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Archive for the ‘archaeology’ Category


Many years ago – presumably sometime around 2004-2006 – I attended a great talk & book-signing event with author Roger Atwood, at Back Pages Books, a fantastic little indy bookstore in Waltham MA, run by my friend Alex Green. Atwood’s book, Stealing History, opened my eyes to incredible stories of the international black market in illegally unearthed & smuggled antiquities.

One of the stories he tells in this book is of the illegal looting and subsequent trafficking in 1987 of a cache of solid gold artifacts and other objects from the Peruvian tomb of the Lord of Sipán, an elite of the Moche culture (c. 50-700 CE). One of the most significant objects in the cache was a large golden backflap, described in Archaeology Magazine as follows:

Made of gold, copper, and silver, the backflap weighs about 2.5 pounds and is 25.6 inches long and 19.6 inches wide. It consists of flat blade-shaped central piece surmounted by rattles made of matching front and back pieces. Known from tombs of Moche warrior-priests and depictions on vases, backflaps were suspended from a belt around the waist and covered the wearer’s backside. Warrior-priests wore them as armor in combat and as symbols of power during rituals including the sacrifice, perhaps to insure rainfall and agricultural fertility, of captured enemy warriors.

If I recall correctly from what I read in Atwood’s book, the traffickers eventually ended up trying to sell the backflap and other objects to a potential buyer known only as “El Hombre del Oro.” After a number of communications to arrange the exchange, they met him in a parking lot on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike, only to be arrested by members of the FBI Art Crimes unit, learning to their dismay that “El Hombre del Oro” was Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Goldman. The treasures of Sipán were turned over to the Peruvian authorities, and some (all?) made their way into the collections of the Museum of the Nation in Lima.

I love this story. And I hoped that someday I might eventually happen to make my way to Lima, where I might happen to see the golden backflap at the center of this story. What a pleasure it was to see it – not just any other Moche backflap, but what I’m hoping, assuming, is the very same one – at the Getty’s “Golden Kingdoms” exhibit of pre-Columbian art. It’s incredible getting to see, in person, objects you’ve read about, heard about, seen in illustrations or photographs. It’s incredible seeing objects and knowing this whole story behind them – whether it’s a story about the artist, or the composition, or in this case a story of international smuggling & an FBI sting operation.

For this alone, the exhibit was absolutely worth it. But “Golden Kingdoms” turned out to be a truly excellent exhibit otherwise, as well. As I return to thinking about designing World History courses that I might, hopefully, potentially, teach in the future, the artifacts and labels in this exhibit, seeing how they described and discussed various pre-Columbian cultures, was just really interesting and useful. And huge massive thanks to the Getty for allowing photos, even of all these objects from collections all across the Americas! I took photos of many gallery labels, to hold onto the content for future syllabus- & lecture-writing.

One thing that was especially great about this exhibit was its spotlights on many individual cultures and sites. From this, I can piece together just a bit more (more than from the textbook, and whatever other resources I may use) on the Maya, Aztecs, Olmecs, Inca, Moche, etc., not only in general, but with some small degree of specific focus on sites such as Sipán, Chichen Itza, Tenochtitlan, and Palenque.

For a Latin America specialist, all of this might be rather basic material. But for someone like myself, who specializes in East Asian and Pacific history, and who wants to incorporate more of the premodern, the non-West, and more discussion of visual & material culture in his World Survey courses, this was really great. Of course, I could eventually get my hands on the exhibit catalog, or various other materials, but, still, there’s nothing like seeing an exhibit in person and getting inspired right then and there, to talk about how different cultures associated gold, jade, shells, and other materials with being “emitted, inhabited, or consumed by gods,” and …

Having just returned from a trip to Hawaiʻi where I finally got to see the feather cloak (ʻahu ʻula) gifted by Kalaniʻōpuʻu to Captain Cook, now on loan from Te Papa Tongarewa to the Bishop Museum, I also thoroughly enjoyed seeing some Wari and Nasca feathered cloaks and wall panels. On top of the Māori feather cloaks we saw in the newly renovated Pacific Hall at Bishop Museum, this provides a great opportunity for comparison.

