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The Destruction of Pre-Christian Monuments in Mexico 20 July 2008

Posted by Troels in : Ethics, Juxtapositions, Travel , add a comment

The destruction and mutilation of pre-Christian monuments played an important and very tragic role in the Spanish conquest of the cultures of modern Mexico. Notoriously, the monuments and temples of Tenochtitlan were demolished in such a thorough fashion that very little of the once glorious city remained visible until the discovery of the Templo Mayor in the 1970s. Insight into the mindset of those behind this destructive process of Christianisation can be found in the writings of the bishop Zumárraga, who wrote the following in a letter dated 12 June 1531 to the Chapter of the Franciscan Order:

Know ye that we are much busied with great and constant labour to convert the infidel…five hundred temples razed to the ground, and above twenty thousand idols of the devils they worshipped smashed and burned… (Quoted from Bernal 1980: 36).

We may doubt the enormous figure of ‘twenty thousand idols’, but here is an archaeological example of some mutilated relief sculptures in the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City:

Mutilated ‘idols’ in the Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City. Photo: TMK, December 2007.

Similar to many other outbreaks of iconoclasm in history, the Spanish response to Aztec images was not entirely uniform or immune to pragmatism. In the case above, the reliefs were re-used in an altar. In the case below, a round, relief-decorated object was transformed into a baptismal font. Yet another example comes from Mexico City’s first cathedral, where Aztec relief carvings were reused as capitals (Bernal 1980: 39, fig. 15). The purpose of these Aztec spoliae clearly ranges from ideological (triumphal even, in the case of the altar) to more pragmatic and opportunistic (in the case of the cathedral).

Baptismal font in the Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City. Photo: TMK, December 2007.

Dovecotes, Tradition and National Identity in Egypt 6 June 2008

Posted by Troels in : Juxtapositions, Travel , 1 comment so far

On Mubarak's Mind
Portrait of Mubarak, Abdine Palace Museum, Cairo. Photo: TMK, May 2008.

Dovecotes are not only an omnipresent part of many Egyptian landscapes. They are also very much part of the national identity of modern Egypt, as seen for example in the above portrait of Mubarak in the Abdine Palace in Cairo. It shows a contemplative president surrounded by symbols of the modern Egyptian nation-state: airforce, industry, agriculture, Mahmoud Mokhtar’s sculpture Egypt’s Renaissance, pyramid, mosque, Coptic church, the Nile and a pair of dovecotes.

Dovecotes are used to raise pigeons (hammam). They are often built on the upper stories of houses but frequently they are also of the stand-alone, tower-like variety. There is a great number of different sizes and types. The continuity of the tradition of raising pigeons in dovecotes is nowhere more apparent than in the Fayum. Here, excavations in the 1920s and 1930s of the Roman town of Karanis revealed six dovecotes, representing only a small fraction of the original number (Husselmann 1953; Gazda 2004: 13-14). Visitors touring the Fayum today encounter similar examples across the landscape, using the same construction technique and the same ceramic pots for nests. So many connections are apparent in these relatively mundane artefacts: between past and present, between local tradition and national identity, and between object and observer (the awkward gaze of a Westerner on a society seemingly unchanged by time…).

Have a look for yourself:

Dovecote C65 at Karanis, excavated by Francis Kelsey and his team from the University of Michigan (from Gazda 2004: fig. 22).

Dovecotes in Fayum
Dovecote in contemporary Fayum. Photo: TMK, May 2008.

Isla de las Muñecas 30 April 2008

Posted by Troels in : Photography, Travel , add a comment

Isla de las Muñecas, Xochimilco, Mexico, December 2007. All photos: TMK.

Isla de las muñecas

Isla de las muñecas

Augustus Redux in Stockholm 26 April 2008

Posted by Troels in : Classical Reception, Travel , add a comment

An excellent new book (with an accompanying exhibition) on the use of Classical architecture and motifs in my hometown Aarhus has just been published (Nørskov 2008, in Danish). Having recently read this, I was very attuned to similar examples of Classical reception on a brief trip to Stockholm (and the very hospitable Department of Archaeology and Classical Studies) last month. Not only is Stockholm a very beautiful city, small reminders of Classical antiquity can be observed almost everywhere. I also enjoyed Gustav III’s Museum of Antiquities, a small but interesting collection that is still displayed as it was when originally set up in the 18th century.


Vasa, Stockholm. Photo: TMK, March 2008.

Interestingly, the Vasa Museum was where I came across the most interesting example of the use and abuse of ancient history. The beakhead of the ship, that was built in the 17th century and sank on its maiden voyage, was decorated with representations of twenty Roman emperors, ranging from Tiberius to Septimius Severus. The full list includes, more or less, all emperors (both ‘good’ and ‘bad’) of the first and second centuries AD: Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus, Domitian, Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius, Lucius Verus, Commodus, Pertinax, Didius Julianus and Septimius Severus. However, one major figure is notably absent: Augustus. By excluding the founder of the principate, the patron of Vasa, Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus placed himself in his place and took the role of Augustus Redux. All in all, a reminder of the power of the (Mediterranean) past in the construction of power and regal authority in early modern Scandinavia. (more…)

London Book Raid 20 March 2008

Posted by Troels in : Archaeology, Travel , add a comment

Of course I couldn’t go to London without bringing back some additions to my library. Among these were a number of late antique titles, including “The Egyptian Hermes. A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind” by Garth Fowden (orig. 1986, new ed. 1993), and “Pagan City and Christian Capital. Rome in the Fourth Century” by John Curran (2000, rep. 2007). I also got Christopher Woodward’s “In Ruins” (2001), which is useful in light of my recent interest in decay and entropy. At Quinto in Great Russell Street (just across the street from the BM), I came in time for a “50% off everything” sale and found the following second hand bargains: “Gender Archaeology” by Marie Louise Stig Sørensen (2000), “Towns in Roman Britain” by Julian Bennett (1984), “Roman Forts in Britain” by David Breeze (1983), and “Romano-British Wall Painting” by Roger Ling (1985). At Foyles, I also came across (and subsequently picked up) Mortimer Wheeler’s “Rome Beyond the Imperial Frontier” (1955).

A number of VSIs were also added to the growing collection: “The Renaissance” by Jerry Brotton (2006), “Poststructuralism” by Catherine Belsey (2002), and “Classical Mythology” by Helen Morales (2007).

The “Auditorium of Maecenas” 2 March 2008

Posted by Troels in : Archaeology, Travel , 1 comment so far

Cosiddetto "Maecenas' Auditorium"
“Auditorium of Maecenas”, Rome. Photo: TMK, February 2008.

The City of Rome (Comune di Roma) has an excellent programme of ‘Open Monuments’ (visit their Monumenti Aperti website). Part of this programme is “un monumento al mese”, an archaeological monument that is usually closed but opens up for a single day (often for free, even if the website states otherwise). Last Sunday, it was the so-called “Auditorium of Maecenas” that opened up for a couple of hours. I had the opportunity to visit and took some snapshots (more below the fold).

The auditorium, which in fact is more likely to be a very elaborate dining hall with its own waterfall-like fountain, is only a very small part of a large domestic complex, most of which was destroyed after its discovery in 1874 (Claridge 1998: 294-297; De Vos 1983; Rizzo 1983; Scandurra 1983). Its many niches are painted in beautiful blue and green colours with motifs alluding to a garden setting – a very popular theme in 1st century wall-painting. Incidentally, some very elaborate examples of this trend from Pompeii and Prima Porta are currently on display at the wonderful “Rosso Pompeiano” show at Palazzo Massimo. Another good reason to visit Rome, as if anyone really needed one… (more…)

Schliemann’s Tomb in Athens 12 February 2008

Posted by Troels in : Archaeology, Travel , 2 comments

Schliemanns grav i AthenWhen I was in Athens in September, an archaeological ‘pilgrimage’ was made to the tomb of Heinrich Schliemann (or Σλήμαν, as he is known in Greek), excavator of Troy and Mycene among many other deeds (and misdeeds, some may say….). For some reason, I hadn’t visited before. The grave is located in the First Cemetery, which is a nice and peaceful oasis in the heart of the city. As you’d expect, the tomb is not unlike an ancient heroon and includes a prominently placed portrait of Schliemann himself. Schliemann’s house in Athens – the Iliou Melathron (“Palace of Ilium”, i.e. Troy) – now houses the excellent Numismatic Museum. More photos below the fold. (more…)

A World Away from Rome: Teotihuacan 3 February 2008

Posted by Troels in : Photography, Travel , add a comment

Street of the Dead from the “Pyramid of the Moon”, Teotihuacan, Mexico. “Pyramid of the Sun” in the background. Photo: TMK, December 2007.

I think it’s fair to say that whatever Europeanist biases remaining within me received some final and (hopefully) fatal blows by visiting Teotihuacan in December. The site, roughly contemporary of the Roman Empire, is one of those places that can be explored for days. Here are some snapshots from our visit on Christmas day.

A mural in the Tepantitla complex, Teotihuacan. Photo: TMK, December 2007. (more…)

Why my suitcase weighed 36 kilos… 16 January 2008

Posted by Troels in : Conferences, Travel , add a comment

With the US dollar being so incredibly low, this is a great time to shop pretty much anything in America. So, the following is what I brought home with me from the AIA book fair as well as a number of book shops (the Oriental Institute Suq, a Chicago Borders, the Met Bookstore and the Brooklyn Museum store). The books are here divided into three categories in a list that may be of little (if any) interest to anyone besides myself…Perhaps I’ll get a more interesting post on AIA up in a couple of days or so.

I tried to focus the majority of my purchases on books on Egypt. So at the AIA book fair, I got “Sacred Space and Sacred Function in Ancient Thebes” edited by Peter Dorman & Besty Bryan (2007), and “Life in Egypt under Roman Rule” by Naphtali Lewis (1986, 1999 reprint). One new and one classic – a good start.

Also in Chicago, but at the Oriental Institute Museum, I bought these: “Egypt after the Pharaohs” by Alan Bowman (rev. 1996, orig. 1986), “Women of Jeme. Lives in a Coptic Town in Late Antique Egypt” by Terry Wilfong (2002), and “The Tomb-Builders of the Pharaohs” by Morris Bierbrier (1982, 1997 reprint), a little classic on Deir el-Medina.

At the Brooklyn Museum, I bought a catalogue of their Egyptian collection that features several interesting works: “Art for Eternity. Masterworks from Ancient Egypt” (1999). In the Metropolitan Museum Bookstore, I got “The Art of Death in Graeco-Roman Egypt” by Judith Corbelli (2006), and “Gifts for the Gods. Images from Egyptian Temples” edited by Marsha Hill (2007).

Late Antiquity
Of course, I also bought a couple of books on late antiquity: “A Greek Roman Empire. Power and Belief under Theodosius II” by Fergus Millar (2006, pb 2007), “Early Christianity” by Mark Humphries (2006), “Encountering the Sacred. The Debate on Christian Pilgrimage in Late Antiquity” by Brouria Bitton-Ashkelony (2005), and “Qusayr ‘Amra. Art and the Umayyad Elite in Late Antique Syria” by Garth Fowden (2005).

Theory and General Archaeology & Art
On Sunday, Duckworth were doing half price on their titles at the AIA book fair, so I had to buy a couple of those still available: “Social Evolution” by Mark Pluciennik (2005), and “The Roman Countryside” by Stephen Dyson (2006).

I also got “The Sacred Gaze. Religious Visual Culture in Theory and Practice” by David Morgan (2005), “Monuments and Memory, Made and Unmade” edited by Robert S. Nelson & Margaret Olin (2003), “Rome and Jerusalem. The Clash of Ancient Civilizations” by Martin Goodman (2007), “Ancient Rome on Five Denarii a Day” by Philip Matyszak (2007), a fun little Lonely Planet-style guide to the city of Rome, as well as “Contemporary Art. A Very Short Introduction” by Julian Stallabrass (2006).

A grand total of 20 books. Which goes some way in explaining why my suitcase weighed 36 kilos on the flight back to Europe!

Classics and Civic Identity at the Old Poznan City Hall 25 November 2007

Posted by Troels in : Classical Reception, Travel , 1 comment so far

The reception of Classical antiquity has become quite a hot topic in recent years. It helps that there are lots of examples of the use and appropriation of Classical themes and motifs in modern art and architecture that can be studied through this approach. The field of reception studies has also increasingly been accepted as part of Classics ‘proper’ (see e.g. Beard & Henderson 2000; Bang 2005). I have a lot of sympathy for this interest in Classical reception, although I occasionally feel that it contributes more to a communal sense of nostalgia (i.e. longing for a time when the public still appreciated the ‘true’ value of Classics, and Latin was taught as the first foreign language in schools, etc.) rather than ‘enlivening’ the subject and rendering it relevant in the present. It is perhaps because of this that I often find that the most interesting examples of the use (and occasional abuse) of Classics are those that you come across (almost) at random and in contexts where you hadn’t expected them.

I was therefore pleasantly surprised by the extremely interesting decorative programme of the Old City Hall in Poznan when I visited this summer. Across the facade of its loggia runs a series of portrait roundels of various Classical authors, scientists, politicians, a Byzantine emperor and even a rebel slave. What is interesting here is perhaps not so much the presence of well-known Classical figures in itself (the building as it stands now goes back to the 16th century and was built by Italian architect Giovanni Battista di Quadro) – but rather the selection of who were placed on the building’s facade and how this selection contributed to the construction of a civic identity in Renaissance Poznan. It’s an interesting and rather ecclectic bunch: the Gracchi, plebeian heroes, Lucius Junius Brutus, founder of the Republic, Archimedes, Greek mathematician and engineer, Vitruvius, Roman architect, Virgil, national poet of Rome, Homer, ‘author’ of the Odyssey and the Iliad, Justinian I, Byzantine emperor and patron of the Agia Sophia, Horace, Roman poet, Spartacus, leader of a slave rebellion, and the philosopher Heraclitus. Taken together, these luminaries and what they stand for, must have represented the body politic of this Central European city in the 16th century. (more…)