The Shackled Burials from Phaleron ~ Another Possible Identification?

Way back in March/April there was an announcement of an  important discovery at Phaleron which — due to the usual too-much-going-on reasons — I never had a chance to relate here or comment on. Briefly stated, during excavations of a large cemetery there (which has been an ongoing excavation for quite a few years) a mass burial of some 80 individuals, including 36 who had their hands shackled, was revealed. At the time, the chief archaeologist, Stella Chryssoulaki gave an excellent press briefing on the findings:

Of the varied press coverage at the time, see Kristina Kilgrove’s piece in Forbes is probably the most useful:

Other coverage (largely based on the AFP coverage in the first item).

As can be seen, the coverage from back in  March/April all suggested that the mass burial section of the cemetery — which really has no grave goods of any kind directly associated with it — can be dated to the seventh century BCE and the ‘likely identification’ is that the skeletons belong to folks who had been associated with Cylon in his ill-fated coup attempt back in 632 BCE. From what I can gather, the identification is based largely on the apparently healthy bones of the deceased and the existence of some vaguely mentioned Archaic pottery nearby.

This past weekend, it struck me as strange that the story was once again in the news. From what I have seen so far, there is nothing really new to be added to the story and all I can think of is that this story is back in the news solely because Cylon was an Olympic victor and, of course, the modern version of the Olympics will be starting in Rio shortly.

And so, as usually happens when news articles appear to have been timed to coincide with some modern event, I decided to look closer at this purported association with Cylon. A natural starting point, of course, is Thucydides 126.3 ff (via the Perseus Project) and his account of how the Alcmeonidai came to be ‘cursed’:

[3] In former generations there was an Athenian of the name of Cylon, a victor at the Olympic games, of good birth and powerful position, who had married a daughter of Theagenes, a Megarian, at that time tyrant of Megara.[4] Now this Cylon was inquiring at Delphi; when he was told by the god to seize the Acropolis of Athens on the grand festival of Zeus.[5] Accordingly, procuring a force from Theagenes and persuading his friends to join him, when the Olympic festival in Peloponnese came, he seized the Acropolis, with the intention of making himself tyrant, thinking that this was the grand festival of Zeus, and also an occasion appropriate for a victor at the Olympic games. [6] Whether the grand festival that was meant was in Attica or elsewhere was a question which he never thought of, and which the oracle did not offer to solve. For the Athenians also have a festival which is called the grand festival of Zeus Meilichios or Gracious, viz. the Diasia. It is celebrated outside the city, and the whole people sacrifice not real victims but a number of bloodless offerings peculiar to the country. However, fancying he had chosen the right time, he made the attempt. [7] As soon as the Athenians perceived it, they flocked in, one and all, from the country, and sat down, and laid siege to the citadel.[8] But as time went on, weary of the labour of blockade, most of them departed; the responsibility of keeping guard being left to the nine archons, with plenary powers to arrange everything according to their good judgment. It must be known that at that time most political functions were discharged by the nine archons.[9] Meanwhile Cylon and his besieged companions were distressed for want of food and water.[10] Accordingly Cylon and his brother made their escape; but the rest being hard pressed, and some even dying of famine, seated themselves as suppliants at the altar in the Acropolis.[11] The Athenians who were charged with the duty of keeping guard, when they saw them at the point of death in the temple, raised them up on the understanding that no harm should be done to them, led them out and slew them. Some who as they passed by took refuge at the altars of the awful goddesses were despatched on the spot. From this deed the men who killed them were called accursed and guilty against the goddess, they and their descendants.[12] Accordingly these cursed ones were driven out by the Athenians, driven out again by Cleomenes of Lacedaemon and an Athenian faction; the living were driven out, and the bones of the dead were taken up; thus they were cast out. For all that, they came back afterwards, and their descendants are still in the city.

Herodotus’ account (5.71.1 ff via Perseus) is rather more brief:

How the Accursed at Athens had received their name, I will now relate. There was an Athenian named Cylon, who had been a winner at Olympia. This man put on the air of one who aimed at tyranny, and gathering a company of men of like age, he attempted to seize the citadel. When he could not win it, he took sanctuary by the goddess’ statue.[2] He and his men were then removed from their position by the presidents of the naval boards, the rulers of Athens at that time. Although they were subject to any penalty save death, they were slain, and their death was attributed to the Alcmaeonidae. All this took place before the time of Pisistratus.

What both accounts — all written long after the fact —  agree upon, of course, is that Cylon’s followers were suppliants, surrendered in the belief that they wouldn’t be put to death, and subsequently were killed in some unspecified manner. A significant difference is that Herodotus’ account suggests that the suppliants were ‘removed’ on the understanding that they would be punished and not subject to the death penalty. Thucydides’ account is a bit more vague and does not seem to have the punishment implied, much less the death but does suggest the suppliants were ‘starved out’. The two historians do agree, however, that the erstwhile suppliants were killed and their killing was considered sacrilege.

Plutarch’s account was written several hundred years after the fact and seems to have been embellished somewhat (Solon 12.1  via Perseus):

Now the Cylonian pollution had for a long time agitated the city, ever since Megacles the archon had persuaded Cylon and his fellow conspirators, who had taken sanctuary in the temple of Athena, to come down and stand their trial. They fastened a braided thread to the image of the goddess and kept hold of it, but when they reached the shrine of the Erinyes on their way down, the thread broke of its own accord, upon which Megacles and his fellow-archons rushed to seize them, on the plea that the goddess refused them the rights of suppliants. Those who were outside of sacred precincts were stoned to death, and those who took refuge at the altars were slaughtered there; only those were spared who made supplication to the wives of the archons.

