Today’s Egypt and the Search for Cleopatra’s Tomb

Just came across this timely piece from Dominican Today:

Dominican Republic’s own Egyptologist affirmed Friday that the turmoil in Egypt prevented setting up protection for the museum of antiquities for which bands of looters managed to cart off important pieces.

Kathleen Martinez said the groups of looters which had formed amid the chaos even sacked the pyramids and that the upheaval in Egypt will also lead to the suspension of a global effort to return to that country its antiquities pilfered throughout the centuries.

She said groups of volunteer youngsters formed to help Zahi Hawass, director of the Supreme Council of the Antiques, defend the museum against the raiders at the start of the antigovernment protests, and revealed that the Antiquities Director already had plans to transfer it to a safer place. “There are pieces that have been lost probably forever.”

Interviewed by Huchi Lora and Patricia Solano on Telesistema, the researcher regretted the impact that the revolt will have on Egypt’s cultural legacy. “Now those pieces will start touring the world and very few people will know whether they are legal or pillaged.”

Martinez said the chaos has also forced the suspension of the entire excavation season, as her search for Cleopatra’s tomb won’t resume for now. “I will not resume the excavation until the safety of the personnel and of the pieces can be guaranteed.

She lauded Hawaas’ efforts to get the international community’s cooperation on the return of the stolen objects. “After a long judicial process, just as he was about to accomplish the return of the pieces, this happens.”

Asked about Egypt’s ability to protect its legacy, Martinez said that the presence of “radical” groups in that nation may hinder it. “I was excavating a site and a group of men approached me in an aggressive manner, and then the workers ran off and I was left all alone with them”

She said she handled the situation unscathed by managing to convince the group that she was working for the Government of their country.

Major finds

The archaeologist added that despite the uncertainty to resume her quest to find Cleopatra, her work has already yielded important finds, including a pharoah’s tomb

“I know inside that I’m close to finding Cleopatra’s tomb,” the attorney-turned archaelogist said at an excavation site in November, 2009, when her team found a large statue dated 300 BC, which represents the pharaoh Ptolemy IV.

… on Sunday I’ll post excerpts from my Explorator newsletter with more links about the situation in Egypt (from an archaeological perspective); the above item is the only one so far which seems to touch upon the period of our purview …

Cleopatra Claim du Jour

My spiders bring me back piles of things which are claimed about Cleo … I’ve decided I might as well share them in the hopes someone might be able to point to a source. We’ll start the series off with this one (inter alia, of course):

Just talking about lice makes most of us start scratching our heads, but don’t let lice get your child down. Lice doesn’t play favorites; even Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen, had her own golden lice comb.

Source? (Or did Cleo shave her head an wear a wig?)

Statues of Cleopatra

I’ve been sitting on this one for a while … an excerpt from a piece by Zahi Hawass in Asharq Al-Awsat:

However what is strange is that there is not one statue of Queen Cleopatra, and thanks to historians we know that such statues did exist. However there is an image of Queen Cleopatra on the walls of the Temple of Hathor in Dendera, in which she is depicted with her son Caesarion…while there is also a boat rest-stop at the Temple of Kom Ombo whose construction is attributed to Cleopatra, and a maternity house in the Temple of Dendera, and a carving at the Louvre Museum that is allegedly of Cleopatra VII.

Now I’m not sure if I’m reading that correctly, but I was under the impression that that black basalt statue from the Hermitage Museum — which was part of the Cleopatra exhibition at the British Museum — was Cleopatra VII, i.e.:

I know a couple of the busts from that exhibition were ‘identified’ as Cleopatra (but hesitant), so we can probably grant him that; I can also note that some of the press coverage, such as that from the BBC, noted:

Many of the images of Cleopatra during her reign were destroyed by Octavian, Mark Antony’s successor, who took over after the couple killed themselves.

… although I don’t recall that being attested in our ancient sources. Do we really have no statues of Cleopatra VII?

… and of course, we can also argue forever about who the Esquiline Venus is …

Yet Another Cleo Biography

Theda-bara-cleopatra detail
Image via Wikipedia

From an interview in the New York Times:

Gail Collins: Your new biography of Cleopatra is coming out this fall, right? I’m reading it, and I’m pretty sure that from now on, whenever I hear elected officials complain about the treachery of their opponents, I’m just going to say: “Ha! You should try being queen of Egypt in 40 B.C.”

Stacy Schiff: Red and blue states were nothing to a woman who not only played to two radically different constituencies but also knew she could be removed by Rome, deposed by her subjects, undermined by her advisers — or stabbed, poisoned and dismembered by her own family. On the other hand, Cleopatra had one great advantage. She lived at a time when female sovereigns were not anomalies. And when women enjoyed rights they would not again enjoy for another 2,000 years. You could call them early feminists, if I may use a dirty word.

via Of Mama Grizzly Born? – Opinionator Blog – NYTimes.com.

I think it might be time we declared a moratorium on books about Cleopatra … a quick glance through Amazon shows from the past couple of years:

  • Cleopatra the Great: The Woman Behind the Legend by Joann Fletcher
  • Antony and Cleopatra by Adrian Goldsworthy
  • Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff (the above-mentioned one presumable)
  • Cleopatra: A Biography by Duane Roller
  • Cleopatra and Antony: Power, Love, and Politics in the Ancient World by Diana Preston (I’ve got a review of this on one of my laptops … I should post it)
  • Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt by Joyce Tyldesley

… then again, this one coming out in a few weeks makes one go hmmmm when one sees the authors:

  • Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt by Zahi A. Hawass and Franck Goddio

(i.e. not someone from the Dominican Republic)

Cleopatra’s Pearl

The logo of montclair state university
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A very interesting item in USA Today (ultimately deriving from an article in Classical World!) is bouncing around the interwebs … we’ll preface it with this excerpt from Philemon Holland’s 1847 translation of Pliny’s Natural History (9.119-121) via Archive.org. The Latin is available, as always, via Lacus Curtius:

There were two Pearls, the very largest that ever were
known in any Age, and they were possessed by Cleopatra,
the last Queen of Egypt ; having descended to her by means
of the Kings of the East. When Antony had feasted her
Day by Day very sumptuously, and under the Influence,
at one Time, of Pride and petulant Disdain, as a Royal
Harlot, after undervaluing his Expense and Provision, he
demanded how it was possible to go beyond this Magni-
ficence : she replied, that she would consume, in one Supper,
100 hundred thousand Sestertii. 2 Antony desired to learn
how that could be possible, but he thought it was not.

Wagers were, therefore, laid ; and on the following Day,
when the Decision was to be made (for that a Day might
not be lost, Antony appointed the next succeeding one), she
provided a Supper, which was, on the whole, sumptuous ;
but Antony laughed at it, and required to see an Account of
the Particulars. But she said, that what had been served up
already was but the Over-measure, and affirmed still, that
she would in that Supper make up the full Sum ; and her-
self alone consume in this Supper 600 huudred thousand
Sestertii. 1 She then commanded the second Table to be
brought in. As soon as the Order was given, the Attendants
placed before her one only Vessel of Vinegar, 2 the Strength
and Sharpness of which wasted and dissolved the Pearls.
Now she wore at her Ears that most remarkable and truly
singular Work of Nature. Therefore, as Antony waited to
see what she was going to do, she took one of them from
her Ear, steeped it in the Vinegar, and when it was liquefied,
drank it. As she was about to do the like by the other,
L. Plancius, the Judge of that Wager, laid hold upon it
with his Hand, and pronounced that Antony had lost the
Wager : whereat the Man became very angry. The Fame
of this Pearl may go with its Fellow ; for after this Queen,
the Winner of so great a Wager, was taken Prisoner, the
other Pearl was cut in two, that the half of their Supper
might hang at the Ears of Venus, in the Pantheon, at
Rome.

Also of interest, is note on the story:

Cleopatra must have employed a stronger vinegar than that which
we now use for our tables, as the pearls, on account of their hardness and
their natural enamel, cannot be easily dissolved by a weak acid. Nature has
secured the teeth of animals against the effect of acids, by an enamel
covering of the like kind ; but if this enamel happen to be injured only
in one small place, the teeth soon spoil and rot. Cleopatra, perhaps,
broke and pounded the pearls ; and it is probable that she afterwards
diluted the vinegar with water, that she might be able to drink it ;
though it is the nature of the basis or calx to neutralise the acid, and so
render it imperceptible to the tongue. See BECKMAN’S Hist, of Inventions,
vol. ii. p. 1.

