More Greek Archaeology

From the Ottawa Citizen, via my friend Robert Black:


The biggest travelling exhibition on Ancient Greece ever assembled opens Dec. 12 in Montreal. And the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, which will host the stunning exhibition next summer, played a key role in making it happen.

Entitled The Greeks: From Agamemnon to Alexander the Great, the show spans nearly 6,000 years of history and features more than 500 precious archaeological treasures from 21 Greek museums. About 300 have never before left the country.

After its run at Montreal’s Pointe-à-Callière Museum ends in April, the exhibition will shift to the Canadian Museum of History for four months starting June 5. Then it’s off to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and the National Geographic Museum in Washington, where it will wrap up on Oct. 9, 2016.

“I really think it’s a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition,” says Mark O’Neill, the Canadian Museum of History’s president and CEO. “It’s going to make Ottawa a real cultural destination next year.”

You can build audiences with exhibitions like this, O’Neill says. “I have every expectation that we will with this exhibition, as well.” The museum expects to attract 150,000 visitors. Pointe-à-Callière is projecting a similar number.

The Gatineau museum heads a four-museum consortium that, in conjunction with Greek authorities, organized the exhibition; something it had never done in its 25-year history. How it came to play the leading role is a tale of luck, timing and interests aligning.

In the spring of 2012 Jean-Marc Blais, the museum’s director general, raised the idea of a Greek exhibit with Eleftherios Aggelopoulos, then Greece’s ambassador to Canada.


More at the link.

Elgin Marbles

In the wake of the British Museum’s decision to lend of one of the Elgin Marbles to Russia, the Telegraph asks, “Why are the Elgin Marbles so controversial?” and provides some answers:


What are the Elgin Marbles?

A collection of stone objects – sculptures, inscriptions and architectural features – acquired by Lord Elgin from the Parthenon in Athens between 1801 and 1805, during his time as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, of which Athens was a part.

What is the Parthenon?

Regarded as one of the world’s greatest cultural monuments. Built nearly 2,500 years ago as a temple dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena, it was for a thousand years the church of the Virgin Mary of the Athenians, then a mosque, and finally an archaeological ruin. By 1800 only about half of the original sculptural decoration remained.

Did Lord Elgin steal them?

Not according to the British Museum, which says he acted with the full knowledge and permission of the Ottoman authorities, removed about half of the remaining sculptures from the fallen ruins and from the building itself.

Lord Elgin was passionate about ancient Greek art and transported the sculptures back to Britain by sea.

Where are they housed?

The objects were purchased by the British Parliament from Lord Elgin in 1816, following a Parliamentary Select Committee inquiry which fully investigated and approved the legality of Lord Elgin’s actions. They were presented by Parliament to the British Museum, where they have remained on display ever since.

Why the controversy?

The sculptures are the subject of one of the longest cultural rows in Europe.

The Greeks have demanded that they be returned to their homeland. Greece maintains they were taken illegally during the country’s Turkish occupation and should be returned for display in Athens. The Greek government has disputed the British Museum Trustees’ legal title to the sculptures. Some suggest that Lord Elgin bribed Turkish officials and effectively stole the marbles.

But the British say that Lord Elgin legally purchased the statues from the Ottoman Empire before Greece won its independence and that it would set a disturbing precedent for major museums if they were returned.

Many British historians consider them relics of an Athenian civilisation rather than the modern Greek state.

When did the row begin?

The first serious discussion about returning the Elgin Marbles is said to have been initiated in an exchange of correspondence in a newspaper in 1925, with Courtenay Pollock arguing that the time was right to make the gesture towards Greece.

Since then the issue has been raised by the Greek authorities with almost every British ambassador to Athens.

The British Museum says that the Acropolis Museum in Athens allows the remaining Parthenon sculptures to be appreciated against the backdrop of ancient Greek and Athenian history. It says the Parthenon sculptures in London are “an important representation of ancient Athenian civilisation in the context of world history”.

Why the recent publicity?

In October, lawyer Amal Clooney – the wife of actor George Clooney – said Greece had “just cause” for the return of the marbles.

Mrs Clooney, who is part of the legal team advising the Greek government on possible action in the international courts to force the return of the marbles, claimed Britain should be embarrassed for retaining them.

However, Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, ruled out a return, arguing that they gave “maximum public benefit” by staying in London.

What now?

