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Posts Tagged ‘Bible’

My story The Child-Stealers has gone live on Amazon, so readers can now purchase it in ebook form for Kindle for only $.99 US. The Child-Stealers is the novella-length first episode of a longer novel, The Cursed Ground, an historical-fiction story set in the ancient world.

Cover for The Child-Stealers, by A. Roy KingTo purchase the novel for your Kindle or Kindle reading app on your tablet or mobile phone, please head over to the book’s Amazon order page at:

http://www.amazon.com/Cursed-Ground-Child-Stealers-Edhai-ebook/dp/B00PXIKE4G

In about another week, I will be releasing The Child Stealers in other formats (such as EPUB and PDF) through the Smashwords site.

The Child-Stealers has already garnered some great reviews from early readers. Here are a few excerpts:

“Give yourself enough time to read it in one sitting — as a novella, it’s do-able, and once you start it, you won’t want to put it down. And by the time you’re finished, you’ll have some questions you’ll want King to answer in book two.” — Stephen B. White

“[W]e get to the first key moment of crisis and its aftermath before we can catch our breath. A mark of a good page turner…. Will I read the remaining sections of the book as King publishes them? You bet, because he has me truly wanting to know what has become of characters I came to care for.” — Dr. Grover B. Proctor, Jr.

“Overall a better than average effort from a new author …, who is writing to entertain you with a thoughtful, interesting story, not to listen to himself describing scenery or yammer on about the ideal societies. I’d buy the next installment after reading this one. A worthwhile read for the price.” — David Sims

My long game here is to produce a series of historical novels based on Biblical settings, but with the focus on storytelling rather than religious themes. This A. Roy King blog serves as a way to connect with readers and to share some of the research and thinking that goes into the writing. I also publish an email newsletter, “News and Updates From A. Roy King.” The newsletter is the best way to keep informed of new episodes of The Cursed Ground as they are released. I also use it to let readers know about new articles I’ve written and news about historical and archaeological discoveries that relate to the ancient times I’m writing about. To sign up for the newsletter, please follow this link to the subscription form:

http://eepurl.com/2U3Uf

ARK — 20 January 2015

 

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In a way, it doesn’t much matter to me whether humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time. I guess the question interests me intellectually, but I don’t think I have an ideological investment in it.

Museum display of human with dinosaur

An exhibit at the Creation Museum shows a human happily coexisting with a hungry-looking theropod. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Here’s how it does interest me: I’m writing fiction that is set in the remote past, during a period when the written history is sketchy. The first novel for my Edhai series is called The Cursed Ground, and the first episode is due for release on Jan. 20, 2015. The concept calls for a lot of world-building, and it could be interesting to portray some interaction between the human characters and some large reptile-like or large bird-like animals.

(Just a note that this blog entry highlights the value and relevance of the field of anomalistics to modern research. For a discussion of anomalistics, that is, the study of stuff that doesn’t fit the predominant paradigm in one way or another, see my previous article, “Anomalistics, Pseudo-Skepticism, and the Discovery of a 300-Million-Year-Old Aluminum Machinery Part.”)

But does it make any sense to build a fictional world in which humans are contemporary with dinosaurs, especially for a fiction series that is purportedly “historical”?

How you respond to that question could depend on your ideological stance.

A creationist (by which I essentially mean a young-earth creationist) would say, ‘Of course humans and dinosaurs lived together.’ That view holds that the earth and all life on it are only about 6,000 (or sometimes 10,000) years old. Artwork and even museum exhibits from that camp sometimes show humans and dinosaurs in the same scene.

A materialist would say it’s nonsense to place humans and dinosaurs into the same time frame (materialists love the word “nonsense”). Dinosaurs, at least what most people think of as dinosaurs, lived in the Mesozoic geologic period, according to the timeline most-commonly accepted in mainstream academia. That period is said to have ended 66 million years before the present (b.p.), whereas anatomically-modern humans are only supposed to have appeared within the last half-million years — too late to have ridden a triceratops or to have had to run away screaming to avoid getting stomped-on by a T-Rex.

That said, some intriguing scientific findings in recent years have called into question some long-held assumptions about when the non-avian dinosaurs actually lived. Could the consensus time frame be off — even way off? And could that triceratops horsey-ride have been feasible after all?

geologic time scale

Conventional geologic time scale. Credit: U.S. National Park Service.

Organic material found in a T-Rex fossil: Paleontologist Mary H. Schweitzer Of North Carolina State University stunned the fossil-hunting profession with her 2005 article in Science, “Soft tissue vessels and cellular preservation in Tyrannosaurus rex.” In her article, Schweitzer reported finding organic tissue in the femur of a Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil. The problem is that, according to the current model of how fossils form, there’s no way any organic material should have remained in a fossil 68 million years old. Any such material should have long ago decomposed and been replaced by minerals, or have been destroyed by radiation.

Many critics claim that her sample must have been contaminated somehow. Schweitzer seems to think that the material really is 68 million years old and that this suggests that current theory about how fossils form might be wrong. That’s a useful idea, but another possibility is that the conventional means of dating fossils is way off, and that the T-Rex in question lived much more recently than is called for in the prevailing view of the geologic past.

Radiocarbon dating finds dinosaur fossils only 22,000-39,000 years old. Traditional paleontologists would never think of applying radiocarbon (RC or C-14) dating to Mesozoic fossils. After all, C-14 dating is only useful going back 50,000-80,000 years b.p., three orders of magnitude too soon. Yet an open-minded group of researchers (calling themselves the Paleochronology Group) decided, Why not? The tests have yielded ages between 22,000 and 39,000 years b.p. for fossils of Allosaurus, Triceratops, Hadrosaur, and Apatosaur.

Critics argue that these RC dates can’t be correct, because the non-avian dinosaurs studied all died out 66 million years ago. In other words, these findings are not in line with the consensus view, so they must be wrong. The Paleochronology Group argues that the conventional potassium-argon method used to obtain the very-old dating of Mesozoic fossils tests the supposed age of the surrounding deposits, not the fossils themselves.

Anyway, these are intriguing findings, and the controversy over them reveals a tendency to deny anomalistic evidence, findings that don’t fit the prevailing paradigm. Such denialism can particularly manifest if critics have an ideological bias that requires a very, very long time frame for life on earth, a long enough time frame for chance and necessity to supposedly produce a vast diversity of life. As atheist champion Richard Dawkins once said, “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” (The Blind Watchmaker, 1986) Intellectual fulfillment does not die easily.

Anyway, those two sets of findings by paleontologists are suggestive of the possibilities for a novelist writing historical fiction based on Biblical settings. With some speculative elements thrown into the scenario, it might be possible to let some of the human characters encounter some strange and dangerous beasts. In fiction, the anomalous can make for good storytelling.

By the way, if you enjoy reading articles like this — and if you want to keep up with news about my historical-fiction series, The Edhai — please sign up today to receive my free email newsletter.

ARK — 15 January 2015

 

 

 

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I know that’s a provocative title and might sound extreme. However, it’s actually less extreme than the quotation I ran across today by 19th-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who wrote in his diary in 1850:

Truth always rests with the minority, and the minority is always stronger than the majority, because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion — and who, therefore, in the next instant (when it is evident that the minority is the stronger) assume its opinion … while Truth again reverts to a new minority.

[Source: Soren Kierkegaard, The Diary of Soren Kierkegaard, pt. 5, sct. 3, no 128 (1850)]

Søren Kirkegaard statue Copenhagen, Denmark

Søren Kirkegaard statue, Copenhagen, Denmark. Via Wikimedia Commons.

That’s a profound idea, and it makes me think about controversies today that center around the “consensus” opinion on questions of science and scholarship. Consensus is a tricky idea, because consensus occurs within a population, and how the consensus emerges depends on how big you draw the circle of people who are allowed to participate.

The problem of consensus comes up these days around the question of evolution. If you drew the circle of participants around the population of biology professors at major American universities, you might conclude that belief in evolution is the consensus opinion, and therefore the majority. But if you drew the circle around the entire adult population, you would get a more mixed result, because many lay people believe in creation. And me? These days, when someone asks me whether I believe in evolution, my usual response is, ‘Well that’s kind of complicated to answer, because I find that people don’t always mean the same thing when they talk about evolution. What does that word mean to you?’

Another magnet for the idea of consensus these days is climate change. One important narrative is that the consensus among climate scientists is that the heat balance of the earth system is increasing because of the greenhouse effect. Another narrative basically says, ‘No, that’s wrong,’ and keeps itself busy by poking holes in the consensus climate science. I’ve decided that where you stand on this issue says more about your ideological leanings than about your science literacy. But it emphasizes again that the idea of consensus is tricky and contingent.

I ran into the problem of consensus again recently, when a Jewish friend opened a Facebook discussion by claiming that the consensus among archaeologists now is that the Hebrew nation was never in slavery in Egypt and didn’t wander in Sinai for 40 years. Therefore, the suggestion was, Jews should stop claiming that the Passover is based on historical events and admit that the whole story is a fiction. My friend linked to an article with kind of thin reasoning, written by an undergraduate in Middle East studies — see “Were Jews ever really slaves in Egypt, or is Passover a myth?” He also linked to “Were the Jews Slaves in Egypt?,” a more thoughtful piece by an actual professor, who writes more authoritatively (but who works in Bible studies, not archaeology, and seems really more interested in promoting his pet theories about the Hebrew Scriptures).

The question of the Hebrew exodus is an interesting topic, and I’m putting it on my to-do list to go into the topic more in depth in a future blog entry here. But it relates to this same issue of consensus and majority opinion. If the majority of archaeologists who are directly involved in Egypt and Sinai claim there is no evidence that a large nation of Hebrews lived in the area in the mid-second millennium BCE, what is their claim based on? What should we lay people think about it? Should we just assume they know what they’re talking about and accept it as gospel? Is there a minority opinion that questions the consensus? What are the minority’s arguments?

Anyway, I was struck by that Kierkegaard quote and wanted to pin it to the wall for future reference, because it’s a useful idea. The majority opinion can sometimes be intimidating and often works to get itself established as “The Official Version of the Truth.” Yet, majority and consensus are messy concepts, because whether an opinion is the majority depends on the population you are looking at, whether a narrow population of supposed experts or the larger population of everybody. In any case, all of us should be wary of accepting ideas credulously and taking the easy path of following the crowd.

Here are some previous pieces I’ve written about the question who gets to say what’s true:

“How Much Does Archaeology Really Reveal?”

“How Much Do We Really Know About Human History?”

Also applicable is this piece by a ‘colleague’: “The Way Things Are, the Way Things Were, and What Is True”

Also, if you want to keep informed about future articles on this blog, and especially about my historical fiction series set in the ancient world, please sign up for my email newsletter here: http://eepurl.com/2U3Uf

ARK — 25 December 2014

 

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I have a practical reason for asking what it would be like to live for hundreds of years: I’m facing the problem of portraying fictional characters in the ancient pre-flood world described in the Bible. What would it be like to live for three hundred, six hundred, eight hundred years? How should I write characters of such long ages in a work of fiction?

The Sumerian King-List. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Sumerian King-List as inscribed on the Weld-Blundell Prism. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Part 1 of my novel The Cursed Ground is scheduled for release on Jan. 20, 2015, and further episodes are in development and should be following rapidly after that. The main characters in the story are younger, in their twenties through fifties. But some minor characters are much older, so I’ve already been confronting the challenge a bit.

Since I was already grappling with this question, I was intrigued by a recent article pointing to extra-biblical references to long age-spans among ancient humans. Tara MacIsaac, writing for Epoch Times (see “Did Ancient People Really Have Lifespans Longer Than 200 Years?“) brings together accounts from a variety of cultures describing such lifespans.

The long lifespans of humans before the Great Deluge are well-known in Western civilization and among those familiar with the Bible. Look up Genesis chapter 5, and you’ll read that the first human, Adam, lived to be 930 years, his son Seth 912 years, Enosh 905 years, and so on. According to Gen. 7: 6, “Noah was 600 years old when the floodwaters came upon the earth.” Even after the Deluge, the long lifespans continued, Abraham living to 175 years, according to Gen. 25:7,8. Some have suggested that the human lifespan decreased after the Flood because of changed atmospheric conditions or the lack of some key nutrients on the earth. Another explanation is that the length of a human life declined as the race got further away from the original perfection of Adam.

However, as MacIsaac points out, the Bible account is not the only source that cites longer lifetimes among ancient humans. Another well-known source she cites is the Sumerian King-List, an ancient Bronze-Age manuscript in the Sumerian language found in various sources. The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature (ETCSL) provides the following translation:

1-39. After the kingship descended from heaven, the kingship was in Eridug. In Eridug, Alulim became king; he ruled for 28800 years. Alalĝar ruled for 36000 years. 2 kings; they ruled for 64800 years. Then Eridug fell and the kingship was taken to Bad-tibira. In Bad-tibira, En-men-lu-ana ruled for 43200 years. En-men-gal-ana ruled for 28800 years. Dumuzid, the shepherd, ruled for 36000 years. 3 kings; they ruled for 108000 years. Then Bad-tibira fell (?) and the kingship was taken to Larag. In Larag, En-sipad-zid-ana ruled for 28800 years. 1 king; he ruled for 28800 years. Then Larag fell (?) and the kingship was taken to Zimbir. In Zimbir, En-men-dur-ana became king; he ruled for 21000 years. 1 king; he ruled for 21000 years. Then Zimbir fell (?) and the kingship was taken to Šuruppag. In Šuruppag, Ubara-Tutu became king; he ruled for 18600 years. 1 king; he ruled for 18600 years. In 5 cities 8 kings; they ruled for 241200 years. Then the flood swept over.
40-94. After the flood had swept over, and the kingship had descended from heaven, the kingship was in Kiš.

As you can see, the King-List claims some immense time periods for the reigns of those ancient kings, tens of thousands of years. Most researchers think those kings are fictional or mythical — or if real, that their reigns are exaggerated. MacIsaac says some scholars have suggested that a mathematical process might have been used to generate those long time periods — squares or multiples of 60, for example.

My Ancient History professor once compared the long ages in the pre-flood Sumerian King-List with those in the Bible, concluding, “See? It’s the same thing!” I found myself thinking, Well, no it’s not really the same thing to say that someone lived 930 years and to say that someone else lived for longer than 28,800 years. That’s a difference of two orders of magnitude. However, that professor was a big guy and pretty mean-looking, and the way he conducted his class you weren’t encouraged to even comment or ask a question, much less challenge his assertions.

MacIsaac mentions other sources that ascribe long ages to ancient peoples. Even after the Deluge, the Sumerian King-List attributes long ages to monarchs, although the reigns are much shorter, most in the hundreds of years. The Shahnameh, a Persian epic, MacIsaac writes, “tells of kings reigning 1,000 years, several hundred years, down to 150 years, and so on.” She also quotes a book by a Chinese medical scholar writing about longevity:

According to Chinese medical records, a doctor named Cuie Wenze of the Qin dynasty lived to be 300 years old. Gee Yule of the later Han dynasty lived to be 280 years old. A high ranking Taoist master monk, Hui Zhao, lived to be 290 years old and Lo Zichange lived to be 180 years old. As recorded in the The Chinese Encyclopedia of Materia Medica, He Nengci of the Tang dynasty lived to be 168 years old. A Taoist master, Li Qingyuan, lived to be 250 years old. In modern times, a traditional Chinese medicine doctor, Lo Mingshan of Sichuan province, lived to be 124 years old.

But what about creating fictional characters hundreds of years old? One thing I can imagine is that, if you could live the equivalent of ten or twenty of today’s lifetimes — and still have good health and a sound mind — you could attain a much greater fund of knowledge and skill. So I am planning on developing characters who have become experts in multiple domains. Perhaps you can imagine a single long-lived person mastering such diverse skills as farming, homebuilding, boatbuilding, sailing, writing, music, visual arts, and handcrafts.

Another option would be to create characters who have stuck with one single domain but who have mastered it beyond anything we could imagine today. This makes me think of Cain’s descendants, who became famous for founding complex lifestyles, musical genres, and metallurgical technologies (see Gen. 4:17-24).

Jeanne Louise Calment (1875-1997), who lived to 122 years, the longest lifespan confirmed in modern times. Shown here at age 20. Source: Wikipedia.

Jeanne Louise Calment (1875-1997), who lived to 122 years, the longest lifespan confirmed in modern times. Shown here at age 20. Source: Wikipedia.

But what about less material aspects of someone’s life? If we lived for hundreds of years, how would our character and personality develop? We think of ourselves as mature at the age of forty or fifty, but in reality we are children in comparison with someone five hundred years old. I imagine that great age would be no guarantee of one’s becoming a better person, though. A long lifespan might allow more opportunity to increase in hatefulness or violence. I’m dealing with this theme a little in Part 2 of The Cursed Ground, which I am calling “Children of the Keeper,” and which focuses on the descendants of Cain.

What are your thoughts? What kinds of things might people of ancient times have been able to accomplish during their long lifetimes? Or what mischief might have they gotten up to? Please feel free to leave a comment below.

Also, don’t forget to sign up for my email newsletter, “News and Updates From A. Roy King” to keep up with new releases from my historical-fiction series, as well as new articles and other announcements.

ARK — 22 December 2014

 

 

 

 

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Deluge by Paul Gustave Dore

The Deluge, bu Paul Gustave Dore. via Wikimedia

As a novelist setting a fictional story in the world before the Biblical Deluge, I find myself frequently having to make decisions about how to portray an ancient world that is only briefly described in the Bible account. One of those decisions has to do with the Nephilim, who are described at Gen 6: 1,2 4.

(Just so you know, I’m getting ready to release the first episode of an historical epic I’m calling The Cursed Ground, set in the ancient world. Once I start to release these stories, this blog might make a little more sense to interested folks.)

The question of who the Nephilim were came up recently in a discussion with a reader of my email newsletter, News and Updates From A. Roy King. As I understand it, there are two basic ideas about the identity of the Nephilim — that they were either humans or hybrid offspring of humans and materialized angels. I told my reader that the second explanation is the one that has always made the most sense to me. He raised the very good question whether angels have DNA that would allow them to have semi-human children. Since angels are spirit beings, it seems unlikely that they have DNA in their spirit state. However, various Bible accounts show that spirit beings are able to come to the earth and manifest physical bodies that can be touched and that can even eat — see Gen 18:8 and Luke 24:30. Such physical bodies could presumably have a genetic structure with the capability of reproducing.

Anyway, my primary interest here is not to get into long discussions over Biblical exegesis, but to explore the development of a fictional world. As I suggested above, I decided to portray the Nephilim as the offspring of humans and fallen angels. The Bible account associates the Nephilim with the increase of wickedness and violence on the earth, so I’ve decided to portray them as villains, along with their angelic fathers.

Doctored photo purporting to show archaeologists discovering skeletons of giants.

Doctored photo purporting to show archaeologists discovering skeletons of giants.

In working on this series, I’ve read many other fictional treatments of the pre-flood era — call it competitive research. Some of them try to follow the Biblical story closely, and others are more fanciful. I’ve written a couple of reviews over at Goodreads — see my reviews of Darren Aronofsky’s graphic novel Noah and of William Guy’s mythology-based story The Last Nephilim. Both of these stories present the Nephilim in a nuanced way, portraying them as not all and totally wicked, and even as potentially redeemable. It’s an interesting treatment, but in the end, I decided not to go in that direction.

In spite of all this discussion of the identity of the Biblical Nephilim, the true focus of my Edhai/Martyroi series (that’s what I’m calling the larger saga) is not on villains, but on humans and what it might have been like to live on the earth at various times in human history from a Biblical perspective. So the Nephilim and fallen angels are basically minor peripheral characters in these stories.

Some Bibles translate the Hebrew word ne-phi-lim’ as “giants.” I’m portraying them as unnaturally large, but more within the known range of human height, which seems to be able to reach as far as nine or ten feet.

I’ve written before about giants. One of the most popular articles on this site discusses the question whether archaeologists have discovered skeletons of giants and are covering up the fact — see “Have Archaeologists Found Skeletons of Biblical Giants in Greece?

Another question I’ve discussed has been “Could Giant Humans Exist?” In that post I explore the physical limits of the human body.

ARK

 

 

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My last two blog posts here were about the tenuousness of history, that is, the idea that we really know relatively little about the human past, especially about the ancient world — see “How Much Do We Really Know About Human History?” and “The First Named Author in History Was a Woman, but When Did She Live?

nilotic landscape from Santorinii

A bronze-age Egyptian-inspired “Nilotic” landscape from the Greek island of Santorini. Via Wikimedia Commons.

I thought I was done with this topic for awhile, but then by chance I ran across an interesting quotation by Helen J. Kantor (1919-1993), the famed Near East scholar who taught for many years at the University of Chicago. In her 1947 masterwork, The Aegean and the Orient in the Second Millennium B.C., Kantor admits that our knowledge of the ancient past is limited. Nevertheless, investigation is worth the effort, she writes, and as a result “it is possible to sketch a tentative outline of Aegean relations with the East and of the concomitant effects produced in Egyptian art.” (74)

However, in her lead-up to that statement, she makes an honest admission of the limitations of archaeological knowledge:

The evidence preserved to us by the passage of time constitutes but a small fraction of that which must once have existed. Each imported vessel from Egypt represents scores of others that have perished. Although objects testifying to the operation of Aegean influence on Egyptian art are rare, we must remember that those that do exist are but tokens of groups which would have been far more impressive in their entirety. Serious gaps in our knowledge exist even in the case of Egypt, where so much has been preserved and where supplementary data are yielded by tomb reliefs and paintings. Nevertheless, large, unplundered tombs are unusual and rich burials containing even a portion of their original contents are not often found. Most metal objects, in particular the more valuable ones, have perished. Elaborately decorated weapons such as those belonging to Ahmose and Tutankhamun are preserved only in exceptional cases. Relatively few carefully ornamented small objects of daily life remain to us. The amount of information that can be extracted from such occasional articles as the scraps of harness from the tomb of Amenhotep II or the dog collar of Mahirper indicates how much has been lost. In addition to these few objects, there must have existed many others; together they would have revealed the full story of the adoption of Aegean artistic traits by Egyptian craftsmen, a story of which we now possess only disjointed segments. (73)

I quote all of that just to emphasize that the most honest experts are willing to admit to the limitations of their knowledge. As a student of history and simultaneously a student of the Bible, I’m constantly reminded that knowledge of the past is fragmentary. Experts construct models of the human past based on the best information that they have, but often these models get presented to the public as the ‘official version of the truth,’ and average people pass these models along as factual, treating the Bible account with scorn.

I encourage the thinking person to keep an open mind to alternative points of view and to be careful about making strong assertions when your knowledge is, in fact, limited — see “The Way Things Are, the Way Things Were, and What Is True.”

ARK — 4 November 2014

 

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Bronze head of a king, thought to be Sargon of Akkad. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Bronze head of a king, thought to be Sargon of Akkad. Via Wikimedia Commons.

I was going to write a very brief blog entry about Enheduanna, an ancient Sumerian priestess thought to be the first named author in history. I thought it was interesting that that honor fell to a woman. But as often happens, I kind of plunged down a rabbit-hole when I started to try to pin down some of the details.

Enheduanna was the name of an Akkadian priestess of the moon-god Nanna and daughter of the king known as Sargon of Akkad. I came across Enheduanna in “The Rhetoric of Origins and the Other: Reading the Ancient Figure of Enheduanna,” a chapter by Roberta Binkley in the book Rhetoric Before and Beyond the Greeks. Binkley is lecturer in rhetoric at Arizona State University (see an essay by her about Enheduanna here).

(Here at this website and blog I’m focusing on my historical-fiction writing project, The Cursed Ground. However, under another pen name I write non-fiction, thus the interest in rhetoric.)

Binkley’s chapter is fascinating for all kinds of reasons, but I was struck by her statement that Enheduanna is “the first named historical author.” (47) Enheduanna “lived and wrote around 2300 B.C.E.,” says Binkley, “almost two thousand years before the “golden age” of Greece. (48) I found that tidbit fascinating, that the earliest-known named writer was a woman. Beyond that, I was eager to read Binkley and the other authors who contributed chapters to the book, just because they challenge the received wisdom that rhetoric started in fifth- or fourth-century Athens.

To be frank, though, I got a little stuck on Binkley’s dating of Enheduanna at “around 2300 B.C.E.” The Wikipedia entry on Enheduanna places her a few years later, at 2285-2250 BCE. It seemed to me doubtful that the lifetime of someone living so long ago could be known so definitely that it could be placed within a 50-year range like that. How can they be so certain?

I get a little cranky when experts act too certain about events of the past and their dates — see my blog entry “How Much Do We Really Know About Human History?” An expert in one field generally only has time to thoroughly investigate his or her own narrow specialty enough to feel justified in making strong assertions. When it comes to placing their findings within the larger historical context, they tend to just go with whatever is asserted by other experts. This seems to go on frequently in academia, with the result that multitudes of specialists end up relying on other specialists, and they all kind of cooperate to construct this vast chronological model of the human past, everybody trusting the soundness of the others’ scholarship.

Most of it is valuable work and worth consulting, but is the great hypothetical model of the past so certain that the everyday thinking person should just accept it all on faith?

Enheduanna is believed to have been the daughter of Sargon of Akkad, a.k.a, Sargon the Great. He used to be known as Sargon I, but then researchers found out about an even earlier Sargon, who now gets that designation. Some think that “Sargon” might really be more of a title than a proper name. Anyway, out of my interest in Enheduanna and her lifetime, I learned that Sargon of Akkad’s lifetime is actually somewhat uncertain. In the information box in his Wikipedia entry, his dates are listed as c. 2334-2279 BCE. (For this entry, I’m relying quite a bit on Wikipedia — maybe I’ll jump further down this rabbit-hole in the future, but I expect Wikipedia can be trusted as accurate for something like this.)

However, if you read the detailed discussion of Sargon’s origins and rise to power, you’ll see that the 2334-2279 range is based on what’s called the “Middle Chronology.” Meaning there are other chronologies. In fact, the Sargon article also mentions a “short chronology,” which dates Sargon later, at 2270-2215. I thought that was interesting to see two chronologies mentioned for the early period in Sumerian history, and that idea of multiple chronologies sounded familiar. I thought I had run into it before, so I went a little deeper.

In fact, consulting the article on “Chronology of the Ancient Near East,” what I found is that there are what the article editors call “competing proposals” for the chronology of the second and third millennia BCE. Here is an interesting table borrowed from the article under the section “Variant Bronze Age chronologies“:

Chronology Ammisaduqa Year 8 Reign of Hammurabi Fall of Babylon I ±
Ultra-Low 1542 BC 1696 BC – 1654 BC 1499 BC +32 a
Short or Low 1574 BC 1728 BC – 1686 BC 1531 BC ±0 a
Middle 1638 BC 1792 BC – 1750 BC 1595 BC −64 a
Long or High 1694 BC 1848 BC – 1806 BC 1651 BC −120 a

The various versions of the chronology depend greatly on the interpretation of astronomical records recovered from cuneiform tablets, particularly the Ammisaduqa tablet recording observations of the planet Venus. As you can see here, the reckoning of a key date can vary as much as 150 years, depending on which chronology you follow. The editor says that the Middle Chronology “has strong academic supporters” and that the High and Ultra-Low chronologies “are minority views,” which is probably why the Middle Chronology is the one that has prevailed in the discussions of Sargon and thus Enheduanna. However, that’s not to say that the Ultra-Low Chronology should be completely discounted. In fact, if I understand correctly, the Ultra-Low Chronology would place Enheduanna closer to 2200 BCE rather than 2300 BCE.

Venus tablet of Ammisaduqa. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Venus tablet of Ammisaduqa. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Yet, I wonder whether there are Akkadian scholars who would scoff at the 2200 date and insist that 2300 is the “right” one — see “The Way Things Are, the Way Things Were, and What Is True.”

But I digress.

Here’s another wrinkle: The Venus tablet of Ammisaduqa, the cuneiform document so important to establishing anchor dates in the ancient Near East chronologies, is not universally loved. In fact, digging down further and consulting the Wikipedia article on that document, we learn that this tablet supposedly records the movements of Venus for a mere period of 21 years during the reign of a King Ammisaduqa, a successor of Hammurabi. However, the earliest extant copies of this tablet are dated between 720 and 704 BCE. You can see from the table above that this tablet is used to fix events that supposedly occurred about 900 years earlier than its writing. Maybe the copyists did their work properly during all that long period of time, but maybe not.

In fact, V.G.Gurzadyan casts doubt on the validity of the Venus tablet altogether, as seen in this abstract from his article “On the Astronomical Records and Babylonian Chronology“:

We outline the priority of high quality data of astronomical content as our strategy for the analysis of the ancient astronomical records in the search of the absolute chronology of the Near East in II millennium BC. … We then discuss why the 56/64 year Venus cycle cannot be traced in the Venus Tablet and therefore cannot serve as an anchor for the search of chronologies. … In sum the available data support the Ultra-Low Chronology proposed in the book by H.Gasche, J.A.Armstrong, S.W.Cole and V.G.Gurzadyan, “Dating the Fall of Babylon” (1998) and, particularly, leave no astronomical background for the High Chronology. Ultra-Low Chronology is supported also by archaeological, dendrochronological, Assyrian king lists and other data as summarized at the Intern. Colloquium on Ancient Near Eastern Chronology (Ghent, July, 2000).

Oops, that’s a least one scholar who prefers the Ultra-Low Chronology.

And another wrinkle on top of the other wrinkles. The editors of the “Chronology of the Ancient Near East” article in Wikipedia also add this little tantalizing tidbit:

The chronologies of Mesopotamia, the Levant and Anatolia depend significantly on the chronology of Ancient Egypt. To the extent that there are problems in the Egyptian chronology, these issues will be inherited in chronologies based on synchronisms with Ancient Egypt.

If you want to learn something about the problems with the Egyptian chronology, I refer you again to my article “How Much Do We Really Know About Human History?

So what’s the lesson here for the average person interested in the ancient world? Maybe the lesson is that we have to be careful when supposed experts tell us they “know” what took place thousands of years ago, and when it took place. This is especially so for those who are interested in Bible history and who know the chronology set forth in that reliable set of documents. The work of historians and archaeologists and philologists and linguists — and, yes, professors of rhetoric — is immensely valuable in helping us understand the past. But beware when someone claims to have the last word about what happened in the human past.

ARK — 1 November 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

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How much do we really know about history — or maybe more properly, how much do we know about the human past?

(The Institute of Historical Research defines “history” as “the bodies of knowledge about the past produced by historians,” along with everything involved in producing and communicating that knowledge. That said, we often use the word “history” as an umbrella term for everything that happened in the past, and I’m not going to nitpick here.)

I often ask that question, because people who think they are erudite will sometimes tell me that I’m wrong about this or that fact about the past. Or, more often, they will just make some unequivocal statement about the past — such and such happened during such and such period, as if there were no question. (See one of my meditations about such certainty at “The Way Things Are, the Way Things Were, and What Is True.”)

Egyptian inscription, menu of Tepemankh

Inscription from tomb of Tepemankh, Giza, Egypt, conventionally dated about 2350-2300 BCE. Via Wikimedia Commons.

When historians make a statement about the past, how certain are they really? What prompted me to write about that question today was a comment contributed by a reader calling himself “Columbus” (I think his real name is Norbert — no comment on that) responding to my recent post, “Did Columbus Prove the Earth Is Round?” The commenter made reference to an article on the topic by historian Jeffrey Russell, who had this to say about what he called “the precariousness of history”:

History is precarious for three reasons: the good reason that it is extraordinarily difficult to determine “what really happened” in any series of events; the bad reason that historical scholarship is often sloppy; and the appalling reason that far too much historical scholarship consists of contorting the evidence to fit ideological models. The worst examples of such contortions are the Nazi and Communist histories of the early- and mid-twentieth century. (boldface mine)

All three reasons are causes for concern, particularly the urge for promoting ideologically-based falsehoods, one of the principal motivations behind the myth that Columbus proved the earth is round.

However, what I’m thinking about today is Russell’s reason number one, just the sheer difficulty of determining what really happened.

If you think about it, what is history based on, that is, our hypothetical narrative of the human past? Things like written documents and inscriptions, which become scarcer and more fragmentary the further back you go in time. Archaeologists help by creating conjectures based on traces of human activity dug up from the ground — the foundations of ancient buildings, shards of pottery, old pieces of metal, the occasional bone. But how much certainty does such evidence impart, especially when it comes to ancient history?

As an example, supposed erudites often assert that the Bible chronology can’t be correct, because the chronology of Egypt continues back in time before the Biblical date of the Great Flood at 2370 BCE. Many people “know” that, but what’s it based on? For the most part, two lines of shaky evidence — the puffery of Egyptian kings engraved on monuments, and an account of Egyptian history based on a source named Manetho, reputed to be an Egyptian historian living in the 3rd century BCE, more than 2,000 years after the Bible’s date for the Deluge and any Egyptian kings thought to have been living at that time. On top of that, Manetho’s history has never been found in its original complete form, and is only known from excerpts quoted in a work by the Jewish historian Josephus in the first century CE, four hundred years after the purported life of Manetho.

You still run across people who dismiss the Bible account based on that shaky foundation. Perhaps this is an example of what Russell refers to as “contorting the evidence to fit ideological models.”

But is Russell the only historian who suggests that history as commonly written is less certain than we like to let on?

Moses I. Finley

Moses I. Finley

The best reference I have found on this topic is Ancient History: Evidence and Models, a 1985 book by the Cambridge Classics scholar Moses I. Finley (1912-1986). If you’re open-minded enough to consider a criticism of history at the deepest level, I encourage you to read the book, which can be obtained through Amazon, or perhaps through an academic or public library.

However, following are a few selected quotes which help to express Finley’s thinking and observations about history as it is written.

Much of Finley’s focus is on classical Western history, beginning with Ancient Greece and Rome. In discussing Roman history as understood through Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus:

Try as we may, we cannot trace any of their written sources back beyond about 300 BC, and mostly not further than to the age of Marius and Sulla. Yet the early centuries of the Republic and the still earlier centuries that preceded it are narrated in detail in Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus. Where did they find their information? No matter how many older statements we can either document or posit — irrespective of possible reliability — we eventually reach a void. But ancient writers, like historians ever since, could not tolerate a void, and they filled it in one way or another, ultimately by pure invention. (9, boldface mine)

One of the problems Finley points to in reconstructing ancient history is the paucity of real primary documentation. In discussing government documents, he writes:

Outside Egypt, governmental documents available to us are solely those that the authorities chose to display publicly in lasting materials, stone or bronze (apart from the quotations that are preserved in the literary sources) …

… it is worth noting that of all the publicly displayed Roman laws, senatus consulta and imperial ‘enactments’ down to Constantine, barely one hundred are now available in some condition from the whole of the territory under Roman rule. For the whole of antiquity, in sum, what we have at our disposal (apart from Athens) is a scatter of documents from one end of the Mediterranean world to the other, the great majority of them isolated texts without a context … (37-38, boldface mine)

While Finley’s critique of history is strong, he does not assert that it is impossible to come up with a better accounting of the past, but that this requires a more systematic way to assemble and evaluate ancient sources, which he discusses in the book. It also requires that historians give up precious assumptions that have let them fool themselves into thinking they are able to unequivocally “tell ‘how it really was.'” (47)

ARK — 28 October 2014

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I know it’s a bit after Columbus Day, but this question came up recently when I heard yet another speaker say that Columbus proved the earth is round when he sailed across the Atlantic and didn’t fall off the edge of the world. The story goes that in the Middle Ages everyone believed the earth was flat, and that the courageous Christopher Columbus (Cristoforo Colombo in Italian) went to Queen Isabella of Spain and got her to finance his voyage across the ocean to prove everybody was wrong.

15th century global

A 15th-century Columbus-era globe. Credit: Alexander Franke, via Wikimedia.

This question about the shape of the earth and Columbus’s voyage sometimes comes up in discussions of the authenticity of the Bible, which is why I bring it up here. Critics of the Bible often claim that the Bible is unscientific. They might point to statements in the Bible that supposedly prove that its writers believed in a flat earth, as if using figurative language such as “the four corners of the earth” (Rev 7:1) or ‘the rising and setting of the sun’ (Ps 113:3) were somehow verboten.

Many of us who are students of the Bible accept it as an inspired expression of a divine Author. At the same time, it is literature and its individual writers were human, so there is nothing wrong with their use of literary devices. The Bible is not a science textbook, but we like to point out that when it touches on matters of proven science, it is accurate. There’s a lot to say about that topic, but one point we sometimes bring up is that the Bible as early as the 8th century BCE described the shape of the earth as round. Isaiah 40:22 describes that shape as a “circle” or “sphere” — chug in Hebrew.

While it’s beneficial to point this out, sometimes I hear folks add that the shape of the earth was not known until Columbus proved it in 1492. This is not accurate. In fact, the spherical shape of the earth was known by Greek scientists as early as the 5th century BCE. Here are a couple of articles that discuss this question briefly:

The best article I’ve seen on this topic, though, is “Inventing the Flat Earth,” by historian Jeffrey Russell, in History Today. Unfortunately, that article is not available online outside of a paywall. However, following are a few points of interest from Russell’s piece.

Russell writes that “after the fifth century BC very few Greek writers thought of the earth as anything but round.” In the Greek and Roman worlds in the last few centuries BCE, maps showing a round earth as well as “three dimensional globes … were used publicly as educational tools.” After that and all through the Middle Ages, the roundness of the earth was generally known among educated people, with flat-earthers few and far between and little-respected.

Russell says that the “Flat Error” or “Myth of the Flat Earth,” that is, the misconception that people in the Middle Ages thought the earth was flat, was not widely disseminated until the early 19th century, when the American writer Washington Irving popularized the idea in his partly fictional writings about Columbus. After that time, it became common to portray the Middle Ages as a time of scientific ignorance, with belief in a flat earth as an important trope.

Interestingly, Russell writes, the Flat Error became a rhetorical tool in perhaps the most important ideological battle of the 19th century:

The Flat Error became an article of almost unquestioned faith for historians from the 1860s onward, and for a very deliberate reason. The Darwinist controversy was underway, and Positivists wanted to discredit the anti-Darwinists as foolish bumpkins. To do this they wanted both to compare resistance against evolution with resistance against sphericity and to incorporate it as part of a historical pattern of religious resistance to science. They created the historical myth of the warfare of theology and science.

Russell makes the interesting assertion that the persistence of the Flat Error really comes down to prejudice: “medieval people were so superstitious they must have believed in something as foolish as the flat earth.” Underlying this, he believes is “the Protestant prejudice against the Middle Ages for being Catholic, the Rationalist prejudice against Judeo-Christianity as a whole, and the Anglo-American prejudice against the Spanish…”

He believes that it comes down to fear as well, the fear of giving up cherished ideas, in way,  the fear “of falling off the edge of knowledge.” Easier “to believe a familiar error than to search, unceasingly, the darkness.”

ARK — 21 October 2014

 

 

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Robert Pershing Wadlow. via Wikimedia.

Robert Pershing Wadlow. via Wikimedia.

A few years ago, I wrote a blog post showing that some popular photos of giant skeletons were faked — see “Have Archaeologists Found Skeletons of Biblical Giants in Greece?

However, in that post I didn’t say much about whether giant humans could in fact have existed at one time. The “giant skeletons” article has been viewed tens of thousands of times and has received many comments from people who seem to take it personally that I exposed these photos as faked. Many took it that I was contradicting the Bible account in Genesis, which they believe speaks of a time when giant humans walked the earth.

I should point out that very large people have been known even in modern times. The American Robert Pershing Wadlow lived from 1918 to 1940. Wadlow reached 8 feet 11.1 inches (2.72 meters) and 492 pounds (223 kg). So it doesn’t seem impossible to suppose that a human could reach a height of 10 feet or so.

About giants in the Bible: According to 1 Sam. 17:4, the Philistine giant Goliath was six cubits and a span, about 9 ½ feet tall (2.9 meters). That’s not too much larger than Wadlow. Pre-flood creatures described at Gen. 6:1,2,4 are sometimes called “giants,” but the actual word used there is nefilim, meaning “fellers” in Hebrew, or those who cause others to fall down by striking them. The Bible doesn’t say how big they were.

giants6smallIf you look at the first faked photo I show in the “giant skeletons” post, you will see that it shows a skull appearing to be about five feet high (or 60 inches). If you figure that a normal human skull is about seven inches high, the skull in the faked photo would have to represent a human about 50 feet tall.

Could a human exist at a height of 40 feet, 50 feet, or more? It’s an interesting question, but it has been explored by competent researchers.

In 1928, geneticist J.B.S. Haldane wrote a well-known essay called “On Being the Right Size,” in which he wrote that “it is easy to show that a hare could not be as large as a hippopotamus, or a whale as small as a herring. For every type of animal there is a most convenient size, and a large change in size inevitably carries with it a change of form.” Haldane gives an extensive discussion of the relationship between size and function in living things, but he also addresses the problem of a giant human by supposing a human were the size of the giants Pope and Pagan in the version of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress that he, Haldane, had when he was a child. He shows what engineering problems would result from being so large:

Let us take the most obvious of possible cases, and consider a giant man sixty feet high — about the height of Giant Pope and Giant Pagan in the illustrated Pilgrim’s Progress of my childhood. These monsters were not only ten times as high as Christian, but ten times as wide and ten times as thick, so that their total weight was a thousand times his, or about eighty to ninety tons. Unfortunately the cross sections of their bones were only a hundred times those of Christian, so that every square inch of giant bone had to support ten times the weight borne by a square inch of human bone. As the human thigh-bone breaks under about ten times the human weight, Pope and Pagan would have broken their thighs every time they took a step.

Such problems are solved in nature by what we might call “right-sizing.” Haldane offers the example of the gazelle:

To turn to zoology, suppose that a gazelle, a graceful little creature with long thin legs, is to become large, it will break its bones unless it does one of two things. It may make its legs short and thick, like the rhinoceros, so that every pound of weight has still about the same area of bone to support it. Or it can compress its body and stretch out its legs obliquely to gain stability, like the giraffe. I mention these two beasts because they happen to belong to the same order as the gazelle, and both are quite successful mechanically, being remarkably fast runners.

Movie poster by Reynold Brown via Wikimedia.

Movie poster by Reynold Brown via Wikimedia.

Cecil Adams of The Straight Dope goes into greater detail about the structural problems of being a 50-foot-tall human in his post “Could an attacking 50-foot woman actually exist?” The reference here is to the science fiction movie Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.

Adams explains that, according to the Principle of Similitude, “women, men, and critters in general can only get so big,” because “strength increases with the square of height while bulk increases with the cube.” So if an animal were to get taller while keeping the same proportions, it would get too weak to support its weight: “doubling the size of an animal while keeping its proportions the same increases the cross-sectional area of its muscles and bones by a factor of four while increasing its weight by a factor of eight.” Consequently, “if a woman starts off at five feet and 100 pounds and then grows to 50 feet, she’ll have 100 times the bone and muscle area but weigh 1,000 times as much — 50 tons.”

Adams also explains that a human of that size would run into insurmountable problems with its cardiovascular system, among other difficulties.

Given the engineering obstacles around human gigantism, I suggest that we all be satisfied with imagining giants of more modest size. After all, a nine-foot-tall guy would be pretty impressive, no?

ARK — 6 Nov. 2013

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