Purported Parthenon Pediment Image from ‘Bethsaida’: Followup

A few days ago we made mention of an article in Ha’aretz in which it was claimed that a fragment of ‘Apulian’ pottery from one of the sites in Israel identified as the ancient Bethsaida included an image from the pediment of the Parthenon in Athens (‘Parthenon Pediment’ Image from Bethsaida: Yeah … about that.). Our piece tracked down the original excavation report, questioned the identification as ‘Apulian Ware’, and also questioned the identification of the scene. Today we get another version of the story (tip o’ the pileus to Joseph Lauer for sending it along) from the Times of Israel which provides some clarification, but doesn’t really provide anything to support the ‘Parthenon Pediment’ connection.

The Times of Israel coverage (Imaging technology reveals birth of Athena on 2,300-year-old shard from Galilee) adds some important details, from the folks at U Nebraska (including director Rami Arav) who conducted the dig which recovered the fragment, inter alia:

The Bethsaida shard, said Arav, which is now black with an inner color of light brown or red, likely dates to 2nd century BCE. According to dig director Arav, the shard is what could be considered a contemporary knock off of “Apulian pottery,” a style of pottery painting which began in circa 7th century BCE based in southern Italy and has come to typify the archetypical “Grecian urn” look.

However, like today’s imitation “Gucci” cases that are made in Hong Kong not Italy, the Bethsaida copy of the Parthenon scene most likely originates from the Phoenician coast, said Arav.

So they don’t even think it was Apulian Ware; being generous, it would appear that Ha’aretz misheard what they were told.  We also note the caption to a very large photo of the shard in the Times of Israel:

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So the image that we’ve been looking is actually an image via Reflective Transformation Imaging, which explains its definitely non-Apulian appearance. The Times of Israel piece does include a nice little video on what RTI is (and chats with the photographer of the Bethsaida piece), but for its application to Greek pottery I’d suggest this lecture is rather more appropriate (via: Applications of Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) in a Fine Arts Museum: Examination, Documentation, and Beyond):

Watching that video and looking at RTI images of Greek pots suggests that the ‘Bethsaida’ piece is moulded and not incised, so any further identification (if any) will have to take that into account. Megarian Ware would be in play, but the ‘Phoenician Coast’ suggestion by Arav is probably in play as well.

Arav continues:

There is a lot to learn about the settlers of Bethsaida based on this pottery shard, said Arav.

“It tells me that in spite of being remote from Athens, Rome and the big cultural centers of the world of that time, and despite the fact that they did not have newspapers, radio, television, internet connection, and things that we think today that connects us to the world, people were very much connected,” he said.

“Looking at their coins they could tell who the current rulers were, what there is to see in the cities that minted their coins. Pictures on ceramic vases could tell them about the monuments in the cities, remind them of stories they were told about their gods and goddesses, and local heroes,” said Arav.

The pot shard allowed the Galilean settlers have an idea how the pediments on the Parthenon were decorated, without making the trip to Athens.

“It is similar to tourists traveling to Paris and bringing back home a miniatures of Eiffel Tower. They show it to their families and say: ‘See, this is what there is to see in Paris.’ We are not that much different,” said Arav.

Unfortunately, there still is no solid reason to connect this with the Parthenon. The image is clearly of a seated person, possibly female (likely) or possibly male. The lack of a head and face is not helpful. Whether there are two people sitting side by side is debatable and one might suggest it is someone holding a lyre and sitting in ‘playing mode’, which would be a common enough motif on a Greek pot from practically any period. What I genuinely find interesting, however, is that the figure is sitting on a rather ornate stool of some sort with legs reminiscent (but obviously not related to) the porphyry columns in the Vatican. Most seating of people on Greek pots is on something akin to a folding chair or (if divine) something that looks kind of like a modern day dresser or a rock. It also looks like there is an animal skin on the seat, which is also common enough. If I were to speculate a divinity on it, I might go for Dionysus, but there isn’t enough here to form a judgement like that, still less to make connections to a Greek temple thousands of kilometres away.