This story always reminds me of my Grade 12 biology class, where some poor soul decided to do the ‘Coca-Cola can dissolve teeth) thing as their final project (and it didn’t work, of course) … generally when one hears about Cleo’s pearl, it’s considered one of those urban legends of the ancient world. But check out the excerpts from the piece from USA Today:

[…]

“There’s usually a kernel of truth in these stories,” says classicist Prudence Jones of Montclair (N.J.) State University. “I always prefer to give ancient sources the benefit of the doubt and not assume that something that sounds far-fetched is just fiction.”

In the current Classical World journal, Jones details the history of the story. In it, Cleopatra won a wager with her befuddled Roman consort, Marc Antony, by consuming her pearl cocktail to create the costliest catering bill ever. Her 10 million sesterces (sesterces were the nickels of the ancient world) banquet bill, thanks to the destruction of the pearl, set a pretty early mark on extravagant consumption.

[…]

“I think there was a fairly good understanding of practical chemistry in the ancient world,” Jones says, by email. Fertilizer recipes and preparations to kill parasites on sheep appear, for example, in ancient Roman texts.

Pearls were a popular adornment for the wealthy in the Roman era. Because in antiquity the only pearls in existence were natural ones, they were considerably rarer than they are today, making dissolving one a truly wasteful act. “I think modern scholars dismiss the story more out of disbelief,” Jones says, noting a long line of references, such as a 1940 translation of the story, for instance, that says, “no such vinegar exists.”

The classicist B.L. Ullman of the University of North Carolina noted in 1957 that some experiments suggested that vinegar could indeed dissolve pearls, made of acid-unfriendly calcium carbonate by oysters. But the news never made it to most classicists, says Jones, author of Cleopatra: Life & Times. So, “I began to wonder if there was any truth behind it and started trying some experiments, at first with calcium supplement tablets and pieces of oyster shell and then with pearls,” she says.

To experiment with large pearls, Jones found a jeweler who had a couple of 5 carat ones that had been removed from pieces of jewelry. “They were not perfectly round and so were not suitable for other settings and were going to be disposed of,” Jones says. “He was willing to donate these to my experiment.”

So what did she find? “Experiments reveal that a reaction between pearls and vinegar is quite possible,” concludes the study. Calcium carbonate plus the vinegar’s acetic acid in water produces calcium acetate water and carbon dioxide, for chemistry fans. Jones finds a 5% solution of acetic acid, sold in supermarkets today and well within concentrations produced naturally by fermentation, takes 24 to 36 hours to dissolve a 5-carat pearl.

[…]

Biochemist Takeshi Furuhashi of Austria’s University of Vienna tried his own experiments with nacre shells from Red Sea oysters to see if he could reproduce Jones’s results for USA TODAY. He finds that without boiling or crushing the pearl, many hours would be needed for the acid to dissolve a large pearl. But at low concentrations of acetic acid, he reports, only an hour was required to dissolve a crushed pearl shell. So, if Cleopatra crushed the pearl, the story may be true, Furuhashi says. “However, if she put her earring directly into solution, it is impossible to obtain the same results.”

She may also have soaked the pearl in vinegar for a day or two to soften it up, he adds. Indeed, Jones says other stories about ancient wastrels knocking back pearl boilermakers involve prepared vinegar and pearl solutions being brought to the banquet table.

“I think the most likely explanations for the discrepancy between the experiment and the (legend) Pliny describes, during a banquet, are that the story compresses events for dramatic effect,” Jones says, “or that Cleopatra drank the cocktail with the pearl only partially disintegrated, having satisfied her guests that it was destroyed.”

[…]

via: Cleopatra’s pearl cocktail recipe revealed | USA Today

It’s a good article to print out for your ClassCiv classes; I’m sure you’ll all find one or more students willing to try to recreate the experiment. The abstract for the Classical World article is also online, as is Dr Jones’ abstract from a talk on the subject at the APA meeting quite a while ago should you desire to pursue this a bit further.  B.L. Ullman’s article in the 1957 Classical Journal is a good read as well …  Also of use is the Cleopatra and the Pearl page at Lacus Curtius.

