Lepcis Magna

29 December 2007

I have put online a long article on Lepcis Magna, the most important city of Roman Tripolitana, and the birth place of the emperor Septimius Severus. You can find it here. At the moment, there are four pages on Lepcis’ history (Phoenician beginnings, Romanization, Golden Age, Decline); five pages with sources; twenty-two inscriptions; and twenty-seven pages with photos of Lepcis’ buildings and the villas in the neighborhood. The photo shows the city’s most famous monument: the Arch of Septimius Severus.

I will add at least two pages before this year is out, and hope to add more in February, when I’m back from a new visit to that remarkable place, which is -from an archaeological point of view- less important than the Limes Tripolitanus, but still very much worth a visit.


Qumran / Scrolls of the Dead Sea

27 December 2007

qumran1.jpgThe preliminary report of the excavations at Qumran has been published; it can be downloaded here. If I may summarize the summary: there is no connection between the settlement and the famous scrolls, and the theory that the buildings were some sort of (Essene) monastery, is incorrect. The building may in fact have been a pottery manufactory center.

Although the authors of the preliminary report, Yitzhak Magen and Yuval Peleg, are archaeologists, and have until now not commented upon the scrolls, they now propose that these important texts were left behind by refugees from Judaea, who tried to evade the Roman legions during the war of 66-70. This may explain why so many scrolls with Biblical texts have been found – too many for one monastery.

All this is not very new. The theory that the Qumran settlement was a monastery and that the scrolls were written over there, has always had its skeptics, and the idea that the scrolls belonged to more than one library has been proposed before.  Still, it is interesting to see that the people who have been excavating the area for more than a decade (1993-2004), now join those who are skeptical about the old thesis.


23 December 2007


The statue is not very special. Just a torso. In fact, it is rather damaged. It probably represents Penelope, the wife of Odysseus. It’s in wet drapery style, so it dates to the second or third decade of the fifth century. Because it’s made of Pentelian marble, we know it’s from Athens. Nothing special.

What makes it unique, is the place where it was found: the Treasury of the royal palaces of Persepolis. Which explains why it’s now in the National Archaeological Museum of Iran in Tehran. The question how an Athenian statue came to Persepolis is easily answered: it must have been stolen in Athens when the Achaemenid king Xerxes looted the city in September 480. This damaged torso is a silent witness to an almost legendary war, and that’s what makes it unique.

Pompeian Frescoes

22 December 2007

bird.jpgOver the past years, the archaeological authorities of Pompeii/Naples have organized several expositions in other museums. I remember a nice exhibition on Herculaneum in the Koninklijke Musea voor Kunst en Geschiedenis in Brussels, a similar exposition -with different objects- in the Valkhof Museum in Nijmegen, and recently visited “Luxus und Dekadenz” in Haltern (which I found rather disappointing). It will soon move to Bremen. Now, it’s the turn of the Italian capital: several frescoes from Pompeii are exposed in Rome’s Museo Nazionale, which is located in several buildings near Stazione Termini. Several photo’s can be seen on the website of the BBC.

A Jar of Ptolemy IV Philopator

20 December 2007
Jar of Ptolemy IV

Jar of Ptolemy IV

This fine jar, made of fayence, can be seen in the Württembergisches Landesmuseum in Stuttgart, Germany. It shows a small female figure, pooring out a libation on an altar. The inscription mentions that this jar was from the palace of the Ptolemaic king Ptolemy IV Philopator, ruler of the ancient kingdom along the Nile from 222 to 204.


basileôs Ptolemaiou Philopatoros
property of king Ptolemy IV Philopator

Because the king has been identified by this inscription, we can also identify the female figure. She must be queen Arsinoe. The precious object must have been made in Alexandria and shows us something of the immense wealth and luxury of the members of the House of Ptolemy.

A Jar from Halicarnassus

20 December 2007
Xerxes jar

Xerxes' jar

In the British Museum in London, you can see this calcite jar (almost 30 centimeters high), which was discovered in the ruins of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, the monumental tomb of the satrap of Caria, Maussolus.

The object was probably made in Egypt and contains a very brief inscription in Egyptian, Old Persian, Babylonian, and Elamite: The great king Xerxes. The inscription itself is rather stereotypical and not extremely interesting, but the fact that Xerxes’ jar was discovered in the Halicarnassian Mausoleum, is quite sensational.

It is well-known that the Achaemenid king Xerxes, who ruled the Persian empire between 486 and 465, tried to conquer Greece in 480. However, unrest in Babylonia appears to have made it impossible for the Persians to keep their forces concentrated in the west, and Xerxes was forced to break off the war after he had conquered Thessaly and Boeotia, captured Athens, but lost a naval engagement at Salamis.

The Greek war is described in great detail by the Greek researcher Herodotus of Halicarnassus, who does not mention a visit by Xerxes to his native city. Yet, only the great king can have given this precious object with the almost sacrosanct royal signature to the ruler of Halicarnassus, queen Artemisia, who is also said to have been among the best commanders in the navy of Xerxes. The present passed through the Carian royal line and was eventually given as a funeral gift to Maussolus and his wife, who was also called Artemisia.

It is an intriguing thought that this little jar has been in the hands of king Xerxes, queen Artemisia, satrap Maussolus, and his wife Artemisia. It is also a fascinating object that illustrates the way in which the histories of Persia, Egypt, and Caria were once intertwined.

A Coin’s Tale

20 December 2007
Coin from Haltern

Coin from Haltern

Haltern, on the banks of the river Lippe in Germany, is one of the best-excavated Roman legionary bases. It is also a very important one, because it was occupied only during Rome’s Germanic Wars – between 5 BCE and 9 CE, to be precise. This means that the finds can be dated pretty accurately, which makes Haltern one of the chronological anchors of the archaeology of the Roman army.

One of the most puzzling finds at Haltern was a coin of the Fourth legion Macedonica, now in the Westfälisches Römermuseum. The problem is that to the best of our knowledge, this unit never belonged to the army of the Rhine. It was in Hispania and took part in the Cantabrian wars. Later, it was moved to Germania Superior and stayed in Mainz, but this was not earlier than 41 or 43. This coin is, therefore, simply not supposed to be in Haltern, unless we accept that it was brought from Hispania to the Lippe valley by a soldier serving in one of the Spanish legions that was transferred to the Rhine: I Germanica and V Alaudae. In other words, the presence of a coin of the fourth legion suggests that soldiers of the First or Fifth were at Haltern.