Category Archives: Archaeology

Considerations of how archaeology influences our understanding of the ancient world

Terms of Interment

In an early episode of The Simpsons Marge is commissioned to paint a portrait of Montgomery Burns. Angry with him because of his constant treatment of others as beneath him and his glib superiority granted by wealth, she paints him old and feeble, naked as he climbs from the shower. The crowd present for the unveiling is appropriately shocked. Marge explains her motivations for the painting and one of the voices in the crowd affirms, “He is evil, but he will die.” That scene was brought back to mind by an article a friend sent me on Archaeodeath. As someone who’s volunteered on an archaeological dig, I understand that the past is a history of death as well as of life. We read what historians choose to preserve. And, as Professor Howard M. R. Williams points out, the tomb often tells a tale that requires some subtlety in reading.

Never a great fan of the wealthy, some years ago I visited Sleepy Hollow. It was before the television series began, back in an October when the mind begins naturally to turn to death. I’d always liked the story by Washington Irving that had made this quiet town famous and it’s really not hard to get there from New Jersey. While in town we visited the famous cemetery, in search of Irving’s grave. Others are buried there, too. High on top of a hill stands a palatial tomb to some Rockefeller. As Prof. Williams makes clear, all must die and all tombs lie. Those who insist on the most opulent tombs are those who routinely overestimate their personal importance. So it is my mind turns from Montgomery Burns to Cyrus the Great.

There was a time when world conquerors possessed a dose of humility. It may seem strange in today’s world that an Iranian (in the days before there was an Iran, designed as it was by Europeans) would be considered a benevolent dictator. Cyrus reversed the deportation rules of the Babylonians and Assyrians. Subject peoples were permitted—encouraged even—to return to their lands. He even federally funded the building of temples and, to translate, centers for the arts. Cyrus understood that grateful people make good subjects. When Cyrus died, after being king of the world, he was interred in a decidedly understated tomb outside Pasargadae where, according to one account his inscription read, “I am Cyrus, who founded the Persian Empire. Grudge me not, therefore, this little earth that covers my body.” Archaeologists uncover the dead. Those who bill themselves grandly, as the diggers understand, seldom deserve the glory bestowed by their own minds. Marge Simpson, as usual, is a voice of wisdom.

Some president’s tomb

Big Dreams


The giants are back! Or at least they were here. According to the internet, and we know that that never lies. Every now and again a story breaks that some discovery of giants has been found in some archaeological or paleontological context. A little poking around, maybe a visit to Snopes, and I go home disappointed. It’s the Cardiff Giant all over again. Still, the stories are fun. A friend sent me a piece from Ancient Code entitled “A GIANT footprint has been discovered in China.” The pictures look impressive until we get to the one where the footprint is as large as a fully grown man. We are back in the land of modern myth.

The idea of an era of giants is strangely compelling. The Bible isn’t the only ancient document to suggest this scenario. In fact, Holy Writ seems to have borrowed the idea. Fast forward just over a millennium and Geoffrey of Monmouth will tell us there were giants in Britain before the more civilized genus of our own arrived and treated the giants to a Brexit. Such tales permeate history with the fanciful period of really big guys from the past. We’re not half the men we used to be. Literally. Just don’t look too close at the Photoshopped evidence. We live in a world where “Photoshopped” is actually a word. A world where visual evidence is like a cow plop. It’s there, but what you want to make of it is up to you. I was never a big newspaper reader, but at least you knew if a reputable rag paid to have millions of copies printed the story had a good chance of being true. I wish there had been giants. Reading the news today, we seem very petty indeed.

Any number of explanations have been proffered for why ancients believed in giants. Perhaps they found fossilized dinosaur or mammoth bones. Admit it, except for to a biologist, a femur looks pretty much the same whether it comes from a giant reptile or a moderate-sided primate. Economics of scale. Or look at those Egyptian pyramids. Sure looks like they had a hand from a really big brother. But in our strangely less and more gullible age, lingering doubts remain. The Bible says there were giants on the earth in those days. The mechanics of gods mating with human women are blamed, no matter which laws of physics have to be broken. For the literalists way down along the Paluxy River in Texas we were walking with dinosaurs back in the day. Too bad no fossilized cameras have yet been discovered.

Finite Gods

Just how many gods are there, anyway? Well, that’s not really a fair question. For one thing, do I mean “real gods” or gods that people believe in? Do I mean “believe in” or made up? Do I mean “made up” or intentionally fabricated? And the nesting questions could go on and on. Over the years in my professional capacity as an erstwhile teacher, I accumulated books listing the deities of various cultures with brief descriptions. I once even argued that using “god/goddess of” (the divine-genitival construct) as a phrase distorted ancient concepts of divinity. The fact is people have believed in many gods in many different ways. As modern scholars of religion we’ve only begun to reach the heavens (or underworld, or anywhere in between, for deities may be found anywhere). This issue comes to mind because a friend recently shared a story from IFL Science about a new Etruscan goddess. The piece by Ben Taub mentions a stone recovered from Poggio Colla, a site in Italy, written in Etruscan. The stone seems to mention a new “fertility cult” goddess. And once again religion and science have met, but not quite kissed each other.

