Tag: History

Book review: Sound tracks by Graeme Lawson

This is a review of Sound Tracks: Uncovering Our Musical Past by Graeme Lawson, a history of musical instruments discovered through their archaeological remains. Unusually for a book such as this the action takes place in reverse, starting from the present day and finishing several million years ago. Also unusually the chapters are very short, typically less than 10 pages. Chapters are grouped into 12 chronological periods. Each chapter introduces an object, or a few objects and discusses a wider issue prompted by the object. Issues may be something like the discovery of a music shop in medieval Oxford and how it is identified from court records relating to crimes (counterfeiting) committed by the owner, how different materials are preserved, or how an instrument has developed. Although unusual I liked this style, I thought it would work quite well for history lessons. It means my usual note taking process was modified, rather than writing notes on individual pages, I read a whole chapter and wrote notes on that.

It is a fair sized book running to 50 or so (short) chapters.

Sound Tracks is focussed on archaeological finds, in terms of quantity the most finds are small, ubiquitous instruments with metal, bone or ceramic components which means things like harmonicas, mouth harps, small whistles/flutes and the metal tuning pegs of instruments like harps. These items are found as discards but not commonly. Musical instruments are also found as grave goods. However, they are not as common as finds like weapons or jewellery – unsurprisingly since few are so committed to music that they would take their instruments to the grave.

Musical instruments are also found as “sacrificial” items – sound and often valuable items which have been systematically broken or destroyed are common in archaeology – what is not clear is the “why” of such breakages.

The oldest stringed instruments, dating back to 3000BC, found in Ur in Iraq were discovered because an archaeologist spotted several interesting looking voids in a tomb they were excavating and decided to fill them with plaster of Paris. They turned out to be lyres, and their approach meant the structure of the instruments were fantastically well preserved. Even in high status graves and tombs preservation is the exception rather than the rule.

Somewhat to my surprise shipwrecks are sites of sometimes remarkable preservation in musical instruments. In the right conditions artefacts will quickly be buried by anoxic sediments which gives excellent preservation – in fact on one shipwreck written musical notes were found (although the paper on which they sat had decayed away). Lawson cites violins recovered from the Kronan in Sweden (sunk 1676) and the Mary Rose (sunk in 1545). These examples show the effect of standardisation on instrument design often fine instruments are upgraded as fashions change. In some cases instruments from shipwrecks even preserve use patterns – showing what notes were commonly played. Related to shipwrecks, Lawson also talks about whistles and trumpets used not for music but for communication and command.

A recurring theme is that instruments often appear in the archaeological record “fully-formed”, that is the earliest examples found are fully-functional and sophisticated. The cause of this might be illustrated by the development of steel drums in Trinidad, this process started in the 1930s when the colonial authorities banned the traditional bamboo drums – in no more than 20 years the steel drum was fully formed in design. So musical innovation can happen in the blink of an eye. Furthermore, experiments in musical design are not preserved – at best their components will be reused, and at worst used as firewood. Pipes/flutes with evidence of deliberate, consistent tuning have been found dating back 40,000 years.

I was intrigued to learn that the earliest keyboard instruments were Roman pipe organs dating back 1700 years, this illustrates another feature of the archaeological record – the key specimen of Roman pipe organs was found in Hungary rather than back home in Rome. In another case, the understanding of Greek lyres was advanced by the discovery of a “bridge” on the Isle of Skye, in North West Scotland.

Musical instruments can represent incredibly advanced technology. For example, a chapter is dedicated to casting church bells in situ by digging a large pit at the host church, another to a carnyx from the late Iron Age, another to a carillon of 64 tuned bells from a Chinese tomb (dating back to the 5th century BC). There are numerous well-crafted tubes forming flute/wind instruments. Lawson is an experimental archaeologist, so has experience in trying to reconstruct these instruments – it is not easy, or without risk – one researcher died from inhaling toxic yew wood dust, another from trying to play his reconstructed instrument – he blew too hard!

