*be sceptical - take nothing for granted!
Unless otherwise indicated all photos © Richard McKie 2005 - 2019

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Next to Dinosaurs mummies are the museum objects most fascinating to children of all ages. 

At the British Museum in London crowds squeeze between show cases to see them.  At the Egyptian Museum in Cairo they are, or were when we visited in October 2010 just prior to the Arab Spring, by far the most popular exhibits (follow this link to see my travel notes). Almost every large natural history museum in the world has one or two mummies; or at the very least a sarcophagus in which one was once entombed.

In the 19th century there was something of a 'mummy rush' in Egypt.  Wealthy young European men on their Grand Tour, ostensibly discovering the roots of Western Civilisation, became fascinated by all things 'Oriental'.  They would pay an Egyptian fortune for a mummy or sarcophagus.  The mummy trade quickly became a lucrative commercial opportunity for enterprising Egyptian grave-robbers.  

Once at home many well-to-do young men then held mummy unwrapping parties, for the 'edification and delectation' of their friends, effectively destroying their prizes for future generations. But fortunately for us a proportion were also acquired by museums and are preserved to this day. 

For example the Australian museum in Sydney has a mummified woman from the Egyptian Late Period (664 - 332 BCE) wrapped in linen bandages and covered in plaster in her original sarcophagus made from painted wood. She was excavated in 1900.   There is another at the Melbourne Museum in Victoria, in a stone sarcophagus, but by far Australia's largest collection is at the Nicholson Museum at Sydney University that has several mummies and mummy cases donated to the University by a wealthy benefactor, Sir Charles Nicholson, who picked them up during a trip to Egypt in 1856–57.

In the 19th century many countries had closer associations with Egypt than Australia.   Among them were France, Holland, Germany, Russia and the US where private and public collections are both larger and more numerous. The British Museum, for example, has 87 mummies in its collection. 

At the moment of writing discerning visitors to the British Museum may be disappointed by a slightly diminished collection, because six of their mummies are in Sydney, along with more than 200 objects that illustrate different aspects of life in ancient Egypt. 

Although I've seen many Egyptian exhibitions, here and overseas, Tutankhamun comes to mind, this is the most interesting to date.

I recently became personally familiar with a CT scanner.

While almost every museum has by now employed CT (computerised tomography - three-dimensional x-ray scanning) to look under the bandages of their mummies, this exhibition has gone a step better.  The tomography data has been used to build a virtual image at every layer so that visitors can see each body from the inside out: the skeleton and what was placed inside it; then out through the tissues and skin; to the sacred objects placed on the outside of body; finally through the layers of wrapping to the wrapped object we see in the display. The data has also been used to 3D print various objects that have been wrapped inside - like 'pass the parcel'.

A nice circular interface to the digital representation is provided so that visitors themselves can scan back and forth through the layers to concentrate on particular features.   Helpful text appears here and there to point out interesting features. In one case plaque deposits in a femoral artery indicate a fatty diet, in turn reminding us that only wealthy or important Egyptians could afford mummification. The mummies are of people who died in Ancient Egypt between 1800 and 3000 years ago: Nestawedjat (a married woman from Thebes); Tamut (a chantress of Amun); Irthorru (a priest from Akhmim); an unnamed temple singer; a young child from Hawara; and a young unnamed man from Roman Egypt.

We are reminded that Ancient Egyptians were obsessed by death and spent their lifetime preparing for the after-life.  The most obvious examples are the Pyramids, on which construction had to begin as soon as the new pharaoh was born.  Similarly well-to-do families began preparing for the after-life the moment a child was born.  To quote from the exhibition:


To the ancient Egyptians, the preservation of the body through mummification was one of several measures believed necessary to achieve eternal life.
By stopping decomposition and rebuilding the body to look as lifelike as possible, the deceased's ba (soul) could recognise and reinhabit the body after death and be reborn like the god Osiris.
Consequently, the ancient Egyptians spent a long time preparing for death. Those who could afford it had tombs and coffins built for themselves, equipped with magical scenes and inscriptions, food offerings and grave goods to protect and sustain the ka (body) for eternity.
 

 

Potential Mummification was a significant incentive to becoming a priest or priestess and no doubt helped lead to the proliferation of Egyptian gods.  There are around 2,000 gods named in Ancient Egyptian writings.  In this respect it was similar to other contemporary religions or to the modern Hindu religion, with a god for every occasion.

One pharaoh, Akhenaten, famously called a halt to this and decided that henceforth there would only be one supreme god: Aten represented by the sun - His rays blessing the faithful.  Akhenaten built and entire new city in His name. But after Akhenaten's death in 1336 BCE or 1334 BCE he was succeeded by the Child King: Tutankhamun and the old priesthood restored the previous pantheon. 

