Archive for June, 2010

World’s oldest leather shoe found in Armenia

Thursday, June 10th, 2010

It’s 5,500 years old and so well-preserved that the doctoral student Diana Zardaryan, who found it during a dig in a cave in Armenia, at first thought it was a whole cow ear. When she pulled it out of the hole in which a Copper Age walker had carefully placed it thousands of years ago, she saw that it was an intact leather shoe with laces threaded through eyelet.

World's oldest leather shoe

Radiocarbon dated to about 3500 B.C., during Armenia’s Copper Age, the prehistoric shoe is compressed in the heel and toe area, likely due to miles upon miles of walking. But the shoe is by no means worn out.

Shoes of this age are incredibly rare, because leather and plant materials normally degrade very quickly.

But in this case the contents of a pit in the cave, dubbed Areni-1, had been sealed in by several layers of sheep dung, which accumulated in the cave after its Copper Age human inhabitants had gone.

“The cave environment kept it cool and dry, while the dung cemented the finds in,” said Pinhasi, lead author of the new study, published by the journal PLoS ONE Wednesday.

Pit where the shoe was foundThe shoe also had additional protection from the elements. Zardaryan found it in a pit lined with yellow clay, covered by an upside-down bowl with two sheep horns on top of it. Those weren’t the only other artifacts scientists discovered in Areni-1. There were obsidian tools, which since the only source of obsidian nearby was was at least 75 miles away, may have been one of the reasons the people who used the cave needed strong shoes.

The team also found evidence of ancient winemaking appartus, dried apricots, grapes, plums (possibly the oldest known intentionally dried fruits), plus the skulls of three children or adolescents kept in ceramic pots. One of the skulls even had some brain tissue still in it which was radiocarbon dated to 6,000 years old, 500 years older than the shoe.

Areni-1 cave,  middle of the cliff faceArchaeologists suspect that the cave, first discovered in 1997, was used by high-status members of the community to hold ritual objects, although there is evidence of people actually living in the front of the cave, possibly caretakers who saw to the proper preservation and protection of the ritual objects.

The previous record-holder for oldest leather shoe was our old friend Otzi the Iceman’s kicks (the museum website hasn’t let go of the title yet, this news is so fresh), but they’re 200-300 years younger than the Armenian shoe. They’re also considerably more complex, made from bearskin soles, deerskin side panels, bark-string netting which pulled tight around the foot and grass socks. There are older shoes — some 7,000-year-old examples were found in Missouri and Oregon — but they’re made out of plant fibers, not leather, and they’re sandals rather than full coverage shoes.


Tintoretto confirmed. Now what does it mean?

Wednesday, June 9th, 2010

William John Bankes, b. 1786, d. 1855Adventurer, collector and early Egyptologist William John Bankes purchased a dramatic octagonal painting known as Apollo and the Muses in Italy in 1849 and sent it back to Kingston Lacy, his ancestral home in Dorset. He thought it was a Tintoretto, but although he had an excellent eye for art and antiquities, he wasn’t always right, and private commissions of Tintoretto paintings are extremely rare since most of his work was made for and remains in public buildings in Venice.

When the Bankes family gave Kingston Lacy to the National Trust in 1981, the painting was so filthy and encrusted with old darkened varnish that authentication was impossible. They didn’t have the funds then to have the painting expertly cleaned, so it remained in storage until today. The painting, all 9 by 8 feet of it, is on display again in the Kingston Lacy dining room after a £36,000 ($53,000) cleaning and restoration by the Hamilton Kerr Institute in Cambridge, and now that experts can actually see it, there is no doubt that it’s a Tintoretto, probably from the 1560s or 1570s.

The Hamilton Kerr Institute took X rays and infrared images of the painting which revealed Tintoretto’s distinctive style and brush strokes. They also showed various changes Tintoretto made to the figures, their clothing, their positions before deciding on a final version.

"Apollo (or Hymen) Crowning a Poet and giving him a Spouse", Jacopo Tintoretto, 1560-1570The cleaning has raised a whole new bag of issues, however. For one thing, it’s now clear that it is not a painting of Apollo and the Muses, because there are 7 figures attending Apollo, not 9. For another thing, there are all kinds of symbols that are perplexing to our contemporary sensibility. That single die with five dots in the bottom right corner may have been part of 16th c. vernacular, but we have no idea what Tintoretto meant by it. Also what do the gold cup, dish, box and steeple beneath Apollo’s feet signify? And who are all those figures anyway? One of them is definitely Hercules wearing his characteristic lion skin, but what is he doing there?

The main figure might be Apollo, or it might be Hymen, the Greek god of marriage. The man draped in blue might be a poet who is being presented to his spouse, the rather pale lady – or he might not be. What is the die with the five dots, underneath the woman draped in red, all about? What is the significance of all the gold? That must be Hercules in the top left but who is everyone else? Is it, perhaps, Fortune, above the die?

In the meantime the painting, probably from the 1560s or 1570s, has been renamed as “Apollo (or Hymen) crowning a poet and giving him a spouse”, but Bradley said that was something like its fifth name in the last few months. “The name will probably have to change again. I would personally say it’s definitely Apollo but I’m not even sure he’s marrying someone – my boss and I are agreeing to differ on that.”

The x-ray and infrared analysis used to prove it is definitely the work of Tintoretto also throws up questions. Why, for example, did Tintoretto paint the possible poet as nearly naked before the blue robes were later added?

The National Trust is asking for help from the public in answering all the questions they have about this uniquely fabulous piece. If you have any ideas, tweet them at

Meanwhile, here’s a neat graphic that highlights some of the questions art historians have about the piece.
If you are reading this anywhere else besides on, it has been reprinted without author permission.


4th grade teacher finds 18th c. document on bookshelf

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

Fourth grade teacher Michelle Eugenio was packing up the bookshelves in her Peabody, Massachusetts, classroom in preparation for a move to the second floor when she found a yellowed document in a plastic sleeve cover. She could well have tossed it out without a second glance, but when she noticed the handwritten date of April 1792, she decided to share it with the class.

Michelle Eugenio with her students and the 1792 documentHer students were excited at the thought that it might be a genuine old document, so she brought it to the local historical society to find out if it was authentic.

The yellowed sheet of paper, protected by a thin sheath of plastic, is dated April 1792 and appears to document the discharge of a debt belonging to a man named Jonathan Bates, according to Peabody Historical Society President Bill Power. […]

[Peabody Historical Society President Bill] Power eventually verified its authenticity. Bates served in the Continental Army, and the document conveys the final payment for his service — 19 pounds, 19 shillings and 11 pence — to the person he owed, Power said.

Bates lives in Shaftsbury, Vermont. During the Revolutionary War he was in a company led by Capt. Bigelow Lawrence, but Vermont historians don’t know which battles he fought in or where the company was deployed. He died at the age of 63 in 1808 and was buried in East Hill Cemetery in Williamstown, Vermont.

How this document got from Vermont to Peabody nobody knows. Eugenio has no idea how long it was on that bookshelf or who brought it to school. Some student’s parents must have been mighty pissed off when their kid came back from show and tell minus a family heirloom from the Revolutionary War.

The teacher hasn’t decided yet whether to keep it to show to future fourth grade classes or to donate it to the Peabody Historical Society.


Largest ever gladiator graveyard found in York

Monday, June 7th, 2010

Archaeologists examine skeletons in York burial groundArchaeologists excavating a Roman burial site in York believe they may have found the largest, best preserved gladiator cemetery in the world. The previous contender was in Ephesus, Turkey, and had about 60 people buried there and their remains were fragmentary. The York graveyard has yielded 80 skeletons over the past 10 years, many of them complete.

The ages, body types and violently-inflicted injuries on the bones mark many of these skeletons as belonging to gladiators or to other people who died in the arena. One man was killed by a large carnivore of some kind — lion, tiger or bear — and others bear wounds from weapons. Almost all the skeletons are male of above average height and build. Although they died at different times over a range of 250 years and came from all over the Roman Empire, 85% of the skeletons show remarkably similar physical stresses, primarily on the right arms.

One important piece of evidence is the unusually high number of men with their right arms markedly longer than their left – a feature mentioned in ancient Roman literature in connection with gladiators.

About a quarter of the 80 skeletons excavated at the York site display this characteristic, and around half of those have particularly significant asymmetry, with right arms between 1 and 1.8cm longer than their left, according to a detailed survey of the material carried out by forensic anthropologists at the University of Central Lancashire.

The discovery suggests that some men started their training at an early age, probably in their early to mid teens. Arm length asymmetry can only develop prior to reaching skeletal maturity.

Skull from York cemeteryMost of them were decapitated before death by a sword blow to the back of the head, which suggests that at least in York, the fatal blow was a head chopping rather than the more traditional stab in the neck. Some of the skulls had holes in them like the ones found in the Ephesus cemetery, suggesting they died from a hammer to the head.

All of the men were buried respectfully, so they can’t have been raiders like the decapitated Vikings found in pit in Dorset. Fourteen of them were buried with grave goods like pottery and animal remains, so they had property worth bringing with them to the underworld and maybe even the support of a burial guild ensuring that proper sacrifices were made for their dead brethren.

The most impressive is that of a tall man aged between 18 and 23, buried (probably in a coffin) in a large oval grave at some time in the 3rd century. Interred with him are the remains of substantial joints of meat from at least four horses (represented by 424 horse bones) possibly eaten at his funeral, as well as some cow and pig remains. He had been decapitated by several sword blows to the neck. After burial, a low mound up to a metre high seems to have been placed over his grave.

Significantly, the man who had been killed by the bear or lion was buried in an adjacent grave, along with two others with similar ritual deposits. These men had also been decapitated. Scientific analysis of their bones suggests that they came from an extremely hot environment, possibly North Africa.

Now, we still don’t know for sure that all the people buried in this cemetery were gladiators. They could have been soldiers, for instance. Another theory is that it was a burial ground for people classifed as infames.

Infamia was social condemnation brought on by certain professions (prostitution, acting) or by immoral acts (army desertion, adultery, contracting to kill wild animals in the arena for pay). During the Roman Republic infamia resulted in loss of public rights like voting rights and running for certain offices, but by the time Britania was Romanized, those sorts of rights were rendered moot by the very fact of Empire. Infamia also wasn’t gender-specific and it didn’t make your arm longer than your left.

There will be a documentary on the York skeletons shown on Britain’s Channel 4 next Monday, June 14th: Gladiators: Back From The Dead. For those of us out of range of British television, the show will be uploaded to their website after it airs.


Inside US Customs’ stolen antiquities warehouse

Sunday, June 6th, 2010

When US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) finds stolen and illegally exported antiquities in New York, the confiscated goods end up in a nondescript warehouse in Queens. There they stay in climate controlled comfort while cases wind their way through the court systems or they can be returned to their countries and institutions of origin. The process can take years.

Obviously ICE doesn’t divulge the location of its warehouses, but they recently gave the New York Post a rare peek inside the Queens facility. The reporters weren’t allowed take pictures and of course they can’t print where it is, but it’s still some Indiana Jones awesomeness to get to see where so many goodies are kept. There are over 2,500 artifacts in the warehouse right now.

Fishy-looking shipments may catch the eye of customs officers who look for phony countries of origin such as Babylon or suspiciously low values declared on packages.

Tipsters also alert [James McAndrew, the ICE senior special agent in charge of cultural property,] about particular shipments or smugglers. In one case, officials in India told him to watch for artifacts mislabeled as lawn furniture.

When a crate marked “garden table sets” arrived by ship in Newark, customs officers called McAndrew, who raced to the port along with a top official with India’s Consulate General in New York.

The crate was opened to reveal hundreds of statues of Indian deities looted from temples and private homes. McAndrew said he had a sense of satisfaction mixed with dismay. “At least call it trinkets,” he said. “It was such a blatant ruse.”

