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.

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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:

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  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.

Snakes on a …. boat? I don’t think so …

As I was pondering New Year’s Resolutions and the like last night while watching assorted Times Square Events, the gods smiled on me and dumped a ‘made-for-rogueclassicism’ item in my lap. The story was broken by ANSA and really has to be reproduced in full:

Italian zoologists have identified three live specimens of the rare javelin sand boa in Sicily, according to findings published Thursday in Acta Herpetologica scientific journal. The javelin sand boa – also known to zoologists as Eryx jaculus – is usually found in Africa, the Caucasus, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. It is the only species of boa in Italy.

In September 2014, it was rediscovered in Romania near the Danube River after being extinct there since 1937.

The little boa – which grows to 50-80 centimeters in length – is harmless to humans and lives underground, which may be why it has escaped notoriety for so long.

Zoologists from the Sicilian cities of Comiso and Messina as well as Bologna University researchers were moved to look for the sand boa after repeated sightings were reported over the past 80 years on the beaches around the seaside town of Licata in Agrigento province.

The team finally identified six Javelin sand boas, capturing three in order to study them. Their findings showed the presence of a stable and reproductive Eryx jaculus population over some 40 square kilometers in a flood plain known locally as La Piana, near the River Salso.

The location of the snake colony in turn led zoologists to surmise that this creature that is so rare in Europe may have been imported by the ancient Greeks when they colonized Sicily.

“The Greeks used to use snakes as projectiles,” explained Comiso Natural History Museum Director Gianni Insacco, who wrote up the team’s findings. “They would throw them onto enemy ships before the assault, to instill fear and create disarray. They generally used vipers that had been deprived of their venom, and species similar to the javelin sand boa as an alternative”.

The area where the javelin sand boas now live was the site of two major battles in the former Greek colony of Himera, one around 405 BC and the other in 310 AD.

The story was also picked up by the Telegraph and given a headline which pretty much guarantees it will be picked up by other outlets with a similar spin (Scientists in Italy rediscover snake that was used by ancient Greeks as a weapon of war).  This struck me as kind of silly, so last night when I posted this to twitter, I included @amayor as a specific recipient since Adrienne Mayor’s Greek Fire, Poison Arrows and Scorpion Bombs tome should be the ‘go to’ book for any use of snakes-as-weapons in the ancient world.  Her response:

Fortunately, the news items did give a path to follow. The article in Acta Herpetologica is available for free online (INSACCO, Gianni et al. Eryx jaculus (Linnaeus, 1758): a new species for the Italian herpetofauna (Squamata: Erycidae). Acta Herpetologica, [S.l.], v. 10, n. 2, p. 149-153, dec. 2015. ). The snakes-for-battle thing is only mentioned in passing on page three of the piece:

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The references can be followed up online as well … the Massetti and Zuffi item is actually really interesting: “On the origin of the asp viper Vipera aspis hugyi Schinz, 1833, on the island of Montecristo, Northern Tyrrhenian Sea (Tuscan archipelago, Italy)”: The Herpetological Bulletin 117.1. It includes a whole section on the use of snakes — specifically vipers — in various battle situations in Italy and Sicily. Here’s the salient bits (apologies for the size … you may have to do some zooming):

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First thing to notice here is that Mazetti and Zuffi are referring specifically to the island of Montecristo, which obviously isn’t Sicily, and also that they don’t think there is any historical evidence for Sicily being the source of the vipers which the article is all about (not boas).

The other reference is to a very old tome: Di Blasi, G.E. (1844): Storia del Regno di Sicilia, Vol I.  It too is available online and I looked in vain within for any mention of the use of snake weaponry at the battles which were fought at Himera. We should note that the dates given for the battles where they were supposedly used (405 B.C.  and 310 A.D.) don’t match up to what we would consider the battles (there was one in 409 B.C. or thereabouts, but it was a land battle; the earlier one in 480 B.C. was also a land battle … no mention of snakes). I can’t find any reference to a battle in 310 A.D. (not that that really means anything; I just can’t find it).

That said, even without the ‘backstory’ we really should be thinking (especially the folks at the Telegraph): the snake the article is about is a boa. It is not venomous. What would be the purpose of hurling a snake at a ship or in a seige situation that is basically going to crawl off and look for a rat to squeeze?

 

Catching Up with Cambyses’ Lost Army

Longtime readers of rogueclassicism will recall a short series of posts dealing with claims about Cambyses’ army which supposedly disappeared in the Egyptian desert lo those many years ago:

As such, a press release from Leiden University (from a month or so ago) offering an alternative explanation is of obvious interest:

It is one of the greatest archaeological mysteries of all times: the disappearance of a Persian army of 50,000 men in the Egyptian desert around 524 BC. Leiden Professor Olaf Kaper unearthed a cover-up affair and solved the riddle.

Herodotus
It must have been a sand storm, writes the Greek historian Herodotus. He tells the story of the Persian King Cambyses, who entered the Egyptian desert near Luxor (then Thebes) with 50,000 men. The troops supposedly never returned; they were swallowed by a sand dune. A fantastic tale that was long the subject of many debates.

Long quest

Egyptologist Olaf Kaper never believed it: ‘Since the 19th century, people have been looking for this army: amateurs, as well as professional archaeologists. Some expect to find somewhere under the ground an entire army, fully equipped. However, experience has long shown that you cannot die from a sandstorm, let alone have an entire army disappear.’

Petoebastis III

Kaper is now putting forward an entirely different explanation. He argues that the army did not disappear, but was defeated. ‘My research shows that the army was not simply passing through the desert; its final destination was the Dachla Oasis. This was the location of the troops of the Egyptian rebel leader Petubastis III. He ultimately ambushed the army of Cambyses, and in this way managed from his base in the oasis to reconquer a large part of Egypt, after which he had himself crowned Pharaoh in the capital, Memphis.’

Spin doctor

The fact that the fate of the army of Cambyses remained unclear for such a long time is probably due to the Persian King Darius I, who ended the Egyptian revolt with much bloodshed two years after Cambyses’ defeat. Like a true spin doctor, he attributed the shameful defeat of his predecessor to natural elements. Thanks to this effective manipulation, 75 years after the events, all Herodotus could do was take note of the sandstorm story.

Pieces of the puzzle

Kaper made this discovery accidentally; he was not looking for it actively. In collaboration with New York University and the University of Lecce, he was involved for the last ten years in excavations in Amheida, in the Dachla Oasis. Earlier this year, he deciphered the full list of titles of Petubastis III on ancient temple blocks. ‘That’s when the puzzle pieces fell into place’, says the Egyptologist. ‘The temple blocks indicate that this must have been a stronghold at the start of the Persian period. Once we combined this with the limited information we had about Petubastis III, the excavation site and the story of Herodotus, we were able to reconstruct what happened.’

See also:

Seems like a reasonable explanation; I doubt it will stop folks from speculating, though …