Boris Johnson on BC v. BCE on the BBC

The Mayor has a really good rant on the subject in the Telegraph … here’s the meat of the piece:

[…] So this is not some trivial bureaucratic thing: it is a change with subtle but extensive cultural ramifications. I object, first, because no one is asking for this change. I once did a few history programmes for the Beeb, and we referred endlessly to BC/AD, and we didn’t get a single letter of complaint.

I object because no one is offended by these terms. We talked to loads of Muslim and Jewish scholars, and none batted an eye at my usage; and it is particularly mad to think that Muslims might be offended by a reference to Jesus, when he is an important figure in Islam, and when many Muslims are baffled by this country’s peculiar desire to exterminate cultural references to its Christian history. I should stress at this point that I do not object because I want to vindicate the literal truth of the Christian religion – since I am afraid my faith is like a very wonky aerial, and I sometimes find the signal pretty scratchy. I object because it is all so darned nonsensical. There was no Mr Common Era preaching a ministry in Galilee in the 1st century AD. There is no Eran religion, and no followers of Common.

There was Christ, and if the BBC doesn’t want to date events from the birth of Christ then it should abandon the Western dating system. Perhaps it should use the Buddhist calendar, which says that it is the 2,555th year since the nirvana of Lord Buddha. Perhaps it should have a version of the old Roman calendar, and declare that this is the fourth year of the fourth consulship of Silvio Berlusconi. It could say that this year was 13,400,000 or whatever since the Big Bang, or maybe the BBC should switch to the Mayan calendar and announce that 2011 is the year 1 BC – before the catastrophe that is meant to engulf the planet.

But if the BBC is going to continue to put MMXI at the end of its programmes – as I think it does – then it should have the intellectual honesty to admit that this figure was not plucked from nowhere. We don’t call it 2011 because it is 2011 years since the Chinese emperor Ai was succeeded by the Chinese emperor Ping (though it is); nor because it is 2011 years since Ovid wrote the Ars Amatoria. It is 2011 years since the (presumed) birth of Christ. I object to this change because it reflects a pathetic, hand-wringing, Lefty embarrassment about thousands of years of cultural dominance by the West.

The simple fact is that the Roman empire was programmatic of most of our modern global civilisation, and the decision by Constantine in 330 AD to make Christianity the official religion was one of the most important moments in the history of that empire. That is why we have used this system for 1,500 years and more, and that is why it is accepted in China, Japan and just about anywhere you care to mention that this is the year 2011. The BBC needs to stop spending time and money on this sort of footling political correctness. Someone needs to get out down the corridor and find the individual who passed this edict and give him or her a figurative kick in the pants. I know it sounds like a trivial thing to get worked up about, but one trivial thing leads to another. I urge all readers to get out their Basildon Bond and hit the emails – to Mark Thompson and Lord Patten. Let’s fight this Beeb drivel now.

… on a related note: if someone can tell me why the Canadian Council of Catholic Bishops chose to use BCE in their Grade Seven Believe in Me textbook (for Catholic schools), I’d be a little demystified …

Addendum (a few days later): Tony Keen on the Classics list pointed us to a somewhat different spin on the ‘edict’ by the Guardian (although the headline is a bit sensationalistic): How the BBC’s dark forces of political correctness threaten the Christian era

Croesus’ Curse

Interesting item from the Today’s Zaman:

The Croesus Treasure, a collection of artifacts from the time of King Croesus’ rule of the Lydian Kingdom between 560 and 547 B.C., has had a turbulent history since its discovery back in the ‘60s, causing many to believe that the treasure, also known as the Lydian Hoard, is cursed.

It was smuggled from its home in Turkey, displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and then taken back by Turkey following a legal battle. The “cursed” treasure is now subject to yet another dispute, with the Uşak Archeology Museum, where the artifacts are on display, and the Ministry of Culture and Tourism in disagreement over the future site of where the artifacts should be exhibited.

According to an official who requested to remain anonymous, the Uşak Archeology Museum has had difficulty attracting visitors due to its location and the general lack of knowledge about the treasure. According to the ministry’s statistics, the number of visitors increased from 4,433 in 1995 to 10,783 in 1996, when the treasure was returned to Turkey. The steady number of visitors today is worrisome for the ministry, which wants to relocate the artifacts to a more centrally situated museum with the hope that it will receive more attention.

This disagreement between the ministry and the museum once again sparked talks of the treasure’s curse among people in Uşak, where the artifacts were found. And who has the rights to the 2,500-year-old artifacts remains a source of debate. Nevertheless, the Lydian Hoard will continue to be displayed at the museum in Uşak.

The curse of the treasure dates back to 1965, when it was discovered in the village of Güre in the western province of Uşak by five villagers who dug up the tumulus of a princess from Lydian times and stole the jewelry that had been buried with her. Villagers robbed the rest of the treasures in 1966 and took 150 artifacts consisting of gold jewelry and silver pots, followed by a final theft that took place in 1968 where the fortune seekers could not find jewelry but wall paintings.

The villagers illegally sold the Lydian artifacts to a smuggler, but instead of getting rich and living a happy life, they came across many misfortunes, leading villagers in the area to believe that the treasure was cursed.

The villagers were first captured by the police after one of them reported the theft and smuggling of the artifacts to police following a quarrel over how to divide the profit.

Later on, a detailed investigation led police to an İzmir-based smuggler named Ali Bayırlar, but by that time the artifacts had already been sold to buyers overseas.

In the 1970s, Boston Globe journalist Robert Taylor and one of the directors at a museum in Boston, Emily Vermeule, had alleged that 219 pieces of Lydian artifacts had been purchased by the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art between 1966 and 1968.

A Turkish journalist, Özgen Acar, who was aware of the situation, happened to see 55 pieces of the Lydian Hoard on display at the museum in New York while he was visiting in 1985 and went on to discover that the rest of the treasure was also being stored there. The Metropolitan Museum or Art described the artifacts as being of Greek origin, which according to Acar and officials at the Uşak Museum, was done with the intent of covering up the actual location of the discovery.

The journalist immediately notified Turkish officials, who started a legal process to take back the artifacts in 1987, just three days before New York Metropolitan Museum of Art would have become the rightful owners of the treasure.

Following a six-year legal battle, the museum agreed that they had known the artifacts had been stolen when they purchased them, and a US federal court in New York decided to return the artifacts back to Turkey.

The thieves’ misfortune

Villagers from Uşak told one reporter that one of the thieves had lost three of his sons, one of whom was gruesomely murdered with his throat slit. His two other sons died in two separate traffic accident and in different countries. The thief was later paralyzed then died.

Another went through a bitter divorce that was followed by the death of his son, who committed suicide. The last thief went mad and now tells people stories of how he hid 40 barrels of gold.

Bayırlar, who sold the artifacts overseas, was also alleged to have gone through terrible times in his life and died in pain.

‘As rich as King Croesus’

King Croesus was the ruler of the Lydian Kingdom between 547-560 B.C. and is widely known for inventing gold coins, which makes him one of the earliest entrepreneurs in history. The coins were used as a medium of exchange and expanded trade relations in the region, making Croesus one of the richest men of his time.“As rich as Croesus” is a saying used by many people around the world today, which refers to someone’s wealth.

… what is interesting about this one is that the article doesn’t seem to want to mention that a couple of years ago, there was a court case in which the director of the museum and assorted others were convicted of stealing bits of the treasure and replacing them with fakes. As far as I know, the real items have yet to be recovered: Croesus Theft an Inside Job

Classics for All Taking Off!

