Roman Toulouse

17 August 2013

Relief from the Musée Saint-Raymond, Touloyse

I have never met Mr Michel Gybels, who lives somewhere in southern France, likes to visit ancient ruins, and writes nice pieces about them. He already wrote for the Livius website about several cities in ancient Greece and Anatolia, and about the excavations in southern France. I must not forget that he knows an awful lot about medieval Catharism as well – this is his Dutch website – which explains why he has also contributed a piece on Manicheism.

His latest piece is about the excavations west of Toulouse, ancient Tolosa. I have added a history of the city, and was glad that I could refer to so many sources that are nowadays online available. Most photos by Gybels.

You will find the Toulouse stuff by Gybels and yours truly here.


Marathon in Brescia

22 July 2013

Marathon Sarcophagus, Museo Santa di Santa Giulia (Brescia)

The photo above shows a battle scene on a sarcophagus in the Museo di Santa Giulia in Brescia in northern Italy. It’s very common to decorate sarcophagi with representations of the Trojan War or the clash between the Greeks and the Amazons, but this is not a mythological fight: it represents the final stage of the Battle of Marathon, in which the Athenians repulsed a Persian army.

Some thirty, forty years after the battle, the Athenians dedicated a monument to their victory: the Stoa Poikile or Painted Colonnade. There were four paintings, made by either Polygnotus or Micon and Panaenus (the sources are contradicting), and one of these represented the fight at Marathon. The author Pausanias mentions “the fight at the ships and the Greeks slaughtering Persians as they jump into them”.

To be honest, I am not very sure about the identification. It is easy to recognize the Athenians, who are shown in heroic nudity and wear Greek helmets, but the Persians do not strike me as very realistic. I would have expected the man who is carried to the ship to wear trousers: the normal way in which the Greeks represented Persians. On the other hand, I would not know who else might be shown with this kind of headband.

So let’s assume that it’s indeed the Battle of Marathon we are witnessing. Then we have important evidence to reconstruct the fight. The classical account is written by Herodotus, who wants us to believe that the Athenians, after a stalemate of several days, unexpectedly crossed the plain and attacked the Persians. This is strange, because we would expect the Persians to send mounted archers to obstruct the Athenian advance. Where was the Persian cavalry?

There is, however, another story about the Battle of Marathon, which can be found in the biography of the Athenian commander Miltiades by the Roman author Cornelius Nepos (first century BCE) and in the Suda, a tenth century Byzantine lexicon. According to these sources, deserters from the Persian army had come to the Athenian camp, telling that the cavalry were away. But why? It has been argued that the Persians had become uneasy with the situation on the plain. They may indeed have decided to evacuate the place to attack the Athenian port, and if this is true, they must have led their horses to their ships. I have always liked this hypothesis.

The Brescia relief suggests a different possibility. To the left, you can see a horse. If you look carefully, you can see how a Greek, facing to the left, unsaddles the Persian rider, who is shown tumbling behind his horse. Only his head is still visible. This would suggest that there was indeed Persian cavalry on the battlefield, which in turn suggests that the horses were not on the ships, but were somewhere else and returned to the battlefield in the final stage of the fight. So, here we have additional evidence, and the main result is only the falsification of a hypothesis. It is not much, but it’s something.

Final remark: it is long ago that I visited Brescia. I have no photos, but this one comes to me through my friend Sepideh Ramezani, a student in Trento, who asked her fellow-student Luca Adami to help me get this photo; and he asked Mr Alessandro Frassine, who took the photo. Thank you very much!


Lebanon, again

31 December 2012
Beirut (in the distance) seen from Byblos

Beirut (in the distance) seen from Byblos

For the second time in less than a year, I had the privilege to visit Lebanon. Starting in Beirut, where we visited the splendid National Museum again, we embarked upon a very, very leisurely trip around. At the Nahr al-Kalb, we managed to reach the inscription of Nebuchadnezzar, which is covered by all kinds of vegetation, and will soon have disappeared.

Byblos, which I could not really appreciate during my earlier visit because I did not understand its stratigraphy, turned out to be a lot more accessible now that I knew what to expect. It was interesting to think where Wen Amun must have built his tent and where the king must have had his throne.

We proceeded to the Kadisha valley, which is the heartland of Maronite Christianity. Before entering it, we visited Amioun, Bziza, and Aïn Akrine, three sites with Roman temples. In Bsharre (the town of Kahlil Gibran), we climbed to a Phoenician tomb, and had lunch with a view of the snow-covered cedar trees.

