15 December 2009

Confused Sumerians

Maybe this is just a nerdy Mesopotamia prehistorian joke, but I couldn't stop laughing. Thanks Dan for the heads-up!

Sumerians Look On In Confusion As Christian God Creates World
From The Onion

Members of the earth's earliest known civilization, the Sumerians, looked on in shock and confusion some 6,000 years ago as God, the Lord Almighty, created Heaven and Earth.

According to recently excavated clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform script, thousands of Sumerians—the first humans to establish systems of writing, agriculture, and government—were working on their sophisticated irrigation systems when the Father of All Creation reached down from the ether and blew the divine spirit of life into their thriving civilization.

"I do not understand," reads an ancient line of pictographs depicting the sun, the moon, water, and a Sumerian who appears to be scratching his head. "A booming voice is saying, 'Let there be light,' but there is already light. It is saying, 'Let the earth bring forth grass,' but I am already standing on grass."

"Everything is here already," the pictograph continues. "We do not need more stars."

Historians believe that, immediately following the biblical event, Sumerian witnesses returned to the city of Eridu, a bustling metropolis built 1,500 years before God called for the appearance of dry land, to discuss the new development. According to records, Sumerian farmers, priests, and civic administrators were not only befuddled, but also took issue with the face of God moving across the water, saying that He scared away those who were traveling to Mesopotamia to participate in their vast and intricate trade system.

Moreover, the Sumerians were taken aback by the creation of the same animals and herb-yielding seeds that they had been domesticating and cultivating for hundreds of generations.

"The Sumerian people must have found God's making of heaven and earth in the middle of their well-established society to be more of an annoyance than anything else," said Paul Helund, ancient history professor at Cornell University. "If what the pictographs indicate are true, His loud voice interrupted their ancient prayer rituals for an entire week."

According to the cuneiform tablets, Sumerians found God's most puzzling act to be the creation from dust of the first two human beings.

"These two people made in his image do not know how to communicate, lack skills in both mathematics and farming, and have the intellectual capacity of an infant," one Sumerian philosopher wrote. "They must be the creation of a complete idiot."

14 December 2009

New Byzantine mosaic

A 44-meter-long Byzantine mosaic has been newly discovered at the archaeological site of Tal al-Kasara in Syria (reported in the Global Arab Network). This beautiful mosaic was found inside a Roman bath house that is among the many well-preserved architectural features of this site--others being a gateway and two tombs--located in the Middle Euphrates region. I found another picture from the Syrian Arab News Agency that I include here. I love the brilliant orange--carnelian perhaps? The animal combat scene on the right is also a very common motif, but the crane below the fighting animals is just awesome. 

As this is something like my fourth post about mosaics (see others here, here and here), it is probably apparent to many of you now that I love mosaics and once I finally have a garage to putts around in, I can return to my mosaicing hobby. Clipping Italian glass inside a shoe box so it doesn't fly around my tiny apartment obviously wasn't cutting it.. 

13 December 2009

Maccabees: heros or rabble-rousers?

Before I amble off to a Chanukah party this afternoon, I've been reflecting on this Op-Ed piece in the NY Times from a few days ago and this article in JTA. I thought I would put the op-ed out here for my Jewish friends and see what they think. It is also a good short read for those not familiar with the history behind the Chanukah holiday.

Bernard Picart copper plate engraving depicting Maccabee revolt (1730) 

First off, I don't agree with all the points and language used by David Brooks. For example: "Alexander's Empire...brought modernizing ideas and institutions to the Middle East." Ahh spoken like a true Classicist and Hellenist. Lest Mr. Brooks forget that Alexander, upon entering Babylon and Persepolis, was both astonished and humbled by the sheer level of "civilization" he found there. 

Obviously this is also a one-sided piece against the Maccabees, though it does try to include details about the whole political history behind Chanukah. If you are too lazy to read the piece below, Brook's main point is this: "The lesson of Hanukkah is that even the struggles that saved a people are dappled with tragic irony, complexity and unattractive choices." How was the Chanukah story told to you growing up?

The Hanukkah Story
December 11, 2009

Tonight Jewish kids will light the menorah, spin their dreidels and get their presents, but Hanukkah is the most adult of holidays. It commemorates an event in which the good guys did horrible things, the bad guys did good things and in which everybody is flummoxed by insoluble conflicts that remain with us today. It’s a holiday that accurately reflects how politics is, how history is, how life is.

It begins with the spread of Greek culture. Alexander’s Empire, and the smaller empires that succeeded it, brought modernizing ideas and institutions to the Middle East. At its best, Hellenistic culture emphasized the power of reason and the importance of individual conscience. It brought theaters, gymnasiums and debating societies to the cities. It raised living standards, especially in places like Jerusalem.

Many Jewish reformers embraced these improvements. The Greeks had one central idea: their aspirations to create an advanced universal culture. And the Jews had their own central idea: the idea of one true God. The reformers wanted to merge these two ideas.

Urbane Jews assimilated parts of Greek culture into their own, taking Greek names like Jason, exercising in the gymnasium and prospering within Greek institutions. Not all Jews assimilated. Some resisted quietly. Others fled to the hills. But Jerusalem did well. The Seleucid dynasty, which had political control over the area, was not merely tolerant; it used imperial money to help promote the diverse religions within its sphere.

In 167 B.C., however, the Seleucid king, Antiochus IV, issued a series of decrees defiling the temple, confiscating wealth and banning Jewish practice, under penalty of death. It’s unclear why he did this. Some historians believe that extremist Jewish reformers were in control and were hoping to wipe out what they saw as the primitive remnants of their faith. Others believe Antiochus thought the Jews were disloyal fifth columnists in his struggle against the Egyptians and, hence, was hoping to assimilate them into his nation.

Regardless, those who refused to eat pork were killed in an early case of pure religious martyrdom.

As Jeffrey Goldberg, who is writing a book on this period, points out, the Jews were slow to revolt. The cultural pressure on Jewish practice had been mounting; it was only when it hit an insane political level that Jewish traditionalists took up arms. When they did, the first person they killed was a fellow Jew.

In the town of Modin, a Jew who was attempting to perform a sacrifice on a new Greek altar was slaughtered by Mattathias, the old head of a priestly family. Mattathias’s five sons, led by Judah Maccabee, then led an insurgent revolt against the regime.

The Jewish civil war raised questions: Who is a Jew? Who gets to define the right level of observance? It also created a spiritual crisis. This was not a battle between tribes. It was a battle between theologies and threw up all sorts of issues about why bad things happen to faithful believers and what happens in the afterlife — issues that would reverberate in the region for centuries, to epic effect.

The Maccabees are best understood as moderate fanatics. They were not in total revolt against Greek culture. They used Greek constitutional language to explain themselves. They created a festival to commemorate their triumph (which is part of Greek, not Jewish, culture). Before long, they were electing their priests.

On the other hand, they were fighting heroically for their traditions and the survival of their faith. If they found uncircumcised Jews, they performed forced circumcisions. They had no interest in religious liberty within the Jewish community and believed religion was a collective regimen, not an individual choice.

They were not the last bunch of angry, bearded religious guys to win an insurgency campaign against a great power in the Middle East, but they may have been among the first. They retook Jerusalem in 164 B.C. and rededicated the temple. Their regime quickly became corrupt, brutal and reactionary. The concept of reform had been discredited by the Hellenizing extremists. Practice stagnated. Scholarship withered. The Maccabees became religious oppressors themselves, fatefully inviting the Romans into Jerusalem.

Generations of Sunday school teachers have turned Hanukkah into the story of unified Jewish bravery against an anti-Semitic Hellenic empire. Settlers in the West Bank tell it as a story of how the Jewish hard-core defeated the corrupt, assimilated Jewish masses. Rabbis later added the lamp miracle to give God at least a bit part in the proceedings.

But there is no erasing the complex ironies of the events, the way progress, heroism and brutality weave through all sides. The Maccabees heroically preserved the Jewish faith. But there is no honest way to tell their story as a self-congratulatory morality tale. The lesson of Hanukkah is that even the struggles that saved a people are dappled with tragic irony, complexity and unattractive choices.      

12 December 2009

Walking Pompeii

I know I am late to the party, but I still wanted to blog about the newest thing in Google Maps and archaeology (bet you didn't know those two could be related, huh?). In case you haven't had the pleasure of strolling down the streets of Pompeii, now you can digitally through Google Maps Street View! Check it out:

Unfortunately you cannot explore most of the buildings like the House of the Faun or House of the Vettii. No going inside the giant bath complex either, but you can explore the various theaters, the Temple of Jupiter, and the Forum. My personal favorite are the private gardens you can walk through, which have been replanted based on the botanical remains that were recovered. Holes left from the root balls of tree, shrubs and other plants even allowed archaeologists to recreate the landscaping! Bet you didn't know that? If you are interested in more ancient and classical gardens, I highly recommend this book: "Earthly Paradises: Ancient Gardens in History and Archaeology."

In other news: museums, archaeology and politics are once again at the forefront as Zahi Hawass, head of Egyptian Antiquities, continues to demand the return of Egyptian artifacts currently housed in European and American museums (see BBC article here). Now up on the chopping block: the Rosetta Stone. Certainly a very important artifact--it features a trilingual inscription (Greek, Egyptian Demotic and Egyptian hieroglyphics) that allowed scholars to decipher the ancient Egyptian language--Hawass would like the stone back in Cairo for the opening of the brand new museum there in 2013 (see my previous post). According to the BBC, however, it seems Hawass will settle for an extended loan of the object. Seems fair. Most Egyptians have less of a chance of traveling to London to see the Rosetta Stone than do Europeans of coming to Cairo. Perhaps a loan now would set a precedent for the stone to travel further afield so the whole world could enjoy it? Oh but the insurance on that thing would be a nightmare!

04 December 2009

Archaeology Holiday Gift Guide

The article below is from Sexy Archaeology and carries great gift ideas for all the archaeologists (or just history buffs) in your life! To see the original article in situ, head on over to the SA website

Also if you are interested in archaeological photography by archaeologists, Archaeopix is a great resource for open source images that carry Creative Commons licenses, just like this photograph taken by Raveesh Vyas at the Konark Temple in India. This type of licensing means you are free to reproduce the images for non-commercial purposes. Great for use in the classroom!

Sexy Archaeology Holiday Gift Guide: Part 1

The holiday season is upon us and whether you celebrate Christmas, Kwanza, Hanukkah, Saturnalia, Festivus, Wookie Life Day or one of a dozen other December rituals, chances are you’ll be buying a gift for at least one person. And what if that person is an archaeologist? Whatever will you get them? Thankfully, Sexy Archaeology has you covered with our guide to holiday gift giving.

The Past Horizons tool store is your one stop shop for top archaeology gear at the lowest price. From trowels to finds bags, Past Horizons should be every archaeologist’s first stop to shop. We’re especially fond of their Archaeologist toolkit. This is the best toolkit we’ve seen yet; it comes complete with 4” WHS trowel, tapes, nails, plum bobs, and plenty more all in a handy 12 tool roll. You can pick one up today at the Past Horizons online store for £59.99.

If your archaeologist conducts his or her work from the armchair, then the Time Team America DVDs are the perfect find! PBS has made all five episodes of the hit series available on DVD. Join host Colin Campbell as he takes you to some of America’s hottest archaeology sites on a whirlwind three day dig. Our particular favorite is the Range Creek, Utah episode…. but we wouldn’t say no to the complete set.

Read the rest of the article over at Sexy Archaeology...
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