Friday, 12 December 2014

Assholes Damage Precious Line in the Nazca Region

I find it hard to believe that anybody would consciously wreck a famous and important archaeological site, but it seems that my incredulity is at odds with reality. We've had property developers in Peru knocking down pyramids at El Paraiso, Belizean road workers chopping away at pre-Classic Mayan ruins for construction materials, and now Greenpeace activists doodling an eye-searingly yellow message into the Sechura desert - right next to one of more famous Nazca lines. (Strictly speaking, the line itself wasn't damaged - but the footprints and other activities of the Greenpeace folk have created new marks next to it. It's not quite equivalent to the El Paraiso vandalism, but...)

This Greenpeace Stunt May Have Irreparably Damaged Peru's Nazca Site
Apart from the desecration of one of the most memorable and remarkable survivals from Peru's ancient past, there's also an environmental issue here. The Nazca desert sees almost no rainfall (although that is changing, for precisely the reasons Greenpeace ought to be highlighting). As I said in my post on the Nazca culture, the Nazca region is squeezed between two rain shadows - strong winds off the Pacific coast and the Andes mountain range. Any mark you make in the ground there can last about, I dunno, 2000 fucking years.

This is why we can't have nice things, Greenpeace.

io9 (the io9 article claims the lines had astronomical significance, but there's no reason to believe this and it's not the consensus)

The Guardian

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Racism in 'Exodus' Casting

The new Ridley Scott movie, Exodus, is attracting criticism because of the racial background of its stars. Christian Bale and Sigourney Weaver are white people playing ancient Egyptians (and/or Hebrews) in the film, which is an interpretation of the second book of the Bible, and a lot of people are upset about this. They say that ancient Egyptians weren't white, which is true.

The first point to be made is that ancient Egypt seems to have been reasonably diverse in ancient times, as you might expect of a river valley, a delta, and several large oases situated in the middle of an inhospitable desert. Lots of groups would have made their mark on the population. I'm not too interested in debating the genetics of ancient Egypt; it is sufficient to note that, in their own depictions, some ancient Egyptian people have fair-ish complexions and some have dark complexions (although there are good reasons not to trust such depictions implicitly, based as they were on longstanding artistic convention as much as reality).

Christian Bale would probably have looked out of place in the time of Ramesses II, and so, probably, would Chiwetel Ejiofor (although perhaps less out of place than Bale). We shouldn't impose modern American racial dichotomies on the radically different situation of Bronze Age Egypt. There's a pop-breakdown of academics' views on race in ancient Egypt on Slate, if you're interested (it's actually a less interesting topic than it seems).

The second point is that Exodus (the book of the Bible) is a work of fiction. The film may be set in ancient Egypt, and that's enough justification to question the casting of northern Europeans in the central roles, but there's little reason to believe that anything in Exodus actually happened. Moses isn't attested outside of the Bible and there's no archaeological evidence of any great Hebrew march through the desert. As there's no independent evidence of Moses's existence, the idea that Christian Bale doesn't match the 'reality' of Moses seems odd. This whole fuss is about a Ridley Scott interpretation of an ancient work of fiction and fantasy, and it appears ridiculous on the surface that there are complaints about its historical veracity.

And it would indeed be ridiculous, if race and racial discrimination weren't prominent aspects of American culture and society. Whitening Egyptians to make them match modern Europeans and Euro-Americans is an established tradition, presumably based on the notion that dark-skinned people couldn't possibly have produced innovations ancestral to our fundamental technologies (like writing). It's good that there's been a response to this whitewashing and to the attempts at defending it, and it's unfortunate - shameful? - that the studios don't trust the cinema-going public enough to let a dark-complexioned actor carry an epic film like Exodus.

Hopefully, the backlash we're seeing is a sign of the times.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

'Remarkable Plants' by Bynum & Bynum, 'The History of Central Asia' by Baumer

It was my birthday last week, so I've got some new books to read, including volume two of Christoph Baumer's The History of Central Asia (I B Tauris), dealing with the first millennium CE, and a book about important and useful plants by the medical historians Helen and William Bynum, Remarkable Plants that Shape our World (Thames & Hudson). They're both lovely to look at - Baumer's photographs are excellent, and the illustrations used in the Bynum & Bynum book, drawn from eighteenth and nineteenth century publications in the Kew Gardens collection, function perfectly as enhancers of the text.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Salon: "Why we’re obsessed with glamorizing archaeologists"

