Restoring a Warrior

Dorothy King beat me to the punch on this one (as many people do) … Some engineering types from the University of Warwick teamed up with some archaeologist types from the University of Southampton and the Herculaneum Conservation Project to digitally ‘restore’ a head from Herculaneum which is believed to depict a fallen Amazon warrior. Here’s the original:

Mark Williams (one of the WMG scientists) dixit:

“The statue is an incredible find. Although its age alone makes it valuable, it is unique because it has retained the original painted surface, preserved under the volcanic material that buried Herculaneum.”

Graeme Earl (archaeological computing from USouthampton) dixit:

“Cutting edge techniques are vital to the recording of cultural heritage material, since so much remains unstudied or too fragile to analyse. Our work at Southampton attempts to bridge the gap between computing and archaeology in bringing the best that colleagues in engineering have to offer to unique artefacts from our past.”

The cynics among us are probably not so impressed by computer recreations any more (and I tire of reading about CATscanned mummies too), but this project is going a step further:

In the final step Professor Alan Chalmers, head of WMG’s visualisation team and an expert in ultra-realistic graphics, will apply techniques to the computer model to exactly reproduce the lighting and environmental conditions under which the painted statue would have originally been created and displayed. This visualisation will provide archaeologists with an otherwise impossible view of how the original statue may have looked in context, and allow them to experiment with alternative hypotheses.

I’d be interested to know whether the object was painted once and allowed to fade or whether it was repeatedly repainted …


This is one of those things that I’ve long wondered about, but never managed to check out. A piece — apparently aimed at kids — in the Christian Science Monitor yaks about assorted origins of the names of elements and their symbols. Inter alia, the symbol for mercury is glossed thusly:

But my favorite symbol is the one for the only metallic element that is a liquid at room temperature – mercury, symbol Hg. I have a small vial of mercury that I swirl around for my students. The ancient Romans regarded mercury as a type of silver that flowed. They therefore called it “liquid silver” or hydragyrum, hence its symbol.

I suppose we can call that Latin (from the ending), but surely it must go back to Greek hydr- (liquid/water) and argyros (silver). And, of course, the word must be hydrargyrum, unless it underwent some sort of further change …

d.m. Rev. Frank Lihvar

From the Plain Dealer:

The Rev. Frank Lihvar, 81, who died Thursday, taught Latin and Greek at John Carroll University for the past 38 years, eight of them after officially retiring.

The Cleveland native and 60-year Jesuit graduated from Benedictine High School, West Baden College of Indiana and the University of Chicago, where he earned a doctorate in classical languages. While at JCU, he was also chaplain to the Sisters of Notre Dame at Regina High School.

d.m. Jill Braithwaite

From the Independent:

Jill Braithwaite established a European reputation in archaeology for her study and interpretation of Roman face pots. Before she started her research, these strange pots had turned up singly or in very small groups throughout the Roman Empire but, with a few exceptions, they had remained isolated and uninterpreted finds. After 15 years of research, Braithwaite had reduced thousands of decorated single sherds and isolated pots to a sensible typology, instilled into the groups and styles a chronology, and begun the work of interpretation of material which stretched from the Black Sea to Spain and the Mediterranean to Scotland.

One criticism of Roman pottery, often heard, is that it is all the same – mass produced for an insensitive market. Face pots totally refute this since few, if any, were made in moulds; instead, potters started off with an ordinary pot and added, or subtracted, clay to form a face on one side with little to guide them other than tradition, local style or pure invention. Eyebrows frown or question, beards bristle or flow and tongues loll lasciviously from open mouths.

A first question to be answered was how such an unusual form of decoration spread so widely, and quite quickly, throughout the empire. Here Braithwaite was able to show a clear link with the movements of the Roman army. As known units moved from province to province, linked face pots appeared in regions where they had never been seen before.

The meaning of the faces defied a single explanation though the fact that many examples turned up as complete pots strongly suggested that they accompanied or sometimes contained the remains of human cremations and were buried safely in cemeteries. One strand of the tradition clearly came from jugs and pots in north Italy that represented Charon, a further link to death and burial, and Braithwaite was able to trace the fashion as it crossed the Alps to the Danube and spread in modified form with army movements along that river route.

Other interpretations were still being explored. Her particular interest just before her death was the way in which styles of face pots did not disappear from areas as units of the army left, but lingered on in what seem to be civilian settlements. This suggested to her that soldiers took the fashion or religious element with them into retirement whence their descendants took them back into the army – but that idea now needs attention from other specialists.

Braithwaite’s work as an archaeologist came later in life. Born Gillian Robinson in 1937, she had studied languages at Westfield College, London University before joining the Foreign Office in 1959. Her career was soon cut short by marriage to the young diplomat Rodric Braithwaite, and the responsibilities of bringing up a family. But after her children could look after themselves, she followed up an old interest and did a second undergraduate degree, in archaeology, at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London.

It was during a lecture on Roman pottery that the next phase of herlife began. She woke up from a short nap (the lecture being straight after lunch) to be confronted by an enormous grotesque face leering at her. In fact, it was a slide of a typical Roman face pot, with villainous expression. When I failed to provide details of the origin, distribution and meaning of this form of decoration, and after checking in the library that this was not simply one of my blind spots, Braithwaite decided that the matter needed to be sorted out.

She started a dissertation on the British aspects of the subject, which was almost immediately published in the prestigious journal of Roman Britain, Britannia – not unknown for undergraduate dissertations, but very unusual – and gained a first class degree. This left her free to look at the question empire wide and she undertook a PhD. Her thesis was published in 2007 as Faces from the Past.

Braithwaite managed to keep her research going as she accompanied her husband on his postings, but Moscow from 1988 to 1992, when he was ambassador there, pulled her in other directions as she made many friends in different areas of Russia, and got drawn into the political events – including demonstrating at the barricades in support of Boris Yeltsin during the attempted coup of 1991. Her work on behalf of her Russian friends continued when she was back in England, and she helped found the Russian European Trust for Welfare Reform in 1993.

Braithwaite’s academic research used all her abilities – languages, charming but firm persuasion, a love of travel, a graceful presence (which reassured many anxious museum curators), and a very keen mind that reduced complicated and intricate subjects to order. She was always fun to be with; her death leaves not only her family and friends, but several separate worlds, the poorer.

Richard Reece

Gillian Mary Robinson, archaeologist: born London 15 September 1937; married 1961 Rodric Braithwaite (three sons, one daughter, and one son deceased); died London 10 November 2008.

Another Live Auctioneer Auction

… again, without any information about origins. This time, it’s a Roman dagger (pugio) and spear tip:

This is lot 901 and is the only Roman item with a photo in this section of the online catalog. Interestingly/suspiciously, it is flanked by A Collection of Roman Glass Artifacts (898), A Roman Earthenware Patera (899), A Collection of Five Near East Earthenware Unguentariums (900), A Collection of Metal Work and Earthenware (902), and A Collection of Nine Roman or Near Eastern Earthenware Vessels (903), none of which have photos, but all of which come from the Indianapolis Museum of Art. There follow two other ancient (Egyptian) items, sans provenance, photographed apparently at the same time as the dagger. After that come items hailing from Sotheby’s etc.. Read into that what you will …

Siren Song

One of the things I think we need a new word or term for is the phenomenon whereby someone notices a sudden ‘cluster’ of mentions of some potentially ‘obscure’ reference to something or someone — sort of like synchronicity of reference or something like that. A case in point is that over the past week, I’ve suddenly seen a bunch of references to Odysseus and the Sirens.  The first one to catch my eye came under the headline Slutty prairie voles make Science news in the Times Beacon Record:

According to an article written by John Tierney in one of my favorite reads, the Science Section of the Tuesday New York Times, we are not far away from an actual pharmaceutical love potion and hence an anti-love vaccine as well.

A love potion may be possible as the result of analysis of brain chemistry in mammalian pair bonding by neuroscientist Larry Young. His work is presented in the latest issue of the highly respected magazine, Nature. But Tierney has taken this a step further. If we know how to make a love potion because we understand what chemicals are involved, he reasons that we also know how to make an anti-love potion, “a vaccine preventing you from making an infatuated ass of yourself.”

OK, so Tierney is not a romantic, but he does make a point. Remember that Odysseus ordered his crew to tie him to the mast as he sailed past the irresistibly seductive Sirens whose aim was to cause ships to crash upon the rocks and their sailors to become prisoners.

Okay … fair enough. You’d figure it would be the article citation from Nature which caused a pile of hits. That’s certainly what happened with a column in the New York Times with the headline Anti-Love Drug May Be Ticket to Bliss.

Could any discovery be more welcome? This is what humans have sought ever since Odysseus ordered his crew to tie him to the mast while sailing past the Sirens.

I can’t check whether the Odysseus/Sirens ref is in the Nature article (it’s behind a payfer wall, of course), but it makes sense for the reference to suddenly appear in a couple of places from the same source. But then we read of a sculpture by Terry Allen which will somehow be broadcasting the Obama inauguration … the public sculpture described thusly in the LA Times:

It is exceedingly strange to encounter these ghostly gray memories of nature entombed in the grove — especially when they seem to be murmuring something at passersby, like Homer’s Sirens beckoning to Odysseus.

… and even less connected is the incipit of a piece in the Motley Fool:

In Homer’s The Odyssey, Odysseus plugged his crew’s ears with wax to tune out the Sirens’ song. He left his own ears unplugged, but he lashed himself to the mast to avoid making any regrettable decisions.

Perhaps the idea was implanted in assorted journalistic synapses with all the coverage of the Blagojevich brouhaha … e.g. the State Journal-Register noted just before Christmas:

The same week in 2004 that Blagojevich skipped his own Governor’s Prayer Breakfast in Springfield in order to react to Chicago Mayor RICHARD DALEY’s proposal for a casino there, Blagojevich quoted both THEODORE ROOSEVELT and Odysseus from Homer’s “The Odyssey.”

In the process of turning down the Chicago casino idea, Blagojevich likened himself to Odysseus being strapped to the mast of his ship so he could hear the beautiful song of the Sirens without being lured to his death.

I think I’ll call these things synchrorefs … (which doesn’t even trigger WordPress’ spellcheck!)

Whence Boys? Whence Girls

The Today Show (Australian version), commenting on Tom Cruise’s and Katie Holmes’ desire for a baby boy lists assorted myths associated with choosing the sex of the child, inter alia:

The ancient Greeks used to believe that girls were created from sperm from the left testicle so in order to get a boy, they used to tie up the left testicle during intercourse!

The Greeks (well, some of them at least) seemed to associate ‘female’ with the left side and ‘male’ with the right. Here’s a bit from a passage in Aristotle’s Generation of Animals (765a15ff or thereabouts):

Again, as has in fact been said before, a female embryo has actually been observed in the right part of the uterus, and a male one in the left part, and both male and female in the self-same part, and that not once but several times over ; or the male one on the right side, and the female on the left, and no less both are formed on the right side]. There are some who are firmly convinced of a similar view to this, and maintain that males who copulate with the right or left testicle tied up produce male or female offspring respectively : this used in fact to be maintained by Leophanes. Some allege that the same occurs in the case of those who have one testis excised. This statement is untrue, and is a mere piece of guesswork on their part. They start from probabilities and guess what will occur ; they prejudge that it is so before they see it happen.

(Peck and Leslie trans.)

Well, they had a 50-50 chance of being right …

Startling Starlings

A while back on the Classics list in a context I can’t recall, I mentioned that the populations of starlings and turkey vultures seemed to be on the increase in the area I live in (Southern Ontario). As it turns out, the starlings are actually declining, according to a piece in the Star, which also drops this little tidbit:

But a range of research and experience suggests the birds’ positive contributions deserve a hearing. Among other things, starlings are legendary songsters. Since the time of the ancient Romans, starlings have been kept as pets, often for their extraordinary singing capabilities. Emperor Nero and Agrippina had pet starlings that had vast singing repertoires and large vocabularies of human words.

Here’s what Pliny the Elder has to say about that:

Agrippina Claudii Caesaris turdum habuit, quod numquam ante, imitantem sermones hominum. cum haec proderem, habebant et Caesares iuvenes sturnum, item luscinias Graeco ac Latino sermone dociles, praeterea meditantes assidue et in diem nova loquentes, longiore etiam contextu. docentur secreto et ubi nulla alia vox misceatur, adsidente qui crebro dicat ea, quae condita velit, ac cibis blandiente.

(NH 10.59 via Lacus Curtius)

Agrippina, the wife of Claudius Caesar, had a thrush that could imitate human speech, a thing that was never known before. At the moment that I am writing this, the young Caesars have a starling and some nightingales that are being taught to talk in Greek and Latin ; besides which, they are studying their task the whole day, continually repeating the new words that they have learnt, and giving utterance to phrases even of considerable length. Birds are taught to talk in a retired spot, and where no other voice can be heard, so as to interfere with their lesson ; a person sits by them, and continually repeats the words he wishes them to learn, while at the same time he encourages them by giving them food.

(Bostock and Riley trans.)

I assume the ‘young Caesars’ are Nero and Brittanicus …

Another Classical Theme Park in the Works

The Cyprus Property Magazine reports that Russian investors are proposing a theme park for Pyla … some details, inter alia:

The park will seek to gain the reputation of being the ‘Euro Disney of the Mediterranean’.  It will include a 1,000 room five star hotel that will be shaped so that all the rooms have a view of the gardens. Plans for the theme park will include various attractions such as a water park, cinemas, theatres, auditoriums, stadiums – some of which will have closed roofs inspired by the Egyptian pyramids, a ski centre, waterfalls, adventure parks, shops, spas, saunas, Roman baths and a museum.

The general theme of the park will be inspired by Greek mythology and the history of Cyprus and this will be reflected in the various rides on offer. The name chosen for the project, “Pygmalion and Galatea”, is also taken from Greek mythology.

hmmmmm ….

Herophilus Quote?

A piece in the Clarion Ledger opens thusly:

Ancient Greek physician Herophilus stated, “When health is absent, wisdom cannot reveal itself, strength cannot fight, intelligence cannot be applied, art cannot become manifest, wealth becomes useless.”

Herophilus is one of those ancient medical types who rarely gets mentioned (Hippocrates and Galen seem to hog the spotlight), so I’m curious … does anyone know if this is a genuine quotation? It doesn’t appear very much on the web and doesn’t seem to be mentioned in Heinrich von Staden, Herophilus: The Art of Medicine in Early Alexandria : Edition, Translation, and Essays, although admittedly that was checked via Googlebooks and it was a limited preview.

UPDATE 01/17/09:  Tip o’ the pileus to Tim Parkin who informs us that id does appear in von Staden (p. 238), so it does appear to be legit.