Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for November, 2013

Buying Rome Total War II never quite seemed inevitable. I had followed its development with interest, but in truth, my brother was far more pumped about it than I was. When I told him I was off to Greece on the 12th of September this year, he replied; “Bro, the only important date in September is the third – the release of Rome Total War 2.”

Considering how much I’d enjoyed the first instalment of this game, released almost ten years ago in 2004, it was likely only a matter of time before I got hold of its long-awaited successor. There was, however, one significant hurdle to get over – the need to upgrade. For, Rome Total War II promised not only to be an amazing feat of game engineering, mechanical, tactical, strategic and graphical magic, but also to demand a nigh impossible amount from processors. I thought I might get away with my 3.33 gig E8600 dual core processor, having recently upgraded my graphics card to a GTX670. Yet when my brother and I first fired up the game a few days after its release, it was very soon apparent that a whole new rig was required to run this baby.

Sure, the graphics are difficult enough to render – after all, the “Extreme” settings really are quite extreme – but rather the problem lies with the sheer number of simultaneous calculations that the processor is expected to make. Upgrading your video card is unlikely to help, unless you already sport a top-shelf processor. So, sure enough, when I returned from overseas in October, I splurged and built a new computer from scratch, hopefully future-proofing myself for at least another couple of years by using top-shelf kit.

The good news is, it was worth the effort. When running at the highest settings, Rome Total War 2 looks stunning. The campaign map is captivatingly exotic across the many different regions of Europe, north Africa and the Middle East. The clouds and birds of prey which fly across the lush grasslands, snowy peaks, river deltas, dry deserts and rippling seas, give life to this world in a box.

2013-11-03_00013

2013-11-09_00011

The various other maps – diplomatic, strategic, economic, etc, are all tastefully rendered in a mix of the charmingly decorative and simply pragmatic.

2013-11-29_00025

The unit icons borrow from Athenian black-figure ware, and the small pop-up illustrations that accompany news and events are evocatively reminiscent of the best card-game art out there.

2013-11-17_00003

2013-11-18_00005

2013-10-31_00005

The factional icons are wonderfully done – colourful and curious, their rapid cycling at the top of the screen between turns can be quite mesmerising.

Yet it is at the ground level that the game’s appearance truly excels. The quality of the individual figures in each unit is not merely due to the high grade textures and meshes, along with, at times, perfectly fluid and natural movement, it is in their genuine individuality. Each soldier is, in fact, an individual – generated from a wide set of randomised features – face-shape, hair, facial hair etc. In some cases, for example, Greek phalanxes, the soldiers carry a wide variety of shield designs – sporting decorative emblems randomised from a large pool.

2013-11-03_00011

2013-11-19_00010

2013-10-20_00010

2013-10-16_00007

2013-10-09_00002

The landscapes are also magnificent; with highly detailed vegetation and attractive and immersive weather effects and lighting. The old option of of waiting for the weather to change when attacking is still present, yet when attacked, the aggressor gets to choose the timing of the battle. Despite its negative effects on the range of missiles, fatigue and cavalry movement speed, fighting in rain is quite glorious to behold, yet the most beautiful conditions I’ve yet witnessed is immediately after a storm. The game captures that peculiar, electrically-charged storm light perfectly.

2013-10-23_00022

2013-11-04_00005

2013-11-17_00004

2013-10-31_00002

2013-11-18_00012

2013-11-07_00009

2013-11-13_00003

2013-11-07_00020

The water looks great in the campaign map, yet it enters a whole new realm of beauty in the battle-maps. This, combined with the attention to detail given to the ships, makes naval manoeuvres beautiful to behold.  Rome Total War II also allows for battles combining naval and land units, and any coastal town is vulnerable to attack from the sea. When attacking a town solely with a fleet, it is necessary to beach the ships and have the units disembark. Clicking on the unit camera icon allows one to ride with the ships towards the shore, something well worth doing at least once or twice for the sake of immersion. From hereon, the units are used in exactly the same way as land-units, yet cannot return to their ships during the battle. Naval units are typically half the size of land units, though special assault ships can be recruited which contain full-sized units. When defending a town with a fleet, or using a naval garrison, the units begin on the ships and can then either be used as ships – to attack any enemy ships – or the ships can be beached and the unit used as a land unit to defend the town.

2013-11-20_00007

2013-11-21_00005

2013-11-21_00006

2013-11-21_00007

2013-11-21_00008

It is not only dedicated naval units that can make assaults in this fashion. Any army can turn itself into a fleet – effectively boarding transports – simply by moving onto the water. These ships will, however, be dangerously exposed unless protected by another fleet or used in an area where no enemy fleets are present. When attacking a coastal city in such a manner, the ships simply need to be beached in order to get the troops ashore. All in all, the co-ordination of land and sea forces in this manner is one of the greatest aspects of the game. It not only adds immensely to gameplay variety, but also to immersiveness.

2013-10-27_00014

2013-10-31_00037

Immersiveness is one of the game’s great attractions. It operates on two levels – the intense desire to keep playing the strategic game – known all too well to Civilization addicts as “just one more move syndrome” – and the ability to get right in amongst it with the troops. The different perspectives one can explore by selecting different units around the battlefield, the views and angles this offers, makes the game experience extremely cinematic. There’s nothing I love more than, at the end of a battle, taking the time to line up my remaining troops for a victory celebration, then ride past in first person mode, watching them cheer. If you let yourself go with this game, it can be very rewarding.

2013-10-16_00011

2013-10-29_00006

2013-10-26_00008

2013-10-22_00054

2013-11-03_00010

2013-10-22_00014

2013-11-24_00015

Having come to this game pretty much directly from Rome Total War I, with a detour via Medieval II, this was my first experience of the new Total War system for maintaining armies, significantly different from the first iteration. Rather than raising troops in cities and moving them about at will, units can now only be raised by generals. They can, however, be raised anywhere inside friendly territory, provided some kind of military building exists in that province to allow units to be recruited. This makes raising units a lot more convenient in some regards, though it can be a problem if an army is needed and no general is in the vicinity. Another great new innovation is the system of troop replenishment. Rather than having to move units into cities capable of producing a particular unit variety to restock the unit, once built, units of any kind will simply replenish their numbers when inside friendly territory, including the territory of military allies, client states and satrapies. This takes a lot of irritating fiddliness out of managing armies.

2013-10-29_00003

One major change is that number of armies and fleets that can be raised is now limited. This begins at 3 and increases incrementally as your faction’s Imperium increases. A recent patch changed the rate at which new armies become available, but the restrictions do make it more difficult to manage large empires. In my current campaign, in which for the first time I’m actually playing the Romans, I control a total of 42 regions, yet am only allowed to field 8 armies. This can make managing a large empire rather complex, especially when there are several frontiers that require defence or attack.

2013-11-25_00001

This limitation on the number of armies is compensated for by the garrison system. Each region now automatically provides a garrison determined by the size and type of town or city, and the other buildings present in that region. Smaller towns with fewer buildings provide smaller garrisons, often consisting of pretty low rent troops – mobs, javelin-men, etc, whilst the larger cities, especially the provincial capitals, can often have quite considerable garrisons, strengthened by better quality units. In the case of coastal towns, naval garrisons are also provided.

2013-11-24_00025

The garrisons are rarely sufficient to defend against a large invasion force, though this is made much easier in provincial capitals, all of which have city walls. The absence of walls in smaller towns has been roundly criticised and certainly makes defending those towns much more difficult, yet at times these garrisons can prove adequate if used well against a smaller foe. The regional garrison will also enter the field as reinforcements when an army is attacked in that region, and in such instances they can provide much needed assistance, sometimes with as many as 14 extra units – I’ve not yet seen larger.

2013-11-24_00030

As mentioned above, the campaign map itself is absolutely huge and beautiful to behold. It stretches from Bactria (Afghanistan) to Lusitania (Portugal) and from Caledonia (Scotland) to Garamantia (in the Sahara). It is divided into 173 regions, grouped into 57 provinces, each of which contains up to four regions, though some have as little as two. The regions can be conquered and controlled separately, but controlling an entire province confers the advantage of being able to pass edicts – providing bonuses such as increased happiness, growth, military recruitment, economic output etc.

2013-11-15_00008

The number of buildings that can be constructed is limited in most cases to four, with regional capitals having as many as six building slots available to them. These slots are not immediately available to a town, but more become available as growth in the province accumulates, providing an added incentive to sustain a good rate of growth. The benefits gained from each building are effective throughout the province and public order is determined on a province-wide basis, not on the basis of individual towns.

2013-11-16_00005

The amount of food available is also calculated on a province-wide basis, though the total food surplus accrues across one’s entire empire. This allows some provinces to maintain negative food production figures, with the overall surplus picking up the shortfall. If, however, total food surplus falls below zero, then those provinces which have negative food production will suffer first – both through civil disorder and military attrition. In other words, soldiers in armies and garrisons will begin deserting – a penalty also incurred by lack of funds.

As in all Total War games, successfully managing the economy is absolutely essential. My experience thus far has been that, alongside initial military and tactical challenges, the most important first step is to ensure that one’s regions are producing sufficient money and food to sustain development and expansion, as well as maintain existing forces and infrastructure.

Rome Total War II offers a mesmerising number of factions to encounter during play. In total, there are 117 different factions, each with their own unit roster and agenda. The initial game release offered eight playable factions, since which time six others have been made available for players.

2013-11-10_00001

The factions are divided into different cultural groups – Hellenistic, Roman, Barbarian and Eastern. These are then further subdivided into, for example, Germanic, Gallic and Britannic. The cultural status of a faction in part determines its relation to other factions. Though this is not necessarily a barrier to co-operation across cultural divides, it does often result in these groups acting as a bloc, when they aren’t busy fighting among themselves.

Many of the as-yet non-playable factions have been unlocked by modders, yet in such a form these lack the development and variety of the officially playable factions. The Romans offer an altogether different level of sophistication on account of their Auxiliary unit system. In a nutshell, the construction of an auxiliary barracks in a region can open up certain unique unit types specific only to that region: Auxiliary Persian archers, Balaeric slingers, Numidian skirmishers etc. This makes playing the Romans a great deal more fun as it allows the player to experience using a far wider variety of units – many of which are, in effect, the units available to the original faction whose land the Romans have occupied.

Unfortunately, however, the game is not without problems. The release of Rome Total War II immediately kicked-up a shit-storm of debate and protest about its relative merits and flaws. A quick look at the results on metacritic reveals as much about the mentality of gamers as it reflects the nature of the game. The reviewers’ metascore current sits at 76 out of 100, whilst the users’ metascore currently sits on 3.9 out of 10.

metacritic

Gamers tend to take pretty extreme positions and punish any perceived deviation from perfection. Here’s a sample of some of the comments, accompanied by scores:

On the day of release, and the week or so after this game was released. It was utterly broken. And while that is not acceptable. I am rating the game for how it stands right now as I type this. The game is now a title truly worthy of the Total War name. – 9

Horrible. Gameplay is extremely dumbed down, lack of family tree in campaign is obvious mistake and the greatest disapointment is the lack of online modes. Also, removing walls from cities is a horrible idea – 5

Just terrible. To purchase a full price game, pre-ordered I may add, and it’s clearly a beta test that other’s will benefit from our testing by buying it at half price 6 months away. The AI is bad. The FPS issues and graphics incompatibility issues (With a high end pc and gpu) are just ridiculous. The worst game release of the decade. Still not fixed! – 1

Really, I ask? Worst game release of the decade? That’s very harsh and not a reasonable reflection of its quality. As a teacher who regularly marks some pretty crappy homework, I can assure you that this game does not deserve 1 out of 10, or zero for that matter. Like an essay with some excellent paragraphs and evidence of strong analysis and interpretation, marred by a flawed overall structure, this deserves roughly 8 / 10 and would definitely score higher were it not for obvious issues with the campaign AI and the political faction system.

As to the official reviews, the reception has generally been favourable, but with reservations. PC Gamer gave the game 85%, praising the cinematic scale of the battles and attention to detail, calling them “stunning” and “the most marvellous moments of the fifty plus hours I’ve played so far”.

2013-10-16_00022

They were, however, critical of the apparent glitches on its initial release, including issues with the AI. Edge similarly praised the visuals and battles whilst criticising the bugs present on its release; “even as it topples, it’s glorious to look at, and to live through.” Daniel Starkey of GameSpot praised the variety of units and what it called “spectacular sound design and great attention to visual detail”. So far as the campaign was concerned, Game Revolution called the campaign map “a treat to look at” whilst praising the game’s  new features and depth, yet they were critical of the wait times between player and AI turns. Steve Butts of IGN complained that: “a single turn can take as much as 10 minutes… those little inconveniences add up. Don’t get me wrong; Rome II is a game worth savouring, but it also asks you to tolerate difficulties that don’t need to exist.”

2013-10-21_00005

There are other, perhaps more troubling issues with the game, most notably, the political system, which seems to bear little relationship to the rest of the game, besides offering an interface for keeping track of generals, admirals and statesmen and managing their retinues. Whilst one might pay close attention to the development and “levelling-up” of generals and dignitaries, there seems to be very little reason to focus on the degree of influence one’s faction currently maintains as it bears no impact on gameplay for the vast majority of the game. The only time it becomes relevant is when a civil war happens – something which seems to happen both spontaneously and rather randomly.

Indeed, there seems to be no way to avoid a civil war at some point during the campaign. Where the civil war happens in your empire is dictated by your level of influence on the faction list, yet gamers have noted that there is no mechanism by which to prevent it happening altogether. What essentially seems to happen is that one city will become an enemy faction and spawn a number of fleets and armies – all of 12 strength it seems – equivalent to the number controlled by the player. These will immediately fan out across the map and try to conquer as many cities as possible. The only real option is to crush them as quickly as possible – something made easier by the AIs apparent lack of common sense. When the civil war happened in one game, the AI immediately disbanded most of the units in most of its armies – perhaps some overcautious attempt to avoid bankruptcy in subsequent turns – rather than, for example, using them to attack the vulnerable nearby regions. It was a disappointing performance from what looked like being the most formidable challenge yet.

