Friday, April 26, 2013

Saving the Vasa

   The 17th century Swedish warship Vasa set out on its maiden voyage as symbol of military power and a source of national pride. King Gustavus II Adolphus, in the midst of a troublesome conflict with Poland, needed his new weapon to revolutionize naval warfare in the Baltic. As a result of his interjections, engineers increased Vasa’s originally intended length and added an additional gun deck to hold heavy cannon, ensuring its place among the elite warships of the world. Measuring 69m in length and 52m in height, weighing 900 tons, and carrying 64 cannons, Vasa launched on August 10, 1628 before a massive crowd that had assembled to catch a glimpse of Sweden’s new floating behemoth. Roughly 1km into its first trip, a gust of wind blew the top heavy ship onto its side. Water flooded into gun ports that were open for ceremonial fire, quickly pulling Vasa and half of its crew 35m down to the bottom of Stockholm harbor.
   Vasa’s sinking granted it a unique position in history. The doomed ship represents both an impressive logistical endeavor and a colossal economic failure. Designed to intimidate enemies and inspire allies, it was visually stunning and physically overwhelming, but its construction cost over five percent of the nation’s GNP and its loss was catastrophic. Perhaps this duality factors in Vasa’s ability to intrigue the public.

   After being rediscovered in 1956 and raised to the surface in 1961, painstaking efforts toward preservation were immediately undertaken. Oxygen deprived conditions at the bottom of the cold, polluted harbor kept Vasa well protected from destructive organisms, leaving it in remarkably good shape. However there was some degradation, which becomes a problem as the water logged wood dries and collapses around the compromised area. To prevent this shrinking and crumbling of the hull, it was sprayed with polyethylene glycol (PEG): a wax compound that absorbs into the wood and takes the place of water. This was done every 45 minutes for 17 years, after which the wood was allowed to dry for nine years. In 1988, Vasa was moved into a climate controlled building that both preserves the ship and presents it as a primary museum display.

Boarding Vasa is forbidden, but you can get pretty close

Note the elaborate designs. These carvings would have originally been pigmented quite colorfully
   The Vasa Museum, while nearly as visually impressive as its namesake, has not been the ideal environment for the aging warship it was intended to be. After a particularly rainy year of 2000, it was discovered that humidity levels needed to be more strictly regulated in the museum. The problem arose due to PEG’s tendency to absorb and desorb atmospheric moisture. If conditions are too humid, destructive micro-organisms can thrive and wreak havoc on the exterior. Additionally, the increased water weight could put overwhelming strain on a hull that wasn’t designed to support the weight of the vessel on land in the first place. If allowed to dry out, the wood could weaken and crack, endangering critical support joints. If that wasn’t enough to worry about, humidity fluctuations cause moisture to transfer throughout the wood. This moves sulfur, imbedded into the wood during its stay in the polluted harbor, to open air where it can react with corroded iron from bolts and fittings, creating an erosive acid compound. In order to keep the humidity at an appropriate, constant level and prevent all of this microscopic mayhem, a new, more effective climate control system was installed in 2004 and a vast array of sensors are constantly being monitored and upgraded. This has resulted in a far more stable environment for the delicate Vasa.

Vasa Museum
  Fittingly, Vasa’s new challenge is economic. All of this restoration and preservation is wildly expensive. Fortunately, people love the Vasa and its museum is the most widely visited maritime museum in the world. However, due to concerns with the limitations of the climate control system, the number of daily visitors is capped. Economically driven demands to allow entrance to larger numbers of paying customers are now pushing against fears that the building's climate will be compromised. This is the delicate balancing act that Vasa’s caretakers have to manage if Sweden’s most beloved naval disaster is going to survive half as much time above the harbor as it did below.

More Info:
Time Capsule from the 17th Century: Stockholm's Vasa Museum

Maintaining a Stable Environment: Vasa's New Climate Control System

The Chemistry of the Vasa 

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Welikia Project: Uncovering the Ecology of Pre-European New York City

Believe it or not, New York City has not been around forever.  Though it has garnered a reputation as one of world’s largest and most important metropolitan areas, compared to many other major cities around the globe, New York is actually on the younger side.  In fact, if one were to look back a mere four hundred years, where we now see grids, asphalt and towering structures of stone and steel, we would actually see a rather unfamiliar picture: a lush, sprawling and diverse natural landscape. 

Such was the finding of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Welikia Project.  Originally dubbed the Manhatta Project, this research initiative was an attempt by scientists to reveal the original 1609 ecology of the city’s largest borough, and has since expanded to include all five boroughs and parts of western Long Island (hence the name change).  The results of the study are actually quite striking, as evidenced by the interactive “Welikia Map,” essentially a Google Maps rendering of 1609 NYC.  A visitor to the Welikia Project’s website will find that the map renders a wholly alien New York, an ecologically rich landscape covered in streams, forests, marshes, hills and other natural phenomena, a fascinating look at a city that we so often take for granted. 
Map of "Welikia"

The Welikia Map even boasts an interactive feature that allows the viewer to more closely examine the wildlife and landscape of individual blocks, and then compare those features to its modern day manifestation.  From an archaeological standpoint, however, the most intriguing aspect of this feature is the tab that allows the viewer to explore the lifestyle and landscape of the Lenape people who inhabited the area before Europeans arrived.  When I first visited the Welikia Project’s website, I was actually worried that I would only find an ecological survey of 1609 New York, void of any reference to the humans who lived as a part of that ecosystem for hundreds of years. I was, however, pleasantly surprised, as the interactive Welikia Map allows for exploration of the landscape habitat of the Lenape, as well as the species of animals and plants they would have hunted and gathered.  For example, in the area where Columbia University currently stands, the landscape most likely did not allow for Lenape encampments or trails, but the ecology did include many animals that the Lenape hunted, including the Wild Turkey and White-tailed Deer, and plants that they gathered, such as the Lowbush Blueberry and Lyreleaf Sage.
Morningside Heights, 1609

As an archaeologist, one aspect of the Welikia Map that is a bit discomforting is the fact that the modern New York grid is mapped across the original 1609 ecology, not to mention the modern borders of boroughs, cities and states.  Though the interactive tabs do allow for a more direct experience of Welikia, I still feel that the map does not allow for a truly experiential study of the landscape.  How is one to truly understand the pre-European landscape if one is consciously aware of the fact that the meadow he or she is exploring is now on Fifth Avenue, or that the forested area he or she is interested in is currently home to the Spanish Embassy?  In addition, the stark change from diverse natural landscape to modern day grid dangerously borders on the territory of suggesting that European settlers mapped order onto an area in which none previously existed. 
Modern grid mapped onto 1609 ecology of Manhattan Island

Now, to be fair, this is not necessarily the responsibility of the Wildlife Conservation Society; their goals are almost purely ecological.  The study does, however, provide valuable tools for archaeologists and other researchers who would seek to expand upon this reconstruction of the 17th century New York City landscape.  Some have already taken this opportunity, including Marguerite Holloway, assistant professor at the Columbia University School of Journalism, whose recently published book, Measuring Manhattan, centers on John Randel Jr., the man who, in 1808, set out to map the modern grid of Manhattan Island.  Originally charged with writing a piece on what was then the Manhatta Project, Holloway became fascinated by Randel, whose data scientists depended upon in their ecological reconstructions, and eventually turned that fascination into a full-length biography.
John Randel Jr., from

One final mission of the Welikia Project that could prove fruitful for further archaeological study is to turn to the “modern biodiversity” of the city, relating the landscapes and lifestyles of contemporary New Yorkers to those of the area’s pre-European inhabitants. 

Though these represent only a fragment of the possibilities afforded to us through the Welikia Project, they show the ways in which the Wildlife Conservation Society has opened the door to understanding the meaning of landscape and place in relation to the original ecology of a major metropolitan area; the effects of modern mapping on a diverse natural landscape, as well as the effects of that landscape on the mapping process; and, finally, a way of experiencing the cityscape as an unfamiliar space, as a vibrant ecosystem filled with a myriad of foreign habitats, just waiting to be explored.

Welikia Project website:

Wildlife Conservation Society website:

Article on Marguerite Holloway’s Randel biography:

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Hopi Mask Auction Raises Questions of Ownership

"I am saddened to learn that #Hopi sacred cultural objects are being put up for auction today in Paris." 

Since the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) passed in 1990, American institutions receiving federal funding have returned hundreds of thousands of cultural items to their tribal owners. Often, specific repatriation offices and individuals are staffed to facilitate the safe return of objects (and human remains) to their rightful owners. It seems, however, that foreign nations fear similar processes of repatriation.

65 of 70 Hopi masks grossed 931,000 Euros ($1.2 million) during last Friday’s controversial auction in Paris. Five went unpurchased. Hopi members expressed that these items had been stolen from Hopi altars or confiscated by missionaries at the Arizona reservation during the 1930s and 1940s. Hopi members and their allies attempted to raise awareness about the sale of their sacred ritual objects – Katsinam (known as “friends”). These objects have a spiritual connection to the ancestors of today’s 18,000 Hopi peoples and are said to embody the spirits themselves. The French, however, were unsympathetic to requests for return. It was reported that the auction house suggested that the Hopi buy back the objects for themselves, since they believe that “art” in private collections cannot be considered sacred. Only one of the objects (selling for $4,900) was purchased with the intent to repatriate.

A judge’s ruling allowed the auction to proceed as planned, though protestors disrupted the sale numerous times. How should we re-evaluate old debates over art ownership (the Elgin marbles, for example)? Are sacred objects more than just “art?” Are property claims more valuable than respect?

Hopi Bo Lomahquahu, center, with other protesters outside the auction on Friday. Photo by Michel Euler/Associated Press

More information can be found:

And an informative article published before the auction:

I have chosen not to display images of the masks on this blog, but the pieces can be viewed at the Drouot’s auction house, Néret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou:

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Metropolitan Museum of Art – Art History vs. Archaeology

     As a disclaimer, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is my favorite place in all of New York City, with the Museum of Natural History running a close second. Despite my love for it, I’ve always had a bit of a problem with the exhibits. As an archaeology student, I am always wondering about the deeper questions behind the pieces that they display – why was the piece chosen for the museum, why did the artist choose to display the subject of the art, for what purpose was it made, and most importantly to me, what did it signify to people at the time of its creation? Unfortunately, the information provided by the museum often fails to answer these questions. 

The exterior facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art 

     One section of the museum where these questions really should be answered is the Greek and Roman Art collection. Thousands of people per day enter this section full of pre-conceived, uninformed, or highly romanticized notions of the classical world; I find that the information offered by the display plaques often fails to help broaden visitors’ perceptions and knowledge of the past. For every description of how a piece was physically created, there is a lack of explanation on how it ties into the symbols and cultural understandings of its contemporary people. We are rarely told how the ancient Greek or Romans would have processed or interacted with these objects that are physical depictions and remnants of their daily lives.

The Leon Levy and Shelby White Court, part of the Greek and Roman exhibit.

Piece 52.11.4, terracotta kylix (drinking cup)
Source: me
     An example of an art piece where more description would greatly enhance the experience of the object would be number 52.11.4 in The Bothemer Gallery II, a Terracotta kylix described by the display plaque as: “shows a man propositioning a youth. The composition is admirable for the easy juxtaposition of the figures, the characterization of the man by the purse and of the youth by the athletic equipment on the wall, and the emphasis placed on the hands in the center”. While not technically incorrect, there are deeper implications to the image on this drinking cup than this esthetic description reveals. The drinking cup would have been used at Symposiums, spaces of revelry and companionship where pederastic relationships would have been glorified. While some people know that the Greeks were much less biased against homosexuality than we are today, what they do not realize is that there were very strict rules about pederastic courtships and how they could be initiated, how they are not just sexual but necessarily ingrained in the function of society. This is a very peculiar kylix because of the presence of both the athletic equipment and the coin purse – the equipment indicates that the youth was a citizen, of rank and status enough to practice in the gymnasium, and while gift giving was a necessary part of Greek courtship, the gift of money is very out of place in this scene. A young man is usually given a symbolic gift from the potential lover, such as a hunting trophy, that indicate the worth of the older man he is about to give himself to; coins are portable and less permanent than an exchange of land or something more meaningful. Money is the gift that is given to courtesans, prostitutes, and hetairai, rather than proper, respectable Athenian citizens. 

     In the Leon Levy and Shelby White Court, there is a large ornamental vase called  a calyx-krater, used to mix wine and water at Symposiums and other banquets. The plaque says: “The peristyle courtyards and gardens of the villas belonging to wealthy Romans were filled with fountains, sculpture, and monumental ornaments such as this vase...three maenads, followers of Dionysos, dance in abandon to the music of wooden clappers. Gnarled trees above the handles evoke and outdoor setting”. Again, for someone with little knowledge of Greek and Roman life, this description is lacking. There is no
Calyx-krater, number 23.184
Source: me
explanation given for why these particular figures would decorate such an object – attributing it to the depiction of a rustic scene is an incomplete description. In order to understand the presence of the women, the viewer must understand the conditions of a Symposium, the honors of the god Dionysos, and the symbolic meaning of a maenad. Symposiums were under the jurisdiction of Dionysos because of the vast quantities of wine consumed during them, as he was the deity of wine, drunken revelry, and chaos. More than that, the figures of the maenads might suggest something extra: they were symbols of unrestricted sexuality, wildness, and brutality. Their place of pride on the krater implies that the Symposiums these were used at were not civilized affairs of intellectual exchange as recorded by Plato or Xenophon's Symposium dialogues, but nights of frivolity and drunken mistakes. Another hint at the particularly tempestuous nature of this krater are the faces on the handles:
Calyx-krater, number 23.184 (Handle detail)
Source: me
the wild unkempt hair, pudgy features, and a dark expression might signify that they are satyrs, the constant companions of the maenads. They were also representatives of Dionysus, with similar sexual and savage characteristics.

     While there are many more examples of this throughout the Museum, this is not necessarily a critique, but a difference of opinion on what is important for the visitors to know. The museum approaches each piece from an “art history” perspective, making the viewing experience about the power of the onlooker’s interpretation in the present; I believe that visitor should be given more information about the cultural and social symbols from an archaeological perspective to fully appreciate it in the present. These description plaques do not point out important information about the Greeks and Romans in the past that would help modern viewers understand how these people would have perceived the objects they created.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Rewriting History: Historical Reenactments

          Historical sites in America are thick with historical reenactments and living histories. From famous attractions, like Colonial Williamsburg, to lesser known sites, such as Mansker’s Fort, it is far from difficult to find a historical site with people in period clothing walking about. Americans have a fascination with their own history, a fact which is made obvious by the popularity of shows like “Band of Brothers” and “Antique Roadshow,” as well as the mere existence of the History channel. This love of history is often transformed into historical reenactments, which are both fun for the actors as well as the audience. However, the ubiquity of historical reenactments does not mean that they are uncontroversial, as their accuracy tends to be suspect with historians.
 Camp Music at a Civil War Reenactment (source)

Many historical reenactments claim to be recreating a true and factual history, to be portraying history as it actually happened. In a public context, they often present themselves as a learning experience, not just an enjoyable activity. Yet, these claims are often tenuous at best. While some historical actors take great time in researching the events and characters to create more accurate portrayals-- often referred to as the “progressives,” they are undoubtedly outnumbered by the “farbs,” or those who put considerably less time and effort into their historical reenactments.
 Civil War Reenactors on Tank (source)

What is at stake here is the whitewashing of history. With half-hearted reenactments, which serve the actors’ desires to roleplay more than a desire to educate, come misrepresentations of history. Actors and audiences focus more on nostalgic material, such as day-to-day activities or technology, rather than the actual atmosphere of the time. Racial, class, gender and other important issues get submerged under conversations about gun types and food preparation. Even important aspects of battlefield experiences are left out of battle reenactments. Instead of seeing something which points to the horror and blood of Civil War battles, one might instead see an actor or two reposing on the grass, playing dead, or even just a group of people in period costume relaxing and peacefully playing music.
Civil War Battle Reenactment (source)
As one historical reenactor laments, the audience is partially to blame for the whitewashing. Chris Ketcherside writes, “Most often the public simply asks, ‘What kind of machine gun is that?’ and the discussion ends there.” Anti-semitism among Allied soldiers in WWII or racism against African Americans in the Civil War are topics most of the audience would not feel comfortable seeing ‘lived out’, if they would be interested in them at all. Yet, these aspects of history often seem to be entirely lost in reenactments, even for the interested audience.

Afternoon Tea at the Plantation (source

The historical sites on Moss Wright Park in Goodlettsville, TN are exemplary of this misrepresentation of history. Moss Wright contains two historical sites-- Mansker’s Fort and the Bowen Plantation House. Mansker’s Fort is rife with historical reenactments, having numerous events open to the public, and even more for group trips, where one can watch a blacksmith at work and receive treats from pioneer women. Despite being a replica fort, Mansker’s advertises itself as “authentic,” as a place where one can “experience the lifestyle” of a Cumberland settler. Yet, there are conspicuous absences in the history provided. For instance, the Native American community is rarely represented, and if it is, it is by white men and women portraying Natives in the one-dimensional role of the villain, emerging from the woods and chasing the runners as they jog down the park paths.
 Advertisement for Masnker's Station Event (source)

 Field Trip to Mansker's Fort (source)

Even more disappointing than this misrepresentation of Native-Settler interaction is the absence of history from the Bowen Plantation House. While the site name is the “Bowen Plantation House,” the Goodlettsville website prefers to refer to it simply as the “Bowen House,” which “is truly a Tennessee treasure.” According to their website, “Through [Captain William Bowen’s] hard work and own ambitions, [he] became prosperous in the new settlement and eventually owned over 4,000 acres.” Not only does the website suggest Bowen acquired his status through individual accomplishment, but it does not make a single reference to slavery. If it is possible to erase slavery from the narrative of a plantation, Goodlettsville surely attempts to do this.

Wedding Celebrations at the Bowen Plantation House (source)

The problem of historical reenactments is the willingness of the audience to believe what they see, and the desire of the actors to produce an idealized portrait of the past, one that does not account for disease, horrific medical practice, and the grim reality of race, gender and class relations. Historical reenactments present themselves as ‘authentic,’ and as a learning experience. Yet, while technology may or may not be adequately represented, crucial dynamics and realities are left out of the event, as they do not fit harmoniously into the narrative the actors wish, or are desired to, create.

For more information: