Friday, 22 February 2013

Horsing Around

At the risk of sounding 'Horse Obsessed' (given that 3 out of the last 5 postings have had the word 'horse' somewhere in the title), I must just add one more thought to the current debate on the addition of our favourite non carnivorous mammal to the dining table.  

As the Daily Mail splashes pictures of 'cute' looking horses across its front page (with the caption "Bon Appetit: The French see this as food!"), Mail journalists note that, whilst not illegal to sell horsemeat in the UK "there are no restaurants or butchers that do so as there is no demand". "It all sounds very Continental, so brutally French" the paper concludes, so "far removed from anything that would happen in horse-loving Britain."

The Mail, and many other papers, reporters and cultural commentators, agree that the consumption of equine quadrupeds is thoroughly Un-British, horse being something that, as one journalist on the BBC commented, "has traditionally never been eaten in the UK". Well, I hate to disillusion you, dear BBC, but of all meat consumed in Britain today, horse is probably the most traditional. 

Archaeological evidence, painstakingly retrieved from the well-preserved Paleolithic sequence at Boxgrove in West Sussex since the early 1980s, suggests that, around 500,000 years ago, bear, deer, rhinoceros and horse were all preyed upon by our early human ancestors. 

One of the most interesting areas examined at Boxgrove (site GTP 17), contained the partially dismembered remains of a horse; evidence for the systematic butchery of the carcass being provided by a detailed examination of the surviving bones, all displaying a variety of cut marks, scrape marks, impact fractures and breakage patterns. Marks preserved across the horse skull further indicated the filleting of muscles, removal of the jaw, and final breaking apart to extract fatty tissue. Additional cut and scrape marks across the pelvis and leg bones indicate dismemberment, filleting and extraction of marrow. 

Other bones retrieved from Boxgrove indicate similar deliberate dismemberment of animal carcasses, most notably a horse femur (from area Q1/B) which displayed filleting scrapes, disarticulation marks and impact fractures consistent with the use of a hammerstone and stone anvil to break the bone apart.

No obvious signs of a deliberate and effective hunting strategy have been firmly detected from the site (as yet), though part of a horse shoulder blade (recovered from butchery area GTP 17) possessed a semicircular puncture wound inconsistent with the other impact fractures recorded from the animal carcass. The ‘puncture’ is ambiguous, but it could have been created by a high-speed impact, such as one would expect from penetration by a sharpened wooden spear.

However this particular horse died, it is clear that our ancestors had first access to the body, for signs of carnivore gnawing were always secondary to cut marks produced by flint tools. Also, where individual animal skulls were recovered, the evidence suggests that certain soft body parts, such as the eyes, remained in place at the time of deposition and had not been removed through scavenging activity. 

The earliest evidence for food procurement in the British Isles therefore suggests that, contrary to the current belief of the British Press, horse meat was not only top of the ancestral list of edible favourites, but also represents the most traditional meat eaten in the UK, having been a staple for at least half a million years (far, far longer than cow, pig or sheep).

If only someone would let the Daily Mail and BBC know.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

My Kitchen for a Horse

When did we stop eating horse?

It's a question which, in the middle of all the current 'shock / horror' news stories of horse meat being found in burgers / lasagnes / moussakas (other TV dinners are available), with grim faced reporters reciting doom-laden statistics and members of the public expressing their outrage, as if they'd just found badger, dog or human meat in their favourite economy-microwaveinthreeminutes-gourmet-delight (other gourmet delights are available), has started to bother me, especially as no one seems to know the answer. 

I can tell you when I definitely stopped eating horse: November 1993, the month I went vegetarian (unless, of course, they prove that there's horse DNA in Quorn, in which case I was probably eating it last night in my chilli). A perfectly viable (and apparently utterly edible) meat, horse is, by all accounts, far better for you than cow. Muscular, tender (apparently) and far less fatty than other farmyard meat products (and only occasionally pumped full of steroids), horse is, so the TV experts are assuring us, better than pig or cow.

So what's the problem? 

The question of "why not horse?" first arose in my mind two summers ago, way before the news story of contaminated lasagnes (other contaminated ready meals are available) broke, during the excavation of an Iron Age settlement on the chalkland of southern England. Here, at the bottom of a series of 2,000 year old storage pits, horse bone was found in relatively large amounts; most of it showing evidence of butchery and processing. Our pre Roman ancestors were partial, so it would seem, to more than just a bit of horse in their diet. 

Not only that, but they also liked to play 'mix it up' a bit, a number of pits containing (to our minds) a surreal composite of horse and cow; horse skulls being found together with cow jaws (and vice versa); cow spines with horse legs (and vice versa); horse heads with cow ribs (and vice versa). Such strange reassembly of dismembered remains in the base of disused pits suggests that either our Iron Age inhabitants had a complex series of deities to appease (to ensure the long term survival of the clan group and fertility of the herd) or they were extremely bored (and cowhorse jigsaw puzzles helped pass the time).

Whatever the case, it was intriguing to note that, despite living within spitting distance of the English Channel (other distances are available), the one thing our two thousand year old friends appear to have studiously avoided consuming was sea food; no fish or mollusc remains being found anywhere on site. Whilst I think this makes perfect sense (why eat a particularly smelly, oily meat dredged, with some difficulty, from the depths of the cold, dark (and salty) ocean when you can eat one of the jumpy, frolicy, horsey things that live (jump and frolic) on the land surface quite close to your house?), it does emphasise the different needs, preferences and (quire possibly) religious and social taboos that defined both their (and our) existence.

To be fair, a clue to the diet of the Iron Age tribe may be found in their coins, which depict a variety of equine quadrupeds disassembling into their constituent parts: an exploding horse, if you will.

Possibly the shock expressed by the northern European public today is a combination of, as one news reporter put it, not wanting to eat 'friendly animals' (although if you've ever found yourself alone in a field with a shire horse the one word you would NOT use to describe the meeting is 'friendly') and labelling. Perhaps it's just simply that the great British public feel cheated; that their 99p bargain Beef lasagne actually contains no beef. Findus / Nestle / Asda (other economy food producing companies are available) 'Horse Lasagne' would have been a more accurate label, but would it have been any more popular? Perhaps if it had been accompanied by the advertising tag: "I'm so hungry I could eat a....."?

Might work.

Perhaps, simply, it's just the name and the lack of any form of euphemism to disguise the (literally) unpalatable truth that the meat in food comes from a specific type of farmyard animal that is the real issue here. Changing the name helps hide the source, hence Pig is pork or ham (or sometimes bacon) and Cow is beef whereas Horse is, well, just 'horse'. No polite disguise, no euphemism. If we (as a society) are to continue to eat horse (or at least find it in everything) perhaps a solution would be to simply change the name of the meaty product. How about  'Porse' or 'Berse'?; 'Hork' or 'Heef'?

Mmmmmmm 'Findus Heef Lasagne' a vegetarian, even I'm tempted by that. 

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Doublespeak: the lexicon of managerial confusion

Doublespeak, the lexicon of managerial confusion continues to thrive in the workplace. I have long cited my love/hate (mostly hate/hate) relationship with the jargon-fuelled world of the 'manager', whose main (and sometimes only) purpose in life seems to be to sanitise unwelcome news, minimise horror and disguise the outrageous, pointless and otherwise sickening through a stream of banal verbiage.

To this end I had, until the start of February, avoided all forms of contact with the world of the managerial meeting. Yesterday, however, I felt I should dip my toe into the sea of insanity, if only to test the temperature. It couldn't be quite as bad as I remembered could it? 

No, it wasn' was far, far worse.

Here are some new gems of management doublespeak heard in yesterday's meeting to add to my ever expanding file (oh yes, it's all being recorded):

Apparently certain current university programmes are 'baselining' with the result that they could be 'impacting deliverable frameworks'. As I understand it, we must all now look at the 'common academic structure' for, if it is to work, the  'process model' will have to reconsider the existing 'enterprise architecture'. By common consent, the only way this can realistically be achieved is to boost 'staff / student industry networking', something that can be promoted through the application of a 'more efficient career hub' otherwise we are all simply just 'pushing at a closed door'.

Simple really....can't see why I didn't think of it before.

I have a New Year's resolution (although it's now nearly midway through the second month of the year) which is to "Not Waste My Time Going To Infrastructure Meetings". Meetings involving student progress, student welfare and academic research I will attend as these all relate to real, tangible 'things', are chaired by real people who use real words and get real things done. The only purpose of Infrastructure / Management / Board (Bored) Meetings that I can see is to effortlessly remove 3 hours of your life with no appreciable gain, other than to justify the existence of those who really ought to be a) doing some proper work or b) being made redundant (preferably the latter).

There's no doubt about it; management euphemisms are becoming toxic and not just at universities, their corrosive influence eating away at common sense and sanity at all levels of modern society.

When I got home I flicked on the evening news to be confronted with an article assessing the current conflict (it's not a 'war' apparently) in North Africa. Evidently to reassure the public that this was more 'surgical strike' than industrial slaughter in which both civilians and soldiers are being endlessly killed, maimed or simply eviscerated, a Ministry of Defence (once known as the Ministry of War before someone thought that sounded a wee bit too aggressive) spokesman said that in Mali, Britain was merely 'providing logistical support' to the French as part of a 'wider initiative to increase soft power influence' across Africa.

A spokesman for the Con/Dem UK government added (helpfully) that UK 'military involvement' was a vital part of 'reconsidering upstream support' which helped 'buttress vulnerable polities'. This was all being carefully monitored, he said, so there was no worry about 'mission creep'.

So that's all right then. 

Monday, 4 February 2013

Richard III: a horse, a house, a hearse

If I hear one more person saying that they "had a hunch it would be Richard III" I think I'll scream (or at least strike the next person through my office door with a halberd).

Richard is, of course, one of the more famous of monarchs to rule England, thanks, primarily, to the demonization of both character and personality in the play of the same name written by Shakespeare in the early 1590s. In the play, Richard is a malformed, crook-backed, amoral, power-grabbing despot who casually slaughtered his young nephews in order to illegally seize the throne of England. As such a clear-cut 'monster', he could, of course, be legitimately dethroned by the next amoral power-grabbing despot that came along, in this case one Henry Tudor, later Henry VII. The gory death of Richard at the climax of the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, effectively brought to an end the Game of Thrones known as the Wars of the Roses, and is traditionally viewed by many historians as the point at which the ‘Medieval Era’ closed.

So far, so historically debateable.

In August of last year, an excavation in Leicester (which most newspapers stated, somewhat incredulously had been conducted "beneath a Council Car Park" as if such things were utterly impossible) found human remains which, many suspected, were those of the deposed monarch.  

Admittedly the immediate field evidence compiled, as it stood, and once you cut away the media hype, looked extremely promising: the skeletal remains retrieved by the University of Leicester possessing signs of near-death (or even cause of death) trauma to the skull and an iron projectile point in the back. This was a person who had died in battle (or at least surrounded by much violence).

What most journalists picked up on, however, was the evidence for severe scoliosis, or curvature of the spine. Could this, many asked, be the key feature of the king that Shakespeare and others were later to so cruelly point out? Perhaps. The condition would certainly have made one shoulder appear higher than the other, something that later rewriters of history could legitimately describe as ‘a hunch’ (although it is fair to say that amoral power-grabbing madness is not, in itself, detectable in the archaeological record).

Still, despite the certainties, uncertainties and general (sometimes heated) debate, it's brilliant to see archaeology, archaeological finds and scientific process (including radiocarbon dating, DNA sequencing and geophysical survey) being so heavily trailed in the news, especially amidst the otherwise gloomy headlines prophesising all sorts of global and political meltdown.

An understandably very excited member of the "Richard the Third Society" being interviewed by an even more excited BBC journalist, gushed forth on the discovery with much enthusiasm and passion whilst the elated journalist wondered whether the find, now that it had been positively identified, could finally help "restore Richard III's reputation"

…er, sorry but how exactly?

We know quite a lot about Richard's life and brief reign, although certain details, such as the ultimate fate of his nephews, the 'princes in the Tower', remain unknown (confirmation of the discovery of their remains would be definitely generate something of a media sensation). We also know how and where he died and, ultimately, how, where and under what circumstances his mortal remains were disposed of, contemporary records noting the precise location of burial within the Franciscan friary of Greyfriars (demolished during the dissolution of the monasteries conducted under Henry VIII and now definitively covered by a car park).

The discovery of Richard’s remains (if indeed they really are him) are interesting from the point of view that this is the first time the skeleton of a Medieval English king has been subjected to rigorous scientific analysis (evidence for disease, health, nutrition etc. all being of vital importance, supplementing the scanty historical evidence for such things); a rare example of history and archaeology coming together to tell a single tale.

But will all this say anything more about the personality of the last Plantagenet king?

The discovery of his body cannot in any sense 'restore his reputation' - unless there is a 'good bone' prevalent in 'nice' people or perhaps a quantity of 'saintly DNA' found in those of an amenable disposition, we will never be able to see into the character or soul of the man.

Still, at least it gave people at the school gates / corner shop / staff room something new to talk to me about, rather than the endless discussion on dinosaurs......