If we dream of people we have long since forgotten or who have for long been dead, it is a sign that we have gone through a violent change within ourself and that the ground upon which we live has been completely turned over: so that the dead rise up and our antiquity becomes our modernity.

Reading Blind Pony’s To Die No More, the Nietzsche made me recall this:

Digging over at an outlying corner of the vegetable garden this afternoon, I unearthed a length of chain with a rusted spring clip on one end and recognised it as a goat tether I had last used twenty years ago or more. It was about a foot down under a retired compost heap and must have been buried, at least in part, by the ploughing of earthworms.

To discover my own life becoming archaeology like this was a shock. I had now lived my way into a timespan in which my own artefacts, tools or relics had become archaeological finds.

I was no longer digging up things from my own past metaphorically but literally.

From Roger Deakin.

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What will remain of us

Smithsonian has an article about nautical archaeology, focusing on Dunwich:

The sea that brought trade to Dunwich was not entirely benevolent. The town was losing ground as early as 1086 when the Domesday Book, a survey of all holdings in England, was published; between 1066 and 1086 more than half of Dunwich’s taxable farmland had washed away. Major storms in 1287, 1328, 1347, and 1740 swallowed up more land. By 1844, only 237 people lived in Dunwich. Today, less than half as many reside there in a handful of ruins on dry land.

Here’s Henry James on Dunwich, in English Hours (‘Old Suffolk’ — originally published in Harper's Weekly, 25 September, 1897), 1905:

If at low tide you walk on the shore, the cliffs, of little height, show you a defence picked as bare as a bone … [The land] stretched, within historic times, out into towns and promontories for which there is now no more to show than the empty eye-holes of a skull; and half the effect of the whole thing, half the secret of the impression, and what I may really call, I think, the source of the distinction, is this very visibility of the mutilation. Such at any rate is the case for a mind that can properly brood. There is a presence in what is missing — there is history in there being so little. It is so little, to-day, that every item of the handful counts.

The biggest items are of course the two ruins, the great church and its tall tower, now quite on the verge of the cliff, and the crumbled, ivied wall of the immense cincture of the Priory. These things have parted with almost every grace, but they still keep up the work that they have been engaged in for centuries and that cannot better be described than as the adding of mystery to mystery. … The mystery sounds for ever in the hard, straight tide, and hangs, through the long, still summer days and over the low, diked fields, in the soft, thick light. We play with it as with the answerless question, the question of the spirit and attitude, never again to be recovered, of the little city submerged. For it was a city, the main port of Suffolk, as even its poor relics show ; with a fleet of its own on the North Sea, and a big religious house on the hill. We wonder what were then the apparent conditions of security, and on what rough calculation a community could so build itself out to meet its fate. It keeps one easy company here to-day to think of the whole business as a magnificent mistake.

I’m keeping The Rings of Saturn for when we have a chance to go walking in Suffolk, but, via John Naughton, here’s Sebald on Dunwich:

The Dunwich of the present day is what remains of what was one of the most important ports of Europe in the Middle Ages. There were more than fifty churches, monasteries and convents, and hospitals here; there were shipyards and fortifications and a fisheries and merchant fleet of eighty vessels; and there were dozens of windmills … The parish churches of St James, St Leonard, St Martin, St Bartholomew, St Michael, St Patrick, St Mary, St John, St Peter, St Nicholas and St Felix, one after the other, toppled down the steadily-receding cliff-face and sank in the depths, along with the earth and stone of which the town had been built. All that survived, strange to say, were the walled well-shafts, which, for centuries, freed of what had once enclosed them, rose aloft like the chimney stacks of some subterranean smithy, as various chronicles report, until in due course these symbols of the vanished town also fell down.

Thinking about Dunwich and nautical archaeology made me read again about the project to use 3D seismic data to map the North Sea Palaeolandscapes — lands of hunter-gatherer communities, lost as water levels changed over 8000 years ago:


Professor Vince Gaffney:

It's like finding another country. … At times this change would have been insidious and slow — but at times, it could have been terrifyingly fast. It would have been very traumatic for these people. … It would be a mistake to think that these people were unsophisticated or without culture. … they would have had names for the rivers and hills and spiritual associations - it would have been a catastrophic loss. … In 10,000 BC, hunter-gatherers were living on the land in the middle of the North Sea. By 6,000 BC, Britain was an island. The area we have mapped was wiped out in the space of 4,000 years. BBC News

From the project’s introduction:

