27 November 2009

Hercules in New York

I was stuck in a hotel in the LA burbs recently and found myself watching Conan the Barbarian, which was an incredibly satisfying experience. A little snooping around Arnold's oeuvre, however, turned up something even better.

Hercules in New York (1970) is about exactly what it sounds like it's about. Hercules keeps whining about how boring Olympus is, and gets thunderbolted down to earth by Zeus. Cue hilarious cultural misunderstandings, gratitous mythology references, and thrilling strongman hijinks!

Arnold Schwarzenegger
(billed as 'Arnold Strong') plays Hercules, in his first ever feature film. Hercules gets picked up in the ocean by some sailors, who promptly get their asses kicked when they try to keep him from going ashore. He immediately acquires a shrimpy Jewish sidekick named 'Pretzie' (comedian Arnold Stang), who takes Herc under his wing and shows him the town.

What takes this film from classical blah to insanely good is Arnold's bad language skills and total lack of acting talent. He was only 21 and his gigantic chest - bare for a lot of the film - looks buttery. His delivery is accompanied by a vacant look that makes you wonder if he even understands his lines, while Pretzie overacts like crazy, doing the Don Knotts bug-eye schtick. Pretzie's supposed to be the funny guy, and Hercules the straight man, but it ends up being the other way around: the googly eyes and slapstick moves fall flat, while Arnold's bad lines, worse delivery, and random classical mythology references left me in hysterics.

Check out the highlight reel, it'll be the best 2.5 minutes you'll spend today.

There's fights with sailors! Bear wrestling in Central Park! Improbable romance! A bunch of preppies get schooled at javelin throwing! Nemesis comes looking for the missing Olympian! Okay, enough spoilers. You can watch the whole thing here on Hulu, though sadly they have the lame version with the Austrian accent dubbed over (also very weird, but not as funny). The Netflix disc has both versions though.

Can I drive your chariot, baby?

25 November 2009

The Ara Pacis in Color

It's a little-known fact that the iconic white Classical colonnade is a historical fraud. Ancient Greeks and Romans (and before them the Lydians, Persians, and Egyptians) loved color and used it liberally on public buildings, especially vivid blues and reds. The overall effect was more like an Indian temple than one of these cold white neoclassical museums or libraries you see everywhere. 

La Reppublica has a great photo gallery showing Augustus' Ara Pacis (Altar of Peace) in what might plausibly be the original colors. The difference in the way you experience the building is shocking after a lifetime of plain white Classical sculpture (but in a good way!).

The Ara Pacis was commissioned by the Roman Senate in 13 BC to celebrate Augustus' victories and the end of decades of civil war. Its vision of peace, piety, and fertility marks the high-water mark of Augustan art and served as effective propaganda for the new Imperial order. (See lots of detail of the sculpture here.)

Classicists and archaeologists have known that ancient buildings and sculpture were brightly painted for at least 200 years. But the fact that the whole aesthetic of "Greek purity" was totally fake was too embarrassing to 19th century archaeologists, who were weaned on the stuff, so they pretended the evidence didn't exist. Fortunately, there's a new generation of scholars doing groundbreaking work on ancient architectural color (including my friend Alex Nagel, who passed the link along - thanks Alex!). 

This research has led to mind-altering results, like this reconstruction of an archer on the pediment of the wonderful archaic temple of Aphaia - hideous, but in a really interesting way.

This stuff makes the ancient Greeks much more interesting to me than the race of ethereal white aliens we're used to seeing in the art history books. Check out the Wikicommons gallery of images from the Munich Glyptothek's 2004 Bunte Götter (Painted Gods) exhibition to have your mind even more fully blown. (Check out the book, too, it's probably in your local university library.)

24 November 2009

Constantinople 1453

I’ve been digging this great preview that reimagines the conquest of Istanbul/Constantinople with Mehmet the Conqueror and the Turkish army as the heroes. Funding to actually make the whole movie doesn’t exist yet, from what I understand, but it’s a nice proof of concept and looks awesome to boot. It's interesting to see the Ottomans as protagonists - it goes against a lot of cultural programming that Europeans and Americans get of the Turk as the sinister enemy of civilization. Personally, I think of the Ottomans as the last dynasty of the Roman Empire.*

Not to be missed is the hysterically funny nationalist flame war in the comments section, mostly revolving around off-color gay jokes and racial slurs. Check out these literary gems:
"greeks invented sex but turks introduced it to woman"

"Muslim monkeys , go home to Asia. Constantinopolis will be GREEK again, no matter you-gay turks  want this or not!"

"Just coz u got Europe on ur back does that mean u can act like a super force? Ur army contains of greek cobans, centaurs, elfs, trolls and probably other greek gay mythical creatures."
Nice that history is so relevant in the present day, right? Right?

*Fun fact: Mehmet II (the Conqueror) took the title Kaysar-i-Rum (Caesar of Rome) after the conquest, and the Ottoman Sultans used it as a title right up until 1923.

Conservation with LEGO

This was posted on Boing Boing last year. It’s still awesome. My architect friends will no doubt be busy revising their opinions on suitable material for patching ancient walls.

Jan Vormann

A full gallery of interventions is here!

23 November 2009

Monday Not-Quite-News Roundup

2012 Shocker
This just in from the LA Times: apocalyptic disaster movie 2012 might not be based in sound archaeological evidence!
Canadian archaeologist Kathryn Reese-Taylor... says the translation of the text essentially says that something will occur on Dec. 21, 2012 and that it will be similar to something that occurred on another date in the past. "At no point do any of the Maya texts actually prophesize the end of the world," she said.
But what's this picture about then?

Shelby rules, but facts are like, so hard!
There’s a new exhibition of Neolithic artifacts at the NYU Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, sponsored by the famous/infamous Shelby White. The Baltimore Sun is on the scene with a reporter who fawns over White (just ‘Shelby’ to her friends), who with her late husband Leon Levy came to be known as much for their naked enthusiasm for stolen antiquities as much as for their philanthropy. The author also freely insults one of her sources as “long-winded” and “pontificating” because her descriptions of the exhibit actually include some information about its historical context. Moral of the article: old stuff is pretty, but facts are hard and boring!

The White Man's burden
While we’re the in comedy section, let’s check out the latest defense of James Cuno’s proposal to bring back partage, from John Tierney in the New York Times.

Tierney starts out complaining about Zahi Hawass’ belief that the Rosetta Stone is Egyptian (!?), and recycles the old orientalist argument that the Egyptians don’t really deserve to own it because they weren’t sufficiently interested in antiquity back in 1799. He derides governments like Turkey, Egypt, or Italy as and incompetent and ‘protectionist’, and veers headlong into the old stereotypes of the ignorant, grasping, swarthy Oriental, who doesn’t know how to appreciate the past like the White Man does.

Can I get a ride home? (Victor Koen/NYT)

As usual, all the fuss about ‘openness’ is really the collector and curator's veiled resentment about having to ask nicely to borrow the treasures of the ancient world, instead of being able just to take what they want, whenever they want it. If Tierney or Cuno really cared about the free exchange of ideas, they’d get behind efforts to expand artifact loans, as Italy has done recently. I wish these guys would just focus on bringing back the fun parts of colonialist archaeology, like gin tonics, pith helmets, and khaki shorts with spats.

A kinder, gentler Orientalism (villagehatshop.com).

14 November 2009

Riding Anatolia with Evliya Çelebi


From Ottoman historian Caroline Finkel comes news of a horseback reenactment of the itinerary of a great early modern traveler (via H-Turk):
This is to announce that the first phase of the Evliya Çelebi Ride, in
western Anatolia, is now completed. We were on the road for 40 glorious
days and 40 nights, leaving Evliya in Simav, from where he continued
to Izmir and ultimately to Mekke which he reached in spring 1672, while
we returned to Kütahya.

Home from our journey, we learnt that 2011, the 400th anniversary of
our hero's birth, has been proclaimed the year of Evliya Çelebi by Unesco.
We could not have hoped for more exciting news, not just for our project
but for everyone everywhere. Congratulations to those who achieved this
remarkable coup.
Evliya Çelebi (1611-1682) was a great Ottoman traveler, whose Seyahatname, or Book of Travels, is am important source for the history of the Ottoman lands. His travels took him from Istanbul to Austria, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Egypt, Persia, and Mecca. The trip helped to inaugurate the “Evliya Çelebi Way”, “an international project of historical re-enactment and cultural re-connection that will establish a Cultural Route through Western Anatolia”.

The ride, an international group including literature professors, equestrians, and a retired ambassador, began on the third day of the Şeker Bayramı (sugar holiday), and retraced Evliya’s route from Istanbul as far as Simav, in west-central Anatolia. The ride’s blog has some great pictures. Apparently some villagers called the Gendarmes on seeing this strange group of riders, thinking they were sheep rustlers!

Large sections of Evliya’s route are now off the beaten path, and riding offers a new way of seeing beautiful, undeveloped parts of the Anatolian countryside that are otherwise unaccessible. However, underdevelopment is a problem, even in relatively better-off western Turkey:
“The countryside along the route is much neglected and the people are, we discovered, barely better off than villagers in the east,” Finkel lamented. Similar to the “Lycian Way” and “St. Paul's Trail,” the EÇR book will help to contribute to the local economy through sustainable tourism and could also act as a catalyst for local development projects along the route. (Today's Zaman)
I love the increasing interest in the scholarly, tourism, and NGO communities in promoting cultural routes, landscapes, and intangible heritage more generally - a move away from the traditional fetish for sites and monuments as the only way to experience the past, toward a more holistic view that includes traditions, practice, and experience. (I’m also glad to see that Finkel and her fellow riders are planning to translate more of Çelebi’s work, only small parts of which have ever been made available in English.)

A couple more photos, from the Hoofprinting blog:

11 November 2009

Shockumentary filmmakers find vanished army; or how not to report archaeology news

The remains of Cambyses' army? (Daily Mail)

Yesterday's big archaeology headline, courtesy of Discovery: "Vanished Persian Army Said Found in Desert". It's a cautionary tale of how even good archaeology can look like nonsense when it's presented through the popular tropes that surround archaeology in the media.

The story in brief: twin brothers Angelo and Alfredo Castiglioni claim that a large group of skeletons found near a huge rock shelter in Egypt's western desert is the "lost army" of the Achaemenid Persian king Cambyses. As Herodotus reports, after Cambyses conquered Egypt, he sent a detachment of 50,000 men to punish the recalcitrant priests at the Oracle of Zeus Ammon in the Siwa Oasis, but the army was swallowed by a sandstorm:
...the Persians set forth from Oasis across the sand, and had reached about half way between that place and [Siwa] when, as they were at their midday meal, a wind arose from the south, strong and deadly, bringing with it vast columns of whirling sand, which entirely covered up the troops and caused them wholly to disappear (Herodotus III.26).
The article notes that among the bones were Achaemenid metal objects and ceramics whose thermoluminescence dates are about 2500 years BP. People have been looking for the evidence of this army for centuries; the Castiglionis' contribution was to look in an unexpected place, a southern route to Siwa rather than the usual east-west caravan route from the Nile. The bodies were found under and near a rock shelter 35 meters long.

Check out the video for more:

I thought this story was BS when I first read it, because it relies on all the crutches that some journos use to inflate a nothing find. Exhibit 1: the author describes the Castiglionis as "top archaeologists". This is bizarro journalist-speak for "not an archaeologist". The Castiglioni brothers are Italian filmmakers, best known for making 1970s shock documentaries in the Mondo style about weird African rituals (adult circumcision, DIY surgery, animal sacrifice, lots of blood and bodily fluids spattering all over). They are also allegedly famous for "discovering" an "ancient Egyptian city of gold", which you have to admit sounds pretty sensationalistic.

The Castiglioni brothers at work (Daily Mail)

Exhibit 2: The story takes Herodotus' story as gospel. I love Herodotus, but his Histories are based on hearsay ('historia' just means ‘inquiries’ in Greek).1 Pierre Briant also notes that Herodotus' information about Cambyses was quite biased.2 The number, too, is preposterous (Alexander crossed the Hellespont with only 42,000, according to Diodorus), but it's blandly repeated as fact. Chasing legends is not the point of archaeology, but lazy journalists keep this idea alive in the public mind.

Exhibit 3: The author uses the old ‘first discovery’ theme, even though a skim of the Googles reveals some similar stories: Archaeology magazine reported the discovery of some Achaemenid artifacts in the western desert way back in 2000.

Exhibit 4: The results of the research were presented at the "archaeological film festival of Rovereto", an event that doesn’t have a website in the first few pages of Google rankings (though it's linked here.) Even the Mondo film fans are making fun of the idea that "top archaeologists" present their research at a film festival. Not an normal way of reporting your results.3

The article is written in a way that perpetuates stereotypes about archaeology, and makes it hard to figure out whether the story is based in fact. Which is too bad, since it looks like they found what they said they did: a bunch of dead Achaemenid soldiers out in the desert on the way to the Oracle of Ammon, and they did it with a creative combination of ancient text, modern tech, and old-fashioned survey. (Even the 'city of gold' thing, which sounds so crazy, is on the up-and-up: check out this review of their book Das Goldland der Pharaonen by Stephen Sidebotham, an actual "top archaeologist" and expert in Egyptian desert archaeology.)

An ancient dagger found with the corpses (Daily Mail).

So the story's solid (except for that 50,000 number), but it took me and my fancy archaeology degree a good hour to figure that out. A lot of archaeology stories adhere a formula: "adventurer proves sensational story in ancient text", and most of them are crap. This approach is almost an article of policy at the Discovery and History channels, both of which present good research and total nonsense in exactly same tone of wild-eyed sensationalism.

Dressing decent research in this kind of drag does a disservice to professional and amateur archaeologists alike - the interested amateur is encouraged to believe anything they read, while the informed reader gets suspicious that it's just another bunch of treasure-hunters with an Indy complex. Both ways, the public loses.

1 Back in the 90s, I had to listen to regular tirades, in all seriousness, about how the word ‘history’ is an oppressive patriarchal word that had to be fought with a liberatory neologism like ‘herstory’ or ‘hirstory’. I never understood why 'revolutionaries' of that era were more focused on doing violence to etymology than to capitalism.

2 Briant, Pierre (2006) From Cyrus to Alexander: A History of the Persian Empire (Winona Lake, IL: Eisenbrauns), p. 55ff. For instance, Briant notes that Cambyses' expedition to Ethiopia was not a total disaster as Herodotus suggests, since forts in the area show evidence of Achaemenid occupation. Cambyses also made enemies of some of the priestly class (p.60) - exactly the same guys that Herodotus got his information from (see Histories 2.3-2.5, 2.13).

3 Though maybe it should be! Humanities people (and I include myself here) are depressingly text-oriented sometimes, and have barely gotten comfortable with 20th century media like film and radio – much less social media and Web 2.0. We’re also cranky ‘get off my lawn’ types when it comes to welcoming talented amateurs into the fold. Archaeologists worry about becoming irrelevant, but have not even started to seriously transition into the 21st century. How about crowdsourcing research? Distributing research finds via wikis or social media? Ditching the idea of the godlike individualist academic and approaching a collaborative publishing strategy? (The fact that I was even momentarily suspicious about research being presented in some primitive tech like film makes me depressed.)

10 November 2009

List of Archaeological Film Festivals

Just stumbled on an organization that I never heard of but am thrilled to learn about. The European Federation of Film Festivals on Archaeology and Cultural Heritage puts out the word about a ton of archaeocinematic events. They all bookend the summer field season. Looks like you could spend almost every weekend in the spring and fall going to these if you live in western Europe!

09 November 2009

Please Excuse the Interruption

Things have been a little quiet here at Archaeopop. Just wanted to drop a line to let you know we haven't disappeared. A bunch of great posts are in the works, and we'll be back soon!