More notes in passing

Holiday continues! Thoughts continue to be in the form of brief notes!

  • The hits keep coming, assuming that by hits you mean Romanesque churches — as I do. Today, while wandering around Como itself, we stumbled across a neat little 11th-century church, although sadly it was closed and we couldn’t go in. And this church was not on the historic city maps, even though it was well within the area they covered. It was just so minor compared to the city’s other historic churches, I guess, that it was not included. Crazy.
  • Speaking of the less-mapped parts of medieval Como, we also came across a series of buildings that showed a rebuilding history like you wouldn’t believe. I did a certain amount of architectural history in my MA, and I can tell you want some of the scars on this architectural Frankenstein mean, but to make sense of its history? You’d need an expert. And again, no signs, no nothing, because compared to a lot of the other stuff there this is nothing.2016-06-29 15.34.202016-06-29 15.34.48
  • The Roman baths close at 2 PM on a weekday, which seems crazy to me but what do I know?
More notes in passing

Non-overlapping magisteria, or why Ben Carson is a bonehead but that doesn’t mean you aren’t

Welp, time to mock and belittle someone’s sincerely-held religious beliefs.

LAKEWOOD, CO - OCTOBER 29:  Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson speaks during a news conference before a campaign event at Colorado Christian University on October 29, 2015 in Lakewood, Colorado. Ben Carson was back on the campaign trail a day after the third republican debate held at the University of Colorado Boulder. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Ha ha ha I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about

So, the news has been full of reporting on and discussion of Republican presidential hopeful Ben Carson’s ridiculous statement about the pyramids. In case you missed it, he thinks they are not tombs at all but the granaries built by Joseph to hold the supplies stockpiled in the story of the seven fat years and the seven lean years.

On the one hand, this is obviously untrue. The pyramids are massive damn limestone mounds with proportionately not very much empty space inside them, and we have quite detailed information about their ritual, funerary function, not to mention the fact that we have pretty good information on Egyptian granaries.

The story here has generally been understood as either that Ben Carson, wotta bonehead or, more generally, the Republican party, wotta buncha boneheads. And while it certailny seems to be true that Ben Carson is a bonehead and the fact that the Republicans are willing to treat this bonehead seriously is not a hopeful sign, I don’t think this story illustrates it as clearly as people might like.

Because the “on the other hand” here is that, if Ben Carson believes some crazy stuff about the pyramids, he’s hardly alone. Lots of people believe nonsense about the pyramids — that they’re full of unspecified pyramid power, that they were built by aliens, that they conceal mystical secrets, etc., etc. Remember, Carson dropped his ignorant bombshell as a more plausible alternative to the idea that aliens dunnit. Which I guess it is.

Essentially, Carson is really talking about Aegypt, the mythological, magical approximation of the historical Egypt that is what most people actually care about. For Carson, Egypt isn’t really real — I mean, I’m sure he’s aware that it is a country and it has a history, but when he thinks about it he thinks about it mainly in terms of mythology. And I think that for most people, that’s the most important thing about a lot of historical civilisations — the same is true of the Maya, for instance, for whom popular discussion of their mystical significance must outnumber discussion of the actual history ten to one. People think things about Aegypt that they’d never think about the country they live in, because it’s not real. It’s a magical, faraway place.

All this is mostly harmless as long as you don’t wind up making decisions based on your mythological understanding — thinking about England and Scotland based on romantic songs rather than what those actual places are actually like, for instance, or settling your opinions on the situation in the middle east based on Biblical exegesis. I think that most people are aware that they don’t really know anything about these topics — they enjoy thinking about mystic secrets and yadda yadda, but they don’t really interact with the actual history of them so the two views don’t ever come into conflict.

But to come into conflict with the actual view of a subject by experts and just assert that your magic-ass view of the subject trumps theirs, without trying to understand their view … that is a failing of character. The kind of thing that running for office can really shine a light on.

Non-overlapping magisteria, or why Ben Carson is a bonehead but that doesn’t mean you aren’t

A Pint of Science

Last night we went to a science festival in a pub. Specifically, we went to The Boathouse for a Pint of Science session. This is a series of talks by scientists in different fields, with the talks grouped around a particular theme. Six venues have a session each over the three days of the festival, and I believe each session has three talks, for a total of 54. Ours was Into the Darkness, which was about death. My background being mainly in funerary archaeology, I was really interested to see what would come up; I was familiar with the work of two of the three speakers and excited to hear more.


