Saturday, October 23, 2010

Why my niece and nephew are getting this

The Book of Kells is considered Ireland's most precious treasure.

Looking at it really does make the eyeballs bleed, in the best way possible. When they talk about works of art making people cry, instead of thinking of about Michaelangelo, I think of the nameless scribes who made the Book of Kells.

Last year an animated movie was released called The Secret of Kells. It relates a fictional story about the making of the book, full of little details aimed to please Medievalists and book lovers every where. For example, in the 8th century an Irish scribe wrote a poem about himself and his little cat Pangur Bán. The little cat in the movie is named, of course, Pangur Bán.

Anyhoo, the animation is jaw-dropping. Absolutely gorgeous. Most interesting of all, the animation is inspired by the art in the Book of Kells. It is at times ornate, rich, with jewel-like detail.

My favorite bits, though, are the bits that use Medieval approaches to depth; the landscapes are flattened, linear, objects and buildings are shown from multiple perspectives at the same time (e.g., from the side and from above).

Like Medieval art, the movie avoids 'true' single-point perspective. Seeing it was a great reminder of the many ways that images can tell stories; the Western ideas of perspective and naturalism are not our only option!

Plus, the movie was a love story written for a book, a book that loved images as much as it loved words. And that's why my niece and nephew are getting it. The movie, that is.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

When does memory become history?

And by history, I mean the kind that people put in museums. How long does it take, and how long should it take, for museums to start educating people about certain events?

There's obviously a whole shebang of reasons that a particular subject becomes the focus of a museum; the social and political influences are too numerous to name. But, the last time I was in Greece and Italy there was one museum that I wanted to go to that just did not exist: the World War II museum.

At some places in Greece, the history of WWII was more apparent and alive in local legend than in others. Crete's a good example, where the German attacks left behind a truely staggering mythology, complete with gun-toting grannies and knife-wielding civilians. Not to mention a number of memorial cemeteries.

The grave of legendary archaeologist, spy and adventurer John Pendlebury, located at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery at Souda Bay.

While I was in Italy there were a good number of WWII memorials and the events of the war were fairly easy to learn about if you knew where to look and who to ask. They also turned up in unexpected places:

The amazing shrine of Father Marcello Morgante in the crypt of the cathedral in Ascoli Piceno features a series of mosaics commemorating his life. One of them shows the priest and other locals giving aid to British and American escaped prisoners of war.

I reckon that most Americans don't know about the two gigantic war cemeteries that our government pays to keep meticuliously groomed outside of Rome and Florence.

When I visited this summer, a gregarious guard at the cemetery in Florence said that of the 200 people to show up that day, only three (my party) were Americans. That was a bit sobering, although if it weren't for the Marine in my midst I wouldn't have known about the site either.

At what point will the memorials give way to museums, I wonder?

Friday, September 24, 2010

Interview with Ron Stroud Part 1.2

A while back I posted the first part of my on-going interview with Ron Stroud, in honor of the Regular Year Members of 1959-60. Unfortunately, I left out part of it! So here is the last fascinating tidbit associated with the first part of our interview. It's short but definitely sweet. I asked Ron how he traveled to Greece and what it was like - plane, train, what? He answered:

"I traveled from New York to Athens in August 1959 on the Greek liner, Queen Frederiki.

The Queen Frederica in 1967. For an idea of what the experience would have been like, check out this awesome video.

Pierre MacKay and the other Fulbrighters came on the other Greek liner, the Olympia. Also on the Frederiki were fellow-students Bill Wyatt, and his wife Sandra, Jim Wiseman (his wife Lucy came later), Patrick Henry and possibly one or two others. Fellow passengers were the new Director of Athens College, Dr. Rice and his wife, and the Greek poet, Athanasios Maskelaris, from whom I had Modern Greek lessons on board. The trip took 14 days and we all got the false impression that the long journey was almost over as soon as we cleared Gibraltar, but then we stopped in Barcelona, Palermo (where WW II bombing was still very evident), Naples, and Messina and it seemed to take forever to get to Peiraieus.

I was in a cabin in the very bottom of the ship with five old Greek men who had recently retired and were returning to their villages to live off the proceeds of their US Social Security. I was the only non-Greek at our table for eight, which was provided for lunch and dinner with a large flagon of very bitter retsina. The menu for lunch and dinner was printed in Greek and English and I still have one as a souvenir.

Queen Frederica menu from the 1960s.

We had a Greek orchestra, Greek dances, and Greek movies every evening; I remember Melina Mercouri in "Stella." I relieved the boredom of the journey by a shipboard romance with a young American woman who was sailing to join her parents in Athens, where her father worked for the CIA, and she was going to join the US Economic Mission. The Truman plan was still very active in Greece and the US Mission had taken over the huge city block occupied by the Tameion Building, just off Syntagma, and containing the swish watering hole Zonars, where many Americans hung out. The US Embassy was at Vasilissis Sophias and Herodes Atticus, catty-corner from the Benaki Museum and across the street from the headquarters of the Evzones.

Greece was not in sight on the eve of our arrival but I was too excited to sleep and around 3.00 a.m. went down the hall outside our cabin to where a member of the crew was standing smoking next to a large open door. The sea was rushing by and on the horizon barely visible was the outline of a mountain. "Ellada[Greece]" he said laconically. It was Cape Malea and he seemed as excited to be here as I was.

We were met at the dock in Peiraieus by Colin Edmonson, the Secretary of the School. The Secretary normally met arriving members of the School in those days. We had little baggage, because you had to go down to Customs to clear your belongings the next day, so Colin bundled us all into the School Land Rover, a venerable gray vehicle, with a large spare tire on the hood, that had been donated by Dr. George Miles of the American Numismatic Society, father of Mimsy Miles and future father-in-law of the future Director, James McCredie. It so happened that McCredie himself was there with Edmonson because they had been out on a topographic excursion with Arthur Steinberg. The reason I mention these three is that as we drove into Athens and the Acropolis loomed into sight, we all in the back seats were stretching our necks and uttering excited exclamations, while Edmonson, McCredie, and Steinberg merely drove by without looking. Hardened veterans."

The Parthenon in 1959. This amazing picture from here.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Good night, sweet trench

Alas, lovely trench PC 42's days have come to a close.

Actually, they came to a close at the beginning of August, but, well, I haven't quite got around to commemorating the trench's final moments.

In the end, PC 42 was excavated down to bedrock which revealed several walls and a good deal of construction evidence. We found a fair number of post-holes and cuttings in the bedrock and a lot of levelling fill.

Most of PC 42's scarps were a nightmare, thanks to tree trunks and the ancient dumped debris that makes sculpting scarps into vertical faces - 'like glass'- the bane of undergraduates.

On the last day of fieldwork, a tarp was laid in the trench and all the dirt we had removed during the season was dumped back in. This is called 'backfilling' and is done in order to protect the trench from the elements, as well as clandestinii (looters). Watching all that dirt go back in - well, it hurts the heart a little to see it done.

Backfilling at Poggio Colla in 2004.

It also hurts everywhere else a little, too. Actually, a lot. I'll be honest. Backfilling was the one day where the physical pain was so bad I wanted to cry. It was a nice reminder that age and decrepitude even conquers archaeologists.

Ultimately I did survive Backfill Day, though. So too did PC 42's students, who were total champs and made the season really spectacular.

Thanks, guys: Cassie, Kristen, Morgan, me, Sarah, Jack.

For now, PC 42 sits lonely upon its wooded hill, tree roots already weaseling down into the soft empty soil that has replaced its 2300 years of stratigraphy. The Mugello Valley is a quieter place, without the hoard of filthy American students stomping about in a fine impersonation of 'Pig Pen.' I went on to see a large part of Italy over the subsequent three weeks (more on this later), but in the end, the Mugello still holds pride of place as my favorite part of Italy. Mushroom hunters, wild boars and lightening storms just aren't the same anywhere else!

Me and the Mugello at dusk, as seen from the amazing restaurant 'Casa di Caccia.'

Saturday, August 21, 2010


Currently I am in Campania and the sky is the never-changing cloudless blue that I became familiar with in Greece. A few weeks ago, though, it came as a shock to find that excavations sometimes actually have to deal with rain. Sure, I knew rain fell on British excavations and on Jamestown and stuff; but having never experienced it myself, it didn't seem like an archaeological reality. I was spoiled in Greece, where it stops raining in early June and then, well, that's it - no more moisture for the rest of the summer. The Mugello Valley, on the other hand, turned out to be wetter than I anticipated.

