Category Archives: Archaeology

Archaeology Magazine Nov-Dec

After some effort, I managed to re-subscribe to Archaeology, which makes me happy. So I thought I’d blog some thoughts on the latest issue…

I’m not sure I like the new format of the mag. The old way, there were one or two short pieces at the start – like “World Roundup” (always an interesting read); then it was straight into the longer, in-depth articles. Now, there are fully 20 pages of ads and shorter stuff before you get to the meaty bit. To drag the eating metaphor out – I like an entree as much as the next person, but I don’t like getting bored before the main course. I’d rather have the little bits at the end, to browse like a cheese platter. Yah; pushed that one to the limits, didn’t I?

Anyway… I was fascinated by Sanchita Balachandran’s reflection on whether to preserve an artifact of dubious provenance. I would have thought that preserving at all costs, so that at least something can be learnt, would be worthwhile. Apparently, though, this can be seen as encouraging looters and other nefarious types to continue their dastardly deeds (not meant to be read flippantly, btw). I’m still not sure I agree with this idea – what, let the Rosetta Stone fall apart because you’re not sure where it came from? – but I can readily see there are moral issues here.

I love stuff about Oxyrhynchus, and Tebtunis seems to be in the same league in terms of the amount of papyrus they’re finding. Marco Merola writes a fascinating account of the archaeological efforts being undertaken on the site, as well as what is being revealed by the information. It still gets me, every single time, just how much has not been uncovered yet, of places like Egypt that we seem to understand so well – let alone places where digging is barely begun. I love it! So yes – Tebtunis – awesome. Also on this track is Jarrett Lobell’s article on the discovery of an agora – an entire damned agora! – in the modern suburbs of Athens. Mad. I do hope the developers manage to incorporate parts of it into the new buildings.

Read a book on Genghis Khan – I think it was by John Man(n?) a while back; he and his have been a perennial favourite. Having taught the Chinese Revolution this year (not very well…), I was reminded again how diverse “China” is and has been. Jake Hooker’s article on the Liao Empire – which I’d never heard of – brought this home. They created some truly amazing stuff but… where are the uni courses, the museum exhibits, the kids’ cartoon shows? You could do some truly awesome stuff in copying their riding boots.

There’s a running joke in my family that I don’t much like stuff that’s younger than 1000 years old (I take affront at that; 500 years, maybe). So I’m still sometimes a bit dubious about reading stuff like Tom Koppel’s “Steamboats on the Yukon.” Of course, once I get reading, I’m fascinated – the reality is that I love basically all historical stuff, although I don’t know why. It helps, with this article, that in this instance the author had spent time with the team attempting to study and preserve said steamboats, so his account of scrambling over them is compelling.

In line with the family joke, I’ve sometimes received the vibe (not from my family) that history is pointless, because you know, it’s like already happened? It’s tempting then to point people to Heather Pringle’s “Medieval DNA, Modern Medicine.” I don’t, because I think history is important in itself, but there you go. Being a child of the Jurassic Park at the movies generation, extracting DNA from old bones (teeth, actually) seems a bit parse sometimes. This article is nice in showing just how damned hard that is, and what we oh-so-advanced modernites can learn.

Finally, I have to say that however much I love the magazine, it feels like there are more ads in there every time I turn around. And they’re all American, of course, so there’s barely any point in even looking at them. Oh well; it’s still a great read.

Stargate – the movie

We watched the original Stargate movie for the first time in a long time the other night. I must admit to a little fangirl flutter of the heart when the theme music started: I had either not realised, or forgotten, that the theme music is the same in the show as it was in the movie. Not surprising, of course. It did give me the giggles to realise just how much I loved SG-1 – we finished it ages ago, and I miss having more episodes to watch. More than I miss FarScape; perhaps not quite as much as West Wing.*

A couple of things I noticed, post-viewing of SG-1:

# Michael Shanks and James Spader – very cool, very similar, at least in playing Daniel. sigh.
# Richard Dean Anderson kicks Kurt Russell as Jack. Completely.
# I had never thought about the fact that they must store sets – in the hopes of re-using them at some stage. Either that or they worked really, really hard at being true to the movie for the show, and I just doubt it.
# There was a three year gap between movie and show. Is that a long time? It seems like a long time.
# The movie was a bit… well… boring. Especially compared with the show. Am I getting old and jaded?
# I cannot wait for the SG-1 movie to be made. There’s nothing on IMdB about it, but seriously… it has to happen.

