La Brea Tar Pits - Exploring the Human Story in the Asphalt

Photos taken by me.

Photos taken by me.

IMG_20170829_161628.jpg

I am a regular visitor to LA, since my fiancee lives there, and I am also a regular and enthusiastic visitor to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles and the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum where she works. Being an archaeologist I am always interested in the human story and both of these museums have interesting stories to tell. 

In this post I want to focus on The La Brea Tar Pits, which incidentally means the the tar tar pits despite the substance that is still to this day welling up throughout Hancock Park being asphalt and not tar. There is a subtle human story on display at the museum if you know where to look. There is one case of human made artefacts, and there is also a display that explains that one set of human remains (the La Brea Woman) were found in the asphalt but due to valid concerns about sensitivities surrounding the display of human remains, is represented only in a timeline panel of the history of the tar pits. There is more information about the artefacts than the skeleton and looking around the internet it is clear that there remains strong concerns about her status.

The wooden and bone artefacts, mainly hairpins and hunting darts, preserved in the asphalt that are on display were mainly found in Pits 61/67. They, are dated to somewhere between 3000 and 9000 years BP (Before Present - which it turns out is 1950). The La Brea Woman is dated to c.9000-10000 years BP. From such a small display, and with the hindrance of the churning nature of the tar it is difficult to draw out a strong story of the human presence at Rancho La Brea at the end of the last Ice Age beyond simple presence. I find myself wondering whether there were any further material culture finds in the other pits and projects, and whether there has ever been any work done to more fully tell the tale in reports, publications, or exhibitions.

Questions for next time I visit I suppose!

The presentation of archaeology in Florence, Italy

This is the fourth in a short series of posts which I wanted to write in the first half of this year but did not have the time to put together. In this post I wanted to talk about the presentation of archaeology that I noticed on a trip to Florence in April 2017. There are two things that I want to focus on; the Duomo Crypt, and the roads around the Bargello.

Mosaic floor from an early phase of the church under the Duomo in Florence (Copyright: Christopher Booth 2017)

Mosaic floor from an early phase of the church under the Duomo in Florence (Copyright: Christopher Booth 2017)

The Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore also known as the Duomo di Firenze, contains elements of all of the earlier phases of church building on that site from later Roman period through to the medieval church which immediately preceded the current cathedral. These are preserved in-situ in the crypt below the nave of the church and access to this area is included with entry to the church (the gift shop is also down there!). This is not simply an un-interpreted mess of walls and decorative flooring, there are simple to understand interpretive panels, but more excitingly for me there are archaeological plans, clearly scanned from the working documents produced during the excavation of these remains, These plans were highlighted to show the phasing and presented in such a way as to help the visitor understand what they are seeing. I was really happy to see the archaeological process being used so directly to aid in non-expert understanding of an archaeological site without being polished so that it is unrecognisable as an archaeological document,

Brass indications of archaeological sites pre-dating the current road layout in Florence (Copyright: Christopher Booth 2017)

Brass indications of archaeological sites pre-dating the current road layout in Florence (Copyright: Christopher Booth 2017)

On the streets near the Palazzo del Bargello there were bronze strips inlaid into the road surface that I didn't even notice on the first few times walking past. These subtle indications on the street and a subtle nearby information panel represent and explain that this marked the exact position of the old roman road watchtower that formed the edge of the city during the period of the Roman Empire. I found this to be a really good and subtle presentation of archaeology which doesn't intrude but is clear for those who want to pay attention.

These are only two examples amongst many but they made me start to pay more attention and I am excited to find more examples of archaeology out in the world! 

Back again...

It has been a while! I have not blogged since August last year. Its been a hectic year for me; working towards getting PhD funding and ultimately being unsuccessful, trying to get long term work in museums or archaeology and again being unsuccessful. I know that sounds like a lot of negative but its been a good year too, I got engaged, have had some wonderful experiences and discussions with archaeologists from across the globe and visited some excellent museum exhibitions. 