Nevertheless the idea of a single God caught on amongst the wandering Hebrew who may or may not have been enslaved in Egypt at the time. Evidence for this direct association includes Psalm 104 that bears a close resemblance to Akhenaten's Great Hymn to the Atenand.  Although nothing in the biblical story of Moses finds any corroboration in the Egyptian records it clearly acknowledges an Egyptian influence. Several scholars have asserted on the grounds of sentiment and style that several other Psalms may also have their roots in Egyptian monotheism.

For example it is more than possible that the priest's blessing, that is very ancient and one of the oldest Hebrew texts ever discovered:

The Lord bless you and protect you;
The Lord make His face shine upon you,
And be gracious to you;
The Lord lift up His countenance upon you,
And give you peace.

is drawn directly from Atenism.

Monotheism certainly arose around this period in human history and obviously had its roots somewhere. The brilliant Israel Museum in Jerusalem, also with its own mummy (a high-ranking priest from the city of Akhmim), has wonderful exhibits illustrating that the monotheistic process was a gradual one and that the Jewish religion was not entirely codified until after the establishment of the monarchy and the first temple. 

The first clear statement of Abrahamic monotheism occurs in the Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament). This is thought to have been written during or soon after the Babylonian Exile (597 - 538 BCE), as several of its stories are based on earlier Mesopotamian myths, some borrowed directly from the Epic of Gilgamesh, an ancient Akkadian (Sumerian) poem.  Further, Biblical events recorded during and after this period have at least some support in the archaeological record, unlike those mythic tales before this time.

Gilgamesh was written over a period of 750 years (c. 2150-1400 BCE), predating the earliest evidence of monotheism by several hundred years, and is thought to be the origin of the creation myth; the Garden of Eden; the flood myth; and the Tower of Babel. The Israel Museum points to corresponding passages between Gilgamesh and Ecclesiastes.

The Egyptian concerns about death were mirrored by the Mesopotamian culture that clearly influenced the Biblical authors.  Thus some of these concerns have been passed down, together with a belief in an after-life.  Yet each modern Abrahamic religion has a slightly different spin and emphasis on what happens when we die ranging from: nothingness (dust to dust) in Ecclesiastes; to acquiring a phalanx of virgins (is that the right collective noun?).

In the Egyptian model, after death the body was reinhabited by the soul to be reborn on a different plane, accompanied by the grave-goods and sacred objects placed around the body such as scarab beetles crafted in precious stone or metal.  In order to make this journey to the next world one needed one's heart: the source of intellect and humanity. Other organs, like that pesky brain, that was inclined to putrefy, were removed from the body as it was prepared for travel.  This was generally done via a hook through the nose or a small opening in the skull. 

Whenever I see a mummy it occurs to me that, like those knights transported to America, the dead person would be profoundly disappointed had they somehow successfully cheated death and become aware of what actually happened to their remains after dying.   Instead of patiently waiting in their multiple layers of coffin cases and tombs, here they are in a museum in a country they had never imagined, being gawked at by thousands of peculiar humans speaking strange languages and recording their images with unimaginable technologies.  And they're the lucky ones.  Many of their relations have long been unwrapped and their travel good's and amulets stolen.  Others have been swapped, by some enterprising crook, into the wrong sarcophagi, like one of those in Sydney. 

Yet the laugh is still on them because the common heard in Ancient Egypt often ended in mass graves; and they thought they were better off.

In this exhibition I was struck once again by a culture that had such confidence in an afterlife that it dominated the only life that their religion's adherents did have.  In thinking their lives futile I have the support of modern theology.  According to our modern religions the Ancient Egyptians were profoundly in error: with their many false gods; and their ill-informed rituals that were both ludicrously melodramatic and pointless.  Thus, by the measure of modern religious beliefs, the Ancient Egyptians spent their entire lives worshiping false gods and engaging in worthless rituals in a futile attempt to ensure their erroneous conception of the life after death.

And the final irony is that, according to modern physiology, they even set off on their final journey with the wrong organs. 

Isn't their belief in the importance of the heart bizarre?   Even to an ancient it must have been obvious that a knock on the head can change one's personality and outlook in a way that a stab to the chest cannot. Yet there is evidence that the Ancient Egyptians carried out primitive brain surgery, so their misguided religion must have overruled science and common sense.

Today, as I well know having just had mine repaired, the heart is nothing but a muscle, albeit one that thanks to the autonomic nervous system is constantly contracting and relaxing.  It can be repaired or even replaced with another without making any difference to a person's personality or essential being.  Whereas the slightest damage to our brain has the potential to change everything.

But the Ancient Egyptians weren't the only ones who held this strange belief.  Until quite recently Europeans believed this too, thanks to an ancient text dating back to Egyptian times.

That the heart is the centre of a person's emotional-intellectual-moral being and the source of our feelings is central to this ancient document's representation of the 'self'.   Although the kidneys and bowels also get a mention, there is no mention of the brain whatsoever nor is there any suggestion that it is important to morality, being or decision making.  Yet despite this omission, the word 'heart' occurs 963 times in the King James version of the Bible.

Thus one religion misinforms the next.

For my own recent heartless brush with death follow this link.  Those who have already read it might want to look again - I've changed it slightly.

 

 

 

 

 


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Travel

Israel

 

 

 

A Little Background

The land between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean Sea, known as Palestine, is one of the most fought over in human history.  Anthropologists believe that the first humans to leave Africa lived in and around this region and that all non-African humans are related to these common ancestors who lived perhaps 70,000 years ago.  At first glance this interest seems odd, because as bits of territory go it's nothing special.  These days it's mostly desert and semi-desert.  Somewhere back-o-Bourke might look similar, if a bit redder. 

Yet since humans have kept written records, Egyptians, Canaanites, Philistines, Ancient Israelites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, early Muslims, Christian Crusaders, Ottomans (and other later Muslims), British and Zionists, have all fought to control this land.  This has sometimes been for strategic reasons alone but often partly for affairs of the heart, because this land is steeped in history and myth. 

Read more ...

Fiction, Recollections & News

April Fools’ Day

 

 

 

He was someone I once knew or so I thought.  One of those familiar faces I thought I should be able to place. 

What was he to me? An ex-colleague, the friend of a friend, someone from school?  In appearance he's a more handsome version of me, around the same size and colouring.  Possibly slimmer, it’s hard to tell sitting.  Maybe younger?  But not young enough to be one of my children’s friends.  I just couldn’t remember.

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Opinions and Philosophy

Climate Emergency

 

 

 

emergency
/uh'merrjuhnsee, ee-/.
noun, plural emergencies.
1. an unforeseen occurrence; a sudden and urgent occasion for action.

 

 

Recent calls for action on climate change have taken to declaring that we are facing a 'Climate Emergency'.

This concerns me on a couple of levels.

The first seems obvious. There's nothing unforseen or sudden about our present predicament. 

My second concern is that 'emergency' implies something short lived.  It gives the impression that by 'fire fighting against carbon dioxide' or revolutionary action against governments, or commuters, activists can resolve the climate crisis and go back to 'normal' - whatever that is. Would it not be better to press for considered, incremental changes that might avoid the catastrophic collapse of civilisation and our collective 'human project' or at least give it a few more years sometime in the future?

Back in 1990, concluding my paper: Issues Arising from the Greenhouse Hypothesis I wrote:

We need to focus on the possible.

An appropriate response is to ensure that resource and transport efficiency is optimised and energy waste is reduced. Another is to explore less polluting energy sources. This needs to be explored more critically. Each so-called green power option should be carefully analysed for whole of life energy and greenhouse gas production, against the benchmark of present technology, before going beyond the demonstration or experimental stage.

Much more important are the cultural and technological changes needed to minimise World overpopulation. We desperately need to remove the socio-economic drivers to larger families, young motherhood and excessive personal consumption (from resource inefficiencies to long journeys to work).

Climate change may be inevitable. We should be working to climate “harden” the production of food, ensure that public infrastructure (roads, bridges, dams, hospitals, utilities and so) on are designed to accommodate change and that the places people live are not excessively vulnerable to drought, flood or storm. [I didn't mention fire]

Only by solving these problems will we have any hope of finding solutions to the other pressures human expansion is imposing on the planet. It is time to start looking for creative answers for NSW and Australia  now.

 

 

Since my retirement Wendy and I have done quite a bit of travel, often these days to less 'touristy' places, although that's just a matter of degree. After all we're tourists and we were there.  On occasion we've revisited old haunts after a decade or so absence. 

Everywhere we go there is one thing in common with our home in Australia:  there are a lot more people than there were a decade or so back. Everywhere we go there is evidence of resource depletion, particularly water resources, and environmental degradation. Everywhere we go new dwellings have spread like a cancer across once green fields.and forests. Concrete forests now stand where humble dwellings or open fields once were.

It's no good blaming our parents, the underlying causes of the many environmental challenges we face go back the start of the 19th century and the Industrial Revolution when no longer were the great masses of humanity the children of farm labourers, serfs, slaves or servants serving a small cultured elite.

With industry came systematic applied science, engineering, and improved medical understanding. Now workers needed new skills and had to be educated. With education came many benefits, including independent volition, and improved living conditions.  Death rates declined; fertility improved.  By the end of the 19th century world population had more than doubled its pre-industrial record, reaching 1.6 billion.  But then it really took off.

By the mid 20th century many informed commentators were getting alarmed and calling for population restraint.

In 1968 the world human population had topped 3.5 billion, over a billion since the end of World War 2.

That year Professor Paul Ehrlich, of Stanford University in the US, published The Population Bomb correctly warning that: 'hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.'   Critics claimed that he was alarmist, yet very soon 260 of every thousand babies born in Zambia were dying due to malnutrition before their first birthday. In Pakistan the number was 140 per thousand (source: The Limits to Growth). 

In the same year concerned scientists in Europe formed The Club of Rome.  Three years later the Club published 'The Limits to Growth', the results of a state-of-the-art, yet primitive, multi-factorial computer model that projected the impacts on food consumption/production; pollution and the cost of reduction; energy resources; and non-renewable industrial minerals, of unrestrained exponential population growth. The model forecast multiple disastrous consequences early in the 21st century. The authors feared no less than anarchy, driven by food and resource riots, and the total collapse of civilisation.  The final sentence reads: 'The crux of the matter is not only whether the human species will survive, but even more whether the human species can survive without falling into a state of worthless existence.'

 

 

My copy of The Limits to Growth
 

 

Only a few paid any heed. Several of these were later described as the 'Asian Tigers'.

 

Singapore's Stop at Two policy
From 1972 Singaporeans were encouraged to have two child families
- incentives included payment for sterilisation and public housing for married couples without children
- disincentives included precluding couples with more than two children from applying for public benefits
The result was a decline in fertility from 4.7 in 1960 to 1.7 in 1980
Although the campaign stressed the need for girls, as in China, cultural factors resulted in a preponderance of boys
- an ongoing social and economic problem
Nevertheless, Singapore has gone from a struggling third-world country to become the fourth richest country in the world (
1)
On the other hand, since independence in 1947 India's population has grown sixfold
- India will soon overtake China as the world's most populous country - visit and compare 

 

Critics of The Club of Rome, like Herman Kahn, of the Hudson Institute, cried: 'garbage in gospel out', a popular objection to computer modelling at the time, and lo, the Club's projections were soon proven to be overly pessimistic. In the 1970's science came to the aid of mankind. New crops were developed and there was a 'green revolution'; new processes and products improved efficiency and new mining technologies, like remote sensing from aircraft and satellites, together with new extractive methods, like deep-sea oilwells and 'fracking', redefined resource availability. In first world countries rivers and air was cleaned up and pollution ceased to be our number one concern.

 

 

The Hudson Institute's Herman Kahn's riposte - one of many
The Hudson Institute was later employed by the NSW Government to help plan the State's future
- no mention of global warning

 

Everyone breathed a sigh of relief - we didn't have to do anything.  The religious among us were right: God, or the Gods, had it all in hand - it was all part of 'The Plan'. It was business as usual.

Yet today, the Club of Rome's foremost prediction: that unless we did something, by 2020 world population would reach eight billion has proven alarmingly prescient. And Paul Ehrlich's predictions are also vindicated.

In 2013 a Global Hunger Summit in London(2) was told that: 'Malnutrition is the underlying cause of death for at least 3.1 million children [per year], accounting for 45% of all deaths among children under the age of five and stunting growth among a further 165 million [children].'

Although they factored in 'pollution' as a general concern, the research team behind The Limits to Growth said, or knew, nothing about the specific threat of carbon dioxide. Was this an oversight?

With our new skills scientists now have ice-cores, containing entrapped air bubbles, that go back half a million years.  These show a close correlation between global temperature and the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  The highest level ever was around 300 thousand years ago, when it was much warmer and carbon dioxide reached 300 parts per million.

Because of man's multifarious activities, including agriculture, the atmosphere broke that half million year record in the 1950's and we have been in uncharted territory ever since. While correlation does not necessarily denote causation, and it's still not as warm as it was back then, I find it rather alarming. Read my paper: Climate Change - a Myth?

It seems highly probable that climate change is at least in part due to the current mouse-plague that we call humanity: clearing forests; digging up the ground; building things; making stuff soon to go to garbage tips; consuming resources without concern for the future and, of course, burning things.

How long can this go on?  I hope there will be a deus ex machina, that some, as yet unknown, aspect of quantum science, genetic engineering and/or nuclear energy will save us.  Failing that, I hope that current civilisation will outlast my grandchildren and perhaps theirs?  One glimmer of hope is the declining fertility in first-world countries as more women have careers beyond motherhood and living standards improve. Yet as I pointed out in 1990 this would consume far more energy than the third world has to hand. Is it now a case of too little too late?

I won't be around to know.

As the The Club of Rome pointed out, and should be obvious to 'Blind Freddy', the indefinite exponential growth, that our economies are addicted to, is unsustainable. 'Soon or later,' as Alice remarked about drinking from a bottle marked 'poison': 'it's bound to disagree with you'.

 

 


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