Sunday, May 24, 2009

Will Underwater Excavation of Pavlopetri Provide Clues to Greek Dark Ages?

When I read about the underwater excavation and survey of Pavlopetri, a Mycenaen village submerged off the southern tip of Greece, I wondered if the team might find some clues to the Greek Dark Ages in the remnants of this Mycenaen settlement.

[Image: Terracotta chariot krater Helladic Mycenaean Late Helladic IIIB 1300-1230 BCE in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Mary Harrsch]

The article says pottery dates abruptly stop at 1180 BCE which is significant as this marks the boundary period between the late Bronze Age and the period referred to as the Greek Dark Ages. Evidence that the city was not rebuilt would point to some kind of natural cataclysm of tremendous proportions. I immediately thought about the eruption of Thera but two studies reported in 2006 seem to support a much older date for that particular catastrophe:

"One study, led by archaeologist Sturt Manning at Cornell University, dated wood and seed samples collected from Akrotiri.

Another study, led by geologist Walter Friedrich of the University of Aarhus in Denmark, uses a single branch to pinpoint the time of death for an olive tree believed to have been buried alive during the eruption.

Together, the two studies strongly suggest an eruption date of somewhere between 1660 and 1600 B.C. - More: Fox News

This later cataclysm, however, could have been part of an earthquake "storm" that rippled along the Mediterranean's eastern plate boundary in subsequent centuries.

The BBC seems to dismiss the possibility that earthquake storms could have been that devastating:

Most controversial is the theory that an earthquake storm may have been responsible for the abrupt physical and political collapse of Aegean Bronze Age world around 1200 BC. Some geologists and archaeologists point out that most of the ancient cities that fell at that time lie along the plate-boundary of the eastern Mediterranean and show signs of destruction typical of earthquakes. It supports a view that a storm of earthquakes successively ‘unzipped’ the plate boundary, so weakening the cities along the way that they were left vulnerable militarily, inviting attacks from opportunistic neighbours.

Earthquakes have frequently been used by historians and archaeologists as convenient explanations for cataclysmic destructions and abandonments. But earthquakes rarely wipe out entire cities, let alone entire regions. More often, seismic shocks leave cities as jumbles of ruined, damaged and intact buildings, encouraging their inhabitants not to flee but to stay and rebuild their houses and livelihoods. It is a pattern that we see in modern earthquake disasters, and there is little sign that human nature was any different in the past. - More: Journeys From The Centre of the Earth, BBC,

However, this generalization does not seem to take into account the evidence from Pavlopetri that its people did not rebuild in the 12th century BCE or evidence from excavations at Sagalassos that their citizens abandoned their city after Arab raids and a catastophic quake in the 7th century CE (As coincidence would have it, I just viewed a film about the excavations at Sagalassos at the Archaeology Channel International Film Festival two days ago). On the contrary, these examples from the archaeological record seem to lend substance to the "earthquake and subsequent military vulnerability" theory as a reasonable causal hypothesis for such epochs of cultural decline.

The researchers are using a new sonar scanning technique that sounds like it will yield as detailed of images as a laser scanner.

"'We're using scanning sonar', which has been developed by an offshore engineering company [Kongsberg Mesotech in Vancouver, Canada, a subsidiary of Kongsberg Maritime, headquartered in Norway]. Their equipment does the same thing a terrestrial laser scanner would do, only using acoustic signals. It can take thousands of points over a couple of minutes and also take photorealistic impressions, so we could produce three-dimensional models using this equipment. Until now, sonar hasn't been able to produce as accurate a survey as terrestrial techniques. But if it does deliver everything it is supposed to, it could completely revolutionize underwater archaeology. Getting decent plans quickly is often a problem, and we often use measuring tapes and lines — which is effective, but time-consuming." - More: NatureNews

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Friday, May 22, 2009

Film "Agora" Profiles Female Mathematician and Pagan Martyr Hypatia

The new film "Agora" starring Rachel Weisz as 4th century CE female scholar, Hypatia, sounds almost like the antithesis of Ben Hur.

"The heart of the film is Hypatia (Rachel Weisz in an unfaltering performance), the fourth century AD philosopher and teacher who lived in Alexandria during the Roman Empire. Married only to her unquenchable intellect and passion for mathematics and astronomy, she is loved by two men: her slave, Davus (Max Minghella), and her student, Orestes (Oscar Isaac).

Politics in the film are weakest during the overtly political speeches and monologues, and best captured in the details. Like many, Davus seeks not spiritual salvation in the Christian uprising but freedom from slavery, despite the bloodshed. His first attempt at prayer is brilliant: Unable to remember the Lord's Prayer, he quickly falls into a mantra to God to keep Hypatia away from Orestes. For his part, Orestes will renounce paganism and convert to Christianity during his rise in Roman politics." - More: Reuter

Hypatia was the daughter of Theon, who was her teacher and the last known mathematician associated with the museum of Alexandria. She traveled to both Athens and Italy to study, before becoming head of the Platonist school at Alexandria in approximately 400 AD . According to the 10th century Byzantine encyclopedia the Suda, she worked as teacher of philosophy, teaching the works of Plato and Aristotle. - More: Wikipedia

"Hypatia corresponded with and hosted scholars from others cities. Synesius, Bishop of Ptolemais, was one of her correspondents and he visited her frequently. Hypatia was a popular lecturer, drawing students from many parts of the empire.

From the little historical information about Hypatia that survives, it appears that she invented the plane astrolabe, the graduated brass hydrometer and the hydroscope, with Synesius of Greece, who was her student and later colleague.

Hypatia dressed in the clothing of a scholar or teacher, rather than in women's clothing. She moved about freely, driving her own chariot, contrary to the norm for women's public behavior. She exerted considerable political influence in the city."

"...[The local Christian bishop Cyril incited] a mob led by fanatical Christian monks in 415 to attack Hypatia as she drove her chariot through Alexandria. They dragged her from her chariot and, according to accounts from that time, stripped her, killed her, stripped her flesh from her bones, scattered her body parts through the streets, and burned some remaining parts of her body in the library of Caesareum." - More:

So much for compassion and tolerance!

Update: 7/7/09: Agora trailer has been released. Apparently, the film is set to premiere in December!

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Thursday, May 07, 2009

Nefertiti: A Fake with Two Faces?

I was catching up on some of my news alerts after returning from Italy and noticed two fascinating articles about the famed bust of Nefertiti. The first headline to startle me was a claim that the Nefertiti bust is a fake. Apparently, Swiss historian Henri Stierlin says, after studying the records surrounding the discovery of the bust, that it was produced in 1912 in efforts to study ancient pigments. He even names the artist - Gerardt Marks, who supposedly produced the work at the request of archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt.

[Image - a documented replica of the bust of Nefertiti displayed at the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose, California. Photo by Mary Harrsch]

However, Stierlin's "evidence" seems a little thin to me. First, he claims that the statue was never designed to have a left eye - it just isn't simply missing. "This is an insult for an ancient Egyptian who believed the statue was the person themself," Stierlin says. Perhaps he describes how he arrived at this conclusion in his paper.

Stierlin also observes that the shoulders of the work are cut vertically in the Art Nouveau-style of the early 20th century, not horizontally as is usually portrayed in ancient Egyptian art. Although this is an interesting observation, I can't help but wonder if the difference in style was the result of the shift in Egyptian art that occurred during the Amarna period and not a reflection of later art styles.

I thought his more compelling argument was the lack of documentation of the find by the original excavation team. Stierlin says this exquisite object was not mentioned at all in dig records. "[They] didn't even bother to supply a description, which is amazing for an exceptional work found intact!" he exclaimed.

He does admit, though, that the pigments have tested out as appropriately ancient.

From a political viewpoint, I can't help but wonder about the timing of this report. Egypt is demanding the return of the bust. If its authenticity is questioned, this would present a substantial legal obstacle to repatriation efforts. If it is, in fact, a German 20th-century sculpture, Egypt has no claim to it. The bust is so famous, though, the public will continue to flock to see it anyway - especially since dating of the stone underneath is not possible at this time - and its the tourist dollars the two governments are actually after.

Speaking of the stone underneath brings me to the next article about the bust I found quite interesting. A CT scan has revealed that the plaster features of the bust vary slightly from the actual carved stone bust within. I think she still ranks as one of the most beautiful profiles in the world though!

"Researchers in Germany have used a modern medical procedure to uncover a secret within one of ancient Egypt's most treasured artworks -- the bust of Nefertiti has two faces.

A team led by Dr. Alexander Huppertz, director of the Imaging Science Institute at Berlin's Charite hospital and medical school, discovered a detailed stone carving that differs from the external stucco face when they performed a computed tomography, or CT, scan on the bust.

The findings, published Tuesday in the monthly journal Radiology, are the first to show that the stone core of the statue is a highly detailed sculpture of the queen, Huppertz said.

