30 April 2010

Noah was a Pirate

Some Noah's Ark news from the 'what the hell?' department:

To a score of marching drums and pipes, we see the expedition trudge across a snowy expanse and up the mountain. They camp on a hilly bluff, the sun setting over the Anatolian hinterland below. Moments later, we go inside a dark cave and watch members of the expedition inspect what appears to be a solid wooden wall, entombed within layers of glacial ice and volcanic rock. A gnarled beam runs suspended from one part of the cavern to another. There's straw and bits of old rope on the ground; a structure is taking shape. What is it? According to the explorers, it's Noah's Ark, literally frozen in time.

This is the footage of the alleged discovery of the biblical vessel, perched more than 12,000 ft (4,000 m) high on Mount Ararat in eastern Turkey, that was first shown to journalists on April 25 at a press conference in a fancy boutique hotel in Hong Kong. On hand were members of the team, composed largely of Hong Kong–based Evangelicals, an art historian and a handful of Turkish academics and government officials. They displayed specimens of objects recovered from the supposed ark, which they say they encountered in seven dismembered compartments within the mountain: on show are pieces of petrified wood allegedly carbon-dated at 4,800 years old, a chunk of crystal and a cluster of seed-like pellets. "There is a tremendous amount of evidence that this structure is the ark of Noah," said Gerrit Aalten, a Dutch researcher of ark lore who was enlisted to evaluate the team's findings.

Extreme secrecy? Check. Ulterior motives (via religious enthusiasm)? Check. Data preview in a hotel in Hong Kong? Uhhhh, check. The videos, of course, tell us nothing substantial:

What the hell is going on in that cave? What is that stuff they're displaying? If they really were robbing things from an archaeological site and taking them abroad without permits, these guys would be vandals eminently qualified for a stint in a Turkish prison. (That fact alone proves that this 'news' comes from the land of fantasy.) Comically, even other Noah's Ark "researchers" are now piling on: Bob Price of Liberty University wants to find the ark himself, so he's denouncing the Chinese researchers as "frauds", as Wingnut Daily reports:
Dr. Price, who is spearheading efforts to explore two competing locations for Noah's Ark, sent an e-mail dispatch to supporters with his personal take on the alleged find, asserting the structure is a hoax perpetrated by a Kurdish guide and his partners to extort money from Chinese evangelical Christians.
This stuff just bugs me. These guys are trying way too hard, and they don't even know their Bible particularly well. They apparently didn't get the bulletin that the Genesis flood story is a newcomer among flood myths. There's the Sumerian flood story (18th century BC or older) where King Ziusudra is warned by the god Enki to build a big boat and put some animals on it to survive. Or the Akkadian version, which features Atrahasis and the ocean god Ea in the same roles. Or Tablet XI of the Epic of Gilgamesh, where Gilgamesh hears the flood story from Utnapishtim, who survived the flood by building a giant boat full of animals, which was carried by the waters to rest on Mt. Nisir. This convenient website runs down the parallels for you.

The Noah story in Genesis is a cover version of these stories - but it's like the cover version that you never knew was a cover until later, then your mind is kind of blown by how good and different the original is. (My favorite examples: Rod Stewart vs. Tom Waits, and Calexico vs. The Damned vs. Love.)

Even if you prefer to pretend that those ancient Hebrews weren't influenced by their cultural betters and sometime masters, the Assyrians, there's still some inconvenient facts. Like, the flood story in Genesis is made up of two sources cleverly spliced together. (Like all of the Pentateuch, which derives from four separate texts.) If you know your Bible, you've noticed the contradictory facts in Genesis. Like, in one place Noah takes two of each animal (Genesis 6:20) and in another place he takes seven pairs of each clean animal and just two of all the rest (7:2). Or in one place Noah sends out a raven (8:7) and in another place it's a dove (8:8-10). But more than that, the stories are quite different, and emphasize different aspects of the tale: see this great side-by-side reading of the two stories for more.

