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Sound and Light at the Peabody where East meets West

February 5th, 2016 No comments

20160205_155639Excited to be in Salem for a remarkably innovative weekend put together by Sona Datta and her colleagues at the Peabody Essex Museum.

As some readers may remember, I made a series for the BBC with Sona last year – Treasures Of The Indus – for which we travelled to Pakistan and India.

Now Sona is not only having a screening of the films for an American audience, but has tied it into a new exhibition by the talented Anila Quayyum Agha, who has created an installation that conjures up the spirit of Spain’s Alhambra Palace, where a thousand years ago Islamic and Christian traditions thrived in coexistence.

A square black cube of steel weighing some 600 lbs has been laser cut by Anila into filigree work like that of a jali screen, so that the light from a single bulb inside creates a shimmering effect around the yellow room.  (I did ask her how she was ever going to change the bulb…)

And Sona is also putting on a Night at the Museum party, hosted by my old friend Bee Taylor and his House Of Honey collective, when more light projections will be played around the atrium of the building itself.

The fact that outside it’s blowing a Boston snowstorm won’t stop some determined partying.

Unravelling the quipu

January 3rd, 2016 No comments

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Of all the ancient civilisations, we know least about Peru because, as an illiterate society, they had no writing. They did, however, leave quipus, elaborate knotted cords mentioned by the Spanish chroniclers, which have still not been fully deciphered.  These remain one of the most tantalising challenges in archaeology.

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There are around 600 known quipus around the world, either in museums or private collections.  Some of these quipus follow a straightforward numerical pattern, as if itemising goods.  Others are more random and difficult to interpret.  And even with the numerical quipu, we have no way of knowing what the numbers refer to, as for the vast majority there is no provenance – the quipus have arrived in collections from dealers, from the booty of conquistadors, from looted tombs, or by accident.

Until now.  The team led by Harvard’s Gary Urton has been looking at some quipu discovered recently near the goods they may have itemised – a potential breakthrough, if not, as he is careful to say, a Rosetta Stone.  The quipus – or khipus  – were buried under the remnants of centuries-old produce, which was preserved thanks to the extremely dry desert conditions.

We long for the pre-Columbian civilisations to be able to speak to us direct from beyond the grave:  is there some Homeric tale, some Peruvian Gilgamesh, of which we know nothing? Yet there is a danger that our overwhelming desire for the quipu to be proved a form of language could force us into unnatural contortions to prove that what may still just be an accounting device is actually much more.

see Cochineal Red for a more detailed discussion of quipus and other aspects of pre-Columbian civilisation (published as A Sacred Landscape in USA)

Egypt ‘90% sure’ there are hidden chambers in King Tut’s tomb

December 2nd, 2015 No comments
The sarcophagus of King Tutankhamun

British Egyptologist Nicholas Reeves believes Tutankhamum may have been rushed into the outer chamber of Nefertiti’s tomb.

Not quite sure how they work out these percentages.  Last time my wife said she was 96% certain about something, she was wrong.  But this is so clearly an extraordinary story that worth following closely.  For researchers in Egypt claim there is a 90% chance that hidden chambers will be found within King Tutankhamun’s tomb, based on the preliminary results of a new exploration of the 3,300-year-old mausoleum.

One researcher has theorised that the remains of Queen Nefertiti may be inside – which, given she is so famous, hasn’t been a bad speculation to make for the publicity.

Egypt began the search for the hidden chamber last week. Announcing the results of three days of testing in Luxor, the antiquities minister, Mamdouh el-Damati, said the findings would be sent to Japan for a month-long analysis before the search is resumed.

British Egyptologist Nicholas Reeves theorises that Tutankhamun, who died at the age of 19 in 1324 BC after just nine years on the throne, may have been rushed into an outer chamber of what was originally Nefertiti’s tomb. Reeves reached his theory after high-resolution images discovered what he said were straight lines in Tutankhamun’s tomb. These lines, previously hidden by colour and the stones’ texture, indicate the presence of a sealed chamber, he said.

Nefertiti was the first wife of Akhenaten, who unsuccessfully attempted to switch Egypt to an early form of monotheism. Akhenaten was succeeded by a pharaoh referred to as Smenkhare and then Tutankhamun, who is widely believed to have been Akhenaten’s son.

Tut, Nefertiti and Akhenaten’s family ruled Egypt during one of its most turbulent periods, which ended with a military takeover by Egypt’s top general , Horemheb. The whole family’s names were wiped out from official records later on. Reeves, who is professor of archaeology at the University of Arizona, believes that Smenkhare is actually Nefertiti.

New Kindle Book – Two Men and a Mule: The Last City of the Incas

November 1st, 2015 4 comments

Two men and a Mule.inddFor those who might like to have an account of the Two Men and a Mule radio shows in a hard cover – or at least on a Kindle, today’s equivalent  – with lots of added value detail about everything from Gene Savoy to the new Wari findings there, check out my new publication here.

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For less than the price of a cappuccino – let alone of a coca tea – relive everything from Washington’s digestive habits to the noise an oropendola bird makes – and travel to Espíritu Pampa, one of the last Inca ruins left that is still best reached with a mule.

 

Treasures of the Indus – Filming in Pakistan

September 8th, 2015 1 comment
CCCC5583 Pakistani selfie Lahore lors

Pakistani selfie (C) Hugh Thomson 2015

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Before we went, Pakistan had always looked like it was going to be difficult. It took three months just to get the filming visas even though what we were making was not on a politically sensitive subject; we were there to explore the sometimes forgotten ancient history of the country.

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Security was to be paramount. The mosque where we filmed sufi musicians had been suicide bombed in 2010 by the Taliban with the death of 42 worshippers. A few weeks after we had planned to film the border crossing at Wagah, where Pakistani and Indian guards try to compete with each other for the most militaristic display, it too was suicide bombed. While filming at several remote old Buddhist monasteries, we were interrupted courteously but firmly by security questioning our right to film.

The key to filming in Pakistan was, as ever, finding a fixer who could deliver – in our case Khalid Waseem, based in Rawalpindi, who came recommended by several other productions. This meant that most of the cultural institutions where we wanted to film did not charge a fee. In Lahore, they let us light up some of the Mughal palaces at night for some spectacular sequences and turned on all the disused fountains in the pleasure gardens. We were able to use drone cameras and satellite phones and, with an immensely experienced cameraman, Spike Geilinger, the drone cameras proved invaluable for getting an overview of large archaeological remains like the ancient Indus city of Harappa.

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For one memorable sequence, we took boats across a remote lake in the Buddhist heartland around Gandhara – a fascinating area, which still shows the influence of Alexander the Great and the Greeks when they arrived and took this new religion to their heart.  Sadly, many of the old Buddhist sites have now been mutilated, but some of the small remote ones still survive.

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Our presenter, Sona Datta, who has worked as a curator at the British Museum, knows Pakistan well. The dramas played out by the vanished cultures of the Indus – the battle with climate change, the clash of civilisations – are still being played out today and Sona and I both wanted to ensure the series addressed this; so we interviewed political commentator Ahmed Rashid as well as contemporary artists like the Biennale–exhibiting star of Pakistani art, Rashid Rana.

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boys in Lahore Old City by (c) Hugh Thomson 2015

Lahore is one of those cities of the subcontinent like Old Delhi or Varanasi where a shot presents itself almost in every direction – particularly after dark, when what Kipling called ‘the city of dreadful night’ comes alive in smoke-filled narrow alleyways lit up by the Badshahi Mosque beyond.  For Eid, we filmed from rickshaws down those alleys as camels and all the streetlife of Pakistani crowded around us, before eating goat’s brain curry washed down with iced drinks of mint, cumin and salt in the havelis of the walled city.

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For the other important role of any good fixer is to know how to schedule the last shot of each day near a decent restaurant.