More coverage:

UPDATE: USA Today now also has a brief interview with Dr. Jones:

Chasing Mummies: A Cleopatra Update?

History (Australian television channel)
Image via Wikipedia

As I sit here rethinking my Ancient World on Television listings because there seem to be so few ‘new’ items worth watching coming out (more on this later) I wandered over to the History Channel’s website and they have a pile of preview videos from Zahi Hawass’ new series called Chasing Mummies. Early media reviews have commented primarily on how badly Dr Hawass seems to abuse folks working on sites (and that comes out in some of the previews) but of more importance to us are a couple of segments which are of interest to us and, of course, the History Channel’s embedding thing doesn’t want to work. So here’s the APA format citation:

Bonus Discoveries At Taposiris Magna. (2010). The History Channel website. Retrieved 10:51, July 16, 2010, from http://www.history.com/videos/bonus-discoveries-at-taposiris-magna.

I won’t comment on the silliness of certain folks asking for a brush so they can clean the femur a bit more. Nor will I comment on the apparent ‘amazement’ at rather common lamp decorations and the identification of certain winged horses coming from “Roman Mythology”.

Of more interest/importance is a segment where Dr Allan Morton and David Cheetham discuss what happened to Cleopatra’s body. Both of them seem to think she was cremated “according to Macedonian tradition”. Morton thinks the idea of a tomb at Taposiris Magna is ‘possible’, but not probable. Cheetham thinks the possibility of a tomb there is zero because he thinks she was cremated and buried:

Where is Cleopatra?. (2010). The History Channel website. Retrieved 10:47, July 16, 2010, from http://www.history.com/videos/where-is-cleopatra.

Ignoring the apparent lack of any suggestion that the tomb might be under water where Franck Goddio has been working, as regular readers of rogueclassicism will recall, we have previously pondered the fate of Antony’s and Cleopatra’s bodies ages ago and wondered what Macedonian practices would have been. I’m not sure that the suggested cremation scenario works for Cleopatra — Macedonian cremation traditions notwithstanding — because it seems clear from Augustus’ famous visit to the tomb of Alexander that the bodies/sarcophagi of other ptolemies were on view there as well. Here’s Suetonius, Augustus 18 (via Lacus Curtius):

About this time he had the sarcophagus and body of Alexander the Great brought forth from its shrine, and after gazing on it, showed his respect by placing upon it a golden crown and strewing it with flowers; and being then asked whether he wished to see the tomb of the Ptolemies as well, he replied, “My wish was to see a king, not corpses.”

A famous pronouncement, of course,  but one I don’t would work in a cremation situation if the Ptolemies continued Macedonian practice. But maybe Cleo was treated differently?

… by the way, the Chasing Mummies website will probably be of interest to many of our readers …

UPDATE (an hour or so later): I think it’s  salutary to note that the Latin Suetonius uses for ‘corpses’ is ‘mortuos’, which is possibly ambiguous in the context of ‘burial’ (it could generally refer to ‘bodies’, sarcophagi, urns with ashes, etc., I think. The Latin text/notes from the Detlev Carl Wilhelm Baumgarten-Crusius text at Google include the parallel passage from Dio and seem to suggest the passage in Suetonius has been restored from the Dio passage, so it’s problematical on many levels:

Death of Cleopatra Revisionism Followup

Death of Cleopatra
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Folks who are still interested in Christoph Schaefer’s theories regarding the death of Cleopatra might want to watch the German science show Abenteuer Wissen for more details (not sure how long the video will be up; I can’t seem to embed it here). The takes-too-long-and-is-too-painful theory works if you take the accounts of our ancient sources’ claims that it was a “peaceful death” at face value. Of course, they weren’t eyewitnesses and as we’ve mentioned before, there are problems with the accounts of the ‘funerating’ of Marcus Antonius and Cleopatra … it seems likely there are similar problems here. Nonetheless, perhaps a combination of ‘drugs’ plus snakebite-for-show satisfies everyone  …

Our previous coverage:

Some additional coverage outside of the Telegraph (which we mentioned in our first post):

Cleopatra’s Death: Another Theory

The incipit of a brief item in the Telegraph:

The Queen of the Nile ended her life in 30BC and it has always been held that it was the bite of an asp – now called the Egyptian cobra – which caused her demise.

