Tuesday, 30 September 2014


Canterbury Cathedral
photo: Robert Scarth 
I am sixty-five years old today so, apparently, I'm now retired. Today's date also marks the last day I worked a regular job, but that was thirty years ago. I suppose that the only real change is that some of my income now comes from various "old age" pensions, at least it will whenever the government gets around to finishing all the paperwork and processing the forms that I started about a year ago. They say they lost one and it takes about 120 days to process another one, and then there is some piece of paper that was lost about fifty years ago that has to be replaced and that is also taking months which delays yet more forms. I hate forms but my daughter has kindly volunteered to deal with the bureaucracy for me (I can get nasty with such people). I suppose it is all so slow because the government bureaucrats have to keep sharpening their quill pens. Perhaps one day they will actually buy a computer and everything will be completed close to light speed. No matter, I have my expenses covered until they get around to feigning efficiency by actually getting things done and sending me my back-log of payments. Perhaps this sort of thing is actually deliberate: I have heard of three recent cases of "lost retirement forms". Not only do they get to play with my money for a while, but I am sure that many retirees get very stressed by their inefficiency and as "stress kills" they must save a lot of money that way. As I was expecting delays, I have everything covered with both a "plan B" and a "plan C". If "plan B" gets delayed, then I'll start working on "plan D", just in case.

As birthday plans exist for most of the day, this is a short post and I will be retiring from blog writing in a few minutes. My retirement will end tonight, though, so I'll be back tomorrow with another post!

Monday, 29 September 2014

MicroPasts and crowdsourcing

illustration by Katarina Caspersen
The MicroPasts projects are getting me excited. These are an example of crowdsourcing whereby volunteers will "marquee" images of artifacts (British Museum collections have been used) so that three-dimensional online models can be generated which can be turned to any angle by anyone viewing the image. Everyone loves such things and the idea of having many people contribute to the project is helpful, not just for the museum or for personal glory or satisfaction as is mostly promoted, but when you come into such an intimate relationship with an object then sometimes you start to see things that others who just look at something might not notice. It has been said that the best way to study anything is to write a book about it. A similar effect is created when you draw something, and I think that when you marquee a series of related images, it would would create the same effect.

Having people volunteer computer time is old hat ― there is the "needle in a haystack" project of all time: SETI (the search for extraterrestrial-life), for example, but don't expect any immediate results! Contributing your own work on a computer is different though ― with SETI, you just get to watch. Of course, you can also contribute to archaeological research by volunteering at a dig, although I imagine you will end up with all the break-breaking tasks!

Three dimensional scanning is becoming very popular these days but the equipment for doing such in high resolution dos not come cheap and takes quite a bit of expertise to use properly. There are other solutions, though, such as the CIRRI software, which is easy and has amazingly small file sizes for this sort of work, but I'm not sure if the beta version is quite ready to go yet.

I'm thinking about joining a future Iron Age project, but perhaps I'll start my own on MicroPasts. You should think about what you might like to see and help to make it happen. In the meantime, you can play with this CIRRI model by Gary Robertson:

Friday, 26 September 2014

Calgary tree damage

The morning after Calgary's big snowstorm, I commented that it might take a couple of days to clear away the broken tree limbs. Well, I'm nothing if not optimistic! Let's change days to months. The damage to the trees was extreme, and as of this morning the city has delivered 10,000 tonnes of tree material to landfills for mulching.

Here' s a few photographs I took this morning:

This small mountain ash lost two of it's three main limbs
Yellow tape surrounds two limbs barely
still attached to the trunk

Coydog Tristan helping with the cleanup

Red tape around the trunks of these stately old trees warn passers-by of broken limbs above

Escaped! I saw no damage at all to these young burr oaks. I know of only four or five
mature oaks in Calgary and I don't know how they fared, but again, I'm optimistic

Thursday, 25 September 2014


Heartland logo (fair use)
The eighth season of the Canadian TV (CBC) family drama Heartland starts this Sunday. I'm not really one for family dramas, but this one is set locally (south of Calgary, Alberta) and features life at a horse ranch ― so I got hooked.

The main character is the young "horse whisperer", Amy, but my favorite character is the horse ranch patriarch, Jack. He reminds me of a cattle rancher I met many years ago. The characters are all very well written and the acting is excellent.

