November 9, 2012

Tomb discoveries cast light on Thracian culture

Filed under: Europe, History, Science — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:16

A recent discovery in Bulgaria promises to tell us more about the culture of the Getae, a powerful tribe in Thrace:

Archaeologists in Bulgaria are chuffed today to announce that golden treasures and artifacts produced by the ancient Thracians have been discovered in a subterranean tomb complex in the north of the country.

The treasures include snake-headed bracelets, a golden crown or tiara type affair, a golden horse head and piles of smaller solid gold items including rings, statuettes and buttons. They’re thought to date from the third century BC and to have been produced by the Getae, a tribe among the ancient Thracians.

[. . .]

Thracian warriors played prominent parts in many of the wars of antiquity. The peltast javelineer style of fighting was said to have originated in Thrace, gradually superseding the armoured hoplite warrior: an entire phalanx of the formidable Spartans was crushed by peltasts fighting for Athens during the Peloponnesian War, and the lightly armoured Greek/Thracian warriors are also said to have inflicted severe damage on heavy Persian cavalry.

Alexander the Great — from the neighbouring area of Macedonia — is also said to have used Thracian mercenaries in his world-spanning campaigns, and later on Thracian warriors were prominent in the armies of Rome and then the Eastern empire. In particular, the famous gladiator and rebel Spartacus had originally been a Roman auxiliary soldier from Thrace. Later on — after the fall of Rome, when the Empire was ruled from Constantinople — both the emperor Justinian and the great general Belisarius are said to have been Thracians.

October 22, 2012

Want to learn a new language? How about proto-Elamite?

Filed under: History, Middle East, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:10

If you have the ability to decode the world’s oldest undeciphered texts, you can be our first proto-Elamite scholar:

“I think we are finally on the point of making a breakthrough,” says Jacob Dahl, fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford and director of the Ancient World Research Cluster.

Dr Dahl’s secret weapon is being able to see this writing more clearly than ever before.

In a room high up in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, above the Egyptian mummies and fragments of early civilisations, a big black dome is clicking away and flashing out light.

This device, part sci-fi, part-DIY, is providing the most detailed and high quality images ever taken of these elusive symbols cut into clay tablets. This is Indiana Jones with software.

It’s being used to help decode a writing system called proto-Elamite, used between around 3200BC and 2900BC in a region now in the south west of modern Iran.

And the Oxford team think that they could be on the brink of understanding this last great remaining cache of undeciphered texts from the ancient world.

September 20, 2012

Over-hyping the importance of the Richard III archaeological dig

Filed under: Britain, History — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:50

At the History Today blog, Linda Porter points out that some of the breathless claims about the historical significance of the Leicester archaeological dig are rather overblown:

Major finds don’t come along very often and this would certainly be one of the most significant in the last hundred years. But the huge claims being made for it are not the sort that sit well with most historians. Assertions that, if DNA tests prove positive, this discovery ‘has the potential to rewrite history’ and is of ‘global importance’ make me sigh.

Historians have long known that the Tudor narratives on Richard III are propaganda. Shakespeare’s compelling villain may still resonate with the man on the street but has nothing to do with a measured analysis of the past and anyone with even a general interest in the late fifteenth century will be aware of this. And ‘global significance’? Cross the Channel and I’d be surprised if you found anyone outside the academic world who knew about Richard III and the saga of the Princes in the Tower. Those involved in the project, which appears to have been rigorously conducted from the archaeological perspective, clearly want headlines. As someone who has worked in public relations herself I congratulate them on a successful communications campaign — it has to be acknowledged that the Richard III Society is very good at this kind of thing — but wearing my historian’s hat extravagant claims make me uncomfortable.

September 15, 2012

The Richard III debate moves to “where should we bury him this time”

Filed under: Britain, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:33

In the Telegraph, Dan Hodges calls for giving Richard III “a last, glorious summer”:

It’s a brilliant idea. Seriously. Think of where Richard stands. At the centre of our history, our art, our education, our national identity. What a staggering opportunity this represents.

Let’s give him a full, no-holds-barred state funeral. Everyone’s been banging on about preserving the Olympic spirit; well here — DNA tests permitting — is our chance. This is a once in a generation opportunity. In fact, it’s a once in about 20 generations opportunity. Let’s bring our history alive.

Just imagine the crowds that would gather for the chance of watching a 21st century ceremonial to a Plantagenet king. And not just an English king, but thanks to Shakespeare, a global monarch.

Picture the moment. A silent Mall. A slow drum beat. An honor guard, heads bowed in tribute to their leader who fell 500 years before. Richard, making his last journey, laid upon a ceremonial gun carriage, draped in the flag of the kingdom he died fighting for. And ahead of him walks a riderless horse. The horse that in his last moments, he would have swapped that kingdom for.

Bloody hell, I’d miss an episode of Strictly for that. And I bet a few million others would as well.

Okay, there’s the slightly unfortunate business of the Princes and the Tower. But we’ve all made the odd mistake. Plus, if you read Josephine Tay’s the Daughter of Time, it was a fit up anyway.

If there’s one thing we’ve learnt over the past couple of months it’s that — to borrow a phrase from another high profile if much maligned senior statesman — we are at our best when at our boldest. Or more accurately, when we say “damn it, let’s do it”.

Now is one of those moments. Damn it. Let’s give Richard III one last, glorious summer.

September 12, 2012

Richard III’s remains may have been found in Leicester

Filed under: Britain, History — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:17

Fascinating announcement today from the dig site:

11.12: He says one skeleton and other human remains have been found and a barbed metal arrowhead was found between vertebrae of the skeleton’s upper back. The arrow was near the spine, but not embedded in the bones.

11.15: Mr Taylor says that an articulated skeleton has been found that is of significant interest to us. Scientists have also found a set of “disarticulated human remains” but because they are female and therefore not Richard III.

The skeleton shows signs of “near death trauma” that “appears to be consistent with injury from battle”. Scientists now hope to extract DNA from the bones.

He added:

“It also has spinal abnormalities and an individual form of spinal curvature, which makes his right shoulder visibly higher than his left shoulder. We believe the individual would have had severe scoliosis. The skeleton was not a hunchback.”

It is consistent with other accounts of Richard III.”

It is now at an undisclosed laboratory where it is going through “rigorous” testing.

August 31, 2012

The search for the burial place of Richard III

Filed under: Britain, Cancon, History — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:40

Elizabeth sent me another link on the ongoing archaeological search for the burial place of King Richard III:

A high-profile search for the gravesite of the 15th-century monarch King Richard III — begun Saturday beneath a parking lot in the English city of Leicester — has a remarkable connection to a Canadian family whose members hold the genetic key to solving one of British history’s most enduring mysteries: Where is Richard III’s body?

The London, Ont.-based Ibsen family, recently proven to be descended from King Richard’s maternal line, has provided DNA samples aimed at confirming the regal identity of any human remains found during the unprecedented dig, which continues this week at the former site of a medieval church where — 527 years ago — the violently overthrown monarch was buried.

The University of Leicester-led archeological project was launched after the discovery that the maternal bloodline of the last Plantagenet king — killed in 1485 in the climactic battle of the War of the Roses — survived into the 21st century through Joy Ibsen, a British-born woman who immigrated to Canada after the Second World War and raised a family in southwestern Ontario.

If nothing else, the media coverage of this dig may generate lots of new members for the Richard III Society (Canadian branch, American branch).

August 24, 2012

Digging up a municipal car park … to find the body of a king

Filed under: Britain, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:51

An interesting story on the search for the lost burial place of Richard III, the last Plantagenet king of England:

Archaeologists are hoping to find the lost grave of a medieval monarch in a dig that is due to get underway today.

In what is believed to be the first-ever archaeological search for the lost grave of an anointed King of England, experts from the University of Leicester are set to begin their quest to find the site of a church where it is believed King Richard III was buried in the city more than 500 years ago.

It is thought the site of the church may be on land currently being used as a car park for council offices in the city.

King Richard III, the last Plantagenet, ruled England from 1483 until he was defeated at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.

The most famous battle of the War of the Roses was fought on August 22, 1485, and famously saw the death of Richard III.

The battle ended decades of civil war and was won by the Lancastrians.

It paved the way for Henry Tudor to become the first English monarch of the Tudor dynasty.

The battle also inspired the scene from Shakespeare’s play Richard III when the defeated hunchback king declares: ‘A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse’.

H/T to Elizabeth for the link.

April 10, 2012

In praise of Britain’s National Trust

Filed under: Britain, History — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:37

When we used to travel more frequently to the UK, we were members of the National Trust. It was a great investment for anyone interested in historic properties, and quite a bargain at the time. We let our membership lapse because we were no longer able to visit on a regular basis. Kelvin Browne discusses the great things the National Trust is doing and wonders why there’s no Canadian equivalent:

The Trust has lofty ambitions, but it’s not elitist: They know that without wide enthusiasm for the organization, it won’t survive.

Founded in 1895 to save Britain’s architectural heritage and open spaces, the organization’s initial purpose hasn’t changed much. In fact, many of its goals relate to today’s pressing issues, including stewardship of the environment and concern for the preservation of small communities.

The Trust protects and opens to the public more than 350 historic houses, gardens and ancient monuments. They also look after forests, woods, fens, beaches, farmland, downs, moorland, islands, archaeological remains, castles, nature reserves and villages “for ever, for everyone.”

Its operating model addresses many of our own concerns related to preserving pieces of Canadian history. However, unlike our system, Britain’s is completely independent of government. the Trust relies on income from membership fees, donations and legacies and revenue raised from its commercial ventures such as cafés, event rentals, the sale of produce from its gardens and farm properties and from leasing a number of its smaller properties to individual tenants.

In other words, no additional taxes are raised to save heritage properties and no meddling bureaucrats inefficiently telling the Brits about their history.

As he points out, the reasons for Canada not having a direct equivalent are two-fold: we are a far younger country and therefore have far fewer truly historical buildings, and we default to expecting the government to take care of preservation of what little we have.

March 5, 2012

New TV shows to “glamourize” archaeology

Filed under: History, Media, Science, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 14:26

This sounds particularly dire, on multiple levels:

On 20 March, Spike TV will premiere a new show called American Digger, while a show called Diggers on the National Geographic Channel made its debut 28 February. Both shows “promote and glorify the looting and destruction of archaeological sites,” Society for American Archaeology (SAA) President William F. Limp wrote in a message posted earlier this week to the SAA listserv.

The premise of American Digger, which is being hosted by a former professional wrestler, was laid out in a recent announcement by Spike TV. A team of “diggers” will “scour target-rich areas, such as battlefields and historic sites, in hopes of striking it rich by unearthing and selling rare pieces of American history.” Similar locales are featured in National Geographic’s Diggers. In the second episode, set in South Carolina, Revolutionary War and War of 1812 buttons, bullets, and coins were recovered at a former plantation.

After viewing the first two episodes of Diggers, Iowa’s State archaeologist John Doershuk posted a review to the American Cultural Resources Association listserv, in which he lamented: “The most damaging thing, I think, about this show is that no effort was made to document where anything came from or discussion of associations — each discovered item was handled piece-meal.”

H/T to A Blog About History for the link.

February 26, 2012

Who is destroying the archaeological remains of Saudi Arabia?

Filed under: Government, History, Middle East, Religion — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:17

The Saudi government:

News that David Kennedy, an Australian scholar, has succeeded in identifying almost 2,000 unexplored archaeological sites using Google Earth has focused attention on the wages of that battle: the destruction of Saudi Arabia’s own heritage More than 90 per cent of the archaeological treasures of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, experts estimate, have been demolished to make way for hotels, apartment blocks and parking facilities.

The $13 billion project that led to a wave of demolitions in the middle of the last decade was part of an effort to modernise infrastructure in the ancient cities, where millions of pilgrims gather for the Hajj each year.

Sami Angawi, an expert on Arabian architecture, lamented that history had been ” bulldozed for a parking lot”. “We are witnessing now the last few moments of the history of Mecca,”, he said.

The Kingdom’s ultraconservative clerics believe that the veneration of ancient sites associated with the Prophet Mohammad and his family is heretical, and want potential shrines obliterated.

In October last year, a Saudi clerical body was reported to have renewed long-standing calls for the demolition of several historic Islamic sites — including the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad and the grave of his mother.

H/T to Ghost of a Flea for the link and the embedded video.

I’m reminded of a post at the old blog from February, 2006:

This is a cool part-time job

Elizabeth’s cousin Ross emailed her the other day to describe a new part-time job he’s taken on:

    I have got myself another part-time flying job. It is flying a 1968 Cessna 172 (old single engine piston) for English Heritage. The job is aerial photography of ancient earth works/listed buildings/standing stones etc. etc. How good is that for a job?

    I was up last Friday afternoon and the dude was photographing an iron age settlement in one of the villages less than 5 miles from ours. We have been shoeing in the village for years and had no idea. [After leaving the army, Ross became a farrier.] In fact one of the old farms that we have shod in has been demolished ready for development and the developers have allowed an archaeological dig to go in before they build.

    From the air, with the low sun, you could easily see the outlines of the old settlement and ridge and furrow ploughing. I believe we will even go as far as Carlisle and Hadrian’s Wall. It is only where and when the weather is right and they have a target to shoot, but having done one flight for them I am looking forward to my next, whenever that may be.

    The drill is, you fly to the target, circle it until the dude works out the best angle for the shot. He then opens the window while you bank the aircraft and hangs out and shoots.

It certainly sounds like a much more interesting job than being a flying truck driver!

January 23, 2012

Raising the wreck of the earlier HMS Victory

Filed under: Britain, History, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

The famous British warship HMS Victory preserved in Portsmouth was built to replace an earlier ship lost in a storm in 1744:

The remains of a 300-year-old warship are to be raised from the sea bed, according to reports.

The wreck of HMS Victory, a predecessor of Nelson’s famous flagship, was found near the Channel Islands in 2008.

The British warship, which went down in a storm in 1744 killing more than 1,000 sailors, could contain gold coins worth an estimated £500m.

The Sunday Times says the Maritime Heritage Foundation is set to manage the wreck’s raising.

It also reports that the charity will employ Odyssey Marine Exploration to carry out the recovery.

The American company found the ship four years ago, with the ship’s identity confirmed by a bronze cannon.

December 2, 2011

“There is no prophecy for 2012. It is a marketing fallacy”

Filed under: Americas, History, Randomness — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:14

The BBC attempts to debunk the “2012 is the end of the world” notion that the Mayans are supposed to have predicted.

The date marks the end of one of the periods of roughly 400 years into which the Mayan calendar is divided.

Mexico’s National Institute for Anthropological History has also tried to counter speculation that the Maya predicted a catastrophic event for 2012.

Only two out of 15,000 registered Mayan texts mention the date 2012, according to the Institute, and no Mayan text predicts the end of the world.

“There is no prophecy for 2012. It is a marketing fallacy,” Erik Velasquez, etchings specialist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, told Reuters.

October 30, 2011

Using Pompeii as another stick to beat Berlusconi

Filed under: Europe, Government, History, Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:48

Mary Beard debunks the widely reported story of yet another wall collapse in the archaeological remains of Pompeii:

By chance I am on the site of Pompeii for the weekend. It is now swarming with more journalists than tourists, and all (it seems) with a determination to hype another collapse, another Pompeian disaster. That is to say, they are here with a determined misunderstanding of what has just happened — or with a drive to use any damage to the site as a stick with which to beat Berlusconi.

Actually, I am usually quite happy to beat Berlusconi, but the fact is that this latest melodrama only serves to make the job much more difficult for those in the archaeological services here, who are doing their level best to keep the place up and running. (This weekend curators and other staff have been fielding tv crews, not getting on with the real job.)

So far as I can tell, what happened is this. There was an absolute downpour last night, in the course of which some stones were dislodged from a relatively fragile (and not very well built) stretch of wall near the Nola gate. A custode entered this damage rather loosely in the incident book — and (we can only speculate how and why) that report got to the press, and it soon became a new “wall collapse”. The carabinieri arrived and everything in the area (including, let me confess, where I want to go) was shut off.

Media folks are not trained archaeologists, so it’s easy to understand how a garbled report could be misunderstood — and that’s setting aside the urge to use any tool as a weapon against the current Italian prime minister. This is why media reports become less and less dependable as they try to report on more specific or more technical information: they lack the expertise and usually don’t take the time to get external experts to help them. (My favourite examples of this are when naval vessels larger than a rowboat are described as “battleships” and tracked military vehicles are invariably “tanks”.)

H/T to Tyler Cowen for the link.

September 25, 2011

Mecca is becoming a “playground for the rich”

Filed under: History, Middle East, Religion — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:30

Jerome Taylor looks at the vast changes being wrought in Mecca and Medina:

Over the past 10 years the holiest site in Islam has undergone a huge transformation, one that has divided opinion among Muslims all over the world.

Once a dusty desert town struggling to cope with the ever-increasing number of pilgrims arriving for the annual Hajj, the city now soars above its surroundings with a glittering array of skyscrapers, shopping malls and luxury hotels.

To the al-Saud monarchy, Mecca is their vision of the future — a steel and concrete metropolis built on the proceeds of enormous oil wealth that showcases their national pride.

Yet growing numbers of citizens, particularly those living in the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina, have looked on aghast as the nation’s archaeological heritage is trampled under a construction mania backed by hardline clerics who preach against the preservation of their own heritage. Mecca, once a place where the Prophet Mohamed insisted all Muslims would be equal, has become a playground for the rich, critics say, where naked capitalism has usurped spirituality as the city’s raison d’être.

Few are willing to discuss their fears openly because of the risks associated with criticising official policy in the authoritarian kingdom. And, with the exceptions of Turkey and Iran, fellow Muslim nations have largely held their tongues for fear of of a diplomatic fallout and restrictions on their citizens’ pilgrimage visas. Western archaeologists are silent out of fear that the few sites they are allowed access to will be closed to them.

But a number of prominent Saudi archaeologists and historians are speaking up in the belief that the opportunity to save Saudi Arabia’s remaining historical sites is closing fast.

September 5, 2011

How the wreck of a ship-of-the-line led to the Mary Rose

Filed under: Britain, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:41

The bottom of the Solent must be carpeted with shipwrecks:

According to naval historian Dr John Bevan, the largely forgotten flagship, which sank in the Solent at Spithead in August 1782, helped divers to locate the wreckage of the Mary Rose in the 1830s — a full 150 years before the stricken vessel was raised from the seabed.

More than 900 people died when the Royal George sank, including 300 women and 60 children who were visiting the ship which was due to head for Gibraltar with HMS Victory.

It was the biggest loss of life in British waters.

The 100-gun battleship had been heeled on to its side for repairs to be carried out on its sea cock — a valve on the hull — when it began to take in water though its open gun ports. It capsized and sank.

“For weeks after the tragedy, bodies washed ashore at Southsea, Gosport and Ryde and were buried in mass graves along the seafront,” said Royal Marines Museum historian Stuart Haven.

The Royal George remained in shallow water just beyond the entrance to Portsmouth harbour for many years, “her masts standing above the water a macabre reminder of the tragedy,” Mr Haven said.

Some 50 years later the pioneering divers Charles and John Deane tried to recover the battleship, which had become a hazard to other vessels.

Between 1834-36 the brothers undertook a series of dives.

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