Viewing entries tagged
Exodus

Lost Cities, Movie Sets, and Nature's Periodic Cruelty

I have to admit that I was rather excited when I saw the headline "Star Wars home of Anakin Skywalker threatened by dune" in my BBC RSS feed (and not only because, like many Star Wars fans, I'd be happy to forget about Mos Espa along with the rest of The Phantom Menace). The first thing I thought of when I read the headline wasn't the movie, actually, but rather a lecture I saw Michael Moseley give at the Cotsen Institute a few years ago. The talk was mostly about periodic natural disasters in Peru, including sand incursions, and I found it quite fascinating. (If you're interested, he's published on it a number of times, including here, which is conveniently linkable and, unlike many Google Books entries, seems to show the whole chapter.)

This story seems like a neat illustration of that, on a non-catastrophic scale. A movie set is built in the path of a barchan dune, becomes a tourist destination for fans, and less than a decade and a half later people realize that perhaps "in the path of a barchan dune" is not the best place to build something. The slideshow at the top of the BBC piece is nice, although I wondered if Google Earth had more historical imagery. It turns out you can just fly to "Mos Espa" in Google Earth (which really shouldn't have surprised me), but the only image the BBC didn't include is one from 2004. It's pretty cool to be able to go through the 2004, 2008, and 2009 images, though, and see a single vehicle track up the slip face of the dune turn into tracks covering most of the dune until finally, in 2009, the tracks all disappear, covered by sand. It really gives you some perspective on how quickly these dunes can move.

The BBC story is actually a brief summary of an article in press by Lorenz et al. (2013), published in the journal Geomorphology. I have to give the authors props, since it's not every day I get geomorphology stories in my BBC feed. The paper itself, as you might expect for something published in Geomorphology, is primarily concerned with using satellite remote sensing to study the movement of the dunes. There are some interesting observations geared more toward "heritage" and tourism, though. For example, another nearby set building from The Phantom Menace has already been covered by a dune and emerged (seriously, they move really quickly). They note, though, that this caused some fairly significant damage, primarily because the buildings weren't really designed to last a long time or, you know, be covered by a sand dune. This is likely the fate of Mos Espa, too, and the authors suggest that given its potential as a tourism site, something might be done to protect it, like either diverting the dune or just moving the site. This leads them to this great connection:

There would be some irony in such measures being adopted to protect a science fiction film set: it was exposure to eolian transport concerns and countermeasures that inspired author Frank Herbert to write a science fiction novel set on a desert world (‘Dune’) that itself became an epic film. (Lorenz et al. 2013:8)

(Incidentally, beyond its insights on desert cultural ecology, Dune also contains some interesting observations about the uses to which history and archaeology are put, and the processes of remembering and forgetting involved in this. These do get rather heavy-handed by the fourth or fifth installment, though.)

This reminded me of something I actually hadn't thought about in a while: a short literature review I did during my first year of grad school as the initial stage of a cool remote sensing project. That project, for a variety of reasons, never happened, but it did expose me to a neat bit of Hollywood archaeology. The site we were interested in was the so-called "Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille", or the remains of the set built for The Ten Commandments (the 1923 silent film, not the more familiar 1956 Charlton Heston version). The movie was filmed at Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes near Santa Barbara and, after filming, the sets were taken apart and buried beneath the dunes. This was, evidently, a compromise between hauling them away, which was too expensive, and leaving them intact, which would have allowed someone else to come along and use them. Either way, there they were, more or less forgotten, until they were rediscovered in 1983. Comparing the "Lost City of DeMille" to Mos Espa is interesting, because the underlying problem is basically the same (movie sets just aren't built to last very long), but the environmental issues are different. In the case of the Ten Commandments set, the problem is that the sand is blowing away, leaving the site exposed to damage (more damage than was already caused by taking it apart and burying it under some sand dunes, anyway).

I remembered an archaeological project being in the works at the time I was looking into this (it's mentioned on this site, which doesn't appear to have been updated in a while), and wondered if anything had come of that. Unfortunately, this doesn't look good. I suppose something might have happened after the Dunes Center last updated their web site, but I can't find anything. It sounded like a really cool project, though: digging up the remains of what a legendary filmmaker and his crew in 1923 thought late 2nd millennium BC Egypt would have looked like.

Works Cited

ResearchBlogging.orgLorenz, Ralph D., Nabil Gasmi, Jani Radebaugh, Jason W. Barnes, & Gian G. Ori (2013). Dunes on planet Tatooine: Observation of barchan migration at the Star Wars film set in Tunisia Geomorphology DOI: 10.1016/j.geomorph.2013.06.026

More on the Exodus at UCSD

Recently, a page dedicated to the Out of Egypt conference went up on the Calit2 (actually, now the Qualcomm Institute) site. As I mentioned previously, this is the conference that the EX3: Exodus, Cyber-Archaeology and the Future exhibit was associated with, and Tom Levy and our colleagues at Calit2 have done a fantastic job of making everything available to those who couldn't attend the exhibit or conference.So, in addition to seeing photos from the conference (if you scroll through long enough you can see a few of me with the rest of the Levantine Archaeology Lab crew and some other UCSD Anthro folks), you can also watch videos of every talk that was given at the conference and get a guided tour of the exhibition (from Tom himself!). Plus, at the bottom of the page, you can read the three panels on the Exodus in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, including the contribution I put together with Prof. Babak Rahimi.I have to say, I'm impressed with how much of the conference has been made available online. It would definitely be a good thing if, at some point in the near future, it became common for conference organizers to provide open post-conference access to talks and other materials.

Donner on belief

A few weeks ago, I was asked by my advisor (who also happens to be the curator of this exhibit) to put together a few paragraphs describing Islamic traditions of the Exodus story for an exhibit called EX3: Exodus, Cyber-Archaeology and the Future (I planned to post this while the exhibition was still open, but it closed over the weekend). This is actually a topic I didn't know all that well before this, so although the panel had a maximum of only 250 words, I ended up doing a fair amount of research. In the course of this, I came across a quote from the historian Fred Donner that, although it's actually a metaphor for Islamic history, sums up pretty well some of the issues of Biblical archaeology:

But the parting of the waters – the actual supernatural event that, according to the story, was God's act of salvation for the Israelites – this the historian simply cannot evaluate. . . . because it involves an event that is explicitly represented as supernatural, it is simply beyond his competence as a historian to evaluate its supernatural content. (Donner 2011:34)
It's a useful compromise in some ways, and reminds me of a quote that Aren Maeir used in his presentation at the conference associated with the exhibition. It's by the Zionist author Ahad Ha'am, from his essay "Moses":
For even if you succeed in demonstrating conclusively that the man Moses never existed, or that he was not such a man as we supposed, you would not thereby detract one jot from the historical reality of the ideal Moses — the Moses who has been our leader not only for forty years in the wilderness of Sinai, but for thousands of years in all the wildernesses in which we have wandered since the Exodus.
For the believer, this seems like a rather sensible position to me.(Actually, though, we all know that what these quotes really remind me of is "Lisa the Iconoclast," the episode of The Simpsons where Lisa proves that beloved town founder Jebediah Springfield was actually the murderous pirate Hans Sprungfeld, but as a serious academic I can't bring that up. It's a perfectly cromulent association to make, though.)Works CitedDonner, Fred M.2011 The historian, the believer, and the Qur'ān. In New Perspectives on the Qur'ān: The Qur'ān in its historical context 2. G.S. Reynolds, ed. Pp. 25-37. Routledge studies in the Qur'ān. New York: Routledge.