Sunday, 24 June 2012

Dorset - How the English invented Dinosaurs

It was only when I first visited Dorset that I heard of the county's 'Jurassic Coast', one of the UK's 28 UNESCO World Heritage sites.  It starts in Devon, actually, not far from Exmouth and continues all the way to Swanage in East Dorset.  It includes geological wonders such as the Isle of Portland, which is a tied island, ie. only linked to the mainland by a spit of gravel, known as a tombolo.  Portland is famous for its limestone and Portland stone has been used in important buildings like St Paul's Cathedral, Buckingham Palace and the UN world headquarters in New York.

Remarkable Creatures

The Jurassic coast became the haunt of geologists and palaeontologists, in the 19th century, when scientists became interested in fossils of 'remarkable creatures' that were abundant along this coast, notably in the area around Lyme Regis.  I've just finished reading a wonderful book called Remarkable Creatures by the London-based US writer, Tracy Chevalier (she also wrote Girl with a Pearl Earring, which I really loved, about the life of Vermeer).  

Mary Anning and the fossils of Lyme Regis

Dinosaurs at Musee des Science Naturelles
Remarkable Creatures brings to life the story of Mary Anning, Lyme Regis' most famous fossil collector and her close friend Elizabeth Philpot.   Anning came from a very lowly background and started off fossil-collecting as a child, earning money to keep her family out of the poorhouse.  She had an incredible talent for spotting and preparing fossil specimens and, as she gained more experience, she herself became a leading expert on the fossils she was collecting and selling - her advice was sought after by prominent geologists such as William Buckland and the Reverend William D Coneybeare. 

Of course, in the 19th century, the doors of Scientific institutions were completely closed to women, even more so to working-class women with no education and, towards the end of her life, Mary Anning felt aggrieved by the lack of recognition she'd received in a male-dominated world.  In her novel, Chevalier very cleverly explores the tensions between Anning and Philpot who, despite coming from different social classes, had an incredible friendship and united against the adversity they both faced, as women working in a new scientific field. 

The Englishmen who invented the Dinosaur

The work of Mary Annings and other scientists paved the way for the work of early palaeontologists such as Richard Owen and Gideon Algernon Mantell.  I mention Owen and Mantell in particular, as they had a rivalry which was every bit as fractious and intense, as the friendship between Annings and Philpot.  When I say the English 'invented' Dinosaurs, what I mean is that Owen and Mantell were amongst the first scientists who tried to conceptualise dinosaurs.  Considering how little material they had available to them at the time, the work of the first palaeontologists was both revolutionary and visionary.

Owen v Mantell

Richard Owen coined the word Dinosaur
Richard Owen first coined the word dinosaur from the Greek for terrible lizard in a publication in 1842.  The -saur part had already been used for the first specimen found by Mary Anning, the Icthyosaur or fish lizard.  Owen's conceptualisation of dinosaurs was of large, slow-moving, elephantine creatures that walked on four column-like legs.  This conceptualisation was popularised by his dinosaur models at the Great Exhibition in Crystal Palace in the 1850's.  Largely ignored by his contemporaries, Mantell's conceptualisation of large, fast-moving, two-legged creatures, turned out to be a more accurate conceptualisation, backed up by further fossil finds in later years.

Nowadays, thanks to a myriad of books and movies, an image of dinosaurs is well-and-truly imprinted on our minds.  It's hard for us to imagine the difficulty of trying to conceptualise what a dinosaur looked like, but it's worth bearing in mind that early palaeontologists were working with often incomplete fossils, pressed into rocks, with no obvious indication of what these creatures might look like, if they were stood upright.

The influence of Australia?

Something that really interested me, as I was researching all of this, was how the conceptualisation of dinosaurs co-incided with the colonisation of Australia and the 'discovery' of lots of new creatures, like the kangaroo which had never been seen by Europeans before.  Early examples of dinosaur skeletons were often juxtaposed with skeletons of Australian animals, like the wallaby and cassowary and I can't help wondering whether or not the physiognomy of these Australian animals influenced palaeontologists like Mantell, as they tried to conceptualise the stature of dinosaurs?

In his book, A Very Short Introduction to Dinosaurs (part of the OUP series), David Norman outlines the importance of paleobiology as a branch of palaeontology that can clearly inform, not only the stature of dinosaurs, but also their eating habits, sex and movement patterns. 

