Monday, April 22, 2019


Greece, c. 520 BC, now in the Cleveland Museum

 Iron Age Jerusalem.

Syria, 12th century AD

Huron, Mantle Site in Ontario, c. 1500 AD

Egyptian sherd depicting Bes, part of British archaeologist Flinders Petrie's collection.

New Forest Ware from Roman Britain.

New Zealand, late prehistoric.

From India with an early example of Tamil writing.

From medieval Caesarea Maritima, now in Israel.

Sherd from a stoneware bottle ("Bellarmine") depicting a peasants' dance. Sixteenth century.

Assyromania in Victorian England

I just learned, from the British Museum's blog, that the publication of Henry Layard's 1849 book on the excavations at Nineveh triggered a mania for all things Assyrian much like the Egyptian mania that followed the opening of King Tut's tomb.

Among other things the public uproar over the publication inspired the government to pay to ship all those very heavy winged bulls to Europe; they had been sitting, crated, in the port of Basra for months. Above, newspaper illustration for the arrival of one of the bulls at the museum, an event covered by all the press.

A British aristocrat garbed as Queen Semiramis.

Porcelain objects inspired by Assyrian art.

Bracelet decorated with an Assyrian lion hunt. What a wonderful little bit of historical trivia.

Spring in the Woods

Near my house yesterday, the most beautiful day of the year so far.

Genius, Celebrity, and Morality: Michael Jackson

I never cared much about Michael Jackson, but I find the public wrangling about his legacy interesting. How should we judge the lives of artistic or other talents?

A lot of people think Michael Jackson was a genius as a musician and entertainer. Some of them are also fascinated by the way he overcame (as they see it) his early life as a child star relentlessly managed by his borderline abusive parents and remade himself as his own person with his own style and brand. To them his obvious weirdness was simply the product of his background and the artistic ferment that kept him creative, and people who found him creepy (there were plenty, from the beginning) just did not appreciate his transgressive genius.

Other people think Jackson was obviously crazy, in the sense that he had come unmoored from reality, and probably a monster of some sort. When the first allegations of child abuse surfaced in 1993 these critics felt that their intuitions had been confirmed. That cloud never really lifted from Jackson, and he was actually tried for child abuse in 2005. His acquittal on those charges led his defenders to cry "witch hunt" and claim or insinuate that his accusers were just out for money and his public critics were just philistine spoilsports who wanted, for reasons of jealousy or narrowmindedness or racism, to drag this celestial talent down to earth.

Reactions to the HBO documentary "Leaving Neverland" have spawned further fights and divisions. Some people think the allegations brought by James Safechuck and Wade Robson are obviously true, and we can now convict Jackson post mortem of the crimes for which he evaded punishment until now. Others point out that the allegations made in Jackson's 2005 trial also seemed convincing at first, but after Jackson's lawyers picked them apart he was acquitted, and since we can't have a trial now we can't just believe these accusations.

Underlying all of this seems to be a feeling that accepting the child abuse allegations means giving up Jackson's music. For those who loved the music and derived great joy from his act, this is very hard. Some people seem to be seizing on any thread of evidence that might exonerate Jackson as a way to hold onto that joy. On the other hand some of the critics seem mainly interested in asserting that morality is higher than art. Instead of glorying in the crazy acts of oddball celebrities, we should all be in church or keeping our noses to the grindstone or something, anything but admiring dubious characters whose very existence is a threat to virtue and good order.

Jackson was obviously a very strange man who enjoyed the company of children, including in his bed. What else he did with them seems to me like a black hole; nothing said by his accusers or his defenders has to me shed much light. I just don't trust anyone where there is so much money and fame at stake.

But suppose it is all true; where does that leave his fans? It's an important question. Great artists are certainly no better than other people and I think there is some evidence that they are generally worse. The same seems to be true of athletes, entrepreneurs, politicians, chefs, preachers, and public figures in general: if there is any correlation between public prominence and good behavior it is a negative one. That might just be because they have more opportunities to sin, although I think that megalomania is a very useful thing for people who want to succeed in our world.