The row will only escalate with the lending of the river god Ilissos to Russia. Greece will no doubt be furious that the British Museum is prepared to send part of the Parthenon to Russia but not back to the Athens.

What survives of the Parthenon?

Roughly half now survives: 247 feet of the original 524 feet of frieze; 15 of 92 metopes; 17 figures from the pediments, and various other pieces of architecture. It also includes objects from other buildings on the Acropolis: the Erechtheion, the Propylaia, and the Temple of Athena Nike.

Where can the surviving sculptures be seen?

Around 65 per cent of the original sculptures survive and are located in museums across Europe. The Acropolis Museum in Athens and the British Museum in London have about 30 per cent each, while other pieces are held by other major European museums, including the Louvre and the Vatican. The British Museum also has other fragments from the Parthenon acquired from collections that have no connection with Lord Elgin.


I think that one of the keys to this whole controversy is the line that “Many British historians consider them relics of an Athenian civilisation rather than the modern Greek state.” A grad school professor of mine told me once that the ideology of the modern Greek state, founded in 1832 as a result of a revolution against the Ottoman Empire (and the help of the UK, France, and Russia), is that the state is in fact a continuation or reassertion of the Classical polis of Athens. A Greek I once spoke to hinted that he actually believed this. As such, one can see how the Elgin Marbles would assume such an outsized importance – and how any Ottoman treatment of them was completely illegitimate. Such uses of history are hogwash, of course. Why is the modern Greek state not figured as a continuation of the Byzantine state? Or a reassertion of Classical Sparta – or Bronze Age Mycenae? You can’t cherry-pick what you most value from history and ignore everything else that’s happened before and since (apparently Israelis used to practice archaeology on this principle, by shoveling off the Ottoman, Byzantine, Roman and Hellenistic layers in order to get to the Biblical ones that they were really interested in, and which their own state, they claim, is simply a new instantiation of). It is amusing to read how the British see the Parthenon as having fallen into ruins – this is a trope in furta sacra (accounts of medieval relic thefts), and employed to justify those thefts. Even the notion that “if they had been left in place, the air pollution in Athens would have damaged them” is not necessarily a watertight argument: when I lived in London a story broke that in the 1930s the British Museum cleaned the sculptures a little too enthusiastically, thereby destroying traces of the original colors used to paint them. Besides, say the Greeks, when they come back will go into a specially-designed Parthenon Museum, where they will be protected from the climate (my brother-in-law has visited this, and claims they’ve got an empty room all ready for them).

But I think the Elgin Marbles should remain in the British Museum anyway. The Marbles do not belong to “Greece”, they belong to all of Western Civilization. And spreading things around geographically is like diversifying your investment portfolio – it helps to guard against the whole thing being destroyed in some disaster. Besides, Greeks, how about some gratitude to the people who helped free you from the Ottomans in the first place?!


Here are some pictures of the last time I visited the Duveen Gallery in 2010:

I took one of these pamphlets but I can’t find it now. The British Museum website probably gives just as much information.




We Got Here First!

Columbus tried to get to Asia by sailing across the “Ocean Sea” in 1492, and he’s lucky that the New World was in the way, because he would have starved to death before he ever got to Asia. No, he did not “discover” “America,” given that there were plenty of people living here already. But by this point in European history his sponsors were in a position to capitalize on the event, and so now a majority of the people in the Western Hemisphere speak Spanish as their native tongue.

But was Columbus the first non-native to gaze upon the New World? There have been plenty of attempts to claim that he wasn’t, for various reasons. I remember finding a book in the library at U. of Minnesota claiming that fisherman from Bristol had discovered the Grand Banks of Newfoundland in the 1480s, and made annual trips there (but who kept the discovery under wraps as a trade secret, which is why no one knows about it). Gavin Menzies has made a nuisance of himself by claiming that one of the Chinese treasure fleets rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1421 and made it to the New World. The Vikings did indeed make it to Greenland, and Newfoundland, in the tenth and eleventh centuries – but both of these settlements were later abandoned.

Now Muslims have gotten in on the act. The latest, from a Facebook friend:

Muslims found Americas before Columbus says Turkey’s Erdogan

Muslims discovered the Americas more than three centuries before Christopher Columbus, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said.

He made the claim during a conference of Latin American Muslim leaders in Istanbul, pointing to a diary entry in which Columbus mentioned a mosque on a hill in Cuba.

Mr Erdogan also said “Muslim sailors arrived in America in 1178”.

He said he was willing to build a mosque at the site Columbus identified.

The Turkish president – whose AK Party is rooted in political Islam – gave no further evidence to back up his theory, instead stating: “Contacts between Latin America and Islam date back to the 12th Century.”

Columbus is widely believed to have discovered the Americas in 1492, while trying to find a new route to India.

But in a disputed article published in 1996, historian Youssef Mroueh said Columbus’ entry was proof that Muslims had reached the Americas first and that “the religion of Islam was widespread”.

However many scholars believe the reference is metaphorical, describing an aspect of the mountain that resembled part of a mosque.

No Islamic structures have been found in America that pre-date Columbus.

Mr Erdogan said he thought “a mosque would go perfectly on the hill today” and that he would like to discuss building this with Cuba.

Needless to say, Mr. Erdogan’s opinion is about as accurate as Holy Blood, Holy Grail.

While We Were Marching Through Georgia…

From the New York Times:

150 Years Later, Wrestling With a Revised View of Sherman’s March

ATLANTA — This city would seem a peculiar place for sober conversation about the conduct of William T. Sherman.

To any number of Southerners, the Civil War general remains a ransacking brute and bully whose March to the Sea, which began here 150 years ago on Saturday, was a heinous act of terror. Despite the passage of time, Sherman remains to many a symbol of the North’s excesses during the Civil War, which continues to rankle some people here.

Yet this week, Atlanta became the site of a historical marker annotating Sherman folklore to reflect an expanding body of more forgiving scholarship about the general’s behavior. One of the marker’s sentences specifically targets some of the harsher imagery about him as “popular myth.”

“ ‘Gone with the Wind’ has certainly been a part of it,” W. Todd Groce, the president of the Georgia Historical Society, which sponsored the marker, said of regional perceptions of Sherman and the Union Army. “In general, we just have this image that comes from a movie.”

The marker near the picnic tables at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum is the fruit of a reassessment of Sherman and his tactics that has been decades in the making. Historians have increasingly written that Sherman’s plan for the systematic obliteration in late 1864 of the South’s war machine, including its transportation network and factories, was destructive but not gratuitously destructive. Instead, those experts contend, the strategy was an effective and legal application of the general’s authority and the hard-edged masterstroke necessary to break the Confederacy.

They have described plenty of family accounts of cruelty as nothing more than fables that unfairly mar Sherman’s reputation.

“What is really happening is that over time, the views that are out there are being challenged by historical research,” said John F. Marszalek, a Sherman biographer and the executive director of the Mississippi-based Ulysses S. Grant Association. “The facts are coming out.”

(More at the link)

Secrets of the Staffordshire Hoard

From the Independent:

Britain’s greatest treasure hoard reveals how goldsmiths fooled the Anglo-Saxon world

Scientists, examining Britain’s greatest Anglo-Saxon gold treasure collection, have discovered that it isn’t quite as golden as they thought.

Tests on the famous Staffordshire Anglo-Saxon treasure, a vast gold and silver hoard found by a metal detectorist five years ago, have now revealed that the 7th century Anglo-Saxon goldsmiths used sophisticated techniques to make 12-18 karat gold look like 21-23 karat material.

Scientific research, carried out over the past two years on behalf of Birmingham City and Stoke-on-Trent City councils, which jointly own the hoard, has revealed that the Anglo-Saxon goldsmiths had discovered an ingenious way of, metallurgically, dressing mutton up as a lamb. It appears that they deliberately used a weak acid solution – almost certainly ferric chloride – to remove silver and other non-gold impurities from the top few microns of the surfaces of gold artefacts, thus increasing the surfaces’ percentage gold content and therefore improving its appearance. This piece of Anglo-Saxon high tech deception turned the surfaces of relatively low karat, slightly greenish pale yellow gold/silver alloys into high karat, rich deep yellow, apparently high purity gold.

Archaeologists had never previously realised that Anglo-Saxon goldsmiths had developed such technology.

“We had no idea they were doing it,” said Dr Eleanor Blakelock, a leading British archaeometalurgist who carried out the tests on the Staffordshire hoard gold.

“Previously, we had just done analyses of the surfaces of objects – because we didn’t suspect that the Anglo-Saxon goldsmiths were deliberately removing the silver content from the surfaces of gold artefacts,” she said.

It’s thought that the Anglo-Saxon goldsmiths probably made their ferric chloride by heating up a mixture of water, salt and iron-rich clay (or potentially dust from crushed up old Roman tiles).

Although the goldsmiths often seem to have used the technique to create contrasts between different shades of gold, they also appear to have used it to enhance the apparent purity of gold used by the Anglo-Saxon nobility.

For the scientific tests – mainly funded by English Heritage – suggest that gold objects made for Anglo-Saxon royals, rather than mere nobility, were made of high karat material, which did not need to be subjected to the ‘surface enrichment’ trick.

The archaeologists have come to that conclusion by carrying out comparative tests on Anglo-Saxon gold objects, from East Anglia’s Sutton Hoo ship burial, which is thought to have been associated with royalty.

Significantly, this suggests that six of the 839 gold items in the Staffordshire hoard, including two sword pommels and two unusual tiny snake sculptures, were therefore made for Anglo-Saxon royalty.

The Staffordshire Hoard, discovered near the village of Hammerwich in 2009,  has, over the past two years, been the subject of one of the largest archaeological studies ever carried out. The hoard consists of almost 3,700 fragments – some 2,800 of silver and 839 of gold. However the silver items (1,500 of which came from just one or two high status helmets) are much more fragmentary than the gold ones. In weight terms therefore the hoard consists of five kilos of gold and 1.5 kilos of silver.

The 3,700 fragments probably represent between 300 and 800 original artefacts – mainly from weapons (including sets of gold and silver fittings from more than 100 swords) and at least one spectacular helmet. Work has not yet been completed on reconstructing the latter highly decorated mainly silver object. Most of the artefacts were made by Anglo-Saxon craftsmen in the first half of the 7th century AD – although a dozen heirloom pieces were probably made in the previous century, including a sword pommel, crafted in around 575 AD, probably in eastern Sweden.

The entire hoard, almost certainly worth the equivalent of tens of millions of pounds in Anglo-Saxon times, was deliberately buried, probably for safe-keeping sometime between around 650 (or perhaps as late as 670) and around 700.

It is likely that the entire treasure was hidden to keep it out of the hands of enemies or political rivals.

There are a number of late 7th century scenarios in which the Mercian elite or sections of it might have deliberately hidden their wealth.

For instance, in 674/675 AD, the kingdom of Mercia was defeated by its northern neighbour, the kingdom of Northumbria, which then demanded tribute, almost certainly in the form of gold, from the Mercian King Wulfhere, who might then have wanted to bury his or his court goldsmith’s wealth to keep it out of Northumbrian hands.

Soon afterwards, Mercia was also challenged militarily by a former vassal, the Kingdom of Wessex. Indeed in 685-688AD, Mercia faced recurrent threats from that latter source.

However, internal Mercian unrest could also have forced elite elements to bury their gold and silver. In 695, for instance, there was a dramatic internal political crisis in Mercia, during which a group of Mercian nobles murdered the king’s wife – the Queen of Mercia (almost certainly because she hailed from rival Northumbria). The crisis probably involved a desperate internal struggle between pro and anti-Northumbrian elements within Mercia’s elite.

Almost symbolically, the only inscription in the hoard amply reflects the violence, warfare and chronic instability of the period. A strip of gold, possibly from a Christian cross, bears the following words from the Bible’s Book of Numbers: “Rise up, oh Lord, and may thy enemies be dispersed and those who hate thee be driven from thy face”.


More from Greece

The Amphipolis tomb, which recently yielded a pair of caryatids, has now yielded a stunning floor mosaic:

The colorful floor was laid with white, black, grey, blue, red and yellow pebbles and depicts a chariot in motion. Hermes, the messenger of the gods, is pictured in front of the chariot.

The mosaic showcases the artist’s ability to portray the figures, horses and colors in exquisite detail.


According to a Culture Ministry announcement, Hermes is depicted here as the conductor of souls to the afterlife.


The stunning artwork, which has yet to be fully uncovered, spans the entire floor of the second chamber. It currently measures 4.5 meters in width and 3 meters in length. The central scene is surrounded by a decorative frame, 0.60 meters in width, featuring a double meander, squares and a wave-curl design.

More (including pictures) at the link.


• It has been confirmed that the human remains found in a two-chambered royal tomb at Vergina are indeed those of Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great.

