Quick Amphipolis Update: Significant Fragments

Quickly reading (or more properly, google translating) some of the Greek press this a.m., it appears some significant finds were made yesterday as they cleared the door. The skinny: the sphinxes are made of marble from Thassos, archaeologists found the detached  wing of one of them, and perhaps even more important, a bit of the back of the Lion of Amphipolis were also found. Here’s the brief bit from News247 which mentions all this:

Η πλήρης αποκάλυψη των μαρμάρινων Σφιγγών που βρέθηκαν στον Τύμβο Καστά στην Αμφίπολη, η εύρεση τμήματος από τη ράχη του Λέοντος, καθώς και μικρού τμήματος της ανωδομής του μνημείου, είναι τα νέα δεδομένα από τις ανασκαφές που διεξάγει η ΚΗ΄ Εφορεία Προϊστορικών και Κλασικών Αρχαιοτήτων στην περιοχή, σύμφωνα με ανακοίνωση του υπουργείου Πολιτισμού και Αθλητισμού.

… and here’s the sphinxes … Ministry of Culture photo:

Ministry of Culture photo via in.gr

Ministry of Culture photo via in.gr

Photo via: Αμφίπολη: Εντυπωσιάζουν οι Σφίγγες στην είσοδο του αρχαίου τάφου (in.gr)


UPDATE (a few hours later): an excerpt from eKathimerini’s coverage:


The two sphinxes, which apart from being headless also have broken wings, are believed to have been crafted “by the same hands” as those which made a 16-foot-tall marble lion which is thought to have sat atop the burial site, archaeologists working on the dig told Kathimerini.

The sphinxes, each weighing around 1.5 tons and with traces of red coloring on their feet, will not be removed from the entrance to the tomb as archaeologists clear away stones and earth to gain access.

The sphinxes are 1.45 meters high and would have been 2 meters high with their heads, the Culture Ministry said in a statement.

Pieces of the sphinxes’ wings were found on the site, as was a large section of the back of the lion sculpture, archaeologists said.

Experts working on the excavation were also examining a section of the tomb wall which bears traces of red and blue coloring, in two shades. A mosaic displaying black and white rhombus shapes has also been discovered on the site.

A mosaic displaying black and white rhombus shapes has also been discovered on the site.

Technical work began on Monday at the tomb to avert any structural damage as archaeologists attempt to enter the tomb and discover what lies inside.

Some experts believe the site has been raided in the past but archaeologists cannot yet confirm this. [...]

… I wonder if the mosaic is a pebble mosaic or proper tesserae …

In Case You’re Wondering About Amphipolis

Although I intend to write later something about an aspect of the Amphipolis tomb which I find interesting (the sphinxes), I thought folks might be interested to hear ‘the latest’. The find really isn’t getting as much press in English as it is in Greek (perhaps understandably) but while scanning the latest editions of online Greek newspapers, I came across an English source called GRReporter which seems to be writing excellent summaries of what the Greek press is saying (certainly better than Google Translate), without wasting time speculating heavily on who might be in the tomb. So here’s a taste of GR Reporter from yesterday:

Over the past few days the region around the excavations of the tomb in Amphipolis has become the subject of increased interest on the part of tourists who had chosen North Greece for their summer holiday. They arrived at the fenced and heavily guarded site by bus and car, trying to see the entrance with the two sphinxes that the archaeological team has discovered.

Although the work was interrupted during the three days from 15-18 August the tourist inflow to the region of the gulf of the River Strouma was continuous, as reported by local sources.

Hundreds of tourists visited the museum in Amphipolis to see the ancient artefacts exhibited there. Some of them came equipped with special telescopic lenses to capture the details of the covered tomb entrance.

The excavations were resumed on Monday morning and the composition of the team was expanded with the addition of several archaeologists in order for the mystery hidden by the tomb to be revealed as soon as possible. Archaeologist Michalis Lefantzis, a close collaborator of head of the excavations Catherine Peristeri, is at the site as well.

“Whatever happens, you will learn about it very soon,” he told the Greek news agency AMNA, adding that the information on the course of the archaeological excavations will only be provided by the Ministry of Culture.

The tomb of unique size and its so far secret occupant have provoked huge media interest. Television stations both from West European and from Greece’s neighbouring countries have sent crews to the site as well. According to mayor of the local municipality Athanasios Zournatzis “the region was visited by a TV crew from Bulgaria and many tourist groups arriving by bus.”

It is already clear that both the sphinxes and marble slabs at the entrance of the tomb will be removed to facilitate the access of archaeologists to its interior.

According to them, behind the wall of the entrance, the floor is tessellated with diamond-shaped pieces and it probably goes behind the door and its poles. The geophysical survey that was conducted last year showed that the interior of the tomb is divided into three rooms. When the soil in this part is removed, which may take place along with the excavations, archaeologists will dismantle part of the wall that was built after the deceased person was laid in the grave in order to protect the building. The dismantling will take place stone by stone, and each piece will be described, numbered and documented. If there is no second building behind the first wall archaeologists may find themselves in front of the grave that will be opened as described.

They do not exclude the possibility of demolition in some of the three inside rooms. In this case, the soil will be carefully collected and transported because it could contain valuable finds.

If this worst-case scenario is not confirmed and the three rooms are empty, archaeologists will take pictures of them and will establish whether the tomb has remained intact over the centuries or if it has been already opened. If the latter proves to be true then the probability of it being deprived of important elements is great. In this case, archaeologists will have to base their assumptions on any things that they may find. However, if the grave was not the target of attacks in the past, the identification of the deceased person(s) will be easier, based on the skeleton, sex, age, height, and the burial gifts around him or her, or them.

Despite the increased speculation that the body of Alexander the Great could have been laid in the tomb, the head of the excavations continues to believe that a senior general of his army was buried there. So far, however, there is insufficient data to exactly determine his identity.

… and this morning they have a nice profile of archaeologist Katherine Peristeri (whose name Google Translate really mangles):

Over the past 10 days Greece has again found itself at the epicentre of global interest. This time the reason is not the economic crisis but a kind of an archaeological thriller. It is expected that its end will reveal the secret of the tomb in Amphipolis where the excavations are being intensively conducted and are already in the final phase. They are led by head of the 28th Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities Catherine Peristeri.

She has been the head of the service since 2009 but her connection with the tomb goes back a long way to the time when she was a research associate of famous archaeologist Dimitris Lazaridis, who began the excavations in the region in 1965. From her work with him, she keeps many memories that are associated with some of the greatest discoveries. For example, after the discovery of the tomb of Philip of Macedonia in Vergina by Manolis Andronikos, Lazaridis bitterly stated, “I could not find Roxana.”

In 2009 Catherine Peristeri became the head of the group that began to work intensively to uncover the tomb in Amphipolis. The people who know her define her as an archaeologist with rich knowledge and experience, with a strong motivation to achieve her goal and reveal the identity of the deceased person who was laid in the tomb.

Until 2012, the excavations were limited to the first level, without giving interesting results. In 2012, however, Peristeri began to explore the lower layers to establish the size of the tomb.

The excavations in the first two areas within the perimeter of the Kasta hill did not yield the desired result. However, while exploring the third zone, the archaeologist uncovered a significant finding, namely the impressive yard of the tomb. At the beginning of the excavations, the mound was 23 metres high and archaeologists had to “go down” another 12 metres to reach their find, as stated by Peristeri.

In this phase of the excavations, which is of the key ones, she found a stone ring. This finding led to the discovery of a 3 metres high wall that was exceptionally impressive as a structure and of the 60 metres long built yard of the tomb, which was fully preserved. The remaining part with a perimeter of 500 metres was destroyed in antiquity.

At this stage of her work, Peristeri sought assistance from architect Michalis Lefantzis who has experience from his work on the projects for the restoration of the Acropolis in Athens and happened to be in the region at that time. From that moment Lefantzis became a permanent member of the team led by Peristeri. They both tried to reconstruct the funerary complex and after a long study, they concluded that the Lion of Amphipolis was directly connected to the eponymous tomb.

Moreover, the digital scanning that was carried out last year showed that the yard of the tomb formed a perfect circle, and that the lion, which today is located at a distance of five kilometres from it, was placed on top.

It is said that the meeting between Catharine Peristeri and Prime Minister Antonis Samaras that took place 10 days ago was just one of the many conversations held between them over the past two years. Their acquaintance dates back to the time when Samaras was Minister of Culture from 2007 to 2009 According to sources, he had assisted her ​​many times to solve various problems encountered during the excavation works in order for them to continue unhindered.

One of Catherine Peristeri’s most characteristic features is that she is very concise in her statements. The reason for this is her desire to prevent her words from being misinterpreted. Her decision is justified by the fact that she and her team members are often forced to refute various rumours about the identity of the deceased in the tomb, the most common of them being that Alexander the Great himself was laid there.

In order to interrupt the flow of false rumours, the Greek Ministry has announced that it will issue continuous information bulletins on the progress of the excavations. The same message refutes the reports that the two sphinxes that are at the entrance of the tomb are to be removed in order to facilitate the access of archaeologists to its interior.