*Of which we must retrieve seasons 2 and 3 from the in-laws. I love the first season, but there’s only so many times you can watch it with only season 7 as your other option. Oh, and season 5, but that gets a bit depressing.

Assyria, and lectures

Went to another public lecture the other day, this one the eleventh Marion Adams Memorial Lecture, for the Arts Faculty at Melbourne Uni. It got me thinking that I would like to have a lecture named after me, or possibly a book-buying bequest… I might have to set aside some money right now for that to be possible.

Anyway, the lecture: was very interesting. I won’t describe the whole thing here, because if you are interested in hearing it you can – gasp! the technology! – actually download and listen to it. Actually, it wasn’t there when I checked today, but I am sure they’ll get it there. If the microphone was good enough you should be able to pick up Dr Andrew Jamieson* thumping the desk and getting very excited, which was quite worhtwhile. Of course, you won’t get the visuals – unless they upload those too, which I would have thought unlikely – they were really great. The gist of his talk, anyway, was that far from the Assyrian heartland being the sole arbitrator of taste and refinement in the Neo-Assyrian period, there definitely seems to have been toing and froing in cultural borrowings and acquisitions between the heartlands and the conquered periphery. Just makes sense to me, but I take it that this is a new idea in the field.

*Whom, if memory serves, I heard speaking at another lecture last year – this one in conjunction with his brother, who is a physics lecturer also at Melbourne Uni. The whole thing was very good, but Andrew was definitely outshone on that occasion by his brother. Maybe he was sick then, because this particular lecture was brilliant.

Concrete in Rome

So I went to a public lecture at Melbourne Uni on Tuesday, called “From the Colosseum to the Baths of Diocletian: What Concrete can tell us about Social Change in Imperial Rome.” It was given by Lynne Lancaster of Ohio University. This was the first cool thing about the night: it was a woman, talking about concrete and stress points and vaulting ribs… very cool. The first funny thing was that it took two heads of departments (Classics, a bloke; Engineering, a woman [I think she was the head; I could have been wrong]) to turn some lights down so everyone in the audience – and there was a lot of people – could see the slides properly.

So, a number of things I found out are listed here. Lancaster has a book out at the moment, talking about some of these things; she made some joke about wantin a ‘sexier’ name, which I didn’t think was that sexier, but her publishers insisted that her title be searchable. So it’s really not sexy.

She started the lecture talking about factors affecting innovation, which I think she said she stole from someone else. Most of the rest of the lecture revolved around these issues, and how it affected concrete in Rome.
1. Accumulated knowledge
2. Evident need
3. Economic ability
4. Cultural/social/political acceptability

1. The accumulated knowledge required for buildings such as the Pantheon and other buildings of the early empire (her focus) was that of the arch (there’s evidence that there were arches from the 6th century BC – cool!), and use of pozzolana – volcanic ash used to reinforce the mortar.

2. Vaults got larger, which allowed for larger groups of people gathering together – which was convenient, since amphitheatres, theatres (numerous small vaults people sat on), and baths (fewer large vaults covering people) were becoming ever more popular.

3. Becoming an empire, rather than a good ol’ republic, brought different ways of collecting money for Rome – it also led to the wealth of one individual, or family, rivalling that of the state. And that wealth was often used on construction. The top builders, in her opinion, were Nero; Vaspasian; Trajan; Hadrian; Caracalla; Diocletian; and Constantine.

