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The Ancient World

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Ruins of Babel. | Pompeii of the North.

“The mysterious structure is cone shaped, made of ‘unhewn basalt cobbles and boulders,’ and weighs an estimated 60,000 tons, the researchers said. That makes it heavier than most modern-day warships.” A sonar survey of the Sea of Galilee uncovers a large, ancient, and man-made cairn beneath the waves. “Underwater archaeological excavation is needed so scientists can find associated artifacts and determine the structure’s date and purpose, the researchers said.” Seems pretty clear it was built either to hide an ancient spaceship or hold in Cthulhu.

In similar news, and as seen in the comments of Charlie Pierce’s post on this subject, a dig in the center of London uncovers the ancient Roman city beneath. “The area has been dubbed the ‘Pompeii of the north’ due to the perfect preservation of organic artefacts such as leather and wood. One expert said: ‘This is the site that we have been dreaming of for 20 years.'”

Don’t Sleep on Second Sleep.

“In 2001, historian Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech published a seminal paper, drawn from 16 years of research, revealing a wealth of historical evidence that humans used to sleep in two distinct chunks…Today, most people seem to have adapted quite well to the eight-hour sleep, but Ekirch believes many sleeping problems may have roots in the human body’s natural preference for segmented sleep as well as the ubiquity of artificial light.”

When you’re lying awake at night, it’s alright: BBC’s Stephanie Hegarty delves into pre-industrial sleep habits and discovers that eight hours of uninterrupted sleep may be a recent invention. “Much like the experience of Wehr’s subjects, these references describe a first sleep which began about two hours after dusk, followed by waking period of one or two hours and then a second sleep. ‘It’s not just the number of references – it is the way they refer to it, as if it was common knowledge,’ Ekirch says.”

The First Zombie Apocalypse.

“But here’s the creepy thing: many of the 10,000-year-old skulls appear to have been separated from their spines long after their bodies had already begun to decompose. Why would this skull-smashing ritual be performed so long after individuals had died? Did they only pose a threat to the living long after their original burial and death?”

By way of Hold Fast, archaeologists discover evidence of a paleolithic skull-smashing culture in ancient Syria. Expect Cavemen v. Zombies imminently.

Glazed with Grimy Glass.

It’s clear that this must have been a quite far-reaching and dramatic event that must have had profound effect on the society of the time,” Project Manager Mads K√§hler Holst, professor of archaeology at Aarhus University said in the statement.

Danish archaeologists uncover a bog apparently holding a sacrificial army. All dead…all rotten. Elves and men and orcses. A great battle, long ago. The Dead Marshes… Yes, yes, that is their name.

Atlantis Rising?

“‘This is the power of tsunamis,’ head researcher Richard Freund told Reuters. ‘It is just so hard to understand that it can wipe out 60 miles inland, and that’s pretty much what we’re talking about.‘”

As a modern-day tsunami wreaks catastrophe in Japan, researchers think they may have found the original Atlantis in the mud flats of Spain. “To solve the age-old mystery, the team used a satellite photo of a suspected submerged city to find the site just north of Cadiz, Spain…The team of archeologists and geologists in 2009 and 2010 used a combination of deep-ground radar, digital mapping, and underwater technology to survey the site.

Roman Holiday…

…or not. Also in the trailer bin, Michael Fassbender, Dominic West, Noel Clarke (i.e. Doctor Who‘s Mickey Smith), and a host of other Roman legionnaires find themselves behind enemy lines and surrounded by angry Picts of some kind in the new trailer for Neil Marshall’s Centurion, also with Olga Kurylenko (who really should’ve gotten Scarlett Johannson’s part in Iron Man 2.) Well, ok then. Here’s hoping Marshall squeezes in a good Asterix and Obelix cameo.

The Great Flood…and a blow to the Annalistes.

“In a period ranging from a few months to two years, the scientists say that 90% of the water was transferred into the basin. ‘This extremely abrupt flood may have involved peak rates of sea level rise in the Mediterranean of more than 10m per day,’ he and his colleagues wrote in the Nature paper.” A new study suggests that, over five million years ago and with an event called the Zanclean flood, the Mediterranean Sea may have been re-formed in as little as two years. “The team estimates the peak flow to have been around 1000 times higher than the present Amazon river at its highest rate.

Coincidentally, two years is about as long as it takes to read Ferdinand Braudel’s seminal two-part history of the Mediterranean. Cut to the chase, man!

The Teen Titans.

In today’s trailer bin, director Matthew Vaughn borrows a little bad reputation from Freaks & Geeks to make the case for his adaptation of Kick-Ass, with Aaron Johnson, Chloe Moretz, Nicolas Cage, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse. (So far, so good — from all indications, Moretz’s Hit Girl will steal the show.)

Meanwhile, Sam Worthington takes on big scorpions and sundry other Kraken-like things in the very 300-ish trailer for Louis Leterrier’s Clash of the Titans remake, also with Alexa Davalos, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Danny Huston, Gemma Arterton, Pete Postlethwaite, Jason Flemyng and Mads Mikkelsen. Frankly, it sorta lost me with the lousy aggro-whiteboy rock, but ya never know. And “Titans Will Clash!“…ugh. Who were the ad wizards who came up with that one?


Ever since The Matrix came out of nowhere in March of 1999 and proved that genre audiences would pack the seats any time of year, not just in summertime, the February/March comic-book tentpole release has become a staple of the fanboy film calendar (Think Blade II, Constantine, Sin City, V for Vendetta.) This year, as you probably know, the big event was Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300, which has been getting good buzz ever since its Comic-Con test footage and very impressive (and still very watchable) trailer last year. Well, I gotta say, I did everything I could to get all suitably double-Y aggro’ed for Snyder’s trip to Sparta: I went to the midnight IMAX showing with the fanboy nation, had Greek food for dinner (ok, a coincidence) and downed a few beers beforehand, tossed out 600 sit-ups and randomly killed a hobo — but, even then, 300 turned out to be sadly underwhelming. It looks great, no doubt — with its carefully calibrated colors and artfully spurting viscera, it looks even more Frank Millerish than Sin City did, and there are definitely a couple of images that bypass all thought and directly engage the reptilian part of the brain. But, even taken on its own terms, there’re too many groaners and too much filler here, and its attempts to be somber border on the laughable. I suspect 300 will sell a lot of HD-DVD players in the very near future, and for good reason, but it ultimately makes for a better music video than it does a movie.

The story is old, I know, but it goes on (usually in a David Wenham voiceover): In the ancient warrior city-state of Sparta, presided over by the robust, strapping King Leonidas (Gerard Butler), the men are men, the women are women, and those stunted weaklings born without a killer six-pack are picked off at a very early age. But, alas, this militarist utopia finds itself threatened by the global ambitions of the — clearly not manly enough — Persian God-King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), who asks only that Leonidas and his people submit to his divine benevolence. Submission? You must be joking. So, while his beautiful Queen (Lena Headley) negotiates with the Spartan Senate in a number of insipid let’s-take-a-meeting scenes straight out of The Phantom Menace, Leonidas takes 300 of his best, least-clad warriors to the Hot Gates, where he and his ilk must fight off — without benefit of armor, mind you — wave after wave of Xerxes’ elite assassins: the fearsome Persian Immortals, known mainly by their grinning demon masks and matching Ahmadinejad windbreakers.

Ok, that gag aside, and despite what you may have heard, there’s really not that much allegorical grist in 300. I mean, you could very easily call out the political and racial subtext of the film: very Anglo-Saxonish looking Greeks beating down evil brown and black folk, in order to defend Spartan freedom(?) against the “mysticism and tyranny” of the Asian hordes. (After all, writer Frank Miller is the same guy who felt it necessary to sic Batman on Al Qaeda.) Or, you could fault 300‘s unabashed reveling in blood, guts, and glory: Faramir won’t shut up in this movie, and yet there’s nothing at all here akin to his opening lines in his last crusade against Men of the East, The Two Towers: “His sense of duty was no less than yours, I deem. You wonder what his name is, where he came from, and if he was really evil at heart. What lies or threats led him on this long march from home. If he would not rather have stayed there in peace. War will make corpses of us all.
In short, to say 300 is the anti-Letters from Iwo Jima is an understatement.

But, really, all of that is basically beside the point: the movie is way too shallow to merit any deeper readings. The inimitable, foul-mouthed Neill Cumpston hit the nail on the head: 300 is in essence a video game, with waves of easy-to-dispatch bad-guy mobs punctuated by the occasional mini-boss. And, besides, let’s be honest: All subtexts aside, I came to 300 — and if you saw the trailer, you did too — to chew gum and watch people kick ass, and I’m all out of gum. But, for every adrenaline-firing sequence of Leonidas and co. carving through baddies in slow-motion — one, you’ll know it when you see it, is pitch-perfect Frank Miller — there are several others where the movie just grinds to a halt, and we’re forced to watch Leonidas look angst-ridden or Queen Gargos engage in some cut-rate speechifying about freedom: “Freedom isn’t free,” “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” etc. etc. ad nauseum. (And, alas, poor McNulty gets the shaft again: Dominic West gets a terribly-written, totally unnecessary part as a mustache-twirling politician/diplomat, which should tell you all you need to know about his role here — Like Sparta’s intrepid warriors really need his cut-and-run, Hans Blix pansy-ass screwing things up on the homefront.)

Still, for all of 300 pacing woes, dialogue groaners, and two-dimensional characters, I have to admit — it does have its occasional moments…usually when it drops all pretense and just lets its “Tonight, we dine in Hell!” freak flag fly. A sinuous oracle in flimsy gauze writhes ecstatically through a soothsaying as if underwater. The God-King Xerxes, his voice booming with inhuman authority (nice job, sound editing guys), rests majestically on his obscenely large throne stairs, making Leonidas an offer he can’t refuse. Persian ships are rent asunder by the stormy wrath of Poseidon, as Greece’s warriors roar with approval in the rain. In these moments, and at others, such as when Xerxes unleashes his menagerie of rhinos and elephants against the 300, or when the Spartans first encounter the Asians’ arcane magick of gunpowder, Zack Snyder’s film settles into a big, dumb, loud, and rousingly enjoyable groove. Alas, 300 can only sustain that intensity for minutes at at time, and for the rest of the run, it’s not so enjoyable. Too bad — I get the sense there’s probably a really amazing half-hour short-film in here somewhere. As it is, 300 feels disappointing, and makes me wonder if Snyder has the wherewithal to do Alan Moore’s The Watchmen justice.

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