Quotes: Gentlemen

Miss Marple made a contribution to the conversation. “Gentlemen,” she said with her old maid’s way of referring to the opposite sex as if it were a species of wild animal, “are frequently not so levelheaded as they seem.”

– Agatha Christie, The Body in the Library

Speaking as a member of that peculiar species, I do not object in the least to Miss Marple’s observation.

Christie, Agatha. The Body in the Library. New York, NY: Black Dog & Leventhal, 1941, p. 103.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

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Race in Antiquity: Short Answers

Over the past year, I’ve been posting on the topic of race in ancient Greek and Roman society. The subject is a much more complicated one than it may at first appear and there is a lot to say about it. Today, to bring things to a conclusion, I’d like to offer some short, simple answers to some basic questions. Like most things in history, the full answers are always more complicated, but these are a start.

Did ancient Greeks and Romans have a concept of race?

Not as we understand it today. They primarily thought of human populations as defined by language, culture, family, and legal status. While they were aware of the kinds of natural variations in skin tone, face shapes, hair types, and other physical features we typically use to categorize race today, they did not generally regard these variations as markers of identity.

Did skin color matter in Greek and Roman society?

Yes, but not as an indicator of race. Across much of the ancient Mediterranean world there was a cultural ideal (at least among the elite levels of society who have left us written evidence) that men should work outdoors, preferably as farmers or soldiers, and women should work indoors, especially at textile production. As a result, dark skin was valued in men—a sign that they had spent plenty of time working in the sun—and light skin was valued in women. Light-skinned men and dark-skinned women were often looked down on for failing to meet this social standard. Judgments about skin color stemmed from prejudices relating to gender and class, not race.

Were there any black people in ancient Greece or Rome?

Yes. Blackness is a modern identity grounded not just in physical features but in historical experience and which we cannot simply apply onto people in the past; however, in simple biological terms, people whose features we would today associate with blackness have been identified in Greek and Roman contexts from as early as the thirteenth century BCE to as as late as the fourth century CE. As genetic evidence becomes more available in archaeological research, the number of known examples will surely grow, but literary and artistic evidence is already abundant.

Were there any East Asian people in ancient Greece or Rome?

Yes. Contacts of trade and diplomacy across Eurasia are well documented and people from East and Southeast Asia have been identified in Greek and Roman contexts as far north and west as Roman London.

Were there any Indigenous American, Australian, or Oceanian people in ancient Greece or Rome?

Not as far as I know, but the development of genetic research may yet surprise us on this score. As far as the present evidence will take us, we can say that Greece and Rome were connected to networks of trade, travel, and migration that spanned Eurasia and Africa, but that appears to be their limit.

Were the black and East Asian people who lived in Greece and Rome seen as different?

It’s hard to say. Ancient authors didn’t spend much time writing about the issue, which in itself may suggest that these sorts of differences didn’t matter, but arguments from silence are hard to rely on. Since Greek and Roman culture did not have a concept of race, though, it seems unlikely that these sorts of variations mattered very much. Just as we notice peoples’ hair and eye color today but don’t generally attach much meaning to it, Greeks and Romans may well have noticed if someone had a different skin tone or facial shape, but they didn’t necessarily think it mattered very much.

Were the black and East Asian people who lived in Greece and Rome also Greeks and Romans?

Most of them probably were. The definition of who could be counted as a Greek or a Roman was flexible and depended on circumstance. In some times and places, lines of identity were tightly policed and newcomers were not welcomed in; in other times and places, the definitions were expansive and new people were easily incorporated. A lot of people who came to the Mediterranean from other parts of the world settled down and had families. Even if the original immigrants were not accepted as Greeks and Romans, there is a good chance that their children and grandchildren thought of themselves and were thought of by their neighbors as being just as Greek or Roman as anyone else.

Were ancient Greece and Rome white civilizations?

No. The majority of people who identified as Greeks and Romans in any given time and place were probably, in modern terms, white, but that does not mean that Greek and Roman culture were themselves “white” or had any necessary connection with whiteness. The category of “white” did not exist in Greek or Roman culture, nor did Greeks and Romans believe that their culture was inherently linked to their ancestry. Indeed, they were generally quite happy to point out where they had taken cultural ideas and influences from other peoples. The idea of a “white civilization” would have sounded very strange to Greek and Roman ears.

For more information and further discussion, check out other entries in this series:

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Reconstructing an Ancient Andean Structure Block by Block

The basin of Lake Titicaca, on the border between Bolivia and Peru, is one of the few places in the world where large-scale, complex societies have developed independently, out of contact with other, earlier large-scale societies. Between about 500 and 1000 CE, the people who lived at the site of Tiwanaku, on the modern-day Bolivian shore, built a number of megalithic structures using highly accurate stonecutting to fit together enormous blocks of intricately carved stone.

