Cyprus 1190-1570: A Good Idea Gone Wrong, or Why I Should Be in Video Game Development?

I’ve been pestering my brother-in-law ever since I came out to Seattle to buy Assassin’s Creed for his XBox 360. I actually wanted him to get the original even though the sequel is out, because I’m an obsessive compulsive purist when it comes to video games, and I wanted to play the series from the start, regardless of the known issues of the original game.

But my brother-in-law bought Assassin’s Creed II instead, because he wanted to run around Renaissance Italy, a period and location that both he and my sister are familiar and fond of, which I respect. Its fun to run around a simulation of place you’ve been in real life, particularly if its a good simulation, which AC II most certainly is. So for the past two days I’ve been watching him run around a stunningly well-depicted Firenze, with his Mom who is also visiting and who recently biked through the region pointing out landmarks, even the building that she stayed in. He’s racing through the game, because he really wants to get to Venezia, where he and my sister went last year for Carnival, at which point I expect his critique of the game to increase exponentially, though so far he seems quite pleased.

Now, when I play games I never race through them. I fit so squarely within the “explorer” paradigm of game players that I don’t even bother playing any sort of game on rails. They drive me bonkers. And while I watched him running through the streets of Florence, as I had previously watched friends run through the streets of Jerusalem in the previous installment of this series, all I wanted to do was grab the controller out of his hands and search all the nooks and crannies he was ignoring. And I was also thinking about how incredibly cool it would be if they set one of the Assassin’s Creed games in Cyprus.

Obviously, I’m partial to Cyprus. One might even say unfairly biased. I’ve worked there on two different excavations and two different surveys, as well as basing my Master’s thesis on the Bronze Age mortuary landscapes of the island, and spending a good chunk of time in the lovely Ottoman period mansion that now serves as the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute in Nicosia. In total I’ve spent nearly 6 months on Cyprus, and in that time I’ve managed to squeeze in a fair bit of a sightseeing, and Cyprus is the island for it, most particularly for the periods addressed in the Assassin’s Creed mythos. Forgetting the amazing archaeological sites that stretch from the far recesses of prehistory through the Roman period, the island is littered with Crusader castles, monasteries, and venetian walled cities.┬áNot to mention major holy sites that the folks back then loved to squabble over (oh, wait that hasn’t changed much, has it?) including the burial place of Lazarus (the second time he died, I guess Jesus wasn’t around to bring him back) and of the prophet Mohammed’s wet nurse, Umm Haram, who fell off a donkey in a battle during the Arab invasion of Cyprus in the 7th century.

Agios Lazaros Church in Larnaca, Cyprus
Hala Sultan Tekke, the Mosque of Umm Haram
Hala Sultan Tekke, the Mosque of Umm Haram

None of this is surprising if you look at a map! If somebody feels like invading or controlling the Holy Land, Cyprus is THE place to stage yourself. Heck, the same holds true today, with nearly 15% of the island designated as British military bases, and with the Turkish army having invaded as recently as 1974, leaving the island a divided political and strategic nightmare.

Particularly as befits the Assassin’s Creed series, the Templars spent some time on Cyprus after Richard I of England (the Lionheart) sold them the island after the Third Crusade. The Templars set up their base of operations in the city of Limassol, but they didn’t fare so well there either, and after a rather bloody insurrection on Cyprus in addition to their loss of the island of Arwad off the coast of Syria to the Egyptian Mamluks, they also took flight, selling the island to the Guy de Lusignan, in 1192, who was pretty much homeless after having lost Jeruslaem in 1187, being denied entry to Tyre in 1190, and failing to win the siege of Acre in 1191. Cyprus remained a crusader kingdom in the hands of the Lusignan family until 1489.

