Imagining the Future in Bricks: The Designs of Lego Space (Part 2 – the 90s)

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Last time we left it with the transition into the 90s and the beginning of the controversial neon era of Lego space. This is where it gets difficult for me to analyse things at all objectively. Although I had inherited some early Classic Space from my uncle and had picked up the odd small Futuron and Space Police set, it was with the early 90s sets that I was the right age to really get obsessed in a big way. Everything about these sets is, for me, coloured by nostalgia and immense affection. For a lot of the Lego fan community, this is a ‘silver age’, a come-down after the heights of Classic Space, but nothing will ever supplant the holy trinity of M:Tron, Ice Planet and the second Blacktron theme in my affections. Even so, let’s try and look at them as analytically as we can. Continue reading

Imagining the Future in Bricks: The Designs of Lego Space (Part 1 – 70s and 80s)

Space Lego.

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Have there ever been two words that go together quite so evocatively and conjure such boundless possibility? From 1978 to 1999 Lego released an unbroken sequence of original space sets, more than twenty years’ worth of spaceships, bases, rovers and robots. I was lucky enough to grow up right in the middle of this, a geeky kid as fascinated by space and science fiction as I was by knights and castles. Needless to say, I had a lot of space Lego.

I’ve written elsewhere about my own experience of a childhood lived through Lego bricks, about how those little plastic pieces lent physical reality and material texture to my imagination, how they continue to encode memories of my early life. What I’m interested in here is the world of Lego Space itself, and how it drew from outside inspiration. These ship designs and imagined spaces that mean so much to me – loosely defined but vividly depicted – where did they come from?  What were the influences on the small group of predominantly Danish designers who created them? Continue reading

The Afterlife of Baʿal

(or, What This Ugaritian Storm-God Looks Like Now Will Astound You!)

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Ba’al on a stele from Ugarit, now in the Louvre

 

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Reconstruction of the Temple of Ba’al on the acropolis of Ugarit. From Callot 2011

 

Ever since excavations began at the Syrian city of Ugarit in 1929, the importance of the god Baʿal has been clear. Among the first Ugaritic texts discovered at the site were mythological tablets recounting the legends of this god; Baʿal’s temple was excavated in prime position on the city’s acropolis, close to that of his father Dagan. While the supreme god El occupied the pinnacle of the Ugaritian pantheon, as more and more ritual and religious documents have been recovered from Ugarit, it’s become unquestionable that the city’s people felt a particular fondness and affinity for Baʿal, the archetypal king who had his palace on Mount Saphon overlooking the city.

But Baʿal was not solely an Ugaritian god and knowledge of him was far from lost with the destruction of the city around 1176 BC. Through the distorting filters of hostile Judaeo-Christian writings and the medieval and later traditions of demonology and the occult which reinterpreted them, Baʿal has enjoyed quite an afterlife which has taken him from Canaanite king and storm-god to lurid demon in the court of Satan. In this incarnation he’s spread through popular culture. It’s a massive amount of cultural baggage to have built up even before those first Ugaritic texts were discovered. Continue reading

Decorating Eggs in the Ancient World

It’s Easter! Which means everyone’s developed a bizarre preoccupation with eggs. How we chortle as adverts everywhere wheel out the same old egg-puns as if they’re the first to think of them. Egg-straordinary! Never mind; it means we get some chocolate. I’m particularly partial to Mini Eggs myself.

As you probably know, for many it’s traditional to paint and decorate eggs at Easter. Like many Christian festivals, there’s a healthy vestige of earlier practices in Easter, as the Church sought to appropriate and sanitise pagan spring fertility celebrations. The name Easter itself most likely derives from the Germanic goddess Ēastre, which in turn seems to come from the Proto-Indo-European word for dawn, and so is cognate with classical goddesses such as Eos or Aurora. So it’s no surprise to learn that decorating eggs is a practice with roots much older than Christianity. In fact we have painted eggs from the ancient Near East which date as far back as the third millennium BC.

How do egg-shells manage to survive for nearly five thousand years in the archaeological record?

Two answers. One: lots of them were found in tombs. Two: they used ostrich eggs.

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Minoan ostrich egg rhyton. Late Bronze Age

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The Writing Systems of The Legend of Zelda

I wrote a little while ago about the storytelling of the Legend of Zelda games, flushed with excitement for the then-forthcoming latest instalment ‘Breath of the Wild’. Well, that came out five weeks ago now, and I’m still playing it. As anyone who’s glanced at a video games review site recently will know, it’s very, very good. At some point I’ll write something about the archaeology of Breath of the Wild, which I find fascinating, but for now I want to bring all this Zelda talk a bit closer to the day job and talk about writing systems.

As I mentioned in my previous post, the Zelda series has always placed game mechanics and fun over world-building and internal consistency. It’s largely eschewed the reams of invented lore that populate the bookshelves of other fantasy games, and it’s certainly not the kind of series that would bother itself with Tolkien-esque invention of fictional language. But, perhaps curiously, it has been very willing to experiment with inventing writing systems, and in true Zelda style there’s little consistency from one game to the next, which means it offers us some remarkable diversity. Continue reading

Under-Appreciated Monsters of the Ancient World #1 – The Sucker

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KTU 1.96. From Del Olmo Lete 2010

Everyone knows the Minotaur or the Cyclops, or the various strange creatures of ancient Egypt. In this occasional series I’m going to shine the spotlight on some of the other mythological nasties of antiquity, who are just as cool in their own ways but don’t get nearly enough love.

Today, The Sucker, or ‘Old Big-Eye’.

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What are the most Lovecraftian stories in Classic Doctor Who?

I’m going to level with you straight up – this post isn’t going to have a lot of archaeological or academic content (except inasmuch as Lovecraft’s stories themselves are intrinsically archaeological and scholarly in character), so if that’s what you come here for you might want to sit it out and wait for the next one.

drwho_tom_bakerThe original run of Doctor Who last more than quarter of a century from 1963 to 1989 and in that time the good Doctor fought everything from the well-known Daleks and Cybermen to the more eccentric – robots made of sweets, gigantic prawn-viruses, rubber-clad men with aerials on their heads, and so on. More than once he’s come up against ancient, unknowable evils ‘Eeeevil, evilsincethedawnoftime!’ as Sylvester McCoy’s seventh Doctor once put it (unfortunately the clip doesn’t seem to be up online anywhere), and especially in the 70s, he’s also seen his fair share of sinister cultists. These are, of course, staples of the works of H. P. Lovecraft, and you’d expect a fair bit of overlap between the kinds of people who read his stories and those who watch and write for Doctor Who.

Sure enough, once the series was cancelled and the Doctor’s ongoing adventures moved to a series of monthly original novels for the 1990s, some of the fans writing these books tried to forge explicit connections between the cults and formless evils of the old days and the handily out-of-copyright Lovecraftian Cthulhu mythos. There had been a universe before this one, a couple of stories said, and it had its own physical laws and its own equivalent of the Time Lords, the Doctor’s powerful race of time-travellers. When that universe ended, a few of them found ways to survive and emerge into our own, where they acquired previously undreamt-of powers. These became the Great Old Ones, and a number of the Doctor’s old foes were among their numbers. It’s a bit of a silly retcon, of course, an unnecessary link between two bodies of work almost diametrically opposed in their values, attitudes and approaches. But on the other hand, it is kind of fun, and part of Doctor Who’s raison d’etre is mashing itself up with things that don’t quite fit.

So with this in mind, let’s go for a whistle-stop tour through time and see just how Lovecraftian original-flavour Doctor Who could be.

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