29 July 2010

The Pepsi-drinking Archaeologists of 1986

"This class, is perhaps the greatest archaeological discovery of our time - a dwelling called the 'Split-level Ranch'."

As much as Pepsi would like this to happen, Coke bottles will not be an unusual artifact in the future - we'll be finding them for literally millions of years.

26 July 2010

Mesolithic Dildosity: Ancient 'Sex Toy' found in Sweden

Last month excavations at the Mesolithic site of Motala in Östergötland, Sweden, turned up this, ah, stimulating artifact made of antler bone:

Swedish National Heritage Board

Martin Rundqvist at ScienceBlogs describes the dig:
Excavations in waterlogged sediment along River Motala ström have produced great numbers of bone and wood objects that have rarely been preserved elsewhere. Most are harpoon and leister points, but now a bone dildo (a boner?) has joined the growing collection. Measuring twelve by two centimetres, its size is perhaps not very impressive, and there are many non-dildoish uses for which it may have been intended.
The articles note that relatively few phalluses are known from the stone age (mesolithic, neolithic) compared to the number of artifacts showing voluptuous female forms. Of course, if phalluses were usually carved in bone or wood, they wouldn't survive like clay or stone. The site at Motala is unusual because organic material is preserved so well.

Was it used for chipping stone tools? As a dildo? Both?!?!?! The coverage is very cautious:
"Your mind and my mind wanders away to make this interpretation about what it looks like – for you and me, it signals this erected-penis-like shape," said archaeologist Gšran Gruber of the National Heritage Board in Sweden, who worked on the excavation. "But if that's the way the Stone Age people thought about it, I can't say."
Part of science is not jumping to conclusions, but jeez, let's not overdo it.

Another look (SNHB).

Whether it's a dildo or not is a different story. Dildos have a pedigree going back at least to Classical Greece - see the jokes about lost dildos in Aristophanes' Lysistrata, or Herodas Mime 6, where we learn that shoemakers sometimes also took orders for custom-made toys (red leather!)1 I find the idea of much older dildos totally unsurprising perhaps because I assume that ancient people were just as creative (and sex-obsessed) as we are. Another instance of archaeological optimism, if you will!

Of course, any kind of decoration is a problem for archaeologists. Does the decoration mean it was 'symbolic' and not functional? If we're not sure what it was, it must be a ritual item! At least the archaeologists here have a functional hypothesis - or as one commenter jokes, maybe using a dildo for flint-knapping gave the owner 'plausible deniability'. It's true that we can't say for sure. But the guys interviewed in this Livescience article sure are trying hard to avoid the idea that this thing is even penis-shaped, much less a sex toy.

That seems kind of weird to me. But of course, most of the world's archaeologists come from cultures with a strange attitude toward representations of sex. By which I mean the Judeo-Christian-Islamic strain of monotheism, which has a conspicuous lack of festivals celebrating giant penises. In a lot of cultures such things are normal and fun: a Dionysian phallus-fest in a modern Greek village, various Japanese fertility festivals, or the veneration of the lingam of Shiva are just things people do. And then there's this unforgettable description of a Dionysian procession in Alexandria sponsored by Ptolemy II (mid-200s BC):
In another [cart] was a gold phallus one hundred and eighty feet (55m) long, painted in various colours and bound with fillets of gold; it had at the extremity a gold star, the perimeter of which was nine feet.2

Oops, not supposed to see that.

It might be stretching the article too much to say that the dildo-skepticism is part of some kind of Christian cultural baggage. But how much does cultural 'common sense' affect our interpretation of objects, archaeologically? Would Japanese or Indian archaeologists approach this find less cautiously? Would it even be newsworthy in a culture that wasn't still afraid of sex? Given that relatively few countries dominate world archaeology, how much of what we think we know about the past is colored by our cultural conditioning?