"Until we did this scan, how deep the stucco was and whether a second face was underneath it was unknown," he said. "The hypothesis was that the stone underneath was just a support." - More: The Discovery Channel News

Update - It seems another researcher is questioning the authenticity of the Nefertiti bust based upon the content of the pigments used to adorn it:

The sculpture is composed of the so-called Amarna-mix, a blend of gypsum anhydride plaster applied on top of a limestone base. The material is named after Tel el-Amarna, a small city in central Egypt founded by Pharaoh Akhenaton in the 14th century B.C. That is also where the bust of his queen would be found in 1912.

"This special blend was unknown before 1912," said Simon says, which would mean that Borchardt and his contemporaries could not have known its exact composition. Currently, researchers are comparing material used in the Nefertiti bust with that utilized in statues of her husband, Akhenaton, and other artifacts from the Amarna period. A model of her husband is also currently in Berlin -- lying in storage in much worse condition. - More: Spiegel Online International

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Sunday, May 03, 2009

Ancient selective breeding reveals intelligent design?

The headline for an article in New Science really caught my eye - "Ancient Breeders Show Intelligent Design". With all of the excitement over the 200th anniversary of the publication of the "Origin of Species" and after watching a program on PBS about the recent legal battle between proponents of Intelligent Design and biology teachers in New Jersey, I couldn't help but do a double take, fearing a political coup at the headquarters of this online scholarly publication. As it turns out it was just a writer's effort to garner attention, as the piece was quite scientific.

Researchers have shown that, in the case of horses, DNA evidence points to coat coloration manipulation through breeding practices after the horse was domesticated about 5500 years ago. The study involved 89 equine fossils ranging in age from 42,000 years ago to medieval times and in location from Spain to China.

A similar study of ancient sheep fossils by researchers at the University of Glasgow showed that ancient sheepherders in Iraq and Iran began selecting sheep who shed their coats less often and developed shorter horns about 6,000 years ago.

When I was in high school my science project focused on genetic coloration in mice so I always find this kind of thing fascinating.

[Image: The Gute sheep originate from the horned sheep that have been kept in open pasture on the island of Gotland from ancient times. The population was almost extinct in the beginning of the 1940´s, after which the remaining horned sheep were collected and the flock started to increase in numbers. The sheep are hardy and well adapted to the island climate. Traditional use is for production of both meat and wool. The colour varies from light grey to nearly black. Both the rams and ewes are horned with short tails. The wool is double coated with underwool and guard hair and is mostly used for making carpets and souvenirs. The average live weight of rams is 75 kg and of ewes 50 kg. The mean litter size is 1.4 lambs at birth. The present population size is around 5,500 sheep and is increasing (year 2000).
See also Breeds of Livestock, sheep breeds.

Local name: Gutefår
Sven Jeppsson, Jordbruksverket, 551 82, Jönköping, Sweden.
Jordbruksverket, 551 82, Jönköping, Sweden.

Courtesy of North Shed website]

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Luwian hieroglyphs near ancient Antioch shed light on "Dark Age"

I have been intrigued by the so-called "Dark Age" that engulfed the eastern Mediterranean since I first learned about it in Archaeology 101 many years ago. I know there has been much speculation about the cause of the collapse of many Bronze Age cultures like the Mycenaeans and the Minoans ranging from the effects of volcanic eruptions and resulting tsunamis to pandemics and marauding tribal societies from the Asian steppes. But researchers involved in the Tayinat Archaeological Project say their findings indicate a continuity of many civilizations across this cultural chasm.

An ancient temple in Turkey has been found filled with broken metal, ivory carvings, and stone slabs engraved with a dead language [Luwian]. The find is casting new light on the "dark age" that was thought to have engulfed the region from 1200 to 900 B.C.

Written sources from the era—including the Old Testament of the Bible, Greek Homeric epics, and texts from Egyptian pharaoh Ramses III—record the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age as a turbulent period of cultural collapse, famine, and violence.

But the newfound temple suggests that may not have been the case, say archaeologists from the University of Toronto's Tayinat Archaeological Project, led by Timothy Harrison.

"We're beginning to find new archaeological evidence that there was a continuation of writing traditions, as well as cultural and political continuity from the Bronze Age into this Iron Age period," Harrison said.- More: National Geographic News

Like the early University of Chicago excavations in 1935 & 1938, the largest number of inscriptions have been Luwian hieroglyphs.