2013-11-09_00004

After a civil war has been crushed, the political system remains broken – in effect, it plays no further role. The game designers have made excuses about this – being forced to finish the game for an inflexible release date. Yet, the upshot of all this is that without some way in which to tie the player’s factional influence more closely to game-play, the whole political system seems irrelevant.

One of the biggest complaints about the game is that it has no family tree. I would like to add my voice to this complaint, as I did indeed love the family tree of Rome Total War I. The developers hastily pointed out to those complainants that all the other recent Total War products, like Shogun II and Napoleon, lacked a family tree. But many people appear to have transitioned straight from Rome Total War I, as I have done, and hence feel the absence more greatly.

What was wonderful about the family tree was how attached one could get to certain generals. In my longest and greatest campaign ever, I had a long line of succession, through six generations, of faction leaders coming from one branch of the family. This included what I always thought of as the “miracle child.” About three generations along, the only male heir in the line of succession not only developed the trait “impotent”, which greatly reduced his chances of having children, but married a woman ten years older than him and already in her late 30s. It wasnt until she was 48 years old that they finally had their first child – a son. The joy that it brought me at the time is embarrassing to admit, yet such it was. He went on to sire further generations.

2012-03-23_00049

2012-03-15_00010

The current system for managing one’s own faction lacks the same pleasure of continuity, though there is a new type of continuity to be found in the battle history of each army. As all armies must now be lead by generals and each army has its own name, the record sheet displays the history of that army’s campaigns – its commanders, their years of service and win / loss record. Beneath this it lists every battle that army fought and the outcome.

2013-11-24_00021

2013-11-17_00002

There are also significant problems with the AI, something most apparent on the campaign map. The decisions made by non-player factions are often bafflingly stupid and seemingly lack any sense of self-preservation. Often their armies and fleets flit about the board like chickens with their heads cut off, dashing this way and that on seemingly pointless ventures, and all the while, leaving their cities undefended or in a state of dire civil disorder. At times the AI nails it and mounts a challenging assault. At other times, one faction will clear out its orbital path, so to speak, knocking over a host of local rivals and building up an impressive empire, yet after the initial phase of expansion, they almost invariably fall into ruin through poor economic and military decisions, and then collapse altogether before another aggressor.

2013-11-22_00004

In every game I’ve played so far – when not playing as the Romans, both Rome and Carthage have capitulated early. Carthage have it tough as their empire is spread across north Africa, Southern Spain, Sicily and Sardinia, yet whereas this is perfectly manageable for a player, the AI gets it wrong every time. In the case of the Romans, having now played them and experienced how good their infantry is, I suspect the reason they always fail is that their cities do not produce a great deal of revenue early on, which makes funding expansion and maintaining territories more challenging than in some other factions.

2013-10-22_00058

Unfortunately, once past the initial phase of the game, whilst things might get hot on one frontier for a while, most enemies are relatively easily dealt with on account of their inability to maintain both forward attack and home defence.

Many have also complained about the battle AI, yet I find that in this regard the game is pretty sound. Troops are used far more wisely than in the past – missile units defended against cavalry with spearmen; when fighting more than one army, they often wait until they have joined before advancing – sensible decisions which make the battles more challenging and interesting. There are still some shockers, such as when a whole army sits in a town being peppered by missiles and doesn’t take any action in response, but much of the time, the AI uses its units relatively well.

2013-11-04_00002

Another area which the AI does get right is its use of agents. A faction may recruit a certain number of agents depending on their imperium – spies, dignitaries and champions. These can be used in various ways – to increase happiness and taxation, to carry out acts of sabotage or assassination, to cause military disruption, or to manipulate other agents. In this latter case it is possible to control more agents than one’s imperium would allow by way of recruitment. Getting enemy agents to defect is a useful and important way not only to increase your own capacity, but to decrease theirs.

2013-11-17_00012

2013-11-29_00023

 The diplomacy element of the game is certainly improved, yet many also have issues with this, largely on account of the way in which attitudes are calculated. Basically, attitudes are affected by cultural affiliation and past and present actions. Thus a war against one faction will cause a reduction in the level of friendliness of that enemy faction’s friends or allies, whilst simultaneously increasing your popularity with other enemies of your enemy. This is very incremental and increases or decreases with each action against or in favour of that faction. Personally, I don’t have a problem with the diplomacy screen and welcome the fact that, as in Civilization, once you have encountered another faction, they can be contacted at any time via the interface. My biggest gripe is that there is no option to request one faction to make peace with another – or am I missing something?

2013-11-27_00005

Despite all these ups and downs, many of which will, hopefully, be ironed out eventually in what seems already an endless succession of patches, this is an absolutely cracking game. Ignore those extreme reports of a game that is totally broken and focus on the fact that what they have essentially done is put the entire ancient Mediterranean world and its surrounds in a box. The complexity of the achievement is staggering, even if at times the complexity of the game-play seems underdone. Don’t expect it to be without some frustrations, but take the time to enjoy its attractions and become immersed. It’s easy after a while to become blasé about the battles and ignore them in favour of auto-resolve, yet my advice is to duck in there every so often and enjoy what really is the most fun part of the game. Rome Total War II is an epic game which creates its own epic narrative – a compelling story which emerges from this huge simulation.

2013-10-16_00025

2013-10-26_00005

2013-11-07_00004

2013-10-27_00007

2013-10-31_00057

2013-11-05_00003

2013-11-05_00020

2013-11-18_00017

2013-11-21_00003

2013-11-28_00011

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

Ice Age Masters

A recent exhibition at the British Museum entitled Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind, brought together an extraordinary collection of early human artworks, dating back as far as 40,000 years. The broad thesis of the exhibition was indicated by its subtitle: an attempt to locate and contextualise the point at which our sophisticated artistic ability, and hence “the modern mind”, first emerged. Having migrated from Africa into Europe some 40,000 years ago, and finding themselves caught in the grip of an ice age, Homo Sapiens began producing complex and subtle artworks – the product of modern minds, not unlike ours. The exhibition explored questions such as what caused this to happen, and what was the purpose of this form of expression.

Reindeer

The Arrival of the Modern Mind exhibition at British Museum

One thing that is immediately striking about ice-age art is the contrast between depictions of people and animals. Whilst the animals are depicted with incredible attention to detail and a faithfulness that is manifested either through expressive dynamism or accurate realism, humans are depicted in a highly abstracted way. Consider the bulging, drooping, hugely overweight female figures, whose bodies seem to be a grotesque exaggeration of the female form.

Venuses

Many have long assumed that the attention to detail with the animal figures is linked to hunting rituals – that depicting the animals in this manner somehow gave the artist power over these creatures. The images potentially represent a mix of love, respect and awe for creatures who could both feed and kill one in this wild world. The figures of the females, on the other hand, have traditionally been seen as fertility symbols – exaggerations of the female form to emphasise child-bearing attributes.

Bison, exhibition

Yet these are big assumptions about the mindset and purpose of artists in a time so utterly remote – long predating cities, towns, agriculture and writing – that we must be very cautious before showing any confidence in our conclusions. After all, we don’t know if the artists were men or women, nor how the art was used or viewed. Were the female figures considered erotic or motherly, both or otherwise? There is one rare exception to this rule – a female head carved from mammoth ivory which has rather grandiosely been called the first true portrait of a woman for its somewhat quirky appearance, which gives it more individuality than the otherwise generic, simplified features or featureless heads on female statuettes.

Ice Age portrait

In an attempt to draw links between and to juxtapose these ancient cultures with the modern, the exhibition placed works by modern artists alongside the ancient – a sculpture by Henry Moore, a drawing by Mondrian, among others. Many reviewers were critical of this attempt to show how the ancient resonated in the modern, dismissing it as a distraction which only served to confuse by not giving the viewer sufficient room in which to forget their own culture and mindset and try to imagine one that was, in all likelihood, utterly different to that which produced these modern works.

Irrespective of this somewhat misguided pairing of old and new, the sheer peculiarity, quality and antiquity of the ice-age objects speaks for itself. The Lion Man, a carved ivory statuette which depicts a human figure with a lion’s head, found in fragments in a German cave and reconstructed, is dated at roughly 40,000 years old.

The Arrival of the Modern Mind exhibition at British Museum

As one author put it, it reeks of “dreams, terror, magical rites and myths.” The “Venus of Lespugue”, a 23,000 year-old female figurine with grotesquely pronounced thighs, buttocks and breasts, was also featured here.

That it long fascinated Picasso might lend some sense to the presence of the modern works here, yet really, it says nothing about the ancient world which produced it. Again, we are left with mere speculation as to its purpose and production, and our best guesses, logical as they may seem, must remain circumspect.

