Introduction to Archeological Subjects and Museums
After you pass the ticket collector at Madrid’s National Archaeological Museum of Spain, the first thing you see is a banner with this simple statement:
Archeology: A Science for Discovering Ourselves
I smiled to myself when I read this sentence back in January 2015, thinking how these few words had hit the nail right on the head! It was exactly how I had always approached archeology and why it has continued to be among my greatest interests in life. Indeed, it has been a great teacher, having had more of an impact on me than any courses I’ve taken (or likely to discover) at any university and its influence has been beyond that of any book I’ve read. It has proven to me, over and over again, that there are other ways of looking at and experiencing a sexuality that us civilized Homo sapiens have enjoyed long before the Ibrihimic religions reduced this fundamental human aspect to a base construct of social control, institutionalizing it within the strict structure of a heterosexual dictatorship.
When I visit (or revisit) museums and archeological sites as a way of educating myself by examining what has survived from past civilizations, my eye is always on the lookout for clues to our queer sexual past. I am well aware that when one civilization takes over from another, a major focus of its new agenda is often the destruction of many significant buildings and past works of art … as well as, most depressingly, the erasure from history of the writings of philosophers, poets, playwrights, historians, scientists whose works reflect the thinking of an earlier time and culture.
An unfortunate but basic reality of all archeological discoveries is that what survives usually does so because it has been buried and lost … or because the masonry is of such a grand scale that those who came after could not easily disassemble the structure. The discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb – untouched – provided a tantalizing glimpse into the scale and beauty of what is often lost to all of us by the uncivilized tendencies of so-called “civilized societies”.
With “in situ” reliefs, the common practice is to obliterate the image, especially if it represents a set of older and different religious/spiritual beliefs* or to destroy the lingering visual memory of a once vital dynasty of now deposed rulers. This disturbing practice continues today mostly in the form of book burnings, aggressive state censorship (which then encourages an insidious self-censorship) along with the destruction of personal writings, such as journals and correspondence.
* I may be among the very few humans alive today who actually saw those huge Bamiyan Buddhas which were blown to smithereens by the Taliban in 2001.
Nowadays, a few countries offer a helpful reconstruction or a map of the area to aid in visualizing what was once a city, a temple or a tomb. Initially, I did not even have in my hand a plan to a particular site as I explored what remained or survived. I simply enjoyed seeing where ancient people chose to build their cities and monuments, noting their important and essential relationships to water, mountains, sun & sky. They usually exhibited a much greater aesthetic sensitivity to these natural features found around them, even if the overriding consideration was their own security and defence against rival groups who wished to conquer them and tear down their history.
Theoretically, museums, whether local and national, should have always worked hand in hand with the actual sites. However, enormous übernational showcases – such as The Louvre, The British Museum and New York City’s Metropolitan Museum Of Art, created during the height of a rapacious colonial period, often built their impressive collections from treasures stolen from other lands. In addition, many traveling Europeans and Americans carted away objects so freely from foreign territories that it was not unusual for, say, pieces of the same temple to end up in several different museums … in several different countries.
The often sad result of all this looting was the disconnect created between the object and its context: the gap in knowledge as to where it was made, the purpose it served and where it once stood. However, if one pays attention to the information at a site or in a museum and then supplements this with additional reading or internet research, it is possible in some cases today to still form a unified mental picture, albeit an incomplete one.
When I began visiting archeological sites in the early 1970s, they were often without guardians, ticket collectors, fenced enclosures, informational brochures or even local museums. Greece was then enjoying a peak in tourism during those post-war decades, before any serious competition developed out of Turkey. While I recall that most Greek sites already had some rules and regulators, there were very few, if any, in Turkey until the mid-to-late 1980s.
Thus I had the special pleasure of exploring that utterly fascinating and hospitable country before it was staked out as an international tourist ‘hot spot’. Indeed, during my first years of wandering around Greek and Roman sites in Turkey, it was not unusual to find ancient coins on the ground or to have the local farmers offer you what they had found while tilling their fields. (Unfortunately, this soon led to the manufacturing of fakes and so the joy of that special form of discovery came to an end).
My interest in archeology also offered me an unexpected sexual bonus in Turkey where there are literally hundreds of sites, more or less integrated into the cities nearby. I discovered that such historic places also served the same function that a city park or woodland area did for gay men all over Europe or North America! It then became quickly apparent to me that other archeological sites – mostly in Muslim countries – such as in Jordan (at Petra), Tunisia and Egypt, also doubled as cruising grounds. As I wrote in another gallery’s introduction, even the Coliseum in Rome became a major gay pick-up venue during the evening. (Indeed, a scene in Bernardo Bertolucci’s brilliant film of sexual confusion “The Conformist” shows male prostitutes prowling its arcades just after the end of WWII).
It was here, in these environments, that the male ‘animal’ was in his element and it made for an always exciting sexual hunt, especially when it was often never completely clear who was the predator and who was the prey. The game always started with people looking into each other’s eyes and smiling. What could be more natural and seductive? Everyone’s yearnings were out on display and these ancient areas offered an even more democratic sexual playground than one would necessarily find in most homo-friendly spaces. In addition, there was always some pillar or enclosure to help provide the necessary privacy if such same sex desires wished to progress to fulfill ment.
These sexual encounters all occurred in places where similar activities had, no doubt, taken place a few thousand years earlier and that knowledge gave my own experiences a very special resonance … and a prideful legacy of continuity. It’s likely that they happened to me – in this modern era – for the same reasons: I was usually alone, approachable and a not unattractive young man. Most of this contact happened in Muslim countries and in Italy. (It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Wilhelm von Gloeden had decided to take up residence in Taormina after a visit to its Greek-Roman Theater.)
And yes, in many cases, a modest ‘cadeau’ from the foreign visitor was requested but, many other times, the issue was never even raised. For this queen, playing the cruising game in such natural outdoor settings took the prize! … especially as I had never felt comfortable in bars or discos: places where boredom rapidly sets in for me.
Specifically, the sites where these unexpected pleasures happened included Bulla Regia, Carthage and Kairouan in Tunisia; Siwa, Aswan and Alexandria in Egypt; The Agor in Izmir and the Roman port at Side in Turkey; Petra in Jordan; the Neapolis Archeological Park in Siracusa, and the aforementioned Coliseum in Rome. Sometimes these adventures even happened on the way to a site, as it did when I first visited Sardis in Turkey. What happened on that trip is a story I have told many times and which can be found on this website under “Road to Sardis”.
As for overt homosexual content on-site, there was very little. Nonetheless, one does occasionally come across graffiti and images of male genitalia, the most famous being the street of giant erect phalli found on the Greek island of Delos! There are special archeological sites of note for the gay traveler such as the “Gay Tomb” at Saqqara near Cairo (read the commentary that accompanies my photos); Hadrian’s Villa just outside of Rome; the Greek island Delos (as mentioned above); and oasis of Siwa in Egypt.
Within the past three decades, a handful of scholars have contributed significantly to our understanding of many of these archeological artifacts as well as to the theorizing about the sexual lives of ancient cultures. The sheer number of references to sex found in poetry, histories, plays, fictional works (primarily Petronius’ “Satyricon”) as well as on vases, in the plastic arts, on wall paintings and graffiti suggest, if anything, both a freedom and an interest in the compositional exploration of sexual subjects. Yet I sense that we still have far to go in these research efforts. A major element in the story – the gay aspect – is missing and is likely to remain so, as there are still very few written references to the gay sexual proclivities within the ancient world.
Considering that the Greeks and Romans wrote about most everything else and that they didn’t suffer from the shame or deeply ingrained negativity towards the body and its sexual possibilities, it’s hard to accept that the references are so few. It is certainly easier to imagine the purging of ancient texts of a sexuality which might have run counter to social prudery.
The majority of Greek and Roman translations (at least into English) were done in the late 19th and early 20th Century. I think it is now generally accepted that most of the ancient literature that does survive today would benefit from newer, fresher translations accomplished by scholars working without the bias of their own cultural or religious-based conditioning. (Some of the reworking of old texts did occur within the same time frame mentioned above, especially for the better known works). However, nowadays there are few people knowledgeable enough to be capable of such a task, not to mention the fact that there is little or no money to be made in doing so.
Museums contain the best preserved artistic works but often seem to go out of their way to make any gay imagery difficult to see or offer little information on the pertinent pieces. One wonders what treasures are being deliberately kept out of sight, sheltered in large storage rooms because of institutionalized homophobia.
The gay aspect of this website project only developed in earnest over the past two years, so I make no claim about thoroughness. Perhaps my travels will take me back to places I’d like to photograph (or reshoot) but, as you will note, I’ve already covered a lot of ground. Hopefully, looking through these galleries will be as educational for the viewer as my visits to these original sites and museums were for me.
Obviously, I have tried to concentrate on any relevant gay objects within these museum galleries, often focusing my camera on an exquisite and lovingly rendered ass or cock. (Yes, the choices are largely from a subjective viewpoint as this website is an accurate reflection of my interests, values and aesthetics.) Many objects found in museums have been photographed to death, so I have chosen objects of lesser importance or those which have often been totally ignored, even by museum catalogs. A few shots emphasizing oft neglected representations also need our attention as they are, nevertheless, an important part of the story.
Certainly all the world’s large museums have many objects and artifacts of interest to those gay people who take a serious interest in ancient history. Among the greatest archeological museums for the gay traveller to visit, I would list the National Museum in Athens and the Naples National Archaeological Museum. Smaller museums such as those associated with Etruscan sites (Paestum, Cerveteri, Tarquinia), the Museum at Olympia in Greece, the Ashmolean at Oxford, the Glyptothek in Munich are also among my own personal favorites.
My many travels have shown me that ancient depictions of gay sexuality can still be found in dozens, if not hundreds of museums. The urge for same sex activity can also still be perceived at some historically significant sites within certain countries and, as I’ve found out, sometimes it can even be enjoyed there in the flesh! As always, such a gay presence is often just under the radar, waiting for someone who is informed and observant to pick up on it. It is my hope that this project will further that knowledge and deepen that appreciation.
May 20, 2015
Introduction to Archeological Subjects
During the past 40 years I have probably visited (and revisited) several hundred archeological sites in Africa, Asia, Europe, and Central and South America. This interest grew out of my attempt to understand the evolution of human society, especially how we have related to our sexual nature. Logically this fit into my effort to understand both my own nature as well as the societies I came in contact with.
When I was a student at Cornell I read Plato’s Symposium. It provided the first intellectual reinforcement for my growing homosexual attractions and emotions. Considering the overwhelming negativity of all the ‘informing’, or rather brainwashing, influences of my own culture, this discovery of another way of looking at homoerotic nature sent a signal to me that past cultures might be full of such differences, not just around sexuality, but in all matters to do with being human. Later, when I became a bookseller, I bought for my own learning and pleasure most Greek and Roman authors published by Harvard’s Loeb Library series. They are the backbone of my intellectual framework, and I go back to them more than any other literature.
A story from the past comes to mind. Once in Turkey – probably my fourth or fifth time there since I still traveled largely by hitchhiking. Perhaps it was the late 70s or very early 80s. I was picked up somewhere outside Antalya by a Canadian couple driving a Volkswagen camper van. Like myself, they were focused on visiting the countless archeological sites along the coast. I had brought with me both an early guidebook to Turkey’s ancient places and a copy of Herodotus.
For nearly two weeks we visited dozens of Greek and Roman sites, quickly developing a pattern where in the evening I would read aloud the section from Herodotus describing the places we would be visiting the following day. It proved to be a wonderful experience for all of us, and no doubt reinforced my love of the ancient world. Years later I would buy two different Volkswagen camper vans, but unfortunately never traveled in one to Mexico and Central America, as I had always dreamed of doing.
An aspect of this obsession with ruins that surfaced once I’d been to several sites was their locations in relation to the natural world around them. Even if there really wasn’t much to see, the place and positioning of the site often casts a spell over you. It’s analogous to my home in Toronto. The old Victorian house on Beaty Avenue was the first house in that western area of the city. It faces the lake, and indeed the waterfront was once the property line of the house. When it was built in 1879 the Victorians situated it at the best angle to the sun, for this was still years before electric lights. Many of the windows have bevelled edges around the perimeter to catch morning light. When these glass edges catch the sun’s rays, they turn them into prisms of spectral light. This, at least, is my theory about the old house. At any rate, for the most part we seem to have lost the sensitivity ancient cultures had to nature, which informed where they built their cities, their temples, and even their graveyards.
For a gay related side comment I must confess that I’ve found cruising to be an added joy of exploring ruins. Egypt, Tunisia, Italy, Greece, Jordan, and Turkey are all places where the unexpected happened. In some ways this seems quite fitting, almost a nod to the past lives of these places. My own initiation into the gay joys of ruins happened on that first trip to Europe back in 1970.
One evening in Rome I stumbled on a major cruising spot – the Colosseum, which wasn’t fenced in the way it is now. Queers of all ages would walk in the shadows of the archways. I remember once, for privacy, the guys I met drove to a place just outside Rome and we resumed activities on the stones of the old Appian road. Years later I recall arriving in Rome from Canada in a state of libidinous excitement. After dropping my backpack at a hotel I rushed over to Capitoline Hill, which in the 80s and 90s was a 24 hour sex park!
Alas, today when I visit Rome I find little spontaneous activity such as what I’ve described. Instead, I stare at the many nude male statues adorning the ancient city and repeat the line of the Ancient Mariner with one small word change.
November 13, 2014