Saturday, December 19, 2009

No snow down South

I missed out on this snowball fight in DC today. It's not quite the magnitude of Virginia Tech's annual Civilian vs. Core snowball battle, but it still looks like fun. Even if a DC detective did show up with a gun.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Once and Future King

I was just doing some research about the First Cemetery in Athens as part of a pseudo-project to collect/document the graves of archaeologists in Greece. I was utterly dumbfounded to realize that T.H. White is buried there in Athens' enormous graveyard.

T.H. White is considered one of the most influential and important fantasy writers of all time. While his name might not sound familiar, everyone knows his story. If you've ever seen Disney's The Sword and the Stone, then you can thank T.H. White.

The Sword and the Stone is part of T.H. White's larger story, The Once and Future King, which is consistently cited as one of the greatest fantasy stories, ever.

It is the 20th century's retelling of the tale of King Arthur. White's story has impacted countless readers and SF authors, from Tolkien onward. Wikipedia notes, "J.K. Rowling has said that T. H. White's writing strongly influenced the Harry Potter books; several critics have compared Rowling's character Albus Dumbledore to White's absent-minded Merlyn, and Rowling herself has described White's Wart as 'Harry's spiritual ancestor.'"

The fact that White is buried in the First Cemetery, it seems, is complete happenstance. Apparently, he was on board a ship in the Piraeus harbor when he died of a 'heart ailment.' He never made it home to England.

I'll have to get a photo next year, unless some of the Athens peeps feel like sending one along sooner.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Graves of Archaeologists

I was just looking over Troels Myrup's blog Iconoclasm and noticed a post he did a few months back entitled 'Staying Behind.' It featured the gravestone of G.L. Harding and reflected on the fact that many foreign archaeologists end up being buried in the land where they dug, rather than the one in which they were born.

While I was on the Regular Program, I tried to document all the graves of archaeologists that we came across. Some are buried on the very site they excavated:

Ekrem Akurgal, one of the most important experts on Turkish archaeology, is buried at the site of Old Smyrna (in the modern city of Izmir). Check him out in this video.

Humfrey Payne is buried just down the hill from Mycenae. He was the director of the British School from 1929 until 1936 when he died of blood poisoning. His wife was Dilys Powell, a journalist who also wrote the pithy Villa Ariadne, a lively view of the archaeologists who worked at Knossos. Humfrey Payne also excavated the Sanctuary of Hera at Perachora where I gave a site report.

The gravestones of many archaeologists reference the ancient world or the work they did in life:

Carl and Elizabeth Blegen, whom I have discussed numerous times on this site, are buried beneath a headstone that mimics the grave stelae from Mycenae.

The grave of Heinrich Schliemann, the excavator of Troy and Mycenae is of course the most recognizable example of this. His tomb, in the shape of a temple, is decorated with scenes from the mythic Greek past and also with scenes of excavation. Ancient and modern heroics.

An extraordinary number of famous names are buried together in the First Cemetery in Athens. Because the cemetery is Orthodox, the burials of the non-Orthodox (foreigners) are separated off by a fence. Walking through that collection of graves is an exceedingly strange experience. Headstone after headstone bears a familiar name. Famous archaeologists from the earlier days of the discipline lie beside others who have made a more recent impact.

William Bell Dinsmoor, for example, is famous for his architectural studies. His son (also named William Dinsmoor) followed in his footsteps, and I always have to do a double take when I see their names, just to make sure I'm looking at Sr. or Jr. Whenever I hear them mentioned, I will always think of Margie Miles saying 'Dinsmoor' while pointing up to some architectural oddity.

Adolf Furtwangler is a total legend. His impact on the study of the ancient world was enormous. John Boardman remarked that he was "probably the greatest classical archaeologist of all time."

Eugene Vanderpoole was the Mellon Professor (the Professor of Archaeology) at the School exactly 50 years ago. It was he who dragged Pierre McKay all over Greece. As Kostis Kourelis has pointed out, his house was considered something of an architectural superstar in Athens. I most frequently heard about Vanderpool in reference to life at the School during WWII. He was placed in a concentration camp and survived, but his health was never the same after. Whereas Furtwangler was a legend for his scholarship, in the many tales that I heard, Vanderpool was an altogether different sort, a giant, much beloved, a war hero. His presence and heroism still hang over the School, especially in the tender words of those who remember him.

And then there is Bert Hodge Hill and his wife Ida Thallon Hill. Ida has always been of great interest to me because of her pioneering role as one of the first women to ever excavate on the Greek mainland. The physical presence (books, furniture, etc.) that the Hills and Blegens left at the American School is of endless fascination to me. But most importantly of all, the Hills paid for me to attend the Regular Year Program by generously endowing a fellowship. Thank you, Bert Hodge Hill!

While at the American School, the monumental personages buried there at the First Cemetery became much more than names to me. They suddenly became the teachers and mentors of friends and of my own teachers and mentors. They became the topics of stories, reminiscences and School myth. They stopped being just recognizable names on book covers and beneath article titles. They're no longer just bibliography.

The First Cemetery is extraordinary for the simple fact that it preserves and also recreates a community. Granted, most of the people in that fenced-off section were of the same social class, almost all were foreigners, and all were non-Orthodox (mostly Protestant and Catholic) - they were already bound to run in the same circles. But a large percentage were part of an intellectual family tree, a community with connections across nationalities and zig-zagging relationships down through decade after decade. They're all there together under the shady pine trees. Young archaeologists can visit the First Cemetery and literally see their social and academic ancestry there before them. Name after name is instantly recognizable and meaningful. It occurs to me that nowhere else in the world will I ever know so many names of the dead in one place, in one cemetery. Nowhere else will I have so many connections to so many headstones.

What an odd and uncanny thing!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

What prospectus?

I've been a little lax with the posting lately, I know, but I've been terribly distracted these days by my prospectus. For those non-academics out there, the prospectus is basically your dissertation proposal. It explains what topic you are going to research, why no one else has done it your way before, and how you're going to go about things. In my department, the prospectus is a 20-30-page paper that is presented to the department at a public 'defense.' Although my colloquium (i.e. public defense) is not until December 10th, I'm supposed to turn in the paper itself at the end of this week.

It hasn't been going very well. I've been struggling a lot with the paper and ultimately with what I want or need (future career-wise) my dissertation to be. I'm still not exactly sure that I know what I'm doing, or that I'm at all happy with what I have produced at this point.

So what did I do last night to clear my head?

Yes, that's right. I went to see Megadeth!
The show began on an interesting note with one of the opening bands. They'd set up these frames with fabric stretched over them to cover stuff behind them on the stage - identical frames were posted at either side of the band. At first I couldn't figure out what the image was:

And then it became clear that it was an image of a dead, mutilated woman, in a flowing robe, arranged poetically on the ground.

I love when people say there is no such thing as the 'male gaze.' It's bad enough in hip-hop, but I'd forgotten the physical violence associated with the 'male gaze' so frequent in metal. I officially loathe the band Suicide Silence.

But anyways, the person who I don't loathe, is this guy:

Dave Mustaine! Snarling champion of my ninth grade year!

I used to watch the video for 'Sweating Bullets' over and over and over in 9th grade: that was back in the day when you'd have a blank VCR tape in the machine so you could super-fast hit 'record' whenever one of your favorite songs came on MTV. It was unreal to see Megadeth standing in front of me, in real life.

Dave Mustaine is a god. Look, he even has a Guitar of Light:

Today I'm still partially deaf, my throat is hoarse from screaming, and my body aches like I'm decrepit. In other words, it was aaaww-suum! *singsong voice*

I went with Dallas and Brian. Afterwards we had midnight bacon-cheddar-cheeseburgers. Now it's noon and I'm wondering how I'm supposed to start coherently writing. I think I might just watch 'Sweating Bullets' a few more times instead.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


Sunday, November 1, 2009


Katie and the Cumberland Plateau.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Blue Devil of Denver

I was just reading about Denver Airport's controversial piece of public art, the Blue Mustang. A bunch of people want it removed because it's scary, and people don't like 'scary' when they're about to get on airplanes.

They say it looks like a demon.

Which is why it's so awesome! DUH!

How totally badass is it that Denver has a piece of public art that looks like it should be on the cover of a metal album?! I feel like Ronnie James Dio should be sitting on it's back with a big glowing sword.

Coolest work of public art, EVER.

Friday, October 9, 2009

My view




Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Mary Douglas Lives Here: China Mieville's 'The City and the City'

****This is an essay that contains major spoilers. Do not keep reading if you don't want the book ruined.****

Reading this book made me think of Fritz Graf’s office. A few years ago, when I was slightly-haggard but still fresh from a Master’s program, I met with one of my professors, Dr. Graf, in his office to talk about some of my research interests. Back in those days, I was super-excited about all things liminal (crossroads, gates, thresholds, boundaries) and the religious prescriptions associated with them. Dr. Graf gave me a reading list to investigate and near the top was anthropologist Mary Douglas’ Purity and Danger (1966).

The reason I bring this memory up is because I thought China Mieville’s new novel, The City and the City, perfectly actualized some of the main tenants in Mary Douglas’ study, especially her concept of symbolic boundary-maintenance and place. In Purity and Danger, Douglas explored concepts of taboo and the unclean. Her stance was basically this: we all view the world through a culturally specific paradigm, a framework that makes up the shape of our worlds. Within this framework, everything has its place. Order is created. This order can refer to many things; for example, it can be of a more symbolic social nature or a concrete physical one.

Think Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman when she couldn’t get help to buy clothes on Rodeo Drive because she didn't look up to snuff. Think of the weird feeling you would get if your garden rake and shovel were stored next to your bed. Or if someone set up a hotdog stand on top of somebody’s grave in a cemetery, and people lined up amongst the headstones to get French fries with that. What if there was a white polar bear running loose on a tropical island?

When things are not in their proper place, disorder reigns. And disorder makes people and groups of people highly uneasy. This is especially true if something is neither on one side of a boundary nor on the other, but in-between. That, apparently, is the ultimate in sketchiness. Because (Douglas and many others would argue),* if you can’t put something into a certain category or place, the framework starts to tremble, plaster falls from its ceiling, cracks appear in its walls. It makes people upset.

~Massive Spoilers Henceforth~

And so we come back to China Mieville. His new book is a detective novel, one that is read widely in Sci-Fi/Fantasy circles even though some cry that it is NOT Sci-Fi/Fantasy. The story follows an investigator (Borlu) who is trying to solve the murder of a young archaeologist (eep!). But ever so slowly Mieville’s description of the city in which the action occurs (Beszel) becomes increasingly strange, as his protagonist talks of ‘unseeing’ buildings and vehicles and even people. Borlu’s thoughts shy away from pedestrians he passes on the street who aren’t there. There is reference to another city within Beszel, and I have to say I struggled for some time with whether or not this other place (Ul Qoma) was real - a ghost city, a magic vision, an echo of the past imprinted on the present? Eventually it becomes clear – and here I am spoilering the main premise of the book so stop reading while you can – that the physical space of the city is split between TWO cities, two social and political entities that stand directly next to each other, intertwine and overlap. It’s as if West Berlin had pieces of itself beyond the Wall and some neighborhoods of East Berlin had been left on the West’s side. The citizens of Mieville's two cities have learned to recognize an incredibly complex and nuanced series of symbols – in architecture, in clothing styles, in accents, in sounds, even down to human ways of walking - that indicate whether a person is in their own city or not. Identity and categorical signifies are crucial. Everyone and everything from the ‘foreign’ city must be ignored, unseen, unheard.

How is this ‘unseeing’ policed? By Breach, an interstitial bureau that stands (figuratively, not physically) between the two cities in its own liminal zone. The officers of ‘Breach’ maintain order by disappearing those who illegally cross the boundaries between the two places, whether by standing on the street and talking to a person in the other city or by accidentally walking into an abandoned lot that belongs to the other city. Breach exists to patrol the interstices.

The entire world that Mieville has so richly created is mind-bending. The ‘secret’ is ultimately revealed when the reader understands the shape of the world; when the reader gleans that the order of Mieville’s paradigm is a strange but deeply seated social construction that actually affects the way his characters process sensory data. At the end of the book, the city’s entire framework nearly collapses as the borders and boundaries dissolve. Mieville’s most outstanding moment comes when one particular character (the bad guy) has disguised himself in a way that hides those categorical signifiers that keep everything in place. No one can tell which city the bad guy is in, making him a devastating threat that no one can acknowledge. Around him people look, glance away, become confused, leave in great discomfort and distress - afraid that they are (but unsure if they are) ‘breaching.’ The danger this person poses is profound, taboo via failure to maintain place and boundary.

To me The City and the City took place inside Purity and Danger. The one illuminates the concepts of the other, although Mieville succeeded in doing so without all of Mary Douglas’ dirt. Incidentally, Mieville actually has a Bachelor’s in Social Anthropology from Cambridge. Of course, I was also happy to see the role of archaeology in the book, with professors at the excavation (in Ul Qoma) talking of stratigraphical inconsistencies and the Harris Matrix. (As an aside, Mieville never wrapped up a mystery involving the antiquities and the ancient culture they were excavating – I find this intensely bothersome. Still.)

In the end, I feel like The City and The City is one of those books that changes the shape inside your head. In many ways, the story was way too slow and the plot was rather a letdown. But perhaps that is the point. Halfway through you’re convinced and paranoid that there’s a mystical ghost city with a fantastical ancient past; you’re sure that there’s a huge Lost-worthy reveal waiting around the corner for the frantic characters. You think, in fact, that you’re reading something that fits the usual pattern of Sci-Fi/Fantasy. But then, when the who-dunnit arrives, it’s mundane, disappointing, pedestrian. It’s so…normal. Maybe, after all, you had interpreted all the Sci-Fi signifiers incorrectly. Maybe you were really just reading a detective story all along and didn’t know it. And perhaps that is the brilliance of Mieville’s effort, that not only does he disorient his characters amongst the symbolic boundaries of his Two Cities, but his readers are lost too, but this time in the interstices of genre.

* For some other biblio cf., A. van Gennep, The Rites of Passage (1909; Chicago 1960); S. Johnston, “Crossroads,” ZPE 88 (1991), 217-224; C. Faraone, Talismans and Trojan Horses: Guardian Statues in Ancient Greek Myth and Ritual (Oxford 1992).

Thursday, September 24, 2009

In Which Katie Tries to Remember How to Ride a Bike

Yesterday I got back on my bike for the first time in 9 months. This hiatus was not by choice, of course. The reason I had not gone for a ride in so long was because Athens is not a particularly bike-friendly city nor is it particularly safe to ride in other parts of Greece. (Some of you may remember that time I got chased by gypsies near Tiryns, that one time I rented a bike in the Argolid. That's another story, though.)

Now, some communities are trying to change bike-life in Greece. There are definitely more bike rallies these days that are raising awareness (e.g. Thessaloniki). Rallies may not be common, but Athens actually had one (while I was away on an ASCSA trip), so I can verify that the Greek bike-rally in not a complete urban myth. It looks like now a company leads little cyclist trips in different parts of the country, a great idea, but its statement that "Greece is ideal for cyclists" borders on the absurd.

Anyways, I didn't take my bike to Greece with me (although I plan on doing so next time I go), and since I've gotten home from Greece I've pretty much been on the road traveling all about, sans bike. Plus my hubs had gotten so loose my bicycle was pretty un-ride-able. So yesterday I took it out to Apalachee Cycle, an awesome and super friendly shop out on the traintracks in Dacula.

Got my bike all gussied up with a tune-up and finally took it out for a spin. 

Monday, September 21, 2009


The poster job is officially over, and now I'm back in Atlanta for a few weeks, just in time for the torrential rains. Although I have gotten some reading done (Hello, Art History and Its Methods: A Critical Anthology), I have also spent some time driving in circles because the impassable roads are dangerously flooded, as well as standing knee-high in insulation, trying to deal with the leak in my mom's attic.

The swiftly-flowing river in my mom's backyard.

Since I didn't write many blog posts while I was out on the road, I figured now would be a good time to present the sorts of things I saw. Such as:

Some pretty cool architecture.

The Electric Slide, here at a street-fair (with DJ!) that was put on by a university.

The open road, and beautiful countryside. Route 29 in Virginia, my home-state.

Local flavor. The mosaics of Philadelphia's Magic Garden.

Posters and swine flu. The school where this sale took place already had over 600 documented cases of swine flu - give me a week and I'll let you know if I got it.

My partner, Ian. Reliable and hard-working, I saw my partner Ian for all 24-hours of the day, for 4.5 weeks. He can lift poster books like nobody's business, and drive a truck like a champ. It's he who I must thank for getting me on the poster tour. Thanks, Ian!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Super Bummed

Thanks to my mom, I grew up listening to Peter, Paul and Mary. They really were a major part of the soundtrack of my childhood. Today Mary died, and I can't tell you how bummed I am about it. She was always my ideal and model for the perfect female singing voice.

For me, 'Leaving on a Jet Plane' was first and foremost sung by a woman. I always found it to be very empowering when I was 10 years old because she was a woman who was doing the jet-setting.

And who could forget this number, the most significant tear-jerker of every childhood:

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Ithaca, New York: The Social Dynamics of the Poster Sale

One thing that has surprised me about the poster job, more than anything else, is the social codes embedded in poster buying. It never even really occurred to me, but now that I work poster sales, I am blown away by how seriously crucial it is to the college experience and how much you can learn about social norms through the whole poster process.

First, of course, is the sheer number of people who come to the poster sale, and who actually wait all year for it. They show up and say things like "Last year you had such-and-such a poster and it was on sale for such-and-such a price? Have you still got it?" Hell, I vividly remember going to the poster sale when I was a freshman in 1997, and plastering my room with Casablanca posters thereafter. The poster sale is actually an Event, an Event that's important because posters are vital in helping college kids create an identity.

That may sound like hyperbole, but it's really not! For a lot of these kids, it's their very first chance to decorate their space without parental input, and they choose subjects and images that convey important information about themselves. Sure, creating a certain mood and having a connection to the 'feeling' that posters create is a huge part of it. But so is making sure other people know what you're about and what you like. It's all bands, movies, quotes, and famous people. And in the end, there is a surprising amount of division along gender lines.

Girls buy this.

Dudes buy this

Now, it's no big secret that college males want to buy pictures of naked chicks for their walls, as one of this year's classy top sellers for frat boys attests:

The whole visual objectification of women is well-acknowledged. At the least most guys know that they should feel slightly ashamed about buying this sort of thing, thankfully. The above poster, when purchased, is usually tightly rolled up when brought to the register, or covered by a second, less offensive image. Naturally, I make sure to pull out the Nice Rack poster in a very visible manner, with a flourish, so that everyone in the near vicinity can catch a glimpse of what dude here is buying. But. I have to say, I have been much more horrified by what the women buy!

When it's not the black-and-white images of Kim Anderson's cutsey children dressed up like grown-ups, it's more often than not a picture of two people kissing in a romantic embrace. This I do not understand. Why do you want a picture of two strangers (not from your favorite movie or video or band) making out - on your wall?!

Here's some examples of the top sellers this year:

Any reference to Paris ups the sales instantly.

There two are entitled 'Urban Romance':

And who could forget:

Seriously. All of these. Top-sellers. And there's actually a LOT more that I didn't include here. In the end, 'the kiss' is objectified by women just as much as the female body is objectified by men. People always comment that men generally fixate on bodies while women instead fixate on the notion of romance. Sure. But nothing has made me more sure that this is culturally conditioned than working on the poster job. Why the hell are these images so popular? It's not just because part of buying a poster is the creation of a mood and a haven and a home. It's because the largest part of buying a poster is acquiring social and cultural identifiers that can be plastered on your wall for everyone to see. It communicates a message to other people who can recognize that message.

I don't know. My present poster partner Matt has said that if he ever went home with a girl who had one of these romance images on the wall, he would run the other direction. As fast as possible. So I guess in these cases women buy smoochy pics for other women. In fact, they sure do seem to buy them while in groups.