21 December 2010

Only Kinect: Monument as Playground in Munich

Last month interactive technology company seeper set up a system of motion sensors and projectors that allowed passerby to 'play' the medieval Karlstor next to Stachus in Munich (via Wired).

The level of hype in this video is pretty comical, but playing the Karlstor looks like fun! Especially after a couple glasses of gluhwein. Repurposing familiar monuments like this is good. So often we feel like old things, especially monuments, rule us. This game creates a kind of inversion of that psychology, creating a dissonance that lets you see old things in a new light. Games like this are also very conservation compatible, since it's non-invasive: a good tip for people minded to turn ancient monuments into modern spectacles.

I did a little snooping and it turns out that the production end is pretty straightforward - the Kinect is an off-the-shelf attachment for Microsoft's Xbox video game console, released last month, that does motion tracking and even face and voice recognition. Microsoft's attempt to one-up the Wii. Combine it with a projector and a little modelling savvy, and interactive games projected onto the urban environment are (or will soon be) within many peoples' reach. There's a ton of interesting implications popping into my mind already: interactive scenes or puzzles as part of museum or monument tours, urban gaming, the fusion of the video game and live-action role-playing experience.

All this, and archaeologists don't even use film yet. Time to leapfrog a couple generations of technology methinks.

20 December 2010

Regulatin' Google Latin

It must be a slow Monday night, I just spent 10 minutes chortling over Dr. Octagon lyrics in bad Latin. I was inspired to this diversion by Mary Beard's review of Google's new Latin-English translator (unenthused):
...the verdict is -- dont touch it with a barge pole.

My first shot was actually quite encouraging. I typed in "arma virumque cano" and "I sing of arms and the man" came out. I have come to suspect that someone had actually specially entered a range of obvious quotes people might search for, with a correct translation -- because Google was unexpectedly good at these ("per ardua ad astra" = "up the steep slope to the stars" etc). Now that may be useful enough in its was, but it isnt what I call "translation"; it's a database of quotes.

Things started to go wrong pretty quickly when I typed in some baby Latin. "Servus est in villa" (and you couldnt get much simpler than that) comes out as "In the town is the servant of" (how come villa = town? and where has the "of" appeared from?).

Agreed, this translator sucks completely. It just transliterates the English without changing the word order, and is full of inexplicable mistakes (due to a small working vocabulary? I wonder).

However, let's not overlook the entertainment value. The English to Latin is a GREAT procrastination tool, even if you don't know any Latin. For instance, an excerpt from a famous recent epic poem, 'Ordinatores':

Eastside iustus ledo de LBC
Legati quaeruntur Mr Warren G.
Vidit currum plena puellis non tweak non necesse
Omnes sciunt quid pedibus sursum CCXIII

(You might know this one as 'Regulators'). The original looks like this:
Just hit the Eastside of the LBC
On a mission trying to find Mr. Warren G.
Seen a car full of girls ain't no need to tweak
All you skirts know what's up with 213
This translation is whack! How does 'skirts' turn into 'pedibus'?! 'Vidit currum plena puellis' is vaguely right (a chariot full of girls! Woot!), but currus is masculine so it's gotta be plenum. 'Non tweak non necesse' has a ring to it though, I'm gonna start saying that to people when they need to chill out.

Anyway, this thing is a total train wreck. And like trainwrecks, it's irresistable.

Here's the video if you feel like watching it. I do.

11 December 2010

A Working Lego Model of the Antikythera Mechanism

Holy crap. From Small Mammal (via Boing Boing), a functional replica of the Antikythera Mechanism MADE OF LEGOS:
This is a 2000-year-old analog computing device reconstructed out of Lego. It predicts solar and lunar eclipses, accurate to within two hours — all using plastic gears. Andy Carol, its designer, builds mechanical computers out of Lego as a hobby. He made this device basically because Adam Rutherford, an editor and producer at Nature, dared him to. When Adam heard that Andy had actually built the device, he called me and said, “Well, clearly we have to make some sort of film about this thing now.”
So they did, and here it is. This makes me jump up and down and shake around with delight.

The Antikythera Mechanism in Lego from Small Mammal on Vimeo.

Andy Carol also made a working model of Charles Babbage's Difference Engine, probably the most complex analog computer since the Antikythera Mechanism! Of course, the real thing looks totally different (by which I mean ugly):

The story of the device itself is amazing - discovered in a shipwreck by sponge divers in 1901, it remained a more or less a mystery for decades. Everyone knew it was a sophisticated machine but the thing was in such bad shape that no one could do much with it. (Besides speculate about the influence of ancient astronauts, as the "History" channel is wont to do.) The advent of high-tech x-ray scanners, however, unlocked the device's mysteries, as this video from Nature reports:

I think Michael Wright's model of the device gives a great sense of how the device actually looked and functioned:

I have to put in a plug here for my pet project, "archaeological optimism". Most of the news coverage of the device portrays it something out of time. Like this headline from an io9 story on the device: "Advanced imaging reveals a computer 1,500 years ahead of its time". Bullshit! It was exactly appropriate for its time because that was the time when it was made. Greek scientists had the capacity to create complex mechanical calculators, and did. No need to drag them out of their place.

The 'device out of time' trope is just the arrogance of the present, thinking that we are the culmination of all of history so far. Bullshit. Time and civilization does not have an end point or a state that is 'better' than another. That attitude becomes an excuse for belittling the genius of our forebears by painting their greatest accomplishments as something abnormal, instead of granting them an equal moral status to us.

10 December 2010

Excavating with the X-Clan

Archaeologists discover the tombs of the Underseer and the Overseer, and lo, X-Clan is unleashed! Thanks to Sean for the video tip.

X-Clan was formed in 1990, broke up in 1992, and recently re-formed. They came out of a New York hip-hop scene that was heavily intertwined with political activism and Black nationalism. Besides having made some total jams, they have awesome uniforms and a great archaeopop aesthetic that mixes ancient Egypt, the African diaspora, and American urban style.

In North America, I think esoteric/Afrocentric hip-hop artists have done the best job of using archaeological and historical motifs to create a modern identity, mostly through the beliefs of the Nation of Gods and Earths (aka '5 percenters') a religious tendency that branched off of the Nation of Islam in the 1960s. There's been a lot of influential hip-hop artists out of this philosophy (Busta Rhymes, Eric B, Wu-Tang, Nas, Brand Nubian, Big Daddy Kane, Jay-Z). The symbology of Egypt is crucial (e.g. this Nas cover) and a lot of these artists' work deal with history and identity in one way or another.

X-Clan have a habit of poking fun at the historical representations of Black people in their videos that I really dig, pun intended. The tomb-opening scene in the video above lampoons the idea that African history is something of the past: Egypt's not dead! The opening to the video of 'Fire and Earth' (below) totally destroys the stereotype of the 'primitive' Black man AND sarcastically suggests that the white guys in black face are the real neanderthals, all in about 10 seconds:

This is one of the songs that has gotten stuck in my head most often over the last 20 years.

A lot of people find Afrocentric approaches to archaeology absurd or offensive. I think that's bullshit - people have the right to remix archaeology however they want and it's GOOD if the past means something to everyone.
Stop yourself next time you see a neoclassical façade in an American city and contemplate the breathtaking audacity of white Americans claiming to be the heirs of the ancient Greeks. I mean, check out this building here, the Nashville Parthenon. It's a life-size reproduction and is actually more complete than the original. It even has a cult statue of Athena, right here in the bible-loving heart of our "Christian Republic"! In Nashville! Weird as hell. But no one's shocked anymore by the bizarreness of the ideological program "America=Ancient Greece". 200 years of familiarity, and patronage from powerful people, have made the aesthetic vocabulary of Greece and Rome boringly normal. Remixing the past only seems ridiculous when it's people who are traditionally disempowered doing it. Daring to find your own meanings in the past is 'uppity' behavior (that stuff is for the experts, y'all quiet down!).

Seriously? We could use a lot more uppityness in the world of history and archaeology.

05 December 2010

Noah's Ark theme park, brought to you by the Kentucky taxpayer

The governor of Kentucky is pushing for major tax breaks to a Christian fundamentalist group who plan to build a full-size "reproduction" of Noah's Ark as part of a theme park in the northern part of the state. Expected to open in 2014, the park will be run by the same group, "Answers in Genesis", that runs the nearby Creation Museum (where "Biblical history is the key to understanding dinosaurs").

The question in the New York Times today is, does public funding for creationism violate the separation of church and state? Duh. As usual, the Times gets into elaborate hand-wringing over obvious questions. (Though such funding may not be illegal since a recent Supreme Court decision.) On the other hand, if the project does pump the projected $500 million per year in tourist dollars into the area, I see why the governor is into it.

But let's talk about the proposed attraction. Though their ideological agenda is a bit stomach-churning, Answers in Genesis does represent some "best-practices" in building a museum. They did a national survey to assess the attractiveness of their museum concept. They have a well-organized, accessible website with great graphic design (I love the font!) and a clearly-identified audience that will be bombarded with a sophisticated fundraising campaign (you can become a 'Peg', 'Plank', or 'Beam'-level supporter for donations of $100, $1000, or $5000).

The Ark Encounter will be a 800-acre (320 ha) mix of amusement park, mall, and zoo with lots of multimedia action:
  • The Walled City: Along with plenty of shopping and food, guests experience Bible events through various themed venues situated on 40 acres.
  • The Ark: A full-size wooden Ark.
  • Noah’s Animals: Live shows with animals from around the world, and a large petting zoo.
  • Children’s Play Area: A highly themed, interactive environment where kids can explore and play.
  • The Tower of Babel: A 100-foot-tall themed building with exhibits and a 500-seat 5-D special effects theater.
  • Journey Through History: This themed attraction takes visitors on a trip through events of the Bible, experiencing spectacular special effects.
  • The First-Century Village: This attractive area presents a town as it might have appeared in the Middle East.
  • Aviary: three bird sanctuaries presented in a natural setting, plus a nearby butterfly exhibit.
  • Special Events Area: A venue for large gatherings; this area will also showcase some of the Leader in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) building techniques used to build the Ark complex.
Let us pause in admiration of the complexity and diversity of the project. A themed 'ancient walled city' environment, sort of like Disney's Main Street USA but with an ancient history vibe. Play area for the kids, plus bird sanctuaries with pretty critters. A replica first-century village, which I'm sure will have costumed actors. 5-D special effects in the Tower of Babel?!?!?! I have no idea what the other 2D are but it sounds tight. And the buildings are LEED-certified and environmentally friendly? Damn. There is definitely something for everyone here. Honestly, I would probably go to this, just to see it for myself.

The introductory video is fascinating. Experimental archaeology is the basis of the whole project: since the overriding mission is to prove that the Book of Genesis is a historical text, building Noah's Ark and showing that people and animals could actually have lived inside will serve as "proof" that the story is not just a myth. Lived experience is much more persuasive than text, and millions of people will leave the park believing that the biblical stories could have actually happened. It's a totally accessible, non-elitist approach to presenting a historical vision.

Don't get me wrong, it's a vision based on the false assumption that myth and history are the same thing (though archaeologists used to do this, sometimes with success: cf. the life of Heinrich Schliemann!). As someone who likes the Bible and Jesus and goes to church now and again, I am appalled and frustrated at the way these guys completely misunderstand Genesis and Christianity. But they are good at presenting their vision. Their art director worked for the 1984 Olympics and at Universal Studios, for chrissakes!

Contrast this to a climate for museums with real historical artifacts, where selling off their collections seems the only possible way to pay for basic infrastructure in the current economic climate. But what do you see in those museums? A bunch of static objects in cases. You have to read a book or two before you visit, or you won't understand anything. You're expected to be silent and worshipful no matter how bored or confused you feel. God forbid you try to touch or interact with the exhibits. As I've said before, ever since the cultural élite stopped going to church, art and history museums have tried to fill the gap and give us that experience of awe and reverence. But they do a bad job of it. The creationists, on the other hand, know how to tie history and religion together into a lived experience that is fun, kid friendly, and compatible with modern lifestyles. I wish I could say that of the rest of the museum world.

01 December 2010

Not so newsy newsflash

Il Messaggero newspaper reports the assassination of Julius Caesar. ("Suetonius' Shock: 'It was a stab in the back'".) Part of their ad campaign to convince you that it's Rome's 'traditional' newspaper. I wonder where Alitalia was flying in 44 BC?

Photo: me. Spotted in the Coliseo subway station, Rome.

More archaeo-protest: Chichen Itzá

Last week Italy, this week Chichen Itzá: holding your protest in front of ancient stuff is becoming de rigeur these days. As part of the climate summit in nearby Cancun, Greenpeace floated this consciousness-raising hot air balloon in front of a Maya pyramid on Sunday. I have to admit, it's eye-catching marketing.

29 November 2010

Tycho Brahe's nose, and other delights

Petr David Josek/AP

In all the recent news about the exhumation of 16th-century Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (did he die from poisoning? stay tuned), important details get overlooked. Like, when they dug him up the last time (in 1901), they couldn't find his nose. Not his real one, his fake one, acquired after the real one was cut off in a student duel. Here's the full scoop from the August 2004 edition of the Annals of Improbable Research (original here). My kind of history writing.
Astronomer Tygo Brahe (born 1546, died 1601; Latinized name: Tycho Brahe) was not just an early geek. When he was exhumed in 1901 to celebrate the three hundredth anniversary of his death (and also to restore his grave), many people were eager to get a look at the famous metal insert that had been substituted for Brahe's birth nose.

He had a fake nose and an eccentric moustache and an alcoholic pet moose. And a psychic dwarf sidekick. Righteous.

