The Archaeology of the Dubplate

This post is part of “Iconoclasm Weekend”, an occasional series of more or less off-topic posts to appear on Saturdays.

As commodified archives, online auction houses are full of discarded stuff from the past. If you scavenge through this stuff, you may be able to get closer to things that were once completely out of reach to you, such as dubplates, typically one-off 10″ acetates with unreleased music and now mostly considered to be relics of a time before streaming, CDRs and USBs took over. Yet the dubplate remains a uniquely important cultural signifier within reggae sound systems as well as “golden age” drum and bass, the genre of electronic music that in the early- to mid-1990s began to combine sped-up, sampled breakbeats, the basslines of Jamaican dub, and elements of Detroit and Chicago techno, and that we will focus on here.

Resident Advisor has produced this nice little introduction to dubplate culture and its development from King Tubby to today. To quote from the introduction, “vinyl was the thing“; the thing in all sorts of ways, I would add, and there is some value in looking also at dubplates from the perspective of material culture. (Here is another interesting write-up on dubplates, the title of which again speaks to their materiality: “Dreams rendered in metal“).

As an archetypical form of symbolic capital, dubplates were much more than a medium for new pieces of music. The reputations of genre figureheads, such as Grooverider and Doc Scott, were indeed built around the mystique of having new tracks (“tunes”) that others did not. Similar to inalienable possessions, these dubplates were shared at particular moments but ultimately remained with the DJ. At the same time (and in a very Maussian sense), dubplates established and defined the relationships between specific DJs and the producers that gave them a DAT to cut to acetate (especially at the time before producer-DJs had conquered the world of electronic music).

Generic Music House label sticker for a dubplate, referencing the studio’s Jamaican heritage.

Looking at the dubplates themselves, they typically carry only generic white labels, in some cases with the name and address of the cutting studio (and very often also the title of a track penned by the owner, adding to the highly personal nature of the object). Fundamental to the culture of dubplates was indeed the preservation of secrecy by seeking to hide the identity of new, unreleased tracks. Adding to their elusive nature is the fact that acetates eventually wear out and become unplayable.

Some dubplates took years to come out officially. And some, of course, never did, later giving rise to a culture of “dubplate remakes“, all sorts of lo-fi SoundCloud pirate archives, as well as nostalgia-led labels, such as “Deep Jungle“, “Speed” and “Dubs from the Dungeons“, the latter even releasing gold-coloured vinyl to emphasise the theme of hidden treasure.

If the dubplate is the thing that defines this culture, the defining place was Music House, the mastering studio in London that in the 1990s was home to a close-knit, multi-cultural community of DJs and musicians that were hanging out, smoking and cutting new tracks. The “Talkin’ Headz” documentary (1998) provides a funny little window into this community and the people and places of their “urban style music” – specifically the Metalheadz label, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and the Sunday Sessions at the Blue Note club in Hoxton Square where so many classic dubplates were first played out – as well as a moment in time when everything felt brand new and London really was the cosmopolitan centre of the world.

Konstantinos Zachos on the Actium Victory Monument

Here’s an interesting online presentation by Konstantinos Zachos on the excavations of the Augustan victory monument at Nikopolis that revealed thousands of fragments of Pentelic marble sculpture (with some comments on deliberate destruction at around the 33-minute mark). Thanks to Carsten (Hjort Lange) for the tip.

Teaching Thursday: Contexts of Classical Sculpture

One of the fun things I’m doing this semester is teaching a new graduate seminar for our graduate students in classical archaeology on “Contexts of Classical Sculpture.” With them previously having been schooled in the basics of chronology and style, the seminar dives straight into current discussions about the meanings and uses of “context” in the study of sculpture and introduces them to a selection of new approaches and methods, including global, comparative agendas. To some extent, the course represents my own response to some of the issues that I address here. The short version of the course syllabus is available below.

“Contexts of Classical Sculpture” consists of 11 three-hour weekly sessions, eight of which are meant to prepare and inspire the students for their own presentations (and later, final exam) in which they will work with specific case studies of their own choosing and put some of the approaches and methods that we’ve covered into practice.

In the first couple of sessions we’ve discussed some of the ways in which two recent “handbooks” on classical sculpture may or may not reflect the state of the field more broadly: De Gruyter’s Handbook of Greek Sculpture, edited by Olga Palagia (2019), and OUP’s Handbook of Roman Sculpture, edited by Elise Friedland, Melanie Sobocinski and Elaine Gazda (2015). Whereas Palagia begins in a traditional vein with the textual record and then turns to function, portraits, style, regional variation, the impact of Rome, techniques, and “afterlife”, the OHRS first looks at collecting, conservation and museum display as three very important “filters” to how we view the sculptural record.

We’ve also explored the spectrum of archaeological “contextualism” – from the perspectives of the Robin Osborne/James Whitley debate in JMA, Chris Chippindale/David Gill’s AJA dossier on the state of collecting, Liz Marlowe’s insistence on working with and from grounded objects, and, way at the other end of that spectrum, Philippe Montebello’s “two percent“.

