31 August 2010

Roman Facebook, HP Lovecraft, and the Ancient Astronauts

From Gizmodo today: "Overwhelming proof that the Romans were addicted to Facebook"

While strolling through the Getty Villa in Malibu—a museum dedicated to the study the cultures of ancient Greece, Rome and Etruria—Adam Pash discovered something curious: Evidence that even the Romans couldn't resist Facebook.

Either that, or he discovered evidence that we can't help but imagine familiar technologies in the most ancient of art pieces. [Adam Pash]
Look at it! It definitely proves the Romans had computers! I like this post because it illustrates exactly the thought process behind all those crappy websites about ancient astronauts: if I get stoned and stare at some archaeological stuff for a while, I start to see aliens!

Classic case: K'inich Janaab' Pakal, the Maya 'Astronaut'. Ruler of Palenque in the Late Classic period. His tomb lid looks like this:

Look, he's an astronaut! In a spaceship! You don't see it? Obviously you've been brainwashed by the archaeologists, who are trying to keep the truth from us. Check out this helpful video for an explanation.

(from Palaeoanimation, a very trippy site)

The Pakal tomb was made famous by Erich von Däniken, a cheerful lunatic whose 'Chariots of the Gods?' is an excellent guide on how to see whatever you want to see in the archaeological record. Millions of people take his stuff seriously - Mayanists, new agers who really believe 2012 will be the apocalypse, esoteric Christians, UFO enthusiasts. Not to mention all those misanthropes who think ancient people were too stupid to do anything worthwhile. Just because you sit on the couch and scratch your butt all day doesn't mean that people couldn't have built the pyramids.

(Lolthulhu, an excellent website)

The funny thing about Erich von Däniken is that he got a lot of his ideas from... H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft was among the first to come up with the idea of gods as ancient space travelers in his fiction. Jason Colavito in a 2004 number of Skeptic makes a persuasive case that a lot of Von Däniken's ideas came directly from Le Matin des Magiciens ('the morning of the magicians'), whose authors were editors of the French science fiction magazine Planète.
Planète served as an important part of the French second science fiction period, a time when American pulp fiction became extremely popular in France following World War II. French magazines both imitated and reprinted in translation the classic pulp stories of the American 1930s and 40s pulp magazines. Planète's editors held Lovecraft as their prophet, and their reprints of his stories helped to popularize him and the Cthulhu Mythos in the French imagination. Lovecraft's longer fiction was published in French in a series of books.

Lovecraft's work had also inspired the editors of Planète to write a book, Le Matin des Magiciens (The Morning of the Magicians) a few years earlier, in 1960. The book, by Louis Pawles and Jacques Bergier, first introduced Lovecraft's concept of alien gods as a nonfiction hypothesis. The authors claimed that their study of religions around the world had led them to higher consciousnesses and to new revelations about the lost worlds of the past. Especially relevant to this is Part One: Vanished Civilizations, where they heap up evidence backing up Lovecraft's fictional claims about alien super-civilizations of the past.

Unfortunately now long out of print, the book Morning of the Magicians laid the foundation for all the lost civilizations books to follow, including Chariots of the Gods. As R.T. Gault comments, "It's all here, from the Piri Reis map to pyramidology. The authors are frankly fascinated by the idea that ancient peoples may have been more advanced in some of their technologies than we generally believe."

Von Daniken is known to have exploited this book as his major source. The bibliography of Chariots lists the book in its 1962 German translation: Aufbruch ins dritte Jahrtausend.
So seeing ancient astronauts on Maya tombs is just as reasonable as seeing a laptop on a Roman stela. It looks that way to me, so it must be true!

On the other hand, what if everything Lovecraft wrote was true?

30 August 2010

My mind is melting

More insanity from the animated .gif mafia. My brain is falling out.

Courtesy Digital Solutions.

Nena, 'Anyplace, Anywhere, Anytime'

Submitted by Hannah, who describes this video as:
"Thriller" meets Indiana Jones, Karate Kid, Back to the Future and Bill and Ted, courtesy of the lady who brought us "99 Luftballons." I think the time travel is meant to convey the "anywhen" part of the title, the "anywhere" being ancient Egypt/revolutionary America/feudal Japan and the "anyhow" confined to methods involving electric guitars and synthesizers and cars with mohawks. Lest you think I'm think I'm making fun, I love this song.
She forgot to mention the trapdoors, random concert footage, and romantic rescue!

24 August 2010

Wintersleep 'Archaeologists'

The archaeologists found
Some winged boy's remains
Stained by the fire and clouds
In the belly of a whale
The day the lightning came

The belly of a whale (x6)

Packed up and shipped to London
Discard, discard the rotted parts
Preserve the heart and lungs

Belly of a whale (repeat until end)

From their album 'Welcome to the Night Sky'

Michigan researchers find Hellenistic gold

Obverse (Photo: Susan Webb)

Props to my friends at Tel Kedesh in the northern Galilee, who last week found the heaviest gold coin ever discovered in Israel, as the UM News Service reports:
Sharon Herbert and her team were wrapping up their dig at the Tel Kedesh site in Israel, sweeping the site in the 140-degree heat, when a student showed University of Michigan doctoral instructor Lisa Cakmak what he first thought was a gold candy wrapper.

The candy wrapper turned out to be what researchers believe is the heaviest and most valuable gold coin ever found in Israel, according to Herbert, director of the U-M Kelsey Museum of Archeology and co-director of the dig.

Dating from the 14th year of Ptolemy IV (191/190 BC), the coin bears the face of a Ptolemaic queen and weighs nearly an ounce (28 grams). The VOA has a long story about the find, including interviews with directors Sharon Herbert (Michigan) and Andrea Berlin (Boston).

Speaking as a very amateur coin nerd, this is a very cool find. Although I always hate it when gold or coins are in the news, because we archaeologists work so hard to convince people that finding gold is not the point of archaeology and in fact never happens. As Sharon says, it's actually bizarre to find something like this:
"It was pretty surreal," Herbert said of the remarkable find. "I have been digging for 30 years and never found a gold coin. It was found in a wall, believed to be a kitchen wall, that we had first uncovered in 1999 and cleaned every dig season since."

The reverse (Photo: Susan Webb)

I worked at Kedesh in 2006 - the site, being right on the border between Israel and Lebanon, has a great view of whatever explosions are happening in the region at the moment. The dig has focused on the large Persian/Hellenistic administrative building on top of the mound, which has revealed quite a number of surprising finds, like what is perhaps the oldest mosaic floor in Israel and a huge collection of bullae (stamp seals that tell us a lot about ancient trade and administration). The dig is now wrapping up for the forseeable future. The coin, which in usual style was found in the last week of excavations, is a nice codicil to a decade of really great archaeology at Kedesh. Congratulations to Sharon, Andrea, and everyone else on the team!

11 August 2010

Sweet Laocoön Tattoo: Elastic Medium for an Elastic Myth

This fresh ink is courtesy of my friend Ceyhun, from Istanbul. It's the Laocoön group, a late Hellenistic statue now in the Vatican Museum. Laocoön has a minor role in the Epic Cycle as the guy who warns everyone that the Trojan horse is a trick!
Equo ne credite, Teucri, timeo Danaos et dona ferentes
"Don't trust the horse, Trojans - I fear the Greeks, even when they bring gifts" (Aeneid II.49)
For his trouble, Athena sends a giant snake to devour him and his sons. (Or, just maybe, it was actually his punishment for having sex with his wife in a temple.)

Attributed to Agesander, Athenodorus, and Polydorus of Rhodes, the statue was found in 1506 in the remains of Nero's Domus Aurea in Rome. The thing was ridiculously influential on Michelangelo and other Renaissance artists, then on Classicists like Winckelmann and Lessing. Napoleon jacked it in 1799 and parked it in the Louvre until his fall from power.

The sculptures in the group were rearranged in antiquity, then again after their rediscovery. Blake reinterpreted it as a polemic against Classical Art. The whole thing was rebuilt in 1906 after the discovery of missing fragments. This parade of transformations creates a conceptual stratigraphy that eclipses whatever the sculptors meant for it back in the day - so moving the image to the elastic medium of skin is a fitting tribute to its stretchy, slippery history.