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Monday, 11 August 2008

Some musings on archaeology

Today is a very slow, very dull day. Harrow-on-the-Hill isn’t exactly overflowing with entertainment possibilities.
It’s the kind of day when I would, were it possible, be gazing from my window at the sky and sighing wistfully for the open road and unfamiliar places.
Sadly my window overlooks a blank wall with an uninteresting section of black plastic drainpipe. By twisting my head at a neck-breaking angle I can look up to a mere sliver of sky or, with an only slightly less painful contortion, down to the number 258 bus stop where, every ten minutes or so, I can watch the upper deck passengers picking their noses and staring blankly ahead.
So instead I have to make do with playing some relaxing music (a YouTube video of fish accompanied by the soothing ambience of a Terry Oldfield composition), closing my eyes, and looking inward.

Free associating.

Blank wall: Chan Chan.
Chan Chan is a pre-Colombian city in Peru. Wikipedia has, I’ve discovered, an article about it. It’s full of fun facts. Chan Chan covered twenty square kilometres. It’s a World Heritage site. It consists of ten walled citadels.
What it doesn’t tell you is the single most important thing about it. It isn’t real. When I was there, we were shown around by an enthusiastic, if barely comprehensible, guide. After a remarkably dull hour and a half of trying to follow her impenetrable accent, we were almost finished when she led us to a corner and pointed at three slightly darker orange bricks near to ground level.
“And these,” she said with great pride, “Are what remains of the original structure.”
The rest, we discovered on questioning her, is reconstruction.

Free associating.

I remember visiting Knossos, a particularly well known archaeological site on Crete that attracts thousands of tourists every year. Once again we can turn to Wikipedia for information. There is an extensive article about it, though this time it’s a bit more upfront about the true nature of the place. There, in paragraph one, it says that it has been “substantially but imaginatively restored”. This is apparently a little known use of “imaginatively” which means “rebuilt in concrete and painted red”.
As you may gather, I wasn’t especially impressed.

Free associating.

Painted red:Alta

Alta is another World Heritage site, this time in Norway. It consists of several large areas of rock carvings; flat stick-man pictures covering the rocks of the area. They are, we are told, between two and a half and five thousand years old and there are more than five thousand of them. Around one section a series of wooden walkways has been built and the carvings painted orange to make them stand out visibly against the grey rocky background. I was there with a bunch of equally sceptical friends as an attractive blonde Norwegian named Monika gamely tried to convince us of their authenticity. This task was somewhat undermined by our own interpretations of the images.
“Look, here’s a prehistoric carving of Mickey Mouse.”
“Oh, come and see this DC10 airliner.”
“Hey, what about these cows on the railway tracks. Don’t they know how dangerous that is?”
“Isn’t this the scene from The Day The Earth Stood Still, with the robot outside the spaceship?”

Considering their age, it seems unlikely that they apparently went unnoticed until 1972. Our theory was that a kid borrowed his dad’s hammer drill and made them as a joke.

Free associating.

Hoax: Chucuito

And so we return to Peru and to Chucuito. Chucuito is, so the guides will tell you, full of 15th century Inca relics. A whole archaeological site of stone phalluses that are, how shall we put it, anatomically accurate in all except scale, ranging as they do from about two to about six feet tall. They are arranged in circles around the site and leave no doubt at all that this was used for some kind of pagan fertility rituals.
Only it wasn’t. There are many sources around that claim that pre-1990s they didn’t exist, that they were built by the locals to drum up some extra tourist bucks. The guides did such a fine job of convincing people that the guide books picked up on this “newly-discovered” site and started promoting it.
Personally I think they’re more interesting now that I know they’re fake than I did when I saw them believing them to be real.

I’ve only just realised how strange an approach to archaeology I have – the only site I’ve mentioned that is vaguely interesting is interesting precisely because it’s an acknowledged fake. The others, claiming to be real but of, in my opinion, decidedly dubious authenticity, are considerable less interesting.
Oh well. Maybe it’s just me.

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