The Getty exhibit also included: an Inca checkerboard tunic, an example one can use to illustrate what’s described in Spanish records of the first meetings between conquistador Francisco Pizarro and Inca emperor Atahualpa.; some stunning stelae from Tikal and related cultures; and just a few objects from the post-conquest period, concluding with a painting of Don Francisco de Arobe and his sons Pedro and Domingo, Native elites from what is today Ecuador, dressed in a combination of Native and Spanish clothing.

The Getty’s contributions to the citywide “LA/LA: Latin American and Latino Art in Los Angeles” event also include a show of contemporary Argentinian photography, a show of the “Concrete” art movement in Latin America (which compares interestingly with the Gutai movement in Japan), and a small but excellent exhibit in the Research Center on “The Metropolis in Latin America,” discussing the modern urban history of Havana, Buenos Aires, Lima, Santiago, Rio de Janeiro, and Mexico City – how they developed themselves into modern cities, with national monuments, national architecture, public transportation, and so forth, later becoming centers of Modernist architecture as designers and thinkers turned to Latin America with ideas of building these cities into Modernist utopias. This exhibit not only provided me with comparative narratives and examples, adding to my knowledge/interest in how cities such as Honolulu, Tokyo, Kyoto, Naha, and Seoul were transformed into modern(ist) cities in the 19th-20th centuries, but the exhibit also included some very nice timelines of the major events of Latin American history.

Looking forward to eventually teaching World History, and incorporating some of this great content.

“Golden Kingdoms” runs until Jan 28, 2018 at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. “The Metropolis in Latin America” closes on Jan 7.

All photos my own, taken at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

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11/4/16

Thanks to the Uchinanchu Taikai, I had a bus pass for unlimited free bus rides all over the island, for nearly a full week after the Taikai ended. So I decided to try to make the most use out of it (well, for one day anyway) while I still could, and went up to Katsuren gusuku – about a one hour bus ride from here, a ride which would normally have cost around 1000 yen (US$10) each way. Saved quite a bit of money.

But before actually going to the castle, I first went to the Yonashiro History Museum. Why it’s Yonashiro and not Yonagusuku is a mystery to me, but in any case, this was a tiny local history museum based in one wing of the town hall. A few years ago, archaeologists working on the grounds of Katsuren castle found a number of coins, which in recent months they determined to be, most probably, from the circa 4th century Roman Empire. That would make these the only Roman coins ever found in Japan – speaking to the incredible maritime activity and connections of pre-modern Okinawa, long before the island ever became part of any Japanese state.

From Kôhô Uruma Magazine’s November 2016 issue:

(rough translation my own; apologies for any errors)

Coins from the Roman and Ottoman Empires discovered at Katsuren Castle

About the excavated coins: In the 2013 archaeological survey conducted at Katsuren castle, ten small, round, metal coins were discovered (nine within the grounds of the castle, and one outside). The metal objects discovered in the survey were brought back [to the research center], and when they were further examined, four were determined by experts’ analysis to be circa 4th century Roman coins, and one a coin made in the 17th century Ottoman Empire. However, as analysis continues, the possibility remains for a different result [to emerge].

The dates we are currently conjecturing for the production of these coins places all five outside of the 12th to 15th centuries, the period of Katsuren’s peak prominence. Continued examination of the Katsuren site, and of ceramics and other objects excavated there, [will hopefully provide some answers as to] why these coins were found there, and how they came to Katsuren.

Other examples of similar coins being discovered in Okinawa are unknown, and it is thought likely that this is the first discovery of similar coins [i.e. from the Roman Empire] anywhere in Japan.

It is thought there is a possibility that someone related to Katsuren castle and serving as some kind of point of contact between East and West obtained the coins somewhere, and as such this is a very important find for continuing research on [the extent and form of] Katsuren’s still largely unconfirmed networks of interaction & exchange. This can be seen as a significant development not only for the fields of Okinawan history or Japanese history, but also for those of the histories of Western Asia, or of the West, and as such for World History as a whole.

Plans from here on: The remaining five coins which have not yet been thoroughly identified will be cleaned, and the designs and inscriptions on them will be examined. Further, the sites that have been excavated, and the artifacts excavated from those sites, will be carefully examined, a more thorough analysis of the composition of the objects will be undertaken, and from this we plan to better determine the time and place when/where they were made.

