Mystery Burials at Dorset

This one is a week or so old, but its interest remains. Assorted news organizations have covered the discovery of a mass burial of possibly 1st-century date during road construction in Dorset. The burial itself is puzzling, however, as the 40-odd skeletons seem to belong to folks who were decapitated, and the skulls were buried in a different location than the trunks. David Score, head of Oxford Archaeology told various news organizations (this is the version from the Guardian‘s coverage), inter alia:

There are lots of different types of burial where skeletons may be aligned along a compass axis or in a crouched position, but to find something like this is just incredible. We’re still working on carefully recording and recovering all of the skeletons, which will be taken back to our offices in Oxford for detailed analysis, and trying to piece together the extraordinary story behind these remains … It’s very early days, but so far, after a visit to the site by our head of burial services, the skulls appear to be predominantly those of young men. At the moment we don’t fully understand how or why the remains have come to be deposited in the pit but it seems highly likely that some kind of catastrophic event such as war, disease or execution has occurred.

With Reuters, Dr. Score went a bit further in his speculations:

Were they fighting amongst themselves? Were they executed by the Romans? Did they die in a battle with the Romans? The exciting scenario for us possibly is that there were skirmishes with the invading Romans and that’s how they ended up chopped up in a pit.

The Reuters coverage also adds some details:

The grave site is close to Maiden Castle — Europe’s largest Iron Age hill fort where local tribes are said to have staged a last stand against the Roman legions after the invasion.

Some historians believe the Romans sacked the site, butchering its population including women and children, before burning it to the ground.

Score said they had counted 45 skulls so far in the 6-meter wide pit, together with a tangle of torsos, arms and legs, More could be found in the coming weeks.

Most of the skulls were those of young men, supporting the theory they could have been killed in battle or executed en masse.

Well it seems to me that the ‘epidemic’ theory is right out, unless it was some mass outbreak of some unknown disease which caused peoples’ heads to fall off. Killed in battle seems a bit odd as well — you don’t get a lot of decapitations in battles outside of Hollywood. Perhaps a post-battle execution is possible, but if these were young, capable warrior types, wouldn’t one expect such folks to be sent back to Rome to fight in the arena? Maybe … maybe not. Similarly, execution by beheading wasn’t generally how Romans treated foreigners (the quick and easy death was preserved for Roman citizens), although perhaps a need to move quickly occasioned these events. Of course, there is an assumption being made here that the Romans would be responsible … that’s due primarily to the proximity of the burials to Maiden Castle, which Sir Mortimer Wheeler had connected long ago to the Roman invasion in 43 B.C., which, in this part of England, was led by the future emperor Vespasian. To judge from English Heritage, the current tendency is to downplay the Roman side of Wheeler’s theories and perhaps the same should be done in this case.

UPDATE (09/21/09): Turns out the burials are Saxon

Pauliana

LOsservatore Romano

L'Osservatore Romano

It seems appropriate on this date of the feast of Ss. Peter and Paul to comment on all the news that broke over the weekend in regards to St. Paul (and St Peter as well, indirectly). First, on Saturday, L’Osservatore Romano broke the news of the discovery of the oldest iconic images of St. Paul, found in the catacomb of St. Thecla, dating to the late fourth century. The article gives the impression that the identity of the Saint wasn’t really clear until laser restoration of the fresco had taken place, and the online version of the article includes the photo you see to the left (there’s another photo at the site which shows the laser restoration in progress).

The story was picked up by piles of news services, as might be imagined, and we get some more details than the original Italian report. Firstly, the Telegraph appears to have the best version of the ‘official’ photo of the fresco:

via the Telegraph

via the Telegraph

The Telegraph also seems to be one of the few sources who interviewed includes some comments from Barbara Mazzei, who directed the work in the catacomb. Inter alia, she told the Telegraph:

