The Ancient Graffiti Project – Ancient Words Revived by Modern Scholars

What began as a way for her students to have more hands-on experience with epigraphy blossomed into an enormous international project. At least 50 people have contributed thus far, and there is still much, much more to do.

Dr. Rebecca Benefiel, Associate Professor of Classics at Washington and Lee University, didn’t want to simply teach about ancient Roman monuments; she wanted her students to try to edit inscriptions directly.

Image of Pompeii and Mt. Vesuvius by Frans Sellies, courtesy of Getty Images

 

She, herself, has been studying Ancient Roman epigraphy for years. Most people might recognize the wealth of text carved in stone throughout the Roman Empire.  But what most might not know is just how much ancient graffiti remains.

“One of the fascinating aspects of ancient graffiti,” Dr. Benefiel said, “is that when they do survive, they survive exactly where they existed in a way that stone inscriptions almost never do.”

Electoral campaign messages in Via dell’Abbondanza, Pompeii, Italy; October, 2004; photo by Raphael Gaillarde, courtesy of Getty Images.

Stone, inscribed or not, could be reused in ancient, as well as not so ancient, structures. (This is how the famous Rosetta Stone was found in Egypt.  Originally a public notice carved in stone, one of Napolean’s soldiers discovered it amongst reused construction material when rebuilding a fort—a stone saying the exact same thing in three languages: ancient Greek, Demotic and Egyptian hieroglyphs.)

Graffiti, on the other hand, exists in the very place it was etched into plaster by their ancient writers.  This is significant, and not just because where people left their messages might surprise us today.

“[U]nlike modern graffiti, we find [ancient graffiti] inside people’s homes,” offered Dr. Alex Pappas, Assistant Professor of Classics at San Francisco State University, “which invites questions about who’s reading these, who’s seeing them, who’s understanding them inside as opposed to just outside on the street.”

Dr. Benefiel’s enthusiasm for epigraphy is infectious.  We connected by video conference to discuss the Ancient Graffiti Project this past summer.  In August, the project held a 5-day workshop on Ancient Greek Graffiti at the Center for Hellenic Studies in DC.  It was on the last day of that workshop that I was able to ‘meet’ Dr. Benefiel, her colleague, Dr. Holly Sypniewski,  their students and other members of the Ancient Graffiti Project such as Dr. Alex Pappas.  From the position of the camera, I was able to witness an entire room full of scholars at work.

The energy in that room, the passion expressed by both professors and students as they answered my questions, was almost palpable.  And really, that level of enthusiasm is very easy to understand.

So much of Earth’s history is abstract. That abstraction is wonderful for the imagination, but frustrating when one genuinely wants to know who ancient people were, what they hoped and dreamed, what their daily lives were like, how they may have struggled or thrived.

Ancient writing reaches through the ages in ways that artifacts do not. It has the power to revive—even if only slightly–those who lived so long ago and are now gone.

And because the eruption of 79 CE buried so much of Pompeii and Herculaneum, we are able to see graffiti in-situ in ways that other ancient sites might not provide.  Unlike text carved in stone, anyone could scratch their message into plaster walls.  Much like today, those messages are from everyday people and include political sentiment, sexual conquests, the simple declaration of “I was here” and more.

 

Frescoes in the Criptoporticus Domus, one of six restored domus at UN World Heritage Site Pompeii, on December 24, 2015 during the official opening to the public. The six domus restorations were carried out under the 105-million euro Great Pompeii Project funded by the European Commission and aimed at safeguarding the unique UNESCO World Heritage site. Photo by Mario Laporta; caption and image courtesy of Getty Images.

 

Studying those messages, however, is not new.  When I asked about the resources available to those who wish to work with ancient Roman graffiti, Dr. Benefiel mentioned a series of books entitled the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum (“CIL” for short).  She pointed the camera to the end of the table, where scholars were pouring over two enormous tomes.

There are currently 17 volumes in that series, not including supplemental volumes, each volume specific to the graffiti within a modern country or region that was once part of the Roman Empire.  These books were first published in the 1800s.  Since that time, more sites have been excavated, new graffiti has been discovered, not to mention that the entire system of mapping and naming within Pompeii has changed.

Oh, and the entire series—including directions to the graffiti themselves—is in Latin.

“Working with CIL is certainly not a quick or easy process,” explained Dr. Benefiel.  “It requires a lot of correlation and patience.”

 

Floor covered with mosaics in the Pacuius Proculus Domus, one of six restored domus at UN World Heritage Site Pompeii, on December 24, 2015 during the official opening to the public. Photo by Mario Laporta; caption and image courtesy of Getty Images.

 

Dr. Benefiel’s own scholarship—the questions she pondered as she tried to work with ancient graffiti—and her work with the Epigraphic Database Roma (EDR) helped to bring about the Ancient Graffiti Project.

The EDR is another staggering endeavor to bring ancient writing to the 21st century. This resource, in conjunction with other databases, seeks to provide free online access to inscriptions made throughout the entire Ancient World.

The idea for the Ancient Graffiti Project arose after she and her students digitized an entire Pompeii city block for the EDR.  What if there were a resource, she wondered, that provided information regarding where each graffito was found?  Rather than studying ancient words in isolation, she wanted to give that writing context.

Working with a colleague in computer science, they and their students created a search engine that pulled in information of that digitized city block.  The Ancient Graffiti Project is the result, and it is the remarkable work of ever-growing collaboration.

HGP-2014-June-26-191 Ancient Graffiti

Photo of Dr. Holly Sypniewski and a student experimenting with an iPad for photo documentation of a graffito at Herculaneum; courtesy of the Herculaneum Graffiti Project

 

As Dr. Holly Sypniewski, Assistant Director for Digitization (Ancient Graffiti Project) and Interim Associate Dean of Arts and Humanities at Millsaps College, explained, “Rebecca and I both teach at liberal private arts colleges and universities where we have pretty considerable teaching loads. We’re not at large research institutions, and we don’t have graduate students to work with us on our projects. We have our undergraduate students, and this has been, for me, one of the most satisfying aspects of this project: finding ways to get my students involved in hands-on research that gives them the opportunity to apply their knowledge in exciting ways.  Our students conduct research on inscriptions, use technology to manipulate images, organize data, and work on the coding end of the Ancient Graffiti Project Database.   We are lucky to work with such talented students!”

In addition to those from Millsaps and Washington and Lee, students from the University of Richmond contribute to the project under the supervision of Dr. Erika Zimmermann Damer, a project member.

“They’re working with primary evidence in a way that you often don’t get to when we’re talking about 2000 years ago,” added Dr. Benefiel. “And they’re building something. They’re helping design a tool, a tool that we want to be able to be used both by the scholarly community and the public at-large because graffiti, they fascinate! They capture your attention. So if someone wants to know how you might draw a camel 2000 years ago, they can find it!”

IMG_0071 Ancient Graffiti

Photo of two students measuring a graffito for Ancient Graffiti Project records at Herculaneum; courtesy of the Herculaneum Graffiti Project

 

The sheer amount of graffiti within homes in Pompeii—not to mention their very central and visible locations—might give modern readers pause. Certainly, there was graffiti upon ancient walls and structures (even tombs!) But what does that indicate?  Why were people writing inside?  Why weren’t these messages written in less-trafficked areas or painted over by their residents?

Dr. Benefiel poses these questions and others in the book Inscriptions in the Private Sphere in the Greco-Roman World, co-edited with Peter Keegan and published this year.  Discussing graffiti in Pompeii alone, she mentions that 1700 examples were found outside on building walls and 1000 examples on public buildings (including about 100 examples in the purpose-built brothel).

The number of graffiti found within homes?

3000.

It is important to note that, although graffiti may have been etched into central rooms and hallways within a home, one could easily miss it.  These were not brightly colored declarations; they were etchings in plaster.  Interestingly, those who wrote these messages took pains not to write over existing graffiti. Rather, messages may occur near and around each other.  These messages also avoided all wall paintings, respecting the artwork contained within.

Seeing examples of writing prompts even further questions.  Who was writing these messages?  What percentage of the population was literate?  Can one decipher the gender of the author?

“We have many more names of men appearing in the graffiti, however, we have women who are being addressed in the graffiti,” Dr. Benefiel responded.

Examples she gave are:

“Greetings to Quartilla.”

“Greetings to Sabina.”

“And we do have some graffiti that are written from the perspective of a woman. So we have ‘Methe’, the female name, ‘loves Chrestus’ and then a prayer: “May Pompeian Venus be propitious to both of them, may they live harmoniously.”

Mary Beard, in her 2008 book The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found, states that anyone could have written the graffiti in Pompeii; this was not just a function of the elite.  All members of ancient Roman society appear to have participated.  In one example, she suggests that the imprints of coins, pressed into the plaster close to the floor, is the work of a child. In another, she wonders whether ancient looters may have etched the words “House tunneled” near the door of one house, referencing the type of entry required for anyone to access the buried rooms.

The example given by Dr. Benefiel above illustrates this even further. When discussing her favorite graffito, she added details as to why this same graffito was her favorite.

“1) It starts with the name ‘Methe’ and then it says, 2) ‘She’s a slave of a woman named Cominia. 3) She’s from the town of Atella.  4) And she loves Chrestus.’ So she’s a slave, she’s a female, and she’s got three identifying markers: We know who she is, we know where she comes from, we know who she belongs to.  She’s expressing her love.  And then she’s writing—in a public space—to Pompeian Venus, who was the divinity for the city, and she writes a remarkably touching prayer.”

“I like the fact that [graffiti] can sometimes tell us a little bit about the people who are writing them,” she continued, “and they can tell us what they were thinking, but also what mattered to them.”

Artifacts, artwork and writing with Pompeii and Herculaneum indicate that these were multicultural cities with influences that extended beyond the Roman empire.  Perhaps the most obvious evidence of this lies within the statuette of Lakshmi, an Indian goddess.  Graffiti within those cities appears in both Latin and Greek, sometimes a mixture of the two in the same graffito.

HGP-2014-June-26-185 Ancient Graffiti

Photo of the entire Herculaneum Graffiti Project team from summer 2014 in the Augustalium in Herculaneum; courtesy of the Herculaneum Graffiti Project for which Dr. Jacqueline DiBiasie Sammons (University of the South) serves as the Field Director.

 

“[There are] all sorts of fun obstacles to overcome,” Dr. Benefiel replied with a laugh when I asked her about any difficulties when translating the graffiti.

“They were written by individuals, in their individualized handwriting, with their individualized thoughts. There is no mediator between the person who’s writing and the final text.

“So you have to understand the handwriting, you have to understand the inside joke, you have to understand abbreviations or non-abbreviations, you have to understand that an ‘e’ can be written as two vertical lines or as we write an ‘e’.

“When we get to the Greek graffiti, there’s something even more special happening because we’re operating in an environment where you’ve got a mix of cultures.  So some people are bilingual (some people are speaking Latin and Greek). Some others are much more comfortable in Latin and could throw a word of Greek in here and there. Others are native Greek speakers that are now living in a Latin environment. Others are travelers passing through.”

 

Musquash contemporary graffiti

Contemporary graffiti on a picnic bench at Musquash Conservation Area in NH; photo taken by the author of this blog

 

After working and researching so many different graffiti, presumably written by so many different people, I wondered if either Dr. Benefiel or Dr. Sypniewski gained any insight into these ancient people.  Did they, for example, see any big differences between those writing ancient graffiti with those who do so today?

“I would say that you see the exact same range of graffiti in antiquity, for the most part, as you would today,” said Dr. Sypniewski. “Perhaps with the exception of the simple artistic tagging. There isn’t as much of an emphasis on decorative letter shapes because the medium doesn’t allow for that. It’s much harder to draw into plaster than it is to spray paint, for example, or to paint over something.”

 


Contemporary graffiti; photo by Mr. Din, courtesy of Getty Images

“I would suggest,” Dr. Benefiel offered, “that what we see from the ancient graffiti is that in antiquity people were using graffiti to communicate positive messages much more frequently than we do today.”

Matthew Loar, then a PhD graduate from Stanford, now an Assistant Professor at the University Nebraska-Lincoln, had the following to say: “I think oftentimes when people study Classics, they study Greek and Latin literature. They’re looking at words on a page; it’s very 2-dimensional.  You get this sense of a society that was highly literate and was reading and writing high forms of literature. At least, this is what I thought once upon a time as a young undergraduate.

“But I think the thing about graffiti is that you realize that this was a really playful culture, that writing was very much an everyday practice. It was very ad-hoc. Every surface was game for writing. I mean, there are words all over the city in every place that you look, on every wall—inside, outside—homes, taverns, brothels, forums….you name it; there is writing on the wall there.

“I think that was a really surprising thing for me to learn at first. And it makes me feel like I can still wax poetic. I can commune with the ancients when [I] walk through the city of Pompeii or Herculaneum.”

 

House of the Mosaic of Neptune and Amphitrite, Herculaneum; photo by Images Etc. Ltd, courtesy of Getty Images

 

“I think one of the fabulous things about graffiti,” Dr. Benefiel mused, “is that when you look at them, there’s an immediacy.  If you get a sense of what the handwriting looks like, it takes you to the person that was writing that graffito.

“I think that it’s hard to think about a graffito without the person behind it. And so in that way, when we are thinking about these writings, we are repopulating the city.”

————-

I cannot thank Dr. Rebecca Benefiel, Dr. Holly Sypniewski, their students or colleagues enough for graciously enabling me to interrupt their work at the Center for Hellenic Studies this past summer!!  Given the collaborative nature of Dr. Benefiel and the Project entire, it is not surprising that she generously invited me to speak with multiple scholars, rather than doing a one-on-one interview.  I was excited and amazed then; I remain excited and amazed now.  Thank you all for your remarkable generosity and thoughtfulness!  I cannot wait to learn more and see for myself how your project evolves!

You, too, can follow the Ancient Graffiti Project or test out their search engine at http://ancientgraffiti.wlu.edu!

 

References:

  1. Ancient Graffiti Project website
  2. The Culture of Writing Graffiti within Domestic Spaces at Pompeii, by Rebecca R. Benefiel, pg. 80 – 110 of Inscriptions in the Private Sphere in the Greco-Roman World, Edited by Rebecca Benefiel and Peter Keegan, 2016, Brill Publishers
  3. Magic Squares, Alphabet Jumbles, Riddles and More: The Culture of Word-Games among the Graffiti of Pompeii, by Rebecca R. Benefiel, pg. 65 – 79 of The Muse at Play: Riddles and Wordplay in Greek and Latin Poetry,  Edited by Jan Kwapisz, David Petrain and Mikolaj Szymanski, 2012, De Gruyter
  4. Dialogues of Ancient Graffiti in the House of Maius Castricius in Pompeii, Rebecca R. Benefiel, American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 114, No. 1, January 2010
  5. The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found, by Mary Beard,  2008, Belknap Press of Harvard University

 

Inscriptions in the Private Sphere in the Greco-Roman World

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Dr. Ben Thomas: (Part 2) Searching the Jungle for Maya Artifacts

“I talk to students and the last time they probably discussed the Maya was in the 4th grade. So they have a 4th-grade understanding of it. Which is kind of interesting to me.  I’m always like: when are the American kids going to learn about American history?”

Along with his work at the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) as Director of Programs, Dr. Ben Thomas teaches Mesoamerican art at Berklee College of Music.  His undergrad and PhD work focused on archaeological sites in Central American countries.

The ‘American history’ of the Maya goes back to about 12,000 BCE, and it is a culture that continues to exist today in Mexico and the Yucatán peninsula.

The ancient Maya were the first known to create the zero—an extraordinarily complex mathematical concept. They were astronomers. They were, among many other things, writers, artists, scientists, farmers, builders, engineers.  Remnants of their great cities exist in the pyramids and stone structures that survive amidst the jungles.

Group A plaza at Caracol, the largest Maya site in Belize; photo courtesy of Tom Schwabel, Getty Images.

Mayan Temple at Caracol, Belize; photo courtesy of Steve Geer, Getty Images.

It is the writers and artists that pull at my imagination the most.  Prior to the Spanish conquest, the Maya people were prolific writers.  They created thousands of books, known today as codices, filled with pages of beautiful Mayan characters inked on pounded bark.

Museo_de_America_Madrid_Codex

Image of the Madrid Codex (also known as the Tro-Cortesianus Codex or the Troano Codex) at the Museo de America, Spain; in the Public Domain, courtesy of Michel Wal, Wikipedia.

Dresden Codex Page 2

Page 49 of the Dresden Codex; photo in the Public Domain, courtesy of Wikipedia.

 

With the exception of four, all of them–these doorways into the minds and thoughts of ancient people–have disappeared from history. Religious zeal (a belief that these books were ‘the work of the devil’), colonial arrogance, and the desire to Christianize Mayas prompted the Spanish to have these books destroyed.  It is a loss that I cannot fathom, but one that I felt profoundly, physically in the pit of my stomach, gazing upon one of the four remaining Mayan codices at an exhibit last year.

Codex from exhibit

A rather poor image of the codex on exhibit in Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed; taken by the author last year at the Boston Museum of Science

 

Linda Schele and David Freidel, in the book “A Forest of Kings”, state that the Mayan word its’at means “one who is clever, ingenious, artistic, scientific, and knowledgeable” (page 379).  It is also, according to these authors, another word for a scribe or an artist.

 

Peabody - Mayan scribes paint pot

Maya scribe ink pot (a conch shell), in which different ink colors would be placed in each section; taken by the author at the Harvard Peabody Museum.

 

Although the majority of Mayan codices have been lost, some of their writing survives in stone. Mayan glyphs—carved upon stone altars, giant stelae, and other stone facades—were finally understood in the 20th century.  This remarkable achievement was thanks to years of work by a number of individuals, culminating in final decipherment in 1986 by a teenage epigrapher.

Peabody - Mayan stelae and altar Q

Casts of Maya stelae from Guatemala and Altar Q in the foreground from Copán, Honduras at the Harvard Peabody Museum; photo taken by the author.

Peabody - Mayan stela

Detail of a cast of a Maya stela from Guatemala at the Harvard Peabody Museum; photo taken by the author.  An important contributor to our understanding of Mayan glyphs and writing used to work at this museum: Tatiana Proskouriakoff.

 

Did this relatively recent discovery correlate to our understanding of the Maya?  Are we only now beginning to unravel the depths of ancient Maya culture?

“Maya archaeology, Mesoamerican archaeology, I wouldn’t say it’s in its infancy,” Dr. Thomas replied. “We’ve been doing this now since the late 1800s, but really systematically with scientific methodology since probably the early 1900s.

“I think we know a huge amount about the ancient people of the Mesoamerican region.

“Some things we [once] had no idea about we know a lot about now: about settlement patterns, about construction techniques, about trade networks, linguistics. So I wouldn’t say that the discipline of Mesoamerican archaeology is in its infancy, but certainly there’s a ton more to find.”

But, he added, “[s]ome of it will never be discovered because it’s under modern construction.”

Dr. Thomas spent time in Guatemala during his grad school years, but his dissertation fieldwork took place in Belize.  He was part of a group at Boston University called XARP, the Xibun Archaeological Research Project.  The Mayan ‘x’ is pronounced ‘sh’; hence, XARP is pronounced: sharp.  Xibun is another way of spelling ‘Sibun,’ the name of both a river and an area in central Belize.

 

Map of Belize by Poligrafistka, Getty Images.

 

“When we were looking to do our research–to pick a new area,” he explained, “[the Sibun region] was very attractive to us because so much of it was not really understood.”

Part of the reason may have been due to the Sibun River’s frequent flooding; part of it may have been how inaccessible the area was—miles upon miles of dense jungle.

Looking at the sheer scale of the area, the massive distance on either side of this river, and seeing pictures of the dense brush and tree cover of the jungle, the task of finding anything remotely recognizable as an artifact from the Maya seemed insurmountable.

As Dr. Thomas had mentioned, “The organic material is gone, especially in Belize and the tropics in general in that area because it’s so hot and humid. And the soil is acidic. Organic materials do not preserve well.”

Absent enormous stone structures, how would anyone know where to even begin to look for ancient remnants?  Surely, they could be anywhere, and this was not an enormous team of archaeologists, equipped with technology like LiDAR to help them locate buried ruins.

The answer?

“We did a lot of research: looking at everything that was published about the area, we interviewed landowners, we talked to local people to get an idea of what they had seen on their property, we looked at all the maps and the geological surveys that had been done for Belize.

“Because of all the research we’d done, we [had a better understanding of] Maya settlement patterns. All of the studies would say, [for example], 70% of the Maya settlements are within a kilometer of a river.  There are things that you can look at to sort of try to set up a predictive model of where Maya sites would be.”

Xibun Archaeological Research Project - surveyor setting up the Total Station

Setting up a survey in the jungles of Belize. Photo courtesy of Patricia McAnany and the Xibun Archaeological Research Project.

“The big thing I always tell people is that if it’s good for us to live there today, then it was good for [ancient people], unless something bad and really drastic has happened. [Generally speaking,] if there’s a good water source, plenty of good land for agriculture, food sources—whether it’s animal or plant—and some raw materials, that’s where people lived.”

“We had people walking through the jungle looking for things. And what you’re looking for is clusters of artifacts and features, but sometimes they’re so overgrown that you may not see them.”

“We had machetes, and we used them to clear as we were walking along.”

Despite this, I still couldn’t understand how Maya ruins—the soft limestone of their structures eroded over the centuries—could be found in such conditions.

“[When it comes to finding the archaeologically important mounds,],” he said, “you realize you’re walking uphill. Or, you know, you might be able to see [them directly.] After a while you get kind of used to it, how the land should look and what you’re seeing.”

Xibun Archaeological Research Project - walking over a pyramid that has been completely obscured by vegetation

Walking over a pyramid that has been completely obscured by vegetation in Belize. Photo courtesy of Patricia McAnany and the Xibun Archaeological Research Project.

XARP - same pyramid that we were walking over after we cleared off the vegetation

The very same area as in the photograph above, but cleared of all vegetation, revealing the remnants of an ancient Maya pyramid. Photo courtesy of Patricia McAnany and the Xibun Archaeological Research Project.

Images of dense jungle immediately brought another concern to mind: snakes.

Dr. Thomas smiled. “Snakes [were] an issue. Scorpions. But the things that [were] really, really annoying [were] the bugs: mosquitoes, ticks.”

Eventually, the XARP team sought answers to four questions about the Maya in the Sibun:

  1. What was the nature of Maya settlement along the river?
  2. What was the role of cacao in the Sibun and could we find evidence of ancient Maya cacao production?
  3. What was the effect of Christianity on the Sibun and could we find the visita mentioned in the Spanish records?
  4. How were the caves used?

Unfortunately, they were unable to find evidence of ancient cacao production.  Part of the issue was not knowing what, exactly, to look for.  How does one find remnants of ancient orchards?  And after years of modern cacao growth in Belize, in which hybrid cacao has been introduced, what does ancient cacao even look like?  Other clues to cacao production—the ceramics involved in drinking cacao, for example—would have provided evidence, but these could not be found.

 

 Cacao pods; image courtesy of nullplus, Getty Images.

Caption from Getty Images: Cacao Plant with Fruit (Theobroma cacao). Maya are generally given credit for creating the first modern chocolate beverage. They ground cocoa seeds into a paste, and mixed it with water, cornmeal, chile peppers, and other ingredients. Photo courtesy of SPrada, Getty Images.

 

Their quest to find a visita, a Christian church built by Spanish conquerors, was also unsuccessful.  In the 1500s, Spanish overseers known as encomanderos were each given pieces of land (encomiendas) to use as they saw fit.  Visitas were built on this land to further Christianize the local people.

Because the Maya did not employ metal, anything made out of this substance would indicate a colonial presence. They may not have found a visita, but the team did find remnants of colonialists in the form of clay pipes, lead shot, a rusted knife, and gun flint.

“Before we started all this, we knew of 3 sites,” he explained, referring to the only known Maya sites in the Sibun region by the 1990s, one of which is on land owned by the Hershey Corporation.

Ben Thomas - Excavation in progress at another site along the Sibun

Excavating along the Sibun River. Photo courtesy of Patricia McAnany and the Xibun Archaeological Research Project.

Ben Thomas - excavation 1

Ben Thomas - excavation 2

Ben Thomas - excavation 3

Ben Thomas - excavation 4

Ben Thomas - excavation 5

Stages of excavation. Photos courtesy of Patricia McAnany and the Xibun Archaeological Research Project. Samuel Oshon–upon whose property these excavations were conducted–remembers seeing Charles Lindberg fly over his land!

 

“By the end of it, we had 22 sites, [19 of which we had discovered.] And we had mapped and explored about 18 caves in quite a bit of detail.”

Caves were, and continue to be, a particularly sacred place to the Maya.  They are, among other things, believed to be connected to Xibalba, the Maya Underworld, which was both feared and revered in equal measures.

Ben Thomas - cave

Photo of XARP exploring a cave, courtesy of Patricia McAnany and the Xibun Archaeological Research Project.

“They were bringing things in [to the caves],” Dr. Thomas said of their discoveries in local caves. “So you find pots with the remains of food. But then some of [the pots], they’re upside down, and they had holes in them. They were doing something else with them.”

 

Ben Thomas - cave ceramics

Ancient Maya ceramics in a cave. Photo courtesy of Patricia McAnany and the Xibun Archaeological Research Project.

 

A particularly significant artifact located in the caves were metates—the stone tools used to grind maize, perhaps the most important crop throughout the Maya universe.

“But those things are heavy!” he emphasized of the metates. “These things can weigh 40 – 60 pounds. It’s solid stone. And there [are] several of them.”

Ben Thomas - cave ceramics and metate

Photo inside a cave with ceramics and metate (grindstone) on the right courtesy of Patricia McAnany and the Xibun Archaeological Research Project.

 

He described not only how difficult it was to get to, but then enter one particular cave.

“The fact that they’re bringing [metates] in there, [when] it’s not easy to do, I think it does speak to the importance of the rituals.  They’re willing to invest the time and the energy for these rituals.”

“But they’re also taking things out! We noticed on the sites [outside of these caves that] they would have stalactites or stalagmites, [sometimes] on the house floors, sometimes they’d be in burials.

“We think of a cave as a sacred space with spiritual energy [so], I think, taking something from there would have that spiritual energy connected to [it].”

“People still do it,” he said, referencing relics in many of today’s Christian churches, in which the bones of saints are enshrined.

Dr. Thomas and I had been conversing for well over an hour at this point.

“[Archaeology],” he concluded, “[is really] a database of human behavior, starting from thousands of years ago to now. We’re chronicling it: how people behaved, how they reacted to things.  A lot of times the collapse of societies is brought on [by events such as] climate change,  [for example; or] it’s brought on by overexploitation of natural resources; [or by] people not adjusting or adapting to their circumstances.  [Those are] all data-points that we have that people should be looking at. What are we doing to our environment now? How are we reacting to things now?”

“Because in some ways, none of this is new. I think what has changed now is the scale of things.”

*********************

I extend an enormous THANK YOU to Dr. Ben Thomas.  Not only was it a great honor and pleasure speaking with him for such an extended period of time, but it was no small task to find time in his extraordinarily busy schedule.  He helped pave the way for my increased interest and enthusiasm for the Maya culture. I am very grateful!
A huge THANK YOU to Caitlin Davis for connecting me to Dr. Thomas!

References:

  1. “A Forest of Kings”, by Linda Schele and David Freidel, William Morrow and Co., 1990
  2. “Breaking the Maya Code”, by Michael D. Coe, Thames and Hudson, 1992
  3. “Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World”, by Lynn V. Foster, Facts on File, Inc., 2002

 

Image of Palenque, a Maya city-state in Chiapas, Mexico; courtesy Getty Images.

Will the Illinois State Museum close?

IL State Museum, State Journal-Register

 

Screenshot from an excellent and informative article by Bernard Schoenburg at The State Journal-Register

 

The doors to the Illinois State Museum are not shut today, and–fortunately–they are not set to close until at least August 8th, according to an article yesterday in The State Journal-Register.

When I asked Chris Young, spokesperson at the IL Department of Natural Resources,  if there were any updates, he wrote, “There is no specific date set to suspend operations. As we discussed earlier, there is more work remaining to properly store collections, return borrowed items and call back items loaned for research.”

To keep informed on this issue, please check out the following resources:

  • Save the Illinois State Museum blog: https://savetheillinoisstatemuseum.wordpress.com (this page has contact details and how you can help: https://savetheillinoisstatemuseum.wordpress.com/2015/06/26/hello-world/)
  • Save the Illinois State Museum Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Save-the-Illinois-State-Museum/917517601639564?fref=nf
  • Sign the petition on MoveOn.org: http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/governor-rauner-dont
  • Save the Illinois State Museum page on the American Alliance of Museums: http://t.congressweb.com/w/?GILOPWGAPZ

The commission this week set a public hearing on the closure of the Springfield museum for 4 p.m. July 13 in Room 2012 of the Statehouse. Anyone wishing to give oral testimony or submit written testimony can contact the commission at 785-3208 or by email at facilityclosure@ilga.gov. The email address is the same for submitting public comments.–Bernard Schoenburg, The State Journal-Register

—————

References:

Thank you again to Chris Young at the IL DNR!  

Thank you to Samantha Reif, the American Alliance of Museums, those behind any of the “Save the Illinois State Museum” resources (Facebook page, blog), and to all who are working behind the scenes to prevent the closure of these museums!

 

These Two Museums Need Your Help: Pt. 2 Illinois State Museum

Actually, the title to this post is a misnomer: there is one main branch of the Illinois State Museum in Springfield, but there are 4 other state museums in different locations that also fall under the “Illinois State Museum.”

And all five of them are under the threat of closure on July 1st.

On June 2nd, the office of Governor Bruce Rauner announced what programs he intended to cut in an attempt to save $400 million in the Illinois state budget.

