Saturday, December 16, 2006

Exhibit Shows Egypt's Sunken Treasures -

Exhibit Shows Egypt's Sunken Treasures -
The great port of Alexandria was a bustling trade hub, a transit point for merchandise from throughout the ancient world - until much of it vanished into the Mediterranean Sea.

Treasure hunters have long scoured the Egyptian coast for vestiges of the port, thought to have disappeared about 13 centuries ago. Now an exhibit at Paris' Grand Palais brings together 500 ancient artifacts recovered from the area by underwater archeologists using sophisticated nuclear technology.

"Egypt's Sunken Treasures" features colossuses of pink granite, a 17.6-ton slab inscribed with hieroglyphics, a phalanx of crouching sphinx, pottery, amulets and gold coins and jewelry - all painstakingly fished out of the Mediterranean. Some of the oldest artifacts are estimated to have spent 2,000 years underwater.

The show, which runs through mid-March, spans more than 1,500 years of Egyptian history and traces the decline of the Pharaohs and occupations by Greeks, Romans and Byzantines.

Some of the oldest pieces, such as a sphinx dating from the 13th century B.C., were brought to Egypt's coast from other regions of the country. Later objects clearly show the influence of the Greeks, who controlled much of Egypt starting in the fourth century B.C.

In an exquisite black-granite sculpture, the ancient Egyptian goddess Isis strikes a quintessentially Pharaonic pose, with one leg forward and arms pressed tightly at her sides. But the sensual drape of her gown, with its delicate folds, belies an unmistakably Greek touch.

The Stela of Ptolemy, a mammoth marble slab standing 19.5 feet high, bears inscriptions in both hieroglyphics and Greek.

Sculptures from the Greco-Roman period show the degree to which the European colonizers assimilated Egyptian culture, and vice versa. In a second century B.C. bust, the Egyptian god Serapis looks just like the Greek god Zeus, with a full beard and curly locks. With its wild expression and frizzy hair, a second century A.D. bust of an Egyptian water god is the exact image of a Roman Bacchus.

One of the most impressive objects in the show is the so-called Naos of the Decades, a hieroglyphics-covered prayer niche dating from around 380 B.C.

The roof of the niche was discovered in 1776 and taken to Paris, where it became part of the Louvre Museum's permanent collection. In the 1940s, archaeologists working under Egyptian Prince Omar Toussoun discovered two more bits - the naos' back and the base. But it wasn't until the recent submarine excavations, which uncovered several more fragments, that archaeologists finally managed to put the naos together again.

Sunday, December 10, 2006


By Walter Scheidel (Stanford)

Despotism and differential reproduction

In the Roman literary imagination, one-man rule and despotic power are intimately associated with polygyny and the forcible accumulation of sex partners. A few salient examples will suffice to illustrate this point. Caesar had a reputation as a major womanizer (Suet. Caes. 50-2); Augustus even ?as an elderly man is said to have harboured a passion for deflowering girls, who were collected for him from every quarter, even by his wife - (Suet. Aug. 71; cf. above, section 2.3.1, on the wife of Zimri-Lim of Mari); Tiberius comes across as hopelessly debauched, abducting freeborn girls to corrupt them; Caligula reportedly likewise spoiled married matrons (Suet. Cal. 36); Claudius is credited with insatiable sex drive and many affairs (e.g., Dio 40.2.5-6), and again, his wife - Messalina - procured mistresses for him (Dio 40.18.3); Nero put married women into brothels (Suet. Nero 27); Vespasian, in his role as a more
restrained "good" emperor, kept several mistresses after the death of his principal freedwoman concubine (Suet. Vesp. 21), whereas his son Domitian, designated one of the "bad" emperors, constantly engaged in sexual activities, which he referred to as "bed-wrestling" (Suet. Dom. 22). Commodus, also "bad", "herded together women of unusual beauty, keeping them like purchased prostitutes in a sort of brothel for the violation of their chastity" (HA Comm. 5.8); in this way, he acquired 300 concubines, "gathered for their beauty and chosen from both matrons and harlots" (ibid. 5.4.). Even the "good" emperor Pertinax, having at first dismissed Commodus's entourage, had many of them brought back "to administer to the pleasures of the old man" (HA Pert. 7.8-9). Elagabalus, beyond the pale even by the standards of "bad" rulers, "never had intercourse with the same woman twice except with his wife", and installed a palace brothel (HA Elag. 24.2-3). In a more exotic flourish, he is also made to hitch chariots to women of the greatest
beauty, driving them "usually himself naked" (ibid. 29.2).

Asking "how much was the economic and political inequality in the Roman empire matched by
reproductive inequality, or polygyny" (310), Betzig 1992b: 313-20 makes much of these stories. At first sight, her willingness to accept them as reliable evidence will seem naive to the literary critic. Strictly speaking, her suggestion that the internal consistency of such anecdotes confirms their credibility remains a non sequitur: the reverse interpretation " that sexual conduct of this kind was a topos that could indiscriminately be ascribed to different individuals " seems at least as plausible. Then again, her point that the Roman biographical tradition tallies well with what is more reliably known about other premodern kings and emperors may carry greater force. The one thing we can be sure of is that Roman upper-class authors consistently associated the despotic use - for them, abuse - of monarchical power with promiscuity in general and with transgressive sexual behaviour in particular. Thus, while reasonably "good" rulers (such as Caesar, Augustus or Vespasian) are merely credited with strong sexual appetites
and polygynous affairs, their "bad" counterparts are portrayed as violating social norms by compelling sex from non-consenting free or even married women. From a Darwinian perspective, this explicit link between political inequality in its most extreme form and reproductive potential is in itself of considerable interest, given that it mirrors faithfully a fundamental principle of differential male reproductive success.

The close match between what Romans thought, or found expedient to claim, their rulers did and what we know rulers in more overtly polygynous cultures actually did is similarly striking (see above, sections 2.2-3).

Even so, it remains difficult to resolve the tension between these underlying realities and the
creative power of literary representation. For a literary critic, the actual conduct of Roman emperors may be of secondary importance or even irrelevant, and it is perfectly feasible to dissect the biographical tradition as a patchwork of complementary stereotypes that could be re-arranged in a limited number of constellations in keeping with the biases of the observer. Intertextual relationships also come into play: when the Roman aristocrat Fabius Valens is said to have advanced "with a long and luxurious train of harlots and eunuchs" when he campaigned for Vitellius (Tac. Hist. 3.40-1), we are immediately reminded of such quintessentially "oriental" characters as Dareios III or Surenas, the victor of Carrhae (see above, section 2.3.3). By contrast, the student of reproductive variance must address a more intractable - and less
fashionable - question: does the literary tradition reflect existing mechanisms of creating mating
opportunities for powerful Romans? Are we to believe that the Romans would have created lurid images of the reproductive consequences of despotic power that are both perfectly plausible in Darwinian terms and compatible with comparative evidence if they had lacked any practical experience with these consequences? Without proper contextualisation, this common sense "no smoke without fire" approach will seem simple-minded; when judged against the background of evolutionary theory and comparative data, it may become more respectable. However that may be, Roman elite authors inhabited a world of habitual sexual coercion; they were men for whom the sexual availability of disempowered women - slaves - was a given. In their search for a definition of the "tyrant", it seems to have been attractive to model the relationship between disempowered citizen/subject and ruler/master (dominus) on their own relationship with their slaves. Reducing respectable - i.e., free and/or married women - to the status of
sexually available slaves, the tyrant-emperor overturns the social order by re-staging in the sphere of the free (and upper-class) citizenry patterns of interaction that are unquestioningly accepted between owners and slaves.

Given their immense wealth and the correspondingly large number of women at their disposal -
from female slaves and freedwomen to women who would have been attracted by their status - Roman emperors cannot have found it difficult to mate with as many women as they wished.84 Whether certain emperors chose to display their power by interfering with the reproductive rights of their subordinates - a central theme of the biographical tradition - remains open to debate. In my view, this tradition is instructive for two different reasons. First, it shows that with regard to the correlation between cultural success and the proximate determinants of reproductive variance, the literary imagination operates within a conceptual framework that puts heightened emphasis on critical evolved behavioural mechanisms. In this regard, Roman biography resembles Homeric myth (see above, section 3.3.1). And second, by likening the sexual conduct of emperors to that of slaveowners, this particular strand of the literary tradition helps corroborate our model of chattel slavery as the primary means of translating cultural into
reproductive success in societies which upheld SIM (see above, sections 3.2-3 and 3.5.2).

Studies of 3rd century papyri reveals emperors in crisis changed legitimization
Dutch researcher Janneke de Jong, who was analyzing about two-hundred Greek papyrus texts from a digital database containing 4500 documents including edicts, contracts, petitions, administrative correspondence and censuses, noticed a change, beginning in the third century, in the form of legitimisation the emperors used in their titles denoting their position of power. (In the third century, Greek was the administrative language in the eastern part of the Roman Empire.)

The emperors increasingly emphasized their dynastic position by referring to their sons and future successors in the titles. They also increasingly laid claim to godly support.

De Jong believes that the texts reflect a development in the emperor ideology that was a response to other events in the Roman Empire. The third century was a period of crisis and transformation in the history of the empire. The borders were threatened and there were monetary, socioeconomic and religious tensions. During the second half of the third century, in particular, there was a rapid succession of emperors during civil wars and revolts.

When the emperor Diocletian came to power in 284, he and his successors implemented a range of reforms in the governing system and the army. This included a change in the position of emperor who became more of an absolute monarch claiming to rule by the grace of god.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

New exhibit displays artifacts from Jewish Wars

I noticed a new exhibit has opened in Nashville that includes items from Masada. The exhibit was organized by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Institute of Archeology. It should be interesting although I would be a bit skeptical about its objectivity.

The A new exhibit that organizers are calling the largest collection of Holy Land antiquities to ever hit U.S. soil is now open at the Convention Center in downtown Nashville.
The "From Abraham to Jesus" exhibit features 340 artifacts, multimedia presentations of Bible stories and a re-creation of an ancient bazaar.

The exhibit of artifacts considered holy to both Jews and Christians is designed to show the linkage between the two faiths and to give people unlikely to visit Israel the chance to view them, said Cary Summers, CEO of Way Makers, the company that organized the exhibit.

"The vast majority of Americans will not get the opportunity to go to Israel," Summers said.

"We decided to get the key items to the United States."

Those key items include a child's leather sandal excavated in the 1950s from Masada, the site of a mass suicide by Jews in 70-72 AD to escape Roman conquest.

They also include an ossuary, or bone box, believed to have once held the remains of the son of Simone the Cyrene, the man who carried the cross for Jesus. And there are palm-size remnants of some of the 2,000-year-old Dead Sea Scrolls that have never before been exhibited in the United States, including a fragment containing the Hebrew inscription "Man cannot eat by bread alone, but by the words of God."

The 30,000-square-foot exhibit's artifacts, multimedia presentations and re-creations are intended to walk visitors through a tactile experience of 2,500 years of biblical history.

Visitors to the exhibit are guided, via headset, by an hour- and-a-half audio featuring the voices of a fictional archaeologist explaining the exhibition's significance to his granddaughter. At the end of the exhibit, visitors can put on 3-D glasses for a panoramic film shot in Israel.
At the end of the tour, there is a 5,000-square-foot bazaar, with merchandise for sale from Israel, including ceramics, hand-blown glass, food, paintings by Israeli artists, spices and shofars, or traditional Jewish horns, among other items.

Official site:

Saturday, December 02, 2006

A Corpus of Writing-Tablets from Roman Britain

By Dr. A.K. Bowman FBA, Prof. J.M. Brady FRS FEng., Dr. R.S.O. Tomlin FSA, Prof. J.D. Thomas FBA, Research Assistant - Dr J. Pearce

Lead 'curse tablets' comprise thin rectangular sheets which, when complete and unrolled, generally measure 6 - 12cm long and 4 - 8cm wide, although many survive only as fragments. Though often described as 'lead', metallurgical analysis of tablets from Bath, for example, shows that many are better characterised as pewter, given their high tin content. The sheets, having been cast and / or flattened, were generally trimmed to provide a roughly rectangular surface area. The text was inscribed on the tablet with a point, perhaps a stylus like those used to write on wax tablets, and the tablet was then rolled or folded with the written surface innermost, and the ends folded over. This is the state in which they are usually found. The tablets were sometimes pierced by nails, which occasionally survive in situ, although more frequently only the holes indicate their original presence. This nailing provides one explanation of the name of defixio by which these artefacts are often known (the Latin verb from which it is taken, defigere, has the meaning both to fasten and to curse). Some tablets may have been nailed to a wall or post prior to deposition, perhaps to display their message. However nails often seem to have been hammered through the blank side, making the text invisible if the tablet had been on view (Click here for images of curse tablets).

In Britain the majority of lead tablets seem to have been deposited on temple sites, famously at Bath and at Uley in Gloucestershire. At Bath they were deposited in the hot spring. Instances are also recorded from other 'watery' contexts, graves and settlements. On settlements occasional evidence suggests a preference for wet places; for example individual tablets come from the ditch of a fort and the drain of a bathhouse. As tablets are often found outside formal excavation, it can be difficult to identify the type of site on or context in which they were deposited. This is therefore a question for which we need much more reliable information.

In order to read the texts the tablets must be carefully unfolded. Given their usually brittle condition, this process can only be successfully performed in the laboratory. Distortion and cracking from folding and rolling have frequently affected the appearance of the texts. When freshly cut the strokes of the text would have shone against their background, but subsequent oxidisation has made both tablet surface and incisions the same dull grey. Corrosion has sometimes removed or damaged the surface of the tablets. Light must be cast from several different angles on to the tablet in order to render visible all the separate strokes that make up letters. The results of this examination are produced in drawings, on which the readings and subsequent translations of the tablets are based. It is impossible for a single photograph to reproduce adequately all the parts of all letters.