Posts Tagged ‘Oxbow Books’

Jodi Magness on the Archaeology of Early Islamic Settlement in Palestine

December 17, 2017

One of the other books in the winter edition of the Oxbow Bargain Book Catalogue for Winter 2017 is Jodi Magness’ Archaeology of the Early Islamic Settlement in Palestine. The blurb for this says

Archaeological evidence is frequently cited by scholars as proof that Palestine declined after the Muslim conquest and especially after the rise of the Abbasids in the mid-eighth century. Instead, Magness argues that the archaeological evidence supports the idea that Palestine and Syria experienced a tremendous growth in population and prosperity between the mid-sixth and mid-seventh centuries.

Eisenbrauns, 2003, 9781575060705, Hardback, was £49.99, now £14.95.

Magness is an Israeli archaeologist, who has written some brilliant, very accessible, popular books on the archaeology of the Holy Land. I recognise that my own religious views mean that I have a bias towards Biblical archaeology and the Ancient Near East, as opposed to the later, Muslim periods. However, western concerns with these periods have meant that precious later evidence of Muslim culture and towns have been destroyed as archaeologists have dug through them to get to ancient Egypt, for example. The British archaeologist John Romer was particular critical about this in one edition of his series on the history of archaeology for Channel 4, broadcast in the 1990s, Great Excavations. In one sequence, he sifted through the sand around one excavated ancient Egyptian monument, picking out pieces of Islamic period pottery, and sadly remarked, ‘There was a whole town here once.’ And explained that it had been either destroyed, or at least its remains had, by archaeologists determined to get at what was underneath from antiquity.

Which of course, may partly explain – but does not justify – the Islamist rage against pre-Islamic Egypt and its monuments. Like the pyramids, which they’d love to destroy.

Magness’ conclusions don’t really surprise me. There’s an argument about the demographic and economic conditions of the late Roman Empire at the time of the Muslim conquests. Part of the reasons for the Fall of the Roman Empire was economic stagnation, as I’ve pointed out before to combat the rubbish spouted by right-wing politicos and classicists like Boris Johnson. During the late Byzantine Empire, towns shrank, and many disappeared completely as they were abandoned. Those that survived tended to consist of a castle or fortification and a church around which was a much smaller settlement.

The nascent Islamic Empire put the region in touch with an expanding state that grew to cover the Near East and spread into parts of India. It gave merchants the opportunity to establish trade networks across a vast area. Furthermore, even when the Byzantines and Muslim emperors were still at work, Christians in the early caliphate were not prevented from contact with their spiritual superiors and coreligionists in Byzantium. Also, the official Byzantine ‘Melkite’ church, as it was known in Egypt, had persecuted the various ‘Jacobite’ or ‘Nestorian’ sects, which they considered heretical, often with horrific tortures. The result was that when the Muslims conquered the region, the persecuted masses opened the gates to them and welcomed them as liberators.

At the moment, however, Netanyahu, the Likudniks and the other members of the Israeli religious right in his coalition seem to be determined to erase any history of Palestine, that challenges its exclusive Jewish character. There are any number of books and articles by western historians attacking this and comparing it with militant nationalist movements elsewhere. Such as by Philip Rahtz, a very respected British archaeologist from my part of the West Country in his book, Invitation to Archaeology. This is not anti-Semitic, and Rahtz himself has always been anti- or at least, non-racist. He describes in the above book how shocked he was when an apparently liberal Australian student he was teaching was deeply surprised by his interest in the archaeology of Aboriginal Australians. ‘But they’re just apes!’ she exclaimed.

Netanyahu and his thugs are determined to close mosques and churches, or at least keep them very tightly controlled, just as the illegal settlers they support seize Palestinian land and homes in the Occupied Territories. So I really don’t know how long a genuinely open archaeological investigation of the Islamic period will last.

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John Wycliffe’s Pacifist Theology

December 17, 2017

I’m sick of writing about the Christian right in this country and America – their hatred of the poor, their Zionism and their insanely dangerous millennialism, in which they look forward to the last, apocalyptic war between good and evil, personified as a conflict between the Christian West and Israel on the side of good, and Communism and Islam as the armies of Satan. Here’s a bit of more inspiring theology, at least for those on the Left, from one of the seminal influences on the Reformation.

John Wycliffe has been described as ‘the Morning Star of the Reformation’. He was a late 14th-century English vicar from Yorkshire, who proposed radical reforms to combat what he saw as the corruption of the Church in his day. He was against pluralities, in which clergy held many benefices, often in widely separated parts of the country, noting that this did nothing for the Christian cure of souls. It was set up, however, partly as a way of giving the lower clergy a reasonable income because of the poverty of parts of the church at that time. He argued that the Bible should be the only source of Christian truth, and that salvation was by faith alone, not works. He demanded an end to clerical celibacy, which he said acted ‘to the great prejudice of women’ and promoted homosexuality amongst the clergy. So, not a fan of gay priests then. He also went further in his criticism of the moral right of rulers to govern us when they themselves were guilty of sin. No-one had this right, and those rulers sinning had to step down or be removed. This has been widely criticised since, as it would have made government just about impossible. But it is a severe corrective to the moral double standards of the upper classes, who saw themselves as having an absolute right to rule, often committing heinous sins and crimes themselves, while claiming their right as Christian rulers to punish and uphold moral standards to those lower down the social ladder. This attitude continued into the 17th century, when the monarchists of the British Civil War defended the monarchy on the grounds that the king, as God’s representative on Earth, was above the law, but had the duty to expound it, and so could not be tried for its breach.

He also translated the Bible into English, radical act forbidden by law in England, though perfectly acceptable elsewhere on the continent, such as France. He was not a member of the Lollards, the early radical Protestant movement that grew up around his doctrines, though he was a powerful influence on them. It was the Lollards who produced the song attacking contemporary serfdom, ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?’ In the 16th century, this was taken up and inspired the German peasants in their revolt against feudal overlordship: ‘Als Adam grub und Evan spann, wer war dann der Edelmann?’ Which is an exact translation.

I got the latest Oxbow books Bargain Catalogue through the post a few weeks ago. Among the books on medieval history and culture were two of Wycliffe’s. One was on the inspiration of scripture, the other was on his pacifist theology.

The book is John Wycliffe on War and Peace by Rory Cox. The blurb for the book in the Bargain Catalogue runs:

From the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo to the fifth century, Christian justifications of war had revolved around three key criteria: just cause, proper authority and correct intention. Using Wyclif’s extensive Latin corpus, the author shows how he dismantled these three pillars of medieval “just war” doctrine, demonstrating that he created a coherent doctrine of pacifism and non-resistance which was at that time unparalleled.

200 pages, Boydell and Brewer Ltd, 2014, 97080861933259, Hardback, was £50, bargain price £12.95.

I’m not a pacifist myself, as I believe that sometimes true evil can only be combated through violence. But I’m sick of the co-option of morality to justify the terrible greed and inhuman violence of colonialism and imperialism, especially in the latest attacks on the Middle East.

I realise that many of the readers of this blog have very different attitudes to my own on religion. I’m not trying to insult anyone else’s religious views here, particularly not Roman Catholics or the atheists, who read this blog. I am simply mentioning it as many Christians of radically different denominations and confessions have over the centuries come to pacifism in disgust at the horrors of war as organised violence. I fully recognise and endorse the contemporary Roman Catholic peace movement, which I’ve blogged about before.

I’ve posted it up the news of this book, as I thought it would interest and inspire the Christian readers of this blog, who share my opinions on war. And would also act as corrective to the militant bilge coming out of the American and British religious right and their aggressive, omnicidal militarism.

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.