Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Three wise mice

It has been confirmed by researchers that frankincense has psychoactive effects:
Despite the plethora of information, dating from the Middle Ages, on how to use frankincense to influence a person's state of mind, frankincense resin's use as a drug to counter depression and anxiety was discovered by chance.
Looking at the resin's anti-inflammatory properties, the researches gave frankincense to mice.
"We saw that the frankincense gave the mice a high," says Fride, whose lab also researches the therapeutic use of cannabis.
The frankincense acts on a little-understood receptor in the brain, and may be used as the basis for an anti-depressant.

100g of frankincense resin.
100g of frankincense resin

Frankincense from Yemen
Frankincense from Yemen

Denzil Dexter was unavailable for comment.

Hat-tip to Caroline of Necropolis Now for emailing me the article.

Monday, 23 June 2008

Museum usability

I've blogged before about museum usability.

Basically, the problem is with the way many museums label their exhibits. Frequently there is a number next to the object, and this refers to a panel with explanatory text. This is OK for small objects where there is no room to add captions next to the objects, but frequently it is employed for large objects, where the aesthetic value of the object is often seen as more important than its meaning.

Unfortunately this makes it very difficult for people with dyslexia to enjoy the exhibition, because by the time they have transferred their gaze from the exhibit to the interpretation panel, they have forgotten the number, and have to go back again. I myself am not dyslexic but frequently have this problem anyway! In one museum we visited, there was a costume exhibition, and the distance between the numbers and the explanatory text was so great that a lady who was both short- and long-sighted had to change her glasses each time.

The solution is simply to place a short explanatory caption next to the object (e.g. 14th C English spoon), and a longer piece giving the context below or beside the display case.

A quick Google search reveals that many museums are concerned about web accessibility and physical access for wheelchair users (and rightly so) but many museums appear to have completely overlooked this problem of captioning.

Obviously, objects must have an accession number, but the problem of captions for visitors is different.

An additional problem is that different audiences want different information about objects. Personally, I find the social context of objects interesting. Others might be looking at them from an art history perspective, or a comparative culture perspective, or some other perspective.

Here's an example of a display case that is accessible for dyslexia (it's from the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford). Note how the labels and descriptions are next to the objects (no cross-referencing required):

How not to do it (this is an imaginary display that I have constructed of objects from the Science Museum):
  1. Theodolite, mid 18th century.
  2. Original orrery planetary model by John Rowley, 1712-1713
  3. Electrical chimes
  4. Plate electrical machine, 1770.
Annoying, isn't it? Now imagine having to do that hundreds of times over while viewing numbered display cases.

Don't make it bad

There's a lot of bad archaeology out there. Caveat emptor - if you see books claiming extra-terrestrial or Atlantean origins for pyramids, civilisation, and the like, don't waste your money.

Here's how to spot false claims and bad archaeology:
  • Putting the hypothesis before the evidence. Frequently, authors of bad archaeology create a hypothesis (for example, "Ancient Atlanteans built all the pyramids") and then selectively go around looking for evidence to back up their claims.
  • Ignoring part of the evidence. For example, UFO enthusiasts claim that the Nazca lines were landing-strips for UFOs - but then when you see the whole picture, you realise that the alleged landing strips are the feet of a giant bird.
  • Deciding that our ancestors were too stupid to invent stuff on their own (so they must have needed help from aliens or Atlanteans to get civilisation started)
  • Re-interpreting myths to suit themselves. Instead of legends of gods and goddesses being taken at face value as slightly exaggerated stories of humans or what they actually purport to be - hey presto, they are in fact legends of visits from extra-terrestrials.
  • Bad data. Use of old maps, special places, ancient legends, esoteric interpretations of religious writings, instead of excavation reports and historical evidence. In short, bad data.
The difficulty is that some proper archaeology deals with things like ancient sites being aligned on solstice sunrises and the like; but then bad archaeology extrapolates from this into realms of fantasy.

The point is, real archaeology, which describes how our ancestors actually lived, is far more interesting than bad archaeology. I find the fact that civilisation developed gradually over many millennia and built upon earlier technological and intellectual developments much more satisfying than the idea that some alien being kindly bestowed the gift of fire and writing on Mr & Mrs Ug, who weren't clever enough to think of it for themselves.

