Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Don't Worry Bee Api

These gold plaques embossed with images of winged bee goddesses were found at
Camiros, Rhodes, and have been dated to the 7th century BCE.

One of the unexpected perks of living in Moscow 2002-2004 was visiting the honey fair. My husband John described it very well for his online newspaper The eXile:

Each stand offered samples of their honeys, and after a few tastings I could see there really is a range of taste and texture in the stuff. It ranged from sandstone beige to molasses black, with textures from wet sand to motor oil. And the aftertastes were downright weird. A lot of them were dung-based, but not unpleasantly so. Others were synthetic, cologne-like, or close to menthol. I could see being a honey critic more easily than a wine critic. I wouldn't feel as fake. More range.
The stalls were grouped by region. Altai honey was drawing big crowds, as was Kislovodsk and other Caucasian towns. There was also "mountain honey," "forest honey," and, for the fence-sitters, "mountain forest honey." I ended up buying a kilo of Tambov buckwheat honey, which was four times as much as I meant to buy, but I figured it was my mumbling or improperly-declined numbers that caused the mix up.

It is interesting to speculate on the range of tastes in fifth-century BC Greece. There are some clues in written sources. In passage 22 from his History of Animals, for example, Aristotle writes that, "the taste of thyme-honey is discernible at once, from its peculiar sweetness and consistency". He also mentions a variety of local differences:

In Pontus are found bees exceedingly white in colour, and
these bees produce their honey twice a month. (The bees in Themiscyra,
on the banks of the river Thermodon, build honeycombs in the ground
and in hives, and these honeycombs are furnished with very little wax
but with honey of great consistency; and the honeycomb, by the way,
is smooth and level.) But this is not always the case with these bees,
but only in the winter season; for in Pontus the ivy is abundant,
and it flowers at this time of the year, and it is from the ivy-flower
that they derive their honey. A white and very consistent honey is
brought down from the upper country to Amisus, which is deposited by
bees on trees without the employment of honeycombs: and this kind of
honey is produced in other districts in Pontus.

The Greeks probably learned beekeeping from the Minoans, who took their bees very seriously. In Minoan Crete the bee was an emblem of Potnia, the Minoan-Mycenaean "Mistress", also referred to as "The Pure Mother Bee". Her priestesses received the name of "Melissa" ("bee")*. Later on, in Classical Greece, priestesses worshipping Artemis and Demeter were called "Bees". The Delphic priestess is also often referred to as a bee, and Pindar notes that she remained "the Delphic bee" long after Apollo had usurped the ancient oracle and shrine. [Pindar's Fourth Pythian Ode, 60].
The fermented honey-drink, mead, was an old Cretan intoxicant, older than wine; Zeus made Kronos intoxicated with honey, "for wine was not", Nonnus wrote in Dionysiaca XIII.258 [source]. Intoxicants were often used in religious rituals as a means of acheiving an altered state which might be interpreted as the possession by a deity.
Honey therefore conveyed prescience: the "Delphic Bee", and in 1 Samuel 14 "Jonathan...put forth the end of the rod that was in his hand, and dipped it in a honey comb, and put his hand to his mouth; and his eyes were enlightened." So in
the Homeric Hymn % where Apollo tells Hermes the story of how he gained the gift of prophecy, it is no surprise to find bees, here three bee maidens who are usually identified with the Thriae, a trinity of pre-Hellenic Aegean bee goddesses.:

`But I will tell you another thing, Son of all-
glorious Maia and Zeus who holds the aegis, luck-bringing genius
of the gods. There are certain holy ones, sisters born -- three
virgins gifted with wings: their heads are besprinkled with
white meal, and they dwell under a ridge of Parnassus. These are
teachers of divination apart from me, the art which I practised
while yet a boy following herds, though my father paid no heed to
it. From their home they fly now here, now there, feeding on
honey-comb and bringing all things to pass. And when they are
inspired through eating yellow honey, they are willing to speak
truth; but if they be deprived of the gods' sweet food, then they
speak falsely, as they swarm in and out together. These, then, I
give you; enquire of them strictly and delight your heart: and if
you should teach any mortal so to do, often will he hear your
response -- if he have good fortune. Take these, Son of Maia,
and tend the wild roving, horned oxen and horses and patient mules.'

Honey's vatic uses may be why ancient Greeks associated lips anointed with honey with the gift of eloquence: Achilles and Pythagoras, it was said, had been fed on honey as infants, and the lips of Plato, Pindar, and Ambrose of Milan were anointed with it. The name "Merope" seems to mean "honey-faced" [or honey mouthed?] in Greek -- "eloquent" in Classical times.
Whether because of its divine properties or its delicious sweetness, honey was a highly desirable item in Ancient Greece. Beekeeping was so popular that Solon passed this law in 594/593 BC, 'He who sets up hives of bees must put them 300 feet [100 m] away from those already installed by another" (Plutarch, Life of Solon, 23). What's more, Plato groused about 'mountains in Attica which can now support nothing but bees, but which were clothed, not so very long ago, with fine trees...' (Critias 111b-d).#

Incidentally, we aren't the only ones to like honey:
a 'honey pounding' chimp

* Melissa is also the name of one of my new sisters-in-law. Unaware of her name's provenance, she attended a fancy-dress party dressed as a bee. No one finds this funny but me.
% Homeric Hymn (ll. 550-568)
# The World History of Hive Beekeeping in Ancient Greece, Eva Crane p.196

Friday, June 12, 2009

Ancient mass grave found on Olympics site

by Stefano Ambrogi

An ancient burial pit containing 45 severed skulls, that could be a mass war grave dating back to Roman times, has been found under a road being built for the 2012 British Olympics.[....]
The grave site is close to Maiden Castle -- Europe's largest Iron Age hill fort where local tribes are said to have staged a last stand against the Roman legions after the invasion.
Some historians believe the Romans sacked the site, butchering its population including women and children, before burning it to the ground.
[dig head, David Score, of Oxford Archaeology] said they had counted 45 skulls so far in the 6-meter wide pit, together with a tangle of torsos, arms and legs, More could be found in the coming weeks.
Most of the skulls were those of young men, supporting the theory they could have been killed in battle or executed en masse.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Lost Library

A statue taken from Villa di Papyri

The Villa di Papyri [1].

In 1752 an Austrian general called Prince D'Elboeuf purchased land near Naples where, in the process of digging a well in an apricot orchard, workers had found some exceptional ancient artefacts . Further investigation revealed a luxurious villa and lots of lootable treasures. Among these were 2,000 priceless papyri that looked more like charcoal parsnips. Luckily, someone noticed writing on one of them and they were duly saved from the excavation scrapheap [2].

Further digging revealed a grand house, since named Villa di Papyri, the ruins of which comprise a fraction of a town called Herculaneum, a seaside settlement between the foot of Vesuvius and The Bay of Naples. Like Pompeii, Herculaneum was buried when Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79.

The Villa di Papyri is thought to have belonged to Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso, who was known to be a lover of poetry. For one thing, the writings were mainly works by the Epicurean Greek philosopher Philodemus, who was part of Piso’s entourage [3].

In March 1969, thanks largely to the efforts of a scholar named Marcello Gigante, the International Centre for the Study of the Herculaneum Papyri was founded. In 1979 the centre published a catalogue including relevant data and a bibliography. The most recent supplement to this, a Multimedia Catalogue, Χάρτης (Chartes), was published in 2005. Χάρτης comprised all the data of the preceding issues and offered much potential for research. Notably, each papyrus is accompanied by a digital image which gives an idea of its script and of the condition of the roll.[4]

Being charred and disfigured from a combination of rain damage, carbonization and immersion in hot mud, the papyri have been pretty much unreadable until the last few decades. Scientists who have worked on the project describe it like trying to unroll
burnt 2-ply tissue. In the last decade, however, technology such as multi-spectral imaging and an X-ray CT scanning system has helped researchers read the texts with minimum stress to the papyri.[5]

Many classicists are eager to keep on digging in order to find more papyrii, a lost library that could transform our picture of the ancient world. Contrarily and controversially, the Superintendant of both sites Pietro Giovanni Guzzo has declared a moratorium on all further excavations of both sites, arguing that conservation is the key issue at the moment.[6]

An independently funded society, the Herculaneum Conservation Project, was conceived in the summer of 2000. Its website states how it is trying to address conservation issues:

The most important challenges HCP now faces, that of establishing basic infrastructure for the ancient city (drains, protective shelters, site access for works, etc.) and evolving successful models of continuous care to guarantee the site’s long-term survival. They must be sustainable strategies for the
public arm of the project to take forward after the private partner has gone since it was, after all, the failure of such routine maintenance programmes that led to the state of neglect that the site found itself in the 1990s. [7]

The last part of this quote is probably a veiled allusion to the fact that Naples and its surrounding regions are (or were) under the thumb of the Napolese mafia, the Deadly Cammoro. As recently as 2007, buying land to continue excavating was near-impossible because it is a stronghold of the Cammoro.

According to Roberto Saviano, author of the book Gommora (now a film), the mafia is virtually indistinguishable from local government in this part of Italy:

Saviano says the problem for authorities is that the Camorra's criminal enterprises are so closely enmeshed with legitimate businesses they are practically unassailable.
The Italian state and the European community are faced with a dilemma, the organized crime in Italy generates huge sums of money. The three major mafias have a turnover of 100 billion euros a year.
The small-business federation says organized crime is the biggest business in Italy — it accounts for 7 percent of GNP. This means that in an area where no one invests, organized crime is a major provider of jobs and controls votes.
Saviano says this means that one-third of Italy is in the grips of organized crime and condemned to a permanent state of underdevelopment. [8]

An appropriate illustration of the Comorra's toxic grip on Campania was the recent rubbish crisis [9]. Mountains of garbage piled up on Napolese streets as a result of the Cammora controlling the waste industry. The syndicate made money by offering waste disposal under the table at low prices. They could afford to do this by employing children to drive toxic waste and skipping basic health and safety measures. For example, they mixed industrial waste with household garbage and held illegal burn-offs that collectively lead to massive air and soil pollution.[10]

In 2008 Berlusconi sent national guard into the area to clean up the garbage [11]. In May 2009, the police have arrested 64 mafia suspects in a publicized attempt to break the Cammora's stranglehold on the country [12].I hope it will happen if only for the sake of Herculaneum.

[1] I learned of the Villa di Papyri reading the dazzling oneiric post-modernist novel EMO, by Jack Ross (pg 89).
[2] Herculaneum info
[3] Times Article
[4]An interesting account of the history of The International Centre for the Study of the Herculaneum Papyri (CISPE)
[5] Scroll technology
[6] Conservation
[8] NPR article
[9] news item
[10] Comorra
[11] Summary
[12] Arrests

Image is public domain from here