More Archaeological Disinformation

20 January 2010

Qasr al-Heir al-Sharqi

As the readers of this little blog will have noticed, I am increasingly disappointed in the quality of archaeological journalism. Some nations, like Greece, have modest and more or less reliable journalists, but often, journalists swallow the most ridiculous claims by archaeologists.

The problem is important. When people will realize that archaeologists abuse the press for their own purposes (explained here), they will start to hate archaeology, just like people have become skeptical about climatology. The credibility of politicians and bankers was already reduced to zero, scientists and scholars will be next. That is a very, very serious matter, because it means that debates can no longer be solved by credible experts.

Some of the archaeologists’ tricks we already know. From Egypt, we get a lot of prepublicity about the so-called tomb of Cleopatra; even if it is true (which I doubt), the result can not match the hype. In Italy, any find is immediately connected to a text – so a villa becomes the Villa of Vespasian and a beautifully decorated cave becomes the Lupercal. In Israel, anything is connected to the Bible. An interesting ten-century BCE ostracon becomes “a Biblical inscription“, although there is absolutely no Biblical connection whatsoever. I suspect that money is the root of all these evils. Once your excavation has received media attention, the continuity of your funding is certain.

I thought I had seen it all, but this week, I discovered a new trick. What to do when you are excavating a relatively unknown site, belonging to a civilization that is not really popular in the West? That makes it difficult to grab attention. The Syrian-Swiss team that is excavating Qasr al-Heir al-Sharqi, an early Umayyad fort, has found the solution: you just write that you excavated your finds in Palmyra, which everyone knows. It’s 100 kilometers away; it’s as absurd as saying that Oxford identical to London; and yet, the Syrian-Swiss team managed to have this nonsense published – or was too lazy to correct a mistake by a journalist, which amounts to to the same. 5 on the Ctesias Scale.

Godin Tepe

17 October 2009
One of the magazines of Godin Tepe

One of the magazines of Godin Tepe

In the area immediately surrounding modern Hamadan are several sites that may be labeled “Median”. Earlier this year, I blogged about Tepe Nush-e Jan; this time, we visited Godin Tepe, which is just south of the road to Kangavar. The eighth-century Median settlement was built on a hill, consisted of several halls and storage rooms, and reminded me of both Tepe Nush-e Jan and Çavustepe, an Urartaean fort I visited a couple of years ago.

Today, little remains of Godin Tepe (satellite photo). Some of the storage rooms are still recognizable, but the halls were destroyed when the archaeologists made a deep sounding. They discovered that the hill contained at least nine earlier strata, going back to the Copper Age; very interesting of course, but there’s little left to be seen for the occasional visitor.

The most interesting aspect of our visit was the discovery that on the site of the ancient cemetery, which has been excavated and contained no archaeological remains any more, a new cemetery had been made. Apparently, today’s inhabitants want to be buried where their ancestors had rested. Remarkably enough, they all had “Godini” as their family name.

Common Errors (20): Hanging Gardens

28 June 2009
Artists Impression of the Non-Existent Monument

Artist's Impression of the Non-Existent Monument

Babylon was the cultural capital of the ancient Near East. Many monuments have become famous, like the Ištar Gate, now in the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin, and the temple tower named Etemenanki, the “Tower of Babel”. Equally famous are the Hanging Gardens that king Nebuchadnezzar II (r. 605-562) created for his queen, a young lady from Iran who longed back to the mountains of her fatherland.

The Hanging Gardens, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, are mentioned by several Greek authors: the geographer Strabo of Amasia, the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, the orator Philo of Byzantium, and Cleitarchus, who wrote a biography of Alexander the Great that is now lost. This book, however, is quoted by the Sicilian historian Diodorus and his Roman colleague Curtius Rufus. So, we have a great many sources, and we get the impression that the complex was about two hectares large, as high as the city walls, and resting on heavy foundations of natural stone.

So far, so good. The problem is that all these sources were written in Greek or Latin. The Hanging Gardens are not mentioned in the thousands of cuneiform tablet from Babylon, not even in the list of monuments that is known as TINTIR is Babylon. Archaeology has not been helpful either: when the city was excavated at the beginning of the twentieth century, Robert Koldewey (1855-1925) was unable to establish the site of the Hanging Gardens, and in the end pointed at the only natural stones he could find. He admitted that he was not convinced himself.

