northumberland, walk


I decided to move my blog posts across from Livejournal to a site of my own - partly as an excuse to play around with a new website design (it'd been 6 years since the last overhaul I gave my site). Finally got the last few fiddly details sorted out yesterday, so it's now live. The new address is:

I hope some of you who read this follow me over! I've copied the last few months worth of posts (although not comments) so it should look rather familiar.

(There is an RSS feed for it, so it should be possible to set it up so you can read on your LJ friends page if you wish - I think it needs a paid account to set up on the LJ side, but anyone can "friend" the RSS feed, let me know if you want me to set up the account.)
never there

Prehistoric Autopsy; Wartime Farm

The second episode of Prehistoric Autopsy was all about Homo erectus, and they were building a model of Nariokotome Boy. This is a 1.5 million year old near complete Homo erectus skeleton & the most complete one ever found. They started off with context, again - Homo erectus only died out relatively recently, but was around for 2 million years, which is the longest of any human species. It's also one of the first hominids that can be thought of as human, and we and all the other ones that were around in the recent (geologically speaking) past are descended from them. They also lived outside Africa, and were the first hominids to do so.

Homo erectus co-existed with several different hominid species over time - they talked in detail about one, Paranthropus boisei. The skull they showed had a massive jaw, a skull ridge and very flared cheekbones to fit the chewing muscles behind. A diet of particularly solid things seems plausible, like nuts and seeds. As well as that sort of food there's evidence of wear from grasses on their teeth.

They showed us research into the climate over the time period - I loved this bit, there's just something so neat about being able to find out what the world was like so long ago with such a simple concept. They do it using samples taken of the sediment on the ocean floor. It's laid down layer upon layer over time, and you can look at things like the sort of mud it is and the sorts of plant seeds/pollen you find in it to build up an idea of what the weather and landscape was like on nearby continents. We got shown a particular example of a core where you could see a colour change in the mud from top (~5000 years ago) to bottom (~10,000 years ago), and told us that the changes correspond to a change in the nearby climate (East Africa, if I remember right) from wetter to more dry. Over the 2 million years that Homo erectus existed the climate seems to've undergone lots of swings between hotter & colder or wetter & dryer conditions and they speculate that why Homo erectus survived and the other hominids didn't is that Homo erectus was more adaptable.

And that they were more adaptable because of their bigger brains and because of the different way they interacted with the environment around them. There's evidence that Homo erectus used fire, and they cooked their food (at least at the end of the time period, I wasn't clear if there was no evidence from earlier on or if they hadn't done the analysis (yet)). Their tools are more sophisticated than earlier hominid tools - instead of just breaking rocks for a sharp edge their tools are carefully shaped and show evidence of being planned and involving skill to make. So Homo erectus seems to've had the cognitive ability to shape the environment to suit themselves, rather than put up with the environment they find themselves in. There's also evidence that they took care of older members of their groups - a skull has been found where the individual lost their teeth a few years before death, and quite clearly wouldn't've survived without help.

Because of the model building the programme also spent some time discussing the probable physique of Nariokotome Boy. Homo erectus show many adaptions for running, and were probably lean and hairless (to the extent that modern humans are hairless, I mean). Because of the lack of hair they'd've had dark skins to protect themselves from the UV of the African sun - and this limited their spread north, they don't seem to've got the low melanin mutation that permitted us to live in more northern climates. Also in this section they showed us evidence that Homo erectus may've suffered from tuberculosis, which is astonishing - it is a disease that we get from cattle originally, and was assumed to've become a human disease only more recently when modern humans started living in close proximity to cattle because they'd become herders. The marks and signs on the Homo erectus skull they were looking at (not Nariokotome Boy, another one) were very similar to the ones on a modern human who'd died of TB, so seemed convincing evidence. Which raises all sorts of interesting questions.

We also watched the last episode of Wartime Farm, which unsurprisingly covered 1945 and the immediate aftermath of the war, as well as wrapping up with a "what we've learnt" segment. So they were mostly concentrating on the fact that once the war was won, that didn't mean life returned to how it had been pre-war - not only did people still need fed, but in some ways the situation was even more precarious because Britain was close to bankrupt and couldn't afford to import food yet the fields were becoming less fertile due to a lack of manure and from being over-farmed. They also talked about the celebrations that people had (and the thing they dramatised was a firework elephant, which was awesome :D ). And they harvested the wheat crop they'd spent the year growing, using a brand new combine harvester (well, 70 year old one ...).

This was a good series, although I've struggled to write more than a paragraph per episode. I'm not quite sure why, but I guess partly because there was a lot of "look at how we did things" which isn't easy to transform into text. I did feel that they spread it all too thin, perhaps they couldn't do it half the number of episodes, but I do think they could've cut it down a bit. The format of half-dramatising, half-telling still feels like it shouldn't've worked, but they pulled it off very well.
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"The Desert of Souls" Howard Andrew Jones

I read an excerpt from the sequel to "The Desert of Souls" on & was intrigued enough to reserve this one at the library. And then a bit startled when it came in coz it had been long enough that I forgot I'd reserved it :)

It's set primarily in the Baghdad of the 8th Century, during the time of the Caliph Haroun al-Rashid, and our protagonists are part of the household of Jaffar, son of the Vizier. Jaffar & Haroun are historical figures (as are some of the others), and they are also protagonists in some of the stories in the Arabian Nights. This story is a kind of modern story of that type, with ancient magic & djinn. There's also some of the feel of Sherlock Holmes & Watson to the main two characters.