This account really doesn’t provide a situation where shackles were put on any of the suppliants and the ‘braided thread’ story seems a bit fanciful.  Even so, what I haven’t been able to find any information on — and I gladly seek help on this — is whether it would be considered sacrilege to put shackles on a suppliant. As mentioned above, 36 of the 80 skeletons found in the mass grave at Phaleron are shackled, which clearly suggests they were prisoners of some kind. Were Cylon’s associates ‘led out in chains’? I’m also curious whether being ‘starved out’ would somehow affect the skeletal remains.

Given the possibility that the folks in the Cylon affair might not have been shackled before they were sacrilegiously slain, that opens the possibility that the bodies in the cemetery might actually belong to another massacre and it could be argued that these were the prisoners who were sent to Athens in the wake of the revolt of Mytilene in 428 BCE., a date which would be at the tail end of the finds in the Phaleron cemetery. In an interesting bit of synchronicity, this event has been mentioned recently in connection with possible ‘revotes’ of Brexit matters as originally the decision was to execute all the males of Mytilene and a ‘revote’ changed that to execution of folks who had been directly involved and already sent to Athens (see the account in Thucydides 3.36 ff). Whatever the case, the only problem with this suggestion is that according to Thucydides, the number of prisoners executed at the time numbered close to 1000 (3.50.1), which would be a rather large number of folks to put on ships to send to Athens perhaps. Interestingly, the Wikipedia article on the revolt gives — but doesn’t cite — the suggestion that the 1000 number is a “scribal error” and a figure closer to 30 is more likely. I would never base an argument solely on something from Wikipedia, of course, but I have been unable to locate any scholarly revision of the 1000 figure. Does anyone know where Wikipedia is getting this ‘closer to 30’ figure from? Presumably the ringleaders of the Mytilene revolt would have been healthy individuals and probably sent to Athens in shackles. It must be admitted that it does seem to fit the finds from Phaleron rather nicely, no?

Thinking out loud (the next morning):

Wilson, J. (1981). Strategy and Tactics in the Mytilene Campaign. Historia: Zeitschrift Für Alte Geschichte, 30(2), 144-163. Retrieved from  … notes the controversy over numbers, but defends the ‘1000’ suggestion on pp 147-148.

Quinn, T. (1971). Political Groups in Lesbos during the Peloponnesian War. Historia: Zeitschrift Für Alte Geschichte, 20(4), 405-417. Retrieved from … suggests the numbers might be plausible if oligarchs from other places were included, although even that has difficulties p. 408, n.21.

Debnar, P. (2000). DIODOTUS’ PARADOX AND THE MYTILENE DEBATE (THUCYDIDES 3.37-49). Rheinisches Museum Für Philologie, 143(2), 161-178. Retrieved from … p. 161 n.1 (note the Wilson article is cited above):



Returning to the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife: Reflections and Implications (I)

As readers of rogueclassicism are probably already aware, a couple of weeks ago Ariel Sabar wrote a lengthy piece in the Atlantic documenting his successful search for the owner of the so-called Gospel of Jesus Wife, who we now know is a certain Walter Fritz. It’s a sequel to an earlier piece he wrote for the Smithsonian Magazine back when the story was just breaking and overlaps to a large extent with some of the work Owen Jarus has been doing for Live Science over the past couple of years. It also overlaps with some of my own research, which I never actually had the opportunity to blog at the time (and which was largely covered by Owen Jarus’ pieces). Because of Sabar’s investigative journalism, the questions about the authenticity of the fragment currently loom larger than ever. At the same time, however, the investigative journalism approach tends to focus on the ‘telling of the story’ as much as the information involved, and important things might get lost along the way. The present post is an attempt to bring together as much as possible into one post everything that can be known about the GJW; a second post will consider the implications of this episode for scholars in Classics (soon-to-be-open museums) who are dealing with ‘new’ papyrus finds.

At the outset, I encourage people to set aside an hour or so to read the investigative journalism pieces in order; the Owen Jarus pieces are important because much of what Sabar reveals was already revealed by Jarus in one form or another:

As hinted at above, I’m going to try and organize this in a timeline, which makes the series of events  and assorted reactions a bit easier to follow. The timeline is interspersed with notes and observations along the way. An additional abbreviation to note is (KK), which is information gleaned from Karen King’s various accounts, but primarily:

  • King, Karen L. 2014. ““Jesus said to them, ‘My wife . . .’”: A New Coptic Papyrus Fragment.” Harvard Theological Review 107, no.2: 131-159 (online here)

It’s worth putting a link to Harvard’s collection of materials which include images (in theory; they don’t come up) and the scientific test reports (which may or may not download for you):

We’ll begin with Dr King’s account in Harvard Theological Review of how the GJW came to her:

The current owner of the papyrus states that he acquired the papyrus in 1999. Upon request for information about provenance, the owner provided me with a photocopy of a contract for the sale of “6 Coptic papyrus fragments, one believed to be a Gospel” from Hans-Ulrich Laukamp, dated November 12, 1999, and signed by both parties.A handwritten comment on the contract states: “Seller surrenders photocopies of correspondence in German. Papyri were acquired in 1963 by the seller in Potsdam (East Germany).” The current owner said that he received the six papyri in an envelope, and himself conserved them between plates of plexiglass/lucite. The owner also sent me scanned copies of two photocopies.

… a footnote provides some additional information:

The second document is a photocopy of a typed and signed letter addressed to H. U. Laukamp dated July 15, 1982, from Prof. Dr. Peter Munro (Freie Universität, Ägyptologisches Seminar, Berlin), stating that a colleague, Professor Fecht, has identified one of Mr. Laukamp’s papyri as having nine lines of writing and measuring approximately 110 x 80 mm, and containing text from the Gospel of John.

… and away we go!

Annotated Timeline:

1961:  Laukamp swims to Berlin (AS2)

1963: Laukamp acquires papyri in Potsdam (KK)

  • so almost immediately there is a question: If Laukamp escaped East Germany in 1961, is he likely to have gone back in 1963 to ‘acquire’ the papyri?

1982 (July 15): Correspondence from Peter Munro from Gerhard Fecht to Laukamp identifying one of his papyri as being a fragment of the Gospel of John (KK)

1988-1992 or 1993: Walter Fritz is an MA student at the Free University of Berlin  (Freie Universität Berlin) (AS2)

1989:Jürgen Osing new department chair at the Free University;  apparently one tough cookie (AS2)

1991: Fritz publishes an article in Studien zur Altägyptischen Kultur, which apparently is still influential, but wasn’t very original(AS2)

1991 (October): Fritz hired as head of the Stasi Museum (AS2)

1992 (“Spring”): Fritz is dismissed (AS2)

  • It’s worth quoting AS on this one:

In March 1992, five months into the job, the museum’s board members ordered him to shape up. They were concerned, among other things, about valuables—paintings, Nazi military medals, Stasi memorabilia—that had gone missing from the building’s storage during Fritz’s tenure. Drieselmann confronted him about his job performance in the spring of 1992. Not long after, Fritz disappeared, leaving behind a resignation letter.

1990s  (“1992-1995”): Fritz meets Laukamp; various stories(AS2)

  • not sure the ‘met at a von Daniken’ lecture is really necessary; I’m sure this is something which could be checked out …

1993 (at the latest): Fritz in Florida (AS2)

1995: Laukamp and Herzsprung running ACMB (AS2)

1996: Nefer Art’s website is up (my own research)

  • In April of 2014 I came across Nefer Art’s website mentioned on a page advertising various Florida photography businesses after following various online sources which referred to this Walter Fritz fellow.  Nefer Art was ostensibly a photography business, but their webpage seemed to indicate other things were going on. I was particularly struck, by an image (without a label or comment) on one of the pages: a18
  • In July sent this image to assorted  papyrologists for comment, by which time the photography site had been taken down (perhaps as a result of Owen Jarus’ 2014 Live Science piece?), but this image had been up from at least 2011 to November of 2013 (but it was still in the Wayback Machine in the ‘Art’ section).  My query clearly circulated around. Most saw the reference to Hecate and below there is a reference to Phoebe. None of those who responded had ever seen it before and didn’t think it was authentic. In the most recent wave of reaction to Sabar’s Atlantic piece, Christian Askeland brings up the above and gives pretty much the common opinion (More on the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife and Walter Fritz). The drawing is pretty ‘simplistic’ and it really doesn’t have any affinities with any known illustrated papyri and the diacritics on the Greek are potentially anachronistic. In passing we might mention the apparent ‘fascinum’ approaching the nude female, which might suggest someone was looking at items from Pompeii, but that’s speculation.
  • What isn’t mentioned in the various sites now mentioning this piece is the page it comes from  has a copyright date 1996-2012, which might provide a terminus ante quem of sorts.
  • Besides this little papyrus scrap, what also interested me about this was the name ‘Nefer Art’. Readers might recall that Frieda Nussberger-Tchacos (of Gospel of Judas fame) had a gallery named Gallery Nefer and obviously had been selling papyri therefrom.  There seems to be a Gospel of Judas connection in here somewhere (possibly coincidental)

1997: Laukamp in Florida (AS2)

1997: Walter Fritz purchases papyri from Laukamp (AS1)

  • not sure if the 1997 date is a typo in the article, something misheard by Sabar in an interview with King, or just some mistake along the way; the papyrus wasn’t sold until two years later according to the contract

1999: (November 12): Laukamp sells papyri to Fritz (AS2)(KK)

1999 (December): Laukamp’s wife dies in Germany (with Laukamp at her side); four days later, the American branch of ACMB is registered in Venice, Florida with Walter Fritz as one of the signatories (AS2)

  • when I was checking out the address of ACMB in Florida it appeared it was little more than an office; there do not seem to be ‘machine facilities’ in a building full of medical services and the like

2002 (August): ACMB bankrupt (AS2)

2002: Laukamp dies in Germany (KK)

2002: Gospel of Thomas posted on the Internet (AS2)

  • mentioned because in the scholarly/blog reaction to publication of the fragment, it was clear that there was some connection to the Gospel of Thomas, specifically the online version which had a significant error in it.

2003: Walter Fritz running a web-based porn site (AS2)

  • As might be imagined, this seems to be the thing everyone (especially the Daily Mail) latches on to. Rather than taking the moralistic stance, however, we really should be looking at this in relation to the timeline and ask why no one has really looked into Fritz’s other sources of income. With ACMB bankrupt, an income stream has clearly dried up. AS2 tells us Fritz and his wife derived up to a third of their income from this. Where was the other two-thirds coming from? Photography?

2006 (December 13): Gerhard Fecht dies (KK) … confirmed

2006 (April): National Geographic publishes the Gospel of Judas

2007 (March) Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity  is published by Elaine Pagels and  Karen King, correcting some aspects of the initial publication

  • Yes, Karen King was connected to the Gospel of Judas; it seems likely that this was how her name was known to Fritz (who clearly had an interest in Gnostic matters)

2008 (January 2): Peter Munro dies (KK) … obituary

2008 (April): Walter Fritz tries (and fails) to sell his house in Florida (AS)

  • possible  further indication of financial difficulties?

2009 (August): Fritz’s wife’s blogpost (AS2)

  • this is another one which Christian Askeland has mentioned in one of his recent posts. Fritz’s wife blogs about making little amulets which incorporate bits of papyrus. The interesting quote:

I got these fragments from a reputable manuscript dealer who was restoring a larger papyrus with a christian gospel on it. The fragments were left over and couldn’t be incorporated into the big papyrus any more because they were so small. I have photos of the restoring process.