Hugh Thomson is the Series Producer and Director of Treasures of the Indus, a 3-part series beginning on Monday August 31st on BBC 4 at 9.00 pm.  Catch it on iPlayer

 

Enjoyably daft new theory about Stonehenge

March 16th, 2015 No comments

stonehengeEnjoyably daft new theory about Stonehenge from Julian Spalding, which has prompted a classic archaeologist putdown from Sir Barry Cunliffe, emeritus professor of European archaeology at Oxford, “He could be right, but I know of no evidence to support it.”

The idea that Stonehenge might have been built as the base for a higher structure is initially attractive, but doesn’t bear much thinking about.

 

If you want to construct a high building, everyone from Egypt to Mesoamerica did so by creating a wide and stable mass – like a pyramid – so that you could erect upper storries.

Having a thin wide circle as the base for a higher walkway or superstructure seems deeply illogical, as the late Leonard Nimoy would say.

That there was an element of procession, both to and around Stonehenge, seems very probable, not least because of the evidence provided by the nearby oval Cursus, the Avenue to Stonehenge, and from what we know of prehistoric man’s instincts around the world.  But the idea that they walked around on top of the stones may be seductive, but is highly unlikely.

More consistent is the idea of a concealed place, like Bronze Age mortuary circles:  that the outer ring  delineated a private space within, which may have been only accessible to the privileged or theocratic, as discussed in The Green Road into the Trees when talking about Seahenge.

The Young Dude:  Ryan Adams

March 1st, 2015 No comments

To see Ryan Adams at the Hammersmith Apollo, scene of many a great concert in the past when it was the Odeon.  When I first went in 1974 (the year Adams was born), there was a new support band called Queen who no one had ever heard of and we thought a bit much, while we waited for the main band – Mott the Hoople and ‘All the Young Dudes’…  Years later I interviewed Mick Ronson there just before he died, for my Dancing in the Street series, and he reminisced about Bowie’s ‘Ziggy retirement concert’, and played solo for us.

Ryan Adams has turned into a singer of real stature (although not in actual height – he looks like a shaggier version of Frodo) – after many a wayward twist and turn since the days of Gold and ‘New York, New York’ which first brought him fame.  His new album, just called Ryan Adams, although about his 14th (give or take a record company reject), feels like he’s found his voice – and guitar – again.

In the past, his very facility for writing songs – he turns the heckles of one punter into an instant song, a neat party trick I’ve heard him play before but one that exemplifies this weakness – means that he produces too much;  but these song feel heartfelt.  I suspect he’s this generation’s Neil Young – prolific, occasionally brilliant, sometimes infuriating and veering between acoustic and electric to great effect.

He’s joined by his support act Natalie Prass for a couple of well matched duets, including a showstopping ‘Oh My Sweet Carolina’, and gets even the most jaded of London’s spoilt-for-choice rock audience singing along to ‘When the Stars Go Blue’.  Oh, and he keeps talking about ‘dudes’ on stage.  Which no one else has done since Ian Hunter.

 

NB – The footage of Mick Ronson playing solo for us in the stalls at Hammersmith Odeon was played back at the memorial concert held at the Odeon for him when he died in 1993, shortly after the interview was recorded:  a strange and ghostly moment.  Ronson was a charming and honest man, and still undervalued.  Quite apart from his transformative work with Bowie and Lou Reed, he had also just reinvigorated Morrissey’s career with the excellent Your Arsenal album that for the first time made the petulant one a star in the States.

Seeing the best out of 2014

December 31st, 2014 No comments

At the end of a year with even more travel than usual – Hawaii to Tahiti, out down the mouth of the Amazon, round the Mediterranean with my son Leo, and films on India and Pakistan in the autumn, let alone a great deal of time spent in Glasgow and Scotland – good to catch up on myself and the best things I came across that sustained me on the journeys:

ida-2013-003-praying-by-roadsideBest films:  In June, I stumbled into a small art-house cinema in New England on the off chance and saw the only movie that looked promising, although I’d never heard of it – Ida, by some way my film of the year for its unflinching honesty, beauty and rigour, despite what seems the unpromising scenario:  Polish girl in a 1950s convent has to decide whether she stays or she goes, not necessarily helped by her hard-drinking, hard-living aunt. A luminous film in the spirit of Bresson, and the first Paweł Pawlikowski has made in Poland rather than Britain.

