Update

I am pleased to inform everyone that I have passed my viva. Pending minor corrections, you will very soon be able to call me Dr Hackner!

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Sports in the Ancient World

Originally published on Student Engagers on January 24, 2017.

I’ve written previously here about the antiquity of running, which was one of the original sports at the ancient Greek Olympics, along with javelin, archery, and jumping. These games started around 776 BC in the town of Olympia. What came before, though? What other evidence do we have of ancient sports?

Running is probably the most ancient sport; it requires no gear (no matter how much shoe companies make you think you need it) and the distances are easily set: to that tree and back, to that mountain and back. Research into the origins of human locomotion focus on changes to the foot, which needed to change from arboreal gripping to bipedal running and bearing the full weight of the body. A fossil foot of Ardipithecus ramidus, a hominin which lived 4.4 million years ago, features a stiffened midfoot and flexible toes capable of being extended to help push off at the end of a stance, but has the short big toe typical of great apes. Australopithecus sediba, which lived only 2 million years ago, had an arched foot like modern humans (at least not the flat-footed ones) but an ankle that turned inwards like apes. Clearly our feet didn’t evolve all the features of bipedal running at once, but rather at various intervals over the past 4-5 millennia. Evidence of ancient humans’ distance running is equally ancient, as I wrote about previously. Researchers Bramble & Lieberman have posed the question “Why would early Homo run long distances when walking is easier, safer and less costly?” They posit that endurance running was key to obtaining the fatty tissue from meat, marrow, and brain necessary to fuel our absurdly large brains – thus linking long-distance running with improved cognition. In a similar vein, research into the neuroscience of running has found that it boosts mood, clarifies thinking, and decreases stress.

Feats of athleticism in ancient times were frequently dedicated to gods. Long before the Greek games, the Egyptians were running races at the sed-festival dedicated to the fertility god Min. A limestone wall block at the Petrie depicts King Senusret (1971 BCE) racing with an oar and hepet-tool. The Olympic Games, too, were originally dedicated to the gods of Olympus, but it appears that as time went on, they became corrupted by emphasizing the individual heroic athletes and even allowed commoners to compete. There were four races in the original Olympics: the stade (192m), 2 stades, 7-24 stades, and 2-4 stades in full hoplite armor. It should be mentioned that serious long-distance running, like the modern marathon, was not a part of the ancient games. The story of Pheidippides running from the battlefield at Marathon to announce the Greek victory in Athens is most likely fictional, although the first modern marathon in 1896 traced that 25-mile route. The modern distance of just over 26 miles was set at the 1908 London Olympics, when the route was lengthened to go past Buckingham Palace.

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Limestone wall-block showing King Senusret I running the sed-festival race before the god Min. Courtesy Petrie Museum.

Wrestling might be equally ancient. It’s basically a form of play-fighting with rules (or without rules, depending on the type – compare judo to Greco-Roman to WWF), and play-fighting can be seen not only in human children but in a variety of mammal species. In Olympic wrestling, the goal was to get one’s opponent to the ground without biting or grabbing genitals, but breaking their fingers and dislocating bones were valid. Some archaeologists have tried to attribute Nubian bone shape – the basis of my thesis – on wrestling, for which they were famed. Another limestone relief in the Petrie shows two men wrestling in loincloths. Boxing is a similar fighting contest; original Olympic boxing required two men to fight until one was unconscious. Pankration brutally combined wrestling and boxing, but helpfully forbid eye-gouging. It may be possible to identify ancient boxers bioarchaeologically by examining patterns of nonlethal injuries. Some of these are depressions in the cranial vault (particularly towards the front and the left, presuming mostly right-handed opponents), facial fractures, nasal fractures, traumatic tooth loss, and fractures of the bones of the hand.

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Crude limestone group depicting two men wrestling. Courtesy Petrie Museum.

Spear or javelin throwing has also been attested in antiquity. Although we have evidence of predynastic flint points and dynastic iron spear tips, it’s unclear whether these were used for sport (how far one can throw) or for hunting. Actually, it’s unclear how the two became separate. Hunting was (and continues to be) a major sport – although not one with a clear winner as in racing or wrestling – and the only difference is that in javelin the target isn’t moving (or alive). In the past few years, research has been conducted into the antiquity of spear throwing. One study argues that Neanderthals had asymmetrical upper arm bones – the right was larger due to the muscular activity involved in repeatedly throwing a spear. Another study used electromyography of various activities to reject the spear-thrusting hypothesis, arguing that that the right arm was larger in the specific dimensions more associated with scraping hides. Spear throwing is attested bioarchaeologically in much later periods. A particular pathological pattern called “atlatl elbow”: use of a tool to increase spear velocity caused osteoarthritic degeneration of the elbow, but protected the shoulder.

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Fragment of a Roman-period copper alloy spearhead. Courtesy Petrie Museum.

A final Olympic sport is chariot racing and riding. Horses were probably only domesticated around 5500 years ago in Eurasia, so horse sports are really quite new compared to running and throwing! It’s likely that horses were originally captured and domesticated for meat at least 1000 years before humans realized they could use them for transportation. The Olympic races were 4.5 miles around the track (without saddles or stirrups, as these developments had not yet reached Greece), and the chariot races were 9 miles with either 2 or 4 horses. Bioarchaeologists have noted signs of horseback riding around the ancient world – signs include degenerative changes to the vertebrae and pelvis from bouncing as well as enlargement of the hip socket (acetabulum) and increased contact area between the femur and pelvis from when they rub together. In all cases, more males than females had these changes, indicating that it was more common for men to ride horses.

Of course, there are many more sports that existed in the ancient world – other fighting games including gladiatorial combat, ritualized warfare, and games with balls and sticks (including the Mayan basketball-esque game purportedly played with human skulls). Often games were dedicated to gods, or resulted in the death of the loser(s). However, many of these, explored bioarchaeologically, would result in similar musculoskeletal changes and injury patterns discussed above. Many games have probably been lost to history. Considering the vast span of human activity, it’s likely sports of some kind have always existed, from the earliest foot races to the modern Olympic spectacle.

ball

Limestone ball from a game. Courtesy Petrie Museum.

Sources

Bramble, D.M. and Lieberman, D.E. 2004. Endurance running and the evolution of Homo. Nature 432(7015), pp. 345–352.

Carroll, S.C. 1988. Wrestling in Ancient Nubia. Journal of sport history 15(2), pp. 121–137. Available at:

Larsen, C.S. 2015. Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behavior from the Human Skeleton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lieberman, D.E. 2012. Those feet in ancient times. Nature 483, pp. 550–551.

Martin, D.L. and Frayer, D.W. eds. 1997. Troubled Times: Violence and Warfare in the Past. illustrated. Psychology Press.

Perrottet, T. 2004. The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games. Random House Publishing Group.

 

 

December 2 Link Roundup

More on the Lucy-in-the-trees theory, this time from biomechanics: the cortical thickness and relative musculature of Lucy’s humeri are more chimp-like than human-like. This is a much more convincing argument than the one claiming A. afarensis were arboreal because Lucy’s bones indicate that she died falling from a tree, when taphonomic factors were not considered.

Elephants are being born without tusks as a result of poachers targeting those with larger tusks. Anyone looking for a really sad example of selection pressure?

The FDA has approved drug trials to test whether MDMA can be used to treat PTSD. Good work, MAPS! MDMA has shown promise in smaller trials that have helped individuals suffering from PTSD who did not see improvement through traditional treatment protocols.

Nicholas Kristof at NYT wrote a list of suggested charities to give to this holiday season.

Here’s a fascinating and mind-boggling descent into millionaire offshore accounts.

China’s missing girls are probably not missing due to demographic factors (abortion, infanticide) – the reasons are likely political.

November 25 Link Roundup

I wrote a post for the QMUL History of Emotions blog for #NormativityNovember on archaeological racism.

