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.

20 August 2009

Stalin's Lost Railway

A wonderful modern ruin, somewhere out in the taiga. Via English Russia:

We’ve had recently an abandoned railway in Abkhazia, abandoned as a result of USSR collapse when new “independent” republics couldn’t maintain the complicated and high-cost USSR legacy objects. But this one was abandoned long before the USSR collapse, it was doomed to be abandoned from the beginning. It was built by a personal Stalin’s order in the middle of nowhere - deep inside Northern Siberia between Salekhard city and Igarka town. It was not connected with any other Russian Federal Railway System and the purpose of it still is not very clear, so as a senseless toy it way abandoned pretty soon and now rusts accessible only with a helicopter.

Lots more pretty pictures here.

Stalin was a lunatic, but was good at leaving us interesting ruins, like the alleged secret subway system under Moscow, creepy nuke test sites and even a ruined dacha.

17 August 2009

Building Rome in a Day: an Interview with Liz Glynn

‘Building Rome in a Day’ was part of the New Museum's ‘The Generational: Younger than Jesus’ exhibition in spring 2009. The exhibit, conceived and organized by LA-based artist Liz Glynn, had groups of volunteers constructing and destroy the city of Rome, tracing its architectural history from its founding by Romulus in 753 BC to Alaric’s conquest of the city in 410 CE. NYT has the time-lapse video here. Liz was kind enough to sit down with me and talk about the project back in April. (That’s forever in blog time, but no time at all in archaeology, so it averages out!)

Dan: For starters: how did the 'Building Rome in a Day' project come about?

Liz: I was making a lot of works based on language at the time, and I tend to have a lot of fragmentary but iconic bits of text bouncing around in my head at any given time. I was also working with ideas of utopia. But whenever I was working directly with utopia, all anyone wanted to talk about was futility. but I wanted to talk about possibility, and what can be done. So I decided "building Rome in a day" was a good way to refute the idea of the insurmountable challenge.

Dan: I love puns and contradictions, so the idea of refuting a proverb (“Rome was not built in a day”) tickles me. It's wonderfully contrarian.

Liz: Yes. I like things that are little blunt, verging on stupid. But so stupid, you've got to try them.

Dan: It’s interesting that you mention optimism. the project has a very modernist feel to it somehow – that technological optimist attitude - the sense of 'we can do it!', no matter how absurd or ambitious the project.

Liz: hmmm... there's a sense of that, but then there's also the destructive aspects of the closing [of the exhibit, where the city is destroyed], which I think people in the high modern era were in denial about. I think the rise of modern technology was a little blind perhaps.

Dan: So is it more a rejection of that postmodern cynicism that you're aiming for? A post-postmodernism?

Liz: I don't know if I’d classify it relative to the modern/postmodern dichotomy; it's more of a reaction against the post-60s-apathy. I think a lot of people in our generation are bewildered by the complexity of the problems facing them. Part of the Rome piece is reducing the scale to make an enormous, complex thing accessible in a hands-on way.

Dan: On that note, I want to detour into some of the practical stuff for a moment. My readers are going to want to know some of the nerdy details, like, what did you do about the hills? Is everything in scale? What were your sources? Did you really make it from Romulus to Alaric in 24 hours?

Liz: We started with the 7 hills stenciled (just their names) on the cardboard. We don't have much in the way of topography, however, simply as a practical matter. The scale is relative to the buildings already built. We began with the hut of Romulus, and I think the last building is St. John Lateran. But very little is built near the end. And yes, we covered 753BC to 410AD, about 1.238 years per minute.

The Hut of Romulus (Zack Sultan, via Archaeology Magazine)

Dan: You used cardboard and plastic – not your usual archaeological materials. I love the aesthetic contradiction of representing these 'eternal' monuments in ephemeral, disposable, very modern media.

Liz: Ah, all of the materials are recycled from the museum's waste stream - nothing comes from nothing. We use cardboard as an analog for brick, and wood for marble (we switch when we hit the era of Augustus).

Dan: Nice!

Liz: Yes, even marble was "recycled" or at least refashioned in ancient Rome. There's a great bust in the Getty Villa that used to be one emperor, and now is another carved from his unpopular predecessor’s head!

Dan: It's true - the great irony of archaeological conservation was that the ancient practice was to recycle building materials.

Liz: Yes. Our idea of the eternal monument is very much a modern construct. In the case of Rome, there was a point in the nineteenth century when they decided what ruins were iconic enough to preserve, and leveled everything else to build apartments.

Dan: How literally did you reenact things like fires and invasions?

Liz: The big invasions - the Gauls and the Visigoths - are musical. Dan Friel, of the band Parts and Labor, played the Gauls, and those present acted out a vicious battle scene. Shahzad Ismaily played an accompaniment to the Visigoth destruction. As for the fires... for the version I did in LA, we used small fireworks and matches, with lots of water handy. For the New York version, at one point we brought a building outside and burnt it on the Bowery (which was not necessarily sanctioned). But otherwise, we dumped red paint on it, improvised, stomped, and then, restored! We used lots of white paint.

Dan: Got a favorite moment from the day?

Liz: The morning was lovely, when Joshua Beckman was reading from Catullus and Edgar Saltus around the era of Caesar, and a number of people were getting into some great buildings - including Nero's Golden House, my personal favorite. Also, it was nice gathering with everyone who had been working on the piece and deciding to become the Visigoths. There were all these people swarming outside for the opening, but we huddled together, tried to decide how it would work, then took to the perimeter, and went for it.

Dan: Roman history is usually taught in such a lopsided way, so it must have been interesting to have all centuries get equal time. Any unexpected results from that?

Liz: I think it's interesting to see how little gets built during the Republican era. In fact, most of the buildings that are instantly recognizable came out of periods that were less democratic than those that we idealize the Romans for. It was, in fact, the overly ambitious and somewhat corrupt emperors who produced great buildings. (Perhaps Trajan is an exception, but anyhow…)

Dan: Did you find Augustus' conceit about 'finding brick and leaving marble' to be true?

Liz: Well, yes. The era of Augustus is CRAZY, because so much is meant to be built, and we really can't keep up. But I wonder if he was just better at documenting, or prominently dedicating, all of the buildings. We also have the Res Gestae to thank.

Dan: I was meaning to ask about that. How did you deal with the unevenness in the archaeological record? Is this a picture of Rome as it was, or Rome as it was recorded?

Liz: Well, we work from what is documented, or at least, what is left. So, with the archaic material, there is a lot of improvisation – as in "there are 27 sacrificial altars, but we don't know what they looked like". Or in some cases, we have images, like the early drawings of the temple of Jupiter, which are merely a few lines on paper. In other cases, we don't have a drawing, just a mention in the topographical dictionary. One starts to think differently about the authority of these drawings after trying to recreate them in three dimensions.

The Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus (Photo Litdrift)

Dan: To return to some of the conceptual aspects: I thought it was interesting that you bill yourself as the ‘organizer’ rather than the ‘artist’.

Liz: I’m an instigator, but the piece doesn't exist without a lot of helping hands. The funny thing is, a lot of work is like that, but it's not usually acknowledged. I’m sort of at the mercy of the participants in a sense.... I couldn't do it without them. At any given point in the room, if someone asks a question, it's likely I can answer it, but usually someone else can answer it better. The span of knowledge tends to be striking. Some volunteers are great builders, others have lots of history, some have favorite emperors, and some are just super creative and crafty.

Dan: How many people showed up? And how well did they work together?

Liz: I think about 100. They were great; some made new friends, other kept to themselves. I have an old friend who is very charming, and she was there in the middle of the night and really kept the energy up.

Dan: So you had a few lictors, as it were.

Liz: Of course! And a delicious feast around noon. A roast, lots of fruit and grapes, and slightly anachronistic champagne gelatin.

Dan:Coalition of the willing’is my favorite phrase to come out of the Bush years, so I love that you describe your assistants/volunteers that way.

Liz: Ah yes, going to Bush. I had this huge frustration after the flood in New Orleans (another inspiration for the piece), where I felt like everyone wanted to help so much. If they had organized all Americans taking a week off work and volunteering to build or clean up - instead of subcontracting it all - we would be much better off.

Dan: Part of the tragedy there was the squandering of good will, which could have been productive.

Liz: I never discount willingness. I’m kind of creature of faith, not in the religious sense, but as a believer in human good will.

Dan: For your volunteers, what was behind their willingness? did they get the experience they expected?

Liz: I can't speak to everyone's motivation, and I do think they vary a bit.
Generally, people seemed to enjoy it, and I think once people are building, they get pretty wrapped in. A number of those from the middle of the night returned to check in the next day.

Dan: It's a nice change from a lot of people's experience of archaeology, which is very passive - watching television, reading interpretative signs. I see people craving a more immersive experience of the past.