Dinosaurs and Darwin

It's also hard to imagine the societal attitude towards palaeontology at that time.  For many people in the 19th century, the idea that creatures existed before Noah's Ark was inconceivable.  Not only did the study of dinosaurs challenge the widely held belief in Bishop Ussher's biblical theory about the age of the Earth (ie. that the Earth was created on the 23rd of October 4004 BC!), but the idea that God would create life and then let it become extinct was considered sacrilegious.  The dinosaur debate fed into and supported Darwin's theory on Evolutionary gradualism, an even greater discussion that was to revolutionise 19th-century thought. 

Why are we so fascinated by dinosaurs?

Some dinosaurs were quite small!
Accepting the idea that God might let the dinosaurs become extinct, opened up the possibility that some day God might let humans become extinct.  A lot of the 19th-century anxiety around the study of dinosaurs was tied up in greater concerns about the fate of the human species.  Perhaps this goes some way to explaining the eternal fascination we have with dinosaurs.  Very few branches of science have captured the imagination more than the study of dinosaurs - what they were, what they looked like and what happened to make them 'suddenly' die out. 

It's also interesting to note how fascinated children are by dinosaurs.  As part of my research, I visited the famous Bernissart Iguanadons in the Musee des Sciences Naturelles in Brussels and I realised I'd never seen a reconstructed dinosaur before.  It's a fantastic place to bring children and their awe of dinosaurs reminded me that, even today, the conceptualisation of living dinosaurs requires a lot of imagination. 

Did dinosaurs have wings?
Dinosaurs and Dragons

I also think that there is something deep in the human psyche that 'remembers' a time when dinosaurs roamed the Earth.  Of course, we know that this is impossible, dinosaurs became extinct long before the human species had evolved.  But how do we explain the stories of dragons and mythical beasts in many world cultures?  Isn't there something in our 'ancestral memory' that haunts our dreams and children's fairy tales?  It's quite apt that the English invented dinosaurs, a symbol of St George conquering his dragon!

Dinosaurs today

Something that I didn't know, before I started researching this topic, is that birds are believed to have evolved from dinosaurs!  Studies of bone structures show amazing similarities between dinosaurs and birds and it's quite possible that when the continents moved and the Earth flooded, dinosaurs simply became smaller and took to the skies to survive.  I don't think I'll ever look at birds in quite the same way again!

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Monday, 18 June 2012

Dorset - England and the Celtic Dawn

It's 6,333 miles (more than 10,000 kilometres) from Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, to Dorchester, the county town of Dorset, the next place that I have decided to blog about.

Blogging about Dorset and England will be a bit unusual for me, as England is where I currently live and most of the places I've blogged about are in countries I've not yet had the chance to visit.  With a population of just over 700,000, it's also one of the smaller places I've blogged about, slightly bigger than Luxembourg and smaller than Rhode Island. 

Dorset was the home of Thomas Hardy, one of my favourite writers, when I was younger.  I'm looking forward to learning more about Hardy during the next few weeks.  I'm also interested in Dorset's role in the development of modern Trade Unionism, with the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs.  I also want to learn about the fossil collectors of Dorset's Jurassic coast and the development of palaeontology. 

Ramparts at Maiden Castle, Iron Age fort in Dorset
I've been to Dorset twice - once to Portland and Weymouth and once, on one of my 'Chester' trips (see my partner walking blog), to Dorchester.  During my trip to Dorchester, I was really impressed by Maiden Hill, a famous Iron Age fort, just 15 minutes walk from the town centre.  On most of my 'Chester' trips I've seen Roman ruins and discovered a lot about Roman Britain, but Maiden Hill got me thinking about 'Celtic Britain' and the people who lived here before the Romans, Vikings, Angles, Saxons and Normans arrived. 

It's quite common to see a 'retrospective' or exhibition about 'Roman Britain' or 'The Vikings in Britain' or 'The Normans in Britain', but I can't remember ever seeing any major exhibitions about Celtic Britain and it makes me wonder what it is about Celtic culture that Britons find hard to embrace. 

When we think of Celtic culture and Britain these days, we mostly think of Scottish music, the Welsh language or Cornish ghost stories.  But I'm curious to find out what happened to Celtic culture in other parts of the island of Britain - whether it's the Durotriges of Dorset and Somerset, or the more famous Iceni of East Anglia, or the Brigantes of Northern England.  Like most people, I know very little about the people who lived in Britain (south of Hadrian's wall) before it was conquered by the Romans. 

