Friday, 30 May 2014

So speak, you dead: thoughts about archaeology. 7 ― Hearing the ancient individual

Bronze coin of Cunobeline showing a metalworker
hammering a vessel
Lacking examples of their writing, the products of artists are the best way to reach the thoughts of those long-dead. You will know from your own experiences that whenever you embark on a new repetitive activity there can be an initial period of trial and error, and then you settle down more to a constant system of production. Sometimes, an idea or two springs to mind during this relatively consistent period and you incorporate them into the subsequent work. You evolve your method. If you do not evolve, however, and the task becomes mind-numbingly repetitive, then mistakes are more likely to happen. You are just not paying attention. I have heard that airline pilots are given different sorts of planes to fly over a period of time for this very reason. I have also heard that car accidents are more frequent closer to home where you are very familiar with the environment.

It was pure dumb luck that first got me interested in the coins of the Celtic Coriosolite tribe (and the fact that they were not very expensive). After I started looking at their designs, however, I noticed that the numbers of variations were greater than I had seen in other Celtic coin series, and I reasoned that some sort of design evolution was taking place. At first, it seemed impossible to reconstruct the order of the dies to a finer degree than had been done with their classification at that time. To say it was frustrating to me would be an understatement. Much later, I was looking at some very minor details (classifiers usually pick dominant details), and I found examples of overlapping changes in the designs. The first things I saw were really tiny differences in the shapes of the ponies ears (the reverse design was highly abstracted view of a charioteer on a chariot pulled by this pony ― there would have been two ponies in reality but the artist depicted only one of them). So I paid far less attention to the dominant design elements and focused on the small details. About two or three hours later, I had the entire chronology roughed out.  Now, this was not precise, and it took me much longer to refine it properly ― several months if memory serves. What I did not know, at the time, was the part of the chronology where I first noticed the pony ears was where its artist had introduced what I later called "variations on a theme". This is a departure from the modification process I described in the first paragraph and I was not expecting it. Overlapping other changes, however, showed me that the rough chronology was sort of  right and that the primary concern of the artist was to evolve the designs. Complicating matters, was the fact that the artist also reintroduced formerly abandoned elements. It was no wonder that previous classifiers had failed.

Flow chart showing design changes to various features with my coin numbers and design groupings below

So what on earth were these variations on a theme about? each of them had to with icons, symbols of a religious nature. The task ahead of me took on a different purpose. The artist was teaching the viewer something of the religion and using  graphic elements as metaphor. At the same time, I also noticed that most of the minor detail changes came to a grinding halt with two dies, while the subject had continued unchanged. I then knew that what had been thought to have been a single series of coins was actually three. After plotting incidences of these three series in the Brittany hoards, I realized that there were two very clear distributional patterns and that the third series was Unelli (from Normandy), and not Coriosolite at all.

The next thing that I did was to look for earlier occurrences of the motifs in Celtic art and I was able to tell that the artistic tradition had started around Weisskirchen  in the Saar (now Germany), and that other tribes who issued coins of similar styles had originated not far away, along the Rhine (Derek Allen had already determined much of this for the Aulerci Cenomani). Then, I found other elements that had an indigenous origin evolving from even earlier Megalithic art and most of this was from Ireland. What had started as a eureka moment turned into about ten years of hard work!

An archaeological site is often a jumble of different objects, made by different people with different ideas over a period of time. Their relative positions are due to the agency of later people and can be deliberate or accidental. Some things were abandoned at the site, other things were taken away. Subsequent erosion etc. can confuse the picture even more. If we see the evidence as voices from the past, they are all speaking a different language and they are all talking at the same time. What can we understand, really, of this cacophony, even if we can successfully eliminate our own voice from the din?

I experienced pure dumb luck and was able to build on it. Other types of evidence might not be as obliging and it is our task to find good examples from which we can fill in the gaps of less obliging evidence.

On Monday, some pitfalls waiting for us, if we are not careful.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

So speak, you dead: thoughts about archaeology. 6 ― Terpsichore

This is my favorite example of
Hellenistic art. There is grace in the
movement not-quite frozen in time, and
you can almost hear the music.
Last night, I watched the season premiere of So You Think You Can Dance. I think it is the best show on TV. There are many other talent shows, of course, and there is another popular show on dancing that features celebrities. I care less about those, and whether celebrities can or cannot dance is of little concern to me. After all, they have other things that they can fall back on ― figuratively speaking.

Now, I used to be a pretty good dancer myself, back in the days of disco, and the girls thought so too, but this was only dancing in the clubs and could not even begin to compare with what I was watching last night. Still, it was fun and a boost to my ego at the time. One girl used to bring her dance costume to an Italian restaurant I used to frequent and whenever I arrived she would go to the washroom to change into it. The macho Italian guys at the restaurant would scowl at me, and that was an added bonus. But the restaurant had a very small dance floor and I much preferred an after-hours club, in a rather seedy part of town, which had a huge floor and very few patrons at 2 a.m.

Nigel Lythgoe
Creator and executive producer of
So You Think You Can Dance
photo: Greg Hernandez

I cannot think of a more demanding art form than dance. One could be in rough shape and still be a great actor, singer, writer or painter, but dance demands the best in body, mind and spirit and the medium is the message. All of this is reflected in the shows judging as well, and while many of the technical details sail right over my head, I appreciate hearing them and getting a glimpse into what lies behind the performance.

What impresses me the most is the spirit. I see these young people with such dedication and drive who often have had to overcome tragedies in their lives to get where they are. And they do not give up. Again and again, you see someone who, after failing to make the grade in one season, returns after more instruction and practice, to succeed in another.

I suppose that my own life has given me something of that appreciation: my own dancing activities came to a dramatic end as a passenger in a car that sailed off the edge of a hill one night. I felt a dull but heavy crunch in my lower spine. Over the following years it got much much worse and I was prescribed ever more powerful painkillers ending up with a highly addictive synthetic heroin. It all became too much and after becoming virtually bedridden with one leg twisted outward and my spine bent forward, I saw a type of operation on TV that seemed to be what I needed.  My GP told me that I would have a 50/50 chance of being paralyzed from the waist down, though. That did not dissuade me and I went "cold turkey" on the painkillers and experienced three days of pure hell, not sleeping at all and just watching videos day and night.

My luck kicked in. I got an appointment to see a neurosurgeon  to whom I explained that I had seen this operation on TV. and... . He said "Yes, I taught that doctor" and he booked me in for surgery within days. He was Dr. Bruce Tranmer, and the operation went very well, of course. Despite urgings from the nurses afterward, I refused all opiates and took only regular Tylenol. After about a year's exercising, my spine straightened and I was able to walk properly again. Now I like to hike. I still have to be careful, mind you. I alternate sitting, lying down and walking, I'm on a disability pension and if I do the wrong thing, I can end up in bed for a few days in pain. I lost most of one disc in my spine and even a wrong movement can be very bad. One learns, though, and it is mostly automatic now. Winters are hard on me because it's no fun going for a 5- 10km walk when it's minus 30. Of course, I don't dance anymore. I could never play golf, so at least that's a bonus.

History seems mostly about kings and generals and archaeology seems to focus on the common man, downtrodden then as now. Civilization, though, progresses because of that tiny percentage of people who have that spirit to advance, just like those kids on So You Think You Can Dance. Sadly, their names rarely appear in history texts, and archaeologists frequently forget, completely, that there is such a thing as human agency ― things just change and the individual is lost. But it is the individual we have to thank for everything good in the world, and for every advance that we make. No organization has ever discovered anything, they just use those who have.

Making a virtue out of necessity, the laziest of archaeologists still study just the remains of people and what has been discarded or lost. The voices of those with such spirit seem silent now. Many archaeologists ignore art or criticize art-historical analyses, some even deny the existence of art in the distant past. A few have even denied the ancient existence of the individual. But that spirit still exists as it has existed for tens of thousands of years. You can watch it on TV in dance, and tomorrow, I'll talk about methods of finding it in the distant past too.

Terpsichore is more than just the ancient Greek Muse of dancing. She is still with us and symbolizes something else, too. Her name comes from two words: "delight" and "dance". When I asked an individualistic professor of history why we do what we do, he replied "To exercise the mind, and to delight the senses". Everything else is of little matter.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

So speak, you dead: thoughts about archaeology. 5 ― excerpts from T.S. Elliot's Four Quartets

Burnt Norton House, Cotswolds, Gloucestershire

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.

T.S. Elliot, Burnt Norton
(first of 'Four Quartets')

photo: ©  Michael Dibb and licensed 
for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
I find the notion that archaeology is a science to be absurd. Not that we cannot use science in our application of archaeology if we are careful to use it appropriately ― such as by looking for clustering patterns rather than by chucking everything into the "blender of averages", or by confirming something that we think we see in the style of an object with the use of the electron microprobe.

"All is phenomena. All is text. All is simulacra for which an original does not exist. There are no structures of class, race, gender or good and evil. These are, variously, texts written by people with a political agenda. People are supposed to take these structures as valid 'representations' of that which actually exists."

We cannot remove ourselves from the work but we can be mindful of that problem and seek ways to lessen its impact on those whose psychology demands some measure of objectivity.

Better to admit it is an art, placing ourselves in the mood by gazing across a meadow to an old house, or by reading a poem or whatever it takes.

Between the snowstorms - East Coker
Between the snowstorms there was a short-lived thaw
before the next flurry as can be seen by the puddles
and lingering snow clinging to the thatch of the
cottages. This photograph was taken from the
carpark of The Helyar Arms.

In my beginning is my end. In succession

Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,

Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place

Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
Which is already flesh, fur and faeces,
Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.
Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation
And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane
And to shake the wainscot where the field-mouse trots
And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.

T.S. Elliot, East Coker
(second of 'Four Quartets')

photo and caption © Sarah Smith and licensed for reuse

Archaeology is entertainment. The monuments have their parking lots and a semblance of education is given with their "interpretive centres", but not so much with the admission booth or the gift shop.

Around the Parthenon all is cleared. Gone are the Byzantine church, the houses and shops and the bustle of people past ― Everything was removed so as not to spoil the view, and to focus only on the desired expression of Athens history. A little slice. Gone is the real history where time leaves its marks as a Vanitas for all.

