31 July 2011

Glass Dildos and Palaeolithic Bronzes: Why Private Collections Are Not Always a Good Idea

Here's my first dispatch from Gaziantep, which I visited for 10 days this month. Gaziantep is an up-and-coming metropolis in southeast Turkey that's been making a lot of money off of industry (a lot of European firms make products for the Middle Eastern market in factories there), and also investing a lot of money in parks, museums, and restoration of historic buildings. Since our research was on exactly that, we stopped by some neat places like the new city museum, the Emine Gögüs Kitchen Museum, and the new Zeugma Mosaic Museum (all very cool).

We also stopped by the Medusa Glass Museum, which is a stunning private collection of ancient glass hosted in a charmingly restored Antep house.
It's hard to overstate the quality of the materials - the place is packed with Roman glass and jewelry. It's all completely unprovenienced, of course, and no doubt was all pulled from tombs by looters not too long ago. Not sure how they got the collection legalized.
Seriously, check it out. There's three floors of it: perfume bottles, wine jars, oil bottles, and water jars, all in ancient glass. The quantity and quality is stunning.

Despite the quality of the stuff on display, but there's a total lack of quality control on the labels, with hilarious results. This one is labeled  'ROMAN TIME SEXUAL OBJECT'.

Here's a close up, cause I know you want one.
Now look, I'm willing to call a dong a dong, as in the Swedish archaeo-dildo controversy last year. But these aren't phallus-shaped at all, and believe me, the Romans were not shy about realistic depictions of the phallus. (And, I gotta point out that this looks like a real uncomfortable dildo.) In fact, these look to me like the glass rods used as raw material in glassblowing, given a little 'extra imagination'.

Then we have this thing here, which is labeled 'BREAST PUMP, 2nd Century AD'. I have no idea what this particular vessel is for, but I'm pretty sure it's not a breast pump.

Here's another howler, though you have to be a nerd to laugh really hard: 'PALAEOLITHIC TIME AXE, 3500 BC'. It's made of METAL, dumbass! The Palaeolithic is the 'old stone age'! There was no metal stuff! Plus, it ended about 20,000 years ago in this area. Obviously whoever wrote this got confused with the  Bronze Age, but even then 3500 BC is still way too early.

And that axe head doesn't even fit the mold! Who knows, it could be modern, or a fake. There's no way to know.
Though I commend the creators of this museum for having information panels, they apparently used Google translate or something for the English, because it's hilariously incomprehensible. In all, I was left both thrilled by the stuff on the shelf and horrified by the inanity of the people who own it.

Now, I'm not saying this to rag on Gaziantep or Turkey, but rather to point out that private collections are prone to this kind of thing. When I was a kid I remember going with my grandfather to a lot of private galleries and homes with large collections of cool, weird, sometimes ancient artifacts. Inevitably these things were put together by super-enthusiastic collectors who loved the objects but had no idea about their history, and so just made up their own interpretations.

Now there's lots of art market types out there, like say the Getty Foundation's new director, who would like to make it easier to buy and sell antiquities. They run under the assumption that private collectors are all smart, sophisticated, fancy people who are just as good stewards of the past as a public institution or nation-state - therefore we should jettisoning protections against looting and loosening the scrutiny of stolen antiquities. Now, I'm a critic of the mania for state ownership of cultural property too, but let's be real. For every collector who is a highly educated aesthete with impeccable knowledge of ancient history, there's an uninformed dumbasses who can't tell a dildo from a doorknob. With these people you get bad conservation conditions, poor information for visitors (if visitors are even allowed to see the stuff), and ample room for the kind of hilariously ignorant fantasy we see here.

As I've said before, it's not just a question of being pedantic about ancient history. The truth about the past is COOLER than bullshit, and it can mean something to people. Letting random people make up whatever they want about history might be a good business model (see the 'History' channel), but it's a disservice to the future.

29 July 2011

Archaeopop in PORK: The Remix is Old Fashioned

PORK #3 is out on your sophisticated newsstands all over the Best Coast (and select spots on the Beast Coast) of North America. This issue's ARCHAEOPOP column is about the 'Palaeo Diet', the latest diet trend where overeducated westerners are try to get in touch with their inner caveman. Read PORK #3 online here.

In the meantime, here's the ARCHAEOPOP column from Pork #2 (also online here)!


Since people started filesharing on the internet the media has been parroting this hysteria about ‘stealing’ music. The copyright racketeers want clubs to pay royalties for every song played at an open mic night, and to charge employers for playing CDs at work. In Britain, a woman was sued for singing at the grocery store she worked at without paying royalties for her “performances”. In 2009, ASCAP decided that even ringtones on your phone were a “public performance”! The courts threw it out, because they’re not THAT stupid. And we’ve all heard stories about the battles between the record companies and the entire genres of hiphop and techno over sampling: those fights have been rolling since the 1980s.

