Archive for the ‘Archaeology’ Category

Now The Tories Are Coming for Those on Sickness Benefits

May 25, 2023

Earlier this week the Spectator published a noxious piece by its noxious editor, Fraser Nelson. Nelson was complaining about the numbers receiving sickness benefit while businesses in Britain are struggling to recruit workers. This included, he said, army officers with a beginning salary of £35,000. From what I could gather, the thrust of his article was that the people on sick leave and benefits should be taken off them and then forced to go into one of these vacant jobs. This has been followed by various other right-wing politicians declaring that they intend to retrain the long-term sick to fill these vacancies. The implication here is the old Blairite assumption about people on disability benefits that a certain proportion of them, at least, must be malingerers. It’s why the work capability assessment was set up to find a certain percentage of claimants fit for work, whether they were or not, and the consequent scandals of genuinely critical disabled and terminally ill people being thrown off benefits and told to get a job. It’s the attitude behind the New Labour and the Tories’ wretched benefit reforms, which not only demands claimants look for work and have their searches checked by the staff, but also has them thrown off benefits and sanctioned on the slightest pretext. If they’re starting on the long term sick, it probably indicates that they’ve gone as far as they can demonising and humiliating the unemployed and have been forced to start demonising and humiliating the sick. It’s also based on the unsympathetic attitude that working is good for you and will get you back on your feet. This was the attitude a few years ago when Dave Cameron’s coalition government came to power, and disability campaigners tore into that, showing that this simply wasn’t the case. There seems to be no awareness that some people are sick because of their jobs and working conditions. As for the mental health crisis hitting Britain, it isn’t due to Gary Lineker spreading fears about climate change, as Richard Tice has declared. It’s far more to do with the cost of living crisis caused by rising inflation, stagnant wages kept below the rate of inflation, as well as job insecurity caused by zero hours contracts and the gig economy and the detrimental effects of Brexit. But Reform and the Conservatives can’t admit that, as they believe that this has all been a splendid success and will make us all wealthier and business more secure and prosperous in the long run.

Behind this, I suspect, is the need to get British workers to take the jobs that were originally filled by immigrants and migrant workers now that immigration has become such a hot topic and the Tories are announcing their intention to cut it. It’s basically a return to the calls for Brits to work a fruit pickers instead of migrant workers a few years. That was met by complaints from people who had tried, but were turned down as the farmers preferred to employ migrants.

As for retraining the unemployed to fill certain jobs, there are obvious problems with this. Not everyone has the strength or temperament, let alone the academic qualifications for certain jobs. Army officers are an example of this. Membership of the armed forces demands physical and mental toughness as well as the ability to kill while observing the laws of war. In the case of the officer corps, it also demands intelligence, the jokes about military intelligence being a contradiction in terms aside. Those are very exacting standards and not everyone is able to fill them. There are other problems matching people to jobs. I was given grief when I tried signing on after gaining my archaeology Ph.D. nearly ten years ago by the clerks at the Job Centre. They were annoyed that I spent my time looking for jobs as an archaeologist, particularly in academia. I was told at my last meeting with them, where the supervising girl basically told me not to bother signing on any more, that I should really have been looking for menial jobs like cleaning before trying to find the work I was qualified to do. It shows the way the Job Centre staff aren’t interesting in making sure the right people find the right jobs but simply getting people off their books. But the problem with this is that employers of such jobs probably aren’t interested in taking on graduates, who are obviously overqualified. And some of the jobs that need to be filled require years of training and experience. Our favourite internet non-historian the other day put up a piece asking why this country needed to import architects and archaeologists from overseas. With archaeologists I think he may have a point, as I think there may be surplus of qualified archaeologists compared to the number of jobs. The profession was expanding a decade ago, but that seems to have passed and the number of archaeology firms set up in the boom time may have shrunk. I don’t know about architects. Assuming that there is a shortage of British architects – and I’m not sure there is – the problem here is that it takes years of study and training to qualify as one. It’s not a profession where someone can be retrained and fit to work in a few weeks.

The demands for people on sickness benefit to be retrained to fill these job vacancies then is just more right-wing Tory ideology about benefit scroungers and malingerers, which ignores the real reasons behind their sickness and the problem the unemployed face finding jobs they can actually do. But as the government and business faces increased difficulty recruiting foreign workers because of Brexit and the controversy over immigration, we can expect these demands to get worse.

Dennis Fang Asks Why They Cast a Black Woman as Cleopatra

April 21, 2023

Another video criticising Netflix for casting a Black woman as Cleopatra. I’m post this up, not just because of its content, but also because the author of the post is of Asian heritage. They have their own history of colonisation and discrimination, and so it’s not just case of White supremacists or generally offended Whites criticising the casting. . As I hope is also clear by the fact that it’s the Egyptians themselves who are objecting to what they see as the appropriation of their history by Black Americans. I noticed he’s also dyed his hair blue, which also probably would raise alarm bells amongst the militant right and mark him down as a ‘woke’ leftie weirdo

Fang makes many of the same points as the Fun Slaying King about the historical evidence for Cleopatra’s racial identity. But he also adds that under the Roman Empire, the Egyptians were subject to an apartheid system which heavily discriminated against them in favour of the Greek and Roman colonists. At one point he says that showing Cleopatra as Black is like portraying King Leopold, the butcher of the Congo, as Black. He swiftly changes his mind, and says it’s more ridiculous than this, it would be like portraying him as an indigenous American.

