Podcasts from the University of Oxford

Over the past few days I’ve been listening to  a few new podcasts, and this series of eight lectures from Linacre College, Oxford, was one of the best I found, so here’s a quick round up – for the sake of brevity, I won’t write up each episode in detail, but I would recommend ghostfacelistening to every lecture. Each one is good as a single topic, but there are themes and threads which bind the whole together, all of which should be of relevance or interest to readers here. To locate these on the linked page, you need to scroll about 90% down – it’s also easy to subscribe to the podcast via iTunes U.

This Anthropology: Societies in Transition series, comprising 8 podcasts, each lasting on average between 50 and 60 minutes, discusses specific points or eras from prehistory to the present, as well as looking towards the future, in which each lecturer examines past societies undergoing transitory phases. Although it could be argued that all societies are in a constant state of flux, with technological or cultural stasis being almost impossible to achieve, it is clear that some transitory eras are much more influential than others, whether that society is in a phase of expansion or contraction. Beginning with the Neanderthals at the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic boundary, and ending with a look at how the future is nearly always portrayed from a utopian or catastrophic perspective, this series of lectures both describes the processes and causes of social transition, as well as offering some very surprising and occasional alternative insights that dispute c0mmonly held conceptions of the past.

I’ve listed the lectures in order of chronology, whereby the most distant era in prehistory is discussed first, leading us on through the times of our archaic ancestors, the Classical world including that of the Roman Empire, on into the Industrial Revolution and ending with a glance towards our uncertain future, heading this way at an accelerated clip.

The first lecture given by Professor Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum, is called ‘The Neanderthal-Modern Human Transition’, and provides the listener with a very rounded discussion on the origins of Neanderthals and the history of their initial discovery. He further relates how modern research techniques have greatly enhanced the capabilities of anthropologists and other researchers to examine this lost species in greater detail than would have been considered possible 30 or 40 years ago. The discussion on the possible causes of their extinction addresses just about every idea that’s currently on the table, and emphasises the point that there was no single killer-cause that expedited Neanderthal extinction, indicating that it was a combination of different factors that were in play for tens of thousands of years. I particularly liked the tiny section describing the additional fossil fragments in the Neander Valley, where the original find was made in the 19th century. Workers had been tossing anything they found in caves prior to quarrying activities, and the original Neanderthal bones were spotted after they had been thrown to the ground from above – two archaeologists returned there in recent times, worked out where the previously found bones would have been deposited, and found a couple of missing fragments for their troubles.

Lecture 2, Farming in Island Southeast Asia by Professor Graeme Barker, Disney Professor of Archaeology, Cambridge University in which he “talks about the transition from hunter-gatherer societies to farming societies in the Stone Age in South East Asian Islands. He discusses the various reasons why this transition took place and the advantages it brought to people”.

The third lecture, from Professor David Killick, Department of Anthropology, University of Arizona,  is Early Metallurgy Around the World, for which this is the description: “Professor David Killick talks about the invention of metallurgy and the transition from the Stone Age to the Bronze Age and what the social roles of emerging metallurgy were and adoption of metallurgy had the same meaning in societies throughout the world”

Next to take the stage was Professor Stuart Manning, Goldwin-Smith Professor of Classical Archaeology, Cornell University, whose lecture “Volcanogenic Origins of the Classical World” discusses “the origins of the classical world: from the growth of Minoan Crete during the Bronze Age, 2000 BCE, where a possible volcanic eruption on Santorini led to the destruction of Minoan Crete and a catalyst to the creation of the Classical world.”

The next two travel to Britain, in the times immediately prior to and after the Roman occupation which began in 43 AD, and which I found to be the most interesting. I don’t normally give the Roman empire much consideration in the course of my various blogging activities, but the two lectures listed below were not only fascinating to behold, but served to highlight how quite complex societies can evolve over hundreds or thousands of years, yet still be vulnerable to irreversible collapse over very short periods of time.

In “Becoming Roman in Britain” Professor Chris Gosden, Professor of European Archaeology, Oxford University gives an excellent talk on the nature and structure of societies in the Bronze Age and Iron Age, the latter of which was in evidence at the time of the successful Roman invasion of 43 AD. Here’s the description: Britain under Roman rule and the incorporation of Britain into the Roman world. Gosden also talks about the significance of our environment, the outside, material world, and how it influences historical events in ancient history. Interesting to note that the Bronze Age people concentrated more on quantity and standardisation of manufactured goods, whereas Iron Age fabrications were fewer and more idiosyncratic.

The most puzzling lecture, “The End Of Roman Civilisation” from Dr Bryan Ward-Perkins, Trinity College, University of Oxford, documents the sudden and complete collapse of a sophisticated market economy that had been thriving for centuries until about the middle of the fifth century AD, when Roman influence in Britain came to an abrupt end. Not only did turned pottery cease to be made, but use of coinage effectively stopped, whilst even stone buildings fell into complete disrepair. The vacant stone buildings were not utilised by the native British, and in some cases, pulled down and replaced with wooden constructions. He goes so far as to suggest that in these centuries, Britain returned to an almost prehistoric state which had been in evidence many centuries before the Roman incursion – and it wasn’t until around 700 AD that coin use became commonplace once more. However, long after the Romans had departed, he suggests that there was still some pride associated with Rome, as there are more monumental inscriptions in Latin from this era than for the occupation itself, especially in Wales – which I found quite surprising.

Definitely my favourite episode, not because I have a morbid fascination  with collapse and decline, but the image of post-Roman Britain lying in stately ruins is compelling. Moreover, the dramatic changes in Britain were much more defined than other parts of the Roman empire which experienced a slower and more gradual decline, and it’s something of a mystery as to what caused the catastrophe in Britain, as well as what was going on in the unrecorded Britain of the the 5th and 6th centuries. Dr. Ward-Perkins surmises that Britain didn’t recover economically till the 10th or 11th centuries AD, but he suggests that there was at least some cultural continuity, because the ancient Brits withstood the invading Anglo Saxons longer than anyone else in the lands formerly under Roman rule.

Also included are references to the Portable Antiquities Scheme, an excellent resource whereby people  – especially metal detectorists – can report their finds to a local PAS representative, who logs the information, thereby giving a much clearer idea of previously poorly understood sites and phases of the past.

Industrial Transformation with Professor Marylyn Palmer, Professor of Industrial Archaeology, School of Archaeology and Ancient History, University of Leicester, postulates there was an earlier industrial revolution which is suggested to have taken place before the 19th century phase with which we are more familiar. She also examines the idea that the transition from foraging to agriculture was equal in stature to that of the mechanised Industrial Revolution.

The final lecture, Technology and Transition in the 21st Century given by Professor Steve Rayner, James Martin Professor of Science and Civilisation, Said Business School, in which he discusses how “society in the 21st century the impacts of science and technology, particularly cyber-technology and the Internet. He also asks how the new technology will change society and what it means to be a person. As mentioned earlier, he notes how the future is addressed from the philosophical perspective that all is not well with our current world, and that the future will either be a great improvement or significant downturn for both the planet and our descendants.

Societies In Transition – Linacre College, Oxford

image from Computer Science for Fun