Genre: History

Review – Ten Birds That Changed The World

Posted April 16, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 1 Comment

Review – Ten Birds That Changed The World

Ten Birds That Changed the World

by Stephen Moss

Genres: History, Non-fiction, Science
Pages: 416
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

For the whole of human history, we have lived alongside birds. We have hunted and domesticated them for food; venerated them in our mythologies, religions, and rituals; exploited them for their natural resources; and been inspired by them for our music, art, and poetry.

In Ten Birds That Changed the World, naturalist and author Stephen Moss tells the gripping story of this long and intimate relationship through key species from all seven of the world's continents. From Odin's faithful raven companions to Darwin's finches, and from the wild turkey of the Americas to the emperor penguin as potent symbol of the climate crisis, this is a fascinating, eye-opening, and endlessly engaging work of natural history.

Stephen Moss’ Ten Birds That Changed The World is a style of non-fiction I enjoy very much, where history gets illustrated through a focus on key things like archaeological items or, well, birds. Instead of being a straightforward timeline, such things can give a different view on well-worn events and times: an everyday view, or a less human view.

Much of this focuses on how humans have exploited and endangered birds, as one might expect, from climate change to more direct impacts. There are also interesting discussions about other things, though, like the fact that “Darwin’s finches” have become the focus of a sort of mythology around the figure of Darwin. In reality, the finches played little part in the germination of his theories, and were recognised later as the perfect example of his theories in action.

One thing I found a bit questionable was the focus on ravens as mentioned in what Moss referred to as one of the earliest stories, that of the Biblical flood. He’s wrong. The same story is told in the epic of Gilgamesh, also featuring a raven — and that epic was, of course, written before the Bible. It’s curious that he makes no mention of it, but perhaps it’s not very surprising at all since he matter of factly refers to “the birth of Christ” as a way of marking time (not just through using the term “BC”, but specifically stating that something happens “before the birth of Christ”). There’s a particular kind of framing there, subtle but noticeable, and it raises questions about the depth of Moss’ research when discussing mythological and legendary depictions of birds (at the very least), or about his ideological decisions in writing the book. Definitely a weird moment. Of course one’s beliefs shape how one writes and thinks, but a little objectivity is important when you’re talking about historical fact.

All in all, I enjoyed it, but perhaps not as much as I hoped to.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – A Fish Caught in Time

Posted April 12, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – A Fish Caught in Time

A Fish Caught in Time: The Search for the Coelacanth

by Samantha Weinberg

Genres: History, Non-fiction, Science
Pages: 256
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

A gripping story of obsession, adventure and the search for our oldest surviving ancestor - 400 million years old - a four-limbed dinofish

In 1938, Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, a young South African museum curator, caught sight of a specimen among a fisherman's trawl that she knew was special. With limb-like protuberances culminating in fins the strange fish was unlike anything she had ever seen. The museum board members dismissed it as a common lungfish, but when Marjorie eventually contacted Professor JLB Smith, he immediately identified her fish as a coelacanth - a species known to have lived 400 million years ago, and believed by many scientists to be the evolutionary missing link - the first creature to crawl out of the sea. Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer had thus made the century's greatest zoological discovery. But Smith needed a live or frozen specimen to verify the discovery, so began his search for another coelacanth, to which he devoted his life.

I didn’t really expect to be hooked when I picked up Samantha Weinberg’s A Fish Caught in Time. Fish aren’t a huge interest of mine, even coelacanths, and in many ways the book is quite biographical in detail, discussing the life of J.L.B. Smith and Margaret Smith in quite a bit of detail, along with some of the other personalities who searched for live coelacanths.

Nonetheless, I found it surprisingly riveting! And that’s always fun, when a book turns out to surprise you. And there are details about coelacanths too, and the controversies surrounding them (are they a missing link between the water and the land, for example? and do they bear live young, or not?), which the biographical details help to highlight and contextualise.

It also helps to make the political implications of coelacanths and their territories very clear; I hadn’t particularly thought about who might consider themselves to own coelacanths, and yet it’s very clear that various countries and localities and political bodies have tried.