As these museums fall under the responsibility of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the Governor’s press release stated that the [IDNR] “will begin the process to suspend operations and close the five state museums to visitors. The state will continue to maintain and secure the museums to protect the artifacts and exhibits.

Gov Rauner shuts down museums

 

Screenshot of the Governor’s press release, highlighting the museum closure.

You can read about the many other program cuts and their potential impact here in this article in the Chicago Tribune. (http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/politics/ct-rauner-madigan-budget-cuts-met-0603-20150602-story.html)

 

The idea of shutting down one museum—let alone five—seems incomprehensible. These museums collectively contain millions of artifacts.

Chris Young, a spokesperson for the IDNR, wrote in an email that the number of visitors to all museums last year was 386,750 people.  The specific number of people for each museum in 2014 is as follows:

  • Illinois State Museum main facility in Springfield plus Research and Collections Center:  199,304
  • Dickson Mounds:  50,297
  • Chicago Gallery:  64,300
  • Illinois Artisans Shop Chicago:  39,896
  • Lockport Gallery:  14,253
  • Southern Illinois Art Gallery:  18,700

These numbers do not take into account the online resources provided by the museums nor the collaboration between researchers in other states or countries.

Illinois State Museum websitehttp://www.museum.state.il.us/ismsites/main/

Illinois State Museum’s Ice Age website: http://iceage.museum.state.il.us/

iceage.museum.state.il.us

Screenshot of the Ice Age website released this year by the IL State Museum.

 

Enter Samantha Reif.  According to an article on NPR Illinois, she is both a museum volunteer and a geology teacher, and she created the MoveOn.org petition asking Gov. Rauner not to shut down the museums.  At the time of this post, there are 4,514 signatures.

But if the threat of shuttering them becomes real, how does one actually go about closing museums?

“The museum will return art objects owned by other entities that are currently on display,” Chris Young of the IDNR responded. “Consigned Illinois Artisan works also will be returned, as well as scientific collections from other museums and universities that have been borrowed for research purposes.”

“The museum’s staff will also be calling back artifacts and specimens that are on loan to other entities for research and exhibition,” he continued. “At this time, there is no definitive list of objects or collections to be returned.”

In addition, he wrote that the “museum currently has three active research grants from the National Science Foundation, and is a partner on a NSF education grant. [The] museum administration is working on a strategy for completion of the current grants.”

He noted that there are 68 people employed throughout these museums, but that lay-off notices have not yet been sent.

“Closure will come after the museum’s professional staff has adequate time to ensure that collections are properly accounted for and stored. No specific date has been set for closure as details are still being worked out.”

——————-

If you are Facebook, you can stay informed here:  https://www.facebook.com/pages/Save-the-Illinois-State-Museum/917517601639564

You can sign this petition as well: Governor Rauner: Don’t Close the Illinois State Museum – MoveOn.org
http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/governor-rauner-dont.fb48

 

ISM Hot Science: The Importance of Museum Collections, Dr. Chris Widga at the IL State Museum on YouTube

 

Thank you to Chris Young at the IL Department of Natural Resources for his help and quick responses to my questions!

An enormous THANK YOU to Samantha Reif for creating the MoveOn.org petition!! 

Thank you to the American Alliance of Museums, from whom I initially heard about this through their tweet (https://twitter.com/AAMers/status/608034565085642752)!

This particular writer has gained invaluable information and help in the past from one of the museum’s paleontologists, Dr. Chris Widga, and from the informative website recently released about the Ice Age (http://iceage.museum.state.il.us/).

Tweet I love museums

(#ILoveMuseums originates from http://ilovemuseums.com, a campaign in the UK by the National Museum Directors’ Council.)

—————

References:

  1. Rauner starts budget cuts to force Dems to negotiate on his agenda, by Rick Pearson, Monique Garcia and Alejandra Cancino http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/politics/ct-rauner-madigan-budget-cuts-met-0603-20150602-story.html
  2. Rauner prepares to close state museums, shutter some prisons to balance ‘phony’ Democratic budget, by Becky Schlikerman: http://chicago.suntimes.com/news/7/71/656741/rauner-orders-cuts 
  3. Administration Initiates Management Steps to Prepare for Madigan-Cullerton Budget, Governor Rauner’s Office Press Release: http://www3.illinois.gov/PressReleases/ShowPressRelease.cfm?SubjectID=3&RecNum=13115
  4. Who won’t get paid if the Illinois budget stalemate drags on, by Thomas A. Corfman: http://www.chicagobusiness.com/article/20150610/NEWS02/150619982/who-wont-get-paid-if-the-illinois-budget-stalemate-drags-on
  5. Illinois State Museum closing would be devastating, advocate says, by Bernard Schoenburg: http://www.sj-r.com/article/20150610/NEWS/150619927
  6. Will The Illinois State Museum Go The Way Of The Mastodon? by Amanda Vinicky, NPR Illinois: http://wuis.org/post/will-illinois-state-museum-go-way-mastodon

 

These Two Museums Need Your Help: Pt. 1 Triceratops Fossil in Boston

 

UPDATE 19 June 2015:  FUNDING HAS BEEN EXCEEDED.

———————–

Earlier, I wrote about the undetermined fate of a Triceratops fossil.  The Museum of Science Boston has until June 30th of this year (only weeks away!) to raise $850,000 in order to keep that fossil.  So far, the total raised is $450, 961.  This is significant, but it’s not enough.

You can help: http://mos.org/keepcliff

Keep Cliff MOS screenshot

Screenshot of mos.org/keepcliff, Museum of Science Boston

Triceratops Boston Museum of Science

Image of the Triceratops fossil at the Museum of Science Boston, taken by the author

cliff skull & museum

Image of Triceratops’ skull, Museum of Science Boston, taken by the author

Keep Cliff 1

 

A “Keep Cliff” panel at the Museum of Science Boston, image taken by the author

 

More information can be found here: https://mostlymammoths.wordpress.com/2014/12/20/the-undetermined-fate-of-a-rare-triceratops-fossil/

Before Porcelain Came To Pompeii: A Tale of Toilets (and Sanitation) in Ancient Rome

Here is something I never learned when researching the Dead Sea Scrolls for an exhibit: the toilet habits of an Essene sect from the first century BCE.  They are apparently described in two different sources: one of the Temple Scrolls (11QT) and from Flavius Josephus, an ancient historian.

Dr. Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, archaeologist and professor at Brandeis University, mentions them while comparing the sanitation records of other by-gone cultures in her latest book.

No such detailed records yet exist for ancient Roman society, but for Dr. Koloski-Ostrow, this is not a deterrent.

Using ancient literature, Roman graffiti, artwork, and the structures themselves, she pieces together an intimate and unique portrait of Ostia, Pompeii, Herculaneum and Ancient Rome during the 3rd century BCE through the 2nd century CE.

The mere existence of sewers and aqueducts might lead one to believe that the engineers of Ancient Rome were millenia ahead of the rest of the world in terms of cleanliness.

[[Image courtesy Getty Images, the ancient roman aqueduct at Pont du Gard in France. It crosses the Gardon River in the Gard département of southern France. It was built in the first century CE and is an UNESCO world heritage site. The author of this blog was delighted (and awed) to walk across the top of it years ago.]]

The evidence seems to point in that direction, especially given that public toilets were built in many Roman cities.  Ancient Rome itself had latrines designed for 47 – 60 people in a row.

But do these structures actually indicate what we, in the 21st century, might assume about their function and purpose?

This is one of the many questions asked by Dr. Koloski-Ostrow in “The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy: Toilets, Sewers and Water Systems,” released this past April by the University of North Carolina Press.

Archaeology of Ancient Sanitation

 

[[Image of the book cover, “The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy: Toilets, Sewers and Water Systems,” courtesy of UNC Press]]

In it, she focuses on a largely ignored part of ancient life, a subject that most people today might, quite frankly, find slightly repugnant.

Since 1992, prompted by the remark of a colleague into how little has been done with this topic, Dr. Koloski-Ostrow has been researching the structures related to toilets within Ancient Roman sites.

“Roman toilets, sewers, and drains are important archaeological features that embody ideas relevant to Roman society about cleanliness, physical health, concepts of beauty, and even notions of privacy.  If toilets are excavated properly, they can provide valuable data even about the diet and socioeconomic status of users, divisions between households where they are found, construction methods and maintenance.  While the understanding that outhouse archaeology is significant has made major strides in nineteenth-century American historical circles, this perception has been slow to affect the archaeology of the Roman world.  Part of the problem, of course, is that many Roman toilets and latrines were excavated more than a hundred years ago, as the science of archaeology was developing.  As a result, no one was taking much care to stratify dung piles, to sort garbage from house toilets, or to remove privy deposits.   These early excavations sought the greatest art treasures, which were unlikely to be found in toilets.” –pg. 38, Dr. Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, “The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy

Surprisingly, this is not a discussion of artifacts found within sewers (although certainly this work has been done by other people).  Rather, this is an intriguing tour through an ancient society at-large, viewed from the perspective of urban design.

She attributes two theories as major influences upon her work: formation processes and the social theory of architectural design.  Viewed from these lenses—in which human behavior and decisions are tantamount–sanitation and its related structures become a fascinating puzzle to decipher.

The social theory of architectural design encourages one to ponder the motivation behind the building and location of an archaeological find. Why, for example, were many private toilets in Pompeii, Herculaneum and Ostia positioned in or near the kitchen?  What decisions were made to include or not include windows in public latrines?  And therefore, was odor a concern in either of these cases?  When sewers were available, and no laws existed to prevent builders to connect to these sewers in town, why were so many private homes still using cesspit toilets? (More on this subject below.)

[[Image courtesy of Getty Images, a street in Pompeii. Notice the raised stones.  This enabled citizens to cross the street and not get their sandals wet or dirty–from both water run-off and potential toilet refuse from those homes that connected their toilets to the street….]]

 

Formation processes, as its name suggests, focuses on the reasons behind “construction, use and ultimate abandonment” of archaeological features.

Aside from chamber pots, wealthy Roman citizens eventually had either cesspit toilets or toilets connected to city sewers within the home.

Not so for the general public.