Everything is told to us by Captain Asim, the man in charge of Jaffar's household guards. He organises a diversion for Jaffar after his pet bird has died - they go out into the market place in disguise, accompanied by the scholar Dabir. While Jaffar enjoys pretending to be a common person they go and have their fortunes told, and shortly afterwards a man being chased through the streets trying to reach Jaffar dies in front of them carrying an elaborate door pull. The two main plot lines of the book are thus launched - Dabir is tasked to find out what is so important about the door pull, and Asim is to guard him particularly when this requires travelling to a far away ruined city. Jaffar is also keen to separate Dabir from his erstwhile pupil, Jaffar's niece Sabirah, out of fear that they have fallen in love - said fear being encouraged by the prophecy of the fortune teller. Sabirah is destined for an arranged marriage with someone politically suitable, and far above the station of a scholar/tutor no matter how learned he is.

One thing I really liked about this book is how rooted in the real world it is - even the bits that are fantastical. There's a tale within the tale about a previous adventure of Jaffar, Asim & Dabir and described as an incidental detail in the ancient ruins they visit is what is what seems quite clearly an ancient Assyrian relief of a king in a chariot. The afterword at the end says that Haroun & Jaffar are real, but I was quite pleased I'd figured that out already & I'd looked them up (and the answer to what Jaffar's prophecy means was mentioned in wikipedia too!). Also helping it to feel real was that the characters don't feel like 21st Century Westerners dumped in an exotic setting.
never there

"China: The World's Oldest Civilisation Revealed" John Makeham (Part 3)

Unification and Expansion: The First Chinese Empires

This chapter of the book covers the Qin Dynasty & the two halves of the Han Dynasty, who ruled China between 221BC and 220AD. The Qin Emperor was the first ruler to unite China under the rule of a central authority rather than the feudal states of previous dynasties. The Han emerged initially as the result of a peasant uprising against the second Qin Emperor, and subsequently ruled over China for about 400 years.

Orientation dates: We're moving out of the time where I try to cross-reference with Egypt, and more into the Roman Empire. The last Egyptian date is the famous Cleopatra, who ruled 69BC to 30BC. For the Romans - the Second Punic War (Hannibal, elephants, etc) happened between 218BC & 202BC, roughly speaking matching the start of the earlier Han Dynasty. Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44BC. Britain (well, bits of) became part of the Roman Empire in 43AD. Hadrian ruled the Roman Empire from 117AD to 138AD, starting to build Hadrian's Wall in 122AD. The Emperor Diocletian ruled from 284AD, so just outside the Han period.

The Qin Dynasty

Before the Qin Emperor was the Warring States period - China divided into 7 different kingdoms who fought amongst themselves, but still had a fair degree of continuity of culture. The Qin state was one of these kingdoms, and it had been a latish addition to the Zhou dynasty's territory. Being on the edge of the country it had expansion prospects that central states didn't, so ended up with a higher population and thus a bigger army than the other states. They'd also lucked out in having a series of rulers that were both long-lived and competant. So over the period of 256BC to 221BC they conquered the other six kingdoms. And the First Emperor ruled the whole of China for the next 11 years until his death.

The way the Qin empire was different from the previous unified states was that it was centralised and not feudal. The pre-existing kingdoms were dismantled and the land divided up into commandaries ruled by centrally appointed bureaucrats. Culture, laws, currency & weights were all standardised across the Empire - by dictat rather than by natural change. There was also a lot of forced labour, doing public works projects like roads & irrigation. And the first incarnation of the Great Wall of China was built during this period using conscript labour. The book had a whole section on the Great Wall which was interesting - I hadn't realised that until modern times the Great Wall was a symbol of oppression and ultimate uselessness (because it didn't actually keep the nomads out for long). I was aware (though only found out recently, via listening to an In Our Time programme) that the Great Wall that we can see today isn't the original, the first incarnation would've been earth ramparts rather than stone walls.

The overall impression I got from the book was that lots of good and useful stuff happened during this decade, that would shape the future of united China. But it was achieved via a lot of oppression & cruelty, so it's not a surprise that the First Emperor's dynasty didn't long outlast him. He died in 210BC, probably from taking mercury pills that were supposed to make him live forever (which is the sort of detail that feels like it should be in a fairytale as The Moral). His tomb was described in the ancient texts & is supposed to be spectacular & to include a scale model of the world complete with rivers of mercury. The only bit that's been excavated is the Terracotta Army, the rest is waiting until the archaeologists are sure they won't damage anything. But the tales of mercury rivers might well be accurate - apparently the soil in the region contains higher levels of mercury than other places nearby.

