25 February 2010

Olympic beginnings

This announcement via Jack Sasson and the Agade list. Very timely!

The Olympic Games: How They All Began
A free, downloadable e-book recounts the origins of the world's favorite games

People around the world are tuning in nightly to watch one of the world's greatest sports competitions unfolding in Vancouver. The unifying power of the Olympic games and the nationalistic pride that they inspire have held sway over athletes and spectators for thousands of years. But how did it all begin? Join us [Biblical Archaeology Review] online to receive your free copy of our downloadable e-book that highlights the glorious--and not so glorious--Olympic traditions of the ancient world.

24 February 2010

Well hello Capt. Obvious

The following UNESCO press release came out last week. Sorry for the delay. Hey get off my back! 

UK must learn from Iraq War failure to protect cultural heritage, leading culture organisations urge

Shortcomings in the UK’s planning and implementation of the 2003 Iraq invasion and occupation led to a fundamental failure to protect Iraq’s cultural property, according to evidence submitted to the Chilcot Inquiry by thirteen major heritage and culture organisations today.

The evidence highlights five main failures in the planning and implementation of the Coalition Forces’ invasion and subsequent occupation, including the relative secrecy of pre-invasion planning and how proceeds from illicit trade in looted antiquities helped fund the insurgency.

The Government is being urged to take immediate action to ensure that such a cultural catastrophe cannot happen again. This should include ratifying as a matter of urgency the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and its two Protocols of 1954 and 1999. The UK is now the most significant military power not to have ratified this convention.

The five main failures and lessons highlighted to the Inquiry in the written evidence are:

1) The ineffectiveness, relative secrecy, informality and limited scope of the pre-invasion planning for heritage and culture and the failure to plan for the aftermath, despite the vociferous concerns of many national and international heritage bodies

2) The extent and impact of looting, fuelling illicit trade in antiquities and the alarming evidence that some of the proceeds of such trade have been used to fund the insurgency

3) How the evidence that failure to protect the Iraqi people’s heritage resulted in serious problems for winning ‘hearts and minds’, making the job much harder

4) The increasingly clear picture now available of the scale of the damage to sites, museums, libraries and archives and the lessons to be learned about the effect of removing existing administrative structures to manage heritage and culture

5) The contrast between the Government’s relatively rapid action to legislate on dealing in illicit antiquity and its ongoing failure 7 years on to ratify the 1954 Hague Convention or put in place all the procedures and training needed to make it work

Summarising the heritage organisations’ key concerns, Harry Reeves OBE, Secretary General of the UK National Commission for UNESCO said: “The lessons from the Iraq war and occupation clearly shows that the UK urgently needs to ratify the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict to ensure the armed forces receive appropriate cultural property awareness training in preparation for any future deployments.”

The evidence was jointly submitted by the UK National Commission for UNESCO, British Academy, British Institute for the Study of Iraq, Council for British Archaeology, European Association of Archaeologists, Institute for Archaeologists, International Council on Monuments and Sites UK, International Council of Museums UK, Museums Association, National Trust, Nautical Archaeology Society, Society of Antiquaries of London and the UK & Ireland Committee of the Blue Shield.

Egypt roundup

For you Egyptofiles out there, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston has released their "Giza Digital Archive" with articles about the early Giza excavations that appeared in the Bulletin of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The archive can be found on the MFA website under the Giza Archives Project Library. There is also an archive for both Giza and Nubia related-publications.

On a slightly related topic, a new mummies exhibition is set to debut at California Science Center in Los Angeles. on July 1. According to the Los Angeles Times (photo on the left), "Mummies of the World," is a new traveling exhibition featuring more than 150 preserved objects including ancient mummies and artifacts from Asia, Oceania, South America and Europe -- as well as ancient Egypt. In addition, the exhibition will feature both accidental mummies -- those that were preserved via natural events such as ice -- and those that were intentionally preserved. Note this show is co-organized by American Exhibitions, the creators of the "Our Body: The Universe Within" exhibit that featured human remains that had undergone a "plastination" process preserving them for exhibition purposes. I'm guessing the same level of sensationalism in museum display will accompany this mummy show.

In more Egypt news, this article in Archaeology Magazine already seems out of date, despite being the March/April 2010 issue. According to the article, "new evidence of Tutankhamun's reign has emerged that shows he was much more active than was thought, and may have led military campaigns against the Syrians and Nubians before he died." The article also notes "The rich array of objects found in Tutankhamun's tomb speak to the opulence of the Egyptian court and the young king's pampered life. But other items, including numerous throwsticks (sort of non-returning boomerangs), spears, bows and arrows, and chariots--many inscribed with his name and clearly used--attest his athleticism and youthful energy."

Hard to have "youthful energy" when you are stricken with malaria and a bone disorder. This new insight of course comes from the recent DNA tests on the royal mummies, including Tut. However, malaria and the bone disorder could have come on later in life (right?), so who knows, maybe young Tutankhamun was an active military guy after all. Still, reports like the one in Archaeology Magazine based purely on royal artistic traditions without even questioning the propagandistic nature of these visual mediums I often take with a grain of salt.

Tut slaying Nubians? (c/o Archaeology Magazine)

23 February 2010

Exhibit on masks and rattles

This press release from the Israel Antiquities Authority is very timely, as I am working on an exhibition with our Artist-in-Residence at the museum on "sensory archaeology" and we just yesterday were discussing the rattles in our collection that date to the Iron Age (1200-586 BCE). We are actually going to make rattle replicas based on the ancient form (see picture here from IAA) so museum visitors can handle and shake them to explore both touch and sound!

Masks and Rattles - They’re Not What They Once Were

In honor of the Purim holiday, the Israel Antiquities Authority is presenting a new virtual exhibition on its website, www.antiquities.org.il, of masks and rattles that were discovered in archaeological excavations around the country. 

Appearing in the exhibition are various masks that portray humans and animals, the oldest of which is from the Stone Age and dates to c. 6500 BCE. 

A mask may change a person’s identity, his age and gender, social status and everyday appearance. Many ceremonial masks were used for ritual purposes such as rainmaking, curing disease and exorcising spirits and demons. Oftentimes such masks were in the image of deities or demons. 

The use of rattles during the reading of the scroll is a symbolic expression of the extermination of the Amalekites, the first people whom the Israelites fought when they were wandering in the desert (Exodus 17:8-13). According to tradition, Haman was a descendant of the Amalekites. 

Clay rattles that contain small stones or other materials for making noise were found in archaeological excavations in the country. The rattles occur in a variety of shapes, some are adorned with a painted or engraved decoration, but all of them produce the same noise that is characteristic of a rattle. 

Most of the rattles were found in a cultic context or inside tombs and therefore there are those who believe that they were primarily used for ritual purposes. The frequency with which rattles occur in excavations throughout the country is explained by the fact that they are small objects that were relatively easy to manufacture and were used by the general population. There is the assertion that the clay rattle was an important musical instrument in the religious practices of the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah during the First Temple period.

18 February 2010

Museum garage sales

This article in the New York Times today just smacks of the pretentious antiquities collector mentality that truly gets under my skin, but it also brings up an issue that is very real in the museum world: deaccessioning. When museum budgets are tight (like now especially) or storage space is running out (a consistent problem), many museums turn to officially/legally removing items from their collections and catalogs in a process called 'deaccessioning' and selling items through auction houses. The process of course can be very controversial as museum must decide what is not worth keeping while the general public might see this as the doling out of history or art to be forever reconciled to the obscurity of some rich person's private study.

While many might not have a problem with modern or relatively modern art pieces hitting the auction block, what about ancient artifacts? Should those always remain in a museum? Should they be returned to their cultural/ethnic/national groups of origin? I have at least one colleague who thinks archaeological museums should keep their "best" and most exemplar artifacts and sell off all the rest if they want to, her rationale being: how many ceramic lamps of identical shape, manufacture, and date do you need anyway?

This, however, goes completely against what was said in the article by Linda Stamm, owner of one of these auction houses that cater to museum clients. She says that, "...museums specialize in having unusual things." Should then museums retain these rare artifacts for education, preservation and posterity, or should they be allowed to enrich the lives of a select few who have the means and inclination to be patrons of the arts?

16 February 2010

King Tut was disabled, malarial, and inbred

Geez National Geographic, you don't mince words do you? Ker Than continues:

King Tut may be seen as the golden boy of ancient Egypt today, but during his reign, Tutankhamun wasn't exactly a strapping sun god.
Instead, a new DNA study says, King Tut was a frail pharaoh, beset by malaria and a bone disorder—and possibly compromised by his newly discovered incestuous origins.
The report is the first DNA study ever conducted with ancient Egyptian royal mummies. It apparently solves several mysteries surrounding King Tut, including how he died and who his parents were.
"He was not a very strong pharaoh. He was not riding the chariots," said study team member Carsten Pusch, a geneticist at Germany's University of Tübingen. "Picture instead a frail, weak boy who had a bit of a club foot and who needed a cane to walk."
Regarding the revelation that King Tut's mother and father were brother and sister, Pusch said, "Inbreeding is not an advantage for biological or genetic fitness. Normally the health and immune system are reduced and malformations increase," he said.