It has been suggested that there must be a misunderstanding: the gardens may have been in Nineveh, the capital of Assyria. Although this assumes an error that is as big as placing the Eiffel Tower in Berlin, it is not impossible: Greek authors often confused Babylonia and Assyria. Herodotus of Halicarnassus was even capable of making Babylon the capital of Assyria. An alternative explanation is that the Hanging Gardens are simply a description of the Palace of Nebuchadnezzar: we know that it had gardens – so roof garden may have been there too. If this is true, the original mistake may have been made by Cleitarchus, who was not above exaggerating and delighted in stories about wonderful things.

Is Cleitarchus the inventor of the Hanging Gardens? All sources directly or indirectly quote him, except one: Josephus refers to a list of monument by Berossus, a Babylonian author from the third century BCE, who was known to Josephus through Alexander Polyhistor. However, there is something weird with Berossus’ list: it enumerates a series of monuments in exactly the same sequence as the East India House Inscription that is now in the British Museum. The only monument mentioned by Josephus that is not mentioned by Berossus, is the final one: the Hanging Gardens.

The similarity between the Berossus fragment quoted by Josephus through Polyhistor and the East India House Inscription is so striking that it is impossible that Berossus does not quote (a copy of) it. This leaves us with only three possibilities:

  1. Josephus added information from Cleitarchus to information he found in Polyhistor (unlikely: he had no motive for this fraud);
  2. Polyhistor added information from Cleitarchus to Berossus (likely: we know that Polyhistor had a rather loose way of dealing with texts);
  3. Berossus added information from Cleitarchus to the East India House Inscription (which raises the question why the inscription ignores a major monument).

We can not be completely certain, but it seems very likely that the Hanging Gardens are in fact Cleitarchus’ fantastic description of the royal palace in Babylon. All our sources can, directly or indirectly, be connected to his biography of Alexander.


R.J. van der Spek, “Berossus as a Babylonian Chronicler and Greek Historian,” in: R.J. van der Spek (ed.), Studies in Ancient Near Eastern World View and Society, Presented to Marten Stol on the Occasion of his 65th Birthday (2008) 277-318.

<Overview of Common Errors>


15 March 2009
The tell, seen from the west

The tell, seen from the west

The Bronze Age city of Anšan lies northwest of modern Shiraz. With a car, you reach Tall-e Malyan (its modern name) in an hour. I was impressed by the fertility of the wide valley that was once dominated by this city, which was the capital of a kingdom that was sufficiently powerful to be known to the scribes of ancient Babylonia. They called it URU an-ša-an. Dozens of towns appear to have to obeyed the ruler of this city: in 2000, seventy-seven other settlements were known from this valley alone.

All of these belonged to the third millennium, and that is why the discovery of Tall-e Malyan in 1971 was a sensation: it suggested that the growth of urban life (“the rise of civilization”) was not an isolated phenomenon in Iraq, but took place in a much wider area. This idea has in the meantime been corroborated by the excavations in Jiroft and the Burnt City.

Judging from its ceramics, Anšan was founded in c.5000 BCE and destroyed by a great fire in the Middle Elamite period. That the sixth-century authors of the Nabonidus Chronicle and Cyrus Cylinder still identify Cyrus the Great with the title “king of Anšan” does not prove that the town was still/again alive in the sixth century: it is one of those archaisms that are so often used in Babylonian literature (cf. the third millennium names “Gutium” for all countries in the east and “Hanaeans” for Macedonians).

Today, the low hill lies more or less abandoned, although thousands of sherds prove that this must have been a major city once. I spotted one big, artificially cut stone that may or may not have been part of a large wall. The part that has been excavated is now used as a garbage dump.

Iranian Explanatory Signs

14 March 2009

Taq-e Bostan

Right now, I am in Iran again. It is always a pleasure to meet the people and visit the museums, which have improved considerably during the last years. The small museum at the Hamadan excavations, which was in October still partly closed, is now open again – you can still smell the fresh paint. In the same city, the mausoleum of Bu Ali (or Avicenna, or Ibn Sina, whatever you like to call the great scientist) has been renewed. A bit more to the west, the monuments of Behistun have been made more accessible. The site of the Achaemenid palace in Susa has been improved, the restoration of the tomb of Cyrus in Pasargadae has been finished, while the restoration of the palace of Ardashir in Firuzabad has advanced substantially since October. The museum at Bishapur is still closed, but the rebuilding and redecoration appear to be almost finished.