Photo credit: Jastrow (2006), Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Jastrow (2006), Wikimedia Commons

Let’s begin with the Etruscans. Before the Romans, Etruscans lived in Italy, giving Tuscany its name. We know very little about them, as their language (Etruscan) is rarely found and imperfectly understood. Some of the classical gods may go back to Etruscan originals, and the Etruscans seem to have known of at least some of the cultures of the ancient Near East, or ancient West Asia. We have no idea how many deities the Etruscans recognized. Polytheism, for all its heathenish exuberance, never had a problem with adding more gods. Interestingly, the “new” goddess mentioned here, Uni, is someone I used to talk about in my Rutgers classes on ancient Near Eastern religion some five-plus years ago. Pardon my crowing—I seldom get to suggest I was ahead of my time.

What really interests me here is that websites that advocate science still take an interest in religion. Although belief is relegated to inferior minds (generally) science does admit, from time to time, that it’s interesting. The study of religion, in at least some schools, is a scientific enterprise. No, we don’t put gods under microscopes (telescopes might be more useful) but we use the same techniques as empirical studies of nature use in order to try to draw some conclusions about religion. Despite the fact that the vast majority of humans on the planet are believers, higher education has consistently under-funded or disbanded departments who apply rational thought to religion. We suppose that someone else can pick it up and study it, coming to useful conclusions without putting in all the homework. Don’t mind me, though. I’m just basking in the light of having known about Uni years before she was discovered.

Foiled Again

Few things travel as well as curses. Or so it seems in a news report from Serbia. Archaeologists in Kostolac, according to The Guardian, have excavated skeletons nearly two millennia old. That’s not news, since people have been dying as long as there have been people. What makes the find extraordinary are the gold and silver metal foils that have been found at the gravesite. Inscribed in Aramaic with Greek letters, these tiny missives were rolled and placed in lead tubes to be buried with the dead. Although translations of the inscriptions aren’t given, the fact that they contain the names of demons would suggest these might be curses against anyone seeking to disturb the tombs. Such devices go all the way back to the Pharaohs, and perhaps earlier. Nobody likes to have their sleep disturbed.

Serbia, for those unfamiliar with geography, isn’t exactly next door to ancient Aram. The burials and inscriptions seem to fall into the Roman Period, however, a time of cultural diversity. When cultures come into contact—in the case of Rome and prior empires, through conquest—new ideas spread rapidly. And sometimes old ideas. The Romans, in general, didn’t like competing religions. Then again, their idea of religion was somewhat different than ours. Ancient belief systems were more or less run by the state. They served to support political ends—at least they were upfront about it. Your offerings and prayers were to be given in support of the king, or emperor, and beyond that nobody really cared. Unless, of course, you were making curses.

Curses, it was believed, really worked. Even today in cultures where belief in curses persists people tend to be physically susceptible to them. We don’t want others to wish us ill. Perhaps that’s the most surprising thing about politics today. Our society has taken a decided turn towards the more secular. Candidates for political office, even if they personally believe nothing, can still cast curses on those who are different. They can claim support of their “faith” to do so as well. Words, in ancient times, were performative. They meant something. Curses were taken seriously because if someone were serious enough to say it, they probably meant it. They could be written down and preserved beyond death. Today, however, words are a cheap commodity. You can use them to attain your personal ends and discard them once they’ve outlasted their usefulness. Perhaps we do have something to learn from the past after all.

Copper scroll from Qumran, replica. Not a curse, just an illustration.

Copper scroll from Qumran, replica. Not a curse, just an illustration.

Avoiding Ritual


While on my current British kick—not really intentional, but sometimes life gives you limes—I thought I’d mention another piece sent to me by a friend. This one falls under BBC Earth, and it’s about “Why Ancient Brits threw out their most valuable possessions.” You can find the story by Amanda Ruggeri at the link. The basics are pretty simple: some people with a metal detector discovered what turned out to be a Bronze Age “hoard” in Lincolnshire. You have to understand that, in a way that makes me totally jealous, the United Kingdom has tonnes of ancient artefacts still undiscovered. While my wife and I lived there it wasn’t unusual to read about such finds in the newspaper. (Newspapers still existed then.) People had been smelting in the British Isles for a long time. The Phoenicians actually popped round the pub to get their tin—which can be one of the main ingredients for Bronze. What the article somewhat embarrassingly addresses is the nature of the hoard.

Hoards are where a large number of (usually metal) objects are discovered, after having been deliberately buried. These are not uncommon, what with Phoenicians, Romans, Angles, Saxons, Franks, Vikings, and others invading all the time. The issue that embarrasses is the “r word.” Ritual. While we don’t know the reason, the fact that people deliberately deep-sixed their valuables, routinely, suggests a ritual. As the article makes clear, professionals try to avoid the r word. Ironically, such deliberate burials, often with items purposefully broken, is also known from the ancient Levant, often predating the hoards of the prehistoric UK. Intentionally broken items—often of clay, and not infrequently depicting perhaps deities—were buried in biblical times. We don’t know why, but scholars suggest they could’ve been offerings. After all, breaking something potentially useful is an act of faith.