The Chicago excavations produced an extensive corpus of Akkadian, Aramaic and Neo-Hittite (or Luwian) inscriptions. Luwian hieroglyphic inscriptions accounted for the largest number, a total of 85 fragments, 32 of which have been shown to come from seven distinct monumental inscriptions. One of these, comprised of six basalt fragments, had formed part of a colossal statue of a figure seated on a throne. Although the precise provenience of the statue remains unclear, the inscription makes reference to Halpa-runta-a-s(a), very possibly the same Neo-Hittite ruler who is listed as having paid tribute to Shalmaneser III in the mid-9th century BCE.

If this historical correlation is correct, it provides a possible date for the remainder of the Luwian hieroglyphic inscriptions found at the site, and raises the possibility of isolating the Building Period, and cultural horizon, in which these monumental objects were erected.

With only a few exceptions, all of the fragments appear to have been found in the fill or foundation trenches of structures dating to the Second Building Period; in other words, in secondary and tertiary contexts. Moreover, all but one of the inscriptions (an altar piece in obvious secondary reuse in Building II) clearly had been smashed and destroyed intentionally before being discarded. The Halparuntas inscription, therefore, would appear to date the Luwian epigraphic remains at Tell Ta‘yinat to the mid-ninth century or earlier, while their stratigraphic context places this material in the First Building Period.

The Tayinat Archaeological Project’s primary aim is to assemble archaeological data from the central settlement at Tell Ta’yinat of a succession of prominent, historically-attested Bronze and Iron Age polities for comparison with existing data sets from comparable contexts (e.g. domestic, residential, administrative, or public) at rural village sites in the region. This explicitly regional approach, still relatively rare in Near Eastern Archaeology, is designed to facilitate multiple levels of analysis, and to produce the multivariate data needed to engage in more systematic investigations of the complex social, economic and political institutions developed by the first urban communities to emerge in this part of the world.

Tell Ta’yinat forms a large low-lying mound located 45 kilometres west of Antakya (ancient Antioch) in Southeastern Turkey. The Chicago excavations uncovered the remains of several large palaces (called bit hilani), a temple (famously compared with Solomon's temple), and numerous beautifully carved stone reliefs and sculptures demonstrated that the site preserves a lengthy settlement history that spans the Early Bronze (ca 3000 2000 BCE) and Iron Age(ca. 1200 550 BCE) periods. In addition, the Expedition discovered numerous inscriptions (in Luwian/Neo Hittite, Neo-Assyrian and Aramaic), which helped to identify the site as ancient Kunulua, capital of the Neo Hittite/Aramaean Kingdom of Patina/Unqi. - More: Tayinat Archaeological Project.

[Image: Tayinat Lions - Hittite, courtesy]
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Digitized Persepolis tablets now online

In another example of application of HP's Polynomial Texture Mapping technology, the University of Chicago is digitizing thousands of cuneiform tablets from the Persian fortress at Persepolis. Apparently, hundreds of the images are now available online. The article includes a video but it must be HD as it was so choppy it was difficult to watch. I only have a 1.5 Mps DSL connection as I live out in the countryside.

High-resolution images of about 200 Persepolis Fortification texts are available on InscriptiFact, on the Web site of the West Semitic Research Project, Several hundred more will be available soon.

Images of about 150 more Persepolis tablets, along with editions and analytical tools, will soon be released on the On-Line Cultural Research Environment, the archaeological and textual database and presentation application developed at the Oriental Institute and maintained by the Library (

These ancient tablets from the palaces of Persepolis include pieces of language and art from the center of the Persian Empire, all made when it extended from India and Central Asia to Egypt and the Mediterranean.

The tablets being digitized come from the Persepolis Fortification Archive, some 30,000 administrative tablets and fragments that Oriental Institute archaeologists recovered in 1933 at Persepolis, the ruined palaces where the kings of the ancient Persian Empire held court. Since 1936, they have been on loan from Iran to the Oriental Institute for analysis and recording.

“They were written, sealed and filed in a short span of time, between 509 and 493 B.C., in the middle of the reign of the Achaemenid Persian king Darius I,” Gil Stein, Director of the Oriental Institute, said. “The oldest Greek tragedy of Aeschylus, and the first Greek history of Herodotus tell us about the reign of Darius, but they don’t tell us anything like this. The administration that these documents record touched every level of society, from lowly workers through bureaucrats and governors to the royal family itself,” he said. - More: University of Chicago Chronicle

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