Writing music is a bit outside the remit of this book because it is largely a historical exercise rather than an archaeological one although Lawson mentions some musical graffiti and the earliest example of lyrics and musical notation together found on a clay tablet dating back to 1300BC in Syria. This also touches on the theme of the relationship between poetry and music. There is some evidence that epic poems like Beowulf were performed with musical accompaniment.

The book finishes with a couple of chapters on what music might have existed in the deep past on the basis on human biology, genetics and cave art. The oldest wooden artefacts recovered date back 300,000 so there is a slim chance of discovering musical instruments back to this time.

I really enjoyed this book, the short chapters worked very well for me and I’m interested in music.

Book review: Buried by Professor Alice Roberts

Continuing with my Alice Roberts binge, I now review Buried: An Alternative History of the First Millennium in Britain. Following the theme of the two other books in the series, Ancestors and Crypt, Buried looks at history through the lens of seven burials. It finishes with a final, more general chapter which looks at identity and the balance between migration and cultural diffusion.

The first millennium covers the Roman occupation of Britain followed by the period sometimes known as the “Dark Ages” or the “Anglo Saxon Period”.

The first three burials are in the Roman era, they cover a weird pipe burial where the ashes from a cremation are buried in a lead container with a pipe leading up to the surface. This is believed to be a a facility for enabling mourners to symbolically eat and drink with the deceased. This was a funeral practice known in the Roman period and continued for a long time in, for example, Russia where food and drink were left on the grave. To a degree this is a chapter about cremation, which was the favoured Roman practice – sky burials were more the preference in Iron Age Britain – they leave little trace. After the Romans left inhumation became the common practice.

The second chapter is a somewhat traumatic one on infant burials in the Roman period, focused on the 97 infant burials found at the Yewden Roman Villa near Hambledon. Infants were often buried close to homes rather than in cemeteries in the Roman period. Some of the bones at Yewden show signs of cutting, it isn’t entirely clear why there are such injuries but obstetric surgery is a possibility. It has been estimated that infant mortality was as high as 30% in this period. There are hints that infanticide was practiced more widely than today on those infants who might today survive with treatment. These infant burials highlight the difficulty of understanding what was happening, and how people felt from fragmentary remains.

The last of the Roman burials covers decapitation, burials where the corpse has clearly been decapitated – it focuses on the Whelnetham cemetery at Bury St Edmunds. One thing that is becoming clear is that there is no such thing as a typical cemetery from this period, each of the burials in this book illustrates another variation from the “norm” – whatever that may be. Perhaps that is the result of the selections made by the author but it may be that in an era before mass communication and a strong nation state or church, burial was much more a local affair. Ultimately why bodies were decapitated before burial is unclear, sometimes it was as the result of execution or a final punishment for criminals in other cases it may have been a superstitious measure to prevent ghosts or other apparitions.

The diversity of burial practices is again highlighted in the next burials at Breamore in Hampshire dating from around 600CE where the local style seems to have been burial with a bucket amongst many other grave goods! The site was discovered after a metal detectorist discovered a very elaborate bucket which appears to have come from a workshop many miles away in the Southern Türkiye. It is here that the theme of Anglo Saxons, and how they came to replace the Romans takes place. The term “Anglo Saxon” has its own postscript chapter since it is a problematic term. For archaeologists it has a precise meaning: the period from the end of the Roman occupation to the Norman invasion but more recently it has been co-opted as an ethnic term meaning “white, of Northern European origin”. Some (approximately one) historical records suggest the Anglo Saxon takeover of culture in Britain was the result of mass migration or invasion. However, the writer of this history – Gildas – certainly had an axe to grind. It seems more likely that the apparent Anglo Saxon invasion was a cultural shift that came from longstanding trade links across northern Europe. The Roman invasion of Britain was more a replacement / coalition of the ruling class than a mass migration, although soldiers and mercenaries came to Britain from around the Empire. The Anglo Saxon “invasion” appears to have been more of a re-instatement of the Iron Age status quo drawing on existing trade and cultural links.

