Difficile est bloggam non scribere!

One of the things which continues to bother me about blogs and the like is that they really haven’t been embraced by a significant number of academics actually working in the field (there are exceptions, of course) and as a result, the press is ‘getting away with murder’ in regards to claims it is making about things within our purview.  This past week or so has just been brutal for this sort of thing, as the following little survey will show. We begin with the supposed news that there was a settlement at Alexandria prior to Alexander’s founding of the city. Here’s Livescience via MSNBC:

Alexander the Great has long been credited with being the first to settle the area along Egypt’s coast that became the great port city of Alexandria. But in recent years, evidence has been mounting that other groups of people were there first.

Well if nothing else, we have a fine example of petitio principis … I’d love to know the source of the claim that Alexander was the “first”. Whatever the case, it continues with some useful information:

The latest clues that settlements existed in the area for several hundred years before Alexander the Great come from microscopic bits of pollen and charcoal in ancient sediment layers.

Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great in 331 B.C. The city sits on the Mediterranean coast at the western edge of the Nile delta. Its location made it a major port city in ancient times; it was also famous for its lighthouse (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World) and its library, the largest in the ancient world.

But in the past few years, scientists have found fragments of ceramics and traces of lead in sediments in the area that predate Alexander’s arrival by several hundred years, suggesting there was already a settlement in the area (though one far smaller than what Alexandria became).

Christopher Bernhardt of the U.S. Geological Survey and his colleagues took sediment cores (long cylindrical pieces of sediment drilled from the ground) that featured layers going as far back as nearly 8,000 years ago as part of a larger climate study of the area.

In these sediment layers, Bernhardt and his colleagues took samples of embedded ancient pollen grains to look for shifts from primarily native plants to those associated with agriculture. They also analyzed levels of microscopic charcoal, whose presence can indicate human fires.

At a mark of 3,000 years ago, Bernhardt’s team detected a shift in pollen grains from native grasses and other plants to those from cereal grains, grapes and weeds associated with agriculture. They also found a marked increase in charcoal particles, all of which suggests that a settlement pre-dated the great city of Alexandria. [etc.]

Now I strongly suspect it was the journalist, and not the geologist in this situation who has embellished the tale somewhat. But even my mind boggles that the journalist doesn’t appear to have even checked the Wikipedia article on Alexandria to read about the fishing/maritime settlement of Rhakotis which was on the site prior to Alexander’s foundation. Heck, one would think this settlement would be well known since it is usually brought up as “evidence” that there was a library at Alexandria prior to Alexander (and in case you’re wondering; it isn’t … there’s no evidence of the library prior to Alexandria). And it boggles the mind somewhat — but maybe not — that an editor would allow such a false claim to form the hook for a story which is important in its own right.

Our next foray is against some book hype masquerading as a news article. Paul Cartledge is working on/about to publish a book on the wide influence of the Greeks in the Mediterranean world and the hype this week focussed on the ‘discovery’ (it seems) that the Greeks introduced viticulture to France. Here’s some representative (excerpted) coverage from PhysOrg:

Rewind 2,500 years, however, and the original makers of Côtes-du-Rhône are more likely to have prided themselves on rather different qualities, such as Athenian sophistication, and perhaps just a soupçon of Spartan grit.

Writing in a new study, Cambridge University Professor Paul Cartledge suggests that the French, not to mention the rest of the West, might never have become the passionate wine lovers we are without the assistance of a band of pioneering Greek explorers who settled in southern France around 600 BC.

Finding a sheltered port at the mouth of a major river system with natural hilly defences, the Greeks founded the city of Massalia, or modern-day Marseilles, and soon began to mingle and trade with friendly local tribes of Ligurian Celts, turning the settlement into a bustling entrepôt.

Within a matter of generations, Professor Cartledge says, the nearby Rhône became a major thoroughfare for vessels loaded with terracotta amphorae containing a new, exotic Greek drink made from fermented grape juice that would soon be taking the uncivilised tribes of western Europe by storm. Travelling up the river might even have constituted the original booze cruise.

The portrait of Marseilles’ origins, which appears in a new book, Ancient Greece: A History In Eleven Cities, will, Professor Cartledge hopes, lay to rest an enduring debate about the historic origins of supermarket plonk.

Although some academics agree that the Greeks were central to the foundation of Europe’s wine trade, others argue that the Etruscans (of modern Tuscany), or even the later Romans, were the ones responsible for bringing viticulture to France.

As Professor Cartledge points out, however, two points swing the argument firmly in the Greeks’ favour. First, the Greeks had to marry and mix with the local Ligurians to ensure that Massalia survived, suggesting that they also swapped goods and ideas. Second, they left behind copious amounts of archaeological evidence of their wine trade (unlike the Etruscans and long before the Romans), much of which has been found on Celtic sites.

Again, I’m having difficulties putting the blame for the spin on this on Dr. Cartledge. I am fairly positive that he doesn’t believe that he’s the only one privy to the knowledge of the archaeological evidence for Greek viticulture in France. Perhaps there are “some academics” and “others” engaging in some major debate on this (as Dr Cartledge seems to imply in a comment in the Telegraph), but I’m not sure where it might be happening.

Fulfilling the ‘scholastic rule of three’, we have this ‘labyrinth business’. The intro to the Discovery News coverage is pretty typical:

The site that inspired the ancient Greek Labyrinth, a mythical maze that supposedly housed the bull-man Minotaur, may have just been unearthed in Crete by an international team of researchers.

Oxford University geographer Nicholas Howarth and his colleagues believe a cave complex near Gortyn on the Greek island could have led to the myth. The cave system consists of a twisting and turning network of underground tunnels. Howarth describes it as “dark and dangerous.”

The 2.5-mile-long underground system is even called Labyrinthos Caves by locals. Some of its paths lead to large chambers, while others result in dead ends. (etc.)

FWIW, I had never heard of these caves before, so the claim that they had “just” been discovered, was a bit exciting. But as the week or so of coverage played out, and as discussion on the Classics list and (especially) AegeaNet ensued, it became clear that these caves had, in fact, been known for quite a while. Indeed, Dudley Moore includes a chapter on the caves in his to-be-published thesis The Early British Travellers to Crete and their contribution to the island’s Bronze Age archaeological heritage, and he kindly sent the relevant chapter along to me to peruse. To make an interesting story less so (by me, of course), Dr. Moore documents possible visits to this cave system beginning in the sixteenth century and stretching down to the nineteenth, and the long accompanying debate whether it was the ‘labyrinth’ or just a quarry (as an aside, I found the numerous attempts by travellers to ‘prove’ the existence of the labyrinth very interesting … in all our first year Classics courses, we are told that Heinrich Schliemann was alone in having this sort of ‘prove the myths true’ attitude, but it seems to have a longer history … I’ll have to look further into this). The upshot: this was nothing new.

Now to be fair, the Telegraph did explain this one a bit more clearly:

An Anglo-Greek team believes that the site, near the town of Gortyn, has just as much claim to be the place of the Labyrinth as the Minoan palace at Knossos 20 miles away, which has been synonymous with the Minotaur myth since its excavation a century ago.

The 600,000 people a year who visit the ruins at Knossos are told the site was almost certainly the home of the legendary King Minos, who was supposed to have constructed the Labyrinth to house the Minotaur, a fearsome creature born out of a union between the king’s wife and a bull, the Independent reports.

Nicholas Howarth, an Oxford University geographer who led the expedition to the site, said there was a danger of Gortyn being lost from the story of the Labyrinth because of the overpowering position that Knossos had taken in the legend “People come not just to see the controversial ruins excavated and reconstructed by Evans, but also to seek a connection to the mythical past of the Age of Heroes. It is a shame that almost all visitors to Knossos have never heard of these other possible ‘sites’ for the mythical Labyrinth,” Mr Howarth said. [etc.]

Taken together, what probably bothered me most about all of these cases was that there clearly was some discussion about the claim going on amongst people who did know the facts, but that the ‘public’ wasn’t privy to that discussion. The public was only privy to the misinformation and/or sensationalized claims being put forth by the media. We need to be doing a better job of what the media is doing with ‘our stuff’.

About these ads

5 thoughts on “Difficile est bloggam non scribere!

  1. Mark Davidson says:

    Since the media is often not bothering to check even Wikipedia before writing a story, how would better coverage on the blogs help to get better information to the public?

    I’ve been following a particular news story (unrelated to classics) for about 2 years, both in the major media and on the blogs and forums. I’ve been unpleasantly surprised by how often the media get their facts wrong, or accept spin as fact. This is despite the careful objective analysis which has been done on some public forums, and discussed in detail. Summaries of checked facts, along with proper sources and references, are easily available, but are generally ignored by the media.

    There are a few journalists who write knowledgeable and objective reports. But most just want a good story, as sensational as possible, and don’t really care how accurate or balanced it is.

    Still – coming back to the classics – for the sake of those people who care, it would be useful to have a site which lists current news stories in the classics and gives expert commentary. This blog itself is something in that direction, and very useful. But perhaps what is needed is a forum format rather than a blog, where it’s easier to have open discussion of any story.

  2. Terrence Lockyer says:

    While I too am not sanguine about the likelihood of journalists (increasingly over-worked and underqualified, as newsrooms are slashed and the emphasis is on publishing wire stories and “showbiz”) taking note, I am not quite so pessimistic about the possibilities for blogging and similar avenues, and the more the merrier; the point being to get things into search engines, and also to encourage people who do know better to contribute comments, posts, and tweets pointing away from the hype and to the facts and sources. Remember also the power of referral – the more people link to the better coverage, the more people are likely to read it. Drops in oceans, maybe, but it’s a start.

  3. I have a blog where I occasionally rant about this also. Sometimes I read supposedly “new” stories, which are actually old, or are in actual fact are just being sensationalised. A recent one that got my goat was regarding the notion that French wine would be on a boat being transported around the Mediterranean as somehow fantastic.

    I’ve considered the idea that a good number of free-lance journalists just need to submit something, so they’ll take anything and sex it up a little.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s