Saturday, 31 March 2012

Remains of the Day

The Celtic Spiral

        What would you want to be sent off with you to the afterlife? What would others give you? What would it say about you? These were the questions I asked myself recently, when looking at burial goods in archaeology. The items that I would have included in my burial would be my Celtic spiral silver ring, the same design depicted above. It would demonstrate my Irish heritage, transition into the afterlife if there is one, and also my name, as it looks like an A. My hair would be drawn up in two hair pins at the side of my face, perhaps showing that I had long hair. Pearls at my neck to symbolize both my attachment to the water and my personal value. Chiffon and silk ruffled clothes would show my love of beautiful and feminine clothing. Sand from my home island would be scattered next to me, so that I would never be far from my first home. Preferably, I would want soil from my animal's graves placed with me, as I would want to be them in the afterlife (I love my animals, animals generally, and yes I believe that if people get an afterlife, so do they!). At my wrist I would wear a braided horsehair bracelet, made with my horse's hair, to represent my deep connection to her.
My Beloved Horse: Beauty
When I asked my mother what she would put in my burial, she clammed up and couldn't talk about it at first. Later, she suggested items that identified my passions, such as books of poetry, history, and mythology, rich textiles, reproductions of paintings, and a soft plushy toy cat that purrs (see love of animals professed earlier). We both chose red and pink roses petals with baby's breath and empress lilies, my favorite flowers, to be placed with me and planted around my burial, with a weeping willow, a tree whose grace I have always admired. My mother and I both decided to include elements that reflected my identity through my interests and preferences.

Repatriation Controversy

The Rosetta Stone (Williams, 2009)

       This week in our class we've discussed repatriation of remains and burial artifacts from museums and universities to descendant and culturally affiliated communities, as well as the controversy surrounding it. Should the remains stay in the hands of scientists in the hopes of future study and in museums where they can be used to educate and awe the public? The biggest concern for artifacts and remains, for me, is how they will be treated once returned. If the remains are reburied, will they be venerated and respected or merely forgotten? If put on display will there be protection and preservation of the remains and burial goods? This brings to mind the past attempt of the repatriation of the Rosetta stone by the Egyptian government in 2009 from the British Museum. The Rosetta Stone found its way into the British Museum through pillaging and warfare first of Egypt, by Napoleon, and later France, by the British. The ill gotten good is a well prized object in the British Museum's collection and they were unwilling to return it to Egypt, at the request of Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities and Deputy Minister of Culture, who wanted the stone returned to Egypt, as it represented Egyptian identity (Parchin, 2009). When I first heard about it in 2010, I was uneasy. While I understood why the Egyptians would want the stone back, with its illustrious history and national symbolism, I felt that the Egyptian government wasn't stable enough and their museums may not be able to adequately take care of and protect it, as my art history professor, at the time, had mentioned terrible conditions at the Museums of Cairo. The following year came round and thus the Arab spring began, toppling the Egyptian government and the raiding of museums commenced. I admit, I am glad that the Rosetta Stone, which could have been perceived as object of Egyptian unity under Mubarak, was not in Egypt to be symbolically destroyed by the revolutionaries. Therefore, when repatriation to other countries are considered, their political status should be taken into account, for the safety and protection of the remains. Repatriation should be considered if there is a strong sense of cultural and social unity among the requesting groups, but if there is not, the artifacts may not hold the same meaning and conflict could possibly arise. Though the importance of particular remains to collective global heritage, such as the iconic Rosetta Stone, further complicates repatriation.

Parchin, S. 2009. Egypt to ask British Museum to return Rossetta Stone. [online] Available from: <> [Accessed 30 March, 2012].

Williams, S. 2009. Is repatriation good for archaeology? Zahi Hawass' quest for Egypt's antiquities. [online] Available from: <> [Accessed 30 March, 2012].

Friday, 30 March 2012

Riddle of the Sphinx: Problems in Archaeology

The Sphinx's Riddle of Today: 
Sphinx in the Metropolitan Museum

With pointed fangs I sit in wait
With piercing force I dole out fate
Over bloodless victims proclaiming my might
Eternally joining in a singe bite
What am I?

What do you think? A vampire, perhaps? No, its a stapler!

      Archaeology appears to be quite similar to solving such riddles, as we are offered clues from which we hope to divine answers about the past. This little riddle demonstrates to me the problems associated with  archaeology, showing how different things may produce similar results or, in this case, attributes. The vampire and the stapler seem to be quite similar when described this way, without without an intrinsic knowledge of the context, and can be interpreted as completely different things. In my case, I placed my own interpretations and  experiences of  seeing movies, such as Dracula, into the riddle, to come up with the vampire answer, which was entirely different than a stapler. The same may happen in archaeology of the dead, as assumptions are made about the people of the past, based upon clues we find in their graves, yet if we don't know enough about the cultural context and do not take in account individual variability, we may arrive at conclusions which may not be accurate, as they may be biased, due to our own experiences and expectations.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

The Big Binge Pot and Greek Funerary Ritual

The Dipylon Krater, 750 BC (Greek art midterm, n.d.).