For horse-lovers, it has examples of almost every type of riding, from the lowly trail ride to the show-jumping of the elite. Being set here, there is also a lot about rodeo events too, but even dressage and liberty horses have been included. Some of the horses bring back memories of horses I have ridden. Foremost in my memory was a horse I borrowed called Sky who seemed almost psychic ― going wherever I was thinking of going. Riding on a trail through a wood, he would slow down after passing a low branch so that I could duck, or if it was small enough, move it above my head. Then there was a retired cutting horse, an attractive palomino quarter-horse mare, apparently docile, and easy-going, that is until anything living started to move away from her. Then it was quite the ride, especially when she turned at a right-angle! At the other end of the scale, was a twitchy pinto stallion who had never been trained to neck rein. As I rode along a gravel road, an idiot in a truck sped by me showering the horse with gravel. He bolted and I couldn't stop him by even pulling his head up high. I decided to ride it out, but he tried to go into a driveway, missed the turn and went under a tree where a low branch hit me in the chest knocking me out of the saddle. I remember getting one foot jammed in the stirrup and then waking up in a field with the horse grazing quietly about fifty yards away. I had been dragged through a wood. I was very lucky to end up with only a broken arm and scratches and bruises. I could have been killed. Of course, I then had to catch the damned horse and walk him back to the barn. With my broken arm, I could not get back on him, anyway ― not that I wanted to!

After injuring my back badly in a car accident and subsequent spinal surgery my riding came to end, although a few years ago I went on a (boring) trail ride without suffering too much pain. The show brings back many memories, though, so if you like horses, or just want to see some great scenery then check it out. Most of the towns mentioned in the show are real, save for the town near the ranch which is fictional. It is syndicated in a number of countries and you can find it on Netflix, too. Long may it run!

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Fear and loathing in Utah

Anasazi pottery (public domain)

"You work your whole life to help others and then you get a knock on the door and within thirty-five hours you're dead."

Relics to ruins video, Los Angeles Times

When I read Peter Tompa's Cultural Property Observer blog, As the Archaeological Blogosphere Celebrates the Latest Repatriation, Serious Questions Are Being Raised About Government Tactics, I was already familiar with the incident in Utah, but the L.A. Times masterful presentation, A sting in the desert brought it all back in the most dramatic manner. Noam Chomsky's comment that the U.S. is a “leading terrorist state” was applied to actions taken outside of the U.S., but that was many years ago and things have changed since then. The incident in Utah was certainly state-sponsored terrorism, but it came very close to domestic terrorism: two of the three criteria were met, but I suppose that if it is a FBI-ordered act then it might be considered legal. Peter's statement about the action being "hardball tactics" seems kindly when you consider that more than a hundred FBI agents in combat gear were involved in the operation, especially when going up against a middle-aged family doctor and his wife.

A few years ago, I witnessed a Calgary Police SWAT action against a meth-lab in a house across the street from where I lived. The owner of the house was definitely not the sort of person you would want to meet in a dark alley. My dog seemed very agitated one morning and kept running to different windows to look outside. I couldn't see anything unusual through the windows, so I opened the front door to see about five or six officers start shooting at the house after sending a percussion grenade through the living room window. A SWAT truck pulled up and a few more officers arrived on the scene. I think there were about a dozen, all in all. Within about five minutes, the culprit was led away in handcuffs. There was barely a mention of it in the news the next day. It all seemed very efficient to me, no one was even hurt.

Back in the early seventies, I served a stint as a voluntary RCMP Security Services operative (then, the Canadian domestic intelligence agency). I had been told of a terrorist plan to detonate bombs at several downtown office buildings. I contacted the RCMP at once and a couple of hours later met up with an RCMP SS agent in the parking lot where I worked. He told me that although this was a Métis terrorist group, it had been set up by a Soviet instigator. Over the next few weeks  I gathered more information for the RCMP, passing information to them, always over lunch in some restaurant or another. I knew that they had recruited other people too, but I worked alone. I had many conversations with them about their methods. They had come under some public scrutiny because they did not go about subjecting their quarry to the process of law. One agent told me, "You run one of them through the justice system and he is replaced by more of them before the case even goes to trial". I was also taught that the real purpose of the terrorists was not to blow up buildings and kill people but to "break the spirit" of the country ― to spread fear among its citizens (The FBI certainly did that in their Utah raid). The end result of all of our work was that the cells were identified and "disbanded" and the explosives were captured. No one else even knew what might have happened if the RCMP had have failed. Nothing was ever reported in the news. I would call that a complete success ― no member of the public had been terrorized in any way and the Métis never became a publicly-hated group. If you think about it, they too, were victims. If a top Soviet KGB officer decided you should become instigated about something, well, there is probably little chance that you would have been able to resist. The thing about intelligence work is that what might seem obvious to everyone never really is ― as Oscar Wilde wrote: "The truth is rarely pure, and never simple." I am very proud of all of my actions for the RCMP. The FBI operative, as well as the arrested doctor who was married to a collector committed suicide. Does this tell you anything?

