Tag Archives: history

Lovesick in Pompeii

In honor of the patron saint of romances, St. Valentine,   whose day rapidly approaches,  I thought I’d bring you something very different today–the expressions of love carved upon the walls of Pompeii some 2000 years ago.   This proved to be a little trickier than you might expect at first blush,  for many of the Pompeiian inscriptions are wonderfully raunchy.  The Romans really loved sex and weren’t at all bashful about publicizing their talents in the sack.    So  I had to be a little  selective.

First a word about where I found these wonderful translations. The Italian archaeologist and epigrapher Antonio Varone,  who works in an office building tucked away on the grounds of  Pompeii,  has written a superb book on the inscriptions:  Erotica Pompeiana:  Love Inscriptions on the Walls of Pompeii.   While nearly everyone who visits the ancient resort town notices all kinds of  graffiti scratched on the stone of villas and public buildings, very few possess sufficient knowledge of the  Latin language or Roman culture  to decipher the inscriptions.  Thank you Antonio Varone for opening our eyes.

Ok,  bring on the inscriptions.  First the lovesick:

“Vibius Restitutus slept here alone,  longing for his Urbana.”

“Girl,  you look lovely to Ceius and many others.”

Next, the tender:

“So may you forever flourish, Sabina; may you acquire beauty and stay a girl for a long time.”

The jealous:

Who is it that spends the night with you in happy sleep?  Would that it were me.  I would be many times happier.

The  wry:

“Warmest regards from Puddle to her Fishlet.”

The angry:

“Virgula to her Tertius:  you are loathsome.”

“Erotarin, you jealous old fool.”

The boastful:

“No one’s a real man unless he’s loved a woman while still a boy.”

“Restitutus has often seduced many girls.”

The feminist version:

“Euplia was here with thousands of good-looking men.”

The contented:

“I would not sell my husband…for any price…”

The proud  new parents:

“Cornelius Sabinus has been born.”

What I love most about these inscriptions is their immediacy.  I feel as if I know these people,  as if for a moment or two,  I can share their thoughts across the great dark chasm of time.

Sex and Rubbers in the City

In case you missed it,  the New York Times ran an intriguing review this week of a new museum exhibition,  “Rubbers:  The Life,  History and Struggle of the Condom.”  Currently running at the city’s Museum of Sex,  the exhibit highlights both the history and modern-day politics of the French letter.

Fueling the New Chinese Mania For Antiques

I can’t believe how badly the New York Times missed the point this morning in its article on the newly red-hot antiquities trade in China.   Journalist Dan Levin reports on the growing mania among  middle class buyers in Beijing for Chinese antiquities, extolling their newfound passion for ” Ming Dynasty porcelain vases,  19th century hardwood furniture and even early 20th century calligraphy ink pots.”  Such antiquities,  Levin explains,  “have become popular status symbols for an emerging middle class eager to display its new wealth and cultural knowledge.”

Too bad Levin didn’t ask a few  hard questions about exactly where all these Chinese antiquities  are coming from.  If he had, he might have come away with a very different impression.  While researching a new story for Archaeology magazine,  I recently discussed with Victor Mair,  a Sinologist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and one of the world’s leading experts on the archaeology of Xinjiang province,   this very issue.

I had noticed in Mair’s  articles that many of the most important Bronze Age and Iron Age sites in Xinjiang–sites that have yielded European-looking mummies and western grave goods and that are now revolutionizing our understanding of Central Asian  history–had been badly looted.  In fact,   looting in Xinjiang has become so serious that Chinese archaeologists are constantly forced to excavate entire cemeteries just to salvage and protect some of the finds.

I asked Mair what on earth was going on.  The Xinjiang sites, after all,  are in the midst of a huge and very barren desert–one of the bleakest and most remote places on earth. Mair explained to me that Chinese looters have become very sophisticated.  They journey into the desert equipped with GPS  and specifically target the ancient cemeteries there. The devastation is enormous,  Mair explained,  with mummified human body parts strewn everywhere.  “They just take the bodies,  the heads, the coffins and throw them out on the ground,” he said.  “They are looking for gold or they are looking for something that is obviously a nice artwork.”

Most looters then sell their finds to middle men in Hong Kong, individuals who don’t ask any questions.  “You can go down to the antiquities market street there,” said Mair, “and you can find unbelievable things, precious materials or precious objects from all over China being sold there.  So Hong Kong is like a  door for selling.”

To me,  this is the real story behind the newfound enthusiasm for antiquities in China. And there is a terrible irony here.   During the Cultural Revolution,  Mao Zedong ordered the destruction of  “old culture,”  officially condoning the looting of old cemeteries  and destroying antiquities.  Now the pendulum has swung wildly in the other direction,  as the Chinese middle class celebrates  its ancient culture.  But the change in attitude has only led to further destruction of the archaeological record.

Museum Curios or Objects of Spiritual Healing?

Two days ago,  I suggested that the Vancouver Museum seriously consider repatriating a petroglyph-covered boulder in its collections to the tribal group in whose territory it was found.  The art on the boulder appears to be deteriorating badly in the museum courtyard as moss and water erode the stone,  obliterating figures that were clear as a bell in the 1930s.  I argued that repatriation would be a good solution to this problem,  for I believe that tribal group in question would have a much greater interest in taking care of the art.

But there’s also a moral argument to be made here.  I don’t think that national, provincial or city museums are the right places for objects of great spiritual importance to aboriginal peoples,  objects that still have a tremendous meaning today. These items, in my opinion,  really need to go back to the tribal group from which they came.   Imagine the outcry,  for example,  if an Egyptian museum held part of the manger of Christ in its collections and would not return it to the Vatican on request?

My views on this matter were strongly shaped by an experience I had while I was working for what is now the Royal Museum of Alberta back in the 1970s.  At the time, the museum held a collection of sacred medicine bundles once owned by healers and spiritual leaders in the Blackfoot Confederacy,  the Niitsitapi.

The museum bought the bundles back in a time when residential schools and other modern ills had badly eroded the traditional culture of the Niitsitapi.   But in the 1970s,  a few people in these tribes were actively reviving traditional spiritual practices.  They wanted their bundles back, because these sacred objects were absolutely essential to age-old spiritual practices.  The museum, however,  stubbornly refused to part with them.

Finally,  however,  four members of the Kainai Nation (part of the Niitsitapi) arrived at the museum one spring day and asked if they could take the Longtime Medicine Pipe Bundle  outdoors for prayer,  as was tradition.  As a young research assistant,  I watched them carry the bundle out past the security cameras and guards.  Outside, they walked in a procession around the museum,  with the museum director and a few other  staff members following.

As they passed the parking lot,   the  Kainai delegation broke into a run toward a waiting pickup truck.  They swiftly clambered in with the bundle  and drove away.  As I later learned,  one member of the delegation had dreamt a few weeks earlier that he could spirit away the bundle from the museum:  today the Kainai talk about how this man cast a charm over the curators.

Many of the Kainai have now returned to their traditional spiritual practices,  and I have heard that the bundle is a very cherished part of those practices.    Clearly, the museum should  have restored the bundle to the Kainai when they asked for it.

I have often heard aboriginal people talk about the sacredness of the rock art.  Isn’t it time that  museums think about giving it back to the people who rightfully own it?

P.S. In You interested in healing and ayahuasca retreats at www.spiritplantjourneys.com.

Somebody Stop Mel Gibson, Please

Oh, no.  Not again!  Yahoo News is reporting that Mel Gibson is planning yet another of his nightmarish historical blockbusters.  The man who brought us Braveheart andApocalypto is planning to unleash his filmmaker talents yet again on another unsuspecting ancient culture with a reputation for extreme violence–the Vikings.   “I’m going to give it to you real, man,” Gibson reportedly told a Yahoo News writer.  “I want a Viking to scare you.”

Actually what scares me is Gibson.  The man is a menace.  He loves decking out his projects with all the trappings of historical accuracy, while merrily jettisoning any real fidelity to history and truth.   Take Apocalypto,  his ghoulish, blood-spattered epic on the Maya.  His cast all spoke Yucatec Maya like natives.  His Maya nobles and priests wore exquisite costumes and headdresses.  And he even threw in a real honest to goodness environmental crisis that plagued the Classic Maya–the deforestation of Maya lands to provide timber for fueling lime kilns.   (All the lime went into plaster for the buildings.)

But was Apocalypto true in any way to what we know about the Maya? Not by a longshot.  It depicted the Maya almost en masse as ghoulish blood-thirsty club-wielding savages — what Mayan archaeologist David Friedel once wryly described  as “orcs in loinclothes.”    It depicted little if anything of the beauty and richness of Maya art, science, and religion,  pretty much rendering an entire culture into a historical horror show.

Sure it’s entertainment,  and it wouldn’t matter so much except for two things.  One is that his films are huge box-office hits,  seen by millions of people, particularly impressionable teenagers.   And secondly his version of past looks and sounds so historically authentic that many people are conned into believing that they are witnessing something truthful.

And there’s one other aspect that disturbs me.  Gibson is already talking about how he will apply his techniques of verisimilitude to the Vikings.  “I think it’s going to be in English,  an English that would have been spoken back then and Old Norse,” he told the reporter.   “I want to see somebody who I’ve never seen before speaking low, guttural German who scares the living **** out of you.”  Some critics applauded Gibson for filming in foreign languages in The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto,  but if Gibson was quoted correctly,  I’d say that he sees the act of speaking in such a language as something that will  increase both the fright factor and brutality of scenes.   What kind of a message is that to send to kids?  How about xenophobic.

I know one film that I won’t be rushing out the door to see.

Jihadist and Young Archaeologist

Did Mohamed Atta,  the man who flew American Airlines Flight 11 into a World Trade Center tower, pay for his  flying lessons by selling looted antiquities? It now looks like a distinct possibility. According to The Art Newspaper,  a senior Italian official has stated publicly on several occasions that Germany’s secret service, BND,  possesses testimony documenting Atta’s attempt to sell looted Afghan artifacts to a German archaeologist in 1999.

Atta, as you may recall, was born into a wealthy Egyptian family and graduated from the University of Cairo in 1990  with a degree in architecture.  After a short stint as an architectural planner in Cairo,  the young Egyptian  moved in 1992 to Germany,  where he enrolled at the Technical University of Hamburg-Harburg.   There Atta studied under Dittmar Machule, an expert on Middle Eastern architecture who was conducting an archaeological excavation at a Bronze-Age site in northern Syria.

So interested did Atta become in archaeology that Machule invited him to visit the Syrian dig in 1994.  The German professor later recalled what happened  in an interview with ABC television.   Atta,  said Machule,   “slept in the tent as we all slept and he was very interested in the excavation.  I explained to him what we are doing, the methods of archaeology, the research and I remember that he wanted to help.”

Five years later,  in 1999,  says Guiseppi Proietti,  secretary general of Italy’s Ministry of Culture, Atta approached a University of Goettingen archaeologist with a business proposition.  He offered to sell the unnamed archaeologist Afghan artifacts,  explaining that he needed the money to pay for flying lessons he wanted to take in the United States.   The archaeologist declined the offer.

How might Atta have obtained these artifacts?  As investigators have now established, Atta became increasingly radicalized during his studies in Germany and disappeared for lengthy periods of time.  During the university’s winter break in 1997, for example, he vanished for three months, and applied on his return for a new passport,  claiming he had lost his–a common strategy that jihadists employed to conceal their travel to a terrorist camp.

