They’re taking down the statues …

News this morning that the statue of Cecil Rhodes has been removed from UCT in Cape Town.

Rhodes was of course an utter racist. By today’s standards much of his behaviour was reprehensible in the extreme. But of course the uncomfortable fact is that to many of his contemporaries his views were rather less reprehensible, and it’s true he used some of his wealth to help found both UCT and Rhodes University.

If it wasn’t for a rather large and prominent statue, it would have been possible to quietly gloss over his role in the establishment of UCT.

But statues are big and highly tangible objects. In both Delhi and Budapest the uncomfortable reminders of the past have been exiled to lonely sculpture parks in distant suburbs, and the last statue of Queen Victoria installed in Dublin ended up as a lawn ornament outside an eponymous Sydney shopping mall.

The statues of Franco have been, in the main melted down, and in Portugal references to Salazar have been removed.

It is a very human thing to try to erase an uncomfortable past.

The act of removal is part of history’s narrative. But it doesn’t change the reasons as to why these objects were there in the first place …

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National Portait Photography prize 2015

Easter Monday was damp and rainy.

Too rainy to get anything done in the garden so we went to the National Portrait Galley to look at this years Photographic Portraiture prize winners.

And I didn’t like any of them.

All super sharp portraits, even those shot on film, and soulless. Technically excellent but lacking soul. It could have been a display of work by wedding photographers.

Personally, I think that it is in part due to the fact that digital makes it absurdly easy to take multiple, nay hundreds of the same shot and then pick the best, and that makes for soulless technical excellence. It’s also why these days I’m more interested in lomography as an art form, using old or simple cameras to shoot on what is often expired film and to see what happens, without worrying about the image quality or if the timing’s quite right to see if something interesting comes out …

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An eclipse … or not

I’d been quite enthusiastic over this weekend’s lunar eclipse.

It had been quite some time since I’d seen a good one, and this one promised to be interesting, and happened to occur on a weekend, and even better, at a human friendly time in the late evening, rather than the wee small hours as is often the case.

In the event it was not to be. It had been cloudy all day, and even spat with rain a little in the late afternoon, but just before sunset a patch of blue sky appeared giving the tantalising hint that all might not yet be lost.

But it was not to be. Sure there were some rents in the cloud, but the cloud cover remained at about 95%, with the moon, and the eclipse, hidden behind the cloud.

When I awoke this morning the sky was clearer, albeit with about 25% cloud cover – perhaps a I might have caught a glimpse of the eclipse if I’d waited long enough, but then perhaps not …

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The Canterbury diet …

Sunday was a nice day, so we went for a walk. Nothing strenuous, just up Orroral Valley to the abandoned settlement site, and to have lunch sitting on the rocks by the river.

Our walking lunches tend to the basic – cheese, oatcakes, coarsely chopped celery and carrots, some fruit, and perhaps some leafy stuff.

Anyways as we were sitting munching, J mentioned that our lunch would probably pass muster as a Paleo lunch – to which I replied probably more medieval than paleo.

And that kind of got me thinking – what would you have (and not have) in a medieval diet. Mainly you’d eat

  • pulses
  • green vegetables
  • oats, barley, spelt
  • some root vegetables
  • lean meat
  • cheese
  • fish
  • coarse bread
  • beer, wine, cider
  • honey
  • a good range of spices including cinnamon and pepper but no chili

in fact enough to make a decent diet, farro and spelt in place of rice and polenta. You could even wave your hand and allow yourself a small amount of wholegrain pasta. You could certainly manage some of these robust northern Greek or Lombardy style stews with meat and pulses, and various robust salads.

What you wouldn’t have is anything that wasn’t known to western Europe before 1450

  • potatoes
  • tomatoes
  • maize and maize based products – no corn syrup
  • rice
  • capsicums and chili
  • some spices
  • tea
  • coffee
  • chocolate
  • sugar

and when you look at it like this you’re removing a lot of the precursors of manufactured food – your diet would be less sweet, definitely more spartan, but quite tolerable. Personally, apart from the lack of tea and coffee I think I could manage quite well on it.

I think I’ll market it as the Canterbury Diet – remember you heard it here first …

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Antique literacy …

What did it mean to be literate in antiquity, or indeed in the eighteenth century, or in any other age where schooling was variable and there was a great range of standards and capabilities.