The case studies that we will proceed to in coming weeks are a little idiosyncratic but reflect some of my own current and past interests. Ideally they should bring together both legacy and new data with more systematic forms of archaeological documentation. In reality, the selection of sites does not matter too much as they are meant to be paradigmatic of different approaches and inspire the students to ask new questions about assemblages from altogether different sites. Feedback welcome!

Contexts-of-Classical-Sculpture-F21-Syllabus-Iconoclasm-1

The “Mausoleum” of Nordre Kirkegård, III: The End

To conclude this little series on the “Mausolleion” of Nordre Kirkegård, here are some images taken in July 1946 during the demolition of the crematorium (part one, part two). The first image shows demolition in progress – with two workers on top of the pyramid – and gives some more detail of the relief decoration that I will be trying to track down. The final image from the 1946 series shows the view from the top of the stepped roof (with some very visible leftover signage from World War II on a nearby rooftop). All of these are taken from Aarhusarkivet.dk. The post concludes with a photo of the site as it appeared on the last day of February 2021, a beautiful, sunny Sunday.

One may find some consolation in the fact is that there remain plenty of other possibilities to see Kühnel’s buildings in Aarhus, such as Rømerhus (very recently overhauled as a Bestseller store), Mejlborg, Kasino-Theatret (now Svalegangen) and the fire station in Ny Munkegade, even if none of these use such specific references to individual classical monuments as the Nordre Kirkegård crematorium. I have quite a bit more to say about Kühnel’s “Mausoleum” which is going into a forthcoming paper. Watch this space.

The site of the “Nordre Kirkegård Mausoleum” in February 2021 (photo: TMK).

The “Mausoleum” of Nordre Kirkegård, II: Drawings

Following up on yesterday’s post, here are Kühnel’s beautiful 1918 drawings of the crematorium that he designed for Nordre Kirkegård in Aarhus and that stood for little more than 20 years. The drawings are easily available from the municipality’s “Min Ejendom” archive (in the entry for Kirkegårdsvej 26). The image of Kühnel below is from the Royal Libary’s photographic archive. There is also a brief passage on the crematorium in the multi-volume Danmarks Kirker.

Danmarks Kirker also has an additional drawing of the crematorium that shows some of the relief decoration that adorned the tower (and which is clearly taken from Kühnel’s original). The reliefs were by the prolific local aritst Elias Ølsgaard and represented, on the four faces of the tower, Nativity, Jesus healing a blind man, Crucifixion, and Resurrection.

The “Mausoleum” of Nordre Kirkegård, Aarhus

Reconstruction drawing of the Maussolleion by Charles Robert Cockerell (Source: BM).

The Maussolleion of Halikanassos – and especially its stepped, pyramidal roof – has inspired all sorts of public architecture in the modern world. Buildings from London to Los Angeles and Melbourne have thus been part of a global discourse of classicism rooted in this (lost) wonder of the ancient world. A well-known Danish example is Hack Kampmann’s 1906 extension of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek.

A much less known example is the old, short-lived crematorium in Aarhus’ Nordre Kirkegård, one of the municipal cemeteries in Aarhus Kommune. The crematorium was designed by the architect Sophus Frederik Kühnel (1851-1930) and inaugurated in 1923. After a new crematorium was built in the basement of the cemetery chapel in 1941, the old one was (sadly) demolished.

This was in fact the second Maussolleion-inspired building in Aarhus. The first had been a more humble component of the National Exhibition of 1909 (as we briefly discuss in this book). The first images below are taken from Aarhusbilleder.dk; the second batch is from the Aarhusarkivet.dk.

Julius Lange at the British Museum in 1867

“Artemisia” and “Maussollos” from Halikarnassos in the British Museum (photo: BM).

The art historian Julius Lange (1838-96) is likely to be among the first Danes to have seen the sculptures from the Mausoleum of Halikarnassos. The sculptures, most famously the two colossal portraits usually identified as Maussollos and Artemisia II, had been recovered by the British vice-consul Charles T. Newton in 1857 and then transported by war-ship to London.

In a letter, written in Paris on 7 July 1867 and addressed to J.L. Ussing, professor of classical philology and archaeology at the University of Copenhagen, Lange describes spending seven weeks in London, a considerable portion of which he roamed the British Museum that at the time housed both archaeological and natural wonders (clearly of much less interest to Lange).

The letter gives a wonderful glimpse into the world of archaeological research and academic tourism before the wide availability of photographs and other forms of visual documentation that began to take off with the “big digs” after 1875. Lange also briefly mentions the Blacas collection that the BM had just acquired in 1866.

The Mausoleum Room on a 1912 postcard (source: TuckDB Postcards).

The full letter is published in Breve fra Julius Lange, udgivne af P. Købke, Copenhagen 1902, pp. 15-21. For a much more detailed account of the history of the display of the Maussolleion sculptures, refer to Ian Jenkins, Archaeologists and Aesthetes in the Sculpture Galleries of the British Museum 1800-1939 (London 1992), pp. 97-101. Here’s a very rough translation of the passages that relate to Lange’s time in the BM (pp. 16-18), with some light editing for clarity.

You will almost be able to deduct what I have seen from the itinerary and you will know that I, when it regards art, have led a true gentleman’s life [“et sandt Herreliv”]….In London I limited myself pretty much to the antiques. With the help of Gosch…I got a student’s ticket for the sculpture collection and the reading room. This wonderful access to the museum has been of great and lasting value to me. You know that I see slowly [“jeg ser langsomt”, a wonderful phrase], but I strive to see thoroughly, and I also hope that this stay in London has defined the character of the different architectural sculptures from Greece – the Athenian, the Phigalian, the Halikarnassian, etc. – in mind and eyes, so that I will not forget them.

I am also very happy to have seen thoroughly the Egyptian and especially the Assyrian things. I truly felt everyday in a thousand ways that my dissertation [“Konferens-Afhandling”] about the relief would have looked very different if it had been written after rather than before my visit to the British Museum. But I also felt that both dissertation and my authorship of the catalogue of the Academy casts helped me to set new thoughts in motion and to focus my impressions. When one has written about one thing – in whatever incomplete way – one feels very much more interested in a getting it right.

At any rate, my interest was also in this regard unequally spread, even if I saw everything pretty well. The Parthenon things, especially the east pediment and the frieze, I had to go back to again and again. I saw the extraordinary things on the second floor: bronzes, terracottas, vases, paintings, etc. – some things with careful attention, but of much I only got a small impression of the exceptional wealth. I paid a very attentive visit to the little secret cabinet with riches (the Portland vase, magnificent stones from the Blacas collection). The stuffed animals I completely left alone. Of coins, I did not see any; Professor Müller told me, before I left, that the cabinet in Copenhagen had everything of interest, either as original or cast. I look forward to seeing them, but I am also pleased that I did not immerse myself in them in London; there was enough to do regardless.

Gosch introduced me to Dr. Birch who was very forthcoming and indulgent with me every time I met him in the museum. We did not touch upon politics that are (after what you told me) a dangerous topic when one speaks with him, but I blush to confess that I mostly spoke German with him. That is unfortunately the only foreign language that I speak with security and freedom. He introduced me to Mr. Newton, the excavator of the Mausoleum and now “keeper” of the museum’s archaeological department. That did not lead to much further; Mr. Newton is a beautiful man and far from impolite, but not indulgent in any way.

The One That Got Away: The Via Labicana Augustus

Via Labicana Augustus
The “Via Labicana” Augustus in Palazzo Massimo, photo: TMK, April 2011.

Frederik Poulsen wasn’t always successful in getting the pieces he wanted for the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek. In the second volume of his memoirs, I det gæstfrie Europa (1947), he discusses some of his experiences working under the direction of Carl Jacobsen as well as his occasional failures in acquiring a number of different sculptures, including the so-called “Via Labicana” Augustus that was found in 1910 (Arachne). It was first in the main Museo delle Terme and now in Palazzo Massimo (inv. 56230).

Prior to this, the NCG had had considerable success in acquiring sculpture from recent excavations in Rome (see, for example, the assemblages from the Horti Sallustiani and the “Licinian Tomb” that count among the Glyptotek’s most prized possessions).

Here’s a rough translation of the relevant passage (from p. 264). I have no idea whether there is any truth to FP’s accusations of dirty dealings on behalf of the Italian state. It could well be the case that he was eager to accept pretty much anything in order to explain away his failure and the disappointment of Jacobsen.

In 1911 I had a similar accident in Rome. It was the newly discovered, wonderful statue of Augustus from Via Labicana that was the goal, and I had been permitted to bid up to 120.000 Lire. Once again I had scouted out that the Italian state would offer 40.000 Lire for the statue and that the seller had to give up a fourth of the sum if it was sold to a buyer abroad and a permesso was required for its export. Professor Helbig, Jacobsen’s representative in Rome, and I agreed to bid 80.000 Lire to secure the purchase. Italy was victorious anyway. The owner was an engineer, and by offering him the sole rights to a harbour facility in Bari, the government succeeded in acquiring the statue for the Museo delle Terme.

Bodrum in “Who is Europe”

As part of the broader work of the CoHERE project that our recent paper on the Maussolleion in Bodrum was one small part of, documentary filmmaker Ian McDonald produced a film, “Who is Europe? A Film in Six Acts” that has been shown at a several film festivals across the world. Act 4 is Bodrum (about 29mins in) and illustrates many of the issues that we discuss in the JSA paper. This act was produced by the stellar team of Gönül Bozoglu and Cem Hakverdi.

Who is Europe? A Film in Six Acts by Ian McDonald