Mini trip report: San Francisco airport (really!)

There’s a museum in San Francisco International Airport, with exhibits all around the different terminals. A library too, but I gather it’s mostly history-of-aviation stuff and I didn’t go to that. The part of it that I visited was right between check-in and the security line for international departures. It’s not huge; about a dozen or so small cases. But it’s legit!

The exhibit on when we went was Egyptian Revival: an Everlasting Allurewhich is about, you guessed it, Egyptian Revival art. I’ve always been fascinated by the way popular culture interprets the past, as you’ll know if this isn’t the first post by me you’ve read (and if it is, welcome!), so this was really interesting. The exhibit covers a couple of different eras of fashionable Egyptian stuff, including the late 19th century and the post-King-Tut 20s, with some things being a little later. Is there a word for that kind of faux-Egyptian art, as though one were to say Chinoiserie? I have no idea.

Anyway, highlights included:

Scarab humidor -- eternal life for your cigars!
Scarab humidor — eternal life for your cigars!

20150319_175340 20150319_175334 20150319_175327

I never see Egyptian Revival stuff at vintage fairs or whatever, but maybe it’s because I’m not looking hard enough. Possibly someone’s missing a trick. Get on it, Etsy.

I think the attribution on this exhibit card is backward, but the cover looks amazing.
I think the attribution on this exhibit card is backward, but the cover looks amazing.
Not the Steve Martin one.
Not the Steve Martin one.
Because why not.
Because why not.
Hollywood history *and* popular occultism? Be still my heart.
Hollywood history *and* popular occultism? Be still my heart.
Your one-stop shop for making your house look like a tomb!
Your one-stop shop for making your house look like a tomb!
Cigarette cases, inkwells, and ... I forget.
Cigarette cases, inkwells, and … I forget.
2015-03-20 00.52.17
And of course bling.

2015-03-20 00.51.52So yeah! That was an exhibit that I would actually have gone to see at a museum, only free (which is not as universal in the US as it is here) and conveniently located between dropping off our bags and taking off our shoes. A fitting end to the journey.

Mini trip report: San Francisco airport (really!)

TV Tuesday-ish: “Once We Were Gods”

Debates about the display of human(ish) remains in museums lead to … mur-der!

I know it’s not Tuesday, but it was when I watched Season 3, episode 15 of Grimm, the surprisingly good TV series about a cop hunting fairy-tale monsters in modern-day, er, Portland, and his wacky crew of friends and sidekicks. It’s a pretty shameless hybrid of Buffy and a police procedural, but it’s fun and, on this occasion, has an interesting archaeological twist. Spoilers follow.

Some workers discover an old crate which contains a sarcophagus which in turn contains a funny-looking Egyptian mummy; the mummy case resembles Anubis rather than a human figure, and the mummified body has a similar jackal-like head.


Some mysterious guys get outraged about this:


They break into the university where the mummy is being studied and leave menacing graffiti; when a security guard tries to stop them, there’s a brief exchange of gunfire and one of the guards is killed. This brings in our hero, Nick, who connects the jackal-headed body with the Wesen (magical beings who appear to commit 100% of all murders in Oregon) and asks his Wesen buddies, Monroe and Rosalee, to tell him if they know anything.

But unusually for these two character, Monroe and Rosalee are a bit ambivalent about it all. While they agree to help Nick catch the killer — one of a group of Wesen who try to protect Wesen cultural heritage — they are very unhappy about a Wesen body being in a museum, not just because they’re afraid it will jeopardise their security, but also because they consider it disrespectful.

grimm3 grimm4

In the end, they call in their own people, the Wesen Council, who have historically kind of been bad guys, and the Council cooperates uneasily with Nick. In the end, the killer is caught, hurrah hurrah, but Nick and his partner Hank let the Wesen get away with the mummy, which they cremate. And there’s a touching moment with sentimental music and so on, but Hank sounds a note of caution:

grimm5 grimm6 grimm7

This is actually a pretty good, nuanced, balanced show about the competing claims of indigenous groups and scientists regarding human remains in museums, couched in the form of a story about fairy-tale jackal people. Some writer (the episode is credited to Alan DiFiore) clearly did at least a bit of background reading on the issue. I’m not saying it’s good Egyptology, but as a metaphor it’s a hell of a lot better than that episode of Numbers where conniving Native Americans are standing in the way of Science because they want that casino money. Maybe the issue’s also been on Law and Order or something and discussed in Sincere Mode, but I haven’t seen it.

