Saturday, August 17, 2013

Antiquity and Teaching us about the Future

Long time readers have heard me mention that studying history helps us understand the future and under my blog title it says “The future has already happened”. I believe that human behavior repeats itself generation after generation, as we can easily see if we go back and look.

The philosopher Santayana put it differently when he said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I disagree. History repeats itself because of the character of man, not his neglect of history, and no matter how diligent we might be at studying the past, we still can’t escape from ourselves.

The study of antiquity becomes more interesting when we realize that people have always acted the same. We see these behaviors repeat in cycles and can compare them to what’s happening in the world today. Even though we have developed a brain capable of taking us beyond what mere “animalness” can accomplish, we’re still animals. Yes, we developed civilization quickly –  the pottery wheel, agriculture, trade, cities, metallurgy, armies, political systems – all between 4000 B.C. and 500 B.C, but we remain jealous, hateful, militant, distrustful, power hungry, and greedy.

I recently came across a paper by Ian Morris, professor of Antiquity at Stanford. The paper, “The Collapse and Regeneration of Complex Society in Greece, 1500-500 B.C”, was written in 2005. I plan to discuss this paper in a future post but for now I would like to discuss Professor Morris himself. Not being familiar with his work, I looked him up and discovered his recent book, “Why the West Rules for Now.” I read a review where it was mentioned that Morris was summoned to CIA headquarters to talk about his book.

Spooks into antiquity? Go figure! Reminds me of the FBI interrogation of Indiana Jones when they were trying to understand Hitler’s interest in the occult.

So what is it this time?

Why the West Rules tells the history of the world and then reduces the accomplishments of societies to an equation. Morris believes that history moves forward as a giant amorphous mass and is only minimally influenced by individuals or ideas. To him, there are three main forces acting on society: geography, climate, and the paradox of development. The latter refers to the fact that societal development is accompanied by forces which tend to undermine its progress.

And people are the problem. “Change is caused by lazy, greedy, frightened people looking for easier, more profitable, and safer ways to do things. And they rarely know what they’re doing.”

Morris has developed a theorem which claims that by mathematics one can determine which is the dominant culture on earth at any one time, and further, the formula can be used to predict the future. An index derived from the theorem is calculated using four characteristics of a society: energy capture per capita, social organization, the capacity to wage war, and the level of information technology. Each of these factors is assigned a value up to 250 so when we add them together we get a maximum index value of 1000.

The book compares the score of the Eastern world against the Western world throughout history and concludes that the East will regain superiority in 2103.

By the way, what did the spooks want? They wanted to understand Morris’ theories so they could incorporate them into a National Intelligence Council report documenting global trends, to be used to guide the next administration. I wonder how they validated his theory? Did they just accept it as the truth coming out of research by an expert in history? Who knows.

I have two large problems with Morris’ book and the reception to it. Let’s start with the latter. To quote one of the reviews of the book,

Morris's success at finding an audience for that big story comes at a time of anxiety about the waning influence of historians, whose work is often hyper-specialized. Kenneth Pomeranz, president of the American Historical Association, recently lamented that "our space in the public sphere has been diminished to the benefit of fields like economics."

The reviewer plays this game – “Look history is relevant again. It’s useful”, as if he had a clue about the subject. And then we have the following:

“Why the West Rules won praise in publications like The Economist and the Financial Times, which called it "the first history of the world that really makes use of what modern technology can offer to the interpretation of the historical process."

Which brings me to my second problem. I don’t buy the notion that history has to create some way to be relevant in order to impart value. It doesn’t need a technological methodology at all, because it’s one of the subjects of the Humanities, not the computer science department.

Morris reminds me of what’s wrong with the progressive movement. Its adherents have substituted science for God, and worse, they believe their science. Remember that FDR intended to appoint a board of economists who were going to dictate policy to all American corporations as part of an industrial plan. Funny to think anyone thought something as complicated as our economy could be reduced to a set of equations.

But here we have Morris trying to do the same with history. Who said there are four factors that influence the accomplishments of a society? Who says they should be equally weighted? Why go through the exercise when the assumptions are faulty? Now I’m not ready to condemn the factors and trends Morris cites. He is a well-respected historian. But when you quantify something, people assume the numbers are useful for comparison purposes, and they parse them up way beyond their relevance.

And I have do have a complaint about the foundation ideas of the theorem and index. Morris is materialistic – a little bit Marxian. His theorem gives no credit to ideas as contributors to the success of societies, like no one ever thought of something that really mattered. Huh?

I guess if it sells books and gets the spooks interested it has value. We trust the spooks, don’t we?

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Announcement of a New Program in Cultural Heritage Management

MA International Cultural Heritage Management Department of Archaeology, Durham University, England

Durham University is launching a new MA in International Cultural Heritage Management, designed for people interested in exploring how cultural heritage shapes and reflects people’s lives, hopes and memories around the world and interested in contributing to the complex challenges of developing cultural heritage in a changing world. This programme aims to introduce students to the issues involved in global cultural heritage management as a foundation for both professional and academic future paths. It builds on Durham University’s unique situation, living and studying within a World Heritage Site, to examine tangible and intangible heritage with an international, national and local focus. Students will explore the concepts underlying the idea of cultural heritage and investigate the social, political and economic impact of a variety of heritage organisations using international case studies, normally undertake a placement and choose either a detailed management plan or a dissertation to complete their degree.
A few places are still available for the October 2013 entry, together with some bursary funding to support international (non-EU) students’ fees.

To learn more about the MA, please contact Dr Mary M Brooks, Director, MA International Cultural Heritage Management at to arrange for an informal discussion by telephone or skype.

For information on Durham’s World Heritage Site, see

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Interested in Archaeology? Go on a Dig!

I found an interesting website which is produced by Archaeology Magazine.

The URL is, a website which describes the dig at Zominthos, Crete, a Minoan city.
The website gives a chronology of the dig, starting in 2005 and continuing through this year. In addition, the dig team is introduced and the dig site described. Take a look.

Zominthos is interesting as a Minoan settlement for several reasons. It is on the path between Knossos and Idaion Andron, the great sanctuary cave on the peak of Mount Ida and there is evidence of a permanent settlement there dating from 1800 B.C. The current excavation involves a building at 1200 meters elevation, which is higher than any other Minoan or Cretan structure. Was it a stopover for those pilgrims heading for the sanctuary? Unlikely, because the structure has certain palatial elements implying its use by the wealthy.

The building contains at least forty rooms and covers some 1350 square meters on the main floor. Adjacent, is a pottery workshop unique in Minoan Crete.

The building was abandoned around 1600 B.C. after the volcanic eruption at the Greek island of Santorini. For more details on the latter, see my post from May 13th, 2011.

Thoughts on The Association of Ancient Historians Annual Meeting

Although I’m academically trained, my degree is not in ancient history, so exposure to new research in the subject is a necessary activity for me. I always want to use current academic thinking as a compass for my own work and try to rub elbows with academics whenever possible. The lens through which academics look at ancient history gets adjusted over time as points of view change so like other disciplines it’s an evolving subject. Ancient writers have been analyzed ad nauseam, so it remains for archaeology to help us gain new knowledge through their uncovering of new artifacts. And it’s a slow process.

This blog is designed to walk the line between purely academic treatment of my subject and a more general discussion. My goals have always been twofold: show how history is interesting, unlike the way it is taught in school, and give dedicated readers some meat to chew on. I want to get into the details of the story in a way that enlightens and challenges the minds of my readers.

Below are two examples of papers presented at the annual meeting, which I outline to give the reader a sense of the proceedings.

One paper was called “Ex Usuris: interest, Investment, and Economic Growth in North Africa”. Ex Usuris means “of interest” and in this context the author described how Roman officials took money from the people either through taxation or other means but then often used that money to invest back into the local economic system. Using this technique, they could take economic control away from the natives and determine which projects received funding and were allowed to move forward. Along the way, they made sure that the money they spent contributed, and even glorified, their reputation in the community.

Another paper was titled “The Professionalism of Advocacy in the Late Roman Empire”. It discussed how qualifications to practice law evolved in the late Empire under the influence of the church. In the beginning, men could not me appointed as lawyers unless they had training in the law. Later the credentialing became much more sophisticated, specifying no conflict with imperial duties, sound birth status, and personal eloquence.  Lastly the requirement was added that the advocate support the Christian religious orthodoxy. In this small example, we see the structure of the church becoming a disciplinary substitute for the decaying structure of the Roman political system.

Esoteric stuff, no doubt, but each piece contributes to our knowledge of the ancient world. The body of work on any subject is like clay that gets re-molded by each generation of academics. I suspect much of the change is fashion but the truth gets sorted out over time. Ancient history has its unique limitations, as I have mentioned, most notably the impact of time on the preservation of the facts. We were pretty deep into the history before we had any historians to write things down, and of course it was Herodotus who helped get things going.

Thank goodness there are so many good stories to tell. The Romans and Greeks are the fathers of us all through their creation of the theoretical (Greek) and practical (Roman) foundations of western civilization. They give us a glimpse of modern society in its embryonic form and if we take the time to go on the journey, we can watch man invent political systems as he gave up being a nomad and settled into urban life.