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Category Archives: Archeology

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Herodotus Proved Right! Nile Shipwreck Vindicates the Greek Historian’s Wild Claims… About a Boat.

by March 26, 2019

In 450 BCE, Herodotus wrote about a specific sort of cargo boat that he saw along the Nile, which, until now, no one believed existed. Historians and archeologists were doubtful about Herodotus’ description of the ship because they had never seen any evidence…and indeed, while he is known as the “father of History”, many of Herodotus’ travel accounts appear ‘outlandish’ and are often chalked up to storytelling rather than accurate descriptions.
Fortunately Team Herodotus is getting a win after the discovery of a cargo vessel in the Nile delta, the details of which appeared in a new published monograph by archaeologist and shipwreck specialist Alexander Belov.
The newly found discovery, officially dubbed ship 17, was excavated from the sunken Egyptian port city of Thonis-Heracleion, which was submerged after a series of natural disasters. The site was first detected in 2000 by maritime archaeologist Franck Goddio and since then has been the location of more than 70 vessels dating from the 8th to the 2nd century BC, along with statues, gold coins, and the ruins of a temple.
Ship 17 Hull

The hull of “Ship 17,” a wreck discovered in the sunken port city of Thonis-Heracleion.

“It wasn’t until we discovered this wreck that we realized Herodotus was right,” Damian Robinson, director of the Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology, explained. “Herodotus describes the boats as having long internal ribs. Nobody really knew what that meant…That structure’s never been seen archaeologically before. Then we discovered this form of construction on this particular boat and it absolutely is what Herodotus has been saying. Here we have a completely unique form of construction, which is not seen anywhere else.”
The author of the Histories, a nine volume work which essentially founded the field of History, Herodotus traveled extensively in Egypt and even dedicated 23 lines of his famous tome to the construction of the Nile boat, known by locals as a baris. Herodotus tells of shipbuilders arranging planks like bricks and employing long internal ribs called tenons. Moreover, the sails were made of papyrus, the mast of acacia, a crescent-shaped hull and a steering rudder that went through the hole in the keel.
Illustration of Ship 17

Artist’s rendering of the shipwrecked vessel (Christoph Gerigk/Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation)

Herodotus records the creation of “thorny acacia” boats that “cannot sail up the river unless there be a very fresh wind blowing, but are towed from the shore.”
“They have a door-shaped crate made of tamarisk wood and reed mats sewn together, and also a stone of about two talents weight bored with a hole,” Herodotus continued. Essentially, as the crate floats in front of the ship, the stone grounds it from behind. These ensure the boat sails rapidly on a straight path by using opposing forces. This type of construction had not been previously described.
Illustration of Nile Boats

Steering Arrangement of Nile Boats

There are a few key differences between the boat Herodotus describes and ship 17. For instance, the latter likely measured up to 92 feet, considerably longer than those in Herodotus’ account. Moreover, the Greek historian described ships with shorter tenons and no reinforcing frames, while the discovered vessel has longer tenons and several reinforcing frames.
While ship 17 is believed to have sunk during the first half of the 5th century B.C.. it probably dates to the 6th century B.C. and was “reused as a … floating jetty at the end of its working life as a ship,” says Robinson.
With such specifics about the construction of the boat, and yet no archeological evidence, you can see why historians felt Herodotus was embellishing an account… especially considering the “Father of History”’s horrific reputation with regards to accuracy, even in historic times. Plutarch, for instance, wrote an entire treatise called On the Malice of Herodotus, stating that one could fill several tomes with the “lies and fictions” of the Greek historian. Herodotus’ descriptions of his travels through Egypt, Africa, and Asia Minor have often been relegated to the fiction department.
With time, however, more and more of Herodotus’ accounts have been vindicated. For instance, he claimed to witness fox-sized “ants” in Persia, who spread gold dust as they dug their mounds, something historians and biologists quickly dismissed. But it turns out that there is actually a Himalayan marmot that does this, and the Persian words for “mountain ant” and “marmot” are quite similar. Sounds like another win for Herodotus.

Location of Julius Caesar’s Assassination to be Open to the Public!

by March 15, 2019

Move Aside Feral Cats! The ruins in the Largo di Torre Argentina are about to get a fashion make-over.
The location of the murder of Julius Caesar will soon be renovated, it has been recently announced. It was over 2,000 years ago on this day, The Ides of March, also known as March 15th, that famous Roman politician, General and historian was assassinated in the Theater of Pompey. Caesar was brutally stabbed to death 23 times by 60 members of the senate as a consequence of his growing power and influence. It was thought that he was a threat to the Republic itself, and yet, it was only after his death that the empire took hold.
Death of Caesar

Assassination of Caesar by William Holmes Sullivan, c. 1888, Royal Shakespeare Theatre

Now, the very interesting thing is that the location of this assassination is not where you might automatically think. Indeed, it was very ironic that Caesar died on the portico of a public work done by Pompey. (You may remember that Pompey, once Rome’s most accomplished general had, notably, been defeated by Caesar in a civil war and then murdered in Egypt by Caesar’s allies.)
You see, the Roman senate did not usually meet at Pompey’s Theater. Instead they had for centuries congregated at the Curia, or meeting house on the Comitium. Despite numerous fires, restorations and rebrandings, this was always Rome’s primary open air meeting location.
However, in 52 B.C. Publius Clodius Pulcher was killed by his political rival and his enthusiastic followers concluded that they needed to cremate Publius in the senate house, incinerating the entire place in the process.
Consequently, Caesar started constructing a new senate house. But while the ‘Curia Julia’ was being built, the senate moved temporarily to the Curia Pompeiana, part of Pompey the Great’s massive public theater.
The location of the death of Caesar, forever immortalized by historians and Shakespeare, was sadly covered up by the expansion of Rome and lost until the 1920’s. This is when the Italian dictator Mussolini undertook numerous archeological endeavors as part of a propaganda project to boost Italian nationalistic efforts, including uncovering the theater of Pompey and four temples. However, after World War II, many of these sites were left unattended… and recent economic woes have resulted in greater disrepair.
Roman Ruins

The current site of Caesar’s death, Largo di Torre Argentina

Fortunately the fashion house Bulgari, in a bizarre but exciting partnership, have decided to step in and contribute $1.1 million in funding the clean up and restoration. This isn’t even the first time… Bulgari has already paid $1.6 million to restore Rome’s Spanish steps. In fact, the city of Rome has been partnering with several luxury brands in efforts to preserve many of the iconic sites. For instance, fashion house Fendi aided the clean up of the Trevi Fountain while Tods funded half of the massive restoration of the Colosseum, which reopened in 2016.
With this unlikely source of revenue, we can expect a beautifully renovated walkways surrounding the ruins, which no doubt, will double as runways.

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon

by January 25, 2019

By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The mention of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon conjures up images of an oasis in the midst of a bustling city; a vibrant Eden of lush trees, shrubs, and vines supported with beautiful pillars and architecture. The gardens are thought to have been built by King Nebuchadnezzar II sometime in the 6th century BCE. While it is one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, its actual existence is quite contested, with three theories prevailing: (1) that the gardens were purely mythical and idealized in the minds of writers and travelers; (2) that they did exist, but were razed in the first century CE; and (3) that the “hanging gardens of Babylon” actually refers to a garden built in Nineveh by the Assyrian King Sennacherib.
Picture of Babylon Gardens

Artist depiction of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

Like many ancient marvels, our knowledge of the hanging gardens comes down to us via written record and subsequently should be taken with a grain of salt.
Diodorus Siculus wrote that the gardens were square, tiered, and made of 22 feet thick brick walls. He mentions that the terraces themselves resembled a theater, sloping upwards to a height of 20 meters. Strabo writes that the gardens were located by the Euphrates river, running through Babylon, and utilized complex irrigation to draw up water from the river to water the gardens. It is very likely that any classical writer focusing on the hanging gardens would have had to reference earlier works from the 5th and 4th centuries. Unfortunately, the earliest extant writing we have of the gardens comes to us in quotes from the Babylonian priest, Berossus, around 290 BCE.
Archeological site of the Palace

North Palace of Nebuchadnezzar II

Nonetheless, these authors provide us with a baseline of what these gardens may have looked like and where they may have been located. Gardens such as these would have required a great deal of resources to build and maintain, and so it is likely that they were located in or near the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II, if they existed at all. Extensive excavations of the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II has revealed gates, vaulted rooms, double walls, tablets, large drains, and a possible reservoir. Nothing has been produced though, either in the archaeological record or the written records, that corroborates the Greek description of the gardens of Babylon. Since the written records consist of an exhaustive list of Nebuchadnezzar’s achievements while king, if he built the gardens they would have surely been listed, but they are not.
Illustrations

Artistic Illustration of the Gardens of Babylon

What do we make of this lack of evidence? Did Greek authors just fall victim to hearsay without ever even seeing the gardens, having never existed at all? Or did they just exist perhaps at a different time and place?
The fact that the gardens are discussed in a wide variety of Greek sources, spanning hundreds of years, and the fact that gardens like the fabled one at Babylon were quite common and not out of the question, it is difficult to outright deny the existence of the gardens altogether.
One possibility is that the gardens were not in fact located in Babylon, but 350 miles north in Nineveh, the capital of Assyria. Recent scholarship from Stephanie Dalley claims to have found evidence in Nineveh texts of King Sennacherib that describes an “unrivaled palace” and a “wonder for all peoples.” Extensive aqueduct systems as well as water-raising screws have both been found in Nineveh and may have certainly provided the irrigation needs of such prominent gardens.
Rebuilt Gate

Nineveh – Mashki Gate

The confusion may be as simple as ancient geographers and authors attributing the name “Babylon” to several places, or just getting the kingdoms of Babylon and Assyria confused in the first place. Since the Greek and Latin texts we have on the hanging gardens all reference back to one another, using the same base sources, a mistake in one is unsurprisingly carried through them all.
Still, whether real or not, the very idea of the hanging gardens of Babylon was a prevalent one in the minds of the Greeks and Latins. The literary attention that persisted on the subject must have captured the imagination of Hellenistic Greeks and Romans of the empire, much like it does today.

Do All Roads ACTUALLY Lead to Rome?

by August 1, 2018

We all know the phrase “All roads lead to Rome”. Today, it is used proverbially and has come to mean something like “there is more than one way to reach the same goal”. But did all roads ever really lead to the eternal city?
The Power of Pavement
There was a close connection between roads and imperial power. In 27 BC, the emperor Augustus supervised the restoration of the via Flaminia, the major route leading northwards from Rome to the Adriatic coast and the port of Rimini. The restoration of Italy’s roads was a key part of Augustus’ renovation program after civil wars had ravaged the peninsula for decades. An arch erected on the via Flaminia tells us that it and most other commonly used roads in Italy were restored “at his own expense”.
And road paving was expensive indeed – it had not been common under the Republic, except in stretches close to towns. Augustus and his successors lavished attention on the road network as roads meant trade, and trade meant money.
In 20 BC, the senate gave Augustus the special position of road curator in Italy, and he erected the milliarium aureum, or “golden milestone”, in the city of Rome. Located at the foot of the Temple of Saturn in the Roman Forum, it was covered with gilded bronze.
Markers on the Roman Roads

