The Story of a Cuneiform Text

30 September 2010

A Babylonian Brick

About two years ago, my friend Ellen contacted me. She had obtained a fragment of an ancient Babylonian brick, which one of her friends had given to her. Was I interested? Certainly, and I became even fascinated when I noticed that it contained an inscription.

How did a Babylonian brick come to Holland? It turned out that the father of Ellen’s friend had been working in the off-shore in the mid-1960s, and had on one occasion visited Baghdad and the ruins of Babylon. He had bought the brick in Hillah and had left the object to his son, who contacted Ellen.

The Leiden Brick

My friend Bert van der Spek identified the signs as archaizing Babylonian, which means that the brick dated to the glory days of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. He told me to ask another assyriologist for more information, but she never replied to my request, and I did not really know what to do. I offered it to a museum, which didn’t reply either, and decided to offer it to the Leiden Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, which immediately accepted it after I had told them about the way I had obtained it. (A museum cannot buy antiquities that have come to Europe after 1970 or 1971.) Today, I traveled to Leiden and left the brick at the museum.

When I returned home, there was already an e-mail from the director, who had immediately handed over the object to the curator. He must have been amused when he read the text, because it turned out to be a copy of a much better preserved brick that was already in the museum (more…). It is now also possible to restore the full text, which is not really surprising: “Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, keeper of Esagila and Ezida, oldest son of Nabopolassar, king of Babylon”. A standard text, but it’s nice for Ellen and her friend to know what they have had in their hands, and what, thanks to their care, now is where it belongs: in a museum.

Common Errors (39): Lead Poisoning

20 September 2010

Water conducts, made of lead, from ancient Himera (Archaeological museum of Palerm)

One of the best known theories about the fall of the Roman Empire is the one proposed by several German and French scholars in the nineteenth century and made famous in an article “Lead Poisoning and the Fall of Rome” (Journal of Occupational Medicine 7 [1965] 53-60) by sociologist S. Colum Gilfillan. Because the Romans were unaware of the risks of chronic lead poisoning, they suffered not only from loss of short-term concentration, coordination, and memory, but also of depression.

The main sources of lead poisoning were the pipes of the aqueducts and wine, which was often sweetened by a syrup that had been boiled down in lead-lined pots. Because only the rich could – according to Gilfillan – afford sweetened wine, lead poisoning was class selective. The Roman elite suffered heavily and in the end, the Roman Empire went down because of what Gilfillan called “aristothanasia”.

This theory has been challenged a long time ago. In the first place: the archaeological evidence shows that the syrup was not boiled down in lead-lined pots, but in pots covered with pitch. In the second place: although water conducts did have parts made of lead, the water ran quickly through them; in the parts where water could be stagnant, the Romans preferred terracotta (cf. Vitruvius, On Architecture, 8.6.10-11). And finally, there’s the evidence from mummies and ancient skeletons, from which we know that the ancients were exposed to less lead than we – about one tenth, to be precise. This is conclusive.

<Overview of Common Errors>


  • A. and E. Cockburn, Mummies, Disease, and Ancient Cultures (1980)
  • Alexander Demandt, Der Fall Roms. Die Auflösung des römischen Reiches im Urteil der Nachwelt (1984) 365-366
  • Hans van Maanen, Encyclopedie van misvattingen (2010), pp.55-56
  • John Scarborough, “The Myth of Lead Poisoning Among the Romans: An Essay Review” in the Journal of the History of Medicine, 39 (1984), 469-475 Hacked

16 September 2010

My book on Islam and the West

It’s quite an experience when you wake up and find an e-mail from a friend who writes that your website has been hacked by “some Islamic fanatics”. When I looked at my site, there were indeed two pictures of a crescent on a bloody banner, with a message in Borat English. My first thought was about my other website, which I found intact.

