Mysteries and Discoveries of Archaeoastronomy by Giulio Magli

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Note: Giulio Magli was one of the exam­iners of my thesis, so his book is hardly likely to get a bad review.

This review rounds off a tri­logy to go with Skywatchers, Shamans and Kings and People and the Sky. Like the other two books this could be said to be part of a World Archaeoastronomy approach, but Giulio Magli adds a twist. Some of this is down to the approach he’s taken to archae­oastro­nom­ical sites, but he also adds a bit more.

Magli’s approach is sim­ilar to what I would have done if I was writ­ing an intro­duc­tion to archae­oastro­nomy book. He tackles the sites around the world. So take a deep breath because in his open­ing sec­tion of twelve chapters — slightly over half the book — he cov­ers. Palaeolithic Europe, Prehistoric Britain, the temples of Malta, Egypt, Babylon, East North America with the Hopewell and Cahokia, West North America with Chaco and the Anasazi, Northern Mexico and Tenochtitlan, The rest of Mesoamerica and Palenque, The Incas, Nazca and Polynesia. That leaves massive holes where you would expect to find India, China, Korea and Japan and a lack of African mater­ial. That’s more due to the state of play in aca­demic archae­oastro­nomy at the moment than a fault of Magli. In gen­eral Africa has been greatly over­looked and there’s not a lot of integ­ra­tion between Asian astro­nomy and the rest of the world. It’s get­ting bet­ter, but it’s still under-represented com­pared to the Mayans and Prehistoric Europe.

If this had been the sum total of the book I wouldn’t be that enthu­si­astic about it. It’s not bad. It’s writ­ten from an astro­nom­ical point of view with some amus­ing digs against archae­olo­gists. If you were inter­ested in archae­oastro­nomy and approach­ing it from astro­nomy and not anthro­po­logy I’d recom­mend this over Aveni or Krupp’s book as an intro­duc­tion to the field. What really marks out the book as worth read­ing is sec­tion 2.
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People and the Sky by Anthony Aveni

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It’s a com­mon gripe that archae­olo­gists don’t have much interest in pub­lic archae­ology. I’m not con­vinced it’s true and it’s cer­tainly not true of archae­oastro­nomy. People and the Sky is Anthony Aveni’s latest (ori­ginal) book. He’s the most pro­lific of the pop­u­lar archae­oastro­nomy authors, so it’s no sur­prise his prose is pretty well pol­ished. I like this book, and if you don’t have any by him it’s well worth buy­ing. If you’ve Stairways to the Stars, his earlier archae­oastro­nomy over­view then I’m not so sure.

I’ve been think­ing about whether the World Archaeoastronomy approach works. Anthony Aveni’s work would be an argu­ment in its favour. While he’s best known for his work in Mesoamerica, he’s also done ori­ginal research in the Mediterranean and the south­west­ern USA. One of the reas­ons he can do this without being trivial is that he’s inter­est­ing in how to relate astro­nomy to archae­ology and vice versa. Wherever it is you’re study­ing in the world, there’s the prob­lem of tying the global per­spect­ive of astro­nomy to archae­ology, which is always local. People and the Sky could be said to be a col­lec­tion of a dozen ways of try­ing to solve that problem.

The intro­duc­tion starts by say­ing why the sky was import­ant in the ancient world. It’s brief and rap­idly turns into a para­graph on each chapter. Anyone who’s bought the book is pre­sum­ably already sold on the idea that the sky was import­ant, so brev­ity is not an issue. The open­ing chapter The Storyteller’s Sky intro­duces the role of the sky in ancient cos­mo­lo­gies. This sec­tion is heav­ily biased to the New World, with Mayans, Aztecs and the Navajo and the Babylonians from the Old World. The selec­tion reflects Aveni’s expert­ise. The next chapter, Patterns in the Sky, opens with a per­sonal anec­dote, but the range of sources is much greater. Here Aveni’s world archae­oastro­nomy approach works to show the diversity of pat­terns seen in the night sky. As well as the Babylonians and Mayans, he also throws in many more cul­tures includ­ing the Egyptians, Barasana of the Amazon and the Incas. This last group is inter­est­ing because for them the pat­terns in the sky include spaces where the stars aren’t vis­ible. In the Milky Way dark neb­u­lae blot out stars, mak­ing dis­tinct­ive sil­hou­ettes which the Inca recognised.

The Sailor’s Sky des­cibes one of my favour­ite arte­facts, Polynesian stone canoes. They sound like some­thing out of the Flintstones, but they’re bet­ter described as sim­u­lat­ors. A novice naviagator would sit by the stones look­ing out at the hori­zon learn­ing which stars rise over it. With this know­ledge he’d be able to nav­ig­ate across the vast dis­tances of the Pacific ocean. There’s some dis­cus­sion of Inuit nav­ig­a­tion, but this is mainly a Polynesian chapter.

The Hunter’s Sky includes and handy guide on how to tell the time using the Plough, assum­ing there’s no clouds over it and you’ve for­got­ten your watch. This draws on Plains Indians, the G/wi of Botswana, the Mursi and Stonehenge. The inclu­sion of Stonehenge here is inter­est­ing. It’s a Neolithic monu­ment, and that’s usu­ally asso­ci­ated with farm­ing. Aveni argues that Britons were semi-nomadic in this period. It’s plaus­ible, archae­olo­gical evid­ence is sug­gest­ing there was plenty of move­ment in the land­scape through to the Early Bronze Age, so sea­sonal use of mega­lithic sites would make sense.

It’s the next chapter that tackles the Farmer’s Sky. He opens by dis­cuss­ing Works and Days by Hesiod, which he dates to the ninth-century BC. That seems a bit early to me, I would have said it was writ­ten at a hun­dred years later. However, I would agree that the integ­ra­tion of astro­nom­ical and eco­lo­gical imagery in the poem is import­ant and points to an extens­ive know­ledge of the sky. He uses the word ‘sys­tem­atic’ to describe the astro­nomy, but I’d be wary of say­ing there was a sys­tem as such. He moves on to Rujm el-Hiri, a site which I haven’t read much about after hear­ing it called “the Stonehenge of the Levant”. If I hear any­thing is called “the Stonehenge of any­where that isn’t Stonehenge” then I become wary. Thankfully Aveni’s explan­a­tion isn’t an attempt to shoe­horn a Stonehenge model onto a site, but I’ll have to read the rel­ev­ant art­icles before I’m con­vinced of some of the claims. He also describes Indonesian rice farm­ing using bam­boo as a sight­ing tool, which was entirely new to me.

The later chapters move more towards ideo­logy. The House, the Family and the Sky is about the organ­isa­tion of domestic space, based on cos­mo­lo­gical prin­ciples. The Navajo, Pawnee and the vari­ous tribes of the Orinoco make up much of this chapter but he also men­tions the Batammaliba of Benin and Togo and Gilbert Islanders, before mov­ing back the the Americas with the Inca. This may be one of the big­ger growth areas in archae­oastro­nomy in the com­ing dec­ades as it deals with the kind of things people do without think­ing. This con­nects the sky with ter­restrial order.

This is expan­ded on in The City and the Sky. The Mayan city of Teotihuacan makes an appear­ance, not sur­pris­ingly as Aveni has done a lot of work on pecked cross circles there. He’s also looked at the Etruscan basis for town plan­ning, and this can be found here too. He also talks about another obvi­ous example of celes­tial plan­ning, Beijing, and the astro­nom­ical records of the Chin Shu dyn­asty (3rd cen­tury AD). This use of power leads neatly onto The Ruler’s Sky. The Powhatan attacks on Virginia led by Opechancanough add an inter­est­ing altern­at­ive view­point to the Mayan and Babylonian uses of astro­nomy and astro­logy else­where in the chapter. China and Babylon form the basis of the fol­low­ing chapter The Astrologer’s Sky, though there is also a dis­cus­sion of Cheyenne sham­an­ism and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it men­tion of India.

The Timekeeper’s Sky con­cen­trates on just two cul­tures, the Romans and the Mayans. I don’t know whether to be pleased or dis­ap­poin­ted about that. I find the Greek cal­en­dar cheer­fully chaotic and worth look­ing at in its own right. On the other hand I’m will­ing to bet that if Aveni had done that, he would have come across some of the same curi­os­it­ies I have. So while I’d say there’s a gap here, it’s not one I’m actu­ally com­plain­ing about. To some extent this chapter cov­ers sim­ilar mater­ial to the earlier hunt­ing and farm­ing chapters.

The final chapter of the book is The Western Sky. It’s a slightly dif­fer­ent chapter to the oth­ers. It asks an obvi­ous ques­tion. Given the exist­ence of so many astro­nom­ies, why has one come to dom­in­ate sci­ence? This why ques­tion is re-visited in the Epilogue which Aveni uses to reit­er­ate that for many people Astronomy had been some­thing very dif­fer­ent both in meth­ods and aims to the mod­ern sci­ence it is day.

As a whole, the book shows some of the lim­it­a­tions of a world archae­oastro­nomy approach. I didn’t see any­thing sub­stan­s­tial about India in the book. References to China were lim­ited and there was noth­ing of Korea or Japan that I saw. To a large extent this reflects fault-lines in aca­demia. A lot of far east­ern mater­ial isn’t pub­lished in west­ern lan­guages. That’s not really true for India though. There’s some extremely good archae­ology hap­pen­ing there and a large amount of his­tor­ical mater­ial, includ­ing astro­lo­gical texts. It works for text­books intro­du­cing the sub­ject, but I am won­der­ing to what extent a World Archaeoastronomy approach can be used in research publications.

Compared with his other works, this is def­in­itely at the shal­low end but it’s not fair to dis­miss it as shal­low. Like the best intro­duct­ory texts it leads on to other mater­ial. For instance I’ll be look­ing up more about Rujm el-Hiri now. If you’re look­ing to buy a book and you have Stairways to the Stars, then this is one to get out of the lib­rary. If you don’t have Stairways to the Stars, then this would be the bet­ter book to buy.

Skywatchers, Shamans and Kings by E.C.Krupp

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Skywatchers, Shamans and Kings by E.C.Krupp

I was sur­prised to find I haven’t already put up a page say­ing how good this book is, so I’ll cor­rect that now. This is one of the best books you can get on archae­oastro­nomy, and it’s also one of the more affordable.

One of the big attrac­tions of the book is that not only does he answer the ‘how’ ques­tion but also the ‘why’. The book starts with a dis­cus­sion of the centre of the world which, depend­ing on your myth­o­logy, can be found at Delphi, Beijing, Chaco Canyon or sev­eral other places he men­tions. The point he makes is that if the uni­verse revolves around you, then you must be a spe­cial kind of per­son. The rest of the book is an explor­a­tion of how people con­nec­ted them­selves to the stars.

The meth­ods aren’t simply by align­ing stones. Krupp is one of those people with a very wide geo­graph­ical grasp of his sub­ject which means he can draw on eth­no­graph­ies from around the world. Along with the usual sus­pects in any pop­u­lar archae­oastro­nomy book, you also get Mongolians, San bush­men and Chumash sham­ans. He shows that while the meth­ods might vary around the world, there was a uni­ver­sal con­cern in hav­ing the heav­ens on your side. This isn’t simply about time­keep­ing or mys­tic har­mony. This is also about the dis­play of power.

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Silver Four Ladies of Hollywood Gazebo.
Photo (cc) Floyd B. Bariscale.

The book opens with the chapter on The Center of the World, and pulls from a diverse pool of examples includ­ing Hopi set­tle­ment, Evenki drums and a gazebo on the Holloywood Walk of Fame to illus­trate the concept of world quar­ter­ing. This tends to be the divi­sion of the world into the car­dinal dir­ec­tions in the Old World, and pos­sibly the quar­ter­ing of the sky between sol­sti­cial sunrise/sunset pos­i­tions, or the path of the Milky Way in the New World. Krupp uses this as an intro­duc­tion that order was seen as being inher­ent in the cos­mos, rather than some­thing imposed on it. In fact the word cos­mos ori­gin­ally meant order, rather than universe.

Chapter two is about Plugging into Cosmic Power and the meth­ods of doing that. Celestial con­cerns are accessed via sham­anic ritual, pos­sibly with some chem­ical assist­ance. The aim may be to reach to the stars, but Krupp keeps an eye on the fact that these prac­tices were earth-bound. The Centers of Creation and Mother Earth chapters look at birth, cre­ation and renewal, with Agents of Renewal giv­ing more details on how people dropped the hint to the uni­verse that fer­til­ity was a good idea.

The chapters on Shamans, Chiefs and Sacred Kings and Celestial Empires talk more about the con­sol­id­a­tion of power with Enlightened Self-Interest and Ulterior Motives examin­ing how that could be sub­ver­ted. Of course there’s no point in hav­ing power if you don’t let people know you have it, which is the topic of It Pays to Advertise. All of this then gets pulled together in the con­clud­ing chapter Upward Mobility, which draws the threads of the argu­ments con­nect­ing astro­nomy and power together.

If you’ve read his Rambling Through the Skies column which used to be in Sky and Telescope, then you’ll know Krupp has a neat turn of phrase and an eye for an arrest­ing ana­logy. As an example in It Pays to Advertise, he com­pares the astro­nom­ical imagery found on sham­anic cloth­ing with the icons found on super­hero cos­tumes. Just as Batman, Spiderman and Green Lantern show the sources of their power, so too ancient peoples used sym­bols related to the sky to emphas­ise their abilities.

If there is a cri­ti­cism to be made of the book it’s that Krupp picks up and drops examples within a page or two, so the reader is whisked from one corner of the world to another and bat­ted between cen­tur­ies. It’s all con­nec­ted with the point Krupp is try­ing to make but it can be dizzy­ing on occa­sion. Possibly fewer and more rooted examples would have helped. This wouldn’t have affected the impres­sion of uni­ver­sal­ity of astro­nom­ical sym­bol­ism and power which he argues for.

That is a rel­at­ively minor cri­ti­cism, and the main reason for mak­ing it is just to demon­strate I have read book. It is a great tour of the archae­ology and anthro­po­logy of astro­nomy. It was afford­able when I bought it and, if you pick it up from the right shop, it’s even more so now. If you’re look­ing for more than a super­fi­cial intro­duc­tion to the diversity of archae­oastro­nom­ical evid­ence then it’s a great place to start.

Creating Prehistory by Adam Stout

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I could draw up quite a list of people who won’t like this book. Adam Stout pur­ports to be an unapo­lo­getic relat­iv­ist (more of that later). His his­tory of archae­ology in Britain, mainly in the inter-war period, comes from this pos­i­tion and is allied to his interest in altern­at­ive pasts such as druidry and earth mys­ter­ies. If you think the his­tory of archae­ology is primar­ily a story of how our know­ledge of the past came to be more accur­ate, you’ll struggle with this. If you think the suc­cess of people such as OGS Crawford and Mortimer Wheeler was down to employ­ing sci­entific meth­od­o­logy you’ll struggle with this. If you think the only sane response to mod­ern druids is mock­ery you may struggle with this. I cer­tainly dis­agree with a few of the author’s char­ac­ter­isa­tions of archae­ology. Despite (or even because?) of this it’s a chal­len­ging and enga­ging view of the devel­op­ment of archaeology.

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The first point of dif­fer­ence between myself and Stout is a mat­ter of how Political with a cap­ital P archae­ology is. I accept that archae­ology is a polit­ical action, but so is going down to the shops to buy a loaf of bread. I might be reify­ing abstract ideo­lo­gies and rein­for­cing eco­nomic roles in soci­ety, but if I want to cri­tique those ideo­lo­gies and roles, I don’t think I’d start by ana­lys­ing my shop­ping list. Adam Stout starts with an account of writ­ing against the back­drop of the Occupation of Iraq. He states that the cover story for May 2003 ‘PREHISTORIC WAR’ was cash­ing in on the war fever in the USA. It might, but as a counter-example I’ll offer a quote from the intro­duc­tion to Whiteley and Hays-Gilpin’s new book:

A war is raging in the Middle East as you read this intro­duc­tion or, at least, one is immin­ent and the world is on high alert. We can assert this with some cer­tainty, regard­less of the shelf life of this volume, because this con­di­tion has char­ac­ter­ised the region for most of the last 1000 years.

Whiteley and Hays-Gilpin 2008:11

I can’t say Archaeology magazine wasn’t using the war to boost sales. I sus­pect it wasn’t an openly cyn­ical ploy to use the deaths of thou­sands of people as a sales drive. Equally I wouldn’t be sur­prised if someone wanted to put war in a his­tor­ical per­spect­ive but didn’t think about what the upcom­ing event would mean for many people’s lives. It’s hard to say because if you want to pub­lish on war when the USA isn’t either con­tem­plat­ing invad­ing some­where or else actu­ally invad­ing some­where you have a very small win­dow to aim for. One dif­fer­ence between us then is that I think the interest in war reflec­ted pub­lic opin­ion rather than led it. This mat­ters because it shows how Stout works from the pos­i­tion that archae­olo­gists are largely work­ing in the ser­vice of the state. This is point of depar­ture for most of the book, the cre­ation of archae­olo­gical authority.

The first part is most expli­citly about the cre­ation of archae­olo­gical author­ity. It’s fer­tile ground for any­one who wants to find evid­ence of self-congratulation amongst aca­dem­ics. It’s the strongest sec­tion of the book because it’s most clearly here that Stout mar­shalls the evid­ence to demon­strate his point. He’s able to draw on let­ters from vari­ous prot­ag­on­ists to show that polit­ical mach­in­a­tions were a major part of the aca­demic archae­olo­gical pro­gramme of the the 1920s and 1930s. I was fas­cin­ated to see how a group of motiv­ated people effect­ively col­lab­or­ated to take the Prehistoric Society of East Anglia and take it for their own use as a national soci­ety. Yet while Stout is mak­ing a point, it doesn’t come across as axe-grinding.

The second part is, for me the least sat­is­fy­ing of the four. It tackles a fight against dif­fu­sion­ism as propsed by anthro­po­lo­gists. Again the hand­ling of the polit­ics is very good, but I’m not sure how well it squares with the con­tent. Stout’s argu­ment is that archae­olo­gists were eager to show inex­or­able pro­gress to the mod­ern era, and that dif­fu­sion­ism was a threat to this. In the case of someone like Childe, I’d argue that dif­fu­sion was the means by which pro­gress occured.

The third sec­tion is a case study of Stonehenge. If you’ve wondered where the mod­ern Druids came from and how they decided to claim Stonehenge, then this is essen­tial read­ing. Once again the polit­ics are covered well, as are some of the beliefs of the 20th cen­tury Druids.

The fourth sec­tion is about The Old Straight Track and the chal­lenge from other inter­pret­a­tions of the past and the chal­lenge to archae­ology. It provides some inter­est­ing examples of how unwanted inter­pret­a­tions could be neutered and the emphasis of archae­ology as some­thing voca­tional. Stout hints at the chal­lenge being in part that ley-hunters were con­tex­tu­al­ising sites into their place within the wider land­scape and fact-obsessed archae­ology was less the­or­ised at this time. It is fair com­ment, though I doubt it would be pop­u­lar amongst many archaeologists.

My biggest con­cern with most of the sec­tions is that the con­flict is seen as polit­ical rather than fac­tual. Possibly for reas­ons of space there’s little exam­in­a­tion of the archae­olo­gical con­tent. In the case of ley-hunting, to what extent was the stat­ist­ical like­li­hood of leys occur­ring known at the time The Old Straight Track was pub­lished? What were the archae­olo­gical objec­tions? The second sec­tion in par­tic­u­lar would have bene­fit­ted more from a dis­cus­sion of the con­tent as well as the context.

Another con­cern is that Stout never goes bey­ond pre­his­tory. To some extent this is cri­ti­cising him for not writ­ing a book which he didn’t intend to write, after all the title is Creating Prehistory. At the same time the reader could come away with the impres­sion that archae­ology in Britain was almost entirely the archae­ology of pre­his­toric Britain. Romans are occa­sion­ally men­tioned, but the effects of Roman or Medieval archae­ology on the devel­op­ment of pre­his­toric archae­ology aren’t really tackled.

This may be where the dif­fer­ence between his relat­iv­ist pos­i­tion and my own mat­ters. He sees his­tory and archae­ology as a mat­ter of telling stor­ies. Even if this is the case, stor­ies have forms. The Iliad is not going to be rendered into a lim­er­ick. Similarly sci­entific explan­a­tions have forms, and there is no real tack­ling of meth­od­o­logy or the­ory in Stout’s book. If you think coher­ence to real­ity played a part, even if it not the sole part, then there’s a big hole in the his­tory. It can­not be dis­missed simply as a mat­ter of incom­men­sur­able epi­stem­o­lo­gies as Stout him­self shows.

Stout argues that bet­ter is not neces­sar­ily more accur­ate, using the example of Maiden Castle. On page 235 he uses Niall Sharples’ account of Maiden castle to show how Wheeler was cap­able of spin­ning his own tales based on his own pre­ju­dices. This I agree with, but I would also ask how we can accept Sharples’ explan­a­tion as more cor­rect. The answer lies in the meth­od­o­logy of archae­ology which has developed, in part from Wheeler’s own work. The method Wheeler used gave some of the tools to under­mine his work. In con­trast I don’t see that pos­sib­il­ity from Iolo Morgawg’s work. Even if sci­ence were only story, it’s clearly a dif­fer­ent sort of story.

Another mat­ter I’d like to see Stout explore would be the devel­op­ment of archae­ology as an anti-religious sci­ence. Archaeology as Whiteley and Hays-Gilpin (2008:20n1) say tends to shy away from reli­gion. Certainly archae­olo­gists are happy to dia­gnose any­thing they can’t under­stand as being ‘ritual’, but once it’s in that box study is often closed. They put this down to sci­ence and reli­gion being com­pet­it­ors in claims for dis­cern­ing truth in the first half of the 20th cen­tury. In chapter nine The Esoteric Revival Stout attrib­utes the neg­at­ive view many of the inter-war archae­olo­gists had towards early reli­gion as being due to their athe­ism. Perhaps more could be made of the con­flict between sci­ence and reli­gion at the time, and hence the ant­ag­on­ism to the reli­gious claims of con­tem­por­ary druids, which then fed back into views about the past.

Nonetheless while it’s clear that I don’t agree with some of Stout’s con­clu­sions I still think there’s much to like about the book. For a start it’s read­able. It’s clear that he’s writ­ten the book because he wants to be under­stood and make a dif­fer­ence rather than pad out a CV. It’s also well-argued. I might not agree with the argu­ments, but it’s not a mat­ter of pluck­ing ideas from the air. Stout clearly has done the read­ing, got the ref­er­ences and uses them to back up his claims. Hence while it is pos­sible to dis­agree with him, it’s not a good idea to simply dis­miss his work. It’s also a genu­inely novel piece of work. There are many books which take to a greater or less extent the whole of the his­tory of archae­ology as their sub­ject. Quite a few a clearly attempts to pro­duce the­ory text­books in a very dull way. In con­trast the more focussed approach Stout takes enables him to look more closely the pro­cesses that cre­ated aca­demic archae­ology. If any­thing I’d like to see an tighter focus still. There are the seeds of four inter­est­ing books on the devel­op­ment of archae­ology. Most import­antly it’s the least telel­o­gical his­tory of archae­ology I’ve read. Many his­tor­ies of archae­ology could be sub­titled How did we get to the won­der­ful state we’re in today?. This book in con­trast is focussed on the inter-war years rather than the even­tual out­come. This puts him smartly out of step with any­one who mis­takenly believes his­tory of archae­ology is a branch of archae­ology rather than his­tory of science.

It’s not the one book you need if you’re study­ing the his­tory of archae­ology in the UK, but it is per­haps the one book you need to read as a com­pan­ion to a his­tory of archaeology.

See also:
Whiteley, D.S. and Hays-Gilpin, K. 2008 ‘Religions bey­ond Icon, Burial and Monument: An Introduction’, Belief in the Past: Theoretical Approaches to the Archaeology of Religion. eds. D.S.Whiteley and K.Hays-Gilpin, Left Coast Press:California, 11–22.
Find it at WorldCat or LibraryThing.

Loot by Sharon Waxman

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In short, the best archae­o­pol­it­ics book I’ve read since Edward Fox’s Sacred Geography. I was kindly sent a review copy by the pub­lish­ers and I have a feel­ing that they were hop­ing for a bit more than that, so I’ll add a bit more.

It’s sub­titled “The Battle over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World” The ancient world here is pretty much Greece, Rome and Egypt, which means she doesn’t have a lot to say about the strip­ping of sites in Africa, the Americas or Asia. To some extent that’s a bit of a shame, but by focus­sing tightly on a few examples Waxman is able to go into the details of how the mar­ket for illi­cit antiquit­ies works. You have to keep a close eye on what’s hap­pen­ing as I get the impres­sion that one of the inspir­a­tions for the antiquit­ies trade was the three-card trick. The book is four parts. She opens by look­ing at Egypt and the atti­tude of the Louvre.
Continue read­ing

–ve on Bonekickers

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Bonekickers has limped to the end of its run and after an epic quest which spanned four thou­sand years and half a dozen major finds, Gillian Magwilde finally acheived her quest in an mad­cap man­ner which sealed Bonekickers in the pan­theon of British tele­vi­sion along­side such clas­sics as Triangle (a drama based on the glam­or­ous and sexy world of North Sea Ferries) and Eldorado. It’s as if the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation had decided to write a drama as the super­fi­cial flaws seem to obscured some people’s views of the fun­da­mental flaws in the series.

Spoilers, and I’m using the word quite wrongly, follow.

The story arc was the quest for Excalibur which cropped up in one form or another each week. To what extent this was a rev­el­a­tion is hard to say. I ima­gine the audi­ence was divided between those who knew exactly what to expect and those who couldn’t believe the plot could be as shal­low as that. Personally I don’t have a prob­lem with that per se. If Indiana Jones can go raid­ing lost arks, then why not have someone go after Excalibur. The prob­lem is that a drama at least needs internal logic. The writers tried to sup­ply that, but they were left with the prob­lem of how to get Excalibur from Bath to Wells Cathedral, a dis­tance of twenty miles. The answer was:

The Knights Templar took it with them to Portugal around the time the Portuguese were explor­ing the West African coast. From here a black man, Oran, got it. He was enslaved and shipped to America where he fought, with his sword, along­side George Washington against the British. He was shipped to Britain after the war was won and he escaped around the Bristol Channel, where the sword washed up and was taken by someone whose name I can’t be bothered to look up to Wells.

The second epis­ode was built around the sheer injustice, which is still often down­played, of the slave trade. Millions died. The idea that Oran had Excalibur makes even less sense than the idea that Africans enjoyed being slaves, because you could hear them singing. Contrary to what Scotty says, when it comes drama you can change the laws of Physics but you can­not change the laws of nar­rat­ive flow. Unfortunately the final epis­ode was up against an avalanche.

The cli­max, for want of a bet­ter word, was when a bad­die took excalibur and attacked the heroine with it. It broke in his hands and to let the audi­ence know this was a Significant Thing, Magwilde explained how it had sur­vived four mil­lenia before it broke in his hands. This utterly failed because when you’re burn­ing the True Cross, blow­ing up the remains of Boudicca or los­ing the bones of Jeanne d’Arc to traitor from the Army, a broken sword really isn’t a big deal. At least you still have the bits. If you’ve spent five weeks show­ing that the loss of major arte­facts doesn’t mat­ter, then why on earth would you expect any­one to care by epis­ode six? It’s as if they simply couldn’t care less, and the tim­ing on the script told them they needed to resolve the story some­how. The need to get the job done would explain how the bad­die died.

The death of the Bad Guy at the end of a drama is usu­ally about a moral judge­ment, and it’s more ham­fis­ted in Bonekickers than usual. After telling Magwilde tells him that he isn’t the man for Excalibur, he jumps into the pond Magwilde had just swum out of and dis­ap­pears. I sup­pose you could argue that dis­solv­ing the bad guy in cathed­ral pond is an ori­ginal end, but see­ing as Magwilde was show­ing no ill-effects there’s that nar­rat­ive con­tinu­ity prob­lem again. The remain­ing eleven masked men get the mes­sage through the col­lect­ive uncon­scious and decided to turn their back on evil and set up a flor­ists’ shop in Glastonbury. Possibly. Actually we never find out what hap­pens to them.

For all of the above you simply can­not blame Mark Horton, which is why I find the com­plaints dir­ec­ted at him about the many, many inac­curacies tedi­ous. It would be a bit like get­ting agit­ated about the police using the wrong form to take a con­fes­sion in Murder She Wrote. I can­not see, des­pite some claims by other archae­olo­gists, that Bonekickers has dimin­ished archae­ology in any way. If you look at com­plaints by the pub­lic it’s not archae­ology both­ers them. The pub­lic love archae­ology and that’s why they’re annoyed Graham and Pharoah have done such an awful job with it. The first epis­ode was sadly the high point.

It’s been fas­cin­at­ing watch­ing it, but then people slow down to gawp at car crashes.

+ve on Bonekickers

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To cla­rify, I am not being at all sar­castic when I say I’m pos­it­ive about Bonekickers. The first epis­ode wasn’t bril­liant, but first epis­odes of any series tend to be poor because not only are they intro­du­cing a story, they’re intro­du­cing char­ac­ters. The entire first sea­son of Star Trek:TNG and DS9 are poor, but with char­ac­ters estab­lished they improved massively. The per­petual prob­lem with new Doctor Who is that each series intro­duces a new assist­ant or new Doctor which causes prob­lems for devel­op­ing stor­ies. So in light of that, the cur­rent shal­low­ness of the char­ac­ters in Bonekickers is understandable.