Bess Lovejoy explores the history of medical cannibalism in Europe. (Note that it’s cannibalism and not cannabis.) I’m interested in learning more about this, because as far as I know, the idea of bodily integrity and the soul in medieval/early modern Europe was such that the strongest argument against blood transfusions was that the recipient would inherit the soul of the donor, and autopsies/dissections were not acceptable as they were desecrating the body. Thoughts?

Today is Buy Nothing Day! Traditionally know as Black Friday, Buy Nothing day is a time to opt out of consumerism. Consider giving homemade gifts, items from local shops or artists, or (gasp) no gifts at all. Even better, why not send a donation to any number of charitable organizations? Turns out (as expected) they don’t need your leftovers or used toys, they just need money.

In fact, why not donate to the Standing Rock pipeline protesters?

 

Normativity November: Defining the Archaeological Normal

This post is part of QMUL’s Normativity November, a month exploring the concept of the normal in preparation for the exciting Being Human events ‘Emotions and Cancer’ on 22 November and ‘The Museum of the Normal’ on 24 November, and originally appeared on the QMUL History of Emotions Blog on 22 November 2016.

The history of archaeology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries can be read as the history of European men attempting to prove their perceived place in the world. At the time, western Europe had colonized much of the world, dividing up Africa, South America, and Oceania from which they could extract resources to further fund empires. Alongside this global spread was a sincere belief in the superiority of the rule of white men, which had grown from the Darwinian theory of evolution and the subsequent ideas of eugenics advanced by Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton: not only were white men the height of evolutionary and cultural progress, they were the epitome of thousands of years of cultural development which was superior to any other world culture. According to their belief, it was inevitable that Europeans should colonize the rest of the world. This was not only the normal way of life, but the only one that made sense.

In modern archaeology, we let the data speak for itself, trying not to impose our own ideas of normality and society onto ancient cultures. One hundred years ago, however, archaeology was used as a tool to prove European superiority and cultural manifest and without the benefit of radiocarbon dating (invented in the 1940s) to identify which culture developed at what time, Victorian and Edwardian archaeologists were free to stratify ancient cultures in a way that supported their framework that most European=most advanced. “European-ness” was defined through craniometry, or the measurement and appearance of skulls, and similar measurements of the limbs. Normality was defined as the average British measurement, and any deviation from this normal immediately identified that individual as part of a lesser race (a term which modern anthropologists find highly problematic, as so much of what was previously called “race” is culture).

In my research into sites in Egypt and Sudan, I’ve encountered two sites that typify this shoehorning of archaeology to fit a Victorian ideal of European superiority. The first is an ancient Egyptian site called Naqada, excavated by Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie in the 1890s. Petrie is considered the founder of modern, methodological archaeology because he invented typology – categorizing objects based on their similarity to each other. As an associate and friend of Galton and others in the eugenics circle, he applied the same principle to categorizing people (it’s likely that his excavations of human remains were requested by Galton to diversify his anthropometric collection). Naqada featured two main types of burials: one where the deceased were laid on their backs (supine) and one where the deceased were curled up on their side (flexed). Petrie called these “Egyptian” and “foreign” types, respectively. The grave goods (hand-made pottery, hairpins, fish-shaped slate palettes) found in the foreign tombs did not resemble any from his previous Egyptian excavations. The skeletons were so markedly different from the Egyptians – round, high skulls of the “Algerian” type, and tall and rugged – that he called them the “New Race”. Similarities, such as the burnt animal offerings found in the New Race tombs, present in Egyptian tombs as symbolic wall paintings, were obviously naïve imitations made by the immigrants. However, the progression of New Race pottery styles pointed to a lengthy stay in Egypt, which confused Petrie. Any protracted stay among the Egyptians must surely have led to trade: why then was there an absence of Egyptian trade goods? His conclusion was that the New Race were invading cannibals from a hot climate who had completely obliterated the local, peaceful Egyptian community between the Old and Middle Kingdoms.

Of course, with the advent of radiocarbon dating and a more discerning approach to cultural change, we now know that Petrie had it backwards. The New Race are actually a pre-Dynastic Egyptian culture (4800-3100 BC), who created permanent urban agricultural settlements after presumably thousands of years of being semi-nomadic alongside smaller agricultural centres. Petrie’s accusation of cannibalism is derived from remarks from Juvenal, a Roman poet writing centuries later. It also shows Petrie’s racism – of course these people from a “hot climate” erased the peaceful Egyptians, whose skulls bear more resemblance to Europeans. In actuality, Egyptian culture as we know it, with pyramids and chariots and mummification, developed from pre-Dynastic culture through very uninteresting centuries-long cultural change. Petrie’s own beliefs about the superiority of Europeans, typified by the Egyptians, allowed him to create a scientific-sounding argument that associated Africans with warlike-invasion halting cultural progression.

The second site in my research is Jebel Moya, located 250 km south of the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, excavated by Sir Henry Wellcome from 1911-1914. The site is a cemetery that appears to be of a nomadic group, dating to the Meroitic period (3rd century BC-4th century AD). The site lacks the pottery indicative of the predominant Meroitic culture, therefore the skulls were used to determine racial affiliation. Meroe was seen as part of the lineage of ancient Egypt – despite being Sudanese, the Meroitic people adopted pyramid-building and other cultural markers inspired by the now-defunct Egyptian civilization. Because many more female skeletons were discovered at this site than male, one early hypothesis was that Jebel Moya was a pagan and “predatory” group that absorbed women from southern Sudanese tribes either by marriage or slavery and that, as Petrie put it, it was “not a source from which anything sprang, whether culture or tribes or customs”. Yet, the skulls don’t show evidence of interbreeding, implying that they weren’t importing women, and later studies showed that many of the supposed female skeletons were actually those of young males. This is another instance of British anthropologists drawing conclusions about the ancient world using their framework of the British normal. If the Jebel Moyans weren’t associating themselves with the majority Egyptianized culture, they must be pagan (never mind that the Egyptians were pagan too!), polygamous, and lacking in any kind of transferrable culture; in addition, they must have come from the south – that is, Africa.

M0019726 Sir Henry Wellcome at the Jebel Moya excavations

Sir Henry Wellcome at the Jebel Moya excavations. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

These sites were prominent excavations at the time, and the skeletons went on to be used in a number of arguments about race and relatedness. We now know – as the Victorian researchers reluctantly admitted – that ruggedness of the limbs is due to activity, and that a better way to examine relatedness is by examining teeth rather than skulls. However, the idea of Europeans as superior, following millennia of culture that sprung from the Egyptians and continued by the Greeks and Romans, was read into every archaeological discovery, bolstering the argument that European superiority was normal. Despite our focus on the scientific method and attempting to keep our beliefs out of our research, I wonder what future archaeologists will find problematic about current archaeology.

November 11 Link Roundup

This week has been particularly abominable, so a short list.

Victorians were as impressed by kaleidoscopes as we are by Google Cardboard. although to be fair, I am often really, really impressed by kaleidoscopes, and don’t get me started on Love Specs

A former naturopath keeps a blog about how naturopathic medicine is bunk; her blog has won awards from skeptic sites.

Nautilus describes the first case of Capgras delusion.

October 7 Link Roundup

News: This Monday marked the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street, when Jewish locals, Irish dockworkers, communists, housewives, and schoolchildren stood up against British fascists and the police protecting them. Many of the anti-fascist protesters are now in their 90s and have incredible stories to tell. There will be a commemorative march in London this Sunday.

If last week’s creepy clown news had you frightened, don’t read this.

Psychology: What can doctors and psychiatrists do when individuals have positive experiences with psychosis?

Many people describe their experience of psychosis as enriching or even ecstatic. One of my patients is promised a seat at God’s side in heaven. Another cries quietly while she describes how Jesus’ love keeps away the demons that infest her world. One describes his ability to take the pain from others; another has the power to see the future. Sometimes psychotic ideas are engrossing — a patient spent the summer contemplating the nature of substance and sound, and found them ultimately to be indistinguishable.

Trials of hallucinogen-assisted (magic mushrooms and their chemical derivatives) therapy continue to produce positive results. For more information on campaigns to legalize this type of therapy, check out MAPS.

Psychologists wonder about the ethics of implanting false memories if it makes people happier.

Science: My best friend worked on this project, which discovered a molecule that decreases the time it takes for mice to solve mazes and could have implications for neurodegenerative diseases and brain trauma. (But if you use the phrase “brain hacking” I am going to smack you.)

Sex: Holly Dunsworth over at Sapiens asks when (in evolutionary history) sex became fun, pointing out the male-centered way of thinking:

So it’s the manual work, not the manhood’s, that’s topping off the pleasure in the female half of the species. I’ve never heard a paleontologist, most of whom are men, describe an ancient fossil finger as evidence for the dawn of pleasurable sex. Why do you suppose that is?

Self-driving cars: In this new game from MIT, you can now judge the morality of a variety of brake-failure situations!

Fun: The economics of dining as a couple. I’m a food communist, as long as you keep your hands off my 3/4 of the pizza. That’s how communism works, right?

Coming up:

I’m teaching a class (for the third year running!) on migration and health. If you see any articles about this in the news, please send them my way!

In just over a week I’ll be running the Amsterdam marathon! A group of Egyptologists is raising funds to support the Royal Marsden Cancer Charity; our friend Max has just had the good news that he’s sarcoma-free as a result of their clinical trial (just in time for his daughter’s birth). If you’d like to make a donation, it could help someone else.

Quote

Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children”

Who what am I? My answer: I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have been seen done, of everything done-to-me. I am everyone everything whose being-in-the-world affected was affected by mine. I am anything that happens after I’ve gone which would not have happened if I had not come. Nor am I particularly exceptional in this matter; each “I,” every one of the now-six-hundred-million-plus of us, contains a similar multitude. I repeat for the last time: to understand me, you’ll have to swallow a world.

An on the contrary, E.M Cioran:

“I am lured only by what precedes me,” he writes, by “the numberless moments when I was not: the non-born.” From that perspective, he looks at the world with new eyes, and gains a deeper understanding of himself: “I have never taken myself for a being. A noncitizen, a marginal type, a nothing who exists only by the excess, by the superabundance of his nothingness.”

December 28, 2011

Sudan: That time I accidentally didn’t see the pyramids, and that time I accidentally did

Saturday in Cairo. Ramya and I set out early (early like SEVEN AM, ha) for
the metro and headed towards Giza. Since Alex was staying home to
work, we decided to ride the women’s car. Apparently male children up
to puberty can also ride, as can male beggars, but overall it was
mostly female persons in the car. Since there isn’t a crosstown line
yet (as in Athens for the first 12 years of the Metro)  we had to
ride 20 minutes north and again 20 minutes south on the other line.
However, when we stepped off the train, we were super close to the
pyramids. The city literally goes to within a few kilometers of them.
After struggling to exit the station (as it contained no exit signs)
we found a taxi rank and one insistent driver persuaded us to get into
his cab. Unfortunately, the cab seemed to be parked in, and we waited
while the driver went to find the owner of the other car. Failing
this, he gathered a bunch of his taxi driver friends together and they
pushed the car partly out of the way. However, that cab was also
parked in, so our driver backed us onto the sidewalk, turned the car
around, and maneuvered out through the limited exit space. (I am
continually impressed with the ability of non-US drivers to negotiate
small spaces. We think that because we have big cars we need lots of
room, but this is a complete lie.)

Once out, we headed for the pyramids ( el-ahram in Arabic, but
popularly called the “byramids” due to Arabic’s lack of the p sound),
which were surprisingly another 20-minute highway drive away. Our
driver also didn’t know the name of the stables we were heading to
(the directions included “turn left at the KFC”) so we had to call
them multiple times and have them speak to the driver. Eventually we
made it and were offered tea while we waited for our horses. We had
decided to use this one, FB Stables, as they have a reputation for
being a little bit pricier but actually feeding their horses. We saw
some of the horses from other stables walking around with ribs and hip
bones sticking out, and it was one of the saddest things I’ve ever
seen. They had sores where the saddles rubbed and their coats lacked
luster, and their eyes were exhausted. I’m used to seeing fat,
muscular American horses, and this was pretty shocking. Our horses
were still not fat, but at least they weren’t skin and bones like the
others. (This stable also gives the horses regular malaria treatments
and medical check-ups). We decided to ride down to the Saqqara
pyramids, about three hours south, and then ride back to see the Giza
pyramids later in the day.

It took a while to get used to riding in the sand, but soon we were
galloping through the desert, clenching our bums to stay on. I’m
repeating common knowledge here, but horses are really intelligent
animals and I believe they have emotions and likes and dislikes. And
let me tell you – those horses LOVE running through the desert. It’s
like they were born for it. Our guide, Ashraf, told us that he
completed a 300-mile desert race to Hurghada, which sounds amazing.
Ramya’s horse got a little overexcited at one point and took off
without her agreeing, stopping just long enough to allow her to gently
roll off the side; Ashraf had to chase him down and corner him in a
little grove. Eventually we got to their rest station at Saqqara and
stopped for a little snack, which was delicious bread and white goat
cheese called jibneh. I could have sat and eaten all day, it was so
good. We got a driver to take us to the pyramids and wait there.

Saqqara is an older set of pyramids that the ones at Giza, built
around 3000 BCE. One of them, the step pyramid, is the oldest known
pyramid. It has a statued colonnade leading up to it and then a large
forecourt. The burial chamber was closed, but we could peer down the
large hole to its entrance. We walked up some steps to get a different
angle for photos and saw some camels. Uh-oh, I thought. It’s the
please-ride-my-camel guys. In every Arab country, I feel, there are
men who wait at tourist sites with their camels and try to trick you
into riding their camels and then paying for the privilege. It’s not
that I don’t like camels. I love camels. I think they’re adorable,
with their big eyes and long eyelashes and soft furry feet. I just
hate the extortion of being forced to interact with them by some dude
who won’t take no for an answer. (This happened in Jordan, and
eventually I gave in and rode the camel for 5 dinars.) The man in a
turban approached us. “Please,” he said, “take a picture with my
camel?” No, I replied. I don’t want to take a picture. “Please,” he
continued, “do not be afraid. She is a nice camel.” I don’t think so,
I replied. We wandered over to the edge, facing away from man and
camel, where we could take pictures of a giant triangular pile of mush
that used to be a pyramid. “This the Sahara,” he said. “very big
desert. This Sahara. Take a picture of Sahara with my camel?” We tried
to escape, we really did. But before we knew it he had handed my
camera to his friend and we were sitting on the camel trying to look
happy and oh, the camel was standing up and this man was going to
kidnap us on his camel. The camel sat down and he handed the cameras
back. “Very nice, very nice. Now something for me and my camel?” I
handed him 10 pounds (£1), all I had left. Ramya did the same. “And
something for my friend the cameraman?” What was this now? We had to
pay his friend too? I shook my head. No more money. He held out his
hand in the begging position: “Please, for my friend.” I opened my
wallet to show him, look, I don;t actually have anything else, and we walked away quickly.
More people approached us like this, offering their postcards or their
guiding services. Near the pyramids was a whole complex of noble tombs
with magnificent hieroglyphic inscriptions and drawings, but the whole
experience was marred by men coming up and pointing, “this hieroglyph
for life, this pharaoh as mummy, this pharaoh wife” and expecting to
be paid. We feigned ignorance and claimed not to speak English. The
experience was made slightly better/worse/more amusing when we saw a
pack of tourists being surrounded by a pack of wild dogs in
the parking lot.

Back at the stables, we realized that we could hardly walk and that it
pained us to get back on the horses. Our bums and legs ached with a
fury. We had figured it would take less time to get back since we were
now better riders (compared to that morning), but we were very wrong.
We did take a slightly different route though, because of one detail:
the horse body dump. As we were riding out – not half an hour past the
stables – there came a terrible smell. Suddenly there was garbage
everywhere. In Egypt there are apparently no landfills – trash is
dumped in the desert just outside the city and burned. (Or inside the
city, in the streets.) And our route took us through this dump. After
a minute there was an even worse smell coming from almost the middle
of the trail. It belonged to a large dead horse with its guts spilling
out. I thought it was very sad, perhaps it had just keeled over and
died and the owners couldn’t move it. But then I saw another, and
another. It was like a World War I film or something, all these dead
horses, some reduced to bones and fur and others freshly dead, guts
gone green and exploded everywhere from gas buildup and wild dogs.
It was horrific, carnage everywhere, and clearly our horses were
agitated. Ashraf explained (in Arabic, to Ramya) that the stables in
the valley across the road were not so kind to the horses and took
them out here to die (I’m not sure if he meant to starve or to be
killed), he said sadly. FB stables takes care of their horses into old
age and buries them in the desert, he explained. We asked if we could
go a different route back. So, on the way back, we went a different
way that skirted not only the body dump but also most of the burning
trash! Which really makes me wonder: in a country where so much of the
economy is based on tourism and tourism is currently so low, why show
tourists this? Why not show everything Egypt has to offer, a scenic
desert ride, full of ancient history and free from rotting carcasses?
It was like the poorly cut marble all over again: they have the
capacity to succeed, but not the will.

Anna recently told me a joke: a British man, a Chinese man, and an
Egyptian sign up for an experiment where they are each put into
separate small white rooms with no windows and no furniture and each
given two rubber balls. After three days, the scientists open the
doors to see what they’ve done. The Brit is bouncing his balls at the
wall, Great Escape-style, waiting to be released. The Chinese man is
juggling both balls while standing on his head, practicing some
complicated acrobatic maneuvers. The Egyptian, however, is just
sitting there looking bored (and probably smoking a Cleopatra
cigarette). “Why aren’t you doing anything?” the scientists ask.
“Where are the balls?”
The Egyptian looks at them and shrugs. “One is broken and the other’s
lost,” he says.

After all this, we arrived back at the stables too late to get into
Giza. So I saw it from 500 meters away, from the “party roof deck” of
the stables which was unfinished and had bits of rebar and splintery
wood everywhere. Pictures of me with distant pyramids and of said
party roof deck can be viewed on Facebook.

Now I’m in Sudan, which has its own pyramids. The kingdom of Meroe,
which arose in the 3rd  century BCE, built its own pyramids north of
what is now Khartoum. They look different from the Egyptian ones –
shorter but pointier, as if they’re been shrunk to different aspect
ratio. As we were driving the 8 hours from Khartoum to our little
village, we suddenly looked up and saw some pyramids. In the scheme of
things, we practically tripped over them, they were so close to the
road. Was definitely not expecting that, but I took some nice photos
out the car window. Yesterday we went to see a Kushite cemetery that
had the bases of some small pyramids, but the rest had been robbed
away. These were shoddily constructed, with reused blocks of
sandstone and inexact construction. But still – perhaps the universe
is trying to have me stumble onto a whole bunch of others since I
missed the big ones.

And if you’re interested, I don’t want to ride horses for quite a long
while, as Ramya and I could hardly walk for the next three days! She
had giant blisters where her bare feet rubbed the stirrups, and I had
bruises from each swollen instep up the calf from the stirrup straps.
We hobbled back like two old ladies, but managed to still go out for
dinner and see a display of Whirling Dervishes. More later.