I can’t tell you how much I LOVE this – Kim Haines-Eitzen’s acoustic soundscapes

Every once in a while you stumble across one of those research projects which is so fascinating, so perfectly in tune with your own loves, interests and quirks that it is almost as if it were written for you and you alone? There is also a particular feeling when you meet up with a colleague or workmate in a different environment and see them in totally new way (like the time when I realised that one of the lecturers from the drama department not only played the saxophone, but had played Andy Sheppard!). These are exactly the sensations I experience when I recently came across Kim Haines-Eitzen’s research, ‘Acoustic encounters in the late ancient desert‘ on her Listening to the Desert blog.

Kim Haines-Eitzen is the Professor of Ancient Mediterranean Religions at Cornell University, specialising in Early Christianity, Early Judaism, and Religion in Late Antiquity. I was first introduced to her work by my postgraduate supervisors at the University of Birmingham, where her book, Guardians of Letters: Literacy, power and the transmitters of early Christian literature , was causing much excitement and unsettling a few long held assumptions about scribal activity and the transmission of texts. However, recently, through the wonders of the ‘twitter-shere’, I have become aware of her interests in a very different field: goat-herding (albeit, part-time)! I checked to see if this @KimHainesEitzen was the very same one who wrote the book that I had devoured a number of years previously. Yes, it was! As sheep and goats in antiquity graze upon the epicentre of my research passion, finding a scholar with similar interests was like finding a fellow dog-lover in a cat’s beauty salon. However, it hasn’t stopped there. Having checked her blog to see if she had any insights into goat husbandry and herding, I found that she is working on this incredible project that,

…focuses on the environmental sounds of desert landscapes as imagined and experienced in the literature of late ancient monasticism from Egypt and Palestine (ca. 200-600 CE).

Making field recordings in the Negev and Judaean deserts, as well as those from the deserts of the American Southwest, Kim is compiling a collection of audio recordings to create an acoustic soundscape within which to explore the desert world of late Antiquity that helped to shape and influence later Christian traditions.

Theoretically, I’m influenced by phenomenology, affect and sensation theories, sounds studies, and ecocriticism as I attempt to rehabilitate an acoustic dimension to both environmental landscapes and the religious literatures and practices that are shaped by these landscapes (and, in turn, shape the landscapes themselves in multiple ways).

I find this such a wonderfully imaginative and powerfully compelling idea. I first discovered aural soundscapes after finding a rather battered copy of David Troop’s Ocean of Sound CD being discarded by my local public library. From then on I’ve become hooked on the immersive power and qualities of the acoustic world; whether they be soothing tones of Eric Simms as he captures the sounds of oyster catcher’s and terns at Blakney Harbour or the East Coast salt marshes, the haunting depth of Lana Del Rey’s Terrence Loves You, Andy Sheppard’s melding of city noise with music, the proliferation of ‘natural world’ recordings (of differing quality), or Peter Handford’s beautifully evocative recordings of steam trains within their 1950/1960s soundscapes; – the steady beat of the ‘northbound freight’, a Stanier ‘Black Five’ climbing Greenholme summit on a blustery May day amid the sound of sheep, curlew and the soft patter of rain is utter magic.

Often these ‘sound worlds’ offer a chance to escape and are often, rather shamelessly, marketed to do exactly that. However, they teach us much more than that. As doctoral student, researching the oral aspect of early Christian textual transmission (hence my ‘encounter’ with Kim’s work), I quickly became aware that we can be so captivated by the oral that we can often overlook (and sometimes dismiss) the aural. My burgeoning interest/love in aural soundscapes presented to me the importance of the ambient (generally unconscious) aural environment in which we live and make sense of our worlds. The acoustic world is important, even if we remain largely unaware of it.

Kim’s aim is to explore the “dynamic relationships between the sonic dimensions of environmental landscapes and the religious imagination.”