2009: Walter Fritz in London; visits a dealer with his papyrus collection (AS2)

  • taken in conjunction with the ‘wife’s blogpost’, we now have to wonder: did Fritz go to London before or after August of 2009? Askeland thinks the GJW was created after Munro’s death; perhaps the trip to London was a sidetrip after a funeral? Did he take his papyrus collection there to get it evaluated or was he there to purchase? It would be very useful to know which dealer in London this might have been.
  • restoring a Christian gospel … this definitely requires further investigation. Maybe the Museum of the Bible knows about large Christian gospel papyri that hit the market in 2009?

2010 (February): Walter Fritz tries (and fails) to sell his house in Florida (AS2)

  • again, financial difficulties?

2010 (April): Walter Fritz writes Vatican about sexual abuse as a child (AS2)

  • if we add this to the ‘financial difficulties’ speculation, it’s worth noting that 2010 was a big year for the Vatican compensating sexual abuse victims. For German victims, such compensation was approved in September of that year. It doesn’t appear, however, that Fritz’ claims were compensated.

2010 (July 9): Walter Fritz emails Karen King about the papyrus; she is suspicious and says she didn’t have time.

2011 (June ?): Walter Fritz emails Karen King again …  (AS2)

2011 (December): Walter Fritz delivers the papyri to King. On loan to Harvard for ten years?

2012 (March): Roger Bagnall express the opinion that it is authentic based on ink penetration (AS2)

2012 (August 26): Walter Fritz registers the website: (AS2)

  • This is important insofar as it raises the question of who came up with the title. It’s also important because clearly Fritz is trying to make money off this somehow

2012 (September 18): Karen King announces the details about the papyrus at the International Coptic Congress in Rome (AS1)

2012 (November 14-15, 2012) Malcolm Choat examined the fragment during a visit to Harvard  (KK)

  •  It would later result in: Malcolm Choat (2014). The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife: A Preliminary Paleographical Assessment . Harvard Theological Review, 107, pp 160-162. doi:10.1017/S0017816014000145.

2012 (December 17) Microscopic imaging was conducted by Douglas Fishkind and Casey Kraft with Henry Lie at the Harvard Center for Biological Imaging  (KK)

2013 (March 11-12) Raman testing of the ink was done by James Yardley with Alexis Hagadorn at Columbia University (KK)

  • ink testing suggested there was nothing inconsistent with ancient ink;  it apparently took three months to acquire funding for radiocarbon testing. We note that at one point in this saga that ‘the owner’ was going to pay for the radiocarbon testing; perhaps the fact that it took so long is another indication of his financial situation

2013 (June-July) Radiocarbon analysis was performed by Greg Hodgins at the University of Arizona Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Laboratory. Funding  provided by a gift from Tricia Nichols. (KK)

  • I’m very curious about Tricia Nichols’ involvement in this. She’s a Denver-based philanthropist and  I can’t help but wonder who approached her: was it King? Fritz? What is the connection?

2013 (August 26) Multispectral imaging was performed by Michael Toth and select images were processed by William Christians-Barry (KK)

  • I couldn’t get the images of this to come up today, but I’m wondering why this technology wasn’t used to get a better reading of the faded side …

2013 (November 5) Timothy Swager, Joseph Azzarelli and John Goods performed Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FT-IR) testing at MIT (KK)

2014 (April 10):  Harvard press release about the results of the testing demonstrating that the papyrus is ancient

Now the scientific dating of the papyrus and analysis of the ink (which is not ink at all, but rather lampblack, a pigment often used in ancient Egypt for writing on papyrus) indicate that both are consistent with an ancient origin.

Because the fragment is so small, carbon-dating it proved troublesome. Researchers at the University of Arizona called into question their own results—which dated the papyrus to several hundred years before the birth of Christ—because they were unable to complete the cleaning process on the small sample of papyrus with which they were working, and felt that might have led to spurious results. A second carbon-dating analysis undertaken by Clay professor of scientific archaeology Noreen Tuross at Harvard and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute dated the papyrus, and a separate one (also believed to be of ancient origin) with text from the Gospel of John to approximately A.D. 700 to 800.

Because the text concerning Jesus’s wife is written in Sahidic, a language of ancient Egypt, it may be a transcription of an earlier Coptic text that was based on a Greek copy, as many early Christian gospels are. Given similarities in wording and subject to the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, and the Gospel of Philip, the text of the GJW may originate in a time as early as the second half of the second century C.E.

2014 (April): the critical edition is published by the Harvard Theological Review

2014: Porn sites associated with Fritz  are taken down (AS2)

  • I wonder how closely this coincides with  the publication; was Fritz going to admit he was the owner of the papyri? Whatever the case, that income stream has apparently dried up.

2014 (by December): comparison of the fragment of the Gospel of John which was also part of the package which King was given was demonstrated to be much later, and so the doubts about the authenticity of the GJW were renewed.

  • The December 2014 article in the Atlantic provides an excellent summary: The Curious Case of Jesus’s Wife
  • it is worth noting that King continued to refuse to believe the item was a forgery

2015 (November): Fritz denies being an Egyptologist; denies being the owner of the papyrus and doesn’t know who is (AS2)

2016 (March): Fritz denies being the owner, but says he knows the owner. He also denies forging the papyri (AS2)

2016 (two weeks later): Fritz admits he is the owner of the papyrus (AS2)

  • not sure why the ‘forging’ angle wasn’t pursued

2016 (April): AS meets Fritz face to face and ‘fleshes’ out the tale.

In short, the whole story of Walter Fritz and his admission that he is the owner of the piece clearly suggests that the Gospel of Jesus Wife probably isn’t living up to its billing. Without getting into the salacious side of things, he clearly has the knowledge to pull off a forgery — whether he had the talent is not clear (but his wife is an artist! Hmmmm). He seems to have had numerous opportunities to acquire papyri.  He had a spell of financial difficulty which might provide motive; he seems to have some chip on his shoulder in regards to academia, which might also provide motive; he seems to be somewhat charismatic and probably made use of that as well. Still, all we know for sure now is that he is the owner of the fragment of papyrus known as the Gospel of Jesus Wife. I’m sure we’ll be hearing more from/about Walter in the next few months.

