Why Pearse’s Mithras Pages Are Important

25 February 2013

Mithras relief from Dormagen

When, in 2040, the departments of humanities will be closed, an elderly historian will perhaps wonder what caused the demise of scholarship. Probably, he will answer that the humanities no longer wanted to live. Somewhere between 1995 and 2005, the will to survive vanished. The ancient, venerable scholarly disciplines no longer wanted to add something meaningful to the shared heritage of mankind.

The turning point, our historian will find out, had been the invention of the internet. Until then, scholars and scientists had communicated their results to the larger audience in a way that can be described as transmitter and receiver: researchers sent out information – books, journals, TV – and the people listened. But at the turn of the millennium, communication became more interactive. People could talk back and could shape the nature of the discourse. Our historian will gladly quote from Time Magazine, which had chosen “you” as the person of the year 2006. The transmitter-receiver metaphor no longer applied; the best metaphor to describe the way in which scientists and scholars explained themselves to the people, became the dialog.

A fine example, our historian will conclude, is Wikipedia, which was a kind of meeting place of good and bad information. Our historian will concede that the designers of the encyclopedia had realized the importance of debate from the very beginning: if someone had a question about someone else’s contribution, they could discuss these issues. It was good that in these debates, people immediately started to refer to their sources, and our historian will recognize that at the beginning of the twenty-first century, everybody recognized the importance of at least looking scientific or scholarly. Compared to the beginning of the twentieth century, that was a leap forward. The greatest achievement of western civilization in the twentieth century was that one-third of the population had had access to higher education.

Unfortunately, our historian will notice, this was not a guarantee of quality. He will discover that the online debates were easily hijacked by activists, because in the debate between good and bad information, between good and poor scholarship, bad information drove out good. Our historian will find it incredible, but he will establish that reliable information was, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, deliberately kept away from the larger public by pay walls. In the fight against activists, bona fide scholars and scientists fought with their arms tied, and by 2005, the damage was done.

This being the nature of the game, one would have expected that philologists, historians, archaeologists, theologians, philosophers, and other scholars would have fought back, but our future historian will discover that this rarely happened. If something was done at all, it was just presenting the facts, which were often correct indeed, but they were offered without any further explanation.

Still, there were professional researchers who investigated how to explain science and scholarship to the people successfully. They recommended scientists and scholars to explain methods and theories, but few scholars bothered to take care. Where was the book, our historian will be wondering, that explained the Lachmann method or the hermeneutic cycle to the larger audience?

Slowly, he will start to understand why so many people could, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, claim to be scholars, and were never contradicted: the scholars never explained how they achieved their results, giving the impression that scholarship was not a real, professional discipline, but a kind of amateurish hobby to which anyone might contribute. Precisely when information was transferred less by transmitter-receiver and more as a dialog, and when a highly educated audience demanded more information than just facts, the scholars retreated from the debate, not explaining what mattered most.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, our historian will think, three things ought to have been the top priorities if the humanities were to survive:

  1. online encyclopedias, written by professional scholars – and of course for free, because the people had already paid taxes and the information was already theirs;
  2. a sound explanation of methods and theories;
  3. an active policy to refute errors and mistakes.

Our future historian will notice that scholars refused to live up to the expectations. Of course, there were exceptions. There were some websites on which something was explained, but they were rare, they were created after the damage had been done, and they covered only the first of the three requirements. Too little, too late, too incomplete. There will be a wry smile at the historian’s face when he writes about the self-pity of the early twenty-first century scholars: they were never tired of complaining that nobody seemed to understand why the humanities mattered, but they rarely explained.

The historian will conclude that the humanities had committed suicide. Still, there had been people, inside and outside the universities, who had done their best. People who had refused to join the academic rat race, who had not been interested in the length of their publication list, who were really interested in the dialog with the larger audience.


One of these is Roger Pearse, the webmaster of Tertullian.org and a tireless fighter against quack history. In December, he has started a website on the Roman god Mithras. It offers a basic account of the Mithraic mysteries, it offers the sources, and most of all: it offers the arguments to refute theories that present Mithraism as an essentially Persian cult (it isn’t) and that it heavily influenced Christianity (it didn’t).

If we want to avoid that a historian, writing in 2040, will conclude that our generation is the one that killed scholarship, we desperately need more websites like these. But I am not optimistic. As long as our academics are more interested in the length of their publication list than in their duty to the larger audience, the humanities are doomed.