The Anasazi culture no longer exists, but the stuff of its existence is still understood and loved by many people in the area, and these people have a varying ancestry. I am reminded of the Roman Genius Loci, or the spirit of a place. The culture is carried on to some degree as a living entity, not just as sterile exhibits in a glass case where no real interaction takes place.

To destroy a living culture (and all cultures are in a continuous state of flux) to defend an extinct culture is an example of Jungian enantiodromia. A culture is taken up by the mind. It does not exist as a genetic trait and it is not restricted by national boundaries unless it is a national culture in and of itself. People have innumerable cultural frames. A culture was destroyed in Utah that day and its effect was bad enough to lead to suicides on both sides. It was destroyed by the FBI. I wonder who instigated them.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Purpose and Pattern: abstraction on Celtic coins. 5: conclusion

Abstraction on Durotriges staters
The three Durotriges staters illustrated here apparently express the two types of abstraction we see in Celtic coins: meaning and recognizability. The top coin is a white gold to silver stater which follows the design of the Westerham stater which, from its broad distribution pattern, is a confederation coinage. John Kent, at the British Museum suggests that this is an issue of Cassivellaunos and I agree with this attribution. The second coin is much later ― at the end of their coinage. By this time, the Durotriges had fallen on very hard times. The staters which had started out as gold had become gradually debased over time ― first by adding silver and removing gold, then by adding copper and removing silver. Finally, they become a series of cast copper coins. The third coin is part of that final issue.

Conveniently, the two types of abstraction keep to different sides of the coin: meaning is maintained on the obverse and recognizability on the reverse. The abstracted "Apollo head" on the obverse has, as its most important motif, the cross design which represents the four seasons. The cycles of the seasons serve as metaphor for the transmigration of souls in the "as above, so below" concept which is virtually universal across cultures and times. What gradually vanishes is any representation of a head. The meaning continues right down to the strange coin at the bottom with its cross-like composition.

The main feature on the reverse is the chariot, but even by the time of the first coin, it is only the horse which is still visible in the design. The chariot and the driver have become pellets and it is those pellets that were more noticeable than the horse. On the second coin, only the pellets remain and in roughly the same composition as they appeared on the first coin. No other Celtic tribe had such a design so if you saw a bunch of pellets on a coin, you would think "Durotriges". The bottom coin maintains the pellets, but now they are in a line. If there is any meaning in this change, it is not obvious to us now.

The bottom coin contains another novelty: the person who made the mold has decorated the field by pressing a fingernail into the mold and this is where we see the presence of an individual. We speak of designs changing when what we really mean is that people change designs. "Excavational archaeology" has a tendency to lose sight of the individual, in fact I have seen archaeologists doubt even the existence of individuals in earlier periods and this is a truly bizarre psychological effect brought about by a too-narrow framing of the past. Ask anyone who studies primates if they have seen any signs of individuality in them and they might look at you as if you were crazy. Of course there is individuality and this is not restricted to just primates. I have owned many dogs and each of them, in addition to the behavior of canines and their breed, have exhibited personalities as well. Even if we look at a creature like the shark which appears to be like a feeding and breeding machine with only a small brain running the show, we see that individual animals have developed certain patterns of movement individual to themselves when we track them by radio signals. Without a measure of individuality, evolutionary change would be greatly lessened. Of course, any observation of individuality is another matter. As people become too specialized in their activities, perception of "the big picture" lessens and they also run a greater risk of being "selected out" by evolution. Volition can be identified when we plot the changes in Celtic coin designs and I hope that this little series might inspire further research into the themes I have covered here.

Tomorrow, Jungian enantiodromia and the anatomy of a recent tragedy.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Purpose and Pattern: abstraction on Celtic coins. 4: visual language and vocabulary

British potin coin design abstracted
over time
There is a tendency for people to judge the state of a society from its artistic representations. In Man and his Symbols (C. G. Jung, ed.), 1964, Aniela Jaffé (p. 259) illustrates the obverse of a Philip II gold stater followed by four Celtic coins where the heads are progressively abstracted. Any numismatist familiar with such coins will know immediately that she has not grasped the subject because the illustration is captioned: "Roman coins used in places progressively farther away from Rome..". Even if the caption was changed from "Roman" to "Celtic" and "Rome" to "Macedon" and the first coin was labeled as "prototype", it would still be very wrong. When she goes on to say "This strangely corresponds to the psychic disintegration that such drugs as LSD-25 can induce.", no amount of editing could help at all. When the papers were being written there had been much expressed about the disintegration of society and only a few years earlier John Osborne had written his play: Look back in Anger which expressed the same theme. It would seem that she started with the concept of societal disintegration and then went searching for images to best express this concept. We could cite this as an example of the problems associated with deductive reasoning. Although Conan Doyle used the word "deduction" to describe how Sherlock Holmes solved crimes, the character actually used inductive reasoning which is more in line with the scientific method: he examined all of the details to come up with his theory about the crimes. With its "theory-ladenness", archaeology is very often more deductive than inductive. I used inductive reasoning to classify Coriosolite coins, although occasionally shifting to deduction as with my application of Gresham's law, but only when I was certain of its validity for a specific purpose.

