Category Archives: technology

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


Fishing and droning

The boys compare torsos: I am reassured that none of us are in fact androids

The boys compare torsos: I am satisfied that none of us are in fact androids

We’ve finally had two consecutive full days on site after a lot of delays. These have been mostly due to rain but there was also the many joys of the goverment medical inspection, which involved a full day in Nasiriyah being tested for AIDS and having our chests X-rayed. As one of the healthier looking expedition members (I am one of the few with working knees) I was spared the x-ray, which was lucky as I didn’t want to have a conversation about underwired bras with an Iraqi doctor. They took my blood though, after which I had the sleeve of my jumper immediately, and rather aggressively, tugged back down by a burly old woman, least the men be aroused by the sight of my naked elbow.

Visit to Eridu: Bricks, bitumen, bullets

Visit to Eridu: Bricks, bitumen, bullets

[insert phallic reference]

[insert phallic quip]

On site it was time for some photography today. As we are a highly advanced technological project this was not the usual matter of shinning up a stepladder, putting the camera on auto and hoping for the best. Instead we got out the fifteen meter long telescopic ‘quickshot’ pole (which causes much consternation at airports due to its visual similarity to a rocket launcher coupled with the fact it has ‘Quickshot’ written on the side of it). After buckling staff member A into the harness, and enduring an extraordinarily large amount of faffing, we extended the pole to its full height, giving the impression that A was going fishing for enormous salmon. Various parts of the pole then proceeded to retract into each other, necessitating adjustments with allen keys, then the laptop into which the camera was plugged had to be turned off and on, before finally the camera ran out of battery just as we were ready to take some photos. Isn’t technology marvellous.

Test flight: the photo drone soars through the sky with the grace and directionality of an angry, drunk bee

Test flight: the photo drone soars through the sky with the grace and directionality of an angry, drunk bee

There had been hope last week that even the camera-laptop-pole arrangement had had its day after the arrival on site of our new photo drone – a small sinister black rotorcraft related to the ones Amazon wants to use to deliver box sets (and the ones America uses to blow up Afghan weddings). This was successfully trialed last week, successfully taking several hundred photos of mud from various heights up to thirty metres. Alas, this brave new archaeological world is now on hold due to minor damage sustained in a heavy landing and it being discovered that we need permission from the Iraqi army to fly it. Thus our dreams are made dust.

Sleep is for the weak


Archaeology by iphone

Archaeology by iphone

Sunrise over the last day on site

Sunrise over the last day on site

I’m on my parent’s sofa drinking milky tea and watching The Dark Knight Rises (where did Bane get his Royal Shakespeare Company accent growing up in that big well?). The end of things in Turkey was a bit of a struggle; planning my huge curving lump of Assyrian city wall took considerably longer than I expected, partially because it was hard to see the bricks under all the dead frogs. Then we ran out of drawing film before I could plan my sections. I ended up having to use a HB pencil on some strange semi-transparent paper we found in the back of a cupboard – the result was similar to that achievable with a child’s crayon on cheap toilet paper.

Recep on frog duty

Recep on frog duty

By the time that was done with I was short of writing-up time and had to work until nearly midnight on Thursday; I came to some fairly bold conclusions, possibly enhanced by the application of sherry to the writing process. By the time I was finished it seemed a bit pointless to go to bed before going to the airport at 2am so I just got drunk with the director instead. We drank neat Stolichnaya and talked about all the awful people who’ve worked on the project over the last fifteen years.

I was almost sober again and not feeling very clever by the time I landed at Istanbul. I then endured a miserable flight to Birmingham, spent thinking about plane crashes and watching Snow White and the Huntsman (which can’t realistically have been as dreadful as I now recall?).

After my parents had picked me up from the station and we’d got the first argument out of the way I passed out on the floor in front of the television and woke up at a beer festival in Crewe Railway Heritage Centre. After all, there’s nothing that gets you over a hangover, jetlag and 48 hours without sleep like staying up to midnight and drinking seven pints of real ale. Today I have been mostly rehydrating.

Outside it's raining outside the train shed. I drink a pint of mild and go into culture shock

Outside it’s raining. I drink a pint of mild and go into culture shock

The works of man

Ancient Egyptian bling: 3,400 years old and good as new

Ancient Egyptian bling: 3,400 years old and good as new

Yesterday I found this faience ring. Isn’t it nice. The previous owner had been very badly messed about but his two femurs were thrown over each other and happily hid the ring between his thighs, still stuck on a finger bone.

I’ve been having a great deal of trouble with watches recently. They just keep stopping on me with no obvious reason that watch repairers can find. This has coincided with an increase in the number of static shocks I’ve been receiving from objects, persons and animals, and a new found ability to trigger the security alarms in shops. I wish I had better superpowers. Anyway, after only four weeks my most recent watch stopped on Monday so I put in an order for a replacement from the closest Egyptian town. This arrived yesterday.

My nice new watch: chocolate teapot

My new watch: breaking new ground in the field of shit

The simultaneous acquisition of the ancient ring and my new watch started me thinking about the progress (or otherwise) of mankind and his arts. The ring is a beautiful object, made with care and skill, and has so far survived for three and a half thousand years in almost pristine condition. My new watch is one of the ugliest objects conceived by the minds of men, made from plastic and misery by a Chinese sweatshop worker in between suicide attempts. In terms of size, weight and functionality it’s a considerable step backwards from Fred’s stone sundial wristwatch in The Flintstones. The dig director, between fits of laughter, took it out of the packaging and tried to show me how nice it was by putting it on, prompting the strap to instantly fall off. Experimental pressing of the buttons failed to make it do anything as useful as telling the time, and after five minutes it ceased to do anything whatsoever. I think I will nail it to the office wall as a warning to the future about where we are heading.

I am left to marvel at the lost knowledge of the ancients, and learn to tell the time by counting in my head. We live in a base age. One elephant, two elephants, three elephants…

Still working: checking the ring for continued functionality

Still working: checking the ring for continued functionality