A History of Ancient Egypt: From the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid, John Romer
I don’t know much about modern Egyptology; it’s been a long time since I read exhaustively about the subject, and the books I referred to then were either for children or very out of date, albeit fascinating in their own way. (Christine Desroches-Noblecourt’s description of the treasures and items found in King Tutakhamen’s tomb held me spellbound for days at a time, and I frequently returned to it, fascinated by what we could glean of the boy king, and of Ankhasamen, his sister-bride.) This book kept some of the fascination of those books for me, though it deals with early Egypt, the very first pharaohs. That does mean it covers up to the construction of Khufu’s Great Pyramid, so it does include some of the very classic Egyptian things people think of, though not the gold-encrusted tombs of later pharaohs.
Because I don’t know much about modern archaeology in Egypt, I can’t really speak to the accuracy of Romer’s interpretations. There is an extensive bibliography, of course, and he steers away from some of the romanticised, imperialist assumptions of earlier theories. Still, at times I had no idea how solid a base his theories stood on: he seemed to spend a lot of time telling the reader what can’t be gleaned from the remains, and then building up some kind of story — a court organised around early pharaohs, controlling the flow of goods along the Nile — anyway.
On a purely stylistic level, it has some of the grandeur and wonder of the books I used to read, and finds wonder in the simplest carvings and burials as well as the feats of engineering, but the sentence structure… needs work. I don’t usually nitpick grammar, but there were far too many long sentences where the subject wasn’t clear, or which lost focus halfway through, or were fragments. Quite offputting.
I’m definitely interested in reading the follow-up volume, once it’s out!
Home: A Time Traveller’s Tales from Britain’s Prehistory, Francis Pryor
Unlike the more focused Seahenge, Francis Pryor’s Home tries to cover a lot of ground — no less than looking at the roots of family life in the Neolithic world, and its development through to recorded history. There’s a lot of evidence to look at, but a lot of it doesn’t deal directly with the home: in fact, Pryor discusses Seahenge and Stonehenge at reasonable length, as well as other potentially sacred places and practices that we don’t now fully understand (or in some cases, understand at all). It somewhat ties in with what I’ve been reading recently about Celtic culture, and the development of infrastructure in Britain, though it covers a lot more centuries, so it was interesting to see where it dovetailed.
Unfortunately, I think the fact that there’s sections about burial practices and the like detracts from the central theme, even though it does relate to how a home life might have been seen and how individuals were treated. Pryor’s willingness to speculate about all these things makes the book seem a little overstuffed at times — reiterating ideas from Seahenge and from Mike Parker Pearson’s Stonehenge, then discussing Pryor’s own digging experiences, and then talking about a hoard found somewhere else… It lacks focus, I think, which is a shame.
It’s still a fascinating book, and Pryor writes well and interestingly, but it feels like the material could equally constitute most of Britain BC, which I haven’t yet read but intend to. It isn’t just about the home; we don’t have enough evidence for that, as much as we would wish it. Instead, questions about ritual and beliefs about death intrude at all times, partly because these are things we are more fascinated to know, and only partly for the way it reflects on the living of life.
The Celts: Search for a Civilisation, Alice Roberts
This book was written to accompany a BBC series that I haven’t seen, but that doesn’t seem to detract from it any. I seem to be seeing a lot of people lately considering the issues of Celtic identity: how do we pin it down? Is it based on language, material culture, genetics? Is it really a thing? I’ve been to the temporary Celtic exhibit in the British Museum, as well as read this and — for contrast — Graham Robb’s The Ancient Paths, which views Celtic identity as very contiguous across Europe. (It is reassuring that most of the facts here chimed with Robb’s claims, if you’d like to believe in his theories!)
This book surveys evidence from all over Europe, eventually coming to the conclusion that Celticness might have originated in the West and spread east, rather than the other way round. It also pours cold water on the idea of human sacrifices (though it doesn’t mention some of the archaeological evidence about Boudicca’s revolt and the claims of human sacrifice and barbaric practices around that), with what I think seems like justified scepticism. Roberts points out that we’ve got a fundamental problem where the literature is interpreted in ways which prop up the interpretation of archaeological finds, at the same time as those archaeological finds are held up as truth in interpreting the literature.
Overall, Roberts is relatively unconclusive, if conclusions are what you’re looking for. Celtic identity is a bit of a morass, and its modern importance to Welsh, Scottish, Irish and Cornish people may well be a very recent construct. That makes it no less powerful, and there’s something understandable and powerful in modern people looking back to our ancestors and trying to understand them, claiming to be a part of them. After all, we must be.
Darwin’s Ghosts: In Search of the First Evolutionists, Rebecca Stott
If we’re not careful, we end up thinking of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution as something completely revolutionary, standing alone, unprecedented and bitterly opposed by a world totally unprepared for it. In some ways, it is true, but Darwin himself knew there had been other theorists before him — even if he didn’t agree with their conclusions — who had seen descent with modification at work and tried to come up with explanations, mechanisms, reasons. Rebecca Stott’s book redresses the record somewhat, engaging with various different theories which glimpsed a part of the truth which Darwin, in the end, really managed to explain and prove.
This is not so much a book which proves evolution or explains Darwin’s theory, although it does cast light on it. Jerry A. Coyne’s Why Evolution is True might be more what you’re looking for, explaining the nuts and bolts of the theory. Stott’s book is more about historical context and the scientific framework Darwin had to work with when he wrote On the Origin of Species.
Stott did well at explaining some of the diversity of opinion and thought before Darwin, and without sounding patronising about the theorists who were, after all, wrong. In some cases, it’s even apparent there were aspects which they got right (Lamarck, for example, may have been wrong in scale, but the existence of epigenetic modifications to DNA shows he was not all wrong). I did find the book dry at times, and it felt more like history than science — very accessible on a scientific level, and somewhat biographical about the people mentioned. A lot of it was not new to me, which might have been part of why I found it dry.
I got access to Zealot from Netgalley before the now famous interview on Fox (which you can view here), though that interview did make me more interested in reading the book. There have been responses to that interview since that somewhat cast doubt on Reza Aslan’s integrity in that interview, stating that he doesn’t have the qualifications and background he claims to have, etc. I’m not really going to refer to those, but here’s a link to one of them in case you’re interested.
It might also be helpful to note that I’m not a Christian, I’m a Unitarian Universalist, and I think that the gospels are for the most part a beautiful story which can help teach us how to live. The “real” Jesus needn’t even have existed to be an example. I have a fairly literary take on scriptures of all stripes, so Reza Aslan isn’t stepping on my toes here.
I approached Zealot with some doubt, in any case, because it sounded too wonderfully inflammatory to be really an unbiased scholarly attempt. I actually liked Aslan’s writing style, and this felt less like a scholarly work, closer to a semi-fictionalised biography or something of that sort. If it was a story, it was somewhat dry; if it was a scholarly work, it was too informal. I also very much missed the presence of footnotes: there are some notes at the end of the book, but in the ebook they’re not easy to access and they seem to contain almost as much commentary as the original chapters!
There is a separate bibliography which is extensive and clearly laid out, but… overall, I can’t shake the feeling that we are being presented Reza Aslan’s personal convictions about what research he has done, not meticulous careful and, what’s more, original research. The actual areas where he quoted something and explained why it helped form his views seem actually quite few and far between, and his judgements on their reliability a bit patchy.
An interesting read, and a well-written book, but not something I can place too much faith in.