31 January 2008

Paleo shoes and forensic architects

I know this story from Discovery News is from last week, but I just haven't gotten around to it until now (sorry). Analysis of toe bones from a preserved Paleolithic skeleton in China reveal that this individual wore some kind of stiff-soled shoe. That pushes back the date for the earliest footwear to 40,000 years ago! That's not to say that people weren't wearing some kind of skin or flexible shoes even earlier, however these materials do not preserve in the archaeological record (normally) and don't leave a signature upon the bones.

With soft-soled shoes and walking barefo
ot, the body pushes off with the middle toe that curls under and takes the most stress. With stiff-soled footwear, it is the big toe that takes the stress. So where are the shoes themselves? Well as I said above, most don't survive and the earliest ones we have on record (rope sandals) date from about 10,000 B.C.

And for you engineering and architectural types, this article in Smithsonian Magazine has in depth descriptions of the Parthenon in Athens, Greece, specifically how modern restoration efforts are attempting to recreate the techniques of the ancient masons and des
igners. Tell me, is this not the most bad ass picture of the Parthenon you have ever seen??

29 January 2008

Genii in Manhattan

An art installation by Jo Wood-Brown will be lighting up the night with a scene from ancient Mesopotamia come February 2, 2008. The building-sized installation features a scene that was originally carved on a stone relief from the palace of Ashurnasipal II, king of Assyria from 883-859 BCE. Winged geniis/geniuses or protective spirits flank a stylized "sacred tree" motif.

The artist claims the work, "takes us out of the realm of the ordinary and into the realm of art and the imagination...it is a call for peace." Don't know how ancient art can bring peace, but perhaps he means inner peace for individuals. This certainly is a good example of how the ancient art of Mesopotamia (and anywhere really) can still inspire the modern public and artistic fields. Plus, it is just kinda neat.

28 January 2008

Amarna laborers and more mosaic!

It seems a controversy is brewing in Egypt. Last week Dr. Barry Kemp and Dr. Jerry Rose, excavators at the famed city of Amarna in Middle Egypt announced that the people who built and lived in this newly-formed capital of Egypt during the reign of Akhenaten (King Tut's dad) were underfed and succumbed to back-breaking labor. Analysis of the human bones revealed the average life expectancy was between only 20 and 35 years and due to stunted growth from a poor diet, this community had the shortest stature ever recorded in Egypt's past.

Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, is naturally fighting back. In a statement to the Egypt State Information Service, he says the statements by Kemp and Rose are "not based on any admissible scientific proofs." He
continued by saying, "building [this] city was an obsession for ancient Egyptians, like the Giza Pyramids, and workers wanted to realize a national achievement to be proud of" (emphasis mine).

A national achievement? This city was the designed show piece for a pharaoh who completely went against the established political and religious institutions. I don't think the people were proud when, after Akhenaten's death, they defaced his monuments and his image. This is just Hawass trying to paint a Utopian picture of the Egyptian past for political reasons today.

Ok, with that rant over, here is some cool mosaic news. AP reported today that a 1400-year-old glass tile mosaic panel has been fully restored from the site of Caesarea, located on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee in Israel. What is so special about this panel is both its preservation--it fell forward, face down on the floor during the destruction of the palace it was in, thus preserving it from fire and falling debris--and the materials used in its construction. It is made from gold glass (pretty) along with the usual multicolored opaque glass.


25 January 2008

SoCal museums in big trouble

Four southern California museums were raided yesterday as part of an ongoing federal law enforcement investigation into the buying of looted/stolen antiquities (see article here). Those museums are: the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, Pacific Asian Museum in Pasadena, and the Mingei International Museum in San Diego.

Basically the feds are looking into 2 local antiquities dealers (Robert Olson and Jonathan Markell) who smuggle artifacts out of Thailand, Myanmar, China and Native American sites within the United States and have these objects falsely appraised for at least double and in some cases, up to 400% of their real value. They then would sell the objects to collectors and eventually convince them to donate the objects to local museums. The dealers then rake in the tax write off for these donations based on the inflated value of the object.

Apparently this is the culmination of a 5-year investigation that includes hours of tapped interviews with the dealers that reveals the museums and their curators knew the objects they were acquiring were stolen or looted illegally from their countries of origin.

It is amazing to see the museum and collecting world crumble before our eyes, but people don't realize that this sort of activity has been happening for years. It is a multi-million dollar industry that the museums have a big hand in, whether it be for perpetuating the trade in looted art or forgeries. The sad part is, despite the realities of this industry coming into public view, I am still considering a career in this field. Is it only a pipe dream of mine to run a successful, 'clean' museum with no illegally-obtained objects?


21 January 2008

Ancient music: my career switch is coming

In another life, I would have been an archaeologist who specialized in ancient music and musical instruments. Wait, what am I saying?! I still have time to switch, right? Right? Ah crap I guess I should finish this diss first, but afterward, look out!

So what brought about these delusions of grandeur (as my adviser would most likely call them)?
Ha'aretz ran a story today about the newly opened exhibit at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem called "Sounds of Ancient Music" and yes, it is as cool as it sounds. Haha ok bad pun.


The exhibit features real and replica musical instruments that derive from archaeological sites that span the Near East, both in time and location. Among these include a flute from a burial cave in the French Hill neighborhood of Jerusalem (Second Temple Period), a Roman Period silver bowl depicting Eros playing the kithara, and, my personal favorite: one of the oldest wind instrument uncovered in the Near East: a flute from the Chalcolithic period, which is roughly 4500-3000 B.C. Where the flute is from is (angrily) left out of the article.

Coolest part is that through multimedia stations set up around the museum, guests get the opportunity to "play" these ancient instruments... virtually of course.

The image above is from a similar story in
the J-Post about the exhibit. It shows pillar figurines of musicians (women?) playing frame drums.

20 January 2008

Copyrighting the pyramids: follow-up

A recent story in National Geographic News gives a bit more detail about the recent announcement by Hawass and the Egyptian Council of Antiquities to copyright the Pyramids at Giza and any other recognizable antiquities of the country, essentially making it illegal to produce exact replicas or sell images (see photo of sphinx replica from China).

The key word here is "exact." So if you make a replica of the pyramids that is say, one tenth the scale, that's ok to sell. I'm sure even with small antiquities, like scarabs, a little bit of tweaking can still make them legal replicas. The real blow here seems to be for the photographs. There are literally millions of photographs on the web and in print of the pyramids, etc. How can all of these be monitored and the owners made to pay for their copyright infringement? Oh ya, they can't.

Contrary to my previous blog on this subject, the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas, NV will apparently not be targeted by the Egyptian government. They seemed to have taken the high (smart) road on this one. Said Ashraf El Ashmawi, author of this new legislation, "The Luxor pyramid is good for me. This is publicity for free."

Something good it seems will come of this new copyright law: stricter penalties for antiquities smugglers, looters and sellers. The maximum penalty will increase for guilty smuggling offenders from 15 years in jail to a possible life sentence (ouch) plus $90,000 USD fine. Convicted looters will receive up to 5 years in prison and $18,000 USD fine.

So are these penalties too harsh? Is a life sentence, on par with murderers and child molesters, warranted for someone smuggling antiquities?


15 January 2008

Digging the Bible and other government ploys

This was a well-written article by David Plotz on his recent trip to Jerusalem where he toured around the Old City with Israeli archaeologist David Ilan from Hebrew Union College. It's a good article for the layman for outlining the latest news in "biblical archaeology" that, among other things, has been touting the most recent "discoveries" of Nehemiah's city wall, Hezekiah's (water) tunnel, and most controversial, the palace of David.

My favorite quote in the article comes from Ilan and shows just how solid of a head he has on his shoulders: "You have a biblical text and an archaeologist who wants to find David's palace, and bang, there it is." Many readers of this blog may not realize just how true this statement is. Even last year I was attending a local conference and heard papers presented that had similar notions: "We know this is the biblical city of X, which according to the Bible, has a 'high place' and temple, so we dug on the top of the mound and came down on this building and BANG! It was the temple! And just outside was this raised altar-thingy with steps leading up to it...the high place!"

You may think this is an over-sim
plification, but sadly it's not. I have witnesses who can back me up!

Other aspects that this article touches on are the political implications that such archaeological work in the City of David has. Take for example the photo above (courtesy of slate.com). It really is a testament to the level of 'urban archaeology' that current archaeologists face in digging the Bible, but it is also a reminder that by reclaiming this land for Israel (in the heart of the modern Arab village of Silwan pictured above) there are major socio-political implications: the Arab settlers have been gradually pushed out by state-sanctioned Jewish settlers.

As much as archaeologists like to stay apolitical, in this day in age, it seems almost impossible. Governments love archaeology in order to give deep history to their political powers over people and lands (see Nazi archaeology for example). Yet its a double edged sword: archaeologists are expected to give unbiased, objective reports about their findings for the scholarly community, but permissions to excavate are given by the government, who wish to uphold their well-established "histories" with the public. Imagine wanting to do a research project that essentially proved the Armenian genocide and asking the Turkish government for permits to work? Your career would be squashed faster than a dig house cockroach.

12 January 2008

Development of the Qur'an

I am certainly not a linguist, nonetheless, this article caught my eye. It concerns a "lost" archive of photographs taken before WWII of very early manuscripts of the Qur'an, the holy book of Islam. This archive was assembled in order to begin a progressive and controversial project that aimed to chart the development of the Qur'an as a text. This archive, for over 60 years thought lost, has now resurfaced and the project is going forward.

So why is this so controversial? Muslims believe that the Qur'an is the word of God, and thus there is no possibility that it could be a text that had multiple authors or developed over the centuries as suras (verses) were added, taken away, and generally reinterpreted, as is true with the Hebrew bible (Note: however, many strict Jews and Christians still believe the Torah, or first 5 books of the Hebrew bible/Old Testament is the word of God as well, despite recent scholarship). As you can imagine, the project has/will be coming under a lot of fire from the Muslim community worldwide as the research cautiously goes forward.

This article asks a thoughtful question though: "how [do you] reconcile Islam with the modern world?" The same way I think you reconcile Judeo-Christianity with the 21st century. Knowing that the Hebrew scripture was co-authored and edited over millennia does not make it less beautiful of a text or less full of spiritual meaning. I think people are looking for a direct connection to God through these very human documents and it is just not the way to go. Meditation and self-exploration seem much more fulfilling in not only connecting you with your "inner being" but letting you be alone and just quiet--the perfect time to talk to God.

Geez I sound like a Protestant Gnostic hippy more and more everyday, if that's even possible!

07 January 2008

Indy is back!


Check out the latest Vanity Fair issue (with pictures!) on the upcoming fourth edition of Indy Jones, due out in theaters May 22. Trust me...I will be there with my whip on.


06 January 2008

Straight up pyramids

Came across this wonderfully straightforward look at pyramids from ancient Egypt in the weekly on-line addition of Al-Ahram. Though written by a mathematician (who apparently specializes in ancient Egyptian math..kind cool), this article gives a nice summary of the archaeology behind pyramid research.

This is a great article for the layman, since Dr. Deif does a nice job of spelling things out, such as the history of pyramids as architecture and symbol in Egypt, what exactly the "Pyramid Texts" are, and of course the age old debate with pseudoarchaeologists: what the pyramids were for (burial, silly!)

Well worth the ten-minute read, if anything, to convince you that pyramids were not built by aliens, nor were they keepers of secret knowledge, giant telescopes or musical instruments.


02 January 2008

The "real" Bethlehem and copyrighted pyramids

Happy new year everyone! Back from a very relaxing and enjoyable time with my parents and ready to begin a new year of archaeological news. Of all the backlogged stories, these two caught my eye:

Sky News interviewed Aviram Oshri, an Israeli archaeologist who claims that the modern town of Bethlehem south of Jerusalem is not the Bethlehem in which Jesus was born. He instead thinks that another Bethlehem, in the Galilee region, is the actual place. As evidence he cites an impressive city wall and large church with a cave underneath similar to that found in the other Bethlehem (near Jerusalem).

So how did the connection with this Bethlehem and Jesus' birth get disconnected? Oshri controversially claims it was a deliberate act on the part of the early Christian church. According to the Hebrew bible, the Messiah was to be born in Judea, not in the Galilee. Naturally church officials and bibl
ical scholars disagree with his claims.

When it comes down to it, who cares whether or not we have found the exact place of Jesus' birth? People seem to hinge on the possibility that Mary carved into the cave wall, "Jesus was born here" thus proving the bible true. This completely flies in the face of faith, a key element that Christianity, and most religions, are based upon!

This second story is for Changston and completely laughable:

The Guardian reports that Egypt is planning to pass a law that would essentially copyright the pyramids and any other ancient monuments or works of art from that country in order to claim royalties from anyone who makes "full-scale, precise copies of any museum object or 'commercial use' of ancient monuments." This law will even apply to private use copies. Zahi Hawass says the monies raised will help pay for the upkeep of Egypt's most precious sites. The biggest offender that Hawass is after? The Luxor hotel in Las Vegas, NV.

Is this a joke? Seriously, how can you make a copyright law in your country and expect it to apply to the world? Granted, I'm not up on my copyright law, but this seems ridiculous. Hawass says more people visit the Luxor Hotel in Vegas than Luxor in Egypt. Maybe because Vegas is a hell of a lot easier to get to for most people?

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