Art Historian, Professor David Lewis Williams, a major contributor to this field, has long argued that Palaeolithic Homo Sapiens “could only engage in image-making upon developing “fully modern consciousness.” He argues that cave art was a by-product of religious belief, which played a role in establishing and sustaining social hierarchies. He views the production of cave art as some kind of Shamanic ritual, perhaps even undertaken in an altered state. As much as we might find certain parallels with more recent, or even extant rock and cave art cultures, there is no way to confirm any of these conclusions. Whilst no doubt these artworks had a significance beyond the decorative and practical, surely in part their function was educational and commemorative – a visual aid in story-telling, a record and celebration of successful ventures. Australian Aborigines certainly use rock art in this way – as an aid in story-telling and passing on cultural information – yet this is also closely intertwined with religious ritual and mythological and spiritual beliefs.

Whatever the reasons for the production of this art, and whatever its function, it is certainly worthy of our admiration. To consider that people with minds as flexible and creative as ours, with equal artistic talent and capability, lived and produced art so long ago, is enough to move one to tears. The quality of the paintings from the caves of Lascoux or the Chauvet cave in southern France is breathtaking. It is not merely the understanding of movement, proportion, dynamism and grace shown in these renderings that is so striking, but also the deep sense of pathos which they convey. The eyes of these animals are hauntingly expressive, imparting a strong sense of individual feeling in some instances. Perhaps this is just my awed nostalgia combined with a tendency to anthropomorphise, yet in the absence of sophisticated human portraits, it is through the eyes of these animals, along with their meaty flanks, that we see the fleshy reality of their once having lived.

lascaux 4

Lascaux 3

Two bison

Anyone who is interested in this subject and has not seen Werner Herzog’s film The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, should do so immediately. I saw this in 3D at the cinema on its release and, whilst it has an occasionally frustrating, meandering style, it creates a powerful sense of awe around the art it showcases. I was deeply affected by this film and couldn’t stop Googling the images for weeks to come, out of awed admiration and a desire to look at great art, but also just to think, as I looked at it, that this was art produced by people, very similar in capacity to ourselves, who lived almost thirty thousand years ago in a world barely touched by the human presence. These artworks, and these spaces, have a quaintness for being both so beautiful and so discrete. They represent a time before humans had dominated their environment, when they both hid from its dangers and bravely took it on, spears in hand, made bold by the secret of fire and the tight social bonds of a rich and emerging culture. Take a look at the images and just ponder their antiquity, consider what was waiting them outside, in all its beauty, danger and uncertainty. It is staggering.

horsepanel2

Chauvet horses

Chauvet cave rhino

All this attention on European rock art, much as it deserves it, neglects potentially more ancient and significant contributions in Africa and Australia. The ancestors of the Australian Aborigines migrated out of Africa roughly 70,000 years ago and arrived in Australia via Asia some 50,000 years ago. Whether or not they were producing rock art prior to this is uncertain, yet considering how close in time the oldest dated works are to their date of arrival, it would be sensible to assume that this means of expression evolved beforehand and was brought to Australia with them, rather than arising spontaneously after their arrival. As Homo Sapiens with direct links to the same groups that migrated into Europe, this suggests we might locate the origins of art prior to the migration into Europe, though we cannot dismiss the possibility of such artistic expression developing independently on these separate continents.

The antiquity of Australian Aboriginal rock art is remarkable. Some rock art is so old that it depicts long extinct megafauna which was still extant in Australia when the Aborigines arrived.

genyornis painting

genyornis

Excavations at the the Narwal Gabarnmang rock shelter in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory of Australia have indicated that this is the oldest known rock art site in the world. The earliest definite date for the paintings there is 28,000 years old, though there is evidence of human occupation and use of the site which indicates humans were present as much as 45000 years ago, some five-thousand years older than the oldest known rock art at the El Castillo cave in Spain. The site has been described as the Sistine Chapel of rock art, not only on account of the huge number of paintings, stencils and drawings, but also because it is, to some degree, a man-made structure.

Narwal 1

Narwal 2

The pillars which support the flat rock canopy were shaped and carved by human hands to widen and open the space in which they worked. Even more remarkable is that the local Jawoyn community have a continuous, possibly unbroken link to this site. Their tribal elders, who were taken there and inducted into the culture and stories attached to the place, are now passing on this knowledge to their descendents.

narwal 3

This is, arguably, the longest example of cultural continuity anywhere on the planet, by a quite considerable margin. Many of the rock art sites in Australia are still in use and still maintained by the traditional custodians of the land, who, at times, refresh the images with new paint. Aboriginal culture, despite its social, religious and mythological sophistication, never advanced technologically beyond the Palaeolithic and remained as such until the arrival of Europeans. On account of this, despite having undergone evolution and adaptation over thousands of years of changing climate – ice-ages, great droughts, rising sea-levels, the lost of coastline, land-bridges and inland seas – Aboriginal cultural traditions remain an embodiment of beliefs and practices which go deep into prehistory. So deep in fact, that through their art and mythology, we can almost trace a line leading all the way back to Africa and those first Homo Sapiens who ventured out into the wider world.

Read Full Post »

Sprang, Sprung

The following are some recent efforts, and the odd one not so recent. Warm winter, hot spring, though I do love the variability. A lot of sunshine of late, and as ever, the beach beckons…

8004 ANZ Building 2

8146 Flags

8327 Sculpture by the sea

8197 Tamarama

7705 Newtown peeps

1335 Lips

9332 Railway Square

8188 Tamarama 2

1982 City angles

8297 Sculpture by the sea

2001 Newtown Hotel

1861 Glebe Point

4123 Pitt street mall selfie

1510 Luna Park, Sydney Harbour

9224 Sunset from the wharf

9779 Big surf off coogee

Read Full Post »

Gobekli Tepe is the site of what appears to be the oldest temple in the world. So far. Its antiquity is staggering, enough to leave you gasping for breath. That it is older than the Pyramids of Egypt  (earliest date, Pyramid of Djoser, c. 2630 BCE–2611 BCE ) is perhaps not surprising, nor is it all that surprising that it is older than Stonehenge (c. 2400-2200 BC). Yet, that it is as much as 7000 years older than Stonehenge, and of a more sophisticated construction, is enough to cause paroxysms of disbelief. Gobekli Tepe is so old –  at least 11,600 years (c. 9500BC)  –  that it predates agriculture and farming.

Gobekli Tepe 9

Gobekli Tepe, which literally translates as “Potbelly Hill”, sits atop a mountain ridge in south-eastern Anatolia. The site, which was first identified as Neolithic by Professor Dr. Klaus Schmidt in 1994 (initially it had been dismissed as a Byzantine graveyard), consists of a series of dry-stone rings, roughly 20-22, ranging from 10 to 30 metres in diameter, with T-shaped limestone pillars both inset into the walls at regular intervals, or free-standing in the centre of the circles. The stone circles also typically have a walled passageway leading from them, giving them a saucepan-like shape. The pillars, the tallest of which are 6 metres high, have been carefully shaped and decorated with images of animals and insects: snakes, foxes, boars, scorpions and gazelles.

Gobekli Tepe 7

Gobekli Tepe 5

Gobekli Tepe 4

The stone circles cover an extensive area – roughly 300 square metres, much of which is yet to be excavated, but which has been shown, through ground piercing radar and magnetic resonance imaging to contain further structures. Whilst the earliest radio-carbon date is c. 9500 BC, other areas of the site could be considerably older – as much as three to four thousand years older. A great deal of stone and flint tools and animal remains have been found at the site – but no signs of permanent habitation. As yet no burials have been discovered, nor any evidence of wealth or social status differentiation – such as high status ornaments. The archaeological evidence points to this site not as a permanent settlement, but as a place used by hunter-gatherer communities, which most likely served a ritual, communal function, possible as a sort of pilgrimage site for local tribal groups.

Gobekli Tepe 12

What makes this site so fascinating is that it significantly challenges established ideas about the origins of civilization and urban society. Traditionally it had been believed that the domestication and corralling of animals, along with the development of agriculture and farming, led people to settle more permanently in areas and thus to the development of towns.

Gobekli Tepe 3

Not only does Gobekli Tepe predate the earliest archaeological evidence we have for organised farming, but it does so by almost 1500 years, and possible considerably more. This suggests that it was, in effect, ritual practice of some kind – (the role and function of these buildings is still open to speculation, however much they might resemble temples) which initially brought people together in more permanent communities. Some scholars have  even suggested that agriculture itself might be an off-shoot of this kind of centralised religious activity. The consumption of wild grain at sites such as Gobekli Tepe may have induced a proliferation of edible grasses around the site, thus sparking an attempt to harvest this resource in a more planned fashion.

Gobekli Tepe 8

The site also challenges ideas about the capacity for people to organise and carry out work on this scale during this period. Traditionally, town or village-based urban civilization has been seen as a prerequisite for this scale of building activity, on account of the need to organise and feed a considerable work-force. In hunter gatherer societies, without grain storage or food surpluses, it was assumed that it was not possible to dedicate the time and labour to something so superfluous to survival. The freeing of people from the need to hunt and gather was understood to be a product of organised town or village life, in which roles were able to diversify and agricultural surpluses could support other activities. The construction of the largest structure at Gobekli Tepe, which is estimated to have required a bare minimum of fifty dedicated labourers, has significantly challenged this established model.

Gobekli Tepe 6

One curious aspect of the site is its historical progression and transformation.  Over time the stone rings were buried, with new rings erected over and beside the old, each of which was successively smaller than what came before. This gradual reduction in size might represent either a decline in the capacity to build such structures, or a declining interest in maintaining structures of such magnitude at this particular site, the importance of which might have waned.

Gobekli Tepe 13

This latter point makes more sense when we consider the local context. Lying roughly 30 kilometres north of Gobekli Tepe, and now submerged beneath the dammed waters of the Euphrates River, is the site of Nevalı Çori, a Neolithic village, the earliest radio carbon date for which – somewhat speculatory – is the middle of the 10th millennium BC. More definite dates place Layer II – its second construction phase – in the second half of the 9th millennium BC – more than a thousand years after the earliest known construction phases on Gobekli Tepe, but still within the period known by the acronym PPNB – Pre-Pottery Neolithic B.

Nevali Cori 2

The excavated architectural remains at Nevalı Çori consisted of long rectangular houses containing two to three parallel flights of rooms. Attached to these were a similarly rectangular structure subdivided by wall projections, likely residential space. As fascinating as these early pre-agricultural, pre-pottery settlements are in themselves, what is most striking for our understanding of Gobekli Tepe is the presence of what appears to be a temple / cult complex cut into the hillside. This consisted of a square space with monolithic pillars similar to those at Göbekli Tepe built into its dry stone walls, and two free-standing pillars, each three metres tall, in the centre. The pillars were carved with images very similar to those at Gobekli Tepe and appear to be a part of the same cultural milieu. Some archaeologists have speculated that the construction of local temple sites in emerging villages reduced the importance of the site of Gobekli Tepe, with religious practice becoming more focussed on local village structures.

Nevali Cori 1

Nevali Cori 3

Further excavations will ultimately shed more light on this important period in human development. Gobekli Tepe may yet reveal itself as a settlement, not just a meeting place for ritual. Even its function as a ritual centre is uncertain owing to the difficulty in understanding the beliefs and motivations of people so remote. Were the stone circles at Gobekli Tepe meeting places, schools, markets, dining halls or even an arena of sorts? Professor Schmidt, who has been excavating the site continuously since its discovery, considers Göbekli Tepe a central location for a cult of the dead. He believes the carved animals were there to protect the dead. Despite the absence of tombs or graves, Schmidt thinks that they remain to be discovered in niches located behind the sacred circles’ walls. Either way, whatever their function, they mark the first known attempts at monumental architecture, placing the revolution of “civilization” much closer to the end of the last ice-age then previously thought.

Gobekli Tepe 10

Gobekli Tepe and Nevalı Çori are by no means the only contemporaneous sites in the region. Others include the so-called tower of Jericho – a tall, conical structure with an internal staircase, roughly 11,000 years old; Tell’Abr, a village characterised by central, communal storage buildings, also roughly 11,000 years old,; Jerf el-Ahmar, an 11,200 year old village with large communal buildings and Wadi Faynan, another village with communal buildings dating to roughly 11600 years ago. The emergence of these settlements in the wake of the last ice-age, c. 13000 years ago, is reminiscent of the Cambrian explosion of bio-diversity in the wake of the last Snowball Earth period. It appears that as the environment changed, ever-adaptable humans began to fill available niches and make use of more abundant resources. Perhaps the transition to villages and sites like Gobekli Tepe marks an attempt to recreate the centralised activity of cave-dwelling, though this rather keenly assumes these people were in fact transitioning from cave-dwelling, rather than altering an already open, nomadic lifestyle.

Gobekli Tepe 1

Recent studies in which ancient strains of grain and grass were grown in different levels of carbon dioxide – representing those of the last ice-age, and those of today – produced astonishing results. In the case of wheat and barley, the heads fattened up to and beyond double the size of those in grown in ice-age conditions. Was it as much the availability of this newly rich food source, along with the abundance of animals that drew people to this region in the first place? Was it the sheer abundance of food that allowed them to remain largely in the one area, rather than needing to forage more widely? Whilst we cannot identify evidence of organised farming and agriculture, it is almost certainly the case that people were harvesting wild grains prior to this development. Were Neolithic people storing wild grain in their communal buildings? As mentioned above, perhaps agriculture, and indeed, animal husbandry, came about as an offshoot of other, centralised activity. Whether that activity was religious or otherwise is uncertain, but the nature of sites like Gobekli Tepe certainly suggest a ritual purpose.

Gobekli Tepe 14

Professor Schmidt estimates another fifty years of work are required to unearth most of Gobekli Tepe’s secrets. This ongoing work may push the date back further, and may yet reveal further monumental structures buried beneath the hill. Other sites may yet be discovered, offering further insights into this fascinating period of human history. Whatever the case, it seems civilisation is a lot older than we originally thought, and may be older still – a more direct consequence of the end of the last ice-age than previously believed.

original night shot

Disclaimer: These images are not my own, but come from various sources freely available on the web

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: