Alexander Medallion

Interesting item from the Sunday Times (Sri Lanka):

Embossed on the gold coin is the arrogant profile of Alexander the Great. On it, the young conqueror’s features endure: his luxuriant curly hair and the crooked line of his broken nose; his elongated cheeks and large, unblinking eyes. Curiously though, his head is covered in the scalp of an elephant, its trunk curling triumphantly over his brow. Around his neck is the image of the Gorgon, the coiling snakes worn as an aegis. The horn of Ammon protects his temple. The striking image is valued for far more than its obvious beauty. It is believed to be the only portrait actually created during the lifetime of Alexander the Great to survive into modernity. This is Alexander as he saw himself – invulnerable, verging on godhood, immortalized in the moment of his triumph.

“It’s exactly Alexander, there is no doubt about that,” says Sri Lankan numismatist Prof. Osmund Bopearachchi. Having announced the find to the world, more recently Osmund co-authored a book with History professor Frank Holt which was published just last month titled ‘The Alexander Medallion: Exploring the Origins of a Unique Artefact’. Written partly in defence of the authenticity of the gold medallion, the book describes the extraordinary circumstances that led to the unveiling of the priceless artefact. Its historical significance far outweighing the value of the precious metal itself, its history is both the subject of the book and of Osmund’s long obsession.

At the centre of the story is a humble village in Afghanistan. Located in one of the most hostile political and geographical landscapes on earth, Mir Zakah lies along the ancient trail that connects Ghazni in modern Afghanistan to Gandhara in what is now Pakistan. Travelling in the company of a French journalist and 12 bodyguards, Osmund made his way there in 2004. As the temperature plummeted to minus 15 degrees centigrade outside, the men covered themselves with carpets to keep warm and brushed their teeth with snow. Despite the abject poverty that surrounded them, in the evenings the numismatist would show his hosts pictures of incredible treasures – of gold, silver and bronze ornaments, vessels and coins – and ask them whether there were any among them they recognized.
The pieces he was showing them were in the possession of a Japanese museum.

The museum had been sold the pieces which had been deliberately misrepresented by corrupt agents as belonging to another set known as the Oxus treasure . Now, Osmund was unsurprised to discover the men had in fact seen many of the pieces before. After all, some of them had actually handled the objects themselves, pulling each piece fresh from the earth just a few feet away from where they now huddled together. Some shared their keepsakes with the visitors – on the palm of his hand, one man displayed a single diminutive gold coin. Unbeknownst to the Afghan farmer, the Indo-Scythian coin with the image of Azes stamped onto its face was a rarity, worth an estimated $20,000. Yet, this was only one of Mir Zakah’s treasures – and there are hundreds of thousands more.

The Mir Zakah deposit is believed to contain roughly 550,000 coins alongside hundreds of other, larger objects. “When you look at the composition you get everything – from North India to Southern Uzbekistan and North Afghanistan,” says Osmund explaining that the pieces are equally diverse in their chronology, with some of the earliest dating to the 5th century B.C going up to the 2nd century A.D. How they came to be tossed together in the same well remains a matter of speculation. Osmund himself imagines a scenario where an army of Sassanians successfully plundered the treasuries and collections of temples and cities but was then faced with a sudden challenge from a rival group. They would have been forced to ditch their loot before going to battle. If so, clearly they lost and their treasure was left to languish unclaimed for centuries.

When some of it resurfaced centuries later, many pieces would be routed through the bazaars of the Pakistani city of Peshawar, before they were smuggled out to America and Europe. The first coins appeared in the late 1940s and 50s, just after the hoard at Mir Zakah was first excavated. Intervening in 1948, French archaeologists attempted to collect and study some of the deposit’s treasures, but political disturbances and violence in the region forced them to give up their hunt well before the hoard was exhausted. It would lie relatively undisturbed till a group of ambitious looters would dig up the well again in 1993 – 94. Again, they would leave the job half done. Violence and multiple deaths among those involved with the illicit dig would earn the Mir Zakah hoard a reputation for being cursed among locals. Soon the site would become altogether inaccessible to outsiders, as Afghanistan entered a prolonged period of unrest.

Still, what was dug up was enough to flood the markets of Peshawar with astounding quantities of artefacts and coins in particular. It was here that Osmund first encountered the treasures of Mir Zakah in person. Osmund remembers being entirely overwhelmed as sack after sack, each filled with approximately 50 kgs of coins, were poured over the floor before him. It was quite literally a ‘pluie’ or a ‘rain’ of coins, says Osmund, adding, “I suspect that no numismatist has ever seen so many coins in such a short space of time.” Determined to get a handle on the composition of the hoard, he began what he describes as a desperate exercise. “I began to sort the coins into groups according to the issuers, e.g. early Indian, Greek city states, Seleucids, Indo-Greeks, Indo-Scythians, Indo-Parthians, and Kushans.”

It was an impossible exercise, as was the authorities’ every attempt to confiscate or buy the loot of Mir Zakah – even as you read this, a known stash of three tons of valuable coins in Basel, Switzerland remains tantalisingly inaccessible to scholars. Instead wily smugglers have succeeded in ushering priceless artefacts into museums and private collections all over the world – not hesitating to create fictitious histories for their antiques if required. Alexander’s commemorative medallion would find its way to London and into the hands of an anonymous collector who has no intention of parting with it, though he has allowed it to be exhibited.

For those familiar with coins from Ptolemy I’s reign, the portrait of Alexander is not an uncommon one. Though the work is particularly fine, it could have arguably come out of a workshop in Egypt. However, the one obstacle to this interpretation is quite literally of elephantine proportions. On the back of the coin, where you might have to expected to find Athena brandishing a spear, you see instead an elephant walking on tiptoe. Issued in 326 BC to commemorate Alexander’s resounding defeat of Porus, the King of Paurava by the river Jhelum in what is modern Punjab, the coin was intended to be a golden boast. It is a find that excited Osmund – he calls it “the missing link” that explained the baffling appearance of an Asian elephant on coins minted in countries where there were none about. It represented the attempts of other, later rulers to share in Alexander’s glory.

Other silver coins issued around the period flesh out the action of the battle. In one, Alexander, astride a horse, flings a spear at Porus on his elephant. In another, the King’s men ride in four-horse chariots as they draw their awesome bows. These coins are evidence, that where historical records fail, where stories are forgotten, coins remain to tell the tale.

As for Osmund, the Alexander medallion is only a highlight in a very distinguished career. Reportedly, the only Sri Lankan numismatist to have a PhD in the subject, Osmund graduated with a B.A from the University of Kelaniya and has spent the last three decades in France where he is the Director of Research at the French National Centre for Scientific Research. Specializing in the coinage of the Indo-Greek and Greco-Bactrian kingdoms, he has catalogued numerous collections of coins, including one for the Smithsonian. A professor of Central Asian and South Asian archaeology and art history at the University Paris-Sorbonne, he is currently a visiting Professor at the University of Berkeley in California. He is also the author of nine books, the most recent being ‘The Pleasure Gardens of Sigiriya. A New Approach’. Among others, he has been honoured with the Gustave Mendel Award, The Lhotka Memorial Prize and the Order of Constantine the Great.

In Sri Lanka, he is currently engaged in a search for the traces of an ancient sea port and settlement in Kuchchiveli in the Trincomalee district, but says that while he intends to juggle many projects, the coins from Mir Zakah continue to fascinate him. “From 1983 (when he was writing his PhD dissertation) until today, coins from both Mir Zakah deposits have been part and parcel of my life,” says Osmund. There is much left to be done: the dig is incomplete and what has been already excavated is very poorly documented.

“As long as all the artefacts and coins dispersed in private collections are not made known to the world and the three tons of coins still lying in the Free Trade Zone of Basel are not exposed and studied, the story of Mir Zakah will remain untold,” he says.

I can’t recall much about this Mir Zakah deposit, although I believe I one point I linked to an article in Saudi Aramco World entitled Ptolemy’s Alexandrian Postscript, which does go into it a bit. Also worth a look is a review in ANS Magazine: Le Portrait d’Alexandre le Grand: Histoire d’une découverte pour l’humanité (the review is in English).

