Archive by Author

Bringing Augustus To Life: A John Williams Quote

5 May

Just  before the current lock-down started in the United Kingdom I had the deep pleasure to read the novel Stoner, by the American academic and novelist John Williams.  It left a strong desire to explore his work further and I was excited to learn that each of his four published novels are unalike in form and style, focusing on completely different periods and utilising a variety of perspectives.  As time turned, and it became apparent that we would have to lock ourselves away from the social world, I sought continuing joy through the written word.

I quickly came across the next book by Williams that caught my attention – a self-titled work of fiction focused on the life of Augustus (64 BC – AD 14), otherwise known as Gaius Octavius.  He was the adopted heir of Julius Caesar who went on to become the first Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus, ruling from 27 BC to AD 14 following the vanquishing of Caesar’s assassins and victory in the subsequent civil war.  Following Augustus’s numerous victories in battle and the consolidation of his political power, he helped to implement changes that oversaw Rome transition from a Republic to its first phase as a burgeoning imperial empire, thus helping to usher in a relatively prosperous and peaceful 200-year period known as the Pax Romana.  Augustus was arguably one of Rome’s most remarkable and adept political leaders.

The remarkable bronze Meroë Head of Augustus with striking glass pupils and calcite irises. Found in 1910 at the ancient Nubian site of Meroë, Sudan, the Greek-style statue is thought to date from 29 BC. Image credit: Wikipedia.

In Williams’s epistolary novel we are first introduced to Gaius Octavius through his friends and from there we follow his life, with nuanced views and fictional scenes giving emotional heft to the historical fact.

I’ll end it there with the novel description as I really just wanted to draw attention to the quote below from Williams himself, taken appropriately enough from a letter to a friend detailing his struggle of how to represent the novel’s historical figures and fictional viewpoints in a accurate manner, as it pays to bear in mind that the novel is as much about the people surrounding Augustus as it is about himself:

Those people were very real and contemporaneous to me. I wanted a kind of immediacy in it,  but I couldn’t figure a way how to do it. I also knew that all educated Romans were great letter-writers. Cicero would write eight, ten, twelve letters a day. And the Roman postal service was probably as good as our postal service is today. . . I wanted the characters to present themselves. I didn’t want to try to explain them. I didn’t want to have a twentieth-century vision of the Roman times. So the epistolary form lets the people speak for themselves… The provincial notion of how much more advanced we are – that’s nonsense.

– Quoted from Williams (2003: x).

There is a great point made repeatedly throughout the novel that history, both what we as individuals chose it to record and what it actually records through the medium of time, can only ever be what survives.  In ‘Augustus’ we are instead presented with fictitious multi-faceted views of historical figures and it is to the credit of William’s imagination and literary skill that they seem so alive and vital in this supremely accomplished novel.

Bibliography

Williams, J. 2003. Augustus: A Novel. Vintage: London.

Williams, J. 2012. Stoner: A Novel. Vintage: London

Spotted: Introduction to Forensic Anthropology – Human Osteology Short Course @ University of Lincoln, 27-31 July 2020 – *Postponed to 2021*

3 Mar

*** Please note that this short course has now been postponed until 2021 due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Further information will be provided once it is available. In the meantime please keep an eye on the University of Lincoln website for updates ***

 

On the British Archaeological Jobs and Resources Facebook page recently I came across an intriguing advert for a brand new human osteology short course, which not only looks at the skeletal anatomy but also the excavation and recording methods used in forensics and archaeology to recover human remains.

Taking place over five days (27-31 July 2020), the Forensic Anthropology – Human Osteology short course takes place at the University of Lincoln and is aimed at the beginner and enthusiast level with no experience needed, though forensic and archaeology professionals will find the course useful. The hands on lecture and laboratory short course is taught by bioarchaeologist Samantha Tipper and biological anthropologist, radiographer and medical researcher Charlie Primeau.

Courses such as these are a fantastic place to learn about the skeletal anatomy and variation found within the human skeleton.  They are also a great opportunity to further your knowledge, extend your skills, or to use as a springboard into pursuing a career.  Before I undertook my own MSc in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology at the University of Sheffield, I participated in two short courses in human osteology and zooarchaeology (study of non-human animals within archaeology) and they helped my experience and understanding of osteological material within archaeological contexts immensely.

Check out the full Forensic Anthropology – Human Osteology University of Lincoln short course details below for more information.

Laying out a human skeletal in the anatomical position. Image credit: University of Lincoln.

Course Dates: 27 – 31 July 2020 (five days inclusive).

Fees: £400 per person (£300 for students).

Application Deadline: 20 May 2020.

How to apply: If you want to book a place, or require further information on the short course, you are advised to contact organiser Samantha Tipper via stipper@lincoln.ac.uk.

Accommodation: Not included but available on University of Lincoln campus (additional fees apply).

Please Note: Payment is due by 1 June 2020, any cancellations must be requested before 1 July 2020. Attendees must be aged over 18 years.

Poster advertising the human osteology short course taking part at the Anthropology laboratory at the University of Lincoln. Image credit: University of Lincoln.

The following information is provided by the short course website:

This five-day beginner-level introduction to human osteology is aimed at students, professionals working in archaeology, heritage or museum sectors, as well as anyone with an interest in learning about human osteology. The course will provide an introduction to human osteology and will be delivered through lectures and hands-on practical sessions.

Topics covered include:

  • The application of human osteology in an archaeological and forensic context
  • Ethical issues surrounding human remains
  • Excavation and recording methods
  • The human skeleton and basic anatomy
  • Human verses non-human skeletal remains
  • Estimation of sex and age at death
  • Determination of stature
  • Human Dentition.

A Shout Out for Other Short Courses

As ever, if you know of any other bioarchaeology, forensic anthropology, or human osteology-orientated short courses taking place in the United Kingdom, then please do feel free to leave a comment below to let me know.  Alternatively please email me at thesebonesofmine at protonmail.ch – I am always happy to highlight your course here on this blog.

Further Information

  • The University of Lincoln offer both an undergraduate BSc (Hons) and a taught postgraduate MSc in Forensic Science. Check out the University of Lincoln’s past and present forensic anthropological research, news and activities here.
  • Read Dr Charlie Primeau’s fascinating blog on her website here and Samantha Tipper’s research here.
  • The University of Sheffield also offer a three-day human osteology short course (6-8 April 2020), costing £180 full price and £120 for concessions.

Game of Thrones Osteology: A Mormont Skull-Cup

19 Oct

Ever since the recent finale of season seven of the television series Game of Thrones (1), I’ve been revisiting the earlier episodes in order to remind myself of its intricate and myriad story-lines, alongside its cast of thousands of characters.  Sometimes this can be a bit of a headache and a puzzle watching an episode, trying to tease out the relationships, experiences and personal histories of the characters before the scene ends and you are whizzed off elsewhere around Westeros (or the Dothraki Plain).  This blog post may be about to do the same topic-wise, so prepare yourself!

New Lands, Old Fears

But Game of Thrones also offers a huge scope to visit different scenarios, locations and approaches, many of which are inspired from historical examples, such as the political intrigue of the War of the Roses (2.) in late medieval England and those of Imperial Rome.  One of more important settings is the The Wall, a huge ice wall construction built thousands of years before the present setting of the series to separate the wild north from the kingdoms of the south.  This structure is reminiscent of Hadrian’s Wall in northern England, which separated Roman-ruled Britannia to the more northern lands ruled by associated tribes of the Ancient Britons and Picts.  In the television series though the northern lands are where ‘Wildings’ roam freely, loose tribes who live lifestyles akin to hunter-gatherers.  It is also a place where rumours of the return of ‘White Walkers’ abound, human-like creatures said to be able to bring back the dead as animated revenants to haunt and slaughter the living.

Illustration of the Jewish mythological malicious spirit known as Dybbuk by Ephraim Moshe Lilien (1874-1925) in his Book of Job as it appeared in Die Bucher Der Bibel. The dybbuk is the dislocated soul of a dead person which goes on to possess another individual until it has accomplished its goal. Image from Wikipedia.

Before I get ahead of myself, the use of revenants in the Game of Thrones universe taps into a reoccurring and general unease in human cultures of the dead ‘coming’ back to life.  Obvious parallels can be found and cited in the historical record from medieval Europe, particularly from Norway and England, but other cultural and religious examples include Chinese Jiangshi (‘hopping zombie’), the Jewish Dybbuk (a malicious possessing spirit), and the Malaysian and Indonesian Pocong (ghost of the soul of the deceased individual).  The idea of the vampire, made famous by Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel of 1897 but present in many European traditions in one form or another in previous centuries, also fits this category.  It would be fair to say that a fundamental feature of these concepts is the unease surrounding the death in general and the transition undertaken by the body as it undergoes the processes of decomposition.

The Old Bear

During one of the recent episode re-watches I came across the breakdown of the Night’s Watch, the politically unaffiliated band of brothers who guard the Wall against northern incursions and attacks.  Safe from the internal politics of the Seven Kingdoms that make up Westeros, the Night’s Watch relies on volunteers or prisoners to help man the crumbling watch forts and man the walkways high atop the Wall.  Unfortunately the members can prove to be a traitorous lot at times, particularly in times of hardship, de-funding and general building dilapidation as the kingdoms to south war among themselves.

The character I want to focus on briefly here is the Lord Commander Jeor Mormont (the Old Bear), an elderly individual who holds top spot in the Night’s Watch and tries to provide steady leadership during trying times.  In season three, after an incursion into the frozen north ends badly following a somewhat terrifying encounter with the white walkers, the remaining men try to muster at a barely-defended longhouse (Craster’s Keep) before making for the safety of the Wall.  Before this happens though trouble breaks out and ends in outright treason among a portion of the broken and bloodied men.  The Lord Commander himself meets a bloody end at the hand of one of the mutineer’s blades and season three draws to a dramatic close.

The Lord Commander, though dead, still manages to make an appearance in season four. . .

Lord Commander Jeor Mormont, of the Night’s Watch, in better days at the Wall in Game of Thrones. Image credit: Game of Thrones Wiki.

. . . Alas not as a revenant, but as an inverted skull-cup!

In one of the early episodes to season four (it’s been too long since I saw it but I presume either episode one or two), we cut to one of the mutineers drinking wine out of the now defleshed skull of the former Lord Commander Mormont.  I have to say, the skull-cup must have been well-plugged of any canals and foramen, let alone the magnum foramen!

If you are an adult check out the video below and see if you can tell, from an osteological standpoint, what the mutineer did incorrectly whilst handling a human skull (minus the drinking of a cold vintage from it)?  Please note that the video contains strong language, sexual violence, and nudity.

If you had said grabbing the skull by the orbits (eye sockets), you would be quite correct!

Never grab a skull by the orbits or any other hole presented, as you run the risk of damaging and breaking the delicate facial bones by doing so.  Particularly at risk are the bones that help form the orbits and nasal aperture (nose hole), such as the lacrimals, nasals, zygomatics and sphenoid skeletal elements.  There is also a bit of a give away that this is either a plastic model or cast, as in the first shot of the skull you can clearly see the shallow depth of the anterior nasal aperture.  Apart from that though the model/cast looks quite good, relatively speaking.

A Mormont Skullduggery 

There is of course another oddity here – why go to the hard effort of cutting off the calotte (skull cap) and use the base of the neurocranium (brain case part of the skull) and splanchocranium (facial part of the skull) as the drinking vessel, instead of using the calvaria (the skull without the facial bones or lower jaw)?  Not only do you have the huge foramen magnum to plug, but also all of the intricate canals and foramen of the sphenoid bone, alongside the nasal aperture and orbits to prevent leakage.

It is, of course, for the shock factor and not for the practicality of drinking wine out of a skull.  This is Game of Thrones after all.  Still, it is impressive to see and one can imagine the (theoretical) hard work that has gone into plugging the anatomical gaps to make the butchered skull into a drinking vessel!

From Lord Commander to cup, the sorry fate of Jeor Mormont. Image courtesy of Youtube and HBO.

This thrilling north of the Wall strand in series three and four also reminded me of a few real-life archaeological parallels; from the Upper Palaeolithic post-mortem skull modification at Gough’s Cave, to the medieval treatment and disposal of the dead at Wharram Percy.  So without further ado, let us take a look at the archaeological evidence and see what the individuals at Gough’s Cave did differently to the mutineers at Craster’s Keep.

Upper Palaeolithic Head Scratcher: Gough’s Cave

At the Upper Palaeolithic location of Gough’s Cave in Somerset, England, evidence for the post-mortem butchery and processing of human remains is present in the skeletal material recorded and excavated from the archaeolological site.  The Magdalenian-period site dates to around 14,700 cal Before Present and is one of the few British Upper Palaeolithic archaeological sites to feature human skeletal remains at all.  It is also the only site in the British Isles to feature the presence of directly-dated skull-cups (N=3), as documented in the two images below for location of butchery marks and the skull-cups themselves (Bello et al. 2017: 1).

Though Gough’s Cave is not the only Magdalenian culture to feature human skull-cups, as the French sites of Le Placard and Isturitz also have evidence for the post-mortem production of skull-cups, it is unique to feature both the production of skull-cups and the evidence for cannibalism together at one site.  I’ve previously wrote a blog entry regarding the osteological and archaeological evidence for post-mortem manipulation of the bones, but it is worth just briefly going through it again here.

A selection of the skull elements from at least three individuals found at Gough’s Cave. Note the processed remains. Image credit: Natural History Museum.

The first hint that the skeletal remains were likely butchered was the find location and treatment of the skeletal elements.  The remains of at least five individuals, including children, adolescents and adults, were co-mingled with butchered animal remains.  The remains showed distinctive evidence for cut-marks and chopping, but more commonly for slicing and scraping (Stringer, et al 2011: 19).  In total three skull-cups were identified from individuals of differing ages and all butchery marks were identified as ectocranial (outside of skull) in nature.

The archaeologists were able to identify the five-step method for producing the skull-cups as the following:

  1. The head was detached from the body shortly after death, cuts at the base of the skull and cervical vertebrae indicate this.
  2. The mandible (lower jawbone) was then removed, with evidence of percussion fractures on the teeth of both the mandible and maxilla (lower and upper jaws), where present.
  3. The major muscles of the skull were carefully removed, along with the soft facial tissues and organs.
  4. Cut marks then indicate scalping took place.
  5. Finally the facial and base of the cranium were carefully struck off and the edges chipped to provide smoother surfaces (Bello et al. 2011).

The main locations of reshaping of the human crania from Gough’s Cave IMage credit: Figure 8 in Bello et al. 2011.

Once created it appears that the skull-cups were used as liquid vessels rather than for anything else, although the reason for their production remains unknown.  This function is similar to the fate of Lord Commander’s skull in the Game of Thrones television series, though we cannot know the reasons that drove the individuals who created the Gough’s Cave skull-cups in the first place.  The possibility of funerary ritual could be floated, but this would be speculation.  What is clear is that these skull-cups demanded careful preparation and processing to minimise damage.  The 2011 PLoS ONE article by Bello et al., referenced in the bibliography below, is well worth a read for the full archaeological and osteological context.

Medieval Wonders: Wharram Percy

In more recent research on a skeletal assemblage from the deserted medieval village of Wharram Percy, North Yorkshire, dating to the 11th to 13th century AD, indicate a number of peri-mortem and post-mortem practices being carried out in distinct phases (Mays et al. 2017).

A study on the disarticulated assemblage of human skeletal remains (N=10), located within a pit-complex at the village, has uncovered evidence for peri-mortem breakage, burning and knife and chop marks.  The archaeological context of the remains of the individuals indicated that this was a not discrete one-off episode but a part of a number of episodes within the residua of more than one event (Mays et al. 2017).  A minimum of at least ten individuals are represented by the skeletal material within the study, ranging in age from 2-4 years old to >50 years at death.

The osteological analysis of the nature of the peri-mortem and post-mortem treatment of the remains indicated that there could have been motivating factors of starvation cannibalism or fear of revenant corpses driving the behaviour.

The modern view of the deserted medieval village of Wharram Percy. Photograph by Paul Allison, courtesy of Wikipedia.

The examination of peri-mortem marks, largely sharp-force marks such as knife-marks, are largely confined to the upper body, along with evidence of long-bone peri-mortem breakage and low-temperature burning of a number of the bodies.  The image below highlights a number of the knife-marks present on rib elements, but it was noted that cut marks could be found on various clavicles, humeri, mandibles, vertabrae and crania bases present, indicating there was a concentration on the head and neck area in order to separate the head from the vertebral column and inflict injuries upon a severed head.  Meanwhile clavicular and upper rib cuts could be associated with dismemberment of corpses post-mortem.  Unlike the cut marks and low-temperature burning, the evidence for long-bone peri-mortem breaking involved both the upper and lower limbs to a similar extent, although the presence of breaking was limited among the assemblage (Mays et al. 2017: 450).

The sequence of events, from the osteological material and archaeological contexts, suggests that the bodily mutilation preceded the burning, where both where in evidence (Mays et al. 2011: 449).

Evidence of parallel cut marks on the external surface of one rib fragment (a) from Wharram Percy, with (b) showing further cut marks on another rib fragment indicative of peri- and post-mortem funerary processing. Image credit Mays et al. (2011: 441).

Further strontium isotopic analysis of the dental enamel of sixteen molars, to test the range for geographic origin via local geology, were selected from the medieval cemetery population and the pit-complex assemblage.  The testing revealed that nearly all individuals investigated all had local strontium values.  Only one pit-complex individual, ‘mandible D’, had a non-local value which may have been from further afield (but only just, possibly).  This analysis helped disprove the hypothesis that the pit-complex individuals, those with the knife-marks, and evidence for burning etc. came from a different geographic region than from the local area as compared to the control population of the cemetery group (Mays et al. 2017: 446).

In a 2017 University of Southampton press release for the article Simon Mays, a human skeletal biologist at Historic England known for his bioarchaeological research (such as Mays 1999), stated that:

The idea that the Wharram Percy bones are the remains of corpses burnt and dismembered to stop them walking from their graves seems to fit the evidence best.  If we are right, then this is the first good archaeological evidence we have for this practice. It shows us a dark side of medieval beliefs and provides a graphic reminder of how different the medieval view of the world was from our own.

As the above and the Mays et al. 2017 research article below make clear, there is good evidence within the Wharram Percy pit-complex assemblage for the argument of starvation cannibalism and/or for treatment to combat the revenant dead, that is in order to stop a corpse from re-animating as per traditional mythology.

And yet there are arguments against both interpretations – the fact that there are barely any cut or knife-marks below the chest on the osteological material analysed, that there is a lack of pot-polish from boiling of the remains, or the fact that the revenant dead are usually male whereas the Wharram Percy pit-complex individuals include well represented females and non-adults.

Instead the investigators are careful with their interpretation and note the likelihood that the assemblage at this location, time and evidence point towards revenant activity rather than starvation cannibalism.

A Worthy End?

So there we have it, a very quick tour through the ages to see that although the Lord Commander Mormont suffered an inglorious end as a skull-cup, he was by no means the only one and he could not come back as a revenant.  Although I picked fault with the method of his skull processing, we can see in the osteological and archaeological examples above that there are no set ways to process bodies during the peri- and post-mortem phases, therefore as bioarchaeologists or archaeologists it pays to investigate each avenue of evidence and see where it fits best within our current knowledge base.

Notes

(1.)  Okay, I admit it – I started to write this post a while ago and I never quite finished it or got round to writing out a full draft.  Game of Thrones, the HBO television series, has now finished with the somewhat rushed conclusion to Season 8 airing in 2019.  As of this blog post I am currently four volumes into the book series on which the television series is based, A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin.  It’s intriguing so far and I’m keen to see how it diverges from the television series.

(2.)  The Wikipedia page on the War of the Roses has a fantastic family tree diagram with the affiliation of the kings, families and nobles of the various English civil wars that make up the 15th century conflict.  It is well worth having a look and then trying to take it in the full page – it is not something I am particularly familiar with!

Further Information

Bibliography

Bello, S. M. Parfitt, S. A. & Stringer, C. B. 2011. Earliest Directly Dated Skull-CupsPLoS ONE. 1-12. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0017026. (Open Access).

Mays, S. 1999. The Archaeology of Human Bones. Glasgow: Bell & Bain Ltd.

Mays, S., Fryer, R., Pike, A. W. G., Cooper, M. J. & Marshall, P. 2017. A Multidisciplinary Study of a Burnt and Mutilated Assemblage of Human Remains from a Deserted Mediaeval Village in EnglandJournal of Archaeological Science. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jasrep.2017.02.023. (Open Access).

White, T. & Folkens, P. 2005. The Human Bone Manual. London: Elsevier Academic Press.

Handy Field Hint: Palpate Your Own Skeleton

2 Sep

My somewhat battered and muddied version of The Human Bone Manual, by White & Folkens (2005), has sadly sat unloved and unused atop of a chest of drawers over the past half year or so.  Instead my focus has been on my current employment situation working for a delightful heritage and natural environment project, which also partly explains my absence from this blog for a short while.  So if you have been a keen reader when I was a more proficient blogger, I do apologise.

As I flicked through the volume I was again reminded why it is the manual for the anatomical identification and siding of human skeletal elements in archaeological, anthropological or forensic contexts, combining as it does clear and precise descriptions with excellent photographs of each element in a largely 1:1 format.  It is built for the field but it is also incredibly useful in the lab too, fitting snugly in the hand in either situation and quite ready to sit in a rucksack as much as the shelve (or in my case atop the chest of draws).  I’ve written previously about this book throughout this blog and it has formed the basis for many of my Skeletal Series posts as well because it is so damn handy as a reference volume.

The compact Human Bone Manual by White & Folkens (2005) provides one of the bedrock identification textbooks for the fields of bioarchaeology, forensics, and human osteology. Great for the field and lab alike. Image credit: Elsevier Academic Press.

I picked up my copy earlier tonight to have a glance through it, and also to remind myself of the bony anatomical landmarks of various elements – in particular the tibia, which had been tickling my brain with the terms for the intercondylar eminence and associated anatomical landmarks!  It is all too easy to forget the intricacies of the human skeletal if you are not working with material regularly or, as in my case, are elsewhere distracted on other projects.

I came across this very useful hint early on in the manual on rereading sections of it:

In bone identification it pays to remember that the osteologist always has an intact comparative skeleton close at hand, even in remote field locations. . . that skeleton is embedded in his or her own body.

Which goes on to give the advice that it is:

Useful to visualize and even palpate (feel your own bones through the skin) the way in which an isolated skeletal element might “plug into” your own body. (White & Folkens 2005: 5).

It is an easy point to miss, especially if the osteologist wants to compare teeth (the only directly exposed-to-the-environment element in the human skeleton) in the field as this can be readily done with a willing volunteer or by using your own jaws to visualize and orient said teeth, or to compare other skeletal elements against your own body.

Check out the example below for how useful this can be when using it in conjunction with your own osteological knowledge, experience and palpation skills in helping to identify and orient fragmented skeletal elements in the field:

Palpating another person’s hand to locate and identify the carpal bones, in this case the scaphoid and trapizeum tubercles. This can be easily down on your own hand. Image credit: Musculoskeletal Key.

It may also be a useful and quick ‘rough and ready’ guide to identifying any expressions of bone affected by palaeopathological disease processes or trauma, such as misaligned healed or healing fractures, where the bone appears abnormal to the normal element expression of expected angle or length.  I’m thinking here particularly of long bones, such as the humerus, ulna, radius, femur, tibia or fibula, rather than smaller elements which could be different to contrast again palpated bones within your own skeletal system.

Bearing this in mind then, it may be best to practice palpation on yourself or a friend before heading into the field in order to familiarize yourself with skeletal palpation.  This way you can quickly identify the main skeletal elements and the major skeletal landmarks that are palpable through the skin and muscle, whilst also having a ready-made comparative skeleton on hand at all times!

Bibliography

White, T. D. & Folkens, P. A. 2005. The Human Bone Manual. London: Elsevier Academic Press.

Consequence and Obligation: Barry Lopez’s Horizon (2019)

20 Apr

I have to admit that as much as a fan of travel literature as I am, I had not read or heard of any of the Barry Lopez‘s previous writings on culture, anthropology, or ecology, including even his seminal 1986 volume Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape. This happily changed recently when I came into the possession of his latest work, the more autobiographically minded Horizon (2019), earlier this month following a cracking review of it in the Guardian newspaper.  I am glad to say that I am now, in part, rectifying this gap in my knowledge and I have spent many happy hours re-reading and pondering his exquisite writing.

Horizon is a hard work to classify – it is not your typical autobiography as Lopez’s life experiences are only alluded to rather than fleshed out in detail, but the depth of his thoughts and experiences of journeying across the earth, uncovering the bonds between both humanity’s impact on the planet and co-dependency with the natural environment, are richly described and expounded upon.  This is further enriched with input from a wide range of friendships with ecologists, geographers, historians, archaeologists and artists alongside inhabitants of the places his visits.

horizon barry lopez

Noted explorer and writer Barry Lopez along with the cover of Horizon (2019, his autobiographical exploration of humanity and the natural world. Image courtesy of Literary Arts.

I am struck by the syntax that Lopez uses to draw in the reader into his way of seeing the world; it is a world not riven by borders (physical or mental) between humanity’s cultural world and the natural world but by the blindingly obvious partnership and balance that is needed between the two.

In an early section of the volume Lopez discusses the material objects that act as his talismans as reminders to, or from, previous expeditions and how they link both memory and experience to inform his guiding values in interpreting the world around him.  It is a particularly moving point in which to provide the bedrock for the rest of book and into Lopez’s own evaluation of his critical thinking over time.  In the passage quoted below an Arctic artefact linked to functionality is heavily imbued with a sense of place within the give and take of humanity’s survival:

‘Next to my bed is a sand-cast silver harpoon tip, a stylized replica of a toggling implement that Eskimo hunters have used for centuries to secure and retrieve seals.  A gift from my wife.  To provide food for one’s family , whether it is seal meat or a sack of grain  or the flesh of an avocado, is to encounter again an unsettling question about the way in which death provides life.  To act here is to face one’s own complicity, to choose to take life in order that one’s own kin might continue to live.  When I lie down to sleep far from home, I place this small work of art close by on a folded scarf.  It was crafted by a man named Jimmy Nagougugalik, an Inuit artist and hunter from Baker Lake, in Nunavut, Canada.  It reminds me of the centrality of the symbolic in human life, and of both the consequence of providing and of the obligation to provide.’

– quoted from Lopez (2019: 40).

The volume is laced with an undercurrent of worry for the future generations of the world, in both the political and physical sense, as we head to unprecedented population numbers and increased stresses on the environment leading to resource depletion, unsustainable economic growth and ecological damage.  Yet there is a hint of hope, that if a balance can be achieved and stability in how we manage our resources then we can live more harmoniously in sync with each other and the natural environment.

If you are looking for a volume to read that will challenge the way you think about humanity’s impact on the earth and are curious to read about far-flung places with an anthropological slant then this may be the book for you.

Bibliography

Lopez, B. 2001. Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape. Vintage: New York.

Lopez, B. 2019. Horizon. London: The Bodley Head.

Link: A Hollow Abundance – The Modern Change in International Food Production

17 Mar

The food writer Bee Wilson has a very interesting article in this weekend’s Guardian Review magazine regarding the quality versus quantity of modern food and the changing nature of the global diet, as identified in her new 2019 book The Way We Eat Now. With its riveting introduction Wilson’s newspaper article brings into play the cultural and industrial underpinnings of why changes, in both mass availability and the variety of food produce, is having a detrimental effect on the modern diet and food standards more generally:

‘Eating grapes can feel like an old pleasure, untouched by change. The ancient Greeks and Roman loved to eat them, as well as to drink them in the form of wine. The Odyssey describes ‘a ripe and luscious vine, hung thick with grapes’. As you pull the next delicious piece of fruit from its stalk, you could easily be plucking it from a Dutch still life of the 17th century, where grapes are tumbled on a metal platter with oysters and half-peeled lemons.

But look closer at this bunch of green grapes, cold from the fridge, and you see that they are not unchanged after all. Like so many other foods, grapes have become a piece of engineering designed to please modern eaters.’

The article is worth a read as it highlights how food standards are continually changing to meet new markets, particularly the international market, and how we as a species have made previously seasonal fruit and vegetables available year round for global consumption.  With that comes a host of other changes introduced, or designed, to increase efficiency across trading and cultural borders, such as the selection for seedless grapes and stability in flavour, as the example Wilson uses above and explores throughout the article.

The ability to produce foodstuffs year-round, in spite of seasonal variance, is a relatively new development on a stupendous scale but it is necessary to feed the now burgeoning global human population of 7.7 billion individuals.  To highlight the monumental change and increase in the human population in recent centuries, and thus pressures on providing food and impact on the environment to provide that food, check out the chart below:

World population estimates from 1800 to 2100 using United nations projections in 2015 and United Nations historical estimates for pre-1950s data. Source: Wikipedia.

Technological and industrial developments in the 19th and 20th centuries have helped to drive a chain reaction that gave our species the ability to harness agriculture and provide food produce across continents, yet as Wilson points out this glut of food isn’t always what it is nutritionally cracked up to be.  The homogenization of the international diet, through increased trade and economical bonding, can be deceptive in its nutrient value.

So what does this has to do with archaeology?

As quoted above, we often subconsciously think of food as a direct route back to the past, whether it is a way to communicate and bond with our perceived ancestors or through some fad palaeodiet that has gained attention as diet of the month which is based on flimsy scientific evidence.  Or perhaps we are celebrating our personal and familial heritage and our culinary heritage is a central tenet of our religion and/or cultural affinity.

Food itself is a direct portal to a past that we, as a species, have long valued and appreciated.  A large proportion of all archaeological remains are related to food production in some context, increasingly so the further we delve into our prehistory and osteological ecofacts (e.g. bones of butchered animals) are often our only evidence of human activity in a number of archaeological contexts.

Sometimes though a grape is not just a grape, it is a portent to the future and a harbinger for our unhealthy modern diet.

Housekeeping Notes: A Change in Address & Ads

10 Mar

Regular readers of this blog may notice that the site has recently undergone a few changes regarding the URL and advertising on the blog.  I originally started this blog as a bit of an experiment back in 2011 (!) to document my growing interest in human osteology and bioarchaeology using the free WordPress.com blogging platform and as my site grew and became more uniform with the introduction of the Skeletal Series, guest posts and interviews, it also became much more time-consuming to produce and edit content.  Still I was quite happy to do this and thoroughly believed that academic, or at least academic-leaning, blogs should try to avoid being commercialised if possible and I resisted the siren call of monetising the site.

Long-term readers will note that the blog post output rate has slowed somewhat dramatically in the past few years due to time constraints (such as employment, volunteer work, or other such activities).  I still maintain this site as an active one as I continue producing posts, helping to advertise opportunities for students and for MSc/MA courses in human osteology in  the United Kingdom  (1), and by answering emails and comments, etc.  Everyone now and again I also edit old entries.  However, my thoughts on upgrading the blog also changed as I thought a bit more about the future of the blog, of how I want it to be accessed and what would be good for its long-term future.

The perils of a blog as a time sink. Reproduced with permission from Mr. Lovenstein. Image source: Mr Lovenstein.

I’ve been quite loathe to change the appearance of the blog since settling on a style that I found workable and that highlighted the various aims and topics discussed within the blog (as seen by the triptych of images that forms the blog banner).  It isn’t aging too well and I think a change is probably due in that direction, perhaps with a neater, more simplistic and easier-to-read design.  The blog itself is highly searchable with numerous categories and tags produced for each post, however there are some features that could do with an upgrade or a change-around at least.  The RSS sub-page could do with deleting as it hasn’t worked for years and the WordPress blog menu has so far baffled me as to how to remove it (2).  Apologies for all of those readers who have clicked on it to only find scrambled code instead!

As well as the change in the domain name, readers may also notice a number of advertisements on the blog itself.  WordPress.com had initially inserted ads into the blog as per their funding model to generate income, like most media and social media companies on the web.  Since the plan upgrade I have decided to try to monetise the blog in order to raise pocket-money revenue from the operating of this site.  This is partly in recompense for the amount of time maintaining the site – time spent either researching, writing, or editing the blog entries, or for the administration side of the blog replying to emails and building relationships with other bloggers.  (Don’t laugh at the editing part!).

For a long time I was against the idea of monetisation in principle on a generally academic and educational blog, since most of my peers (such as Jess Beck’s Bone Broke, Kristina Killgrove’s Powered By Osteons and Alexandra Ion’s Bodies and Academia) do not advertise on their sites, as far as I am aware.  In fact that trio of sites look remarkably clean, easy to navigate and remain a pleasure to read.  Do I feel bad about putting a trio of adverts on my blog, which may affect the reader’s attention?  Yes I do.  Do I also need to pay rent, need to eat and drink, and have to pay for fuel so enable me to get to my current job?  Yes I do.  Could I also be working the time I spend updating, editing and working on this blog?  Again, yes I could be.

Hidden from the world: the secret panel on the above comic. Reproduced with permission from Mr. Lovenstein. Image source: Mr Lovenstein.

So am I now rolling in the money since I started to monetise the site?  No I am not.  In fact it is bringing in less than I had hoped it would and due to WordPress not paying out until you reach $100, I may not receive a single cent for a good while yet.  If any readers have any questions regarding the changes in the blog, I’d be happy to answer them either below in the comments box or via email (see the About the Author tab for the address).

Fundamentally I am hoping that this series of blog changes for These Bones of Mine invigorates me to write more.

Looking for Guest Posts and Interviewees

Whilst I’m quickly updating the blog and taking a look through previous posts and blog statistics, I notice I have not had a guest post or an interview entry on the blog in quite some time.  I’m hoping to rectify this within the next few months by reaching out to friends and colleagues, and likely also on the British Archaeological Jobs and Resources  Facebook page.  I do have a guest post set of guidelines for prospective guest post bloggers to read in order to match the ‘house style’ of this blog and I am selective of what I consider suitable for this site, though there is a wide range of topics I’d consider and that I am actively looking for.  I am always interested in hearing from commercial field archaeologists and osteoarchaeologists, as well as early career researchers and specialists in palaeopathology, funerary archaeology, osteoarchaeology and bioarchaeology.  I’m particularly keen on another set of interviews as I find that interviews allow for a deeper and personal reflection on what it is actually like working within this sector and how individuals have gotten into this area in the first place and what continues drives them or drive them out of it.

So if you have an ongoing project, a unique perspective, or a new bioarchaeological methodology or theory that needs a helping hand please do get in touch and let me know!  To all of my previous interviewees and guest bloggers, you are very much welcome back as updates on projects, careers, and perspectives are always welcome.

We are living through an interesting period in which our understanding of the Western world post-Second World War is fundamentally changing and the great game of diplomatic and trade agreements, alongside our economic ties, are being reshaped for the 21st century.  Is this filtering through to the sector?  Are the commercial conditions changing and are our perceptions of how we interpret the past changing?  This is an area I am keen to delve into and to hear your views, from the ground up.

Notes

(1).  The latest entry in the available postgraduate MSc/MA courses in human osteology in the United Kingdom dates from March 2018 and could do with a 2019 update.  Expect to see that within the next month or so.  The expansion of such courses in the UK continue, with a professional accreditation/commercial experience module now added in.  This is a step in the right direction, but the glut of human osteology postgraduates often find meager commercial opportunities for employment in current market conditions in the country.

(2).  Update 10/03/2019 – It took me 5 seconds of looking at a menu to find the click button.  It has now been removed.

British Student Opportunity: Erasmus+ Grant Funded Placement to Alba Iulia, Romania, April-May 2019

7 Feb

For the second time I have the pleasure of advertising available European Union-funded archaeological placements for British students, courtesy of the British heritage organisation Grampus Heritage.  As long time readers of this site may remember I had the great pleasure of attending a Leonardo Da Vinci European Union archaeology placement in Magdeburg, Germany, via Grampus Heritage in 2011 for six glorious weeks.  (If you’re interested in reading what I got up to over there you read my review here).  Now, courtesy of the Erasmus+, a successor of the Leonardo Da Vinci programme, there are a small number of Romanian placement places still available for summer 2019).  You can snap one up if you meet the criteria.

Memories of Magdeburg. One of the photographs that I took visiting the remains of a deserted medieval village near the city in eastern Germany, as Claire and Emma walk towards me and Loretta heads off to explore the inside of what remains of the church.

This is the chance to join a fantastic placement in Romania, aimed at recruiting students in the United Kingdom and introducing them to a fascinating Romanian cultural exchange.  It is also a great introduction to Romanian Neolithic rescue archaeology and an opportunity to experience working in laboratory conditions analysing prehistoric human skeletal remains. Read on to find out more and how to apply if you are eligible . . .

Student Erasmus + Grant Funded Placements Available for Alba Iulia, Romania

Date: April-May 2019 (1), or soon as possible but returning to the UK by 31 May 2019.

Places & Experience: 2-3 places available, experience in human osteological analysis preferred.

Eligibility & Applying: This placement in the European Archaeology Skills Exchange (EASE) is offered through Grampus Heritage, based in the United Kingdom, as a part of the European Union funded Erasmus + scheme with a vast range of European partners. This placement is open to British students studying in the United Kingdom who wish to gain human osteological and archaeological excavation experience abroad. Full eligibility and application details can be found here. Please note there is only a few spaces remaining.

Funding: Funding information is available on contact.

The following placement information (in italics) has been used with permission from Grampus Heritage:

Placement Information: Ideally for forensic anthropology students, this is an 8 week practical placement that will see you working and contributing towards the work of the university. There will also be the chance of working on a rescue excavation during the 8 weeks, details still to be confirmed, so there will be a mix of excavation and post excavation work.

Site Background: The placement will be once again take place at Lumea Noua where the group will work alongside a team on a Neolithic site in the Transylvania historical region that has been going since 2002. The Neolithic settlement of Lumea Noua is located in the north-eastern part of the city of Alba Iulia, on the second terrace of the Mures River. In charge of the dig is Mihai Gligor, PhD, Head of the History, Archaeology and Museology department within “1 Decembrie 1918” University in Alba Iulia.

Discovered in 1942, there have been archaeological campaigns on the site right up until 2011. Rescue excavations focusing on recording the site have been the most recent activity, starting in 2002 and continuing in 2017. During the excavations, a site of some 40ha has been discovered, though it is estimated to be larger than this.

A range of the tasks undertaken during the Romanian placement, including human skeletal excavation and analysis in the laboratory. Image courtesy of Joanne Stamper, Grampus Heritage.

The most intensive habitation period appears to have been around 4600-4500calBC when the Foeni group used the site, a group attributed to the funerary complex that has been the focus of the most recent excavations. So far, the discovery of around 120 disarticulated individuals mainly represented by skull caps has been very interesting as there are traces of burning on the caps and no facial bones are present. This appears to indicate one of the unusual mortuary practices of the Lumea Noua community. Males, females and children are all present.

It has been suggested that the human remains were not interred during an epidemic; moreover, collective death as a result of violence is unlikely since there at no traces of interpersonal violence, such as wounds inflicted by arrows or lithic weapons. In addition, no arrow tips or axes have been found in connection with human bone material. One possible explanation of this funerary practice is that Alba Iulia was a ceremonial centre where Neolithic communities practiced organised burial rituals, including special treatment of human cranial remains.

Pottery has been found associated with the bone remains, of very good quality, made with clay with no impurities. A large quantity of well burnished black topped fired vessels have been found at the site. Pottery that has had painted decoration applied before being fired without any slip are also typical of this site.

A snapshot of the work undertaken during the Romanian archaeology placement from previous years. Image courtesy of Joanne Stamper, Grampus Heritage.

Several ditches have also been identified at the site of different shapes and sizes. At the time of the Foeni habitation of the site, the ditches appear to represent a circular concentric plan to the settlement for that time period.

Work Schedule: The group will be working with the team, continuing the excavation of this interesting site and labeling finds. Some days will be based in the labs, washing and analysing human remains and pottery. The working week is Monday – Friday. They will also do some experimental archaeology and assist with setting up an exhibition.

Conditions: For fieldwork please bear in mind that. . . as with most archaeological sites, expect a degree of physical work. As with all our placements, participants are joining partner excavations. These are not UK led excavations. The group will be learning different methods and techniques that are used for this particular site, so must expect differences in how the site is run.

Updated Notes

(1). I was mistaken in my original post as to which placement this applied to and it is the EASE not PEATS placement offered by Grampus Heritage through the Erasmus+ programme. This site was updated on 8 February 2019 to reflect the change and opportunities available.

Further Information

  • Read more about Grampus Heritage and the other opportunities which are European Union funded Erasmus+ Placements in Environment, Archaeology, and Traditional Skills (PEATS) here.
  • Read my own reflection on the 6 week German archaeology placement in Magdeburg here, courtesy of Grampus Heritage and the European Union back in summer 2011.
  • Read a guest post by Joanne Wilkinson, from 2012, on the joys of attending and taking part in a cultural heritage scheme as promoted by the Leonardo Da Vinci and Erasmus+ schemes here.
  • Try your luck guessing which anatomical landmarks I’ve highlighted on a bone from my Magdeburg placement in my human osteology quiz here.
  • If you are curious about the Magdeburg placement, check out the 2019 information here.

The First World War Centenary: Lest We Forget

14 Nov

Sunday 11 November 2018 marked the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, which lasted from 28 July 1914 – 11 November 1918.  The war was initiated in Europe with the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, but was fought globally by the opposing sides of the Triple Entente and the Central Powers.  It was, in one sense, the clash of empires as the European nations coalesced into two large blocs who ultimately mobilized over 70 million military personnel from around the world.  The bare facts on the detailed Wikipedia page state that roughly 15-19 million individuals died (9-11 million military and roughly 8 million civilian) and many more were injured throughout the conflict.

On Sunday I visited the cinema to watch the newly-released documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, directed by Peter Jackson, which focused on the experiences of soldiers on the Western Front and on the notorious trench warfare in which they served.  The documentary was notable for the colour restoration of original archive footage and the implementation of technology used to speed up or slow down the footage rate equally to help create a modern look.  Alongside this Jackson’s team artificially created frames to make the footage run even smoother.  The result was visually stunning and brought into sharp focus the individuals within the footage; it felt like you could reach out and talk to them.

Whilst watching the question and answer session after the documentary, what struck me most was Jackson’s point regarding the voices that are missing from the footage: those of the individuals who had died in the course of the war.  They are the silent record of the war and its impact.  This was a war unlike any previous, in both mechanization and in its geographic spread.  Time for many simply stopped.

Shrapnel from a shell embedded within a clock. This was the result of the maritime bombardment of the Hartlepools by the German navy on the 16 December 1914 which killed over 100 people. Among those killed were Private Theophilus Jones, aged 29, who became one of the first soldiers to die on British soil by enemy action during the war. A seamstress named Hilda Horsley, aged 17, became the first civilian to die on British soil by enemy action during the war as she ran from the bombardment. Image credit: Hartlepool Cultural Services. The clock is available to view at the Hartlepool Museum.

A Soviet Reader: An Annotated Bibliography of Recent Reads

14 Oct

This bibliography is an attempt at keeping a quick record of my recent reads (both fiction and non-fiction) regarding the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and its history.  The eagle-eyed among you will notice all of the volumes are English translations, and as such this imposes a boundary between what has and has not been translated.  As always when one reads for pleasure and information personal choices are made, authors and tastes are developed and pursued, and books that should be read remain unread.  Choices are partly dictated by access.

For instance, I discovered Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward and Mikhail Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don on my dad’s bookshelf, others such as the modern author Svetlana Alexievich by reading literary reviews and becoming aware of her work.  Sometimes there is surprise that so monumental an author can remain forgotten within the sphere of common knowledge, such as Vasily Grossman, of whom I personally did not discover for far too long a time.  Some volumes, such as Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales which is based on his experiences in the Gulag, are soon to be republished and I keenly await the volume.  There are plenty of other volumes that have not been translated into a language I can read or simply authors that I remain ignorant of.

Conference room of the Supreme Council in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, by noted photojournalist Max Penson (1893-1959). Following his forced movement to Uzbekistan with his family in 1914, Penson became one of the best-known photojournalists in the Soviet Union from 1920-40, particularly for his images of life in Uzbekistan. In later life he was forced to leave his employment in 1948 due to a rise in anti-Semitism. Photograph: M. Penson.

Having wrote out a quick list of Soviet-era novels I’ve had the pleasure (and often sadness) to read, I find it thoroughly hard to pick one that is my favourite as the styles are so varied and the approaches so different.  However and on reflection, there are three novels that stand out for me.  They are the Don Epic (includes And Quiet Flows the Don and The Don Flows Back to the Sea, 1928-40) by Mikhail Sholokhov, The Master and Margarita (1967) by Mikhail Bulgakov, and Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate (1960).  All three offer varying degrees of criticism or support of the USSR and all three differ in their approach and in their individual authors fate.  Some circulated as samizdat (underground literature), whereas others were State sanctioned and celebrated.  Many authors who were active during the revolutions of 1917, such as Teffi and Yury Felsen, saw the writing on the wall in the bitter winter months of 1917-18 and sought sanctuary elsewhere in a fractured Europe, riven by war.  Later events, such as the so-called Terror Famine (and associated famines in Soviet lands) of 1933-34 and the Great Purge (or Great Terror) of 1936-38, turned many Old Bolsheviks away from the Party.

I’m also interested in this era of writing because of its historical context.  To write critically, to write truthfully, took some strength to do when the repercussions could be so severe.  Fictional works too were often suppressed or destroyed.  In recent days I have read a number of news articles focused on the killing or physically harming of journalists and educators worldwide, from Turkey (political oppression and murder) to Brazil (harassment), America (political pressure and threats) to Bulgaria (murder) and Malta (murder).  In many countries facts, the search for justice and the will to present the truth to the public (and the public’s willingness to digest this) are under open attack, even in so-called democratic states where media, particularly investigative journalism, is demonised openly and widely.  It would be crass to directly contrast the two wildly different contexts, but we must be aware that it is a continuing balancing act – to report and to be critical, either through fiction or non-fiction, is always an act on a knife-edge.  To tell the truth you sometimes have to give up your freedom; you may even have to give up your life and those of who you love to inform the world.

Please be aware that this post will be regularly updated to include annotations on the volumes listed below.  It will also be added to as and when I read new volumes.

Political & Social History

Alexievich, S. 1992. Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War. Translated from the Russian by Julia and Robin Whitby. London: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Alexievich, S. 2016. Chernobyl Prayer. Translated from the Russian by Anna Gunin and Arch Tait. London: Penguin Classics.

Alexievich, S. 2016. Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets. Translated from the Russian by Bela Shayevich. London: Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Alexievich, S. 2017. The Unwomanly Face of War. Translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky. London: Penguin Classics.

Alexievich, S. 2019. Last Witnesses: Unchildlike Stories. Translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky. London: Penguin Classics.

Svetlana Alexievich (1948-), a recent Nobel Prize Winner for Literature from Belarus, is justly famous for ‘her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time’ as cited in her award.  A recent plethora of English-language translations have brought her to greater attention within the Anglo-sphere and introduced many to her unique style of letting her interviewees talk uninterrupted.  For some this may blur the line between fiction and non-fiction, but the results are an intimate look into the lives of those that have been hidden for so long.  The above volumes deal, respectively, with the decade long Afghanistan war from 1979 to 1989; the Chernobyl nuclear accident; the fall of the Soviet Union throughout the late 80s and 90s and its impact; the role of females in the Second World War and the aftermath in the USSR; the memories and experiences of Soviet children during the Second World War.  In short, and as one translator notes in Zinky Boys, Alexievich courageously captures the unique insight into the Soviet condition.

Applebaum, A. 2004. Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps. London: Penguin Books.

Applebaum, A. 2013. Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe. London: Penguin Books.

Applebaum, A. 2017. Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine. London: Allen Lane.

Beevor, A. 2007. Stalingrad. London: Penguin.

This is the book that started my initial interest in understanding the Russian position in the Second World War, particularly in understanding the impact that the pivotal battle of Stalingrad (now Volgograd) had in breaking Hitler’s Wehrmacht.  Beevor (1946-) writes a cogent, richly sourced analysis of the battle and its historical importance as it raged in the cold winter of 1942-43

Conquest, R. 2007. The Great Terror: A Reassessment. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kotkin, S. 2015. Stalin: Paradoxes of Power 1878-1928. London: Penguin.

Kotkin, S. 2017. Stalin: Waiting for Hitler 1928-1941. London: Allen Lane.

Together, with the volume ‘Paradoxes of Power’, ‘Waiting for Hitler’ is the second in a trio of volumes that paint a deeply researched biography of Joseph Stalin (1878-1953), a Soviet revolutionary and General Secretary and Premier of the USSR.  I’m currently half-way through the second volume and it is an eye-opening body of work, one that I highly recommend to anybody with an interest in history or modern history.  Understanding the USSR (and the transformations after its fall) is fundamental to today’s world state and to the underpinning of politics on the international stage.  By focusing on the figure who helped take over after the death of Vladimir Lenin in 1924, Kotkin (1959-)provides a richly researched narrative of the day-to-day running of the Russian Soviet Republic and eventual USSR as viewed through Stalin’s immense capability for work, political understanding, and brutality. 

Merridale, C. 2013. Red Fortress: The Secret Heart of Russia’s History. London: Allen Lane.

Plokhy, S. 2017. Lost Kingdom: A History of Russian Nationalism from Ivan the Great to Vladimir Putin. London: Allen Lane.

Sakwa, R. 2016. Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands. London: I. B. Taurus & Co. Ltd.

Solzhenitsyn, A. 2003. The Gulag Archipelago 1918-56: A Experiment in Literary Investigation. Translated from the Russian by Thomas Whitney and Harry Willets, abridged by Edward Ericson Jr. London: The Harvill Press.

Steinbeck, J. & Capa, R. 2000. A Russian Journal with Photographs by Robert Capa. London: Penguin Classics.

It is always a pleasure to read Steinbeck’s non-fiction work and this journal, wrote in the late 1940’s after a visit throughout the USSR with the celebrated war photographer Robert Capa, bears all the hallmarks of his wit and comedic flair.  Still this is a sombre read of the after effects of the Second World War, a war which devastated the population and infrastructure of the Soviet Union.  The chapter regarding the visit to Stalingrad (today called Volgograd) is particularly harrowing.  Criticism of the USSR is lacking however and this was noted in the reviews and discussions following the book’s publication.

Teffi. 2016. Memories – From Moscow to the Black Sea. Translated from the Russian by R. Chandler, E. Chandler, A. M. Jackson & I. Steinberg. London: Pushkin Press.

Teffi (1872-1952, pen name of Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya) was a famous humourist writer in the early 20th century best known for her contributions to the magazine Satyricon.  ‘Memories’ documents her overland flight from St. Petersburg to the Black Sea where she caught a ferry to Turkey in 1919, following the twin revolutions of 1917 (the February overthrow of the Tsar and the Bolshevik revolution in October) and the subsequent political crack downs that followed.  Although the volume deals with a particularly dark affair of fleeing one’s home country, this memoir is particularly funny as Teffi makes her observations and relies on her hilarious and indefatigable guide, Gooskin.  She spent the remainder of her life in Paris, France, never to return to Russia.

Wells, H. G. 2012. Russia in the Shadows (Classic Reprint). London: Forgotten Books.

A gem of a republished book by Forgotten Books. This volume recounts H. G. Wells’ (1866-1946) second visit to Russia in 1920, at a time of profound change following the February and October revolutions in 1917 and the subsequent brutal Civil War. H. G Wells was known as a fiction writer of some renown, for both The Time Machine (1895) and War of the Worlds (1898), however he was also prolific in a wide range of genres, particularly on social commentary and had an abiding interest in the Soviet experiment.  This volume covers his experiences with his son in both St Petersburg and a brief trip to Moscow, covering a range of viewpoints on the Soviet social enterprise and its effect on the Russian country at large.  This volume is a great read and the author has a very interesting interview with one Lenin, and H. G. Wells isn’t one for holding back on his own viewpoints.

Folk and Magic Tales

Chandler, R. (ed.). 2012. Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov. London: Penguin Classics.

A fundamentally important introduction to the cultural and traditional importance of magic tales within the Russian and Slavic imagination.  Chandler introduces a range of authors, including Platonov and Teffi, who tackle long-standing magic tales where transformation of both lives and forms becomes a bubbling, and often humorous, vehicle to comment on their own historical context.  This is a great book to become familiar with figures mentioned throughout Russian traditional culture, such as Baba Yaga, which still appear in modern media (think of Zvyagintsev’s 2017 film Loveless and the grandmother figure living in the woods.

Novels

Babel, I. 2016. Odessa Stories. Translated from the Russian by Boris Drayluk. London: Pushkin Press.

Isaac Babel (1894-1940) was one of the highest writers authors to die during Stalin’s Great Purge (otherwise known as the Great Terror).  The Great Purge dated from roughly 1936-38 and spread across the Soviet Union and ultimately saw many hundreds of thousands (possibly millions) put to death or sent to prisons during purges of the military, political, cultural, and professional classes, and the so-called ‘Kulak’ class.  ‘Odessa Stories’ is a collection of Babel’s thrilling tales set in the primarily Jewish coastal city by the Black Sea.  Famously introducing the character of Benya Krik, the gangster, the tales uncover the seedy underbelly of the Ukrainian city.  Among the stories is a moving account of the effect of a program against the Jewish residents. 

Berberova, N., Felsen, Y., Gazdanov, G. & Kuznetsova, G. 2018. Four Russian Short Stories. London: Penguin Classics.

Not strictly historical, but an insight into four disparate writers who fled Russia following the Bolshevik takeover in 1917 and spread themselves across Europe in an émigré cultural diaspora.  Each story in this short paperback deals with the outcome of a death and its impact, eith the feeling of loss rippling through the pages.

Bulgakov, M. 2007. The Master and Margarita. Translated from the Russian by Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear. London: Penguin Classics.

Perhaps my favourite novel, there is not much more to say at the moment but it is due a re-read.

Bulgakov, M. 2010. A Country Doctor’s Notebook. London: Vintage Classics.

Gessen, K. 2018. A Terrible Country. London: Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Whilst not dealing directly with the Soviet Union (as Keith Gessen’s highly personal novel is set in 2008), the turbulent 20th century does cast a long shadow in this entertaining and often hilarious novel of one man rediscovering his birth country whilst having to look after an aging relative.  The historical and modern social impacts of violently shifting cultural and political landscapes are well observed and captured in this novel.  They are gently, and believably, entwined with both family members and the friends that the main Soviet-born character, Andrei Kaplan, make in modern-day Moscow after leaving behind his life in America.

Grossman, V. 2006. Life and Fate. Translated from Russian by Robert Chandler. London: Vintage.

Often described as the 20th century’s War & Peace, Life & Fate is a monumental novel of insight into the USSR during the raging battle of Stalingrad in 1942-43.  Centered upon the family of Vicktor Shtrum and the Shaposhniokova sisters, Grossman introduces a panoply of figures across the length and breadth of the USSR and develops their role within the Great Patriotic War (as the Second World War is known in Russia).  This multifaceted novel dissects Stalinism and Nazism, the nature of the State itself, and the vying reality of Jewish identity caught between the Soviet sphere and the impact of invading German forces.

Grossman, V. 2011. Everything Flows. Translated from the Russian by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, and Anna Aslanyan. London: Vintage.

Platonov, A. 2010. The Foundation Pit. Translated from the Russian by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, and Olga Meerson. London: Vintage.

Shalamov, V. 2018. Kolyma Stories: Volume One. Translated from the Russian by Donald Rayfield. New York: New York Review of Books.

Shalamov, V. 2020. Sketches of the Criminal World: Further Kolyma Stories Volume two. Translated from the Russian by Donald Rayfield. New York: New York Review of Books.

The first complete English publication of Shalamov’s epic Kolyma Stories, the rival of Solzhenitsyn yet not as known within the Western world. After completing the first volume and being profoundly moved by the absurdity of man’s inhumanity to man, I am eager to start volume two although I know it will bring no solace in trying to understand the Gulag system.

Sholokhov, M. 2017. And Quiet Flows the Don. Translated from the Russian by Stephen Garry. London: Penguin Classics.

Sholokhov, M. 1984. The Don Flows Home to the Sea. Translated from the Russian by Stephen Garry. London: Penguin Classics.

Solzhenitsyn, A.. 2000. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. London: Penguin Classics.

Solzhenitsyn, A. 2003. Cancer Ward. Translated from the Russian by Alexander Dolberg. London: Vintage Classics.

Zamyatin, Y. 1993. We. Translated from the Russian by Clarence Brown. London: Penguin Classics.

Graphic Novels

Nury, F. & Robin, T. 2017. The Death of Stalin. London: Titan Comics.

Second World War Memoirs

Koschorrek, G. K. 2002. Blood Red Snow: The Memoirs of a German Solider on the Eastern Front. London: Greenhill Books.

Sajer, G. 1999. The Forgotten Soldier: War on the Russian Front – A True Story. London: Cassel Military Paperbacks.

The above two volumes, and their veracity of truthful experience, have both been discussed time and time again by critics and reviewers in their description of life on the Eastern Front as German soldiers.  Regardless of the truth both volumes present hideous experiences on facing the Red Army during WWII, first claiming new territories and then slowly losing them, mile after bloody mile.