Over 1,500 years old and still sharp.

The field of archeology is one of mischance, happenstance, and rarity.  The physical evidence that remains preserved through time is as weird and unchartable as weather – patterns may be seen and observed, but no peat bog or silicate desert guarantees artifacts.  Somehow, despite this rarity, we still manage to stumble upon new delights, new preserved wonders, that shape and change the way we think about the past.

One such change was begun by treasure seekers in Germany.  While they were hunting for antiques of recent wars, they discovered things far more ancient – the remains of a battle between tribal Germans and Roman soldiers.  For whatever reason, these artifacts have remained mostly intact for hundreds of years.  In addition, they show a Rome still vibrant enough to field soldiers 200 years after Christ’s death. While the period of 100-200 AD was a good time for Rome when peace extended as well as borders, it has long been thought that Roman activity in Germany was not high.  many Germanic tribes were part of raids against the Romans, but the scale of this pitched battle is unexpected and may lead historians to reevaluate.

I for one am ready to go gallivanting off into the German woods and see if I can’t stumble on an ancient axe or even a Scorpio.

A thought. A moment.

Today as I was walking home thinking how lovely the world was and debating what I would do with my day off, I had the thought that it might be nice to do something related to veterans.  This was, after all, Veterans Day.  They were the entire reason I had the day off, and more indirectly the reason I’m here.  It might be nice to remember that.

I happened to be crossing the Cambridge Common at the time, and decided to examine several of the monuments there as a part of my resolution.  There were a few plaques commemorating the march from Watertown to the Battle of Bunker Hill, and one that I’d crossed many times commemorating Paul Revere’s midnight ride.  There was the Great Hunger memorial.  But the largest monument was set back from the sidewalk.  As I approached, i was surprised to see two figures on it, one atop the other.  The higher figure was robed, perhaps a bishop or something else religious.  The second was dark, and less clear, but it reminded me of Abe Lincoln (which, in fact, it was.)

Here are a few pictures:




Unnamed figure

Unnamed figure

The monument was a commemoration of those from Cambridge who had fought in the Civil War.  Listed on each side were their names, in addition to a summary plaque, an engraving of the Gettysburg Address, and the correspondence that called these men to fight.  There was no mention of the upper figure, so I resolved to do more research at home.

Veterans Day is both a remembrance of military veterans in the US and a remembrance of the end of WWI abroad.  The holiday was originally celebrated as Armistice Day, but was eventually changed to include all veterans.  For those of you grammar buffs who may be wondering on the official placement of an apostrophe for the holiday, the US government has declared the official spelling to be apostrophe free.  It’s attributive, not possessive.   Sadly, I could not find specific information on the monument itself.  For now, I will have to remain puzzled on the identity of the upper figure.

Goliath Killed by 100 Jar Handles.

As happens regularly, the field of archeology again caught my eye this morning.  As a study of the past, we’re always pushing back the boundaries of what we know of ancient times.  This time, we now have an even earlier example of a Hebrew text from the time of King David.  Of course, we assume there were many texts and a full written history existing at that time, but this is our earliest direct physical proof of that writing.

Of course, as the pottery shard where the writing is preserved is just recently discovered, no through analysis or translation has been made.  I can accept that.  However, as usual, that leaves reporters with a desperate need to say something about the discovery when nothing has yet been researched.  So they give us a few details.  Within the text, the roots of the words judge, king, and slave have been found.  The words themselves may or may not be present in the text, but probably something vaguely related to each is present in the text.  Profound.  Even more stunning is the assertion that the text was clearly written by a trained scribe.  Really?  As opposed to the random scratchings of the illiterate masses of the time?  I mean, I knew there was a problem with graffiti back then, but really?

Of course, even though only 4% of the site has been excavated, most of the information they do have is terribly interesting.  It’s very near the supposed site of the fight between David and Goliath, and contains at least 100 jar handles of a type similar to ‘royal’ jars of the time.  The site is the oldest known fortified city of that period (meaning the other places we knew existed at that time we haven’t physically pinpointed yet).  It’s one of the few places where King David can be archaeologically investigated for that reason.  And as a city where people would be more concentrated, it has obvious potential as a means of exploring daily life at the time.

Personally, I favor an alternative translation to the Goliath myth.  A bunch of Philistines were threatening this fortified Judean city, see.  And so the local inhabitants, being fresh out of river stones, dropped jars on their heads until they left.  This, of course, was not a very noble battle, so they substituted the river story someplace outside the city.  And made the king a champion.  What’s a people without a champion, and what’s a king without great deeds?

