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Archive for the ‘Archaeology’ Category

Oxford Dictionary of British Place-Names by A.D. MillsA Dictionary of British Place-Names, A.D. Mills (Oxford University Press 1991)

A palimpsest is a manuscript that has been scraped clean and used to write something new. But the original manuscript can still be glimpsed under the new writing. British place-names are like that, except that they’re a palimpsest of a palimpsest and some of the oldest names are still there. Germanic languages like Anglo-Saxon and Norse replaced Celtic ones like Welsh and Gaelic, but those languages may have replaced something even earlier:

Some river-names, few in number but the most ancient of all, seem to belong to an unknown early Indo-European language which is neither Celtic nor Germanic. Such pre-Celtic names, sometimes termed ‘Old European’, may have been in use among the very early inhabitants of these languages in Neolithic times, and it is assumed they were passed on to Celtic settlers arriving from the Continent about the fourth century BC. Among the ancient names that possibly belong to this small but important group are Colne, Humber, Itchen, and Wey. (Introduction, “The Chronology and Languages of English Place-Names”, pg. XV)

I don’t see how they know that language was Indo-European. Perhaps it was a linguistic isolate or related to Basque or Etruscan. Or perhaps it was Indo-European but had preserved something even earlier. The names of rivers are usually the most ancient of all, because rivers are visually and psychologically powerful things. Whatever the truth about those river-names, there’s a strange power in the thought of an entire language reduced to a few syllables, like a sea shrinking to a few salty pools. I’m reminded of the doomed siren in Clark Ashton Smith’s “Sadastor”, confined to the pool that is all that remains of a world-ocean.

When we say “Humber” or “Wey”, we step into a pool of that ancient language and it lives again for an instant. If the theories are correct, that is. There is a lot of conjecture and uncertainty in toponymy, the science of place-names. This entry is like a fairy-tale in miniature:

Warnford Hants. Warnæford c. 1053, Warneford 1086 (DB). ‘Ford frequented by wrens or one used by stallions’. OE wærna or *wæærna + ford. Alternatively the first element may be an OE man’s name *Wæærna.

Wrens, stallions or man? The entry in the Domesday Book (DB) didn’t record the exact quality of the vowel, so the original meaning is lost. Something similar happens in the preceding entry, but this one is a fairy-story by the Brothers Grimm:

Warnborough, North & Warnborough, South Hants. Weargeburnan 973-4. Wergeborn 1086 (DB). Possibly ‘stream where criminals were drowned’, OE wearg + burna, though wearg may have an earlier sense ‘wolf’, hence perhaps ‘stream frequented by wolves’.

But far more onomastic fish were caught by the Domesday Book than slipped through. It was a net cast by the Normans over their new kingdom and historians have been feasting on the catch for centuries. Very few names were recorded much earlier. One of those that were hasn’t survived unaltered:

Hebrides (islands) Arg., Highland, W. Isles. Hæbudes 77, Hebudes 300. Meaning uncertain. The Roman name was Edudæ or Ebudes, and the present name resulted from a misreading of the latter, with ri for u.

I like fortuitous changes like that. Is it another pre-Celtic name? Perhaps. But mysteries can rise from clear meanings too:

Caithness (district) Highland. Kathenessia c. 970. ‘Promontory of the Cats’. OScand. nes. It is not known why the early Celtic tribe here were called ‘cats’; the cat may have been their token animal.

We know what the name means, but not why it got that meaning. We’ve lost so much of the past and that’s one of the powerful things about this book. George Orwell summed up the feeling in another context:

When I think of antiquity, the detail that frightens me is that those hundreds of millions of slaves on whose backs civilization rested generation after generation have left behind them no record whatever. We do not even know their names. In the whole of Greek and Roman history, how many slaves’ names are known to you? I can think of two, or possibly three. One is Spartacus and the other is Epictetus. Also, in the Roman room at the British Museum there is a glass jar with the maker’s name inscribed on the bottom, ‘FELIX FECIT’. I have a mental picture of poor Felix (a Gaul with red hair and a metal collar round his neck), but in fact he may not have been a slave; so there are only two slaves whose names I definitely know, and probably few people can remember more. The rest have gone down into utter silence. (“Looking Back on the Spanish War”, 1942)

So have most of the people who lived on the British Isles. Kings have reigned here and been utterly forgotten. But here and there a name survives with no story attached to it:

Broomfleet E.R. Yorks. Brungareflet 1150-4. ‘Stretch of river belonging to a man called Brūngār’. OE pers. name + flēot.

