Tag Archives: History

A Sea of Lights

22 Aug

As I watched the images of the individual marchers filter across the news channels, I wondered briefly how many of their grandparents had fought against these very ideas that they seemingly espoused, those grandparents that gave their youth, and in some cases their lives, to stop the cancer of fascism and racism from spreading across the world.  To have a leader of a polarized and diverse country unable to condemn white nationalists, whilst at the same time bask in their popular support, only led an air of farce to the proceedings.  It was a depressing moment watching one of the world’s largest democracies forget its own history.

Coincidentally I’ve recently finished reading a new English translation of Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War, a collection of testimonies and memories from the female participants of the Red Army of the Soviet Union who fought in World War Two.  The voices of who, and experiences of, had largely been purged from the official records following the defeat of Nazi Germany.

As it can be imagined from reading survivors accounts of the Eastern Front it wasn’t particularly joyful reading, but it is enlightening to learn about the thoughts and feelings of these individuals and their roles within the Red Army or in underground partisan units.  One memory in particular moved me and reminded of the horror of dehumanizing the enemy:

I didn’t want to kill, I wasn’t born to kill.  I wanted to be a teacher.  But I saw how they burned a village . . .  I couldn’t scream, I couldn’t weep loudly: we were on a scouting mission and came close to that village.  I could only bite my hands; I still have the scars; I bit them til they bled.  Till the raw flesh showed.  I remember how the people screamed . . .  The cows screamed . . .  The chickens screamed . . .  It seemed to me they were all screaming with human voices.  All of them alive.  Burning and screaming.’

– Valentina Mikhailovna Ilkevich, Partisan Liaison.

From the flames of hatred nothing particularly good comes.

Bibliography

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

 

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Historical Lens: The Past and the Present

19 Jun

As regular readers may recall I have a deep love for both historical and modern literature, with a particular soft spot for travel writing or for literary memoirs.  Good travel writing, I find, delves not just into the adventures or mishaps of the writer and the contemporary individuals that they bump into but also of the cultural, geography and history of the places that they visit, as and where necessary.  That there is a sense of the present, but also links to the past and the lure of the future.  As many readers may also know that there have been a lack of posts over the past half a year or so due to a number of factors.  I do apologize, but I have at least managed to read a good many books that may also interest some readers here!

In particular I have recently rekindled a love of Russian literature through the acquisition of the recently published English translation of Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea, by the humorist writer Teffi (the pseudonym of Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya, 1872-1952).  The memoir recounts her 1919 flight from her home in Petrograd (St. Petersburg) to Moscow and then onto to Constantinople (modern day Istanbul, Turkey), in the Ottoman Empire, following the twin revolutions of 1917 with the Bolshevik rise in power and the subsequent Russian Civil War (1917-1922), which tore apart the Russian Empire and ended the rule of the Tsar.  The outcome of the civil war resulted in the birth of the Soviet Union (1922-1991).  It is out of the scope of Memories but Teffi moved to Paris, France, and joined the émigré Russian cultural circle there, a city where she remained for the rest of her life never to return to Russia to write or perform.

Nadezhda_Teffi

Humourist ‘Teffi’, the pseudonym of the Russian writer Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya. Image credit: Wikipedia.

It is an illuminating read and one that richly rewards the reader with Teffi’s sense of humanity and humour in each line of text.  I had not heard of Teffi before I happened to come across and read a review of the book in a newspaper, but this is perhaps not unusual as she has been rarely published into the English language following her death in 1952 and the once-famous poet and feuilletonist, who at one point was read by both Tsar and Lenin, had largely disappeared from sight under the blanket of history.

Memories strongly reminded me of another book of reportage that I had recently completed, Dispatches from Syria: The Morning They Came for Us by the journalist Janine Di Giovanni, which documents her experiences of reporting the unrest on the ground following the Arab Spring protests that rocked the country in early 2011, and a host of others in the Middle East and North Africa from late 2010 to mid 2012, and her experiences of the early stages of the Syrian Civil War (March 2011 – present).  Both Teffi and Giovanni each respectively document the individuals involved in the fighting, the civilian and soldier alike regardless of the faction that they are fighting for or fleeing from.

Acknowledging the Past, Documenting the Present

This blog has always had a relatively humanist core running through the posts that I have published here, and this continues to be the case.  Archaeology though, as a discipline, is never a static subject of study.  This is the case in fact of the archaeological material itself, both through the associated site formation processes at play and through the prism in which researchers view said archaeological sites and their material accumulation.

We are informed of the past through the lenses of our personal bias, cultural bias, and material survivor bias.  The good researcher can recognize these bias, and their filtration into the analysis and research produced, and integrate or parse them aside as necessary, or at least acknowledge them as such.  The great researches uses their bias to illuminate the effect that they can have on the understanding of the nature of the material under study.  This isn’t just limited to researchers though – the artist, the writer, the director, these and others from many different creative fields influence and and document the times and cultures that we both experience and know of.

Memory As Written

Therefore I am always intrigued by travel and memoir writing, by the documentation and views of the traveler writing in depth on the culture and history of a time they knew, how history is contextualized.  One of my most treasured works that I have come across is the Dutch writer Cees Nooteboom’s Roads To Berlin: Detours and Riddles in the Lands and History Germany, which documents his experiences working and travelling throughout the country and its capital city within the greater history ans culture of Germany.  Perhaps I am biased as, having visited Berlin in college and having spent an extended time on a European Union funded archaeology placement in Magdeburg, I have a love for the country and its peoples.  (Alas however as my tongue is no good with languages!).

This could be a matter of mere exposure to something different, something beyond the everyday interaction of your own expected experiences.  There is learning to be had in expanding your literature horizons, however.  I’ve yet to truly delve deep into German literature, but I think I know where I’d like to visit next on my mental map of cultural investigations.

Hopping Aboard A Russian Ark

So, having just ordered a copy of Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich, I am taking a break from the world of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle cycle of books (after recently and ravenously finishing the fourth volume) and instead jumping from the Scandinavian literary scene to the Russian world once again.

On a related side note, I’ve also somewhat belatedly realized during the writing of this post that the banner photograph that I chose for the blog back in 2011 is by the photographer Alexey Titarenko.  It is a detail taken from a single photograph from one of his City of Shadow series (1992 to 1994) which documented life in St. Petersburg at the fall of the USSR, and transition into the Russian Federation, and capture the chaotic political changes and economic upheaval that this brought with it.

This is all really tying in quite nicely with the interest that I have developed in Russia and the country’s history through its literary giants.  Finally, and to complete the cultural immersion of the photographic, literature and film mediums, I am off to watch Sokurov’s majestic Russian Ark, a 2002 film that promises to present a fantastical portal into the imperial history of Russia taken in one stupendous long shot.

Bibliography & Further Reading

Chandler, R. 2014. Stepping Across the Ice: Teffi (1872-1952). Article published September 25, 2014, in The New Yorker. (Includes excerpts of Memories).

Di Giovanni, J. 2016. Dispatches from Syria: The Morning They Came for Us. London: Bloomsbury.

Nooteboom, C. 2012. Roads to Berlin: Detours and Riddles in the Lands and History of Germany. Translated from the Dutch by L. Watkinson. London: Maclehose Press.

Russian Ark. 2002. [Film] Directed by Alexander Sokurov. Germany/Russia: The Hermitage Bridge Studio (St. Petersburg) & Egoli Tossell Film AG (Berlin).

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.

Titarenko, A. 1992-1994. City of Shadows. [Photography]. Nailya Alexander Gallery.

Pain, Briefly

17 Jun

Just a quick note here.  I had the good luck of hearing historian Joanna Bourke on BBC Radio 4 program Start the Week yesterday morning who was on the show debating the topic of her latest publication titled, The Story of Pain: From Prayer to Painkillers.  The book focuses on trying to understand and contextualise the feeling of bodily and physical pain from the 18th century AD to the modern period.  Bourke, who is a Professor of History at Birkbeck, University of London, presents a holistic history of understanding pain in which the topic is approached from numerous angles, including not just the medical but also the cultural, religious and political.  The book also deals with the personal experience of pain and the nature of suffering, both in the individual sense and within wider society from the family out.  It certainly looks like an interesting and enlightening read.

Having read a few reviews of the book itself, and of having heard Bourke herself discuss the differences in understanding the many types of pain, it reminded of sociologists Ann Oakley’s 2007 book Fracture , of which I discussed a little here.  Although Oakley’s book is a much more personal and reflective study with its focus on the modern health perspective, Bourke (2014) also discusses the role and changes that medicine has gone through in the past and present approaches and treatments when considering illnesses and patients themselves.  Of particular interest on the radio show this morning was Bourke’s assertion that different cultures experience pain in a myriad of ways.  This, of course, made me think of how bioarchaeologists approach the archaeological record and how we try to understand palaeopathology in relation to the individual osteobiographic context, within the population and society that the person lived in, together the original context of the landscape environment of the archaeology site (read more about osteobiographical examples here).

Bioarchaeology is, as a field, a burgeoning area of archaeological research, one that ably and actively straddles the humanities and science divide with ease.  Bioarchaeologists often complement their normal macro and micro assessment of the skeletal remains with the regular use of the latest scientific techniques and refinements, including but not limited to stable isotopic and ancient DNA analysis, to help understand the processes, implications and contexts of a pathology within a population.   This often includes trying to contextualise and understand traumatic or congenital pathologies that can be present in the skeletal remains of humans (White & Folkens 2005).  It must be remembered of course that only a small fraction of diseases known ever affect or actively present on bone itself (Waldron 2009).

Pain though is rarely considered when describing a pathology that is present on an archaeological bone.  This is partly due to the nature of the limitations of archaeology, but also partly due to the existing bioarchaeological literature.  Care to not exceed the evidence must take precedence, otherwise bioarchaeologists risk inflating the boundaries between the known and the unknown.  Pain itself is a uniquely personal feeling and it can be a difficult feeling to describe.  It can also be paradoxical as to know pain is to be reminded that you are alive, but to know that pain means it is also a warning that life is threatened.

As a purely personal perspective I have recently found out something rather interesting about my own skeletal biology.  As readers of this blog may be aware that I have McCune-Albright Syndrome (MAS) and, as a part of this, polyostotic fibrous dysplasia.  MAS is, as far as it is currently possible to tell, a fairly rare bone disease that can lead to fractures and bowing of the bones (more information here and also Dumetriscu & Collins 2008) amongst other things.  Having broken a good number of the long bones of my body, I am now acutely aware of what a fracture feels like.  Recently however, and completely unbeknownst to myself beforehand, I learnt that I have been fracturing my ribs for a number of years, as both x-rays and a CT scan showed a fair amount of bone re-modelling and faint healed fracture lines on a number of ribs.

Why hadn’t I noticed?

Partly it was because the fractures themselves weren’t that painful (I am well aware that rib fractures are usually pretty painful).  In fact I have been aware for years that I occasionally pull the superficial or intercostal rib muscles on either side periodically, and that this had always led to a good few days of unease if I slept on the affected side, coughed or laughed too hard.  I had put this down to using the wheelchair more over an extended period of time starting from my mid adolescence, following on from several major surgeries on the femora.  I reasoned that due to repetitive nature of the motion of wheeling in a manual wheelchair the muscles were bound to get sore and fatigued at some points.

chestxray22222

A copy of the posterior to anterior x-ray of my own chest. Although the healed rib bruises and fractures cannot clearly be seen on it, the constriction of the chest wall is highlighted (black arrows).  This can have an effect on the air intake of the lung capacity.  Generally fractured ribs are left to heal naturally unless there has been puncturing of internal organs by the ribs themselves, in which cases surgery is needed.  (Read more here).

I was well aware that the ribs are one of the more common areas of the body to be affected by MAS, along with the femora and cranial bones, yet I paid little attention to what I thought was a pulled muscle  (Dumetriscu & Collins 2008, Waldron 2009).  I could still move relatively fine afterwards, and it certainly wasn’t that painful.  So, as you can imagine, I was somewhat surprised to hear that I had at least four previous rib fractures that had healed, which were clearly evident on the X-rays and the scans taken of my chest as I saw.  I should state though that it is likely to have been a mix of micro, hairline and full fractures on pathologically diseased bone, and not traumatically induced fractures which, I hear, can be extremely painful.

As such, and having heard Bourke talk about how individuals cope with pain, it should be taken into account by bioarchaeologists that skeletal pathology probably elicited different responses dependent on the social and cultural context of the individual.  This is of course important when considering the impact of a pathology present on the bones.  This, necessarily, becomes more problematic as we reach further into history and prehistory, where the lack of contextual and written evidence can be missing or non-existent.

However, as archaeologist and bioarchaeologists, we must also continually ask questions regardless and especially when skeletal material has already been analysed.  New techniques, theories or methodologies are only useful once they have been applied to the existing archaeological record and are repeatedly tested against what we think we know.

Alongside Bourke on the Radio 4 show was the current director of the Wellcome Trust, Jeremy Farrar, who discussed his experiences as a medical doctor and the possible implications of the overuse antibiotics, and Norman Fowler, a conservative MP who oversaw the public health campaign against the spread and threat of HIV/AIDS in the 1980’s in Britain.  Each guest on the program was well worth a listen.

It is safe to say that Bourke’s work is another book that I shall be adding to my ever increasing pile.

Further Information

  • Listen to the Start the Week program, on which Professor Bourke appeared, on BBC Radio 4 here.
  • A review by The Guardian of the History of Pain: From Prayers to Painkillers book be found here.

Bibliography

Bourke, J. 2014. The History of Pain: From Prayer to Painkillers. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dumitrescu, C. E. & Collins, M. T.  2008.  Overview: McCune-Albright SyndromeOrphanet Journal of Rare Disease3 (12): 1-12. (Open Access).

Oakley, A. 2007. Fracture: Adventures Of A Broken Body. Bristol: Policy Press.

Waldron, T. 2009. Palaeopathology (Cambridge Manuals in Archaeology). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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