The Meaning of Liff at 30

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There’s a radio show online cel­eb­rat­ing 30 years of The Meaning of Liff a dic­tion­ary of words that don’t exist, but should. The words are all place names that have been press-ganged into doing some proper work in the English language. As a respons­ible per­son I’m not link­ing to this web­site that lists many of the defin­i­tions in the book: http://​folk​.uio​.no/​a​l​i​e​d​/​T​M​o​L​.​h​tml

Examples:
THROCKING (par­ti­cipial vb.)
The action of con­tinu­ally push­ing down the lever on a pop-up toaster in the hope that you will thereby get it to under­stand that you want it to toast something.

NAD (n.)
Measure defined as the dis­tance between a driver’s out­stretched fin­ger­tips and the ticket machine in an auto­matic car-park. 1 nad = 18.4 cm.

RIPON (vb.)
(Of lit­er­ary crit­ics.) To include all the best jokes from the book in the review to make it look as if the critic thought of them.

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The Meaning of Liff at 30
John Lloyd cel­eb­rates 30 years of The Meaning of Liff with Matt Lucas and Helen Fielding.

The Ionia Sanction by Gary Corby

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The Ionia Sanction is a sequel to The Pericles Commission. It fea­tures Nicolaos, the young Athenian who has inven­ted the job of agent in order to learn polit­ics to avoid becom­ing a sculptor like his father.

I liked The Pericles Commission and the only quibble I had was that Athens wasn’t as grim in Gary Corby’s book as I thought it might be. That’s no bad thing because I thought the ancient world could be an unpleas­ant place. Pretty much as unpleas­ant as in The Ionia Sanction, which is slightly darker and more viol­ent than the first book.

The book opens with the appar­ent sui­cide of Thorion, a prox­enos. A prox­enos was someone who would help with the interests of a for­eign city. Thorion was an Athenian cit­izen with con­nec­tions to Ephesus, so when his sui­cide note sug­gests he’s com­mit­ted treason Pericles decides someone needs to find out what has happened. He sends Nicolaos to invest­ig­ate. It quickly becomes clear Thorion was murdered, and events lead to Nicolaos leav­ing the safety of Athens and trav­el­ling to Ionia, inside the Persian empire.

Like the first book, The Ionia Sanction is based around a his­tor­ical fact. In this case it’s the life of Themistocles. Themistocles was the gen­eral respons­ible for the defeat of the Persians at Salamis. However, Themistocles was not a mod­est man and with some Spartan help he was framed for treason and ostra­cised. To flee to safety Themistocles sur­rendered him­self to the Persian king and became sat­rap of Magnesia, on the coast of what is now Turkey.

The text runs smoothly. The only jar­ring note for me is that these are edited for the American mar­ket. It means Themistocles talks about assholes, which looks odd. Assholes fea­ture in a sec­tion of the book due to a method of exe­cu­tion that uses a sharp wooden stake, tip­toes and a slow death through exhaus­tion. Gary Corby also had to find a sexual vice that a man had that could be used for black­mail. This man was an ancient Greek, so a small round of applause is due for find­ing one.

A com­mon prob­lem for any book like this is that there were some things known in ancient Greece that the reader doesn’t know. How do you get this inform­a­tion in? Fantasy authors have that well-used standby “As you know your father, the king…” before launch­ing on five pages of expos­i­tion. Here the source of know­ledge is Diotima, the (ex)girlfriend of Nicolaos who left for Ephesus a few months before and a female slave, Asia. It’s not stretch­ing cred­ib­il­ity for Nicolaos to know very little about the Persian empire, so it works without the sound of nar­rat­ive gears crunching.

Fortunately the amount of expos­i­tion needed wasn’t too much. The book is a story, not a his­tory les­son. As a story it works. Not everything was obvi­ous, I didn’t work out any of the murders before they were revealed, but there was noth­ing that seemed too contrived. 

It’s taken me a while to read it. I didn’t want to read it while work­ing on any­thing ancient because I didn’t want it to feel like work. I’ll prob­ably make a point of get­ting Sacred Games when it comes out and buy­ing an authors next book is prob­ably a pretty good indic­a­tion of how his last one went.

The thing I’ll grouch about this time is the cover. As art I like it, but it doesn’t fit well with the book. It looks a bit YA, and I think The Ionia Sanction is more 18+. The first two books will be out shortly in paper­back, with the Australian cov­ers. After a couple more books I’ll com­plain if the cov­ers aren’t in the same style, so this isn’t a major gripe.

If you enjoyed The Pericles Commission then the The Ionia Sanction is worth your money. If you’ve read neither then start­ing with the first book is the bet­ter bet.

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People and the Sky by Anthony Aveni

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peopleandthesky

It’s a com­mon gripe that archae­olo­gists don’t have much interest in pub­lic archae­ology. I’m not con­vinced it’s true and it’s cer­tainly not true of archae­oastro­nomy. People and the Sky is Anthony Aveni’s latest (ori­ginal) book. He’s the most pro­lific of the pop­u­lar archae­oastro­nomy authors, so it’s no sur­prise his prose is pretty well pol­ished. I like this book, and if you don’t have any by him it’s well worth buy­ing. If you’ve Stairways to the Stars, his earlier archae­oastro­nomy over­view then I’m not so sure.

I’ve been think­ing about whether the World Archaeoastronomy approach works. Anthony Aveni’s work would be an argu­ment in its favour. While he’s best known for his work in Mesoamerica, he’s also done ori­ginal research in the Mediterranean and the south­west­ern USA. One of the reas­ons he can do this without being trivial is that he’s inter­est­ing in how to relate astro­nomy to archae­ology and vice versa. Wherever it is you’re study­ing in the world, there’s the prob­lem of tying the global per­spect­ive of astro­nomy to archae­ology, which is always local. People and the Sky could be said to be a col­lec­tion of a dozen ways of try­ing to solve that problem.

The intro­duc­tion starts by say­ing why the sky was import­ant in the ancient world. It’s brief and rap­idly turns into a para­graph on each chapter. Anyone who’s bought the book is pre­sum­ably already sold on the idea that the sky was import­ant, so brev­ity is not an issue. The open­ing chapter The Storyteller’s Sky intro­duces the role of the sky in ancient cos­mo­lo­gies. This sec­tion is heav­ily biased to the New World, with Mayans, Aztecs and the Navajo and the Babylonians from the Old World. The selec­tion reflects Aveni’s expert­ise. The next chapter, Patterns in the Sky, opens with a per­sonal anec­dote, but the range of sources is much greater. Here Aveni’s world archae­oastro­nomy approach works to show the diversity of pat­terns seen in the night sky. As well as the Babylonians and Mayans, he also throws in many more cul­tures includ­ing the Egyptians, Barasana of the Amazon and the Incas. This last group is inter­est­ing because for them the pat­terns in the sky include spaces where the stars aren’t vis­ible. In the Milky Way dark neb­u­lae blot out stars, mak­ing dis­tinct­ive sil­hou­ettes which the Inca recognised.

The Sailor’s Sky des­cibes one of my favour­ite arte­facts, Polynesian stone canoes. They sound like some­thing out of the Flintstones, but they’re bet­ter described as sim­u­lat­ors. A novice naviagator would sit by the stones look­ing out at the hori­zon learn­ing which stars rise over it. With this know­ledge he’d be able to nav­ig­ate across the vast dis­tances of the Pacific ocean. There’s some dis­cus­sion of Inuit nav­ig­a­tion, but this is mainly a Polynesian chapter.

The Hunter’s Sky includes and handy guide on how to tell the time using the Plough, assum­ing there’s no clouds over it and you’ve for­got­ten your watch. This draws on Plains Indians, the G/wi of Botswana, the Mursi and Stonehenge. The inclu­sion of Stonehenge here is inter­est­ing. It’s a Neolithic monu­ment, and that’s usu­ally asso­ci­ated with farm­ing. Aveni argues that Britons were semi-nomadic in this period. It’s plaus­ible, archae­olo­gical evid­ence is sug­gest­ing there was plenty of move­ment in the land­scape through to the Early Bronze Age, so sea­sonal use of mega­lithic sites would make sense.

It’s the next chapter that tackles the Farmer’s Sky. He opens by dis­cuss­ing Works and Days by Hesiod, which he dates to the ninth-century BC. That seems a bit early to me, I would have said it was writ­ten at a hun­dred years later. However, I would agree that the integ­ra­tion of astro­nom­ical and eco­lo­gical imagery in the poem is import­ant and points to an extens­ive know­ledge of the sky. He uses the word ‘sys­tem­atic’ to describe the astro­nomy, but I’d be wary of say­ing there was a sys­tem as such. He moves on to Rujm el-Hiri, a site which I haven’t read much about after hear­ing it called “the Stonehenge of the Levant”. If I hear any­thing is called “the Stonehenge of any­where that isn’t Stonehenge” then I become wary. Thankfully Aveni’s explan­a­tion isn’t an attempt to shoe­horn a Stonehenge model onto a site, but I’ll have to read the rel­ev­ant art­icles before I’m con­vinced of some of the claims. He also describes Indonesian rice farm­ing using bam­boo as a sight­ing tool, which was entirely new to me.

The later chapters move more towards ideo­logy. The House, the Family and the Sky is about the organ­isa­tion of domestic space, based on cos­mo­lo­gical prin­ciples. The Navajo, Pawnee and the vari­ous tribes of the Orinoco make up much of this chapter but he also men­tions the Batammaliba of Benin and Togo and Gilbert Islanders, before mov­ing back the the Americas with the Inca. This may be one of the big­ger growth areas in archae­oastro­nomy in the com­ing dec­ades as it deals with the kind of things people do without think­ing. This con­nects the sky with ter­restrial order.

This is expan­ded on in The City and the Sky. The Mayan city of Teotihuacan makes an appear­ance, not sur­pris­ingly as Aveni has done a lot of work on pecked cross circles there. He’s also looked at the Etruscan basis for town plan­ning, and this can be found here too. He also talks about another obvi­ous example of celes­tial plan­ning, Beijing, and the astro­nom­ical records of the Chin Shu dyn­asty (3rd cen­tury AD). This use of power leads neatly onto The Ruler’s Sky. The Powhatan attacks on Virginia led by Opechancanough add an inter­est­ing altern­at­ive view­point to the Mayan and Babylonian uses of astro­nomy and astro­logy else­where in the chapter. China and Babylon form the basis of the fol­low­ing chapter The Astrologer’s Sky, though there is also a dis­cus­sion of Cheyenne sham­an­ism and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it men­tion of India.

The Timekeeper’s Sky con­cen­trates on just two cul­tures, the Romans and the Mayans. I don’t know whether to be pleased or dis­ap­poin­ted about that. I find the Greek cal­en­dar cheer­fully chaotic and worth look­ing at in its own right. On the other hand I’m will­ing to bet that if Aveni had done that, he would have come across some of the same curi­os­it­ies I have. So while I’d say there’s a gap here, it’s not one I’m actu­ally com­plain­ing about. To some extent this chapter cov­ers sim­ilar mater­ial to the earlier hunt­ing and farm­ing chapters.

The final chapter of the book is The Western Sky. It’s a slightly dif­fer­ent chapter to the oth­ers. It asks an obvi­ous ques­tion. Given the exist­ence of so many astro­nom­ies, why has one come to dom­in­ate sci­ence? This why ques­tion is re-visited in the Epilogue which Aveni uses to reit­er­ate that for many people Astronomy had been some­thing very dif­fer­ent both in meth­ods and aims to the mod­ern sci­ence it is day.

As a whole, the book shows some of the lim­it­a­tions of a world archae­oastro­nomy approach. I didn’t see any­thing sub­stan­s­tial about India in the book. References to China were lim­ited and there was noth­ing of Korea or Japan that I saw. To a large extent this reflects fault-lines in aca­demia. A lot of far east­ern mater­ial isn’t pub­lished in west­ern lan­guages. That’s not really true for India though. There’s some extremely good archae­ology hap­pen­ing there and a large amount of his­tor­ical mater­ial, includ­ing astro­lo­gical texts. It works for text­books intro­du­cing the sub­ject, but I am won­der­ing to what extent a World Archaeoastronomy approach can be used in research publications.

Compared with his other works, this is def­in­itely at the shal­low end but it’s not fair to dis­miss it as shal­low. Like the best intro­duct­ory texts it leads on to other mater­ial. For instance I’ll be look­ing up more about Rujm el-Hiri now. If you’re look­ing to buy a book and you have Stairways to the Stars, then this is one to get out of the lib­rary. If you don’t have Stairways to the Stars, then this would be the bet­ter book to buy.

