Atavistic Archetypes of Beauty

Denis Dutton holding an Acheulian hand axe
Denis Dutton holding an Acheulian hand axe. Photo by Steve Jurvetson

The photo isn’t merely beautiful, it’s about beauty. It comes from a talk by Denis Dutton at TED called A Darwinian theory of beauty. It’s chosen for the depth of field which puts the focus firmly on the handaxe and makes the presenter blur slightly in the background. The completely out-of-focus distant background is colourful, but serves to highlight the handaxe. It’s an imaginative way of having human interest in the shot without the human figure drawing attention away from the subject. Often putting a human in shot makes the photo about the person and not the artefact.

Photo: Atavistic Archetypes of Beauty by Steve Jurvetson. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY licence.

Nine Points on a Finger

Nine flint points on a finger.
Nine Points on a Finger. Photo by Buzz Hoffmann

This is a photo taken from Brian Hoffmann’s photostream on Flickr. These points are from his fieldwork in Alaska. The usual favoured explanation is that these are toys, but Brian thinks they are more likely to be tools. He’s certainly finding a lot of them, and he keeps on finding them. How many points do you have to find before you start thinking they have a serious purpose.

I chose this as Photo of the Week because it fits the tools theme, and the scale of the points is extraordinary. If I were digging the site I’d be cheerfully trowelling away these without noticing them. Even if someone said “Hey! What the hell do you think you’re doing?” and pointed them out to me, I still think I’d be missing a lot of them. The other reason is that it gives me a chance to plug his blog at Old Dirt – New thoughts, where you can currently follow a dig in Minnesota.

Photo: Nine Points on a Finger by Brian Hoffmann. Licenced under a BY-NC-SA licence.

CFPo: Books

A shelf of many books
Consideration. Photo by LollyKnit.

What book would you recommend to someone to get them thinking about archaeology in a new way? For August we’d like to know what you’d recommend for holiday reading. It needn’t be an archaeology book. It could even be fiction. All it needs to be is a book that you think deserves to be read. Entries can be long-book length discussions, we have the spare electrons, or they could be back of the book blurb length. Whatever it is, if you liked it we want to hear about it.

If you don’t have a Then Dig account, leave a comment below and we’ll set you up with one.

Photo: Consideration by LollyKnit. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY-NC licence.

One past or two? Ancient History and Archaeology in archaic Sicily.

I’ve been looking at the colonisation of Sicily by the Greeks in the early 1st millennium BC. Some time around the mid-eighth century it seems as though parts of Greece exploded leaving Greek cities around the Mediterranean. It’s not that distance so much that interests me it’s the distance between Ancient History and Archaeology in explaining how this happened. A lot of ancient historians see archaeology as a method of filling in the gaps in the historical record. I think there’s much more to be said for using them as two independent approaches to a common past.

Blue pins: Greece, Chalkis and Eretria Euboea - Italy, Pithekoussai and Naxos
Yellow Pins: Greece, Corinth - Italy, Syracuse
Green Pins: Greece, Megara Nicaea - Italy, Megara Hybalea
Red Pin: Italy, Himera
View Greek Colonies in a larger map

Ancient Historians have Greek colonisation pretty much worked out, barring the finer details. In the case of the western Mediterranean the earliest vessels set sail from Euboea, the first colony not being on Sicily at all but Pitheokoussai in the Bay of Naples around 750 BC. Dates for Sicily in the magisterial An inventory of archaic and classical poleis, which I’m about to deeply disagree with, 735/4 BC for Naxos from Euboea, 733/2 for Syracuse from Corinth and 728 for Megara Hyblaea from Megara Nicaea in mainland Greece. The prevarication on the dates is because Greek years did not start and end at the same time as ours. The dates and origins are derived from Thucydides and there’s good reason to assume they’re accurate. In the case of Pithkoussai, the earliest layers do have Euboean pottery. The same goes for Naxos. In Syracuse, the earliest pottery is indeed Corinthian, if you ignore Euboean and Athenian pottery below the Corinthian (Boardman 1999:163-4) and the indigenous pottery that is found before settlement that continues during through to 650 BC at the site (Frasca 1983:597-8). Megara Hyblaea in contrast has Corinthian pottery in its early layers. The solution is to conclude that pottery is diagnostic, unless the answer is wrong in which case it’s merely evidence of trade. In this case the same is true for the east Greek wares (Boardman 1999:174).

Megara Hyblaea poses more of a problem. The earliest burials at the site are not typical of Megara Nicaea. In fact the homeland styles don’t start appearing till around 650 BC (Shepherd 1995:51-82). I’m kicking myself for not making a note where I read that the earliest letter forms in Megara Hyblaea were also not similar to Megara Nicaea. Finally temples in Megara Hyblaea do not appear till after about 650 BC. None of this proves that Megara Hyblaea was not founded from Megara Nicaea, and the historical record is wrong. However, if the historical record is accurate then is there likely to be a stronger archaeological trace of ethnic and economic links?

If these colonies didn’t come from Greek settlers arriving en masse then where did they come from? Syracuse is traditionally thought to be an excellent example of Greek settlement in action because a native settlement is clearly removed with a destruction layer and a Greek layer over the top. In fact the archaeological record is more of destruction lenses, with some native houses continuing in use and with some continued use of native pottery. Is this more indicative of Greek arrival in native settlements? Himera, founded in the mid-seventh century BC, was surrounded by indigenous settlements (Vassallo 1996). The shock of the arrival of this new city on the native settlements was negligible. The closest comparison I can think of is the Islamisation of Swahili towns on the East African coast. Wynne-Jones (2007, and other papers by other authors) note two possible origins for the self-identified Omani towns. Either they were settled by Omanis, or else élites attracted Omanis in via exchange and inter-marriage. The lack of settlement shock means that places like Kilwa Kisiwani are assumed to have been native developments that pull settlers in, rather than sites of settlers pushed out. The traditional model for Greek colonisation is a push model from a limited number of sites. Is a pull model feasible?

Ancient Historians are happy that cities could pull in trade, to account for inconvenient pottery at sites, so the possibility for pull colonisation is not in doubt. What is lacking is evidence this happened, but it is possible that the evidence is not in Sicily, but rather Greece. Olympia and Delphi are both home to treasuries from cities around the Greek world. These were both from homeland cities, and from colonies in the Mediterranean who were placing themselves in the heart of the Greek world. At Olympia we can see this started happening. Gela, a city in southern Sicily, put down one of the early treasuries (Gardiner, 1925 dates it to the second half of the seventh century BC, but most recent books I’ve read while fact-checking this give an uncited date in the sixth century BC. If you know where this date comes from I’d be delighted if you let me know in the comment box.) and many other cities from the west followed. None of this conclusively settles the argument in favour of a pull model, but it does raise the question as to why Thucydides is so uncritically followed by ancient historians who would normally pull out all sorts of overlooked detail with forensic skill. Ancient Historians in turn could ask, if the push model is flawed, why did Thucydides write about these pushes out to settle colonies – and this is where I’m most puzzled of all.

Thucydides was an Athenian general and his history is a History of the Peloponnesian War. The foundations of Sicilian colonies are mentioned, but they’re only mentioned as they are relevant to Thucydides’ aim, which is recording the conflict between Athens and Sparta. Thucydides wrote at the end of the fifth century BC. This means that he was not witness to the foundation events. Instead of recording the mid-eighth century and the settlement of Sicily, he is recording what people in the fifth century thought happened three hundred years earlier. This solves a lot of problems. For example, in the mid-eighth century BC a lot of Greek cities did not exist. Corinth only came into being as a polis around 750-ish BC, it organised quickly enough to send out fully fledged cities within twenty years. We have no date for the cities of Euboea forming, but if history is followed then they were establishing a colony at Pithekoussai before Corinth was a polis. Is perhaps more likely that Thucydides saw cities in Sicily and described the foundation of cities because what he knew where there were fifth-century cities that needed to be explained? Possibly, but then why the detail about the order of settlement?

