23 June 2010

A Brief Lesson in Hieroglyphs: Lost Hieroglyphs Explained

As Archaeopop's resident Egyptologist, I present: Lost Hieroglyphs Explained!

Here are three images from the tv show Lost: 1) the word that pops up when the timer in the hatch runs out; 2) a drawing of the hieroglyphs that were later carved by the Lost art department team; and 3) the same hieroglyphs from picture 2, as they appear on a set from Lost. I'll give the translations, but I'll also explain the functions of the individual signs themselves, just in case any readers out there are clamoring to know.

Image #1: This is fairly straightforward, since the word is spelled correctly in hieroglyphs and all of the signs are facing the proper direction. These five signs, read from left to right, spell the ancient Egyptian word "sudja", which means "die". [For the specialists out there who would like the technical transliteration from Egyptian to English, the best I can provide is swd3, since this blog does not come equipped with a transliteration font.] The first sign represents "s"; the second "w" (which we pronounce here as a "u"); the third sign is a biliteral, meaning it stands for two consonants - in this case, the sound "dj" (just one letter in Egyptian) and "a" (which I know looks like a vowel, but it's an aleph, and therefore a consonant); the fourth sign represents "a" but is not pronounced separately, since its purpose here is to reinforce the "a" in the previous biliteral; and the fifth sign is a determinative, which is a sign that has no phonetic value at all, but clarifies the meaning of the word. It is this determinative, in fact, which tells us that the intended meaning is "die", since the word "sudja", when spelled differently, can also mean "to make healthy"!

Images 2 and 3: This inscription comprises two words - the top row is the ancient Egyptian word "nis" (in transliteration, njs), meaning "to summon", and the second row is the Egyptian word "nedj" (in transliteration, nd [second d]), which means "protection". However, these words are not as straightforward as that in the previous image, because the people from Lost actually wrote the hieroglyphs backwards. In other words, the hieroglyphs are facing to the left, which means that they should be read from left to right, but this results in gibberish. The words must instead be read from right to left (which is perfectly fine, since hieroglyphic text could be written in either direction), but the hieroglyphs are facing the wrong direction for right-to-left reading. This is somewhat similar to writing "nommus" instead of "summon" and "noitcetorp" instead of "protection". Although some ancient Egyptian religious texts were intentionally written with hieroglyphs facing the wrong direction - called "retrograde" texts - it seems unlikely that the artists for Lost would have employed this technique, unless the expert they consulted actually gave them the words in retrograde to begin with.

Here is a video in which the folks at Lost incorrectly believe that these signs represent the word "grief":

So, the top row from right to left: the first sign stands for "n", the second sign for "i", the third sign for "s", and the fourth is a determinative.

The second row, from right to left: the first sign is not an ankh. It's a spindle, but that's not significant here. What's significant is that it is a biliteral sign that stands for the two consonants "n" and "dj" (again, dj is one letter in Egyptian). The second sign is also a biliteral that usually stands for "nu", but when it's combined with the previous sign, it also represents the letters "ndj". Much like Arabic and Hebrew, hieroglyphic script did not write short vowels (like "e"), so we have to insert the "e" in the pronunciation. Thus, ndj = nedj.

So there you have it.

World of Warcraft Introduces Archaeology Profession

World of Warcraft, the world's largest online multiplayer role playing game (MMORPG), will soon release the third expansion pack for the game, 'Cataclysm'. In Cataclysm, players revisit WoW's world of Azeroth after it's been scrambled by cataclysms brought on by the advent of a dragon lord. The über-dramatic trailer shows a post-apocalyptic atmosphere and radical climate change, while magazine previews suggest a number of gameplay tweaks.

WoW Cataclysm: there be dragons.

One of the tweaks has implications for those of us who love old stuff. Though the core of WoW is monster-killing and questing, players can also add professions that allow them to earn money, create artifacts, and experience the virtual world in different ways. In 'Cataclysm' archaeology joins alchemy, blacksmithing, fishing, mining, first aid, and other skills as a possible profession for players.