Here's some examples of proper archaeology:

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Property is theft

Looting debris at Iraqi National Museum Iraqi National Museum Deputy Director Mushin Hasan holds his head in his hands as he surveys the debris of looted and destroyed artifacts. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty
The current issue of Archaeology (a publication of the Archaeological Institute of America) has an article about looted antiquities. It is a review of a book by James Cuno about museums' acquisition of archaeological finds. The author of the book, who is from an art museum background, argues that placing objects from different cultures alongside each other in museums can give people a basis for comparison. Seems reasonable... until you realise that this involves the objects being taken completely out of their social and cultural context. Cuno uses this seemingly reasonable starting point to say that the UNESCO legislation enacted around the world have failed to stop looting and have succeeded only in inhibiting the global movement of art. He further argues that UNESCO has impoverished our understanding of one another and contributed to a stale, narrowly nationalistic view of culture.

But once you remove an object from its cultural and social context, it has little or no meaning; Roger Attwood says:
The information given by a prisoner while he is being tortured is unreliable. So is the information given by a looted antiquity; it has been wrenched from its archaeological context and stripped of its basic history. In certain instances, even its authenticity cannot be definitively ascertained.
Cuno claims that looting of antiquities is fuelled by poverty and war; but Attwood points out that Italy has a big problem with looters, and it is one of the richest countries in the world - so what is fuelling the looting is the existence of a market for the stolen items. What's more, says Attwood, much of that market is museums, and the museums act as trend-setters for collectors, who then donate their illicit antiquities to museums in exchange for tax breaks.

Cuno also says:
"If undocumented antiquities are the result of looted (and thus destroyed) archaeological sites, that there is still a market for them anywhere is a problem. Keeping them from U.S. art museums is not a solution, only a diversion."
So he is effectively saying that people steal stuff, so we might as well buy it off them. That reminds me of the humorous saying: "Property is theft; theft is property; therefore it's mine."

The laws that are in place are there to protect ancient sites from looters. Once an item is looted and removed from its context, its ability to tell us anything about the culture it came from is severely curtailed. (Oddly, human bones with doubtful provenance can still be used to provide data on their population of origin, since they have minerals in them which can identify where they came from; but more information can be gleaned from them if they have a provenance.)

As an example of what happens when the context of an object is lost, consider the Mediterranean pottery found at Tintagel. This pottery tells us that there were trade links between the Mediterranean and North Cornwall in the "Arthurian" period (6th century CE), which means that Tintagel is a site of international importance. If the information that it came from Tintagel was lost, it would become just another bunch of pot-sherds, and Tintagel would be correspondingly greatly diminished.

Another (hypothetical) example: if a votive statue of Mercury was found in a Roman temple, that would tell you the dedication of that temple; or if it was found in a Roman house, perhaps buried in a wall cavity with coins of a certain date, it might provide evidence of paganism continuing into the Christian era; but if it was just dug out of the ground and this contextual information was lost, we would not know of the temple dedication or the existence of clandestine paganism.

Of course, the majority of items in museums have a respectable provenance. But museums and archaeology should maintain squeaky-clean procedures for the acquisition of antiquities, otherwise it undermines their authority in these matters.

Further reading

Morris, megaliths and beer

Rag Morris in 2005The University of Bristol's Morris Dancing side, Rag Morris, are doing a special dance to mark the Summer Solstice, on Saturday 21st June at the Stanton Drew Stone circle. They will be dancing among the stones from around 7.00pm onwards, then going to dance outside the Druid Arms pub from 8.00pm onwards.

Morris dancing, megaliths and beer - an irresistible combination for Pagans and archaeologists.

Multi-purpose sacrality

There has recently been a re-evaluation of what Stonehenge was for. Professors Timothy Darvill and Geoff Wainwright have said that they think it was a place of healing, because they have found a large number of skeletons with evidence of trauma.
Professor Timothy Darvill and Professor Geoff Wainwright ... are not convinced, as others have been, that Stonehenge was a holy place or a secular tool for calculating dates. Instead, they think Stonehenge was a site of healing.

