Hold onto your potatoes!

As an archaeologist, and, well, as a human being, I wish to congratulate Ke Huy Quan on his Oscar. My eight-year-old self definitely wanted him to win for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (to be clear, I was 1 when that film was released; I had to wait a few years to watch it).

Everything Everywhere at Once is no Temple of Doom, but it’s a fine picture to be sure. (Michelle Yeoh was tremendous in it). I’m especially impressed by the fact that Ke Huy Quan hadn’t acted in 20 years before this role. It gives me hope for my own lackluster career, and of course fills me with childish glee.

And speaking of ‘archaeological’ film stars, congratulations also to Brendan Fraser.

Let’s Get Ready to Rumble!

Yesterday I finally went to see the exhibition Ritual and Memory: The Ancient Balkans and Beyond at NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. Great stuff as always, and it was especially wonderful to see the Borovo rhyta. But perhaps the most startling revelation the exhibition has to offer is that professional wrestling was invented in Serbia in the early fifth century BCE, as attested by this championship belt from Vinča:

National Museum of Serbia 06_25647

The belt looked too small to fit me, so I imagine the pro wrestlers of yesteryear were rather petite compared to modern man-mountains like Hulk Hogan and the late great André the Giant. (It should be clear from this post that my knowledge of professional wrestling peters out around 1990, when I turned seven.) All that remains to confirm this remarkable discovery would be for archaeologists to unearth the first folding metal chair.

In memoriam Amélie Kuhrt (1944-2023)

I have just received the distressing news of the death of Amélie Kuhrt, one of the foremost historians of the Achaemenid Empire and the ancient Near East more generally. Along with Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg she was the driving force behind the Achaemenid History Workshops in the 1980s that helped to create a new paradigm in Achaemenid studies. Her two-volume history of the ancient Near East, published in 1995, was remarkable for its inclusion of Egypt and its overall level of detail. I would not have survive grad school without it. And her 2007 book, The Persian Empire: A Corpus of Sources from the Achaemenid Period (also two volumes) is a landmark achievement and perhaps the single most useful publication for anyone studying the Achaemenids. I cite it in almost everything I publish; in fact, I am opening it now for an essay I have just begun to write. She wrote tremendously good articles, too–not very many, but they all have aged better than Vanna White.

On a personal note, we communicated some by email a number of years ago; in fact, she helped me to publish one of my first articles. She was very kind to me, and I am grateful for her kindness and support. I only regret that I never got to meet her in person.

The Customer is Always Right

I just read a distressing item by Christiane Gruber in New Lines about an adjunct instructor at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, whose spring courses were cancelled after a student objected to the display of a medieval Islamic painting of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) on the grounds that such images were Islamophobic. To be clear, this was in an Islamic art class, and the image in question was produced by a Muslim. In other words, it was a far cry from, for example, the cartoon in Charlie Hebdo.

Gruber, who is a professor of Islamic art at the University of Michigan, points out very clearly that despite public perceptions to the contrary, there is a long history of depicting Muhammad in Islamic art.

“Muhammad’s Call to Prophecy and the First Revelation”, Folio from a Majma’ al-Tavarikh (Compendium of Histories), ca. 1425. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Cora Timken Burnett Collection of Persian Miniatures and Other Persian Art Objects, Bequest of Cora Timken Burnett, 1956.

Simply put, this is part of devout Islamic art. But neither the student nor the university was interested in learning this. Instead, the university effectively fired the instructor in question.

Initially I had simply chalked this up to the stupidity of the Hamline administration. After all, they clearly need an expert on Islamic art on the faculty, since they don’t know any about Islamic art. Then I suspected this decision was made by a PR person desperate to avoid even a whiff of racism. But then I realized the simple truth of the matter: the customer is always right. Sadly, in this case one customer got what he or she wanted, but many other customers have been negatively affected by the loss of the courses this instructor could teach and by the fact that this action by the university has demonstrated very publicly that Hamline degrees are worthless, since the university is more concerned with customer satisfaction than with education.

A New Literary Genre

One of the great pleasures of teaching this course for the Honors College at Hofstra is the opportunity to read some really great stuff, like Montaigne’s Essays. Another pleasure is seeing the invention of new literary genres, such as one a student of mine coined to describe Montaigne’s Essays:

I think it may be time for me to branch out into this genre myself!

Palmyra in Perspective

In a few days I depart for Copenhagen for the conference Palmyra in Perspective at the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters. I have just looked at the conference program, and I will be in esteemed company, including Jen Baird (whose Dura-Europos I highly recommend), Kevin Butcher (one of the finest archaeological numismatists out there), Maura Heyn (whose articles on Palmyrene art I regularly assign to my students) and Eivind Seland (whose scholarship on long-distance trade informs much of my own research), not to mention the conference organizer Rubina Raja, and many others of course. It should be fascinating, and with any luck I won’t make a fool of myself in front of all these archaeological luminaries.

In memoriam Oscar White Muscarella (1931-2022)

Last night I received the sad news that Oscar White Muscarella has died. He was, without question, the conscience of the field of Near Eastern archaeology. At a time when it was rarely even discussed openly, he argued that the acquisition of looted and otherwise unprovenanced objects contributed to the destruction of archaeological sites and that museums had to be more responsible with their collecting practices. He also frequently pointed out that ascribed provenance was essentially worthless, and that many more objects in museum collections are modern forgeries than was previously admitted. And he put his career on the line for these ideas. I was always impressed by scholarship, especially by his detailed knowledge of so many different types of objects, even if his methods sometimes fell short.

Anyone interested in learning more about Muscarella should read the introduction to his collected essays (Archaeology, Artifacts and Antiquities of the Ancient Near East: Sites, Cultures and Proveniences, Brill, 2014) and the introduction by Elizabeth Simpson to the Festschrift in his honor (The Adventure of the Illustrious Scholar: Papers Presented to Oscar White Muscarella, Brill, 2018).

The Universe Hates Parthian Art

That, at least, is the only logical conclusion I can draw from the fact that I tested positive for COVID two days ago, right before I was supposed to give my talk on ‘Greek Style and the Problem of Parthian Art’ at ASOR. This was our third attempt to hold this panel, having twice before been delayed by the pandemic. This time around the panel finally took place, but without me.

“Six feet apart, dude!”

I am, fortunately, experiencing mild symptoms and am continuing to preach my pro-Parthian agenda to all who will listen. And although I am already overcommitted as it is, I do plan to publish a paper based on this (non-)talk some day. For now, however, I am just going to relax and maybe read some Spinoza or Roger Zelazny.

The Persian Pharaohs

I have just received the flyer for my lecture on Thursday night/Friday morning at Fudan University in Shanghai. It looks awesome, so, in the interests of shameless self-promotion, I post it here, in both its English and Chinese iterations: