Wednesday, June 25

So You Wanna Be an Egyptologist?

I recently stumbled across a video on YouTube featuring Kara. It was originally a part of a Discovery Channel special on "cool jobs." Obviously, they weren't necessarily featuring "cool jobs" at which you can make a decent living. :-) Here's the video:

They edited the video to make it look very daring and alluring (despite Kara's disclaimers), but Egyptologists Eugene Cruz-Uribe and Nigel Strudwick have a simpler, more realistic assessment posted on this page of FAQ's about how to be an Egyptologist:

"If you are looking into Egyptology to get rich, forget it. It won’t happen. If on the other hand you are passionate about Egyptology and are willing to work long years to finish the program with only small chances of getting a full time job at a University, then by all means follow your passion."

Follow your passion is excellent advice--and if your journey turns out to be anything like mine, you'll find that it leads to some very unexpected and unforgettable places.

Tuesday, June 24

Lunch @ Johnnie's

Me and some of my LACMA peeps hangin' at Johnnie's!

Saturday, June 21

Greco-Roman Egypt at the Villa

For all of you in the L.A. area who may also have an interest in ancient Egypt, head's up: This July I'm giving a three-hour course on religion in Greco-Roman Egypt and there are spaces still available. Spread the word to those you know who might be interested. Here's the course description:

Religion in Greco-Roman Egypt, Wednesday July 23, 2008, 1 pm - 4 pm, Meeting Rooms, Getty Villa. Explore the religious milieu of Greco-Roman Egypt in this three-hour gallery course. An illustrated lecture by gallery teacher and Egyptian scholar Amber Wells precedes a tour of the galleries, where Museum objects help to explain and illuminate the religious beliefs of this fascinating period of Egyptian history. Course fee $20.

Interested parties can sign up online at this link. Just scroll down the page until you see the listing and click the "make a reservation" button.

Friday, June 20

Summertime Blues

I remember fondly a time when I used to actually look forward to the summer. How time changes things. This summer all I can think about is working my way through the summer to get to the fall. We just lost another teacher at the museum (effectively cutting the teaching staff in half), so until we hire two more, overtime has been the name of the game. And here I thought I was done with "overtime" when I left my old summer job at the factory. No such luck! Anyhow, it's going to be a busy couple of months. I have a public course I'm supposed to be giving next month on religion in Greco-Roman Egypt and no time to prepare for it the way I want to because at the moment there's just two teachers to cover the museum programming. Plus, we're interviewing several candidates for those vacant positions, which takes time away from my research as well. Oh, well. I suppose the summer will speed by soon enough. I should just take consolation in the fact that summertime means no school groups from about the last week in June until October. As it is, I'm mostly looking forward to August and my next trip home. (It will, unbelievably, be my first time home since last September. I hope this is the last time that kind of lengthy gap comes between visits home.)

Really, not much aside from work is going on right now. Eric has this week off and as this quarter wrapped up he's now in a position to advance to the next stage--that is, doctoral exams and candidacy. By the time the new academic year starts in the fall, he should be beginning to form a timeline to finishing his doctorate. I have every confidence that UCLA's new assistant professor of Egyptology, Dr. Kara Cooney (congrats, Kara!), will push him to finish in a timely manner. I am, of course, also prepared to offer the proper encouragement. (Note to self: find cattle prod.)

Back to my thoughts on summer: One thing that hasn't changed about the way I think about summer is the idea of summer reading. I'm a voracious reader anyway, and summer used to mean unlimited time to immerse myself in adventure and mystery tales spun by my favorite authors. Naturally, these days "unlimited" doesn't necessarily describe my time accurately, but I still manage to make it through a stack of books during the summer months--even if it means late nights caught up in the story, reading until my weary, bloodshot eyes give in to sleep. So, in honor of the tradition of summer reading, I'm planning to put up a couple of posts about my favorite authors and genres in the coming weeks. My summer reading list is still in it's early stages, so if you have any suggestions for good books, leave a comment or email me...

Monday, June 16

Batter'd Brains and Mingled Gore

Some of you more loyal readers of this blog may recall a while back a post called, “Cyclops Takes a Stake to the Eye,” in which I mentioned the Villa’s monthly “Spotlight” object. That is, each month a different object is featured in a daily 15-20 minute “Spotlight talk.” At the time I had meant to put up a post each month of the new featured Spotlight, but as with many things, time gets away from you. (Or, also very likely, I found something else to write about.) But this month’s Spotlight object is a special one for me. It is a mosaic floor section referred to as, “Mosaic Floor with a Boxing Scene.” This mosaic is the object I was asked to present on in my teaching demo during my day-long interview for this job. Naturally, if you’re going to hire someone to teach and interact with the public, you want to see what they can do before you hire them. So this was the object that I had to think about, consider from a visitor’s perspective, and present in an original and interesting way to members of the Education department (who were pretending to be “average” visitors). A bit nerve-wracking, but then most interviews are. Some of the teachers here aren’t all that fond of my boxers mosaic, but I think it’s very easy to talk about with people.

The mosaic is a section of a larger floor from a Roman villa (i.e. the summer home of the very wealthy). These floors, composed from small squared stones arranged with time and skill to compose the overall scene, have always impressed me. Time and skill equal money, so they must have been pretty expensive to have made! It depicts a rather obscure scene from Book V of the Aeneid, an epic poem written by the author Virgil for the entertainment of Caesar Augustus. The two men are Entellus (at the left) and Dares (at the right). As the story goes:

Aeneas, the main character of Virgil’s epic, is holding gladiatorial games in honor of the memory of his father. One of the competitions is a boxing match, and as a prize Aeneas is offering “a bull with guilded horns, and fillets tied.” At this announcement, “haughty Dares in the lists appears.” Dares is young and arrogant and already famous for his athletic deeds.

His brawny back and ample breast he shows,

His lifted arms around his head he throws,

And deals in whistling air his empty blows.

To Dares’ delight, no one in the huge crowd dares to stand up and fight him. Presuming a lack of a challenger means his victory by default, “with sparkling eyes” Dares boldly rushes up, grabs the bull’s horns, and shouts,

If none my matchless valor dares oppose…

Permit me, chief, permit without delay,

To lead this uncontended gift away.

The crowd is all for just handing the prize over to the famous Dares, but Entellus, “once…a champion of renown” but now old and well past his glory days (think Rocky Balboa—in the last movie), is in the crowd and his friends demand he take up the challenge and teach this arrogant young kid a lesson. Finally Entellus, although decrepit with age, defies Dares and casts his boxing gloves down before the crowd, signaling his challenge. Virgil describes Entellus’s gloves as

…gloves of death, with sev’n distinguish’d folds

Of tough bull hides; the space within is spread

With iron, or with loads of heavy lead…

Still mark’d with batter’d brains and mingled gore.

It is true that the Romans sometimes embedded metal in their leather boxing gloves in order to better bloody their opponent. The battered brains and mingled gore was just a bonus—and even Dares feels afraid when he sees these gloves Entellus has worn in so many matches, crushing opponents. And so the fight begins.

During much of the fight the two are well-matched, although Entellus is the bulkier of the two and doesn’t move as agilely as Dares. Still, Entellus eventually begins to feel his age and at one point Dares is able to get in a mighty sucker punch, spinning Entellus around and knocking him to the ground. Virgil describes Entellus’s fall as being like the fall of “a hollow pine, that long had stood.” Of course, being a former champion, Entellus doesn’t lack a competitive spirit. When he gets up shame and fury fuel him and “with redoubled force his foe he press’d.” That is, Entellus gets up and pummels the crap out of Dares and Aeneas is forced to call the fight in favor of Entellus because he fears Dares will be beaten to death. As he drags himself from the ring, Dares asks Entellus from where the sudden strength that seized him came. “The gods,” Entellus replies. “’Tis madness to contend with strength divine.” By his victory Entellus believes the gods have favored him, and it’s useless for Dares to think he could overcome divine will.

So Dares’ friends carry him away, bleeding and broken, and Entellus steps up to claim the bull for his prize.

And, on his ample forehead aiming full,

The deadly stroke, descending, pierc’d the skull.

Down drops the beast, nor needs a second wound,

But sprawls in pangs of death, and spurns the ground.

By crushing in the skull of the bull with his fist, Entellus kills it and thus sacrifices it to the gods in thanks for their favor and his victory. And believe me, this would have been quite a sacrifice—that bull was a very valuable prize. You know how Eli Manning got a Cadillac Escalade for winning the Super Bowl? Well, this bull was an ancient equivalent of Eli’s Cadillac Escalade, so it means something that Entellus didn’t hesitate to sacrifice it to the gods. This final scene of the story is what is depicted on the mosaic floor at the Villa. It’s a rather obscure part of Virgil’s epic poem, but a good one nonetheless: Age and experience versus youth and arrogance. And who can resist the idea of the insolent Dares getting what was coming to him?

Another interesting fact about this mosaic is that it comes from southern France, which during the Roman period was an outpost of the Roman empire. Archaeologically speaking, we don’t see representations of the Entellus/Dares storyline in any mosaics outside of this area of southern France. This leads to all sorts of theories—was there a local workshop that specialized in this scene? Did a local patron favor the story because he liked boxing or was a former boxer? It’s anyone’s guess as to why this scene was popular in such a localized area. But it definitely demonstrates that wherever the Romans went they spread their culture and literature even to the ends of the empire.

When I talk to people about this mosaic, I try to get them to think what it was about the story of Dares and Entellus that might have appealed to the owner of the villa where it was found. Maybe the owner was simply trying to demonstrate his appreciation and knowledge of a work of high literature in Roman culture. Most people in the ancient world couldn’t read, so those who could were invariably of a high social status. Or, maybe the owner liked the “moral” of the story, which warns against out of control pride and hubris. Maybe he liked the reminder that victors win with the favor of the gods and that honorable victors honor the gods for their favor, as Entellus did by sacrificing the bull. Who knows? Any idea is as good as another since we’re unlikely to ever hear from the owner himself as to why he chose this subject.

As I tell museum visitors, hopefully now you can see this mosaic as less of a decorative floor and more as a meeting place of two art forms—the literary, in the story of the Aeneid, and the physical, through the mosaic composition itself.

Tuesday, June 10

A Force of History

I recently read a thought provoking article by Robert Darnton of the New York Review of Books. Basically he's discussing the issue of books going digital and the pros and cons of this process as well as the fact that books have been a force of history since the development of writing. As convenient as a digitized library sounds, in my mind nothing, no matter how fancy the technology, will ever replace the look, feel, smell and overall experience of reading a book. The discussion on digitizing books is interesting to me, but I love thinking of history in broad strokes, and one paragraph in the article really got my attention:

"When strung out in this manner, the pace of change seems breathtaking: from writing to the codex, 4,300 years; from the codex to movable type, 1,150 years; from movable type to the Internet, 524 years; from the Internet to search engines, nineteen years; from search engines to Google's algorithmic relevance ranking, seven years; and who knows what is just around the corner or coming out the pipeline?"

When you lay it all out like that, it certainly makes you think. As rapidly as things are progressing, I guess we should be expecting the next big thing in information technology to show up, oh, about sometime tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 4

Indiana Jones and the Jealous Archaeologists

With all of the hype surrounding the recent release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, there have been a lot of archaeologists in the news criticizing our old friend Dr. Henry Jones, Jr. There are two articles in particular I'm thinking of: An article by archaeologist Neil Silberman that appeared on and an article by archaeologist Brian Fagan of the University of California, Santa Barbara, that was published on the Wall Street Journal's website. Silberman, for instance, enjoys the movies but says he sees this newest release as a new opportunity for the dissemination of "viral disinformation about what archaeologists do." Really? Because no one I've ever met who has even the least bit of curiosity about archaeology has ever said anything to me that suggests they consider Indy to represent the "truth" about what archaeologists do. Fagan ridiculously tries to actually critique Indy's methodology in various ways: "He thinks nothing of smashing his way into a hidden chamber or taking a human leg bone from a grave and using it as a torch. In all the movies, he walks a fine line between a professional archaeologist and treasure hunter." Again, really? A professional archaeologist critiquing the methodology of a movie character? Come on! Just kick back and enjoy a good flick! This is an example of one of the most annoying things about academics--they take themselves way too seriously.

In this case, I think it all boils down to one thing: Deep down, these real archaeologists are just jealous of the Hollywood adventures of Indiana Jones and the fact that he's way cooler than they will ever be. Whether they admit it or not, most of the newer generations of archaeologists were first drawn to archaeology through those movies. (Take, for instance, the recent program on the History Channel that's all about just this idea, "Indiana Jones and the Ultimate Quest.") Once you get into "real" archaeology, the question becomes whether you're in it because you love the pursuit of knowledge about the human past or not. Trust me--those in it under a misguided idea that they're in for guns and adventure and hot pursuit by Nazis or Soviets are quickly weeded out. So grow up, boys, and face facts: Life is not Hollywood and the Indiana Jones adventures will always be more interesting to wide audiences than any of your books will ever be. (Burn!)

Jealous archaeologists aside, there is a segment to the Indy culture that takes a much different tone and is sure to please any history lover. Recently, the t.v. series that was released in the early '90s as The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles has been released on DVD in three volumes as The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones. These productions definitely do a better job of keeping to the known "facts" of history, and I think they're a fun way to explore the history of the early 20th century, so I can recommend them with a minimal disclaimer. If you're a history lover, you should check them out.

Also, if you're interested in learning where Speilberg and Lucas got this idea of crystal skulls, check out the articles at this link to Archaeology's website. As you'll learn, the reality is far from anything you'll ever see on the silver screen. Just like archaeology.