The Coming of the Nose

In 1572, as a Student at the University of Copenhagen, Brahe observed a very bright star. He proved that it was a Supernova located outside our solar system. Brahe's later observations of the orbits of Cassiopeia and of a comet made clear that those objects, too, were located more distantly than our moon. All this meant that - contrary to what many people believed - the heavens were changeable, not immutable Šs Aristotle had long ago postulated. Still, Brahe avoided painting a heliocentric view of the universe; he described the earth, rather than the sun, as being at the center of all things heavenly.

To take up his studies, Danish student Tygo had moved from Copenhagen University to the German cities of Leipzig, Wittenberg and Rostock. There, he developed an interest in alchemy and astronomy. He soon became a successfui astronomer. In 1572, he observed the new star Cassiopeia and in 1574, he became a lecturer for astronomy in Copenhagen. Shortly after that, he took up an invitation by Prussian Kaiser Friedrich II to set up the finest astronomical observatory of its time, the "Uraniborg," on the island of Hven in the Sont near Copenhagen. From 1599 on, Brahe worked in Prague. In 1600, the German astronomer Johannes Kepler joined him. Kepler caiculated planetary orbits - basing his caiculations on Brahe's meticulous observations, which Brahe had performed without a telescope.

The Going of the Nose

Tycho Brahe's nose got lost, quite early, in a student fight. On December 10, 1566, Tycho and the Danish blue blood Manderup Parsbjerg were guests at an engagement party at Prof. Bachmeister in Rostock. The party included a ball, but the festive environment did not keep the two men from starting an argument that went on even over the Christmas period. On December 29, they finished the matter with a rapier duel. During the duel, which started at 7 p.m. in total darkness, a large portion of the nose of Brahe was cut off by his Opponent. It was the most famous cut in science, if not the unkindest.

The Second Coming of the Nose

In those times in Germany (and also in Austria), it was socially okay - and even more than okay - to proudly show the signs of a duel ( facial scars and other such marks of distinction). These signified that a man would stand up for his personal honor. However, to cover the - in this case extreme and unusual - disfigurement, Tycho ordered a substitute nose, made from a mixture of silver and gold. This was unusual, because in those days when someone lost a nose in that part of Europe, the replacement, if he or she were fortunate enough to be able to obtain one, was typically made of wax. (This was not as wildly unusual as it may sound to modern ears - it was not uncommon for people who suffered from lupus to lose their noses and attempt to obtain replacements.)

One of Brahe's pupils, Willem Janssoon Blaev (the name was also spelled Wilhelm Janszoon Blaeu), who lived with Brahe for two years on the Island of Hven, remembered that Brahe would always carry an ointment which he used on his nose. Aye, there's the rub - a nasty prize to pay for a hot-blooded fight!

Another Nose

Brahe later received at least one replacement nose for his first replacement nose. We know this because when his body was exhumed, a light greenish coloration on his front cranium was interpreted to be remains of a metal mixture that included copper. The original replacement nose - the nose that everybody had been looking forward to seeing - was, however, gone. The thin metal had corroded, and the coffin made of zinc may have speeded the corrosion process.

Another Accident

Another accident ended even worse for Brahe. One day, he sent his pet moose over to the castle of Landskrona, a city dose to Hven, to entertain a nobleman there. The moose was less interested in dinner conversation than in the castle interiors, and gave itself a tour of the building. Since the animal was completely drunk by that time - people had given the moose too much beer to drink - it feil down the stairs, and broke one leg. Shortly after, it died from the wound. (This incident was reported by Gassendi in 1654; readers who take the trouble to look up its history will be entertained or aghast, depending on their feelings about animal rights, about the morality of anyone or anything drinking alcoholic beverages, and about the ergonomic deficiencies of the period's architectural designs.)

A Side Note on Duels

By the way, duels by rapier or pistol did not, er, die out in Germany until the nineteenth Century, despite being severely forbidden by law. Even the German Head of the State Bismarck, who took part in many duels as a Student, in all seriousness asked the famous professor of medicine Rudolf Virchow for a duel in 1865! The two were political rivals, and Bismarck feit that Virchow had disrespected him by accusing Bismarck of not having read a report relating to the abolition of the German navy. The men did not duel, and so were able to go through life with noses intact.


A big thank you to Peter Scheible, who translated the original paper describing the exhumation ("Tycho Brahe, Casopis Spolecnosti Pratel Starozitnosti ceskych v Praze", J. Herain and J. Matiegka, vol. 9, 1901, pp. 105-30) from Czech into German. A general source is Tycho Brahe, the Man and His Work (original in Latin) by Pierre Gassendi, 1654. This book was translated into Swedish, and commentary added, by Wilhelm Norlind in 1951.

28 November 2010

UNESCO Plays a Zero-Sum Game with Africa

You know it's gonna be bad, just from the title:

UNESCO to Africa: Don't Swap Heritage for Progress

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) – The top official from the U.N. body in charge of preserving historical sites says the development of economies in Africa should not be made at the expense of nature and culture.

Irina Bokova, director general of UNESCO, was responding to a question on Monday about a plan by Tanzania to build a highway through Serengeti National Park.

The 260-mile (420-kilometer) road would bisect the northern Serengeti, potentially jeopardizing the 2 million wildebeests and zebra who migrate in search for water from the southern Serengeti into Kenya's adjacent Masai Mara reserve.

Conservationists says the road could devastate wildlife and should be built in a different location. Tanzania's government says it's necessary for development.

I want to scream whenever I read one of these 'conservation vs. development' stories. It's the WRONG MESSAGE. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Bokova is well-intentioned but it sounds like she's doing that 'white person scolding the ignorant blacks' thing that they used to do back in the colonial days. Oh wait, actually, that IS what she's doing. Preserve your land so white tourists can enjoy looking at wildebeests! That's the bottom line, folks, the wildebeests! It's a paternalistic, colonialist type of sentiment, and therefore NOT EFFECTIVE as an argument for conservation. What the Director-General of UNESCO needs to say is something like this:

This road is a bad idea if you want to develop your country. You guys are throwing away money by developing this area. Not only could the ecological impacts of roads have serious side effects (unplanned development happens along roads, and can be sickeningly expensive for developing countries) but you're going to lose a lot of tourist dollars if people think this area is 'ruined'. Let UNESCO help you figure out a plan that achieves your goals for MODERN DEVELOPMENT and also makes you MORE MONEY to develop your economy in ADDITION to protecting these animals.
The message has to be that conservation and development are not enemies - it's not a zero-sum game - but that when they're done right they reinforce each other. They should be additive! Gotta make the pie higher, as a great man once said. Conservation has to be presented as something positive for people, alive, today. Because the fantasy that heritage places, or natural places, are innocent fragments of the past that have to be defended against the big, bad present-day world is a stupid lie anyway. Conserved areas reflect our post-post-modern global power structure just as much as any road, skyscraper, or however many internets you can fit into one computer these days. Conservation has to speak to relevant social problems, or it becomes a kind of oppression.