He also makes the same point that the concentration on Cleopatra ignores some really stirring events in genuine Black African history. He talks about the last stand of the Songhai empire, when they drove cattle against the muskets of the invading Moroccans. Or when the Cushites fought off a Roman invasion and even decapitated the head of a statue of the Roman emperor. I think this is a real problem. There’s some fascinating discoveries being made about the rise of urbanism in Black Africa. A few years ago a White archaeologist teaching in Nigeria discovered the remains of an urban complex covering an area the size of Salisbury plain. But he’s the only one exploring it, as his Nigerian students are all keen to go to Egypt.

Eygptian YouTuber’s Criticism of Netflix’s Portrayal of a Black Cleopatra

April 20, 2023

Early today I put up a post about an Egyptian lawyer suing Netflix because its documentary about Cleopatra cast her as a Black woman. He isn’t alone in his objection. There are reports that the Egyptians put up a petition on condemning the documentary. This garnered 85,000 signatures before it was taken down by the internet petitioning organisation for breaking their community guidelines. This video comes from the Fun Killing King channel on YouTube. It’s by an Egyptian, who lays out the historical reasons why Cleopatra wasn’t Black. She was descended from the Ptolemies, descended from one of Alexander the Great’s generals. They practised incest and lived in Lower Egypt, so they were probably weren’t racially mixed. If they were, the Egyptians with whom they would have intermarried would have been lighter skinned than those further south. Contemporary portraits of her show her with Caucasian features. He states, though, that as a Mediterranean woman she would probably have been darker skinned than the Romans.

He also makes the point that Egypt was very mixed in the racial composition of its citizens. Some were White, but others, particularly in the south, had more sub-Saharan African citizens. This is demonstrated in their art and statuary. He shows the tomb paintings the Egyptian middle class commissioned c. 300 AD, which show many of their subjects as Mediterranean rather Black African. He is annoyed at outsiders appropriating Egyptian history for themselves, and blames Jayda Pinknett Smith, Will Smith’s wife, who is an Afrocentrist and one of the show’s producers and its narrator.

He states at the outset that he is has no objections to Black leads, and later argues that documentaries like Nefflix’s, which appropriate ancient Egypt for Black Americans, overlook real Black history. They ignore the Kushite Black pharaohs, who conquered and ruled Egypt and its empire in the Middle East until they were finally defeated and expelled. They also ignore later, powerful African empires like Mansa Musa’s in Mali. The Fun Killing King compares the Afrocentric portrayal of Cleopatra to the Kushite invasion at one point, which adds further evidence that at least some Egyptians see this as a colonialist enterprise.

The Earliest Robot: Philon of Byzantium’s Wine Servant

February 28, 2023

One of the books I’ve been reading is Luca Beatrice’s Robot: A Visual Atlas from Ancient Greece to Artificial Intelligence (Milan: 24 Ore Culture 2016). This is an encyclopaedic discussion of robots in history, art, film and television, music, fashion and design, books, cartoons and toys and technology. The book’s blurb runs

‘Since ancient Greek times, man has sought to build a copy of himself. It is here, in the invention of the replica of himself, that he has felt closest to God.

From Philon of Byzantium to Isaac Asimov and Philip Dick, the inventor of the Replicants.

From Daft Punk to Kraftwerk, the band that used replica mannequins to perform their songs.

From Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to Her, in which the protagonist falls in love with a computer.

From Astro Boy to the American Marvel comics superheroes and the Japanese characters Mazinger and Steel Jeeg.

And now, in the age of computers, the true robots of our time, those old tin and steel robots have assumed a vintage appeal that makes them even more irresistible.’

Although it’s very comprehensive, there are some glaring omissions. For example, when it comes to bands of real robot musicians, it includes Japan’s Z Machines, but leaves out Germany’s Compressorhead. It also includes some European comics that are obscure to English-speaking audiences, but doesn’t include 2000 AD’s Robusters or ABC Warriors despite the fact that these strips and their characters go back 40 years or so. But there is much that is genuinely new, like the Mutant Waste Company, a British artist’s collective now resident in Italy, who used to build robots out of disused car parts and pieces from scrap yards.

It begins with the first robot believed to have been built, Philon of Byzantium’s automatic servant. It says of this android

‘Designed by an engineer and writer who lived in the 3rd century BC in Byzantium, Philon’s Automatic Servant is the oldest robot in history with human features. Able to serve wine, its structure is composed of several elements: inside, under the tunic, are two containers, one of wine and one of water, connected to the jug by means of air tubes that carry the liquid long the right arm. The left hand, which holds the cup, is connected to a system of levers that regulate the movement of both arms: when the cup is placed on the hand, the left arm descends while the right arms moves to pour the wine mixed with water; as the cup gradually fills, its weight increases and as a result the arm descends until it reaches the lowest level and thus the limit of capacity. The system now comes to a halt, the guest can take his cup, and the arms return to their starting position, ready to begin again. The Automatic Servant is now housed in the Kostas Kotsanas Museum of Ancient Greek Technology in Katakolo, Elis, Greece.’ (p. 16).

And here’s the photograph of the machine on the opposite page.

I’m pretty sure this is a reconstruction, as I imagine the real machine has been lost, although I might be wrong. Anyway, it’s a truly astonishing piece of engineering and shows once again just how sophisticated the engineers and scientists of the ancient world were. The Japanese also created a similar automaton, a mechanical servant girl that carried cups of tea to the guests.

