Digging Thebes (The Greek One)

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From a Bucknell University press release:

Two Bucknell University professors have been selected to lead the first joint Greek-American archaeological dig in the ancient city of Thebes, Greece – the first such excavation of the historic Ismenion Hill area in nearly a century.

Bucknell classics professors Stephanie Larson and Kevin Daly, together with Vassilis Aravantinos, ephor of prehistoric and classical antiquities for the Greek region of Boiotia and director of the Thebes Archaeological Museum, received approval from the Central Archaeological Council of the Greek Ministry of Culture on March 29 to launch a comprehensive geophysical survey and excavation at the Ismenion Hill and surrounding areas.

“This is a great moment that could usher in a new era of exploration and understanding into the archaeology and cultural history of this important ancient Greek city-state,” Larson said. “And it is only through Dr. Aravantinos’ stewardship, the cooperation of the Greek government and sponsorship from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation that we are able to do this.”

Stavros Niarchos Foundation grant
The joint project, or “synergasia,” has received major funding through a three-year, $350,000 grant from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, one of the world’s leading international philanthropic organizations. Additional funding includes contributions from The Gladys Delmas Foundation, the Loeb Library Foundation and Bucknell University. Larson and Daly currently are seeking contributions to continue the project well beyond 2013.

“The importance of the Ismenion hill as a site for exploration cannot be overestimated,” Daly added. “Ancient sources from a wide range of chronological periods attest to the Ismenion’s continued use as one of the main sanctuaries of ancient Thebes. Without question, the site is of monumental architectural, literary and cultic interest for periods from the second millennium BCE onward.”

Geophysical survey and excavation
Work will begin June 14 with a series of non-invasive geophysical tests on and beside the hill named after Apollo Ismenios, the manifestation of the Olympian Apollo who was worshipped in Thebes. Larson, who studies ancient Boiotian history, and Daly, a field archaeologist and Greek epigraphist, will oversee all work in the field alongside Aravantinos. Six Bucknell students also will work on the site this summer, as will other scholars from the United States and abroad.

Bucknell Assistant Professor of Geology Rob Jacob, who will join the team for this first phase of the dig, will use various techniques to map and probe anthropogenic features under the soil. The team will begin the excavation after this initial mapping and remote sensing.

Historical Significance
A major Greek city-state halfway between Athens and Delphi, Thebes was for much of the ancient period the largest city in Boiotia, an extensive region of central Greece. Although Thebes figures prominently in almost every period of ancient Greek history, it is not nearly as well-known to the modern world as Athens and Sparta, Larson noted.

The mythological birthplace of Hercules and Oedipus, home to a large Bronze Age palace, and the seat of major political and military force until its destruction by Alexander the Great, Thebes was a dominant power for centuries. While smaller for much of the Roman period, Thebes again grew to major prominence in later eras.

Herodotus and Pindar, two of ancient Greece’s most famous writers, specifically praise the sanctuary of Ismenian Apollo at Thebes for its monuments and importance. The Ismenion Hill and its immediate vicinity are of particular interest because large portions remain wholly unexplored.

Rare opportunity
While many archaeological sites in Greece prove difficult to excavate because they are covered with modern buildings, the area atop and beside this ancient sanctuary has remained largely undeveloped, Daly noted.

Despite the significance of the sanctuary of Ismenian Apollo, there have been only two relatively limited excavations within the boundaries of the Ismenion hill, Daly said. The Greek archaeologist A. Keramopoullos excavated on the sanctuary hill from 1910-1917; in 1967 N. Pharaklas completed a few additional trenches; neither made a full exploration. These excavations exposed only the western section of the ancient temple to Apollo on the hill.

“Thebes is already well known to every scholar of the ancient world,” Daly said. “Furthermore, Dr. Aravantinos has recently overseen the building of a spectacular new museum at Thebes and a marvelous new catalog of its holdings. This new dig presents a further opportunity toward expanding our knowledge of the city and restoring Thebes to its proper place on the cultural map.”

Exploring the sanctuary and its processional approach from the city may reveal a repository of significant dedications from the height of the sanctuary’s activity (the 7th-4th centuries B.C.E) when it served as a central Greek rival to the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi, Larson said.

“We will decide on the basis of the combined geophysical measurements exactly where to excavate,” Larson said. “We know from both literary sources and physical remains that when you go from the Ismenion hill toward the city gate and town, you pass by numerous shrines. There was, for example, a shrine to Hercules, which has recently been identified by Dr. Aravantinos, and other monuments as well. But we don’t know exactly what we will find, and we are not looking for one particular thing per se.

