Object in Focus: The Lewis Chessmen

I’ve never paid much attention to the Lewis Chessmen, despite their prominence in British Museum gift shops. However, one of my reading quests is to read all the books in the Objects in Focus series, so here we are.

The Lewis Chessmen, by James Robinson, takes an in-depth look at both the chessmen themselves and the intriguing story of what happened after they were discovered in the early 19th century.

There are enough of the chessmen to indicate at least four (incomplete) sets, but there is also some indication that individual pieces were sold off before the hoard left the isle of Lewis and came on to the antiquities market. How and exactly where the hoard was found is shrouded in some mystery and the book examines the gaps in the stories, the rumours, and the possible events that might explain what happened.

The chessmen are made from walrus ivory and the book looks at the difference between walrus and elephant ivory and what that means for craftwork. It also explains the economics behind using walrus ivory, a more difficult material to work. Examining the styles of clothing the chessmen wear and the motifs on the thrones of the kings and queens show that the chessmen were likely made in Scandinavia in the 12th century. And finally. the book takes a look at the history and spread of the game of chess.

These little books are always a delight and this one was surprisingly engaging.

Meme Wars

Meme Wars by Joan Donovan. Emily Dreyfuss and Brian Friedberg is an analysis of the memes that have flourished in online subcultures in the 21st century and their impact on real world events.

Memes are units for the transmission of ideas, behaviours and styles, usually images or phrases with highly symbolic content, that move from person to person through a culture, or between cultures. The term was coined by Richard Dawkins in the The Selfish Gene but he acknowledged that it was not a new idea. Indeed, the use of visual and written imagery and oral storytelling traditions were consciously used ways to transmit ideas throughout human existence. An example is the way Roman Emperors used mass-produced statuary of their likeness to support their authority across a large, multi-cultural empire.

I don’t think the internet has changed people’s behaviour. There’s nothing new about the worst aspects of us online. What the internet has done is make it more visible, and make the transmission of ideas much quicker.

Meme Wars looks at how people and groups in America who hold fascist, white supremacist and neo-Nazi views used online memes to influence the electorate and media and shift the political consensus to the right, culminating in the storming of Capitol Hill on 6 January 2021. The authors look at the origin of the use of memes in this way with the Occupy Movement and it’s subsequent adoption by the alt-right and evolution through Gamer Gate and conspiracy theories to its deployment to elect Donald Trump. They examine some of the ideas that are being transmitted and to what extent they are rooted in genuine beliefs or used to undermine trust in established authorities.

The influence of phrases and images which started out in the dark corners of the internet has had on the mainstream ‘real-world’ media is analyzed. This is a combination of public figures using the phrases on shows and in speeches and of media outlets following their commercial imperative to provide content attractive to their viewers. The recent case around Fox News and its promotion of ‘Stop the Steal’ despite knowing that it was factually unsound demonstrates those pressures. Other impacts, such as the Charlottesville rally and the Republican party are also discussed.

Of course, the US isn’t the only country in the world that has seen a political shift towards nationalism, intolerance and regressive politics in the last twenty years and the causes of these trends are far bigger than internet trolls. Meme Wars is an excellent analysis of the mechanisms by which the ideas and beliefs generated by those bigger trends are spread through cultures in an online era. It’s very good. The images and phrases examined in this book are probably familiar, but like me, you may not fully understand the symbolism. This book will lift the veil and, disturbing as it might be, it is always better to see clearly.

Arctic Culture and Climate

There were two exhibitions just starting at the British Museum in March 2020 when the UK went into its first lockdown in response to Covid-19. One was Tantra and I read the exhibition guide for that last year. The other was Arctic Culture and Climate.

The circumpolar North has been inhabited for nearly 30,000 years. The exhibition explored this history and the ways the peoples of the Arctic have adapted to their environment, as well as examining the impacts of climate change happening now and how Arctic peoples are responding.

It starts with looking at how Arctic peoples in the past and now have arranged their lives to work with the seasons and the different weather and conditions that resulted. This involved moving with herds of reindeer or occupying specific sites only for short periods in the year. Some activities were only performed in certain seasons and some animals only hunting at certain times. The book then looks at the ways Arctic peoples used the materials available to them to produce clothes, tools and vehicles. Particularly in terms of clothes and the use of sealskin and furs the Arctic peoples were technologically sophisticated at an early age. When the Vikings reached these lands they found their clothes and tools quite inadequate.

There is consideration of the evidence for pre-historic settlement of the Arctic. Much is considered to be underwater in the Bering Strait – once a land bridge between Russia and the Americas but submerged at the end of the Ice Age. It’s also worth noting that many recent archeological finds are the result of commercial development of the sites and this has happened less in the very far North. Some have been found and the material that has been discovered is challenging the colonial view of the peoples of the circumpolar North. Whether people started in the east, in Siberia, and moved west is not clear. The finds in north-east Russia appear to be oldest, but the evidence is far from complete. Regardless, there was much communication and trade around the arctic circle, much more so than there was north to south.There is a discussion of the contact between the Arctic and the southern peoples from the sixteenth century onwards and the impacts of trade and colonization.

Lastly, the exhibition looked at the lives of the peoples of the circumpolar North as they are today. It talks about indigenous liberation movements and the campaign for rights to land and traditional hunting practices. It also looks at how traditional technologies have incorporated modern materials. The impact of climate change is particularly felt by the Arctic peoples as they are closest to some of the most dramatic effects. Loss of ice and rising sea levels affect the animal populations, hunting techniques and the land that settlements are built on. Over the last 30,000 years, there have been several periods of warming and cooling which have caused great change in the lives of the peoples living through them and it is hard from this distance to know how well people adapted. It seems that modern peoples have more ability to know what it is happening, but less flexibility to change how we live.

The book itself is lovely: a hardback book with a white cover and some gorgeous photographs of objects and landscapes. In amongst the pages covering the exhibition artifacts are essays looking at art, or specific clothes-making techniques, or one town’s experience of the effects of climate change. It’s a shame I missed the exhibition as this book made me wish I’d seen it.

Is it really green?

With so much conflicting information, and quite a lot of green-washing, out there about reducing our carbon footprints and living more sustainable lives, a book that helps you make better choices is very welcome. Georgina Wilson-Powell’s Is it really green? is just that book.

The first question to answer is whether or not the fact that this book has been printed is really green. I could have chosen to get it as an ebook, but I find that anything more like a textbook, where I might want to move around in the book rather than just read from start to finish, is better as a physical book. In this case, Is it really green? is printed on recycled, matte paper using vegetable inks and is produced with as minimal emissions as possible. The production and use of ebook readers has a carbon footprint too. In order to make using an ebook reader greener than reading print books, you’d need to read 25 ebooks a year. So, if you read fewer than 25 books in a year, it’s greener to read them as physical books. I checked my ebook reader to see how many ebooks I’d read last year and it was 24. I read a mix of ebooks and physical books and probably read just as many physical books as I did ebooks. This year I’ll be tracking it and am aiming to read at least 25 ebooks. At the end of March, I’d read six ebooks and five print books, so not a bad start to the year.

Is it really green? has short answers to many questions divided into areas such as Green Kitchen, Green Wardrobe, Green Technology, Travel, Family and Relationships and Green Shopping. My motivation for buying the book was to answer the question whether washing up by hand is greener than using a dishwasher. Newer, efficient dishwashers are greener than washing up by hand, but getting a dishwasher means re-doing my entire kitchen so it’ll have to wait for now. For a lot of the questions, the answer is a variation of ‘it depends’ because it does depend on where you live, how you act, and what’s available to you. Wilson-Powell gives you the information you need to assess your situation and make the greenest choice.

While my life is relatively low carbon, I still found a few more things I could easily change that would help. There was also plenty in there I could do but will take a bit more time and effort. This book helps to identify a few steps that you can easily take. And when those become habit, there are more ideas. I think this is a book I’ll come back to regularly.

Some we Love, Some we Hate, Some we Eat

Some we Love, Some we Hate, Some we Eat: Why it’s so hard to think straight about animals by Hal Herzog is an examination of the complex and contradictory ways we interact with animals.

The book looks at our relationship with pets and working animals and how some animals are considered pets and some aren’t. The impact of breeding for specific characteristics and its often negative consequences for the animal somewhat undercuts our expression of love for these animals. One factor is our primitive response to certain features like soft fur and large eyes, which raises the question as to whether we are able to rationalise our feelings about animals or we’re simply at the mercy of biology.

The author explores vegetarianism and veganism, again highlighting the contradiction inherent in some of these positions. It was interesting to read that most people eventually return to eating meat, usually for health reasons. It contrast our squeamishness, or lack of it, around farming chickens for food and raising cocks for fighting. Many people would instinctively say that cockfighting is worse than killing chickens for food, but the life of a fighting cock seems a lot nicer than the life of a battery chicken. Through examples and contrasts like this the author is able to draw out why it’s so difficult to have a coherent approach to our relationship with animals.

One aspect of our relationship with animals is their use in the development of medicines or the understanding of biology and psychology. It seems people are more likely to take a cost-benefit approach here, prioritising the benefits to humans much higher than the suffering of animals. It also looks at our ability to convince ourselves that some animals don’t suffer or feel pain, and how research is challenging that belief. There are also stories of the researchers who become too attached to their subjects. The irony that in order to demonstrate that animals feel empathy or pain we have to experiment on them or dissect them is not lost.

Some we Hate, Some we Love, Some we Eat doesn’t take a position, perhaps a reflection of the author’s point – it’s hard to straighten all this out in your head. Through a compelling combination of storytelling and facts, Herzog lays out the various ways we use and interact with animals, and reveals the contradictions. It’s one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read in a while. It doesn’t lead to answers, but will make you question yourself.

A History of Ancient Britain

Pre-Roman Britain is a bit of a mystery (to me, at least). Last year, I picked up A History of Ancient Britain by Neil Oliver. Apparently, there was a TV series, which I didn’t realise until sometime after I read the book. I completely missed the BBC logo on the front cover.

From the time of the retreat of the ice sheet that had covered Britain – or the piece of land that would come to be what we know as Britain – roughly 10000 years ago to the arrival of the Romans, Oliver looks at the archaeological finds that tell us something about how people lived during this time.

There’s Cheddar Man, the earliest complete skeleton found in Britain and about 9000 years old, who would have lived in an environment similar to ours. There are the many stone circles and barrows and structures that may have been temples, mausoleums or houses that line up with the rising and setting of the sun. There are tools which show sophisticated technology, and the remains of mining tunnels where people burrowed for tin and copper. There are decorative and symbolic objects that tell us that people had surplus wealth, but we can only speculate what these things meant.

Then there’s the boat. The oldest known seagoing boat in the world was found in Dover in 1992. It’s about 3500 years old. Reading about it in A History of Ancient Britain inspired a trip to the Dover Museum to see it in real life. The Museum is much like any small town museum: some interesting things and a high dose of oddness. The Bronze Age Boat Gallery is amazing. The boat is in a sealed glass cabinet to ensure it doesn’t disintegrate and it surrounded by documentation about it’s construction and the project to reconstruct it using tools and techniques available to people of the time. Definitely worth the trip. It’s one of those magical museum experiences where the sense of time collapses and you can feel the overlay of the past on the present.

Neil Oliver has an engaging writing style and the book is very accessible. Interspersed with the historical facts are vignettes about the archaeologists and researchers Oliver met while filming for his various TV series (somehow I still didn’t cotton on to the fact that there was a TV series of this book, which I only discovered while looking for a cover image for this post, but in hindsight, it all makes sense now). There are also a few flights of fancy about what life might have been like for people living in Britain thousands of years ago. They are clearly signposted as imagination and help to bring it vividly to life.

I enjoyed this immensely and would highly recommend it.

The Pigeon Tunnel

In 2021 I completed the Faber & Faber Writing a Novel course, which came with a long reading list. I’m nowhere near having read everything on that list but it has opened up to me books I wouldn’t have read otherwise. One of those was The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life by John le Carré. I’d never read any of John le Carré’s books. On reflection I’ve seen more screen adaptations than I realised and rated those quite highly. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the obvious one, but also The Constant Gardner, The Night Manager and The Tailor of Panama.

The Pigeon Tunnel is part memoir, part insight into the writing process and part personal reflection. It includes stories from le Carré’s time in the British secret service during the cold war, which reflect on the events themselves, the people involved, and also how le Carré was growing personally and professionally as a result. After le Carré turned his attention fully to writing, he continued to write novels set in that milieu and so kept up the contacts and travels that provided him with the knowledge to vividly and believably portray the world of his stories. He reflects on the real life people and events and the process by which they then informed his writing.

The tone of the book is entertaining and warm. Some of the events that are described are weighty and serious: le Carré never takes them lightly but his writing conveys a comforting and safe viewpoint from which to regard them. It was as a result of enjoying his writing style in this book that I decided I would read the novels. I started last year with the first George Smiley novel Call for the Dead (which was made into the film The Deadly Affair). I found it much more of an adventure story and much less literary than I assumed it would be, and I’ll be working my way through the rest.

If you’ve never read any John le Carré, I’d thoroughly recommend him. The Pigeon Tunnel is a good place to start, even if you’re not particularly interested in the writing process or personal memoirs. It’s delightful.

Various Objects in Focus

Over the last year I’ve read several books from the British Museum’s Objects in Focus series. These are lovely little books that provide a bitesize history of significant objects in the Museum’s collection, often with interesting contextual information from when the object was created and when it was discovered. There’s also often information about conservation techniques and how new technologies are increasing our understanding of archaeological and historical objects. They are also the perfect length for a once a week commute. I can read a whole one in one day.

As I’ve been somewhat lax in blogging, rather than do a post for each book, I’ve collected them here.

Lindow Man

Lindow Man is the preserved remains of a man found in a bog in Cheshire. Over 2000 years old, these remains are the best preserved from Iron Age Britain. The book covers the discovery and excavation of the remains and gives insight into what has been learnt from them. The man died a violent death but it is not know if it was murder, sacrifice or execution and speculation abounds.

The Standard of Ur

Unearthed in excavations in the ancient city of Ur in Mesopotamia (in present-day Iraq) the ‘Standard’ is a beautifully decorated hollow box. It’s called a Standard because of it’s positioning in the tomb. This is potentially misleading as it’s function is not known, if indeed it had a function beyond being art. One of the things that these Objects in Focus books allow is photos of the detail of the art that wouldn’t be possible seeing it on display in the Museum.

The Warren Cup

This is a luxury silver cup from the Roman Empire, dating to the first century AD. It depicts scenes of male lovers and, as well as being an astonishing piece of both art and artisanship, illustrates some of the social mores of Roman civilization. However, because of the nature of the scenes it languished unstudied and unappreciated. Even in 1999, when the Museum acquired the cup, there was a stir in the media.

Model of a Summer Camp

The Model of a Summer Camp is an intricate and detailed model carved from mammoth-ivory depicting a festival of the people of Sakha (north-east Russia). The model was created in the mid-19th century for the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1867 where it was bought for the Museum. Although the model itself is not that old, the festival it depicts goes back centuries.

The Discobolus

The discus thrower is probably one of the most recognisable classical statues and will be familiar to many people. The book talks about the impact of the eighteenth century vogue for restoring classical sculptures – by filling bits in, adding new pieces or by inadvertently combining parts from different statues. Apparently quite a lot of statues, including the Discobolus, have the wrong heads.

The Meroë Head of Augustus

This is a bronze portrait of the Roman Emperor Augustus. The book looks in detail at the metal casting techniques used and the skill with which such a life-like image could be produced. It also looks at how the production and distribution of these types of statue were used a means of demonstrating power amongst far-flung imperial territories.

