25 November 2009

Googling the Iraq Museum

This just in from the BBC. Note the project is funded by the US State Department. Guilt complex maybe?

Google to digitise artefacts at Iraq National Museum

The internet search giant, Google, says 14,000 images of the precious artefacts kept in Iraq's National Museum will be available online from early next year. Google's chief executive, Eric Schmidt, said the world should see Iraq's rich heritage and contribution to culture. "The history of the beginning of - literally - civilisation... is preserved in this museum," he said.

Some 15,000 artefacts and antiquities were stolen from the museum when it was ransacked after 2003 US-led invasion. Only about a quarter are believed to have been retrieved, despite international efforts to ban their trafficking or sale.The museum, which only re-opened in February, nevertheless still holds countless relics from the Stone Age to the Babylonian, Assyrian and Islamic periods.

"I can think of no better use of our time and our resources than to make the images and ideas from your civilisation, from the very beginnings of time, available to billions of people worldwide," Mr Schmidt told Iraqi officials at a ceremony in Baghdad. Mr Schmidt said the thousands of images, "plus a few surprises", would be available on the internet early next year. The costs of the project, which have not so far been released, are being borne jointly by Google and the US state department.

This follow-up article in the New York Times actually leaves a bad taste in my mouth, in part because of the first two sentences: "Amira Edan, the director of Iraq’s National Museum, says that soon she will no longer have to worry so much that the famous institution remains closed to the public for fear of violence. People will just be able to Google it." Yes, this is an amazing project but it's not a cure for what ails in Iraq right now. It isn't even a bandage. It might even aid the trade in stolen antiquities from the museum by bolstering value. I think the only way this could be truly helpful is to bring awareness to the Iraq Museum and encourage fundraising for repairs, security, and staffing. This new development also begs the question: like Disney, is Google taking over the world?


22 November 2009

More from 2012

On the heels of my earlier post about how absurd the movie 2012 is comes this post from a blog I read regularly authored by Kurt Hunt. Kurt, like me, is quick to call bullsh*t on many things, especially pseudoscience and its plague upon archaeology. Here is the post in part; follow the link to read the rest:

I, along with several other websites, received an email this week with details on a new series being developed for the History Channel called Seekers 2012.  Here’s what the email said:

Mr. Hunt,

I am working on a documentary series for the History Channel focusing on the Mayan prediction that 2012 will be the END OF DAYS.  We will be taking an academic approach to the mysterious prophecies set out by the Mayans and other cultures.  We are looking for two investigators/researchers to host the series.  Ideally our investigative team will be comprised of a man and a woman between the ages of 26 and 55, who are scientists, investigators and adventurers.

We are looking for people with advanced degrees (Anthropology, Ethnology, Mesoamerican studies etc. with an interest in 2012) who are open, curious and rigorous. Because this is a television series these investigators must also be articulate, passionate, knowledgeable and comfortable in front of an audience and a camera.

In each episode our Hosts will scour the globe investigating these “End of Days” prophesies and other unexplained phenomena from history and the world.  These Hosts will share their questions, investigative techniques, knowledge and gut instincts with the audience, as they seek answers to some of the world’s oldest and most ominous predictions.

If you or anybody you know may be interested, please feel free to pass this email along or contact me directly.  More information as well as an application can be found at our website: Seekers 2012

Thanks so much and I look forward to hearing from you.

I groaned; deep and guttural, my head hit the desk.  I hadn’t groaned as hard in months, not since I’d received an offer to host a series called Aliens Did It.  Once again, pseudoscientific beliefs were attempting to get their foot in the door of public entertainment under the guise of “scientific investigation”.  I raised my head and cracked my knuckles.  This time it was personal.  This time it was trying to slip its slimy paws around archaeology.  Well I wasn’t about to stand for it....

Read the rest here >>

15 November 2009

Broken promises for the Ma'dan

What better way to end a leisurely weekend filled with margaritas, knitting, baking and a steak dinner than with archaeology news! In brief, the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford has reopened its doors after 10 years of closure and a 15 million pound upgrade. This is great news for us Near East archaeologists since the Ashmolean houses a world-renowned collection of objects from Mesopotamia and Egypt. Of course, the role of the museum in Orientalist tendencies of the 19th and early 20th centuries will be left for another day/post (or class--come on Duke!).