This addition fits with the premise of Cataclysm: since much of the old world of Azeroth was transformed or destroyed by the advent of the dragon, there will be ample areas to search for ancient artifacts. eurogamer.net got a preview of the expansion:
WOW's landscape is studded with ruins, and you'll be able to search these for artefacts - narrowing down your search within marked regions, rather than using nodes like mining. You'll uncover fragments which can be assembled into artefacts for the pure pleasure of collection and completion, as well as - for lore-junkies - filling in gaps in Azeroth's history. You'll get some loot too... But the main point is to add texture to the world and a new avenue for box-ticking comfort gaming - as well as, quite appropriately, to document the past of a virtual world that has begun to change before our eyes.
The idea of documenting the past of a virtual world from within it is really intriguing. Normally I would be critical of this old-fashioned stochastic model of social change (one big event changes everything), but I think dragon attacks get a pass. This is what the 'Archeology Journal' where you record your finds will look like:


WoWwiki summarizes what you can do as a World of Warcraft archaeologist:
  • Intended as a casual profession for players to enjoy in their "downtime".
  • Focused on locating, piecing together, and appraising artifacts unearthed by the Cataclysm.
  • Interacting with an artifact you find is similar to other gathering professions. It has been specifically stated that you will be able to track both Artifacts and your regular "tracking" for gathering professions. Instead of tracking individual nodes, you will instead search marked regions.
  • Artifacts will go into a new artifact journal instead of your inventory.
  • Placing an artifact in your journal will allow you to "study" it and progressively unlock new rewards.
  • Unlocks unique rewards such as vanity pets, mounts, and other "toys", with occasional rare quality weapons or armor.
  • Players will be able to read ancient runes found amidst ruins and in dungeons to provide themselves and other players with buffs.
  • Some items and discoveries will be heavily geared towards expanding the game's lore, filling in plot holes, and documenting the history of the world as it was before the Cataclysm. Players will reportedly be able to compile what amounts to a lore database.
  • A mock-up of the Archaeology interface is presented as a hand-written journal, with a listing of artifacts, relics, and related reagents and tasks, as well as artwork and a description for each relic. Artifacts are also given a "black market value", indicating that they can perhaps be sold for profit. There has been an indication that your journal may come with some form of "mini-game" to study findings.
Over at Blizzard Games, there seems to have been an internal struggle about the 'social relevance' of archaeology. Archaeology was originally intended for release with the now-defunct 'Paths of the Titans' expansion (scrapped late last year), where it was going to be more integral to the storyline and to character development. In 'Cataclysm' its role has been reduced to more of a collecting game independent of the plot, which drew a mixed review from IGN UK:
Originally, Archaeology was going to help advance players along the Path of the Titans, but with that gone, it is now a profession more keyed towards the casual player base. It functions as a collectible meta-game that rewards players with mostly cosmetic items. We were told, though, that players would be able to sometimes get something not only functional, but powerful from the profession. We're not sure how we feel about the change it has undergone quite yet.
To translate a little bit: in the original conception, collecting artifacts was the key to understanding past events. Players would need it to advance, in other words to achieve their goals in the game's present tense. The Cataclysm version, by contrast, seems to be centered around collecting and trading interesting objects for the fun of it, with limited career applications - a hobby, rather than a profession. Here's a Blizzard employee talking about the original version:

Don't worry, I don't understand the bizarre WoW-speak either (the free trial was really fun, but I never got deeper than that), but it shows you how deeply concepts derived from archaeology are embedded in the game's specific culture.

Of course, the details are scarce as yet, since Cataclysm won't be released until this fall. But it's clear that contemporary debates between archaeologists and collectors are being reflected a strange mirror here as Blizzard decides whether archaeology is a way of understanding the present by telling stories about the past, or just a collection of pretty things that can be sold on the black market.

Of course, you might be asking why archaeologists should care about a video game. First, the numbers: WoW has almost 12 million players worldwide. If a significant number of them are going to spend time looking for artifacts in ruins and putting together puzzles about the past, that's hundreds of thousands of people doing archaeology - or thinking they're doing archaeology. What they're doing, and the way the discipline is portrayed, has a long-term public significance.

Second: videogames have been one of the world's main cultural activities for a generation now. A lot of people - youth, but also adults - spend as much or more time playing games as they do reading, listening to music, or socializing with friends. Whether you like that fact or not doesn't matter. If thinking about videogames tempts you to deliver a pious lecture about the superiority of books and board games, you're willfully ignoring reality. Videogames will become more pervasive - the relevant question is what people are learning in games and how it affects real-world attitudes and behaviors. For archaeologists, it matters if players think that looting relics out of ruins is all the profession is about, and carries no consequences.

So, when will we see a real collaboration between archaeologists and videogame designers? Or do readers know of any successful examples? When will UNESCO add videogames to the intangible heritage list?

21 June 2010

Archaeololz: Egypt is in Arabia?

In case you didn't know this already, Egypt is in Arabia. Clearly. Look at this marquee!

