Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Mark Crane speaks at Nipissing University

Mark Crane of the History Department will speak tomorrow (Feb. 1) in one of NU's Research Lunches.
Time: 12 Place: A222A
Subject: "The Printing Press as Agent of Conservatism in the Early Reformation."

Update: Mark asked his audience to "workshop" his current book proposal. He told us what he thought his work was about, and we got to debate its significance and in what ways it might appeal to editors and readers. An energetic discussion resulted, and it was a lot of fun.

A reading list

Phil Paine is a long-time friend and sometime collaborator. We wrote "Democracy's Place in World History"together. (See the Journal of World History.)

He's slowly putting together a web-site for a variety of purposes. The most interesting thing that's up at the moment is his annotated reading list. (Update: The links are problematic, just try philpaine.com, enter the site, and click on "The Life Project" or one of its subheadings.) Phil has one of the most original minds I've experienced and his commentary will be worth a look. He also has a lot to say about music.

Monday, January 30, 2006

A Canadian Institution?

Prince Rupert, shown above, was a cousin of Stuart monarchs of England, Scotland and Ireland, and a heroic cavalry commander for Charles I in the Civil War. After the Restoration of Charles II to the various British thrones, Rupert was a highly favored member of the court. One of the gifts the King gave the Prince was a charter for the Hudson's Bay Company, giving Rupert and his business associates a monopoly on trade to the lands surrounding the great bay, and all land drained by rivers that flowed into it. This country, known as "Rupert's Land" was a vast reservoir of beaver and other furs which, if they could be obtained on favorable terms, were worth a great deal as raw material for fashionable hats.

This week the Canadian news is full of the sale of the HBC to an American company called -- wait for it -- Maple Leaf Heritage Investments Acquisition Corp. There's a lot of talk of losing a bit of Canada's history, etc., etc. It may be that I'm handicapped by not having grown up with HBC stores, but when I hear this talk, I remember that neither Prince Rupert nor the king who gave him the charter ever visited Rupert's land, and neither had any right to set up such a monopoly in the first place.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Bibliography of the month

No promises that this will be a regular feature, but...

I just got an inquiry from Western Australia about what one should read to get a grip on the history and principles of democracy. The request came from somebody who had already visited my World History of Democracy website and was basically asking, what's the very best, among books you've read, to get started?

The person who mailed me had put a finger on one very good book: Robert Dahl's Democracy and its Critics from 1989. Another is John Markoff's Waves of democracy : social movements and political change from 1996, which may be the best history of democracy as a world-wide phenomenon that exists (other nominations welcome).

Which leads me to the "bibliography of the month." Markoff, a sociologist from the University of Pittsburgh, is one really smart man. He's also very productive. An on his university web site, included in his CV, is a pretty extensive bibliography that I recommend to anyone interested in some real perspective on democracy.

The picture? A page in Arabic from a random bibliography on the web concerning Leo Africanus, a Spanish/Moroccan adventurer of the 16th century. More on him here.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Counting things: mathematics and the past

Since my genetic genealogy post a week or so past, I've noticed a number of news items about using mathematical tools to get a handle on complicated phenomena.

For instance, I read recently that epidemiologists trying to predict how a new flu pandemic might work, have been paying attention to two on-line "games" called Where's George? and Where's Willy? In "Where's George?" you feed your address and the serial number of an American $1 bill (which features G. Washington on the front) into a web site, and you can then track it's further travels once it leaves your wallet -- at least if new owners are also feeding in information. Where's Willy is a similar game that uses Canadian $5 bills, which feature Sir Wilfrid Laurier.

Canadian historians -- did anyone ever call Laurier "Willy?"

In any case, if you have information about the travels of more than a single $1 or $5 bill, you have the results of a handy experiment (a South African summary) in how human beings move around and come into physical contact and maybe even give each other the flu.

More on the historical side is an article in the eminent journal Science where an atmospheric scientist has tried to use a commonly used model to show that we may have a higher proportion of the manuscripts from the Middle Ages than we think -- and this may tell us something about the survival of ancient texts and ancient science. Interestingly, a rebuttal by a historian also hinges on numerical estimates, and even more interesting, on arguments about what kind of model might be worth using to answer the question.

My comment: I'm all in favor of the survival of written material, but there's a lot more to science even in ancient and medieval times than whether you can read Aristotle. If Aristotle's on the shelf, will you actually read him? And if you do, will you believe him implicitly? Or will you do some independent work of your own?

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Thirty Years War

In my Early Modern Europe course, we have reached the Thirty Years War, which consumed the energy of the powers of 17th century Europe and devastated Germany, the main battleground (see map above). Our in-class time is devoted to the devastation, and very light on the politics and campaigns. I thought it might be nice to refer you to a website where those of you who want "the history of events" could get a feeling for what we are neglecting in class. The site's by Chris Atkinson. Thanks for your efforts, Chris!

Monday, January 23, 2006

Canadians: Voting today? This guy did.

See this CBC story.

Battlefield Study Tour

For the twelfth year in a row, the distinguished Canadian military historian, Terry Copp, is leading a tour of some the most important battlefields of World War I and World War II. It takes place in early June. Some scholarships to help defray costs are available. See this site for more information.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

The Library at Alexandria

We'll be talking in Monday's Ancient Civilization class about the Hellenistic era -- the post-Alexander world where Greek cities and Greek monarchies dominated the Middle East.

One of the most famous institutions of that era was the library located in Alexandria, the Greek metropolis "by" rather than "in" Egypt. The library was a great scholarly institution attached to another, the well-financed "Museum," or temple to the Muses, the patrons of the arts and sciences in Greek lore. Ellen N. Brundige has a site that discusses the library's history and its legend.

You can see on the web a number of pictorial reconstructions of the library. The picture above, however, is something else: the modern Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the new library in Alexandria, Egypt that seeks to be a modern scholarly center, the world's window on Egypt and Egypt's window on the world. Its site is here.


Saturday, January 21, 2006

The Gordian knot and royal propaganda

In my lost lecture on Alexander the Great last Wednesday, I referred to his cutting of the Gordian Knot. For those who don't know the story, here it is briefly. Alexander in his conquest of Anatolia (now "Turkey") came to the city of Gordium, where there was a famous sight, the cart of the former king, Gordias, which had been tied to a post by a knot with no exposed ends. There was a prophecy current that whoever untied the knot would rule all Asia. Alexander of course gave it a try and had no more luck than anyone else -- until he drew his sword and "cut the Gordian knot." This became a proverb for solving a difficult problem with one bold and unconventional stroke.

In my tiny audience on Wednesday was Prof. Cory Foisy-Holm, who knew he'd heard this story somewhere else, but in a different form. After mulling it over for a while he came up with the reference: there's a Russian painting of 1790, seen above (or here if you don't see it) that shows a young prince cutting the Gordian knot. Here's what Prof. Foisy-Holm said about it:

[The Empress] Catherine [the Great], having a long-standing enmity with her own son Pavel/Paul, was preparing the ground for her grandchildren [who were Pavel's sons], Aleksandr or Konstantin, to succeed her in Pavel's stead. She was a
consummate propagandist, arguably one of Russia's best to that time--and the
painting, in many ways, reflects a point you were discussing in your lecture
regarding the manufacturing of the myth of greatness before anything
'myth-worthy' has been accomplished. In any case, Aleksandr is the child on
the left about to shear the Gordian Knot.
Royal power, which presents itself as superhuman, needs to be based on such stories of prophecy and divine favor, and the good royal myths-- the ones that are satisfying as stories -- are used again and again.

The curious may cruise the web and find Gordian knots, solutions to untie Gordian knots, and even a dress inspired by the knot.


Friday, January 20, 2006

The language Pocahontas spoke -- recreated

The New World, a Hollywood film about English-Native contact in what's now Virginia, is opening this weekend, though not, to my frustration, in North Bay. I am keen to see it -- the writer/director, Terrence Malick, made one of the most memorable movies I've ever seen, Days of Heaven (also the Thin Red Line). Now I've got another reason: according to an article in the Globe and Mail, the New World will feature a carefully re-created version of the Algonquin language of pre-settlement Virginia for the Native dialogue.

Historians often complain that filmmakers are very careless about historical truth, and it's a justified complaint, though pretty much a futile one. Then something like this comes along...

For another astonishing attempt to do things right, I always recommend Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Apply to me in person to have your ear talked off about the virtues of this movie.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Praise-God Barebone and his son

Today in HIST 2155 the Cromwellian-era religious agitator Isaac Praise-God Barebone came up. He was a "Fifth-Monarchy Man" who believed in the 1650s that Cromwell regime was and should be the prelude to Christ's 1000-year reign. When Cromwell dispersed the Rump Parliament and replaced it with a "Nominated Assembly" to reform England, Praise-God was one of the members appointed. With his odd chosen name and his extreme views, he became the symbol, for critics, of what was wrong with the Assembly: people started calling it the "Barebones Parliament." See the following links for an imaginative portrait and a more imaginative biography.

Now I knew that Praise-God had a relative with an even odder name, so I looked it up. Yes: his son was named Hath Christ Not Died for Thee Thou Wouldst Be Damned Barebone. When this kind of ostentatious piety went out of style, he changed his name to Nicholas. As Nicholas, he gained his own fame by founding London's first fire insurance company. A positive view of him as a pioneer is at the International Risk Management Institute's site. The Pepys diary site (another new discovery for me) portrays him as one of those wheeler-dealers that Restoration London was so full of.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

NU Chancellor's Award for Teaching

Nipissing students -- if you think any of your professors are truly exceptional teachers, it's up to you to nominate candidates for the Chancellor's Awards for Teaching. Read all about them here and here.

L'Age d'Or -- a fabulous re-enactors' site

My extensive use of pictures from on-line sources dates from two years ago, the last time I taught Early Modern Europe. I stumbled across a site sponsored by a late-17th century re-enactment group, "L'Age d'Or," which has a tremendous collection of paintings and engravings illustrating the life and costumes of the very, very, very rich and noble in the time of Charles II of England and Louis XIV of France.

We are coming up to that period in Early Modern Europe now. If you are in that class you will see some pics from L'Age d'Or in upcoming lectures, but you might want to have a look yourself.
And of course random visitors may be interested in having a look, too.

To L'Age d'Or, thanks!

Update: That site is now a one-person enterprise called the Salacious Historian. The same high-quality content is still there.

I don't like Wednesdays -- HIST 2055

This is the second Wednesday this term when I've had to drive in to work on treacherous roads. Today I could have avoided it if I'd known Nipissing University had cancelled morning classes!

So HIST 2055 is short-changed by one lecture hour. I have decided that I won't deliver today's scheduled lecture -- the one on Alexander's Conquests -- when we come back on Monday, but proceed to my discussion of the Hellenistic world. Questions on Alexander are welcome.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

I'm told by Charlotte Innerd, of the Nipissing Library staff, that our university supports this worthy resource.

Monday, January 16, 2006


Today's ancient history lecture referred to the slippery identity of Macedonia in ancient times, and modern disputes about who can legitimately claim the name today. Currently there are two rivals, the Greek province of Macedonia and the neighboring Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. For a Greek point of view, see this page. It's left as an exercise for the reader to find the FYROM position. (Find a good site and I will link to it.)

Whose tomb is this?

Today in my Ancient Civilizations class I purveyed some out of date and simply incorrect information about the tomb in Vergina in Macedonia attributed on its discovery in 1977 to Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great.

Incorrect: I said nothing was left of Philip but ashes. Actually, there was a skeleton found in the tomb, and analysis of the skeleton is key to any attempt to identify the occupant.