If you’re looking for something that’s more of a deep dive into coelacanth biology and ecology, this wouldn’t be it — but it’s an interesting history of the moment the first recently-dead coelacanth was found, and what it meant, and what it led to.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time

Posted April 9, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time

Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time

by James Suzman

Genres: History, Non-fiction, Science
Pages: 464
Rating: two-stars
Synopsis:

Work defines who we are. It determines our status, and dictates how, where, and with whom we spend most of our time. It mediates our self-worth and molds our values. But are we hard-wired to work as hard as we do? Did our Stone Age ancestors also live to work and work to live? And what might a world where work plays a far less important role look like?

To answer these questions, James Suzman charts a grand history of "work" from the origins of life on Earth to our ever more automated present, challenging some of our deepest assumptions about who we are. Drawing insights from anthropology, archaeology, evolutionary biology, zoology, physics, and economics, he shows that while we have evolved to find joy meaning and purpose in work, for most of human history our ancestors worked far less and thought very differently about work than we do now. He demonstrates how our contemporary culture of work has its roots in the agricultural revolution ten thousand years ago. Our sense of what it is to be human was transformed by the transition from foraging to food production, and, later, our migration to cities. Since then, our relationships with one another and with our environments, and even our sense of the passage of time, have not been the same.

Arguing that we are in the midst of a similarly transformative point in history, Suzman shows how automation might revolutionize our relationship with work and in doing so usher in a more sustainable and equitable future for our world and ourselves.

James Suzman’s Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time didn’t really go where I expected. It takes a very long view of work and starts before humans even evolved, down at the level of cells doing “work” and life acting ultimately to increase entropy (even as it appears to create order). He spends a long time discussing the early evolution of humans and human society, discussing hunter-gatherer societies (extrapolating back from currently existing ones to make guesses about earlier ones, which is always dangerous though probably justifiable).

When he eventually got round to farming societies, half the book was already gone, and he dashed madly onward to do industrial societies at a gallop. I felt like half of this book wasn’t on topic, and some of his promises weren’t kept in terms of what he was going to discuss. Either a lot of the first part needed to be cut, to keep things at a relatively surface-level throughout… or he needed to go just as in-depth on the second half.

There were some interesting titbits here, including contradictions to received wisdom about sexual selection that’s intriguing and which I want to look into further, but it just doesn’t come together well.

Also, the editing was very shaky in some places. Typos galore! Ouch.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Walnut Tree

Posted March 22, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – The Walnut Tree

The Walnut Tree - Women, Violence and the Law: A Hidden History

by Kate Morgan

Genres: History, Non-fiction
Pages: 319
Rating: five-stars
Synopsis:

'A woman, a dog and a walnut tree, the more they are beaten, the better they'll be.'

So went the proverb quoted by a prominent MP in the Houses of Parliament in 1853. His words - intended ironically in a debate about a rise in attacks on women - summed up the prevailing attitude of the day, in which violence against women was waved away as a part and parcel of modern living - a chilling seam of misogyny that had polluted both parliament and the law. But were things about to change?

In this vivid and essential work of historical non-fiction, Kate Morgan explores the legal campaigns, test cases and individual injustices of the Victorian and Edwardian eras which fundamentally re-shaped the status of women under British law. These are seen through the untold stories of women whose cases became cornerstones of our modern legal system and shine a light on the historical inequalities of the law.

We hear of the uniquely abusive marriage which culminated in the dramatic story of the 'Clitheroe wife abduction'; of the domestic tragedies which changed the law on domestic violence; the controversies surrounding the Contagious Diseases Act and the women who campaigned to abolish it; and the real courtroom stories behind notorious murder cases such as the 'Camden Town Murder'.

Exploring the 19th- and early 20th Century legal history that influenced the modern-day stances on issues such as domestic abuse, sexual violence and divorce, The Walnut Treelifts the lid on the shocking history of women under British law - and what it means for women today.

Having loved Kate Morgan’s book on the laws surrounding murder, I was prepared to quite enjoy The Walnut Tree — though, being a history of the rights of women through discussing the laws and legal cases that shaped them, it was bound to be pretty grim in some ways. And of course it was: it’s not easy (and nor should it be) to read about the way men used to be allowed to abuse women and deprive them of liberty, and how women were faulted for all kinds of things in order that people shouldn’t have to convict the men in their lives of anything.

Still, Morgan tells the story through well-chosen cases that illustrate a lot of the anxieties and questions in people’s minds at the time, and she manages to bring it all to life in a way that I (at least) find very readable and enjoyable. She has a knack for settings things out clearly and engagingly, and I enjoy this tactic of taking a legal-eye view of things.

That said, of course (as I mentioned), it does discuss some horrible cases and some very unfortunate women — abused, kidnapped, assaulted, and murdered. It’s saddening and infuriating, and sometimes it’s worse to think about the fact that some of these excuses and attitudes can still be found today. “She was asking for it”, “it was a crime of passion”, “she owed me”…

Not a comfortable read, but one that I found fascinating.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Crypt

Posted March 8, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 4 Comments

Review – Crypt

Crypt: Life, Death and Disease in the Middle Ages and Beyond

by Alice Roberts

Genres: History, Non-fiction, Science
Pages: 352
Rating: five-stars
Synopsis:

In her previous two bestsellers, Professor Alice Roberts powerfully and evocatively revived people of the past through examining their burial rites, bringing a fresh perspective on how they lived. In Crypt, Professor Roberts brings us face to face with individuals who lived and died between ten and five centuries ago.

The stories in this book are not comforting tales; there’s a focus on pathology, on disease and injury, and the experience of human suffering in the past. We learn of an episode of terrible brutality, when hate speech unleashed a tide of violence against an ethnic minority; of the devastation caused by incurable epidemics sweeping through medieval Europe; of a protracted battle between Church and State for the heart of England – a battle that saw the most famous tomb in the country created and destroyed; and a tumultuous story, forged in the heat of warfare, that takes us out of the Middle Ages into the sixteenth century and the reign of Henry VIII.

In the Middle Ages, there’s barely a written note for most people’s lives. The information we can extract from archaeological human remains represents is an essential tool for understanding our history. Most of these dead will remain anonymous. But, in the thrilling final chapter, Professor Roberts introduces an individual whose life and bones were marked by chronic debilitating disease – and whose name might just be found in history…

I was really excited about Alice Roberts’ Crypt coming out, because I enjoyed both Ancestors (my review) and Buried (my review), and this essentially concludes the trilogy, making it a survey through time about burial practices and archaeological finds in Britain. Crypt in particular was extra-exciting to me because it promised to discuss palaeo/archaeopathology, meaning looking in more depth at how people died, including whether infectious disease may have been involved. There are three chapters (of the seven) which deal heavily with this, discussing leprosy (Mycobacterium leprae), the Black Death (Yersinia pestis), and syphilis (Treponema pallidum) — obviously right up my street as someone who is fascinated by infectious disease (and especially leprosy’s cousin, Mycobacterium tuberculosis).

It was everything I’d hoped for, discussing deaths throughout the Middle Ages and going pretty in-depth about the stories we can see written into bone, plus the ways we’ve been able to find the trace of infectious diseases that are less apparent, or potentially ambiguous. The methods used weren’t too much of a surprise to me (“fishing” for ancient disease DNA using primers definitely occurred to me as a possibility), but it’s still fascinating to see it discussed at a bit more length.

As usual, Roberts writes clearly and engagingly, though maybe I could’ve done with slightly less about Henry VIII’s Mary Rose — I get that context is important, but I’m just not that interested in the Tudors and their squabbles, and I think it could’ve done with a bit less about that.

One thing I do wish is that the book used numbered references. I know it’s for a wider audience, but it’s so hard to follow up any particular interesting claim if I can’t find the paper or book it’s from, even when a detailed references section is included (as here).

Still, I enjoyed it very much, and I wish I had three more lined up just like it.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – The Notebook

Posted March 4, 2024 by Nicky in Uncategorized / 4 Comments

Review – The Notebook

The Notebook: A History of Thinking on Paper

by Roland Allen

Genres: History, Non-fiction
Pages: 416
Rating: five-stars
Synopsis:

We see notebooks everywhere we go. But where did this simple invention come from? How did they revolutionise our lives, and why are they such powerful tools for creativity? And how can using a notebook help you change the way you think?

In this wide-ranging story, Roland Allen reveals all the answers. Ranging from the bustling markets of medieval Florence to the quiet studies of our greatest thinkers, he follows a trail of dazzling ideas, revealing how the notebook became our most dependable and versatile tool for creative thinking. He tells the notebook stories of artists like Leonardo and Frida Kahlo, scientists from Isaac Newton to Marie Curie, and writers from Chaucer to Henry James. We watch Darwin developing his theory of evolution in tiny pocketbooks, see Agatha Christie plotting a hundred murders in scrappy exercise books, and learn how Bruce Chatwin unwittingly inspired the creation of the Moleskine.

On the way we meet a host of cooks, kings, sailors, fishermen, musicians, engineers, politicians, adventurers and mathematicians, who all used their notebooks as a space for thinking and to shape the modern world.

In an age of AI and digital overload, the humble notebook is more relevant than ever. Allen shows how bullet points can combat ADHD, journals can ease PTSD, and patient diaries soften the trauma of reawakening from coma. The everyday act of moving a pen across paper can have profound consequences, changing the way we think and feel: making us more creative, more productive - and happier.

Roland Allen’s The Notebook is, as the subtitle says, “A History of Thinking on Paper” — one that ranges pretty far tracking down where we began to use paper as a way to do things we can’t hold in our heads, as a tool for processing information, as a way to test things out, etc. It’s almost completely Western-oriented, focusing on areas like Italy, France and the UK for the most part, discussing various different strands of how notebooks are used. First for financial accounting, then for digesting popular culture and literature, and then evolving into diaries. It also discusses artists’ sketchbooks, the use of notebooks for collecting recipes, and of course, bullet journaling.

It’s the kind of book I love, rambling through the topic and finding examples to discuss, casting them in their context, etc. I found the stuff about da Vinci’s notebooks particularly fascinating, for example (and giggled about the cursing of his terrible handwriting), and of course, Darwin’s notebooks and the famous “I think”.

My favourite chapter of all was the one about ICU patient diaries and how they’re used, though. I didn’t expect this book to make me cry, but the topic hit unexpectedly close to home here, and I found myself crying my way through the last few pages of that chapter.

Definitely recommended if you’re interested in this kind of thing — not just notebooks specifically, but also if you enjoy history through the eye of a single object or set of objects.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Forgotten Peoples of the Ancient World

Posted February 27, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Review – Forgotten Peoples of the Ancient World

Forgotten Peoples of the Ancient World

by Philip Matyszak

Genres: History, Non-fiction
Pages: 288
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

The ancient world of the Mediterranean and the Near East saw the birth and collapse of great civilizations. While several of these are well known, for all those that have been recorded, many have been unjustly forgotten. Our history is overflowing with different cultures that have all evolved over time, sometimes dissolving or reforming, though ultimately shaping the way we continue to live. But for every culture that has been remembered, what have we forgotten?

This thorough guide explores those civilizations that have faded from the pages of our textbooks but played a significant role in the development of modern society. Forgotten Peoples of the Ancient World covers the Hyksos to the Hephthalites and everyone in between, providing a unique overview of humanity's history from approximately 3000 BCE-550 CE. A wide range of illustrated artifacts and artworks, as well as specially drawn maps, help to tell the stories of forty lost peoples and allow readers to take a direct look into the past. Each entry exposes a diverse culture, highlighting their important contributions and committing their achievements to paper.

Philip Matyszak’s Forgotten Peoples of the Ancient World is a whistlestop tour of a lot of different nations/ethnic groups/tribes/etc who are known to have existed at some point, but who are less known now. Some of them are fairly well known now, I’d say, like the Hittites and the Hyksos (through their involvement with Egypt — though other stuff about them is less clear), while others are much more obscure.

Each group gets exactly the same number of pages, which I find pretty suspicious — some are undoubtedly padded out to reach the six page requirement, while others are short-changed. It’s beautifully presented, though, with lots of images all in colour, and it’s not a bad selection or bad as a whistlestop tour. One just needs to be aware that that’s very much what it is, and a little contrived at times.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Lost Boys

Posted February 24, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – The Lost Boys

The Lost Boys: Inside Muzafer Sherif's Robbers Cave Experiment

by Gina Perry

Genres: History, Non-fiction, Science
Pages: 384
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

The fascinating true story of one of the most controversial psychological experiments of the modern era — a real-life Lord of the Flies.

Competition. Prejudice. Discrimination. Conflict.

In 1954, a group of boys attended a remote summer camp where they were split into two groups, and encouraged to bully, harass, and demonise each other. The results would make history as one of social psychology’s classic — and most controversial — studies: the Robbers Cave experiment.

Conducted at the height of the Cold War, officially the experiment had a happy ending: the boys reconciled, and psychologist Muzafer Sherif demonstrated that while hatred and violence are powerful forces, so too are cooperation and harmony. Today it is proffered as proof that under the right conditions warring groups can make peace. Yet the true story of the experiments is far more complex, and more chilling.

In The Lost Boys, Gina Perry explores the experiment and its consequences, tracing the story of Sherif, a troubled outsider who struggled to craft an experiment that would vanquish his personal demons. Drawing on archival material and new interviews, Perry pieces together a story of drama, mutiny, and intrigue that has never been told before.

I really enjoyed Gina Perry’s book about Stanley Milgram’s most famous experiments, Behind the Shock Machine. It shook up the received wisdom about Milgram, and made it clear that he interfered with the data he was presenting, cherry-picked what he wanted to share in order to make his own interpretation inevitable, etc. It’s a book that’s stuck with me, though it’s been a few years since I read it now.

So I was eager to dig into The Lost Boys, which discusses the experiments on groups of young boys made by Muzafer Sherif, designed to play out his theories about how groups can turn on one another and then be reconciled. The book discusses these theories, and then goes off into trying to understand Sherif himself and where these theories came from.

It never manages to be as surprising and illuminating as Behind the Shock Machine, though I did find it interesting, and I think that’s because Sherif’s conclusions are less well-known. I knew about Stanley Milgram’s work like it was in the air (bearing in mind of course that I’m a particular kind of voracious reader and learner), and his work is so well known in the field, so shaking it up makes a real buzz. In this case, less so, and it’s less shocking to find that an experimenter we’re consistently shown manipulating his subjects to get the results he wants was, well, manipulating his results to get what he wanted. That’s apparent early, so there’s no shock going into the deep-dive. Muzafer Sherif would have liked to believe in his own mythology, but for my money he was no Milgram.

It all comes out as a somewhat uncertain book, leaving Perry ambivalent about how to interpret the impacts of the studies on the lives of the participants. She suggests that it was formative for them, that the studies were unethical, but it all comes out much more muted than her conclusions in Behind the Shock Machine.

I’m glad I read it, but my worldview hasn’t been upended.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Bone Chests

Posted February 22, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Review – The Bone Chests

The Bone Chests: Unlocking the Secrets of the Anglo-Saxons

by Cat Jarman

Genres: History, Non-fiction
Pages: 356
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

In December 1642, during the Civil War, Parliamentarian troops stormed the magnificent Winchester Cathedral, intent on destruction. Reaching the choir, its beating heart, the soldiers searched out ten beautifully decorated wooden chests resting high up on the stone screens.

