Category: helen-atkinson - Part 2

Vacation in Varanasi: Seeing in the New Year in the Oldest City

Varanasi is the one of the oldest cities in the world, with deep roots in traditions such as the blessing of the sacred River Ganges. Image credit - Tim Atkinson.A trip to India with my photographer husband, Tim, found us celebrating the New Year in Varanasi, India. There’s actually almost nothing physically ancient in what claims to be the oldest continually inhabited city on earth. The city was once ruled by King Ashoka, but the Moguls, who invaded from the North and ruled India for nearly two hundred years ending 1707, made rubble of the place, and so you look in vain for anything built before the 18th century (although check out the ancient Dhamek Stupa – one of the few surviving ancient sites – if you visit).

However, that’s not really the point. What’s truly ancient here is the culture, and the rituals, and the feel of the place. Teeming multitudes of Indians (and a few rather out-of-place Westerners) stream into Varanasi looking for a spiritual fix – either cremating their dead at the burning ghats by the side of the Ganges and scattering their ashes in the river, or disposing of pre-burned ashes in the river, or washing away their sins in the river, or sending a blessing straight to heaven via the river.

It’s all about the river, as you may have guessed. The Ganges is itself a goddess, Ganga, and in mythology it flows straight to heaven. Further, if you die in Varanasi, or are burned and scattered into the river here, you are released from the cycle of birth and death that troubles human souls, and your spirit becomes part of the oneness of the universe.

What’s also timeless about Varanasi is the heat, noise, stench and hassle that happens when you cram way too many people into a small city with rubbish infrastructure. Add in a few cows, a large gaggle of stray dogs, a host of wild-eyed holy men (most are rumoured to be hucksters), and the hopes and beliefs of several hundred thousand out-of-towners, and you have a full-on spectacle. It’s not for everyone – and, frankly, for the first day or so, it wasn’t for me – but Varanasi turned out to be a memorable place to see in the New Year. Truthfully, it’s an ineffable place, so I’ll let the images do their work.

Why Did the Collapse of Old Europe Bring a Shift From Female to Male Power?

1 decembrie

The exhibition “The Lost World of Old Europe,” which opened in Nov. 2009 in New York, has raised some very interesting questions about prehistoric societies and how they changed. David Anthony, guest curator of the exhibition and a leading anthropologist specializing in prehistoric Europe, Eurasia, and North America, raised a particularly powerful issue – why did the collapse of a highly sophisticated, matriarchal culture in what is now Bulgaria, Romania, and Moldova, lead to a shift of power to men?

Women, after all, are naturally capable of running households, and should surely be running countries too. Think of our powerful, natural capabilities. We women tend to make the social arrangements, shop for food, raise children, keep the home in order, and generally deal with the practicalities of day-to-day life. Were also good at taking organization and decision-making a step up; arranging events, getting active in the local community, and networking. But when it comes to wielding political power, which is arguably simply another step or two up from managing the annual bake sale or housing co-operative, we fall down, spectacularly. Catalyst Inc., a not-for-profit organization that tracks such things recently reported that only 3% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. In the United States, arguably the country most pressured to act with a feminist bent, women make up a dismal 17% of Congress and the Senate. The maddening question is: why?

Some clues might come from the recent finds in Romania, Bulgaria, and Moldova that show a sophisticated society flourished there between 5,000BC and 3,500BC, most likely with women in charge. These matriarchal Old Europe communities, which grew into some of the biggest cities then in existence (some had 2,000 buildings), show signs of hierarchy, but had no large municipal buildings such as palaces or places of worship.

Archaeological digs there have found thousands upon thousands of clay female figures, apparently a sign that the female was worshipped, pretty much exclusively. Furthermore, experts such as David Anthony, Professor of Anthropology at Hartwick College,argue that women potters, in making vessels for domestic use, discovered copper, and brought the Copper Age into being.

So, it seems, women were at the top in one of the oldest civilizations in the world. What happened?

The Old Europe communities show signs of dramatic, sudden collapse, in the Southern regions around 4,300BC and in the North around 3,500BC. There is evidence of intrusion from the East by a nomadic culture from the Steppes of Eurasia. Its not entirely clear whether this was a violent invasion or a more subtle VHS-is-better-than-Betamax cultural shift, but it does seem to coincide, notably, with the invention of the wheel-and-axle combination that made it feasible to build load-bearing vehicles such as carts, and the domestication of horses to pull them. Basically what that meant, according to Anthony, is that you no longer needed a whole village of people to bring in the harvest, hand-carrying every armful to the grain store. You could do it with a cart, a horse, and family labour.

This, it seems, tempted people into spreading out from their cramped, dirty, conurbations and gave them the freedom to look with a pioneers longing at the huge expanses of grassland to the East. The wheel meant you could kiss your village goodbye, said Anthony, at a lecture delivered at New York Universitys Institute for Study of the Ancient World (ISAW) in New York, in December 2009.

What is certain is that the hugely concentrated urban settlements were abandoned, over a relatively short period of time, and the people went wandering off into the vastness of Eurasia to begin a whole new period of human history. And, now, men were the masters. Was there something about the huddling together of homes that gave women the upper hand? Were women the ones who brokered a sufficient peace between neighbours that made gathering the harvest, pre-axle, possible? Is there a correspondingly male advantage to grabbing your horse and your family and making it on your own, remote from others? If women were still in charge, would we have no castles or cathedrals, just row upon row of houses? I like to think that the men simply felt it was time someone else got a shot at running things, and used the changes in lifestyle to grab power. Lets face it, true power is almost never given: it is taken. Who knows what happened out there on the steppes.

Thats what I love about Old Europe, says Jennifer Chi, curator of the “Lost World of Old Europe” exhibition at ISAW. As long as you stay respectful of the undisputed facts turned up by archaeological artefacts, you can interpret it any way you want.

Brooklyn Museum Exhibition Reveals More Than the Sum of its Body Parts

Colossal Left Foot - Provenance unknown, Roman Period, 1st - 2nd century C.E. Image courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.I dropped my phone last week and it stopped working. As the daughter, sister, and wife of engineers, I generally regard most broken things as a challenge and I am quite often able to fix them, so I gathered tiny screwdrivers and a good light source and prised the handset open. Inside was a world mostly unknown to me, of miniature circuit boards, teeny candy-striped transistors, and delicate little welds. I identified the problem, but it was beyond repair, so I went out and bought another phone with a renewed respect for the intricacies inside the things we use every day.

Similar thinking lies behind the Body Parts: Ancient Egyptian Fragments and Amulets exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Arts truly breathtaking Ancient Egypt collection, which opened last month and runs until Oct. 2, 2011. Yekaterina Barbash, Assistant Curator of Egyptian Art at the Brooklyn Museum, explained to me that the idea behind gathering together 35 pieces of sculpture and funerary items a foot here, an eye there was that you can tell a lot about how something was made when its broken.

When I started working here at the museum a little less than two years ago. One of my first tasks was to explore the store room and familiarize myself with the collection, explains Barbash. As I was looking at the objects in storage I came across many beautiful fragments that had never been exhibited before. They caught my attention partly for their beauty and partly because when I looked at these fragments I began noticing details that one doesnt usually notice when looking at an entire sculpture – details that are often overlooked or not given enough importance. I thought that since I had this reaction, as an Egyptologist, museum visitors might appreciate seeing them.

Brooklyn’s Egypt Collection

The Brooklyn Museum has what my tour guide described as the third most significant collection of Egyptian artifacts in the U.S. the first and second being held at New Yorks Metropolitan Museum, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Its a shame, in a way, that you have to hike up to the third floor to see it. I confess that Ive been to the Museum many times, and never bothered to discover the Egyptian treasures there. Brooklyn truly has a very impressive collection, and the Body Parts exhibition forms a tiny part of it, in a single space about the size of the average living room. In fact, the Body Parts show is in danger of being completely overshadowed by the rest of the collection if you havent visited it before the painted mummy cases are some of the most extraordinary Ive ever seen. But dont be put off. The whole idea is to narrow your view and encourage you to look a lot closer.

Many museums try to exhibit as many objects as possible, which is very good and positive for the student or scholar in that any scholar can come and see any object, muses Barbash. But on the other hand, such exhibitions can be overwhelming, both to visitors and to scholars. So with this exhibition, as well as the more permanent galleries, we hope that visitors will get a better impression of Egyptian art and culture and come away with a good memory of what theyve seen.

Reportedly from Karnak, Egypt, New Kingdom, 1281-1277 B.C. XIX Dynasty, Reign of Ramesses II. Image courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.For example, there is an eye cut from crystalline limestone, obsidian, and blue glass that was once part of an anthropoid (human-shaped) coffin similar to the Museums famous Cartonnage of Nespanetjerenpere, currently on view in the permanent installation. Next to it is the bare-bones metal setting for such an eye, from a different anthropoid coffin. The sheer meticulous skill that went into this one detail of an object that was going to be buried in the ground is certainly striking. The broken stone surfaces on a headless kneeling statue of Khaemwaset, a son of Ramses II, shows the effort that must have gone into making the rough smooth as skin.

I would hope that visitors would get a better understanding of how ancient Egyptian art was made, how it was crafted. Looking at fragments of sculptures allows us better to see how a statue was created, says Barbash. For example, theres a small wooden foot with tenon on one side and peg on the top. In a complete statue, the tenon would be attached to the leg and the peg on the base, and they would be covered in gesso and painted, so we wouldnt see those tenons and pegs. But here were lucky enough to get an insight into the work of the artist. This is what I love about Egyptology, we occasionally get glimpses into real life and how it functioned.

The Changing Body of Egyptian Art

But Barbash wants visitors to see more than simply the exposed nature of materials and craftsmanship. The details on display here are often signs of the subtle progressions in Egyptian art through the centuries spanned by that apparently consistent culture.

Unfortunately, Ive noticed that many visitors who view Egyptian art assume that, because of the very strict canon that we all know about, the art didnt changed through the ages of Ancient Egypt, Barbash explains. But in fact, when their attention is focused on certain details and their attention is taken by the different materials and workmanship, we begin to realize that Egyptian art could be quite different; the body types could be quite different, and those differences can be appreciated.

There are several feet on display, for example, that show a noticeable progression both in rendition and materials from stone, to wood. Egyptian feet used to be shown in almost cartoonish outline, with the big toe always towards you, giving figures a slightly comical pair of two left, or two right feet, depending on which way they were facing. But this changed over time and the most recent foot, from the Roman era, is made of wood and scarily realistic.

Egypt, New Kingdom or later, 1539-30 B.C. Obsidian, crystalline limestone, blue glass. Image courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.Another, rather more complex notion that Barbash would like to communicate is the tension that existed in Ancient Egyptian mythology between the importance placed on the wholeness of the human body, and the fact that each body part had a separate deity and significance attached to it.

On the one hand the Egyptians clearly valued the significance of keeping the body intact, so in the religious and mortuary context, you have the whole thing of mummification and burial practices, where the Egyptians did everything to keep the body the way it is, explains Barbash.

But at the same time, we know that Egyptian mortuary texts talk about each part of the body separately, and associate it with a different deity. This is expressed in the hieroglyphs, which deconstruct the body in a mythological, semiotic way. In this ancient culture, a body of text was less metaphorical than it is in ours. Your name, made up of sacred symbolic parts, was as much you as your body, and had to be protected and revered. This is represented in the philosophy and religion of the entirety of Ancient Egypt, says Barbash. For Ancient Egyptians, there was a real connection between text and image. Hieroglyphs were believed to be gifts from the gods.

Barbash is working next on what she calls a slight reinstallation of the permanent Ancient Egypt collection. She intends to introduce a series of mummy bandages that contain texts and vignettes from the Book of the Dead. I think theyre adorable, says Barbash, proving once again that archaeologists and curators of the Ancient World typically have more enthusiasm for what they do than a whole office block of accountants. The vignettes are really beautifully done, but since theyre rather small, theyre cute. Theyre also very interesting from the scholarly point of view, because although most museums do have inscribed and decorated mummy bandages, most dont display them. So I think this will be a great opportunity to let the public and Egyptology scholars know about them.

The Brooklyn Museum continues to shine as an example of an institution where there is constant, thoughtful, intelligent motion going on behind the scenes that benefits the visitor with the endless series of story slants that is necessary to do justice to a grand old civilization.

Body Parts: Ancient Egyptian Fragments and Amulets is at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Thursday 19 November 2009 to Sunday 2 October 2011.

Astonishing News From Bulgaria – Women Fired Up Copper Age

Female Figurine - 5000–4600 bcWomen invented metallurgy! This extraordinary revelation was made in a lecture last night at New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (which has an unfortune acronym pronounced eyesore) by David Anthony, Professor of Anthropology at Hartwick College and Guest Curator of the exhibition currently on view at ISAW until April 25, 2010: “The Lost World of Old Europe: The Danube Valley, 5000-3500 BC.”

In his talk, entitled “The Rise and Fall of Old Europe,” Anthony delved into the mysteries of the highly sophisticated and populous culture that sprang up 7,000 years ago along the banks of the Danube in Southeastern Europe, in what is now Bulgaria, Romania, and Moldova, artefacts from which are on display at the exhibition. This discovery, which was really only made in the middle of the last century, set the historical and archaeological world on its heels, because it turns out the Europeans were conducting a highly sophisticated lifestyle before even the Ancient Egyptians got going. “If an alien landed on earth in 5,000 BC, he’d probably have chosen Europe over Mesopotamia,” said Anthony.

I’ll be writing about the exhibition and its implications at greater length next week, but I wanted first to share with you how exciting it was to hear that this Old European culture was one that, apparently, substantially empowered women, and included a great deal of goddess worship. Archaeologists allowed in since the fall of the Iron Curtain have dug up thousands of big-hipped, busty female figurines.

“We think of metal work as being done by some big, sweaty, hairy male smithy. It turns out it wasn’t the case here.”

And then there’s the female contribution to, like, actually starting the Copper Age. Basically, Anthony explained, the elaborately beautiful pottery archaeologists have found in the Old Europe sites were mostly for domestic use, not trade. That means they would have been made predominantly by women, since, historically, it is the female hand that tends to craft vessels meant for the home in the Ancient World. Messing around with stuff that might have good pigment in it would have lead them to put ground up blue- and green-flecked stone in their kilns. Lo and behold, they ended up smelting copper, which would have puddled in the bottom of the ovens.

They must have asked: “What’s this?” They started turning up the heat and casting it into axe heads and jewellry. And so began the Copper Age. Then they started melting down shed-loads of gold, some of which ended up being the Varna Gold. “We think of metal work as being done by some big, sweaty, hairy male smithy,” said Anthony. “It turns out it wasn’t the case here.”

I’m truly surprised.

More next week.

Ashmolean’s New Block is Bright and Welcoming

I got a jump on the Queen of England the other day, and visited the newly-opened wing of the Ashmolean Museum of Art & Archaeology in Oxford a full week before she officially opens it Dec. 2. My parents live in Oxford, and I was visiting them unexpectedly (death in my husband’s family). They had tried to visit the Museum at the weekend, but queues that snaked round the block drove them back, so my father and I took a secondwalk over there on a quieter Wed. afternoonto see what all the fuss was about.

First off, I should confess that I haven’t set foot in the hallowed halls of the Ashmolean since my days as a dipsomaniac undergraduate at St. Edmund Hall, when the prospect of wandering around looking at a lot of dead old things was usually trumped heartily by the prospect of going to the pub. Walking in all anew 25 years later, I have to confess that the old parts of the museum seemed little more attractive to my more sober journalistic eye than they did then. My father and I agreed it all seemed a bit sombre.

The new wing, however, is a delight – brightly, beautifully lit, with elegantly beige walls and lots of raw wood on the floors, doors, benches, cabinets and so on. It has the aesthetic of a really upscale Japanese restaurant, which makes it welcoming and – most importantly for me – less draining on the energy reserves. I don’t know about you, but I find walking at museum-pace around vast echoing halls of marble, peering with polite interest into one glass cabinet after another to be tolerable only for an hour or so. Then a heaviness seems to gather in my lumbar region and I begin scanning for exit signs. I can’t be the only person who suffers from Museum Fatigue, because most modern or newly-renovated museums, such as this one, have a perfectly splendid cafe, restaurant, or bar tucked away somewhere. The Ashmolean is no exception and has a surprisingly swish combination of all three on the top floor, with a spectacular roof terrace attached that will be really useful in, err, oh, Oxford’s notional Spring and Summer or the odd day in February when it’s actually quite warm and sunny.

In any case, the energy drain is also ameliorated by the interactive stuff in the lovely basement area, which houses the conservation section. This is a new trend in museums – to let you look behind the curtain, as it were, and show you what the experts do all day. They haven’t gotten it quite right, but it’s a good try. A “touching” station invites you to touch various materials to show how even an innocent fingerprint can wear away stone and metal over time. But an impressively large digital display above the materials presented for touching merely measures how many times that piece has been touched since the wing opened. It would be much more interesting if you were shown an image of the oils your touch had left, or the change in acidity or conductivity, say. Other areas invite you to rearrange hieroglyphic-type symbols but don’t show you realEgyptian ones, which seems a shame. However, I don’t want to be too negative here. The new wing is a huge, huge improvement, and there’s a real sense of breaking the museum equivalent of the fourth wall referred to in theatre, when the actors interact with the audience. This is all to be applauded.

In particular, I admired the way that many of the displays are about people rather than things. Archaeology is full of flamboyantly odd characters, and it’s great to meet some of them here, including Arthur Evans, who gave us the Minoans in all their bull-jumping glory; and Sir John Myres, who was big on Cyprus. We even get a glancing reference to Agatha Christie, who cleaned ivories from Nimrud with her face cream and declared the delicate and wrong-headed task “thrilling”!

Youth carrying a ramThe textiles are many, and colourful; the huge collection of ceramics on the second floor simply breathtaking. But my absolute favourite thing was in the basement. It was a reproduction of a statue of Augustus, painted as it might have been in Roman times, with gaudy blues and oranges. He looked like the gaudy symbol of power the citizen of Rome would have really looked up to.It’s one of my personal bugbears that statues and templesfrom Ancient Greece and Rome are presented in their denuded state of white marble and plaster. As a child, I believed our forefathers were terribly austere, and drifted around in an environment of towering, cold, whiteness. This, of course, is nonsense, but I bet most children (let alone adults) still labour under this misapprehension. If the new wing at the Ashmolean has done one worthwhile thing, it has gone some way to exploding this ridiculous myth that those who came before us weren’t just as tacky as we are.

Interview: Barbara Racker on Neighbourly Relations Between Nubia and Egypt

Several artefacts in the exhibition originate from Meroe, Sudan. Image Credit - Grete Howard.The Nubians get short shrift when it comes to recognition of significant ancient cultures. A new exhibition at the Clay Center in West Virginia, US, hopes to rectify that. It is cleverly entitled: Lost Kingdoms of the Nile, but the artefacts are all Nubian, not Egyptian. (The subtitle is: Nubian Treasures from the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.) The exhibition runs from Sept. 12, 2009 to April 11, 2010.

Part of the problem for the Nubians, of course, is the rock-star quality of their neighbors, the Ancient Egyptians, who persistently dominate the imaginative landscape when it comes to ancient things. Most of us have to wrack our brains to make the distinction. Nubians have been ignored until recently, said Barbara Racker, Curator at the Clay Center. There was a major exhibition in 1976, and then the Museum of Fine Arts Boston opened a gallery dedicated to Nubian culture in the early 1990s, but it was subsequently closed to make space for other collections.

TheEgyptians and the Nubians

So, whats the difference? Heres the deal: Nubia was a Nile River-based culture, but further up the Nile from Egypt, deeper into Africa, stretching from Aswan to Khartoum in what is now Sudan. They had gold, which was an advantage over the neighboring Egyptians, but they also had cataracts six major rapids in the Nile which meant the river did not form the extraordinary highway that enabled the easy growth of trade and cultural exchange that it did in Ancient Egypt. The first phases of Nubian culture, named A-Group and C-Group by George Reisner, stretches from 3100 BC to 1500 BC and became much more powerful in subsequent periods – Kerma, Napatan and Meroitic. A treaty with the Romans around 23 BC allowed the Nubians to outlast the Egyptians, as Racker likes to point out. The Nubian civilization was impressive through the Meroitic period which ended about 350 AD.

Map of the Nubia region.Until three decades ago, Nubians were considered lesser than Egyptians, says Racker. But weve a lot to learn, still. What we do know is that Nubia had a troubled relationship with Egypt; often enemies, sometimes slaves, at one point even united into a single Kingdom. Because Nubians were superior bowmen, they were often used as protectors for Egyptian royalty. But this is ironic, Racker points out, since Nubians invented the concept of kingship. They made fabulous pottery a thousand years before their neighbors to the north , and they were superior engineers, too, discovering the importance of leverage before the Egyptians, allowing them to make much steeper, although smaller, pyramids.

But they admired the Egyptians greatly, says Racker. When Nubia took over and ruled the whole of Egypt and Nubia for 60 years during the 25th Dynasty (760-656 BC), it was to the Egyptian past that they turned for inspiration. They wanted to recreate the glory and grandeur of the former Egypt, explains Racker. So it was really a renaissance culture.

The Exhibition of Nubian Culture

The exhibition, which contains 200 artefacts and a great deal of interpretative material, is mostly from the collection at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, including objects from the royal tombs of el Kurru, Nuri, and Mero which date from the Prehistoric Period to the Roman era (3100 BC to 246 AD). Sculpture, stone relief elements, gold and silver jewelry, ceramic and alabaster vessels, and other items illustrate ancient Nubian art, funerary customs, warfare, and daily life, uncovering the rich and diverse aspects of one of the worlds great, yet often overlooked civilizations. The highlight of the show is not from Boston, but from the Michael C. Carlos Museum in Atlanta, Georgia, which has loaned the Coffin of Neskashuti, (Dynasty 25, 760-656 BC). This colorful coffin belonged to a priest (Divine Father of Min) named Neskashuti. The broad facial features and sculptural design are typical of coffins of the Nubian Dynasty, which Racker points out is a true black African culture, unlike the Ancient Egyptian one. Until the mid-20th century, many historians didnt accept that Nubians leaders were black because the civilization was too sophisticated, says Racker. Even the eminent archaeologist, George Reisner, didnt understand this; he believed that Nubia kings were light-skinned Egypto-Libyans.

The Pyramids of Nuri, Northern Sudan. Image Credit - Vt Hassan.The aim of this exhibition, explains Racker, is to give the visitor a better understanding of Nubian culture, and to see that its not lesser to Egypt. They adopted customs and art from Egypt but were different in a lot of ways.

Even more exciting, there are traces of Nubian culture alive today, especially in music, which is played at the exhibition. Visitors are treated to tracks from modern-day musicians including Mahmoud Fadl, Hamza-El-Din, and Ali Hassan Kuban.

The 5,000 sq. ft. exhibition is laid out chronologically in 36 cases, some of them very large. The last part features artifacts from the Adena culture in West Virginia, which is one of the oldest in North America, running from 1,000 BC to 1 AD. It includes tools, a clay pipe and copper jewelry and, for Racker, is a great way to bring visitors back to the ancient history of the land in which theyre viewing these extraordinary evidences of an important culture far away in time and space.

Customs Officials Return Looted Treasure to Afghanistan

NecklaceWhile the fate of Afghanistan as a military project for the United States continues to hang in the balance today, as President Barack Obama mulls whether to deploy 40,000 more troops in this “graveyard of empires,” there was a rare piece of good news from Kabul: Hundreds of looted artefacts are back where they belong, in the National Museum, Kabul.

You may remember that Afghanistan has managed to distinguish itself by managing to hold onto a huge portion of its cultural and artistic heritage in the form of artefacts dating back as far as 2,000 BC. It’s a wonderful tale of derring do, with secretive “keyholders” squirreling away great hoards of gold, pottery, jewellry and goodness knows what while the country roiled under one bloody thing after another.

The slightly less high-profile story has been about Afghan museum officials and archaeologists being tipped off, from time to time, by various national Customs officials that there’s a shipment coming through a faraway port that looks suspiciously like it belongs in Afghanistan. Both Omar Khan Massoudi, director of the National Museum, Kabul, and Fred Hiebert, curator of the recent Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul, which has just finished touring the US and is heading for Europe, have been summoned on such missions. Many of them have involved UKCustoms, since that nation seems to act as a hub for traffic in illegally procured ancient goodies.

I think it’s amazing that Customs officials are so conscientious, and have an eye for such things. My own experience of having my luggage inspected has been pretty dismal. One one ocassion, when Iwas coming back into the US from Mexico, a Customs official at Miami airport asked me to open my bag and almost immediately jumped back in revulsion. “Ugh!” he said. “Is that… coffee?” It was, indeed. “I can’t stand the smell of coffee,” he said, waving my

Hundreds of looted artefacts are back where they belong, in the National Museum.

suitcase through and gesturing for me to proceed on my way. I didn’t feel like pointing it out to him at the time, but ground coffee is one of the classic substances used for masking the aroma of smuggled drugs. Another dismal experience was in the early post-9/11 days, when Iaccidentally took a credit-card sized multi-tool in my hand luggage, only to have it confiscated at the airport security checkpoint. The last Isaw of this very useful item, it was being proudly displayed by the security official who’d taken it from me, as he showed it off to his colleagues like a kid with a new toy.

Clearly, the Customs guys who get on the blower to Massoudi or Hiebert are in a different class entirely. Hiebert told me in a recent interview that he was sent by Massoudi recently to rescue

some 1,500 Afghan artefacts, weighing more than 3.5 tons, from the Customs pound at London’s Heathrow Airport, that were on their way to the private market. Some of them went back to the Bronze age. National Geographic, for whom Hiebert works, funded the investigation and repatration, and now some of them, at least, are on display in Kabul at last.

It’s a good reminder that ordinary people are perfectly capable of recognizing and appreciating objects of historical and artistic significance, and that it’s the job of all of us to keep our eyes peeled for those little wormholes that open in unscrupulous private collections that swallow up forever the artefacts that really, in the end, belong to all of us.

Tonight’s Lecture… the Oldest City in the Americas

5000 year-old ruins, Caral

I’m so excited! I’m going to a lecture held by the Archaeological Institute tonight in New York City, that promises to be very interesting. It’s about the city of Caral in Peru, which many experts now believe is the oldest city in the Americas, dating back as far as 2,600 BC. It will include information about nearby and equally ancient Cardal.

Tomorrow, I’m interviewing the presenter, Richard Burger, and will report back to HK with plenty of details about this mysterious ancient city. In the meantime, if there’s anything in particular you’d like me to ask him, let me know in the comments box below.

Ceramics only started being produced in the Americas in 1800 to 1600 BC, making the lack of them at Caral a controversial indication that the civilization there is older, and blowing the so-called “maritime theory” that civilization in that area started on the coast and didn’t move inland til much later right out of the water. There are plenty of traces of drugs and aphrodisiacs at the site, but no evidence of weapons or warfare, suggesting that Caral was a pretty civilized place to live compared to some other ancient locations.

See below for details:

From Caral to Cardal: Adventures in Early Peruvian Civilization

by Richard Burger, world-renowned expert on Peruvian archaeology, Professor of Anthropology, Yale University, and Director of Excavations at Cardal.

Thursday, 24 September 2009
6:30 9:30 PM | The Penn Club
30 West 44th Street at Fifth Avenue
New York, NY

The lecture will be followed by a special presentation of photographs from Christopher Kleihege, co-author of Caral: The First Civilization in the Americas, and by a reception featuring Peruvian specialties.

Call the Cops! Naked Woman Arrested for Art Stunt at the Met

Although it seems that museums no longer have any kind of dress code these days, a young woman recently fell foul of the requirement to at least be wearing, like, something. A story in the UK’s Guardian newspaper tells the tale of woe of Kathleen “KC” Neill, who was arrested and charged with public lewdness for posing nude for photographer Zach Hyman in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Hyman is making a collection of photographs of nudity in New York’s public spaces (check out images of gob-smacked commuters gazing at gorgeous naked models on the New York subway, captured by photographer Clint Spauling).

Iknow New York has the reputation for crazies, but for precisely this reason, this project seems to lack thrill factor, which is probably why it didn’t make much of a stir in the local press here in New York. I’ve seen two men in full armour fighting with broadswords on the sidewalk in Union Square at one o’clock in the morning; my local bookshop for a while displayed in its window a photo book whose cover depicted a woman with a lighted candle sticking out of her rectum; there was a guy who used to regularly walk around the East Village with a 20-foot boa constrictor round his neck. Putting a nude in a public space is pretty mild stuff, although Iam tempted to ask: where did she put that little metal button that visitors to the Met have to display at all times?

Frankly, it smells of publicity stunt to me. And, oh, look! Sure enough, Mr. Hyman’s photographs are on display this week at “Decent Exposures,” at Chair and the Maiden Gallery on Christopher Street in New York’s Greenwich Village, Sept.03-Oct. 04. Sadly, you will not be able to see the one taken in the Met. Hyman says the museum staff took his camera away for ten minutes, then he had to give his camera and backpack to his brother while he went down to police station, and somehow either deliberately or in the confusion, the film became exposed.

When Ilook at his photograph of a spectacularly leggy and fit naked woman on a crowded New York subway train, I feel sorry for the passengers. Who wants to be reminded of their own physical imperfections during the morning commute? If I want to admire the human form, I’ll go… well, I suppose I’ll go to an art gallery.

Meanwhile, you can vote on whether all this skin constitutes art or not at the Weekly World News site here.

Images courtesy of

Finding body parts in Brooklyn is news? It is when they’re this old!

Finger Stalls from King Tutankhamun's Tomb. Image Credit - Sandro Vannini.Those of you who just can’t get enough of the Ancient Egyptians and their obsessive-compulsive burial rituals are in for a treat at the Brooklyn Museum when it opens its exhbition, Body Parts: Ancient Egyptian Fragments and Amulets, this November.

The Museum announced:”Body Parts features thirty-five objects that represent individual body parts in ancient Egyptian art from the Brooklyn Museums collection, many of which will be displayed for the first time. While traditional exhibitions of ancient art focus on reconstructing damaged works, this exhibition uses fragmentary objects to illuminate the very realistic depiction of individual body parts in canonical Egyptian sculpture. The ancient Egyptians carefully depicted each part of the human body, respecting the significance of every detail. When viewed individually these sculptures and fragments reveal ancient notions of the body, as well as details of workmanship, frequently unnoticed in more complete sculptures.

This exhibition is organized by Yekaterina Barbash, Assistant Curator of Egyptian Art, Brooklyn Museum.

The Brooklyn Museum is often portrayed as poor relation to Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum of Art… but the truth is it’s more like a funky younger brother.

The Brooklyn Museum is often portrayed as poor relation to Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, across the East River, but the truth is it’s more like a funky younger brother, or even black-sheep niece. When the Saatchis brought the controversial “Sensation” exhibition to New York City, it was at the Brooklyn Museum that it found a home, not the more staid institutions in Manhattan.

The Brooklyn Museum has an impressive collection of Ancient Egyptian stuff, and a cheering propensity to, like, really do things to make the collection constantly fresh and interesting. At present, they are showing, “Magic in Ancient Egypt: Image, Word, and Reality,” which runs through Oct. 18. What more excuse do you need for a visit?

Check out Two Boots Pizza in Park Slope, afterwards, for food good and cheap enough to bring you back from the dead.