15 December 2009

Eulogy for the American Mall

I've been fascinated this week with genre of blog I'd never seen before: the proto-archaeology of the dead shopping mall. The work of photographer Brian Ulrich, featured in The Morning News, captures the eloquent silence of empty retail space:


Rolling Acres Mall 1 (Brian Ulrich)


Between the recession, internet shopping, and the aging of America's inner-ring suburbs, a lot of once-pleasant malls are collapsing and altering the social fabric of their communities. As Ulrich notes in his interview, there are few good options for dead malls:
Some buildings can be repurposed but so many cannot. Retail design and use is not only based on the space itself but also location. When a few stores go down often many others in an area go with them—a retail ghost town if you will. Though one can repurpose one space it might sit in a vast area of blight. The problem lies not in what we should do with what we have already but it seems more important to get a lot stricter about what new retail spaces we allow into our communities. The promises are always jobs and tax revenue, but that won’t help in the long run if the store folds or relocates to the next township who offers an incentive.
If archaeology is about the intersection of space and material culture, then the shopping mall is ground zero for an archaeological understanding of the 20th century in America, a time and place that was pivotal in world history. What Ulrich suggests above is a transformation in the spatial organization of consumption - zoning for quality retail rather than growth at any cost. In other words, he's suggesting we start a new cultural horizon.


Dixie Square Mall (Brian Ulrich)

The awesome thing about being an archaeologist interested in the present is that you can track changes in material culture in real time, thanks to the Internet. For instance, the Dead Malls Blog reported last month about the final demise of the JC Penney catalog, which joins the Sears catalog in the graveyard of pre-internet distribution technologies, while leaving a legacy of millions of objects spread across every part of the United States and Canada, a terminus ante quem for future archaeologists. We can see the line of division right in front of us!

Or check out Labelscar, "The Retail History Blog", which has lovingly-rendered histories of shopping malls. Recently: the rise and fall of Empire Mall in Sioux Falls (1975) and Winrock Shopping Center in Albuquerque (1961).


"Pep Boys 3" (Brian Ulrich)

The speed at which material culture is changing is something that archaeologists are going to have to grapple with pretty soon. (Especially in the United States, where Federal law marks anything up to 1959 as potentially having historic significance: every pile of beer cans, a historic monument!) What does it mean for our discipline when material testimony of the past is not vanishingly scarce traces of palaeolithic life, but the too-plentiful bounty of millions of remote controlled-cars from the JC Penney catalogue?

Labelscar in particular has a rich collection of comments from people who remember, personally, bygone eras of the American Mall and are already engaged in commemorating and memorializing these periods. Do they make the archaeologist obsolete?

08 December 2009

Digging Homelessness at Turbo Island


Via Bristol Indymedia

Turbo Island is a long-standing homeless encampment in Stokes Croft, Bristol. This week, archaeologists are leading homeless volunteers in the first excavation in the area. As The Beeb reports:
A team of homeless people are to begin excavating a derelict corner of Bristol which has been used by rough sleepers for more than 40 years... Archaeologist Rachael Kiddey, who developed the scheme, said: "This project seeks to break down barriers." Ms Kiddey and colleague John Schofield thought up the project after speaking to rough sleepers in the underpass.

Mr Schofield said a host of stories were attached to the traffic island including that it is the site of a bombed WWII building; that it was once a "Speaker's Corner"; and that it was "where pirates were hanged".
It's a joint venture of English Heritage, Bristol University, and, apparently, Marmite (!)

Archaeology has traditionally been used by the rich and powerful as a way of legitimating their tastes, interests and politics. There's been lots of theoretical discussions about "inclusive" and "multivocal" archaeology in the past 20 years, but very little work that is specifically designed to help local communities tell their stories. As Schofield observed,
Places that matter to homeless people and those who have a marginalised existence in society are significant in their own right.
I'd go further and say that places matter, period, and the point of archaeology is to tell stories about places. If we're not telling those stories with the consent and collaboration of the people who live there, we contribute directly to their disenfranchisement. Also (more cheerfully) people enjoy digging stuff and usually find archaeology pretty fun. Treasure hunting is part of human nature, and that impulse can be harnessed to all kinds of interesting projects like this.

I'm looking forward to the results of the dig! Here's some pictures of Turbo Island, looks like a cool spot. This one from the Bristol Graffiti blog:

More photos here!



From Canis Major on Flickr. Love the tiny Moai! Apropos the photo Canis Major notes: "The small plot of land in Stokes Croft Bristol called Turbo Island apparently got it's name from a strong brand of cider that street drinkers who regularly met there used to favour. It has now become a focus for the area's urban artists. These Easter Island style heads being a recent addition." Mmm, some cheap strong cider sounds good right now.

06 December 2009

Rebranding Balkan Archaeology: Old Europe at NYU


Photo: Marius Amarie

Last week the New York Times profiled the blockbuster exhibition of Neolithic artifacts from the Danube Valley and environs at NYU's Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. The artifacts are stunning and I'm now trying to find an excuse to go to New York.

Photo: Rumyana Kostadinova Ivanova/NYT

This exhibit is a brilliant example of an evolving archaeological brand. Check out the title: The Lost World of Old Europe: The Danube Valley, 5000–3500 BC.

There's a lot to talk about here. First of all, they've gone with the "lost world" concept, evoking the notion of archaeologist as detective and discoverer. It's a powerful concept that evokes our desire for identity, to rediscover ourselves.1 Then we have 'Old' and 'Europe' jammed right into each other for the knockout. Especially in America, anything old has an aura of 'good' and 'authentic' about it. And the type of Americans who go to archaeology exhibits in New York have an desperate enthusiasm for Europe that sometimes verges on the pathetic.

The Lost World of Old Europe. That sounds like the most important, serious, and authentic place ever. But where is it, anyway? Hmm, the Danube Valley. Let's get out the map. Mmmm, Bulgaria, Romania, and Moldova. The proverbial ass-end of Europe, associated in western popular culture with vampires, gypsies, gangsters, cheap tracksuits, and unattractive miniature cars.

NOW you see the genius of the title. No one's going to go to an exhibit with 'Bulgaria' in the title, much less 'Moldova'2 - It's a deeply unfashionable part of Europe and not the kind of place New York Times readers go to on vacation. But Old Europe? I definitely want to go there, wherever it is. Well-placed branding makes this peripheral region suddenly central, serious, and worthy of respect.

It's fashionable to dismiss "branding" as inauthentic, but I disagree. Archaeology needs good brands and better marketing. The material in this exhibit is really amazing and deserves to generate excitement - and if good marketing slogans help do away with some of the prejudice against the poorer Balkan countries, all the better.