We had been working in the Catacomb for some time and it is full of frescoes. However the pictures are all covered with limestone which was covering up much of the artwork and so to remove it and clean it up we had to use fine lasers. The result was exceptional because from underneath all the dirt and grime we saw for the first time in 1600 years the face of Saint Paul in a very good condition. It was easy to see that it was Saint Paul because the style matched the iconography that we know existed at around the 4th Century – that is the thin face and the dark beard. It is a sensational discovery and is of tremendous significance. This is then first time that a single image of Saint Paul in such good condition has been found and it is the oldest one known of. Traditionally in Christian images of St Paul he is always alongside St Peter but in this icon he was on his own and what is also significant is the fact that St Paul’s Basilica is just a few minutes walk away. It is my opinion that the fresco we have discovered was based on the fact that St Paul’s Basilica was close by, there was a shrine to him there at that site since the 3rd Century. This fresco is from the early part of the 4th Century while before the earliest were from the later part and examples have been found in the Catacombs of Domitilla.

On the apostle’s iconography, see this useful page … as for it being the “oldest”, I’m somewhat hesitant — I’m pretty sure there’s a solo image of Paul in the Catacomb of Priscilla which may or may not be older. I can’t find any enlightenment on the web for that one.

The other big news in regards to St Paul was that tests had been done on bones found in his in the Basilica of St. Paul. The sarcophagus believed to contain his remains was discovered at the end of 2006 and for quite a while, it seems, Vatican archaeologists were unsure whether there were any bones in it at all. Whatever the case, according to ever-increasing media coverage, Pope Benedict announced yesterday (Sunday) that C14 tests had been done on the bones found in the sarcophagus and indicated a date from the first/second centuries. The quote from the pontiff which is appearing all over:

This seems to confirm the unanimous and undisputed tradition that these are the mortal remains on the Apostle Paul.

Other details of note (via the Reuters report):

Pope Benedict gave details of the discovery, saying a tiny hole had been drilled in the sarcophaguus to permit inspection of the interior, revealing “traces of a precious linen cloth, purple in color, laminated with pure gold, and a blue colored textile with filaments of linen.”

“It also revealed the presence of grains of red incense and traces of protein and limestone. There were also tiny fragments of bone, which, when subjected to Carbon 14 tests by experts, turned out to belong to someone who lived in the first or second century,” said the pope.

… hmmm. Not sure about you, but purple linen with gold suggests the burial of a rather wealthy Roman, which may or may not accord with the traditional image of St Paul, who would have been under house arrest for a couple of years before being beheaded. I’m sure I’m not the only person thinking it would be interesting to properly open the sarcophagus and see if the remains inside indicate decapitation, and it appears that a Dutch archaeologist is in the same category. According to a piece at Monsters and Critics, inter alia:

Responding to the claim by Pope Benedict XVI that the bones of St Paul have been found in Rome, a Dutch expert, Rengert Elburg, said Monday this can never be proven.

Elburg, an expert on archaeological study of old bones and organic remains for the government of the German state of Saxony, told the German Press Agency dpa in an interview, ‘It’s impossible to establish that it’s him.’

Even a genetic analysis of the bones in a sarcophagus marked as Paul’s would reveal nothing, because there were no proven descendants whose DNA could be compared.

‘But the bones could tell you the sex and age of death of the person,’ he said. A face could be reconstructed if a skull were in the grave. ‘But we don’t know how Paul looked, so that doesn’t help identify the body,’ he said.

Elburg said scientists were likely to check for links to the historical account of the beheading of St Paul, the author of copious letters and first interpreter of Christianity.

‘Traces of beheading can be identified with absolute certainty,’ he said.

The cut was usually found between the third and fourth vertebrae.

Elburg counselled maximum precision in opening the sarcophagus, saying, ‘It will be comparable to opening the tomb of an Egyptian pharaoh.’ Fabric in a coffin could fall apart at a touch.

He said dry, outside air would not damage fabric or the bones. The presence of any clothing was likely to depend on whether the sarcophagus had been hermetically sealed for 20 centuries.

… and we might actually get to that point; an excerpt from the coverage in the Times:

Cardinal Andrea Cordero Lanza di Montezemolo, the archpriest of St Paul’s, said that he had known for more than a year that the tests had shown that the bones were those of a man of the 1st century, but had been sworn to secrecy because it had been “up to the Holy Father to make this public”. He said this was why the Vatican press office had denied last week that the bones had been identified. “Only the Pope can make such an important and solemn announcement,” he said.

The cardinal said he was now waiting for permission from the Pope to open the tomb, which would be a “long and delicate operation” in order to avoid any “structural damage” to the sarcophagus. Andrea Tornielli, the papal biographer, said that Pope Benedict’s announcement recalled Pope Paul VI’s declaration 41 years ago that the bones of St Peter had been identified.

Of course, we’ll keep you updated in regards to any developments or additional details of note.

On the fresco:

On the bones:

d.m. Bob Mitchell

From Wicked Local Newton:

Former students remember Bob Mitchell as much for his stories and mystery that surrounded him as for the language they learned from him.

“He was one of the most brilliant people I have ever met, and also by far the most enigmatic,” said Arielle Weisman, who graduated from North in 2003 and took classes with Mitchell for four years. Weisman is teaching English in Spain and responded to questions via e-mail. “I mentioned before that he was enigmatic. I say this because unlike other teachers, who you could well imagine went home to their families at night, ate dinner and went to bed, what Mr. Mitchell did in his free time was beyond us. He spoke/read over 20 languages and had the most bizarre stories from every corner of the globe.”

The Newton North High School Latin teacher died May 27 after battling melanoma. He was 60.

Weisman said Mitchell would often share his globetrotting adventures with his students, but details about his more recent personal life were hard to get. Until last week, Weisman said she didn’t know Mitchell had cancer.

“I’m thankful to have been able to talk to him one last time to make sure he knew that he was, still is and forever will be my favorite,” she said.

Mitchell started teaching at North in 1990. Principal Jennifer Price said Mitchell left the school on March 23, two months before his death.

Like Weisman, 2003 North graduate Lincoln Brody, who is also teaching English in Spain, found out about Mitchell’s cancer shortly before his death. Brody sent Mitchell a letter thanking him for everything he taught him, but it may not have arrived before his death.

“His teaching style was rigorous, intense, often frantic and always with total passion and a sense of humor,” Brody wrote in an e-mail.

In his letter to Mitchell, Brody thanked his former teacher for instilling a passion for learning in him.

“Just as important for me was the constant exposure to your unbridled enthusiasm for learning and knowledge as was the actual material we learned. This attitude, this spirit, is something that I treasure to this day, and for which I largely have you to thank,” he wrote. “So thank you for everything you’ve shared with me, from your daily quips to your bottomless digressions, to the impeccably detailed story you told our AP study group, on the night before the exam, of how you got struck by lightning one muggy summer afternoon while dancing like Fred Astaire on a construction site.”

Nathan Guttman, a 2003 North grad who now lives in Los Angeles, remembered how Mitchell’s story about being struck by lightning made him feel better before his Latin Advanced Placement exam his junior year.

“Everybody was exhausted from work and nervous for the exam. Mr. Mitchell stopped our translating about 20 minutes before the end of class and proceeded to tell a captivating, uproarious story about how he was once struck by lightning while doing a Gene Kelly dance on top of a Big Dig concrete pylon,” Guttman wrote in an e-mail. “The class listened in rapt attention as Mr. Mitchell described time slowing down and the world turning slightly green as the debris around him lifted into the air from the shock of the lightning strike.

“Mr. Mitchell realized it was he who had been struck by lightning when the umbrella he was holding — ‘Of course I had an umbrella. How else would you do “Singing in the Rain”?’ — shot out of his hand and landed 20 feet away.”

When students asked what he did, Guttman said Mitchell told the class he picked up his umbrella.

Along with his stories, students said Mitchell’s class could be tough. He assigned numerous lines of translation every night and expected them to be completed.

“To be honest, there were always a few students in Mr. Mitchell’s classes who didn’t particularly love Latin or the workload, but simply loved Mr. Mitchell too much to ever drop the class,” said Guttman.

Like his students, Mitchell’s colleagues sensed his passion for learning.