“Archaeology is in part about the process and the questions and answers that arise during that process,” Larson added. “What we know for sure is that this is a place with extraordinarily significance. To some degree we are going to let the archaeology dictate where we dig and how we proceed. While we do have some specific questions, we also want the soil to tell us its history.”

Bucknell student researchers
Bucknell seniors Paul Brazinski, Michael Furman and Emily Bitely and juniors Tynan Graniez, Clare Brogan and Jeff Wellenbach, have been selected to work on the site this summer. Bitely, an anthropology major, has extensive experience with GIS mapping. Brazinski and Furman, both classics majors, plan to study archaeology and classics in graduate schools at the University of Cambridge in England and St. Andrews University in Scotland, respectively. Brogan is studying in Greece this semester. Wellenbach and Graniez are classics majors.

“This is a very hands-on experience for these excellent students,” Larson said. “They will be doing real work and get to see all of what is involved in a new excavation.”

Brazinski, who traveled to Athens to work at the Athenian Agora site with Daly last summer, said he is looking forward to the opportunity to working in an area that has been largely unexplored.

“It is very exciting to be part of this and to be one of the first Americans allowed to work in Thebes,” Brazinski said.

The Stavros Niarchos Foundation
The Stavros Niarchos Foundation is one of the world’s leading international philanthropic organizations, making grants in the areas of arts and culture, education, health and medicine, and social welfare. While prominent in its support of Greek-related initiatives, the Foundation’s activities are worldwide in scope. To date, the Foundation has provided total grant commitments of 895 million Euros or $1.2 billion through more than 1,900 grants to nonprofit organizations in 90 nations.

Rule Hellenica?

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Cressida Ryan has been up to something interesting … from an Oxford press release:

It is seen by many as an unofficial British national anthem – but an Oxford University academic believes she has discovered that Rule Britannia was heavily influenced by Greek literature.

Dr Cressida Ryan of Oxford University’s Classics Faculty has found clear traces of Greek literature and culture in the famous song written by James Thomson – a link that has never been made before.

Dr Ryan said: ‘While studying the Greek and Roman influences on William Mason’s Caractacus, I decided to look at James Thomson, Mason’s contemporary, who wrote Rule Britannia and I found clear evidence that Thomson’s poem had an eye to classical Greek literature. Rule Britannia, like Greek literature, contains elements of the sublime – a term used to describe how aesthetic works affect someone drawing on ancient ideas of pity, fear, terror and the soul.

Dr Ryan explained: ‘In eighteenth-century London he mixed with men such as Robert Walpole, Dr Arbuthnot, Alexander Pope and John Gay, who focused on the sublime in their writings. The emerging concept of the sublime was shaped by changes in their choices of Greek and Roman philosophical models.

‘Thomson combined Greek tragedy with English nationalistic writing early in his career – in 1738 his play Agamemnon opened at Drury Lane and although this was unsuccessful, Greek tragic influence remains discernible in his later work such as Edward and Eleanora. In Rule Britannia, we find the same combination of focus on the country, religion, politics, law, strength against enemies and artistic inspiration that are present in Caractacus.’

Rule Britannia, which is associated with British patriotism and the Royal Navy, was written as a chorus for the masque Alfred, written by James Thomson and his friend David Mallet, and set to music by Thomas Arne in 1740.

Dr Ryan points to several lines in the lyrics which may have roots in ancient Greece. She said: ‘Thomson’s line ‘The blast that tears the skies, Serves but to root thy native oak’ portrays the oak as the symbol of Britain, as the olive symbolised Athens. The emphasis on Britain as divinely protected in the first verse – ‘When Britain first at Heaven’s command …and guardian angels sung this strain … as the loud blast, the blast that tears the skies’ invokes the power of the thunderbolt, an instrument of the Old Testament God but also of Zeus.

‘Biographical and literary links between Thomson and Mason make such a reading more plausible. It is clear that they were both working with similar Greek and Roman models in mind, and that their own work seems to overlap more directly.’

Ancient Greece may have influenced the tune of Rule Britannia, in addition to the lyrics. Dr Ryan said: ‘Thomas Arne, who set the music for Rule Britannia, was also fond of Greek tragedy and composed Oedipus, King of Thebes.

I could have sworn I had a blog post on the ‘ancient’ connections to the ‘Star Spangled Banner’, but I guess I didn’t do that one (technically, the connection to that one isn’t really ancient, so I probably nixed that one)

Marathon Casualty List?

This is a long-developing — and still incomplete, it seems — story which should be of great interest. A couple of years ago, Diana Wright related in her blog how she was part of a group who were given access to a number of inscriptions from Herodes Atticus’ villa, one of which she described thusly:

The first is an amazing stone that appears to be the casualty listfrom the battle of Marathon. The inscription is written in boustrephon and diagonally, and was acquired by Herodes Atticus when he honored his home town of Marathon by constructing a great tumulus over the burial site of the Athenian dead.

A piece at Sparta MagazineThe Tumulus of Marathon a creation of Herodes Atticus — which summarizes something which appeared in the Greek Arxaiologia Magazine provides some detail about the inscription which (it appears) had yet to be published:

The inscription contains a list of names of men and an epigram in hexameter indicating the merit of the persons mentioned: “τῶν δ’ ἁνδρῶν ἀρετήν…πεύσεται χρόνος μαρνάμενοι Μήδοις καὶ τούς στεφάνους ἀναθήναι….” The alphabet used in the column and the use of words in Homeric epigram suggests the early date of the column (before 403 B.C.e) and the intention for comparison of the listed dead men with mythical heroes, while the reference to the Persians (Μήδοις) refers the Persian Wars.

Then, last month, Peter Thonemann reviewed a couple of books about Marathon for the Times Literary Supplement … the incipit of that review included a translation of at least part of the inscription:

From one village to the next, memorials to the war dead take much the same form: a polished granite or marble slab, standing at a central crossroads or fixed on the wall of the parish church, with a short summary of the historical context (“In memory of the men who fell in the Great War, 1914–1918”), followed by two or four columns of names. This type of monument was known in ancient Greece too; in fact, the very earliest known to us, commemorating Athenians who fell at the Battle of Marathon, is 2,500 years old this year.


Fame, as it reaches the furthest limits of the sunlit earth,
Shall learn the valour of these men: how they died
In battle with the Medes, and how they garlanded Athens,
The few who undertook the war of many.

Glaukiades . . .

“Few” really does mean “few”. No one knows how many Persians (“Medes”) fell at the Battle of Marathon in August 490 BC – 6,400, claims our earliest source – but the traditional number of Athenian casualties, 192, is almost certain to be correct. After the Athenian dead had been interred in a great funerary mound on the fringe of the Marathon plain, ten white marble slabs, one for each of the ten Athenian tribes, were set up at the foot of the mound. This stone, listing twenty-two members of the tribe Erechtheis, is the only one of the ten to survive.

Now Diana Wright is revisiting the inscription — and the translation thereof — and her post is definitely worth reading: The Marathon Stone. It’s a shame that important inscriptions such as this one end up being published in somewhat obscure journals rather than being put in some web-based database … maybe journalists would be more interested in finds such as this than claims made by filmmakers or metallurgists.

Bellum Stellarum

They’re chatting about this over on the Classics list:

Most of the chat is about whether Bellum Stellarum is an appropriate translation of ‘Star Wars’ … Bellum Stellarum, of course, literally means ‘War of the Stars’ … Ralph Hancock suggested De bellis sidereis, which seems a bit better, perhaps. I always thought ‘Star Wars’ in English was kind of a silly title to begin with …

Altar of the Twelve Gods Followup II

A while ago we mentioned plans of assorted groups to try to prevent the covering-up of the recently-refound Altar of the Twelve Gods in Athens … Kathimerini has an update for us:

An Athens court on Friday ordered the temporary suspension of railway works aimed at covering up a significant archaeological find in Monastiraki, central Athens, until a verdict is issued on an injunction brought against the Kifissia-Piraeus electric railway (ISAP) and the Culture and Finance ministries by a citizens’ group.

Members of the Citizens’ Initiative for the Rescue and Promotion of the Altar of the Twelve Gods want the site to be cleared and protected.

Regional councilor Costas Diakos is backing the citizens’ group and Friday expressed the readiness of local authorities to finance the showcasing of the monument.

Another legal suit has been lodged with the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.

Representatives of the citizens’ initiative have stressed that they have no connection to the six protesters who were arrested on Thursday after trying to prevent railway tracks being laid over the site.

The protesters, whose action led to ISAP services being suspended for more than an hour on Thursday, faced an Athens prosecutor yesterday on charges of obstructing public transport.

ISAP’s management has responded to the disruptive protest by taking legal action against the six protesters. A spokesperson for ISAP said the planned works on the railway tracks were crucial as the route serves some 90,000 commuters daily and “is ready to burst.”

Most of the action that has been staged over the past two months in protest at the planned works on the site has involved self-professed “Dodecatheists,” worshippers of the 12 Olympian deities to whom the altar is dedicated.

It remained unclear if the six people arrested on Thursday profess to be Dodecatheists.

Elsewhere, Kathimerini tries to explain polytheism: Polytheists: What do they believe in?