At first I was a the whole covering-the-trenches-with-tarps-at-night thingy. And then I found out why it was necessary.

Bailing out PC 40.

In the end, the tarps were not wholly effective and some trenches got a bit...damp. This was especially unfortunate for those students digging through a deep layer made up of dark, ashy soil. Which turned into a gruesome greyish-brown ooze. They ended up having to sift the mud by hand.
Robert of PC 41, covered in black slime.

A PC 41 bucket. Yuck.

Alas, my own PC 42 did not escape unscathed, either. Yet somehow my students were awesome enough to stay relatively clean despite it all.
PC 42's sparkling clean Jack and Cassie excavate a muddy rubble pit that turned out to be a robbing trench for yet another wall, removed and filled in during the Hellenistic period.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Where's my motorino helmet?

The student diggers of Poggio Colla have no idea how lucky they are.

Why? Because they get a four-day weekend in the middle of a six-week season. This luxury is generally unheard of. But the best part, of course, is that since the students get a four-day weekend, so do the supervisors.

As much as I love the Mugello Valley and its greenery, I felt it was time to get out and to do something touristy and beachy. Thus I took off for a sunny holiday on the Tuscan island of Elba with Angela Trentecoste, the site zooarchaeologist (animal bone specialist).

Yes, that Elba.

Perhaps because I've gotten more elderly, it's been a while since I've had any haphazard Mediterranean adventures - my days of island hopping by myself in the Cyclades are nearly ten years past. But Elba and Angela provided plenty to make up for it. Such as:

Campeggio. We borrowed some camping gear (thanks, Phil!) and set up our little tent in the rather interesting Camping Aquaviva. This involved crushing a pillow over my head at night to keep out the blaring 'Macarena' and likewise crushing a pillow over my head to keep out the ear-plug defying pigeon cooing directly above our tent at 6am. (At least I could throw rocks at the pigeon).

We rented a motorino and toured the north and west of the island. This involved various adventures such as driving on a windy cliffside road in the dark with no real headlamp and getting entirely lost in the steep cobbled medieval alleys of Portoferraio, until some nice angel of mercy led us out to freedom on her own motorino.

There was plenty of swimming to be had and I actually got to do some diving, something I'd not yet done in the Mediterranean. There was a decent bit of wildlife, to my surprise: eels, baracuda, octopus, manta ray, grouper, etc.

Don't think, of course, that it was all fun and games. I got the requisite share of antiquities in at medieval Marciana, perched on a hill, where we were able to visit sparse 13th-century chapels and the island's little archaeological museum.

Sure, this pottery doesn't look like much, but I've spent the summer obsessed with these bowls and their sharply outturned rims. Many of them rest on pedestal feet and have elaborate profiles, including the fancy one we found in our trench. They're called piatelli.

And somehow, by complete accident, every place we stopped to eat had drop-dead-benissimo food and gorgeous views.

Dinner and a view at the little harbour of Enfola.

I probably wouldn't recommend Elba to visitors since it was a tourist mecca more than anything else, but for a four-day escape from the Mugello, it perfectly hit the spot.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Hands Off: Tools As Artifacts at the Archaeological Dig

From the beginning of its existence as a discipline, archaeology has been about objects. While its true that for many projects the dirt itself is starting to get the same respect as the items that are uncovered in it, archaeologists cannot help but remain object-oriented. All day you look for artifacts in the soil- tiles, pottery, worked stone, metals, weaving implements, tools. Your day is centered around 'things.' Your hands are constantly touching and feeling objects to help in their identification - is this ceramic or is it a rock? Your eyes and your body are constantly on tippy-toe, waiting, hanging on the potential appearance of 'things' with every passing clod of earth.

But of course, modern 'things' are just as important as the ancient ones in an archaeologist's daily life; they can receive the same sort of intense focus, adulation and worship as the ancient treasures themselves. I'm talking about tools.

Everyone knows what its like to have a work utensil that's used day after day. It's quite easy to develop a relationship with it, whether it's a crappy keyboard that you grow to loathe or a favorite pen that you jealously guard. It can be a major bummer if your favorite item gets lost, or breaks, or is stolen by a co-worker. It's the same way with an archaeologist's tools. At most excavations, there's often a morning rush as everyone tries to grab their favorite things before someone else does. There's a race for handpicks, for dustpans, for bristle brushes, for the lightest shovel and the sturdiest bucket. These tools can cause a lot of unacknowledged jostling, secret irritation, silent glowering and intense satisfaction.

I myself have become quite fond of the old rounded trowel I found in the tool shed this summer. I bet every person on the Poggio Colla excavation has their own secret attachment. Some of those human-tool relationships are a bit more obvious.

Take PC 42's student-digger Morgan, for example, who has a tool with a story. And a name - Tiger. Most of the students went off to Home Depot or Lowes to buy their trowels before they came to Italy, which means that most of the trowels look pretty much the same. But Morgan found one at her own house. It turns out that her parents once built a deli and her dad was tiling the interior. He shaped his trowel to make it more useful for laying tile, in contrast to the flat brick-laying trowel. And so Morgan decided to adopt her Dad's tool, which he had created and inadvertently imbued with sentiment.

Sure, you can only use it with one hand because if you flip the blade you'll destroy everything in its path. It's a vicious weapon and can bite the hand that wields it; it's a trowel that demands respect. But it's master is Morgan.

Some of the tools are a little more serious. There are even a few that only staff members are allowed to use, for obvious insurance reasons. Like the ax.

PC 42, the ax in use. As it turns out, trench supervisor Kyle used to be a competitive lumber jack. Be gone, tree stump!
And when these really serious tools break, waiting for their replacements can leave everyone on edge. The recent shattering of the ax-handle was just such an affair. At least now we've got it back, and rotten tree stumps are once more flying off the side of the hill.
But besides being mean, lean, archaeological-context-destruction machines, our tools can be an endless source of entertainment as well. They can make a person happy, when not giving blisters and callouses or accidentally stabbing you.

PC 42 student-digger Jack displays the proper way to double-fist the handpick.
While our focus on the ancient objects may be well-recognized, the archaeologist's daily obsession with modern tools is, I think, just as great. Um, unless it's just me.
Keep your paws off my trowel.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Eye Candy in Tuscany

Tuscany, it you believe the advertising, is the land of sunflowers. Apparently it must be so, since I've sent many postcards home, covered in lemon-yellow flowers. But maybe it's time I actually proved that those postcards reflect reality.

I actually took this picture. The sunflowers are bigger than my head, like the burritos at that Mexican place across the street from OSU.

There's a little valley between two of the dig houses, with a tiny dell at the bottom cut by a clear creek. I have to walk through the shaded hollow every day to get to dinner. The fields are planted with sunflowers and its been really extraordinary to watch them morph from green stubble to brilliant eye candy.

Reasons why Etruscan excavations rule? This is the view from my bedroom window.

...and the final proof that I speak the truth. This is me and some sunflowers on my way to yet another astonishing Italian dinner. Woo!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Trench Talk

Just a quick update from Poggio Colla and sweltering, blistering Tuscany. It's hot! Things are going along well in the trench. In fact, today was by far our most exciting day yet. Trench 42 now has several different walls and all sorts of spaces in need of excavation. If you want to read more about it, check out the little blog I had to write for the project's website.

So you want to know what happens in my day? We head up every day before the students at 6am so the supervisors get a little time to get some serious work done.

The trench supervisors of PC 43, taking advantage of the dirt pile.

Then the students arrive and we attack the dirt with all we've got, stand around looking perplexed, or play trench games (like 'Guess what so-and-so was like in highschool'). Either that or we're stuffing our faces at Cookie Break.

Members of PC 42 (my trench!) revealing a Hellenistic-era wall. Thank the Lords of Cobal for the Italian forestry service, which declared that the chestnut trees on the hill are protected, and thus ensuring that we're protected, too - from the sun and the hell-sent kamikaze flies that come with it.

The students have had all sorts of workshops, learning about everything from roofing systems to pottery to settlement patterns.

Angela Trentacoste, the Bone Lady, teaches the students about zooarchaeology.

Stratigraphically, things have really picked up in the last few days. In fact, there's been an actual flurry of archaeological activity. Picks flying, trowels slicing, sieves swishing. Tomorrow I promise I'll have exciting things to report, before it's off to Elba or some other beachy place for our four day weekend.

This is what an archaeological flurry looks like. Myself and trench assistant supervisor Mike Guarino.