Common Errors: Summing up

27 October 2009
Spijkers op laag water

Spijkers op laag water

Today, my little book on common errors, Spijkers op laag water, becomes available in the bookshops in the Netherlands and Flanders. I have, over the past couple of months, several times blogged about it; today, I finish this series with an article on the causes of error. It is, essentially, the epilogue of my book. You can read it here.

In this epilogue, I stress that professionalism does matter, and that “amateur historian” is just another word for “unqualified”. I also stress that specialization has disastrous consequences: there is no time to teach the logical foundations of scholarship, which means that quality control is reduced to mutual criticism. That 37 of the 50 errors presented in my book have been made by people with a Ph.D., proves that this type of control fails.

Worse, our specialists are often forced to talk about subjects outside their direct competence; you cannot expect from a classicist to explain ancient history – but in publications for the general audience and teaching to first year-students, scholars are forced to discuss subjects they are unqualified for. As a consequence, our academicians are now a more important source for false knowledge than pseudoscholars like Immanuel Velikovsky or Erich von Däniken.

This may come as a shock, but I can substantiate this claim. Since 1995, I have probably answered 3,200-3,600 e-mail messages from “the general audience”, and I came to realize that there was a pattern behind the many misunderstandings: people are perfectly capable of distinguishing scholarship from pseudoscholarship, but will be fooled when a credible author makes a mistake.

I may be wrong, of course. I even hope so. But I am unaware of other studies to the causes of misunderstanding about Antiquity, and so far, the messages I have received appear to be the only data around. Unless professional scholars can offer better figures – which is certainly possible – I think that efforts to improve scholarship must not be directed against pseudohistorians; instead, we must focus on the universities.

Read more here, or order the book here.


Improved beyond repair

26 October 2009
Restaurant Daff, Tehran


One of the things in Iran I find endlessly intriguing, is the use of Achaemenid motifs in contemporary design. For instance, it is quite normal to see painted Immortals guarding a restaurant, and Darius’ audience scene on a curtain, a pillow, or a wallpaper, and the sign of Ahuramazda on the ministry of Foreign Affairs. The use of pre-Islamic symbols in an Islamic republic is one of the many remarkable aspects of a country that seems to collect paradoxes by the dozen.

Most imitations are coarse and only a few are truly beautiful. (In this respect, it reminds one of Catholicism’s artistic language, which also ranges from the sublime to the terrible.) Occasionaly, a modern Iranian artist allows himself a little joke, neutralizing the sometimes warlike imagery of Achaemenid art. The flowerman in a restaurant in Tehran is based on a soldier (this one), but our Iranian artist has made something much more charming. I was reminded of Alexander Kosolapov, who is also capable of neutralizing unpretty images – for instance, by making an addition to Hitler’s state portrait.


24 October 2009
Sarvestan Palace

Sarvestan Palace

The Sarvestan Palace (satellite photo), built in the fifth century by the Sasanian king Bahram V, is about an hour and a half east of Shiraz. The trip itself is half the fun, because the road passes along a salt lake and through some orchards (the pomegranates are now ripe). Finally, you reach an immense plain, where the only sounds you hear are the ones you produce yourself, and where your only company consists of an occasional twister. The palace is in the center of the plain, splendidly isolated.

The monument is made of bricks and used to have three domes, of which two survive. Just like the Qalah-e Dokhtar and the palace of Ardašir, both near Firuzabad, the Sarvestan Palace is being restored. There were large scaffolds in the great dome. On our way back, we bought some pomegranates, and enjoyed the chaotic traffic of Shiraz. All in all, the visit was extremely worthwhile.

If you want to go to the Sarvestan palace, too, it may be useful to know that it is not near the town called Sarvestan; it is in fact ten kilometers east of it, close to a small village. I read the sign while we were passing along it in the car and I could not read it well – it may have been Mohsenabad. Amusingly, I wrote in my notes “Mohinabad”, Nothingville.

Iwan-e Karkheh

17 October 2009
Walls of Iwan-e Karkheh

Walls of Iwan-e Karkheh

Iwan-e Karkheh” is the name of a region west of modern Andimeshk (Khuzestan), and is also the name given to the ruins of an ancient city, largely unexplored by archaeologists. Yet, the first conclusions were intriguing. It is a Sasanian city, founded in the fourth century and surrounded by a large wall of about 4×1 km. The enceinte can be seen 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.

I was attracted to the site because I 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 grow plastic on their fields. Iwan-e Karkheh is not exceptionally dirty; in fact, it seems to be well protected by the police post in the northeast.

The city must have looked something like Bishapur, but there is, apart from the wall, not much to be seen. Nevertheless, we enjoyed our visit and received an inevitable invitation from a nearby farmer. I do not know whether to recommend a visit, but if you decide to go, take the road from Andimeshk to Ahvaz, turn to the right to Deloran, and after about fifteen kilometer, when the road forks and the Deloran road leads to the right, turn to the left. By then, you will already have seen the walls. Your satellite photo is here.

Godin Tepe

17 October 2009
One of the magazines of Godin Tepe

One of the magazines of Godin Tepe

In the area immediately surrounding modern Hamadan are several sites that may be labeled “Median”. Earlier this year, I blogged about Tepe Nush-e Jan; this time, we visited Godin Tepe, which is just south of the road to Kangavar. The eighth-century Median settlement was built on a hill, consisted of several halls and storage rooms, and reminded me of both Tepe Nush-e Jan and Çavustepe, an Urartaean fort I visited a couple of years ago.

Today, little remains of Godin Tepe (satellite photo). Some of the storage rooms are still recognizable, but the halls were destroyed when the archaeologists made a deep sounding. They discovered that the hill contained at least nine earlier strata, going back to the Copper Age; very interesting of course, but there’s little left to be seen for the occasional visitor.

The most interesting aspect of our visit was the discovery that on the site of the ancient cemetery, which has been excavated and contained no archaeological remains any more, a new cemetery had been made. Apparently, today’s inhabitants want to be buried where their ancestors had rested. Remarkably enough, they all had “Godini” as their family name.

In need of a holiday

8 October 2009


As my Dutch readers probably know, I publish a newsletter every month, a bit like David Meadows’ Explorator. The difference is that I try to offer some context. If an archaeologist claims to have found something very special, I try to explain why it is so special, or why his press release must be taken with a pinch of salt.

Quickly after I started, I realized how much news was, in fact, no news at all. At first, I could make jokes about it and I awarded a satirical prize to the archaeologist who had written the most outrageous press release to draw attention (and get money) for his excavation. Some journalists, like this one, realize that they’re fooled, but most of them are easy victims. Unfortunately, it’s not funny any more. Take this month’s newsletter:

  • The inevitable Zahi Hawass, visiting Russia, comments upon the Taposiris excavations. We all know that it is not the tomb of Cleopatra VII, so why is he stressing it again?
  • The Alexander exposition in Mannheim is abused to stress again that Alexander has nothing to do with the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia. Boring. We already knew that, and people who still do not realize that ethnicity is fluid, are mentally living in the nineteenth century.
  • An article about hoards as indication for population trends is interesting, but raises a lot statistical questions, which are not addressed.
  • A street in Jerusalem belongs to the “Second Temple Period”. The name is a way to make things look Biblical, but basic information -was the street from the Persian, Hellenistic, Hasmonaean, Herodian, or Roman age?- is withheld.
  • A first-century cup from Jerusalem is described as a “mystery vessel” written “in code”. Now if those words were written by Dan Brown, I wouldn’t have a problem, but it’s the National Geographic.
  • After a year of unnecessarily commemorating the battle in the Teutoburg Forest, you’d believe that no one will say that ancient Germania was poor – an idea only found in Tacitus and not matched by the natural resources of the country east of the Rhine. But no, here‘s a professor claiming that the Germans’ “poverty helped preserve their liberty”.
  • Nero’s rotating dining room has been found, for the second time. Either it’s the next archaeologist’s trick to obtain funds, or archaeologists have fooled the public for quite some time.

It’s just a selection, I might add more. All these claims were made by professional historians and classicists. It is so depressing that our universities are becoming one of the main sources of false knowledge about Antiquity.

Usually, I like writing the Newsletter, but this time, I felt really frustrated. I need a holiday – and that’s why I’m off to Iran for two weeks.

Clytaemnestra Bed and Bath

7 October 2009
Bellerophon never arrived on his destination

Bellerophon never arrived on his destination

Many years ago, I spotted a hotel in Mycenae that tried to attract visitors with the slogan “Clytaemnestra Bed & Bath”. I am quite sure that the owner meant it as a joke. But I am less certain that the owner of the shoeshop named Oedipus in Antwerp, which I noticed on the Groenplaats as long ago as 1982, realized that the name of the Greek hero meant “swollen foot”. Calling a restaurant “Saint Simon”, or travel agencies “Odysseus” or “Xenophon”, is pretty infelicitous too, while a Chimera – well, it is a fantasy shop.

No fellow-traveller of Odysseus returned home 

No one travelling with Odysseus survived

Its front part was a lion, its tail a snake, and in between a goat. 

“A lion, its waist a goat, its tail a snake”


Saint Simon fasted more frequently than anyone else 

Saint Simon fasted very often


14.000 mercenaries joined Xenophon; 6.000 returned