In the wake of the article, Karen King would concede that the information provided ‘tipped the balance’ in favour of forgery: Karen King Responds to ‘The Unbelievable Tale of Jesus’s Wife’

I asked why she hadn’t undertaken an investigation of the papyrus’s origins and the owner’s background. “Your article has helped me see that provenance can be investigated,” she said.

Many news reports in the wake of the Atlantic article give the impression that this is something ‘shocking’, but is it? Karen King did a lot of things right:

  • she was initially skeptical of the claim
  • she showed the papyrus to several people for their opinion (including Roger Bagnall, who isn’t someone who would be directly connected to her ‘school of thought’)
  • she announced the discovery at a scholarly congress and not on some significant date like Easter or Christmas
  • she made preliminary versions of her paper and photos available
  • she acted on peer review suggestions to have it tested

… but she did at least one thing wrong:

  • after being so up front about the announcement and preliminary paper, she did not keep us similarly informed about the testing (i.e. she should have said ‘we are going to do this, that, and the other thing which will probably take x number of months’
  • she was not suspicious that she was given photocopies of documents; photocopying can cover up a number of ‘peccadilloes’ when one wants to fake a document (I’m sure I’m not the only one who (ages ago) photocopied any typewritten page which had used whiteout/correction fluid in order that the ‘need for correction’ wasn’t apparent in the good cop)

Notice that I did not include ‘not investigating provenance’ in there. What she had and what she told us was probably more than we’ve had in regards to a papyrus from many times. If we are ever told anything, it’s usually something like ‘acquired at an auction’ or ‘some famous dead guy acquired this from a shop in Cairo in 1922). From what I can tell, King actually gave us more than we usually get and she pretty much decided it was a closed case since everyone involved was dead. She really should not be criticized for doing what pretty much the whole discipline has been doing for at least a century.

Clearly, however, things have changed. We’ll consider the implications of all this (and the growing interest in provenance/collecting history) in a subsequent piece. One last thing to mention, however: we have been told that there were six papyri in this collection and the owner — who we now know to be Walter Fritz — was trying to sell them to Harvard. The Gospel of John piece is obviously one of the six along with the GJW. What about the other four? Is everything still being offered for sale to Harvard? Is someone else working on the other four papyri? These are some rather large questions which still need to be answered.

Quellenforschung du jour: The Daily Mail on a Hellenistic Wreath

From time to time I am asked why I link to the Daily Mail in my Explorator newsletter. As most folks are aware, the Daily Mail is a flashy, pop-culture-gossip-oriented  British newspaper which generally is looked askance upon by folks who are fans of serious journalism. Indeed, when it comes to news about archaeology and/or the ancient Greek and Roman worlds, almost without exception something found in the Daily Mail will be a rewrite culled from other sources, but lavishly illustrated with tons of photos and usually a sidebar or two with useful background information. It is a guilty pleasure of sorts to regularly read it (for which I blame Dorothy King for removing the ‘stigma’ (if that’s right word)), but I do link to it precisely for the photos and sidebars. For the most part, the rewrites add nothing of value other than a bit of hype and a headline which may or may not fit comfortably into a tweet — which results in numerous rewrites of the headline over the course of the week. Whatever the case, the point of this long-winded introduction is to emphasize that when it comes to ‘breaking’ a news story about the ancient world, the Daily Mail generally isn’t the one to do it and their coverage of anything of the sort usually only pops in my mailbox after the story has appeared elsewhere.

Screen Shot 2016-05-28 at 10.56.22 AMWith that in mind, it was a very curious thing last Thursday, when — while the waves of coverage about that purported Aristotle tomb find were flooding my box —  the Daily Mail seemed to be first off the mark with the story of a pensioner who had what was apparently a 2300 years bp Macedonian-style gold wreath in a box under his bed. I waited for the story to show up in a ‘more reputable’ source, but things didn’t unfold quite according to the established pattern. Indeed, it appears that all subsequent coverage was pretty much a rewrite of the Daily Mail (there’s one for you irony fans) … in order of appearance in my mailbox:

The Daily Mail includes a pile of photos from the Duke’s of Dorchester auction house (more on that later) and most of the subsequent coverage picks one or more of those photos up as well. Here are the salient points from the Daily Mail and its derivatives:

  • the pensioner from Somerset had the wreath in a box under his bed in Somerset (there’s a photo of the wreath in the box)
  • he had inherited the piece from his grandfather, who had apparently travelled extensively in Northern Greece in the 1940s and 1950s (Paul Barford rightly draws our attention to the ubiquity of the ‘dead grandfather’ in questionably-sourced antiquities claims)
  • Duke’s of Dorchester were called in to evaluate this (and other) items which were inherited
  • According to the Daily Mail, the pensioner was told the item dated to about 300 BCE and was valued at £100 000.
  • Here’s the important quote:

‘It is notoriously difficult to date gold wreaths of this type. Stylistically it belongs to a rarefied group of wreaths dateable to the Hellenistic period and the form may indicate that it was made in Northern Greece.

‘It is eight inches across and weighs about 100 grams. It’s pure gold and handmade, it would have been hammered out by a goldsmith.

  • the wreath is said to be similar to one auctioned in 2012 for almost £200 000 and will be coming to auction June 9.

For my part, outside of the vagueness attached to the collecting history, I was skeptical in general of the authenticity of the piece (and was muttering about it on twitter with @CarolineLawrenc and @kyrikmk.  Before I could look deeper into that, however, I came across the page at Duke’s for the auction. It was rather interesting how the story at the auction house was rather significantly different that what was in the Daily Mail and its derivatives:

  • the piece is officially described as A ‘Hellenistic’ Gold Wreath (with the scare quotes; in the body of the text description, Hellenistic has regular quotation marks)
  • the estimated price has dropped markedly: £10000-20000
  • the collecting history has changed somewhat as well: “Acquired by the Grandfather of the vendor is the 1930’s and thence by descent Private Collection, Somerset”

Perhaps there is a policy at the Daily Mail to boost numbers whenever possible by a factor of ten (as seen in the price and the find date)? Whatever the case, the auction house does not seem to be on the same page as the Daily Mail at all.

