Archive for the ‘Ex Cathedra’ Category


Thursday, July 28th, 2011

I spent all day pursuing a fascinating new obsession and had a nice loooong blog entry to show for it when I got kicked out of WordPress and lost all my work. I’m too traumatized to face starting over again right now, so y’all will have to excuse me for not posting today.

I leave you instead to the dark consolation of Volume 6 of Drunk History, starring a six-pack, a bottle of Absinthe, John C. Reilly and Crispin Glover.


Apologies and a shout out to Turkey

Monday, September 20th, 2010

I apologize for what seemed like an endless day of History Bloglessness. A Turkish hacker took down the host server and it took all day to get the site restored.

8000 year old sealIn honor of the pirate who took us down, here’s a story about an 8,000-year-old seal found in the province of Izmir, in western Turkey. Archaeologists discovered the seal while excavating the Yesilova Tumulus, one of the oldest settlements in that part of the country.

“The seal is dated back to 6,200 B.C. It is evident that the seal belonged to an administrator. This bull-shaped seal is one of the oldest seals ever unearthed in Anatolia. We’ve unearthed many important findings during the excavations at this site since 2005. Some 700 pieces have been sent to museums for display. We give 150 pieces every year. This region is very important in terms of both tourism and science,” [Associate Professor Zafer Derin] said.



Q & A with author J.C. McKeown

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010

This is the full author Q & A that I quoted just a teeny portion of in my review of A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities by J.C. McKeown. I emailed him the questions and he kindly emailed me back his answers.

* * *

Q: I’d like to know more about your factoid collection process. Had you taken any notes as Aulus Gellis had (Preface, pg. VIII), by jotting down oddities as you casually encountered them in your personal and professional reading, or did you review the sources explicitly to collect items that would serve as incentives for your Classical Latin exercises? Maybe some of both? Did you go through the sources all over again when you decided to make a book of it?

A: I have a tendency to enjoy and remember trivial facts and stories like these. The majority were gathered during my reading over the years. I like to read Latin and Greek for a couple of hours every day, regardless of what else I am doing, and my texts have a lot of passages underlined or commented on in the margins, so it was easy to pick them out.

I wasn’t originally setting out to write a book. I started using quirky facts in class to keep students interested in learning Latin and then, when I spun the Web site to accompany my textbook, Classical Latin, I incorporated interesting stories to appear randomly at the bottom of each page as an incentive for students to continue with the online exercises. It started with about 90 items and grew from there.

For a lot of the stuff that appears in the book it would be hard to go looking for it specifically. For example, nobody would really set out to inquire how many testicles the dictator Sulla had or, if they did want to know, the problem would be where to look, but the answer comes out of the blue right at the end of Justinian’s Digest – the cornerstone of so much modern Western law.

Q: Aelian describes the Byzantines as living in taverns and renting their homes to strangers. (Foreigners, pg. 110) Leeds University’s Clare Kelly Blazeby recently advanced a theory that mainland Greeks 500 – 700 years before Aelian was writing used their homes as taverns and brothels. Could there be a kernel of truth rooted in a Greek practice that spread to the eastern Hellenic world over time? Do you ever follow up on something you’ve encountered in the literature, even something fairly outlandish to our sensibilities, to see if there might be a historical basis for it?

A: This is a good example of my really not know what someone else could
make of it. It only made it into the book because it was curious. For what it’s worth, although Aelian wrote in Greek and obviously had access to a lot of very interesting sources now lost to us, he probably lived his whole life in Italy so maybe he is not the best authority for this sort of thing, but again I am not making a judgement on my source, just quoting it.

Q: I found myself following up on many individual curiosities. Additional research, pursuing a tangent, is so easy to do in the Internet era. In fact, it took me much longer to read your book than the number of pages and easy pace would suggest just because I kept running after factoids. Did you include hyperlinks to additional reading and original sources in the Classical Latin online exercises?

A: There are no hyperlinks in the text of Classical Latin itself. Many of the sources are not, I suspect, available online. I really regret not having easy and full online access to e.g. the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, because it is so useful in lots of ways. On my Web site,, I did include links to interesting web sites under the tab Mundus Araneosus (a world full of webs).

Q: It seems to me A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities is a book that could become the pivot of a huge network of information if you had an online version. A companion DVD with links to online editions of the sources, for instance, or even a full digital version of the book where every reference, footnote and bibliographical credit is an active link. Can you envision putting together something like that even for a book that is also traditionally published? Would it increase your workload past the point of it being worthwhile?

A: I dare say this would all be possible, but I’m not the world’s greatest computer user and the idea of me being a spider at the center of a huge Web is improbable. In any case, my wife cannot abide spiders.

