Monthly Archives: February 2020

Visiting the local neighbourhood mummy

How lucky am I to have an Egyptian mummy just up the road (sort of)? Up near La Trobe University, in the old Mont Park Terraces at Springthorpe, is the Australian Institute of Archaeology.  They moved there in 1999 after their home at the splendidly named Ancient Times House in Little Bourke Street was converted into student accommodation. Originally established in 1954  as a way of displaying the history and background of the Bible, the Institute of Archaeology collection includes antiquities from Egypt, Eastern Mediterranean, Levant and Mesopotamia.

Last night we went to hear Marica Mucic, Assistant Conservator at Grimwade Conservation Services, speak about the conservation of a mummy from the Australian Institute of Archaeology collection. They had acquired it in 1964 from Sotheby’s auctions in London , and with funding from the Copland Foundation, they have conserved it so that it can continue to be available for their education program.


Not much is known about the mummified child. It (gender unknown) is thought to be about 4 years of age. According to advice from the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine, the remains show signs of ‘severe trauma’, especially around the head and upper chest, but it is not clear whether this damage occurred prior to death, or in the period between burial and mummification. The presence of soil suggests that the child had been buried at some stage.

Marica emphasized that in their conservation activities, they were continually mindful that this was a human body, of a child who had once lived, and who had been treasured by someone. It was not common to mummify children, and the face mask over the skull appeared to have been cut down from a larger size mask, even though the other ‘cartonnage’ (who knew there was such a word) covering the rest of the body was an appropriate size.


The mummy had been ‘touched up’ at some stage since its arrival in Australia. Black and white photographs from the 1970s show that the painting of figures on the front had been redone, changing horizontal lines to vertical ones, and a nose had been placed on the face mask where the original had been damaged. It amazed me that there was no record of who had performed these ‘restorations’ or when they were performed.

As part of conserving the mummy, they had had to stabilize the wrappings, and fill the insect holes. Because the ‘new’ nose was causing damage to the facemask because it was too heavy, they decided to replace it with a lighter weight one. It was gilded with 23 carat gold leaf, but it was consciously decided that it should remain distinguishable as new work.  The alterations to the paintings were left as they were, as they now constitute part of the history of the mummy.

There was a discussion over the choice of materials and approach in conservation, which can only draw on our best knowledge at the time. It was pointed out that some conservation materials are stable to 45 degrees, but 45 degree temperatures are no longer unknown (although the mummy itself is kept in cooler conditions). I wonder if it 60 years, this current work will be regarded the same way as the ‘touch-ups’ from earlier decades were – I would hope not.  At least now  there is documentation to attest to what was done, why, and by whom.

So, a fascinating talk and a glimpse of our local neighbourhood mummy.



‘The Human Tide: How Population Shaped the Modern World’ by Paul Morland


2019, 282 pages & notes

…demography is not an external factor, injected into a society from the outside and simply having a one-way impact; rather it emerges from society itself and is as much caused by its environment as it is shaped by it. Nonetheless causal links can be traced from demographic patterns in the way the world works and the way in which events unfold. And while the human tide does not determine the cause of history, it moulds it, and it seems clear in most cases that different demography would have led to a different outcome.  (p.236)

As is often the case when I have read a book that has influenced my thinking, it seems that all of a sudden there are examples and illustrations all around me. China’s population, which we were convinced was going to ‘swamp’ us, is suddenly in decline; the US reports the slowest population growth in a century; Tony Abbott warns of a Western extinction crisis; Dick Smith keeps publishing his overpopulation advertisements; and in my own little family I am absolutely revelling in the birth of four grandchildren in four years.

Paul Morland, Associate Research Fellow with the Dept of Politics at Birkbeck College UK, starts his book with England in the 1800s, as the industrial revolution is gathering steam (literally!). He argues that the rise in population and the industrial revolution were each reliant on and fed each other.  Both rose, then stabilized.  The rise in population resulted from a decrease in infant mortality and the increase in life expectancy, and the reduction in children that springs from education of girls.  Furthermore, this pattern has occurred and will continue to occur in societies across the world, albeit influenced by pro-natalist politicians, dictators, immigration and epidemics/natural disasters. This, in a nutshell, is his argument: that population growth eventually stabilizes, even in societies that threaten the West today with their demographic fecundity.  He likens it to a film that starts screening in a cinema at different sessions.  Even though you would see a different part of the film in each individual cinema, they all end the same way.

His book is divided into three parts. Part I is an introduction to Population and History. Population growth matters because it spurs economic growth, but it also makes it possible to wage war without fears of running out of replacement soldiers.  Part II focuses on Europe: first, the spread of the British Empire, second, the German and Russian Challenges particularly leading into WWI, third, the West since 1945 and finally, Russia and the Eastern Bloc since 1945.  Part III is titled ‘The Tide Goes Global: Beyond the Europeans’. Here he deals first with Japan, China and East Asia where the aging of the population can be seen again and again;  then the Middle East and North Africa, where populations are booming in the midst of  (and perhaps, in themselves, fomenting) instability; and a concluding section ‘Nothing New Under the Sun? Final frontiers and Future Vistas’. He identifies Sri Lanka as the ‘goldilocks country’ in terms of population – not too much, not too little  (I wonder if he factored the Tamil ‘outflow’ as part of this?)

He argues that the future will be ‘more grey, more green and less white’. It will be more grey, because the world’s median age will be 40 by 2100. An older world generally means a less-bellicose world (because societies with older populations tend to fight fewer wars), but it also means that there is a smaller cohort to provide the resources to care for an older population.  Green? He optimistically predicts that an increased population – because it will increase, before it stabilizes – will force technological change to meet ecological demands, in the same way that improved technological techniques have averted the Malthusian disaster that was predicted for so many years.  And finally, it will be less white as immigration, especially from the Middle East and Africa, will bring changes to formerly Anglosphere societies.

This is an amazingly broad book, sweeping right across with globe, with even Australia and New Zealand getting a look in. It combines statistics (which made my eyes glaze just a little) with human anecdotes (which brought me back to life again). I think, however, that he is too cavalier with his attitude towards the environment. There’s plenty about people, but he is almost silent about the planet on which they are living – and this is a bad oversight, and one that almost undercuts his whole argument.

That said, however, the book brings demography, which is often an unspoken force, into the spotlight. And once you’ve seen it, you see it everywhere.

My rating: 7.5 / 10    I am really troubled by his ignoring the environmental question

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library


Essay: The great acceleration


Thomas Parker Electric Car 1880s. Source: Wikimedia

Jeff Sparrow.  The great acceleration.  Overland Issue 236 Spring 2019

I had no idea that there was an electric car industry in the early 20th century – did you? And that of the 4200 vehicles produced in the US by 1900, fewer than 1000 relied on internal combustion. The majority used either steam or electricity.

This essay looks back to the early response to those great disruptors, the first automobiles, and the way that people-power was pushed aside by the powerful automobile companies, which managed to blame pedestrians for being hit by cars!

This is a really interesting essay.

‘The Mandibles: A Family 2029-2047’ by Lionel Shriver


2016,  402 P.

[Spoilers ahead]

My local library has taken to labelling their fiction book collection as ‘Romance’ ‘Australian’ or in this case, ‘Humour’.****  Anyone reading this book for a chuckle would be sadly disappointed. Sure, there are spikes of satire and parody, but this dystopian novel could only be called ‘humour’ by someone who shares its libertarian, anti-Government, gun-toting politics. And that sure ain’t me.

[****And don’t get me started on my library’s determination to turn itself into a bookshop by grouping books into ‘Travel and History’ and ‘Mind and Body’ and leaving you to work out the category. Sheesh.]

In 2029 the Mandibles ( get it? jaw bone, consumers etc.) are a wealthy family, waiting on the elderly patriarch to die and allow the fortune to trickle down to his son, Carter Mandible, former newspaper editor, and his expatriate author daughter Enola. Carter’s children, Avery and Florence, and grandchildren are waiting on the inheritance too. Avery and her economist husband Lowell live an affluent lifestyle with their three children Savannah and sons Goog and Bing (get it? names of search engines). Living a more abstemious lifestyle, Florence works in a homeless shelter as a community worker, with her husband/partner Esteban from Mexico and son Willing  (get it? I don’t know if I do. I tired of Shriver’s smartarsery with naming. He was the most competent one there, so perhaps Willing and Able?)

There had been rumbles of trouble brewing before 2029, when the book opens. In 2024 all internet-based infrastructure had failed, a crisis five years later known as the Stoneage or “Stonnage”. It was just a blip – although the government and power companies insisted that all payments to them be made by old-fashioned cheque – and by 2029 it was seen as a problem largely overcome. The real problem came in 2029 when a supranational currency known as the ‘bancor‘ (actually proposed by John Maynard Keynes in 1940) made the American dollar redundant in international trade. Mexican-born POTUS Alvarado defaulted on America’s debt. Deciding to go it alone, the American economy relied on the surrender of all gold reserves and the strict prohibition of the use of the bancor.  Almost overnight the Mandible fortune had been wiped out, along with the middle-class professions which American’s indebtedness had made possible.

Margaret Atwood has famously said in relation to The Handmaid’s Tale that she only wrote about things that had already occurred somewhere in the world at some time. Dystopian fiction – especially in the near future –  is at its best, I think, when it just extrapolates slightly from current events. In this regard, Shriver does pretty well. Our increasing acceptance of digital monetary transactions, the rise of China and Russia as world powers, the increasing Latin-Americanizing of the United States – all these things are happening now, and the book doesn’t demand a great deal of imagination to accept the scenario she is drawing.

But the scenario itself calls from her a great deal of explanation – too much explanation – much of which is carried through conversations at dinner parties and when the much-reviled economist Lowell and his smartypants son Goog and nephew Willing hold forth about the economy.

However, once the scenario has been established, the indignities and implications of economic collapse in our soon-present world mount up. What happens when the toilet paper runs out? How does a family deal with dementia when aged care is impossible?

Shriver squibs it a bit when she leaps from 2029 to 2047 in one jump. The establishment of a new, equally uncomfortable world order is glossed over, and here the politics of the book take over. It’s off to Nevada we go, with no Big Government looking into your bank account, with 10% taxation, with people taking responsibility for themselves.   It’s no Utopia, as the Nevadan keep telling themselves, but it’s freedom. And at this point, my Australian lefty-ness starts to arc up and I remember that I’m not particularly  enamoured of Lionel Shriver as a polemicist.

That said, I have found myself thinking about this book quite a bit since I finished it. When I first started it, I was also watching the excellent Years and Years on SBS On Demand, which I found a bit confusing as they both deal with near-future dystopias. Once I settled into Shriver’s book, and left behind the explanations and moved into the family dynamics, I was transfixed. I still don’t like where I ended up though.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 1-7 February 2020 Back to the Russian Revolution.Episode 10.25 Senseless Dreams picks up again with Csar Nicholas II who was crowned in May 1896. He seemed to gather ill-omens as he went: marrying a week after his father’s funeral, after which everyone went back into their mourning weeds; his wife sleeping in Marie Antoinette’s bed when they visited Paris, and then the Khodynka Tragedy, a stampede during the coronation festivities that left 1389 (!!) people dead. After his coronation, he proved himself to be conservative and easily swayed.  Not a good start. Episode 10.26 The Far East takes us to the other side of Russia, where the Trans-Siberian railway ends up at Vladivostok, entangling Russia in the tensions between the Japanese, Chinese and Koreans. Add to this, Nicholas’ almost innate racism and this isn’t going to end well either.

Backdoor Broadcasting Another Australian voice recorded at the Birkbeck Institute, this time that of Professor Victoria Haskins from the University of Newcastle on 2 November 2017. In “Stories My Great-Grandmother Didn’t Tell Me or Family History and the Memories of Nations” she talks about her discoveries of her great-grandmother’s activism  when she herself was at a rather low and disspirited point in her academic career. For her great-grandmother, this activism within conservative circles on behalf of aboriginal people was deeply personal because of  family connections, and it propelled Haskins into a new research direction. I must look for her book One Bright Spot.



Werombi bushfires. Creator: Helitak430 Wikimedia Commons

Rear Vision (ABC) 2 Feb 2020 The story of fire in the Australian landscape is excellent, and should be compulsory listening for those who are calling for a quick, national, urgent response to this summer’s terrible bushfires. Notable historians Tom Griffiths, Steven Pyne, Bill Gammage and David Bowman talk about the history of fire in Australia- and yes, we have always had fire – and the differentiated response that is needed, especially in times of climate change. “Local, ecological and historical” are the watchwords, and I hope that the Royal Commission takes this advice on board.

‘Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee’ by Casey Cep


2019, 274 pages & notes,

[Spoilers ahead]

To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favourite books. I used to teach it for Year 10 English, and every year as I re-read it in preparation for teaching it again, I enjoyed it more and more. Even now, just hearing the music in the opening shots of the film brings tears to my eyes.  I didn’t want to spoil my pleasure of Mockingbird by reading Go Set a Watchman, and I came to this book, with Harper Lee’s name prominently circled on the front, with a degree of trepidation. I needn’t have feared.  Harper Lee didn’t end up writing her book about Rev Willie Maxwell, but if she had, I think that it might have sounded somewhat like Casey Cep’s book.  Barak Obama named it as one of his best reads for 2019, so I was keen to finish it in case there were holds on it at the library. Strangely, I could have probably reborrowed it after all. Not to worry- I was so thoroughly engrossed that I happily just settled in for a good long read.

It’s almost three books in one. Part One ‘The Reverend’ tells the story of Reverend Willie Maxwell, a keen purchaser of insurance policies on the lives of people close to him who were later found dead. There was no evidence, forensic or otherwise, to link him to the deaths, but as the deaths continued to occur and the insurance payouts continued to accumulate, it certainly looked very suspicious. Then, someone close to his last victim took the law into his hand, and the brilliant defence lawyer who had ensured that Rev. Willie Maxwell kept being found innocent, was suddenly defending the man accused of killing his former client.

Part Two, ‘The Lawyer’, shifts its attention to this brilliant defence lawyer, aspiring Democrat politician Tom Radney, who found it difficult to be elected in Alabama. He turned to the law instead, and this is the story of the trial. It goes through the trial day by day, with the moves and counter-moves. In the crowded courtroom, so reminiscent of the courthouse where Tom Robinson was defended by Atticus Finch, there was a small, middle-aged female writer. It was Nelle Harper Lee.

Part Three ‘The Writer’ focuses on Harper Lee. I hadn’t realized to this point how autobiographical To Kill a Mockingbird had been, and although I knew of her friendship with Truman Capote, I didn’t realize that he was the real-life Dill Cunningham! This section traces Lee’s life, from childhood in Monroeville, through the success of To Kill a Mockingbird, her struggle to get another novel published, her journalism and assistance to Capote with In Cold Blood and her final days.  In aiming to write her never-published (and perhaps never-written) proposed novel The Reverend, based on Rev. Willie Maxwell’s courtcase, Lee was moving out of her comfort zone. The critique of racism in To Kill a Mockingbird would not apply in this courtcase where an African-American man killed an African-American preacher.

This book is beautifully written, just as evocative as Harper Lee’s work is. I don’t know if the author has tried to channel Lee’s style, or whether it’s a natural sympathy with it.  In a book with three themes like this, it would not be surprising if one section was more engaging than the other, but this is not at all the case.  It is a sensitive depiction of the craft of the writer, and an evocative description of 1970s Alabama.

It is excellent

My rating: 10/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 25-31 January 2020

rn_presentsMyths of War. This really is an excellent program, even though I’m rather disconcerted that Mark Dapin sounds quite old, even though he’s actually younger than I am! He also sounds more English than I thought he would, given that he emigrated here in 1989. In Episode 5: Was There Ever a Battle for Australia? he follows Dr Peter Stanley in challenging the idea of a Battle for Australia Day,  (a celebration which dates only from 2008)  and the idea that there was an actual Battle for Australia. Certainly, people were fearful during WW2, especially during 1942 (and I think that Kate Darian-Smith’s On the Home Front captured this beautifully), but he notes that there wasn’t actually one battle, but a series of Allied battles. He argues the Japanese Army didn’t actually land in Australia or have plans to do so (the Solomon Islands, Papua yes, but not Australia; air bombing of Darwin and subs in Sydney yes, but as a way of distracting attention and disrupting the Allies rather than actual invasion and occupation). Instead, the idea of a ‘Battle for Australia’ arose in the 1990s, with the 50 year anniversary in 1995, promoted largely by the children of WWII veterans. He speaks with Dr Karl James from the AWM, who suggests that the Keating-era emphasis on Kokoda risks sidelining the Rats of Tobruk and El Alamein, battles without the easy availability of tourism to keep them in the public consciousness. Episode 6 The Thai-Burma Railway and the Bridge on the River Kwai does not at all refute the suffering of POWs working on the Thai-Burma Railway.  But if you’ve visited ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ in your travels, it’s a tourist invention that isn’t even on the River Kwai.  And the ‘mateship’ on the Railway that John Howard lauded so fulsomely was not exclusive to Australian soldiers. In Episode 7 Gay Servicemen in Vietnam, he rejects Bruce Ruxton’s views about the impossibility of gay servicemen, focusing instead on gay soldiers who wanted to serve in Vietnam.  He continues this theme in the final episode 8 Vietnam: The War’s Forgotten Supporters, reminding us that the majority of Australia’s supported compulsory military service- it was the Vietnam part that was controversial.  Just as in WWI, with the white feather movement, we don’t want to ‘own’ those pro-war supporters any more. And just as in WWI, our ideas about Vietnam have been shaped largely by the film industry, especially American cinema.  This is a fantasic series- check it out.

History Extra and Start the Week. I’ve just finished reading The Human Tide by Paul Morland, so I searched out a few podcast interviews where he talks about his book. It’s a long book, and often a podcast interview encapsulates it.  The History Extra interview from May 2019 How Population has shaped world history is a good summary with him one-on-one. The Start the Week interview from February 2019 (BBC) has an interesting panel of guests: Paul Morland (who reprises much of the same information), Julia Blackland whose recent book Time Song – Searching for Doggerland is about the disappearance in approx. 5000 B.C. of a land bridge that connected the east coast of England with Europe, and Diarmaid Ferriter, whose book The Border: The Legacy of a Century of Anglo-Irish Politics has been very apposite, given the concern about the border with Ireland in Brexit times.