"It is above all that
oh yes
It sits upon the choicest of
Church seats
up there where art directors meet
to choose the things for immortality
And they have lain with beauty
all their lives
And they have fed on honeydew
and drunk the wines of Paradise
so that they know exactly how
a thing of beauty is a joy
forever and forever
and how it never never
quite can fade
into a money-losing nothingness"

from Lawrence Ferlinghetti, A Coney Island of the Mind (original line spacing unpreserved because of space restrictions)

Aerial view of Cape Ann, Massachusetts.

"According to a note by Eliot under the title, "The Dry
Salvages— presumably les trois sauvages — is a small
group of rocks, with a beacon, off the north east coast of
Cape Ann.

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities—ever, however, implacable.

T.S. Elliot, The Dry Salvages
(third of 'Four Quartets')

Ritual is a term often encountered in archaeological reports and without further explanation to attempt to explain objects or their placement where another interpretation cannot be ascertained.

Even if "possibly ritual purposes" is used, then the reader will most likely accept this explanation thinking that is what the archaeologist really thinks and for reasons not expressed. The aura of the "expert" comes into play. It would be far better to merely note what is seen, or to say that different reasons might be imagined for this that could include ritual purposes. In this way, the reader can be more open to thinking of such reasons.

When we see that a deposit of early Celtic art objects has been cast into a river, do we think that it was an offering to some "brown god"? Might it also be an offering to the water itself; a way to send those things to the Underworld; or a way to remove them from sight for some other purpose we cannot yet imagine?

Let the evidence speak for itself.

Key in the inspiration for the poem Little 
Gidding by T. S. Eliot.

For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice.

T.S. Elliot, Little Gidding
(last of 'Four Quartets')
Unlike the real historical records that might be found in old churches, records of baptisms and the burial of the dead in its graveyard, the Archaeological Record is not history at all. It is a "best guess" based on what evidence has been found and removed by the excavators.

Evidence might be interpreted differently in the future, or it might be ignored in the haste to dig somewhere else. It might go to some museum where it will lie in storage, forever unseen as it is deemed not worthy or interesting enough to display. Perhaps it might be discarded as unimportant when storage space becomes a critical matter, or even destroyed after the dig "to prevent it getting into the hands of collectors"

It takes effort and attention for us to hear the voices of the dead and to pass them on, and what they appear to say today, might be seen very differently in the future. This is how it will always be. Let us make sure, though, that they are never silenced.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

So speak, you dead: thoughts about archaeology. 4 ― mythos and logos

Dyrham Park near Bath, Gloucestershire.
The "Darlington Hall" of the 1993 film"The
Remains of the Day"
photo: Trevor Rickard 

It is said, that no one is a hero to their butler. The reason is, that it requires a hero to recognize a hero. The butler, however, will probably know well how to estimate his equals.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

In Kazuo Ishiguro's novel and its film adaptation, The Remains of the Day, the butler, Stevens, is the consummate professional who inwardly struggles with the changing norms of his time. In times past, his real counterparts had no voice of their own ― we hear of them usually only through fiction. Sometimes, as in the relationship between P, G, Wodehouse's character, Bertie Wooster and his valet, Jeeves, it is the servant who is really the hero.

I knew a girl who, with her family, had escaped from Saigon on an American military helicopter shortly before the city fell. She was Annamese and descended from the Vietnamese aristocracy. She showed me a photograph of a painting of her great grandfather. He wore a dragon-robe and held a jade sceptre. In modern times, the very wealthy family were typical: her mother ran the business, her father was in the military. All of the children each had their own chauffeur. One day, she wanted to visit a boyfriend and her chauffeur, knowing that such behaviour would be completely unacceptable to the family, refused to take her. She told her family that she had asked him to take her to the market to buy some mangos and that he had refused. The chauffeur received his chastisement in silence and she knew that this would happen. After being held in the U.S. for some time in less than ideal conditions, her family came to Canada. It was difficult for them to adjust. She told me that her aunt had never even dressed herself before and  did not even know how to tie shoelaces. It was with shame that she told me the story of the chauffeur, a shame that she did not know at the time of the incident. She adapted to her new life, even though she had been a novelist writing about Vietnamese subjects in French and that life, too, was now over.

Odysseus and his men blinding the Cyclops

Odysseus, too, had his struggles. He epitomizes the hero, but his wife and son, too, represent their ideals.His men, on the other hand, did not measure up to these ideals and they perished.

Too often, when I see something about the Odyssey, it is the voyage that is emphasized. Sometimes people want to "reconstruct" the route. If mythology is mentioned, it is mainly to do with those whom he encounters on his journey back to Ithaca. The main points: the ideal husband, wife, and son are mentioned less frequently.

Today, we seem to have lost contact with the real hero. He is not the the man who beats up the bad guys and gets the girl (although we can apply that to Odysseus return). Whether the butler, Stevens, Odysseus, or chauffeur in Saigon the hero expresses what was considered the best behaviour of their time and place.

I also see the health of a civilization being measured by a line: at one end is Mythos, the introverted and creative and at the other end is Logos, the extraverted and the law. It could also be expressed as psyche and matter and the things to do with those things, or even the unconscious psyche and the conscious matter. I made the following N-gram so we can see how each has been doing since 1800. The data comes from mentions of each (case-insensitive) in Google Books. The ideal would be a perfect balance between the two:

Monday, 26 May 2014

So speak, you dead: thoughts about archaeology. 3 ― giving a voice to the dead

Dick Whittington's cat
Highgate Hill, Archway, North London. In the
popular folk tale, Richard Whittington is said to have
been leaving London, with his cat, when he reached
Highgate Hill and heard the sound of Bow Bells in
the distance; he turned back and ended up as Lord
Mayor of  London. Whittington was a real Lord
Mayor back in the Middle Ages, but there's no
evidence for the story, including him ever having had
a cat; still it makes for a nice story and is a perennial
pantomime tradition. The legend has also given its
name to the local pub and hospital in Archway.
Caption and photo by Duncan Harris.
As far as we can discern, the sole
purpose of human existence is to
kindle a light of meaning in the
darkness of mere being.

C. G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections

Queens Wood
(adjacent to Highgate Wood in London)
photo: Chris Heaton

Meaning, in Jung's quote above, foreshadows postmodern thinking in that all significances can only be subjective. Places, other people and things cannot be isolated from those who write about them. It starts with the very decision to include them in one's writing, and then one's own life and influences adds flavours and themes to the work.

In part one, I connected my own life experiences to Van Gogh's A wheatfield with cypresses and then contrasted that with its death imagery as I saw in an Italian friend's reaction to the painting. My friend saw only the cypresses but the main theme to the artist, perhaps, was the wheat:
"What can a person do when he thinks of all the things he cannot understand, but look at the fields of wheat... We, who live by bread, are we not ourselves very much like wheat... to be reaped when we are ripe."
Yet, in writing about the painting to his brother, Van Gogh said:
"I have a canvas of cypresses with some ears of wheat, some poppies, a blue sky like a piece of Scotch plaid; the former painted with a thick impasto like the Monticellis, and the wheat field in the sun, which represents the extreme heat, very thick too." 
 In part two, I started with a quote from Shakespeare's Richard II, and now I find it curious that, in the same letter above, Van Gogh tells his brother:
"Thank you also very heartily for the Shakespeare. It will help me not to forget the little English I know, but above all it is so fine. I have begun to read the series of which I knew least, which formerly, distracted by other things or not having the time, I could not read; the series of the kings: I have already read Richard II, Henry IV and half of Henry V. I read without wondering if the ideas of the people of those times were different from our own, or what would become of them if you confronted them with republican and socialist beliefs and so on. But what touches me, as in some novelists of our day, is that the voices of these people, which in Shakespeare's case reach us from a distance of several centuries, do not seem unfamiliar to us. It is so much alive that you think you know them and see the thing."
But such fortunate coincidences are not strange for the introvert intuitive who can detect the matrix from which realities emerge. I picked the photograph of the Cypress Hills in Alberta in part one because it had a similar colour composition to the Van Gogh painting with its blue sky and yellowish foreground band of vegetation as well as the shape contrast of the jack pines against the rounded forms of the other trees. Similar, too was the composition of the William Alexander coloured engraving with its yellow stone coffin and its cypresses contrasting more rounded forms. These are aspects of composition where, for example, all artists know that yellow will come to the foreground and blues will recede to the back and can be used to add extra dimension to the work.

Highgate Cemetery
photo: Panhard
Highgate cemetery is a lesson in context. I think that I only visited it once. When I think of the name "Highgate", my mind goes back to story of Dick Whittington and his cat, and this associates with pantomime, so my contribution for Joe Gillespie's web pantomime was a parody of that tale: Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cat. I also far preferred Queens Wood to Highgate Wood because it was more natural and I could feel its age, and because I can still remember walking there, hand in hand, with my first girlfriend one sunny summer's day.

Archaeology makes considerable use of both context and burial practices, but when we apply this to Highgate cemetery we might become confused. It contains both bodies and peoples cremated remains, and the famous people who are interred there can be quite different. We know that from the details of their fame. Let's take Highgate cemetery's most famous resident Karl Marx, and a more recent resident, Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The two would seem very different indeed. People are sometimes surprised when they first hear that Karl Marx is buried in Highgate cemetery, although he lived in London in the last part of his life it is to Soho he is most associated.  Douglas Adams, however, lived in Islington which is one of the boroughs that includes the Highgate district. (I spent the first few months of my life living in Islington before we moved to Wood Green where my mother's family lived). One thing that both Marx and Adams shared was atheism. If, in a few thousand years, all that remained of Highgate cemetery were to be these two graves, we might wonder if future archaeologists might think Highgate Cemetery to be a place where atheists were buried!

