Dye-Tracing Archaeology

Toxic chemicals leaking from an old wastewater treatment plant in Alabama have unexpectedly led to the discovery of a 1,700-year old “pre-historic village” buried in the ground nearby. Chemicals “have seeped into the ground surrounding the old plant,” according to a local news station, so “the soil needs to be removed and taken to a toxic waste facility.”

However, a survey of the contaminated site soon revealed that the ground also contained extremely well-preserved artifacts “from a village that once thrived” there. “Lo and behold,” the head excavator remarked to the news show: “we found a massive late-middle Woodland period village.”

It’s not hard to imagine someone another 1,700 years from now accidentally discovering the forgotten city of, say, New York—or Chicago, or Bangkok, swallowed by mud—after a chemical leak at a nearby factory: radioactive liquids drain down through the topsoil, flowing around buried walls and ruins, forming iridescent pools on floors in basements—slow and toxic streams tracing the shapes of old stairways, lighting a path for future excavation and descent. Like giving the earth a radiopharmaceutical, you fire up a ground-scanning machine, trace the pollution underground, and, lo and behold, the dark outlines of buried cities start to glow.

[Images: Dye-tracing cave systems; note that the chemical used is supposedly non-toxic].

In fact, I’m reminded of dye-tracing techniques used for mapping otherwise impenetrable or overly complex cave systems. In James Tabor’s wildly uneven 2010 book Blind Descent, for instance, we read about legendary caver Alexander Klimchouk, who set about dye-tracing caves on the Arabika Massif, including Krubera Cave, currently the deepest known cave in the world.

“In 1984 and 1985,” Tabor explains, “[Klimchouk] poured fluorescein dye into several caves, including Krubera, high on the Arabika. Traces of that dye later flowed out of springs on the shore of the Black Sea far below. More traces tinged the water 400 feet beneath the surface of the Black Sea, miles offshore,” indicating genuinely—in fact, record-breakingly—huge dimensions for the overall system of caves.

[Images: Dye-tracing caves].

But even the most remote, fictional possibility that future spelunking archaeologists might someday map lost cities—London, Moscow, Beijing, Rome—by using dye-tracing packs to illuminate that underground world of collapsed halls and buried rooms is extraordinary. Cartographers in mountaineering gear and helmet-mounted floodlights descend into the New York subway system in 5,161 A.D., following luminescent trails of fluorescein dye, crawling, walking, rappelling into the underworld on the trail of shining rivers as subterranean ruins begin to shine.

(Alabama story found via @ArchaeologyTime).

Ground TV

[Image: An otherwise unrelated temple complex in Indonesia].

“Hardened lava from Indonesia’s Mount Merapi covers ancient temples in the historic city of Yogyakarta,” Archaeology News reports. As if fishing in the ground for lost architecture, “Scientists are using remote sensing equipment to locate them.”

The Jakarta Post elaborates, pointing out that “objects recently found underneath cold lava,” thus “requiring archeologists to use remote sensing equipment to find them,” remain physically ambiguous when they cannot be directly excavated. Indeed, “the equipment cannot determine precisely whether rock is part of a temple construction or not.” In some cases, then, it’s a question of forensic interpretation.

Nonetheless, five entire temples have been discovered so far, locked down there in old lava: the Morangan, Gampingan, Kadisoko, Sambisari and Kimpulan temples, “buried between 2 and 9 meters deep.” That’s nearly thirty feet of rock—a once-liquid landscape covering blurred remnants of an otherwise overwritten past, architectural history by way of subterranean remote-sensing.

I should point out, meanwhile, that Archaeology News also links to a quick story taking place out here in greater Los Angeles: a parking lot in Ventura, at the intersection of Palm and Main streets, is under archaeological investigation. “Researchers this week are crisscrossing the parking lot using ground-penetrating radar,” the Ventura County Star explains, “in search of anomalies below the asphalt that could be artifacts or building foundations from years past. Archaeologists will return to excavate by hand those areas believed to contain artifacts.”

I love the idea that the surface of a parking lot could become something like a new screen technology—a depth-cinema of lost evidence from earlier phases of human history, shining from within with archaeological remains as researchers walk back and forth above.

Imagine the archaeological cinema of the future—some massive open parking lot in Istanbul, say, where crowds arrive, milling about, tickets in hand, and then, like the giant LED screen from the Beijing Olympics, the city’s archaeological past is revealed in 3D: hologram-like structures shivering there inside the surface of the earth, below everyone’s feet in real-time, the planet become an immersive TV screen on which we can view the debris of history.

Stratigraphies of Infestation

In his book Rats, Robert Sullivan—an author whose work we previously reviewed here—offers a glimpse of how the city is seen through the eyes of the pest-control industry.

[Image: Rats by Robert Sullivan].

Effective rodent control requires a very specific kind of spatial knowledge, Sullivan suggests, one that often eludes architects and city planners.

Sullivan quotes one rat-control professional, for instance, who “foresees a day when he will be hired to analyze a building’s weaknesses, vis-à-vis pests and rodents… ‘They design buildings to support pigeons and for infiltration by rodents because they don’t think about it. Grand Central Station, right? They just renovated it, right? Who knows what they spend on that, right? You know how much they spend on pest control? You know how much they budgeted? Nothing. I did all the extra work there, but they had to pay us out of the emergency budget.'”

Pest control here becomes an explicitly architectural problem, something you can design both for and against. Imagine an entire degree program in infestation-resistant urban design.

Sullivan points out that a massive, urban-scale architectural intervention, in the form of a quarantine wall fortifying all of New York City against rats, was once tentatively planned: “There was a time in New York, in the 1920s,” he writes, “when scientists proposed a great wall along the waterfront to shut out rats completely, to seal out rats and, thus, forever end rat fear. Eventually, though, the idea was deemed implausible and abandoned: rats will always get through.”

But it’s the particular subset of urban knowledge that has been actively cultivated within the pest control industry that fascinates me here. Sullivan spends a bit of time with a man named Larry Adams, a municipal rodent control expert. “If you hang around Larry long enough,” Sullivan says, “you realize that he sees the city in a way that most people don’t—in layers.” And what follows is well worth quoting in full:

He sees the parks and the streets and then he sees the subways and the sewers and even the old tunnels underneath the sewers. He sees the city that is on the maps and the city that was on the maps—the city’s past, the city of hidden speakeasies and ancient tunnels, the inklings of old streams and hills.
“People don’t realize the subterranean conditions out there,” he likes to say. “People don’t realize the levels. People don’t realize that we got things down there from the Revolution. A lot of people don’t realize that there’s just layers of settlers here, that things just get bricked off, covered up and all. They’re not accessible to people, but they are to rats. And they have rats down there that have maybe never seen the surface. If they did, then they’d run people out. Like in the movies. You see, we only see the tail end of it. And we only see the weak rats, the ones that get forced out to look for food.”

The book’s wealth of rat-catching anecdotes are often unbelievable. “More than anything,” Sullivan reflects, “I have learned from exterminators that history is crucial in effective rat analysis.”

In fact, history is everything when it comes to looking at rats—though it is not the history that you generally read; it is the unwritten history. Rats wind up in the disused vaults, in long underground tunnels that aren’t necessarily going anywhere; they wind up in places that are neglected and overlooked, places with a story that has been forgotten for one reason or another. And to find a rat, a lot of times you have to look at what a place was. One exterminator I know tells the story of a job on the Lower East Side in an old building where rats kept appearing, nesting, multiplying, no matter how many were killed. The exterminator searched and searched. At last, he found an old tunnel covered by floorboards, a passageway that headed toward the East River. The tunnel was full of rats. Later, he discovered that the building had housed a speakeasy during Prohibition.