The First Emperor was suceeded by one of his sons - not the one he might've prefered, but the one that was there when he died. He sounds incompetant, and was persuaded to start off his reign by striking fear into the hearts of the people. Which didn't work out all that well for him as they promptly rebelled!

The Former Han Dynasty

(I don't much like this nomenclature for this bit of the Han Dynasty, but it's what the book uses - except in the Chronology appendix which calls them the Western Han Dynasty like I'd seen other places. "Former Han" just sounds to me like this is people who once were Han but now are not, rather than the first half of the Han.)

The very beginning of the rebellion against the Second Emperor was a group of men who were on their way to the northern frontier for garrison duty, but were unavoidably delayed by poor weather making the roads impassable. Given that the punishment for being late was death one of them, Chen She started a rebellion instead of going quietly to his death. He died after only 6 months, but the rebellion gathered force, and eventually there were two men in charge of it, Xiang Yu (a former general) and Liu Bang (a peasant). They were succesful in over-throwing the Qin dynasty and re-uniting China, but fell out over who would rule what. Liu Bang won in the end, and came to the throne as the first emperor of the Han Dynasty in 202BC.

The book talks a bit about the reign of Liu Bang (as Emperor Gaozu), and I think it turns into hagiography at this point. But it does explain that a lot of the actual apparatus of the state was the same as under the Qin Emperor, there's even been law books found from both the early Han period and the Qin period, which have been compared and are much the same in terms of what there are laws about. The differences are more about tone - the Han did away with a lot of the crueller punishments, and forced labour. They also were more respectful of Confucian scholars, and in fact set up the education system for both bureaucrats and the general population along Confucian principles. Which would get them better press from later historians (who tended to be Confucian educated scholars ...). They even went back to the system of bureaucrat run commandaries for dividing up the country - having originally given out kingships to allies during the revolution over time these were taken back again (as they got more rebellious against the Han). In general, if the Shang was the era that set up a lot of the traditional material culture of China, the Qin & early Han Dynasty was where the state apparatus and culture was formed.

It wasn't all sunshine & roses, though - after the death of the first Han Emperor his wife ruled as regent for his son, and after her death her relatives rose up to seize power. This appears to've been aristocratic infighting rather than popular revolt (and resolved in favour of the Emperor's descendents rather than his wife's relatives). Wives for Emperors were often chosen from families with few male relatives to avoid this sort of thing, and from more humble families (after all it's not like the Emperor had any peers, everyone was more lowly). The end of the Western Han came in 9AD when a regent (and relative of the late Empress) took the throne himself, establishing the Xin dynasty. And if it had stayed aristocratic infighting then this might've been the next Dynasty to rule China. However environmental disaster, caused by the Yellow River changing course, lead to thousands of refugees and chaos in the country. This popular uprising eventually lead to the downfall of the Emperor, and relatives of the earlier Han Dynasty took over again in 25AD forming the Later Han (or Eastern Han) Dynasty.

The Later Han Dynasty

The book is laid out partly in chronological order & partly in themes, and while there's a place for both I'm not sure the balance is always right. I mention this here because there's not actually much about the chronology of the 200 years of the later Han Dynasty. What there is is part of the section on the power of eunuchs, rather than separated out into its own section.

One of the themes they cover is the status & role of women in the Han dynasty period - which is interestingly sometimes more progressive than you might expect but in other ways is just as depressingly sexist as expected. It was during this period that the traditional role of women in China as inferior to men was articulated & laid down - they were supposed to be tranquil, submissive, do all the proper women's work about the house without complaint, to subordinate all their interests to their husband (or father). This was the Confucian ideal of womanhood, and it fits with the general hierarchical nature of Confucian ordering of the world. But high-born women were also frequently well educated - perhaps it was just to enable them to better help their husbands, but even so they got the education. And in the Emperor's harem in particular they had status & influence on the issues of the state. Particularly during the later Han Dynasty when the Emperors spent more time in the harem where there were no men, only eunuchs & women. And there was equal pay for equally ranked women & men - the concubines apparently got ranked on the same scale as the male officials, with the most senior ones being at the same rank as the most senior men and receiving the same pay.

Another of the themes is technology and medicine. There were several advances in both agricultural & military technology over the period, primarily driven by better iron working technology and the abundance of iron ore in China. But in terms of military advances they also had good map making abilities, and some of the maps from the early Han Dynasty correspond well to modern maps. Which is pretty impressive if you think about the things that medieval European mapmakers drew and called "accurate" ;) The biggest thing to happen during this period from a technological point of view was the development of better paper. Paper had possibly been made before (and used by lower class people because silk would be too expensive for them), but in 105AD one of the eunuchs in the service of the later Han Dynasty is credited with making high quality paper, fit for the court and bureaucracy to use.

The later Han Dynasty Emperors would spend most of their time in the harem, and so eunuchs gained more power because of their greater access to the Emperor. But being castrated was a disgrace, and so they weren't held in high regard by the other officials & aristocrats. Which clearly leads to infighting and political manouvering between the eunuchs and the rest of the court. Towards the end of the Han Dynasty this got pretty nasty, with mass demonstrations or riots & murder. Eventually it led to the dis-unification of China & the start of the next period of Chinese history (and the end of this chapter!).