The 600 or so pieces, some dating to the 4th century, have been stored at the Queens warehouse for three years as an investigation went forward.

100412_antiquities_jc-8.jpgThe most notorious piece mentioned in the article is a 7th c. Iranian silver griffin-shaped rhyton (ceremonial drinking vessel). Widely considered the premier griffin of antiquity, it was looted from Kalmakarra Cave, known as the Western Cave, in the western highlands of Iran between 1989 and 1992 along with untold other treasures. Over the next decade, bits and bobs of the reputed treasure turned up in various museums and markets around the world.

In 2000, the rhyton was hand-carried into the United States by art dealer Hicham Aboutaam of Phoenix Ancient Art. He described it in customs forms as Syrian, but that was a deliberate and knowing lie. When he sold it to a private collector in Manhattan for $950,000, the collector demanded guarantees of its authenticity, so Aboutaam actually brazenly got 3 expert reports confirming that it was part of the Western Cave treasure.

The sale took 2 years to go through, and 2 years later, after an ICE investigation Aboutaam was arrested for illegally importing the rhyton. Sadly, he just got a slap on the wrist. He pled guilty to falsifying a commercial invoice, paid a $5,000 fine and is still happily in business to this day, still dirty as the day is long. Just last year he and his equally dirty brother Ali “voluntarily” returned an astonishing 251 antiquities for a total estimated worth of $2.7 million to Italy. I put that “voluntarily” in quotes because you can bet your sweet patoo that the Italians threatened them with legal action to get them to cough up.

Meanwhile, the poor rhyton remains in that warehouse in Queens until relations between the US and Iran are normalized, which could be a long ways away.


Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt

Saturday, June 5th, 2010

Cleopatra coinA new exhibit of 150 artifacts from Cleopatra’s Egypt opens today at The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.

Organized by National Geographic and Arts and Exhibitions International in cooperation with the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities and the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology (IEASM), Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt puts on display for the first time in the United States jewelry, coins, religious items, even colossal statues raised from the the Bay of Aboukir, off the coast of Alexandria.

Papyrus fragments thought to have been signed by CleopatraThere’s even an original papyrus document with an inscription that archaeologists think was written in Cleopatra’s own hand. The document grants a tax break from sales of imported wine to Roman businessman Publius Canidius, a friend of Mark Antony. It’s inscribed “make it happen” in Greek, and that’s the bit that is thought to have been printed by Cleopatra herself. Very Jean Luc Picard.

After Egypt succumbed to Roman forces and Cleopatra famously took her own life following the suicide of her lover Mark Antony, the Romans attempted to wipe her legacy from the pages of history. Cleopatra thus has remained one of history’s greatest enigmas, and her final resting place is one of Egypt’s unsolved mysteries. The artifacts in this exhibition are woven into the story of her rule and life in ancient Egypt during her dynasty (Ptolemaic period). The story of her life and time unfolds in a dramatic setting with high-definition multimedia, original soundscapes and a mobile-based social media experience. Additionally each guest receives an audio tour with admission that provides a rich background to the featured artifacts. […]

The exhibition also showcases artifacts from [underwater archaeologist and director of IEASM] Franck Goddio’s continuing underwater search off the Mediterranean coast of Egypt, begun in 1992 and sponsored by the Hilti Foundation. Goddio’s remarkable finds bring visitors inside his search for the lost world of Cleopatra, including remnants from the grand palace where she ruled. Visitors also see underwater footage and photos of Goddio’s team retrieving artifacts from the ocean and bringing them to the surface for the first time in centuries.

“The aim of our work is to reveal traces of the past and bring history back to life. We are delighted to present our underwater archaeological achievements and discoveries off the coast of Egypt to the American public,” said Franck Goddio.

The exhibit has two agendas that I can detect, one stated and one not. The stated one is to rehabilitate Cleopatra’s reputation, long since besmirched by the victorious Romans who wrote that particularly piece of history. The unstated one is to promote Zahi Hawass’ search for Cleopatra and Mark Antony’s tomb at the Taposiris Magna site. The press release about the exhibit dedicates a couple of paragraphs to Hawass’ excavation, and National Geographic’s website on the show has a whole page about it, plus links to previous stories.

