Sunday, December 8, 2019

Postblogging Technology, September 1949, I: Viscount Ordered

R_. C_.,

Dear Father:

First week of law school, all that I hoped for! Reggie's getting a car! A Jeep, actually. I'm talking like a telegraph, because of a sudden we're helping Mrs. C. with the babies due to Fat Chow being called away to India and points beyond! (News from Lhasa re. Red Hats versus Yellow Hats Not Good.) Driving up to San Francisco for the weekend as soon as I mail this! Sally coming with to read me case files from the front seat of my luxurious new convertible, top down, beautiful Bay day, etc.  

Yours Sincerely,

Friday, November 29, 2019

The Early Iron Age Revival of the State, XXI: Silver and the State

My schedule briefly had me working an overtime shift next week, so as long as that prospect was before me, I was working on September of 1949. (Avro 707!) But I've also been nibbling at the edges of the early money problem, so when the totally unnecessary shift was struck from my schedule, I had something to blog about. Also, a chance to highlight the work of some fine young female scholars who are a lot more deserving of tenure than some I can think of. 

Courtesy Ephraim Stern
We are once again delivered into the hands of Biblical archaeologists. In 1995, a team excavating in "southern Phoenicia/northern Israel" found an amphora containing 20lbs of silver. Conditions weren't particularly kind to this collection of pieces, deposited in linen money bags and long since agglomerated by oxidation. The Ein Hoffetz hoard, discovered last year, is a bit prettier:

 It's still hack silver and ingots, but the taphonomy is at least clear. It's not coinage, that's for sure. (For the purposes of the elaborate archaeometallurgical analysis, it is, in fact, important that the Dor hoard be recycled jewelry, it turns out. Otherwise, it's got too much gold alloying the silver.) These collections have achieved some notoriety for the usual, discouraging reasons. The Bible describes joint expeditions to "Tarshish," sponsored by Hiram of Tyre and King Solomon, and the traditional Biblical chronology would place these in the 900s, rather too early by the conventional narrative, which would push Phoenician-Tartessian interactions down closer to 700BC. Does cutting edge science vindicate the Biblical narrative and therefore etc? (I don't want to get into it, but the ideological goal of the research is obvious enough.)

Maybe. Lead isotope analysis (about which more below) shows the silver in the three recently discovered southern Phoenician hoards are sourced to the Taurus mountains of central Anatolia, the interior of Sardinia, and Iberia. The Phoenicians were obtaining silver from Sardinia from about 950BC and from Iberia before 800. Other considerations lead the authors to conclude that the Phoenicians introduced the cupellation method of producing silver in the west. And, incidentally, whoever the technicians were, they were better at it than the ones refining the Taurus ores. 

The westward quest for metals is back on! And, converging with modern archaeology's distaste fort he traditional colonialist narrative, it is notable that the timeline puts the Phoenician presence in the west well ahead the earliest Phoenician colonies.  

Friday, November 22, 2019

The Early Iron Age Revival of the State, 20: Green Mountain Boys

Modern Cyrene is a complex of archaeological tourist traps on the outskirts of Shahat, Libya, although you can't see that clearly here due to my increasing the scale to get Marsa Sousa in the picture.

Given Libya's current difficulties, it isn't clear to me just how many tourists the tourist traps trap, but Shahat does have an international airport. Oil, wishful thinking, archaeotourists --I have no idea. Marsa Sousa is at the other end of what's probably a fairly spectacular road, given that it climbs from sea level to 300m in fifteen kilometers. For a modern traveller, the old town is nestled in the final switchback on the way to Shahat.

The fact that the back country road goes through Shahat rather than Cyrene makes me uncomfortable in calling old Cyrene a crossroads town, but it does seem to have been quite something. The area around the ancient ruins is graced by numerous sanctuaries and a necropolis of overwhelming scope (40,000 tombs before various modern depredations). The necropolis is a bit of a focus due to its victory over various feeble systematisation efforts of a series of archaeological investigators. There's a sense that we could learn  a lot about it if we could just grapple with its sheer scale. All credit due to the sketch work of some of these guys, though! And to the modern Polish mission to Ptolemais, which has produced a major monograph summarising a century-and-a-half of half-ass efforts to cope with an overwhelming site, written by Monika Rekowska and translated by Anna Kijak. (There's a Libyan Studies?)

