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Doorway to the Past 28 April 2009

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

Welcome to my humble abode. Medieval doorway in the late antique “Arch of Janus”, Rome. Photo: TMK, April 2009.

Cambridge and British-American Concordia 14 January 2009

Posted by Troels in : Classical Reception,Juxtapositions , 2 comments

I’m writing this from the Classics Faculty Library at Cambridge, where I’ve taken up residency for the next six months, thanks to the generous support of EliteForsk. My reason to write, however, was a recent piece in The Independent that revealed the design of Tony Blair’s congressional medal, awarded in 2003 but still not presented to the awardee. One side of the medal (or to put it in numismatic terms, the obverse) is a Clintonesque portrait of Blair, but the other side of the coin (the reverse, unfortunately not depicted in the online edition) has some further Classical resonance: It features two firmly clasped hands, seemingly signifying British-American concordia. The image above is one second century example. The motif is truthfully a numismatic shorthand for another kind of scene, where two whole figures are shown shaking hands, such as this early third century example celebrating the marriage of Caracalla and Plautilla.

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.

Iconoclasm: The Diego Rivera Version 3 January 2008

Posted by Troels in : Juxtapositions , 1 comment so far

With this photo of one of Diego Rivera’s magnificient murals from a recent visit to Mexico City, I wish my readers a happy New Year. In Rivera’s vision of the Communist utopia, religion has been abandoned and a headless idol features prominently.

Detail of “Man, Controller of the Universe” in the Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City. Photo: TMK, December 2007.

Pop Arch in Orange County 23 January 2007

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

A panorama from the Fry’s Electronics store in Fountain Valley:

Akvædukt i Fry's Vægmaleri fra Mysterievillaen i Pompeji i Fry's
"Amfiteater" i Fry's Romersk triumfbue i Fry's

I especially enjoyed the paintings from the Villa of the Mysteries at Pompeii behind the check-out counter.

Pompeii in the Popular Imagination 30 December 2006

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

The casts of those who unsuccesfully tried to escape from Vesuvius‘ eruption in AD 79 are always of interest to visitors to Pompeii. They offer an opportunity to study voyeurism and the human fascination of horror (see also Jennifer Wallace on this topic). The ‘Casts Project’ intend to do just that by inviting anyone to write on their personal reactions to the exhibition of these casts at Pompeii. Visit their blog if you wish to contribute. They also have a poll on their website: “Should we excavate the rest of Pompeii now or preserve it underground for future generations?” Personally, I’m convinced that as much as possible should be left alone until more efficient means of preservation have been developed. Already, some 75% of the site have been excavated, and it’s a sad sight indeed how many houses are in an advanced stage of deteriation at Pompeii (and Herculaneum).

The people behind the ‘Casts Project’ are also planning an interesting conference on “Ruins and Reconstructions: Pompeii in the Popular Imagination” at University of Bristol 17-19 July 2007 (Hat tip: RogueClassicism). The photo above was taken by me in the Pompeii forum depot in May 2005. More photos can be found here.

Saint Nicholas Fells a Sacred Tree 21 December 2006

Posted by Troels in : Juxtapositions,Secondary Evidence , 2 comments

To celebrate the Christmas season, I thought I would share an act of iconoclasm that in a way is re-enacted in many corners of the world at this time of year. It is the story of how Saint Nicholas of Sion cuts down a ‘Christmas’ tree. Except that this tree is possessed by a demon and worshipped by pagans. Truthfully, the Saint Nicholas in question here should not be confused with Saint Nicholas of Myra (also in Lycia, hence why many hagiographers probably did confuse the two), more commonly known as ‘Santa Claus’, and the story has nothing to do with Christmas or Christmas trees. Rather, the story represents a rather common topos in late antique hagiographies where the saint must face particularly powerful and demonic statues or, in this case, a kind of natural shrine.

The story is taken from the fascinating Life of Saint Nicholas of Sion (15-18, here presented in the translation by Ševčenko & Ševčenko): (more…)

Because history is violent… 24 October 2006

Posted by Troels in : Juxtapositions , add a comment

I’ve waited a little while after my Katyn post to write about a truly bizarre website I found through RC. Here is how Headless Historicals present their own project:

Inspired by history, Headless Historicals™ dolls portray famous and not-so-famous men and women at both their very best and very worst. All of these dolls were originally salvaged from thrift shops and auctions, after which they were given new life (or death, to be more exact). Each doll is dressed in handmade outfits that resemble the attire that they might have worn in the height of their success in life while the body appears as it would have shortly after their death.

Using forensic photographs, written historical accounts, and techniques used for creating horror effects in film, special attention is given to the details of the injuries sustained during the final moments of each character’s life. All of the eyes are glazed over to produce the lack-luster stare of the dead. Torn flesh and deep gashes are shown in all their gory details and for decapitations the severed muscle tissue and bone is visible in the wound.

All of our dolls come with a certificate that includes a brief synopsis of the historical character’s life.

The site’s slogan? Because history is violent…

An Egyptian Encounter in Denmark 20 July 2006

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

The current issue of Public Archaeology is a special issue, edited by Peter Ucko, on “Living Symbols of Ancient Egypt“. This is a field of research that has experienced a surge of interest recently, notably in the “Encounters with Ancient Egypt” series (also edited by Ucko), Lynn Meskell’s “Object Worlds in Ancient Egypt“, as well as Cornelius Holtorf’s “From Stonehenge to Las Vegas” and several others. The papers in the special issue, all co-authored by Ucko, present a number of case studies that deal with the question of how Egyptianizing elements are being used in the present in everything from villa architecture to billboard advertisements. Special emphasis is put on the changing meanings of Egyptian architecture and design, as they are being (re)interpreted again and again.

The contextual approach is the special issue’s primary strength. Those involved in commissioning and designing the ‘living symbols of ancient Egypt’ have in most of the case studies presented been interviewed, and their thoughts are presented in equal measure. What we see emerging is thus an ethnography of the living past that is able to offer a critical view of the current state of archaeological knowledge. And this is exactly what makes public archaeology interesting as a research field.

It is easy enough to come up with more case studies, and I don’t think that references to ‘post-modern eclecticism’ explain much. One building that I recently came across is the headquarters of the United Exhibits Group in Copenhagen. The building is inspired by the famed temple of Horus at Edfu, and was designed by Kim Utzon. There are more photos here.

Now, I don’t know enough about this building or its owner (although they have been getting a lot of bad press in Denmark) to present a refined interpretation, so it’s mainly presented here for illustrative purposes. From an aesthetical viewpoint, the building itself is perhaps less tacky because of the way it blends the Egyptianizing themes with contemporary Scandinavian architecture. I was also reminded of the Fry’s Electronics stores in the western US, also discussed in Christine Finn’s “Artifacts“. The ones I’ve visited in California and Arizona have been quite interesting. See also my earlier post on Roman baths in Denmark.