29 July 2010

Carved in clay

It seems there is lots of exciting tablet news lately! Jennifer Green at the Ottawa Citizen has been embedded with the Tell Tayinat excavation team in the Turkish Hatay covering their latest announcements about a treaty that was uncovered on the site last year. The document was composed in Akkadian (the "international" language of the Middle East at the time) and written in cuneiform on a large clay tablet that was then baked. Though this particular article is a bit dated (early April), I wanted to share it because it sums up really well the implications of this amazing find:
"Canadian archeologists in Turkey have unearthed an ancient treaty written in cuneiform that could have served as a model for the biblical description of God’s covenant with the Israelites.
The tablet, dating from about 670 BC, is a treaty between the powerful Assyrian king and his weaker vassal states, written in a highly formulaic language very similar in form and style to the story of Abraham’s covenant with God in the Hebrew Bible, says University of Toronto archeologist Timothy Harrison.
Although biblical scholarship differs, it is widely accepted that the Hebrew Bible was being assembled around the same time as this treaty, the seventh century BC."
The treaty being excavated last year at Tayinat (photo from Tayinat Archaeological Project)

Archaeologists have long recognized the large amount of "sharing" so to speak when it comes to literary traditions of the ancient Near East. The story of The Flood in the Epic of Gilgamesh for example, in which Utnapishtim builds a huge wooden boat to save himself, his family, and animals, predates the biblical flood story of Noah by a thousand years. There are other examples from ancient Canaanite (people who lived in what is today Israel, Palestine, western Syria and Lebanon) myths as well with the exploits of Baal and El, god names that are also repeated in the Hebrew bible (i.e., "Old Testament").

As Tim Harrison, the director of the Tayinat Archaeological Project, rightly notes in the article this treaty did not serve as a template for the Hebrew bible. It merely reflects the very formal and diplomatic language at the time--something "official" that the Hebrews would have wanted to emulate. You can read all of Jennifer's articles about Tayinat and life on the dig over at the Ottawa Citizen online with her most recent article ("Deciding where to dig: archaeologists stake their future on it") published today.

In other tablet news, Arutz Sheva is reporting a teenie weenie sliver of a tablet has been excavated at the ancient site of Hazor located near the northern border of modern Israel. Despite its size, archaeologist have been able to read a few lines of text that contain words like "master," "slave" and "tooth." Though we are awaiting a full report of the text, it is likely a fragment of an ancient law code dating to the 18th century BCE.

What's cool about this is no law codes have ever been found in Israel until now, though texts dealing with legal issues have been uncovered in the past. This new discovery could shed some light on the relationship between biblical law and the law code of Hammurabi, a Babylonian king who compiled a few codes of law that were already floating around into his famous black stela that currently resides in the Louvre. Of course, Hammurabi (I call him "Ham" for short) was practical as well as a showman. Apart from his stela, his laws were also written down on tablets and sent throughout the kingdom and this latest find from Hazor is probably one of those.

I've included this picture of Prof. Wayne Horowitz of the Hebrew University Institute of Archaeology both to show the tiny tablet fragment and his amazing shirt. Oh if only I could get away with excavating in a Hawaiian shirt!

25 July 2010

"Cutting edge" research

Sadly I cannot take credit for that title (thanks Jack Sasson!), but it just about sums up the ridiculousness in this AOL News article: "Researchers in Israel find world's first steak knives." In sum, archaeologists excavating a cave site in Israel that dates back some 200,000 years are claiming these microflakes (about the size of a quarter) had two razor-sharp edges and two dull edges making them perfect for holding in the hand and close to the mouth. Now I'm no chipped stone expert, but even I know enough about this stuff to see these flakes were either debris from tool making (tiny chips that break off as you are fashioning a spear point, for example) and/or actual micotools that could be used for cutting.

However I am much quicker to believe these tools were used to cut things "on the fly" than picture a family sitting around the camp fire daintily cutting their individual rib bones with their "steak knives." The whole point of cooking meat is to make it tender enough to cut and chew with your teeth alone. [begin sarcasm] For example, note the ease at which our ancient hominid chews the meat of a leg bone in this 1969 "classic" DC Comic [end sarcasm]. The fact these tools were found with animal bones around a hearth could just as easily be interpreted as carcasses being butchered before cooking than individual cutlery to aid in eating. Later these stone cutting tools will become helpful in the butchering of meat into smaller pieces to fit in pots for stewing.

Another thing that irks me about the article is the underestimation about the skill and craft involved in stone tool making. According to the article, "procuring this mini-cutlery was almost as easy as running out to the supermarket. An early human who needed a steak knife at dinner had only to grab a stone, often a discarded tool, and tap it just so." Tap it just so? Seriously? I thought at least some kind knowledgeable selection of the right kind of stone and then some shaping were necessary to get these tools? Again I am not a lithic expert, so maybe someone out there is and could enlighten us all?

Not to end this post on a sour note, I have some good news from the world of open access and ancient materials. Leif Isaksen at the University's School of Electronics and Computer Science (ECS) is working together with Dr Elton Barker at The Open University and Dr Eric Kansa of the University of California-Berkeley on the "Google Ancient Places (GAP): Discovering historic geographical entities in the Google Books corpus" project. The GAP researchers will enable internet users worldwide to search the Google Books corpus to find books related to a geographic location and within a particular time period. The results can then be visualised on GoogleMaps or in GoogleEarth. Web widgets will make it possible for webmasters to add links to the ancient texts within their websites, enabling the public and researchers to search for them easily. Find out more at The Guardian and the University of South Hampton news briefing.

This sounds like a fabulous project and an effective and easy way to bring ancient text and other documents to the public using mediums most people are already comfortable with (Google Maps and Earth). The project begs the question though: are libraries beginning to be obsolete?

21 July 2010

Dig Girl milestone

200 posts! (201 if you count this one). In honor of that, and because my husband was singing this song earlier today, I give you They Might Be Giant's "The Mesopotamians." Yes yes I know I have posted this before but whatever. I love this song and still want a Mesopotamians t-shirt. Do they even make those??

20 July 2010

Adopt a Pompeii dog

This is an interesting take on cultural heritage preservation: the (C)Ave Canem Project. If you have ever been fortunate enough to visit Pompeii, you know the site is overrun with stray dogs, which is a major problem in terms of visitor safety and site cleanliness (think: dog poop and disease). This project allows you to sponsor a dog that is currently living at Pompeii, providing it with food and vaccinations, until they are adopted by someone locally. The idea makes sense because no one in their right mind is going to adopt a stay dog with a questionable health history.

This is a great alternative to simply killing all the dogs on site, though I wonder why rounding them up and caring for them in local shelters is not an option? The answer is apparent in the project website, which states the main action of the (C)Ave Canem is to "create the conditions for a positive relationship between dogs and people."

In a wise move, the stewards of Pompeii have chosen not to simply "clean up" all the icky modern problems surrounding this important heritage site to allow the ancient history to shine through. Instead they are using this issue with modern stray dogs to highlight the long-term relationship that has existed between dogs and humans, especially at Pompeii itself. The most visible example is of course the famous Cave Canem ("beware the dog") mosaic on the threshold at the House of the Tragic Poet (seen here) featuring a snarling black guard dog protecting his master's house.

19 July 2010

Poetic Middle East

Years ago when I was a graduate student instructor for a course in the ancient and modern Middle East I asked my students to write a poem about the region based on their own experiences or what they had learned as a result of the course. My goal was to incorporate more writing into my "discussion" section and to catch them off-guard with an assignment they likely hadn't received in a college history class. More importantly, as any of you poetry writers out there know, writing verse as opposed to prose is extremely difficult: your ideas, thoughts and emotions are condensed down into a few lines. It is a wonderful exercise in focusing your thoughts, something I realized my students needed after a semester of being bombarded with tons of information. An unintentional outcome was I, as an instructor, could see what points were "getting through" to the students.

