Grave robbers through the centuries

Grave robbers have been with us for a very long time. From Ancient Egypt to the 20th century. But their motives have often differed. Some were looking for treasure while others simply wanted to desecrate the last resting place of a hated individual.

GRAVE ROBBERS: Ancient Egypt

The looting of ancient Egyptian tombs occurred frequently in ancient Egypt. Indeed, going right back to the early dynastic period when the pyramids were being built.

Everybody knew that wealthy elite Egyptians were buried with treasures they could take to the afterlife. It was just far too tempting to leave all that gold and those jewels locked away in a tomb with a decaying mummy.

The rich tried to ensure that theft of their belongings wouldn’t happen by placing blood curdling curses above the door to their tombs or constructing elaborate ways of protecting their grave. But it just didn’t seem to work.

Because many of the robbers – were the tomb builders themselves!

In 1115BC, a man called Amenpanefer and his mates went on trial for being grave robbers. He was a quarry worker and knew the tombs well. The ideal person to lead the operation. Unfortunately he was caught and more than likely executed in a particularly barbaric way. I suspect impalement may have been involved.

Sadly, looting of ancient Egyptian graves is happening on a pandemic scale today. And grave robbers are also systematically stripping archaeological sites from Latin America to China.

In Italy, tombs from the pre-Roman Etruscan civilisation have been plundered for so long, it’s almost a family business passed down through the generations.

One group of looters chanced upon an Etruscan tomb while building a garage for their home – and somehow neglected to tell the authorities of their good fortune.

But the forces of law and order caught up with them when they tried to sell their ill-gotten Etruscan gains on the black market.

DISCOVER: Gruesome body of a saint on display

GRAVE ROBBERS: A revolutionary act

Smashing up graves is not always about financial gain. Some grave robbers snatch the skeletons and artefacts of the dead to denigrate them. This is pretty much what happened to the kings of France after the 1789 French Revolution.

They were buried in the basilica of St Denis for centuries – but up they came and out the door their bones went in the revolution. I visited the basilica earlier this year to see what was left of the royal tombs after the revolutionary grave robbers had finished. This is a short film I made below.

GRAVE ROBBERS: To advance the cause of medicine (and make money)

The most infamous examples of grave robbers are those early 19th century ghouls who sold cadavers to dissecting rooms in London, Edinburgh and other cities.

All in the cause of science and getting their palms crossed with silver!

This was at a time when London’s graveyards were full to capacity. So much so that the dead were buried on top of each other and the most recent burials weren’t that far from the surface.

Two enterprising rogues in Edinburgh – William Burke and William Hare – took to selling corpses to the anatomist Robert Knox. Realising that fresher bodies sold for more, they started to murder their subjects. Eventually, they were both arrested and put on trial.

Hare gave evidence against Burke who was hanged and then submitted to the indignity of being publicly dissected in front of an audience of paying medical students. Gruesomely, the anatomist Professor Munro wrote a note confirming the dissection with Burke’s own blood drawn into a quill from the dead man’s head!

His skeleton is still on display plus death mask and a book bound with leather made from Burke’s own skin. Nice! Unsurprisingly, the tale of Burke and Hare has inspired movie makers.

GRAVE ROBBERS: Twentieth century celebrities

Grave robbers are still very active in the 20th and 21st centuries. Celebrities have been targeted in recent decades in the hope of securing a quick cash windfall. As was the case of the legendary comedian Charlie Chaplin whose coffin was stolen in 1978 and then ransomed.

His widow Oona refused to cough up the six-figure sum demanded and the two robbers were apprehended not long afterwards. They were two jobless car mechanics – Roman Wardas and Gantscho Ganev – who reportedly wanted to use the money to open a garage!

Another 20th century comedian to be exhumed by grave robbers was the British celebrity Benny Hill. He died in 1992 and not long after his funeral, grave robbers got it into their heads that his coffin included some of his personal jewellery.

He was re-interred but this time with a slab of concrete on top and the grave robbers did not attempt a second break-in.

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Coronavirus – lessons of past plagues

Coronavirus has been a huge shock. But history is brimming with pandemics and plagues. So, what can we learn from them?

Here’s the bad news first.

Diseases like Coronavirus have an amazingly long history

Viruses have been part of our evolutionary history since we stood on two feet and spread out of Africa. Viruses are not strangers – they have been with us for millions of years – and more than likely, will be with us forever.

Coronavirus isn’t a wholly new phenomenon or a moral judgment on our species – as some seem to suggest (on Twitter for example) – it’s just the latest manifestation of a long running phenomenon.

Here’s the really freaky thing – because of the way in which viruses hijack our cells and mess us up – they have probably played a role in our evolution as a species. So close is our relationship to viruses, that they could even be manipulated in the future to cure cancer or genetic disorders. Small comfort now.

But while the Coronavirus is taking a terrible toll – we could one day harness viruses to be a force for good. Basically instructing a virus to do something useful in our bodies instead of harming us. That’s the science of tomorrow – so what about the impact viruses have had on us in history.

Ancient Greek history – disease with a Coronavirus like impact

A catastrophe like a plague can be absorbed by a civilisation in otherwise robust health. But at a critical moment, it can have a devastating impact. The trouble is – pandemics in history often seem to occur when or because of a broader crisis. So – we know that ancient Athens was racked by plague in 430BC at the height of the Peloponessian War – which killed the great Greek leader and statesman Pericles.

Pericles – died of plague

Plague after plague in the Roman Empire

History shows us that the greatest empire of them all could succumb to the equivalent of Coronavirus and its might and majesty provided no cure.

The Roman Empire saw two huge plagues at turning points in its history. The Antonine plague of the second century AD came at the end of a period of relative stability but now the eastern frontier with Persia was becoming increasingly problematic. And it’s possible that returning soldiers from those battlefields brought the disease back into the heart of Rome.

In the following century, the Plague of Cyprian (recorded by a bishop called Cyprian) bore all the hallmarks of an influenza-driven pandemic. Cyprian wrote about fevers, the passing of blood and aching limbs. When all factors are taken into consideration, it seems the Romans at that time succumbed to an Ebola type of disease. It came at a time when the empire was divided and at war on many fronts – when its usual reserves of vitality were severely depleted.

Spanish Flu – a Coronavirus type pandemic in history

Today in 2020, the British prime minister Boris Johnson contracted the Coronavirus. But he’s not the first leader of the United Kingdom to have fallen victim to a pandemic. In 1918, the news was hushed up that the then Prime Minister Lloyd George – who had just led the country to victory in World War One – had contracted the deadly Spanish Flu.

I was never told about this studying the “Great War” as a child in the 1970s. Britain had just beaten Germany after a four year war and the establishment didn’t want anybody to know that the Prime Minister was flat on his back in bed attached to a ventilator. Ironically, he may have picked up this disease during the many celebrations at the end of the war. And tragically, the Spanish Flu ended up killing more people than died in the trenches.

David Lloyd George – British leader who got deadly flu

The tragedy of HIV/AIDS

The societal impact of a virus can ultimately be positive despite the terrible human cost. HIV/AIDS was an appalling illness that ripped through the gay community in the 1980s. I knew two men who died of AIDS and that was immensely tragic. But the virus forced gay identity to the top of the media agenda. Initially that was a negative. Gay people were accused of spreading a plague.

But within the gay community it built a gritty determination and anger to break through and demand tolerance and acceptance. And among the wider population, gay people went from largely invisible to highly visible. Families were forced to realise that a son, father or cousin was gay – because they finally had the courage to come out.

The Coronavirus has up-ended our lives. There’s already a mass of academic content on how things will be different. The state looks set to play a bigger role. Populism in politics will be in the dock. Experts may come back into fashion. And so on. Let’s see!

Berlin museums shut because of Coronavirus, however…

I was in Berlin in February 2020 just before the Coronavirus struck and led to the city going on lockdown. It seems incredible that at the time of writing this, I was in Berlin three weeks ago and walked around the incredible Pergamon Museum – whose doors are now closed.

But – I don’t want you to be denied the amazing sights of the Pergamon Museum just because of this wretched virus. So luckily, I had my iPhone and captured the incredible Roman gateway that was shipped a hundred years ago from what is now Turkey to Germany. The Gate of Miletus was then reconstructed at the Pergamon Museum in a vast room.

Here it is and it’s truly stupendous in scale!

Ancient bog body murder mystery

Viewer discretion: The following blog post does include images of two thousand year old bog bodies – those of a delicate disposition may wish to skip this post – as we look at an ancient bog body murder.

All over northern Europe, mysterious two thousand year old bodies have been dug up from peat bogs. These so-called bog bodies are remarkably well preserved in many cases.

Disturbingly, they seem to have been victims of human sacrifice. Evidence of being hit and strangled can be detected.

Ancient bog body – victim of murder or ritual sacrifice?

I was in the National Museum of Ireland last month and saw several examples of these bog bodies. The damp conditions of peat bogs means that their skin and internal organs are in remarkably good condition.

And most of these bog bodies date from what we call the Iron Age and are found in those countries to the north of the emerging Roman Empire – such as Britain, Ireland and Denmark.

Clonycavan Man – Iron bog body in savage murder

Let’s start with one bog body called Clonycavan Man found in February 2003 at a peat extraction works in County Meath, Ireland. He was damaged from the waist down because of the action of a peat harvesting machine but his upper body and head were in a good state.

So much so that archaeologists were able to reconstruct what he looked like when he was killed between 392 and 201 BC. Note the moustache, beard and the “man bun” hairstyle, made popular again by hipsters in our time.

Clonycavan Man

He was killed by a series of blows to the head and may also have been disembowelled. Here is what this bog body looks like today in a glass case at the Museum of Ireland.

Clonycavan Man – note his man bun hairstyle – image by Tony McMahon

Baronstown West Man was found during peat cutting in 1953. He was at a depth of around 1.9 metres. A layer of interwoven birch or hazel sticks had been placed on top of him and there was something resembling a woollen shroud fixed to his body. It’s believed that at the time of death he was between 25 and 30 years of age.

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He’s not one of the better preserved specimens and dates from around 200 to 400 AD.

The skull of Baronstown West Man detached from the body but with hair well preserved – National Museum of Ireland – image by Tony McMahon

In the British Museum today you can see the remains of Lindow Man who was discovered in Cheshire in 1984 with very clear evidence of having been strangled and struck in a sacrificial rite.

Bog body confused for modern murder

A year before, a female bog body was unearthed that at first was believed by police to be the corpse of a woman murdered in the 1960s.

For two decades the police had been trying to find the remains of a woman called Malika de Fernandez. Her estranged husband had long been suspected of having done her in. When the body of Lindow Woman emerged, police thought they had solved the crime and they confronted her husband who immediately confessed to the murder.

Unfortunately for him, it was then revealed in subsequent forensic tests that the body was not twenty years old – but two thousand years old! He tried to retract his confession but was found guilty of murder and received a life sentence in prison. You could say that this bog body had the last laugh!

Top five weird saints in the Catholic church

I’ve been visiting the shrines of some weird saints over the summer.

The stories, legends and myths attaching to these holy people can often be rather weird. Strange tales of how they were martyred in a gruesome fashion. At the shrines, you can find their entire body or a bone or a piece of cloth. Let’s look at some of the weird saints I encountered!

Saint Cassian is the oddest account of a martyrdom. A Christian in the Roman Empire who was teaching pagan children. This was during the reign of Julian the Apostate – who tried to turn the empire back to paganism after three decades of emperors who had converted to Christianity.

Cassian refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods and his punishment was to be turned over to his own pupils who were told to kill him with their pens and clay tablets. This took a while by all accounts – but Cassian urged them on desiring to die for his faith!

Cassian takes a while to die

Saint Apollonia is said to have been martyred during a riot in Alexandria under the reign of the Roman emperor Philip. Before her death, it’s said she had her teeth pulled out. And so rather ghoulishly, she is depicted holding a pair of pliers with a tooth in its grip. Yuck!

Wilhelm Borremans, Saint Apollonia, 1717

There’s many horrible ways to die but being grilled is probably the worst. Saint Lawrence is often depicted holding what looks like an iron bed mattress but it’s actually the metal grid to which he was tied and cooked.

Saint Lawrence and his grid

FIND OUT MORE: Why were bodies de-fleshed in the Middle Ages?

Here’s the body of Saint Justina – a virgin woman from Padua in Italy. She converted to Christianity at a time when the Roman Empire was still pagan. The emperor Maximian himself tried to make her reject Christ but she refused. So she was martyred with a sword – which she holds close to her breast. Somehow, her body made it from Italy to Portugal and here it is…

Saint Justina – possibly!

