The Sutton Hoo Helmet

The Sutton Hoo Helmet is the second of the British Museum Objects in Focus series that I’ve read. There’s seven of them in the series so far.

It is an in-depth look at an iconic object in the Museum’s collection, and is another of my favourites. The Sutton Hoo helmet is a finely crafted helmet, both fully functional as armour and exquisitely decorated with gold and garnet.

The book talks about the excavation of Sutton Hoo, which was not straightforward, and the effort involved in discovering the treasure hoard. The helmet was in many tiny pieces and putting it together took years. Indeed the first attempt was later decided to be wrong and it had to be taken apart, carefully, and reconstructed again. Putting the helmet in context with similar finds across Northern Europe, based on the decoration and shape, gave the scientists a better idea of what it would have looked like.

And, of course, the best bit is the model of what it is now thought to have been, made by the Royal Armouries in the 1970s. This is also in the Museum alongside the reconstructed original.

Finally, the book covers the candidates for the occupant of the tomb. It is made difficult because dating the helmet can only give an approximate date within a hundred-year range. These are fascinating little books and I’ll be getting another one as soon as I next get to the Museum.

 

The Way of the Wolf

The Way of the Wolf is a book of paintings by Pollyanna Pickering, with text and photography by Anna-Louise Pickering, bought for me as a Yule present by my parents. It is absolutely gorgeous and I loved it.

The book recounts two trips made by the Pickerings to photograph and draw wildlife. The first was to seek out the threatened European wolf in Transylvania and the second trip was to look for the critically endangered Ethiopian wolf. Both areas are pretty remote and along with paintings and photos of the wolves are descriptions of the effort needed to get anywhere near them. There’s some interesting observations on the way of life in these areas and a little history. In both cases the authors worked with conservation teams to get close to the animals and descriptions of that work is included.

As the wolves are both rare and shy (the Ethiopian wolf is the rarest of all wolves) there’s a lot of time spent not seeing them, and instead painting and photographing other wildlife, the people they meet and the places they pass through. In Ethiopia they describe a feeding ritual with hyenas accompanied by some intense photos.

I love wolves and I enjoyed The Way of the Wolf for the beautiful art and the loving way it is presented. The Pickerings have published a number of books of wildlife art, including tigers, pandas, polar bears and owls. They are not readily available through the usual booksellers so I’m going to include a link to their website Pollyanna Pickering Studio.

Gothic Nightmares

Gothic Nightmares: Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination is the book of an exhibition I never went to. I’ve had it for so long I’ve forgotten where I got it. I first started reading it about ten years ago but didn’t get very far with it because it is too big to carry around and I don’t read much at home. And finally I’ve finished it, thanks to my miracle morning routine.

Fuseli’s The Nightmare is one of my favourite pictures and there are several others in this collection that I was taken with. I’m not such a fan of William Blake. The book explores Fuseli’s position on the divide between neoclassical and romantic art. The use of neoclassical forms in new ways with new themes to produce something that reflected the changing times of the end of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th.

I enjoyed looking at the pictures and learning a bit more about art history. Maybe one day I’ll know what it all means.

Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not

Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not by Robert N. McCauley is an exploration of how cognitive processes predispose us to religious thought and feeling, and make science very difficult for us.

I picked up the book after visiting the excellent Living with Gods exhibition at the British Museum. I find the psychology of faith, superstition and religion fascinating. McCauley’s book is not for the faint-hearted. This is a difficult read. The first half, where McCauley lays out the theories of cognitive processes that underpin his argument, is especially hard going. I don’t have much knowledge of the work in this area and I think it is quite hard to make it accessible to a layperson. Once you get through the theories of cognition, the second half of the book is relatively more digestible. I still found myself having to re-read most of it, but there were whole pages I could absorb in one go.

The argument is that, although some form of religious belief appears to be present in every society for which we have archaeological or anthropological evidence, there’s no specific thought process for religion. Instead it is a by-product of processes we use for much more mundane things like dealing with other people, not getting eaten by predators, and avoiding contamination. Religion comes from possessing a theory of mind and a tendency to ascribe agency to everything. Science, on the other hand, has only appeared in a few societies and requires writing and substantial expensive infrastructure to survive. It requires us to learn how to think in a way that is continually challenged by our natural cognition.

McCauley draws a distinction between everyday religion (what people actually practice) and theology, and a distinction between popular understanding of science and the practice of it by people who dedicate their lives to it. He also draws a distinction between science and technology, and gives many examples of where humans develop technology they can use without understanding how it really works. The argument also explains why we’re so fond of conspiracy theories, prone to ascribing intention to others without evidence, and why we make both science and atheism into a form of religion. Science requires us to be perpetually uncertain because even when there is a lot of evidence to support a theory there always remains the possibility that new information could change that. Human brains aren’t keen on uncertainty.

This is a very interesting book and I would recommend it, with the caveat that, unless you’re already working as a scientist, it’s a tough read. I do feel much cleverer for having read it, which is a quality I enjoy in a book.