This report from 60 minutes (see below and here) is a nice update on what is happening with the Ma'dan or Marsh Arabs in southern Iraq. For those not in the know, for thousands of years the southern region of what is now Iraq was a huge wetland with a unique habitat compared to the rest of the region. In the early 1990s, Hussein basically drained these marshes, kicked all the people out, and flattened their homes. Now, thankfully there is a resurgence of the marshes and the people who once lived there.

This video, though a bit on the cheesy side (what reporters aren't these days?), offers a nice glimpse into the world of the Marsh Arabs. However, the "elephant in the room" is the reason why Saddam drained the marshes in the first place. The video demonizes him of course, but it was Bush Sr. and the military that encouraged the rising up of the Marsh Arabs and other Shi'ite groups to help fight the first Gulf War on the side of the Americans. When we pulled out without a shred of protection left for these groups, Saddam brought the hammer down hard as punishment. Seriously, what did we expect would happen? The same story goes for the Kurds in the north. It is appalling our broken promises led to the destruction of so many lives.

Watch CBS News Videos Online

13 November 2009

Ajax and 2012

Amongst the sensationalist news stories this week--the best being vanished Persian armies (pseudo-archaeology at its best!)--there were two New York Times pieces that caught my eye. One discusses an independent production company called "Theater of War" that performs readings from Sophocles's "Ajax" and "Philoctetes." According to their website, their goal is to "de-stigmatize psychological injury and open a safe place for dialog" apparently by demonstrating that even the most famous ancient Greek warriors suffered from mental breakdowns.

Now don't get me wrong. I think we should do everything to help out our soldiers when they return from the life-changing positions we (i.e. the US government) put them in by sending them off to a (senseless) war. I am just not quite sure how hearing about Ajax's struggles is going to help. Ajax wanted to kill all his fellow Greek generals (Fort Hood overtones here), but in the end commits suicide instead. Is this really the message we want to send? And was Ajax's rage really a result of war or his innate temperament?

The other article is a downright deliciously scathing review of "2012," which opens tonight and offers "Old Testament-style destruction served with a smile." The movie is, of course, very loosely based on an interpretation of the Mayan long count calendar that destruction and the end of the world will happen on the winter solstice: December 21, 2012. In fact, the calendar says nothing at all about this! It simply ends because it reaches the final cycle of how the Maya recorded time. The movie 2012 is just another sensationalist, post-911 play on our fears type of movie that is worth neither your time, nor money. That is unless Cusack hasn't bored you to death already and/or you love explosive environments.

*Sigh* this post has gotten slightly depressing. Guess it is time to pick up Jewel Master: Egypt. Anyone have that for the DS?


01 November 2009

The image of the prophet in Islam

The following is part of a great article in The New Republic about displaying images of Muhammad: part of Islamic doctrine or cultural development? Read on to get the real story.

Seeing and Believing
The image of the prophet in Islam: the real story

Oleg Grabar
October 30, 2009 | 12:00 am

Are representations of the Prophet Muhammad permitted in Islam? To make or not to make images of the Prophet: that is the question I will try to answer. It is an unexpectedly burning question, as the newspapers regularly demonstrate. But both the answer to the question and the reasons for raising it require a broader introduction.

There have been many times in recent years when one bemoaned the explosion of media that have provided public forums for so much incompetence and ignorance, not to speak of prejudice. Matters became worse after September 11, for two additional reasons. The first is the propagation of a climate of fear, of ever-present danger from ill-defined foes, which led in the West, and especially in the United States, to a plethora of security measures ranging from reasonable and useful to ridiculous and demeaning. Penetrating and perverting institutions and individuals, this fear collided in the Muslim world with a complex ideological and psychological evolution that led many people in Muslim countries and communities to a reflexive and often self-destructive brutality in reaction to the slightest whiff of verbal or visual provocation.

The second reason is the exacerbation of a mode of judgment that is not new by itself but has in recent years acquired frightening dimensions. It consists in identifying the country--or religion, ethnicity, race, or any other general category of human association--of anyone responsible for a crime or misdeed, and then condemning the whole group for the action of a single person. The crimes and misdeeds, I should add, need not be recent ones. They can be--and often are--events of many years and even centuries ago. A cult of past and present horrors surrounds us. The paradoxical analysis of past evils according to contemporary norms has the effect of denying history, which has its own explanation of events.

Recently Yale University Press, one of the most distinguished university presses in America, agreed to publish The Cartoons That Shook the World by Jytte Klausen, an academically acceptable and well-researched study of the publication by a Danish newspaper, in 2005, of cartoons willfully showing the Prophet Muhammad in vulgar and politically charged ways, and of the turbulent aftermath of their publication. As is well known, several weeks after their appearance these drawings--which should be called caricatures rather than cartoons: a first example of the technical ignorance in the media's accounts of the story--were shown, and sometimes simply mentioned without being shown, in Muslim communities in Europe, and then in various parts of the Muslim world. This led to riots, with losses of life, in a few cities, and to the destruction and the boycott of Danish products.

Klausen, who provides a careful chronology of the events, is a Danish political scientist who teaches at Brandeis University. Her book was meant to include the images themselves (which are available on the Internet) as well as earlier, mostly Western, illustrations of the Prophet Muhammad in a variety of contexts, usually not in a terribly favorable light. But at the last minute, and in accordance with opinions provided by a wide variety of people, Yale University Press decided to drop all representations of the Prophet from a book whose subject is their impact. The argument of the press was that the images could be considered offensive by Muslims and lead to violence, to attacks on Yale and other American institutions.

The assumption that the masses in Karachi and Jakarta would have seen, or otherwise taken note of, a book from Yale is a bit presumptuous--unless, of course, they were prodded by the media's sensationalism, and its interest in stories of riots by uncouth youths worked up in their anti-American feelings (by this point Yale and its actual book would be long forgotten) by local purveyors of hate and destruction. Yale's decision is certainly a denial of free speech, though of course the argument can be made that a possible danger to people may compel restrictions in the expression of opinions and of facts. I am not persuaded by this argument about this book. And the deletion of the images is also--a far more important criticism in this instance--a gratuitous betrayal of scholarship, since many other books (including at least four published by Yale, two of them by me) do show images of the Prophet.

Here I must make a disclosure. Several years ago, in a book on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem that was published by Harvard University Press, I included a representation of a fourteenth-century Persian painting showing the archangel Gabriel bringing the city of Jerusalem to the Prophet Muhammad. The press requested that the section of the painting representing the Prophet be removed. First I objected and then I agreed, because its presence was not essential to my argument; but the episode left a bad taste in my mouth, a feeling of regret, especially in light of the fact that many learned books or journals, and even some popular ones, especially in Europe, publish pictures of the Prophet when such images are required by the text or proposed by their authors.

This article continues at at The New Republic...

No bones about it

Although this is a day late, a recent online article from Archaeology magazine has a wonderful history of Halloween, magic, spells, and other spooky fun stuff. I also missed a completely rad conference on the archaeology of gardens including Roman and Babylonian gardens. Grrrr why must all the good conferences be in Europe??

In other news, researchers at Penn (see NY Times article here) have been re-examining archaeological, specifically skeletal, material from the ancient city of Ur (southern Iraq) that during the middle of the third millennium BC boasted a large royal cemetery. Attached to several of the tombs were antechambers filled with gold jewelry, chariots, animals and people. Were these people servants of the elite with whom they were buried? Were they prisoners of war? Sacrificial victims? No one has been sure, even though the Royal Cemetery at Ur (as it is called) was excavated over a century ago.

New CT scans of the craniums that were recovered and shipped home at the time of excavation show these individuals did not in fact ingest poison and go into that "sweet goodnight" as the initial excavator Sir Leonard Woolley proposed. They instead suffered trauma to the head indicated by holes in the back of the skull created by a pike or other sharp instrument.

While this is certainly interesting stuff, we must remember that this analysis was done on only two skulls. We cannot assume everyone else in the cemetery came to the same end in the same exact way. Why don't we analyze the rest of the crania then? Well, based on excavation methods and research demands of the time, much of the skeletal material from tombs were never saved. Alas, we may never know the whole story of the cemetery at Ur. But then again, that is what most archaeologists thrive on: contemplating the unknown or unknowable..
"What interests me most about prehistory is precisely what cannot be known about it"
-Lucy Lippard  
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