Thursday, March 04, 2010

Lies, damned lies, and the official version

At the Harper's site is an article by Sam Smith called The revision thing: A history of the Iraq war, told entirely in lies. with a further subtitle, "All text is verbatim from senior Bush Administration officials and advisers. In places, tenses have been changed for clarity."

I have to wonder how many ancient monuments are the exact equivalent of this, except they were meant to be taken seriously. Yes, I'm looking at you, Ramses II.

Thanks to Randall Winn for the tip.

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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Is the past another country?

Brad DeLong gave me the opportunity today to put a deeply-felt conviction of mine into words.

Brad was quoting from a blog called The League of Ordinary Gentlemen, whose author, Rufus F., was reflecting on the Odyssey.

[Brad]: Rufus F. on the Homecoming of Odysseus:

Homer “The Odyssey” | The League of Ordinary Gentlemen: I find his homecoming strange though. After winning a test of strength, Odysseus and Telemachus slaughter the suitors. The whole scene is excessive; he claims to kill them for their outrageous violence, but it amounts to boorish behavior and a failed plot to kill Telemachus. It would make more sense to run them off: “Scram, wimps!” Instead, Odysseus kills every last man for having dropped in for a visit and deciding to stay for several years...

[Brad:] It's considerably worse than that: consider the servant-women of Odysseus's palace who had consorted with the suitors:

"I will tell you the truth, my son," answered Euryclea. "There are fifty women in the house whom we teach to do things, such as carding wool, and all kinds of household work. Of these, twelve in all have misbehaved, and have been wanting in respect to me, and also to Penelope....

[T]he women came down in a body, weeping and wailing bitterly.... [T]hey took the women out and hemmed them in the narrow space between the wall of the domed room and that of the yard, so that they could not get away: and Telemachus said to the other two, "I shall not let these women die a clean death, for they were insolent to me and my mother, and used to sleep with the suitors."

So saying he made a ship's cable fast to one of the bearing-posts that supported the roof of the domed room, and secured it all around the building, at a good height, lest any of the women's feet should touch the ground; and as thrushes or doves beat against a net that has been set for them in a thicket just as they were getting to their nest, and a terrible fate awaits them, even so did the women have to put their heads in nooses one after the other and die most miserably. Their feet moved convulsively for a while, but not for very long...

Here's what I said in comments (touched up a little):

I am not so sure that the past is another country... Can't you imagine a similar scene taking place in another neighborhood in our own time, with the woman killers giving a similar justification? Remember that even in his own time that Odysseus was a smalltime pirate; today, unless he got particularly ambitious and inconvenienced the big guys,perhaps by hijacking a ship off the Horn of Africa, he would rate no space in the New York Times. Certainly the killing of the insolent women would get no coverage. Neither would the destruction of their elementary school or women's health clinic.

My point was, that the past is not one country, and our time is not a single country either, and the differences between different countries in any one era are very big sometimes' and broad similarities exist between some past countries and some in the present. Not everything that existed in the past exists in some corner of our own world now, but I believe that many things that existed in the time of, say, the Greek dark ages have rough analogues today. The failure to recognize that, I think, leads to one of the big errors of historical understanding: focusing on one country, one short period, one culture, one imperial court, one literary circle, and saying "this was the human experience on planet Earth at such and such a time."

And another serious mistake is to believe that some phenomenon that you find impressive or repulsive is absolutely unique in human history.

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Saturday, January 23, 2010

Farmers on the move, 8000 BCE

This blog is called Muhlberger's Early History for a good reason: I'm often making a connection between things that happened centuries ago and things that our neighbors are doing somewhere in the world today. In the classroom I love talking about remote origins. If I were teaching ancient history now, you'd bet this would be included ( exceerpt from the UK's Daily Mail):

European farming began around 9,000 BC in the Fertile Crescent - a region extending from the eastern coast to the Persian Gulf and which includes modern day Iraq, Syria, and southeast .

The region was the cradle of civilisation and home to the Babylonia, Sumer and Assyrian empires.

The development of farming allowed people to settle down for the first time - and to produce more food than they needed, leading to trade and the freedom to develop new skills such as metal working, building and writing.

Some archaeologists have argued that some of these early farmers travelled around the world - settling new lands and bringing farming skills with them.

But others have insisted that the skills were passed on by word of mouth, and not by mass migration.

The new study suggests the farmers routinely upped sticks and moved west when their villages became too crowded, eventually reaching Britain and .

The waves of migrants brought their new skills with them. Some settled down with local tribes and taught them how to farm, the researchers believe.

'When the expansion happened these men had a reproductive advantage because they were able to grow more food so they were more attractive to women and had more offspring,' said Prof Jobling.

'In total more than 80 per cent of European men have Y chromosomes which descend from incoming farmers.

'It seems odd to think that the majority of men in Ireland have fore fathers from the near East and that British people have forefathers from the near East.'

The findings are published in the science journal PLoS Biology.

Dr Patricia Balaresque, a co-author of the study, said: 'This means that more than 80 per cent of European Y chromosomes descend from incoming farmers.'

In contrast, other studies have shown that DNA passed down from mothers to daughters can be traced by to hunter-gatherers in Europe, she said.

'To us, this suggests a reproductive advantage for farming males over indigenous hunter-gatherer males during the switch from hunting and gathering, to farming - maybe, back then, it was just sexier to be a farmer,' she said.

I don't think anyone had a clue about this 20 years ago when I first taught Ancient Civilizations. What fun!

(And let's hear it for SE Turkey getting proper credit.)

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Monday, December 21, 2009

Carnivalesque #57

A fine collection of recent posts from Ancient and Medieval blogs, collected at Zenobia: Empress of the East. Read!

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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Coming to a screen near you: The Iraqi National Museum

From the New York Times:

Amira Edan, the director of Iraq’s National Museum, says that soon she will no longer have to worry so much that the famous institution remains closed to the public for fear of violence.

People will just be able to Google it. “It’s really wonderful,” she said Tuesday.

Eric Schmidt, the chief executive of Google, had just made a presentation inside the museum, announcing that his company would create a virtual copy of the museum’s collections at its own expense, and make images of four millenniums of archaeological treasures available online, free, by early next year.


The museum, badly looted during the American invasion, has been declared reopened three times: in 2003, by the American occupation authorities, again in 2007 by Iraqi officials and most recently in February by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.

None of those openings, however, involved letting the public back in. A few invited scholars, journalists and the occasional school group have been allowed to visit. Only 8 of the museum’s 26 galleries have been restored; most of the collection’s treasures are in secret storage.

Jared Cohen, the State Department official who organized the visit, disputed a suggestion that the event seemed like a government-sponsored infomercial for Google. “This is a really good example of what we’re calling 21st-century statecraft,” he said. A dozen other companies are involved in the project to digitize the National Museum’s collections, so “it’s not an exclusive club,” he added.

But if you can't wait, try this: The Virtual Museum of Iraq.

Image: One of Iraq's treasures: The royal helmet found at Ur, dating from Sumerian times.

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Sunday, November 15, 2009

They thought Minoan art was cool!

Not an unusual feeling, but this still evokes in me a "well, wow!" reaction:

The remains of a Minoan-style wall painting, recognizable by a blue background, the first of its kind to be found in Israel, was discovered in the course of the recent excavation season at Tel Kabri. This fresco joins others of Aegean style that have been uncovered during earlier seasons at the Canaanite palace in Kabri. "It was, without doubt, a conscious decision made by the city's rulers who wished to associate with Mediterranean culture and not adopt Syrian and Mesopotamian styles of art like other cities in Canaan did. The Canaanites were living in the Levant and wanted to feel European," explains Dr. Assaf Yasur-Landau of the University of Haifa, who directed the excavations.

Thanks to David Meadows at Explorator for the heads-up.

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Sunday, November 01, 2009

Ah, the good old days of divine monarchy and mass murder!

From the New York Times, an article on happier days at Ur:

A new examination of skulls from the royal cemetery at Ur, discovered in Iraq almost a century ago, appears to support a more grisly interpretation than before of human sacrifices associated with elite burials in ancient Mesopotamia, archaeologists say.

Palace attendants, as part of royal mortuary ritual, were not dosed with poison to meet a rather serene death. Instead, a sharp instrument, a pike perhaps, was driven into their heads.

Archaeologists at the University of Pennsylvania reached that conclusion after conducting the first CT scans of two skulls from the 4,500-year-old cemetery. The cemetery, with 16 tombs grand in construction and rich in gold and jewels, was discovered in the 1920s. A sensation in 20th century archaeology, it revealed the splendor at the height of the Mesopotamian civilization.

The recovery of about 2,000 burials attested to the practice of human sacrifice on a large scale. At or even before the demise of a king or queen, members of the court — handmaidens, warriors and others — were put to death. Their bodies were usually arranged neatly, the women in elaborate headdress, the warriors with weapons at their side.

C. Leonard Woolley, the English archaeologist who directed the excavations, a collaboration between Penn and the British Museum, eventually decided that the attendants had been marched down into burial chambers, where they drank poison and lay down to die. That became the conventional story....

The researchers, led by Janet M. Monge, a physical anthropologist at Penn, applied forensic skills to arrive at the probable cause of death in both cases.

There were two round holes in the soldier’s cranium and one in the woman’s, each about an inch in diameter. But the most convincing evidence, Dr. Monge said in an interview, were cracks radiating from the holes. Only if the holes were made in a living person would they have produced such a pattern of fractures along stress lines. The more brittle bones of a person long dead would shatter like glass, she explained.

Dr. Monge surmised that the holes were made by a sharp instrument and that death “by blunt-force trauma was almost immediate.”...

But what did this "process" smell like?

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Monday, October 19, 2009

Le Siècle de Libanios : littérature, culture et société du IVe siècle après J.-C. dans l'Orient méditerranéen

On the off chance one of my readers has both a reading command of French and an interest in the cultural, political, and intellectual life of the late 4th century AD, I include this link. Have fun, o lucky reader.

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

A turning point in terrestrial history, a la George Ade

And then there was the day that those apes, who had never bothered anyone much except other scavengers, came over the hill with their burning torches and their packs of dogs.

The other animals and the brighter plants looked at each other and those who could lit out for the territories as fast as possible.

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Saturday, August 22, 2009

Rowing to democracy... the title of a New York Times book review of John R. Hale's Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy. I've speculated on this myself in this blog, so I'm interested.

An excerpt from the review:
Mr. Hale’s thesis in “Lords of the Sea” is that the construction of the mighty Athenian navy, composed largely of lightweight warships known as triremes, in which 170 oarsmen rowed in three tiers, led directly to Athens’s Golden Age and its advanced form of democracy. For more than a century and a half, from 480 to 322 B.C., Athens’s city-state of some 200,000 people had the strongest navy on earth. “Without the Athenian navy there would be no Parthenon, no tragedies of Sophocles or Euripides, no ‘Republic’ of Plato or ‘Politics’ of Aristotle,” Mr. Hale writes. “Before the Persian Wars, Athens produced no great traditions of philosophy, architecture, drama, political science or historical writing. All these things came in a rush after the Athenians voted to build a fleet and transform themselves into a naval power in the early fifth century B.C.” The hard work of building and maintaining a fleet pulled the society together. The protection the navy afforded Athens allowed it to prosper, to fend off the enemies that would have overrun it and changed its tolerant and inquisitive character. Among those who commanded fleets or squadrons of triremes were the playwright Sophocles and the historian Thucydides.

“Lords of the Sea” is, largely, a book about war. It describes a running series of water and land battles between Athens and its shifting enemies, including Persian and Spartan armies and navies.

Mr. Hale points out that the use of triremes ushered in “a new age of warfare.” For the first time “battles were being fought where the majority of combatants never fought hand to hand with the enemy — indeed, never even saw the enemy.” Triremes won battles by ramming opposing ships, and cunning was even more important as brute force.

The naval success that built Athens also, in the end, helped destroy it.

Another pirate story?

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Memories of Catal Huyuk

Not very much like it, but this does make me think of the Neolithic city. And reminds me of Dave Nichols.

It's actually a neighborhood on the outskirts of Kandahar.

From the Big Picture, In Afghanistan, Part Two. Don't miss Part One.

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Friday, June 26, 2009

A late-antiquity moment in the news

This reminds me of the 4th-century Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus.

Not a very cheerful thought, really.

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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Two book reviews from Phil Paine

The most widely read person I know is Phil Paine. (Some of my colleagues consider me widely read, but next to Phil I am a piker.) Over on his website, Phil has a monthly list of books, articles, and online resources that he has read, with occasional reviews of things he finds particularly noteworthy -- which is not necessarily to say, "good." Today he posted (June, 2009 section) two reviews, one critical and one very appreciative.

(Samuel P. Huntington) The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order

This is a stupid book. Unfortunately, it's also been a very influential one.

Huntington starts out by playing the old "civilizations" game, popular from the late 19th century onward. Nobody any longer takes you seriously if you talk about nationalities in a silly, anthropomorphic way ("The Dutch are cheese-eating, practical people, but they are doomed to failure as nation because they smoke too much marijuana and their feet must hurt from wearing wooden shoes"). But if you shift the discussion to "civilizations", big segments of the globe defined by arbitrary criteria, you can get away with it. You can define these "civilizations" any way you want, but usually they end up being nothing more than a map of the world's major religions. This is not surprising, since these mega-religions are usually accompanied by enough visual cues that you can quickly guess which one you are in by the shapes of buildings, clothing, or other material evidence. There is, of course, some common-sense truth to the observation that places where Islam is predominant have similarities, and places where Christianity is practiced are connected to each other, etc. It is an easy, but intellectually dubious further step to assume that the human race is divided into mega-tribal subdivisions, almost like species, and that these can be neatly drawn on a map. Anthropomorphizing these divisions is merely the old fallacy of "innate national character" writ larger. It appeals to the impulse to see the world in cartoons. This is exactly what Huntington does, way, way too much to make his work credible....

