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Calling Dr Jones (part three)

In which we return to Tudor Parfitt, the Ark of the Covenant, and consider how archaeology has changed


About time I finished off writing about SOAS Modern Jewish Studies professor Tudor Parfitt, and his rather dodgy theory, shown on TV in his documentary The Quest For The Lost Ark, that the Biblical Ark Of The Covenant was not the ark that is biblically described, but was in fact a drum; that it was taken to Africa, survived in the possession of a Jewish tribe there, and that its final version is now in storage in an Harare museum. Which might make more sense if you read the previous posts I’ve written about it: part one, and part two.

Previously we’ve discussed the theory itself, and its basic flaw: in order for it to be true, every piece of evidence for the original ark’s existence has to mis-describe it in a fundamental way. Now, I want to discuss why Professor Parfitt might have come up with his rather misguided theory. He has trouble with a concept which archaeology itself had trouble with, in general, for many many years. The Parfitt theory states that there is a medieval African war drum which was constructed to replace an earlier Ark of the Covenant, so those earlier Arks, all the way back to the Mosaic period, must have been drums also. This is because Parfitt is unwilling to consider any degree of cultural change.

Cultural change is, as I said, a concept which archaeology has always had trouble with. In traditional archaeology, it was one of several concepts which was not so much discarded as never considered. Change in material cultures was almost always explained by means of migration, often mass-migration: wave on wave of homogeneous and distinct peoples moving about the map, rather like a game of Risk, never themselves changing. There are probably a few reasons for this. For a start, archaeology as a discipline arose after the formulation of the classic “nation state”, and during the period that the Western countries were dividing up the third world with lines across the map in just the same way that archaeologists then divided up prehistoric maps. For another thing, there was a rather patronising attitude that invention was rather too hard for “prehistoric barbarians” to do. If your stereotypical woad-covered Ancient Briton wasn’t up to inventing new stuff, then any archaeological change must come from outside. Small changes in style could be explained by trade; large changes by immigration.* This theory was known as “diffusion”, and was finally put to bed in the late 60s and early 70s.**

Cultural change took a long time to accept, partly because it complicates things. It’s not, itself, an easy explanation, compared to diffusion and migration. Moreover, archaeological theories of change were first adopted by “processual archaeologists”, who explained change in terms of biological and ecological analogies like the spread of muskrat populations.*** They were followed up by “post-processualists”, the postmodernists of the archaeological world, who liked to use words like “hermeneutics“. They introduced some important concepts into archaeological interpretation, but not in a very accessible way; and nevertheless their concepts were still the best means archaeologists had to discuss cultural change.****

Looking at historical evidence, though, it’s hard to see why the supposed correlation between migration and cultural change was accepted for so long. Take British history, for example. In the first millennium AD there were three major migrations that we know about from British history.***** The first, the Roman invasion, probably involved the fewest people of the three, but is extremely well-represented in both history and archaeology. The second, the invasion of the English-to-be, is represented in archaeology quite well, but there is huge debate as to the actual number of people involved. Particularly, genetic research has shown that the old 19th-century theory, that the Angles and Saxons completely replaced the previous Welsh-speaking inhabitants, is almost certainly wrong. The language changed, the rulers changed, but most of the people probably did not. The third, the migration of the Scots from Ireland into western Scotland, is well-known from history; it changed the language of western and highland Scotland, and the government of the whole country,****** but is impossible to find in the archaeological record. There are plenty of buildings and sites from the period in Scottish archaeology, but none of them give any indication that the culture of western Scotland was changing in the way that history tells us it did.

I had intended that this was going to be the final post about Tudor Parfitt’s Ark theory; but this post is growing to be rather larger than I’d thought it would end up.******* Additionally, my dinner’s ready. The final final part of these posts will talk more about cultural change, and show how it could, potentially, correct Professor Parfitt’s ideas.

The fourth and final part of this post follows, here »

* Moreover, changes in metalwork were seen as indicating trade or war, because metalwork must have been a man’s job, distributed either by traders (men) or raiding warriors (also men). Changes in pottery were seen as indicating mass migration, because pottery must have been “domestic”, made near the home, used by women, and so must have indicated homes, families, and therefore population movement. For a long time I’ve wanted to write a history of archaeology, largely because theories like that are so easy to take the piss out of.

** after Colin Renfrew – now Lord Renfrew – used radiocarbon dating with tree-ring calibration to show that metalworking was probably first invented in south-eastern Europe.

*** I’m not exaggerating: when I was a student, we were given, as a prime example of processual archaeology, a paper that compared artefact distributions to the spread of muskrats in, um, Canada I think.

**** the processualists, on the other hand, were pretty hot on technological change. I am, of course, extremely over-generalising on all this.

***** at least before the Danes and Norse arrived, towards the end of the millennium.

****** and gave it its name, of course.

******* and I’m clearly running out of footnotes.

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More Sheese, Vicar?

In which a correspondent is nauseated


Regular readers might remember that a few days back, in a rant about vegan food, I mentioned a vegan cheese substitute product I came across called “Sheese”, a kind of oil-water-soya paste packed to the gunnels with artificial flavouring to make it vaguely cheeselike.

Well, since I wrote that, I’ve had an email from someone I know in Glasgow, who, coincidentally, has encountered some of the ingredients that go into the stuff. They came into contact with one of their “brown cardboard barrows”, in which the “flavouring” mentioned in the ingredients list arrives at the factory. Their advice: avoid it.

Because the manufacturers, Bute Island Foods, are on an island,* they can’t get their supplies delivered straight to their factory, and have to pick it up from a Glasgow warehouse, where my source was visiting and happened to bump into it And it is, on their account, foul. It comes, I’m told, in sealed barrows, but despite the seal they smell so awful that my source couldn’t bear to be near them; they made him/her gag and want to throw up.

They said:

It’s like cheese powder that you buy in a packet to make cheese sauce, but I swear the smell was awful and the barrows were sealed. Honestly, I can’t even begin to tell you how bad the smell was.

So, there you go. Me, I’m going to stay eating real, low-on-the-additives food – and that includes real milk and real cheese, never mind how much “cow torture” I’m told it causes.

* well, obviously…

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Etymology

In which we discover something wrong on the Internet


Last night, on TV, I was idly watching a documentary, Real Men, about the maintenance of the Forth Bridge. Rather interesting it was, even if the risks were a bit overstated sometimes.* One thing, though, puzzled me. It started off, as you might expect, with the history of the bridge: in the 1870s construction had begun on a Forth Bridge designed by Sir Thomas Bouch, previously responsible for designing the train ferries the bridge was to replace. In 1879, though, Bouch’s Tay Bridge collapsed catastrophically, so work on his Forth Bridge was stopped.

What puzzled me was: according to the narrator, the collapse of Bouch’s bridge is the origin of the phrase “a botched job”. Now, surely, that can’t be true. It has to be nonsense. According to my copy of the Concise Oxford, “botch” goes back to Middle English. It’s always meant roughly the same thing, I assume. There’s no way an event in 1879 can have created a phrase, when the word itself had been around for several hundred years beforehand. Can it? Wikipedia, and an awful lot of other websites, say that “bodge” and “botch” are both derived from Bouch’s name, even though “bodging”, as a type of carpentry, has been around for centuries. Does anyone have a copy of the full Oxford Dictionary to hand?

* “with High Speed Trains thundering past them” said the narrator. Well, yes, technically – but as far as I remember, from when I was a Fife commuter, they’re not going any faster than 50mph as they go across the bridge.

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Memories of the year (part four)

In which we remember Scotland


This is just a short one. A romantic breakfast, in a supermarket in Greenock, squeezed between the railway and the firth. Haar is hanging over the firth,* and the far shore is out of sight. I’m sitting, looking at you, and wondering how many times I’ll be back here.

* except that it isn’t, because – according to East Coast people, at any rate – you only get haar on the East Coast. So any sea-fogs you get hanging over West Coast firths, and towns like Greenock, Rothesay or Wemyss Bay, can’t be proper haar. Any Scots reading feel free to correct me on this.

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Ink Polaroid

In which we look up at the stars


This is a slightly faded memory, from a few years ago now, from the last time I was in the Outer Hebrides. It’s a late night, two in the morning or so, in August. You can hardly make out a thing in the darkness. There’s a crowd of us sat around in deckchairs, in the front yard of the University farmhouse, heads leaning back. We’ve all just returned from the “local” pub, about six miles away, and we’re sitting outside to watch for the Perseids. Out there on the Atlantic coast, the sky seems, strangely, lighter than elsewhere, because of the number of stars scattered across it. The sky is filled with patterns of light, coming from millions of years ago; and leaning back in a deckchair, the age, complexity and size of it all fills me with a slightly dizzy awe.* Every thirty seconds or so, a meteor flashes across the dark sky, and everybody watching smiles.

* Not to mention that the rocks beneath us, the Lewisian Gneiss Complex, were themselves nearly three billion years old, older than the light from some of the stars.

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The look in your eyes

In which we’re still visiting Scotland


Glasgow just wasn’t Glasgow last Saturday. Why? We walked down Queen Street, and there weren’t any goths or skater kids standing around outside the art gallery. None. Not one. The pavements, though, were wet. “They must have all just been hosed away,” said C. We looked around the art gallery, but the main gallery was closed off for installation, and none of the rest was particularly impressive. Being too lazy to get on the subway and go out to Kelvingrove, we ambled back up Sauchiehall Street and got ready for our night out.

I’m not sure what to say about my weekend. Other than, we both had a wonderful time. We looked into each others’ eyes, and smiled, and that was that.

Sunday morning, I drove C to her ferry, out along the Clyde shore. I tried to admire the scenery, but it was full of mist. We stopped off at a supermarket in Greenock for breakfast, and talked about ourselves, each other, and everything. I worried I was being a bore, or a geek, and then worried I was worrying too much. “You worry too much,” said C.

I dropped her off at the ferry terminal. Feeling suddenly at a loss, I got out the camera, before setting off for the drive home.

Wemyss Bay Wemyss Bay pier Wemyss Bay pier Wemyss Bay station

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A Sunny Day In Glasgow

In which we return to Scotland for the first time in a few years


When I looked out of my hotel window, I remembered why I missed the place. In a tower block above Charing Cross station, the random architecture of the city looked lovely in the early morning light. To the west, I could see the spire of the university.

I sprawled across the hotel bed. An enormous thing, it took over the entire room. I was alone in my bed that night, so I laid right across it diagonally, just because I could. An awful lot of things over the weekend, I did just because I could do.

Not bothering with breakfast, I showered, dressed, and wandered across Blytheswood Hill, up St Vincent Street and down towards Central Station. Glasgow always seems slightly American in flavour to me, with its city blocks, the street plan ignoring its hills, its urban motorways slashing through the city and over the river. It makes it awkward to navigate, though, if you can’t remember street names. I found my way without too much trouble, though, down towards the station. I was scared, and excited, but I wasn’t scared for very long.

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Saturday

In which a song reminds us of Scotland


…is one of my favourite cosy, romantic songs. It’s by The Clientele, and it goes something like:

The taxi lights were in your eyes
So warm again, St Mary’s spires
The carnival was over in the rain
And on and on, through Vincent St
The evening hanging like a dream
I touched your faith*
And saw the night again

When I lived in Edinburgh, I thought it was a song about the city. After all, the Clientele did record one song definitely set in Edinburgh,** and it has both a St Mary’s Cathedral (with distinctive spires)*** and a Saint Vincent St. Glasgow, though, has both too.

And in your arms, I watch the stars
Ascend, and sleep
The loneliness away for a while
Your fingers wide and locked in mine
I kiss your face, I kiss your eyes
Until they turn to me and softly smile

Edinburgh or Glasgow, I wish I was up in Scotland this weekend. I’m sure I will be again soon.

* Until writing this post, I thought it said “I touched your face”. Listening very carefully just now, for the first time I realised it’s actually “faith”.

** A B-side called “6am, Morningside”

*** Actually, it has two St Mary’s Cathedrals, just to confuse people. One of them, the Episcopalian one, has three distinctive spires that are a major city landmark, especially when you look down the length of Princes St. The Catholic one, on the other hand, is tucked away inconspicuously behind a shopping centre.

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Flower of Scotland

In which we are grateful for health and safety


In the news today: military musicians are having their bagpipe practise time restricted for fear of giving them hearing damage. You’d think that if they joined the army they were willing to risk physical injury to start with, but there you go.

Bagpipes, apparently, are as loud as a chainsaw. As anyone who’s put up with Edinburgh buskers knows, though, chainsaws are rather more musical.

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Synchronicity

In which our luck is in


Strange things seem to be happening together at the moment.

Last weekend, without much else to do, I went down to a munch in Leicester. I met lots of people; and as the afternoon drifted into evening people wandered away until they were just three of us left. VW, who admits she used to be a bit goth; Fuzzy, who is so goth he wears Whitby-related t-shirts; and me, Forest “Some Of My Best Friends Are Goth” Pines.

Chatting away in a small group like that, you soon learn a lot about each other. We quickly discovered that we’d all lived up in Scotland, not far from each other, two or three years ago. Not just that, but – being all at least goth-related – we used to drink in the same pubs, go to the same clubs, and so on. We even knew the same people; but somehow we’d never actually been introduced before.* It’s a small world.

The other day, I was chatting to an online friend, F. I’ve never met F, but I know she has family connections in this area, and we’ve talked a bit about the region when we’ve had nothing better to say to each other. When I’d been ambling about between London and Leicester, F had been up here in my own parish, over at a family wedding. We discussed the wedding, the guests; and what school I’d been to, to see if any of the guests would have been people I knew. Indeed, they were. In fact, we worked out that the groom was someone I’d been at school with – someone I used to sit next to in at least one class, so far as I can remember. The best man, likewise was someone I knew. In fact, he was someone I mentioned here a couple of months back. It’s a very small world.

Yesterday, I was reading JPod,** the new Douglas Coupland book. And it includes this exchange:

“What a weird coincidence. I should go out and buy a lottery ticket.”

“How come?”

“Any time you have a coincidence happen to you, it means you’ve entered a luck warp–for the next short while everything you do will be touched by it.”

Maybe, I should be out buying lottery tickets myself. Luck Warp, here I come.

* Unless we were introduced, at some point when we were all so horribly drunk that none of us remembered afterwards. That’s very possible, at least in my case.

** it’s a horrible website unless you like Flash

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