Hong Kong skyline

Despite the many years I spent in Tokyo, a brief trip to Hong Kong in 1989 blew my mind. From the heart-pounding flight across the harbor into Kai Tak Airport to the fanciest brunch ever at the Mandarin Oriental, the trip was full of amazing experiences.

This time-lapse video captures some of the magic of this wonderful city.

Newgrange – sunlight in Neolithic darkness

Despite two business trips to Ireland in the past three years, I hadn’t ever left Dublin when I headed there again this past June for a third time. I swore I wouldn’t make that mistake again, so booked transportation in advance to get out of the city and see a bit of Ireland’s deeper past. My goal was the Brú na Bóinne complex of megalithic monuments in County Meath, about 45 minutes north of Dublin. The centerpiece of this complex is Newgrange, a passage tomb dating from 3,200 BCE — 500 years older than the Great Pyramid of Giza.

Like pilgrims more than 5,000 years ago, my first view of Newgrange came between the trees, atop its hill across the River Boyne. Of course, I was standing in the quite modern Brú na Bóinne Visitors Centre, but the effect was still awe-inspiring.

Newgrange across the Boyne

I waited for my assigned time slot (tours of Newgrange are only available through the Visitors Centre) and walked across the river to the shuttle bus stop, pausing on the bridge to look downriver, the Boyne meandering toward the Irish Sea. It began to rain.

Boyne

The edifice dominates the hill Newgrange stands on, overlooking the Boyne valley with dozens of smaller unexcavated tombs dotting farmers’ fields below. (The reconstructed exterior is somewhat controversial — did Neolithic builders have the technology to create that white vertical wall? — though what’s visible today uses all original materials.) The front of the mound is faced by a circle of standing stones that cast shadows on the entrance at key times of the year.

Newgrange and standing stones

One of the most impressive — and photographed — external features of Newgrange is the entrance stone, carved with abstract designs such as swirls and lozenges. In the Neolithic, the stone forced ancient visitors to climb over to cross the threshold into the sacred space within. Modern visitors are afforded wooden stairs (replete with metal handrails for “health and safety”).

Entrance stone at Newgrange

Photography isn’t allowed inside. This sketch from 1903 gives a sense of the passage’s general dimensions, with the main chamber at the end.

Newgrange cross-section

As I stepped inside, the passage floor twisted upward toward the chamber. After squeezing past stones crushed out of alignment in their walls by the pressure from 5,000 years of the mound’s weight above, I stood in the chamber. Looking up, lines of corbelled stones stepped steeply upward toward the the vaulted ceiling in the darkness.

Each Winter Solstice, the rising sun shines through an opening above the entrance and illuminates the chamber. A rainy mid-afternoon in mid-June doesn’t have quite the same light, but thanks to a little modern technology (and just a hint of blarney from our guide), I stood in the interior of a 5,000-year-old passage tomb and saw light creep across the floor and touch the rear of the chamber as it did so long ago.

It was easy to imagine how celebrants must have felt in 3,200 BCE — that connection between something we humans have made and the nature with which we’re all still a part. But there’s also a deep sense of disconnection with that past, emphasized by one little piece of information I learned as the guide talked there in the dark with a halogen light shining up the tunnel.

The sun doesn’t shine exactly on the back of the chamber. It would be easy to dismiss this little fact as a lack of precision on the part of the Neolithic engineers or astronomers who designed Newgrange. In reality, the earth itself has shifted enough on its axis over the past 5,200 years that the passage and chamber are no longer aligned with the sun. The structure is so ancient that changes in the order of the universe itself have misaligned Newgrange from the Winter Solstice sun.

We have no idea what the carvings in and around Newgrange mean. We have no idea if it was even built as a tomb, or (quite probably) some type of solar observatory connected to religious faith. Despite all we’ve learned of their material culture and environment, the builders of Newgrange remain effectively a mystery. Nothing emphasizes this more than the failure of light from our sun to illuminate the modern darkness inside Newgrange the way it did in the Neolithic.

Axial precession will bring Newgrange back into alignment with the Winter Solstice in another 21,000 years. Will Newgrange still be standing? Will we still be around to find out?

In the footsteps of James Joyce and Leopold Bloom

Bloomsday week in DublinMy favorites of Dublin’s many layers are those that bring to life its rich literary history. Today is Bloomsday, when the strata laid down by James Joyce come to light all across the city (in the photo on the right, banners for Bloomsday on O’Connell Street).

A full day at work followed by dinner with business partners from New Zealand precluded any participation in Bloomsday — a genuine disappointment, so perhaps I can embrace Philip Larkin’s source of inspiration.

Nevertheless, I’ve found myself following Joyce and Bloom all week long, and indeed earlier during my two previous visits in August 2008 and February this year.

My flight arrived early enough that my hotel room wasn’t ready, so I headed north on Grafton Street (“gay with housed awnings”), across the O’Connell Bridge, briefly into the General Post Office, then onto the James Joyce Centre. The museum preserves the front door of Number 7 Eccles Street, where Joyce’s friend J.F. Byrne lived in 1904 and which Joyce used as the home of Leopold and Molly Bloom in the novel.

Leopold Bloom's front door

Jetlag began to catch up with me as I finished the exhibits, so I took the offer of a free lecture at the Joyce Centre to hear a great deal about Phoenix Park that I’d never have learned otherwise. It’s now on my list of places to visit next time I’m in Dublin.

South on O’Connell Street, past Trinity College and the old Irish Houses of Parliament (already the Bank of Ireland in 1904), and back toward the hotel on aching feet…

The next afternoon, I headed north on Grafton Street again, but turned right onto Duke Street, where Davy Byrnes Pub exists in all its nonfictional glory.

Davy Byrnes - "Moral pub."

He entered Davy Byrne’s. Moral pub. He doesn’t chat. Stands a drink now and then. But in leapyear once in four. Cashed a cheque for me once.

There were far more mouthwatering options on the contemporary menu, but I set aside my disdain for tourist behavior and ordered the gorgonzola sandwich.

Leopold Bloom's gorgonzola sandwich

Mr Bloom ate his strips of sandwich, fresh clean bread, with relish of disgust, pungent mustard, the feety savour of green cheese.

As much as I missed doing something symbolically Joycean on Bloomsday itself, I realized that Ulysses is everywhere, all the time in modern Dublin, and the real Dublin suffuses Ulysses on every page. An evening in a Dublin restaurant with Antipodean colleagues may have been no less “Joycean” than turning the rusty knob of Leopold Bloom’s front door or eating bread topped with overwhelmingly green cheese.

You can see a more complete photo tour of Joyce and Bloom’s Dublin by Tony Thwaites of the University of Queensland, to whom I’m indebted for some of my own after-the-fact details and choice Ulysses quotes.

To Dublin, for Bloomsday!

Work takes me to Dublin again in two weeks. As it so happens, I’ll be there for Bloomsday, when the city celebrates Ulysses, James Joyce, and Irish literature in general.

James Joyce statue - Dublin

I’m not sure how much time I’ll be able to spend outside work, but Bloomsday is a weeklong event (centered on June 16th, of course), so I’m looking forward to fitting in as much Joycean goodness as I can.

Lost tools of the paleolithic

The summer of ’94, I spent my days excavating a 5×5 meter square of Tall al-‘Umayri near Amman, Jordan. As with so much of Near Eastern archaeology, the dig was mostly funded and staffed by Christian colleges in America, with a goal to reach the layers most likely to contain artifacts of interest to believers. I can’t fault the completeness or rigor of the science applied to the process along the way, but it always seemed like there was so much more to learn than the Late Iron II strata could offer — from the late Roman mikveh near the surface to the neolithic burials excavated without fanfare on the fringes of the project.

I was drawn inexorably to that deeper past, far beyond the 6,000-year timeline to which so many believers back home limited their thinking. There in the field, even theology professors set aside their biblical literalism to work and talk within the context of the facts evident all around us.

Neolithic blade - 'Ain Ghazal
Neolithic blade from ‘Ain Ghazal, a “mere” 8,500-9,250 years old

Drawn by stories of undiscovered sites nearby, I walked in the cool evenings through the fallow fields surrounding the school for Palestinian girls where the project was headquartered. I found myself stepping across the surface of a world much, much older than Moses, Abraham, Noah, or Adam and Eve. Chipped stones lay scattered across furrows of barley stubble ploughed under at the end of the last season, and I filled my pockets with chunks of tan stone streaked with oranges and browns.

I’d corner one of the archaeologists and seek an impromptu lithic analysis. Laid out on a table or the side of an unmade bunk bed, I’d wait with baited breath for each pronouncement of “paleolithic scraper” or “mesolithic spearpoint,” disappointed with the overwhelmingly common “Sorry, that’s most likely just a rock.”

Surface archaeology — walking surveys of the landscape — tells us what lies beneath, where to dig someday when there’s time and money, but often little more. Recovered from the churned soil of a modern field in a part of the world where human history goes back far older than 50,000 years ago, it’s shocking to learn that there’s little value in these little hunks of rock — an easy approval for me to take them home by the nice man from the Department of Antiquities.

And so, these tools knapped from chert by people thirty, forty, fifty thousand years ago became some of my most treasured possessions. I could hold in my hand something made when ice sheets still covered much of Europe and humans still hadn’t entered the Americas — a time even before artists put aurochs, woolly mammoth, and herds of prancing horses on the walls of Lascaux and Chauvet. I felt a real connection with the men and women who lived all those years ago, a deeper connection than with any character from an ancient storybook.

In a cross-country move between Boston and Seattle, carefully packed to ensure no new chips flaked away, I lost track of my priceless artifacts. In a sense, it’s funny: Excavated by the larger blades of modern, mechanical ploughs, they emerged into the sunlight after tens of thousands of years only to be reburied in a box of miscellaneous office junk (a fate shared by many artifacts in museum vaults).

So I search for them all over again. Every so often, I’ll take down a box left packed for more than a decade and remove a few layers — books of 33-cent stamps, half-used note pads, and stacks of bills paid long ago. Someday, I’ll find them buried at the bottom of a box, pull them out, feel the smooth stone and hear them clink against each other. Someday, I’ll excavate these lost tools once again.