Archive for ‘archaeology’

October 18, 2011

Herat’s citadel restored

I hate to just repost entries from The History Blog here, but this one’s going in my archives too: Ancient citadel in Herat, Afghanistan, restored. The photos alone are worth the visit.

I’m ambivalent about these projects: part of me loves them and wants to fill the world with reconstructive playgrounds for inspiring historical feelings. Then there’s the very real value of reconstruction for advancing scholarship and public understanding. And then there’s the various political uses of such projects, for nationalism (which can have a positive side, if you look closely and from the right angle), identity-building, attracting tourist money, all of which – good and/or bad – is interesting.

But then there’s the cost to the site and its value as evidence of the past, rather than of our present interpretation. Archaeology is inherently destructive, but rebuilding atop your archaeological site is kind of a definitive statement that you don’t intend to learn anything further from the ground itself. And I’ve never met a reconstruction project that I approved of fully – it doesn’t have to be as dodgy as Parthian Nissa to go badly wrong: there’s the celebrated examples of Khiva and Bukhara, which lost much of their urban fabric as their monuments were restored, because the restorers had made an aesthetic and practical, financial decision that the monuments were important but the houses weren’t (a decision that, incidentally, fundamentally changes how the monuments themselves are read*).

So we see a high walled citadel, an interestingly complex array of windows and archways, and a strikingly clean, modern-looking urban precinct. And it looks very respectable. Greek, almost. And my first thought is “so this is what we’ve come to think ancient cities should look like.” How else should it look? Like a David Roberts painting? Hardly. Like it has people living in it, in costume, even? No, I don’t think so. But I think what we have says more about UNESCO and the 21st century heritage trade than it does about the Citadel at Herat.

* Kenneth D. B. Carruthers: “Architecture Is Space: The Space-Positive Tradition,” Journal of Architectural Education,Vol. 39, No. 3 (Spring, 1986), pp. 17-23.

September 5, 2011

Life in Nelson’s Navy was a grim as you thought

…except, perhaps, if you happened to be NAM Rodger. Via The History Blog, evidence from disinterred skeletons tells us that RN recruits of the “Nelsonian” period suffered from scurvy, had peg legs and bad teeth, but were mostly not the urban poor. The last point seems highly interesting, but hard to draw conclusions from.

Link to Channel 4’s own press release.

the C4 TV program – viewable in England, but not alas France or the US.

February 22, 2011

roman villa in Shropshire, a reconstruction

So this rebuild of a Roman villa in Shropshire makes me question a bunch of things.

First, it’s really not very appealing. I see what they’re doing, with the various building methods and layers exposed, somewhat a la Knossos, and the (mostly) eschewing flashy tourist-pandering details. There’s no references to gladiators or lion taming here. The “shop” sells candles. But. I have no real desire to visit it. I think I know exactly what I’m going to find when I do, and what I’ll find is a testament to how little we really know about Roman daily life. It does a great job of de-exoticising Rome, but in its place it puts the kinds of timbers you can find at MFI. So it makes me question the place of entertainment, and of Hollywood pizazz, in all this. Should the truth get in the way of good presentation?

Second, they built the house as a standard Mediterranean Roman villa – there’s an intriguing hint that they don’t know how Romans might have adapted to local conditions. Or building methods/materials. So it’s really not a Shropshire house, as such. Makes me question what sort of truth is being preserved here – and whether our ignorance is being accurately modeled after all.

Third, the fabric of the house itself is considered carefully, the furniture not so much. And the paintings on the walls, dear god. The rattan chair may be possible in Rome, but it’s also very clearly post 1930 contract furniture. The 3 sofas of the triclinum are clearly improvised. The candles in the “shop” make it look like a stall at Glastonbury festival. So that makes me question their focus. Because a reconstruction like this is inevitably a gesamtwerk, whether its creators recognise that or not.

Also via history blog.

February 2, 2011

Museum virtual tours courtesy of google

The History Blog calls these “the world’s best museums.” Which is just asking for trouble. It’s a very good collection, though, including teasers* of the Rijksmuseum, the Uffizi, the Hermitage(!), the Met, the National Gallery in London, the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin, MoMA, the Tate…

Google art project.

In retrospect it was obvious. Now I want to see all the in-gallery interactives at the museums of natural history and science and the aquaria and imaginaria reproduced on the web.

There’s another thing, though: of course this reminds me of Giordano Bruno‘s memory palaces (and the Frick is a joy in a sea of bare walls, from that perspective), but as a method of library resource navigation (which is really what the web is, right?) it’s downright peculiar. Why would the museum’s collection be arranged in these rooms, if not to aid wandering and casual connection-making? If you know which artwork you want to see, is this a good interface? And it points up the disconnect between virtual touring and actual touring like nothing else. And the metadata, as usual, are troubling: who’s going to look for Rembrandt under “van Rijn, Rembrandt Harmensz.”?

Still, it’s an amazing thing. Thank you, google. Again.

* the Rijksmuseum contains only 9 rooms including the gift shop and 20 works in their “other works in this museum” section, and the collection shown does not include works in the “masterpieces of the Rijksmuseum” show they’ve had up during renovations. To really get a sense of the selection, though, check out the Hermitage floorplan, which includes the Rembrandt hall, mysteriously devoid of Rembrandts.

November 1, 2010

Alas, flickr: 1. Grain Elevators of the Ile de France

Without taking anything away from the awesomeness of Buffalo’s grain elevators, I find myself wondering exactly when in the history of modernist architecture these similar structures were erected on the banks of the Seine. Could Mendelssohn and Corbusier have saved themselves an America jaunt? Or were they vital to the exporting of the type from the Great Lakes area?

I see curious horizontal striations under the layer of smooth render, which leads me to wonder if these were, like the Buffalo structures, created in one continuous pour. They look almost like they could be…cinderblock.

May 6, 2010

Continuing ratty smell over the Cirebon wreck treasure

cross posted from richardthinks

This story just keeps giving. If I were doing a PhD on the antiquities trade I think it would be the centre of my thesis.

Back in 2003 valuable porcelain started turning up off the north coast of Java. As generally happens, Western salvager-researchers showed up to excavate it, with a deal from the Indonesian government. These operations are sometimes light on the archaeology, but the expeditions are conducted under very difficult circumstances: there’s no shortage of treasure seekers out there, dives have to be conducted quickly and secretly, and things can turn very nasty. And as quite often happens, when the wreck turns out to be worth a lot of money, trouble ensued. The government started arresting divers, papers were found not to be in order, the stuff brought up was impounded (and endangered) by authorities that didn’t know much about historiacl value but knew cash value when they saw it. And Indonesian salvage law was hastily rewritten.

Then nothing happened for 5 years, until a few days ago, when notice was given of an auction of the whole trove and a $16 million door policy. Yesterday the auction was opened and immediately closed, because nobody had shown up. So what’s going on here?

I don’t know, exactly, but that last report gives some hints…

Christie’s was originally expected to hold an auction as early as 2007, but that fell through as the Indonesian government struggled to come up with regulations for the sale of sunken treasures found within Indonesian waters. The regulations finally in place require bidders to front up to 20 percent of the minimum price of the objects for sale – in this case, $16 million.
…government organizers admitted they had not given enough notice to potential buyers. The $16 million security deposit was another likely deterrent.
…”Because the absence of bidders in the first auction … we will propose a second auction,”
…The regulations also stipulate that if an auction fails three times, the government can directly approach potential buyers, including other governments. China, for example, may be interested in recovering the treasures, as the bulk of the collection was Chinese, Saad said.
We know that China has begun a massive government program of bulk-buying antiquities as part of “safeguarding its national heritage.” We know that China has a great deal of influence in the Indonesian economy. The Jakarta Globe went with AFP’s headline: Little Interest in Indonesian Treasure.
If I didn’t know any better, I’d guess that the Indonesian government was planning to let the three auctions slip by without anyone being able to bid, so that it could sell the whole hoard to China for an undisclosed sum. Maybe to avoid having to pay up the full 50% value to the salvagers.

I’mma leave the last word to Indonesian Minister of Culture and Tourism Jero Wacik, via the inimitable grabahantique: If you’re honest, there’s no harm in selling these goods. The concern instead the government of China. It’s their stuff

April 20, 2010

Tous les bateaux du monde

On now at Musee de la Marine, Paris

virtual exhibition here (nicely done). Organised by Eric Reith, with some consultation from Pierre-Yves Manguin.

April 13, 2010

what I should have done instead: landscapes of ugliness and dissuasion

With enormous and heartfelt thanks to [info]cdkExcerpts from Expert Judgment on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, Sandia National Laboratories report.

The place should not suggest shelter, protection or nurture…it should suggest that it is not a place for dwelling, nor for farming or husbandry.

We decided against simple “Keep Out” messages with scary faces. Museums and private collections abound with such guardian figures removed from burial sites. These earlier warning messages did not work because the intruder knew that the burial goods were valuable. We did decide to include faces portraying horror and sickness

This is what I should have done my PhD on: landscapes that are deliberately made forbidding and ugly. Amazing. The whole thing is worth reading. I find the suggestions for actual interventions in the landscape curiously attractive, though, like perverted Richard Long works.

The heat of this black slab will generate substantial thermal movement. It should have thick expansion joints in a pattern that is irregular, like a crazy-quilt, like the cracks in parched land. And the surface of the slab should undulate so as to shed sand in patterns in the direction of the wind.
That could be Walter de Maria talking.
concrete thorns (in Landscape of Thorns), and zig-zag earthworks emanating from the Keep (in Menacing Earthworks). The shapes suggest danger to the body…wounding forms, like thorns and spikes, even lightning. They seem active, in motion out and up, moving in various directions. They are irregular or non-repetitive in their shape, location and direction. They seem not controlled, somewhat chaotic

Tell me you wouldn’t go to see that in an art exhibit. Expressionist Caligari meets land art. The pictures are fabulous, too. They should totally build it, in Buffalo.