Posts Tagged ‘Oxbow Books’

Book on Britain’s Medieval Jewish Heritage

July 10, 2017

Bristol is one of the few cities to have a miqveh, a Jewish ritual bath, surviving from the Middle Ages. It’s a chamber cut into hillside of Jacob’s Wells Road, if I remember correctly. It was identified as a miqveh as it has an inscription in Hebrew, ‘Zaklim’, which means ‘Flowing’. Not all archaeologists and historians are convinced that it is a ritual bath, as it’s some way away from the city’s medieval Jewry, and it’s also closer than was usually permitted to a Christian church, in this case that of St. Michael’s Hill. Nevertheless, they believe that it may still have been an important source of water for Bristol’s medieval Jewish community.

Looking through the Oxbow Book Catalogue for Autumn 2015, I found a book listed, Jewish Heritage in Britain and Ireland, by Sharman Kadish, published by Historic England, paperback price £20.00. The blurb reads

Jewish Heritage in Britain and Ireland celebrates in full colour the undiscovered heritage of Anglo-Jewry. First published in 2006, it remains the only comprehensive guide to historic synagogues and sites in the British Isles, covering more than 300 sites, organised on a region-by-region basis. The new edition has been completely revised and features many new images including, for the first time, of sites in Wales, Scotland, Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.

I don’t know how many of this blog’s readers are interested in medieval history, but this book appears to be a useful exploration of this part of Britain and Ireland’s medieval heritage. One that came to an end in England when Edward I expelled them from England, which set off a series of similar ethnic cleansings which saw many other countries forcibly remove their Jewish citizens, expulsions which some medieval historians have compared to the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany.

History Book on Working Class Gardens

July 2, 2017

Gardening is one of Britain’s favourite pastimes, with programmes like Gardener’s World one of the long-running staples of BBC 2. The Beeb also devotes week-long coverage to the annual Chelsea Flower Show. A few years ago, one of the gardening programmes told a bit of the history behind popular gardening in Britain. It was deliberately started by the Victorians, with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert themselves as the patrons, as a way of encouraging the labouring poor to be respectable. Among the other virtues gardening would foster in them was neatness, from what I remember of the programme.

Looking through a copy of the Oxbow Book Catalogue for autumn 2015, I found a blurb for a book, The Gardens of the Working Class, by Margaret Willes, published by Yale University Press, ISBN 9780300212358. The price of it in paperback was £12.99. The blurb ran

This magnificently illustrated people’s history celebrates the extraordinary feats of cultivation by the working class in Britain, even if the land they toiled, planted and loved was not their own. Spanning more than four centuries, from the earliest records of the labouring classes in the country to today, Margaret Willes’ research unearths lush gardens nurtured outside rough workers’ cottages and horticultural miracles performed in blackened yards, and reveals the ingenious sometimes devious, methods employed by determined, obsessive, and eccentric workers to make their drab surroundings bloom. She also explores the stories of the great philanthropic industrialists who provided gardens for their workforces, the fashionable rich stealing the gardening ideas of the poor, alehouse syndicates and fierce rivalries between vegetable growers, flower-fanciers cultivating exotic blooms on their city windowsills, and the rich lore handed down from gardener to gardener through generations.

Garden history is taught in some universities in their archaeology departments, and the archaeology of gardens is also part of the wider field of landscape archaeology. Much of what is known about gardens in history comes from those of the rich, the great parks and gardens of royalty and the aristocracy, and the work of the great landscape gardeners like Inigo Jones and Capability Brown. They were also an important part of the lodges constructed by the medieval and early modern mercantile elite just outside town limits, to which they went at weekends to escape the cares of weekday, working life.

This book looks like it attempts to complete this picture, by showing that the working class were also keen gardeners. And its particularly interesting that the rich were nicking ideas from them.

The Ancient Near East’s Influence on Roman and Ancient Greek Law

June 3, 2017

I’ve written several pieces about the possible origins of western democracy, not in ancient Greece and Rome, but in the ancient Near East. Early civilisations like Sumeria and Mari had popular assemblies and councils of elders, which voted on issues, while the karem, or chamber of commerce, also influenced royal decisions. Apart from being of interest in itself, the existence of these institutions in the political systems of the ancient Middle East, is something of a challenge to people like Boris Johnson. Johnson’s a public schoolboy, and so is steeped in the Classics. As shown in his TV series a few years ago about the splendour of the Roman Empire, he seems to believe that everything great and noble in the world came about through ancient Rome and its predecessor, Greece.

Looking through the Oxbow Book Catalogue for Autumn 2015, I found this entry for Raymond Westbrook’s Ex Oriente Lex: Near Eastern Influences on Ancient Greek and Roman Law (Johns Hopkins University Press, HB £38.50). This says

Throughout the twelve essays that appear in Ex Oriente Lex, Raymond Westbrook convincingly argues that the influence of Mesopotamian legal traditions and thought did not stop at the shores of the Mediterranean, but rather had a profound impact and the early laws and legal developments of Greece and Rome as well. A preface by editors Deborah Lyons and Kurt Raaflaub details the importance of Westbrook’s work for the field of classics, while Sophie Demare-Lafont’s incisive introduction places Westbrook’s ideas within the wider context of ancient law.

As I said before, perhaps if there was great appreciation of the achievements of the ancient Near Eastern world, and the debt that the modern West owes to its civilisations, there would be greater reluctance amongst the political and military class to invading and destroying these countries.

The Iraq invasion created the chaos that spawned ISIS, which, along with al-Qaeda and the other Islamist groups in the Middle East and Africa, have destroyed millennia of culture and history, as well as butchering those regions’ people.

But the Americans and British have also done their share of cultural vandalism. Nicholas Wood and Annabelle Pellens in their book The Case Against Blair, describe how the Americans levelled the ancient city of Babylon in order to use it as military base.

Now imagine the sheer outrage from Classicists like BoJo if the same thing was done to the ruins of Athens. Not that Greece isn’t seeing it’s ancient heritage destroyed by Neoliberalism, as museums are closed, archaeological sites looted and antiquities sold off due to the EU’s austerity programme. And for all his avowed enthusiasm for the Classical world, I haven’t heard BoJo speak out against that, either.

It’s long past time that a halt was called to imperialism, neoliberalism, and the destruction of the world’s cultures, and the massacre and exploitation of its peoples.

Archaeology Confronts Neoliberalism

March 5, 2017

I got the latest catalogue of books on archaeology and history from Oxbow Books, an Oxford based bookseller and publisher, which specialises in them, a few days ago. Among the books listed was one critical of neoliberalism, and which explored the possibilities of challenging it from within the profession. The book’s entitled Archaeology and Neoliberalism. It’s edited by Pablo Aparicio Resco, and will be published by JAS Arquelogia. The blurb for it in the catalogue states

The effects of neoliberalism as ideology can be seen in every corner of the planet, worsening inequalities and empowering markets over people. How is this affecting archaeology? Can archaeology transcend it? This volume delves into the context of archaeological practice within the neoliberal world and the opportunities and challenges of activism from the profession.

This isn’t an issue I really know anything about. However, I’m not surprised that many archaeologists are concerned about the damage neoliberalism is doing to archaeology. 15 years ago, when I was doing my Masters at UWE, one of the essay questions set was ‘Why do some Historians see heritage as a dirty word?’ Part of the answer to that question was that some historians strongly criticised the heritage industry for its commodification of the past into something to be bought, sold and consumed. They placed the blame for this squarely on the shoulders of Maggie Thatcher and her Tory government. Rather than being an object of value or investigation for its own sake, Thatcherite free market ideology saw it very much in terms of its monetary value. They contrasted this with the old Conservative ethos, which saw culture as something that was above its simple cash value.

Social critics were also concerned about the way Thatcherism was destroying Britain’s real industries, and replacing them with theme parks, in which they were recreated, in a sanitised version that was calculated not to present too many difficult questions and represented the Tory view of history. One example of this was a theme park representing a mining village. It was on the site of a real mining village, whose mine had been closed down. However, other pieces of mining equipment and related buildings and structures, which were never in that particularly village, were put there from other mining towns and villages elsewhere. It thus showed what an imaginary mining village was like, rather than the real mining community that had actually existed. It was also a dead heritage attraction, a museum, instead of a living community based around a still thriving industry.