Does it matter? I suppose it depends on what sort of world you want. If you want virtuous world where all bad deeds are punished and wickedness is never rewarded, then you should stop listening to music made by Jackson and all the other wretched sinners. If you want a world full or riotous fun and mockery of the rules, where creativity is its own justification, you should go put on "Thriller." Me, I want a world that is somewhere in between. I think we need virtue and duty, but that a world made only of virtue and duty would be intolerable. I have never spurned any art because of its creator's crimes. On the other hand I have never surrendered to fandom in anything, because I feel sure in my heart that the artists I most admire are probably monsters of some sort, and I prefer to keep my distance from their vanity and ambition.

Sunday, April 21, 2019


India's Unending Agricultural Crisis

Indian farming is in the news because of the ongoing election. The Modi government came to power mostly because of support in rural areas, and the opposition Congress party is trying to win those votes by talking up the bad situation in India's villages. Which is exactly what Modi's party when they were out of power.

I am not very familiar with the ins and out of Indian agricultural policy, and maybe there are things the government could do to improve the situation. This angry essay, which the Times ran a year ago, has a long list of complaints, some of which may be valid, about poor credit policy, poor water distribution, favoritism toward agribusiness, and so on, which seemed to me eerily like the complaints of farmers from China to South Dakota.

But in the long run India's peasant class is pretty much doomed no matter what the government does, because peasant agriculture is simply not compatible with modern life. In fact modernity as I understand it pretty much means that people stop being peasants and become something else.

The Times story on the current election features many farmers who have less than 5 acres of land and plan on dividing that among their three or four children. How could that possibly be made to work?

The process by which agriculture moves from 70 or 80 percent of the workforce to 2 percent has been painful everywhere, and some of the stories one reads about farmers' desperate efforts to stay on their land are heart-rending. But I don't see how a massive exodus from the land can be avoided.

Sometimes the details of what we do matter, but sometimes we are in the grip of vast economic or social forces completely beyond our control.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Notre Dame's Wooden Roof

I am frankly baffled by the notion that the roof of Notre Dame might be rebuilt using wooden beams.

I suppose it would in some sense be more historically accurate, but all of the original wood is gone, and modern wood would not be the same any more than steel would. Plus, the focus of any historical reconstruction should be on the experience of visitors, and nobody went into the attic.

Most of the cathedrals rebuilt after the World Wars have roofs supported by steel beams, including the famously beautiful one at Reims. So far as I know, nobody complains about the lack of authenticity.

Steel roof trusses are safer, stronger, and cheaper. It is true that in some kinds of fires thick wooden beams actually work better, retaining more of their strength when heated but not burned through. That only applies to particular situations, though; in general, as you would expect, steel is more fire-proof.

And then we get to the biggest objection to a wooden roof: where would the wood come from? Medieval technology relied on very thick beams cut from very old trees. By the later Middle Ages special forests had to be set aside all over Europe, usually owned by the crown or the church, where oak trees would be allowed to grow for a century or more to provide that crucial wood. In France today there are, experts say, not enough old oak trees to supply the necessary beams. I am not sure if this includes the trees growing in national parks, but since the point of those parks is to gradually recreate Europe's ancient forests, cutting out the best trees seems like a terrible idea.

It isn't just a matter going to the lumber yard; a whole forest of ancient oaks would have to be cut. How can that be a good idea when we have a perfectly acceptable substitute? Rebuild in steel.

Oh, while we're on the subject of rebuilding Notre Dame, I think that if they're going to have a contest for the design of the new spire, they should let Eugène Viollet-le-Duc enter posthumously. Let's see if any contemporary architect can do better than his design.

Professor, How Historically Accurate is Game of Thrones?

