Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Sumerian culture and its influence on subsequent societies

One of the members of my Historical Novel Society discussion list mentioned that she was working on a novel about ancient Sumer. This culture fascinates me, especially after I attended the "Treasures of the Royal Tombs of Ur" exhibit when it was displayed at the University of Chicago's Oriental Museum a couple of years ago. Although the artifacts in the exhibit are dated to the Early Dynastic Period ending in 2370 B.C.E., they were excavated from a cemetary containing tombs dating all the way back to 4500 B.C.E. The new novel will be set during the Jemdat Nasr period (3200 BCE to 2900 BCE).

I found this excellent overview of the culture on the web:

"Sumer may very well be the first civilization in the world (although long term settlements at Jericho and Çatal Hüyük predate Sumer and examples of writing from Egypt and the Harappa, Indus valley sites may predate those from Sumer). From its beginnings as a collection of farming villages around 5000 BCE, through its conquest by Sargon of Agade around 2370 BCE and its final collapse under the Amorites around 2000 BCE, the Sumerians developed a religion and a society which influenced both their neighbors and their conquerors. Sumerian cuneiform, the earliest written language, was borrowed by the Babylonians, who also took many of their religious beliefs. In fact, traces and parallels of Sumerian myth can be found in Genesis." - Christopher Siren, Sumerian Mythology.

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Monday, July 28, 2003

Ancient Merv Threatened by Irrigation Seepage

"Genghis Khan's hordes couldn't wipe out the great city at Merv even as they killed hundreds of thousands in their bloody wave of conquest. Centuries later, though, modern man's meddling with nature threatens to obliterate the once magnificent metropolis. "

Merv is unique because ruins dating to the 6th century B.C. to the 18th century A.D. from the five settlements once located here sit side by side, scattered across 1,500 hectares (3,700 acres), rather than stacked on top of each other.

The city's golden age was in the 11th and 12th centuries, when the Sultan Kala fortress was the eastern capital of the Turkish Seljuk Empire and one of the world's biggest cities. As legend goes, the blue dome of the Sultan Sanjar mausoleum was visible a day's journey away.

That era ended when Mongolian warriors led by Genghis Khan's son sacked the city in 1221. A 13th-century historian put the body count after their rampage at 1.3 million.

Today, in at least two of the key remaining buildings at the site _ fortresses known as the Great Kyz Kala and Little Kyz Kala dating from the 6th or 7th centuries A.D. -- walls are beginning to lean and are at risk of toppling.

See also: Merv Threatened

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Nationalists Turn To Archaeology To Validate History

"While modern-day archaeologists rarely have to confront lava pits, animated stone statues or the undead, they increasingly contend with entire peoples, becoming the frontline troops in the clash of civilizations. As empires and superpowers fade, cultural, religious and nationalistic movements have been growing in strength — and they are looking to archaeology to give them the validation of history, said Philip Kohl, editor of the book Nationalism, Politics and the Practice of Anthropology."

Jerusalem is far from the only place in the world where these sort of disputes have occurred.

Archaeologists point to the widespread destruction of holy sites during the Bosnian war, and the efforts of each side to erase any trace of the other's connection to the land. Serbs consider Kosovo the birthplace of their civilization because the area was once the seat of the Serb Orthodox Church and the site of a 1389 defeat at the hands of the Ottoman Turks. Albanians trace their ties to the area to another people who lived in the Balkans as far back as 1200 B.C.

However, archaeology does not provide a guarantee to political lineage. In 1971, the last Shah of Iran held an immense celebration on the ruins of Persepolis, the ancient capital of Persia, to celebrate 2,500 years of the Persian monarchy. But, less than 10 years later, the monarchy collapsed with the advent of the Iranian revolution.

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Minoan ship born again in time for 2004 Olympic Games

"In 2000, the Navy Museum of Crete decided to embark on an extremely challenging project: the reconstruction of a Minoan ship, the most ancient European seagoing craft.
Part of an integrated research program titled Experimental Naval Archaeology and with the cooperation of the Navy Museum of Crete and the NA-U-DO-MO Ancient Shipbuilding Research Group, which designed and constructed the model, the entire project has been under the auspices of the Culture Ministry since last May. The main goal of the project is to build a realistic model of the Minoan ship by the beginning of summer 2004, when it is to sail from Cape Spatha on the island of Crete to Piraeus."

See also: Nautical Museum of Crete
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Thursday, July 24, 2003

Bronze Age Burial Site Uncovered at Gibraltar

The question of the initial arrival of eastern Mediterranean sailors, such the Phoenicians, to the south of Iberia has been the subject of great debate for a long time. Until now, archaeological evidence has not confirmed the classical texts of the ancient writers that suggested an arrival at the end of the second millennium BC. But a bronze age burial site within a natural cavity inside of Bray's Cave now supports the ancient claims that early pre-colonial mariners did indeed reach the Strait of Gibraltar.
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Thursday, July 10, 2003

Multispectral Imaging May Reveal Contents of Burned Medieval Manuscripts

A medieval library consisting of over 2,000 volumes dating back to the 12th century and charred by an allied bombing raid on Chartres, France the evening of 26 May, 1944, may once more be studied by a new generation of scholars thanks to a new technology called multispectral imaging.

"The library at Chartres was possibly the greatest medieval library," said associate professor Constant Mews, an expert in medieval literature at Monash University in Victoria, Australia. The centrepiece of the collection was the Heptateuchon, a treatise on the arts by the 12th Century philosopher Thierry de Chartres.

A key member of the team using multispectral imaging to decipher burned scrolls from the Roman town of Herculaneum, which was buried by the eruption of the volcano Vesuvius in AD 79, says the technique could be ideal for reading the damaged Chartres manuscripts.
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History Detectives premieres on PBS

PBS is producing a new series called History Detectives. It sounds like fun and the techniques could be used to explore historical sites, artifacts, etc. in places around the world (as well as the US).

"History Detectives features a team of scientists, historians and other
inquisitive fact-finders who explore the true stories behind historic
sites, artifacts and tall tales told in cities across the U.S. At the
companion site, meet the team and examine their most trusted sleuthing
tools, try your hand at solving a variety of historical mysteries,
access lesson plans, browse a handy glossary and more. Plus, submit your
own historical mystery for possible use on an upcoming episode of the
show!" - Carrie Lowe, PBS Education
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Monday, July 07, 2003

"Caesar" miniseries embellishes history

TNT's "Caesar" miniseries was much anticipated and although the history was "embellished" by Hollywood, I appreciated the effort. Of course members of my Imperial Rome group began to share their impressions as soon as Part 1 ended. One observation was that Sulla, played by an ancient Richard Harris, was only in his fifties when he returned to Rome with his legions. Well, not only was Richard Harris too old but the politics and personality of Sulla was all wrong as well. Sulla's "reforms" were intended to restore power to the Senate. He was not a "man of the people" in any stretch of the imagination. He was also ruthless and his proscriptions were brutal but he was not fickle or insane at the time he reentered Rome. He also didn't die while he was dictator and not in the bath (I think the screenwriter got his dictators mixed up). He retired and died about a year later from a liver disorder - probably cirrhosis from drinking too much as a remedy to his terrible skin condition that he contracted in the east. Of course, they also did not portray anything of this bisexual nature either.

Then we come to the issue of Cornelia being portrayed as too old and little Julia as way too old. Caesar's encounter with the pirates was a pathetic attempt at typical hollywood tension instead of the more interesting way that it actually unfolded with Caesar being aristocratic and writing and reciting poetry to his captors then having them executed just as he promised. Of course the ridiculous scene of Pompey "saving" Caesar's life was totally conjured out of thin air. Caesar also joined the army and had served courageously winning the Corona Civica before returning to Rome. The miniseries didn't seem to indicate Caesar had any military experience until he went to Gaul which was ridiculous.

However, despite all of hollywood's blunders in historical film making, I would still rather watch an inaccurate film about the period than much of the outright trash hollywood produces for "the mob". I went to "The Matrix: Reloaded" recently and was actually bored by the long drawn out sequences of kicking, punching, flipping, etc. meant to make the audience marvel at the film's special effects. After all, hollywood had to take 3 1/2 minutes of plot and make it last 2 hours so I guess you have to cut them a little slack!

What I find most disappointing is that Caesar's life - as it was lived - was absolutely fascinating and didn't need any tinkering to make it an absorbing film. I read an article that said Chris Noth commanded such a screen presence as Pompey that the filmmakers decided to plump up his part. This resulted in the Pompey saving Caesar, etc. sequences. I think Noth was quite regal as Pompey too but the resulting effort to showcase his talent ended up detracting from Jeremy Sisto's portrayal of Caesar, who was supposed to be the focus of the work.

I also think the film should have been forthright about Caesar's numerous affairs instead of portraying his relationship with Cleopatra as a modern soap-opera. I think portraying Caesar as a bit of a rascal in this regard would have added more depth to his character. I also don't think Calpurnia would have let his philandering influence her relationship with him. It was common for wealthy men to have mistresses and Calpurnia would have also recognized the political factors in the relationship with Cleopatra. I'm sure she didn't particularly like it but Calpurnia also recognized that as his legitimate wife, she ultimately held the most important position. I think McCullough's portrayal of the situation in "The October Horse" was much closer to the mark.

One member dismissed the series as another victim of bad acting along with "Gladiator". I'm afraid I disagree with the "bad acting" label for "Gladiator" and even to some extent for "Caesar". Russell Crowe's recent performances have impressed me, particularly his work in "A Beautiful Mind" and "The Insider" as well as "Gladiator." I also thought Joaquin Phoenix was excellent as Commodus (He also was outstanding in "Quills" even if the story was a bit bizarre), Connie Nielsen did a great job as Lucilla, and Oliver Reed was most memorable in his performance as Proximo. (I'm glad they were able to preserve his performance even though he died before shooting ended).

As for "Caesar", I agreed with other members that Jeremy Sisto suffered from a lackluster script more than from bad acting. I also found the actor playing Vercingetorix to have quite a screen presence. Of course, I think the Alesia segment was the highlight of the program although the sacrifice of the women and children is not recorded in Caesar's Commentaries. Hollywood must have embellished some of the references such as:

"The matrons begin to cast their clothes and silver over the wall, and bending over as far as the lower part of the bosom, with outstretched hands beseech the Romans to spare them, and not to sacrifice to their resentment even women and children, as they had done at Avaricum. Some of them let themselves down from the walls by their hands, and surrendered to our soldiers." - Caesar's Commentaries, Chapter 47.

"When a great multitude of them had assembled, the matrons, who a little before were stretching their hands from the walls to the Romans, began to beseech their countrymen, and after the Gallic fashion to show their disheveled hair, and bring their children into public view." - Caesar's Commentaries, Chapter 48.

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