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In a Milk and Honeyed Land
Kephrath - life, love and conflict in the hill country around 1200BC
Kephrath - life, love and conflict in the hill country around 1200BC


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Phobos and Deimos - history and speculation

(Full blog with more pictures at

Today’s blog bridges past and future, and focuses on Phobos and Deimos – the two moons of the planet Mars, named after the two chariot horses of the Greek god of war (Ares, for whom Mars is the Roman equivalent).

These moons were discovered by the American astronomer Asaph Hall at the Naval Observatory at Washington DC in 1877. He had been searching for them for some time, and was at the point of giving up when his wife Angelina encouraged him to persist. The following night, in a serendipitous moment even better than fiction, he was able to identify Deimos, and six days later he spotted Phobos as well.

But this tale goes back about 150 years before that, to 1726 and the satirist Jonathan Swift. In the third part of Gulliver’s Travels, having visited the better known lands of the miniature and gigantic – Lilliput and Brobdingnag – Gulliver arrives at a realm of scientists, called Laputa, floating in mid-air. The inhabitants are brilliant, but also implacably ignorant of worldly matters, and as a result, their ideas are usually impractical. Theirs is an interesting story, but the key paragraph from today’s perspective is in the third chapter, and reads as follows (

They have likewise discovered two lesser stars, or satellites, which revolve about Mars; whereof the innermost is distant from the centre of the primary planet exactly three of his diameters, and the outermost, five; the former revolves in the space of ten hours, and the latter in twenty-one and a half

The corresponding figures agreed by astronomers today are 1.38 and 3.46 diameters rather than 3 and 5, and 7.7 and 30.3 hours rather than 10 and 21.5. So his values are remarkably close to those agreed today, yet he had no apparent way to know them. This curiosity has excited a lot of energetic speculation, and no little conspiracy-minded thinking.

It seems likely – taking a more sober view – that he was basing his ideas on patterns of numbers. Mercury and Venus have no moon, Earth has one, and at the time Jupiter was known to have four. Five moons had been spotted around Saturn, and it would be a reasonable guess that another three would be found to give a total of eight. What more natural suggestion than that Mars had two? Kepler had made a similar suggestion, back in 1610.

Swift’s figures for the orbital size seem to be copied from values for Jupiter’s innermost moons Io and Europa, and the orbital period is then derived on the assumption that Mars has the same mass as the Earth. So his speculations may in fact be perfectly logically deduced, given the limited information at his disposal.

But the oddity about these moons did not stop with Swift. Nearly 15 years before Asaph Hall, a team led by H L d’Arrest at Copenhagen, working under more ideal viewing conditions, had failed to detect them. Not only that, but both moons are extremely light for their size, and the orbit of Phobos is close enough to Mars that it will not survive long in planetary terms – it is steadily decaying towards the fringes of the atmosphere. Finally, the surface of both moons is unusually dark – they are among the least reflective bodies in the solar system.

So the idea spread in the late 1950s that they were not natural moons at all, but artificial satellites put into orbit by a hypothetical Martian civilisation sometime between d’Arrest and Hall. This particular idea persisted right through to the presence of our own spacecraft orbiting and landing on Mars. I dare say that some people still adhere to it – after all, you can quite easily believe that an advanced race might disguise an artificial satellite as a moon.

But there are genuine unknowns still about these moons. Nobody has yet come up with a totally convincing theory of their origin – did they cool from the original disc of solar system matter at the same time as Mars itself? Are they splinters from Mars resulting from a prior collision with a suitably large body? Or were they captured from the relatively nearby asteroid belt?

Their low density has also attracted interest. Are they only very loosely packed collections of rubble-like material, rather than solid rock? Or perhaps there are significant cave-like voids riddled through the volume?

Until such time as we establish some kind of real presence on Phobos and Deimos, thus starting the real history of those moons, some of these ideas will remain purely conjecture…
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*Grasmere, Thirlmere, and Dunmail, last king of the Britons?

North of Grasmere and south of Thirlmere, beside today’s A591, there is a large cairn of stones, known as Dunmail Raise – the name also applied to the watershed between those two lakes. It turns out that there is a considerable collection of history and storytelling around this cairn, and I thought today I’d relate a little of that.

It seems broadly agreed that Dunmail (probably the same as Dyfnwal ap Owain, to give him his Cumbrian name) was a king who was defeated by the Saxon king Edmund, who had allied himself with the Scottish king Malcolm. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle comments ( “A.D. 945. This year King Edmund overran all Cumberland; and let it all to Malcolm king of the Scots, on the condition that he became his ally, both by sea and land“. This was just one among the endless shifts of allegiance along the borders – a generation earlier, Malcolm’s father Constantine had joined with Owain against Saxon king Athelstan. They lost that battle – Brunanburh, 937AD – and Owain himself was reputedly buried at Penrith.

In the repeated telling of this basic tale, Dunmail attained almost Arthurian status. In one version, his sons were blinded by the victorious Edmund. In another, his loyal followers took his crown – to ensure that the Saxons would not claim it and the kingship – and nipped up the track to Grizedale Tarn (following today’s Coast to Coast trail) and cast the crown into the depths - see the attached picture for this splendid place. When the time was right, he and it would be reunited and the ancient kingdom restored.

Another interesting source of variation is in the meaning of the cairn itself. One version simply holds that it was a boundary marker between the old regions of Cumberland and Westmoreland. Another reckons that it marks the burial place of Dunmail himself. But the version I find most appealing is that it recalls an old military tradition, in which soldiers going into battle would pile up “soul stones” as a safeguard. If they survived, they retrieved the stone from the pile… if not, well the number of stones in the pile was the number of casualties.

Observed in the light of archaeology and historical research, there are a great many uncertainties. Did Dunmail actually die as stated? (There is a separate tradition that he died later while on pilgrimage to Rome). What nationality was he? (Contenders include Norse or Celtic as well as Briton). But to elevate his romantic and literary status, I am going for the idea that he was the last king of the British… as Wordsworth expressed it in The Waggoner (,

The horses cautiously pursue
Their way, without mishap or fault;
And now have reached that pile of stones,
Heaped over brave King Dunmail’s bones; _
_His who had once supreme command,
Last king of rocky Cumberland;
His bones, and those of all his Power
Slain here in a disastrous hour!
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Looking for companionship

(Full blog with more pictures at

Our quest for companionship goes back a long way. According to the Hebrew Bible, it arose during the time of creation, when God brought all the animals and birds to the man – “the human” would be an appropriate translation. The reason was “it is not good for the human to be alone” Then “the human proclaimed names for all the domesticated animals and for the birds of the skies and for all the living things of the open country“. Sadly, amongst all of this array of life, no suitable helper could be found. So God went on to make a suitable helper.

My point today is nothing to do with how best to understand the creation story in Genesis, but to show that this tradition – along with many others all around the world – presents the idea that mankind has wanted to find companionship of some kind with the natural world for a very long time. We use the natural world all the time in our descriptions, similes, and metaphors about human behaviour, and although there are some mismatches when we try to carry such metaphors cross-culturally, by and large they survive translation very well.

The Biblical tradition became, through the course of time, increasingly antipathetic to representing the godhead in terms of animals, but animal metaphors remain strong throughout – eagle, bull, lamb, and so on. In other traditions, where the constraints against idolatry were weaker or absent, living things have been fair game to stand in for gods, demigods, spirit guides, familiar spirits, and so on. The Egyptian tendency to associate animal features with otherwise humanoid deities intrigued (and rather horrified) Europeans. But the Egyptians are very far from the only culture to do this. Classical Greek literature is full of transformations into and from animals, birds, plants, and so on. Hindu sacred texts associate one or more vahanas with each deity. These were – are – devoted companions, often used for riding, and typically taking animal or bird form – bull, elephant, peacock, mouse, tiger, owl, and so on.

Personally I’m not so bothered about a literal interpretation of all this, but I am very interested in what it might carry in terms of meaning. There’s an obvious connection in terms of linking the qualities of the beast with the god in question. So Sekhmet – with her lion head – was thought to protect the line of pharaohs and lead them in battle. But on another level, followers are encouraged to meditate on the imagery, and to use the real-world object as a vehicle to approach the godhead. Modern neuroscience thinks in terms of an animal brain, and a reptilian brain, and so on, biologically nestled within our human brain, and tending to pop to the surface and dominate our reactions from time to time.

Another modern symptom of the same trend is the quest for animal intelligence. We have found signs of this in dogs, pigs, most of the apes and upper primates, corvids, parrots, dolphins and whales, and so on. The early 19th century saw great interest in Learned or Sapient pigs, able to accomplish a wide variety of tasks… or where they just tricks? Since then we have expanded the study to a whole bevy of other living things, and in the process come to realise that we don’t really understand human intelligence! Which part of the brain is responsible for it? Or is it a generalised response emerging somehow out of the whole organism?

So we are still looking for companionship here on Earth, whether spiritual or intellectual. Arguably the quest for discovering alien life out in the rest of the cosmos is part of this great search. If it really is “not good for the human to be alone” then the quest will no doubt continue for a long time to come… in parallel with the quest to find companionship in the humans alongside us.
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Reviews and a guest blog

Not much new here this week, since my blogging effort has mainly gone into a guest blog at Antoine Vanner’s Dawlish Chronicles, on the subject Prehistoric Seafaring along the Atlantic Coasts ( Normally Antoine’s blog deals with 19th century naval issues, but on this occasion he was kind enough to let me take his readers back into the Bronze and Neolithic ages.

On to reviews. The Flame Before Us has just had a very pleasant 5* review on Hoover Book Reviews ( “From the noble, nose in the air, Egyptians to the settlements of peasants to the nomadic clans, we have a tale of loss, hardship, and hope as cultures collide and times change. Kudos to the author for a most enjoyable series. I look forward to more.” And in time, hopefully there will be more.

And finally, for those who haven’t yet seen it, here is a review of Far from the Spaceports ( This review is by Ian Grainger, who regularly produces my covers. Science fiction is much more his cup of tea than historicals…
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Nineteenth century naval fiction - my review of Antoine Vanner's new Dawlish novel.Follow the inks through and add a comment at the original post to be in with a chance of winning a copy.
My review of Antoine Vanner's Britannia's Spartan the fourth in the Dawlish series of late 19th century naval fiction. Leave a comment at the blog or the Review's corresponding Facebook page to be in with a chance of winning a free copy
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Egyptian multiplication
(Original post at, with proper colour highlighting in the tables)

I’ve seen a few posts recently on social media, lamenting what they see as a confusing way to present addition. I happen to think that the new presentation is actually a pretty cool way of showing what is going on when you add two large numbers together. But it seems that I may be in a minority here, since it’s regularly billed as “the modern way” or similar, in what is obviously supposed to be a derogatory manner…

So this is a swift diversion from other things to talk about mathematics in ancient Egypt.

Perhaps a quick presentation of the way the ancient Egyptians did multiplication might just help. Egyptian scribes necessarily did a lot of multiplication (volumes of pyramids, rations for armies, taxes due to the pharaoh, and so on). They also realised that addition was significantly easier to learn than multiplication, so converted one into the other. Now, when we first encounter multiplication in school, we are typically taught that it is simply repeated addition – so 4×5 is simply 5+5+5+5. But then we get into multiplying digits, carrying over extra powers of 10 to the next column, and so on, and the early lesson is forgotten. Especially when we can get a calculator app or a spreadsheet to just do it for us.

But actually, the Egyptians basically developed a form of binary representation of numbers – a direct parallel to the way computers represent numbers – and used this to make the task easier.

Let’s take a simple example… say 6×17 – simple enough to follow the logic, but fiddly enough you would probably start writing things down or using your phone app, rather than doing it in your head.

Start by making a table below the 6, starting with 1 and doubling each row until you get over half way towards 6 (in other words, when the next doubling would take you past 6). Beside each of these, under the 17, write 17 in the first row, and every row after that write in double the number before… 17+17=34 in row 2, and so on.

6 17
1 17
2 34
4 68
Then look up and down the left hand column to find which numbers you need to add to 6. Start with the bottom number – the largest – in this case 4. Go up to the next one – 2. I have highlighted them as grey here. You need 4+2, but you don’t need the 1.

Now add up the figures on the right hand side matching your selection on the left… 34+68 = 102. In case you don’t trust yourself, whip out a calculator of some form and check it.

Here’s a more challenging example – 29×59.

29 59
1 59
2 118
4 236
8 472
16 944
To find the matching numbers, start from the bottom of the left-hand column – 16 – and work your way up, deciding which you need to get to 29, Here it is 16, 8, 4, 1 (but not 2). So add up 944, 472, 236 and 59 to get 1711… which again you can check using some other means.

Basically, every multiplication problem can be reduced to addition. How does this work? Basically the figures down the left hand side can be interpreted as the binary representation of 6, or 29, or whatever. This binary mapping is then applied to the right hand side, by repeated doubling… which is just adding a number to itself. For the really geekily minded, it also relies on the fact that multiplication is distributive over addition – so if 6=4+2 then 6×17 = (4+2)x17 = 4×17 + 2×17. And the right hand side of the table is cunningly working out 2×17, 4×17 and so on, by repeated doubling.

Were the Egyptians aware of binary representations and such like? My guess is probably not, though I’m sure there are a lot of people who believe the Egyptians were capable of considerable technological advance.
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An author interview I did with Christoph Fischer for his blog...
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Back in the past - the first known use of end-rhyme

I thought for today I would jump back into the past, and in particular writing. I recently visited the British Museum’s “Faith after the Pharaohs” exhibition ( This is well worth a trip if you get the opportunity – it is on display until February 7th, so there’s a bit of time left yet.

Now, among other things I noticed a fragment on display from the Cairo Genizah. This is regarded as the world’s most important and comprehensive store of historical Jewish documents, and consists of around 300,000 fragments. It is a vast and perplexing mix of overtly religious material, together with secular works and everyday documents, and so has illuminated many different aspects of Jewish middle eastern life.

Now, some of the fragments – and in particular the one I saw – were written by a Jewish poet called Yannai. He is variously said to have lived in the 5th, 6th or 7th centuries CE (AD) and was a highly creative innovator in the field of piyyut – Hebrew or Aramaic poetry composed either in place of or as adornments to Jewish statutory prayers. His innovations include:

- He was the first Hebrew poet to sign his works (albeit with an acrostic rather than direct name)
- He was one of the first to write for regular weekly services rather than specific religious events
- He took the practice of payyetan from a very broad-based set of loose constraints into a tightly structure art-form in several innovative ways, and
– the thing I found most immediately interesting –

- he was the first to use end-rhyme as a poetic device.

So he not only used traditional devices like alliteration, parallel word pairs, and the like, but also introduced end-rhyme to help structure the poem as a whole. His rhymes were frequently not just the final syllable, but extended over complete words at line ends, and added the possibility of word-play in addition to the rhyme. Laura S. Lieber, one of the major authorities on Yannai, says “As literary works, his poems are as dazzling as they are complex, rich with sound and play, allusion and linguistic beauty.”

Unsurprisingly, his work influenced Hebrew poetry for generations after his death, starting in the Middle East but eventually shaping the way Hebrew poets in Spain created their work as well. So it was very pleasing to see this fragment of his writing on display!

Also back in the world of ancient writing, it’s the time of Scenes from a Life ( and The Flame Before Us ( to have Goodreads giveaways. At the time of writing they are pending approval by the Goodreads team, but check out the page links above to find out more, or navigate to the Goodreads listings at and to enter, once they go live on January 11th.

Next week – back to the theme of elements necessary for life, and the subject of Air.
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A historical offer to match the science fiction release

Blog readers will know all about tonight's Facebook celebration of the release of Far from the Spaceports 7pm-9pm UK time.

But alongside that I have set up Amazon countdown offers on the Kindle versions of Scenes from a Life and The Flame Before Us, so that historical fiction readers can enjoy the season too. Prices are at 99 pence / 99 cents just now, and slowly rise until getting back to normal price in a week's time.

Links are:

Scenes from a Life:
*The Flame Before Us: *
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