The talk sold out — indeed, I believe every session sold out, which is pretty impressive considering this is all also happening during the Cambridge Beer Festival. The venue for our talk was the upstairs room at the Boathouse; I used to game there, which was a slightly odd contrast. They even had a special beer for the festival, which I did not have any of. Again, clever.

One unusual feature of this festival is that each speaker is paired with an artist who creates something based on the subject of the talk. There’s an exhibit of these artworks on Thursday, so if you’re reading this in Cambridge there’s still time to check them out. It’s free!

I’m not going to go into huge detail about the talks: I took 12 pages of notes, though, so there was a lot to take in. This is just edited highlights.

First up was Dr Corinne Duhig, who talked about her experiences as a forensic archaeologist/anthropologist in Kosovo. Way back in 2007, I co-edited a volume of ARC about “the disturbing past” — Ian Hanson wrote a fascinating piece on the same topic for it. People who know more about forensic archaeology than I do were probably less alarmed by phrases like “then, in went the mine-detecting dogs.” The centre of the piece was “the clothesline,” which was also the topic of the painting by Barbara Nasto that went with this piece. Once the investigation was done, Duhig and her colleagues washed the victims’ clothes and the blankets their bodies were wrapped in, then hung them up on a long series of clotheslines outside the morgue. Bereaved relatives would walk along the ever-lengthening rows looking for clothes that had belonged to their loved ones. The painting is a bright scene of colourful blankets hanging on a line with a bright red building or shipping container in the background; the container is full of dead bodies and the blankets are from murder victims’ graves. I was particularly struck when someone asked Dr Duhig about her motivation and she replied “hatred.” She also told a story about going to the Hague to a different part of the war-crimes tribunal just to get close to Slobodan Milosevic — “to get as close as possible to … one’s enemy, I suppose.”

I thought Duhig was going to be a tough act to follow, but I had confidence in Dr John Robb, who did not disappoint. His talk was on “how to achieve a social life after death” and was about the active role that the dead continue to play in the social lives of communities — and how modern Western society, in which this is downplayed, is really the exception rather than the norm. However, he pointed out that “we believe different things that are incompatible” about the dead — we simultaneously view death as an instant transition to an inanimate state and we treat the dead as if they’re still around. Consider the idea of “owing something” to the dead — it’s ridiculous to think you can owe something to an inanimate object. He also mentioned the story of a woman who received texts from her dead grandmother, the precaution of burying Osama bin Laden at sea, and the Hand of Glory, so this was a wide-ranging talk. I was pleased to see the “Robb Scale of Research Believability” which ranges from “Publish in Nature” at one end to “mention in the pub, but only after five pints; deny at all other times.” The accompanying artwork by Liza Read was a hologram in a little black casket; once you got close enough to look at it, you saw a little frog skeleton staring back at you. It reminded me (intentionally?) of Dead Like Me: 

Last up was Professor Clive Oppenheimer, who talked about volcanoes, their potential for death and destruction and the ways in which this is sometimes overlooked — but also some of the good sides(?). I had much less background in this one, and I’m sure there are things I didn’t know that would be obvious to someone who knew anything about the subject — like that 10% of the world’s population lives within a relatively short distance (100 km?) of a volcano. I also discovered that Cambridge contains something called the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, which studies events that could wipe out the human race. That is baller extreme. I missed the name of the artists who created the “Angry Mountain Pendant” that went with this talk, though.

So yeah — three great talks, audience seemed to like it, congenial surroundings, home in time for bed. There was also a pub quiz; I missed one question, but still won a t-shirt. My wife won a goodie bag that also contained a t-shirt as well as various other goodies; notepad, pen, that kind of thing.

There are no more spaces left for this year’s talks, but I definitely recommend it for next year.

A Pint of Science

Comics! Again, possibly.

The other day I received some cool little mini-comics! They are by Gabriel Moshenska, and they’re about female archaeologists, a subject lately given some well-deserved attention by the tireless team over at Trowelblazers. Seriously, if you’re at all interested in the history of the field (or geology or palaeontology) you owe it to yourself to check out the work they’re doing.

Anyway, the comics! They came in the form of A4 sheets with eight colour panels on them.


Then you apply a set of instructions (I struggled at first to figure out which direction the folds go, but on the other hand I’m not too bright about these things):


Once you have folded and snipped, they look like this:


They are pretty adorable — and educational too!


In addition to the Margaret Murray and Elizabeth Pettigrew ones, I also got:

20150423_151359 20150423_151406

These are pretty neat, and I like the punkity-rock DIY vibe of the minicomics. Maybe I should do some for my own sensational character! Fame and fortune await.

Anyway, I’m not wholly sure what the mechanism is for you to get more of these, but you can read the Pettigrew and Caton Thompson ones online. 

Comics! Again, possibly.

Cartoon Corner: Spider-Woman (1979)

I have written in the past about superheroes and archaeology, largely inspired by the papers given at the Monstrous Antiquities conference back in November. Today, I just want to point out that there is a surprising amount of archaeology in the 1979 Spider-Woman cartoon … or, well … sort of. 

I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Spider-Woman cartoon, but it seems to have been largely an attempt to cash in on the popularity of Wonder Woman, right down to the spinning transformation, here called a “spider-spin.” And yeah, you know you’re back in the olden days when Marvel is trying to cash in on a DC property. 

Anyway, the cartoon basically resembles what you’d get if you got one of the less grounded Bronze Age creators (poor old Bill Mantlo, perhaps, or maybe Bob Kanigher (I may mean Bob Haney)) and just fed them an absolute shitload of cough syrup and told them to have at it, oh, and to try to work in something educational to satisfy the FCC. Maybe the easiest way for you to see what I mean about this show’s bizarre mix of earnestness and foolery is just to watch an episode. 

Our very first episode is “Pyramids of Terror,” and it kicks off with Spider-Man being in Egypt (for some reason) where he is captured by a villainous mummy. Spider-Woman, her bumbling sidekick and her plucky sidekick go off to Egypt following a series of mummy attacks, and then … erm … 



It turns out, right, that these mummies came from space in their pyramid ships and were buried under the sands of Egypt lo these many years ago, and I guess they inspired ancient Egyptian culture, because why not? The classic motif of the Sphinx shooting beams out of its eyes is gone one better here — not only does it have eyebeams, but if the beams hit you, they turn you into a mummy!


Eventually, Spider-Woman realises that the motive force behind the alien spaceships is, no fooling, Pyramid Power and uses her webbing to turn the lead ship into a cube. 


It’s like a checklist of pop culture Egypt: 

  • ambulatory mummy
  • did ancient astronauts …?
  • Pyramid Powah!

So this is all well and good, but what’s weird is that it keeps happening. Spider-Woman is a very globe-trotting sort of heroine, and she winds up in contact with a lot of past-type stuff. 

She goes back to the 10th century to fight some Vikings: 


Fights some Amazons in a vaguely Mexico-ish sort of Amazon temple thing:

Seriously, I think the statue:eyebeams ratio is about 1:1.
Seriously, I think the statue:eyebeams ratio is about 1:1.

And there’s a few more temples and castles as well. Apparently it all gets a bit more UFO-y in the later seasons, but I’m not there yet. I really just wanted to share that mummy episode with people because, you know, pink pyramid spaceship with sphinx-shaped mummy-ray turret. 

Cartoon Corner: Spider-Woman (1979)

The lazy greatest-hits album

I have a busy day today, but I have been thinking on a subject lately — namely, why do certain posts keep turning up over and over again in my stats? Some of my posts pop up, get read, then disappear again, while others keep getting hit a few times a day. What’s the difference? Why do some posts have this long tail? I thought I’d go over them and think it over.

The first and most obvious is The Weight of History in Warhammer 40,000, which looks at the way in which this game uses history to create a certain aesthetic and how that aesthetic has changed over the years. I know why this one is popular: it got noticed by a couple of 40K blogs and went from there to the Warhammer 40,000 subreddit. This is by far the most popular thing I’ve ever written, and it’s basically because I wrote it about a popular subject.

Similarly, the Archaeological Themes in Skyrim series seems to occasionally be picked up by Skyrim fans on Tumblr or similar.

But the other popular ones are a little less obvious.

Ancient History, Conspiracy Theory and Hip-Hop is a weird one. In it, I mention that a Google search provides very little information about one of Vinnie Paz’s conspiracy theory references — in fact, it mostly just produces baffled Jedi Mind Tricks fans wondering what on earth Paz means. My suspicion is that this post is now relatively high on the search results for that same topic — so if you Google Paz’s line, you get me pointing out that there isn’t much information if you Google Paz’s line.

Viking Hats Through the Ages has been super-popular for some reason. Not sure I get this one.

Movie Monday: The Viking (1928) has been the most popular of my Movie Monday posts. I think, again, that this is because there has been relatively little written about this film compared to some of the other ones I’ve reviewed. Although most movie Monday reviews do have a pretty good trickle of views months into their lives. Which I suppose means that “Sign of the Pagan review” is a search term for someone. 

I think the conclusion I can draw from this is that if I want to have a post be popular, I need to write either about something very, very popular or something very, very obscure.

Not that I care! I only benefit from this blog, other than in ego terms, if someone decides to download my ebook after reading it (more formats coming soon once I remember to remember to do it). I’m just curious about what makes a post long-term popular. Rest assured that if I were aiming for a mass market I would have … done something completely different.

The lazy greatest-hits album

Archaeological Themes in FarCry 3 (no, really)

Why do they even make guns that aren’t light machine guns?

As you may know from my previous posts about archaeological themes in Skyrim (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4), I am always pleasantly surprised when archaeology stuff turns up in video games. I tend to play games years after they come out — I only acquired an Xbox 360 late in its lifecycle (I think around the time the Xbone came out, in fact) and so I’m always finding things that everyone else already knows about. The good thing about it is that playing games that are one generation obsolete is very economical (beyond that and rarity starts to become an issue). 

Anyway, a long while ago, a friend of the blog (who, in fact, is the same person who gave me the 360) pointed out that there’s some good medieval China stuff in FarCry 3, but since I hadn’t played it at the time, I went “interesting!” and then completely forgot about it. Now I’ve started playing the game, and I’m reaching the point where it starts to turn up. I think it’s very interesting, in fact. 

So in FarCry 3 you play schlub Jason Brody, who learns to survive in the jungle, find the warrior within, and so on, when his friends are captured by pirates. It’s your usual coming-of-age-by-jumping-off-a-roof-and-stabbing-a-guy story. And, this being a video game, you never meet anyone who doesn’t have some weird errand they want done in order to give you the dingus you need to get to the next stabjumping opportunity. One of these guys is a mercenary named Buck, who’s looking for some artefact or other and sends you to infiltrate a boat where some baddie is keeping some information that will lead you to the next yadda yadda. 

So I infiltrate (ed: does “infiltrate” mean “bombard with rockets, then board and finish off the scattered survivors with a hail of machine gun fire”? Check this) the boat only to find out that it is full of Chinese artefacts (like the ones above and below): 

There are also some lion(?) statues. 

And throughout the game, it becomes clear that the island was once visited by the (very real) exploration fleet of 15th-century Chinese admiral Zheng He. That is a canny choice — I think most people probably know that Zheng He existed, thanks to Gavin Menzies and his … excitable … interpretation of the story, but most people, myself included, don’t actually know much about him. And it transpires that there is a shipwreck from Zheng He’s fleet around here somewhere, although if you can get to it I haven’t yet; I had a couple of weeks off the game lately due to obsessively watching Justified being busy.

Now, I don’t know what 15th-century Chinese sailors are doing with 3rd-century BC terracotta warriors, but let that pass for a moment. What’s interesting is the way that Zheng He’s fleet is portrayed both as kind of a good thing for the island and a bad thing at the same time. The Chinese built these amazing monuments, like Citra’s temple.



But they did it by conquering and enslaving the island people. You can see the same story happening with the island’s WWII ruins — the Japanese occupied the island in the same way as the Chinese (there’s a complicated backstory to both, actually, which you can discover or ignore as you please). And, of course, these parallel the story of the pirates who currently dominate the island and who need to be jumped on and stabbed. These means that the story’s central tension — do you stay behind to help the islanders fight for their freedom or save your friends and return to a home you may no longer recognise — has a little extra weight behind it. 

I am not the only one to have written about this, either: check out this post on “The historical architecture of the Rook Islands archipelago” at H Does Heritage. 


Archaeological Themes in FarCry 3 (no, really)