We look forward to the ‘continuous information bulletins’ … perhaps they’ll update their website (which seems stuck in April 2014 or thereabouts; still haven’t seen anything on this at their site … unless they have a different one?).

TL;DR:  they’ve resumed excavations, found a mosaic floor near the entrance, are removing the big stones in front of it, but leaving the sphinxes.

[why are TL;DR things at the end of things; shouldn't they be at the start?]


… more to come later; if you missed our initial coverage:

Augustus Bimillennium Filmfest

To mark the bimillennium of Augustus’ death, here’s a little filmfest to help you remember why he’s so darned important (as if you needed it):

We’ll start with Adrian Murdoch’s Emperors of Rome podcast on Augustus to get a quick overview:

The fine folks at AIRC have just put up a nice little video which showcases a lot of the buildings (still around) which are associated with Augustus in the city of Rome:

A couple of podcasty type things about the Ara Pacis … the first from the Khan Academy:

… and the Ancient Art Podcast:

The Open University has a nice thing on Augustus’ house and the mythology tied to it:

For some reason, I’ve always loved this little excerpt when Octavian takes on the purple (from the Rome series):

… and Augustus’ death scene from I, Claudius (with commentary from the actors):

What to do with a Classics Degree: Silicon Valley Edition

Must reading from Kristina Chew in this a.m.’s Chronicle of Higher Education … an important paragraph:

It turns out a humanities Ph.D. can provide you with precisely the opposite of what people think—skills that are applicable and even useful outside the academy. Graduate training provides one with well-honed research and analytical skills as well as the steadfastness to soldier on with a project in which progress comes slowly and with little immediate gratification. A Ph.D. in literature and languages means you have been trained to read with your mind alert to the play of words and the semiotic power of images. Training in classical philology means that you know you have to assess everything for trustworthiness, whether you’re reading a newly discovered Greek poem or the latest gossip on Gawker. [...]

The rest:


An Early Depiction of Jesus? Or …

Okay, so I’m sitting here finally organizing myself with the myriad posts I have to catch up on and I’m jumping from article to article, webpage to webpage, google image search to google image search and then something suddenly struck me. If you’re a reader of Explorator, this a.m. you would have seen a bunch of links to what is being touted as one of the earliest depictions of Jesus (maybe), in a Coptic context. Here’s the incipit of the Independent‘s coverage:

A team of Catalan archaeologists believes it has unearthed one of the earliest images of Jesus Christ buried deep in an ancient Egyptian tomb.

Experts at the University of Barcelona discovered an underground structure in the ancient Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchu which may have acted as a resting place for a number of priests.

More than 45 tonnes of rock had to be moved in order to access the hidden room. Another unidentified structure found nearby during this process is currently being investigated.

Once inside, the team found five or six coats of paint on the walls, the last of which was from the Coptic period of the first Christians.

The underground structure was also reportedly decorated with Coptic images and may contain one of the earliest-known representations of Jesus Christ, The Local has reported.

Dr Josep Padró, the Emeritus Professor at the University of Barcelona who led the expedition, described the find as “exceptional”.

He told the La Vanguardia newspaper that the figure is that of “a young man with curly hair, dressed in a short tunic and with his hand raised as if giving a blessing”.

“We could be dealing with a very early image of Jesus Christ,” he added.


via: ‘One of the earliest images of Jesus’ unearthed in Egyptian tomb (Independent)

The item goes on to detail other things that were found there, which we’ll probably be mentioning at a later time. We now turn to some exciting finds from last summer, which we never really mention, at Huqoq, where some spectacular mosaics were discovered in a synagogue context. Here are some excerpts from the Jewish Press coverage:

Excavations in a late Roman era synagogue at Huqoq in Israel’s eastern lower Galilee have uncovered a new mosaic depicting the biblical hero and judge, Samson. Jodi Magness of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who has been conducting archaeological excavations at Huqoq since 2011, notes that while scenes from the Bible are not uncommon in ancient synagogues, mosaics featuring Samson are. Last summer (2012), excavations in the Huqoq synagogue brought to light a scene depicting Samson and the foxes (Judges 15:4). This summer, another section of the mosaic floor was discovered which shows Samson carrying the gate of Gaza (Judges 16:1-3). [...]

Magness is puzzled by why mosaics depicting Samson are found at Huqoq, as it was not in the tribal area of Dan. Furthermore, many rabbis of the Talmudic period were not fond of Samson because of his attraction to non-Jewish women. While Magness stated that some positive depictions of Samson survive in rabbinic literature, these traditions are preserved mainly in the Babylonian Talmud, not in the Jerusalem Talmud. Thus, the glorification of Samson in a synagogue mosaic in Galilee goes against the generally negative view of Samson held by many rabbis at that time.

According to Magness, the surviving rabbinic traditions that depict Samson positively “suggest that some Jews considered Samson as a prototype or forerunner of the messiah. He had the potential to be the messiah but wasn’t. The popularity of Samson is connected with those traditions, with traditions that viewed Samson as a deliver and redeemer of Israel. In the area of Mount Arbel and Tiberias, these traditions were popular. This may be why the Samson scenes appear here.” [...]

via:Ancient Mosaic Depicting Samson Uncovered in a Galilee Synagogue The Jewish Press

The item goes on to discuss the Huqoq community and assorted other things.

Now here’s where it gets interesting (to me, anyway) … most of the coverage of the Huqoq finds included this photo by Joseph Haberman:

Photo in the Jewish Press by James Haberman

Photo in the Jewish Press by James Haberman

… and here’s the photo from the University of Barcelona which accompanies the ‘Jesus’ find (this one from the Daily Mail‘s coverage):


Anyone else see someone in the same basic pose, both with a gate behind them, but just looking in opposite directions?

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Some Housekeeping Matters

First of all, apologies for the lack of any updates for the past couple days … I’ve been fiddling with assorted  things to make it easier for me to keep on top of the deluge of Classics-related news items that seem to fill up my mailbox far too quickly. With that in mind, however, I have decided that I really cannot maintain the Calendar thing for conferences and the like; it’s simply too much work for too little return, so you will see that disappear in the next day or two. I will resume posting Calls for Papers and Conference programs more frequently to make up for it. For European conferences, the Compitum site does an excellent job of keeping on top of things. For this side of the pond, the APA’s conference category as well as our own conference category should cover all the Calls for Papers and Conference announcements, albeit not in calendrical format.

That said, I’ll now see how well all this fiddling works out … Happy Pi day everyone …

CJ~Online Review of The Oxford Handbook of Roman Egypt

posted with permission:

The Oxford Handbook of Roman Egypt. Edited by Christina Riggs. Oxford Handbooks in Archaeology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. xxi + 791. $150.00. ISBN 978-01995-714-51.

Reviewed by John Bauschatz, University of Arizona

Stretching to more than 800 pages in length, the Oxford Handbook of Roman Egypt seeks to provide a one-stop reference volume for a (mostly) scholarly audience. That it does so with distinction is to the very great credit of editor Christina Riggs and her many capable contributors.

In the Introduction (1-8), Riggs clarifies the purpose of the work: to ask the "right questions" (2) about various areas of current scholarly investigation into Roman Egypt (ca 30 bc-ad 300). This is important, as it makes abundantly clear that the Handbook will not just be a repository of knowledge, but also a map for future investigation. Riggs also notes that though the contributions to the Handbook are quite varied, a number of common themes recur: personal and communal identity, social mobility, religious development and continuity and change, among these (5). These themes definitely do shine through and help provide some cohesion for this huge volume.

Part I ("Land and State," 9-100), easily the widest-ranging and least archaeological section of the book, is also a solid introduction to the chapters to come. In Chapter 1, "Aegypto Capta: Augustus and the Annexation of Egypt" (11-21), Friederike Herklotz highlights innovations in the administration and organization of Egypt as a Roman province under Augustus, who deliberately sought the approval of the Egyptian priestly caste to cement his position as pharaoh. Chapter 2, "Between Water and Sand: Agriculture and Husbandry" (22-37), centers on the Mendesian nome for its "agro-fiscal management policies, land use and food production, and religious landscapes" (23), and also because it is that rare Delta region for which abundant papyrological evidence survives. Katherine Blouin demonstrates that the region was primarily dedicated to the cultivation of wheat in Roman times. Matt Gibbs, in his contribution (Chapter 3, "Manufacture, Trade, and the Economy," 38-55), provides a succinct overview. He initially underlines a pair of long-standing myths about economics and Roman Egypt-that Egypt was economically unique, that Egyptian agricultural practice was unchanging-and concludes by noting that economic life in Egypt changed substantially, along with much of the Roman world, as part of a Mediterranean-wide trade network.

Chapter 4, "Government, Taxation, and Law" (56-67), by Andrea Jördens, is a brief survey of these three topics, but Jördens also stresses the importance of applying Egyptian evidence for these subjects to other regions of the Roman empire, in particular concerning the military. The bountiful evidence from Egypt for military life is described by Rudolf Haensch in Chapter 5 ("The Roman Army in Egypt," 68-82). Haensch highlights the uniquely rich data we possess from Egypt-on papyri, ostraka and stone-for the personal lives of soldiers.

Part I concludes with Chapter 6, "The Imperial Cult in Egypt" (83-100). Here, Stefan Pfeiffer concludes that the imperial cult in Egypt "was a provincial imperial cult that was set up from above and locally organized, and which was subject to central supervision" (97). He also notes a particular anomaly of the imperial cult in Egypt-that there was no worship of Roma there-and sees behind this the fact that the Roman senate, with whom the worship of Roma was associated, had no control over the province.

Part II ("City, Town, and Chora," 101-243) begins with an overview of the topography and history of Roman Alexandria in Chapter 7 ("Alexandria," 103-121). Marjorie S. Venit also highlights a number of problems for the study of the great city during the Roman period, including the locations of a number of buildings and the date of the destruction of the Library. In his section (Chapter 8, "Settlement and Population," 122-135), Laurens E. Tacoma addresses two central questions: "Who lived where, and how can we know?" (122). He also tackles the terminology of settlements in Roman Egypt (cities, towns, and villages), explores four theories for modeling settlement patterns and suggests that future research should examine urbanization in Roman Greece or the agency behind settlements in Roman Egypt.

In Chapter 9 ("Archaeology in the Delta," 136-151) Penelope Wilson reviews previous and current work on the Delta, both surveys and excavations, and highlights some challenges faced by scholars in this area. She underlines the fact that, overall, there was more continuity in material culture in the Delta between the late Ptolemaic and early Roman periods than between the Roman and late Roman periods. In Chapter 10, "The Archaeology of the Fayum" (152-170), Paola Davoli tackles a region with a long history of land reclamation projects. The information she provides on the layout of Greco-Roman settlements in the region is very welcome, given the somewhat checkered history of excavations in the Fayyum. Adam Łajtar heads south in Chapter 11 ("The Theban Region under the Roman Empire," 171-188). An abundance of written and archaeological sources are available to scholars of this time and place. Łajtar notes that Roman Thebes still had religious importance and served as an Egyptian cultural stronghold.

In his chapter (12, "Classical Architecture," 189-204), Donald M. Bailey goes hunting for traces of Greek and Roman elements in the monumental structures of Middle Egyptian administrative centers. Bailey surveys the architectural evidence for four different metropoleis and suggests that others will yield similar material. Next comes Chapter 13 ("City of the Dead: Tuna el-Gebel," 205-222), in which Katja Lembke treats the largest Greco-Roman necropolis yet uncovered for Roman Egypt. Lembke suggests that some of the changes observable in construction at the time (among these an increase in mud-brick construction) can be tied to the changing identity of the Greco-Roman population. Finally, in Chapter 14 ("The University of Michigan Excavation of Karanis (1924-1935): Images from the Kelsey Museum Photographic Archives," 223-243), T. G. Wilfong gives the reader a behind-the-scenes look at the excavation of one of the most famous towns of Roman Egypt. Among the photos Wilfong presents are a number in which the excavation can be seen in progress, which allows the viewer to get not only a sense of scale, but also an idea of what the site might have looked like inhabited.

Part III ("People," 245-316) addresses the human element in five very different chapters. Andrea Jördens (Chapter 15, "Status and Citizenship," 247-259) describes the tripartite citizenship structure of the province-Romans, Greeks in the poleis, and "Egyptians" at the bottom-through which a great number of Greeks became third-class citizens. Yet there were options for social advancement for those in this lowest (and largest) social group and some privileges granted to them. Katelijn Vandorpe also focuses on these same three groups (in Chapter 16, "Identity," 260-276). Given the various cultural influences at play, the question of identity could be problematic. A major focus here is the intersection of identity and social advancement. The latter could be difficult, though personal wealth was often an asset.

Chapter 17 ("The Jews in Roman Egypt: Trials and Rebellions," 277-287) examines the Jewish population in Roman Alexandria and the tensions between them and Greeks of this city, who were granted numerous privileges by Roman emperors. Andrew Harker suggests that the Jews of Alexandria belonged to a semi-autonomous politeuma and that they generally did not actively seek Alexandrian citizenship as a means of self-advancement. Myrto Malouta covers much ground in Chapter 18 ("Families, Households, and Children," 288-304): not only marriage-its legitimacy, between brothers and sisters, among soldiers-but also domestic architecture and the status of children in the province, who are underrepresented in the papyri. In Chapter 19 ("Age and Health," 305-316), Malouta and Walter Scheidel examine the "hotbed of disease" (313) that was Roman Egypt. Abundant documentary evidence for the age composition of the general population survives from Roman Egypt. These texts reveal much about health and sickness across the population-e.g. seasonal and locational differences for various diseases-but the most common (i.e. gastro-intestinal) health problems are often very hard to trace in the documents.

The nine chapters in Part IV ("Religion," 317-489) concern various aspects of the divine. David Frankfurter (Chapter 20, "Religious Practice and Piety," 319-336) examines the fortunes of the Egyptian temples during the Roman period, domestic religious practice and magic. From the last, Frankfurter moves into a discussion of Christian religious practice in Roman Egypt, which he sees as something of an outgrowth of traditional magic. A fuller discussion of magic comes next (Chapter 21, "Coping with a Difficult Life: Magic, Healing, and Sacred Knowledge," 337-361). Jacco Dieleman sees Egyptian magical practice in the Greco-Roman period as part of a long tradition, but one which transformed with Hellenization. One result of this transformation: in the Roman period, magical texts reveal more of a concern for social and spiritual (as opposed to physical) health.

In Chapter 22 ("Egyptian Temples," 362-382), Martina Minas-Nerpel focuses on the temple building program of the Ptolemies as continued by the Roman emperors into the second century ad and later. She argues that there were clear norms for temple layout and construction, as proven by the existence of temple texts (collected inscriptions and written decorations from temple walls) which reveal much not only about temple layout, but also religious thinking and cult. In Chapter 23 ("Funerary Religion: The Final Phase of an Egyptian Tradition," 383-397), Martin Andreas Stadler surveys the end stages of a very ancient tradition. Thought about the afterlife in the (very) multicultural milieu of Roman Egypt took many forms. Consequently, changes are observable in Egyptian funerary texts produced in the period, which Stadler reasonably sees as "part of an organic development marked by reinterpreting, and perpetuating, a number of earlier features" (392).

Oracles form the subject of Chapter 24 ("Oracles," 398-418). Gaëlle Tallet argues for greater contact between the inhabitants of Egypt and oracular gods in domestic contexts and outside of Egyptian temples in the Roman period. As priests were now at least partly dependent on private income, oracular encounters (which traditionally took place during religious festivals) became more privatized. In Chapter 25 ("Isis, Osiris, and Serapis," 419-435), Martin Bommas examines three Egyptian gods who served as the most prominent face of Egyptian religion for 650 years. He traces the origins of and sources for the cult of Isis and Osiris and notes that outside of Egypt, Egyptian gods were (at least initially) worshipped at private expense and with private initiative.

By contrast, Gaëlle Tallet and Christiane Zivie-Coche examine external religious influence in Chapter 26 ("Imported Cults," 436-456). Foreign gods had a long history of importation into Egypt. During the Roman period, new gods coexisted with traditional Egyptian ones, but did not infiltrate Egyptian temples or religious texts. Nevertheless, in private contexts both traditional and new gods were adapted for worship in different ways. Chapter 27 ("Egyptian Cult: Evidence from the Temple Scriptoria and Christian Hagiographies," 457-473) returns to the temples. Martin Andreas Stadler describes how Egyptian priests controlled and performed Egyptian cult in the Roman period but also investigates cult in the private sphere, where a distinction with magic is difficult to draw. In fact, magical texts provide some of the best evidence for traditional cult, alongside Coptic hagiographies which prove the continued existence of Egyptian cult via references to its elimination.

In the last chapter of Part IV (Chapter 28, "Christianity," 474-489), Malcolm Choat focuses on the expansion of Christianity. By the late second century ad. it was firmly rooted in Alexandria and under episcopal control. There were some Christians in the chora by the late second century ad, but not many until the beginning of the third century ad when they start to appear in the documents. The church begins to expand out of Alexandria now, as well, while, simultaneously, attacks on Christians in Alexandria occur. By the end of the century the earliest Coptic Christian texts appear.

Part V ("Texts and Language," 491-593) has as its focus the archaeology of the spoken and written word. In the first of its seven chapters (Chapter 29, "Language Use, Literacy, and Bilingualism," 493-506), Mark Depauw surveys language use in Roman Egypt. By the end of the first century ad, Greek had a virtual monopoly on the written word, helped by Roman policy favoring Greek over Egyptian. Yet all three forms of Egyptian (Hieroglyphics, Hieratic and Demotic) were still in use, especially in Egyptian temples, though even here Greek had made significant inroads by the second and third centuries ad.

