Twenty Seventeen was a strange year. After the political turmoil of 2016, we started facing the repercussions of those choices, which were largely – but not exclusively – terrible. From my perspective as a citizen of the UK (albeit one who lives in Canada), the political highlight came just after 5pm EST on Thursday 8th June when, after a dispiriting build up the exit poll from the General Election revealed a hung parliament with Labour gains in extraordinary places. Nevertheless, this was not a victory (depending on how you define victory, that is); it was, however, a salient reminder that we must not give up hope, and that fighting towards a better future is always a good idea.
I changed the name of this blog (and the theme, incidentally). The old one has been irrelevant for a few years now, and as I am hoping to keep this up for the foreseeable future, I thought it was time for a change. Then again, I didn’t really think much about what to change it to, so we’ll see if this sticks.
Furthermore, that seems like a really silly reason to write a blog post on its own. So I thought that I would add that I have an article on wine in the ancient Mediterranean in the current Ancient History. For more about the issue, look here. Here’s a picture of the heading of my article:
Over the past couple of days, two news reports about Egyptian Mummy Masks have been reported separately in news outlets across the world. One is about the damage done to Tutankhamun’s mask in the Cairo Museum; the other is about a papyrus mask of an unknown individual in a private collection which was destroyed to reveal what might be an early copy of the Gospel of Mark. I find it very interesting that these two cases have made the news so close together, but none of the news reports that I’ve seen have tied the two cases together. It is perhaps worth remembering that a huge chronological span separates these two objects – although not a span as great as that which separates us from them. And yet I believe that the parallels between the two cases are worth a few comments.
The treatment of these masks is directly related to their perceived value by their owners and curators. The first is perhaps the most famous museum object in the world, the gold mask of a long-dead king of a prosperous land around whose tomb and discovery many myths have gathered. The other was a papyrus mask of an unknown individual, of much lower status, in an Egypt which was part of a much larger empire – the mask has been described as not “museum-quality” (although one wonders how many museums were consulted about that and what defines “museum-quality”). In an effort to make the gold shine again, Tutankhamun’s mask was damaged, and the perceived need for such a valuable and famous treasure to be on display led to it being further – and permanently – damaged by a speedy and unprofessional repair job. Meanwhile, the perceived lack of value of the papyrus mask led to its total destruction in the hope of finding something with greater value in the modern world: a fragment of an early Gospel. In the former case, the object is world famous and has been recorded, studied, and photographed again and again – arguably nothing has been lost by the damage done to it. But the response, on social media and in the news reports about the damage, is incredulous. That reaction seems fair – the damage is irreparable, and many of us (myself included) will now never see the object in as perfect condition as we might. In the latter case, however, the object is largely unknown and there may not even be any decent photographs of it; it is, as far as I can tell, unprovenanced or at least not obviously from a formal excavation. So little is known about the Gospel Mask, except that it has now been completely destroyed and we may never know anything about it. But, we might argue, it could lead to a potentially more interesting further discovery. As an archaeologist largely interested in pre- or proto-historic periods, the idea that a written document of dubious date, of which we have many other copies, and which is largely of interest only to those who believe in its contents is more important than an artefact which may give us some indication about those not usually represented by written texts or shiny gold masks is troubling. What is perhaps also of interest is that whoever made this mask clearly also placed greater value on the mummy mask than on the copy of the gospel. Might we be better off questioning why that is, too?
In both of these cases, the problems seem to have occurred because of specialists; or rather, because of a lack of consultation with specialists. Rather than take the necessary time to repair the damage done to Tutankhamun’s mask, someone ordered that it be repaired with whatever happened to be around, which was a tube of bog-standard superglue. I assumed that this could not have been done by a professional conservator, but another glance at the story seems to indicate that it was, in fact, done by a professional. We don’t know what professionals, if any, have been consulted about the Gospel mask. The only names which have been spoken are not archaeologists or papyrus experts, but a New Testament scholar. The publication of the text has been delayed and delayed. It is unclear what has been done to this object or who is responsible. We do not know how this evidence might be manipulated, except for the clear case of hype-creation by leaking titbits of material to the press about the object.
These two cases highlight how we place value on historical artefacts, how this has changed from the value placed on them in antiquity, and how we perceive authority in controlling access to and disseminating information about historical objects. The case of the Gospel mask certainly deserves examination and discussion about how we should go about damaging objects, whether “museum-quality” or not – would I be complaining if the “damage” done was destruction of part of a sword to determine its metal composition? That’s work I’d even be happy to do myself, if I knew how to go about it (and was paid to do it). But the discussion needs to be about what information is gained and what information is lost. Our understanding of Tutankhamun’s burial and our appreciation of the objects created for it has declined very little, if at all, as a result of this damage. We may never understand the Gospel Mask, nor know about it in any great detail, unless it was very carefully recorded before it was destroyed. Whatever new information with which we are provided by the text on the papyrus, perhaps the most interesting thing about it is the perceived value placed on it by whoever made the mask, and was buried in it – was this reverence for the text or complete dismissal? Can we know the answer to that question now the mask has been destroyed?
There’s certainly a lot to mull over in the cases of Tutankhamun’s mask and the Gospel mask. I haven’t even considered the fact that these objects are *funerary* (largely because I have little respect for the long-dead, and no belief in an afterlife). The public reaction to these cases suggests to me that they might even be more interesting objects because of their roles in 2015 than they were when they were first created.
Is there anything more depressing than empty bookshelves? Yes. Many things, like war and the Conservative Party and other bad things. But empty bookshelves seem fairly depressing, and I am not entirely certain why. The books which we are removing from the Taylor Institution library tend to be those which have been entirely replaced by the internet, like bibliographies from other libraries which were out of date before the ink was dry (according to the antiquarian bookseller who is taking a lot of the books which we are getting rid of). And many of the empty shelves are the result of books being moved, not disposed of. So why do I look at an empty bookshelf and want to fill it? I believe this is something which I have come to think of as book fetishism.
The thing is that books like Fahrenheit 451 seem to value the book as an object. This is fair enough – certain books, like The Book of Kells or The Voynich Manuscript are beautiful objects, worthy of veneration. But these books are 1200 and 600 years old respectively. Is the average paperback – like my copy of Fahrenheit 451 – a work of beauty? Some of the covers which I will display later are certainly not beautiful, but they have brought delight by being objects rather than texts. This should not disparage the text. But if we are not to judge a book by its cover, then the eBook should be a wonderful thing which removes the problem of covers, and my girlfriend should stop being so worried about what might be chosen to represent her novel when it is sent to an artist. What book fetishism does is value the object over the function: we like books rather than liking reading.
I suppose my point is that getting rid of books shouldn’t necessarily be regarded as a bad thing simply because books are things of intrinsic value. There is a danger, if we devalue books, that reading loses value as well and people star to read rubbish or, worse, don’t read at all. But a book can lose its value if it is updated, replaced, or rendered unreadable; similarly it becomes of lower value if it is not read and no pleasure or purpose can be gained by reading it. Cheapening books, as much as censoring books, is a problem. But loosing a connection to the physical object should not be considered such a bad thing. A book can still be entertaining, funny, moving, risible, beautiful, lovable on an e-reader. They can still be valued, perhaps more for their content than for their covers.
On the subject of book covers…
I ought to warn that this post will be a lot of pictures, and that some of them will contain ladies and some gentlemen not wearing very many clothes at all. Not real ladies and gentlemen, though, arty, book cover ladies and gentlemen. So that should be okay. You have been warned!
Over the past week I have been working in three separate libraries for about four separate reasons: the usual studying and shelving which I do in the Sackler, in addition to which I have been working as a part of the “weeding” team at the Taylor Institute/Modern Foreign Languages library. I have also been helping to catalogue and sort out the library of the Oxford University Speculative Fiction Group, or “OUSFG” as it prefers to be known.* This also may undergo a kind of weeding. Or, as we have been calling it at OUSFG, a “cull”.
The difficulty of working in a library is that you discover, to your dismay, the complete and total non-existence of L-Space.** It transpires that, like museums, libraries actually never have enough space in them, being built for collections which are already too big and only ever expand. Therefore periodically the libraries must be “weeded”of books which take up space and are never used, of which there are duplicates, and on which the precious library space cannot be wasted.
Suddenly, your value system has to change. I have recently read Fahrenheit 451, although I haven’t mentioned it on here I don’t think. The value of the individual book there is outstanding, although really the value is placed on reading rather than the physical object. How valuable are the many volumes of bibliography which fill the corridors at the Taylor Institute now that we have an online catalogue? The dust on some of the volumes suggests that they may never have been used at all. Ray Bradbury was said to have hated the internet, calling it a distraction. But for an academic, having that much easy access to certain kinds of information, is refreshing, and frees up considerable amounts of time for other things, like research. Furthermore, scientific journals go out of date within years, if not months. So when libraries like the Taylor and the Sackler have journals going back to the mid-19th century on their open shelves, it does seem to be a little out of date.
With the OUSFG library the value judgements are different, and much more difficult. The part which we have been sorting and cataloguing is the “open stacks”, from which, theoretically, if you knew what was in there, you could request a book and get it fairly easily. The open shelves are where the library meetings take place every week (usually, if they’re available), while the closed stacks are hidden at the back of someone’s garage, and have not been seen in many years (at least as long as I’ve been an OUSFG member… which is slightly less than two years). Given this state, one must wonder whether these books are being valued as objects at all given that they are difficult to access, have no permanent home, and hardly ever get read.
There was a tiny cull last year, and when I say “cull” I mean some duplicates were donated to OXFAM. This also resulted in the creation of the open stacks. This year it looks likely to be bigger, if we can decide what we need to get rid of. The books are old, some are in terrible condition, many are works of which I have never heard. Several are classics. It includes an old Penguin classics version of The Picture of Dorian Gray, which, being out of copyright, is freely available on Project Gutenberg and will probably go. But when we don’t know anything about some of these books, how can we judge them? By their covers?
Of course, it is usually terrible to judge a book by its cover, unless you’re six and your mother has bribed you or something. But I am sure I used to know a blog which would post terrible fantasy and science fiction covers call “Covers of Doom”, even if I can’t find it on the internet. I present here some of the most striking covers from the sorting of the OUSFG library. WARNING, some of them are terrible.
* As China Miéville is said to have said, we say it “as though it was some kind of word”.
** With reflection, I should have realised this when I worked in an OXFAM bookshop, which was also limited in space. But that is an afterthought.
– No judgement is being made about the quality of these books by their covers, of course! They could be brilliant. But… wow.