Historical Archaeology, the Congo Museum and Shamanism and the Purge of Offensive Exhibits at the Wellcome Collection

February 26, 2023

Having looked at the Art Newspaper’s report on the withdrawal of the ‘Medicine Man’ gallery at the Wellcome Museum and its replacement with shamanistic performances by Grace Ndiritu, along with her biography on Wikipedia, I think I now understand what’s happened there. One of the names that leapt out at me reading the Art Newspaper article was Dan Hicks. He was one of the lecturers in the Archaeology and Anthropology Department at Bristol University when I was there. This is going back over a decade, and when I saw him, he was young and hip. I think his speciality is Historical Archaeology, and from what I remember he has co-edited a series of papers about it. Over here, Historical Archaeology is merely that branch of archaeology concerned with monuments and artefacts from historical times, rather than prehistory. Over the Pond, however, it is very definitely ideologically loaded, and concerns itself with colonialism, the oppression of the indigenous peoples, slavery and the emergence of capitalism. And this focus can be very clear in the work of some lecturers and academics. It’s not all like this – some of the historical archaeological research is less left-wing. While doing my Ph.D., one of the papers I consulted was about the building of 18th century Annapolis and how it conformed to 18th century ideas about architecture and society. For example, the buildings were deliberately constructed with large windows so that outsiders could look in. This came from the view that business should be conducted as far as possible in public view, so that public scrutiny would make sure that everything was correct, orderly and legal. Hicks’ doctoral student studied the archaeology of Long Kesh, the Maze Prison, in Ulster. She gave a seminar one lunchtime about her research, and she was very, very good. She presented an excellent case for its preservation and exhibition from a non-sectarian perspective as somewhere that was vital to the heritage of the people of Northern Ireland.

Archaeology has also expanded its scope in recent decades. When most of us think of archaeology, I’m pretty sure it’s of prehistory and ancient civilisations like Egypt, Greece and Rome. But it can also be much more recent, taking in not just the Middle Ages but also recent history up to the Second World War and beyond. One of the lads I knew was studying World War II tank defences around Bristol and Somerset. There was even a pillbox study group, which catalogued and documented the various WWII pillboxes left along the country’s coasts and beaches to protect us from invasion. There has, like Ndiritu at the Wellcome Museum, also been artistic events performed or staged around pieces of archaeology. In one of these in America an historic barn or house was allowed to decay, with photographs taken and finally displayed showing its gradual destruction. When I was there, the archaeology department had been part of a similar project concerning the various objects at Severn Beach, a holiday resort near Bristol. From what I dimly recall, this photographed and decorated such historic monuments as the public benches and decaying boats. This was too ‘arty’ in the pejorative sense for some of the people at the seminar on it I attended. They saw themselves very definitely as scientists. It was too arty for me, and I see myself much more as coming from the arts rather than the sciences.

There was, at the time, a general movement towards drawing different disciplines together, and especially the arts and sciences. Interdisciplinary subjects were in vogue, and there was much talk about overcoming C.P. Snow’s ‘two cultures’ arts and science, in which people from one side of the cultural divide had no knowledge or interest in the other. One such artistic project based in science I read about in New Scientist featured genetically modified organisms. One of these was a cactus, whose DNA had been tinkered with so that instead of prickles, it grew hair. Ndiritu’s performances at the Wellcome Collection come from archaeology and anthropology, rather than genetic engineering, but they are part of the same project of mixing science and art.

Her Wikipedia entries also mentions work at the AfricaMuseum in Belgium. Way back when I was at the Empire and Commonwealth Museum I got material from Belgium about some of their museums looking at their countries imperial history. One of these was a series of artistic projects and performances in the country’s museum about the Belgian Congo. As I’m sure readers are well aware, King Leopold’s personal rule in the Congo is one of the bloodiest holocausts in African history. About 8 million people are supposed to have been murdered by his Force Publique in order to produce rubber for export. I’ve been told that the country tried to forget about it all, until the first years of the 21st century when these events were staged at the museum as part of the confrontation with this infamous period in Belgian history.

There have also been other archaeological and anthropological events and displays in which indigenous peoples have performed their religious rituals. A few years ago, if I recall correctly, there was one where Amerindian shamans performed their people’s rites. When the exhibit is of those peoples, then it is only fair to include the people themselves. I think this is what was going on in the Wellcome Museum with Ndiritu and her shamanism. It looks like it’s an attempt by indigenous African culture to claim a proper place in the exhibit as a counterpoint to western rationalism.

This does not mean, however, that it should be free from criticism or that such criticism is right-wing. The decolonisation movement does indeed have as its goal the decentring of western science and historiography. It goes far beyond the usual explanation about including overlooked non-western and indigenous perspectives. The ‘Science Must Fall’ movement really existed. And some of the critical of modern postcolonial theory are left-wing feminists. Asian feminists, for example, have complained that they are given no support by western postmodern feminists in their struggle against their cultures’ own restrictions on women, because postcolonialism is only interested in such problems if they are caused by the West. This is described by Bricmont and Sokal in their 90’s attack on Postmodernism, Intellectual Impostures. And Sokal is, or was, very much a man of the left. He was a physicist who gave up his career to teach maths in Nicaragua under the left-wing Sandinista regime.

I also wonder how this all fits with Edward Said’s critique of western views of the east, Orientalism. His book was a polemic arguing that the west since ancient Greece had regarded the east as the Other, and produced images to justify its conquest and domination. Western travellers and explorers had therefore presented it as backward, irrational and feminine and somehow unchanging. But Nditiru’s performances are based on the non-scientific irrational and traditional, which are now presented as positive. This is indeed a challenge to the view of magic in indigenous cultures that I remember from my childhood. I can remember watching a BBC documentary about African shamanism when I was in my early teens, in which the voiceover concluded that while western science had succeeded in discovering so much about the world and made so many advances, while magic had reached an end and could produce no such advances. The great British scientist and broadcaster, Jacob Bronowski, said something similar in his TV series and book, The Ascent of Man. He looked at the traditional culture of one of Iran’s nomadic people, and considered that it similarly locked them in a stifling, unchanging world. Bronowski was no man of the right. He was a member of the Fabian Society at a time when that actually meant something, before it was taken over by the Blairites.

I am also very much aware of the crisis that has affected many indigenous society with the collapse of their world of meaning through contact with western modernity and the legacy of colonialism and imperialism. But there are also dangers in idealising indigenous societies. I mentioned in my previous article that in Nigeria, priests from one of the country’s pagan religions had been involved in the acquisition of slaves, and that a South African anthropologist had attempted to defend muti human sacrifice at a convention in this country, as well as witchcraft and witch hunting in Africa. Those aspects of indigenous religion and spirituality shouldn’t be ignored. I am not saying they should be stressed to restore the old image of Africa as a backward continent needing western civilisation, but not all the continent’s ills should be ascribed to western rationalism either. Hence it should be perfectly legitimate to question this latest policy by the Wellcome Museum, regardless of whether one is politically right or left.

Museums for the Maroons and Arawak Peoples in Jamaica

February 23, 2023

A few weeks ago I found a notebook I had when I was working at the former Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol, now sadly defunct. I’d made notes in it of anything relevant to what I was doing at the time, cataloguing the Museum’s documents relating to slavery or otherwise seemed relevant.

At the time Jamaica was promoting the Maroons, the free Black communities who had fought and won their freedom from British slavery, as a tourist attraction. There were five Maroon towns, one of which was Accompong. According to a travel book on the Caribbean nation I read at the time, there was a Maroon tour to Accompong which ended up in another towns founded by the free slaves, Maroon Town. On the 6th of January each year, the Accompong Maroon Festival celebrated the victory of the Maroon leader Cudjoe over the British. This took place at the Kindah area and the Peace Cave. There was also a Maroon Tourist Attraction Company, whose headquarters are, or were located 32 Church Street, Montego Bay. This is the company that organised the tours to Accompong.

The museum displaying the history and culture of the Arawak, who with the Caribs were Jamaica’s two indigenous peoples, and who also inhabited many of the other islands of the Caribbean before the European invasion and genocide, is the White Marl Arawak Museum in White Marl, St. Catherine, Spanish Town. This is run by Institute of Jamaica and includes a reconstructed Arawak village behind the museum proper.

Not all of the unfree population of the Caribbean were Black slaves. The Caribbean was also settled using indentured servants, who could be and often were as badly treated as the slaves and often joined them in revolt. There is a Historical Mini-Museum to Jamaica’s indentured German labourers in Seaford Town, also in Montego Bay, as well as a Jamaican German Society. I also believe one of the Caribbean islands also has a gallery or little museum devoted to the Polish settlers. They were freedom fighters, who joined Napoleon’s troops in his invasion Russia in order to liberate their country from Russian rule. Following the Corsican general’s defeat, they fled to the Caribbean. Because of their role in fighting against slavery in the French Revolutionary armies, I recall that they were the only Whites legally permitted to settle in the independent, Black republic of Haiti.

I don’t know if this information will help anybody, but these are important and fascinating parts of Jamaican and Caribbean history.

There were also a couple of books specifically about the Maroons. These were

Angorsah, E. Kofi (ed), Maroon Heritage: Archaeological, Ethnographic and Historical Perspectives (Kingston: Canoe Press/ University of the West Indies: 1994).

The anthropologist Katherine Duchamps also wrote an account of her Journey to Accompong in 1946.

There was also a History of the Maroons published by R.C. Dallas in London as far back as 1863. I don’t know if it’s been republished, but it might be that somebody at university with an interest in the subject could get a copy on academic loan.

False! Woke Swedish Green MEP Does Not Want Viking Artefacts Destroyed in Name of International Friendship

January 10, 2023

Right-wing YouTuber Paz49 put up a piece this morning claiming that Alice Bah-Kuhnke, a Swedish Green MP, had called for the country’s Viking artefacts to be turned into scrap metal in order to show other countries that Sweden is friendly. Bah-Kuhnke’s mixed race, the daughter of an African father and Swedish mother. She was also a member, possibly the head, of an all-female government, whose members all wore pink hats, presumably as a feminist statement. Paz also reports that there are claims she wants the artefacts replaced with Islamic and African objects, but he thinks this may be just a rumour. He does, however, believe that this is a woke assault on White identity, and that it ignores the fact that other nations throughout the globe are also responsible for war and imperialism.