I believe that's Tutankhamun up there doing PR for this nightclub/bar in Thessaloniki, which of course also features bellydancing. Sort of a one-stop shop for orientalist tropes! Spotted a couple weeks back on a frappé-fueled day trip to get my Turkish visa.

19 June 2010

A Brief History of Social Games

From game designer John Radoff comes a great poster that combines seriation and typology of social games, from knucklebone divination to XBOX and MMORPGs (via Kotaku).

Click on the image for a printable full-size version.

There's a lot to like here from the archaeologist's point of view. Radoff understands that sociocultural change is multilineal - in other words, it's not a question of one thing leading to another in a tidy sequence, but of multiple influences combining to spark changes in cultural forms. He's also captured a lot of forgotten pastimes, like play-by-mail strategy games, that were destroyed by the advent of the internet. One thing that is missing is a sense of spatial or geographical causality: i.e. how exactly do Go, Senet, and Leela connect to Monopoly historically, besides having some similar cognitive or gameplay aspects? Correlation does not imply causation.

I'm also a little curious why, given the elaborate historical paths he devises, why the modern social network games are all grouped together indiscriminately at the bottom - it gives a hint of the teleological fallacy, as if all of history was somehow a prelude to Mafia Wars, music pets, and the big-boobied princesses that are apparently the entire population of Evony. To be fair I don't think that's Radoff's point exactly - he's starting from contemporary social gaming and working backwards, rather than trying to show some kind of causal connection. (He probably could have shown this better by putting the modern social games at the top!)

Anyway, that's me being kind of hard on what's really a fun historical chart. Radoff includes a historical essay that makes some good points about the role of D&D in the evolution of social game culture:
1974 was perhaps the most important year in modern game history; this is when Dungeons and Dragons came to market. It integrated the ideas of abstracting tactical combat along with storytelling and a unique social aspect in which individual players used their imagination and creativity to contribute to the ongoing game. From D&D, you can trace a history through early mainframe computer games, to MUDs (multiuser dungeons) to MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft. Meanwhile, many people were looking to engage in asynchronous games that wouldn’t require groups to gather at set points in time, giving rise to play-by-mail games. The earliest implementations of online PBM games (aside from their manifestation as play-by-email games) were BBS “Door” games. Trade Wars is probably one of the most famous; and I wrote a game in this market called Space Empire a long time ago. A lot of these play-patterns are similar to what you’ll find in current Web-based and social-network games.
Read the rest!

10 June 2010

English Treasure Riots

In the irresistably titled post "On Treasure Riots and a Lust for Holes", the always excellent BLDGBLOG reminds us of a forgotten history of urban treasure hunting in the US and the UK:
During the so-called London treasure hunt riots, Londoners tore up properties all over the city "looking for one of 177 prize medallions which a Sunday newspaper called the Weekly Dispatch had planted around the UK." The paper used its first issue of the New Year to announce it had concealed a fortune in treasure medallions, the most valuable of which were worth £50 apiece. Each issue would carry a series of clues pointing to the prizes' locations. But these locations were incredibly vague, and, many readers thought, the only way to look was simply to start digging holes.

Quoting journalist Paul Slade at great length:

All over London, the story was the same. Crowds gathered outside Pentonville Prison and Islington's Fever Hospital, blocking the roads and attacking any scrap of loose ground. Hundreds of treasure seekers converged on a Bethnal Green museum and began digging there. One Shooters Hill resident said his area was "infested with gangs of roughs." Shepherd's Bush, Clapton and Canning Town were besieged too.

By the time [a 19-year-old Battersea labourer called Frederick Nurse] had his day in court, Luton and Manchester had also been hit. Luton residents seeking the town's single £10 medallion caused what councillors called "a gross disturbance" to the town in the early hours of Sunday, January 10. A week later, the Manchester Evening News found "some most extraordinary scenes" in its own city.

"From an early hour on Saturday night to late on Sunday night, various parts of the Manchester suburbs were the resort of men, women and children, people of all classes, drunk and sober, who had taken up what they thought to be the real clue to the spot where a medallion worth £25 lay hidden beneath the turf," the [Manchester Evening News] reported. “They seized upon vacant pieces of land and stretches of roadway, digging and delving until not a foot of the ground lay smooth.” In Blackley, it added, three hunters had arrived simultaneously at the same spot and “settled the matter by a three-cornered fight."
I love how deep runs the conviction that mysterious and wonderful things await us underground, waiting for us to uncover them. There's something beautiful about this mania to me - the normal world of London suddenly became enchanted with money, and everyone decided to seek it out. The shortcoming, of course, is that very few people got rich. But there's something about these moments where public consciousness of the environment is suddenly transformed that resembles the feeling I get from the process of doing archaeology.
Slade's whole article is wonderful, read it! For that matter, check out BLDGBLOG too, it's one of the best blogs period.

