Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Lod Mosaic

A beautiful mosaic first uncovered in the Israeli town of Lod is to be exposed for the second time after it was first discovered in 1996. It is 1,700 years old, about 180m square and depicts an array of wild animals and merchant ships. Read more about it here.

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

Friday, May 29, 2009

A Day at the Races

PHIDIPPIDES (in his sleep): That's not fair, Philo! Drive your chariot straight, I say.
STREPSIADES: This is what is destroying me. He raves about horses, even in his sleep.
PHIDIPPIDES (asleep): How many times round the track is the race for the chariots of war?
STREPSIADES: It's your own father you are driving to death....to ruin. Come! what debt comes next, after that of Pasias?....Three minae to Amynias for a chariot and its two wheels.
PHIDIPPIDES (asleep): Give the horse a good roll in the dust and lead him home.
STREPSIADES: Ah! wretched boy! it's my money that you are making roll. My creditors have distrained on my goods, and here are others again, who demand security for their interest.

The Clouds, by Comic Genius Aristophanes [1].

Chariot racing was one of the most important events in the Games (see post below). It was sort of like NASCAR -- an expensive, extremely dangerous spectacle very popular with the public.

Horses are an expensive business and that was especially true back in the day. First you needed to actually purchase the beast from its native home of Thessaly or Argolis. Then you'd need land (and stables?) to keep them, handlers to train and exercise them, slaves to tend to their impossible feet, gear for leading, riding and grooming them...and that's without all the other add-ons such as cheek pieces for battle and pimped-out chariots for cruising.

Owning a horse and being part of the cavalry, therefore, was a sign that you belonged to the elite. What's new? The equestrii were Rome's landed gentry, medieval knights had special status (chevalier is still an honorific) and Prince Charles plays polo. The connection between horses and kudos is clear in another quote from The Clouds, where Strepsiades moans about how his status-hungry wife is responsible for his son's hippomania:

[W]hen we had this boy, what was to be his name? It was the cause of much quarrelling with my loving wife. She insisted on having some reference to a horse in his name, that he should be called Xanthippus, Charippus or Callippides. I wanted to name him Phidonides after his grandfather. We disputed long, and finally agreed to style him Phidippides....She used to fondle and coax him, saying, "Oh! what a joy it
will be to me when you have grown up, to see you, like my father, Megacles, clothed in purple and standing up straight in your chariot driving your steeds toward the town." And I would say to him, "When, like your father, you will go, dressed in a skin, to fetch back your goats from Phelleus."
Alas! he never listened to me and his madness for horses has shattered my fortune.

Only the rich could afford horses, but only the disgustingly, filthily, orgiastically rich could afford racing horses. The usual costs applied but then they had to shell out minae for a nice little jockey-slave, a two-wheeled chariot, space to train in and (presumably) guard-slaves for their four-legged assets. Not only that, but they had to expect that both the horse and its jockey would be seriously injured sometime soon. Athenians had access to specialist horse doctors hippiatroi [2] but they had to be prepared to sustain a huge loss.

The reason injury and death were so likely becomes obvious when you consider the incredibly tight turns the chariots had to make at very high speeds and in close proximity to other drivers. If you want a sense of just how tight the turns were, have a look at this imaginative video reconstruction of the Hippodrome of Byzantium. Although it was built nearly 1000 years later than the Classical period, it preserves the Greek plan perfectly.

Incidentally, the site of the Olympic Hippodrome was a mystery until just last year, when some German scientists located it with radar [4]. The Olympic Hippodrome is where the victory that Pindar celebrates here was won:

Olympia IV: Processional for Psaumios of Camarina: Victory with Chariot 3

Charioteer on high, your team has hoofs of thunder --
O Zeus: for again these are your Hours,
That to my lyre dance, my dappled song,
Who circle, who summon me
Bear witness here at this highest of Contests.
A friend fares well; true friends rejoice,
And the news is sweet.
Ah yes, O Cronos' son, who lord Mount Aetna,
Windswept trap to clamp down storming hundred-headed Typho,
Consecrate your Olympic
Victor; grace these our revels --

Light most late, far-shining burst of sun's
Strength, excellence: Psaumios has come!
He is riding by; the olive of Pisa crowns him:
May Camarina awake
With him to glory; may god grant
Fulfillment to his prayers! Hear his eulogy: he has raised
a line of thoroughbreds;
Philanthropist, all strangers are his guests, his land asylum;
His motto: Peace, not Politics -- Civic Concord, Patriotism!
No lie shall taint
My praise: No, for truth will out.

