Category Archives: Archaeology

The New Site Is Live!

Let me start by saying a little about what I did.

I installed the plugins. One to help with site administration is Google Analytics by Yoast, and one to help with content presentation is Geo Mashup.

The site I unveil today, is History Basics.

Sometimes, information about the past is very forthcoming, and sometimes it’s not very forthcoming at all. There has been a lot of archaeological work that has happened, but sometimes finding out about it is non-intuitive. Documentation may be in a local, national, or international publication, or in a book, or perhaps it may be entirely unpublished.

There are frequently articles about archaeological finds, and it seems that a lot of them do not mention who’s doing the work.

Also, what we do have isn’t necessarily safe. Sometimes finds corrode or erode quickly after they’ve been discovered. Sometimes care isn’t taken with objects: how much more might we know about ancient Egyptian practices if rich Victorians hadn’t had a penchant for mummy-unwrappings. And in the riots in Egypt a couple of years back, some mummies were destroyed, museums in Iraq were looted during the Coalition invasion, Joseph’s tomb in Israel has been attacked several times, a proposed high-speed rail line in England has archaeologists scrambling to find out what might be in its path.

And so on.

Also, conclusions are drawn from findings, and sometimes new findings generate new conclusions (sometimes new conclusions arrive all by themselves). The conclusions might not manage to accommodate all the available evidence. Like life, it’s kinda messy. So I don’t mind presenting conclusions, but I do want to emphasise that on which the conclusions are based (and that which the conclusions ignore).

So, a disorganised field to organise, a world to save (in the “archive” sense of the word, like Donna Noble in the Library). And hopefully make research easier for anyone who wants or needs to (I’m trying to aim the writing so it can be engaged by teens in school, and anyone older than that).

I’m not strictly limiting myself to archaeological sites, as the messiness rears its ugly head again: there’s a 12th-Century church I know of that’s still in active use, and there’s certainly many archaeological sites contemporary and much more recent, so while I intend to have an archaeological focus, it’s not a criteria I will rigidly adhere to.

So that’s something in the way of the underlying idea behind the project.

I spent much of today cleaning up the showcase entry on the site: I noticed surprisingly little spelling that needed cleaned up, but some bolding, italicising, and rather a lot of making links look not-dorky. It’ll take you a while to read it, but check out the entry on Bushmead Priory over there, to get the feel of what I’m going for.

Why Bushmead Priory, you may ask?

When I was looking for a starting point, I found a list of sites that would make a great base to build from. It was Wikipedia’s list of English Heritage properties. I went through the whole list, finding the co-ordinates on Google Maps (and occasionally Bing, when Google’s image wasn’t quite adequate). Then I started over, gathering the PastScape data. And a few months ago, when I decided I really needed to get a full-fledged post done, that was quite literally the top of the list.

After I got that entry all finished, I had a bit of a battle of wills getting the forum set up. I don’t want to start with too many sections on the thing until there’s a bit more of a demand, but I got some sections set up and described, and a couple of threads started. Such is the state of things, though, that I’m using the Admin account and another account that I’ve set up for myself, and I’ve had to use the Admin account to approve the posts that I have made with the other one (one more to go).

So there, we go, this actually feels like a start, now. To invert a line from a movie (the original line including the movie’s title), “we must go forward… to the past!”

The Monuments Men

I read the book The Monuments Men sometime in the last couple of weeks, and sat down and watched the movie today.

First of all, I really liked the book. I was surprised at some of the scope of the book, sometimes branching out into aspects of the war that I didn’t think would connect with the story of these men.

For the most part, the Monuments Men worked on their own: with so few of them, one man was often covering large areas: Rorimer covering Seventh Army’s territory, and so on. And then the relative low ranks of the Monuments officers, and the obscurity of their mission, making it difficult sometimes to do their job: even get to the Continent from England.

Lots of little adventures in getting there on time, not getting there in time, seeing the state of things that were left, trying to hunt down the things that were taken, those who would destroy everything, and those who risked to protect it, at considerable risk to themselves.

The blocked-up mine tunnel that contained treasure, and the one that contained something rather different. The kid’s rabbit.

The movie, of course, was different. Not having the time to follow so many different stories, the Monuments Men are working together most of the time, and working together in small teams for the rest of the time, with the exception of Matt Damon’s character, who worked on his own for most of the movie.

Many of the events in the movie are recognisable from the books. There are some things that were outright made-up for the movie: two that stand out are the airplane, and the land mine. Unfortunately, these two stand out as being completely unnecessary.

Names were changed in the movie, to protect the innocent. Clooney’s Frank Stokes seems to be based on George Stout, damon’s James Granger on James Rorimer, Cate Blanchett’s Claire Simone on Rose Valland,Dimitri Leonidas’ Sam Epstein on Harry Ettlinger.

Rose Valland, there should be a movie just about her. Some of her motivations and concerns came through Blanchett’s character, but sadly Valland of the book was a heck of a lot cooler than Simone of the movie.

The book also seemed to do better at making you feel more of the human effect, the looting of personal possessions being like wiping those peoples’ memories from the earth. And on a less individual level, the terrible destruction of Monte Cassino by the Allies, the book managed to convey better exactly how that was a tragedy than the film did.

That’s not to say the movie didn’t try, though. Or even always do it particularly badly. I’m just not sure it had quite the room to breathe as it needed to.

That’s the problem with being spoiled with something like “Band Of Brothers” – so many more things would benefit from being in that format.

There’s something that doesn’t work for me about fictionalising all the people – doing it at the same time as saying, “we must remember the people who did these things and saved all this art”. How are you going to remember Ronald Balfour or Walter “Hutch” Huchthausen, who actually died during the war, when you’re being shown “Donald Jeffries” and “Jean Claude Clermont” [SPOILERS] who didn’t even exist, but died in the movie.

That didn’t really make a lot of sense.

Where the movie was stronger than the book, however, was that the book had to talk about a whole bunch of pieces of art, but the film could actually show them to you. Like some pieces important to both book and film: the Bruges Madonna, and the Ghent Altarpiece.

The Ghent Altarpiece is weird. It’s well painted, and all that, but… it’s kind of like a complete reimagining of the iconostasis, and having become familiar with the latter over the last few years (who and what’s where, and why), the differences in content, where the overall shape is similar… it’s weird.

Summary: book much better than movie, movie on its own merits still pretty good, despite everything I’ve said so far.

“We do not want to destroy unnecessarily what men spent so much time and care and skill in making … [for] these examples of craftsmanship tell us so much about our ancestors … If these things are lost or broken or destroyed, we lose a valuable part of our knowledge about our forefathers. No age lives entirely alone; every civilisation is formed not merely by its own achievements but by what it has inherited from the past. If these things are destroyed, we have lost a part of our past, and we shall be the poorer for it.”
-British Monuments Man Ronald Balfour, draft lecture for soldiers, 1944.
The Monuments Men book, p371

As ancient churches are destroyed in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, as the still-recent riots in Egypt saw mummies destroyed, as post-Soviet Russia still is trying to restore the Christianity it had before, (the physical things, the practice, the festivities that Communism tried to co-opt and replace, and the sifting of the genuine from the replacement), as England’s faith, landscape and culture has changed many times over the years, from its Christianity pre-Rome/East schism, through Henry VIII and the devastating Protestant/Catholic back-and-forth (some remains under the care of English Heritage) (and there are some obscure physical monuments and interesting cultural monuments around)…

With all of this, there’s things everywhere that need documented, recorded, [i]understood[/i], preserved in one form or another.

Maybe we’re always on the brink of losing so much. How much can we save, and in what ways?

Wikipedia Time-Sink – Recovered Movies

Sometimes you can be reading a page on Wikipedia, follow a link to another article, and before you you know it you’ve got more tabs open, than there are pubs or bars that you can remember the name of, offhand.

So, at the risk of awaking your dormant Wikiholism (Wikiphilia?), here’s some interesting stuff I was looking at today…

so a week or two ago, I picked up the Giorgio Moroder version of Metropolis on DVD, at Amazon’s Prime Day sale. Haven’t watched it yet. But I was looking at the Wikipedia page on Metropolis. I had a version on my Amazon UK public wishlist since before I moved here. I also had a version on a hidden wishlist, and during that research added the most complete version to that wishlist.

Amazon UK sent me a 1-day-only £10 code, because they’d been voted top retailer in the UK. I forgot I also had £10 credit there.

I was on Wikipedia making sure that the UK DVD of Metropolis had all the same restored scenes as the US one. I think the UK one has the German intertitle cards as an option, where the US one only has subtitles.

From Wikipedia’s Metropolis entry, I followed a link to “List of films in the public domain” – Metropolis having a slightly complicated history in that regard. There was some interesting stuff there, but more of a jackpot was another link I followed from Metropolis: “List of rediscovered films“.

I find these interesting, perhaps mainly because of the occasional recovery of missing Doctor Who episodes from the ’60s. I watched the BFI documentaries, “The Lost World Of Friese-Greene” and “The Lost World Of Mitchell & Kenyon“, pioneers in different ways in early film-making, then their works were lost, and their names far from the public consciousness. (Time-sink: following the link also to The Lost World Of Tibet, then The 14th Dalai Lama”.)

There’s some interesting stuff in the rediscovered films list. Pretty early on, there’s the first detective film, which is also the first film featuring Sherlock Holmes. Also, it lasts only 30 seconds.

Frankenstein from 1910. Bought in the ’50s by a film collector, who only realised later that it’s really rare.

The first film that credits Mary Pickford, who is interesting enough to read about in her own right. “She appeared in 51 films in 1909 – almost one a week.”

Richard III from 1912. First full-length Shakespeare film, apparently still doing the rounds in the ’50s or ’60s. Returned in ’96 by a projectionist who admitted he stole it and kept it hidden for more than three decades. The way this list is going, he probably saved it from being lost forever.

Another Sherlock Holmes, the only film starring a particular actor, who was famous for playing the role on stage.

The Snow White that inspired Disney to make Snow White.

A 1919 German film that the Nazis tried to destroy, found in the ’70s in Ukraine. “One of the earliest known sympathetic depictions of homosexuality in film.”

Lots of interesting stuff. Kind of like archaeology, lost then recovered, most of it found here and the rest found there. The films themselves are stories, but their recoveries can be stories just as interesting.

Tarzan and the Golden Lion – “Thought lost until a print was discovered in the closet of a French asylum in the 1990s.”

What things jump out at you from the “List of rediscovered films”?

Review: The Ra Expeditions by Thor Heyerdahl

In 1947 Thor Heyerdahl set out to prove that South American people could have reached the Polynesian islands before Christopher Columbus’s time. Using just the materials and technologies that were available to the people back then, he made the balsa raft Kon-Tiki, based on illustrations by Spanish conquistadors, and made the trip, proving it was possible. Recent DNA evidence seems to back him up.

Following that trip, Mr Heyerdahl recreated a reed boat found in Egyptian archaeology, to prove that the Egyptians could have reached South America. This connection was theorised due to the similarity between step pyramids in Egypt and South America. Following the advice of modern shipbuilders, he modified the design, which proved to be a big mistake. Ra I fell apart in the ocean.

Armed with the knowledge gained from experience for why the original design was the way it was, Mr Heyerdahl and his team built Ra II (the right way), and indeed proved that the Egyptians could have reached South America.

There was lots of extra interesting stuff in the book about anthropological similarities between ancient Egypt and some South American cultures, as well as finding exactly which cultures have built reed boats, when, and how easy it was for those people to do. It’s really interesting.

The book itself I found a bit dry, translations can be hard to convey the same kind of feel. So it was a bit of work, that was more to do with the style than the content.

Western culture has a notion of Progress that it clings to. Oversimplisticly, it says “What people used to think, do and believe was dumb, we know better now”. You can see it in religion (easy example, after splitting from the Roman church, Luther changed some stuff but still kept some other stuff pretty dear, a lot of which has now disappeared even from the Lutheran tradition). You can see it in politics and society, how many times have you heard “This is the 21st Century, we don’t do that kind of thing any more!” (as they protest someone else doing “that kind of thing”, thus rendering their argument ridiculous). Sometimes it seems we’re quick to remove parts of the walls and parts of the foundation of the house, more as time goes on, without any thought to whether this might end up having negative effects on those who happen to be in the house.

In short: people in previous generations were a lot smarter than we think: we could stand to learn some stuff from them.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that Older Is Always Better, just that we’re quick to disregard what those who came before us have to say, without any real effort to understand the underlying Whys and Wherefores.

This book contains some vivid examples of this, and seems to be easy to explain and describe.

The Ra Expeditions is available Used on, and New at Amazon UK.

Footage of the expedition can be found on YouTube. IMDB lists a documentary about it, but it doesn’t seem to be available anywhere.

Comment below with your favourite stories of ancient wisdom putting today’s to shame.