Or the Able Tools of Patience and Passion
It seems we humans have a certain preoccupation with material things.
We are continually fashioning them, abandoning them, letting time bury them, and, quite recently, digging them up again. Archaeology is a relatively recent human undertaking, though curiosity and greed have always provoked much poking about in the ground. Grave robbers came into being with the first graves, but more altruistic delving began with the Ancient Greeks.
Tantalus’ bones were kept in a bronze jar in Argos (his son Pelops’ were in Olympia). Aeneas’ shield on Samothrace, the tools Epeius used to build the Trojan Horse in a south Italian temple. Orpheus’ lyre was displayed in Apollo’s temple on Lesbos, Marsyas’ flute at Sicyon, the tusks of the Eurymanthian boar in a temple near Naples. The prow of Odysseus’ ship could be admired in a small town in… Spain. The Romans continued, digging up fragments of Greek sculpture to adorn palaces, shipping choice pieces from Egypt – the richest of history’s quarries – all over the Empire. Medieval Italians propped up fallen Roman statues and read the classics in their shade. Eager antiquarians of the 16th and 17th centuries amassed heteroclite collections, pondering on how they might fit with Noachian history.
Personal hoards eventually gave way to national treasures in the 1800’s, once more with Egypt and the Greek world as the testing ground for the new methodologies slowly put in place by the pioneers of the time, part gentleman grave robber, part adventurer archaeologist, payrolled by wealthy individuals and avid historical societies. The list is lengthy: Belzoni, Hoare, Petri, Schliemann, Evans and dozens more. The same fever that pushed explorers through jungles and up mountains pushed others on more careful if nonetheless arduous missions into the remnants of buried and lost traces of humanity, trying to complete the jigsaw puzzle of the past. Whisk brooms and dental picks have perhaps shifted much earth over the centuries, careful stroke by careful stroke, in a patient erosion to uncover new pieces.
Usually, buried things are patient. If they have escaped the vagaries of erosion and pillage, they sagely await discovery. Preserved by time, buried and brought back to the light, all those millions of sites and objects are something we quizzical humans admire and ponder over in unprecedented numbers. It seems the more preoccupied we are with our future, the more intently we stare at the past.
Irene Fanizza is an Italian archaeologist and photographer who has kindly sent information and photos for previous newsletters. Her short text is a reminder that if we have the opportunity to admire all the relics we do, it is because of the ardor of the individuals who undertake quiet crusades on our behalf, testimony that patient passion can move mountains.
STRONG AS THE STONES SHE WAS ABLE TO MOVE
Her name echoes down the corridors, in classrooms and in books, Christiane Desroches Noblecourt was a great French Egyptologist and, in the opinion of the writer, a woman strong and determined enough to have been the first female to direct an excavation in 1938 and afterwards, in 1960, possibly the most epic archaeological undertaking of all time.
Acting as an arbitrator during the Cold War, Christiane was able to bring together 50 countries for one purpose, was able to find the funding and bring together the best team to cope with the incredible and monumental rescue of Abu Simbel, operation that would cost more than $40 million dollars at the time.
To the south of Egypt on the border with Sudan, the area of Abu Simbel contains dozens of archaeological sites. In 1960 with the construction of the Aswan dam and its artificial water supply, these sites were in danger of being drowned and lost forever.
The dam, built to control flooding of the Nile, is an extension of the previous basin which was not sufficiently large for the needs of the country. The new Great dam would create a reservoir (Lake Nasser) large enough to provide electricity to half of the country. This new lake, however, alarmed archaeologists who immediately realized the danger that the much-needed reservoir would create for archaeological sites, whose future would at best be one of complete obliteration.
All this did not happen because fortunately, Christiane’s voice was heard, when doubts were raised over the dangers, Christiane was commissioned by UNESCO to take a census of all sites at risk of flooding, but she did not stop there, the number of endangered sites was too high, the importance of some of these led her to embark on a crusade, a race against the clock and all other obstacles to saving those sites.
She found financial backers and architects and smoothed the path to meetings with the archaeologists, but most especially she promoted the “ idea” of saving the endangered archaeological sites. The basin was ready and the dam project well under way. In journalism we often write about a “big project, “translation”, “bailout”, ”translocation”, or “relocation”, but in my opinion none of these words adequately describe the extent of the toil that was needed in order to save the temples, which were tens of meters high, carved into the rock, fragile and precious as the finest crystal. But between 1964 and 1968, the temples were completely cut into large blocks (weighing from 20 to 30 tons) dismantled, reassembled and raised to a new location 65 meters higher and 300 meters back from the river bank, with the labour of more than two thousand workers, led by a group of Italian quarrymen, experts in marble from Carrara, in an unprecedented technological effort. They faced one of the greatest challenges in the history of archaeological engineering.
And don’t think that the decision to dissect the statues was easy to make. It was an anguished decision, deeply discussed and debated and there were probably quite a few archaeologists who wept over it. It might be said today that they could have done it differently, but for me it makes no difference, what mattered was: mission accomplished.
From the engineering point of view, the mode of transport was resolved, the new installation was defined with the domes of cement that would give shape to the hills on which the temples were to be supported, but the point to consider now is that of the archaeologists who in addition to checking that nothing was ruined by a little clumsy laboring, pledged to restore the balance between the original siting of the temples and the new installation.
In this regard, the archaeologists made the decision to be consistent with that which they had to do, and chose not to consider transport as simply a fortuitous rescue to save only the material wealth of archaeological sites that were in danger, but they also made the commitment to “carry” the cult of the temple, to move it whilst honouring the fundamental reason why the temple was in that exact position in the first place.
I’m talking about the celestial phenomenon, which makes provision for the exact dates and precise times, when the sun’s rays slant into the temple to illuminate the great room and the pharoah’s stone effigies, gilded by the divine rays of the living Sun.
Built during the reign of Ramses II (1265 BCE) , the great temple is the largest in the area and the largest to have been moved, and is dedicated to the gods Amun, Ra-Horakhty, Ptah and Ramses himself. To build it took twenty years of hard work not only in architecture alone.
The architects of ancient Egypt aligned the temple so that , on October 21 and February 21 (61 days before and 61 days after the winter solstice), the sun’s rays enter into the sanctuary to illuminate the sculptures on the wall, except for the statue of Ptah, the god associated with the underworld, which remains in shadow.
From studies done, but still very theoretical, the dates should match the king’s birthday and coronation day, but there is no evidence to support this except the fact that if the sun is permitted to enter on those two particular dates it is for a significant purpose.
The light enters and illuminates the statues, the rays are directed primarily on the statue of Ramses. The power of the sun recharges and revitalizes him, beside him Amon Ra and Ra-Horakhty are also partially illuminated and Ptah is the god of darkness beside them perfectly in the shade.
The effort , in moving the temple, to be able to fully replicate the event, however, led to a margin of error of one day (forward) compared to the original dates, creating controversy and a regretful postscript to this otherwise so perfectly successful saga. But bearing in mind all the commitment shown by the people who contributed to the rescue, it should not be subjected to controversy but only relief and gratitude, as fate has decreed that the temples, though not yet a world heritage site, were later to become one at the completion of the work in their new location.
One could almost hope that somewhere, Ramses II and his wife, Queen Nefertari, are nodding their heads in thoughtful approval, he of the saving of the temple, she of the strength and initiative of a member of her sex.
There are those born a few centuries ago, who would have liked to have lived at the time of the great Roman emperors, or in XVII century. I wish I had been born at the time of Christiane Desroches Noblecourt, an Egyptologist and an archaeologist who died in July of this year and is now being commemorated by archaeologists, scholars and by the great centers of archaeological studies as an advocate of one of the largest and most impressive archaeological works ever undertaken, the first woman in history to lead an excavation, curator of the Louvre, Christiane, who together with the Minister of Egyptian cultural heritage shared with the world what they were able to save, leaving to the museums of the world the images of Abu Simbel and its temples, telling the story of what they have done as a duty and not just as a part of a job.
She led the people of France to launch an appeal to the reluctant and indifferent world, a plea for help, launched jointly with the then incumbent French Minister of Cultural Affairs , Andre Malraux: “The power that created the colossal monuments threatened today. . . speaks to us in a voice as exalted as that of the architects of Chartres, as that of Rembrandt. . .Your appeal is historic, not because it proposes to save the temples of Nubia, but because through it the first global civilization publicly claims the world’s art as its indivisible heritage. . .There is only one action over which the indifference of stars and the eternal murmuring of rivers have no sway – it is the act by which man snatches something from death.”
She, who in front of the General Charles de Gaulle, was unimpressed when he at first did not understand what Christiane had set in motion and said: “Mais enfin, Madame, comment avez-vous osé dire que la France sauverait le temple, sans avoir été habilitée par mon gouvernement? ” and replied “Et comment, Général, avez-vous osé envoyer un appel à la radio, alors que vous n’aviez pas été habilité par Pétain? “.
I would have liked to be born at the time of Christiane Desroches Noblecourt and to have responded to her call for help.
Irene Fanizza, Rome, November 2011
IN THE ANTIPODES
For the last two and a half years, have been busily working away at a project I’ve not been able to talk much about. Happily, I no longer need to, as that is being most ably taken care of by others. And who better than by the man running the whole show.
Peter Jackson’s ongoing video blogs are here:
THE HOBBIT – Production video #1
THE HOBBIT – Production video #2
THE HOBBIT – Production video #3
THE HOBBIT – Production video #4
And, amongst all the rumours and speculation and “spy reports”, the only blog really worth reading is here:
An Unexpected Journey: Part 1 – Concerning Hobbiton
An Unexpected Journey: Part 2 – They Call Me Mr. Chubb
An Unexpected Journey: Part 3 – Beginnings and Endings
Eric Vespe, a.k.a. Quint (also known as Fatty Chubb – he has nobody to blame but a mischievous film-maker for that one) has been on the road with Main Unit for nearly a month already. So, while we keep industriously scribbling, doing our best to keep one step ahead of the set builders, he can take you right behind the cameras. Shhh. Quiet on set, please…
Otherwise, after two and a half years with a steady day job, I’ve kind of run out of time to continue regularly with newsletters (as well as foolishly and perhaps over-optimistically taking on several writing jobs), despite the wonderfully generous help of all those who’ve propped me up, contributed texts of their own, proofread mine, and generally kept me going, I am taking a break from regularly doing one per month (how on earth I ever managed one every two weeks up until a year ago, I can’t imagine). Perhaps the renouncing of self-imposed deadlines will help. As the saying goes: ce n’est qu’un au revoir.