I’m not suggesting a direct connection here. I took a sound scholarly thrashing some years ago for suggesting a tale I heard on the streets of late twentieth-century Scotland had its origins in ancient Sumer (grad students are prone to such thinking). Still, it might not hurt anthropologists to cast a wider eye now and again. People had similar rit— well, let’s just say strange habits, in a land far away. Just cross the Channel and make a left. When it starts getting arid head south. The ancient world may have had more of an “internet” than we think. While that pathway may not always be marked by material remains, we now know ideas travel fast. Even something such as putting a daily post on a blog might become a ri—, strange habit.

Latin Lessons


The Romans are coming! The Romans are coming! No, wait. They were already here. Here, that is, if you’re European. And more specifically, a Londoner. The Guardian recently posted a story about the oldest writing in the United Kingdom being unearthed as Roman missives—originally written on wax that overlaid boards, Roman style—are being unearthed at the site of the new London headquarters of Bloomberg. Having spent many years of my life learning to specialize in ancient writings on original media, it always does me good to see hoi polloi getting excited about old texts. These Roman notes are so old that the marks on the wax have only survived by etching faintly onto the underlying wood, the wax having long ago deteriorated. The mundane writing wouldn’t have lasted had it relied on the original medium.

Even with their penchant for irony, the British don’t seem to have made much of the fact that the oldest writing in the UK has been located beneath what will become the headquarters of the media giant, Bloomberg. We will pay handsomely for good media. Anybody can coat a piece of wood with wax and scratch away. Almost nobody will read it. If it survives long enough after you die, it becomes a media treasure-trove. All the sudden we can’t wait to find out what Londinio Mogontio ate for dinner last night. Such mundane things we write about. Just to clarify, I’m talking about the Romans, not Bloomberg. Trenchant media information is, after all, what we live for. We must know what others think this commodity is worth. They’ll pay good money for that.

Tibullus will repay Gratus—it’s right there on wood. These guys were also worried about the exchange of commodities, it seems. And while nobody gives a Roman denarius anymore, we can get people’s attention by saying yes, the Romans were here. Sitting in this very spot before the cross has grown cold, making sure that accounts have been settled. The last thing you want is a Roman at your door demanding restitution. One does have to wonder what Junius the cooper thought about all this. Junius is the one with an office across from the house of Catullus. His barrels may have been broken down to make more planks for writing. The fourth estate gone wild. All that hard work would’ve gone unnoticed too, had not a major media giant decided, literally, to rake the muck under old London where before even the original tower was built friends, Romans, and countrymen were lending each other denarii. And one suspects, their beers, if Domitius Tertius Bracearius is who we think he is.

Good Goddess

This past week Asherah has been on my mind. Some of my readers will know that I wrote a book on Asherah, based on my doctoral dissertation. Those who’ve read it (admittedly few) will know that in it I lament the easy association of generic goddesses with a mythological figure with a distinct background and character. The complication has a number of sources, but became particularly acute when inscriptions reading “I bless you by Yahweh… and his asherah” were discovered at Kuntillet Ajrud a few decades back. Since then it has become neo-orthodoxy that Asherah was Yahweh’s wife and she represented trees, lions, goats, fertility, water, wisdom, and any number of other phenomena. Those who question this are called “conservatives” and evidence deniers. Those who write popular books on this assumption end up on news programs and some start appearing at conferences in very nice clothes.

Photo credit: Deror avi, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Deror avi, Wikimedia Commons

So why am I thinking of Asherah? A friend sent me the news story of a female figurine discovered in an accidental find at Tel Rehov in Israel. Upon seeing the story, I was awaiting the inevitable equation with Asherah, but was surprised to read that Amihai Mazar, the archaeologist consulted, suggested it might be Astarte, or someone else. You see, figurines of naked females were quite common in ancient Israel. No consensus has arisen as to which goddess is represented, if any. They don’t have names inscribed, and they may have been like, ahem, action figures for the woman hoping for a child, or for the safe delivery of a child. We simply don’t know. The other reason I’m thinking of Asherah is that I recently read a book where it was simply assumed that Asherah was Yahweh’s wife.

Don’t get me wrong—I’d like to see Yahweh as happily married as any other god. In fact, I think it would be odd if nobody thought he was. There is a difference, however, between thinking this makes sense and grasping at minimal evidence to declare it a fact. If someone were to discover an unambiguous inscription reading, for instance, “Asherah and Yahweh sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g,” then I’d be the first to say mazel tov. I have no theological bias against it. The problem is we simply do not know enough about the goddesses of antiquity. We know there were many. And we know there were women who didn’t claim divinity as well. Who these figurines represent, we just don’t know. Perhaps Yahweh, even now out on a date with Asherah, is smiling down knowingly. If so, I wish them well. Until I see some unambiguous evidence, however, I will be a doubter.