Thursday, March 23, 2017

Cherry Blossoms



At least some of the Japanese cherries in Washington have made it through the alternating warm spells and frosts. Taken today in Rose Park.

Studying Skeletons from the Late Roman Frontier

Interesting study in the news this week based on 200 skeletons from five sites in 5th century Pannonia, a frontier province of the Roman Empire now in Hungary. Cambridge archaeologist Susanne Hakenbeck and her colleagues studied the trace elements in the bones, which provide clues as to where people grew up and what they ate. They found great diversity in their sample. Some of the people seemed to have eaten a meat-heavy nomad diet, others a peasant, cereal-based diet. A majority had elemental signatures matching the place they were buried, but others had very different signatures suggesting that they grew up far away. In terms of grave goods and burial style, the graves were much more consistent and much more in keeping with local habits.

Their conclusion is that this was a population in flux, with many people moving around and some entering the population from far away. They chose to focus on Pannonia both because ancient written sources suggest it was an area of intense conflict and much population change, and because the Hungarian plain is ecologically suitable for both agriculture and pastoralism, which have at times existed side-by-side there. It seems that they probably did so in the fifth century.

New stories about this find are playing up a weird "Huns were not barbarians" angle that I don't really understand. Just because different kinds of people coexisted doesn't mean they did so peacefully; in fact the written history and other archaeological evidence (e.g., the many buried treasures) both show that they experienced very high levels of violence. Still, they did coexist.

I am personally a bit skeptical about all this elemental analysis, because I don't think we have a really good baseline showing how much variation there is in these numbers within and between populations. But there is other evidence of mixed populations in this area, for example skulls distorted in the nomad way like this one from the Hungarian National Museum. Across western Europe these "Hunnish" skulls have been recovered from cemeteries containing mostly ordinary-looking Roman skeletons. The written record also makes clear that there was a large amount of mixing going on, leading to the formation of new pseudo-ethnicities like "Visigoth."

So I would say that this bone chemistry is another piece of evidence that the fifth century really was a "time of wandering" as the old historians had it, with many thousands of people in motion across thousands of miles. All that movement and mixing had effects in many small, ordinary places, where suddenly your neighbors might be members of a strange barbarian tribe, burying their own dead in the same cemeteries where your grandparents lay.

The Aliseda Treasure

The Aliseda Treasure is a collection of precious object found in 1920 near the village of Aliseda in central Spain. It was discovered by two peasants who tried to sell the pieces secretly, but they were found out and arrested and the treasure was seized by the state. The finders never gave up the details of the discovery, and to this day archaeologists dispute whether this was a buried treasure trove or the contents of one or two royal burials. All of the objects are now in the national archaeological museum in Madrid.

The treasure contains several pieces that were either made in Phoenicia or copied from Phoenician work, which allows it to be dated to between 650 and 550 BCE.

This was not, however, in Phoenician territory, but part of the inland kingdom of Tartessos. At least the aristocratic elite of Tartessos was very much under Phoenician influence and it is hard to tell their finery from the Phoenician version; for the peasants, it seems, life went on very much as it had in the Bronze Age.

The closest significant site of that period is La Ayuela, which was recently excavated as part of an effort to understand the "socioterritorial context" of the find. The project web site doesn't say what this is, but it looks like it might be a small palace.

Love this not-very-subtle necklace.

Detail of the most spectacular item, the gold belt.

Earring.

Bracelet.

"Gold diadem of the Iberian type," or so the sources all say.

Ring with carved stone.

And a glass pitcher. This treasure is another reminder of the strong connections between the Middle East and Western Europe in the Iron Age.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Jane Austen and Contemporary Politics

A certain sort of literature professor – mostly women, mostly American – can't resist claiming Jane Austen for feminism and progressive politics. I've never been able to see it, and neither have lots of others. Edward Said, to name just one, accused Austen of defending colonialism and slavery. Certainly during her lifetime nobody noticed that Austen had any politics different from the moderate Toryism of her family. But for some people, Austen was a great radical and her novels are brilliant critiques of her patriarchal world.

I was moved to write about this by the coincidence of two articles. The first was a short piece noting that some Janeites reacted with horror to an article claiming that Austen has many fans on the alt-right:
But it has prompted the most sustained chatter among Austen scholars, a more reliably liberal bunch who emphatically reject white nationalist readings of her novels.

