28 February 2011

Virtual Panoramas of Herculaneum

The Herculaneum Conservation Project has a great gallery of panoramas and walkthroughs of the ancient city. Ever wanted to walk around inside the city's sewers? Or maybe Insula Orientalis I? Here's an app for that.
A bit of the Herculaneum sewer system, walk on through
Insula Orientalis I
I like this project a lot and the site works beautifully. But I'm struck by how much this QTVR technology (which has been in use by archaeologists for over 10 years now) seems old-fashioned compared to Google street view. The Quicktime and flash images are nice, but they take a while to load and the distortion as you move around in an image makes my eyes hurt. Street view has a more intuitive, less static interface. (Compare, for instance, the Street View of Pompeii.) I have no idea how much that technology costs compared to QTVR, which can be implemented with just a camera, tripod, and laptop. But it does make me think about the dilemmas of choosing a technology for a project like this, knowing that it will probably be superseded in just a few years by something new.

Tut Week: Batman vs. King Tut

I've got lots of Tut for you this week, starting off with Batman!
The original Tut was, shall we say, somewhat more svelte.
The Adam West Batman series of the late 1960s featured a recurring villain named "King Tut", a batty archaeology professor who turned into an Egyptological supervillain whenever he got bonked on the head. Deliciously campy. Here's "King Tut's Coup", which aired March 8, 1967 on ABC.
Part One:

Parts two and three after the jump.

27 February 2011

Thailand and Cambodia War over World Heritage Site

For two weeks this month Thai and Cambodian troops repeatedly clashed with tanks, infantry and aircraft over a disputed border territory that includes the UNESCO-listed Preah Vihear temple complex.

Preah Vihear (Wikimedia)
The spectacular temple complex is one of the architectural masterworks of the medieval Khmer Empire, but was awarded to Cambodia in 1962 by the International Court of Justice. Thailand never accepted the judgment, and considered 2008 Cambodia's nomination of Preah Vihear to the World Heritage List as a provocation. The temple complex was inscribed by UNESCO in July 2008 in a dizzying climate of mass demonstrations, rival Buddhist prayer marches, and military build-ups along the border. High tension ahd sporadic fighting has followed, including firefights in October 2008, January and April 2010, and again this month. The video, from February 7, is terrifying. Apparently some temple buildings have been hit by artillery.

Unpacking this story is a headache for the non-expert (me): the wikipedia article has much more detail on the conflict. The temple itself was constructed in the 11th and 12th centuries and was the spiritual heart of the Khmer Empire, which had its capital at the much more famous city of Angkor, which was the world's largest preindustrial city. The empire was majority Hindu in this period, though neither Cambodia or Thailand has a large Hindu population today. The temple complex has had a gory recent history: it was the site of the last stand of the Republican forces resisting the Khmer Rouge in 1975, and a massacre of up to 10,000 Cambodian refugees by the Thai army in 1979 after their forcible repatriation from camps in Thailand. Thai troops forced over 40,000 refugees over the steep cliffs of the temple onto the minefields below.

Preah Vihear certainly has 'outstanding universal value' in the sense of the World Heritage List. But I find it strange that the World Heritage Committee was so tone deaf to the modern tragedies and current nationalist tension when they chose to inscribe the site. So far from serving as a tool for increasing international understanding, inscription provided a flashpoint for nationalist feelings. Bazookas and high-caliber bullets are bad for ancient architecture.

This raises an important questions for UNESCO: surely there are sites whose preservation and appreciation would be advanced by being kept off of official lists of cultural heritage? And now that the fighting has started, why is the site not on the list of heritage in danger? Situations like this are ones which the UN system has few tools with which to cope.

24 February 2011

Bert and Ernie Explore a Pyramid

Classic Sesame Street.

All these years later, I still totally relate to Ernie.

23 February 2011

Tunisian dictator looted Carthage, too

Nice pool deco
 The family of ousted Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was apparently using Tunisia's museums and archaeological sites as their private collection, reports Marisa Katz in The Art Newspaper:
Many of the artefacts and antiquities confiscated by the Ben Alis originally came from the Bardo Museum, which has the world's largest collection of Roman mosaics. According to Samir Aounallah, the Tunisian museums committee president, Leila Ben Ali used museum artefacts, including mosaics and frescoes, to decorate the family's villas.
Archaeological sites have also been affected. “I have accredited sources that have said sites in Cap Bon had objects taken from them by the Ben Ali clan,” said Aounallah. Although the director was not sure whether these pieces had been returned to their rightful owners, he did point out that a significant amount of “objects found in the villas of the Ben Ali clan have now been put back in their rightful collections.”

According to Julien Anfruns, the director general of the International Council of Museums (ICOM), several international archaeologists and curators are currently in Tunisia surveying potential damage to objects as well as drawing up revised inventories for the country's museums. Despite the violence, which according to a United Nations mission saw 219 people killed and 510 injured, museums have for the most part remained well protected. “People there are very understanding of the importance of the preservation of these museums,” said Anfruns.
Ben Ali shared the goodies with friends, too. As Richard Miles notes in the Guardian, the dictator's developer buddies were given sweet real estate deals on top of archaeological areas:
I started excavating in Carthage in the mid-1990s and it was clear that [Tunisian archaeologist Abdelmajid] Ennabli and those who had strived for decades to protect Carthage were fighting a losing battle against a cabal of influential businessmen and politicians who all enjoyed presidential patronage. For these people Carthage was nothing more than a piece of prestigious real estate ripe for "economic development". The legislation that protected the ancient city was a mere inconvenience that could be ignored and brushed aside.

As an archaeologist one understands that the needs of the present have to be balanced against the preservation of the past, but the regular flouting of the planning laws by members of Ben Ali's family had little to do with solving Tunisia's severe housing shortage. One only has to look at the brochure for the "Residences of Carthage", a luxury housing development illegally built on protected land to see that. One can marvel at the chutzpah of the developers' boast of its proximity to Roman ruins when there is little doubt that they were probably built on top of Roman ruins.
The Residences de Carthage are indeed super swanky. Take a look here, then go and sign the petition to restore protections to the site of Sidi bou Said/Carthage.

UPDATE: PhDiva has raked up articles from the French press, suggesting that the Ben Ali/Trabelsi clan may have been involved in antiquities smuggling as well. Read it here.   

15 February 2011

Egypt: Young Archaeologists Protest Hawass [UPDATED]

Ben Curtis - Associated Press
The January 25 movement is having all kinds of ripples, including inside Egypt's archaeology establishment. Yesterday 150 archaeologists, many young graduates, protested at the Supreme Council of Antiquities, demanding that Zahi Hawass resign. (Hawass was elevated to Minister of Heritage about 10 days ago, during the height of the protests.) Christopher Torchia of the Associated Press reports:
The archaeologists' protest was also deeply personal, with protesters saying Hawass was a "showman" and publicity hound with little regard for thousands of archaeology students who have been unable to find work in their field.
"He doesn't care about us," said 22-year-old Gamal el-Hanafy, who graduated from Cairo University in 2009 and carried his school certificates in a folder. "He just cares about propaganda."
The graduates said the antiquities ministry had offered them three-month contracts at 450 Egyptian pounds ($75) a month, hardly enough to survive. They noted that Egypt's tourism industry is a major foreign currency earner, and yet it was unclear how exactly the government was spending the income.
A foreign tourist spends up to 160 Egyptian pounds ($27) to visit the pyramids of Giza and descend into a tomb there, said 25-year-old Said Hamid. Multiply that, he said, by the thousands who used to visit daily until upheaval drove away foreign visitors and plunged the lucrative industry into crisis. "Where is the money?" said Hamid, a 2007 graduate who works in a travel agency but specialized in restoration of artifacts as a student.
Unlike lawyers or doctors, who have private options, archaeologists in Egypt mostly rely on the government for jobs. Protesters also complained that less-qualified people secured posts in the antiquities office through "wasta," which translates roughly as connections or influence.
$75 a month! That's an insult even in Egypt. The kids are right to be  galled, given the ticket revenues the country receives from its archaeology. In many monument-rich countries the money sucked out of tourists at heritage sites disappears into the government somewhere, with no relationship between visitor numbers and funding for research or conservation. 

Khalil Hamra - Associated Press
Even more of a problem is the number of university graduates in relation to available jobs. Egypt has a 25% rate of university attendance, the highest in the nation's history, and comparable to Europe and the United States. Although the country has a 9.4% unemployment rate, it's 25% for people under 30, who are 87% of the unemployed. The gap between expectation and reality for university grads is bad all over, but there is a special starkness in poor countries where the safety net is thinner. The social explosion spreading across the Arab world is fueled by this mass of young, educated and frustrated  people.

It's great to hear these young archaeologists speaking out (Hawass' reputation as a totalitarian media whore seems well-deserved) but never form within Egypt. Let's hope the new order makes room for better funding and career opportunities for the next generation of archaeologists and conservators.

UPDATE (February 23): Nevine Al-Aref at Al-Ahram Online reports that Hawass has met with the protesters and outlined hisplan to create more jobs in the heritage sector:
During the meeting, which Ahram Online attended, the students made it clear that their protests were only held because there had been a lack of information about how the ministry, formerly known as the Supreme Council of Antiquities, was trying to address the lack of jobs available for newly-qualified archaeologists and restorers.
Achraf El-Achmawi, a legal consultant at the ministry, said that the new appointments would be made according to a schedule starting in March.
The first phase of this plan will provide jobs for 900 archaeologists and restorers, who will be given paid training within the ministry for a period of five months. The second phase, he continued, will follow the completion of the first one and will provide the same paid training for 500 people followed by an identical third phase.

The promises sound a bit vague to me given the unstable situation, but let's hope Hawass can make it happen.

Richard Pryor: Egypt, 1909

In an ancient tomb, Richard Pryor discovers humanity's secrets... and his colleagues can't take it.

First aired on the Richard Pryor Show on September 20, 1977

14 February 2011

Love Among the Ruins

Happy Valentine's Day from Archaeopop and Robert Browning.

'Love Among the Ruins' (1852, first published in Men and Women, 1855) 
Where the quiet-coloured end of evening smiles, Miles and miles On the solitary pastures where our sheep Half-asleep Tinkle homeward thro' the twilight, stray or stop As they crop-- Was the site once of a city great and gay, (So they say) Of our country's very capital, its prince Ages since Held his court in, gathered councils, wielding far Peace or war.
Now the country does not even boast a tree, As you see, To distinguish slopes of verdure, certain rills From the hills Intersect and give a name to, (else they run Into one) Where the domed and daring palace shot its spires Up like fires O'er the hundred-gated circuit of a wall Bounding all Made of marble, men might march on nor be prest Twelve abreast.

13 February 2011

Music to Dig By: Pink Floyd plays Pompeii

In October 1971, Pink Floyd recorded six songs in the amphitheater of Pompeii, without an audience. The film 'Live At Pompeii' was released in 1972 (and a director's cut in 2003).

Super epic and purely theatrical at the same time. The lack of an audience symbolizes what happened with progressive rock: the 18-minute jam became the end in itself, without the need to hold a live audience. 'Album-oriented rock' is meant to listen to at home, alone, and stoned, so you don't mind the fact that the song never ends.

Still sounds rad though. Here's 'Echoes', Part Two:

11 February 2011

UFO Phil Wants to Build a Pyramid on Pike's Peak

I have to admit, Photoshop makes this idea seem almost cool.

'UFO Phil' is a comedian and writer of terrible songs about UFOs. He's been implanted with a "telepathy chip" that allows him to communicate with "Zaxon" and "Rogness", a couple of aliens from somewhere or other. Lately he's been eating out on an unlikely plan: building a replica of the Great Pyramid of Giza on top of Pike's Peak in Colorado (14,112'/4,302m). As AOL News reports, The pyramid will function as an UFO docking station. Denver's KMGH TV 7 is there with hard-hitting coverage:

Besides serving as landing stations, the pyramid will also generate free energy:
Hill alleges that the ancient Egyptian pyramids -- designed by extraterrestrials, of course -- were massive stone power stations. Through his ongoing otherworldly contacts, he's been singled out and gifted with secret blueprints and schematics. These plans, of alien design, of course, reveal how the pyramids can generate enough hydrogen gas to power everything on Earth.
Apparently one alien ship brings sand, and the other brings hydrochloric acid, and they mix it in the pyramid, and it makes hydrogen, then the spaceships take it "all over the galaxy". Phil explains it to a reporter at the Colorado Springs Gazette (free energy technique at 1:52):

Dude is pretty annoying, but has some funny jokes. Building the pyramid will create jobs, since it takes so many men to lug the stones up to the top of the peak. "I can't pay them much, but I understand that was how it was done originally anyway." Priceless.

The gift shop and restaurant will be moved to a deck on the side of the pyramid.

Phil obviously came up with this pyramid thing as a media stunt to sell some songs on iTunes and turn himself into a meme. But hey, he seems to have managed it all right. In case you're not sick of this dweeb yet, he's got a facebook page, too.

09 February 2011

Three ages of denim

This month Gallery Didier Aaron in New York (didieraaron.com, via Boing Boing and NYT Magazine) is showing a newly-discovered fragment of an archaeology of daily life - an anonymous 17th century painter known as 'the Master of the Blue Jeans'. His paintings show scenes of everyday life in Italy: a barbershop, a woman sewing, a family begging, a poor child. In each one, we see a familiar blue fabric in a most unfamiliar setting.

Galerie Didier Aaron

The exhibition of seven works by this previously unknown painter was organized by Gerlinde Gruber of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and runs in New York until February 18th. She was the one who attributed these paintings to a single artist - previously they had been attributed to a variety of other masters.

Denim is so deeply ingrained into the fabric of everyday life today (excuse the pun), that its history has been obscured. I hadn't known until today, for instance, that blue denim-like fabrics have been in use since the 14th century in Europe. The name comes from 'serge de Nîmes': it was a type of serge, or twill, made in the French city of Nimes. It was a tough material for poor people. 'Blue jeans' as a name for denim trousers seems to come from 'bleu de Genes', or 'Genoa blue', since the trousers were adopted as workwear by Genoa's navy (according to wikipedia, anyhow).

The paintings make it obvious how totally we've forgotten the early history of the fabric that rules our lives. Putting 17th century characters in denim is weird and provocative - the kind of thing you'd expect from an art student's master's thesis. Look at this kid in his thrashed, too-big denim coat. He's ruddy, a little vacant, a little fearful maybe. He looks beaten down by life, and he's probably only nine. It's radically dissonant from everything we associate with a jean jacket.

I put this dissonance down to the power of the American ideal of denim. The fabric always had totally different connotations there. Since blue jeans became the iconic look of the California gold rush, they've been associated with the frontier, with its miners and cowboys. Blue jeans were the dress of free men and adventurers - the jeans might be ragged but they say 'hard work' and 'self-sufficiency' rather than 'grinding poverty'. The paintings in the Master of the Blue Jeans exhibit not only show denim fabric, but associate it with the ragged, hunger-stalked life of the urban masses of Europe: lives of subjection to which America formed a symbolic counterpoint. They present an almost total contrast to the cowboy image.

Look at these miners: hard-working frontiersmen, not sad-eyed beggars (The Fashionary)

In the 1980s we started the third age of denim: thanks to the Hollywood-industrial complex the fabric of working men, greasers, and hippies has become a massive, globalized business that dresses billions. For the first time, we no longer pretend that denim is workwear, or supposed to be cheap. Try finding a decent pair of jeans for under $60 (I recommend 511s)! In a lot of places, wearing jeans is a mark that you've emerged from developing country gloom and joined the global society: check out, for instance, Levi's new China-focused branding and marketing efforts. Rather than signaling poverty, donning denim is now a marker of its opposite. An object lesson in the mutability of material culture, and a good reminder for the archaeologist that the meaning of objects is never fixed.

Look, they're wearing denim. But are they European beggars, or gold miners? I'm confused.

Some extra links:
More denim history is here.
Fawning yet nonetheless interesting microhistories of many luxury denim brands at Denimblog.
See the 100-year old pair of Levi's discovered in the Nevada desert.

02 February 2011

Tracking the Looting in Egypt

A decapitated mummy in the Egyptian Museum (National Geographic)

If you can spare an eye from Al Jazeera's live feed from Cairo, I want to recommend two sites tracking what we know about looting of museums and sites since the protests began in Egypt last week:
I'm glad these sites are out there: given the mix of bland optimism (Zahi Hawass says everything's just fine) and alarmism ("UCLA Egypt Professor: Museum Looting, Mummy Beheading is a Huge Loss for World Heritage") it's hard to know what exactly is going on. Obviously, with the national police AWOL for a few days and the army otherwise distracted, this is a great window of opportunity for looters.

Standing guard (National Geographic).

In the fuss about the attack on the Egyptian Museum (which seems to have been orchestrated by the police for propaganda value), I hadn't heard about the thefts from less-known depots and sites (Qantara, the Coptic Museum in Cairo, Memphis, Herakleopolis Magna, Saqqara, Giza), though some of them are rumors as yet without any hard data. Let's hope that Zahi is right, and everything remains under lock and key. And props to all of the demonstrators who formed that human chain in front of the Egyptian Museum.

Nat Geo has a good article on how bloggers and ordinary people are pitching in to protect museums and recover stolen artifacts, and a good summary of the museum attack (dated Sunday), including this video: