Digging Up Armageddon discusses the archaeology of a fascinating site: Megiddo, better known as Armageddon. Alas, despite wanting to know more about the archaeology and that area of the world, I struggled a bit with Digging Up Armageddon. Much of the book involves the exact composition of the digging team in the Oriental Institute Megiddo expedition, what they said and did and complained about. It’s all relevant — it affected the excavation, and shaped the entire approach to the dig… but it overshadows the actual archaeology in this volume, leaving me hard-pressed to talk about the archaeology!
As a result, it took me quite a long time to read it. It’s best approached as a history of that specific expedition and their legacy, with some discussion of how things have changed (how they misinterpreted or outright messed things up) — it’s definitely not about the archaeology alone, though you could in theory read each alternate chapter and focus more on the archaeological side. Still, things are so entwined that personally I wouldn’t recommend it, and I have no idea how you’d follow all the names and why they’re involved without reading it all. The disagreements were sometimes a bit byzantine.
In the end, I’m glad I read it, but it wasn’t so much the kind of non-fiction I really enjoy. If you’re looking for info on that particular expedition, it’d be a great resource.
The term “mudlark” might be familiar to you if you read Victorian history or books set in the Victorian period: it referred to people, often children, who would pick through the mud of the River Thames in order to find valuable things people dropped or which got lost from ships docking in London. Lara Maiklem is a modern mudlark, picking through the mud not as a means of making a livelihood, but for personal interest. She is, broadly speaking, a responsible one — documenting her finds correctly when they may count as historically significant or be classed as treasure trove, and avoiding mudlarking in areas where it’s forbidden. Or so she says, at least; it’s impossible to verify that, and occasionally her “of course I won’t tell you where” attitude to “her patch” raises an eyebrow.
She writes engagingly, though any single topic is quickly lost in the flow: there are so many different objects with stories and explanations, and each chapter covers at least a dozen, from old clay pipes to pieces of Roman hypocausts to bones to Codd bottles to pins… There’s no end to what can be found in the mud of the river after each tide, and she delights in all kinds of things that many would dismiss as trash, imbuing them with stories and researching who they may have belonged to whenever she can. Obviously this book is half a work of imagination, as she tries to picture the hands that handled and lost the objects she finds.
It’s just the sort of microhistory that interests me, magpie-minded in my own way, so that shouldn’t be taken as a criticism, necessarily — and she’s not presenting herself as a historian, so I don’t mind her flights of fancy so much. She does include a bibliography, if you want to go digging yourself, though it’d take a lot of digging to figure out where any particular factoid came from, and I suspect many of her sources from over the years aren’t listed.
It’s just worth knowing that this is a bit of a ramble, and a highly personal book, rather than a historical account of the River Thames or anything of that sort. There’s a lot of history in it, but piecemeal and cracked and strewn about the place, as befits a mudlark.
There’s nothing much surprising in Bigger than History, and in some ways it feels rather forced. I wish that knowledge didn’t have to be justified as useful for some current problem in order to receive funding and attention, and sometimes it feels like a bit of a stretch… but at the same time, it is entirely true that archaeology can shed light on the human history of reacting to changes in climate and how we’ve seen gender through history, etc — and it can be a powerful corrective to history as written by the winners. The issues mentioned are deeply important and relevant, like the discussion of the use of history to prop up misplaced nationalist pride.
It’s not a long book, so it doesn’t go into a lot of depth, but it does give a high-level view of what archaeology can tell us about those chosen topics. There are black-and-white images in most of the book, and a section of colour plates, which help to illustrate things.
Overall, glad I picked it up, but maybe I should’ve suggested it to the library instead of buying it. Not one I’ll be keeping; it’s just too slight.
This was perfect for a kind of scatter-brained mood: the stories about each colour are short, and it’s easy to dip in and out. Actually, it’s better that way, since there’s some repetition here and there between the colours, and it can get a bit samey to just sit down and read multiples. It seems to be well sourced and squares up with what I know about the history of colour and optics, though admittedly that isn’t much!
I would definitely recommend reading it on a colour screen, or preferably in a physical book, where you can see the colours right beside the images. It was OK on my phone screen, but not great.
Overall, enjoyable and informative… but also kinda repetitive. Not something I’m wildly enthusiastic about, even though it came at a good time for me.
I think I’ve mentioned before that I normally try to join in with a series of challenges on Habitica called the “Keeping It Real” challenges. Each month, the creator picks a Dewey Decimal category and the participants get to pick any book they want from within that category. I did try a different book first this month, but I didn’t make much headway with this, but then I bethought me of Haggard Hawks. I know of that Twitter because Thea Gilmore’s gorgeous “Grandam Gold” (featuring vocals from Cara Dillon as well!) was based on one of those tweets… and I knew there were also books. Aha! I thought.
And lo and behold, Scribd had this one, so I downloaded it and set to work. I’ll admit, reading it straight through would not be my recommended way of reading this book: it’s more of a dip in-and-out book, one to read during odd breaks and at the bus stop (provided your buses are normally punctual). When you try to read it all in one go, it starts to pall rather.
The thing is, it feels a little random. There’s the theme of going round the world, but the countries that are chosen do often feel like afterthoughts, while there are several different entries for the UK (and I’m not just talking about one from Wales, one from Ireland, one from Scotland, etc — in fact, I don’t think there’s any mention of Wales whatsoever, and we could’ve managed at least cawl or even hiraeth!).
Anyway, some interesting facts, but not a total winner for me.
I’m sure this makes a reasonable coffee-table book, as there are some lovely photographs of castles within its pages. However, it either needed to go the whole hog and pay a photographer (instead of using Shutterstock images), or it needed to spend more time on the text, partly on editing it into an interesting narrative, and most especially on proper sourcing. The author is an enthusiastic, not an academic, from what I can tell — which puts his speculation on somewhat shaky footing.
It’s basically a hobbyist’s tour of a few castles he likes, and that’s okay, but I was thinking of something more like Marc Morris’ Castles.
I didn’t really expect to find this riveting; it really isn’t my period of interest whatsoever, and I’m not hugely into murder stories. But, after all, this isn’t about the Ripper, but about his victims, and Rubenhold brings sympathy and painstaking research to the task. I’ll admit I haven’t fact-checked her on anything (given that it isn’t my period), but assuming she’s done the work — and the bibliography certainly suggests that she did — then it’s a wonderful window into the lives of five women who are only remembered because of their brutal murders, whose real lives and attributes were eclipsed by gossip and sensationalism.
That said, I have a serious issue with the way Rubenhold frames all this. Her urgent mission throughout — restated countless times — is to assert that almost none of the five victims of the Ripper were actually prostitutes. She states again and again that they weren’t prostitutes, that we’ve eclipsed their real lives and motives and struggles in our remembrance of them as such. Which is fair enough; the correction of the record by sketching out their actual lives is a welcome one. But, I got the strong impression that Rubenhold feels that the women are worthy of more attention because they weren’t prostitutes (apart from Mary Jane Kelly, who clearly was, and who gets perhaps the least attention in the book; not coincidentally, perhaps).
And that’s bullshit. If they’re worthy of understanding and remembering, it’s as whole people, and that would be true whether they slept with no one or half the population of London. They’re not more important because they weren’t prostitutes, and Mary Jane Kelly isn’t less important because she was. They were people, and no one has any right to murder anyone regardless of how they earn their money.
For the most part, Rubenhold is sympathetic to the plight of the women, noting where things went wrong for them and points where things may have turned around. (I’ll note again that she did not do the same for Mary Jane Kelly, who was actually a prostitute.) She details their everyday lives with pity and care, and she writes well. But I’m left just a little bit uncomfortable about that constant implication that it matters whether they were prostitutes. At the time, it did, because it shaped their whole lives, and their deaths as well, and because it may well have mattered to them. I can understand rehabilitating them for that reason.
But even if every single one of the five was a prostitute, they should still be interesting to us now for the exact same reasons as they are interesting to Rubenhold. It speaks poorly of her if she thinks that sex workers are automatically less interesting than everyone else, and that is very much the impression I got.
This looks more substantial on the shelf than it actually is; I read it in about 90 minutes, though it’ll take more time to follow up on some of the things I’m interested in and maybe follow up some of the bibliography. It’s a sort of biography of the goddess, from her origins as Ishtar through to her afterlife as Venus in the world of razors and the silver screen. It’s not that there’s nothing new to me here, but it feels like without the chapter breaks and introductory quotes and images and rather spaced out text, it would be a much slimmer book.
However, I did learn some interesting things; I hadn’t known, for example, that Astarte and Aphrodite were so strongly linked on Cyprus (I thought it was a bit more vague), and I definitely didn’t know about the female-bodied bearded versions of Aphrodite. Elsewhere those images do seem to be interpreted as referring to Hermaphroditus rather than Aphrodite, but the descent from Astarte sort of suggests that as being a later development, perhaps as Aphrodite became more and more an object of desire instead of the powerful, war-linked goddess she was as Astarte. Hughes definitely describes the statues as definitively being of Aphrodite-Aphroditos, at least. I’d love to see more clarification on that, but the chapter on this was so short.
Enjoyable, then, and an easy read, but not very in-depth.
Ivory Vikings is ostensibly a book focusing on a famous archaeological find: the Lewis chessmen. The chessmen constitute multiple sets of pieces, though there are pawns lacking, and are carved from walrus ivory. Nancy Marie Brown attempts to look into who made them, and when and where the carving was done. She communicates this by taking each type of piece in turn (bishop, queen, king, etc) and discussing the pieces themselves briefly, and then ranging off into historical and geopolitical context.
Mostly, it doesn’t work for me. The book relies heavily on her Scandinavian location being correct, and it’s very plain she has one particular person in mind as the artist from the outset. A lot of the information is not relevant if her theory is incorrect, and her theory is far from proven (even though I agree that from the evidence as presented, it does seem likely).
I wanted something a bit more focused on the pieces themselves, I’ll be honest. It wasn’t a bad read, but it dragged a little, because I’m not here for church politics!
I read Margalit Fox’s books more or less automatically: I greatly enjoyed her book on the decipherment of Linear B, and something about the way she dives into a subject works for me. It’s broadly true in this case, as well, a book in which Fox delves into three things: first, the murder case that led to the framing of Oscar Slater; second, the detection methods and ideas of Arthur Conan Doyle, including his Sherlock Holmes books and stories; and thirdly, the way Conan Doyle investigated the murder case and advocated for Slater’s freedom. There’s a theme underlying parts of the book, which is the fear of the other which was entrenched in society at the time and led to unfair accusations of this kind — it feels very relevant to read this book now, when a similar fear of immigrants is taking over.
Fox writes sympathetically about both Conan Doyle and Slater, though they were very different men, and takes care to show us that both of them were human, with virtues and faults. Conan Doyle comes across as the better man, of course, because Slater was definitely involved in some less than salubrious escapades (though not ever murder or really anything involving violence).
I didn’t find it as fascinating as sign language or the decipherment of Linear B, but it’s still a worthwhile and interesting read.