to London, most of them decades old. What I was trying to do was to explain in consecutive paragraphs a sense I got from the documents of what life was like in 14th-century England.

I don't bring this up to complain; there are plenty of historians who feel as I do about the contemporary conversation, and I am sure I could find someone who would be happy to publish my article if I tried harder. Or, if I wanted to stick with this journal, I could easily gin up some paragraphs on recent scholarship. I mention this because it was pondering the very different ways this editor and I see historians' work that helped me clarify how I feel about the contemporary academic scene.

London as a Historic Battlefield

Stephen Russell describes the explorations he has made of London to investigate how the city was shaped by bombing during World War II. He uses the bomb damage maps made at the end of the war (above) as his starting point:
Looking at these map helps to explain the cluster of old and modern buildings that can be seen not just in the center of London but also in the towns that make up the suburbs of London. It also explains why some buildings seems to have had stories removed or missing when compared to buildings nearby. This can be clearly seen in the town of Orpingtion only 8 miles from the center of London.

Between 13th of April 1944 and 27th of March 1945, no fewer than 63 V1 flying bombs and 14 V2s hit Orpingtion. The impact point where these bombs landed would have experienced total devastation. A scientific reconstruction carried out in 2010 demonstrated that the V2 creates a crater 20 m wide and 8 m deep, throwing up around 3,000 tons of material into the air. As the blast spread-out it would cause blast damage to other houses nearby, reducing in effect as the distance increased from the point of impact. This would have ensured few houses or buildings would have escaped the effect of the bombs. Many of the houses in Orpingtion were patched up and later repaired properly, others were knocked down and new buildings being built to replace them. Some of the houses would have their top stories destroyed or so serverely damaged that the house was repaired by its removal. Where there had been major incidents and damage, this led to the building of completely new blocks and even new streets.

This is clearly seen in the centre of Orpingtion where one side of the High street is comprised of buildings from the 1950s or 60s while the other side is comprised of buildings from the mid 1930s. This is explained when you look at the Bomb Damage Maps which show that the more recent buildings are sited on areas that suffered the heaviest bomb damage.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Storm on Saturn

Why Not?

The shoe tree, US Highway 50, Middlegate, Nevada.