The Golden Milestone

According to the ancient biographer Plutarch, this milestone was where “all the roads that intersect Italy terminate”. No one quite knows what was written on it, but it probably had the names of the major roads restored following Augustus’s instructions.
The Center of the World
Augustus was keen to foster the notion that Rome was not just the center of Italy, but of the entire world. As the Augustan poet Ovid wrote in his Fasti (a poem about the Roman calendar):
‘There is a fixed limit to the territory of other peoples, but the territory of the city of Rome and the world are one and the same.’
Augustus’ right-hand man, Agrippa, displayed a map of the world in his portico at Rome which contained lists of distances and measurements of regions, probably compiled from Roman roads.
Milestones on Roman roads

Roman Milestones in the Bologna Archaeological Museum. (C Davenport)

The Roman road network bound the empire together. Senators had begun to erect milestones listing distances in the mid-third century BC, but from the first century AD, emperors took the credit for all road building, even if it had been done by their governors.
More than 7000 milestones survive today. In central Italy, the milestones usually gave distances to Rome itself, but in the north and south, other cities served as the node in their regions.
Augustus also established the cursus publicus, a system of inns and way-stations along the major roads providing lodging and fresh horses for people on imperial business. This system was only open to those with a special permit. Even dignitaries were not allowed to abuse the system, with emperors cracking down on those who exceeded their travel allowances.
Part of the milion - roman roads

The surviving part of the Milion in Constantinople. (C. Davenport)

The association between empire and roads meant that when Constantine founded his own “new Rome” at Constantinople in the fourth century AD, he built an arch called the Milion at its center, to serve as the equivalent of the Golden Milestone.
Many Roman itineraries have survived because they were copied in the medieval period. These record distances between cities and regions along the Roman road network. The “Antonine Itinerary”, compiled in the third century AD, even helpfully includes shortcuts for travelers. These types of documents were uniquely Roman – their Greek predecessors had not compiled such itineraries, preferring to publish written accounts of sea voyages.
The Roman road network had prompted the development of new geographical conceptions of power. This is nowhere more prevalent than on the Peutinger Table, a medieval representation of a late Roman map. It positions Rome at the very center of the known world.
Part of the Tabula Peutingeriana

Tabula Peutingeriana (section)—top to bottom: Dalmatian coast, Adriatic Sea, southern Italy, Sicily, African Mediterranean coast

Proverbial Roads
Since antiquity, the phrase “all roads lead to Rome” has taken on a proverbial meaning. The Book of Parables compiled by Alain de Lille, a French theologian, in the 12th century is an early example. De Lille writes that there are many ways to reach the Lord for those who truly wish it:

‘A thousand roads lead men throughout the ages to Rome,
Those who wish to seek the Lord with all their heart.’

The English poet Geoffrey Chaucer used the phrase in a similar way in the 14th century in his Treatise on the Astrolabe (an instrument used to measure inclined position):
‘right as diverse pathes leden diverse folk the righte way to Rome.’
The “conclusiouns” (facts) Chaucer translates into English for his son in the treatise come from Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin – and all came to the same conclusions on the astrolabe, says Chaucer, much as all roads lead to Rome.
In both these examples, while the ancient idea of Rome as a focal point is invoked, the physical city itself is written out of the meaning. Neither de Lille nor Chaucer are actually talking about Rome – our modern “there’s more than one way to skin a cat” would work just as well.
This article was originally published under the title ‘Mythbusting Ancient Rome – did all roads actually lead there?’ by Caillan Davenport and Shushma Malik on The Conversation, and has been republished under a Creative Commons License.

Tabula Cortonensis

by May 11, 2018

By Natalia Klimczak, Contributing Writer, Ancient Origins
2,200 years ago, a pair of skilled Etruscan hands crafted a tablet that became a key to the language of this remarkable civilization. This unique bronze artifact is known as the Tabula Cortonensis and, apart from its role in deciphering a lost language, it also contains untold secrets of the Etruscan civilization if you read between the lines of its text.
The Etruscan civilization is a mysterious one. They created their own language, religion, architecture, and other cultural aspects. Their culture has been separated as one of the treasures of ancient times due to their amazing achievements before Romanization. However, there are still more questions than answers about the enigmatic people. Therefore, a discovery like the Tabula Cortonensis is priceless because it brings us one step closer to the Etruscans.
Tablets in Cortona

The Etruscan tablets.

A Curious Tablet
The tablet was discovered near the city of Curtun, which was known as Corito in the Roman Empire, and is now called Cortona. It lies in Arezzo Provincia in Tuscany. The site is well-known for the discovery of a 4th-century tomb that may have belonged to the famous mathematician and philosopher, Pythagoras.
Cortona, Italy

Modern Cortona, Tuscany, Italy.

The tablet was unearthed in 1992, however it wasn’t exhibited for many years. This artifact is made of bronze and, for unknown reasons, it had been cut into eight fragments. Unfortunately, one of the pieces is lost. The tablet is 2-3 millimeters (.08-0.12 inches) thick and measures about 50 by 30 cm (19.69 x 11.81 inches). Researchers discovered that the tablet was made using the lost wax process. It has been suggested that the sheet may have been cut so it could be used for different purposes.
Some researchers believe the tablet was created in this way to be hung. However, there is no place for a ring or hook, so this seems unlikely. It is also uncertain if the Etruscans had specific measurements for different documents created on bronze tablets. There are some suggestions that the tablets for religious purposes had a specific size, but it is possible that contracts like the Tabula Cortonensis were also created with a precise pattern.
The Transfer Agreement
The text on the Tabula Cortonensis is a common record of a land transfer agreement between two parties. The text itself was written with skill, but its content is not unique. Although it is relatively wordy, the document isn’t the longest Etruscan writing discovered either – the Capua Tablet and the Liber Linetus from Zagreb are both longer.
The tablet was carefully studied by Luciano Agostiniani and Francesco Nicosia. They found that the inscription was clear in its content, but also full of specific information for the situation. For example, the names of the people who agreed to the contract are provided. The text also provides information about the Etruscan style and language used for this kind of agreement – a language which was thought to be the same in every region of Etruria.
Keys to a Forgotten Language
The lengthy text makes this artifact a useful tool in research on the Etruscan language. However, the researchers were surprised by the differences between the language they thought they knew and the text which had been written on the tablet. According to Agostiniani and Nicosia:
The letters are, with a few exceptions, those of the normal north Etruscan alphabet of the later 3rd or 2nd century BC. The absence of Phi and of the aspirate H is probably a coincidence: there are no words in the inscription in which they would have occurred. The gamma has the curved shape that becomes the Latin C. (Etruscan did not have the sounds of B, G or D. Their neighbors, the Romans, first pronounced C either with the sound of K, the Etruscan way or as gamma, the Greek way. Until the letter G was invented, they pronounced Caius Julius Caesar as Gaius Iulius Kaisar.) Two signs are unusual. The backward E, epsilon, though rare, is known from other inscriptions from Cortona. The “paragraph” sign used to set off four of the seven sections of this legal document (lines 7, 8, 14, 23) is unique. It would be perfectly understandable to any modern proof-reader.
The tablet records a contract for the sale, or lease, of land, including a vineyard (vina), in the plain of Lake Trasimeno (celtineitiss tarsminass), between the Cusu family (Cusuthur), to which Petru Scevas belongs, and 15 people, perhaps a group of buyers, witnessed by a third group of names sometimes listed along with their children and grandchildren (clan, “son”, and papals, “grandson”).
Map of Etruscan civilization

Maximum extent of the Etruscan civilization and the twelve Etruscan League cities.

The ancient inscription is full of mistakes, or, it provides evidence of gaps in modern knowledge about the Etruscan language. Agostiniani explains this by saying that the tablet contains a unique language used by the people who lived specifically in Cortona. That would mean people could have used different language in various parts of Etruria.
Searching for the Lost Civilization
Researchers need to complete additional excavations and analysis of previously discovered Etruscan artifacts to reveal more fascinating information about this unique civilization. But every discovery like the Tabula Cortonensis provides new information that allows us to create a clearer picture of their daily life and language, something that looks to be more complicated than once believed.

The Only Library Ever Recovered from Antiquity

by May 3, 2018

By Wu Mingren, Contributing writer, Ancient Origins
Ancient Books

Fresco depicting a young man reading a scroll from Herculaneum

The Villa of the Papyri is the name given to a private house that was uncovered in the ancient Roman city of Herculaneum. This city, along with nearby Pompeii, is perhaps best remembered for its destruction during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Because of this natural disaster, the buildings of these cities were preserved under a thick layer of volcanic ash.
Drawing of the city of Herculaneum

1859 Imaginative drawing of the city of Herculaneum. ( Public Domain )

The Villa’s Elaborate Presence
One of these buildings was the Villa of the Papyri, named as such due to the discovery of a library in the house that contained about 1800 scrolls of papyri (known today as the ‘Herculaneum Papyri’), which were carbonized due to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
Villa Ruins

Ruins of the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum. (Erik Anderson/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

Researchers believe the Villa of the Papyri belonged to Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, Julius Caesar’s father-in-law. This villa is located in the northwestern part of Herculaneum, on a slope of the volcano overlooking the Bay of Naples. Built in terraces down to the sea, the villa was a grand structure, covering an area of 30,000 square feet (2787 sq. meters). The front of the villa stretched for more than 820 ft. (250 meters), and offered its inhabitants an unobstructed view of the bay. The villa included two peristyles, a swimming pool, gardens, living and reception quarters.
Rediscovering the Villa
It was only during the 18th century that the villa was rediscovered. In 1709, the city of Herculaneum was rediscovered when workmen digging a well in the town of Resina stumbled upon the upper level of the ancient town’s theatre. Excavations began to be carried out and were funded by the House of Bourbon. In 1750, the Villa of the Papyri was uncovered, and an excavation was soon undertaken under the direction of Karl Weber, a Swiss architect and engineer.
Map of the villa

Weber’s map of Villa of the Papyri Herculaneum. ( Public Domain )

A Very Special Library
Two years later, in October 1752, the villa’s library was discovered, and with it, the first cache of papyri was brought to light. Containing about 1800 scrolls, the collection of this library is relatively small. Yet, it is the only known library to have survived from the Classical world.
Hence, the library has a great importance in the eyes of both archaeologists and classicists. Exposure to the volcanic gas and ash meant the scrolls were carbonized – they were turned into charred cylindrical lumps. In fact, the papyri were initially mistaken for lumps of charcoal or burnt logs, and their value was only recognized later. The carbonization of the scrolls effectively preserved them, though at the same time, it made them extremely difficult to unroll.
Papyrus found in Herculaneum

Herculaneum Papyrus 1428: Philodemus, On Piety. ( The Friends of Herculaneum Society )

A Difficult Process Begins
Attempts have been made to read the contents of these scrolls. Some were unceremoniously hacked open with a butcher’s knife, whilst others were simply unrolled. Needless to say, damage was done to the fragile artifacts. An ‘unrolling device’ was even invented by Antonio Piaggio, a Piarist monk, specifically for the unravelling of these papyri. Though the scrolls were unrolled with this device, they remained fragile, and the process took a very long time. The first scroll took four years to unravel.
Nevertheless, progress was being made, and by 1790, reports on the contents of the library were being published. Over the next two centuries, various techniques have been developed in the hope that the contents of the papyri may be accessed. Some of the most recent attempts involve digital, rather than physical, unravelling of the scrolls. In order to do so, methods such as X-rays, digital photography, and microscopy have been utilized.
However, it is still very difficult to view the writings on the papyri. The main problem is that the ink and the papyri are physically similar, as the Romans used a carbon-based ink made from smoke residues. In other words, it is not easy to differentiate the writings from the carbonized papyri.