The Portland Vase

A beautiful Roman glassware vase which was smashed by a drunken visitor to the Museum in 1845. It’s re-construction and subsequent re-reconstruction has enabled the understanding of how the vase was created using techniques in glass that had been lost for centuries.

A’a: a deity from Polynesia

A’a is a carved wooden deity with many other smaller figures attached to it. Like many ethnographic objects collected by missionaries in the British Empire, not much is known about what it really represents. However, study of the materials, artisanship and working with local people who still retain the skills and knowledge can illuminate some aspects of the society that created it.

Bronze Head from Ife

Thought to represent a King, the bronze head is from Nigeria. The book has an interesting look about the attitudes of European artists towards non-European art as primitive and how objects such as the Bronze Head challenged those regressive theories.

War Lord

War Lord is the last in Bernard Cornwell’s thirteen novel series set in the 9th and 10th centuries and covering the formation of England from the earlier kingdoms of Wessex, Kent, East Anglia, Mercia and, finally, Northumbria. Throughout the series, Uhtred, an impulsive and emotional man, has made promises to members of Alfred’s family, at least one of which he now regrets.

Uhtred is established in his ancestral home of Bebbanburg on the north-east coast of Northumbria hoping for a more peaceful time. But Athelstan, King of Wessex, Mercia and East Anglia is determined to achieve the dream of his grandfather, Alfred, and unite all the kingdoms into England. Whether they like it or not.

To the North is the King of Scotland and to the West a King in Ireland, both with eyes on the fertile lands of Northumbria. Uhtred’s not really in a position to defend Bebbanburg against any one of these avaricious Kings so alights on the idea of getting them to fight each other through a combination of misinformation and trickery.

As ever, Cornwell does a deft job of weaving a fast-paced adventure story around a nugget of historical fact (or as close to fact as we can get) and brings Uhtred’s story to a bittersweet conclusion. Bittersweet for two reasons. First, Uhtred gets his happy ending of ruling in Bebbanburg with expanded lands and family to succeed him but it’s in the context of a bigger kingdom of England which isn’t what he really wanted. Second, that kingdom is Christian and has a policy of stamping out paganism and with the birth of Christian England comes the loss of the old gods and older ways, which, throughout the series, has felt increasingly sad.

War Lord is great, good fun and an easy read, pleasingly supported by good historical detail.

The British Museum, A History

Published in 2002 to mark the 250th anniversary (in 2003) of the British Museum, The British Museum, A History is a history of the institution told by a former Director of the Museum, David M. Wilson.

Much of the focus of the book is on the first 150 years from the origins of the collection and the twisting path the Museum has taken to grow into the towering presence we know today. The careers and personalities of the Directors and curatorial staff in this period are presented in great detail, as at that time there were not so many of them so as to make it impractical, and a sense of their influence of the development of the Museum is vividly created. Donations and purchases of some of the most significant objects in the Museum are also covered in detail, showing how the collection came to be assembled; often by luck, accident or opportunism and only occasionally (more so in the last 50 years) by deliberate policy.

The 20th century is dealt with a bit more briskly. The impact of the wars is discussed and especially the long shadow of WWII; some galleries weren’t completely repaired until the 1980s or 1990s. There is discussion of the structure and organization of the Museum trustees and employees. It’s an organization that has evolved rather than been planned. Decisions about organizational structure have often been made in response to specific events and constrained by tight, inadequate budgets, which leads inevitably to problems that have to be addressed later down the line.

What was most interesting to me is the relative youth of the academic study of history, art history and archaeology. Wilson talks about the need for the Museum to develop expertise in these areas as they were not taught by the universities. It was a bit of a revelation to me that art history wasn’t even a thing until the 1920s.

This book is probably only for fans of the Museum and appears to be out of print now, but I enjoyed it. It’s been on my ‘books to read’ shelf for about twenty years (it’s a large, heavy, not at all portable hardback) so I’m pleased I finally got round to reading it.