“No one who reads Jane Austen’s words with any attention and reflection can possibly be alt-right,” Elaine Bander, a retired professor and a former officer of the Jane Austen Society of North America, said in an email.

“All the Janeites I know,” she added, “are rational, compassionate, liberal-minded people.”
Got that? If you even once read Jane Austen with attention, it is "impossible" for you be an alt-right troll.

Second is a TLS review by Devoney Looser that covers half a dozen books by or about Austen (Jan. 20). These run the gamut from the silly to the scholarly, but all agree that if you "read between the lines" Austen's books "are as revolutionary, at their heart, as anything that Mary Wollstonecraft and Tom Paine wrote." Mansfield Park, one writes, "is about slavery." (And she didn't mean it the way Edward Said did.)

Even these writers admit that to see Austen's politics you have to "read between the lines" or "look properly." They admit Austen's "power to frustrate," that is, her refusal to baldly state the opinions they are sure she held. Austen's books feature mostly members of the upper class doing very predictable class-bound things: courting, getting married, having each other to tea. I have always found the books remarkable for all the things they ignore: not just the contentious politics of the time but also the equally contentious religious scene, the raging debates about science, medicine and history, the scandalous lives of Byron, Shelley, and other radicals, and so on. In fact, they ignore pretty much everything except the tribulations of upper class family life. If they are radical, it is in how Austen described these ordinary domestic scenes and acts. It does sometimes seem that Austen feels deeply the unfairness of life for women and the cramped worlds to which they were limited, as well as the excessive emphasis on money. But is that radical politics? Or is it an older sort of criticism, a moral attack on people who are selfish, greedy and mean? People who don't live up to the standards of their class?

According to one of these authors, the heroine of Mansfield Park offers "shrewd analyses of the power politics of domestic life." That, I would say, is true; Austen was one of the best writers ever on family dynamics. Since the families she wrote about were patriarchal, it follows that she was very attuned to how such families work and how power in them might be misused. But was that, as the same author wrote, "a radical critique of bourgeois patriarchy, its norms, and values of behavior"? I don't think so. I suppose the question is whether Austen's many insightful little critiques of bad people and bad families add up to a more fundamental critique of the whole system. I don't think they do. To me the attacks on particular people are based on a tacit understanding of how people ought to act, and the way they ought to act is perhaps kinder and fairer but still very much of that time and place and class. Consider the plot of Sense and Sensibility, which turns on the refusal of a weak man with a greedy wife to share his large inheritance with his genteel but impoverished cousins; nobody suggests that maybe he should give his whole fortune to the poor and go join the Greek or Haitian revolution.

And yet many smart people insist otherwise, and they publish book after book making the case for Austen's radicalism. I think they just love Austen's books, admire her shrewd insights into the limits on her heroines' lives, and assume that she must have understood these things the way they do. Or maybe some of them just care more about Jane Austen and progressive politics than anything else and want their two favorite causes to be somehow united. But Austen was not a modern feminist, and I don't think we can know her innermost thoughts. What we can see is that in her books she scrupulously avoided politics and anything else controversial; she gives us plenty of annoying parsons but not one who espouses Unitarianism. Perhaps we should accept that this was her own choice, not one forced on her by circumstance. Isn't it rather an insult to her to think that she buried her own deepest beliefs out of fear of scandal? After all she did not live in a quiet time, but in a revolutionary era when thousands of upper class people, including many women, threw themselves into radicalism of a hundred sorts.

Of course modern people are always projecting their own political concerns into the past. We used to have a whole school of ancient historians determined to see the conflict between Athens and Sparta as a preview of the Cold War: the contrast between the dynamic commercial democracy of Athens and the grim military aristocracy of Sparta was a perfect trap for their anachronistic political vision. Jane Austen's novels present a similarly perfect trap for modern feminists, especially those whose main slogan has been "the personal is the political." For these feminists the most important issues are found in the dynamics of families and the ways men and women relate to each other. I actually agree with this, and I would say that the most important achievement of modern feminism has been the creation of a new family ideal based on equality between husbands and wives. Since these are exactly the issues Austen wrote about so precisely, with such a clear and sometimes cold vision, it makes her books an irresistible target for feminist interpretation. Whether that would have made any sense to Austen is another question.

Charles Spurgeon's London Street Traders

Minister Charles Spurgeon took these pictures in London between 1884 and 1887; Spitalfields Life has many more. Above, knife grinder.

 Selling ginger biscuits.

 Kentish herb woman.

Rabbit seller.

And of course the muffin man.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Albertus Pictor: Taby Church

Albertus Pictor is what art historians call a painter of church walls and ceilings who was active in central Sweden between about 1460 and 1509. There are many pictures of his work online because of a big 500th anniversary retrospective staged in Sweden in 2009.

These were not big cathedrals, but ordinary parish churches in an ordinary, agricultural region. This post focuses on one of those churches, in the village of Taby.

Overall view of the altar.

The ceiling. I like these paintings, but what I love about this is the ordinariness of it. These paintings were done by an obscure man and a crew of even more obscure assistants, for the pleasure and edification of perfectly ordinary medieval people. This is what they saw in church; these are the stories they knew; this is how they imagined the Biblical world.

Albert is mentioned in a handful of contemporary contracts and accounts as "Albrekt målare" (Albert the painter) or "Albrekt pärlstickare" (Albert the pearl-stitcher), because he apparently did fancy embroidery as well. He left several signatures in the churches he painted, usually "Albertus Pictor" but occasionally "Albertus Ymmenhusen", which is why some people think he came from Immenhausen in Hesse, Germany.


Two views of Jonas and the whale, going in and coming out.

Joseph cast into the well.

Mary's Death.

Dancing around the Golden Calf.

Solomon and Bathsheba.


Prophets. Many of these photos come from this wonderful Swedish site, which I think was tied to the 500th anniversary celebration.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Dawson's Bees Explain Everything

Courtesy of BBC Life, I just learned about a wonderful organism called the Dawson's bee, which lives in the Australian desert.


If you stumbled on these ground-dwelling bees during most of their life-cycle, you would think they were peaceful and rather sweet. But that's because most of the time the only adults around are females. The females are happily laying eggs in their burrows and storing up food for their babies.

But if you chanced upon them at the right time, you would witness a massacre. The male bees hatch first, and just hang around waiting for the females to emerge from the ground. As soon as one does she is swarmed by males, who fight each other so viciously for the right to mate with her that they sometimes tear her to pieces along with each other. The colony becomes one huge brawl as more females emerge and dozens of males battle to the death.

Once the mating is over and the males are all dead, peaceful life resumes.

Globalization, Bombay, and the US Civil War

Globalization is not a new phenomenon; after all nothing happening now is as consequential as the wonders and horrors unleashed by the European discovery of the New World. Globalization's first wave gave us the mostly disease-inflicted destruction of the American Indian population, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the growing of potatoes in Europe and maize in Africa, the spread of hot peppers around the world, the United States, and so many other things it is hard to list them all.

In the nineteenth century steamships, railroads and the telegraph launched a new wave of globalization. Because of this new interconnectedness, the US Civil War led to a great boom in Bombay (now Mumbai), India, the effects of which are still very much with us. Tyler Cowen explains:
The structure of Bombay is intimately tied to the history of the United States in ways that illustrate the long arc of globalization. At the heart of Bombay, around the Oval Maidan, on which cricket games are often played, one can see many of Bombay’s iconic Victorian buildings including the University of Bombay, the Bombay High Court and the Rajabai clock tower. These buildings and many others were begun in the late 1850s and 1860s during the Bombay boom–a boom brought about by America’s Civil War.

The U.S. South began the civil war by embargoing cotton exports and burning 2.5 million bales of cotton in order to create a shortage and bend the world to its will. The embargo didn’t lead to Britain’s support, however, and by the time the South realized it had shot itself in the foot the North imposed its own blockade. Cotton prices skyrocketed–between 1860 and 1863-1864 prices rose by a factor of four on average and at times by a factor of 10. As cotton exports from the United States fell, exports from Persia, Egypt and especially India boomed. As Sven Beckert put it: "The bombardment of Fort Sumter…announced that India’s hour had come."

In India farm land was switched over to cotton, railroads and telegraphs were built uniting cotton producing areas in Bihar with cotton’s chief trading center and port, Bombay. Production and exports boomed. Vast fortunes were made from the cotton trade and the speculation it engendered; fortunes that were plowed into universities, libraries and many of the great buildings that mark Mumbai today. In fact, the Back Bay Reclamation project began at this time so some of the very ground that Mumbai sits upon has its roots in the American Civil War.
That Britain was able to ride out the war and was not forced to intervene as the South hoped also had much to do with India: the boom in Indian cotton production meant that by 1864 the cotton mills were humming again.

Cowen doesn't mention this, but I would imagine that the Indian cotton boom is one reason why the South was so slow to recover from the war: Indian competition kept the price of cotton low, and British financiers who wanted to invest in cotton could choose to do so in India instead of North America, wounding the biggest part of the South's economy.

Busojaras

Great article and set of photographs in the Times on the Hungarian festival of Busojaras, in which people dress up as demons to scare away winter:
The festival is rooted in the local Sokci community, an ethnographic group of mostly Croatian Slavs. According to legend, when the Ottomans occupied Hungary in the 16th century, the townspeople fled to the nearby marshlands where they met an old Sokci man who promised that they’d soon return to their homes. He told them to carve masks and prepare for battle. When the masked, sheepskin-clad townspeople reappeared in the midst of a winter storm, the Ottomans thought they were facing demons and fled before sunrise. As a result, Busojaras has come to symbolize a way to scare away winter itself — and it’s no longer just Sokci people who participate. Now, every February, tourists flood Mohacs to take in the spectacle.

Busos wear masks carved out of willow and dyed with animal blood; no two are the same. Groups made up of family and friends get together during the year to plan, and, during the festivities, eat, prep, costume and process together. The town council supports the festival by providing Buso groups with funding to assemble their elaborate costumes. “As a Buso, you cannot be recognizable,” said Aron Rozsahegyi, who has been part of the group since 1992. “Fully dressed, you feel this sense of freedom and the force of history rising within you.” Oliver Rozsahegyi, the group’s founder, works at a local auto repair shop, but he also carves masks in his free time. “I find that you can tell who has carved a certain mask because it always looks a little bit like the carver,” he said. (His own mask looks vaguely like him.)
Besides looking wild, the Busos also act wild, shouting and banging on things to make as much noise as possible, harassing spectators, and (a recent favorite) mocking anyone trying to take a selfie.

Busos crossing the Danube, part of the Hungarian ritual.

I love these traditions. Yes, they are now put on for tourists. But that does not mean the ancient meanings are lost. If you ask me what that meaning is, I answer that it has nothing to do with Hungarian history or the history of any particular place, and little with God or the gods. It is partly about the seasons, but more about what people feel when they mask their faces and dress up as demonic beings. This is from Charles Fréger's book on the whole European tradition of dressing up as Beast Men for Carnival or the New Year:
A man "assumes a dual personality," says Antonio Carneiro, who dresses as a devilish careto for Carnival in Podence, Portugal. "He becomes something mysterious."


The festival is about recognizing the different sorts of being we feel within in us, and that we see in the world around us: cruelty and kindness, hate and love, winter and summer. It is about experiencing, for a little while, a different identity and a different reality, one more tied to ancient archetypes than to the drab concerns of our daily lives.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Some Thoughts on Trust from Scott Alexander's Reader Survey

Scott Alexander ran a survey of his readership (I participated, along with 5,500 other people) and uncovered these correlations, all of them statistically significant with good effect sizes:
The more trustworthy you think other people are, the higher your life satisfaction
The more trustworthy you think other people are, the less likely you are to like Donald Trump
The more trustworthy you think other people are, the more likely you are to support more open immigration

Antler Armor from Ust-Polui, Siberia

Work has continued at the Siberian archaeological site of Ust-Polui, which I wrote about before because of spectacular evidence of an ancient bear cult. Now the site is back in the news because of a new discovery: a suit of armor made from reindeer antlers.

One of the antler plates that made up the suit. Each piece is unique, with a different decorative design.

The site is north of the Arctic Circle and was occupied between 100 BCE and 100 CE. Russian archaeologists think the armor was buried as a ritual offering to the gods or spirits of the place.

Reconstruction of the armor.

Ashley Gilbertson's Republic

The Times is showing a set of photographs by Ashley Gilbertson that capture the mood in Washington, DC during the week before Trump's inauguration. For my friends and the people I work with in Federal agencies, this is gray perfection.



Plus, this is my town. The top one is a view from Union Station I have seen hundreds of times; the bottom captures a side of Washington I love, the late Victorian architecture of the public core. My elder son recently toured Washington and said his favorite thing was the reading room in the Library of Congress. Next to the bottom was taken in the part of downtown where I had my first professional office.