Clearly in both the eighteenth century and antiquity there were a number of people who were highly literate and well schooled. There were clearly also those who were illiterate, and then there was a great lump in the middle who lacked daily engagement with the written word.

In other words, they could read and write, could puzzle out an election announcement, manage a bit of graffiti, but reading anything complex was a bit beyond them.

A bit like me with Russian.

Thirty five years ago I learned Russian to a reasonably high level, enough for basic extempore translation and to read technical documents, or indeed to grasp the gist of news articles in Izvestiya.

Like everything, if you don’t use it you forget it, but even now I can read the signs, find the right train, buy a coffee, and remain unfazed by the genitive plural. I look like someone literate in Russian, and certainly I can function well enough. And because of the close relationship of Russian to other slavic languages I can busk the basics, but only where they use the Cyrillic alphabet. Czech, Croat and the rest confuse me utterly because I never learned how to read or write them, even if I can get the gist of what someone says.

As an ancient history geek I’ve been to Greece a few times, and driven round the backwoods of the Peloponnese, Epiros and Crete doing the ruin tourism thing to the max. I’ve never actually used Pausinias as a guidebook, but I’ve been headed that way. The result of this is that I’ve picked up petrol station and cafenio Greek good enough to get a tyre fixed, ask for directions, and so on. And I can read the signs, even if some times I have to say the words to myself like a five year old child while I puzzle out the meaning.

Now my wife comes with me on these trips. She’s never studied Greek, but has a basic knowledge of the alphabet through art history. Just how basic was revealed once when we were trying to locate a hotel in a small town where we’d booked a room. The hotel had emailed us directions in English – ‘go past the Alfa bank, turn left at the yellow supermarket …’ and included the name of the hotel spelled out in Greek uppercase letters.

Well, we found the bank, turned left at the supermarket and drove straight past the hotel – why, because the sign was in flowing lower case script that J couldn’t read.

The point is that up to then she’d given every indication of being able to manage rural Greece – cope with old Greek language direction signs (all upper case), buy bottles of water and bread and cheese from a corner shop simply by listening and copying what I said – possibly not the best example.

Incidentally it’s not just my wife who pulled this trick off, we had the same experience in Sri Lanka.

To get from Kandy to Polunarruwa we hired a driver (and the inevitable Toyota mini van) to take us. The driver spoke English, was helpful and engaging, someone you would think could also read English well. And perhaps he could, but he drove straight past our hotel.

Why? Again the hotel sign was in a flowing English script that looks a little like some Indian scripts which they sometimes use in Sri Lanka for hotel signs. And while I’m sure our driver knew his ABC, puzzling out stylised scripts while avoiding stray dogs and buses driven with stomach churning elan was understandably beyond him.

And of course literacy and capability before universal schooling is highly variable.

As an example we have J’s great-great-great grandfather’s journal for 1819.

He was a seedsman and gardener in Barnard Castle, supplying seed to farmers and market gardeners,  and with a sideline looking after the gardens of minor gentry, including hiring day labourers and the like. So his journal reads like a project management diary. Such and such supplied, this much owed, who had to be paid for sorting the rector’s garden and so on, as well as various marginal notes and asides. And he obviously had writing in a clear hand beaten into him as it’s legibly written in a competent hand – not copperplate but clear enough.

However, apart from a few gardening manuals and his prayerbook he probably read very little, and would probably have found a novel or other long text hard going.

Now, what has all this to do with literacy in antiquity?

We could take a guess that perhaps half the population of Pompeii could read and write, and perhaps rather fewer in an outpost town in Roman Britain.

Some were undoubtedly highly literate, and as evidenced by the Vindolanda letters, were used to written communication. Then there were those whose abilities were like mine in Russian, J’s ancestor, or our Sri Lankan driver, people who could function, and could use it as tool. Good enough to puzzle out a temple dedication or a gravestone, or scratch a note – ‘Quintus owes me three sesterces for the grain’, but who could never manage to tackle Suetonius, even if they could get access to a copy.

And because us classics geeks tend to be well educated we forget this …

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C16 Portuguese wine jar from Eden ?