Arthur Verhoogt’s contribution (Chapter 30, "Papyri in the Archaeological Record," 507-515) shifts gears. Verhoogt argues for a new approach to papyrological finds, one which values not only contents, but also locations and contexts of preservation. He outlines three phases in the life of a structure-habitation, abandonment and post-abandonment-and illustrates how phase of discovery can tell us much about the intentions of the owner of a papyrus, as well as the perceived value of the papyrus discovered.

The next five chapters concern specific languages. In the first of these (Chapter 31, "Latin in Egypt," 516-525), T. V. Evans surveys the tongue of the new ruling class, suggesting that Latin had more impact in Egypt as a means of oral, rather than written, communication, though plenty of Latin occurs in the documentary record. In brief, Evans sees the use of Latin in Roman Egypt as an avenue for the "expression of power and identity" (518). Greek comes next (Chapter 32, "Greek Language, Education, and Literary Culture," 526-542). Amin Benaissa’s contribution covers many bases: the form of spoken/written Greek in Roman Egypt (a type of koine), the priority of classical literature in formal education, the characteristics of this education, the beginning stages in the use of the codex, the existence of private libraries and Alexandria’s position as the second city of learning and literature under the Romans.

In Chapter 33 ("Hieratic and Demotic Literature," 543-562), Friedhelm Hoffmann argues that in the Roman period, Hieratic was employed mainly for religious and magic texts, and Demotic for the same as well as other genres. He notes that Egyptian literature was the exclusive domain of the priests, and that this literature (mainly formulaic stories, but also scientific and other scholarly texts) survived longer than legal and administrative texts in Demotic, which disappeared around the time of Augustus. Chapter 34 considers the Egyptian of monuments ("Egyptian Hieroglyphs," 563-580). According to David Klotz, Roman period hieroglyphs appear mainly on temple walls in a variety of different genres. The style of these hieroglyphs is typically archaizing, but this likely has more to do with the breakdown of the hieroglyphic tradition than the poor quality of Roman period scribes. Klotz also touches briefly on the topics of cryptography and Roman "Egyptomania."

Finally, in Chapter 35 ("Coptic," 581-593), Malcolm Choat treats the final written and spoken form of the ancient Egyptian language, the vernacular from the third century ad onwards. Choat traces the development of Coptic from its beginnings, notes the different dialects that arose and sees a semi-standardization of the language in the fourth century ad with the privileging of Sahidic by the church. The development of the language (from Greek and Egyptian) suggests that those who used it were often bilingual, as does the fact that proselytizing Christians would have had to navigate between different ethnic and cultural groups in the Egyptian countryside.

Part VI ("Images and Objects," 595-697) features six chapters, most of which concern items produced in Roman Egypt. In Chapter 36 ("Funerary Artists: The Textual Evidence," 597-612), Maria Cannata details the lives of Egyptian funerary artists during the Roman period via written records. Quite a bit of information survives: on wages and tax payments, apprenticeship contracts and guilds, locations of workshops and places of residence. Funerary artists do not seem to have been organized into professional classes in Roman Egypt: their work as funerary artists was simply an offshoot of their work in other fields.

Chapter 37 ("Portraits," 613-629) concerns human representation. Barbara E. Borg describes a number of changes in portraiture after the Roman conquest, among these a sudden increase in naturalism and the near-abandonment of hard stone Egyptian statues. Behind these changes Borg sees an Egyptian adoption of the traditional Roman custom of self-promotion. Mummy portraits are also discussed here. These, Borg suggests, gradually lost their Egyptian elements over the course of the first few centuries ad. Chapter 38 ("Terracottas," 630-647) takes the reader into the home. Sandra Sandri gives a snapshot of the wide variety of terracotta figurines uncovered from the period. The majority of these feature Greek and Egyptian gods, likely reflecting their intended use in domestic cult. Unfortunately, much of the material comes from poorly documented excavations, and for years has been denigrated by scholars as low-class (though Sandri argues that there is no good evidence for this characterization).

Chapter 39 ("Pottery," 648-663) also deals with domestic ware. Jennifer Gates-Foster traces the history of pottery studies in Egypt, and presses for increased study of the social and economic contexts of Egyptian pottery under the Romans. Production of pottery took place in nearly every corner of the province, and foreign influence on domestic forms was strong, particularly during the early Roman period, which saw an explosion in the different types of amphoras imported. From here, Chapter 40 ("Mummies and Mummification, 664-683) heads back into the tomb. Beatrix Gessler-Löhr addresses some of the biggest challenges involved in studying Roman period mummies: many were destroyed during and after excavations and few eventually reached museums. Scholars have also argued that embalming work in the Roman period was of low quality. Gessler-Löhr suggests that the decline in quality sometimes observably reflects the inability of Egyptians to pay for expensive work rather than a loss of embalming skill, and cites a number of elaborately decorated mummies from Roman Thebes to support this contention.

The last chapter in Part VI (41, "Nilotica and the Image of Egypt," 684-697) moves out into the Mediterranean. Molly Swetnam-Burland discusses works of art with Egyptian themes mostly produced in Italy for Roman audiences. She focuses on two famous examples-the Nile Mosaic (ca 120-80 bc) and the Vatican Nile (early second century ad)-chosen for their representations of Egypt pre- and post-conquest, and concludes that pre-conquest works tend to reflect ethnographic preoccupations, whereas those created afterwards tend to have more propagandistic/imperialistic aims.

Finally, the four chapters in Part VII ("Borders, Trade, and Tourism," 699-762) take the reader to the edges of imperial Egypt. In the first of these (Chapter 42, "Travel and Pilgrimage," 701-716) the focus is the journey itself: why people traveled to and through Egypt, who traveled, where they went and what they left behind. Ian C. Rutherford notes that travel to Egypt increased after 31 bc, but that most visitors were Greeks, not Romans. Tourists tended to hit the biggest attractions, and many of them commemorated their visits with graffiti. Chapter 43 ("The Western Oases," 717-735) heads west. In his contribution, Olaf E. Kaper offers a new synthesis of the evidence for the Western Oases, where good evidence for agricultural development/expansion and population increases can be detected between the first and fourth centuries ad. Kaper also underlines some of the idiosyncrasies of this region: divergences in religious observances, a heavily Greek literary culture and some unusual mortuary practices.

Chapter 44 ("The Eastern Desert and the Red Sea Ports," 736-748) heads in the opposite direction. Jennifer Gates-Foster promises an overview of current scholarship on the region, one which was exploited by both the Ptolemies and Romans for mining and trade, and heavily fortified by the Romans. Gates-Foster presses for greater cooperation between papyrologists and archaeologists in synthesizing the data from this area, and also suggests that there is still much to learn about the nomadic peoples of the region.

In the last chapter (45, "Between Egypt and Meroitic Nubia: The Southern Frontier Region," 749-762), László Török heads south, covering Egypt’s southern border between the conquest of Lower Nubia in 29 bc and the retraction of the southern Egyptian frontier to Philae in ad 298: its shifting geography, its military apparatus and its unique administrative system. Török repeatedly highlights the multicultural makeup of this environment, in particular as concerns religion. There appears to have been something of a regional religious identity on this frontier, a result of the blending of Egyptian and Nubian elements.

A few words here about the overall quality of the book. Many of the chapters include tables and/or images, all of which are cleanly and clearly presented. Every chapter includes a brief conclusion, a bibliography and a list of works (mainly in English) for further reading. The book is remarkably error-free for a work of its size. Some of the contributions which have been translated into English betray residues of their languages of composition, and there are typos here and there, but none-at least among those which I found-that seriously impedes comprehension. Though there may well be more, I only encountered one obvious factual error in the book: the statement on page 705 that Marcus Aurelius visited Alexandria in ad 207/8 (the visit actually occurred in ad 175).

As suggested in the introduction to this review, I was quite satisfied with the Handbook. I occasionally found myself asking, "Why isn’t there a chapter on X?," but then inevitably found a discussion of X nestled in a corner somewhere further on, or ultimately realized that a volume in the Oxford Handbooks in Archaeology series did not really need a chapter on (e.g.) law and order. (But that would have been excellent!) I could also complain that the book has a very early chronological endpoint (ad 300), but given the appearance of a handbook on Byzantine Egypt only a few years ago-R. S. Bagnall’s Egypt in the Byzantine World, 300-700 (Cambridge, 2010)-I should probably keep this gripe to myself. In the end, the harshest criticism I can level against the Handbook is that, after reading it, I can honestly say that I am left with more questions than answers. But this turns out to be high praise, as well: it suggests that much more remains to be written about Roman Egypt. Until this happens, those who want a comprehensive introduction to the subject could do much worse than Riggs’ excellent Handbook.

[©2013 by The Classical Association of the Middle West and South. All rights reserved.]

CJ~Online Review: Mattern, The Prince of Medicine

posted with permission:

The Prince of Medicine: Galen in the Roman Empire. By Susan P. Mattern. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. xx + 334. Hardcover, $29.95. ISBN 978-0-19-976767-0.

Reviewed by Svetla Slaveva-Griffin, Florida State University

It has been a while since I have read a scholarly book from cover to cover in almost one shot. Yet, Susan Mattern’s The Prince of Medicine engulfed me with its subject-which for a name like Galen’s is a given-and its enviable merits. Mattern’s talent weaves a historical biography of one of the most reputed and controversial intellectual minds of antiquity into a grabbing full-life story of the real Galen, uncensored and demystified.

Scholars for centuries have painstakingly slaved to disentangle the Renaissance-like profile of the man whose narcissistic and clashing personality, so truthfully portrayed in his own writings, tends to cast a long shadow over his genius as a physician, polymath, philosopher, an opinionated member of the intelligentsia of the late antique world, devoted citizen to his native Pergamum and avid follower of Asclepius and his art. Galen was a man of superlatives in his medical career and in his private life -more often disparaging than eulogistic-which he did not mind sharing with the public.

The same can be said about his writings the sheer number of which (appr. 150 titles) is as overwhelming as their thematic diversity. Oftentimes when introducing his prolific output, we remind ourselves that his corpus (22 vols. in C. G. Kühn, Claudii Galeni Opera Omnia [Hildesheim: Olms, 1964-65] and counting, with the recent discovery of his De indolentia) represents one eighth of all extent ancient Greek literature.[1] Galen’s works and Galen’s life are an empire of their own as large as the Empire he lived and worked in.

In her summary on the front flip of the dustjacket, Mattern states that "The Prince of Medicine offers the first authoritative biography in English of this brilliant, audacious, and profoundly influential figure." Given its subject, this is, in its own turn, an audacious, or at least ambitious claim to make and the final product has met its tall order in two main respects: scholarly erudition and general public appeal. There is much ‘food for thought’ between the covers of the volume for everyone, from the seasoned expert, familiar with the latest research trends in Galen’s multifarious heritage, to the incidental browser of the bookstore shelves, curious to learn something new and unexpected just for the sake of learning.

The book consists of a prologue, eight chapters, and an epilogue, which diachronically follow the course of Galen’s life, without the monotony of an accomplished curriculum vitae but dynamically, with highlights on revealing episodes of this life. For economy of space, I will not list here the subjects of the individual chapters. They cover all expected topics: childhood and upbringing in Pergamum, medical studies in Alexandria, beginning career as a gladiatorial surgeon in Pergamum, his high medical career as a court physician to Marcus Aurelius in Rome, his enigmatic behavior during the Antonine Plague, the loss of his library and medical instruments in the fire of 192 ce.

The biggest achievement of the book is piecing together the myriad facts of Galen’s life and work in a consecutive storyline. The book does not expand our understanding of Galen beyond what we already know but it improves it by artfully stitching together historical facts and Galen’s loud autobiographical voice. Taking advantage of this unique opportunity, Mattern has made Galen an engaging narrator, in the role of a "live witness" to her academic narrative. (Just to give one example, Galen’s first-person account of tending to a severe case of tonsillitis begins chapter three, 81). But Mattern has not let Galen speak for himself without a judicious evaluation of the facts in their context. Her narrative is meticulously documented throughout with primary and secondary sources. Still, the reader will not find an argument in the book, but a story, told with academic aplomb.

The above observation is not a critique, considering Mattern’s goal to compose an "authoritative biography." Although she does not identify what kind of readership she envisions for her account, it is obvious that she has also aimed at the general public who has seen Dr. House and Gladiator, but she has done so without ‘dumbing down’ the intellectual complexity of the material. Neither the academic specialist nor the connoisseur of the historical novel à la Marguerite Yourcenar or Mary Renault will be disappointed in this book.

This Day in Ancient History: ante diem iv kalendas martias

ante diem iv kalendas martias

  • Festival of Mars (day 4)
  • 51 A.D. — the future emperor Nero is given the title princeps iuventutis
  • ca 254 A.D. — martyrdom of Gaius

… and ten years ago at rogueclassicism, it was pretty busy, what with security studies at Pompeii in the wake of some unbelievable thefts … we were also getting our first hints of what was dubbed a ‘gladiator graveyard’ at Ephesus (three items!), some beauty secrets from Cleopatra, and some background on the Latin in the Passion

The Beazley Notebooks Project

Saw this mentioned on the Classicists list … here’s a bit from the intro page:

This page offers online access to 154 digitized notebooks used by Sir John Beazley, mainly in the earlier part of his career, between around 1910 and 1930, as he travelled around the world’s collections of Attic vases. Also included is a notebook of Nicolas Plaoutine, documenting nineteenth-century sales of vases. The Beazley Notebooks Project has been made possible by the generosity of donors.

It’s very interesting how ‘sparse’ (for want of a better term) the notebooks actually are …


That Sappho Papyrus Redux

Douglas Boin has penned a useful OpEd in the New York Times … some excerpts:

Last year, Dirk Obbink, an Oxford University papyrologist, received a call from a private collector who possessed a piece of papyrus, extracted from an Egyptian mummy casing, which had writing on it. Examining the markings, Mr. Obbink determined they were lines from two previously unknown poems by Sappho, the ancient Greek poem. The find, announced in January in The Guardian, caused a sensation. It made the rounds in newspapers and blogs; classics buffs published translations on Facebook.

But soon the tide started to turn. Archaeologists and papyrologists, on heightened alert given widespread looting in Arab Spring countries, expressed concern that no information had been provided about the papyrus’s provenance. In eagerness to add lines of Sappho to the canon, they noted, the community had sidestepped potentially uncomfortable questions about their acquisition. Even if the Sappho papyrus has a perfectly legal history, indifference to the provenance of a cultural treasure has sent tacit and dangerous encouragement to traffickers of looted artifacts.


Close study of references, dialect and meter have led many classicists to conclude that the lines are authentic. In a February essay in The Times Literary Supplement, Mr. Obbink outlined a verification process that included multi-spectral photography and carbon dating. The papyrus was dated to between the second and fourth centuries A.D.; spectral analysis confirmed the ink was ancient. Regarding provenance, however, Mr. Obbink was oblique; he said only that he had “documented legal provenance” for the original mummy casing, but that the collector wished to remain anonymous. Mr. Obbink’s official article is slated for publication in a German papyrology journal later this year, but thus far no further details have been forthcoming (Mr. Obbink also ignored requests for comment ahead of publication of this piece).

The secrecy is disturbingly tone deaf to the legal and ethical issues pertaining to ancient finds. The mummy casing is assuredly from Egypt, where that burial practice was famous in antiquity, and where the climate has preserved hundreds, if not thousands, of papyri. The bulk of these were exported in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when papyrologists pulled fragments of texts, including the Gospels of Thomas and Matthew, from an ancient trash heap near Oxyrhynchus. Soon after they left, fragments started appearing on the antiquities market.

In 1970, responding to rising concern surrounding the resale of undocumented antiquities, Unesco drafted its “Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.” The U.S. adopted the agreement in 1983; the U.K. in 2002. As the 1970 Unesco guidelines do not explicitly cover papyri, their implementation has been uneven. This began to change in 2007, when the International Association of Papyrologists recommended that members follow Unesco protocols. They counseled “papyrologists who identify material for sale or held in private collections” as stolen from Egypt to “urge the owner to return it” to Egyptian authorities, and “not assist in the marketing of such material.” Now more than ever, these guidelines must be strictly enforced, given the likelihood that many spectacular — and potentially looted — papyri will hit the market in coming years.

According to Roberta Mazza, a papyrologist at the University of Manchester, many mummy casings that reached Europe before the mid-1900s remain on the legal antiquity market. The Sappho papyrus could be among this cohort. But if so, why not publicize this? Silence only gives a green light to those who traffic in antiquities, sending the dangerous message that if a discovery is sensational enough, a looted find could bring a big payday.

It does continue to be disturbing that Dr Obbink has yet to clarify the provenance issue; I honestly can’t imagine the editors of ZPE allowing publication without such information, even if the provenance proves to be questionable.

Our previous coverage on the issue:

… this link should bring up much of the blogosphere coverage …

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The “Apollo” of Gaza ~ Part I: Fishy Tales and Timelines

As it appears the pressgasm on this one seems to be in a refractory period, it seems like a good time to bring together all the disparate threads which make up the rather strange (and fluid) story of the so-called Apollo of Gaza. From a rogueclassicist point of view (and that of many others) there is plenty to be suspicious about with this one. This was originally going to be one long post, but it became clear that this would probably be best treated in two parts. In this first part, I’m attempting to make some sense of the finder’s ever-changing story and will try to establish some sort of timeline which might make a bit more clear some of the problems associated with provenance and possession.

We should begin by establishing a context of sorts. As most folks who read rogueclassicism are aware, I also put out a weekly newsletter called Explorator, which is full of links relating to matters archaeological from around the world. Most, but not all, of those which pertain to the Classical world usually get mentioned here at some point, but many do not. Something which is noteworthy, however, is that the find of this “Apollo” purportedly off the coast of Gaza came after a long period when we really hadn’t heard much of anything regarding archaeology in Gaza. Up until the the beginning of 2013, there generally was just a single news item (if that) pertaining to Gaza in any given year. Then ‘suddenly’ (by comparison) we started hearing more from Gaza, especially as regards preservation of antiquities found there. An item in January [Gaza's archaeological treasures at risk from war and neglect (BBC ~ January 2013)] followed by one in February [Pillaging of Gaza Antiquities an Archaeological Tragedy (Al Monitor ~ February 2013): started to give archaeology in Gaza more attention (the pillaging was reported off and on in several minor outlets throughout this period as well). Just as summer commenced we read more specific concerns: Palestinians struggle to save remains of ancient Christian monastery (Raw Story ~ June 2013 (there was quite a bit of coverage of this one)] and then half way through August, it seems, the press definitely was covering concerns about Gaza and her sites [Archaeologists race to save Gaza's ancient ruins (Phys.Org].

Was it because of everything going on in Syria at the time? Perhaps, but possibly more important, it is in this environment of “concern” when this so-called “Apollo of Gaza” was found. As such, with all that press attention swirling around Gaza, it seems rather strange that the initial discovery of the “Apollo” received so little attention. Indeed, as far as I’ve been able to discern, the only attention paid to it initially (and a couple months after its purported discovery) was in a report in La Repubblica by Fabio Scuto (L’Apollo ritrovato che divide Gaza). The report was made in English on October 10, and La Repubblica also seems to have a Google Translatesque translation which is a bit confusing at points (The Apollo found that divides Gaza). The first couple of paragraphs of the English version seem okay:

It’s a full moon night in mid-September, Mounir puts in the water his small fisherman’s boat in the beach in front of Deir al Balah, the town in the middle of the Gaza strip. But that night in his seine, a fishing net a couple of hundred meters long, something gets caught just a few meters form the shore. What surfaces, illuminated by the moon, is the arm of a wounderful life-size Apollo, which shines to the point of seeming gold. Helped by his children Mounir somehow frees the statue from the sand that has protected it for twenty-five centuries, loads it on his rowing boat and hides it in his house, lost in the termite mound of dirt roads and buildings where the city and the refugee camp intertwine in the same urban tragedy. The Apollo is shown to a relative, but no one is able to tell if it is gold as the fisherman hopes. It could be seventy or eighty pounds of gold which, in the desperate reality of Gaza, multiply its value. But no one can go around the Strip with a statue of the Hellenistic period in the trunk. The statue which is (was) in perfect conditions, has finger roughly cut off, so to be shown to some connoisseur to have an esteem of its purity and quality. The dreams of Mounir come crashing quickly, the finger shown “around” turns bronze, the statue has only (and a big one too) archaeological value as that of many other artifacts which crop up here and there in the Strip.

Skipping a paragraph, we then get a somewhat weirdly broken up pair of paragraphs:

But Mounir with that metal finger shown around Gaza has attracted the attentions of Hamas’ spies, always well introduced in every environment. Within a few hours the fisherman is arrested and the statue, which could date back to the fourth century B. C., is seized. It would be a great achievement  for Hamas to show the world this wonder of Greek art  –  comparable to the Riace Bronzes  –  but  for those who have it in their hands it soon becomes clear that the Apollo must remain a secret. Islam forbids the reproduction of the human figure in art and accepts only floral and decorative painting. Moreover the Apollo in accordance to the style of the era is naked and it would be impossible for the zealous fundamentalists to show it in public. The statue must disappear, suggests someone, better to sell it –  like so many other antiquities .

The “black market” and put the money into the damaged coffers of Hamas, which is no longer able to pay salaries to his men after the blocking of the smuggling tunnels with Egypt. The story of the Apollo of Gaza starts likes this and in a few days it reaches another dimension made of large hotels, sick collectors, ambitious businessmen and antiquity hunters. As a well know International “mediator” is working to find a buyer for the Apollo rough estimates speak of 20-40 million dollars, and in the race there would already be a major American museum. Hamdan Taha, the Deputy Minister of Culture and Antiquities of the PNA in his office in Ramallah, opens his arms and looks carefully at the photos of “La Repubblica”. “The Strip is a paradise for archeologists”, he says gravely, “but it is also for the Palestinian grave robbers, more than a fortune was made possible thanks to the sale on the black market for stolen artifacts abroad.” He twists the photo of the Apollo in his hands: “You see, if it gets out of the Strip we cannot have it anymore, because  Palestine is not yet a state and we have not yet been allowed in the Interpol: even if we discovered in which hands it will go we could never really get it back”. The only way to save Gaza’s Apollo is to tell its story, to let its images circulate, so that nobody can say, “I didn’t know where it came from”.

I’ll include the equivalent (three paragraph) bit of the Italian:

La statua deve scomparire, suggerisce qualcuno, meglio venderlo – come moltissime altre antichità – sul mercato nero e mettere i soldi nelle casse disastrate di Hamas, che non è più in grado di pagare gli stipendi ai suoi uomini dopo il blocco dei tunnel del contrabbando con l’Egitto.

La storia dell’Apollo di Gaza entra così, qualche giorno fa, in un’altra dimensione. Fatta di grandi alberghi, collezionisti malati, ambiziosi uomini d’affari, cacciatori di antichità. Perché un noto “mediatore” internazionale è al lavoro per trovare un compratore per Apollo. Stime approssimative parlano di 20-40 milioni di dollari e in corsa ci sarebbe già un importante museo americano.

Spalanca le braccia e guarda con attenzione le foto di Repubblica Hamdan Taha, il viceministro per la Cultura e le Antichità dell’Autorità nazionale palestinese, nel suo ufficio di Ramallah. “La Striscia è un eldorado per gli archeologi”, commenta serio, “ma anche per i tombaroli palestinesi, più di una fortuna è stata possibile grazie alla vendita sul mercato nero di reperti trafugati poi all’estero”. La rigira, la foto di Apollo fra le mani: “Vede, se esce dalla Striscia non la prendiamo più, perché la Palestina non è ancora uno Stato e non siamo ammessi nell’Interpol: anche se scoprissimo nelle mani di chi andrà non potremmo mai riaverla indietro”. L’unica strada per salvare l’Apollo di Gaza è quella di raccontare la sua storia, far circolare le sue immagini, perché nessuno possa dire: “Non sapevo da dove venisse”.


Folks who are fluent in Italian will want to read the Italian version, as it seems a bit more clear. In any event, this is the beginning of the saga and, it seems, there are a number of details we must note:

  • The statue was found by a fisherman named Mounir
  • He was fishing by moonlight and his net was caught on the statue a few metres from shore
  • His children help bring it up and he hides it in his house
  • It’s already identified as an Apollo
  • It was shown to a relative, who thought it might have 70 or 80 pounds of gold
  • A finger was cut off and shown to a ‘connoisseur’, who says it is made of bronze
  • Because of the finger, “spies” from Hamas come and seize the statue.
  • Those spies, however, do a rethink and figure there’s something ‘antiIslamic’ about the statue and so suggest putting the statue on the black market, with the money to go to Hamas to help make up for monetary losses caused by Egypt’s blocking of contraband tunnels.
  • We hear vague stories of collectors etc. Trying to get in on the act with estimates of very large figures of money involved; we hear too of a “major American museum”
  • It is clear there is concern amongst Palestinian officials in this initial report to establish a provenance

Quite the story, to be sure and possibly believable at first blush. Indeed, just a month before this, Ha’aretz was reporting that Egypt had destroyed some 152 tunnels between Gaza and Egypt which were being used for nefarious purposes (Egyptian army destroyed 152 smuggling tunnels to Gaza since July). A month later, it was clear that such destruction was an ongoing operation (Egypt destroys smuggling tunnels on Gaza border(Times of Israel)). So the Hamas motives seem not unrealistic.

But the initial story did cause many to go hmmmm and Sam Hardy (at the conflict antiquities blog) was probably the first to voice some of them and put them up on the web in the wake of La Repubblica’s coverage:

At this point, the story  wandered into the realm of “what the heck”? As Hardy noted a few days later, an “Apollo” — which was clearly the one mentioned in the La Repubblica coverage — had shown up on eBay:

The eBay listing is important for a couple of reasons. If we believe the apparent timeline from the La Repubblica piece, this is would be happening at a time when “Mounir” had already lost possession of the statue to Hamas’ “spies” who were supposedly shopping it around to collectors and museums — indeed, the news item seems unaware of the eBay listing, still less of who might be behind it. Hardy did try to contact the seller (e.g. an appeal for information from the alleged seller of the Gaza Apollo on eBay) but and did find some info, which ultimately was a dead end (Who ran the eBay auction of the Gaza Apollo?). While the “ended” eBay auction page was still available as of February 23: 1500 Year Old Greek Statue Found in Mediterranean Sea, the Bid history page reveals it was originally a 10 day auction; so if it ended on the 15th, it began on the 5th at the earliest. Then again, if it was taken down because it was really “no longer available” in the sense that someone was told to take it down, any of the days between the 5th and 15th could be taken as dates when the auction was ‘live’. We should also note that the eBay listing does not designate it as an Apollo, which is curious, and possibly significant.

But after all that — perhaps because of all that — there was no press attention given to this find again until a few weeks ago, and then there was a veritable explosion of coverage, with plenty of photos and, perhaps significantly, some potentially significant changes to the story. Opening the floodgates (I believe) was a lengthy item (five pages on the internet!)  in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, which included an artist’s conception of the moment of the discovery and opened thusly:

Wearing shorts and a mask, and armed with a net, Jouda Ghurab climbed down a portion of Gaza Strip beach made steep by years of pounding waves, and dove into the Mediterranean. By his telling, it was Aug. 16 of last year, a Friday just after Ramadan. Ghurab, a fisherman, is 26, and has a wife and two sons.

… Okay, so our fisherman’s name has changed … no biggie; maybe Mounir is a nickname. Skipping a bit, though, we get a rather more dramatic tale than the one we originally read, and with several significant changes:

That day in August, as Ghurab recalls it, he noticed the currents were behaving unusually and had exposed some rocks. “The rocks looked strange,” he recalls. “The underwater waves had dug the sand and moved it out.” He paddled toward the rocks, capturing six bream with his net. As he swam to the surface, he glanced behind him and saw a dark figure, about 4 to 5 meters down. It looked like a burned body.
He dove down to take a look and found a statue of a man, lying on its back. Its legs, facing south, were covered with sand. Ghurab wanted to dig it out, and quickly; it was noon and he didn’t want to miss Friday prayers at the mosque. He also had valuable fish to bring ashore. Having no way to mark his underwater find, he took a visual reading of his location, swam the 100 meters to shore, and dumped his net. At that point, he says, “I stopped thinking about the fish.”
Ghurab swam back to find the statue. But the sea is big. After an hour diving again and again, he located it as he began to tire. Ghurab used his hands to shovel away the sand that covered the statue’s lower half and tried to use his own buoyancy to lift it, but it was too heavy. Again he had to abandon his find.
Back on shore, where midday prayers were over, he found six men to help, including his younger brother, whom he sent to get a friend’s rowboat and some rope. They returned with a length of plastic clothesline and set out again for the statue. This time it took two hours to locate.
Ghurab dove down with the rope and tied it to the statue’s neck. Using the boat, they managed to right the statue. They tied another line around its base and tried to lift it so they could tow it to shore. Instead, they nearly sank the boat. Finally, Ghurab and another diver were able to turn the statue, sliding it head over foot, and foot over head, spinning it along the sea bottom until it reached the beach. They finished around 4:30 p.m., almost five hours after Ghurab had discovered the prize. It took six of them to lift the bronze onto a donkey cart. They took it to a nearby cluster of buildings Ghurab shares with other family members. [...]

  • ibid

… And now he no longer was fishing at night (nay, it was Noon) , and no longer was this something that was caught in his net but something his keen eye picked out because of currents or rocks or something. It wasn’t sufficient to get his two sons to help him … it took six people (including his younger brother) to dig it out and then take it on a donkey cart to some nearby buildings. Note too how they took it to shore, using the time-honoured ‘cartwheel method’.

Skipping a digression on the Croatian Athlete (which we’ll mention again later) and the Getty Apollo (whose find story seems a little too close to the original of this one), we read the opinion of a disreputable antiquities dealer:

“A bronze of this size is one of a kind,” says Giacomo Medici, a dealer whose 2004 conviction in Rome for acting as a hub of the global antiquities trade led to the repatriation of works from the world’s biggest museums and richest collectors, including the Getty and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. If the Apollo could be sold, such a statue would bring “20, 30, 40 million euros, maybe more, 100 million for the highest quality,” Medici says, speaking by phone from house arrest at his villa north of the Italian capital. “You could make it a centerpiece of a museum or private collection.”

I can’t help but wonder whether Medici is also the source of the figures in the ‘original’ version of the story …

Again we skip over some items (mostly about the political problems Hamas would have selling the “Apollo” with questionable provenance and their being branded a terrorist group, as well as problems Islamic folks would have with nude statuary … pretty much covered in the original story) and get this:

Once the statue arrived at Ghurab’s family compound, the affair quickly spun out of his control. “I thought it was gold,” he says, an impression heightened by a patch of yellow on its right leg. He got in touch with a cousin who’s a jeweler. Within a few hours, at least one other jeweler showed up. By some accounts of what happened next, someone severed one of the statue’s fingers in an attempt to identify the metal and to find a buyer. Ghurab says three fingers were already broken when he found the statue, and his brother accidentally broke the left thumb. He doesn’t know of any intentional damage.

  • ibid

So now we have another relative involved (a jeweller) as well as another, and the fisherman doesn’t claim to have done anything, finger-wise. It was someone else. Whatever the case, more family members became involved:

The crowd at the house grew as other family members also arrived, including some belonging to Hamas’s militant wing, the Al-Qassam Brigades, Ghurab says. The brigades, which are known for their suicide bombings in Israel, are composed of a network of secret cells. They operate with some autonomy from the Hamas political movement, which runs Gaza. The Apollo wouldn’t even spend the night at the house. The cousins from the brigades arrived with a small truck, outfitted with a mattress in the back. They heaved the bronze in and drove off. In the day’s chaos, Ghurab says he didn’t even think of taking a photograph of his find. He’d even missed his chance to sell the six fish, which his wife grilled and served to the family instead. Now he just hoped his cousins could sell the statue and give him a cut.

… So now our “Hamas spies” are also family members. They knew who to take the statue to, apparently:

If the fisherman’s militant cousins had to sell the bronze locally, there was one obvious buyer: Jawdat Khoudary, an antiquities collector who makes his money in construction and is consumed with documenting and preserving Gaza’s ancient cultural heritage. Khoudary, 53, owns a hotel on the beach in northern Gaza City called Al-Mathaf, or the Museum, for the lobby gallery that displays part of his private collection. In 2012 he published a 203-page color catalog of his treasures, Gaza From Sand and Sea, with entries for each object written by academics from universities in Europe and the Middle East. It’s optimistically subtitled “Vol. 1,” in part because dealers and scavengers arrive at Al-Mathaf to offer Khoudary a steady supply of new finds, none of which is the fruit of a documented, scientific dig.
So it was no surprise in September when a contact of Khoudary’s, acting as an intermediary for the fisherman’s cousins, arrived with a mobile-phone video. “I was shocked,” he says. “I’ve never seen a statue as big as this in Gaza, beautiful and complete.” He immediately assumed it was Greek or Roman, and archaeologists who have seen photographs agree.
Khoudary says that as he watched the video of the Apollo, he decided there was no way he could privately own such an important piece of Gaza’s history. “It’s not a collectible like a coin,” he says. “Any thought of selling it is madness.” Instead, he had to save it. In an effort to keep the bronze off the international black market, he alerted officials from the Hamas government.

I’m going to skip something that we’ll return to in a bit, just to stick with this sort of academic side, where we find that Khoudary was (commendably?) concerned for the condition of the statue:

At the same time, Khoudary decided that keeping the statue off the black market was only half the challenge. To help conserve it, he activated an informal network of art lovers to assist Gaza authorities, including curators and a Roman Catholic friar. “My biggest worry is it needs immediate restoration,” Khoudary says, especially since the bronze has gone through the shock of encountering 21st century air for the first time. “There’s a chemical reaction, and we have to stop it.”

We then get a section with a couple of important dates that raise more questions:

Bauzou at the Université d’Orléans was one of the experts Khoudary called. The French archaeologist corresponded with the Gaza Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, using photographs to assess the bronze. “This statue is a major discovery,” he wrote in a Sept. 23 letter in which he expressed alarm over the work’s conservation. “I do not like the light green spots visible on the pictures … it is an emergency!” He said specialists in metal preservation and restoration needed to be called in at once to decide how to proceed. The transition from the dark color seen by the fisherman to the new green hue might be a sign of a type of corrosion akin to a grave dermatological condition. The reason the Getty’s bronze has its own room in Malibu with cool temperatures and low humidity is to prevent such irreversible damage. “Without these conditions, the metal would rapidly deteriorate and succumb to what conservators call ‘bronze disease,’ ” says Julie Jaskol, a spokeswoman for the Getty, whose specialists declined to comment on the Gaza bronze.
Bauzou concluded from his research that the statue dated from between the 5th century B.C. and 2nd century A.D. “The Apollo of Gaza is exceptional because it is the only classical Greek bronze life-size statue found in the whole Middle East,” he wrote in another report, dated Oct. 4.

… So between find and the antiquities dealer seeing photos (at most; no evidence that he saw the actual statue yet) is around 39 days or so. A week later, the antiquities dealer writes another report … it’s probably at this point it starts being called an Apollo. But where was this statue in the time between? With the fisherman? With Hamas? The bit we skipped above comes into play:

The Hamas government police, a force separate from the Al-Qassam Brigades, then dispatched men to find the statue. It was a little more than a month after the original discovery when three police jeeps pulled up to the house in Beit Lahia where the bronze was being held, Ghurab says. Both the police and the militants were armed, leading to an intra-Hamas standoff. An elder cousin of Ghurab’s defused the scene by demanding the police come back with higher ranking officials. Officers did arrive and negotiations began. The cousins’ position on the statue was, “It is owned by our family and we are going to sell it outside Gaza,” Ghurab says. Alternately, if they surrendered it as state property, they wanted a reward. Ghurab says he doesn’t know what agreement was reached, but the talks culminated with the Apollo departing with the Hamas police.

Skipping a bit further, we read of more academics getting involved, specifically the Louvre:

The Louvre expressed interest in restoring the Apollo and publishing a description and analysis of it, says Jean-Baptiste Humbert, the French Dominican cleric and archaeologist with whom Khoudary has been in touch about the bronze. Humbert, head of the archaeology department at the École Biblique et Archéologique Française in Jerusalem, says he made contacts “with the top” officials at the Louvre regarding the bronze. Asked for comment, the French government museum didn’t deny that account. In a statement, the museum said it has developed ties with specialists in the Middle East over two centuries. “In this context, the Louvre is induced to be in contact or interact with different institutional and scientific partners in the region,” the statement said. The Louvre said it hasn’t officially engaged with the Gaza bronze, and that any attempt to do so would be in conjunction with the French foreign ministry. The reason the museum is being so cautious, Humbert says, is because of the statue’s sketchy provenance. “The Louvre does not want to be officially involved in that affair, as long the statue’s origin is not clear,” he says.

Skipping a bit more, we get an incredibly interesting ‘in passing’ remark:

The pictures even briefly showed up in a listing for the statue on EBay: starting bid, $500,000. Shipping was listed as “Free Local Pickup” in Gaza—which was either optimistic, a joke, or a scam to get someone to pay a deposit.

We’ll return to the Bloomsberg piece shortly, but it is clear the story has changed substantially since October:

  • Mounir is now Jouda Ghurab (there are other variations in the name as well, but they can probably be attributed to transliteration issues from Arabic to English)
  • The statue was found during daylight, not at night and wasn’t caught in his net
  • He needed six relatives to help lift it out, not just his two kids
  • They ‘cartwheeled’ it to shore
  • He didn’t cut off the finger; someone else did
  • Cousins who happened to work for Hamas took the statue away within a day of its discovery
  • The statue appears to have been examined only via photograph and/or video by folks who might have knowledge of such things
  • The timeline we have been given appears to take the tale just up to the point where the statue appears on eBay

Without casting aspersions on the author of the Bloomsberg piece, it strikes me a this point that this story (and or the sources of it) is designed to give the piece a rather more clear and definite provenance than the initial report in La Repubblica. The ‘find’ is made more believable, the motives of Hamas don’t seem to be so shady, there are definite scholars involved, and the eBay thing is quickly explained away.

Even so, in subsequent pieces, it is clear that the story keeps changing, check out these excerpts:

Ghrab says he cut off one of the fingers to take to a metals expert, thinking it might have been made of gold. Unbeknownst to him, one of his brothers severed another finger, later melted down by a jeweler.
Family members belonging to a Hamas militia soon took charge of the statue, and at some stage, the Apollo appeared on eBay, with the seller telling the buyer to come and collect the item from Gaza.

Ghorab admits to breaking off one of the figure’s fingers, thinking that it might be made of gold. “I’m asking the government for a reward of 10 percent of (the statue’s) value,” he said, hoping to be officially recognised as the finder. But experts who had heard rumours of such as discovery for months contend that Ghorab’s version is pure fiction.

… And last, but not least, this puzzling excerpt from CNN (dated February 15th):

But in a Gaza gold store, a man who displayed video of the statue told CNN that he has custody of it and that it is in safe hands, but — if someone wants to buy it — that would be possible.
Government officials promise that the statue will not be sold and that they will start restoration and display it after an investigation into its discovery is completed.

… which brings us to the most recent coverage — February 20 in BBC Magazine — which throws yet another spanner in the works. We get another version of the story, but let’s focus on this bit:

Ghurab considered trying to smuggle the statue into Egypt to sell it, but the smugglers’ tunnels – dug to circumvent restrictions put in place by Israel and Egypt after the Islamist movement Hamas came to power in Gaza – have been out of action since they were closed by the Egyptian army last summer.

Neighbours started asking questions, so Ghurab asked a relative – a commander in Hamas’s military wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades – to help him hide it.

“The people who took the statue said they would send me a handsome reward after they sell it, but we have not got anything yet,” he says.

The BBC piece includes a link to an interview on the show The Fifth Floor (which is available for another month or so online; there’s also a podcast. The online version is here and begins at the 14:00 minute mark). This interview is extremely interesting from a timeline point of view (and passing mention that the original plan was to cut the statue up and sell the pieces) because it clearly states that this relative of Ghurab — the one in Hamas’ military wing — is the one who took the statue, had photos taken of it and had it put on eBay. After that, Hamas seems to have taken possession of it and is still in possession of it.

Just to further add some interesting detail to our timeline, we should note that some of the news coverage includes photos which are attributed to the news agency, the Palestinian Tourism folks, and/or both. E.g., the Ma’an coverage (Gaza seeks global help to unravel Apollo statue mystery) includes this photo:

A picture taken in Gaza on Sept. 19, 2013 shows a 2,500-year-old bronze statue of the Greek god Apollo discovered by Palestinian fishermen in August (Gaza's Ministry of Tourism/AFP)

A picture taken in Gaza on Sept. 19, 2013 shows a 2,500-year-old bronze
statue of the Greek god Apollo discovered by Palestinian fishermen
in August (Gaza’s Ministry of Tourism/AFP)

From Hurriyet (Rare bronze statue of Greek god Apollo found in Gaza):

A bronze statue of the Greek God Apollo is pictured in Gaza in this September 19, 2013 picture provided by Gaza's Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. REUTERS Photo

A bronze statue of the Greek God Apollo is pictured in Gaza in this September 19, 2013 picture provided by Gaza’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. REUTERS Photo

The Daily Star has the same photo as above with the caption : A bronze statue of the Greek God Apollo, as photographed in Gaza, September 19, 2013. (Reuters/Gaza’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities) (Mysterious Greek deity detained in Gaza)

Your Middle East has a little slide show, which includes this:

A 2,500-year-old bronze statue of the Greek god Apollo, discovered by a Palestinian fisherman last August, pictured on September 19, 2013 © – – Gaza’s Ministry of Tourism/AFP/File

So it appears that on September 19th, there was some major photoshoot of the statue under the auspices of the Gaza Ministry of Tourism. If we want to make inferences from the photo from Hurriyet, it was almost a press conference (there is some guy in the photo clearly taking notes or something). Also worth noting is that in these photos, the left eye already appears to have been gouged out (that will be brought up in our second installment). It might be speculated that all the photos which have so far appeared on this ultimately stem from this September 19th photoshoot.

Now we can try to impose a speculative timeline on all this:

August 26, 2013

Ghurab is out fishing around noon, finds the statue, and spends four or five hours getting it to some ‘compound’ associated with his family. Over the course of the next few hours, he cuts off one of the fingers (and maybe his brother does too), has it taken to a relative jeweller who declares the statue bronze. Before the night is through, a cousin in Hamas comes with a truck and hauls the statue off on a mattress (no doubt with a stylish smurf sheet).

September 19, 2013

Seems to be a major photo session and judging from at least one of the photos (above) is possibly set up to look like a press conference. The photos appear to have been officially taken by the Gaza Ministry of Tourism, but perhaps others were taken as well.

There comes a few weeks when the photos and videos are shown to various scholars and other people who might have an interest in the statue, among them Jawdat Khoudary and his ‘network’.

September 23, 2013

Bauzou of the Universite d’Orleans writes the Gaza Ministry of Tourism and antiquities to express his concerns.

October 4, 2013

Bauzou writes another report expressing concern about the condition. Some time during this general period the Louvre was also likely consulted.

Between October 5 and 15

Ghurab’s cousin and/or his associates put the statue up on eBay for half a million dollars. It doesn’t get any bids.

October 10

First press coverage in La Repubblica; appears unaware of the eBay auction so it likely has not been put up yet.

October 15

The auction “ends” and the statue hasn’t been seen since. Apparently it’s at some undisclosed location known to Hamas officials.

January 30, 2014

The statue returns to the news in a big way and continues to be a topic for 2 – 3 weeks.

It’s actually a somewhat believable sequence of events, except for the story of its discovery, which has changed at least three times and has had all sorts of details added and taken away from it, all clearly designed to make it more believable. In other words, if we do not allow ourselves to be distracted by the events after August 26, it is clear that alarm bells should still be going off because the story of the discovery and recovery does not make any sense at all. The attempts to have the statue authenticated and put on the market in some way do seem to be ‘natural’, although it is still unclear who (even in the sense of groups within Hamas) is doing what. There seems to be a group that is in it for the cash and another group who are hesitating for reasons unknown.

In our next installment (which should appear by the weekend, barring unforeseen busyness), we’ll look at the statue itself and how its condition casts further doubts both on Ghurab’s find story and potential matters of authenticity.

UPDATE (the next day): The “Apollo” of Gaza ~ Part Ia: Fishy Tales and Timelines << some Arabic coverage.