26 October 2010

Google to put Dead Sea Scrolls online

Google is getting into the conservation business, as the AP reports:

Israel's Antiquities Authority and Google announced Tuesday that they are joining forces to bring the Dead Sea Scrolls online, allowing both scholars and the general public widespread access to the ancient manuscripts for the first time.

The project will grant free, global access to the 2,000-year-old text — considered one of the greatest archaeological finds of the last century — by uploading high-resolution images that are exact copies of the originals. The first photographs are slated to be online within months.

The scrolls will be available in their original languages, Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, and at first an English translation. Eventually other translations will be added, and Google's translation feature may also be incorporated. They will also be searchable.

This is the future of epigraphy and papyrology: open-source texts, available to the world, worked on collaboratively online. Heck, it's been the future: the Advanced Papyrological Information System (APIS) was already going 10 years ago. I was lucky to know one of the pioneers in digitizing papyri at Michigan, Traianos Gagos†, who is sorely missed. Traianos understood that being open with data and kind to colleagues would produce more and better scholarly results.

It sounds obvious, but mentality that archaeological data is a private stash 'owned' by one scholar has not totally faded away. Even I'm old enough to remember the early 1990s controversy over 'freeing' the Dead Sea Scrolls from a cartel of scholars who had exclusive publishing rights (see this book, or this old chestnut from William Safire on the case).

Archaeologists and allied trades need to learn that this mentality is counterproductive: instead of being afraid of the non-expert, we need to recruit them and figure out to put their enthusiasm to work! Keeping data private only fuels the ravings of the ancient astronaut theorists.

These Dead Sea Scrolls conspiracy videos sure are fun though.

Much more fun than the stupid action movie soundtrack and fuzzy-light 'reenactments' that Nat Geo is pushing anyway...

25 October 2010

Neanderthal lovin'

I never got around to posting this back in may, maybe you saw this (or this) back in May:
Neanderthals, Humans Interbred—First Solid DNA Evidence
Most of us have some Neanderthal genes, study finds.

Ker Than
for National Geographic News
Published May 6,2010

The next time you're tempted to call some oaf a Neanderthal, you might want to take a look in the mirror.

According to a new DNA study, most humans have a little Neanderthal in them—at least 1 to 4 percent of a person's genetic makeup. The study uncovered the first solid genetic evidence that "modern" humans—or Homo sapiens—interbred with their Neanderthal neighbors, who mysteriously died out about 30,000 years ago.

What's more, the Neanderthal-modern human mating apparently took place in the Middle East, shortly after modern humans had left Africa, not in Europe—as has long been suspected. "We can now say that, in all probability, there was gene flow from Neanderthals to modern humans," lead study author Ed Green of the University of California, Santa Cruz, said in a prepared statement.
It always seemed weird to me that the idea of these two kinds of humans interbreeding was always so taboo. Of course, Neanderthals were discovered in a time (1829) when Europe was in the grip of a deep interest in racial difference and classification, so it's not surprising that they were immediately consigned to absolute difference - and sex between slightly different shades of contemporary human was illegal in a lot of places only a generation ago. It never made sense on a gut level to me, though - Neanderthals were people, they could speak, make tools and jewelry, bury their dead, and lived along side Homo Sapiens Sapiens for millenia. The idea that at least a few of them wouldn't get it on at some point is ridiculous. (There's also an answer to this question here.) I kind of like the idea that I'm part Neanderthal.

Though maybe I just read Clan of the Cave Bear one too many times as a kid.

On the other hand, maybe it was the Neanderthals who were racist against us. Just sayin'.

24 October 2010

Copyrighting Stonehenge

Nice stock photo, eh?

English Heritage put its trowel in its mouth last week, when it sent a vaguely threatening email to blog Photolibra asserting that it owns exclusive commercial rights to photos of Stonehenge:
We are sending you an email regarding images of Stonehenge in your fotoLibra website. Please be aware that any images of Stonehenge can not be used for any commercial interest, all commercial interest to sell images must be directed to English Heritage.
Fotolibra rightly asks about the legitimacy and enforceability of this idiotic claim:
Firstly, what legitimacy do they have for this claim? Is there any law that states that it is illegal to use images of Stonehenge for any commercial interest? Can someone direct me to it?

Secondly, if an image of Stonehenge is so used, how could they possibly police the usage?

Tax this, ye fookin quango

Boing Boing, Techdirt, and Slashdot all went to town on this foolishness, prompting a clarification from English Heritage, which basically says whoops, sorry, we were just talking about the fee you're supposed to pay for commercial photography at the henge:
if a commercial photographer enters the land within our care with the intention of taking a photograph of the monument for financial gain, we ask that they pay a fee and abide by certain conditions. English Heritage is a non-profit making organisation and this fee helps preserve and protect Stonehenge for the benefit of future generations.
Photoradar reports this fee is about £75. A Boingboing commenter joked that Egypt would try to claim ownership of the US $1 bill, since there's a pyramid on the back, but it's not too far off - Egypt has in fact made moves to copyright its antiquities and try to control them through licensing.

This is all part of the diseased copyright extremism currently gripping society - not too far from the RIAA's claim that you should pay them a fee every time you sing a Lady Gaga song in the shower. The idea that everything we reference something in our culture we should pay a fee to the 'rights holder' is not only absurd, but sick - it's the free exchange of ideas that will make everyone freer, happier, and richer. And people are attracted to cultural heritage precisely because it's a huge, free database of ideas that can be freely remixed into our lives and identities. Trying to control that will never work - but it could definitely produce a lot of hostility toward heritage agencies that try.

15 October 2010

Watch the Destruction of Kashgar in Real Time

Hollowing out old Kashgar

New web tools make it easier than ever to track depressing things like the obliteration of historic cities. The great blog Ogle Earth has two posts documenting the destruction of Old Kashgar, in China's Xinjiang province. Until recently it was the “the best-preserved example of a traditional Islamic city to be found anywhere in central Asia.” These presentations show the power of Google Earth as a monitoring tool for urban conservation.

Until August, this was a dense network of traditional courtyard houses.

Stefan Geens spent a week in Kashgar in August documenting the demolition, and has a great post with photo gallery (the photos here are his).
I have learned from living in Shanghai and now Beijing that Chinese authorities — and to a certain extent mainstream Chinese culture — do not attach much importance to protecting traditional vernacular architecture. Imperial palaces and grand religious temples are worthy of preservation or even reconstruction, but not on the whole the hutong of Beijing or the lane houses of Shanghai, which are deemed too ordinary, especially when there is money to made building high-rises in their stead.
He made a .kmz file for Google Earth so you can track the bulldozers yourself:

Basically, the government is keeping some attractive façades for the tourists, while destroying the neighborhoods behind it: an example of façadism at its worst.
Why hasn't tourism been a better incentive for preservation? You do see the occasional westerner exploring the town, but the overwhelming majority of tourists in Kashgar are affluent visitors from within China, and they uniformly travel in bussed tour groups, deposited at various locales where they are led to photogenic spots by guides bearing portable loudspeakers. Among these destinations are the two officially protected parts of the old town, the 15% where bulldozers won't tread. These neighborhoods have been turned into open-air museums, with an entrance fee (RMB 30, USD 4.40) that entitles access to various courtyard homes and souvenir shops. I suspect that the Chinese authorities think these two areas should suffice for the majority of tourists. Depressingly, they may be right.
In a more recent post, he also dug up a 1908 map and superimposed it on the current city plan, so you can see what has changed, and what hasn't. The .kmz file is here.

Geens reflects on what you can see in the overlay:
Right away, it also becomes clear that the river's course used to lie further East, across lowlands that are now decked in relatively modern buildings. The maps's main discrepancy can be found in the size and orientation of the settlement to the Southeast of the city; the fortress to the west is also larger than life. In the Eastern half of the cities, the topology of the mapped alleys is tantalizingly familiar, though without producing accurate matches.
It goes without saying that the destruction of Old Kashgar is an instance of cultural warfare. The government would like to pacify and/or eliminate the local Uyghur culture, which is Turkic, Muslim, and not always especially thrilled to be part of China - especially after (successful) efforts to ensure that Uyghurs become an ethnic minority in their own territory. After last year's bloody riots between Uyghur and Han, tensions still remain high in the region. Heritage Key asks whether granting UNESCO World Heritage status would stop the destruction - an idle question, since UNESCO only inscribes sites nominated by member states, and has no particular incentive to provoke China. And for Chinese planners, like their American counterparts in the 1950s, the old is just an impediment to progress, which is obviously best implemented by stuffing everyone into concrete towers that are shabby almost before they're even finished.

12 October 2010

Columbus, Mediterranean Pirate

Note the creepy, dead eyes.

Christopher Columbus was a pirate, from a family of pirates. I became persuaded of this when I was nosing around Surprised by Time. Diana Gillibrand Wright shares the following story penned by Christopher Columbus’ son about the seizure of a Venetian convoy in late August 1485 by a pirate named Columbo, then working for Charles VIII of France:
The first cause of the Admiral's [Columbus] coming to Spain and devoting himself to the sea was a renowned man of his name and family, called Colombo [Nicolò Griego], who won great fame on the sea because he warred so fiercely against infidels and the enemies of his country that his name was used to frighten children in their cradles. . . . on one occasion he captured four large Venetian galleys of such great size and armament that they had to be seen to be believed. . . . . While the Admiral was sailing in the company of the said Colombo the Younger (which he did for a long time), it was learned that those four great Venetian galleys aforesaid were returning from Flanders. Accordingly Colombo went out to meet those ships and found them between Lisbon and Cape St. Vincent, which is in Portugal. Here they came to blows, fighting with great fury and approaching each other until the ships grappled and the men crossed from boat to boat, killing and wounding each other without mercy, using not only hand arms but also fire pots and other devices.
Columbus escaped from a burning ship and swam to shore. The goods turned up and were sold in England. The losses to Venice were huge and spelled potential bankruptcy for the Republic, which spent years of diplomacy trying to claw back its property (with some success).

The traditional story of Columbus was that he was a humble wool-weaver's son, who by various strokes of luck was shipwrecked in Spain, married a wealthy aristocrat, and persuaded the crown to send him to America. But what was Columbus doing on the crew of a pirate ship, and how was he related to the Captain? Commenter Pavlos, in two elegant posts, puts the myth of the wool-weaver to bed and places Columbus into a much more plausible context:
Historians and writers dealing with those mysteries [of Columbus' origin] usually tend to follow one of two trends. The most serious ones have attempted to mould Columbus into a recorded, verifiable individual; to make him fit the evidence rather than match him to it. The others to give him a passport that is non-Genoese by making points that are usually either weak or outright laughable. Both have created a kind of mythology.

Because it is a myth that Columbus was born in 1451, that he was a wool-weaver’s son, a deck-hand on a ship from Genoa or Burgundy who survived an attack by French corsairs and settled in Portugal in 1476 and many other “facts”.
We simply do not know when he was born. We don’t know what name he was given at birth or whether he had a surname before settling in Portugal – let alone what it was. So rather than dispute what he said about himself and what his two contemporary biographers – his son Fernando Colon and Bartolome de las Casas – wrote, let us see what picture emerges and if it makes sense.

Columbus was Genoese. Because that is what he said himself and that is what everyone else who knew him said. The only Cristoforo Colombo in Genoese archives that bears some similarities to Columbus is a wool-weaver’s son who is believed to have been born around 1451. But they don’t have to be the same person. Columbus may not have been called Cristoforo Colombo when living in Genoa; or may not have lived there at all. There were thousands of Genoese citizens borne and brought up in Constantinople, Chios, the Black Sea coast, and all over the Mediterranean.

Columbus said he came from a seafaring family and went to sea at fourteen. This is outright dismissed by some because it does not fit the wool-weaver theory. He also said he was contracted by “le bon roi Rene”, titular king of Naples, to capture a ship called Fernandina. We have no idea when this is supposed to have happened but the 1460s or early 1470s are thought the most likely time. This story is often called fanciful, as it does not fit in with the young wool-weaver theory and as an alternative it is suggested he may have been a simple deck-hand in that enterprise.

At some point Columbus settled in Portugal. It is almost certain it was in the 1470s but we don’t know exactly when. The year 1476 is often given. It was the year a combined Franco-Portuguese fleet attacked a Genoese convoy off the cape of St Vincent in Portugal. The leader of the corsairs was a man known as Colombo the Elder, a vice-admiral of the kingdom of France, who is otherwise known as Guillaume de Casenove. With him was his successor, Colombo the Younger, also known a Georges Paleologue de Bissipat. Many were killed and several ships from both sides caught fire and sank. Many historians, based on what Fernando Colon wrote, believe Columbus took part in that battle and, after managing to swim to safety, settled in Portugal. But they place Columbus on the Genoese ships, or on a ship from Burgunty that was with them, as a simple deck-hand, because that fits with the young wool-weaver theory again. By a coincidence that can only be described as diabolical or divine by the proponents of that theory, his brother Bartholomeo was already established in Portugal as a cartographer.
This vision of the complicated, ethnically ambiguous world of 15th-century Mediterranean seafaring rings true to me. Christopher Columbus, born to a polyglot family of corsairs from the Italian diaspora of the day, was from his youth a practitioner of the incessant economic warfare between Mediterranean powers. Pirate clans such as his were independent contractors operating under royal licenses to pillage their enemies. Rather than simple cruelty, piracy of this kind was a calculated combination of warfare and economic activity: a cheap way to bolster royal coffers while terrifying your enemies.

For me, Columbus’ approach to America epitomizes this approach, and made him perfectly suited to the task. Neither Wright nor Pavlos mention is the evidence of his later career, but his journeys to America were a pirate mission in the sense above: intended to explore economic opportunities, by force if the opportunity struck. On landing on Hispaniola, his first thought was to seize as much gold as possible, and his second thought was to seize slaves. Slavery was a common fate for people seized by pirates in the early modern Mediterranean, and was a major source of income for their captors. In his letter to their Most Catholic Majesties in 1493, Columbus averred,
It is possible, with the name of the Holy Trinity, to sell all the slaves which it is possible to sell...Here there are so many of these slaves, and also brazilwood, that although they are living things they are as good as gold...
But this cruelty was not purely directed toward the Indians. As Viceroy of the Indies, Columbus and his brother were such harsh rulers to the Spanish settlers that they ended up being sent back to Spain in chains as an embarrassment to the government:
As governor and viceroy of the Indies, Columbus imposed iron discipline on the first Spanish colony in the Americas, in what is now the Caribbean country of Dominican Republic. Punishments included cutting off people's ears and noses, parading women naked through the streets and selling them into slavery.

Columbus' government was characterised by a form of tyranny," Consuelo Varela, a Spanish historian who has seen the document, told journalists. One man caught stealing corn had his nose and ears cut off, was placed in shackles and was then auctioned off as a slave. A woman who dared to suggest that Columbus was of lowly birth was punished by his brother Bartolomé, who had also travelled to the Caribbean. She was stripped naked and paraded around the colony on the back of a mule.

Bartolomé ordered that her tongue be cut out," said Ms Varela. "Christopher congratulated him for defending the family."
Further grim detail is easy enough to find, and hopefully you’ve read some of them before: Columbus’ men chopping the hands off of natives who did not meet their gold quotas (there is, of course, no natural gold on Hispaniola), mass enslavements, the extermination of millions of people from violence and disease, the sale of girls as young as nine or ten as sex slaves, the story of Columbus personally whipping and raping a woman on the deck of his ship. It is the work of a pirate written on a much larger canvas – and reinforces, in a grim way, how much the cruelty and strife of the late-medieval Mediterranean provided the models for the settlement of the new world.

Some further reading:

Extracts from Columbus' 1492 diaries
Bartolomé de las Casas' Account of the Destruction of the Indies
Some more Columbian atrocities
John Noble Wilford, The Mysterious History of Columbus

08 October 2010

Breaking News: Ancient Greece Entirely Fabricated

You suspected it, all along:

According to Haddlebury, the idea of inventing a wholly fraudulent ancient culture came about when he and other scholars realized they had no idea what had actually happened in Europe during the 800-year period before the Christian era.

Frustrated by the gap in the record, and finding archaeologists to be "not much help at all," they took the problem to colleagues who were then scrambling to find a way to explain where things such as astronomy, cartography, and democracy had come from.

Within hours the greatest and most influential civilization of all time was born.

"One night someone made a joke about just taking all these ideas, lumping them together, and saying the Greeks had done it all 2,000 years ago," Haddlebury said. "One thing led to another, and before you know it, we're coming up with everything from the golden ratio to the Iliad."

"That was a bitch to write, by the way," he continued, referring to the pic poem believed to have laid the foundation for the Western literary tradition. "But it seemed to catch on."
I bet! It takes a long time to read, it must have taken at least a week to write.

NOW we know what's up with the scaffolding. They just built it!
Emily Nguyen-Whiteman, one of the young academics who "pulled a month's worth of all-nighters" working on the project, explained that the whole of ancient Greek architecture was based on buildings in Washington, D.C., including a bank across the street from the coffee shop where they met to "bat around ideas about mythology or whatever."

"We picked Greece because we figured nobody would ever go there to check it out," Nguyen-Whiteman said. "Have you ever seen the place? It's a dump. It's like an abandoned gravel pit infested with cats."

She added, "Inevitably, though, people started looking around for some of this 'ancient' stuff, and next thing I know I'm stuck in Athens all summer building a goddamn Parthenon just to cover our tracks."
Read the rest here.

07 October 2010

A Time Capsule in Paris

On Monday a Parisian flat was opened for the first time in 70 years.

Entering the untouched, cobweb-filled flat in Paris' 9th arrondissement, one expert said it was like stumbling into the castle of Sleeping Beauty, where time had stood still since 1900.

"There was a smell of old dust," said Olivier Choppin-Janvry, who made the discovery. Walking under high wooden ceilings, past an old wood stove and stone sink in the kitchen, he spotted a stuffed ostrich and a Mickey Mouse toy dating from before the war, as well as an exquisite dressing table.

The owner, who died recently at age 91, had left the apartment before World War II and never returned. Of course, this tidbit only made the paper because of money - there was a valuable painting among the effects (€2 million), by an Italian painter named Boldini. But I'm so much more intrigued by the gesture of leaving an apartment closed for so long. Why did the young woman, who must have been only 19 or 20, suddenly depart? Why did she never want to return? A great tragedy, an iron will, regrets of youth? What kind of money must you have to simply forget about your apartment in the 9th? The psychology of it is so exotic, I'm tantalized.

A few more photos (AFP/Marc Ottavi):

Theft from the world's oldest temple

Göbekli Tepe and its striking stelae.

Göbekli Tepe in southeast Turkey is the world's oldest known site of religious worship, with a 'temple' going back at least to the early Neolithic (9000 years). Last week Milliyet reported (Turkish) the theft of a newly discovered statue from the site. The 40-centimeter high, T-shaped stela had a human head above and an animal figure below and had been left in place in the excavation area. Sunday, when most of the excavation team was off work, archaeologist Gülsüm Yaprak discovered that the new statue was missing and called the gendarme.

A detail of one of the T-stelae. Note the vulture, scorpion, and crazy-looking bird.

I can't find any more news as yet about this major theft. It's hard to overstate the importance of the site, which has evidence for complex architecture and representative art as early as 11,000 years ago - before even the development of pottery.
The new discoveries are finally beginning to reshape the slow-moving consensus of archeology. Göbekli Tepe is "unbelievably big and amazing, at a ridiculously early date," according to Ian Hodder, director of Stanford's archeology program. Enthusing over the "huge great stones and fantastic, highly refined art" at Göbekli, Hodder - who has spent decades on rival Neolithic sites - says: "Many people think that it changes everything...It overturns the whole apple cart. All our theories were wrong."
If Ian Hodder is blown away, well, you probably should be too. I am, this site is amazing! Not least because it confirms my opinion that early people were much more like us than we usually give them credit for. The picture of the neolithic emerging from Çatalhöyük, Göbekli, and other sites in the region changes totally our picture of hunter-gatherers - from grunting savages in skins to settled communities with complex ideas and artistic traditions, who just happen to live on wild animals and plants rather than cultivated ones. Klaus Schmidt of the German Archaeological Institute, the excavation director, thinks that the stelae represent shamanistic religious traditions. Even more cool, there's lots of vultures juxtaposed with human body parts, suggesting that these people practiced sky burial, which survives in only a few remote places today (e.g. see this insane slide show or this video from Tibet).

Of course, such stuff is catnip for the unscrupulous collector, whose ego tells them they should have the right to "own" something like these stelae. I wonder if the theives were opportunistic, or whether the theft was commissioned? The fact that the stela was recently found points to inside knowledge and a certain familiarity with the archaeologists' routines. Local farmers? Workmen? Archaeologists? The Gendarmes? There's overlap between local mafias and antiquities smuggling in southeast Turkey. Depending on the area they could be connected to the Kurdish rebels, the army or gendarmes, or both.

The excavation has been closed to the public until further notice. How long it will take for the stela to show up in some museum, with an innocent-looking tag that says: "Syria or Anatolia. Purchased from an old private collection"? Whoever touches this thing deserves our rich contempt.