Archive for ‘heritage trade’

January 23, 2012

Some photos of Merv, 1

So I mentioned these photos to someone, and they said “I can’t see them because they’re on your facebook page,” and so I put them up here. I visited Merv, Turkmenistan in 2004. It showed me things I’d never seen before.

In the 12th century Merv was a thriving metropolis, which sometimes hosted the Seljukid emperor. It stood in the heart of Turkish (or Turkmen, if you like) Khorasan, the northeasternmost really legitimate province of the Abode of Peace under Islam (a few hundred miles further east you’d get into Mawarannahr – “what-lies-beyond-the-river,” the abode of border forts and ribats and occasional marauding Sino-Turkic infidels). It had pottery kilns and streets and markets and gardens and even crucible steel production facilities, and it was mostly made out of mud brick. And then in 1220 the Mongols sacked it and slaughtered the population and it never quite bounced back.

700 years later Merv attracted the attention of Soviet archaeologists, who had stories to tell about its rulers and the glories of the past and the superstition of religion. These archaeologists, and a lot of historians of Islamic architecture in the West, got very excited about the mausoleum of the last Great Seljuk emperor worth the name – Sanjar – which was mentioned in contemporary texts and showed great advancement in architecture and engineering and could be fitted into neat narratives of the development of architectural prowess under Islam, and stood pretty much in the center of the city.

They got much less excited about the other buildings of the Merv oasis, because they didn’t know what they were for. They weren’t identified in contemporary texts. And although they were unusual and distinctive and big and numerous, they weren’t remarkable from an engineering standpoint. Over the past 90 years a lot of them have fallen down. Now Merv is a UNESCO World Heritage site, which you’d think would protect what remains, but actually the government of Turkmenistan doesn’t take any very great pains to keep them standing. So here is what they looked like in 2004:

They have names like “palace” and “great Kyz Kala” (something like fortress – probably nothing of the sort) and “little Kyz Kala” and “Citadel” and “dove house” (maybe a library?).

The defensive works were of much clearer interest, because they showed a document of how long Merv’s history as a settlement might stretch back, and how many times it might have been re-fortified. It turns out that an inner city, smaller than the total city area but by no means modest, may have been continuously occupied for about 3000 years, and that its walls had been strengthened by degrees over that time, until they formed a formidable defense indeed. Cutting a road through them displayed many, many successive layers of brickwork:

Now the whole city – something like 12 square kilometers – lies intact in the ground. It’s fallen down, it’s been looted, wild camels crop tamarisk in the shade of mud-dunes that were once city walls – but if you dig anywhere, evidence of the city is just under the surface.

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.

February 22, 2011

Port Cities website

Of course, my favourite building in London is a ghost, and something of a cliche: the shell of Battersea Power Station. But it’s long been stripped of all its glorious industrial age guts and has had an afterlife mostly as a set of fever dreams for urban planners who think “museum” will elevate their shopping mall plans. Greenwich Power Station, on the other hand, is still working. And, although clearly inferior as an icon, is still awkwardly mesmerising.

This post, though, is about the remarkable website I stumbled across while trying to figure out what the building was: Port Cities is the kind of project I love. Deep-time history (though not very deep resources) on Britain’s major ports. I just wish there were more of it.

…although I can’t complain about the 6 page article on London prostitution. Which itself stands as an interesting social document on what we look for out of history.

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