Welcome, Members of Parliament

Welcome, Members of Parliament. This blog is designed to act as a student forum for anyone enrolled in my classes at a Dallas-area proprietary college, former students, and/or others who find our conversations interesting. The Parliament will be moderated to ensure civility and relevance. The directions we take, the paths we follow, and the concerns we address are all up to you.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Pseudoarchaeolgy Rides Again

It seems appropriate to post a new comment on a perennial issue in my classes, since another question about questionable "finds" came up last week.

My problems with what shows up on popular entertainment venues and "news" sources that actively seek out the sensational is that it all gets in the way of rational examination of evidence to help us understand the past.  In the previous post on the topic (from last Winter) I addressed giant skeletons and odd places for Minoans to show up. This time it was prompted by a similar story: crystal pyramids in the Bermuda Triangle. I'm afraid I popped of at the poor student who asked it, and for that I apologize deeply.  What threw me off my game, however, wasn't the question itself, but the source: Yahoo News.  No wonder I have high blood pressure.

So my first recommendation is to take that sucker off your RSS feed.  If you're using Yahoo for e-mail (not a good idea; expect to be hacked, repeatedly), ignore the "news." It's directed at the uninitiated, the innocent, and the gullible as far as I can tell.  Stick with reputable sources like the major news outlets that get fact-checked (even though it doesn't always seem to work). Unfortunately the priority in many online news sources is entertainment and sensationalism, rather than verifiable facts.

In answer to the question, however, no I hadn't heard about crystal pyramids in the Bermuda Triangle--but then I automatically tune out when anybody mentions "crystal" anything, pyramids (except in Egypt, Nubia, or Mesoamerica), or the so-called "Bermuda Triangle." I can't blame folks less innately skeptical than I for falling for it because of the way "evidence" is provided. But there isn't any, so fuggedaboutit. For a good argument about why, see the U. S. Navy's page on it (after all, military vessels have been implicated as evidence). Other good sources: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) page; Bermuda Triangle: Where Facts Disappear (Live Science); Bermuda Triangle: Behind the Intrigue (National Geographic).

I'm not quite sure where all the interest in "crystal" comes from--aside from the fact that the quartz crystals that most people seem to be talking about (although any mineral that forms crystals gets attention from somebody or other) are both hard (most rocks are) and pretty.  I have a nice conglomeration of quartz crystals that decorates a bookshelf and acts as a bookend, which I used to illustrate this post. If you want to see some really cool crystalline formations from a variety of minerals, go to the Perot Museum of Nature and Science downtown.

But pyramids made out of crystal?  On the seabed? Not likely.  Nevertheless, Yahoo's UK "answers" page (the answers are provided by anybody who replies, and the "best" one is chosen by people who read the site) says "The truth is that there are several crystal like Pyramids on the Sea Bed Floor and many speculations of what they are." In fact, however, there is no evidence of any of this--much less any speculation by anybody who knows what he/she is talking about. (For one thing, scientists talk about the seabed or the ocean floor, but not the Sea Bed Floor!) If you are tempted to think that building anything out of "crystal" would be possible, I advise getting hold of a good book on basic geology, and learning a bit about how these things form. And no, I don't have the time or energy to go into the whole crystal skull thing, either (and, by the way, the latest Indiana Jones movie was the worst of the bunch).

Whenever you come across something that sounds astonishing and about which myriad dubious claims are being made (those that sound a bit too amazing), check out Snopes other skeptically oriented sites. I'd send you to the Skeptic Forum, but they're more snarky than helpful. A better discussion is going on at [Skeptic], where you can learn about the origins of the story. And don't forget to carry your Baloney Detection Kit wherever you go.

Once again, I apologize for my spontaneous and rather impolite (!) response to last week's question. I'll try to behave myself in future.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

From Peplos to Peplum

In response to what I considered a really interesting question in last night's Art History I class, I went into full research throttle and found out some stuff I didn't know--which always gets my little grey cells twitching.

I love it when students connect what they already know from their own fields to what's going on in class, and last night a fashion student asked about the relationship between the Greek peplos (as in the garment worn by the Peplos Kore) with peplum, which I only really knew as a Latinized equivalent of peplos. So this morning I took down my trusty (and dusty) Liddell and Scott Greek dictionary and got the following definitions:

I. Any woven cloth used for a covering, sheet, carpet, curtain, veil, to cover a chariot, funeral urn, seat.
II. Upper garment or mantle in one piece, worn by women. 2. at Athens, the embroidered robe carried in procession at the Panathenaea.

