An Undergrad's Perspective on Archaeology, Academia and Anything Else

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The Sad State of “Educational” Television

The state of “educational” television is, I feel, atrocious. Only some of the channels that are slightly educational actual have content that could be deemed educational. PBS, you’re off the hook. TLC, too ridiculous to even start on. It is in now way a “learning channel,” and to call it that is ridiculous. The top shows? Jon & Kate Plus 8, Cake Boss, 18 Kids and Counting and What Not to Wear. Need I say more?

Discovery Channel I take little beef with. The major complaint is they own TLC and let those ridiculous shows go on. The network does have shows that get money flowing in avenues that would normally be hard pressed to raise funds.

History Channel. Oh, excuse me it’s no longer History Channel but just “History.” Bull. If you watch it during the day half the shows are about Aliens or Monsters. As an archaeology student that pisses me off. Claiming aliens built ancient formations is up there with one of the most offensive things you can tell me. Then half of their actual “history” shows are either wrong or just ridiculous. Chasing Mummies? Come on Zahi, you’re a joke (the people didn’t want you back, they either don’t know you or hate you). Then the top shows on the network- Pawn Stars, Ice Road Truckers and American Pickers. For one, Ice Road Truckers has nothing to do with history AT ALL, it was just an attempt to compete with Deadliest Catch. Pawn Stars… ok it shows history in a weird, weird distorted way. American Pickers I appreciate because it appreciates early American history. The problem with those two shows though is the focus on $$$$.

A few weeks ago I saw a speaker at Boston University- he was the creator of the British show “Time Team.” The show follows an archaeological dig for 5 days and is, for TV, very accurate. Before going to the lecture I had watched a few episodes to get a feel for the show. Archaeologically, it is very interesting. For a pure entertainment perspective, interesting too! He told us all how he tried to sell it to the major networks (it was on PBS for a season but did fairly badly) and all the executives told him, you have to put at dollar value on the items. The room of archaeologists laughed because its a ridiculous thought- most of the things being dug up have very little monetary value but have a great deal of academic value. The saddest part of that is in the UK the show has been on for a long, long time and is extremely popular. America and Britain are not so different that it’s appeal wouldn’t cross over, I believe. The networks though, refuse to put these types of shows on, which is an extreme pity. Hopefully they’ll see the error in their ways.

 

A Review of the New American Wing at Boston’s MFA

I have now been to the American Wing at the MFA twice. Once was during their special “member’s preview week” which since I go to Boston University and it buys a membership for all its students I was able to go to. (I greatly support universities buying memberships for museums as I can see it opens up museum patronage for students who would not usually go to them)

My first impression is on the size of the wing; it is 4 stories while the rest of the museum is only 2 stories. I can only imagine the difficulty in making all these acquisitions for the museum. By far my favorite feature of this new wing is the gargantuan indoor courtyard with beautiful natural light. My first critique is the difficulty in choosing where to start- as the natural place would normally be the 1st floor but when doing that you miss the basement level, the ancient Americas.

It is in this basement level, the Ancient Americas, where the majority of my criticisms lie. As my life focus is on archaeology I tend to care about ancient history more than newer forms like painting, a necessary bias to express. Entering the basement I was stuck at the limited size of ancient art; the ancient materials are only the middle corridor of a three corridor arrangement. Puzzingly, the surrounding corridors are colonial era materials and art with no relation the the “ancient” American Indian art. I do not know if they were unable to acquire enough to fill the floor, which seems unlikely, or if it was a deliberate decision from the beginning, which in itself is also troubling.

The quality of the artifacts they do have is quite impressive- I am not that knowledgeable on South and North American cultures but the artifacts I saw were of beautiful quality. Reading the cards of information for the artifacts there were facts that reminded me of the information I learned in my Intro to Archaeology class. The Maya, Aztec, Inca, Nazca and nearby cultures’ artifacts were great, but moving into North America room I was surprised to find that many of these pieces of art were not artifacts but instead modern artists creating ceramics in the style of the culture. For one, I felt deceived as it was not made clear these were not “ancient” artifacts, as well as it not seeming true to the exhibit. Again, it felt that this area had been skimped on, either through deliberate action or difficulty in acquisition.

Given the plethora of incredible ancient material in the MFA — Egyptian, Roman, Greek, Near Eastern and Asian — the tiny ancient Americas section was striking. Without being too scathing, it seems to reflect the antiquated ideas of the focus on the “Old World” as even the United States art derives from Europe. The wing as a whole had incredible pieces of art from America but the ancients were given the short end of the stick. I hope this is not a trend in museums, especially given the bounty of ancient artifacts the MFA does have. Not to say the least of the missed opportunity for public outreach- say the debunking of Maya 2012 conspiracies?…

Death for Conservation?

The battle over the temple of Preah Vihear has reached the proverbial boiling point. In almost all cases of archaeological and cultural heritage the result is good, or at the very least not worse. But in Cambodia and Thailand the pride over a heritage site has resulted in deaths. Firstly, as valuable as cultural heritage is it should never been seen as more important than the lives of living, breathing people. What has happened at Preah Vihear is Cambodia was given the temple in 1962 as result of a demarcation decision by the International Court of Justice. Thailand was, subsequently, unhappy with that decision. The Thai people view the temple, originally part of the Khmer Empire, as part of their heritage.

But in 2008 Cambodia applied for Preah Vihear to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Being a World Heritage Site has benefits, yes. Preah Vihear culturally and archaeologically deserves to be on the UNESCO list of sites. But, the nomination of the site was a huge affront to the Thai people. So after a relatively quiet 50ish years, the dispute was in full force again. Since October 2008 there have been sporadic border clashes, resulting in casualties and fatalities. This last month 5 men were killed and the fighting also caused damage to the temple.

Here is a brief recap by what appears to be a Cambodian new source:

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There are a few items I take issue with here. First off, the sponsoring of this site is actually what caused the recent tensions and deaths. Oftentimes the designation as a World Heritage site is largely symbolic and a bragging point for nations, but this shows the ugly effect of over zealous naming. The site was already incredibly valued before nominating as a site. So valuable that both countries would have people die over it. The nomination just caused them to prove their mettle. This is a great example of how conservation can, in some situations, be worse than no conservation.

The net result of all this arguing over borders has been the loss of life and damage to the temple. If the temple had been left alone those men would not have lost their lives and the temple would have actually been in better condition, not damaged by mortar fire. Like anything else in the world, academia and conservation have effects outside their sphere. Ripples. As I said in my last post, conservationists should be aware of the situations around sites- heritage is not a vacuum.

Progress vs. Preservation

Recently I read an article posted on Past Horizons detailing the ensuing battle between Native American conservationists in Southern California (my home) and Blythe Solar over the construction of a massive solar farm. Specifically:

Blythe Solar, a partnership of Chevron and the German firm Solar Millennium will grade and level 9500 acres of desert in an area near to the Blythe giant intaglios. It is also feared that a 200-foot-long image of the flute-playing Native American god Kokopelli – the BLM believe this geoglyph to be relatively modern – will come under threat, and although about a mile away from the proposed the site, it is almost inevitable that the solar facility will impact the visual setting and it is feared that the area will become fenced off and out of reach.

Geoglph

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Archaeologically, the preservation of archaeological sites are of utmost importance to me, no matter their location. In particular, these glyphs are an untapped public outreach resource. Coming from Southern California I know most people view the Native American culture there as primitive people in huts that sometimes took primitive rafts out to the islands to hunt and fish. If more people knew about these impressive glyphs in their proverbial backyard they might have more appreciation for the local culture. Though, I must point out that according the article the glyphs won’t be destroyed, but the “visual setting” will be destroyed, not ideal but not a horrible outcome.

On the other hand, the construction of massive solar farms is from a societal prospective a large move in the right direction for sustainable energy. These complexes’ construction might not be beneficial towards the environment but the electricity they produce from the sun offsets tons of toxic emissions from “dirty” energy sources. As pollution ruins other archaeological sites around the world, how can archaeologists rebuke companies who are attempting to take a “green” choice?

The solution, to me, is a case by case evaluation of a site’s “value” versus the necessity of a site’s construction at that location and value of the construction. Not to mention getting a big company like Chevron to promote the glyph’s existence there to bring people to see the solar farm AND the glyph.

Everybody wins?

History in Your Pants

Like many people, I was under the impression that Levi Strauss invented jeans. The commercials have reinforced that belief. Something like he took a tent (why would they have a blue tent?!) and made it into pants. Seemed like a crazy guy.

But today, I read that all of that is WRONG!

According to the blogger Archaeopop, a newly discovered painting shows evidence of 17th century peasants in BLUE JEANS.

Astonishing, to me at least. Thinking about it, it makes sense that jeans were popular before the California Gold Rush. It also makes sense that there were few pictures of these jeans. As today, the rich and famous would not wear jeans, at least not when getting portraits. Peasants would also not have portraits taken of them, since they were poor peasants.

So what is the reason for most American’s mistaken belief that we invented jeans? Like many things in America, we like to claim they are own. Chinese food, Americanized. Mexican food, Americanized. Italian food, Americanized. OK, we really like food. We like stretchy jeans, too.

The American idea of jeans’ invention builds into our American mythology that we are not only #1, but we are a rugged people.

And think about it, would you rather think your jeans evolved from awesome cowboys or from sad poor peasants in industrial Europe? I know which I’d prefer.

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