The British continental shelf contains one of the most detailed and comprehensive records of the Late Quaternary and Holocene landscapes in Europe. This landscape is unique in that it was extensively populated by humans but was rapidly inundated during the Mesolithic as a consequence of rising sea levels as a result of rapid climate change. Previous researchers have recognised the rapid inundation may have preserved topographic features and caches of environmental data of high quality which may be used to provide insights into Holocene landscapes which, if located and sampled, may be unparalleled by terrestrial sites. Knowledge of the development of this landscape is also critical to our understanding of the impact of climate change on palaeobathymetry and shoreline sequences. It is clear that the exploitation of the Southern North Sea for energy and mineral resources, most notably aggregate extraction, remains a strategic goal for the UK and without adequate data this remarkable landscape is under significant threat from development. Furthermore, given that this landscape suffered changes comparable with those predicted for the British shoreline over the next century, the value in providing comparative data for the future impact of global warming seems clear.

Ice Age art

Something beautiful …

Archaeologists at the University of Tübingen have recovered the first entirely intact woolly mammoth figurine from the Swabian Jura, a plateau in the state of Baden-Württemberg, thought to have been made by the first modern humans some 35,000 years ago. It is believed to be the oldest ivory carving ever found. "You can be sure," Tübingen archaeologist Nicholas J. Conard told SPIEGEL ONLINE, "that there has been art in Swabia for over 35,000 years." Spiegel Online

Mammoth 1
Universität Tübingen 

The figure of the woolly mammoth is tiny, measuring just 3.7 cm long and weighing a mere 7.5 grams, and displays skilfully detailed carvings. It is unique in its slim form, pointed tail, powerful legs and dynamically arched trunk. It is decorated with six short incisions, and the soles of the pachyderm's feet show a crosshatch pattern. …

The geological context of the discoveries and radiocarbon dating indicate that the figurines belong to the Aurignacian culture, which refers to an area of southern France and is associated with the arrival of the first modern humans in Europe. Multiple radiocarbon dates from sediment in the Vogelherd Cave yielded ages between 30,000 and 36,000 years ago, the University of Tübingen reports. Some methods give an even older date. Spiegel Online

Mammoth 2
Universität Tübingen 

These tiny artworks, recently unearthed, are among the oldest examples of figurative art ever found. (For comparison, the oldest known cave/rock paintings go back to 32,000-40,000 years ago. The paintings at Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain are somewhere around 15,000 years old.) Thinking Meat

via 3 Quarks Daily

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Layered, furcating stories in time and space

Kim posting Stories in Urban Spaces and my happening to be re-reading Borges (in the Andrew Hurley translation), made me go back to 'The Garden of Forking Paths' (1941).

Borges' narrator, Yu Tsun, is the great-grandson of Ts'ui Pen, a 'governor of Yunan province … who renounced all temporal power in order to write a novel containing more characters than the Hung Lu Meng and construct a labyrinth in which all men would lose their way'. Ts'ui Pen is murdered after 13 years of work on these labours, and what survived was a 'novel (that) made no sense' — and 'no one ever found the labyrinth'. Early in the story, Yu Tsun, on the run, reflects that 'all things happen to oneself, and happen precisely, precisely now. Century follows century, yet events occur only in the present; countless men in the air, on the land and sea, yet everything that truly happens, happens to me.' Choosing a name from a phone book (the reason for which choice only becomes fully clear at the end of the story), he finds himself at the house of the famous Sinologist, Stephen Albert. Improbability is heaped on improbability (after all, this is anti-literature, no matter that it is also literature of exquisite skill, intelligence and inventiveness), and Stephen Albert is not only intimate with the life and work of Ts'ui Pen but has, he believes, cracked the secret of both novel and labyrinth: they are one and the same. Ts'ui Pen had left a fragment of a letter: 'I leave to several futures (not to all) my garden of forking paths'. Stephen Albert explains to Yu Tsun:

'I leave to several futures (not to all) my garden of forking paths.' Almost instantly, I saw it — the garden of forking paths was the chaotic novel; the phrase 'several futures (not all)' suggest to me the image of a forking in time, rather than in space. A full rereading of the book confirmed my theory. In all fictions, each time a man meets diverse alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the work of the virtually impossible-to-disentangle Ts'ui Pen, the character chooses — simultaneously — all of them. He creates, thereby, 'several futures', several times, which themselves proliferate and fork. That is the explanation for the novel's contradictions. Fang, let us say, has a secret; a stranger knocks at the door; Fang decides to kill him. Naturally, there are various possible outcomes — Fang can kill the intruder, the intruder can kill Fang, they can both live, they can both be killed, and so on. In Ts'ui Pen's novel, all the outcomes in fact occur; each is the starting point for further bifurcations. Once in a while, the paths of that labyrinth converge: for example, you come to this house, but in one of the possible pasts you are my enemy, in another my friend.

… 'The Garden of Forking Paths' is an incomplete, but not false, image of the universe as conceived by Ts'ui Pen. Unlike Newton and Schopenhauer, your ancestor did not believe in a uniform and absolute time; he believed in an infinite series of times, a growing, dizzying web of divergent, convergent and parallel times. That fabric of times that approach one another, fork, are snipped off, or are simply unknown for centuries, contains all possibilities. In most of those times, we do not exist; in some, you exist but I do not; in others, I do and you do not; in others still, we both do. In this one, which the favouring hand of chance has dealt me, you have come to my home; in another, when you come through my garden you find me dead; in another, I say these same words, but I am an error, a ghost.

Life as layered narrative, diachronically and synchronically; shared and individual, typical/general and unique — knowledge fundamental to our sense of being human. The advent of technologies which could allow us to interact with place and time raises questions that are profoundly old. (Kim's questions towards the end of her post made me think of urban plays, from medieval pageants to contemporary community projects — The Dillen, for example.) The extension of all this, in and through new technology, into new "theatres" of play, entertainment and education … The possibilities for grass-roots up development, for social and communal initiatives which bypass official or authorised pictures of the polis … 'infinite stories, infinitely branching' (Borges, 'A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain', 1941).

But in Borges, 'infinite stories, infinitely branching' suggests a weariness and meaninglessness. (Ecclesiastes, 12.12: 'Of making many books there is no end and much study is a weariness of the flesh'.) This melancholy may even embrace the world. 'The Library of Babel', 1941, conceives of a universe, the Library, as 'unlimited but periodic': 'If an eternal traveller should journey in any direction, he would find after untold centuries that the same volumes are repeated in the same disorder — which, repeated, becomes order: the Order'. In this story, the librarian finds this an 'elegant hope'; this reader finds the thought dispiriting.

Will a glut of gorgeous visualisations and interactive, highly social "games" deepen our melancholy — too much meaning to be finally meaningful? Or, instead, will the glamour of technology encourage us to forget and to take again the picture for the world? I doubt there will be anything new in the range of answers we come up with to either of these questions.

In 1984, Harold Fisch published A Remembered Future and wrote of how art can give us 'the unappeased memory of a future still to be fulfilled'. More recently, Heaney has written of how 'We go to poetry, we go to literature in general, to be forwarded within ourselves. The best it can do is to give us an experience that is like foreknowledge of certain things which we already seem to be remembering. What is at work … is the mind's capacity to conceive a new plane of regard for itself, a new scope for its own activity' ('Joy or Night', 1990, in The Redress of Poetry, 1995). New ways of presenting layered narratives, as yet but 'tiny glimmers' (Kim's phrase), will acquire their maturity as art when they allow us to conceive a new plane of regard for ourselves as both unique and typical, simultaneously liberating us from the lonely egotism of Yu Tsun, where 'everything that truly happens, happens to me', and the merely 'unlimited but periodic'.

Oxyrhynchus: against divided art & audiences

The name of Oxyrhynchus meant little or nothing to most people (myself included) until 1990 and the production at London's National Theatre of Tony Harrison's The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus. One of the best things I've ever seen in the theatre, I went with some students of mine — and then returned very quickly, with another group, for a second serving. Trackers_2Time Out described it as "total theatre" (see Faber's Trackers page — click on thumbnail) and the nearest I've come to experiencing anything as visceral since was in the (quite different) Tropicana production currently running in London (which my students also enjoyed …).

In the programme for the 1990 production, Professor Parsons (at the time, Regius Professor of Greek, Oxford) noted that 'the traditional classical world has left us no books: all the contents, say, of the great Library of Alexandria, or of the 28 public libraries of imperial Rome, have disappeared without trace — fire and damp disposed of them. What we possess of the literature of the Greeks and Romans we possess because a selection of works were copied and recopied, first on papyrus and later on parchment, through the Roman Empire and then through the Middle Ages — Latin in the West, Greek in the East. In the Renaissance, the surviving manuscripts were hunted out; and the invention of printing meant that works which had survived up to then would go on surviving. But it was a chancy business; for example, just one copy of the poems of Catullus survived to this point … (and) even surviving authors survived only in part. Sophocles wrote 123 plays; of these seven were transmitted through the Middle Ages, because in the late Empire they were chosen as set books, and all the rest disappeared. … These losses seemed to be final — until the Egyptian rubbish (at Oxyrhynchus) came to the rescue, for the dumps included, sporadically and in fragments, books which were circulating before the great massacre of the Middle Ages.'

Harrison's takes the 400 lines of Sophocles' satyr play, Ichneutae, discovered in 1907 at Oxyrhynchus by Grenfell and Hunt (Oxford University) — the pioneers of a new branch of Classics, papyrology — and around them and through them, with the aid of be-clogged satyrs, weaves a play for our own times. Harrison, steeped in classical literature, finds in Greek culture a wholeness of imagination, an 'essential catholicity', a 'unity of tragedy and satyr play', which was subsequently betrayed — divided into 'high' and 'low'. This division perpetuates 'divided audiences, divided societies' (introduction to the Faber edition of Trackers).


With the loss of these plays we are lacking important clues to the wholeness of the Greek imagination, and its ability to absorb and yet not be defeated by the tragic. In the satyr play, that spirit of celebration, held in the dark solution of tragedy, is precipitated into release, and a release into the worship of the Dionysus who presided over the whole dramatic festival. (ibidem)

Teachers and "guardians of culture", beware. In a Daily Telegraph interview (February, 1990), Harrison said to Trevor Bates:

The play is part of my slow burning revenge against the teacher who denied me an opportunity to read poetry and take part in plays because of my accent. We chose Salts Mill [where the production visited in April 1990] because we needed a venue where the ghost images of the past were strong. Clogs are one of the principal expressions of the rhythm of life and they gear the satyrs into action.


Barrie Rutter and Tony Harrison during rehearsals at Delphi. Photo Sandra Lousada


The Independent recently ran a story (purchase necessary) about the reserach being done on Oxyrhyncus material by contemporary Oxford academics working alongside specialists from Brigham Young University (BYU), Utah. Hailed in The Independent as a collaboration 'likely to increase the number of great literary works fully or partially surviving from the ancient Greek world by up to a fifth', there was then a strange silence, and, finally, a sceptical posting on Ars technica. Dirk Obbink, papyrologist at Oxford and the academic at the heart of the new work on the Oxyrhynchus material, has attempted to clarify the picture, e-mailing by proxy on the papyrologists' discussion group (registration required), and some of what he had to say can also be read here, at the Oxford Papyrology site (POxy: Oxyrhynchus Online):

We scanned portions of the unrolled Herculaneum papyrus in the Bodleian Library and experimented on problematic carbonised and non-carbonised samples in the Oxyrhynchus collection in the Sackler Library (including documents), some of them for final checks in texts scheduled for publication in the next two volumes of The Oxyrhynchus Papyri. The results … were of mixed success, revealing many new readings and confirmation of uncertain readings in some problem areas, none at all in others, depending on settings and surface type. In some ranges and surfaces even less writing could be read than with the eye or none at all. As usual with the Oxy. papyri a number of new identifications emerged of literary and documentary texts not previously made by the usual means, together with the isolation of four or five different types of surface and obscurity that respond well or not well to the BYU process. … The process seemed to work best on darkened, charred, or stained surfaces, and can image through some surface materials, but sees nothing through mud, clay, or silt. It produced excellent results on palimpsests, cancellations and damnationes memoriae, and on disintegrating surfaces where the ink has settled deep into the fibres. It was least successful on surfaces that were partially or entirely washed out. … Surprisingly, in one trial the process successfully imaged through painted gesso, revealing a previously unknown document … on the papyrus cartonage surface underneath. The London press got wind of this … and reported enthusiastically, if selectively.

More details about the processes involved and their results are available in Dirk Obbink's email and POxy posting, and also here.