Liz: Yes, a lot of the participants who have been involved with academia, including a woman who has a comparative literature PhD on the Sabines, said similar things. It comes much more out of the pleasure of getting one’s hands dirty, and figuring things out in a hands-on way.

Dan: I’m struck by how the view of Rome that you created is something that would have been impossible for the ancients themselves to perceive or construct. how does that affect the meaning of the project?

Liz: I’m not sure if affects the meaning, but I do think it's interesting; hindsight is 20/20, and we can never really get a birds eye view on anything while we're in medias res, so to speak.

Dan: So how much of this project is about ancient Rome itself, and how much of it is about how we see Rome today?

Liz: I think it's more about Rome, actually, but as a metaphor for our contemporary empire. The parallels only become apparent after digging in and looking at the historical trajectory through the built environment. These parallels, by the way, are quite eerie.

Dan: Which ones were most striking to you?

Liz: The proximity of the flowering of the empire to the decline. How long it took for the empire rise, and how quickly, and precipitously it fell... I mean, look at Italy today. Their attitude about art is very telling: "all of the great work has already been made". But for me, there is so much left to do.

Dan: now I have to ask you what 'great work' means to you! Or what the great tasks are.

Liz: There's a Thomas Hirschorn quote I like, which is "Down with quality - only energy counts." It's not true across the board, but I think it's a good place to start.

For more, check out Archaeology Magazine's coverage. And don't miss Liz' amazing 'Replica Replica' project at LACMA!

(Photo Litdrift)

14 August 2009

An Insult to Archaeologists and Stamp Collectors Everywhere

Apparently the Egyptomania that took the news media by storm following the discovery of king Tut's tomb in 1922 didn't quite reach into every journalist's cubicle. In 1935, a rather dour individual wrote a review for the New York Times of James Henry Breasted's "The Human Adventure" - a short documentary about the excavation and research activities of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute. Though it is ultimately a favorable review, it is only dubiously so. The review opens with the following statement: "Barring stamp collecting, archaeology would seem to be about the least likely subject matter for a motion picture. It is all the more suprising, then, to discover that even this science can be made into an entertaining film" (italics added). He digs himself even further into his hole when he describes the activities of Orientalists as "mole-like". Though this reviewer was obviously not gifted with a prescience for future motion picture trends in the vein of Indiana Jones and Lara Croft, he was also puzzlingly oblivious to both past and contemporary popular culture of his own time. Tut's tomb had precipitated a media firestorm just a decade earlier, and the original The Mummy - with Boris Karloff in the title role - had been released in 1932, just two years before this review (not to mention the four Mummy sequels that would appear between 1940-44).

Despite his apparently negative attitude toward archaeology (perhaps it was still a thorn in the side of American newspapermen that the exclusive media rights to Tut's tomb went to the London Times?), the reviewer is forced to admit that "it would be a person with little imagination who could sit unmoved as loose-robed workmen's picks force back the earthy leaves of history and turn up the precious relics of long-dead civilizations - weapons made by men of the Stone Age, grains of Egyptian wheat that were sold in Joseph's time, the stables of King Solomon, the harem of Darius, the great obelisk of Persepolis, its lofty towers, the tablet of King Sargon on which was imprinted the impertinent footprints of a lowly mongrel."

Whoah. Another one succumbs to the Biblico-Orientalist fetishizing in which one can fantasize about swarthy cave men, remember the ingenuity of Joseph, praise the Persians and denegrate the Neo-Assyrians - all in one breath! And all of this is brought to you courtesy of native manual laborers in that oh-so-curious garb!

But perhaps I'm being a little harsh. It is those same basic elements of field archaeology that fascinated the reviewer which continue to fascinate people today and drive blockbusters like the 1999 remake of The Mummy. And if that movie is any indication, the tendency to portray Arabs as unscrupulous and slow-witted is still very much with us. (I did consider that the remade Mummy was entirely tongue-in-cheek, and then decided that that was attributing too much cleverness to Stephen Sommers.)

I'm left with just one final comment: why the unnecessary insult to stamp collectors? I'm not a collector myself, but anyone who still thinks it bereft of glamor and sexiness should see the 2006 movie Black Book. One look at Carice van Houten's smoldering offer of stamps (yes, stamps!) to Sebastian Koch, and you'll never look at stamp collecting the same way again.

p.s. Here's the link to the NYTimes 1935 review, but you'll have to sign in to see it.

