Monday, August 07, 2006


The Museum of Civilization in Ottawa Hull, Canada, has a very interesting exhibit on the somewhat ancient (400 BC - 400 AD) somewhat civilization (pretty much everything they did was clearly derivative of the Greeks and Romans) of Petra. We spent a few hours there last weekend.
It seems some nomadic tribe called the Nabateans got the idea that they no longer needed to wander around on camels themsleves anymore, but that they would be far better off putting together some key technology (gathering water in the desert, and surely providing some basic security), and living in one place, an amazingly striking complex of ravines near Petra, Jordan. They managed to get a handle on the incense trade and gather significant revenues off the camel trains carrying spices from the east to the Mediterranean (I assume nobody can distinguish how much they managed to extract as rent, and how much was really for services, and the later history makes that not totally clear).
What was most striking was that a bunch of desert nomads, once they settled in place in these amazing sandstone canyons, did not waste a lot of time before developing stunning sand-carving skills! As said above, though, most of the art was pretty basically functional (once you accept that people need oversized temples and tombs), and the aritistic stuff was things you had seen better jobs of done by previous Greek civilization (the example that most stood out to me was a Venus de Milo (I jokingly mean a limbless Venus body), lacking all the basic rightness and eroticism of the THE Venus de Milo).
(One theory I have is that they did not do anything much at all themselves except gather rents, and hire people to create all the work we saw.)
In any case the incense trade collapsed and maybe the economy collapsed, or perhaps only reverted (see earlier posts on Cuba). The curators of the exhibit were unclear and openly uncertain.
One nice thing at this museum is the presence of volunteer kibitzers. When I could not find the Medusa head promised in the text below the item, one of these walked me around the corner to where it was visible (yes, we agreed the signage was poor). He then mischievously took me over to another supposed Medusa head and expressed his skepticism that it was anything but a somewhat upset woman, and I had to agree totally. Now this is the kind of museum I can enjoy!


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