Like Jaffé, I also illustrate here, some Celtic coins to illustrate a process, not of disintegration but of abstraction. Knowing what preceded it, the identity of what is depicted on the last coin is not difficult to determine, but if we only had the last coin various ideas might be suggested about what is depicted, especially on the reverse of the coin. Very few people would immediately say "a bull", they might think it to be some sort of altar or a chest. Identifying Celtic coin motifs without knowing anything of their design evolution has produced many rather daft interpretations of Coriosolite coins such as the lyre symbol being Halley's comet or the forelock of the head being an eye shown in an alternative perspective as if it were out of a Cezanne still life.

There can be two reasons for abstraction in ancient coin designs: first, the task of making the dies might be given to an accomplished artist who would come up with something we might call "artistic", or it could be given to a very ordinary smith more used to shoeing horses than producing great works of art. This apparently happened with the very smallest Athenian coins in the archaic period. Some of these are frequently mistaken for "barbaric imitations". It really depended on how much was to be invested in the task and had little to do with the state of the society at the time other than by saying that little expense was required or available for the job. The second reason is that a simple representation was all that was needed to convey the idea of the device. In the examples I illustrate, the top design would have still been familiar to those who produced and used the last design. Bit by bit, the design changes would have been understood quite easily. I have also seen times where a barbaric-looking design was assumed to have been at the very end of a sequence and this, too, is not always correct.

Celtic coin designs used a "visual language" and sometimes this tells us a lot about their iconography as while the Druids forbade the use of writing on religious matters, they had no such taboo on design. In fact, it seems to have been encouraged to instill a sense of mystery on the observer and those who could understand the symbols very easily were those who were of the Druid school. That understanding was also a sign of status.

Individual artists also brought their uniqueness to the task by developing their own "vocabularies" where designs might be unique but still recognizable as a version of a common icon. Again, this sort of thing only becomes easy for us to interpret if we are familiar with the evolution of the series which contains it. "Vocabulary" is a common term applied in modern art to the sort of shapes the artist commonly uses. You do not need a signature to spot the later work of Joan Miró or Picasso.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Purpose and Pattern: abstraction on Celtic coins. 3: the sun cross

Ambiani gold stater
Image courtesy  of Classical Numismatic Group Inc
As the head of Apollo on the Philip II-derived design becomes more abstracted, the face starts to fade away while the wreath becomes more dominant as does the line that intersects the wreath at its mid-point. This line, which first appears on the large flan stater that I illustrated yesterday, is not developed from anything in the Philip II design but might originate in the earliest coins of the Ambiani which are copied from a coin of Taras which shows the head of Persephone (or Hera or Amphitrite) on the obverse. On this coin, the ends of her headdress behind her head appear to join with a line in the hair. The crescents at the back of the face also become more dominant.

British Atrebates stater (VA- 210-1)
Image courtesy  of Classical Numismatic Group Inc

In the next stages, the line intersecting the wreath gains a bead at the back end and the design at the other end starts to become another crescent. The whole arrangement of these elements takes the form of a cross where the wreath, itself forms two opposing limbs.

Whaddon Chase stater
Image courtesy  of Classical Numismatic Group Inc

On the Whaddon Chase stater of the Catuvellauni illustrated on the right, the cross becomes the main obverse type and on its limbs can be seen both the wreath design in one direction and the details of the cloak which first appeared on the Ambiani large flan staters.

Early Cunobeline stater
Image courtesy  of Classical Numismatic Group Inc

On the earliest of the Cunobeline gold staters, the cross motif continues but the line that previously had a bead at one end and a crescent at the other is replaced with a tablet bearing the mint name of Camulodunum (Colchester). Below the horse on the reverse of the coin, the cross motif, which is actually the sun-cross, is better defined with its enclosing circle. This device dates as far back as the Neolithic.

Later Cunobeline stater
Image courtesy  of Classical Numismatic Group Inc

On the later staters of Cunobeline, the wreath part of the cross motif is replaced with an ear of grain (thought to be barley) and the only part of the other two limbs of the cross is the mint name. A quarter stater has the mint and king's name combined: CAMCVN, which identifies place and ruler together.

