17 September 2010

Mummies and privacy

A recent article in New Scientist online edition got my mind swirling about a number of issues I have contemplated over the years: why are people fascinated with mummies? is it ethical to display mummies (essentially dead people) in museums? should archaeologists even excavated burials? if the soul leaves the body at death, why should anyone care what happens to the body after? under these circumstances, should I personally circumvent these issues and be cremated after my death? Here is an excerpt from the article to get your mind working as well:

Do Egyptian mummies have a right to privacy?
10 September 2010 by Jo Marchant
SHOULD we consider the privacy or reputation of the individual when analysing an Egyptian mummy? The assumption that ancient corpses are fair game for science is beginning to be challenged.
Though strict ethical guidelines apply to research on modern tissue samples, up until now there has been little discussion about work on ancient human remains. In a recent paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics (DOI: 10.1136/jme.2010.036608), anatomist Frank Rühli and ethicist Ina Kaufmann of the University of Zurich, Switzerland, argue that this is disturbing because research on mummies is invasive and reveals intimate information such as family history and medical conditions. And, of course, the subjects cannot provide consent.
"The human body, alive or dead, has a moral value," says Rühli, who is himself involved in mummy research. He says that no matter how old a body is, researchers must balance the benefits of their research against the potential rights and desires of the deceased individual.

Think about that: "The human body, alive or dead, has a moral value." I think the morality lies only with the living who have to tend to the body, but then that is just my opinion. What is yours? You can read the whole article on the New Scientist website.

As a footnote, obviously morals are not on the minds of doctors at North Shore University Hospital where mummies take center stage in their PR campaign:

From HeathLeaders: "Do mummies have anything to do with PR? Of corpse!" [Ed. note: shameless, no?]

13 September 2010

Cataloging history

A recent story in The National underscores a number of major issues in Egyptian archaeology and archaeological museums in particular - the largest being the need for cataloging. Take for example the Egyptian Museum in Cairo that over the years has witnessed the theft of artifacts from its storage basement. In some cases (as the article relates) it took a few days to notice the objects were missing and to open a search. In other cases, it has taken literally years for museum officials to notice something is gone.

An archaeologist restores an Egyptian artifact, one of thousands that need to be properly cataloged and stored
(Photo credit: Ahmad Ehab for The National)

Obviously this is a huge problem that Ramadan Badry Hussein is trying to remedy. He is director of the National Project of Documentation of Egyptian Antiquities and his job is to oversee the cataloging and monitoring of all artifacts, monuments, and other cultural heritage in Egypt. According to the article:
"Bracelets and anklets, burial urns and commemorative plates are being photographed, scanned, and described in detail. The information is then made accessible in digital form or otherwise to researchers and the public in general, Hussein says."
This is a wonderful step for Egypt's antiquities department to finally get a handle on what they have. But this also makes me wonder if Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt, really has a leg to stand on in his quest to have Egyptian objects sitting in foreign museums returned to Cairo? Presumably these artifacts would be better repatriated when the Egyptian Museum a) can properly catalog these newest acquisitions and b) has proper storage facilities that can safeguard the integrity of the object both in terms of preservation and security. The "storage magazines" mentioned in the article seem like a good beginning solution, but how secure are they? Are they temperature controlled?

Some of my readers may be flabbergasted that the Egyptian Museum, or any museum for that matter, does not have all the objects in their collection cataloged. I'm sad to say this situation is not limited to Middle Eastern museums, but is a worldwide occurrence. In other cases, museum collections are cataloged but not digitized - their records are not in computerized databases but hand-copied ledgers. Museums have many things pulling at their purse strings, but I would like to think that many, if not all that are capable, are in the processes of "modernizing" their catalogs. Not a small feat to be sure, but an important (and expensive) one that needs to be taken. The reasons, I think, are obvious.

11 September 2010

Updates from Azeroth

Back in June I mentioned how the new WoW expansion Cataclysm will have archaeology as one of the new character professions. Today my WoW-playing husband alerted me to the fact an update was posted on the World of Warcraft blog that outlines the details of what archaeologists in Azeroth will be up to. There is also a video (see below) showing an archaeologist in action, i.e. surveying and excavating artifact fragments. I was kind of disappointed to see no actual excavating animation, but the surveying is pretty neat to help you zero-in on objects.

The article says each fragment, and subsequently the reconstructed artifact, relates to an individual race in the game, be it trolls, night elves, or humans. Thus each artifact and the "research project" it is associated with uncovers for the archaeologist bits of information about ancient lore or the history of Azeroth (see my previous post or a similar post over at Archaeopop).

It is unclear, however, if the artifact you collect is related in some way to the context ( = the dig site) from which you excavated it? I'm not trying to nitpick here, claiming WoW needs to stay true to the scientific aspects of archaeological excavation where context (i.e. where exactly you pull something from the ground and its relationship to surrounding features/objects) is vital and a primary distinction between us and looters/pot hunters. I just think being able to make the connection between your artifact and the site where you found it will only add to your greater understanding of whatever race you are studying.

