Friday, 27 February 2015

Runcible — Tech's answer to the antique pocket watch

Inspiration for the Runcible
photo: Arne Nordmann (norro), Germany
Yesterday, a CNET article on the upcoming launch of Runcible, a new vision for the smartphone, captured my imagination. Based on the design of the pocket watch, it is the brain-child of Monohm, a Berkeley, California, company.

I have often said that the cell-phone (or mobile, if you prefer) is today's pocket watch. The pocket watch was rapidly becoming an object of the past. When I was fifteen years old, I worked at Pearl Cross Antiques in St Martin's Court, off Charing Cross Road in London. English gold pocket watches were a specialty (with clocks, jewellery and silver). Unlike Swiss or American pocket watches, the English pocket watch has a single backplate to the movement which guarantees a much longer life for the watch. The main point of the Swiss innovation of multiple backplates was to produce watches more cheaply.

What first caught my attention in the CNET article was the exotic wooden back to the smartphone. The first example illustrated was from a burl, and appears to have been taken from where a burl meets the roots. One word came to mind: craftsmanship. That is the word I most associate with those gold pocket watches at Pearl Cross. We used to have them restored to their original state by several London craftsmen. If the watch case had been engraved for a previous owner, that engraving was not polished off as is a practice of mediocre jewellers, but our craftsman used to smelt gold to the exact colour of the original and the he would flood the engraving with the gold and then polish the case down to its original thickness as checked by his micrometer; If the watch had a damaged dial, it was re-enamelled; If the watch needed new parts, they were original and purchased from a shop nearby which had been supplying new parts since the eighteenth century. The shop still retained its angled mirrors beneath the windows which directed daylight into the interior in those days before electric lights. When we sold a watch, it came with a lifetime guarantee for the new owner. Sadly, the shop premises lease ran out after I visited it again in 1999 and is now part of the upscale Sheekey's fish and seafood restaurant, which was a favorite of my boss, Dennis Strange.

Monohm has married retro with innovation. Imagine focusing Runcible's featured camera by revolving the whole smartphone! Don't you just hate lever zooms and automatic focuses on some digital cameras? I still like the manual focus ring of my old Nikon Fa (although, practically, I hardly ever use the camera anymore). With its web-based apps that can can turn your smartphone into a speedometer for your bike or a distance calculator to strap on your arm it has greater functionality than you might expect. Even its GPS system is an innovation. But what happens to that beautiful case you bought when version 2.0 of the smartphone comes out? No problem, the new "movement" can be purchased on its own and just popped into the older case.

A smartphone that will become an heirloom while still being current. This is old-style craftsmanship not planned obsolescence. It brought back fifty year-old memories of those beautiful old pocket watches in a prestigious West End London antique shop. It's going on my wish-list, and yes, you will be able to afford it as is planned to sell for less than the average smartphone.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Rick Witschonke (1945–2015)

I received the sad news from Mark Fox on Moneta-L yesterday (membership required),
that Rick Witschonke has passed away. Rick was an active member of the American Numismatic Society (ANS) and a notable collector of Roman Republican coins.

In 2013, he collaborated with Ethan Gruber of the ANS and Kris Lockyear of the University College, London (UCL) to produce Coin Hoards of the Roman Republic Online (CHRR Online).

Mark says that there was to be a Festschrift for him this year...

My condolences go to his family and many friends. He will be greatly missed. More at:
http://www.forumancientcoins.com/board/index.php?topic=100652.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

The hidden monk revealed



The mummified remains of a thousand year old Buddhist monk is undergoing scientific examination. The first step was a CT scan carried out in the Netherlands and the results of a DNA study is forthcoming. The monk was interred inside a statue of Buddha found in Mongolia last month and is thought to be an example of sokushinbutsu, or self-mummification, best known from a number of such mummies in Japan.

Many believe that the incorruptibility of the flesh is a sign of enlightenment and I am reminded of the strange report of such in the remains of Paramahansa Yogananda.

A confusing statement in the video that the monk might have been a teacher of Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov (1852-1927) seems to be from an error in translation. His similarly preserved remains can be seen in the linked Wikipedia article. As a rule, in Tibetan Buddhism in Tibet itself, the remains are destroyed through the practice of "sky burial". Although the practical reason for this is that burial or cremation would be a problem with frozen ground and a lack of firewood, it is also thought that the spirit could try to stay with the body and not move on.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Modern Celtic sculpture recovered

Broighter gold boat
photo: Ardfern
"A six-feet-high sculpture of a Celtic sea god stolen from Binevenagh Mountain has been recovered by soldiers on a training exercise." More here.

John Sutton's sculpture of Manannan Mac Lir (Mac Lir means "son of the sea") had been removed in an act of religious vandalism but the damage appears repairable.

It is often difficult to separate what might be called a "culture hero" from a deity and Mannan Mac Lir gave his name to the Isle of Mann. The Broighter gold boat was part of an important hoard of early Celtic art objects and some believe that it was an offering to Manannan Mac Lir, however, the boat served as an icon of the Menapii tribe at the mouth of the Rhine as they controlled the Rhineland sea trade. They also had a presence in Ireland and while the Rhine is often considered a source for the Irish gold which contains platinum inclusions, it is almost certain that if the gold source is actually Asia Minor, then the Rhine was part of the route by which it came to Ireland as the metal type was used neither in Britain nor Gaul. For more background material and illustrations on the hoard, the boat, and the Menapii see my earlier blog entry (Frome hoard).

Monday, 23 February 2015

Old Bailey records

Proceedings at the Old Bailey, 1809
Yesterday, I was Googling nineteenth century London bookbinders when I came across a witness statement by one at the Old Bailey (Central Criminal Court of England and Wales). Although the item from 1857 had very little to interest me, I could not resist exploring further. I remember walking by the Old Bailey many times when I was a kid and it would always bring back flashes of memories of crime novels, TV shows and movies.

Abandoning my thoughts about bookbinders, and being a numismatist I became curious about incidents of uttering counterfeit coin. There were quite a few for that year and a guilty verdict brought about months or years of "penal servitude". The sentences for actually forging coins got much longer sentences, but going back to the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries the risk was being sentenced to death for high treason. Curiously though, at that same time, many sentences of merely uttering false coin would be punished only with a fine. I found records of how money was forged and how it was detected (often by bending the coin in the teeth).

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, what we now call a mugging would often get the death penalty if a weapon was involved, but burglary could often mean transportation, at first to America, and then (after the American Revolution) to Australia. There were also other sentences we do not see today in England such as whipping or branding.

Apart from the sensational, I became quite interested in the language used in these records. I even found a coinage term that I had never heard before: "a seven shilling piece" and it took me a second or so to realize that we now commonly call that George III gold coin a third guinea. If I ever write a novel set in the early nineteenth century, I plan to have some character order a "half quarten of gin" at the local inn(1/8th pint).

If you are conducting historical research, or just want to gain more verisimilitude in your novel, don't neglect these records. If you are just curious, I'm sure you will find much to entertain. Visit http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/

Friday, 20 February 2015

Safety in numbers

Thomas Howard, 21st Earl of Arundel
"the collector earl" (
portrait by Rubens)
The popular picture of the collector is of some very wealthy person sipping a brandy while gloating over their latest acquisition. After their death, their collections are sometimes displayed in museums bearing their name. Most collectors, however, are far from wealthy, and when they die, their collections are sold off and provide opportunities for a new generation of collectors. A small percentage of collectors become recognized authorities in their chosen interest and their resulting books become the standard texts on their subject.

There is no way to predict which young collector will rise to such eminence. One young man was given a coin collection by his father and it captured his imagination. The son of a cleric, he never finished university and went to work for a family members paper business. The family thought that he might not amount to much. He was later known as Sir John Evans, the father of British Celtic numismatists and one of the founders of modern archaeology. Another prominent archaeologist, the Egyptologist Sir William Flinders Petrie, had started by collecting ancient coins s a boy in London. It is said that he would now and again find a rare coin after scoring the London shops which he would sell to the British Museum.

When I was at school, there was no such things as computer games and social media. A computer was a large machine in big offices and was never used as a source of entertainment. Some of my friends collected coins or stamps. I remember that in one class, I was one of two kids who collected ancient coins. Whenever I have attended an event at the local coin club, I am always struck by the age of most of the members: most are middle age to elderly, but the fewer younger members are always encouraged.

Sometimes, when things get very busy at a friend's coin shop, I will help out for a few hours and the most rewarding days for me are when I manage to get a kid interested in ancient coins. Given that my competition is probably graphic-intensive computer games I take any such wins very seriously. obviously, I cannot say whether anyone whom I have encouraged to collect ancient coins will go on to be an authority, but I like to think that there is a small chance — like buying a lottery ticket that pays out millions.

Becoming an authority depends on discovery and there actually is a study on the probabilities of new ideas emerging within a university environment. The results are not encouraging. Aaron Lynch says:
"Practical implications may follow from the above model of population creativity for ideas. For example, proposals to make education highly uniform and enforced by nationwide testing may tend to limit creativity by reducing the variability of combinations of important ideas. Creativity in an organization or a society might alternatively be enhanced by encouraging the acquisition of highly unusual combinations of ideas and fields of learning. Cultural, educational, and experiential diversity might turn out to increase population creativity by increasing the occurrence rates for extremely rare combinations of ideas that could lead to the formation of new ideas. In particular, this might result in higher creative output for universities, research institutions, and other organizations that deliberately strive for a culturally diverse mix of people. Yet even a 1000-fold increase for an idea combination that exists at a prevalence of 10-9 only involves one person in a million, representing only a tiny dent in the prevalence for extremely common combinations of ideas that would form the mainstream of a society or a subculture. Factors such as that might even be investigated as sources of different creativity rates in different countries. Such practical implications also warrant separate papers in their own right. The focus here is on the role of quantitative processes in a population affecting population creativity, and thus the evolution of ideas."
So there is safety in numbers.We cannot predict who will become the next Sir John Evans or Sir William Flinders Petrie, so all who show any interest at all should be encouraged. There is only one quality which will will increase the chances of such success and that is a passion for the subject. Archaeobloggers who condemn collecting, or try to set up impossible standards for collectors never try to give kids, or anyone else for that matter, any passion for the subject. All they give are rules and warnings. All kids get that for everything. It never inspires.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Last man standing

Screen shot of our 2001 CCI online announcement
Yesterday, Bob Van Arsdell emailed me to say that the British Museum has finally pulled its version of the Celtic Coin Index (CCI) off the Internet. Although the records still exist within the Portable Antiquity Scheme, the British Museum Celtic Coin Index no longer has a separate identity. Their site advises that new finds of Celtic coins be handled by Finds Liaison Officers (FLO).

The Celtic Coin Index as a card file was started at Oxford in 1961 by Sheppard Frere and Derek Allen. More than just providing find spots of Celtic coins, the CCI also included coins from public and private collections and coins noted in the literature (mostly sales lists and auctions). The British Museum seems now only interested in new finds from the ground.

After reading Bob's email, I did a Google search for Celtic Coin Index, and sure enough, the British Museum page records had vanished and my original version's main design (William Astle of Lexicom changed it into a database driven site) now dominates the search results. Even the PAS Celtic Coin Index url does not even have a redirect to the Iron Age coins guide and delivers only a "404 notice" of the missing file.

Almost from the start, producing the first CCI online was a lot of work. My wife spent the last three years of her life building the site and the database that generated the pages while fighting terminal breast cancer. The Institute of Archaeology at Oxford went back on their agreement to fund our work from a grant and spent some of the money on their staff salary and the rest went into general coffers. We decided that the CCI online should exist, anyway even though we decided to include only the British issues and not the imports, and it became my property (according to the Oxford lawyers) because we had received no payment whatsoever and thus it was not "work for hire". I might even now arrange to update the records at some time.

As Oxford had left me with a debt of more than a thousand dollars for their last year's bandwidth charges, I thought that Lexicom, its hosting ISP, would take it down so I went to see Lexicom's president, Michael Rae to give him the bad news. His response was a most pleasant surprise: he said that he had always believed in Carrie and myself and the importance of the work. He would thus write off the debt, and would continue to host the CCI online on its dedicated server and our old personal site (now archived) at no cost to me at all. Before I left their office (in a daze!) he mentioned that he owned a condo on Regent's Canal in London and if I was visiting London anytime he was not there I would be welcome to borrow it. The day turned out to be far better than I imagined.

The unannounced limitation of Frere and Allen's original vision is a serious matter. While keeping a record of find spots is important, by including all coins regardless of whether there is a recorded find spot, it make the CCI a valuable research tool for typological, iconographic, metallurgical and epigraphical information. I had designed the site so that it could be easily browsed by Colin Haselgrove's regional system as well as by Bob Van Arsdell's tribal listings of coins. This was done to make identification of coins easier for those who only had a coin but little or no data.

Another very important feature of the complete CCI online was that the data could be searched to see how find spot data was handled by public collections, private collections and the trade. The PAS database apparently has no such function as it's main theme is to record find spots and if all you have is a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail.

I'll give you the source data for the CCI records of coins from 1961 to 2001:

Total number: 32,348

Public collections: 9,770
Private collections: 2,319
Literature: 20,259 (this is mainly coins published in the trade)

Of these sources, find spot data comes with 69% of public collection coins, 59.3% from private collections coins and 57.7% from the literature. The span thus is only 11.3 % and the average is 61.2%. Public collections contain a percentage of known site finds, and private collectors reporting coins to the CCI are more likely to have considered the find spot data more important than in all of the literature where, in the case of sales, some of the data comes with the coins but is not published in the catalogue (The Mossop sale, for example, lists find spots and/or weights but does not always associate each with a specific
coin in a lot of several, so we sometimes get a list of weights and a list of find spots but we don't clearly know which belong together from just the catalogue The coins, themselves, came with their tickets with all of the data). This, and the fact that a few would come from general catalogues where no specifics of each illustrated specimen are given (such as Seaby catalogues) would explain the small differences in the literature and private collection data.

We can see from this, that findspot data is mostly recorded or retained by dealers where it is known. This is just common sense, there is every reason to include such data and supply it with the coin, although with the animosity from the anti-collecting lobby, many dealers do not seem to be including as much of this data recently in their sales catalogues. Since the CCI was taken over by the PAS, they also report less to it as they probably realize that there is not anyone working there that is a specialist who can provide further information. This is just speculation on my part, but I have noticed a trend of fewer find spots in the literature over the last few years.

The importance of Celtic coins in the trade is revealed by the fact that the percentage of coins held in public collections is only just over 30% of the total. The differences in the numbers of reported find spots compared to those where this is not recorded is far less than might be imagined.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Twiddling my thumbs

The Connoisseurs, Eugène Fichel, 1871
I'm now approaching five months of waiting for my backlog of pensions. I started the process about ten months before that. Although my regular expenses are being met, I eat far fewer restaurants meals and I have a growing list of books I cannot afford to buy right now and, of course, I'm not adding anything to my collection of early Celtic art.

The last year or so has been exceptional for my collection. Early Celtic art is so rare that in the thirty years I have been collecting I could only hope to find one or two things in a good year. Of course, if you search for Celtic antiquities on Ebay you will get quite a number of hits. Most such objects are either not Celtic at all, or do not bear any Celtic decoration (which interests me far more than the form).

The star of my most recent collecting is the British plastic style finial (I attribute as a sword pommel). this is the only example of the pure plastic style to have been found in Britain and an electron microprobe analysis has proven that it was actually made in Britain and was not the import that the authorities in early Celtic art first believed it to be. It is such an unusual object that it was not correctly identified at first and received an export permit right away. This surprised me almost as much as the attribution.

Archaeologists in the know understand that a very small percentage of British early Celtic art is found with any archaeological context. Britain has none of the "princely graves" of the continent which has yielded many spectacular examples of early Celtic art, and most of what Britain yields are stray finds and coin hoards (although Celtic coin art is quite different from the art of other Celtic objects.

So it seems that, despite my current financial woes, I have not missed adding anything to my collection and it will be many more months of not buying anything before I find myself buying much less than I have accumulated over the last thirty years. Rest assured, though, that when I do buy the next item for my collection, it will appear here.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Good presentation

Roman gold medallion showing Olympias
It is not often that I praise a newspaper for an archaeological piece, but the Daily Mail online has a media-rich article about the tomb at Amphipolis which includes a couple of virtual fly-throughs of the tomb and photographs of some of the finds. It is not perfect, though: the portrait of Alexander's mother Olympias is not contemporary but is on a 3rd century AD Roman gold medallion. Still, it is an exceptional presentation. Too often, archaeological news reports lack even photos of the finds.

