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Let’s talk about looting

It’s been 12 years since the Pixar film UP was released. I felt like watching a re-run of it on my day off and one particular line from the film caught my attention.

When Charles Muntz the explorer meets and welcomes Carl and Russell to his home, he shows off his private collection of artefacts/skeletons, and says:

“Most of the collection is housed in the world’s top museums; New York, Munich, London. Of course, I kept the best for myself.”

I now know from reading around that this line is majorly full of major red flags!

🚩🚩🚩

The private collection of discovered items which belong in museums is seen as a no-no.

There is a distinct correlation between private collecting and archaeological looting, which is when people go to historical sites and essentially just take things. (If you buy ‘em, they’ll supply ‘em.) This feeds the illegal trade, and if the item is not documented correctly at the time of removal, it becomes nearly worthless without its historical context.

The knock-on effect is that this deprives groups of people from studying their cultural heritage and being connected to their roots. The story of that very item is lost to all future generations and history.

So what’s the big deal? Shouldn’t historical items be finders’ keepers? Well no. This is where the study of Humanities is important. It’s somewhat analogous to the difference between, say, taking your dog to the vet who trained at university, instead of that dodgy guy up the road who ‘studied’ by dissecting animals in his own garage and without oversight or ethics approval.

Some other fun and dire facts about collecting and looting I have learnt:

• When people do illegal archaeological looting, they leave distinctive holes in the ground, like pock marks. This is looked out for by archaeologists via satellite when they are surveying sites.

Holes made by cowboys, in the non-horse-riding sense of the word. Image credit: wikimedia commons

• eBay was initially feared to be the place where an illegal trade of artefacts would boom – but it has, surprisingly, had a protective effect, and has offset archaeological looting. This is because naughty people have decided they make more money creating forgeries of items than they would pillaging historical sites.

• According to this article, if you look for antiques on eBay, it is estimated that 5% are definitely genuine, 30% are definitely forgeries, and the last two thirds lie somewhere in the middle, needing specialist attention to determine if it’s the real deal.

*

Out of curiosity, I did a quick search on eBay using the keyword ‘antique’ and this turned 990,000+ results. I tried to narrow this down, and did a search for ‘antique artefact’, which turned with much fewer, 141 results. Some of them looked suspicious, but several just resembled souvenirs.

Then suddenly, all these sponsored advertisements started appearing! The links lead to artefacts that did indeed look like they belonged in a museum. Eep. Hopefully that wasn’t a genuine pot with Egyptian/Roman origins being sold online.

🏺

“Can you keep what you find?” Is a question that is often pitched at archaeologists. In summary, the answer is no. I guess those of us with magpie-like tendencies that need to be satisfied would do less detriment hoarding other things, and leaving cultural heritage items alone.


In some uplifting (dated) news, a charitable foundation once won the auction where some sacred Native American masks were being sold, and donated them back to the Hopi tribe. Read about it here.

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Makin’ some changes

I was very excited today to see a ute (pick-up truck, if you’re American) with some words including ‘Heritage’ printed on the side, because I guessed they would be archaeologists. Went to look up their logo and they were! Felt like spotting adventurers off to raid tombs or lost arks.


After I published my last post, I thought of a punny title for it. It should have been named “Get your Genes during Black Friday Sale”. Har har. But it was already ten hours after blogging when this occurred to me so I left it.

To my lovely readers: in general, do you view it as cheating to go back and edit blog posts?

In various professions, going back to change timestamped notes can land people in legal hot water, because you are changing what you said you observed at the time.

But this is an online diary with lots of silly humour, and not a formal document that will be used in court as evidence (at least I think).

I have gone back to add a missing word or correct grammar here and there. Even after my best efforts at proofreading, mistakes often slip through. My writing is prone to this.

Here’s a dxamne an example of what happens I’d if I don’t press gdelete delete. I makye make typing errors all the time. In contraxt contrast, my partner is quite slow and measured in his woofing* Writing writing. I make the joke that I was built for speed and not acxuraxy z accuracy.

*Courtesy of autocorrect.

It feels different when the editing is actually about changing information. Editing posts runs the risk of altering the context of things.

To cite one extreme – albeit deliberate – example, in my Reddit surfing days, I once saw one game that someone had started, which was: “Ask me a question, and then edit your post to make me look like a bad person.”

Someone might start with an innocuous question, such as: “What did you do with your food scraps after last night’s dinner?”

The original poster might say: “Fed the last little bits to my dog.”

And the asker might go back and change their first comment to, “What became of your high school bully?”

The entire thread had a lot of morbid humour like this. As you can see, it changed the entire story from start to finish. Behold, the power of post publication edits.

🐶

Changing things up: BCE

Writing over mistakes must be very nearly as old as writing itself. Archaeologists have unearthed evidence of edits from way-back-BCE. Here’s something from Ancient Egypt where someone tried to Ctrl+Z:

Also, Ramesses II (c. 1303–1213 BCE) was a pharaoh who inherited some temples, fancy hieroglyphs and all, from his father. Instead of having a whole new temple erected, which would have cost a lot, he just carved over his dad’s old glyphs to talk about himself. It also turns out he did this a lot to a lot of other old kings’ stuff. I found a whole cool paper from escholarship.org about old rulers who did this:

On the subject of changing stories: I’m still learning about the Ancient Romans, and finding lots of examples to show that they (like many cultures) did this a lot. The main theme I’ve been detecting is that the Romans were a very proud people, and they embellished their stories to elevate the status of the story’s subjects, and by extension, themselves.

Unless, of course, the founding fathers of the empire truly were the sons of the war god, Mars. Would this have made them Martians?

👽 checklist: Pale face ✔️ Blank eyes ✔️ creepy “come to Earth to rule civilisation” vibes ✔️

Anyway, to me, going back to old blog posts and adding the words “UPDATE:” or “EDIT:” in capital letters on an online writing feels a little bit more palatable. Otherwise I will feel like I’m lying about what I did write and suddenly the friendly WordPress community around this blog is subject to a mini-state straight out of 1984.

Or maybe it doesn’t matter on something so informal, as long as it’s done sparsely and in good faith, and I can loosen up.

What’s your approach?


The first two images on this blog were from pexels.com

Image of Romulus and Remus was found on Wikimedia commons.

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Earth beneath the family tree

According to the New York Public library there are 20 reasons why people should write their family histories.

I’ve literally never probed about my own ancestry. I did always think I should probably get round to it before everyone dies and then the story is lost. This week I finally got to asking about it. Here’s a tiny bit of that history:

Once upon a time, when the Last Emperor of the Qing Dynasty was around, young men traveled across the sea to make their fortunes.

My Great-Great Grandpa at the time was 17 when he made his trip. He traveled, without family, from Fujian Province in China from a city called Nan’an, to an island with the Portuguese name Formosa.

Source: Getty images

I would assume it was by boat, and that he didn’t swim, because:

a) it was before 1895

b) the trip was about 161km/100miles

c) Great-great-Grandpa carried with him a Taoist statue at the time, no doubt to bring him blessings. The statue was of Tudigong (土地公 “Lord of the Soil and the Ground”).

It’s not explicitly said on Wikipedia but the association of Tudigong is with wealth – I mean, the earth is the means by which farmers and land barons get rich, so it makes sense.

Great-great-Grandpa most likely didn’t bring a girlfriend with him. Women weren’t allowed to travel across the sea on such expeditions at the time, so the travellers went out with the local girls instead. My family thinks he likely got married this way, to an Indigenous lady. It sounded like he did find his fortune – I wish I knew more about her.

He had at least one son, Great-Grandpa, who grew up and became something called a Dàishū.

It’s funny because a Dàishǔ (note the different inflection) translates to “Kangaroo”.

🦘

There’s no proper word in English for the actual job title and the translation apps I’ve tried have been a little bit off.

(By the way, despite what the above image looks like, if you ever need to translate anything from another language, Deepl.com is always far more accurate than Google Translate. Would gladly shout this from a rooftop.)

I am sure that for his career, Great-Grandpa did not choose to become a book or a professional marsupial. The closest description I could get is a sort-of-lawyer who deals with documents and transfer of property ownership. The level of responsibility is greater than that of a bookkeeper, less than a magistrate. Anyway, he became a community leader, and so he did sufficiently well for himself and the fam.

I guess Tudigong enjoyed the boat trip across the strait and smiled on father and son.

That island, by the way, is present-day Taiwan, where Great-great-Grandpa’s Tudigong is still housed. He’s looked after by a distant cousin.

Tudigong

(… Before anyone thinks we became Crazy Rich Asians – I’m a child of immigrant parents, and shouldered my own rent and student loans.)

Thanks for reading this personal stuff! Depending how it goes, I’ll leave this blog post up.


Other interesting finds:

The Indigenous people of Taiwan share similar DNA to the Māori people of New Zealand, tracing back 60,000 years. After NZ and Taiwan discovered they are sisters from similar misters they now want to be BFFs, which is cool.

https://www.culturalsurvival.org/news/genetic-link-brings-indigenous-taiwanese-and-maori-together

When Han Chinese people emigrated to Taiwan, the Indigenous people were assimilated and sinicized (a new word I learnt, which means to become like-Chinese) so much so that most people have lost this very specific aspect of language and cultural identity. Sad times.

At least, with growing awareness and sensitivity, there are concerted efforts to revive the culture in schools.

What’s awesome is that on Spotify, you can find Indigenous Taiwanese songs and voices – thank the miracles of the internet. Some of them are very pretty.

Here’s one by artist Ilid Kaolo.

And another by the Taiwu Ancient Ballads Troupe:

And one by Sangpuy. The beginning reminds me a little bit of the music from the film ‘Spirited Away’.

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Week of wondering

Things I have done in the last week:

1. Wondered what there is to do, relevant to Archaeology, between now and Semester 1.

As a 20-something-year-old, I was always dying for the end of year break – those lovely 6 long weeks of luxurious nothingness, when studying wasn’t imperative. 10 years later, the summer holidays are approaching and I am looking for things to read and to study. Go figure.

2. Signed up to AAA Inc.

There are quite a few societies with this name according to Google e.g. American Automobile Association; All About Architecture; Australasian Association of Aryuveda… how interesting! Of course the relevant one was the Australian Archaeological Association.

Yay! Always feels special to be in an in-group. I have sent them $60 without knowing anyone else in it. Hmm. It looks legitimate, but will update here if I have unwittingly joined an internet Ponzi scheme.

Hopefully ancient structures are the only kind of pyramid I encounter.

3. Started researching where I might go digging in 2022.

I found out that there is a tiny town in Australia where an excavation is being planned for next year. In the 19th Century there was a gold rush in Australia, certainly in the state of Victoria. A lot of artefacts would have been left at these old mining sites.

For a person to join in and excavate, the fee is like, $1100+ (and this is the student price!)

Plus you have to pay for or arrange your own accommodation. Getting there will require taking two flights ($600+ return) and driving two hours to reach the middle of nowhere. The alternate route, says Google Maps, is to drive nonstop for 10 hours from home.

Both of these seem like wildly impractical and difficult options. I am now wondering what it would cost to embark on such an adventure, which seems laden with mystery and meaning. If this dig is a yardstick at all for excavations in general, archaeology sounds extremely expensive. And Fun Fact: archaeologists do not keep the things they find. Generally the items go to be studied and/or housed in museums.

Now I’m left wondering – just how do archaeologists make money??

More to come.

All images in this post from Pexels.com and/or the WordPress media library
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End of Short Course

And just like that, the week-long short course in Human Osteology is over!

Before today, I had had a vision of myself becoming the Hermione Granger of the Archaeology School: That is to say, walking out of the Human Osteology test having received full marks. I would be serenely emitting a cool aura, with my newly-minted wisdom and immaculate smarts in the world of skeletal identification. When asked how it went, I would be laughing demurely yet truthfully – “Mm yes, I did in fact get everything right”.

But that went out the window, thanks to a question in the quiz. Out of a collection, we were asked to identify one bone that came from animal remains. There was a long bone that looked strange in the fuzzy photograph, and long story short I pretty much circled a person’s leg thinking it came from a giraffe.

Image from Pexels.com

It sounds ridiculous, but to be fair, the lecturer had tricked us earlier this week with a picture of a cat femur, which looks very similar to a human femur.

My answer:

Photo of part of the test paper. Reasoning was not completely silly.

But the final result was fine and everyone passed, so hooray!

The Dean of Archaeology came in at the end to have a chat with us. We learnt that some archaeology schools have courses where they bury animal carcasses and go excavate it a year later, to see what uncovering that would be like in the real world. Then, the class buries a fresh carcass so the students the following year can do the same thing and have something to excavate. The Dean is considering introducing such a topic.

All in all, it’s been a satisfying week. I gained new skills. Giraffes notwithstanding, I can now determine from a pile of bones the minimum number of humans in those remains, the biological sex of the individual, their (broadly speaking) likely ancestry, stature, and age at death.

This week I had conversations with interesting people too – in fact, come to think, I talked to archaeologists in person for the first time ever (they really exist!). Several of the students this week already have bachelor degrees in Archaeology and life experiences in the field.

One guy said he does land surveys, working with First Nations people to see if there are sacred burial sites so people can avoid disturbing them. Another girl has a job which changes from project to project. Her stories ranged from moving grave sites – uncovering objects which people held dear and fighting for the items to be kept with the owner’s remains – to flying in helicopters and trying to get away from thunderstorms.

It all sounded very unpredictable and exciting.

“It can be dangerous,” she said.

My line of work has been rewarding in its own way. But, just about all the highlights have occurred literally within the enclosure of four walls.

A long time ago, I read this quote, and have always remembered it:

Don’t live the same year 75 times and call it a life.

Robin Sharma

In the past, I used to laugh about the unchanging nature of desk work with the joke that one day, on my death bed, I’ll look back over my life like a reel, only to discover that a huge segment of the whole thing just appears entirely the same.

Chronological bar graph to represent variation in events over lifetime. See how exciting it is? No, neither.

I laughed, but also privately worried that it would be true. Hopefully, this is something that can be avoided.

For the time being, the first week of study is finished, and it’s back to business as usual this weekend.


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Don’t Steal Great-Grandma

I learnt a new word today, walking through the university grounds as a new person. My partner was showing me around. Pointing at something obscured behind some big trees, he said that was where people put their children, in something that sounded like a crate.

Me: “in a what?”

Anyway, the word I learnt was crèche. I guess which one you use depends on how much you like your child.


On Day 2, the class focused on Ethics, i.e. How to Not Be A Jerk When You Find Dead People. Interestingly, there isn’t a standard code of conduct, like a Hippocratic Oath for Archaeologists in this country. There is one in the USA, so we had a look at that.

Archaeology in Australia, where I’m writing from, has a gnarly history. Around the late 1800s-early 1900s, people just dug up whatever they liked.

Essentially, objects were stolen, graves were looted, and real human remains of people’s great-grandmas were sold to museums in places such as the UK, Germany, Poland, and others.

The finders making off with everything cited “scientific purposes”. This became the touted alibi to completely ignore people’s sensitivities, and disregard those to whom the artefacts rightfully belonged – in this case, the First Nations ie Aboriginal Australian people.

If I found out my family’s remains were being traded like late 19th century Pokémon cards I’d probably be more than a bit disturbed. Australian Aboriginal culture is big on heritage, and connection to the land and earth – which probably made things extra bad in worlds of hurt.

Today there are efforts, led by descendants, to repatriate the remains so the dead can be laid to rest. Below I’ve added the 2min trailer and a link to the 30min documentary.

Returning our Ancestors Trailer

These days, artefacts are slowly trickling back. Some museums, such as the British Museum, are notoriously reluctant to return things. Probably if they return one thing, they have to return everything that has contested ownership, and then there would be big rooms with only a few things left to show. They might have to resort to displaying retired Beefeater hats or something.

On a similar note, quite recently I discovered an award-winning podcast quite flippantly titled, ‘Stuff The British Stole’.

I didn’t name it it wasn’t me

Each episode tells a story of how a valuable historical artefact went on a big adventure and wound up in the UK.

The first one I stumbled on was like something out of a movie. Ingredients: child kidnap, the wealthy elite, Italian criminals, and precious wood sculptures called the Motonui Panels from New Zealand, which have very special significance to the Māori people.

Basically, the panels were smuggled out of New Zealand and sold overseas to the late, rich art collector George Ortiz (1927–2013).

One day his young daughter was kidnapped and held for the ransom sum of approximately $2million USD.

Having no access to GoFundMe, Ortiz had to sell his private artwork to generate the ransom. When the Motonui panels went to the auction house at Sotheby’s in London, the NZ government sued him for selling stolen artwork.

I’ll let you listen/read for yourself how that all went down.

The link to the podcast is here.

I’ve attached the interactive ABC article here.


Anyway, learnings this week: don’t steal people’s grandparents, or children, especially not with crates, and generally it’s a good idea to get consent before you take anything.

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Day 1, 1/11

The last post about the camel’s brush hair should have said they are predominantly made with squirrel fur; after that it’s a mix of other animal hairs, my apologies to my dear readers who were deceived I am sorry


After several wrong turn-offs* this morning I made it in to the university. Our small class of about 10 people was given a crash course on skeletal anatomy and we handled genuine human bone plastic replicas.**

Some learnings:

• Forensic anthropologists and archaeologists have to be familiar with something called siding. Which is not about choosing your team in an argument, but figuring out how you orientate each bone so you know left from right. Which is wild, because human carpals and tarsals are all very nearly shapeless blobs and all our phalanges look the same.

Sided phalanges

• Archaeologists get hired in droves during mining booms, to look at sites before extractivist corporate overlords go in and ruin everything. Feels ironic that a profession about preserving heritage gets employment when, y’know, we plunder our earth’s resources

• When human remains are uncovered, the police get called, and once a crime scene is ruled out, they just rebury the remains and people build whatever they need to on top (At least I’m 99% sure I heard correctly what the lecturer lady said, much to my shock).

Generally we had a marvellous time!


*The university is ~30min from my house with big signs and well marked roads. Getting lost while driving is a recurring theme of my life, am vaguely concerned about what this will mean when I am hunting for dig sites via unnamed dirt paths in the wilderness.

** Plastic replicas joke was repurposed from the TV show Friends, as told by palaeontologist Ross. As a class, we were still expected to get into the habit of treating them with respect.

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Scrub quiz; student life; secret agent

Just quickly, to the 12 people following this site and anyone else who has interacted with this blog – thank you so much! I appreciate you!


1.5 DAYS LEFT until the first Archaeology lecture and osteology lab!

Courtesy of my partner, I went to a pub quiz last night, hosted by med students at the university I’m going to (should I say scrub quiz? Ha ha ha).

Some interesting facts about objects and the world from last night:

• The country name ‘Spain’ came from a word that means ‘land of the rabbits’ 🐰🐰🐰


• The black box on a plane is actually orange 🟧 (bright, so they can find it)


• The country in the world with the most islands is Sweden 🇸🇪 many of which are unnamed (I would have guessed Indonesia)


• A camel’s hair brush is actually made from sheep and horse fur. Also sometimes cows. EDIT: on double checking apparently it’s a mix, and often squirrel fur 🐿


• One of the 7 Wonders of the World (in nature) is the aurora borealis. I thought it had to be a landmark but apparently the thermosphere is fair game.

🌎🌍🌏

The quiz writers must have run out of ideas toward the end of the night – I mean, there’s only so much content to ask about our planet, isn’t there? – the last rounds of questions literally devolved into hypothetical clinical cases. Judging by groans from everyone, it was not what they were expecting on a night out.

Photo of the pub ceiling, not because I was looking to the heavens in despair at this question, but to avoid posting living persons next to the screen. These doughnut shaped lights were cute.

But! That is what they must be prepared to be faced with one day, such as when someone collapses on their holiday plane to Fiji. Still, I wish they had asked a bit more about history and geography.

My partner is quite a positive person but I joke that as a med student he is SAD all the time – which, I decided, is the offical medical abbreviation for Studying And Dead. Soon we can be SAD together and it’ll be great.

I don’t recall ever going to a pub quiz or scrub quiz as an undergrad.

If I could time travel, I’d probably be a billionaire. But also, I would say to my sheltered undergraduate self, who used to rote-learn lecture slides:

“You! Sheltered person – go out more; hang out more; find work as an assistant for experience; make friends in your class and keep them. When you learn things, don’t just learn things. Learn the wider context of everything in which those things fit. Information without context just gets lost as noise. In the end, context is how you best make sense of anything in this world.

“And for goodness’s sake learn to drive sooner.”

The Archaeology school is at the same university – hoping they will host events to generate the same fellow-feeling. Particularly as I will continue working and do lectures online (For field trips and courses like next week, will schedule leave).

I haven’t told work about study plans.

This is also why I’m writing undercover (again, very appreciative of visitors, if you have read this far – thank you!)

As much as working at a desk all the time is driving me bananas, I actually quite like the people there, and don’t fancy leaving a crater and a smoking mass of incinerated bridges where my source of income is concerned (this is hyperbole but, you know. Not for a while anyway).

It’s perfectly cool, as it all feels a bit like being a secret agent, except with fewer assassination plots.

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Hobbits and hidden faces

Things of note this week:

#1) Never mind climate deniers, COVID deniers and deniers of deliciousness of pineapple-on-pizza (I mean, we should mind, but just for this blog post) – on a less apocalyptic, more archaeologically related note, this week I learnt there are Hobbit Deniers!

Bilbo Baggins’s Existential Threat

Background: A wee adult skeleton – 1.06m tall – was found in Flores, Indonesia in 2003. To the world it was announced a new tiny species had been discovered, named Homo floresiensis. They were nicknamed Hobbits because they were so wee.

“The Hobbit Trap” is a book by distinguished Professor Maciej Henneberg who argues why H. Floresiensis is really unlikely a new species, but instead the skeleton belonged to a Homo sapiens/pre-discovered genus who had deformities and microcephaly (small brain). He also talks a bit about his life experiences in paleo-anthropology and, to me at least, his views are presented in a convincing manner.

When I went onto Wikipedia to check, there was no mention of credible theories against the existence of H. floresiensis.

It all felt very odd, like I had stumbled onto a conspiracy theory. Only, the writer is not a tinfoil hat wearer, but a gentleman with a long career + a PhD in Anthropology, a post at a Medical School in Australia, and (I don’t know this for sure, but probably) an IQ value that matches the average Homo sapiens height, in centimetres (163cm for women and 176.5cm for men, as per WHO statistics.)

So it seems like the consensus has eclipsed the controversy out in the world, and hobbits are around to stay. It does remind me to keep an open mind about subjects though – sometimes the experts can completely disagree with each other.

By the way, another species called Homo longi was discovered in China in 1933, but they have only announced it formally this year! Something about keeping delicate artefacts well hidden during some unhappy wars happening around then.

#2) 3 days left until Human Osteology starts. I’ve decided that human vertebrae have little faces, eg insects or fish or aliens. I’ve illustrated:

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A poem

Whose bones these are we want to know.
They died a million years ago;
They won’t see us, kneeling there,
Excavate them head to toe.

The birds and bats must think it queer,
When archaeologists are near,
Disturbing graves upon their find,
With every drop of sweat and tear.

From ruins, artefacts are mined,
By explorers who are so inclined,
With nought but boots and trowels and wit,
To rework history for mankind.

This life I hope to soon commit;
I have another job, darn it,
And debts to pay before I quit,
And debts to pay before I quit.


Just for fun. The idea for this ditty came to me at work. I guess could be titled Stopping by a Dig Site: an Onlooker’s Feeling.

With apologies to the late poet Robert Frost, on whose spine-tingling 1923 poem this is based. Link below.

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