Wednesday, June 14, 2017

God Speed the Plough! Recapping Two Collapses of Complex Society in Light of Planting and Hoarding


Lotus bread; Or, actually, a raw bread made with oat flour, sunflower meal, hemp and chia seeds as well as lotus root.  Recipe at Shokuikuaustralia (Current website for Melbourne raw food enthusiasts.)

First off, apologies all around, because Nymphaea caerula, the blue lotus, one of the three species present in the Nile, contains " [an] aporphine having activity as a non-selective dopamine agonist," and it is a controlled substance in the Baltic states. That being said, some people get high by chewing an entire sheet of Zantac, and I kind of doubt that the Early Iron Age had a blue-lotus-related public health emergency going on.

It most certainly did have a problem with people who were tempted to take off into the marshes and get away from it all.

"A happy day, as we go down to the water-meadow
As we snare birds and catch many fish in Two-Waters [Fayum]
And the catcher and the harpooner come to us
As we draw the nets full of fowl
We moor our skiff at the thicket
And put offerings on the fire For Sobek, Lord of the Lake"
. . . I would do as my heart desires
When the country was my town
When the top of the water-meadow was my dwelling
No one could part me from the people my desires and from my friends
I would spend the day in the place of my longing
In the . . and the papyrus clumps
When it was dawn, I would have a snack
And be far away, walking in the place of my heart [Fragment of a New Kingdom poem; quoted in part from Blouin, trans. Parkinson, 1998, but lifted from here; reconstruction indications omitted] 


These are thoughts related to last week's inadvertently meaty post, thanks to Katherine Blouin, who has given us so much to think about. So it's good that I need to get a low-effort post out of the way. (Work on the postblogging posts will coincide with a trip to 100 Mile House for my youngest niece's elementary school graduation. Go Aly!)

The collapse of complex societies used to be big! With drama! Cities left to ruin; economies transformed, technologies changed. None of this dragging-out "secular stagnation" thing for the Ancients, no sir! Lay yourself down a nice "destruction/dark earth" layer, and go off and live in the mountains or the swamp or wherever. 

With some exceptions: Egypt made it through the Late Bronze Age Collapse and the Fall of the Roman Empire well enough. It looks as though the country was uniquely suited to complex society (no need to spell out why, I suppose). It didn't go entirely unscathed, however. Egyptologists divide the Ancient Egyptian past into three periods of high monarchy, and three "Intermediate Periods," although, as the maths of group theory will suggest, one of those Intermediate periods can't have been Intermediate. (The trick is that we don't count the Persian-Ptolemaic-Roman interlude as an Egyptian monarchy; so the Third Intermediate can also be the last period --unless we throw in a brief phase of Egyptian revival in the Classical Period, as we can if we want, for we are licensed historians. 

What made Egypt special, in comparison with, say Roman Britain? My conclusions probably aren't worth the electrons they're written on, but the evidence I rely on is building up, and really ought to be accounted for in a good theory.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Lotus Eaters: Flights and Fragments of the Year 251

Rubens, Consacration of Decius Mus
As the story goes, Publius Decius Mus, consul for 340 BC, was so eager for victory over the Sabines in battle that he consacrated ("dedicated/devoted himself") to the Dii Manes and the Earth.  His life was then duly exacted on the battlefield by the chthonic gods of earth, which seems like a bit of a cheat in terms of assessing the sincerity of his commitment, but at least meant that the gods didn't have to worry about organising a re-battle. This was deemed to be a sufficiently edifying example of old Roman patriotism that it passed Livy's not very high critical standards for choosing old family stories for the History of Rome. Or, he made it up at the behest of his boss, Augustus, as part of the first emperor's programmed of religious reforms disguised as restorations. This seems less likely, but, either way, those old Romans were weird.

The relevance here is that Trajan Decius was Emperor from 249 to 251, and died in battle with an army of Goths invading Rome's Balkan provinces in the last year. This was the first time that a Roman emperor died in a losing battle with a 'barbarian' enemy. It's hard to emphasise just what a cataclysmic event this was. Back in the day chief executives fought battles, they rarely lost, and even more rarely died. Skillful handlers knew how to choose battles, and when to bundle the boss off the field.

On the other hand, what do you do with a chief executive you can't handle? You might notice a big caveat to my generalisation, above. In old English and more recent Moghul civil wars, the losing king pretty much always died. I'm going to suggest that that is because there was a different political dynamic at work in which death-in-battle was part of the succession process, and those handlers stood ready at hand to facilitate the unfolding of political life.
Game of Thrones hasn't yet given us a scene of summary murder on the battlefield, probably because it's anticlimactic, and wild dogs devouring infants has a higher Q rating. 

Exactly that has been inferred about Decius' death.

Thanks to the recent publication of additional restored fragments of a history of the period, we are now positioned for another dive into the moment. A couple of additional pages of the history of an entire empire over a generation are transformative!

It's a little eye-raising that it's still hard to establish who was emperor when in the middle of the Third Century, when we also know the ownership and use of long lists of farms in the districts of the Mendesian theme of the Province of Egypt at the turn of the Fourth Century, about fifty years later. It is true that this has a great deal to do with accidents of survival; but here's the thing. Historians use what they have, not what they wish they had, or what they make up. In a ground-breaking recent study, Katherine Blouin has used papyrus documents from a fiscal archive in that theme to reconstruct a significant juncture of rebellion and social collapse in the northeastern corner of the "triangular landscape" of the Nile delta in a way that might shed some light on the crisis of 250.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Postblogging Technology, April 1947, II: Pluperfect Hell


R_.C.
Oriental Club,
London,
England

Dear Father:

I hope that I find you well. You find me perfectly, perfectly well, because I am wrapped up in a cocoon like the tiniest caterpillar, about to burst . . . Well, men never want to hear about that, and I do not think that you are the one to start. I would share all the news of the extended family with you, but there is a telephone strike on. (Imagine me making my fiercest face.) James somehow avoided being involved in a Gangland shooting in Los Angeles, as it turns out that Uncle Henry's mysterious benefactor at the dam is the same man he fingered for extortion, and the bad blood between them has resumed. He has even become so reckless as to have a Hearst man beaten up for Uncle's friend's colleague. Wong Lee is flying east to seek permission, after which this thing will be resolved once and for all. 

You should see the doll that James brought back from Los Angeles --Not really a doll at all, or, rather, more of a three-dimensional paper doll than anything else. Of course, the attraction is obvious, since once you sell the doll, you can go on selling little doll outfits indefinitely! Very intriguing. . . 


"GRACE."


Already released, even if it won't hit the top of the charts until August

A wish for long life in peach blossom time.

[NSFW Warning: I've included a picture of the Grace Moore crash scene, complete with burned bodies, that I took from Life today, because I think that it's an interesting historical fact that it could be printed, and because it gives a little perspective to the "drop off in air passengers." It's about two thirds of the way down and small, if you want to scroll past it.]