Tag Archives: archaeology

Indy vs Henry

imagesI love Indiana Jones, but there’s a lot to dislike in Dr Henry Jones Jr. And that’s without considering the gender and race aspects of his stories.

Indiana Jones, as an adventurer, is pretty much awesome. The whip, the hat, the jacket. Rescuing people, finding artifacts, rescuing his dad – all of these things make great movies and a man who is often admirable. (Like I said, this is ignoring the problematic stereotypes, which are not my focus here.) Unknown

Dr Henry Jones, though, is meant to be an archaeologist. A reputable one. An academic at a prestigious university. And this is where, on recently watching The Last Crusade, I got a bit sad and discovered some Suck Fairy dust. Because basically, Jones is Schliemann. He’s an adventurer, he’s single minded, and he’s destructive. To get to a tomb that might exist in catacombs that might be under a converted church, he destroys a library’s floor – presumably a floor that dates to the Middle Ages, if we’re expected to believe the trail of clues. And when he’s in danger for his life, he destroys a thousand-year old tomb (ok maybe that one is almost acceptable). So like Schliemann, Jones is only interested in preserving the bit of old stuff that he cares about. Never is there concern for the provenance of artifacts, of preserving the context in which items exist. And those items do end up in museums, which is good – but they’re not museums in the countries where the items were discovered, or even vaguely associated. 

And although it’s only shown briefly, there’s also Jones’ position as a lecturer. I’m sure he’s a great lecturer, and he’s clearly very knowledgeable. But does he care about teaching? Or even research? Doesn’t seem that way. There’s dozens of students waiting to speak to him after class, and a huge stack of papers that haven’t been graded yet, and what does Jones do? Legs it out the window. Oh, so responsible.

Lara Croft behaving like Indiana bugs me far less. She never pretends to be anything other than an adventurer and opportunist (in the best possible way). You can’t expect her to be concerned about provenance; it doesn’t matter, in her context. But Jones should know better. Especially given how often he is shown to be morally outraged by the careless abandon with which the villains treat the objects that they’re both after – right from when as a young River Phoenix he’s indignant at the removal of an object that “belongs in a museum.”

Does this stop me from loving the Indiana Jones movies? No. It’s a sign of love that I can critique something while watching it for the umpteenth time (as I am doing right now, sitting in a guest house while my darling is off on a mountain bike somewhere. And I’ve sadly run out of wool in the middle of two different projects). And this issues deserves critique.

Ah, voyeurism

I missed all of the “Who do you think you are?” episodes on SBS – UK and Aussie – and I was a bit sad about that, because although it’s not entirely my thing I do like a bit of this sort of personal history. Fortunately, my darling mother (she of the apricots) taped those of Bill Oddie and Nigella Lawson. I’ve just now got around to watching them, having had the video waiting for me for weeks. Bill Oddie’s was quite sad – his mother in a “sanitorium,” or asylum, for much of his childhood; he has very few memories of her, and basically no good ones. It was quite interesting hearing his reasons for researching his past.

Nigella comes from a tradition of caterers, which I think is hilarious. I didn’t know she was Jewish, so that was fascinating too: her great grandparents came, respectively, from now west Germany and Amsterdam. The history of Jewish migration and experience is one I know little about, and I wonder just how well researched it is; I would guess fairly well. It gives quite a different view on early modern history in Europe (and, I am sure, on medieval too) from what you get if you simply focus on the Christian European experience.

Planetary alignment

Yes, you guessed it, I am spending tonight watching the first Lara Croft film. Whee! It does have a brilliant opening, I must say. And some of the action sequences are marvelous. I love the bungee scene, between floor and mezzanine; giving her the bungee cord makes it at least vaguely plausible, unlike some other scenes of this type. And, you know, who doesn’t love a sexy archaeologist (talking about Alex West, aka Daniel Craig, of course – with a bad American accent)?

But seriously. A planetary alignment I can just about come at, on a fantastical level; it’s not a new idea, and there are alignments of two or three (I’m including the sun and moon here) every now and then. But a meteor that strikes at the exact moment of the alignment? Not even I’m that gullible. And I don’t think it adds to the story, either – it’s not necessary for the plot to work.

Oooh, just got to the massive Buddha getting up and angry; very cool.

And Jolie’s hair? So very fake.

Indiana Jones

Well, to start with I am very excited that the fourth one has actually had a date set for release – mid this year. It’s been a long time coming!! With Cate Blanchett, hopefully it will be good – I really hope it’s realistic about Ford being ancient. One of the things I really enjoyed about Lethal Weapon 4 was Glover and Gibson going on about being too old for this shit. Anyway, I’m excited.

What has sparked this post, though, was a viewing of Last Crusade. Great movie. Great movie. I adore the opening, with young Indy: it is so very nicely set up – I realised that you don’t know whether Indy is a scout or in the cave for quite a long time; the main looter in the cave even looks a bit like Ford, and of course the hat is Indy’s. It made me sad to see River Phoenix – such a pity for him to die so damn young.

And the whole movie is great. Good chases – although the tank/horse scene gets a bit long; good baddies – especially Elsa, of course, and adding in Hitler is brilliant; I love the zeppelin scene; and heck – it’s Connery! “The schlime of humanity” – what a line.

More archaeology for me!

So my nerdy excitement levels are way high at the moment, because today I found – in Ballarat of all places! – a copy of a magazine I’ve never heard of: British Archaeology. I subscribe to the American one, which comes from the American Institute for Archaeology; this one is put out by the Council for Brisitsh Archaeology. Now, it was quite expensive, but it is beautifully printed and – although short – it seems to have only about 2 full page ads in the entire 66 or so pages! Compared to the American one, and even BBC History (which I also subscribe to), this is quite amazing. Anyway – I’m very pleased, and I’m looking forward to reading it. Most of it, of course, is British – which is fun – and a cursory glance seems to indicate that it will be like the American one in terms of being reasonably good history and good archae, and being populist at the same time.

Hurrah for me.

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.