 

The Thirst

At the moment I am mostly reading non-fiction, because I’m working on a novel and it seems to go better if I don’t get caught up in stories. However, I am reading a few novels and The Thirst by Jo Nesbo is one of them.

Jo Nesbo is one of my go-to easy reads. I know what I’m getting and I know I’m going to enjoy it. I’ll get swept up in the story, and it will be engaging without being hard work. The Thirst did exactly what I wanted from it when I bought it.

A rapist and killer that Harry Hole failed to catch in the past is now active again and seems to have raised his game. There are plenty of twists. The identity of the killer is known from fairly early in the book; he even has point of view chapters, but even so, Nesbo manages to cast doubt at various points, making the reader question what they think they know.

I like way the theme of addiction in the Hole novels. Hole is an alcoholic which is a cliche for detectives these days, but it is lifted by Nesbo with the parallel with addiction to his work. Is alcohol really Hole’s addiction? Or is it his coping strategy for his addiction to chasing serial killers? This has been present in all the novels, but becomes much more central in The Thirst. Harry has retired and is now a lecturer at police college. He doesn’t drink. His life is satisfying and orderly and things are going well. But the reappearance of this killer and his return to the chase throws everything into disarray. All the elements in his life that represent success are threatened.

I feel like it could have done with a bit of an edit. It was overly long in places. Even so, I enjoyed it and if you’re already a fan, it won’t disappoint. If you’ve never read any Jo Nesbo, I’d start at the beginning of the series.

The Sagas of the Icelanders

This is another of the books that has been sitting on my shelf unread for years because it’s too heavy to carry around on the train. The Sagas of the Icelanders, published as a Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, is a collection of some sagas and tales from the Viking age. Translated and edited by a number of scholars, it contains ten sagas and seven tales. With the maps, commentary and reference section it runs to nearly 800 pages and the deluxe edition is printed on thick rough edged papers. Which makes it very pleasing in the tactile sense, but pretty heavy.

Thanks to my new morning routine, I finished The Sagas of the Icelanders this week after months of reading. There are worse ways to start the day for sure. The Sagas selected are a small sample of the whole body of literature. The emphasis in this collection are on the Sagas that depict a realistic view of the lives of Icelanders – or at least the lives of the Chieftain class.

It starts with several very long sagas depicting the movement of significant families from Norway to Iceland, usually because of difficulties getting along with the earls competing to be kings but sometimes as a result of being outlawed for killing someone. They’re mainly set in 900-1000AD and were written down around 1100-1200AD which makes the writing of them contemporary with Chrétien de Troyes and slightly earlier than Chaucer and Dante. It also means that there is some uncertainty over the reflection of the spiritual practices of pre-Christian Icelanders and how much the writing down has sanitized the oral tradition.

On the cover of the book is a comment from Milan Kundera that if the Sagas had been written in a less isolated European country they would have had a much more significant effect on the development of the modern novel. In this selection the Sagas and, especially, the Tales do really read like modern stories, notably the thriller. They are stories of people navigating social expectations of honour and the power of reputation. My favourites were the Saga of Ref the Sly, which is about a man who would prefer to avoid conflict but is pushed into it by others who think it is weak to not fight, and Egil’s Saga, which is the story of Egil Skallagrimson and his family’s generational feud with the kings of Norway.

In the Saga of Ref the Sly, Ref wants to avoid conflict, so pretends he doesn’t know what is said about him. Others consider this weak and push him into answering these slights. Ref fights successfully but is then outlawed which meant that Ref is considered a criminal and can be killed by anyone. Whoever kills him will gain honour. The Saga deals with what it means to spend your life in hiding.

Egil’s Saga spans 150 years and is largely set in Norway. The background is King Harald Fair-Hair’s merciless unification of the country of Norway. Egil’s grandfather and father refuse to swear allegiance to Harald and so go to Iceland and claim land there. The adventures of Egil reflect this stubbornness and inability to accept authority. He’s not an entirely likeable character but is very relatable. His sons are characters in their own Sagas.

The Sagas are probably more accessible than most medieval literature and I enjoyed reading them. I’d recommend them. Possibly in a smaller, more portable, version of the book.

The Queen of the Night

The British Museum has a series of small books focusing on a single object. One of these is on my absolute favourite object in the museum, the Queen of the Night plaque, from Babylonia.

The Queen of the Night by Dominique Collon spends a little time talking about where and when the plaque was found and its history with the museum. Most of the little book (they’re only about 40 pages) discusses what the plaque might represent. Given the location of the find the Queen of the Night is likely to be a goddess and there is some debate whether she is Lillith, Ishtar or Ereshkigal. The symbolism seems to point to the latter, but there’s actually no way we ever know what the plaque really depicted or what it was for.

 

The plaque has microscopic traces of paint on it and so a reconstruction of what it would have originally have looked like has been created. Which is very cool. I imagine it would be quite striking in a dark temple lit only by candles.