Information board at Maiden Castle, Dorset
The use of the term 'British' is a controversial one and there is an ongoing debate as to what it means to be British.  I guess in the strictest sense, British describes anyone born on the island of Britain.  In a much narrower way, British could describe the descendants of those pre-Roman tribes, if that is at all meaningful in the 21st century.  It's interesting to compare the use of 'English' and 'British'.  The concept of 'English' feels much more tangible and defines England as a Germannic (not a Latin or Celtic) nation.  But that might also explain why the word 'British' somehow feels more inclusive and less dependent on the values of white, Anglo-Saxon culture?

The term 'Celtic' is equally problematic.  What we think of as Celtic in the 21st-century is very heavily influenced by a 19th-century resurgence of interest in pre-Roman Britain that romanticised the freedom and creativity of the Celts.  Nowadays, Celtic is synonymous with Scottish, Irish, Welsh and Cornish, but I doubt that many English people would acknowledge much of their Celtic heritage.  Although the word 'British', in its strictest sense, could also mean 'Celtic', I don't think many people see it this way and, certainly where I grew up, on the border with Northern Ireland, British and Celtic are seen as polar opposites. 

So is there any Celtic blood running through English veins?  I find it hard to believe that the subsequent cultures that influenced Britain (Romans, Saxons etc) completely replaced the cultures that already existed on this island.  To me cultures can be piled one layer on top of the other and, through centuries of time, I wonder if we still can't find whispers of Celtic Britain in the misty dawns over Hampshire fields or the anarchic eccentricities of English people?

When we think of Celtic music, we think of fiddles and harps and a ceilidh, but I wonder if there isn't a hint of Celtic sensibility in the music of Kate Bush or PJ Harvey.  I hear it when I listen to Florence and the Machine.  Not just the music and lyrics, but also the wild, red-haired, pagan image of Florence, who looks like she has stepped out of a pre-Raphaelite painting, seems to herald a Celtic revival in England.  Perhaps the cultures that exist on this island aren't that different after all?

I'm going to leave you with a Youtube video that shows one of my favourite Florence and the Machine songs, Shake it out - I've chosen a version with lyrics, so you can decide for yourself!

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Sunday, 3 June 2012

Cambodia - The Final Word

A summary of the themes

It’s time to say goodbye to Cambodia.  It’s been a great learning experience and I hope I get to visit Cambodia again sometime in the future. During the past couple of months, I’ve learned about Norodom Sihamoni, Cambodia’s Czech-speaking King and an unusual role-model for the country, as it moves through the 21st century.  I learnt about Chaul Chnam Thmey, the Cambodian New Year, which took place in April.  I learned about the Cambodian script and its influence on other writing systems in South East Asia.  I learned about the Cham people of Cambodia and Vietnam and I learned how to make Somla Machou, or Sour Fish soup, one of Cambodia’s national dishes.

Tools for research

I read three books as part of my research into Cambodia. 

Research for this blog
Writing and Script: A Very Short Introduction by Andrew Robinson

First they killed my Father by Loung Ung

River of Time by Jon Swain

I used the Insight Guide to Cambodia and Laos for some of my background research

I watched two films about Cambodia:

The Killing Fields

Voices of the Killing Fields (a documentary about the work of the Cambodian reporter Thet Sambath.

To provide some background for my research and studies, I’ve been listening to lots of Cambodian music.  I’ve become a bit obsessed by Dengue Fever, the US group who sing in Cambodian and English.  I’ve also been listening to traditional Cambodian music, which is an acquired taste, but I find it really beautiful and, strangely, some of the songs remind me a bit on Bob Dylan!  I’m sharing a video from YouTube below which shows Dengue Fever's track Seeing Hands.

Other themes

And of course, there were plenty of other themes I would like to have explored, if I’d had more time to do so.  Some of these were:

The French in Asia
Ieng Sary, Brother Number Two
Children and war
Mt Meru, the holy mountain of Hinduism
War photography
The Irrawaddy dolphins
Casinos in Cambodia
Cambodian classical ballet
The Reamker – Cambodia’s version of the Ramayana
Artists who disappeared under the Khmer Rouge, eg. Ros Sereysothea and Sinn Sisamouth

Dinner Party trivia

And for those of you who are regular readers – here are some lesser-known facts about Cambodia that you can use to impress people at your next dinner party!