Example of your archaeological notes for an artifact
One aspect of the archaeology profession that is a bit disconcerting is the outcome of your research. The artifacts/items you collect "can sell for a small profit (presumably to a museum!)" This is where Indy and I don't see eye-to-eye. Do people really think that is the endgame, so to speak, for archaeologists? To sell our finds to museums or worse, the Christie's auction block? The objects themselves do not hold intrinsic value for archaeologists. It's what they all say, collectively, about a civilization that holds the real value.

Now don't get me wrong. It is fun to see the aspects of the archaeological endeavor - survey, excavation, artifact reconstruction - being played out in a very popular game. In a way, this is bringing a small bit of "real" archaeological practices to the masses in a more productive way than History or Discovery channels ever could. But Blizzard undercuts its own efforts to bring this profession to life, likening archaeologists to looters after all who want the knowledge and the profit.

In a way, my husband seemed to agree when we were chatting about this issue this morning. But, he kindly informed me that most professions in WoW produce some kind of item of value that can be sold. Thus Blizzard is not trying to perpetuate misinformation about what archaeologists do more so than keeping in line with the already well established game play. Well, can't argue with that.

Husband, in all his wisdom however, did have a great suggestion. Instead of selling items, archaeologists could instead donate their artifacts to some kind of Azeroth Historical Society or (my suggestion) Azeroth Antiquities Authority for whom you are working. That way the artifact and "report" with all the data you collected will get logged/cataloged properly. Hell, it might be fun to have an Azeroth "museum" where different clans/guilds can show off the objects and information they have uncovered.

In exchange for the data, you could earn reputation or even rewards from the society/authority like items or titles (I vote for "Shovelbum"). This in some way mirrors current practice in most countries where objects are stored either in local regional museums or government storehouses managed by that country's antiquities agency.

Of course some true gamers out there might just say video games, like movies, have no responsibility whatsoever to accurately portray any profession, nation, or civilization for that matter! Regardless, it would be interesting to hear from some of my gamers out there and those like my buddy AnthroRob who walk the line between anthropology and gaming.

10 September 2010

"He gave his life for tourism"

According to my husband, I dropped the ball with my Fake Tut post a week or so ago. As he rightly points out, I should have included this real (and classic) fake Tut:

Happy Friday everyone!

09 September 2010

Dating by association

No, I don't mean you are study buddies with a hot classmate from Anthro 1 and therefore (in your delusional mind) are "dating by association." I mean dating artifacts by their association with other artifacts that were excavated around them is one example of how archaeologists know how old something is. We call this "relative dating" (insert joke here?). On the other hand, objects we can date directly like organic material (charcoal and seeds for example) involves a method we call "absolute dating."

I bring all this up because of a nice little post on mud-brick.com from last week that contained a succinct explanation of the two major elements of archaeological practice that I get asked the most by my students: 1) how do things preserve? and 2) how do you know how old something is?

In reference to a recently uncovered 19th century shipwreck in the Baltic that contained a shipment of sealed champagne and beer bottles, Mud-Brick contributor "Earthfast" notes the alcohol has preserved in such pristine condition based on the environment of the wreck:
The “best” preservation tends to occur in places with very stable temperatures, little oxygen, and little or no later human influence. In this case, the cold water, slow currents and utter darkness created a perfect preservation environment to protect the bottles, and thus the liquids inside.
In terms of dating, the beer bottles themselves have no distinguishing marks for manufacturer, location or date. No labels or even maker's marks on the glass itself. Earthfast goes on to explain:
The Champagne bottles, however, have markers that can be dated to the early 19th century. Now, the beer bottles were found in the same ship as the Champagne bottles; in other words, the beer was found “in association” with the bubbly. So we know that the two kinds of bottles must have been put in the ship at about the same time, and thus, the beer must also date to sometime in the early 19th century. That’s “dating by association,” and it’s a fundamental part of what we do.
Because one of the primary reasons for me keeping this blog is to educate my non-archaeo family and friends about what exactly I do, I felt obliged to share this bit of clear and concise writing from a fellow archaeo-blogger! Hopefully this answers all your dating questions.

07 September 2010

Cleaning house

Recently some startling news has come out of the archaeological project at Çatalhöyük, a 9500-year-old site in south central Turkey famous for its well-preserved houses, wall paintings, and evidence for early domestication of plants like wheat and barley, perhaps the earliest in the world. Here is the full news blurb from ScienceInsider ("Hodder Cleans House at Famed Çatalhöyük Dig" by Michael Balter):
Researchers finishing the dig season at Turkey’s Çatalhöyük—a 9500-year-old site famed for its art and symbolism at the dawn of agriculture—got a big shock last week. Stanford University archaeologist Ian Hodder, who has directed excavations since 1993, told the heads of the dig’s specialty labs that they would be asked to step down beginning in 2012, when publication of current work will be completed. It’s “the night of the long knives,” says one long-time team member, who asked not to be identified.
Such a mass dismissal is highly unusual at long-running archaeological excavations. But in a 29 August e-mail to the team explaining his decision, Hodder stressed that he was not dissatisfied with anyone’s work. Rather, the e-mail said, the project “needs new energy—that is, new questions, new theoretical perspectives, ... new methods.”
Hodder, who began digging at Çatalhöyük to test his new ideas about how archaeology should be done, told ScienceInsider that “it was time for a shake-up” as the dig enters the last decade of his 25-year plan for excavations. “It has been a really remarkable team,” Hodder says. But, “I have felt over recent years that the project was getting comfortable with itself and so not challenging each other or me or the assumptions that we were all taking for granted.”
Many team members, some of whom have been working with the project since the mid-1990s, are stunned and confused. So far, however, they have declined to comment publicly as they must work with Hodder for at least another year. The decision affects the leaders of most of the big labs at the privately funded dig, such as ceramics, stone tools, archaeobotany, animal remains, and human remains. Field excavators, who actually dig up the artifacts for the specialists to study, are not affected.
Hodder says he plans to recruit new lab leaders for the next phase of excavations, planned for 2012–18, although he has not yet spelled out what new questions he intends to pursue.
Archaeologist Ian Hodder (left holding figurine) on site (Credit: Jason Quinlan/Çatalhöyük Research Project)

To my knowledge, this move on Hodder's part is unprecedented and brings up several issues pertaining to the process of archaeology. It is true that many researchers working on the same project and looking at the same material for years and years are likely to carve their own 'rut' of interpretation and not climb out of it. That is to say, most scholars will take their stand on their interpretation of the archaeological material and then not change it. Often it takes a different person to approach the same material to come up with differing or augmented interpretations - a process that drives science, and the field of archaeology in particular, forward. In this light, perhaps the "mass layoff" is a good thing to keep interpretations fresh.

But no one likes to be fired. Perhaps Hodder did not realize specialists would be interested in this material for so long? Perhaps he should have instigated 5-year contracts with researchers to keep new ideas and approaches coming through? It's hard to say since I am not an insider to the politics of this project that, like any other, are bound to be operative and complex.

However, as in the business world, preventing stagnation often includes a changing of the guard where new leadership can bring real revitalization. If Hodder could not motivate and/or challenge his teams, perhaps he too needs to find other archaeological pursuits?  

06 September 2010

Ancient art to see and own

If you are starting your Christmas shopping for me early, the Uruk Trading Company would be a good place to start! They make fine modern ceramics based on ancient styles and decorations, most notably from the Halaf Period (ca. 5000 BC). The image here is from their products catalog featuring a reproduction of a very famous plate uncovered at Arpachiyah near Mosul in Iraq. Not only are these table pieces beautifully done they are also microwave and dishwasher safe. Score! File this establishment under "Why Didn't I Think of That?!"

In other news, one of my favorite archaeological places is becoming an open air museum. According to this news brief in World Bulletin, the museum at Arslantepe in eastern Turkey will open June 2011 with a paved road leading up to the site and guides available to tour guests around. My apologies for the poor grammar of the article. I also want to note it contains some factual errors. For example, the site is 5,000 years old, not from 5,000 BC.

Arslantepe is home to one of the earliest (if not the earliest) palaces in the ancient Middle East. Archaeologists excavated a large central complex that held a wealth of objects, including cylinder seals and tabs of impressed clay that were used to seal commerce items. Piles and piles of these tabs were found as evidence of early accounting procedures that predate any written documentation that was to become commonplace a few hundred years later. Arslantepe stands as one of the major examples for heighten levels of trade and interregional interactions between Anatolia (modern Turkey) and Mesopotamia (Iraq).

Apart from commerce, Arslan is also famous for the beautiful wall paintings preserved inside the palace (pictured here). I was fortunate enough to see and photograph this ancient art in person and I am glad to see that others will very soon get the same chance!

01 September 2010

Fake Tut

Factum Arte, an independent workshop based in Madrid, has been busy in Egypt's Valley of the Kings. They are carrying out high resolution recording and production of exact facsimiles of the tombs of Tutankhamun, Seti I and Nefertari as part of a major initiative by the Supreme Council of Antiquities. The project is a collaboration between Dr. Zahi Hawass, the University of Basel, Friends of the Royal Tombs of Egypt, and the Foundation for Digital Technology in Conservation.

According to the Factum Arte website the goal of this project is to not just accurately record the tombs in digital form, but to use these laser imagining scans to completely recreate these tombs. The facsimile of the burial chamber and sarcophagus of Tutankhamun is apparently now in place at the Suzanne Mubarak Children’s Museum in Cairo, though I could not find any concrete information on this. This video gives a behind-the-scenes look at the work that was carried out in 2009:

Recording the tomb of Tutankhamun from factum-arte on Vimeo.

As the video states, the primary reason for these facsimiles being created is to ease the burden on these tombs that endure hundreds and thousands of visitors - a major amount of foot traffic that is detrimental to the tomb structure and paintings inside.

As honorable as this project is, it got me wondering about how popular the exhibit will actually be. In a world where people demand authenticity, will visiting a fake tomb - even one that is an exact replica, down to the pitting in the stone wall - be a moving, worthwhile experience? Or is it more to actually be in the place, the presence, of where the great kings of ancient Egyptian civilization were laid to rest?
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