Using the language of soundscape ecology, I explore geophony (e.g.,sounds of wind, thunder, water), biophony (e.g., sounds of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and insects), and anthrophony (e.g., the sounds of humans chanting, singing, praying) to ask how a particular landscape–real or imagined–works dynamically to shape religious thought, literature, and practice.


Kim’s site offers 6 recordings from Israel – the ‘Night winds of Nahal Zaror’ is sheer poetry and delight – and 10 from the American Southwest – I defy anyone not to love the elemental wonder of ‘Thunder on Portal-Paradise Road, Arizona’.

Listening to Kim’s recordings reminds me of reading Annie Dillard for the first time. Her Pilgrim at Tinker Creekthe way she captured the natural world in word, the language, the pictures she painted, was so very, VERY different from the writers who had become literary mentors and guides; Richard Jefferies, Edward Thomas, Gilbert White, Richard Mabey, Roger Deakin, etc. etc. I’d noticed it already, a little, in other US writers (Thoreau, Mary Oliver, etc). It is not that Dillard is more poetic (or less), more realistic (or less), more sentimental (or less). The environment shapes our sensitivities. We may all be fellow citizens of the globe, but our natural worlds are very different. Our ‘wildernesses’ are contained, trimmed and carefully maintained. They are not really WILDernesses, but they are places we can go to remember, via our collective memory, of those times when they were once wild and terrifying. I love Edward Thomas’ work, but I suspect he would have struggled to find the beauty and inspiration of the arid scrub of the American deserts. He could have never written a ‘Tinkers Creek’, just as Annie Dillard would write a very different book (had she been alive then) about the Icknield Way that Thomas had known.

I get the feeling that for a project that aims to create the acoustic soundscapes of the late ancient desert, Kim Haines-Eitzen is the best placed to do so… and I don’t (primarily) mean geographically.



“And the fly is saying…”: On flies, the campus, and the Bible

Newman University is situated next to a reservoir and, over the last few days, the current system of very warm air over Britain has resulted in the (sort of) annual ‘infestation’ of insects on the Newman campus. I have to admit to rather enjoying the sight of them, dancing lazily in loose veils in the soft afternoon sun and their sudden appearance on a paper I am reading or scurrying across the desk. However, I am also aware that, for those living in halls, it can create feelings that are far less poetic! Nevertheless, it got me thinking about flies in the Bible and the wider Ancient Near Eastern traditions.

[This post also appeared on the Newman Research Centre for the Bible and its Reception: 02/04/2017]

Insect at Newman
Image: James Westwood

If I am in the minority among those living and working at Newman for rather relishing this phenomenon, I also have to concede that I appear to be a bit of an oddity where the ancients are concerned too! Flies appear to have been universally disliked, or at least, viewed as worthless pests and nuisances. Read more

2,000-Year-Old Pet Cemetery Unearthed in Egypt – Archaeology Magazine

A report from the University of Delaware detailing excavations at the Red Sea port city of Berenike, Egypt, includes the finding of a 2,000 year old ‘pet’ cemetery containing the remains of 17 dogs and cats, some still wearing their iron collars and attended by jewelry.

The ancient Egyptians’ love for their cats was well known to the ancient historians – although we need to treat their accounts with a certain amount of caution – Herodotus ( II: 66-67) describes the funerary processes, including embalmation, following the natural death of a cat [dog lover’s will be pleased to note that canines are also included!]. Diodorus Siculus (1st cent BCE) writes that even the unintentional killing of a cat was a capital offence:

“Whoever kills a cat in Egypt is condemned to death, whether he committed this crime deliberately or not. The people gather and kill him. An unfortunate Roman, who accidentally killed a cat, could not be saved, either by King Ptolemy of Egypt or by the fear which Rome inspired.