The History and Archaeological Surveys of Katsuren Castle

Katsuren castle was built around the 12th or 13th centuries, and flourished in the 14th and [early] 15th centuries through overseas trade. The castle fell in 1458, as the tenth lord of the castle, Amawari, was attacked by the armies of the Shuri royal government [i.e. of the unified Kingdom of Ryukyu which ruled over the whole island] and was defeated. From then through roughly the 17th century, the castle was used by the local people in some fashion, but little is known about this period in any detail.

Excavations on the grounds were begun in 1965 by the Ryukyu Government Cultural Properties Protection Agency [part of the Okinawan civil self-government under US martial Occupation], and in 1972 [following the return of Okinawa to Japanese sovereignty] the site was named a National Historic Site. The site was named in 2000 as one of the sites included within the umbrella UNESCO World Heritage Site designation “Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu.” Today, the Katsuren Castle Site Maintenance Project receives funding from the Agency for Cultural Affairs [an agency within the Japanese national government], and the cultural office of the Uruma City Board of Education is overseeing archaeological excavations and restoration efforts. Excavation efforts began in earnest in 2012, with a focus on the fourth enclosure (the outermost of the castle’s four main enclosures, baileys, or enceintes, depending on one’s preferred term), and excavations of the eastern and northern portions of this area, and of the area immediately around the Nishihara Gate, were completed in 2015.

From my own notes, taken at the exhibition (if only they would have allowed us to take photos!! then I’d have the full gallery labels to look at again, and to take the time to translate them – I just didn’t have the time or patience to copy down everything by hand, on the spot):

Coin #2: seems to be from the Roman Empire, c. late 3rd century.

Coin #4: possibly from the reign of Suleiman II (r. 1687-1691) of the Ottoman Empire. The coin is labeled “Constantinople” in Arabic script, along with the date 1099 A.H. (=1687 CE).

Coin #5: seems to be a mid-4th century Roman bronze coin. Possibly inscribed “CONSTANTIVS”.

Coin #7: seems to be a coin issued on the occasion of the death of Constantine I in 337, thus making the coin’s date circa 337 to 340 CE.

Coin #8: seems to be from the period of shared/collaborative rule between Constantius Gallus and others, c. 337 to 340s or 350s CE. Researchers have noted similarities to a coin dated 347-348 CE and inscribed “CYZICVS.”

Other objects excavated from the castle site and displayed at the museum included Chinese coins from the Sui (581-618), Northern Song (907-1127), and early Ming (1368-1644) dynasties, as well as dice, hairpins, smoking pipes, elements of Japanese weapons & armor, and plenty of shards of pottery, including Chinese celadons and other luxury items from overseas.

I’m sorry that I don’t have more information… I shall certainly keep my eyes open for further news articles or the like.

Stay tuned for Part Two of this post, as I finish talking about my adventures of that day, at Katsuren castle, the surrounding neighborhood, and in Futenma/Ginowan on the way home.

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I must admit, I’ve been kind of sitting on this link since Columbus Day. But, fortunately, it’s now Thanksgiving, so, it’s still sort of thematically appropriate. (Not that it would be horribly inappropriate to post about such things any other time of year.)

It’s a lengthy article from The Atlantic, and a slightly old one, dating back to 2002, but a very interesting one, by Charles Mann, long-time Atlantic contributing editor, and the author of the books 1491 and 1493, this article being a product of the process which eventually resulted in those books.

In this article, Mann asks us to reconsider the myth that North America was only sparsely populated, and that indigenous peoples live in harmony with nature. In a broader sense, the idea that large-scale environmental impact is limited to the modern age is one of the classic ones perpetuated by the presentism of far too many disciplines (not to mention out in the world, outside of the academy), and is one that several of my History department colleagues, in their studies of medieval Europe and Japan, rail against in their work, to be sure. I don’t want to digress for too long, but just to give one example, my go-to example: by the end of the 18th century, Japan was severely deforested, had nearly exhausted its gold, silver, and copper mines, and had dealt a very severe blow to the wolf population, with the Japanese wolf finally going finally extinct by 1905. Of course, the more classic example of the dodo, extinct by 1700, is a fine one too. And how about moas, the large flightless birds endemic to New Zealand and killed off by the Maori – yes, by the indigenous people who live so in harmony with nature – by 1500, long before any Europeans ever arrived. Not that I mean to disparage the Maori. Okay, let me continue this digression just a little bit longer, to say this: it only just occurred to me as I was writing this, but I think it holds some merit. The idea that indigenous peoples – Native Americans, Maori, whoever, or non-Western peoples at all, e.g. the Japanese – are somehow in harmony with nature may seem benign or even a positive stereotype. In this age of environmental degradation, we all aspire to know how to live more harmoniously with Mother Earth. But, actually, this idea comes straight out of Orientalist / Social Darwinist notions of the 19th century, which contrasted “civilization” against being part of nature. In other words, even if the nuances may have changed today, and even if we intend a different meaning, by saying or thinking that anyone was living in harmony with nature, what we’re really saying is that they’re uncivilized, that they’re less advanced. I can’t remember precisely where I saw it, but I recall reading excerpts from European writings about somewhere in the Pacific (yeah, can’t remember the details – sorry) in which they fully lumped in the people with the natural environment, writing something to the effect of that the natural environment of that island – the climate, the plants, the animals, the Natives – was brutal, and would take a lot of work to be tamed. So, let’s maybe step carefully when we talk about other peoples having lived in harmony with nature.

Just a thought.

Now, returning to the Atlantic article. It opens with discussion of an area in Amazonia known as the Beni, an area where until recently, or perhaps still today, indigenous people live who have had only the most minimal of contact with any outsiders. Scholars Clark Erickson and William Balée believe that this area, and indeed much of the Americas, may have been far more densely populated than our conventional wisdom dictates, and further, that the indigenous peoples of the Americas may have imposed a far greater impact on the landscape – read: manmade lakes, hills, and so forth – than is traditionally believed. To be sure, I have heard, and find quite compelling, the idea that since disease killed huge numbers of Native Americans, perhaps as many as 90%, before the Europeans ever came more deeply into the continent, the European accounts of a largely empty land might not properly be able to reflect what was there before – before the Europeans were there to see it. Even the Plymouth colonists themselves acknowledged it, with William Bradford (1590-1657) writing “The good hand of God favored our beginnings, sweeping away great multitudes of the natives … that he might make room for us.”

But, Erickson and Balée’s work remains quite controversial, and understandably so. The article cites two prominent scholars, Betty Meggers of the Smithsonian, and Dean Snow of Penn State, as saying, respectively,
“I have seen no evidence that large numbers of people ever lived in the Beni. Claiming otherwise is just wishful thinking,” and from Snow, that “you can make the meager evidence from the ethnohistorical record tell you anything you want. It’s really easy to kid yourself.”

Perhaps the more important point is one articulated by scholar Elizabeth Fenn:

Whether one million or 10 million or 100 million died… the pall of sorrow that engulfed the hemisphere was immeasurable. Languages, prayers, hopes, habits, and dreams—entire ways of life hissed away like steam. … In the long run, … the consequential finding is not that many people died but that many people once lived.

Recovering the lost history of countless indigenous peoples is of course of incredible importance, and I wish luck to all of those working on such projects.

This particular one in Beni, focusing on the idea that the indigenous peoples profoundly altered the landscape, brings up some particularly interesting questions and implications. Firstly, by understanding the ways in which all societies have environmental impact, we can begin to understand one another as fellow humans better, so that we might stop seeing one another as those who supposedly “live in harmony with nature” and those who destroy it, and to instead start thinking about the ways that all human societies impact the natural environment. But, also, there is the question raised by this article: if the land was already profoundly altered by the people who came before (and who, in many cases are still here on the land), what exactly are we protecting and preserving in our National Parks and so forth, and to what state exactly should we restore things? In the Beni, it has been traditional practice for who knows how long to burn out the undergrowth, and to build causeways and weirs to trap fish. The Hawaiians, too, built fish ponds, and maintained artificially high, manmade, populations of fish within them, though I don’t really know the details of how extensively they altered the land to do this. Later in the article, Mann describes how many North American indigenous peoples used controlled burning, and other technologies, to shape the grasslands, and turn them into massive “farms,” essentially, for herds of wild buffalo, elk, and so forth. Quoting William Denevan, he writes, “Is it possible that the Indians changed the Americas more than the invading Europeans did? ‘The answer is probably yes for most regions for the next 250 years or so after Columbus, and for some regions right up to the present time.'”

After we landed, I asked Balée, Should we let people keep burning the Beni? Or should we let the trees invade and create a verdant tropical forest in the grasslands, even if one had not existed here for millennia?

Balée laughed. “You’re trying to trap me, aren’t you?” he said.

From here, the article moves on to talk about the issue of virgin soil epidemics, and of pre-contact population, more broadly. While no article of course could ever be as thoroughly informative as a whole book, this 11-webpage-long piece is really quite thorough in its scope, touching upon a lot of really interesting information. Mann covers so much here, I can hardly begin to imagine what he covers in his book. I started writing a running summary of the article, noting interesting points as I came to each of them, but this blog post, which is meant chiefly to just point to the article, is already getting quite long itself. No one wants to read a super lengthy “summary” of something that’s only 11 pages in full.

So, this Thanksgiving weekend, go take a look at Charles Mann’s 2002 article in The Atlantic, “1491.” It’s a really fascinating glimpse into what this part of the world might have looked like before (for most of us) our ancestors came here, and what happened to that world.

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Bodhi tree and pond at Maya Devi Temple. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Meanwhile, in other news (though not really so new since I’ve been meaning to post about this since late November), scholars have found a 6th century BCE shrine at Lumbini in Nepal, the earliest Buddhist worship site yet discovered.

The shrine pushes back the dates of the life of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, who scholars had been estimating might have lived in the 4th century BCE. Despite the conventional wisdom associating the Buddha with India, sites celebrated as his birthplace, the site of his enlightenment, etc., are in Nepal; Lumbini is traditionally believed to be his birthplace. The wooden shrine, with an area in the center open to the sky, seems to have been centered around a tree – the Buddha’s enlightenment having taken place under a bodhi tree. The Buddha is also said to have been born under a tree, grasped by his mother Maya as she gave birth. Later brick buildings were built over the site, and remain a major pilgrimage site today; it was in excavations at this still-active holy site, the Maya Devi Temple, also designated a World Heritage Site, that evidence or remains of the early shrine were found. Some scholars, however, have suggested that a tree shrine could be a pre-Buddhist site as well.

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The other major exhibit I was very glad to catch this winter at the Metropolitan Museum is one entitled “Silla: Korea’s Golden Kingdom,” featuring artifacts from the Korean kingdom of Silla (57 BCE – 935 CE), including a number of National Treasures.

The exhibit, located in a special gallery I don’t think I knew existed, off of the Greco-Roman galleries, begins with this expansive video screen, providing a beautiful view of the Hwangnam Daechong tomb mounds, in Gyeongju, a nod to the idea that you’re actually visiting this sunny, green, public park and entering into the tomb mounds yourself. This was surely expensive, and is only there for spectacle and atmosphere, but boy does it succeed in making the exhibit look/feel top-notch and cutting edge. I also appreciated, snarkily, how all the video screens in the exhibit were not only provided by Samsung, but included brief blurbs on the gallery labels explaining why Samsung’s technology is so amazing. You’d think you were at an industry show, or living inside a commercial or something. “Samsung’s newest such-and-such monitor includes the latest in swiveling, anti-glare, and touchscreen technology, making it the ideal device for any museum exhibition.” You can almost imagine the “wink” and plastic customer service smile at the end of it. Haha.

Tumuli Park (Daereungwon) in Gyeongju. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

But, back to the artifacts. The exhibit begins with a brief explanation of the chronology and geography of the kingdom, and a short video clip showing how the tomb mounds were constructed. Prior to the introduction of Buddhism in the early 6th century, Silla’s royal tombs tended to be made of wooden caskets in above-ground wooden chambers, covered over in earth and stones, creating a mound with no direct passageway or entrance. Various grave goods, including pottery, objects in gold, and even glass imported from as far away as Rome (via the Silk Road), were incorporated into the mounds, meaning (I gather) that as one excavates, it’s not a matter of simply digging down to the burial chamber and finding things laid there, but, rather, that these goods are mixed right in with the earth and stones that form the mound. I don’t know enough about the details of kofun in Japan to draw a comparison, so I’ll have to leave that alone…

Right: National Treasure 191, Queen’s crown and belt from Hwangnam Daechong. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Most of the objects on display in the first portion of the exhibit were these sorts of grave goods, including some heavy, and extremely finely detailed & elaborate golden earrings, with huge, thick rings, and then finely intertwined and filigreed elements dangling from the rings. Perhaps most interesting for me was the queen’s golden crown and belt, each with pendants, altogether sporting tens of jade gogok, or magatama as they’re called in Japanese. My friend who studies shamanism in Japan could surely speak more informedly to this, but throughout the region (Korea, Japan, Ryukyu, though I’m not sure if anywhere else), this particular shape of bead, like a comma, or half a yin-yang, is traditionally, especially in more ancient times, a major spiritual item. One such stone, the Yasakani no Magatama, supposedly housed at the Tokyo Imperial Palace, is one of the Three Imperial Regalia of Japan – that is, one of the three most sacred artifacts associated with the legitimacy of Imperial rule. In Ryukyu, large magatama were the central pendant item on necklaces worn by priestesses and queens, and I gather from this exhibit that similar practices & beliefs were current in Silla as well. Having seen smaller magatama before, of a much more typical size for necklace pendants today (half an inch? just a very rough guess), though I can’t quite remember where, I was surprised at how large some of the gogok were in this exhibit. Those hanging from the queen’s crown were mostly of that smaller size, but the ones on the necklaces were serious hunks of stone, maybe half the size of a fist. I’ve seen pictures of similar crowns, one of the most classic or standard canonical examples of Korean style of that time, and of the similarities between Korean and Japanese styles especially of Japan’s kofun period. So, it was really nice to get to see such an object, and especially one in such excellent, almost complete, restored(?) or conserved condition, in person.

Once Buddhism was introduced to Korea from China, burial practices shifted to more closely emulating the Chinese mode. The tomb mounds became a thing of the past, and burials became much smaller, centered around stone caskets, in stone chambers, with definitive entrance passages, and “spirit paths,” rows of pillars, stelae, or sculptures leading up to the entrance on the exterior. Cremation rather than bodily burial became more common, and ceramic figures of servants, horses, mansions, boats, and the like, included directly in the burial chamber, much as in the Chinese fashion, became common. The exhibit includes a number of these figurines, as well as a few stone sculptures from “spirit paths.” The Chinese zodiac may have been introduced at this time as well, and it’s believed that it was relatively standard to have sculptures of each of the twelve zodiac animals (rat, cow, tiger, snake, monkey, dog, etc.) arranged along a tomb’s spirit path.

Korean National Treasure #83. Maitreya (K: Mireuk), c. 6th-7th century, bronze. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Moving forward, much of the rest of the exhibit consisted of Buddhist artifacts. The true highlight of the exhibit comes at this point. Situated in its own dedicated alcove, I feel so genuinely privileged to have gotten to see, in person, Korean National Treasure Number 83. A gilt bronze sculpture of Mireuk (Maitreya, J: Miroku) dating to roughly the 6th or 7th century, and roughly three feet in height, it sits in the pensive pose, with one hand up to its cheek, and one leg crossed over. An extremely similar sculpture, likely also originally from Korea, and today housed at the temple of Kôryû-ji in Kyoto, was (I believe) the first object designated a National Treasure of Japan. I do not know if I will ever get to see that sculpture, but to see this one is by no means second best.

I do not know whether it’s simply the fame, or something inherent in the sculpture, aesthetically or otherwise, but I found it truly breathtaking. My heart jumped as I gazed upon it, and I felt like I wanted to look at it, examine it, appreciate it, forever. I didn’t want to leave. I think part of the reason it had such impact was because I was surprised by its size, expecting for some reason for it to be closer to handheld in size – something so valued for its age but not for its size – when in fact it is a rather respectable size for a sculpture. I’m not myself Buddhist, but something in the design or aesthetic of the object, from the gentle curves of the bodhisattva’s body, to its gentle gaze through tiny slits of eyes, made me feel such a sense of calm, benevolence, and beauty. The following day, I was privileged to see Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring at the Frick Collection (up through Jan 19), but this did not provoke in me any special response at all. Intellectually, of course, I’m glad to check it off my list of famous paintings to be able to say I’ve seen, but, sadly, for whatever reason, the actual experience of seeing it felt like nothing special. It looks just like it does on the Internet. I was fortunate, too, to see many National Treasures and other stunning, beautiful, and incredibly historical significant objects this past summer in Japan, and eagerly look forward to doing so again.

The exhibition closes with a video showing the Seokguram Buddhist grotto, an incredible cave temple built in stone in the 8th century, and also counted among Korea’s National Treasures. A large stone Buddha is surrounded on all sides by stone slabs, which form the circular walls, floor, entrance corridor, and domed roof of the grotto, all of which where then covered over in earth to form a natural-looking cave. In the late 20th century, a wooden temple building was built before the cave entrance, expanding, or enhancing, the site. Though this grotto, clearly, cannot be removed from its location and brought into the museum, in the final room of the exhibit, they show a cast iron Buddha statue, all alone in that final room, evoking the idea, or the feeling, of the cave temple.

Between this exhibit, the one I saw at the Asian Art Museum a few weeks ago, and the comicbook/manghwa anthology Korea: As Viewed by 12 Creators, I am really eager to visit Korea… though I cannot imagine when that might come to pass.

Silla: Korea’s Golden Kingdom is on display at the Metropolitan Museum through Feb 23, 2014.

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It’s that time again. The open tabs have piled up, and it’s time to share some links while trying to not go overboard with lengthy comments.

*First today is Chinese Vernacular Architecture, a blog by UCSB Art History PhD student Wencheng Yan. He hasn’t updated in quite some time, but among his posts from a few years ago are some excellent ones about the Yuan Palace and efforts to save Suzhou’s vernacular architecture, among other topics.

*Meanwhile, in a piece cleverly titled “>Curator, Tear Down These Walls,” the New York Times’ Roberta Smith has presented an argument for American folk art to be considered right up there with academic art. The power of the canon can be very strong, and even today, even as we question ‘what is art?’ in our classrooms and galleries, even as we work to challenge the canon, we are still somewhat arbitrarily implicitly, or explicitly, elevating some types of art above others. I don’t know much about the intricacies of the politics of American art appreciation, but it reminds me of the way that late Ming Dynasty painter & art critic Dong Qichang, through his incredible influence, was able to shape Chinese tastes all the way down to the present, to appreciate literati art the most, and to disparage academic art. Only very recently have art historians and curators come back around to begin to examine Chinese academic art, and to regard it highly, once again.

*Archaeologists in Tokyo have reported the first-ever discovery of Jômon period human remains in the Kantô plain, outside of shell-mounds. I recently learned that the soil in most parts of Japan is rather acidic, and breaks down human remains – even bones – within just a few hundred years, making it especially rare to find remains outside of what are called “pot burials”, where the bones are placed within ceramic vessels. Actually, now that I think about it, if the soil is acidic enough to break down bones, why doesn’t it break down shell mounds?

And.. that’s all for now. More stuff to come.

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I have way too many tabs open once again, and I think it’s about damn time that I post about them, and thus get rid of them.

*Newly discovered papyrus fragment mentions Jesus’ wife – A professor at Harvard Divinity School has revealed a 4th century scrap of papyrus that had been brought to her attention which reads, in ancient Coptic, in part, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…'” Scholars seem convinced that it is not a forgery, though of course, who knows the context this comes from, or how apocryphal the text it comes from… Courtesy of io9 and the Gothamist and the Mary Sue.

*The Seven Deadly Sins of Public Library Architecture, a slightly old, but nevertheless valid, article describing in neat, clean bullet-points, a number of (well, seven) basic, but very serious, failings in how many public libraries are laid out. Much thanks to the indomitable Jasspears (and a professional librarian herself!) for sharing this with me. Personally, I would argue for the value of ornamentation and historical architectural styles and all of that, creating an enjoyable and/or inspirational atmosphere for the library or museum, surpassing practical concerns about maximum efficiency of space or whatever. But, most of the other points here are quite valid, quite interesting, and, I think, equally applicable to issues of museum architecture as well.

*There’s apparently an exhibition of Okinawan bingata robes up at the Osaka City Museum of Art, and the blog 遊行七恵の日々是遊行 has written a quite nice blog post about it (in Japanese). It’s wonderful to see a mainland Japanese museum, or, indeed, any museum outside Okinawa, featuring Okinawan art/culture in such a big way. And, if I were in the Kansai area, I absolutely would make sure to go see the exhibit, and would probably enjoy it very much. Still, while my interest in textiles has begun gradually to grow over the last year or so, still, I really am growing a bit tired of textiles, pottery, and lacquerware (and music & musical instruments) being so constantly shown and talked about as the shining examples of Okinawan art. I know that the division between art and craft, or “fine arts” and “decorative arts” is old hat, but, still, this whole thing only goes to reinforce age-old stereotypes of Okinawa as a folk art, hillbilly, backwater. Since ancient times, painting – not lacquer, not pottery, not textiles, but painting – has been regarded throughout East Asia as one of the finest of elite pursuits, along with calligraphy. And, surprise surprise, Okinawans produced plenty of paintings and calligraphy. Perhaps not too many survive, but, I really would love to see an exhibit highlighting these, and in doing so, highlighting Ryukyu’s *elite* artistic tradition, and not only its folk tradition. *Asterisk – bingata, though often discussed in the context of “folk arts” or something because they’re textiles, were actually historically, traditionally, exclusive to the royalty & aristocracy.

*On a related note, an article in the Japan Times about traditional Japanese stencil art. I clicked this article because I was recently thinking about stencil print artist Takahashi Hiromitsu. Turns out the article is about stencil-dyeing, known in Japanese as katazome (among other terms? I’m not sure?) and quite similar in technique and process and everything to that used to make Okinawan bingata.

*An amazing webpage full of information on Ryukyu-related historical sites in (mainland) Japan by Prof. Watanabe Miki of Kanagawa University. He has a page for Ryukyu-related sites in China as well, and links to a bunch of other great resources too. If these pages were citable sources, wow, they’d be amazing resources. Alas.

*Resobox, a art gallery and event space in Long Island City (Queens, NYC) that I just recently heard about. Sadly, I never did get around to actually visiting, but it would seem that they very frequently have exhibits, events, workshops, lessons and the like related to Japanese and Okinawan arts. Next time I’m home in New York I’m going to have to check this out.

*There have been a lot of blog posts lately on, what should we call it, the fundamental flaws in the American university system, how we got here, where it’s going to lead us if we don’t fix it, etc. This is one of the better ones I’ve seen, though there certainly are plenty out there. Google something like “why not to get a PhD” or “scarcity of tenure positions,” and you’ll find plenty, I’m sure. It worries me, to be sure, as I am myself starting a PhD right now, but, I remain optimistic that things’ll work out for me in the end, whether as an academic, or otherwise, maybe in the museum world.

*EDIT: One more thing added since this post was originally put together. The latest installment of “I’m missing out because I’m not in New York” brings us the bizarrely controversial Tatzu Nishi’s “Discovering Columbus” installation in which the artist surrounds a statue of Columbus at Columbus Circle with a living room so that visitors can experience the statue in a whole new way.

Maybe it’s just because I’m not Italian, but I’ve never really understood why Italian-Americans get so offended when anything happens to Columbus. I mean, it’s not as if Italians (and Italian-Americans) aren’t known, and beloved, for all sorts of other things. I mean, for god’s sake, you’ve got Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Donatello, for starters (and I’m not talking about the turtles). Western civilization owes so much to the Italians it’s almost unfathomable. You really don’t need Columbus, specifically, to remain un-besmirched or whatever, in order to maintain your pride in being Italian. It’s okay. We still love you even if some people have begun to take issue with Columbus Day; and, it’s not even as if Nishi’s installation is anti-Columbus at all to begin with…

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