Tangents to follow up on: Mostly I'd like to know a bit more about the Qin and the very beginning of the Han Dynasty, some of the stuff in this book felt a little bit too much like repeating the stories that the traditional histories tell.
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In Our Time: The Upanishads

The Upanishads are some of the sacred texts of Hinduism, originally transmitted orally from father to son in the priest families they were written down in the 6th Century AD. They consist of a series of dialogues about the nature of the universe and the nature of knowledge. And I'd not even heard of them before listening to the In Our Time episode about them. The experts on the programme were Jessica Frazier (University of Kent and University of Oxford), Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad (Lancaster University) and Simon Brodbeck (University of Cardiff).

They started by putting the texts in context - the oral versions date from about 700BC and are the last part of the Vedas, which are the rituals performed by Hindu priests. The Vedas are part of the ancient concept of religion as control of the world - these rituals are spoken in the right way at the right time, with the right ceremonies, and then the gods and world will become ordered in the way you desire. The Upanishads were developed during a time when the tribal societies of the Indian subcontinent were starting to coalesce into kingdoms, with larger urban centres, and are concerned with the meanings and knowledge behind the rituals. They're presented mostly as a series of dialogues between pupil and teacher (with the roles of teacher & pupil being taken by various different people - sometimes father & son, sometimes husband & wife, sometimes King and sage (in either role)). I'm not quite clear on why they started to be written down, perhaps it was just a more general transition from oral to written culture? But even after they were first written down they were still for the priestly class, not for general consumption. Over time commentaries on them were written by religious leaders, and closer to modern times they were translated first into Persian and then into Western languages & became more widely known.

There was an interesting division between the experts. Brodbeck seemed to concentrate on how the texts were about knowledge and about how to transmit and to learn that knowledge. And the other two were more interested in what the texts had to say about the Hindu beliefs about the nature of the universe. Interestingly they were saying that the Hindus were not interested so much in "who created the world" like many other religions, but more in what came before there was a world and before there was a creator - this is the concept of Brahman (I think) which is the universal cosmic power & is described using many different analogies in the Upanishads. They also discussed the desire for immortality reflected in what the Upanishads said, and how this is different from the Western concepts of immortality. In our culture immortality is about the continuation of the personality - either living forever or dying and going to an eternal afterlife as yourself. But in the Hindu religion it can be about the immortality of one's lineage - one's children are one's immortality, they carry on the line. Or it can be about the immortality of the Atman (which again is described with many analogies in the Upanishads but roughly translates as the self). And this isn't your personality, if the Atman is reincarnated the new life isn't related to the old one & doesn't remember it or anything, even tho it's the same immortal Atman. And a goal is to die finally and become part of the Brahman, in an immortal existence that has no more personality or suffering like there is in the world.
never there

Threads of Silk and Gold (Exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum)

While we were in Oxford after Christmas we went to the Ashmolean Museum - J looked at the Egyptian stuff and I took the opportunity to visit one of the exhibitions they had on, as well as having a look at the early Chinese gallery to look at the sorts of things mentioned in the book I am reading.

Threads of Silk and Gold

This is an exhibition of embroidery & other textile crafts from Meiji era Japan, which is 1868-1912. During this period there was a lot of European influence on the designs made by Japanese craftspeople, and also a big European market for Japanese textiles. The exhibition had several very fine objects, made with a variety of techniques - embroidery, weaving, appliqué, dying etc. I don't really have much to say about the exhibition, as it was very much a "look at the pretty stuff" sort of thing. And no photography coz it would damage the items.

I would've bought a postcard, but there wasn't one of my favourite object - this was a four-paneled screen with a golden peacock and peahen embroidered on it (link goes to the museum's page for the screen). I like it both for the design (which is very striking) and for the quality of the work. From a distance it looks like gold on lacquer, and it's only when you get up close you can see that it's embroidered. And if you look closely you can see that each feather in the peacock's tail has been stitched in full, no short cuts. So a feather in the back had all its frondy bits coming off the main spine, and then a feather in front stitched over it etc.

The exhibition as a whole made me want to take up stitching again, but I think I've too many projects going on at the moment, perhaps I'll come back to that some time though :) And I should learn something about Japanese history, I had never heard the term "the Meiji period" before.

Other Stuff

I had a look around the earlyish Chinese stuff that they have in the museum - the galleries are split into two, Neolithic to 800AD and 800AD to the present. As I'd been reading about Chinese pre-history & the pre-unification dynasties I looked mostly at that stuff but I did also look at the Tang Dynasty pottery because I like that. And took pictures :) They're up on flickr, as always.