Far removed from the psychology of the introvert intuitive is this statement from the Society for American Archaeology (note that they do not call themselves the "Society of American Archaeologists"). Here we have extravert leanings:
"When people remove an artifact without recording its precise location the context is lost forever and the artifact has little or no scientific value."
Some might notice that scientism, rather than science, is reflected in this statement. Of course, any object, regardless of its last resting place in the ground can be analyzed by entirely scientific means and these analyses can tell us much about its history and the technologies of its makers. The statement is a fossil from the seventies when scientism dominated with the"New Archaeology", a symptom of modernism.  It soon received considerable criticism from those with postmodern views. Some criticism was quite colourful, like that of Christopher Chippindale. You will note, too, that one of its important features was the lack of human agency ― real extreme extravert materialism that does not recognize the psyche whatsoever.

As any movement past its time attests, there can be a strong element of fanaticism in its survivors. As I have said before, if it doesn't change, it is a cult. When the source shifts from the personal to the collective consciousness "with its wretched 'ism's" to quote Jung, neuroses and even enantiodromia can take over, such as obsessive-compulsive personality disorder which:
"is also in part characterized by a form of pedantry that is overly concerned with the correct following of rules, procedures and practices. Sometimes the rules that OCPD sufferers obsessively follow are of their own devising, or are corruptions or re-interpretations of the letter of actual rules."
In this state, not only are the dead not allowed to speak at all, they are not even recognized, and this is a truly bizarre condition to find within archaeology. People become more like automatons, not even creatures.

 Now, I cannot possibly leave this topic on such a depressing note, so I will lift your spirits with another contrast: Wayne G, Sayles, First to Fall ― The William Edward Cramsie Story  That Wayne is also the Executive Director of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild should come as no surprise.

The history starts with Wayne coming into possession (under very numinous circumstances) of an inscribed West Point class ring, and through its pages, he recounts his own travels, research and experiences as well as giving a voice to 1st Lt, Cramsie, himself -- for the first time since his plane went into the sea off the coast of England after a bombing mission in 1944. The two voices, one of Wayne, the other of Bill Cramsie himself are clearly separated by the author with two very different typefaces and Wayne has truly given a voice to the dead. Today is Memorial day in the US, and this is also the closest Memorial Day to the seventieth anniversary of Bill Cramsie's death on 10th April 1944.

Friday, 23 May 2014

So speak, you dead: thoughts about archaeology. 2 ― the remains of the day

Toilet at a theatre in Munich, Germany
photo: Usien
No matter where. Of comfort no man speak:
Let's talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper, and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth;
Let's choose executors, and talk of wills:
And yet not so — for what can we bequeath
Save our deposed bodies to the ground?

William Shakespeare, Richard II, Act III, Scene II.

William Shakespeare's grave in the
Holy Trinity Church of Stratford

photo: Tom Reedy

remains should be treated as can be seen from
the epitaph on his gravestone:

"Good frend for Jesus sake forebeare,
To digg the dust encloased heare;
 Bleste be the man that spares thes stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones."

When reading or seeing a play by Shakespeare, one might alternate between the words of the character and those of the playwright or perhaps focus on one or the other. It all depends on your viewpoint and the purpose which brought you there. It would seem most likely, at least to me, that Shakespeare would have most often wanted his audience to immerse themselves in the work. Being captured, thus, it could only have lessened the likelihood of empty seats in the theatre for later performances of that and other plays.

Debates continue, among archaeologists and the public about what should be done about excavated human remains. For those of more recent date, and those of First Nations people, the pendulum swings far more toward the opinions of the heirs or those of the living culture to which the deceased belonged. While many graves of more recent date have been excavated and the bodies removed for a wide variety of reasons, William Shakespeare's grave has been left untouched. Even so, the thought of doing so in order to answer historical questions about his death might always be pondered.

Mostly, though, these debates revolve around the human remains, themselves. Archaeologists are even less keen to discuss what should happen to the grave goods themselves. Many years ago, I collected Chinese porcelain. I was never too interested in the earlier pottery. In recent years, two things have happened that contributed to my abandonment of that activity: the huge increases in the prices of these objects because of recent interest by the Chinese public in collecting such, and the appearance on the market of inferior grave pottery. At first, I just did not like to collect such poor examples  ― in many cases, the potters were also rather ashamed of the quality and would frequently glaze over the footrim to hide the inferior biscuit. The clincher, though, was a Ch'ing-pai ware bowl that I bought where a verse had been drawn on the bottom in ink. Most of the inscription had not survived, but a Chinese neighbour who was involved in the local Chinese arts (as a musician) translated one line for me that had survived undamaged. It said "Memories of home". It touched me and it was at that point that my active collecting ended. If the opportunity arose, however, to buy a fine piece of porcelain, I would still do so. These objects have been treasured since they were made and have resided on scholars desks to within collector's cabinets since they were first produced.

I first started buying Chinese porcelain from a couple in Calgary, who had a shop specializing in such. The man was a University professor here and it was mostly his wife who took care of the shop. He would be there later in the day, or on the weekends. They moved away from Calgary some years ago. He was quite the connoisseur of the art, and was rather critical of the public's taste in porcelain. They also got me interested in fine German wines, and one afternoon they shared with me a rather nice '76 Bernkasteler Auslese (not from the Doctor Vineyard, mind you, but from next-door ― although years later, I did buy one of only a few bottles in Calgary of a Kabinett of a vintage that one wine critic claimed was "What God drank at 5 o'clock in the afternoon"). Anyway, Bob put his glass on the table, and said, "The finest piece of porcelain owned by most people resides in their bathroom!".

