Category: Archaeology

Marginalia 3.25.2012

An exciting week around and about the World o’ Classics!

  • The Virtual Tour of the Acropolis “is an interactive website that allows various aspects of the historical site to be explored in a unique way. It consists of high-resolution gigapixel images and panoramas of the four main monuments – the Parthenon, the Propylaia, the Erechtheion and the Temple of Athena Nike – as well as a detailed photographic representation of the inner and outer ancient walls surrounding the hill, all accompanied by historical information and a descriptive map.” h/t Austin!
  • Via Boingboing: Lapham’s Quarterly has an interesting (and saucy!) “collection of rude and complaining messages left by monks in the margins of medieval manuscripts… Depictions of sexual consort are frequent, among men and women, among various species of animals, and enough other combinations to make even contemporary readers blush.”

Attica Fires

Cross-posted from CSTS119

Wildfires, a frequent threat throughout Greece in the summer, are burning within sight of the Acropolis (Reuters).

Acropolis Fire

Firefighters have been battling fires throughout Attica, including near Marathon and Rhamnous. May the gain the upper hand soon.

UPDATE: According to the latest reports, the fires are being contained and so far have not caused any loss of life. Thankfully, this does not look to be a repeat of the devastating fires of 2007.

A Statue of Victory stands amid the embers of the blaze at Olympia, 2007 (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

A Statue of Victory stands amid the embers of the blaze at Olympia, 2007 (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

In this image released by NASA on Saturday, Aug. 25, 2007, fires in Greece are seen from space. Fires pushed by gale-force winds tore through more parched forests, swallowed villages and scorched the edges of Athens on Saturday with ashes raining onto the Acropolis. The death toll rose to at least 49 as the government declared a nationwide state of emergency. (AP Photo/NASA)

In this image released by NASA on Saturday, Aug. 25, 2007, fires in Greece are seen from space. Fires pushed by gale-force winds tore through more parched forests, swallowed villages and scorched the edges of Athens on Saturday with ashes raining onto the Acropolis. The death toll rose to at least 49 as the government declared a nationwide state of emergency. (AP Photo/NASA)

Visiting Troy

I just discovered (via rogueclassicism) this article in the New York Times on a visit to the site of ancient Troy.

troy

As it happened, our two-week visit to Turkey afforded a perfect moment to indulge our Homeric idée fixe. The trek north on Turkey’s west coast permitted a brief Trojan fly-by during the drive from Pergamum to Gallipoli.

Read more »

Now That’s a Big Bang Theory!

Every Monday, the LiveScience website publishes an article on a discovery, event, or character that influenced the course of history. This week’s note is “How the Eruption of Thera [modern Santorini] Changed the World”:

The world map might look differently had the Greek volcano Thera not erupted 3,500 years ago in what geologists believe was the single-most powerful explosive event ever witnessed.

Thera didn’t just blow a massive hole into the island of Santorini – it set the entire ancient Mediterranean onto a different course, like a train that switched tracks to head off in a brand new direction.

Minoan culture, the dominant civilization in the Mediterranean at the time, crumbled as a result of the eruption, historians believe, changing the political landscape of the ancient world indefinitely. Environmental effects were felt across the globe, as far away as China and perhaps even North America and Antarctica. [more…]

The growing interest in anthropogenic global warming (oops?) has brought some much needed attention to the influence of climate on culture and history. The effect of climate on societies–especially preindustrial, agricultural societies–would seem to be blindingly obvious, but too often we forget that even slight changes in weather and climate can profoundly influence the course of events. Don’t believe me? Ask Kublai Khan and Monsieur Napoleon.

The BBC has a nifty slide show documenting the very cool hi-tech cleaning of the Parthenon Marbles in Athens, which has removed decades of pollution.

parthenon marbles

Since the damage to the Athenian reliefs turned out to be less severe than previously thought, the cleaning has fueled the debate over whether the rest of the marbles, (in)famously known as the “Elgin Marbles” and on display in the British Museum, should be repatriated to Athens and installed in the New Acropolis Museum.

The Antikythera Mechanism in the New Yorker

John Seabrook has penned a major article on the Antikythera Mechanism for the New Yorker. The incipit:

In October, 2005, a truck pulled up outside the National Archeological Museum in Athens, and workers began unloading an eight-ton X-ray machine that its designer, X-Te Systems of Great Britain, had dubbed the Bladerunner. Standing just inside the Nationa Museum’s basement was Tony Freeth, a sixty-year-old British mathematician and filmmaker watching as workers in white T-shirts wrestle the Range Rover-size machine through the door and up the ramp into th museum. Freeth was a member of the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project—a multidisciplinary investigation into some fragments of an ancient mechanical device that were found at the turn of the last century after two thousand years in the Aegean Sea, and have long been one of the great mysteries of science…

Atlantis is Crete? (now with science)

A new special on the BBC will address new finds that indicate a massive tsunami generated by the eruption of Santorini devestated the Minoan civilization on Crete:

The legend of Atlantis, the country that disappeared under the sea, may be more than just a myth. Research on the Greek island of Crete suggests Europe’s earliest civilisation was destroyed by a giant tsunami….
“The geo-archaeological deposits contain a number of distinct tsunami signatures,” says Dutch-born geologist Professor Hendrik Bruins of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel. “Minoan building material, pottery and cups along with food residue such as isolated animal bones were mixed up with rounded beach pebbles and sea shells and microscopic marine fauna. “The latter can only have been scooped up from the sea-bed by one mechanism – a powerful tsunami, dumping all these materials together in a destructive swoop,” says Professor Bruins. The deposits are up to seven metres above sea level, well above the normal reach of storm waves…. One of their largest settlements was at Palaikastro on the eastern edge of the island, one of the sites where Canadian archaeologist Sandy MacGillivray has been excavating for 25 years. Here, he has found other tell-tale signs such as buildings where the walls facing the sea are missing but side walls which could have survived a giant wave are left intact. “All of a sudden a lot of the deposits began making sense to us,” says MacGillivary. “Even though the town of Palaikastro is a port it stretched hundreds of metres into the hinterland and is, in places, at least 15 metres above sea level. This was a big wave.”

But if this evidence is so clear why has it not been discovered before now? Tsunami expert Costas Synolakis, from the University of Southern California, says that the study of ancient tsunamis is in its infancy and people have not, until now, really known what to look for. Many scientists are still of the view that these waves only blasted material away and did not leave much behind in the way of deposits. But observation of the Asian tsunami of 2004 changed all that. “If you remember the video footage,” says Costas, “some of it showed tonnes of debris being carried along by the wave and much of it was deposited inland.” …

“The Minoans are so confident in their navy that they’re living in unprotected cities all along the coastline. Now, you go to Bande Aceh [in Indonesia] and you find that the mortality rate is 80%. If we’re looking at a similar mortality rate, that’s the end of the Minoans.”

But what caused the tsunami? The scientists have obtained radiocarbon dates for the deposits that show the tsunami could have hit the coast at exactly the same time as an eruption of the Santorini volcano, 70 km north of Crete, in the middle of the second millennium BC. Recent scientific work has established that the Santorini eruption was up to 10 times more powerful than the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883. It caused massive climatic disruption and the blast was heard over 3000 miles away. Costas Synolakis thinks that the collapse of Santorini’s giant volcanic cone into the sea during the eruption was the mechanism that generated a wave large enough to destroy the Minoan coastal towns.

It is not clear if the tsunami could have reached inland to the Minoan capital at Knossos, but the fallout from the volcano would have carried other consequences – massive ash falls and crop failure. With their ports, trading fleet and navy destroyed, the Minoans would never have fully recovered. The myth of Atlantis, the city state that was lost beneath the sea, was first mentioned by Plato over 2000 years ago. It has had a hold on the popular imagination for centuries. Perhaps we now have an explanation of its origin – a folk memory of a real ancient civilisation swallowed.

I’ll be traveling to Santorini and Crete this summer. Hopefully I can gather some photographic evidence….

The Plague! The (Athenian) Plague!

Modern science weighs in on the old debate about which disease afflicted the Athenians at the start of the Peloponnesian War. DNA tests on material extracted from skeletons found in a mass grave dating to 430 BCE point to… Typhoid Fever.

From the Journal of Infectious Diseases:

BACKGROUND: Until now, in the absence of direct microbiological evidence, the cause of the Plague of Athens has remained a matter of debate among scientists who have relied exclusively on Thucydides’ narrations to introduce several possible diagnoses. A mass burial pit, unearthed in the Kerameikos ancient cemetery of Athens and dated back to the time of the plague outbreak (around 430 BC), has provided the required skeletal material for the investigation of ancient microbial DNA.

OBJECTIVE: To determine the probable cause of the Plague of Athens.

METHOD: Dental pulp was our material of choice, since it has been proved to be an ideal DNA source of ancient septicemic microorganisms through its good vascularization, durability and natural sterility. RESULTS: Six DNA amplifications targeted at genomic parts of the agents of plague (Yersinia pestis), typhus (Rickettsia prowazekii), anthrax (Bacillus anthracis), tuberculosis (Mycobacterium tuberculosis), cowpox (cowpox virus) and cat-scratch disease (Bartonella henselae) failed to yield any product in ‘suicide’ reactions of DNA samples isolated from three ancient teeth. On the seventh such attempt, DNA sequences of Salmonella enterica serovar Typhi were identified providing clear evidence for the presence of that microorganism in the dental pulp of teeth recovered from the Kerameikos mass grave.

CONCLUSION: The results of this study clearly implicate typhoid fever as a probable cause of the Plague of Athens.

The symptoms of Typhoid Fever (from MedicineNet):

The incubation period is usually 1-2 weeks and the duration of the illness is about 4-6 weeks. The patient experiences:

  • poor appetite,
  • headaches,
  • generalized aches and pains,
  • fever,
  • lethargy,
  • [the CDC adds: “in some cases, patients have a rash of flat, rose-colored spots”]

Persons with typhoid fever usually have a sustained fever as high as 103 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit (39 to 40 degrees Centigrade).

Chest congestion develops in many patients and abdominal pain and discomfort are common. The fever becomes constant. Improvement occurs in the third and fourth week in those without complications. About 10% of patients have recurrent symptoms (relapse) after feeling better for one to two weeks.

How does this compare with Thucydides’ description of the plague?

As a rule, however, there was no ostensible cause; but people in good health were all of a sudden attacked by violent heats in the head, and redness and inflammation in the eyes, the inward parts, such as the throat or tongue, becoming bloody and emitting an unnatural and fetid breath. These symptoms were followed by sneezing and hoarseness, after which the pain soon reached the chest, and produced a hard cough. When it fixed in the stomach, it upset it; and discharges of bile of every kind named by physicians ensued, accompanied by very great distress. In most cases also an ineffectual retching followed, producing violent spasms, which in some cases ceased soon after, in others much later. Externally the body was not very hot to the touch, nor pale in its appearance, but reddish, livid, and breaking out into small pustules and ulcers. But internally it burned so that the patient could not bear to have on him clothing or linen even of the very lightest description; or indeed to be otherwise than stark naked. What they would have liked best would have been to throw themselves into cold water; as indeed was done by some of the neglected sick, who plunged into the rain-tanks in their agonies of unquenchable thirst; though it made no difference whether they drank little or much. Besides this, the miserable feeling of not being able to rest or sleep never ceased to torment them. The body meanwhile did not waste away so long as the distemper was at its height, but held out to a marvel against its ravages; so that when they succumbed, as in most cases, on the seventh or eighth day to the internal inflammation, they had still some strength in them. But if they passed this stage, and the disease descended further into the bowels, inducing a violent ulceration there accompanied by severe diarrhoea, this brought on a weakness which was generally fatal. For the disorder first settled in the head, ran its course from thence through the whole of the body, and, even where it did not prove mortal, it still left its mark on the extremities; for it settled in the privy parts, the fingers and the toes, and many escaped with the loss of these, some too with that of their eyes. Others again were seized with an entire loss of memory on their first recovery, and did not know either themselves or their friends (Thuc. 2. 48ff.).

Of course, just because these poor individuals died of Typhoid Fever during the Plague (thus the mass grave), the does not mean that the Plague was (only) the result of Typhoid. Note that Thucydides attributes all disease during the Plague Years to the Plague. I wonder if one cause was assigned to what, in fact, was a witch’s brew of diseases that assailed the population of Athens?

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