Such was the Egyptian’s veneration for the cat, Polyaenus (Stratagems VII:9) provides an account of the Battle of Pelusium in 525 BCE, between Pharaoh Psametik III and the Persian leader Cambyses II in which cats played a strategic role. Polyaenus writes that aware of the reverence with which the Egyptians held the cat, Cambyses ordered that images of the cat-god Bastet be painted on his soldiers’ shields. Furthermore, he placed before his front-line all those animals, including cats, that he knew the Egyptians held dear. Fearing to injure the animals the Egyptian army took flight and was massacred. After the battle, it is reported that the cats were thrown into the faces of the defeated Egyptians by Cambyses, disgusted that a nation should surrender to ensure the safety of animals.

What is really interesting is that this find points to practises and attitudes relating to a multi-cultural, non-aristocratic levels of society.

“What makes this unique is (despite) the very rough circumstances in which these people are living, they still manage to find the time and effort to have companion animals with them,”

Steven Sidebotham of the University of Delaware.

Source: 2,000-Year-Old Pet Cemetery Unearthed in Egypt – Archaeology Magazine

For the USA Today article click here

Neolithic dairy farming and the land flowing with milk and honey…

Ramla, Palestine, 1938.
Ramla, Palestine, 1938.

A recent study by a team of scientists and archaeologists from the Universities of York and Bristol, together with colleagues from the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, have reported evidence of dairy production and processing in northern Mediterranean farming communities from Neolithic times. The identification of milk and bovine carcass fats in over 500 pottery vessels, as well as a study of faunal remains for slaughter patterns, at over 82 sites from the 7th-5th millennia BCE suggests that dairy farming was an important (if localised) element within farming communities at this time. The report helps to provide a clearer picture of the place and role of cattle exploitation in Neolithic Mediterranean farming and, although the research is centred on northern sites, it could strengthen the case for a mixed agricultural economy in the southern Levant.

Damascus cow (modern) native to Syria. Image: http://www.krankykids.com/cows/mydailycow_alphabetical/A.html
Damascus cow (modern) native to Syria. Image: from My Daily Cow at krankykids.com

The traditional view that the Israelite nation emerged from nomadic tribes has recently been challenged by numerous scholars (for example see, Khazanov, 1983; Hiebert, 1996; Borowski, 1998; Sasson, 2008). Anthropological and archaeological evidence has refused to sit easily with the old tripartite, cultural-evolutionary model that premeates so much of biblical studies. This 18th/19th century theory (championed by scholars such as Wellhausen, Alt, von Rad and Noth) contends that human societies progress in a linear manner through three distinct phases: Hunter-gatherer > nomadic pastoralism > sedentary (agrarian) farming. The references to cattle (בָּקָר – ba.qar; ) in early strata Hebrew texts – particularly those relating to the Patriarchal History – indicate a close association with its past (in the form of cultural aetiology) and the husbandry of cattle. Even the figure who traditionally  has been most equated with nomadism (Abraham) is described as owning cattle (for example, Gen 15:9-10; 18:7-8; 21:27; 24:35). Read more

Rough deal for hired hands? John 10:12

‘The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.’ [NRSV]

This blog was first posted on Newman Research Centre for the Bible and its Reception: 26/06/2015

1938: A Bedouin shepherd carrying a young lamb on the hills of Palestine
1938: A Bedouin shepherd carrying a young lamb on the hills of Palestine

John 10: 1-18 contains two of the seven so-called ‘I am’ (εγω ειμι) statements that characterise the teaching of Jesus in John’s Gospel; the gate (v.9) and the shepherd (v.11).*

However, unlike the other εγω ειμι statements, this metaphor is developed in a much richer way. For the image to work, it is contrasted with two negative and opposing images – ‘the thief’ (vv. 1 & 8-10) and ‘the hired hand’ (vv. 11-13). Unsurprisingly, attention is generally placed upon the image of the Good Shepherd, the focus of this teaching (παροιμια – proverb/parable), and most commentaries tend to dismiss these figures as little more than a rhetorical device (for example, Carson, 1991).

Nevertheless, the choice of these opposing images, particularly the figure of ‘the hired hand’ (μισθωτος), can tell us about, not only the historical context of this story, but also hint at possible developments of the Jesus tradition within sections of the early church. Read more