Tag: history


Review – The Button Box

Posted 19 September, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Button Box by Lynn KnightThe Button Box, Lynn Knight

The subtitle kind of sums this book up: “The story of women in the 20th century, told through the clothes they wore”. It covers the wars, the periods when women went to work and when they were turned back out of the work force, suffragettes and suffragists, the New Look… It’s not my usual area of interest, but Lynn Knight makes this about more than fashion — it’s about how fashion highlighted the preoccupations of women and what it said about their status and expectations.

I found it really restful and, yes, interesting — I love the concept of rummaging through a family button box to look at past garments and fashions. It makes me wish I’d dug through some of my grandmother’s stuff sometimes. I think even my mother has some odd buttons and so on lying around; in a way, ready-made clothes being such a thing has cut my generation (and somewhat the previous generation) off from the continuity with family we used to have through rag bags and button boxes. That’s not all a bad thing, but I loved the anecdotes from Knight about playing shop with the buttons for payment, the buttons that reminded her of home made clothes…

If you’re a fan of the BBC’s Great British Sewing Bee, you’ll probably love this. If you’re a fan of microhistory, again, it’s probably up your street. And if you need something restful to remind you of a childhood playing with buttons and doll houses, well, it might also be for you.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Hengeworld

Posted 5 September, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Hengeworld by Mike PittsHengeworld, Mike Pitts

For the most part, Hengeworld is a thoughtful discussion of the various discoveries about henge sites, mostly in the Wessex area. It looks at dating and old digs, piecing together as accurate a story as possible and trying to put together the context of Stonehenge and the places like it. I’m pretty happy that, at least in 2000ish when this was written, Pitts was saying nothing controversial — his work aligns with that of Francis Pryor (notably not referenced, though) and Mike Parker Pearson.

One note, though — where Pitts discusses people protesting the dig at Seahenge, he insists that the protestors didn’t understand what was going on. Surely, he seems to think, if they’d understood the circle was going to be destroyed anyway by the sea, if they’d understood the importance to archaeology, they wouldn’t have had anything to protest about. But that ignores the link people still have with the prehistoric monuments like Seahenge. It was built of timber, so surely our ancestors knew it would rot in the end. It was built on the shore, for goodness’ sake — a liminal, impermanent place if there ever was one. They meant for Seahenge to be taken by the sea, perhaps. It may even have been important to them. Who is Mike Pitts, or any archaeologist, to claim that’s not worth respecting?

I share the curiosity about megaliths and henges — obviously. I’ve read this book. But sometimes I do wonder why we privilege our understanding of them over the symbolism they had for ancient peoples. On the one hand, of course those people are gone and won’t know what’s happening. On the other… maybe rescuing Seahenge is not a sign of respect for the past, but a desecration. However important you think the archaeology is, I think there should be room to consider that and accept that some people may feel it trumps the opportunity for radiocarbon dating, and freezing the remains of Seahenge in time in a climate controlled environment. That is not, after all, what Seahenge was built for.

When Pitts concludes that different eras have made what they will of Stonehenge and the other megalithic and megadendritic structures out there, he’s closest to recognising their real power, I think.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Babylon

Posted 23 August, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Babylon by Paul KriwaczekBabylon, Paul Kriwaczek

Not that long ago, I abandoned Gwendolyn Leick’s book Mesopotamia because of the overwrought sentences and the weird, unsourced assertions, like this:

“Perhaps the fountains and pools in Middle Eastern buildings of much later centuries retain a faint memory of the old lagoon in the very south of Mesopotamia.”

And yet, I pick this up, and in the second chapter…:

“Remembered too was the Apsu, the sacred lake from which [a god] emerged, referenced by a basin of fresh water installed in every later Mesopotamian temple — and perhaps also, long after, still remember in the Wudu, or washing, pool of the Islamic mosque and maybe even in the baptismal font of the Christian church.”

There’s no source in the further reading for this. I know that much of what we think we know about Mesopotamia must be speculative, but this repeated assertion leaves me with so many questions. It’s not my area, really, but I can’t help but want to point out that fresh water is easy to conceptualise as sacred because it’s so necessary to human life. By this point in the book, maybe two solid archaeological finds have been referenced, along with a handful of later texts. In the same way, Krizwaczek links the Virgin Mary to the goddess Inanna via Inanna’s symbol of the cow shed:

“The Queen of Heaven of the Christian church would one day give birth to her baby saviour in a distant but direct descendant of the mother-goddess’s cow-byre.”

This feels more like imaginative recreation than history. It’s all very pretty to read, but I’m wary of these links. English literature makes such claims of links between literature which the authors never thought of themselves; sometimes the link is elegant and pretty and makes sense, and yet means absolutely nothing, because it wasn’t actually really made in the author’s mind. So too, perhaps, with religion. I’d at least like to see some solid references; even popular history has room for sources and referencing, even if in a supplementary chapter 90% of readers don’t look at.

The book is pleasant enough to read, but marred by the fact that I don’t know how much credence to give to any of it.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Real Lives of Roman Britain

Posted 15 August, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Real Lives of Roman Britain by Guy de la BedoyereThe Real Lives of Roman Britain, Guy de la Bedoyere

I picked this up mostly because Guy de la Bedoyere worked on Time Team, which I loved as a kid and now watch sometimes with my wife. He was their Roman expert, or one of them, so that’s a pretty good endorsement (and it amused me to notice a blurb from Tony Robinson on the front!). The problem, as ever, is that there isn’t really that much material for the “real people” of Roman Britain, because there’s no rich written record to refer to. There’s scraps — an inscription here, a letter there, an eloquent tomb — but often de la Bedoyere is pressed to make more than a paragraph or two of the material he has. It’s about real people, alright, but there’s so little we know about them, that doesn’t necessarily add to what we know.

Which is not to say it’s a bad book; it’s solidly based on the archaeology and records we have, and there are some fascinating glimpses at life in Roman Britain. But it’s less a full picture than a glance through a door that’s open just a crack.

Mind you, I’m sure de la Bedoyere feels closer to the people he writes about than we do, reading about it — he’s examined the evidence first hand, perhaps worked on the excavations. This might be more satisfying if you’re in that position, too!

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Unnatural

Posted 30 July, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Unnatural by Philip BallUnnatural: The Heretical Idea of Making People, Philip Ball

Although this is classed as ‘popular science’, more than half of it is essentially literary criticism. It’s all relevant to the kinds of anxieties humans have about artificial people, but if you’re here for cloning, IVF, gene editing, etc, then it’s pretty thin on that. I hadn’t thought about a lot of stuff in the way this book opens it up, but there was far too much waffling before it got to the actual science bit — I’d have enjoyed it more if it’d been marketed as literary criticism/history, or if there’d been more of the science stuff.

At the very least, Philip Ball writes clearly, and it’s not a chore to read except in that it wasn’t what I was hoping for. If you’re looking for something that’s a bit more holistic about the modern science around ‘making people’, including the myths and literature that inform and reveal our anxieties about it, then you’ll probably enjoy it.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Pinks

Posted 16 May, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Pinks by Chris EnssThe Pinks, Chris Enss

Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 1st July 2017

I didn’t know much about the Pinkerton agency, other than that they were detectives. I didn’t know they protected President Lincoln and involved themselves in the events of the Civil War — that they worked as spies for the Union. I had no idea about the theatrical and psychological methods they used… and I didn’t know that Pinkerton employed women, before women were regularly employed, and considered them important and indispensable operatives. This book delves into all of that by presenting little case histories of various capers the women were involved in. I say capers because some of them really do seem like that.

It’s a little odd that the blurb mentions Kate Warne, the first woman employed by Pinkerton’s, in the context of an affair with Allan Pinkerton. Unless I somehow skipped a chapter, there’s no such evidence presented in this book. Likewise, it’s a little odd — and sexist — that the men are referred to by their surnames, while women are referred to either by their full names or, more commonly, by their first names. It seems disrespectful to treat them differently than the men.

Otherwise, this is very readable and undoubtedly interesting. I kind of want a whole stack of novels about Kate Warne, now.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Byzantium

Posted 1 May, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Byzantium by Judith HerrinByzantium, Judith Herrin

This is clearly a labour of love: Herrin knows her stuff, and is trying to communicate it to a broader audience. Sometimes this results somewhat in insulting the general reader’s intelligence, and yet at other times she gets deep into minutiae rather than covering the stuff that might really interest people — like the role of mutilation (instead of assassination) in political takeovers. I wanted a lot more of that, and yet this one review explains it much more thoroughly. And yes, that’s a very brief explanation, but it’s more than Herrin did.