Negativeland's ripping parody of U2 and radio personality Kasey Kasem was ruthlessly suppressed by U2 and SST Records in 1992. It was totally unavailable until rescued by YouTube.

Let me lay the archaeo-pop perspective on you, PORK readers. Politicians and record companies would like you to believe that this intellectual “property” trend – which coincidentally makes a lot of money for certain people – is some kind of manifestation of cosmic justice. But that’s bollocks. Copyright didn’t even apply to printed music in America before 1831, and no one thought of charging royalties for performance until the 1880s. Records didn’t hit the mass market until the 1890s. Before then, the idea of a musical performance as a commodity that could be bought and sold was literally unthinkable. It’s been with us barely more than a century.

One century?! Get serious. Pop music has been around as long as people: both us humans and our Neanderthal fuck buddies had flutes by 40-60,000 years ago. (Music could be even older: apes are known to beat rhythms on logs.) In a lot of preliterate traditions, music and stories were shared by travelling bards, whose fame relied on their ability to tell familiar stories in new ways. The stories behind the Odyssey and Iliad were 500 years old by the time they were written down. Before that, bards told the stories in hundreds of different ways, using poetic formulas to make the story familiar but different at the same time. The fame of the bard was in his musical ability – to tell the story well – but also in his ability to innovate based on familiar material: remixing old riffs into something fresh and new. No one thought that someone ‘owned’ the story of Achilles’ rage, or had the exclusive right to sing about how much Nausicäa wanted to get boned by Odysseus.

Music from the bone flute of Divje Babe, Slovenia. Neanderthals weren't ASCAP members, so you can play this flute without paying them.

As soon as we get written history, there’s mention of pop music: as the anecdote goes, a Chinese king once asked the sage Mencius, guiltily, if he was a bad guy for listening to nothing but pop music and ignoring the classics.
On another day, when Mencius was in audience with the King he said, “You told Zhuang Bao that you liked music. Is that really so?” The King blushed. “I’m not capable of appreciating the music of the ancient kings, I just like popular music.” “If Your Majesty loves music deeply, then the state of Chi is not far off! The music of today comes from the music of the past.”
This in the 4th century BC! Already we get the famous tension between music we SHOULD like and the music we actually DO like. In the Hellenistic kingdoms and the Roman Empire, the music we DO like was transmitted from town to town by solo artists and groups who travelled a circuit of festivals and and auditoriums, often competing for prizes. These groups weren’t exactly like our pop bands: they could include dance, poetry, and music (in the Greek sense, all the arts were ‘music’, i.e. the things of the Muses). But more importantly, they played both pop music and the classics: what artists brought to the table was their performance skills and their ability to make something innovative out of familiar sounds and stories. They played new tunes, but no one told them they had to pay to play the old ones. Reworking a riff so that it got stuck in the heads of girls from Argentomagus to Alexandria: that was dominance.

Fast forward to our century. All of a sudden, music as a physical thing is irrelevant and impossible to control. Music companies that got bloated and smug during the 1970s heyday of album-oriented rock have been watching their sales go down the toilet and responding with typical baby-boomer petulance. "Computers are never going to get worse at copying things," as Cory Doctorow observed in a recent column in the Guardian. There is NO GOING BACK. The music companies have lost the war to control recordings, and within a generation most of humanity’s recording music will be available for free to everyone online. Cretins like Bono whine that no one will ever pick up a guitar again if he doesn’t get paid every time I whistle ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’. I’d be happy if he followed through and stopped making crappy albums, but the man is an idiot. Music is hardwired into people. The only interesting question is how it’s made and who can make a living at it. I see two implications from our modern trend. If recordings are free, the experience you pay for is the performance: groups with good stage presence have the edge. And, if you can’t control copyright, you can’t control remixing and music gets in touch with history again. Freed from the need to have recording contracts and obey copyright musicians can focus on being good performers and embedding themselves explicitly into the fabric of music that has gone before.

The digital age, then, has basically returned us to historical normality: the trends everyone was shocked by in the last couple decades (Sampling! Remixing! Filesharing!) return us to a situation that is more 400 BC than 1950 AD. Lady Gaga vs. Judas Priest?  Bards respecting their elders by telling the old stories in new ways. Excellence is not: is it all new? but, does it make us happy? As Mencius says, if you enjoy pop music, you get good Chi. In 100 years – no, in 50 – this war to make the world’s music the private property of some cartels in London and Los Angeles is going to be seen for what it is, a sinister and repulsive attack on human culture.

Remixes and Mashups: The new normal, same as the old normal

Wax Audio - I'm in love with Judas Priest (Lady Gaga vs. Judas Priest)
A Plus D – I Keep Forgettin To Regulate (Warren G. & Nate Dogg vs. Michael McDonald) 
(courtesy recent sessions of the international mashup network Bootie)

WATCH: Jay-Z vs. Alphaville

Watch: Ghostface vs. Tears for Fears

28 July 2011


The internet was invented to transport cute cat pictures. We are not immune.
This little varmint lives at the Sagalassos excavation house in Ağlasun, Turkey - and has complete control of the entire project.

27 July 2011

Music to dig by: Wild Yaks, 'Million Years Old'

New archaeopop jam for your Thursday morning: Brooklyn's Wild Yaks ruminate about what it's like to be a million years old.

  Wild Yaks, "Million Years Old" by The FADER

Fine American rock n' roll!

21 July 2011

Mohamed Elshahed: The Case Against the Egyptian Museum

From a brilliant article on the politics of the new Egyptian Museum by Mohamed Elshahed, published at Jadaliyya (one of the best Middle East blogs, period). It's an indictment of the security mindset, slavish devotion to foreign mass tourism, and contempt for ordinary people that has characterized Egypt's heritage establishment for the last generation. Long excerpt follows, read it all here:
The Egyptian state has been firmly in control of archaeology and of the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities for several decades. Egypt’s first and only Minister of Antiquities, Zahi Hawass, personifies the notion that Egyptians are in control of their ancient heritage, previously dominated by Europeans. This control has translated into security-oriented policies that claim to protect artifacts from theft and vandalism. In reality, this has meant protecting artifacts from Egyptian masses, while making them available to tourists. The government has not capitalized on Egypt’s material legacy as a cultural resource central to discourses on national identity and heritage. The Supreme Council of Antiquities’ main goals have been security not accessibility and mass tourism not culture.

My first visit to the Museum as an adult was in 2006, when a friend was visiting Cairo from the United States. As we approached the security checkpoint, a foreboding first encounter with a cultural institution, identification was requested of us. I had never been asked for identification to enter a museum anywhere else in the world, let alone the most important museum in my home country. While she had no problem entering, being American, I was questioned about my relationship with my friend and my reasons for entering the museum. As an Egyptian, who is not a tour guide, I was treated as an object of suspicion.
The real audience for Egypt's antiquities? (elshahedm on Flickr)

This visit made clear to me that the purpose of the Egyptian Museum is purely touristic. Museums have become fortified storehouses for badly labeled, disorganized artifacts meant to be consumed purely as objects with little historical significance besides their apparent old age. Tourists are meant to be the prime consumers of these objects, as they pay seventy to one hundred pounds to enter in contrast to Egyptians who are charged a few pounds.

Adding insult to injury, during the Tahrir protests of 9 March, the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities became known as salakhana: the torture chamber. Military police used the museum as a command center, due to its secure location, where they held, interrogated, and tortured protesters. The single most important museum in the country with Egypt’s most valuable artifacts was transformed into a place where Egyptians were beaten and humiliated.
There is no excuse for Cairo’s Museum of Egyptian Antiquities’ current condition with peeling paint and missing artifacts replaced by hand-written notes saying in Arabic “under restoration” or “in a traveling exhibition.” The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities is in need of serious remodeling and expansion. This surely will be expensive and will need a grand vision to transform and update this important institution of world heritage.
However, the recent drastic decision to move this urban institution out of the heart of the city and into the desert two kilometers from the Pyramids is a calamity and a disgrace. To signal the decision, in 2006 the red granite colossus of Ramses II that adorned central Cairo since 1955 was removed to a storage facility at the city’s edge, where it awaits a new home in the proposed Grand Egyptian Museum.
Public museums are fundamentally urban centers firmly tied to their metropolitan contexts. The mere visibility of Paris’ Louvre pyramid and inside-out Pompidou Center or New York’s Metropolitan Museum in their urbane settings is as important as the contents of these world-famous buildings. The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities is forever associated with its Tahrir Square location, especially after the well-photographed and documented uprising that took place at its doorstep. Moving the museum into a desert location outside the city center serves the museum’s current priorities of security and tourist exclusivity. Are these still the priorities of Egypt’s leading museum in light of the unfinished and ongoing uprising?

Sinatra plays the pyramids

Frank Sinatra played the pyramids of Giza on September 27, 1979. This one goes out to Zahi Hawass:

Lots more videos from the concert here. Sadly no pyramid action, 'cause it's at night.

18 July 2011

Egypt: is Hawass finally out?