Inscribed Oracle Bronze Ritual Food Vessel Camel

Chicken Headed Ewers
never there

Prehistoric Autopsy; Wartime Farm

Last night we watched the first part of Prehistoric Autopsy which was all about the Neanderthals. This is a three part series presented by Alice Roberts & George McGavin plus a whole team of experts - the format is that they have a "lab" set up with various different experts & they demonstrate some of the research that's been or is being done about three different human/ancestral species and use this knowledge to build a life-size replica of the species in question. It suffers a little from "staged conversations" syndrome & an almost complete lack of on-screen chemistry between the two primary presenters but other than those two niggles it was a fascinating programme.

So they started by giving us context for Neanderthals - not that long ago by palaeontological standards we weren't the only human species on the planet. If you go back to ~70,000 years ago there were 4 species as well as Homo sapiens: Homo floresiensis (who died out about 12,000 years ago, which is about the same time as the Chinese were starting to make pottery), Denisova hominin (who I'd never heard of before, wikipedia tells me this is a branch from Neanderthals), Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthals, died out around 30,000 years ago), Homo erectus (died out around 70,000 years ago). Neanderthals moved out of Africa & lived in Europe, then Homo sapiens evolved in Africa and independently moved into Europe later on.

They then talked us through lots of different evidence for what the Neanderthals looked like & how they lived, whilst at the same time showing us the building of the replica (based on an actual individual skeleton). Lots of fascinating things, quite a lot of stuff I didn't know before, so I shan't try & list everything that made me think "ooh, neat" :) I knew that there'd been work that showed we (northern Europeans) are more related to Neanderthals than you might think, but I hadn't realised that they'd actually sequenced the whole Neanderthal genome. And the data they showed for relatedness was quite impressive - looking at 500 people of West African descent & you see under 2% relatedness to Neanderthals (with a nice normal distribution) and then looking at 500 people of Northern European descent and you see 2-4% relatedness to Neanderthals (again, nice normal distribution that doesn't overlap the West African one). Looks pretty clear there was interbreeding going on in Europe 30,000 years ago.

Neanderthals also had more culture than one might've thought - there's a painted shell with a hole that looks like where you'd put one if you were making a pendant, that was found in association with Neanderthal remains. There's also a cave-painting that has had some of the paint dated to ~15,000 years before the first signs of Homo sapiens. They spent some time considering if Neanderthals could talk, too - but that was a little less convincing. They also looked at how Neanderthals hunted, and how they made clothes. You can tell from tools found that they must've scraped hides to make them pliable for making clothes, and you can also tell this from the arm bones of the skeleton. You could also tell from the wear on the teeth that they worked the hides with their teeth too.

Oh, and thinking of teeth - one of the really neat bits was that there's a group that have examined Neanderthal teeth from a skeleton of a young girl, using a synchrotron. The images generated allow them to see and count the growth lines in the teeth - at a resolution of 1 per day. That means they could count up how long the girl had lived since her teeth came in, and instead of the 6 years estimated from the state of the bones it turns out she'd lived for about 3 years. So Neanderthals matured at a much quicker rate than us, and they speculated in the programme that this might be part of why we still exist and are thriving & the Neanderthals aren't. That we have more time to learn while we grow up, and this makes us more adaptable & gives us an edge in competition.

I could ramble on for longer, but I shall stop there. I'm looking forward to the other two programmes when we get to them & I'd definitely recommend watching this one if you have the chance (and are interested in that sort of thing).

The other programme of the evening was the seventh episode of Wartime Farm - covering 1944. We had carrier pigeon training (because they were extensively used during the war in particular to relay messages during the D-Day landing), POWs being used as farm labour (the expert on this segment was a German chap whose Grandad had been one of those POWs which was a neat touch), the troops gathering pre-D-Day, basket making, flax harvesting. Oh and some terrible German bread - bread was never rationed here, but it was in Germany. And in desperation there were recipes for wartime black bread that were appalling - the one they demonstrated was silage, grass clippings, sawdust, fermented rye (better hope for no ergot!) and honey. It looked a bit like black bread once it had been cooked, and they ate it and said it didn't taste too bad - but pretty much it was the sort of thing you'd eat if you were reduced to eating grass, this was at least a palatable way to do it.
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"Gridlinked" Neal Asher

Next up on the shelf is somewhat of a contrast to the previous one, and bought probably about 10 years ago or so. Again with plans to buy the rest, and I think I did read some from the library although I never got round to buying more. A more positive re-reading experience it has to be said :)

Asher's Polity series are set a few hundred years in the future when humans have colonised many different worlds, with the help of teleportation devices called runcibles. There are lots of AIs - some run the runcibles, some run ships, some run cities, some run planets, they're pretty ubiquitous. And you can be linked into the network to interact directly with these AI (only as a government agent, I think) - which is called being gridlinked. As well as being space opera, I think of this book as having some of the same flavour as William Gibson's earlier stuff - only it's cyberpunk of the 2000s not cyberpunk of the 1980s.

