Monday, October 29, 2007

John Romer - Ancient Lives; The Story of the Pharaohs' Tombmakers

Whenever you wander around an ancient place, be it Roman, Egyptian or Greek. Or visit some long ruined castle or cave, it is impossible not to gaze around and imagine what it must have been like for the people who lived there.

This is doubly problematic for those who have been lucky enough to visit the Pyramids. After all, no-one lived there. These were the tombs of the richest of Egyptian society. The people who made these places died, in the most, forgotten. The ordinary people of Egypt who created the wealth of the Egyptian Pharaohs leave few if any markers.

However for those who created the beautifully engraved and decorated tombs of the Valley of the Kings in southern Egypt. This is not true. For hundreds of years, men and women of the village that is now known as Deir El Medina lived and worked on the tombs and we are lucky enough to have a wealth of detailed accounts of their lives, as well as much more circumstantial evidence to back up the documents that have been discovered.

In the last hundred years or so, Archaeologists have discovered dozens of papyrus scrolls, which detail in minutiae the lives of these tomb builders. It seems that the foremen of the working gangs were meticulous in the day to day detail they recorded.

"Year one, on the twelfth day of the first month of summer, the boulder of flint was found on the right" wrote Scribe Kenhirkhopeshef, who was in charge of keeping the work journal of the tomb of the Great Ramses (who died in 1212BC). Each day he recorded the depth of digging, the number of wicks used by the quarrymen lamps and other details of the dig. Writing mostly on flakes of stone, the scribe recorded the 13 years work on the tomb of Rameses' successor. We know he sat and watched the workers from a niche cut into the rock above the tomb because he scratched "Sitting Place of the Scribe Kenhirkhopeshef" on the rock beside his seat.

While hard, the work was rewarding for the villagers. They held a priority place in Egyptian society - the important job of creating the resting place for the Pharaoh's corpse as the king travelled into the here-after. As such they got better food rations and more beer than most ordinary people. Though this didn't always mean the villagers lived in perfect harmony. Court records record the arguments and legal wrangling that must always occur in tight-knit communities where food might be short and possessions few. We hear about the rows and the fights, and the occasional murder.

Romer has brought together the most compelling stories of these people. To use a cliché, he brings them to life. For me though, the most lifelike the workers become is when they are forced, perhaps for the first time in history, to struggle together.

During the reign of King Ramesses III (around 1160BC to 1170BC) rations went short. Probably through robbery by bureaucrats in Thebes. The tombmakers did what their brothers and sisters of generations to come have done, they used the only weapon available to them - they downed tools.
Tempers finally broke on 14 November 1152BC, in the 29th year of the King, when the two gangs stopped their work and marched together out of the Great Place. The senior men, the two foremen, their deputies and the Scribe Amennakht had no idea where they had gone.
They went and found the local elders to demand rations and the next day headed for the temple of Ramses II, where the Mayor promised food. However, this wasn't forthcoming (not the last time a bureaucrat's promises came to nothing) and the strike continued. The next day, we learn that the missing rations were given to the men, and they returned to work. This victory seems to have given them confidence as further strikes are recorded necessitating the Pharaohs' Vizier to visit the village later in the year to examine what was causing the problems.

I could go on in great detail about similar events. The rise and fall of the village, matching the rise and fall of the power of the Pharaohs is here in detail and the final chapter brings the story up to date - detailing the discovery of the village and it's records, as well as information on how the story was decoded.

This is a fascinating bit of history - my only minor quibble, is that there is little on how the works were decoded.... the scratch markings reproduced here, carrying so much information are impossible to understand... I'd love more information on how they related to hieroglyphics, and how we know what they say. This is a minor criticism though of a fascinating book - perfect for anyone who believes that history should not be about kings and queens, but those that created their wealth, and in the words of Brecht built "Thebes of the Seven Gates".

Related Reviews

Romer - A History of Ancient Egypt: Volume 1
Romer - A History of Ancient Egypt: Volume 2

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Chris Harman - Revolution in the 21st Century

Chris Harman has been writing about the revolutionary transformation of society for over 40 years. Whether writing about the broad sweep of human history, the "Lost" German Revolution of 1919-1923 or in more detailed work on Marxism and History, he has, in my opinion been one of the best Marxist writers for decades.

This little book is a fantastic re-assertion of the Marxist theory of revolution. In only 126 pages Harman puts across both the necessity for revolution and takes up all the counter arguments you ever hear when you raise the transformation of society at work, or in the bus queue. In doing so though, his writing never sounds tired or cliché ridden, and he continually surprises with new examples and ideas.

For instance in an early chapter called "the actuality of revolution" Harman takes up the idea that revolution is unusual. He writes that
In fact, revolution is so characteristic a feature of the modern capitalist world that the 20th century can be described as a century of revolution.... Britain is virtually alone among European states in not having fairly recent memories of revolutionary change and most of the non-western governments represented at the United Nations would not have a seat without the revolutionary movements that ended colonial domination.
There in one paragraph Harman brings alive both the scale of revolutionary history, its internationalism and its importance.

Socialists are perhaps used to hearing discussion about revolution in the context of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Harman of course goes into detail about this most important moment in history. But he doesn't limit himself to the "classic" European revolutions. The events of this century in South America are used to illustrate arguments such as the inevitability of working class resistance and the necessity of independent revolutionary organisation. But he also shows, particularly in the case of Bolivia, how the working class is constantly changing.

Common to those on the right in Europe who claim that the working class is no more, Harman points out that commentators in South America argued that Bolivia was undergoing "de-industrialisation" and its working class disappearing. The reality is different, the numbers engaged in manufacturing has reason tremendously, and it was these workers who formed the core of those on the streets of La Paz who drove Mesa from office.

The final chapter "Knocking on History's Door" reasserts the choice facing humanity - the creation of a society based on need, not profit or the ongoing destruction wrought by the nature of capitalism itself. Harman wouldn't be a revolutionary Marxist if he didn't conclude by urging the reader to become part of building revolutionary organisations. It is a argument I am happy to reiterate.

Related Reviews

Harman - Marxism and History
Harman - The Fire Last Time: 1968 and After
Harman - Class Struggles in Eastern Europe 1945-83

Harman - Selected Writings
Harman - Zombie Capitalism: Global Crisis & The Relevance of Marx
Choonara & Kimber - Arguments for Revolution

Monday, October 15, 2007

Harry Harrison - The Stainless Steel Rat Goes to Hell

When I was about ten, I was given a copy of a collection of Science Fiction stories, that I still have today. The book can be credited with a lifelong love of that particular genre. Amongst the many stories in it, was one that wasn't a complete story, but actually turned out to be the first chapter of Harry Harrison's novel, The Stainless Steel Rat.

From the moment I read it, I was hooked on the idea of the underground criminal, the last of his kind, living beneath the surface of the dull utopian future society. I loved his warped justification for his actions, his quirky sense of humour, the funny little sayings, and the amusing philosophy:

"At a certain stage the realisation striked through that one must either live outside of society's bonds or die of absolute boredom... There is no longer room fro the soldier of fortune or the gentleman adventurer who can live both within and outside of society. Today it is all or nothing. To save my own sanity I chose the nothing."

So when I discovered that not only was the story I had just a first chapter, but part of a series of novels, my ten year old heart nearly popped in excitement. Since then, I have followed the Rat's adventures on both sides of the law. Read and re-read his fixing of elections and his travels in time. I've often smiled to myself at the gratuitous use of invention to save the day, and the fact that no matter how many bullets are sprayed around in an armed robbery, nobody ever seems to get hit.

This latest escapade is very much written with tongue firmly in cheek. When his beautiful wife disappears after visiting a strange religous temple on a utopian pleasure planet, the Rat travels through time, space and alternate universes to get her back. The evil (and multiple personalitied) rogue physicist Slakey will stop at nothing to prevent someone getting in the way of his evil plans, and the Rat has to use all his resources to save the universe again.

Well, it made me laugh a few times, though I did not like this Rat, as much as I liked the younger Rat who had to rely on his own resources and invention far more. Maybe it's the revolutionist in me, but I prefer the tales of the underground bank robber, hiding in society's cracks much more than those of the rich, experienced Rat working for the planetary police force. Or maybe it's just some nostalga for the days when reading The Boys Big Book of SF wouldn't look strange on the bus.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Hans Zinsser – Rats, Lice and History

Throughout history, on hundreds of occasions, various epidemics decimated the human populations. On many of these occasions the dead have remained uncounted, entire villages and towns have been emptied and very occasionally, the course of history has been changed.

We have become used to the type of history book that focuses on one particular commodity, material or scientific discovery and declaims how it has “changed the world”. In contemporary times, perhaps the first to do this was Longitude, Dava Sobel’s work that examined how the ability to measure distance at sea fundamentally transformed man’s ability to trade and wage war, and thus altered history. Since then, we have seen books claiming that their subject matter is singularly responsible for changing the world. Mark Kurlansky’s books Salt and Cod spring to mind, but there are others, and sooner or later some enterprising author will no doubt write 200 pages on the historical importance of “Dust”. But I digress.

However, many years ago, Hans Zinsser had a similar idea. In 1934, this scientist decided to write a long book which, amongst other things, touched on the shaping of history by Rats and Lice (in particular through their ability to carry and pass on diseases such as Typhus). Zinsser describes his work as a biography of Typhus. But Zinsser is far from a scientist who is limited by his scientific subject. The book starts with a gentle discussion of the ability of scientists to discuss subjects not related to science. It’s an important discussion – should scientists touch the realms of history for instance. Zinsser concludes that they both should and must and energetically goes about doing so, quoting such literary greats as Joyce, Shelley and Eliot along the way.

Zinsser’s style is a wonderful blend of poetic writing and simple science. But he is also very funny. At one point a footnote to the word “saprophyte” tells us that “if the reader does not understand this word, it is too bad” [1].

To understand the history of Typhus we need to learn a little about the spread of disease, how certain diseases love the dirty cramped conditions of human existence and how the medicines that fight them work. We learn also how humans can get disease from animals, and how animals (or insects) can carry these diseases, but not succumb. We also learn how terrible an epidemic really is. This book was written shortly after millions died in the First World War. Millions more died in the great influenza epidemics that followed that conflict.

More interestingly the non-biologist like myself learns that diseases like Typhus have a history of themselves and Zinsser, in those pre-DNA testing times shows us how scientists can show that the disease had evolved down different paths. The different variants having different effects, and different victims. Part of this discussion looks at epidemics in history and Zinsser examines the evidence for whether certain mass deaths described by Pliny or other ancient historians can be attributed to various “modern” diseases.

This is a fabulous work. Science as it should be written, by an author who clearly didn’t think that one should never stray from one’s area of special understanding. But one who also believed that knowledge was important to combat disease. I’ll leave the last words to Zinsser himself:
About the only genuine sporting proposition that remains unimpaired by the relentless domestication of a once free living human species is the war against those ferocious little fellow creatures, which lurk in the dark corners and stalk us in the bodies of rats, mice, and all kinds of domestic animals; which fly and crawl with the insects, and waylay us in our food and drink and even in our love.
[1] The Chambers Scientific and Technological Dictionary actually defines it as “an organism living heterotrophically [2] and osmotrophically on dead organic matter”

[2] if the reader does not understand this word, it is too bad

Related Reviews

Davis - The Monster at Our Door - The Global Threat of Avian Flu
Wallace - Dead Epidemiologists: On the Origins of Covid-19
Quammen - Ebola: The Natural and Human History

Monday, October 01, 2007

John Bellamy Foster – The Vulnerable Planet; A Short Economic History of the Environment

Most famous perhaps for his examination of Karl Marx's understanding of nature and capitalism, in his book “Marx’s Ecology”, this older book was John Bellamy Foster’s first venture into the world of environmentalism. It is short – barely 150 pages in length, but contains a succinct analysis of both the history of the human race’s relationship with the environment and the Marxist understanding of the relationship between nature and society.

Foster’s basic thesis is that humans have always exploited their surrounding nature. In some cases, in the past, this has led to human societies undermining the very basis of their existence. This is important for Foster, because he argues that while there is a difference between the exploitation of nature under capitalism, it is important not to fall for the “mainstream conception….. which traces all environmental problems, other than those linked to demographic influences, to the technologhy of production that emerged with the Industrial Revolution, inventing a gloried past characterized by ecological harmony”.

For Foster, drawing on the work of Marx and Engels, humans exploit the nature around them as the basis of their existence. Different historical socities have of course done this in many different ways. But this process becomes accelerated with the development of industrial capitalism.

The industrial revolution, the development of capitalism and the expansion of capitalism to every corner of the world, as well as the imperialistic wars that have been fought by various national powers have all associated environmental and ecological consequences. The destruction of the flora and fauna of the America’s by the settlers that arrived there. The oil spills and fires associated with the First Gulf War, the terrible pollution associated with the creation and rapid expansion of industrial cities are all good examples. Foster spends some time looking at the terrible health problems in the world’s first industrial city Manchester – he quotes Tocqueville

“From this foul drain the greatest stream of human industry flows out to fertilise the whole world. From this filthy sewer pure gold flows. Here humanity attains its most complete development and its most brutish, here civilisation works its miracles and civilised man is turned almost into savage.”

This can of course be compared to the environmental destruction caused by the rapid expansion of modern Chinese cities, or as Foster points out, that caused by the industrialisation of East Europe and Soviet Russia during the cold war – he describes one city in the Urals, which was so polluted that the only cause of death was cancer.

For Foster, environmental destruction is part and parcel of capitalism. Capitalism’s drive for profit, it’s short termism and its externalisation of nature from its calculations of profit and lose are the basis of the environmental catastrophe we face. Attempts to change this are always subverted or undermined by those whose interests are linked to maximising profits. Foster points out how historically there have also been countervailing strategies – those that campaigned for national parks (or local ones) in the USA in the later decades of the 19th Century for instance. But the author concludes that these are only really short term victories. In his 1999 afterword he writes

“environmental history is not simply a product of technological or demographic change; rather it is inseparable from, even subordinate to, the way we organize out social relations. The environmental crisis is a crisis of society in the fullest sense. It signals the fact that a one-sided development of human productive powers without a commensurate change in the social relations by which we govern society spells social and ecological disaster.”

His conclusion is very stark, without social revolution, capitalism will continue to rape and pillage the world’s natural resources. This isn’t a process that can continue indefinitely and there is a matter of urgency about the need to hasten the end of an economic system that threatens the very planet we live on.

Related Reviews

Bellamy Foster - Ecology Against Capitalism