Category Archives: museums

The oldest sins in the newest ways


The new Institute of Digital Archaeology erection

It seems appropriate I should title this with a Shakespeare misquote as it’s the 400th anniversary of his death on Saturday and everyone is doing it. What I’m actually alluding to is the ‘digitally produced’ copy of the Palmyra arch which was erected in Trafalgar Square yesterday by the Institute of Digital Archaeology (involuntary snigger). They’ve made an exact scaled-down replica of an arch destroyed by Daesh, using a digital 3D model created from photos. How new! how sophisticated, how 21st century! cooed the papers. But of course it isn’t a new concept at all, in fact it’s very old school, only the tools have changed (now they work at the Institute of Digital Archaeology, nghh).

They loved their perfect architectural replicas back in the mid-19th century and there was a huge industry turning them out for museums. Moulds were made from the originals and used to produce as many plaster casts as necessary, brilliant. The only downside being that eventually everyone came to the conclusion that casts of ancient monuments were a bit pointless and unsatisfying. They lacked authenticity and, rather critically, age. To everyone’s surprise it turned out that old things were interesting and valued because they were old. New facsimiles just didn’t really interest people no matter how close to the original they were. The cast craze died away by the early 20th century and museums had their cast collections destroyed, sold off or put into permanent storage. One of the few museums to retain some of their casts on display is the Victoria and Albert in London, which I suspect found it hard to back down after they’d invested in a Cast Court specially built to house a life-size cast of the façade of the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.


Michaelangelo’s original David which attracts 1.3 million visitors per year, and the V&A’s Victorian cast which mysteriously doesn’t

It’s fascinating to learn from the IDA that reproductions are back on the cutting edge of cultural heritage, so long as they’re produced from a digital model and carved by robots at £100,000 a pop rather than boring old Victorian casts (and I’m so glad we’re spending the money on something that really helps to protect and conserve endangered archaeology in the Middle East and not on some token publicity stunt). Alas, like most digital archaeology, it’s an old and pointless concept in a new and shiny package.


Bunking off Quiddich at Alnwick Castle

In personal news, I survived my 8 hour wait in Istanbul airport by paying to spend it in a lounge with an infinite supply of beer. I also survived a brief National-Trust-athon in Northumberland with my sister, during which we managed to take in four castles, three churches, one priory, Hadrian’s wall, the Lindisfarne mead shop and an unrecorded number of pubs. My sister talked incessantly about her wedding but amply compensated by sending me a whole Spanish ham in the post. Twins are great, they’re the only people really get gifts right.


One week in, the gift of ham just keeps on giving


Public relations

Disney's Robin Hood: the first man I ever loved

Disney’s Robin Hood: the first man I ever loved

I’m drinking tea on my parent’s sofa reading my old John Constantine graphic novels, while receiving malevolent looks from my dad. I made him turn over from The One Show for the safety of both of us. I’ve been back in the UK for forty long hours now, though I made some of them go very fast by seeing Thor: The Dark World and drinking five pints of Cheshire Gap at the pub. The last week in Erbil was fairly packed. On site I completed The Megaplan (you can fit a lot of bricks in a 20m x 15m trench and now I know them all personally), my team won the Halloween quiz at the T Bar and were rewarded with lots of small, free, colourful drinks (which seemed like a good idea at the time), and I went to a refugee camp where we made life better for a bunch of Syrian children by making them watch Disney’s Robin Hood until they cried. I pretended to be amazing at Egyptian Arabic by translating the dubbed sound track back into English for my colleagues, while in fact simply recalling the script word for word having watched Robin Hood at least three hundred times between the ages of 7 and 28 (when the second DVD wore out).

Media mess: A late medieval wall proves to be the perfect buffet table

Media mess: A late medieval wall proves to be the perfect buffet table

We finished the season by holding a large press conference in the trench. I spent much of this hiding, and grinding my teeth as I watched members of the Kurdish press pulling bones out of the sections, scrambling over architecture in four inch heels, and using the ancient walls to put their drinks on. There was a thrilling minute during which a particularly fat cameraman stood on a section of wall supported only by optimism. I remained undecided as to whether the damage to the wall might be worth the sight of him breaking his legs in front of twenty TV cameras. I have since had to endure my colleagues sending endless YouTube clips of me looking shifty and irritable on various Kurdish satellite channels. I finally got paid (in cash). At first they wanted to pay me in Iraqi dinars but I had to point out that there wasn’t even nearly enough room in my luggage.

The Parthenon: still not finished

The Parthenon: still not finished

Because I haven’t suffered enough, instead of going home I went to a five day conference in Athens on Kurdish archaeology. When I say ‘went’, I mean I registered and then spent five days shopping and drinking wine in cafes. I dutifully went to the Parthenon, but was extremely careful to learn nothing whatsoever. Particularly memorable moments were the military museum (where I discovered that things haven’t gone so well for the Greek military since the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC) and seeing a dog run over by a taxi. I have changed plane in Istanbul airport nine times in the last twelve months and aim to never go there again.

The world according to Woolley

I’ve been giving the blog a bit of a rest, firstly because I haven’t been digging, but mostly because I’ve been trying to avoid going back to my parents’ because I don’t really like it there. I’ve spent the last week or so in a cabin in the woods in southern Sweden where I woke up shouting twice and ate a lot of fish. The week before that I spent drunk in a 13th Century priory on the Somerset coast, taking remarkably long baths and drinking tea with this horse:

The horse at the bottom of the garden, who had a lot of free time and an interesting perspective on the dissolution of the monestaries

The horse at the bottom of the garden, who had a lot of free time and an interesting perspective on the dissolution of the monasteries

Delightful though all this has been, this itinerary has adversely affected my access to reliable internet.

My one vaguely archaeological activity has been reading ‘Dead Towns and Living Men’; a book written in 1918 by the young Leonard Woolley while he was a prisoner of The Turk (he never specifies which one) having been caught spying (like all respectable archaeologists during the Great War. The book isn’t so much about the archaeology as the hilarious local shenanigans (deadly tribal warfare) that went on in the background. In this, it’s very much like Digging Up Old Stuff in Hot Places, except with better grammar and a huge amount of racism.

Woolley and his chum Lawrence of Arabia totally pulling off a bit of Edwardian sports casual

Woolley and his chum Lawrence of Arabia totally pulling off a bit of Edwardian sports casual

Things were certainly a bit different back when Britain had an empire and archaeologists wore pith helmets in a non-ironic way. Over the last month or so the project I’m about to go and work for in Turkey has been hanging on and on for our permit to be signed in Ankara. Woolley’s standard approach to any such bureaucratic difficulty was to take out his revolver and threaten to shoot the official in question (an approach which I understand is now frowned upon by the British Museum). The universal success of this tactic seems to have hinged partly on Woolley’s supreme confidence that no oriental would dare to shoot an English gentleman and partly on the supreme inefficiency of the Ottoman Empire at shooting people who deserved it. These barriers apparently did not extend to the German railway engineers across the valley, who could be shot with impunity.

‘Dead Towns and Living Men’ is also punctuated with Woolley’s insightful descriptions of the various peoples he worked with, which consist of a series of sweeping derogatory statements covering the Egyptians, Sudanese, Italians, Bulgarians, Arabs, Kurds, Turks and Germans. Woolley describes the Egyptians as being unable to understand the concept of truth. The Germans are basically evil. He tells several lengthy anecdotes about the ‘child-like simplicity’ of the Sudanese, including one in which he explains to a Sudanese workman how there was nothing disrespectful at all about a British officer addressing him as ‘Sambo’. The N-word occurs. Despite describing the Kurds as thieves, drunks, atheists, money-grabbers and undergraduates, he seems to like them best as they are also sportsmen.

I will leave you with this short extract showing Woolley’s diplomatic skills, in which he attempts to talk the local Kurdish sheikhs out of attacking the French garrison, and thereby disrupting his digging of unimaginably large holes in ancient Carchemish:

“Tell me, oh sheikhs, for whom do you do this thing?”

“For the Turks.”

“I serve the British Museum, and work for archaeology, which is knowledge. Which is greater, the British Museum or the empire of the Turks?”

“W’Allah, the British Museum!”  replied the sheikhs.

“And which is greater, liberty or knowledge?”

“Knowledge is greater.”

“Therefore my work must go on and yours must stop.”

I sometimes wonder if Leonard Woolley wasn’t just a massive liar.

In other news, I’ve managed to bruise both my shins on a helicopter, and hit my head on an aeroplane in unrelated incidents. It’s late July, there’s a heat-wave in England, I’m booking my flights to the 45°C oven of south-eastern Turkey, and grandma has made me mittens. Thanks gran.

Winter is coming (eventually I guess). Elderly Swedish women are unstoppable knitting machines.

Winter is coming (eventually I guess). Elderly Swedish women are unstoppable knitting machines.

Friday: day of dreams, day of washing

Oooh, and that's a bad miss. Ronnie O'Sullivan is my role model (except in the manic depression department)

Oooh, and that’s a bad miss. Ronnie O’Sullivan is my role model (except in the manic depression department)

After only two days on site we’ve hit the weekend. We went to Sulaymaniyah on Thursday night and stayed over at the museum guest house, which on the upside meant I could get a kebab and smoke shisha, but on the downside meant I had to sleep on a mattress in a corridor getting bitten by fleas and having a door slammed next to my head all night. I’m still working out the cost/benefit analysis.

We spent the morning discussing (arguing about) the site recording system, or in my case, wondering if anyone would notice if I crawled under the table and went back to sleep. We generally decided that what we need is more money, more equipment and more people (in a parallel universe). We then turned our faces towards City Star; a shining beacon of civilisation, opposite the museum and all its barbarism, where one can drink a cappuccino, go ten pin bowling and buy Diet Coke in packs of twenty-four. Unusually, it is also possible to play snooker on two unbeerstained full-sized snooker tables, complete with an inspiring poster of John Parrot on the wall. Me and the dig director had an unusual game, which he won 65-23, helped by a spectacularly unlucky run of in-offs on my part. I would also mention that I have a large raw blister on my hand just where the cue has to slide through, produced by my heroic efforts with the big pick and shovel yesterday on site, so I was playing through the pain.

Home is where I hang my movie posters. Half way through the season I'll turn it over and have Wolverine

Home is where I hang my movie posters. Half way through the season I’ll turn it over and have Wolverine

I then paid a shameful visit to the supermarket where I bought English tea, packet noodles and a tube of salt and vinegar Pringles. I blame low blood sugar, having survived the day to that point on two boiled eggs and a large bowl of chocolate ice cream.

We escaped all these unwholesome stimulants back to the safety of our village, where I’ve never been gladder to see Johnny Depp and two pieces of foam on a concrete floor. We then performed the experiment ‘how many doctorates does it take to work a washing machine?’