Tourist taking photo of Angkor Wat
Cambodia became independent in 1953.
There has been a long-running dispute between Cambodia and Thailand in relation to a temple complex, Preah Vihear, which sits directly on the border of the two countries.
‘New people’ was the term the Khmer Rouge used to describe Cambodians from the towns and cities, ie. Those who weren’t from a peasant background.  The famous Khmer Rouge slogan about the New People was ‘To keep you is no benefit.  To destroy you is no loss.’
The leaders of the Khmer Rouge were very well-educated, eg. Pol Pot studied in Paris. 

The US, Britain and Thailand continued to fund the Khmer Rouge, even after the Vietnamese had ousted them from power. 
Cambodia’s main ecological threats are from logging and shrimp farming.

The Sap river, which fills central Cambodia to form the lake Tonle Sap, reverses its flow every half-year, a very unusual phenomenon.
Cambodians count in blocks of 5.
The main entrance to Angkor Wat faces west, towards the setting sun, rather than east, which has led to speculation that the temple was somehow associated with death. 
The French use an expression called Le Mal Jaune (the yellow sickness) to describe nostalgia. 

Kaj Bjork, Sweden’s ambassador to the Beijing, was the only foreigner allowed to visit Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.

The Final Word

Of course, the ‘Elephant in the Room’ when it comes to Cambodia, is the period between 1975 and 1979, when Cambodia was controlled by the Khmer Rouge.  The Khmer Rouge regime was brutal in its attempts to turn Cambodia into an Agrarian Socialist state and it’s distressing to read the stories of those who lived through that time.  As a ‘national trauma’, the Khmer Rouge regime has left scars that are barely healed today.  Loung Ung’s story, as told in her book, ‘First they killed my Father’ is the second first-hand account I’ve read about life under the Khmer Rouge.  Loung Ung was a young girl when, in April 1975, the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh.  Shortly after the arrival of the Khmer Rouge, the entire city was evacuated and sent to work in the countryside.  Ung’s father had been an official in the old regime and they were particularly vulnerable, living in fear of discovery.  What really touched me about the book was the sense of anger Ung had as a young girl.  That a child would have to suffer so much and become so angry is saddening, in her own words, ‘My hate empowers and scares me, for with hate in my heart, I have no room for sadness’. 

Like many other Cambodians, Ung managed to escape Cambodia, first to Vietnam, then Thailand and the United States.  I was unaware of the suffering that many refugees experienced at the hands of (mostly Thai) pirates, as they crossed the Gulf of Thailand in small boats from Vietnam. 

Sunlight catches dancing Apsara at Angkor Wat
Jon Swain’s book, The River of Time, was also really interesting – although from a completely different perspective, ie. Through the eyes of a Western journalist living in Cambodia and Vietnam.  By all accounts, Swain was the last foreigner to be granted a visa under the Lol Non regime (ie before the Khmer Rouge gained power).  He was also one of the first Westerners to return to Cambodia, after the Vietnamese invaded in 1979.  He took great personal risks to report what was going on, both in Cambodia and Vietnam and his passion for ‘French Indochina’ is infectious.

I watched The Killing Fields again, which is a great movie and I also came across a fascinating documentary called, Voices of the Killing Fields – by the Cambodian journalist, Thet Sambaht.  Sambath lost most of his family under the Khmer Rouge regime and spent ten years as an adult, making contact with surviving Khmer Rouge members, most notably with Nuon Chea (Brother number 2), but also with minor Khmer Rouge officials who he records, quite shockingly, talking about the people they killed ‘under orders’ from above.  There has been a real desire from the survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime, to get some kind of justice for those who were murdered by the regime.  Sambaht’s documentary is an attempt to establish the power structures involved and prove that the order to kill came from the top of the Khmer Rouge leadership. 

The Khmer Rouge officials he interviewed seemed distressed and regretful of their role in the killings.  It also seems as though there was a lot of ‘peer pressure’ to kill and that, somehow, once a person had broken the taboo of taking another human being’s life, the only way they could feel better about it was by forcing others to do the same. 

I just can’t imagine what it would be like to be in a situation like that.  Cambodia is slowly recovering from the intense revolution of those four years, but it could take another generation before the violence of that period is finally put to rest.  Here’s hoping the future for this small nation is much happier than it’s more recent past. 

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All photos on this blog post were taken by me.  Please feel free to reuse them under the Creative Commons License:

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