Who was Brūngār? Was he important? Was the name a joke? If the name hadn’t been recorded so early, we might now think the name refers to a plant, like “Broomfield, ‘open land where broom grows’”. Misinterpretations must happen a lot in toponymy: Celtic words with one meaning look like Anglo-Saxon words with another, pre-Celtic names may have been folk-etymologized, and so on.

That raises another haunting question, which Orwell addresses here in another and more serious form:

If the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened – that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death? The Party said that Oceania had never been in alliance with Eurasia. He, Winston Smith, knew that Oceania had been in alliance with Eurasia as short a time as four years ago. But where did that knowledge exist? Only in his own consciousness, which in any case must soon be annihilated. And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed – if all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth. (Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), Part 1, ch. 3)

Suppose that an apparently transparent place-name like Greenfield or Shepton is a re-working of an older name with an entirely different meaning in Celtic or pre-Celtic. Does the truth survive in any sense? Or does the meaning of the new name change the truth? This must have happened many times in Britain and elsewhere.

The reverse is rarer: some apparently mysterious names might be scribal slips or lost words in familiar languages. This village in Worcestershire has a strange name that may be thousands of years old:

Tardebigge Worcs. Tærdebicgan c. 1000, Terdeberie [sic] 1086 (DB). Possibly a Celtic name from Brittonic *tarth ‘spring’ + *pig ‘point, peak’.

Or does it go back even earlier, to that vanished pre-Celtic language? Perhaps. Or perhaps it’s really Anglo-Saxon, distorted or otherwise. Unless a chronoscope is invented, we may never know the truth and mysteries like that may remain.

But mysteries are rare. Viewed in the context of local topography or history, place-names usually have obvious meanings. And they tell us what we’ve lost. Britain used to be a place of glades:

Lanercost Cumbria. Lanrecost 1169. Celtic *lannerch ‘glade, clearing’, perhaps with the pers. name Aust (from Latin Augustus).

It used to be a place of wolves too:

Greywell Hants. Graiwella 1167. Probably ‘spring or stream frequented by wolves’, OE *grææg + wella.

And of witches:

Hascombe Surrey Hescumb 1232. Possibly ‘the witch’s valley’. OE hægtesse + cumb.

And of Woden:

Wednesbury Sandw. Wadnesberie 1086 [DB]. ‘Stronghold associated with the heathen god Wōden’. OE god-name + burh (dative byrig).

But the forests were cut down, the wolves were slaughtered, and the grey Galilean triumphed over Woden. So another layer of meaning washed over the landscape and new languages appeared in place-names, like Latin and French: Eccles means “church” and Beaulieu means “beautiful place”, for example. To survive, some of the old paganism had to be obscure:

Sawel (Samhail) (mountain) Tyrone. ‘Likeness’. Samhail Phite Meadhbha c. 1680. The full name is Samhail Phite Méabha, ‘likeness to Maeve’s vulva’, referring to a hollow on the side of the mountain.

Most of the etymologies in A Dictionary of British Place-Names are mundane, not Maevish, but age can lend glamour even to the mundane. Some place-names in Britain are very old and this book is a good way to feel the years.

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Edgelands by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons RobertsEdgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness, Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts (Chivers 2011)

Many people will open this book and think: Ballardian. I certainly thought that. But I also thought: Simplish. That’s an adjective for something reminiscent of the Telegraph columnist Peter Simple, who wrote about the “mysterious urban poetry” of litter-choked ponds and abandoned power-stations. So do Paul Farley and Michael Roberts. They write about literal poetry too, quoting Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes to illustrate their ideas about the places that exist on the edges of towns and cities, that service our civilization while being ignored, overlooked or despised: industrial estates, cooling towers, rubbish dumps, mines, reservoirs, sewage works, recycling plants, warehouses, self-storage depots, airports, conference centres, and so on.

These are places that are often deserted by night or visited rarely by day, that sometimes shelter wild animals, birds and plants, preserve out-dated machinery and out-moded fashions, provide spaces for roaming children, inspire artists, poets and writers. J.G Ballard was one of those writers: Crash (1973) is a book about edgelands, both literal and psychological: airport hotels, mecho-fetishism. But Ballard was writing about edgelands from the beginning of his career, returning again and again to crumbling buildings and obsessive lives:

Outside his room, steps sounded along the corridor, then slowly climbed the stairway, pausing for a few seconds at every landing. Bridgman lowered the memo-tape in his hand, listening to the familiar tired footsteps. This was Louise Woodward, making her invariable evening ascent to the roof ten storeys above. Bridgman glanced at the timetable pinned to the wall. Only two of the satellites would be visible, between 12.25 and 12.35 a.m., at an elevation of 62 degrees in the south-west, passing through Cetus and Eridanus, neither of them containing her husband. Although the sighting was two hours away, she was already taking up her position, and would remain there until dawn. (“The Cage of Sand”, 1962)

So this from Edgelands is like one of Ballard’s short stories come to life:

One of the strangest encounters we had in the edgelands was following a visit to a breaker’s yard on an industrial estate near Morecambe. … We found a man standing by his car looking into the evening sky with binoculars. The sky to the west was still a bright indigo, touched with reds and turquoises, the last embers of a typically spectacular west-coast sunset. But this man wasn’t interested in sunsets. Or birds.

He had come to watch for an Iridium flare. Iridium satellites are a constellation of relatively small communications satellites, set in low earth orbit for over a decade. They have highly reflective, silver-coated panels that can catch the sun’s light, producing a reflection tens of kilometres wide at the earth’s surface, and if you’re standing at the right spot, they’re often easily visible. (“Cars”, pg. 26)

You can buy an iPhone app that tells you where and when to watch for one. The authors stand with the man and see “a slow and languorous brightening … flashing suddenly into brilliance for a moment, before fading away.”

Ballard would also have liked the section about “golf driving ranges”, where people pay to hit balls out into an open space. This “silent ritual” is odd by day, even odder after dark: as rain pelts down on a corrugated roof above the club-swingers, “out there, slow white bullets trace an arc across the sky, spinning right to left or left to right, crossing each other in the air. Six, seven, ten at a time, out into the night” (pg. 299).

An abandoned factory

An abandoned factory

The book is full of oddness like that, describing strange situations and surreal juxtapositions, mixing obscure history and miniature travelogue, introducing you to artists and writers you’ll want to investigate further, celebrating technology and questioning it. The writing could easily have been pretentious and Guardianista, but it never is. Perhaps that’s because Farley and Roberts are both northern and both poets. That doesn’t guarantee graceful or down-to-earth writing, but you’ll find both here. They can discuss horror vacui and industrial pallets with equal ease, celebrate the pleasures of tree-houses and the beauty of wild flowers.

And not-so-wild ones. One section I particularly enjoyed was their description of how English cities, homogenized by big business, are still distinguished by the flora that grows in their edgelands. Bristol is a “Buddleia city”, Swansea is “dominated by Japanese knotweed”; Sheffield is home to garden escapees like “feverfew and goat’s rue, tansy, soapwort and Michaelmas daisies”, Swindon has “extensive stands of St John’s wort, with wild carrot, welted thistle, great burnet, crow garlic and ploughman’s spikenard” (pg. 185-6). But in every city there are “branches of Starbucks, Carphone Warehouse, WH Smith, Dixons, Currys and McDonald’s”.

That commercial list becomes a refrain, a banal repetition heightening the richness and strangeness of the flower-names filling the spaces in-between. But then they’re talking about CCTV or floodlighting and finding something rich and strange there too. I learnt a lot from this book and re-thought some of my ideas. I enjoyed it a lot too. If you’re a fan of J.G. Ballard or Peter Simple, so might you.

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The Riddle of the Labyrinth by Margalit FoxThe Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code and the Uncovering of a Lost Civilisation, Margalit Fox (Profile Books 2013)

I remember starting an Agatha Christie book and being delighted by the simplicity of her style. But I’d got bored long before the end. The Riddle of the Labyrinth was the opposite. I found it dull at the beginning, but was delighted by the end. I look forward to reading it again. Margalit Fox weaves a compelling story out of three complex people: the English archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans (1851-1941), the American classical scholar Alice Kober (1906-50) and the English architect Michael Ventris (1922-56); and the complex problem they all worked on: the decipherment of a forgotten script found on the island of Crete.

It’s a story of clay in two ways. There’s the literal clay on which the script was recorded:

It took fire to give us Linear B. In about 1400 B.C., the final conflagration at Knossos destroyed most of the palace [of Minos] and its contents, marking the end of the great civilization that had been rooted there for centuries. But the blaze had one completely beneficial effect: It preserved for future generations the clay tablets that recorded the palace’s final year. (Book One, “The Digger”, ch. 3, “Love Among the Ruins”, pg. 67)

There’s also the metaphorical clay of humanity and its frailties, physical and psychological. Sir Arthur Evans died at ninety, laden with honours, but Alice Kober died at forty-three, probably of cancer, and Michael Ventris at thirty-four, possibly by suicide. Evans and Ventris have long been famous in the Linear B story, but I’d never heard of Kober until I picked up this book. According to Fox, she was central to the decipherment and made the critical breakthrough: explaining the relationship between two known facts about the unknown script and unknown language of Linear B:

Kober had shown that the Minoans spoke an inflected language. Now came the real payoff from that demonstration: In a discovery that would have enormous implications for the decipherment, she now homed in on precisely what happens when an inflected language is written in a syllabic script. (Book 2, “The Detective”, ch. 6, “Splitting the Baby”, pg. 134 (emphasis in original))

The language of Linear B was infected because it added suffixes to stems, as English still does a little and Latin does a lot. Where English says “I love, you love, he loves”, Latin says “amo, amas, amat”. It’s easy to spot stems and inflexions like am-, -o, -as, and -at in an alphabetic script, which uses single signs for single sounds (generally speaking). But Linear B was syllabic, using single signs for single syllables. For example, ka, ke, ki, ko, ku were all written using entirely different signs, as was every other combination of consonant and vowel. Inflectional patterns are harder to spot in a syllabic script.

But syllabicity itself isn’t hard to spot: the number of signs used by a script is a good indication of whether it’s an alphabet, a syllabary or an ideography. You might say that the decipherment of Linear B rested on three C’s: counting, comparison and compulsion. Counting and comparing the signs established the relationships between them, but it took compulsive people to do that, because it was hard work. And “work” is the word:

Because she [Alice Kober] was under pressure to copy as many inscriptions as possible in her brief time in Oxford, she spent the weeks before her departure training for the task like an athlete preparing for the Olympics. Using the inscriptions in [the Finnish scholar Johannes] Sandwall’s new book as test material, she put herself through rigorous time trials at the dining table. “I’ve timed myself,” she wrote Myres in February 1947, “and think I can copy between 100-125 inscriptions in a single day.” (ch. 6, pg. 133)

“Myres” was the archaeologist John Linton Myres, a former assistant to Sir Arthur Evans who both helped and hindered Kober in her work. He gave her access to a lot of material, but he also made unreasonable demands on her time by asking her to help with his own writing on Minoan archaeology. Kober put up with a lot in her short time on earth, facing obstacles that would have daunted or deflected a less determined woman. But “The Detective”, as Fox calls her, forged on, straining both brain and body in her pursuit of the decipherment. It’s hard in 2014 to imagine having to copy inscriptions by hand, for example. And having to analyze them by hand. Kober used “cigarette-carton card files” and “index cards”:

What she had created, in pure analog form, was a database, with the punched cards marking the parameters on which the data could be sorted. But for all their rigor and precision, the file boxes also “reveal a gentler side to Alice Kober,” as Thomas Palaima and his colleague Susan Trombley have written. On one occasion, they note, Kober “took extra care in cutting a greeting card used as a tabbed divider, perfectly centering a fawn lying in a bed of flowers.” (Book Two, ch. 4, “American Champollion”, pg. 108)

