Archaeology in Israel (1)

3 August 2015
Jerusalem, "Large Stone Structure"

Jerusalem, “Large Stone Structure”

The study of the ancient world is so fascinating because all those cultures, nations, tribes, states, and civilizations share one characteristic: a great shortage of data. If you want to study an aspect of Antiquity, you need every bit of information you can get: texts, archaeological finds, parallels from other cultures. Antiquity, I’m sure you’ll agree, is the largest and most interesting puzzle the world has ever seen.

Unfortunately, the available information is often inconsistent. Herodotus tells us that Ecbatana was a big city with seven walls, but archaeologists found nothing. Caesar claims to have visited Britain, but not a single camp has been identified.

In situations like these, when information obtained from texts and excavations is asymmetrical, it’s up to the historian to decide what to do next. He might say: “I prefer to believe the written sources. If the archaeologists continue to dig, they will find what we’re looking for.” In other words, as long as archaeological data are absent, you lend maximum credence to your written sources. This approach is called maximalism. The alternative would be to argue “The sources may not be literally true. Unless the archaeologists find something, I must reconsider my way of reading the texts.” If you think you should not believe your source unless it is confirmed archaeologically, that’s called minimalism.

[Continued on the blog of Ancient History Magazine]


Before the pyramids

30 July 2015
The name of one the first pharaohs: Djer

The name of one the first pharaohs: Djer

Some time ago, I was in Beirut and visited the archaeological museum of the American University: a carefully chosen, lovely selection of objects that represent all major cultures of the ancient Near East. It was over there that I suddenly realized that I liked the reddish Naqada ware, which was made in Upper Egypt in the fourth millennium.

It’s not just an age in which they made intriguing pottery: it’s the age in which the people living along the Nile started to cooperate. Trade began. The first ships were built and soon became status symbols: the owner of Tomb 100 in Hierakonpolis asked someone to paint boats on the tomb’s walls. In the same city, archaeologists have found mummies with the first funeral masks.

[Read more on the blog of Ancient History Magazine.]


Heroes 10: Giambattista Vico (sort of)

27 July 2015
Vico

Vico

Somewhere in his autobiography, Casanova mentions a meeting with a Hungarian officer who didn’t speak French. In the eighteenth century, this was most unusual, at least among the well-to-do travelers that were Casanova’s usual company. Fortunately, the Hungarian officer and Casanova both knew some Latin, so conversation was easy.

No one, back then, would have denied that Latin was useful. It was also important: it was the language of international science and scholarship. Moreover, it was the language one had to learn to read law, because Roman legal traditions were still important. Writers and poets carefully read ancient texts so that they might emulate these examples. In Catholic countries, Latin was used in the church. If you wanted to read theology, you had to understand Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Because of the importance of the old languages, every European city had a Latin school.

[Read more on the blog of Ancient History Magazine.]


Converting Livius.org

22 July 2015
Phoenix (Allard Piersonmuseum, Amsterdam)

Phoenix (Allard Piersonmuseum, Amsterdam)

For some time now, I have been busy converting the Livius.org-website from old HTML to a modern Content Management System. This is a big, big job, because the website contained 3653 text pages and some 9000 photos. Worse, the job has to be done manually. Page by page, photo by photo. It’s a lot of unpaid work, so why am I doing it?

Because the website is not good enough. One of the problems is that it is based on outdated software. The first webpages were on a personal website and date back to 1995. (The name Livius.org is more recent.) Another problem is that when I started, there was already a lot of information on topics like ancient Egypt and Greece or Roman Britain, so I focused on what was absent: Persia and Germania Inferior. The website is still out of balance. A third point is that when universities requested me to leave out references to secondary literature, I agreed. It sounded plausible that my pages were plagiarized by lazy students. Today, it is easy to see that I ought not to have listened.

Read the rest of this entry »


Heroes 9: the scepsis

20 July 2015
Francois de la Mothe le Vayer

Francois de la Mothe le Vayer

The study of Antiquity started as a debate about fraud. Italian scholar Nanni had published fake souces and had caused quite a debate, especially because he also introduced the distinction between primary and secondary sources. This man was not an ordinary fraudster whose “discovery” might easily be set aside. It took a long chronological debate to find out what was wrong. In the meantime, scholars learned to look for the sources of the sources: although there were hardly any primary sources from Antiquity, we might try to approach them.

Although the foundations of a more reliable study of the distant past were being laid, the basic response to the unmasking of Nanni was scepsis. The seventeenth century witnessed the rise of a kind of historical scepsis that is sometimes called “historical pyrrhonism”.

he study of Antiquity started as a debate about fraud. Italian scholar Nanni had published fake souces and had caused quite a debate, especially because he also introduced the distinction between primary and secondary sources. This man was not an ordinary fraudster whose “discovery” might easily be set aside. It took a long chronological debate to find out what was wrong. In the meantime, scholars learned to look for the sources of the sources: although there were hardly any primary sources from Antiquity, we might try to approach them.

[Read more on the blog of Ancient History Magazine.]


The fall of Lucifer

17 July 2015
Heracles, the tree in the garden of the Hesperides, and the dragon Ladon: another echo of the story of Adammu, the tree of life, and Horannu. (Antikensammlung, Munich)

Heracles, the tree in the garden of the Hesperides, and the dragon Ladon: another echo of the story of Adammu, the tree of life, and Horannu. (Antikensammlung, Munich)

In the first issue of Ancient History Magazine, I will be reviewing Adam, Eve, and the Devil. A New Beginning by Marjo Korpel and Johannes de Moor. The authors claim to have found traces of a Bronze Age myth about Adam, a serpent, and the tree of life. This is not the place to discuss their readings of Ugaritic tablets – you will have to wait for our first issue – but it is an interesting book, written by two authors who show a recommendable disrespect for disciplinary boundaries: cuneiform sources from Mesopotamia, Zoroastrian stories, Greek mythology, and Biblical texts are combined. Iconographic evidence is taken into account as well.

The protagonist in the Ugaritic myth is a snake-god named Horranu or Hilalu. After losing a conflict with the supreme god, he is cast out of heaven, and falls down in the south-Syrian region that is still known as the Hauran. To avenge himself, he posits himself as a giant serpent in the Ugaritic equivalent of the Garden of Eden, threatening to poison the tree of life. Immortality is now in peril and the gods send one of them, Adammu, to kill the serpent, but he loses the fight. In the end, a kind of compromise is found: death has become inevitable, but immortality remains possible by procreation.

[Read more on the blog of Ancient History Magazine.]


Making progress

13 July 2015
Caracalla (Altes Museum, Berlin)

Caracalla (Altes Museum, Berlin)

Already before the end of the Kickstarter campaign, we were working on the first issue of Ancient History Magazine. The theme for this issue is “ancient explorers”, and it starting to take real shape. Milek Jakubiec has created sketches for the cover, several other illustrations are even completely ready, and Josho and I are about to start polishing the articles themselves.

So, in September, you can read about Queen Hatshepsut’s expedition to the land of Punt, about Hanno’s voyage on the Atlantic Ocean, and about the world map of Herodotus. (The man from Halicarnassus is admittedly not an explorer, but his map surely deserves to be covered in this issue.) You can sail to Thule with Pytheas and to India with Eudoxus. You can smell the perfumes of Arabia along the Incense Route. And you can join a Roman expedition to the upper reaches of the Nile. It’s all there.

[Read more on the website of Ancient History Magazine.]


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