Category Archives: History

New books: November

Dark evenings and a need for sleep. Neither are very conducive with blogging. Anyhoo. Here are my literary purchases from November- and all of them were 50p each:

What a truly terrible quality image. For that I apologise.

What a truly terrible quality image. For that I apologise.

  • Marcel Proust – Swann’s Way
  • Theodore Fontane –  Effi Briest
  • Sam Selvon –  The Lonely Londoners
  • Muriel Spark –  The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
  • John Mortimer –  Paradise Postponed, Titmuss Regained, and The Sound of Trumpets
  • Ernst Junker –  Storm of Steel
  • Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell –  Muddle Earth
  • Eric Hobsbawm –  The Age of Capital 1848-1875, The Age of Empire 1875-1914
  • Antoine de Saint-Exupery –  Southern Mail/Night Flight

Yes, you may have guessed that ‘Muddle Earth’ is a children’s book- I own it in hardback, but don’t really fancy reclaiming this from my parents’, and so intended to hunt out a cheap soft back. I didn’t expect to come across one quite so soon, to be honest. It’s worth getting just for the illustrations- I love Chris Riddell’s images in everything he illustrates- but it also helps that it is a ridiculously entertaining read. So what if it’s children’s fiction. I don’t believe that exists as a genre or a category anyway. But that’s for another post.

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Happy Halloween! / ‘Memento mori’ rings

Image: Flickr user Pascal, via Bones Don't Lie

Image: Flickr user Pascal, via Bones Don’t Lie

Happy Halloween! I’ve always thought that that is rather odd, wishing people a happy Halloween, considering that the day is all about death and fear. Not really very happy, is it?

However, I did think it as good a time as any to quickly say that I recently learnt about the past fashion of memento mori rings such as this one, dated 1740:

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Such rings, with a skeleton around the band, as well as the hourglass motif and hearts first came in in the mid-17th century (the earliest dated piece is from 1659), and were designed as a constant reminder of the wearer’s mortality. It was more common for such items to contain a crystal or piece of glass, under which may have been a piece of hair or a small skull design, and such examples as the one above or this nice piece from 1714 (below) that depict such a bold design are relatively rare.

Image: britishmuseum.org

Image: britishmuseum.org

I suppose that the modern skull ring is the closest that we have now, and a quick Google image search can throw up hundreds of varying designs and styles of these. However, all of these look as though they could be used to inflict a large amount of pain on someone else, whereas these historical examples are simple yet elegant and rather pretty in their design and execution. I’d quite like one, to be honest, even if they are a constant reminder that the end for all of us is nigh at some point or other, and looking on Etsy, it seems that modern examples in the style of those shown above are available. All very Halloween-like!

An example from 1740 showing a small skull design below a crystal or piece of glass.

An example from 1740 showing a small skull design below a crystal or piece of glass.

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Skulls for sale

I mentioned in my last post that I had recently come across a story regarding the sale of  human remains. Well, at the start of this month, an auction was prevented from taking place in the US town of Hagerstown, Maryland, of the skull of a soldier killed in battle during the Civil War. This skull was uncovered on a farm in Gettysburg in 1949  and was thought to be the first sale of its kind, but was stopped after the hotel carrying out the auction received numerous complaints. Now, the skull has been ‘donated’ to the United States Parks Services in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, who can provide a proper burial.

Now, I don’t really think that I need to explain why I take issue with the thought of selling human remains- the fact that this was a part of a deceased individual’s body make the whole concept of possession and ownership faintly ludicrous. I can’t just go and sell a person, or remove their limb and then sell it, so why should this be okay and permissible once they are dead? The same issue arises for me with human remains in anthropological and museum collections, and even more so with the sickeningly immoral practice of one Gunter Von Hagen, who sells jewellery and framed images containing thin slices of preserved corpses. No thank you. You do not buy or sell the dead. People are people, and people were people, not commodities. I could get into a whole new Anthropology debate here over consumerism and consumption, but I won’t.

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Dulux paints from history: Mummy Brown

'Examination of a Mummy – A priestess of Amman' by Paul Dominique Philippoteaux c 1891. Image: Peter Nahum at The Leicester Gallery, London

‘Examination of a Mummy – A priestess of Amman’ by Paul Dominique Philippoteaux c 1891. Image: Peter Nahum at The Leicester Gallery, London

I don’t often do this, as I’m sure that nobody ever bothers to click on the links I provide, but in case anyone is interested, here is a ridiculously fascinating article about the trade in and use of Egyptian mummies for medicinal purposes and paint pigment up until the early 20th century. I learnt a great deal from this, and was somewhat repulsed and upset by it. Just think of all that history that we have lost due to the plundering of Egypt by Western nations for various reasons, and that blatant economic exploitation of the remains of the dead (which incidentally reminds me of another post I must write shortly, which I meant to get up last week but which totally slipped my mind), with no regard for their status as once-living individuals, and for what they could have told us about the past. How many famous pharaohs were there for the discovery, only to be ground up as cod-scientific medicines thanks to a misunderstanding of Egyptian embalming techniques? As an Archaeologist, it’s truly heartbreaking to think about, but all we can do is make the most of the knowledge and resources that we have now, conserve what we have of the past still to hand, and take these tales from history as both lessons in bad practice, and as interesting chapters in the history of the discipline. Spilt milk, and all that. Anyway- here’s the article. Do take a few minutes out to read it- it is well worth it.

http://www.artinsociety.com/the-life-and-death-of-mummy-brown.html

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The death of the Mockingbird (or ‘The best laid plans…’)

I dislike Michael Gove for a number of reasons. For one, he is a Tory. Also, as a member of staff in a secondary school, I can see first-hand just what an adverse effect some of his ideas and policies are having on the school, the teachers’ moral, and the students’ stress levels. However, as has been widely reported in the media over the last few days, he’s now decided that English Literature should be buggered about with. However, as with his views on the History syllabus several months back that got the country seething, this worries me due to its narrow, blinkered, and agenda-laden undercurrents.