The story’s false, however. It’s several years old, dating from c. 2017, and comes from the American Alt-Right distorting reports of a perfectly reasonable law passed by the Swedish government to clear out artefacts of low scientific value in order to clear space in their national museum. I found this video below from the Archaeosource channel on YouTube, in which two professional archaeologists discuss what was really going on. They point out that archaeologists can’t keep everything they find, otherwise museums would be full of old Roman tiles. They rebury material that they can’t retain and conserve. The Swedish law is about throwing away poorly preserved Iron Age and Viking artefacts that don’t have much scientific value. It is not about destroying Sweden’s heritage. One of the speakers says he worked as a Viking for four years, six-hours a day, and has a profound respect for the ancient Norsemen. He takes issue with the way the Alt-Right and other extreme right-wing groups have appropriated them, especially regarding issues of masculinity, being a warrior and so on. The Vikings were open to other cultures, they had words for Blacks, Blamenn, and extensive trade contacts extending down to Africa and India. They were hired by other nations, and were hospitable to them. I think here he’s probably talking about Ibn Fadlan, the Arab traveller, and his observations of the Vikings on the Volga. They were hired by the Byzantines to serve as the emperor’s bodyguard. They also had bards and weren’t homophobic.

So, as commenters like Gillyflower suspected, this is a bogus non-story, an example of Alt-Right fearmongering.

Graham Hancock – A Crank, Possibly, But Definitely No Racist

December 9, 2022

My discipline, archaeology, has been massively going after Graham Hancock this week. Hancock’s ah, um,, ‘maverick thinker’, I suppose you’d say, who’s been presenting a series on Netflix arguing that thousands of years ago there was a highly advanced civilisation that perished in a cataclysm, but passed on its secrets to other ancient civilisations around the world. This has understandably annoyed archaeologists and a number have put up videos, some of them lengthy and quite detailed, disproving him. Hancock’s been promoting this idea for some time now. Going back two decades and more, he had a series on Channel 4 with the title ‘Water World’ or something like it, also arguing that there was a global advanced civilisation, whose monuments have been covered up by a flood, as recorded in the Bible and other ancient religions. Now I’m sure that Hancock is wrong, and the criticisms of his dodgy history and archaeology are right. But I take exception to one of the other accusations levelled at him, which is that he is racist.

This accusation is partly based on his false ascription of the achievements of indigenous cultures around the world to this putative prehistoric civilisation. It denies those people the credit for their achievements. But the accusation is also that it’s similar to the ideas of some bonkers White supremacist groups, who are using Hancock’s ideas to promote themselves. One archaeologist posted a video saying that Hancock should have disavowed the use of his ideas by these fascists. It also criticised him for being friends with Joe Rogan and Jordan Peterson. There are fair criticisms to be made of both of these men. Peterson’s an arch-conservative and anti-feminist, but hardly a Nazi. Rogan was pushing anti-vax nonsense and is an advocate for some mind-expanding drugs. A few years ago people were accusing him of being a ‘gateway to the Alt-Right’. Possibly, but he also talks to people from the left, who are otherwise denied a platform by the lamestream media. Journalists like Abbie Martin, who talked about Israeli propaganda against the Palestinians and how she found, when she visited the beleaguered Arab nation, that the reality was nothing like the picture painted by the Israeli state. He’s also talked to biologists and journalists exposing the lies of the trans ideology. This is not Alt-Right, no matter what groups like Mermaids, Stonewall, Antifa and the rest say. The people criticising the gender ideology tend to be radical feminists, many from the socialist left. Part of their opposition against it is that it reduces masculinity and femininity to traditional, stereotypical sex roles. One of the feminist vloggers interviewed one of the leading activists against the trans ideology, who was furious that people like her were being presented as right-wing. Another feminist activist criticised Matt Walsh for misrepresenting feminists as uniformly in favour of trans ideology, and then criticising them for it. Rogan gives a voice to people outside the mainstream. Sometimes it’s rubbish, and sometimes it’s immensely valuable. He has also interviewed a number of Black celebs, so again, not a Nazi.

The White supremacist ideas being referred to seem to me to be the Traditionalist ideology of Giulio Evola. Evola was an Italian Fascist and occultist, who was a major ideological influence on the scumbuckets behind the Bologna railway bombing in the 1970s. A fascist group bombed the station, killing and maiming over a hundred people. Evola believed that there was a strongly hierarchical, ‘Aryan’ civilisation in Hyperborea in the arctic, which was responsible for all the subsequent cultural achievements of the civilisations around the world. This is twaddle. But Hancock’s ideas are also similar to those of others, which don’t come from people in the fascist fringe. A couple of years ago I picked up an old book, Colony Earth, which had been published in the 1970s. This claimed that Earth may have been an extraterrestrial colony, whose advanced civilisation was destroyed in a nuclear war. The pyramids may have been fall-out shelters, as were the megalithic tumuli in Britain. It’s an interesting read, but certainly wrong. I think Charles Berlitz, who started the Bermuda Triangle myth, also believed in this, supporting it in one of his books with artefacts from Aztec tombs that look like aircraft. Berlitz is someone else, who I’m fairly certain has absolutely no connection to fascism whatsoever.

And I don’t believe Hancock is either.

When he was travelling the world on his Channel 4 series he was accompanied by his wife, who is Sri Lankan. Now, White supremacists do not, as a rule, marry dark-skinned people from outside Europe. If they do, they’re angrily denounced as ‘race traitors’. In one edition of this earlier series, Hancock reported on the mysterious ruins of ancient city found off the coast of the Bay of Bengal. He was shown talking respectfully to an Indian gent, who told him how such findings tie in with Hindu ideas of the antiquity of civilisation and ancient Indian legends of flooded cities. Again, this isn’t quite behaviour you’d expect from a genuine White supremacist. He also travelled to South and Central America, where he proposed the old theory that the Mayans, Aztecs and other ancient Amerindian civilisations must have learned how to build their pyramids from someone else. I think this was once again ancient Egypt. But who brought that knowledge to the New World? Black Africans. He pointed to an Olmec bas relief of a warrior’s head, and declared its features to be ‘proudly African’. If this is racism, then its Afrocentrism rather than White supremacy. As for the ancient race behind these monuments, Hancock doesn’t say what colour they are. In this, he breaks with some of his predecessors, who say they must have been White because the legends of numerous Amerindian peoples state that vital parts of their culture were brought to them by White gods. Hancock is therefore less racialised in what he says than his predecessors.

I disagree profoundly with Hancock’s ideas, but he has a right to say them like everyone else. And if it piques people interest in these ancient cultures so that they want to find out what they were really like, that’s all to the good. But I do think it’s profoundly wrong to accuse him of racism. That just further cheapens the word and weakens it as a weapon against the real thing.

Sketch of American Astronomer, Space Scientist and Activist Carl Sagan

December 3, 2022

I’ve put up this sketch of Carl Sagan began he was one of the major figures in space research as well as a committed Humanist and political activist. He was also a major populariser of astronomy and science, most notably through his blockbusting TV series and its accompanying book, Cosmos. This was also notable for its soundtrack, composed by Vangelis, who also composed the music for Chariots of Fire, Blade Runner and 1492: The Conquest of Paradise. According to the blurb on Cosmos’ back cover, Sagan was

‘(t)he director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies and David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Studies at Cornell University. He played a leading role in the Mariner, Viking and Voyager expeditions to the planets, for which he received the NASA medals for Exceptional Scientific Achievement and for Distinguished Public Service, and the international astronautics prize, the Prix Galabert. He has served as Chairman of the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society, as chairman of the astronomy section of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, as a President of the Planetology Section of the American Geophysical Union. For twelve years, he was Editor-in-Chief of Icarus, the leading professional journal devoted to planetary research. In addition to 400 published scientific and popular articles, Dr. Sagan (was) the author, co-author or editor of more than a dozen books, including Intelligent Life in the Universe, The Cosmic Connection, The Dragons of Eden, Murmurs of Earth and Broca’s Brain. In 1975 he received the Joseph Priestly Award “for distinguished contributions to the welfare of mankind,” and in 1978 the Pulitzer Prize for literature.’

It was Sagan who suggested that Black Holes could be used as interstellar subways so that spaceships from one part of the universe could use them to travel faster than light to another part of the cosmos connected by the wormhole passing between the Black Hole and its White Hole. He also suggested that Venus could be terraformed into a living, habitable world through the introduction of genetically engineered bacteria that would consume its toxic carbon dioxide atmosphere and replace it with breathable oxygen. He also noted that Mars had a large instability in its rotation, and that this could have resulted in its current, millions-year long period of lifelessness. But it was possible that in time its rotation would return to a more hospitable position and the planet would once more bloom into life. He was also a staunch advocate of the view that the universe was inhabited by intelligent alien civilisations and that one day we would contact them. He also wrote a later book, Pale Blue Dot, after the view of the Earth from space.

He was also a fierce opponent of what he considered to be superstition. He was one of the founders of CSICOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal along with the stage magician James Randi. They were formed in response to the publication of Gauqelin’s research suggesting there really was a link between the star sign under which people were born and their later careers. He was alarmed by the rise of Creationism and the New Age, and expressed his fears about them in his book, The Demon Haunted World. He was afraid that this would lead to a new Dark Age in which people would wake up every morning to anxiously look through their horoscopes.

He was also greatly concerned with the environment and global warming and the threat of nuclear war. In the 1980s he also proposed the idea of nuclear winter. This was the idea that a nuclear war would send millions of tons of dust into the atmosphere, blocking out the sunlight and causing temperatures to plunge. This has since been rejected by scientists, but I have seen it suggested as one of the causes for the extinction of the dinosaurs. In this case it was the dust thrown up by the asteroid’s impact 65 million years ago that blocked out the sun’s light, after the initial holocaust caused by its impact.

During the inquiry following the Challenger disaster, Sagan claimed that it had occurred because the Shuttle was poorly designed, the result of a compromise between NASA and the military. The Shuttle was originally intended to be fully reusable and smaller. However, the armed forces insisted on it becoming larger so that it could carry military satellites into space. The result was that it was larger, and only partially reusable as it required an external tank to carry the extra fuel it needed to reach orbit. This was jettisoned after its fuel was consumed to burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere.

He also wrote the SF novel, Contact, later filmed with Jodie Foster playing the lead. This was about a female astronomer, who makes contact radio contact with aliens, a method Sagan himself strongly advocated. Following their instructions, she constructs an artificial wormhole portal that transports her across space so she can finally meet them. I remember coming across the book in the Cheltenham branch of Waterstones in the 1980s and was rather put off by its blurb. This boasted about it challenging and refuting racism, sexism and so on. All good stuff, of course, but a bit too PC for me.

Many of these themes appear in Cosmos. This was his personal view of the history of science, and while I loved it at the time, I have serious issues with some of the claims now. One of the problems is that he accepts what we were all told at school, that the Greek philosophers were scientists. He believed that if Greek science had progressed, we would have had space travel by now. The ancient Greeks were certainly responsible for laying the foundations of western science, but they were not quite scientists in the modern sense. They used deduction rather than the scientific method of induction. Deduction meant that they observed a phenomenon and then invented an explanation. In induction, devised by Francis Bacon in the 16th/17th century, the scientist observes a phenomenon, comes up with an explanation, and then devises an experiment to disprove it. If the explanation passes the test, it is tentatively accepted as true until a later observation or experiment disproves it. The ancient Greeks didn’t do much practical experimentation.

Sagan also followed the popular explanation of the evolution of the brain, in which there is a lower, animal brain with the higher faculties evolving later, so there’s a primitive reptile brain and a more advanced mammal brain. But Victorian scientists found that both types of brain structure were present in the earliest, most primitive animals. He also followed the standard, accepted narrative that the Roman Catholic church had suppressed scientific knowledge and experimentation during the Middle Ages. This has since been rejected by historians of science. To many such historians now, the Middle Ages after the 8/9th centuries were an age of innovation and discovery. Jean Gimpel’s book proposing the idea was called The Medieval Machine, after the invention of the clock, to symbolise the period’s belief in a universe governed by law, discoverable by human reason under the light of the divine. And rather than the revival of classical learning in the Renaissance leading to a new enlightened, rational order, it had the potential to do the opposite. The medieval philosophers and theologians were Aristotelians but were very aware of the flaws in Aristotelian science and had modified it over the centuries in order to conform more closely to observed reality. But the Renaissance Humanists would have dumped all this, and so we would have been back to square one with no further scientific advances than what was permitted through a rigid adherence to Aristotle’s thought.

There’s also an anti-Christian element in Cosmos too. He describes how Hypatia, the late Neoplatonist female philosopher was murdered by a group of Christian monks in the 4th century. Hypatia has symbolised for a long time to radical atheists the fundamentally anti-science, and to feminists, the misogyny in Christianity. But by this time Neoplatonism was a mixture of science and mystical speculation, forming what has been called ‘the mind’s road to God’. The real motives for her murder weren’t that she was some kind of pagan threat, but more from a power struggle between the authorities in that part of the Roman world.

Sagan is also critical of western imperialism and describes the horrors the Conquistadors inflicted on the Aztecs and other peoples of the New World. He’s right and this section is clearly a product of its time, with the rise of anti-colonial movements among the world’s indigenous peoples, the Black Civil Rights movement in the US and the horrors of the Vietnam War, as well as Reagan’s new Cold War and the threat of nuclear holocaust. But looking at this 40 years later, it’s also one-sided. Europe wasn’t the only expansionist, brutal, imperialist culture. Islam was also militaristic and expansionist, and at the time the Spaniards conquered South America, the Turkish empire was expanding and subjugating parts of Europe, while Muslim pirates were raiding the continent as far as Iceland for slaves.

It’s also dated from an archaeological standpoint. At one point Sagan discusses the Bronze Age collapse of the societies of the Ancient Near East, showing how it was characterised by a series of crises, similar to the process of the fall of other, later civilisations into Dark Ages, but that these aren’t causes in themselves. It’s Systems Analysis, which was popular at the time, but which I think has also become subsequently passe.

All that said, Sagan was right about global warming, whose devastating effects he illustrated with the example of the planet Venus. This has also suffered catastrophic heating due to its greater nearness to the Sun. This released massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, creating a runaway greenhouse effect so that it is now a hell planet of burning temperatures and sulphuric acid rain. He also wasn’t wrong about the threat of renewed militarism and nuclear war and was a welcome voice against Reagan’s strident belligerence.

As a science populariser, his influence has also been immense. Cosmos was a bestseller, and I think it prepared the way for other bestselling works by astronomers and scientists like Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. And I certainly was not surprised when Brian Cox, the scientist, not the actor, said in an interview in the Radio Times that he was a massive admirer of Sagan. That came across to me very strongly from his numerous TV series about space and the planets.

More Sketches of Geniuses of British Comedy: Bob Monkhouse, Rod Hull, Emu, and their Victim Michael Parkinson

November 25, 2022

Bob Monkhouse is, in my opinion, one of the very great figures of late 20th century and early 21st century British comedy. He was not just a comedian, but also game show compering some of the nation’s favourite shows. I can remember him from the early or mid ’70s compering The Golden Shot, for those that can remember that far back. The contestants had to give instructions to blindfolded marksman, Bernie the Bolt to get him to aim a crossbow at a target. If he got it, they won the prize money. I can still hear the words, ‘Up a bit, left a bit…’ and so on. I don’t know if Monkhouse took over from someone else, but there are clips of it on YouTube with a Black presenter with a broad Yorkshire accent. Later on, in the 1980s he presented Family Fortunes. He was asked in one interview what the worse moment from the show was. He replied that it was when one contestant kept replying to each question, ‘Christmas turkey?’ This led to exchanges like ‘What item would you take to the beach on holiday?’ ‘A Christmas turkey’. ‘Interesting answer. We’ll see. Our survey said. -‘ and then the buzzer to indicate that the people surveyed definitely had not replied that they would take a Christmas turkey to the beach’. Monkhouse asked the poor fellow afterwards what happened. He said that he didn’t know, his mind just went blank. In the ’90s or early years of this century he started to come back after a period when he was off camera. I think this followed an appearance on Have I Got News For You, where he displayed his wit. Actually, I think he had scriptwriters with him handing him gags, or perhaps I’m confusing him with another comedian and entertainer whose career was revived by the show.