From those of you who don’t know, Eden is a fishing and former whaling town way down the south east coast of New South Wales and the last settlement of any size before you ‘turn the corner’ at Green Cape and head along the south coast of the continent.

However, this morning we have news of a possible sixteenth century Portuguese wine jar having been dredged up off the coast by a trawler  off Eden. The report’s slightly more tantalising with reports of other ceramics being dredged up, which may suggest a wreck.

If it was Spanish, we could wave our hands and say that it was from a Manila galleon blown badly off course on the route between the Phillipines and Mexico (Baja California) or possibly some undocumented voyage akin to Sarmiento de Gamboa’s voyage to the Solomon Islands.

If it’s Portuguese, it speaks of a slightly more determined interest in exploring the east coast of Australia, for the simple reason that the Portuguese sailed to the Spice Islands via the Cape of Good Hope and across the Indian Ocean, much as the Dutch and British East India Companies did in the following century, ie they must have deliberately set off from their base in Timor to explore the east coast of Australia …

[update 18 March 2015]

More handwaving here, but Pedro Fernando de Querios, who sailed with Sarmiento de Gamboa to the Solomon Islands also led a later expedition in 1605 that included the discovery of Espiritu Santo in what is now Vanuatu. de Querios was Portuguese in origin – which is nothing remarkable, Spain and Portugal were intertwined and many Portuguese served as navigators with Spanish ships.

Interestingly, after leaving Espiritu Santo de Querios’s ship became separated from the others due to bad weather – after looking unsuccessfully for him, the other ships, under the command of Luis Vaz de Torres, he for whom the Torres strait is named,  sailed north to Manila, charting the south coast of PNG along the way.

de Querios (and his ship) eventually turned up in Acapulco. He later bombarded the Spanish king with demands for funds to look for a great south land. One could conjecture that perhaps after leaving Espiritu Santo, de Querios was blown south and sailed down the coast of Australia before setting off for Acapulco, and that the Eden wine jar is one of his empties.

Or perhaps not …

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Living Pictures in the Albanian style …

Living pictures in the Albanian style.

Now that’s a phrase if ever there was one. It’s from the journal of one of the Rothschild daughters describing a holiday in Scarborough in 1858 and refers to the spectacle of swimmers, presumably male, emerging nude from the surf.

We say ‘presumably male’ because we know from a number of sources, including Francis Kilvert’s diaries, that men not only habitually swam nude until the 1860’s but that many men found the requirement that they wear short bathing pants irksome.

However, there is also a rather nice

Rowlandson aquatint from 1813 of Scarborough beach in which there are two nude figures, clearly female, standing in sea having a chat after their swim.

So we can say that some women swam nude in the Regency period.

At the same time we know from other sources that increasingly women wore long weighted flannel gowns while being dipped in the sea.

Being dipped was part of the cure. Going to the seaside really started in Georgian period as an alternative to going to a spa such as Buxton or Bath and being ‘dipped’ was thought to be good for you. Essentially you were taken out into the sea in a bathing machine in deep water, and assisted by a professional dipper pushed under the waves and pulled up again before you drowned. Wearing a weighted flannel gown would clearly help preserve your modesty under such circumstances.

Men were also dipped, and as they did in spas, they also often wore gowns, although not always – there’s a rather nice pen and ink sketch of

George iii being dipped at Weymouth and despite being a public event surrounded by courtiers and notables, he’s clearly nude.

But being dipped isn’t the same as swimming. Swimming in a weighted flannel gown would have been difficult, and probably most women, if they swam, swam nude.

There’s another Rowlandson print that shows how it was done. Bathing machines were equipped with a canvas hood that was pulled down almost to the waves over the exit of the bathing machine and the swimmer launched herself off the steps under the hood almost unseen into the waves, although as Rowlandson’s aquatint suggests, some women didn’t give a damn about modesty.

This would suggest that as it became normal for women to wear all encompassing swimwear women ceased to swim – of course we’re talking about the middle and upper classes here – as the mid Victorian requirement to wear suitably modest clothing probably stopped them being able to swim effectively.

If you’ve ever done an old fashioned lifesaving course where you had to swim 25m fully clothed you’ll appreciate just how much a drag (literally!) that is – imagine trying to do the same in a heavy serge Victorian swimsuit ….

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