31 August 2010

Pot hunters v. archaeologists

Craig Child was on NPR the other day discussing his new book Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession. A sexy title indeed, but as he mentions in his interview, the book details a very real and gritty struggle going on between archaeologists and "pot hunters:" those who clandestinely dig up artifacts to then sell them.

From what I could gather from Craig's website, he is an adventurer-type who writes about natural sciences, archaeology, and travel. For some, these credentials would exclude him from writing seriously about archaeology. However I'm guessing (as I have yet to read the book), this outsider's perspective actually gives him some sort of objectivity in documenting this subject.

This objectivity only goes so far however. In the interview is it obvious that Child sides with archaeologists in that artifacts should not be simply plucked from the earth without any kind of scientific excavation to preserve the contexts (i.e., kitchen, alleyway) from which these artifacts derive. This is good news for archaeologists who are constantly reiterating the ills of illicit digging. Sadly it has taken a non-archaeologist to actually carry that message to the public in a way that is appealing. Everyone loves a dramatic story and thankfully this one seems to have a good message at its core.

That being said, I am disappointed that Child did not mention in his interview the parties that are partaking in the purchase of these artifacts. This is perhaps due to the fact his book is focused on archaeologists and looters, not antiquarians and collectors. However, as I have said time and again on this site, the people fueling the pot hunters' greed are the buyers! I believe the message goes unsaid with Child ("objects should be left in the ground" = do not collect), but in my experience most people cannot connect the dots like that.

You can read an article about Child's book here or listen to the interview below.

29 August 2010

Telling stories

Admittedly the headline and blurb for this BBC story really got me excited:
Breathing new life into Iraq's ancient stories
The literature of the ancient Iraqi civilisation of Mesopotamia has lain dormant on clay tablets for thousands of years. Breathing new life into it through the art of oral storytelling is the vision of a group of Iraqi and British story-tellers who gather in London to narrate, perform and teach how to tell stories written 4,000 years ago. BBC Arabic reporter Kifah Arif attended one of the events.
Then I watched the video and cringed just a little bit. Phrases like "Iraqis understanding their cultural heritage" and "Iraq wrote poetry when most of the world did not know how to write" really sends misinformed messages about what ancient Mesopotamia really is/was. "Iraq" is a modern nation-state and not an ancient civilization. Yes many of the peoples currently residing in what is today Iraq can likely trace their ancestries back a thousand years to this area, but for the most part they are the modern stewards of what I consider a truly world heritage.

My opinion here does not mean I do not agree with the overall concept. The "group of Iraqi and British story-tellers" mentioned above is the Enheduanna Society who hosts ZIPANG days. "ZIPANG" means "breath" in Sumerian, the oldest written language in the world. According to their website, a primary goal of the society is to "bring together Iraqi and non-Iraqi scholars, storytellers, musicians and enthusiasts to develop their shared appreciation of the literature of ancient Iraq and spread this appreciation to as many people as possible." A wonderful idea and noble cause!

However, this politicization by the media of what is otherwise a wonderful concept to bring ancient Mesopotamian stories to the public is rather off-putting. Perhaps this is yet another example of archaeology being used to shore up nationalist sentiments. Or, on the non-cynical side, the average BBC viewer might be relieved to see a non-war related story about Iraq.

If you are interested in these Mesopotamian storytelling efforts, visit the official website for the Enheduanna Society who hosts the monthly ZIPANG events.

Here is the BBC report in English (click here) and Arabic (via Enheduanna website):
 

20 August 2010

I blame Hollywood

Thanks to a tip from my husband, I was treated to a snicker this afternoon reading a short article from Cracked.com that lists "6 Things From History Everyone Pictures Incorrectly." In case you are too lazy or short for time to click the link, the six things are:
  1. The Pyramids were Smooth, White and Shiny
  2. Velociraptors Had Feathers
  3. Greek Statues Were Brightly Painted and Kind of Stupid Looking
  4. Nobody Dressed How You Think They Dressed
  5. Jesus Looked Nothing Like the Paintings
  6. The Big Bang Wasn't a Bang 
More than just a list, the article (accurately) describes the myth, truth, and why we have gotten it wrong for each of the six. The author, Alexander Hoffman, really has a knack for tongue-and-cheek humor so really do yourself a favor and read the article. And to who ever made this banner image for the article: bravo. Raptors and ninjas together at last!


It is really too bad the article is so short because there are a ton of other "things from history everyone pictures incorrectly" that could have been included like humans and dinosaurs did not coexist, Neanderthals were not stupid, and Jews did not build the pyramids. What are your favorite things that people consistently get wrong?
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