It happened so with Clymenos' son.
That Lemnian women
Scorned his love -- at first.
But then he won the race, all brazen in his armor,
And spoke thus to Hypsipyle, when he came to get his crown:
"Well, here I am: you've seen me run!
And heart can equal legs.
Often the hair grows grey -- too soon,
Belying a young man's age...

It just occurred to me that this last section might be some kind of joking allusion to how an old guy can attract hot chicks if he wins a drag race. It also reminds me of how I heard a nerd in McDonalds say to his buddy, "She was an older lady but...snow on the roof and a fire in the furnace, ya know what I mean!"

1. http://classics.mit.edu/Aristophanes/clouds.html
2. p.54 Animals, Disease, and Human Society By Joanna Swabe
3. Psaumios was probably the owner, not the rider. Riders could be family members but were more often slaves. Probably they were often teenagers (like the one sculpted above) as lightness was an advantage.
4. Discovery of the Hippodrome
5.from Selected Pindar Odes translated by Carl A.P. Ruck and William H. Matheson.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Singing and Dancing Pindar's Epinikia

Meet Pindar! He was an aristocratic poet from Thebes who (probably)lived from 522 BC to 443 BC. Here is a Roman copy of his bust. Next to that is a picture of a lyre, taken directly from a vase painting. You can see how the instrument is made of a tortoise shell and two horns.

Pindar is most famous for a bunch of Victory Songs (Epinikia), each of which celebrated a victory at one of the Panhellenic Games (e.g. Olympia, Pythia, Nemea, Isthmia).

The Scene

The Games were held at sacred places and were organized by priests.
They were timed to occur (mostly) every four years in the middle of
the month, at the time of the full moon[1]. Many people made
the pilgrimage from all over Greece. The picture on the left is of
Nike of Paionios, a statue unearthed at Olympia. Nike is the goddess
(and impersonation) of Victory. Here her windswept garments suggest
movement and swiftness.

The Song
How were the Victory Songs performed? We don't know for sure whether a
chorus or soloist sang them. Pindar's poems in other genres were
performed by a chorus that sang in unison and danced to the accompaniment
of lyres and pipes. It seems likely these were too [3].
It's not clear whether the poet was present at either the victory
he writes about or at the performance of the song itself.

Here are some questions that I have:

*Did Pindar compose the song on the spot, incorporating extracts of pre-prepared work and then suiting it to the specifics of the occasion? Or did he have a long period to work on it?
*Did he write it down first or compose it orally?
*Did he sing or chant the poem?
*Where was the poem performed? The stadium? A banquet?
*Was it performed in the day or at night?
*Did the dancers enact scenes from the poem, or did they follow set choreography?
*Did they wear costumes? (ie was it a visual as well as an aural display?)
*Was the stadium lit by fire as well as moonlight?
*What did the audience do? Stand? Sit? Dance along?
*Was the audience everyone -- or just a select few (aristocrats/winners)?
*How much practice did the chorus have to do?

Fair to Compare?

*choreographed dances at modern Olympic Games
*gospel (songs of praise to God)
*stirring songs overlaying TV montages of sports victories
*New Orleans Wild Tchapatoulas call and response

1. Pindar: The Olympian and Pythian Odes by Basil L. Gildersleeve
2. Pindar:Selected Odes Translated with Interpreted Essays by Carl A.P.Ruck and William H. Matheson.
3.Olympian Odes, Pythian Odes by Pindar translated and edited by William H. Race