Review: Sie bauten die ersten Tempel

15 October 2011


I already blogged about my visits to Göbekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey. It’s an important site from the Early (preceramic) Neolithicum. What it is, we don’t really know, although Klaus Schmidt, the excavator, is pretty sure that the site is religious in nature. In his nice, well-illustrated book, Sie bauten die ersten Tempel (“They built the first sanctuary”), he offers lots of information.

The book is very well-structured. In the first chapter, Schmidt explains how the site was identified. It had already been discovered, but the discoverer had not understood that the big stones on the surface were from the Stone Age. Misidentifying them as Islamic tombstones, he had not realized the site’s significance. Schmidt, who had the benefit of knowing the finds from sites like Çatal Höyük, Çayönü, Nevali Çori, and Gürcütepe, was the first to realize the importance of Göbekli Tepe (“belly hill”).

The second chapter is about the discovery of the Stone Age, from the very moment that archaeologists realized that there had been an age in which people made stone objects, until the present day. It is a very useful and interesting chapter, because Schmidt can introduce important questions and technical expressions.

The third, and longest, chapter consists of a meticulous description of what has actually been found. The five enclosures are mentioned and every pylon receives is dealth with. Those pylons, which represent human figures (ancestors?), were decorated with all kinds of animal figures. Perhaps this chapter was a bit too detailed, but Schmidt did well to separate the description from the identification.

Enclosure C; photo Kees Tol

The fourth chapter deals with the interpretations. Schmidt compares Göbekli Tepe to several other places, without making very strong statements. Nevertheless, I was impressed by his argument that at least one picture does not represent ostriches, but people dancing like ostriches. I also liked the idea that the pictures of animals might in fact be some kind of sign language, although Schmidt does not say that this is the only possible interpretation of the finds. His conclusion is essentially negative: he is certain that these animals were not representation of the hunter’s prey. No one hopes to catch spiders or snakes.

Photo Marco Prins

A predator from Enclosure C; Museum Sanli Urfa; photo Marco Prins

In the fifth chapter, we read about the way this monument was built. A great many hunters and gatherers must have been involved, and the size of the monument proves that they were well-organized. The 2007 edition of the book, which was first published in 2005, concludes with an additional chapter with new finds and further thoughts.

What I like about Sie bauten die ersten Tempel is that it presents scholarship as a puzzle and allows readers to understand the process of acquiring knowledge. There is much room for doubt and cul-de-sacs are not ignored. For example, many animals look as if they are about to attack – but what are they defending? Schmidt admits that he does not know. He calls the building a temple, but immediately stresses that in fact, we cannot really know. This is the way a true scholar must proceed. I like this excellent book and can sincerely recommend it.

Classics in Decline

29 September 2011

In 2011, I wrote a book called De klad in de klassieken, “Classics in Decline”. It is about the way classicists, archaeologists, and historians try to guarantee that their information is adequate. The seven first chapters deal with their craftmanship, the three final ones with the problems they are facing in the Dutch, bureaucratic universities. The book was published in January 2012. Below is an English synopsis; a Dutch summary is here.


Scholarship is in a state of crisis and the first branch that is no longer capable of keeping up with the others, is the study of Antiquity. This is not just the problem of classicists, Biblical scholars, archaeologists, Egyptologists, Assyriologists, historians, and so on. The causes of the decline of the classics are relevant to other branches of scholarship and science as well.

1 ‘A field of study, too easy for truly great minds’

What is the study of Antiquity? Subdisciplines. Poliziano and the origin of textual criticism; Nanni and source criticism; Erasmus; Pyrrhonism; antiquarianism and the widening scope of history; the Enlightenment.

2 Three Geniuses and a Politician

Winckelmann and Gibbon and the synthesis of earlier approaches; Philhellenism; Wolf defines the scope of the study of Antiquity; the organizer Von Humboldt; the rise of institutes; pros and cons of institutes. Four main problems:

  1. insufficient attention to the ancient Near East,
  2. archaeology insufficiently appreciated,
  3. acceptance of an unproven continuity from Antiquity up to the present day,
  4. historicism.

3 Words from the Past

Linguistic interpretation of ancient texts; cultural interpretations; intertextuality; subjectivity; Schleiermacher’s hermeneutics; Dilthey; formalism; oral literature. The fifth main problem: outdated information, because of (among other factors) outdated hermeneutic approaches.

4 Facts and Comparisons

Eyewitness accounts and primary sources; secondary sources; facts, indirect facts, aggregated facts; logical problems with empirical study; from fact to language; problems with historicism; acceptance of wide comparisons; justification of comparanda; need to collaborate with the social sciences.

