BBC: Our Ancestors Were Stupid

Here is the Beeb with a story about an ancient monument in Scotland:

“Excavations of a field at Crathes Castle found a series of 12 pits which appear to mimic the phases of the moon and track lunar months.”

Then they trot out that stale old idea that ancient people needed to build giant monuments to tell themselves what time of year it was:

The pit alignment also aligns on the Midwinter sunrise to provided the hunter-gatherers with an annual “astronomic correction” in order to better follow the passage of time and changing seasons.

And these, mind you, were hunter-gathers, not agriculturalists — not that any farmers need a calendar to tell them when to plant. Every traditional farming culture has its signs: “When the leaves of such-and-such tree are big as a mouse’s ear, plant such-and-such a crop.”

And hunters? They watch the animals and factors affecting animals. “It’s snowing hard. The elk will be moving down off the mountain.”

And gatherers? They watch the plants. “It’s rained for the last week. Let’s go check our mushroom-gathering area — they might be coming up.” I plan to do that tomorrow, in fact.

You don’t need twelve posts in a circle to tell you when it is time.  Even today, would you need a calendar to tell you when it was spring? Changes in vegetation, bird migrations, and other natural signs are quite enough.

Astronomically aligned structures are meaningful, but sometimes we do not know why. But many instances, ancient Tenochtilan, for example, aligned grand buildings  showed that the rulers enjoyed the favor of heaven/the gods. Likewise in imperial China and in the Middle East.

Possibly these twelve posts in a meadow were erected on the orders of some Paleolithic “Big Man” whose ideas about the “formal construction of time” were connected to his sense of self-importance. That makes as much sense as allegedly telling people when it was time to hunt and gather.

Puppy Mills for the Gods

When I read an article like “Millions of Mummy Puppies Revealed at Egyptian Catacombs,” I realize how little we know about what was really going on with popular religion there centuries ago.

It’s one thing to study the tombs of high-ranking individuals. We still put high-ranking individuals in fancy tombs, and we make pilgrimages to them. I have stood teary-eyed just contemplating the tomb of Thomas Jefferson, for example.

But puppy mills for the gods?

They estimate the catacombs contain the remains of 8 million animals. Given the sheer numbers of animals, it is likely they were bred by the thousands in puppy farms around the ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis, according to the researchers. The Dog Catacombs are located at Saqqara, the burial ground for the ancient capital Memphis.

“Our findings indicate a rather different view of the relationship between people and the animals they worshipped than that normally associated with the ancient Egyptians, since many animals were killed and mummified when only a matter of hours or days old,” Nicholson said. “These animals were not strictly ‘sacrificial.’ Rather, the dedication of an animal mummy was regarded as a pious act, with the animal acting as intermediary between the donor and the gods.”

If that is not sacrifice — what is? Giving something to get something is part of what sacrifice is about, isn’t it?

Ancient Egyptian religion has this bureaucratic feeling to it—all of those catacombs and holes like post office boxes full of dead things. They even mummified cuts of meat for tomb offerings (go through the photo sequence). I wonder if about 80 percent of the country’s linen production went into wrapping up bodies to be put away.

(Meanwhile, in ancient Scotland, they were doing funny things with skeletons.)

Pictish Writing Discovered?

Some researchers now think that decorative carvings on Pictish memorial stones in Scotland may actually represent a form of writing.

The highly stylized rock engravings, found on what are known as the Pictish Stones, had once been thought to be rock art or tied to heraldry. The new study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society A, instead concludes that the engravings represent the long lost language of the Picts, a confederation of Celtic tribes that lived in modern-day eastern and northern Scotland.

“We know that the Picts had a spoken language to complement the writing of the symbols, as Bede (a monk and historian who died in 735) writes that there are four languages in Britain in this time: British, Pictish, Scottish and English,” lead author Rob Lee told Discovery News.

“We know that the three other languages were — and are — complex spoken languages, so there is every indication that Pictish was also a complex spoken language,” added Lee, a professor in the School of Biosciences at the University of Exeter.

I have known some people who claimed to be practising Pictish Witchcraft. If the carving is indeed writing and is deciphered, then they will have to go back and revise their greatnth-grandmother’s Book of Shadows.

Roman Britain on the Big Screen

During a recent conversation over margaritas in the old provincial capital, Peculiar mentioned two new forthcoming movies set in Roman Britain.

There is an added resonance to Americans flocking to films set during the rise and fall of ancient empires as they contemplate their own long-dominant place in the world amid economic upheavals at home and protracted wars abroad.

And I told him about how Troy (2004) subtly supported the archaeological theory of diffusionism.

The movies in question are Centurion and The Eagle of the Ninth.

Both should be regarded as “inspired by” rather than as any attempt at accurate history, I reckon. The so-called”disappearance” of the Ninth Legion is something that historians still squabble about—and bloggers too.

Archaeologists have shown that they were happily in garrison in York in AD 108, which is rather a long time after their supposed demise in Caledonia.

(And it’s amazing how many people think “centurion” means “Roman soldier” rather than what we would call a company commander.)

Clash of the Titans has not fared well on blogs that I read, so I am skipping it.

The Roman province of Britain lasted longer than the United States of America has thus far (just for comparison), so there are plenty of movie-making opportunities left.

Knee Deep in the Bloody Ford of History

Sometime around age 15 I took home Vol. 49 of the Harvard Classics from the Fort Collins (Colo.) public library and read for the first time Beowulf and The Destruction of Dá Derga’s Hostel. (The Ring saga is in there too, but I had already encountered it.)

is an understandable story, while The Destruction at least introduced me to the concept of geis, which is actually fairly troublesome when you are that age and trying to figure out where the walls are.

Not until my undergraduate years did I discover The Gododdin, which is totally different from the above. Like petals on a blood-soaked daisy, it is a series of short elegies for warriors who fought and died (more or less to the last man) at the battle of Catterick, c. 570 CE in what is now Yorkshire. (Poetic samples are at the link above.)

There is no narrative; it is as though you had short poems about Paul Revere, Molly Pitcher, George Washington, Daniel Morgan, Benedict Arnold, Baron Von Steuben, John Paul Jones, etc., without needing to tell the reader about the American Revolution.

Many critics as well as authors of fiction based on the poem tend to create dichotomies about it such as these:

  • It’s the Romano-Celtic (mostly Christian) British versus the (Pagan) Anglo-Saxons, with the Celts carrying faded remnants of Imperial Britannia and the Saxons representing ignorance and barbarism.
  • It represents a nonlinear “Celtic” way of thinking versus the linearity of, say, Beowulf.
  • It is typical of how glorifying “beautiful losers” is part of the Celtic soul or something.
  • It demonstrates the tactical deficiency of mounted fighters without stirrups against the Anglo-Saxon “shield wall.” (But cf. Battle of Hastings.)

Recently I picked up John Koch’s The Gododdin of Aneirin: Text and Context from Dark-Age North Britain (University of Wales Press, 1997).

I have no background in the Welsh language, so I cannot really follow his discussions of changes in phonetics and orthography over many centuries, nor the 24 types of medieval Welsh poetic meter, for example.

But I do appreciate the point he made about 6th century versus medieval nationalism. In the 6th or 7th centuries, there was none. What is now England and Scotland contained many little kingdoms — and yes, some were ruled by Old Welsh-speakers and some by Old English-speakers, but they did not line up neatly on ethnic lines.

He argues that there were other Celto-British forces, allied with the Saxons, on the winning side at Catterick, and that another Old Welsh poem represents their heroic versifying about their victory. So much for beautiful losers.

Later, by the Middle Ages (13th century), when the line between England and Wales was drawn on the map and a greater sense of separation existed, The Gododdin was cast as Celts versus Saxons and used to reinforce that sense of separation.

Once again, the lesson is to be careful about projecting our categories backwards on the past, especially on the distant and mostly unrecorded past.