Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Beginning Again

Over the last few years I've had little time for messing about in blogs, and this one has suffered more than the others. But I "retired" at the end of the Spring Quarter, and am now teaching part-time where I've spent the last twenty years as a full-time faculty member.

What this means is that I'm out of excuses. And because my interests in the oddities of human materialism hasn't abated one single bit, I fully intend to get back to documenting my discoveries in the Cabinet. I keep running into amazing, interesting, troubling, astonishing (enter more adjectives here) things in my often random travels through the 'verse--especially since I've become a full-fledged MOOC junkie. The most recent effort was a course on Sagas and Space sponsored by the University of Zurich through Coursera.  It focused on Norse sagas and the concept of space recorded in them; the material was fascinating and did more to kickstart my aging brainwaves than anything in recent memory. The opening image is a tribute to the experience: a sea monster (a whale being attacted by orcas?) from Olaus Magnus's very early map of the north, the Carta Marina.

I loved the course's structure (it was only eight weeks long) and the fact that I got to learn stuff I never really imagined was out there.  It tied in well with both my interest in William Morris (he translated a number of Icelandic sagas) and in maps, and reminded me why I started writing this blog in the first place. Not only that, it will help me set my students straight about Marvel's version of the Norse cosmology when next I get to teach the Myth class (maybe once a year now).

So now things are really coming together. I've spent the last couple of hours cleaning up the rolls on the sidebar, and have eliminated a couple of categories and several now-defunct blogs.  A few I was reluctant to eliminate altogether, even though they're no longer active, so I created an archive to house them. In future I'll update the lists with some of my new discoveries, but will leave you with this morsel discovered during the Sagas and Space adventure: The Monstrous Sea Pig from Idols of the Cave (recently added to the blog roll).

More sooner, rather than later. 

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, uploaded by OlofE.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Personal Typology

This is the third in my series of essays for my Coursera adventure in "Archaeology's Dirty Little Secrets."  This exercise asked us to classify ourselves based on what we collect in particular places:
  1. Take your backpack, purse, the contents of a desk drawer, or any other personal assemblage.
  2. Dump it all out on a table or other flat surface and think about possible ways to 'organize' this material into types.
  3. Arrange the objects in four different ways, employing four different criteria.
  4. Describe each criterion you selected and explain why you chose it. Which do you think is most effective and why? What do you think you learned about yourself from this exercise?

We had a 750-word limit, which (coincidentally) is about what I average in a blog post.

This is the original assemblage.

I'm a college teacher, so I dumped my bookbag (absent its books, since I'm on break) on the dining room table, and the contents looked more like those of a purse.  Classifying the contents proved to be a real challenge. In one way, things had already been classified, because I had four zipper-bags with separate uses (personal hygiene--lipstick, brush, lotion, etc.; meds--drugs, medalert tag, antacids, NSAIDs; tools--eraser, pencils, scissors; change). At first I emptied them and their contents into the following categories, sorted by composition:  paper, plastic, mixed metal & other, mixed plastic & other. These were the broadest ones I could come up with.

Mostly plastic (composition)
After that, it became harder.  There were several obvious possibilities, such as "recreation" (stuff left over from last Friday's baseball game, including tickets, receipts, etc.; geeky science fiction stuff like Star Trek communication badges--don't ask; a Firefly keychain; a ticket to the latest Star Trek movie; a lifetime pass to Science Fiction Land from a Kickstarter project; a Tardis medallion), "school-related" (note pads, moleskin, pencils, eraser, scissors, planner, ID lanyard, conference badges, list of stuff to do next quarter), "personal" (med stuff, makeup). Upon some considerable reflection, these seem to fall into a general category of use.

A third category, based on design elements (form) emerged: rectangles (most of the paper stuff, most of the zippered pouches, money, some ginger sweeties; cylinders and round things (lotions, lips balm, pill bottles, eraser, pencils, one of the zippered pouches); rectangles with rounded corners (eyeglass case, wallet, mirror, planner, makeup container, paper clip, small powder bottle, gift card and key-chain perks cards); mixed (scissors, rectangular/cylindrical lipstick case, ear buds, brush, medalert tag, Star Trek badges, car/house keys--attached to keychains that might fit in other categories).

This is the "rectangle" pile in the form category.

A persistent anomaly is a grackle feather.  I pick up feathers for no earthly reason except that I like them, and this one has been in the bag, apparently, for some time. I can't seem to make it fit in any category except possibly the last. (It doesn't appear in any of the photos I uploaded.)

The final, very general, category (which might be considered in terms of meaning) is economy (in the true sense of the word--"rule/law of the home"). This would include the school-use, hygiene, and meds-related subcategories, but also citizenship-related elements from the paper pile such as jury summons instructions, a card with directions to my polling place, a collapsable reusable tote bag (environment), and the conference badges (academic citizenship), and the receipts, checkbook, and cash bits from other piles, as well as my wallet and perks cards. It might also include the recreational elements, including the geeky science fiction stuff and the baseball stuff because both pretty much rule our home. So do birds and nature--not much of which are represented outright in the assemblage, except for the grackle feather.

This is the geeky science fiction stuff that fit into a couple of categories (recreation, from use, and also economy)
It's  hard to tell which of these would be most effective in figuring out who I am or what I do--although the amount of plastic (gasp!) in the assemblage would be helpful in determining my profession because it would probably survive for quite some time. It would not, alas, indicate much about my environmentalism (although one of the pouches is made of recycled plastic, and another is to keep me from taking home plastic bags).

Of possible interest to this exercise is the pervasive instinct to classify that seems to come with certain human activities--such as teaching, or gardening. Over the last week, for example, we spent a significant amount of time clearing out our garden/storage shed. As we moved things outside, it became clear that we were classifying as we went: stuff to recycle, stuff to take to the tip, garden tools, mechanical tools--and, yes, pots.  Lots of pots (plastic and ceramic). And even potsherds (which we've been collecting to use to make a mosaic garden bench.  I had studied archaeology in my youth, and it seems that you can take the girl out of archaeology, but you can't take the archaeology out of the girl.

Again, the comments were pretty positive, and students I "graded" in the peer review (not all of whom chose this option) provided interesting insights with their responses--which seem to be getting better. I'm beginning to wonder if the cream is moving to the top as the course goes on. The amount of work involved may not appeal to everyone.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

What Survives

Note: if you'd like to comment on this series of posts, please do so below--rather than in the course's peer review.  My criteria for illustrating the essays for the course are different than for this blog.

The assignment: select TWO artifacts that are composed of different types of material, both organic and inorganic. These can come from your home, from a book, from online, from a museum—you don’t necessarily need to be able to touch them. Then:
  1. Describe the artifacts. If possible, take a picture and upload it with your assignment.
  2. Imagine these artifacts were buried in three different places: a) Egypt, b) where you live, and c) anywhere else on earth you choose.
  3. Describe the general environmental and climatic conditions, and the possible specific matrices in which they would be found.
  4. Assess what you think would survive from these artifacts and what would disappear in those three different environments after 100 years.
  5. Compare the two artifacts for durability.

I chose two related artifacts, not unlikely to be found together, and that might prove interesting to a budding archaeologist.  I thought of using these because although it has been more than thirty years since I spent any time in the field, my Marshalltown masonry trowel is still in use--as my favorite gardening tool. Back then we had to buy a regular mason's trowel and have it sharpened, and no holster was available. Modern-day archaeologists have more options.

Marshalltown now makes pointed trowels especially for archaeological use (in two styles, "London" and "Philadelphia") and a belt-holster to keep one handy. Because each is made of a combination of organic and inorganic materials, I thought they would make appropriate artifacts for this exercise.

The trowel is made of high carbon steel and hardwood. The wooden handle is probably attached to the metal with acrylic carpenter's glue. The holster is stitched leather, with unspecified metal rivets and a "long-wearing protective insert" which looks to be some kind of heavy plastic. The organic wood and leather, and possibly the stitching, coupled with the inorganic metal bits would react differently to different conditions. The context I'm applying to all of the conditions described below is a dig--one logical place for these objects to be found--but the environmental conditions of the imaginary digs differ.

