When Will They Ever Learn?

Regarding the recent “early-books-of-Christianity-discovered-by-a-bedouin-scam” reported here and elsewhere over the past week or so, information provided by Jim Davila’s always sensible and reliable Paleojudaica.com should put the whole thing to bed once and for all.

Ah, the Daily Mail. UFOs, celebrity gossip, and the earliest texts of Christianity. Photo: David Elkington/Rex Features (whatever that is)

Philip Davies should know better.

Margaret Baker should get her head out of the clouds.

The Director of the Jordanian Department of Antiquities, Ziad Al-Saad, should investigate an unprovenanced  discovery on the antiquities market more thoroughly before he makes muscular official statements to the press about “treasures” and make claims for repatriation.

And David Elkington, whoever you are, should never try to pull a stunt like this again.

The Kiss of Death


Dr. Zahi Hawass, new Egyptian Minister of State for Antiquities

Dr. Zahi Hawass, the bombastic, clownish pseudo-archaeologist who has tyrannized, bullied, and manipulated Egyptologists and Egyptian villagers alike for years now, today officially accepted President Hosni Mubarak’s appointment as Minister of State for Antiquities in the desperate, ghost government that has just been formed.

Hawass has thrown in his lot completely with the dying order.  Antiquities are the least of Egypt’s problems right now– but all those who are concerned with them have another major reason to wonder what the future will bring…

Alerted by Nigel Hetherington

From the AP   January 31, 2011

Egypt’s President Announces New Government

by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak swore in a new Cabinet on Monday, replacing one dissolved as a concession to unprecedented anti-government protests.

In the most significant change, the interior minister — who heads internal security forces — was replaced. A retired police general, Mahmoud Wagdi, was named to replace Habib el-Adly, who is widely despised by protesters for brutality shown by security forces.

Still, the new Cabinet is unlikely to satisfy the tens of thousands of protesters who have taken to the streets in cities across Egypt the past week demanding the ouster of Mubarak and his entire regime. When Mubarak announced the dissolving of the previous government late Friday and named his intelligence chief Omar Suleiman as his vice president, protesters on the streets rejected the move as an attempt by Mubarak, Egypt’s authoritarian ruler of nearly 30 years, to cling to power.

The new line-up of Cabinet ministers announced on state television included stalwarts of Mubarak’s regime but purged several of the prominent businessmen who held economic posts and have engineered the country’s economic liberalization policies the past decades. Many Egyptians resented the influence of millionaire politician-moguls, who were close allies of the president’s son, Gamal Mubarak, long thought to be the heir apparent.

In the new Cabinet, Mubarak retained his long-serving defense minister, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, and Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit.

The longest-serving Cabinet minister, Culture Minister Farouq Hosni, was replaced by Gaber Asfour, a widely respected literary figure.

Egypt’s most famous archaeologist, Zahi Hawass, was named state minister for antiquities, a new post.

Newly sworn-in Mubarak government listens to the President as demonstrators mass in Tahrir Square, 1 Feb. 2011. Egyptian TV


Click image to watch clip

Archaeology and the Criminal In Us

As we watch the events unfold in Cairo, as the flames rise from the NDP Headquarters, there are fears that the Cairo Museum would/will be damaged or destroyed.  Wild rumors of human chains protecting the museum from looters mirror the equally emotional cries (mostly by archaeologists) of the barbaric looting of the Baghdad Museum.

Antiquities are seen as an unalloyed good, the property of all humanity, above politics.  But are they just the fetishes of the powerful, tokens and illustrations of a narrative that separates the haves from the have-nots?

The fact is that the administration of antiquities in Egypt has been part and parcel of an arrogant and capricious regime. Past folds into Present in an insidious way.

Billboard at the entrance to Luxor Photo: Brian McMorrow

The monuments and relics of Ancient Egypt have not been administered for the good of the Egyptian people but have been mercilessly exploited as an economic cash cow for foreign tourism and have served as the propaganda icons of a historical narrative (of a “timeless” Egyptian essence) that has been used in so many ways to justify the autocratic centralization of the Sadat-Mubarak regime.

What we are seeing now in the streets of Cairo and other cities give lie to the idea of inevitable pharaonism and peasant docility.  It may not last. Who knows?  But it reveals, at least for a brief moment, the empty assertions of the official narrative.

And that brings us to archaeology.  The cowardly sycophants who have groveled for excavation permits, humiliatingly deferred to the uninformed press conferences of government functionaries about their own discoveries, and who have obsequiously pandered to the strange ravings and “mummy chasings” of a powerful man who tried his best to turn Egyptology into a bizarre kind of unlettered, unreflective entertainment should take time to reflect on how much they supported the regime that is now frantically trying to save itself.

It is interesting how so much of the behavior of colonial and neo-colonial archaeologists and the finds that are often so wildly acclaimed and displayed around the world are themselves evidence of exploitation, tyranny, and privilege wrested from the long-suffering people of Egypt.  It’s true not only of Egypt, but so many of the places where “expeditions” uncover the physical remains of what will inevitably become a retrospectively self-congratulatory narrative of power by and for those who are now powerful.

W.H. Auden put it best in the coda to his last poem, Archaeology, written in 1974, not long after a visit to digs of ruined fortifications, burnt tyrants’ palaces, and “national” museums filled with their selfishly gathered treasures throughout the Middle East:

From Archaeology

one moral, at least, may be drawn,

to wit, that all

our school text-books lie.

What they call History

is nothing to vaunt of,

being made, as it is,

by the criminal in us:

goodness is timeless.

And as if to underline the point that fine art archaeology has been fully implicated in the dark side of human civilization, just look at the news report of this new exhibition in Berlin, where the brutality of collection, exhibition, and its destruction are all deemed marginal factors– far less important than the main achievement of the precious artifacts being brought back to wholeness again:

From the Art News  – Saturday January 29, 2011

Statues Devastated in World War II Go on Show at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin

By Geir Moulson, Associated Press

BERLIN (AP)- The ancient gods and fantastical creatures going on show in Berlin this week have made an unlikely comeback from near-destruction.

Unearthed in present-day Syria a century ago, the 3,000-year-old basalt statues and stone reliefs in the exhibition, “The Tell Halaf Adventure,” shattered into thousands of pieces when their Berlin home was destroyed by bombing in 1943.

Fragments and a partial reconstructed sculpture are on display at the exhibition 'The Tell Halaf Adventure' at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2011. The exhibition shows roughly 3,000-year old statues that have been pieced together over the past decade from fragments left behind when Berlin's Tell Halaf Museum was bombed in 1943. After the wartime bombing, the rubble was salvaged and stored for decades in the Pergamon Museum's cellars. Restorers sifted through some 27,000 fragments to restore the sculptures. AP Photo/Markus Schreiber.

The rubble was rescued, then slumbered in the vaults of the capital’s Pergamon Museum, then in East Berlin, for decades before a painstaking restoration project started in 2001.

Over the past decade, restorers sifted through around 27,000 fragments of rubble and gradually reassembled most of them.

About 40 resurrected figures — including a pair of lions that once bared their teeth at the entrance of a palace at Tell Halaf in northeastern Syria, a sphinx and a long-tressed female figure from a monumental grave — go on show to the public at the Pergamon Museum on Friday.

“No one could have imagined several years ago that this exhibition would be possible,” Michael Eissenhauer, the director of Berlin’s state museums, said Thursday. “Tell Halaf had been forgotten. It was thought to be certain that the pieces which disappeared in 1943 were irretrievably lost.”

German archaeologist Max von Oppenheim led excavations at the Tell Halaf site between 1911 and 1913. He first put the figures on display in Berlin in 1930, at a private museum in a former iron foundry that was destroyed during the war.

Oppenheim arranged for the rubble to be salvaged and stored in hopes of one day recreating the statues — but it would be decades after his death in 1946 before that dream was realized.

During Germany’s postwar division, the rubble lay across the Cold War divide from the collection’s owner, the Max von Oppenheim Foundation. Only in the 1990s, after German reunification, did officials start examining whether the statues might be restored.

The foundation helped fund the several-million-euro cost of the restoration.

For the full story, click here.

The Archaeology of “Degenerate Art”

Here’s a fascinating excavation (and exhibition) in Berlin that I somehow missed at the time and just came across– that speaks volumes about both the creators and the dumpers.  The artifacts here show that high cultural tastes are weapons of both domination and resistance– that the archaeology of modernity is as important as the archaeology of antiquity– and that used as a means of telling alternative stories, archaeology has the power (eventually) to expose the banality of even the most violent cultural purification programs.

A journalist looks at a sculpture that was discovered during archaeological excavations in central Berlin and is now on display in the New Museum in Berlin November 8, 2010. The sculpture entitled "A Likeness of the Actress Anni Mewes" by Edwin Scharff is one of 11 pieces of art that were found during archaeological excavations in Berlin and initially thought to be of ancient origin. Research revealed that the pieces were part of the 1937 travelling exhibition "Entartete Kunst" (Degenerate Art): a collection of art the Nazis deemed un-German or Jewish and which they displayed in a manner that derided the works and their authors. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

From Der Spiegel Online November 8, 2010

Buried in a Bombed-Out Cellar

Nazi Degenerate Art Rediscovered in Berlin

By Charles Hawley

The works were thought to have been lost forever. Eleven sculptures, all of them shunned by the Nazis for being un-German, have been found during subway construction work in the heart of Berlin. But how did they get there?

An archeologist uncovers a bronze head by the artist Otto Freundlich in front of the Berlin city hall in August. The remains of the buildings on Königstrasse were simply bulldozed to make way for reconstruction. Photo: Landesdenkmalamt Berlin/ Manuel Escobedo

Digging new subway lines in Europe is no easy task. It’s not the excavating itself that is so problematic; modern machinery can bore through the earth with surprising speed these days. Rather, in places that have been inhabited for centuries, if not millennia, no one really knows what one will find. The delays for archeological research can be significant.

In Berlin, that hasn’t often been a problem. Aside from significant numbers of unexploded bombs dropped on the city during World War II and a few long-forgotten building foundations, construction tends to be relatively straightforward. The city, after all, spent the vast majority of its 770 year history as a regional backwater.

This autumn, however, an extension to Berlin’s U-5 subway line means the city can gloat over a world-class delay of its own. Workers in the initial phases of building a subway stop in front of the Berlin city hall stumbled across remains of the city’s original city hall, built in 1290. Archeologists were ecstatic.

On Monday, however, Berlin’s Mayor Klaus Wowereit announced a new series of finds that has generated even greater enthusiasm. In digs carried out throughout this year, archeologists have unearthed 11 sculptures thought to have been lost forever — valuable works of art that disappeared during World War II after having been included on the Nazis’ list of degenerate art. Most of them have now been identified and have been put on display in Berlin’s Neues Museum.

‘A Minor Miracle’

“We hadn’t expected this confrontation with this period of time, with these samples of degenerate art — it is a minor miracle,” Wowereit said at a press conference on Monday. “It is unique.”

The finds were made among the ruins of Königstrasse (King Street), a formerly bustling street in the heart of prewar Berlin. Allied bombs decimated the quarter, however, and much of the rubble was simply buried after the war to make room for reconstruction. Much of the archeological work currently under way consists of sifting through the rubble that remains in the intact cellars of the structures that once lined the street.

In early January, workers discovered a small bronze bust in the shovel of a front loader that was cleaning out one of those cellars.

“We thought it was a one-off,” said Matthias Wemhoff, director of the Museum of Prehistory and Early History in Berlin and a member of the archeology team looking into the finds. “It wasn’t immediately clear that it was linked to degenerate art.”

Soon, however, more artworks were discovered — all sculptures, all from early 20th century artists and all bearing clear indications of having been fire-damaged. Only at the end of September did it become clear that all of the art pieces — by such artists as Otto Freundlich, Naom Slutzky and Marg Moll, among others — were on the list of artworks branded as undesirable by the Nazis. All were thought to have been lost forever.

For the rest of this amazing story, click here.

For a slideshow of the recovered artworks, click here.

The Nazi leadership and their sneering cultural advisors visit the 1937 exhibition.

National Geographic, Have You No Shame?

Yes, we know from Cornelius Holtorf that Archaeology is a Brand.  Yes, we know that Indiana Jones is all in good fun (maybe) and it has attracted enormous numbers of students from comfortable industrialized countries to study archaeology. 

But what is inside the container?  There has always been faith among the archaeological profession– and indeed among some of our esteemed cultural institutions– that beneath the seductive veneer of popular culture, is (or could be) the prospect of recruiting a new generation to serious, productive, and intellectually sound archaeology.

I have never bought that argument.  I have always thought that the images provided by the Indiana Jones pseudo-1930s (and now 1950s) Saturday afternoon serials contain the same racist vision of snatching ancient treasure from the hands of benighted natives and evil powers that the original Saturday afternoon serials did.  I gives all the wrong messages about why we should be interested in the past and how to relate to it as something more than mysterious, valuable treasure.  But I was royally flamed in the Washington Post for saying exactly that.

Of course as we all know, life imitates art with frightening frequency in our celebrity culture.  Zahi Hawass wears (and even authorizes the sale of branded) Indiana Jones-style fedoras.  Harrison Ford has been appointed to the Board of Trustees of the Archaeological Institute of America, and government antiquities services around the world tout their ancient monuments and exotic landscapes as the places where one of the Indiana Jones movies was filmed.

At what point does life not just imitate art but become its marketing mechanism?  At what point do the whip and the gun actually BECOME archaeology?

The latest cultural confection from the National Geographic Society shows that, in fact, that the symbol and substance have become inextricably (and profitably intertwined).  There has been much discussion about the marketing of blockbuster exhibitions with high admission prices outside usual museums.  But this proposed traveling exhibition so aggressively mixes hype and celebrity mystique that there is hardly any room left for its supposed reason. 

Watch the following commercial and tell me if the appeal is based on the chance for visitors to see Indiana Jones “props and costumes” and buy Indiana Jones memorabilia or to learn about something as vague and misunderstood as “Archaeology.”

Tell me if you disagree.

John the Baptist Update: Minister Warns F**king Archaeologists to Shut Up

From the Sofia News Agency:   

Bulgarian Archaeology Scandal Grows as Minister Declines to Apologize

August 9, 2010, Monday   

Bulgarian Diaspora Minister Dimitrov (left) has made headlines with his statements after the discovery of the alleged relics of St. John the Baptist. Photo by BGNES

 

Bulgaria’s Diaspora Minister Bozhidar Dimitrov has made it clear he has no intention of apologizing for a recent statement made after the discovery of St. John the Baptist relics in Sozopol that many archaeologists deemed insulting.   

“Why, damn it, why, where is all this envy coming from?! This is what I cannot find an explanation with this fucking people, with these fucking colleagues,” the Diaspora Minister and a former Director of the Bulgarian National History Museum, said last week when expressing his indignation that some of the Bulgarian archaeologists had declared the media sensation over the finding of the relics of St. John the Baptist premature.   

Later last week he explained he did not mean to insult the Bulgarian people or the Bulgarian archaeologists as a whole but that his words referred to “a group of people calling themselves archaeologists.“   

“I am condemning several archaeologists, who had made anonymous statements in the press, and who did not express doubt but, rather, envy and hate for their colleague. I was just defending out colleague Popkonstantinov,” Minister Dimitrov stated last Friday.   

His further pejorative statements about the culture of Ancient Thrace contributed to renewing his conflict with leading Bulgarian archaeologist, Prof. Nikolay Ovcharov.   

Prof. Totko Stoyanov, head of the Bulgarian Archaeologists’ Association, also expressed indignation over Dimitrov’s comments.   

“I have no intention of apologizing to anyone,” the Diaspora Minister told bTV on Monday explaining once again that the Bulgarian word for “fucking” or “damned” that he used did not actually have a pejorative connotation…   

For full story, click here.   

For background, see post of August 19