27 January 2010

Ancient Egypt in Georgia: Tama-Re

The always-excellent BLDGBLOG profiles Tama-Re, an ancient Egyptian theme city built by cult leader Dwight York in Georgia:
The Urban Dictionary's description of Tama-Re is amazing; it reads like every race-based fear of the white U.S. middle class summed up in one surreal location.
    When York and his Nuwaubians moved there and began erecting pyramids and obelisks there was much curiosity about the group. However trouble started when the citizens became aware of the fact that York was an ex-Black Panther and a convicted felon and statutory rapist who was preaching the gospel that whites were mutants and were inferior to blacks. There is also a foam rubber alien on display in the compound that causes problems with public relations. Officials have had problems with the Nuwaubians failing to comply with zoning and building permits that coincide with what they have created. The Nuwaubians feel that this is a racist attack.

It's hard to top a "foam rubber alien," but the fear-factor nonetheless gets ratcheted up a notch:
    Many children from upper middle class cities have left college to live in poverty at the cult's compound, Tama Re. This has caused a lot of turmoil in the lives of many families who can't accept the fact that their sons and daughters have left them to follow an alien messiah. Throughout the grounds speakers everywhere emit the humming sound of Egyptian chants 24 hours a day. Inside one of the pyramids you can buy books and clothes as well as a Dr. York doll. The people who live on the land dwell in a trailer park full of double-wides. York claims his people are Moors who traveled by foot from Africa to what is currently Georgia before the continental drift. The only problem with this "indisputable" fact is that the moors were Muslims who existed way after the birth of Christ which was only approximately 2000 years ago.
Ergo, there was no way in plate tectonics that they could have walked all the way to Georgia.

In June 2005, after the compound's governmental seizure, financial forfeiture, and ensuing sale for $1.1 million, outright demolition began. As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported at the time, the local sheriff was on the scene, "speaking with relish as he watched crews tear through the series of obelisks, statues, arches and buildings. Many of the dozens of structures were weathered and in disrepair. He said very few of the Egyptian structures or objects were worth salvaging. 'It feels good to tear down the SOB myself,' he said. 'By the middle of next week, there will be nothing but a couple of pyramids.'"
Nuwabia is another permutation of the idea that lost tribes of 'Moors' or Egyptians settled America, first promoted more than a century ago by Noble Drew Ali of the Moorish Science Temple and more recently popularized in the writings of Hakim Bey/Peter Lamborn Wilson, where the concept of 'Moor' is used in a more esoteric, metaphorical sense of persecuted 'other' condemned to wander and live on the margins of the Babylon that is American society. All combined, of course, with that uniquely American strain of Egyptomania found in a wild range of characters from Joseph Smith of the Mormon Church to Sun Ra's extra-solar odysseys.

One of the best and worst things about America is that people have treated it as a blank slate to build their own versions of the past - or their galleries of how the past ought to have been.

12 January 2010

Mexico vs. Starbucks

Here's a weird little tidbit from last week:

Starbucks Corp.'s Mexico unit says it is willing to pay for permission to sell coffee mugs featuring pre-Hispanic images, after the Mexican government notified it about potential violations of intellectual property rights.

Starbucks said Thursday it regrets any misunderstanding, and "we are willing to pay the appropriate amount for the use of these images."

Mexico's government archaeological agency says the images of the Aztec calendar stone and the Pyramid of the Moon from the pre-Aztec ruins of Teotihuacan are the intellectual property of the nation. The agency will decide how much Starbucks should pay.

Starbucks says a supplier was responsible for securing permission for the mugs, which have been temporarily withdrawn from sale. (AP, via Business Week)

Of course the monuments and artifacts in question belong to Mexico in a legal sense, but I find the idea of archaeological sites as a category of intellectual property pretty disturbing. If Mexico could license the images to Starbucks, the implication is that these things are like any other category of property, which one could buy and sell. Could countries then sell the copyrights to archaeological sites and their data, in the way that Michael Jackson or the Beatles have sold their catalogues? When does Mexico start charging licensing fees for using pictures in textbooks?

I dislike the whole concept. Considering culture strictly as property is a recipe for disaster. By the same token, however, it would be nice for countries to be able to assert their rights over heritage in their territories and ensure noncommercial uses. Seems to me we need some variant of the Creative Commons licenses for cultural property.

Old News: Zahi Disses Beyonce

(Via Objects-Buildings-Situations)

I'm late to this one, I admit. Back in November, Zahi Hawass and Beyoncé did a photo op at the Pyramids together. He gave her a personal tour and a book about Tutankhamun, but she was insufficiently excited about the honor. So he made some snide comments about her behind her back, as Bossip reports:
In a shocking display of poor diplomacy, Egypt’s chief Egyptologist Zahi Hawass allegedly called American pop-star Beyonce a “stupid person” during her brief tour of the Giza pyramids earlier this week. Writing in al-Shorouk newspaper, Summer al-Gamal said that Hawass became fed up with the pop star’s attitude after she did not show the interest Hawass felt was deserved of the pyramids.
A meeting of great entertainers, for sure, complete with celebrity ego flameouts. Can I get a reality show with Zahi Hawass teaching some pop singers to excavate? We could call it "celebrity archaeology camp." I would pay money to see that for reals.

Besides the amazingness of seeing a photo of these two together, the reception of the event on the blogs is fascinating: his insult to Beyoncé became a segue into discussions of his bad temper and insults toward archaeologists (see here, here, and here). As if Beyoncé was somehow the last straw!


I wonder if Beyoncé is too busy with her occult rebirth to pay sufficient attention to archaeology?

Thanks to Kostis Kourelis' great blog for clueing me in to the story.

01 January 2010

Hawass Demands Frescos, French Surrender: A Preview of Archaeology in the 2010s

To ring in the new year, a story that hints of things to come in global archaeology, and some prognostications and aspirations for the coming decade.

First to Egypt, where Zahi Hawass has been generating a lot of news in recent months. Fresh off of the Louvre’s return of mosaic fragments stolen from the tomb of Tetaki the head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) will formally demand the return of the bust of Nefertiti, the Rosetta Stone, the Dendera Zodiac, and other iconic artifacts in European museums.

Hawass: praying for a return? (AFP)

The storyline has been playing out all year. Back in January 2009, German archaeologists informed the SCA that the mosaic fragments in the Louvre were looted, and Egypt promptly demanded their return. Early in October, Egyptian Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni lost a close election for UNESCO Director-General, partly due to the opposition of France. A few days later, on October 7, Egypt gave the Louvre notice that they would not be getting excavation permits for their long-time dig at Saqqara if they did not return the fresco fragments. Though the Louvre management initially met the demand with defiance, it took them only a day and a half to cave. On October 9, the museum agreed to return the fragments to Egypt.

December 14, French President Nicolas Sarkozy formally presented the fragments to Egyptian Prime Minister Hosni Mubarak during his state visit to Paris. (No word on whether cheese was eaten during the surrender.) Egypt exacts a satisfying revenge for its loss at UNESCO, and strikes a blow for the cause of repatriation.

This fine product courtesy of Bob McCarty.

As the press noted in October, the return of the Tetaki frescos was part of Hawass’ larger repatriation vision, which includes both recently looted material and certain iconic artifacts, like the Rosetta Stone and the famous bust of Nefertiti in Berlin, that he believes were removed from Egypt illegally.

While Hawass has been on this topic for years, he apparently has recently changed tactics. After requests for loans of the iconic artifacts were rebuffed by the British Museum and the Neues Museum, he has decided to put his foot down, in typically amusing fashion:
"What angers me is that for decade after decade the museums of the world have treated Egypt like a buffalo, exploiting our generosity by asking to borrow our artefacts for their various exhibitions and we have complied, handing things over for free,'' he said.

''But now the buffalo is thirsty*, and needs attention, but no one cares to help. Well, we have had enough of this. No more. I will not tolerate this kind of treatment any longer.''

This is how Egypt has been treated. Needs a drink now. (Jiri Bohdal)

Next March, Hawass will convene a conference on the return of stolen antiquities which will include up to a dozen states including Italy, Greece, China, and Mexico. Details of the agenda are unclear – I wonder if we’ll see a permanent organization of source states to advocate for repatriation of looted materials? The fact that these countries are major research destinations for American and European archaeologists adds a certain frisson to the proceedings. The possibility of connecting research permits to repatriation is a cloud looming over the heads of the archaeological establishment in the global North.

My guess for the next decade: such meetings are the shape of things to come. While the case for return of the Tetaki frescos was open and shut, Hawass parlayed it into a major symbolic victory for repatriation more generally. Anyone with a brain can see now that the way to get European museums to return artifacts is to threaten their excavation permits. Foreigners wanting to dig abroad are going to face higher and higher hurdles in the coming years. It’s happening already : Turkey this year circulated a letter requiring foreign expeditions to have a Turkish joint director; Saudi Arabia is becoming more active in demanding repatriation and in threatening permits to do so.

Is this good or bad? I don’t know. Things will be different. I know people will moan and groan about Hawass, and how his attitude is nationalistic, will harm archaeological research, damage international ties, and so on. Of course, these are partly true, and it is totally unfair that archaeologists will be the ones to suffer because of the intransigence of their respective states over repatriation. But these complaints miss the point. The struggle for control of artifacts and sites has nothing to do with archaeological research. Instead, what we are seeing is a process of decolonization of heritage, and like other decolonizations it is likely to get messy.

The justifications for European appropriation of other nations’ antiquities hinged on two arguments. First, that ‘natives’ were unable to appreciate the treasures they had. This argument is a piece of the racist rhetoric of colonialism: the savages were willfully ignorant, refuse to learn, and so were unworthy of self-rule. These tired tropes continue to be trotted out to justify European museums' retention of major artifacts. But when did the colonial powers ever bother to do mass education about why archaeology was important? For that matter, how often do archaeologists do any local education, even today? There are many sites that have been active for decades where the excavators have never given a public lecture to people that live nearby. Yet it remains common to blame "locals" for not understanding the obscure academic pursuits of an alien culture: it becomes a moral failing that demonstrates their inferiority.

The second common argument is that objects like the Rosetta Stone or the Elgin Marbles needed to be taken to Europe for ‘safekeeping’ lest they be destroyed. There is, of course, a certain truth to this. But once taken, the objects became symbols of European appropriation of other peoples' pasts, just one more indignity heaped on top of the appropriation of the present by the colonial powers. The condescension that Egyptians and others are untrustworthy and unfit to control their own heritage continues, and this is obviously one of the things that bugs Hawass the most. As he reflected after the British Museum rejected his request for a loan of the Rosetta Stone:
Even some people in the press began to say: 'If the British Museum will give the Rosetta Stone to Egypt, maybe Egyptians will not return it back.' We are not the Pirates of the Caribbean. We are a civilised country. If I...sign a contract with the British Museum, (we) will return it. Therefore we decided not to host the Rosetta Stone, but to ask for the Rosetta Stone to come back for good to Egypt.
What Hawass wants is for Egypt to be treated as a "civilized country" rather than a child in need of tutelage. It is not a coincidence, then, that he is looking for the return of iconic artifacts in particular - the ones that symbolize colonial rule and foreign control over Egypt’s past. No one would seriously argue that these artifacts would be in European museums if Egypt had never been invaded and occupied by the French and British. Likewise, there is no academic merit to the objects being in one place rather than the other (except, of course, that Americans and Europeans find London much more convenient than Cairo). Like many of Hawass' activities, these requests are political theater, not scientific pursuits. But like all good theater, it is about something very real: the sense of many people around the world that their past is being held hostage by foreigners, whether archaeologists, museums, or collectors.

So then: we close out the decade with hints of a harder line by source countries on repatriation, as a prelude to the decolonization of archaeological practice. My prediction is that the new decade will see the emergence in archaeology of a multipolar order that replaces the Euro-American superpowers.

I would also like to believe that this will be the decade where abolish the idea of culture as property, a stupid legacy of the colonial centuries that feeds the ego of collectors but does nothing to help people learn from the past. If an object really does belong to the world, as the British Museum and other institutions often argue, how can it be owned by a single museum, whatever its pretentions to being a "world repository"? The desire for ownership is a disease that reinforces power inequalities and sustains the mystification of the general public. Here's hoping that the 2010s bring a global system of artifact loans that exhibit some of the great treasures in places they've never been seen before, especially in the global South.

*Sadly, no relationship is implied to the bar of similar name, which serves cheeseburger soup. Mmmm.