Nichelle Nichols in Space!

I have been meaning to commemorate the life of Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhura on Star Trek, as well as in a few episodes of Futurama. When I was very young, I liked Scotty because of how he talked. When I became a teenager, Uhura became my favorite character (for obvious reasons). Now that I’m older I like Dr. McCoy the most, for his gravelly cynicism and strong moral streak. Uhura was always doing cool stuff, like intercepting alien transmissions and speaking Klingon, or, in Star Trek V, providing an unusual tactical distraction. In a show filled with great characters, she stood out.

I was very pleased to learn, therefore, that her ashes are going to space. As someone who inspired generations of scientists, engineers, actors and science fiction writers (not to mention Martin Luther King himself), it is fitting she will spend eternity out in the cosmos.

Museum Fellowships and Bathrooms

I’ve been meaning to write for a while to comment on two important items of museum-related news. (Well, perhaps ‘news’ is a strong term.) The first is a lovely piece in Hyperallergic about the best museum bathrooms. This one really speaks for itself, and all I would add is an admonition, based on personal experience, never to use a Renzo Piano-designed urinal.

Ann Agee, Sheboygan Men’s Room, John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin

The second item is that the Getty Research Institute has announced its fellowship themes for AY2023-24, of which one is ‘Anatolia,’ that is, ancient Anatolia. This is part of a long series (dated back to my own fellowship there in the days of yore) of ‘The Classical World in Context’ themes, which reflect a proposed series of exhibitions at the Getty Villa (Egypt happened back in 2018 and Persia just closed).

I very much enjoyed my time at the Getty (and not just because I met my wife there), so much so that I hung around for a few more years after my fellowship ended. I therefore highly recommend these fellowships to anyone with a relevant research interest. That said, applying for these fellowships can be very confusing, with all the different Getty locations and constituencies and the multiple research themes. Therefore, I should like to offer here a brief primer on Getty fellowships.

Organization

Everything at the Getty is part of the J. Paul Getty Trust, headed by the president (until recently James Cuno, now Katherine Fleming, formerly provost at NYU). Within the Trust are four additional entities:

  • The J. Paul Getty Museum
  • The Getty Research Institute
  • The Getty Conservation Institute
  • The Getty Foundation

Although entity’s remit seems pretty clear, there’s enough overlap between them to be confusing. For example, the Museum has curators, of course, but so does the Research Institute. The Museum and GRI also each have their own publications departments. The Conservation Institute isn’t actually responsible for conserving the Museum’s collection (or the GRI’s); the Museum has its own conservators.

Locations

The Getty has two main locations, the Getty Center in Brentwood, Los Angeles, overlooking the 405 in the Sepulveda Pass, and the Villa in Pacific Palisades, on the border with Malibu. They also own some other sundry properties, such as the scholar housing complex in Brentwood (known as the Pink Palace) and the GRI director’s house in Malibu, and I have heard tell of a vast Getty warehouse in the valley that contains toilet paper as far as the eye can see.

The Getty Center

The Center, which has occasionally served as a film set, houses the Trust, Foundation, Conservation Institute, GRI and part of the Museum.

The Getty Villa

The Villa, which until the 90s was the Getty’s only location, is now just the site of the antiquities department of the Museum.

Research Themes

All fellowships at the Getty are administered by the Research Institute. In most years there are multiple themes. Usually there are one or two broad themes (‘materiality’ in my fellowship year), as well as an ancient geographical one (‘Egypt’ in my year). In general, scholars working on the broad theme have offices at the Getty Center, while scholars working on the ancient theme have offices at the Villa. However, any scholar working on anything ancient gets an office at the Villa; for example, in my year there were a few people working on ‘materiality’ in ancient settings and they were located at the Villa.

In general there are two types of fellowships, pre- and postdocs, and senior fellowships (these are my terms for them). The senior fellowships are generally for established, tenured scholars, and typically last for three months. The pre- and postdocs are for nine months. But there are always exceptions to this pattern. The Villa typically has only one pre- or postdoc in the course of an academic year, meaning that the pre- and postdocs applicants are essentially all judged together. This makes it very difficult for a predoc to get a fellowship at the Villa.

I am always happy to help scholars demystify the Getty fellowships, so please do feel free to ask me if you have questions. Of course, this is all based on my own experience, not on any insider knowledge, so I cannot promise that my information is accurate, or even helpful!

Santa!

I became very excited the other day when I learned that the next president of the University of Michigan will be Santa!

Santa and Merlin working in the lab in a 1959 Mexican film

It turns out, however, that the new president is not a jolly old elf but rather a distinguished biologist and experienced university administrator, who, frankly, is probably the better choice. Certainly he should be a vast improvement over his disgraced predecessor, and I wish him all the best in his new job!

Science is whatever we want it to be

Of all the great medical practitioners on television, the greatest is of course ‘Doctor’ Leo Spaceman from 30 Rock. Among the many pearls of wisdom Dr. Spaceman dispensed on the show was “science is whatever we want it to be” (which he said to reassure Tracy Jordan that a DNA test could help him remember his ATM PIN).

Dr. Spaceman hard at work

Unfortunately, not every proponent of this naively optimistic view is so charming. For example, I recently encountered an excellent post (from last December; as usual, I am hopelessly out of date) by Amos Morris-Reich on the Met’s website about the use of Egyptian panel portraits for the study of ‘racial science.’ These portraits are some of my favorite objects from Egypt. They feature very individualized depictions (though the extent to which they are true portraits is an open, and interesting, question) that would be inserted into the sarcophagus once the sitter had shed his or her mortal coil.

Portrait of a Youth with a Surgical Cut in one Eye, 190–210 CE. Encaustic paint on limewood; H. 35 x W. 17.2 cm (13 3/4 x 6 3/4 in.). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (09.181.4); Rogers Fund, 1909.

Evidently back in the day Flinders Petrie used such portraits to support his ideas about ‘racial mixture’ (yet another stirring triumph for the founder of Egyptian archaeology). But Dr. Morris-Reich focuses on how these images were used by German racial scholars in the 1930s and 40s to identify ancient Jews in Egypt, usually by comparing them to Jewish caricatures.

What prompted this post is that the Met, like many museums, keeps track of where its objects have been published and post this information publicly so that scholars and other interested parties can use it. The Egyptian Art department at the Met does an excellent job of this, especially given how large their collection is and how often it has been published. But two of its panel portraits (09.181.4 and 11.139) were published in Antike Weltjudentum by Gerhard Kittel and Eugen Fischer in 1942. As Morris-Reich discusses, this book is horrifically anti-Semitic, and the Egyptian Art department was justifiably disgusted. But I applaud their solution; instead of just deleting the references they invited Dr. Morris-Reich to address the issue directly, and we are all better informed as a result. I encourage the Egyptian Art department to explore ways to include this information in the gallery displays of these splendid portraits.

More Persian drinking!

In the same vein as my previous post about Parthian drinking, I am pleased to report the publication of my essay “Some Material Correlates of Drinking in the Achaemenid Empire” in a volume edited by Shervin Farridnejad and Touraj Daryaee entitled Food for Gods, Food for Mortals: Culinary and Dining Practices in the Greater Iranian World (Čistā: Studies in the History, Cultures and Religions of the Iranian World 1, Irvine, CA: UCI Jordan Center for Persian Studies, 2022, 51-65).

This paper actually got its start as part of a job talk I gave at UC Irvine back in 2018. The job talk then became at conference paper (also at UCI), and then I wrote it up for a general audience while I was working at the Met, hence my extensive use of Met objects to illustrate it. I’m looking forward to reading the other contributions once my copy of the book arrives, especially since most of them were not part of the original conference (and they look very interesting). Incidentally, I believe the cover art depicts the making of doogh, which is also the subject of Touraj’s essay.

Drinking like a Parthian?

The question mark on the title of this post reflects the fact that I’m not really sure how Parthians drank. Yet I will be speaking on this subject at the Getty Villa next month (one June 25), in connection with the exhibition Persia: Ancient Iran and the Classical World. The event is a small symposium (an apt term) on Royal Banqueting in Ancient Persia, and my fellow speakers Beth Dusinberre and Layah Ziaii-Bigdeli will address Achaemenid and Sasanian banquets respectively.

Parthian lynx (or more likely a caracal) rhyton, 1st cen. BCE. Gilt silver, 24.5 × 41.9 × 12.2 cm, 0.678 kg. Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum 86.AM.752.1.

In my defense, the reason I don’t know that much about Parthian banqueting is because we don’t know that much about Parthian banqueting. But there are enough tantalizing clues (crumbs, if you like) to paint a general picture, which is what I plan to do. The evidence is pretty weird, so even if my talk isn’t very informative, it should be interesting.

A Journal I Used to Respect

When I was a boy (that is, a graduate student) I used to hold the journal Current Anthropology, published by the illustrious Wenner-Gren Foundation, in high esteem. Of course in those days I was an ardent processualist, but even after my views began to moderate I continued to be impressed by the way the authors published in it could make sense of tricky higher-order issues in archaeological thought.

I am sad to say those days are over, thanks to an article published in the most recent issue (63.2): “Silencing the Past: Persian Archaeology, Race, Ethnicity, and Language” by Ahmad Mohammadpour and Kamal Soleimani. I encountered this article because it was announced in the Agade listserv, meaning (I hope) that I will not be the only one scrutinizing it.

The main thrust of the paper is that Iranian nationalism, especially in the twentieth century, has promoted a monolithic view of ancient Iranian history privileging an Aryan narrative. Doubtless this is true; Mohammadpour and Soleimani are not the first to make this argument in some fashion.

The problem, however, is how badly they misunderstand their topic. For example, on p. 191 we read:

“Also, the idea that the Achaemenid dynasty was a coherent and monolithic empire is not supported by the evidence presented. For instance, the Ka‘ba-ye Zartosht inscription, an ancient building at Naqsh-e Rostam, near Persepolis, portrays the rulers of 45 regions with kings of their own next to the King of Kings. Accordingly, while these kingdoms had loose ties to the Achaemenid Empire, they had their own independent polities.”

As anyone with even the slightest knowledge of ancient Iran would know, the Ka‘ba-ye Zartosht inscription is Sasanian, not Achaemenid. So it has no bearing on the nature of the Achaemenid Empire! They also claim (further down the page) that Ardashir I wrote inscriptions in Elamite. It is entirely possible, if not likely, that Elamite was still spoken during the Sasanian Empire, but there are no royal inscriptions in it from so late a date.

The Ka‘ba-ye Zartosht inscription (not Old Persian cuneiform!)

On the same page we have a very confused discussion of the invention of ‘Old Persian’ cuneiform:

“The archaeological remains, particularly the Achaemenid Kings’ inscriptions, are all written in cuneiform, demonstrating that Aramaic was their administrative affairs’ language (Ghirshman 1954:158). If, as claimed by Brandenstein and Mayrhofer (1964:17), the Farsi script was invented by King Dariush, how could it also be the common language of his contemporaries (Ghirshman 1954:158)? If the Achaemenid inscriptions were written in the invented language, what was their previous spoken language? The invention claim would be accurate only if we accept that the Arameans invented the Farsi script—“a Semitic-speaking” people from between the northern Levant and the northern Euphrates valley regions.”

How do we make sense of this mess? First of all, Brandenstein and Mayrhofer do not claim that Darius invented the Farsi script, only that he was the first to use cuneiform to write Old Persian. Darius makes this claim in the Bisitun Inscription and it is borne out by the absence of Old Persian inscriptions before his reign. Second, Farsi is written using the modern Persian alphabet, itself a variant of the Arabic alphabet. This did not exist in Darius’ time. So what could they possibly mean that it was invented by Darius or by Aramaic speakers? The authors are right that Aramaic was used as an administrative language in the Achaemenid Empire, but it does not follow that Aramaic scribes wrote Old Persian using the Aramaic alphabet. Certainly we have no direct evidence of this. The Aramaic alphabet was used (later) to write both Parthian and Middle Persian (i.e. the Pahlavi script); perhaps this is what they mean. But it’s anyone guess what this Joe Garagiola-esque muddle is meant to convey.

On the following page the authors seemingly dispute the fact (and it is a fact) that the Parthian Empire existed for about 500 years and that it was an empire at all. This is based on a late Sasanian text, the Kār-Nāmag ī Ardašīr ī Pāpakān, which narratives the rise of Ardashir, the founder of the Sasanian Empire. It is certainly not, as they claim, the “oldest surviving record of the founder of the Sasanian dynasty,” and, more importantly, it is fictional, or at least literary in nature.

This last point gets to a larger issue, namely that the authors are unable to distinguish between modern and ancient nationalism (so to speak). The erasure of the Parthians from Iranian history was the result of a very deliberate effort on the part of the Sasanians that served their own ideological goals. While the authors are certainly correct that the modern Pahlavi dynasty promoted a pro-Aryan nationalism and used the pre-Islamic past to do so, they entirely miss the fact that the Sasanians (and probably other ancient and medieval dynasties as well) had their own reasons for rewriting Iran’s ancient history.

I don’t really blame the authors for not knowing this stuff. Neither is an expert on ancient history or archaeology (one is a socio-cultural anthropologist, the other a modern historian), and their stated goal is to engage with historical scholarship, not with history itself (though how you can do that without knowing the history is beyond my ken). I do, however, blame Current Anthropology for not finding a qualified reviewer for this paper, which, frankly, is really the only job of a journal editor. Indeed, none of the published responses following the paper are by qualified experts, either. And because this rubbish was disseminated via the Agade listserv, home to many of the finest minds in ancient Near Eastern studies (and me too), the journal’s incompetence is apt to become common knowledge.

Here ends the rant. I have the get back to writing my own historiographical essay (on Parthian art) so that someday some other underemployed scholar can point out its shortcomings.

The bust that went bust

This morning as I was enjoying a bran muffin I read an article in the New York Times on an early imperial Roman bust purchased at a Goodwill store in Texas for $34.99. Apparently it had been at the Pompejanum — a full scale model of a Roman villa built by King Ludwig I of Bavaria in the 1840s — in Aschaffenburg, Germany, until World War II. It is now going on display at the San Antonio Museum of Art until 2023, in an exhibition curated by my friend Lynley McAlpine.

Safety first!

The real headline here is that Lynley has achieved true archaeological greatness: she is cited by name in the Daily Mail, a periodical so tawdry that it makes Fox News look like CNN by comparison. But, as a result, she has reached an audience which few, if any, academics will ever speak to. And isn’t that the reason we got into archaeology in the first place?

The Hofstra Honors College

This fall I will have yet another email address, this time at Hofstra University. I’ll be teaching Culture & Expression, a massive team-taught course in the Honors College, which includes features humanities scholars and social scientists talking about a very wide range of texts (and some art too). The schedule is still in progress, but I would like to note that the dean of the Honors College is still looking for one more teacher, and he would like a classical philologist. Anyone interested in this opportunity should feel free to contact me, and I will put you in touch with the dean.