10 August 2009

Vespasian Was Not Born in Kenya

In the midst of our heated debate about Barack Obama's birth certificate, Italian archaeologists have found what they claim is the birthplace of the emperor Vespasian:
The 2,000-year-old ruins were found about 80 miles (130 kilometers) northeast of Rome, near Cittareale, lead archaeologist Filippo Coarelli said. The 150,000-square-feet (14,000-square-meter) complex was at the center of an ancient village called Falacrine, Vespasian's hometown.

Even though there are no inscriptions to attribute it for sure, the villa's location and luxury make it likely it was Vespasian's birthplace, Coarelli said. "This is the only villa of this kind in the area where he most certainly was born," the archaeologist said in a telephone interview from Cittareale.

What's that you say? You'd like to see pages and pages of bad jokes about Vespasian and the Flavians? That's funny, me too!

Good thing there's a nice long thread on the subject over at fark.com. As Drew notes, it is reassuring to know that Vespasian was not born in Kenya.

My favorite comment/photo, from borg09:

"...the Flavians"


Clearly, the last of the dynasty.

Update: Mary Beard harshes Coarelli's mellow:
The talk among British and US archaeologists in Rome... is rueful. After all the 'advances' in archaeology, and what it can tell us about the ancient world, are we still looking for a 'Vespasian lived here' spot?

09 August 2009

Wanted: Numismatists and Epigraphers

An article in India's Business Standard laments the shortage of trained numismatists and epigraphers to fill vacant jobs in the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). The Business Standard suggests that this is because the jobs are not remunerative enough to attract educated young Indians, but lack of remuneration has not led to a shortage of archaeologists elsewhere: in many European countries, the heads of local archaeological museums and inspectors in state archaeological services are often effectively volunteers.

Like many other institutions of Indian civil society, the ASI had its origins in the British colonial administration, with its mania for taking inventory of native people and their resources. Mortimer Wheeler, director of the ASI from 1944-1948, did important work at Mohenjo-daro in the Indus valley and Maiden Castle in southern England, excavations he is remembered for organizing like military campaigns. He has received less posthumous attention for stoking the fires of public interest in archaeology at every opportunity. Today this sort of promotion is often considered distasteful by one's colleagues: few academic professionals are comfortable soliciting media attention (far less trying to create Zahi-like cults of personality, which is just as well). But it may prove essential for archaeology to do a little "marketing," not only in order to compete for public attention and resources, but to attract the students who will eventually succeed the current generation of professionals.

Archaeology without digging: Altinum

The Vigorous North has a great post about the use of remote sensing to find the city plan of ancient Altinum, a precursor to Venice. Check out the amazing results from infrared aerial photography:

Read the full post here.

Remote sensing is another great argument for being much more cautious about excavation and its destructive results.

Thanks to Christian for the link!

08 August 2009

Michael Jackson in Egypt

NBC Chicago strikes a blow for serious journalism by pointing out that this statue in the Field Museum looks just like Michael (in his later years). It's dated to the New Kingdom (1550-1050), and is (of course!) a bust of a woman. (Thanks to Lindsay for the tip!)

Which brings us to Michael's foray into archaeology, a classic co-starring Eddie Murphy and Iman as Ramesses and his wife. Legends live.

Michael Jackson - Remember The Time
Caricato da hushhush112. - Guarda altri video musicali in HD!

Berlusconi Exposes Himself

The ongoing Berlusconi sex saga took an archaeological twist lately when L'Espresso released tapes secretly recorded by escort Patrizia D'Addario at his villa on Sardinia.

Italian Prime Minister and media mogul Silvio Berlusconi is known for, well, uncovering himself to as many young women as possible. His Villa Certosa on Sardinia (which has his own artificial volcano!) has acquired a reputation as a party spot where politicians and businessmen cavort in the nude with would-be actresses and models.

The Villa Certosa, near Olbia (Daily Mail).

Messing with younger women is an age-old pastime of male politicians. Predictable, kind of boring even. The real bombshell in D'Addario's tapes comes after Berlusconi's finishes boasting about his staying power and moves on to bragging about the opulence of his villa. Beneath the artificial lake on his property, he claims, are 30 Phoenician tombs:

After noting that the lake is adorned by a fossilised whale, Berlusconi purportedly adds: "Underneath here, we found 30 Phoenician tombs from 300BC."

This was news to the archaeological community. And sensational news, too.

A necropolis under the estate near Porto Rotondo on the Costa Smeralda would be evidence of Phoenician settlement in an area where none were thought to have been situated. Italy's National Association of Archaeologists said it would be "of the utmost importance for the study of Phoenician expansion on the island".

Of more immediate concern was why, if such an obviously important discovery had been made during the excavation of the lake, the authorities were not notified. Government officials in nearby Olbia knew nothing about it. This is a serious matter. Failure to report an archaeological find within 24 hours is an offence in Italy punishable by up to 12 months in prison.

The opposition Democratic party, which had been looking for a way to embarrass the prime minister without getting immersed in his eventful sex life, was not slow to spot the opening. Representatives in both houses of parliament tabled questions, demanding that Berlusconi and his heritage minister give an explanation.

Naturally, his lawyer claims that there are no such tombs.

Phoenician urn burials at Sant'Antioco, Sardinia (h/t Wandering Italy)

Frankly, I think the Italians have their priorities straight. Berlusconi certainly seems like a tasteless man in his personal life, but his behavior is hardly criminal. But taking out a whole Phoenician cemetery? If the allegations are true, that's a crime for which I would love to see him serve some time.

05 August 2009

Publish or Perish?

The TAY Project is a private NGO based in Istanbul. They document looting, record threatened sites, and have started an inventory of archaeological sites in Turkey. They also have a site looting hotline, where you can report ongoing illegal excavations.

I'm struck by their latest project, called 'Publish or Perish':
Today, if there is no scientific need or a rescue purpose, the general attitude is leaning towards not to excavate. And, if there is a real need for an excavation, that ‘need’ and purpose has to be definitely included in the ‘final report’. We also have to remember that, first of all and before the ‘report’, there must be a “final” for the archaeological excavation, which is very rare in our country.

At that point, our discussion at TAY turned to “final reports” and we wondered how many archaeological excavations we had in Turkey and how many of them had their “final reports”. This was not a very easy question to answer. Apart from “final reports”, there was not an archaeological excavations list for Turkey.

So, at first hand, we began preparing that list, which took unnecessarily long time. Main reason for this delay also proved our main idea; there was not many ‘final reports’.
The list that follows is pretty depressing: by TAY's reckoning, barely 10% of sites in Turkey have final reports, and many projects keep digging every year and only publish a paper here and there.

This is not to say that _nothing_ has been published from these sites, which makes the list a little bit unfair. For example, the Summers' team at Kerkenes Dağ publishes quite a lot: annual excavation reports, popular bulletins, and papers yearly in Anatolia Antiqua or Anatolian Archaeology. The same can be said of Gates and Redford's work at Kinet Höyük/Issos (also see here). But it's true that neither has a book that can serve as a reference work for the site, as far as I can tell. Which means that if you want to know something about the excavations, you have to work your way through a lot of diverse material to get an overview of what's going on.

And many sites, of course, have no publications whatever.

Way back in '89, Chris Tilley famously observed that 'digging is a pathology of archaeology': a disease. His point was to say that excavation is not the point of archaeology, but a distraction from the real work of interpreting past human experience. Excavation gives the archaeologist an ego boost and makes us feel like we're 'adventuring' or 'having an authentic experience'. But for sites it's an illness: excavation destroys deposits and exposes materials, like ancient walls, that may require long-term conservation.

Given that, I like TAY's attempts to 'name and shame' and create peer pressure to publish data. Because, really, if you're not publishing data, why are you digging? You should be ashamed of yourself. (Actually, you should stop digging first, then feel ashamed.)

However, I wonder if it isn't time to jettison the notion that 'final publication' has to be in book form. There's no reason excavation records can't be presented to the public as a website, wiki, or other form of online database. (Especially given the state of the publishing industry, where high costs and low print runs ensure that most publications exist only in the most specialized university libraries.) One problem with even the best-kept archaeological data is that it is usually treated as the private property of one particular professor, and not made accessible to the publics for whose benefit archaeology claims to work. In an age where everything is going open-source, archaeological information should follow suit.

Anyone know examples of best practices for online final publications?

04 August 2009

Coup Against Culture in Honduras

In the wake of the military takeover in Honduras, the coup plotters are demonstrating that their concerns are not purely constitutional. The newly-installed Minister of Culture, Congresswoman Myrna Castro, is a former television host known for her opposition to culture, arts, and archival programs and allegedly (I couldn’t find a reliable source for this) an advocate of burning “undesirable” books.

The Old Presidential Palace, now home to the National Archives of Honduras (quotha.net).

With her predecessor, Rodolfo Pastor Fasquelle, in exile in Mexico, Castro’s first few acts as Honduran Minister of Culture have been startling to say the least. She immediately canceled the nationwide literacy campaign (Honduras has one of the lowest literacy rates in the Americas). On Sunday August 2, accompanied by soldiers, she appeared at the Centro Documental de Investigaciones Históricas de Honduras (CDIHH) and announced its conversion into a barracks for army reserve units. The CDIHH is the home of the National Archives and the Ethnohistoric Archives (where the nation’s archaeological collections are stored).

The political point being made here is so unsubtle that it takes on an air of magical realism! As the director of the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History points out, the building itself is cultural patrimony, and is protected by the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Properties in case of Armed Conflict.

As a result of the military occupation, a lot of the center’s activities have been cancelled:
One of the center’s (CDIHH) principal objectives is to serve as a space for the diffusion of culture and national heritage by developing seminars, symposiums, book presentations, conversations, temporary expositions, and artistic events, among other things, which were canceled by the military on the express orders of the Minister.
It’s no particular secret that Zelaya’s government was populist, and was interested in redistributing wealth from the large landowners who have long dominated Honduran politics (and have a history of suppressing indigenous culture). While the coup plotters have won a sympathetic hearing from some of the world press for ‘defending the constitution’ of Honduras, it is clear that at least some of their agenda involves rolling back efforts to promote awareness of art, history, and literature among a broader spectrum of the Honduran people, many of whom are members of Indigenous groups.

On taking office, Castro immediately dismissed two key figures in the Ministry of Culture. Natali Roque Sandoval, the head of the National Archives, was accused of a series of crimes. (Amusingly, Roque Sandoval discovered in her archival research that Roberto Michelleti [the current president, installed in the June 2009 coup] had been involved in trying to unconstitutionally extend the term of a former president, back in 1985 – the exact crime which the military used as its pretext for removing Manuel Zelaya from the presidency.)

Also dismissed was Rebeca Becerra, Director General of the Book and the Document in the Secretariat of Culture. Becerra, a recognized Honduran poet, was known for her work in digitalizing the archives and modernizing collections management. Besides that, she was responsible for organizing over 20 new public libraries, opening printing presses, and subsidizing artists. On her removal, she was charged with a series of crimes (against which she defends herself here).

For the army to occupy the national archives is a terrifying and Orwellian gesture. I feel a dull anger in the pit of my stomach when I think about it. I had hoped that the era of military dictatorship, where generals erased people and history with impunity, was over in our hemisphere. And I find it odious that Central American reactionaries still react with venom when anyone tries to educate indigenous people or campesinos.

But there’s also an ironic validation in the gesture. If the army is so terrified of history, archaeology, and literature, then it means that it has power. Historical archives, ethnographic collections, even old newspapers are given the status of an rebel force, which must be defeated and its base occupied. I can't help but envision the Directorate of the Book, the Ethnohistoric Archives, the and the historical periodicals section as rebels behind the barricade, heroes under occupation, martyrs for the republic. Strangely, the army seems to be endorsing the Marxist view that knowledge of history is a tool for political struggle, and culture a weapon to fight oppression - far from an irrelevant distraction for idle youth. It's a nice reminder to culture workers that our work can be dangerous in all the right ways.

The Central American academic community has been unanimous in condemning Myrna Castro’s actions and calling for the return of the former Minister. As have Central American artists.

I’m keeping my eye out for petitions or letter writing campaigns that readers can participate in. I’ll update as necessary.

I believe this is Minister Castro's Facebook page, if you care to send her a message.

03 August 2009

Interpretive Sign Jam: Ariassos

Ariasos is a great out-of-the-way site not too far from Antalya, Turkey, in the ancient region of Pisidia. It hasn't really been excavated, except by enterprising locals. Get a load of the well-preserved triumphal arch:

And the dramatic views from the necropolis atop the city:

Ariassos is a bit out of the way, so I suppose we should be grateful that there's any interpretation at all. But this guy is pretty much it.

The English could be better, but mostly what bothers me is that it's a) all text! and b) incredibly technical and boring text at that. If one has no idea what a bouleuterion or basilica is, this is not too useful.

The other sign:

You see this at a lot of archaeological sites: somewhere, sometime, someone dropped an expensive metal sign, then left it to the tender mercies of visitors and the elements. It's a nice gesture, of course, but these signs never last as long as you think they will, especially in mountain environments. Without a plan (or money) for regular maintenance, it's better to leave the site as it is.

More photos of Ariassos here!