Monday, June 30, 2008

World O' Links

As part of my ongoing update of the site, I am reviewing and adding to the list of links on the right-hand side of the page. I have added a new category "Site sites" for websites of archaeological projects. I will be adding to this as time permits.

Do you have a favorite website that deals with archaeology or fieldwork? If so, please share!

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Friday, June 27, 2008

World's Oldest Place of Christian Worship?

Bad archaeology rears its head again, this time from Jordan, where researchers claim to have discovered the oldest place of Christian worship. The discovery is of a cave under the Church of St. Georgios in Rihab. (Note that the archaeologists also date St. Georgios to the 3rd century, something not supported by the archaeological evidence, which would place it in the 5th or 6th century AD). The cave apparently contained some stone seats and a water source. From that scanty evidence, and a legend that St. Georgios was founded by 70 disciples of Jesus, the conclusion was drawn that this was a refuge for Christians.

What is apparently lacking, however, are any Christian artifacts or graffiti that would indicate that Christians ever visited the cave. I think this is a case of interpretation getting ahead of the evidence, which unfortunately is more common (or, I should perhaps say, more likely to reach public awareness) in sites with a putative Biblical association.

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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Movie Review: Mongol

No noon post today because I got home too late to act on my new resolution to write posts ahead of time. I was out late because I was watching Mongol, the first of three movies recounting the life of Genghis Khan.

The movie can be summed up in one word: Magnificent. It was definitely one of the best historical epics of recent years, and much better than fare such as Alexander, Troy, Kingdom of Heaven, and 300. Shot on location in Kazakhstan, the scenery is almost a character by itself, a very beautiful yet alien-looking world that envelops the humans in the story, giving a true sense of endless expanses, without boundaries or permanent settlements.

The movie covers the life of Temudgin (I use the spellings employed by the film; there are a number of ways to transliterate Mongol names), Genghis Khan’s given name, up to the point when he unified the Mongol tribes. The actual unification is not shown in any detail, probably a good thing since it took some 20 years and was a rather tedious affair. Instead, the movie focuses on the relationships that most affected his early years: with his father Esugei, his wife Borte, his blood-brother Jamukha, and his enemy Targutai. The acting is excellent and all of the characters are well rounded and believable. The producers seem to have taken special care to portray the Mongols and their neighbors as real societies, not as stereotypes or cartoon characters. One can easily believe that these are real people operating in a real place, something not all historical movies can claim.

I can’t speak in detail about the movie's adherence to history, as this is not a subject I am expert in. The broad details seemed plausible, although there was an idealized feel to the whole plot, which isn’t surprising since much of what we know about Genghis Khan was passed down via oral tradition. I would compare the overall feel to the Viking sagas, which also have believable characters who act in very human and comprehensible ways, yet move in a society without disease, deformity, filth or fatigue. “Noble” feelings such as bravery, loyalty, cleverness and skill in battle are emphasized and the hero (Temudgin) does not seem to get tired or lose hope. A comparison to the Homeric epics is also appropriate, except that the supernatural is not a main element to the story, apart from a couple sequences illustrating Temudgin’s relationship with the Mongol sky god, Tengri. I don’t think these elements diminish the movie, although they do mean it can’t be treated as a documentary; despite them, the story rings truer than the usual Hollywood fare.

Pedantic note: I only learned relatively recently that I had been pronouncing the English name of Genghis Khan wrong for most of my life. I knew that the Mongolian name was generally transliterated “Chinggis” by modern authors, but for some reason it didn’t register that “Genghis” was also meant to be pronounced with a soft ‘G’ as in ‘general’ or ‘generation’ instead of a hard ‘G’ as in ‘gun’ or ‘gang’. As noted above, most English words beginning with ‘ge’ have a soft ‘G’. I don’t know how the hard ‘G’ pronunciation got started. I choose to blame John Wayne, who turned in a memorably awful performance as Temudgin in 1956s The Conqueror. "Genghis Khan" itself simply means "Universal Khan."

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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Greek Salad Dressing?

Okay, let’s get to some news.

From Discovery News, a report that scholars have been able to extract DNA from transport amphorae recovered from a shipwreck off the Greek island of Chios dating to the 4th century B.C. One contained olive oil blended with oregano (which the headline inexplicable calls ‘salad dressing’ – the text of the article, which says it would be used to ‘dress and flavor meals’ – is suitably vague given that it could have been used for lots of things. A second container contained DNA from the genus Pistacia, which could signal shipping of pistachio nuts but since amphoras are traditionally associated with transport of liquids, more likely signals wine blended with mastic, something akin to modern Greek resinated, or retsina wine. That would be particularly appropriate given the wreck’s location, as Chios in the Middle Ages was the primary supplier of mastic to Europe. That would also enable us to identify the wreck as a vessel leaving Chios, and not arriving there, which is consistent with some of the amphora types in the cargo, which are Chian. The source of the amphora containing the Pistacia DNA is not known, but if they contained Chian mastic, then logically they were probably made on the island as well.

The really cool thing is that the technique used to extract the DNA was extremely simple and could be applied to almost any pottery sample (though analyzing the DNA was no doubt time-consuming and expensive), meaning that we may have taken a major leap forward in our ability to source vessel contents. Oddly enough, given how crucial pottery is to reconstructing trade routes, our surmises as to what a vessel contained are often based on the flimsiest of evidence. In addition, there is a tendency to assume that if a particular amphora carried, say, wine, that every amphora of that type found was used to carry wine. We have enough evidence from multiple analyses to determine that transport vessels were rarely so strictly functionally segregated, but I think that as more such investigations are made there will be many more surprises in store.

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Has it really been three months since my last post here? What a coincidence, that's just around the time I started working like a madman on a conference paper. And after that I had to prepare it for publication, and then work on another paper, and try to wrap up my postdoc, and find a job....

Blogging's hard work. Surprise surprise. But I'm giving it another go. I think I've worked out a system to post more efficiently. We'll see if it works out.

I've redone the template, to let passersby know that there has been activity here. And I've gotten rid of the Digg links, which weren't being used much and gummed up posts. I've put a new pic in the header, although I can't figure out how to make it taller. If anybody has blogger fu, please post in the comments.

More posts soon. My goal is to have at least one daily update around lunchtime.

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