"Reenactors" at Ephesus

I was at Ephesus last week and they were setting up some mysterious stands along the harbor road. Turns out it was a 'reenactment' of 'ancient Ephesus'.

These guys were supposed to be 'gladiators', though those look more like Roman military uniforms to me. Note the total lack of beefcake compared to the real thing:

They looked like they were having fun anyway, even if the swordplay wasn't overwhelming. There was also some interpretative dance. I'm not entirely sure why anyone would pick these colors for anything historical, since before the invention of aniline dyes after 1856 such bright colors would have been impossible, or extremely expensive, to create.

The whole thing was supervised by "Caesar" and "Cleopatra", dressed in grape juice purple. While I'm on color, another one of my pet peeves is that the Imperial 'Purple' was really more of a scarlet with some pink in it, but everyone goes with this grape candy color.

I can be catty about this stuff at times, but I thought the trumpeters did look pretty fly standing on the ancient wall.

The whole production, I found out later, is staged for the benefit of passengers on Norwegian Cruise Line, which disgorges its thousands onto buses and dumps them at Ephesus for a couple hours.

Turkey is experimenting with renting out archaeological sites for events like this, a development which I'm totally neutral about generally. I mean, there's a ton of ancient cities and theaters and stuff that if used right can add a lot to both the tourist economy and cultural life (the most famous in these parts being the Aspendos Festival). Like in anything commercial, however, quality control is pretty key, and that's the worrisome part when delicate ancient ruins are in question.

04 June 2010

Excavating postmodern art: Daniel Spoerri's "Lunch Under the Grass"

The remains of the feast (AFP)

Claire Rosenberg (AFP) reports on the excavation of a postmodern art project from 1983:

Pigs' ears, smoked udders, veal lungs and other assorted offal tidbits left over from the luncheon are under the scrutiny of a team of French archaeologists working hand-in-hand with anthropologists, art historians and the organiser of the banquet himself.

On April 23, 1983, Swiss artist Daniel Spoerri, a key figure of post-war European art and inventor of the Eat-Art concept, invited artists, gallery-owners and critics for a lunch-cum-performance where guests buried the remains of the banquet underground.

"My wife didn't eat a thing," said Peter Knapp, a Swiss photographer of 79 celebrated for his work at Elle magazine who was one of the 80 there. "He wanted it to be different and probably hoped people would feel sick just looking at the menu."

This week, with 80-year-old Spoerri looking on, a team of diggers led by prominent French archaeologist Jean-Paul Demoule excavated part of the artsy site -- "to see what the remains tell us about artistic circles in the 1980s", said Demoule.

The lunch leftovers, or the work now known as "Lunch Under The Grass" -- a play on the famed Manet oil painting "Lunch On The Grass" ("Dejeuner sur l'Herbe) -- were buried in a 40-metre (-yard) long trench in sumptuous gardens south of Paris.

The project reminds me immediately of Chris Tilley's observation that excavation is an artform in itself, where the real drama and excitement are quite separated from the academic data that results. The project has a deep conceptual stratigraphy:
  • A bourgeois lunch
  • The Manet painting of it
  • Spoerri's recreation of the lunch a century later
  • The excavation of the recreation three decades later
  • The recording of the excavation
Spoerri's work, which deals a lot with mapping the spatial relationship between objects, has a quite archaeological flavor to it, mixed with a playful midcentury dadaism. I love the transformation the concept into radically different media. Excavation is literally treated as an art medium here, I love it.


That said, the project also affirms why archaeology is more than just an adventure sport or a pretentious art project:

In the case of the offal banquet, Demoule added, surviving witnesses of the luncheon had totally mistaken where the trench was dug and offered false and often contradictory information on the event.

"Archaeological techniques and scientific methods have set the wrongs right," Demoule said. "Historians will often rely solely on written testimony but archaeology can confirm or add to existing information."

There's an interesting philosophical question in there, something like 'does the way you remember an experience mean more than the precise facts?' A rhetorical question, of course - WHY memory differs from what happened is what's really interesting. Archaeology is our only way to ground-truth history: we need it to answer questions about how we remember as people and as societies.


The project will be ongoing: they only excavated part of the meal, and reburied it after excavation so that the site could be revisited in future decades with different technology.

Don't fear the reaper, Ludacris

(Via -god, much content NSFW)