Free online course on the archaeology of Portus

Researchers from the University of Southampton have been excavating the ancient man-made harbour of Portus in modern day Fiumicino, 20 miles southwest of Rome, since 1998. In collaboration with experts from the British School at Rome, the University of Cambridge, and the Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Roma, they have explored the warehouses of Septimius Severus, the imperial palace, cisterns, an amphitheater, a massive shipyard, a bath complex and more.

The Portus Project website describes the immense historical significance of this site.

Portus (Fiumicino) was the maritime port of ancient Rome and, together with the neighbouring river port at Ostia, was the focus of a network of ports serving Imperial Rome between the mid-1st century AD and the 6th century AD. It was established by Claudius in the mid-1st century AD, enlarged by Trajan, and subsequently modified during the 3rd and 4th centuries AD. The port began to enter a period of slow decline from the late 5th century AD onwards, although it was the scene of a major struggle between Byzantine and Ostrogothic troops during the Gothic wars (AD 535-553).

Portus was critically important for supplying the city of Imperial Rome with foodstuffs and materials from across the Mediterranean from the 1st century AD onwards. It also acted as both a point of export for supplies and products from the Tiber Valley to the north of Rome, and a major hub for the redistribution of goods from ports across the Mediterranean. It must also have acted as a major conduit for people visiting Rome from around the Mediterranean.

Now the University of Southampton is giving all us little nerd urchins (nurchins?) a chance to do more than press our faces against the glass. It’s offering a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on the archaeology of Portus. The course is open to everyone free of charge and will include access to all the Portus Project’s research data so that students can explore the nuts and bolts of Portus and the archaeological process.

On this course you will chart a journey from the Imperial harbour to its connections across the Mediterranean, learning about what the archaeological discoveries uncovered by the Portus Project tell us about the history, landscape, buildings, and the people of this unique place. Although the site lies in ruins, it has some of the best-preserved Roman port buildings in the Mediterranean, and in this course you will learn to interpret these and the finds discovered within them, using primary research data and the virtual tools of the archaeologist.

Largely filmed on location at Portus, the course will provide you with an insight into the wide range of digital technologies employed to record, analyse and present the site. In addition to the lead educators, our enthusiastic team of student archaeologists will support your learning.

To register click here, fill in your name and email address and check the privacy policy and code of conduct boxes. The course starts on May 19th and is divided into six week-long classes. Once it’s open, you can go through the whole program in a weekend, if you want, or you can stretch it out longer than six weeks to suit your schedule. There are discussion modules with technology that allows you to follow particular learners. There’s a handy dandy Twitter hashtag (#UoSFLPortus) to carry on the conversation on social media. There are quizzes, scored tests and what looks like some really awesome homework.

So how about it? Shall we take a Roman archaeology class together? :boogie:


How’s your ancient Greek?

Nonexistent? Okay then, how are you at playing Concentration when you can see all the cards? Pretty damn good, I bet. Well now you can put that talent to excellent history nerd use by helping identify and transcribe the Oxyrynchus Papyri, a large collection of ancient writings dating from the 1st to the 6th century A.D.

Archaeologists Bernard Pyne Grenfell and Arthur Surridge Hunt discovered thousands of papyri in a garbage dump outside Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, in the winter of 1896. The papyri had been preserved by the dry sand and were primarily written in Greek, although there were also Latin and later Arabic documents in the mix. The discovery generated immense excitement, with visions of the lost works of antiquity dancing in people’s heads.

Indeed several important ancient literary treasures were discovered among the papyri: large sections of lost Euripides plays plus a biography of him by Satyrus the Peripatetic, an essay by philosopher Empedocles on the anatomy of the eye, the oldest and most complete diagrams from Euclid’s Elements, some never-before-seen letters by Epicurus, seven of the 107 lost books of Livy, and many fragments of the elusive Menander whose comedies were immensely popular in antiquity but barely survived at all.

Scholars also identified a number of theological writings, including gospels canonical and non, and portions of books from the Septuagint, both Hebrew canonical and Apocryhpa, plus all kinds of fragments of quotidian life in Greco-Roman Egypt like receipts, loan notes, work contracts, government edicts.

Still, it’s been over a hundred years since the papyri were discovered and only 15% of them have been identified. For most of that time the process has been scholar-intensive, with each character on each fragment having to be documented by a classicist. The dawn of the computer era allowed for some easier identifications based on comparisons of string of papyrus text with known ancient works, but there is so much volume of data to go through, so many variations in scribe handwriting and so much non-literary material that clunky queries just won’t cut the mustard.

So Oxford University, which owns the bulk of the papyri, and the Egypt Exploration Society enlisted the help of University of Minnesota astrophysicists and papyrologists to devise a crowdsourced solution.

This is where Zooniverse, a collaboration of astrophysicists and public volunteers comes in. The general public will be able to help “read” the texts by locating the placement of ancient Greek letters, and matching the shapes of letters in order to help create strings of letters, which will allow the algorithms to learn to translate and recognize the various characters. Using an interface first developed for the Zooniverse collaboration to allow the general public to identify the shapes of galaxies, volunteers will be able to click on places where they think a letter might be. This data should train the algorithms to improve their ability to translate the texts.

Check it out on the Ancient Lives website. I just did three fragments and it’s easy. Even fun. (I spent many hours of a wayward youth playing Concentration.)

You see a large picture of the fragment and a keyboard of Greek characters beneath. Hover over one of the characters to see an example of it as written in a scribe’s hand over on the right above the accents and symbols. Click on one of the characters on the picture of the papyrus, then click on the corresponding character on the keyboard. Keep doing that until your friends call the cops because they haven’t seen you for days, then click save.

The History of English in Ten Minutes

The Open University is a UK school of higher learning that has no formal entry requirements for admission. The idea is to make learning available to everyone of any age and walk of life, no matter where they live. You don’t have to wait to graduate high school to enroll at OU, and there is no age limit. There are no dorms, no residential component at all, but at more than 250,000 students the OU is the largest university in the UK. Since it was founded in 1969, over 1.6 million people have taken at least one Open University course.

In keeping with their mission of widening access to university-level study, the OU has a put a wealth of materials online. They have a database of research papers that is freely accessible to the public — Open Research Online — and OpenLearn makes available online, free of charge, learning materials used in coursework at The Open University. It’s not accredited so you won’t be able to parlay any of the work you do into an OU degree, but it’s an excellent resource for anyone looking to educate themselves on a subject of interest. There are over 500 free courses, from short introductory overviews to 50-hour advanced study programs, across 12 subject areas you can pursue on OpenLearn.

OL also has a YouTube channel, which brings us to reason for this here entry. Without further ado, please enjoy the History of English in (just over) Ten Minutes.

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First shots of Civil War fired 150 years ago today

Attack on Fort Sumter, Currier and Ives lithographOne hundred and fifty years ago today, at 4:30 in the morning, Captain James fired a shell from a ten-inch mortar across Charleston harbor at Fort Sumter. The garrison had been running desperately low on supplies, and since South Carolina had been the first state to formally secede from the Union months before (on Christmas Eve, 1860, in reaction to the election of Abraham Lincoln), Union troops weren’t going to be able to just waltz into Charleston and buy what they needed. Lincoln ordered a relief expedition and so informed the governor of South Carolina.

Confederate commander General P.G.T. Beauregard decided the fort had to be abandoned before the relief came. He demanded that the garrison surrender Fort Sumter or be fired upon. U.S. Army Major Robert Anderson, Fort Sumter’s commanding officer, offered to leave on April 15th, but only if relief didn’t arrive first and if he did not receive orders contradicting the plan. Beauregard did not accept and notified him in return that they would open fire an hour from that time and so they did. It was all very civilized and officer-and-a-gentlemanly. Anderson had been Beauregard’s artillery instructor at West Point 30 years earlier.

The Fort Sumter storm flag from 1861Confederate batteries fired for 34 hours straight. Fort Sumter returned fire at 7:00 A.M., but to no avail. The fort was surrendered and the garrison evacuated on April 13th. Major Anderson lowered the Union flag on April 14th, the day of his official surrender, and took it with him to New York. The flag would be used as a patriotic rallying symbol in the North for the duration of the war. It was auctioned off regularly to raise money for the war effort, with the expectation that everyone who “bought” it would immediately return it so it could be auctioned again. On April 14, 1865, Major General Anderson raised the flag over Fort Sumter again, in celebration of the end of the war. That same night, Abraham Lincoln went to the theater and never returned.

There were no Union nor Confederate fatalities in the first battle for Fort Sumter, although two Union soldiers and one Confederate died from their own misfires. The fort was not so lucky. It was ruined by the heavy shelling and ruined even harder two years later when the Union barraged Charleston from the water. It would be partially rebuilt by the US Army after the war and is now a national monument, along with the Fort Sumter Visitor Education Center in Charleston, and Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island in the harbor.

The National Park Service is commemorating the sesquicentennial with a variety of events and services. Their website is packed with information, not just about Civil War parks and national monuments, but also about the war itself. They have made their entire National Park Civil War Series of books available online for free. If you were to buy the series in print, it would cost you $186, so I suggest you get downloadin’ now while the downloadin’ is good, then make a donation to the NPS and/or volunteer to help preserve our national monuments. (There are 54 national parks related to the Civil War maintained by the NPS. Click “by topic” and “Civil War” on this search page for links to all of them.)

Speaking of preserving history, the Civil War Trust is dedicated to the preservation of Civil War battlefields. To further their goal in the long term, they have put together an impressive group of educational resources so that future generations can grow up to be as properly obsessive about preserving these sites as they are. They have an entire Civil War Curriculum on their website, including freely downloadable lesson plans, exams and in-class presentations for elementary, middle and high school students. There’s a coloring book (pdf), crossword puzzles, links to primary sources, contemporary pictures, maps, and best of all, lessons based on visiting Civil War battlefields.

Stereoscopic photo of Fort Sumter, 1865Did you know that 70% of the pictures taken during the war were actually shot in 3D for viewing through a stereoscope device? The Civil War Trust also has an extensive collection of digitized stereoview photographs. You can order 3D glasses free of charge from the website. They also have many galleries of period and contemporary non-3D pictures of the battlefields they are working to preserve.

If you’re planning a trip to Washington, D.C., the Smithsonian has set up a website featuring all the current and upcoming events and exhibits on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. If you’re staying put but would like to learn out more about the Civil War, Smithsonian magazine has reposted articles from their archives about the Civil War in honor of the sesquicentennial.

There are some excellent new pieces as well. Fort Sumter: The Civil War Begins is a good place to start today. Then there’s The Women Who Fought in the Civil War, an interview with author Bonnie Tsui about the hundreds of women who disguised themselves as men to enlist and fight, How We’ve Commemorated the Civil War, a retrospective on how Americans have remembered the Civil War on past milestone anniversaries, and two articles on the first Union officer to die in the fighting, The Death of Colonel Ellsworth and How Col. Ellsworth’s Death Shocked the Union.

In the pictures worth a thousand words category, Smithsonian offers a slideshow of select Civil War artifacts in the Smithsonian museums, and an interactive timeline of the Civil War (click on the question mark icons for more information).

I can’t let a national commemoration pass without a nod to the history nerd paradise that is the Library of Congress. The Last Full Measure: Civil War Photographs from the Liljenquist Family Collection opens today at the Library of Congress. I blogged about the donation of this impressive collection of over 700 ambrotype and tintype portrait photographs of Civil War soldiers and civilians last fall. Now almost the entire collection has been digitized. A selection of about half of the pictures will be part of the exhibit.

You can also read Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project on the LoC website. The narratives can be browsed by narrator or by state, and the pictures are arranged by topic. There’s a thorough introduction very much worth reading to get an idea of the historical context of the project, its approach to recording of narratives and its limitations.

Preserving the history of slavery is also the mission of National Trust for Historic Preservation program officer Joseph McGill who spends the night in slave dwellings all over the South to publicize the need to preserve slave quarters as well as the big fancy plantation buildings. Since they were constructed out of flimsy materials to begin with, slave dwellings are even more endangered than their architecturally sound contemporaries.

The Most Serene Republic of San MarinoFinally, if you’ve kept reading this wall of text, here’s a little payoff. After Lincoln’s inauguration in March 1861, he received piles of congratulatory letters. One of them was from the Most Serene Republic of San Marino, the wee little statelet of 24 square miles in the middle of Italy that according to legend was founded in the 4th century A.D. as a monastic community by Marinus, a Christian stonecutter and Deacon. It has retained its sovereignty since then, making it the oldest sovereign nation in the world, and since its constitution (which codified a political system already in place since 1300 or so) was written in 1600, San Marino is also the oldest constitutional republic in the world.

Surrounded by an almost-unified Italy in 1861, San Marino was sweating a little when its Capitani Regenti (elected leaders) wrote to Lincoln. The letter expressed solidarity with the Union — six Southern states had already seceded by the time Lincoln was inaugurated — and conferring honorary citizenship on the American president. From the letter:

We have wished to write to you in our own hand and in English, although we have little knowledge and no practice in the language. It is a some while since the Republic of San Marino wishes to make alliance with the United States of America in that manner as it is possible between a great Potency and a very small country. As we think not extention of territories but conformity of opinions to procure friendly relations, so we are sure you will be glad to shake hands with a people who in its smallness and poverty can exhibit to you an antiquity from fourteen centuries of its free government.

Now we must inform you that to give to the United States of America a mark of high consideration and sincere fraternity the Sovereign Counsel on our motion decreed in its sitting of 25th October … that the citizenship of the Republic of San Marino was conferred for ever to the President pro tempore of the United States of America and we are very happy to send you the diploma of it.

We are acquainted from newspapers with political griefs, wich you are now suffering therefore we pray to God to grant you a peaceful solution of your questions. Nevertheless we hope our letter will not reach you disagreeable, and we shall expect anxiously an answer which proves us your kind acceptance.

Secretary of State William Henry Seward personally brought the letter to Lincoln’s attention. After some weeks, the President replied accepting the honorary citizenship and describing the key issue of the war in terms that presage his Gettysburg Address. From Lincoln’s reply:

Although your dominion is small, your State is nevertheless one of the most honored, in all history. It has by its experience demonstrated the truth, so full of encouragement to the friends of Humanity, that Government founded on Republican principles is capable of being so administered as to be secure and enduring.

You have kindly adverted to the trial through which this Republic is now passing. It is one of deep import. It involves the question whether a Representative republic, extended and aggrandized so much as to be safe against foreign enemies can save itself from the dangers of domestic faction. I have faith in a good result.

Abraham Lincoln’s letter is now one of San Marino’s most treasured historical artifacts. It is on display in the National Museum. In 1937, San Marino issued an Abraham Lincoln stamp, quoting the “most honored” line. They also dedicated a bronze sculpture to him, and the letter was read aloud at the ceremony inaugurating the bust. It was the first time in history Lincoln appeared on a foreign stamp. In 1959, they issued another set of Abraham Lincoln stamps, this time in honor of the sesquicentennial of his birth. Abramo Lincoln looms large in little San Marino.

1938 San Marino Lincoln stamp, scarlet San Marino bust of Lincoln San Marino Abramo Lincoln stamp, 1959

Alexander’s armies wore linen armour

Alexander mosaic in the House of the Faun, Pompeii This isn’t breaking news or anything, but it’s news to me and I’ve been obsessing about it for 2 days. Greek armies from at least the 6th century B.C. through the Hellenistic period (the era after Alexander’s conquests when Greek military strength and cultural influence were at their peak) wore an armour made out of linen. It’s called linothorax, a thorax being an armoured chestpiece and lino being, well, linen.

The famous floor mosaic of Alexander found in the House of the Faun in Pompeii depicts him wearing a linothorax. Although the mosaic was made 400 or so years after Alexander died, it is a copy of a Hellenistic original from Alexander’s time. You can’t tell from looking at it what it was made out of, of course, but that kind of armour has been depicted in hundreds of Greek vases, sculptures, reliefs, as well as described in ancient sources.

None of it has survived, however, unlike its metallic brethren, so it’s a bit of a mystery. We know there was tube and yoke armour made out leather as well as metal, but how could linen, a fabric worn in summer because of its easy breezy breathability, provide any kind of protection against arrows and swords?

The trick is layering. Layers of linen were laminated together, glued or stitched in a quilted pattern, creating a remarkably strong barrier against penetration. Of course it wasn’t as strong as metal plate armour, but it had other advantages: light weight, flexibility, comfort, low cost, widely-available, easily crafted materials, and it doesn’t turn into a oven the minute the sun hits it, a major advantage in the scalding Mediterranean summer fighting season. Linen’s unique breathability becomes a laminating advantage, in fact, because once it’s glued together it becomes a solid block.

Linothorax depicted on a vaseProf. Aldrete in his homemade linothoraxUniversity of Wisconsin-Green Bay History professor Gregory S. Aldrete has put the linothorax through a rigorous battery of tests.

This is the mystery that the UWGB Linothorax Project is exploring. Using the available literary and artistic sources, the group has reconstructed several linothoraxes using only the authentic fabrics and glues that would have been available in the ancient Mediterranean. These reconstructions and various sample patches were then subjected to a series of tests to precisely determine how wearable this armor was, and how effective it would have been in protecting its wearer from common battlefield hazards, especially arrows. This involved actually shooting the test patches with arrows and measuring their penetration, as well as hitting them with a variety of weapons including swords, axes, and spears.

The results have so far been impressive. See the UWGB linothorax reconstructions in action:

Linothorax testing (link leads to download of mov file)

Also be sure to check out this sweet poster the UWGB team put together for the 2010 meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America. It won the 2010 Best Poster Award from the AIA, and it’s easy to see why. It covers ancient literary and decorative sources of information about the linothorax, plus the reconstruction process and the test results.

Last but not least, here’s a pattern (pdf) so you make your own ancient Greek armour from the comfort of your own home.