This is all basic stuff for anyone who's been to seminary, but ministers never preach it in church, presumably because they'll alienate irritatingly sincere fundamentalists like these guys who are dicking about on Ararat looking for tangible evidence of a polysemic myth that's 4000 years old. The Noah/Utnapishtim/Atrahasis/Ziusudra flood story has been through so many versions and contortions that it should be understood more as something like a 4chan meme in its fluidity and adaptability and, well, viral-ness.

Yes, I just made a connection between Gilgamesh, Pedobear, and Rod Stewart. You can be impressed now.

My prediction: the whole 'taking the bible literally' thing is going to be seen in retrospect as a historical fluke. The implications for the whole field of 'Biblical Archaeology' are, I hope, obvious enough that I don't have to say anything ungentlemanly.

23 April 2010

Twitter to be archived at the Library of Congress

Amazing news for future historians. Starting next month, the entirety of Twitter will be archived by the Library of Congress, as Christopher Beam reports in Slate:
Among the many criticisms of Twitter, the most common by far is that no one cares what you ate for breakfast.

In fact, quite a few people care. "I actually think it's very useful," says Paul Freedman, a professor at Yale University who studies the history of food. For him, a 140-character ode to your KFC Double Down—along with the worshipful photo you took before devouring it—could be a priceless historical document. "Historians are interested in ordinary life," Freedman says. "And Twitter is an incredible resource for ordinary life."

Wow, it's the phenomenological approach to the cultural history of KFC. I love it.

Do the future a favor and do as the little bird says.

Beam brings a variety of important methodological issues, such as data richness:

The question is, does the preservation of digital content, from tweets to Facebook updates to blog comments, make the job of historians easier or harder?

The answer is: both. On the one hand, there's more useful information for historians to sift. On the other, there's more useless information. And without the benefit of hindsight, it's impossible to tell which is which. It's like what John Wanamaker supposedly said about advertising: He knew half of it was wasted, he just didn't know which half.

The trick will be organization. Hashtags—the # symbols people use to create discussion threads, such as #ashtag for the Iceland volcano cloud and #snowpocalypse for the February snowstorm that swept Washington, D.C.—are a start. But many tweeters don't bother to tag their posts. Historians will probably be able to search by keyword. But that can lead them astray, too. How do you know if someone is complaining about the windows in their house or the Windows on their computer?

Hashtags - and metadata in general - serve as a bridge between the world of objects and the world of text. As someone that's always had a foot in both worlds (or, more accurately, read too many postmodernists and is thus inclined to treat everything as text) I love the idea of the two being blended so intimately.

The article also raises the issue of new analytical technologies that do work that used to take historians huge swaths of time:

Twitter as historical document would also allow scholars to trace phenomena in real time. Historians have long tried to reconstruct how word of AIDS spread in New York in the early 1980s. But it's hard to document who knew what when. "A lot of those conversations are lost except for people like me who might remember the time 30 years ago," says David Mindich, a journalism professor at Saint Michael's College. Twitter preserves those cultural moments. Google has already created a program called Replay that maps Twitter topics over time.

Technology that automatically seriates the evolution of cultural phenomena! A historian's dream I suppose. It raises the specter of the de-skilling of historical work, and also the tantalizing potential of technologies that can analyse pre-digital archives for similar trends.

The article also touches on selection bias and the partiality of Twitter or any other single messaging service in reconstructing social trends. Read the rest here.

22 April 2010

An Auto Archaeologist in Beijing

The super-stretch Hongqi (Yin Yeping)

The days when China was car-free are rapidly becoming a historical memory. The Global Times reports:

Just a short drive from the traffic headache that is downtown, but a long way from the mass-produced vehicles that congest Beijing's roads today, lies the Beijing Museum of Classic Cars. This Huairou District museum was set up just last year but has yet to make establish itself in the guidebooks as a tourist draw; Lifestyle went to see if it was worth a visit.

Probably the most eye-catching of around 160 domestic and foreign cars are the Chinese cars designed and manufactured in the 60s, which in-clude over 10 Hongqi (based on a 1955 Chrysler) and Dongfang (a Mercedes- Benz 190 "homage"), which represents the first generation of Chinese vehicle. "[The Dongfang] is very difficult to find. I believe it's the only one left," said curator and owner Luo Wenyou. Only six were originally produced in 1958, entirely by hand, and presented to Mao Zedong by FAW, China's first car manufacturer.

These things look pretty tight, I gotta admit.

When Mao tried the car, he bumped his head on the low door; what could have been a nasty moment was relieved when Mao simply joked that car didn't seem to be for him. FAW president Yao Bin got the hint and produced the Hongqi instead based on the Chrysler design of wider doors and large interiors; hence the Dongfang's tiny production line.

Luo found his abandoned, with no glass or tires but it has been restored to center stage with a refurbished appearance alongside a classic of governmental pomp, the Dongfanghong - or Communist China's answer to the stretch limo. Such leaders as Georges Pompidou, Cambodian king Norodom Sihanouk, North Korean leader Kim II Sung and Zhou Enlai have all traveled somewhat in style in this classic.

"Somewhat in style." Classic. I really want to drive one of the Mercedes copies! Apparently this museum also has a wooden Rolls Royce that used to belong to Lenin?!

These cars are a great example of how authenticity is situational. The car can be a copy of a Cadillac or a Mercedes, but seen through the lens of a radically different political context and the ensuing maelstrom of social change, it becomes something more 'authentic' and interesting than the original could ever be.

With the ridiculously fast pace of change in material culture these days, it's great that people like Luo take the initiative to preserve heritage that gets neglected as being 'too new' but is still culturally significant. I mean, somewhere in the back of my brain I still have this image of China being a land of nothing but bicycles, but those days are already long gone.

Also check out coverage from Reuters and Xinhua.

20 April 2010

Hawass Smacks Maimonides

Hawass gives Maimonides the finger.

Haaretz reports on a less-known side of Zahi Hawass:
The head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities said that "he gave the Zionist enemy a slap in the face," when he canceled the inauguration of a restored Cairo synagogue two weeks ago, Army Radio reported on Sunday.

"Israel is the Zionist enemy, and I gave this enemy a strong slap in the face," said Doctor Zahi Hawass.

Hawass, dubbed the "Egyptian Indiana Jones," is known worldwide as responsible for all the ancient sites in Egypt including the pyramids and the pharaohs' treasures.

Throughout the years, Zahi Hawass has expressed his stance against normalization of ties with Israel, but has yet to refer to Israel as "the enemy."

Two weeks ago, Egypt has canceled the inauguration of a restored synagogue citing the Israeli oppression of Muslims in the occupied territories as well as excesses by Jews during an earlier ceremony at the synagogue.
I must point out the obvious – Hawass, no stranger to controversy or poor taste – makes himself downright grotesque with a statement like this. It's nonsense anyway: the Maimonides synagogue in question cannot be ‘Zionist’ because there was no such thing Zionism in the 12th century. What he means is ‘I gave a slap in the face to Jews’. It's a shame that Maimonides, the great doctor, philosopher, and scholar, gets dragged into the mud here.

But by the same token, let’s not pretend this is some kind of uniquely shocking act. Many Arab governments, and especially totalitarian dictators like Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, use Jew-hating in an ritual way to distract their citizens from their economic and social discontents. (Yet another reason why the Zionist extremism currently ascendant in Israel is so problematic: it gives the tyrants an easy target when they need to let their people blow off steam, without having to change anything at home.) Denouncing the “Zionist entity” in the Arab and Muslim worlds is routine to the point of being boring - it's only shocking here because of Hawass' international standing.

Does Hawass mean what he says? I'm not sure it matters. As master of Egypt’s antiquities, Hawass is a high government official. In November, he was appointed Vice Minister of Culture, which conveniently means that he is now exempt from the mandatory retirement laws for civil service, and does not have to give up his directorship of the Supreme Council of Antiquities. Hawass would never have got so far if he stopped doing the bidding of the men higher up the ladder in the Mubarak regime. If the state policy is anti-Semitic, occasional gestures such as this are the price that he, or anyone else holding his post, would have to pay to remain in the position. That said, Wikipedia does point to a few other public statements of his about the "bloodsucking Jew", so who knows what he really believes. But anyway, it's more spiritually corrupt to say prejudiced things when you don't mean them, than when you do.

We like to think that archaeology is just fun science, a kind of pure contemplative pursuit that is far from the pigsties of political machination. In the United States you can keep this illusion very nicely, since there’s not a national heritage organization and the Feds don’t get very involved in archaeology (in most states anyway). In most countries, where the government owns EVERYTHING old and can take it from their citizens whenever it feels like, it’s a less easy to avoid the political realities that beset the field. When the state owns all archaeology, and the state is totalitarian, how do you keep your hands clean as an archaeologist?

11 April 2010

Egyptian Art Redux, Part I

For the past few years, whenever I stumble upon it on the internet, I've been collecting graphic art relating to ancient Egypt. There's no shortage of it, given Egypt's popularity with fantasy & sci-fi artists, New Age mysticism, and role-playing games. The most popular god for graphic artists appears to be Anubis, who has taken on quite a frightening aspect in his contemporary reincarnations. Here he's rendered by Herbert Lowis, a video game character artist:

And here's the Anubis card from Ragnarok, an online role-playing game:

It's interesting that Anubis has become the snarling, muscular, rock star god of the Egyptian pantheon, since he is not a deity associated with warfare or destruction. In his earliest forms, he was "foremost of the westerners", a leader of the dead. After Osiris became the central figure of the afterlife, Anubis' practical functions in the mortuary cult were emphasized: he was the patron of embalmers and mummification, said to have been the one to prepare the body of Osiris.

Rock Star Anubis is a product of Hollywood. The masks worn by the alien life forms in Stargate (1994) could be described as techno-canine; in The Mummy, a giant statue of Anubis guards the Book of the Dead; and in The Mummy Returns, a ferocious, axe-wielding Anubis and his entire army of vengeful jackals give eternal life to the Scorpion King. [I've been informed that there is an Anubis-like creature in Lost, but since I've yet to watch a single episode of the show, I think I'll stay out of those waters for now.]

Mauricio Herrera's depiction is indebted to
the Stargate vision:

Ironically, the god who is affiliated with chaos and conflict - Seth - gets much less attention than Anubis. Perhaps the fact that he looks like an aardvark has something to do with it. Here's one of the few examples of Seth that I've been able to find:

However, my favorite piece of graphic art is a representation of the epic battle between Horus and Seth. During the course of their 80-year conflict, Seth rips out Horus' eye; because it is eventually restored to him, the eye of Horus becomes a symbol of wholeness, destined to grace the wrists of poptarts forever.

Stay tuned for the next installment, featuring Bastet, Sekhmet, and a truly bizarre Horus.

10 April 2010

Adventures in Nationalism: Buddhism, archaeology, and booty videos in Sri Lanka

The defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebels in Sri Lanka late last year changed the balance of power on the island nation, in which archaeology has long been used as a tool in the fashioning of colonial order and then ethnic nationalisms. Jeremy Page in the Times (London) profiled last week the rising tensions over archaeological sites in the formerly Tamil Tiger-held north.

So begins a new chapter in a dispute that began with the birth of archaeology in Sri Lanka, under the British in the 19th century, and that grew into a civil war that lasted 26 years and killed 100,000 people.

When the British took control of the country in 1815, they were unsure of its ancient history but soon embraced the legend of the Mahavamsa — a text written by Buddhist monks in about AD500.

It suggests that the Sinhalese are descended from Prince Vijaya, an Aryan prince exiled from northern India in about 500BC, and that Tamils did not migrate from southern India until 200 years later.

That theory — still taught in schools — underpins the Sinhalese chauvinism that ultimately drove the Tigers to launch their armed struggle for an independent homeland in 1983.

In fact, archaeologists had discredited that after independence by excavating settlements in the north that dated from long before 500BC and showed similarities to sites in southern India — suggesting a much earlier migration.

It's fascinating to see how archaeological research so explicitly creates historical periods that conveniently serve the ends of the dominant powers. We think of periodization as the product of 'science' or even to be 'true' in some a priori way, rather than as a convenient way to organize a historical narrative with its own logic, aims, and exclusions.

Since the end of the war, archaeology in the north has resumed — and with it the debate over the country’s ancient history.

“For three decades we haven’t been able to do anything in the north,” Senarath Dissanayake, the head of the Government’s Archaeology Department, said.

“Now we can find out about how ancient people lived here — their culture, economy, social background, living conditions and religion.”

He said that his department had identified 60 old sites in the north in the last year — and six completely new ones, dated between 300BC and AD1000.

Some Tamil academics question why the new sites are all from a period when Sinhalese Buddhist culture is thought to have flourished. Others want more Tamil archaeologists involved, as well as foreign experts or the UN, to ensure that the work is objective.

“The archaeological department is the handmaiden of the Government,” said one prominent Tamil scholar, who declined to be identified for fear of reprisals.

“The concern is that they’re going to identify these sites as Sinhalese, build lots of Buddhist shrines and tell Sinhalese people this is their lost land.”

The Government announced last month that 300,000 local and foreign tourists had visited the northern province since the war ended – and officials say that the vast majority were Sinhalese from the south.

Government archaeologists deny identifying sites on ethnic or religious grounds.

“The emphasis from the President is that there should be a balancing of Buddhist and non-Buddhist sites,” said Sudarshan Seneviratne, the head of the Central Cultural Fund, which finances archaeology. “He’s a smart politician. He knows how to cater to all communities.”

Mr Seneviratne accepted, nonetheless, that there were “parochial” forces who wanted to use archaeology for political purposes.

Principal among them on the Sinhalese side is the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), a Buddhist monks’ party that is part of the ruling coalition, and has a powerful influence on Mr Rajapaksa.

Read the rest of the article here. There is a bias in many (most?) countries toward doing archaeological research that fits conveniently into narratives of national identity - it takes a major crisis like civil war to expose how fully archaeology and nationalist projects can be intertwined.

At the end of the article there's a bizarre anecdote about how the government denied the rapper Akon a visa to perform in Colombo at the behest of the monks' party - because his video 'Sexy Bitch' featured a Buddha statue next to the pool where all the bikini girls were dancing!

David Guetta Ft. Akon - Sexy Bitch (Official Video) HQ
Uploaded by wonderful-life1989. - Watch more music videos, in HD!

All I can say is that those monks must have spent A LOT of time watching this video, because the statue is hard to find - it appears for like a half second at 1:50.

So much for 'not being disrespectful', Akon, sheesh.

05 April 2010

An Art Historical Tour of Istanbul’s Quakes

Today's New York Times profiles some of the great historical earthquake images (1200s-1900s) in UC Berkeley's Kozak Collection with a slide show from Istanbul and environs (see the full Times gallery here.)

Anonymous woodcut depicting the Sea of Marmara earthquake of 1509, the "lesser judgment day". It registered about 7.2 and killed about 10,000 people. There's something appropriate about the scale: the people are reproduced at the same size as the buildings, as if to convey that life is just as important as property.
(Reproduced in N.N. Ambraseys and C.F. Finkel, 'The Marmara Sea Earthquake of 1509'. Terra Nova, 2:2, 1990, pp. 167-174.)

An 1894 xylograph from the Kozak Collection, showing damage to the city walls of Istanbul. Parts of the walls still look much like this today - except where they have been "Disneyfied" by the heavy-handed reconstructions that earned the walls a place on the World Monuments Fund's 2008 Watch List.

Check out the rest!

H/T to Diana Wright, via H-TURK.

01 April 2010

Sound recordings from ancient pottery

A few years back, Belgian researchers announced a technology that allowed ancient sounds to be recovered from the grooves in pottery. The concept is much like a vinyl LP: as the pot spins, sound vibrations are gently etched into the fabric of the pot, giving us a record of the ambient sounds of an ancient Roman pottery workshop.

Amazing stuff!