My provider swiftly took action; the pictures were replaced with a message that the site was temporarily offline. Later, the new message was replaced by a pretty recent backup of the website. They also apologized for allowing a hacker in. While I am writing these words, I am uploading my website again, to make sure that the most recent changes are online too.

The obvious question is: why me? I never discuss the political aspects of modern Islam online; as a very old-fashioned scholar, still longing back to the university as it existed in the early 1980s, I am an unlikely target. I think I’ve always treated Islam fairly and wrote a book on its contributions to western civilization. Because of this, some people on the internet consider me a Muslim, and some even believe I am on the payroll of the Iranian Islamic Republic.

Although I have in the meantime learned something about the hacker, an organization that has a reputation for attacking what it believes to be anti-Islamic websites, I am still wondering why they hacked The only thing I’m sure of, is that they’re unaware of the rumors about me being a Muslim, which means that they’re better in vandalizing websites than reading them.

Iwan-e Karkheh

14 September 2010

One of my colleagues, hiding behind her camera

Iwan-e Karkheh” is the modern name of the ruin of a Sasanian city, largely unexplored by archaeologists, founded by Shapur II after the sack of Susa. It was surrounded by a large wall that is still visible over large distances. The archaeologists also found a building, perhaps a palace, with a cross-vault of a type that was to become popular in churches but has not been attested earlier than Iwan-e Karkheh.

We were attracted to the site, which must have resembled Bishapur, because we had read that it had been converted into a garbage dump, and wanted to see it before it would be destroyed. But the site turned out to be not threatened at all. In all countries of the Near East, people throw away their waste along the roads. Garbage can be seen everywhere, and I have heard in both Syria and Iran the joke that it’s not garbage at all – the farmers are just cultivating plastics. Iwan-e Karkheh is not exceptionally dirty; in fact, it seems to be well protected by a nearby police post.

Your satellite photo is here and the new webpage is here.

Marathon Again

12 September 2010

Roman Age?

It was not my intention to blog on Marathon today, because I did not want to resemble those innumerates who believe that today, it’s 2,500 years ago (please wait another year). But chance has a sense of irony: yesterday, I met a colleague who had spent some time in Kynouria, Greece, and had visited the nearby villa of Herodes Atticus (c.102-177). He told me that there was an inscribed column over there that recorded the names of people killed during the battle of Marathon. The alphabet used is the old Athenian one, which was in use prior to 403 BCE, and it is likely that the inscription comes from a monument from the plain of Marathon.

Photo Marco Prins

Herodes Atticus

So far, so good. It is certainly possible that Herodes Atticus, who owned a country estate near Marathon and claimed descent from Miltiades, used part of a fifth-century monument in another villa. However, if  we are to believe this article, Herodes Atticus put something back after he had taken away (parts of) an old monument: he constructed the funeral mound that is now the main monument. This would explain why Pausanias does not mention the tomb, and also fits the antiquarianism of the second century.

To be fair, I think the theory is worth a thought, but nothing more. I would like to see some additional proof.

The End of the Library of Alexandria

12 September 2010

Sphinx of Horemheb at the Serapeum

Roger Pearse is currently blogging (1, 2) on the origin of the story that Caliph Omar ordered the destruction of the library of Alexandria. There are several other stories: the library was destroyed when Julius Caesar captured the city, it vanished in the 365 earthquake, Aurelian‘s soldiers are responsible, Christian agitators set it afire.

But perhaps it is not necessary to look for such an event.

There are several reports about the number of scrolls in the library. 400,000 is one of the lower estimates. Now a papyrus scroll is vulnerable and a book needed to be copied after a century. This means that every year, about 4,000 scrolls had to be copied. If we assume that one scroll took one month, we need about 300 to 350 writers, excluding the correctors, illustrators, the people who prepared ink and papyrus, and so on. All these people were highly paid professionals.

These numbers are all guesswork, but they serve to illustrate a point: the library was too big to survive. Even if Caesar and Aurelian hadn’t attacked the city, even if there had been no earthquake, even if there had been no interventions by Christian and Muslim fanatics, the library would have vanished.

