Saturday, February 27, 2021

Postblogging Technology, November 1950, II: Platypus Time

The Peninsula,
Hong Kong

Dear Father:

Yours truly has caught up with events, so I am writing just days after I received my magazines. Which means that as I write I have no idea how many of the Marines are going to make it back down the Chongjin road, if any, and my anger is burning. I know that you did what you could last month to bring the dangers home to Washington, but I guess it was all futile, wasn't it? And even if not a single Marine makes it home, Time will just wave the bloody shirt and make it an excuse to drop a few atom bombs on the damn, dirty Communists. (In fact, having cheated and paged a few issues ahead, I can spoil the suspense and tell that that is exactly what those bastards did.)

So, no, before you ask, I'm not moody!

Your Loving Daughter,

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Postblogging Technology, November 1950, I: Neutrino Week!

R_. C_.,
The Mayflower,
Washington, DC

Dear Father:

In the sincerest hope that you haven't been shot by Puerto Rican nationalists, I write to report that I haven't been shot by any Red Communist forces, either. Would that the 8th Cavalry were so lucky! Formosa is of course in a tizzy over the news of CCF forces fighting in Korea and is keen to see WWIII break out this very minute. It makes a change from the Reds being on the march in Indo-China and Central Asia. 

You will be glad to know that I am in perfect health and not experimenting with herbal medicine and in general taking good care of myself. The food situation has improved since Mrs. T. arrived to cook for us and now my only problem is finding someone willing to take collect calls! What? Us young couples have to watch our dimes! 

I expect this one to reach you in Washington, but I imagine you will be returning to Vancouver since there's no way of forestalling a war with China over Korea now that it is actually happening. We can probably rule out an Indian diplomatic intervention, too. The only question remains whether the war will spread to the South China Sea. My father has written several times to let me know that everything is ready should I need to return to Chicago. I've written back to say that as long as there's a Democrat in the White House he has nothing to fear, which is just my way of being the same old Ronnie, alas.  

Your Loving Daughter,


Saturday, February 13, 2021

Sacred Spring: A Recap to February, 2021

(Aeneas dumps Queen Dido, founder of Carthage, and goes off to found Rome instead, two separate 'Ver sacrum" episodes.) So she kills herself, and leaves her ashes to be exhibited at Templeton Hall, the fictional counterpart to Cooper Hall in Cooperstown, New York. Two obscure literary references for two separate blog obsessions!) 

I seem to have an extra week in my monthly schedule, so I will leave MacArthur, the Korean War, jets, approximately a million different "early computers" and the horrors of mid-century medical research till next week and pick up the glove. Can I summarise where the "Sacred Spring" is going? Yes. Can I do it succinctly? Not a chance. Oh, well. First you indulge. Then you cut.

This one is going to be rough, a progress report, not exactly what you'd call "edited," but also an attempt to engage (or re-engage) with some material rather than gesture at it. 

I'll start with the title. I know that we're supposed to click on all the hotlinks for sources and to be self-promoted at, but this only means that I am a bad Internet person and I'm probably not the only one. The Ver sacrum is a an "ancient rite of the Italic peoples" in which 

. . . [A] vow (votum) to the god Mars of the generation of offspring born in the spring of the following year to humans or cattle [is made] . . . [Those] devoted were required to leave the community in early adulthood, at 20 or 21 years of age. They were entrusted to a god for protection, and led to the border with a veiled face. Often they were led by an animal under the auspices of the god. As a group, the youth were called sacrani and were supposed to enjoy the protection of Mars until they had reached their destination, expelled the inhabitants or forced them into submission, and founded their own settlement.

George Dumezil sees this as one of those Indo-European myths that he's always on about, this one referring back to the ancient migrations that preceded their domestication. Me, I just like the phrase. I'm not sure that the gruesome subtext of human sacrifice is necessarily warranted. It is licensed by the ancient Roman authors, but they were about as far from actual Early Iron Age conditions as we are. Let's face it: "Sacred spring" sounds cool, and, at least to my ears, is inherently optimistic, and we could all do with some more optimism in this day and age. 

I usually append "the Early Iron Age Revival of the State" to posts under the "Sacred Spring" label, referring to the collapse of the archaic states of the Late Bronze Age that was, naturally enough, followed by a revival of the state in the early Iron Age. Politics therefore comes first. In the Marxian analysis that appeals more the older I get, politics is the art of extracting surplus value and showering it on the dominant class. Marxism has its limits, and seems to have missed the role of sacrifice as the core of Ancient political economy until it collapsed of its own absurdity at . . . well, at the end of Classical Antiquity. Talking about the role of sacrifice in Antique politics implies a conversation that is not going to be able to escape technological praxis, ritual and even the history of ideas, so a political discussion more-or-less demands a parallel discussion of bronze-casting, horses, and cosmology. Even in a recap post this seems like a lot of material for a short summary, so I'll get to it below the jump.

 That said, the actual examples that interest me are all new states, where there is less to say about ideas and rituals because most of our information is archaeological. One of the most striking facts of the Early Iron Age is that urban civilisation spread rapidly through the Western Mediterranean basin in the Early Iron Age, after having been present in Egypt for above two thousand years without inspiring an earlier wave of urbanisation. Similar episodes of urbanisation on virgin ground occurred in Cyrenaica, the Gangetic Plain. In the case of proto-states like Venetia and Seville that do not come into focus until well into the Roman Empire, we really are at the mercy of the  archaeologist; but even early Rome and Carthage escape capture by the historians of Antiquity, for all that they pretend otherwise. Perversely, the most influential book ever covers the rise of the Judaean state Jerusalem. Similar claims, which I do not believe are warranted, are made for the early states of the Gangetic plain, while China is perhaps somewhere in the middle. 

Having conjured with Rome, Confucius and the Bible, the case would be made that the Early Iron Age was a watershed moment in human history. However, while preparing for writing this post, I happened to crack open Barry Cunliffe's magnum opus/beautiful coffee table book, Europe Between Two Oceans, and was reminded that he has an entire chapter on the Early Iron Age enttitled "The Three Hundred Years That Changed the World, 800--500BC." While Cunliffe for just this moment avoids the issue,  this is perhaps the most clearly defined programmatic claim for technology mattering before the modern age. It's the Iron Age, after all.

 As a history of technology blogger, I could hardly ignore it even if the programme around here weren't the restoration of the cavalry to its roll as an exogenous driver of technological change. Although the history of equestrianship is controversial, perhaps more so than it needs to be,  this is quite clearly the era in which cavalry first appeared. More than that, there are some related technologies that are profoundly important, if poorly covered in mainstream historical sources. iI debated reviewing the highlights of technological change in the Early Iron Age before the jump, but found myself leaking mush all over the page as I tried to deal with what I've learned from antiquarians meandering through the pages of Engineering. So I'll leave it for below where I don't have to strive so hard for brevity.  

Beyond that, a case can be made for the Early Iron Age as an episode in the history of ideas, and particularly religious ideas. As I have already said, this brings us back to politics forthrightly, but there is material here that cannot be reduced to ideologies of domination. Spreading technology requires teaching, and pedagogy emerges as the central concern of the earliest recorded thinkers. Whether that is accidental or not, it is important. Beyond that, many of the great founding sages of modern religion and philosophy appear at the end of the Early Iron Age. Some of the most important, such as Jeremiah and Zoroaster, appear in the role of prophets, and while the prophet is arguably a universal, psychological type, we need to remember that the earliest intellectual projects were efforts to put prophecy on a rigorous and scientific basis, and that the Iraqi solution to this stands at the origin of the Antique political economy of sacrifice. As debatable as the actual historicity and interests of the teachers of the Axial Age might be, the traditions that place their activities in this period are insistent and formative.  

Circling around Athens and Jerusalem, it might seem that this has much to due with yet another new technology, the alphabet. The alphabet and coinage are both important new inventions of the era and symbolic systems with a great future ahead of them, but the changes of the Early Iron Age clearly predate them, and the Chinese parallel makes the case that they are not necessary to the full unfolding of the social changes of the Early Iron Age. Lacking the powerful new symbolic system of the alphabet, the Chinese improvised their cumbersome writing system into a tool that could memorialise Confucius. It is the impulse to memorialise, not the method adopted, that matters. 

Lastly, religion is not the only window through which we can observe the past that pivots around Iraq, the still centre about which the world history of the Iron Age revolves. Zoroaster stands sui generis as the sage of the ancient Iranians, while the Buddha is located in a longer Vedic tradition, both seeming to Nineteenth Century historical linguists as something close to primordial sources of the great family of Indo-European languages. Whether one is using this as a point of departure for a racist or quasi-racist larger story of wandering "Indo-Europeans," or as a scientific fact to put at the centre of historical linguistic scholarship, the Early Iron Age is a seminal moment. Seminal! Primordial! Centres of world history revolving! As you can see, I'm going for Significant with a capital "S" here, somehow avoiding the Holocaust, and in general drawing the kind of premature Big Picture that cries out to be tested against the facts. Language stands apart from the technological pretensions to detachment that I managed above. It appears that you cannot talk about the historian of equestrianship without taking a stand on "the Indo-European" question, and the question also comes barreling into politics. We are in the absurd situation of having dates for the Zoroastrian moment ranging from 6000BC to 600AD (with the actual, historical Zoroaster most likely a figure of 600BC). One might think that the foundations of a science that relies on the dates of the Zoroastrian scriptures are therefore built on shifting sands indeed --but no! (To be fair, historical linguistics as actually practiced does a pretty good job of quarantining the Indo-European arguments methodologically, but there's still the question of whether Indo-European is a good model for language family development or not.)

A final question for the historian of technology concerns their place as citizens of the modern world. Did all of this happen on its own, or do we need some kind of explanation? If the latter, what does it say about technology policy in the modern world?   

Friday, February 5, 2021

The Early Iron Age Revival of the State: The Axial Age?


Not that I'm complaining or anything, but the algorithm can bombard you with tangents if once you reveal some idle curiosity to it. In its most recent assault on my attention span, I got a whole lot of papers and monographs related to religious change in Late Antiquity, and, in the midst of the bombardment, Guy Stroumsa's "The End of Sacrifice: Religious Mutations in Late Antiquity." Dr. Stroumsa is a historian of comparative religion, and it turns out that the end of animal sacrifice is important to those guys, so Stroumsa is onto the theological implications like nobody's business.

Fine. I'm not the Thought Police. If theology is your bag, it's your bag. The problem is that it isn't what I do around here. Here, it seems like a drastic transformation in the pastoral economy ought to have implications for land use, agronomics, taxation and transportation infrastructure, not to mention the rise of cavalry heavy armies. But people aren't talking about this, above and beyond the role that cavalry and Christianity has played in everyone's discussion of the  Fall of the Roman Empire since, like, forever.

That's not a project I'm going to be following up on any time soon, but Stroumsa is an emeritus at the Hebrew University now, tidying up a lifetime of productive scholarship, and while I was offered "The End of Sacrifice" as a freestanding download, somehow I ended up with the version bundled into 2015's The Making of the Abrahamic Religions in Late Antiquity.  As monographs go, it's a bit of fix-up of the kind you associate with Brill, but that's not necessarily a bad thing, and a little taste of that, in parallel with Robert G. Hoyland's Seeing Islam as Others Saw It left me with some questions about the Axial Age and early Zoroastrianism that bear on a project I am allowing myself to pursue: The Early Iron Age Revival of the State.