Or this disconcerting image of an infested basement that was never fully demolished—it was simply forgotten, walled off beneath the surface of the city. Here, Sullivan visits an abandoned lot with a rat-catching expert named Isaac, writing that, “just before we drove off, two men walked by and stopped at the fence; they looked into the abandoned lot and spoke with Isaac in Spanish.”

They told Isaac that they remembered when the lot was the site of an old wooden house that had become abandoned and filled with rats. They remembered the house being demolished and partially buried—the basement was still there, they said. They pointed to the ground, saying that the old home was still beneath it, still rat-infested.

What a perfectly haunting line: They pointed to the ground, saying that the old home was still beneath it, still rat-infested. (And if anyone out there has read The Rats by James Herbert, you might remember that the novel begins with a vaguely similar urban image).

[Image: A “rat king,” via Wikimedia].

Speaking later with Mike, another rat-control expert, Sullivan learns how the stratigraphy of the city takes shape in the mind of the exterminator: “I was getting ready to leave—Mike was just too busy. But then Mike was reminded of an aspect of the nature of rats in the city, and as he put down the phone, he said, ‘You know, I heard there are three layers of sewer lines.’ He counted them off on his fingers. ‘There are the ones from the 1800s, the ones from the 1700s, and the ones they don’t have maps for anymore. Once in a while, they use that old line, when they’re doing construction or something, and you read in the papers that there are hundreds of rats coming up. Well, those rats that are in the third line, they haven’t even seen man before.’”

These stratigraphies of infestation are wonderfully horrifying—but also perfectly and immediately available to the architect and urban planner as practical design challenges. How does one deal with “what was on the maps,” as Sullivan phrases it, while at the same time designing a pest-unfriendly metropolis?

Taking as their design target rats and other “unwanted inhabitants” of the city, as Sullivan phrases it, what inspired collaborations could we develop amongst public health inspectors, urban ecologists, pesticide manufacturers, historical cartographers, city archivists, materials scientists (Sullivan writes, for instance, that Larry Adams, mentioned earlier, has actually developed his own special mix of rat-resistant concrete: “With his expertise, Larry has developed his own rat-eradication techniques, such as concrete mixed with broken glass to keep the rats from gnawing through the concrete. ‘Sometimes, they’ll still cut through before the concrete hardens. So sometimes, I use glass and industrial-strength steel wool and put it in with the concrete and make one big goop with it’”), and, of course, architects and planners? How realistic—let alone ethical—a design challenge is the rodent-free metropolis?

The Museum of Speculative Archaeological Devices

Perhaps a short list of speculative mechanisms for future archaeological research would be interesting to produce.

[Image: A toy antique oscilloscope by Andrew Smith, courtesy of Gadget Master and otherwise unrelated to this post].

Ground-scanners, Transparent-Earth (PDF) eyeglasses, metal detectors, 4D earth-modeling environments used to visualize abandoned settlements, and giant magnets that pull buried cities from the earth.

Autonomous LIDAR drones over the jungles of South America. Fast, cheap, and out of control portable muon arrays. Driverless ground-penetrating radar trucks roving through the British landscape.

Or we could install upside-down periscopes on the sidewalks of NYC so pedestrians can peer into subterranean infrastructure, exploring subways, cellars, and buried streams. Franchise this to London, Istanbul, and Jerusalem, scanning back and forth through ruined foundations.

Holograph-bombs—ArchaeoGrenades™—that spark into life when you throw them, World of Warcraft-style, out into the landscape, and the blue-flickering ancient walls of missing buildings come to life like an old TV channel, hazy and distorted above the ground. Mechanisms of ancient light unfold to reveal lost architecture in the earth.

[Image: An LED cube by Pic Projects, otherwise unrelated to this post].

Or there could be football-field-sized milling machines that re-cut and sculpt muddy landscapes into the cities and towns that once stood above them. A peat-bog miller. Leave it operating for several years and it reconstructs whole Iron Age villages in situ.

Simultaneous milling/scanning devices that bring into being the very structures they claim to study. Ancient fortifications 3D-printed in realtime as you scan unreachable sites beneath your city’s streets.

Deep-earth projection equipment that impregnates the earth’s crust with holograms of missing cities, outlining three-dimensional sites a mile below ground; dazed miners stumble upon the shining walls of imaginary buildings like a laser show in the rocks around them.

Or a distributed iPhone app for registering and recording previously undiscovered archaeological sites (through gravitational anomalies, perhaps, or minor compass swerves caused by old iron nails, lost swords, and medieval dining tools embedded in the ground). Like SETI, but archaeological and directed back into the earth. As Steven Glaser writes in the PDF linked above, “We can image deep space and the formation of stars, but at present we have great difficulty imaging even tens of meters into the earth. We want to develop the Hubble into, not away from, the earth.”

Artificially geomagnetized flocks of migratory birds, like “GPS pigeons,” used as distributed earth-anomaly detectors in the name of experimental archaeology.

[Image: “GPS pigeons” by Beatriz da Costa, courtesy of Pruned].

So perhaps there could be two simultaneous goals here: to produce a list of such devices—impossible tools of future excavation—but also to design a museum for housing them.

What might a museum of speculative archaeological devices look like? A Mercer Museum for experimental excavation?

(Thanks to Rob Holmes and Alex Trevi for engaging with some of these ideas over email).

Catch-and-Release Archaeology

[Image: Archaeologists work at Gobero, “the largest graveyard discovered to date in the Sahara.” Photo by Mike Hettwer, courtesy of National Geographic, otherwise unrelated to this post].

Archaeologist Sara Gonzalez, we read, courtesy of an older post on Middle Savagery, “practices what she calls ‘catch and release’ archaeology.” This means Gonzalez “plots all of the artifacts as they are excavated and then reburies the artifacts after analysis.”

While you can apparently read more about her method in this paper, I’m intrigued by the more general idea of systematically reburying things for their later, contrived rediscovery. This sort of behavior seems all but guaranteed to upset the existing stratigraphy of a site—and thus, in fact, be archaeologically usless—but it also sets up an interesting relationship with subterranean artifacts. That is, objects inside the earth enter into a kind of regulated hide-and-seek with surface dwellers.

Anthropologically speaking, I would love to learn more about cultures that have practiced this strangely squirrel-like behavior: burying perhaps quite large-scale things, in a loop bordering on repetition-compulsion, so that someone can unearth them later, thus deliberately leaving traces that future humans might not even know to look for.

Books Received

[Image: “Archive II” from the Archive Series by David Garcia Architect, Copenhagen].

When I started the “Books Received” series last year, I did so just in time to box all my books up, put them in storage for what was supposed to be a three-month trip—and then abandon the series with only two posts written. But now it’s May 2010, that “three-month” trip has still not ended (the one-year mark is in two weeks), my things are still out in an L.A. storage warehouse gathering dust, and I’ve managed to hoard a whole new collection of books and papers.

About to hit the road once again now, for a trip within the trip, heading north to spend the summer in Montreal, I thought I’d revive the “Books Received” posts with a look at some of the many, many pieces of reading material that have gathered in our apartment over the past half-year. As before, I have not read all of the following books, which means I cannot vouch for all of their quality (except in a few cases that I will note); also, as before, these are not all new books. They are newly purchased—or newly received as review copies—but they are not necessarily hot off the press.

And with that…

Radical Games by Lara Schrijver (Netherlands Architecture Institute). Schrijver looks back at the “radical movements” of the 1960s, to “a moment in the history of architecture when revolutionary ideals were paramount and dreams became drawings.” Her goal, however, is to uncover how the ideals of three specific groups—Archigram, the Situationists, and Venturi & Scott Brown—maintained a confusing dependency on the very Modernist philosophies they were trying to dispute. This continues to have effects today, Schrijver argues, in muddying the waters of both theoretical debate and experimental practice.

Provisional: Emerging Modes of Architectural Practice USA, edited by Elite Kedan, Jon Dreyfous, and Craig Mutter (Princeton Architectural Press). Speaking of architectural practice, this fantastically designed (by Project Projects) book shows how architects actually work and how their buildings come together, including nARCHITECTS’ extraordinary “Wind Shape.” A very useful and interesting look at the organizational innovations, technical breakthroughs, and work-flow challenges that architectural offices now face. In fact, if there are forthcoming titles, designed to the same fabulous standard, called Emerging Modes of Architectural Practice Europe, …Asia, …Africa, …South America, and so on, I would snap all of them up.

Newtown Creek: A Photographic Survey of New York’s Industrial Waterway by Anthony Hamboussi (Princeton Architectural Press). From gargantuan salt piles to paving yards, UPS loading docks to derelict oil terminals and the sludge tanks of the NY Department of Sanitation, Hamboussi leads a photogeographic tour through the industrial landscapes of Newtown Creek, dividing Brooklyn and Queens. “Having worked along the creek for about a decade,” Paul Parkhill writes in the book’s afterword, on the other hand, “I can say with some conviction that any assumptions about abandonment are misplaced. Behind the street walls and cyclone fencing, inside the shuttered factories and warehouses, there exists a world hidden to the casual observer. Newtown Creeks reflects, in the words of one waterfront planning official, the ‘backyard’ of New York City. Desolate in spots, disgusting in others, it is far from abandoned.”

Meet The Nelsons by Wes Jones and Pendulum Plane by the Oyler Wu Collaborative (Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design). These two pamphlets from the LA Forum unfortunately suffer from bad production, with almost instantly cracking spines and pages falling loose within minutes of reading. No matter, the Oyler Wu pamphlet in particular has some fantastic details, including beautiful shots of their Lebbeus Woods-like sketchbooks and some backstage glimpses of the “Live Wire” installation they did for SCI-Arc.

The Future History of the Arctic by Charles Emmerson (PublicAffairs). Emmerson takes us through the now-rapidly shifting geography north of the Arctic Circle, where nation-state territorial ambitions and private-sector mineral & gas claims—not to mention thawing international shipping lanes, package tourism, and global climate change—are beginning to collide.

The Edge of Physics: A Journey to Earth’s Extremes to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe by Anil Ananthaswamy (HMH). I’m halfway through this, and absolutely loving it. There are sensitive, remote, large-scale, and theoretically complex physics experiments going on all over the world, complete with massive pieces of infrastructure that such things require. So why not take a trip around the world and visit these extraordinary sites, as well as the unearthly landscapes in which they sit? Ananthaswamy does exactly that, taking us into an abandoned mine in Minnesota, to a neutrino detector deep beneath Russia’s Lake Baikal, up into the mountain deserts of South America, and past hulking telescopes in dark regions all over the world. All travel writing should be this interesting.

Dust: The Inside Story of its Role in the September 11th Aftermath by Paul Lioy (Rowman & Littlefield). In the book’s Prologue, Lioy writes that, “Within twenty-four hours of the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center (WTC) in New York City, representatives from several governmental agencies asked me about the dust that was released during the collapse of each tower.”

The thick gray and fluffy dust seemed to be everywhere, settling on all of the animate and inanimate objects in its path. It covered the skin and clothes of many of those who had survived but who had been trapped in harm’s way. You could see it being resuspended in the air after official vehicles drove through Manhattan. What was in that dust and its companion plume of smoke that was moving across Brooklyn and out to sea? At that time, I didn’t know the answer to this question.

Lioy—a “specialist in exposure science”—has thus written this investigative chemical analysis of the cloud: what was in it, its basic morphology, how it interacted with human tissue, and how long its residue actually stuck around in New York City.

Poets in a Landscape by Gilbert Highet (New York Review of Books). This brand new, NYRB edition revives Highet’s classic textual history of Roman poets, zooming in through the curtain of their words to focus on the background landscapes within which their poetic events took place—revealing a geography of lost place-names, gardens, villages, city fringes, and farms. An earlier edition of Highet’s book was praised in an old post on the excellent blog Some landscapes.

Traveling Heroes: In the Epic Age of Homer by Robin Lane Fox (Vintage). This book has been greeted with mixed reviews, but the premise still thrills me: Fox has written a survey of “traveling heroes”: “particular Greeks at a particular phase in the ancient world who travelled with mythical stories of gods and heroes in their minds.” Or this, from the back cover description: Fox “explores how the intrepid Mediterranean seafarers of eight-century B.C. Greece encountered strange new sights—volcanic mountains, vaporous springs, huge prehistoric bones—and weaved them into the myths of gods, monsters, and heroes that would become the cornerstone of Western civilization.”

The Routes of Man: How Roads Are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today by Ted Conover (Knopf). The premise of this book is fantastically simple: to travel the world’s roads, to ask how they have shaped human culture, and to reveal their literal resurfacing of the planet. After all, “Roads constitute the largest human-made artifact on earth,” Conover writes, so why not approach them as an anthropologist might? The execution so far, however, has left me underwhelmed. At the moment, Conover has just spent an awfully long time writing in a faux-naive voice about the South American jungle, telling us far less about roads, in any real sense, than about his own travels through this remote, intensely rural region that he can’t seem adequately to decipher. I’m finding myself wishing that Matthew Coolidge of the Center for Land Use Interpretation had written this book—or that a similarly themed book comes out soon, perhaps by the authors of mammoth—but I hope this sense of anticlimax dissipates as I continue reading.

The Road to Ubar: Finding the Atlantis of the Sands by Nicholas Clapp (Mariner). I picked this up after seeing a brief reference to it in Michael Welland’s excellent book Sand. At first, it sounds like total b.s.—a lost city called the “Atlantis of the Sands,” known only through rumors and myth, like something published by Weiser. But it turns out to be true: there is a lost trading city beneath the sand dunes of Oman, and the whole thing disappeared when it collapsed into a sinkhole. Read this old New York Times review if you’re not convinced; there, we read that Clapp

assembled a group of collaborators that included a remote-imaging geologist from J.P.L.; an Arabic-speaking expedition wrangler with a knighthood; a fund-raiser; a cameraman (the personal quest having meanwhile become a film project); a sound man; Clapp’s wife, Kay; and Juris Zarins, an archeologist with a special interest in the Arabian incense trade. In 1990, Sultan Qaboos ibn Said granted them access not just to a remote zone of desert but also to one of his helicopters. After some reconnaissance flights, a more laborious search in Land Rovers led the team to a fruitful dig site in the Omani desert—though at an unexpected location, under an unexpected name. Over the next four years, Zarins, with a crew of helpers, would excavate that site tellingly.
To reveal here just what they found, and where they found it, would betray the suspense of Clapp’s narrative.

Think of it as Indiana Jones meets subterranean desert hydrology.

The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times by Adrienne Mayor. (Princeton University Press). What an amazing topic for a book: how did ancient cultures understand, collect, and eventually explain fossils from gigantic creatures that they had no scientific means of understanding? From myths of dragons to fossilized deities, what cultural reactions did these petrified remains inspire? Looking back at the fossil-hunting record of Mediterranean cultures 2000 years ago, Mayor attempts to answer those questions. On another note, Mayor’s most recent book, The Poison King, also looks great.

Obelisk: A History by Brian A. Curran, Anthony Grafton, Pamela O. Long, and Benjamin Weiss (MIT). An illustrated, multiply-authored account of how massive stone plinths were quarried, transported, publicly erected, and culturally adored from Ancient Egypt to Paris in the 21st century.

TV Towers by Friedrich von Borries, Matthias Böttger, and Florian Heilmeyer. This “architectural history of TV towers” tracks the political history and structural forms of television-broadcasting towers all over the world, primarily in Europe—yet, as the authors point out, “the most recent are being erected in up-and-coming Asian cities and in the Middle East.”