The article continues with more interesting clues to Tut's royal lineage. The study seems to confirm what we already knew: that Tut was the son of Akhenaten:

In the new study, the mummies of King Tut and ten other royals that researchers have long suspected were his close relatives were examined. Of these ten, the identities of only three had been known for certain.
Using DNA samples taken from the mummies' bones, the scientists were able to create a five-generation family tree for the boy pharaoh.
The team looked for shared genetic sequences in the Y chromosome—a bundle of DNA passed only from father to son—to identify King Tut's male ancestors. The researchers then determined parentage for the mummies by looking for signs that a mummy's genes are a blend of a specific couple's DNA.
In this way, the team was able to determine that a mummy known until now as KV55 is the "heretic king" Akhenaten—and that he was King Tut's father. Akhenaten was best known for abolishing ancient Egypt's pantheon in favor of worshipping only one god.

Check out the full article at National Geographic Daily News and another news report in today's New York Times

15 February 2010

Museum creates new Jerusalem divide

In a dispute that reflects the religious and political divides in this contested city, representatives of long-established Palestinian families petitioned the United Nations on Wednesday for help in trying to stop Israel and the Simon Wiesenthal Center from constructing a museum on part of a centuries-old Muslim cemetery.

It was the latest challenge to the Center for Human Dignity — Museum of Tolerance being built here by the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights organization. The project has been plagued by stinging criticism and other problems since 2004, when the sponsors began digging up a 50-year-old parking lot built over part of the cemetery.

At a news conference in Jerusalem on Wednesday, Palestinian campaigners, represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights, a nonprofit organization in New York, presented their arguments for preserving the burial site, known as the Mamilla Cemetery, or in Arabic, Ma’man Allah. News conferences were also held in Geneva and Los Angeles.

In Jerusalem, Jamal Nusseibeh, son of the prominent Palestinian philosophy professor Sari Nusseibeh, said at least one of his ancestors was buried in the cemetery, which lies in what is now the predominantly Jewish western part of the city.

The cemetery, he said, is “part of the very rich fabric of Jerusalem.” The thought that anyone would want to wipe it out, he said, was “very hard to understand.”

You can read the rest of the article by Isabel Kershner at the NY Times website.

In short, I find it interested that only when this controversial museum is slated to be built that people finally get up in arms about building over this cemetery. As the article notes, "much of the cemetery has already been swallowed by development in recent decades. Israel built the parking lot over some of it in the 1960s. A school, a road and a large park now cover other parts." I, however, do agree with Mr. Nusseibeh that this cemetery, apart from being a sacred resting place for people, is part of the very rich fabric of Jerusalem. I wonder if the graves that do remain could be incorporated in to the design of the museum somehow? That would ensure the continued protection of the graves while at the same time opening a dialog about the multifaceted residents (present and past) that occupy this contested space we can Jerusalem? Just a thought.

New evidence of very ancient mariners

Early humans, possibly even prehuman ancestors, appear to have been going to sea much longer than anyone had ever suspected.

That is the startling implication of discoveries made the last two summers on the Greek island of Crete. Stone tools found there, archaeologists say, are at least 130,000 years old, which is considered strong evidence for the earliest known seafaring in the Mediterranean and cause for rethinking the maritime capabilities of prehuman cultures.

Crete has been an island for more than five million years, meaning that the toolmakers must have arrived by boat. So this seems to push the history of Mediterranean voyaging back more than 100,000 years, specialists in Stone Age archaeology say. Previous artifact discoveries had shown people reaching Cyprus, a few other Greek islands and possibly Sardinia no earlier than 10,000 to 12,000 years ago.

The oldest established early marine travel anywhere was the sea-crossing migration of anatomically modern Homo sapiens to Australia, beginning about 60,000 years ago. There is also a suggestive trickle of evidence, notably the skeletons and artifacts on the Indonesian island of Flores, of more ancient hominids making their way by water to new habitats.

Even more intriguing, the archaeologists who found the tools on Crete noted that the style of the hand axes suggested that they could be up to 700,000 years old. That may be a stretch, they conceded, but the tools resemble artifacts from the stone technology known as Acheulean, which originated with prehuman populations in Africa.

Read the rest of the story by John Noble Wilford at the New York Times

14 February 2010

Love is in the air

Eisenbrauns is once again having their Ancient Near Eastern Valentines contest. According to the stated rules:
"We're asking for no more than three original compositions in any ancient Near Eastern language (ancient Greek is also allowed), accompanied by an English translation. Music and artwork were similarly welcome.
Please note that we're looking for platonic passion, rather than erotic erudition. Americans tend to be a bit of a prudish lot, and having one's website classified as "explicit" by search engines tends to kill business, so please, keep the entries non-sexual."

Hopefully they will have the winning entry up by the end of the day since it is, after all, Valentine's Day today.* That being said, I leave you with my favorite a Sumerian poem Love Song to Shu-Suen (edited for length; NSWF??):

Man of my heart, my beloved one,
O! that to make your charms,
which are sweetness, are honey,
still more sweet--

you, my own lord and sergeant at arms
would march against me!
Man, I would flee from you
--into the bedroom.

O! that you would do,
all the sweet things to me,
my dear sweet one
you bring that which will be honey sweet!

In the bedroom's honey-sweet corner
let us enjoy over and over
your charms and sweetness!

*UPDATE: Winners for the 2010 contest have been posted! The first place entry is from Olivier Lauffenburger. Good work!

13 February 2010

The invention of enterprise

No, I am not talking about the starship Enterprise, but a new edited book by Lanes, Mokyr and Baumol that examines the topic of entrepreneurship from ancient Mesopotamia to modern times. Sounds interesting, especially since my research on early interregional trade in Mesopotamia around 3,000 BC is often in dialog with scholarly theories about trade networks and outposts managed either by centralized bureaucratic authorities or rich entrepreneurs looking to expand their exchange horizons. It will be interesting to see how the authors define "enterprise" and ponder whether their imagining of entrepreneurship is applicable to the ancient world at all, or are we simply taking a modern phenomenon and applying it to the past, much in the way many throw around concepts like "state" and "empire" without every considering what, exactly, they mean. At any rate, here are some comments from the Princeton University Press website about the book:

Whether hailed as heroes or cast as threats to social order, entrepreneurs--and their innovations--have had an enormous influence on the growth and prosperity of nations. The Invention of Enterprise gathers together, for the first time, leading economic historians to explore the entrepreneur's role in society from antiquity to the present. Addressing social and institutional influences from a historical context, each chapter examines entrepreneurship during a particular period and in an important geographic location.

The book chronicles the sweeping history of enterprise in Mesopotamia and Neo-Babylon; carries the reader through the Islamic Middle East; offers insights into the entrepreneurial history of China, Japan, and Colonial India; and describes the crucial role of the entrepreneur in innovative activity in Europe and the United States, from the medieval period to today. In considering the critical contributions of entrepreneurship, the authors discuss why entrepreneurial activities are not always productive and may even sabotage prosperity. They examine the institutions and restrictions that have enabled or impeded innovation, and the incentives for the adoption and dissemination of inventions. They also describe the wide variations in global entrepreneurial activity during different historical periods and the similarities in development, as well as entrepreneurship's role in economic growth. The book is filled with past examples and events that provide lessons for promoting and successfully pursuing contemporary entrepreneurship as a means of contributing to the welfare of society.

The Invention of Enterprise lays out a definitive picture for all who seek an understanding of innovation's central place in our world.

09 February 2010

Frankincense: Could it be a cure for cancer?

That is what scientists working in Oman and Oklahoma think:

"The gift given by the wise men to the baby Jesus probably came across the deserts from Oman. The BBC's Jeremy Howell visits the country to ask whether a commodity that was once worth its weight in gold could be reborn as a treatment for cancer."

Apparently scientists have observed that there is some agent within frankincense which stops cancer spreading, and which induces cancerous cells to close themselves down. For a short history of frankincense and its religious (and hopefully future medical) uses, see the full article here. Very interesting!

Frankincense is actually the sap from the boswellia sacra tree pictured here (BBC News). 

03 February 2010

The long and short of it

Archaeology news has piling up and yet, I haven't been able to surface from the waves of work washing over me to read, in depth anyway, let alone comment on the latest happenings. In an effort to clear things out, here is a very lengthy and terse bullet point list. My apologies! After next week I will be relatively free! Comment as you like and we can go from there. Until then, here are some things that caught my eye...

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