Catching Up With Robert Ballard

An item in the Connecticut newspaper The Day: To boldly go where no one has gone before led me to a very interesting site to follow Robert Ballard’s latest endeavours. He’s currently doing the sidescan sonar thing off Turkey looking for potential sites etc., and it’s all being streamed live … there isn’t a heckuva lot to see, but set the live video to ‘quad’ for the most experience. You can listen to the crew’s chatter and possibly begin to appreciate how stunningly dull things can be until a discovery is made. People are asking questions (probably kids through the events mentioned in the article mentioned above). Anyway, check it out at:

York “Gladiators” On Display

The BBC is on the story:

The 1,800-year-old human remains were exhumed in the city over the past decade and will be displayed in an empty shop throughout the summer.

Archaeologists say the discovery suggested the site was only well-preserved Roman gladiator cemetery in the world.

The exhibition will feature the skeletons and objects which were unearthed alongside them.

Kurt Hunter-Mann, a field officer at York Archaeological Trust, said the exhibition features six of the 80 skeletons they unearthed on Driffield Terrace in York.

“People will be able to see all the background to the excavations we carried out and what they can tell us about Roman life and death in York,” he said.

Bite mark

The theory the men might have been gladiators is a popular one but Mr Hunter-Mann admitted they were still not certain.

He said: “We are still a long way from being absolutely sure. One argument supporting the idea they were gladiators is these burials were mostly of adult males which is of course unusual.”

The most persuasive argument for the gladiator theory is a large carnivore bite mark, made by a lion, tiger or bear, an injury which Mr Hunter-Mann said was “unique”.

Bite marks made by a carnivore on one bone is one argument the men might have been gladiators

The skeletons also showed evidence they had experienced a great deal of brutality during their lives.

Other theories archaeologists are examining include suggestions the site might have been a cemetery for specialist soldiers or a place of execution.

Sarah Maltby, director of attractions at York Archaeological Trust, said: “I hope they are gladiators because it is such a great story and leads us on to other questions, such as where the arena they fought in might have been.”

She added: “We want everyone to really enjoy this exhibition, to learn something and to go way and think about it and contribute their own ideas to the debate about who these men might have been.”

Kudos to the organizers and/or the BBC, who clearly are trying to scale back the sensationalism which accompanied the original announcement of this discovery. Here is our previous coverage/criticism from last summer:

Again, lots of ‘running away’ wounds lead me to think of execution in an arena situation …

UPDATE (a few hours later): after a conversation with Dorothy King and Sarah Bond on Twitter, it is clear that some questions I had in our previous coverage do refer to this same site, so here are a couple more links to follow the progress of the dig and the development of the theory of what it represents:

… and from February, 2005, see also:

Circumundique July 25-28

Around the Classical blogosphere the past few days …

Catching Up with Cleo

Cleopatra is suddenly popping up all over the place again, so it’s probably time for a cranky post to bring folks up to speed thereon. But by way of captatio benevolentiae, however,  I’ll mention again my trip to the Royal Ontario Museum last month and one of their ‘iconic pieces’ which (again) I’ve managed to miss on several visits there.  It is what they believe is an image of Cleopatra … ecce:

At the ROM, there is a little screen where you can listen to Roberta Shaw give the details of where this is from and why they believe it to be an image of Cleopatra:

In case you’re wondering about the ‘pillar’ they mention:

I was somewhat disappointed that they didn’t have a photo of the ‘companion piece’ that went with this for comparison purposes (although it is possible that I missed it). To my untrained-in-Egyptian/Ptolemaic-art eye, however, this does seem similar to the  statue in the British Museum which is usually acknowledged as being Cleopatra (see our previous post: Statues of Cleopatra).

Now on to more critical business. In the July issue of National Geographic, Cleopatra is the cover girl and there’s a major feature on her which also happens to be online (it does seem to match the print version as far as I can tell). The purpose of this piece seems to be to give some legitimacy/credence to Kathleen Martinez and Zahi Hawass’ claims in regards to Taposiris Magna, which we’ve dealt with ad nauseam in these cyberpages. Here’s an excerpt from near the end just to refresh your memories:

During the 2006-07 season the Egyptian-Dominican team found three small foundation deposits in the northwest corner of the Osiris temple, just inches from where the Hungarian expedition had stopped digging. The deposits conclusively linked the Osiris temple to the reign of Ptolemy IV, who ruled a century and a half before Cleopatra. In 2007, further supporting the view that the site was very important to the Greeks of ancient Egypt, the excavators found a skeleton of a pregnant woman who had died in childbirth. The tiny bones of the unborn baby lay between the skeleton’s hips. Her jaw was distended, suggesting her agony, and her right hand was clutching a small white marble bust of Alexander the Great. “She is a mystery,” said Martinez, who had a coffin built for the remains of the mother.

In six years Taposiris Magna has become one of Egypt’s most active archaeology sites. More than a thousand objects have been recovered, 200 of them considered significant: pottery, coins, gold jewelry, the broken heads of statues (probably smashed by early Christians). An important discovery was a large cemetery outside the temple walls, suggesting that the subjects of a monarch wished to be buried near royal remains.

Yet the tomb of Cleopatra still hovers out of reach, like a tantalizing mirage, and the theory of who is buried at Taposiris Magna still rests more on educated speculation than on facts. Might not Cleopatra’s reign have unraveled too quickly for her to build such a secret tomb? A fantastic story, like a horse with wings, flies in the face of the principle of parsimony. But it’s a long hard haul from not-yet-proved to disproved.

Critics of Martinez’s theory point out that it is rare in archaeology for someone to announce they are going to find something and then actually find it. “There is no evidence that Cleopatra tried to hide her grave, or would have wanted to,” says Duane Roller, a respected Cleopatra scholar. “It would have been hard to hide it from Octavian, the very person who buried her. All the evidence is that she was buried with her ancestors. The material associated with her at Taposiris Magna is not meaningful because material associated with her can be found in many places in Egypt.”

“I agree that Octavian knew and authorized the place where she was buried,” Martinez says. “But what I believe—and it is only a theory—is that after the mummification process was complete, the priests at Taposiris Magna buried the bodies of Cleopatra and Mark Antony in a different place without the approval of the Romans, a hidden place beneath the courtyard of the temple.”

As might be expected, that the NG made this their cover story is big news back in the Dominican where Martinez is from: Cleopatra hunter Martinez makes Nat-Geo’s cover. Sadly, however, there is nothing new in this article and it’s really uncharacteristic that National Geographic has actually given this any attention (feelings mirrored by Martin R. over at Aarvarchaeology) … That said, a few weeks ago while killing time in a bookstore, I was looking at the book which was spawned by the Cleopatra exhibition (which is soon heading to Milwaukee) and read similar sentiments therein. Of course, National Geographic is a sponsor of that exhibition and it strikes me that they are using their otherwise excellent magazine with an incredible history and reputation to hype the exhibition, albeit indirectly. Whatever the case, I am growing increasingly impatient with National Geographic, which seems increasingly to be going the way of its television channel (which is mostly owned by Fox) and choosing sensational over factual.

What makes it worse, however, is that National Geographic’s attention and reputation in this seems to have led astray a writer at the otherwise excellent Past Horizons blog: The search for Cleopatra continues. As presented, that item makes it sound like digging is actually going on right now at Taposiris Magna and — apparently relying on a ‘press release’ from Zahi Hawass’ site (someone please tell me if I err in this regard) — talks about such novelties as ground penetrating radar surveys being done by Richard Vickers and identifying three places of interest. Sadly, however, it has to be pointed out that the press release actually comes from April 2009 (we mentioned it in a previous post, of course: Cleopatra’s Tomb Again!!) and once again we might wonder why Dr Hawass never bothered to put dates on items. Even if we forgive that, however, we wonder why Past Horizons didn’t notice the November 2009 date of the Heritage Key video (via youtube) which they also link to … This is clearly not news. We might also mention in passing that they link to Kathleen Martinez’s “blog” which is little more than a business card website.

Why this bothers me is that the Past Horizons blog is a rather reputable source — I sometimes link to its items in my Explorator newsletter — and it seems to have the bona fides for people to believe what it says. Indeed, there are already blogs (e.g. Being Cleopatra) which are linking to this piece as if it represents the current state of affairs. For what it’s worth, the last we heard (in February), the dig had been suspended until it was ‘safer’ … the National Geographic piece closes with Martinez’s hopes to return in the Fall. There is nothing new here …