Remains at Pumapunku, a site associated with Tiwanaku. Photograph by Brattarb via Wikimedia

 

In the past millennium and a half, these structures have been the victims of neglect, colonial looting, and reconstruction efforts driven more by the impetus to create suitably impressive national monuments than by archaeological evidence. As a result of these pressures, the various Tiwanaku structures are now in a very poor state and it is difficult to know how they were originally put together, what they looked like, or how they were used.

Now a team of archaeologists has brought a new approach to the problem. Working with the site known as Pumapunku, or the Gate of the Puma, they used data from earlier efforts to measure and reconstruct the surviving stones at the site to create small 3D printed blocks with a high degree of precision. These small blocks could be quickly and easily reassembled to test various ways of reconstructing the site and find a reconstruction that fit the original pieces together. Theories that are impossible to test on the ground, given the enormous size of the stone blocks and the fragile condition of the site, were easy to try out with the scale model blocks.

Working with printed blocks to reconstruct Pumapunku. Photograph from Alexei Vranich “Reconstructing Ancient Architecture at Tiwanaku, Bolivia: The Potential and Promise of 3D Printing,” Heritage Science 6 (2018), accessible here under Creative Commons

 

This experiment yielded some important new results. Where earlier archaeologists had reconstructed sections of what they believed to be a single long wall, the team discovered that those sections actually fit together better to create a rectangular enclosure, similar to some other, earlier sites in the region which can now be looked to as a basis for better understanding Pumapunku.

As a historian, I’m excited by the potential this new approach offers to archaeologists for reconstructing damaged or poorly preserved structures. As someone who used to spend hours playing with Legos, I’m thrilled to see such interesting applications for plastic bricks!

Updated for proofreading errors

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.

Rating: Murdoch Mysteries, Season 4

The adventures of Victorian Toronto’s most scientifically-minded detective continue in Murdoch Mysteries season 4, and we’re here to rate them.

  1. “Tattered and Torn” – 4
  2. “Kommando” – 5
  3. “Buffalo Shuffle” – 5.5
  4. “Downstairs, Upstairs” – 6.5
  5. “Monsieur Murdoch” – 4
  6. “Dead End Street” – 10
  7. “Confederate Treasure” – 7.5
  8. “Dial M for Murdoch” – 5
  9. “The Black Hand” – 5.5
  10. “Voices” – 6
  11. “Bloodlust” – 7
  12. “The Kissing Bandit” – 6
  13. “Murdoch in Wonderland” – 5.5

The average rating for this season is 6, down a little bit from last season’s 6.6, but still perfectly respectable. This season represents a good mix of the usual Murdoch fare: there’s a Victorian-flavored version of a contemporary-feeling story (“Kommando,” about soldiers experiencing frightening side effects of experimental drugs), Murdoch-ized takes on popular modern shows and movies (“Downstairs, Upstairs,” about a murder in a house full of servants, and “Dial M for Murdoch” about a telephone operator who thinks she overhears a murder), nineteenth-century international intrigue (“Confederate Treasure,” about the hunt for a missing fortune in gold from the time of the American Civil War), and Murdoch inventing modern technologies (sonar in “Confederate Treasure,” image scanning in “Monsieur Murdoch”). This season also brings us a tedious new turn in the will-they-or-won’t-they tease of Murdoch and Dr. Julia Ogden, as Dr. Ogden moves away from Toronto, moves back, and marries her new beau Dr. Darcy Garland, while Detective Murdoch wallows in uninteresting tongue-tied despair. Still, all in all, a solid season of Murdoch.

The lowest-rating episodes this season are a couple of 4s: “Tattered and Torn,” in which the discovery of multiple mutilated bodies encased in concrete leads Detective Murdoch to revisit an old rape and murder case, and “Monsieur Murdoch,” in which Murdoch investigates the disappearance of a young French woman who may not be who claimed to be at all. There is nothing particularly wrong with either of these episodes. Both are perfectly competent, but they are also both a little lacking. The pacing sags a bit, the casting is a little off, and the conclusions don’t entirely live up to the promise of the opening mysteries. Still, even these lesser efforts of Murdoch are fun to watch and worth coming back to now and then.

On the other hand, this season has one outstanding episode that gets a full 10 from us: “Dead End Street,” in which Murdoch discovers the clues to a murder in an intricate model of a neighborhood made by a woman who does not communicate in any other way. This case unfolds quietly but intricately as Murdoch faces the challenge of learning about the crime from a witness with an extraordinarily detailed recall of events, but whom he cannot question. Liisa Repo-Martell delivers a powerful guest performance as the model-building woman, conveying the deep intelligence and sensitivity of a person who relates to the world around her in a way very unlike her neighbors.