Aulerci Cenomani coin

There is nothing about the Greek laurel leaf that finds a parallel in Celtic iconography. Instead, the laurel leaf element on the Philip II prototype is interpreted as an ear of grain from the start and represents the start and end of the growing season (spring and autumn). The other two limbs represent summer and winter. The summer limb has the bead at the end (sun symbol for summer solstice) and the winter end has the crescent moon which represents the darkest part of the year (winter solstice). On one continental coin of the Aulerci Eburovices, a boar is positioned above the crescent which emphasizes the beginning of the year (first the winter solstice, later Samhain).

Detail of Coligny calendar
photo: NantonosAedui
The Celtic Coligny Calendar reconciles solar and lunar time and I think that its ancestry can be traced as far back as Newgrange in Ireland which is a Neolithic monument. The use of cosmological imagery on Celtic coins is wrapped up in the belief of the transmigration of souls which echoes the cyclical nature of the heavens. Diodorus, quoting Hecataeus says:
"Opposite to the coast of Celtic Gaul there is an island in the ocean, not smaller than Sicily, lying to the north, which is inhabited by Hyperboreans… Apollo visits the island once in the course of nineteen years in which period the stars complete their revolutions"
The Metonic cycle of nineteen years requires an intercalary month to reconcile solar and lunar time.

The Celtic warrior believed that dying heroically in battle guaranteed him a better life the next time around. These matters were under the authority of the druid class and Sean B. Dunham is of the opinion that by the time of Caesar, at least, the kings were also Druids. This might indicate that, at an earlier time, the kings had difficulty with the existence of a higher power than themselves and that they gradually amalgamated the two functions. Later, the Romans banned Druidism entirely, just as they banned Christianity because these beliefs held to a power greater than that of the emperor. Later still, a separation of Church and State ensured that the conflict would not continue in many places.

The development of coinage in Gaul was not just an economical measure: The designs of the prototypes had to be maintained as they also served a function similar to modern war medals. The possessor of such coinage not only proved his warrior status, but gold coins were also used to purchase more troops. Over a period of time, rulers used the devices to establish or maintain their own authority over the population.

More on Monday.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Purpose and Pattern: abstraction on Celtic coins. 2: Gold and warfare

Ambiani large flan gold stater (also known as Gallo-Belgic A) circa 125-100 BC.

One of the earliest Celtic gold coins imported into Britain, it set the type for most
of the early British gold coinage.

Image courtesy  of Classical Numismatic Group Inc
"The second class is that of the knights. When their services are required in some war that has broken out ― and before Caesar's arrival in the country the Gallic states used to fight offensive or defensive wars almost every year ― these all take the field, surrounded by their servants and retainers, of whom each knight has a greater or smaller number according to his birth and fortune. The possession of such a following is the only criterion of position and power that they recognize." Caesar, The Gallic Wars,  6,15

Largely missing in accounts of the arrival of the first Celtic gold coinage into Britain is that Gaul was part of the Greek world and that the Celts not only used gold coins that are modeled after Greek coins, but the coins had the same purpose as that of the Greek gold coins ― to pay for troops for specific campaigns (see Melville-Jones, J.R.  Ancient Greek gold coinage up to the time of Philip of Macedon in Travaux de Numismatique Grecque Offerts à Georges Le Rider, Spink , London, 1999.)

Prior to the large flan type, the Ambiani were the first Belgic tribe to mint gold coins and those rare coins were copies of a gold coin of Taras in Italy minted around the time of Alexander the Molosian, who was uncle to both Alexander the Great and Pyrrhos, but the coins were possibly paid out to the Celts in the defence of Taras against the Romans by Pyrrhos. Taras (Taranto) was a Spartan colony in Italy founded in 706 BC. Celts under Dionysios I of Syracuse in Sicily first fought for the Spartans against Athens about two hundred years earlier.

The Celts could have made gold coins using their own styles without any difficulty but decided to model their coinage on the coins that were paid to them for their military services. Thus gold coins had a purpose different from their intrinsic value ― the designs symbolized the Celts prowess in battle. While the chariot design on the reverse of the Philip II prototype would have resonated with the Celtic consciousness being a vehicle much used by them in earlier times and still used in battle by the Britons, the first prototype gold coin copied by the Ambiani did not depict a chariot at all.