There's an interesting article on Salon right now on archaeologists and their profession, tied in with a new book, Lives in Ruins, by Marilyn Johnson, about the same subject. The gist is that archaeologists are funded poorly but they bring some semblance of meaning and fascination to the world through their efforts, which is why the public glamourises them.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Ethnological Method

Applying the comparative method in historical linguistics is relatively straightforward and academics habitually apply it to any language they come across at some point or other. But the comparative ethnology attached to linguistic constructions isn't so straightforward or quite so reflexively applied, presumably because 'ethnology' is a word reminiscent of the nineteenth century and because there is no academic department devoted solely or even primarily to such things.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Bruno Latour: Imperialist?

    I recently saw a blogpost that took Bruno Latour and his disciples/fellow travellers to task for being colonialist ('An Indigenous Feminist’s take on the Ontological Turn: ‘ontology’ is just another word for colonialism'). Latour is celebrated in modern social/cultural anthropology for his absurd views on the nature of the world and the place of people in it. He has been mocked outside of the social sciences for decades by sceptics, philosophers, scientists, and rationalists because of his philosophy, if you can call it that, which amounts to little more than the denial of the existence of a single world outside of our heads and the ridiculous repercussions of this. Latour has spelled out his views in plenty of books and articles, and presumably because of the force of novelty and the Abilene paradox he continues to be listened to and lauded. Anthropologists seem to like the idea that anything goes.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

The Nazca Culture

    The south coast of Peru is home to one of the more famous ancient South American archaeological cultures, the Nazca/Nasca. The reason it's such a celebrated tradition has little to do with its inherent importance in South American cultural history and more to do with the Nazca lines, a set of enormous lines and cartoons found in the desert in the Nazca region, visible from the air and preserved since the ancient period. The lines are truly enigmatic, and their purpose has yet to be firmly established (there are clues in the ethnographic and ethnohistoric record, though). This means, as you might expect, that the lines have been interpreted in frankly pseudoscientific ways. They are a favourite of von Daeniken, Tsoukalos, & co, and have even been featured in an Indiana Jones movie. That's the pop-prehistory super-leagues (in terms of public awareness - it's obviously not a good thing overall). There's much more to the Nazca culture than these dirt scratches, though.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Invest your emotion elsewhere

People tend to call me a rationalist, and that's not really something I have a problem with. I don't think philosophical ideas should be a matter of identity ('being' a rationalist, as opposed to merely espousing rationalism), so in that sense I object to the label. But aside from that, I do think it is good to be rational. It is better to think, and to attempt to come to terms with what is true, rather than merely to feel and accept whatever is intuitive or emotionally-appealling.

Monday, 13 October 2014

An Anthropology of X

One of the things most guaranteed to raise my considerable ire is the bizarre and frequently incomprehensible jargon of modern social/cultural/socio-cultural anthropology. I'm not a fan of the modern subject of the discipline anyway, so I already feel a little out of whack with prevailing currents in it, as I've said in other posts.* But there are egregious academic crimes regularly committed by anthropologists that make me perplexed and then a little sad/angry, and most involve language.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

BBC: "Cave paintings change ideas about the origin of art"

Indonesian archaeology briefly made the news this week with a story about rock art from Sulawesi. The art, which includes the oldest known figurative drawing in the world and some extremely old hand stencils, dates back a little under 40,000 years. Rock art is notoriously hard to date, but there's no reason not to trust the dates provided by the researchers at this point, and that makes these artworks incredible, and precious.

Monday, 16 June 2014

What I'm writing these days

I haven't posted anything in a while, primarily because I've been busy. I've been planning and researching a book on ancient Indonesia, writing out detailed chapter plans and filling half a dozen of those mega-useful Ryman's project books with notes on Indonesian metal age rock art and agriculture in pre-Austronesian New Guinea. I don't know if it'll be published any time soon, but there's a gap in the market for an up-to-date, hopefully well-written popular book on Indonesia. The idea is that it'll look a bit like Michael Coe's Mexico or The Maya - a useful introductory work for undergraduates and the interested public - and there's a definite gap in the market for such a thing.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Britain is a 'Christian Country', apparently

David Cameron has recently claimed that the UK is a 'Christian country' and has said that he will act as a 'giant Dyno-Rod' for Christian organisations here (implicitly equating secularists with sewage). This has attracted considerable criticism, for obvious reasons.