Kober might have had a gentler side, but it’s no surprise that she also had a broad, masculine face and wore her hair short. Her task was a masculine one: systematizing and implicitly using mathematics. In fact, her hand-copying and “analog database” remind me of the enormous labours expended by nineteenth-century mathematicians on calculating the digits of pi or hunting for primes. What then took months and years can be performed in an instant by a computer. The same, I’d guess, is now true of Linear B. If it were discovered today and the necessary data were computerized – unknown signs, known neighbouring languages – its mask would probably be lifted very quickly.

Kober spent years on the task and died without completing it. Would she have beaten Michael Ventris if she’d lived? It’s easy to think so. But work on Linear B was, in effect, her hobby: she had a full-time job as a lecturer in classics at Brooklyn College. With more time, more help, fewer distractions, perhaps she would have solved Linear B in the 1940s.

As it was, the labyrinth was mastered by someone else: “The Architect” after whom the third and final section of this book is named. Unlike Evans or Kober, Michael Ventris wasn’t a professional classicist. And he went astray in a way the more cautious Kober didn’t, because he hypothesized for a long time that Etruscan was the language behind Linear B. It was a “position … to which he would hold fast until only weeks before his decipherment” (Book Three, ch. 10, “A Leap of Faith”, pg. 225).

If he’d been more cautious, might he have made faster progress? Probably, but he still beat all the professionals and deciphered Linear B, which turned out to be not Etruscan but a dialect of classical Greek. Ventris lifted the linguistic veil, but he found no literary treasure beneath:

There are no grand narratives lurking in Linear B – no epic poems, no romances, no tales of gods and their derring-do. Arthur Evans knew as much from the start, as did every serious investigator after him. They were all aware, as Alice Kober reminded her Hunter College audience that June evening in 1946, that “we may only find out that Mr. X delivered a hundred cattle to Mr. Y on the tenth of June, 1400 B.C.” And that, of course, is precisely what they did find: records of crops harvested, goods produced, animals tended, and gifts offered up to the gods. (“Epilogue: Mr. X and Mr. Y”, pg. 269)

But there’s a kind of poetry in the prosaic, especially when the prosaic is many centuries old. And it’s not just the gifts that are named: so are the gods. This means that if Kober had achieved her ambition, she would discovered an appropriate title waiting for her on the tablets. The names of familiar Greek gods and goddesses appear

with more curious ones, many of them pre-Greek, long-forgotten by Classical times. Among them are various female names – most likely those of local deities – beginning with the word potnia, “mistress”: Mistress of Wild Beasts, Mistress of Horses, Mistress of Grain, Mistress of Asia, Mistress of the Labyrinth. (Ibid., pg. 282-3)

Kober would have been “Mistress of the Labyrinth”, the one who solved Linear B. As it was, the Labyrinth had a master instead. So this book tells the story of three: the master, the mistress manquée and the man who supplied the materia of their obsession. That was Sir Arthur Evans, who discovered the tablets and began the work of deciphering them. His story contains one of the briefest but most memorable images in The Riddle of the Labyrinth. The story of Linear B isn’t all about concentrated effort and mental toil: there are moments of spontaneity too:

Over years of excavation, the palace emerged as a vast, increasingly complex organism. As each section was revealed, Evans gave it a name. Beside the Throne Room, these included the Queen’s Megaron, or great hall, with its elaborate bathroom and graceful mural of leaping dolphins; the Domestic Quarter, with artisans’ workshops in which traces of the goldsmith, the lapidary, and the ceramicist could still be still be discerned; and the Grand Staircase, down which, in 1910, a visiting Isadora Duncan danced an impromptu dance to the horror of Evans’s straitlaced Scottish assistant, Duncan Mackenzie. (Book One, “The Digger”, ch. 2, “Love among the Ruins”, pg. 77)

Dancing Duncan, dour Duncan and dogged decipherment. I like the contrast and it’s another reason to like this book. But will it ever be matched by one about the decipherment of Linear A, another lost language found on Crete and written in a related script? Perhaps not, because the language of Linear A seems to be an isolate, without living or ancient relatives. Barring some big scientific or linguistic breakthrough, Linear A may remain a labyrinth no-one ever masters. But perhaps Margalit Fox will be telling the story of its decipherers one day too. I hope so.