My wife was a teacher and, shortly after we met, told me of a class she taught where she asked her young students to imagine what might remain of their lives that might be excavated by archaeologists in the distant future that would say something of who they were. Most of them thought of their music collection, but my wife told them that such things would hardly survive very long at all in the ground. They tried to think of other things, unsuccessfully, and were horrified when she told them that what would most likely remain of their home to say who they were, would be the porcelain toilet bowl!

So now you know why I included the picture of the toilet bowl at the start of this post. I am hoping that you had tried to associate it with what I  started to write about. One connection being that the toilet is in a theatre in Germany. Less obvious, perhaps, is my choice of using graphics that are predominantly brown! You might also have wondered how the lead graphic related to "the remains of the day", in the title. That part of title is also relevant to the novel and the movie of the same name, but I doubt that anyone will be able to guess how. The answer to that will have to wait for another post.

Bathroom humour and deception aside, what remains of people can have a number of interesting ethical and philosophical questions, and the nature of the subject of archaeology, itself, and the very different viewpoints surrounding it is the real subject of this post. You will, undoubtedly, have heard about the modern concerns from archaeologists about potential damage to sites from metal detecting, and how so much can be lost by the removal of objects. What you will not have heard from the same sources, however, is that an archaeological excavation is essentially surface mining or strip mining, and what remains of that site or the exploration trench through it afterward is nothing. Everything has gone. It is all a matter of viewpoint.

This concerns a number of archaeologists (but not the ones who criticize collectors and detectorists) because they realize that, contrary to the hype about them doing everything scientifically, far too much is really just opinion based on observation, and that is not science at all. Making judgements about what we see is as old as Man himself. It was observation that caused some people to think that the earth was flat, or that light could not be both a wave and a particle at the same time. They also realize that the methods we use today will be replaced with far better methods tomorrow, and some archaeologists feel that less excavation should be taking place and that more time should be spent in investigating what has already been excavated.

I hope I have been at least partially successful, with my choice of graphics and words at the beginning of this post, of demonstrating that context does quite often lead us astray. It can take us to other places, or it can confuse us. The latter, by far, is best as at least we know that we do not know. What you really needed, to make the right connections here, was the discussion about porcelain, and not the disposal of remains.

On Monday, Highgate Cemetery in north London, not far from where I grew up, Dick Whittington, and a very different sort of archaeology, but one that has much more to do with the dead being able to speak to us on their own terms.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

So speak, you dead: thoughts about archaeology. 1 ― the cypress

View of a burying place by  William
Alexander, 1805. "Drawing by
William Alexander, draughtsman
of the Macartney Embassy to China
in 1793. A burial site in China.
Alexander noted that the tombs and
monuments of China exhibited a
variety of architectural styles,
except those of the common people,
which were nothing more than small
cones of earth, on the top of which
dwarf trees were planted, while rich
families planted cypresses.
The coffins of the lower class often
were left among the tombs uncovered
with earth. The graves were
occasionally visited by the family,
who were keeping them in neat order.
Image taken from The Costume of
China, illustrated in forty-eight
coloured engravings, published in
London in 1805." caption and image
And as she spoke these words, behold, ΦΙΛΗΜΩΝ came up to me, dressed in the white robe of a priest, and lay his hand on my shoulder. Then I said to the dark ones, "So speak, you dead." And immediately they cried in many voices, "We have come back from Jerusalem, where we did not find what we sought. We implore you to let us in. You have what we desire. Not your blood, but your light. That is it."              C. G. Jung, The Red Book, translated by Mark Kyburz, John Peck and Sonu Shamdasani, W. W. Norton and Company, New York and London, 2009, p.346
Vincent Van Gogh
A wheatfield with cypresses
once showed an illustration of Van Gogh's A wheatfield with cypresses to an Italian friend, saying that it was my favorite Van Gogh. He shuddered. Noticing my puzzled response to his reaction, he explained that he associated cypress trees with death because of their common appearance in Italian cemeteries. At that time, I was unaware of their symbolism. But the previous link does not really explain occurrences of cypress trees at Chinese burial sites. I wondered if the idea of them had been transported to China, from Rome during the Han Dynasty. Looking further, I came across Survey on The Status of Cypress in World Myths  (PDF) by Parvaneh Adelzadeh1, Khalil Hadidi1, Ashraf Jabari, Tabriz, Azad University, Iran, which had the following:
"Cypress is shown in different shapes and symbols in China .As Mitford says in book of pictorial dictionary of symbols and signs in the world:
“In Chinese symbolism, cypress is a symbol of death and also it is realm of female .In Juoang douz(chapter twenty eight): the heavy winter fog is not left without cypress power, since it does not separate from their leaves. The old Chinese believed that consumption of cypress fruit causes to long life since it is full of life essence. They believed that if a person uses the bark of cypress in his heel he can walk on the water. The bark lightens the body. It was said that the firing flames leave cypress fruit and led to discovery of gold and jasper that both of them were essence of young and symbol of eternity like cypress .Outings finds spiritual virtues in cypress, since cypress has pleasant and holy smell” ( Dadfar, 2009) . 
Cypress was an old Chinese jar and east and spring tree. So it is necessary to plant near ground, the altar that is held in east .Cypress was a jar like all conical plants and it was symbol of eternity and its bark and fruit were used by eternal individuals. 
Cypress as a symbol of eternity is found in houses of Chinese’s secret associations and in entrance of Biden or between sky and earth. Confucius says: Yens planted cypress near ground center” (Gerbrown, 2003)"
Then, there is the The Cultivation Story of the Taoist Master Cypress Leaves.

Alexandra Palace, London
photo: John Bointon
I also started to wonder about why I had liked that Van Gogh more than his other paintings. I knew that it was mainly the subject matter, with the spires of the cypress trees contrasting with the rounded shapes of the surrounding trees and bushes with the yellow adding more contrast to the composition and complementing the blues in the sky. It was all about the contrast, but there was something uplifting about it all.

I remembered one Sunday morning when I was four years old and living behind Alexandra Palace on Palace Gates Road in Wood Green, north London. I was looking out over the back gardens and the trees were of both of those forms: some rounded, others pointed like church spires. And the church bells were ringing everywhere and the sun cast a yellow glow to the haze of that morning. Then, as the bells started to fade, Margarita's father started to sing his flamenco from his own garden behind ours. Perhaps you are unfamiliar with real flamenco. My favorite singer of it was El Niño de la Ronda. During the first recording in 1955 (not long after the incident of which I speak), he had to be positioned a really great distance behind his guitar accompanist otherwise the guitar would not have been heard at all. Flamenco singers were Spanish "blues-men" and would travel around singing outside, often with no guitar to back them up. If you are unfamiliar with their sound, the story will lose much, so here's the man himself sounding a lot like Margarita's father on that magical Sunday morning (minus the guitar):

Everything about that moment foreshadowed something I heard, many years later, from Malcolm Muggeridge about humour when he defined humor as the disparity between human aspiration and human performance. He likened human aspiration to a lofty cathedral spire and human performance to the leering gargoyles at its base. I even contributed that thought to an ACCG press release in 2009.

The natural and accidental performance of that morning: the shapes of the trees, the golden light, the sound of the church bells and then of Margarita's dad, all made for a numinous experience and seems to have greatly contributed to my liking for that Van Gogh painting.

Cypress Hills, Alberta
photo: Erik Lizee
After coming to Alberta, I was also fascinated by the Cypress Hills (Manâtakâw in Cree). In that case, Cypress had been given to the jack pine and the trees had that same contrast. It was a numinous place to the more recent First Nations people and while they took hunting parties into the hills, they never lived there. Ten thousand years ago, though, people did live there at a lake village, now paved over with a parking lot.

There is a question that every archaeologist should ask themselves: When you study the material remains of the past, to what degree do the dead speak to you? How much of what you hear comes from them, instead of archetypes and your own life's peak experiences? Does it make you shudder, or give you bliss? More importantly, though, does it really matter?

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Scrooge McHawass' money bin

The last native Egyptian pharaoh issued this coin,
proclaiming it to be "good gold" (nub nefer) in the
hieroglyphically-derived reverse design.
A literate example of "cultural heritage", it combines
Egyptian and Greek characteristics.
© Trustees of the British Museum
As part of an agreement between the current (what time is it?) Egyptian government and the United States of Monsanto, the genetically modified Zahi Hawass has been released from his hermetically-sealed and climate-controlled sarcophagus at the back of a shawarma shop in Cairo where he had been kept under sedation. He is currently drying out on a clothesline in the back alley while builders are completing his money bin deep in the bowels of the Egyptian Museum. Officials of the Imperialist Department of Archaeology are overjoyed and even the Taliban have issued their congratulations saying "It is definitely a better solution for public relations purposes than the one we implemented with Bamiyan".

[cough] Sorry about that, I am still suffering from a mild gonzo attack this morning. I should be feeling better, momentarily. It all started a few days ago when I was looking on the web for pictures and information about ancient coinage in Egyptian Museum web sites.

An important selling point that is employed by the Imperialists, their archaeology dupes and the latter's pseudo-numismatist boot-lickers, is that ancient coins should belong to the people. For the benefit of my non-English speaking readers who are relying on a machine web translator, I should explain that the people is term popularly used in English by Imperialists to refer to themselves. It replaces the previously used, but now unpopular, term dictator. Its usage is inspired by Jungian enantiodromia and it is really just an expression of the big lie.

Anyway, I just could not find anything at all on Egyptian museum web sites. Normally, I am pretty good at Googling things, but not this time. It was starting to disturb me. Perhaps I just not had enough sleep the previous night. I thought that I would make it a bit easier for myself by looking for an image of the Nectanebo stater, surely even Zahi Hawass would approve of that one ― perhaps he just didn't like the Ptolemies. I found some images, but none of them were from Egyptian sites. Now I was starting to get alarmed. I decided to avoid the direct approach and reasoned that if I just Googled the names of Egyptian numismatists who had published standard references on Ptolemaic coinage, then these would lead me to where all the information was hidden, after all, the Imperialists are always going on about education. I found lots of references to Ptolemaic numismatics, Greek, English, American and more but there were no Egyptian names among the results.

Then it dawned on me ― while Scrooge McHawass' money bin was being constructed to accommodate all of the confiscated coins so that they could be seen by no one, and he was drying out from the sedation, his henchmen had managed to remove all the references from the web. A note hiding at the bottom of the museum web page confirmed my suspicions. It said that no cameras were allowed in the museum. I had previously thought it was just part of his copyright thievery ― copyright is supposed to protect creators of works, not the owners of such works. That was William Hogarth's goal anyway. I now realize that the removal of all of that vast amount of information was part of an Orwellian plot to prevent any knowledge getting out. No wonder the Taliban were impressed!

If you are interested in this coinage, here are the top two surviving (Google) links in order:

Ptolemaic Bronze Coinage - The PtolemAE Project

The House of Ptolemy: Ptolemaic and Roman Egyptian Numismatics

You had better hurry though, these are American sites, as are many that they link to and it can only be a matter of time before their owners are dragged from their beds in the night by hundreds of FBI agents of the United States of Monsanto and everything vanishes.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

A year and a bit

Pocket watch
photo: Norro
My, where has the time gone? Typically for me, I forgot to note this blog's 1st anniversary on the 25th of April. When I did notice it and thought that I should do a post reflecting on the time, I was busy with a series and then I forgot about it again. For someone interested in history, my sense of personal history is abysmal. My late wife used to tease me about that.

The first post was mainly an autobiographical introduction, but in the last paragraph  I told of what I expected to do. The only part that I have not yet done is to produce and market a few ebooks, but that will happen sometime.

Don't get me wrong, this post is not intended to be self-congratulatory, far from it. I really just want to share something of the experience and my work habits; reveal a few hopes that did not materialize and few unexpected pleasant surprises that did. When I first heard the term "Web 2.0" I imagined that it referred to Tim Berners-Lee's original vision of researchers being able to share information and communicate in real time, and how that vision had now moved on to the next step ― whatever that might be. I was disappointed that it actually only spoke about technological advances. Not that many of these have not been wonderful (although others have just been frustrating). It has been about twenty years since I first heard my dial-up modem making its buzzing noises. So much, back then, exhibited that pioneering spirit and most of the people involved were more participants than audience. I soon joined Joe Gillespie's network of fledgling web designers. In the "holiday pantomime" he talks of in the linked interview it was my task, in addition to producing my entry, to coordinate the designers and make sure that the web pages all got linked together at the right time so that the pantomime would circumnavigate the globe in the first seconds of Christmas Day (GMT). I also wrote "the intermission story" with the Christmas characters all going on about things in the dressing room. I utilized my own (minimal) acting experience for that ― a lot of it concerning the removal of make-up and "coming down" from The Method after the performance. Most of us had never met "in the flesh", but Joe eventually joined my family for a holiday in Vancouver and to visit another friend, Terry, in Victoria. I had always thought that Terry was a guy, but she was actually a gal! Another typical early web experience. We stayed at the Sylvia on the beach at English Bay. It's a lovely place to stay, you should try it (get one of the suites on the top floor).

Then Business started to take over the web. It's first efforts were hilarious: businessmen scanning their business cards and turning the image into a web page with no hyperlinks. The magic started to fade. So nowadays, businesses have taken over. Many museum sites, places that should have been promoting Tim Berners-Lee's vision are nothing more than tawdry attempts to solicit visitors or sell images at highly inflated prices. You can also read research papers at only $40 a view, or get yourself indoctrinated with all manner of spin spewed out by people with no real substance and no real contribution to research. If it never changes, it's a cult.

I had hoped, with this blog, that my research would be enhanced by other's visions and that, together, we would evolve to greater things. Some of that has happened, but in private, and behind the scenes though emails, meetings, and closed discussion lists. But there's that technology again. "The medium is the message", according to one fellow Albertan. The business web has made consumers of most of us.

Most of my stuff is alla prima and it is an interesting experiment. Sometimes I don't even know what I will write about when I sit down. Things often go in interesting directions that are quite the surprise for me ― it's organic and evolutionary. Sometimes, I'll do a bit of editing, later, if I spot something wrong.

Joe had wanted the pantomime to be a web version of the Exquisite Corpse and each designer got only the last sentence of text. I suppose a blog is abit like that. It takes you places you might never have gone, otherwise. I will continue for as long as I am able. I never thought I would get this far. I write fast and get up early. Some of my friends have often not yet started their day when I finish my morning post. Some things, though, take a bit longer. The most popular post was "Living with a coyote hybrid (Coydog)", and the two most popular series  have been (so far) : The seal of Alexander the Great, and Important new example of British early Celtic art. Google being mainly responsible for these results.

I also like to revisit topics from a different angle,and evolve my thinking thusly.

And then I like to add a few "Easter eggs" now and again. Did you spot the one here? It was "I should do a post reflecting on the time" and it refers to the reflection of the watch face in the photo. So its been a year and a bit and 150,000 words. I look forward to seeing where it goes next, and I hope you do too.

Normal service will resume shortly.