As mentioned above, I had my own questions about the authenticity of the piece. I’ll preface this section by acknowledging that I am hardly an expert in Hellenistic gold wreaths, but I have seen my fair share of them. This one just didn’t ‘look right’ … here’s the photo from Duke’s which is in most of the press coverage. Obviously the pink circles were added by me:


  1. The first thing that made me do a Marge Simpson hmmmm are the two eyelets. They looked awfully modern and it was difficult to find an ancient example of a wreath with similar items. In fact, the only one which seemed ‘reliable’ was a piece at the Boston MFA and the ‘loops’ still look markedly different.
  2. All the leaves have a border/outline around the outside edge; I looked in vain for an ancient example of this and most other examples (including the Boston item) seem to be ‘scissor cut’ from a sheet of gold; these seem stamped or even cast. I would be happy if someone can point me to similar style leaves from the Hellenistic (or other) period.
  3. The flowers (which we are told are myrtles) have too many petals (six as opposed to five). Similarly, they seem to be stamped out as opposed to cut and soldered — most examples one can find on the web have individual leaves which seem to be attached to the center thing.

Taken together, there is much to be suspicious about this one. The disconnect between the accounts in the Daily Mail and the Duke’s of Dorchester official description are concerning at least from a collection history point of view. The huge difference in valuation also suggests the auction house might not be as enthusiastic about this as the Daily Mail would have us believe.  Outside of that, the wreath itself has several features which just don’t ‘seem right’ from a Hellenistic gold wreath point of view. We’ll continue to watch how this one develops …

Aristotelian Skepticism: Is It Really His Tomb?

One of the things you get used to when you’re blogging things about the ancient world is that whenever there is some significant date for some significant ancient figure coming up, you can pretty much be sure that there will be some major — and usually ill-supported — discovery tied somehow to that event. Most commonly, e.g., the Easter season will bring claims about the discovery of ossuaries with Jesus or Mary’s name on them, or nails from the crucifixion being found, or the Shroud of Turin being proven authentic, yadda yadda yadda. In this case, 2016 marks the 2400th anniversary of the birth of Aristotle and there currently is the annual Aristotle World Congress going on at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. So if there’s going to be a major discovery announced about Aristotle, the smart money would suggest this year at this conference would be the best bet.

And so it was only moderately surprising when yesterday afternoon, my Greek press newsfeed started a trickle of news about the purported discovery of Aristotle’s tomb at Stagira. The first Greek coverage that popped in my box actually was pretty informative:

Culling (via google Translate) the information, we were told:

  • a Hellenistic structure was found in Stagira back in 1996 which had been incorporated into a later Byzantine structure
  • archaeologist Kostas Sismanidis presented a paper at the above-mentioned conference, citing a ‘convergence’ of archaeological and literary evidence
  • then again, he’s quoted as saying “Δεν έχουμε αποδείξεις αλλά ισχυρότατες ενδείξεις – φθάνουν σχεδόν στη βεβαιότητα.” (no definite proof … hmmm)
  • coins dating from the time of Alexander helped to date the structure
  • there is also mention of ‘royal pottery’ roof tiles
  • literary sources include “manuscript 257 of the Bibliotheca Marciana and an Arabic biography of Aristotle”
  • according to the literary sources:
    • after his death at Chalcis (322), the people of Stagira brought his ashes back in a bronze urn
    • they were placed in an above-ground tomb in the city, and an altar was placed next to it
    • the place was called the Aristoteleion
    • an annual festival/competition was established called Aristoteleia

Interestingly, subsequent Greek press coverage scaled back the coverage markedly, but did repeat the mention of the lack of convincing evidence. See, e.g., the Skai coverage, which includes:

Αν και δεν υπάρχουν αδιάσειστες αποδείξεις ότι πρόκειται για τον τάφο του Αριστοτέλη, πολυετείς έρευνες έχουν δώσει πληθώρα ισχυρών ενδείξεων ότι το μνημείο ταυτίζεται πλέον με τον σταγειρίτη φιλόσοφο.

AP was first with the English coverage and clearly they didn’t think much of the story. They came out with a very brief item with very sparse information about the actual find. As seen in the Stamford Advocate, there were only two paragraphs of interest, really:

Konstantinos Sismanidis concedes that he has “no proof but just strong indications” to back up his theory, presented Thursday at a conference marking the 2,400th anniversary of the philosopher’s birth.

[…] Sismanidis said the structure unearthed in the ruins of Stageira, 70 kilometers (43 miles) east of Thessaloniki, was once a public monument where Aristotle was honored after his death. No human remains were found there.

… there was also mention of “medieval references” about Aristotle’s remains being transferred to Stagira.

Then Greek Reporter was on the case, and their written report includes this useful video with a reconstruction of the ‘tomb’, which looks nothing at all like a tomb and for most of us I suspect the initial reaction is that is a Byzantine structure:

More photos can be found in the accompanying news article:

As coverage continued to pour in over the course of the day yesterday, I found it very interesting that nothing had appeared on the Greek Ministry of Culture site yet. All of the press coverage included the line about Sismanidis saying he had ‘no definite proof’ but the story was spreading. The Guardian’s coverage added a titillating bit of detail:

The claim was welcomed by Greece’s culture ministry; a senior aide to the minister, Aristides Baltas, said the academic community was awaiting further details.

“A team of independent archaeologists with no connection to a particular school or department have been working at the site,” the official told the Guardian. “What we know is that their excavation has been meticulous and we await further details with great anticipation.”

So Sismanidis is not actually affiliated with a university. That’s usually an alarm bell for me but it does appear he is somehow associated with the 16th Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities, so maybe that alarm bell should be silenced.

At this point, I was wondering about the tales of the people of Stagira bringing Aristotle’s remains back after his death. This clearly came from some literary source and I was — and continue to be — unclear about the ‘medieval biography’. Some discussion on the Classics International facebook group didn’t really clear it up for me and my brain continued to have issues trying to process the archaeologist’s claims of no certain proof along with claims that the people of Stagira not only brought Aristotle’s ashes back, but established a festival (which festival I couldn’t find any record of). But the coverage continued to build, and some of the more reputable press outlets were adding credibility to the claim:

And so it was with great interest that this morning’s feed from the Greek press brought a very interesting article from To Bema (To Vima?):

Paraphrasing via Google translate again:

  • the item (which seems to be an oped piece on the politics page) shows how the find has already been politicized (and in competition somehow with Amphipolis)
    • perhaps connected with gold mining activities nearby (maybe not)
    • probably connected with competition between Macedonian archaeologists
    • announcement made at a conference where it could not be really questioned as it would if published in a journal (I think that’s the gist)
  • in regards to the interpretation, it all hinges on the claim that the people of Stagira brought Aristotle’s ashes back
  • other archaeologists are looking for a dedicatory inscription of some sort

So … if we’re hanging the identification on claims of a return of ashes, one thing I’d really like to know when this return of ashes is supposed to have happened. I tried to track down assorted biographies of Aristotle and came up empty (which means they’re not readily available on the web, near as I can tell). What also bothers me is the actual claim that he was cremated, which doesn’t strike me as being what he expected to happen after his death. In his will, e.g., which is in Diogenes Laertius, we read provisions for the remains of his wife Pythias:

ὅπου δ᾽ἂν ποιῶνται τὴν ταφήν, ἐνταῦθα καὶ τὰ Πυθιάδος ὀστᾶ ἀνελόνταςθεῖναι, ὥσπερ αὐτὴ προσέταξεν: ἀναθεῖναι δὲ καὶ Νικάνορασωθέντα, ἣν εὐχὴν ὑπὲρ αὐτοῦ ηὐξάμην, ζῷα λίθινα τετραπήχη Διὶσωτῆρι καὶ Ἀθηνᾷ σωτείρᾳ ἐν Σταγείροις.”

And wherever they bury me, there the bones of Pythias shall be laid, in accordance with her own instructions. And to commemorate Nicanor’s safe return, as I vowed on his behalf, they shall set up in Stagira stone statues of life size to Zeus and Athena the Saviours.

Not sure if ‘the bones of’ is just an expression, but this sounds more like he expected a an interment situation for Pythias (and by implication, perhaps for himself) rather than cremation — but I might be reading too much into that.

What also continues to bother me is an item in Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine from May-October of 1892, specifically an article by entitled The Finding of the Tomb of Aristotle by Charles Waldstein. It’s an incredibly chatty piece and will probably remind many of those grad student situations where you were invited to a prof’s house for dinner and he/she regaled you with long (but interesting) tales of their adventures digging somewhere.

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In any event, Waldstein has a good Classical academic pedigree (and, incidentally, was one of the early advocates for excavating Herculaneum) so his claims — which don’t appear to have been accepted — should be taken into account if nothing else. I’ll leave it to you to follow the link above to read the actual article, but just as a tease, here are a couple of the images included in the article:

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Also interesting, was this statue find — which Waldstein actually downplays in the piece:

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Most interesting is mention of an inscription:

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Of course, we do not know of any daughter of Aristotle named Biote, which is probably why this was not accepted as being his tomb. Even so, the final lines of the article are interesting from a nihil novum point of view:

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So whatever has been found at Stagira, there is a long tradition of claiming lack of definite proof, but still making the claim anyway. I suspect the claim made by Sismanidis will be similarly met with skepticism by the scholarly community, unless a rather more tangible connection to Aristotle can be made.

Problems with the ‘Scientific’ Dating of Sappho’s Midnight Poem

One of the greatest benefits of an education in Classics is that it teaches you two very important skills which serve you well no matter what field you happen to go into post-degree: critical thinking and source criticism. They work hand-in-hand, of course, and it is increasingly apparent that such skills are often lacking when the press decides to cover the latest and greatest application of ‘science’ to our field. A case in point is the latest pressgasm currently making the rounds about how scientists have “proven” what date Sappho’s Midnight Poem was written. Sadly, the coverage was tainted from the press release stage with the result — since no one apparently felt the need to check sources — that calendrical precision is being claimed when none really exists.

Let’s begin with the press release from the University of Texas at Arlington:

Physicists and astronomers from The University of Texas at Arlington have used advanced astronomical software to accurately date lyric poet Sappho’s “Midnight Poem,” which describes the night sky over Greece more than 2,500 years ago.

The scientists described their research in the article “Seasonal dating of Sappho’s ‘Midnight Poem’ revisited,” published today in the Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage. Martin George, former president of the International Planetarium Society, now at the National Astronomical Research Institute of Thailand, also participated in the work.
“This is an example of where the scientific community can make a contribution to knowledge described in important ancient texts, “ said Manfred Cuntz, physics professor and lead author of the study. “Estimations had been made for the timing of this poem in the past, but we were able to scientifically confirm the season that corresponds to her specific descriptions of the night sky in the year 570 B.C.”

Sappho’s “Midnight Poem” describes a star cluster known as the Pleiades having set at around midnight, when supposedly observed by her from the Greek island of Lesbos.
The moon has set
And the Pleiades;
It is midnight,
The time is going by,
And I sleep alone.
(Henry Thornton Wharton, 1887:68)

Cuntz and co-author and astronomer Levent Gurdemir, director of the Planetarium at UTA, used advanced software called Starry Night version 7.3, to identify the earliest date that the Pleiades would have set at midnight or earlier in local time in 570 B.C. The Planetarium system Digistar 5 also allows creating the night sky of ancient Greece for Sappho’s place and time.

