31 March 2009

US Ratifies 1954 Hague Convention

Colleen at Antiquities Watch reports:
UNESCO and Mr. Charles Engelken, Charge d’Affairs of the United States for UNESCO announced that on March 13th, the United States became the 123rd country to ratify the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.
Read the rest here.

About time. But also about six years too late for the Iraq Museum.

By Their Shirts Shall Ye Know Them

Every profession is cursed with its share of peculiar kitsch. (I myself own a small inflatable sarcophagus.) For any group of people, the way you represent yourself to the outside world says a lot about your collective neuroses. Archaeologists for instance are a bunch of rugged, dorky, alcoholic intellectuals who use our "cowboys of science" mystique to try to get laid.

Our issues are clearly reflected in my (totally unscientific) sample of the archaeology products over at Café Press. The anxiety about sex, for instance:

Above: Sad but true.

Below: Double extra WTF. Not sure whether to be turned on or grossed out.
Then there's the overenthusiastic alcohol consumption:
"Cover your unit, put down your trowel, get out your per diem, tell your boss: IT'S BEER O'CLOCK. Archaeology is hard work." Hella nerdcore detail combined with piss-yellow foaming beer font? Disaster on many levels.

Then there's the tendency to lecture, which leads to things like this:

"I'm an ARCHAEOLOGIST. And no I don't dig up dinosaurs."

I have to admit, I get pretty tired of people who want to talk to me about dinosaurs. (My dinosaur knowledge peaked at age 9.) But seriously: don't spend the cocktail party lecturing everyone about the difference between the Triassic and the Holocene. And don't buy a t-shirt about it either.

Then there's this bumper sticker, which makes my eyes bleed AND shows the emotional sophistication of a 7 year-old:

Why is all the archaeology stuff so bad? Seriously, the ridiculous anti-Obama t-shirts have way better graphic design. Can't we find a couple grad students with Photoshop chops to make some halfway cool-looking things for us to wear?

I'll end with this, which is offensive and amusing in equal measures. Fridge magnet 100-packs only $164.99!

29 March 2009

Music to Dig By: Souxsie and the Banshees, 'Cities in Dust'

An awesome pop song about the destruction of Pompeii. The video has lots of lava, models of body molds and dancing skeletons. As a bonus prize, we also get Budgie painted white doing interpretive dance about what it's like to have hot ash fill your mouth. Goths heart old stuff. Need I say more?

27 March 2009

Hoplite Toilet Invasion

In case you thought I was exaggerating about archaeology being everywhere:

Why are there tiny hoplite warriors above the toilet? Why the Classical Greek theme in a Thai restaurant? The mysteries of the past never cease.

International Booty Battle

I can think of a lot of reasons to pay attention to international booty battles. In this case the reason is archaeological. As MSNBC reported Tuesday, treasure hunters have salvaged the Spanish warship Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, sunk by a British vessel in 1804, and carted off $500 million worth of gold and silver coins to a warehouse in Florida. When Spain discovered what was going on, they sent a warship to board and detain the salvors, led by a Greg Stemm, a bearded American with a fondness for turtlenecks.

It’s an interesting case from the legal perspective: under international law, objects carried on a merchant vessel are fair game for salvage, but those on a warship continue to belong to the nation-state. Stemm, however, argues that the coins were being carried by the warship under contract to a third party, and thus were never really government property. The case is currently in US District Court in Florida.

As usually happens when I read about archaeology in the news, the whole case degenerates into ambiguity and contradiction the more I think about it. Greg Stemm runs one of these private salvage outfits, which don’t quite merit the word ‘archaeology’ since their point is to haul up giant piles of precious metals and sell them to coin collectors. I dislike the way that salvage types hide their quest for personal enrichment under a mantle of scientific earnestness.

The government of Spain, naturally, feels aggrieved at Stemm’s discovery:
"The ship is the history and national patrimony of Spain, not a site that may be covertly stripped of valuables to sell to collectors. Odyssey was well aware that it is off limits,” said Spain’s American attorney in the case, James Goold.
This would be fine if the artifacts in this case didn’t have such a sinister side. Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes got full of silver and gold because the Spanish crown enslaved millions of Indians and worked them to death in the mines of Potosí. It is true that slavery and imperialism are major parts of Spain’s “cultural patrimony”, but what the government is appealing to is simply generic, decontextualized nationalism. Spain wants to launder dirty money through the bank of noble principles: an oblivious move at best and a cynical one at worst.