Keeping that caveat in mind, the exhibit is a powerful, full-immersion voyage into Cleopatra’s world, even taking visitors under water to find her. Cleopatra will remain at the Franklin through January 2, 2011, after which it will travel to 5 other US cities, as yet unannounced.

Exhibit visitors walk over artifacts found under water


Armenian church sues Getty over stolen Bible pages

Friday, June 4th, 2010

The Western Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America has filed a $105 million lawsuit against the J. Paul Getty Museum for the return of seven pages ripped out of a 13th century Bible. The church claims the pages were torn from the Armenian Orthodox Church’s Zeyt’un Gospels during the 1915 Armenian genocide and were illegally sold thereafter.

Page from Armenian Bible illuminated by T'oros Roslin, ca. 1256The Bible was illuminated by T’oros Roslin, the premier Armenian manuscript illuminator of the Middle Ages, in 1256 and was considered not just sacred but magical. It was venerated by Armenian Orthodox for its powers of protection. In fact, when the dark days of the genocide dawned in 1915, the entire hierarchy of the Armenian church carried the Bible in a procession through every street of Zeyt’un to create a divine firewall of protection around the city. (It didn’t work.)

Some time after that, the Bible was given to descendants of the Armenian royal family because they had connections with the ruling Ottoman Turks that might keep them safe from deportation, or at least, you know, alive. They loaned it to a family friend but were suddenly deported, and thereafter the Bible moved around for the rest of World War I and in the immediate post-war period. Finally it surfaced again in 1928 and was returned to the Patriarchate of the Armenian Church. They asked the family friend who had held it for years to authenticate it in 1948, and upon its return the missing 7 pages were discovered.

To this day nobody knows who stole the pages. All we know is they turned up on display at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City in a 1994 exhibit called “Treasures in Heaven: Armenian Illuminated Manuscripts”, on loan from an anonymous private collector. That’s when they came to the Getty’s attention. The Getty bought the pages from the still-anonymous collector and have had the pages ever since. I like how vague they are about the pages’ bloody history on their website: “These canon tables were separated from the manuscript at some point in the past and eventually acquired by the Getty Museum….”

Separated from the manuscript. Like they got a divorce or lost at the mall or something. Getty representatives don’t mince quite so many words in their response to the suit, though.

“The Getty is confident that it has legal ownership of these pages, known as Canon Tables, which have been widely published, studied and exhibited,” the museum’s spokeswoman, Julie Jaskol, said in a statement. […]

“At no time in the 90 or so years that the Canon Tables have been in the United States has anyone questioned their ownership,” Jaskol said in the statement. “The Getty believes the lawsuit is groundless and should be dismissed.”

The plaintiff’s lead attorney, Vartkes Yeghiayan — who often represents victims of the Armenian Genocide — was researching the atrocity when in 2007 he discovered the Getty Museum was housing the pages, said Michael Bazyler, a Chapman University law professor speaking on behalf of the attorney.

“We have asked the Getty to give it back to the church, but they declined to do so,” he said.

The rest of the Bible is in the Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts in Yerevan, Armenia, where it has been kept since 1948. The plaintiffs want the 7 stolen pages returned to Armenia so they can be restored, or at least kept together with the Bible itself.

The Getty’s rationale — that the pages were published extensively from 1994 on and nobody questioned the legal title so therefore their sale was legal — is something you see a lot when museums justify shady acquisitions. Something hides in a private collection for a few years/decades, then is loaned to a famous institution where it gets published thereby establishing provenance. It’s a looted antiquities laundering system, basically.

The shadiness is old enough, however, that it most likely falls before the 1970 cut-off of the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Cultural Property. We’ll see what the courts say.

TMZ, oddly enough, has a pdf of the entire complaint. It’s an interesting read, with lots of details about the history of the Bible during the genocide.


Tintin makes $1.4 million at auction (and waves in court)

Thursday, June 3rd, 2010

Bronze statue of Tintin and Snowy by Nat NeujeanA Paris auction of original Tintin art by Belgian creator Hergé and memorabilia has taken in almost $1.4 million (1.09 million euros). The May 29th sale at the Drouot-Montaigne auction house offered 230 Tintin-themed pieces from 70 collectors, some of which even Moulinsart, Hergé’s foundation and a partner in the sale, had no idea existed.

The most expensive lot was an original inked and water-painted two-page spread from “King Ottokar’s Sceptre”, which sold for 243,750 euros ($299,620), 43,750 euros above its top estimate. It was bought by a Belgian collector, as were many of the items on sale.

An extremely rare life-size bronze statue of Tintin and Snowy by artist Nat Neujean sold for 125,000 euros ($153,650), well within the estimate price range but a world record for a Neujean piece. There are only four other copies of this statue in the world. It’s going to live in Belgium too, although it was purchased by a French gallery owner. He’s going to put it on display in his gallery in Brussels. Prediction: he’s going to get a lot more Belgian visitors to his gallery from now on.

Tintin and the Sea ShellsOne of the most unique items on sale was an original Hergé gouache called “Tintin and the Sea Shells” that he made in 1947 as a birthday present for a friend of his who had a large sea shell collection. It shows Tintin, Captain Haddock and Snowy wandering on a beach littered with huge sea shells. Professor Calculus and walks behind them holding his trusty pendulum while looking at the ocean. It’s surreal and whimsical and generally awesome. The piece was priced at 70,000 euros but sold for almost twice that, 131,250 euros ($160,800).

There were also a variety of more affordable items on the block, including original lithographs and panels priced at 2,000 – 3,000 euros, plus personal belongings of Hergé’s, like scarves, paperweights and colored pencil boxes.

It’s not all happy sea shells and wads of cash in Tintinland, however. Bienvenu Mbutu Mondondo, a Congolese man who lives in Brussels, is suing Moulinsart and Tintin comic book publishers Casterman to get “Tintin in the Congo” taken off the shelves in Belgium and France.

The book is hugely racist, of course, packed with offensive caricatures of Africans, and particularly offensive to the Congolese given the ugly history of Belgian colonialism which became a poster child for the most brutal, bloody European exploitation of African people and resources. When Hergé wrote the book in 1931, the Congo was still a Belgian colony and would remain one for 3 decades or so.

From a Time magazine article on the lawsuit:

Hergé, who had never visited Congo, was just 23 when he wrote the book, which he was persuaded to do as part of a government-led initiative to encourage Belgians to take up commissions in Congo. But Mbutu Mondondo says it served — and still serves — to prop up a sanitized account of Belgium’s colonialism. “It twists history to suggest that everything was happy and fun,” he says. “In reality, it was a tragic, hurtful time.”

Belgian Congo was one of the most bloody and cruel colonial regimes in Africa. The original inspiration for Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, it was claimed for King Leopold II in 1885 by the explorer Henry Morton Stanley. For 23 years, the area — the size of France, Germany, Norway, Spain and Sweden combined — was the King’s personal possession. Leopold’s agents pioneered a ruthless forced-labor system for gathering wild rubber: villages that failed to meet the rubber-collection quotas were required to pay the remaining amount in amputated hands. Some estimates say Congo’s population fell by 10 million during that time.

Mondondo has already pressed criminal charges, but the case has been winding its way through the courts for 3 years, so last month he upped the ante and filed the civil suit. Moulinsart’s lawyer Alain Berenboom considers the legal case the equivalent of book burning.

Fair enough, but Berenboom also denies that “Tintin in the Congo” is racist at all. “It has never caused public order problems, including in Africa” he says, as if racism were defined by “public order problems” the images cause. Even Hergé himself acknowledged that he had depicted a naive fantasy of Belgian colonialism in the comic. Later in life he would refer to the book as “the sin of his youth.”

The natives take Tintin to see their leader in "Tintin in the Congo"


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.






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