Charlotte Casiraghi Loves Ancient Languages!

Brief item from the Greek Reporter:

Charlotte Casiraghi claims to be a big fan of the Ancient Greek language and of Greek philosphers.

The oldest daughter of Caroline, Princess of Hanover, and fourth in line to the throne of Monaco, is studying Philosophy of the Hellenistic and Roman Period and carries around in her bag books written by ancient philosphers.

“I’ve learned ancient Greek and Latin. The Stoics are my favourite philosphers”, revealed the 25-year-old Princess to French Vogue.

MacArthur Genius: A.E. Stallings

From the MacArthur Foundation’s site … always nice when a Classicist is recognized:

A. E. Stallings is a poet and translator mining the classical world and traditional poetic techniques to craft works that evoke startling insights about contemporary life. In both her original poetry and translations, Stallings exhibits a mastery of highly structured forms (such as sonnets, couplets, quatrains, and sapphics) and consummate skill in creating new combinations of meter, rhyme, and syntax into distinctive, emotionally compelling verse. Trained in classical Latin and Greek and currently living in Athens, she brings a wide knowledge of Greco-Roman literature, art, and mythology to bear on her imaginative explorations of contemporary circumstances and concerns. In Hapax (2006), Stallings imbues figures and events from classical drama and mythology with a modern sensibility. “First Love,” written as a multiple-choice quiz, intertwines the Persephone myth with a chilling account of infatuation, and “XII Klassikal Lymnaeryx” emphasizes the satiric edge to Greek myth through a series of limericks in witty, unexpected diction. For her ambitious translation of De Rerum Natura (The Nature of Things, 2007), Stallings rendered Lucretius’s epic-length treatise on the nature of reality into rhyming fourteeners. The unusual meter and colloquial language she employs capture every cadence of Lucretius’s enthusiasm for his subject while also making the complexities of his argument easily understandable. Through her technical dexterity and graceful fusion of content and form, Stallings is revealing the timelessness of poetic expression and antiquity’s relevance for today.

A. E. Stallings received an A.B. (1990) from the University of Georgia and an M.St. (1992) from the University of Oxford. Her additional works include the poetry collection Archaic Smile (1999) and poems and essays in such publications as Poetry, the Atlantic Monthly, the Hudson Review, and the Yale Review. She also serves as director of the poetry program at the Athens Centre in Athens, Greece

In the news:

Circumundique ~ September 21-24 (II)

Second bit … that might cover it (my rss reader seems to be lagging):

Bernadette Brooten Looking Into Ancient Slavery

From the Brandeis Hoot:

A Brandeis professor is researching the history of slavery dating back to ancient times with a team that has acquired information from such varied sources as Greek or Latin graves, papyrus and tax receipts of antiquity to uncover the lives of enslaved women and their female owners as well.

Professor Bernadette Brooten (NEJS), an authority on early Christianity, will head the group, using a grant awarded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The Robert and Myra Kraft and Jacob Hiatt Professor of Christian Studies and this year’s visiting scholar at the Harvard Divinity School’s Women’s Studies in Religion Program, Brooten received the grant for the current academic year to research early Christian women who were enslaved or who were slaveholders from the first to fourth centuries.

“Slavery has been part of our lives for most of our history,” Brooten, who is also a professor of Classical Studies; Women’s and Gender Studies; and Religious Studies; and director of the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project, said in a BrandeisNOW release. “Christianity, Judaism and Islam tolerated slavery for most of its history and the habits of slavery are deeply entrenched in our thinking. In order to overcome them, we need to see how deep they are in our history and our habits of thought.”

Brooten will examine the ethical challenges faced by enslaved women in early Christianity to better understand the perspective of this most marginalized of groups. Celibacy, along with the idea of keeping one’s body pure and holy for Christ, was a Christian ideal very early on but, while elite women were able to honor that if they wished, what, Brooten asked, was the Christian decision of God’s judgment on enslaved women?

She hypothesizes that the idea would have been difficult, as owners wanted enslaved women to give birth to ensure further enslaved labor.

Brooten said she will examine how the institution of slavery affected enslaved girls and women who were at risk of enslavement and slaveholding women. She will document how the early Christian majority decision to tolerate slavery, including the enslavement of fellow Christians, and to condemn those who encouraged enslaved persons to flee from their owners shaped teachings on marriage, fidelity, chastity and celibacy.

See also:


Getty Returning a Couple More Items

As part of a ‘cultural cooperation’ agreement, the Getty is returning a couple of items in its collection to Greece … some details excerpted from the Getty’s press release:

[...] In conjunction with the signing of the agreement, David Bomford announced that the J. Paul Getty Museum plans to transfer two objects to the Hellenic Republic Ministry of Culture and Tourism based on discussions between the two parties. Consistent with Getty policy, the decision to transfer these objects was made after a thorough scholarly review.

Minister Yeroulanos added: “The Getty’s decision to transfer two objects is particularly welcome and is an example of the Ministry’s efforts to reunify, repatriate, and exhibit Greek antiquities in their country of origin.”

The objects are fragments of a grave marker and a Greek language inscription, both acquired in the 1970s. The grave marker fragments, which have never been on view at the Getty, join directly to another fragment of the same funerary relief in the Kanellopoulos Museum in Athens. They depict two female figures, a woman seated on the left and a slave in front with her right hand on her cheek. The work is a fine example from an Attic sculpture workshop and dates to the late 5th century B.C. The inscribed stele, which has text on the front and two flanking sides, describes sacrifices and festivals celebrated in Thorikos, in southeast Attica, in honor of local deities and heroes. Dated from 430 to 420 B.C., the inscription consists of 65 lines and is incomplete in the upper left part. It was acquired by the Museum in 1979, and is an important document of its kind. The object is currently on view at the Getty Villa in Malibu.

“We are delighted that the Ministry has agreed to a reciprocal loan for the stele that will allow the Villa to continue to present visitors with an example of ancient Greek writing,” said Bomford. “We look forward to meeting with our colleagues at the Ministry next month in Athens to continue our discussions with regard to future collaborations, which will help convey the richness of Greek culture to American audiences.”


Stumbling into the Bronze Age

From the Daily Star:

A jobless Bulgarian man scraping a living by hunting for scrap metal has uncovered a haul of Bronze Age treasure worth 1.5 million euros, about $2 million.

The 42-year-old discovered the trove of jewellery, coins and tools potentially dating back 4,000 years among the roots of a tree in the northern town of Svichtov.

He initially kept quiet about the find but handed it over to authorities after being questioned by police. Under Bulgaria law such relics are the property of the state. It’s not known how long the lucky man underwent interrogation.

“This major discovery significantly enhances our knowledge of the Bronze Age,” archaeologist Pavlina Vladkova told Bulgaria’s 24 Hours newspaper.

“During this era,” said the expert from the Veliko Tarnovo province’s regional museum, “gold, silver and copper were already known, but use of bronze allowed the crafting of tools.”

Two bronze axes, seven pieces of gold jewellery and six golden coins make up the haul discovered earlier this month.

… no photos, alas, or indications of what culture we’re dealing with …

Latin On the Brink Again?

Hmmm … we’re starting to see more news of Latin programmes on the brink … From the Hartford Courant:

After Suffield High School’s Latin teacher retired in June, the district struggled in vain to find a full-time replacement for the nine students — out of the high school’s nearly 900 — still enrolled in Latin.

A few weeks after school started, the district discovered that one of its third-grade teachers was certified in Latin and could hold office hours and a Saturday class. But the independent study will only be offered to students already in the program.

“Fortunately, we found a solution for students who were invested in the program, but it’s definitely being phased out,” said Principal Donna Hayward. “If I found a teacher, I would consider [keeping] it. But for a caseload of five or six students, I just don’t see it as a sustainable program. The students aren’t as interested as they once were and we’re not finding Latin teachers anyway.”

Board of education Chairwoman Mary Roy said she took four years of Latin in high school and “found it very useful,” but “whether I personally feel it’s important is not really important, it’s if the administration feels that they can support a program.”

If Suffield High eliminates Latin, it will follow in the footsteps of many other schools in north central Connecticut — both Enfield high schools and Suffield Academy, a private school, are phasing out their programs; Windsor Locks doesn’t have a program.

Enfield Superintendent John Gallacher said that Enfield decided to end its Latin program because enrollment declined significantly. This year, the district is offering only upper-level Latin to about 40 students between the two high schools, which share one part-time teacher.

But nil desperandum, never despair, say Latin enthusiasts. The language, though officially dead, has managed to survive for millennia. While it fades in some pockets of the state, it continues to thrive in others, like Glastonbury and West Hartford High schools, the Norwich Free Academy and Edwin O. Smith High in Storrs, said Roger Travis, an associate professor of Classics at UConn.

“Latin is doing very, very well,” Travis said. “Since its nadir in the 1970s, it has rebounded tremendously, with bastions throughout the Northeast and Midwest.”

Latin’s resurgence in the 1970s was largely the work of a generation of Latin teachers who banded together to create a tremendously popular curriculum called the Cambridge Latin course, according to Travis. The course integrated Roman culture and history, making memorizing declensions feel relevant to ancient, and also modern, life.

But difficulty finding teachers is a frequent complaint among districts, Travis said — at UConn, only about one student every two years applies for the Latin teaching certification.

Travis, who is one of several Connecticut Latin teachers developing a game-based computer Latin instruction course called Operation LAPIS, said that he believes online resources will soon offer districts and home-schoolers the chance to incorporate Latin into their curriculum, even if they do not have the means to hire a full-time teacher.

“It’s always been a problem; there are more jobs than teachers” said Sherwin Little, director of teacher placement services for the American Classical League. Little said that although difficulty finding teachers and funding have challenged many language programs, not just Latin, Latin enrollment is up tremendously at elementary schools, particularly charter schools in urban areas.

Nationally, Latin was the fifth-most-popular K-12 language in the 2007-08 school year, behind Spanish, French, other (a group that included American Sign Language, Arabic and Hebrew), and German, according to a survey done by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

Mark Pearsall, who teaches Latin at Glastonbury High School and is president of the Classical Association of New England, said that while Glastonbury seems to realize how much Latin and other foreign languages help its largely college-bound students, No Child Left Behind has not been friendly to foreign languages, and they are often among the first to go during budget cuts.

“It’s a question of whether language programs can survive those cuts,” said Pearsall. “If a language maintains some foothold in a school, it’s easier to bring back.”

Pearsall added that most of today’s Latin teachers fell in love with the language as high school students.

“It’s a trickle-up situation,” he said. “High school Latin students feed into college programs.”

But the language’s champions say that Latin is nothing if not resilient, which, for the record, is from the Latin resilire: to leap or spring back.

“It’s lasted for 2,000 years for a reason,” said Pearsall, “because it touches on the human element.”

CFP: War as Spectacle

Seen on the Classicists list:

War as Spectacle
Open University
Milton Keynes
15 June 2012

This one day symposium will explore the theme of war as spectacle in classical antiquity and its reception in subsequent centuries, down to the present day. We are hoping to stimulate debate and address the following issues:

· How and why was war conceptualized as a spectacle in our surviving ancient

· How has this view of war been adapted in post-classical contexts and to what

· Modern applications of the theme in current debates (including the spectacle of war propaganda and modern ways of reporting on wars).

We are looking for papers or panel submissions which will engage in innovative and exciting ways with this theme. These can include, but are not limited to the way the theme was explored:

· In ancient Greek and Latin Literature
· In ancient material culture
· The reception of the theme in adaptations/re-creations of classical models

This is the first call for papers or panels submissions for this Open University conference.

Abstract length: up to 500 words
Deadline: 15 December 2011
Contact: Dr Anastasia Bakogianni
a.bakogianni AT

Circumundique ~ September 21 – 24 (1)

We’ll be posting these in a few batches … I’ve got a bit of a backlog to catch up on (hectic week):