“Use of Planetarium software permits us to simulate the night sky more accurately on any date, past or future, at any location,“ said Gurdemir. ”This is an example of how we are opening up the Planetarium to research into disciplines beyond astronomy, including geosciences, biology, chemistry, art, literature, architecture, history and even medicine.”

The Starry Night software demonstrated that in 570 B.C., the Pleiades set at midnight on Jan. 25, which would be the earliest date that the poem could relate to. As the year progressed, the Pleiades set progressively earlier.

“The timing question is complex as at that time they did not have accurate mechanical clocks as we do, only perhaps water clocks” said Cuntz. “For that reason, we also identified the latest date on which the Pleiades would have been visible to Sappho from that location on different dates some time during the evening.”

The researchers also determined that the last date that the Pleiades would have been seen at the end of astronomical twilight – the moment when the sun’s altitude is -18 degrees and the sky is regarded as perfectly dark – was March 31.

“From there, we were able to accurately seasonally date this poem to mid-winter and early spring, scientifically confirming earlier estimations by other scholars,” Cuntz said.

Sappho was the leading female poet of her time and closely rivaled Homer. Her interest in astronomy was not restricted to the “Midnight Poem.” Other examples of her work make references to the sun, the moon, and planet Venus.

“Sappho should be considered an informal contributor to early Greek astronomy as well as to Greek society at large,” Cuntz added. “Not many ancient poets comment on astronomical observations as clearly as she does.”

Morteza Khaledi, dean of UTA’s College of Science, congratulated the researchers on their work, which forms part of UTA’s strategic focus on data-driven discovery within the Strategic Plan 2020: Bold Solutions | Global Impact.

“This research helps to break down the traditional silos between science and the liberal arts, by using high-precision technology to accurately date ancient poetry,” Khaledi said. ”It also demonstrates that the Planetarium’s reach can go way beyond astronomy into multiple fields of research.” […]

The article goes on to give a bit of info on the authors of the study. As is often the case, the press release was picked up verbatim by the major science news sites:

Other news outlets rewrote it, but the quote which seems to consistently survive intact is the third paragraph:

“This is an example of where the scientific community can make a contribution to knowledge described in important ancient texts, “ said Manfred Cuntz, physics professor and lead author of the study. “Estimations had been made for the timing of this poem in the past, but we were able to scientifically confirm the season that corresponds to her specific descriptions of the night sky in the year 570 B.C.”

So the impression we’re given is that these scientists ran all sorts of computer simulations with the result that  the poem can be precisely dated to a particular season in a particular year.  Indeed, some news outlets take this to another extreme; the Independent, e.g., inter alia suggest:

While it’s impressive to figure out the date the poem was written, the team’s discovery sheds more light on Sappho herself. Little is known about her life or the years between which she lived, but this latest investigation proves she was still producing poems in 570BC.

Similarly, CNet says, inter alia:

Thanks to a team of researchers from the University of Texas at Arlington, we now know for certain that she was alive until at least 570 BCE.

Sky mapping software dates Sappho poem (CNet)

Smithsonian puts another spin on it:

According to Michelle Starr at CNET, the researchers used software called Starry Night (version 7.3) and Digistar 5 from the International Planetarium Society to recreate the night sky as seen from the Greek island of Lesbos. They chose to start with the year 570 B.C., the year Sappho died and the only reliable date associated with her.

… which we’ll actually take as our secondary point of departure. It’s worth noting that the Starr article mentioned by the Smithsonian is the same one cited immediately above it and, in fact, does not mention why they authors chose the 570 BCE date — indeed, if it did, a dangerous circularity is obvious.

The 570 date is interesting, though, as it is the date which is usually given as the possible year of death for Sappho. Emphasis on possible — we really do not know when she died and as most Classicists will tell you, even tales of her leaping off a cliff in the aftermath of an episode of unrequited love were doubted in antiquity. In other words, 570 BCE is hardly a reliable date.

Perhaps further condemning the journalists in this one, none of them seem to have bothered to go look up the journal article, which is freely available on the web right now:

It starts off well enough, with the original Greek and a number of translations (most rather dated) … here’s a ‘screenshot quote’:

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Of particular importance is a paragraph which outlines the assumptions on which the study is based:

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So the 570 date is one of convenience. Still … that footnote:

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Well yes it does, because in theory, this means the poem may have been written as early as 590 BCE or as late as 550 BCE, or perhaps they mean as early as 610 BCE with 570 still being the ‘end date’. In other words, this study cannot be used to establish firmly that she was still writing in 570 (as many journalists seem to think), nor can it really be used to establish that she actually died in 570. It’s an arbitrary date that was chosen to plug into the computer simulation. If we believe that date, then the season of writing possibly follows. I have no idea what ‘appreciably’ would mean to the authors of the study.

That said, another thing that bothered me about all this is that Sappho’s poem clearly gives another astronomical marker, namely, that the “moon had set”. Why wasn’t this worked into the study? The authors include this puzzling statement:

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I don’t understand this at all. Is the software not sophisticated enough to track both the visibility of Pleiades AND the visibilty of the moon on the same day (er … night)? We know they made adjustments to account for the precession of the equinoxes  (p. 20);  could not the simulation have been run for a series of years to see when both conditions were met? If that were done we possibly could get a more scientifically precise (and useful) date or at least some possible dates. I don’t get it.

Whatever the case, the actual thing we should be getting out of this story is only that if we believe Sappho happened to still be writing in 570 and hadn’t yet met her demise, she was probably writing in the first quarter of the year. The ‘scientific precision’ we are being led to believe by journalists simply isn’t there.

UPDATE (A week later): see Darin Hayton’s thorough analysis ~Astronomers do not Date Sappho’s ‘Midnight’ Poem