*Tangent-ish: the debasement of the coinage, which started under Nero. The denarius was about 97% silver under Augustis, but was only about 50% by the mid-third century. By this time, the coinage was so bad that the government wanted its taxes in kind, rather than money! This ended up having interesting repercussions for the building industry… see below…*

*Interesting tangent #2: When Trajan built his own little forum, he also modified Caesar’s – including a latrine. The cool thing about this is that the latrine was built on the second floor, meaning they had to use lots of arches to channel the weight. It also had nice windows….*

*And, just because: the Pantheon (I think Lancaster has a thing for the Pantheon…) has a 43m dome – the largest unsupported vault (I think I got that right), and two times larger than any previous dome: so interestingly, no incremental changes. It also has hollow, 6m wide walls, with extruded brick ribs…*

4. Brick industry development paralleled the increase in the use of vaults.
Under Trajan, politicians had to own land (I think I got that right – I might have missed something there). One way to profit from this was to sell clay, to make bricks. Brick use explodes from this time – it’s probably consequential. There’s evidence of bricks allowing for social advancement (slaves becoming freemen, etc). As well, there’s evidence that women owned and even produced bricks…. So in all of these ways there were incentives to Make Bricks.

**Break for a human demonstration of the necessity of ribs and vaults!**
Four women called up, to act as ribs – then Lancaster hung from their hands! and asked them where the tension was. And then, four men came up and put their hands on their shoulders – queue hanging again – and the women reported that there was less tension. Very, very cool.

Then there was scoria. It’s basically solidified volcanic foam, and was the only non-decorative stone imported into Rome, and it was used on imperial buildings. Most of the stuff that was used was from Pompey, but was brought after 79 – when the explosion from Vesuvius had covered the stuff – so it was hard to get to, but still they did it. Hello, lucre…

The Basilica Ulpia: why use columns, rather than a vaulted roof? Columns make the roof flat, and there was increasing interest in showing off colourful stone from captured territory. It also probably provided a very nice viewing platform for Trajan’s Column – so convenient!

Also at this time came the introduction of the use of window glass (from late in the first century). This led to huge changes in Roman perceptions of light and space, and raised expectations through the roof (tee hee). Buttresses become important for this development, and allows for baths to get bigger – good from a social and imperial point of view – and the light showed off the captured marble very, very nicely.

There were other bits and interesting pieces in the lecture – which I really enjoyed, if I haven’t mentioned that – but the last thing I wanted to mention related to that comment about taxes and debased coinage. Diocletian made a huge change by imposing a property tax on people living in Rome. The urban prefect, who was in charge of the area within a 100 mile radius of the city, used a form of barter to get building materials – and, on the other side, to reduce the taxpayer’s tax burden. Very, very clever.

Yay for public lectures! I love the Classics department at Melbourne!


They found her mummy! – well, they think so, and it’s not so much found it as identified it…

Video from Nat Geo.

Hatshepsut is so cool. Her iconography is fascinating, false beard and all (although, despite how incredulous the narrator of that vid sounds, male pharaohs did the false beard thing too… and I have never actually heard someone say Thutmose. I’ve only heard Tutmosis…). I think actually one thing that makes her so interesting is the fact that her descendents tried so damned hard to erase her from history. Humans are contrary like that; tell me something I don’t want to know about and dammit, I do!

I also like that Zahi Hawass sometimes seems to be a bit of a rock star in Egypt. Not everyone likes the way he does his job, but darn he is a good front man for archaeology in Egypt.

Archaeology (May/June)

I love my Archaeology, oh yes I do.

Kristin M Romey, writing about the “Archaeology in Conflict” conference in London last year, touched on an issue that I often think about. Apparently one of the presenters asked, presumably rhetorically, whether the audience thought Iraqis would prefer they be talking about how to provide them with clean water rather than preserving their ancient monuments – and got a very negative reaction. Romey asks whether archaeologists see artefacts as non-renewable and people as renewable, to have this sort of attitude. Which is just a bit frightening, I think. I am all for preservation, but I think sometimes there are hard decisions to be made, and maybe human life has to win out over old stone. Controversial, I know.

This links neatly with another article, called “The Battle over Amaknak Bridge” – an Alaskan community is redeveloping the bridge which connects it (an island) with another island, because this will help boost their economy. But the new road will go straight through a hugely important (apparently) archaeological site, where they’ve been digging up cool stuff from the Aleut past – going back 4000 years or so. So, in this case, which wins? The road could go another way, at a substantially larger (again, apparently) cost – is spending the money to move the infrastructure worth it, to save this historical site? Or should progress and economic benefit for the people who are there now win out? For me, the former would be my preference: preserving the history of the Aleutians and being able to discover, at leisure, all the secrets hidden on this site is worth spending lots of money on. But if the road absolutely had to go through it, then… I think modern people would win.

