Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Ancient Greek Pottery and Glass

Pithos jar with rope decor
17th century BC

Although the gold of Mycenae was probably the most stunning of the exhibits in the National Archaeological Museum of Greece, it was the pottery and domestic items that brought home most forcefully the astonishingly high level of civilisation of the ancient world.

bronze age amphorae

I remember looking at one vase and thinking it was almost identical to earthenware produced in Staffordshire around 1750 -1800. Of course I’ve always known Greece was the source of Josiah Wedgwood’s inspiration, but I hadn’t realised quite how closely he followed three or four thousand year old patterns.

 bronze age amphora
 glass vessel, Thessaly, 2nd century BC
Glass Bowl 1st century BC 

It’s humbling to think that the same sort of pottery was in use during both the Trojan and Napoleonic Wars.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Mycenaean Gold

When Heinrich Schleiman excavated the ruins of Mycenae he telegraphed the emotional report: "I have looked upon the face of Agamemnon."

Death Mask of Agamemnon

Well now, thanks to the glorious National Archaeological Museum of Athens, so have I.

If there was one relic of classical civilisation that I always longed to see, this was it. And when I saw it, I couldn't help saying to myself, "I know you. I've seen people just like you."

In this wonderful place, the Trojan War happened yesterday.

Having read The Iliad, I've tended to regard the warlike Mycenaeans as essentially destructive. Here, preserved in the National Archaeological Museum of Greece are a few of the many examples of their remarkable craftsmanship that helped change my mind:
Gold cups and jewellery

Swords, two with golden hilts


Gold decorative items

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Around and About in Athens

The Parthenon is presently a giant building site

Although Athens boasts a fine new airport road, it seemed it was necessary for our taxi to leave it and plunge through tangled suburban streets which showed considerable evidence of the city’s current financial hardships. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen so much graffiti; hardly an inch of any ground floor wall seemed without. To the first-time tourist this is disconcerting; what exactly have I let myself in for here? Fortunately that was where the bad impression both started and stopped.

Monastiriki  Square
With just one and a half days to take in the sights, we began as we often do on the top deck of a circular tour bus. Whoever invented the hop-on/hop-off open-top bus performed a great service to tourism. In Athens that meant our first call was at Monastiriki Square (left) at the foot of The Acropolis where we browsed around the Flea Market and immediately encountered the vexing problem of attractive pottery and glass that had little or no realistic prospect of homeward transportation by air.

Excavations of the old Agora

It was surprising to find excavation of the old agora district (right) going on. For some reason I’d supposed central areas must have been explored long ago, but of course the level at which the archaeologists are working is well below the current city and our own country is always finding ancient sites when digging foundations for new developments too.

A tip for EU citizens visiting The Acropolis: take your passport or pictorial ID; you’ll get in for half price. It’s no good saying you left it in your hotel safe and anyway one can always tell an Englishman by the way he talks.

Odeon of Herodes Atticus

On your way up you first encounter the Odeon of Herodes Atticus (left), a superb ancient theatre still in use for modern performances.

The Propylaea, the monumental gateway to the temple area, is a remarkable building in its own right, as is the Erechtheion (below), the older temple at the summit, though of course all the crowds are flocking round The Parthenon (top). How sad that such a magnificent structure should have survived from antiquity only to be blown up in a relatively modern war, sadly an all too familiar spectacle to this day.


Surrounded by crowds one can only marvel at the colossal remains. I found it impossible to feel the spirit of Ancient Greece while being broiled in the sun on top of an exposed rock. In fact it was hard to feel anything but the urgent need for shade.

Neverthless, from the summit you can see great distances. Amongst the landmarks I picked out Lofos Likavitou, the site of one of my (sadly as yet unpublished) stories, along with the Theatre of Dionysus, the Temple of Olympian Zeus and the Temple of Hephaestus, all of which we had little choice but to pass by in the energy-sapping heat.

By this time we were ready for a rest in our air-conditioned hotel room and a very pleasant dinner in a penthouse restaurant overlooking the Acropolis.

Monday, 3 July 2017

The vexed issue of University Tuition Fees

A long time ago, when I attended university, barely 10% of young people did so. By contrast the Higher Education Initial Participation Rate (HEIPR) which estimates the likelihood of a young person participating in Higher Education reached 48% in 2014/15.

When the government decided that half of young people should go to university, it quickly became apparent that this target could not be practically combined with a continuation of the free university university education of my era. This would impose too great a burden on the taxpayer, particularly the half of each generation that would not receive direct benefit from the scheme.

The idea of so-called ‘top-up’ fees were floated. Ministers justified these on the grounds that graduates earned, over the course of their working lives, a substantial premium compared with non-graduates and therefore should themselves take more responsibility for funding their own courses.

Back then The Times (UK) was obliging enough to publish a letter from me criticising the economics that apparently underlay this thinking. Essentially, my argument was that graduate salaries were then high because graduates were rare and demand exceeded supply. Once the supply of graduates was substantially increased, the maginal wage of graduates would be forced down until the expected wage premium was reduced to zero or even beyond. These surplus graduates would then not be able to afford the repayment of their student loans. What I predicted has now come to pass.

Meanwhile well-trained craftsmen, artisans and technical operatives have not only seen no such government backing for an increase in their numbers, but have in fact seen numerous potential recruits to their ranks diverted into universities. Accordingly the marginal craftsman now earns more than the marginal graduate.

Apprenticeships are usually financed by employers, so there are no fees, though apprentices receive lower than normal wages to take account of the fact that in the early stages of their training their value-added is negative, (because experienced workers are diverted from production into training).

Whereas a graduate now enters adult life saddled with a debt of tens of thousands, a time-served craftsman has no such burden and hence is better placed to take on a mortgage and acquire his own home. He is also better placed to contribute to the necessary re-balancing of the UK economy.

I suggest that the commitment to excessive university education was unwise. Rather than attempt once again the failed past experiment of financing its cost from general taxation, we would do better to reduce HEIPR to a level the economy actually requires.