Now Christoph Schaefer, German historian and professor at the University of Trier, is presenting evidence that aims to prove drugs and not the reptile were the cause of death.

“Queen Cleopatra was famous for her beauty and was unlikely to have subjected herself to a long and disfiguring death,” he said.
He journeyed with other experts to Alexandria, Egypt, where they consulted ancient medical texts and snake experts.

“Cleopatra wanted to remain beautiful in her death to maintain her myth,” he says on the Adventure Science show screened by the German television channel ZDF.

“She probably took a cocktail of opium, hemlock and aconitum. Back then this was a well-known mixture that led to a painless death within just a few hours whereas the snake death could have taken days and been agonising.” […]

via Cleopatra died of drug cocktail not snake bite – Telegraph.

Hopefully we’ll hear more about this … back in 2004 there was an item in the Times in which a forensic expert suggested it would have likely taken two hours for Cleopatra to die by the bite of an asp:

Feature: Cleopatra and the asp

… and a year later there was an item in Acta Theologica Supplementum 7 (not sure who the author is; the link is a pdf) on the subject which also suggested aconite as a possibility.

Speaking of Cleo …

We might be on the verge of another ancient-popculch-hybrid type thingy … a couple of weeks ago, Donna Estes Antebi wrote in the Huffington Post (inter alia):

The label Cougar conjures images not of women of merit and achievement, but of fountain-of-youth seeking desperation. “Cougars” are painted as wildcats armed with bottles of Botox, stiletto-stalking the kind of six-pack that doesn’t come in a can. What a sexist double standard. You know what they call successful men who keep the company of younger women? “Sir.” Or “damn lucky.” “Cougar” is never mistaken as a complement. It’s a term laced with underlying disrespect and derogatory inferences that minimize and objectify even the most successful of women.

I say enough with the denigrating cougar references. It is time to show women the respect they deserve. I coined a term in my upcoming book, The Real Secrets Women Only Whisper, which I use to describe women who dominate in a relationship through their education, power, or accomplishment. I refer to them as “Cleos.” Just like Cleopatra, the magnificent Egyptian queen herself, these powerful women rule. Women have indeed come a long way and modern-day incarnations abound. Famous American Cleos include such powerhouse women as Oprah Winfrey, Gayle King, Barbara Walters, Kelly Ripa, Paula Deen, Demi Moore, Christine Peters, Ellen DeGeneres, Whoopi Goldberg, Rachael Ray, Tyra Banks, Joan Rivers, Cheryl Tiegs, Halle Berry, Joy Behar and of course, Arianna Huffington. These women deserve our admiration. From bartenders to billionaires, a Cleo can bring home the bacon and share it with anyone she pleases!

Cleos are not cougars on the prowl looking for sex with younger men. Cleos don’t have to prowl! Cleos are highly desired – at any age. Cleos don’t need a powerful man to boost their self-esteem. Cleos have their own power. There are Cleos living all over the country who bring home the bacon, while their significant others are pouring them a glass of wine after a long day, or packing the school lunches in the morning.

And there was a followup:

Antebi is the author of The Real Secrets Women Only Whisper and she seems to be making the usual ’rounds’ … the Huffington Post seems to be the first non-gender-specific mainstream forum where this word has popped up, so we’ll keep our jaded eye open to see  if it turns up elsewhere …

Cleopatra’s Tomb – Latest

An excerpt from an otherwise ‘standard’ piece from ABC:

One of them is the last Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra. Legend has it that when the Romans entered Egypt in 30 BC and after losing the Battle of Actium, Cleopatra and her lover Mark Anthony took their own lives in order to avoid being captured by their enemies. The Romans scattered their belongings and their tomb has never been found. Archaeologists however have isolated three sites in Alexandria where they believe the tomb is located.

Three sites in Alexandria? Well, let’s be generous and say the Taposiris Magna site (some 50 km west of Alexandria) might be one of the three. Presumably another one is where that big pylon came from a few months ago. What would be the third?