I think partly it’s that Grimm (like Sleepy Hollow?) is so damn goofy that every time they do a little deep reading in the folklore or history (which is more often than you might think) it’s really cool, rather than it being a failure every time they don’t.

Anyway, that is a show I watched.

TV Tuesday-ish: “Once We Were Gods”

Sphinxes and Superheroes again

OK, so I know I said that I’d do the giveaway today, but I may be running out of time — it may come later or even tomorrow. Never mind, eh? Here are a few pictures from the sadly no-longer-with-us Marvel kids’ cartoon The Superhero Squad, showing that the fascination with the Sphinx continues.

Here, Hulk is battling Hyperion (yeah, Hyperion from the Squadron Supreme. Basically, we live in a permanent state of being inside the rabbit hole now).

The battle inside the Sphinx creates clouds of dust.
The battle inside the Sphinx creates clouds of dust.
Hulk goes flying out. I can't believe I saw this.
Hulk goes flying out. I can’t believe I saw this.
He comes up with some jaunty new headgear.
He comes up with some jaunty new headgear.
Technically, this is Hyperion's eyebeams coming out of the Sphinx, not the Sphinx having eyebeams.
Technically, this is Hyperion’s eyebeams coming out of the Sphinx, not the Sphinx having eyebeams.

Anyway, when I saw the Sphinx I was just reminded of the Monstrous Antiquities conference and thought I’d throw these pictures up here. More tonight if I get a minute.


Sphinxes and Superheroes again

Monstrous Antiquities: 4

All right. It’s Friday night, I’ve got a glass of fancy gin I bought in a fit of prosperity, and I’ve got nine, count ’em, nine papers to get through tonight. Can I do it? Let’s find out!

Jasmine Day was also talking about mummies “as travelling companions,” but as she could not be present the paper was read by Tina Paphitis in a Jasmine Day costume. I am completely serious. She talked about the idea that the mummy represents some aspect of colonial guilt in horror fiction. A lot of this tied effectively into Ellie Dobson’s paper from the previous day. I enjoyed her montage of similarly-attired high priest characters from mummy films. Apparently it sometimes happened that mummies travelling on ships were blamed for storms or other bad happenings. I kind of liked the analogy she made between the high priest bringing the mummy to Britain or America and the image of people smuggling in a dirty bomb. Interestingly, vampires and Frankenstein could play the same monster-as-WMD role, but the Creature from the Black Lagoon could not.

Next up was George Richards, who was talking about Ancient Egypt in comics and cartoons: specifically, the Tintin adventure Cigars of the Pharaoh, Silver Age appearances of the Sphinx, and, my hand to god, Thundercats.

I got really wound during this talk because I was internally asking myself why Mumm-Ra was blue, and the only answer I could come up with was “Skeletor is blue,” and that’s a Fred Hoyle question, because it only punts the question back one: why was Skeletor blue? I asked Allison and she said “because he’s undead,” like that should somehow be obvious. Oh well.

And now, comics in which the Sphinx has death rays:

wwandru113 Kane


If you have not read a lot of Silver Age Superman comics, by the way, you don’t know what you are missing. They are, how you say, hopping mentile.

The thing that occurred to me during this talk was that Metamorpho had an Egyptian-style origin, maybe the only Silver Age hero to do so. I like Metamorpho.

One comment I really appreciated here was that comic artists seem to really like Egypt, visually. The art is instantly recognisable, the style is distinctive and can be imitated, and Egyptian art is even comic-book-like in a way that, say, Roman art isn’t.

OK, next up: author James Goss talked about the theory and practice of eternal curses. Now, through no fault of his, a lot of this paper — or what I got out of it at least — was a little similar to Dobson and Day. At least the first half. The second half took off a bit more, although I have my doubts about one aspect of his analysis. He was reading out some curses found on actual tombs on Wikipedia and then comparing them to the complete text in order to show how they had been “sexed up” to bolster the case for curses — he called actual Egyptian curses “disappointingly tame.” I wasn’t convinced — one line of a curse he quoted is “further, I shall seize his neck like a bird.” That sounds bad. I do not want to have my neck seized like a bird. I mentioned this after the conference to one of the Egyptology types there and he said “oh yeah, the Egyptians loved seizing necks” or words to that effect.

I wondered if the dungeon trap didn’t come from the literary trope of mechanical traps in Egyptian tombs.

Then there was a break.

Right, next up was Joanna Paul, with “The city disinterred: confronting the uncanny at Pompeii”. I am not a classicist, but I did go recently to see the British Museum’s Pompeii exhibit and furthermore I chose an image from Pompeii as the cover for the volume of ARC I co-edited with Ali Klevnas. 


So there was a lot of good stuff here, and I was particularly struck by the way the casts are displayed at Pompeii — right in the middle of houses or other rooms, sometimes apparently at random. At the British Museum they way they did it was to leave the casts right until the end, so that you walked through the “rooms” of the Roman house before coming face-to-face with the dead. It was interesting. In one way, it was much more shocking, because you experienced the bodies as people rather than curiosities, but in another way you could argue that it was sanitised, since the bodies are kept separated from the house.

There were a lot of interesting points in this talk. I was particularly fascinated by the point that there are very few Pompeii ghost stories. The dead there are very material — but the living can be kind of ethereal, as in the display that reproduces Julius Polybius and his family as holograms. Interesting. Veeeeeeery interesting. Obviously, as a burials guy, I was particularly interested in this point, but also just … you’re looking at a frozen image of the moment of someone’s agonising early death. As Michael Shaara might have put it, “a fellow needs some privacy at a time like that.”

Next up, Gabe Moshenska talked about M.R. James and his excavations at Bury Abbey. Gabe delivered this in costume also, in this case dressed as a spook or possibly phantasm. This he tied in to “Oh Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad,” a story that gave me the whimwhams one late and lonely night in Cambridge about 11 years ago.

For all that James was basically an “antiquarian fusser,” he did do some field work — on a dig in Cyprus in 1887-8, and at the chapter house Bury in 1902-3. There wasn’t much of this excavation published, sadly, but Gabe pointed out some ways that it could have served as an influence on two of his stories, “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas” and the aforementioned “Oh Whistle.” Gabe pointed out the way in which the latter story is also an attempt to take the sheet-ghost and make it scary. That actually never occurred to me at the time, which I think indicates that it succeeded. One other interesting thing he pointed out was that although James himself was a medievalist, his monsters are usually more modern than his field would suggest. “You need familiarity for horror.”

Closing out the session was Caterina Minnitti, talking about the presentation of ancient Egypt in video games. Now, when you do something like this, you sometimes wind up just cataloguing the obvious absurdities, and there was a certain amount of that. Take a look at this guy, for instance:


Crocodile with a laser on his head! That’s both magnificent and idiotic at the same time.

Now, that’s obviously in a game that has strong magical elements (Age of Mythology). But one that that she pointed out that I thought was very interesting was that even in games that are ostensibly mainly historical, Egypt is where the weird shit is located. “Orientalism is alive and well in video games,” she said, but also pointed out that in many ways this was an idea with roots that stretch right back into the period being discussed. For example, she quoted Herodotus as saying that Egypt had “the most wonders.” Greece and Rome are, you know, political, military, economic, and Egypt always winds up being somehow mystical. There are certain nations that we tend to have a habit of thinking of as particularly spiritual — I’m thinking Tibet here, or even India in general — and I guess this was the case for Egypt.

But seriously, video games! At this point I was seeing Aegypt everywhere. I think there’s going to be a post on the Skyrim thing next week.

So then it was lunch. Am I gonna go for it? Yes I am.

Coming back, we led off with Katy Soar on “There’s something about Nodens: statues and survivals in the works of Arthur Machen.” This was mainly about The Great God Pan and “The White People,” and it was interesting. Apparently the identification of Nodens as “Lord of the Abyss” is so much bullshit, but of course that’s what Machen was working with. And it’s interesting that Machen’s notion of survival seems to be that the civilised veneer of the present is just a skin on a past that’s horrible, whereas the Lovecraftian vision is that the past outwardly seems noble and empowering but is a lie.

And of course survivals as a concept were a thing in the anthropology of the time. Spiritualism is also into the idea of collapsing time in the same way — they’re both concepts that involve confronting the past in the present.

Also, there is squishiness. Helen Vaughn’s body should be firm and permanent, but it’s weird and fluid. There’s a similar tentacley image in “The Novel of the Black Seal.”

Nearly there! Right, next up, Nigel Tallis talked about folk horror, which it turns out is completely a thing. Now, not being British, I missed a lot of the shows to which he was referring, but I believe that Children of the Stones is up there in the trinity of things that scared the piss out of Britons d’un certain age, together with Threads and Ghostwatch. He also referred to his talk as “Nigel Kneale appreciation,” which is fair enough. I also have respect for anyone who says “most folk songs are Georgian pop music.” He also talked about the idea that people really don’t like hearing that their archaeology is uncertain, to which I can only say “nailed it.” But archaeologists have to be unafraid to say “I don’t know.” This is another difference between archaeology and fringe stuff, I guess?

Folk horror in a lot of ways is kind of a village-green version of Machen, in that it’s the idea that you have these folk customs that link you to the past, but that at heart they turn out to be completely vile and evil. The bucolic turns out to be horrific. Interestingly, though, two of the big examples, The Wicker Man and the Doctor Who story The Daemons, both involve folk customs that are actually fake, with some other person manipulating the yokels to their own ends.

And with a rush of breath we come to the last one. That’s Tina Paphitis again, this time in her own words. She was talking about “Horrors of the past: barrows and barrow-lore in fantastic fiction,” and of course if we’re talking about barrows in fantastic fiction we’re talking about Tolkien. Who knew a thing or two about literary barrows himself, of course. Barrows have a long folkloric history, and they’re actually one of the few areas where we know a little bit about how early medieval people encountered earlier barrows, naming them after heroes and considering them to be both very important and maybe a leetle threatening. In fact, there’s a good barrow bit in one of Cornwell’s Arthur books, harking back to Saturday morning.

She also talked about a Grant Allen story from 1892, in which a dude encounters some ghosts of prehistoric people, and it includes a section so baller I must quote it:

They were savages, yet they were ghosts. The two most terrible and dreaded foes of civilised experience seemed at once combined in them.

OK, no, I’m not letting that one go without further elaboration. The two greatest enemies of civilisation are barbarism and ghosts? Really? The guys with the epaulettes are sitting around their maps going “but gentlemen — what if we face an enemy that is both barbarian and ghost?” And they say nothing but swallow hard and reach with trembling fingers for the brandy.

Apparently, the Stonehenge audio guide leads you around the circle widdershins. There you go, Changeling scenario writers. Gave you that one for free.

OK, that’s it for the papers. Tomorrow, time permitting, some kind of retrospective on the whole thing. Then I’m at a wedding on Sunday, and Monday is, of course, Movie Monday. lway

Monstrous Antiquities: 4