Tuesday, September 27, 2011

OME does it again: another bullion-laden vessel found


Greg Stemm must be rubbing his manicured hands together in glee. His team of researchers and salvors have discovered another sunken ship with a cargo of silver. Found in the Atlantic, the British cargo ship was sunk by a German U-Boat during the Second World War (details below).
The numbers are already in and it is said to be worth £155 million; the so-called 'World's Most Valuable Shipwreck'. I have a little bit of an issue with that phrase as it determines value only in monetary terms, rather that in archaeological, historical or cultural ones. The ever-eager-to-capitalise-on-heritage-British Government (specifically the MoD ***CORRECTION MoT***) get 20% of the loot, cha-ching!

****You may note the subtle emphasis on gold and silver on their website's banner by clicking here http://www.shipwreck.net/images/banner.jpg *****

For those of you unfamiliar with this type of arrangement, this is typical of dealings between the Ministry of Defence and Odyssey Marine Exploration (OME). Luckily for OME, the British Government are happy to hand over large tracts of its heritage for cold hard cash. This is unlike OME's dealings with Spain: just last month, a federal appeals court in Florida ordered OME hand back some £250 million worth of gold and silver coins to Spain as it was illegally obtained (it's a complicated scenario involving disputed international waters and OME's disregard for Spain's national heritage, despite numerous warnings).
Maybe not the best thing to have an entire government hate you
Want to know the kicker in this entire story? The ship isn't even in British waters - it's in Irish waters, which doesn't seem to be complicating the matter at all.****CORRECTION, APPARENTLY THE WRECK IS TECHNICALLY IN INTERNATIONAL WATERS, see further correction, below**** There is no dispute that the wreck belongs to the Crown, not Ireland, but maybe Ireland could ban OME from our waters? Just a suggestion HINT HINT. (It has been reported Independentt), erroneously, that Ireland will get percentage from OME's plundering profits.
Good old Greggy loves him some historic saleable gold
Not that Greg Stemm is all about the money, somewhere deep down it's also about the history and archaeology.... except that part is less easy to sell for millions upon millions. For now, poor Greg will have to settle for selling 'salvaged' silver coins and artefacts to hungry collectors, and maybe put on an travelling exhibition, which the public will gladly pay for. It will feature a historical overview and lots of pictures of coins, just like his other million-dollar exhibitions. The man knows how to sell history well by preying on the public's sense of greed, good one Greg.
I see Giorgio Tsoukalos when I look at this photo of Greg Stemm
I met Greg Stemm once at a conference, shook his hand and took his gold-embossed card. He is charming, successful, well-spoken and media savvy. He comes across as a nice guy and is adept at answering tricky questions. When I asked him (politely) about archaeological reports which had never been published, he assured me that the work was done impeccably but that a series of court proceedings had delayed everything ***UPDATE, as stated at the top of this article, OME's PR firm claims this is no longer the case, but it was true at the time I spoke to Greg a few years ago (not implying that nothing had been published)****. He also kindly invited me to visit his USA-based archives any time I wanted to consult the research I asked about. It may help Greg to know that if he didn't keep annoying entire nations (i.e. Spain) he might have less court trouble and more people would like him if he cared less about investors and more about the archaeology he is destroying.

****CORRECTION: OME's PR FIRM CLAIM THAT ALL PUBLICATIONS OF EXCAVATION REPORTS ARE UP TO DATE - THEY HAVE SENT ME COPIES OF THESE REPORTS TO REVIEW. Ireland's international waters extend to ~230miles (200 nautical miles), though the UN has granted Ireland the right to extend its protection further, see http://www.independent.ie/national-news/new-un-resolution-allows-ireland-to-extend-its-territorial-waters-42433.html) Particularly relevant is the clause
A clause in the convention stipulates that the exclusive economic zone can be extended to up to 350 nautical miles if countries can scientifically prove that their continental shelf extends beyond the 200-mile boundary. *****

ABOUT THE WRECK (from the Telegraph's article)

The SS Gairsoppa set sail from India in December 1940 carrying a consignment of 240 tonnes of silver, iron and tea.
It was headed for Liverpool but was forced to break away from its military convoy off the coast of Ireland as weather conditions deteriorated and it began to run out of fuel.
As the merchant steamship tried to make it to Galway it was attacked by the German submarine U101, 300 miles southwest of the Irish harbour.
On February 17, 1941, a single torpedo sank the ill-fated vessel, killing all 85 crewmen except one.

Google announces Dead Sea Scrolls online

Locked away in Jerusalem since 1965, getting close to these 3rd - 1st Century BC documents was once extraordinarily difficult.

The images posted online are not just simple scans, they are incredibly high definition (1,200 megapixel) shots. You can zoom in, highlight sections and really interact with the material. Translations are clickable and searchable on general internet searches, just like everything else! Access to primary sources is always of paramount importance, and Google is really ahead of the curve in intuitive easy access to this amazing material.

You can check out Google's full blog post here. Or watch their features clip here:

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Spectacular preservation - mummy of an Inca girl

From some angles she looks alive. This is certainly one of the most amazing accidents of preservation on earth!

500 years ago this 15 year old girl and 2 others were left on a frozen mountain top as part of sacrificial rites. Known as the Llullaillaco Maiden", her remains were found 22,000 feet up a volcano. Internal organs were preserved perfectly, along with some blood in the heart and lungs. The mummification process was entirely natural, caused by the stable cold, dry conditions. The ritual called for only the most perfect children to be chosen to inter in small niches, waiting to join their ancestors and watch over the living.

I have some concerns, as ever, with the display of human remains in museums; more acute given that these are the remains of a child. However, local Inca groups seem content with moving limited numbers of remains from the mountain region. The original article doesn't go into detail about the ethical debates, but I can only hope that due consideration was given.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Ireland's utter stupidity when it comes to its heritage

Prepare for sarcasm and rage.

Some genius has come up with an idea to get rid of that pesky need to protect historic buildings by removing them from a protected register. The Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht want all structures from 1700 taken off the Record of Monuments and Places. Just a blanket removal - you know, because nothing interesting or important was built after 1700 (grrrrrr) (canals, industrialisation, Georgian-era architecture, etc.). The Department made some hazy comment about not all counties being consistent in their recording of such buildings, is that meant to be an excuse for this ridiculous planned change? This type of "standardisation" will not, as they posit, "ensure that all elements of the built heritage continue to be adequately protected". The whole thing smacks of budget cuts and sneaky back door planning deals.

I'm sure a rage comic could be made of this fiasco

I am so full of rage about all this! It is utterly disgraceful. Compare this, like another archaeologist quoted in the original article did, to American or Australian heritage and how they treasure the last 300 years. They have heritage from much farther back than that, but they also understand that the past few hundred years shaped the modern world they live in. Every aspect of the past should be treated with the same regard, whether 10,000 years ago, 1,000 years ago or 100 years ago. Setting such a cut off point is arbitrary and destructive. It states, in effect, that history and archaeology from the last 300 years is less important than what came before.

In my own experience, many archaeologists excavating sites tend to disregard the 18th century in their reports, preferring to focus on the medieval, bronze age, etc. (based on my reading of archaeological reports from Limerick city). This proposal justifies that bias.

As an example of this bias even before such a proposal has been sanctioned:

In Askeaton, Co. Limerick, the Office of Public Works (OPW) was instructed to repair the unstable quay walls of the 18th century Hell-Fire Club (one of only two such clubs in Ireland), in addition to repairs to the castle (13th-16th century) on the same site. This year when I went to visit the site for some recording work, one of the wonderful men working there informed me that budget cuts were now in force. All the repairs to the 18th century building were cancelled, while work still continued on the castle. The men on site, fearing for the club house thoughtfully left some scaffolding lattice over the brickwork which had been partially cleaned and destabilised. Preference was given to protecting the castle. When I asked for any reports on this, any evidence of discussion and justification for the work, it seemed that that doesn't really exist in the public domain (I'm going to try to track it down with gusto soon). I'm not annoyed that they are repairing the castle, it needs and deserves it. It is just terribly worrying that such an unusual building as the Hell-Fire Club is left to crumble because it is from a later time period.

I don't want to just focus on my own studies, so here is an unbiased Wikipedia recounting of some important things that happened in the last 300 years, unedited:

I'm under the impression that some of these events took place in "buildings" and that the "structures" may be deemed important by some people

I could rant some more, but I think it's best if I stop now. Still fuming. May return to this topic in the future.

EDIT: Loads more useful information on the issue here http://irisharchaeology.ie/2011/09/proposal-to-de-list-archaeological-and-historical-sites-that-post-date-1700/

Another great mystery!

Who doesn't like an enigma, an unknown site that just begs to be figured out? Though half the fun is never really knowing.

Lying between Syria and Saudi Arabia are the remains of thousands of ancient geoglyphs. Aerial photography and satellite mapping over Jordan has unearthed truly fascinating designs across desert plains. While there is a variety of size (25m to 70m diameter) and design, the core repeated motif is that of a circle with internal radiating spokes.

Dating is problematic for such sites, but is is believed that that are at least 2,000 years old. Comparisons have been made to the famous Nazca lines, but those of Jordan are more ancient and more numerous.

These circles or wheels are thought to be part of a larger stone landscape which includes kites (for funneling animals), pendants (lines of cairns that run from burials) and other structures. The practicalities of such structures are not always immediately obvious.

Without excavated data on the sites, it is difficult to determine exact details of age and function.

While I haven't studied these at all, it seems possible that they could have been settlement sites (maybe temporary ones). I also believe that the comparison with the Nazca lines is not very helpful, if anything, it somewhat impedes independent analysis. But that's journalism for you, it sounds juicer if they can link it to a more famous site.

For more resources from the researches, click here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/apaame
For more images, click here: http://www.livescience.com/16045-aerial-photos-mysterious-stone-structures.html
Source: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2011/09/15/scitech/main20106680.shtml

Ancient Armenian Attire

Without pics it is difficult to get a feel for this story, but I can't wait to see what they dug up. Archaeologists report that they found the remains of a dress in Armenia. Multicoloured and made of straw, the dress is believed to be about 5,900 years old, according to Pavel Avetisian, director of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology at Armenia's Academy of Sciences. The presumption is that it belonged to a woman. This is from the same site that identified the world's oldest known leather shoe and most ancient winery. The dating of the dress was conducted by the University of California who are also restoring the dress.

Source: http://news.ninemsn.com.au/entertainment/8302445/ancient-straw-dress-found-in-armenian-cave

Insanity of the internet

I don't even....

Monday, September 12, 2011

Friday, September 2, 2011

Upsetting Archaeology: The murder of newborns

It's a reality in archaeology that we deal with death on a regular basis, but telling the story of a life passed can give it new meaning and recall a past once lost. Sometimes though, death can be too painful for an archaeologist to come to terms with. That's what happened to one excavator, A H Cocks, back in the 1912.

At Yewden Villa, a brothel was uncovered by Cocks. The chilling discovery of 97 skeletons of newborns, both boys and girls, went near-ignored by the archaeologist, who focused on the pottery finds. The remains of the children were classified 'various' and stored in cigarette boxes at the Aylesbury Museum. In 2008, Dr. Jill Eyers, director of Chiltern Archaeology, found the bones and immediately became unnerved as they were all the same age (38 to 40 weeks gestation) and showed marks of foul play. For three nights, she was kept awake by nightmares, disturbed by how the children had met their end. She believes that Cocks was unable to face the truth of his findings.

At the time, 150AD to 200AD, there was no viable form of abortion. The prostitutes had no place for the newborns, so they were immediately killed at birth. Simon Mays, a paleontologist, spent a year measuring the bones and confirmed Eyers suspicions, countering the notion that the site was a birthing centre.

Read more here

Material Culture: 9/11 and Ground Zero

"Excavating Ground Zero: Fragments from 9/11" is Penn Museum's latest exhibition offering. Housed in a small room, some 15 objects retrieved from Ground Zero are displayed alongside video footage, photographs and information panels detailing the terrorist attacks on New York's World Trade Centre.
Visitors are invited to respond to the exhibition and recount their own experiences in written form. The simple every day objects recovered from the site by archaeologists and anthropologists (a melted keyboard, glasses, a visitor badge, window glass) evoke remembrance of the ordinary people who lost their lives on that day.

The events of 9/11 are ingrained on the USA's collective conciousness. This display will hit a nerve for many, but its small-scale approach (rather than a multi-level exhibition) will hopefully create a more personal and intimate experience for visitors, avoiding a shock-factor show. See more: www.penn.museum