26 February 2010

Music to Dig By: Sisters of Mercy, 'Dominion'

I've liked this song forever, but never watched the video until this morning. I had a suspicion, based on all those quotes from Ozymandias in the lyrics, that they might go for an archaeological theme. I was right!

That's Andrew Eldritch looking incredibly dapper in white suit and shades while threatening us with his sword-cane. The impossibly beautiful goth girl is Patricia Morrison, formerly of the awesome LA band The Gun Club and later of The Damned. They're being dramatic in the ruins of Petra, in Jordan.

I'm not going to say anything about the adventure-in-the-desert-with-mysterious-Arabs plotline except that it's "very '80s" and "whatever they're doing, I so want to join".*

Bonus fun fact from Wikipedia: the "Dominion/Mother Russia" medley off of Floodland made it into the Grand Theft Auto IV soundtrack.

*You'll eventually get more from me about the connection between romanticism and antiquity in pop music, but the deep thoughts ain't ready yet.d

24 February 2010

4th century comedy hits!

William Gurstelle over at Boing Boing blogs today about the Philogelos ('lover of laughter'), which seems to be the oldest surviving joke book:
Like network television, Byzantine comedy is mostly based on the fortunes and foibles of a gallery of stock characters: the drunk, the miser, the braggart, the sex-starved woman, as well as a classic type known as the scholastikos, variously translated as "pedant," "absent-minded professor," or "egghead."
Having had an immodest love for real bad joke books as a young fellow, (especially if they involved cannibals), I'm charmed at how predictably bad the material is, e.g.:
#197. An incompetent schoolteacher was asked who the mother of Priam was. Not knowing the answer, he said: "It's polite to call her Ma'am."

#245A. A young man invited into his home frisky old women. He said to his servants: "Mix a drink for one, and have sex with the other, if she wants to." The women spoke up as one: "I'm not thirsty."
Yes, it's mostly raunchy. What did you expect of the people that made all those naked statues? Lots more translations here. If you're a nerd like me and want to check out the Greek, go here. Check out the professor jokes in particular.

Online publishing company Yudu has put out a translation by William Berg online, complete with video of old-school British comic Jim Bowen doing a bunch of the jokes (showing off his philogely?). The preface does a great job of evoking the social world of the fourth-century Greek city.

Here's Bowen's take on some of the jokes (much more video in the book!):

16 February 2010

Palaeolithic Crete makes me feel cheerful

They found these on Crete. That's big news, because they're old. Like Palaeolithic old. 130,000 years old? 700,000 years old? No one's sure yet, but certainly is much older than any artefact on Crete is supposed to be. Why's that? Because Crete is an island, and has been for 5 million years. That means for people to have got there, they had to have been travelling long distances by boat a long, long time before anyone thought it was possible.

The evidence is from the Plakias Survey, led by Eleni Panagopoulou (Ephoreia of Palaeoanthropology and Speleology) and Thomas Strasser (Providence College), presented at the Archaeological Institute of America meetings last month in Anaheim. It's not just scraps, either - the survey found over 2,000 Mesolithic and Lower Palaeolithic stone tools, and backed it up with research on the geological deposits in which they were found. The terminus ante quem is 130,000 years BP, though they could be much older.

So people came to Crete. Or were they people? Anatomically modern Homo Sapiens didn't evolve until about 200,000 years BP, and didn't make it to Europe until about 50,000 BP. Moreover, these look a lot like Achulean tools, which are associated with Homo Erectus. As John Noble Wilford writes in today's New York Times:
But archaeologists and experts on early nautical history said the discovery appeared to show that these surprisingly ancient mariners had craft sturdier and more reliable than rafts. They also must have had the cognitive ability to conceive and carry out repeated water crossing over great distances in order to establish sustainable populations producing an abundance of stone artifacts.
I wrote last week about "archaeological optimism", the idea that people in the past were much more capable than we moderns give them credit for.* As the quote above shows, the idea that our ancestors were stupid and uncreative - proverbial cavemen and cavewomen - runs deep and dies hard. In this case it may have been our cousins in the Homo Erectus and Homo Heidelbergensis families who deserve the props for sailing to Crete (from Anatolia? Libya? Greece? It was blue water, with no land in sight).

"I'm on a boat!"

Cognitive ability? Are you serious? No one bats an eyelash at the idea of Homo Erectus traveling 10,000 km from Africa to freaking Southeast Asia across mountains and rivers and deserts and tiger-infested jungles and whatnot - but it's shocking that they could build boats and hop 50km from the Peloponnesos to Crete?

To answer my rhetorical question above: duh, of course Homo Erectus and Homo Heidelbergensis and Homo whatever-whatever were people. They were badasses who colonized a whole world and figured out how to live in the harshest environments using nothing but stone, wood, and their wits. It's awesome, and we should send out love and respect to these people whether they were our direct ancestors or not.**

Thomas Strasser and Curtis Runnels are giving a lecture about the findings in Providence, RI on April 7 (details to be announced on the ACSCA website at some point). In the meantime, enjoy this topical music video based on a premiere archaeological film.

* Yes, I'm now feeling self-satisfied.
** And can we get some names for the cousins on the family tree that sound less perverted and/or German?

11 February 2010

In which my archaeological optimism is fueled by DNA evidence

In the 'Asians everywhere department': recent DNA research found Siberians in Greenland and a man of east Asian decent in Italy.

Reuters reports that a skeleton found in northeast Greenland provides DNA evidence of a separate migration from Siberia into the New World Arctic around 5,500 years ago, unconnected to the ancestors of modern Inuit or other Native American groups. The man, dubbed 'Inuk' after the Greenlandic for 'man', was apparently balding and had a tendency toward dry earwax. The results are 'surprising' because they reveal a previously unknown migration from Siberia into the Americas.

Inuk's mugshot. Bummer about the dry earwax, man.

Another set of DNA from an Imperial estate in Vagnari, Italy (near Bari), uncovered a man with mitochondrial DNA suggesting an east Asian origin on his maternal side. Isotopes in his bones show that he was not born in Italy. Of course, the article immediately racializes him as an 'Asian man', though the genes could have come from a distant ancestor.

I have a couple reactions. First, DNA analysis is cool as hell and I want to read stuff like this all day. Second, why do they have to immediately go with the racial angle in the Roman case? I mean, is anyone surprised that the Roman Empire was a hodgepodge of cultures? A lot of people have this idea that Romans were 'white people' in some modern sense of the term, though that is total nonsense both on a genetic and cultural level - there were a lot of dark-skinned Romans, and the culture did not use the concept of 'race'. (See this nice article about how 'ethnic groups' don't exist from a genetic perspective.)

But more deeply, I get annoyed at how much everyone is 'surprised' by unusual archaeological findings. I'm what I call an "archaeological optimist". I think humans are capable of a lot, so I tend to assume that history is complex and full of amazing stories, travels, and discoveries that we just happen not to know about. You only need stupid theories like aliens building the pyramids if you think people are basically dumb, uncreative, and unambitious. As if we didn't thrive for a million years without electricity, fast foods, and teh internets and figure out a lot of hard stuff along the way.

Asians in Italy? Siberians in Greenland? Well, of course! The Romans had trade missions to China as early as the Han Dynasty, and Chinese travellers are attested to have made it at least as far as Syria in the Seleucid period. The cultures of the Siberian arctic, moreover, were the astronauts of antiquity, thriving in the harshest climate the planet has to offer and eventually peopling the Americas (much more impressive than Columbus' discovery, in my book.) The textual, DNA, and archaeological evidence represent only the tiniest fraction of human activities. So the question is not really 'did people in antiquity do some amazing travel stunts' but 'which ones'? (For a great list of theories to pick from, see here. I bet at least half of them are true.)

p.s. Another cool article, while I'm futzing around on Science Daily: Taiwan is apparently the legendary home island of the Polynesians, according to genetic evidence linking Polynesian and indigenous Taiwanese people. White folks really need to stop thinking of themselves as the only 'great explorers'.

07 February 2010

Adopt a Dog from Pompeii

Pompeii is home to a posse of stray dogs who more or less have the run of the ruins. They also strike painfully cute poses like this.

Odone lounges.

The administration at Pompeii and Italian animal welfare organizations have teamed up to try to find these pooches new homes. They all have cute Roman names:
Walking along Pompeii ruins, you could also meet Odone, Paquio, Vesonius, Asclepio or Polibia. These names are inspired to the archaeological area where the dogs live and to the ancient owners of the historical Houses.
..and you can actually apply to adopt one at a booth on site! Check out the website, "I Cani di Pompei" (the dogs of Pompeii) for more.

It's an interesting marketing angle - they're pitching the dogs as a souvenir of Pompeii:"take home a life and a story from Pompeii". Since one can't buy artifacts from Pompeii anymore a stray dog who's intimately familiar with the ruins is the next best thing. It's a clever and kind way of saving tourists a lot of bother.

Meleagro stalks the ruins.

The project is called "(C)ave Canem", a fun play on words ('cave' means both 'beware of' and 'take care of', while 'ave' is a salutation. And it's also playing on the famous mosaic from the House of the Tragic Poet, which you've probably seen before, somewhere:

(Soprintendenza archeologica di Pompei)

Thanks to Kevin D.'s facebook feed for the link!

05 February 2010

By their shirts shall ye know them: II

Yes, it's a lifestyle choice.

Last year I featured the embarrassing inanity of the archaeology gear available at Café Press. My faith in archaeological fashion was restored a bit this summer at Sagalassos, where the crew had a pretty cool assortment of archaeology shirts. (Much of the crew is Flemish and Dutch, so the shirts are too.)

Johan's gotten some mileage out of this one. Though I guess to be a real dig shirt it has to have some use-wear marks.

I want one of these warning signs!

"Antwerp Association for Roman Archaeology." Cute mascot.

Rob demonstrates proper drinking technique in this highly conceptual shirt. A skeleton metal detecting excavating? What if it found another skeleton and caused an infinite feedback loop?!

From an excavation of WWI trenches in Flanders:

'Loopgraaf' means 'trench' in Dutch. (There's a play on words with 'opgraven', which means 'excavate').

I never got the story on this one, but I'm sure it's good.

Last but not least: the T-shirt of the local crane company, Tufan Vinç, Ağlasun. Every good excavation needs a good crane driver.

No archaeology-themed underwear was located this season. I'm saving that one until I, um, get to know the crew a little better.

02 February 2010

Vintage dig film: excavations at Jebel Moya, 1912-1913

This film of Henry Wellcome's excavations at the Meroitic-era site of Gebel Moya in Nubia (Sudan) might be the oldest excavation footage on the internet. Taken during the 1912-1913 season, this 13-minute film is a fascinating combination of Orientalist fantasy, colonialist paternalism, and excavation in action.

Part One:

Part Two:

(Also available here with description at the Wellcome Library).

Digging scenes start at 1:54 in the first clip and 2:49 in the second. In both clips the digs seem like enormous operations, with a sea of bodies working and piles of backdirt. In the first clip, workers are pouring sacks of dirt into some kind of enormous hopper - is it a kind of screen or sifter?

Clip 1 has shots of camels at the watering hole, camels carrying people, footraces among workmen genially supervised by white men on campstools wearing pith helmets (at 5:30) - and Henry Wellcome riding around on his bicycle, presumably an uncommon site in the Sudan in 1912. Clip 2 has more footage of herdsmen and landscapes, and concludes with a view of the excavation site and a village from high atop a local mountain.

A fragment of barbotine ware from Jebel Moya (UCL).

These videos were put up by the Wellcome Library, which curates the vast collections - mostly medical - of Henry Wellcome. Wellcome was an entrepreneur and founder of pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome, now part of GlaxoSmithKline, but he took an interest in archaeology. The excavations at Gebel Moya from 1909 to 1914 uncovered over 3000 tombs (!) The town flourished from ca. 500 to 100 BC, with most objects imported from Meroë. (See this page at UCL for more on the site, including artifact photos, or the Wikipedia page for bibliography [in German]).

Sir Henry Wellcome, born in a log cabin in Wisconsin (Wellcome Images).

The Wellcome library page suggests that the excavations were undertaken as a "public works project", and the Wikipedia entry for Wellcome says baldy that he "hired 4,000 people to excavate", a mind-boggling number that I could not confirm elsewhere. The closing shot in Clip 2 shows the site, a small village, and a pastoral landscape. Where did the 4,000 people come from? In what sense (beyond generating some local economic activity) was this excavation "public works"?

As usual with such things, you have to wonder what in the world the residents of the area made of the Europeans in their white suits, pith helmets, and bushy mustaches showing up in the neighborhood, with bicycles and movie cameras, and putting thousands of men to work in the ruins. In today's terms, expeditions like this were probably more like trips to outer space than anything else: a chance to show off high technology in a remote environment, for the entertainment of the folks back home. Though the excavations produced lots of artifacts, the theatricality of the work is evident, and you have to wonder to what extent the digging scenes were staged for the benefit of the camera.

There's a nice trend of putting old industrial and incidental films on line (most notably at the Library of Congress' Internet Archive). Archive.org has a lot of cool anthropological and archaeological films from the University of Pennsylvania's expeditions (Seneferu's Pyramid, 1929-1930; Fara-Tepe Hissar, Iran, 1931; Tell Billa, Iraq, 1935). The Oriental Institute's history blog also links to some footage from Nippur, Iraq, (1948-1950). All in the public domain! I'll try to review more of these soon.

p.s. I know that I found these clips via some blog, but I cannot for the life of me remember where. Feel free to refresh my memory so credit can go where it's due!