Scary Lamp

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I’ve written a bit before about the slightly odd interior decoration in Chinese hotels. Here’s a Lovecraftian table lamp that sits on the check-in desk, inspiring cosmic dread, at the Relax hotel in Hangzhou.

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I Hate the Great Firewall

Here’s just short note to tell you, Dear Reader, that the Great Firewall of China is fucking annoying. I am unable to access Twitter, Facebook, any Blogspot blog and often most of Google’s services including Gmail.

Meanwhile, the Chinese populace is so closely keyed in to what’s happening in the West that girls in remote Qingtian are wearing exactly the same ultrashort denim shorts as their contemporaries in Stockholm this spring. But I guess the Great Firewall is intended to keep domestic dissidents from reaching an audience as much as or more than to keep the Chinese from learning about the outside world.

Somebody mentioned subscription proxy services. That’s what I would buy if I settled here for any longer period…

Antique Collectors In China Don’t Care About Provenance Either

I’ve criticised Western museums for buying or accepting as gifts looted Chinese antiquities. This practice, in my opinion, stems from an outdated and irresponsible fine arts perspective where the exact provenance of a museum piece is not very important. When you’re dealing with anonymous prehistoric or early historic art, you can’t attribute it to any named artist, and so an art curator will quite happily settle for “Han dynasty, probably the Yellow River area” as a date and a provenance.

As an archaeologist, I do not accept the category “fine art”, and I claim precedence for the classification as an archaeological find over that of a museum display piece. Any object that has been part of the archaeological record must have a recorded exact provenance: otherwise it is a stray find or loot. The beautiful pieces shown in exhibitions of ancient Chinese artefacts deserve a find-spot provenance recorded to the nearest centimeter, with photographs, field drawings, environmental samples and an exact record of what was found along with each piece.

Let’s be clear about this: archaeological context or provenance is not about when and where an object was made. It’s about when and where it entered the ground, and under what circumstances it was unearthed. The archaeological context describes an object’s find spot.

Today I visited a lovely museum in Hangzhou for the second time, the Southern Song Official Kiln (Guan Yao) Museum. And I was reminded of the fact that the Chinese themselves have a 2500-year tradition of collecting choice artefacts without recording their provenances. The museum displays hundreds of pieces of Chinese pottery from the Neolithic onward with emphasis on the 13th century when the site itself was an Imperial celadon factory. Not one of them has a provenance. Everything is generic: labelled only with functional category, type of ware, sometimes the kiln site, and dynasty with start and end dates. The pottery in the museum has no individuality. Each piece is just an example of a generic type belonging to a generic time frame. In some cases the visitor is told that the pottery was found during excavations on the kiln site itself, but we learn nothing about the closer context. Most of the pieces are incomplete and look like wasters, but you can’t be sure.

In the indigenous elite tradition, it is irrelevant where a certain Zhou dynasty bronze sacrificial cauldron-tripod was found. The important things are to be able to classify it and read its inscriptions. This gives some background to the on-going clash between the fine art world and the demands of archaeology. It’s not entirely a question of Western dealers, collectors and museums exploiting China’s heritage. The Chinese have had an established tradition of their own for collecting fine art for millennia. As a rigorous discipline, archaeology is barely 200 years old in the parts of the world where it has been practised the longest. We want the finds to speak to us about the past. Non-archaeologist Chinese want the nice ones to exemplify classical categories of fine art. And the not so nice ones, they don’t want at all.

China’s Named and Inscribed Places

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Chinese tourist sites follow a set of conventions that seem to go back hundreds or thousands of years, far into a past when tourism, as we understand it, did not yet exist. Essentially we’re dealing with named and inscribed sites. I have visited many in my Chinese travels, but since I can’t read the language I have formed my ideas about them from reading English-language signage and asking my wife to translate or explain. So I may have misunderstood the nuances. Here nevertheless are my impressions.

A Chinese tourist site always originates with an educated male member of the elite some time during the past 2000 years. On his travels he sees something poetically inspiring, usually but not always a piece of unusual natural or rural scenery, and he writes a few lines about it. The following causal chain is unclear to me, but what ends up happening is that the place gets named for the guy’s poem, something like “Moonlight On Crane Pond” or “Tiger Boulder With Dragon’s Tail”, the poem is incised on a stele or convenient rock face at the site, and the place enters some kind of central canonical list of poetic places. (I guess the site’s success in this regard will depend to some extent both on the man’s fame and on the quality of his poetry.) Through the centuries similar men will then continue to visit the site, write poetry about it, and possibly add more inscriptions.

Wednesday we visited a typical example of these places near Hecheng (“Qingtian City”). Shimen, “Stone Door”, is a dramatic canyon with an extremely high and beautiful waterfall at the inner end. Under a large rock shelter at the side of the waterfall’s lower pool are poetic inscriptions from about 20 famous scholars, and in the vicinity are several other named sites that apparently owe their existence to other elite tourists who came to visit the waterfall site and ended up writing their “Kilroy was here” poetry about something else nearby that caught their fancy. It’s the same around the West Lake in Hangzhou, where you’ll find a named and inscribed site behind every bush. I imagine that stone carvers could always make a living at places like these by waiting for rich men to come by for a peek, and immortalising their poetic effusions in stone.

The Chinese tourist sites I’ve visited since 2001 have all been very well kept, to the extent that there is little to be seen there that is older than the 1990s. Paths, signposts, buildings, terracing and flood-control walls: everything’s new. The only old stuff visible is mostly cliffside sculptural reliefs, vandalised during one or another of the Chinese’s recurring iconoclastic phases such as the Cultural Revolution (or by European colonial powers). And then there are the inscriptions, which I cannot date at all since the script was standardised millennia ago and they’re usually well painted in. But under the Shimen rock shelter I was pleased to find a number of badly worn, unpainted inscriptions that the management clearly didn’t expect us tourists to want to read. I guess they’re from visitors who came long ago and are not much remembered today.

The Chinese concept of a famous site is similar to the Japanese uta-makura, a term I picked up from the 17th century poet Basho’s lovely little travelogue “The Narrow Road to the Interior”. Literally meaning “poem pillow” (!?), the uta-makura is a kind of poetic allusion. Poet A writes about, say, plum blossom in Yokohama, and the poem becomes widely read. Poets B, C and D can then mention Yokohama as a poetic shorthand for plum blossom: it has become an uta-makura. During their trip to the interior, Basho and his friends move from uta-makura to uta-makura, paying little attention to anything that hasn’t been written about in famous poetry. To them, poetry is not about beautiful scenery – it’s the scenery that is about poetry.

This seems very similar to the Chinese idea. Classical education was all about studying and memorising famous ancient texts. And nature appreciation is all about visiting named and inscribed sites whose beauty is vouchsafed by famous ancient poets. If I visit a beautiful place that nobody has written poetry about, and do not write poetry about it myself and hire a stone carver, I might as well not go at all.

Tombs and Opium in Qingtian

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My mother-in-law grew up in the mountains near Fushan in the prefecture of Qingtian (pronounced CHING-tien), inland Zhejiang province. Though the prefecture’s name means “Green Field”, it’s pretty poor and has been a major emigration area for decades. The owners and staff of many or most Chinese restaurants in Sweden are from Qingtian. Yesterday we rode a train for nearly seven hours from Hangzhou to get to the district capital, and all along the way we were accompanied by a line of enormous new concrete stilts on which a future fast railroad will run. Next time the trip may take only an hour and a half.

This morning we went up to Fushan to see the ancestral hamlet and pay our respects to some of the ancestors. We had a wonderful day, and here I’ll only touch upon three of the things I experienced.

To begin with, as you can see above, Qingtian is extremely beautiful. Endless vistas of steep terraced mountain sides, cloud-obscured peaks and mirror-like rice paddies, and no signs of tourism though the roads are good. Go to Qingtian city on the valley floor, stay in a hotel and make day trips with a taxi. Breathtaking!

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Secondly, we came upon a small field bearing ripe opium poppy right beside the road. The farmer (who looked perfectly healthy) happily informed us that he smokes the stuff sometimes but that it is mainly used in cooking pig’s trotters. “Everybody’s always very merry when we have trotters for dinner.”

Thirdly, I learned about an ongoing conflict between the farmers and the Party officials of the area. The Party has decided that, bearing China’s huge population in mind, too much agricultural land is being wasted on the construction of low buildings and traditional hillside terrace tombs. Modern Chinese people are encouraged to live in high rises and bury their dead in Western-style flat cemeteries. The mountain farmers, however, prefer their old way of doing things, and they either can’t get or don’t apply for building permits. They just build anyway and hope for the best. The authorities respond by sending out semi-official house-and-tomb vandalism crews.

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Tombs and low houses built before some recent cutoff date are exempt from these rules and are never vandalised. Therefore new burials are now often added to old tombs by families who might have been able to afford new ones. But I saw many new house ruins and many vandalised new tombs. When somebody builds a new tomb, however lavish, they try to make it look old and uncared-for by covering it in brush, which must be rather confusing to an ancestor who expects to be venerated by his descendants. The tomb above is unusually large and lavish, covered in brush by its builders and vandalised by the Party — and it was built last year.

I also saw large amounts of destroyed tomb stonework lying around or re-used for road pavement. A lot of it seems to come from new tombs vandalised by the authorities, but other fragments look like they may come from old tombs that have been removed to make room for new ones — which might perhaps save the new structure from vandalism as long as there are no descendants of the original tomb’s inhabitants around to complain. Anyway, for reason’s of taboo, there is no aftermarket for used tomb sculpture.

Airborne Chinese Marketplace

On the flight from Amsterdam to Hangzhou Saturday, I observed some interesting behaviour on the part of my Chinese co-travellers. After the main meal, the stewardesses went around hawking tax-free goods. At this time, a bunch of people stood up and formed a large prattling group in the aisles toward the rear of the plane where myself and Junior were seated. They seemed to be discussing the merits of the wares among themselves and with the Chinese stewardess, reading labels and handing packages around for inspection. The whole thing looked like a cross between a cocktail party and an Oriental market, and it sounded like a flock of jackdaws. Everybody was clearly having a good time. Then, after 45 minutes or so, they went back to their seats and most of them fell asleep. Upon landing I learned that these gregarious people were on a group trip and so must have been at least slightly acquainted.

Recent Archaeomags

i-846a3cbc4464efdfecf6c7254ee54627-ba-latest.jpgFor some years I have been a happy reader of (and frequent commenter on) Current Archaeology. Now Dear Reader Marcus Smith has arranged (or bought?) a complimentary subscription for me to the other big UK pop-arch mag, British Archaeology. While CA is a private property, BA is published by the Council for British Archaeology, “an educational charity working throughout the UK to involve people in archaeology and to promote the appreciation and care of the historic environment for the benefit of present and future generations”, as Wikipedia puts it.

The first issue of British Archaeology to reach me is #118 (May/June). My favourite piece in it is a feature on the osteology of Gough’s Cave, an Upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic site in Somerset with excellent bone preservation. We get a fine popular illustrated write-up of painstaking labwork that makes the case that people about 12 700 cal BC used the cave not only for cannibalistic and other meals, but also for the manufacture of bowls or cups from human skulls!

Another piece on an interesting theme is a report on recent fieldwork at Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland (the site where the first excavator went crazy on the job and never wrote his multi-year campaign up). Sadly the new trenches were very small – largely flower borders! – and the results thus rather inconclusive.

I was horrified and incredulous to learn that since 2008, the rule in England and Wales has been that archaeological human bone must be reburied!? Apparently this has something to do with an 1857 law whose interpretation is currently fluctuating. Anyway, it seems that reburial will no longer be demanded as of this year. But what, then, was the practice like between 1857 and 2008?

As for the rest of the magazine issue, I’m afraid there’s a lot of depressing meta-archaeology. I’m not very interested in meta-archaeological issues except to the extent that they impact concrete examples of research into the past. And if there is one kind of meta-story I certainly do not wish to read for entertainment in a popular archaeology mag, then it’s accounts of threatened, looted or destroyed sites and finds. Therefore I flipped past BA’s stories about the Egyptian revolution and “6 Threatened Sites” (in the UK). Depressing.

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Populär Arkeologi 2011:1 also has a depressing story about looting, in China, but in it Magnus Fiskesjö makes an interesting point. I recently wrote about the looted Chinese archaeology I saw on display at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Turns out, the Chinese themselves just barely have a cultural concept of specific archaeological context for individual objects. Their National Administration of Cultural Heritage recently changed to that name in English, but it kept its Chinese name: Wenwuju, the “Bureau of Cultural Relics”. The Chinese have been thinking about ancient material culture in terms of wenwu, “cultural/inscribed relics” no doubt for over 2000 years. The culture thus has a deeply internalised idea of archaeological sites as find mines, in comparison to which archaeology with its demands is a recent arrival from abroad. And once you have mined ore, then who really cares where it sat originally? The main issue is who gets to sell the ore.

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Archaeology Southwest, which is put out by the Center for Desert Archaeology in Tucson AZ, devotes issue #24:4 to 13th century pueblo sites in New Mexico. Beautiful landscape, beautiful sites, beautiful finds, beautifully exact dates thanks to preserved wooden beams and dendrochronology. But I must say that I’m surprised at the cavalier attitude of my colleagues in the area to certain issues of interpretation.

First and foremost, here pottery style equals archaeological culture equals living ethnic identity, with no mention of what would happen if for instance a potter from one group marries into another group. Secondly, interregional similarities in pottery styles equals migration. And thirdly, visible site count equals population density, and so a drop in the number of visible sites means emigration.

Not to put too fine a point on it, and Dawkins knows I’m no fan of fashionable archaeological theory, but every single one of these assumptions was either abandoned outright or became heavily qualified decades ago in my part of the world. And we’re certainly not dealing with any continent-wide lack of insight in the US: the basic textbook I read as an undergraduate 20 years ago was by an American, David Hurst Thomas! Very good book, too. I saw it being cleared out at the department in Minneapolis a few weeks ago. Time flies.

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Current Archaeology #253 (April) has excellent coverage of a sanded-over Norse settlement at the Bay of Skaill in the Orkneys and 16th century phases of Stirling Castle on the Scottish mainland. Yet I was particularly struck by a report on a small Roman roadside industrial estate or “service station” in Staffordshire. The team started digging out a well and found some nice small finds. But the well just kept going down and turned out to still hold water. At 3 m they hit a layer of oak planking and hazel rods. Below that was an almost complete cow skeleton, then meters of latrine. And at 6.5 m the whole well was filled up with perfectly preserved shoes from about AD 150! At 7 m the team gave up because they feared the whole thing would cave in on them. And yet the well continued down…

A story about Wareham in Dorset had me wincing in pain, much like the news above about mandatory reburial of human remains. In the early 90s, about 55 hectares (78 soccer fields) of “marginal heathland” there was bought by a gravel extraction firm and evaluated by a major contract archaeology firm. The unit found very little and the County Archaeologist pretty much let the area go. Instead, the local amateur archaeology society began a 15-year-long volunteer watching brief. Here’s some of what they found and apparently had to excavate all by themselves:

  • More Middle Bronze Age pottery than any other site in Dorset
  • Eight foundations of Middle Bronze Age round houses, made up of fire-cracked stone, Sw. skärvstensvallar
  • Several Late Roman pottery kilns mass-producing Black Burnished ware

In Sweden, even one far less impressive site would have been a reason to re-do the evaluation and call in professionals.

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Current World Archaeology isn’t quite up my street since I am very much not a World Archaeologist. (I just feel tired and inadequate when faced with the innumerable ancient cultures around the world that I know nothing about. I’m not into reading about exotic archaeology as escapist fun, and most of them are being wrecked by looters and developers anyway.) But issue #46 (April/May) does have one story that I liked – about Sweden. Osteologist Caroline Arcini writes about a 1710-11 plague cemetery in SmÃ¥land that she has previously presented in the fine 2006 anthology Pestbacken. I found it particularly interesting that she could document the traces of a 1690s famine in the skeletons of people who had survived that disaster only to die of the plague 15 years later.

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So there you have it: five good popular archaeomags. If you too read these magazine issues, tell me what you think and feel free to ask questions!

Kenyan Villagers Deny Chinese Allegations of Being Related

Journalist Geoffrey York has dug deeper for the Globe and Mail into the story about alleged descendants of Medieval Chinese sailors on the coast of Kenya that I wrote about once in ’07. He finds that not even the locals, who supposedly tell “legends” about their Chinese ancestry, believe any of it or indeed know of any such legends prior to the recent foreign involvement. He quotes me, but it’s a good piece anyway.

Recent Archaeomags

Skalk’s first issue for 2011 opens with a great article by Mr. Bronze Age Religion himself, Flemming Kaul. It deals with two wooden votive helmets found in a bog on Lolland in Denmark. Their closest parallels are from a big multiperiod deposit of pre-Roman metal helmets found at Negova/Negau in Slovenia. One of the latter carries an extremely early inscription in Germanic, the name Harigasti, which makes the link to the Uglemose find even more interesting.

Kaul shows further parallels from coeval situla art where boxers compete for similar helmets. And then comes a passage that made me laugh (and I translate):

“Thus there is no doubt that helmets like these served as sporting trophies. And among the Greeks such trophies, like cauldrons on tripods, could be deposited in a temple as part of the temple hoard. The 26 helmets from Negau may similarly have been a collection of sporting trophies kept in a local sanctuary, where as the generations passed helmets were added one by one. Shortly before 100 BC the Cimbri or some other Germanic tribe came by, stole the helmets, dedicated them to Harigast [their god of war?] and deposited them as a sacrifice. The Cimbri, as it were, robbed the local boxing club of its trophy collection.”

Moving on, I also liked Pernille Pantmann’s and Inge Bødker Enghoff’s piece about a well-preserved and well-excavated Bronze Age settlement on Zealand where bone preservation was particularly fine. The median length of the codfish eaten there was 55-60 cm which shows that these people did a lot of deep-water line fishing from the boats we see so often in the rock art of neighbouring regions. And the site has rich deposits of metalworking debris too. Good stuff!

Current Archaeology #251 came with the excellent news that a privately owned album of excavation photographs from Sutton Hoo’s mound 1 has come to light. This is extremely valuable as the dig was hasty and the detailed documentation of the ship remains was lost during WW2. The photographers were two school teachers on holiday, Barbara Wagstaff and Mercie Lack.

An interesting idea reached me via a book review: Barry Cunliffe and John Koch’s anthology Celtic from the West is devoted to the proposition that the Celtic languages entered Europe from the West via IE-speaking early metal prospectors who came by boat around the Iberian peninsula. Only later would Gaul and Central Europe have been Celtified. Interesting indeed! The fact that our oldest evidence for Celtic languages is from the South-East is of course because that was where literate Greeks were around to document the language situation.

Another cool tidbit is that Roman sites in the UK and 19th century sites with imported Classical sculpture have local living micropopulations of Mediterranean land snails!

Current Archaeology #252 celebrates the 200th episode of Time Team and takes an in-depth look at the geophysical underpinnings of the show. How else would one get a good overview of a site in three days of fieldwork?

Of great interest to me because of my current work is a piece by conservators Laura McLean and Stefanie White on a ploughed-out bronze axe hoard recently found and salvaged at Burnham in Essex by a detectorist. It was in a pot whose bottom part, with its bronze contents, was still in situ. Over a hundred pieces of metalwork including fifty socketed axe frags, eight socketed spearhead frags, seven sword frags, three sickle frags, two gouges and lots of casting waste.

I don’t know the English typochronology well enough to date the hoard (Ewart Park phase maybe?). But it’s certainly Late Bronze Age and not EB, given that it’s socked axes and not flanged ones or palstaves. And I believe the Brits never get the really short socketed axes of our per. V and VI. So my guess is that that this hoard should be Final British Bronze, 8th century BC.

CA’s international sister publication Current World Archaeology is out with its 45th issue. It’s a Southern Italy special, with little I can comment on, but there’s also a piece by Ellen Marie Næss on the Oseberg ship-burial skeletons. As we have seen here, they were reburied and recently disinterred again, and new osteological results await academic publication. But Norwegian colleagues of mine tell me that the new alleged findings are a little too weird to have been missed by the osteologists on the original Oseberg team. Per Holck has some explaining to do before we accept that all the ship-grave people he examines turn out to have strange deformities, like Morgani’s syndrome.

Archaeology Magazine is published in New York state. Issue #64:2 has a good feature by Lauren Hilgers on Han Dynasty rural settlements in Henan sealed catastrophically and preserved when the Yellow River flooded 2000 years ago. I must say though that I don’t like the Chinese habit of building exhibition halls over deturfed and cleaned archaeological layers to show them to the public. Of course all manner of plants and fungi immediately colonise the surfaces, and they have to spray them with chemicals. Better to do your dig, backfill and put the site under grass for the next excavator.

A piece on battlefield archaeology at Towton in Yorkshire (where armies clashed in 1461) is interesting but contains a baffling line of argument. The investigators have found shards of a small brass cannon. They have taken upon themselves to analyse whether there is residue of gunpowder and lead on the insides. There is, and so the investigators allow themselves to argue that the cannon was fired in the battle. But how on Earth do they think that the thing would have shattered and remained on the battlefield unless it had been fired!?

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