Monday, 22 April 2013

Archaeology: beyond the 'final' frontier

The trouble with being an archaeologist (well ONE of the troubles, for there are, of course, a great many) is that when listening to / reading / examining the news one often gets caught up in those stories that are explicitly archaeological, relating to artefacts / monuments and the distant past (treasure, heritage policy, 'major' discoveries etc.), whilst missing the 'big stories'; those which ultimately have a large impact, not just upon the profession, but also upon the way in which humanity is leaving its mark upon the cosmos.

Let me explain.

Voyager 1, the probe fired from planet Earth on September 5th 1977 (confusingly, for the numerically-challenged such as myself, Voyager 2 had been launched two weeks earlier) in order to observe Jupiter and Saturn, has, it was announced by NASA in March, now officially moved away from the gravitational pull of our Sun and as is, as we speak, drifting off into the unknown.

I missed this particular story at the time, partly because it was not ostensibly archaeological, but mostly because I was bogged down marking several thousand assignments (and very interesting they were too). Looking back, the news reports concerning the departure of NASA’s probe were all very dramatic, the reporters concerned being animated and extremely excited (certainly more so than when they had been reporting on the discovery of horse meat in lasagne).

The significance of this event is, from an archaeological perspective, of course that human material culture has now passed beyond the limits of our own, rather parochial, system of planets, moons and other pieces of space rock. Voyager 1 has left the solar system and humanity's archaeological 'footprint' now extends beyond the reach of Sol.   

I remember as a child (in 1977), being particularly gripped by the story of Voyager 1 and 2 as they set off on the start of their journey, not because of what they were intended to achieve in their mission to the planets, but because of what had been fixed to their outer casing, just in case an alien intelligence should ever recover them and wonder about their origins.  

Bolted to the sides of both Voyager 1 and 2 was a gold plaque, designed by Carl Sagan and other luminaries, representing a 'greeting card' from planet Earth.

Of course this was, in itself, nothing new as Pioneer 10 and 11, launched in 1972 and 73, had already carried a similar greeting, this time etched into gold-anodised aluminium plates. These plaques were intended to inform any intelligent extra-terrestrial life form who should encounter them, where precisely Pioneers 10 and 11 had been launched and by whom (although, at the time, most of the debate seemed to revolve around the fact that the two human figures on the plaques were (shock, horror) naked, prompting some cultural commentators to suggest that humanity was blasting pornography into deep space).

Information stored on the Voyager probes was slightly more advanced comprising sounds and images intended to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth, all of which were encoded on a phonograph record made of gold-plated copper.

A committee, again chaired by Carl Sagan, assembled some 115 images and a host of 'natural sounds' together with music from different cultures and eras and spoken greetings in 55 languages. Each record was then encased in a protective aluminium jacket, together with a cartridge and a needle. Instructions, in symbolic form, explained the origin of the spacecraft and how, precisely, to play the record. 

So far so good, although, with the benefit of hindsight, not to say the relentless march of technology, I do wonder if, as I (an inhabitant of 21st century Earth) cannot adequately locate the equipment necessary to play any of the 562 vinyl long playing records that currently clutter my own hallway, whether an alien technology (advanced or not) will manage to access any of the information held on the discs (or will they, as I suspect, either eat them, destroy them in a fit of pique or use them in a game of interstellar Frisbee).

Two weeks ago, in a lecture entitled "Mobile Artefacts in the Solar System and Beyond", at the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) in Honolulu, Hawaii, Peter Capelotti (of Penn State University), noted that NASA probes such as Pioneer 10, Pioneer 11, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 will "eventually enter interstellar space and become the archaeological representatives of Homo sapiens to the rest of the galaxy."

Quite what the rest of the galaxy thinks of such archaeological representatives is anyone's guess.....

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Unfortunate issues (soar our souls)

(I don't wish to give the impression that I spend all my time watching TV, but) I was watching TV last night and, in an excellent little programme on the ancient religious and ritual sites of the British Isles, the presenter (who shall remain anonymous in order to protect his innocence) appeared to make the rather startling statement that:

"In this programme I want to explore our souls and what makes them soar"

Now, far be it for me to question the necessity of studying "soar our souls" in a TV programme about religion, but surely this sort of thing should be saved for a more medically-themed show, such as Embarrassing Bodies, Worst Surgery Disasters or Their Knife in your Glands (or the follow up Your Spleen in their Bucket)? In any case, doesn't the simple application of a cream to the affected area quickly sort things out?

I was (rather painfully) reminded of a regrettable incident many years ago when, unable to suppress a Sid-James-Style guffaw, I was very nearly ejected from a church following the failed attempt to sing the chorus to a hymn with the unfortunate line:

"Our souls are one".

I really must get my hearing tested.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Archaeo-newswatch: 'the Pompeii of the North'

I love watching how an archaeological story appears, develops and mutates within the popular press (have I mentioned that before?) and this week there was a real belter.

On Wednesday morning, all the UK newspapers and media outlets (and quite a few international news corporations) were hailing 'The Pompeii of the North' as a significant archaeological discovery: a deposit of well-preserved Roman finds unearthed from the very heart of an over-developed London.

BBC and CBS News had cameras trained upon a multitude of hard-hat wearing archaeologists, crouching, trowelling, shovelling and (in some cases) apparently hiding behind a veritable forest of defunct concrete piles.

"Archaeologists are calling it 'the Pompeii of the north'" a BBC reporter gushed enthusiastically "after they've managed to find Roman artefacts dating back nearly 2,000 years". "Over 10,000 objects have been discovered", a CBS voiceover confirmed in a different report (not saying how such a number had been calculated and whether it included every single pot sherd), "the largest number ever found on an excavation in London" whilst a reporter for the children's news programme Newsround helpfully added that the finds included "a coin" and "a shoe".

Newspaper reports were, it transpired, substantially working from the same press release, subtle variations on the theme appearing in the Independent, Daily Mail, Telegraph, Times, Express and the Sun. "The discoveries have been so well preserved in the muddy waters of the lost Walbrook River that archaeologists have nicknamed the site 'the Pompeii of the North'" confirmed the Mirror, the Express also noting that "Even objects and structures made of wood and leather – which normally rarely stand the test of time – have been discovered, leading archaeologists to dub the site 'the Pompeii of the north'." 

Most commentators agreed that it wasn't just the quality of preservation that was truly gob-smacking, but also the quantity, the Express, Mail and Times confirming that "around 10,000 accessioned finds have been discovered by 60 archaeologists" (the Independent was a little less confident, observing that archaeologists had "so far discovered 8,000 objects and expect that to rise to 10,000 by the time the project is finished"). The Mail helpfully added some statistics of its own in that "approximately 3,500 tonnes of soil have been excavated by hand, which is around 21,000 barrows full".

The finds were, as far as anyone could tell, indeed quite spectacular, the anaerobic soils of the Walbrook preserving a wide and diverse range of organic material not usually encountered in urban deposits of the period. 

So far so good (and is fantastic, as always, to see archaeology in the news), but one cannot help but feel that, were it not for the successful hijacking of the name ‘Pompeii’ (a popular name at the moment given all the attention given to the British Museum’s new exhibition on the cities of Vesuvius), this particular story would sadly have not got the attention that it did.

One thing that no one could seem to clarify was precisely who had first coined the attention grabbing headline 'Pompeii of the North', no specific archaeological name being provided as a source.

The Museum of London Press Release carefully avoided attributing the phrase to anyone in particular, preferring to cite the key archaeological highlights:

·     Wooden buildings that survive to shoulder height

·     A rare inked writing tablet revealing an affectionate letter

·     A totally unparalleled and mysterious leather object depicting a gladiator fighting mythical creatures

·     A complete and exceptionally beautiful amber Gladiator amulet

·     The largest assemblage of fist and phallus good luck charms from one site (not mentioned, I must add, in the Newsround report)

·     A previously unexcavated section of the Temple of Mithras

·     Rubbish and ritual deposits from the Walbrook river, including Roman coins

·     A Roman well into which a pewter hoard, coins and cow skulls were thrown as part of a ritual

·     Complex Roman drainage systems used to discharge waste from industrial buildings
All archaeological sites are important but sometimes it's difficult to successfully convey that importance to the press; sometimes you need a catchphrase - an emotive tag-line that immediately grabs a journalist by the throat and forces them to pay attention. 'Pompeii of the North' is one such headline and boy did it work.  

Of course, once you sit down and think about it, this particular buzz-phrase doesn't bear close scrutiny (as several non-archaeologists have already pointed out to me). Yes, London is, in a strict geographical sense, to the North of Pompeii and the site under investigation is indeed urban and predominantly Roman in date (albeit 200 years or so later than its Italian counterpart), but there the similarity fades rather swiftly. 

The defining factor in the preservation of the London site, namely water, is, as far as I recall, noticeable for its complete absence in the preservation of cultural remains at Pompeii, the silt from the Walbrook River being laid down over centuries and not in a single, catastrophic event (forever entombing the inhabitants of London under metres of alluvial mud). The well-preserved artefacts from London were, furthermore, introduced to the silt over a very long period of time (rather than being sealed by the river as the volcanic ash managed to spectacularly achieve at Pompeii). Having also been to the Pompeii exhibition at the BM (an amazing, entrancing, heart-rending and thoroughly enthralling collection of material which needs to be seen to be believed), I can also confirm that there are no equivalent examples of painted wall plaster, 

well-crafted mosaics

or pieces of marble statuary depicting satyrs investigating the nether regions of willing goats 

from the 'Pompeii' of London. 

Other than that, both sites are exactly not quite dissimilar.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Titanoraknophobia 3

I thought it was all wrong I was.

After despairing (at some length) over the recent explosion of Titanic-related gifts, mementoes and memorabilia, I heard today about 'Titanic II', not the film sequel (apparently we've had that already in the 2010 straight to DVD 'mockbuster' atrocity staring Bruce Davison, Brooke Burns, Shane Van Dyke and Marie Westbrook...., no, me neither...), but Titanic II - the real thing !!

Titanic II (the real thing) is a full-size ocean liner described as an "exact replica of the Olympic-class RMS Titanic" about to be created with love, care and utter attention to detail, by Australian billionaire Clive Palmer who hopes the vessel will act as the flagship for his company Blue Star Line.

The intended launch for Titanic II, as far as I can ascertain, is April 2016, the ship being assembled in China, a move that Sky News has openly questioned, noting that there will be no guarantee as to "how achievable the project is and how safe the end product will be". There's no doubting, however, that the finished product will be popular, as the 1997 James Cameron film Titanic, staring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, remains, so I'm told, one of the top three bestselling films in China.

Well that's ok then.

AND, if the whole project couldn't be any more distasteful, the maiden voyage of Titanic II will apparently be between Southampton and New York, completing the journey that her earlier namesake famously failed to do. Titanic II has just been unveiled, amidst great publicity. I haven't studied the design in detail as yet, but I'm guessing that, despite claims to the contrary, it isn't a perfect replica of the original Titanic...this time, I hope, they've got enough life boats.

Quite how long it is before other great tragedies, catastrophes and disasters are resurrected for the pleasure of the socially dysfunctional I don't know, but I'm secretly dreading the creation, anytime soon, of a volcano-day Pompeii / Herculaneum Heritage-themed fun park.

It's only a mater of time.