If found in Egypt, say at Abydos, it's likely that the metal parts of each would survive quite well, as would the leather, plastic, and the stitching around the holster.  The wooden handle, however, could succumb to the termite problem mentioned in the "What Survives" video. The desert conditions would probably make the leather holster less supple, but it shouldn't decay significantly. If an archaeologist had left the trowel and holster behind in Abydos, the termites would probably obliterate the handle while leaving the metal bits relatively unaffected. If the "protective insert" is made of plastic, that might become brittle and perhaps crack, but not disintegrate. Does plastic ever truly disintegrate?

If the trowel and holster were found at a dig in the Dallas area of north Texas, where I live, the environment is less stable, subject to extremes of drought and precipitation, tornadic activity, and floods.  The soil is typically dense clay, covering caliche (hardened calcium carbonate; Texas spent a significant part of its natural history under water). When it rains heavily, the soil gets saturated and dries slowly, but then hardens and cracks. These processes over time would probably drive the objects deeper into the soil than where they were deposited, and cause deterioration in the organic materials and rusting of the metal bits. My house is ninety years old, and periodically the garden produces bits of glass and metal, but never any organic materials.

The third environment I'd like to place my trowel and holster in is the Owens River Valley in California, where I was born.  It lies in the high desert between the Sierras and the Inyos, and most of the surface soil is decomposed granite overlying volcanic materials.  It is quite dry, and if the objects were to be found near the surface, the conditions might resemble those at Abydos. However, the area also lies above several fault lines, and the lower part of the valley consists of a large fault block which could disrupt the matrix significantly were a major earthquake to occur.  While it's unlikely that such an event would break the trowel, it might separate the handle from the metal--and it might move the artifacts lower into the more moisture laden substrate. An earthquake might also alter the course of the river and disrupt the Los Angeles aqueduct, adding much more water to the context than now exists.

Both of these artifacts are potentially quite durable. My own trowel, thirty years later, is a bit rusty, but the handle is still attached and the only apparent damage is to the tip, which has been broken off (at a dig in New Jersey) and worn smooth.  If I wanted to use it seriously, I'd have to have it resharpened.  The holster's durability would be the most in question, and depend more on environmental conditions than anything but the wooden handle of the trowel.

Further note: this essay drew positive comments, including one from another lapsed archaeologist who also uses his/her trowel for gardening. The photo was taken this morning with my iPhone--after I'd been doing a typological exercise (sorting through twelve years of detritus in the shed). I went out to look for the trowel, got involved in clearing out the shed and garage so we can convert the latter into a studio, and didn't find the trowel until five hours later, when I was too hot and tired to do any more excavating.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Exploiting Archaeology

For the next eight weeks, I'm participating in my first MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) through Coursera.  It's called "Archaeology's Dirty Little Secrets," and taught by Brown University archaeologist Sue Alcock.  The first week's material and assignments have done more to stimulate my little grey cells than almost anything I've done in the last year.  So: I've decided to post any writing assignments for the course here and (when appropriate) on The Owl of Athena--not just because I don't have much time to write these days, but because the fist assignment, at least, seems to fit right into the scope of the Cabinet; it's also about education, at least obliquely, so The Owl seems like another suitable venue.

Of the three available exercise topics for this week, I chose one called "Archaeological Expressions," which asks students to "Find one form of artistic expression (poetry, film, literature, trash fiction, music) that draws on archaeology and archaeological uses of the past" and write a reaction piece; Indiana Jones is proscribed, and I don't blame the course team for forcing us to think of something else.  I chose the original version of The Mummy, and here's my response:

The discovery and excavation of Tutankhamen’s tomb in the early 1920s, helped create a wave of Egyptomania in the United States and Britain. It probably acted as the midwife to the horror film genre as well, with all the media hype about curses, and the first Mummy movie, now a classic, was produced in 1932.  I use this film to open a discussion on popular perceptions of archaeology in my Intro to Humanities classes, and compare it to other films, such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, Stargate, and Tomb Raider. Film clips and a trailer are available on the Turner Classic Movies page, and a special edition DVD is available for anyone who’s never seen the film.

In the first segment of The Mummy, starring Boris Karloff in the title role, a brash young archaeologist, Norton, expresses impatience with Sir Joseph Whempel’s insistence on strict archaeological method (dealing with each find in the order in which it was uncovered,  etc.), noting that the only item that would earn the expedition any “medals from the British Museum” would be “that fellow over there.” Leaning against the wall is a casket, containing a rather robust linen-wrapped mummy.  There’s also a small chest, inscribed with a hieroglyphic message.

A sign over the tent reads, “British Museum Expedition 1921.” Members of the team include not only Sir Joseph, a renowned archaeologist, and his assistant, Norton (a newly-minted Ph.D.?), who can decipher hieroglyphic text, but also Professor Muller, an “expert in the occult sciences.” Muller himself interprets the inscription on the chest as a curse on anyone who opens it, and thinks it contains the “Scroll of Thoth, which can bring the dead back to life.” He proposes that they rebury both the sarcophagus and the chest, refusing to participate in “sacrilege.”

When Whempel and Muller (who discovers that the mummy has not been embalmed in the traditional manner, and that there are signs indicating a live burial) leave the room to discuss what to do next, Norton is left alone to piece together fragments of inscribed stone. But the young punk can’t resist the temptation, and withdraws the scroll—reading it aloud as he translates it. In a long, brilliant shot, the camera focuses on the mummy’s face, catching the gleam of an opening eye and the slow recovery of movement in its arms. Norton watches, incredulous, as the mummy awakens, takes the scroll, and leaves.  The scene ends as an hysterical Norton announces that the mummy “went for a little walk.” We later find out that he has died mad.

The film is well worth watching, especially for those who were under-impressed by the most recent remakes.  The clips available on the Turner Classic Movies web page include several telling moments that illustrate many of the presumptions Sue Alcock outlines in her first lecture: All real archaeologists want to find “goodies,” have to be lucky, and are white, male, and macho.

In later films like Raiders of the Lost Ark and its sequels, and Stargate, the archaeologist characters combine different aspects of those from The Mummy: brash, greedy daredevils or iconoclastic scholars. The earliest female version of this character I can think of (besides Marion Ravenwood) is Vash, who appeared in a couple of Star Trek franchise episodes.

Despite the stereotyping of archaeologists as tomb-plundering adventurers, it’s the archaeologist-as-occult-scientist aspect that’s done the most damage, I think.  Even as women like Lara Croft come into the picture, the emphasis of their explorations seems to focus on mysterious, supernatural forces as generators of all those important artifacts.

What these pop-culture, somewhat iconic figures do is to perpetuate the “our ancestors were dummies” perception which produces the consummately unscientific view that the aliens must have done it.

The unfortunate result of all this is that the movie-archaeologists engage in pseudoscience and suck in gullible youngsters already starved of solid science education.  Using these films to expose the myths and set the record straight may be a sleazy way of attracting attention, but if, like The Mummy, it provides a platform for discussion, perhaps the enjoyment we get from watching them is something of a reward for our diligence in promoting a healthier view of history.

I’d highly recommend The Mummy to anyone who teaches introductory archaeology, or who explores the impact of film on culture.  The first twenty minutes exposes a number of popular misconceptions, and offers a starting point for a more accurate exploration of archaeological method.

Image credit: The theatrical poster for The Mummy, via Wikipedia's article on the film.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Glass, Art, and Science

I guess posting once a year or so is better than not posting at all, but probably not much.  It's not that I don't ever think about Cabinet-appropriate things; in fact, stuff falls into my radar range fairly frequently, but I use the "I'm too busy" card, probably way too often.

Sometimes, though, something irresistible appears and lights a fire under my backside, as this video and article from the New York Times did this week: In Pursuit of an Underwater Menagerie.  It's about a new exhibit featuring glass models of marine creatures created by Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, and the curator's effort to locate living examples.

The nineteenth-century father-and-son team from Germany found the perfect way to produce models of transparent and translucent creatures. Traditional means (watercolor drawings, primarily, but also wax and other sculptural materials) lost some of the delicacy of sea creatures, but Leopold's "glass-spinning" technique (vulgarized in many a seaside tourist gift shop) allowed the Blaschkas to produce amazingly lifelike replicas.

The sheer (and the pun is intended), alien beauty of these creatures and their glass counterparts is nowhere more apparent than in the Times interactive feature, Glass Mirrors Life in the Seas.

Cornell University's Albert R. Mann Library houses the Cornell Collection of Blaschka Invertebrate Models, and its Gallery includes 34 pages of photographs (there's also a slideshow linked on the Gallery page).  The Wikipedia article on the Blaschkas is also helpful (and includes a few photos), if you've never heard of the pair before.

For more photos (differently mounted), see London's Natural History Museum page, and the National Museum of Wales.

The Blaschkas might actually be better known for their plant models, in the Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants at Harvard. For a nice history of the botanical models, see the Corning Museum of Glass video, The Story of Rudolf and Leopold Blaschka:

One wonders how much more interest children would show in the natural world if they were to be introduced to plants and animals through a combination of first-hand experience (when possible) and beautifully rendered visual works that capture the essence of the life-form.  I can only hope that the new Perot science museum in Dallas will try to mount an exhibit of the Blaschkas' work, and perhaps generate an interest in the relationship between art and science embodied by their glass models.

Image credit: Bougainvillea species, from the Zoological Museum of Strasbourg, photo by Ji-Elle via Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Happy Bicentennial, Mr. Dickens

This is quite the year for anniversaries, so I thought I'd start acknowledging them both on the Farm (when appropriate) and on the Cabinet--beginning with Charles Dickens's 200th birthday. Dickens worked and wrote tirelessly about the appalling social conditions in nineteenth-century England, and many of the causes he championed were the same ones William Morris embraced.

If I needed any prompting to remember the date, Google's Doodle for today provides a cute reminder, along with a linked Google search on Dickens (coming up with the Wikipedia article first, of course, followed by Google Books editions of his works; you can get a better list using "Charles Dickens"). But since I try to encourage inquiry beyond the obvious, I thought I'd link a few choice bits here for anyone inclined to celebrate.

During my otherwise largely misspent youth, I binged for some time on nineteenth-century English novels, especially those of Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, and Dickens. My interest paid off, because when a grad student in the English department at Penn needed someone to type his dissertation on Dickens's serial techniques, I got the gig, and gave him a deal: 50 cents a page. I loved doing it, and took away a much deeper understanding of the man and his work.

The Dickens oeuvre is massive (online versions of his works abound, but go to Project Gutenberg for a list that includes audiobooks (the link is to the "D" page; scroll down). Folks like me, who prefer hard copy, can find numerous editions at Half Price Books, and occasionally snag nice old copies with pretty covers, like my People's Editions from 1883. Marks inside the covers show I spent between 50 cents and a dollar for each. I bought a good acid-free copy of Our Mutual Friend in London, and should probably begin again to remedy lapses in my library.

This week's news outlets are packed with stories, and many tout his social views: against slavery, supportive of "fallen women," and especially his identification with the poor and downtrodden: The Guardian (on literacy), The Christian Science Monitor (on the 19th century 99%), but not, alas, the Daily Poop, which has noted only what others are doing. My favorite bit is from The Guardian: A Fiendishly Difficult Birthday Quiz, for the true aficionados. And no, I haven't taken it, nor would I do all that well if I did, having not read the man's work for forty years. But that copy of Our Mutual Friend I bought in 1971 is next on my list of bedtime reading.

Some of the absolute best sources on Dickens can be found on the web. My favorite is the official Dickens Museum site, and the Dickens Birthplace Museum in Portsmouth (a late, dear friend of mine was also born in Portsmouth, and loved this museum). The Morgan Library and Museum's online exhibit, Charles Dickens at 200, is spectacular. If you're in New York, you can visit it yourself--although it closes February 12.

Huge numbers of films have been made of the books, most of which I have refused to see because Dickens's plots and characters are far too complex for Hollywood not to mangle. The 1946 David Lean version of Great Expectations is the only exception I can think of (mainly because I saw it when I was young and, as yet, untutored in things Dickensian; the link is to the Criterion Collection edition, which is beautiful)--although my husband swears by the 1977 serial television production of Nicholas Nickleby. Perhaps on some dark and stormy night I'll relent and start collecting selected DVDs.

There was also a PBS biographical series on Dickens back in 2003. It's probably time to see if that's available, since his own life story is every bit as interesting as his fiction. Speaking of biographies, there's a relatively new one out by Michael Slater (2009), Charles Dickens: A Life Defined By Writing (Yale UP, 2009), which I haven't read but intend to get. Last November, David Gates reviewed two more in The New York Times (by Claire Tomalin and Robert Douglas-Fairhurst).

There are a number of good Dickens portraits available online (my favorite is the George Herbert Watkins photo that opens this post), in many media. A quick image search can locate dozens. But because Dickens was such an outspoken figure, he was frequently lampooned. The best of the caricatures is probably this one, by André Gill ("Dickens crosses the English Channel, carrying books from London to Paris" from the cover of the French newspaper, L'Eclipse. Gill was a prolific caricaturist, and many public figures relished being portrayed by him.

Not far from where I lived in Philadelphia, in one of the vest-pocket parks the city has sprinkled all over the urban environment, is this statue of Dickens and Little Nell, the heroine of The Old Curiosity Shop. I remember a lit prof once telling the class that ships passing one another while crossing the Atlantic as the book was appearing in serial form would call to one another, "Does Little Nell still live?" My, how things have changed.

I'll have to think of an appropriately Dickensian brew for the Beloved Spouse this evening, and raise a glass to a superb novelist with an admirable social conscience. He ought to be assigned reading for people running for political office.

Image credits: Photograph of Charles Dickens by George Herbert Watkins; albumen print, 1858. (National Portrait Gallery; also available on Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons. The photo of Clark Park's Dickens and Little Nell statue is by Bruce Anderson, via Wikimedia Commons. The Gill cartoon is from the Wikipedia Article on L'Eclipse.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

News, Newsreels, and Uncle News

For no particular reason, other than the fact that I'd been going through old photographs yesterday, it occurred to me to do a bit of research on an old family friend, Newsreel Wong.

Wong made a name for himself in the late '30s for a photograph he took (and possibly staged to some extent) of a baby on a Shanghai train platform.

What I didn't know was that he had been in New York City on July 28, 1945, when a disoriented pilot flew his Boeing B-25 Mitchell Bomber into the Empire State Building. Visiting the Hearst Metrotone offices early that morning, Newsreel Wong had been the only one in an office when the phone rang, and he answered it. He ended up commandeering a camera and headed to the site, where he was able not only to shoot the exterior of the building but got in to get film of the offices that were affected. The only other person who managed to gain access was Max Markman, who posed as a doctor, and shot the footage of the event included in this British Pathé newsreel.

A less dramatic version of the coverage can also be found on YouTube, but I thought this highly edited bit was interesting for its embellishments. Since I'll be teaching the Visual Anthropology course in the Fall, this could provide some talking points about the role of the observer in the interpretation of events, and the impact editing has on the reception of information.

I don't know what happened to Wong's footage (although I suspect that if it exists it's accessible through UCLA's archives), but locating this particular event during an innocent search for a character from my past (he was known to my brother and me as "Uncle News" and lived near us on Yang Ming Shan outside of Taipei) amounts to a bit of the kind of synchronicity we've been talking about in the Myth class. As the tenth anniversary of 9/11 nears, this incident resonates eerily with more recent events.

One of the best blogs about media history I've ever found on the web is Amanda Emily's Feeding the News Beast: A Century of Tales from Behind the Lens. Her post on this event is the source of much of my information, and one on Wong himself explains how he got his nickname. Digital Video and Photography students ought to bookmark her site, because it's an endlessly informative record of visual news coverage.

Note: I'm posting this entry on both the Cabinet and The Owls' Parliament, due to its potential interest for a variety of audiences.