Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Did they even have tigers in ancient Egypt?

I received a holiday card from the Archaeological Institute of America with a recipe for "Tiger Nut Sweets - A Taste of Ancient Egypt." Supposedly, it is an ancient Egyptian culinary treat, recorded on an ostraca (inscribed piece of pottery) from 1600 BCE. For your dining pleasure:

Tiger Nut Sweets
1 cup fresh dates, pits removed
1/4 cup water
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 cup walnuts, chopped
1 1/2 cups honey
1 cup almonds, finely ground

Chop dates into small pieces and blend in water. Add cinnamon and chopped walnuts, and roll into balls. Dip each ball in a bowl of honey and roll until fully covered. Remove with a spoon and roll in ground almonds. Place on a cookie sheet lined with waxed paper until ready to serve. Refridgerate if not serving immediately. The sweets may also be rolled in powdered sugar to make them easier to handle.

Happy Holidays!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Women, women

One more reason to go to New York - before May 9th.

The reviewer of the exhibit about women in Ancient Greece at the Onassis Cultural Center does seem to conflate woman-as-goddess and the actual role of women in the polis. I wonder if the actual exhibit does the same? Though based on the name, "Worshiping Women: Ritual and Reality in Classical Athens," it seems as if it might.

On a somewhat related note, I saw a paper at the November conference in Calgary which identified women in Greek vases based on their headdresses. According to the author of the paper, a certain type of scarf/headdress always indicates that the woman portrayed is a prostitute. Cool!

Thursday, December 18, 2008


My advisor asked our class to write a preliminary Op-Ed piece, to be published in April around the time of the anniversary of the Baghdad Museum looting. We're going to meet throughout spring to solidify our message and what point(s) we really want to make. Here's my submission - certainly preliminary, but I spent a solid few hours this morning working on it, so I'm sharing:

What is Looting?
I/We participated in a class at the University of Minnesota last fall titled “Who Owns the Past?” The course brought together diverse perspectives of law and archaeology. Most of we archaeologists entered the class believing that tragedies such as the thefts of antiquities from the Baghdad Museum and the ongoing disruption of archaeological sites in Iraq should be prosecuted and punished under a legal system. Tougher laws and penalties for dealers and buyers would prevent objects from museums and sites in Iraq from disappearing from public view and scientific study.

One constant discussion point in our course was to define “looting,” commonly described as illegal excavation. In the United States, if you find an arrowhead on your land, you can keep or sell it as you wish. For the law students in our class, that was a sufficient answer – no law, no problem! But many countries, including China, Israel, Egypt, Italy, Greece, and Iraq, do have laws to regulate antiquities. Any object in the ground belongs to the state, not the person on whose property it was found.

Most such laws were passed and continue to be enforced in order to protect archaeological sites. Archaeologists interpret and date objects by associating them with things found with them. This is called “context,” and identifying and documenting every object’s context is the foundation for modern archaeology. For example, a coin of the Alexander the Great found next to a drinking cup means that cup most likely also dates to the time of Alexander. If an archaeologist finds the cup and coin on the floor of a house with elaborate painted walls, they can say that the cup was used for dining. But if instead they are found in a temple, surrounded by ash, it is more likely that the cup had a ritual or religious use. If our hypothetical cup was found in Egypt, but the clay used to make it came from the island of Rhodes, we can infer something about trade patterns and economic exchange. And so on.

Now, say instead of being found in an archaeological excavation, our drinking cup was found by a farmer tilling his field. He’s a little short on money in tough economic times, so he takes it to his local black market antiquities dealer, to whom he sells it for one day’s worth of wages. Many, many deals later, the cup shows up for auction at Christie’s in New York, where it is described as “Fourth Century BC, Eastern Mediterranean.” (Information which, by the way, is based on our hypothetical cup’s similarities to other cups found during scientific archaeological excavations.) It has been completely divorced from its original, irreplaceable context, and it will now be able to add little to our collective knowledge about the past.

So is removing an object from its archaeological context still “looting” if it’s legal, as it is in the United States and Great Britain? What if we change our definition from “illegal excavation” to “undocumented excavation”? After all, the problem with looting is that it destroys the original archaeological context of an artifact. The trouble with looting is that it forever destroys the information about an object which can be gained from context. Destruction of archaeological sites is tantamount to burning books, only no other copies exist.

What I/we came to realize last fall is that looting is not a legal problem, so it doesn’t have a legal solution. Archaeologists wish to gain, preserve and protect knowledge about people who lived before us. The best way to do that is not with laws, but information. Several members of our class have become more involved in non-profit organizations which help protect sites, such as Saving Antiquities For Everyone (http://www.savingantiquities.org/) or the Archaeological Institute of America (http://www.archaeological.org/). Together, we can ensure that our past has a future.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Three-quarter Master

I took my last final for the semester yesterday morning, officially bringing Fall 2008 to a close. I had been worried about surviving my obligations for this semester with sanity intact, but somehow it turned out to be not nearly as taxing as I'd feared.

Know what's even better than making lists of things to do? Making lists of things done!
- Three PhD applications
- Four classes (three of which count to my MA)
- One conference paper written and presented
- One degree program and three committee members
- Two websites/blogs created and updated (counting this one!)
- One AIA-MN newsletter
- Maid of honor duties for one wedding
- Two water polo tournaments
- Thesis paper #2

Well, ok, technically I haven't finished that last one.

Winter break plans include home for a week, back in MN for a while, then AIA's in Philadelphia and family vacation to Disney World. Sometime in there, I have grand plans to finish the Anafa beads paper, read Art as Plunder and The Source (both of which have been languishing on my desk for months), and compose a preliminary Op-Ed piece for a local paper about our ethics class this fall. Exciting!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Takes a licking and keeps on ticking

400 year old miniature Swiss watch found in China?
It's difficult to say what is more surprising about this little news story: that an apparently modern object was found in an ancient context, or that China actually let people know about it.

This seems like as good a time as any to discuss the title of this blog, In Situ. The phrase is Latin for "in place" and is used in archaeology to describe something which is in its primary context. For example, the Parthenon on the Athenian Acropolis is in situ, but its sculptural adornments spirited away to the British Musuem in the early ninteenth century by Lord Elgin are not. If a volcano erupted right now and buried you, your computer, and your cup of coffee, you would all be in situ until some archaeologist came and found you several centuries later. If the miniature watch were in situ, meaning it was used and deposited in the tomb 400 years ago, it could serve as evidence for sophisticated miniatured technology in Ming Dynasty China. (Or, as noted on Hot Cup of Joe, evidence that Hiro Nakamura was there.) More likely, however, the area is not so undisturbed as archaeologists there would like to think, and, while other objects in the tomb might be in their original mileau of cultural objects, this watch certainly isn't.

It is important to distinguish generalized context from in situ. Everything has context. To go back to our Elgin Marbles example, they certainly have a context in the British Museum: they have been there for almost two hundred years, they are surrounded by other works of art and antiquity, people travel just to see them. But they are not where they were originally intended to be, stuck on the side of the Parthenon.

Finding something in situ is the best way for archaeologists to determine the original function, appearance, and age of objects, rooms, and sites. Several storage jars found on a floor may indicate something about the use of the room or the jars themselves (like if, say, there were also a mill found in the room, grain storage would be likely). The dating of those jars helps indicate when the room was used and abandoned. Those same jars floating around in soil above the room, perhaps disturbed by later looters or agricultural activity, offer little by way of specific information that the in situ pots would. But they still have a context, belonging with everything else found in their soil level.

So why In Situ? Well, first off, it's a cool archaeology phrase. Secondly, highlighting the importance of contextual archaeology and placing archaeological news and ethics into this framework are two of my main goals in writing this blog. And third, just like the storage jars, I make most sense in context, and the field of archaeology is it. As a friend pointed out to me the other day, as I was describing how people can often be better understood in the context of their families and backgrounds: "Spoken like a true historian."

Saturday, December 13, 2008

That Herod Guy

I love National Geographic. In some fashion, National Geographic probably was the initial cause of my love of archaeology; without fond memories of voraciously reading various articles about Egyptian treasures and human evolution, I may never have thought to take Intro to Archaeology in college. So when I heard that NG Magazine's cover story for December was about Herod the Great, my expectations were high.

If there's any single person from antiquity whom I know anything about, it's Herod. I've visited several sites featuring his building projects, taken an entire class on Herodian architecture, worked at a site with probable Herodian ties, and written 40 page thesis level paper on the guy and how he navigated the tricky political world of the Mediterranean in the late first century BCE. Last spring, I road tripped with two friends to Gustavus in St Peter, Minnesota one evening just to see Ehud Netzer, who has made his career excavating Herodian sites and made news about a year and a half ago with the proclamation that he had found Herod's tomb.

King Herod Revealed: The Holy Land's Visionary Builder Excepting the unnecessary 'Holy Land' reference, the article seemed pretty promising. I knew from a friend that Netzer's work was featured in the article, and I had high hopes that there might be more information about Herod's tomb than had heretofore been published. So I began reading...not until page 6 (of 9) was archaeology much mentioned. The overwhelming majority of the article was a biography of Herod, cribbed from two historical sources, written about almost a century after Herod's death: Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews and The Jewish War. Mueller focuses on the sensationalist narrative of Joesphus' compelling and riveting familial melodrama, filling his article with sentences such as "All this beauty from a man who killed his wife and sons, tortured courtiers, and spent long months in stammering madness."

While I appreciate the appeal of having such precise information about a historical figure - I certainly used Josephus in my thesis paper - I just ended up disappointed in the journalism of the article and the paucity of actual academic and scientific based information contained within. Especially because the photo gallery is filled with beautiful images of Herodian construction projects, only obliquely referred to in the main text. So many of Herod's construction projects are simply spectacular, and they are inordinately well preserved. He was a master politician, as demonstrated by his master building projects. Herod came to power in a period of great uncertainty in both Judea and the rest of the world. He initiated large scale civic works: entire cities, a port, roads, aqueducts, temples. This is why Herod matters: not because he got a (probably deservedly) crummy reputation in literary sources. Mueller allows the historical, not archaeological sources, to control the story his article tells.

The trouble is, National Geographic is a major publication, read by a very diverse cross section of people with various degrees of interest and knowledge in its wide area of topical coverage. Fewer and fewer archaeologists now work with text in one hand, shovel in the other. Nothing in Mueller's article emphasizes the knowledge gained strictly from archaeological work. To him, Netzer and his cohort are the treasure hunters like Howard Carter (King Tut's tomb) and Heinrich Schliemann (Troy, Mycenae), obsessed with finding "stuff." An accompanying piece discusses looting of sites in the West Bank. How are Netzer and other archaeologists any different from the looters? Aren't they all just after stuff?

In 2007, Netzer's team found a sarcophagus, which they have interpreted as belonging to Herod. It appears to have been intentionally destroyed in antiquity, likely around the time of the Jewish Revolt against Rome in 66-70CE. Had the site been attacked by looters, the smaller and poorer quality fragments would have been tossed aside, and the larger pieces sold, to be scattered throughout the world. We would then never know how this famous and influential figure chose to be buried. We would never know that he was so reviled decades after his death that his coffin was intentionally vandalized. Archaeologists aren't after stuff: they're after the information that stuff provides. And that is a crucial difference.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Statement of Purpose

I've decided to enter the wild world of blogger to track my personal and professional thoughts, experiences, and reactions to the continually unfolding dramas of archaeological "news." I foresee posts consisting of two major categories: my personal experiences on my way toward becoming an archaeological scholar, and posts and responses to various news stories, journal articles, or other "archaeology in the media" items I encounter.

A major contributing factor in this blog's genesis was a class I took this semester titled "Who Owns the Past?" It was cross-listed in my department, Classical and Near Eastern Studies, and the Law School, and team-taught by my advisor and a law professor. I enrolled in the class not necessarily to "learn" anything (although of course I did), but to have a dedicated time and forum each week to think about major ethical issues in archaeology and cultural heritage. In the process, I started to keep a closer eye on blogs, news stories, and the various organizations involved in these matters (for some of the best, see the links to the right). With the class now being over, I find I will miss having a weekly (or daily) reason to look at this information and process it in some capacity. You, my readers, shall be members of my new forum; I encourage everyone to not just be a mute audience but active contributors to comments. My regret is that I didn't begin this earlier; I think it would have been nice to track my evolving thoughts and frustrations as the class progressed. C'est la vie.

The nail on the coffin, as it were, is also the preponderance in the last couple weeks of thought-provoking material in both popular and scholarly media. From the December National Geographic's cover story on Herod the Great, to the gold earring found in Jerusalem, to the "Archaeologists in the Media" forum in the issue of Near Eastern Archaeology that just showed up in my mailbox, I've been having strong reactions of late to a litany of writings. Perhaps it is because I now feel established and invested enough in this discipline to not only care and have an opinion, but also to know more than the article (yeah, sorry) and to internalize these media in ways they affect me, often directly.

However, there are plenty of blogs out there which already track important archaeological and cultural heritage news and developments, many of which I will directly crib my material from. So this blog will be more - it will also be the story of my career (which is really also my life, at this point). I'm in a Master's program for Classical Archaeology right now and just submitted my final application to PhD programs this morning. Things are happening, exciting things. I love what I do, how I spend my days, and the people I've been fortunate to meet. I plan this blog to reflect that.

Thanks for joining me on this adventure!