Out of date: In 2000, around the time I last taught this course, there was an article in the prominent journal Science, in which a new examination of the skeleton led the authors to reject the identification with Philip II and suggest instead that it was Alexander's obscure half-brother, Philip III. For details of the argument, see a summary at Archaeology.org.

A quick look at Archaeology.org doesn't convince me that there really is enough information about the two top candidates to decide the issue. I am reassured to see, though, that it's still accepted that this is a tomb associated with the famous Macedonian dynasty.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Genetic genealogy

Did you know that the media site MSNBC has a whole subsection devoted to Genetic Genealogy? It references stories on the historical aspects of human genetics research.

I'm not quite sure what I think of this stuff. I'm interested, sure, but what does any one individual story tell me? For instance, this story that shows that millions of Ashkenazi Jews seem to be descended from four mothers? Well, there are millions of Ashkenazi and billions of human beings alive today, and not so long ago there were only a few hundred thousand of us, so if you go back far enough, of course humanity or any subset must have shared a very small number of mothers.

I have no doubt that genetic research has some important stories to tell, once its findings are carefully considered, but we might be in danger of generating new forms of British Israelitism, in other words doctrines that seek to explain everything through inheritance from some special group of ancestors.

Sumerian literature alert

I blush to say I had no idea...

Sumerian, the earliest written language we know, is one of the most difficult to read. There may be fewer than a hundred people in the whole world who can make sense of it, and even assembling individual texts from fragments in university collections is a challenge.

However, thanks to a review from the Bryn Mawr Classical Review (a valuable electronic resource) , I now know that much of Sumerian literature is available in English translation at the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, sponsored by the Oriental Institute of Oxford University. Have a look!

If you decide you are really serious, you may want to invest in the paper version, the subject of the BMCR review, The Literature of Ancient Sumer. It's not cheap, but the reviewer insists that the editorial material in the paper version is well worth having.

I'm not in a position to link right to the review, which has only been sent out via e-mail and not yet been posted to the BMCR website, but it sure makes this book sound good.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

15th-century world map from China?

Students in some of my courses will remember, perhaps, a reference to the near-legendary Chinese admiral Zheng He (Cheng Ho), who in the fifteenth century led a huge imperial fleet around the seas east and south of Asia, extending imperial hegemony to countries as far away as Sri Lanka, if not farther. (A graphic comparing one of Zheng He's ships to Columbus' largest vessel can be seen here.) The story can be used, with various shades of nuance, to reflect on the relative position of China and Western Europe in the period just before Europeans started their great oceanic adventures.

One perspective emphasizes the fact that China was in some ways a richer and more politically powerful region of the world than disunited Europe; another is that the Chinese, for one reason or another, lost the opportunity that a lesser Europe seized.

Well, now someone is claiming that an old Chinese map shows that Zheng He's voyages were much more impressive than commonly thought: that his voyages allowed him to describe the world with a great degree of accuracy. The map (above) shows most of the world, including an amazingly accurate depiction of North and South America.

There are a number of problems with taking this story (see for example the Mumbai [Bombay] Mirror account) seriously.

First, it's a map from 1763. It claims to be a copy of another from 1412, the time of Zheng He, but it's a map from 1763 and probably not all that remarkable given the geographical knowledge available at the time.

Second, in my inexpert opinion, it's far too good a map for 1412. Could one man's fleets have visited so many unknown coasts, and done such an accurate job of charting them? It doesn't seem at all likely to me.

Part of my skepticism comes from my memory of the fuss over the Vinland Map, a document "found" in 1965 bound in a medieval manuscript, which map seemed to document geographical knowledge produced by the Viking voyages to North America had been transmitted to the rest of Europe. Some skeptics based their doubts on the fact that the depiction of North America and Greenland is the most accurate part of the map. Greenland in particular is amazingly like what any smart, careful kid could trace out of a modern atlas.

I think that the Vinland Map was a created by a modern forger intent on proving that Viking voyages to the Americas were real, not just legend. Forgers of earlier generations seem to have tried the same thing by fabricating a runestone in Minnesota and other such finds.

The funny thing, of course, is that real archaeology has since established the Viking presence in North America beyond serious doubt.

I rather think that the world map of Zheng He is going to be generally regarded as another unnecessary "proof" that these voyages were a remarkable series of early explorations.

Update: A more detailed article on the map.

Thursday, January 12, 2006


For students in HIST 2155 who are writing on Machiavelli, here's a high-quality on-line source you may not have found: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. A philosopher's take on the man and his work rather than a historian's, but you might find it useful.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Assyria's back

A local announcement -- Canvassing for your vote

I've just heard from Kyle Marsh, Internal VP of the Nipissing University Student Union, that in connection with the federal election, there will be an all-candidates forum hosted by NUSU in the Nipissing University Theatre on Monday, January 16 at 6:30 PM.

The picture, Canvassing for a Vote, is an American classic from 1852 by George Caleb Bingham, who did a series of paintings on electoral themes in the late 1840s and early 1850s. Some of them are here. One characteristic really stands out: no (or at least very few) women. OK, maybe they didn't troop to the polls, but am I expected to believe that women didn't go to see and hear stump speeches?

My guess (and I do mean guess): women's role in government was already so controversial that Bingham just left them out.

What a bum. Great painter, though.

You can get a better view of the painting by clicking on it.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Who is Rebecca Rolfe?

This early 17th-century woman was at one point in her life known as Rebecca Rolfe. She is much better known by another name. Do you know it?

If so, enter it as a comment. No fair if you were in the lecture for HIST 2155 on January 10th!

Monday, January 09, 2006

Famous Trials

In preparing for a lecture on the trial of Socrates, I surfed around to see if anyone had posted something profound on the subject in cyberspace. I found a very interesting site by Douglas O. Linder of the University of Missouri at Kansas City. It's called Famous Trials and it is full of information about dozens of mainly recent (last couple of centuries), mainly American trials. The site begins with Socrates and ends with the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton. In between it's got the trials of Galileo, the mutineers from the Bounty, John Brown and lots more.

Professor Linder says that he will be offering his course on famous trials online in Fall 2006. Right now the web page devoted to the course is just sketched out, to be filled in early this year. I will be very interested in seeing how he organizes the course.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

The Use and Abuse of History

Today's Explorator (which you can subscribe to by sending a message to Explorator-subscribe@yahoogroups.com) refers us to two reviews of Victor Davis Hanson's new book on the Peloponnesian War, A War Like No Other. Hanson is a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, an expert on Greek warfare, and an energetic supporter of the American presence in Iraq. (You can read more about him here.) Like many a historian, he tends to see the present in terms of the period he knows best.

Whether that's a good thing is another matter. The two reviewers found by Explorator,
"Spengler" at Asia Times and
Gary Brecher at the American Conservative (via James Woolcott) have a low opinion of Hanson's latest effort, for different reasons. I think the best point they make is that the differences between Athens and the USA and the Iraq war and the Peloponnesian war are so great that you can't just assume that the two pairs are essentially similar.

I like the fact that Brecher gives due praise to Thucydides, the original historian of the Peloponnesian war. Without him we'd know nothing much about that conflict. If he wasn't so good, none of us (including Hanson) would care about it in the slightest.

Friday, January 06, 2006

The Trial of Socrates

In the lecture for HIST 2055 on Monday the 9th, we'll be talking about the Trial of Socrates. You need hardly do more than look at this 18th century painting by David, a great French Revolutionary agitator, to get an idea of the historical impact of the trial. (Click to get a better view.) In the trial Socrates, a well-known teacher and critic of Athenian democracy, was condemned by his fellow-citizens for atheism and corrupting the youth of the city. What does this trial tell us about Athens in the 5th century?

Below are several posts ("earlier" in usual weblogging practice, but here attachments to this post) illustrating some of the personalities involved.



One of the most influential Greek writers and philosophers, Plato wrote several works showing that the Athenians who condemned Socrates were wrong, wrong, wrong. He also used Socrates in his famous dialogues to propound a number of ideas that may have originated with Socrates or with Plato himself. We can hardly think of Socrates without bumping into Plato.



Xenophon the general, the horseman, the adventurer was like other students of Socrates very much a fan of the Spartan way of life. Like Plato, too, he wrote a defense of his old master.



Critias, bloodthirsty leader of the 40 Tyrants, was one of a number of Socrates' students who opposed democracy -- he just went farther than the rest. Nevertheless, Plato shows him in his dialogues as a generally good guy. The general opinion was pretty negative, and I could find no ancient portraits -- just this game card.



The stamp commemorates the comedic playwrite who wrote a whole play, The Clouds, ridiculing Socrates. Normally, Athenians were happy to let people talk and teach as they liked, but they had to be able to take it as well as dish it out. This stamp celebrates "Greek Democracy," and the public theater of Aristophanes' and Socrates' time was maybe as important as the political assembly as an expression of the freedom enjoyed by Athenian citizens.



Xanthippe was Socrates' wife, whom he married late in life. He seems to have dumped all the responsibility for financing and maintaining the home on her. Looking at Socrates from Xanthippe's point of view would bring into play a whole bunch of issues generally neglected by Greek and later men. (Xenophon told stories portraying her as a shrew; above is a illustration from one of them, as printed in an edition of Plato from 1612.)


Thursday, January 05, 2006

Those flexible cultural divides

Today I picked up my electronic Globe and Mail and found that two Turkish teenagers had died of avian flu. According to the G&M, this made them "the first people outside Asia to die from the worrisome H5N1 strain of the virus."

This struck me as a great example of how flexible or maybe even meaningless are some of the big cultural categories we throw around so casually: Left/Right, East/West, and in this case Asia.

Presumably the fact that these unfortunate teens died "outside Asia" mean that they lived on some other continent. I guess it must be Europe. But when I was learning geography in grade school, only one little part of Turkey, Thrace west of Istanbul and the Bosporus straits. The teens in question, however, are not from Thrace or Istanbul, but from Van, directly north of Syria and Iraq, and very close to Iran as well.

You have to wonder who said that Van was "outside Asia;" was it the Associated Press? Was it the World Health Organization who released the news to AP? What exactly was the standard by which they decided that Van might be in Europe?

My guess is that they were thinking that culturally or politically or in some other way, Turkey, even the Van region, is more like Europe than it is like Indonesia. Well, that's probably true. But that still leaves us wondering exactly what the standard for comparison is: Bulgaria? Belarus? Norway? Ireland?

Now if the EU would finally decide that Turkey could join the club, even at some future date, that would settle the question politically and institutionally, at least for a lot of people. But those negotiations continue to drag on.

For historians, even student historians, this case is worth thinking about. Consider how the casual use of terms like Left and Right and East and West and "modern" for that matter can sink us in imprecision. (Don't get me started on the popular usage of "medieval.")

Exercise for the reader: Is the Republic of Georgia, directly north of Van on the map, part of "Europe" or "Asia?" And what's that big country north of Georgia, and where does it fit?

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Cantonese: Language of "a dying breed?"

Surely not!

The language of South China, especially of Guangzhou (Canton) and Hong Kong, which has been so important for the Chinese diaspora, now obsolete? Replaced by northern Mandarin, even for international commerce?

Well, read this LA Times article for yourself! (For them, it's a local "California" story.)

Cruising the world press

News, rather than "early history"? Hey, I like it all, and I think it's all connected. As an immigrant, I learned most of what I know about Canadian history from faithful reading of the Globe and Mail over the decades. That may appall some of you, but I learned an amazing amount about the Northwest Rebellion when the paper ran a long series about the centenary in 1985.

One of the very best things the Internet brings us is the opportunity to see the outside world's news media, and find out what is bothering people in other countries. Even in Canada, where the big media pay more attention to foreign stories than US media do, we miss a lot. Important countries -- for example, Egypt -- can hardly fight their way onto the front pages. If there is one Egyptian story a week in the Canadian media, that's amazing coverage.

Now, maybe you don't care very much about Egypt, but in the recent past no matter how interested you were, you were just out of luck -- unless you lived in a big city where foreign papers were available (late and at a high price), or had a short-wave radio.

Today I had a look at a long-established English-language outlet from Egypt, Al-Ahram (the Egyptian name for the pyramids). This week's on-line offering is a round-up of the year 2005. (Short version: they didn't like it much.) One story that particularly caught my eye was Bad Cards, about tension between Christians and Muslims in Egypt. The picture above shows what is apparently the result of a riot in Alexandria. Good luck finding any information on such things in the paper, even the Globe and Mail.

If Turkey and what Turks think are more in your line, there are a number of news sources. One I occasionally visit is the Journal of Turkish Weekly which has both Turkish news and an interesting selection of stories about other parts of the world.

If you like this kind of thing, try clicking on the Google News link to the right. The friendly (?) computers at Google use their immense power to bring you the world -- or some small slice of it.
I use news.google.ca rather than news.google.com just so the Canadian news isn't pushed off the page.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

A new resource for a new year

One way to celebrate the New Year is to subscribe to one of my favorite e-mail lists, Explorator, run by the hard-working David Meadows for some years now. Explorator is a Yahoo list and you can subscribe to it by sending a blank e-mail message to Explorator-subscribe@yahoogroups.com.

In return you will be sent a regular guide to recent "ancient history" stories in the news. I put "ancient history" in quotation marks because Mr. Meadows is really interested in just about any story concerning the period before 1700 CE. I don't care -- I'm interested in everything, too.

For a sample of what Explorator offers, see the Classics Central web site at

Here are three of the stories that caught my attention in the most recent newsletter:

First, news from the unnamed "Burnt City" in eastern Iran, via the "Iran Mania" website. Occupied between 3200 and 2100 BCE, it was one of the largest cities of its time, but no records but archaeological evidence survives.
We don't know its name; its designation comes from the fact that it was burnt repeatedly over its period of occupation. Today's find is evidence of another disaster: a number (unspecified) of skeletons of stillborn fetuses in a cemetary, indicating perhaps a period when the mothers of the city were starving.

The story from "Iran Mania" is pretty typical of the material Explorator collects. It's not a scholarly report, it's journalism (and you'll note that the story was filed from London, not by people on the spot in Iran). Nevertheless, I'll bet if you read it you'll know a lot more about the Burnt City than you did before. For one thing, you'll know that there is a Burnt City. I admit that this was news to me.

A second story comes from The Christian Century, which reports that "the long-lost Gospel of Judas will soon be published." There are a number of "non-canonical" scriptures from early Christian times, meaning writings that didn't "make the list" as authoritative parts of the New Testament. In the last century, many of them have been recovered in desert treasure troves. The most important of them is the Nag Hammadi collection found near a village of that name in Upper Egypt, briefly described here.

People are so interested in religious material from the early Christian period that controlling it and making money off it gets in the way of straightforward publication and normal scholarly study. You'll note that this story says that the current copy of the Gospel of Judas has been known to exist since at least 1983!

Finally, a story that has a personal collection. Oxford University Press has published two books by two Oxford scholars, Peter Heather and Bryan Ward-Perkins on their views of the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century CE. OUP has posted an interesting interview with both of them on the official OUP blog.

The personal connection? This is exactly the period I studied for my doctoral dissertation, which became my first book, and the scholar they single out for contradiction, Walter Goffart, was my thesis supervisor.

I have to say that I'm particularly interest in what Ward-Perkins has to say. He's been doing interesting work for years but as far as I know this is his first book pulling it all together.

Rhetorical question: didn't anyone at OUP think that publishing books called The Fall of the Roman Empire and The Fall of Rome in the same quarter of the same year might confuse potential buyers and, say, impact sales?