Megara Hyblaea and petrochemical plants
Megara Hyblaea is surrounded by petrochemical plants, giving at a pervasive stench of death. The consequent lack of tourists and facilities gives it the impression of somewhere that was built to be an abandoned city.
There is a less manipulated version of the photo at Flickr.

The dates do not only give an account of when something happened, but also of precedence. The major sea routes to Sicily arrived first at Naxos, possibly because this was the polis closest to the striking landmark Mount Etna. It’s geographical location as the first place you arrive at in Sicily suggests that it should have chronological primacy too. Syracuse, with its power and harbour is clearly the next most prestigious city. Fifth-century Greeks would not have cared that eighth-century sailors beached their vessels rather than use harbour. The history then becomes not what happened, but a tale to explain why things are the way they are now. Puzzlingly, this is not new. It’s the first lesson on any ancient history course, so the emphasis on Thucydides as a reliable source is odd.

This doesn’t simply mean that archaeology is good and history bad. It does mean that using history to analyse archaeology and vice versa is a very poor substitute to using archaeology to analyse archaeology and history to analyse history. The archaeological record gives a very different story to late prehistoric Sicily than the history recorded by Thucydides. Yet at the same time, the historical record gives a much richer account of the local ethnicity and allegiances of the fifth century BC than the archaeology. Corinthian pottery might get everywhere, but the history clearly shows that does not make everyone Corinthian. It also opens another possibility that both archaeological and historical attempts to explain Greek colonisation in Sicily could be flawed.

The notion of Greek ethnicity is based in history. I believe that the history is anachronistic, but Hall (2004) goes further. He argues that the idea of a Greek ethnicity is, in this period, possibly anachronistic. Did a Greek identity arise as a response to increased interaction across the Mediterranean? It’s common for historians to talk about ancient Greeks as though they are one thing over the course of several hundred years. We see a process of becoming Greek, and by the fifth century there is a difference between the Greeks and the barbaroi. While the archaeological record shows Greek pottery getting everywhere, the ethnic information – that some people still thought of themselves as Sikels – is purely from the historical data, which is late fifth century. This is after the invasions from Persia in Greece, and the battles with Punic forces in Sicily. Is a hunt for Greek cities taking a recently developed sense of common identity and anachronistically searching for it into the past? Hall’s proposal raises the possibility that much work, including my own, is excessively teleological.

There was one past for archaic Sicily. Instinctively I can’t help but feel that approaches that pull archaeology and ancient history together should be a good thing. However, I wonder if there’s a danger that when you do try that it becomes effectively one discipline judged by the approach of another. By keeping a distance between the two approaches you get the advantage of two independent viewpoints.

Ruined Church

Ruined Church, Hacienda Tabi, Yucatan, Mexico
Ruined Church, Hacienda Tabi, Yucatan, Mexico. Photo by Larry Miller.

It’s the last week of the distance theme this week, so I thought to close with this image from Hacienda Tabi, Mexico of a ruined church. Hacienda Tabi was the largest sugar plantation in the region. I know this because Larry Miller helpfully linked to an abstract on the topic. I chose this because it has both space and claustrophobia. You can see the arches going into the distance, but at the same time it’s clear that Nature is closing in from all sides.

Next week the topic is Tools, curated by Terry Brock. Having had a sneaky peak at some of the drafts going into the system I can say it looks like it’ll be well worth reading. You can get in contact with him @brockter on Twitter or via the Facebook page if you’d like to take part.

Photo: Untitled by Larry Miller. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY-NC licence.


Stonehenge in the sun.
Stonerocks by Jacson Querubin

I’m taking a break from Distance photos for this week, though there is a post on the topic spanning the distance from the USA to Ireland tomorrow. Tonight starts the preparation of an annual ceremony driven by the turning of the seasons that culminates tomorrow. These people will gather amid the crowds and chaos on Salisbury Plain to perform their enduring task regardless of the weather. It’s easy to be cynical or mock. “Who are these people?” you may ask. “What gives them the right to grab the best spot?” you may enquire or even more harshly affirm, “It’s people like these who fill NatGeo and History channel with clichés, nonsense and clichéd nonsense.” But I beg to differ, what would the solstice at Stonehenge be like if it weren’t for the dedicated cameramen and photographers recycling the same shots of people cheering at a sunrise that’s obscured by cloud?

Photographers and Cameramen getting the same shot of the sun at Stonehenge.
They come every year heedless to the mocking.

I was there last year and while I got many photos, they were all varying degrees of awful. I much prefer this photo by Jacson Querubin. This photo was chosen for the colours and the angle. It doesn’t have the sun rising or setting behind it, but by getting low Jacson Querubin has managed to put the stones into the sky. Lots of photos do this, with Stonehenge between the earth and the heavens, but this view gives me more of an impression of the stones reaching up to the sky. With so many shots of the same place, he finds something which doesn’t tread the same path as everyone else (including me).

Photo: Stonerocks by Jacson Querubin. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA licence.

Egypt Pyramid Cairo

Egypt Pyramid Cairo by Espen Faugstad
Egypt Pyramid Cairo by Espen Faugstad

Chosen because the difference between foreground and background gives a nice sense of distance. It does raise another question though. This photo is clearly manipulated. Does that make it fake?

I don’t think so. It’s clear Espen Faugstad has an artistic vision in mind, and he’s using the tools to get the job done. Crucially it’s also so obviously manipulated that there’s clearly no intent to deceive. What I think is interesting about the question is that back asking if this photo or that photo has been faked implies that some are real and I’m not sure how likely that is.

For a start there’s the matter of focal length. I used to just zoom in or out to fill the frame when I took a photo. The focal length also affects how a photo is distorted. If you’re using the equivalent of a 50mm lens then you have something like a human eye view of a place, but wider angles or telephoto shots give different views that have different narrative effects. I’ll be blogging about that when I can get some sunnier photos. There’s also the matter of exposure and rendering colour. Often these are left to camera, but ignoring the choices doesn’t mean a choice wasn’t made. If you use auto as a setting then you’re delegating the decisions to a programmer with no thought as to how or why those decisions were made. Given the limitations of current cameras, that might be an issue if you want your photos to be objective records. That’s why I like this image. It’s lack of pretence to objectivity gives it a kind of honesty as art.

Coming up this week, tomorrow we have Gifts from the Distance, flotsam as a cultural resource in island societies by Matt Law, and on Thursday Distances in Landscape archaeology by Ulla Rajala.

Photo: Egypt Pyramid Cairo by Espen Faugstad. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA licence.

Terra Cotta Trio

Terra Cotta Trio by Kevin Harber.
Terra Cotta Trio by Kevin Harber.

These are obviously Terracotta Warriors, from the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China. They date from around 210 BC. Me, I would have focussed on the near warrior and looking at this hat could be a mistake. The foreground is blurred, but the left face is pin-sharp and perhaps gives a better sense of looking at the middle of ranks of soldiers.

Tomorrow’s post escaped early, so I’m not sure what I’ll do for tomorrow. Work and migraines are complicating matters. However, for Thursday we have a photo-essay from Di Hu on memory in the Andean Highlands.

Photo: Terra Cotta Trio by Kevin Harber. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

Stop the Press? Paper, e-books or both?

Welcome new readers. This post could also be titled “How not to launch a blog”. We’ve been testing the site with content for a little while with some archaeological content. Tomorrow our first post on this month’s theme Distance goes live, so I had a tech post scheduled for today.

This post has been shuffled through a few drafts. Before I bought a Kindle is was along the lines of “Am I a techno-curmudgeon?” After I bought a Kindle it became more “Duh! I am a techno-curmudgeon!” By curmudgeon I don’t mean Luddite. I mean people who can use technology but for reasons other than failings of the technology choose not to. Here’s an example that I might have agreed with till a couple of years ago.

Airminded Blog on Kindle
Airminded Blog on Kindle

I attended a couple of workshops on publishing, one involving academic publishers. The printed monograph was held up as the peak of publication to which all graduate students should aspire. And the emphasis was on print, not e-publishing. There was one go-to argument that all the speakers shared. “The problem with an e-book,” they would say with a sardonic rise of an eyebrow, “is you can’t read it in the bath!” We all laughed and ignored the fact that you’d be mad to read a cheaply bound ~£100 academic book in the bath. Still, if you feel this is a problem, not only can you read an e-book in the bath, you can read one in the shower and while diving at a depth of up to five metres, thanks to this waterproofing device.

If reading in the bath really was the killer app for dead tree books, then I’ve single-handedly revolutionised the publishing industry. In fact the problem is more likely that “The problem with e-books raise eyebrow is they’re not printed books.” True, but this is not a strong argument for nor against them. There are advantages in favour of both formats.

The unassailable advantage of hard copy for me has been its readability. I can read short texts on a computer monitor, but a monograph has simply not been practical. Long periods of monitor use give me eye-strain. The prime measure of any text format has to be ‘Can you read it?’. The iPad is readable, but I still prefer paper. The Kindle in contrast is extremely readable. Amazon has a difficult job selling it to sceptics because the display is essential to its success and its display is primarily shown to non-owners through a computer monitor, which kills it flat. If we are comparing default settings, then I still think a book beats a Kindle but it’s close. It’s not just that the dots per inch are better with a book, there’s a tactile experience.

If I’m reading a book I know roughly how far I am through it by the feel of pages in my left hand. A Kindle is light, but it feels the same regardless of whether you’re at the start or the end. The same is true for the lack of tactile sensation for other e-readers. There’s also a matter of turning pages. Turning a physical page gives your eyes a micro-break from the script. You don’t get this so much with a Kindle, and if you’re scrolling text you positively have to concentrate on moving script to keep your place. This is all part of the reading experience. But reading is not always default. I can change the settings on an e-reader and some print books have their own problems.

For example the Western Greeks by Caratelli is a lovely book and if it ever falls of my bookshelf and onto my head, I’ll be hospitalised. There are a few books I have that are simply too big to read comfortably. Book size is not a weight problem for electronic books. An e-version would be light enough to be hand-held and read for long periods.

Print-size is another obvious issue, or it will be as your sight gets worse. A great deal is made of the fact you can read a book after a couple of centuries. This is true. At the same time if your eyesight goes then the physical presence of your bookshelves are little comfort. E-books are more easily converted into talking books.

I’m also wary of how meaningful the claim you can read books after centuries is. You can’t read a centuries old e-book yet, but there’s a very obvious reason for that. Some of the scepticism is well-founded. There are unreadable electronic formats that are lost. I need to get a USB cassette player to copy an Orb album I have because I don’t have the physical means to play it and it was deleted on the day of release so there are no MP3 versions to buy. I also have unreadable floppy discs and USB sticks will pass soon. However, what is changing is that information is moving from fixed formats. My thesis went through several from .doc, .pages, .whatever-open-office-is, a brief period on Google Docs and finally .docx and .pdf for submission. There are, and will continue to be problems with readable formats, but ASCII is proving durable. Format translation looks like a soluble problem – though some texts may be lost.

In contrast hard copy books are tied to their physical format. Shelves upon shelves of them sit in libraries mocking e-books with their permanence. Libraries don’t keep empty shelves of all the books that have been lost. It may be different for modern historians, but if you’re working in the medieval period or earlier there’s a good chance that you’ll find key texts are missing. Again there are obvious reasons for that, but if we seriously consider the possibility that all electronic repositories could be turned off at the same time as a mark against e-books, then equally we have to accept the possible evolution of a self-igniting bookworm and the damage it could cause to physical books, especially those with painfully small print runs. The limit physical numbers of many monographs makes them susceptible to loss through reckless deaccessions or accidental damage.

The thing that finally persuaded me my preference for paper wasn’t rational was note-taking. Historiann (ignore the bath reference) makes a good point that it’s easier to make notes in the margin of a printed book. I thought you couldn’t with an e-book. Ignore the fact that I don’t write in books, and that even if I wanted to I’d never have a pen handy, it’s nice to have the option. There are reader programs that store annotations with a file, but usually the notes are tied to a specific file, and it’s a pain to cut ‘n’ paste the text into a document. I didn’t spot that book-written notes are tied to the one copy of a text till six months ago. About the same time I realised that cut ‘n’ paste from a regular paper book is rubbish.

It turns out that Kindle notes can be shared between devices, but that’s something to explore another time.

It wasn’t simply that e-books have their drawbacks, it was also that the ‘e-‘ leads me to have much higher expectations for the usability of an e-book. Concentrating on the limitations of an e-book meant I wasn’t considering in what ways an e-book is better and in some ways e-books are better. These days indices are afterthoughts in some books. Searchability is a big bonus. At the same time you have a lot fewer headaches if you accidentally drop a book and tread on it than if you do the same with a Kindle. I’ve done the experiment. DRM means it’s so much easier to lend a physical book. I don’t condone cracking Amazon’s DRM, and more importantly I don’t know how to do it yet. Academics could be asking why books need DRM, but for now it’s something we have to live with. There’s also no second-hand market for e-books which will make it more difficult to buy cheap gems in the future.

The paper versus electronic argument interests me because it’s the most serious challenge to paper books yet. This isn’t a genre shift like claiming film, television or radio will kill books. It’s closer to the shift from parchment to paper. There are good reasons why paper books are still a good idea, but the arguments are all stacked in favour of the one format. The one factor I have missed out above is that electronic publishing is potentially so much cheaper. This could be a way to preserve texts in both formats. The high-priced library market can still be served with physical books, but e-books should make affordable editions for personal use feasible. Whether or not they will remains to be seen, but I don’t think it’s in the consumers’ interest to be forced into one format or the other.

For this reason something I’d like to do is experiment with a Kindle version of the blog. If the authors are happy, and time allows it’s possible we will produce a Kindle Single based on ‘Distance’. The first post on the theme comes up tomorrow. This is not because pinning the blog to a fixed volume makes it ‘better’. The new format is different. It opens the opportunity to access new audiences and new opportunities. Hopefully we’ll be able to explore what you can do with archaeology and new media, rather than fit within a rigid definition.

For Distance we have opinion pieces, some referenced discussions and a photo-essay. These will be scheduled on Tuesdays, and some Thursday. That leaves plenty of room on Wednesdays and Fridays for people to blog about other things. If you’d like to take part, leave a comment below or on our Facebook page.

Terres Rouges, Luxembourg

Arbed Steel Works, Terres Rouges, Luxembourg by Geoffrey George.
Arbed Steel Works, Terres Rouges, Luxembourg by Geoffrey George.

This is the abandoned Arbed Steel Works, at Esch-sur-Alzette in the south of Luxembourg. I picked it as it’s a well-lit photo and it also has a great sense of distance, which is handy for the coming month. It turns out the site is more iconic than that. From British Pathé there’s a video showing “a molten stream of French ore, Belgian limestone, Dutch and German coke watched over by Italian labour and pouring out of a Luxembourg blast furnace marked the formal opening of the common market for steel of these six European countries.” So this abandoned structure is possibly a birthplace of the EU.

The site launches this week. So far the plan is that I’ll put up a Kindle post on Wednesday, partly because I’ll be at KindleCamp that day. Thursday will see the first Distance post, with Katy Meyers on Bioarchaeology. We have theme posts for Tuesdays and Thursdays for the first couple of weeks, but that still leaves plenty of space on the other days. If you’d like to blog here leave a note below or on our Facebook page, and Colleen or myself will get in touch.

Photo: Terres Rouges by Geoffrey George. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY-BC-ND licence.