Skywatchers, Shamans and Kings by E.C.Krupp

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Skywatchers, Shamans and Kings by E.C.Krupp

I was sur­prised to find I haven’t already put up a page say­ing how good this book is, so I’ll cor­rect that now. This is one of the best books you can get on archae­oastro­nomy, and it’s also one of the more affordable.

One of the big attrac­tions of the book is that not only does he answer the ‘how’ ques­tion but also the ‘why’. The book starts with a dis­cus­sion of the centre of the world which, depend­ing on your myth­o­logy, can be found at Delphi, Beijing, Chaco Canyon or sev­eral other places he men­tions. The point he makes is that if the uni­verse revolves around you, then you must be a spe­cial kind of per­son. The rest of the book is an explor­a­tion of how people con­nec­ted them­selves to the stars.

The meth­ods aren’t simply by align­ing stones. Krupp is one of those people with a very wide geo­graph­ical grasp of his sub­ject which means he can draw on eth­no­graph­ies from around the world. Along with the usual sus­pects in any pop­u­lar archae­oastro­nomy book, you also get Mongolians, San bush­men and Chumash sham­ans. He shows that while the meth­ods might vary around the world, there was a uni­ver­sal con­cern in hav­ing the heav­ens on your side. This isn’t simply about time­keep­ing or mys­tic har­mony. This is also about the dis­play of power.

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Silver Four Ladies of Hollywood Gazebo.
Photo (cc) Floyd B. Bariscale.

The book opens with the chapter on The Center of the World, and pulls from a diverse pool of examples includ­ing Hopi set­tle­ment, Evenki drums and a gazebo on the Holloywood Walk of Fame to illus­trate the concept of world quar­ter­ing. This tends to be the divi­sion of the world into the car­dinal dir­ec­tions in the Old World, and pos­sibly the quar­ter­ing of the sky between sol­sti­cial sunrise/sunset pos­i­tions, or the path of the Milky Way in the New World. Krupp uses this as an intro­duc­tion that order was seen as being inher­ent in the cos­mos, rather than some­thing imposed on it. In fact the word cos­mos ori­gin­ally meant order, rather than universe.

Chapter two is about Plugging into Cosmic Power and the meth­ods of doing that. Celestial con­cerns are accessed via sham­anic ritual, pos­sibly with some chem­ical assist­ance. The aim may be to reach to the stars, but Krupp keeps an eye on the fact that these prac­tices were earth-bound. The Centers of Creation and Mother Earth chapters look at birth, cre­ation and renewal, with Agents of Renewal giv­ing more details on how people dropped the hint to the uni­verse that fer­til­ity was a good idea.

The chapters on Shamans, Chiefs and Sacred Kings and Celestial Empires talk more about the con­sol­id­a­tion of power with Enlightened Self-Interest and Ulterior Motives examin­ing how that could be sub­ver­ted. Of course there’s no point in hav­ing power if you don’t let people know you have it, which is the topic of It Pays to Advertise. All of this then gets pulled together in the con­clud­ing chapter Upward Mobility, which draws the threads of the argu­ments con­nect­ing astro­nomy and power together.

If you’ve read his Rambling Through the Skies column which used to be in Sky and Telescope, then you’ll know Krupp has a neat turn of phrase and an eye for an arrest­ing ana­logy. As an example in It Pays to Advertise, he com­pares the astro­nom­ical imagery found on sham­anic cloth­ing with the icons found on super­hero cos­tumes. Just as Batman, Spiderman and Green Lantern show the sources of their power, so too ancient peoples used sym­bols related to the sky to emphas­ise their abilities.

If there is a cri­ti­cism to be made of the book it’s that Krupp picks up and drops examples within a page or two, so the reader is whisked from one corner of the world to another and bat­ted between cen­tur­ies. It’s all con­nec­ted with the point Krupp is try­ing to make but it can be dizzy­ing on occa­sion. Possibly fewer and more rooted examples would have helped. This wouldn’t have affected the impres­sion of uni­ver­sal­ity of astro­nom­ical sym­bol­ism and power which he argues for.

That is a rel­at­ively minor cri­ti­cism, and the main reason for mak­ing it is just to demon­strate I have read book. It is a great tour of the archae­ology and anthro­po­logy of astro­nomy. It was afford­able when I bought it and, if you pick it up from the right shop, it’s even more so now. If you’re look­ing for more than a super­fi­cial intro­duc­tion to the diversity of archae­oastro­nom­ical evid­ence then it’s a great place to start.