Why context matters


Finding buri­als is not always easy. Bodies decay over time, and their vis­ib­il­ity can vary for a num­ber of reas­ons. One reason in par­tic­u­lar is the wealth of the deceased. If you’re rich you can afford a very lav­ish and very vis­ible burial. As a res­ult our under­stand­ing of the past can be skewed in favour of the social élites. That’s one reason why archae­olo­gists get so excited about large cemeter­ies. News is com­ing out of Italy of one such cemetery near Fiumicino air­port. What has been found is a nec­ro­polis with around three hun­dred skel­et­ons. What makes these spe­cial is that they’re the skel­et­ons of the poor.

There’s vari­ous reas­ons why the Italian archae­olo­gists think they were poor. The grave goods aren’t as plen­ti­ful as you get from the richer sites. In the tombs there are ceramic tank­ards, oil lamps and what remains of ancient shoes. There’s also around sev­enty coins, mainly of Trajan and Faustina, used to pay the fer­ry­man Charon. The coins date the tombs to the early second cen­tury BC. The loc­a­tion may not have been as pres­ti­gi­ous, this was down towards the ports of Rome, which played a vital role in con­nect­ing Rome with its empire. In Trajan’s period, Portus, a new port was being built to ser­vice Rome’s boom­ing eco­nomy. Most tellingly, like the other poor people of the ancient world, their poverty is writ­ten into their bones. The cor­rel­a­tion between poverty and deform­ity was recog­nised in the ancient world. Mark Steel has a nice line on it:

Aristotle wrote over 2,000 years ago, “It is nature’s inten­tion to dis­tin­guish even the bod­ies of free­men and slaves. The lat­ter are endowed with strength to suit their employ­ment while the upright car­riage of the former renders them unfit for servile work.”

So Ancient Greece was full of mas­ters burst­ing to spend the day labour­ing but just not up to it with that upright carriage.

The Greeks in par­tic­u­lar noticed that the aris­tro­cracy were on the whole much bet­ter look­ing than the callous-handed labour­ers they employed and recog­nised cause and effect, just not in the right order.

The buri­als are mainly men. Anthropologist Paola Catalano estim­ates the ratio of men to women is around 3:1. Sexing skel­et­ons is not always easy, but the pre­ser­va­tion of bones in the sandy soil is a help. Additionally they’re also mainly adults, with many more adult buri­als than adoles­cent or juven­ile buri­als. The skel­et­ons are deformed due to the stress of work. They have stress frac­tures and crushed ver­teb­rae, her­nias and ten­don inflam­ma­tion. Don’t ask me how you spot the last two on a skel­eton — I have no idea. The evid­ence is that these are the people who built Rome and made it what it was. The value of the site is that it is a one of the largest cemeter­ies excav­ated, and the grave goods can tell use what life was like for the aver­age Roman, not only from what they have but also from what they lack.

At least that should be the case. Many ver­sions of the news story over­look a detail men­tioned in the Italian press.

Il Messaggero reports that the site was found fol­low­ing an invest­ig­a­tion by the Guardia di Finanza, one of Italy’s many police forces, at Fiumicino. The police were involved in track­ing down two tombaroli, grave rob­bers. A raid on thei homes revealed more evid­ence of pil­la­ging and they are now chas­ing down a third indi­vidual who they think was involved. The mater­ial, if it had got to mar­ket, would have said little about Roman life. In an auc­tion house they would have just been reduced to trinkets. No-one would know where they had came from or what they meant. As it is we will not know what was des­troyed in ran­sack­ing the tombs. One of the most poignant finds would cer­tainly have been trashed by the tombaroli if they had worked it over. To the right is a neck­lace found in a child’s tomb. The indi­vidual pieces wouldn’t make any sense at all and would be value­less, except in con­text with each other.

And that’s why con­text matters.

More Reading:
Il Messaggero
ANSA (English)

Are Sainsbury’s mis-selling energy?


I was stopped in the bread aisle today by a nice lady who wanted me to switch my energy sup­ply to Sainsbury’s. It’s a com­mon thing in the UK and the energy com­pan­ies are col­lect­ively known for the eth­ical stand­ards they employ when selling their energy plans. It’s not a sur­prise so many of them spon­sor weather bul­let­ins — “Today’s weather is brought to you in asso­ci­ation with Happy Energy, because we’re a shower of bastards.”

