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: http://www.gospelofjesuswife.com (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:

34A1D17600000578-3610916-An_incredibly_rare_gold_crown_believed_to_be_more_than_2_000_yea-m-46_1464273115483.jpg

  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 …

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

Guest Post: Eric Cline on ‘World War Zero or Zero World War’

We invited Eric Cline, author of 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed to comment on the recent media flurry occasioned by claims of a Bronze Age ‘World War Zero’.

World War Zero or Zero World War?

My Twitter feed and Google Alerts began exploding on Thursday afternoon. The headline from Popular Archaeology read: Scientists proclaim a new civilization in the Aegean Bronze Age.The headline in the New Scientist screamed: World War Zero brought down mystery civilization of ‘sea people’. Picking up on that, the Inquisitr declared: Entire Civilization of ‘Sea Peoples’ May Have Been Wiped Out in ‘World War Zero,’ Archaeologists SayThe Mirror’s headline shrieked: Devastating ‘World War ZERO’ destroyed ancient Mediterranean civilisations and plunged Europe into a dark age. And the Daily Mail solemnly intoned: Mysterious civilization of ‘Sea Peoples’ were wiped out by ‘world war zero’ 3,000 years ago . World War Zero? A previously unidentified — and mysterious — civilization that was wiped out? Sounds like a movie coming soon to theaters, right? Let’s hope not.

Where did all of this come from, out of the blue? “World War Zero” is not a phrase that one typically sees in a newspaper and yet four of the five articles that have appeared so far have used it in their headlines. The common source appears to be the “Luwian Studies” organization, headed by geo-archaeologist Eberhard Zangger, which announced both the publication of a new book on the Luwians that he wrote and the launch of a related website (which says that it contains much of the same material as the book). The New Scientist reporter who seems to have broken the story cites Zangger throughout, but it is not clear whether he was actually interviewed or if the information came from a press release, the book, or the website. To his credit, the reporter did contact several other archaeologists and scholars outside the organization for their opinions, but those opinions, and their criticisms, are buried in the last paragraphs of the article.

Usually this is the sort of media circus that involves the Ark of the Covenant or Atlantis, but this concerns the Luwians. The Luwians? Who’s ever heard of the Luwians, eh? Perhaps that’s the problem right there; the media have never heard of them.  Add in “World War Zero” — a buzz phrase certain to catch people’s attention in this day and age — and the frenzy begins.

So, where to start? I’ll be brief and just address the problem with the headlines, leaving a discussion of the actual content of the articles for another time.

First of all, the Luwians are not a newly discovered civilization, despite Popular Archaeology’s headline. As Mike Myers might have said on Saturday Night Live in the early 1990s, “The Luwian civilization is neither new nor a civilization. Discuss.” Luwian is a language that was spoken and written in Anatolia (ancient Turkey) by the Hittites and others during the second and early first millennia BCE — the Bronze Age and early Iron Age. There were undoubtedly people who self-identified as Luwians, just as the Maya spoke and wrote the Mayan language over in the New World several thousand years later, but, as my colleague Seth Sanders has pointed out, the Luwians were not a unified civilization and never referred to themselves that way. Nor did anyone else at the time ever refer to them as a civilization; neither the Hittites nor the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Cypriots, and Canaanites, most of whom talked about themselves and each other in those terms. Moreover, we’ve known about the Luwians since the 1920s; entire books and lengthy articles on the Luwians have been published just in the past several decades alone. So, not a civilization and not new.

What about “World War Zero”? The mind boggles at this. To begin with, the end of the Bronze Age was not caused by a World War. Period. End of sentence. Google “World War” and the definition that comes up is “a war involving many large nations in all different parts of the world.” That’s simply not what happened just after 1200 BCE. For one thing, the Sea Peoples were hardly “many large nations;” at most they were a motley collection of groups of migrating people. For another, the end of the Late Bronze Age didn’t happen in “all different parts of the world,” but specifically in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean regions, from Italy to Afghanistan. So, not a “World War Zero.” Move along; nothing to see here.

What we DO have is a collapse of civilizations at that time, which is very well known. The Collapse, as archaeologists call it, with a capital letter, was such a monumental event that it can only be compared to the fall of the Roman Empire more than 1,500 years later. I have written about this in my own book, 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed, which was published two years ago. However, rather than being instigated by a single group such as the Luwians or triggered by a single event such as a war, the Collapse was probably caused by a combination of unfortunate events, including drought, famine, and earthquakes, as well as invasions and possibly internal rebellions. There was, in short, a perfect storm of calamities that combined to bring the Late Bronze Age to an end, but a World War was not among them. In fact, The Daily Mail covered the Collapse angle just last year, in an article about my book, but seems to have forgotten about that already.

And, what about the wiping out of the ‘mysterious civilization’ of the Sea Peoples? They may be “mysterious,” but scholars have been discussing them for a very long time. They also weren’t a civilization and we know they weren’t wiped out; the Egyptians resettled the surviving Sea Peoples both in Egypt and in territory that they controlled in Canaan. We also know that the Luwians and the Sea Peoples are not one and the same — at most, there were some Luwians among the Sea Peoples, but they did not make up the entire group of THE Sea Peoples. So, while the Luwians are part and parcel of the general collapse after 1200 BCE, it is misleading to single them out as having been the only people “wiped out” — the Mycenaeans, Minoans, Hittites, Egyptians, Cypriots, Canaanites, Assyrians, and Babylonians were also casualties of the collapse, as I documented in 1177 BC. So, not a “wiping out” of a “mysterious civilization.” How about rephrasing it as “the demise of people in western Anatolia who may have spoken and written Luwian as their primary language”?  Probably won’t sell as many newspapers or generate as many clicks, right? But it’s more accurate.

There are other problems within the articles themselves, but the above gives some idea of the uninformed sensationalism that has already been generated by the media frenzy. The end of the Bronze Age is a fascinating topic, which doesn’t need to be exploited or sensationalized in order to attract interest. In fact, one wonders how much of this is media hype and how much of this was actually said by the Luwian Studies organization. Since the book has just appeared and their website with the same information has just gone live, it should be easy to investigate. Stay tuned.

 

That ‘YOLO’ Mosaic from Hatay, Turkey … yeah … About That

Just yesterday I was muttering about not having enough time to blog but this story really needs some response because the media is getting it wrong and is (as of yesterday) possibly making it even worse. The initial story was in Hurriyet:

Turkish historian İlber Ortaylı has paid a visit to the excavation area in the southern province of Hatay’s İplik Pazarı district where an ancient mosaic reading “be cheerful, live your life” was discovered last week during the construction of a cable railway project. 

Ortaylı said the mosaic was a very important and rare artifact, and a museum should be established at its excavation site to display the mosaic. 

Speaking to press members in the excavation area, Ortaylı said Antakya, ancient Antiocheia, was home to lots of mosaics like this one, and continued: 

“Many other big mosaics will be unearthed during excavations to be carried out in a row with the establishment of a new museum. Because senatorial families and rich people of the city lived here, they needed to prove their existence here. The patricians who lived in ancient Rome did not have to prove their existence with mosaic floors but people here had to. Many other artifacts will be found here. So this Mosaic Road Project is very important. This mosaic is highly important, too… In my opinion, it should be displayed in a new, separate museum.” 

Hatay Metropolitan Mayor Lütfi Savaş said a museum would be built there to display the artifacts unearthed in the same site, and continued: 

“The Mosaic Road Project started nearly three months ago. We have four cities that are rich in terms of mosaics. Hatay is one of them. We want to promote these four cities and create a destination [for tourism]. Not just with this mosaic but we have found many others in this area. We collected all of them and they are at the museum now. We are consulting experts while the museum is under construction. This mosaic and others will be displayed there.”

The mayor added that Italy also had a similar mosaic, “but it is an amateur one compared to ours.”
He said that they would also build an archaeology park and the project would be finished by March 2017. 

Called the “skeleton mosaic,” the newly discovered mosaic belonged to the dining room of a house from the 3rd century. 

According to Demet Kara, an archaeologist from the Hatay Archaeology Museum, two things were very important for the Roman’s elite class in terms of social activities: bath and dinner. In the first scene, a slave or servant starts a fire, symbolizing the bath. In the middle scene, there is a sundial and a young man running towards it with a bare-headed butler following him. The sundial is set between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m., 9 being the time when baths were usually taken and 10 being supper time in the Roman period. The writing at the scene states he is late for supper, with some thoughts about time. In the last scene, there is a skeleton with a drinking vessel in his hand along with bread and a wine pot, with the words, “be cheerful and live your life.”

The item was accompanied by this photo:

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As might be expected when there’s some sort of ‘eat, drink, and be merry’ item from the ancient world, the press went all gaga, and there were several reiterations of the Hurriyet report, e.g.:

As I muttered on Twitter last week, the actual Greek doesn’t really support the interpretation that is being widely bruited about. And so I was all excited yesterday to read a headline on a piece in Hurriyet which was claiming the mosaic had been mistranslated … but then I wasn’t sure about that translation either:

A phrase written on an ancient mosaic found in the southern province of Hatay, which reportedly read “Be cheerful, live your life,” continues to pique the interest of experts, with writer and researcher Murat Bardakçı claiming the writing on the mosaic was wrongly interpreted. 

“The mosaic says, ‘You get the pleasure of the food you eat hastily with death,’” wrote Bardakçı in daily Habertürk on April 27, while adding that it could be a quotation from one of the famous people in that era. 

The writing on the centuries-old mosaic, which could be considered an ancient motivational meme, was reported to read “Be cheerful, live your life” in ancient Greek after it was discovered during excavation works in Hatay on April 22. 

Demet Kara, an archaeologist from the Hatay Archaeology Museum, claimed the mosaic, which was called the “skeleton mosaic,” belonged to the dining room of a house from the 3rd century B.C., as new findings have been unearthed in the ancient city of Antiocheia.

Turkish historian İlber Ortaylı paid a visit to the excavation area and said the mosaic was a very important and rare artifact, and a museum should be established at its excavation site to display the mosaic.

I’m sure I’m not the only one puzzled by the idea of food ‘being hastily eaten with death’, but it’s possible we have lost something in the translation of the translation. Whatever the case, the mosaic panels have captions rather than specific quotations of sentiments.There aren’t really any sentences here; the words seem to me to be epithets of the figures presented (as is very often the case in mosaics with words in general).

Let’s actually look at what we have. If we focus on the panel of the mosaic which seems to be getting most of the attention (via the Daily Mail):

turkeyskeleton.jpg

… most folks with Classical Greek will see the word (transliterated) EUPHROSYNOS, which means something like “happy” or “in good cheer”. So the skeleton is ‘in good cheer’ or perhaps is named ‘Happy guy’. What most of the English coverage seems to be ignoring is that this is part of a series of panels which are clearly meant to go together and the images and words on the second panel are significant as well. Here’s the image cropped from the second panel (from the Daily Mail):

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When I was griping about the translation last week, I mentioned that I could not make out the words on this one. After staring at it for far too long, it is apparent that it says (transliterated) TRECHEDEIPNOS  with AKAIROS below it. The first word is interesting in that it is used of parasites (the human variety) running to a banquet (according to LSJ), with the idea of them being late. AKAIROS is something like ‘ill-timed’ or ‘pesky’. So we have a couple of parasites who are apparently dubbed ‘late-to-the-banquet’ and ‘pesky’ who are staring at a sundial (because they’re late of course) and are rushing to an extent that one has lost their shoe. The perils of having to depend on higher-ups for their next meal.

Sadly, the third panel isn’t preserved but the two surviving panels seem to be drawing a comparison between the happiness of the dead guy and the rushing around many folks who are alive have to do to stay alive (especially those who are dependent on others). The sentiment being expressed seems more akin to Solon’s warning to Croesus to count no man happy until they’re dead …

And just for some comparanda, here are the Italian examples the mayor was dubbing ‘amateur’ (Wikimedia Commons):

Pompeii-skeleton

… who doesn’t seem to be a happy dead guy, but doesn’t have any closed captioning for the culturally impaired to tell us what is going through his head, so its up to interpretation whether his flagons are full or empty (maybe that’s the point). There’s also this one (another Wikimedia Commons pic):

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… with the ever-popular GNOTHI SEAUTON (know thyself) caption.  Whatever the case, both of the Italian examples seem to be expressing very different sentiments from the Hatay find, which, as mentioned, seems to be along the lines of  visually portraying the idea that ‘only the dead are happy’.

UPDATE (a few moments later):

Tip o’ the pileus to Nikos Tsivikis  (@nikostsivikis ) who has also blogged on this and puts the sentiments expressed in the satirical tradition of Aliciphron (which seems bang on):