Noodle Raider

There’s an interesting detail at the start of a recent Economist piece about a network of tomb raiders in China, or bands of archaeological burglars who have been breaking into and stealing artifacts from ancient sites all over the country.

“By day,” the piece begins, “Mr Wei sold pancakes in Shaanxi, a northern province. By night he led a gang of grave robbers who tunneled under an ancient temple near his shop. It took 11 months for them to reach the treasures buried beneath, which included gold statues of the Buddha and the bones of illustrious monks. Mr Wei and his cronies went on to dig several more passages from restaurants that they opened in the vicinity of shrines and pagodas.”

For as many as five years, allegedly, the crew hit graves and tombs, abetted by this false front of restaurants that were actually being used as forward operating bases for underground tunneling operations. This is quite the modus operandi—though, to be 100% clear, it is not something I am commending. Admiration of method should not be confused with advocacy for its implementation.

Nevertheless, the prospect of these restaurants’ secret purpose being discovered, or even suspected, could easily be the start of a novel or comic book: you and your single parent, say, live alone above an empty restaurant on a dilapidated side street in your depressed hometown, near an old historic site of some sort, when a new owner signs a lease downstairs. A week later, a noodle shop opens. But the food is terrible—it’s just a Coke machine and some instant ramen—and there are strange sounds at night and whispered voices coming up through the ducts. Unexplained piles of dirt begin to appear out back in the alley. Then one day you decide to investigate.

In any case, you can read more about Mr. Wei and his noodle-shop tomb raiding over at the Economist.

Uncanny Crops

Speaking of @wmmna, Régine Debatty—author of we make money not art—will be hosting a workshop next month on “plant geopolitics, phytoengineering, and uncanny crops.” Expect discussions of “plant neurobiology,” agricultural colonialism, space crops, hyperaccumulators, future foods, and much more.

Sign up over at the School of Machines, Making & Make-Believe.

(Related: Trees as radio antennas and plants as archaeological detectors.)

Geomedia, or What Lies Below

[Image: Courtesy USGS.]

I love the fact that the U.S. Geological Survey had to put out a press release explaining what some people in rural Wisconsin might see in the first few weeks of January: a government helicopter flying “in a grid pattern relatively low to the ground, hundreds of feet above the surface. A sensor that resembles a large hula-hoop will be towed beneath the helicopter,” the USGS explains—but it’s not some conspiratorial super-tool, silently flipping the results of voting machines. It’s simply measuring “tiny electromagnetic signals that can be used to map features below Earth’s surface,” including “shallow bedrock and glacial sediments” in the region.

Of course, the fictional possibilities are nevertheless intriguing: government geologists looking for something buried in the agricultural muds of eastern Wisconsin, part Michael Crichton, part Stephen King; or CIA contractors, masquerading as geologists, mapping unexplained radio signals emanating from a grid of points somewhere inland from Lake Michigan; or a rogue team of federal archaeologists searching for some Lovecraftian ruin, a lost city scraped down to its foundations by the last Ice Age, etc. etc.

In any case, the use of remote-sensing tools such as these—scanning the Earth to reveal electromagnetic, gravitational, and chemical signatures indicative of mineral deposits or, as it happens, architectural ruins—is the subject of a Graham Foundation grant I received earlier this autumn. That’s a project I will be exploring and updating over the next 10 months, combining lifelong obsessions with archaeology and ruins (specifically, in this case, the art history of how we depict destroyed works of architecture) with an interest in geophysical prospecting tools borrowed from the extraction industry.

In other words, the same remote-sensing tools that allow geological prospecting crews to locate subterranean mineral deposits are increasingly being used by archaeologists today to map underground architectural ruins. Empty fields mask otherwise invisible cities. How will these technologies change the way we define and represent architectural history?

[Image: Collage, Geoff Manaugh, for “Invisible Cities: Architecture’s Geophysical Turn,” Graham Foundation 2020/2021; based on “Forum Romano, Rome, Italy,” photochrom print, courtesy U.S. Library of Congress.]

For now, I’ll just note another recent USGS press release, this one touting the agency’s year-end “Mineral Resources Program Highlights.”

Included in the tally is the “Earth MRI” initiative—which, despite the apt medical-imaging metaphor, actually stands for the “Earth Mapping Resource Initiative.” From the USGS: “When learning more about ancient rocks buried deep beneath the surface of the Earth, it may seem surprising to use futuristic technologies flown hundreds of feet in the air, but that has been central to the USGS Earth Mapping Resource Initiative.”

[Image: A geophysical survey of northwestern Arkansas, courtesy USGS.]

What lies below, whether it is mineral or architectural, is becoming accessible to surface view through advanced technical means. These new tools often reveal that, beneath even the most featureless landscapes, immensely interesting forms and structures can be hidden. Ostensibly boring mud plains can hide the eroded roots of ancient mountain chains, just as endless fields of wheat or barley can stand atop forgotten towns or lost cities without any hint of the walls and streets beneath.

The surface of the Earth is an intermediary—it is media—between us and what it disguises.

(See also, Detection Landscapes and Lost Roads of Monticello.)

Underground Cathedrals of Radiation and Zones of Irreversible Strain

[Image: Nevada test site, Google Maps, filtered through Instagram.]

There’s a great line in Tom Zoellner’s book Uranium: War, Energy, and the Rock That Shaped the World where he describes the after-effects of underground nuclear tests. Zoellner writes that, during these tests, “a nuclear bomb buried in a deep shaft underneath a mountain would vaporize the surrounding rock and make a huge cathedral-like space inside the earth, ablaze with radioactivity.”

I thought of Zoellner’s vision of a “huge cathedral-like space inside the earth” recently while reading a paper by Colin N. Waters et al., called “Recognising anthropogenic modification of the subsurface in the geological record.” Among other things, the authors describe the long-term “structural effects of subsurface weapon detonations.”

[Image: Nevada test site, Google Maps, filtered through Instagram.]

They suggest that these detonations produce spaces—such as collapse cones and debris fields—that have “no direct natural analogue,” although they do helpfully contrast weapon-test craters with meteor-impact sites. (The authors also break underground nuclear test sites down into “zones,” which include a “zone of irreversible strain,” which is an amazing phrase.)

The larger purpose of their paper, though, is to look at long-term “signatures” that humans might leave behind in our underground activity, from nuclear tests to mineralogical carbon-capture to deep boreholes to coal mines. Will these signatures still be legible or detectible for humans of the far future? On the whole, their conclusion is not optimistic, suggesting instead that even vast subterranean mines and sites of underground nuclear weapons tests will fade from the terrestrial archive.

“Many of the physical and chemical products of human subsurface intrusion either do not extend far from the source of intrusion, lack long-term persistence as a signal or are not sufficiently distinctive from the products of natural processes to make them uniquely recognisable as of anthropogenic origin,” they write. “But the scope and complexity of the signals have increased greatly over recent decades, both in areal extent and with increasing depths, and seem set to be a fundamental component of our technological expansion. There will be some clues to the geologist of the far-future, when historical knowledge records may not be preserved, that will help resolve the origin.”

[Image: Nevada test site craters, courtesy of the National Nuclear Security Administration Nevada Site Office Photo Library.]

Nevertheless, it is totally fascinating to imagine what future archaeologists might make of Zoellner’s “huge cathedral-like space[s] inside the earth, ablaze with radioactivity,” long after they’ve collapsed, and where sand has been fused into unnatural glass and anomalous traces of radiation can still be found with no reasonable explanation for how they got there.

Could future archaeologists deduce the existence of nuclear weapons from such a landscape? And, if so, would such a suggestion—ancient weapons modeled on the physics of stars—sound rational or vaguely insane?

(Vaguely related: “fossil reactors” underground in Gabon.)

The “So-called Tower of Babel”

[Image: The “so-called Tower of Babel,” photographed in 1932; courtesy Library of Congress.]

I posted these on social media the other day, but I thought I’d include them here simply because of how much I love the casually jaw-dropping caption used for these over at the Library of Congress. This eerie pile of bricks looming over the desert, photographed back in 1932?

It’s nothing other than “Possibly the Tower of Babel,” or the “So-called Tower of Babel.” No biggie.

[Images: “Possibly the Tower of Babel” photographed in 1932; courtesy Library of Congress.]

As novelist Paul M.M. Cooper responded on Twitter, the site is still extent today. Iraqi-Dutch filmmaker Mohamed Al-Daradji, Cooper wrote, “used it as a backdrop for a memorable scene in his movie Son of Babylon.”

Here it is on Google Maps.

[Image: The “so-called Tower of Babel,” photographed in 1932; courtesy Library of Congress.]

The Library of Congress also refers to the site as an “extinct city,” which is a fabulous phrase, complete with its own “Watchman of the Ruins,” only adding to the mythic weight of the place.

[Image: “Possibly the Tower of Babel,” photographed in 1932; courtesy Library of Congress.]

Even better, I now have an excuse to post some paintings of the Tower of Babel, as seen through the lens of European art history…

[Image: “The Tower of Babel” (1595) by Abel Grimmer, via Wikimedia Commons.]

[Image: “The Tower of Babel” (1563) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, via Fine Art America.]

Check out several more photos—including a later, color version—over at the Library of Congress.

Synthetic at Every Scale

[Image: Diamond nanowires produced by physicist William Gilpin, used only for the purpose of illustration.]

As part of some early prep, just putting notes together for a workshop I’ll be leading in Moscow later this summer, I thought I’d link back to this 2014 post by Paul Gilster on Centauri Dreams about “SETI at the Particle Level”—that is, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence reimagined on radically different spatial scales than what humans have previously looked for.

“To find the truly advanced civilizations, we would need to look on the level of the very small,” Gilster suggests. We perhaps even need to look at the scale of individual particles.

“If SETI is giving us no evidence of extraterrestrials,” Gilster writes, “maybe it’s because we’re looking on too large a scale.”

What if, in other words, truly advanced intelligence, having long ago taken to non-biological form, finds ways to maximize technology on the level of the very small? Thus [Australian artificial intelligence researcher Hugo de Garis]’s interest in femtotech, a technology at the level of 10-15 meters. The idea is to use the properties of quarks and gluons to compute at this scale, where in terms of sheer processing power the improvement in performance is a factor of a trillion trillion over what we can extrapolate for nanotech.

Material evidence of this speculative, femto-scale computation could perhaps be detected, in other words, if only we knew we should be looking for it. (Instead, of course, we’re stuck looking for evidence of a very particular technology that was big on Earth a few decades ago—radio waves.)

[Image: Electron interferometry, via the University of Cambridge, used only for the purpose of illustration.]

In any case, it’s interesting to put these thoughts in the context of a paper by Matt Edgeworth, published in Archaeologies back in 2010, called “Beyond Human Proportions: Archaeology of the Mega and the Nano.” Edgeworth’s paper was inspired by a deceptively simple insight: that human artifacts, in our era of chemical and material engineering, have departed radically from the spatial scale traditionally associated with archaeology.

We are always making history, we might say, but much of it is too small to see.

Rather than studying architectural ruins or sites the size of villages, what about archaeological artifacts visible only through chemical assays or scanning electron microscopes, whether they be so-called forever chemicals or simply microplastics?

Edgeworth himself refers to nano-scale transistors, graphene sheets, and materials etched using electron beam lithography. What role should these engineered materials—altogether different kinds of remains or cultural “ruins”—play in archaeology?

[Image: An example of electron beam lithography, via Trevor Knapp/Eriksson Research Group/University of Wisconsin, used only for the purpose of illustration.]

“It used to be the case that archaeological features and artifacts were principally on a human scale,” Edgeworth writes. “But that familiar world is changing fast. As archaeology extends its range of focus further forward in time its subject matter is moving beyond human proportions. Developments in macro- and micro-engineering mean that artifacts are no longer limited in size by physical limitations of the body. As scale and impact of material culture extends outwards and inwards in both macroscopic and microscopic directions, the perspectives of contemporary archaeology must change in order to keep track.”

What’s so interesting about both the Centauri Dreams post and Matt Edgeworth’s paper is that signs of artificiality—whether they are human or not—might be discovered at radically different spatial scales, either here on Earth in modern archaeological sites or in the depths of space, where, for example, the alien equivalent of electron beam lithography might already have etched legible patterns into materials now drifting as micrometeoroids through the void.

Of course, the idea of applying for a grant to look for signs of alien lithography on micrometeoroids sounds more like a Saturday Night Live sketch—or perhaps the plot of a Charles Stross novel—but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it (or something similar). After all, even humans themselves now leave micro- and nano- scale material traces behind in the dyes, chemicals, coatings, and etched materials we use everyday without thinking of these things as archaeological.

[Image: Nanostructures made by German company Nanoscribe, used only for the purpose of illustration.]

If the fundamental assumption of SETI is that aliens have been communicating with each other through radio transmissions because humans used to heavily rely upon that same technology, then why not also assume that aliens are, say, manufacturing graphene sheets, 3D-printing on the nano-scale, or, for that matter, weaving computational textiles with synthetic-diamond nanowires?

(An unrelated post that is nevertheless interesting to think about in this context: Space Grain.)

Forest Accumulator

Ten years ago, this would have been a speculative design project by Sascha Pohflepp: “hyper-accumulating” plants are being used to concentrate, and thus “mine,” valuable metals from soil.

[Image: Nickel-rich sap; photo by Antony van der Ent, courtesy New York Times.]

“With roots that act practically like magnets, these organisms—about 700 are known—flourish in metal-rich soils that make hundreds of thousands of other plant species flee or die,” the New York Times reported last week. “Slicing open one of these trees or running the leaves of its bush cousin through a peanut press produces a sap that oozes a neon blue-green. This ‘juice’ is actually one-quarter nickel, far more concentrated than the ore feeding the world’s nickel smelters.”

A while back, I went on a road-trip with Edible Geography to visit some maple syrup farms north of where we lived at the time, in New York City. The woods all around us were tubed together in a huge, tree-spanning network—“forest hydraulics,” as Edible Geography phrased it at the time—as the trees’ valuable liquid slowly flowed toward a pumping station in the center of the forest.

It was part labyrinth, part spiderweb, a kind of semi-automated tree-machine at odds with the image of nature with which most maple syrup is sold.

[Images: Photos by BLDGBLOG.]

Imagining a similar landscape, but one designed as a kind of botanical mine—a forest accumulator, metallurgical druidry—is incredible.

And it’s not even a modern idea, as the New York Times points out. For all its apparent, 21st-century sci-fi, the idea of harvesting metal from plants is at least half a millennium old: “The father of modern mineral smelting, Georgius Agricola, saw this potential 500 years ago. He smelted plants in his free time. If you knew what to look for in a leaf, he wrote in the 16th century, you could deduce which metals lay in the ground below.”

This brings to mind an older post here about detection landscapes, or landscapes—yards, meadows, gardens, forests—deliberately planted with species that can indicate what is in the soil beneath them.

In the specific case of that post, this had archaeological value, allowing researchers to find abandoned Viking settlements in Greenland based on slight chemical changes that have affected which plants are able to thrive. Certain patches of flower, for example, act as archaeological indicator species, marking the locations of lost settlements.

In any case, my point is simply that vegetation can be read, or treated as a sign to be interpreted, whether by indicating the presence of archaeological ruins or by revealing the potential market-value of a site’s subterranean metal content.

Indeed, we read, “This vegetation could be the world’s most efficient, solar-powered mineral smelters,” with “the additional value of enabling areas with toxic soils to be made productive. Smallholding farmers could grow on metal-rich soils, and mining companies might use these plants to clean up their former mines and waste and even collect some revenue.” That is, you could filter and clean contaminated soils by drawing heavy-metal pollutants out of the ground, producing saps that are later harvested.

Fast-forward ten years: it’s 2030 and landscape architecture studios around the world are filled with speculative metal-harvesting plant designs—contaminated landscapes laced with gardens of hardy, sap-producing trees—even as industrial behemoths, like Rio Tinto and Barrick Gold, are breeding proprietary tree species in top-secret labs, genetically modifying them to maximize metal uptake.

Weird saps accumulate in iridescent lagoons. Autumn leaves glint, literally metallic, in the sun. Tiny metal capillaries weave up the trunks of black-wooded trees, in filigrees of gold and silver. The occasional forest fire smells not of smoke, but of copper and tin. Reclaimed timber, with knots and veins partially metallized, is used as luxury flooring in suburban homes.

Read more at the New York Times.

(Thanks to Wayne Chambliss for the tip!)

Geometries of Sovereignty

[Image: “Minimal Republic nº3, Area: 100 m², Border: square, 10m side, defined with rope tied to pickaxes around a square of crushed rye, Population: 1 inhabitant, Location: 41.298691º, -3.400101º, Start: July 30, 2015, 19:15, End: July 31, 2015, 11:38,” from Minimal Republics by Rubén Martín de Lucas, via LensCulture.]

Minimal Republics is an interesting and wonderfully titled project by artist Rubén Martín de Lucas. As Sophie Wright explains in a feature for LensCulture, each “republic” follows the same set of basic instructions: “appropriate 100 square metres of space, outline a border, and inhabit it for no more than 24 hours. From parking lots to empty agricultural crops, anonymous segments of land are transformed by these actions into what the artist describes as ‘ephemeral micro-states.’”

These minimal republics are exactly that, in other words, just geometric forms marked in some fashion on the surface of the Earth, temporarily patrolled and inhabited by a lone individual, a series of micronations that then disappear from history.

(This also raises the question of what an archaeology of performance art might look like—whether projects such as this leave permanent historical traces in the landscape. Will the location of a Martín de Lucas republic ever be archaeologically discernible in the future? If so, will whatever once happened there make any spatial or political sense?)

[Image: “Minimal Republic nº2, Area: 100 m², Population: 1 inhabitant, Border: equilateral triangle, side 15.19 m made of wooden slats assembled, Location: 40.039637º, -5.1146942º, Start: July 23, 2015, 12:21, End: July 23, 2015, 21:48,” from Minimal Republics by Rubén Martín de Lucas, via LensCulture.]

Minimal Republics falls somewhere between theatrical performance, video installation, landscape photography, and instructional art, suggesting a kind of pop-up sovereignty available to all, given sufficient fidelity to a set of artistic-political specifications.

Like a territorial algorithm or even like a magic spell, the project promises that, if only you can follow these three simple steps, remaining inside your sovereign sigil, new political worlds can be conjured into ephemeral life.

[Image: “Minimal Republic nº8, Area: 100 m2, Border: circle of 5.64 m radius of stacked stubble, Population: 1 inhabitant, Location: 41.4152292, -3.3632866, Start: September 8, 2017, 18:41, End: September 9, 2017, 18:40,” from Minimal Republics by Rubén Martín de Lucas, via LensCulture.]

Of course, Wright is also quick to emphasize that the project’s sense of the absurd is very deliberate: “Searching for locations with little appeal or resources, these ‘minimal republics’ are unlikely spots for a new nation, amping up the nonsensical gesture of Martín de Lucas’ temporary occupation.”

There are many more examples from the project over at LensCulture, as well as a longer write-up.

(Related: “The Lonely Planet Guide to Micronations: An Interview with Simon Sellars.”)


[Image: “Dolmen du Mas d’Azil,” by Eugène Trutat, via Wikipedia.]

I’ve been enjoying looking at these photos of ancient dolmens in the French countryside, taken by Eugène Trutat, after reading about them as part of a forthcoming exhibition here in L.A. called Rude Forms Among Us.

[Image: “Dolmen de Cap del Pouech,” by Eugène Trutat, via Wikipedia.]

“Over a span of several decades, the 19th-century photographer Eugène Trutat documented the Dolmen de Vaour,” the show’s curator, architect Anna Neimark, writes. “Three stones form the perimeter of a nearly rectangular interior; they are called orthostates. One orthostate is long, presenting a sort-of wall, while the other two are chunky and can be read as truncated columns. All three are set in from the perimeter, allowing a rather peculiar capstone to appear to float above them.”

Geology rearranged becomes architecture; the built environment is just the surface of the Earth, spatially amplified.

[Image: “Dolmen de Brillant, Mas d’Azil,” by Eugène Trutat, via Wikipedia.]

There is an opening reception and event with Neimark tomorrow night—Friday, January 31, at 7pm—for those of you near Los Angeles.

Shadow Cell

My friend, Wayne, sent me this link about an accidental archaeological discovery beneath a Pennsylvania prison in the 1960s that reads like the start of a Jordan Peele film.

“A hidden underground cell was found this week at the Bucks County prison here,” the New York Times reported back in 1964. “Warden John D. Case said that several inmates digging in the prison basement preparing to install new water pipes discovered an 8‐foot by 18‐foot room with a brick arched ceiling of about 5½‐foot clearance. Mr. Case said there might be a secret room under each of the original 51 cells in the prison, which dates to 1884.”

It’s easy to imagine the story of an occult 19th-century architect constructing prisons to contain both a person and their shadow self, or perhaps just a sadistic warden installing secret listening rooms beneath the cells of his prisoners to eavesdrop on the growing sounds of loneliness and remorse crying down through the ceiling.

Or, for that matter, imagine a horror novel about some strange and thoroughly debunked folk-magic architectural theory from the 1800s suggesting that all works of civil infrastructure—prisons, libraries, courts of law—had to have both a positive and a negative version constructed, an aboveground world and its subterranean reflection, and that, over the course of the novel, more and more of these underground spaces are discovered in the humid, history-rich soils of the American east coast. And that it ends well for no one involved.

(Thanks to Wayne Chambliss for the heads up!)

300 Years of Dust

I’m late to the news that the ancient Akkadian Empire might have collapsed due to “dust activity” that “persisted for 300 years.” As a resident of Los Angeles, it’s sobering to read.

“Archaeologists have long been baffled by the abrupt abandonment of northern Mesopotamian settlements roughly 4,200 years ago,” Eos reports. This otherwise mysterious abandonment might have been catalyzed by three centuries of dust—“dust for 300 years”—arising from extreme drought and aridity.

The dust was so bad, in fact, it left a geological record in regional stalactites.

Perhaps that’s how the end will come, as a slow but relentless accumulation of dust on windowsills—in California, Arizona, Nevada—a civilizational collapse that should have been signaled, in retrospect, by the rapid growth of the house-cleaning economy, but that, for at least a generation, will take the form of puzzled homeowners wiping wetted cloths along wood trim, wondering if there’s something going on outside.