It’s been a great year for strong female performances.  The best things about Mr Turner and The Theory Of Everything were not the technically accomplished portraits of their heroes by Timothy Spall and Eddie Redmayne, but the life given to the films by their screen wives, Marion Welsh and Felicity Jones, who were both superb.  Likewise, Scarlett Johansson pulled off some bold strokes in first the very enjoyable and slightly bonkers Lucy, and then the less enjoyable, but equally bonkers Under The Skin, ludicrously overrated by the Guardian as their #1 film of the year.

Both Wes Anderson and Christopher Nolan produced fine films in The Grand Budapest Hotel and Interstellar, even if neither was their best, and the less said about the execrable Wolf on Wall Street the better – Scorsese been running on empty so long, the car should surely just be left in the garage.

But along with Ida, the other knockout film of the year was Boyhood, for letting us feel the director’s surprise at how lives unfold and people age.

Best books were Arundhati Roy’s rage against caste, The Doctor And The Saint;  Adam Nicolson’s passionate advocacy of Homer and the Bronze Age in The Mighty Dead;  and two work of popular history told with verve and flair – Charles Spencer on how The Killers Of The King (Charles I) were hunted down after the Restoration, and Boris Johnson on The Churchill Factor without the boring 3-volume life bits or indeed bothering with much chronology at all.

In my own field of travel books, amongst some increasingly austere and dull nature writing, one book shone out for its unaffected simplicity and grace:  Meadowland: The Private Life Of An English Field by John Lewis-Stempel.

Best exhibitions:  the British Museum’s ‘Mummy: The Inside Story’,  where they revealed the faces of those inside the mummies by using CT Scans;  ‘Matisse: The Cut-Outs’ at the Tate which proved that a big blockbuster show can still be thoughtful.

Best albums were the eponymous Ryan Adams, his best for many years and all the better for being guitar driven;  and Mark Kozalek’s remarkable Benji, in which his talent for long narrative songs about the American mid-west made him a sort of aural equivalent of Boyhood.  Kozalek (aka ‘Sun Kil Moon’) also gave the most audacious concert I saw in which he had to hire a drummer from the audience as his own had failed to turn up (and paid the replacement in cash on stage), and then asked if any women in the audience would come up and sing a duet with him on ‘I’ve Got You Babe’, at which the audience collectively sucked in their teeth at the humiliation to come, but Joanne from Glasgow gave a knockout performance.

The Buddhist Heartland of Gandhara

October 26th, 2014 1 comment

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Seven years ago I visited the Buddhist heartland of Gandhara on my way to Afghanistan and determined I would come back one day to this part of Pakistan – and now I’ve been making a film there (one reason for the radio silence over the last couple of months as it’s been a very intensive operation and fraught with security issues).

The quality of the sculpture produced by the Indo Greek kingdoms that followed Alexander the Great’s incursions here in 326 BC is phenomenal – like this Buddhist head that I photographed in Taxila – with its mixture of classical, Persian and Indian influence.

Some of the Buddhist sculptures have been vandalised in situ and now need to be protected from Islamic extremists – or just as sadly some heads have to be removed from their torsos and taken to museums for safety, as it is usually the head that is vandalised.

We had problems filming here because some of the sites are close to nuclear and military installations so the ISI sent a heavy to follow us ‘for our own protection’.

But as a chance to spend some time around the old monasteries and stupas, it was memorable and a reminder which the world occasionally forgets that the old Indo Greek kingdoms in what is now modern Pakistan were responsible for exporting Buddhism to Tibet, China and the Far East.

 

Homage to the World Cup

June 15th, 2014 No comments

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My small homage to the World Cup – and tribute to Cartier Bresson who took a series of similar pictures – is this shot I took in Fez a few years ago, and my accompanying piece for Conde Nast Traveller on ‘how to get lost there’ – always a perennial concern of mine, as anyone who has read Tequila Oil: Getting Lost in Mexico knows…..