Connecting the Dots

Connecting the dots….. This blog could have many headers. I settled on “connecting the dots” because there are many interconnected topics I would like to address here. The starting point for all of us is a brief mention of our museum in a recent CNN blog. In a story about the US government returning cultural treasures to Iraq, one can read about one particular item being returned:

Roman denarius featuring the head of Apollo

A roman coin (not the one featured in the article)
Creative Commons License photo credit: Smabs Sputzer

“A Roman coin from A.D. 248-250, when the Romans occupied the region. The coin had been left at the Houston Museum of Natural Science by a man who said he was a contractor in Iraq. The museum’s curator of anthropology alerted federal authorities.”

In late February 2005, a visitor to the museum left a coin. This individual, who said that he had been working as a civilian truck driver in Iraq, had acquired other antiquities as well, including a clay statue. Excavations were going on all over the place, he said. They are indeed, except, in my world these excavations would be called looting. Here are the first two dots I want to connect: the coin, and the Parthians.

The coin was well preserved, with a legible Greek legend. With the help of the American numismatics society’s website it was possible to identify the coin as dating back to the reign of Emperor Philip (244 – 249 AD). Also known as Philippus Arabs, this Emperor lived during a period of major upheavals besetting the Roman Empire. Born in the Roman province of Arabia around 204 AD, he held several important positions before becoming Emperor in 244 AD. He succeeded Gordian III who had suffered an ignominious defeat against the Sassanid Empire. Gordian ended up being killed by his own soldiers. Sassanid artists commemorated the death of Gordian and the subsequent suing for peace by Philip in a large rock carving at Bishapur in modern Iran. After this rather rocky start to his own reign as emperor, in 248 AD Philip presided over the festivities celebrating the 1,000 anniversary of the founding of Rome, a celebration commemorated on many Roman coins. Things turned sour pretty quickly after that however. One year later, he was killed by his own soldiers after a defeat against rebellious forces near Verona.

I can imagine people thinking “A Roman coin in what is now Iraq? Surely that must have gotten there by accident?” Not really. Here are dots number two and three: the Parthians and their successors, the Sassanid Empire.

Statue of Alexander in the
Istanbul Archaeology
Museum

Emerging from the upheaval caused by Alexander the Great and his successors, during the third century BC, the Parthians established themselves as a major political, military and economic force in what is now Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.

As Rome slowly grew and started asserting itself in the eastern Mediterranean, clashes occurred between the two empires. These encounters did not always end well for the Romans. In 53 B.C. Crassus and over 40,000 Roman troops were annihilated by the Parthian forces of Orodes II in the battle of Carrhae, a clash that continues to inspire modern historians.

The western border between Rome’s dominions and Parthia gradually stabilized on the banks of the Euphrates, but war was always a threat. Over the next two hundred years, Romans and Parthians would fight many wars. By 232 AD, the Parthians themselves were overtaken by the Sassanid Empire, which brings us back to dot number one: the coin left at the museum. The coin residing ever so briefly at the museum is a silent witness to those final years of Roman involvement in that part of the world. This brings up dot number four: looting and repatriation.

Looting is a scourge that besets archaeologists all over the world. Archaeological sites are being destroyed on a wholesale basis, with materials ending up in private hands, and sometimes in museum collections. International treaties attempt to curb these activities but are not always very successful in doing so. International treaties aimed at stopping this wanton destruction of our past are good, but… there is also a need for people to know why this is necessary. Failure to communicate this need usually makes people think “Sure, it is only the archaeologists who want to be able to dig. Why shouldn’t I be allowed to do the same?”

Here is why you cannot or should not be digging randomly looking for “treasure.”

Pottery Shards
Context is important in Archaeology -
Knowing where the pottery comes from is
just as important as having the shards
Creative Commons License photo credit: Todd Huffman

Any object retrieved from the soil has a context. There is a story that can be told based on how the object got there. The coin that was brought in, the pot that was found, all got to the place they were found because someone dropped it, or placed it in a tomb, etc. Archaeologists are trained to retrieve materials and take note of the surroundings in which they found these items. Context makes the story much more complete. It represents the difference between retrieving half a book versus a whole book, half a story versus a complete story. In specific terms, context will help us to decide which of the following headlines makes sense: “A Roman ship landed in Mexico!” Or: “Something cool collected from the crew of a Spanish ship or an early Spanish colonist got traded to the residents of the town of Toluca.”

The coin in question dates to the end game of large-scale Roman involvement in Mesopotamia. I am not sure if a lot of these coins have been found in what is now Iraq. Without an accurate accounting of what is found and where it was found, we will never know. Conceivably, the coin’s context could have told us something about those final years of Roman presence. Perhaps it came from a small military encampment. Perhaps it was found with a lot of other coins – a hoard as it is sometimes known – which would indicate that the owners buried it for safekeeping. We will never know.

Saying no to looting is not the end of the story. Archaeologists have their work cut out for them too. We need to collect the context information, look for patterns to make sense out of it all and then share our findings with the public. The latter is very important. The more people know about what we do, the greater the understanding will be as to why it is a bad thing to acquire looted items or to go out and dig holes yourself. You are not doing history any service, and you might be breaking the law as well.

And so it is that we come full circle, connecting dots from coins to Romans and Parthians and international treaties regarding the protection of cultural property. It is all interconnected. I am sure that colleagues at other museums have had similar experiences. This is proof that working at a museum is so interesting, or “QED” as the ancient Romans would say.

The Siege of Masada: Piecing Together the Puzzle

Our guest blogger today, Jodi Magness, Ph.D., holds a senior endowed chair in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A noted archaeologist, she has spent a lot of time working at Masada, the location of a famous siege during the First Jewish-Roman War. In conjunction with our current special exhibition, The BIrth of Christianity: A Jewish Story, she will explore the significance of this event in a lecture at HMNS on March 9: Masada: Last Stronghold of the Jewish Resistance Against Rome.

Masada and Dead Sea
Creative Commons License photo credit: heatkernel

The ancient Jewish historian Flavius Josephus ended his monumental, multi-volume account of the First Jewish Revolt against Rome (the Jewish War) with the story of a mass suicide at Masada.  According to Josephus, some 960 Jewish rebels holding out on top of Masada – the last stronghold to remain in Jewish hands after Jerusalem’s destruction in 70 C.E. – chose to commit suicide rather than surrender to the Roman troops besieging the fortress.  It is because of Josephus’ story of the suicide, which includes a speech allegedly given by the rebel leader Eleazar ben Yair, that Masada became a symbol of Jewish resistance and the modern state of Israel.

However, Yigael Yadin’s 1963-65 excavations atop Masada failed to turn up conclusive evidence of the mass suicide.  In fact, the archaeological evidence from Masada can be interpreted either as proving or disproving the mass suicide story, depending on how one evaluates Josephus’ reliability as an historian.  For example, a group of inscribed potsherds (ostraca) found at Masada, including one bearing the name “ben Yair,” might be the lots drawn by the rebels prior to committing suicide or could simply be food ration tickets.  Most likely, some rebels committed suicide while others were killed or surrendered to the Romans and were taken captive.

Roman encampment_1465
Creative Commons License photo credit: hoyasmeg

However, archaeology sheds valuable light on other aspects of the Roman siege of Masada, which was conducted in the winter-spring of 72/73 or 73/74 C.E. and probably lasted no longer than 2-3 months.  The Roman siege works, including eight camps that housed approximately 8000 troops and a circumvallation (siege) wall, still are clearly visible encircling the base of the mountain.  In June-July 1995, I was privileged to co-direct excavations in the Roman siege works at Masada, together with Professor Gideon Foerster (Hebrew University of Jerusalem), Dr. Haim Goldfus (Ben-Gurion University of the Negev), and Mr. Benny Arubas (Hebrew University of Jerusalem).

We focused much of our attention on Camp F, which is located on the northwest side of the mountain and housed about half of the Tenth Legion (with the other half in Camp B at the eastern foot of Masada).  Our excavations brought to light low stone walls over which the Roman troops pitched leather tents.  The floors of the tent units were covered with broken potsherds; altogether we recovered 240 kilograms (about 530 pounds) of pottery.  The overwhelming majority of the pottery belongs to local types of storage jars, a finding that sheds light on the provisioning of the Roman troops during the siege. 

Because Masada is in the desert, supplies (mainly food and water) were likely brought in skins, bags, and woven baskets from other parts of the country, transported overland on pack animals or on small boats across the Dead Sea.  Upon reaching the camps at Masada, the supplies were emptied into large ceramic jars for storage.  The jars protected the contents from dampness, insects, and vermin. Most of the soldiers probably prepared and consumed their food using utensils in their individual mess-kits.  However, the commander seems to have dined in style, judging from delicately painted bowls with eggshell thin walls found in his tent unit, which were imported from nearby Nabataea (southeast of the Dead Sea).

For me, archaeology is not a means of validating (or negating) personal faith and beliefs.  Instead it is a means of recovering and understanding the past, often one potsherd at a time, as in the case of Masada.  These potsherds are pieces of a puzzle which enable us to reconstruct part of a picture that was otherwise lost.

For more information on Masada and the Jewish resistance, hear Jodi’s lecture at HMNS on March 9th. For more information on our distinguished lecture series, click here.

Can’t get enough Judeo-Christian history?
Attend one of our upcoming lectures
Check out this video with the curator.
Go behind-the-scenes to discover how the exhibit was built.

The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same

The more things change, the more they stay the same… Recently I read an interesting book, entitled “Are We Rome?” The author remarks how in some regards the Roman Empire and the current United States resemble each other very much. Take, for example, the issue of border crossings.

Claudius Glyptotek Copenhagen
Creative Commons License photo credit: Joe Geranio

For those who remember reading about Julius Caesar and his conquest of Gaul, the Roman Empire went through long periods of expansion, followed by consolidation, and eventual collapse as a political entity. As the Empire was expanding, there was a famous foray across the Rhine into what is now Germany. It did not work out well for the Romans, as they lost several legions, allegedly causing the first Emperor, Augustus, to cry out loud that he “wanted his legions back,” while also decreeing that the river Rhine would become the frontier. In 1987, the exact location of that battle was established. For about a century this notion held: the Rhine and the Danube formed the frontier between the so-called civilized world and the barbarians. Then Dacia (current day Romania) was conquered and the Romans found themselves on the other side of the river again. In 272 AD, they abandoned this province in return for a brief period of peace and tranquility.

For a long time, it was thought that the incursion in 9 AD represented the first and last military operation into Germany. Not so any more, apparently. Recent reports out of Germany indicate that some time between A.D. 180-260, there was a major battle fought between Roman troops and Germanic tribes. The newly uncovered battlefield near Kalefeld-Oldenrode, is located south of Hanover. Coins, weapons and other military gear were retrieved from an area one mile long and a third of a mile wide. Interestingly, among the artifacts encountered was a Roman horse sandal, or hipposandal in technical lingo. You read this right: a horse sandal, not a horse shoe.

Boundary - Boulder
Creative Commons License photo credit: joiseyshowaa

In all of this I see parallels to our current situation related to the border between the US and Mexico. What now constitutes the border area, was first inhabited by American Indian peoples, later incorporated into Mexico and ultimately made part of the US, either by force of arms, or by purchase. Along large stretches of this border, a fence is going up. One of the goals is to control who crosses the border and to safeguard life and property on this side of the fence.

All of this echoes sentiments expressed almost two millennia ago.With regards to the Roman situation we have the benefit of hindsight; we know how that story ended. With regards to the current situation, who knows? Future historians will have the privilege of assessing that scenario. Of one thing I am certain: future archaeologists will not be finding any horse sandals along the Rio Grande.

Looking back…

In case you were wondering about notable science events that occured the week following August 22…

On August 24, 79 A.D. Mount Vesuvius erupted, covering the cities of Pompeii (hopefully you had the chance to see the exhibit here in Houston at the Museum of Fine Arts), Herculaneum, and Stabiae under volcanic ash. The city was lost for 1,700 years – until it was accidentily rediscovered in 1748. The excavation of the city has given valuable insight into the city during the height of Roman Empire, acting as a time capsule, allowing scientists to study the buildings, food, and even people that were buried that fateful day.
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This is Mount Etna erupting in 2006 (there is no footage of the 79 explosion of Mount Vesuvius for obvios reasons.)

Also on August 24, in 2006, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) redefined the term “planet,” and Pluto was sent on its cosmic way (read the post about the controversy that ensued, by our astronomer James.) Pluto was “demoted” to the status of Dwarf Planet. There are currently eight planets and four dwarf planets in our solar system. The new definition of a planet is a celectial body that meets the following criteria:
    (a) is in orbit around the Sun, 
    (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and
    (c) has cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit.

Karoli looking foward
Creative Commons License photo credit: ckaroli

On August 25, 1609, Galileo Galilei demonstrated his first telescope to Venetian lawmakers. He was one of the first men to build a telescope, and did so without actually ever seeing one of the few that existed. He was the first to discover any of Jupiter’s moons (he found 4), now known as the Galilean satellites.

On August 27, 2003, Mars made its closest approach to Earth in nearly 60,000 years. The last time Mars was that close to Earth, man had just began to migrate out of Africa. Man wouldn’t start settling down, farming, and beginning to live in cities for another 48,000 years. Mars passed approximately 34,646,416 miles (55,758,006 kilometers) from Earth.