Stemm, of course, has offered to “share” the booty:
“We suggested, ‘You know what? Let’s do a split here. You should have all the cultural artifacts.’ We said, if this is a Spanish shipwreck, we think that the cultural artifacts should go to Spain. We just think we should be properly rewarded for spending the money, doing great archaeology.”
This is an amusing f-you gesture: we’ll give you the ‘cultural artifacts’ and keep the coins. This means what? Nails? Bits of wood and pottery? Some ship’s fittings? He has a good point, in that Spain wouldn’t probably give a damn about the archaeology of the wreck if $500m wasn’t involved. (I love his feeling that "great archaeology" deserves multi-million dollar payoffs. Sounds like a new lobbying agenda for AIA and SAA.)

The archaeological heritage of the ocean is vast and nearly untouched, and this case points out the need for better education and policy moves around salvage in international waters. I don’t particularly care if private interests excavate a shipwreck – especially because most governments have no plans to spend the millions of dollars required to do good underwater archaeology. But they should record their finds well and publish them in a timely way – something that I seriously doubt Stemm and his team will do. (Though I would love to be proved wrong.) It would also be much preferable to see salvors getting a percentage of the proceeds from shipwreck salvage, with the balance going to an international fund for heritage conservation.

Treasure ships like the Mercedes carried blood money from the holocaust that Spain wrought on the peoples of the Americas, and whoever recovers the money should treat it a such. My ideal solution to the legal wrangle? Stemm and Spain both take 10% of the proceeds from the ship, and the balance put into a reparations fund for development and education in indigenous communities in Latin America.

22 March 2009

Archaeology in Fiction: “Naked and Defenseless as All Dead Things”

Fast forward to Earth, billions of years in the future. The resources of the world have been used and reused, and the sun itself is dying. Severian, the protagonist and narrator, flees from his pursuers by climbing down an eroded cliff-face:
In Saltus, where Jonas and I stayed for a few days and where I performed the second and third public decollations of my career, the miners rape the soil of metals, building stones, and even artifacts laid down by civilizations forgotten for chiliads before the Wall of Nessus ever rose. This they do by narrow shafts bored into the hillsides until they strike some rich layer of ruins, or even (if the tunnelers are particularly fortunate) a building that has preserved some part of its structure so that it serves them as a gallery already made.

What was done with so much labor there might have been accomplished on the cliff I descended with almost none. The past stood at my shoulder, naked and defenseless as all dead things, as though it were time itself that had been laid open by the fall of the mountain. Fossil bones protruded from the surface in places, the bones of mighty animals and of men. The forest had set its own dead there as well…

At one point, only slightly less than halfway down, the line of the fault had coincided with the tiled wall of some great building, so that the windy path I trod slashed across it. What the design was those tiles traced, I never knew; as I descended the cliff I was too near to see it, and when I reached base at last it was too high for me to discern, lost in the shifting mists of the falling river.
- Gene Wolfe, The Sword of the Lictor

Gene Wolfe’s four-volume Book of the New Sun is a fun read for the classicist – his forest of Greek and Latin neologisms (like “chiliad”, for 1,000 years) give the story an air of strange antiquity, and a good excuse to bust out Lidell and Scott to track down his more obscure coinages. According to the author, the books are a ‘translation from a language which has not yet come into existence’, just one of many ways Wolfe hints that time is not a linear as it seems.

In this world, geology and archaeology are not much different. A giant cliff is made of archaeological deposits; the earth itself is a gigantic archaeological site. There is no wilderness, nowhere that people have not lived or touched, no difference between natural and cultural landscape. (The concept of ‘natural landscape’ is an oxymoron anyhow, since the idea of ‘landscape’ is a cultural construct – but that’s another discussion.)

I like this passage because it captures something very real about how we experience ruins. We get a glimpse of some fragment as we pass through. We know there’s a pattern there, some larger story, but can’t quite put it together no matter how much we puzzle over it. At the same time, much of its power is in its fragmentary state, the fact that the ruin is a tangent from another world. A bit of four-dimensional geometry that breaks up the fabric of time, and shocks us out of our assumptions about our surroundings.

Wolfe describes the past as “naked and defenseless”, and in a sense it is. Archaeologists have had to grapple much less with the politics of their discipline – and especially its colonialist and imperialist baggage – because our subjects are dead and cannot resist us when we speak for them. Yet at the same time, ruins destabilize our present, and force us to account for their unexpected presence at our shoulder. That’s the contradiction of archaeology: it is a way of orienting and rooting ourselves, but it is also the source of disorientation and confusion. We resolve it with stories about the past, but under those stories are material things that will never tell us whether our tales are right or wrong.

18 March 2009

Celebrity Cribs: Abandoned Edition

Between the economic downturn and the vicissitudes of celebrity life, there’s been a lot of news about abandoned buildings lately, including lots of examples of creative reuses of urban landscapes. (The Foreclosed Backyards National Skate Park, anyone?)

Downturns hit the rich and famous, too. As a delightful side effect, we get to see the very beginnings of the archaeological process at work in a few now-abandoned cribs of powerful people. These houses provoke a rich set of feelings: voyeuristic pleasure, combined with the beauty of decay, and the poignancy of a fall from grace.

Take Mike Tyson’s mansion in the Firelands of northern Ohio. The TV is busted, the indoor pool green and scummy. For some reason I’m reminded of touring a medieval keep somewhere in Ireland – the same sense of exotic opulence and privilege, now emptied of its power and open to prying eyes. Tyson's lawyer made Illicit Ohio take down their full photoset, but there's lots of copies floating around the web.

Fergie’s former palatial manse in Berkshire (this is the non-singing Duchess (of York), and the English Berkshire) now lies in not-so-picturesque ruins, with some photos courtesy of the intrepid reporters at the Daily Mirror. What a hideous carpet.

The granddaddy of them all, and by far the most bizarre and breathtaking, is Michael Jackson’s former home at Neverland. Stop what you’re doing right now and spend some time looking at my friend Tunnelbug’s story and photos from the place. Astonishing how it is beautiful and totally insane at the same time.

It seems pretty unlikely that these structures will be preserved as well as the great celebrity cribs of the past – our modern mania for tearing down and rebuilding makes the chances pretty slim that Neverland will be the new Domus Aurea or Masada for some lucky archaeologist in 4009 CE. I guess we'll just ahve to imagine those future ruins into being.

17 March 2009

Bishop Laments Unemployment for Archaeologists

A stimulus program I can agree with, from Religious Intelligence:
The Anglican Bishop of Rochester has called on the British Government to continue to promote the work of British archaeologists abroad during the recession.

Peers in the House of Lords warned ministers that one in five of the 6,500 professional archaeologists in work last year have lost their job in the past six months because of the downturn in the building industry.

Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali asked at question time in the Lords: “Are the Government continuing to promote the valuable work of British archaeologists abroad, especially in the Holy Land and the Middle East generally?”
20% is a pretty steep number, but not implausible given how much the cultural resources management (CRM) industry is dependent on construction (quite the devil's bargain, if you ask me). Anyone know whether CRM work is upticking in anticipation of stimulus money?

James Cuno Wants to Party Like It's 1899

Some yellow rag called Science News just put up this op-ed from James Cuno, director of the Art Institute of Chicago, in which he advocates the abolition of the 1970 UNESCO treaty, the return of the colonial-era partage system, and removal of restrictions on museums purchasing looted antiquities. Cuno is flogging his new book, Who Owns Antiquities?, and has also recently appeared on WBUR Boston promoting his views. (Disclaimer: I have not yet read the book.)

Let me take a break from my head exploding and eyes popping out of my head to explain the jargony stuff:
  • The 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property is the basic international law dealing with looted artifacts. Put simply, it says that before you can buy an artifact or work of art, you have to a) have evidence that it was legally exported from its country of origin, or b) was publicly known prior to the convention entering into force.
  • ‘Partage’ refers to the old custom of divvying up antiquities found on excavation sites between the excavator and the host government – I get to pick one, you get to pick one, and so on. As soon as countries like Egypt or Turkey got out from under the thumb of the European powers, they got rid of this system and passed laws keeping all artifacts found in their country.
Resuming my head explosion, we return to the op-ed, which for some reason is disguised as an interview. The opening header says what his critique is really about: ‘treaty on antiquities hinders access for museums’. Already we can tell that Cuno is more interested in getting goodies for his museum than he is in stopping looting.