It starts with something I always think of as a Stephen King trick (tho I'm sure lots of other writers use it) - you're in the head of someone & just getting to know them & their story and then they're dead. This is the set-up for the whole story, someone goes through a runcible and it goes wrong, the resulting release of energy is sufficient to blow up the runcible and most of the people on the planet and those who survive are frozen when the terraforming stops happening (it was being fuelled by waste heat from the runcible operations). Sabotage is suspected and one of the best Polity agents, Cormac, is called in to figure it out. As an added complication for him he's been gridlinked for 30 years and this has started to atrophy his ability to interact with and empathise with people. So his superiors not only call him in but also tell him he needs to deactivate his gridlinking before taking on the job (otherwise he can retire - I think it wasn't a threat as much as an acknowledgement that he wasn't fit for duty any more, his retirement wouldn't be a hardship, but he likes his job). As yet another complication he's managed to piss off someone in his last job, who turns out to be more than a little psychotic and follows him across the galaxy to kill him.

Like I said at the start, I enjoyed reading this although I did find the ending a bit hard to follow. I wasn't really sure what happened, but while writing this post I looked on wikipedia and found a link to an alternative version of the ending on Asher's website where it's more spelt out. Having read that I think I can see how all the clues were there, but I do think the original ending is too opaque - much better with a little more explanation.

I liked the way you get to see Cormac from the outside first, which shows how oddly he's coming over to normal people before you see inside his head. And I liked the way that once we're inside his head gridlinked-Cormac feels right for what it'd be like to have the internet (and more) in your head, for instance he looks at something and automatically looks up info on it. I wasn't sure I agreed about what the side-effects of being gridlinked for 30 years would be, but then the withdrawal difficulties that Cormac has made it feel right.

The science in the book was explained just enough for me to hang my suspension of disbelief on, but not enough that I started picking holes in it (of course, not being a physicist helps with this...). The little bits at the start of each chapter were neat - some gave you little bits of useful info about the world of the story and some added another layer to it. Like one tells you about Cormac's superior and it seems somewhat fantastical and they say he's probably legendary. But then another one tells you about Cormac and how he's a legend used to frighten potential Separatist terrorists into behaving ... and yet we know he's "real" coz we're in his head, so how much of the other stuff about his superior is also real? I can't remember much about later books, so I don't know how much of that we get to find out about.

So I'm keeping this one :) Might pick up some of the others, although perhaps not immediately (I know I want to get the rest of the Erikson series & we're behind on the Wheel of Time, so I think perhaps buying even more books right now is not the best idea!).
never there

"China: The World's Oldest Civilisation Revealed" John Makeham (Part 2)

The "Three Dynasties": The Ancient Kingdoms

The first Chinese historian, Sima Qian, wrote a history of China around about 100BC and he starts with Five Emperors who're pretty much considered these days to be mythical (although the book says there are attempts to tie them to particular Neolithic groups). After these Emperors he writes of three early Dynasties who ruled "all China" - the Xia, the Shang and the Zhou. These were also originally dismissed by Western Europeans as legends, but the Shang and the Zhou have left incontrovertible archaeological evidence for their existence - they had writing and so are historical. The Xia are less solidly identified but there is thought to be some truth to the account of them. These dynasties didn't rule over as wide a territory as later China, and the Xia and the Shang probably didn't directly rule over much territory outside their capitals.

The general model for the history of this whole period from the archaeology is that the Xia, Shang and Zhou all co-existed throughout the period in different areas and the different groups rose to prominence at different times. The Xia were (probably) in the central Yellow River basin, the Zhou in the Wei River valley in the west & the Shang from the eastern Yellow River region.

So this chapter covers the first three dynasties of China, the Xia (2100BC-1600BC), the Shang (1600BC-1046BC) and the Zhou and their aftermath (1046BC-221BC). For context here's some dates of events in other parts of the world, starting with some Ancient Egyptian stuff coz that's probably what I know best in the ancient world (tho I still needed to check the exact dates of them). Khufu (whose tomb is the Great Pyramid at Giza) pre-dates the Xia, he reigned from 2470BC to 2447BC. The Middle Kingdom era in Egypt is 2066BC-1650BC roughly concurrent with the Xia. The New Kingdom (1549BC-1044BC) is roughly concurrent with the Shang, and Tutankhamun (1343BC-1333BC) and Ramesses II (1279BC-1212BC) are in the middle of that. After that in Egypt it's the bit that I think of as the complicated bit - but a point of reference is that Alexander the Great ruled Egypt 332BC-323BC. All of those Egyptian dates are taken from "The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt" by Aidan Dodson & Dyan Hilton (which I had a note of for my post about shabtis from a while ago).

For the rest of the world (er, by this I mean the Mediterranean ...) I'm just going to pull a few dates quickly out of wikipedia (and one thing writing these books up in more detail will hopefully help me do is not have to go to wikipedia for stuff like that - I now have orientation dates for China, for instance). The Minoan civilisation on Crete is approx 2200BC to 1450BC and Linear B script is written (by Mycenean Greeks on Crete) around 1700BC-1500BC. The collapse of several eastern Mediterranean civilisations known as the Bronze Age collapse occurs around 1200BC, and the "Greek Dark Ages" run from then until 750BC. Archaic Greece is the period from 800BC to 480BC (includes Pythagoras), and Classical Greece after that until 323BC. Classical Greece is effectively the bit with most of the names one knows - Plato, Aristotle etc - and it ends with Alexander. Rome is founded in the 8th Century BC (their origin myth states 753BC) - the Roman Republic (as opposed to the initial Roman Kingdom) is formed in 509BC. The first Punic War (Rome v. Carthage) begins in 264BC, so just within our time frame - the second Punic War (Rome v. Carthage round 2, the time of Hannibal) begins in 218BC so just outside this time.

The Xia

Whether or not the Xia as Sima Qian writes about them actually existed is in doubt - they didn't have writing (or at least not any that's been found) and so there's nothing to definitively tie a particular Bronze Age culture to the Xia. There is a site in Erlitou, western Henan, that existed at the right time in the right sort of place so it is identified as the probable Xia. Which seems a little circular to me as evidence for the existence of a Xia dynasty (and the book does point this out - the two double-page spreads on the Xia seem to be dancing carefully around the need to acknowledge both that the Xia are an important part of Chinese cultural identity and the lack of concrete evidence for them). The most compelling bit of evidence that they present (in my eyes) is the bronze ceremonial vessels - 20 of them have been found, and they're a lot simpler than the later Shang & Zhou ones but they have similarities & are more complex and sophisticated than the previous Neolithic bronzes that have been found.

The legend of the Xia ties into and probably creates the narrative paradigm that is used by later Chinese historians to describe the dynastic cycle of later dynasties. It starts with Yu who is all that is good & wise in a ruler and then ends with a terrible tyrant (Jie) who is all that is dreadful in a ruler and who is then overthrown by the start of the next dynasty. So the classical view of the dynastic cycle is "from growth to decline". Yu is the hero who is credited with figuring out how to ameliorate the floods of the Yellow River by digging channels to divert the flow - and is probably almost entirely mythical. The next rulers seem more plausibly real people - with petty scheming and succession struggles as well as more benign stories. Jie is again probably mythical, and the books says the stories of his tyranny & replacement were probably a way for the Zhou dynasty to give a precedent for their own usurpation of the Shang.

The Shang

The Shang definitely existed - in the early 20th Century their oracle bones were discovered. These bones were used in divination rituals by the King, and the results of the divination were then written down on the bone. These provide a wealth of data about the later Shang (which is the period when they were used) because for a while the King didn't make any major decisions without consulting the ancestors first. Sometimes even minor decisions were only taken after consultation. The oracle bones were in some ways astonishingly easy to decipher, in comparison to other ancient texts - this is because the writing system (and written language) used are directly related to modern Chinese script & languages. So a lot easier than getting ancient Egyptian and trying to figure it out. The oracle bones are used during the later Shang period, but towards the very end the range of questions narrows & the use of them starts to die out.

The Shang social/political structure was very much based around kinship & lineages - the King ruled because he was senior member of the senior lineage. Sub-regions of the kingdom were ruled by the next most senior branches of the lineage, sub-regions of these by junior branches of the sub-region's ruling lineage etc etc. They also appear to have had a mechanism to make sure there was always a mature ruler - you get succession to a king's brothers (down the line of seniority) until his son is old enough to rule. Which sounds fascinating because it feels like it shouldn't work (why wouldn't the brother want his own sons to inherit - the rules about seniority must've been very ingrained). The King wasn't just senior in political terms, but also in religious terms. Every lineage could worship its own ancestors but as the King was head of the senior lineage his ancestors were the most important ones. The state wasn't particularly cohesive, but it was bound together by this network of kinship & seniority.

They practiced human sacrifice - some victims buried in tombs, some in foundations of buildings, others in pits that seem to be just to bury victims. The book suggests this was in large part about defining the Shang as "the people" and outsiders (in particular Qiang tribes people who they warred against) as "others" who were fit only for decapitation. The tomb burials were also about providing the recently deceased with a proper retinue for their life after death - death wasn't an end of a person, it was a relocation to the land of the ancestors, so important to send along all one would need. Ritual offerings of food & drink (and human sacrifices) were then used to communicate with the ancestor (as well as the oracle bones used only by the King). The book describes the religion as "increasingly bureaucratic" - the sorts of questions that could be asked were, over time, narrowed down to particular things. The rituals that could be performed were determined by the day of the week etc.

The Shang Dynasty ends with a tyrant, of course - called Zhouxin. Actual evidence from the time period is minimal, most of what's known is later spin designed to make the Zhou look good initially. And in later periods designed to make their own rulers "not as bad as Zhouxin so not worthy of being overthrown" (which is an interesting way that the "current" time affects the writing of history). But the actual evidence is more that the state of the Shang had disintegrated - there are fewer alliances mentioned between the King & outer regions, for instance. So their power was fading and the Zhou rush in to fill the gap.