With his newfound knowledge of archaeology,  Atta may have spent his spare time in Afghanistan looting remote sites and collecting antiquities.  And it certainly seems possible that he sold the plunder privately or through auction houses  in order to finance the flying lessons that ended in such terrible tragedy.

This is an appalling scenario–European collectors financing one of the worst terrorist attacks in recent memory.   I sure would like to know more about this.

The Bog Bodies’ Very Sad Fate

In late June 1904,  a Dutch farmer named Hilbrand Gringhuis was out cutting peat on the Netherlands side of  Bourtangermoor  when he uncovered something very unsettling:  a withered, nearly headless body resting,  it seemed, upon the arm of a second corpse.   Gringhuis immediately notified the local police,  who came out to investigate.  And,  in a time long before modern forensic science, the local constabulary decided to transfer the soggy cadavers to the nearest morgue in a very peculiar  fashion.

They rolled up the bodies of the two men like human scrolls, wrung them out, and stuffed them into what Wijnand van der Sanden,  the provincial archaeologist in Drenthe and the author of  Through Nature to Eternity: The Bog Bodies of Northwest Europe,   describes as a “starch box.”

The Weerdinge men,  shown drying out on a piece of cloth in today’s photo,  were of course bog bodies.  Radiocarbon-dated to some 1980 years ago,  they are two of the nearly 1900 such bodies either reported or recovered from bogs stretching from Ireland to Norway.  Like many of these bodies,  one of the Weerdinge men was the victim of extreme violence.   Modern forensic study shows that someone almost certainly stabbed him to death:  the victim’s withered brown intestines now tumble from the wound.

But the violence that these two bodies suffered after death disturbs me almost as much as the m.o. of their demise.  And I’m sorry to say that this unthinking destruction is part of a much larger pattern.  All across Europe,  companies are excavating,  mining and draining bogs.  Land developers, for example, are keen to reclaim wetlands for new housing developments.  And gardeners love to spread peat on their flower beds.   All those big plastic bags of peat you see in European plant nurseries come from once great bogs and wetlands.

Eerily preserved by the peculiar chemistry of bog water,  the bog bodies can tell us enormous amounts about subjects as diverse as ancient clothing,  diet,  and sacrificial practices.  But ironically,  as our interest in these curious-looking mummies grows and our ability to draw knowledge from their witheed flesh increases,  we are less and less likely to find them.  The large excavators that companies use to mine peat from bogs tend to chew up bodies before their drivers even realize what is happening.

And there is one other sad note to all this.  Swedish archaeologist Martin Rundqvist has posted a very thoughtful entry on his blog this morning about the Swedish Bog Cultivation Society, which destroyed precious bogland in Sweden for what Rundqvist calls “no practical gain.”  In other words,  the money-making schemes behind all this environmental destruction never panned out.  And who knows how many bog bodies were obliterated in the process?

Photo courtesy of the Drents Museum, Assen.

Leonardo da Vinci: Taking His Last Secrets to the Grave

Did you catch the news headlines yesterday about the Italian researchers who hope to open the tomb of Leonardo da Vinci in France in order to reconstruct his face?  They are keen to see whether the Renaissance artist was indulging in his well-known love of riddles when he painted the Mona Lisa.  For years,  some some scholars have hypothesized that the mysterious beauty in the painting was a self-portrait in drag.

My first reaction to this proposed project was to shake my head in disbelief.  Is this really a valid reason to disturb the sleep of the dead, particularly someone so deserving of our respect? Are we so driven by curiosity that we need to rummage through chill church tombs and peer at the bones of the dead in order to answer a question that is on the level of a barroom bet?

And  I was not  reassured when I Googled the team’s spokesperson, Giorgio Gruppioni, a bioanthropologist at the University of Bologna.  In 2009, Gruppioni and several colleagues  reconstructed the face of one of Italy’s greatest poets, Dante Alighieri, using the cranial data that researchers recorded in 1921 when officially identifying Dante’s remains.  And just a few weeks ago,  Gruppioni and colleagues recovered what they hope will be the remains of  the great 17th century Italian painter, Caravaggio.   Once again, the team announced plans to reconstruct Caravaggio’s face.  Gruppioni and his colleagues seem awfully interested in surface appearances.

But the more I thought about it,  the more I began to see a legitimate context for  these projects.  For the past two decades,  several Italian research teams led by pathologists and anthropologists have been prying open Renaissance tombs and reliquaries to gather vital scientific data.  One of the leading researchers in this field, University of Pisa pathologist Gino Fornaciari has spearheaded several of these projects,  exhuming such Renaissance luminaries as Cosimo I de’ Medici,  Ferdinand II of Aragon, and Maria D’Aragona,  one of the greatest beauties of her day.

I have met and talked at length with Fornaciari,  and can attest to his interest in serious science.  And I was really intrigued today when I checked out his recent publications to see what science had learned from all these rude awakenings of the dead.   His papers covered a wide range of subjects–the methods that Renaissance embalmers employed to artificially mummify royalty  in 16th century Europe;  the species of lice that clung to the mummified remains of Ferdinand II (revealing that these parasites plagued even the wealthiest  during the Renaissance); and the human papillomavirus  (HPV) that infected Maria D’Aragona.  The latter study will permit medical researchers to study the evolution of this important virus, a major cause of cervical cancer, perhaps giving them clues to new treatments.

If the team that wants to open Leonardo da Vinci’s grave obtains permission to do so, I strongly suspect that they will make the most of this rare opportunity,   gathering all the relevant samples and data to do key pathological and bioarchaeological studies.  I personally don’t care whether the great artist painted the Mona Lisa in his own image. But I’d love to know more about the health and life of this great Renaissance artist.

The Burner of Books

The China Daily News carried a very cool story this week on a major new archaeological discovery in Hubei province. According to Shen Haining,  the director of Hubei’s cultural heritage bureau,  excavators working in a tomb that dates back to the  Warring States period of China’s history  (475-221 B.C. ) recovered a trove of water-saturated bamboo strips covered in inked Chinese characters.  Resembling a snarl of soggy noodles,  the strips are remains of ancient and exceedingly rare Chinese books–a find that is sure to generate huge interest in China and abroad.

Perhaps a little Chinese history is in order here  to help make sense of this find.  The Warring States period,  as its name clearly suggests,  was a time of massive violent military clashes.  Lords of seven major states all vied for supreme power in tianxia (which means “all under heaven”),  and they threw huge infantry armies bristling with mass-produced iron weapons at one another.   These  armies also boasted for the first time in Chinese history archers with crossbows and soldiers fighting on horseback,   both of which completely transformed military engagements in the Far East, rendering them far more horrifying.

The period came to an end finally when one of the combatant lords,  Qin Shi Huang, subjugated all his rivals.  But while the new emperor brought peace to China, he committed a grave sin against history and literature.  Fearing that all earlier books would cast doubt on the legitimacy of his rule,  Qin Shi Huang  ordered most Chinese books of the day to be burned and he had scholars who possessed such forbidden writings buried alive–making bamboo-strip books dating from the Warring States period rare indeed today.

You might ask yourself why we should care today about the fate of these lost Chinese documents,  many of which were recorded on bamboo strips.   Well,  it turns out that amid all the bloodshed and chaos of the time,   many of China’s greatest thinkers were discussing warfare and dreaming of peace.   Many of their works were undoubtedly lost in the destruction ordered by  Qin Shi Huang,  though a few,  including the very famous meditation The Art of War, survived to the present thanks to later copyists.

I am dying to find out what the soggy bamboo strips in the newly discovered Hubei tomb will hold.  “It’s still to early to tell,”  Shen told the China Daily reporter.  “Let’s wait and see.  Archaeology is all about surprise.”  Hear, hear.