Monday, September 28, 2015

Mummymania Exhibition Open!

Hooray! After months of preparation, the Mummymania exhibition that I worked on as a researcher and curatorial assistant - under curator Dr Andrew Jamieson – is ready to view in the Classics and Archaeology Gallery at the Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne, Parkville.

Mummymania focuses on the role of the ancient Egyptian mummy within the themes of life, death, resurrection and immortality as well as the changing perception of the mummy over time. The mummy has a long history in both ancient and popular culture, from its original role in ancient Egyptian funerary practices to its importance in early scientific investigations into ancient disease and medicine, and its popular reception as a malevolent Hollywood monster-figure. 

The word ‘mummy’ derives from the Persian word mummia meaning bitumen, long considered a medicine in the Near East. Bitumen resembles the dark resinous coating on Egyptian mummies which, along with mummified flesh itself, was prized for medicinal purposes and by the sixteenth century was a highly sought after drug in Western Europe. With the beginning of the serious collection of antiquities in the sixteenth century, whole and partial mummies were included in cabinets of curiosities. Adventurers and diplomats brought back entire mummies along with amulets, scarabs and papyri. After the French and British military campaigns in Egypt (1798–1801) enthusiasm for all things Egyptian became widespread, particularly in the nineteenth century taste, although the mummy is still in demand today by practitioners of magic and the occult.

Public mummy-unrolling spectacles were popular from the sixteenth up to the early twentieth centuries. Egyptologist, Margaret Murray, perhaps better known for her popular books on Witchcraft, even unrolled a mummy in front of a crowd of five hundred people at the University of Manchester in 1908. Beginning in the mid-1970s, non-invasive methods of investigation began to be used in the examination of mummies in order to study ancient disease. Alongside the increased understanding of mummies through scientific methods of investigation, the mummy in popular culture remains a figure of menace as is evident in mummy horror films. 

On trend: Los Angeles Natural History Museum and the Manchester Museum

Friday, July 31, 2015

Bronze Age Fairies from Minoan Crete?

I've got an interview in the current issue of the Fairy Investigation Society Newsletter 2, New Series, July 2015, pages 11‒19, on the question of whether hovering human figures in the glyptic art of Late Bronze Age Crete could be considered fairies. To access the interview you need to be a member of the Fairy Investigation Society (membership is free, contact them at fairyinvestigationsociety AT gmail DOT com), although with the editor's permission I might post it on this blog after a month or so.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Witches and Witchlore: the Illustrations of Jos A. Smith

Do you remember (and love) Erica Jong's book Witches? Then you will probably want to visit the current exhibition showcasing the work of the book's illustrator, Jos A. Smith, at the Museum of Witchcraft

Jos A. Smith (b. 1936) has had a long and varied career as an artist and illustrator, most notably for Time, Newsweek and The New York Times. He has taught at New York’s prestigious Pratt Institute and has had over twenty solo exhibitions.

This exhibition at the Museum ofWitchcraft and Magic is the latest, showcasing his original artwork for the seminal [or perhaps we should say ovaric?] book, Witches by Erica Jong, first published in 1981. The exhibition is curated by Simon Costin, Director of the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic and the Museum of British Folklore. It opened on May 16th 2015 and runs until November 2015. 

Jong's book, Witches, book charts the persecution of witches, through poetry, history and stories and also functions as a grimoire, or handbook for contemporary practitioners. Using pen, ink and watercolour, Jos A. Smith’s illustrations vividly explore all aspects of the various guises of the witch: from seductress to crone; perpetrator to victim. His skilled draughtsmanship reflects witchcraft’s connection to nature, with figures seamlessly blending into other forms, to create an otherworldly, eerie presence on the page. These images also express Jos’s own connection to nature through his study of esoteric religion and meditation, as he states: “I am fascinated by the lore that accrues to natural things...”

Displayed together for the first time at the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, this is the inaugural exhibition in a planned new series of temporary shows to be hosted at the museum from Spring 2015. The newly refurbished temporary exhibition space will allow the museum to examine its rich and varied objects in more depth and will also feature exciting collaborations with artists and researchers. People will have something new to see at the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic every time they visit, alongside the fascinating permanent collection.

Selected images are available for sale from the Museum's online shop as limited edition prints and high quality art cards. The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic is open until 31st October 2015. Opening hours: Mon-Sat 10.30-6pm, Sunday 11.30-6pm Admisssion £5/£4. [Exhibition text by Desdemona McCannon from Manchester School of Art. Press release edited by Caroline Tully.] 

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Mummymania Exhibition

"You will live again, you will live forever. Behold, you are young again forever." 

I am guest curating an exhibition in conjunction with Dr Andrew Jamieson, curator of the Classics and Archaeology Gallery at the Ian Potter Museum of Art at the University of Melbourne, called Mummymania. It will run from the 6th of October 2015 until April 2016. This exhibition is centred on the Egyptian mummy and its pivotal role in regard to the themes of life, death, the afterlife, eternity and resurrection.  It will have three components: Egyptian concepts of the afterlife; mummies and medicine; and the reception of the mummy. Beginning with the mummy in its original ancient Egyptian context, the exhibition will have a section displaying ancient Egyptian material culture and literature concerning death and the afterlife. Another component of the exhibition will focus on the use of mummies in medicine, beginning in the early twentieth century with the public unwrapping of mummies in England, and the medical testing and analysis of mummy tissue and use of CAT scanning of mummies in order to understand ancient disease. The third aspect of the exhibition will cover the modern reception of the mummy in popular culture, including the use of ancient Egyptian architectural styles in nineteenth and twentieth century cemetery architecture, the use of the mummy in the design of objects such as souvenirs, cosmetic packaging and children’s objects, and the mummy as sinister film star, particularly in regard to the idea of the mummy’s curse in twentieth and twenty-first century horror films. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

My PhD Completion Seminar

I did my PhD Completion Seminar yesterday, 28th of April, as one of the University of Melbourne's Ancient World Seminar Series. The presentation was called The Cultic Life of Trees in Late Bronze Age Crete. Abstract:

Glyptic art is the largest corpus of Aegean Bronze Age representational art and consists of carved seal stones, engraved metal signet rings and the clay impressions (sealings) that the seals are used to produce. A particular group of images engraved on the metal signet rings are thought to depict human and divine figures participating in cult activity. In the absence of translated texts from Minoan Crete, glyptic iconography is the most informative category of evidence relied upon in the interpretation of Minoan religion. This paper uses glyptic images that depict human figures interacting with trees to examine claims first put forth by Sir Arthur Evans (excavator of Knossos on Crete) in 1901 that Minoan religion was characterised by a primitive, aniconic cult of trees, stones and pillars, strongly influenced by the Levant and Egypt. As well as responding to Evans the paper examines the images in light of animism, royal ideology and performance and proposes a new reading in which the Minoan landscape was co-opted in the service of elite ideology and functioned as a politicised active agent in the enactment of power.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Dropping Ecstasy? Minoan Cult and the Tropes of Shamanism

Myself and a colleague, Sam Crooks, have a new article out in Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness and Culture on Minoan cult and its possible shamanistic characteristics. This is the Abstract: Cult scenes illustrated in miniature on administrative stone seals and metal signet rings from Late Bronze Age Minoan Crete are commonly interpreted as “Epiphany Scenes” and have been called “shamanic.” “Universal shamanism” is a catch-all anthropological term coined to describe certain inferred ritual behaviours across widely dispersed cultures and through time. This study re-examines evidence for Minoan cultic practices in light of key tropes of “universal shamanism,” including consumption of psychoactive drugs, adoption of special body postures, trance, spirit possession, communication with supernatural beings, metamorphosis and the journey to other-worlds. It is argued that while existing characterisations of Minoan cult as “shamanic” are based on partial, reductionist and primitivist assumptions informed by neo-evolutionary comparative ethnologies, shamanism provides a dynamic framework for expanding understandings of Minoan cult.  It is of course understood that while this study is a careful, informed analysis of the evidence, it is but one interpretation among others. 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Greece (Crete and Cyprus) is the Word

My PhD thesis, which is provisionally titled “The Cultic Life of Trees: What Trees say about People in the Prehistoric Aegean, Cyprus and Israel,” involves both an iconographical element and an archaeological component. The main goal of my research project is to investigate the meaning of images of trees within ritual situations depicted on Minoan and Mycenaean (prehistoric Crete and Greece ca. 1700–1450 BCE) stone seals, gold signet rings and frescoes. I am therefore studying two categories of evidence: images of proposed tree-cult rituals as depicted on gold rings, seals, clay sealings and frescoes held in museum collections, and actual three-dimensional archaeological sites situated within the landscape that have been proposed to correspond to the glyptic imagery.

I was awarded the Jessie Webb Travel Scholarship in 2013, but did my travelling in the first half of 2014. Beginning in Greece in January of that year, I was based at the British School at Athens for a month and a half but also spent a week at the British School at Knossos (Crete). During this time I undertook research within museum collections, at archaeological sites, and within libraries. 

I started off with an appointment at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens where I was able to visually examine, handle, photograph and draw Minoan style gold signet rings and stone seals relevant to my PhD thesis. Because my appointment was during a time when the museum was closed to the public (a Monday) I also had the opportunity for an uninterrupted view of all the displays in the Bronze Age gallery. I was accompanied by the curator of the Bronze Age gallery, Mr. Costas Paschalidis, and a conservator who were extremely helpful and accommodating. While in the study room of the museum I was also fortunate to network with Minoan archaeologist, Ina Berg, from Manchester University, who happened to be there and whose work I have cited in my thesis. On other occasions, while in Athens, I examined Minoan Style gold rings and ceramic figurines from Minoan peak sanctuaries in the Benaki Museum and the Museum of Cycladic Art.

I was also able to visit the sites such as the Temple of Hephaistos in the Athenian Agora which, while chronologically later than the scope of my thesis, is of interest in regards to understanding the feasibility of growing plants within rock-cut pits, as proposed for the garden at the Minoan palace at Phaistos, discussed below. I also visited the Athens Acropolis, reputed to have had a sacred olive tree, and the Cave of the Nymphs, both of which are important examples of urban sites that incorporated natural features and housed supernatural figures symbolic of trees (nymphs). I also visited the Panhellenic rural sanctuaries, Epidauros and Delphi, thought to derive from Minoan-style rural sanctuaries and which also both have Mycenaean era remains, as well as the important Bronze Age palatial site of Mycenae.

I alternated excursions to museums and sites with studying in the libraries of the British School and the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. During this time I worked on aspects of my thesis including both revision and editing of the presentation of my data, and on chronology and interconnections between the regions examined within my thesis. I also networked with other scholars at the British School, and attended talks hosted by the British School as well as the monthly Minoan Seminar hosted by the Athens Archaeological Society.

In Crete I studied the Minoan frescoes in the newly re-vamped fresco gallery at the Herakleion Museum, as well as figurines, ceramic vessels and other votive offerings from peak, rural and cave sanctuaries on general display. I hired a car and drove to Sitea in the east of Crete where I viewed the ivory pyxis from Mochlos in the Sitea Museum which is of extreme importance to my thesis and which is not yet properly published. In addition I visited the palatial sites of Knossos, Mallia, and Phaistos where gardens that may have incorporated sacred trees are reputed to have been. The purpose was to examine the locations around the palaces that previous scholars have claimed for “gardens” – all of which are speculative and unproven. In particular I was looking at the most commonly taken for granted claim for a garden at Phaistos – a rocky area which incorporates tiny pits – which on examination I was not convinced by.

Other urban sites I visited included the villa of Haghia Triadha near Phaistos where a famous larnax depicting trees in prominent cult contexts was found; Gournia where a baetyl which may have once been accompanied by a tree, as suggested by iconography, is located; and Vathypetro where there is a strong possibility that stone foundations are those of the elusive “Tripartite Shrine,” often depicted in iconography as being surmounted by a tree. I also visited the peak sanctuary of Jouktas twice to view its ashlar shrine, again a structure that within iconography is often topped by a tree, and the rural sanctuary of Kato Syme, a cult site that remained active from the Bronze Age to the Roman period and where, during the Archaic period, the god Hermes was associated with trees, possibly indicative of a continuation of Bronze Age cult.

After Greece I went to Austria, for the 15th International Aegean Conference, Metaphysis: Ritual, Myth and Symbolism in the Aegean Bronze Age, held in Vienna. A paper I had co-written with Sam Crooks and Louise Hitchcock, “Numinous Tree and Stone: Re-Animating the Minaon landscape,” was presented. Of course I went to all the museums and art galleries I could whilst there. A big highlight was seeing the famous Paleolithic figurine, the Venus of Willendorf, and my favourite Northern Renaissance painting of Adam and Eve by Hugo van der Goes.

Then from Austria I went to Cyprus where I stayed at the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Center (CAARI). My time in Cyprus was spent visiting regional archaeological sites and museums, visiting the main museum in Nicosia, and studying in the CAARI library. I hired a car and drove to the Sanctuary of Apollo Hylates at Kourion, where I studied the rock-cut pits thought to have contained trees. I also went to Lemba, Paphos, Palaepaphos-Kouklia, Kalavassos, Choirokoitia, and Kition – the main highlight being the aniconic cult stone of Aphrodite in Palaepaphos-Kouklia. In addition to southern (Greek) Cyprus I also went to Turkish Cyprus in the north, to Maa Palaikastro (which I could not find) and Enkomi (which somehow I did find). The largest amount of Cypriot Cylinder seals have been excavated at Enkomi.

As well as visiting regional museums I spent a lot of time in the Nicosia Museum looking at Late Bronze Age cylinder seals. Unlike the rest of the Near East, Cyprus has a lot of surviving cylinder seals, but practically no surviving sealings, or imprints on clay of those seals. This has led scholars to suggest that Cypriot seals were not used for administration but were talismanic. I also looked at ceramic vessels that had been decorated with (now disintegrated) wooden rollers, thought to be evidence of the use of seals for actual sealing, contra the above. I also studied votive miniature copper ingots, and possible evidence of male figures holding full sized oxhide ingots in the vicinity of trees on Mycenaean vases, a scene that appears also on Common Style cylinder seals. Other vases of interest included another Mycenaean example depicting what is thought to be scenes of pillar worship. The Cyprus Museum in Nicosia has many wonderful objects, including half the terracottas from the sanctuary of Ayia Irini, the other half of which are in Sweden. At the Bank of Cyprus Cultural collection I also saw intriguing wood evidence from Bronze Age copper mining.

From Cyprus I then returned to the British School at Athens where I mainly worked on my thesis in the library, having visited the Athens museums extensively when I was there earlier. I attended several archaeological lectures and meetings hosted by various organisations in Athens, including those put on by the British School, the Archaeological Society of Athens, and the Aegaeus Society. I also worked in the library of the American School of Classical Studies, next door to the British School.

I also went back to the British School at Knossos, hired a car and went to various sites. Particularly interesting was Archanes, which I visited in order to study its position in regards to Jouktas, the largest and most important peak sanctuary in Crete. This was useful because I was able to determine that Archanes was situated in a direct line west from the peak sanctuary which must have been a deliberate placement that linked the Minoan villa at Archanes with the most important cult site in the region.

I also studied the position of the cemetery of Phourni Archanes in regards to Jouktas, determining that it as well was deliberately placed in proximity to the peak sanctuary. The settlement of Archanes must have been situated within a wider cultic landscape that intersected with the palatial site of Knossos in the north. The sanctuary site of Anemospilia, on the north flank of Jouktas faces Knossos. These sites are important because the may prove to be the cult places where the cult scenes in the rings I am studying turned out to be enacted. In addition to peak sanctuaries I also visited the cave sanctuary of Psychro in Central Crete.

Fortunately, since my last trip to Crete in February during which only the frescos and a small amount of other objects were available to see in the Heraklion Museum, by the time I was there again in May the whole museum was open, after having been closed for many years. I consequently went several times to the museum because now all the important material is on display. Particularly important for my purposes were the gold and bronze rings, the stone seals and the clay sealings. Especially interesting for my thesis was the ability to look closely as the clay sealings in order to determine just how much of the mages on the sealings was visible – not much! Because when studying Minoan glyptic one tends to look at drawings of the sealings, it was very enlightening to see exactly how small they were, the degree of breakage, and the visibility or not of the images. Althoguth the sealings were tiny and their images hard to see, better lighting of the glyptic display would improve their presentation.

In addition to looking at tiny sealings I was also able to study other objects relevant to my thesis such as the Haghia Triadha sarcophagus, the Zakro Rhyton, the Mallia vase featuring cats under a tree, and many other important object and images. Whilst in Crete I also went to INSTAP, the Centre for Archaeological Research in Eastern Crete, where I was taken on a tour of the facilities (and to lunch) by the head conservator, Kathy Hall. From Crete I went to the island of Naxos to view an important seal which was, however, extremely difficult to photograph because of the abysmal lighting in that museum. At least I could see it; I just could not photograph it very successfully. Finally, I went to the island of Santorini in order to look at the archaeological site of Akrotiri and the frescoes in the museum. One of the buildings in particular at the archaeological site, Xeste 3, had important frescoes depicting cult scenes that I discuss in my thesis. The frescoes are not on the walls now, and are still being conserved, but it was useful to look at the building they were originally in.

The Jessie Webb scholarship emabled me to work in the regions that I am studying in my thesis: Greece, Crete and Cyprus (I have been to Israel several times on other occasions), and to investigate two particular apects of those places: the spatial and the iconographic. Without this trip I would not have been able to see and handle important Minoan Style gold rings and stone seals and visit palatial and cult sites in Greece and Crete, or examine Cypriot glyptic evidence, sanctuary sites, and the use of trees within metallurgy. In Crete it was particualry enlightning to personally view the relationship between the villa of Archanes and the peak sanctuary of Jouktas, in conjunction with viewing an important funeral cache from Archanes that includes one of the most important Minoan rings depicting a cult scene.