Great Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt – Tutankhamen

Although this episode is titled Tutankhamen – The Lost Pharaoh, it really isn’t so much about Tutankhamen as it is about the finding of his tomb, and that’s totally okay with me. This is a fascinating dissertation on how Egypt was excavated before there was even a discipline of archaeology. Whether treasure-hunters or honest explorers of history, Europeans came Egypt to uncover its past, and from Napoleon on, that led to hunts, digs and discoveries.

The episode talks a lot about Howard Carter, and I find him an immensely sympathetic character, an artist shipped off to Egypt when he was 17 who remained there through many different jobs, some of them prestigious many of them not, before finally gaining funding from Lord Carnarvon to seek for Tutankhamen’s tomb. One of the things I like about Carter is that when forced to choose between entitled Europeans and earnest Egyptians, he chose the Egyptians. It cost him his job as Inspector of Antiquities which led to him being available when Lord Carnarvon came seeking an excavator.

While this episode isn’t going to give you lots of good inspiration for an adventure set in Ancient Egypt, it provides a lot of interesting information on tomb hunting and the work that went into not just excavating the ancient tombs, but finding them.

The first time I listened to this series, it inspired an idea for Howard Carter – Combat Archaeologist, here.

You can find the Great Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt here.


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Five Bloody Heads

For those who dig sword noir, I think I may have found an author you might enjoy. Peter Fugazzotto’s work has been published in Heroic Fantasy Quarterly and Grimdark. He’s self-published a couple of novels, and I read an excerpt from his latest on his website. I like his writing style and the premise of Five Bloody Heads intrigues me. I’ll admit, I really don’t like the protagonist right now, but I am hoping that through the course of Five Bloody Heads he’s redeemed somewhat. I don’t mind tough protagonists, but I prefer them with a code of honour, like Conan, Marlowe, or Parker.

Go check out Peter Fugazzotto’s website and read the excerpt there. Decide for yourself if this looks like something you could dig. Amazon has one of his previous novels on for 99 cents when I checked, and I think for that amount, it’s pretty easy to take a chance.

You can find out more about Peter Fugazzotto at his website, here.

You can read an excerpt from Five Bloody Heads here.

You can find Peter Fugazzotto’s Amazon Author’s page here.

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No Tears for the Dead

When I read the synopsis for No Tears for the Dead, it reminded me of the Killer. An assassin makes a mistake and kills a young child. Guilt-ridden, he decides to save his next target, the child’s mother. The director is the same as the Man from Nowhere, my personal favourite Korean actioner right now. It seemed like a sure thing.

You know where this is going.

While there are some good action scenes and some solid performances, this is an okay rather than a good let alone great action movie. The storyline plods too often, and while some of the set-pieces are gripping, some of them are pedestrian. There’s just not enough good stuff in here.

Listen, an okay Korean action movie is still well ahead of almost anything put out by Hollywood, but when there are actioners like the Man from Nowhere or crime dramas like A Bittersweet Life, there’s no need to bother with No Tears for the Dead until you’ve run through those two and the Berlin File, Commitment, Old Boy, and A Company Man – possibly Suspect, but I’ll report back in on that later – and these are just the movies available on Netflix in Canada!

Kind of sad. I wish I had better news, but one so-so entry among a collection of strong showings isn’t bad.

I give No Tears for the Dead 3.5 long-range shotgun blasts out of 5. It’s better than most Hollywood actioners but not strong enough to stand against the other great movies coming out of Korea.

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Great Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt – Akhenaten

Welcome back to the Great Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt listen through, and this time we’re looking at someone as different in his own way as Hatshepsut when it came to being a pharaoh: Akhenaten, who Dr. Brier calls the heretic pharaoh.

Dr. Brier begins by explaining how conservative a society Egypt was. Its art didn’t really change at all in its 3,000 year history, nor did its social or political institutions. When change happened – such as a female pharaoh – the Egyptians attempted to get back to traditional ways and erase that aberration from its collective memory – for example, by attempting to remove all references to Hatshepsut after her death.

This seems kind of crazy on its face, and I imagine – though have no evidence – that this is more about Egyptian perception than actual fact. It is honestly impossible for me to visualize a society not changing over 3,000 years. Maybe the institutions and roles of the elite may not have changed, but culture must have moved forward in some way. Language must have evolved. But Dr. Brier seems to assert that this is not the case. It seems implausible at best to me.