What’s inter­est­ing is the sales pitch that you get as you try and find a loaf. My energy sup­plier was recom­men­ded by Greenpeace. Generally that’s enough to per­suade sales people from wast­ing my time. It’s grow­ing less effect­ive. I demurred say­ing that I didn’t want to sign any­thing because I was con­cerned that there was going to be a push for nuc­lear power and I’m not con­vinced it’s a good thing. Sainsbury’s, she assured me, had noth­ing to do with nuc­lear power. Sainsbury’s even sold a Green Energy plan.

Sainsbury’s don’t actu­ally have their own power sta­tions, they re-sell and right now they’re reselling for EDF. What was the news when I got home? French energy giant EDF has already said it plans to build four nuc­lear plants in the UK by 2017, without sub­sidies, fol­low­ing the government’s announce­ment. BBC News.

Nuclear power itself is not neces­sar­ily a deal killer for me, but being misled about it is. I’m also doubt­ful about the green nature of Sainsbury’s power. I’m sure they want to invest in renew­able resources, but what is a renew­able resource? Ask Lord Sainsbury. Lady O’Cathain offered me the oppor­tun­ity of … agree­ing that nuc­lear is a renew­able source of energy — it clearly is so. The Times.

So was the nice lady mis-selling Sainsbury’s energy, or do they have a con­tract with EDF that the elec­trons they sell are driven by non-nuclear power?

Archaeology, Photography and HDR

Minard Castle
Minard Castle. Photo (cc) Mike 138.

If it were true that the cam­era never lies, then pho­to­graphy wouldn’t be a prob­lem. It does though. Or at least a pho­to­graph isn’t a wholly object­ive record of real­ity. A couple of years back I was happy with this and was dis­cuss­ing illus­trat­ing an event using a photo mosaic. The uni­ver­sal reac­tion to this idea was hor­ror, which sur­prised me. What I was plan­ning to do was take a pho­to­graph of a site and manip­u­late the sky behind it — and make clear that this was a recon­struc­tion not an ori­ginal image. The over­whelm­ing neg­at­ive reac­tion meant that I’ve never done this. The altern­at­ive, that I draw a recon­struc­tion of the event, and throw in a few ima­gin­ary people, with spec­u­lat­ive hair­styles and clothes, stand­ing around in small groups — without any evid­ence for this — was con­sidered fine. I assume that people are ok with draw­ings being highly spec­u­lat­ive, but still expect photo-quality images to be ‘real’, whatever that might be.

Photo edit­ing is a ser­i­ous prob­lem as pro­grams like Photoshop make it easier than ever to mess around with the expos­ure or the col­ours of a photo. If you’re pho­to­graph­ing the res­ult of an exper­i­ment, where the amount of col­our­a­tion is an import­ant part of the res­ult, like in bio­logy, then chan­ging those col­ours is effect­ively falsi­fy­ing your result.

I am won­der­ing how far this extends to archae­ology.
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Egypt, Antiquities and Copyright

Mickey Mouse Copyright Laws
Mickey Mouse Copyright Laws. Based on a photo (cc) Liber.

One of the advant­ages of being slow in writ­ing is that you can look at what every­one else is say­ing about some­thing. Often people will have thought about the same prob­lem and already anti­cip­ated prob­lems in your own line of thought, so you can avoid mak­ing a fool of your­self. Other times it’s a sur­prise, and this is one of those times. News from the BBC is that Egypt is ‘to copy­right antiquit­ies’.

Egypt’s MPs are expec­ted to pass a law requir­ing roy­al­ties be paid whenever cop­ies are made of museum pieces or ancient monu­ments such as the pyr­am­ids and this law will apply around the world.

To a greater or lesser extent other blog­gers think they can’t do this and they can’t enforce it. In con­trast I think they can and they can. This isn’t just my very basic under­stand­ing of law. It’s also the fact that museums in the West have been doing this, more or less, for years. Below is where I make a fool of myself.
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Bones of ancestors returned in Africa


Reuters is now allow­ing embed­ding of video clips. In this one bod­ies exhumed from a Mapungubwe archae­olo­gical site in north­ern South Africa are being returned for reburial. It’s a stag­ger­ingly good idea.

I didn’t think it would be. As far as I under­stand it Mapungubwe was one of the most com­plex Iron Age soci­et­ies in Africa. It had extens­ive trad­ing links with other soci­et­ies. At the same time you have to look at the con­text of the excav­a­tion. The bones were taken in 1933. It might have been archae­ology, but it was also about gain­ing con­trol of the land for the Whites. At the same time re-burying the bones would, I thought, mean los­ing inform­a­tion about a major fea­ture of African his­tory and the local com­munit­ies would be vic­tims again. Actually this is not the case because the reburial is rather clever.

The remains are being bur­ied in sealed con­tain­ers in sealed vaults. This sat­is­fies the local people that the bones are being rebur­ied. At the same time it will hope­fully leave them safe should they wish to invest­ig­ate their past — but the next time it should be with their consent.

Mo’ loot, mo’ troubles


Archaeoporn has an entry illus­trat­ing one of the prob­lems with buy­ing illi­cit antiquit­ies. It turns out that not all crim­in­als are trust­worthy people. Take for instance the Seal of Yzbl, it’s a seal of Queen Jezebel as men­tioned in the Bible™. At least it is if you don’t look at it too closely. If you do, then all sorts of oddit­ies appear — that’s not a prob­lem it was found at… umm… oh dear.

Archaeoporn also men­tions the Guennol Lion, which I haven’t because I know noth­ing about it. David Gill in con­trast knows as much about its find spot as any­one else.

David Gill has also talked about the Bolton Princess recently. If you don’t know this story, Bolton Council had the oppor­tun­ity to buy a statue of the Amarna Princess, a 3000+ year old statue from Egypt. There was no check on the proven­ance and the sellers wish to remain anonym­ous. This is par for the course in antiquit­ies sales so far. Nothing more would have been heard were it not for the fact that the same sellers tried to sell some wall reliefs to the British Museum and some spelling mis­takes were spot­ted. An invest­ig­a­tion fol­lowed and a search revealed three more Amarna Princesses which had been knocked up over a few weeks by a bloke in a shed.

It’s pos­sible the Bolton Armana Princess is a fake.

David Gill has a sens­ible and grown-up reac­tion to the news. Me, I’m reminded of the K Foundation and want to applaud. The case sug­gests that the sting was about art rather than money. The per­pet­rat­ors were described as liv­ing in “abject poverty.” If there were a scheme to ensure the proven­ance of arte­facts for sale then maybe this wouldn’t hap­pen. I’m sur­prised that reput­able col­lect­ors and auc­tion houses aren’t clam­our­ing for such a scheme.

— and an update before this post goes live —

I write quite a few posts in advance, and this is one of them, so I can include another Greenhalgh for­gery thanks to the Cranky Professor. The Art Institute of Chicago has a Greenhalgh Gaugin. These things could become col­lect­ible. If you can fake proven­ances, then how many unproven­anced antiquit­ies on dis­play are fake?

An ethical Homeopathic puzzle


Oscillococcinum is a remark­able sub­stance. It’s a homeo­pathic rem­edy which fights the Oscillococcus bac­terium. Now some scep­tics will balk at that and ask how a homeo­pathic medi­cine can fight any­thing. That’s not a prob­lem in this case as Oscillococcus prob­ably doesn’t exist. That’s a dis­trac­tion. What’s inter­est­ing is Oscillococcinum itself.

Oscillococcinum is made from the extract of heart and liver of a Muscovy duck. This is diluted to 200CK. The K refers to the method of dilu­tion. You fill a glass with a solu­tion and then empty it. Then you refill the still damp glass with 100ml of fresh pure water. This method assumes you’ve just diluted your solu­tion by one part in a hun­dred. The C is the bit that tells you it’s one part in a hun­dred. So in this case 1ml of heart and liver extract is diluted in 10 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 litres of water. If you took a drop of heart and liver extract and mixed it with all the water in all the oceans on the Earth, it still wouldn’t be any­where near as diluted as Oscillococcinum.

Once I saw that one ques­tion lodged in my mind: “Is it suit­able for veget­ari­ans?“
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