It has long been part of the English GCSE syllabus taught in many English (state) schools that literature from other cultures and societies is compared and contrasted with that from our own. For example, when I was dong my GCSE’s, I studied a cluster of poems called ‘Poems from other Cultures’, which included works written by English speakers round the globe, and focussed upon issues that affected the society in which they wrote, such as apartheid, the Vietnam War (and its effects upon the Vietnamese people), superstition in an Indian village and homesickness when moving from the Caribbean. I also studied both modern and classic English/Irish poetry, John Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’, J.B.Priestley’s ‘An Inspector Calls’ and R.L.Stevenson’s ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’. It is perhaps clear from this little list that the focus of these texts was upon those written by English writers. Having just assisted several Y10 students through their GCSE English Literature papers, I can attest to the even greater focus upon English writers now, with the poetry not taking the form of two clusters, with one being foreign, but one cluster with predominantly English writers in it. The books studied are the same as those I studied, but again here the weighting is clearly 2:1 in favour of British writers (Stevenson being Scottish- he may class as foreign soon, I don’t know). However, Gove in his wisdom has decided that there is too much focus upon American texts such as ‘Of Mice and Men’, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and ‘The Crucible’, and these should be taken off the paper in favour of all English texts. Now- okay, I can sort of see his point: not enough students are interested in or know much about the English ‘greats’ such as Austen and Dickens, and they should learn about our own cultural heritage before concerning themselves with other people’s. However, this falls down for me in several ways. From the practical point of view, Dickens is loooonnnnngggggggg. Apart from the Christmas stories, Dickens wasn’t really known for writing concise works, due in part to their initial publication in serial form. This means that it would be impossible to study an entire text of Dickens at GCSE due to the other constraints of the course and the teaching schedules of schools, meaning that students would need to be taught key passages of chapters and have to fill in the blanks with brief summaries, or read the text in their own time (which many students wouldn’t bother doing). As such, it would not be possible for the overall feel of the text to be gleaned, or for themes, images and ideas to be traced effectively through the course of the text. ‘Of Mice and Men’, on the other hand, is a short text. It is easy enough to read in class, with a plot that can be held in the head amongst the million and one other exam topics that students have to memorise, and enough themes and literary devices to fill several exercise book of essays. It is a good text that easily grabs students attention, proves popular, and is a jewel to write about. However classic they may be, Dickens and Austen are not quite as student (and more importantly teen) friendly- pick the wrong text, and you could nurture a hatred of literature that could last a lifetime, rather than inspiring a love that lasts a lifetime.

However, the thing that bothers me more is the problems that such Anglo-centric teaching could cause. I also hold this view on the focusing of the History syllabus on the ‘Great’ in Great Britain, which brings this in nicely. It is a plain fact that Britain is a multi-cultural nation. There is no getting away from this, and is indeed something to be celebrated rather than derided, as some political parties seem to think. As a result, many children in our schools do not come from British backgrounds, and so by focussing the curriculum solely upon the British Isles, there is the very strong possibility of isolating a very big part of the school community. Do students whose families have come over to Britain following the outbreak of war in Afghanistan and Iraq wish to sit through a History lesson where theory hear how ‘Great’ Britain was when it had an Empire and ruled their homelands? Or would people wish to study world history that focusses upon the positives and negatives of a nation, period or event, rather than a biased victors tale? They say that history is written by those who win, but that does not mean to say that we should take this a Gospel. Good history involves the criticism of evidence and the balancing of facts. That is what history does. It is unbiased, and does not plug an agenda. If teachers now are unlikely to praise the leaders of Britain in the World Wars, it is not due to a lack of pride in the nation, but rather down to their ability to understand that what these great people may have done in the past was no always right. We can learn from the past and our mistakes. Should we teach that Hague was a good general who won the Battle of the Somme, and cover up the thousands of Allied and German dead, or should we assess how well he did his job, looking at both the positives and the negatives in order to make an informed decision? By removing this option from students through the glorification of our national past, we are doing our young people a disservice, and taking away from them an important life skill, of being able to critically interpret evidence and information to make their own interpretations and conclusions rather than blindly following one course and one message. Or is that what the Government want?

In Gove’s manifesto on History, he also claimed that we as a nation should be proud of the Empire that we once owned an the position that we held on the world stage. Well- I’m sure that UKIP and the BNP would love that view of our past, but it is incredibly naïve and somewhat foolish. It is difficult to read an anthropological ethnography such as Evans-Pritchard or Malinowski without finding the shadow of Colonialism looming omnipresent and yet unmentioned over the texts. Much 20th century anthropology is tinted with its effects or after-effects, and indeed many of the world problems are due to the repercussions independence has had on these countries. We would be blind to try and pretend that the time of Empire was one of fearless explorers claiming savage lands for Queen and country, rather than seeing it for the danger, violence, barbarity (on our part as colonial overlords) and cultural repression that it was. Read ‘Heart of Darkness’, ffs.

Another thing that Anthropology teaches us is that to understand ourselves as people and as a society, we need to first understand the world. This is where Gove and his removal of American literature from the syllabus falls flat. Yes, we need to learn about our own culture in order to appreciate it, of course we do- but we also need to understand and appreciate other cultures in a reciprocal manner, to learn and grow as people. We can learn lesson from American and German, Chinese and African literature that we never could from our own. We use the Greek and Roman Classics as the foundation stones to much or our culture an society- should we dispense with these too? The key thing that Gove seems to be missing out, is that English Literature is not the study of Literature that is English (if it was, then we couldn’t study Yeats, or Heaney, or Stevenson), but the study of Literature written or translated into English. We should embrace and value the diversity and colour of language and the written word, and foster this passion and love in our pupils and students and children, not whitewash it.

Just one last point. Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’ is set after a global economic recession, and focusses upon two itinerant farm workers on what are effectively zero-hour contracts, unable to move socially and unable to reach their goal and dream of owning their own property. The work suggests that dreams and ambitions are useless and futile, with circumstance being the cause of people’s misfortune rather than the desire and perseverance of the individual. Gove wants to drop this. Go figure.

Image: timeshighereducation.co.uk

Image: timeshighereducation.co.uk

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New, reclaimed, libraries etc.

More books!

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  • Solomon Northup –  12 Years a Slave     £1.25
  • The Britannica Book of Genetics     50p
  • Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels –  The Communist Manifesto     1 of 3 for £1
  • Michel Foucault –  Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison     2 of 3 for £1
  • Henrik Ibsen –  Four Major Plays     3 of 3 for £1
  • Patrick Moore –  On the Moon     £1.99

I also picked these books up from my parents’ house:

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  • Philip Pullman –  The Ruby in the Smoke, The Shadow in the North, The Tiger in the Well and The Tin Princess
  • Philip Reeve –  Mortal Engines
  • Eleanor Updale –  Montmorency

Yes, they are all childrens/teen fiction, but as with many of Pullman’s works, this quadrilogy of ‘Sally Lockhart’ books are as good as any adult novels in both style, plot, langauge and themes, and the Reeve book I haven’t actually read, but want to as it is a dystopian work in a similar vein to many sci-fi classics. Hell, why am I defending myself here for wanting to read or re-read children’s fiction? I feel as though this is an argument I am having with myself, and am sure that I am the only person who needs convincing that it is okay. When it comes to classic and decent fiction, the boundary between children’s and adults is decidedly and rightly blurred, and is one that is getting more and more irrelevant for me as time goes on. Blame Ted Hughes and his children’s poetry, which is also adult poetry; blame Lewis Carroll; blame Tolkein and J.K. Rowling.

…and on the theme of children’s works (and Ted Hughes) I also got this:

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I already own the tie-in version of this that was produced at the time of the film ‘The Iron Giant’, but that has certainly seen better days, and so when I saw this ‘Faber Classics’ edition with the 1980s cover restored, I thought that it was worth the £2.99 that I paid for it. You can’t tell here, but the title and the rivets around the border are all in shiny gold foil and are imbossed, which really adds to this edition and makes it a nice collectors piece. The book also looks far more substantial in this format, as the text is rather large and so the book has been padded out to over 100 pages. Also, this is the first brand new Faber & Faber book that I have bought since Seamus Heaney’s ‘Human Chain’ in paperback in 2011 (as opposed to second-hand), and so it is the first time I have seen the new Faber typeface in print:

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It looks a bit odd initially alongside the double-f logo, but I don’t think that it looks at all bad. it certainly has a nice 1920s/30s feel to it, harking back to the Faber of Eliot, and that is never a bad thing. Here is the font in greater detail, taken from their website:

 

Faber

Image: faber.co.uk

Hopefully, I may see that grace my poetry in the near future… Yeah, right. I can but dream…

Lastly, two of our local libraries have been having booksales, and so I got these few:

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  • Jon McGregor –  even the dogs     10p
  • Frank Herbert –  Hellstrom’s Hive     10p
  • Mohsin Hamid –  The Reluctant Fundamentalist     10p

…and these…

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  • Ian Fleming –  Goldfinger     25p
  • Irvine Welsh –  Trainspotting     25p
  • Thomas Hardy –  Jude the Obscure     25p
  • Philip Reeve –  Predator’s Gold     25p
  • Jenny Turner –  The Brainstorm     25p
  • Archie Brown –  The Rise & Fall of Communism     10p

 


 

I’m wondering with these new book posts whether I should start doing them monthly instead of as-and-when I buy. I just think that that would be a bit easier and make this blog a bit more tidy. Also, I hope to sort out all my arch & anth, poetry and other books soon so as we can buy some bookcases, and then I can actually start using them again and have easy access to them, rather than them being piled up and very impractical. I’ll let you know how I get on, and promise to post some pictures once the shelves are assembled and the books arranged. Watch this space!