Huntington's knowledge of cultures is pretty shallow, because his main interest is really in the "clash" part of the book's title. The book is really about dividing the world into football teams so that you can imagine strategies of play between them... who should align with whom, and who is the "natural" enemy of whom. That's why the book appeals to so many armchair political pundits. You only need to remember a handful of "civilizations" and their accompanying cliché phrases to "get" everything. No need to bother remembering the names of hundreds of countries, or even consider the motives of individual human beings. Easy peasy.

What Huntington is really about becomes evident toward the end of the book, when he engages in a tirade against the evils of "multiculturalism", a phenomenon which he grotesquely misrepresents. The human race is, in his view, divided into distinct species, and, surprise surprise, nothing but trouble can result if they mingle. He kind of sneaks up on it with hundreds of pages of stuff about regions and religions, but what it's really about is how dirty foreigners should be kept out of America because then it will "no longer be America". Why? Because they don't have "Western values", And what are these "Western values"? Well, among them he repeatedly lists "pluralism and tolerance". So Americans and Europeans should, it seems, exclude people of different ethnicity in order to protect "pluralism"!! He even casually states, as if it were a forgone conclusion, that if the U.S. went to war with China, then Mexican-Americans would automatically refuse to participate, because it would "not be their war". This was so silly that I actually bust out laughing when I read it, startling fellow riders in the subway. The subway car was a typical Canadian one --- utterly and sublimely multicultural --- so the silliness of it was particularly delicious. It's plain that underneath Huntington's wacky logic and feigned scholarship, there is nothing more than another sclerotic old man having an apoplectic fit because he went to the corner store and saw signs in the window in funny-looking alphabets....
(Edward L. Ochsenschlager) Iraq's Marsh Arabs in the Garden of Eden

This is a brilliant book. Ochsenschlager was engaged in an important archaeological project in Iraq, starting in 1968. The site was the Sumerian city of Lagash. Puzzled by some unglamorous, but intriguing artifacts, he started looking for analogies among the local people to interpret them. The local people included Bedouin tribes, the agricultural Beni Hasan, and the famous Mi'dan [Marsh Arabs] who lived in the reed-filled swamps at the conjunction of the Tigris and Euphrates. All these people (in 1968, at any rate) lived material lives thought to very closely resemble that of the ancient inhabitants of the land when it was Edinu, the Biblical Eden (hence the book's title). Thus, the author was drawn into the peculiar discipline of "ethnoarchaeology", in which most archaeologist still feel uncomfortable. Archaeologists are comfortable with places and objects. They aren't anthropologists. When they try to be, even in the laudable quest to understand ancient artifacts, they can easily screw up. Ochlenschlager is unusually sensitive to the pitfalls. ...

Ochlenschlager examined the making, use, and transformations of every article he could find --- weapons, storage containers, cookware, boats, musical instruments, children's toys. This could only be done in a serious way over many years, with extreme sensitivity in dealing with people, earning their trust and overcoming the perils of misdirection and misinterpretation. None of this is easy, and he shows exactly how it can be done right, or badly. Almost anyone who reads historical or archaeological interpretations of material evidence should read this book.

Some of the most delightful parts concern children's toys, and they reveal one of the marvelous subtleties of human behaviour to which most historians are oblivious:

In 1968 children in the villages over the age of 3 or 4 always made their own toys out of mud. Abandoned mud toys could be found everywhere in village courtyards, alongside the canals and marshes, and even in the fields. Unfortunately, domestic toy making disappeared rapidly. Manufactured plastic toys, available in nearby market towns, gradually replaced them. By 1970 a wide variety of cheap plastic toys was available to those of every economic level. Most children were attracted to these plastic toys because of their bright colors and their relative durability. At first children would continue to make toys that were not available in the market out of mud, but that came to an abrupt end in 1972. So popular had the new plastic toys become that most villagers could find no reason to continue using mud toys short of lack of money. Indeed cheapness came to be thought the sole criteria for continuing to make toys out of mud, and this impacted that part of the father's honor which depends on his ability to provide adequately for his family. To make a mud toy under these conditions was to bring dishonor on the family.

Without some knowledge of the role of honor and its requirement that men provide strong financial support to their families in these villages, what reasons would archaeologists give for the sudden and complete disappearance of mud toys? Bold colors and increased durability seem the most reasonable, and in part logical, answers, as the villagers found these attributes attractive at first. But logic alone does not begin to explain why old forms disappeared completely and with such speed; the compelling power of color and durability must not be overestimated. The children themselves were a real problem. When they had only the few animal forms sold in the suk to play with, they sometimes had to be forcibly stopped from making additional toys of mud. They missed the freedom of making any toys they could imagine and playing any game they wished. The kind and number of toys available now limited their games. Attractive colors and durability may have given impetus for the change, but it was the challenge to family honor that made parents forbid their children to make mud toys.

It takes a remarkable person to make such an observation. This book is full of such things.They'll inspire an acute reader to understand not only the culture of the marshes, and the artifacts of the ancient civilization of Lagash, but also many puzzling aspects of human life in general.

Plenty more stuff where that came from!

Image: A Marsh Arab settlement.

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Saturday, April 18, 2009

Carnivalesque 49 -- Ancient/Medieval edition, April 2009

This is my first time editing Carnivalesque, the blog carnival that alternates between early modern (c.1500-1800CE) and ancient & medieval topics (up to c.1500CE). I hope you like my selections, which I've been collecting for a while.

Those of you who missed Carnivalesque 48 may have missed the announcement that medievalist Judith Bennett's History Matters: Feminism and the Challenge of the Patriarchy was to be the subject of a roundtable discussion by a series of feminist historians, with each post touching on some important questions about what it means to be a historian, what it means to be a feminist, and what it means for the two to intersect. The first discussion was hosted by Notorious PhD, and you can follow the now-complete series from there. Don't forget the freestanding comments by Magistra et Mater; the first of six is here. This excellent and substantial blogger has also recently delivered a well-deserved, commonsensical whack to that 18th-century sacred cow, "rational economic thinking."

Speaking of women in history, and neglected ones at that, did you know that Queen Zenobia hath a blog? Yes, the third century rebel against/savior of the Roman Empire in the East? Actually, it is Judith Weingarten who has the blog, Zenobia: Empress of the East, which is about that lady but includes other things as well.