Kolossi Castle, built 1210, home of the Hospitaller Knights
St. Hilarion Castle, summer home of the Lusignan kings

The last queen of the Kingdom of Cyprus was the Nobil Donna, Caterina Cornaro. Her father had been a Patrician of Venice, and had produced four Doges. Her husband, James II (‘the Bastard’) died shortly after their marriage, and after her son died under suspcious circumstances, she became sole ruler of the island, but in 1489 she was forced by the ruling merchant class to abdicate her sovereignty to the Republic of Venice. It is reported that she and her former subjects wept when she was forced to leave the capital, which by this time had been moved from Limassol to Nicosia.

The Venetian fortifications still stand around Nicosia

The Venetians rebuilt the fortifications of the Lusignans as well as many of their own during their reign which would last less than 100 years, as they were deeply hated by their Cypriot peasants who supported, almost gleefully, the successful Ottoman invasion in 1570.

So what’s my point here? My point is that Cyprus during the Middle Ages was awesome. The architecture is stunning, and a lot of it is still standing! The politics of the period are as convoluted and fascinating as one could wish, perfect fodder for a game about assassins and intrigue. Free running through Limassol or Larnaca or Nicosia? Awesomeness. Racing up and down the cliffs and tiny back hallways of St. Hilarion? Trying to save (or kill) the Black Prince? Defend the monarchy from the avarice of the venetian merchants? Or running your own merchant vessels out of Kyrenia and Famagusta harbours? Protecting your castle from inevitable sieges, while building up your salt mines or sugar cane plantations? So many cool options, the mind simply boggles!

So, the day after I had the brilliant idea, I was milling around the kitchen while simmering a nice pumpkin curry for lunch when I picked up the January 2010 issue of Game Informer, to discover that someone had done it already. Seriously. There’s a new PSP game called Assassin’s Creed: Bloodlines, that takes place on Cyprus. Only problem is that apparently it sucks. Combat sucks, plot development is poor (how?! Its Cyprus for god’s sake! Who were your writers?!?!), you only get to visit Limassol and Larnaca (no Nicosia? or Famagusta? What crack were you smoking and did you bother to do any kind of real location research?) and well, its on the PSP which is ALWAYS a bad idea. Epic fail. I’m totally bummed.


New Business Cards!

Its not a very good picture, but I still wanted to show it off: My new business cards!! My brother-in-law made these for me as a Christmas gift. Figure they’re a nice thing to have, hand out to people who might be interested in having me work for them either on field projects, or as a copyeditor/writer/talking-head for any kind of media production. “Look how professional I am!” Ha!
In the meantime, its the holidays, and I’m making some spare cash between semesters working in that joyful *ahem* profession known as retail. I’ve worked in retail off and on for over 10 years now, and the sad thing is that I’m really good at it. Charming, reasonably attractive, good at sales pitches. And so whenever I return to retail, within a week they have me jacked back up to 40 hours a week. So, I’m off to work a 2pm to 11pm shift at one of Seattle’s busiest shopping centers. My excitement is positively underwhelming, and my feet are already aching just thinking about it. Oh, how I miss being in the field, with the sun beating down on me while I get all dirty and sweaty!!

Salt is bad, Liminality, and the Harbour at Alexandria

I seem to be on a harbour kick this week, but they keep cropping up in my news feeds so they are what I’ve been thinking about. Or as Levi-Strauss would have said, they’re “good to think with.” Because harbours are interesting places. It’s where the water meets the land, a threshold where ships of war and trade dock, where people from different places interact. One of my professors, Dr. Christopher Monroe, a Senior Lecturer at Cornell University, has recently been spending a lot of time thinking about the liminality of harbors and how that liminality can be approached using nautical/maritime/underwater archaeology. His enthusiasm is infectious, and I too have found myself seeing liminality everywhere.

There was a lot of news today on a subject directly related to this: the lifting of a 9-ton red granite slab from the its resting place on the seabed in the harbour at Alexandria. This particular massive block of stone is believed to have come from a temple built by Cleopatra VII (that would be the Cleopatra, the one who ousted her brother, fooled around with Caesar, and then backed the wrong horse with Marc Antony). Archaeological work has been going on in the harbour since 1994, but nothing has been removed from the water since 2002. This was for good reason: the Egyptian archaeological authorities simply didn’t have the resources to deal with the conservation of artifacts and architecture from an underwater excavation.

The BBC reported that it was because the removal might damage them, which is only sort of true. The actual process of removal, like any excavation, is unlikely to damage the items if done with care. It’s really what happens afterwards thats the problem. The Associated Press article correctly reports that the salt in the seawater is the cause for concern, but in an impressive misunderstanding of science, they claim that when the object is in the water the salt acts as a preservative. This really isn’t true. Salt actually has very little effect on most types of material while they are submerged in seawater, except for the indirect effect it has on the how much oxygen there is present in said seawater. An ancient ship sunk in freshwater can be just as well-preserved as one in salt water. But, likewise, the salt doesn’t do any harm.

Think about it: when you dissolve a spoonful of salt in a glass of water it “dissolves,” and vanishes. What’s really happening is that “salt”, i.e. sodium chloride, is what in chemistry is also called a “salt,” which is an ionic compound resulting from a neutralization reaction of acids and bases. In the case of Sodium Chloride (NaCl), or table salt, one atom of sodium, with a single positive charge (Na+), is neutralized by a single atom of chlorine, with a single negative charge (Cl-). When in solution (i.e. dissolved in water), the sodium and chlorine ions interact with the water (H2O) which actually exists in a partially ionized state itself (H+ and OH-). Basically, all the ions are floating around together, neutralized, stable, and happy. But when the water is removed, say for example by evaporation, the sodium and chlorine ions are left on their own, and in a panicked effort to stabilize themselves they link up, and they happen to link up in an orderly fashion, which is what produces crystals. This orderly crystalline structure that the ions aline themselves in is sort of like an open-lattice, so it also takes up way more room in crystalline form than it did when it was just a bunch of little individual ions.

This whole process isn’t so much of a problem when it happens on the surface of something. When you go to the beach and go swimming and then fall asleep in the sun, you just wake up with a thin layer of salt crystals all over your body, which you can just brush off with a towel. But when an object is porous and all the water evaporates from inside it, the salt will crystallize wherever it happens to be and that includes inside the porous object. And in reality, just about everything is porous if you leave it sitting in water for several hundred years. Even granite. And when those ions form up into their surprisingly strong lattice crystalline structure, where they take up way more room than they used to, the resultant salt crystals will push on and possibly even break apart the material that they’re forming inside. Even granite.

So what this means is that if you were to pull an object out of the sea that’s been saturated with saltwater, say a giant slab from the pylon of Cleopatra VII, and then just let it sit in the sun to dry out, little salt crystals would form all over the inside of the stone, and it could quite possibly crumble into a heap of dust. This would be why the Egyptian government didn’t want people pulling things out of the harbour at Alexandria. Fortunately there is a reasonably simple solution to this problem. If you take the object that has been saturated in seawater and soak it for several months in rotating baths of fresh water, the salt can be leached out of the object until it is sufficiently desalinated and safe to allow it to dry. Such will be the fate of this carved granite block, which took three days to drag to safety away from the shipping lanes and close enough to shore for a crane to pull it out of the sea, only to be put back into a giant tank of water.

So, what does this have to do with liminality? The word “liminal” comes from the Latin, limen, meaning “threshold” or “doorway”, and in the early 20th century entered anthropological discourse in Arnold Van Gennep’s seminal work, Les rites de passages. In this work liminality is presented as the second of the three stages a person passes through in a rite of passage: Preliminary (separation), Liminal (transition), and Postliminary (reintegration). The liminal phase is characterized by ambiguity and paradox, during which the participant exists simultaneously to both the preliminary and postliminary states and to neither.

This is a great metaphor to consider a harbour with. A harbour is the physical embodiment of a doorway or threshold for a city or civilization. The ships and people who pass through it belong both to their home ports and to those that they visit, while also having no home at all. The harbour is of the sea and of the land, but is also its own thing, and the harbour at Alexandria is no exception.

Berth for the world’s great fleets, former site of mighty palaces and temples, crossroads of the Mediterranean, center of trade, war, and knowledge, the harbour has seen history pass, and it now holds in its depths the remains of that history, the detritus of history trapped in its own liminal state, having both passed out of time and memory, but also preserved, not truly allowed to fade. And this one block (9 tons of carved red granite), of this temple (to the goddess Isis), built by this queen (Cleopatra, perhaps history’s most famous), has finally escaped its liminal state in the murky depths of the harbour…

…only to enter another liminal state, stuck in a tank of fresh water in a conservation lab, thanks to being submerged in salt water for 2000 years. Thankfully, this one should be a lot briefer.

BBC News – Egypt lifts huge ‘Cleopatra temple’ block from sea
Monument lifted from Cleopatra’s underwater city

Stinky Wood, or the Byzantine Harbour at Yenikapi

Cornell University has a world-famous dendrochronology lab. Well, world-famous to people who keep tabs on things like dendrochronology labs. My advisor, Prof. Sturt Manning, is the director of the lab and after I took his dendro course at Cornell, I spent a semester working in the lab for some extra money. One of these days I’m sure I’ll write a post about all of the very cool things that you can do with dendro. Because they are VERY cool. But this post is going to be about dendro samples. Specifically the samples from a site known to the Cornell dendro lab as YNK, or Yenikapi.

The problem with being a grunt in the dendro lab is that you get to work on the material that no one else wants to. When I worked in the lab the post-docs and full-time researchers all had their own personal projects, and the students in the dendro course were given some choice in what kind of material to work on for their final projects. This left for the techs the samples that were hard to work with, boring (there are only so many cedar cores you can read from Cyprus before you want to gouge your eyes out), or… the wood from Yenikapi.

For the past three years the lab at Cornell has been flooded with samples from Yenikapi. The lab techs don’t get told too much about the samples that they are working on. Its just another piece of wood that has to be prepped appropriately, stuck underneath a microscope, and have each of its rings read and recorded in the computer to the precision of 1/100,000th of a meter. That’s 100ths of a millimeter. But even when we didn’t know what Yenikapi meant, me knew what having to work on Yenikapi meant.

See, there are four main kinds of wood that come into a dendro lab. First are your samples from living or recently deceased trees. Theses are cores or slices, usually in really good condition, that just need to be mounted and then sanded to a beautiful mirror finish before they can be read. Second are cores or slices taken from older decease trees… these might come from the wood used in a historical building or from an artifact like a piece of furniture, a coffin, or even the wood panel backing to a Rembrandt. Likewise these must be mounted and sanded, but often the wood isn’t in as good condition and the samples can be smaller and more fragile. The third and fourth categories of samples are the types found in archaeological or paleontological contexts, as they are ancient wood that has been somehow preserved. The third category is burnt wood, or charcoal, as once the wood has been reduced to carbon it usually doesn’t decay any further, unless it is damaged by water or impact (microscopic flakes of burnt wood can’t have the rings read!). The charcoal is wrapped with cotton string and masking tape to stabilize it, and then a clean surface is prepared for reading with a razor blade. The fourth and final category of sample is wet wood. Yenikapi is wet wood.

When wood or other organic material is submersed in water it doesn’t decay the same way it would on land, as there is no oxygen present. However, wood usually isn’t submersed in perfectly clear distilled water, and the salt, other chemicals, and biological agents found in the water have a definite effect. This is why sunken ships and old piers last so long, even for thousands of years, but not forever. The wood becomes dark and discolored, the structure of the wood becomes completely saturated and spongy, and finally it does eventually disintegrate. It can also be pretty gross. To get a smooth surface that allows the rings to be read, the sharpest razor blades must be used, and even they can often only make two or three cuts before they become too dull, and instead of shaving the surface of the delicate sample, you smoosh it into unrecognizable goo or fluff it into a cashmere sweater. The frustration of prepping wet wood must be experienced to be truly appreciated, and takes a remarkable amount of patience, which I really didn’t possess. There was lots of swearing involved. Thank god they put that lab in the basement and the prep room behind its own heavy door.

Additionally, wet wood samples aren’t sent into the lab submersed in water as they were found, as it simply isn’t practical. Instead the wood sample is tagged, and while still dripping wet its sealed in a Zip-Lock baggie. Now ideally, the air is removed from the bag, but its nearly impossible to get it all out, and sometimes the air removal step is skipped entirely. So, take organic material, and stick it in a moist environment in the presence of oxygen, and what do you get? Mold! Mildew! Fungi! Louis Pasteur would be horrified. Not to mention all the weird little insects from the water and the wood which just keep on merrily reproducing! I have seen wet wood under a microscope that looked like the surface of some alien planet, covered in a dense forest of bizzare trees and giant toadstools. It even has its own unique lifeforms, as bright orange and silver and even translucent insects scurry through the spongy remains of the wood.


But really, its the smell that gets to you. Because the wood from Yenikapi is oak that was submerged in the filthy stinking harbour of Istanbul back when it was still Constantinople. Some of it came from the hulls of sunken ships and some from the pilings of the Byzantine piers, but eventually this part of the harbour was filled in, most likely with garbage and household refuse and lord knows what else (the same way Manhattan was expanded in the 18th and 19th centuries), and after sitting down there, muddy and foul for over a thousand years, the whole area gets ripped up during the construction of a new subway system, and the archaeologists swarm in to do their thing.

And several hundred pieces of wood with the consistency of an overcooked souffle and a scent that falls somewhere between a high school linebacker’s jock strap and a rodent that’s been dead for a week, with notes of decaying seaweed, sewage, and the acrid tang of seawater, end up half a world away in the Cornell dendro lab.

The archaeological work on the site has steadily increased since the site’s discovery in 2004, as the Turkish government really wants to move forward with construction, and as a result more and more Yenikapi samples have flooded the lab each year. There was so much of it this year, that I heard its all the students or the lab techs get to work on. For once, I am thankful for my thesis.

CNN article about the construction at Yenikapi
Cornell Tree-Ring Laboratory
excellent Saudia Aramco World article about the archaeology

First Post, New Blog

This is basically a holder post, simply pronouncing, that yes, this is my blog. I’m Eilis Monahan, aka Girl Archaeologist. I’m currently a graduate student at Cornell University, where I study (you guessed it!) archaeology. I’m a field archaeologist, a shovelbum, an excavation junky. I’ve dug in 3 continents, 4 countries, and 5 states. When I’m not digging in the ground, I like playing with technology… geophysical and aerial remote sensing, GIS, and videography. I have a bunch of followers on Twitter (User: GirlArchaeo) who I try to keep informed on happenings in the world of archaeology, interspersed with totally off-topic rants, and pictures of my most recent travels.

BTW, I’m also a video-blogger. Check out my YouTube account if you get the chance.

I’m morally opposed to all of the crap archaeoogy programs on tv. And of course, I believe the solution to this is for someone to give me my own show. I actually do have training in acting for stage and television, modeling, voice, and dance. Reel and headshots available upon request.

’10 M.A. in Archaeology, Cornell University
’01 B.A. in Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology, Bryn Mawr College

Excavations and Surveys:
’09 Priniatikos-Pyrgos Project (Crete), Irish Institute for Helladic Studies
’08 Priniatikos-Pyrgos Project (Crete), Irish Institute for Helladic Studies
’08 Kalavasos and Maroni Built Environments Project (Cyprus), Cornell University and Ithaca College
’07 Elaborating Early Neolithic Cyprus, Cornell University and University of Cyprus
’07 Petra Pool and Garden Complex (Jordan), Penn State University
’06 multiple projects in CO, WY, and UT, Metcalf Archaeological Constulants (Eagle, CO) and TRC Mariah (Laramie, WY)
’05 Excavations at Idalion (Cyprus), Lycoming College
’05 multiple projects in Southeastern CT, Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Museum and Research Center Archaeological Crew