Nobel Anger.

I do sometimes get depressed about how my own particular culture is ignorant of and insular from the rest of the world.  Of course, Just looking at the relative sizes of countries, it’s just as easy for most Europeans to visit another country as it is for us to visit another state.  And it is hard to outgrow a prejudice without personal experience to counteract it.  If you never meet a for-real French person, how do you know they aren’t all snobby and rude?   However, much as I can understand US pride and US ignorance and US inward-focused narrowmindeness, that doesn’t mean i like it.  I deal with it, I try to educate and eliminate it where possible, and I hope for future understanding.

For myself, I would not consider this cultural background a disadvantage.  I know it’s there, but I would not say it handicaps me in my own life.  perhaps it’s arrogance, but I’d like to think I’ve grown beyond the prejudices of my upbringing.  in particular as a writer, I’d like to think I have a little perspective and a little objectivity and a little observational prowess.  I’d like to think my upbringing does not keep me from being a good writer.

According to Horace Engdahl, permenant secretary of Nobel’s Swedish Academy, that’s virtually impossible for most of us US citizens.  Evidently (and unbeknownst to me) US writers are “too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture,” dragging down the quality of their work.  “The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature.  That ignorance is restraining.”

I can accept that the majority of Nobel Prizewinners are European.  I can accept that some, even many, people feel that Europe is still the center of the literary world.  They have an intense and continuous history of it – of course they have extensive skills to draw on.  But I don’t think our own history puts us at that much of a handicap.  I don’t think we are too insular, or too ignorant.  I think we do participate, fairly actively, in the literary world (note, world, not immediate insular community).  Yes, we do have some shoddy writers, but so do all countries, even those in Europe.  That doesn’t mean we can’t, or aren’t, producing grade-A literature.

Let’s take the three books I’m reading right now (yes it’s three, yes I read a lot).  The first one, the fluffy one, is a sci-fi novel by C. J. Cherryh.  This one happens to be about humans interacting with two different groups of aliens, one of which has a very Oriental flavor.  It’s not the most profound literature, but the topic seems…oddly appropriate. Someone from the US can imagine the way humans might interact with not only a different culture but a different biology in a realistic way?  I would not call that insular or ignorant.  Another book I’m reading is The Slynx by Tatyana Tolstaya.  She’s Russian.  It’s translated.  I guess it’s one of those random outliers of a book that made it into the US literary scene, even though it’s translated and deals with post-apocalyptic Russia.  Because obviously, we don’t translate enough.  The third book I’m currently reading (dare I say involved with?) is The Breif Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz.  It’s awesome.  If you haven’t read it, go out and buy it, because you will want to read it again.  Diaz is a Dominican-American writer who often writes about the immigrant experience.  He’s very insular – he only writes about the DR or the US.  I wouldn’t call him ignorant though, especially considering the footnotes, which are almost as playful as those in Nabokov’s Pale Fire, but are also far more informative and factually based.

I’m sure Mr. Engdahl is getting his fill of criticism over this interview, and I wouldn’t mind the US losing the Nobel Prize for Literature to someone worthy.  But if no US writer makes it on to the short list this year, after this particular interview?  That smacks of insularity and ignorance.

User maat Re, Setep en Re

The title of this post is the throne name of Ramses II, variously known as Ramses the Great, Ozymandius, and the ‘Great Ancestor’.  He was one of the most powerful and well-known pharaohs to ever have lived, both today and during his own time.  The throne name itself is cited by Wikipedia as meaning “The justice of Re is powerful, chosen of Re”, but there’s something a little funky in the translation there.  I couldn’t find a better on online, but I think it’s closer to ‘Ra’s powerful law (as in the strong arm of the law), beloved of Ra’.

So why is this mummy man still important?  Well, there is his undeniable on our own culture.  There’s Shelley’s poem.  There’s the fact that this may or may not have been the Pharaoh of Exodus.  There’s his deliberate defacement of the monuments and records of the Amarna period, when women ruled as king (Hatshepsut) and monotheism threatened to dominate the country (Akhenaten and Nefertiti).  He’s the one who built a large number of the monuments that characterize our knowledge of his own day, as well as the chronologies and events of Ancient Egypt.  He re-expended the boundaries of Egypt in a number of decisive battles, and may or may not have won against the Hittites.  Even today, we are uncovering remains of what he built.

While I have no personal desire to be a pharaoh myself, or to burden the future with my own skewed version of the past, or to get upwards of a hundred children, still there is something appealing about the man.  Perhaps only as a product of his culture, he was ruthless.  But also as a product of that culture, he was a patron.  He built more buildings in Egypt (temples, palaces, monuments) than any other pharaoh.  In the sheer length of his life (he lived to be about 90), he was a living legend – Egyptians, almost all of which had been born during his reign, thought the world would end without him.  I wish my life could also inspire that sense of living magic, that monumental outpouring of culture.

Which is more cool?

Place your votes now!

I was totally skimming CNN today for something awesome to blog about, and I came across not one, but TWO (Count ’em) TWO awesome news events.

The first involves the government and the past, both things that could be potentially interesting but most often are not.  OSS records are being released to the public, including specific instances of when and how people became involved and what their missions might have been.  That’s how we know Julia Child was a spy.  That’s right, she was cookin’ up some information retrieval on the sly at the same time she was telling you how to make fancy-pants dishes.  How cool is that?  I want to be a household name AND totally lead a second covert lifestyle.  It’s superhero stuff, or at least the stuff of legend.

The second is the winner of this year’s Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.  Mr. Bulwer-Lytton wa the one who started his wonder-work ‘It was a dark and stormy night.’  The contest is all about the ridiculousness of bad fiction, and is judged on the badness of the first line of an imaginary novel.  Of course, bad beginnings are a dime a dozen, but to create something really deliberately horrible takes both skill and guts.  You could be marked for badness the rest of your life after something like that.  You can view a few of the really good ones here.  I, for one, am amused and potentially slightly disturbed.

So yeah, I request votes for which is cooler.  Post your vote.

A Long Memory on Butcher Paper.

There was an article in the news recently about one Frank Calloway: artist, 112 year-old man, and schizophrenic.  While it’s interesting to hear about this man and his history, and to hear the praise of his art, there are other sides of the story that are more important to me.  These do not relate to the nature of his character, which by all accounts is lovely, or to the accuracy and length of his memory, which is substantial and easily seen in his art which exemplifies turn-of-the-century rural life in the south.  More, I wondered what these pictures (obviously serious to this man) on huge sheets of butcher paper might look like.  Here are a few examples that I could find quickly of both the man and his work.

The art itself I’m not sure I would actually qualify as art.  Sure, this guy was entirely self-taught.  Sure, his subject matter is the simple objects and scenes of a bygone age.  There is true worth in that.  Still, I hesitate to cal it ‘art’.  It doesn’t do anything for me.  If it is art, I feel like it’s art that’s not trying – it doesn’t accurately portray a scene, it doesn’t relate to mankind in some way, or convey emotion or an idea.  it doesn’t have a message and doesn’t try to break conventions or perceptions.  To my eyes, it isn’t even attractive.

What does this mean?  Does this mean what this guy is doing is not art?  Is it just a type of art I don’t personally relate to?  Is it just something this guy does that has merit for other reasons?  And who am I, really to judge?  If these works have aesthetic value for any person on earth, does that make them art?

True Story

A few days ago, a woman named Olive Riley passed away in NSW.  She was 108, almost 109, and was called the world’s oldest blogger by many.  She was a popular blogger and visited by people across the world as she shared her life’s story in short vignettes and told the day to day life of her current existence.  That’s what many bloggers do – share their lives through the medium of the internet, allowing us to connect with yet another person across time and distance.

Anyone beyond the age of five has at least one story.  Anyone at that age has a vast resource of life spent to draw upon and share, which we seldom recognize.  I can remember a woman from my church who I visited to use as a source her memories of the WPA when I was doing a history paper.  We sat together in her living room and I asked her questions, but our conversation went far beyond that as my eyes were arrested by different objects around the rooms.  I remember the copper watering cans she got on her trip to Germany and the stained glass windows she had created herself, this and every room packed with the remnants of a life well-lived, a life filled with hidden stories.

I think of my grandfather, and going through his things after he passed away.  I think of visiting him in a nursing home, listening to him tell the same stories over and over again, and how they must have circled just the same when we were not there to listen.  I wonder what other stories were lost to him and us as well as his memory faded.  I wonder what he could’ve told me about the wooden fan and small ceramic vase he left behind for me to claim.  I try to make an effort to ask my parents their stories – who did you love before you met each other?  How did you decide what to study in school?  What are your favorite memories of your own parents?  I want to claim as much as I can, while I can, to find the hidden secrets of my own life, couched in others.