Modern Marj, and the old town that  may or may not be Classical
Barca. (By Smiley.toerist -
Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
The issue here is that Cyrene is the dominant city of the ancient Cyrenaican federal league, a distinction the site hasn't enjoyed since, inasmuch as the port city of Benghazi is so obviously the better candidate. As an upland town characteristic of periods of "managed collapse" of Mediterranean world systems, I asked last time just when and how Cyrene came to be, and what its history tells us about the Iron Age transition. This post is the result of that investigation.

Before I go to the cut, I'll note that in one sense, Cyrene is not unique. There's a very similar city, and it is in Cyrenaica, too. Barca and Ptolemaishave formed a similar pairing to Apollonia (Marsa Sousa) and Cyrene. One might be unique, but two is a pattern!

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Postblogging Technology, August 1949, II: Axis of the World

R_. C_.,

Dear Father:

Well, here it is, another summer over. No matter for me, for I am a daring naval aviator now, but Ronnie is on to law school and the legendary rigours of First Year Law, which, in a single year, determines whether you will sit on the Supreme Court or chase ambulances. Horror stories are told of the "Socratic method," which apparently involves professors humiliating their students one after another in class. Ronnnie is looking forward to  it. 

I know, I'm frightened, too. But I did rent a truck and move Ronnie down to Palo Alto! Moving, it seems to me, is a big part of this whole thing. She only has to study, while I have to double clutch. Also, I have to be seen dead in Palo Alto, something I feel keenly even though I have difficulty explaining to anyone just why I find it so offensive. (It's got Herbert Hoover, that's why.) 

Your Loving Son,

(A portrait of Harvard Law roughly seventeen years after Ronnie's first year. My fond memories are of watching the tv series on Showtime while attending Okanogan College It's been many years, but I still remember the theme music. I might have been a bit naive about the university experience.)

Friday, November 8, 2019

Postblogging Technology, August 1949, I: The Great Comet of '49

R_. C_.,

Dear Father:

It's hard to believe that it's the second week of August already! Even though the Navy hasn't decided what to do with us in the Fall, Ronnie and I have agreed that she will take over the letters in the Fall, as she has already been warned that she will be living in the library for first year. I will either be around to help, or I won't be. I've mentioned rumours that we're to ship off to Formosa to interpose our planely-bodies between Communist and Nationalist. It seems like a terrible idea to me, but the British are already on the verge at shooting at the Koumintang, and having Americans on hand might turn out for the best, and not the worst. 

On the other hand, it's just a rumour, and the Navy is also getting ready to receive the snorkel GUPPYs, and they'll need someone to play hide-and-seek with. We'll see. 

I'm sorry to hear about Uncle George. Ronnie and I would be glad to meet him at the airport and drive him down to Santa Clara, although I guess it will be Wong Lee. It's tragic to think that he'd have his attack on his first visit to London in ten years, but at least he got to see the Earl before he was incapacitated. I hope the fact that the doctors let him fly means that it isn't as serious as we thought. 

Uncle Henry seems to be bearing up well, and as far as I can tell, Aunt Bessie will linger for years yet. Ronnie says Edgar isn't worried about his parents so much as he is about the company. Not much  I can do about that.

Your Loving Son,

Thursday, October 31, 2019

The Early Iron Age Revival of the State, 19: Scheidel Versus Soap

"Sacred Spring" is a thesis about cleanliness being next to godliness. The Bronze Age was the age of wool, not of metal, and the Iron Age that followed it is when soap production caught up with wool.

Walter Scheidel doesn't seem to believe in clean underwear. Today, I'm going to try to focus the thesis and engage with The Great Leveler. 

The Bronze Age increase in wool production occurred  from very low levels, and was closely linked to long-distance exchange. This required a store of value in the form of metals. The Late Bronze Age Collapse resulted from a collapse in the value of metal which spread out from the centre, as surplus stocks were dumped on backwards communities on the periphery, culminating in the failure of the Atlantic Interaction Sphere around 850BC.

Depending on the region, this was a more-or-less "successful" collapse into much more egalitarian communities engaging in significantly less long-distance trade. The Scheidel argument is that such societies do not produce investment surplusses. I guess that makes great economic theory, but I think it is pretty clear that the Iron Age was not like that, that a drastic reduction in social inequality coincided with rapid economic growth. That said, the growth phase may have been significantly retarded, since it can be dated with some confidence to the 850/800 period, while the first wave of the Late Bronze Age collapse hit the Aegean at the onset of the Late Helladic IIIC strata, fairly rigorously dated to 1190BC, with a target bracket of 1230--1130BC. 

