30 April 2011

The excavators

Exactly two years ago, the town of Apeldoorn suddenly and sadly caught the world’s headlines, and as a former inhabitant of that quiet city, I am glad that this year, I can blog about something more trivial but also nicer: the discovery of several iron melting ovens from the Roman age.

It was already known that in the Merovingian age, people were producing and melting iron ore, but the activity appears to have started earlier. So far, six or seven ovens have been found, and it turns out that some unidentified remains discovered several years ago, also belong to the Roman age. The place where charcoal was produced, has been identified as well; last month, a farm was discovered. Apeldoorn suddenly has an important Roman past.

The finds are unexpected, but they fit a more general pattern: the Romans were able to exploit the natural richness of the country beyond the Rhine, even though they must have done so indirectly.


Mercury in Amsterdam

30 April 2011


Between 1600 and 1800, somewhere around ten thousand European ships sailed around the Cape of Good Hope to Persia, the Indies, China, and Japan. Half of these came from Holland. Of the vessels that sailed from the North Sea to the Baltic Sea, two-thirds flew the red, white and blue flag. Another ‘triumph’ for the Dutch entrepreneurship was the 45 per cent market share they had in the slave trade.

At that moment in time, Holland owned seventeen hundred ships, more than the fleets of France and England put together. It should also be borne in mind that the Holland flute ship could be manned by fewer sailors than ships from other countries, making for a much higher profit per ship.

Holland was responsible for sixty per cent of the Gross National Product of the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands and within Holland, Amsterdam produced the lion’s share. So, it comes as no suprise that if there is an ancient god who is almost omnipresent in Amsterdam, it is Mercury.

I put some photos here.

Wolf’s Darstellung der Altertumswissenschaft

24 April 2011

F.A. Wolf

Last week, I read Friedrich August Wolf’s Darstellung der Altertumswissenschaft. Written in 1807, after the collapse of the German states in the war against Napoleon, it shows its readers how they might regain a future: the only thing they have to do is study Antiquity and become almost as brilliant as the ancient Greeks.

I knew that this was the text that reduced Antiquity to Greece and Rome, and indeed, it’s not always nice to read that Asians and Africans had reached only the lower levels of civilization, and were not cultivated – after all, they had produced no literature. This is disingenuous: Wolf knew everything about Judaism. His more famous Prolegomena ad Homerum were innovative because Wolf understood the rabbinical commentaries and knew how to deal with the A-Scholia. Putting a blind eye to the great cultures of the ancient Near East was unkind.

I expected nothing when I started to read, but it proved to be a page turner. After his infelicitous remarks about the limits of Antiquity (indeed, neglect of the eastern part of the Mediterranean world), he explains what “Altertumswissenschaft” – the rejuvenated study of Antiquity – is about, and what it demands from its students. They need to study six disciplines and eighteen subsidiary disciplines; Wolf explains why and how, and does not make exaggerated claims. He is fully aware of the superiority of the sciences, and accepts it – the senseless claims, so often repeated by modern classicists, that science has made us more powerful but not more humane, are absent from the Darstellung.

In the end, the student has a sound, encyclopaedical knowledge of ancient society in all its aspects and would learn to think like the ancient Greeks. They had been the first to reach the upper levels of civilization, and had therefore been the only one people to be cultivated while retaining the nobility and originality of the preceding stages. It is all nonsense of course, but what did Wolf know about cuneiform? It is hard not to share his enthusiasm.

It is also hard not to like the teacher that Wolf must have been. The following words, exaggerated as it may sound, betray a man who knew his young students well, was able to show them something of very great value, and was happy when they were making progress:

Even the first attempts to explain an ancient text can have splendid results, and allow young people to look independently at the higher levels of achievement of the human mind.

Wolf’s Darstellung der Altertumswissenschaft is available at Google Books (here).

A House Full of Flowers, Again

22 April 2011

The award, made by Carla Rump

Some time ago, I had the honor to be given an academic prize (this one), and I could blog that my house was suddenly full of flowers. Ever since, I’ve bought a bouquet every week, because I liked the scent.

Now history appears to be repeating itself, because yesterday evening, the NKV (a well-known, large association of people in the Netherlands and Belgium interested in classics) gave its annual award to De rand van het Rijk, a book I wrote with my Livius colleague Arjen Bosman. Again, my house is full of flowers.

The chairman of the jury, Mr Van Reeth from Antwerp, delivered a speech about the nominated books that made the Dutch people in his audience realize that the art of speaking in public is better preserved in Belgium than in the Netherlands. His speech is probably what I will remember best.

What I also liked was the bronze statuette we received. It represents a dancing Muse and is made by Dutch sculptor Carla Rump, who “creates images because they do not exist in reality”. That is a most unclassical point of view: in Antiquity, art was meant to represent reality (mimesis, imitatio), and it was only in the nineteenth century that artists decided to create images that did not exist. Not imitatio but creatio. The statuette is a modern approach to an ancient subject, exactly as we must necessarily approach Antiquity.

Maundy Thursday / Wednesday

21 April 2011

Salvador Dalí, The Last Supper

No one likes to be in the chair of an amateur dentist. No one likes his government to spend money on nuclear research by amateurs. But everybody seems to believe that amateur historians can add something valuable. Now I am not denying that amateurs have contributed enormeously to the development of ancient history – but Winckelmann and Gibbon lived in the eighteenth century and Schliemann in the nineteenth. As a rule of the thumb, we can accept that, unless proven otherwise, an amateur historian is an unqualified historian.

As an example, I mention the British physicist Colin Humphreys, who has recently claimed that the Last Supper took place on a Wednesday, and not on Maundy Thursday. Well, there is a problem indeed. The Gospel of John contradicts the Synoptic Gospels (Marc, Matthew, Luke). The latter describe the Last Supper as a Passover meal; Jesus is crucified on the next day. John, on the other hand, presents it as a normal meal, and states that on the day of the crucifixion, the Jews were still preparing the Passover meal. All agree that Jesus was arrested on a Thursday evening.

Humphreys says that Jesus and his followers used a different calendar than the Temple authorities. Using his own calendar, Jesus could celebrate the Passover meal on one day, as indicated in the Synoptic Gospels; while other Jews might celebrate it on another day, as indicated by John. This might mean that the Last Supper actually took place on a Wednesday, which would also create some room for the complex series of events between the arrest and the crucifixion.

Humphreys’ theory is not new. It was, in a slightly different form, proposed by Annie Jaubert, in 1957, in a book called La date de la cène. The trouble with the Jaubert-Humphreys Thesis is that it solves a problem that does not exist by using a method that is self-contradictory.

First, the non-existing problem. There is absolutely nothing inherently impossible in the series of events following the Last Supper: arrest, a hearing by Caiaphas during the late evening, transfer to Pilate during the night, trial early in the morning, flagellation, crucifixion. I visited Jerusalem quite recently and walked from the western slope of the Mount of Olives to the Davidson Center (which must have been the place of Caiaphas’ official residence), through the Jewish Quarter to the Citadel (Pilate‘s palace); after that, I walked back through David Street, through the Triple Suq to the Basilica of the Sepulcher (which is not far from Golgotha). This is more or less “the real Via Dolorosa” and I needed less than two hours, including coffee and conversations with shopkeepers.

Second, the self-contradicting logic. Any professional historian will immediately realize what is wrong with the Jaubert-Humphreys Thesis: they accept the gospels where they are contradicting each other (the date of the Passover meal) while they reject the evidence of the gospels where they are in agreement – Jesus was arrested on a Thursday. This is not logic, it is a travesty.

Unfortunately, this is not an innocent, funny story about scientists who should not pretend they are historians. They are common (example 1, example 2) and because everybody knows that unless proven otherwise, an amateur historian is just an unqualified historian, they are not really dangerous. Still, there is a complication: Humphreys has an academic title, which gives credibility to his parody of scholarship. Our universities are sources of disinformation. This is the problem I am addressing with my series on common errors; a solution I do not have, but often I am wondering whether we should not create a system to retract a doctorate.

Zahi Hawass to Jail

17 April 2011
Some historians deserve a box on the ear

Some scholars deserve a box on the ear

Never a dull moment with Zahi Hawass. He left his job, he returned, he launched his own clothing line. And even now that he is sentenced to one year in jail, there’s an unexpected twist: it’s “for refusing to fulfill a court ruling over a land dispute”.

I would have preferred to see a different verdict: neglect of his main duties.We all know him from English-spoken TV-series and English books; he was always occupied with foreigners. If only he had devoted his limitless energy to his real responsibilities and had explained the importance of antiquities to the Egyptian people, he might have achieved really something and might have become a truly great scholar. The excavations would not have been looted this February. A trial in which he were accused of “failure to educate the nation” would have been far more interesting than the present one.

History Teachers on YouTube

13 April 2011

If you want to explain scholarship to a larger audience, everything comes down to enthusiasm. Even when you have solved one of the greatest mysteries of science or scholarship, or when you are one of the greatest philosophers of our age, if you are not enthusiastic about your subject, you are like sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.

Now enthusiasm is what the History Teachers, who have improved several well-known songs beyond repair to explain some basic facts about history, have in plenty. You can find their Facebook page here, but what you want to see is their page at Youtube. As they say themselves, they

make history-based music parodies because we are passionate about history, art, music, technology, humor, and yes, costumes!

It’s hard to disagree – their little movies are both funny and instructive. Even better: once a text has been set to music, it becomes unforgettable. Just like you cannot forget the first Latin declension after you’ve heard Jacques Brel’s Rosa, after you’ve heard these deliciously corny songs, you won’t forget how to mummify someone, will forever know the outline of the Trojan War, can’t get Greek philosophy out of your head, remember who Alexander was, know everything you wanted to know about gladiators, and understand the meaning of the Edict of Milan. Enjoy!

(Thanks to RomanArmyTalk.)