Tag Archives: Art

Fueling the New Chinese Mania For Antiques

I can’t believe how badly the New York Times missed the point this morning in its article on the newly red-hot antiquities trade in China.   Journalist Dan Levin reports on the growing mania among  middle class buyers in Beijing for Chinese antiquities, extolling their newfound passion for ” Ming Dynasty porcelain vases,  19th century hardwood furniture and even early 20th century calligraphy ink pots.”  Such antiquities,  Levin explains,  “have become popular status symbols for an emerging middle class eager to display its new wealth and cultural knowledge.”

Too bad Levin didn’t ask a few  hard questions about exactly where all these Chinese antiquities  are coming from.  If he had, he might have come away with a very different impression.  While researching a new story for Archaeology magazine,  I recently discussed with Victor Mair,  a Sinologist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and one of the world’s leading experts on the archaeology of Xinjiang province,   this very issue.

I had noticed in Mair’s  articles that many of the most important Bronze Age and Iron Age sites in Xinjiang–sites that have yielded European-looking mummies and western grave goods and that are now revolutionizing our understanding of Central Asian  history–had been badly looted.  In fact,   looting in Xinjiang has become so serious that Chinese archaeologists are constantly forced to excavate entire cemeteries just to salvage and protect some of the finds.

I asked Mair what on earth was going on.  The Xinjiang sites, after all,  are in the midst of a huge and very barren desert–one of the bleakest and most remote places on earth. Mair explained to me that Chinese looters have become very sophisticated.  They journey into the desert equipped with GPS  and specifically target the ancient cemeteries there. The devastation is enormous,  Mair explained,  with mummified human body parts strewn everywhere.  “They just take the bodies,  the heads, the coffins and throw them out on the ground,” he said.  “They are looking for gold or they are looking for something that is obviously a nice artwork.”

Most looters then sell their finds to middle men in Hong Kong, individuals who don’t ask any questions.  “You can go down to the antiquities market street there,” said Mair, “and you can find unbelievable things, precious materials or precious objects from all over China being sold there.  So Hong Kong is like a  door for selling.”

To me,  this is the real story behind the newfound enthusiasm for antiquities in China. And there is a terrible irony here.   During the Cultural Revolution,  Mao Zedong ordered the destruction of  “old culture,”  officially condoning the looting of old cemeteries  and destroying antiquities.  Now the pendulum has swung wildly in the other direction,  as the Chinese middle class celebrates  its ancient culture.  But the change in attitude has only led to further destruction of the archaeological record.

Leonardo da Vinci: Taking His Last Secrets to the Grave

Did you catch the news headlines yesterday about the Italian researchers who hope to open the tomb of Leonardo da Vinci in France in order to reconstruct his face?  They are keen to see whether the Renaissance artist was indulging in his well-known love of riddles when he painted the Mona Lisa.  For years,  some some scholars have hypothesized that the mysterious beauty in the painting was a self-portrait in drag.

My first reaction to this proposed project was to shake my head in disbelief.  Is this really a valid reason to disturb the sleep of the dead, particularly someone so deserving of our respect? Are we so driven by curiosity that we need to rummage through chill church tombs and peer at the bones of the dead in order to answer a question that is on the level of a barroom bet?

And  I was not  reassured when I Googled the team’s spokesperson, Giorgio Gruppioni, a bioanthropologist at the University of Bologna.  In 2009, Gruppioni and several colleagues  reconstructed the face of one of Italy’s greatest poets, Dante Alighieri, using the cranial data that researchers recorded in 1921 when officially identifying Dante’s remains.  And just a few weeks ago,  Gruppioni and colleagues recovered what they hope will be the remains of  the great 17th century Italian painter, Caravaggio.   Once again, the team announced plans to reconstruct Caravaggio’s face.  Gruppioni and his colleagues seem awfully interested in surface appearances.

But the more I thought about it,  the more I began to see a legitimate context for  these projects.  For the past two decades,  several Italian research teams led by pathologists and anthropologists have been prying open Renaissance tombs and reliquaries to gather vital scientific data.  One of the leading researchers in this field, University of Pisa pathologist Gino Fornaciari has spearheaded several of these projects,  exhuming such Renaissance luminaries as Cosimo I de’ Medici,  Ferdinand II of Aragon, and Maria D’Aragona,  one of the greatest beauties of her day.

I have met and talked at length with Fornaciari,  and can attest to his interest in serious science.  And I was really intrigued today when I checked out his recent publications to see what science had learned from all these rude awakenings of the dead.   His papers covered a wide range of subjects–the methods that Renaissance embalmers employed to artificially mummify royalty  in 16th century Europe;  the species of lice that clung to the mummified remains of Ferdinand II (revealing that these parasites plagued even the wealthiest  during the Renaissance); and the human papillomavirus  (HPV) that infected Maria D’Aragona.  The latter study will permit medical researchers to study the evolution of this important virus, a major cause of cervical cancer, perhaps giving them clues to new treatments.

If the team that wants to open Leonardo da Vinci’s grave obtains permission to do so, I strongly suspect that they will make the most of this rare opportunity,   gathering all the relevant samples and data to do key pathological and bioarchaeological studies.  I personally don’t care whether the great artist painted the Mona Lisa in his own image. But I’d love to know more about the health and life of this great Renaissance artist.

The Archaeology of Spray Cans

Is the graffiti that blankets our  backalleys and freeway ramps an urban blight or a street-wise data set for some future archaeologist?  I have to say I was firmly in the former camp until very recently,  when I came across Cassidy Curtis’s superb website,  Graffiti Archaeology. Curtis is a PDI/Dreamworks animator who has worked on such wonderful films as The Bee Movie,  Shrek the Third, and Madagascar.  And he clearly loves what he calls “the chameleon skin of the urban landscape.”

Curtis sees tag-covered city walls as a highly ephemeral art form.   Grafitti artists,  as we  all know,  are constantly overwriting old images with their spray cans, creating a palimpsest of tags–and this makes these images particularly interesting to the archaeologically minded.  How does this uber-urban art change and evolve over time?  How often do artists revisit and rewrite graffiti sites?  Do the same artists return again and again?  Or do different artists add their tags to a site,  creating a kind of graffiti dialogue?  I think these are all intriguing questions,  but to get at them,  one clearly needs data.

Curtis offers it up in spades.  To document ever-evolving urban graffiti,  he began taking photos of urban walls in 15 different locations in 1999,  returning regularly–sometimes daily–to update his data bank. Sometimes he caught tag artists in the act with spray cans in hand;  other times he caught images of the street life that these walls attracted.

Curtis has posted the results on his website Graffiti Archaeology in a clear and beautiful way,  creating a timeline for each wall.  Click on the timeline,  and you can see what the wall looked like on a specific date and then how it changed over time.   The site is really a web masterpiece,  and after spending time there, I began to see urban graffiti as an organic, breathing, living urban artifact.  If you haven’t visited Curtis’s site,  I highly recommend that you check it out.

I’d love to see  archaeologists take a serious look at this street-life art.   Researchers have been poring over ancient graffiti at sites like Pompeii for years,  and it seems to me that future archaeologists could learn something intriguing about street culture from poring over our painted concrete walls.