Peter Jones, in addition to his regular Ancient and Modern column in the Spectator, has just penned (in the same publication) an item about the Classics for All effort

Some 15 years ago, at the behest of the then editor Charles Moore, I wrote a jovial 20-week QED: Learn Latin column for the Daily Telegraph. It attracted a huge following, and I still have four large box-files full of letters from users. The majority of them expressed one of three sentiments: ‘I learned Latin at school x years ago, loved it and am delighted to renew my acquaintance’; ‘I learned Latin at school, hated it, but now realise what I have missed’; and ‘I never learned Latin at school and have always regretted it’.

These responses have stayed with me ever since, but they prompt a question: anecdotal evidence about the value people place on Latin is all very well, but would it be possible to produce something a little more objective? Can we demonstrate unconditionally that, as Gilbert Murray argued to the Classical Association in 1954, our pearls are real?

This week the fund-raising charity Classics for All announced its first round of grants to projects that over the next ten years will, if we can raise the funds, open up the classical world to many of the 3,000 state schools (75 per cent of our pupils) that currently come into no contact with it whatsoever. What such schools have against the people who gave us the magnificent and deeply influential Latin and Greek languages, democracy, philosophy, atomism, our alphabet, tragedy, the form and concept of the republic, the idea of universal citizenship, building in concrete with arches, cupolas and barrel vaults, history, the book, the West’s first literature (Homer), Antigone and eventually underpinned the rise of Christianity (continue for many pages), is beyond me. How can our educational establishments be so heedless of our cultural environment — what men have said, felt, thought and created over thousands of years? Such cultural, intellectual and social deprivation is not visited on the 7 per cent of pupils attending private schools. Of course our pearls are real.

At the start of this year, Jeannie Cohen and I, as co-founders of the charity Friends of Classics (instrumental in setting up Classics for All), took a deep breath and decided to test the proposition. For the first time, we would find out what influence a school subject had actually had on people, many years later. So we invited the market researcher Colin McDonald to see what could be done. He found that YouGov, uniquely, held the educational details of its 80,000+ survey panel, and could provide us with the answer to our question. Going for the largest coverage, Colin asked YouGov to sample the 10,000 who had done something classical in the course of their education — Latin, Greek, classical civilisation or ancient history — and ask what value they placed upon it. Some 2,182 replies were received out of 2,700 sampled, an astonishing 81 per cent response. This was going to be definitive.

When the results came in, Jeannie and I could hardly believe our eyes. Let me quote just one from a vast range of statistics. It concerns those who had studied classics to School Cert/O level/GCSE and no further, i.e. those most likely to have had a minimal commitment to it (about 45 per cent of the total). On the usual five-point scale — useless, fairly useless, OK, quite beneficial, very beneficial — those who said classics had benefited or greatly benefited their subsequent quality of life came out at 77 per cent of the total. The results in relation to their influence on work-life and skills were equally impressive. Given that two thirds of the survey respondents were over 50, many of them must have sat those subjects for the last time at least 35 years earlier.

The reasons they gave for their replies were equally revealing: overwhelmingly, they cited firm linguistic grip on English and other languages, verbal sensitivity, the capacity to communicate clearly and concisely, and a broad perspective on the intellectual, political and cultural foundations of our world. Not a bad return, 20, 30, 40, 50 or more years on, from subjects studied up to age 16.

Are our pearls real? You bet they are. Can it be done? Of course it can. In the past ten years, 600 state secondary schools have started Latin. Boris’s ‘Latin in London’ push has attracted swaths of volunteer helpers (including over 50 Oxford undergraduates). The Minimus primary school Latin course is flourishing (130,000 copies sold). The fenestra opportunitatis (as no Roman ever said) is wide open. With your help, Classics for All can lavish on our schools an inheritance to last a lifetime.

Classics for All ( is sponsored by Cambridge University Press, Penguin and Westminster Classic Tours. For Colin McDonald’s full survey report, go to If you can help us, please contact me at pvjones AT

via: Classic comeback (Spectator)

Circumundique ~ September 25, 2011

What the bloggers were up to yesterday:

This Day in Ancient History: ante diem vi kalendas octobres

ante diem vi kalendas octobres


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.