He relies on some familiar but weak arguments, like the notion that the 1970 UNESCO treaty has not eliminated looting, and that looting is inevitable. This is an old saw trotted out by people who want to make it easier to buy illicit antiquities. Laws, by themselves, don't do anything - the real conversation has to be about effective enforcement and harm reduction. The Convention on the Trade in Endangered Species has not stopped people killing tigers or rhinos – does that mean we should get rid of it, and go buy us some tiger skins? (For ‘research’, of course.)

Moving on to the downright offensive, Cuno argues that modern nation-states are not direct descendants of ancient peoples, so they don’t have any right to control artifacts of ancient cultures on their territory.

Talk about glass houses. For centuries, European and American collectors and museums plundered and stole everything they could get their hands on to build their collections – which is why the Parthenon Marbles are in London and the bust of Nefertiti in Berlin. These artifacts were acquired to feed the nationalist ambitions of European nations. For Europeans or Americans to turn around and complain about nationalism when it doesn’t suit their interests is – how to put it politely? – ironic. Cuno fantasizes about a return to the good old days when white guys in pith helmets and knee socks got to decide who should own the world's antiquities. Thankfully, those days are not coming back.

He closes with a whopper: partage is “the only reasonable way to protect the legacy of antiquities and promote a global understanding of what they represent”. Let’s be real here. Partage is a symbol of colonial domination. Egypt is likelier to invite the Israelis back into Sinai than to adopt this system again. But beyond that, it’s a bullshit argument. We can all think of a dozen successful exhibitions of antiquities that have toured the world to great acclaim, with support of the governments that own them. There is a new trend toward bi-lateral agreements that could make such loans easier and more frequent: the US and Italy just made a deal to allow more Italian art and artifacts to come to the US, in return for the a crackdown on the import of illicit antiquities. These are reasonable ways of promoting global understanding. Dispersing finds around the world to feed the ego of museum directors, not so much.

It’s annoying to hear vapid ideas from an intelligent man. But more frustrating than that is that comments like Cuno’s are a distraction from the real conversations we need to be having – archaeologists and collectors alike – about what to do about the looting issue. There is an ongoing demand for antiquities, while some countries have a huge surplus of artifacts that languish in warehouses for decades. A regulated, licit antiquities market could quell demand for looted artifacts while providing cash where it is needed for conservation. By the same token, the nation-state sometimes plays a negative role in cultural heritage issues. But what we need is a nuanced discussion in an atmosphere of respect, not the self-interested musings of a frustrated would-be collector.

In deense of Science News, they’ve also published a good article profiling recent research on looting by Morag Kersel, Christina Luke, and others. I should also give a nod to some fellow archaeology bloggers. Paul Barford has his own comments on the Cuno article and recent tightening of Egyptian laws. Derek Fincham notes the importance of openness and transparency in the antiquities trade, something which collectors avoid like plague-ridden vampires. Finally, David Gill points out that we need to look at ethics as well as expediency in our approach to the looting issue.

15 March 2009

Vampire Burial in Venice

New Scientist reported the discovery last week of the burial of a suspected vampire. Matteo Borrini of the University of Florence found this female skeleton on Lazzaretto Nuovo island in Venice, in a mass burial of plague victims. It was believed that vampires were responsible for helping spread the disease by chewing on their shrouds after death. Bricking up the mouth of the corpse was intended to stop this.

Borrini claims this is the first grave to show evidence of exorcism against vampires. I'm no expert, but that seems to be stretching it. The Bronze Age site of Mikelovice in eastern Bohemia recently yielded a 4,000-year old burial who had been weighed down with large stones to prevent his returning as a revenant - a vampire-fighting custom known from historical contexts in other Celtic cultures. Ahtzib over at Small Things Found also has a nice roundup of studies on the archaeology of vampires, if you crave a little more undeadness to go with your excavations. Can't blame Borrini for enjoying his 15 minutes of fame, but it would be nice if us archaeologists didn't try so often to obliterate other evidence in the interest of getting credit for that "first discovery".