Silver smelting pretty firmly nails the beginning of the Iron Age expansion. It may not be the first. It is part of a new complex of forest industries, of which ironmaking at least has a very gradual and early birth, while only the earliest signs of cavalry warfare appear in the record so early. Dyemaking has a well known c. 800 horizon from the literary sources, but these are also now archaeologically bolstered. Glass manufacture seems to track these dates as well. As already implied, the 800BC horizon, is also that of the "EIA reemergence of the state." That is, of course, a poor formulation, since the states I want to talk about are new ones in the western Mediterranean lagoons, notably at Rome, Carthage, Syracuse, in the Camargue, and in western Andalusia. But what are you going to do? However, all these new states remain within the Koppen Csa zone (Hot Summer Mediterranean), that birthed the earliest urban civilisations of the Middle East. Looking a little deeper into the continental interior, we find persistent experiments with state-ordered societies in temperate Europe,the subcontinent and possibly the Sahel. None of the experiments took off before the Principate, admittedly a controversial claim for South Asia and a bit outlandish for Africa, but my point is that they were a persistent object of experiment, and not a viable lifestyle. 

Thus: Wealth inequality led to excess saving and an investment bubble. The collapse of stored value, which led to social collapse, in turn led to a period of economic growth, which led to economic change, which led to the revival or new creation of the state.

The reader may recognise this as a response to the trauma of 2008 and the collapse of the neo-Liberal order --same as Scheidel, but with a technological point of departure. Taking the lead between my teeth, I have proposed the High Priest of Amun at Karnak in Thebes as the central banker of the Late Bronze Age, sterilising currency flows until the rate of burial could not keep up with the inflow of bronze, then stimulating a post-Collapse western Eurasia until, at last, the corpse rose and walked. Hey, if Scheidel can give us ten millennia of the Gini coefficient, I don't see why I can't play this game! 

Friday, October 25, 2019

Big Science and Big Bombs: A Technical Appendix to Postblogging Technology, July 1949, II;

UPDATE: I don't usually fix these off-week posts. They're hurried for a reason. On the other hand, blah blah work schedule here I am with some free time Monday morning, and this one is particularly egregious and easy to fix.

 Operation Grapple
At this point, I feel an overwhelming urge to indulge my inner Geoff Crowther and blame the Atlee Government for blowing up Christmas. Yes, it was the Conservatives who carried out the 1957/8 Christmas Island tests, and the Conservatives who authorised Short Granite and Orange Herald. Short Granite was a hydrogen fizzle, which was perhaps not unexpected, because Orange Herald was ready in reserve. Orange Herald popped off at 800 kT. This qualified Britain for membership in the Megaton Club, and allowed it to hold up its head high at Security Council meetings and sneer at the French. Although this seems like rewriting the rules of the H-Bomb Club to me, because Orange Herald was a regular old fission bomb. Whatever. I'm not on the Security Council, and an 800kt fission bomb is a bravura performance in itself, and the Grapple X test, a year later, demonstrated some remarkable weapons design that Norman Dombey and Eric Groves probably know more about than they're allowed to say.

Notwithstanding being a cool design, any 800kT fission weapon is going to be dangerously susceptible to "multi-kiloton events," and the major safety mechanism on the descendant Violet Club is some real Cold War dark humour. These monsters theoretically armed the V-bomber force for a few years in small numbers, although no V-bomber ever took off with one, the RAF having more sense than whoever it was in the decision chain that signed off on Violet Club. Presumably, any crash-landing related "events" would be reserved for WWIII, when public opinion would be jaded by more pressing concerns like rampaging atomic zombies.  

As for blaming the Atlee Government, we can get there by arguing that the insanely accelerated British programme wouldn't have been necessary if the Atlee Government had launched a "Super" programme when the Truman Administration announced that it was going to develop an H-bomb, back in January of 1950. It makes for a kinder treatment of late-Fifties Conservative defence policy than dwelling on the fact that the upshot of Grapple diplomacy was that the British got access to American designs, pretty much ending independent British  atomic weapons development, which is the kind of thing you expect the core Conservative voter to support.

Oh, wait, no, that probably means no tax cut. Never mind.

By this point, I'm getting a few months ahead of myself in terms of postblogging. What I want to talk about is the 1949 Nuffield Foundation grants. Presumably all of the stuff that these grants facilitated is now ancient news after decades of work at Los Alamos, Scandia, Oakridge, Livermore and the Aldermaston in the years since, but the public doesn't always know anything about that except for what indiscreet persons such as the President of Russia might have let slip.