Classical Query: Trees Are Alphabets??

Please help Matthew McGowan, who writes in with a query:

I received a note from a poet friend about the Roland Barthes quotation from his “Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes” book (1977, p. 41):

“According to the Greeks, trees are alphabets.”

I assumed it might be from Aristotle or Theophrastus, but have not been able to find anything. Have you come across the idea of “alphabets as trees” in Greek literature before? Is Barthes simply making it up? Can you share it with the RogueClassicism community to see what others have to say?

Replies as comments welcome!

Catching Up With Developments at Amphipolis

It’s been almost a month since our last major post on the excavations at Amphipolis (Amphipolis Tomb Possibly Looted in Antiquity? I am Officially Confused!) and nearly as long since we speculated on who (if anyone) might be eventually found in the tomb (Thinking Out Loud About the Amphipolis Tomb ~ The Rogueclassicist Speculates). School has finally settled down a bit (although the internet has been out for the past few days, or this might have come out earlier), so we finally get a chance to check on the progress of the dig (plenty!) and consider how our working hypothesis about the possible occupant of the tomb is working out. This post will be long and photo-heavy, so give it time to load!

We’ll begin with some photos from August 26, which show something I had long wondered about … the mosaic floors (photos via the Ministry of Culture):

Ministry of Culture

Ministry of Culture

Ministry of Culture

Ministry of Culture

For an awkwardly-worded English report on same: Amphipolis: Pebbled floor came to light (Protothema … tip o’ the pileus to ‘J’ for sending that) along.

Although they need a bit of cleaning, obviously, it is interesting that the second one appears to be in the same sort of style (although on a smaller scale?) as the House of Dionysus at Pella, which dates to the last quarter of the fourth century (via Wikipedia):

via Wikipedia

via Wikipedia

 

About the same time, we began getting our first speculations in English of people other than Alexander who might be in the tomb. From LiveScience, e.g.:

Michalis Tiverios, an archaeology professor at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, told AFP a more likely candidate could be Nearchus, one of Alexander’s admirals, who lived in Amphipolis.

At the end of August, archaeologists had cleared the first chamber behind the ‘sphinxes’ and were assessing construction techniques and what needed to be done. (Ministry of Culture Press Release). They had also found yet another style of mosaic floor (white stones set in a red matrix … source):

Ministry of Culture

Ministry of Culture

 

Meanwhile, the Greek Television Station ENA flew a helicopter over the site which nicely demostrates how HUGE this thing actually is:

We also began to hear about the ‘circus-like’ atmosphere the archaeologists had to contend with by this point … from  Greek Reporter comes an excerpt:

An official source, who has knowledge of the tomb’s excavation progress, claims that the archaeologists and crew cannot do their job as their mobile phones keep ringing and they have to fend off TV cameras and microphones shoved in their faces every day. They receive calls from politicians and journalists who are eager to know when they will go inside the tomb and what they expect to find there. Also, they have to answer speculations, wishes, and wild conspiracy theories. They even have to answer to technical details such as what kind of cameras they use to look inside the tomb without demolishing the protective wall. And all this while the initial excavation is still in progress!

At the same time, crowds of people gather all day long around the site that looks more and more like a community fair. Eager tourists and locals rush to see the media’s new archaeological Disneyland first, while the smoke from the souvlaki and hot dogs grills fills the air. Under the five-meter lion’s imposing gaze, a vendor from nearby village Strymoniko is selling peanuts, a way to survive in crisis-hit Greece.

We also had our first (in English) OpEd piece on how politicized the discovery was becoming … an excerpt from Kathimerini:

[...] It is not hard to imagine the impact of such a discovery if we take a look at the existing evidence. It is a known fact that Greece has long been at odds with Israel over who can claim the lead in nationalized and politicized archaeology, often in a way that is an affront to the scientific community. Let us take the findings of excavations in northern Greece, for example, constantly cited to suit political circumstances and often acting as ambassadors of national policy: The findings and their interpretation are used to prove the primal Greekness of the Macedonians and once and for all silence our unmentionable neighbors to the north who, surrendered to their own obsessive national policy, are seeking control over parts if not all of our Macedonian heritage.

Now, the ancient relics of Amphipolis are once more being linked to the name dispute and being used for petty political interests. They are being presented by the state and by many representatives of the media as the final confirmation of Macedonia’s Greekness, even though as a country we have staunchly supported this fact for the past 20 years. We have also heard it said that the findings at the tomb have steeled the morale of disheartened Greeks. First of all, with so many surpluses about, surely the Greeks are no longer disheartened. And second, if our morale has sunk to such a low (despite the Parthenon, Olympia, Delphi, Knossos and Vergina) that it needs a tomb to be revived, then there is much more we need to be worried about.

We have also heard that the discoveries at Amphipolis are contributing to the improvement of Greece’s international image – ergo, they may boost tourism. If the government really had such a high regard of archaeology, then why is it cutting back funding to the extent of causing major operational problems at excavations, sites and museums?

After much shoring up/stability work, on September 7 we got our first set of photos showing the Karyatids which ‘womanned’ the entrance to the next  chamber (source):

Ministry of Culture

Ministry of Culture

kary2

Ministry of Culture

kary3

Ministry of Culture

kary4

Ministry of Culture

kary5

Ministry of Culture

 

Incredibly nice pieces and enough to spark a major interest (finally) on the part of the English world press. What I found particularly interesting was that the Karyatids were missing their arms (I’ll be returning to that below, although see Dorothy King’s post on the Karyatids). According to the Telegraph’s brief coverage:

[...] “The structure of the second entrance with the Caryatids is an important finding, which supports the view that it is a prominent monument of great importance,” the ministry said.

The face of one of the Caryatids is missing, while both figures have one hand outstretched in a symbolic move to push away anyone who would try to violate the tomb. [...]

A better bit of coverage came from Dorothy King, whose post puts the Karyatids in context very nicely: The Amphipolis Caryatids

Edith Hall has also provided some useful background to Karyatids: CARYATIDS IN A (WAL)NUT SHELL

 

A couple days later, the Ministry release a really nice little reconstruction sort of thing showing where the finds to this point came from:

 

Ministry of Culture

Ministry of Culture

Then, on September 11, we were given the ‘full reveal’ of the Karyatids (source):

Ministry of Culture

Ministry of Culture

kary7

Ministry of Culture

kary8

Ministry of Culture

 

The wall behind the Karyatids revealed a very nice (it seems) Ionic doorway:

Ministry of Culture

Ministry of Culture

I’ve never seen three ‘nested’ blocks before, but I’m sure it’s not uncommon. In any event, after that came another domed chamber, which wasn’t filled with as much sandy soil as the previous two; the photos aren’t overly exciting, but can be viewed here. More shoring up was in order. Today’s press release added more details on work to be done, but also included some more photos of the Karyatids, which stand 2.27 m. tall and still bear traces of paint (source).

Ministry of Culture

Ministry of Culture

karyb

Ministry of Culture

karyc

Ministry of Culture

karyd

Ministry of Culture

We should note that Dr Olga Palagia has been long suggesting that the tomb actually dates to Roman times and contains the bodies of those who fell at the battle of Phillipi, a few centuries later than the current date. Her views haven’t been much presented in the English press, but she did give a full interview to a Greek newspaper: Όλγα Παλαγγιά: Το μνημείο της Αμφίπολης χρονολογείται στη Ρωμαϊκή εποχή (September 16). For what it’s worth, the English media seem to be unwilling to name Dr Palagia, e.g., from Kathimerini:

The archaeologist leading the dig at Ancient Amphipolis insists that the tomb at Kasta Hill she and her colleagues are searching was built in the late 4th century BC.

“I firmly believe that this monument is from the last quarter of the 4th century BC and we have all the proof for this,” said Katerina Peristeri on Thursday.

“It is futile for other archaeologists to come out and talk about it being from the Roman era or anything else.”

Archaeologists entered the third chamber of the tomb, which has been linked to Alexander the Great, last Friday.

I’m sure we’ll be getting some major news next week. Until then, you can peruse a piece from Greek Reporter which nicely sums up all the speculation about who might be in the tomb:

While evidence shows that archaeologists are one step away from uncovering the “big secret” of Amphipolis, Greece, people are speculating on who is buried under Casta hill. Archaeologists and other world experts have supported different theories on who is the important ‘tenant’ of the Casta Hill. See the most popular ones below:

Olympias

Mother of Alexander the Great, wife of Philip II, king of Macedon, and daughter of King Neoptolemus of Epirus. Cassander had her murdered by stoning in 316 BC. (Read full story)

Androsthenes, Laomedon and Nearchus

Alexander the Great’s three admirals are closely connected to Amphipolis. Androsthenes and Laomedon were born there while Nearchus was either born or exiled in Amphipolis.

Cassander

Son of Antipater, did not follow Alexander’s army in Asia. He stayed with his father in Macedonia and used to fight with Polyperchon but eventually allied with him, when he killed Alexander’s son, Heracles. In 311 BC, he killed Alexander’s second son and successor, Alexander IV, along with his mother Roxana. He died of edema in 279 BC.

Polyperchon

He served under Philip and Alexander. He returned to Greece from Asia in 324 BC -after the death of Alexander- and was appointed regent of Macedon by Antipater in place of the latter’s son, Cassander.

Philip II of Macedon

Some do not believe that the tomb of king Philip was located in Vergina. Meanwhile, others claim that ancient Greeks might have built a second monument in Amphipolis to commemorate the king.

Heracles

Son of Alexander who was murdered with his mother, Barsine.

Alexander IV

The twelve-year-old son of Alexander and Roxana who was murdered along with his mother by Cassander. If his grave is located in Vergina, then it is possible that someone buried him and disposed of his mother’s corpse.

Alexander the Great

Alexander sailed from Amphipolis to Asia. However, it is almost certain that his tomb is located in Alexandria, since people such as Julius Caesar have visited his burial site. Some, however, insist that his bones were moved to Amphipolis by Olympias, while others argue that it is a cenotaph “waiting” to receive him, or a second monument in his honor.

Cenotaph or Memorial

This view is supported by the various influences on the monument’s construction as well as its size.

Hephaestion

General of Alexander’s army. Professor Theodoros Mavrogiannis believes that the Casta hill tomb belongs to Hephaestion and claims that the tomb was built in 325 BC by order of Alexander himself.

Roxana

The wife of Alexander became the mother of his son in 323 BC after Alexander had died. Roxana fled to Epirus in order to be saved by his descendants, and later went to Amphipolis, where she was murdered by Cassander in 310 BC.

Antigonus Monophthalmus

General of Alexander’s army, was proclaimed king in 306 BC and demanded that Cassander gives him Macedon. He died eighty-one years old and was buried with royal honors.

Philip Arrhidaeus

Son of king Philip. After Alexander’s death, he was proclaimed king by the Macedonian army as Philip III of Macedon. He was killed by soldiers who defected against Olympias. His bones were transported by Cassander to Aegae.

For my part, I continue to cling to my hypothesis that the tomb was intended for Alexander, but when his body was hijacked and sent to Alexandria by Ptolemy, the tomb itself was sealed up within a few years as it really could not have been used by someone else without political implications. The more I see missing parts of sculpture, e.g., heads of ‘sphinxes’, arms of Karyatids, that don’t seem to be broken off (the arms of the Karyatids don’t look like they were actually attached) — with the caveat that their existence/finding may not be reported in the press — the more I think this tomb was unfinished. Perhaps as well, parts were removed to ensure that it was considered unfinished and, therefore, empty.

That said, I find Olga Palagia’s theory interesting, but would really like to hear more details from both sides on what is being used to establish the date of the tomb. That the mosaic floor in one part of the tomb stylistically matches something from Pella is probably important in this regard. There must also be ceramics in the soil being removed; there might also possibly be organic matter which can be given the C14 treatment.

Finally, by way of ‘conclusion’ we should also note that Dorothy King has penned a number of blogposts answering ongoing questions about the tomb along the way:

Thinking Out Loud About the Amphipolis Tomb ~ The Rogueclassicist Speculates

School starts tomorrow so I don’t know whether I’ll have time to flesh this out today, but I want to put this suggestion out there. It actually builds on assorted things proposed by plenty of folks but adds something original, I think. Here’s my speculation on the tomb based on recent things:

1. It is  not implausible that it was intended for Alexander and would have been started while he was still alive

2. Of course, Alexander ended up getting buried in Alexandria

3. So Amphipolis ends up with this big tomb and no one to put in it; but putting ANYONE other than the intended occupant in that tomb would be making a political statement

4. The latest news from the site suggests there were great efforts made to seal the tomb in an unprecedented way (I’ll be posting on this later today or tomorrow) … so:

5. Rogueclassicist goes out on a limb to suggest the Amphipolis tomb will turn out to be EMPTY (wall decorations might be there); not looted but intentionally not used.

6. The tomb/mound was transformed into a memorial monument of sorts (everyone knew it was there), with the lion put on top as a sort of generic marker of sorts. The ‘sphinxes’ were beheaded when everything was sealed up because they weren’t guarding anything. Perhaps a symbolic ‘deterrent’ for folks who might have been thinking about using the tomb for themselves.

… I’m hoping I’ll be proven wrong in the next few weeks and we’ll have a magnificent, occupied, Macedonian tomb but this is going to be my working hypothesis for the next few days.

Podcast ~ Drunk Archaeology: Trafficking Culture: Looting/Illicit Trade

The official description:

YAY! Here’s the second episode of the Drunk Archaeology podcast! In this 65-min program, Donna Yates of anonymousswisscollector.com, Meg Lambert of traffickingculture.org, and Sarah Parcak of the Laboratory for Global Observation talk about looting and the illicit trade of antiquities. While drinking “Buried Treasure” and “Tomb Raiders”. In Scotland.

Is this to-be-auctioned Inscription to Vitiris Known?

Before I get the blogosphere posts up, I need to ask about an eBay auction that distracted me last night. It concerns this stone:

vitiris

The text reads:

DEO SAN

CTO VITIRI

LVNARIS

VL VSLM

As of today, it’s an ebay listing at: Ancient Roman Stone Votive Altar For The God Vitris – 3rd Century AD

The official description includes all sorts of info about Vitiris, and concludes with:

Height: 9 ½ inches.
Condition: Very good, with some repair to the right cylindrical roll.
Provenance:
Reputedly found in Durham. Ex. British private collection, north-east England. Acquired 1980’s and shown to a professor at Newcastle Univeristy who provided a translation.

I can’t find this particular inscription listed in any of the online databases (did I miss it)? Is this item from Art Ancient known/published? I wonder who the Newcastle prof is/was?

Wooden Toilet Seat from Vindolanda

From a Vindolanda Trust press release:

Finding something that you can relate to is always a special moment on an archaeological dig. At Vindolanda this is a common occurrence, a site where the special qualities lie not only in the discovery of gold and silver or artefacts which relate to the military might of the Roman Army but also of everyday ordinary items which nearly 2000 years later become extraordinary to the modern day visitors, volunteers and archaeologists alike. Personal letters, worn shoes, baby booties, socks, combs, jewellery, tools and textiles are just some of the items preserved in a remarkable condition that provide you with a unique window into the lives of people stationed at this most northern outpost of the Roman Empire.

Now archaeologists have another piece of this very personal human hoard at Vindolanda, a wooden latrine (toilet) seat, was discovered by the Director of Excavations, Dr Andrew Birley, in the deep pre-hadrianic trenches at Vindolanda. There are many examples of stone and marble seat benches from across the Roman Empire but this is believed to be the only surviving wooden seat, almost perfectly preserved in the anaerobic, oxygen free, conditions which exist at Vindolanda. Although this wooden seat is not as grand as a marble or stone toilet bench, it would be far more comfortable to sit on in the cool climate of Britannia. The seat has clearly been well used and was decommissioned from its original purpose and discarded amongst the rubbish left behind in the final fort at the site before the construction of Hadrian’s Wall started in the early second century.

Dr Birley commented on the find ‘there is always great excitement when you find something that has never been seen before and this discovery is wonderful….’ Andrew went on to say ‘We know a lot about Roman toilets from previous excavations at the site and from the wider Roman world which have included many fabulous Roman latrines but never before have we had the pleasure of seeing a surviving and perfectly preserved wooden seat. As soon as we started to uncover it there was no doubt at all on what we had found. It is made from a very well worked piece of wood and looks pretty comfortable. Now we need to find the toilet that went with it as Roman loos are fascinating places to excavate – their drains often contain astonishing artefacts. Let’s face it, if you drop something down a Roman latrine you are unlikely to attempt to fish it out unless you are pretty brave or foolhardy’. Discoveries at Vindolanda from latrines have included a baby boot, coins, a betrothal medallion, and a bronze lamp.

Archaeologists now need to find a ‘spongia’ the natural sponge on a stick which Romans used instead of toilet paper, and with over 100 years of archaeology remaining and the unique conditions for the preservation of such organic finds a discovery may just be possible.

The wooden seat will take up to 18 months to conserve and once this process is complete the artefact will be put on display at the Roman Army Museum.

… and the photo, of course:

Vindolanda Trust

Vindolanda Trust

I’m sure there are plenty of us who have visited the site of an ancient Roman latrine and shuddered at the thought of sitting on that cold, cold, stone. I’d suspect this would be a thing — like napkins at dinner parties — which someone would bring with them to the loo. Probably a ‘luxury item’ as well. I wonder if it had a special word in Latin …