Music to Dig By: This Heat, ‘SPQR’

This Heat are/were an experimental music group from Brixton. Formed in 1975, they bridge the gap between progressive rock, punk, and post-punk. I love their angular, confrontational industrial sound.

Download: This Heat, 'SPQR'

‘SPQR’* uses Rome and its icons (straight roads, slavery, and Romulus’ betrayal of his brother) as metaphors for our own modern imperial obsessions. The whole album brims with anger and fear of Cold War nuclear annihilation. In 3.5 minutes, the song exposes the cruelty and deceit underlying Rome’s empire more honestly than anything I got in years of Classics courses.

From the Youtubes: a cool fan video for the song, using footage from a 1930s attempt to film 'I Claudius', starring Charles Laughton.

*SPQR, for ‘The Senate and People of Rome’ is the official motto of the city of Rome, then and now.

11 March 2009

Geronimo's Skull

The New York Times reported on February 19 that descendents of Apache leader Geronimo (Goyathlay) filed suit in Federal court against Skull and Bones, demanding the return of his skull on the 100th anniversary of his death. Rumor has long held that the Yale secret society holds Geronimo’s skull and uses it in the quasi-occult rituals held in its clubhouse, called the Tomb. Allegedly, the bones were looted from Geronimo’s grave at Fort Sill, Oklahoma around 1918 by Prescott Bush (the father of George H.W. Bush and grandfather of W). This seems to be confirmed by a letter discovered in 2005, which describes the skull in New Haven as having been excavated in Fort Sill, along with two bones and some horse tack.

The case seems fairly cut-and-dried. Lineal descendants of a great Native American leader want his stolen remains returned from an odious, elitist occult society that produced such wretched specimens as George Bush and John Kerry. Hard to imagine anyone having a problem with that.

However! The complaint, filed by former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark, also names President Obama and Defense Secretary Gates, and asks not only for whatever bones may be in New Haven, but for the exhumation of Geronimo’s grave at Fort Sill and the reburial of his remains in the Gila Wilderness. This request raises the specter of intratribal politics. Jeff Houser, Chairman of the Fort Sill Apache Tribe, insists that the grave be left where it is, whether or not the body is complete.

So, who does Geronimo really belong to? The descendants? The Apache generally? To Native Americans? To the place where he died? To the United States as a whole? All of these groups have a claim in one way or another, and the sensationalism around Skull and Bones is a distraction from the real question.

The appearance of Ramsey Clark as attorney for the plaintiffs flags this case with a political agenda that extends beyond a simple family affair. Clark, leader of a cult-like Communist group and an enthusiastic apologist for characters like Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic, doesn’t do anything these days unless he thinks it contributes to anti-imperialism and world revolution. Implicit in his role, and in the tenor of the complaint, is a desire to secure justice not only for the descendants of Goyathlay, but for the oppressed people of the world more generally.

Supporters of the cause certainly draw this connection (along with many others). A petition circulating online demands the return of the skull and decries Skull and Bones as an organization full of “satanic theatricism and latent homosexuality”, “elitist, racist witchcraft”, and connections to Nazism and the Bavarian Illuminati. Many of the almost 9,000 signatories point out how the case is symbolic to them of larger historical injustices against Native peoples.

One frustrating thing about the case is the lack of hard evidence. Skull and Bones, of course, neither confirm nor deny. Some historians insist that Geronimo’s grave was not robbed in 1918, and no one has exhumed the body to see. It seems likely that Prescott Bush dug up a grave at Fort Sill, but there is no proof it was Geronimo’s. Inclusion of Skull and Bones in the demand for repatriation is solely based on hearsay.

But like most archaeological controversies in the news, whatever empirical truths might lie behind the case have very little to do with how the public understands the issue. The story is the compelling thing. The elitist white secret society practicing occult rituals with the bones of a great Native leader? This is a metaphor that precisely captures very real historical truths. Secretive, cynical, exploitative, obsessed with death: this has been indigenous peoples’ experience with whites for 500 years and more. People much like the Bonesmen were the ringleaders in the genocide of Native Americans. The story is true in some fundamental sense, regardless of the empirical facts of the case.

So, what role for the archaeologist here? A decent excavation at Fort Sill could resolve the question of whether the grave was robbed in the first place, but this is a technical process, which could only happen after the political questions behind the case were resolved. What is missing here, as in many archaeological stories that come into the news, is a role for the scholar of the past in telling a story that captures the contemporary imagination. To command the public eye, archaeologists and historians need to find ways of giving our stories about the past a moral dimension and a kind of poetry that goes past the simply empirical.

Archaeology in Fiction: “A New Race of Beachcombers”

A white convertible approached, the driver flashing his headlamps as I stepped from my car. I stumbled, my right knee giving way after the effort of driving. At my feet lay a litter of dead leaves, cigarette cartons, and glass crystals. These fragments of broken safety glass, brushed to one side by generations of ambulance attendants, lay in a small drift. I stared down at this dusty necklace, the debris of a thousand automobile accidents. Within fifty years, as more and more cars collided here, the glass fragments would form a sizable bar, within thirty years a beach of sharp crystal. A new race of beachcombers might appear, squatting on these heaps of fractured windshields, sifting them for cigarette butts, spent condoms and loose coins. Buried beneath this new geological layer laid down by the age of the automobile accident would be my own small death, as anonymous as a vitrified scar in a fossil tree.
- J.G. Ballard, Crash
Crash captures both the loneliness and perverse excitements of the modern automotive landscape. In this passage, Ballard gives us a profound truth about archaeology: lives and deaths are tiny anonymous things that get lost in heaps of mundane garbage. In the end, all that’s left of a person’s life is the waste they deposit, which can be read by an archaeologist to create a kind of rough analog doppelganger. (There’s a strange implication here, that littering is a profound act of historic preservation – and a route to immortality.)

Ballard tries to push past this conundrum with characters who make their automobiles into extensions of their bodies, and fuse their sexuality with the crushing and twisting of their metal frames. An amusingly literal take on theoretical approaches to the archaeology of the body: not only can we can find traces of gender, sexuality, and physical experience in the archaeological record, but now we have the notion of a whole stratigraphic layer that is nothing but durable, material traces of sexual experiences. A new category of human remains?

03 March 2009

Cai Mingchao: Civil Disobedience at Christie's

Today’s news from the antiquities trade involves a fashion designer, the Opium Wars, Jackie Chan, political blackmail, and a creative act of civil disobedience. The biggest private art auction in world history concluded in Paris at Christie’s last Wednesday, as the collection of fashion designers Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé sold for $484.6 million (the catalogue alone ran 1,800 pages).

The biggest stir was caused by an anonymous telephone bidder who purchased two Qing dynasty bronze fountainheads for $20 million each. The heads were among a dozen looted in October 1860 by from Beijing’s Old Summer Palace by Anglo-French troops during the Second Opium War. The palace was stripped of artwork prior to its destruction on the orders of Lord Elgin, then British High Commissioner to China. (And, ironically, son of the Elgin of Parthenon Marbles fame). Since the Christie’s sale was announced, the Chinese government has been demanding the return of the bronzes as stolen property. Actor Jackie Chan was quoted in the Times Online as saying “They remain looted items, no matter whom they were sold to. Whoever took it out [of China] is himself a thief. It was looting yesterday. It is still looting today.”

Cai Mingchao reads his statement (Photo Brothersoft).

The mystery bidder was revealed today as Cai Mingchao, a Shanghai collector and dealer and consultant for China’s National Treasure Fund, a government organization which purchases looted and stolen relics on behalf of the state. There was, however, a catch: Cai declared that he has no intention of paying for the heads, and that he placed the bid in order to sabotage the auction. He excused his action as an act of patriotic civil disobedience: "every Chinese would have done the same as I did. It's just that I got the opportunity. I have fulfilled my duty." He also noted that because the Chinese government had deemed the sale illegal, he would not have been able to take delivery of the heads within China anyhow.

While it is unclear whether Cai’s scuttling of the auction was in any way sanctioned by the Chinese government, it fits with the tenor of its recent statements. The French decision to allow sale of the bronzes caused “serious damage to Chinese people's cultural rights, interests and national sentiments,” according to the China State Administration of Cultural Heritage.

On the surface, it is easy to admire Cai Mingchao for risking his reputation as a dealer and collector in pursuit of historical justice. Among the more repulsive episodes in European colonialism, the Opium Wars were fought to defend unregulated narco-trafficking in China by government-sponsored British and French cartels. Beijing’s Summer Palace was looted and burned as a gesture of revenge, and Chinese still smart from the humiliation.

I am generally sympathetic toward repatriation demands. I also see how useful civil disobedience at auctions could be as a strategy for derailing the sale of obviously looted antiquities. (I have heard of other examples, which I will track down for a different post.) Some further context, however, makes the story a little murkier. Of the original twelve heads, five are missing and five are back in China, making the two YSL heads the only two left on the market. While they are interesting and significant as artifacts, they are not particularly ancient. Nor they even particularly important compared to other looted Chinese treasures floating around the antiquities market. And China already owns most of the extant pieces! I suspect the government has chosen to pursue these particular artifacts in order to whip up nationalist and anti-colonialist sentiment both at home and to sympathetic audiences abroad.

The play of meaning around these artifacts is fascinating. While they were clearly collected by Bergé and Saint Laurent as pure objets d’art, no one involved in the auction pretends that they are only that. Cai and the Chinese government have made them into patriotic symbols, while Bergé used them to snub China with a facile statement about human rights. According to the Daily Telegraph, Bergé offered to give China the heads in return for human rights concessions:

"I acquired them and I am completely protected by the law, so what the Chinese are saying is a bit ridiculous," he said. "But I am prepared to offer this bronze head to the Chinese straight away.

“All they have to do is to declare they are going to apply human rights, give the Tibetans back their freedom and agree to accept the Dalai Lama on their territory.

"If they do that, I would be very happy to go myself and bring these two Chinese heads to put them in the Summer Palace in Beijing. It's obviously blackmail but I accept that."

The amount of real charity behind this “offer” is, of course, nil. As Bergé surely knows, this particular piece of “obvious blackmail” had a 100% chance of strongly offending the Chinese government and zero chance of success. His gesture has the odor of colonialist smugness: the uppity natives might be allowed to have their baubles back if they meet the rational demands of the white man. But of course they won’t because, after all, they’re not very civilized, now are they, old chap?

It is important, however, that Bergé acknowledges, in principle, that the heads are not simply art objects. Dealers in stolen antiquities often insist that the value of the objects is truly to be found in their inner aesthetic aura, so that their lack of provenance (and the destroyed archaeological sites the looters leave behind), are unimportant. This case exposes a revealing chink in the armor of that argument.

Link roundup:

Portfolio on the auction
Portfolio on Cai's announcement
The story in the Times Online
Danwei on Cai
The Daily Telegraph on Bergé's "offer"
Some AP photos of the bronzes

02 March 2009

The Pleasure of Ruins in Chongyecheon, Seoul

Some weeks ago, The Vigorous North posted this scarcely believable article about a river in the center of Seoul. Once covered by two 10-lane freeway decks, it has now been daylighted and turned into a delightful urban park. (The mayor who made this happen either has giant political cojones, or automotive politics is quite different in Korea.)

However, traces of the highway were left standing in the middle of the new park, as a reminder of the past:

This gesture has such a delicate aesthetic. The pillars of the former freeway remind us of the past in the midst of a radical change in the urban landscape. It takes restraint to leave traces of an undesirable past for future generations. I think they achieved a nice balance here.

I can't imagine such a thing happening in the United States. Most green-minded folks carry around a lot of guilt and self-righteousness about the freeways that are the signature monuments of our civilization, and would gleefully eradicate them without a backward glance.

The whole project raises some interesting questions about authenticity, archaeology, and place. When you daylight a historic river like the Chongyecheon, is it still the same stream in an existential sense? Are the ruined pillars of the highway archaeological monuments? The architects chose the shape and location of ruins, but they are still physical evidence of past land uses. They sit in a fascinating grey area between the archaeological site and the architectural folly.

Antiquity: Non-Stop

Welcome to Archaeopop, a blog about archaeology, popular culture, and the antiquities trade.

This is what we aim for. Spotted in the Washington, DC Metro on Inauguration Day 2009.