Salem, in Kenya.

One of the early black marks of colonists in the US are the Salem with trials.  A few adolescent girls accused powerful and upstanding members of the community of witchcraft.  Instead of reacting with sense, the community reacted with fear and envy, basically tearing the tightly-woven community apart.  Why did it happen?  Why, in some cases, can small communities deal with petty rivalries and power in the hands of a few, but in others demand retribution for every imagined crime?  Why do some situations allow for this dysfunction, and others root it out, tree and branch?  If such a small community can tear itself apart, what hope is there for any nation attempting to function as a united whole?

When people live together in close proximity, those people need certain outlets for the accumulated stress of living.  The criminal justice system, the civil courts, the right to assemble and speak and protest, unions, campaigns, boycotts, and lobbying are all modern outlets that we use to vent our grievances against our fellow man and living with him in a society.  Other societies have other means, including ritual, religion, tradition, exorcism, shamanic practices, and even witchcraft.  These different means are not necessarily better or worse than our own.  Sometimes, they fail – murderers we cannot catch, the criminally insane, an angry mob that kills suspected witches because of envy, greed, and malice rather than evidence.  But I do not think such failures render the system invalid.

For the most part, it seems that members of the community in Western Kenya recognize a crime has been committed.  They recognize that these accused and killed ‘witches’ were most likely nothing of the sort.  They realize that there are vendettas being carried out in the name of witch hunts.  But they are not willing to give up on the system as faulty quite yet.  One of the families of a victim continues to play by the rules in abandoning the home of the accused witch though they know she had done nothing wrong.  It remains a bad luck sort of place, and they are willing to let that go to maintain order in the community.  A nearby shaman also has encouraged others to speak to him of suspected witches, so that they can be dealt with appropriately.  Hopefully there will be a societal push to deal with some of the underlying vendetta, striking to the core of struggles over increasing poverty, a lack of land, and the general struggle to survive.  If not, this community may tear itself apart as well.

It Belongs in a Museum!

The UNESCO 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage is designed to help protect shipwrecks and other underwater sites from looting.  The wording of the convention is largely disposed towards maintaining such heritage in situ at best or at least using the means available to preserve the disturbed and removed artifacts, usually in a museum.

At times however, competing interests don’t allow for any sort of preservation.  Salvage rights, the freedom of international waters, and varying degrees of legal freedom between countries can blur the lines between what is right, what is valuable, and what is reasonable.  Take the ‘Black Swan’ project by Odyssey Marine Exploration.  While it remains unclear which wreck (or if multiple wrecks) boasted the uncovered treasure, Spain is pursuing litigation against the company for infringement of their rights and the destruction of underwater war graves.  While OME contends that there were no human remains at the coin’s site, it remains unclear how thorough the site inspection was if they have no idea which sunken ship they were actually exploring.  Peru’s potential claim on the coins also confuses the issue further.  If the treasure was taken forcibly from teh New World, who really has claim to it now, both for history or wealth, and who should?

There are inevitable moral questions tied up with death.  Is it moral to perform an autopsy on someone who was the victim of a violent death, in hopes of catching a criminal, even when such a visceral activity disturbs the faith and belief of living relatives?  Is it moral to uncover the grave sites of those who can no longer speak for themselves in the hopes of discovering some profound truth about our past?  Is it moral to support the claims of rightful bounty by invading conquerors, despite the elapse of hundreds of years?

Ultimately, Odyssey Marine Exploration is a for-profit company aimed at turning a profit with the best possible salvage available.  They do care about the provenance of the artifacts they uncover, but largely as a piece of the final worth of those objects.  However, it is doubtful to my mind that they can afford to be as meticulous as a non-profit or public company working archaeologically in the same area would be.  At the same time, I don’t think that the Spanish claim to the uncovered artifacts is necessarily any better at this point.  Since the coins have already been removed and cannot be displayed the option of preservation in situ is gone.  Spain can only hope to preserve the coins, possibly displaying a choice few out of thousands at museums.  And despite Indiana Jones’ archaeological plea, artifacts (especially those from grave sites) do not belong in museums.  They belong where they were originally placed for spiritual significance, or if the result of accident or violence, belong with their descendants.

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