Those of us who study distant but colorful eras (like Zenobia's) find our work all too often completely ignored by a public that would go nuts if they only knew what they were missing. If you write a book called Becoming Charlemagne, as Jeff Sypeck has, you are unfairly doomed to obscurity. Or are you? Go on over to Quid plura? and let Jeff explain to you why his opus should be the next pop-culture TV blockbuster series. After all, there is plenty of precedent; ancient material is very much at home on the Internet, as the alert Jennifer Lynn Jordan at Per Omnia Saecula, among others, have discovered for us.

I am a textual historian myself, but I have a lot of respect for people who deal with the material remains of the past, or reconstruct them. There are some good blogs out there on material culture. Darrell Markiewicz, a longtime blacksmith and historical metalworker talks about his work on a regular basis at Hammered Out Bits. Two of those "bits" caught my eye in the last little while. The first was where Darrell recanted his skepticism about legendary weapons made of meteoric iron. No such of a thing, he thought, until he stumbled across new evidence in the form of a wondrous weapon. I am glad he was honest enough to admit his mistake, otherwise I would never have known! He also put some time into reconstructing one of the first trademarked objects of northern European origin, +ULFBERHT+ swords. Don't miss his discussion of them.

From iron to slate: Jonathan Jarrett over at the excellent A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe reminds us once again that some Visigothic charters were written on stone, even though I don't think Jonathan's ever had the pleasure of handling such document. A good time to bring up hard copy in Iberia; at the other end of the peninsula, the most extensive inscription in the ancient Southwest Script has recently been found, which like all others on this sort was written on slate. Stephen Chrisomalis at Glossographia tells the story and supplies the links.

Will McLean at A Commonplace Book, also working at a bit of a remove from the originals, wants to know what an écranché shield was, what a targe was, and what an ecu was. Will, like me, is interested in late medieval deeds of arms, and for all I know he is building authentic shields as we speak. He is a serious reenactor and has built some amazing stuff in the past. He has worked on texts as well: this time he supplies us with a link to a fine article on German tournament rules of the 15th century.

A tournament/jousting fan? Don't miss the 16th-century Burgkmair Tournament Book at the beautiful and new-to-me booksite, BibliOdyssey. For me, however, it is hard to beat the visual impact of two photos from Kyrgyzstan, where the sports of the medieval nobility survive: Kok-boru (the same game as Afghan Buzkashi) and falconry, if that's what you call it when they use golden eagles instead of hawks and falcons. Both of these come from The Big Picture, the regular news photo blog from, one of the treasures of the Web.

One of the joys and/or torments of being a serious student of the farther past, whether as a pro or as a well read amateur, is the opportunity to try to correct popular and journalistic clichés about our favorite times. I say "try to correct" advisedly, because these things never get corrected -- there is an infinitely deep pool of misinformation, and journalists in particular seem to know exactly where it is. However, the effort of correction sometimes reaches the few people who actually care, and sometimes produces witty results.

I, for example, would never have learned about the new medieval datum about the Robin Hood legend if various intelligent bloggers had not been irritated by superficial reports of it. The superficial reports seem to focus on the idea that not everybody loved Robin Hood. no wonder the papers made such a fuss! He must be the only person in history not universally popular. But the blog Medieval News filled me in on the substance behind the writeups, and had even more. Thanks!

And did you know that the hamster wheel was a medieval invention? Well, the people over at do, and surprisingly enough they are right! At least, Carl Pyrdum at the ever-reliable Got Medieval traces it back indeed to late antiquity and Boethius' underappreciated second work on consolation, The Consolation of Owning a Pet Hamster. Even experts in illumination and sixth-century philosophy may be surprised to hear that some striking pictures from this work still survive!

Alas, not all journalistic historical discoveries and popular misconceptions are created equal. Jonathan Jarrett has a rant, a very substantial and entertaining rant on Celtic fonts and interlace. A perfect example of how a good rant can be cathartic not just for the writer for the reader as well.

Myself, sometime in the last while I was tempted to rant or at least poke fun at, costume advertising featuring the Deluxe Barbarian Queen. But then Eileen Joy came along at In the Middle and showed me that I should not; at least not without some thought. In all seriousness it was a moment of enlightenment.

To tie this up, let me mention that Paul Halsall, that benefactor of all humankind, and especially students and teachers of the past, blogs over at English Eclectic. It's usually personal observation, but it's not seldom, well, heaven on earth or something much like it.

And, oh yes! Nokes is back. Now that he has a fully-functional computer, the Wordhoard is Unlocked once more.

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Thursday, April 02, 2009

News from Kaffiristan

The Big Picture
has a portfolio of pictures from Afghanistan, including a number from Nuristan (formerly Kaffiristan). Lots of poppy fields, Canadian troops, and debris from explosions.

Image: Doesn't this have an uncanny resemblance to Catal Huyuk?

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Friday, March 27, 2009

Another excellent seminar

Unlike this phone picture of him, Richard Wenghofer's presentation in the history seminar series was not at all fuzzy: it was an excellent conclusion to an excellent year's worth of papers.

"The Racialization of Civic Identity in Classical Athens" argued that we can trace the invention of the notion of racial distinctiveness and a feeling of racial superiority, even to other Greeks, among the Athenians as they democratized their polity over the course of a century or so. In the old days when noble families have a lot of clout, and intermarried freely with nobles in other cities, it was commonly accepted that Athenians were descended from a variety of Greek and non-Greek peoples. When the poorer citizens gained legal and political rights, they sought to restrict citizenship to those of purely Athenian descent, and eventually succeeded in doing so. This restrictive definition of citizenship, argued Richard, affected Athenian views of their origins. It came to be accepted Athenians were autochthonous, sprung from the Attic earth. Not only were Athenians distinct from their neighbors, but they were superior as well, and superior in a racial sense because their superiority was inherited from their ancestors. So we have a record of known political choices and definitions adopted for practical reasons leading to an ideological view of all past history, one that is not particularly attractive. Athenians came to regard themselves as the only true Greeks who had taught their neighbors what Greek traits they possessed, and whom they deserved to rule.

After that, go back to Pericles' funeral oration and see if it doesn't seem a lot less attractive! And as I said here after I read Thucydides the last time, that was the only part of the whole book that made the Greeks seem admirable!

I can't wait to see the article version of Richard's argument.

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Friday, March 20, 2009

Richard Wenghofer speaks: Racialization of Civic Identity in Classical Athens -- Wed. March 25, 10:30 AM, F307

From James Murton:

The final History Department Seminar Series of this year will feature Richard Wenghofer of the Classics program, speaking on "The Racialization of Civic Identity in Classical Athens."

Richard's paper will argue, contrary to received wisdom, that racism did exist in ancient Athens, and it emerged in lockstep with, and as an indirect consequence of, the evolution of democratic political structures and their concomitant social and political ideologies.

Wednesday, March 25, 10:30 am, F307

Refreshments will be served.

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Friday, March 06, 2009

Southwest Script

...has nothing to with Arizona or New Mexico. It is a script found on stones in southern Portugal and some neighboring parts of Spain. And I had never heard of it before I was directed to this AP story by Explorator. Here are some of the more interesting things I learned:

For more than two centuries, scientists have tried to decipher Southwest Script, believed to be the peninsula's oldest written tongue and, along with Etruscan from modern-day Italy, one of Europe's first. The stone tablet features 86 characters and provides the longest-running text of the Iron Age language ever found.

About 90 slate tablets bearing the ancient inscriptions have been recovered, most of them incomplete. Almost all were scattered across southern Portugal, though a handful turned up in the neighboring Spanish region of Andalucia.

Some of the letters look like squiggles. Others are like crossed sticks. One resembles the number four and another recalls a bow-tie. They were carefully scored into the slate. The text is always a running script, with unseparated words which usually read from right to left.

The first attempts to interpret this writing date from the 18th century. It aroused the curiosity of a bishop whose diocese encompassed this region where the earth keeps coughing up new fragments.

Almodovar, a rural town of some 3,500 people amid a gentle landscape of meadows punctuated by whitewashed towns, sits at the heart of the Southwest Script region. It created a museum two years ago where 20 of the engraved tablets are on show.

Though the evidence is gradually building as new tablets are found, researchers are handicapped because they are peering deep into a period of history about which they know little, says professor Pierre Swiggers, a Southwest Script specialist at the University of Leuven, Belgium. Scientists have few original documents and hardly any parallel texts from the same time and place in readable languages.

"We hardly know anything about (the people's) daily habits or religious beliefs," he says.

Southwest Script is one of just a handful of ancient languages about which little is known, according to Swiggers. The obscurity has provided fertile ground for competing theories about who wrote these words.

It is generally agreed the texts date from between 2,500 and 2,800 years ago. Most experts have concluded they were authored by a people called Tartessians, a tribe of Mediterranean traders who mined for metal in these parts — one of Europe's largest copper mines is nearby — but disappeared after a few centuries. Some scientists have proposed that the composers were other pre-Roman tribes, such as the Conii or Cynetes, or maybe even Celts who roamed this far south.

Another translation difficulty is that the writing is not standardized. It seems certain that it was adapted from the Phoenician and Greek alphabets because it copied some of their written conventions. However, it also tweaked some of those rules and invented new ones.

Experts have identified characters that represent 15 syllables, seven consonants and five vowels. But eight characters, including a kind of vertical three-pronged fork, have confounded attempts at comprehension.

There is more at the Yahoo news site.

Image: one reconstruction of Southwest script.

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Thursday, March 05, 2009

Turin Kinglist fragments rediscovered

Sometimes when we medievalists are feeling unloved, we can get a little self-righteous with our sources compared to people who study more recent eras which have for instance organized archives.

But imagine finding organizing and reinterpreting really ancient stuff, like the challenge recently covered in a Discovery News article:
Some newly recovered papyrus fragments may finally help solve a century-old puzzle, shedding new light on ancient Egyptian history.

Found stored between two sheets of glass in the basement of the Museo Egizio in Turin, the fragments belong to a 3,000-year-old unique document, known as the Turin Kinglist.


Believed to date from the long reign of Ramesses II, the papyrus contains an ancient list of Egyptian kings.

Scholars from the British Museum were tipped off to the existence of the additional fragments after reviewing a 1959 analysis of the papyrus by a British archaeologist. In his work, the archaeologist, Alan Gardiner, mentions fragments that were not included in the final reconstruction on display at the museum. After an extensive search, museum researchers found the pieces.

The finding could help more accurately piece together what is considered to be a key item for understanding ancient Egyptian history.

"This is one of the most important documents to reconstruct the chronology of Egypt between the 1st and 17th Dynasty," Federico Bottigliengo, Egyptologist at the Turin museum, told Discovery News.

"Unlike other lists of kings, it enumerates all rulers, including the minor ones and those considered usurpers. Moreover, it records the length of reigns in years, and in some cases even in months and days."

Written in an ancient Egyptian cursive writing system called hieratic, the papyrus was purchased in Thebes by the Italian diplomat and explorer Bernardino Drovetti in 1822. Placed in a box along with other papyri, the parchment disintegrated into small fragments by the time it arrived in Italy.

Some 48 pieces of the puzzle were first assembled by French Egyptologist Jean-Francois Champollion (1790-1832). Later, some other hundred fragments were pieced together by German and American archaeologist Gustavus Seyffarth (1796-1885).

One of the most important restorations was made in 1938 by Giulio Farina, the museum's director. But in 1959, Gardiner, the British Egyptologist, proposed another placement of the fragments, including the newly recovered pieces.

Now made of 160 fragments, the Turin Kinglist basically lacks two important parts: the introduction of the list and the ending.

"Some of the finest scholars have worked on the papyrus last century, but disagreement about its reconstruction has remained," Bottigliengo said. "It has been a never-ending puzzle."

"The enumeration of the kings does not continue after the 17th Dynasty. We are confident that the recovered fragments will help reconstruct some of the missing parts as well as add new knowledge to Egyptian history and chronology."

"It is possible that some dates will have to be changed and names of pharaohs will have to be added," Bottigliengo said.

Notice how many lifetimes it takes to make any progress?

Thanks to Explorator for the tip.

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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

A champion historical re-enactment

Duplicating the reported ancient Phoenician circumnavigation of Africa! Complete with months-long delays!

A really good article at

I am truly impressed.

Image: the ship, Phoenicia.

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Jonathan Jarrett supplies a useful term for a phenomenon I have also noticed, and also scorned, protochronism:

I think that perhaps all historians, once they have found their speciality, should then be forced to take a course on the period before it. It’s so often tempting to emphasise a particular phenomenon of one’s field and then say that it started with your subject population, but as with rock music (which all goes back to Chuck Berry, really, except that which he stole from the blues, which is quite a lot, and wherever the bluesmen (and blueswomen) got it from…) there’s always someone out there working on an earlier period going, “but I could point you to twenty of those from my stuff!” or similar. I’m most used to this with high medievalists claiming the discovery of the individual, or autobiography, or sovereignty, which could easily be paralleled from Carolingian or Anglo-Saxon source material if they wanted to ask anyone, but that might challenge their unique selling point…1 But it happens in my period too, and then the answer is usually “the Romans got there first”. And often the Greeks before them. And hey, if we had sources from Mesopotamia, who knows? Obviously at various times people have actually originated stuff, but not half as often as it is alleged.

Hey, Jonathan, we have mountains of sources, literally, from Mesopotamia...but I suspect you know that and simply jest. (Lots of those sources, BTW, concern sovereignty, or something that looks a lot like it.)

One thing I didn't see spelled out in this little essay is that the moment of the origination of whatever key feature is identified with a dividing line between real history (right up to the present) and a prehistory of slope-browed troglodytes who don't really count. The protochronistic moment isn't an isolated innovation, however important, but the origin of MODERNITY! And US! In ALL OUR PRE-DEPRESSION GLORY!

Yeah, I tend to be skeptical of such claims.

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Saturday, January 03, 2009

Alexander (2004)

I saw this movie last night on the Canadian History Channel, and for the life of me I cannot fathom the denunciation that rained down on it when it was new. Sure it skips around A's career, leaves things out, has a family soap opera at the center of it, and shows the title character as a forward-thinking, enlightened ruler, but surely we've all seen that before?

On the plus side, it had fewer battle scenes than we might have been subjected to, decent acting (especially from the Macedonian nobles), and really good landscapes and sets.

And there are perfect moments, as when Alexander and his men enter Babylon (especially the non-salacious harem scene), or when, at the battle of Gaugamela, a crazy-eyed, blood-soaked Alexander screams in frustration at a retreating Darius. Now that was an Alexander I can believe in!

Image: the royal family of Macedon.

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Fifty ancient history blogs

One of the first e-mails I received this year was a notification that I was included on one listing of Top 50 Ancient History Blogs. Checking the list out I was surprised to see how few I'd run across, and how different they were from each other. So I say, have a look.

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Monday, November 17, 2008

What is this?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Gobekli Tepe -- the first great human monument

I am not teaching ancient history this year but I am still very interested. It's hard to imagine anyone with a feeling for any sort of early history not being fascinated by this one.

Archaeologists working in that part of the fertile crescent which is now located in Turkey have found a huge hill which seems to be the remains of late Stone Age temple building on a grand scale at a place now called Gobekli Tepe. The great stone structures date to long before Sumer -- as one archaeologist says, there is more time between Gobekli Tepe (9000 BC) and Sumer than there is between Sumer and us -- and in fact before agriculture was invented. Somehow hunter gatherers mustered the resources to build what was not a town or settlement or fortification but simply an immense complex of stone monuments.

Smithsonian Magazine has a very good article, the best part of which for me is the speculation by the archaeologists that it was the demand for resources to build such a site that made necessary agriculture and domestication of animals. For a very long time historians have been telling students and the general public and each other that it was the invention of agriculture which made possible big projects like Gobekli Tepe; but maybe it's the other way around.

Thanks to Phil Paine and Skye Sepp for drawing my attention to this.

Image: Gobekli Tepe from Smithsonian Magazine. This is just one of a collection of amazing pictures at the Smithsonian site.

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Friday, October 17, 2008

The Dead Sea Scrolls come to Toronto

Next year -- specifically from June 27, 2009 until Jan. 3, 2010 -- the Royal Ontario Museum will have a spectacular exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls. For details see this CBC article.

Image: The Book of Isaiah on display in Jerusalem.

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Archaeological riches of Ephesus (Turkey)

Jonathan Jarrett's blog A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe has a fascinating piece inspired by a seminar talk by Professor Charlotte Roueché on the challenges of archaeology at Ephesus (mainly, a common one: everyone wants to concentrate on their favorite period) and the particular insights that can be gained at this amazing locale:

[T]he extent of stone-carving in these cities, which is huge—Professor Roueché had a picture of a fair-sized wall at Aphrodisias covered in imperial edicts, including Diocletian’s price edict which you may have heard of and which we only have from stone—was apparently dwarfed by the number of more temporary painted inscriptions. Such an amazingly lettered culture is implied by this that it does seem quite alien to Westerners, who too often acquire an idea that writing is the preserve of the Latin Church. At Ephesus, the theatre seats are covered in carved graffiti; as Professor Roueché said you begin to think that everyone was carrying a chisel and hammer in their back pocket in case they passed a blank surface…

Lots more good stuff there!

Also, Jarrett has, for you philosophical scholars and would-be scholars, a meditation
on owning books.

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Sunday, July 13, 2008

Ancient holiday resorts

A while back, Dee Barizo sent me a link to an interesting article on the History of Print, which I mentioned here. If you missed it, have a look.

Now that same industrious guy has alerted me to a site devoted to travel information which includes some special interest pages. Dee thought you good readers would be particularly interested in this collection of ancient holiday resorts. But don't neglect to look at the list of other recent posts on travel related topics. One I liked is entirely modern: 8 More Abandoned And Decayed Hotels From Around The World. Have fun!

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Is this a fake?

The bronze statue above, the Lupa Capitolina, is a famous 5th century BC depiction of the wolf who suckled the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus. (The boys themselves have been long known to be Renaissance restorations.)

Now news comes out of Italy that the wolf, too, may be late (13th century A.D.?), and produced by a method unknown in antiquity.

For more details, see the story from the BBC.

Just goes to show you how our links to the past are always uncertain, or maybe, as Henry Ford said, "the bunk."

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Political hunting:"Fabulous beasts can only be slain by fabulous humans."

At the Kalamazoo Medieval Congress I snatched up at a very reasonable price the single display copy of Thomas T. Alllsen's The Royal Hunt in Eurasian History.

My interest was simple. I had noticed in my recent teaching of ancient history that monarchs of nearly every culture we touched on were routinely depicted as mighty hunters. I got into the habit of telling my students "here is so-and-so as Gilgamesh," referring to one of the earliest examples of such depiction. Similarly, in teaching world history I was fascinated by all the pictures left by North Indian and Central Asian monarchs of their hunting exploits and what looked like huge picnics.

I finally had some time today to look at Allsen's book and I'm glad bought it. It is an elegantly written, wide-ranging exploration of how hunting, a practical and high prestige activity through most of history, has also served as a symbol of royal control over nature, and the strength and accomplishment of monarchs. I look forward to having a chance to read it thoroughly.

The environmental historian joining our department in the fall, Dean Bavington, has worked on fishing as hunting versus fishing as modern managed economic activity. I wonder if he'd like to have this book in our collection when he gets here?

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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Were there commercial brands 5000 years ago?

Phil Paine has argued for a long time that many of the economic activities that we think of as characteristically modern -- especially commercial trade networks -- go back much farther in history and are typical of many cultures. Here is an interesting piece of news from the archaeological front. David Wengrow, an archaeologist at University College London, is now arguing that the well-known Mesopotamian bottle stoppers, which bear stamped-clay symbols, were in some cases used as brand logos. Here's the article from the New Scientist.

Image: One of the bottle stoppers in question, or perhaps a seal that produced bottle stoppers.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Michael Grant, classicist

One of my students asked about the classicist Michael Grant, what I thought of him and his work. Michael Grant was someone who knew the classical sources extremely well. Any book by him would reflect that knowledge. If you wanted to get trendy new interpretations, however, this is not the guy to go to.

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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Resurrection of the Iraqi National Museum

Five years ago, during the invasion, the enormously significant archaeological collection at the Iraqi National Museum was plundered. (I'm sure there is a big story behind that plundering, not that we are likely ever to know it.)

Now, some good news: progress is being made towards restoration. The Globe and Mail has a short video report here.

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Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Don't believe in miraculous visions seen by famous dictators?

Like, say, Constantine?

In addition to the example above, taken from English Russia, see more here.

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Saturday, March 22, 2008

History of Printing

Dee Barizo has alerted me to a commercial British site Cartridge Save, which includes a rather neat section on the The History Of Print: From Phaistos To 3D.

The very first thing in it was a short discussion (with a link to a longer one) of the Phaistos Disc, the sole exemplar of Minoan hieroglyphic script. I know this script, and mention it in lectures, but somehow I'd missed that this was probably produced by some kind of printing process! Must read up on that!

The History of Print has lots of great pictures and a few good videos, including one on the developing process of 3D printing. If you have a hard time visualizing this, you should definitely check it out.

I should mention two processes that I used in my youth, before photocopies got so cheap, that aren't here: dittography and mimeography. If you want a full history of print, these boons to schools and fan publishers should be there. As should East Asian (and particularly Korean) moveable type.

Image: The Phaistos Disc.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

World of Warcraft and 19th-century racial constructs

Rhiannon Don of the Department of English Studies invites you to a talk:

I am pleased to announce that I will be presenting a talk entitled "Crisis in Orkientalism: Navigating the Racial Other in Blizzard's World of Warcraft" tonight at 6:30 in H105 as part of NipissingYOU's Speaker Series. In January of 2008, World of Warcraft's subscriber base reached ten million players worldwide, and it is the most successful Massively Multiplay Online Rolye Playing Game on the market today. I will be discussing how the game's racial constructs reflect 19th century ideas of scientific racism, along with making a case for the value of humanities-based criticism in video game studies.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Dacia, Decebalus, and Sarmizegetusa

Today in Ancient Civilizations class I will be discussing the era of the Officially Good Emperors and will touch on the emperor Trajan's conquest of the kingdom of Dacia (roughly modern Romania over the Danube). About a year ago a good friend of mine was trekking through Dacia and visited the ruins of its pre-Roman capital, Sarmizegetusa. His account and reflections on Dacia are here. The various episodes are in blog-order: You have to start with the entry for May 12 or 13 and work up the page.

Image: The ruins of Sarmizegetusa today.

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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Roman games

Ancient Civilizations students who want to follow up on today's lecture on The Arena might want to look at this book in our collection: Gladiators and caesars : the power of spectacle in ancient Rome edited by Eckart Köhne and Cornelia Ewigleben.

It is well illustrated and has insights born from systematic re-enactment efforts.

Film clips from the Ben Hur chariot race sequences from 1925 and 1959 can be found at Those must certainly count as re-enactments.

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Female gladiators

For students who can't wait for today's lecture on the Roman arena, why not have a look at this article on a possible grave find of a female gladiator discussed by Steven Murray in the Journal of Combative Sport?

Or a short article in Discover Magazine about archaeologist Steven Tuck's research into death in the arena?

Read both articles and come to lecture and you'll have a "Steven hat-trick."

Image: from the JCS article, two female gladiators, Amazon and Achillea.

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Monday, March 03, 2008

Opiate of the masses

Since one of my interests is the history of democracy, this cynical, long-perspectived post by IOZ caught my eye, not least for its striking title, a quotation from the Roman historian Livy: You know how to vanquish, Hannibal, but you do not know how to profit from victory.

Image: The elephants cross the Alps.

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A druid grave?

A friend sent me this very sensible article from Spiegel Online International about what might be the grave of a druid. The archaeological site, in Essex, sounds very interesting, but what might be the best thing about the article is how the author explains why archaeologists have to be careful in using labels like "Druid."

Image: Some of the utensils found in the grave.

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Saturday, February 23, 2008

Peawanuck and the rest of the wide world

By some people's standards I live in a remote location, but face it, I've got a paved road in front of my property and high-speed internet service over my phone line (and it works real good). But I get the feeling of remoteness sometimes: the occasional wolf-howl in the distance, the fact that I can see hills in the distance that are in a roadless part of Quebec, my inclusion, on CBC Radio, in a broadcast area that includes the James Bay coast. Sometimes I hear about conditions Peawanuck near Hudson's Bay.

Phil Paine knows Peawanuck better than I do
and uses it as an example to make a point, much more effectively than I did sometime ago on this blog: we think pre-modern people were immobile when in fact many of them saw the opportunities and even the pleasures of long-distance trade and travel, and were perfectly capable and willing to make long journeys. My examples were kings and generals and warriors. His are "ordinary working people," people who live in the same province as Phil and I. His example is the stronger one, because these people do, and have, covered vast distances to do ordinary things, like buy tobacco. Says Phil:

The people of Peawanuck, the Weenusk, form part of the Nishnawbe-Aski Nation and are governed by the Mushkegowuk Tribal Council. Most people there live by hunting, fishing, and trapping, or by guiding the occasional adventurous tourist to see the polar bears and other wildlife, or to fish in the Winisk river system. It’s a fine little place. It has some social problems, and young people must leave to find work, but culturally, it is strong, and traditional language and customs thrive.

The reason I bring up Peawanuck is that, until the 1950’s, there wasn’t much about life in the village that would have been out of place in Mesolithic Europe. Certainly, in the 19th century, life in Peawanuck would have been almost indistinguishable from a settlement in the far north of Europe in 6000 BC. When I look over the maps and site reconstructions in archaeological reports from, say, the Ertebølle culture of ancient Scandinavia, everything about them looks familiar. Everything is comprehensible. I have no trouble visualizing the lifestyle. That’s why, when I read discussions among archaeologists about prehistoric Europe, sometimes they ring true to me, and sometimes they don’t.

What rings the most false to me are the assumptions that prehistorians make about mobility, travel, and trade. There is no question that there was extensive trade across prehistoric Europe. The distribution of artifacts shows this. But it is still customary for archaeologists to assume that people didn’t travel any significant distance, and that trade was "not really" trade. ... [T]his image of a pre-modern, or a prehistoric person existing in a tiny cocoon of ignorance, unable to move or think outside of a few acres, simply doesn’t accord with what I know about a hunting and gathering lifestyle that still exists, and existed in relatively pristine form, only a short time ago.

We know exactly how much Peawanuck's people traveled, traditionally, and how far. Normal connections of trade, family visits, friendship, and political contacts on a personal level extended from the Winisk river (the “homeland”) as far east as western Quebec, as far west as Norway House in Manitoba, all along the Hudson’s Bay coast as far as the Chippewyan territories in the northwest and the Innuit settlements in the northeast, and as far south as the height-of land in Algoma, and the shores of Lake Superior. This is still the rough area within which people are likely to have some relatives, or other personal connections. This area is larger than France.
There's more detail at Phil's blog under February 20.

Image: A map of Northern Ontario. I live very near the bottom right corner, near but not in the North (as Ontarians reckon it).

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Laughing along with Cornelius Tacitus

The Roman historian Tacitus (wrote circa AD 100) is not usually associated with humor -- and no wonder, since he chronicled the bloody intrigues of the Julio-Claudian emperors. Mordant, or bleak might be better words. However, I was recently reading Michael Grant's lively Penguin translation, and it occurred to me that he sometimes might have been going for laughs, and not just a sour little chuckle.

Read these two passages and see what you think:

Pharasmanes [leading a group of Iberian mountaineers against the Parthians] reminded his troops that they had never submitted to Parthia -- the loftier their aspirations, he said, the greater the honour of victory, and the disgrace and peril of defeat. Contrasting his own formidable warriors with the enemy in their gold-embroidered robes, he cried: "Men on one side -- on the other, loot!"

OK, maybe that's a doubtful case (though whether you laugh or not, it does sound like something out of 300), but consider this:

[An honorary triumph was awarded to Curtius Rufus, a commander in Upper Germany:] He had sunk a mine in the territory of the Mattiaci to find silver. Its products were scanty and short-lived, though the troops suffered and toiled, digging channels and doing underground work which would have been laborious enough in the open. This forced labour covered several provinces. Worn out by it, the men secretly appealed to the emperor, in the name of all the armies, begging him to award honorary triumphs to commanders before giving them their armies.
What do you think now? (NB: no blood was shed in either anecdote.)

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Saturday, January 26, 2008

Amarna finds: religious reform can be hard work

Well, I was just talking a bit ago about "the old con games," wasn't I? So today I saw over at Archaeoastronomy a post on an upcoming BBC TV show on recent work at Amarna, the city/religious center founded by the "monotheist" pharoah, Akhenaten. Here's the key passage:

One of the most shocking findings are the ages at death. There’s a chart you can look at and it’s pretty clear that Amarna was a lethal place. The 2007 report has a chart of its own. This shows that aging a skeleton isn’t always possible, but both charts indicate that a life in Amarna would likely be over at 35. The report by Melissa Zabecki, also from Arkansas, is grim. They had dental caries but probably didn’t complain too much about toothache as they were also likely to have extremely bad backs. Zabecki has found evidence of osteoarthritis and spinal trauma in many of the skeletons. Zabecki’s conclusion is that these people were worked to death. Akhenaten wanted to change Egyptian religion overnight, and that can’t be done without a lot of work. The twisted bones of the workers of Amarna show some of the cost of turning from the old gods.
I've been skeptical for a long while about Akhenaten's reputation as a "worthy heretic" and exemplar of religious progress; I've seen his religious regime as the product of a theological power grab in a heavily-ecclesiasticized society. This is not the first evidence that lots of people died in religious conflicts, either at his hands or those of his opponents.

For more detail on recent work, see the Amarna Project site.

For an aerial view of the ruins, see this BBC presentation.

Tomb #9 at Amarna, photo copyright Ross Day.

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Cornelius Tacitus speaks

One of the old greats, the Roman historian Tacitus ("I, Claudius" is derived from his vision of the early empire) says it all, or at least something significant:

Contradictory rumours have raged around [an imperial death] among contemporaries and later generations alike. Important events are obscure. Some believe all manner of hearsay evidence; others twist truth into fiction; and both sorts of error are magnified by time.

Of course, Tacitus himself has often been seen as the greatest of those who "twist truth into fiction."

The translation is by the prolific Michael Grant.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Alexander: a king or THE King?

See A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe for one whacko theory.

Image is copyright by the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

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Sunday, January 20, 2008

News from Catal Huyuk

I've always been fascinated by the early town site (representing maybe the earliest town) of Catal Huyuk (Çatalhöyük), in southeastern Turkey (Anatolia), and in my Ancient Civilizations course, I talk about its significance at length.

Well, recently the Turkish Daily News has published a good article on the work that has been done at Catal Huyuk since 1993.

I am pleased to see that my lecture material is still not obsolete, despite this interesting work.

Thanks to Explorator for this.

Image: Recent excavations, from TDN.

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Rome (2005 & 2007)

Since Christmas I've had the opportunity to see all of both seasons of the HBO series Rome and I was just as impressed by the entire work as I was by the two episodes I saw back in November. I am not a classicist or a Roman-era archaeologist, so I may have missed some things, but it's the most amazing visual re-creation of a distant time and place I've ever seen. The writing and acting were mostly excellent. There were very few places where I thought the producers and directors were pandering to modern prejudices and preconceptions. All in all, one of the best video presentations of anything I've ever seen. For instance, the episode where Pompey dies was riveting. There was so much in it, and it worked perfectly.

I had my disappointments. In an effort to avoid Cranky Academic Syndrome, I'll mention only one. There were no Greek elements in the presentation of Egypt, Alexandria, or Cleopatra's court. It wouldn't have taken more than a few Greek references to make me happy.

Warning: Rome is full of sex, brutality, and a fair amount of brutal sex. And very few characters, even your favorites, abstain from doing something horrible, generally murder.

Image: Kerry Condon playing Octavia; there are worse things than being a parasitic, drugged-out daughter of the upper class.

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Saturday, December 29, 2007

Christopher Boehm, Hierarchy in the Forest

The subtitle of this book is "The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior," and therein lies its interest to me as sometime historian of democracy. About 15 years ago Phil Paine and I wrote an article in which we argued that democracy was not the intellectual property of just one culture, but that most cultures contained the raw materials out of which democracy could be built. (See "Democracy's Place in World History," Journal of World History, 4 (1993): 23-45.)

Boehm in his book is interested in a similar point, and I certainly would have been happy to have access to his thinking in the early 90s. Are humans basically hierarchical or egalitarian? What does anthropological evidence tell us? How about comparison with other great apes?

Boehm argues that contemporary nomadic hunter-gatherers are universally egalitarian, as are some sedentary hunter-gatherers. But it's not because humans don't have a strong prediliction for hierarchy (which is pretty obviously the case); it's because in small communities hunters, who are all armed, trained killers, don't tolerate potential alpha males lording it over them. The male hunters, and the women too, use gossip, criticism, ostracism and ultimately execution to keep such "upstarts" under control.

Thus humans have evolved in such a way that both strong hierarchies and egalitarianism are real possibilities.

Boehm never mentions Athens, but archaic Greece was always on my mind as I read the book. In particular, ostracism and the career of Alcibiades.

Image: Socrates Tears Alcibiades from the Embrace of Sensual Pleasure, by Regnault. All sorts of smart remarks come to mind, the most presentable being adding "for about 15 minutes" to the title.

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Friday, December 28, 2007

The good news about Egyptian archaeology

I have decided to read Al-Ahram Weekly, the high-quality online Egyptian news site, on a regular basis.

Currently Al-Ahram is summing up the year 2007, and this effort includes a long, detailed roundup of Egyptological news.

There's lots of bad archaeological news in the world, especially in Iraq, but in Egypt at least the news is mostly good.

Image: Hapshepsut's mummy. (More here.)

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