Byzantium is a fascinating empire, and we do owe more to it than we often believe. Rome dominates our thoughts, both in religion and in history — especially in Britain, of course, since we were ruled by Romans and then our entire state religion is based on a reaction to Roman Catholicism. But Byzantium has much to teach us about the European past as well.

Herrin definitely has a bias toward Constantinople and their way of worshipping and… just about everything. At times, an apparent hostility to Roman Catholicism breaks through, which is rather odd from a scholar (and yet, might have made the book more interesting if it were a bit more apparent — you have to choose which way to go, and make it clear).

Interesting read, but does get a bit bogged down in details and repetitive.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Fairweather Eden

Posted 24 April, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Fairweather Eden by Mike PittsFairweather Eden, Mike Pitts, Mark Roberts

This is a fascinating account of a fascinating site: one of the earliest known sites of human activity in the UK. Eartham Pit, Boxgrove is an internationally significant site and it had a lot to tell us about Palaeolithic humans. Don’t be fooled into thinking that because we don’t know much about the people who made the site it’s going to be a boring read: it’s interspersed with the story of the excavation itself and the scientific analysis that went into discovering what happened there. It’s not just about old animal bones, but about the people who made the site, then and now.

If you want to know about early human occupation of Britain, this site is one of the key pieces of evidence, and this book beautifully unravels the history of the dig, its context and the conclusions we can draw from it. I found it a really easy read, too, with relatively short chapters to keep things moving through the information and story it revealed. Definitely recommended.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Britain After Rome

Posted 22 April, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Britain After RomeBritain After Rome, Robin Fleming

Britain After Rome is a rather exhaustive, not to say exhausting, history of Britain after the Romano-British period. It focuses on material culture like grave goods and excavations, rather than the texts and what we think we know. Sometimes these contradict each other, and sometimes they fit together in illuminating ways; Fleming takes her time unpacking both situations. It results in a broader look at society than we might see elsewhere, including the lives of women and the fashions of clothing, as well as the big questions of politics, commerce and religion. (Not that the role of women is a small question, but it’s one about which we know less.)

I did enjoy reading it, but I had to take it in little parcels rather than sitting down to read right through. Despite the avoidance of extensive footnotes, it feels scholarly, dense, lengthy. There’s a lot of material and some of it is lingered over very lovingly.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Vikings

Posted 19 April, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Vikings by Neil OliverVikings: A History, Neil Oliver

It’s a rather odd experience, reading this soon after reading Francis Pryor’s work. Where Pryor minimises the impact of folk migration, Oliver highlights at least half a dozen occasions where the Norsemen did, in fact, invade or colonise. From apparently the same sources, they argue completely different things. Now, Oliver’s work is a bit more accessible than Pryor’s, I think; for a start, this ties in with a BBC series (though Pryor’s Britain AD had a tv series as well, I think) and is generally pitched at that level, avoiding tedious levels of detail like the exact sequence of archaeology — interesting stuff, as far as I’m concerned, but not always the most riveting reading.

It also features a lot of attempts at imagining the past and bringing to life the past: Neil Oliver’s poignant imaginings about Birka Girl, for example. For me, that has varying success — for example, it’s all very well to note that someone had a lavish burial in a highly visible place, but does that necessarily mean they were loved by the people around them? Maybe it’s guilt, or ritual sacrifice, or political show.

Still, generally Oliver manages to be both informative and entertaining. For myself, I wished he’d spent more time on Icelandic concerns, since he mentioned Iceland few enough times it has a one line entry in the index. One line! And yet Iceland is the place I know the most about in terms of preservation of contemporary evidence, the sagas, etc. And on that note, I could’ve wished for a bit more engagement with the sagas, especially since any lit student knows that they were preserved with high fidelity and not written centuries later — they were written down centuries later, but the stories themselves were far older and were communicated orally well before they were written down.

(Well, unless new research has found otherwise in the four years since my MA, but I haven’t heard or read anything to that effect.)

Enjoyable read, and an antidote to the idea that Vikings were nothing but bloodthirsty raiders.

Rating: 4/5

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