"Hmmm, how should we rebrand ourselves?" (NYU)

Pace Donald Rumsfeld, the concept of Old Europe has a bit of a history in itself. As far back as V. Gordon Childe it was recognized that Indo-European speakers probably came into Europe from somewhere in the Russian steppes, and mixed with or replaced a previous Neolithic population. The phrase was popularized, however, by Marija Gimbutas in the early 1980s, who used it to describe her idea that the Neolithic civilizations of Europe were egalitarian, matriarchal, Goddess-worshipping cultures - before the Indo-Europeans came along with their chariots and metal and established more centralized, hierarchical agricultural societies.3 While her portrait of a homogenous, matriarchal Old Europe isn't taken seriously by archaeologists anymore, the term has stuck around. I suspect that this exhibit will lead to its revival, especially since it's so convenient for tourist marketing. (Not coincidentally, there are links to the Romanian and Bulgarian tourism agencies on the exhibit website.)

1 As Cornelius Holtorf observed: “Archaeology is not a question of needs being fulfilled but of desires being sustained... the search for the past is at the same time the search for ourselves” (Stonehenge to Las Vegas: Archaeology as Popular Culture. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2004. p.74)

2 Recall the 'Scythian Gold' touring exhibition from a few years back, which studiously avoided too much discussion of its Ukranian origins.

3 And, I might add, a perfect example of 'sustaining desire'. If you find a just, feminist, nonhierarchical society in the past, it helps inspire and legitimate those aspirations in the present. This is why a lot of pagans still read Gimbutas, though her theories have been refuted or heavily qualified by later analyses and new evidence - they want her vision, not the facts.

04 December 2009

Google Street View comes to Pompeii! Can we rebury it now?

The ruins of ancient Pompeii have hit Google Street View. This is the future of archaeology, folks: virtual walkthroughs of sites available anywhere, anytime, from anywhere in the world. It’s going to change things.

Check it out, it’s amazing.



Italy’s culture minister hopes this will boost tourism, but I hope something different: that Italy will do the politically inconvenient thing and rebury large portions of the old city. Yes, that’s right, I said it. We should record the whole city in 3D with high-resolution, multispectral imagery, then rebury most of Pompeii, with roofs over the rest.

Why? Because the remains of the ancient city are falling apart. And archaeology is destructive by nature. When you dig up a site – especially if you dig up walls made of anything but solid stone – what you find starts to deteriorate, immediately. The conservation situation at Pompeii is bad and getting worse.

It’s not for lack of expertise by the conservators – it’s just that no matter how much money you spend, walls without roofs and plaster on them are going to get damaged by exposure to the weather. The ‘pure’ thing, from the conservation perspective, is to avoid modern interventions at all costs. The only way to avoid roofing a site, and still conserve it, is reburial.

I can hear the howls already. I loved visiting the place myself. But 2.5 million visitors per year is unsustainable, and everybody knows it. If we want future generations to have anything to look at, something has to be done sooner rather than later.

My suggestion: start with street view. Add an ambient soundscape. Open it up to developers to create games and 3D reconstructions based on the archaeology of the city that people can enjoy on the interwebs. And then sell tickets to visit select areas of the site by lottery, with a drastically reduced number of visitors.

Sound harsh? Welcome to reality. If we're really thinking about conservation, we're planning for 1000 or 10,000 years. In most places, the only way to conserve a place for that long is reburial, with the occasional re-excavation as a special event. Technologies like street view are an incredible blessing for archaeology because they let excavators show off a permanent, 3D exhibition of their finds. And if you want to rebury the site, you can, while allowing the public to visit the spaces. If the recording is multi-spectral and high-resolution enough, you could do a lot of scholarship while the ruins sleep safely underground.

27 November 2009

Hercules in New York

I was stuck in a hotel in the LA burbs recently and found myself watching Conan the Barbarian, which was an incredibly satisfying experience. A little snooping around Arnold's oeuvre, however, turned up something even better.


Hercules in New York (1970) is about exactly what it sounds like it's about. Hercules keeps whining about how boring Olympus is, and gets thunderbolted down to earth by Zeus. Cue hilarious cultural misunderstandings, gratitous mythology references, and thrilling strongman hijinks!

Arnold Schwarzenegger
(billed as 'Arnold Strong') plays Hercules, in his first ever feature film. Hercules gets picked up in the ocean by some sailors, who promptly get their asses kicked when they try to keep him from going ashore. He immediately acquires a shrimpy Jewish sidekick named 'Pretzie' (comedian Arnold Stang), who takes Herc under his wing and shows him the town.

What takes this film from classical blah to insanely good is Arnold's bad language skills and total lack of acting talent. He was only 21 and his gigantic chest - bare for a lot of the film - looks buttery. His delivery is accompanied by a vacant look that makes you wonder if he even understands his lines, while Pretzie overacts like crazy, doing the Don Knotts bug-eye schtick. Pretzie's supposed to be the funny guy, and Hercules the straight man, but it ends up being the other way around: the googly eyes and slapstick moves fall flat, while Arnold's bad lines, worse delivery, and random classical mythology references left me in hysterics.

Check out the highlight reel, it'll be the best 2.5 minutes you'll spend today.




There's fights with sailors! Bear wrestling in Central Park! Improbable romance! A bunch of preppies get schooled at javelin throwing! Nemesis comes looking for the missing Olympian! Okay, enough spoilers. You can watch the whole thing here on Hulu, though sadly they have the lame version with the Austrian accent dubbed over (also very weird, but not as funny). The Netflix disc has both versions though.


Can I drive your chariot, baby?

25 November 2009

The Ara Pacis in Color

It's a little-known fact that the iconic white Classical colonnade is a historical fraud. Ancient Greeks and Romans (and before them the Lydians, Persians, and Egyptians) loved color and used it liberally on public buildings, especially vivid blues and reds. The overall effect was more like an Indian temple than one of these cold white neoclassical museums or libraries you see everywhere. 


La Reppublica has a great photo gallery showing Augustus' Ara Pacis (Altar of Peace) in what might plausibly be the original colors. The difference in the way you experience the building is shocking after a lifetime of plain white Classical sculpture (but in a good way!).

The Ara Pacis was commissioned by the Roman Senate in 13 BC to celebrate Augustus' victories and the end of decades of civil war. Its vision of peace, piety, and fertility marks the high-water mark of Augustan art and served as effective propaganda for the new Imperial order. (See lots of detail of the sculpture here.)


Classicists and archaeologists have known that ancient buildings and sculpture were brightly painted for at least 200 years. But the fact that the whole aesthetic of "Greek purity" was totally fake was too embarrassing to 19th century archaeologists, who were weaned on the stuff, so they pretended the evidence didn't exist. Fortunately, there's a new generation of scholars doing groundbreaking work on ancient architectural color (including my friend Alex Nagel, who passed the link along - thanks Alex!). 

This research has led to mind-altering results, like this reconstruction of an archer on the pediment of the wonderful archaic temple of Aphaia - hideous, but in a really interesting way.



This stuff makes the ancient Greeks much more interesting to me than the race of ethereal white aliens we're used to seeing in the art history books. Check out the Wikicommons gallery of images from the Munich Glyptothek's 2004 Bunte Götter (Painted Gods) exhibition to have your mind even more fully blown. (Check out the book, too, it's probably in your local university library.)


24 November 2009

Constantinople 1453

I’ve been digging this great preview that reimagines the conquest of Istanbul/Constantinople with Mehmet the Conqueror and the Turkish army as the heroes. Funding to actually make the whole movie doesn’t exist yet, from what I understand, but it’s a nice proof of concept and looks awesome to boot. It's interesting to see the Ottomans as protagonists - it goes against a lot of cultural programming that Europeans and Americans get of the Turk as the sinister enemy of civilization. Personally, I think of the Ottomans as the last dynasty of the Roman Empire.*



Not to be missed is the hysterically funny nationalist flame war in the comments section, mostly revolving around off-color gay jokes and racial slurs. Check out these literary gems:
"greeks invented sex but turks introduced it to woman"

"Muslim monkeys , go home to Asia. Constantinopolis will be GREEK again, no matter you-gay turks  want this or not!"

"Just coz u got Europe on ur back does that mean u can act like a super force? Ur army contains of greek cobans, centaurs, elfs, trolls and probably other greek gay mythical creatures."
Nice that history is so relevant in the present day, right? Right?

*Fun fact: Mehmet II (the Conqueror) took the title Kaysar-i-Rum (Caesar of Rome) after the conquest, and the Ottoman Sultans used it as a title right up until 1923.

Conservation with LEGO

This was posted on Boing Boing last year. It’s still awesome. My architect friends will no doubt be busy revising their opinions on suitable material for patching ancient walls.


Jan Vormann

A full gallery of interventions is here!

23 November 2009

Monday Not-Quite-News Roundup

2012 Shocker
This just in from the LA Times: apocalyptic disaster movie 2012 might not be based in sound archaeological evidence!
Canadian archaeologist Kathryn Reese-Taylor... says the translation of the text essentially says that something will occur on Dec. 21, 2012 and that it will be similar to something that occurred on another date in the past. "At no point do any of the Maya texts actually prophesize the end of the world," she said.
But what's this picture about then?




Shelby rules, but facts are like, so hard!
There’s a new exhibition of Neolithic artifacts at the NYU Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, sponsored by the famous/infamous Shelby White. The Baltimore Sun is on the scene with a reporter who fawns over White (just ‘Shelby’ to her friends), who with her late husband Leon Levy came to be known as much for their naked enthusiasm for stolen antiquities as much as for their philanthropy. The author also freely insults one of her sources as “long-winded” and “pontificating” because her descriptions of the exhibit actually include some information about its historical context. Moral of the article: old stuff is pretty, but facts are hard and boring!

The White Man's burden
While we’re the in comedy section, let’s check out the latest defense of James Cuno’s proposal to bring back partage, from John Tierney in the New York Times.

Tierney starts out complaining about Zahi Hawass’ belief that the Rosetta Stone is Egyptian (!?), and recycles the old orientalist argument that the Egyptians don’t really deserve to own it because they weren’t sufficiently interested in antiquity back in 1799. He derides governments like Turkey, Egypt, or Italy as and incompetent and ‘protectionist’, and veers headlong into the old stereotypes of the ignorant, grasping, swarthy Oriental, who doesn’t know how to appreciate the past like the White Man does.

Can I get a ride home? (Victor Koen/NYT)

As usual, all the fuss about ‘openness’ is really the collector and curator's veiled resentment about having to ask nicely to borrow the treasures of the ancient world, instead of being able just to take what they want, whenever they want it. If Tierney or Cuno really cared about the free exchange of ideas, they’d get behind efforts to expand artifact loans, as Italy has done recently. I wish these guys would just focus on bringing back the fun parts of colonialist archaeology, like gin tonics, pith helmets, and khaki shorts with spats.

A kinder, gentler Orientalism (villagehatshop.com).

14 November 2009

Riding Anatolia with Evliya Çelebi


(Hoofprinting)

From Ottoman historian Caroline Finkel comes news of a horseback reenactment of the itinerary of a great early modern traveler (via H-Turk):
This is to announce that the first phase of the Evliya Çelebi Ride, in
western Anatolia, is now completed. We were on the road for 40 glorious
days and 40 nights, leaving Evliya in Simav, from where he continued
to Izmir and ultimately to Mekke which he reached in spring 1672, while
we returned to Kütahya.

Home from our journey, we learnt that 2011, the 400th anniversary of
our hero's birth, has been proclaimed the year of Evliya Çelebi by Unesco.
We could not have hoped for more exciting news, not just for our project
but for everyone everywhere. Congratulations to those who achieved this
remarkable coup.
Evliya Çelebi (1611-1682) was a great Ottoman traveler, whose Seyahatname, or Book of Travels, is am important source for the history of the Ottoman lands. His travels took him from Istanbul to Austria, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Egypt, Persia, and Mecca. The trip helped to inaugurate the “Evliya Çelebi Way”, “an international project of historical re-enactment and cultural re-connection that will establish a Cultural Route through Western Anatolia”.

(Hoofprinting)
The ride, an international group including literature professors, equestrians, and a retired ambassador, began on the third day of the Şeker Bayramı (sugar holiday), and retraced Evliya’s route from Istanbul as far as Simav, in west-central Anatolia. The ride’s blog has some great pictures. Apparently some villagers called the Gendarmes on seeing this strange group of riders, thinking they were sheep rustlers!

Large sections of Evliya’s route are now off the beaten path, and riding offers a new way of seeing beautiful, undeveloped parts of the Anatolian countryside that are otherwise unaccessible. However, underdevelopment is a problem, even in relatively better-off western Turkey:
“The countryside along the route is much neglected and the people are, we discovered, barely better off than villagers in the east,” Finkel lamented. Similar to the “Lycian Way” and “St. Paul's Trail,” the EÇR book will help to contribute to the local economy through sustainable tourism and could also act as a catalyst for local development projects along the route. (Today's Zaman)
I love the increasing interest in the scholarly, tourism, and NGO communities in promoting cultural routes, landscapes, and intangible heritage more generally - a move away from the traditional fetish for sites and monuments as the only way to experience the past, toward a more holistic view that includes traditions, practice, and experience. (I’m also glad to see that Finkel and her fellow riders are planning to translate more of Çelebi’s work, only small parts of which have ever been made available in English.)

A couple more photos, from the Hoofprinting blog:


11 November 2009

Shockumentary filmmakers find vanished army; or how not to report archaeology news


The remains of Cambyses' army? (Daily Mail)

Yesterday's big archaeology headline, courtesy of Discovery: "Vanished Persian Army Said Found in Desert". It's a cautionary tale of how even good archaeology can look like nonsense when it's presented through the popular tropes that surround archaeology in the media.

The story in brief: twin brothers Angelo and Alfredo Castiglioni claim that a large group of skeletons found near a huge rock shelter in Egypt's western desert is the "lost army" of the Achaemenid Persian king Cambyses. As Herodotus reports, after Cambyses conquered Egypt, he sent a detachment of 50,000 men to punish the recalcitrant priests at the Oracle of Zeus Ammon in the Siwa Oasis, but the army was swallowed by a sandstorm:
...the Persians set forth from Oasis across the sand, and had reached about half way between that place and [Siwa] when, as they were at their midday meal, a wind arose from the south, strong and deadly, bringing with it vast columns of whirling sand, which entirely covered up the troops and caused them wholly to disappear (Herodotus III.26).
The article notes that among the bones were Achaemenid metal objects and ceramics whose thermoluminescence dates are about 2500 years BP. People have been looking for the evidence of this army for centuries; the Castiglionis' contribution was to look in an unexpected place, a southern route to Siwa rather than the usual east-west caravan route from the Nile. The bodies were found under and near a rock shelter 35 meters long.

Check out the video for more:




I thought this story was BS when I first read it, because it relies on all the crutches that some journos use to inflate a nothing find. Exhibit 1: the author describes the Castiglionis as "top archaeologists". This is bizarro journalist-speak for "not an archaeologist". The Castiglioni brothers are Italian filmmakers, best known for making 1970s shock documentaries in the Mondo style about weird African rituals (adult circumcision, DIY surgery, animal sacrifice, lots of blood and bodily fluids spattering all over). They are also allegedly famous for "discovering" an "ancient Egyptian city of gold", which you have to admit sounds pretty sensationalistic.

The Castiglioni brothers at work (Daily Mail)

Exhibit 2: The story takes Herodotus' story as gospel. I love Herodotus, but his Histories are based on hearsay ('historia' just means ‘inquiries’ in Greek).1 Pierre Briant also notes that Herodotus' information about Cambyses was quite biased.2 The number, too, is preposterous (Alexander crossed the Hellespont with only 42,000, according to Diodorus), but it's blandly repeated as fact. Chasing legends is not the point of archaeology, but lazy journalists keep this idea alive in the public mind.

Exhibit 3: The author uses the old ‘first discovery’ theme, even though a skim of the Googles reveals some similar stories: Archaeology magazine reported the discovery of some Achaemenid artifacts in the western desert way back in 2000.

Exhibit 4: The results of the research were presented at the "archaeological film festival of Rovereto", an event that doesn’t have a website in the first few pages of Google rankings (though it's linked here.) Even the Mondo film fans are making fun of the idea that "top archaeologists" present their research at a film festival. Not an normal way of reporting your results.3

The article is written in a way that perpetuates stereotypes about archaeology, and makes it hard to figure out whether the story is based in fact. Which is too bad, since it looks like they found what they said they did: a bunch of dead Achaemenid soldiers out in the desert on the way to the Oracle of Ammon, and they did it with a creative combination of ancient text, modern tech, and old-fashioned survey. (Even the 'city of gold' thing, which sounds so crazy, is on the up-and-up: check out this review of their book Das Goldland der Pharaonen by Stephen Sidebotham, an actual "top archaeologist" and expert in Egyptian desert archaeology.)


An ancient dagger found with the corpses (Daily Mail).

So the story's solid (except for that 50,000 number), but it took me and my fancy archaeology degree a good hour to figure that out. A lot of archaeology stories adhere a formula: "adventurer proves sensational story in ancient text", and most of them are crap. This approach is almost an article of policy at the Discovery and History channels, both of which present good research and total nonsense in exactly same tone of wild-eyed sensationalism.

Dressing decent research in this kind of drag does a disservice to professional and amateur archaeologists alike - the interested amateur is encouraged to believe anything they read, while the informed reader gets suspicious that it's just another bunch of treasure-hunters with an Indy complex. Both ways, the public loses.

Notes
1 Back in the 90s, I had to listen to regular tirades, in all seriousness, about how the word ‘history’ is an oppressive patriarchal word that had to be fought with a liberatory neologism like ‘herstory’ or ‘hirstory’. I never understood why 'revolutionaries' of that era were more focused on doing violence to etymology than to capitalism.

2 Briant, Pierre (2006) From Cyrus to Alexander: A History of the Persian Empire (Winona Lake, IL: Eisenbrauns), p. 55ff. For instance, Briant notes that Cambyses' expedition to Ethiopia was not a total disaster as Herodotus suggests, since forts in the area show evidence of Achaemenid occupation. Cambyses also made enemies of some of the priestly class (p.60) - exactly the same guys that Herodotus got his information from (see Histories 2.3-2.5, 2.13).

3 Though maybe it should be! Humanities people (and I include myself here) are depressingly text-oriented sometimes, and have barely gotten comfortable with 20th century media like film and radio – much less social media and Web 2.0. We’re also cranky ‘get off my lawn’ types when it comes to welcoming talented amateurs into the fold. Archaeologists worry about becoming irrelevant, but have not even started to seriously transition into the 21st century. How about crowdsourcing research? Distributing research finds via wikis or social media? Ditching the idea of the godlike individualist academic and approaching a collaborative publishing strategy? (The fact that I was even momentarily suspicious about research being presented in some primitive tech like film makes me depressed.)


10 November 2009

List of Archaeological Film Festivals

Just stumbled on an organization that I never heard of but am thrilled to learn about. The European Federation of Film Festivals on Archaeology and Cultural Heritage puts out the word about a ton of archaeocinematic events. They all bookend the summer field season. Looks like you could spend almost every weekend in the spring and fall going to these if you live in western Europe!

09 November 2009

Please Excuse the Interruption

Things have been a little quiet here at Archaeopop. Just wanted to drop a line to let you know we haven't disappeared. A bunch of great posts are in the works, and we'll be back soon!

18 October 2009

Nefertiti Overshadowed


The New York Times reported today that Zahi Hawass has begun an official investigation into the circumstances surrounding the removal of the Nefertiti bust from Egypt in 1913. If the bust is deemed to have been removed illegally, Hawass will officially request its return to Egypt. The controversy surrounding the bust's removal is not a new one, and details of the circumstances have been revealed in recent editions of the journal KMT. The artifact was excavated in December of 1912 by a German archaeological expedition working at the site of el-Amarna. At the time, excavated antiquities were subject to a "division of finds" policy, by which a representative of the Egyptian antiquities organization would select those artifacts to be kept in Egypt, and the rest would be awarded to the foreign institution that sponsored the dig. The Nefertiti bust was removed from Egypt in the context of this division of finds. I have nothing new to add to this much-discussed topic; if the information in KMT is reliable, then it would appear that there was fault on both sides. The discoverer of the bust, German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt, very likely glossed over the significance of the find when the government inspector came to the site in early 1913 - Borchardt may even have visually obscured the true quality of the bust. On the other hand, the inspector Gustave Lefebvre (in 1913, the Department of Antiquities [now the SCA] was still under French control) failed to recognize the value of the bust and did not claim it for Egypt.

One thing I will comment on, however, is that I find one aspect of the current German response potentially disingenuous: "...because it [the bust] is so fragile, I am not sure the statue can even be flown." During WWII, the Nefertiti bust, along with thousands of other artifacts from German museums, was packed up and shipped to a secure location in case of Allied bombing of German cities. Nefertiti survived the war inside a packing crate in a potash mine in central Germany. The bust also survived a trip to a collection point at Wiesbaden after the war, and then the return journey to Berlin in 1955. To say now that a flight to Egypt is impossible...well, it would certainly be a smoother ride than in the back of a truck through the German countryside. Perhaps the bust is more fragile now than at the time of its last trip in 1955, but considering that the Germans tout the exemplary conditions under which it has been displayed, one would hope that any further degredation after 1955 would have been minimal.

What grabbed my attention in the article, more than the Nefertiti bust controversy, was the mention of Farouk Hosni's failed bid to become the new Director General of UNESCO. His scandalous remark at a meeting of the Egyptian parliament overshadowed, for me, the Nefertiti debate. In case you haven't heard it: "I'd burn Israeli books myself if I found any in libraries in Egypt." This seems to have been something of an off-the-cuff remark, rather than an official statement. Nevertheless, should the head of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization be someone whose first thought goes to book-burning when confronted with questions about "the other"? I am not concerned with who "the other" is in a situation such as this - the world is full of opposing sides. I'm concerned with the reaction. Book burning is an anathema. It is a violation of education, of science, of culture. In other words, everthing that UNESCO protects. Can you find copies of Mein Kampf in American university libraries? Certainly, and in multiple versions. So too can you find The Protocols of the Meetings of the Learned Elders of Zion, as well as the works of Joseph Stalin, Saddam Hussein, and the collected speeches of Osama Bin Laden.

Zahi Hawass may very well have a legitimate claim for the return of Nefertiti to the Egyptian Museum. Perhaps Egypt should also focus on bulking up its libraries, as well as its museums?

12 October 2009

Ajda Pekkan Plays Hasankeyf


(Doğa Derneği)

Turkish pop star Ajda Pekkan played Hasankeyf last week, drawing 10,000 fans as part of Hürriyet newspaper’s “Freedom Train” – a project to raise awareness of human rights issues among children and women in southeast Turkey. (Video of the show is here, embedding disabled for some reason). Hasankeyf is a dramatic cliffside town on the Tigris River, full of magnificent medieval ruins. It would be largely flooded by the proposed Ilisu Dam, which has recently been denied funding (again) by European governments. Hürriyet reported:
Thousands flooded in to Hasankeyf from neighboring districts such as Şırnak, Mardin and Diyarbakır to watch a historic performance by superstar Ajda Pekkan and supporting rock band Yüksek Sadakat. “It is a great pleasure to be here with you in this unique concert at such a historic and beautiful location. We must not allow the 12,000 years worth of history that sits in this location to be usurped by a dam,” Pekkan said at the opening of the concert. Quoting one of her songs “I was born a free person I will leave a free person,” Pekkan told the crowd that Hasankeyf must live freely as well. “Even when we leave this location tomorrow we will continue to take responsibility for this area,” Pekkan said.
...
The Ilisu project calls for damming the Tigris River and building a 1,200-megawatt power station as part of a $32 billion irrigation plan for impoverished provinces in Turkey’s southeast. Turkey planned to relocate antiquities and monuments from Hasankeyf, the region’s only surviving city built during the Middle Ages, with roots dating to the Assyrians. Critics of the project, which would create a 300-square-kilometer lake, include Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2006. The dam would destroy 400 square kilometers of river habitat that includes species such as the Euphrates soft-shell turtle.
This trailer for Sakae Ishikawa's "Life in Limbo" offers a glimpse of the city:



As Pekkan notes, Hasankeyf is at the eye of a storm of environmental, human rights, and historic preservation activism, now led by the the Doğa Association, Turkey’s major environmental NGO.
It’s a complicated situation for archaeologists. In the past two decades a series of dams have built on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Turkey under the auspices of the Southeast Anatolia Project. Most of the rivers' length is now dammed. Extensive salvage surveys and excavations1 have revealed hundreds of sites and recovered stunning works such as the famous Zeugma mosaics.

A mosaic at Zeugma on the Euphrates. Much of the site is now flooded by the Birecik Dam (Photo NOVA)

However, thousands more sites from the river valleys that were the “cradle of civilization” from have gone underwater unrecorded and unstudied. A couple years back I published a study of the politics of archaeology in Turkey’s large dam projects, and concluded that archaeology was used as a political football by both dam proponents and opponents alike, while archaeologists themselves remained relatively silent on the issue.

(Mehmet Masum Süer)

Mostly, archaeologists accept the trade-off between development and salvage archaeology: we get some scraps of data before the site gets destroyed. Hasankeyf raises the question of where to draw the line: it’s the last major free-flowing stretch of either the Tigris or Euphrates in Turkey, and is inarguably a site of major archaeological significance. Is there a point where we as archaeologists should stop accepting development plans, and protest instead? (And what are the criteria for doing so?)

There’s an excellent petition to declare Hasankeyf and the Tigris valley a World Heritage Site. You can sign it here.

Türkiye'de yaşayanlar Doğa Derneği üyesi burada olabilir. (Turkish residents can join the Doğa Derneği here.)

If you like environmental report evaluations (I confess, I do), German NGO WEED has done detailed critiques of the environmental impact reports and resettlement plans for Ilisu (German with some reports in English).


(Doğa Derneği)

1 Salvage work for the Southeast Anatolia Project dams has generated a large bibliography. Some highlights:

Algaze, G. (1989) A new frontier: first results of the Tigris-Euphrates Archaeological Reconnaissance Project, 1988. Journal of Near Eastern Studies 48:241-281.

Arık, M.O. (2001) 1999 Excavations at Hasankeyf. In N. Tuna, J. Öztürk, and J. Velibeyoğlu, eds. Salvage Project of the Archaeological Heritage of the Ilısu and Carchemish Dam Reservoirs – Activities in 1999. Ankara: METU Historic Environment Research Center.

Kennedy, D., ed. (1998) The Twin Towns of Zeugma on the Euphrates. Rescue Work and Historical Studies. JRA Supplemental Series 27. Portsmouth, RI: Journal of Roman Archaeology.

Özdoğan, M. (1977) Lower Euphrates Basin 1977 Survey. İstanbul: Middle East Technical University.

Tuna, N., J. Öztürk, and J. Velibeyoğlu, eds. (2001) Salvage Project of the Archaeological Heritage of the Ilısu and Carchemish Dam Reservoirs – Activities in 1999. Ankara: METU Historic Environment Research Center.



The tomb of Zeynel Bey (Mehmet Masum Süer)


Monday News Roundup

Some quick items:

Roger Atwood has a great op-ed in the New York Times about the importance of involving local people in anti-looting efforts.

Another op-ed by Uri Avnery on the political repercussions of the excavations of “David’s Town” in Jerusalem by an ultranationalist group.

Vermont Archaeologists protest changes that could gut the state’s contract archaeology industry.

As the LA Times reports, Egypt has cut ties with the Louvre over its refusal to return five fresco fragments allegedly stolen from a tomb in Luxor in the 1980s – including suspension of the museum’s excavations at Saqqara. But is it revenge for Egypt’s candidate being rejected as UNESCO head?

Meanwhile, Egypt is increasing penalties for antiquities smuggling: the maximum is now life imprisonment.

09 October 2009

Adventures in colonial archaeology: a Senegalese regiment excavates at Gallipoli


Senegalese troupes de marine on the Western Front (WWI Color Photos)

World War I saw archaeologists on both sides drafted into war as interpreters and sometimes spies. As George Chase notes in the Classical Journal of 1916, this did not stop their careers:
Several members and former members of the French and British schools [of archaeology at Athens] have been assigned to service as interpreters with the expeditionary forces of the Entente Allies in the Eastern Mediterranean and have there found opportunities for investigation in the midst of military activities.
The same article reports a major excavation by French imperial troops during the Gallipoli Campaign/Çanakkale Savaşı). An almost unbelievable story of excavation under fire, it also shows how deeply archaeology was intertwined with the colonial globalization of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Among the discoveries directly attributable to the war, the most interesting of which I have seen reports are those made on the peninsula of Gallipoli in the course of the unsuccessful attempt of the British and French troops to force the passage of the Dardanelles. In May, 1915, soldiers of the French expeditionary force, in digging trenches on the plateau of Eski-Hissarlik, a few miles from the extreme western end of the peninsula, came upon several tombs constructed of stone slabs. These were destroyed, but some of the contents, including vases and terra-cotta figurines, were preserved by the officers in command. Later, in June, a communication trench hit upon several sarcophagi near the same spot, and it was decided to attempt more careful exploration. The work had to be conducted very slowly, with not more than four men digging at any time, owing to the proximity of the Turks, whose suspicions would have been aroused by any considerable concentration of men.

From July 8 to August 22, the excavations were superintended by Sergeant Dhorme, a priest who, at the outbreak of the war, was a professor in the College of St. Joseph at Beyrut. He was afterward cited in the order of the day for having "dans une position avancée, soumise au bombardement ennemi, accompli sa tâche avec une ardeur inlassable et un mépris constant du danger" ["accomplished his task in a forward position, under enemy bombardment, with tireless zeal and constant contempt for danger"] — probably the first time this honor has ever been conferred for such services. From August 23 to September 26, the interprète stagiaire, J. Chamonard, a former member of the French School in Athens, took charge and prepared a general report for the Bulletin de correspondence hellénique; and a careful catalogue of the contents of the tombs was drawn up by Sergeant Courby, another former member of the school.

In spite of the unfavorable conditions, no less than 37 sarcophagi and 17 clay jars which had been used for burials were recovered. The objects collected included vases, ranging all the way from an Attic black-figured cylix to Hellenistic forms; some terra-cotta figurines of archaic style, especially figures of Demeter, others of Tanagra types, and many of the third and the second centuries B.C., with Aphrodite and Eros as the favorite subjects, similar to the figures found by Pottier and Reinach at Myrina in Aeolis; and jewelry of a rather cheap sort, mostly in bronze, glass paste, and shell. The necropolis dates from the sixth to the second century B.C. Still later, on October 7, the work was resumed, under the direction of Lieutenant Leune, and only abandoned with the withdrawal of the troops on December 12. Much of this later digging was carried on by Senegalese soldiers. More tombs were opened, and among the vases were found some Corinthian wares of the sixth century.
I’m not even sure how to describe my feelings on reading this passage. Senegalese soldiers, serving the French empire, excavate Classical tombs on the shores of the Hellespont while under artillery fire from Ottoman troops (led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, in the campaign that made his reputation). It's a mashup of people, places, and institutions that says everything about the world created during the "long 19th century", in the midst of its collapse.


Senegalese troops unload ammunition at Gallipoli (Imperial War Museum Q61091)

It is presented as so normal, so logical, that an army in the midst of a vicious battle should spare time to conduct excavations. In one sense, the work was admirable: without the efforts of Chammonard, Dhorme, and Courby this necropolis would surely have been destroyed without a trace. Their monograph in the Bulletin de correspondance hellénique (1915, Vol. 39, pp.135-240) is meticulous in its description of tomb construction, burial practice, artifacts, and methodology. Yet in the whole 105 pages, there is barely more mention of the unusual circumstances of the excavation than Chase gives in the paragraphs above. The authors blandly note that the excavation often did not work a full day, since the Turkish bombardment got especially bad around 4pm each afternoon. Men must have been killed while excavating, but no mention is made of casualties.

This instance illustrates the smooth integration of archaeology into European imperial policy, the insane gung-ho attitude of World War I, and the extreme sense of entitlement that Europeans had in the last century. They could excavate whenever, wherever, in the most bizarre conditions, and report it as an ordinary event. (Actually, in historical context, it was: the intimate relationship between military conquest and archaeological exploration was especially pronounced in the case of France, which attached archaeologists to its military expeditions in Egypt (1798), Greece (1828-1833), and Algeria (1830-1850s).

My thoughts turn most to the Senegalese soldiers, and what they thought of their strange assignment. Mostly conscripts, they were ironically pawns in the struggle for African self-determination. Blaise Diagne, Senegal’s deputy in France’s national parliament, made a deal with the Empire: he would help conscript soldiers to defend Paris from the Hun, and in return Paris would grant full French citizenship to all residents of the Four Communes of Senegal. Unlike the British, the French allowed black troops to serve on the front line, and over 70,000 west Africans left their bones in the muddy trenches of Flanders. (For more, see here and here.)

In antiquity, Cape Helles had a shrine to the hero Protesilaos, whom Chase invokes (echoing Philostratos' Heroikos), to capture the strangeness of it all:
The town with which this graveyard was associated was very surely the Athenian colony of Elaeus, famous in antiquity for a mound which was believed to be the tomb of Protesilaus, the first Greek to fall in the expedition against Troy. One cannot but wonder what were the feelings of the shade of the hero, if he still haunts the region of his tumulus, as he watched these strange beings from Western Europe and Africa destroying the resting-places of those who, to him, must have been very modern inhabitants of the shores of the Hellespont.

Tetradrachm with head of Protesilaos from Skione, Macedonia (British Museum).

04 October 2009

Nero’s Dining Room?



Last week news of a curious discovery on Rome’s Palatine hill was in the news. French and Italian archaeologists have found a unique circular room that they speculate may have been Nero’s "rotating dining room”. The press is accepting this speculation as fact. But was it really?

Discovery reports:
Known as "coenatio rotunda", the circular room was found by French archaeologist Francoise Villedieu in the Domus Aurea (“Golden House”), the emperor’s sumptuous residence on the Palatine Hill.

Dating to the 1st century AD, the room has a diameter of over 50 feet (16 meters) and is 33 foot (10 meter) high.