Apparently students ask this all the time. So here is my answer:

  1. Sadly, there were no dragons.
  2. The clothes are all wrong.
  3. The sword fighting is terrible.
  4. Ditto the battle scenes. 
  5. No ice demons with armies of the dead, either.
  6. Dire wolves went extinct around 13,000 years ago
  7. On "Game of Thrones" somebody might remember that, because they have a weirdly long time scale for pre-modern people, always talking about things that took place thousands of years in the past. In medieval Europe there were a few monks who cared about those time scales but for most people "time out of mind" meant 50 years. Apparently Hugh Capet (King of France 987-996) did not know he was descended from Charlemagne, who lived only 150 years before him.
  8. A fleet of "a thousand ships" is an absurdity, like an army of five million men. And you can't build any ships on bare islands without trees.
  9. The economics is bad. Yes, there were whores in medieval Europe, but vice was not the center of the economy, nor did kings bankrupt themselves holding tournaments. What bankrupted kings was fighting wars, then as now by far the most expensive thing a government could do. And the real money was in 1) fertile land, 2) cloth, and 3) trade.
  10. Ramsey Bolton is impossible, not because he is cruel and violent but because he regularly dishonors the women of noble and knightly families. The aristocracy frowned on that; it's why Nero was assassinated, and he was the most powerful man in the world. Medieval rulers could not cow the populace into submission, outside certain situations like the immediate aftermath of a war or siege. They had to establish legitimacy, and just being nasty did not achieve that.

On the other hand

  1. Game of Thrones is not too violent. The real world has at various times been way more violent than anyone has ever dared to film. The Mongols massacred more people in a day than have died in all of Game of Thrones --174,000, according to one count-- on multiple occasions.
  2. The dynastic politics are quite good. One reason people were irrationally devoted to the legitimate dynasty was that when a king was overthrown a period of instability and violence usually ensued. Even an awful king might be better than that. I like the way people balance the need for stability, nostalgia, and the interests of their houses in choosing whom to follow.
  3. Although the battles are all wrong, there is much to admire in the overall course of the war. Wars really did drag on through periods of months or even years in which not much happened, punctuated by dramatic battles or betrayals.
  4. I like it that there are old institutions (the Citadel, the Septs) that have their own internal politics and follow their own interests, the squabbles of kings be damned. This seems historical to me.
  5. But the best thing, historically, about Game of Thrones is the portrayal of aristocratic families. This can be subdivided into two parts:
  6. Aristocrats are so far above non aristocrats that they might as well be separate species. Politics is a game that only those born to it can play. At the highest level only the great houses matter. Notice how quickly the Lord Commander of the Night's Watch singles out John Snow to be the future leader; as the bastard of a great lord, raised in the lord's household, he is the best-born man around, and he already has the things aristocrats were trained to from infancy: arrogance, skill at arms, and the habit of command. And if some non-noble person does rise to a high position (Varys, Davos), he does so by unstinting service to the nobles around and above him.
  7. Aristocrats are obsessed with their own families. I have seriously thought about one day showing students this speech in which Tywin Lannister lectures one of his sons on the meaning of family. So far as we can tell, many aristocrats (and others) really talked like that: "all we Starks are tough," "we Lannisters always pay our debts." "We in the family have to support each other, because all outsiders are our enemies." GoT also conveys how crushingly high expectations were for the men of these families; if you're not leading armies or serving on the king's council, why not?  
Strip away the fantasy elements and Game of Thrones is a lot more accurate to the spirit of the Middle Ages than many allegedly more historical works, like "Braveheart" or Kevin Costner's "Robinhood."

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Oratory of Santa Maria in Valle

The Oratory of Santa Maria in Valle in Cividale del Friuli, Italy, is the most important architectural survival of the period of Lombard rule. Indeed it is commonly known as the "Lombard Temple."

It was built around the middle of the 8th century and was attached to the gastaldia, the palace of the steward who ruled the city. The builders were probably Astolfo, duke of Friuli from 744 to 749 and king of the Lombards from 749 to 756, and his wife Giseltrude.

It freely mingles traditional Byzantine forms with strange innovations, and historians consider it transitional between older, Roman/Byzantine architecture and that of the Carolingians.

Love these saints.

The Lombards ruled Italy from 568-774 and are these days best known for their savage civil wars, but of course as rulers they also did a lot of administering, building, and the like.

After the Carolingians took over Italy the steward's palace was converted to a nunnery and the chapel passed to their use. They added features like these choir stalls.

Truly a remarkable survival from a turbulent time.

Deadly Pain: A Modern American Story

Sol Pais was a student at Miami Beach Senior High School, with a pleasant facade that hid her inner turmoil:
I didn’t believe it — I didn’t understand it,” Brandon Bossard, a sophomore who had a second-period class with Ms. Pais, said after dismissal on Wednesday. “She’s so quiet. How could someone so quiet be like that?”

He said Ms. Pais would sit alone, in a chair against the classroom wall. Other students also described Ms. Pais as keeping mostly to herself, wearing baggy T-shirts, jeans and boots and, often, earphones as she listened to music.

“She was really smart,” said Jade Leeyee, a 17-year-old senior who sat in front of Ms. Pais in English class. “She was a genuine person, and she had such a pretty smile.”
She poured out her dark feelings in an online journal that she signed with her own name. The journal
read like a catalog of isolation, depression and anguish, illustrated with pictures of knives and guns. In a July 2018 entry, the journal writer described waking up every day feeling “lost, hopeless, angry, pissed off.” . . . She describes months of feeling lost, hopeless and misunderstood. “I wish I could get a gun by the end of the summer,” she apparently wrote in July. . . . The journal included drawings of firearms and a bloody knife, and a mention of dreaming about a shotgun.
She described herself as “infatuated” with Columbine and one of her entries included a drawing of Dylan Klebold.

Later entries vaguely describe some sort of plan, the “task at hand,” which involved flying to Colorado and buying a shotgun.

On Monday she disappeared from Miami Beach and took that Colorado flight, which one school official called a “pilgrimage.” Once there, she bought the shotgun as she had planned. This threw authorities into a panic and a massive search was launched for her.

Yesterday she killed herself with a gun in the snowy woods above Echo Lake.

I try not to pay too much attention to these events because I think the people who act them out are seeking attention as much as anything else. But this story struck me as perfectly expressing important truths about America.

Where does the real danger to us lie? Not in Moscow or Pyongyang, but in the back of the classroom, sitting quietly.

Whom do we fear? The loner, lost in fantasies of death and revenge, whose strongest connections to the world are through images of violence. He is out there, somewhere, buying guns, dreaming of armageddon.

We fear those whose strongest feeling for another human is an obsessive fascination with a famous killer. The scariest plots on cop shows involve serial killers who are in prison but can still inspire others to follow in their footsteps.

We can guard against those who hope to kill and get away with it, but we don't know how to defend ourselves from those for whom their own deaths are as much a part of their plans as those of their victims.

When Sol Pais embarked on her pilgrimage, thousands trembled. Tough Miami cops who thought they had seen it all leaped frantically to the phones to call the FBI, and the FBI mobilized as if against an invasion. Parents across Colorado kept their children home. She was, for a moment, powerful; for a moment, people paid attention to her inner pain, not just her grades and her smile.

We don't even know what she was really planning. Maybe it was just a suicide, preferably in front the the school that obsessed her, but if not then somewhere else. Maybe she planned to scare people in the school before she went. But the fear that she wanted to kill before she died terrorized us.

Our worst problems are problems of our minds. We suffer from anxiety, depression, loneliness, rage, despair. Someone like Sol Pais scares us so much because she is so familiar; she suffered from a more extreme version of what inflicts us all, and the path she seemed to be walking was one we have watched in horror too many times before.

We know what we need: connection. We need friendship, love, fellowship, a sense of belonging, a feeling that we are not alone, a belief that we are part of the world, not its hated outcasts. It is so hard for us to find those things ourselves that we have no idea how to give them to those who suffer cruelly without them. We are so frightened of what these demons might drive us to that the suicide of a lonely girl on a snowy mountainside feels like a blessed relief.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Sane or Insane?

In January 1973, Science published an article called ‘On being sane in insane places’. The author, psychologist David Rosenhan, described how he and seven other healthy people had reported themselves to a dozen psychiatric hospitals, claiming to hear voices uttering odd words such as ‘thud’ or ‘hollow’ — a symptom never reported in the clinical literature. Each person was diagnosed with either schizophrenia or manic-depressive psychosis, and admitted; once inside, they stopped the performance. They were released after an average of 19 days with diagnoses of ‘schizophrenia in remission’ (D. L. Rosenhan Science 179, 250–258; 1973).

One research and teaching hospital, hearing about the study, declared that its own staff could never be so deceived. It challenged Rosenhan to send it pseudopatients. He agreed, but never did. Nonetheless, the hospital claimed to have identified 41 of them.
From a review of a new book by Anne Harrington.

Frog and Maize

Reconstruction of an Aztec mural from Cacaxtla, Mexico, now in Mexico City.

The Aftermath

Five Lies They Tell Us

David Brooks is back on the meaning beat, excoriating "Five Lies Our Culture Tells Us". I present these below, with some of Brooks' exposition and some of my own thoughts

1) Career success is fulfilling. 

Brooks comments: "I remember when the editor of my first book called to tell me it had made the best-seller list. It felt like … nothing."

It's hard to argue with this at a base level; a successful career is not a route to happiness for most people, and our culture probably puts far too much emphasis on this. On the other hand, a failed career seems to be a pretty widespread source of woe, and people who can't find some way to be economically useful are pretty miserable. I tend to think that success in a career you don't hate is a nice ingredient for a good life, if you can get it.

2) I can make myself happy.

This I certainly agree with; I think we are at our core social animals and must seek happiness in relationships with others. The thing about relationships, of course, if that other people are also maddening and prone to letting you down. Which is to say, seeking happiness alone may be impossible for most people, but seeking it in the company of others is no picnic, either.

3) Life is an individual journey.

Life, says Brooks, is not an exciting journey along the lines of "Oh the Places You'll Go":
In reality, the people who live best tie themselves down. They don’t ask: What cool thing can I do next? They ask: What is my responsibility here? They respond to some problem or get called out of themselves by a deep love.
I think this is partly a matter of individual taste. People like Brooks and me are not much interested in a freewheeling life of travel and adventure, but from what I read some people are. Some people are driven to misery by responsible drudgery and long for freedom; and who is to say they are more wrong than Brooks and me? The key here, as in so much else, is Know Thyself. Figure out what makes you happy and seek it out.

4) You have to find your own truth. 

My readers know I am also dubious of the power of most humans to create their own value systems. But:
The reality is that values are created and passed down by strong, self-confident communities and institutions. People absorb their values by submitting to communities and institutions and taking part in the conversations that take place within them. It’s a group process.
Historically this is of course true. But toward what institution would you look for values today? The Catholic Church? The Evangelical Mega-Churches? The political parties? Wall Street? The universities? Just writing down this list makes me shudder with existential horror. The reality is that  there is no institution or community that I very much respect, or that I think embodies my own values, and so far as I can tell Brooks feels the same way. This is the post-modern situation: the old institutions have crumbled or been exposed, and for most of us nothing new has come along to replace them.

Not that we aren't trying. In America we are actually surrounded by communities that are working to create group values, but I suspect Brooks, like me, is not impressed by them. What is a Trump rally but a group of people coming together to celebrate common values and seek common truths? What are SJW twitter mobs but people trying to create and police common values?

In reality attempts to create group values are contentious and rife with nastiness, whining, self-righteous preening, and all sorts of other things I want nothing to do with.

5) Rich and successful people are worth more than poorer and less successful people.

Brooks isn't going to get much argument here; just about every moralist agrees that we fawn disgracefully over money and celebrity. I wonder, though, if this is as important as Brooks thinks:
No wonder it’s so hard to be a young adult today. No wonder our society is fragmenting. We’ve taken the lies of hyper-individualism and we’ve made them the unspoken assumptions that govern how we live.
Ok, so celebrities dominate our news. But is that really why so many people are unhappy? Some people seem to get quite a bit of joy from reading celebrity gossip or political news. Is there something wrong with that?

Ultimately I think much of this comes down to how rich and safe we are. We were born to struggle, and without that we all have a lot of energy and emotion we don't know what to do with.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Notre Dame

Horrible tragedy in Paris, Notre Dame has burned; the roof has completely collapsed and the stained glass seems to be ruined.

On the other hand we can look forward to a decades-long argument about whether the spire that Eugène Viollet-le-Duc put on the top in the nineteenth century should be replaced as part of the restoration.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

The Exciting Life of a Television Executive

Everyone involved with Game of Thrones gives a lot of credit to Bernadette Caulfield, the executive producer. They say things like, “We only made it this far because of Bernadette Caulfield, the greatest producer alive.” and “She’s the beating heart of our show.”

But when the Times asked her what she did, she said that for her,
“It really was the Game of Meetings.”

Trying to Save Cursive

As the world tumbles along its disaster-pockmarked course toward who knows what, hundreds of mainly Republic legislators and educators and have together to fight the good fight for preserving cursive:
Even as keyboards and screens have supplanted pencil and paper in schools, lawmakers and defenders of cursive have lobbied to re-establish this old-school writing pedagogy across the country, igniting a debate about American values and identity and exposing intergenerational fault lines.

When Anne Trubek, the author of The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting, started studying the resurgence of cursive about a decade ago, reasons for teaching it focused on developing a civilized, well-mannered population.

“People were upset about the idea that you might not seem educated if you didn’t know cursive,” she said.

But in recent years, the reasoning for cursive became associated with “convention, tradition, conservatism,” she said, and tied to discussions about school uniforms and the Pledge of Allegiance.

Indeed, several Republican lawmakers have spearheaded campaigns to revive the writing style.

In 2016, lawmakers in Washington introduced a bill backing cursive after Pam Roach, then a Republican state senator, noted that a constituent had said her grandchild could not read a handwritten letter. The measure did not pass.

Lawmakers have also invoked the Declaration of Independence, which was marked by John Hancock’s flamboyant signature, as a reason for a script revival.
Conservative intellectuals are always trying to justify their creed as something other than simple nostalgia, but then something like this crops up.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Cherokee Inscriptions in Manitou Cave

A team of researchers that includes Euro-American professors and Cherokee elders has announced the results of their study of the long-known but never read inscriptions in Manitou Cave, Alabama. The inscriptions are in the Cherokee syllabary developed by Sequoyah, and two of them were signed by Richard Guess, one of Sequoyah's sons.

One reason the inscriptions had never been translated is that Sequoyah's script was designed to look much like English writing, so many people thought the Manitou Cave inscriptions were in Latin letters but some kind of code.

The inscriptions relate to ritual events of 1828, including a ball game; one is signed "we are the ones with blood flowing from our noses." (The Cherokee ball game, something like lacrosse, was a rough sport.)

This is my favorite detail:
"The ceiling inscriptions are written backwards, as if addressing readers inside the rock itself," Simek said. "This corresponds with part of one inscription which reads 'I am your grandson.' This is how the Cherokee might formally address the Old Ones, which can include deceased Cherokee ancestors as well as comprise other supernatural beings who inhabited the world before the Cherokee came into existence."
How wonderful that these survive, so that Cherokee and everyone else can see and learn about  this piece of history.

Tiny Hominids in the Ancient Philippines

Back in 2007, archaeologists reported what appeared to be a human foot bone from a cave on Luzon in the Philippines, dated to roughly 67,000 years ago.

This discovery inspired them to keep digging in the cave, and they eventually found more hominid bones, including these teeth. These are adult hominid teeth but they are tiny, which makes the excavators think this person was less than 4 feet tall (1.2 m).

It's a very cool discovery because it adds to the growing picture of very diverse hominids living in the geologically very recent past, perhaps recent enough to have fed old folktales about goblins, bigfoot, and other semi-human creatures. But a few bones and teeth is not a lot to hang a news species on.