Thursday, 27 December 2012

Mayan apocalypse?

As we all can see and feel, the world did not come into an end on Winter Solstice. I find this fascination with the end of the world very interesting – not the least because there is an instance of declared apocalypse in my family history. Or not really MY family history, but in the history of my family’s home village, a religiously lively place near Jyväskylä in Finland.

Our village got into the world news in the 1930s when a woman who preached in her sleep declared that the world was nigh and the end was here. Although it wasn’t – even if the predicted event reached allegedly the New York Times. The frenzy of the wait resulted with people selling their worldly possessions and the disappointment of the righteous not being pulled to the heavens. This was aggravated by the in-fighting in the village in the aftermath due to the half of the village losing their property and the other half gaining real bargains. These scenes have been relived many times in different communities across the world when panic and hysteria spreads in the wake of the end – that does not come.

December 21 Tikal celebrations in Guatemala (photo by Herald Sun)

This Mayan Apocalypse was interesting, because it was made an event. Some people truly believed in the end of the world – such is the character of a true belief. However, Mexican Tourist Board did brisk business with the official event at Chichen Itza and tourists pouring in. The ethnic Mayans knew that their ancestors had not predicted an end of the world but just a beginning of a new cycle in a cyclical calendar. They were not anxious, but happy to get a full audience at Tikal for a tourist extravaganza.

Apparently there is only one fragment that tells about the end of the 13th Bak'tun period. The close of each Bak'tun period occurs once in 5125 years. The last time a Bak'tun period ended was at the beginning of the current Maya era on August 11 in 3114 BC and the end of the 13th period coincided with December 21, 2012. Callaway and Stuart, two Mayan experts quoted by adjunct professor Shankar Chaudhuri in the Guardian, refer to Tortuguero Monument 6, discovered in Tabasco, Mexico. This is the only text from the whole Mayan period (250AD-900AD) that refers to December 21, 2012, as the end of the Bak'tun thirteen or any kind of important date.

The Tortuguero Monument (photo collage by P. Johnson)

For obvious religious reasons, the western culture is prone to the predictions of the doomsday. After all, the Bible discusses at length the end of Times. The Revelations tell the sequence of the things as it is supposed to happen from the Christian point of view. However, all kinds of religious figures and writers have made predictions – none of them accurate so far. Nevertheless, some sections in the world have contributed to the efforts of facilitating such an end by inventing an atomic bomb and neglecting the upkeep of the nuclear power stations. I myself was drenched in the rain in the days after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and now just wonder how much I radiate...

There is a continuous interest in the writings of Nostradamus, whose shot to the end of the world in 1999 – or at least his poems were seen in that light in our time. His Centuries, published in 1555, included encrypted references into the events in the future, interpreted to include such moments in the modern history as the rise of the Nazism and the 9/11 attacks. All intelligence can be lost in such interpretative pursuits, but he was taken up as one of the ‘authorities’ on December 2012 ‘non-event’. The twilight sources are drawn to support different preposterous arguments.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Wine landscapes

The origins of different agricultural products and evidence of the oldest use of resources are popular research topics – especially now when different scientific methods allow studying DNA and chemical composition of different matters. Considering it is the holiday season different alcoholic beverages are always popular news items and the evidence of oldest beer or wine production normally has worldwide exposure.

Beer seems to be less studied subject but wine studies crop up in the newspapers and Internet every now and then. This is partly due to the fact that wild wine plant is indigenous in many of the modern wine production areas where the companies have funded some of the research. Wine also has religious meaning being shared in the most important communal ritual in Christianity. It was also consumed by the great civilisations in the Mediterranean.

The University of Siena has been involved in studying the wild wines and the derivates in central Italy in Tuscany and northern Lazio. Ethnological work has also been carried out in Campania. Archaeologists have been involved in the projects in Tuscany and neighbouring areas. The scientists have compared the DNA make up of the plants at different locations to the existence of different archaeological sites in the area. ArcheoVino project has plotted the distributions in the Albegna river valley (Zifferero 2010), whereas Vinum project has managed to spot a difference in the characteristics of the plants near the Etruscan sites in comparison with the plants lying ‘in the wild’ (Giannace 2010). The autochthonous grapevine varieties helps to understand the past wine production and perhaps make people curious about the local grape varieties so that the rarer wines produced from the grapes nearer the original exploited wild versions do not vanish.