All in all, an excellent season of Murdcoh, with a lot worth coming back to.

Image: Murdoch Mysteries main cast via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Joy to the World (of Warcraft), Final Thoughts

Well, we’ve come to the end of Alunaria’s positive WoW-ing challenge, and here’s how it went.

We posted 14 times with fun transmogs (Erik) and reflections on things in World of Warcraft that make us happy (Eppu). We don’t usually post very much at this time of year, so it was a change for us. It’s been fun.

Alunaria also asked for a final reflection on the experience of staying positive for two weeks, so here goes.

Did you make it through?

Yep. For the last two weeks, I’ve been playing as usual and having a good time. I’ve also stayed away from negative posts, which wasn’t hard for me since I don’t go in for that much anyway. One time I was looking through the comments on a Blizzard Watch post and things were starting to get testy, so I backed out, but that was it. I just don’t spend my time on YouTube or the forums listening to people complain, so staying away was just an ordinary day for me. While there are still things about the current expansion that I don’t like, there is a lot that I do enjoy, and that’s what I spend my time doing anyway, so there wasn’t any real change in how I played the game, either.

What proved to be the most difficult?

Honestly, not much. Like I said, I just don’t do the parts of the game I don’t like, and I don’t spend much of my time listening to people complain about parts of the game they don’t like. Keeping up regular posts at a time of year when we usually take a break required a little effort, but it was also a fun thing to do over the holidays.

Did you manage your minimum of seven posts?

We got 14 posts between the two of us (7 from Erik, 7 from Eppu), so both jointly and severally, we sure did.

Do you feel any different now?

Not really. It was fun, but it also wasn’t much of a change for me. There are things I like about the current expansion and things I don’t, and none of that has changed. Fortunately for us, we’re able to play in a way that avoids most of the things we don’t like and focuses on the things we do, but other people have different tastes and priorities, and if this expansion isn’t working for them, their feelings are as valid as ours. I suppose I’m just not the target audience for this experiment.

We hope you’ve enjoyed reading our posts as much as we’ve enjoyed writing them. Happy New Year all around! May it fill your days with joy, in and out of Azeroth!

Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.

Joy to the World (of Warcraft) 12

One last holiday transmog for Alunaria’s positive WoW-ing challenge!

My blood death knight decided long ago to walk away from the grim, painful history she can’t remember and dedicate herself to fighting for light and righteousness, so she’s here to bring the holiday season to a close in her Gifts of Gold mog.

Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.

Top Five Posts for 2018

Well, that was 2018! Here are our posts from the year that have gotten the most attention:

  1. Call for Help: Where is Miss Sherlock? Eppu’s post about a new mystery series that transposes the characters of Holmes and Watson to modern-day Japan and makes them both young women for good measure. Unfortunately, we’re still not sure where or how we can watch it, but it’s nice that so many other people are also excited by the idea.
  2. Arisia: A Point of No Return for Us Our statement in support of Crystal Huff and against the repeated failure of the Boston-based Arisia convention to effectively address problems of sexual harassment and stalking not just at the con but by members of the con staff itself.
  3. Quotes: Finland is Weird. Finland is Different All together now, Finland fans! A gratifyingly bewildered quote from Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Ironclads.
  4. “At Least It Made You Feel Something” Erik’s rant against creators who justify storytelling choices that aggravate fans by patting themselves on the back for making us feel something.
  5. Barbarians in the Greek and Roman World Preview A preview of Erik’s book, published in September, about the concept of the barbarian and the realities of cross-cultural interactions in the ancient Mediterranean.

Some of our old posts remain perennial favorites, too. Here are the overall top five Co-Geeking posts that people viewed in 2018:

  1. Do-It-Yourself Fantasy Place Name Generator Erik’s name-generating technique from back in 2015 still gets a lot of attention. Apparently a lot of you out there are making up names for things!
  2. Sean Bean on the LotR Joke in The Martian Eppu’s 2015 post on Finland’s Yle News interview with the delightful Sean Bean on the Lord of the Rings joke in The Martian. Such a treat, and still well worth watching today.
  3. Hogwarts Dueling Club Tablecloth Transformed into Wall Hanging Eppu’s post about a home-made version of the moon-phase dueling cloth from Harry Potter, posted in 2016.
  4. Custom is King Erik’s translation of a favorite passage from Herodotus’ Histories, posted in 2017.
  5. Call for Help: Where is Miss Sherlock? Eppu’s post from this year

Thanks for hanging out with us this year. We hope you’ll join us again in 2019.

Messing with numbers is messy.