Cuneiform writing with Irving Finkel

39 minutes

Oppy: the life of a rover

2 minutes

All inclusive

10 minutes

Time-based currency by Robert Owen

4 minutes

EXCLUSIVE

In the wake

12 minutes

How writing began, and other unexpectedly funny stories about cuneiform

Cuneiform, the ancient Sumerian script that emerged in Mesopotamia’s Fertile Crescent circa 3000 BCE, is the first known system of written communication to move beyond pictograms into abstract representations of language. In this lecture, as unexpectedly funny as it is edifying, Irving Finkel, a writer and curator at the British Museum in London, elucidates how cuneiform developed into an advanced writing system with its own internal logic, contradictions and – for those who would attempt to decipher it centuries later – exasperating snags. Having hooked the audience at the Royal Institution in London, Finkel then reveals how a trilingual inscription at Mount Behistun in modern-day Iran became cuneiform’s very own Rosetta Stone, unlocking secrets of the script previously thought lost to time.

What the Martian surface looked like to Oppy – humanity’s most resilient rover

When NASA successfully landed the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity – nicknamed ‘Oppy’ – in 2004, the plan was to explore the Martian terrain for 90 days. Through expert engineering and careful handling, Oppy was able to exceed its designed lifespan 60 times over, exploring the planet for nearly 15 years. Over the course of its impressive expedition, Oppy made a number of key geological discoveries and broke several records, including longest off-world distance travelled at 28 miles. Then, in 2018, following one of the most intense dust storms ever recorded on Mars, Oppy relayed its final message to Earth: ‘My battery is low and it’s getting dark.’ This short video from the US filmmaker John D Boswell, also known as melodysheep, uses images captured by Oppy and music composed using the sounds of Martian winds to pay anthropomorphic tribute to the resilient rover – and by extension, those responsible for its awe-inspiring journey.

Video by John D Boswell

Website: melodysheep

The ritualised excess of life aboard a cruise ship is tragic and parodic by turns

The cruise industry as it exists today – somewhat affordable, aggressively fun, indulgent by design – is a relatively new phenomenon, rooted in the 1960s, when passenger ships struggled to compete with air travel. After a pivot to all-inclusive pleasure voyages, cruising is now a $45 billion industry, beloved by some for its budget-friendly luxuries and amenities, and bemoaned by others for its environmental toll, treatment of workers, and – as highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic – health risks.

The observational documentary All Inclusive drops viewers head-first into the strange rituals of tableside conga lines, captain meet-and-greets and pool cannonball contests that characterise the cruise experience. While the Swiss director Corina Schwingruber Ilić’s tongue-in-cheek tone permeates throughout, the film offers more than just an invitation to gawk, as ‘fun’ plays out in a series of over-the-top pastimes, hinting at the economic and social stratification between guests and workers.

Director: Corina Schwingruber Ilić

Producer: Stella Händler

Website: Freihändler Film Production

One banknote per hour of work – Robert Owen’s utopian reboot of money

The Welsh-born manufacturer and social reformer Robert Owen (1771-1858) was a quintessential capitalist success story, having risen from modest origins to become a wealthy textile manufacturer in Scotland. However, he grew to reject the dehumanising excesses of the system that had ushered in his fortune, writing that Britain’s monetary structure ‘has made man ignorant; placed him in opposition to his fellows; engendered fraud and deceit; blindly urged him forward to create but deprived him of the wisdom of joy’. This led Owen to devise an audacious plan to recentre the financial system around ingenuity, community and justice.

Introduced in 1832, the radical idea was called the National Equitable Labour Exchange – a system of currency built on the idea that labour is the source of all wealth, and that goods should be bought and sold based on the time it took labourers to produce it. While the Exchange lasted only a few years, the idealistic project helped to lay the groundwork for some of Owen’s more successful later reforms, such as shorter working days, with the ultimate goal of a workday based on the principle of ‘eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest’. This brief video essay is part of a British Museum series in which curators examine objects of interest in their collections. Ben Alsop, curator of the museum’s Money Gallery, inspects a note issued by the Equitable Labour Exchange representing an hour of work.

Kerala’s skilled hand-weavers struggle to survive the rising tides of modernity

The Indian-born, US-based filmmaker Natasha Nair’s short documentary In the Wake brings viewers inside the colourful and tactile world of a weaving community in Kerala, the state on India’s southwest coast still recovering from the wreckage of flooding in 2018. The skilled weavers produce textiles for sarees, the traditional South Asian women’s garments, and must fully engage their bodies and minds in their work, the craft of which has been passed down through generations. In addition to natural disasters, the mostly female workers must also contend with competition from power-loom machines producing sarees that can be sold at half the price of their own hand-loomed products. Nair skilfully captures the vivid hues and kinetic sounds of the work, while her brief portrait of craft ponders if the rich tradition of the Kerala weavers can ultimately survive the rising tides of modernity.

Director: Natasha Nair

Producer: Nevo Shinaar

How writing began, and other unexpectedly funny stories about cuneiform

Cuneiform, the ancient Sumerian script that emerged in Mesopotamia’s Fertile Crescent circa 3000 BCE, is the first known system of written communication to move beyond pictograms into abstract representations of language. In this lecture, as unexpectedly funny as it is edifying, Irving Finkel, a writer and curator at the British Museum in London, elucidates how cuneiform developed into an advanced writing system with its own internal logic, contradictions and – for those who would attempt to decipher it centuries later – exasperating snags. Having hooked the audience at the Royal Institution in London, Finkel then reveals how a trilingual inscription at Mount Behistun in modern-day Iran became cuneiform’s very own Rosetta Stone, unlocking secrets of the script previously thought lost to time.

Aeon is not-for-profit
and free for everyone
Make a donation
Get Aeon straight
to your inbox
Join our newsletter

Pakistani construction workers in the Business Bay area of Dubai, 2012. Photo by Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum

Essay/
Work
Universal unions

Being an employee is a threat to your liberty. But while firms exist, compulsory unions are a basic safeguard of freedom

Mark R Reiff

Map of the Port of Alexandria, Egypt, from Kitab-ı Bahriye (Book of Navigation) by Piri Reis, first published 1521, map taken from the revised 17th-century edition. Courtesy The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Essay/
Cities
The city is a lie

From Ancient Egypt’s deltas to Edinburgh’s crags and peaks, the city pushes back against the dream of human separateness

Sam Grinsell