"The whole purpose of Stonehenge is that it was a prehistoric Lourdes," says Wainwright. "People came here to be made well."

Other archaeologists (such as Mike Parker Pearson) still think that

"Stonehenge... was built not for the transitory living but for the ancestors whose permanence was materialised in stone."

The New York Times (in less than serious mood) agrees:

Now, me well aware of controversy surrounding new Og Memorial Complex, also known as Massive-Rocks-Arranged-in-Mysterious-Circle. Some say it eyesore. Some say it waste of massive rocks. Some like concept of mysterious circle but find execution pedestrian. On behalf of Memorial Committee for Remembering of Og, me want to take opportunity to address concerns directly, and unpack some of artistic decisions involved in approving project like Massive-Rocks-Arranged-in-Mysterious-Circle.

But seriously folks, why can't it be a place of healing, and a place of the dead, and a place of spirituality and/or worship, and a big stone calendar?

Most sacred sites are multi-functional. If you go to Epidauros in Greece, it has a big theatre for performing sacred drama; there is a healing complex, and some tombs. If you visit a cathedral, it has tombs and it's a place of worship. Lourdes is a sacred place as well as a place of healing. Monasteries were places of prayer and healing and learning.

People didn't (and to some extent, still don't) separate these functions into sacred and secular. In the past, the boundary between sacred and secular was far more blurred than it is now (if it even existed), as archaeologists have told us. And healing was often associated with sacredness, as sickness was often held to be caused by spiritual forces or entities. For example the Asklepion (temple of Aesculapius on the Greek island of Kos) had dream incubation chambers, healing areas, and a huge temple. Why wouldn't Stonehenge be similarly multi-functional? Maybe aligning the stones on the solstices was believed to help with the healing process by bringing people back into harmony with the cosmos, or something (just a thought). Maybe the blue-stones, being brought from Preseli where there are lots of "ringing rocks" (Devereux, 2001) were held to have particularly good vibes or resonance with the spirit world, which would help with the healing; and infrasound affects both brain and body (Cook et al, 2008) so it could have beneficial effects.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Rock art

There is a surprising amount of rock art in Britain. Some of the more famous are cup and ring marks in Northumberland, the Cheddar mammoth, and the carvings at Creswell Crags, but there are thousands of sites all over the country.

Various theories have been advanced for what rock art is for. Could cup and ring marks be maps of sacred springs? Or maps of constellations? Or records of shamanic journeys or trace states? Or visual representations of sound? Or just art for art's sake?

Animals are sometimes seen to emerge from cracks in the rock, as if emerging from the spirit world behind the rock wall (it is known from ethnographic parallels that the spirit world was believed to be in the rock).

It's amazing to think that these marks have been there for thousands of years in the wind and the rain, and that they were carved without the use of metal tools.

Sadly some rock art has recently been vandalised. I very much hope that the vandalism was not done by Pagans. There was a story recently of someone (not a Pagan) chipping bits off a stone circle for use in homoeopathic medicine, but the vast majority of Pagans would not do this. Because of the eclectic nature of Paganism and the widely distributed networks of involvement, it's difficult to reach everyone involved and tell them not to do this kind of thing (not everyone who identifies as Pagan reads the same magazines or attends conferences where the message "take only photographs" is promoted). However most recent vandalism of stone circles and the like was not perpetrated by Pagans. I know people sometimes leave tealights and flowers and even chalk-marks (there is an ongoing effort to educate people not to do this) but actually carving on the monuments is rare. People should never ever chip bits off megaliths, or add any extra carvings or marks. It's best not to leave offerings either, even biodegradable ones (if you do want to pour a libation to the spirit of place, do it well away from any megaliths or rock art). And don't use or leave tea-lights in burial mounds, because the smoke from them can damage the stone. When I go into burial mounds, I don't use an electric torch - it heightens the atmosphere and your eyes adjust quite quickly anyway (there's usually enough light from the entrance).

One really good way to interact meaningfully with sacred sites is with the use of sound. Singing in caves and burial mounds is a really amazing experience. Most burial mounds resonate best with the male voice, but some caves (ones with pointy spaces in the roof) resonate well with the female voice.

» Heritage Action has a set of guidelines for visiting sacred sites

Friday, 13 June 2008

Why ley-lines annoy me

Ley lines result from a process of joining up monuments on the map that have no connection with each other, possibly based on the assumption that all medieval churches were built on top of ancient pagan sites (in reality, only a few were, such as Knowlton Henge and St Paul's Cathedral). Thus you get a rather arbitrary line drawn across the map joining monuments that were built hundreds, even thousands, of years apart.

They're linear. Surely energy moving in the landscape would move in swirly patterns around the contours of the hills and the geology? More like water. I don't think Chinese feng shui practitioners have detected any ley lines, though they're very good at finding energy movements in the landscape. There are also electrical currents in the Earth's crust and mantle, which interact in a complex way; these are known as telluric currents. Ley lines are also not the same as song-lines, which are actually known to Indigenous Australians as the 'Footprints of the Ancestors' or the 'Way of the Law'.

When Alfred Watkins talked about leys, he was talking about prehistoric trackways. The whole concept has been expanded to mean mythical energy lines across the landscape, such as the Mary and Michael Line (which is sometimes depicted as swirly, but does arbitrarily join up unconnected monuments).

Also, ley lines are becoming congested:
Ley lines in certain parts of Britain are becoming so congested with hippies, travellers and mildly frightening-looking people with coat hangers that the government has today announced a multi-million pound ten year ley line building programme.
I'm not saying that there isn't energy in the land (it feels to me as though there is); I'm just deeply skeptical about it moving along mysterious and arbitrary lines.

Of course, if you want to argue for ley-lines as a mythopoeic or metaphorical construct, that would be different. But I very much doubt that they objectively exist, especially as there are no ethnographic parallels and little or no evidence for them in indigenous British folklore.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Ideas of landscape

Landscape is an interesting concept. What does the word conjure up in your mind? The rolling hills of home?

The word landscape comes from the Dutch word landschap, from land (directly equivalent to the English word land) and the suffix -schap, corresponding to the English suffix "-ship".

Landscape, first recorded in 1598, was borrowed as a painters' term from Dutch during the 16th century, when Dutch artists were on the verge of becoming masters of the landscape genre. The Dutch word landschap had earlier meant simply 'region, tract of land' but had acquired the artistic sense, which it brought over into English, of 'a picture depicting scenery on land'.

So the word didn't exist in English until it was imported to describe a subject of painting, which generally had to be picturesque. The tradition of landscape painting arose in Protestant countries because religious subjects for painting were no longer in vogue (because they were regarded as idolatry); though religious paintings set in landscape had existed earlier, depictions of just countryside views came later.

Archaeologists view landscape as a palimpsest. It has been modified over and over again by successive use; different farming processes, quarrying, building, industry and so on have created layers of use and re-use, as in the successive human interactions with Dartmoor. There is also a whole style of archaeology called landscape archaeology, which deals with human interactions with the landscape and their impact upon each other.

Historians view landscape almost as a memory theatre. Simon Schama's magisterial and entertaining work, Landscape and Memory (1995) shows how the symbolism of landscape (specifically rivers, mountains and forests) has changed over the centuries.

Some Pagans view landscape as a timeless whole, intimately connected with ancestors, and containing the song of the ancestors to be accessed by shamanic vision. Some would regard the landscape as having agency in the form of land-wights or spirits of place.

Others might have a more dualistic view (but still consistent with the immanence of spirit in the physical world) where spirit is immanent in the landscape, but not identical with it. (Correspondingly in this view, the human spirit leaves the bones after death and goes somewhere else, maybe to an Otherworld that is only a heartbeat away from this world, or entwined with it as the faery realms and extra dimensions are said to be.)

Others still might take a view closer to historical and archaeological perspectives, regarding our sense of historical place in the landscape and our memories of the dead as something that informs our identity, our sense of who we are, and wanting to recover the stories of the ancestors and the landscape through archaeological and historical means (since shamanic visions are all very well but tend to be unverified personal gnosis).

Chas Clifton, in his excellent article Nature Religion for Real (1998), suggests some great ways to get closer to your local landscape or bioregion by finding out about its wildlife, plants, sacred sites, soil type, geology, and so on. I have written an article about Magical attunement to a new home (2002), which suggests magical techniques for connecting with landscape, and also has suggestions for further reading.

What does landscape (or the land) mean to you? Do you feel connected with the landscape (or the land)? How?

Sunday, 8 June 2008

Apotropaic marks

Apotropaic marks and objects are often found in old houses. They were intended to turn away harm by distracting malevolent spirits. Examples include inscribed circles, sometimes with a daisy-wheel in them; double Vs (for Virgin of Virgins), random-looking scratches, and sometimes even runes. They are not a pagan custom, though they do indicate a belief in magic. Objects that have been found include dead cats (one hopes they had died of natural causes before being placed in the wall cavity), shoes, bottles and pots.

There are some apotropaic daisy-wheel marks in the doorway of the tithe-barn at Bradford-on-Avon.

Such marks are related to, but not the same as, mason's marks (which often had magical associations but were not put there to turn away harm).

Contemporary Pagans sometimes make spirit bottles (bottles containing coloured threads). Of course you can also carve or paint runes or other marks in your own house but you should never ever do it on old buildings or ancient monuments (and 99.99% of Pagans would never do this anyway).

There is a lot of information on the use of spirit patterns and objects in Nigel Pennick's excellent book, Practical Magic in the Northern Tradition.

Saturday, 7 June 2008

What do we mean, "for" archaeology?

I mean we are in favour of the activity of archaeology, as in discovery of the past by looking at material culture; it doesn't necessarily mean we agree with everything archaeologists do all the time. They don't always agree with each other, so we'd have to be schizoid to agree with all of them all the time.

But it is worthwhile and meaningful to try to understand past cultures; it gives us a sense of where we come from, where we have been, and perhaps even where we are going.
Our days are ended. Think, then, of us.
Do not erase us from your memory, nor forget us.

Popol Vuh, sacred book of the Quiché Maya

Making archaeology public

What I would like to see (and I know many archaeologists share this frustration, as there have been several articles about it in British Archaeology magazine) is more archaeologists making their research available to the public. There is too much "grey literature" (unpublished site reports etc) and it needs to be deposited at the online repository which has existed since 1999 for that very purpose. It also needs to be written up accessibly so that ordinary people can get a grasp of the information.

Manchester Museum Lindow Man exhibition

Manchester Museum are currently displaying Lindow Man.
Lindow Man triggers feelings of nostalgia and spirituality and fascinates people interested in science and heritage. Seven people who have a particular connection with Lindow Man were interviewed for the exhibition. Their personal experiences provide a unique insight into the impact that he has had on their lives and many others. Each of them has a different story to tell, but you will find that they agree in some surprising ways. Some of the objects in the exhibition have an obvious link to Lindow Man, others may seem unexpected, but all of them are chosen to show the many sides of Lindow Man and what he means to us today.
You can post your comments on this exhibition on their Lindow Man blog.

Manchester Museum Egyptian remains consultation

Manchester Museum are consulting the public about the display of Egyptian mummies.

You can contribute your views on their blog.

What we stand for

We're Pagans who love archaeology and believe that it has contributed hugely to our knowledge of our ancestors and the religions of the past.

Without archaeology, people would still think ancient peoples were fur-clad smelly cannibals and that ancient paganism involved frequent human sacrifice.

In addition, we are opposed to the reburial of ancient human remains, and want them to be preserved so that the memory of the ancestors can be perpetuated and rescued from oblivion, and the remains can be studied scientifically for the benefit of everyone.

Of course we want human remains to be treated with respect, but respect does not automatically mean reburial. Respect should mean memory, which involves recovering the stories of past people.

We also believe that the excavation of Seahenge was a good thing, contributing hugely to our knowledge of Bronze Age religious practices.

We are also vehemently opposed to people leaving tealights, candles, crystals and other non-biodegradable "offerings" at sacred sites. Take only photographs, leave only footprints. Follow the Country Code.

We have a Facebook group and a Yahoo group - please join these to show your support.