Which again, rather neatly, links to an article called “The Slum and the Sacred Cave.” I know little about Indian history, so I had never heard of these magnificent Buddhist and Hindu caves, which are apparently famous. This article focusses on one called Jogeshwari Cave, which has been neglected by everyone, for numerous reasons. Right now – and for some time – it is in grave danger because of the slum around it: sewerage and rain is destroying it, along with rubbish and other detritus, and human activity too. So one of the question is how you preserve this 1,500 year old cave and its art, and what to do with the human activity around it. Legally, there’s meant to be something like 330 feet of no buildings in the vicinity of monuments – but that would mean destroying hundreds (I think) of houses. And these were originally built as shrines, so do you prevent people from using them as such?

On a completely different note is the article by Bob Brier (some of whose books I think I have read), “How to Build a Pyramid,” about a French suggestion that Khufu’s pyramid (weird thing I found out: Khufu is still inside his burial chamber!) was built using an internal ramp. Makes a lot of sense, and apparently has quite a lot of evidence to back it up. I hope they get their permission to survey the pyramid.

Also unrelated, except in so far as they were both empires and this is about one of its symbols, is “Emblems of Empire” – the discovery of the signa imperii on the Palatine. The pictures of the lance and the spheres of chalcedony are really cool. I don’t quite understand how they can be claiming they belong to Maxentius, though. I read a lot about this online when the discovery was first announced, so it’s nice to see visuals.

One thing about Andrew Curry’s “The Viking Experiment” really annoyed me: there were two captions that described the early Medieval period as ‘the Dark Ages’. This phrase is not used in the article itself, though, so I wonder if this is stupid editorial interpolation – since I didn’t think that any self-respecting historian used that term these days. Aside from that, I really liked the article – and the idea of experimental archaeology is just so cool. How different textiles wear, what marks a sword leaves on a shield… it’s just such a great idea to get out there and try this stuff with as much authenticity as can be managed. And if it is done authentically, surely archaeologists/historians can only benefit from it.

I went to a public physics lecture a few years ago about radioactive isotopes and the like. The main reason I went – aside from that stuff just being fun – was that half the lecture was given by a physicist (he was great), and the other half by his brother, an archaeologist (he was boring). I thought about that when I read “Written in Bone,” about tracking the amounts of strontium in bones and therefore figuring out whether people had migrated or stayed in one place, and even trying to figure out where they had migrated from. I think it’s fascinating technology, but there wasn’t much in the article to say whether this actually is a widely recognised and accepted technique.

Finally, the magazine finishes with an article on archaeology in the Channel Islands, off California, and the prehistoric (14,000 years old, some of it) stuff they’re finding there, and what it suggests about hunting patterns, for example. All in all, this is one of the most consistently interesting issues I’ve read in a while; in fact, I read the whole thing cover to cover while not writing reports this afternoon.

Flat packed boats

Apparently, Carthage had them! And apparently, that was eventually bad, because when the Romans caught one they took it apart, found the numbered planks, and were therefore able to copy them and make something like 200 ships in 45 days. That sounds a bit ridiculous to me, but hey….

I found this out in an old doco on Carthage – I think I taped it last year or the year before, and only just got around to watching it last night. It was quite interesting – I actually learnt something new, like that Hannibal’s father actually set up Carthage #2 in Spain, and that people in Carthage #1 weren’t entirely happy with what he did. The doco started with the founding of Carthage, basically, talking about them using the Mediterranean as their own little pond. It very quickly gets to talking about the First Punic War, of course. This section was interesting, but it also leaned towards Rome – as these things always do – with sentences like Rome becoming a naval power “at last“: as if it was (gasp) inevitable that that would happen.

The bit I was disappointed about was the section on the Second Punic War, and Hannibal. There was, to my mind, too little on the man and very little even on the war itself! I did like the bit on Cato, though; a vicious little self-important declaimer is generally entertaining, especially at a two-millenium remove.

Most disappointingly, though, was the fact that I missed the end of the doco! It stopped right after talking about Carthage rebuilding, against the Roman treaty… so I didn’t get to diss them for including the ol’ salting the earth story.

Sad me. But it was a good doco.

Archaeology (March/April)

Some random musings on some of the articles in the latest Archaeology mag from the Archaeological Institute of America…

“Who’s Buried in St Paul’s Tomb?” Unlikely to be Paul, I would have thought, statistically… I find the last sentence a bit weird: “Naturally for us archaeologists it would be interesting to know if the remains inside really belong to St. Paul,” says Giorgio Filippi. If he is speaking for all archaes, then ‘I doubt it’ is my response; if for his fellow Vatican Museum archaes, then maybe. But how would you be able to tell anyway?

The world roundup is always fun… favourite item this time is the fact that Indiana Jones made it in…

“Publish or be Punished,” says Israel to diggers there – and while I feel sorry for the archaes who feel pushed to do more and more and have no time for it, I understand where Israel is coming from too. Having your cultural heritage stolen, or just forgotten because it lies gathering dust (outside of the ground where no one else can find it) can’t be too much fun.

I really enjoyed “Beyond the Family Feud”, about the question of where the Olmecs fit in with other Mesoamerican cultures and whether that’s even a valid question to ask. I love a whole new take on old issues.

Haven’t seen Apocalypto, don’t plan on it. The article trashing its portrayal of the Maya, by David Freidel, was pretty entertaining though.

I (heart) the Antikythera Mechanism. Every now and then someone discovers/decides something new about it, and it gets into the news as if the thing itself has just been found – rather than oh, a few decades ago. But the new stuff being used and found out is very cool, especially the geodesic dome to shine light at it at different angles.

I like Vikings too, so the stuff in “Iceland’s Unwritten Saga” – about investigating early settlements there – was interesting too. And it linked nicely to “Diamond Rush,” about the diamond-hunters who went to Brazil in the C19, in that both are looking at the impact of humans on the environment and what we today can learn about how it happens – and, hopefully, what could be done about it.

There were other bits and pieces in this issue, but I just find it a bit hard to rustle up a huge amount of interest for much American archaeology. Bad of me, I know. Oh well.

The word ”archaeology”

I’m watching Time Team, and I’m really enjoying it – they’re at Cirencester, which we visited in January, and they’ve found some really cool stuff – the mosaic in particular is brilliant, and I can’t imagine how thrilling it must have been to discover it.

However, they really pain me when they use the word “archaeology” to mean the stuff that they find: “there’s some really interesting archaeology still to be found.” No, there isn’t. There are some interesting ruins and artifacts to be found, and some arduous digging and cleaning to go through as well, The process of finding the stuff is ‘doing archaeology’, along with figuring out how it all works together and what it means.

Bugs me. Grrr.

I love my Archaeology

I am so glad I subscribed to Achaeology. The Aussie ones are just so dull, and boring, and often poorly written….

Here’s what’s in the jan/Feb issue:
An article that looks at the problems of even thinking about working in northern Cyrpus (the Turkish bit, which I didn’t realise is only recognised by Turkey), and the consquences on people who have the temerity to go and (possibly) vital resuce work on important ancient sites.
Clay tablets from Qatna, which was destroyed by Hittites, and the city where they were found… there’s correspondence between the Prince of Qatna and Akhenaten in the Amarna files.
An article on Selam, the near-complete skeleton of a c. 3 year old child even older than Lucy, who is 3.2 million years old.
Underwater archaeology in the North Sea, mapping ancient rivers and thinking about where people might have lived when the North Sea and the Englsih Channel were land (very, very cool).
Trying to figure out where Hannibal crossed the Alps – to their credit, it addresses the question of whether this is actually relevant to anything, and has a stab at arguing that yes this is valid research (and certainly, if you want to find out, it makes as much if not more sense to, like, go to the Alps and do some digging than just read Polybius…).
Excavating some fort in Georgia, US.
The legacy of some semi-nutter, Augustus le Plongeon, who thought world culture was thanks to a Mayan queen called Moo.
And, finally, an article on reshaping Waterloo – making it more touristy, but at the expense of any archaeological explortions, which have apparently never been conducted on the site (what the?). I can understand wanting to make money, but at the expense of finding out interesting stuff about the battle it doesn’t seem to make sense.

Anyway, it was a brilliant read.