Miniature Pyramids of Sudan

There is a nice article in Archaeology, the AIA magazine, on the Miniature Pyramids of Sudan, about fieldwork at Sedeinga. Actually, during my first dig season in Sudan back in 2000, I worked at the site with the French mission for one month (after spending the previous month with the Canadian mission at Meroe–see the Day in the life of an archaeologist chronicle). That is where I met my friend Vincent Francigny, who is now co-director of the excavations. Enjoy the article!

Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii

In AD 79, Mount Vesuvius erupted and destroyed the cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum, Stabia and Oplontis. Did you know that August 24th is generally thought to be the date of the eruption, but we don’t know for certain? It could be a little later in September or perhaps even in October—based on different kinds of evidence such as seasonal food recovered from the archaeological sites or calculating the changes in calendars. Despite the uncertainty regarding the date, what I find most remarkable about this catastrophic event (which occurred 1935 years ago) is that we have a written eye witness account of the eruption!

Pliny the Younger describes the eruption in letters to Tacitus, who had written to enquire about the death of young man’s uncle—Pliny the Elder, a famous Roman author and naturalist—on that fateful day. Pliny the Elder was also a navy fleet commander and, after receiving a missive from a friend at Stabia pleading for help, he launched galleys across the bay to rescue survivors. The young Pliny could only repeat what other members of the rescue party had told him about his uncle’s demise, for he was safe at Misenum. (Apparently, the older Pliny had asked his nephew if he wanted to join him on his expedition, but he had declined saying he had homework to do! You should think twice about procrastinating and not doing your homework—it might save your life!) You’ll find translations online.

For archaeologists, these rare catastrophic burials are an incredible time capsule that transport you back to a very precise moment in time. It’s the closest thing there is to time travel…

A photo of Pompei with a view of the Vesuvius in the background. (Taken during my recent trip to Italy.)

A photo of Pompei with a view of the Vesuvius in the background. (Taken during my recent trip to Italy.)

Random photos

I have been thinking for a while about adding other photos to appear randomly on my site’s image banner. (Just to spruce things up a bit!) In addition to the Predynastic pots from the Petrie Museum, you’ll now see photos of me in action (working on the dig at Dangeil, Sudan) and one of the Meroe pyramids (also in Sudan) during a visit a few years ago (it does not date to my time working there during grad school). There is even one of me in the Cairo Museum about 10 years ago! (I dug that one out of the digital mothballs!) Enjoy!

May the False Door be with You

I have just posted my most recent adventures to my (other) blog, La Vida Aegyptiaca.  You find there a description of my trip to Italy in the second half of July (especially my activities in Rome, Naples and Florence), but I did want to show you some pictures and share some anecdotes of my time in Montepulciano, working with my colleague Egyptologist Francesco Tiradritti. Francesco and I are writing an article concerning two false doors (the first in the Egyptian collection in Raleigh, the other in a private collection in Rome), each belonging to men from the same family involved with the funerary cult of King Pepy I.

Last year, Francesco came to look at our false door and give the Weinberg Lecture. We started planning the article, but I still had to see the false door in Rome. After lots of scheduling problems we managed to find time when we were both available and that’s how I spent a week in Montepulciano with the Tiradrittis (I was actually staying at a lovely farm house, but spending the day with them). Working with Francesco is always great fun (we laugh a lot), but this trip was beyond hysterically funny. His adorable young son is obsessed with Star Wars and our writing of the article was done to the Imperial March and the Star Wars theme (sung by Leonida, of course) and the sounds of ‘pistolina’ firing at enemies and battle droids accepting orders.

On rainy days (there were quite a few), I worked with Francesco in his library and we listened to the Star Wars soundtrack (courtesy of my iPod this time around). We even staged a photo of us working, surrounded by Star Wars figurines. (I say staged because I sat at the desk in the photo, but his was in a different nook.) I had lunch with Darth Vader, who agreed to cut the pecorino with his light saber (actually, it’s Obi-Wan’s light saber; Darth lost his a long time ago).

When the weather was nice, I escaped the cats—Sakura and the newly adopted and unbelievably cute kitten, Perseo (renamed El Tigre by yours truly)—and sat on the veranda overlooking the Tuscan valleys and Montepulciano to breathe some fresh air (which helped a bit with my allergies). I had to clear the table when Maria had to set it so we could eat. It was so lovely outside that we gathered there to partake of Olivia’s fabulous cooking.

It’s quite astounding that with all these distractions that Francesco and I got any work done, but we did. Getting away from the office is actually when I’m most productive in writing articles: there is only one project on which to work and working in a team forces you to get things done to keep up with your colleagues. Oh! Don’t go thinking that the article is completely finished, not by a long shot; but at least we actually started writing—which is a very good start! Now, we just need to keep the momentum.

May the False Door be with You!


Gamma radiography

This is the last of my posts on the intensive study of the marbles conducted in early June (at least for now!). In addition to polychromy, we did something that was never before done at the museum (and probably never will be done again): gamma radiography! Two of our marble sculptures (Bacchus and Hercules) posed questions that could only be answered by radiography. We tried x-rays, which we can do in our conservation lab, but these were not strong enough to allow us to see through the marble. We had to go for industrial strength radiography which uses gamma rays. Baker Testing (the company who worked on the Juno at the MFA Boston) did this for us.

Gamma radiography is radioactive, so we had to find a room at the museum that had thick concrete walls and was away from work areas. We did find one, underground, off the art tunnel. We restricted tunnel access to team members and we stayed well clear of the radiography area—all of us geeky enough to know that Bruce Banner turned into the Hulk after being exposed to the rays of a gamma bomb. (None of us wanted to turn green and Kermit the Frog will tell you’ it’s not easy being green!) The radiation zone was actually quite small (we checked with the Geiger counter). The radioactive source was contained in a small Ghostbusters-like unit to which was attached a collimator that focused the beam on the part of the sculpture that needed to be studied. A plate just like those used in x-rays was placed behind the limb to record the information.

We spent the whole day with the guys from Baker Testing, checking the radiographs after they scanned them into their computer, discussing what we were seeing, asking for shots at different angles or more penetration. At the end of the day, Hercules did not turn into Hulk-cules (I have been wanting to say this for weeks!), but while some questions were answered with the gamma, others remain for Mark to puzzle out. The knowledge acquired from those gamma radiographs will help us with the conservation of Bacchus, a major project to be undertaken over the next few years. We could see the rather long metal pins and c-clamps we knew would be holding him together, but we also realized that he suffered a major catastrophic incident that shattered his right side—this resulted in more pins, pegs, clamps, which we could not have seen without the gamma.

A Clear Look at Ancient Glass

The NCMA’s marble sculptures and glass vessels were under study at the same time (with me managing everything). The post I wrote about the research on ancient glass in the museum’s classical collection (conducted by Janet Jones, professor at Bucknell University) is now available on the Museum blog: A Clear Look at Ancient Glass.