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A new low for TV and a slap in the face to proper archaeology

I’ve only heard about this programme recently, and so am aware that much has already been said about it, but National Geographic are planning on 13th May to air in the UK a ‘documentary’ entitled ‘Nazi War Diggers’. The clips of this show already released were quickly taken off the internet after the negative comments started, and to be honest, it is easy to see why. The programme sees a group of individuals (I can’t call them archaeologists, for the simple reason that they aren’t) digging up remains of fallen Second World War soldiers in Latvia, with the proposed intentions of  ‘sav[ing] this history from being looted or lost’.

However, the only ‘looting’ that seems to be taking place is that by the presenters of this programme. I have seen several television documentaries where battlefield archaeologists excavate French trenches and battlefields from WWI in order to return the bodies of loved ones to their families for proper reinterment. These excavations are carried out with sensitivity, for a legitimate reason, and by professionally trained archaeologists and osteologists using correct archaeological excavation procedures. I do not have an issue with this, and if this is what ‘Nazi War Diggers’ was about, then there would be no issue. The footage, however, that was released and the images abounding on the ‘net that have been taken from the programme or used to publicise it show a group of inept amateurs digging away with no regard for archaeological techniques or contexts (for example, using sharp tools close to bones, not recording the material found in any way, and pulling bones out of the ground using brute force, rather than carefully and slowly excavating around them), and much less regard for the individuals whose remains they are removing.

Dr Tony Pollard, the Director of the Centre for Battlefield Archaeology at Glasgow University, has said this about the programme:

I’m appalled that a major broadcaster has sunk to the levels of exploitation television. I’ve been at the forefront of battlefield archaeology for fifteen years, and I have spent much time getting the subject taken seriously.

This just looks like they’ve gone around digging up bodies, because TV likes a dead body.

This shows no evidence of even the most basic archaeological principles – this is treasure hunting not archaeology.

I have seen human remains brandished like trophies before but in dodgy YouTube videos. The fact that this comes from a commissioned TV series is quite beyond belief.

The trailer on the internet was absolutely shocking, and very damaging for National Geographic.

Whether these bodies are those of Allied soldiers, German soldiers, or soldiers of any other nation, they should not be handled and removed in such a way that shows such basic disregard for common decency, human morality, the ethics of the past, or for people who were someone’s son, friend, father or brother. A pile of human bones is not just a collection of objects (it is indeed that, but not just that)- it is the physical presence of a person who is no longer alive and who is no longer in the world to defend and protect themself. There is no reason why these remains should be treated with any less respect than those buried in cemeteries or those held in museums, and the trivialisation of their removal and handling is lamentable. Not only do the diggers (I can’t call them excavators, because this suggests some sort of archaeological methodology has been adhered to) pull bones out of the ground, but they blatantly show scant knowledge of osteology or human anatomy, and worryingly little evidence of what they do with the bodies once they have removed them.

Not only is this programme a new low for television and its need to broadcast crap catering to the lowest common denominator, but it is also a shot in the foot for the once-respectable National Geographic, and a body-blow to the good name of archaeology, and battlefield archaeology in particular (which has a bad enough time of it as it is, with many people against such excavation, and which often finds itself having to defend itself way too much). I shall not be watching this programme for fear of throwing something through my screen whilst it is on, and have decided against posting any images to illustrate this rant, as I do not want to condone what those idiots have done in any way. As an archaeologist, I see the historic, scientific, practical and moral need to excavate human remains, and in recent years massive steps have been made in this field when it comes to repatriation of bones and body parts to those of other cultures, and in the general handling and study of such material. This, though, does not mean that I condone the gratuitous unearthing of individuals when there is no motive other than selfish self-publicity and the need to increase television viewing figures. Will the production team carry out tests on the bodies in order to return them to the families for reburial? Will they rebury them in a manner befitting a dead soldier? I think not, and it is truly shameful.

One last thought: I wonder if such a programme would be permissable were it Allied soldiers being excavated in France or Belgium in such a way? Is it because these individuals were ‘Nazis’ that such ill treatment is possible? Are we still to retain such pointless and ridiculous prejudices?

 

 

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2013- Electric Puppet’s first 5 months in review

2014

Well- it’s New Year’s Eve, and time to reflect on what has gone on over the past year. For my family, this has been a big year, as we left the comfort and splendour of Oxford to return to our home city of Stoke-on-Trent; I graduated from university; I got my first job; we decided where we want to go with our life in the near and more distant future, thanks to an American man and his family on YouTube; I completed my first book of poetry, which had been languishing prior to this summer; I took the plunge and begun this blog, which is something I’ve wanted to do for a while; and have got back in contact with several family members that I haven’t seen for the best part of a decade thanks to Facebook. It has been eventful, and had also been emotional and tiring for all of us. Also, with any luck, next year should be just as eventful- beginning work; trying to get my book published; endeavouring to write the novel and short story collection that I’ve been planning for a month or so; and getting married. Yes: my partner and I are getting married next year!

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In terms of this blog, I will be getting up several ‘Thoughts on…’ posts for the books I have read recently- the first two Adrian Mole books, Penelope Lively’s ‘Heat Wave’, Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’, and Tove Jansson’s ‘Finn Family Moomintroll’- in the new year, and hopefully will get the first few up on New Year’s Day. For now, though, I thought that I would highlight a selection of posts from this blog that have proved popular, may have been overlooked, or are of relative interest for me.