The next chapter is not focussed on a burial as such but on the Staffordshire horde, and the intensive study of a single type of jewellery and how it changes over time. Although dramatic, discoveries such as the Staffordshire Horde are frustrating since they come with no context, they are typically found with no accompanying burial, building or even roadway.

The local interest for me is in the sixth chapter, where Roberts looks at burials near Benllech in Anglesey – where we have been on holiday a couple of times. The “burials” are basically bodies thrown into a ditch, and the key question is whether they are part of a battle against Viking invaders. This again touches on the movement of people around Northern Europe and the degree to which they assimilated locally.

Towards the end of the Roman Empire it became Christian, and in the subsequent years Roman burial practices, and those countries where the Church prevailed, changed. Cremations were replaced with burials, grave goods fell out of favour (to the chagrin of modern archaeologists), and churches and cemeteries combined – in the earlier Roman period there were temples in settlements and separate cemeteries on the outskirts. In some ways the Roman Empire seems not to have fallen but rather have been replaced with the Catholic Church, based in Rome.

As I finish my binge on Alice Roberts I find her books make engaging reading, as well as archaeological detail they also cover historiography and the broader questions of the period the burials address. Buried addresses more of the historical record than Ancestors which focussed on an earlier period (where there were no historical records), and less of the ancient DNA work which is found more in the recent Crypt. Ancient DNA is particularly relevant to understanding disease. The field of ancient DNA is evolving very rapidly, even in the couple of years between the writing of Buried and Crypt.

Book review: Crypt by Professor Alice Roberts

My next review is for Crypt by Professor Alice Roberts, this is one of a sequence of three books on archaeology and history centred around burials. I reviewed Ancestors a couple of years ago which covered the prehistoric period. Crypt covers the second millennium of the current era, the third book, Buried, covers the first millennium and is on my reading list.

In common with Ancestors, Crypt considers seven burials across a period of time – in this case the medieval period – from about 1000CE to 1500CE. The burials are a launch point for a wider discussion covering archaeology, genetics, disease pathology and history. It is the study of DNA from ancient bodies that has been the biggest innovation over the last 25 or so years, and it has been applied to a lot of existing archaeological collections as well as new digs. It can show how diseases have emerged and evolved over the period of human history.

“Crypt” is not a particularly accurate description of the burial sites, the chapters look at a mass grave in Oxford (in a ditch) whose members met violent ends, a leper colony near Winchester, Thomas Beckett’s (possible) burial at Canterbury Cathedral, burials at Norton Priory near Runcorn showing evidence of Paget’s disease, plague pits and evidence for the Black Death, the Mary Rose and the skeletons of otherwise healthy men, finishing with a burial at a church in York and syphilis.

In contrast to Ancestors this book has much more historical material, understandably since Ancestors covered prehistoric burials.

The book starts with the discovery of 35 skeletons in a ditch in Oxford, primarily young men who had met a violent end. Ultimately this was linked to Æthelred the Unready’s edict to kill Danes in England dated to 1002CE in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. Although the carbon dating initially indicated the skeletons were from a slightly earlier period, isotope analysis suggested they had a diet very high in fish, which is know to lead to systematically older carbon dating. It also suggest that the skeletons may have belonged to Danes, whose economy was very dependent on fishing. Contemporary reporting of the massacre was limited but picked up after the Norman invasion as some sort of justification for the invasion.

Leprosy was spreading in the 11th century – possibly as a result of the Crusades. The second chapter of Crypt concerns the hospital on Magdalene Hill on the outskirts of Winchester. 100 graves were excavated of which 85% had inhabitants afflicted by leprosy – this is very clear from skeletal evidence. The hospital was founded around 1000CE, in this period hospitals were starting to be founded but the line between hospital and monastery/abbey was blurred. In the modern era PCR analysis has shown that many have leprosy without symptoms.

In some senses the chapter on Thomas Beckett is anomalous, it is almost entirely historical. On his well-documented death he was quickly made a saint and his tomb at Canterbury Cathedral, featuring a special alcove for his severed scalp, became a site of pilgrimage. The archaeological interest is because none of the tomb of St Thomas remains, it was removed by Henry VIII during the Dissolution who also comprehensively clamped down on celebration of St Thomas. The chapter also talks about the politics between the local royalty and the Roman church.

The chapter on Norton Priory, near Runcorn, brings things home for me – I live just down the road in Chester. The new visitor centre looks rather fine. The focus here is on Paget’s Disease which is a disorder of the bone which is more common in north west England, and used to be more common generally. As a disease it is still a bit of a mystery. Norton Priory has a very high incidence of Paget’s in its graveyard – as many as 3 in 20 skeletons show evidence of the disease.

Paget’s disease and leprosy both show clear signs of disease on the bone, the Black Death on the other hand, does not since it kills its victims in days, or even hours giving little time for bone to be affected. This means that genetic methods are used to diagnose the disease in ancient remains. They were first applied to the Black Death around 2000 but the results were disputed with the identity of the disease micro-organism for the Black Death only confirmed as Yersinia pestis in 2011. It has been identified in victims of the earlier Justinian plague.

For Roberts the Mary Rose is a significant part of her childhood memories, as it is for me – many of us around the age of 50 will remember the raising of the Mary Rose shown on an old CRT TV in the school assembly hall. The interest in the Mary Rose is that the anaerobic silt of the Solent preserved the skeletons of its crew very well and nets to prevent boarders meant many men were trapped on the sinking ship. The primary interest here is in counting the dead, best estimates are rather below the historical figures suggesting that the ship may have been under-crewed. The skeletal pathologies are also of interest – what was the impact of the types of activities that sailors and fighting men undertook on their skeletons.? The Mary Rose is also the home of a large cache, over 100, of English long bows – very few of these famous weapons have been preserved – in fact the Wikipedia article cites only three other examples not from the Mary Rose.

Crypt finishes with an unusual burial in a York church, (All Saints on Fishergate) and syphilis. The burial is unusual because it is a pit burial in the apse of the church. The buried skeleton contains crater-like lesions characteristic of advanced syphilis. The origin of syphilis is still a mystery, there has long been a “Columbian Hypothesis” that Columbus brought syphilis back from the New World (in exchange for a wide range of diseases brought from the Old World) – however genetic analysis has failed to find the syphilis bacteria in remains prior to 1492 in either the New or Old World. The burial is thought to have been of an anchoress, possibly Lady Isabella Germann, buried around 1493.

The disease pathology sections are interesting but can be quite lengthy, I noticed this particularly in the chapter on the skeletons of the Mary Rose in the discussion on the skeletal features arising from archery – it all became clear when Roberts writes of this topic “…this had formed the backbone of my PhD”!

Reading this book it becomes clear that the various diseases mentioned, leprosy, syphilis, and Black Death went through periods of high prevalence across human history -this is covered in Peter Frankopan’s book The Earth Transformed. The bubonic plague – the disease responsible for the Black Death, is covered in Simon Schama’s book, Foreign Bodies, at least for the 19th century outbreak.

I enjoyed this book, so much so that I have just bought the last (for me) of the sequence.

Book review: How the world thinks by Julian Baggini

Whilst economising during a period without work I thought I would turn to other books in the house to read and review. This is how I came to How the World Thinks: A Global History of Philosophy by Julian Baggini. This is not to say I am uninterested in philosophy but, as a scientist in the Western tradition, philosophy was a substrate on which I worked without thinking.

How the World Thinks aims to provide an outline of the major schools of philosophy around the world, Baggini alludes to the fact that in the Western world university philosophy departments are more accurately described as “Western philosophy” departments. Comparative philosophy, apparently, is not really a thing. Baggini also talks about how “academic” philosophy impacts the culture in which it sits – a process called sedimentation. Baggini cites the 5rd-3th centuries BCE as when the major philosophical traditions were born (know as the Axial Age), when understanding of the world started moving from myth to some sort of reason.

How the World Thinks is divided into four parts and an additional concluding part; these cover the nature of philosophy in different traditions, the nature of the world, who we are and how philosophy impacts the way we live. The text typically covers Far Eastern traditions (China and Japan), India, Islamic and Western traditions with some references to African philosophy. Rather strangely he mentions Russian philosophy in the final part, only to say really he hasn’t mentioned Russian philosophy!

Western philosophy is built around “reason” and nowadays is largely separate from theology, there are empiricist and rationalist schools within this. Empiricists believing on observing the world and building models based on observation, whilst rationalist believe the world can be understood with pure thought. East Asian philosophy is more concerned with a “way” of living in the world which is difficult if not impossible to explain in words. Indian philosophy lies between these two. Interestingly yoga is part of a philosophical tradition which sees it as a way of better seeing how the world really is.

The next part of the book concerns the processes that govern the world: time, karma, emptiness, naturalism, unity, and reductionism. Karma is a particularly Indian concept, and is linked by Baggini to the caste system which DNA evidence dates back to the 6th century AD. East Asian philosophy is more concerned with emptiness / nothingness then Western philosophy – it struck me reading The First Astronomers that Australian Aboriginal constellations include the absence of stars into their constellations. Naturalism, a regard for nature which links the natural world to the human, is stronger in East Asian philosophies – Chinese art incorporated natural scenes long before Western art. Islamic philosophy is strong on unity, whilst Western philosophy likes reductionism.

Part 3 concerns the self, contrasting the East Asian view of the self which is defined in relationship to others, similarly in Africa, with the indivisible, individualistic self of the West. There is even the idea that the self does not exist, as such. Baggini refers to the indivisible self as “atomistic” which harks back to the ancient Greek definition but for a modern scientist this is a bit confusing because an atom is a very different thing. Indian philosophy thinks in terms of a self that is reborn but need not hold any recollection of previous selves. Perhaps not made explicit in this part but one gets the feeling that other philosophies have a strong sense of being concerned with individual self-improvement, by acting in the right way, leading the right life one improves through each rebirth.

The final part of the book concerns how the world lives, how the philosophy discussed in earlier chapters is reflected in culture. This starts with a consideration of the idea of “harmony” in China, this can have elements of hierarchy and misogyny. Although Baggini highlights that it is understood that hierarchy is not bad in all cases, or even most. There is a chapter on “virtue” which as much as anything highlights that the meanings of words when translated can shift. We might think about the importance of “ritual” in Far Eastern cultures but equally we could call it “cultural grammar” which has different connotations in English .

I found How the World Thinks straightforward enough to read, the chapters are a convenient size and the style is readable. It also thought provoking, in that it challenges the deepest assumptions about the way I lead my intellectual life – in some ways it parallels The First Astronomers by Duane Hamacher in this respect.

Book review: Broad Band by Claire L. Evans

Broad Band by Claire L. Evans book cover. Cream background with a silhouette of a woman made from circuit boards

This review is of Broad Band by Claire L. Evans, subtitled The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet. It is arranged thematically with each chapter focusing on a couple of women moving in time from the first chapter, about Ada Lovelace in the 19th century, through to the early years of the 21st century. The first part of the book covers the early period of computing up to the mid-sixties, the second part the growth of networked computing through the seventies and eighties with the final part covering the rise of the World Wide Web and services devoted to women.

The first chapter introduces us to Ada Lovelace, sometimes heralded as the first programmer which is a somewhat disputable claim. More importantly she was clearly a competent mathematician and excelled in democratising and explaining the potential of the mechanical computing engines that Charles Babbage was trying, and largely failing, to build. More broadly this chapter covers the work of the early human “computers”, who were often women, employed to carry out calculations for astronomical or military applications. Following on from this role, by 1946 250,000 women were working in telephone exchanges (presumably in the US).