This is a short post today as I have a chest-cold that is making me feel miserable and I'm going back to bed.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Big-Endians and Little-Endians

Jonathan Swift

". . . It began upon the following occasion. It is allowed on all hands, that the primitive way of breaking eggs before we eat them, was upon the larger end: but his present Majesty's grandfather, while he was a boy, going to eat an egg, and breaking it according to the ancient practice, happened to cut one of his fingers. Whereupon the Emperor his father published an edict, commanding all his subjects, upon great penalties, to break the smaller end of their eggs."
Swift's jibe against Protestant/Catholic animosity in Gulliver's Travels serves for any example of heated conflict over issues that others might find trivial. I think that the current conflicts between archaeologists and metal detectorists/collectors can be framed within this allusion. The egg, in this case, is the past, and the conflicts are over its treatment in the present.

Dick Stout's aptly named blog post "Reading Between the Lines..." contains a video which points to two rather illusory viewpoints: the first is that of some archaeologists about what drives metal detectorists, collectors and archaeologists, and the second is that of the detectorists who base their views of archaeology and archaeologists on what they hear in such conflict situations. If blame must be given, it must be heaped far higher on the archaeologist spokesmen of this viewpoint for the simple reason that it is archaeology's task to interpret past societies — a task far more difficult than interpreting present societies, so you would think that when an archaeologist starts to talk about collecting that person probably has least asked collectors a few questions about the activity.

There was confusion, on the video, between England and Wales' Portable Antiquity Scheme which is a voluntary reporting system for finds which organized what some people already did about reporting finds (usually to a museum or specialist) and the Treasure Act which replaced the old Treasure Trove laws and deals with what constitutes such "treasure"; public or private ownership, remunerations, etc.

An archaeologist's choice of religious terminology in saying that collecting is anathema to archaeology is telling, as is a statement where archaeological professional ethics are projected upon non-archaeologists. These are cult-clues. Many archaeologists know that a coin reference that they give in a report exists because of a collector's study.

Selling is equated with profit. This would seem very strange to a collector who frequently sells a poor example when a better one shows up. The sale might be to another collector, or a part trade to the dealer with the better example. Even the dealer is more frequently there for the lifestyle than the profit. An owner of a collectibles shop is a common media icon of the struggling small-businessman who won't give up because of the love for the subject. A metal detectorist said, defensively, that he has kept everything he found and never sells anything. I would be tempted to ask him if he also owns thirty-seven cats and tall piles of newspapers. Apparently, profit is a bad thing when applied to the archaeologically sacred.

The contrasts between archaeology as science and collecting and metal detecting as pleasure and profit are so ham-fisted that we can entertain only ignorance or condescension as an explanation for their use. A specialist collector might well know much more of the science concerning their collection than the average archaeologist who sees very little of such things. That is who you get to identify something for you. If you cannot find such a person, then contact a dealer who will have seen more than the average collector, though not as much as the specialist. The dealer's reputation and livelihood depends on such knowledge; the archaeologist might get refuted but won't lose any tenure over a mistake.

If you limit people's views of the past, and what is important or unimportant to that view, you limit the public's interest in the past. When the public does not care about something, it gets no funding. It does not matter which end of the egg you crack open, what is important is that the egg gets cracked open.

Friday, 13 February 2015

shirts and ties

After doing something about socks yesterday, I thought I would keep to the sartorial theme today and discuss shirts and ties.

When buying a shirt for my daughter's wedding, I decided to look for a dress shirt with fairly wide stripes. After checking out the usual department stores where I buy clothes I could not find anything with wide stripes, just very narrow stripes. So I went to a large tailor's shop and (at first) was overjoyed to find three different shirts with wide stripes. The only problem was that they were all about $250 each. Now, I have not bought a suit in decades but I think the last suit cost me about that much. I might have paid as much as $50 for a shirt in the past, but having to fork out $250 for a shirt was not part of my reality. I began to wonder if I had stumbled on to some unwritten dress code: only wealthy executives are allowed to wear wide stripes.

It was starting to remind me of ties. The last time I had a job that required the wearing of a tie must have been in the late seventies. I have not owned a tie for years. I don't even like them. I remember talking with my wife about the mythology of ties. I have heard men say that the tie is a phallic symbol. As a mythologist, I just don't buy that at all. A mythological symbol usually contains some clues to its meaning through its usage. I would not expect a phallic symbol to be routinely tied in a slip-knot. Ask anyone what is the commonest use of a slip knot, and they will probably say "in a noose". I remember that office bosses used to get very upset if any of their male employees was not wearing a tie. It seemed to be a real taboo. I mentioned this to my wife and she claimed that the female equivalent was high-heeled shoes. She believed that such things symbolically hobbled women as a symbol of subservience.

When men start to talk about phallic symbols, I start to think about compensatory behaviour. What my wife said about high heeled shoes made sense, and if the meaning of the tie was the same, then compensating, by way of claiming the opposite might be expected. And why would a boss be upset that an underling is not looking macho enough?

I think that Tacitus gives us a clue in the Germania. Speaking of several Germanic tribes including the Anglii, he says (40):
"There is nothing noteworthy about these tribes, individually, but they share a common worship of Nerthus, or Mother Earth. They believe that she takes part in human affairs, riding in a chariot among her people. On an island of the sea stands an inviolate grove, in which, veiled with a cloth, is a chariot that none but the priest may touch. ... After that, the chariot, the vestments, and (believe it if you will) the goddess herself. are cleansed in a secluded lake. This service is performed by slaves who are immediately drowned in the lake. Thus mystery begets terror and a pious reluctance to ask what that sight can be which is seen only by men doomed to die.

You will remember that bog-bodies are found with a noose tied around their neck and Nerthus is sometimes mentioned in the literature about them. Tell that to the next person who claims that their tie is a phallic symbol.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Odd socks

photo: SeppVei
It's time to buy socks again. Almost every day another of my socks gains a hole and gets thrown out but I never end up with odd socks. A few years ago I decided that I really only ever need black or white cotton socks. I have no need for Argyll, or bright colours and, like most men, I prefer not to wear socks that appear to have an identity crisis: toe socks who seem to wish they were gloves, or socks posing as stuffed animals. Anything cute or unusual in fact. I want people to say "Here comes John", not "Here comes John's socks".

So I began to buy socks in bulk. It is not only much cheaper but on laundry days I never have to ponder that mystery of what happens to socks that seem to vanish in the wash. One comedian speculated that socks vanish into a black hole only to reappear later from some white hole as clothes hangers. Nor do I have to waste any time in matching socks that come out of the dryer. I don't even have to bundle or fold them in pairs, they all get unceremoniously dumped in the sock drawer loose and I just pick two singles.

I also believe in recycling or reusing and I will always have a few holed socks that serve nicely whenever I polish my shoes. Life holds far more interesting mysteries than "Whatever happened to that other sock?

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Beyond the "Fringe Archaeology" — part twenty: conclusion

James Gillray, L'Insurrection de l'Institut Amphibie – The Pursuit of Knowledge, tinted etching, 1799
Regardless of all instruction and care, the subject can still bite.
I did not have any sort of outline for this series and some mornings I sat down to write without even an idea for the subject matter of the episode. Somehow, though, I managed to voice most of my concerns regarding archaeological interpretation and presentation.

Modern physics says that the experimenter cannot avoid being part of the experiment, so while we might think that we are always looking outward at any archaeological evidence, the final product will contain influences from our own unconscious mind. We can lessen this effect by understanding the sort of influences that can colour our ideas. For this, we have to understand ourselves as much as the evidence before us.

Max Planck sums it up nicely:
"Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are a part of the mystery that we are trying to solve."

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Beyond the "Fringe Archaeology" — part nineteen: sharing the mystery

Sherlock Holmes by Sidney Paget

“My mind," he said, "rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere. I can dispense then with artificial stimulants. But I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for mental exaltation.” 
Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of Four
The character of Sherlock Holmes has been an icon to me since I was a child. It was not just his ability to solve crimes that captured my imagination, but that his need to do so was so personal. Conan Doyle understood this need in people to unravel mysteries, bit by bit, as an evolutionary process. Like many Victorians, Conan Doyle was fascinated by evolution and his own ideas of evolution can be discovered in his work. The Victorian age, too, was very much one of independent research and discovery.

We cannot see the Holmes character as someone wishing to free the world of crime for the good of the public. For Holmes, the lack of a crime to solve would have him reaching for the needle. Why would such a character pick crime as the means to exercise his mind? When he solves a crime, the story ends. He inductively gathers apparently disparate pieces of evidence and molds them into the only theory that can account for all of these details: "Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth." Conan Doyle has him say. Then Holmes can move on to the next mystery.

If Homes had been cast not as a detective, but as an academic, the stories would not have worked: He probably would have only solved one mystery and having written this up as his Ph.D. thesis would then have perhaps decided to turn it into a book. Or it might serve as material for a number of lectures and subsequent papers on the same theme. His ambition and drive might have been expressed by seeking tenure at some university; he might have become involved in various forms of academic empire building and the last thing you would expect him to say about anything would be, "I don't know, it is a mystery." He might also assume some sort of moral high ground saying that everything he does is for the public good. When the press reports on any of his work he would be written as the sage passing down (unexplained) expert opinion to the masses. The masses, however, will soon tire of this and seek out mysteries for themselves, instead.

So we see television programs about aliens instructing the Egyptians on how and why to build the pyramids, or pre-Columbian texts that seem to suggest the world should have ended in 2012, or lost continents inhabited by sages. Up until recently, I attributed such programs as an unwillingness to accept that the human being is capable of many wonders and the idea that such knowledge must then have come only from God, or from advanced aliens who travelled millions of miles across space in order to teach human beings how to build big earth or stone monuments.

In the Sherlock Holmes stories, the role and function of the "academy" is served by Inspector Lestrade who rarely strays from the dogma of his position. In our world, the truly great academics survive in spite of the university, not for it. They not only reveal what remains as mystery, but inspire others to look for themselves and seek new ways in which to do this. I know a number of such people. Of course they are in the minority and most people do not find them. I have said that my study of Coriosolite coins took me about ten years. What I don't think I have mentioned in print before is that it also took my about ten years just to find my subject. I could have written many things about Celtic coins that were already known by a few; I could have been a popularizer of the subject. If I had been an academic, I might have chosen to get lots of papers published by journals for career purposes. None of that interested me. I wanted a real mystery to solve. Nowadays, I hope to inspire others to do the same. Sharing the mystery is more important, I think, than sharing the solution. Of course the mysteries would be solved quicker if more people were working on it. Fortunately, there is always another one waiting around the corner if you don't get hung up with those already solved.

Monday, 9 February 2015

Beyond the "Fringe Archaeology" — part eighteen: active imagination

"A world of disorderly notions, picked out
of his books, crowded into his imagination"
Plate I of Gustave Doré's illustrations to
Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote.
Although best known as a Jungian therapy, active imagination has its earliest expression within the Islamic religion. Students of Jung will easily find parallels between the two traditions, especially within the relationship between the unconscious and conscious minds.

In reports of archaeological discoveries, identification or interpretation can be a grey area. This is especially true with press reports which most commonly say "Experts say it is..." without giving us the slightest clue as to whether any reason was given for the interpretation.

Jung knew that both deliberate imagination and the dream state could unlock some details of the unconscious thus bringing them into consciousness. I have seen the same with mythological imagery from my late wife's poetry, especially within obsessive verse, "dark" (about her first husband) or with rigidly complex structured verse such as the sestina (this example originating with a dream).

It seems to me that Jung's technique could be experimentally reversed to determine the anatomy of archaeological interpretation. Jung might have a patient draw a mandala based on one of the patient's dreams and then Jung would interpret the unconscious imagery. So with my special application, the archaeological object would take the place of the mandala and the archaeologist would assume Jung's role. A number of archaeological objects should be chosen for the experiment: a fairly complex archaeologic site; an artifact that exhibits design solely within its form and another which exhibits design mainly within its applied application (especially if this content is believed to be iconic in some way).

The subjects should be picked according to certain categories which might include archaeologists who specialize in the period and culture of the object and those who do not, and even people without any archaeological background or strong interest. Each subject would look at the object for the same period of time and then write a statement about it. they should be told to try to make this statement poetical or imaginative rather than dry and descriptive. This instruction could potentially unlock part of their unconscious.

Each response would then be compared with the subject's personality type (established through a Myers-Briggs test) and the results would then be analysed by specialists in the archaeological object, a Jungian therapist and a statistician. All attempted interpretations, and analyses of the results should be individual and private rather than collaborative, and then finally, the collective results can be analysed for content in the following categories:




I have no strong opinions about what might be discovered in such an experiment, but I think it would help us to understand the anatomy (and extent and reliability) of archaeological interpretation across different levels of expertise and the psychological types of the observers. At the very least, it will show the dominant personality types involved in archaeology. If anyone does conduct such an experiment, do let me know about it!

Friday, 6 February 2015

Beyond the "Fringe Archaeology" — part seventeen: Maslow's hammer

A diagram depicting the cognitive functions of each
Myers-Briggs personality type. A type's background
color represents its dominant function, and its text
color represents its auxiliary function.


"I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail."
Abraham Maslow, 1966
Anything that you read about the past whether it comes from history (texts) or archaeology (material remains) has two embedded viewpoints: there is the voice of the past, itself as expressed by what was written in that past and the thoughts which created the objects of that time, and there is the viewpoint of the author whose importances determine not only what is included in any current work, but how such things might be treated. The author might have originated or subscribed to a particular theory or method but the text does not always make the author's philosophical leanings very clear. An uninformed reader, buying a book because of its subject matter might believe that history "is what happened" and while, say, a certain war happened and is thus a fact, the causes of that war could be framed in different ways according to one's political and cultural views. If the author does not make his viewpoint very clear at the outset, some readers will take everything not just as fact but all of the facts.

Obviously, history is not everything that happened. I can find very little information about my great grandfathers other than the basic records of residences, profession, birth, baptism, marriage and death. One great grandfather was a glass painter and another was a bookbinder, but beyond that there are just family stories which might or might not be true: My paternal grandfather ran away from home at the age of ten and he claimed that his father was a music-hall ventriloquist and a drunk. However, the records clearly show that his father (the glass painter) had a fairly big family and they all lived in a large house in north London. Rather incongruous with the ventriloquist story, but explainable if my grandfather was looking for a story to justify his abandonment of his family. Another family story has this ventriloquist as the inventor of the pigment called Hooker's Green, but I think this (if there is any truth in it) refers to an earlier Hooker who was a botanical illustrator noted for his use of very bright and clear colours. Even modern accounts of the pigment vary considerably. The most reliable, I believe, coming from an old Winsor and Newton publication said that the pigment was organic and replaced a a mixture of gamboge and Prussian blue. A mixture of any two pigments causes a certain amount of "muddiness, and the brightest colours always contain a pure single pigment. It was a watercolour pigment (nowadays just a synthetic) and would be in keeping with the descriptions of Hooker's botanical illustrations. A story on the other side of my family about the bookbinder was that he bound a bible in snakeskin for Queen Victoria and the Queen subsequently presented the family with gold watches by way of thanks. I have no idea if this is completely true, partly true, or false. Often, family stories get embellished over the generations.

Even if we can get past conflicting stories, a history is also strongly influenced by its authors interests, theories, and most importantly of all, the author's personality type. But instead of treating these influences as impediments to objectivity, I think that it would be far more valuable to create circumstances by which some of these problems could be avoided in the first place. We do see balanced views already: we might read that Smith claims that.... while Jones claims... with both reasons being given, and this is about as far as a single author can go. We cannot easily assume a different personality for different aspects of history.

A university department can be populated with people of very different backgrounds and philosophies and this is the way that the more objective think-tanks are constructed, but even if two people share the same background and methodologies, there can be differences in personalities that would make essays on the same subject quite different for both of these people. Field archaeology is teamwork and it presents an opportunity to follow the method for think tanks so that the various views can enrich the task of interpretation by showing how the same evidence can mean different things to different people. As far as I know, this has never been attempted.

The Myers-Briggs personality analyses are based on and expanded from the work of Carl Jung. Although certain personality types might be more drawn to particular professions that express that personality, to find a balanced view requires several different personalities. Business uses the Myers-Briggs tests to find staff well suited to the work, but any business is a creative endeavor. This is the very thing we try (hopefully) to avoid with history and archaeology, and for this reason, we would do better with the sort of cross-section of personality types that would be expressed with historical events. We would want as many different viewpoints as possible, and we would also be mindful of the "personality" of the society and time that we are studying.

The individual viewpoint is very important in postmodern thought. I think that if Jung had lived in these times, he would be firmly in the postmodern camp. The Jungian analyst Christopher Hauke is of the same mind. Explore the links I give here in the text and caption and imagine how the past might look quite different if we could expand our viewpoints and be mindful of what influence our own personalities will bring to our work.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Beyond the "Fringe Archaeology" — part sixteen: the elephant in the room

Banksy art exhibit "Barely Legal" in Los Angeles, 2006
photo: Bit Boy
The one word will which likely cause more smiles among archaeologists than any other is "ritual". Many archaeologists feel that the word is used too frequently when other archaeologists cannot understand something of the arrangement of the evidence at an archaeological site. Yet, you can read books and papers, and even take archaeology courses about the archaeology of religion and ritual.

The elephant in the room is not that "ritual" is given as the meaning for some archaeological evidence that is not clearly understood, but it is the common choice of the word "ritual" to describe what the evidence might mean.

A ritual is an action that takes place (in this case, specifically as part of a religious act) which represents something within the religious or cultural beliefs of the participant. Carl Jung says:
"I remember an African tribe whose members greeted the first rays of the sun by spitting in their hands and turning them towards it. That's classic: since breath is the soul, the saliva which accompanies the breath is the substance of the soul. What that gesture means exactly is: "My God, I offer you my soul." I tried to find out if they knew the meaning of their gesture. No, the young did not know, nor the fathers. But the grandfathers knew, it is they who guard the secrets."
Here we have an example of an eyewitness ritual where people who actually participated in such could offer no interpretation. It was something understood only by the elders. The action Jung describes could leave no archaeological evidence, but other rituals, just as mysterious to the participants, could leave traces that could be excavated.

In most modern religions, a priest will face the congregation, so the effect will be something like a performer being viewed by an audience. Joseph Campbell points out that in ages past, many of the rites performed by the priest are in the "inner sanctum" of a temple, or are carried out with the priest facing the altar and his back to the congregation. The priest was seen more as an intermediary between the people and the divine. In a medieval church, the priest's Latin verses might not be understood by any of the congregation. When John Wycliffe produced the first English translation of the Bible in the late fourteenth century, it was considered heresy by the Pope.

Mystery is an important ingredient in religious practice, from the shaman's magical tricks to the the Greek Mystery cults such as Dionysianism, right up to Christianity (which has enough similarities to Dionysianism to be called a Mystery religion, itself  — at least in its earlier practices).

So, in a sense, when an archaeologist points to something which he or she labels as "ritual", it is a reflection of the idea of it being a mystery. The ritual can exist in a state of complete mystery to the participant and the archaeologist assumes the role of such a practitioner who, while not knowing the exact meaning of the rite, will likely be able to direct anyone to the elder or priest who could (but not necessarily will) explain its meaning.

As the archaeologist cannot produce such a person because anyone who did know the meaning might have died hundreds of years earlier, there can be a different sort of appeal to authority when some explanation is needed, and that can take the form of the latest theories about social interactions, or positions of power and so on. I have found that many of these explanations tell us more about current thought than they do about ancient practices. Without such explanation, the designation of something as "ritual" might have the unconscious realization of the importance of mystery to the psyche. Its use, then can be something of a Freudian slip, and it as such times that it becomes the elephant in the room.

The extraverted materialistic archaeologist is personally disturbed whenever he or she has to deal in non-material, psychic, content. As such, the label "ritual" requires no further explanation (in their mind). The introverted, intuitive archaeologist just smiles at this treatment.

Note: The Internet Archive text for my Jung quote is from Interviews and Encounters and not Memories, Dreams, Reflections as it appears in the browser title tab, although the same incident is described in the latter work. I used this version as it is more succinct.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Beyond the "Fringe Archaeology" — part fifteen: the dark side of archaeology

Big Brother

"Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past." George Orwell, 1984
Up to this point, I have been discussing some of the pitfalls that might be encountered by the archaeologist searching for an objective interpretation of archaeological evidence. We have all heard of Churchill's quote, "History is written by the victors", but that history begins to be written even before the first shot is fired. Wars need public support and politicians know that it is easy to to shift feelings of patriotism toward feelings of nationalism. This is so successful that I think that most people today might be confused about the differences between patriotism and nationalism. Orwell clarifies the problem:
"By ‘nationalism’ I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad’.  But secondly — and this is much more important — I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests. Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality. ... Nationalism is power-hunger tempered by self-deception. Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also — since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself — unshakeably certain of being in the right."
In an Artnet news report about the recently excavated tomb at Amphipolis connected with Alexander the Great, it is said "that the discovery has engendered great Greek patriotism and pride in the austerity-hit country." Compare this with a statement from I. Rizos Neroulos, the president of the Athens Archaeological Society in 1841 (Yannis Hamilakis, The Nation and its Ruins, Oxford, 2007, p. 112):
"And a battle in Chaironeia took place, in which Philip won, destroying the Hellenic freedom. But Philip committed something even more disastrous, he fathered Alexander!"
So how did Alexander become a national hero today when 174 years ago, he was the person that brought an end to the "small government" democratic city-states of Greece? Through nationalist machinations, of course.

In his foundation speech for UNESCO (1946), Julian Huxley says of eugenics:
"Still another and quite different type of borderline subject is that of eugenics. It has been on the borderline between the scientific and the unscientific, constantly in danger of becoming a pseudoscience based on preconceived political ideas or on assumptions of racial or class superiority and inferiority. It is, however, essential that eugenics should be brought entirely within the borders of science, for, as already indicated, in the not very remote future the problem of improving the average quality of human beings is likely to become urgent; and this can only be accomplished by applying the findings of a truly scientific eugenics."
 I dare say that there were more than just a few people critical of eugenics in 1946.

Huxley goes on to say:
"The moral for Unesco is clear. The task laid upon it of promoting peace and security can never be wholly realised through the means assigned to it —education, science and culture. It must envisage some form of world political unity, whether through a single world government or otherwise, as the only certain means for avoiding war."

Today, we see "repatriated" antiquities (according to various UNESCO declarations) going on display much like the spoils of war were displayed by returning Roman generals. Orwell, according to Anthony Burgess, originally wanted to title the book "1948"

For more information, see my reviews of The Nation and its Ruins and Archaeology under Dictatorship.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Beyond the "Fringe Archaeology" — part fourteen: the unknown muse

Odoardo Borrani, A visit to the studio, (1885-1890)
One of the problems that archaeology has with the subject of art is the perception that today's art has more to do with the expression of the artist than with the depiction of any reality. This is just a higher level misunderstanding of the sort whereby many people will condemn modern art with such statements as, "It's not a painting of anything", or, "My kid could do that!" I am fairly confident in saying that artists have been trying to express themselves since man first started to draw on cave walls. All that has changed over the centuries is the subject of the work. By that, I do not mean what is depicted, but what is represented by that which is depicted.

If we subscribe to the concept that early man painted the animals of the hunt on cave walls with the idea of that action having a positive effect on the hunt, itself, then the artist's subject is the creation of a future reality. He or she will assign the universe (as it is understood) to the role of muse. If the artist gets it right, then the universe will accommodate the wishes of the artist. Within this model, the depiction of animals taken could be propitiatory: what is taken is replaced with its image, or it could be magical and the hunt is played out on the wall before the real hunt takes place in the same way. Other explanations might also be offered. What is important to the artist is getting it right according to the tenets of the art which is being followed.

Thousands of years later, a painter in Florence is concerned about a portrait commission: the client is affluent and the artist is interested in future patronage. Not only will the artist be concerned about the quality of the work, he will also want to reflect the client's self-image and his desired public image. What appears in the painting might also represent the client's relationship to the church and the state. The painter will think about the symbolism to be used and will work out the composition through a number of preparatory sketches and painted studies before the final product is produced. He might also assign some of the work to his apprentices (depending on the status of the client and the size of the task).

Today, an artist has just graduated from an art college and while having dreams of greatness, is just hoping to survive. He or she might be thinking about finding a gallery to show their work (with the hope of a show at some point). Perhaps the artist is thinking of finding an agent, or just setting up an easel somewhere public to sell directly to the public. the ultimate idea might be to move to an important art centre like New York and become accepted by the "in-group". The artist (and any potential agent) will be concerned about the artist's "personal vocabulary", and whether there is too obvious an influence in the work.

All three of these scenarios, from prehistoric to modern, create the same situation in the mind of the artist: greater care is exercised where it is most needed and that care will reflect its causes to a modern observer who will need to know nothing of the underlying philosophy in order to detect it. Certain things will often be repeated and other things will be avoided. Once we have built up a list of what is done or not done, and where the greatest care was exercised, then the reasons for these decisions might present themselves more easily, if only as a general category with little exact detail.

In ancient Greece, the idea of the muse was categorized and personified and each age has expressed the muse in different ways. The modern male poet might find a real muse: a woman who expresses his own anima and besides inspiration, might also encounter the sort of difficulties encountered by all who have difficulties in separating fantasy from reality.

No matter where we look on the Mythos/Logos scale of societies, the artist and the muse are present and the inspiration from the latter leads to the methods and motives of the former. If we look at what attention was being given to what, and what level of attention was deemed necessary, then at least a certain amount of correct interpretation could follow if the supply of evidence is adequate.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Beyond the "Fringe Archaeology" — part thirteen: decontamination

HAZMAT training
Science has no problems with hazardous materials. You can get suited up first and then hosed down afterward and feel safe that no unwelcome substance is going to attack your cells. Avoiding mental contamination is not so easy, though, and you just cannot buy yourself any gear that will prevent such disease. Infection might come from a currently fashionable theory which is being touted as fact; It might come from a half-forgotten legend about King Arthur's or Charlemagne's troops waiting in their tombs for their country to need them again; It could be that the reference on which you rely has been debunked by later research that did not appear in the usual places when you were gathering background material. Perhaps you are even psychologically unprepared for what the evidence is trying to tell you.

About the safest environment is among the primary excavated material. The only contamination is likely to be errors of identification. When I was being trained as a museum cataloguer, the phrase most driven home in my brain was "what appears to be...". When the curator read one of my catalogue worksheets of a Black Watch badge, he noticed that I had described the badge as being made of bronze. He then asked me: "So you have had it tested, then?". I should have known better: when I was working in the jewelry business, it was policy to describe any metal as "white" or "yellow" when taking in a piece to be repaired as describing an object as gold when it was just gold plated could become a big problem if the customer was dishonest and saw an opportunity to profit from the mistake.

When I helped a friend set up a jewellery store, we had a customer arrive to have his wife's gold watch repaired. I described it properly as having a yellow bracelet and being set with white stones. later that day, we got a panicked phone call from our clockmaker. He said that the watch was a fake: it was not the brand it purported to be; It was gold plated and the "diamonds" were synthetic stones. He did not work on the watch. We were more than worried about calling the customer because he had struck as a being a member of the Mafia from things he said when he came to the shop. When he returned to retrieve the fake watch, I asked him where he had bought it and he told me that it was at a shop in Toronto. I suggested that he call his lawyer about how to proceed and that we would provide him with an appraisal at no cost. He smiled and said "We like to do things a little differently — I might even end up with a jewellery store!" I thought it best not to respond to that comment.

A lot of problems in interpreting archaeological remains comes from following a deductive line of reasoning where objects are placed within a theoretical framework of interpretation. It is always best to take such theories as provisional and look at everything with fresh eyes as much as is practical. Think in an inductive way, building a new theory (if needed) from the evidence that is presented.

One of the main tenets of postmodernism is that it is just as important to understand the person who makes a statement as it is to understand what the statement means, and that we do not fully appreciate the latter without knowing the former. In all matters of interpretation, subjectivity is the default setting. If an interpretation happens to support the politics or the psychology of the person who is making it, we might wonder about its accuracy. Remember, too, that one of the main functions of archaeology is to support various nationalisms. Caveat emptor!