Deromanizing Amsterdam

9 September 2010

Not Amsterdam

There are classicists who cannot count, there are engineers who cannot read, and there’s Jona who doesn’t understand how newspapers work. I already blogged about a stupid mistake for which I am responsible: although I realized that, after an interview to Amsterdam newspaper Het Parool, I had to control the text before it was printed, I forgot to control the summary, which was printed on the frontpage and informed the readers that Amsterdam was already inhabited in Roman times. This piece was also on the newspaper’s website.

That evening, I wrote a letter to the Amsterdam city archaeologist, explaining what had happened. Next day, I called the journalist, explaining that the summary was misleading, and he suggested me to write an article for the newspaper, in which I could explain what had gone wrong. So I did, and it was printed yesterday. I am grateful to Het Parool, which shared my concern.

However, the newspaper did more. It replaced the website version with the full text of the interview. Unfortunately, it was too late: the summary had already been copied by several other websites, and I spent this weekend sending e-mails and calling people, explaining what had gone wrong.

I made a surprising discovery. When I asked a blogger, he or she understood there was a problem and the summary was immediately removed. No matter what kind of blog or website, whether an archaeologist’s blog or an Islamic discussion board, the people realized that desinformation is a problem. Only one newspaper still has to remove it from its website.

I now have some doubts about the common wisdom that “old media” maintain journalistic standards, while “new media” are careless. This example would suggest that it’s the other way round, although failing e-mail may explain all.

When Scholarship Is Too Difficult

9 September 2010

I know that Americans lag behind other countries in math proficiency, but this exceeds every reasonable pessimism. I happen to know that the people at the ASCS know more about classics.

Novaesium (Neuss)

5 September 2010

Tombstone of a standard bearer

Built on a natural terrace west of the Rhine, Novaesium was, together with Nijmegen, the oldest military base in Germania Inferior, founded by Drusus before 16 BCE. He used this base, which is exceptionally large, to conquer the valley of the Lippe. When the conquests had been given up, Neuss remained in use as a Roman fortress, at least until the end of the first century CE.

The camp village survived the departure of the legionaries; the town was still in existence in the Merovingian age. The site of the ancient fortress is overbuilt by modern use, but many objects have been excavated.

I uploaded extra photos, which I took in the Clemens Sels-Museum. It’s all here.

How Amsterdam Became A Roman City

2 September 2010

Cover of “De rand van het Rijk”

Today, my new book on the Romans in the Low Countries (this one) was officially presented. Livius Onderwijs, my employer, organized two lectures, one on Roman Tongeren and one on Roman Velsen: a city in Belgium and a naval base in Holland. The second speaker was Arjen Bosman of Gent University, my co-author.

One of the points he mentions in our book is that there was probably no gap between the two bases at Velsen. Until now, it was believed that Velsen 1 was used from 15 to 28, and Velsen 2 from 41 to 47. But Arjen has found evidence for continuous occupation, like a dendrochronological date in 37.

In an interview with an Amsterdam newspaper we told the kind journalist that Arjen’s discovery – in itself not terribly important – meant that people living in what would later be called Amsterdam would have seen Roman ships every day. The man or woman who lost a fibula that was excavated in the 1970s, belonged to the Roman Empire.

The journalist sent us the interview, we corrected a sentence or two, and gave the text our imprimatur. I knew that the paper would also publish a brief summary to make people curious about the main article, which was fine with me.

I should have asked if I could check the summary as well. I was surprised, this morning, by a phone call from a radio station: could I please tell a bit more about those excavations and that new foundation date of Amsterdam? I was surprised, because there’s no excavation (Arjen is reinvestigating old finds) and we hadn’t said anything about the foundation of the city. We had only said that this part of the world had been within the Empire, and that is also what the journalist had written down. The radio reporter told me she had read it on the website of the newspaper. I went on the air and told that the claim was exaggerated.

It was only later that I saw that webpage. It contained the summary of our article and was free of factual errors, although “investigation” had been changed into “excavation”, and it was not immediately clear that it dealt with Velsen. The real problem, however, was the headline: “Amsterdam inhabited for 2,000 years”, from which a careless reader might indeed deduce that the Romans had founded the city.

When I bought the newspaper itself, I noticed that this piece was on the frontpage. When I returned home, I found several e-mails from people who had been led to believe that Amsterdam had been a Roman town. To the best of my knowledge, there is no evidence for this. There must have been people living over there (someone must have lost that fibula), it was part of the Roman Empire, there are careless summarizers and ditto readers, and yours truly has failed to check a summary. That’s all.

[To be continued]

New Fragments of Ezekiel the Tragedian

1 September 2010

Phoenix (Allard Pierson Museum, Amsterdam)

Greek family values: a mother has killed her husband and believes that her lover has killed her son. She rushes forward to see the dead body, but the bloody remains turn out to be her lover. Supreme irony, because the audience of the Electra already knows that Orestes has killed Aegisthus and knows which shocking discovery Clytaemnestra is about to make. No one will deny that Sophocles is one of the greatest playwrights ever.

It is easy to understand why classicists, time and again, return to Sophocles and his two Athenian colleagues, Aeschylus and Euripides. Already in Antiquity, people believed that no playwright could possibly surpass these men. There was a scholarly edition of their works of which a part survives (all Euripidean tragedies starting with an E). We also know that there used to be an annotated school edition of three times seven tragedies, a kind of “the best of”, chosen by a very good scholar. His selection is, from an educational point of view, excellent: with three tragedies about Electra, we learn a lot about the personal approach of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

Perhaps our scholar did his work a bit too well, because his school edition became so popular that all other plays were lost. It was quite a sensation when in 2007 substantial parts of Euripides’ Phaethon were discovered. Yet, there have been many more ancient playwrights. They are all lost, except for one: Ezekiel, a Jewish author of the second century BCE. His work is not lost. Classicists just ignore it.

The Exagoge is one of the most fascinating pieces of ancient poetry, because the author uses a Greek genre, tragedy, to tell a Jewish story: the Exodus. About a quarter of it survives, and there are some brilliant lines, like Ezekiel’s description of the phoenix, of which our Athenians would not feel ashamed.

Another living creature we saw,
full wondrous, such as man has never seen;
’twas near in scope to twice the eagle’s size,
with plumage iridescent, rainbow-hued.
Its breast appeared deep-dyed with purple’s shade,
its legs were red like ochre, and its neck
was furnished round with tresses saffron-hued;
like a coxcomb did its crest appear,
with amber-tinted eye it gazed about,
the pupil like some pomegranate seed.
Exceeding all, its voice pre-eminent;
of every wing’d thing, the king,
it did appear. For all the birds, as one,
in fear did haste to follow after him,
and he before, like some triumphant bull
went striding forth with rapid step apace.

[Tr. R.G. Robertson]

And now we hear that hitherto unknown fragments have been discovered, from which Oxford classicist Dirk Obbink deduces that the Exagoge was widely read. This is interesting in itself, because we usually don’t know a thing about who read what. It is also interesting because Greek Judaism, which must have been very important, is not as well understood as its Rabbinical counterpart. Still, many Jews disagreed with the Maccabees that Judaism and Hellenism were incompatible, and did not follow the Pharisees in their use of Hebrew. Ezekiel belongs to this “other Judaism”, which did not make it.

And finally, the Exagoge shows that people who would no doubt be called ‘barbarians’ by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, appreciated at least one aspect of Greek civilization: the theater. The writing of tragedies was not just a Greek specialism, and classicists should, in future publications, devote a chapter to Jewish tragedy too.


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