Archaeology in Israel (2)

6 August 2015

probabilityIn the first part of this article, I explained how information from ancient sources is not always confirmed by archaeology. In asymmetric situations like these, “maximalists” assume that the information from written texts can be accepted: this is supposed to be reliable unless archaeology contradicts it. “Minimalists”, on the other hand, think that information from written sources can only be accepted if it is archaeologically confirmed.

Usually, it is not important which of these two research strategies is preferred. No Englishman cares there is no archaeological confirmation for Caesar’s claim to have invaded Britain and no Iranian is worried that Herodotus’ seven walls of Ecbatana have not been found. This is different in Israel, where there is no unequivocal archaeological evidence for the powerful state of King Solomon. Given the fact that Israel has supporters who believe the Bible to be literally true, and given the fact that it has enemies who will mercilessly point out flaws in the Biblical narrative, the asymmetrical evidence has political consequences.

[Read more on the blog of Ancient History Magazine.]

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Archaeology in Israel (1)

3 August 2015
Jerusalem, "Large Stone Structure"

Jerusalem, “Large Stone Structure”

The study of the ancient world is so fascinating because all those cultures, nations, tribes, states, and civilizations share one characteristic: a great shortage of data. If you want to study an aspect of Antiquity, you need every bit of information you can get: texts, archaeological finds, parallels from other cultures. Antiquity, I’m sure you’ll agree, is the largest and most interesting puzzle the world has ever seen.

Unfortunately, the available information is often inconsistent. Herodotus tells us that Ecbatana was a big city with seven walls, but archaeologists found nothing. Caesar claims to have visited Britain, but not a single camp has been identified.

In situations like these, when information obtained from texts and excavations is asymmetrical, it’s up to the historian to decide what to do next. He might say: “I prefer to believe the written sources. If the archaeologists continue to dig, they will find what we’re looking for.” In other words, as long as archaeological data are absent, you lend maximum credence to your written sources. This approach is called maximalism. The alternative would be to argue “The sources may not be literally true. Unless the archaeologists find something, I must reconsider my way of reading the texts.” If you think you should not believe your source unless it is confirmed archaeologically, that’s called minimalism.

[Continued on the blog of Ancient History Magazine]


The fall of Lucifer

17 July 2015
Heracles, the tree in the garden of the Hesperides, and the dragon Ladon: another echo of the story of Adammu, the tree of life, and Horannu. (Antikensammlung, Munich)

Heracles, the tree in the garden of the Hesperides, and the dragon Ladon: another echo of the story of Adammu, the tree of life, and Horannu. (Antikensammlung, Munich)

In the first issue of Ancient History Magazine, I will be reviewing Adam, Eve, and the Devil. A New Beginning by Marjo Korpel and Johannes de Moor. The authors claim to have found traces of a Bronze Age myth about Adam, a serpent, and the tree of life. This is not the place to discuss their readings of Ugaritic tablets – you will have to wait for our first issue – but it is an interesting book, written by two authors who show a recommendable disrespect for disciplinary boundaries: cuneiform sources from Mesopotamia, Zoroastrian stories, Greek mythology, and Biblical texts are combined. Iconographic evidence is taken into account as well.

The protagonist in the Ugaritic myth is a snake-god named Horranu or Hilalu. After losing a conflict with the supreme god, he is cast out of heaven, and falls down in the south-Syrian region that is still known as the Hauran. To avenge himself, he posits himself as a giant serpent in the Ugaritic equivalent of the Garden of Eden, threatening to poison the tree of life. Immortality is now in peril and the gods send one of them, Adammu, to kill the serpent, but he loses the fight. In the end, a kind of compromise is found: death has become inevitable, but immortality remains possible by procreation.

[Read more on the blog of Ancient History Magazine.]


Cyrenaica, part 5: Simon of Cyrene

15 April 2015
Simon of Cyrene

Simon of Cyrene

Cyrene was the hometown of many famous Greeks. Eugammon was the author of an important but lost poem about the events after the homecoming of Odysseus, the Telegony. Mathematician Theodorus of Cyrene developed the theory of irrational numbers. Another Theodorus was one of the founders of atheism. Callimachus was one of the most influential poets of Antiquity, while Eratosthenes was the first to measure the circumference of the earth. Philosophers of the Cyrenaean School taught that pleasure was the best thing in life.

They are all forgotten or almost forgotten. The best remembered Cyrenaean is a Jew named Simon, who is mentioned in the gospel of Mark (15.21).

And they compel one Simon a Cyrenian, who passed by, coming out of the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to bear his cross.

That’s all.

[Read more on the blog of Ancient History Magazine]


Time, part 4: the date of Easter

5 April 2015
Thirteenth-century Paschal Table (British Library)

Thirteenth-century Paschal Table (British Library)

In the first article of this series, I wrote about the quest for a good calendar, and I mentioned the Babylonian version: a cycle of nineteen years, in which the third, sixth, eighth, eleventh, fourteenth, seventeenth, and last year get an additional, thirteenth month. In other words, it is a cycle of 19×12 + 7 = 235 months, which are indeed – give or take a few hours – identical to nineteen years. New Year’s day will always be the New Moon closest to the beginning of the spring.

Because the Babylonian cycle, which is also known as the Cycle of Meton, is nearly faultless, it was adapted by several other nations, including the Jews. The document known as Some Works of the Law, which is probably a letter to the high priest Jonathan (r.150–143 BC), seems to be a response to the adoption of a foreign calendar: the author tries to persuade the addressee that there are better calendars. The high priest was  not convinced, however, and the Jews use the Babylonian calendar until this very day.

[Read more on the blog of Ancient History Magazine]


Time, part 1: measuring time

2 April 2015
The Gezer calendar (Archaeological Museum, Istanbul)

The Gezer calendar (Archaeological Museum, Istanbul)

Let’s face it: life is just one day after another. “The sun ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose,” says Ecclesiastes, adding that this was all very wearisome. Given the tedious repetition of days, it is a bit odd to count them. Neither hunters nor the first farmers needed a calendar. The changing seasons gave sufficient warning of what was going on. Once your crop was ready, you could harvest it. In most agricultural societies, there was no need to measure time very accurately. There certainly was no need to construct a complex calendar.

The first calendars were impractical. Here is W.F. Albright’s translation of a calendar found in Gezer in Israel (now in the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul). It dates to about 900 BC.

His two months are harvest
His two month are planting
His two months are late planting

His month is hoeing up of flax
His month is harvest of barley
His month is harvest and feasting

His two months are vine-tending
His month is summer fruit.

[Read more on the website of Ancient History Magazine]


Ancient History Magazine

22 March 2015

ahm_coverSome time ago, I blogged about the new project of Karwansaray, the publisher of a/o Ancient Warfare: a new magazine about Antiquity with the admittedly predictable name Ancient History Magazine. I wrote that once the trial issue was ready, we would try to raise money with a Kickstarter campaign.

Well, you can download the trial issue here and you can find the Kickstarter there.

That’s all I really wanted to say. But, you may ask, why should you be interested in another new magazine? And why should you contribute to it?

Read the rest of this entry »