Archive for June, 2006

Zahi Hawass is a badass

Wednesday, June 14th, 2006

There’s a great profile of the director of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities.

At a preview of a King Tut display at Chicago’s Field Museum last month, Hawass, whose critics call him “the Show-Biz Pharaoh,” a “media whore” and “part P.T. Barnum, part Indiana Jones,” asked museum officials to remove one of the exhibition’s corporate sponsors after learning its chief executive owned a 2,600-year-old Egyptian coffin. “Antiquities should be in museums, not in people’s homes,” he told those in attendance, referring to John W. Rowe, of Exelon, a Chicago energy company. Rowe immediately offered to send the sarcophagus to the museum on indefinite loan.

Also last month, Hawass gave St. Louis Art Museum director Brent Benjamin a May 15 deadline to return a 3,200-old funerary mask that Hawass says was illegally taken in the early 1990s from a storage facility near the site of its excavation. In April, he fired off a letter to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, asking him to return a 71-foot-high Egyptian obelisk in Central Park if he didn’t start taking care of it. The pillar, which is in poor condition because of neglect, has been in the park since 1881 — a gift from the Egyptian government in return for American aid in constructing the Suez Canal. Bloomberg has yet to reply, Hawass says.

You’ve probably seen him on TV, expanding animatedly on some point of Egyptian history baking comfortably in front of the Pyramids.

Isn't he dreamy?

Can you believe the treasures people find in bungalows in Illinois?

Wednesday, June 14th, 2006

Mainly skulls, in this case, 26 of them to be precise, and well-preserved. The entire bungalow is something of a mini-museum, and to think, it was sold by the city for back-taxes, so the buyer probably got a crazy deal on the place.

State laws protecting Indian burial sites from excavations were not enacted until the 1980s. In the 1930s, “anyone with a shovel” could dig into these sites, Harn said. Some did so to build personal collections, while others hoped to sell curiosities for cash at the height of the Great Depression.

The new owner hasn’t announced what she’s going to do with the skulls. She could donate them to a museum, sell them, give them to a reburial organization. Often these sorts of articles are treated like throwaways and you never hear how the story ends. I’ll do my utmost to follow up.

Can you believe the treasures people find with metal detectors in Britain?

Tuesday, June 13th, 2006

Like, oh, say, an engraved gold ring with a black diamond given by Edward III to a Flemish supporter in the 14th century.

After a bit of spit and polish, it was clear that this was no ordinary ring. It was certainly gold and crowned with a black diamond. It also carried the inscription “loyaute sans fin”, French for “loyalty without end”.

Elsewhere, it appeared to carry the letter “E” three times, each one followed by three stars. And either side of the “bezel” – the diamond centrepiece – sat two gold initials: “V” and “A”.

Read the whole swashbuckling tale here.

Stealing from Turkish museums is way easier than it looks in the movies

Tuesday, June 13th, 2006

In the 1964 movie Topkapi, the thieves have to really work to steal the bejeweled dagger from the Imperial Treasury of Topkapi palace in Istanbul. Now all they’d need to do is get a job there.

According to a New York Times article, security is so lax at Turkish museums that theft is endemic. Not only are 43 pieces “missing” from Topkapi, but there is hardly a museum among the hundred that has not been burgled, including the museum in Usak holding the Lydian Hoard — a priceless collection of artifacts Turkey fought tooth and nail to get back from the Metropolitan Museum of Art — or rather, what is left of the Lydian Hoard after the museum director and his cronies took what they wanted and replaced them with copies.

It’s not just inside jobs, though, and really, is it any wonder Turkey can’t keep its 93 museums and 140 open-air archaeological sites safe when the entire budget for their maintainance is $66 million a year? That’s not a typo.

In its current budget the Culture Ministry is allotted $66 million to cover museum administration costs, archaeological digs, salaries of art experts and laboratory workers who maintain the collections and guards who patrol galleries and warehouses.

Although 78 of the country’s 93 state museums are equipped with electronic security systems, archaeologists in the field assert that those systems often malfunction or are insufficient.


As in many other archaeological source countries in the region, open-air sites lack security guards for round-the-clock security, although most looting occurs there.