The Zhou

The whole rest of this period is lumped in as "the Zhou dynasty" but actually only the first bit of it fits into the concept of a dynasty as I'd normally think about it - the rest of the time it's fractured into small states which war between themselves in various combinations. The Zhou seem to've started out as a polity on the fringes of the Shang ruled area, who took on the culture & religion of the Shang. When the Shang started to disintegrate they took advantage and overthrew the Shang. While their culture was mostly the same they stopped the large scale human sacrifice & stopped using oracle bones for divination. Another departure was that their religion had a supreme deity "Heaven" which legitimised the rulers not based on their lineage but based on their worthiness. This legitimised the overthrow of the last Shang King, but later when the rule of the Zhou was beginning to collapse it meant that the people expected a new morally upright leader to emerge and to overthrow the Zhou.

After about 300 years this Western Zhou regime collapsed (there is a tyrant "responsible" for it but it's not that simple) and over the next five centuries various states occupied the Chinese territory. The first period is the "Spring and Autumn Period", and there are two main superpowers with lots of smaller allied states - the Jin in the north & the Chu in the south. Even tho they warred and were different countries there was still continuity of culture across the aristocracy of all of what had been the Zhou lands. This period lasted for 300 years and then the Jin collapsed into smaller states, and this period of about 200 years is known as the Warring States Period. During this time the small states coalesced into 7 large states. These expanded to cover between them the whole of the territory that would become China.

The Warring States Period moved from the kinship based state apparatus & hierarchy to a bureaucratic one - the beginning of what we might think of as how the Chinese state works. There was more social mobility, as officials were appointed based more on merit than ancestry, and because they were paid in money rather than land the positions didn't tend towards becoming hereditary as they had before. This diluted the aristocratic culture that had characterised the Spring and Autumn Period, but there were still cultural norms that were common across the seven states due to contact between them including officials moving to work in other states.

This period was one of the formative periods of what we now think of as typical Chinese culture - Confucius and Laozi (the founder of Daoism) were both products of the rich intellectual life of the era. There was a great emphasis on the practical in the philosophies of the time, because of the way this is a period of both collapse of the old order & rising of a new one. And the fragmented political situation also led to development of philosophies of warfare - Sun Tzu wrote his "Art of War" during this time, and the development of conscript armies changed the way wars were fought. The need for lots of peasant conscripts also meant that states encouraged people to breed (by taxing unmarried youths) and to encourage immigration.

It is also the time during which cities started to grow. Previously cities in China had been more religious and political centres but during this time they also became the sort of economic hubs that we expect when we think of a city, and had many more people living in them. The Iron Age began during the Spring and Autumn Period, but it was in the Warring States Period that it developed to its full - the book says that the Chinese were casting high quality iron tools a millennium and a half before the rest of the world. I guess that's carefully chosen phrasing - obviously the Iron Age starts everywhere around this time, but these must've been a particular level of technique or craftsmanship that the Chinese reached at this time before anywhere else.

Coins began to be minted during this period, with each of the seven states having their own particular coins. Several states moved to collecting their taxes in coin rather than goods, which revolutionised the economy. And despite having different currencies for each state they did all recognise each other's coins as valid - so another way that despite being fragmented there was still a common culture across the region.

Tangents to follow up: Not really any as such, but the Shang sound interesting to know more about ... sometime when I'm done with several of the other books I have lined up I shall pick up a book on them.
northumberland, walk

"Bitten" by Kelley Armstrong

I've decided to read my way through all the fiction we have on our shelves, which'll take a while coz there's on the order of 500 books, and also coz I'm still reading the various non-fiction books I've stacked up in the queue :)

First book up is "Bitten" by Kelley Armstrong - I'm pretty sure I bought this with a book token 5 or 6 years ago, then was going to get the rest of the series so I must've liked it at the time. I never did get round to buying the others, and I'm not sure how many I read from the library before I lost interest.

Re-reading it I'm not entirely sure why I liked it in the first place :/ I guess partly I've just read a lot more Urban Fantasy since then and it doesn't feel as fresh as it maybe did before. It is fairly standard - our heroine is a werewolf, the only female one in existence, she's in a love triangle and goes around being sarcastic & kicking ass. Unfortunately I didn't like her much - very self-centred in a spoilt brat sort of way rather than in any interesting way. The back story (orphaned, been in foster homes & abused, had her "one chance of a normal life" snatched away by being made a werewolf) didn't stop me wanting her to grow up and think about something outside her own desires every once in a while.

I also really wasn't convinced by the love interests - one so bland I almost wanted him to turn out to have a dark secret just to make him more interesting (maybe he does in later books, but I had the impression from this one he's just as bland as he looked). The other one actually is a sociopath and SPOILER: [Spoiler (click to open)]he's the one that turned her into a werewolf against her will which I would've thought was a complete deal breaker, but she just can't resist his manly, er, werewolfy charms.

Having failed to particularly empathise with the characters I didn't find the plot engaging enough to make up for it - territorial disputes between the Pack and some rogue wolves, to do with rogues challenging the status quo.

Despite the overwhelming negative tone of this post there's nothing actually wrong with the book - just it's not for me. I was still entertained enough to finish the book to see what did happen in the end (partly hoping I'd misremembered and Mr Bland turned out to be more interesting). But off to the charity shop it goes, no need to keep it about to read another time.