Friday, October 28, 2005

A Real Live Archaeologist

This Wednesday I was the guest speaker at Joey Schotland's World History class. Joey teaches at Another Course to College, a charter school in Brighton. In fact, it's located at 20 Warren Street, about 150 yards from the house where I lived with Kelly and Gavin (104 Warren) and across the street from St Elizabeth's Hospital.

Joey asked me to come in and talk about archaeology and give his students a chance to ask a "real archaeologist" questions about my experience.

I agreed to teach three one-hour classes beginning at 8am. I was sure that the first class would be the worst (with sleepy students), the second I would peak, and that by the third I would be too tired to give a good class. I was wrong.

Every class was terrific and gave me more energy as the morning progressed. And the first one might have been the best because the students had so many excellent questions.

My prepared talk consisted of telling them how I became an archaeologist, and how a number of different disciplines (art history, anthropology, geology, Classics, botany, etc.) all feed into a dig team. Then I told them where I dug (focusing mostly on Tell Brak because I brought slides of that site), and how a mound is formed and something about how we try to dig stratigraphically. My slides showed what Tell Brak looked like, workmen doing various jobs, and some of the finds from the site, including a headless legless horse figurine, some pots, and the bead horde.

For each class I focused on different topics, just so I wouldn't go on auto-pilot -- absolute dating, approaching a new mound, the specialists on digs.

What made the classes great were the questions.

Every class was interested in how we got paid [we don't--shock and disbelief]. Did we get paid by the find (Joey had given them a summary of Woolley's excellent Digging Up the Past from back when workmen got baksheesh -- bonuses -- for good finds)? [No more baksheesh] Who funds a dig and what do they get out of it? [Universities, museums, NEH, NSF and they get prestige]

Also: Who gets to keep the material? [The local country except for maybe some bones or other samples] How do you get permission to dig at a given mound? [Ask the local country's antiquities dept] What happens if you don't find anything? [We always find something -- even a wall -- but finding "nothing" would be worth reporting] Can't you use radar or something to see into the earth? [Yes]

Some question for me specifically: What's the first thing you found? [A wall at Sardis] What's the most valuable thing you found? [the bead horde, although I tried to play up the importance of the carnelian as a sign of trade rather than pure monetary value]

And some stumpers: How much of what you find is about religion? [Me: If you say grace before you eat, is your plate religious? It's interpretation] Why did people use the same kind of pots all the time and then why did they switch? [That could be your dissertation, kid]

I think what surprised them the most in the pictures were how green the mound was in springtime, how many sherds are littered on the ground (Tell Brak is kind of extreme that way) and how shabby our living conditions were (Tell Brak is kind of extreme that way, too). Those're the things that probably surprised me the most the first time I visited, too!

An enjoyable visit and I look forward to coming back next year. I didn't even get a chance to talk about Bevel Rimmed Bowls!

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Race to the Moon

The latest web site I wrote for American Experience is for the film "Race to the Moon" about the Apollo 8 mission that was the first to send me out of earth's orbit and around the moon. The film premieres on Halloween, Monday October 31, 2005 and is really good.

Here's a photo taken by Bill Anders on that mission, December 1968 (Image courtesy of the Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center).

It's a great story, and it's been really fun getting immersed in Apollo history and trivia. I'm also really psyched about the return to the moon and learning about the Chinese space program.

Of the many books I read (or skimmed) for this project, two stand out.

The first is Flight: My Life in Mission Control by Chris Kraft. Kraft was the flight director (called "Flight") for the Mercury missions and was promoted to Director of Flight Operations during Gemini. Flight ran the big room with the rows of desks all facing the big screen at one end. When he needed to know how much fuel was left, he got an answer from Retro immediately. When he needed to know how much oxygen was left, he got the answer from Surgeon immediately. He didn't speak to the astronauts directly (with one exception) but he told Capcom (manned by an astronaut) what to tell them.

Mission Control, remember, was where at least half the flying was done. For the Mercury missions, the guys were not exactly "Spam in a can" but they weren't exactly steering the thing, either. They were shot out of a cannon and had to manipulate some tiny rockets to make corrections. Similarly, for Apollo, you wouldn't want to trust getting into Lunar orbit, 3 days and a quarter million miles away, based on eyeballing the destination. So Mission Control "flew" the spacecraft as much as the astronauts.

Kraft had a front seat to all of these missions and he tells a great story. What sets this apart from the other memoirs I looked at is both the scope--Mercury to Apollo, with a lot of information on the importance of Gemini--and the attitude. It's clear from other books and interviews that everyone was half-scared of Kraft but also respected the heck out of him. And you can see why. He's opinionated and when he's right he presses the issue hard. Most of the time he was right.

He also criticizes some astronauts. He's not overly fond of John Glenn (this seems mostly a clash of personalities), but he saves his vitriol for Scott Carpenter. Carpenter, according to Kraft, lacked skill, experience and discipline. He nearly ran out of fuel on this one Mercury flight because he was playing around and then blamed the close call on the engineers. Kraft made sure Carpenter never flew again.

The other side of Kraft is his warmth and generosity to his friends. Deke Slayton, the Mercury recruit who ran the astronaut's office, got along famously with Kraft and their bond comes across. And to top it off, Kraft donated all the proceeds from his book to a scholarship fund for NASA employees' children.

Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaikin is by far the best secondary source on the Apollo missions. The amount of research and number of interviews are apparent. The history is here, and filled out with silly or harrowing side anecdotes. Technical issues are explained clearly. Most of all, the astronauts come across as fully realized individuals, each with their own stories, perspectives on the space program, and voice intact. Chaikin says that he wanted the book to be a collaborative history of the astronauts and that's how it comes across. If you're going to read one book on Apollo (and it's a big one), this is it.

Chaikin's book is also the basis of From Earth to the Moon an HBO series now available on DVD. The same actors play the same individuals through all 12 hours, and each hour focuses on one Apollo mission. I watched them all over a period of a couple of weeks, and was really immersed in that world. The show is pretty historically accurate, and I noticed only a couple times where words were placed in another person's mouth and I could see why, dramatically it was necessary and why it didn't really matter (although, as a historian, it still ruffles my feathers a bit--I mean, the parts are already cast, the sets built).

The actors are uniformly good. There are some familiar names and faces, including Cary Elwes, Dave Foley, the doctor who lost his arm on ER, the guy from Wings, Tom Hanks and his wife, the mom from That 70s Show, and on and on. What's great is how some of them are cast against type. The dad from Malcolm in the Middle plays Buzz Aldrin and he gets across Aldrin's overthought anxiety and ambition. My favorite actor may have been the guy who played Frank Borman (or maybe it's just because Borman has become one of my favorite astronauts), not a face I recognized except insofar as he looked just like Frank Borman! Good job, Central Casting! But he's great, intense, patriotic, a husband who shows his love in the smallest gestures while at work.

The problem, though, is how do you differentiate Apollo 14 from Apollo 16? Anyone? Ferris? What happens is that, aside from the episodes on Apollo 1 and 8, the shows take on various issues or perspectives. One is told like that classic MASH where we see through the eyes of a documentary film unit. One shows the progression of science journalism to celebrity tabloid TV. Another barely shows the mission but tells the story of the astronauts' wives. My favorite might be Apollo 14, which focuses on the comraderie of Pete Conrad, Dick Gordon and Alan Bean--they're having as much fun as three guys in a spaceship can.

Overall, there's only one dud. (The Apollo 13 ep isn't great, but that's because they didn't want to compete with the movie, i.e. the movie fills in the story for that one.) The dud is a weird mishmash that intersperses the last moon mission with the making of a film by Georges Melies. The Melies film is funny and interesting if you get a chance to see it, but this last episode comes across as Hollywood in love with movies, Bob Loblaw...

Worth watching.

Also: The New Yorker recently reviewed a biography of Neil Armstrong here.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Viva Las Vegas

"Las Vegas: An Unconventional History" is an American Experience 2-part film premiering on PBS November 14 and 15, 2005. Here's the site.

It's a fun story about a place that seems like a shallow joke. But the beauty of the film is that while there is plenty of goofy kitsch--Rat Pack, 1970s tourism commercials--these segments immediately swoop into serious history--Boulder Dam, Bugsy Siegel--or a combination of the two--above ground atomic testing (yes, this can be kitschy when casinos sell postcards of mushroom clouds, have Miss Atomic contests and ring bells at dawn to usher their patrons outside for a viewing of a scheduled test).

There are also these wonderful contemporary stories of "ordinary" people that the filmmakers called LVMs (Las Vegas Monologues). In them you hear why Las Vegas has grown so much in the last century and why people continue to move to the desert from California and elsewhere. Easy to find a well paid job with a high school education; housing is affordable--it sounds like the promised land. But then you hear from the guy who is in Gamblers Anonymous and waiting to be sentenced for a hold-up and the school superintendent who worries that so many of her kids have changed schools during the year and you see the flipside of rapid growth based on one industry. One great vignette shows a guy whose ranch has been around a long time get on his horse and ride out of the pen and instantly he's on a suburban street that looks like Anytown, USA. Weird.

I wrote a couple parts of the site (one about architecture has my byline) but for this one I functioned as Editorial Producer. This is usually Maria Daniel's job but she was on maternity leave this summer. So, I got to spend a couple days a week at WGBH to coordinate the site. It was eye-opening.

First of all, the people I worked with were great. Super dedicated and really clever. I said something like, Hey, we should have a slot machine on the site, and a week later Joe Bunik had created a prototype with excellent graphics by Li Wei. And then they just kept improving on it, making the wheels look better and even making the results more randomized.

Second, the work was really fun. I got to work more on the Special Features and advise on the Gallery and other parts of the site that usually I barely contribute to (unless I submit a running list of trivia, like for The Fight, say).

Third, it was hard. I mean, I was working half time and it took a lot to make a site for one film; Maria does a few at a time, even as she writes grants for other new media projects and participates in management meetings and more. She's amazing.

A couple more thoughts. The filmmakers have a companion book about Vegas. The highlights of the film are in there and also some great essays by different contributors (my favorites were excerpted on the website here). I was particularly excited about the Rat Pack piece because it was written by Max Rudin, publisher of the Library of America. They put out the excellent looking and definitive editions of, say, the complete Saul Bellow. Because I needed permission to excerpt, I had a chance to e-mail Max and thank him for contributing books each year to the graduation ceremony of the Clemente Course at Codman Square in Dorchester, where I usually teach (more on this in another post). A great gesture by Max that is perfect for a class on the Humanities.

The DVD can be bought at Amazon but there was talk before I left about having a contest where a couple random DVDs would have a "golden poker chip" that could be cashed in for a free weekend in Vegas. This led to a conversation where the Marketing Person intimated that Canada had silly regulations requiring some sort of math question. I mentioned that I grew up in Canada and remembered all those silly questions and that it made the contest a test of "skill" rather than a free lottery. Lesson: There are Canadians all around you!

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Iraq book review

A number of recent books have been published about the history and culture of Iraq, in large part a response to the 2003 invasion and current military situation there.

Here's the link to my review in the Nov/Dec 2005 Archaeology Magazine.

I had limited space so was unable to give more props to perhaps my favorite of the books, American Hostage. (You can buy the book from Amazon here.) It's the story of Micah Garen and Marie-Helene Carlton, two journalists writing about archaeological looting in Iraq. Garen and his translator are kidnapped in Iraq and Carlton and her network of grad school and journalist friends does everything in their power to affect the outcome.

The tale itself is gripping, romantic and a thriller (with a happy ending--obvious from the book's authorship), but what I really enjoyed was how the cutlural confusion between Americans and Iraqis comes up all the time. On the one hand, yes, the Iraqis are good family people, incredibley warm and friendly (arguably friendlier than the average American), but Garen does not shy away from pointing out how different they are as well. Most of the time this works to his advantage, as when his translator "reveals" facts about them that Garen would rather keep quiet--the kidnappers eventually find out the truth as the translator knows, and being honest from the start is, in hindsight, the right thing to do.

Another telling episode happens later in the book when Garen is forced to make his second videotaped "confession." He worries about how he should read the words, where to cast his gaze, how to convey a message to his anxious family. When the video airs on CNN, Carlton's Iraqi American friend is immediately overjoyed--she has recognized that the backdrop has curtains, a sign that Garen is a guest in a home and will therefore be treated well. This is the kind of subtlety that cannot easily be taught. Even fluent Arabic speakers without the cultural background would not understand this. (Although it's possible that well-travelled individuals who don't have the language facility would.)

American Hostage is extremely readable and even explains the looting situation at Iraqi archaeological sites. On a personal note, I love that the "MacGuffin" that drives the plot is a security measure requisitioned by my friend and teacher John Russell.

UPDATE: Micah Garen and Marie-Helene Carlton were interviewed on WBUR's Here and Now. Listen here.

New Blog


The point of this blog is to create links to various professional works of mine.

As I have time, I'll also being posting stuff that I'd written before and is floating out there. The justification of this blog is that when people ask me what I "do" I can point them here and then point them elsewhere from here. So it's sort of an online c.v.

Hope you find something interesting to read.