Those chests contained some of England's most venerated, ancient remains: The bones of eight kings, including William Rufus and Cnut the Great - the only Scandinavian king to rule England and a North Sea Empire; three bishops; and a formidable queen, Emma of Normandy. These were the very people who witnessed and orchestrated the creation of the kingdom of Wessex in the 7th century; who lived through the creation of England as a unified country in response to the Viking threat; and who were part and parcel of the Norman conquest.

On that day, the soldiers smashed several chests to the ground, using the bones as missiles to shatter the cathedral's stained glass windows. Afterwards, the clergy scrambled to collect the scattered remains.

In 2014, the six remaining chests were reopened. A team of forensic archaeologists, using the latest scientific methods, attempted to identify the contents: They discovered an elaborate jumble of bones, including the remains of two forgotten princes. In The Bone Chests, Cat Jarman builds on this evidence to untangle the stories of the people within. It is an extraordinary and sometimes tragic tale, and a story of transformation. Why these bones? Why there? Can we ever really identify them? In a palimpsest narrative that runs through more than a millennium of British history, it tells the story of both the seekers and the sought, of those who protected the bones and those who spurned them; and of the methods used to investigate.

Cat Jarman’s The Bone Chests takes the investigation of the chests of bones held in Winchester Cathedral as a starting point to explore some of the events that began to form what we know now as England. (Blurbs and so on talk about “British” history, but it really isn’t. There’s a handful of references to Scotland and one that I can remember to Wales, and pretty much no reference to Ireland at all.) Jarman discusses the figures that may now lie splintered and scattered in the bone chests, the kings, queens and bishops that shaped what we think of as the Anglo-Saxon period.

I had been hoping, I’ll admit, for a lot more discussion of the analysis of the actual bones. But that’s relegated to little slices in between the overall narrative of “this is how England was formed, through this king and that king and sometimes a queen or two”. That’s something that I’ve read elsewhere — sometimes with slightly different details, it’s true, but in general, a history I was fairly aware of already. But a focus on the bone chests and the process of sorting through them, trying to identify who is there and what we can find out about them — that would’ve been really interesting.

So it was okay for what it was, and it’s certainly very readable, but I was hoping for slightly more focus on the promise of the title.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Digging Up Britain

Posted February 17, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Review – Digging Up Britain

Digging Up Britain: Ten Discoveries, A Million Years of History

by Mike Pitts

Genres: History, Non-fiction
Pages: 288
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

Digging Up Britain traces the history of Britain through key discoveries and excavations. With British archaeologist Mike Pitts as a guide, this book covers the most exciting excavations of the past ten years, gathers firsthand stories from the people who dug up the remains, and follows the latest revelations as one twist leads to another.

Britain, a historically crowded place, has been the site of an unprecedented number of discoveries--almost everywhere the ground is broken, archaeologists find evidence that people have been there before. These discoveries illuminate Britain's ever-shifting history that we now know includes an increasingly diverse array of cultures and customs.

Each chapter of the book tells the story of a single excavation or discovery. Some are major digs, conducted by large teams over years, and others are chance finds, leading to revelations out of proportion to the scale of the original project. Every chapter holds extraordinary tales of planning, teamwork, luck, and cutting-edge archaeological science that produces surprising insights into how people lived a thousand to a million years ago.

It took me a while to get through Mike Pitts’ Digging Up Britain, because there’s a lot to take in. Pitts discusses various sites across Britain representing dozens of discoveries each, and tries to analyse what they mean, reimagine their contexts, and also provide the context of the modern excavations, the techniques used, etc

The book is illustrated by maps, black and white images, and two inserts of colour images too — I didn’t always find myself flicking through to look at those, because I was more interested in following the sense of the text, but it does let you get a look at what’s being discussed, and adds a bit more context.

In the end, I wasn’t too surprised by any of the findings discussed: after growing up eagerly awaiting new Time Team episodes, I’ve stayed a little big plugged in to the big archaeological discoveries. That said, sometimes later analysis has discovered fascinating but not newsworthy things, so I learned some new stuff too.

Rating: 4/5

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