The way that the Celts abstracted the prototype design gives us information about how warfare was absorbed into their religious beliefs, but that subject will have to wait until tomorrow.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Purpose and Pattern: abstraction on Celtic coins. 1: introduction

Gold stater of Philip II of Macedon (Pella mint)
Coins such as this one and those that copied it long after the death of Philip
served as models for much of the Celts' own coins after their return to Gaul.
Image courtesy  of Classical Numismatic Group Inc
When the western Celts first started to mint coinage, they copied the designs from Greek coins that had been paid to them for their military service in various Italian campaigns under such Greek leaders as Pyrrhos of Epeiros (319/318–272 BC). These campaigns were the last of a series that might have started even earlier than those of Dionysios I of Syracuse (c. 432 – 367 BC) who is known to have loaned some of his Celts to the Spartans.

Gaulish Imitation of Philip II stater
© Trustees of the British Museum
The coin to the left is fairly typical of the earlier Gaulish imitations. The die engraver would have been familiar with the Greek styles but without their philosophical background. His horses are especially Celtic ― being all hooves and knuckles. These imitations start with readable legends which eventually become simple pattern. His chariot driver is actually more realistically drawn than on the Philip II stater. Perhaps the driver meant more to the Celtic artist than it did to the Greek artist. The head of Apollo on the imitation can hardly be called "of the finest classical style", but it carries none of its affectations, either, and looks more like a real person than an Olympian god.

A more "barbaric" imitation
© Trustees of the British Museum
On the right is a style most often called "barbaric" or "crude". The native die engraver is copying a design in a style he had never been trained for or had to use. The head does not look that much different than a had drawn by a young child or even an adult who cannot draw from any time. Both of the imitations say most about the backgrounds of their creators than give any clues as to their exact date.

I imagine that most people who discover early Celtic art by way of their coinage are quite surprised by the skill and sophistication of its metalwork. Perhaps they would expect only "cruder" versions of Greek things. In the next episode I will explain why they did not simply make a coinage using the early Celtic art styles.

The title for this series is reversed from Sir Cyril Fox's Pattern and Purpose: A survey of early Celtic art in Britain, Cardiff, 1958. In his Foreword, he says:
"Early Celtic art is distinctive;technique and design in gold, bronze or iron are often masterly, but there is nothing of "Fine Art" about it; the incised patterns and the relief ornaments are on purposeful things―torcs and brooches and bracelets, weapons and drinking vessels, for example. It was not only a decorative art; useful things were well-shaped, with a sense of style, so a beautiful or well-balanced form often sufficed, satisfying the bronze-worker's critical sense, as it does ours. When the Council of the National Museum of Wales invited me to write a book on the subject, therefore, I had a title ready: "Pattern and Purpose".
In reversing the order of Fox's title, I want to show how form follows function in an evolutionary manner.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Franklin Expedition ship found

H.M.S. Terror thrown up by ice
Last week, the wreck one of the two ships of Sir John Franklin's ill-fated Northwest Passage expedition was found in the Arctic by a team led by Parks Canada underwater archaeologist Ryan Harris.

With climate change opening up potential shipping routes through the Arctic and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's interest in the north and Canadian sovereignty, it has become a political event.

Whenever I hear about the Franklin Expedition I remember working on the Glenbow Museum inventory and discovering a shoe that had been found on one of the expeditions sent looking for Franklin's ships. I had come across a number of memorable objects in that job: Sir Francis Drake's snuff box and inscribed walking cane, Nelson's punch bowl from HMS Victory, a cased Collier flintlock revolver, and a large 18 carat gold casket presented to F.M. Wolseley by the City of London, but that black leather shoe struck me less as an exhibit and more as a gruesome reminder of the harsh northern environment. What was what looked like a dress shoe doing in the Arctic anyway? I had heard horror stories from oilfield workers up there who had decided to economize on their first purchase of Arctic mukluks.

As I never watch TV news, I don't know if the discovery of the wreck has prompted the news media playing of Canadian music icon Stan Rogers' song The Northwest Passage. You would think so:

Monday, 15 September 2014

Didcot Mirror update

Didcot (formerly Oxfordshire) Mirror
photo stated as "free use" since 2009
(image rotated)
The Didcot Mirror will stay in Oxfordshire thanks to donations from a public appeal by Oxfordshire County Council’s Museums Service which included a generous donation from the antique dealer Wartski,

Before it goes on display at its new home at The Oxfordshire Museum at Woodstock, it will be displayed in Didcot at the Cornerstone Arts Centre and then at a touring exhibition about the history of metalworking in Oxfordshire.

Friday, 12 September 2014


Alte Pinakothek − Visitors watch paintings
photo: Mattes
"The Museum age, which reached its Augustan apogee with the post-World War II boom in art education, in special exhibitions, in collecting, in museum-building, is finally over. Museums, once permanent fixtures by which to negotiate our spiritual journeys, have suddenly revealed infirmities in their foundations that have threatened them with collapse.Like many institutions in the late sixties, they were abruptly thrust from their historical context into the vicissitudes of contemporary life, where the problems of the entire society―many of them irrelevant to art museums― were brought to bear on them. ... Museums have been forced to cope with with a variety of political problems for which their staffs are hardly qualified. Museum men also appear uncertain of their responsibilities to their own holdings. By and large administered by antiquated methods, their policies guided by trustees who have not demonstrated their capacity to understand contemporary issues, most museums have had their position defined for them."