• Cave paintings on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi (a.k.a. Celebes) may be 40,000 years old, rivaling those found in El Castillo in Spain. Interestingly, they are the same hand print stencil design familiar to us from Lascaux and other paleolithic European sites.

• The Roman shipwreck that gave us the Antikythera Mechanism continues to be explored.

People like the Vikings, Part 23

From the Navy Times:

Coast Guard gives WWII vet a Viking funeral at sea

The Coast Guard carries out dozens of burials at sea in a given year, but one World War II veteran got a unique farewell.

On Sept. 29, Station Atlantic City fulfilled the final wishes of service veteran Andrew Haines, a New Jersey resident who died in late August at age 89. Haines spent more than a decade planning his own Norse-style send-off — a self-built funeral ship to carry his cremated ashes, which was then to be ignited with a flare.

“Oh, I was thrilled,” Haines’ son Andy told Navy Times. “I was thrilled when the Coast Guard called and told me we were doing it my way.”

Haines said his father, a World War II veteran who finished his tour at Atlantic City, had been planning his funeral for years. Andrew Haines emigrated from Norway as a child in 1927 and had stayed connected to his Scandinavian heritage throughout his life.

About 10 years ago, Andy said, Haines’ cousin in Norway sent him blueprints for a 100-foot wooden ship, which he scaled down as small as two feet, as a small construction project.

“When I came over to the house one day with the wife and one grandson, we were in the basement, and he’s got the whole bottom shell done with the deck, getting ready to put the rest of the stuff on,” Andy recalled.

Then Andy had an idea. He asked his father if he still wanted to be cremated, and he said he did.

“So I said, ‘How about if we try to make a Viking funeral out of this for you?’ ” he recalled.

Haines built five versions of the ship, his son said, settling on a 54-inch version for the ceremony.

(More, including a photo, at the link.)

The History Plays

William Shakespeare wrote two tetralogies of so-called history plays, dealing with English history from the reign of Richard II (1377-99) to that of Richard III (1483-85). These are:

Richard II; Henry IV, Part I; Henry IV, Part II; and Henry V


Henry VI, Part I; Henry VI, Part II; Henry VI, Part III; and Richard III

These are, of course, dramatizations of English history – they are far more important for their psychological portraits of various characters – but Shakespeare was (and remains) so influential that English historians have been working against him ever since the sixteenth century. Nigel Saul’s Richard II and Ian Mortimer’s Fears of Henry IV both take Shakespeare as their starting point, and if you think that the Bard gave Richard III a raw deal, you can join the Richard III Society, which exists to prove “that something as esoteric and as fragile as reputation is worth campaigning for.” Having said that, the history plays are captivating and edifying, and if you’re keen on seeing a recent enactment of them you can do no better than the BBC’s Hollow Crown series – now with Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III!

We recently learned for the first time how Richard III died, and now we also know how the famed British monarch will look as portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch.

The “Sherlock” star is set to play the historic royal in the ongoing miniseries “The Hollow Crown,” and BBC Two offered the public its first look at Cumberbatch in the role Wednesday, as filming on his scenes commences in the U.K.

Cumberbatch appears in the photo riding a black horse in a wooded area while sporting matching garb.

It was also revealed that Cumberbatch’s “Sherlock” co-star Andrew Scott has signed on to play King Louis, a rival to Richard III — the last King of England to die in battle, over 500 years ago.

(Although note that no Hollow Crown of Henry VI, Part III is planned.)

Ancient Earthquakes

Of course archaeology and history are different fields, but historians do rejoice in the things that archaeologists find. From Archaeology magazine:

Ancient Earthquake Damage Found in Israel

HAIFA, ISRAEL—A team led by Michael Eisenberg of the University of Haifa has uncovered the northern section of the first-century basilica at Hippos, a center of Greek and Roman culture located near the Sea of Galilee. The roof of the structure collapsed during an earthquake in 363, killing the occupants, whose skeletons were found beneath the rubble. Among the victims was a woman who had been wearing a gold dove pendant. Eisenberg and his team used coins to date the collapse and attribute it to the earthquake. “The latest of those coins dated to 362 A.D. About three feet above the debris of the basilica we found Early Byzantine rooms dated by dozens of coins in the floors themselves to 383 A.D.,” Eisenberg told Discovery News. “It shows that major parts of the city were totally destroyed and neglected for a period of about 20 years.” Hippos was finally destroyed by an earthquake in 749.