       The Greek Dipylon Krater, archaeologically recovered from a cemetery just outside of Athens, offers rare insight into elements of ritual that would not preserve in the archaeological record.  This large ceramic vessel, 4 feet tall, would have been used for mixing alcoholic beverages, to encourage the mourners to collectively drown their sorrows in a binge party and was possibly involved with offerings to the dead (Phaidon, 2007). I think that this sort of funerary drinking could possibly be to increase the state of liminality felt by the mourners, who have lost a high status member of their society, to help with the transition.  The painted depiction on the vessel shows the burial procession of a prestigious member of society. Processions of women are tearing at their hair, reminding me of professional keeners and wailing women of the Middle East. The depiction of women on the vase, demonstrates women's role were in the preparation of the dead and other funerary ritual.

        When I first saw this vase I was excited, finally some women are seen involved in death rituals. I feel that women are underrepresented and often dismissed in archaeology, as the field has been male dominated for so long and I myself still feel the engrained inclination to place more importance on the social roles of men. The male perspective and dominance in archaeology is slowly changing, however, and such prominent portrayals of important female roles on artifacts, as is depicted on the on the Dipylon Krater, may help. On this vase, women are depicted in prominence, demonstrating gender participation in funerary ritual that archaeologists would, most likely, have not been able to discover otherwise.

Detail of the Dipylon Krater (Art 198 - History of world ceramics, n.d.).
 In the above detail a high priestess, on the right, appears to be performing a ceremony waving a frond over the deceased's head, as well as the seated woman, to the left with a child, is thought being the deceased's wife (Art 198 - History of world ceramics, n.d.). This further shows how women were involved in ritual surrounding death in the past and supports my belief in their importance to transitioning the souls of the dead.
          Another part of culture that doesn't preserved well is also shown by the Dipylon Krater. Fabrics disintegrate for the most part and are not often found archaeologically, but on the Dipylon Krater there is an example of an intriguing textile. Above the deceased person is an intricate shroud, demonstrating what these peoples' textiles may have looked like, which rarely survives archaeologically.
      In its depiction real life activities relating to funerals, this ceramic vase offers incredible information regarding the most perishable elements of culture, such as ritual, women's participation, and fabrics, assisting archaeologists in piecing together a vision of what Greek life was like in the 8th century B.C..


 Art 198 - History of world ceramics, n.d. [online] Available from: <> [accessed 23 March, 2012].

Greek art midterm, n.d. [online] Available from: <> [accessed 23 March, 2012].

Phaidon, 2007. 30,000 years of art. New York: Phaidon Press Inc.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Queen Puabi - A Female 'King Tut'?

Queen Puabi's headdress, found at the Royal Tombs of Ur (Harms, 2000).

       Queen Puabi was a small woman, less than 5 feet tall, yet she is thought to have a high place of power in the Sumerian city of Ur, in present day Iraq, 2,600 BC, and whose burial is said to have even rivaled the discovery of King Tutankhamen tomb in Egypt (Harms, 2000). Queen Puabi's elaborate burial in the Royal Tombs at Ur held extensive and expensive artifacts, such as the beautifully worked gold pieces of her headdress, shown above, and gold vessels, shown below, as well as contained 21other individuals, presumed to have been sacrificed to accompany her into the afterlife. The sacrificed individuals, 5 guards, 4 grooms, and  12 other attendants, are also decked out in jewelry and appear to have taken part in an elaborate funerary feast just before their deaths (Harms, 2000).

  Gold vessels found in Queen Puabi's Tomb.  
   More about the Royal Tombs of Ur and Queen Puabi may be
 found in a video by the Pennsylvania Museum at the following link.

          Puabi's high status was established by the presence of such wealth, as well as the cylinder seal found in association with her grave (Parchin, 2010).  While archaeologists may use such titles as queen or princess to hype a particularly lavish tomb or burial and to convey the high status such wealth implies, this may not be an accurate assumption. The title of queen is established by the cylinder seal found with her, shown below, as it carries the words Pu-abi-nin, with nin interpreted as queen or lady.  This may not necessarily be a correct interpretation of  Puabi's social position, as she may also have been a high priestess in the cult of Inanna, though the two positions may not be exclusive to one or the other (Cylinder seal of Puabi, n.d.). If she is indeed a queen, the lack of mention of her husband's name on the cylinder seal may indicate that she was a queen which ruled in her own right (Parchin, 2010; Queen Puabi, n.d.).

Lapis lazuli cylinder seal, found in association with the tomb,
inscribed with the words Pu-abi nin (nin meaning queen or lady)
(Cylinder seal of Puabi, n.d.).

       Personally, I feel that the fact that archaeologists did not find evidence of Puabi's husband supports that she was a high priestess, rather than an independent queen. Being a priestess she would be recognized in her own right and may not have married. A high priestess would also hold a very high place in society, which would explain her lavish grave goods. Rethinking Puabi's designation as a queen makes me question archaeology's use of the terms of queen and king, princess and prince, which places our own perceptions and biases onto the roles these people carried out, as this may create erroneous visions of past cultures, placing our own experiences onto it.

The following is a video, by the  Pennsylvania Museum, of conservators reconstructing Queen Puabi's headdress and jewelry for display (Queen Puabi, n.d.).


Cylinder seal of Puabi, n.d. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 21 March 2012].

Harms, W., 2000. ‘Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur’ opens saturday. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 21 March 2012].

Parchin, S., 2010. Extreme makeover: Queen Puabi lecture at Penn Museum [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 21 March 2012].

Queen Puabi, n.d. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 21 March 2012].