“We suffered a huge loss, but he’d want the celebration to go on and to honor achievement. He believed so much in the teaching and learning of foreign language,” said Nancy Marrinucci, head of the foreign language department at North. “He used to say it was part of a liberal arts education, and it allowed students to more fully participate in the world.”

One former student, Marrinucci said, compiled a collection of “Mitchellisms.”

CONF: Bones, Behaviour and Belief

Seen on Aegeanet quite a while ago:

The Swedish Institute at Athens is organizing a conference entitled
“Bones, behaviour and belief. The osteological evidence as a source for
Greek ritual practice”. The event will take place in Athens, on the
10th-12th of September 2009.

The purpose of the conference is to highlight the role and contribution of
the osteological evidence for our understanding of Greek sacrificial
ritual, especially from a methodological perspective. It also aims at a
discussion of the relation of the bone material to other source categories
– texts, inscriptions, images and archaeological remains other than bones.
Of central interest are issues approachable from osteological evidence
only and instances where the bone material presents a picture different
from that derived from the written or pictorial sources. A group of
prominent osteologists working on evidence from sanctuaries and cult
places will present papers addressing questions of ritual practices. To
stimulate an increased integration of osteology in the study of Greek cult
in the future and to highlight the relation of various categories of
sources to each other, a panel of leading scholars working on Greek
religion mainly thought the use of non-osteological material will
participate in the discussions as well as in the concluding table ronde.

Confirmed speakers include Gerhard Forstenpointner (Wien), Gunnel Ekroth
(Stockholm), Valasia Isaakidou (Sheffield), Paul Halstead (Sheffield),
Maria Vretemark (Museum of Västergötland), Armelle Gardeisen (Latte),
Michel MacKinnon (Winnipeg), Dimitra Mylona (Rethymnon), François Poplin
(Paris), Ola Magnell (Lund), Martine Leguilloux (Var), Hélène Siard
(Paris), Sabine Sten (Gotland), Emmanulle Vila (Lyon).

Invited discussants: Robin Hägg (Göteborg), Stella Georgoudi (Paris),
Scott Scullion (Oxford), Francis Prost (Paris), Véronique Mehl (Rennes).

The conference will be held at the Italian School, Athens and all
interested listeners are welcome to attend.

For further information, please contact gunnel.ekroth AT antiken.su.se or
jenny.wallensten AT sia.gr

d.m. Douglas Little

From the Otago Daily Times:

Dr Douglas Little, an influential classics teacher who retired from the University of Otago classics department as an associate professor in 1987, has died in Dunedin after a long illness.

He was in his mid-70s.

Dr Little, who at one stage was the department’s only New Zealand-born staff member, had earlier graduated from Otago University with an MA(Hons) in Latin and German and an honours degree in Greek, before gaining a PhD in classics at the University of Texas, in Austin.

Having earlier served as an assistant lecturer, he returned to the Otago classics staff as a senior lecturer in 1975, after completing his doctorate.

[n.b. the ODT promised a proper obituary ‘to follow’, but it doesn’t seem to have made it to the web ~ dm]

CFP: Cross-cultural Influence in the Roman World

Seen in the Canadian Classical Bulletin:

Call for Papers
Cross-cultural Influence in the Roman World, McMaster University
3 October 2009
Keynote Speaker: Dr. Emma Dench, Harvard University
Abstracts for papers on cross-cultural influence in the Roman world are sought for the Classics Graduate Conference at McMaster University on Saturday, 3 October 2009. Abstracts should be no longer than 300 words, to be submitted to the address provided below. We encourage papers exploring both the acclimatization of foreign peoples to Roman culture and the impact of those indigenous cultures on the Romans themselves. A wide range of subjects are acceptable, including, but not limited to, material culture, religion, linguistics, dress, warfare, and political practices.
Papers delivered at the conference should be 15-20 minutes in length.
Submit abstracts electronically to Patricia White at whitepl At mcmaster.ca.

Deadline for abstracts: 15 July 2009

Announcement of acceptances of abstracts: 15 August 2009