18 January 2010

I am Spartacus!

For you '300' and 'Rome' fans out there, a new series is about to debut over at Starz: 'Spartacus: Blood and Sand.' This review in the NY Times by Charles McGrath highlights in many ways just how ridiculous this series is going to be:
"Overtaxed, militarily overextended and with an increasing gap between the haves and the have-nots, the Romans, we learn, were a lot like us, but for entertainment purposes they had some signal advantages: They were more violent, they wore skimpier clothes and they had orgies. “Spartacus: Blood and Sand,” a retelling of the history of the famous slave and his rebellion, does not neglect any of these traits. It features abundant nudity, both male and female. (“In the early days we had a lot of conversations about how many penises we could show in a single episode,” Rob Tapert, one of the producers, recalled recently.)"

How many penises they could show in a single episode?? Oh I am sure they had a contest going. McGrath continues:
"Mr. DeKnight [the head writer for the show] went on to say that he had included a homage to the famous “I’m Spartacus!” moment, when all the movie slaves claim to be the Kirk Douglas character, and had tried not to overlook the film’s epic feeling. “It was a great time for men especially — a period when men were men,” he said, referring to the Spartacus era and the end of the Roman republic."
Do any of my male readers out there get mad when they hear stupid lines like that? "When men were men," as if men of today are somehow less than they should be. DeKnight continues:
"About the show’s explicitness, he said: “We wanted to push the envelope. We’re fine with graphic sexuality, graphic violence as long as it comes from a place in the story. And I think the violence has an operatic element. We wanted to make it beautiful in a way.”"
Beautiful violence. This is what we are selling to the viewing populous. Is it any wonder I don't watch television anymore? Plus, continuing this stereotype of life in the ancient (or classical) past as brutal, sexual, and short seems to be the only card TV execs have up their sleeve these days. I loathe the day where I teach a classical Greece or Rome class and have to deal with students learning their "history" from these shows. Don't believe me? Ask my colleague who called out a student once because their exam answers were based on the Hollywood movie Troy and not the actual story of the Trojan War.

16 January 2010

The uncensored Bible

Following on the heels of The Harlot by the Side of the Road and the X-Rated Bible, comes The Uncensored Bible, the newest book to tackle the sexual nature of biblical literature that ironically stands as the backbone of morality for many people in this nation and around the world. As Tibor Krausz rightly states in his review, the biblical books are a product of their time where fertility cults and "erotically-charged fecundity" were a mainstay of Near Eastern myths, stories and (sometimes) daily practice. 

Take for instance Enki, Mesopotamia god of the "sweet waters," who fertilizes the fields with his ejaculated sperm in a Sumerian myth or the Egyptian god Aten who masturbates the world in to existence. In Genesis 47:29, Jacob asks Joseph to swear an oath not to bury him in Egypt by "put[ting] your hand under my thigh" ("Thigh" in this case is a euphemism for male genitalia). And Ziony Zevit, professor of Semitic languages at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, thinks God took not a rib from Adam in the Garden of Eden to create Eve, but instead his baculum or "penis bone." According to Krausz, and I tend to agree, "notwithstanding Bible-thumping puritans who claim scriptural authority for their censorious prudery, the Good Book is replete with lewd metaphors, sexual innuendo, and outright obscenities, often starring some of the Bible’s most famous characters." Obviously Rubens (whose painting of Adam and Eve is pictured here) did not get the memo. Check out the rest of the book review here.    

09 January 2010

Happy New Year! Pt. 2

Still catching up with the news from the holiday. Thankfully there is a lot of good stuff! For example, the oldest primate fossil has been found in Asia, not Africa. This challenges our long-held belief that modern humans evolved and emigrated out of Africa. These new fossils from Asia are 35 million years old, while the oldest remains from Africa are only 32 million.

Minoan shipwreck has been found off the coast of Crete. The Minoans were a maritime empire that rule the area around Crete (in the Mediterranean) between about 3100 and 1000 BCE. Though we always knew they had impressive ships (due to ancient artistic depictions), we had never actually found one until now!

In the unending battle over the early Iron Age in Israel, this new bit of evidence is fanning the flames: the earliest Hebrew inscription has been found (see also here and here. UPDATE: here too). Not truly an "inscription" (i.e. the words are not inscribed in to anything), it is ink graffito (see image) on a ceramic sherd that likely dates to the 10th century BCE, or the time of the "United Monarchy" of David and Solomon. Most biblical minimalists believe the Hebrew scriptures were written well after the events that were written about took place. Now this inscription is being used to counter that hypothesis by showing the development of the Hebrew language was well developed at this early phase. No doubt a huge debate will swell from this, so stay tuned!

Some ancient plant news! A supposed 4,000 year old lentil seed excavated in Turkey has successfully germinated! I love ancient plants (as evidenced by this, this, this and this) so this is pretty cool. If the ensuing plant lives, it will help scholars compare ancient "pristine" plants with our genetically altered (and sadly, engineered) ones of today.

Finally a red granite pylon from the palace complex of Cleopatra was excavated from the harbor at Alexandria in Egypt. The 7.4-foot-tall pylon weighs 9 tons and was originally part of the entranceway to the Temple of Isis. The pylon will be used as a feature in a planned underwater museum. For more info, see this helpful UNESCO site. Picture on the right is from AP Press.  

04 January 2010

Happy New Year! Pt. 1

Back from a relaxing holiday with the 'rents. Hope everyone else had a fun and peaceful last few weeks as well. In the meantime, there is a lot going on archaeology-wise including:
  • A wonderful spoof on the Canaanite origins of our Christmas traditions has resurfaced! (Note: probably only funny to nerdy academics)
  • Even ancient Egyptians had heart disease. Bummer.
  • Foraging early humans ate wild grains as well as fruits, nuts and other tasty (and easy to acquire) stuff. This fact also apparently gave license to the NY Times to create a nifty new graphic that plays off traditional hominid stereotypes! Score! (see right)
  • Noah's Ark was actually circular (reader beware: the evidence for this, namely a cuneiform tablet from 1,700 BCE was found "somewhere in the Middle East" in the mid-twentieth century. Archaeo-senses tingling...). A related(?) story can be found here fresh off the latest expedition to find Noah's Ark in eastern Turkey.
What really bothers me is that it seems likely my colleagues and I will not be able to get a dig permit for Turkey any time soon due to new regulations (see below), however this pseudo-archaeologist Mr. Price is getting tons of financial donors and serious dirt time (snow time?) in the Anatolian frontier. Has the world gone mad?

Well, maybe not "mad" but it is certainly changing. I've been meditating on a recent blog post over at Archaeopop about 2010 and the future of archaeology as discussed through the lens of Zahi Hawass and the latest in the political battles over the ownership of cultural property and national identities (in short, France is returning objects to Egypt. Read more about this at Archaeopop and here and here). According to Dan, the post's author, this latest story in the emerging saga of source countries and repatriation serves as "a prelude to the decolonization of archaeological practice." His prediction is that, "the new decade will see the emergence in archaeology of a multipolar order that replaces the Euro-American superpowers."

Decolonization of archaeological practice. This is both exciting and scary at the same time. "Exciting" because it resounds with the prospect of multivocal approaches to the past that transcend racial, ethnic and national boundaries. Many scholars talk about international research agendas, but how many are actually doing it? How many even condescend to publish in languages other than their native tongue to reach wider, worldly audiences? At the same time, my own Western education and training has instilled in me a sense of the traditional archaeological enterprise that evokes many "colonialist" tendencies. For example, a close advisor once remarked he goes in [to country], excavates, keeps his head down (i.e. stays out of local and national political and/or cultural affairs), and leaves. How am I to break this type of conditioning?

It seems I am going to have to become a fast learner. Very recent stipulations enacted by the Turkish Culture and Tourism Ministry have now mandated all foreign excavators must have a Turkish co-director AND four-month-long-minimum field seasons (see article in latest Science). This is great news for my Turkish colleagues as the "decolonization" begins, but at what cost? Almost worldwide, academic schedules permit a maximum of 3 months between spring and fall semesters making this "4-month" rule nearly impossible to follow for foreign and Turkish scholars alike. Likewise, there is currently not enough Turkish archaeologists with PhD's able to support the demand for excavation projects that are desperately needed throughout the country, especially in the dam areas. With permits also being denied in Syria, I am beginning to wonder more and more what options I have left.


Keepin' it tidy?

In an interesting parallel with my own research on households, domestic economy and use of space, archaeologists in Israel have found evidence that the discrete organization of space dates back to our earliest hominin ancestors. According to a new study in Science (see follow-up article in New York Times and image on right), the "origins of tidiness" can be found in the rock shelter homes of early Neandertals (50 - 70,000 years ago) where domestic space, even inside a cave, was consciously divided into activity areas or zones for cooking, tool making, etc. While this is certainly an interesting window on to the cognitive mind of early hominins, the use of the word "tidy" for this article is a bit misleading. Just because work was divided among areas doesn't mean these areas were kept clean and tidy, at least up to our modern-day Martha Stewart standards. Though I imagine in such close quarters, trash and unkempt spaces could quickly turn in to problems for safety and health.
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