Monday, November 30, 2015

The Rich vs. the Rest, Continued

Illinois politics have been a corrupt mess for decades. Four of the past ten governors have gone to prison, and the state has $100 billion in unfunded pension liabilities and other hidden debts. Angered by the dysfunction, a small group of very wealthy investment bankers, hedge fund managers, and the like rallied behind financial executive Bruce Rauner's bid to become governor. They spent $65 mllion on the race, more than twice the previous record, and Rauner won. But the voters also increased the Democratic majority in the legislature and passed a non-binding referendum calling for an increase in the minimum wage. The result is likely to be gridlock, and Rauner and company are not likely to get the major reforms they seek, especially an assault on public employee unions.

Two things about this interest me. One is that when government gets bad enough, people will turn to the alternative no matter what it is. Thus, generally Democratic Illinois has elected a very right-wing Republican as governor. People who want the government to do more for the people have to do all they can to maintain government's credibility.

The second thing is the disconnect summed by this Times poll. It compares the views of all Americans, as established by nationwide polls, with the views of 83 wealthy people in Chicago who responded to the Times' pollsters. It shows that on a small set of important economic issues, the views of the elite are very different from the views of everyone else. To me this is especially striking on the issue of Social Security. A majority of Americans thinks Social Security should be expanded, and even a majority of Republicans prefers raising the Social Security tax to cutting benefits. Not so the rich.

The danger with growing elite power in the government is that the elite really does not think like the rest of us. Over the past 15 years they have forced the issue of cutting Social Security and Medicare onto the political agenda even though those ideas are very unpopular in America. We should not let them get their way.

A Day on Liberty Island

Since my company is very busy right now and none of our regular field directors were available, and a job I thought I was going to be working on this week was postponed, I ended up spending the day doing a little dig on Statue of Liberty Island in New York harbor. I may be there for the next few days, too. It was quite an experience. Above, the view from my work site.

I got there via Park Service work boat from Ellis Island. Views of the main building from the water, as immigrants saw it.

The public hospital.

Lady Liberty from the boat, with proof that I was there.

Should you be wondering what an archaeologist would do on that little island, it actually has a lot of history. There are Indian shell middens. In the eighteenth century it was the quarantine station for New York, where people who arrived with smallpox and other dread diseases were marooned until they either recovered or died. A fort was built there during the War of 1812, and this was rebuilt during the Civil War; the star shaped Civil War fort now provides the statue's base. Above, New York harbor in 1852, when the spot was known as Bedlow's Island.

Ducks, and the Brooklyn skyline, which has been completely transformed since the last time I was in New York.

And just to show that I was really doing archaeology, foundations!

Take this, Donald Trump.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Bronze Age Sun Chariot

Rock art from Eshki Olmes, Kazahkstan. From Cristoph Baumer, The History of Central Asia.

Rezoning in New York, or, the Obamacare Trap

The central piece of Bill de Blasio's campaign for mayor of New York was a plan for affordable housing that would, as the Times put it, "turn back the tide of luxury apartments and sky-high rents." Now that plan has been formulated into a detailed rezoning initiative and sent out the the city's community zoning boards for discussion. Most are voting it down. Although this is a local issue, I think it points toward a major problem for our whole country.

De Blasio's plan actually has two parts:
One would require that new residential buildings in rezoned neighborhoods include apartments permanently set aside for tenants paying below-market rates. The other changes the rules on height and density so that more housing can be squeezed into the available space

The administration says that it’s impossible to halt market forces in a city where housing demand so grossly exceeds supply but that the market can be harnessed for good.
The reaction among renters?
Residents in the neighborhoods due for rezoning are wary, to say the least. A meeting of Community Board 11 in East Harlem this month was typical of gatherings across the boroughs. It began with a consultant’s slide show that seemed designed to stupefy anyone not steeped in the worlds of real estate and zoning. Except the room was full of renters, many of whom knew exactly what the man was talking about, or thought they did.

