Putti and Dragons; Sweary Mary and Beowulf; and the Silk Road

I got to UCL too late to join the students on their way to Whitehall to demonstrate against the tuition fee increases, they’d already left; but I still had to squeeze past the vastly increased security presence (although this just meant that there was some).

This autumn I’ve missed out going up to either the UCL Lunchtime Lectures (or the Royal Society ones), but managed to get there yesterday, for Angels, Putti, Dragons and Fairies: a biological dissection, in which Professor Roger S Wotton of UCL discussed the biological possibility of flight in these creatures.

The talk showed, basically, that it’s not possible.

Angels and putti have bird wings (usually white, drawing comparisons with doves which are usually benign in mythology), dragons have bat wings (bats are frightening in folklore), and fairies have insect wings (damselfly or butterfly) (considered feminine and demure in mythology).

More questions were raised than answered: can angels hover? Do the creatures use flapping flight or do they glide?

Visual arts make these supernatural subjects appear real –examples were given, including Giotto and Burne-Jones, of images that defy rational explanation.

The need to anthropomorphise benign beings and demonise nasty ones was discussed, as was the possibility of the need to extend the memory of flight from dreams and near-death experiences, and the concept of the soul flying away to elsewhere after death.

It was all tongue in cheek and more than a little lightweight, and was based on a paper that Prof Wotton published last year, Angels, Putti, Dragons and Fairies: Believing The Impossible, which is well worth reading.

After this I spent some time in Waterstones bookshop opposite, as they have an extensive second-hand section (which was all reduced to 50%) and a large number of remaindered academic books; as well as time I spent some money, too much money.

Hunt Emerson Rime of the Ancient MarinerIt’s quite a pleasant stroll from Malet Place through back streets to the British Library, where after a swift look at the fascinating Rime of the Ancient Mariner display (on until 27 February 2011, including early Coleridge printings, manuscripts, letters, and the hilarious Hunt Emerson version of the Rime), I managed to find a table for a late lunch, before having a too-short look round the current exhibition, Evolving English.

The beginning of the exhibition is, reasonably enough, the beginning of the English language, including an early Old English runic inscription, and one of the British Library’s greatest treasures, the Beowulf manuscript, which always sends a shiver down my spine when I see it. It’s accompanied by a short video of David Crystal talking about the poem and also reading the first few lines in the original Old English. Hwæt!

There’s tEvolving English bookreasure after treasure: printed books, manuscripts, posters, letters, and exhibits relating to slang, swearing (including Sweary Mary from Viz), dialects; and the influence of other languages on English, as well as the influence of English throughout the world, and the resulting variants in the language.

And also shown is a joke book from 1790. They were much more sophisticated then, would you think? You decide – here’s one joke as well as I can remember it: ‘What is the reason a man can put away his wife for p*ssing the bed and not for sh*tting it? Because he can shute it away with his foot and lye down.’

The exhibition runs until 3 April 2011, and comes highly recommended by me – I’m intending to make a return visit in the very near future.

To round the day off I took the train to Farringdon, and into The Gallery in Cowcross Street. ICOMOS (The International Council on Monuments and Sites) acts as adviser to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee on cultural World Heritage sites, and they put on annual Christmas lectures. Last year I heard a fascinating talk by Clive Ruggles (who is, 0300078145among other things, Emeritus Professor of Archaeoastronomy at the School of Archaeology and Ancient History, University of Leicester), about a worldwide survey of sites relating to archaeoastronomy, although the Q&A afterwards got inexplicably hijacked by a small new age/mystical audience element. Clive has a fascinating website on the subject, which I can recommend (and not just for people who like long words with lots of vowels).

This year it was the turn of Tim Williams (Senior Lecturer in the Institute of Archaeology, UCL) to talk about Mapping the Silk Roads: an ICOMOS Thematic Study.

Not just mapping – the project is looking to work out how to deal with producing a serial nomination for a Silk Road World Heritage Site (or Sites). The problems around this are immense.

Its scale to start with – 7000km of routes, plus the geopolitical variation over time – and the variety of routes rather than it being a single one. There are thousands of different archaeological sites – including caravanserais, cities, grottoes, bridges, ceremonial sites, productive sites, military posts, inns, irrigation.

The transnational nature of the Silk Road mean that it is very hard to get agreement between all the States Parties involved. Existing data and academic research is in a multitude of languages, for some countries is hard to locate, and where there are National Monument Records available they’re not always computerised, but on index cards, plus lacking maps or coordinates for sites.

Notwithstanding these problems, an enormous amount of data has been pulled together using GIS to produce KML files; 60km-wide corridors have been identified (45 so far, but there will probably be 80-90 eventually).

A big question is – where are the ends of the Silk Road, if indeed it has any? The study is currently taking Antioch as the western end, although it can be argued to have carried on into Europe; in the east it’s often thought to end at Chang’an, but can be shown to have extended into Korea and Japan.

Also, when was the Silk Road? It can be shown to have been used back into the Bronze Age, and is still in use today as a major route, but the study has tentatively set the chronology as from the Second Century BCE to the C16 – that is, from Zhang Qian to the fall of the Timurid Empire, and the growth of the maritime routes that caused the waning of the Silk Road.

The Silk Road was immensely important, and not only for the transshipment of high value/low weight goods, such as silk, spices, and dried fruits, over long distances; heavier, medium value goods were transported up to 500km; and as well as the flow of goods and technology there were also less tangible cultural interactions and the movement of things such as language, ideas, beliefs, music, dance, and dress.

It will be quite a feat if a Silk Road World Heritage Site is ever inscribed. It may end up being a series of several sites, or a framework on which the sites are set. It might not happen at all, but this exercise that Tim Williams has set in motion will have produced an amazing amount of data, and given the cooperation between such disparate nations as China, Japan, Korea, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Khazakstan, Syria, and all the other States Parties involved, I would hope that it will produce much more in the future. They will identify many of the sites related to the Silk Road, and have recognised their importance to their, their neighbours’, and the world’s, heritage. Which, with luck, will not only help in their conservation, but also in more mutual understanding.

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