And then there’s Bartholomew the apostle of Christ. He is said to have journeyed to India to convert people to Christianity but then came to grief in Armenia. There, he was executed by being skinned alive. Sometimes he’s also being crucified upside down at the same time. The depictions of him and his skin can be rather odd.

Bartholomew and his skin

Muslim Spain – heaven or hell for Jews and Christians?

For seven hundred years, all or part of modern day Spain and Portugal was under Muslim rule. In the year 711 CE, an Arab and Muslim led army crossed the Mediterranean from Morocco to Spain and conquered a Christian kingdom advancing across Spain and up into central France before being stopped.

This was in the decades immediately after the death of the Prophet Mohammed when the new Muslim religion had conquered north Africa, Arabia, the Levant, Persia and reached China and India.

The kind of caliphate that emerged in Spain has traditionally been seen as remarkably tolerant and reaching a very high level of cultural and philosophical sophistication.

It was a place where Muslims, Jews and Christians rubbed along together in what has been termed the ‘convivencia’. Churches, synagogues and mosques existed side by side in contrast to Christian run medieval Europe where Jews in particular were brutally oppressed.

READ MORE: LGBT Muslims in history

But this view has been trashed in a new book called The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise by Dario Fernandez-Morera. He argues the following points:

  • It’s not true that Spain before the year 711 was a barbaric, underdeveloped post-Roman kingdom run by uncouth Visigoths but an emerging civilisation synthesising Roman and Goth culture with a high level of learning and architecture
  • The Arab/Muslim caliphate absorbed the civilisation of the Roman and Persian empires it conquered but independent of those influences, it was an arid desert faith with little culture
  • The conquest of Spain was a militaristic ‘jihad’ and modern scholars, embarrassed to say so, have downplayed the religious element of the invasion
  • Under Muslim rule, Jews and Christians in Spain were reduced to ‘dhimmi’ status forced to pay a special tax and often subject to pogroms and persecution – the much vaunted tolerance is mythical
  • Just because there was liberal thinking among the Muslim elite that ruled Spain doesn’t mean that applied to the general population who were subject to rigid control by Muslim clerics

I have been reading the book as a much needed corrective to some of the muddle-headed thinking about ‘convivencia’ in medieval Spain and Portugal. But I do wonder if the author has pushed his point too hard. I tend to agree with this blogger that at times, Fernandez-Morera is being as dogmatic as those he is criticising.

His targets are orientalist scholars over the last century in particular who have wanted to prove that under Muslim rule, tolerance and free thinking was not only possible – but happened in contrast to savage crusader and church run medieval Europe. Those crude stereotypes should be demolished but I was left wanting to know:

  • Where is the evidence for a great Visigothic civilisation?
  • Why did Jewish populations co-operate so readily with the Muslim invaders if Visigoth rule was so enlightened?
  • Weren’t there way more scholars coming out of Muslim ruled Spain than the Christian kingdoms in the north – Leon, Castile and Aragon?

It’s a fascinating and very topical discussion and despite my reservations, I recommend you read this book.

The vampire Countess Bathory!

Bathory
Don’t accept that invitation to dinner!

Countess Bathory isn’t that well known outside of her native Slovakia but she really ought to be. This was a real-life female vampire aristocrat who had young women round for dinner – and then, literally – had them for dinner.

She indulged her vampiric passions with gusto!

The other day, I met a Slovakian gentleman called Lukáš in the English town of Farnborough who had seen me on TV talking history and was very keen to share the story of this murderous noble woman from his country.

Her name was the Countess Elizabeth Bathory de Ecsed (1560 to 1614). And she is believed to have tortured and killed up to 650 women between 1585 and 1609.

Yes – you didn’t misread that – six hundred and fifty women.

Most infamously, the vampire Countess Bathory was accused of bathing in the blood of victims who were virgins at the time of their death. The reason? To remain young of course!

It may not be surprising therefore to discover that her uncle was the highest ranking official in Transylvania – the mountainous land where the fictional Dracula had his castle. Well, that’s according to the nineteenth century Anglo-Irish author Bram Stoker.

Eventually, crimes of the blood soaked countess were brought to the attention of the Holy Roman Emperor who ordered an investigation. Some three hundred witnesses all but fell over each other to spill the beans on the vampire princess.

They had seen the vampire Bathory abducting peasant girls and biting at their flesh or burning them with red hot tongs – before ending their lives.

Worse, from the point of view of the aristocracy, this ghoulish killer had even enticed girls of high birth to her castle. She had promised them lessons in etiquette. What they actually got was a lesson in why not to trust the vampire countess Bathory!

She tried to plead her innocence but the evidence was pretty overwhelming. Although the death penalty was called for, it was decided that as an aristocratic woman, she would endure something more refined but equally terminal.

The vampire Bathory was walled up in a small series of rooms with a big enough gap to pass her food. It took four years for this royal serial killer to die.

Pompeii – last days of a Roman city before the volcano struck!

It was 79 AD when a mountain near the Roman city of Pompeii did something rather unexpected – it exploded into life revealing itself as a volcano. The green slopes of Vesuvius had hidden its true nature for centuries. But in that year, a cataclysmic eruption tore it apart sending a plume of fire far into the sky.

“Tree with a flaming trunk”

One contemporary account described it as looking like a tree with a flaming trunk and streaks of fire and smoke high above. That whole area of Italy was plunged into darkness only lit up by thundery streaks. Death didn’t come instantly to thousands of people living nearby and many chose not to flee straight away.

But what happened next was the collapse of this enormous volcanic plume sending hot gas and rubble fanning out across Pompeii, Herculaneum and other the surrounding countryside. At temperatures over a thousand degrees celsius, people were fried where they stood, sat or lay. It didn’t matter if they sought shelter – there was no escape.

Pompeii rediscovered

It took 1500 years for Pompeii to be accidentally rediscovered under many feet of solidified volcanic material. Gradually, over the centuries, streets have been uncovered as well as town houses, temples and bath houses. By pouring concrete into the spaces left behind by vaporised human bodies, we’re even able to see the positions that people died in. Sometimes their hands are raised and you can certainly see their mouths open for one last gasp.

I just visited Pompeii and felt the need to share some great images with you. Hopefully, you will get the opportunity to travel to southern Italy and see it for yourself!

Desposyni – the alleged bloodline of Jesus

jesus

Is the bloodline of Jesus a myth? Did Jesus have a real flesh and blood family and therefore descendants?

It’s surprising how long this debate has been going for.  Right back in to the early persecuted church during the Roman Empire.  Possibly as far back as the first generation of Christians – especially those who did not fall in to line with Paul.

So, did Jesus have a bloodline?

From the early years, there was a split between Christians who saw the new religion as an extension or fulfilment of Jewish scripture and those who saw it as something distinct from Judaism and universal in application.

The former group, that included sects like the Ebionites, saw Jesus as a Jewish messiah and tended to conceptualize him in human terms.  The latter group, that included groups like the Marcionites, took the view that Christianity could be spread to the gentiles and saw Jesus as a more spiritual, almost disembodied entity.  The latter group even rejected the wrath filled and very Jewish god of the Old Testament.

The former strand of Christianity was capable of holding the notion of a bloodline – indeed, Jesus was believed to have come from a royal Jewish bloodline and his descendants were very real and amongst us.  This was anathema to what became the Catholic church.  Why?  Well, think about it – who’s the real vicar of Christ on earth, the pope in Saint Peter’s or the bodily descendant of the messiah?

Jesus deprived of his bloodline and humanity

Paul wrenched Christianity away from its Jewish roots, though a Jew himself, and took it to the Greeks and Romans.  He set in train a process whereby Christianity was adopted by the very people who had crucified the messiah.

Paul hated any whiff of competition from those in Palestine who had known Jesus – which Paul hadn’t.  So he emphasized the godly and spiritual nature of Jesus, a nature that he could know more about than those pesky disciples in Palestine who had walked with the man himself.  He could even know more about Jesus than the messiah’s very own brother – James – who we believe became a leader of the new sect in Jerusalem after the crucifixion.

Jesus did have brothers and sisters, mentioned in the gospels, but the church soon found a way of downgrading their importance.  Without any grounding in scripture, they inferred through various dogmas and doctrinal statements that these siblings were in fact the children of Joseph and an earlier wife – not the by now virginal Mary.  They might even be cousins, some suggested.