Cedar tree

After this, we visited the Bekaa valley and Baalbek. Because we had started early and had slept in a hotel in the valley, we could arrive very early in the morning, and were almost the only people at the site, except for the guards. Returning to our hotel, we passed along Qsarnaba, Niha, and Nabi Ayla.

We also saw the Palestinian refugees who had been bombed away from Damascus – but this is not the place to write about those poor people, who most certainly did not deserve this.

Sidon

Next day, it was raining cats and dogs, but we were in Sidon, where we greatly enjoyed watching how the storm pushed the surf against the sea castle. Some of the waves must have been fifteen meters high and it was really spectacular. The same can be said of the lovely mosaics in the Beiteddin palace. The last place we visited in Beirut was the museum of the American University.

There was a bonus, though: our airplane was delayed and we were unable to catch the connecting flight in Istanbul. So, our trip lasted an additional day, and we saw a snow-covered Hagia Sophia and, in the archaeological museum, the royal sarcophagi from Sidon.

Beiteddin

Beiteddin

I cannot wait to go back to the only place in the world where you can listen to “o come let us adore him” and at the same time hear a mu’ezzin’s call for prayer. My Facebook photos are here and here; and today I added photos of the temples of Aïn Akrine, the rock tombs of Amioun, the Phoenician tomb at Bsharre, the sanctuary at Bziza, and the temple at Qsarnaba. Some older stuff from Lebanon is here.


Edge of Empire

3 October 2012

Cover

So, here it finally is: the cover of Edge of Empire. Rome’s Frontier on the Lower Rhine. The book is about the Roman occupation of the Low Countries – say Belgium, Netherlands and northern Germany – and contains every relevant literary text, the more interesting inscriptions, and a lot of archaeological information. Basically, my coauthor Arjen Bosman and I use the archaeological data to illustrate that all sources are prejudiced about the people living on the edge of the earth; at the same time, we try to show that you cannot interpret archaeological finds without a profound understanding of textual analysis.

The book has a history of its own. I wrote it in 1999 and it was published in 2000. The reviews were extremely favorable and it was recommended to university students. However, there was a quarrel within the publishing house, and the woman whose project it had been, went away. My book was sort of forgotten and disappeared from the bookshops. Still, I continued to keep notes and improve the text.

The “Lord of Morken”, a Frankish warrior (drawing Johnny Shumate)

Two years ago, another publisher, Athenaeum, decided to reprint it. I asked my colleague Arjen Bosman, who is a professional archaeologist, to contribute, because he knows a lot about the ancient Frisians, a subject that needed more attention. The book was adapted, renamed, and republished with all kinds of illustrations. Again, good reviews and even an award.

And now, Karwansaray publishers makes it available in English. This is also the publisher of Ancient Warfare, which means that it will have the same superb illustrations by people like Johnny Shumate, José Antonio German, and Graham Sumner, and maps by Carlos Garcia.

Order your copy using the links on this page.


Das goldene Byzanz

28 September 2012

Saw and mill

“A series of one thousand years of crime, weakness, iniquity, and lack of character”: that is how Georg Hegel described the history of the Byzantine Empire. This image still exists – if there is an image at all, because the western world has almost forgotten Byzantium. In our schools, there is hardly any attention paid to the medieval empire, and in our daily conversation “Byzantine” is almost synonym to luxury, decadence, splendor, corruption, and overcomplexity.

One example may suffice: during last year’s primaries, the Republican candidate Herman Cain called for abolishing America’s “Byzantine tax system”. As a matter of fact, the Byzantines knew only two taxes: a poll tax and a land tax. Compared to this, Cain’s own 9/9/9 plan was quite, eh, Byzantine.

My fascination for Byzantium started when a friend took me to the Byzantine Museum in Thessaloniki. Since then, I have visited several other museums, churches, castles, and other monuments, in Istanbul, Greece, Syria, Israel, Italy, and Turkey. I have read several sources and once made a detour to Manzikert. So, it was inevitable that I would visit the exhibition “Das goldene Byzanz” in the Renaissance castle of Schallaburg in Austria, along the road from Munich to Vienna.

I do not regret it. There are beautiful animations, nice models (of a ship, for example), and good maps. The first thing you see is an engine that used a water-mill to saw natural stone. The number of objects is not very large, but they have been chosen well: beautiful busts, icons, and manuscripts.

Not just Byzantine objects, by the way. Sassanian, Arabian, Slavonic, and Turkish objects show Byzantium’s relations to surrounding nations. You will see both objects from daily and courtly life, although the stress is on the latter. (The title “Golden Byzantium” illustrates this.) The final room illustrates Byzantine influence on western civilization, and was the one room that might have been better: there is more to say about the subject and we also must say more about it. The catalog, on the other hand, is a good one.