‘Parthenon Pediment’ Image from Bethsaida: Yeah … about that.

[This is a in-a-rush post-in-progress, so it may have a few updates before the end of the day.]

It was with great excitement (and confusion) last night when I read the Ha’aretz headline: Archaeologists Uncover Pottery With Parthenon Scene in Biblical Village

Here are the salient details:

A pottery vase found in northern Israel turns out to show the birth of the goddess Athena, an image apparently copied from the frieze of the Parthenon in Athens. Made in Italy 2,300 years ago and found with other luxuries, the imported ceramic sheds new light on the wealth of the inhabitants of e-Tell – the site of biblical Geshur, and, later, possibly, the town of Bethsaida.

The extraordinary vase had been found among the ruins of the Galilean village a few years ago. It was decorated in unmistakable Apulian style, characteristic of southern Italy. But it is only now, using sophisticated imaging tools and complex software, that Dr. Stefany Peluso with the help of the expeditions photographer, Hanan Shafir, could identify the scene shown on the vase, which has been dated to the 4th century B.C.E.

The shard shows the nymph Dione and goddess Aphrodite looking on as the goddess Athena is born, springing full-grown – and fully equipped with spear and shield – from the head of her father Zeus.

The richly decorated potsherd is one of very few surviving copies of the eastern pediment of the Parthenon, the grand marble temple that was erected after the Persian wars, in honor of Athens’ protective deity. […]

There is a lot of filler in the article, including commentary on the Parthenon and photos of other things which don’t really add to the identification of the piece itself. There is a small photo on the left hand side of the web version … here’s a screenshot for now:

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As most folks who have taken a Greek pottery class will probably immediately say (as did I), Is that Apulian ware? It sure didn’t look like it to me, but perhaps the photo represents the product of ‘sophisticated imaging tools’?

A useful clue in the article was mention that the sherd was found a few years ago. The dig at ‘Bethsaida’ used to be the focus of the University of Nebraska under the direction of Rami Arav (remember? there was an Antony and Cleo coin found there a few years ago (photographed by the same person photographing this bit of pottery)), but recently they did not get a renewed permit, for whatever reason.

Whatever the case, the name of the photographer and the ‘few years ago’ suggested to me there might be a report of the find in a University of Nebraska field report (all online here).  Bingo! On page 52 of the 2016 Field Report:

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As can be seen, the archaeologists at the time identified it as a piece of Megarian Ware, which makes more sense, given its molded, and not-red-figure appearance. It was already identified as a ‘seated woman’.  So the ‘Apulian’ designation seems to be wrong. What also strikes me as being wrong is any association with the Parthenon. There simply isn’t enough there to get ‘Aphrodite and Dione’, much less to get ‘birth of Athena’  (I doubt the ‘sophisticated imagery’ adds more), and practically nothing to distinguish this as a scene from the Parthenon, as if some artist in Apulia or Megara would put that on a pot. I ain’t convinced.


I’m Really Confused About This Mosaic Auction …

About five years ago (i.e. in August, 2012) or so I came across a couple of mosaics (three, actually) being offered for sale by Phoenix Ancient Art. Just the other day, however, I noticed that the photos were no longer on my blogpost and I assumed had been taken down by Phoenix. Here’s my original blogpost:

Mystery Mosaic | rogueclassicism https://rogueclassicism.com/2012/08/15/mystery-mosaic/

So imagine my surprise today when I’m poking around Phoenix’ site and see that they still have the two I was most interested in five years ago. Here’s the mask (Roman Mosaic Panel of a Theater Mask – Phoenix Ancient Art ):

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… and here’s the athlete (Roman Mosaic Panel of an Athlete – Phoenix Ancient Art )

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So far, so good … it’s been in the same shop for five years. Checking out the provenance — Asfar and Sarkis — brought me something more interesting. In 2013, the ‘mask’ apparently was sold and realized a good price at Christie’s (A ROMAN MARBLE AND GLASS MOSAIC PANEL )

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It’s clearly the same mosaic. What’s going on here?

UPDATE (a few minutes later): The Satyr and Maenad piece I mentioned in my post five years ago appears to have been up for sale in Monaco in 2014: The most prestigious salon of art and antiques in Monaco to be held from 12 to 16 June 2014 in Monte-Carlo (scroll down almost to the bottom). Not sure if it sold …


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Saturnalia and Roman New Year

A press release from the University of Warwick, with a nice photo too (and references!):

Over 2000 years ago Romans were celebrating the New Year in much in the same way that we do today with parties, drinking, gifting and, of course, with hopes for the year ahead. Roman celebrations were part of a religious festival called Saturnalia.

This winter festival originated as a farmers’ festival dedicated to Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture and the harvest.

Beginning on the 17th December and lasting between three and seven days, Saturnalia was when work and business stopped (Lucian, Saturnalia, 13) – and was the most popular holiday of the year with the poet Catullus calling it ‘the best of days’. (Catullus, Carmen, 14)

Kevin Butcher, Professor of Roman history at the University of Warwick, says that “the festivities appear to have extended to everyone, including slaves, and there is the idea of a world turned upside down, with masters allowing servants freedoms, or even dining with them, and perhaps even waiting on them”.

Until 153 BC the Roman New Year began on 1st March, however thereafter it was moved forward to 1st January. This date was then confirmed by the Julian Calendar in 46 BC, introduced by Julius Caesar.

While we make our New Year’s resolutions, Romans were lazier and looked to the gods to grant their wishes. Romans would make prayers and sacrifices to Saturn in the hope of good fortune for the coming year.

Lucian’s Saturnalia contains a dialogue between Saturn and a priest, in which the latter gives an extensive list of his New Year’s wishes. He asks for the ‘obvious things—wealth, a lot of gold, to be lord of an estate, to own many slaves, clothing, bright-coloured and soft, silver, ivory, and everything else that is worth something’, but Saturn responds that the request is beyond him and that he should try his luck with Zeus instead. (Lucian, Saturnalia, 1)

The Roman historian Livy even records a human sacrifice during the Saturnalia of 217 BC. ‘Victims were slain at the temple of Saturn in Rome’ in order to muster favour with the gods during the Second Punic War following the military success of Hannibal. (Livy, History of Rome, 22.1.19)

Nowadays gift-giving is most commonly associated with Christmas, however Romans used this practice to celebrate the New Year. These gifts ranged from the modest to the extravagant and were sometimes bizarre.

Rather than a partridge in a pear tree and Lords-a-Leaping, according to the poet Martial, gifts included perfumes, sausages, dice, wine, hair, ear pics, sponges, bladder footballs, woollen slippers, parrots and sheep’s heads. (Martial, Epigrams, 14).

Terracotta oil map with winged victoryOne such gift is a terracotta oil lamp dated to the second half of first century AD, which depicts the Roman goddess Victory alongside examples of New Year’s gifts: dates, figs, and coins and bearing the inscription ‘A happy and prosperous New Year!’

Romans had a strong tradition of giving silly gifts which probably accounts for the number of complaints from recipients during Saturnalia. Martial detests the cheap quality of the gifts he receives from his friend Umber, who was recycling his own unwanted presents. He grumbles that he has been gifted ‘everything which you have received during the past five days’. (Martial, Epigrams, 7.53)

Likewise, when Catullus receives an excruciatingly bad book of poems as a joke from his friend Calvus, he moans ‘what have I said or done to deserve it / that you’re killing me now with all these poets?’ (Catullus, Carmen, 14)

Gift giving at New Year is still practiced in many countries including France, Russia and Turkey and is also part of Hogmanay in Scotland.

It is clear that Romans also enjoyed a party with which to end the year. The celebrations of 217 BC in Rome were particularly wild, as Livy records that ‘throughout the City for a day and a night “Saturnalia” was cried’. (Livy, History of Rome, 22.1.20)

However, not everyone approved of this unrestrained revelry. The philosopher and statesman Seneca complains that ‘the whole mob has let itself go in pleasures’. (Seneca, Epistles, 18.3)

The state in which many a Roman would end a night’s festivities is effectively described by Lucian, ‘now I faint, and drunken with thy liquor drag myself at last to sleep’. (Lucian, Saturnalia, 2) Such sentiments, many a New Year’s Eve party-goer will be familiar with no doubt.

Others, like Pliny the Younger, preferred a quiet night in. ‘During the Saturnalia, when all the rest of the house rings with the merriment and shouts of the festival-makers’ he would take delight in the quiet of his sitting-room and engross himself in his studies. (Pliny the Younger, Letters, 2.17.24)

However the festival still remains somewhat of a mystery as Professor Kevin Butcher notes that “for a ceremony of such importance in the Roman calendar it is surprising how little information about it survives.”


Oxyrhynchus and the First Apocalypse of James: Collection History Just Got Murkier

As is often the case with important discoveries related to the ancient world these days, this is a tale that has taken a while to unfold, although ab initio there were alarm bells going off for some of us.  Back on November 19, 2017 Brice C. Jones mentioned an important discovery just revealed at the Society of Biblical Literature conference in Boston. A paper was presented by Geoff Smith and Brent Landau on an “Oxyrhynchus Papyrus” which apparently contained the first Greek example of the First Apocalypse of James, which was previously known, but only in Coptic form (First Greek Fragments of a Nag Hammadi Text Discovered among Oxyrhynchus Papyri!). Inter alia, it was noted:

The papyrus codex fragments are housed in the Sackler Library at Oxford University and were found during the dig season of 1904/05. The two fragments have different inventory numbers but are written in the same hand and belong to the same codex.

Also mentioned:

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this papyrus is that the scribe employed middle dots to separate syllables. This is rare in literary texts, but it does appear in school texts, which prompts the question as to how this document was used. Was it a school text? The editors suggest the papyri are fragments of a larger codex that probably contained the entire text of the First Apocalypse of James. Could the middle dots have served a liturgical function, facilitating easier reading on the part of the anaginoskon? The raison d’être of the codex is thus still being considered by the editors.

This set off alarm bells for me because I could not immediately imagine a situation where a text of this sort would be used as a scribal teaching text. And so, I was moved to tweet, of course, and a conversation ensued:

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If you’re unfamiliar with the ‘origin story’ for the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, the link Dr Roberta Mazza mentions above is useful. But increasingly I find such origins stories in our discipline to become articles of faith which are never questioned. And every so often, we read about Oxyrhynchus Papyri being sold on the market and going to private collections; Brice Jones mentioned one a couple years ago (P.Oxy. 11.1351: From Oxyrhynchus to the Green Collection) as  did Roberta Mazza (Another Oxyrhynchus papyrus from the Egypt Exploration Fund distributions sold to a private collector). In the age of questioning collection history, the Oxyrhynchus Papyri ‘brand’ is probably as good as you can get. It’s precisely because of that that I had my questions: if this Greek Apocalypse of James papyrus genuinely was an Oxyrhynchus papyrus, prove it!

A few days after the Twitter convo, we finally had an official press release from the University of Texas on this:

The first-known original Greek copy of a heretical Christian writing describing Jesus’ secret teachings to his brother James has been discovered at Oxford University by biblical scholars at The University of Texas at Austin.   

To date, only a small number of texts from the Nag Hammadi library — a collection of 13 Coptic Gnostic books discovered in 1945 in Upper Egypt — have been found in Greek, their original language of composition. But earlier this year, UT Austin religious studies scholars Geoffrey Smith and Brent Landau added to the list with their discovery of several fifth- or sixth-century Greek fragments of the First Apocalypse of James, which was thought to have been preserved only in its Coptic translations until now.

“To say that we were excited once we realized what we’d found is an understatement,” said Smith, an assistant professor of religious studies. “We never suspected that Greek fragments of the First Apocalypse of James survived from antiquity. But there they were, right in front of us.”

The ancient narrative describes the secret teachings of Jesus to his brother James, in which Jesus reveals information about the heavenly realm and future events, including James’ inevitable death.

“The text supplements the biblical account of Jesus’ life and ministry by allowing us access to conversations that purportedly took place between Jesus and his brother, James — secret teachings that allowed James to be a good teacher after Jesus’ death,” Smith said. 

Such apocryphal writings, Smith said, would have fallen outside the canonical boundaries set by Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, in his “Easter letter of 367” that defined the 27-book New Testament: “No one may add to them, and nothing may be taken away from them.”

With its neat, uniform handwriting and words separated into syllables, the original manuscript was probably a teacher’s model used to help students learn to read and write, Smith and Landau said.

“The scribe has divided most of the text into syllables by using mid-dots. Such divisions are very uncommon in ancient manuscripts, but they do show up frequently in manuscripts that were used in educational contexts,” said Landau, a lecturer in the UT Austin Department of Religious Studies.

The teacher who produced this manuscript must have “had a particular affinity for the text,” Landau said. It does not appear to be a brief excerpt from the text, as was common in school exercises, but rather a complete copy of this forbidden ancient writing.

Smith and Landau announced the discovery at the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting in Boston in November and are working to publish their preliminary findings in the Greco Roman Memoirs series of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri.

As might be expected, the story was picked up by various outlets and spun in various ways:

… among others. The Newsweek coverage is especially noteworthy/blameworthy for trying to forge a link between this find and the James Ossuary from a few years ago. Things settled down a bit, and then a couple of days ago Candida Moss wrote an excellent corrective piece for the Daily Beast, with the intent of demonstrating — which she did — the actual significance of the find, devoid of the spin being put on it by various news outlets and websites. I encourage everyone to read it in its entirety:

That said, what caught my eye in Dr Moss’ article was the following:

The Greek of the First Apocalypse of James was discovered in the Oxyrhynchus collection, a famous group of papyrus fragments found by Grenfell and Hunt in an ancient trash heap in Egypt in the late nineteenth century. The collection is now housed at the University of Oxford. These particular fragments had been stored with a cluster of other Christian texts in the office of Oxford professor Dirk Obbink.

It was only when Obbink invited Smith to try to identify some of them that the fragments were discovered […]

So it seems these weren’t in the Sackler library when Drs Smith and Landau were given them. How can we be sure they are actually papyri from the Oxyrhynchus collection? How do we know they weren’t part of some auction somewhere with dubious overtones? I’ve previously blogged on Dr Obbink’s questionable handling of papyri (The Hobby Lobby Settlement: A Gathering Storm for Classicists? ) and think it’s salutary to point out (again … and echoing rather more specifically my Twitter query mentioned above) that Dr Obbink’s story on the origins of the Sappho papyrus changed/evolved over time. If we believe Scott Carroll, Dr Obbink is also in possession of a Gospel of Mark fragment that’s been rumoured to exist for years now — and it was sitting on his pool table. Scott Carroll, of course, was the person behind the acquisition of plenty of papyri for the Museum of the Bible and others which we have been waiting to be published for ages. That said, the Apocalypse of James papyrus might very well be a genuine Oxyrhynchus papyrus, but the office it came from — as opposed to the library, perhaps — is already under a ‘cloud of suspicion’ of sorts. Hopefully the official publication will provide rather more specific evidence of its collection history and how it ended up in Dr Obbink’s office for Smith and Landau to identify.

UPDATE (the next day): see Brent Nongbri’s post for some additional background on the Oxyrhynchus Papyri: