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’:

Screen Shot 2016-05-16 at 1.28.00 PM.png

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

Screen Shot 2016-05-16 at 1.28.21 PM.png

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

Screen Shot 2016-05-16 at 1.28.54 PM.png

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:

Screen Shot 2016-05-16 at 1.28.40 PM

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:


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):


… 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):


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):


… 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):


… 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):


Repititiationes ~ 02/15/16

These might be a bit out of order ..

ICYMI ~ The Classical World in the News: February 1-February 14, 2016

Excerpted from my Explorator Newsletter:

Evidence of silver mining near the Mycenean acropolis at Thorikos, some 5000 years b.p.:

Tracing the source of marble preserved underwater at Baia:

Very interesting Roman fresco found in London:

Remains of a major temple with a huge arcade at Colchester:

Roman road found during Hadrian Wall car park construction:

A Roman canal system near the Dead Sea:

A Roman brooch with an interesting palindrome:

In case you missed the ‘ancient Greek laptop’ silliness:

Feature on finds from Tuva (these seem to be Scythian):

… while the ‘Ice Princess’ reburial didn’t work out:

Feature on the restored pyramid of Cestius:

Isotope analysis on a pile of 2000 years b.p. burials from Rome suggest there was a large immigrant population:

… related:

Studying the ‘life cycle’ of Roman pottery:

Plans to restore an important Temple of Augustus in Turkey:

Very interesting frescoes emerging from a church find in Cappadocia:

Some ancient school lessons:

Some Cheshire Roman hoards are on display:

I think we mentioned this new mosaic:

Nice feature on the Lazarus project:

Concerns for Amphipolis:–amphipolis

Conservation costs at Rome:

A Kyrenia ship update:

Bi-communal Kyrenia shipwreck protection project

… and a Mazotos shipwreck update:

LiDAR locates some ‘lost’ Roman roads in the UK:

On the Greeks and MLK Jr:

Plato is still high on college reading lists:

A tenure dispute of interest:

On Alexander the Great’s feeling about beards:

Pondering Homer:

The annual Super Bowl and Roman numeral opEds:

Something about the Zeugma mosaics:

On Roman ‘half time’ shows:

What Nevzat Cevik is up to:

What David Mulroy is up to:

More pondering of what ‘Classic’ should be/is:

More on York ‘gladiator’ DNA and related things:

More on Minoan shipwrecks:

Review of Whitmarsh, *Battling the Gods*:

Review of Beard, *SPQR*:


The complete issue is available at: Explorator 18.41-42 ~ February 14, 2016 |