It was supported by a 13 foot (4 meter) wide pillar, which was connected to the perimetral walls by a series of arches.

The room, whose structure is unprecedented, matches a description by the ancient historian Suetonius, who described Nero’s dining room as a circular, rotating, wooden-floored platform.
There’s a nice slide show with the Discovery article, and the BBC has video here complete with hyperbolic narration about archaeologists “dropping their trowels with amazement”. Readers of Italian readers can find a bit more sober coverage here.

The Soprintendenza’s website (Italian) provides more archaeological details, with a refreshing lack of hyperbole.

It’s certainly a weird room – 16 meters wide, with eight arched ribs, and a huge central pillar with small niches. The Soprintendenza suggests that it’s the right date, sometime between the fire of 64 and Nero’s damnatio memoriae at the beginning of the Flavian era. But let's look at the actual description that the find "matches".

Suetonius, in his Life of Nero, says that
There were dining-rooms with fretted ceilings of ivory, whose panels could turn and shower down flowers and were fitted with pipes for sprinkling the guests with perfumes. The main banquet hall was circular and constantly revolved day and night, like the heavens.
That last sentence is the key one, and is the source of the press' breathless excitement. But that's really all the evidence they have to go on. We're still waiting on answers to other questions, like:
Where is the wall decoration that one would expect? How is this room connected to other parts of the palace? How did the rotation mechanism work? If it was really water-powered, as the archaeologists speculate, where are the channels?

And, if I may be so bold, should we rely so much on one vague sentence in Suetonius? Suetonius’ Lives are full of gossip and rumor, animated by anti-imperial sentiment, and written over 50 years after Nero’s death. (Not to mention that the palace itself was buried by Suetonius’ time, so he never could have seen it.) It's an extremely fun book to read, but has to be taken with a grain of salt.

Mary Beard (whose blog is always worth a read) puts her finger on the problem, pointing out that our knowledge of Nero’s Golden House is still spotty and based largely on literary evidence:
does a big pillar really prove that we have got a rotating dining room... and what exactly rotated anyway?

I half suspect that no such thing as a rotating dining room existed. But even if it did, I still don't see why these remains really do reveal whatever it was that Suetonius was talking about.
It was once pointed out that digging is a pathology of archaeology. But this instance illustrates a much deeper and more destructive problem of the field: the frantic desire for ancient texts to be physically true. This leads to sloppy habits of interpretation, where huge, complex architectural features like this are “interpreted” by hanging them on one sentence in a sensationalist writer who never saw the building he was writing about.

Classical archaeology in particular has this vice, reflecting its roots as a discipline that started as the study of literature and took centuries to turn its attention toward excavation. For many Classical archaeologists the ancient texts, and the world they evoke, still remain “more real” than the archaeological evidence of Greek and Roman civilization. (I’m looking for postdocs so I can write a book on this very subject, so stay tuned for more on this.)

So, in short: I would love to know what this strange and interesting room was, and I will be thrilled if it turns out to have been a rotating room of any kind! But I’d like to see those conclusions drawn from archaeological evidence, and a little less breathless speculation from the Fourth Estate.

24 September 2009

The Staffordshire Hoard Revealed



The hoard was revealed this morning, and it's a doozy: over 1,500 items, 5 kg of gold, and 2.5 kg of silver. Metal detectorist Tony Herbert called in experts after finding the first 500 pieces, and archaeologists uncovered the rest. They suspect there may be more yet buried. The location of the find, of course, is being kept fairly tightly guarded.

The BBC article is here, along with a photo gallery. A Flickr page has over 600 photos for you serious gold geeks out there. It's stunning stuff.

Conservator's comments here and video of the excavation here, behind short ads. (BBC won't allow embedding until October.) They apparently haven't cleaned many of the objects yet, which you can see in the photographs.

You can't highlight a find like this without also talking about the UK's Portable Antiquities Scheme. The PAS is a system of voluntary reporting of archaeological finds - instead of fighting the hobbyists and metal detectorists, the government decided to recruit them to report what they found, and where. Over 140,000 objects have been recorded so far (you can see some especially interesting ones here). The project is administered by the British Museum and was fully funded in 2006.

Unlike many countries, English common law allows the finder to keep archaeological objects. What the PAS does is encourage finders to record the provenance of objects and make information about them available to the public. It has helped promote education about and public involvement in archaeology on a wide scale. Read about the history of the project here.

Finds like the Staffordshire Hoard are governed by the Treasure Act 1996, which is the exception to the common law: it requires finders of gold and silver artifacts over 300 years old to report them to the government within 14 days. Local or national museums can take possession of the objects, but they have to pay the landowner and/or discoverer the market rate for the finds.

The Hoard was declared "treasure" today by the Staffordshire Coroner, which everyone expected: the declaration was needed for the British Museum to keep the objects. Tony Herbert and the unnamed landowner, however, will split the reward for the treasure and are likely to become very rich men.

23 September 2009

The Staffordshire Hoard: Unveiling Tomorrow

According to the Beeb, a huge hoard of gold objects from the 6th to 8th centuries was found in July under a field in Staffordshire. Their ownership is yet to be decided, but in the meantime the hoard will be unveiled to the public tomorrow at the Birmingham Museum. Birminghamnewsroom.com reports:
A discovery that will redefine the Dark Ages is to be unveiled at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery tomorrow (Sept 24).

The Staffordshire Hoard is a stunning find of Anglo-Saxon gold discovered earlier this year. It is the largest such hoard ever found and of international importance.

It will be presented for the first time during a press conference at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery tomorrow (Sep 24) at 11.30am.

Experts will be on-hand to talk about the discovery and how it will help rewrite history. Important pieces of treasure will be on show and available to photograph.

Artefacts from the Hoard will be on display at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery from Friday September 25.

Stay tuned for more! Hopefully there'll be juicy pictures in the press tomorrow. Any English readers who care to report from the press conference?

More Craigslist Shenanigans: Plato

Craigslist is full of treasures! Thanks go to Bruce Frier for this gem:

Autographed Copy of Plato's Republic


Date: 2008-07-09, 11:00AM CDT


1st edition of The Republic signed by its author. There is of course a reasonable amount of wear and tear, (light highlighting and underlining, dog-eared pages, back cover missing, etc.), but it is in overall good condition considering its age.

First come first serve

  • Location: chicago loop
  • it's NOT ok to contact this poster with services or other commercial interests

22 September 2009

Teaching Archaeology at Johnson's Island


Johnson's Island in Ohio was a prison camp for Confederate soldiers during the American Civil War, and has been an ongoing dig for the last 2o years or so. Archaeology Magazine has an "Interactive Dig" feature about the site, which is used as a field school and has great public outreach programs. I especially like the most recent field report, written by teachers who were learning about archaeology and developing ideas on how to present the field to young adults.

I especially like Dig Bingo, which seems like a great idea for teaching students to look for the significance of artifacts as they dig. The teachers report:
When we were first given our bingo sheet we assumed it was just the activity for the day and it would be no big deal, little did we know it wasn’t as easy as it looked! As we began digging and sifting as a team we soon realized how difficult it was going to be. Being a young competitive group we quickly learned the techniques to finding artifacts in the dirt. We were able to find pieces of chamber pots, possible tea cups, animal claws, parts of medical and relish bottles, and pottery to get our bingo. Getting bingo after three days of digging was one of the most exciting things about the week.
The Dig Bingo sheet.

Sounds like 'Interpretation at the trowel's edge' with a dash of church social thrown in!

I have a personal interest in the site: my great-great-grandfather, Austin Shoup, was posted there from August 1863 to July 1865 during his service in the 128th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Though winter on Lake Erie is definitely unpleasant, I have admit that this is a pretty soft posting for an infantryman in 1863 - the year of Chancellorsville, Chickamauga, and Gettysburg. It's always made me a little reluctant to brag about "having an ancestor who fought in the Civil War."

31 August 2009

A Sweet Archaeology Job Posting


Well, the job market for archaeologists is certainly in the dumps, what with the recession and all. (see stories like this and this.) So it's great to see a job ad for an archaeologist on Craigslist!

Alchemical, Video, Archaeological Assistant


Date: 2009-07-13, 10:46PM PDT


The short version: we are an independent video production company, which - during the course of filming a radical new science documentary - made a series of rather incredible discoveries (and these discoveries are on-going). Our breakthroughs represent a radical new view of an esoteric world history, and resulted in equally amazing technologies. We are now preparing to market some of these.

What are these technologies?
As amazing as our answer seems, we are not exaggerating. We have rediscovered the "elixir of life," once known also as Amrita, Soma, and (through the European mythos) the "Holy Grail!" And that's not all.
...
Can you work with shop tools and wood? Do you have a background in chemistry, archaeology or biology? Do you have a familiarity with lab safety, using a microscope or with chemical reagents? A person familiar with scientific disciplines is preferable.
Hmm, I didn't do too great in my alchemy classes in grad school. I hope they'll take me anyway?

Read the rest here. This could be your (eternal) life!


25 August 2009

Wal-Mart vs. the Mound




The city of Oxford, Alabama, which had intended to bulldoze an ancient mound to use it as fill on the site of a new Sam's Club, has apparently reconsidered.

22 August 2009

Scuba Diving Beneath Hagia Sophia

BLDGBLOG reports on an upcoming film that nearly makes me wet my pants with excitement:
While scuba diving beneath Hagia Sophia, an exploratory team led by filmmaker Goksel Gülensoy has "managed to reach areas that until now, no one had ever managed to reach," down there in flooded basins 1000 feet beneath Istanbul's heavily touristed religious structure.
In the process, they have discovered 800-year old submerged graves containing the remains of "canonized children."
This was just part of a larger, underwater archaeo-spatial survey:
    The divers and specialists explored the connection of the basins underneath Aghia Sophia with the aqueduct and the palace of Top Kapi. In addition they attempted to locate the secret tunnels from Tekfour Palace to the Islands.
Those "secret tunnels" are presumably the rumored subterranean extensions of the Anemas Dungeons – but who knows.
Secret tunnels from Tekfur Sarayı to the Islands? Subterranean dungeons? Sign me up!

21 August 2009

"Cave Complex Allegedly Found Under Giza Pyramids"; or, Why We Should Be Skeptical of the News Media




The Discovery Channel's website has recently posted an article about a series of caves that may exist underneath the Giza pyramids. It's hard to know where to begin with this one; it's semi-sensationalist articles like these that lead so many people to assume that the pyramid complexes contain untold mysteries and phenomena that the academic establishment is unwilling to reveal.
First, the individual who claims to have found the caves is cited as a "British explorer" - i.e., an interested amateur who may very well have fresh ideas about the nature of the Giza plateau, but who has no actual credentials for excavating there. But it's hard to determine what, exactly, he was doing on the plateau; Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities has very strict rules about who can excavate within Egypt, and rightly so. Long gone are the days when European adventurers ran unchecked in Egypt, sometimes dynamiting the entrance to a tomb if they so chose (something that did, in fact, happen in the 1830s). So how, exactly, did Andrew Collins manage to discover and explore these alleged subterranean caves, given that he is not a professional Egyptologist with an affiliation to an academic institution (as per SCA requirements)? The article does not ask this question; perhaps we have to wait for the inevitable tv special.

The article does state, however, that Mr. Collins was aided in his discovery by "British Egyptologist Nigel Skinner-Simpson". By his own admission, on his website, Mr. Skinner-Simpson is not an Egyptologist. He is a computer software developer who practices as an amateur in Egyptology and maintains a membership to the Egypt Exploration Society (membership is open to anyone who can pay £42 per year). This is not a trivial point that I argue: when the news media throws around the term "Egyptologist", assigning it to anyone who has a theory about Egypt, it is a gross misleading of the public. [Update: I have been kindly informed by Mr. Skinner-Simpson that the attribution to him of the title "Egyptologist" was an editorial error that they were unable to correct for publication.]

The article was relatively brief, but here are my first impressions regarding Mr. Collins' claims about his discovery. He allegedly found a massive natural cave under the Giza plateau. The pyramids were built on limestone bedrock and even incorporated some outcroppings of that bedrock into the lower body of the pyramid. I am not a geologist, but the fact that the bedrock might contain some natural caves does not strike me as necessarily problematic (though I would welcome some insight on this point from a geologist). However, this is where the article gets fuzzy; it's unclear whether Mr. Collins thinks he's found man-made tunnels and "catacombs" cut into the bedrock, or whether the alleged discovery remains simply that of natural caves. He does make clear that he believes these natural caves inspired the ancient Egyptians' beliefs in an underworld, and this is the point at which his claims become sheer speculation.

The Egyptian concept of the afterlife, and the journey to it, was exceedingly complex. The afterlife had a celestial sphere as well as a subterranean element, and it is often difficult to separate the concepts into distinct topographies; Egyptian religious and mythological concepts had a tendency to blur and blend together, built up as they were over thousands of years from disparate sources. Mr. Collins claims that the ancient name of the Giza and Memphis cemeteries, Rosetjau (meaning "entrance of the passages") is "unquestionably a reference to the entrance to a subterranean cave world, one long rumored to exist beneath the [Giza] plateau." In fact, the use of the word Rosetjau in funerary texts was not limited to referencing only the Giza necropolis specifically. According to Egyptologist John Taylor - who is the Assistant Keeper of Egyptian Antiquites at the British Museum - "The term Rosetjau denoted any hole or shaft in the ground (principally tomb shafts but also natural features) which was believed to be an entrance to the netherworld" (italics added).

In other words, Mr. Collins' speculation is interesting but so far is supported only by circumstantial evidence. And how did he obtain that evidence? You'll have to wait for his forthcoming book, apparently.