Archive for December, 2007

Can you believe the treasures people stripped off walls in 18th c. Italy?

Sunday, December 23rd, 2007

They considered them history buffs back then, even though they expressed their buffdom by stealing entire walls from ancient sites like Pompeii. The looters have come home to roost in an amazing exhibit of rescued art on display at the Roman National Museum.

More beauty in this picture gallery, courtesy of the BBC.

What did they look like when they weren’t ruins?

Saturday, December 22nd, 2007

A new museum of two ancient Roman villas under Palazzo Valentini answers that question using computer generated video projections.

Experiencing the archaeological site, which opens to the public on Saturday, is a bit like passing through a classically themed amusement park. Lasting roughly a half-hour, the computer-generated sound-and-light show offers plenty of opportunities to ooh and aah as the villas take physical form.

At one point a virtual wall dissolves to show what the residents of one villa might have seen when they strolled out from their door in the fourth century A.D.: a bustling city, the busiest in the ancient world, with more than a million residents vying for space, a narrating voice recounts.

I like the idea of it (although I could probably do without recreations of crowd scenes) because when you’re standing in a ruin it’s hard to imagine how it would have looked with painted walls and lavish furnishings. Filling in the blanks with a realistic projection seems a neat use of technology.

Pity they felt compelled to tart it up with hootin’ and hollerin’, but that’s what you get when you hire historical mini-series producers to make your stuff.

Click here for a video tour of the video tour (narrated in Italian).

New Caravaggio on display

Friday, December 21st, 2007

A British Caravaggio expert spotted it at an auction in London. Sold as done by a student of Caravaggio copying one of his works, the painting actually turned out to be an earlier, cheaper version of ‘I Bari’. Sir Denis Mahon bought it for $100,000, lucky bastard, authenticated it, and loaned it to the Pepoli Museum in Trapani, Sicily.

How do they know it’s the genuine article?

Maurizio Marini, another Caravaggio expert who has studied the newly found painting, said the work is true to Caravaggio’s style, and X-rays have confirmed it is an original by revealing the lead-laced sketch that was drawn to outline the painting.

An analysis of the paint has also come up with traces of very fine sand, another trademark of the artist, he said.

“The Cardsharps” is an early work by Caravaggio and shows a young, fresh-faced page being tricked at a card game by two cheaters. The scene is typical of Caravaggio’s revolutionary style of depicting realistic characters and images found in everyday life.

Gregori said she was convinced the London painting was a Caravaggio when she noticed that the face of one of the cheats, though partially covered by the page’s hat, had still been sketched out in detail by the artist before being painted over.

“That’s the ultimate proof,” she said. “A copycat doesn’t do that.”

Top 10 archaeological discoveries of 2007

Thursday, December 20th, 2007

Archaeology magazine has compiled its top 10 finds of the year. I’m delighted to see that chickens made the list. Chickens: is there anything they can’t do?

Scholars have long assumed the Spaniards first introduced chickens to the New World along with horses, pigs, and cattle. But now radiocarbon dating and DNA analysis of a chicken bone excavated from a site in Chile suggest Polynesians in oceangoing canoes brought chickens to the west coast of South America well before Europe’s “Age of Discovery.”

History is a lie written by 16th c. Jesuits

Wednesday, December 19th, 2007

Not all of it, mind you. No, no, no, that would be craaaazeh. But everything that is supposed to have happened over a thousand years ago is.

How do I know this? Anatoly Fomenko, one of the world’s greatest mathematicians, told me so in a rather fabulous series of videos promoting what I’m sure is a rather fabulous book.

My favorite video from the series is the one about the Shroud of Turin, which is a shining star of excluded middles and circular reasoning. Here’s the rundown:

  1. The Shroud of Turin is supposed to date from the 1st century AD
  2. Radiocarbon dating indicates the shroud is from 1050-1350 AD which conflicts with the “consensual chronology” of historical Jesus.

Therefore, either

  1. Rc dating is not accurate and the shroud is actually from the 1st century when Jesus lived
  2. Rc dating is accurate and the shroud is actually a medieval relic, the “consensual chronology” is wrong and Jesus lived in the Middle Ages which OMG is exactly what Fomenko says!11
  3. Except that of course Fomenko strongly refutes the use of rc dating for historical artifacts, but that only UNDERSCORES HOW RIGHT HE IS CAN’T YOU SEE THAT?!

I’m so getting this book. Meanwhile, here’s the Shroud of Turin video for your viewing pleasure. The robot voice is the product of translation software, I suspect, but it really ties it all together.

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Can you believe the loot people find on eBay?

Tuesday, December 18th, 2007

eBay cuneiform tabletLiteral loot, as in looted from post-invasion Iraq. Thankfully it was spotted and pulled a few minutes before the auction closed.

A German archaeologist had spotted the tablet bearing wedge-shaped cuneiform script on the online auctioneer’s Swiss Web site,, a government official said.

The archaeologist alerted German authorities, who passed the tip onto their Swiss counterparts, said Yves Fischer, who directs the Swiss Federal Office of Culture’s department on commerce in cultural objects.

EBay Inc. stopped the auction on Dec. 12 “a few minutes before the end” of its bidding deadline, Fischer said. Zurich police then confiscated the small tablet – about the size of a business card – from a storage facility.

I bet that Swiss storage facility is like the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

It’s in a safe place

Caroling’s raunchy past

Tuesday, December 18th, 2007

From a USA Today story about the decline of Christmas caroling, here’s a tasty nugget of holiday cheer:

Yet, caroling is ancient (the first Christmas carol was probably written in the 4th century, Studwell says), and associated with pre-Christian festivals, fertility rites, feasting and drinking — the antique equivalents of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. In medieval Europe, caroling referred to singing that accompanied dancing and merrymaking.

“Before 1800, it was public, rowdy, drunken, potentially violent, often sexual, and of course now we have New Year’s Eve for all that,” says Stephen Nissenbaum, professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts and author of The Battle for Christmas.

He says wassailing (from the Anglo-Saxon was hail, or good health — a kind of medieval version of whassup) was a form of caroling that amounted to “aggressive begging.” Poor people would go to homes of the rich and sing, and if no one coughed up cash or treat, they could expect a trick .

I propose a new slogan for Christmas traditionalists: Debauchery is the reason for the season.

Christmas partyin’

Curses! Lead foiled again.

Monday, December 17th, 2007

It’s not unusual to find Roman cursing charms inscribed on lead in England, but ones cursing the emperor were pretty much unheard of, until now.

Some 1,650 years ago someone was so comprehensively fed up with the state of the Roman empire that they committed an act of treason, blasphemy and probably criminal defacing of the coinage. They cursed the emperor Valens by hammering a coin with his image into lead, then folding the lead over his face.

Valens was emperor from 364 AD to 378 AD. He was a hardcore Arian and not keen on religious tolerance, so doubtless that garnered him some hatred. He also let the Visigoths settle across the natural border of the Danube and then treated them like crap so they revolted, kicking ass all over the Balkans until finally kicking Valens’ own ass for good and annihilating his army at the Battle of Adrianople.

Medieval bishops sure ate well

Sunday, December 16th, 2007

An old find is giving us new information about the lifestyles of the rich and clerical in medieval Scotland. The bones of six bishops were excavated at Whithorn Priory in Galloway in the late 50’s and 60’s, but there wasn’t much in the way of clues to their identities.

New radiocarbon dating has identified the bishops by their date of death, and new dietary analysis has determined that they supped richly on fine meats and large fish.

Mind you, even ordinary Scots ate better in the middle ages than modern ones. I blame the McDonald clan.

~ Thanks to Lees for the story tip. ~ :thanks:

Mosaic tells how the Roman games worked

Sunday, December 16th, 2007

Discovered in a small village in Tunisia in 1966, the Magerius mosaic is an intricate combination of word and image describing a gladiatorial game sponsored by a local magistrate by the name of Magerius. Current Archaeology magazine breaks it all down for us: The Magerius Mosaic: How a Roman amphitheatre really worked.

“Roll up! Roll up! Roll Up! There will be a magnificent spectacle at the amphitheatre today, and you mustn’t miss it! Magerius is giving it. Of course, you all know Magerius who has just finished his term of office as mayor. He’s a pompous old ass but he thinks the world of himself and he’s going to lay on a big spectacle and he is paying through the nose for it, and he wants everyone to know how generous he has been.”

The Magerius mosaic“He is bringing in the Telegenii. You’ve heard of the Telegenii – they are the best theatrical producers in North Africa. They have all the best beasts and all the best hunters too. Today they have for your delight four leopards, all home grown and well trained. They are called Crispinus, Luxurius, Victor – who of course is going to be conquered – and then, Ho! Hum! there’s Romanus, ‘The Roman’ who is going to bite the dust at the hands of a hunter. And then he’s got four of his best hunters, Hilarinus, Bullarius, Spittara, who always hunts on stilts, and finally the champion, Mamertinus. It’s going to be a great spectacle, so hurry along to the amphitheatre. Who’s going to win – the beasts or the hunters?

The article continues with a detailed examination of what the mosaic and its location can tell us about the operation of gladiatorial games in the provinces. It’s a quick read and very much worth the time.




December 2007


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