In Egypt, the Zahi Hawass saga keeps twisting and turning. After resigning, being subject to protests, and then returning to office, the overseer of the pyramids was fired yesterday as part of a cabinet reshuffle. The AP reports:
CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's antiquities minister, whose trademark Indiana Jones hat made him one the country's best known figures around the world, was fired Sunday after months of pressure from critics who attacked his credibility and accused him of having been too close to the regime of ousted President Hosni Mubarak.
Zahi Hawass, long chided as publicity loving and short on scientific knowledge, lost his job along with about a dozen other ministers in a Cabinet reshuffle meant to ease pressure from protesters seeking to purge remnants of Mubarak's regime.

"He was the Mubarak of antiquities," said Nora Shalaby, an activist and archaeologist. "He acted as if he owned Egypt's antiquities, and not that they belonged to the people of Egypt." 
Hopefully this means the end of this sort of thing (via Vintagedept on Flickr)
Hawass was immediately replaced by Abdel Fattah Al-Banna as Antiquities Minister. Al-Banna had the merit of being a) not Zahi Hawass and b) frequently present during protests in Tahrir Square. He has met resistance, however, from within Egypt's antiquities establishment, as Al-Masry Al-Youm reports:
The Supreme Council of Antiquities secretariat rejected the appointment of Abdel Fattah al-Banna as antiquities minister. The appointment was part of the cabinet reshuffle ordered by Egypt's prime minister.
In a statement, the secretariat said Banna, a restoration specialist, does not specialize in archaeology and should not assume the ministry's responsibilities.
The statement called for dissolving the Antiquities Ministry and returning its responsibilities to the council, which it said would act as an independent, scientific institute run by specialists.
The new minister looks a bit nervous (Al-Masry Al-Youm)
The last line is the real point: the SCA doesn't appreciate losing its power to a political appointee, whoever he may be. They want the ministry dissolved and overall authority returned to 'specialists'.
I don't know enough about the internal politics of the SCA to have an opinion about whether this is a good idea, or not. I wish the new guy well, though my gut tells me he won't last long either. Hawass? Between cozying up to Mubarak and his own authoritarian personality, he set the stage for an undignified exit.  More AP:
Just before news of his departure, Hawass was heckled near his office Sunday as he left on foot. Protesters tried to block his way, until he jumped into a taxi to get away from the melee, the taxi driver, Mohammed Abdu, said.
I doubt this is the last we'll hear of him, but perhaps his star has finally started to fall.

These day's I'm getting my Egyptology news from the Egyptologists for Egypt group on Facebook, which has an excellent news feed. Check it out!

11 July 2011

Electro-funk, Bewigged

Reader Sean submits the amazing nostalgio-futuristic styles of the Jonzun Crew, an electro-funk outfit ca. 1980-1983 that floats somewhere between Parliament and Kraftwerk.

Images stolen from hell of cool music blog by SALTYKA. As he says:

"These dudes totally rocked it VICTORIAN FUTURISTIC SPACEDUDE style. What more is there to say?? Seriously, these guys were on some whole other thing. They took part of their inspiration from the whole Parliament/Funkadelic spaceship thing, but no one could even come close to the one and only Jonzun Crew."
I have to dispute the 'Victorian' part. It's more like Louis CXXXII with the Three Musketeers in outer space. The band was Michael 'Spaceman' Jonzun, Maurice Starr, 'Gordo' Worthy, 'Stevo' Thorpe, and Princess Loria.
This photo sums up everything good about New York. Read more at SALTYKA, and definitely watch this Pack Jam video off of German television (of course). The costumes there are more sci-fi than archaeo-pop, but aren't they the same thing anyway? The past is what inspires us for the future.

06 July 2011

Ruin Porn: Greek Orphanage, Büyükada

Büyükada is one of the Prince's Islands, in the sea of Marmara just outside of Istanbul. The Büyükada Greek Orphanage (Büyükada Rum Yetimhanesi) is one of the world's largest wooden buildings, now a stunning semi-ruin. Built in the 1898-1899 by French-Turkish architect Alexandre Vallaury, it's the largest and one of the finest examples of Ottoman Beaux-Arts architecture. Vallaury, the head of the architecture department of the School of Fine Arts ("Sanayi-i Nefise Mektebi", now Mimar Sinan University), also designed the Istanbul Archaeology Museum and was a friend of Osman Hamdi Bey.

They're serious with the dogs and guards, otherwise I would have been in here in a hot second. The orphanage was used as a government building in the 1940s, and was abandoned in the 1960s. After a lengthy court battle, title to the building was returned to the Greek Orthodox patriarchate last year.

I've had trouble finding interior photos, but this one from the Turkish Forest and Environment Ministry's website gives a taste of the incredible interior decor. There's vague rumors of restoration plans, but I have trouble even imagining the expense involved.