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Guida alle Piramidi d'Egitto Alberto SiliottiGuide to the Pyramids of Egypt, Alberto Siliotti, preface by Zahi Hawass (White Star Publishers 2000)

When Herodotus was young, the pyramids were ancient. That was in the fifth century B.C., when the pyramids were already two millennia old. And if that’s not astonishing enough, consider how long the pyramids had been in the making. Not just the building: the evolution of a civilization that could conceive and complete them. Homo sapiens was not capable of building pyramids when he first emerged in sub-Saharan Africa. Indeed, some modern human races still aren’t. Something special took place in the populations that migrated into the Nile delta and Mesopotamia. It probably centred on something much smaller but much more significant than the pyramids: the invention of writing.

If literacy enhanced reproductive success, it would have altered the genetics of Egypt, raising intelligence, enhancing foresight, improving the ability to delay gratification. All of those were necessary for the construction of those mountains of stone that have awed men for more than four millennia. Shelley’s famous poem about the vanity of megalomaniac monuments was based on the legs and “shattered visage” of an Egyptian statue. But the poem doesn’t apply to the pyramids:

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away. (Ozymandias, 1818 )

A lot remains in Egypt beside the pyramids, which number far more than the famous three at Giza. And that’s also home to the mysterious and oneiroleptic Sphinx. But this is really a study of two great civilizations: the ancient Egyptian one and the modern European one that began to study its predecessor and eventually deciphered its forgotten hieroglyphs. The mountainous bulk of the pyramids is founded on minute symbols, because civilization can’t exist without record-keeping and bureaucracy. That demands counting and the pyramids are monuments not just to the pharaohs, but also to mathematics:

In fact the British museum has a famous mathematical papyrus, known as the Rhind Papyrus, which dates back to the Second Intermediate Period [1750-1550 B.C.] and includes a series of arithmetic and geometry problems such as: “A pyramid is 93 cubits and 1/3 high. What is the angle if the height of its face is 140 cubits?” A study of this papyrus has, among other things, made it clear that the Egyptians were familiar with and made practical use of Pythagoras’ theorem, although they never theorized or enunciated it. (“The Construction of a Pyramid”, pg. 41)

Guide to the Pyramids of Egypt by Alberto Siliotti

(English edition)

The Greeks were awed by Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilization, but they built on what they inherited from their predecessors. Unlike the Egyptians, they didn’t just practice maths, but proved it. Proof is a leap into the abstract and the infinite that the Egyptians never seem to have made. Greek sculpture and stonework achieved new freedom too. It wasn’t static and stylized like the sculpture here. But Egyptian sculpture has its own genius and the Greeks never matched the pyramids, only marvelled at them.

And misinterpreted them. The pyramids weren’t simply commemorations of the pharaohs, but stairways to heaven for their souls. Literally so, with the early step pyramids, but later:

As religious thought developed, it was no longer considered necessary to have a celestial highway, for the steep sides of the pyramids, a materialization of the rays of the sun in stone, also permitted the pharaoh to make his heavenly ascent. (“Egypt in the Old Kingdom”, pg. 13)

So pyramids on the outside were vast, awe-inspiring and austere. On the inside, they could contain other aspects of Egyptian genius, like star-strewn ceilings and the delicate and intricate “gold pectorals with amethysts, turquoise, lapis lazuli, carnelian and vitreous pastes” buried with Princess Mereret in the pyramid of Sesostris III (Middle Kingdom, 1878-1839 BC). Guide to the Pyramids of Egypt is a feast for both the eye and the intellect, a well-designed and well-translated book with one big flaw: there’s no index. So it’s rather like the noseless Sphinx: magnificent but with something important missing.

The pyramids are missing something too: the limestone sheathing that would once have made them blaze in the sun. What must Egypt have been like in her heyday? Or rather: her hey-centuries, because civilization lasted there a very long time. To glimpse that grandeur, open this book.

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