Black Achilles and White Matthew

[Note: I wrote this post a month ago and have been tinkering with it on and off since. Given that the show premiers tonight in the UK (possibly already) and it’s framed as if we don’t know how the show turns out, I figured it was now or never to post it!]

Human beings have strange obsessions. When the actor Daniel Craig was cast as James Bond in the early noughties, there was an angry reaction based on the colour of his hair. “Bond not blond” was the cry – in those halcyon pre-Twitter days, there was no hashtag – a cry which largely died down when Casino Royale was released and was largely well-received.

The cry arose in another direction in 2015 when writer Anthony Horowitz said that Idris Elba – a fan and Sony executive favourite to play the spy – was ‘too street’ to play James Bond. Based on the long history of the use of the word ‘street’ in racialised contexts, this comment was interpreted as racist – Elba could not play James Bond because he was black. (It’s worth noting that when this was pointed out to Horowitz he rescinded his statement in horror.) Meanwhile, watching Elba act or seeing him in any context in which he is allowed to be suave shows that he could have been a fine Bond indeed.

Concerns over the casting of James Bond goes back to the early 1960s, when Bond-creator Ian Fleming opposed the casting of Scottish actor Sean Connery for his refined and sophisticated character. After watching Connery, however, Fleming’s opinion changed (or so the story goes). The next Bond book Fleming wrote – You Only Live Twice – introduced Bond’s Scottish ancestry. If you’re convinced by a performance, it can change your idea of what a hero can be.

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Top Ten Books 2017

Twenty Seventeen was a strange year. After the political turmoil of 2016, we started facing the repercussions of those choices, which were largely – but not exclusively – terrible. From my perspective as a citizen of the UK (albeit one who lives in Canada), the political highlight came just after 5pm EST on Thursday 8th June when, after a dispiriting build up the exit poll from the General Election revealed a hung parliament with Labour gains in extraordinary places. Nevertheless, this was not a victory (depending on how you define victory, that is); it was, however, a salient reminder that we must not give up hope, and that fighting towards a better future is always a good idea.

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Three (and a half) Ways of Looking at Rey’s Lightsaber

In a move somewhat pre-empted by her using it in all of the promotional material, Lucasfilm have announced that as of The Last Jedi, the lightsaber formerly owned by Skywalkers Anakin and Luke officially belongs to Rey. [1] While I had assumed that this was the case as of The Force Awakens – Luke has the lightsaber he built himself, after all – I did start to wonder what this actually means. You see, since watching The Force Awakens and seeing that lightsaber I had been thinking about how it functioned as an entangled object. The term ‘entangled object’ originated with the “material culture turn” in anthropology around the turn of the millennium, but I know the term through its use by James Whitley as a concept in relating ideas in the Homeric epics to the archaeology of Early Iron Age Greece – that is, the way in which objects drive the plot through their entangled relationships with characters. [2] Whitley illustrates his argument with an example from a different epic, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings:

“Artefacts can exert a malignant force, as in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings […] It is the Ring itself (the object that links this tale with all the earlier tales, including the Hobbit [sic]) that, in many ways, drives the narrative, and has greater agency than many of the human (or hobbit, elven or dwarvish) characters.” [3]

How, then, does this lightsaber function as an entangled object? It exerts a Force (pun absolutely intended) in that for Rey touching it triggers a vision; it shows agency in choosing Rey over Kylo Ren. To a degree, it binds the three Star Wars film trilogies together (if not each individual film); but in doing so it passes between those we might consider the principal characters or the heroes of the films – Anakin, Luke, and Rey. If we think about the lightsaber itself as a character, we can look at the role it plays in the stories of Anakin and Luke to see what Lucasfilm might intend by announcing that they now consider the lightsaber to be Rey’s.

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Did the Trojan War Actually Happen?

According to the third-century BCE mathematician Eratosthenes, 11th June 1184 BCE was the date on which the Achaeans stormed the walls of Troy. That makes this Saturday, 11th June 2016, the 3,199th anniversary of the most famous military ambush of all time: the Trojan Horse. Of course, most of us accept that the Trojan War didn’t really happen, or at least that, if it did, elements such as the capture of Helen, the ten year long siege, and the Trojan Horse are mythological embellishments. But some people are more open-minded. Since Heinrich Schliemann’s excavations at Hisarlik, in modern Turkey, uncovered the remains of Troy some have felt that this supported the story of the war; others too have pointed to the Hittite texts which seem to reference a series of wars in northwest Anatolia as the ultimate proof that the Trojan War actually happened.

So, did the Trojan War actually happen? I think the case is far from proven. Those who believe it has been are exercising an extreme form of the Positivist Fallacy, which is usually understood as assuming what is archaeologically visible is historically significant, but here also includes the assimilation of historical events that may have absolutely nothing to do with one another and their correlation with archaeological remains.

The date of the war

Modern scholars, if they believe in the War, tend to date it to the thirteenth century BCE. In his Very Short Introduction to the Trojan War Eric Cline more vaguely states: “If the Trojan War did take place, both ancient and modern scholars agree that it was fought towards the end of the Late Bronze Age, near the end of the second millennium BCE.” Cline gives no impression of having any doubt that the war did take place and asserts that it was actually fought between the Mycenaean Greeks and the Hittites of Anatolia. Meanwhile, the excavations at Hisarlik revealed several levels of occupation at Troy in the Late Bronze Age, including a significant destruction ca. 1300, at the end of Troy VI, originally believed to be Priam’s Troy. Subsequent excavation, however, suggested that this may have been the result of an earthquake, and Troy VIIa, destroyed ca. 1190 BCE, is now the most popular choice for ‘Priam’s Troy’.

The ancient sources are a little less certain about the date. Eratosthenes, as already mentioned, dated the sack of Troy to 1184 BCE, but the date derived from Herodotus is ca. 1250 BCE, while the Parian Chronicle provides the dates 1217-1208 BCE. Other dates derived from ancient sources vary from the fourteenth to the twelfth century. While there seems clear consensus among ancient sources that the Trojan War was historical, they generally don’t claim to know the details of this long ago war in their ancient past.

The Hittite documents that are believed to reference the war are dated to the thirteenth century. The documents are letters between several great kings, including the king of Ahhiyawa, believed to be Mycenaean Greece. In one of these discussions, the Hittite king Hattusili III mentions that he and the king of Ahhiyawa went to war over Wilusa, which is likely to be Ilium (an alternative name for Troy), and is located in northwestern Anatolia, i.e. Hisarlik. So certainly it appears that there was a war at Troy in the thirteenth century. This war, however, is too early for the destruction in Troy VIIa, which was as much as half a century later.

What is the Trojan War, anyway?

The connection made between the Hittite texts and the Trojan War reveals another question that must be answered before we can safely say we have proof of the Trojan War: what do we mean when we say the Trojan War?

Perhaps the most famous aspect of the Trojan War is the wooden horse in which the Greeks hid in order to get inside the unbreakable walls of Troy and ambush the unsuspecting Trojans. Alternatively the most famous might be Helen of Sparta, the most beautiful woman in the world, who ran away with (or was raped by) the Trojan prince Paris (or Alexander) and whose husband united the whole of Greece to fight to get her back. Finally, there are Achilles and Hector, the greatest warriors on either side, one of whom was the almost invulnerable son of a goddess, the other of whom was but a mere mortal. How much of this story needs to be true if we are to have found the Trojan War?

This question might be unfair. Rather, what we want to find is the historical basis that inspired the Trojan Epic Cycle. The question must then be: how can we do so? What evidence could be brought to bear that would show us that it was this war that inspired the story that we read in the epics? For some, it is evidence enough to show that a war probably happened at probably the right place at about the right time, with not quite the right people, but near enough that it probably makes no difference. Personally, I find this an unsatisfactory conclusion.

Does it matter?

Arguably, it doesn’t matter if some people want to believe that the war between the Hittites and the Ahhiyawa was the basis of the Trojan Cycle. It only really affects them and it makes them happy, so who cares? I have three problems with this approach. The first is that the search for Homer’s Troy did massive damage to the archaeological site when Schliemann began his excavations in the 1870s. Many of those who believe in the Trojan War and Priam’s Troy mock Schliemann for calling a treasure hoard from the third millennium ‘Priam’s Treasure’ when it dated a thousand years before the date at which they place Priam, when really it is an example of why hunting for the origin of the story was a terrible idea in the first place. Secondly, in associating the historical events recorded in the Hittite documents with the Epic Cycle that we know from several centuries later we are doing a disservice to an exciting historical discovery in its own right that can tell us interesting things about conflict and conflict resolution in the Late Bronze Age eastern Mediterranean, without relying on poems that we only know from several centuries later.

Thirdly, and related to the second point, there are just far more interesting questions to be asked about this material.

Alternative approaches

One alternative is that the Epic Cycle is much older, and if the ‘Trojan War’ actually happened then it may be that existing oral poetic forms were adapted to it, rather than new poems written about it. There are clues to this in both the poetry and the archaeological record. Susan Sherratt has pointed out that many of the features of the poem, such as the boar’s tusk helmet and Ajax’s ‘Tower Shield’, are much older than the thirteenth century, and may date as early as the sixteenth. In this case, it would be interesting to know first about the conditions represented in the Hittite documents and then to see if this affects our reading of the surviving Trojan epics – but it must be done this way around.

Another alternative is to embrace the variety in the epic tradition before it congealed into the poems that survive. Until the eighth and seventh centuries BCE there was much variety in the epic stories which intermingled and were adapted into one another, with regional differences and focus, but which were whittled down to two surviving epic traditions by the eighth and seventh centuries – the Theban Cycle and the Trojan Cycle – before the Homeric versions of the Trojan Cycle became so widespread that alternatives were almost inconceivable. However, variations survive in seventh-century art and even as late as the plays of Euripides, such as the story that Helen was in Egypt while a mirage went to Troy, or the replacement of Iphigenia with a deer before she could be sacrificed. Gregory Nagy has proposed that the epic goes through stages of change and development, before it became so well-known in the sixth century that only very minor changes could be made.

The existence of these variations makes the identification of a kernel of truth in the epic even more doubtful. Rather, they suggest an alternative way of thinking about the poems: understanding how they changed and how they reflect the periods in which they were popular and developing. It is absolutely clear that the epic cycle does not appear from nowhere in the seventh century, but how has it developed in previous centuries? Why and how does it remain relevant?

Ultimately, ‘did the Trojan War actually happen?’ sounds like an interesting question, but it obscures the much more fascinating histories of the Late Bronze Age eastern Mediterranean and the development of the Epic Cycle from the sixteenth to the seventh century and beyond.

The Prince and the Pa(u)per Mask

Over the past couple of days, two news reports about Egyptian Mummy Masks have been reported separately in news outlets across the world. One is about the damage done to Tutankhamun’s mask in the Cairo Museum; the other is about a papyrus mask of an unknown individual in a private collection which was destroyed to reveal what might be an early copy of the Gospel of Mark. I find it very interesting that these two cases have made the news so close together, but none of the news reports that I’ve seen have tied the two cases together. It is perhaps worth remembering that a huge chronological span separates these two objects – although not a span as great as that which separates us from them. And yet I believe that the parallels between the two cases are worth a few comments.

The treatment of these masks is directly related to their perceived value by their owners and curators. The first is perhaps the most famous museum object in the world, the gold mask of a long-dead king of a prosperous land around whose tomb and discovery many myths have gathered. The other was a papyrus mask of an unknown individual, of much lower status, in an Egypt which was part of a much larger empire – the mask has been described as not “museum-quality” (although one wonders how many museums were consulted about that and what defines “museum-quality”). In an effort to make the gold shine again, Tutankhamun’s mask was damaged, and the perceived need for such a valuable and famous treasure to be on display led to it being further – and permanently – damaged by a speedy and unprofessional repair job. Meanwhile, the perceived lack of value of the papyrus mask led to its total destruction in the hope of finding something with greater value in the modern world: a fragment of an early Gospel. In the former case, the object is world famous and has been recorded, studied, and photographed again and again – arguably nothing has been lost by the damage done to it. But the response, on social media and in the news reports about the damage, is incredulous. That reaction seems fair – the damage is irreparable, and many of us (myself included) will now never see the object in as perfect condition as we might. In the latter case, however, the object is largely unknown and there may not even be any decent photographs of it; it is, as far as I can tell, unprovenanced or at least not obviously from a formal excavation. So little is known about the Gospel Mask, except that it has now been completely destroyed and we may never know anything about it. But, we might argue, it could lead to a potentially more interesting further discovery. As an archaeologist largely interested in pre- or proto-historic periods, the idea that a written document of dubious date, of which we have many other copies, and which is largely of interest only to those who believe in its contents is more important than an artefact which may give us some indication about those not usually represented by written texts or shiny gold masks is troubling. What is perhaps also of interest is that whoever made this mask clearly also placed greater value on the mummy mask than on the copy of the gospel. Might we be better off questioning why that is, too?

In both of these cases, the problems seem to have occurred because of specialists; or rather, because of a lack of consultation with specialists. Rather than take the necessary time to repair the damage done to Tutankhamun’s mask, someone ordered that it be repaired with whatever happened to be around, which was a tube of bog-standard superglue. I assumed that this could not have been done by a professional conservator, but another glance at the story seems to indicate that it was, in fact, done by a professional. We don’t know what professionals, if any, have been consulted about the Gospel mask. The only names which have been spoken are not archaeologists or papyrus experts, but a New Testament scholar. The publication of the text has been delayed and delayed. It is unclear what has been done to this object or who is responsible. We do not know how this evidence might be manipulated, except for the clear case of hype-creation by leaking titbits of material to the press about the object.

These two cases highlight how we place value on historical artefacts, how this has changed from the value placed on them in antiquity, and how we perceive authority in controlling access to and disseminating information about historical objects. The case of the Gospel mask certainly deserves examination and discussion about how we should go about damaging objects, whether “museum-quality” or not – would I be complaining if the “damage” done was destruction of part of a sword to determine its metal composition? That’s work I’d even be happy to do myself, if I knew how to go about it (and was paid to do it). But the discussion needs to be about what information is gained and what information is lost. Our understanding of Tutankhamun’s burial and our appreciation of the objects created for it has declined very little, if at all, as a result of this damage. We may never understand the Gospel Mask, nor know about it in any great detail, unless it was very carefully recorded before it was destroyed. Whatever new information with which we are provided by the text on the papyrus, perhaps the most interesting thing about it is the perceived value placed on it by whoever made the mask, and was buried in it – was this reverence for the text or complete dismissal? Can we know the answer to that question now the mask has been destroyed?

There’s certainly a lot to mull over in the cases of Tutankhamun’s mask and the Gospel mask. I haven’t even considered the fact that these objects are *funerary* (largely because I have little respect for the long-dead, and no belief in an afterlife). The public reaction to these cases suggests to me that they might even be more interesting objects because of their roles in 2015 than they were when they were first created.