01 April 2012

Looting continues in Egypt

My heart goes out to Carol Redmount and the entire Hibeh team as this systematic looting of the site continues unabated. Carol's interview with PRI is below and you can read the story here. There is also a Facebook page posting daily updates on the situation.

Mummified remains exposed by looters at El-Hibeh (Image: El-Hibeh Project)

At this point you may be wondering to yourself one of several things:
  • Why would Egyptians be doing this to their own cultural heritage?
  • Why are no police guarding the site?
  • Why should I care about this stuff? It's not my problem OR there is nothing I can do.
Hunger and general poverty lead most people in the Middle East to loot. A police force stationed at every site in Egypt is completely impossible and even police monitoring would be sporadic, at best, given the current political strife still plaguing the country. You should care because we--the market countries, the buyers of ancient objects because we want to feel "closer to the past"--are fueling this looting, and as a consequence, we are destroying the past. 

Think about it: if looters/dealers could not make any money off this material, then people would not bother digging the stuff out of the ground. This is on par with Mexican drug cartels and African blood diamonds. Think people don't get killed dealing with antiquities? Think again.

So please, tell your friends and family about the situation in Egypt, in Syria, in Libya. Tell them not to buy antiquities that do not have a clear provenance, i.e. ownership history. Ask questions: where is this object from? When did it leave that place? Under what circumstances? Ask to see proof, paperwork, anything. You wouldn't want to run the risk of buying stolen goods, would you? Well, looted objects are exactly that.

27 March 2012

Digging out the real archaeological experience

"Digging Out: Archaeology Makes a Comeback in Iraq" is a wonderful recent report/documentary by Four Corners Media on the December 2011 excavation season by American and Iraqi archaeologists in southern Iraq just outside the ancient city of Ur.

I love this video not only because it is a hopeful message of renewed collaboration between American and Iraqi archaeologists, but it also perfectly captures the day-to-day activities on a typical archaeological excavation in the Middle East. The 5:00AM rush to the site for another day of work, communal meals around the kitchen table, laboratory time in the afternoon washing pottery or running the flotation tank--all of these things are part of the daily rhythm of a project, and things that I miss dearly about fieldwork.

It's been 4 years since I was out and my eye is beginning to twitch for it, especially now that spring has come around and most archaeologists are looking for the light at the end of the semester-tunnel: that light being the bright sun on a clear day out on the tell, nothing but me, my trench, my trowel, and ancient history.

Other than the physical enjoyment I find in working with my hands outside in the dirt, there is the mental aspects of fieldwork. The lack of sleep is a bummer, but Professor Stone really hits the nail on the head when she says there is a certain camaraderie and sense of community that develops on a dig that is very different than what we experience here at home. It really is something special, and the folks I have excavated with I consider some of my closest friends.

25 March 2012


Finally a video game gets it right. My favorite scene from Mass Effect 3:


I used to make fun of Liara (aka "pig nose"), but this scene completely endeared her to me. I'm sorry for all the mean things I ever said Dr. T'Soni!

Her character is actually quite fascinating. As a xenoarchaeologist she has studied ancient alien species (in this case Protheans) and the data she provides saves the entire universe. Oh, and she is a mean shot. Who said archaeologists are all nerdy little mama's boys?

Image from Jill Sandwich because it's awesome

03 March 2012

Yo mama so fat...

..when she sits around the ziggurat, she really sits around the ziggurat!

Assyriology has made it to late night television! On Thursday night Stephen Colbert had an amazingly funny segment on a newly translated cuneiform tablet that was published by Streck and Wasserman in the latest version of the journal Iraq ("Dialogues and riddles: Three Old Babylonian wisdom texts"). Check out the article here.

The jokes the tablet contains (scholars like to call them 'riddles') are dubbed by Colbert as the world's oldest 'yo mama' jokes, and he might not be that far off. This tablet, dating to around 1700 B.C., comes well before the Philogelos ("Laughter Lover" in Greek), a joke book from the 3rd or 4th century discussed in Discovery News and The Guardian a few years ago.

Of course none of this is surprising to us, right? As long as humans have been talking we have been singing, telling stories, and making fun word play including riddles and jokes. It is all part of how humans communicate, and we have been doing it for millennia.

04 February 2012

"Cultural branding rights"

This article from the New York Times last month discusses the good and bad of World Heritage Site designation by UNESCO: "What Does UNESCO Recognition Mean, Exactly?" While this short article can only be considered a cursory glance at this highly complex issue, it is worth a read. I'd be curious to know what y'all think about World Heritage status for archaeological and historic sites, as well as "intangible heritage" like traditional folklore, music, or cooking. Does the bad (unsustainable tourism, ecological degradation) outweigh the good ($$$, heightened notoriety, additional State protections)? How much follow-up and oversight does UNESCO really have over these 936 sites and traditions? My answers are: "in certain cases yes and "I can tell you now: not much."

The unfortunate closing quote by Washington's Ambassador to UNESCO David T. Killion leaves an especially bad taste in my mouth. I hope the Times took it out of context because a flat statement about "cultural branding rights," while painfully accurate in most cases, is not the best impression I want the U.S. to make at UNESCO. Then again with our funding pulled from UNESCO, most State parties might just chalk this up to lip service anyhow.

Play the "Protected or Not?" game! (from New York Times, click to enlarge)

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