1 One could do a blog full of nothing but archaeological penises. I'll even let you claim credit for the idea if you start it.
2 From Callixeinos of Rhodes, quoted in Athenaeus' Deipnosophistae 413D

22 July 2010

Kunstler: Vinyl siding and the archaeology of the suburbs

I recently discovered James Howard Kunstler's amazing 'Eyesore of the Month' series, in which he drives me hysterics with his evocations of everything that's wrong with north American architecture. His meditation on covering old buildings with new siding:
Another tragedy in the making: vinyl siding goes up over a brick row house in Saratoga Springs, New York. This helps explain why Americans have no faith in the new. In this case study, the new literally swallows up history. There are some interesting things we've learned about vinyl siding since it came into use about three decades ago. One is that exposure to sunlight makes it torque, warp, crack, and eventually disintegrate. Since paint doesn't stick to it, and it comes with the "promise" of no maintainence (so the owners won't wash it), what you inevitably get after only a few years is a dingy patina of automobile exhaust. Eventually, vinyl siding's inherent crumminess and acquired scunginess will depress the property values of all the other houses in proximity.
Interesting to think of the archaeological record of the future: while it's an overwhelming visual statement, covering old buildings in new siding will probably leave little or no trace in the archaeological record. But assume these evanescent (compared to brick) coverings really do depress property values, thereby changing the social fabric of the neighborhood. Would it alter material culture patterns in a way that archaeologists could detect? Is there a ghost signature of vinyl siding - to be found in different food consumption, children's toys, car tires, or whatever it is that will lie underneath the backyards of America's less affluent suburban neighborhoods, centuries in the future? (High concentrations of saturated fats in the soil perhaps?)

19 July 2010

Tastiest time capsule: underwater champagne

AFP reports the discovery of the world's oldest champagne in a shipwreck 55 meters deep off of the Finnish island of Aaland.

Thought to be premium brand Veuve Clicquot, the 30 bottles discovered perfectly preserved at a depth of 55 metres (180 feet) could have been in a consignment sent by France's King Louis XVI to the Russian Imperial Court.

If confirmed, it would be by far the oldest champagne still drinkable in the world, thanks to the ideal conditions of cold and darkness.

"We have contacted (makers) Moet & Chandon and they are 98 percent certain it is Veuve Clicquot," Christian Ekström, the head of the diving team, told AFP.

"There is an anchor on the cork and they told me they are the only ones to have used this sign," he said, adding that a sample of the champagne has been sent to Moet & Chandon for their analysis.

The first bottles of Veuve Cliquot were produced in 1772 and aged for 10 years. Production was interrupted by the French revolution in 1788, so these bottles must be from between 1782 and 1787. The magic of alcohol and six atmospheres of pressure have kept the wine drinkable!

Aaland wine expert Ella Gruessner Cromwell-Morgan, whom Ekstroem asked to taste the find, said it had not lost its fizz and was "absolutely fabulous".

"I still have a glass in my fridge and keep going back every five minutes to take a breath of it. I have to pinch myself to believe it's real," she said.

Cromwell-Morgan described the champagne as dark golden in colour with a very intense aroma.

"There's a lot of tobacco, but also grape and white fruits, oak and mead," she said of the wine's "nose".

As for the taste, "it's really surprising, very sweet but still with some acidity," the expert added, explaining that champagne of that period was much less dry than today and the fermentation process less controllable.

"One strong supposition is that it's part of a consignment sent by King Louis XVI to the Russian Imperial Court," Cromwell-Morgan said. "The makers have a record of a delivery which never reached its destination."

Call it the solution of a historical mystery. As usual with such things, ownership is a little bit unclear, especially since the ship seems to be within Finland's territorial waters. The Aaland authorities are meeting next week to decide who owns the find, which is potentially worth millions at auction.

Pop champagne ain't a damn thing change / Spray it in the air make it champagne rain

It's been a good couple years for ancient champagne. This week's find beats the previous record for oldest bottle of Veuve: in 2008 a Scot named Chris James found an 1893 bottle in Torosay Castle, Isle of Mull, Scotland. It had been locked in a dark cabinet along with other liquors since at least 1897. Last year there was a tasting of a bottle of 1825 Perrier-Jouet Champagne at the winemaker's cellars in Epernay. The champagne was sweeter than the contemporary version (it was topped up with brandy in the cask) but was a bit flat but with notes of "truffles, caramel and mushrooms."

Veuve Cliquot is quite important in the history of champagne. Madame Cliquot (the 'widow' or veuve in the brand name) ran the firm from 1805 to 1866 and transformed champagne from an artisanal to a mass produced product. With her staff she invented a vastly more efficient way of removing lees and yeast from the bottles (riddling) - making champagne a clear beverage for the first time. The Finnish bottles, from the 1780s, predate this transformation and represent an rare surviving example of a pre-industrial wine.

Up from the deeps!

Shipwrecked wine is not as unusual as you might think. Wine has been a widely traded commodity for, well, as long as people have been making wine (at least 7,000 years). Booze was an important part of the neolithic revolution and people have been greedy for it ever since. In other words, drinking wine is very stone age. Nicola at Edible Geography (another blog I love) has a great reflection on shipwrecked wines:
It appears the ocean floor, if treated as a single entity, might actually be the world’s largest wine cellar – a sunken treasure trove of lost vintages awaiting rediscovery. Like squirrels digging up acorns, wreck-divers and salvage companies stumble upon another forgotten cache every few years.
She also points out that drinking the stuff can actually have some archaeological value:
A 1996 paper published in the Australasian Historical Archaeology journal discusses the analysis of wines recovered from an 1841 shipwreck – the William Salthouse, in Melbourne’s Port Phillip Bay – in terms of the evolution of Muscat. By combining chemical composition analysis with sensory data (i.e. sampling) and archival research, archaeologists with Heritage Victoria discovered that “Muscat was traditionally an unfortified style, quite different to today, due to a vinification technique called passerillage,” which created a wine with such high sugar levels that, to modern oenologists, it tastes like Sauternes.
Not that it's much of a challenge to convince archaeologists to drink wine. In fact one might wonder why the archaeology of booze is so underdeveloped, given the rampant drinking that besets the average dig.

I'll talk about wine recovered from Greek and Roman wrecks some other time. For now I'll leave you with some other more recent shipwrecked wine links, like the 1907 Heideseck discovered in a shipwreck a few years ago (mostly covered by luxury blogs, which ironically have really bad grammar and writing!) Also check out these wines recovered from the Titanic.

15 July 2010

Herc lost his Dongle

These days it seems like all I have to do is look at my Facebook feed to get ideas for Archaeopop. Patrick Crowley over at Columbia put this chortle-worthy gem on his feed today, and I'm pirating it!

Patrick sez:
I think this image came from some technology nostalgia blog, but for the life of me I don't think I could find it again. I suppose I liked not only the comparison between the dongle-less new technology and the penis-less Hercules Farnese, but also the further implication that because "dongles are history," so is the "complete" statue in its ancient state. At the risk of reading too much into the ad, I think it's a cute document in the history of sculptural restoration!
Heh, you said dongle.

13 July 2010

NY Times reviews "Chasing Mummies"

Run, dude. Zahi's gonna yell at you. (ZH.com)

You know it's going to be bad, just from the title. Neil Gelzinger at the NY Times tears into the History Channel's new show thus:
Dr. Hawass, like many celebrities before him, [has been given] the mistaken impression that any sort of personal behavior will be embraced by his adoring public, because he sure is obnoxious on “Chasing Mummies,” an annoying new show that begins Wednesday night on History.

Dr. Hawass has allowed a History crew to tag along as he does what he does, but, at least from the evidence of the premiere, this does not result in many revelations about the science of archaeology. It results instead in a fair amount of footage of Dr. Hawass verbally abusing those around him: the film crew, college-age interns who have come to worship at his feet, and so on. Any infraction, or no infraction at all, seems sufficient to warrant one of Dr. Hawass’s tirades.


Sure, some Egyptology occasionally creeps into this irksome spectacle. In the opening episode Dr. Hawass finds a never-before-breached sarcophagus, a rare thing these days, and when it is opened, he imparts interesting tidbits about why this mummy is not in very good shape. But this scene doesn’t last as long as you want it to; gotta go look for someone else to dress down.

There are two possibilities here. One is that the program is accurately capturing Dr. Hawass’s personality. The other is that, as on many reality shows, the people in this one are putting on personas that they think will make good television, and Dr. Hawass, having studied his Simon Cowell and Donald Trump, has concluded that American audiences want to see underlings browbeaten. But there’s a big difference between enjoying Mr. Cowell’s antics in the artificial construct of “American Idol” and seeing the same thing out in the real world, where college kids are just trying to learn, and film crews are just trying to film.

I've always thought an archaeological excavation would make a good reality TV show. The slightly insane and occasionally cruel excavation director is an important character of course, but it's frankly not enough for a good show. To get the real flavor of the experience you need to see the real monotony and stress of excavation, combined with excessive drinking, sunburns, sexual tension, culture shock, and poorly-thought-out relationship choices. THAT show would be tight. Not sure if Zahi just yelling at people would scratch the itch.

Thanks to Diana Ng of Northwestern U for the tip!

11 July 2010

The origin of Myanmar is Myanmar

Feng Yingqiu of Xinhua News brings us this strangely tautological lede from Burma. Bear with this long quote until its weird end:
Myanmar archaeological experts have been making research in cooperation with international primate experts to prove the proposal -- "The origin of Myanmar is Myanmar."

These experts have been working together yearly to find out the fossilized remains of Pontaung primates in Pontaung rock layers.

The findings of the primates on the Stone Age, the Bronze Age and the Iron Age, gained from the archaeological research in Meiktila and Yamethin districts in Mandalay division over the past decade, stood some evidences for the Bronze Age and the Iron Age as well as for the Myanmar culture and history, according to research report.

Over the weekend, Myanmar's Ministry of Culture organized a paper reading session on archaeological evidences in Nay Pyi Taw with the belief that the findings through the archaeological research add to the Myanmar history.

The research paper reading session involved resources persons from Myanmar Historical Mission, National Culture and Fine Arts Universities in Yangon and Mandalay, Archaeology, National Museum and Library Department as well as a foreign academician.

Doing archaeological research on the Myanmar history from the origin of the race to date through the prehistoric period and Pyu period, Myanmar claimed that it has been able to discover the origin of Myanmar people who were born and who migrated from one place to another in the Myanmar soil along with the Myanmar civilization.
Minor explanation: Burma was renamed Myanmar by the current military dictatorship. I'm being politically correct by continuing to call it Burma, which the pro-democracy campaigners prefer.

Myazedei Temple, Pagan (AOMAR)

Even allowing for the vagaries of English as a second language, something is peculiar here. The article claims that because there are Myanmar people in the archaeological record, therefore Myanmar people are from Myanmar. The statement is grandiose and meaningless at the same time. Of course, the archaeological record has no ethnic identity, since it's a collection of stones and bones and earth. But the habit of reading ethnicity into the record is persistent, not least since it's politically useful. This is an especially weird instance, but not alone in the Burmese context. This article from Prof. Dr. Khin Maung Nyunt, the former director-general of the Myanmar archaeology service (from government's webpage) adds yet another strange dimension to the whole thing:
Archaeological and historical evidence has proved that Myanmar's pre-history dates back 50 million years and history to the 1st century A.D. Paleontologists who in the past as well as recently made a field study in the Pondaung area of Myanmar further confirmed the archaeological date by means of the fossils of Primate they discovered in situ. Historical sites in the country abound in ancient monuments above ground and artifacts underground which indicate that civilisation of not later than the first century A.D. had flourished there.
Usually we think of pre-history as 'people doing stuff, but before writing was invented'. The notion that there was anything remotely resembling 'people' 50 million years ago is crazy, but these two articles distinctly imply that these ancient primates represent the first Burmese people. Connecting a current culture to the 1st century CE is enough of a stretch, but 50 million years takes us practically to the Cretaceous - long before beasts that looked even remotely like us evolved. (The great apes, for instance, branched off the primate tree just 18 million years ago).

Goodies from the early iron age in Burma (Halin Museum)

Many peoples in history - from ancient Greek poleis to North American First Nations - have legends that they somehow emerged from the nearby earth, or a mountain, or a river, or the sky. Us Classics nerds call it 'autochthony' (auto=self, same; chthon=earth). It's certainly true that Burma's history is long and rich - from interesting mesolithic sites documented here to the amazing temples of Pagan. (I had a nice time today scouting through a blog from the Association of Myanmar Archaeologists, which posts a lot of research excerpts that do a great job of teaching the totally ignorant [i.e. me] something about the history and archaeology of the country.) But this idea of Burmese as autochthonous is couched in weirdly scientific language that smells political to me.

Burma is has suffered under an Orwellian military dictatorship for most of the period since independence. The generals took over after the first and last free election (in 1989) didn't go their way. Opposition parties are banned and the press is totally state controlled. The military has embraced a strain of totalitarian capitalism, using slave labor to conduct rainforest clearcutting and build oil pipelines for western oil companies like Unocal. The military controls almost all of the economy directly or indirectly and is said to be deeply involved in heroin production. Then there's the repression of non-Burmese ethnic groups (about 30% of the population), which has led to an ongoing low-level civil war and several million people displaced within Burma or in refugee camps over the Thai border. (Full disclosure: I was involved with the Free Burma Campaign some years back. Go to their website and read more.)

Protests in 2007 were led by thousands of Buddhist monks. The military dictatorship met the protests with gunfire and mass arrests (Burma Campaign UK)

So even using the name 'Myanmar' makes a political statement whether you like it or not. It's associated with 20th century-style ethnic supremacism and fascist politics. Since there's no media in Burma that don't toe the official line, even a comical headline like "Myanmar makes archaeological research to prove origin of Myanmar", becomes a deadly serious exercise in political legitimation.

What exactly the foreign archaeologists named in the above article are doing working in a country with a government like this I don't know. A lot of people have this "science is apolitical" mentality but I think that's bullshit. It's always political. The hard question is what level of association with a stupid government you are willing to take. Lending international credibility to a system that combines all the worst characteristics of extreme bureaucracy, ethnic nationalism, and military dictatorship in my view is a poor moral decision, even if it's good for one's academic career. It ain't Stalin or the Khmer Rouge, but it is on the level of North Korea. Certainly more horrific in most ways than Iran, which we hear so much fuss about in the American press.

Of course, it's easy to sit here in a relatively democratic country (presently Turkey) and pass judgment about what people should or shouldn't do. Reading the blog of the AOMAR is a little poignant. Living in a stupid dictatorship doesn't mean that life stops. There's young people who are excited about their country's archaeology, and they should study it and do their best to keep the discipline going under terrible political conditions. People have to make the best lives they can with the cards they're dealt, and I by no means want to suggest that doing archaeology in Burma per se is always immoral (but I don't rule out the possibility that it can be, sometimes). And it seems from the articles on that site anyway that some good professional research is happening there - I'm fascinated by these photos of Mesolithic tool scatters! I hope I can go there someday when it's under less Orwellian conditions.

A Mesolithic tool scatter! (U Win Kyaing)

Nonetheless, I keep coming back to the bizarrely tautological title, which is an obvious ploy to confuse the reader with nonsense. In a real sense, the 'origin of Myanmar' is the current military junta, which chose the name for the country and is now trying to project its rule into the past. I'm sure the 50 million year old primates from 'Pontaung' (gratuitous chuckle) are much cuter or charismatic than a posse of elderly paranoid generals, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't see this for what it is: a horror story dressed up as an article from the Onion.

08 July 2010

AP: Sinking oil threatens historic Gulf shipwrecks

From Cain Burdeau at Associated Press, an article about the archaeological impact of the Gulf of Mexico oil crisis (via Boing Boing):
TIMBALIER ISLANDS, La. — Not just flora and fauna are getting caked in oil. So is the Gulf of Mexico's barnacled history of pirates, sea battles and World War II shipwrecks.

The Gulf is lined with wooden shipwrecks, American-Indian shell midden mounds, World War II casualties, pirate colonies, historic hotels and old fishing villages. Researchers now fear this treasure seeker's dream is threatened by BP PLC's deepwater well blowout.

The bridge of the USS Oriskany, off Pensacola, Fla. (AP)

Within 20 miles of the well, there are several significant shipwrecks — ironically, discovered by oil companies' underwater robots working the depths — and oil is most likely beginning to cascade on them.

"People think of them as being lost, but with the deepsea diving innovations we have today, these shipwrecks are easily accessible," said Steven Anthony, president of the Maritime Archaeological and Historical Society.

"If this oil congeals on the bottom, it will be dangerous for scuba divers to go down there and explore," Anthony said. "The spill will stop investigations; it will put a chill, a halt on (underwater) operations."

The wrecks include two 19th-century wooden ships known as the "Mica Wreck" and the "Mardi Gras Wreck." The German submarine U-166 and ships sunk by other German submarines during World War II are within the spill's footprint.

The Mica was a 200-year-old, two-masted schooner that sank sometime before 1850, according to a report by the Minerals Management Service. It was discovered about 2,500 feet deep in the Mississippi Canyon during work to lay a pipeline.

In 2002, the Mardi Gras wreck was discovered by oilfield workers in even deeper waters: About 4,000 feet down about 35 miles off the Louisiana coast. The wreck got its name from the pipeline project where the wreck was found: the Mardi Gras Gas Transmission System, a huge deepwater pipeline system.

05 July 2010

Santa Claus lives by the beach

(hispic cafe)
If you grew up in a northern European cultural environment, Santa Claus definitely lives in a cold climate. Reindeer, fur suit, snow, sleigh, Coca Cola, et cetera. Something like the picture above. (Which was taken in July, in Japan, of course.)

So being confronted with the historical St. Nicholas is a bit bizarre. He was the bishop of Myra, today's Demre on Turkey's southern coast. Demre's a flat fairly unexciting agricultural town, one of those places you pass through on the way to somewhere else. But it does have a central attraction: the church of St. Nicholas (and his original burial spot), which got 395,000 visitors in 2009 according to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

Jenny and I stopped by last month on our way to somewhere with more beach and better scenery.

The church is mostly obscured by this hideous roof, presumably built for 'conservation' purposes.

The choir and altar.

There's been some controversy about the site lately. The Turkish government changed the name of the site from "St. Nicholas Church" to "Father Christmas Museum" (Noel Baba Müzesi) last year, in what some people see as a stab at Christianity. The new name is certainly stupid because what you see is a semi-ruined medieval church with some nice Byzantine frescos. No reindeer, fir trees, or jolly fat men with beards.

The new name of the church made me expect a nonstop Santa Claus kitsch explosion, but there is in fact a totally different kind of kitsch - a long chain of Russian icon shops! St. Nicholas is actively venerated year-round by devout Russian orthodox, and there were indeed women praying at the statue near the entrance to the Church.

A visitor prays to St. Nick.

Shops packed with icons and other goodies oriented to the Russian market.

There's also a statue of St. Nick set up by the Antalya Santa Claus foundation celebrating the "International Santa Claus Activities" of 1998. Sounds weird but I'm sure it was fun for the international crowd of youth participants. Am kinda curious what they did! 

This brings us to a less-known story about the Turkish med coast: it's now dominated by Russian tourists, who are famous for wandering around archaeological sites in absurdly scanty bikinis (yes, the men too) and sometimes high heels. It's amusing that Russia should finally get the warm water port the czars dreamed of for centuries - but in the form of Antalya's endless holiday villages.

St. Nicholas is no longer buried in Demre. Some sneaky Italians stole his bones in an undercover operation in 1087 and brought them to Bari, from where they may or may not have been stolen and brought to England, Germany, or Venice. Last Christmas Nezdat Çevik of Akdeniz University, who excavates at Demre, and Antalya Museum director Cumali Ayabakan teamed up to request repatriation of "Santa's Bones" from Bari:

Çevik reiterated St. Nicholas’s remarks in which he said, “I was born here, raised here and I will be buried here.” The professor added that “we should respect the wish of St. Nicholas. The bones should be brought back to his grave in Demre.”

Çevik has also urged state authorities to take steps to contact their Italian counterparts. “The ministries should work to move the bones back to Turkey.” The scholar also emphasized the significance of St. Nicholas’s grave in terms of tourism and said that the number of tourists visiting the church in Demre will drastically increase when the bones are returned.

It's interesting that here, repatriation is not tied to sentimental concerns about colonialism or the spirits of the ancestors, but rather to the chance to generate cash from tourists. As repatriation becomes more mainstream, it also seems to be attracting preposterous proposals like this.

Recently the Koç Foundation - run by Turkey's richest industrialist family - has taken over some aspects of site management at the church. Judging by this sign, the former funders - the World Monuments Fund and the Samuel H. Kress foundation - have suffered a damnatio memoriae. I'm dying to know the back story on this one.


02 July 2010

Kartoon Korner: the suffering of ancient librarians

In case you ever get tired of carrying that laptop around, think of the suffering of the Assyrian librarian.

A cartoon by Mehmet Akgün, part of the 2010 submissions for an annual archaeology cartoon contest held at the Burdur Archaeological Museum, Burdur, Turkey.