28 May 2009

Accidental Monuments: Saddam's Palaces, Repurposed

BLDGBLOG has up a great interview with Richard Mosse, a photographer who has recently visited, and photographed, a number of Saddam Hussein's palaces. He is especially interested in capturing the ways they have been repurposed by the American military units that now occupy them. Mosse has an interesting take on monumentalism:
my proposal was to make work around the idea of the accidental monument. I'm interested in the idea that history is something in a constant state of being written and rewritten—and the way that we write history is often plain to see in how we affect the world around us, in the inscriptions we make on our landscape, and in what stays and what goes.
Read the rest!

17 May 2009

Archaeology is Science Fiction

My article about why archaeology is a form of science fiction is up at Archaeolog. Your teaser:
The ghost of Indy is hard to stamp out. Everywhere archaeologists gather, we complain about how archaeology is portrayed in pop culture: it’s sensationalistic, cheesy, misleading, schlocky! It gives people the wrong impression of what archaeology is.

This last existential verb is the source of our trouble. We archaeologists know what archaeology is, and refuse to let anyone define it except us. But the cat has always been out of the bag: archaeology has cast a giant shadow on the public imagination from the moment it first emerged as a profession. And the nature of shadows is to distort, and shift, and show us what we want to see. On that note, I offer you two propositions about the discipline.

1) In the popular imagination, archaeology is a form of science fiction.
2) Archaeologists should embrace this, and start writing science fiction that promotes their vision of the past and agenda for the present.

Read the rest! Thanks to Chris Witmore for the invitation.

09 May 2009

Seeing History in the Glove

I can't get this painting out of my head. It is saying something important. I mean it. Go to the Flickr page and look at it for as long as you can.

Many of the contents of Neverland Ranch were put up for auction in February, then returned to Michael. (The photo is from Paul Scheer's great photoset of the auction, via Boing Boing.) It seems clear, though, that Michael won't return to his ranch. As my friend Sean observed, Neverland should have been preserved like Graceland, a shrine to a great American and his legend. It's a tragedy for all of us that it's being disassembled and sold off, whether by Michael or someone else.

Rob Walker reflects on the painting:
It is, really, some kind of achievement. It is the bad painting to end all bad paintings — and I want it. Thus it is one of the most American things I have ever seen. It is beyond description. It should be turned into a poster and given for free to every household. It speaks for itself.
He's right. This painting contains important lessons about the meaning of fame, the uses of history, and the way we can only read the past through the lens of the present. It is the most totally honest work of art I've seen in a long time.

The shades and the gloves: Mona, George, Albert, Abe and E.T. all pay homage to the man that has eclipsed them. They look GOOD in the gloves and shades, too. You can see it as a conceit, but honestly? Michael Jackson has affected more lives than any of them did. Billions of people know his music. He lives inside my mind, and your mind, and everyone's mind, and has made us feel it and shake it and beat it. At his white-glove peak, he was more important than the other five put together. He may still be.

The painting states something obvious and true: that Michael has entered history, and colored all of American culture with his music. The mind that takes in the Mona Lisa is also a mind that is hardwired with the bassline of 'Smooth Criminal'. We can never again understand them separately.

This is not simply because Michael Jackson is great (he is), but because as time passes, it changes how we are able to perceive it. Each historical moment has its mix of ideas, sounds, colors, concepts, and feelings through which we see the past. The past doesn't exist outside of the lens we see it through. Michael came crashing like a tsunami into popular culture and changed the shape of the lens. He bends light.

Michael understands that he is a transcendant figure. He doesn't do humble. He knows he has mythical powers and historical importance, and lives accordingly. He transformed himself into a white man. In Neverland, he created his own realm where he was benevolent king. He wants to be remembered for his mythical essence: a kindly god of music, a Dionysus stripped of his wildness, a patron saint of children. Michael tried to literally live inside this myth of himself. This painting, and all the other weird stuff in Neverland, are reflections of fact. Michael has tried to live as an historical figure, as a mythical man, while he was still alive.

People treat this as comedy, but it is his tragic flaw. If Michael was dead, we could write his hagiography, and translate the inconvenient truths of his mortal life into the safety of myth. He could be what he is - larger than life, a musical genius, a towering figure of American culture - without his human struggles getting in the way.

Michael sees himself very clearly. But sometimes self-knowledge is a route to destruction. For some reason he reminds me of Aeschylus' Cassandra: she has the gift of prophecy, and uses it to warn those around her of what is to come. But it doesn't change anything. For being true to herself and her supernatural gifts, she is rewarded with mockery, suffering, and death. Like Cassandra, Michael understands the transcendent parts of himself, and has tried to live them out, only to be met with hatred, mockery, and disgust.

What Aeschylus shows us - and what Michael doesn't understand - is that having the gods among us only makes life worse for the living. When the supernatural takes mortal form we instinctively see it as something destructive. This is why we demand celebrity gossip: we need to know that the people who control our psyches are even worse fuckups than we are. In other words, they have to remain human and fallible and fragile. If they refuse, they have to be destroyed.

The painting remains great. While Michael is alive, it will be seen as a work of high camp, outrageous hubris, amazing comedy. When he dies, and takes his place with Elvis in the pantheon of departed heroes, the reception of this painting will change. It will be seen for what it is: an honest and prescient assessment of his influence on American life.

The Nefertiti Bust: Art Nouveau Ripoff?

LinkOn the heels of the Ebay report, Al-Arabiya reports (via AFP) fresh controversy over the authenticity of a famous artifact. This time, it is the famous bust of Nefertiti:
Housed in a Berlin museum, the iconic bust is one of the most copied works of ancient Egypt but its legitimacy has been put into question by Swiss art historian, Henri Stierlin, who claims that the bust is just a copy dating from 1912.
Zahi Hawass, naturally, is less than pleased:
"Stierlin is not a historian. He is delirious," Zahi Hawas, Secretary General of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities told AlArabiya.
As always, everyone has a motive. If the head were fake, then the Germans would be off the hook for holding on to what everybody knows is a stolen artifact. They could replace their much-deserved shame with a cute story about an archaeologist who just wanted to "test some ancient pigments" on a new bust, and make the ancient queen look pretty by painting her with a necklace. How nice!

By the same token, the Egyptians have a lot invested in the iconography of Nefertiti - and have spent time and energy in demanding the return of the bust. If it were fake, they would lose not only their symbol and their efforts but also one of their negotiating chips with Western governments in the ongoing game of repatriation.

It also illuminates one of the worst results of looting. If no one keeps records of when and where artifacts came out of the ground, then no one has any idea what is fake. Being left holding a fake is an ironic and appropriate punishment - a tisis if you will - for curators and collectors who let their lust for possession overwhelm their moral compass. But the consequences for scholars are more serious. Take the Cycladic figurines: of the 1,600 known examples, only 150 came from known contexts. The rest are so riddled with fakes that they are totally useless for archaeologists and objects of suspicion and mockery by laypeople.

Regardless of whether the bust is fake or not, then, the real crime is that Ludwig Borchhardt concealed the find, then hid the existence of the artifact for a decade, erasing all hope of confirming its provenience. His cupidity and cowardice are the real reasons this question even exists.

EBay and the economics of fake artifacts

Chuck Stanish has an interesting piece in this month's Archaeology on EBay and the illegal antiquities trade:
Our greatest fear was that the Internet would democratize antiquities trafficking and lead to widespread looting. This seemed a logical outcome of a system in which anyone could open up an eBay site and sell artifacts dug up by locals anywhere in the world. We feared that an unorganized but massive looting campaign was about to begin, with everything from potsherds to pieces of the Great Wall on the auction block for a few dollars. But a very curious thing has happened. It appears that electronic buying and selling has actually hurt the antiquities trade.
I'm happy to discover a silver lining of any kind in EBay's shameful facilitation of the illegal antiquities trade. And to be honest, it's satisfying to see wealth transferred from unscrupulous, well-heeled collectors who encourage the destruction of sites to unscrupulous, needy artisans who are not destroying sites.

However, in most places it's development, not illicit pot-hunting, that constitutes the major long-term threat to the archaeological record. And here is where I see a possible wrinkle. If the success of forgery as a cottage industry encourages local people to treat the material remains of the past as a commodity that can simply be manufactured to meet outside demand, they then have little economic incentive to preserve intact archaeological sites, unless these serve some other end, such as attracting tourists or archaeologists.

Of course I don't mean to imply that forging artifacts necessarily precludes the kind of respectful stewardship of genuine past material culture that archaeologists--for a variety of motives, not all disinterested--like to see local folks exhibit. But EBay might well end up saving sites from the looter's spade only for them to be destroyed by construction backhoes.


03 May 2009

Babylon to Reopen

The Babil provincial government plans to reopen Babylon to visitors, as the New York Times reports today:

Colonial archaeologists packed off its treasures to Europe a century ago. Saddam Hussein rebuilt the site in his own megalomaniacal image. American and Polish troops turned it into a military camp, digging trenches and filling barricades with soil peppered with fragments of a biblical-era civilization.

Now, the provincial government in Babil has seized control of much of Babylon — unlawfully, according to the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage — and opened a park beside a branch of the Euphrates River, a place that draws visitors by the busload.
It seems that Iraq, like several other Mediterranean nations with lots of tourism potential, has created a single Ministry that deals with antiquities and tourism. While in theory such a move can provide more resources and better planning to archaeological sites, in practice there are serious conflicts of interest. Dollar signs start dancing in the heads of local governments and tourism operators, who don't necessarily have any interest or expertise in the absurd amount of conservation and maintenance that a site like Babylon requires.

In Iraq, it seems like the new Ministry overlaps to some degree with the functions of
the Ministry of Culture:

The agencies clashed over the reopening of the National Museum in Baghdad in February, and then as now, the tourism ministry, which favored reopening, prevailed. Its power stems not from the Constitution, but from proximity to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who has pressed for reopening historic and cultural sites as symbols of the country’s stability and progress. His government made control of ancient sites a provision in the security agreement with the United States that took effect in January. Next month, the American military will turn over the last of them, Ur, the ancient Sumerian capital in southern Iraq.

“Our goal is that these sites will be tourist attractions — to convey the real, civilized image of Iraq and to bring as many tourists as possible,” said the tourism ministry’s director, Qahtan al-Jibouri. “Iraq needs another source of funding in addition to oil.”
Mr. al-Jibouri is entirely correct. But "as many tourists as possible" will not be a sustainable source of income without good site management planning and stable political institutions to ensure it. At the moment, Iraq appears to have neither.

Cleopatra's nose, stylish hats, and a royal tomb?

Last week there was lots of media buzz about what might or might not be the discovery of Antony and Cleopatra’s tomb. Radar detected three chambers 65 feet underground near the temple of Taposiris Magna. Combined with the presence of some other royal burials nearby, the find of some of coins with Cleopatra’s name, and an alabaster mask fragment that may look vaguely like Antony, there is enough circumstantial evidence to make some flashy news articles. (Like this one and this one.)

The emphasis is definitely on the theatrical value in these articles: I found myself alternately amused and annoyed that issues such as Zahi Hawass’ stylish hat, or whether Cleopatra was really that hot (maybe she had a pointy nose and big chin! The horror!), occupied so much column space. So I turned to an actual Egyptologist, who prefers to remain anonymous, for commentary:
There are several reasons this particular episode inflames me, and I'll try to organize my thoughts coherently.

Regardless of whether they are correct about possibly finding the burial site of Mark Antony and Cleopatra, the entire endeavor appears to be sensationalism of the worst kind. The CNN article that I read about the Cleopatra issue says that Kathleen Martinez is a "young archaeologist" and lawyer. It seems to imply that she has no formal academic qualifications in archaeology, ancient history, or Egyptology, but I cannot be certain of this without insider information (her wikipedia entry seems to only reinforce her lack of qualifications). As far as I know, she has no institutional affiliation. It seems that this young lawyer, who is concerned with "restoring the reputation of Cleopatra", has glossed over every need to be academically or professionally legitimate.

Even if this expedition were being directed by the most distinguished Egyptologist out there... Well, it wouldn't be, because no legitimate scholar would claim that "restoring Cleopatra's reputation" or "finding a lost tomb" is a valid research goal. This whole debate about whether Cleopatra was beautiful is along the same lines: Cleopatra must have been beautiful! Consider who she seduced! My response? Who the hell cares? Since when is the physical beauty of Cleopatra a legitimate research paradigm? This sort of "scholarship" is so patently absurd that no one within the discipline takes it seriously. My complaint is that regardless of the fact that we Egyptologists know it's foolish, the public doesn't. The public thinks this is real archaeology. They are continually fed these ridiculous notions of what research is. And Kathleen Martinez is no better: "Cleopatra was a philosopher, a poet, a goddess, a warrior." Such obsequious preening to a historical figure belongs at least a hundred years in the past.

I recently read a CNN article entitled "how to make it as an archaeologist", where the author says that if you want to make a name for yourself, you have to single-mindedly pursue only spectacular finds. At the time, I thought they were wrong: while it's true that when papers discuss some new statue, tomb, or monument they draw big crowds in conference venues (and maybe mentioned on CNN), it's not considered to be serious archaeology if the pursuit of a "lost tomb" characterizes the extent of your research goal.

Unfortunately, I am being proved wrong. The sort of media coverage this Cleopatra thing is generating completely misrepresents what real archaeologists do - as you well know, someone whose professional goal is to find the Ark of the Covenant, or the lost tomb of Antony and Cleopatra, wouldn't even get into grad school. It's a pathetic sham of what scholarship is, or should be.

And I fear that I have gotten carried away by my frustration, so I will end my venting here...