The above passage is by Brian O'Doherty (ed) in the introduction to Museums in Crisis, New York, 1972. Apart from the term "Museum men", this could be a contemporary account instead of one more than forty years old.

Not only do the problems of 1972 show little sign of being resolved, but new problems have been imposed on museums already years behind in the cataloging of their collections by people who have little to no knowledge of the difficulties museums face in merely keeping their doors open.

Deaccession policies usually demand that any monies obtained be reserved for the purchase of other exhibits, but most new accessions do not encourage many new visitors; internationally important travelling museum exhibitions are unsuitable for smaller cities as the box-office receipts would not even cover the costs, let alone provide extra money for needed infrastructure improvements such as new galleries, restaurants and gift shop expansions.

With  museum collections of ancient art being threatened with repatriation for objects lacking much in the way of past collecting histories, even the collectors and their heirs who bequeathed most of the collections in the past are wondering whether the museum is the best home for such collections and the auction houses are getting unprecedented high prices for everything with a long and secure provenance. Lesser items are rarely purchased at all by museums, these objects rarely have a collecting history that can be passed on to the new owner because of privacy laws and the fact that many of the objects which are now sold in single lots used to be part of larger lots that were not even illustrated in earlier catalogs.
Ivory-tower academics who have no museum or even business experience are quick to criticize anyone who does not supply a collecting history even though their recommendations knowingly flaunt the law and they are also quick to solicit public support each time there is another deaccession. Archaeologists frequently side with repatriation demands on the behest of those countries who issue them excavation permits so it is no small wonder that these archaeologists are not even interested in whether the museum will survive at all.

Smaller museums are leaning more toward local histories and this gives them the opportunity to gain needed funds by selling off objects that lay outside of their collecting interests. Even though some funding bodies threaten to cut off support for the museum, the amount of money that can be gained from deaccession is often far greater than what would be gained otherwise so these threats are ignored.

After forty years, the problems have escalated but the solutions are just as elusive.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Calgary snowstorm ― aftermath

The sun is out and although it is currently colder than it was yesterday, warmer temperatures will start today. With all the branches that had broken off the larger trees, I saw no conifers among their numbers. The large old spruce trees in my backyard do not even have a few broken twigs below them.


Neither my neighbour's car nor the lilac bushes were
harmed by the snowstorm
When the first snowstorm usually arrives, the leaves of the large deciduous trees have already changed colour and have started to fall but as they were still mostly green this year, they resisted the weight of the snow until the weight was too much for the branches that supported them. The old spruces are used to heavy snow and they all seem to be unaffected and the lilac branches were still pliant enough to spring back as if nothing had happened. The heavy spring snowstorms have never caused so much damage as any early leaves are still too small to collect much snow.

Here's a news report and video about the storm and a nice collection of photos.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Heavy snowfall

It has been snowing for three days but last night's snowfall was the heaviest so far. As I left to walk the dog this morning, the first thing I saw was my next-door neighbour's car covered in collapsed lilac bushes (right).

Although I have been in Calgary since 1966, I do not remember any Fall snowfall as heavy as this one. One September, I had to harvest about seventy pounds of tomatoes during a blizzard but it was short lived and I don't recall any damage to trees. This one must have taken quite the toll on Calgary trees. I saw the branch in the foreground of the next photo fall just before I took the shot.

Every twenty minutes or so the power goes out and I have to restart my computer. After the first time, I stopped resetting my digital clock. It must be caused by tree branches hitting power lines. I have not seen any entire trees that have snapped, just branches, but some of them have been heavy enough to make me glad I was not walking under the tree at the time. I suspect Calgary body-shops are going to be busy for a while.

Here are a few more shots I took this morning (click to enlarge all photos):

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Big history/grand narrative

Early human history (book illustration)
artist: unknown
The Big History Project has been in the news lately. At first glance, this seems something new by including data from all disciplines to frame our development, and then extending the time line on each datum to show how we made various discoveries connected with that datum. In other words, creating a nested or multi-dimensional time line so that when we start at the Big Bang theory, threads of continuing development of the thought through history form other, specialized, time lines.

Yet for all of this, I think that the project is not so much an innovation, but the latest development in an old way of looking at things: Big History seems like a synonym for grand narrative and certainly, the word "narrative" is well-used in the news report. Of course, critics of postmodernism are quick to point out that the identification and criticism of grand narratives becomes another grand narrative in and of itself. Such philosophical navel-gazing acts a bit like a reductio ad absurdum, lessening the practical value of replacing grand narratives with little narratives (micronarratives).

Grand narratives give the impression of states to which we are evolving ― Teilhard de Chardin's Omega Point which he saw as Logos. In other words, evolution is pulling us (an action which goes against everything we can observe) rather than pushing us as we see from adaptations, or the lack of them, to accidental events which can mean either survival or extinction. It was this unswerving move toward logos which greatly depopulated Easter Island and brought about the extinction of many civilizations as we learn from Jared Diamond's Collapse.

As I often say in this blog, I see Logos as one terminal of human existence and Mythos as the other. In recent centuries, most societies have been moving further toward Logos in this spectrum. At either end of the spectrum is extinction because these are hypothetical states of non-adaptability. The very centre of the spectrum would seem to be the place to be as this position is the resolution of all opposites which is a goal of eastern religions and modern depth-psychology. However, the centre point cannot be fully attained because the resolution of all opposites is also a point where time and energy cannot occur. In other words, there could be no universe at all.

Strange phenomena occur whenever we approach the centre point of the Mythos/Logos spectrum: In transdisciplinarity, this is the T state (section 3.2 of the linked essay). At this place we find alternate realities and perhaps even alternate universes. In mediation, it is the point where opposing parties realize that they had both been substituting other things for what both parties really wanted and that these substitutions could not support each other, but when the true goals are realized and the substitutions are abandoned in favor of one which does support both parties desires, then there is no longer any conflict. A successful mediation can seem almost magical: both parties leave with more gains than they had previously thought possible even if they had absolutely won the original conflict (through legal actions, i.e. more Logos).

In evolutionary terms, a conflict is a test of adaptability in a single instance and the relative numbers of this same test occurring in a population has a bearing on its chances of survival. Most of such tests are not life or death situations and will be resolved sometimes even before there is any awareness of conflict at all. It is only through many generations of the same decisions that the accumulated effect can be perceived as having either survival or non-survival potential. The actual process remains mostly hidden, so when it is first perceived it is at a potential T state. Its identification as a conflict depends on at least two opposing opinions: A and not A which are both realities. In classical logic, nothing can be both A and not A, and this is the law of the excluded middle. Modern physics, however, has shown that light can be both a wave and a particle, so light can be a wave and a non wave, and a particle and a non particle. From this duality comes the T state or included middle of transdisciplinarity which can resolve apparent opposites.

As conflicts become grander and the excluded middle is being maintained, and if a society is expressing more Logos than Mythos, then logos type solutions will start to be employed. These all take the form of energy and that energy is gradually increased until it becomes too great to be opposed. A small amount of energy is expressed with a law, and the ultimate amount of energy is expressed with a global nuclear holocaust. I look at Law as one of the four horsemen of the modern apocalypse ― a new law is a sign that an unresolved adaptation has reached a societal level because its T state has not yet been realized. In this situation, the included middle will allow for more Mythos to form a resolution. It is important to know that these processes are going on all the time below our level of perception. The T state is not so much a new invention as it is a new discovery ― something that has reached our consciousness and thus allows us to use it as a tool.

Here is one of the videos from the Big History Project. Pay particular attention to where he says "merchants needed courts to settle disputes":

We can almost imagine some lawless and anarchistic city where the merchants finally rise up and demand a legal system. This is an expression of our position at the Logos side of the scale and we are using this to create a past grand-narrative. Carts have been placed before horses: courts existed before money, tradesmen, and cities. You can see this in the early Irish laws where its evolution from agreements within small groups of agricultural people working toward group survival is very clear. It would not be an aspect of agriculturalism, either, the same would have happened with hunting societies and we might have to go as far as primate behavior to find its first expressions.

In early Irish law, penalties would not be merely determined by the nature of the crime, but also by the societal standings of the criminal and the victim. As these small agricultural societies consisted of a few families the family, itself, was more part of existence than we understand it to be today in our large cities. In early Irish law there was no need for police or prisons, an offender would pay a fine (often in livestock) as compensation to the victim. If this fine was not paid, then the criminal's family would then have to pay.

In today's society with its large populations, we are annoyed when a fine is cheerily paid by a very wealthy person when the same fine could ruin the average person. The city has demanded more logos than we are comfortable in giving it. So is the City a glorious Omega Point in our evolutionary development? Is it just another Horseman of the Apocalypse? It all depends on grand narratives and our ability to see more of the micro-narratives at the edge of our consciousness.