To many in East Harlem and other parts of the city where the working class and poor scrape by, construction means disruption, which inevitably means gentrification and dislocation. The rent always goes up, but they fear that the zoning changes will only make it rise faster and higher, inevitably making them exiles from their own city.
I think de Blasio's plan has fallen into what I am going to call the Obamacare trap. Like the Affordable Care Act, de Blasio's housing plan is formulated to be centrist and un-alarming, to "harness market forces" rather then overruling them, to give something to developers as well as renters, to find a balance between cruel libertarianism and stifling bureaucracy. As a result, nobody likes it. New York conservatives have been crowing about the mayor's defeats in the community boards, because they show that people simply don't trust complex, crazy-seeming schemes from the government. New York leftists are outraged that the plan gives away so much to developers and does so little to help poor renters; what they want is plain old-fashioned rent control.

Incremental moderation, accompanied by hundreds of pages of carefully balanced regulatory language, is just never going to excite very many people. Besides, nobody can really predict the effects of such a complex law. As I guess I would say that they will be positive but modest, in the sense that they will preserve affordable rents for a few thousand people and allow the development of a few tens of thousands of badly needed apartments, really not that much in a city of 8.4 million. But then maybe there are provisions in the fine print of the law that clever developers will turn into gentrifying tools.

De Blasio's people would probably respond that this is the best they can do, given political circumstances. This is unlikely to move angry leftists. Like Bernie Sanders' supporters who don't want to be told that single-payer healthcare is not politically possible, they want radical action. The US took radical steps in the past, so why can't it now? New York City used to have rigorous rent control, so why can't it have rent control again?

But the fact is that the country is very closely divided between liberals and conservatives, and 52% is just not enough to push through radical change. Until the voters shift and a real majority for radical action develops, centrist kluges are the best we are likely to see.

Department of Celebrity Irony

This week British pop star Adele is on the cover of four magazines at my supermarket checkout. On one of them the headline is, ADELE: CHOOSING FAMILY OVER FAME.

Bactrian Composite Figures

Bactria was, more or less, the part of Afghanistan north of the Hindu Kush and some surrounding bits of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan where the Tibetan mountain massif runs down to the Central Asian plain.

In the latter part of the third Millennium BCE a Bronze Age civilization arose there, based on irrigated agriculture. This civilization spread to several oases farther north on the plains. Real understanding of this Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex has been achieved only in the past 40 years; before that it was known only from occasional mysterious artifacts that showed up on the antiquities market with vague information about their origins. The most famous of these artifacts are the "composite figures", small statuettes made of two or three kinds of stone.

Above and top, one of the most famous of these, which is in the Louvre. Her skirt is chlorite, her face calcite. Notice that her skirt resembles the skirts of Sumerian priests as shown in their art, which most people think is no coincidence. There are other indications of influence from Mesopotamia to Bactria, so either the form of garment or the way of depicting it was probably copied from Sumerian examples.

Most of these figurines are 8 to 14 cm tall, or 3 to 6 inches. The Louvre's example is the largest known at 20 cm. Above is only one excavated by professional archaeologists from a good context, recovered by Russian archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi from a grave at Gonur Tepe in Turkmenistan. The body of this one is steatite, the head and arms limestone. Sarianidi dates it to between 2000 and 1650 CE.

The ruins of Gonur Tepe.

Opinions differ as to what these female figures represent. They are traditionally called "princesses," and some people think they are portraits of royal women. Others, including me, prefer to think of them as goddesses.

This one is in the Met. Now I ask you, is that a princess or a mother goddess? The Louvre says that a divine nature
would account for the serene, immobile appearance of these figures, their hands joined together at waist level, both in statuary and on compartmentalized seals.
One sold a few years ago by Bonham's. There are said to be 38 of these female figurines in the world. To me this is a good reason to think of them as goddesses; why so many portraits of queens and none of kings?

Christie's  sold this one a few years ago for $68,000.

The other reason to think of these composite figurines as goddesses is that there are actually two forms. This is the other, a demonic male known as the Scarred Man or "Anthropomorphic Dragon-Snake." Fewer than ten of these are known, none of them from good contexts. This one is in the Louvre, which says this about it:
Like the princesses of Bactria, scarfaces are bicolor statuettes, but the use of the materials-chlorite and calcite-is reversed. The body of the scarface is green and covered with snake scales, signifying his ophidian nature, and the skirt is white. There are two other white touches, in the eye and a tiny incrustation in the lower lip. These are calcium carbonate, perhaps fragments of shell. The head is circled by a band of meteoritic iron and there is a small hole in the forehead for fitting horns. . . .

Like the three other complete examples, that in the Louvre is meant to hold a vase under his arm. This would perhaps contain beneficial water that the evil figure is withholding. The strength of the figure is expressed in his emphasized musculature, and his expression is made more intense by the absence of a neck.
This terrifying apparition of a man with the scaly skin of a snake or dragon seems, in the inverted use of the two different stones, to be the polar opposite of the goddess.
"Scarfaces" are anthropomorphic dragon-snakes belonging to the mythology of central Asia, where they incarnated the hostile forces of the underworld. Their power was controlled not by killing them but by reducing them to silence by a slash across the right cheek. Thus dominated, they could become benevolent.
Another view. I think these are just wonderful.

This one is in the Met, which describes it like this:
In the world of the ancient Near East, images and beings that combined human and animal qualities were thought to possess supernatural powers. This small yet potent figure, with its human face and serpentine-scaled body, probably represents such a creature, enlivened and charged with magical efficacy whether propitious or demonic. The monstrous figure's most enigmatic and distinctive features are the prominent scar across its face and the two holes pierced into its upper and lower lips. The scar may indicate that the figure was defaced, and the holes suggest that the lips were sealed, literally. Taken together, the scar and the sealed lips imply that the figure portrays a decommissioned being whose power is no longer operational. Having served its purpose, it may have been ritually muted and "killed."
I don't know if these interpretations are right, but these bizarre figures invite such speculations. Put the wicked dragon man together with the serene mother goddess, and what myths might one unfold.

If you collect this sort of thing you should know that in recent years the market been flooded with fakes; check out this post this post before you buy. The various animal forms are particularly dubious.

Meanwhile in the Islamic State

The mass graves around Sinjar in northern Iraq, six of which have been discovered so far, hold the bodies of Yazidis massacred by the IS while they held the city. One of the graves holds 123 bodies. They made no effort to hide the graves, but they did surround them with explosive booby traps.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Stern Faces of Codex 1602

From the University of Pennsylvania's manuscript Tumblr, some fascinating initial capitals. The manuscript was made in Germany between 1425 and 1450 and provides texts and chants for the office for the dead.

Ancestral Voices

In the old dark the late dark the still deep shadow
that had travelled silently along itself all night
while the small stars of spring were yet to be seen and the few
lamps burned by themselves with no expectations
far down through the valley suddenly the voice
of the blackbird came believing in the habit
of the light until the torn shadows of the ridges
that had gone out one behind the other into the darkness
began appearing again still asleep surfacing in their
dream and the stars all at once were gone and instead the song
of the blackbird flashed through the unlit boughs and far
out in the oaks a nightingale went on echoing
itself drawing out its own invisible starlight
these voices were lifted here long before the first
of our kind had come to be able to listen
and with the faint light in the dew of the infant
leaves goldfinches flew out from their nests in the brambles
they had chosen their colors for the day and they sang
of themselves which was what they had wakened to remember

-W.S. Merwin, from The Vixen (1996)

Friday, November 27, 2015

Gold Bracelet with Onyx Rams

Greek, possibly Black Sea area, 5th-century BC.

Randall Kennedy is Not Alarmed or Hurt

Harvard Law Professor Randall Kennedy:
In a grand corridor of Harvard Law School, framed professors’ photographs hang on a wall. A week ago, someone put slivers of black tape over the faces of most of the African-American professors. I am one of those whose photograph was marked.

Last Thursday, on my way to teach contracts, I received an email from a student who alerted me to the defacement. I saw the taped photos, including my own, right before class. Since then I have been asked repeatedly how I feel about having been targeted by what some deem to be a racial hate crime. Questioners often seem to assume that I should feel deeply alarmed and hurt. I don’t.

The identity and motives of the person or people behind the taping have not been determined. Perhaps the defacer is part of the law school community. But maybe not. Perhaps the defacer is white. But maybe not. Perhaps the taping is meant to convey anti-black contempt or hatred for the African-American professors. But maybe it was meant to protest the perceived marginalization of black professors, or was a hoax meant to look like a racial insult in order to provoke a crisis, or was a rebuke to those who have recently been taping over the law school’s seal, which memorializes a family of slaveholders from colonial times. Some observers, bristling with certainty, insist that the message conveyed by the taping of the photographs is obvious. To me it is puzzling.

Assuming that it was a racist gesture, there is a need to calibrate carefully its significance. On a campus containing thousands of students, faculty members and staff, one should not be surprised or unglued by an instance or even a number of instances of racism. The question is whether those episodes are characteristic or outliers. Substantial numbers of onlookers believe that this episode is by no means isolated, that it offers a revealing glimpse into the soul of Harvard Law School.

They believe that the defacement is but an outcropping of shrouded, denied, but pervasive bigotry abetted by an unwillingness to redress subtle vestiges of historical racial injustice. The aggrievement felt by substantial numbers of smart, knowledgeable and capable students is evident. Their accusations warrant close examination and may well justify further reforms. There are exceedingly few, if any, major institutions in America that can be presumed to be racism free.

Activists who are demanding that universities do more to advance racial justice ought to be encouraged by what has transpired in recent weeks. On account of their interventions, difficult but earnest and probing conversations have blossomed. At Harvard, the dozen or so strips of black tape that prompted the crisis have been replaced by hundreds of brightly colored stickers expressing respect and appreciation, and rejecting bigotry.
Kennedy connects how people respond to possibly racist incidents to one of my themes: in a world with so many messages being broadcast, people find and focus on the ones they want to hear. There is a lot of racism in the world, so if that is your focus you will keep finding it. But why focus on it? Instead of the one person who put up black tape, why not focus on the hundreds who protested against it?

Kennedy is concerned about the response of some students:
I worry about two in particular. One involves exaggerating the scope of the racism that the activists oppose and fear. The other involves minimizing their own strength and the victories that they and their forebears have already achieved. . . . Disturbing, too, is a related tendency to indulge in self-diminishment by displaying an excessive vulnerability to perceived and actual slights and insults. Some activists seem to have learned that invoking the rhetoric of trauma is an effective way of hooking into the consciences of solicitous authorities. Perhaps it is useful for purposes of eliciting certain short-term gains.

In the long run, though, reformers harm themselves by nurturing an inflated sense of victimization. A colleague of mine whose portrait was taped over exhibited the right spirit when he jauntily declared that it would take far more than tape to slow him down.
The world is not and will never be perfect. The world will hurt you. Certainly you should do what you can, when you can, to make it a better place. But the right response to any particular act of meanness is not to cry over it, but to defy the haters and keep moving on.

Maymont Park, the Day After Thanksgiving

It was a beautiful warm day in Richmond, more like October than Thanksgiving. So Maymont Park was pretty crowded. Lots of multi-generation families, which is always interesting to see in America.

I had four children, and my father. We spent some time in the raptor exhibit, where they have hawks, owls, and two bald eagles, all of them too crippled to survive in the wild. One of the hawks was giving us a baleful stare, as if here were thinking, "This is better than starving to death but not by much."

Clara and Robert clamber over the rocks where there is a waterfall when it rains, which I guess it hasn't lately.

Rose garden.

And in a tree. I first went to Maymont as a very young child, I took girls there on dates, and now I take my children there, and I have loved it at every stage of my life.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Roman Cavalry Helmets

A selection of the weird "parade helmets" worn by some Roman cavalry from the first to fourth century CE. I find these fascinating because they are so contrary to my vision of what the Roman army was like. This makes me wonder what else I am getting wrong.

Above and top is the Crosby-Garret helmet, one of the most complete specimens. This was found by a metal detectorist in Britain about ten years ago and sold for more than £3 million.

These four were dredged from rivers in the Low Countries and are now in Dutch museums. The third one down shows you clearly that the face mask and helmet were separate pieces, hinged together. Most surviving examples are bronze (like many other Roman helmets), a few iron or brass; some are silvered and some were even decorated with gems.

Opinions differ as to whether these were just for show or were actually worn in combat. Some people call them "parade helmets," which tells you what they think. But this mask was found at the battlefield of Kalkriese, which seems to the site of the great battle of Teutoburger Wald. So at least one person wore one on campaign. To provide good vision and breathing the mask has to fit precisely, which suggests that they were custom made.

The Homs Helmet, from the Syrian desert, preserving even the cloth top. Imagine a whole troop of men riding by, wearing these. It must have been an eerie sight. Or were they just worn by officers?

Several surviving examples have women's faces with elaborate hairstyles. What was that about?

The Ribchester Helmet.

One from Istanbul.