As I administered the in-class assignment some students snickered in the back, thinking I was joking. Others though were immediately deep in thought, taking the entire time I gave them to pen some beautiful verses. In looking through my files this afternoon I came across those poems. My favorites I am sharing here in their original forms (punctuation, meter, etc.). Which is your favorite and why?

Untitled #1 
Middle East
Or should I say Near East
I really didn't know you before Berkeley.
Subservient veiled women, constant war,
that is my previous perception of you,
but now my understanding goes deeper.
Now I see the veils are moral representations
I see a culture that runs deep
deep throughout history
I see intimacy with families
clashes between tradition and modernization
Pain and beauty
I see much more than desert
I know the mountain ranges of Afghanistan
the fruitful valleys of the Nile
I am intrigued
There is so much more to the
Middle East than my ignorant
Freshman mind imagined.

 Israel is small
Fighting against large odds
A Jew's perspective

Untitled #2
Thousands flock to the peninsula
Disregarding their leader's warnings
They are unaware, and could hardly care
Because it's supposed to be theirs anyway
It did happen to them
Does anybody think about the Egyptians?

I went to Turkey
but didn't eat any;
I watched people enter a
From where I sat
on the steps of a mosque

The new Tarkan video
blaring from a window was
drowned out by the azan from the minaret;
But when the azan stopped,
Tarkan sang on.

Untitled #3
A place of culture and the arts
They say it is where civilization starts
A place where outsiders know little about
Where controversy roars real loud
A troubled history of foreign lands
All with some blood on their hands
A place where many hope for peace
Where else could it be but the Middle East?


17 July 2010

Ship at ground zero

There are lots of cool archaeo-related videos going around including a digital slideshow of a first century B.C. shipwreck filled with 1,200 lead ingots weighing in at a whopping 39 tons!

My friends and colleagues over at Alexandria Archive Institute have also teamed up with Nada Shabout of U Texas to digitally catalog modern Iraqi artworks from the Museum of Modern Art in Baghdad. Like the more famous Iraq Museum, MMAB was another casualty of looting during the US-led invasion of the country in 2003. There is an article about this project on the AAI blog and a video on the NY Times website ("Iraq's Museum of Modern Art").

Another cool bit of news this past week made national headlines: a mid-18th century wooden ship unearthed by construction teams below what once was the World Trade Center. This video from WPIX gives you a first-hand look. (thanks to Sexy Archaeology for the tip!)

16 July 2010

Sounds from silence

From Global Arab Network: "Syrian musical scholar Ziad Ajjan composed eight poetry and musical pieces from the musical archaeological cuneiform tablet known as "Hymn of Supplication" H6 discovered in Ugarit in the early 20th century (see image). Ajjan composed three musical pieces based on the musical notes in the tablet which dates back to 1400 BC, naming the pieces "Sunrise," "Sunset" and "Holiday in Ugarit." This marks the recording of the oldest music notation in the history of the world."

If I read this article correctly, Ajjan composed new/modern pieces based on the ancient hymns in another classic example of contemporary artists being inspired by archaeological objects or ancient history. Another example mentioned in the short article is the performance of a song from the tablet by Syrian Soprano Noma Omran at Daitoku-Ji, a Zen-Buddhist temple in Kyoto, accompanied by the temple's monks and Japanese percussionist Stomu Yamashta. Cool stuff! I wish these recordings and compositions were available.

If you want to hear the actual hymns and not contemporary interpretations, you'll have to go back in time 30 years to a recording entitled Sounds from Silence created by Anne Kilmer, Professor Emeritus at UC Berkeley, and her UCB colleagues Richard Crocker and Robert Brown. I was lucky enough to purchase a copy from Dr. Kilmer herself before she retired. With a little Internet sleuthing though, I was able to find the producer Bit Enki ("house of Enki," the Mesopotamian god of the sweet waters) is still selling copies of the original vinyl and CD on their website at Bella Roma Music.

L to R: Kilmer, Crocker and Brown with replicas of ancient lyres

The songs were produced from replica lyres modeled on ancient examples excavated in southern Mesopotamia. I've used this recording time and again in my classes to give my students a little taste of what these hymns might have sounded like. As Kilmer notes, we have the notes and pitches but we do not have information concerning rhythm or pacing.

Real Player sound clips are available on the Bella Roma Music website but I wanted to include my own little snippet here. This is only a 30 second preview, as this material is still under copyright so I encourage you to purchase the full CD if you are interested!

05 July 2010

The misuse(s) of archaeology

An article by Dr. Robert R. Cargill from UCLA's Center for Digital Humanities raises a number of interesting points concerning what he calls "the misuse of archaeology for evangelical purposes." He is, of course, speaking in particular about Evangelical Christian organizations that have mounted their own expeditions across the Middle East to uncover proof of the biblical stories, the most recent and news-worthy being the (re)"discovery" of Noah's Ark by the Hong Kong-based group Noah’s Ark Ministries International (NAMI) and their partner, the Media Evangelism Limited.

Cargill sums up his beef with this latest Noah's Ark claim as, "perhaps the most egregious, premeditated, blatant, and irresponsible misuse of archaeology in recent decades," providing evidence that NAMI is openly using their search for the ark as a method of proselytization. Cargill calls for greater participation by the scholarly community to forcefully and swiftly deny such pseudo-scientific claims as these and offers "tips" for those interested in doing Biblical Archaeology the "correct" way.

My opinions about using archaeology to prove the Bible are well documented on this site (here, here and here), so I will skip over that rant to instead focus on what I think the true short-coming of Cargill's proposal is. NAMI and other organizations like them will only continue to raise insane amounts of money and go on these expeditions (note: participants of NAMI call themselves "exploration teams" and not archaeologists!), regardless of whether or not the academy is vocally opposed to them. By his own admission, Cargill says these refutes "by 'godless' scientists" only emboldens their fund raising efforts, helping them claim religious persecution "in an effort to 'suppress the truth of the faith.'"

What archaeologists need to do is learn how to reach a broader public. We are loosing this PR battle precisely because of the guarded nature in which Cargill and others approach our field with statements such as this: "The true archaeologist does not seek the big discovery that changes all we know in one amazing find, but rather gives his or her life to seasons of excavation and discovery, letting the evidence speak for itself until the larger picture of the social, economic, and yes, at times, religious makeup of the society is slowly revealed."

Wow, what a snooze fest! I am all about a scientific approach with clear research questions/agenda and trying to be as objective as possible, but we also need to remember what it is we are doing: we are uncovering the story of human history. It is a narrative, with multiple threads and viewpoints to be sure, but an exciting narrative none-the-less that we need to be more actively sharing with a wider public. People love hearing these stories--why do you think Discovery and History Channel are so popular?--and we can give 'em to them based on our methodical, scientific research.

What does all this mean? Me inside a 6,500-year-old house

So where to begin? Daniel Lende over at Neuroanthropology has some very useful suggestions about being specific, building appeal, and establishing relevancy. To that I would add a shift in language as the very first step. Our archaeo-babble and scholar-speak is only impressing ourselves, so cutting out the jargon will go a long way in making us more understandable. This does not mean, however, resorting to sexy headlines and sensational journalism to reach the public at large. I think it can be done tactfully and thus go a long way in combating the surge of pseudo-archaeologists that currently hold public fixation (and purse strings). 

As scientists and story tellers, I think we are totally capable of gaining the public's interest by focusing on topics that most people can connect with: food, religion, family life, relationships, sex, globalization, communication, etc. etc. etc. Most likely the research project you are already heavily invested in is actually tied to one or more of these broad topics, lurking just below the highfalutin surface.

A final thought actually mirrors that of Cargill and his focus on methods. Archaeologists are terrible at actually relating how exactly we know what we know based on the materials culture we excavate and study. Just last week I had a dinner guest asking me, "how do you know what life was like back then just from the X (= animal bones, pottery, etc.)?" Totally legitimate question and since it came from a middle-aged rather worldly guy, it cannot simply be written off based on age, education, or experience. It underscores the fact that what we do and how we do it is still a mystery to most--a sad fact that lets pseudo-archaeologists and exploration teams come out with claims that seem plausible to the general public, simply because they don't know better! Archaeologists should be more transparent with our methods, not just for accountability within the academy, but to add clarification for everyone else. 

Perhaps you are wondering whether I "practice what I preach?" You'll soon find out because things are in the works.

02 July 2010

UNESCO database of national cultural heritage laws

My lawyer and cultural heritage preservation friends might find this interesting and useful (especially you Bruce, whose schick is international law!). From the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization website:

UNESCO Database of National Cultural Heritage Laws

In 2003, UNESCO devised an international solution to combat the illicit traffic of cultural property: the UNESCO Database of National Cultural Heritage Laws.

By compiling on the Internet the national laws of its Member States, UNESCO offers all stakeholders involved (Governments, customs officials, art dealers, organizations, lawyers, buyers and so forth) a complete and easily accessible source of information. In the event of a legal question about the origin of an object (which may have been stolen, pillaged, or illegally exported, imported or acquired), it is useful to have rapid access to the relevant national laws.

Explore the database here where you will find copies of all the UNESCO conventions dating back to the first 1954 convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (sadly still relevant today). All the documents are downloadable in PDF format and in multiple languages. 

01 July 2010

Surprise encounters at the museum

I am a definite fan of "surprise encounters" at museums and other places of learning. To be moving along looking at exhibits and then suddenly be approached by a curator or gallery attendant who gives you additional information about the particular piece you are looking at and/or shows you additional objects you can touch is not only a treat, but an important opportunity for an even deeper learning experience. I was fortunate to see, and participate in, these encounters first hand at the California Academia of Sciences last week in San Francisco where I was invited to touch a giraffe skull and learn more about giraffes, gently caress a sea star, and play a video game where I was an etymologist collecting insects for study. Gallery attendants were everywhere interacting with museum visitors making it such a lively place of discovery! It got me wondering: why can't history and archaeological museums do this?

I feel the same way about public art and "surprise encounters" with objects/buildings/places of historical significance where ever I go. My husband jokes with me because I always stop at historic landmarks and take the time to read plaques on buildings ("oh look honey! Learning!"). I think that is what I especially liked about Rome--it seems every corner I turned had some piece of art, some history to interact with--chance encounters that transformed into opportunities to learn something new.

With this kind of world-view, it is not surprising I was intrigued to read about Tel Aviv's plan to incorporate archaeological exhibits into the city's landscape. As Ha'aretz reported today, the Tel Aviv municipality in cooperation with the Israel Antiquities Authority, intends for large local artifacts to be presented in parks, squares and other public areas. The pilot for the program will be launched in 10 parks around the city already located close to archaeological sites. And in case you are wondering, the project will aim to present artifacts that can't be easily stolen, either because they are too large to be carried away or large enough that they can be easily located.

The article, unfortunately, is not too detailed about how this project will be carried out--will objects be in cases? what about preservation issues? who is going to monitor and maintain the objects?--but it seems like an exciting prospect for bringing "archaeology to the people" and out of the ivory tower of academia and museum institutions. I will definitely be paying a visit when I am there in 2011 so can hopefully write a follow-up. 

In the meantime, do you like "surprise encounters" in museums or elsewhere or do you like the solemn ambiance of a gallery visit?

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