Turkey is a country with an extraordinary cultural patrimony. It has more ancient Greek stuff than Greece, not to mention all kinds of Roman, Byzantine, Islamic, Lydian, Persian and more that I can’t think of right now material remains. It really needs to start spending more than tip money protecting it.

Until then, I just hope they track down the missing wonders one way or another. Come back soon, beautiful Lydian hippocampus!

Potentially revolutionary find in Basque Country

Friday, June 9th, 2006

Third-century Roman Christian and shockingly early Basque inscriptions found.

Archaeologists in the site of Iruña-Veleia have discovered an epigraphic set “among the most important of the Roman world,” with a series of 270 inscriptions and drawings from the third century and a representation of a Calvary, “the most ancient known up to this moment.”

Furthermore, in the same site, 10 kilometres away from Vitoria-Gasteiz, Basque inscriptions have been found, apparently dating back to the third century. This would bring the discovery of the first recorded documents written in Basque eight centuries backwards.

The dates are still unconfirmed at this point, but if the estimates hold, there are going to be some hyper linguists out there. Not to mention historians of early Christianity. And Roman Spain. And people who think this kind of stuff is just keen as hell.

They found a huge Roman villa complex in Cheddar…

Tuesday, June 6th, 2006

…. and that’s not even the coolest part!

Two n00b archaeologists have uncovered a large villa and bath house in the Mendip Hills area in Somerset, England. The odds of them finding mosaics and a wide range of other artifacts from the 2nd or 3rd century AD are excellent — “We only excavated a two by one meter area inside the building and every layer contained Roman materials. If we’d carried on we would have found a tremendous amount.” — and they’re even managing to keep looters out for now.

So what’s the coolest part, you ask? It’s this:

Archaeologists Glyn Wellington and Carol Hughes have been working at the location for over a year, together with John Mathews of Winscombe.

Glyn, aged 53, graduated from a part-time degree course last year.

That’s right. Part-time degree course + 53 = giant Roman villa.

Glyn Wellington: a beacon of hope to wannabe archaeologists everywhere.

Guided tours of Rome, courtesy of Palladio

Tuesday, June 6th, 2006

The 16th century architect whose revival of classic design continues to affect how buildings are built even today, was something of a tourguide in his spare time. He wrote two books on Rome — one about the ancient city and one about the churches — which have just been translated, illustrated and published in handy pocket-sized format by Mssrs. Vaughan Hart and Peter Hicks and Yale University Press.

The New York Times review has me salivating.

“It is as if Palladio — ever the architect — is rehearsing the original laying-out of the great city,” write Mr. Hart and Mr. Hicks in their helpful introduction. (They have also added dozens of period drawings and contemporary photographs, whereas the originals were not illustrated.)

Palladio spices up the tour with remarks on the history and mores of the ancients. “No citizen was considered wealthy unless he could personally finance the army for one year,” he claims in an entry on rich Romans. Two pages later, he is telling us about the three ways that men could dissolve a marriage.

Mmm... Pre-order...

History on film

Monday, June 5th, 2006

There are some fantastic sources for documentary and historical footage out there, including my personal favorites: turn of the century films from the dawn of the cinematic era.

Thomas Edison’s company was in the forefront of filming current events — from relatively banal but riveting-in-hindsight scenes of 1900s New York City, to the wreckage of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor (see pic below). According to the Library of Congress — which has an extraordinary collection of Spanish-American War film — the demand for war footage was particularly acute, although technological limitations made actually filming battle scenes virtually impossible. Enter the bread and butter of the History Channel: the historical reenactment.

Check out the Library of Congress’ other early film collections here.

It’s a blog. About history.

Friday, June 2nd, 2006

So I was sifting through reams of Google News Alerts, slightly miffed that there wasn’t some nice, handy blog that had already done all the sifting for me, when it struck me like the proverbial bolt of lightning that non-laziness is an actual option. Hell, if I’m doing it for myself, why not post the products for all my brothers and sisters in history nerddom?

My interests are primarily European ancient and medieval, but I’m quite undiscriminating when it comes to history, so I’ll pretty much blather about anything that catches my eye. I also intend to make a note of all the topically relevant books I read, and a list of all the topically relevant books sitting in a pile glaring at me.

I shall endeavor not to suck. That is all.




June 2006


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