28 March 2010

Ruins of Detroit: Michigan Central Station in NYT

From the New York Times, the latest on the iconic ruin of Michigan Central Station:
Michigan Central is in a class of its own. Some city officials consider it among the ugliest behemoths to pockmark Detroit and have ordered its demolition, but others see it as the industrial age’s most gracious relic, a Beaux Arts gem turned gothic from neglect but steeped in haunting beauty.

Now Detroit has become embroiled in an urgent debate over how to save what is perhaps its most iconic ruin — and in the process, some insist, give the demoralized city a much needed boost.

“People compare it to Roman ruins,” said Karen Nagher, the executive director of Preservation Wayne, an organization that seeks to protect architecture and neighborhoods around Detroit. “Some people just want it left alone. But I’d love to see that building with windows in and lights on again.”

Having lost nearly a million people in the last 60 years, Detroit has a backlog of thousands of empty office buildings, theaters, houses and hotels. Downtown alone, more than 200 abandoned buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places. Most are examples of the Art Deco and neo-Classical styles that were popular before World War II, when Detroit was booming.

The great lobby (NY Times)

Detroit's moronic rush to purge itself of any building of historical interest is an American architectural tragedy. The notion that bulldozing abandoned buildings would cure the city's problems is a strange form of shamanic thinking - that appearance will create essence.

Some kids from Cass Tech made a cool video tour that gives you a good sense of the space:

The hobby of exploring abandoned buildings ("urban exploration") has gone from fringe to mainstream over the last decade, with its own organizations and even conventions. Detroit, with its forest of abandoned factories, is a prime destination. I first visited Michigan Central in 2002 and have been back every couple years. There's _always_ a group of eager young explorers in it these days, despite the razor wire and stern "Homeland Security" signs everywhere. There's a lively discussion about the site at the station's Facebook page (15,000 fans!), and there are serious discussions about turning the place into an official tourist attraction.

The cultural role of urban exploration is very complex and totally archaeo-pop. It's an interesting mix of archaeological tourism, industrial nostalgia, and the ascendance of "authentic" experiences as markers of the true self. In the American context, it also carries a frisson of class and race transgression, as white "explorers" enter racialized spaces like inner-city Detroit (which is 85% African-American).

I'll have a post about the genealogy and development of the hobby one of these days, but in the meantime check out infiltration.org, the zine and later website that helped catalyze urban exploration as a culture (RIP Ninjalicious, we miss your spirit.)

Me on the roof of MCS in 2003, gazing across the bridge toward Canada.

Swallowed from inside: a metaphor for Detroit?

24 March 2010

Music to Dig By: Sun Ra at the Pyramids, 1971

Sun Ra is one of the kings of archaeopop aesthetics and a major figure in Jazz and afro-futurism. In 1971 he fulfilled a lifelong dream and played at the Great Pyramid. This footage was taken there and on a side trip to Sardinia and used in the amazing 1972 film Space is the Place. (The rest of which was filmed here in Oakland and San Francisco!) It's magnificent.

Space is the Place is required viewing for Archaeopop readers, get to it!

I really wish I could have taken Sun Ra's class at Berkeley:
In early 1971 Sun Ra was artist-in-residence at University of California, Berkeley, teaching a course called "The Black Man In the Cosmos". Rather few students enrolled but the classes were often full of curious persons from the surrounding community. One half-hour of each class was devoted to a lecture (complete with handouts and homework assignments), the other half-hour to an Arkestra performance or Sun Ra keyboard solo. Reading lists included the works of Madame Blavatsky and Henry Dumas, the Book of the Dead, Alexander Hislop's The Two Babylons, The Book of Oahspe and assorted volumes concerning Egyptian hieroglyphs, African American folklore, and other topics.
Also check out this peculiar exhibition, "Sun Ra meets Napoleon: Fragments of the Alter-Future", which juxtaposes the pioneering Egyptologists Giovanni Belzoni and François Champollion with the music of Sun Ra. Belzoni in particular deserves the attention: he started life as a circus strongman and ended up as an Egyptologist!

22 March 2010

1668: The Parthenon as Monster Manual

George Wheler's Athens, 1676 (via Surprised by Time)

How did people experience archaeological sites in the age before archaeology? We like to think that sites we know well have 'obvious' meanings, but it's not always so. Take the great Ottoman traveler Evliya Çelebi, who found first himself at Athens - then barely a village - in the hot summer of 1668.
When Evliya saw the Parthenon, he saw a mosque with a minaret, surrounded by 46 columns, and for most of the way around, the space between the columns and the walls was open to the sky, not lidded over. He saw sculptured scenes on the metopes between the tops of the columns, and more scenes around the top of the cella. Our interpretations are dominated by archaeologists, but Evliya was under no such handicap. The sculptures he saw contained fairies, angels, dragons, elephants, rhinoceri, giraffes, scorpions, crocodiles, thousands of mice, cats, ghouls, cherubs, and many many other kinds of creatures from this world and others in processions: one of the saved in Paradise, the other of those petrified in Hell.
This reconstruction of his experience, from Diana Gilliland Wright's wonderful blog on Greece in the 15th century, exposes how modern is our understanding of the mysterious place-time called 'Classical Greece'.

More fantastic than it looks.

I love this vision of the Parthenon as a fantastic bestiary, a Monster Manual if you will. You could tell stories about it without being an 'expert' or a trained tour guide, and find ways of fitting the building organically into your life experience. To me, it's a little sad that the Parthenon - and other monuments like it - have become places whose meaning is controlled by academic research. People make culture by telling each other stories about places. When you take away their right to tell stories - take away the element of fantasy - you strip away their ability to engage with the environment. If you take away the fantasy, it becomes really boring to visit archaeological sites.

The Parthenon metopes, as seen by Evliya.

There's a lot of talk in archaeology about "multivocality", or including non-experts in storytelling about the past. Of course, almost no one actually does it.

The rest of Evliya's stories about the Parthenon and Athens are fascinating. He reports that Athens was founded by Solomon, and describes the ceiling built for the Byzantine cathedral of the early middle ages:
The ceiling Evliya saw was made of cypress, gilded and painted. This was not the lid of marble coffers constructedby Iktinos and Kallikrates. At some time in the unwritten history of Athens between about 250 and 550 -- Evliya said it was on the night of the birth of Mohammed -- there was a catastrophic fire in the cella. The gold and ivory Athena was consumed, and the marble lid came crashing down, bringing down most of the interior structure with the double levels of columns... The Christians took over a shell, not Pericles' Parthenon.
In a sense, there was no such thing as the Parthenon until the 17th or 18th century: it was the church of the Virgin of Athens, then the Friday Mosque after the Ottomans took over the city. The concept of the "Parthenon" had no relationship to the experience of the users of the building, and had to be constructed over centuries. With, needless to say, mixed results.

Read the rest of the post over at Surprised by Time, it's great. It gives you a real sense of the history we lost in the mad rush to purge modern Greece of its Byzantine and Ottoman heritage.

15 March 2010

St. Ides of March

2054 years ago today, Julius Caesar met his end at the hands of some former friends. The conspirators, inbred aristocrats all, were terrified of losing their power and inherited wealth to a populist dictator.

They justified their deed by casting Caesar as a tyrant. In a way he was, but what he really put an end was not the Roman "Republic" but 100 years of civil war between aristocratic factions, some of which were more willing to ally with the common people and some of which were crusty defenders of extreme aristocratic privilege. Caesar, despite his upper-class pedigree, became a man of the people as his career moved on. Read Michael Parenti's excellent book for more, or go straight to Plutarch here (Chapter 60ff).1

I get fed up with the misty-eyed idealization of the Roman "Republic", which was a cabal run by the landowning aristocracy that pointedly excluded the other 98% of the population. Shakespeare, who bought into this vision, inflicted it on the English-speaking world. Witness these clips from the 1953 version, with Marlon Brando as Mark Antony:

It's a very stiff and reverent treatment, but it gives you an idea of how solemnly people used to treat the moment.

Today's uses of the Ides of March are amusing for their variety. American cult leader Lyndon LaRouche used it to promote his webcast about Obama's imminent downfall. Project Chanology organized global protests against Scientology on the Ides of March 2008 (video). There's also episodes of "Party of Five" and "Xena Warrior Princess" that use the name, but I'm too proud to link to those.

There's also this White Stripes song, which seems to be more about love and malt liquor than Caesar, but whatever. I nominate St. Ides as the official drank of the Ides of March.2

1 It's meant to be read in tandem with the Life of Alexander, since Plutarch saw them as parallel figures. I recommend doing it, it sheds light on both of them. Augustus gets credit for the Pax Romana, but it would never have happened without Caesar.
2 "Rappers doing St. Ides Commercials" is a whole genre in itself. Check out Snoop and 2Pac shilling for blueberry flavor St.Ides! What?!?!

13 March 2010

12 March 2010

First Machine Sounds

The start of the rest of human history: the Manchester Mark 1, 1951 (digital60.org)

The digital computer is the most important human invention - forget about cities, the internal combustion engine, and the neolithic revolution. Music comes second, and no music is recorded or disseminated today without digital computers.

So the collision of the two marks a new age in human history, and every new age needs its founding moments. Behold, the earliest recording of computer music, from the Manchester Mark 1, Manchester, England, autumn 1951.

"God save the King", "Baa Baa Black Sheep", and "In the Mood". There's some chatting, laughter, and silence as knobs get fiddled, and performance starts at 1:12 or so. The music was programmed by Christopher Strachey. The recording was made by the BBC, on assignment in Manchester's pioneering computer labs.

You might think I'm being sarcastic here, but I mean it. (And not just because I like songs like this.) Archaeology has always been concerned with origin myths, with periodization, with the notion of 'new eras'. And like any historical narrative, this one is subject to all kinds of rewriting and restructuring to match the mores of the present. The 2008 BBC article covering the story, for instance, pretends that "God Save the King" is not on the recording, presumably for reasons of political correctness.

The stress on the first recorded music also hides the real innovator: even though the Mark 1 was the first computer to run stored programs, the CSIRAC computer in Melbourne was the first to play music in 1950, and performed the popular tune "Colonel Bogey" for the public in August 1951. It wasn't recorded, but here's a reconstruction:

Sounds like hell, but I'm sure the first Neanderthal flute sounded pretty shitty too. (More dubious Neanderthal tunes.) You can keep playing the "who was first" game for quite a while (see below), which is tiresome - every invention I can think of was the product of multiple minds, often working at cross-purposes. The obsession with "firsts" is a distraction from thinking about how awesome computers playing music is and all the awesome feelings it's made possible.

Parting shot: the first computer vox, performed by an IBM 7094 in 1961 (programming by John Kelly and Carol Lockbaum. It's like Lil Wayne's grandpa.

11 March 2010

Nibiru Palace: New Math Proves Apollo = Satan?

OK, here’s the scoop. This video shows how the ancient Greek god Apollo = Apollyon, the beast from the pit in Revelations. And it proves that his satanic presence is EVERYWHERE. The dollar bill, the pyramids, the Maya Calendar, the Olympic rings, the coat of arms of the Vatican, the Freemasons, the chess board, the Nazis, everywhere. Basically, if you unscramble ΑΠΟΛΛΟΝ you get 666 in Roman numerals. But don’t just take my word for it.

Your host for this romp is Chris Constantine, the curator of the amazingly named 'Nibirupedia'. Despite his obvious enthusiasm and skill with video editing, his theory gets a big NOT. Constantine makes a rookie mistake and assumes that ancient Greeks used Roman numerals. They actually used a system where letters stood for numbers, like so1:

So all those bits of Roman numerals flying off the dollar bill and out of the pope's behind and whatnot and forming the Name of the Beast are just bunk. It’s a shame that he doesn’t know shit about ancient mathematics, because the ancient Greeks LOVED paranoid ravings about numerology, from Pythagoras on down to the Byzantines. They would have understood EXACTLY where he was coming from. If you want to know more about the real practice of Greek numerology, this guy Joel Kalvesmaki did his dissertation on the topic. His website has a bunch of good resources to get you started. It's weird and interesting.

I like conspiracy theories, but I have some quality control standards these days. It’s pretty lame if you don’t back up your ravings with decent data. Holy Blood, Holy Grail had a ton of historical fact in it2, so when Dan Brown ripped it off it came off as a plausible ancient mystery. I do like Chris Constantine’s website, though, because he uses so many archaeological bits to illustrate the presence of ancient astronauts and their connection to the grand battle between Jesus and the Freemasons. He’s got the secret planet Nibiru hypothesis of Zechariah Sitchin, who learned about ancient UFO visitations via Sumerian tablets, plus lots of stuff on pyramids:
the Mayan Calendar is also a cryptic 3D depiction of a UFO, swirling thrust and a Pyramid just like those at Giza. The Satanic Cult of Freemasons (illuminati) use Mayan symbols as well as Babylonian, Greek, Egyptian, Roman etc.
Be careful, archaeologists, your research is leading you into un-biblical territory.

I'll let Chris have the parting word.
I have encountered immense opposition in researching the matters relating to:
1. Jesus Christ 2. UFOs 3. Nephilim 4. Reptilians 5. Masonic Logos 6. Nibiru ( Planet X ). Organised internet hate groups have made it impossible for people to debate these matters on a large scale.
True dat.

1 There were a couple other Greek letter systems (the ‘Herodian’ and the ‘Acrophonic’) which were kinda like Roman numerals except with Greek letters. But since they’re totally different letters, Chris’ theory doesn’t work the same way. Go here if you want the details.
2 Despite apparently being a surrealist prank? By Jean Cocteau? But if it was a
surrealist prank, then it could be all true, right? You can now download the whole book from disinfo and decide for yourself.

10 March 2010

Jon Stewart, archaeology newsman

A couple Jon Stewart clips about early hominids. These things are practically archaeological artifacts in themselves. Look how young he looks in that first clip! World domination makes you age quickly I guess.

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05 March 2010

Music to Dig By: Visage, 'Love Glove'

Steve Strange, lost on the Nile, races camels and gets into trouble with an Egyptian girl. Oh, and there's passionate singing in front of pharaonic statues, pyramids, and miscellaneous ruins. It's all wonderfully preposterous and I wish the rest of the Blitz Kids were in this video too.

Thanks to Sean for blowing my mind with this one.

03 March 2010

The Dangers of Heritage Lists: The Tomb of the Patriarchs

The dark side of national heritage lists was illustrated Monday week in the West Bank (AFP via Juan Cole):

As they do every year on the Jewish holiday of Purim, the settlers donned costumes -- one was a clown, another a Palestinian -- and drank and danced to celebrate a biblical miracle that saved the Jews from the ancient Persians.

But this year the holiday comes amid growing unrest over an Israeli plan to renovate the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a flashpoint holy site revered by Jews and Muslims in the heart of the town of more than 160,000 Palestinian Muslims.

There have been days of clashes since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he wanted to include the burial site of the biblical figure Abraham in a national heritage plan.

The move has sparked international outrage and the United States has attacked it as a "provocative" act that could further imperil its hope of relaunching Israeli-Palestinian peace talks suspended during the Gaza war over a year ago.

As Juan Cole points out, Al-Khalil/Hebron cannot be an Israeli heritage site, since it is not part of Israel (though it has been militarily occupied by Israel since 1967). This is not to detract from the obvious Jewish heritage at the site, but to point out the difference between religion and nation-state. I'm just going to quote Cole's article at length, since I have nothing to say that improves on it.

Palestinians are afraid that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's action is a prelude to an Israeli claim on the annexation of al-Khalil to Israel. The town of 150,000 is completely made up of Palestinian Christians and Muslims, though 400 Israeli settlers, some of them armed and all under the protection of the Israeli military, reside there. There have been constant frictions between the small Israeli colony and the Palestinian townspeople.
The choice of Purim for listing the Tomb of the Patriarchs was insensitive, to say the least:
But Purim in al-Khalil has other connotations, since it was the day on which Dr. Baruch Goldstein opened fire on innocent worshipers at the Mosque of Abraham, shooting 179 in cold blood, and killing 29 of those. This site gives you an idea of how Palestinians remember the incident. Israeli apologists often refer to Goldstein as deranged, but people who met him before his attack deny this charge. He is more likely to have simply been the Israeli equivalent of a suicide bomber, i.e. acting out of ideological conviction.

Anyway, the coincidence of the anniversary of the Goldstein massacre with the designation of the tomb complex an Israeli heritage site was enough to inspire fear, outrage and anger in the Palestinian residents of the city. The cabinet of the Palestine Authority is meeting in al-Kahlil/ Hebron on Monday, just to reaffirm its sovereignty or at least future sovereignty over the town.
Amid the nationalist posturing on both sides, I like Cole's reflections on the historical nitty-gritty behind the figure of Abraham.
That is, historians are aware that the Tomb of the Patriarchs has been sacred to Muslims for 1400 years and they have been going on pilgrimage to it for much of that period, combining visits to Jerusalem and Hebron with their pilgrimage to Mecca. (If you were living in Turkey, Northern Iran or coastal Syria, Jerusalem and Hebron are on the way to Mecca by a popular route.)

It is worth noting that the figure of Abraham as described in the Bible is in any case not historical. Abraham is said to have been the forebear of the twelve tribes of Israel, including that of Benjamin or Bin Yamin. But the Banu Yamin are mentioned in clay tablets in the area dated to 2000 BC, so they precede Abraham's alleged advent. The kings he is said to have met don't correspond to any known historical figures. He is said to have bought the Caves which allegedly became his tomb from a Hittite, but the Hittites did not then exist and they didn't come to geographical Palestine until the 1400s BC. He is said to have been a monotheist, but there is no evidence in the archeology of anything but polytheists in Palestine (then Egyptian-ruled Canaan or Retenu) for many centuries after he supposedly lived.

Moreover, if Abraham were from south Iraq (Ur in what is now Dhi Qar) he would have likely been ethnically Sumerian, whereas the genetic signature of a majority of Jewish men most resembles that of Palestinians and Lebanese, not of southern Iraqis. For the same reason, he is not the direct male ancestor of the Hijazi Arabs. (If he existed at all and lived 4000 years ago and if his descendants flourished, he would likely be an ancestor of most people in the greater Mediterranean by now, I.e. Arabs and Europeans and Jews from both worlds; note that only uninterrupted descent in the male line would show up in the Y chromosome.)

But the Abraham stories are no more historical than those of Gilgamesh and Utnapishtim, other ancient Middle Eastern mythical figures. The jumbled stories about him were written down in the Babylonian exile, when scribes made an attempt to establish a historical timeline into which he could be asserted. Ur was a classy place to be from, as Shlomo Sands points out, and so the Babylonian Jewish authors of the written Bible endowed themselves with a distinquished Iraqi parentage.

It is modern nationalism that lies behind the current tensions over Abraham's tomb and the Haram Sharif. Jews and Muslims shared pilgrimage sites all through history, most often amicably. Israeli, Arab and Palestinian nationalisms are reconfiguring sacred space as sites of national authenticity and as exclusive.

The Palestine Authority should declare itself a state and offer citizenship to the 400 or so Jews in al-Khalil/ Hebron. And there are lots of Palestinian heritage sites it could then designate inside Israel. And ideally the two would share them, and allow free circulation and pilgrimage, including for international religious tourism, which would be good for the economy. I predict that eventually all these things will come to pass. It may however be decades.
Read the rest of Cole's article here.