Next came the Cassell's New Latin dictionary, which defined peplum simply as "the robe with which the statue of Athene at Athens was clad at the Panathenaea" and cited Cicero as its source.

Well, we sort of already knew much of the above, so I went on to chase down the evolution of peplum into modern use.  My initial Google search turned up an eyeful:  all manner of cute little minidresses, apparently quite trendy at the moment, from the Peplum Ponte Tank at Anthropologie, to the Peplum Ponte Dress at Victoria's Secret. What these garments have in common is a flared element over the hips, and it's certainly possible to see how this might have evolved (over two and a half millennia) from a peplos.

From this initial search I moved to the Ultimate Fashion History Source, aka the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where the ever-useful Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History provided a nice thematic essay on the Chiton, Peplos, and Himation in Modern Dress, with examples both ancient and modern.  This didn't offer any help on the peplum, however, and I was still wondering about how it made its way into trendiness.

A little further Googling turned up a very nice blog post from Fashion & History (January 2012), which not only explained what's going on at the moment, but also why peplums seemed so familiar to me: The Frilly Tale of the Peplum. It turns out that this particular garment was especially popular in the '40s (so I probably saw my mother in one), and again in the '80s (when I might have missed it during my child-chasing days).  The post, by "Author" (who doesn't provide an "about" page, but does cite his/her sources carefully), provides some brief but helpful information (including some vintage Butterick and McCall pattern envelopes featuring peplum dresses from both eras).

For a more traditional source on the origins of the Greek version of the garment, here's the page I mentioned in class, from Cambridge University's Classics faculty, on The Peplos Kore.

If anyone else runs into anything interesting, please send me the information for posting here (or write your own post for inclusion in the Parliament).

Sources not linked above:
Liddell, Henry G. and Robert Scott. A Greek-English Lexicon.  9th Ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1985. Print.

Mourning Athena. ca. 460 BCE. Acropolis Museum, Athens. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.  Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 14 March 2013. Web. 18 April 2013.

Simpson, D. P. Cassell's New Latin Dictionary. New York: Funk and Wagnells, 1960. Print

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Honing BS Detection Skills

This week's Art History 1 Neolithic to Bronze Age discussion got my dander up a bit because I didn't have ready answers to questions about skeletons of giants and evidence of Minoans in Michigan.  But it didn't take long to uncover the sources of the mishegoss, so I thought best to share it on this quarter's first post to the assembled Parliament.

First off, the giant skeleton issue was easy to track down (keywords "giant" and "skeleton") because Snopes had already debunked it and that's the first place I usually look for answers to questions of this nature.  Plain and simple, Folks: they're fake.  I have several more sources if this doesn't suffice.

The second query was about whether or not archaeologists have found evidence of Minoans in Michigan, where they purportedly went to look for copper and left behind a tablet with writing on it.  The BS factor here pops up immediately, too, because one might legitimately wonder how they'd even know there was copper there (even if they had any reason to know where "there" was), and one glimpse of the "tablet" shows that it's not Linear A.  But hunt about I did, as promised, and now I'm really glad y'all asked, because I found a terrific blog by one smart dude that I'm going to  head for first if this ever happens again.

For a straightforward treatment of this particular bit of silliness, read Jason Colavito's Review of America Unearthed S01E03: "Great Lakes Copper Heist." Not only does he clear things up elegantly, but he also solved the mystery of where you folks got the idea in the first place. So my next piece of advice is this: stay away from edutainment shows like America Unearthed or Secrets of the Dead (my comment on their Minoan/Atlantis episode is still on their website).

And just to show you that I'm not blowing smoke about how important garbage is to interpreting prehistory, I again defer to Mr. Colavito: Alternative Archaeology: Where's the Trash?

Homework assignment: download a copy of Carl Sagan's Baloney Detection Kit and carry it with you at all times.  I know this is not your fault; most of you were educated in Texas, and I'll do what I can to make up for it.

Image credit: A bit of the "Marine Fresco" from Akrotiri (can you just imagine the Minoans heading to Michigan, out through the Gates of Herakles and across the Atlantic in these boats?). Via Wikimedia Commons.