Welcome to the first part of the promised bumper update! Part two can also be found online today. I don’t want to overload you all with content, so check back tomorrow for further parts!
First up in part one of this bumper news update we have yet another Atlantis! Heracleion (also called Thonis) was established at the mouth of the Nile in the 8th century BC and around it was built a vast network of canals which contributed to it becoming the most important port in the Mediterranean at the time. It was also home to a grand temple to the god Amun-Gereb where Cleopatra was inaugurated. This “Atlantis” is actually a city which sank, when around 800AD it is believed that the sediments it was built on collapsed and sea levels began to rise. For many years Heracleion was thought to be a myth until it was discovered by divers in 2001. For the last 10 years the city has been under excavation allowing archaeologists to create a 3D reconstruction mapping the city’s layout and uncovering 70 ships and a large number of statues and inscriptions.
There is also another Atlantis comparison in recent news, of a city of a similar age in Cambodia, the centre of the Angkor civilisation. Quite how this is like Atlantis given that it is in the middle of a dense jungle I’m not sure, but then who am I to argue against the ploys of the media to draw in readers? It’s also not really a lost city, since it is centred around Angkor Wat, which was known to be the centre of a city. It is the scale and nature of the city which is the new discovery. I should also mention that Fox News describes LiDAR as “new-fangled”. Quite where these journalists get their information from sometimes I really wonder. For those of you who missed my last post on the topic, LiDAR has been around since the early 60’s and its use if actually quite common. This LiDAR survey, the first ever done in Asia, revealed 30 previously unknown temples, along with canals and roads, showing that Angkor was in fact a formally planned low density “mega-city” that sprawled for many kilometres. This makes it the largest known city in the world before the industrial revolution, and shows just how little is known about some of the more remote civilisations of the world especially when they are hidden in areas which are not easily accessed.
Next we have another recurring theme, that of the ability in certain circumstances to build biographies of ancient individuals. This time it is quite literally a biography, described on a tombstone which was found in pieces as part of a wall near Bicester in 2003. Lucius Valerius Geminus, was a veteran of the Second Augustan Legion from Gemanorum in Northern Italy. He likely joined the legion in Aregentoratum, France and was part of the failed German expedition of 39 AD when he would have been between 9-12 years old. He was then involved in the invasion of Britain around 43 AD and retired after around 30 years of service at the legions main base in Alchester. According to Dr Chris Ferguson, curator of archaeology at Oxfordshire Museum Service, “his biography is probably the earliest for a veteran in the entire province”. A surviving tomb stone is very rare from this period and allows a surprising amount to be known about Lucius, in part because the history of the Second Augustan Legion is known. The reconstructed tombstone will be on display at the Oxfordshire Museum in Woodstock from the 20th of July.
Next up is a rather controversial issue; a massive stone pillar believed to be 2,800 years old has been discovered near Bethlehem and some claim that it is linked to King David or Solomon, and thus concretely validates the historical roots of the modern Israeli state. However, the area has not been excavated, it is merely the style of the visible carvings which link it to the First Temple period. This in itself does not prove that this area was part of a Jewish kingdom however, styles spread beyond borders as do people who create objects in these styles. Without full investigation of the area it is impossible to know which culture was living there at this time, unfortunately the site is located outside modern day Israel, and given the sensitive nature of the subject is unlikely to be excavated any time soon. Of course the entire ridiculous notion of “we were here first so it’s ours”, an issue which rears its head quite a lot in American archaeology, is entirely defunct in the case of Israel, since by admission of their own beliefs the Jews took their ancient kingdom by force from other peoples. The Italians don’t try to claim England because they were there before the Angles, Saxons or Normans; such claims aren’t likely to get anyone anywhere.
Along the same lines of ridiculous claims of historic authenticity in the area, excavations near the Western Wall in Jerusalem have unearthed three cooking pots and an oil lamp in a small cistern of a drainage channel running from the Shiloah Pool. These have been taken to be proof of the famine that supposedly took place when Jerusalem was under siege 2,000 years ago. Excavation director Eli Shukrun claimed that these finds “indicate that the people went down into the cistern where they secretly ate the food that was contained in the pots, without anyone seeing them, and this is consistent with the account provided by Josephus”. There are a number of considerable problems with this hypothesis however. First, the idea that people ate food in secret to avoid it being stolen is perfectly sensible, but to have taken food from your home to what is essentially a public location, even if you are hidden once you arrive, is frankly stupid. Someone is far more likely to see you going there either with your food or, if you had somehow hidden it before the food shortage became a major issue, simply coming and going from such an unusual location, than they are to discover you eating within your own home. Secondly, the cistern is described as small, now I do not know the exact dimensions, but a small cistern (things generally filled with water, and this is part of a drainage channel) does not sound like a reasonable place to squeeze in to and cook food. Finally, the presence of cooking pots does not mean that food was cooked or consumed there, otherwise we would have to conclude that pretty much everywhere was the location of such activity. The fact is that pots are deposited for all sorts of reasons, domestic, commercial and ritual, unless there is actual evidence of cooking in the cistern, all we have is evidence of the deposition of some pots. This is a clear case of stretching evidence to fit ideas that you already have, rather than postulating possibilities from evidence, and this is not how science is done.
Returning once more to news about Egypt, Zahi Hawass the former antiquities minister is launching a worldwide lecture tour aimed at bringing tourists back to the country. Tourism levels plummeted after the revolution which deposed Mubarak, resulting in the antiquities ministry having very little in the way of funding for excavation and preservation work. Hawass had been under investigation concerning the wasting of public funds, inappropriate use of his position and allowing antiquities to leave the country illegally, but he has now been cleared of all charges. As part of this tour Hawass is suggesting that there are a number of fantastic discoveries waiting to be made.
Once such discovery concerns the Great Pyramid, where work with robots has uncovered doors with copper handles at the end of shafts extending up from the Queen’s Chamber. A hole drilled through one of these doors revealed another chamber with what is perhaps another sealed door. Hawass suggests that this may lead to the chamber where the Pharaoh Khufu was interred, the three previously discovered chambers being fakes to deceive thieves. No other such handles have been found in the 123 pyramids in Egypt, suggesting that they could indeed be significant.
Another source of new discoveries is the Valley of the Kings where the tombs of Thutmose II, Ramesses VIII and all of the queens from the period 1550-1292 BC, have yet to be found. If these pharaohs are found they would offer new evidence for a study conducted by Hawass and Dr. Saleem of Cairo University, in which they looked at CT scans of 12 royal mummies from 1493-1156 BC. Whilst Hawass stated that Egyptians did not remove the brains from pharaohs, in actual fact their findings published in the American Journal of Roentgenology (200(4) W336-W344) show that three pharaohs from the early 18th dynasty did not have this done, whilst others did. Certainly is seems that mummification was not the same at all times or all places. Indeed a study published in the Journal of Comparative Human Biology in February which studied 150 mummies showed that there was a great deal of variety in mummification practices across and within class, sex, location and time period. I think that Hawass is deliberately exaggerating some of his claims, presumably he is familiar with the results contained in his own article after all, but this does rekindle some of the excitement that pharaonic Egypt always used to hold for me and I look forward to seeing what else we can learn with the application of new technology.
That’s just some of the latest news, more will be forthcoming in the next parts of the bumper update, as well as some news about the future of A Series of Small Walls.