Mary as a perpetual virgin was key to removing the Desposyni – descendants of Jesus – from the Christian equation.  In spite of reports that two Desposyni were brought before the Roman emperor Domitian, the bloodline of Jesus was swept under the theological carpet.

Top Roman movies of all time!

From the silent movie era to the CGI laden epics of modern cinema, the Roman Empire has always provided great material for film makers. Rome has gone in and out of fashion but the lure of sword and sandals means it’s always coming back again like a cinematic boomerang.

So – from the early days to our own time – here are the classic Roman movies!

Silent movie era

In the early days of cinema, the Romans on the silver screen were voiceless. The talkies had yet to arrive so there was no audible clash of swords or trundling of chariot wheels. Nevertheless, Rome still gripped audiences. It was always good box office!

The Italian film industry got in early with The Last Days of Pompeii in 1913 – a feature length love story that ends with an erupting Neapolitan volcano. Italian directors never needed a second invitation to make movies about ancient Rome. And the Cinecitta movie studio built under the Mussolini dictatorship has provided convincing Roman backdrops for decades.

The 1913 movie is all about the final days of the Roman city of Pompeii, before the buildings and people of that ancient metropolis were incinerated by spewing lava and fumes from mount Vesuvius in AD 79.  The plot is quite operatic and of course the audience realise that many of the characters will be toast in about 90 minutes. But for its time – a compelling piece of cinema.

Ben Hur – a story written over 130 years ago – has gone through five movie versions of varying quality.  It’s based on a 19th century novel by the US civil war Union general Lew Wallace. The story’s hero is Judah Ben Hur who falls out with his boyhood Roman friend Messala who allows his Jewish buddy to be framed for a crime he didn’t commit.

Ben Hur eventually gets his revenge by defeating Messala in a chariot race that leaves the nasty Roman mangled and dying. Redemption and happiness returns to Ben Hur when he accepts Christ – who he sees being crucified.Untitled design (2)

There are two amazing movie versions that I thoroughly recommend. The 1925 silent movie with Ramon Novarro in the lead is beautiful. It’s like art deco meeting ancient Rome.

Charlton Heston took the main role in the subsequent 1959 classic that was deservedly showered with Oscars and is still stunning today. In marked contrast, the 2016 movie is a gigantic turkey that should be avoided at all costs.

Golden Age of Sword and Sandals epics

The 1940s and 1950s were a golden age for sword and sandals biblical epics and ancient Rome featured heavily. 1951 saw Quo Vadis  – setting meek and mild Christian heroes against the capricious and evil emperor Nero. It assumed an audience steeped in the kind of Sunday school bible learning that you wouldn’t find in our more secular times – as well as an awareness of the finer details of Roman history.

Then there was Spartacus – a superior example of the genre directed by the legendary Stanley Kubrick. It tells the story of a huge slave revolt that really happened in the closing years of the Roman Republic – before it became the Empire. The cast includes Kirk Douglas as the slave hero. Tony Curtis as his sidekick. Laurence Olivier as the Roman general Crassus. And Charles Laughton as Gracchus.

In this scene below, Crassus has defeated the rebel slave army. He asks which of the slaves is Spartacus so that he can punish the audacious rebel. In a very moving scene, one slave after another claims to be Spartacus. Watch and weep!

By the mid-1960s, the sword and sandals bubble finally burst. The movie Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton soared over budget. The scenes were opulent and jaw dropping with vast numbers of extras and gargantuan studio sets – but the returns to the studio were too thin. Rome had got too bloated for its own good.

Rome makes a cinematic comeback!

For the next 35 years, the Romans were put up on a high shelf and sort of forgotten. As far as Hollywood was concerned, the Roman Empire was past its sell-by date. But then in 2000, UK director Ridley Scott bravely resurrected the imperial glory with his movie Gladiator.

For those of us yearning for some swords and some sandals on the big screen again, this was a miracle. When it premiered, I went to see it three times without being bored once. It’s still a remarkably watchable movie. Tightly scripted and with inspired casting. Russell Crowe’s brooding Antipodean growling suited the lead character. And I loved the campy performance from the late Oliver Reed.

It’s a genuinely good film and you can tell because there are so many memorable lines.