25 November 2010

Students occupy Colosseum, Tower of Pisa

This afternoon students protesting austerity plans for Italy's education system occupied iconic monuments around Italy, including the Colisseum and the leaning tower in Pisa.

Photo IGN

The proposed cuts of over €12 billion would reduce dramatically student stipends, research funds, cut course offerings, and cost 130,000 jobs. Protests gripped Rome, Florence, Bologna, Pisa, and many other cities. As jaded as I am about protests, I was gripped by the drama of occupying these ancient monuments. (Though the students' attempt to bum rush the Italian Senate chambers was good too.)

Scuffles between cops and students broke out here in Rome, where I happen to be today to have Thanksgiving with some friends - we saw my student and researcher comrades on the march but were home to start on Thanksgiving dinner before the tear gas started smoking.

The "education reforms" proposed by the governments are a Trojan horse for privatization and slashing "unproductive" subjects like literature and the arts. The symbolic connection between the monuments of ancient culture and contemporary knowledge under threat is kind of forced, but it still works for me. Probably because I agree with the analysis on the Italian street - those who created the economic crisis took the world economic on a long speculative binge, and now that they're hung over they want the rest of us to pay their bar bill for them by sacrificing our futures. Hell with that.

Finally: a bunch of people made these effigies of classic books as shields for scuffling with the cops. Petronius' Satyricon as riot equipment? I think Encolpius would appreciate those priapic police batons.

13 November 2010

The Lord of Sipán infiltrates my morning coffee

My morning coffee for the last couple weeks. It's like a tourist brochure for Perú.

Why hello there, Lord of Sipán! Are you monitoring me? Supervising the coffee bean harvest? Your outfit is a little too freaky for this early in the morning. At least you didn't bring your buddies.

Moving to Bologna

Apologies for the radio silence from Archaeopop over the last couple weeks. I've been in the throes of moving to Bologna, Italy over the last month or so. Moving anywhere new has its unexpected, time-consuming surprises, especially in countries with a complex bureaucracy. (Yesterday I went to something called the 'Scientific Police' to give them my fingerprints.)

Some of you might be interested in what brought me here. I found a postdoctoral fellowship in the Department of Management here, working with a small group of faculty and students who are interested in the management of museums and cultural heritage. This summer we started a research project in Turkey, where we'll try to understand the connections between public sector reform (outsourcing, privatization), the local traditions of education and training, and how museums and archaeological sites are operated.

Thinking about the role of government in 'producing' archaeology has been really interesting - it was not a part of my training at all but it explains a lot of peculiar things that people find frustrating when they get to their fieldwork. I have a suspicion where people dig in Turkey (and other countries) is influenced more than we'd like to think by bureaucratic requirements, and by what's going on in the government at a given moment. More evidence that the archaeological record, for everything it tells us about the past, is given its shape by the present.

Being in a management department is an amusing culture shock for all concerned - when I told them I'm an archaeologist several people got this amazing facial expression that was like 'that's cool' and 'whut?' and 'perhaps you are lost, can I help you?' mashed up into one facial expression. Drop whatever humanist stereotypes you might have about business people though, it's a very interesting and very nice group of people.

p.s. Obviously living in Italy has some benefits in terms of archaeopop-iness, since it's basically a giant museum that everyone pretends is a country. I'll be sharing as much as I find the time for!

p.p.s. Bring on the sliced meat jokes. I never get tired of them.

26 October 2010

Google to put Dead Sea Scrolls online

Google is getting into the conservation business, as the AP reports:

Israel's Antiquities Authority and Google announced Tuesday that they are joining forces to bring the Dead Sea Scrolls online, allowing both scholars and the general public widespread access to the ancient manuscripts for the first time.

The project will grant free, global access to the 2,000-year-old text — considered one of the greatest archaeological finds of the last century — by uploading high-resolution images that are exact copies of the originals. The first photographs are slated to be online within months.

The scrolls will be available in their original languages, Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, and at first an English translation. Eventually other translations will be added, and Google's translation feature may also be incorporated. They will also be searchable.

This is the future of epigraphy and papyrology: open-source texts, available to the world, worked on collaboratively online. Heck, it's been the future: the Advanced Papyrological Information System (APIS) was already going 10 years ago. I was lucky to know one of the pioneers in digitizing papyri at Michigan, Traianos Gagos†, who is sorely missed. Traianos understood that being open with data and kind to colleagues would produce more and better scholarly results.

It sounds obvious, but mentality that archaeological data is a private stash 'owned' by one scholar has not totally faded away. Even I'm old enough to remember the early 1990s controversy over 'freeing' the Dead Sea Scrolls from a cartel of scholars who had exclusive publishing rights (see this book, or this old chestnut from William Safire on the case).

Archaeologists and allied trades need to learn that this mentality is counterproductive: instead of being afraid of the non-expert, we need to recruit them and figure out to put their enthusiasm to work! Keeping data private only fuels the ravings of the ancient astronaut theorists.

These Dead Sea Scrolls conspiracy videos sure are fun though.

Much more fun than the stupid action movie soundtrack and fuzzy-light 'reenactments' that Nat Geo is pushing anyway...

25 October 2010

Neanderthal lovin'

I never got around to posting this back in may, maybe you saw this (or this) back in May:
Neanderthals, Humans Interbred—First Solid DNA Evidence
Most of us have some Neanderthal genes, study finds.

Ker Than
for National Geographic News
Published May 6,2010

The next time you're tempted to call some oaf a Neanderthal, you might want to take a look in the mirror.

According to a new DNA study, most humans have a little Neanderthal in them—at least 1 to 4 percent of a person's genetic makeup. The study uncovered the first solid genetic evidence that "modern" humans—or Homo sapiens—interbred with their Neanderthal neighbors, who mysteriously died out about 30,000 years ago.

What's more, the Neanderthal-modern human mating apparently took place in the Middle East, shortly after modern humans had left Africa, not in Europe—as has long been suspected. "We can now say that, in all probability, there was gene flow from Neanderthals to modern humans," lead study author Ed Green of the University of California, Santa Cruz, said in a prepared statement.
It always seemed weird to me that the idea of these two kinds of humans interbreeding was always so taboo. Of course, Neanderthals were discovered in a time (1829) when Europe was in the grip of a deep interest in racial difference and classification, so it's not surprising that they were immediately consigned to absolute difference - and sex between slightly different shades of contemporary human was illegal in a lot of places only a generation ago. It never made sense on a gut level to me, though - Neanderthals were people, they could speak, make tools and jewelry, bury their dead, and lived along side Homo Sapiens Sapiens for millenia. The idea that at least a few of them wouldn't get it on at some point is ridiculous. (There's also an answer to this question here.) I kind of like the idea that I'm part Neanderthal.

Though maybe I just read Clan of the Cave Bear one too many times as a kid.

On the other hand, maybe it was the Neanderthals who were racist against us. Just sayin'.

24 October 2010

Copyrighting Stonehenge

Nice stock photo, eh?

English Heritage put its trowel in its mouth last week, when it sent a vaguely threatening email to blog Photolibra asserting that it owns exclusive commercial rights to photos of Stonehenge:
We are sending you an email regarding images of Stonehenge in your fotoLibra website. Please be aware that any images of Stonehenge can not be used for any commercial interest, all commercial interest to sell images must be directed to English Heritage.
Fotolibra rightly asks about the legitimacy and enforceability of this idiotic claim:
Firstly, what legitimacy do they have for this claim? Is there any law that states that it is illegal to use images of Stonehenge for any commercial interest? Can someone direct me to it?

Secondly, if an image of Stonehenge is so used, how could they possibly police the usage?

Tax this, ye fookin quango

Boing Boing, Techdirt, and Slashdot all went to town on this foolishness, prompting a clarification from English Heritage, which basically says whoops, sorry, we were just talking about the fee you're supposed to pay for commercial photography at the henge:
if a commercial photographer enters the land within our care with the intention of taking a photograph of the monument for financial gain, we ask that they pay a fee and abide by certain conditions. English Heritage is a non-profit making organisation and this fee helps preserve and protect Stonehenge for the benefit of future generations.
Photoradar reports this fee is about £75. A Boingboing commenter joked that Egypt would try to claim ownership of the US $1 bill, since there's a pyramid on the back, but it's not too far off - Egypt has in fact made moves to copyright its antiquities and try to control them through licensing.

This is all part of the diseased copyright extremism currently gripping society - not too far from the RIAA's claim that you should pay them a fee every time you sing a Lady Gaga song in the shower. The idea that everything we reference something in our culture we should pay a fee to the 'rights holder' is not only absurd, but sick - it's the free exchange of ideas that will make everyone freer, happier, and richer. And people are attracted to cultural heritage precisely because it's a huge, free database of ideas that can be freely remixed into our lives and identities. Trying to control that will never work - but it could definitely produce a lot of hostility toward heritage agencies that try.

15 October 2010

Watch the Destruction of Kashgar in Real Time

Hollowing out old Kashgar

New web tools make it easier than ever to track depressing things like the obliteration of historic cities. The great blog Ogle Earth has two posts documenting the destruction of Old Kashgar, in China's Xinjiang province. Until recently it was the “the best-preserved example of a traditional Islamic city to be found anywhere in central Asia.” These presentations show the power of Google Earth as a monitoring tool for urban conservation.

Until August, this was a dense network of traditional courtyard houses.

Stefan Geens spent a week in Kashgar in August documenting the demolition, and has a great post with photo gallery (the photos here are his).
I have learned from living in Shanghai and now Beijing that Chinese authorities — and to a certain extent mainstream Chinese culture — do not attach much importance to protecting traditional vernacular architecture. Imperial palaces and grand religious temples are worthy of preservation or even reconstruction, but not on the whole the hutong of Beijing or the lane houses of Shanghai, which are deemed too ordinary, especially when there is money to made building high-rises in their stead.
He made a .kmz file for Google Earth so you can track the bulldozers yourself:

Basically, the government is keeping some attractive façades for the tourists, while destroying the neighborhoods behind it: an example of façadism at its worst.
Why hasn't tourism been a better incentive for preservation? You do see the occasional westerner exploring the town, but the overwhelming majority of tourists in Kashgar are affluent visitors from within China, and they uniformly travel in bussed tour groups, deposited at various locales where they are led to photogenic spots by guides bearing portable loudspeakers. Among these destinations are the two officially protected parts of the old town, the 15% where bulldozers won't tread. These neighborhoods have been turned into open-air museums, with an entrance fee (RMB 30, USD 4.40) that entitles access to various courtyard homes and souvenir shops. I suspect that the Chinese authorities think these two areas should suffice for the majority of tourists. Depressingly, they may be right.
In a more recent post, he also dug up a 1908 map and superimposed it on the current city plan, so you can see what has changed, and what hasn't. The .kmz file is here.

Geens reflects on what you can see in the overlay:
Right away, it also becomes clear that the river's course used to lie further East, across lowlands that are now decked in relatively modern buildings. The maps's main discrepancy can be found in the size and orientation of the settlement to the Southeast of the city; the fortress to the west is also larger than life. In the Eastern half of the cities, the topology of the mapped alleys is tantalizingly familiar, though without producing accurate matches.
It goes without saying that the destruction of Old Kashgar is an instance of cultural warfare. The government would like to pacify and/or eliminate the local Uyghur culture, which is Turkic, Muslim, and not always especially thrilled to be part of China - especially after (successful) efforts to ensure that Uyghurs become an ethnic minority in their own territory. After last year's bloody riots between Uyghur and Han, tensions still remain high in the region. Heritage Key asks whether granting UNESCO World Heritage status would stop the destruction - an idle question, since UNESCO only inscribes sites nominated by member states, and has no particular incentive to provoke China. And for Chinese planners, like their American counterparts in the 1950s, the old is just an impediment to progress, which is obviously best implemented by stuffing everyone into concrete towers that are shabby almost before they're even finished.

12 October 2010

Columbus, Mediterranean Pirate

Note the creepy, dead eyes.

Christopher Columbus was a pirate, from a family of pirates. I became persuaded of this when I was nosing around Surprised by Time. Diana Gillibrand Wright shares the following story penned by Christopher Columbus’ son about the seizure of a Venetian convoy in late August 1485 by a pirate named Columbo, then working for Charles VIII of France:
The first cause of the Admiral's [Columbus] coming to Spain and devoting himself to the sea was a renowned man of his name and family, called Colombo [Nicolò Griego], who won great fame on the sea because he warred so fiercely against infidels and the enemies of his country that his name was used to frighten children in their cradles. . . . on one occasion he captured four large Venetian galleys of such great size and armament that they had to be seen to be believed. . . . . While the Admiral was sailing in the company of the said Colombo the Younger (which he did for a long time), it was learned that those four great Venetian galleys aforesaid were returning from Flanders. Accordingly Colombo went out to meet those ships and found them between Lisbon and Cape St. Vincent, which is in Portugal. Here they came to blows, fighting with great fury and approaching each other until the ships grappled and the men crossed from boat to boat, killing and wounding each other without mercy, using not only hand arms but also fire pots and other devices.
Columbus escaped from a burning ship and swam to shore. The goods turned up and were sold in England. The losses to Venice were huge and spelled potential bankruptcy for the Republic, which spent years of diplomacy trying to claw back its property (with some success).

The traditional story of Columbus was that he was a humble wool-weaver's son, who by various strokes of luck was shipwrecked in Spain, married a wealthy aristocrat, and persuaded the crown to send him to America. But what was Columbus doing on the crew of a pirate ship, and how was he related to the Captain? Commenter Pavlos, in two elegant posts, puts the myth of the wool-weaver to bed and places Columbus into a much more plausible context:
Historians and writers dealing with those mysteries [of Columbus' origin] usually tend to follow one of two trends. The most serious ones have attempted to mould Columbus into a recorded, verifiable individual; to make him fit the evidence rather than match him to it. The others to give him a passport that is non-Genoese by making points that are usually either weak or outright laughable. Both have created a kind of mythology.

Because it is a myth that Columbus was born in 1451, that he was a wool-weaver’s son, a deck-hand on a ship from Genoa or Burgundy who survived an attack by French corsairs and settled in Portugal in 1476 and many other “facts”.
We simply do not know when he was born. We don’t know what name he was given at birth or whether he had a surname before settling in Portugal – let alone what it was. So rather than dispute what he said about himself and what his two contemporary biographers – his son Fernando Colon and Bartolome de las Casas – wrote, let us see what picture emerges and if it makes sense.

Columbus was Genoese. Because that is what he said himself and that is what everyone else who knew him said. The only Cristoforo Colombo in Genoese archives that bears some similarities to Columbus is a wool-weaver’s son who is believed to have been born around 1451. But they don’t have to be the same person. Columbus may not have been called Cristoforo Colombo when living in Genoa; or may not have lived there at all. There were thousands of Genoese citizens borne and brought up in Constantinople, Chios, the Black Sea coast, and all over the Mediterranean.

Columbus said he came from a seafaring family and went to sea at fourteen. This is outright dismissed by some because it does not fit the wool-weaver theory. He also said he was contracted by “le bon roi Rene”, titular king of Naples, to capture a ship called Fernandina. We have no idea when this is supposed to have happened but the 1460s or early 1470s are thought the most likely time. This story is often called fanciful, as it does not fit in with the young wool-weaver theory and as an alternative it is suggested he may have been a simple deck-hand in that enterprise.

At some point Columbus settled in Portugal. It is almost certain it was in the 1470s but we don’t know exactly when. The year 1476 is often given. It was the year a combined Franco-Portuguese fleet attacked a Genoese convoy off the cape of St Vincent in Portugal. The leader of the corsairs was a man known as Colombo the Elder, a vice-admiral of the kingdom of France, who is otherwise known as Guillaume de Casenove. With him was his successor, Colombo the Younger, also known a Georges Paleologue de Bissipat. Many were killed and several ships from both sides caught fire and sank. Many historians, based on what Fernando Colon wrote, believe Columbus took part in that battle and, after managing to swim to safety, settled in Portugal. But they place Columbus on the Genoese ships, or on a ship from Burgunty that was with them, as a simple deck-hand, because that fits with the young wool-weaver theory again. By a coincidence that can only be described as diabolical or divine by the proponents of that theory, his brother Bartholomeo was already established in Portugal as a cartographer.
This vision of the complicated, ethnically ambiguous world of 15th-century Mediterranean seafaring rings true to me. Christopher Columbus, born to a polyglot family of corsairs from the Italian diaspora of the day, was from his youth a practitioner of the incessant economic warfare between Mediterranean powers. Pirate clans such as his were independent contractors operating under royal licenses to pillage their enemies. Rather than simple cruelty, piracy of this kind was a calculated combination of warfare and economic activity: a cheap way to bolster royal coffers while terrifying your enemies.

For me, Columbus’ approach to America epitomizes this approach, and made him perfectly suited to the task. Neither Wright nor Pavlos mention is the evidence of his later career, but his journeys to America were a pirate mission in the sense above: intended to explore economic opportunities, by force if the opportunity struck. On landing on Hispaniola, his first thought was to seize as much gold as possible, and his second thought was to seize slaves. Slavery was a common fate for people seized by pirates in the early modern Mediterranean, and was a major source of income for their captors. In his letter to their Most Catholic Majesties in 1493, Columbus averred,
It is possible, with the name of the Holy Trinity, to sell all the slaves which it is possible to sell...Here there are so many of these slaves, and also brazilwood, that although they are living things they are as good as gold...
But this cruelty was not purely directed toward the Indians. As Viceroy of the Indies, Columbus and his brother were such harsh rulers to the Spanish settlers that they ended up being sent back to Spain in chains as an embarrassment to the government:
As governor and viceroy of the Indies, Columbus imposed iron discipline on the first Spanish colony in the Americas, in what is now the Caribbean country of Dominican Republic. Punishments included cutting off people's ears and noses, parading women naked through the streets and selling them into slavery.

Columbus' government was characterised by a form of tyranny," Consuelo Varela, a Spanish historian who has seen the document, told journalists. One man caught stealing corn had his nose and ears cut off, was placed in shackles and was then auctioned off as a slave. A woman who dared to suggest that Columbus was of lowly birth was punished by his brother Bartolomé, who had also travelled to the Caribbean. She was stripped naked and paraded around the colony on the back of a mule.

Bartolomé ordered that her tongue be cut out," said Ms Varela. "Christopher congratulated him for defending the family."
Further grim detail is easy enough to find, and hopefully you’ve read some of them before: Columbus’ men chopping the hands off of natives who did not meet their gold quotas (there is, of course, no natural gold on Hispaniola), mass enslavements, the extermination of millions of people from violence and disease, the sale of girls as young as nine or ten as sex slaves, the story of Columbus personally whipping and raping a woman on the deck of his ship. It is the work of a pirate written on a much larger canvas – and reinforces, in a grim way, how much the cruelty and strife of the late-medieval Mediterranean provided the models for the settlement of the new world.

Some further reading:

Extracts from Columbus' 1492 diaries
Bartolomé de las Casas' Account of the Destruction of the Indies
Some more Columbian atrocities
John Noble Wilford, The Mysterious History of Columbus

08 October 2010

Breaking News: Ancient Greece Entirely Fabricated

You suspected it, all along:

According to Haddlebury, the idea of inventing a wholly fraudulent ancient culture came about when he and other scholars realized they had no idea what had actually happened in Europe during the 800-year period before the Christian era.

Frustrated by the gap in the record, and finding archaeologists to be "not much help at all," they took the problem to colleagues who were then scrambling to find a way to explain where things such as astronomy, cartography, and democracy had come from.

Within hours the greatest and most influential civilization of all time was born.

"One night someone made a joke about just taking all these ideas, lumping them together, and saying the Greeks had done it all 2,000 years ago," Haddlebury said. "One thing led to another, and before you know it, we're coming up with everything from the golden ratio to the Iliad."

"That was a bitch to write, by the way," he continued, referring to the pic poem believed to have laid the foundation for the Western literary tradition. "But it seemed to catch on."
I bet! It takes a long time to read, it must have taken at least a week to write.

NOW we know what's up with the scaffolding. They just built it!
Emily Nguyen-Whiteman, one of the young academics who "pulled a month's worth of all-nighters" working on the project, explained that the whole of ancient Greek architecture was based on buildings in Washington, D.C., including a bank across the street from the coffee shop where they met to "bat around ideas about mythology or whatever."

"We picked Greece because we figured nobody would ever go there to check it out," Nguyen-Whiteman said. "Have you ever seen the place? It's a dump. It's like an abandoned gravel pit infested with cats."

She added, "Inevitably, though, people started looking around for some of this 'ancient' stuff, and next thing I know I'm stuck in Athens all summer building a goddamn Parthenon just to cover our tracks."
Read the rest here.

07 October 2010

A Time Capsule in Paris

On Monday a Parisian flat was opened for the first time in 70 years.

Entering the untouched, cobweb-filled flat in Paris' 9th arrondissement, one expert said it was like stumbling into the castle of Sleeping Beauty, where time had stood still since 1900.

"There was a smell of old dust," said Olivier Choppin-Janvry, who made the discovery. Walking under high wooden ceilings, past an old wood stove and stone sink in the kitchen, he spotted a stuffed ostrich and a Mickey Mouse toy dating from before the war, as well as an exquisite dressing table.

The owner, who died recently at age 91, had left the apartment before World War II and never returned. Of course, this tidbit only made the paper because of money - there was a valuable painting among the effects (€2 million), by an Italian painter named Boldini. But I'm so much more intrigued by the gesture of leaving an apartment closed for so long. Why did the young woman, who must have been only 19 or 20, suddenly depart? Why did she never want to return? A great tragedy, an iron will, regrets of youth? What kind of money must you have to simply forget about your apartment in the 9th? The psychology of it is so exotic, I'm tantalized.

A few more photos (AFP/Marc Ottavi):

Theft from the world's oldest temple

Göbekli Tepe and its striking stelae.

Göbekli Tepe in southeast Turkey is the world's oldest known site of religious worship, with a 'temple' going back at least to the early Neolithic (9000 years). Last week Milliyet reported (Turkish) the theft of a newly discovered statue from the site. The 40-centimeter high, T-shaped stela had a human head above and an animal figure below and had been left in place in the excavation area. Sunday, when most of the excavation team was off work, archaeologist Gülsüm Yaprak discovered that the new statue was missing and called the gendarme.

A detail of one of the T-stelae. Note the vulture, scorpion, and crazy-looking bird.

I can't find any more news as yet about this major theft. It's hard to overstate the importance of the site, which has evidence for complex architecture and representative art as early as 11,000 years ago - before even the development of pottery.
The new discoveries are finally beginning to reshape the slow-moving consensus of archeology. Göbekli Tepe is "unbelievably big and amazing, at a ridiculously early date," according to Ian Hodder, director of Stanford's archeology program. Enthusing over the "huge great stones and fantastic, highly refined art" at Göbekli, Hodder - who has spent decades on rival Neolithic sites - says: "Many people think that it changes everything...It overturns the whole apple cart. All our theories were wrong."
If Ian Hodder is blown away, well, you probably should be too. I am, this site is amazing! Not least because it confirms my opinion that early people were much more like us than we usually give them credit for. The picture of the neolithic emerging from Çatalhöyük, Göbekli, and other sites in the region changes totally our picture of hunter-gatherers - from grunting savages in skins to settled communities with complex ideas and artistic traditions, who just happen to live on wild animals and plants rather than cultivated ones. Klaus Schmidt of the German Archaeological Institute, the excavation director, thinks that the stelae represent shamanistic religious traditions. Even more cool, there's lots of vultures juxtaposed with human body parts, suggesting that these people practiced sky burial, which survives in only a few remote places today (e.g. see this insane slide show or this video from Tibet).

Of course, such stuff is catnip for the unscrupulous collector, whose ego tells them they should have the right to "own" something like these stelae. I wonder if the theives were opportunistic, or whether the theft was commissioned? The fact that the stela was recently found points to inside knowledge and a certain familiarity with the archaeologists' routines. Local farmers? Workmen? Archaeologists? The Gendarmes? There's overlap between local mafias and antiquities smuggling in southeast Turkey. Depending on the area they could be connected to the Kurdish rebels, the army or gendarmes, or both.

The excavation has been closed to the public until further notice. How long it will take for the stela to show up in some museum, with an innocent-looking tag that says: "Syria or Anatolia. Purchased from an old private collection"? Whoever touches this thing deserves our rich contempt.

27 September 2010

Campy Roman Moments with Soft Cell

Marc Almond as a spoiled Roman aristocrat. He does it amazingly well.

I like the extremely non-PC Nubian slave.

Just to be extra crazy, here's the Chipmunks version!

22 September 2010

Nubian Antibiotic Beer

From the archaeological optimism department: a recent paper shows that ancient Nubians used antibiotics - and delivered them in beer! Analysis of bones from the Ballana culture of lower Nubia from ca. 350-550 AD, contained significanct concentrations of tetracycline, (first produced as a modern cure in 1948). The paper, by George Armelagos and Mark Nelson, is in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.
Nelson, a leading expert in tetracycline and other antibiotics, became interested in the project after hearing Armelagos speak at a conference. “I told him to send me some mummy bones, because I had the tools and the expertise to extract the tetracycline,” Nelson says. “It’s a nasty and dangerous process. I had to dissolve the bones in hydrogen fluoride, the most dangerous acid on the planet.”

The results stunned Nelson. “The bones of these ancient people were saturated with tetracycline, showing that they had been taking it for a long time,” he says. “I’m convinced that they had the science of fermentation under control and were purposely producing the drug.”
Tetracycline binds with calcium and phosphorus, which is pretty much what our bones are made of - so if you take it, part of it stays with you.

I have found my chance to share images like this with you. I am taking it.

This is not totally new news - Armelagos has been working on this research since 1980. By 2000, his team had pretty conclusively demonstrated that the tetracycline was delivered via beer. The mechanism is neat: ancient Egyptians and Nubians used bread as a source of yeast for fermentation. They would leave out some bread dough, collect local yeast from the air, half-bake the bread (leaving the center sticky so the yeast could breed), and then put the bread in a soup of malted grain to start brewing.

An ancient brewery setup.

The other thing that floats around in the air with that yeast is strepomycetes bacteria. Normally these aren't very interesting, but when they're trapped in environments they don't like - especially moist and acidic ones, like in the inside of a half-baked bread loaf, or a fermenting vat of beer - the streptomycetes start producing tetracycline! Which means that when your beer is done, it's full of antibiotics. Armelagos wrote a very readable article about the science and experimental archaeology they used to figure this out (in Natural History, from way back in 2000).

I have to admit, I would be more keen to take antibiotics if they were delivered this way.

Of course, when Armelagos was first sorting this out in the 80s, people were skeptical, saying it was impossible, the tetracycline must have been introduced to the bones later. Typical unwillingness to believe that ancient people could have figured out anything clever, like colonizing the Americas, performing brain surgery, or building astronomical observatories. This assumption that amazing inventions can only be made with petroleum-powered machines is a kind of industrial age narcissism. I think that the technologies invented after 1800 have in most cases just made it easier for humans to do things they already knew how to do a very long time ago.

It's a bit early for a beer here in my time zone, but we'll see if I don't get into a little 'experimental archaeology' later.

14 September 2010

Auto-tuning History

The slightly annoying, slightly genius guys who brought us 'Auto-Tune the News' are now dabbling in auto-tuning some great historical speeches with a feature called 'Time Travel in Song'. I like their version of Winston Churchill's 'Great Declaration' of December 1941 (I'd skip the other ones, they don't improve on the originals).

There's a certain trancy element that makes Churchills combativeness and stoicism into something almost pastoral. It's not a rocker, but it's kinda nice.

For those of you unfamiliar with auto-tune, it's a software program that can turn pretty much any speech into singing. A lot of singers with bad voices use it to get on key, but it's also open to other (ab)uses.

06 September 2010

Music to Dig By: Two Takes on Joan of Arc

I've always liked OMD's Maid of Orleans. What would it be like to be in love with a ethereal and sometimes bloody saint? They got the video just right.

Leonard Cohen's version explores the same theme, but focuses more on Joan's longing to consummate her passions. Joan is fire here, rather than ice. Here Cohen sings with Jennifer Warnes:

The film clips are from the 1928 silent film 'The Passion of Joan of Arc', itself a cinema landmark (these scenes are eerily modern for a silent).

Just in case that was getting too deep for you, here's some more Whoopi. This time, she's trying to use her bladder problems to avoid martyrdom! Clever.

04 September 2010

Some hot ancient deaths

Over at Street Carnage, Peter Glackin writes an open mic rounding up his favorite deaths in the ancient world. It's worth a read both for the gory details and his correct attitudes about these guys' personal characters. Here's your teaser on Crassus:

M. Licinius Crassus.
Remember Crassus? He’s that guy from Spartacus who crucified 6,000 slaves along over 100 miles of road. He was a dick. He was also exorbitantly wealthy and checks in consistently at number five in Forbes’ Wealthiest Historical Figures list. Want to know how he made that money? Before Rome was a city of marble, it was a city of brick. And wood. And flammable everything. And slumlords. This led to rampant tenement fires that affected pretty much everybody living in that shithole city, so it became urgent during the Late Republic to find a way to fix this. Enter the philanthropist Crassus. He fixed up a merry gang of fire-fighting slaves to act as Rome’s first fire brigade, and subsequently put out many, many fires throughout the city quickly and efficiently. However, there was a catch: When he showed up to direct his slaves, he would halt them first, then saunter up to the owner/super of the building and haggle for the flaming building with him. Basically, the landlord could choose between losing his entire property (and tenants) or selling it to Crassus for the modern equivalent of a Coke and a smile, all while he watched his livelihood slowly burn to the ground. This motherfucker acquired so much property and made so much money doing this, he makes Dick Cheney look like Ty Pennington.
To find out how Crassus (and Vercingetorix and Pausanias) bites it, read on here. Glackin is spot on about the guy - like most of the 'noble Romans' who 'defended the republic', he was a top-notch a*hole.

03 September 2010

Helen of Troy's Bladder Control Secrets

Whoopi Goldberg = Helen of Troy = urinary control pads. I'm not sure I totally understand this equation. But it's one of a series, so stay tuned!

31 August 2010

Roman Facebook, HP Lovecraft, and the Ancient Astronauts

From Gizmodo today: "Overwhelming proof that the Romans were addicted to Facebook"

While strolling through the Getty Villa in Malibu—a museum dedicated to the study the cultures of ancient Greece, Rome and Etruria—Adam Pash discovered something curious: Evidence that even the Romans couldn't resist Facebook.

Either that, or he discovered evidence that we can't help but imagine familiar technologies in the most ancient of art pieces. [Adam Pash]
Look at it! It definitely proves the Romans had computers! I like this post because it illustrates exactly the thought process behind all those crappy websites about ancient astronauts: if I get stoned and stare at some archaeological stuff for a while, I start to see aliens!

Classic case: K'inich Janaab' Pakal, the Maya 'Astronaut'. Ruler of Palenque in the Late Classic period. His tomb lid looks like this:

Look, he's an astronaut! In a spaceship! You don't see it? Obviously you've been brainwashed by the archaeologists, who are trying to keep the truth from us. Check out this helpful video for an explanation.

(from Palaeoanimation, a very trippy site)

The Pakal tomb was made famous by Erich von Däniken, a cheerful lunatic whose 'Chariots of the Gods?' is an excellent guide on how to see whatever you want to see in the archaeological record. Millions of people take his stuff seriously - Mayanists, new agers who really believe 2012 will be the apocalypse, esoteric Christians, UFO enthusiasts. Not to mention all those misanthropes who think ancient people were too stupid to do anything worthwhile. Just because you sit on the couch and scratch your butt all day doesn't mean that people couldn't have built the pyramids.

(Lolthulhu, an excellent website)

The funny thing about Erich von Däniken is that he got a lot of his ideas from... H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft was among the first to come up with the idea of gods as ancient space travelers in his fiction. Jason Colavito in a 2004 number of Skeptic makes a persuasive case that a lot of Von Däniken's ideas came directly from Le Matin des Magiciens ('the morning of the magicians'), whose authors were editors of the French science fiction magazine Planète.
Planète served as an important part of the French second science fiction period, a time when American pulp fiction became extremely popular in France following World War II. French magazines both imitated and reprinted in translation the classic pulp stories of the American 1930s and 40s pulp magazines. Planète's editors held Lovecraft as their prophet, and their reprints of his stories helped to popularize him and the Cthulhu Mythos in the French imagination. Lovecraft's longer fiction was published in French in a series of books.

Lovecraft's work had also inspired the editors of Planète to write a book, Le Matin des Magiciens (The Morning of the Magicians) a few years earlier, in 1960. The book, by Louis Pawles and Jacques Bergier, first introduced Lovecraft's concept of alien gods as a nonfiction hypothesis. The authors claimed that their study of religions around the world had led them to higher consciousnesses and to new revelations about the lost worlds of the past. Especially relevant to this is Part One: Vanished Civilizations, where they heap up evidence backing up Lovecraft's fictional claims about alien super-civilizations of the past.

Unfortunately now long out of print, the book Morning of the Magicians laid the foundation for all the lost civilizations books to follow, including Chariots of the Gods. As R.T. Gault comments, "It's all here, from the Piri Reis map to pyramidology. The authors are frankly fascinated by the idea that ancient peoples may have been more advanced in some of their technologies than we generally believe."

Von Daniken is known to have exploited this book as his major source. The bibliography of Chariots lists the book in its 1962 German translation: Aufbruch ins dritte Jahrtausend.
So seeing ancient astronauts on Maya tombs is just as reasonable as seeing a laptop on a Roman stela. It looks that way to me, so it must be true!

On the other hand, what if everything Lovecraft wrote was true?