A photograph from a stunning exhibition in Los Angeles that I recently saw. All will be revealed in a later post!

A photograph from a stunning exhibition in Los Angeles that I recently saw. All will be revealed in a later post!

It may take me some time to get back to regular blogging but I will be trying hard to post something at least once a month. In the transition from a tumblr to this Squarespace blog some of the older posts, especially the review of the Monasticism conference from 2014 got lost. Thankfully that one is archived on the blog of Assemblage the Graduate Journal of Archaeology at the University of Sheffield. 

#Day of Archaeology 2015

Its July 24th 2015 and that means its the international Day of Archaeology!

So what is the Day of Archaeology? Well the project’s website puts it like this: 

“The Day of Archaeology project aims to provide a window into the daily lives of archaeologists from all over the world.  The project asks people working, studying or volunteering in the archaeological world to participate with us in a “Day of Archaeology” each year in the summer by recording their day and sharing it through text, images or video on this website.  The resulting Day of Archaeology project demonstrates the wide variety of work our profession undertakes day-to-day across the globe, and helps to raise public awareness of the relevance and importance of archaeology to the modern world. We want anyone with a personal, professional or voluntary interest in archaeology to get involved, and help highlight the reasons why archaeology is vital to protect the past and inform our futures.

The project is run completely for free by a team of volunteers who are all professional archaeologists, and taking part in the project is completely free. The whole Day of Archaeology relies on goodwill and a passion for public engagement!”

Unfortunately I was not doing any archaeology today but I have some of my favourite posts about it to share:

First from the Coin Hoard Project at Jersey Museum where my friend is a Conservation Technician. They shared their day last Wednesday and talk a little about the project to remove coins from a hoard.

http://www.dayofarchaeology.com/under-the-archway/

Next from ASI who have shared some great photos of their archaeologists at work with one-word captions. All the way from Canada!

http://www.dayofarchaeology.com/one-word-archaeology/

And, finally an entry from an archaeologist detailing a fascinating history of Mexico City and the issues with protecting and managing archaeological sites and artefacts in such a dense urban environment.

http://www.dayofarchaeology.com/living-and-managing-archaeological-sites-in-a-historic-urban-landscape-mexico-city/

Go forth and explore all the other exciting posts about the work of archaeologists across the globe on the project’s website: http://www.dayofarchaeology.com/

Essays Old and New #1

I am planning, in a series of posts to edit down some of the essays that I submitted for my two archaeology degrees for a more general audience. I think that many of the topics covered will be of interest to you all. I have attempted to remove jargon and keep references down to a minimum. Feedback on this idea for a series of posts is welcome.

This is the first of those, an essay from my MA: The topic was on the pressures on material culture studies in modern museums, there were many more pressures mentioned in my submitted essay but this short version covers what I believe to be the most pertinant:

Discuss how the changing roles of museums and other curatorial bodies in the UK has provided both opportunities and hindrances to material culture studies in the last ten years.

UK Museums in the last twenty years have been under increasing pressure from multiple external agencies. This is in part because of an increasing need to prove that they are worth funding and in part because of new government policies that aim to increase social inclusion through museums. These two pressures are the main reasons that the responsibilities of curators and their studies of the material culture under their care have changed. In this blog post/essay I will refer only to archaeological examples but that does not make the conclusions drawn any less relevant to the rest of the museum sector although different types of museum will have their own subtleties.  

One of the few arenas for the public to experience ‘real’ interactions with past material culture is in museums. Museums articulate and challenge preconceptions of the history and identity of a nation, society or culture and their central use of objects differentiates museums from all other institutions (Kavanagh 1989: 125). This means that ‘History museums’ must move with the theoretical changes in material culture studies or risk being intellectually outdated (Kavanagh 1989: 135).  

Financial

The first change affecting the role of the museum is financial. Museums have never been a statutory service in the UK and as such are the first to have to justify any public funding they receive. This is not an issue for the national museums run by charitable trusts such as the British Museum. Local Authority Museums, however, are usually run directly by the council in whose jurisdiction they are located and thus have to account for their budgets to government. This need to justify public income has led to an increase in ‘Museum managers’; people whose job is solely to create a museum that can prove that it is value for money. This focus is somewhat in conflict with the traditional role of curators. It makes the study, preservation and presentation of the past somewhat incidental. It has also led to market ideology becoming more and more central to the running of local authority museums in the UK (Lawley 2003: 75).  

The modern museum focuses on the visitor first, and some go as far as to consider these people to be customers. A seemingly minor semantic shift that entirely changes the nature of the relationship; visitors come to view the museum, customers come to receive a service or product from the museum. The fact that this product is possibly knowledge rather than a tangible object (gift shops notwithstanding) does not alter the fact that the customer not the objects must come first in this conception of a museum. Further the need to demonstrate that culture can be value for money is problematic because individual interaction with museums is incredibly complex to model and assess (Mason 2004: 49-73).  

Popularisation

One part of widening access to museums is what might be termed popularisation, leading to galleries and exhibitions being designed based on a supposed customer experience. This approach is problematic due to a lack of understanding of that visitor/customer experience. However, most museum services recognise that a large gap exists in the market to popularise archaeology and that museums should be filing it; it is currently filled by journalists and fiction writers in various mediums (Skeates 2000: 112). This tactic appears to work to increase visitor numbers; the number of museums in the UK was increasing year on year until the year 2000 (Foley and McPherson 2000: 164). However it cannot be ignored that there is a gap between the purposes of museums for the curator and the museum visitor.

Social Inclusion

Another aspect of widening access to museums is the increasing trend towards socially conscious museum management. This is a little difficult to define but most commentators seem to agree that it includes using the material culture in museums “for both reading the past and reading ourselves” (Crowther 1989: 44). Most people find their interaction with the past rewarding when objects are presented in their own setting or in reconstructions and ideally linked to their own identity on some level.  Object interpretation should illuminate the role of that artefact in the ‘operation of society’ both its original society and also others it has come into contact with. Thus museums need to acknowledge the multi-voiced narratives of the past, something that can be difficult when the major museums in European cities tend to show deep discomfort with imperialist aspects of their own heritage.  

The UK government in 2000 set out social inclusion as a policy applying to the all museums under local government control, although many commentators claimed that most museums already had social inclusion high on their priorities (Lawley 2003: 82). Some writers think that initiatives emphasising social inclusion in museums are patronising and compromise the future of, museums in Britain. Others think that social inclusion is empowering . Whichever is true the museum collection was no longer the central function of the museum (Edwards 2007: 101). It had been replaced with a visitor focus, and the need to promote social responsibility and education in museum environments. Thus a focus on non-elite, everyday material culture is encouraged as it is thought that this is more likely to engage more sections of society. This aspect of the changing roles of museums in recent years is, interestingly, the one that has provided the most opportunities for material culture studies as the need to think pluralistically about cultures and the objects that they created inevitably leads to in-depth interpretations of that material culture.

Conclusion

This post has been necessarily broad as there are many issues relating to material culture studies in museums, especially in the volatile environment of uncertain funding and increased governmental pressure to justify services. The social inclusion agenda of government gives great opportunities through the analysis of material to represent the multi-voiced narratives of the past and thus the multi-cultural present state of the community likely to view the collection. Museums can enhance social inclusion and they have the potential to promote tolerance and challenge stereotypes. Financial pressures however have made the role of the curator, the material culture specialist, expand into new areas. There is now a need to be a manager and an analyst of visitor reactions and interactions with the displays under curatorial care. This has made material interpretation a smaller part of the job, perhaps restricting the expansion of material culture studies in museums. However, the success of overtly object focused projects such as the ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’ (BBC 2014) shows that there is still visitor interest in the insights that material culture studies in museums can provide.


Bibliography

BBC (2014) A History of the World: The 100 British Museum Objects. http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/about/british-museum-objects/ [Accessed: 17/05/2015].

Crowther, D. (1989) ‘Archaeology, Material Culture and Museums’ in Pearce, S.M. (ed.) Museum Studies in Material Culture: 35-46. Leicester: Leicester University Press.

Edwards, E.C. (2007) ‘The Future for Curators’, Papers from the Institute of Archaeology S1: 98-114.

Foley, M. and McPherson, G. (2000) ‘Museums as Leisure’, International Journal of Heritage Studies 6(2): 161-174.

Kavanagh, G. (1989) ‘Objects as Evidence, or Not?’ in Pearce, S.M. (ed.) Museum Studies in Material Culture: 125-137. Leicester: Leicester University Press.

Lawley, I. (2003) ‘Local authority museums and the modernizing government agenda in England’, Museum and Society 1(2): 75-86.

Mason, R. (2004) ‘Conflict and Complement: An Exploration of the Discourses Informing the Concept of the Socially Inclusive Museum in Contemporary Britain’, International Journal of Heritage Studies 10(1): 49-73.

Skeates, R. (2000) Debating the Archaeological Heritage. London: Duckworth.

Isis Iraq: Bulldozing of Nimrud and Hatra disputed by archaeologists and satellite images

An update to the stories I was covering in my last original posts. Regardless of this good news however there are still site under threat from this group and, if such a calamity was to occur I would still be strongly in favour of an academically backed reconstruction as soon as possible.

Culture and History on the Front Line: Part 2 – What can be done?

In part one I outlined, in the briefest terms, the cultural crimes that Islamic State are perpetrating, and how this is an issue for all the people of the world. In this post I will look at the few things we can do.

Criminalisation

The first thing that may spring to mind is to criminalise the destruction of cultural properties and important archaeological sites. The trouble is that this has already occurred; since the 1862 Lieber Code there have been laws in place in parts of the world to protect cultural and historical sites and buildings in times of war. This was finally brought to an international level in the 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property and its Additional Protocols. Under these documents the acts of IS are undoubtedly war crimes as the Director of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, has repeatedly said in the media.

Unfortunately there are several issues with this route of protection, first that it is not respected by ISIS; they were not a signatory to the convention. Secondly that its enforcement is hampered by the fact that Iraq and Syria are still in a time of war, and finally because the regulations prescribe no punishment for cultural war crimes. So it seems that this route will only become a source of restitution after the fact and in the event that some IS soldiers and leaders are captured after their defeat.

Virtual Reconstruction

Another option, that is currently underway in the case of Mosul Museum, is to construct a virtual replica of the museum before it was destroyed. This has the benefit of being crowdsource-able, in fact it relies on the donation of photographs and videos of the museum and its collections from anyone. Additionally the reconstruction, using photogrammetry, can be used to produce replicas of the lost items albeit at a lower three-dimensional resolution.

If you would like to contribute and have images from the museum, likely before 2003, then please visit http://projectmosul.itn-dch.net/ and get involved.

‘Monuments Men’

The final main option I will feature here is the most dangerous, and yet is underway in some parts of IS occupied territory and other areas they have recently lost. In a similar way to the 2014 film by the same name, a small group of academics is crossing regularly into Syria from Turkey to record, hide and protect archaeological sites, material culture and documents. This approach is best suited to protecting small items and not entire sites but it has immense value, so much so that should it be offered I would be tempted to join them.

So overall then what can be done?

It seems most likely that, as troubling as it is to believe, the main responses and solutions will be after the damage has been done. I would argue, as Simon Jenkins does in the Spectator, that reconstruction must be a priority. I would add that it should not take the over twelve years that UNESCO has been wrangling about how to deal with the empty caverns where the Bamiyan Buddhas were seated before their detonation. This reconstruction should be swift and utilise all of the available knowledge and technology. Of course this will not compare to the originals in many ways but it will spit in the face of fanaticism and will give the chance of a tourism boost to the region, allowing everyone to experience the history and archaeology that will otherwise be lost.

Christopher Booth 20.3.2015

Part 1

Sources:

Jenkins, S. (2015) “When Isis destroy ancient monuments, it’s not always true that ‘people are more important’” – http://bit.ly/1F2Ud1w – accessed 18/3/2015

Parkinson, J; Albayrak, A; and Mavin, D. (2015) “Syrian ‘Monuments Men’ Race to Protect Antiquities as Looting Bankrolls Terror” – http://on.wsj.com/1DGZSdj – accessed 20/3/2015

http://projectmosul.itn-dch.net/

Culture and History on the Front Line: Part 1 – The current problem

image

The destruction of statues in the Museum of Mosul by Islamic State Militants. AFP/HO/Media Office of the Nineveh branch.

There have been many news stories about the recent destruction of antiquities in the areas of the Middle East currently controlled by ISIS, ISIL or Islamic State. This post will not make claims to understand the totality of the conflict in the region and its many threads. Instead I would like to focus on the destruction of archaeological and historical artefacts, documents and sites and how they relate to a bigger problem; international apathy.

Cultural erasure as a weapon of war is likely as old as warfare. The most famous recent example (pre-dating the current Syria/Iraq/Lybia/Nigeria situation) is the Afghani Taliban’s destruction of the Bamyian Buddahs in 2001. At the time there was international outcry, this was the destruction of a religious monument and cultural site of worldwide importance. One that showed the history of Buddhism in the region. My question then is why is there no such outcry this time around? Is it because there are no believers in the Assyrian gods who have been struck down from their museum pedestals? If so then the world and media fundamentally mis-understand the importance of history, of place and of the traces of the past left behind. There is a reason that the destruction of archaeological, historical and culturally important sites and monuments is classed as a war-crime; erasing the history of a place and people erases those people.

No matter how far removed we feel from the religion and time represented by these statues we cannot accept their destruction quietly. These artefacts contribute to the history of all mankind, not just those long dead Assyrians, or even the current occupants of the deserts in which they resided. As Boris Johnson pointed out in a recent Facebook post, art-historically these images a clear predecessors of Greek aesthetics which themselves are one origin point for western art styles. That is just one of the many reasons why these sites are key to the common history of modern civilisation, and it can feel like shouting to the wind trying to convince the world of them all. The trouble is that that is exactly what we need to do; educate and keep shouting! And I don’t just mean school children or those of us who choose to pursue history, archaeology or related subjects at university or for a living. I mean EVERYBODY. Everybody has a stake, the history of one culture belongs to all of us; we are all human and we all should be able to learn the lessons of the past.

Regardless of the fact that there are reports many of the statues destroyed in the Mosul museum were replicas, there were genuine originals in that gallery and the two other main galleries where no film has been released, and I foresee the potential for even more destruction. ISIS has already stated their aim to destroy the sphinx and pyramids. In Libya there are extensive and important Roman remains that we now have to consider under threat. In Nigeria where Boko Haram operates there are the remains of the Walls of Benin and Taruga (the under-representation of African history and archaeology is aanother topic entirely).  The loss of these, just as we appear to have lost large parts of Ninevah, Nimrud and Hatra would be a further blow to the shared history of the human race.

Something must be done, but what can we do?

Part 2

Christopher Booth 20.3.2015

Sources:

Johnson, B. (2015) – http://on.fb.me/1MQ2WXA – accessed 18/3/2015

UNESCOPRESS (2015) – http://bit.ly/1bjIeBN – accessed 18/3/2015

Gannon, M. (2015) – http://www.livescience.com/50072-isis-attack-on-ancient-history.html – accessed 18/3/2015.

RT News (2015) – http://on.rt.com/0nfp9a – accessed 18/3/2015