TV towers have been—and still are—the most visible symbols of an otherwise invisible technological revolution. The geographical spread of such towers traces twentieth century political history until this day: rivalry between political systems in East and West was followed by competition among global cities for touristic and economic appeal… TV towers are the cathedrals of a media society.

The book was published to coincide with an exhibition at the Deutsches Architekturmuseum that closed in March 2010.

Other Space Odysseys, edited by Mirko Zardini and Giovanna Borasi (Canadian Centre for Architecture/Lars Müller). I’m looking forward to seeing this exhibition in person up in Montreal next month. This pamphlet-sized accompanying booklet does a great job in portraying the loopy design history of architects who have directly engaged with the space program (and, specifically, with human experience on the moon). The Alessandro Poli chapter is a highlight.

Al Manakh 2 (Volume/Archis). A sober, recessionary note, kicked off right away by Rem Koolhaas’s introductory letter, haunts this sequel to Al-Manakh. Koolhaas sounds more like a defiant sports fan who knows his favorite team is having an off-season (but who has decided to cheer them on, nonetheless). “Dubai is an experiment that will never be repeated,” he writes; it is (was?) “an entirely different construct, the brainchild of a local minority that generously invited manpower and expertise from everywhere to assemble an artificial community, to test, explore and put into practice the relationship between Islam and modernity.” Whether or not this massive—and, physically, very nicely realized—book amplifies or eviscerates the “understandable Schadenfreude” Koolhaas mentions in his intro is something I will have to find out while reading it this summer.

Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It by Richard Clarke and Robert Knake (Ecco). This is another book I’m roughly halfway through (and enjoying, precisely because of its alarming nature). If Clarke and Knake are to be believed—and they seem like reliable narrators—the U.S. is wildly underprepared for any sort of concentrated, militarized cyber-attack, whether from another nation-state or from an organized network of criminal hackers. “The U.S. military is no more capable of operating without the Internet than Amazon.com would be,” the authors write, and the eye-popping infrastructural vulnerabilities that they point out here and there—such as counterfeit routers, manufactured in China and sold throughout the U.S. market, with security flaws suspiciously (and deliberately?) well-placed for later attacks, or the “logic bombs” that have been found “all over our [the U.S.’s] electric grid”—are worth the price of the book alone.

Constructing a New Agenda for Architecture: 1993 to the Present, edited by A. Krista Sykes (Princeton Architectural Press). This is an historically valuable collection of essays commonly assigned by architecture professors over the past seventeen years—but, to be honest, if you want interesting ideas for future design projects, I think you’re better off reading even just a handful of the other titles mentioned above. This is not universally true for everyone reading this blog, of course, and I don’t mean to be idiotically dismissive of the past decade and a half of theoretical writing; after all, Sykes has put together an impressive survey. But, for my own needs, impulsive architectural speculation is a much more valuable, projective form of theorizing than the overly careful, citational micropolitics that too often passed for academic work in the 1990s.

—Finally, The Other City by Michal Ajvaz (Dalkey Archive). Ajvaz’s novel is a “strange and lovely hymn to Prague,” we read, falling somewhere between magic realism, Labyrinths, and perhaps Jeff VanderMeer. “Can there really exist a world in such close proximity to our own,” Ajvaz asks, “one that seethes with such strange life, one that was possibly here before our own city and yet we know absolutely nothing about it?” That is “indeed quite possible,” his narrator concludes, wandering through streets always on the verge of mutating into something else.

* * *

All Books Received: August 2015, September 2013, December 2012, June 2012, December 2010 (“Climate Futures List”), May 2010, May 2009, and March 2009.


[Image: The Georgian cave monastery of Vardzia, via Wikipedia].

Vardzia is a ruined honeycomb of arched passageways and artificially enlarged caves on a steep mountainside in Georgia. It is on a “tentative list” for UNESCO World Heritage status.

[Image: Vardzia, via Wikipedia].

Quoting from Wikipedia:

The monastery was constructed as protection from the Mongols, and consisted of over six thousand apartments in a thirteen-story complex. The city included a church, a throne room, and a complex irrigation system watering terraced farmlands. The only access to the complex was through some well hidden tunnels near the Mtkvari river.

Nearby are the ruins of another cave monastery, called Vanis Kvabebi.

[Images: Vardzia, via Wikipedia].

In the formal application sent to UNESCO for consideration of the site, we read that the architecture of this region can be seen as spatially punctuating the landscape, supplying moments of almost grammatical emphasis:

Fortresses and churches erected on high mountains and hills are perceived as distinguished vertical accents in such a horizontally developed setting. They terminate and emphasise natural verticals, being in perfect harmony with the latter. They introduce great emotional impulse imparting specific grandeur to the whole environment. The same artistic affect is created by rock-cut monasteries and villages arranged in several tiers on high rocky mountain slopes.

Originally constructed in the 12th century—in a region inhabited by humans since at least neolithic times—and very much resembling one of the cave-cities of Cappadocia, Vardzia is a spatially fantastic site (and, I’d assume, a videogame level waiting to happen).

[Images: Vardzia, via Wikipedia].

It is also located in one of the most geologically interesting places on earth—at least from a subterranean standpoint—as the nation of Georgia also contains the world’s deepest known cave.

As National Geographic explained in an article several years ago, Krubera Cave—also known as Voronya—is still incompletely explored, despite its record-breaking, abyssal depths; expeditions have spent more than three weeks underground there, mapping windows and chambers, sleeping in tents, and using colored dyes to trace rivers and streams locked in the rock walls around them.

Check out this sequence of images, for instance, documenting an organized descent into the planet—or this article about caving in Abkhazia, or even this summary of the “Call of the Abyss” exploration project that sought to find the true depths of Voronya Cave.

[Images: Vardzia, as seen in some stunning photos by cosh_to_jest].

In any case, there’s absolutely no geological connection between Vardzia and Krubera Cave—there is no secret tunnel system linking the two across the vast Georgian landscape (after all, they are extremely far apart)—but how exciting would it be to discover that Vardzia had, in fact, been constructed as a kind of architectural filter above the stovepipe-like opening of a titanic cave system, and that, 800 years ago, monks alone in the mountains reading books about the end of the world might have sat there, surrounded by fading frescoes of saints and dragons, looking into the mouth of the abyss, perhaps even in their own local twist on millennial Christianity standing guard over something they believed to be hiding far below.

[Images: Vardzia, via Wikipedia].

In fact, I don’t mean to belabor the point here, but I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that the CIA has satellite photos that have been used as scouting documents for the rumored location of Noah’s Ark—it is “satellite archaeology,” one researcher claims. That is, there being quite a few religious members of the U.S. government, things like Noah’s Ark are considered more objective and archaeological than they are superstitious or theological.

But how absolutely mind-boggling would it be to find out someday that there is, operating within the U.S. intelligence services, a small group of especially religious analysts who have been scouring the Caucausus region, funded by tax dollars, and armed with geoscanning equipment and several miles of rope, looking for the entrance to Hell?

You can see further images of Vardzia here.


[Image: A Greenland ice-core at the Hayden Planetarium; for further reading, visit the U.S. National Ice Core Laboratory. Photo by Planet Taylor, used under a Creative Commons license].

Note: This is a guest post by Nicola Twilley.

The Crypta Balbi is a relatively recent, low-profile addition to Rome’s museum compendium. It’s billed variously—and confusingly—as a museum of archaeology, a museum of ancient Rome, and a museum of the Dark Ages. All of these descriptions are, in fact, cumulatively accurate, because the site is actually a city-block-sized core sample of Rome, threaded through with staircases, tunnels, and elevated walkways for visitors.

Crypta Balbi is located in an irregular pentagonal plot in the Campus Martius, an area that, unlike many regions in the ancient city, remained largely inhabited through the Middle Ages. In fact, according to Filippo Coarelli’s authoritative Rome and Environs: An Archaeological Guide, the Campus Martius was originally supposed to be kept free of buildings altogether and “reserved for military and athletic exercises.” However, historian Suetonius describes the city’s gradual encroachment, explaining that: “During his reign Augustus often encouraged the leading men of Rome to adorn the city with new monuments or to restore and embellish old ones.”

[Image: A satellite view of the city-block core sample, via Google Maps].

As a successful military general and favored member of Augustus‘s entourage, L. Cornelius Balbus the Younger stepped up to the plate, building a theater and attached crypta—a rectangular porticoed walkway where the theater’s scenery could be stored and around which the public might stroll, protected from the elements. Apparently, the Balbi Theater’s grand opening in 13 BC took place during one of the Tiber’s regular floods—meaning that it was, briefly, only accessible by boat. Nonetheless, the Theater and Crypta thrived, and they are depicted intact on a chunk of the Severan Forma Urbis, an amazing 60′-x-43′ incised marble map of the city created for public display in 203 AD.

Eventually, Rome’s earthquakes, fires, barbarian raids, and radical population shrinkage (from a million people in 367 AD to just 400,000 less than century later) combined with architectural re-use and the passage of time to take their toll. There isn’t much of the original Crypta left to see—a reconstructed stucco arch, and the massive travertine and tufa walls that now serve as foundations for modern houses in Via delle Botteghe Oscure and Via dei Delfini.

[Image: A fragment of the Forma Urbis, showing the Balbi Theater. For more on the Forma Urbis, visit the seemingly great but non-Mac-friendly Stanford Digital Forma Urbis Romae project].

However, layered above the Crypta’s original floor plan are traces of this city block’s shifting usage—a condensed narrative of Rome’s destruction, accretion, and evolution. It is this series of transformations and reuses of both the Crypta and the urban space it occupies, rather than the fragmentary ancient ruins, that the museum aims to make visible. Like a series of stills from an impossible time-lapse film, the visitor who descends to the basement or climbs to the third floor can see this awkward cuboid chunk of city ruined, reshaped, reused, and reoriented over two thousand years of urban history.

Equally amazing are the expansive historical detours prompted by even trace elements in the urban core sample. For example, as early as the time of Hadrian, a “monumental” public latrine was inserted into a section of the Crypta. From the quantity of copper coins that fell, and weren’t worth recovering, archaeologists have extrapolated the amount of coinage in circulation in Western Europe during the latrine’s life-span. (Astonishingly, it was only in the 19th century that small change was to be this common again in Western Europe).

[Image: Museum display panel diagramming five distinct road levels wandering across the Crypta’s ruins (apologies for the quick snapshot)].

Two centuries later and a few feet higher, two graves bear witness to a city in ruins between the 5th and 7th centuries, as the prohibition against burial within city walls lapsed, and the dead were buried singly in abandoned buildings or beside roads. Ironically, in a museum that preserves the urban structures of each era equally, during the medieval period the Crypta actually housed one of the city’s largest lime-kilns, where the marble inscriptions, statues, and building blocks of classical Rome were brought to be crushed and melted down into lime (a key ingredient in the cement needed to build the city’s new Christian architecture).

In the 1940s, the convent that had occupied the site for the past four hundred years was demolished for a planned new Mussolini-era construction, which thankfully never materialized. Finally, in the 1980s, the Soprintendenza archeologica di Roma authorized the excavation of the abandoned city block; and, in 2002, the northwest corner was opened to the public, even as work continues on the rest of the site.

[Image: An interior view of the Crypta Balbi].

Aside from the execution, which is excellent, the very idea of a museum built into an urban core sample—a stratigraphic investigation of the shifting use of space over time—is incredibly exciting to me. Imagine a similar hollowing-out of urban space in Istanbul, Cairo, or Paris—residents as disoriented as tourists as they clamber through the hidden foundations and forms woven underneath and around their own city.

In New York, this might even be an idea whose time has come: as The New Yorker pointed out in December 2008, the expiration of a residential construction tax-abatement law encouraged builders to dig foundation trenches early, so as to secure better financing, but the subsequent recession has put many of these projects on hold, semi-permanently.

“What will become of the pits?” asks Nick Paumgarten, speculating that they could turn into “half-wild swimming holes, like the granite quarries of New England” or even “urban tar pits, entrapping and preserving in garbage and white brick dust the occasional unlucky passerby.” These are both attractive ideas, but with a little expenditure on zip-lines, elevated walkways, and interpretative signage, visitors could circulate around several millennia of Manhattan’s history, from the collision of the North African and American continental plates to the tangled evolution of New York’s water mains, via retreating glaciers and the housing bubble.

Meanwhile, back in Rome and less than a mile away from the Crypta, engineers have teamed up with the Soprintendenza to sink several new urban cores, this time in the guise of excavating the elevator and escalator shafts for a new subway line.

Angelo Bottini, director of the Soprintendenza, can hardly hide his excitement, telling the Wall Street Journal that, under usual circumstances, “We never get to dig in the center of Rome.” Sadly, it seems as though most of the finds will be documented and then destroyed, due to a shortage of museum space and the already astronomical construction costs (an estimated $375 million for one mile of track in the city center).

But how amazing would it be if the new subway station walkways and escalator shafts could themselves become Crypta Balbi-like museums of buried stratigraphy? Rome would be riddled with urban cores, awestruck tourists ascending and descending through sampled spatial histories across the city. Meanwhile the Sistine Chapel lies miraculously empty…

[Previous guest posts by Nicola Twilley include The Tree Museum, The Water Menu, Atmospheric Intoxication, and Park Stories].

Stonehenge Beneath the Waters of Lake Michigan

[Image: Standing stones beneath Lake Michigan? Via Mark Holley].

In a surprisingly under-reported story from 2007, Mark Holley, a professor of underwater archaeology at Northwestern Michigan College, discovered a series of stones – some of them arranged in a circle and one of which seemed to show carvings of a mastodon – 40-feet beneath the surface waters of Lake Michigan.

If verified, the carvings could be as much as 10,000 years old – coincident with the post-Ice Age presence of both humans and mastodons in the upper midwest.

[Image: The stones beneath Lake Michigan; via Mark Holley].

In a PDF assembled by Holley and Brian Abbott to document the expedition, we learn that the archaeologists had been hired to survey a series of old boatwrecks using a slightly repurposed “sector scan sonar” device. You can read about the actual equipment – a Kongsberg-Mesotech MS 1000 – here.

The circular images this thing produces are unreal; like some strange new art-historical branch of landscape representation, they form cryptic dioramas of long-lost wreckage on the lakebed. Shipwrecks (like the Tramp, which went down in 1974); a “junk pile” of old boats and cars; a Civil War-era pier; and even an old buggy are just some of the topographic features the divers discovered.

These are anthropological remains that will soon be part of the lake’s geology; they are our future trace fossils.

But down amongst those otherwise mundane human remains were the stones.

[Image: The “junk pile” of old cars and boat skeletons; via Mark Holley].

While there is obviously some doubt as to whether or not that really is a mastodon carved on a rock – let alone if it really was human activity that arranged these rocks into a circle – it’s worth pointing out that Michigan does already have petroglyph sites and even standing stones.

A representative of the University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology has even commented that, although he’s skeptical, he’s interested in learning more, hoping to see better photographs of the so-called “glyph stone.”

[Image: The stones; via Mark Holley].

So is there a North American version of Stonehenge just sitting up there beneath the glacial waters of a small northern bay in Lake Michigan? If so, are there other submerged prehistoric megaliths waiting to be discovered by some rogue archaeologist armed with a sonar scanner?

Whatever the answer might be, the very suggestion is interesting enough to think about – where underwater archaeology, prehistoric remains, and lost shipwrecks collide to form a midwestern mystery: National Treasure 3 or Da Vinci Code 2. But only future scuba expeditions will be able to tell for sure.

Mayan Muons and Unmapped Rooms

[Image: “Guatemala Tikal D8006” by youngrobv].

Easily one of the most interesting things I’ve read in quite a while is how a team of particle physicists from UT-Austin plan on using repurposed muon detectors to see inside Mayan archaeological ruins.
In the new issue of Archaeology, Samir S. Patel describes how “an almost featureless aluminum cylinder 5 feet in diameter” that spends its time “silently counting cosmic flotsam called muons” – “ghost particles” that ceaselessly rain down from space – will be installed in the jungles of Belize.
There, these machines will map the otherwise unexplored internal spaces of what the scientists call a “jungle-covered mound.”
In other words, an ancient building that now appears simply to be part of the natural landscape – a constructed terrain – will be opened up to viewing for the first time since it was reclaimed by rain forest.
It’s non-invasive archaeology by way of deep space.

[Images: The muon detector, courtesy of the UT-Austin Maya Muon Group].

From the UT-Austin Maya Muon Group website:

The first major experiment of the Maya Muon Group will bridge the disciplines of physics and archeology. The particle detectors and related systems are designed specifically to explore ruins of a Maya pyramid in collaboration with colleagues at the UT Mesoamerican Archaeological Laboratory. The Maya Muon Group will travel to La Milpa in northwest Belize to make discoveries about “Structure 1” – a jungle-covered mound covering an unexplored Maya ruin.

Pointing out that dense materials block more muons, Patel explains that a muon detector can actually detect rooms, spaces, and caves inside what seems to be solid:

A detector next to a Maya pyramid, for example, will see fewer particles coming from the direction of the structure than from other angles: a muon “shadow.” And if a part of that pyramid is less dense than expected – containing an open space for, say, a royal burial – it will have less of a shadow. Count enough muons that have passed through the pyramid over the course of several months, and they will form an image of its internal structure, just like light makes an image on film. Then combine the images from three or four devices and a 3-D reconstruction of the pyramid’s guts will take shape.

Referring to a muon detector already at work on the campus of UT-Austin, Patel writes: “The detector sees in every direction, so it also records muon shadows from the adjacent university buildings, and can even identify empty corridors. Silently, with little tending, it takes a monumental x-ray of the world around it.”
“The resulting image,” he adds, “will be almost directly analogous to a medical CAT-scan.”

[Image: The muon detector, courtesy of the UT-Austin Maya Muon Group].

Install one of these things in New York City and see what you find: moving blurs of elevators and passing trucks amidst the strange, skeletal frameworks of skyscrapers that stand behind it all in a labyrinthine mesh.

[Image: A diagram of how it all works; from this PDF by Roy Schwitters].

Patel goes on to relate the surreal story of physicist Luis Alvarez, who used muons “to scan the inside of an ancient structure” – in this case, Khafre’s pyramid at Giza. “Working with Egyptian scientists in the late 1960s,” we read, “he gained access to the Belzoni chamber, a humid vault deep under the pyramid.”
Like something out of an H.P. Lovecraft story, “Alvarez’s team set up a muon detector called a spark chamber, which included 30 tons of of iron sheeting, in the underground room.”
Foreign physicists building iron rooms beneath the pyramids! To search for secret chambers based on the evidence of cosmic particles.

[Image: An illustrated depiction of Luis Alvarez’s feat; view larger!].

Indeed, we read:

Suspicion of the research team ran high – here was a group of Americans with high-tech electronics beneath one of Egypt’s most cherished monuments. “We had flashing lights behind panels – it looked like a sci-fi thing from Star Trek,” says Lauren Yazolino, the engineer who designed the detector’s electronics.

Alvarez’s iron room beneath the monolithic geometry of the pyramid – it’s like a project by Lebbeus Woods, by way of Boullée – apparently took one year to perform its muon-detection work.
One day, then, the team took a long look at the data – wherein Yazolino “spotted an anomaly, a region of the pyramid that stopped fewer muons than expected, suggesting a void.”
There were still undiscovered rooms inside the structure.

[Image: Wiring up the muon detector, courtesy of the UT-Austin Maya Muon Group].

Excitingly, when Roy Schwitters sets up his muon detector next to the tree-covered mounds of the Mayan city of La Milpa, he should get his results back in less than six months. Sitting there like a strange battery, the detector’s ultra-long-term abstract photography of the jungle hillsides vaguely reminds me of the technically avant-garde photographic work of Aaron Rose.
Rose has pioneered all sorts of strange lenses and unexpected chemical developers as he takes long-term exposures of Manhattan.
New York becomes less a city than a kind of impenetrable wall of built space.

[Images: Four photographs by Aaron Rose. View slightly larger].

Again, then, I’m curious what it’d be like to install one of these muon detectors in Manhattan: the shivering hives of space it might detect, as delivery trucks shake the bridges and elevators move up and down inside distant high-rises. What would someone like Aaron Rose be able to do with a muon detector?
Are muon detectors the future of urban art photography?
Perhaps it could even be a strange new piece of public art: a dozen muon detectors are installed in Union Square for six months. They’re behind fences, and look sinister; conspiratorialists leave long comments on architecture blogs suggesting that the muon detectors might not really be what they seem…
But the resulting images, after six months of Manhattan muon detection, are turned over as a gift to the city; they are hung in massive prints inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art, near the Egyptian wing, and Neil deGrasse Tyson delivers the keynote address.
Or perhaps a muon detector could be installed atop London’s fourth plinth:

The Fourth Plinth is in the north-west of Trafalgar Square, in central London. Built in 1841, it was originally intended for an equestrian statue but was empty for many years. It is now the location for specially commissioned art works.

For six months, a shadowy muon detector will stand there, above the heads of passing tourists, detecting strange and labyrinthine hollows beneath government buildings where sprawling complexes from WWII spiral out of sight below ground.
Or perhaps muon detectors could even be installed along the European coast to discover things like the buried neolithic village of Skara Brae or those infamous Nazi bunkers “that lay hidden for more than 50 years” before being uncovered by the sea. As the Daily Mail reported earlier this month:

Three Nazi bunkers on a beach have been uncovered by violent storms off the Danish coast, providing a store of material for history buffs and military archaeologists.

The bunkers were found in practically the same condition as they were on the day the last Nazi soldiers left them, down to the tobacco in one trooper’s pipe and a half-finished bottle of schnapps.

So what else might be down there under the soil and the sands…?
I’m imagining mobile teams of archaeologists sleeping in unnamed instant cities in the jungles and far deserts of the world, with storms swirling over their heads, running tests on gigantic black cylinders – muon detectors, all – that stand there like Kubrickian monoliths, recording invisible flashes of energy from space to find ancient burial sites and old buildings underground.

[Images: Tikal, photographed by n8agrin: top/bottom].

Perhaps all the forests and deserts of the world should be peppered with muon detectors – revealing archaeological anomalies and unexpected spaces in the ground all around us.
Architecture students could be involved: installing muon detectors outside Dubai high-rises and then competing to see who can most accurately interpret the floorplan data.

[Images: “Sobrevolando Tikal, Guatemala,” photographed by Eddie von der Becke].

Till one day, ten years from now, an astronaut crazed with emotional loneliness, riding through space with his muon detector, begins misinterpreting all of the data. He concludes – in a live radio transmission broadcast home to stunned mission control supervisors – that his space station has secret rooms – undiscovered rooms – that keep popping up somehow in the shadows…
More to the point, meanwhile, you can read a few more things about Roy Schwitters over at MSNBC – and, of course, at the UT-Austin Maya Muon Group homepage.

The Elephants of Rome: An Interview with Mary Beard (pt. 2)

This is Part Two of a two-part interview with Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at Cambridge University and general editor of the Wonders of the World, a new series published by Profile and Harvard University Press.
Part One can be found here.

In this installment we discuss cultural authenticity and the rise of archaeo-tourism; China, the pirating of ancient history, and plaster casts of statuary; A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum; the little-understood lost lifestyle patterns of the pyroclastically entombed Pompeii; and the urban military spectacles of imperial Rome.

• • •

BLDGBLOG: I’d like to ask you about different cultural attitudes toward copying and historical reproduction. There’s an essay by Alexander Stille, for instance, called “The Culture of the Copy and the Disappearance of China’s Past,” where he describes how meticulous copies are often used in China as stand-ins for ancient artifacts – without that substitution being acknowledged. Stille writes that, in China, copying “is a sign of reverence rather than lack of originality.” Do you foresee any sort of interpretive conflict on the horizon between these different cultural notions of authenticity and the past?

Mary Beard: This idea, of the meticulous copy being used as a stand-in for the ancient artifact – and that, somehow, this substitution can be its own historical object – well that’s one we actually find our own past. It’s not just a Chinese thing.

I’ve been thinking recently about the role of the plaster cast, and about collections of plaster casts; and, in a sense, it seems to me that the cult of the plaster cast, in seventeenth to early mid-nineteenth century Europe, had much in common with what Stille’s describing in China. Now – and I mean since the total commitment within modernism to “authenticity” – we regard plaster casts as cheap and perhaps awkward copies of the original. But, certainly, in the eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, plaster casts were the object that provided people with “real” connection with the classical world. The plaster cast was, in a sense, the fount of classical art and classical knowledge, and people like Goethe were inspired not so much by what we would think of as the authentic marble object, but by looking at plaster casts.

At one point in the Parthenon book – I mention it just very briefly – there was a moment, in the 1930s, when the British Museum had got all of Elgin’s marbles there, but the bits they didn’t have they filled in with plaster casts from Greece. It wasn’t that the casts were actually valued the same, but that viewers could happily see these things, side by side, in order to experience the Parthenon sculptures.

I think it’s actually quite moving sometimes, reading people’s accounts of Greek and Roman sculpture in the eighteenth and nineteenth century – because they’re describing plaster casts using a language which we would not now use for copies. They’re not framing it as a copy – they’re framing it as if it was it – or at least as if was sufficiently like the “real thing” to be able to prompt some of the same language and emotions.

[Image: A view of the Elgin Marbles, via the Wik].

BLDGBLOG: That seems to be as much about the desire to encounter the thing itself as to use convenient stand-ins for that thing, when “authenticity” is simply too expensive to afford.

Mary Beard: That’s partly it – but one thing that’s curious is that the modern city of Rome produced and displayed loads of plaster casts until quite recently (and there is still a great collection in the University gallery in Rome). They went in for making plaster casts of sculpture when they’d got the real stuff sitting right there in front of them. “Authenticity” is always a trickier idea than we think it is – which is, I guess, one of the things that “post-modernism” has been about telling us.

BLDGBLOG: Do you see educational value in things like merchandising, then? Do souvenirs obscure the past or give people access to it?

Mary Beard: I tend to be pretty laid back about it. I mean, I can do the argument about commodification if you like. I can say: goodness me, what you are doing? You’re re-presenting a tawdry cheap object, to make a vast amount of profit, and it’ll be bought by somebody else in the belief that, somehow, they have just bought into cultural property. I can do the gloomy side of it.

But I think it also goes back, more positively, to the idea that these objects are sort of shared. How do you share a monument? One of the main ways that you share a monument is by replicating it and letting people own the replica. It’s a way that people can feel they have a relationship to the original. That’s been going on since antiquity itself. One of the things that’s quite extraordinary is the number of relatively small-scale replicas there are of the cult statue of Athena from the Parthenon – hundreds of them.

Of course, in some ways, you say, tourists are being palmed off with plastic souvenirs instead of with knowledge – and, of course, some of these things, the middle class cultural critics can say, are horrible and cheap, and people think they’re buying culture when, in fact, they’re buying a nasty little replica. Obviously there’s an ambivalence there, but it never seems to me to be wholly bad.

You know, you have your photograph taken at the Colosseum next to somebody dressed up like a gladiator. Is that a terrible bit of exploitation because you’ve just paid a ridiculous amount of money? Well, that’s exactly what it is in one way – but it’s also a way of writing yourself into the history of that site, and saying “I was there.”

[Images: Tourists having their picture taken “next to somebody dressed up like a gladiator.” Photo by Robin Cormack].

BLDGBLOG: For a lot of people, there’s also a sense of irony there – in the idea that you’d get your picture taken next to a gladiator. It’s like a joke: look at me, wearing shorts, standing next to an Italian guy dressed like a gladiator.

Mary Beard: Yes, that’s right. I don’t think one’s capacity for self-ironization is necessarily incompatible with the idea of ownership. When I buy my ouzo bottle shaped like the Parthenon, it’s another way to the same end.

We tend to think that tourists are dupes being flogged crap which they don’t realize is crap. Actually, I suspect that most people, like you and I, do realize that it’s crap. The point is to buy crap, because that’s part of what the deal is – that’s the transaction which you’re doing.

I suppose it’s all part of what I’m thinking in general: people are much smarter about their engagement with these places than we often give them credit for. They/we have quite a highly developed sense of what the touristic game is all about. I might be an expert when it comes to the Parthenon, but I go to hundreds of places where I know nothing at all – but I still know what the contract is, between the tourist and the monument.

[Images: The streets of Pompeii, via Wikipedia].

BLDGBLOG: This changes the subject a bit, but I understand you’re also writing a new book about Pompeii. Is that for the Wonders for the World?

Mary Beard: I am writing a Pompeii book, and it’s for Profile and Harvard, like the Wonders. However, it’s not in the series because it’s going to be rather longer than that – and there’s a practical consideration here. If you’re going to tell your authors not to do more than 50,000 words, then you can’t have the series editor deciding she wants to do 100,000 words!

I suppose I’m trying to do some quite specific things. I’ve worked on and off on Pompeii for 20 or 30 years, and it struck me that, apart from the study of volcanology (where everybody will talk till the cows come home about “pyroclastic flows” and all that), by and large there’s an increasing gap between what academic studies of Pompeii are doing and the kind of stuff that popular books on Pompeii feed people. I wanted to see if I could close a bit of that gap between what people normally get given, if they’re not specialists, and some of the ways of thinking about the city that are current within academic debate.

I think that one of the problems about going to Pompeii, once you’ve done your first wander round it – and, even now, it’s gob-smacking to go to the ancient town – there’s a question of: what do people look at? And how do they look at it?

I think, as we were saying before, tourists are pretty canny – but their canniness and sharpness is often crushed by the sense that there is a particular set of questions that are somehow the right questions to ask. I suppose I want to help people see that their puzzlement about how this town worked – their puzzlement about the city – is legitimate. You know, they should go on asking those kinds of questions.

There is a huge distance between us and what went on in this town (whatever that was); yet, on the other hand, there is a dialogue that you can have with it. It’s a dialogue which is, in part, mediated by novels and films and so on – Last Days of Pompeii and the like. And that is something we have to work through, not against. It’s that way of thinking I’m interested in exploring.

BLDGBLOG: You’ve written on your blog about Pompeii’s ancient traffic patterns, and about some more mundane questions, such as how Pompeii actually functioned.

Mary Beard: Yes, that’s right – you know: where did people go to the loo? Why is there so little “stuff” there? Why was so little found in Pompeii? Well, that really is interesting – and that is what archaeologists are sometimes honest enough to worry about. Where do these stairs actually go? Did anything happen up there? How many people lived here?

So you want to say to tourists: your questions aren’t foolish. We don’t know what the upstairs was like. Estimates of the population of Pompeii vary by thousands, according to whether you think all the slaves lived up there, squashed together in dorms, or whether there were some elegantly spacious master bedrooms, or whether it was mostly storeroom. We really don’t know. We don’t even know how Pompeii related to the sea!

But I think there is a very difficult trade-off here. In the end it’s a terrible downer for people always to say, “We don’t know, we don’t know, we don’t know.” You’ve got to tell them something that we do know!

I suppose I want to write a book that doesn’t fob people off with simplifying stories that I know not to be true. I think that’s the nasty power relationship between popular books on the ancient world and their readers: an author, who knows how complicated it is, tells the ignorant reading public a simplified story that he or she doesn’t really believe. That then makes writing – and disseminating what you know about the ancient world – an act of bad faith. So you want it to be good faith – without saying: the conclusion of this book is that we know nothing.

BLDGBLOG: [laughs] That reminds me of Robert Irwin’s book, where he begins with two full pages’ worth of incorrect “facts” about the Alhambra.

Mary Beard: Yes. Jolly good.

[Images: A Triumph through the streets of Rome following the sack of Jerusalem. For more on Roman Triumphs, don’t miss Mary Beard’s forthcoming book; for more on the sack of Jerusalem, grab a copy of Simon Goldhill’s The Temple of Jerusalem].

BLDGBLOG: You’ve also got another forthcoming book, published by Harvard, about the Roman Triumph – about Roman military processions. Could you tell me more about that? Is it similar in tone to the Wonders of the World series?

Mary Beard: In a funny way, although it’s a longer book, and it’s heavily footnoted, it’s written partly for the same kind of audience. It’s for the specialist as well as the intelligent ignorant.

What the book is saying is: look, here is a Roman ceremony which, much in the same way as these monuments, has been reworked and reappropriated throughout history. You know, Napoleon does the Triumph, every blasted princeling in the Renaissance does a Triumph, Mantegna paints the Triumph – it’s still a cultural form that we share with the Romans. So how can we make sense of it? Particularly now, how do we think about celebrating military victory – and what form is possible, legitimate, in bad taste, in good taste…?

This relates, of course, to how we now package the Romans. Certainly for the last hundred years or so, they have been seen as the poor relations of the Greeks: Greek culture, we believe, was intellectual and self-reflexive, whilst the Romans were thugs who built roads and won battles. It’s a convenient dyad for us but, in many ways, it undermines and disguises so much of what’s really interesting about Roman culture.

One of the things I’m wanting to say about the Triumph goes like this. Here you’ve got the most fantastic parade ever of Roman wealth and imperialism. The Romans score disgustingly big victories, massacring thousands, and they come and celebrate it in the center of the city, bringing the prisoners and the spoils and the riches and all the rest. At one level, this is a jingoistic, militaristic display that would warm the heart of every European dictator ever after – but, at the same time, scratch the surface of that. Look at how the Romans talked about it. That very ceremony is also the ceremony in which you see the Romans debating and worrying about what glory is, what victory is. Who, really, has won? It’s a ceremony that provides Rome with a way of thinking about itself. It exposes all kinds of Roman intellectual anxieties.

For example, there are constant anecdotes, which I think are very loaded anecdotes, about how risky a celebration it is, and how the celebration can always go wrong. There’s one General, Pompey, in the sixties BC, who decides to outbid all of the previous triumphant Generals. Instead of having his chariot yoked to horses, he decides to have it pulled by elephants. It looks fantastic – it looks kind of divine (that’s how the god Bacchus drove his chariot) – until he comes to go through an arch and the elephants get stuck in the arch. So he reverses a bit, and he tries it again – and they still can’t get through. They finally have to unhitch the elephants and bring up the horses – and you think: why is this anecdote being told? Not only is this obviously a humiliating moment – wouldn’t you feel a real fool if it happened to you! – but it’s also being told as a way of saying, remember, glory has to be carefully negotiated. Where is the boundary between glory and foolishness?

Another question is: who do you look at when you’ve got this great procession? Who’s the star of the show? Is it the General in his chariot? Well, sometimes it is – but sometimes it’s the victims. Sometimes military victory makes stars of the defeated. That was also a problem in the gladiatorial arena: who was the star? Well, it was the gladiator, not the emperor. In the Triumph those exotic but pathetic captives regularly stole the show, or were said to, and Roman poets and historians recognized this, and wondered about it, and played with it, and they turned it into a metaphor just like we do. And that is so topical today. Take Saddam Hussein’s execution – you know, what was the upshot of those films? Who won?

Militarism often goes hand in hand with everything which undermines militarism. The Romans were actually – if you know how to read them right, and if you’re not expecting them to be Greek and to talk about it in the same way – they’re actually looking at the nature of military victory, and military display, and they’re wondering about it some of the same ways that we do.

So that’s what the book is about – or, at least, those are some of the questions that have driven it.

[Images: A poster for 300 and scenes from 300 and Gladiator].

BLDGBLOG: Finally, could you talk a bit about the present state of pop cultural knowledge about the Classical world, from the film 300 and David Beckham’s new tattoo to cable television documentaries? In the most general sense, are these things useful for teaching the Classics?

Mary Beard: I’m very keen on it, of course. I have to be. Partly, you know, if you’re a classicist teaching Classics at a British university, self-interest is a factor here. All these things, from Gladiator on, have been a tremendous recruiting ground, and so we go around talking about whether Gladiator’s true or not, and 300, and all the rest – and encouraging people to get interested in “real” Classics that way (there, I’m talking about authenticity!).

More generally, though, one of the things that these movies and so on remind us is that classical culture simply isn’t the bastion of elitism that it’s often made out to be. Certainly in the UK – and, I expect, it’s largely the same in the U.S. – the study of Classics, as an academic discipline, is thought to be the upper echelons of privilege and elitism. To some extent that’s true – and to some extent it’s unfair. What that view overlooks is the fact that there has been enormous amounts of mass engagement with ancient culture from the end of the 19th century onwards. Books like The Last Days of Pompeii, or Ben-Hur, sold fantastic quantities. They were absolute bestsellers, in the way that Gladiator is a bestselling movie.

What’s interesting though is that every generation has always claimed that it was the first to rediscover the Romans for themselves, and for mass culture. You can see that very clearly with the Broadway musical, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. It was a fantastic success, but it sold itself in very similar terms to Gladiator – that here, for the first time, the wee masses were going to see Rome as it really was.

So what interests me, beyond the hope that this brings other people into Classics, is the idea that Classics is a subject which is actually quite democratic. It isn’t only this kind of toff, upper-class subject it’s often thought to be. Every generation enjoys rediscovering it – but, each time it comes around, we claim that now, for the first time, we’ve got privileged knowledge which we’re going to share with you all over again. In fact, there are hundreds and hundreds of movies, and hundreds of novels, and thousands of cartoon strips about the Romans. They never go away – but we always think that it’s us that got them first.

In the UK, when kids discover Asterix the Gaul – a wonderful cartoon series about plucky little Gauls fighting the Romans – each 10-year old finds it anew, and rediscovers the Romans for themselves. Which is just how it should be.

[Image: The Colosseum, photographed by Robin Cormack].

• • •

I owe a huge thank you to Mary Beard for taking the time to have this conversation, and for following up with images and with edits to the transcript.
For more Mary Beard, meanwhile, don’t miss her blog, A Don’s Life; her essays at the London Review of Books; or The Roman Triumph, due out this Autumn.
Finally, titles in the Wonders of the World series now include:

The Parthenon by Mary Beard
The Colosseum by Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard
The Tomb of Agamemnon by Cathy Gere
The Temple of Jerusalem by Simon Goldhill
Westminster Abbey by Richard Jenkyns
The Alhambra by Robert Irwin
The Rosetta Stone by John Ray
St. Peter’s by Keith Miller
St. Pancras Station by Simon Bradley
The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme by Gavin Stamp

Collect them all—and don’t miss Part One of this interview while you’re doing so.