5 The Handmaid of History

From antiquarianism to archaeology; Schliemann; archaeology as the handmaid of history; Kosinna; Childe; culture-historical archaeology and nationalism.

6 Archaeologies

Collaboration with the social sciences breaks historicism (a way to solve main problem #4); decisive changes (functionalism, Clark, radiocarbon); spatial archaeology (Iraq-Jarmo Project); the so-called New Archaeology; possibility to say meaningful things about continuity (a way to solve main problem #3); postprocessual archaeologies and hermeneutics; classical archaeology until 1970; Snodgrass; archaeology no longer a subdiscipline of classics (solution to main problem #2); Greece no longer considered the cradle of civilization; more attention to the ancient Near East (solution to main problem #1).

7 Facts and Explanations

The five explanatory models

  • hermeneutics,
  • positivism,
  • comparativism,
  • narrativism,
  • physics of society.

Just when four of the five main problems were potentially solved, new problems arose.

8 The Fifth Main Problem

Three examples of serious disinformation; types of error (pseudo-history, quack history, exaggeration, contamination, outdated information); the rise of outdated information and its explanations:

  • the internet*, combined with pay sites*, offer quack historians an opportunity to refer to sources, whereas true scholars can only refer to pay sites and will lose any online discussion;
  • students must obtain their MA’s in too short a time*, and are no longer recognize capable of recognizing outdated information;
  • the Convention of Valletta caused an archaeological data explosion.

We’re living in an age in which outdated information can spread faster than reliable information, while academics are less capable to fight against disinformation.

9 Waterskiing behind a Wine Ship

What is quality? Doubts about truth claims,* bureaucratic solutions.* Other problems: insufficient cooperation between historians, classicists, archaeologists; unanswered questions; insufficient theoretical innovation. Poor explanation to non-academicians; rise of a class of aggressive sceptics.*

How things went wrong. Failure of quality control;* underfunding;* disadvantages of bureaucracy;* no control whatsoever of the information sent out to the larger audience.

Must we accept the end of the classical studies? No, but reform is necessary and possible.

10 Leaving the Procrustean Bed

Scholarship should serve society, but the present Dutch universities are a Procrustean bed. What to do?

  • Answer ignored questions about comparanda and continuity;
  • Form follows content: only when we know what we really want, we can create a new system of study. Independent institutes are better than large universities. If creating an institute for all classical studies, is only possible by making it an elitist institute, that is acceptable.
  • Make sure that the larger audience understands what scholarship is about.
  • Create efficient types of control, not focused on the amount of articles published every year, but on the correctness of information that is circulating in society.

Subjects indicated with * are also relevant to other fields of scholarship.

Why Cuneiform Studies Matter

28 July 2011

The Ptolemy III Chronicle

I have just written a review, to be published in Ancient Warfare, of John D. Grainger’s book The Syrian Wars. It is an important book, because the author shows that the Syrian Wars were crucial for the formation of the two largest Hellenistic states. Grainger essentially proves that Tilly’s Coercion, Capital, and European States (1990) is also applicable to Antiquity.

The trouble is that he might have written an even better book if he had been more aware of cuneiform studies. I know, those tablets are being published slowly, frustratingly so, and it is tempting to ignore them. Grainger is to be praised for at least reading the Astronomical Diaries, but still, he appears to be unaware of, say, the Babylonian Chronicles of the Hellenistic Period.

This is understandable. Like so many cuneiform texts, the chronicles have been published online only. In fact, they are still being discussed (compare this recent post). Nevertheless, the information is important. For example, Grainger is aware that during the Third Syrian War, the Ptolemaic army crossed the Euphrates, but concludes that it did not reach Babylonia. The Ptolemy III Chronicle (BCHP 11) in fact describes how the Egyptian forces massacred the garrison of Seleucia and captured Babylon. The Third Syrian War was much bigger than Grainger realizes, and Egyptian strategy was far more ambitious than he assumes.

Another mistake, less important, is Grainger’s date of the Babylonian War: the Antigonid attempt to drive out Seleucus, dated by Grainger to 311. He also writes that, to help the embattled Seleucus, Ptolemy launched a naval expedition to the Aegean. Grainger correctly dates this to 309-308, but this makes his overall reconstruction unconvincing: Ptolemy can have lured Antigonus‘ armies away from Babylonia only if the two operations took place more or less simultaneously. Fortunately, the problem vanishes once we realize that the Antigonid offensive in fact took place in 310. Grainger has not used the latest literature on the Diadochi Chronicle.