If I may offer one point of criticism: the castle is a bit too small and dark for this exhibition. During my visit, two groups occupied entire rooms, making it difficult for other visitors to enjoy the many, many beautiful objects, which are certainly worth a detour.


“Die Welt der Kelten”, Stuttgart

28 September 2012

Glass bracelet

When archaeologists talk about the Celts, they are usually referring to the Hallstatt and La Tène civilizations: the Iron Age cultures of the people living in Central Europe between, say, 850 and 50 BCE. Right now, there are two exhibitions in Stuttgart about the Celts, together called “Die Welt der Kelten”.

The first exhibition, “Kostbarkeiten der Kunst”, is in the Altes Schloβ. I liked it, even though I profoundly hate it when objects are left in the half-dark, just being beautiful in poorly-illuminated rooms. The quality of the information – important questions like “is this art?” were not ignored – offered sufficient compensation. Moreover, this exhibition is important. The idea is still alive that the Celts were making primitive imitations of classical art. The fact that Paul Jacobsthal’s Early Celtic Art, which was published in 1944, is still a standard work, proves that the subject is a bit ignored.

Princely tomb

The other exhibition, “Zentren der Macht” in the Kunstgebäude, was even better. It is about the history of the Celts, and while the first exhibition was a successful attempt to explain an unusual type of aesthetics, the second one is an extremely successful attempt to introduce you to the ancient people themselves. The two first rooms allow you to understand the problems (“what is a Celt?”, “how reliable are the sources”), and after that, there is the real story.

Dying Gau (Rome): a Celt from the migration age

You can see how social stratification came into being when Celtic leaders managed to control the trade in Mediterranean products. These people were very rich, as you can deduce from their splendid tombs. Agricultural innovations made them even wealthier. After 400, the Celts started to migrate: peasants and bands of warriors reached Italy, Greece, and Turkey.

The end of the exhibition illustrates its high quality. You learn that around 80/70, the great settlements came to an end, and after that, you get information about the campaigns of Julius Caesar (58-50) and Augustus (20-15). In this way, the traditional account, based on written sources, that the Roman conquests put an end to the Celtic states, is challenged. You learn that textual and archaeological evidence are asymmetric.

Yes, this is a good exhibition. And it is so nice to see al those objects together: the Coligny calendar, the Warberg warrior, the finds from Eberdingen-Hochdorf, a copy of the Vix crater. There are animations, models, and drawings; quotes from the ancient authors are written on the walls, and are clearly secondary to the archaeological evidence.

I would have loved to know more about the place of the Celts in nineteenth-century European culture. It was believed that they were, for their own good, subdued by the Romans, and this made them the ancient counterparts of the subjects in the European colonies. I am not convinced that this image is now completely dead.

Heuneberg

Another point of criticism is that photography is prohibited. Granted, there is a good catalog, but catalogs never show the objects from the angle from which you want to study the object. There ought to be some kind of rule against this prohibition, which is the museological equivalent of the paywalls that scientistific publishers use to keep information away from the people who are most interested.

There are two small additional exhibitions, one for school classes and one about the excavations at the Heuneberg (“das Schwäbische Troia”). You will need about five hours to see it all.


Meanwhile, in Syria

28 May 2012

Shelled: Crac des Chevaliers

There’s a civil war in Syria. I always feel it is somehow inappropriate to talk about archaeology, classics, or heritage, when people are fighting to survive. Nevertheless, I think it is not unimportant to pay some attention to the damage to the cultural damage. Here is a report by the Global Heritage Network. It’s quite depressing. Below is a quote from page six. After that, there are forty-five other pages.

Sites known to have been affected by the shelling are:

  • World Heritage Site – (parts of the) Archaeological Villages of Northern Syria, in particular al-Bara, Deir Sunbel, Aïn Larose.
  • World Heritage Site – Bosra.
  • World Heritage Site – Crac des Chevaliers.
  • Tentative World Heritage Site – Apamea and the citadel of Qal’at al-Mudiq. Also the town surrounding the citadel, which is known to date from at least the 16th century. Damage has been confirmed at the 16th century Mosque al-Tawhid, and is suspected at the Islamic caravanserai which forms the museum.
  • Tell Sheikh Hamad (Dur Katlimmu) – Assyrian temple collapsed after shell fire and the site was “transformed into a battlefield between deserters and army”.
  • Mosque of Idlib Sermin (Fatimid era).
  • Mosque of al-Tekkiyeh Ariha minaret destroyed.
  • Al-Qusaayr – Great Mosque and Mar Elias monastery damaged.
  • Mosque al-Herak in the Dara’a region.
  • Oldest mosque in city of Sermin.
  • Our Lady of Seydnaya Monastery – Earliest part of monastery dates to early Christian era (circa 547AD) – shell through back wall.
  • Tomb of the Sheikh Dahur al-Muhammad in Rityan, in Aleppo province.

Additions to Livius.org (very minor)

13 May 2012

The entrance of the Hellespont

I visited Turkey and returned with some new photos. You can find them on the pages dedicated Tenedos, Abydus, to Adana (a nice photo of Hadrian), the Hellespont, Alexandria in the Troad, Alexandria near Issus, the river Scamander (I like this page because it combines photos from four places), and the funeral mound of Caracalla’s favorite Festus at Üvecik Tepe (scroll down a bit). It’s mostly from museums I visited, and not really important.

There’s also a photo of the battlefield at Aigospotamoi, but the steep shoreline on the site made me wonder whether the identification was right.


Amphipolis

21 April 2012

Orestes and Electra

The site of Amphipolis is known under various names. It was originally named Nine Roads, its port was called Eïon but in Late Antiquity renamed Chrysopolis. The changing name suggests a stormy history, and that’s more or less true: Thracians, Persians, Athenians, Macedonians, Romans, and Byzantines all play there roles. It is not exaggerated to say that the history of Amphipolis is a summary of all classical history.

The Livius-website already had a page on the town, but today, I added lots of photos. It’s about half of what I have, but I plan a second improvement. For the moment, go here.


Lebanese Antiquities

12 April 2012
Photo Jona Lendering

The Great Temple of Niha

When we announced that we wanted to visit Lebanon, many people thought that we had gone mad. After all, when we in Holland read about the country of the ancient Phoenicians, it is usually because of some eruption of violence. And indeed, the last chapter of the Footprint Handbook for Lebanon is a depressing catalog of disasters.

Nevertheless, the country appears to have come to rest, and I think it is useful to write briefly about our too short holiday. We were not disappointed and have already decided to return. Lebanon has much to offer to tourists, and tourists – for example, the lovers of ancient history that read this little blog – may help the country overcome some of its traumas. I promise you: you will like it.

And related:


Lebanese Antiquities: What to see

12 April 2012
Photo Jona Lendering

The cella of the Temple of Bacchus, Baalbek

[Back to overview]

The main ancient monument in Lebanon is, of course, Baalbek. The temple of Bacchus is bigger and better preserved than the Parthenon in Athens; the temple of Baal-Zeus-Jupiter next to it must have been one of the largest shrines of the ancient world (after the Egyptian temples, of course).

National Museum

Beirut is a very modern city, which is currently being rebuilt, so don’t expect too much of the ancient ruins. This is the place to be if you like modern architecture. Still, it has two of the best museums in the Middle East: the National Museum and the Archaeological Museum of the American University.

We loved the Roman ruins of Faqra and Machnaqa, but were unable to visit Yanouh, Afqa, and Sfiré. The Roman temples at Niha were splendid – do not forget to go into the cellar of the great temple.

Photo Jona Lendering

The Crusader Castle of Byblus

To the north, there is Byblus, which has been inhabited for thousands of years. You can see Neolithic and Chalcolithic buildings, temples from the Bronze Age, Phoenician royal tombs, a Persian terrace, Greek and Roman structures, a mosque, a perfectly preserved Crusader castle and ditto church, and so on. If you go up north from Beirut, do not forget to visit the reliefs at the Nahr al-Kalb, where about every army has left an inscription – from Ramesses II to the Lebanese army that forced out the Israeli troops in 2000.

Photo Jona Lendering

Remains Tyre’s Crusader church, with pillars from the Temple of Melqart

I really loved Tyre, which offers two big excavations. At Al-Bass, there’s a hippodrome and a large necropolis, while at Al-Mina, you will see the remains of the city itself. Here are also the remains of a Crusader church, which is more or less on the place of the ancient temple of Melqart.

This was only a selection. If you want to see all sights mentioned by Guillaume Gernez and Ingrid Périssé-Valéro, you will need about two weeks.

[Back to overview]


Death of a Museum

16 December 2011

Today, the authorities of the Dutch province of Gelderland decided to terminate their support of Orientalis near Nijmegen, a beautiful, century-old museum park, dedicated to the cradle of monotheism. To renovate the park and make it ready for another century, 14 million euro were necessary and had been agreed upon: 2 million from private donations, 6 million from provincial funds, and 6 million from state funds. The Dutch government, which is trying to save on museum expenditure, had already decided to stop paying, while the province cannot pay an additional 6 million.

The end of one the most lovely “living history” parks in the world does not come as a surprise; still, it is a shock. Of course, a state monument is just a monument and 6 million is a lot of money. They could throw away only a few billions to bail-out our banks. Below, you can find an article I wrote in happier days.

****

Synagogue, reconstructed

Sometimes, the history of a museum is as interesting as its collection. The Dutch Museum Orientalis near Nijmegen was founded almost a century ago -in 1911 to be precise- and was meant to offer a taste of the Holy Land to Christians who were unable to travel to the Levant.

It was unique. Of course, there were other living history parks, like the Pompejanum (1848), the Saalburg (1897), the Kerylos villa (1902), but these were inspired by Greece and Rome. The Holy Land Foundation, as the Dutch museum park was originally called, concentrated on Palestine. In an age in which Catholic art was inspired by the Neogothic architecture and the Beuron Art School, it was revolutionary to show Christ as a human being living in Palestine.

My parents took me to the Holy Land Foundation in the early 1970’s. You could see a Jewish village with a synagogue (photo above), reconstructions of the Sanhedrin and the Palace of Pilate, Golgotha and the empty tomb. In the late afternoon, we attended a passion play. Although I was six or seven, I thought it was too pious, too devote.

Roman street

It must have been one of the last passion plays to be performed over there, because at that moment, the original museum park was already changing. It had been intended to bring people closer to Christ, and give them more love in their heart. There is nothing wrong with that. But the old kind of devotion was no longer popular. Instead, the museum started to stress the Jewish-Roman environment in which Jesus lived. For example, a nice street in Roman style was added (second photo), with expositions in the houses. From a visit in the 1990’s I remember beautiful models of Deir el-Medina, the Athenian Acropolis and Jerusalem.

The Temple, model from Orientalis

Nowadays, the museum park is meant as a meeting place, where people can learn about the three main monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam. You can see some multimedia presentations about, for instance, religious dress, food, and habits, and about more serious themes like religious hatred and religion as source for peace. The oriental landscape serves, as the museum says, as background for a “meeting of minds”.

Reenactors

Some time ago, I was in Nijmegen and made a walk though the park. It must have been my fourth or fifth visit. I was amazed by the high quality of the earliest reconstructions. The men who designed it, had travelled widely through the Middle East, and their Jewish village is an exact copy of a Palestine town.

Of course, we can now see that their orientalist philosophy was wrong: they believed that modern Palestine could help us understand the life of Christ, which implied that they thought that nothing had really changed over there – a rather unkind vision on the creativity and originality of the people living in Palestine. Still, their idea to put that Jew of Nazareth back in his original context, instead of reducing him to a European, artistic icon, is worth consideration, and I am glad that the old buildings are now on the Monument List.


Edge of Empire

6 December 2011

Yesterday, the Bryn Mawr Classical Review published a very kind review of De rand van het Rijk, the book about Germania Inferior that I published with archaeologist Arjen Bosman. What I like very much about this piece is that the reviewer, Birgitta Hoffmann, stresses an aspect that I also consider to be very important:

… the rise of the Frankish kingdoms as very much influenced by and the direct result of the history of Germania Inferior and Gallia Belgica from the third century onwards, rather than as a separate historical phase distinct from the preceding Roman empire.

The review was a complete surprise, because I did not know that my publisher had sent a copy of this Dutch book to a foreign journal. Even better, the article appeared just one day before I met the director of my English publisher, Karwansaray.

Today, we discussed the translation. For example, there will be some changes, because the Dutch version assumes knowledge of the topography of Holland and Belgium. Some photos need to be replaced, we need to take into account some new finds (like this one), we can benefit from other maps, we will add a long list of nice museums in Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands.

The project will start in January, and I think it’s not unreasonable to expect that the book will be in the shops in the Spring of 2013. The book already won an award and now has a very good review. As we say in Holland, this will be “an unrelenting bestseller”.


Göbekli Tepe

24 September 2011

Göbekli Tepe; two oval enclosures visible

If someone would have asked me which excavations I would have liked to visit, I would have answered, without a monent´s thought, that my favorites would be Jiroft en Göbekli Tepe. Jiroft I will visit, inch’Allah, within a couple of months, but I no longer have to wait for Göbekli Tepe.

It is, to exaggerate a bit, the place where we can see the rise of mankind as a civilized being. Some 12,000 years ago, when the latest Ice Age was over, a process started that is known as the Neolithic Revolution: the rise of agriculture.

Göbekli Tepe proves that, when this process had only just started and mankind still consisted mainly of hunters and gatherers, monumental architecture was already possible. Hundreds of people must have been working on this site, so there must have been some kind of efficient leadership. We can even speak, very tentatively of course, about their beliefs, because Göbekli Tepe is a sanctuary and some of the statues may represent deities or ancestors. We will never be completely sure, of course, but it remains a fascinating thought.

Pylon 12

The first thing we saw was a couple of dromedaries and the caravan in which the German excavator, professor Klaus Schmidt, has his office. We saw Enclosure E (“the rock temple”, but essentially a wide, rocky plain) and Enclosures A, B, C, and D, where tall, T-shaped pylons used to stand in a circle or oval. The satellite photo above shows two of these ovals. They date back to the age that archaeologists call “Preceramic Neolithic A”, or the period between 9500 and 8300 BC.

Several pylons are decorated with arms and must resemble humans. The sides often show animals, like snakes, foxes, and ostriches. These statues are very primitive, but radiate a kind of power that I find hard to describe. This is art, and these pylons show that humans are cultural beings. To quote Schmidt: it is like a theater, and although we can no longer see the play itself and can only see the set, we know that the actors have put on the scene a truly grand play.

The visitor of the world’s oldest known sanctuary will be accompanied by a guard, who will, at the end of the tour, sell a book, Sie bauten die ersten Tempel, written by professor Schmidt. I have now read about half of it and am very enthusiastic about the way he explains everything: very seriously and without unnecessary hypotheses. The guard offered me to ask Schmidt’s autograph; the scholar made it clear that he was actually a bit too busy, which I liked. Academics who waste time giving autographs, are to be treated with some distrust.

Getting there

From Sanli Urfa, where some of the beautiful finds are shown in the museum, it is easy to reach the excavation. Leaving the city center, you take the road in the direction of the suburb of Kara Köprü. At the great roundabout on the city’s northern edge, you take road D400 to the east, to Mardin. You will already have seen the brown signs to Göbekli Tepe. After 13 kilometers, you turn to the left and continue, even when the road is, for a short distance, unpaved. If this doesn’t work, ask directions for Örencik.


Mainz Pedestals For Sale?

12 July 2011

One of the twelve reliefs

Of course, the Mainz Pedestals are not for sale. They are safe in the Steinhalle in the Landesmuseum in Mainz, and although the room itself is currently under reconstruction, there is no reason to despair about the museum’s finances. Nevertheless, here is the text of an e-mail I received this weekend:

Hello

Am Mr Roy and am inquiry into your company about Mainz Pedestals? And i will like you to get back to me with the types,sizes and prices of them so  i can proceed with the one am ordering.And i will like to know if you do Accepts major credit card as the mode of payments,And try and include your contact details  when getting back to me , so i can give you a call as soon as possible,

your Prompts response and assistance will be much appreciated,

Thanks, Roy

I confess that I was tempted to reply to Mr Roy that I would love to buy the famous sculptures.


Looting

11 July 2011

It must have been in the late 1980s or very early 1990s; my girlfriend and I were staying in Osuna in Spain. I wanted to visit Irni, where the Lex Irnitana had been found a couple of years before. We had already met a friendly man from Osuna, who had shown us some ancient finds from his land. We told him about our plan to go to Irni, and I think our host told someone that there were two people from Holland in town, interested in antiquities.

Not much later, while we were eating tapas in a restaurant, a young man asked permission to join us, and told us about his work: with a metal detector, he was searching for antiquities, and he sold them to foreigners. I asked him whether he did not feel guilty, but he said he did not; he had in the past told professional archaeologists about his finds, but they had taken his finds to Madrid. So, he had decided to sell his finds to foreigners. In both scenarios, the objects were lost for Osuna, but by selling them, at least something returned to the region: money. (“For yourself”, I thought.)

He offered his help if I wanted to purchase something, which I declined. Apparently, he concluded that we wanted to go to Irni to dig for ourselves, because next day, when we were there, we found the site guarded by someone with a gun, who continued to keep an eye on us, and cheerfully waved us goodbye when we left.

I mention this, because the argument of the young man has always impressed me. If you find something and decide to cooperate with professional archaeologists, and if your only reward is that they send it to another place, there is no stimulus to cooperate. This is why I think that small local museums, like Rindern and Haus Bürgel, are extremely important. They make people realize that the past is also theirs, and make them more willing to cooperate.


Death in Roman Mainz

16 May 2011

Death statistics for Roman Mainz

If you visit a museum with Roman inscriptions and read the tombstones, you will notice that old people invariably died at 60, 70, or 80. The ancients didn’t know exactly how old they were (except, of course, for that man mentioned by Pliny the Elder, who said he could prove that he was 130 years old – from his tax records).

I wanted to check this, so I decided to look at the inscriptions from a city where many tombstones have been found. Mainz was a logical candidate: its Landesmuseum has a nice “Steinhalle” (hall of ancient stones). Besides, there were legions over here, which – I assumed – must have kept some kind of administration. I expected a more or less regular pattern with similar results for successive years until the late forties, when the soldiers left the army. After that I expected high peaks at 60, 70, 80, and lower peaks at 55, 65, 75.

Tombstone of Gaius Faltonius Secundus

The Epigraphik-Datenbank of Clauss and Slaby offered 2826 inscriptions, of which 245 contained formulas like “MIL LEG XXII PR AN XLVI STI XXI HSE” (= miles legionis XXII Primigeniae, annorum XLVI, stipendiorum XXI, hic situs est, “soldier of the Twenty-second Legion Primigenia, 46 years old, 19 years of service, is buried here”).

As the picture above shows, it did not work out as I expected, but still there is an interesting result. Between 20 and 50, there’s a peak every 5 year. After that, there is only a minor peak at 70. I deduce that the army kept no administration.

Among the other finds: the tombstone of a soldier who must have entered the army at thirteen (no unit mentioned, but a Roman citizen), the tombstone of an officer who served in four legions and apparently served 45 years, and some odd numerals like VL and XLIIX.


Persepolis 2011

19 March 2011

The Cyrus Cylinder in a Crystal Ball

A visit to the ruins of the palaces of Persepolis is always a pleasure and a prerogative. There are two hotels in the close neighborhood, which make it is easy to spend the two days you need without being forced to return to Shiraz. Compared to last year, the visit is even more delightful, because some shops have been reopened and there’s a new, small pub next to the Queens’ Quarters. The old pub, beyond the Treasury, used to be closed but is now a restaurant.

The reopening of the pub was long overdue. You cannot spend several hours on a site without having a cup of tea or coffee. The souvenir shop – well, let’s be honest: most of the objects are crap, and it is only rarely that they are so tasteless that they get a campy beauty of their own. I am glad I saw that replica of the Cyrus Cylinder in a crystal plastic ball. (Interesting question: Shi’ites and Roman Catholics have produced the most beautiful art – how come that in Iran and Italy, they also sell the most terrible kitsch?)

Still, it is better if they sell ugly objects and outdated books than nothing at all. Of course, I would prefer that they had a decent bookshop where you can buy, say, an excavation report (compare the Museum of Tabriz), but crap is at least something. People do take those souvenirs with them, will laugh about them at home, but will also say that Iran is a beautiful country where you can see, for example, the most splendid tile work in the world. They will add that the Iranians are friendly and courteous, that the landscape is incomparable, and that they had a superb holiday. They will show photos, and will convince others that Iran is not the terrible place it appears to be in the western media. This will – I hope – convince others to visit Iran. Postcards may have the same result, and fortunately, they are now for sale.

I will leave it to pundits to discuss the political benefits of people losing prejudices, and just mention that the road to good bookshops and nice souvenirs starts by creating a larger market. Persepolis is back on track.

Yet, much needs to be improved. What greatly disturbed me was “The World Heritage, Introduction Salloon” in front of the entrance. I passed along it, and there were loud sounds coming from it; an English voice explained the significance of the site, making several exaggerated claims. Now I can live perfectly with that; the Greeks believe they’ve invented about every art you can think of, in Syria they claim to be the cradle of religions, and I won’t even mention Israel, so the Iranians may boast a bit too much as well. But what I find unacceptable is the noise. Even when we were watching the Gate of All Nations and the Apadana, we had some difficulty to talk, because of the loudspeakers. I got the impression that no one entered the World Heritage Introduction Saloon, and it is not hard to understand why.


The Cyrus Cylinder in Tehran (2)

31 December 2010
Photo Jona Lendering

Cyrus Cylinders For Sale

The Cyrus Cylinder has become a symbol of Iranian nationalism – for reasons that I already described above. Now, the object is in Tehran: a loan from the British Museum, where it normally is to be seen. This is remarkable, because in the twentieth century, the relations between Britain and Iran have gone from bad to worse, and quite recently, the Iranian Parliament discussed cutting the diplomatic ties altogether. It was no surprise that when the loan was, last year, unexpectedly postponed, the Iranians felt cheated.

There was a reason for this, however: two small fragments of cuneiform texts had been discovered that contained texts similar to that of the Cylinder. Apparently, Cyrus broadcast his interpretation of the conquest of Babylonia widely. The British Museum found the study of these fragments more important than loaning the object to Iran. I do not know why, but at first sight, I get the impression that those Iranians who argued that it was a deliberate act, may have a point. If the study of so many so much more important texts can be postponed (for half a century, a substantial part of the Persepolis Fortification Tablets was ignored), it is indeed rather suspicious that finding two fragments is considered important enough to risk a diplomatic riot.

Many Iranians no longer trust the British and there are wild (but unfounded) speculations that the Cylinder sent to Tehran was a replica. All this shows on the one hand how important the Cylinder has become to the Iranians, and how bad the relations between the two countries have become. Although I came to Iran to attend an engagement party in Isfahan, a visit to this exhibition, with all the political fuzz surrounding it, was irresistible.

A modern Persian carpet showing Cyrus the Great, seen in Tehran.

The museum has taken many security measures: visitors are not even allowed to take telephones with them. No one can say that the Iranians do not treat the object without proper care. After entering the museum, the visitors of the exhibition first arrive in a waiting room with replicas of Achaemenid art and large panels with information about the cylinder. I am aware that Persepolis is quite unrelated to Cyrus, and I am also aware that we have only Darius’ word that Cyrus belonged to the Achaemenid family (Herodotus’ evidence is probably derived from the Behistun text and can be eliminated), but the room is carefully arranged and it’s all nicely done.

After a few minutes, we could leave the waiting room and enter the room devoted to the cylinder itself, which lies in a glass display, together with the two new fragments. The Iranian woman with whom I visited the exhibition, was surprised that the object was so small. After five minutes, we had to leave the room again, as if a new group of people were being allowed to enter. The system is probably designed to manage large numbers of visitors, and I have heard that there have indeed been hundreds of people every day, but when I was there, we were with only five people in the room, and no one entered when we were requested to leave.

What always saddens me, is that that the Tehran museum does not sell any good books. You can get some replicas, but the visitor who really wants to know more, is left disappointed. The current exhibition would have been the perfect moment to change this, but the two small shops outside sell the usual touristy rubbish, including posters and mugs with a false translation of the Cylinder. The hundreds of visitors offered the perfect opportunity to spread good, up-to-date information; why the Iranian archaeological authorities have not seized this chance, I do not know.


The Cyrus Cylinder in Tehran (1)

30 December 2010

The Cyrus Cylinder

“How can you rule a country that offers two hundred types of cheese?”, Charles de Gaulle used to say, meaning that France was insufficiently unified to be governed. His contemporary, Mohamad Shah, faced the same problem: ruling a country with large ethnic minorities, with people on several stages of economic development, with diverse political orientations.

The only thing they shared was a religious orientation: it is possible to interpret the Shi’a as an expression of Iranian nationalism. Iran is indeed Islamic, but under its own conditions, and since the sixteenth century, the Shi’a has been used by worldly leaders to unify the country. The clerics usually supported the Safavid and Qajar dynasties: after all, until the return of the Twelfth Imam, the believers live in uncertainty about the exact nature of the Divine Law. However, the father of Mohamad Shah, Reza Shah, had introduced policies similar to Atatürk’s, in which religion was not to play a role. This way to unify Iran was blocked.

Department of Foreign Affairs

The break was expressed in many ways, including architecture. If you are in Tehran, you can walk from the old Qajar palace to the twentieth-century buildings of the Department of Foreign Affairs: on the one hand the traditional style, with beautiful painted tiles, on the other hand a modern classicism, comparable to Italian architecture of the 1920s and 1930s, using Achaemenid and Sasanian models. The message was clear: there had once been a real Iran, ruled by kings, and Reza Shah was to restore it after many dark centuries of theocratic rule.

Achaemenid Soldier in Reza Shah's Palace

Mohamad Shah had similar ideas and started, in the 1960s, to put forward the founder of the Achaemenid dynasty as some kind of ideal ruler. In 1971, he commemorated Cyrus’ death, with many royals from all over the world visiting Persepolis and Pasargadae. Focusing on Cyrus was clever, because he was well-known: both Greek sources (e.g., Herodotus) and the Bible speak friendly about him. It all seemed to be confirmed by a document found in Babylon, the Cyrus Cylinder. On another occasion I will blog about the Shah’s misinterpretation of this text as a human rights charter; now, I am focusing on the exhibition of the cylinder in the National Archaeological Museum of Tehran.

[to be continued+]


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