“We know…that elite attitudes toward the masses and their living conditions were, at best, dismissive and, at worst, callous.” –pg. 75, Dr. Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, “The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy

Within the crowded tenements of Ancient Rome, multi-storied buildings had shared latrines, if any at all.  Some were located on the ground floor; some, surprisingly, were constructed on higher levels.

And here we arrive at latrines.

Dr. Koloski-Ostrow believes the term “latrina” meant a public toilet in the 3rd century BCE.   The later word “forica” (“foricae” in plural) referred to multi-seat public toilets.  As already mentioned, the Largo Argentina in Ancient Rome provided seating for 47 people in one latrine; up to 60 people in another larger latrine constructed in the following century. Public latrines were not always part of Roman cities, and Dr. Koloski-Ostrow wonders whether these may have originally been built as a practicality: a way to keep human refuse out of city property, rather than a concern for human needs.

There were no apparent stalls or partitions.  A latrine consisted of either wooden or marble benches, and the holes were placed at the same distance from each other (with variations of just centimeters) throughout the centuries.  They were generally constructed over a main sewer branch.

 

[[Image courtesy of Getty Images, sea sponges.  Ancient Romans are believed to have used such sponges on the end of a stick as toilet paper.]]

 

The windows, at least in early latrines, were small and built high up into the wall; she describes these facilities as “grim, dark and dirty.”

And she ponders who frequented them, whether social status mattered in their use.

“Another knotty question frequently asked about latrines is whether men and women used them simultaneously.  We might also ask if women used them at all.  The best response is probably not to seek a definitive answer, but to accept the fact that in all likelihood mixed latrine use varied from region to region or even from establishment to establishment, and certainly from country to city.  Personal choice must have played a role, and there were both prudes and perverts afoot in Roman life.  Chances are that if women entered a latrine on occasion, they were women of the lowest social order, enjoying the use of a public facility, a privilege that was rarely otherwise afforded them by the Roman city administration.” –pg. 31, Dr. Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, “The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy”

When I asked what alternative a woman might have had, she responded by email, that it “is very related to the hierarchical nature of all of Roman society.”

“Women of high social status,” she continued, “would not have entered a dark, dank public facility any more than a man of high social status would.”

“First of all, women of high social status did not tend to be out and about in the Roman city during the day.  Their slaves and freedwomen would have done the necessary errands and shopping for these high status women.

“If a woman of low status (slave or freedwoman) were out of the house and needed to use a toilet, she may have stepped into a public latrine, but I’m guessing that she would have thought twice about it—given worries of robbery or assault.  Such places were convenient, like nasty toilets in the New York subways, for unsavory types to lie in wait.  So, women (low status) would have done their business outside the house and then rushed back home.  In the home were chamber pots and cesspit toilets for their needs.  You can see that I cannot prove any of this, but I have outlined whatever evidence I was able to find in the sources.”

Dr. Koloski-Ostrow relied on ancient writers to help give her a sense of what import, if any, sanitation played on cultural perspectives of the time.

[[Image courtesy of Getty Images, bathing hall, Pompeii.]]

Praise for the Cloaca Maxima—the Great Sewer of Rome—can be found in Pliny the Elder, Dionysus of Halicarnassus, Strabo (a Greek geographer) and Vitruvius (himself an architect), among others.  But, she notes, these writers ultimately focus on water as a vehicle for cleanliness.

Discussing this sewer in the ancient city of Rome itself and its connection to the Tiber River, Dr. Koloski-Ostrow makes an important distinction between what we today consider “hygienic” and the possible ancient ideal of visible “cleanliness.”

“The Great Sewer undoubtedly did drain off into the Tiber excess street water, mud, animal dung, and other refuse that would have otherwise cluttered urban vistas, but I am unwilling to view it as part of a Roman sanitary revolution, despite the fact that the concept of ‘health’ and the sewer are closely interrelated…A truly important interrelationship to note is that between water and its potential to clean, to refresh, and to inspire economic growth, urban development, and industry.  The sewers did the job of moving stagnant and polluted water from where it was not wanted in the urban environment to someplace else.  Another way to see this is to say that the sewer—assuming it was not hopelessly blocked—moved dirty water from where it hindered cleanliness, economic growth, development and industry.

“As Romanized cities spread across the Mediterranean, the hydraulic technology, time, and expense that were necessary to lay underground sewers surely rivaled the effort required for all other parts of the urban infrastructure, including construction of multistory apartment buildings, streets, and aqueducts.  Just as networks of pipes were necessary for bringing clean water to fountains, public baths, and private houses, in many Roman cities sewer systems were there to take it away.  Connections between these aquatic underground networks and concrete concepts of hygiene, as we would understand them, really do not exist. The most we can say is that the Romans seemed to define hygiene as the removal of visible dirt.” –pg. 66, Dr. Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, “The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy

Remember, germ theory is a relatively recent phenomenon.   We might take for granted knowledge of microbes and their potential for disease, but this was not a solid connection in earlier human history.  This is not to say that ancient cultures were not clean (although by today’s standards, this might be debated), nor that refuse in all of its forms was not something they wanted to remove, but—as Dr. Koloski-Ostrow asserts throughout her book—it is a mistake to project 21st century understanding onto ancient structures.

From 1683 when Holland’s Anthony van Leeuwenhoek saw “small living animals” in his microscope to the late 19th century when France’s Louis Pasteur and Germany’s Robert Koch gave us concrete evidence of germs and disease, we have only just recently made this connection.

Sewers, in today’s mind, are a way to help keep disease out of our living arrangements.  We equate sewers with toilets, filth, and the often out-of-sight water treatment facilities that take care of the sewer contents.

“I want my readers to understand that having the ‘equipment’ to remove urine and excrement (sewers and latrines and house toilets) does not automatically translate to strong ideals of cleanliness and hygiene,” Dr. Koloski-Ostrow wrote.

When asked whether this was a controversial assertion in archaeological circles, she responded, “The scholarship on matters of filth in the Roman city have gone back and forth over the years. (‘Romans were clean freaks’ or ‘Romans were filthy, lice and stench ridden creatures.’)”

“…I’d rather say about it that my work will cause more discussion on the topic (rather than being radically ‘controversial,’) and I just hope that in the book I’ve provided enough careful research to show the complexity and richness of the topic.”

Bocca della Verita - Cosmedin

 

[[Above, Franco Sgariglia and Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow pose with their hands in the Bocca della Verità–the ‘mouth of truth’– in Rome, Italy.* (*Thank you to the person who corrected my original statement that it was in Cosmedin; not, in fact, a city in Italy!) Situated outside the Church of Santa Maria, brides and grooms place their hands in its mouth and say their vows.  It is believed that  this mouth will shut on anyone who does not tell the truth.  But Dr. Koloski-Ostrow, after studying the water wear on its face–determining that water flowed into rather than out of its openings like a fountain piece–believes that this stone piece was actually once a sewer cover!]]

[[Image from THE ARCHAEOLOGY OF SANITATION IN ROMAN ITALY: TOILETS, SEWERS, AND WATER SYSTEMS by Ann Koloski-Ostrow. Copyright © 2015 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.unc.edu]]

[[Another image of the Bocca, from Getty Images]]

And certainly, she has done so.  Along with providing the reader new perspectives on what might have occurred in ancient construction, she describes fascinating anecdotes and possibilities.

As mentioned earlier, many private city toilets were cesspit toilets—something that some unfortunate person had to constantly empty when full—instead of simply connecting to the city sewer system that would carry all refuse away.

Why?

Consider two things: frequent flooding and the lack of systems to prevent methane and hydrogen sulphide gas build-up. Now consider what this means: in the case of flooding, unfortunate back-flow from the sewer right into homes.  And in the case of gases, the potential for frequent (and perhaps inexplicable?) explosions.

Dr. Koloski-Ostrow mentions how many archaeologists, from the first Pompeii dig to the present, were unwilling to focus on any of these ancient structures.  But this continues to be an unseemly topic for many people to openly discuss, in scholarly or other circles.

She prefaces her book with this concern.

“At times I have had my own fears either that everyone would gradually abandon me on account of my fascinations for the underside, or worse, that I would be known in scholarly circles as ‘Koloski-Ostrow on the toilet,’ which, it seems has happened.” – pg. xv, Dr. Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, “The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy

And while she describes the overwhelming support she’s received over the years from colleagues and friends, I still wondered how people react to her research now.

“Well,” she wrote, “I’d say that people snicker when they first hear about it.  When I explain, however, that I do not ‘just’ research Roman toilets and sewers, but the ancient technologies of water supply and distribution, urban infrastructure, ancient plumbing, and the social ideas that accompanied these topics, those snickers usually turn to rapt attention and interest.”

“I do not consider the work ‘trivial,’ but a serious new probe into the realities of life in the ancient Roman city.  My readers seem to agree after they engage with the research too.”

It’s an intriguing and thought-provoking read, written for those who are familiar with ancient Roman history, but readable for those who are not.

In response to whether she was surprised by anything she discovered, she answered, “I guess I was most surprised by how much work was necessary to do before I could sit down to put it all together—studying the archaeology on the ground at so many ancient sites, reading and assessing ancient Roman graffiti, and searching such a wide variety of classical texts (ranging over two to three hundred years of Roman writers) and analyzing Roman wall paintings.”

“It was a labor of love,” she concluded, “but a labor, nevertheless.”

———————-

For more fascinating details about ancient sanitation, including murders and bodies thrown into the sewers, please buy and read the book!

An enormous and sincere THANK YOU to Dr. Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow for her time; her open, generous and fascinating responses to my questions–especially in the midst of an incredible work-load on her part–and her graciousness in enabling me to use so many quotes from her book!  I am so grateful that she took the time to contact me directly. It was a great honor and pleasure connecting with her!  I look forward to reading her upcoming book, Pompeii and Herculaneum: Roman Daily Life in the Shadow of Vesuvius through Cambridge University Press.

Many, many thanks to Regina Mahalek and Matthew Somoroff at UNC Press for both connecting me with Dr. Koloski-Ostrow and for the pictures provided.

A big thank you to Colleen, the brilliant mind behind this post’s title. I am not good with titles; the original was a bit of a bore.  Thank you (coupled with a smile and a roll of the eyes) for the many ‘helpful’ titles offered by friends and family.

FULL DISCLOSURE: the author of this blog read an article about Dr. Koloski-Ostrow’s work in 2014, then requested and received a review copy of this book in 2015. I am profoundly grateful to the UNC Press for that book, as I thoroughly enjoyed it!

 

References:

  • The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy: Toilets, Sewers and Water Systems, Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, University of North Carolina Press, 2015
  • Handbook to life in Ancient Rome, Lesley Adkins and Roy A. Adkins, Facts on File Inc., 1994
  • The Discovery of the Germ: Twenty Years That Transformed the Way We Think About Disease, John Waller, Columbia University Press, 2002

[[Image courtesy of Getty Images, buildings of Pompeii situated below the volcano, Mt. Vesuvius]]

The Treasure in Gold Mines: Fossils! – Yukon Paleontology, Part 2

I admit to having preconceived notions of what it means to find fossils and to mine for gold.  It never occurred to me that these two occupations might be interconnected.  Nor would I have ever described the image below as what it actually is: placer gold mining.

Placer Gold Mining - Monitor

 [image of a water monitor, placer gold mine in Quartz Creek, courtesy of the Government of Yukon. Can you find the rainbow?]

That water jet is called a ‘monitor’, and it slowly melts the permafrost, exposing the alluvial gold from the gravel below.

It also reveals fossils.

“Since the beginning of the Gold Rush, people have been finding Ice Age fossils there,” explained Dr. Grant Zazula by phone.

The Gold Rush, an event that peaked in 1898, brought people from all over the world to the Klondike area of the Yukon.  It was once solely the home of several indigenous cultures, including the Inuit, Han, Tagish, Tlingit and Tutchone. But the hope of finding treasure—in an industry that required inexpensive equipment (a pan, a rock pick)—brought thousands to an area that most would consider inhospitable.

 

 

 

gold miner Gerry Anhert

[image of gold miner, Gerry Ahnert, courtesy of the Government of Yukon]

One of the techniques used to find gold at that time was borrowed from California mining: water monitors.  Monitors were also relatively inexpensive and highly effective.

Back then, as now, these monitors revealed not only gold, but a wealth of fossils.

Assistant Palaeontologist Elizabeth Hall organizing a days collection of bones in the tent at our field camp near Dawson city

[image of Paleontologist Elizabeth Hall organizing a day’s collection of bones at the field camp near Dawson City, courtesy of the Government of Yukon]

“I’m always pretty fascinated by these stories immediately post-Gold Rush of people finding mammoth skulls,” said Dr. Zazula.

One can see a number of black-and-white images of these and other fossil finds in Ice Age Klondike, written by Dr. Zazula and Duane Froese.  Finds such as this prompted museums to send representatives out to the region to bring back fossils for their collections. One such expedition in 1907 and 1908 is detailed in the Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History in NY.

“Without the gold mining, these fossils would never be found,” Dr. Zazula continued, referring to today’s fossil discoveries. “They’re using heavy equipment and other types of equipment to move this frozen ground because [it] is essentially locked in permafrost that wouldn’t be accessible without the gold mining.”

Upper section

Looking upstream at 2011 stripping operation

Unsampled tehpra (inaccessible) visible in wall of monitoring drain

TK-11-03TK-11-06

QCreek mine - LOVE THIS - monitor and permafrost - DawsonFieldwork_2011_TKuhn_029

 [images of gold mines near Dawson City, courtesy of the Government of Yukon]

Melting the frozen ground with these jets isn’t as damaging to fossils as one might imagine. Dr. Zazula described a process in which fossils are slowly removed from the heights of the muck—the frozen silt—and slide down into the valleys below.  When remarkable fossils are seen by paleontologists, the miners always accommodate them, enabling Dr. Zazula and his colleagues to excavate them manually.

Arctic Ground Squirrel fossil skull

 [fossil Arctic Ground Squirrel skull emerging from the muck, image courtesy of the Government of Yukon]

Zazula sampling squirrel nest

[Dr. Grant Zazula sampling frozen sediment along a vast wall of muck at Quartz Creek, courtesy of the Government of Yukon]

 

It’s an incredible partnership, one that began in the 1960’s with Dr. Richard Harington of the Canadian Museum of Nature. Dr. Harington made annual summer trips to visit the miners and discuss their fossil finds.  It is a tradition that Dr. Zazula and the other two Yukon paleontologists before him have maintained.

But consider the expanse of the Yukon Territory.

Land near Dawson City

[image of land near Dawson City, courtesy of the Government of Yukon]

And consider that, as Dr. Zazula stated, “[t]here are 100 active gold mines, give or take a few dozen here or there. And virtually all of them produce Ice Age fossils.  So in a summer, we can collect 5,000 specimens. There’s a lot of material coming out of the ground, and we’re trying to recover it as much of it as we can. It’s almost industrial-scale paleontology.”

This gave me pause: one Yukon paleontologist in the entire Territory, who—in addition to keeping in touch with about 100 mines in the Klondike—is responsible for all of the other fossil discoveries and research of the area.

“Prior to 3 years ago, it was really a one-person operation and that was me,” he admitted.

With the acquisition of funds, however, Dr. Zazula now has two assistants in the field: Elizabeth Hall and Susan Hewitson.

Elizabeth, Dick, and Susan with fossil Bootherium skull

[image of Elizabeth Hall, Dick Mol holding a fossil Bootherium skull, and Susan Hewitson, courtesy of the Government of Yukon]

They have established a field camp near Dawson City in close proximity to the gold mines. This enables them to be in daily contact with the miners in the short mining season—the end of May through October.  Dr. Zazula described this work as driving on back roads to the various mines, getting to know the miners and collecting the fossils released from the permafrost.

Elizabeth Hall recording a collection of bones at a gold mine

 

[image of Elizabeth Hall recording bones at a gold mine, courtesy of the Government of Yukon]

“Since we’ve done that, our collection has just exploded in terms of the quantity of material that we’re finding.  But it also really establishes and strengthens the relationships that we have made with the gold miners as well.”

Dawson City

 [Dawson City, the previous capital of the Yukon Territory until 1953; At the height of the Gold Rush, this town consisted of numerous wooden buildings and a sea of canvas tents behind them; image courtesy of the Government of Yukon]

“[The] program really hinges on [these] two people,” Dr. Zazula wrote. “Elizabeth Hall oversees most of the field work in the Klondike and is the collections manager, and Susan Hewitson [is] a field technician in the summer months.

“They do most of the work to collect the fossils, clean the fossils, identify the fossils, catalog the fossils and organize the database. This really frees up my time to write, do research and other outreach work.”

Elizabeth Hall holding baby mammoth

[image of Elizabeth Hall holding a baby mammoth tooth, courtesy of the Government of Yukon]

Elizabeth, Susan and her husband Alex collecting bones in 2012

[image of Elizabeth Hall, Susan Hewitson and her husband collecting fossils, courtesy of the Government of Yukon]

 

“Elizabeth started her as a summer student assistant about 10 years ago, and we finally created a full time position for her 3 years ago. We were also students together at Simon Fraser University. She is in the middle of completing a masters degree in Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at University of Alberta; her thesis work is on fossil microtine rodents from Old Crow, Yukon.”

Elizabeth Hall in field

[image of Elizabeth Hall, courtesy of the Government of Yukon]

“When it’s good for gold, it’s a good time to be an Ice Age paleontologist in the Yukon because there’s so much material that’s coming out of the ground.”

Tyler Kuhn

 [Paleontologist Tyler Kuhn with a mammoth tusk found at a placer mine in Dawson City, Yukon; courtesy of the Government of Yukon]

 

Again, an enormous thank you to Dr. Grant Zazula for his fascinating insight and most generous time.  

Thank you, again, to Dick Mol.  

And thank you to all of the gold miners who enable Dr. Zazula, Elizabeth Hall and Susan Hewitson to conduct their research and collect fossils!!

Dick Mol and Grant Zazula - Yukon

[image of Grant Zazula and Dick Mol, holding a steppe bison skull; taken by Florian Breier, courtesy of Dick Mol]

———————

Yukon Paleontology Program: http://www.tc.gov.yk.ca/palaeontology.html

Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre: http://www.beringia.com/

Publications and articles referenced:

[Repost] Echoes of Egypt – Online Exhibit from Yale Peabody Museum

Last year, Dr. Colleen Manassa, William K. and Marilyn M. Simpson Associate Professor of Egyptology at Yale University, and Dr. Alicia Cunningham-Bryant, Assistant Professor of Intellectual Heritage at Temple University, discussed their fascinating Egyptian exhibit.  It was, at that time, available to the public in both physical and online form.  The physical exhibit ended this past January, but one can view the artifacts and read remarkable details of their history and significance at any point online.

Below is a repost of the original piece, in honor of International Archaeology Day, October 18th.  Please be sure to check your local museums for events or follow @ArchaeologyDay on Twitter!


————

We are fortunate to live in a time when we can travel great distances from the comforts of our home and see marvels to which most people in the not-too-distant past did not have access.  Documentaries and the internet, books and photographs—all of these mediums enable us to review what is currently known after centuries of archeological research in Egypt.

But imagine a time when the art and the wealth of ancient Egypt were not largely known, and imagine seeing it for the first time.

“Eygptomania”—the fascination of all things related to ancient Egypt—spread across Europe after Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt in 1798.

Traveling with the French military leader at that time were both soldiers and scholars (“savants”), and it is thanks to the savants that ancient Egypt was introduced to the larger world.

Savants and soldiers alike were in awe of what they witnessed.

The savants’ drawings of ancient temples, obelisks and other sites were published in a tome entitled Description de l’Egypte.  These images, along with the artifacts they discovered, would inspire wonder and archeological research through the present day.

That is the story most people know.

But take several steps further and dive into the wide-reaching influence ancient Egypt has had, not just on Europe on the 18th and 19th centuries, but on the larger world through today.

“Egyptianizing”, explained Dr. Colleen Manassa, William K. and Marilyn M. Simpson Associate Professor of Egyptology at Yale, “refers to Egyptian-inspired design that is also informed by contemporary iconography and style.”

And it is this theme that permeates Echoes of Egypt: Conjuring the Land of the Pharaohs, now on exhibit through January 2014 at the Yale Peabody Museum.

Echoes of Egypt online

The exhibit is the result of two and a half years of work and the collaboration of myriad scholars.  It combines ancient artifacts with more recent artifacts from all over the world.

“One key to understanding the many echoes of Egypt in other lands and cultures is to explore how an architectural image and other iconographic aspects of a culture can be transferred from one time and place to another.”– from http://echoesofegypt.peabody.yale.edu/

“I was phenomenally lucky,” wrote Dr. Manassa, curator of the exhibit, “that every object I wanted to include in the exhibition was successfully loaned.”

These objects are as diverse as they are remarkable. Visitors might be thrilled to view a page of hieroglyph translation from Jean-Francois Champollion (1824) or a plate of Esna North from Description de l’Egypte.  But one can also see objects such as a mantleclock with Sphinx and Obelisks from Tiffany’s (1885), an American political cartoon (1877), and an announcement for a mummy unwrapping in Boston (1850).

Also on display is a parchment leaf from Shenoute’s White Monastery, so named for the color of its walls.  The parchment is written in Coptic, Egyptian language written in the Coptic alphabet, and its date is estimated between the 7th-8th centuries CE.  According to Daniel Schriever, Yale PhD Candidate and the person who wrote the information about this piece on the website, Shenoute is “the most important author in the Coptic language.”

“The Dahesh Museum was particularly generous with its painting collection,” wrote Dr. Manassa.

Example of these, such as “The Temple of Karnak, The Great Hypostyle Hall” by Ernst Karl Eugen Koerner  and “Campfire by the River: Kiosk of Trajan at Philae” by Hermann-David Salomon Corrodi, transport the viewer not just to ancient Egypt but how people in the 19th century may have seen it.

“The engagement—and occasional obsession—with ancient Egypt and the adaptation of its concepts and imagery are not confined to the forms and contents of the pyramids, temples and tombs that have so awed tourists since classical times, but exist within the history of ideas.” – from http://echoesofegypt.peabody.yale.edu/

This is an extraordinary exhibit, not just in its breadth of knowledge, but also in its very unique generosity: it is accompanied by a website that details every item on display.

In other words, Echoes of Egypt is available to anyone anywhere.

“The website was designed to be a true ‘online exhibition,’” Dr. Manassa wrote, “in which every object is represented alongside detailed catalog text.”

Dr. Manassa credits Dr. Alicia Cunningham-Bryant, Assistant Professor of Intellectual Heritage at Temple University and the assistant curator, for the idea and the design behind the website.  It was thanks to the work of both Dr. Cunningham-Bryant and the Yale CMI2 Team, she said, that the website came to fruition.

“CMI2” refers to Yale’s Center for Media and Instructional Innovation.  When asked about this, Dr. Cunningham-Bryant explained that it is this team “that develops and integrates technology with classroom content, specifically in new web-based formats. Our whole web team, excluding myself, were staff from CMI2. They donated their time to the exhibit and were a tremendous resource to the entire exhibition.”

“For the online exhibit,” Dr. Cunningham-Bryant continued, “we knew we wanted the most complete and enduring version of the exhibit possible since it was only a temporary physical exhibition. The web team and I spent a lot of time working on how to make the most user-friendly interface that still held true to the exhibit’s organization and structure, and told the same story.”

Somewhat akin to discovering an ancient Egyptian tomb, the website offers treasures that astound, inform and excite.  The more one explores, the more one finds. The details offer a wealth of information one would not find otherwise without access to disparate and sometimes obscure reference material.

Enabling the user to pick-and-choose what she or he wishes to view, one can ‘walk’ through the exhibit at one’s own pace, at one’s own schedule, and as often as one wishes.

Related items are listed under each image.  And each item contains more information about its history and its relevance. Reference materials, should one wish to know more, are listed below the text.

Dr. Manassa explained that there is more information on the website than within the exhibit, but that “there are signs with numbers you can type into a smart phone that directly bring up the website for that particular object.  So there is also an integration of the physical exhibit and the website.”

“Colleen had already been in touch with the various authors for the material as they were collaborating on the exhibition catalog as well,” Dr. Cunningham-Bryant wrote in an email, “For the online exhibition, I asked each author to provide accompanying references that would be accessible and useful for understanding the specific piece/theme.”

One exceptionally well-documented piece is a manuscript written in 1751 from Iraq.

“I was particularly proud of the loan from Bibliothèque nationale de France of the Arabic manuscript by Ibn Wahshiyya,” stated Dr. Manassa, referencing this specific piece, “which has never before been seen in the United States.”

“Arabic attempts to translate hieroglyphs were not common,” she continued, “but their existence eight hundred years before Champollion, particularly the assigning of phonetic (rather than symbolic) values to the hieroglyphs is an important aspect of intellectual history and the reception of hieroglyphs that is not often told.”

This is exactly the type of surprising information one learns throughout the exhibit.

Dr. Isabel Toral-Niehoff, the author of the details about that manuscript, offers fascinating thoughts on research the non-Arabic-speaking world has yet to learn.

“Although some preliminary work has been constructed, the major number of Arabic manuscripts regarding aegyptiaca remain unpublished and unstudied, so that lamentably, there is no critical evaluation of the copious material available until now,” she writes on the exhibit’s website.

“…Okasha El-Daly insists that the Arabs made a serious contribution to the field of aegyptiaca and that their achievements are unjustly neglected by current—mainly European—scholarship. The most famous statement in this context…is El-Daly’s claim that a few Arab scholars were even able to interpret hieroglyphs correctly some 800 years before Champollion.”

Mummies—while not the highlight of this exhibit—are indeed included.  And the one human mummy on display is on loan from, of all places, the Barnum Museum, as she was originally obtained in Egypt by the widow of the famed circus owner.

The text for this artifact is intriguing, startling and informative.

Dr. Manassa and S.J. Wolfe, senior cataloguer and serials specialist at the American Antiquarian Society, introduce the reader to mummy unwrappings that took place in this country in the 1800s.  They describe, as one of the central characters to this type of event, George Gliddon—a man born in England, but who eventually lectured on Egyptology in the States. He subscribed to polygenesis, a “highly racially charged” idea that human races come from different origins.  And one that he and his father tried to help prove by collecting mummy skulls.

Gliddon obtained a mummy for an 1850 lecture in Boston, and apparently advertised the mummy as the “body of the daughter of a high priest of Thebes.” His promotional efforts paid off, and the event sold out.

But the event did not end successfully; in fact, Gliddon eventually fled to Philadelphia.

(One might find this particular story amusing, and this author leaves it to the reader to enjoy it in full: http://echoesofegypt.peabody.yale.edu/mummy-mania/unwrapped-egyptian-mummy-female-fragments-linen-wrapping)

Perhaps because of the diversity of the artifacts (from paintings and ancient artifacts from Egypt to movie posters and political cartoons), the exhibit lingers in the mind, prompting thought and wonder long after one has reviewed the website (or reviewed the physical objects).

“[T]his exhibit was a labor of love for all of those who worked on it,” wrote Dr. Cunningham-Bryant, “and I am immensely pleased with how it turned out. I hope it helps the public engage with Egypt in a new way and demonstrates how much we as archaeologists, historians and museum professionals can do with the digital technology available to us enabling us to reach new and varied audiences.”

—————————

To see the exhibit online: http://echoesofegypt.peabody.yale.edu/

For a complete list of the scholars who contributed to this exhibit: http://echoesofegypt.peabody.yale.edu/contributors

To see the New York Times’ review of the exhibit: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/07/nyregion/a-review-of-echoes-of-egypt-exhibition-at-yale-peabody-museum.html

For more images from the Description de l’Egypte: http://description-egypte.org/

Many thanks to Melanie Brigockas at the Yale Peabody Museum!

A very special and sincere thank you to Dr. Colleen Manassa and Dr. Alicia Cunningham-Bryant, who responded so generously and so quickly, despite their incredibly busy schedules. 

And an enormous thank you to Dr. Manassa, Dr. Cunningham-Bryant, and to everyone who brought about the Echoes of Egypt exhibit!

So Many Books….

Ah, 2014. What wondrous works of nonfiction and fiction do you have in store for readers?

The weather is perfect for reading: (picture taken a few years ago, but by tomorrow, it might look something like this)

Beautiful Snow 2

As my dad and I are fond of saying to each other (whether in a bookstore, at a used-book sale, at the library, discussing books or showing each other the books we’ve just acquired):

“So many books; so little time.”

Books by my bedside (a constantly revolving pile):

Books by my bedside

Relatively recently purchased books on ancient Egypt:

Ancient Egypt - Mummies, Books to read

Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt’s 1963 book on Tutankhamen, in English *and* in French (Moi, je suis si contente, quoi!):

Tutankhamen in French and English

Before Gibson’s, our local independent bookstore, expanded (a rare and inspiring story!), I knew—by first name—almost everyone who worked there.  They, in turn, knew me.  Such a wonderful place, and the people working there are incredibly gracious and friendly.

I mentioned this to my sister—herself a reader, but not a bibliophile–when I met her later after being greeted by Sandy and John as I perused the aisles.

“Is that your version of ‘Cheers’?” she asked, with a look on her face I’ve come to know as an affectionate blend of ‘oh my god, you’re such a dork’ and ‘how am I related to this person?’

I don’t know about other avid readers, but there are many books on my bookshelves, on desks and tables, and throughout my abode that I have yet to read.  That doesn’t stop me from finding new books (published recently or decades ago).

Select nonfiction books I hope to be reading this year:

Books to read in 2014

I marvel at how authors choose their words, describe their thoughts, introduce their characters, unveil their stories, or how they revive history in chapter after engrossing chapter.

Speaking of words, I am currently reading The Debt to Pleasure, a delightful work of fiction by John Lanchester.

Told in first person by a highly educated food critic, it is the amusing tale of a total snob. But I need a dictionary as I read; Lanchester’s writing is peppered with obscure words.  (My favorite so far: “tintinnabulation.”)   To improve my vocabulary, not just to grasp the meaning of what I was reading and then move on, I began writing down the new words.  I’m halfway through the book, and I have two pages (TWO!) of these words.

And it’s not enough to just read.

I love being surrounded by the printed word. I love being able to have—the very moment I’m in the mood to read it—the book of my choice and interest.

I love the feel, the texture, the smell of books.

Here’s to all booksellers, to publishers, editors, and to all authors!  May 2014 be a very good year!

Beautiful Snow 2

Echoes of Egypt – Exhibit at Yale Peabody Museum

We are fortunate to live in a time when we can travel great distances from the comforts of our home and see marvels to which most people in the not-too-distant past did not have access.  Documentaries and the internet, books and photographs—all of these mediums enable us to review what is currently known after centuries of archeological research in Egypt.

But imagine a time when the art and the wealth of ancient Egypt were not largely known, and imagine seeing it for the first time.

“Eygptomania”—the fascination of all things related to ancient Egypt—spread across Europe after Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt in 1798.

Traveling with the French military leader at that time were both soldiers and scholars (“savants”), and it is thanks to the savants that ancient Egypt was introduced to the larger world.

Savants and soldiers alike were in awe of what they witnessed.

The savants’ drawings of ancient temples, obelisks and other sites were published in a tome entitled Description de l’Egypte.  These images, along with the artifacts they discovered, would inspire wonder and archeological research through the present day.

That is the story most people know.

But take several steps further and dive into the wide-reaching influence ancient Egypt has had, not just on Europe on the 18th and 19th centuries, but on the larger world through today.

“Egyptianizing”, explained Dr. Colleen Manassa, William K. and Marilyn M. Simpson Associate Professor of Egyptology at Yale, “refers to Egyptian-inspired design that is also informed by contemporary iconography and style.”

And it is this theme that permeates Echoes of Egypt: Conjuring the Land of the Pharaohs, now on exhibit through January 2014 at the Yale Peabody Museum.

Echoes of Egypt

The exhibit is the result of two and a half years of work and the collaboration of myriad scholars.  It combines ancient artifacts with more recent artifacts from all over the world.

“One key to understanding the many echoes of Egypt in other lands and cultures is to explore how an architectural image and other iconographic aspects of a culture can be transferred from one time and place to another.”– from http://echoesofegypt.peabody.yale.edu/

“I was phenomenally lucky,” wrote Dr. Manassa, curator of the exhibit, “that every object I wanted to include in the exhibition was successfully loaned.”

These objects are as diverse as they are remarkable. Visitors might be thrilled to view a page of hieroglyph translation from Jean-Francois Champollion (1824) or a plate of Esna North from Description de l’Egypte.  But one can also see objects such as a mantleclock with Sphinx and Obelisks from Tiffany’s (1885), an American political cartoon (1877), and an announcement for a mummy unwrapping in Boston (1850).

Also on display is a parchment leaf from Shenoute’s White Monastery, so named for the color of its walls.  The parchment is written in Coptic, Egyptian language written in the Coptic alphabet, and its date is estimated between the 7th-8th centuries CE.  According to Daniel Schriever, Yale PhD Candidate and the person who wrote the information about this piece on the website, Shenoute is “the most important author in the Coptic language.”

“The Dahesh Museum was particularly generous with its painting collection,” wrote Dr. Manassa.

Example of these, such as “The Temple of Karnak, The Great Hypostyle Hall” by Ernst Karl Eugen Koerner  and “Campfire by the River: Kiosk of Trajan at Philae” by Hermann-David Salomon Corrodi, transport the viewer not just to ancient Egypt but how people in the 19th century may have seen it.

“The engagement—and occasional obsession—with ancient Egypt and the adaptation of its concepts and imagery are not confined to the forms and contents of the pyramids, temples and tombs that have so awed tourists since classical times, but exist within the history of ideas.” – from http://echoesofegypt.peabody.yale.edu/

This is an extraordinary exhibit, not just in its breadth of knowledge, but also in its very unique generosity: it is accompanied by a website that details every item on display.

In other words, Echoes of Egypt is available to anyone anywhere.

“The website was designed to be a true ‘online exhibition,’” Dr. Manassa wrote, “in which every object is represented alongside detailed catalog text.”

Dr. Manassa credits Dr. Alicia Cunningham-Bryant, Assistant Professor of Intellectual Heritage at Temple University and the assistant curator, for the idea and the design behind the website.  It was thanks to the work of both Dr. Cunningham-Bryant and the Yale CMI2 Team, she said, that the website came to fruition.

“CMI2” refers to Yale’s Center for Media and Instructional Innovation.  When asked about this, Dr. Cunningham-Bryant explained that it is this team “that develops and integrates technology with classroom content, specifically in new web-based formats. Our whole web team, excluding myself, were staff from CMI2. They donated their time to the exhibit and were a tremendous resource to the entire exhibition.”

“For the online exhibit,” Dr. Cunningham-Bryant continued, “we knew we wanted the most complete and enduring version of the exhibit possible since it was only a temporary physical exhibition. The web team and I spent a lot of time working on how to make the most user-friendly interface that still held true to the exhibit’s organization and structure, and told the same story.”

Somewhat akin to discovering an ancient Egyptian tomb, the website offers treasures that astound, inform and excite.  The more one explores, the more one finds. The details offer a wealth of information one would not find otherwise without access to disparate and sometimes obscure reference material.

Enabling the user to pick-and-choose what she or he wishes to view, one can ‘walk’ through the exhibit at one’s own pace, at one’s own schedule, and as often as one wishes.

Related items are listed under each image.  And each item contains more information about its history and its relevance. Reference materials, should one wish to know more, are listed below the text.

Dr. Manassa explained that there is more information on the website than within the exhibit, but that “there are signs with numbers you can type into a smart phone that directly bring up the website for that particular object.  So there is also an integration of the physical exhibit and the website.”

“Colleen had already been in touch with the various authors for the material as they were collaborating on the exhibition catalog as well,” Dr. Cunningham-Bryant wrote in an email, “For the online exhibition, I asked each author to provide accompanying references that would be accessible and useful for understanding the specific piece/theme.”

One exceptionally well-documented piece is a manuscript written in 1751 from Iraq.

“I was particularly proud of the loan from Bibliothèque nationale de France of the Arabic manuscript by Ibn Wahshiyya,” stated Dr. Manassa, referencing this specific piece, “which has never before been seen in the United States.”

“Arabic attempts to translate hieroglyphs were not common,” she continued, “but their existence eight hundred years before Champollion, particularly the assigning of phonetic (rather than symbolic) values to the hieroglyphs is an important aspect of intellectual history and the reception of hieroglyphs that is not often told.”

This is exactly the type of surprising information one learns throughout the exhibit.

Dr. Isabel Toral-Niehoff, the author of the details about that manuscript, offers fascinating thoughts on research the non-Arabic-speaking world has yet to learn.

“Although some preliminary work has been constructed, the major number of Arabic manuscripts regarding aegyptiaca remain unpublished and unstudied, so that lamentably, there is no critical evaluation of the copious material available until now,” she writes on the exhibit’s website.

“…Okasha El-Daly insists that the Arabs made a serious contribution to the field of aegyptiaca and that their achievements are unjustly neglected by current—mainly European—scholarship. The most famous statement in this context…is El-Daly’s claim that a few Arab scholars were even able to interpret hieroglyphs correctly some 800 years before Champollion.”

Mummies—while not the highlight of this exhibit—are indeed included.  And the one human mummy on display is on loan from, of all places, the Barnum Museum, as she was originally obtained in Egypt by the widow of the famed circus owner.

The text for this artifact is intriguing, startling and informative.

Dr. Manassa and S.J. Wolfe, senior cataloguer and serials specialist at the American Antiquarian Society, introduce the reader to mummy unwrappings that took place in this country in the 1800s.  They describe, as one of the central characters to this type of event, George Gliddon—a man born in England, but who eventually lectured on Egyptology in the States. He subscribed to polygenesis, a “highly racially charged” idea that human races come from different origins.  And one that he and his father tried to help prove by collecting mummy skulls.

Gliddon obtained a mummy for an 1850 lecture in Boston, and apparently advertised the mummy as the “body of the daughter of a high priest of Thebes.” His promotional efforts paid off, and the event sold out.

But the event did not end successfully; in fact, Gliddon eventually fled to Philadelphia.

(One might find this particular story amusing, and this author leaves it to the reader to enjoy it in full: http://echoesofegypt.peabody.yale.edu/mummy-mania/unwrapped-egyptian-mummy-female-fragments-linen-wrapping)

Perhaps because of the diversity of the artifacts (from paintings and ancient artifacts from Egypt to movie posters and political cartoons), the exhibit lingers in the mind, prompting thought and wonder long after one has reviewed the website (or reviewed the physical objects).

“[T]his exhibit was a labor of love for all of those who worked on it,” wrote Dr. Cunningham-Bryant, “and I am immensely pleased with how it turned out. I hope it helps the public engage with Egypt in a new way and demonstrates how much we as archaeologists, historians and museum professionals can do with the digital technology available to us enabling us to reach new and varied audiences.”

—————————

Please be sure to visit the Yale Peabody Museum between now and January 2014 to see this exhibit: http://peabody.yale.edu/exhibits/echoes-egypt-conjuring-land-pharaohs

To see the exhibit online: http://echoesofegypt.peabody.yale.edu/

For a complete list of the scholars who contributed to this exhibit: http://echoesofegypt.peabody.yale.edu/contributors

To see the New York Times’ review of the exhibit: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/07/nyregion/a-review-of-echoes-of-egypt-exhibition-at-yale-peabody-museum.html

For more images from the Description de l’Egypte: http://description-egypte.org/

Many thanks to Melanie Brigockas at the Yale Peabody Museum!

A very special and sincere thank you to Dr. Colleen Manassa and Dr. Alicia Cunningham-Bryant, who responded so generously and so quickly, despite their incredibly busy schedules. 

And an enormous thank you to Dr. Manassa, Dr. Cunningham-Bryant, and to everyone who brought about the Echoes of Egypt exhibit!