Q: Marcus Aurelius’ description (Medicine, pg. 70) of the public baths upended my long-held assumption that they were indicative of general hygiene. I never considered how dirty, stagnant, greasy and petri-dish-like these unchlorinated pools full of oiled down people must have been. Meanwhile, Pliny described the barbarian Gauls and Germans using soap. (Foreigners, pg. 104) Do you think we still carry biases about who is or isn’t “civilized” from the classical texts, even without consciously realizing it?

A: Good point. As an Irishman whose country the Romans did not consider worth conquering because the people would not even make good slaves, I’m glad to see there is an upsurge in interest in Celtic art, which really is powerful and beautiful in its utterly unclassical way. Rome must have been dreadful when, for example, three hundred oxen were sacrificed at one time. It’s appalling to think of the blood, esp. if they performed these rituals at the height of summer.

Q: There’s an exhibit at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia right now called “Ancient Rome & America” about the powerful influence Roman mythology, politics, ideals, art and literature exerted on the nascent United States. The Founding Fathers and early leaders would have all been far more familiar with the classical authors than most of us are today. They would have been more like you, in fact, in that respect. Do you encounter the legacy of Rome everywhere you go, or do the vast differences between the Roman mindset and ours stand out more than the commonalities?

A: My wife says that I generally go around in a fog with little or no interest in anything outside our personal life that has happened since about A.D. 300. There is an implication in this question that I am looking for or finding lessons to be drawn from the past for the present and I’m flattered if you would think I have such a high purpose. I really don’t. Every reader will have to make up their own mind about the implications of each item in the book, if indeed there are any.

Q: I’m curious to know more about the early imperial plague pit found in 1876 that still reeked after almost 2,000 years. (Medicine, pg. 75) Bill Thayer’s excellent website pointed me to Rodolfo Lanciani’s 1888 book for an account of the find. Lanciani said the human remains turned to dust as soon as the pit was opened, but that the whole Servilian Agger area smelled revolting once dug up several years later, not the pit itself. What was your source?

A: If this were an academic book, I would have quoted my source. I’m pretty sure this item was a late candidate for entry into the book and I jotted it down casually. I’m sorry that I cannot tell you where I found it. I do remember talking to an archeologist colleague of mine to confirm the accuracy of what I was saying.

Q: What exactly did the primitive liposuction procedure performed on Caesianus’ son entail? (Medicine, pg. 68)

A: Pliny says that fat is not sensate, because it has neither veins nor arteries, and that this is why mice can nibble at living pigs. Then he goes straight on to say merely that “fat was withdrawn [literally “detracted”] from Apronius, and his body was relieved of the weight that made it impossible for him to move”.

Q: Is that one anecdote from Suetonius about Claudius’ slip of the tongue in front of the fighters in the Fucine sea battle (Spectacles, pg. 145) really the only source for the widespread belief that gladiators hailed the emperor with “we who are about to die salute you”?

A: I believe it is.

Q: You include reactions to antiquity from post-Fall Rome and Italy along with your ancient source material. Do you have a general interest in Italian history and culture, and if so, which came first: a passion for the literature or a passion for the place?

A: When I was student I spent all my summers in Greece and was a late bloomer in appreciating Italy. You may be thinking particularly of the “Wedding Cake” [ie, the Victor Emmanuel Monument], that utterly spoils the Capitol. I think I said that just because I find it an appalling and quite inappropriate building. I’m mostly just interested in things that happened 2,000 years ago but I felt I could vent on this one since every modern day Roman seems to agree.

Q: Was the excellent pasquinade “quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barberini” (Buildings, pg. 180) actually posted on the Pasquino or on one of the other talking statues, or just published and passed around?

A: I don’t know. I used the word pasquinade as a general term for I was mostly just interested in the clever expression itself.

Q: Is there a greater name in the history of the world than Fabius Ululutremulus? (Pompeii and Herculaneum , pg. 182)

A: If you come across it, please let me know.

Q: I was delighted to see a whole chapter on toilets, in large part because I found A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities to be an ideal example of bathroom reading material: short, digestible items that you can read quickly or linger over at length and then easily pick up where you left off. We have to do something to keep us occupied in there, after all, now that convivial socializing during excretory functions is no longer in vogue. Do you find that disconcerting or complimentary? (I very much hope it’s the latter.)

A: One of my friends has told me that he is reading it “in the little room”. As long as people read it and enjoy it, it really doesn’t matter where they read it.

Q: You describe Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things as one of the greatest poems ever written in Latin. (Toilets, pg. 187) What other ancient authors and works would you rank as superlatives in their own genres?

A: Personal bias comes into this, though few would question Vergil and Ovid’s right to rank very high, and also Tacitus and Juvenal. I find it easier to demote people from the high pedestal they seem to be on these days. Martial’s Epigrams, for example, strike me as tedious and small-minded, and not particularly artistic. I keep meaning to read right through Demosthenes, but I simply don’t find his language very interesting – I know this is a defect in me, for he had such a reputation in antiquity. I think I would love Sappho’s poetry, if only it weren’t so depressingly fragmented.


“A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities” by J.C. McKeown

Tuesday, June 1st, 2010

McKeown cover imageOxford University Press sent me some books to review (no money changed hands or influence was brought to bear, trust) and the first one I dived into was A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from the World’s Greatest Empire by J.C. McKeown. Much like actual cabinets of curiosities, the book collects all kinds of notable tidbits from ancient Roman authors. Some are precious gems, some colorful corals and some just sort of weird-looking rocks.

McKeown, a classics professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, makes it clear in the preface that he’s not making any historical or factual assessments. He’s just sharing the wealth that he’s encountered in his perusals, which is for the best, because to paraphrase Obelix, those Romans were crazy. As McKeown so felicitously puts it:

As it happens, I personally find it hard to believe that a six-inch fish could have held back Mark Anthony’s flagship during the Battle of Actium, or that Milan was founded because a woolly pig was seen on the future site of the city, or that the phoenix appears every five hundred years, or that touching the nostrils of a she-mule with one’s lips will stop sneezing and hiccups, or that fish sauce is an effective cure for crocodile bites, or that any Roman emperor was eight foot, six inches tall. I strongly suspect that goats do not breathe through their ears, and there are no islands in the Baltic Sea inhabited by people whose ears are so enormous that they cover their bodies with them and do not need clothes. I do not myself wear a mouse’s muzzle and ear tips as an amulet to ward off fever, nor do I know precisely how one might attach earrings to an eel. (Preface, pg. VII)

The chapters on medicine and religion are particularly replete with this kind of off-the-wall quasi-fact, and yes, they are all awesome, but even the entirely believable observations can be mind-blowing.

For example, Roman encyclopedist Celsus in his volume On Medicine counseled people with wounds to avoid the public baths because “bathing makes [the wound] moist and dirty, and that often leads to infection. (Celsus On Medicine 5.28)” Marcus Aurelius went even further in his Meditations where he called bathing “olive oil, sweat, filth, greasy water, everything that is disgusting (Meditations 8.24).”

I had always assumed that the Roman penchant for copious bathing was indicative of general hygiene, but those eye-witness comments made me realize that the baths couldn’t help but have been pools of nastiness. Most of them weren’t spring-fed but filled and emptied like any other pool, only there was no chlorine, no filter and not even any soap. Can you imagine the sheer quantities of dirt, oil left over from the scraping that stood in stead of washing, human excretions and secretions of every variety that must have been floating in those baths?

That wasn’t the only tidbit that sent me on a voyage of discovery. In fact, this book is ideal for the history nerd/research monkey who loves following up on a good clue. I spent two whole weekends link hopping and Googling to find out more about an anecdote in the book. For anyone like me, A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities is just the beginning, the nucleus of a do-it-yourself network that you, the Internet, and your library can create. It gave me visions of where digital books could go over the next few years: every source linked to, every footnote connected to further information.

I had an opportunity to ask the author some questions about the book and his process. McKeown can’t exactly picture himself as the “spider at the center of a huge Web” of networked links. He went about collecting these facts in a more traditional manner, and some sources may not even be available online. (Also his wife is apparently arachnophobic.)

I have a tendency to enjoy and remember trivial facts and stories like these. The majority were gathered during my reading over the years. I like to read Latin and Greek for a couple of hours every day, regardless of what else I am doing, and my texts have a lot of passages underlined or commented on in the margins, so it was easy to pick them out.

I wasn’t originally setting out to write a book. I started using quirky facts in class to keep students interested in learning Latin and then, when I spun the Web site to accompany my textbook, Classical Latin, I incorporated interesting stories to appear randomly at the bottom of each page as an incentive for students to continue with the online exercises. It started with about 90 items and grew from there.

For a lot of the stuff that appears in the book it would be hard to go looking for it specifically. For example, nobody would really set out to inquire how many testicles the dictator Sulla had or, if they did want to know, the problem would be where to look, but the answer comes out of the blue right at the end of Justinian’s Digest – the cornerstone of so much modern Western law.

Yes, I would enjoy feasting on this man’s tasty, tasty brains.

There is a downside to his approach, however. When he introduces a contemporary reaction to a classical anecdote, the facts can be hazy. It doesn’t happen often — the vast majority of the book cites Roman and Greek literature — but I did encounter two questionable claims. One is that our phrase “parting shot” comes from “Parthian shot”, after the famed archers of the Parthian cavalry who were so skilled that they could fire their bows over their shoulders as they rode away from the battle field. It seems, however, that the literal “parting shot” expression appears in English texts earlier than the Parthian version.

The second iffy claim was one that sent me on the most wonderful romp through archaeology in post-Unification Rome. While discussing plagues and the burial of the dead, McKeown says:

A pit one hundred and sixty feet long, one hundred feet wide, and thirty feet deep, containing an estimated twenty-four thousand corpses from the early imperial period, was discovered outside Rome in 1876; when it was opened, the stench was still intolerable. (Medicine, pg. 75)

You can see why I had to follow up on that kind of juicy tidbit. After some Googling and a trip to one of my favorite sites, LacusCurtius, I found a book called Ancient Rome in the Light of Recent Discoveries written in 1888, just 18 years after Rome joined a unified Italy, by Rodolfo Lanciani, the first official archaeologist of the new Italian capital. On pages 66 and 67 of chapter 3, he discusses finding that very pit on the Esquiline hill in 1876.

He found plenty of ooze and stench in his excavations of the area, but the actual 1876 pit wasn’t the locus of it. The bones turned to dust as soon they were exposed to air. It was in 1884 at a nearby spot that he and his diggers encountered the remains of a garbage dump (plenty of bodies, human and animal in that one too) which was so rank he had to give his team regular breaks so they could go off somewhere and breathe.

I asked McKeown if Lanciari was his source, and he said that it was a late entry into the book that he had jotted down casually. He couldn’t exactly recall the source but he did remember talking to an archeologist colleague to confirm the anecdote’s accuracy.

Obviously it’s no huge deal, but it’s a grain of salt to keep with you when you read the small portion of the book that isn’t a direct quote of an ancient source.

Final verdict: this book is awesome. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the ancient mind, life, culture, society. It’s a boon for anyone with a yen for chasing after historical details, and as I proudly told the author, it’s an outstanding bathroom book. It’s easily digestible, easy to follow, and easy to pick up where you left off. Throw out your cheesy magazines and leave this on the tank. Your guests are sure to thank you, not to mention bring up far more interesting lines of conversation at the dinner table than they would have if they’d just put down last year’s fall shoe issue of Cosmo.

After all, we don’t have community toilets that we all sit on together to socialize during excretory functions. Vacerra, that friend of Martial‘s who spent all day in the community latrine hoping to scrounge a dinner invitation from one of his fellow crappers (Toilets, pg. 190), would have to find a new way to freeload.


The Noah’s Ark plot thickens

Friday, April 30th, 2010

A member of the ark-hunting team who made the purported discovery has expressed doubts about the veracity of the find. Not just about its being the Ark itself, mind you, but about whether the whole thing is a deliberate hoax.

Dr. Randall Price, an evangelic Christian professor at the Jerry Falwell-founded Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, was the sole archaeologist on the team in 2008 when they first discovered the wooden structures on Mount Ararat. He wouldn’t get into specifics with the Christian Science Monitor, but he did tell them that he had “difficulties with a number of issues related to the evidence at hand.” He also confirmed that he had sent a certain email which has now leaked in which he claimed the wood was planted.

From the email:

I was the archaeologist with the Chinese expedition in the summer of 2008 and was given photos of what they now are reporting to be the inside of the Ark. I and my partners invested $100,000 in this expedition (described below) which they have retained, despite their promise and our requests to return it, since it was not used for the expedition. The information given below is my opinion based on what I have seen and heard (from others who claim to have been eyewitnesses or know the exact details).

To make a long story short: this is all reported to be a fake. The photos were reputed to have been taken off site near the Black Sea, but the film footage the Chinese now have was shot on location on Mt. Ararat. In the late summer of 2008 ten Kurdish workers hired by Parasut, the guide used by the Chinese, are said to have planted large wood beams taken from an old structure in the Black Sea area (where the photos were originally taken) at the Mt. Ararat site. In the winter of 2008 a Chinese climber taken by Parasut’s men to the site saw the wood, but couldn’t get inside because of the severe weather conditions. During the summer of 2009 more wood was planted inside a cave at the site. The Chinese team went in the late summer of 2009 (I was there at the time and knew about the hoax) and was shown the cave with the wood and made their film. As I said, I have the photos of the inside of the so-called Ark (that show cobwebs in the corners of rafters – something just not possible in these conditions) and our Kurdish partner in Dogubabyazit (the village at the foot of Mt. Ararat) has all of the facts about the location, the men who planted the wood, and even the truck that transported it.

Damn, yo. If true, I have to give the expedition credit for commitment to their con. Dr. John D. Morris, a consultant to the Chinese team and president of the Institute for Creation Research, declined to join the press conference and is withholding judgment until he sees some real evidence, but he points out to the CSM that hauling all that wood up 12,000 feet of snow-covered mountain then cramming it into the ice would be a dramatic feat. You’d need major heavy machinery to accomplish it.

It seems to me the con could be a lot more simple than that: pocket money from avowed Ark-hunters, take pictures and video from other sites, make a big splashy announcement with zero confirmable information and enjoy the publicity and further riches that inevitably ensue. If they disappear from this point onwards, the story will just fade away, one of a million media microfurors that get zero follow-up.


The Noah’s Ark kerfuffle

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

A team of Chinese and Turkish explorers from an evangelical Christian group called Noah’s Ark Ministries International announced earlier this week that they’ve found the remains of Noah’s Ark on top of Mount Ararat in Turkey. The news instantly spread around the world via wire service (AFP seems to have been the primary source) and a remarkable number of mainstream media outlets reported the claims virtually uncritically; see this absurdly definite headline from ABC, for example.

The basics are as follows: at an undisclosed location on Mount Ararat, the team claims to have found seven large wooden compartments, plus some fragments of wood nearby, in 2007 and 2008. In October of 2009 they returned with a film crew. They say they’ve carbon dated the wood and the results indicate the wood about 4,800 years old, which is kinda sorta when Noah would have been awaiting the rainbow sign, give or take 500 years going by Bishop Ussher’s chronology.

Explorer examines Mount Ararat structureFilmmaker Yeung Wing-cheung from the 15-person team went so far as to say “It’s not 100 per cent that it is Noah’s Ark, but we think it is 99.9 per cent that this is it.”

In support of their claims, they offer the remote location which precludes human habitation as a source of the structures, some unauthenticated footage and a couple of pictures. Oh, and also the presence of tenons in the wood, which of course only existed before nails were invented. (Any mortise and tenon joints you might have encountered on your post-Noah furniture secretly include invisible nails.) The group refuse to disclose the location, for its protection, of course. They also say Turkish officials present at the press conference will ask the government to submit the site to UNESCO for World Heritage status.

The Turkish government doesn’t seem to be quite on board with the plan, however, because they’re actually initiating an investigation into the regional officials involved and into whether the team actually had permission to do any research on Mount Ararat and remove artifacts from the country.

Also displeased are Creationist scholars who point out that if radiocarbon dating is accepted in this case, then it would have to be accepted in all the other cases where the results are older than the 6,000 years of the earth according to Biblical literalists. If you recalibrate all carbon dating results so the maximum is 6,000 years, then of course the 4,800 years of this find make it way too young to be Noah’s wood. Also, it’s cedar wood, not gopher, so yeah, literalists not happy.

Meanwhile, actual archaeologists point out that even if this find is real and the dating is accurate — two huge ifs — that proves exactly nothing. The wood could be on Mount Ararat and a) not be from a ship, b) not have been used in construction right when it was harvested.

“I don’t know of any expedition that ever went looking for the ark and didn’t find it,” Paul Zimansky, an archaeologist at Stony Brook University in New York state, told National Geographic.

The evangelical group says it found wood structures on Ararat, and carbon dating placed it at 4,800 years old. But even this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s Noah’s Ark – or that the “structure” they found is that old.

“All that we know at the moment is that the expedition members are showing us pictures and samples of a structure made out of wood,” Cline told The Christian Post.

“It could be ancient, it could be medieval, it could even have been constructed last week,” he said. “Even carbon-14 dating will only tell us how old the wood is; it will not tell us when the structure was constructed.”

“If the finds are published in a full and comprehensive manner, one will truly be able to assess it,” Dr. Aren M. Maeir, a professor at Israel’s Bar Ilan University, told The Christian Post. “Meanwhile, it joins many other such discoveries – and sound quite hard to believe.”

There’s also zero geological evidence of a flood in Turkey 4,000 years ago, and Biblical scholars point out that the Bible says the ark landed in Urartu, a kingdom in eastern Turkey. The Mount Ararat location only became the prevalent theory in the Middle Ages.

So, in other words, the “find” is pretty much meaningless at this point. The articles quoting the team unchallenged are succumbing to the allure of Bible-related discoveries. We’ll see if there’s any fire to all this smoke should the discoveries ever be published.

Meanwhile, here’s an entertaining YouTube of the Noah’s Ark Ministries International team doing their version of archaeology on the Ararat site. I particularly like the stumbling around in thick boots part.


How to make history appeal to the gaming generation

Thursday, April 8th, 2010

Today’s Heritage Key bloggers challenge asks how we can utilize gaming technology as a learning tool for children without indulging in the sex and violence that characterize some of the more popular videogames. Is it possible to craft online virtual education which appeals to kids raised in the era of Grand Theft Auto while at the same time teaching them about history?

Short answer: yes. Long answer as follows. First I think it’s important that we unpack the assumption that sex and violence don’t belong in history teaching tools. History is replete with violence, sex and all manner of depraved intrigue, after all, so when we take it as a given that virtual education should be free of these elements, I think we do students a disservice. When we sanitize history, not only do we engage in willful deception, but we also drain it of much of its relatable humanity.

Granted, schools are notoriously twitchy about getting into the muck of things not least because parents can raise five kinds of hell about it, and no website that aspires to be educational wants to be blocked by content filters, so I wouldn’t suggest a child’s history game feature explicit sex or huge torrents of gore.

However, even Grand Theft Auto, which has become the unwitting poster child for over-the-top violence and sexually suggestive videogames, is fundamentally a mapping game with recent historical backdrops. It’s a sandbox game, so unlike linear formats that force you follow a trajectory pre-determined by the game designer, you can wander around without engaging any of the violent elements. Just pick a non-assassin, non-prostitute role and explore to your heart’s content.

I think GTA makes a better positive role model than cautionary tale for anyone seeking to create virtual historical worlds that appeal to people raised in the gamer era. Dig, if you will, the picture of an open world game set in Victorian London where you can be anyone from a chimney sweep to Jack the Ripper. Children would have every city landmark, every alley of coal-besmogged Whitechapel committed to memory within a week. How about the Tudor court? Or late Republican Rome? Or the Spanish Inquisition? Actual history is way, way juicier than Grand Theft Auto.

Rote memorization of dates and geography bores students to tears, but set up an historically accurate virtual world and give players a mission to fulfill and they’ll quaff the most arcane detail like sweetest ambrosia. That almost preternatural ability to absorb the properties of a gameworld has the potential to be an invaluable teaching tool.

Game designer Jane McGonical in this excellent TED speech about using MMORPGs to change the world points out that the average young person in game playing culture will have spent 10,000 hours gaming by age 21. With perfect attendance, a student will spend 10,080 hours from 5th grade to graduation.

That means what we’re talking about when we refer to the GTA generation is a group of people who voluntarily dedicate as much time to games as they are forced by law and/or parents to spend in school, and all those hours they are fully immersed in the game environment learning and retaining every possible nuance. So setting aside any value judgments about the quality of the learned material, which set of 10,000 hours is more productive? It’s not even a close call.

The question then becomes how do would-be educators tap into this parallel world of learning. Virtual online environments are a great way to explore cultural and historical landmarks that you can’t see in person, or which you couldn’t possibly explore in the kind of detail the virtual replica provides. They are not, however, gameworlds. There’s no complex puzzle to solve, no epic mission, no social fabric knit via collaboration, none of the elements that most engender what McGonical calls “blissful productivity,” the willingness to work hard at something deeply satisfying.

I R WINNARThis is where many of the games you encounter on history-themed sites fail. They tend to be afterthoughts, gadgets tacked on to content rather than fully realized gameplay environments. For example, the BBC website offers a companion game to their excellent A History of the World in 100 Objects radio series. It’s called Relic: Guardians of the Museum and the aim is to answer a multiple choice question about one of the objects in the series. If you get it right, you “unlock” the relic and return it the museum. Once you’ve unlocked them all you get (dramatic drumroll) a certificate. Please turn to your right to see my hard-won Guardian of the Museum certification.

This is not really a game so much as an open-book quiz you don’t even get graded on. I’m in no way knocking the BBC here. The series is great and the companion website marshals its readers to submit historical artifacts of their own to create a huge complex timeline of objects mundane and fantastical from all over the world. The object database is a fresh, interactive approach custom-coded to the BBC’s particular needs, but to me that only underscores the failure of game imagination that has given us Relic.

Starting with content and tacking on the shadow of something that can be mistaken for a game in the right light is backwards. To get the full advantage of the gamerbrain’s capacity to absorb knowledge, you have to do the opposite: craft a complex environment that is fleshed out with content.

Games like Making History, a World War II strategy game, are already used in classrooms. It’s not a first-person shooter like the hugely popular Call of Duty series (shooting at people in school, even fake people = not a good idea), but rather a kind of realistic CGI World War II version of Risk. Students play a country and cope with real life diplomatic and economic issues as well as military strategy.

It doesn’t sell as much as the first-person shooters — it’s a tad on the dry side — but they’ve created a legitimate gameworld that can be and is used as a teaching tool. Not that games which prominently feature historical backdrops don’t sell. Just to name a few, there’s the City Building Series, where you micromanage yourself an empire based on ancient Rome, Greece, Egypt and China, Sid Meier’s Pirates!, which embedded the map of the Caribbean in young men’s brains for 20 years, the Total War series, the Rome title of which even has a modification pack called Rome: Total Realism which corrects historical inaccuracies in the retail game, and Sid Meier’s apotheosis, the Civilization series.

Any educators seeking to entice the vast audience playing these games must realize that they are dealing with highly sophisticated gaming palates. There are no shortcuts to designing a quality game packed with challenge as well as content. This is a major challenge for any regular folk trying to create an appealing and instructive virtual history, I know. I certainly couldn’t do it, but there are people who can, and not necessarily people who cost huge gobs of cash either.

The companies that produce games with strong historical backdrops could convert them into teaching tools with a relatively small investment. All the hard and expensive development work — the creation of photorealistic historical environments like the Renaissance Florence of Assassin’s Creed II, for instance — has already been done, so add a few enthusiastic history and computer science graduate student interns to the research and development team and you could pack the existing game with historically accurate content and diverse missions at comparatively little cost. The smaller audience for educational games wouldn’t be an issue then, because the company is already making its money back from the retail game.

From a non-profit perspective, if Villanova’s Computer Science department can spend two years scanning the entire Sistine Chapel so we can explore every inch of it in extreme close-up on the Vatican website, then perhaps similar institutions and research organizations could be enlisted to design real games that enlist the full immersion capabilities of a richly detailed gameworld to educate as well as they stimulate.


Should the British Museum Return the Rosetta Stone to Egypt?

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

When last we saw our intrepid blogger participate in a Heritage Key challenge, the topic was the most important ancient site in London. Now challenge 3 looms, and this time the topic is a controversial one: should the British Museum give the Rosetta Stone back to Egypt?

The Rosetta Stone is a carved granodiorite stele made during the reign of Ptolemy V in 196 B.C. The text carved upon it is a single proclamation written in three languages: ancient hieroglyphic, Demotic and classical Greek.

Rosetta Stone in the British Museum, picture by Hans Hillewaert It was discovered in 1799 by French troops in Fort St. Julien, Rosetta (today known as Rashid), Egypt. When I say it was discovered in Fort St. Julien, I mean it was actually a part of the fort. It was found during construction work. At some point in its lifetime, the stone had been re-purposed as building material.

French officer Pierre Francois Xavier Bouchard immediately recognized its archaeological value and packed it off to the French Institute of Egypt in Cairo. When Napoleon’s troops got spanked by the British in 1801, the stone was one of the spoils the victor claimed. It has been on display at the British Museum since 1802, interrupted only twice: once by World War I (1917) and once by loan (October 1972, to the Louvre).

What makes this hunk of volcanic rock worth launching international incidents over is not so much the object itself, but the fact that the juxtaposition of the three languages allowed British polymath Thomas Young and French scholar Jean-François Champollion to decipher ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics in the early 1800s for the first time since the language died out in the 5th century A.D.

So should the Rosetta Stone be returned to Egypt? Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of the Egyptian Council of Antiquities, certainly thinks so. He considers it an icon of Egyptian identity that was “raped” by French invaders and as such it belongs in Egypt, its homeland.

His position isn’t quite as firm as it seems, however. He originally asked the British Museum to loan the Rosetta Stone (and several other iconic pieces) to Egypt for the opening of the new Grand Museum at Giza in 2013. The BM’s response was a less-than-felicitous questionnaire about security conditions in the new museum. It was only after that that Hawass shifted approach to demanding repatriation.

The British Museum, for its part, considers the Rosetta Stone to be one of the jewels in its crown. It is the second most visited item (the first is a bog mummy) and most profoundly, it is a nucleus around which the great universal museum grew from modest beginnings as a glorified curiosity cabinet in 1753.

The museum makes some questionable claims, in my opinion, to justify its retention of the Rosetta Stone: that more people can see it in London than would in Egypt, that it has added value in the context of the encyclopedic museums because their vast displays tie together history and culture from many places, that it’s too old and fragile to be moved, that one repatriation would open floodgates that would in short order sweep every last scrap of colonial spoils out the museum doors, that Egypt won’t secure it properly, that Egypt might even be so bold as to keep it once they have it on loan.

The utilitarian argument of the number of people who get to see it doesn’t address the underlying ethical questions at all. The value of its context within the British Museum pales in comparison to its cultural value to the Egyptian people. In this day and age, secure transportation even of extremely fragile antiquities is not a barrier to movement. If the Terracotta Warriors can travel the globe for years, a big slab of rock should be just fine. The floodgates argument is hyperbolic at best given that even Hawass himself only has 5 items on his ideal repatriation wish list, only this one in the BM. The latter two points are just offensive, frankly, hence Hawass’ reaction of going from asking for a loan to demanding repatriation.

But — and my regular readers here might be surprised to see me say this — I don’t actually think the Rosetta Stone should be returned forthwith to the bosom of mother Egypt. Many’s the time I’ve inveighed against looters and the museums, dealers, auction houses and collectors that have enabled the vicious, almost unbearable despoliation of archaeological sites, but once you go back a few hundred years, things are not so cut and dried.

Do the victors get to keep the spoils forever, even when centuries later they have a whole new relationship with the source country which wasn’t even the country they were fighting at the time? Legally, there is no issue here. The question is an ethical one, and although as a point of general principle I tend to side with source countries on these issues, the sticking point for me with the Rosetta Stone is the fact that it has become the premier icon of Egyptology due to the French and British scholarship that followed its discovery.

That is why it is a household name, not because it’s a piece of exceptional beauty and rarity like the bust of Nefertiti in Berlin (also on Hawass’ short list), not because it played a key role in the history of Egypt itself, not because of what it proclaims in those three languages. The Rosetta Stone was the key to unlocking the words of the pharaohs, so of course Hawass is entirely correct that it is an essential piece of Egyptian identity. However, it’s also an emblem of decipherment, a cultural byword recognized around the world as the ultimate key to a past so long obscured.

So my solution to the brouhaha is as follows: the British Museum needs to knock it off with that offensive pukka attitude it takes towards loan requests for culturally sensitive objects, work out the mechanics of the loan like a grownup and act as part of a global community of museums instead of insisting that the world come to them.


The Most Important Ancient Site in London

Wednesday, March 10th, 2010

Metal vessels found in Roman wellThe outstanding website Heritage Key is running a series of London-themed challenges for bloggers. There are neat prizes to be won, but most of all, much love for London’s marvelous wealth of history to be expressed.

I missed the first challenge because I got all freaked out under pressure and went completely blank, so I’m hoping I can squeak in just under the deadline for The Most Important Ancient Site in London challenge.

For my most important ancient site in London I choose (drumroll please) Drapers Gardens. This soggy patch of land on Throgmorton Avenue had the great fortune of being deemed basically undevelopable until 1967, when the Drapers Company decided to build an office tower on their garden space.

When the eponymous skyscraper was demolished in 2007 in preparation for a new building to be erected on the spot, an archaeological survey stumbled on a massive treasure trove of daily life in Roman London from the 1st to the 4th century A.D.

Drapers Gardens’ sogginess had not only kept this mother lode from being obliterated by two millennia of development and redevelopment, but it also helped keep these objects in an exceptional state of preservation.

Among the treasures are 19 metal vessels from the mid to late 4th c., possibly hidden in a well by a wealthy family fleeing one of many Saxon raids on the city, or they may have been left behind intentionally as part of the ritual closing of the well. The vessels are made from copper and lead ore and include wine jugs, dishes, ladles, even a set of three nesting bowls. They’re in such spectacular condition that the articulating handles on some of them still swing.

Wooden ruler with Roman inches markedA total of over 1100 artifacts were found at the site. Other remarkable finds include hundreds of brooches, a wood door with its original hinges, a roman road with wood footbridges over the ditches on both sides, a wooden ruler with the lines marking the Roman inches still visible, an infant burial site and the skull of a brown bear that probably died in the amphitheater nearby.

The dig uncovered not just rare and beautiful artifacts, but really the entire structure of the neighborhood for 300+ years of Roman life in London: streets, alleys, floors, clay and timber foundations of dwellings, waste disposal and plumbing systems. In Rome itself you don’t find this kind of staging because the city has been built and rebuilt so many times, and because timber or clay housing just doesn’t tend to last 2000 years.

The Drapers Garden find is a microcosm of Roman city life, not only a worthy candidate for the most important ancient site in London, but surely in the running for one of the most important discoveries of Roman social history, period.

Pictures courtesy Pre-Construct Archaeology

Edit: Holy crap, I won! :boogie:


Top Ten Archaeology Finds of 2009

Thursday, December 31st, 2009

It’s the year’s end and I’m going to keep it short and sweet. For your at-a-glance entertainment, here are two lists of the top 10 finds of the year:

  • Archaeology Magazine’s Top 10 Discoveries of 2009
  • National Geographic’s Most Viewed of 2009

  • There’s surprisingly little overlap, most likely due to their different readerships. The Stafforshire Hoard probably wins the year.

    Thanks to you all for following this humble blog among many. :thanks: May the new year and new decade bring you nothing but good things. :boogie: