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

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.