30 June 2010

More looting in Iraq

This New York Times piece from last week is a reminder that, archaeologically speaking, the situation in Iraq is far from stable. Looting continues, albeit on lower levels than when the US first invaded in 2003, as the greed in European, Japanese and US markets continues to surge for antiquities. Much of the article focuses on statements by the various Iraqi agencies responsible for the cultural heritage in the country--both in museums and at ancient sites--with the same broken record of "we need more money" for guards, ammo, fences. 

I think it is clear at this point that financial support is not coming any time soon for these needs, so perhaps a change of strategy is required/necessary. Some have suggested archaeologists "join the looters" and sell the artifacts we uncover to museums to finance further scientific and government sanctioned excavations (my opinions on this have already been made clear). Others have suggested more international cooperation to bring down trading rings and bust dealers. What isn't being discussed is the "culture of antiquities" and our Western relationship with these objects. 

Not a week goes by when I don't run in to someone who would love to "own a piece of history" and display it in their den for friends and family to see. Sure, I see the appeal. As an archaeologist, I have the privilege (and responsibility!) to uncover and handle objects that are thousands of years old. Sometimes I forget that not everyone has this privilege and pleasure to be in touch, literally, with our human past on a daily basis. However, in this quest to obtain objects and have your own personal connection with peoples and civilizations long gone, many do not realize they are the final link in a long chain of actions, deals, and hand-offs.

Now I am not taking a radical position like those fighting the war on drugs--that by buying illegal drugs you are supporting cartels, political assassinations, and other atrocities. I will say, however, you are perpetuating the destruction of history. Looters won't loot if it will not bring them money, pure and simple. For more information about the chain of antiquities trade, I encourage everyone to read the resources on the website for SAFE (Saving Antiquities For Everyone).

29 June 2010

Crusader period fresco

If you've read this blog at all in the past few years, you'd know my love (obsession?) with mosaics and murals. Well I think we can slip frescoes in to that mix as well. Cannot wait to see this next spring in person! From the Israel Antiquities Authority press office:

An enormous impressive wall painting (fresco) that was discovered in excavations by the Israel Antiquities Authority in the Monastery of Miriam in the Gethsemane courtyard in Jerusalem will be displayed for the first time when the renewed Israel Museum opens its doors to the public on July 26, 2010. 

In 1999 the Israel Antiquities Authority conducted salvage excavations in Nahal Kidron, next to the Garden of Gethsemane, under the direction of Jon Seligman, the Jerusalem region archaeologist. The excavations uncovered several buildings dating to the twelfth century that were part of the “Abbey of St. Mary of the Valley of Jehoshaphat”, most of which had been destroyed by Saladin. But to the excavators’ surprise a nine meter long wall that was decorated with a painting of breathtaking beauty was exposed in one of the rooms. 

According to the report, this 12th century fresco is the largest painting ever to come out of an archaeological excavation in the country, measuring 9 meters in length and 2.7 meters in height! This fresco is also extremely rare because very few wall paintings have survived from the Crusader churches that were built in Jerusalem during the Crusader period. The excellent quality of the painting was in all likelihood the workmanship of master artists and the vibrant colors reflect the importance of the abbey in the twelfth century, which was under the patronage of the Crusader queen Melisende.

Read the full article here.

28 June 2010

Video games: the next archaeological frontier

So apparently my husband told me a long time ago that the new WoW expansion will have "archaeologist" as a new character profession. Well, anyway, I was reminded of the fact by an article the other day over on Archaeopop where Dan (the article's author) has a wonderfully succinct discussion about this new WoW development--so wonderful in fact that I direct you over there to read about the details.

As Dan points out, it is extremely interesting (hopeful?) that archaeologists and the archaeological profession in this case are not just portrayed as treasure-seeking explorers. Though the collection of artifacts will be a primary goal, WoW archaeologists can also gain experience in languages, being able to decipher and translate ancient inscriptions to learn more about the ancient history of Azeroth. It's a fascinating example of the bridge between video games and archaeology that is only now being acknowledged and actually used for the good of our field!

And speaking of games, this flow chart (via Jon Radoff) documenting the history and development of games came over the wires last week. Actually I believe I got this from Archaeopop as well! Man, you guys rock over there. At any rate, I've been secretly fascinated with ancient board games for a while now, so this was a nice reminder to seriously pursue this subject, now that pesky dissertations are no longer in my way.

26 June 2010

This is Iraq

Here is a wonderful video produced by the Tiziano Project, whose members are currently working in Iraqi Kurdistan (among other places). This video was created by Grant Slater, a friend and colleague of my good friends Jon and Tori--all of whom are currently in Erbil, Iraq working with local Kurdish journalists to help bring stories that are important to the Kurdish people to the world. Please support Tiziano and this project in any way you can, whether that means financially, through donations of equipment, or simply getting the word out about their important work.

This Is Iraq | The Tiziano Project from The Tiziano Project on Vimeo.
Tiziano | 360° Iraq presents the journalistic efforts and personal accounts of Iraqi citizens in the Kurdish north alongside the stories of their professional multimedia mentors.

The Tiziano Project provides new media tools and training to community members in conflict, post-conflict and developing regions.

21 June 2010

Egyptian camping

Stop the presses! Writers at The Onion, in all their wisdom, have finally uncovered the "secret" of the Giza pyramids: huge tents!

(Image from Quilter's Muse Virtual Museum)

"CAIRO—Once shrouded in mystery, the pyramids of Giza are now believed to be the earliest known attempt at camping out, a team of archeologists reported Monday. "It appears that around 400 BC, the pharaohs of Egypt began packing up all of their earthly possessions for some recreational camping on the banks of the Nile," said Dr. Tarek Hilal of Alexandria University, noting that the pyramids' dense outer walls and sharply angled faces would have been perfect for keeping rain out. "Furthermore, it seems that the extensive hieroglyphics showing spirits embarking on a journey to the afterlife was their way of telling spooky ghost stories." Despite the remarkable discovery, Hilal and his team are still unsure why so many ancient Egyptians decided to remove their inner organs before getting inside their stone sleeping bags at night."

Less yummy organs for the bears to eat? Have a good week everyone!

19 June 2010

Archaeology and polynomial texture mapping

I have been racking (wracking?) my brain for months on this article, so I'm putting it out there for my video/computer game developer friends. How is this polynomial texture mapping when no actual texture is being applied to the 3D image of the artifact? This is a light effect not a texture. Am I wrong?? Maybe it is just a semantics thing..

Shining a light on the past
How to bring out the best in ancient artefacts
The Economist

Look at an ancient coin under ordinary light and the chances are that its features, worn down by its passage from hand to hand, will be hard to make out. Point a spotlight at it, though, so that the face of the coin is illuminated from an acute angle, and the resulting shadows will emphasise any minor details.

This is the basic principle behind a novel technique that is helping archaeologists reveal previously invisible clues hidden in the worn or damaged surfaces of any objects they uncover. From wall paintings in Herculaneum to Scandinavian stone tools to rock art in Libya, polynomial texture mapping, as the process is known, is proving an invaluable way to illuminate the past.

The lighting method was originally developed by Tom Malzbender, a computer scientist at HP’s laboratory in Palo Alto, California, to generate better 3-D imagery for computer games. In its most basic form, the process involves capturing between 30 and 50 digital photos of an object of interest. The pictures are taken from directly above the object in a darkened room. Though the camera is fixed, the object is lit from a different angle in every shot. The photos are then combined on a computer to create an image that can have a “virtual” light shone from various angles to reveal any hidden surface detail. The wavelength of this virtual light can also be changed using the computer, allowing colour-sensitive details of the artefact’s surface to be brought out more clearly.

Graeme Earl of the University of Southampton, in England, has used the technique to study wall plaster from the Neolithic settlement of Catalhoyuk in Turkey and artefacts including consular brick stamps found at Portus, an ancient harbour at the mouth of the Tiber. He has also carried out trials which suggest that the use of a high-speed video camera can accelerate the process, so that it can be used in the field.

The technique has also been used to increase the number of readable characters on the Antikythera mechanism—a badly corroded geared device that spent more than 2,000 years at the bottom of the sea—from 800 to more than 2,000. It has also enhanced cuneiform inscriptions—markings made in clay tablets dating back as far as 3000BC that are the earliest known form of writing. Many video games, from “Tomb Raider” onwards, borrow from archaeology. It is nice to see video-game technology returning the favour.

Image: The Antikythera shown using "polynomial texture mapping"

New Bible museum and ancient beer

The owners of Hobby Lobby, a craft store chain in the mid-West, have been buying up rare Bibles and Torahs like it's the Apocalypse. The New York Times reports the family has bought illuminated, or decorated, manuscripts, Torahs, papyri and other works worth $20 million to $40 million from auction houses, dealers, private collectors and institutions, some of which may be selling because of financial pressure.

The man leading the effort is Steve Green, president of Hobby Lobby, a private company based in Oklahoma City that is a favorite of scrapbook makers, do-it-yourselfers and home decorators. The company, founded by his father, David, in 1972, now numbers 439 stores and has generated a family fortune that Forbes magazine estimates at $2.5 billion.

With money to spare, the younger Mr. Green, 46, has found a passion to complement his vocation, and is working with specialists in deal-making and history who, using company money on behalf of the family, began buying with a flourish about six months ago.

The ultimate goal behind all these purchases? “The goal is to create a museum around the story of the Bible,” Mr. Green explained. “No book has been persecuted as much or loved as much. Its incredible story needs to be told.”

Notice Green's specialists mentioned previously do not include a curator or conservationist? Just think, their collection of already 30,000 items (including a Martin Luther New Testament and a Spanish Inquisition Torah) are languishing and potentially deteriorating away in their garage while they get this museum together. Great idea!

In other news, a 9,000 year old beer made of rice, honey and hawthorn will be on sale in British Columbia starting in July. The beer, called Chateau Jiahu, has its roots in a village in Hunan province in northern China. A molecular archeologist Patrick McGovern from the University of Pennsylvania found chemical traces of a 9,000 year old beer on some pottery in a dig in the Neolithic village of Jiahu. (Ed. note: McGovern is also well known in the field for wine and beer studies in Mesopotamia and the wider Near East). Check out the beer label! Full story at The Star.

There is so much more to get to, but I have to leave you with these teasers:
-New Pre-Dynastic Egypt museum being built at Qena (prehistorians like myself rejoice!)
-Mount Sinai in Israel not Egypt? The Vatican thinks so.
-Athens' Parthenon scaffold-free for first time in years
-Colloseum visitors get to visit underground areas (JEALOUS!)

10 June 2010

News wrap-up

Buried below a mountain of work, I am forced to bullet point you to death with news. Sorry about that.

This Shoe Had Prada Beat by 5,500 Years (NY Times): oldest leather shoe found preserved under sheep dung in Armenian cave. See related story about ancient leather pants. Hot.

Crocodile and Hippopotamus Served as 'Brain Food' for Early Human Ancestors (Science Daily): A team of researchers from Johns Hopkins University has found that early hominids living in Kenya ate a wider variety of foods than previously thought, including fish and aquatic animals such as turtles and crocodiles, which may have played a key role in the development of a larger, more human-like brain in early hominids. Neanderthals apparently ate lions, so maybe, just maybe that had something to do with them going extinct!

Ancient Beehives Yield 3,000-Year-Old Bees (Wired): Honeybee remains found in a 3,000-year-old apiary at Tel Hehov in Israel have given archaeologists a one-of-a-kind window into the beekeeping practices of the ancient world. The bees were apparently imported from Turkey (see LA Times article). Fun fact: the apiary from Rehov is the only one ever found in tact from the ancient world! For more details, see my previous post.

The Call of Babylon: Why Some Travelers are Braving Iraq (CNN): An improving, if fragile, security situation means that, after years of isolation, intrepid travelers can now fly directly to Iraq from Austria, Germany, Greece, Norway, Sweden and the UK as well as numerous cities in the Middle East.

Jordan Valley - Cradle of Civilisations? (Jordan Times): Archaeological finds in the northern Jordan Valley are forcing experts to rethink the patterns of the earliest civilisations.

Headless Romans found in York Were Gladiators (Guardian): Evidence from tests on 80 skeletons of young men found in Yorkshire gardens points to world's best-preserved gladiator graveyard. Give a listen to the report on NPR:

03 June 2010

Illegal trade or curatorial witch-hunt?

More fallout from the Italian government as they set their sights on a Princeton curator accused of purchasing antiquities illegally stolen and transfered from ancient sites. A New York antiquities dealer is also indicted in the case that was apparently filed in early March but is just now coming to light in the media. You can read the full article at the New York Times. Unfortunately no real details are given in this report, so it is hard to pass judgement on whether the curator should be drawn in to this legal ordeal. 

Echoing the earlier Getty Museum case, where curators went to trial in Rome over trafficking in stolen antiquities, it seems Italy is taking a much more aggressive approach to reclaiming their antiquities than other countries like Egypt for example, who is not taking curators to trial but certainly using other means (i.e., refused loan agreements, etc.). Of course, this might be comparing apples to oranges as the Egyptian antiquities were acquired by museums nearly a century ago when laws were not in place to curb the flow of rampant vandalism and illegal excavations.

Still, should curators be punished? Unsavory antiquities dealers will often go to great lengths in fabricating provenience documentation (i.e., the where and how an artifact was acquired originally and previous ownership if applicable). However it is still a question of both intent and knowledge: did the curator know the artifacts were stolen? Did he care? And the last question often not considered: what pressures did he have by wealthy museum donors and patrons to acquire these pieces no matter the cost financially or ethnically? (BTW the same question applies to forgeries now residing in some of the US's greatest museums).
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