I think that’s enough links to my other posts to be getting on with for now. Anyway- check some of these out if you haven’t already, or have a browse of the blog and see what you come across. Also, you can follow Electric Puppet on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/electricpuppetblog

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Lastly, here are a few fellow bloggers that I’ve come across in the past few months that you may find of interest:

Don’t Bend, Ascend

These Bones of Mine

Bones Don’t Lie

A Corner Of Tenth-Century Europe (written by one of my Anglo-Saxon lecturers from Oxford; he has since moved on to work at Birmingham University)

Museum Postcard

Prehistories

Interesting Literature

I hope you have a very happy New Year, and that 2014 will be good for you.

Image: The Telegraph

Image: The Telegraph

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A new purchase- Matthew Prior’s ‘Poems on Several Occasions’

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This post regarding a new book purchase is dedicated to the individual book, as I thought that it warranted a small amount of description and further images. I came across this book at the weekend on the book stall at my church’s Christmas Fair, and paid 50p for it. It may look slightly worn, and is a copy of the first volume of a collection of poems by Matthew Prior, (whom I had never heard of until now), ‘Poems on Several Occasions’. However, the thing that drew me to it was this title page:

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Incase you can’t see the date at the bottom, here it is again, slightly larger:

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MDCCXXV. Or, in Arabic, 1725.

It is in surprisingly good condition considering it’s age, with only a bit of staining on the first few and the last few pages, and the edges of the pages having gone black.

Now, let me just detail a bit about the poet:

Matthew Prior (21 July 1664 – 18 September 1721)

born in Middlesex, Matthew Prior was educated at Westminster School, and here met Charles Montagu, 1st Earl of Halifax. With Montagu, he then went on to attend St. John’s College, Cambridge, where he took his degree in 1686, and became a fellow two years later.  In 1687, Prior and Montagu penned The City Mouse and Country Mouse, a satire of Dryden‘s The Hind and the Panther.

After Cambridge, Prior became the secretary to the embassy at the Hague. and was later appointed a gentleman of the King’s bedchamber, acting as the King’s Chief Secretary for Ireland from 1697 to 1699. He was also under-secretary of state, succeeding John Locke as a commissioner of trade, and in 1701, sat for East Grinstead in Parliament. Later, between 1713 and 1714, Prior was the British Ambassador to France, and his share in negotiating the Treaty of Utrecht led to it gaining the name ‘Matt’s Peace’- despite him disapproving of the Treaty personally. He was kept in custody from 1715 to 1717 after having been impeached by Robert Walpole, and lived comfortably due to receiving 4000 guineas for a volume of poetry, and a present of £4000 from Lord Harley, but he died a few years later at Wimpole, Cambridgeshire. He is buried in Westminster Abbey.

 

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This book is the first volume of his ‘Poems on Several Occasions’, which was published on numerous occasions both before and after his death, but most of the editions that I have found on the internet place Prior’s name on the title page, which this edition doesn’t. Also, I am unsure whether or not the binding is original on my copy, and I have very little knowledge regarding such book features, but to me it seems to be original. Don’t take my word for that, though. Interestingly, the contents is at the back of the book, and there are also several inscriptions on the reverse of the page with Prior’s image on, which I cannot quite make out. However, on of them does say ‘Coll: Jesu: Oxon’, which I thought was interesting considering I have lived in Oxford.

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The Oxford inscription can be seen at the top. Any help with what the rest of these say would be greatly appreciated.

I just thought that I’d share a bit about this, and don’t think that it is a bad find for 50p!

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Echoes of the past

Just a quick post here. I’ve just come across this set of images and thought that I would share them on here. I don’t know who they are by or where they are originally taken from, but if I find out, I will make sure to credit the relevant person or people.

ghost pics1 ghost pics2 ghost pics3 ghost pics4

I think that these speak for themselves (or I hope that they do), and really bring home just how close the past is. As an archaeologist, I obviously believe that the past and history are literally all around us if we chose to look for it- for example in the layers of wallpaper in a house, the way in which shops and buildings are refigured, and in the general detritus of our lives- and can see that some places evoke memory and bring up the past. Not sure where I stand on ghosts, to be honest, and I plan to write an archaeological paper on the way in which places cannot hold memories in themselves, but these images do work well to show that past events occurred in places that we can visit and inhabit in the present, rather than in some ‘other’ place. Anyway- I’m beginning to ramble, and so will wrap this up here. Just thought that I would share, and hit the ‘like’ button if you wish!

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An historic image part 2

Royal christening

I posted this image in the wee small hours of this morning, and said that it is the first time that such an image- with a monarch and three future kings- had been taken since Queen Victoria. Well, here is the image I was refering to, as I’ve managed to find it:

Edward VIII Christening image

This was taken in 1894, and shows the future monarchs Edward VII (L) and George V (R), with the infant Edward VIII being held by Queen Victoria.

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The jewelled saints of 16th century Europe, and other beautifications of the dead

The hand of St. Valentin. Image:  Paul Koudounaris

The hand of St. Valentin. Image: Paul Koudounaris

It has been a well-known fact in Christianity for much of its history that the presence of a saint’s body at a religious site makes it a much more enticing prospect for pilgrims, and by extension a very lucrative form of income. As such, there are numerous examples of monasteries and cathedrals throughout Europe that claim to hold saints remains- either entire bodies, particular body parts or items that belonged to a person or had touched a body- and in many cases several sites profess to possess the same relic. Some saints can quite comfortably be said to be where they are thought to be, such as St. Cuthbert at Durham Cathedral, whose elevation at Lindisfarne and subsequent removal to Durham was well documented. However, many others, such as the remains of John the Baptist, or pieces of the ‘True Cross’ are more suspect. Often, this dubious nature is down to enterprising, exploiting and morally corrupt clergy, who created false relics using randomly-discovered or disinterred bones to knowingly hoodwink unsuspecting and gullible pilgrims. However, sometimes this is down to simple confusion or misplaced assumption. It seems that both could be the case here.

In 1578, rumour spread that there had been found catacombs below Rome containing the bodies of thousands of early Christian martyrs. Many of these skeletons were removed from their resting places and transported to religious houses around Europe to replace relics that had been lost under the Reformation that had swept the Continent earlier that century. Whether or not these were actually the remains of the saints that they were believed to be will probably never be known, but I can see that misattributions may in many cases have been accidental and down to simple confusion. However, there is also the rather large possibility that some unscrupulous individuals did probably attribute remains to people that they may not have belonged to, and personally I think that many of the complete skeletons sent about the Continent may actually be composed of the bones of several individuals due to the often fragmented and jumbled nature of remains in catacombs.

This aside, the new relics were graciously received, and once they had been reassembled, they were often enshrined and decorated in costumes, wigs, jewels, crowns, gold lace, and armour as a physical reminder of the heavenly treasures that awaited in the afterlife. Many of these bodies have never been seen by the wider world outside of the religious institutions they are housed in, and have been recently photographed for the first time by the photographer Paul Koudounaris.

St. Albertus. Image: P.K.

St. Albertus. Image: P.K.

St. Benedictus. Image: P.K.

St. Benedictus. Image: P.K.

St. Deodatus

St. Deodatus. Image: P.K.

St. Friedrich. Image: P.K.

St. Friedrich. Image: P.K.

St. Getreu. Image: P.K.

St. Getreu. Image: P.K.

St. Valentius. Image: P.K.

St. Valentius. Image: P.K.

St. Valerius. Image: P.K.

St. Valerius. Image: P.K.

The whole enterprise may look somewhat bizarre and macabre to us now, but this is by no means the only time that such ornamentation has been employed, or the only culture in which it has been carried out. For example, that last image of St. Valerius has had jewelled eyes inserted into the orbits which is reminiscent of the cowrie shells inserted into the skulls of the Neolithic dead in Jericho around 6000-7000 BC.

JerichoSkullsLater, we see similar practices amongst the Aztecs:

A skull partially covered in jade, from Monte Alban Tomb 7. Interestingly, this skull was heald for a time at a convent.

A skull partially covered in jade, from Monte Alban Tomb 7. Interestingly, this skull was held for a time at a convent.

A mask made from a human skull with the back removed and lined with dear skin to be worn as a mask. This is meant to represent Tezcatlipoca, or ‘Smoking Mirror’, one of the four Aztec creator deities.

A mask made from a human skull with the back removed and lined with deer skin to be worn as a mask. This is meant to represent Tezcatlipoca, or ‘Smoking Mirror’, one of the four Aztec creator deities. Image: The British Museum.

Indeed, the Aztecs and other Meso- and South American cultures had a tradition of adorning corpses of ancestors and royalty when displaying them around the inside of their temples, and anthropological cases exist of extant tribes around the world carrying out such elaborate rituals of adorning the dead for display purposes. We could even include this famous piece of ‘art’:

'For the love of God' by Damian Hirst. image: Getty Images.

‘For the love of God’ by Damian Hirst. image: Getty Images.

All very interesting, and all very macabre!

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An historic image: four generations of monarchs

Royal christening

 

As you probably know, it was the Christening of Prince George of Cambridge on 23rd October, and I just thought that I’d share this picture. It may not look that remarkable, even if it is quite a nice photo, but historically, it is- a similar picture has not existed since the reign of Queen Victoria. There are four generations of monarchs here: the reigning Queen and then the next three in line for the throne. It’s just not very often that you get pictures like this. Hopefully, I will be around long enough to see them all on the throne.

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Two soldiers in the Italian ice

Following on from my two previous posts about an Iron Age tunic and an Iron Age horse discovered in a Norwegian glacier, I came across this story through a friend. In the Presena Glacier, part of the Italian Alps, there was uncovered last year the preserved bodies of two soldiers who were killed in the Battle of Presena in May 1918. It is thought from both their location and their uniforms that these two individuals may have been Austro-Hungarian mountain troops called Kaiserschützen, who fought against Italian Alpini to defend the mountains during the First World War. As could be imagined, the cold (reaching as low as -30°C), storm and avalanches killed as many people as the fighting did, but one of the two soldiers was found to have a bullet hole in his skull and a piece of shrapnel lodged inside. Due to the power of the glacier, the bodies were also fused together, but forensic analysis suggested that these people were both 17 or 18 years old. It is also interesting to note that these individuals were discovered in the same mountain range as Ötzi, the 5,000 year-old “Ice Man”, and that he was ironically in better condition due to having only been frozen and not crushed like the soldiers. Despite being separated by millennia and by wildly different cultures, these soldiers were found to be wearing coverings over their boots that had been made for them by the Russian prisoners used to transport ammunition and resources up the mountains, and which were very similar to those worn by Ötzi.

Once analysis had been carried out on the remains, they were buried in unmarked graves, as DNA- although present- was unidentifiable due to having no other identification on the bodies by which to narrow down who these boys were or where they came from. Again, this is in contrast to the “Ice Man”, who recently had around 16 of his descendents traced in Austria. The place in which they were interred was in the village of Peio, which is now in the italian province of  Trentino, but was in 1918 the highest village in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Emperor decided that as such, it should not be evacuated, as many other mountain villages close to the front line were, but after the war in 1919 it became Italian. This has led to Trentino and the neighbouring South Tyrol sharing a sense of belonging to both Austria and Italy, as well as meaning that in the “White War” that took place on the Presena Glacier and elsewhere in the mountains, the men fighting on opposing sides may have known one another before the war and been friends. Indeed, this previous familiarity and sense of similarity was seen when troops exchanged gifts on Christmas Day during the hostilities.

A slightly more disturbing discover this time from the ice, but again it shows that glaciers are a mine of information about the past- whether this is ancient or recent- and a precious resource that we need to protect in order that more information and more people are not lost and forgotten forever.

Image: Office for Archaeological Finds. Trento

Image: Office for Archaeological Finds. Trento

 

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Stoke-on-Trent: The city that died

While talking to people at the graduation, I realised that many of them didn’t really know much about the place I come from, and so I thought that as most of my followers and visitors on here are not from the UK, you probably know even less about it. As I said in my post Life Update #1, both myself and my partner come from Stoke-on-Trent, which is a city in the Midlands. The place is most famous for its ceramics industry that made the city known across the world as ‘The Potteries’, with the likes of Wedgwood, Spode, Minton, Royal Doulton (despite originating in London), Moorcroft, Clarice Cliff and Steelite all being based here. During the city’s peak, there were several thousand pottery companies producing wares, of varying size, production capacity and renown. However, this image off the ‘Telegraph’ website sums up the state of the pottery industry in the city now…

SoT from Telegraph

Behind that mound of rubble can be seen the tops of two structures known in Stoke as ‘bottle ovens’, and these are (or were) the defining features of the region’s skyline. These kilns were once part of pottery factories (or ‘pot banks’), being the actual ovens in which the ceramics were fired, and in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, came to dominate the city.

An 1898 OS map showing a small area of Middleport, Stoke-on-Trent, with bottle ovens marked in red.

An 1898 OS map showing a small area of Middleport, Stoke-on-Trent, with bottle ovens marked in red.

Several images of the Stoke-on-Trent skyline in the 19th century.

Several images of the Stoke-on-Trent skyline in the 19th century.

With the decline of the pottery industry due to cheap foreign produce and the increasing appeal of sending manufacture to the Far East, many of these kilns have been demolished, leaving the handful that are left as Listed structures and important symbols of the region’s past, as well as emblems that the place can use to define itself.

Indeed, the City of Stoke-on-Trent is an interesting one that is not easy to define. From 1910 until 1925, it was a borough, made up of the ‘Six Towns’ of differing administrative and district status: Burslem, Hanley, Stoke (or Stoke-upon-Trent), Tunstall, Fenton and Longton, and numerous smaller settlements and areas. Then, in 1925 it gained City status, with Hanley becoming the main commercial centre of the city. Stoke retained the administrative and religious focus, but the former is now also being moved to Hanley, with the latter being pretty much all that is in Stoke itself besides a railway station. Stoke (the town- the city is confusingly refered to as simply ‘Stoke’ too) was where the first church was built in the region in the 7th century, with the name ‘Stoke’ or ‘stoc’ referring to a ‘place’. This has been interpreted as being a holy place, but may have also been a farm, or a crossing place where two roads meet. However, there are remains of a Saxon church and stone cross in Stoke town, near the site of the present Minster Church of St. Peter ad Vincula.

Out of all the towns, Burslem was the most prolific for ceramic production, becoming known as the ‘Mother Town’ of the Potteries, and it is here that the earliest evidence for pottery production in the city has been found, dating back to the medieval period. This was found by Channel 4’s ‘Time Team’ when they came to excavate on the site of Josiah Wedgwood’s first factory, the Ivy House Works, in Burslem town centre in 1998, and I’m on the end of the programme in the crowd, madly waving!

These images are incredibly naff, but are about all I can find on the web from the 'Time Team' dig in Burslem. I have my own images from the tiem, but can't put my hand on them at present. Note the late great Prof. Mick Aston in stripey fleece.

These images are incredibly naff, but are about all I can find on the web from the ‘Time Team’ dig in Burslem. I have my own images from the time, but can’t put my hand on them at present. Note the late great Prof. Mick Aston in stripey fleece, and the building in the top right, which is the only extant part of Wedgwood’s Ivy House works.

As well as ceramics, Stoke-on-Trent has provided the world with several other people and things, too. It was here that William Clowes and John Bourne (both born in Burslem) founded Primitive Methodism at the turn of the 19th century, and in the city that Reginald Mitchell, the designer of the Spitfire, was born. Also, the author Arnold Bennett (the Potteries answer to Charles Dickens) immortalised the towns in his works such as ‘Anna of the Five Towns’, ‘The Card’ (made into a 1952 film starring Alec Guinness and filmed largely in Burslem), ‘Clayhanger’ and ‘The Old Wives’ Tale’. He was friends with H. G. Wells, who stayed in Stoke with Bennett in 1888 and later wrote the short story ‘The Cone’ about the Shelton Bar Iron and Steelworks in the city. Here we also come to a further industry that once powered the city- steel production. Similarly, the region was also well-known for coal mining, but this died when the rest of the mines went bust under Thatcher.

More recently, the city has become known for its football in the form of Stoke City and the less-successful Port Vale, but the latter is perhaps better known for its most famous supporter Robbie Williams, who was born in Tunstall and raised above a pub (The Red Lion) in Burslem. Incidently, the pub is next door to the building shown on the top right of the ‘Time Team’ image.

From left to right: Arnold Bennett (1867-1931); a Spitfire; Robbie Williams; the angel wethervane on the clocktower of Burslem Town Hall, which is believed by some to have inspired Robbie's hit 'Angels'

From left to right: Arnold Bennett (1867-1931); a Spitfire; Robbie Williams; the angel weathervane on the clocktower of Burslem Town Hall, which is believed by some to have inspired Robbie’s hit ‘Angels’

I don’t suppose that Stoke is that bad when I write about it like this- it has had a fascinating and quite important past, and has given the world quite a few things. Did I mention Henry Faulds (1843-1930), who developed the technique of fingerprinting? He lived out his years and is buried in the city. And Anthea Turner? …yeah. Perhaps I’ll leave that last one…

No- I don’t hate Stoke. I just feel that now the place lacks ambition and drive, and where I want to get with my life, I can’t do it here. I hope, however, that you have learnt something, and now will know where I am talking about when I mention Stoke!

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Graduation!

Graduation1

Looking down on the ceremony within Christopher Wren’s exquisite Sheldonian Theatre. I’m somewhere on the front row.

As I stated in my last post, we were in Oxford on Friday 20th for my graduation ceremony, and this proved to be an interesting, nerve-racking, amazing and upsetting day all at once. We had originally planned to travel down to Oxford by train and stay several nights, but a reassessment of funds suggested that this would not be possible. Then, it turned out that my partner’s father couldn’t take us as we had planned due to being in hospital for a pre-op to a knee-op, and so for a few days it seemed as though we wouldn’t be going at all, and I may have had to graduate in absentia. In the end, we went down by car with my parents, despite our recent falling out, but this meant that there was only room for five people: my parents (x2), my partner, our youngest son, and myself. It put a dampener on the day that our eldest couldn’t be present, but he was happy enough watching ‘Pepper Pig’ and ‘Spongebob’ with his maternal great-grandparents back in Stoke to really care. To make things worse, my partner also couldn’t come into the ceremony with our youngest, as young children aren’t allowed into the Sheldonian Theatre where the ceremony takes place. However, we could all meet in my college (St. Hugh’s- previous alumni of which include Emily Davison and Aung San Suu Kyi) before hand for a briefing of what we had to do in the ceremony and for refreshments.

When the guests were in the Theatre, graduands met in the Convocation House, a very beautiful room off from one end of the Divinity School of the Bodleian. Convocation House was built between 1634 and 1637, and was used in the English Civil War as the House of Commons, and later in 1665 and 1681 by the parliament of Charles II when they were unable to meet in London. The Divinity School, on the other hand, is a breathtaking space that dates from 1427-1483, and is the oldest surviving building purposefully constructed for the University.

Convocation House. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Convocation House. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Divinity School may be familiar to some of you from the ‘Harry Potter’ films, when it was used as the Hogwarts Infirmary in the first few films:

graduation divinity harry potter

Image: Warner Bros. etc. etc. etc.

…yeah. Okay- that picture doesn’t really show you a lot. Anyhoo- the ceremony itself was terrifying mainly because almost all of it was carried out in Latin, and the graduands didn’t have a booklet telling us what was being said. Unlike the guests… We didn’t go up individually, however, which was what I’d been worried about, and were done in groups of about 20, which was better, with our names all read out at the beginning. Also, BA’s were last due to being the lowest degree awarded, and so we had plenty of others to watch and learn from first who’d done DPhils, MSc’s, MA’s and all the other plethora of degrees offered. I never knew there were so many, to be honest. We all had to respond ‘”Do fidem!” (“I swear!”) to agree to the terms of us joining the university in the capacity of a graduate, and then left to re-enter to applause wearing our hoods: black with white fake-fur-trim for BA’s. You can also wear the hood as an actual hood, which may seem a stupid comment, but which I’d never realised until I saw some people wearing them such back at college.

graduation gown S & W

The BA hood with gown. That’s not me, by the way, hence Image: Shepherd & Woodward.

Mortar boards were dutifully donned and then doffed to the Pro-Vice-Chancellor before returning to college for official and unofficial photographs, family pictures and drinks, but all too soon we were having to pile back into the car for the return journey up north.

Returning to Oxford for the day had seemed like coming home to my partner and I, and arriving back in Stoke after the pomp, grandeur and joy of the day (despite the disappointment of not being able to have everyone present in the Theatre) seemed like a massive kick in the teeth. It has, however, given us more impetus to return to the city we love so much as full-time residents either to work or study, and we can only count down the months!

 

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