However, Dr. Brier does explain that there were moments in history where the membrane of Egyptian conservatism was stretched almost to the breaking point, and Hatshepsut was not even the worst culprit.

As explained, the pharaoh, the military, and the religious institutions were all linked in a cycle of foreign adventure bringing esteem and booty, donated to the clergy, who supported the pharaoh and military. Akhenaten threw this all into turmoil by rejecting the use of the army as a mechanism for aggrandizement and resource collection and by eliminating the cultural need for the clergy by creating a new religion.

Dr. Brier says that Akhenaten created the first monotheistic religion. Not only did Akhenaten assert the Aten – a Sun deity in the Egyptian pantheon, but not one anthropomorphised and presented as the solar disk – was the only god the Egyptians would worship, the Aten was the only god, and all others were false. I’m not a comparative religion scholar, but given that Akhenaten ruled around 1350 BCE, I can believe it. The general non-scholarly cultural conception of the Exodus is that it happened around the time of Rameses (don’t worry, we’re getting to him) who began his period of rulership around 1270. That’s not a huge span of time, so I would imagine Akhenaten and the Jewish culture both likely have a claim on first monotheists, but this isn’t really a race.

Akhenaten’s monotheism was not a cultural evolution, it seems more like one man’s epiphany enforced on a nation. The fact that he had to create a completely new capital – eschewing the two traditional capitals of Memphis and Thebes – and populated it with a new elite indicates that his religious views were not shared, and his disinterest in military adventurism probably not appreciated.

In discussing the move from the capitol, Dr. Brier repeats a piece of information I believe he stated before but which I haven’t mentioned. He says that for the Egyptians, the west bank of the Nile was the land of the dead while the east bank was the land of the living. This is in relation to Akhenaten’s new capital of Akhetaten (very similar to the pharaoh’s name, which may be why Dr. Brier glosses over the Egyptian name for the place, generally using the Arabic and more modern Tell el Amarna), where tombs are located on the east, at the city.

This distinction of the west and east bank as land of the dead and living respectively is a great little cultural note that can help bring alive the setting in an RPG. It’s interesting, because in researching Thebes for Nefertiti Overdrive, I learned that the palace at Malkata was on the west bank. This may be because the pharaoh was supposed to be Osiris on Earth and so can live on the west bank, but I’m wondering if maybe this is one of those rules that isn’t really a rule – kind of like women can’t be pharaohs or lead armies.

It’s important to note that Akhenaten’s wife was Nefertiti and his son was Tutankhamen. Considering how iconic those two are for the general populace’s perception of Ancient Egypt, it’s interesting that Akhenaten really isn’t known at all. Part of that is likely due to following rulers attempting to erase him from history. He was an anomaly, and the Egyptians didn’t like it. His son returned to the old religion, his capitol was abandoned, and his name was removed from monuments. He had changed the religion, ignored the army, and even tried to alter expectations of artistic representations.

In this case, the designation of great seems more for his impact on contemporary society than his impact on history. It is fascinating to consider how one individual with enough power can impose so much on a society, even facing almost complete opposition.



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Great Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt – Hatshepsut Part II

So, we’re still talking about episode 3 in the Great Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt series. Last post, I exclaimed my one real concern with the lecture – the dismissal of the possibility that Hatshepsut led the military – but this episode always has some really interesting moments.

My intent for this post was to discuss some of those interesting moments, and then I got sidetracked and once again need to call out Dr. Brier – or at least provide counterpoint to his statements.

The discussion of the path to becoming a pharaoh really stunned me the first time I heard it – one becomes pharaoh by marrying a daughter of an earlier pharaoh and that pharaoh’s great wife. That says a lot about both becoming pharaoh but also about the marriage politics of the pharaoh’s family. I hadn’t heard much about this practice, but in all honesty, most of the texts I read when I was writing Nefertiti Overdrive glossed over how one actually becomes a pharaoh. In doing further research, I found that Dr. Brier may be adhering to a theory no longer accepted by other. Two examples are Lawrence Berman’s “Overview of Amenhotep III and His Reign” in Amenhotep III: Perspectives on his Reign, edited by David O’Connor and Eric H. Cline and G. Robins’ “A Critical Examination of the Theory that the Right to the Throne of Ancient Egypt passed through the Female Line in the 18th Dynasty,” referenced in Women and Military Leadership in Pharaonic Egypt by Elizabeth D. Carney.

I am not smart enough about Egyptology to now if Dr. Brier has good reasons to maintain this theory or how strong the evidence is against it. Honestly, I don’t really care. Were I writing fiction set during a pharaoh’s succession, or perhaps a game in which the PCs were somehow part of the succession, it would be important to get this right. Since that isn’t the case, and since the succession depicted in Nefertiti Overdrive is actually totally contrary to this theory – this succession was pharaoh by conquest – I don’t feel the need to figure this one out.

It’s just another example of what can happen when one relies on one specific source. If one finds contrary evidence, that doesn’t mean the single source is wrong, but it is important to investigate. Research the disagreement and see which of the evidence you find most compelling. History is interpretation, and while academics and historians are generally trustworthy because they usually are more aware of available evidence, people are fallible and people have inherent biases, biases about which the individual is probably not aware.

In any case, the path of succession remains a fascinating subject, and I would actually prefer Dr. Brier’s theory did it not generally necessitate incest – most successions were from father to son, so it would require marrying a sister. I prefer the “great wife succession” theory because it adds a complication and possible obstacle to a son’s succeeding a father, and that will always add tension to a story or game. I don’t prefer it as a historical theory, only as a narrative device.

One aspect of this discussion on which no one seems to disagree with Dr. Brier is on the different levels of marriage into which a pharaoh might enter. Pharaoh could have three kinds of wives. The great wife – of which there was only one – was the “main” wife, and only the children of the pharaoh and the great wife were considered to be of pure royal blood. The pharaoh could also have countless other wives. These women had many rights and responsibilities, but they were not the Great Wife, and so were always inferior. Finally there were concubines. These were not mistresses per se – according to Dr. Brier – and the child of a pharaoh and his concubine could become pharaoh, but they did not have the same rights as a wife.

As a point of comparison, concubines were also legal in Rome, and the purpose was to provide for a legal relationship similar to marriage when a legal marriage was not possible – perhaps due to class differences. This may be similar to the situation in Ancient Egypt, and after going down the rabbit hole of pharaonic succession, I’m just going to leave this one sitting right over there.

This is also getting long – go figure, Fraser has a lot to say, queue the lack of shock – but there were a couple of other really interesting topics Dr. Brier discussed. One of those was his theory of the three pillars of pharaonic power – how does one judge if a pharaoh was “great?” Dr. Brier asserts this is through military successes, building projects, and trade. In all these Hatshepsut distinguished herself, although Dr. Brier disparages her possible martial achievements.

Finally, linked to that last one, are the trade networks increased under Hatshepsut. Most important was a trade mission to Punt. As Dr. Brier asserts, we still don’t really know where Punt may have been, but I believe the main theory right now is roughly the location of the modern Somaliland/Somalia. The art associated with this trip are the first extant depictions of Sub-Saharan Africa. I bridle a bit at Dr. Brier’s use of the term “accurate,” as there is absolutely no way to judge their accuracy, but the perceptions of Punt by the Egyptians reminds us once again that we will always be fascinated by that which we consider “the other.”



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Castle Assault

This is an expansion of a review published back in August after Gen Con. The actual game wasn’t out at that time, so I decided to put out the full review when the game got released. I’ve been reliably informed that is now, so here we go.

In Castle Assault, you play an army . . . wait for it . . . assaulting a castle. It’s referred to as a tower defence game, though I will admit this means nothing to me. The game can be played solo or with two players, and the basic rules can be digested in about ten minutes. That’s kind of like saying poker can be explained it ten minutes – it can, but there is so much more to it than the basic rules.

The armies are composed of unit and command cards, in which the command cards act as kind of “buffs” for the units, giving them special abilities or allowing them to act in special ways. Each of the armies has a specific style, meaning that each requires a different strategy to use and oppose. That makes the game different with every play. The art for each is unique and lends itself. Each army also has a hero card, a kind of player character for the board game.

The board is made up of a grid through which your units move on their way to get to the opposing castle and assault it. Part of the turn order is gaining momentum, which can help your units through special abilities. Discards are used as a kind of currency to purchase units or commands from your hand to use on the board. This currency recharges each round, meaning your purchasing power increases pretty much every round. This is good, because the best cards – including a kind of boss card – are very expensive.

As long as you have units on the field, your army is in motion, and because your resources recharge every round, you’ve always got units on the field. I played the Orcs, which are about swarming, charging, and smashing. I thought that was apt given I didn’t know too much about the game. I played way too conservative for the faction I had chosen, but still had a great time. Given the number of cards for each faction, I would imagine this game would take a long time to master.

The only real complaint I have – and this is like complaining the chocolate ice cream isn’t vanilla – is that it can only accommodate up to two players. I’d prefer a game with four players so that the whole family could get involved. Yes, it is too complex for my daughters right now, but I’m betting in a couple of years, when my older daughter is 10, she’d be up for this. Still, this game is designed for one or two players, so that seems like an unfair criticism.

I give Castle Assault 4.5 rampaging orc battalions out of 5. The game is easy to learn but would likely take a satisfying amount of time to master. The art is great and the variety of cards and armies gives a player lots of different ways to enjoy the game.

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Great Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt – Hatshepsut

We’re on the third episode of Great Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt, and I’m actually worried that I’m not gushing enough about these. Total disclosure: the links to the Great Courses are part of an affiliate program and if you purchase after following them, I get some kind of commission. But if you think I’m BS-ing you to try to make some money, you need to go back into the archives here and on G+. I am a huge fan of the Great Courses and have always been proselytizing for it.

I really do love this series. It’s short, it’s simple, it gets at history from a space easy for people to enter, and I really do like Dr. Brier’s casual style. For each episode that I review, I’ve listened to it a minimum of four times – that’s because I’ve gone through this series twice on my own and I listen to each episode a minimum of two times before writing these articles.

I’ve listened to these four time at least, and I’d be happy to do so again. I don’t know what greater recommendation I can offer.

As much as I love this episode – all of them, really – there are two parts of it that really bother me.

Well, the first one doesn’t really bother me about the episode, just it’s kind of a tease that doesn’t deliver. On this third episode, we’ve jumped over two intermediate periods and the entire Middle Kingdom. From Sneferu – who reigned about 2613–2589 BCE – we jump to Hatshepsut – who ruled about 1508–1458 BCE. One thousand years. We don’t get to talk about the intermediate periods, when Egypt fell apart – kind of like the Crisis of the Third Century for Imperial Rome – and we don’t get to talk about the Hyksos – the foreign “barbarians” who conquered Egypt and introduced it to the chariot.

While that bothers me, it’s not that it’s a problem with the episode or even with the format. He’s got twelve episodes, so he’s being selective, and there just wasn’t any pharaoh between Sneferu and Hatshepsut that Dr. Brier’s considers “great.” When I originally listened to this series, that gap actually led me to go buy the History of Ancient Egypt series.

Maybe that was Dr. Brier’s intent? I doubt it, but in this case, it worked brilliantly.

My other problem was with his casual dismissal of Hatshepsut’s military record. He indicates that she states she led armies into the Sudan, but he says he doesn’t believe this. He might have compelling reasons not to believe it, but he doesn’t provide them. This is odd considering the detail he generally offers. It worries me because in the past, Viking shieldmaidens were dismissed as unlikely or extremely rare at the same time that sex of the occupant of a burial was based on grave goods – so if the corpse was buried with weapons and armour, obviously a man! Determining sex by bones has proved that women were buried with weapons – though a very small portion of them, and far fewer than men. So Dr. Brier’s casual dismissal, when I have not encountered him doing the same with other pharaohs, tweaks my radar.

The course notes state: “As a woman, Hatshepsut was unable to lead men in battle, . . .” Which is ironic, considering that as a woman, she also couldn’t be a pharaoh, but she was. He even relates the confusion the first time someone translated hieroglyphics about Hatshepsut, and couldn’t understand why a pharaoh was being referred to with the female pronoun.

I just hope Dr. Brier’s has better evidence for dismissing the claim than simply because she was a woman. He spends so much of the episode convincing us what a great pharaoh she made that it would be disheartening to learn he couldn’t see that himself.

I’m going to continue in a second article because I haven’t discussed some of the really cool things I learned in this episode, so I kind of gushed for a bit, then slammed for a bit, and I’ll be back to gush some more.



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