Monkhouse began his career away from the camera, writing jokes for other comedians and children’s comics. In an interview with the popular science magazine, Focus, he recalled how he nearly created Star Trek. He had been a science fiction fan, and so had an idea about a spaceship, called ‘Enterprise’, whose captain was a Scotsman called Kirk. Ah, that would have been interesting. He also gave praise to the other comedians he believed deserved it for their skill. One on series about various TV comedians, he described Jimmy Carr as ‘the comedians’ comedian’. But that phrase could also easily describe him. He was acutely interested in other comedians and the craft of comedy itself. In the 1980s he had his own show at about 7.30 in the evening, in which he interviewed comedians he admired from Britain and America. One of them, if I recall rightly, was our own Les Dawson. His house was also full of old film and clips of past comedians. He died of prostate cancer a few years. After his death one of the TV channels broadcast his farewell show, with commenters from other comedians. They said they didn’t realise how terribly ill Monkhouse was at the time, and that he was saying ‘goodbye’ to them. Another great comedian lost to us.

Rod Hull and Emu – another brilliant comedy act taken from us by the Grim Reaper. Hull said he was inspired to create Emu while watching a nature programme in New Zealand. This may have shown the country’s national bird, the Kiwi, another flightless bird rooting around on the forest floor. Or it may have shown Australia’s great flightless bird, the emu. Either way, the bird inspired Hull to create this avian monster of children’s television. It was the most terrifying puppet not to come out of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, though some cruel individuals may detect a certain resemblance to the villainous Skeksis in the film The Dark Crystal. Whatever its inspiration, Emus temperament was more like the 12-foot carnivorous Terror Birds that lived after the demise of the dinosaurs. Hull and Emu had a variety of children’s programmes. I remember him from E.B.C. 1 – ‘Emu’s Broadcasting Company’ with Billy Dainty on BBC 1, and then he moved over to ITV and Emu’s World. On E.B.C., Hull and Emu attempt to perform pieces from the Bard, complete with Emu wearing an Elizabeth cap. I also remember a recurring segment where Dainty, another great performer in his own right, dressed in Edward strongman long johns, tried to give advice on getting fit. This was introduced by the 20th Jazz song, ‘Keep fit, take exercise, get fit, and you’ll be wise, whatever you do, keep fit’. The music that introduced the Shakespeare segment, I later found out, was the 16th century German Mohrentanz, played on shawms and crumhorns. Emus also did weather forecasts, which were introduced by the jingle, ‘Weather, weather, all together, what’s it going to do? We don’t know, and so let’s ask, weatherman Emu.’ In addition to his own programmes, he also appeared as a guest on others, most notorious on Parkinson.

Emu’s style of comedy was pure, anarchic slapstick, whether he was on his own programmes or a guest on a chat show. These performances usually started off calmly, with Hull talking quietly and the puppet behaving itself on his arm. If they were being interviewed, Emu would act docile, snuggling up to the interviewer to be stroked. ‘There, he likes that’, Hull would say approvingly. Then it would start to go wrong, the beak would curl up in a snarl and before long Hull, his guest star or the interviewer would be savagely attacked by the thing’s beak, all with Hull screaming, ‘No, Emu! No!’ This would often end up with the three struggling on the floor while the set collapsed around them in a heap of overturned furniture. Emu was a force of pure chaos, bringing down televisual order. And hilariously funny. But it wasn’t all laughs. I can remember my grandmother telling me I was not to get like him with the sock puppets I made, as Hull had admitted he couldn’t control it. I don’t know if that was true, or another reworking of the old fear about ventriloquists and their dummies. I think Emu was also like Sherlock Holmes as the artist’s creation its creator would like to kill off and move away from but couldn’t because of the characters’ immense popularity. Hull himself was sadly taken from us in a domestic accident. He fell off his roof trying to fix his TV aerial.

I couldn’t sketch Rod Hull and the monstrous bird without also including his most famous victim, the chat show host Michael Parkinson. Parkinson’s show, simply called Parkinson, was one of the mainstays of British television. Parkinson interviewed a number of great and famous stars, like Oliver Reed and Mohammed Ali. And then he had the misfortune to interview, and get assaulted, by Emu. This incident has gone down as a piece of broadcasting history. It became so notorious that it was included in a skit in Private Eye commemorating Parkinson being given an honorary degree or doctorate from one of the universities. Whenever a celebrity, actor, sportsman or whoever, is awarded one of these honorary qualifications, the Eye prints a piece celebrating it in Latin, with the title ‘The …. Laudation In Full’. The Latin is easily understood, recognisable from the Latin vocabular in English. The Parkinson laudatio mentioned his interview with pugilist Mohammed Ali, before adding ‘assaultam cum Emu, avis horribilis. Ave, Emu, salutamus Emu, laudamus Emu’. Or words to that effect. Parkinson had his revenge a few years later when he appeared on Room 101. Parkinson naturally wanted Emu to be consigned to the room containing everything rubbish and terrible in the world. He was obliged when Emu was brought on in a miniature guillotine. Parkinson naturally threw the switch or pulled out the block, and one of children’s television’s most comically terrifying puppets was beheaded, with Parkinson shaking his head as if he couldn’t quite work out whether this was appropriate or not.