Mosul and Hatra

9 April 2015
Statue of a Hatrene nobleman. This is a cast in the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum in Mainz; the original is in the Baghdad Museum, which was recently reopened.

Statue of a Hatrene nobleman. This is a cast in the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum in Mainz; the original is in the Baghdad Museum, which was recently reopened.

Yes, they are shocking, those images of the destruction of the museum of Mosul and the vandalism in Hatra. Still, I would suggest that you don’t pay attention to it. There are three reasons to ignore the news, sad though it is.

(1) Let’s be glad that the members of the so-called Islamic State are wasting their time destroying antiquities instead of human lives.

(2) We only see what is shown. Although it is terrible that ancient statues are destroyed, they are quite often well-documented. We know what is lost. The real problem is that there are illegal excavations and that the museums’ storerooms have been looted. The objects thus acquired are sold and we do not know what is lost. We don’t have footage of the clandestine trade – which funds ISIS – in ancient art. The footage shown to us, is a decoy.

(3) Let’s focus on the real news: Tikrit has been reconquered. Because the so-called Islamic State does not like that news, it shared a movie of the vandalism in Hatra. (Compare ISIS’ response to its defeat at Kobani: broadcasting the execution of Muath Al-Kassasbeh.) Because we are shocked – as we ought to be! – we start telling others and share the footage on social media. By doing so, we become unwitting allies of the so-called Islamic State, because we’re helping to distract from the fact that ISIS is suffering defeats and is forced to retreat.

If you feel outrage, the best thing to do is NOT share the news. If you want to do something, write a letter to a politician and call for legislation to stop the illicit trade of ancient artifacts.

[Originally on the website of Ancient History Magazine]

Time, part 7: a world without time

8 April 2015
Aristotle (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

Aristotle (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

If God is perfect, he cannot change. After all, if he would, he would be imperfect either before or after that change. Now if God cannot change, how can he have created the universe? This was more or less the argument that Aristotle used to prove that the world was not created and, therefore, had to be eternal.

It’s a good point and it took centuries before it was refuted. The most famous treatment is by Augustine of Hippo, who addresses the question what God did before the creation in the Confessions. After having joked that before the creation, God created Hell for people who ask improper questions, he made the simple but profound point that if God created everything, time had been created as well, and that there was no “before” before the creation. Aristotle’s question was devoid of meaning.

[Read the whole story 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 3: lists, lists, lists

4 April 2015
Fragment of the Assyrian Limmu List (British Museum)

Fragment of the Assyrian Limmu List (British Museum)

Dating events and objects is one of the most basic things a historian can do, but that does not mean it is simple. Radiocarbon dating offers no precise dates, but only a possibility that an object dates from a certain age. Dendrochronology is impossible if there is no tree ring sequence available for the area you are studying.

This means that the old methods of establishing a chronology have not been superseded. In turn, this means that unless something is dated according to the common, Christian era (or a similar era), you will have to make use of ancient lists of kings and magistrates.

[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]

Mandaeans on Pluto

1 April 2015
A Mandaean (?) incantation bowl (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

A Mandaean (?) incantation bowl (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

The bowl on this photo, which you can see in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, is an ‘incantation bowl’. It is decorated with an almost endless, spiraling text that is supposed to protect the owner against a host of evil spirits. These bowls were made in Sassanian Mesopotamia and were used by every religious minority. There are Christian incantation bowls, but they were also used by Jews, Manichaeans, Zoroastrians, and Mandaeans. I remember from my visit to the the museum that this particular bowl was Mandaean, but I cannot check it.


After all, what do I know about Mandaeans? Hardly anything is known about them. We know a bit of their theology: they are dualists who believe that the soul wants to be with God but is in exile on earth after a Great Cosmic Accident. However, there is secret knowledge that helps the soul return to its origin and destiny. This theology is not unlike the Gnosis of Antiquity and it is probably no coincidence that the name of this faith is derived from Aramaic manda, which means “knowledge”, just like Greek gnosis.

[Read more on the blog of Ancient History Magazine]

Heroes: Erasmus

31 March 2015
Erasmus. Statue in the Royal Library of the Netherlands (The Hague)

Erasmus. Statue in the Royal Library of the Netherlands (The Hague)

Yesterday, I discussed how Poliziano discovered the principles of textual criticism . In other words, he found out how scholars might reconstruct texts of ancient authors. Establishing the tradition, however, is just a first step.

Take, for example, the manuscripts of Arrian’s Anabasis , his book about the campaigns of Alexander the Great. In some copies, we read about a Babylonian canal named Pollakopas; in other copies, it’s called Pollakottas. As it happens, the solution is simple, because a Pallukkatu-canal is known from cuneiform sources, which means that Pollakopas is wrong. Probably, a scribe read π instead of ττ. A critical edition of the Anabasis will therefore opt for Pollakottas.

Still, we cannot entirely ignore Pollakopas: after all, we’re not interested in what Arrian should have written but want to know what he actually wrote. We cannot exclude the possibility that he himself was responsible for the error, which may have been corrected by a good scribe. Both words are therefore important and a critical edition will have a footnote with the ineliminable variants that the editor has decided not to use. These footnotes are called an ‘apparatus criticus’ and look like a cloud of abbreviations.

[Read more on the blog of Ancient History Magazine]


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