Tally of extant & lost plays (using Professor Parsons' figures)

Aeschylus: 7 extant; 83 lost (including about 20 Satyr plays)

Sophocles: 7 extant; 116 lost (including about 30 Satyr plays)

Euripides: 19 extant (including 1 Satyr play, The Cyclops); 61 lost (including about 15 Satyr plays)

The importance of table manners

via 3 Quarks Daily, this interview by Greg Ross, managing editor of American Scientist Online, with the economist, Paul Seabright. It says and suggests so much in a short space:

It can seem extraordinary that the vast complexity of human cooperation—from road traffic patterns to markets, the Internet and the systems that keep our houses and cities safe—should rest on nothing more solid than social convention, as though civilization were founded purely on table manners. I may think my property is secure and my life reasonably protected, but that is only because the rest of the world has agreed, for the time being, to let them be so. And what people have agreed to respect today they can agree to violate tomorrow. Yet it is just as remarkable how robust many of our conventions turn out to be in practice. Partly this is because conventions govern our reactions to people as roles and not just as individuals … Partly it is because the hydra of social life has too many heads to be easily incapacitated: The conventions that sustain our physical security are not coordinated in one place, such as the U.N. or the Pentagon, but are the result of billions of individual decisions concerning how we react to neighbours, friends and colleagues. …

(Taking the risk of trusting each other) doubtless took place many millions of times, and led to millions of unrecorded tragedies. … Two things must have tipped the balance: need and familiarity. Need because many isolated hunter-gatherer groups lived a very precarious existence, with starvation perpetually threatening, along with other costs of isolation, such as inbreeding. Of those that took the risk of reaching out towards strangers, many must have regretted their temerity. But those that succeeded—perhaps only a few of those that tried—thrived and spread, and became the ancestors of everyone alive today. What helped them to win the trust of strangers would have been to play upon familiarity—behaving in ways that are like the ways we behave towards our family and friends. That's why we smile at strangers, just as babies smile at their mothers. That's why we invite strangers to eat with us, because the common table is the centre of family existence. Mastering the mimicry of family interaction must have helped enormously to interact safely with unfamiliar people. …

Some turning points in our social evolution seem luckier than others. Agriculture was independently adopted at least seven times in different parts of the world, suggesting that prior conditions made it highly likely, if not inevitable. And agriculture, by making us sedentary, made it more or less inevitable that we would evolve some kinds of institution to mediate our dealings with strangers. It also allowed for the increases in population that enabled us to colonise a wide variety of habitats and thereby become less dependent on the vicissitudes of nature in the woodland savanna where we first evolved. On the other hand, the mutations that made modern Homo sapiens so very different from our hominid ancestors and cousins seem very contingent indeed. …

A single act of violence can frighten millions or billions of us. On the other hand, terrorists are skilful symbolic manipulators, often making us afraid in ways that bear little relation to objective risks. In today's world you are 20 times as likely to die from a stranger's infectious disease as from a violent act. … This doesn't take away from the seriousness of terrorism, but it underlines how keeping it in check requires initiatives in the realm of ideas and not just of surveillance and repression.

… the capacity for violence is quite close to the surface in most of us, especially in men. When I read about soldiers who commit atrocities in wartime, for instance, I wonder how likely I would have been to act differently.  The fragility of our defenses against our violent nature makes it all the more important, obviously, to strengthen those defenses we have (including through social condemnation of violence). But we should not be naively surprised at the consequences when we place young men in situations from which most of the social defenses against violence and aggression have been removed. …

… I have become more conscious of how strange it is that we should ever expect modern society to work at all.

Paul Seabright's book, The Company of Strangers: A Natural History of Economic Life, is clearly a "must read". The AS interview is prefaced — he's 'traveled widely, especially in Eastern Europe and Asia. He currently lives in southwest France, where he teaches economics at the University of Toulouse'. Even in my lifetime, UK culture has often seemed to be dominated by an insularity of outlook and unthinking confidence in our institutions and customs — until quite recently. The opening up of Europe — the sudden access to Mitteleurop, the abandonment of traditional, policed border-crossings — is having a profound impact on UK self-consciousness.

Biology/evolutionary psychology meets economics, meets social studies, meets anthropology, meets … Terror — so much here.

Manhattan, 28 May

© Neil deGrasse Tyson

Today, if it is clear, Manhattan will flood dramatically with sunlight just as the Sun sets precisely on the centerline of every street. Usually, the tall buildings that line the gridded streets of New York City's tallest borough will hide the setting Sun. This effect makes Manhattan a type of modern Stonehenge, although only aligned to about 30 degrees east of north. Were Manhattan's road grid perfectly aligned to east and west, today's effect would occur on the Vernal and Autumnal Equinox, March 21 and September 21, the only two days that the Sun rises and sets due east and west. If today's sunset is hidden by clouds do not despair -- the same thing happens every May 28 and July 12. On none of these occasions, however, should you ever look directly at the Sun.

Astronomy Picture of the Day