Cave of Forgotten Dreams – NYC, LA and Chicago on April 29th

I received word that Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which I reviewed after an advanced screening is opening for wider release on April 29th. Those lucky enough to live in LA will be able to see Werner Herzog himself at a Q&A. (Attention UCLA people!!)

You can get discounts for group sales through the IFCCenter here:

Let me know what you think if you catch the movie!

I’m in the textbook.

I’ve been doing a little background reading for an article I want to write about single context archaeology (in addition to looking at textbooks to use for an Intro to Archaeology class)  and so I picked up Martin Carver’s Archaeological Investigation in the hopes that it would provide a better overview of methodology than the standard “Archaeologists dig in square holes!” American textbook. Of course I learned from Renfrew and Bahn’s Archaeology: Theory, Methods, and Practice and while I’m loathe to stray from the classic, I don’t think that students really need to become little Cognitive Processualists.

Indeed, Carver provides a good overview of what he calls the fossicker, historical, empirical, processual, reflexive and the evaluative methods. He cites Philip Barker  (who I have a soft spot for) for the empirical approach by saying:

For him the archaeological site was like a series of newspapers or carpets laid over each other, and cutting slices through them would show you nothing but disconnected shreds. He advocated large areas and the detailed digging of everything, even parts that were not thought significant to any research programme – because they might be one day. (…)

Early commercial archaeologists liked his approach: it implied that “everything” that was to be destroyed should be recorded. And it implied that it was to be dug and recorded with great precision: small scale, messy archaeology was next to useless. He set standards: archaeology must be very neat, immaculately clean, precisely defined and recorded in detail. Nothing else will do, and for those of us who learnt our trade in the late 20th century there can be no going back on this principle. Barker was an art teacher before he became an archaeologist, and his approach was to conjure a picture out of a sea of stony rubble by brushing and trowelling it – like a painter with a brush and a palette knife.


Sadly, I didn’t get to Carver’s approach, the empirical, because I was sidelined by this, under reflexive methodology:

So, that’s me on the right, digging “reflexively” in 2008 at Catalhoyuk. The plaster on the platform had been cut repeatedly to inter burials and then replastered again and I was trying to figure out which cut was associated with which plastering event. Man, what a headache.

It’s a little strange to be used to illustrate a concept that I’m not sure I completely endorse. I appreciate some aspects of reflexive methodology, and certainly Catalhoyuk offered some of the best archaeology there is to dig…but…I guess this is why you write your own Introduction to Archaeology book, right?

Google Sketchup for Modeling Archaeological Sites

A model of what might be a mosque at Fuwairit. Its based on the archaeological footprint on the ground and two other historic Qatari mosques.

Over the summer I started making a Sketchup model of Fuwairit, a site we intensively surveyed by total station. The site itself is nearly a kilometer long (longer, if you count the fortifying wall to the jebel) and about 200m wide and is chockablock full of architecture in the form of rectangular compounds. After a month and a half of survey, we had a pretty good idea where all the walls were and created an autocad model that was just the wall lines. I tried all kinds of things to import the file into Blender, but the translatability between a PC/Autocad and an Apple/Blender was insurmountable. Actually, I got it to mostly work, but it was so infuriating I wouldn’t really recommended. Hint: do not try to import polylines. It doesn’t work.

I ended up importing the polyline wall file (dwg) into Google Sketchup (you have to use 7 and not 8, because they moved the functionality into Pro for 8, but then you can import the 7 file into 8) and playing with it there. Sketchup has changed a lot in the four years since I’ve last opened it up, and it might be worth another look if you, like me, are an early adopter/early rejector. The most fundamental problem is that it is not Open Source. I’m still hurting a bit from the Second Life burn, and am hesitant to commit to any format that will restrict archiving or my future use. Luckily, Sketchup exports to many different kinds of files, so the Second Life debacle is a bit more avoidable.

Anyway, some notes, so that your model-making experience will be better than mine:

1) Do not attempt to reconstruct kilometer-long, complex architecture. Sketchup starts to bog down pretty fast, and after 2,000 objects, no longer will import into Google Earth.

2) Do not smooth edges until you are absolutely finished and absolutely certain. The beachstone/mud finishing on the pearling site architecture tempted me to smooth the lines and it looked great…until I needed to redo a lot of the textures, which you cannot apply to smoothed surfaces.

3) Import the model into Google Earth sooner rather than later to check it out. The model looks pretty good in Sketchup, but usually looks better in Google Earth, so it will give you a better idea how your textures are turning out.

4) Use the edge style and plane style to come up with different views and feels for your project. Turning shadows on is nice as well, as you can manipulate the time of day and see if the particular alleyway that you are modeling was shaded or sunny at that time.

This is with shaded textures off, and the profile edges on.

5) Try importing various pre-made objects. There are a lot of free objects that were made by various people and I was able to pick up some nice date palms, mangroves, and even a dhow to add detail to my reconstruction. I took photos of some standing structures to add textures and windows and things like that. It’s obviously much easier when you have something still existing to give you a pretty good idea of what the structures looked like.

6) There’s also the option to “walk around” and to make fly through animations, if you are into such a thing. I like to use it to test viewsheds, something that is obviously important in “veiled” islamic domestic architecture.

So, it is basic but robust, and you can easily manipulate the various textures to give you a more or less “accurate” or cartoony atmosphere. I want to make some time to import the images into photoshop to touch them up there, but I am fairly satisfied with the mockup I’ve made with a fairly low time investment.

(Mostly written March 10, with some more recent edits)

Cormac McCarthy vs. Catalhoyuk

Hands in negative with a red painted background at Catalhoyuk.

I listened to the Science Friday episode featuring Cormac McCarthy, Werner Herzog, and another guy (why didn’t they have Meg Conkey or someone who could actually address art and human origins?) after being sent the link by several people. Here it is, if you are interested:

Probably the most interesting segment to me (other than Herzog predicting the ultimate doom of all humanity) was Cormac McCarthy talking about the stylistic continuity of cave art. People who have been following this blog for a while might remember that I used to excerpt bits of fiction for writing inspiration by writers such as Jack Gilbert, Orhan Pamuk, and Mr. Cormac McCarthy himself. So I was particularly interested in hearing his take on Chauvet. An extended quote, transcribed from the audio:

“Well, the interesting thing about the caves to me is the longevity of this school of art. The oldest we know of (by no means are we to therefore say that the Chauvet Caves are the oldest there are, just the oldest we’ve seen) going back 32,000 years and then you come up all the way through the Magdalenian period to 11,000 years ago, this is 20,000 years and the paintings are the same. The perspectives they use, the style they use, the things that they use to show that the leg of an animal is not in the foreview but in the rearview is they disconnect it from the body, all these things persevered. If you look at the cave paintings at Chauvet, they’re really just the same; the same school of thought, the same school of art, the same type of work, that’s astonishing to me that you can have the same school of art unchanged for 20,000 years. I’ve never heard anybody’s view about that, I’d be interested to know what the people who study this what they think about that. Obviously there’s a culture here. Artifacts come from cultures, you have to have the cultures first. Obviously there’s a very strong and a very rich culture that endured for thousands of years and nobody seems to know anything about it. That’s astonishing.

When you get to the earliest so-called cities or communities like Catalhoyuk the first thing you see are paintings of bulls on the walls. They’re not as good, we’re already in a state of decline, but that’s amazing.

There is a lot going on with this quote regarding the “school of art” of the cave painters reflecting an ongoing, unchanging culture (I think more interesting parallel questions are why would the paintings change? why would they see or represent animals in a different way and why does this appearance of verisimilitude not extend to humans? But I’m not a rock art person….) but the last part of the statement is something with which I have more direct experience.

To call the art at Catalhoyuk indicative of “a state of decline” is to remove the context of the art into an art-historical vacuum where Turkey and France aren’t tens of thousands of years and over 2,000 miles away from each other. I don’t really feel the need to defend the artfulness of the material culture at Catalhoyuk, but to hear it being cited as a sign of a society that is anything but flourishing was startling.

It’s tempting to see parallels in ancient art–after excavating the above hands at Catalhoyuk, I always enjoy seeing hands and handprints in art from around the world. There are handprints at Chauvet Cave that are actual handprints – the hands in the Catalhoyuk painting above were styled after hands, but the fingers are all the same length. One could argue that this move toward more figurative painting indicated an advancement rather than a decline–if I were inclined toward drawing large, “just so” conclusions about the meaning of these hands and handprints in different contexts.

I appreciate the inspiration I can draw from auteurs and authors such as Cormac McCarthy and Werner Herzog in their creativity, but I really wished a proper archaeologist would have been there to challenge them, to push back on their assumptions and to contribute to the conversation.

Review – The Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Last night I had the pleasure of attending an advanced screening of Werner Herzog’s (3D! Imax!) Cave of Forgotten Dreams with my colleagues from UC Berkeley and the local press. I’m unabashedly a big fan of Werner Herzog, even though I’ve heard that he can be difficult and invasive while he films you. I enjoy Herzog’s dour commentary, his bizarre analogies, his incredible juxtapositions and his lush filmic style–all of which were present in The Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

The opening shot takes you through the vineyards of France, in the most startling use of 3D that I’ve seen so far. The shot begins at eye level and rows of vines reach around you, drawing you in, until suddenly it reveals itself as a crane shot and you are pulled up and into the French countryside. This contrast is visible throughout, with wobbly hand-held action interspersed with sweeping helicopter and crane shots, switching between the personal and the majestic in a bid to both personally connect you with the imagery and take your breath away.

In what is probably the most successful sequence, Herzog takes us down into the cave with the group of researchers and with his film crew, in a delightfully reflexive move. He shows us the physicality of the cave, scuttling in through a narrow opening, then down through the gorgeous, glittering cave formations. The 3D camera manages to traverse these angles in an astonishing verisimilitude, I felt very much present in the cave with the crew. Sadly, I’m not sure how well this will translate to DVD (or to the above youtube trailer), which is a pity because makes this very evocative sequence difficult for use in teaching.

When the first paintings are sighted, it is like the first glimpse of an animal in the woods, far off, elusive, a blur and a sudden intake of breath. They are the red palmprints of a “man” with a crooked pinky finger. (While one of the researchers disputes that it was positively a man, this concept is dismissed in the narrative by stating that the person was over 6′ tall) Later we learn that we can trace his movement in these palmprints–that the overlapping of the prints shows that he first crouched down and then rose up to add the very highest prints. In my imagination I see the person (okay, probably a man, whatever that meant in the Paleolithic) preparing the paint, crouching down to apply it to his hands, then slapping on a couple of test prints before then rising up to “start” the overall composition. This is one place where the movie fell down a bit–film is the perfect medium to show this kind of movement, to show the poetics of cavepainting displayed in the shoulders, hips, and hands. It doesn’t have to be a fur-clad reenactor (as appears later on) to convey the physicality of painting in a cave.

Beyond the red palm prints were the more figurative paintings of horses and buffalo, of panthers and oxen, and some that suggest birds or butterflies. Again, this is the most successful part of the movie, as the joy of discovery and the wonder of the figures is translated through the eye of the camera. The camera follows the folds of the cave, the horses spring into action and my heart started beating faster. There was much discussion of this movement and the possible interplay of light and shadow and of the possible authorship of the paintings. A part of me was listening, but it was difficult, as I felt the fuzzy muzzles of the ponies in the palm of my hand and the calm repose of the lions sitting, flirting, and finally loping across the walls of the cave. The charcoal and etching of the paintings was heart-stoppingly fresh-looking, and I thrilled at the marks of a torch being refreshed against one of the walls, bits of charcoal still in situ beneath. Geologists and Paleontologists will enjoy checking out the amazing rock formations and the gorgeously preserved skeletons of cave bears, in probably the most exquisitely filmed display of bones scattered on a cave floor ever.

After this opening sequence, the movie’s pace and timing became erratic. We meet the researcher who laser scanned the cave (though of more interest were his dreams about lions and his background in circus performing–beware the Herzog interview, fair scientist!) and an aforementioned fur-clad fellow playing the Star Spangled Banner on a reconstructed pipe. Overall, the team working on Chauvet cave kept their cards relatively close to their chest, which was probably prudent considering Herzog’s penchant for insane interpretive leaps, but it did make me a bit sad as there was a real chance for near epic levels of outreach here. It was fair on their part, as Herzog makes a plunge into Mother Goddess territory, highlighting a possible vulva on a stalactite possibly paired with an ox, which he parallels to the Greek myth of the Minotaur, jumping tens of thousands of years into the future. I am tempted here to extend his metaphor and post a photo of one of my girlfriends in a Texas Longhorns t-shirt, but will refrain. Let’s not be ridiculous, now.

There are long sequences of throbbing, jangled classical music and sweeping views of the cave in proper 3D, with a better camera and a long arm, but I found these a bit dull and over-wrought. The discovery sequences were far superior in preserving the phenomenology of cave as experienced by humans, whereas these later, better-filmed sequences were crystallized moonscapes, devoid of people. At the end, Herzog finally goes off the rails entirely, bringing us to a nuclear power plant and some albino alligators that he somehow relates to our experience of seeing the art of ancient humans and our current possibly degraded (non-spear-throwing) existence. It’s a great quote with absolutely no basis in reality–the albino alligators were not mutated by the nuclear power plant, it’s a natural genetic occurrence.

Overall, the film was a lovely excursion into Chauvet Cave–something that most of us will never experience. One of the things I love the most about being an archaeologist is that you get a backstage pass to the world. As much as I can, I try to share that insider’s view into archaeology, but there are some things that are closed, even to the most famous of archaeologists (of which I am certainly not one). I would love to figure out a way to get that golden ticket, an invite into Chauvet Cave, but a 3D movie from Werner Herzog is the next best thing. Filmed exquisitely, passionately, with great fire and expression, I feel like I can overlook the oddities introduced into the narrative and recommend this wholeheartedly, to anyone who has ever wanted that elusive golden ticket.

The Hunt for Al-Huwailah

The scene from last week really should have been filmed in grainy black and white–classic 1-2 head shot, reaction shot, static-strafed classical music in the background:

(Fade in – A tiny office, somewhere hot and dusty, the site director and the field archaeologist, talking over tea)

Site Director: “There’s an archaeological site that was excavated forty years ago, but has since been lost. We want you to find it.”

Field Archaeologist: (straightening her pith helmet) Absolutely, sir. I will find you your missing site.

(cut to the windiest, bleakest desert you’ve ever seen)

Though the desert part is accurate, the rest of the montage that follows is considerably less romantic. We found Beatrice de Cardi’s volume from her ten-week season in 1973, made a photocopy of the aerial photography of the site, Al-Huwailah, and noted the description of the location. (Marginalia – the report was actually written by Peter S. Garlake, who got fired by the Rhodesian government as the Inspector of Monuments–he wouldn’t deny the African origins of Great Zimbabwe to reaffirm crazy racist theories. I’m guessing that he hooked up with this project while hanging around UCL–anyone know for sure?) After making the photocopies and checking out possible locations for the site on Google Earth, we headed out. How hard could it be?

Several hours later, nauseous from driving fast over dunes and avoiding detention by the heavy security around a large oil refinery, we huddled together over a cracked and peeling tablecloth, sopping up steaming dal with fresh paratha. How could a site that’s 2km long with a big fort remain entirely undetectable? In previous years another team conducted a Google Earth/satellite image survey of Qatar, and placed the GPS point for Huwailah right in the middle of a trash-filled goat pen. Not so much.

This quest was becoming decidedly less romantic.

While the Google Earth map of the area showed development, I didn’t know the extent of it until I tried their “rewind” back to 2004. Mordor, aka the oil refinery that sits at the easternmost tip of this north-facing coast is visible from pretty much the entire country. The development that has been performed in conjunction with the refinery has completely altered the landscape in the area. Well, there’s that, and the giant earthen platforms that I thought were defensive emplacements, but then was told that they’re just viewing platforms for local racing.

We finished up for the day and returned to the dig compound, a bit dejected. Still, we kept at it, scouring satellite photos, playing with Google Earth, and looking up everything anyone has ever said about Huwailah. I found a reference that said that the fort was still standing to a height of 30′ in 1920. Between 1920 and 1973-1977  when it was investigated by English and French teams, it had lost 9 meters in height. Since then, it seems to have lost the rest.

It still seemed improbable that there weren’t any surface remains at all. Finally, we looked at the aerial photo taken by the French team–there was a little bit of ocean visible and a road that curved slightly to the northwest. In a modified digital extension of Prince’s principle, we overlaid the aerial photograph onto the Google Earth image…and we had a pretty good match. Sadly, I can’t show you the overlay that would disclose where we think the site is, but I will tell you…

…it’s directly in front of the food stand where we sat and argued over dal. Figures.

The site has been mostly destroyed by modern construction–indeed, the fort is undetectable and the city has been reduced to a surface scatter of pottery. Al- Huwailah, the most important pre-Zubarah and pre-Doha city in Qatar, is still by most standards, lost. Still, locating the site gives us an idea of the future of these coastal sites without protection and archaeological intervention.

Field Archaeologist: Boss, we found the lost city…but you aren’t gonna like it….

(originally written March 16th)

Blogging Archaeology – Afterwords

Kris was waiting for me at the Starbucks in the Convention Center a couple of hours before the session. We were in the same session together at the SAA in 2007, when I urged my fellow archaeologists to use spatially-aware social media for outreach and she had enthusiastically supported me in her comments on my paper–it was good to see her again! I was a little late because I wanted to see Randy McGuire’s talk in the Activism in Archaeology session. (Thought provoking, but there is a fundamental disconnect rampant in public outreach and archaeology that I’ve been dared to blog about. We’ll see if I get up the courage.)

We chatted about the upcoming session and I groggily admitted that I had depleted most of my resources just to get to the conference, but after some coffee and a sandwich I was ready. I usually like to check out the room ahead of schedule and spend some time getting to know the space. I stood at the mic and welcomed an empty room to the Blogging Archaeology session at the meeting for the Society for American Archaeology.

The session participants began to show up and I told them the routine, asked if they had any questions, then spent a bit of time making sure Shawn Graham’s presentation would work. We didn’t have any computer speakers so the wonderful Sacramento Convention Center AV staff member (Hi Max! Thanks!!) gave us an extra-long mic cord that I held next to my computer for the talk.

And the show began.

The speakers were beyond excellent. They gave compelling, intelligent and surprisingly funny talks about the place of blogging in archaeology. The energy in the room was great and our audience stayed with us–I was in the front most of the time, but I did a quick headcount and came up with about 75 people in the room early in the session. Later it would grow to 100-125 and I spotted the friendly faces of colleagues, students, and my former CRM boss! Whispers went around–was that John Hawks in the audience?

A summary of the papers seems unnecessary because the whole session was live-tweeted, the results of which have been collated by @archaeologist at Storify and Shawn Graham and John Lowe have posted their papers online. Needless to say, I believe that between the blog carnival and the strong session presentation and discussion, we have a firm foundation to pursue publication.

As the community has become self-aware, some have taken it upon themselves to implement key questions and interests that were raised by the carnival and session.

Past Thinking has published a list of archaeology blogs, along with a bundle in Google Reader for the RSS-dependent like myself.

Alun Salt has expanded on the idea of a group blog – this is essential reading for bloggers who are interested in the possibility. The carnival was harder work and took longer than I anticipated, and editing a group blog would only amplify the amount of work and attention necessary to create a quality outcome.

Thank you so much to everyone who participated in this timely and essential conversation about the place of the short form in archaeology.

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