Women gained this role as “computers” for a range of reasons. In the 19th century it was seen as acceptable work for educated women whose options were severely limited – as they would be for many years to come, excepting war time. The lack of alternatives meant they were very cheap to employ. Under the cover of this apparently administrative role of “computer” women made useful, original contributions to science albeit they were not recognised as such. Women were seen as good at this type of meticulous, routine work.

When the first electronic computers were developed in the later years of the Second World War it was unsurprising that women were heavily involved in their operation partly because of their previous roles, and partly because men had been sent to fight. There appears to have been an attitude that the design and construction of such machines was men’s work and their actual use, the physical act of programming was women’s work – often neglected by those men that built the machines.

It was in this environment that the now renowned Grace Hopper worked. She started writing what we would now describe as compilers to make the task of programming computers easier. She was also instrumental in creating the COBOL programming language, reviled by computer scientist in subsequent years but comprising 80% of the world’s code by the end of the 20th century. The process that Hopper used to create the language, a committee involving multiple companies working towards a common useful goal, looks surprisingly modern.

In the sixties there was a sea-change for women in computing, it was perceived that there was a shortage of programmers and the solution was to change programming into an engineering science which had the effect of gradually pushing women out of computing through the seventies. It was at this time that the power of computer networks started to be realised.

The next part of the book covers networking via a brief diversion into mapping the Mammoth Cave system in Kentucky which became the basis of the first network computer game: Colossal Cave Adventure. I was particularly impressed by Project One, a San Francisco commune which housed a mainframe computer (a Scientific Data Systems 940) which had been blagged from a company by Pam Hardt-English. In the early seventies it became the first bulletin board system (BBS) – a type of system which was to persist all the way through to the creation of the World Wide Web (and beyond). Broad Band also covers some of the later bulletin board systems founded by women which evolved into women’s places on the Web, BBS were majority male spaces for a long time. In the meantime Resource One also became the core of the San Francisco Social Services Referral Directory which persisted through until 2009, this was a radical innovation at the time – computers used for a social purpose outside of scientific or military applications.

The internet as we know it started with ARPANET in 1969. Broad Band covers two women involved in the early internet – Elizabeth (Jake) Feinler who was responsible for the Resource Handbook – a manually compiled directory of computers, and their handlers, on ARPANET. This evolved, under her guidance, to become the WHOIS service and host.domain naming convention for internet addresses. The second woman was Radia Perlman, who invented the Spanning Tree Protocol for ethernet whilst at DEC in 1984.

This brings us, in time, to the beginning of the World Wide Web. The World Wide Web grew out of the internet. Hypertext systems had been mooted since the end of the Second World War but it wasn’t until the eighties that they became technically feasible on widely available hardware. Broad Band cites British Wendy Hall and Cathy Marshall at Rank Xerox as contributors to the development of hypertext systems. These were to be largely swept away by Tim Berners-Lee’s HTML format which had the key feature of hyperlinking across different computers even if this made the handling of those links prone to decay – something handled better by other non-networked hypertext systems. The World Wide Web grew ridiculously quickly in the early nineties. Berners-Lee demonstrated a rather uninspiring version at HyperText ’91 and by HyperText ’94 he was keynote speaker.

There is a a brief chapter devoted to women in gaming. Apparently Barbie Fashion Designer sold 600,000 units in 1996 more than Doom and Quake! There was a brief period when games were made very explicitly for girls – led to a degree by Brenda Laurel who had done extensive research showing boys strive for mastery in games, whilst girls were looking for a collaborator to complete a task. These ideas held sway for a while before a more diverse gaming market took hold which didn’t divide games so much by gender.

It is tempting for me to say that where women have made their mark in computing and the internet is in forming communities, communicating the benefits of technology and making them easier to use – in a reprise of the early pioneering women in science – because that is what women are good at. However, this is the space in which women have been allowed by men – it is not a question of innate ability alone.

I found this book really interesting, it is more an entry point into the topic of women in computing than a comprehensive history. It has made me nostalgic for my computing experiences of the eighties and nineties, and I have added a biography of Grace Hopper to my reading list.