There were also concerns about the way heritage was being repackaged to present a right-wing, nationalistic view of history. For example, the Colonial Williamsburg museum in America was originally set up to present a view of America as a land of technological progress, as the simple tools and implements used by the early pioneers had been succeeded by ever more elaborate and efficient machines. They also pointed to the way extreme right-wing pressure groups and organisations, like the Heritage Foundation, had also been strongly involved in shaping the official, Reaganite version of American ‘heritage’. And similar movements had occurred elsewhere in the world, including France, Spain and the Caribbean. In Spain the concern to preserve and celebrate the country’s many different autonomous regions, from Catalonia, the Basque country, Castille, Aragon and Granada, meant that the view of the country’s history taught in schools differed greatly according to where you were.

Archaeology’s a different subject than history, and it’s methodology and philosophy is slightly different. History is based on written texts, while archaeology is based on material remains, although it also uses written evidence to some extent. History tends to be about individuals, while archaeology is more about societies. Nevertheless, as they are both about the investigation of the human past, they also overlap in many areas and I would imagine that some of the above issues are still highly relevant in the archaeological context.

There’s also an additional problem in that over the past few decades, the Thatcherite decision to make universities more business orientated has resulted in the formation of several different private archaeological companies, which all compete against each other. I’ve heard from older archaeologists that as a result, the archaeological work being done today is less thorough and of poorer quality than when digs were conducted by local authorities.

I haven’t read the book, but I’m sure that the editor and contributors to this book are right about neoliberalism damaging archaeology and the necessity of archaeologists campaigning against it and its effects on their subject. By its very nature, the past needs to be investigated on its own terms, and there can be multiple viewpoints all legitimately drawn from the same piece of evidence. And especially in the case of historical archaeology, which in the American context means the investigation of the impact of European colonisation from the 15th century onwards, there are strongly emotive and controversial issues of invasion, capitalism, imperialism, the enslavement of Black Africans and the genocide of the indigenous peoples. For historians and archaeologists of slavery, for example, there’s a strong debate about the role this played in the formation of European capitalism and the industrial revolution. Such issues cannot and should not be censored or ignored in order to produce a nice, conservative interpretation of the past that won’t offend the Conservative or Republican parties and their paymasters in multinational industry, or challenge their cosy conception that the free market is always right, even when it falsifies the misery and injustice of the past and creates real poverty today.

Book on Medieval Nubian Literature and Literacy

March 14, 2015

One of the pieces I wrote a few years ago on this blog and which is still being read was an article on the churches and monasteries of medieval Nubia. From the early Middle Ages to the fifteenth century, when the area was finally conquered by Islam, there were a group of three civilisations stretched along the Nile in ancient Nubia. These were literate kingdoms, who appeared to have adopted monophysite Christianity from Coptic Egypt. They built churches, monasteries and palaces, and were in communion with the other Eastern orthodox Christian churches, whose literature they translated into Nubian.

Archaeologists have been studying and attempting to piece together this culture since the 1960s. A number of sites have been excavated, including the ancient capital, Soba, and Arminna West. Four years ago in 2011 the Journal of Juristic Papyrology published a collection of papers on Nubian literature and writings, Nubian Voices: Studies in Nubian Christian Civilisation, by Adam Lajtar, Giovanni Rufini, and J van der Vliet. The blurb for it in the Oxbow Books Catalogue for Egypt, the Near East, Islam and the Middle East, says of it:

This book is a collection of articles dealing with various aspects of medieval Nubian literacy. It contains eleven articles by an international group of scholars, representing different areas of language studies (Greek and Latin epigraphy, Coptology, Old Nubian studies). The articles contain both editions of new textual finds and reconsiderations of well-known sources. The chronology of the texts discussed in the books spans a few hundred years of medieval Nubian history (from the 7th until the 15th century) and their topographical distribution covers a large part of the Middle Nile Valley (from Qasr Ibrim in the north to Banganarti in the south) and beyond (northern Kordofan). The typological variety of the sources, with epitaphs, sepulchral crosses, legal documents, visitors’ inscriptions, and depinti on pottery, provides an insight into the richness of the Christian Nubian civilisation.

At £50, this way beyond my pocket, and I imagine most peoples. Still, you might be able to get it on interlibrary loan, or find a secondhand copy somewhere.