I am not writing this to diminish Grainger’s scholarship. As I said, he proves how important the Syrian Wars were, and an occasional error does not fundamentally change that. I wrote the above section to stress that two often ignored specialties actually matter: the study of cuneiform sources and the study of chronology.

There are two other points to be made. To start with, it would be nice if the students of cuneiform sources did a bit more to let the world know what they are doing. The Ptolemy III Chronicle, for example, might have been published in the Journal of Hellenic Studies. Grainger cannot be blamed for not knowing the Near-Eastern texts if there is not a signpost to give directions.

In the second place, the field of ancient history has become too complex. No one can know everything, and therefore, authors must invoke the advice of their colleagues. (This is why BCHP is preliminarily published online: to enable others to look at it, and make sure that no information is ignored.) And because no one can know everything, publishers have editorial boards. Grainger’s book deserved better editors, who might have spotted that their author had ignored, for example, Mittag’s Antiochos IV and Boiy’s Between High and Low.

Scholarship would really benefit were manuscripts to be put online first and books not to be published before a round of consultation. We have the means, we have the knowledge, and we have the technology to produce better books – so what are we waiting for?

How to lose respect

28 July 2011
Some publishers deserve a box on the ear

Some publishers deserve a box on the ear

There used to be a time when the universities were well-respected. People who had gone there, were believed to be wise and impartial. If they said X, we knew it was X and not Y. However, people have grown sceptical, and their scepticism is sometimes justified. Here in Holland, our government recently came up with a plan for a mass vaccination against Mexican flu; people just stayed away, and in the end, it turned out that the risks had been overestimated. Scepticism is, therefore, not wrong in itself, although I do not like this same scepticism when we’re discussing the changing climate.

Scientists and scholars need to take this scepticism more seriously. About 28% of the people – I will blog about that figure later – start reading an article about science/scholarship with the intention not to believe it. This means that there must not be any serious, recognizable gap in the argument. Now look at the first line of the press release I spotted today:

Many of the cities of modern Europe owe their location to choices made some 2,000 years ago during the time of the Roman Empire, new research from a University historian has revealed.

New research? Really? To establish what everyone already knows and no one denies? I was tempted not to read any further, believing that it would be another nonsensical press release (compare, compare, compare, compare) and I am probably not the only one who was disappointed. I am afraid that this press release has done a lot damage, confirming the idea that scholars do a lot of silly, unnecessary work.

The authors of this book are probably hard-working scholars, who did not write this press release. I am not blaming him. To make sure that this blog post, which is about PR, will not turn up in a Google search about them, I won’t mention their names. Nevertheless, if you want to check this story, it’s here.

Zahi Hawass: Departure of a Comedian

18 July 2011

The Dutch newssite Nu.nl made an interesting mistake today. The news that Zahi Hawass, the Egyptian minister of Antiquities, had been dismissed, was preceded by another news item: “The end of a great comedian”.

Let’s hope that Hawass’ successor takes more care of his own people and does not prefer to write his books in English. The Egyptians deserve someone who explains their past, and the past deserves Egyptians who understand why they should not loot excavations. Failing to educate his own people is Hawass’ greatest error.


11 July 2011

It must have been in the late 1980s or very early 1990s; my girlfriend and I were staying in Osuna in Spain. I wanted to visit Irni, where the Lex Irnitana had been found a couple of years before. We had already met a friendly man from Osuna, who had shown us some ancient finds from his land. We told him about our plan to go to Irni, and I think our host told someone that there were two people from Holland in town, interested in antiquities.

Not much later, while we were eating tapas in a restaurant, a young man asked permission to join us, and told us about his work: with a metal detector, he was searching for antiquities, and he sold them to foreigners. I asked him whether he did not feel guilty, but he said he did not; he had in the past told professional archaeologists about his finds, but they had taken his finds to Madrid. So, he had decided to sell his finds to foreigners. In both scenarios, the objects were lost for Osuna, but by selling them, at least something returned to the region: money. (“For yourself”, I thought.)

He offered his help if I wanted to purchase something, which I declined. Apparently, he concluded that we wanted to go to Irni to dig for ourselves, because next day, when we were there, we found the site guarded by someone with a gun, who continued to keep an eye on us, and cheerfully waved us goodbye when we left.

I mention this, because the argument of the young man has always impressed me. If you find something and decide to cooperate with professional archaeologists, and if your only reward is that they send it to another place, there is no stimulus to cooperate. This is why I think that small local museums, like Rindern and Haus Bürgel, are extremely important. They make people realize that the past is also theirs, and make them more willing to cooperate.