It would also be easy to go through and pick every point that made me laugh dur­ing the show. I could do the same for 1960s era Batman. Like pick­ing apart Batman I’m not sure there’d be much point to it. There are some prob­lems though. There are cer­tain assump­tions about real­ity which have to hold. It might be pos­sible to have a Bat-microscope which can view inside atoms, but you can bet Batman will have to use his open eye to view it. Similarly there are cer­tain basic archae­olo­gical assump­tions and this clip shows where they get it wrong.

The line about ‘get in the trench or out of it’ is an echo of what had been said to the archae­olo­gist earlier in the show. That’s not been com­men­ted on much because the bit where they yank out the wood has caused howls of deri­sion. I think this is fair because prior to this jar­gon and tech­nobabble was get­ting dropped to show how they were ser­i­ous archae­olo­gists. The pub­lic know that wood rots and this isn’t plaus­ible. My reac­tion would be if it’s the holy cross then surely all bets are off, but people don’t think like that. There have to be some basic found­a­tions which the drama is built on and this scene breaks them.

That aside, if you look at the assump­tions Bonekickers uses then it’s actu­ally very pos­it­ive towards archae­ology. The pro­gramme shows arche­olo­gists in a largely flat­ter­ing light. They appear almost nor­mal. The reason the Head of the Department is odi­ous is that real archae­olo­gists don’t go chas­ing media atten­tion. This comes up a couple of times.

The tech­nobabble emphas­ises that this is a men­tally demand­ing pro­fes­sion. Often engin­eers or bio­lo­gists in TV shows are shown giv­ing things their best guess. In con­trast the archae­olo­gists in this series Know What They Are Talking About. They have a wide range of skill sets, but this is the basis of how they know stuff rather than just mak­ing it up.

Two of the four cent­ral char­ac­ters are from eth­nic minor­it­ies. I don’t know of a single archae­olo­gical depart­ment in the UK that has more than one non-white lec­turer. I would be delighted if that’s down to my ignor­ance rather an accur­ate reflec­tion of real­ity. Nonetheless uni­ver­sit­ies as a whole and archae­ology in par­tic­u­lar are strug­gling to recruit ethnic-minorities onto courses, which isn’t going to help rep­res­ent­a­tion at staff levels.

The assump­tions aren’t all help­ful. Bonekickers lives in its own fin­an­cial uni­verse so the lab, which serves the same func­tion as the Batcave or Torchwood Hub, is amaz­ingly well equipped. This is prob­ably a dra­matic neces­sity. Carbon dates and post-ex ana­lysis needs to be sup­plied fast to keep the story mov­ing, but that means that Wessex University must have a bot­tom­less pit of money for the archae­ology depart­ment. It’s also amus­ing that the lead char­ac­ter lives on Bath’s Royal Crescent. This must mean she’s inde­pend­ently wealthy, but there’s also the assump­tion that the work­ers have a reas­on­able wage, which many field archae­olo­gists will find hard to swal­low.

There are oddit­ies. The insist­ence that they have an archae­olo­gical con­sult­ant seems a bit po-faced. Thanks to Daniel Petts at the PAS, I know Mark Horton has been say­ing what his role was. Star Trek also has sci­entific con­sult­ants who they ask about phys­ics before decid­ing the prob­lem can be solved by run­ning warp power through the deflector. I don’t think they make a big deal of it though. On the plus side next week’s epis­ode might bear some resemb­lance to a pro­ject Mark Horton has been work­ing on con­cern­ing a ship found in the Bristol chan­nel. That sounds like a way of get­ting the polit­ical implic­a­tions of archae­ology out for dis­cus­sion. He also says that it’s funnier.

They say a good wine critic is judged by the wine he rejects. Certainly the safe option would be to pan Bonekickers and thus imply that my work is far super­ior. Perhaps there are med­ics who berat­ing Green Wing for its unreal­ism. I think that would be miss­ing the point and the same goes for Bonekickers. It’s not an out-and-out com­edy but I don’t think it is meant to be entirely ser­i­ous either, else it’d be called some­thing like The Unsilent Grave.