Ulla Rajala offered the 'In vino veritas: the history and archaeology of wine' course in Madingley Hall, Institute of Continuing Education, Cambridge the last weekend of January, January 25-27. More details from the ICE web site.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Space Archaeologist and Nephew of Jon do Roman Empire

Sometimes even if you know many of the people involved in a television programme it leaves you wanting. No matter how much you would like to like their offering you feel a little short-changed when the programme has ended. It is not the lack of interesting topic, historic events, archaeological monuments or first class research behind the programme that fails Rome’s Lost Empire, but the dumbed down way of speech and the lack of intellectually delivered narrative. The need to be shown to be impressive was probably more important than the real historical narrative and the archaeological results drawn by different teams.

First of all, one wondered, if the team from the University of Southampton digging at Portus, the harbour of Rome, and specialized not only in Roman archaeology but also in archaeological computing with the results reaching Second Life and beyond, really did not spend any time studying air photographs before Sarah Parcak started to look at her satellite images for this programme. She was unfamiliar with the geology and land use and was looking slightly lost somewhere in the flat hinterland of Fiumicino. Her work with the satellite recognition of Egyptian sites is truly amazing but here she was out of her comfort zone.

The Lidar study in Romania, ancient Dacia, gave exciting results showing the extent of one Roman fort there. Nevertheless, with clearly visible earthworks, it was likely to have been known from the start. My guess is that the programme helped the local archaeologists by revealing the exact perimeter of the fort – mapping such a large feature in the slopes of a wooded hill is a big task. The fact that this was a novel method to Sarah, made me suspect that somebody else did the data processing in order to filter the return signal from the trees.

The sections in Jordan and Tunisia presented some touristic images with the presenters riding camels to Petra and having a meal at a Bedouin tent with David Mattingly. In both cases Sarah and her iPad revealed a series of forts, apparently from Google Maps, highly visible in arid landscape if one knows what to look for and which geometric forms the ramparts of a fort take. Naturally, with large projects with huge amounts of field work, research and reporting, it just may be that different projects did not have time to scan the Google or Bing coverage for their study areas. In that case they are grateful that somebody else pays this work and gives them publicity and results.

The programme seemed to be a licence to travel across the Mediterranean and meet impressive archaeologists, so I am not surprised Sarah took this opportunity. After all, it was a Beeb documentary and presented a possibility to co-present an archaeological programme in the prime time. In addition, worthy projects got plenty of air time. However, there are several extremely good examples of engaging programmes, such as Raminez’s Treasures of the Anglo-Saxons or Worsley’s If Walls Could Talk. Nothing is worse for an archaeologist than a historian rolling his eyes and wondering aloud how archaeologists could say anything about sherds of pottery. The scripted scenes of finding possibly previously known features – but admittedly using a method giving results easier, quicker and more extensively – with simple story lines is unfulfilling. Is it such a shame to show one’s scholarly knowledge and speak to the audience like they are intellectual human beings, not slobs?

Nevertheless, there was a truly hilarious and impressive moment when the wiz kids from Southampton (or Beeb?) made the lighthouse of Portus, the symbol of the might of the empire, to rise among the detritus of disposed cars at a local end of the life scrappage centre or junk yard with Sarah, Dan and professor Simon Keay, the current assistant director of the British School at Rome, watching from a distance. The flair of ‘Five Go Exploring’ was there as it was throughout the programme, but the gimmick made a point.

PS. On the BBC web site the ‘If you liked this, you might also like’ suggestion was Homes under Hammer... That probably summed up the expectations from the Broadcasting Company’s side.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Googling my way through world archaeology

I am faced with a dilemma stemming from some teaching opportunities early next year that need preparing already in December if I want to get through everything. However, different educational providers require a certain number of learners to enrol onto the courses so I am well accustomed to a plethora of cancellations. After all, the times harsh and economy stretched. However, this time around there is a fair possibility that one or two courses actually will happen and thus I have to prepare the most obvious one or the one that has most ‘recycling potential’. Naturally, this all is on top of any other duties, such as finishing different articles having deadlines early next year, checking any proofs landing on my way and trying to make progress in long-term publication projects.

Luckily, drafting the skeletons of lectures is quicker than ever before. I still have a pile of paper prints and slides I took in the late 1980s and early 1990s before the dominance of digital photography with the idea that they may be useful when preparing lectures. During those times you arranged slides from your collection to the carousel or similar and used an overhead projector in order to present the bullet points of your presentation. Some of my collection has been scanned but every now and then I have to return to those slides. Nevertheless, now one can collect photographs with the aid of Google from different sources and museum collections have wonderful archives as well. Many museums have a lot of information on many core subjects and is full of the latest articles from different scholars. If one have an idea, it is easy to check part of the facts and collect photos for one’s presentation.

Some resources are better than others:

And for a quick check of the fact before consulting our home library or a proper library, Encyclopedia Britannica is reliable, unlike Wikipedia.