All this is of course a great advance, and if I am a bit skeptical about the new explanatory signs, that is just a minor quibble. Still, it is a pity that the explanations are not completely up-to-date. Take, for instance, the sign at Taq-e Bostan that says that one of the reliefs shows king Ardeshir II receiving his investiture from Mithra and Ahurmazda. This is an old theory, but it has been discarded. The king is standing on a Roman emperor, whose face is carefully copied from a coin of Julian the Apostate, who was defeated by the Persian king Shapur II. The crown of the Persian king shown in Taq-e Bostan is identical to the crown of Shapur shown on his coins.

Or take the lion of Hamadan. In 1968, the German scholar Luschey proposed the theory that this was part of a monument dedicated to Hephaestion, the lover of Alexander the Great, who died in Hamadan. This is easily refuted: Hephaestion was buried in Babylon, the Greeks and Macedonians erected lion statues only for soldiers – plural – killed in action (e.g., Leuctra, Chaeronea, Amphipolis), Alexander did not build any monument in Iran, and the lion first stood close to a cemetery from the Parthian age. Because this hypothesis is so obviously wrong, it was never refuted, and it would have been forgotten if it had not been mentioned by Lane Fox in his notorious biography of Alexander, which became a bestseller. Unfortunately, the lion has now an explanatory sign that states as a fact that the lion was erected for Hephaestion – not even Luschey and Lane Fox dared to say that this was a fact, they were careful to say that it was a hypothesis.

Sometimes, the visitor starts to suspect intentional disinformation. In the Tehran museum, an English sign says that one relief represents a member of the ancient Persian clergy, and the corresponding sign in Farsi adds that “back then, the clergy also had great influence”. The lengthy explanatory sign that was recently erected in Gandj Nameh, which made it clear that Darius’ inscription was purely monotheistic while Xerxes’ text was polytheistic, has already been partly removed.

I have heard people say that the Islamic authorities use the explanatory signs for propaganda, presenting the Achaemenid state as monotheistic, with kings listening to the clergy. That the Iranian government presents the past in its own way may be true; it would, in any case, fit a  larger pattern: many – perhaps: most – governments pay only for research they like. In my own country, the Netherlands, there is more attention paid to the semi-legendary Batavians (a tribe on the edge of the Roman Empire that was once believed to be the ancestor of my nation) than they really deserve. Right now, there are at least three projects to reconstruct a ship from the Roman age, while Medieval ships are almost ignored, even though many wrecks have been found, and these ships were the foundation of the Dutch commercial power of the seventeenth century. Similar stories can be told about almost any nation. I would not blame the Iranian authorities for stressing those aspects of the past they appreciate most. All nations do so.

Still, I think that the present accusation is simply unfair. Taq-e Bostan and the lion of Hamadan show that the people who have made the signs, use rather old information. That would also fit a larger pattern; I remember meeting an Iranian professor who had written an article about Alexander but confessed that he had no access to the Latin text of Curtius Rufus, and was glad that he had found it on the internet.

To sum up: it is true that the staff of the Iranian museums and excavations may improve their museums even further by writing explanatory signs that are more up-to-date, but I do not think that they are more biased than archaeologists and historians in other countries. The real problem is that the results of modern Iranology remain locked in western university libraries. Now that is a serious problem, much more important than the explanatory signs. For the time being, I am really glad with Iran’s improved museums, and enjoying them every day.

Tepe Nush-e Jan

14 March 2009
Tepe Nush-e Jan

Tepe Nush-e Jan

The ancient Iron Age settlement known as Tepe Nush-e Jan can be found 75 kilometers south of modern Hamadan. It is often described as a Median town, and perhaps rightly so. However, there is a problem. According to written sources, the Medes were masters of large parts of Iran and Turkey; we would expect to find more or less the same objects in the centers of government, but so far, it has been impossible to identify the objects that represent the Median state. The empire of the Medes is not an archaeological fact (yet), but exists only as something mentioned by Herodotus and texts based (directly or indirectly) upon this entertaining Greek author, like the Biblical book of Daniel.

However, there must have been a Median civilization, and it must have been like Tepe Nush-e Jan, where a fort and a palace with a hall with many columns have been excavated, and a building that is interpreted as an eighth-century fire sanctuary. The walls of the temple, the palace, and the fort are almost eight meters high, and because they are situated on a natural hill that rises about thirty-four meters above the fertile plain, Tepe Nush-e Jan is easy to find.