26 April 2009

More Cuno in the NY Review of Books

Last month I wrote about James Cuno, director of the Chicago Institute of Art, who is on a quixotic quest to abolish nation-states' control of antiquities in order to allow museums like his to buy more artifacts, regardless of their provenience.

In this week's New York Review of Books, Hugh Eakin offers an in-depth, nuanced, and I think fair critique of Cuno's recent work. A couple highlights:
For Cuno, the disjuncture between modern states and the civilizations of the distant past exposes a central flaw in the concept of cultural property. For if the correlation is arbitrary, he maintains, so must also be the laws in archaeological countries that give the state control of ancient art found within their borders...

[But] rather than a threat to the cosmopolitan ideal... the new détente between foreign governments and American museums should be seen as an essential step in confronting the urgent problem of the destruction of archaeological sites. For the most crucial challenge is not the aggressive nationalism of some countries or the voracious appetites of some museums: it is the disappearance of the ancient past so coveted by both.
Read the rest!

23 April 2009

MySims: Looting Enabled

GameSpot reports that new versions of Electronic Arts' kid-focused MySims franchise for the Nintendo DS and Wii will have looting archaeological sites as a feature of gameplay:
On the Wii, MySims Agents will play similarly to a traditional adventure game. Assuming the role of a MySims special agent, players attempt to unlock the mystery behind the nefarious doings of Morcubus, the leader of an underground crime syndicate. Players will be aided in their task by a variety of MySims characters as they perform detective work such as picking locks, hacking computers, and stalking persons of interest. MySims Agents also lets players plunder ancient ruins for antiquities with which to decorate their headquarters.

The DS edition of MySims Agents will feature a similar theme as its Wii counterpart, in which players must thwart the efforts of a ne'er-do-well who has been plundering ancient ruins in search of antiquities. Though EA did not delve into specifics of gameplay, the publisher did say that the DS game will offer 10 different minigames and a variety of interactions with MySims characters.
This is just a teaser press release, so it's hard to say what's going on exactly, but it sounds like the Wii is working the dark side while the DS version keeps it real. Regardless, a lot of kids are going to be learning about looting issues through these games.

A screenshot from the Wii version, from videogamer.com. Looks like some classic Indiana Jones-style temple looting is about to occur.

Now, I don't want to get into Tipper Gore mode here and be the morality police for videogames. The idea of looting some temples is undeniably kinda fun, whether we like to admit it or not. Videogames are also exactly the place where kids should be misbehaving and doing crazy, illegal, and violent things.

On the other hand, archaeology needs to be reaching out to game designers and offering them resources beyond this "fake Maya temple with big gold idol" kind of stuff. Where's the plan to influence the industry our way?

19 April 2009

Bad Signage: Maui

I swear, the only thing worse than archaeology t-shirts is the signs they put up to "help" the visitor find and understand archaeological sites. This is the beginning of a regular feature where we name and shame some ostentatiously bad archaeological signage.
Ancient burial airport, anyone? Spotted in Wai‘anapanapa State Park, Maui, Hawai'i.

Ruin of the Day: The Theodosian Walls of Istanbul

TV dish mounted on the Theodosian walls, built between 408 and 413 AD.

This is one of the funnest places in Istanbul - the whole area of the walls is full of gypsy encampments, market gardens, huge fig trees bursting through ancient towers, lovers sneaking off into the bushes, lurking drunk guys, and parts of the wall repurposed as storage sheds, auto workshops, squatter camps, and (above) satellite dish mounts. The walk from Yedikule up to Topkapi or (better!) the old Blachernae Palace on the Golden Horn makes a sweet day trip.

17 April 2009

Music to Dig By: Egyptian Lover, 'Egypt Egypt'

Afrocentric archaeology is an amazing subject and frankly deserves a blog or three all by itself. Many white folks pooh-pooh the notion that ancient Egypt is a part of Black and African history. But Europeans claim all kinds of preposterous things about how they’re the spiritual heirs of the ancient Greeks, without the slightest hint of irony. Serious people even think the Elgin Marbles should stay in London!

The point is, it’s just plain fun to appropriate the past, especially when it gets you in with The Ladies. So when a DJ from LA with extremely smooooth ways wants to become “The Egyptian Lover”, I’ll just chill out and go along for the ride.

Download: Egyptian Lover - 'Egypt, Egypt' (1984)
"Pyramids are Oh so shiny
The women here are Oh so cute
The freaks are on the floor now
Dancing to beats that I compute"
This is a stone cold classic electro jam, no way around it. It has my two favorite things, 80s futurism and mysterious archaeological references, all together in one package. Buy the album “On The Nile” here.

Egyptian Lover was part of the early 1980s west coast electro and hiphop scene, hanging with the likes of Ice T, Arabian Prince, and Dr Dre. In this 1983 nugget from the YouTubes, Chris “The Glove” Taylor explains how to cut and scratch while Egyptian Lover spins and Ice-T raps.

Egyptian Lover’s been on tour lately, and his shows are supposed to be pretty good. He also gives funny interviews, check out the ones at West Coast Pioneers. (He claims 'Egypt Egypt' took him 30 minutes to create!)

I can’t write about the Egyptian Lover without mentioning his most incredible contribution to our understanding of LGBT issues. Click here, you won’t regret it.

13 April 2009

Library of Dust: Panel Tonight @ NYU

I really, really, wish I could go to this event at NYU tonight. David Maisel's Library of Dust is deeply moving and profoundly archaeological:

Library of Dust depicts individual copper canisters, each containing the cremated remains of patient from a state-run psychiatric hospital. The patients died at the hospital between 1883 (the year the facility opened, when it was called the Oregon State Insane Asylum) and the 1970’s; their bodies have remained unclaimed by their families.

The vestiges of paper labels with the names of the dead, the etching of the copper, and the intensely hued colors of the blooming minerals combine to individuate the canisters. These deformations sometimes evoke the celestial - the Northern Lights, the moons of some alien planet, or constellations in the night sky.

There are certainly physical and chemical explanations for the ways these canisters have transformed over time. Perhaps the canisters, however, also encourage us to consider what happens to our own bodies when we die, and, further, what may happen to our souls. Matter lives on when the body vanishes, even when it has been incinerated to ash by an institutional methodology. Is it possible that some form of spirit lives on as well?

Maisel's work meticulously documents material physical objects and the way time has transformed them. And he does it without rejecting their aesthetic and spiritual power, or their ability to tell us stories about who we are in this moment. To me, that's the essence of good archaeological practice.

07 April 2009

Lego Archaeology by Carly Whelan

I've never met Carly Whelan, but she's already made me a very happy man with this Flickr photoset. Painstaking accuracy? Check. Runaway cuteness? Double check.

"Test Pit":
"The Site":
Love the stratigraphic profile!


More here!

04 April 2009

Music to Dig By: The B-52s, 'Mesopotamia' (1982)

From the EP of the same name, released in 1982 and produced by David Byrne. Peaked at #35 in the Billboard 200. Perhaps the only pop song dropping references to the Code of Hammurabi? Not sure what the pyramids and hieroglyphics are doing here though.

"There's a whole lotta ruins/In Mesopotamia"

A live version from 1990 with excellent arm-swinging-dancing from Cindy:

This song has a trendy afterlife: Last year Diplo threw it on his Top Ranking Santogold mix, which was the soundtrack to my life back in August. (Download it free at Music Like Dirt). Lupe Fiasco also uses some bits of 'Mesopotamia' on 'He Say She Say' (off of Food and Liquor).

Ruin of the Day

I came across this lovely ruin last fall, while riding my bicycle from Washington to Philadelphia. I like how the lawn around it is lovingly groomed.

01 April 2009

Gladiator School

Apparently, the historical reenactment bug has spread back in time to Imperial Rome. You can now go to gladiator school:
During your two-hour lesson, your gladiator instructor will teach you how to fight with authentic weapons used by the gladiators of ancient Rome. Lessons are organized and led by members of the Historic Group of Rome who specialize in the re-enactment of Roman life and gladiatorial combat.

Don't miss this opportunity to re-create Roman history and life as a gladiator. Dressed in a traditional gladiator tunic, belt, leather protective glove and rudis (training sword), you can let your imagination run wild as you play like Spartacus for a day, fighting off ferocious lions and sword-wielding warriors!
The New York Times profiled a similar gladiator school some years back, making it sound a little more, ah, disciplined:
The first lesson at the gladiator school of the Roman Historical Society stressed discipline. "You are slaves, and that is how I will treat you," Giuseppe Coluzzi, 32, barked at eight adults fidgeting in short white togas...
I admit, this sounds like a ridiculous amount of fun. And, this being April and all, I can't help but think that it's probably tax deductible. For me at least.

My favorite part of the Times article is where they speculate on why Italians are not so into historical reenactment:

Unlike American Civil War buffs who rigorously re-enact the Battle of Gettysburg or Manassas, Italians are not known for an obsession with dressing up and reliving past wars. Italy's somewhat concise history of modern battlefield victories could be one reason.

What a charming way of saying that the Italian army sucks. Don't tell Oronzo.

Thanks to Kimie for the tip!