The future of Indiana Jones.

Cosmos recently did an article about finding “lost cities” with satellite imagery. They specifically talked about how easy it is to find new sites from your own office, usnig freely available maps from Google, NASA, etc., and questioned the future of “the quintessential, khaki-clad archaeologist pictured in countless movies and novels”. If it’s so easy to find these places from an office in LA, whither Dr. Jones?

Personally, I think it may breed more Drs. Jones. There will never be a replacement for being “on site”; this map search is a replacement for wandering around in the woods looking for humanity. Imagine the excitement of the woods-wanderers when they’re told “Go to such and such coordinates and you’ll find a previously undiscovered Mayan temple”.

The article is certainly worth the read, the science of chlorophyll illumination because of limestone building materials is really cool. But don’t put away your khakis just yet.

WWI: Experiences of an English soldier

Heard about this blog on the BBC yesterday. It is the experiences of a World War I soldier through letters, etc., posted exactly 90 years after their original date in blog format. Pretty cool!

Twelve Byzantine emperors you should know about

A friend recently tipped me off to a podcast series that highlights 12 important Byzantine rulers, starting with Diocletian all the way through Alexius. (I seem to recall that things started getting pretty grim for Byzantium after that.) I’ve not listened to all of the lectures, but what I have listened to is interesting. You can get a pretty good feel for the ebb and flow of the empire by learning about its rulers, and this podcast has chosen its subjects wisely.

If you’d like to learn a bit more about the Byzantine empire but don’t think you can stomach a dozen podcasts about it, the first few episodes are worth listening to–together they give a basic and useful introduction to the subject without assuming you already know anything at all about Byzantium. (And once you’ve been bitten by the Byzantine bug, you can join my little crusade to get it mentioned in high school textbooks for more than a paragraph in between the chapters about “Greece & Rome” and “The Industrial Revolution.”)

The Lost Romans

There’s a small villiage in the Liqian province of China where people have a disturbing color of hair; yellow. Local people have always wondered why they look different from their neighbors, and in the 1950’s it was put forth that they were the descendants of a lost legion of Roman soldiers.

DNA samples were recently taken from male inhabitants to see if we can find a tie between Liqian locals and the Romans.

Wikipedia has a whole page about Roman/Chinese relations as well as a bit about Liqian specifically. The Sydney Morning Herald also has an excellent article.

Call of Ctesiphon

In her last post, Michele suggested that Mohenjo-Daro might be the coolest city name ever. I’m afraid must disagree: the city with the coolest name is clearly Ctesiphon, capital of the Parthian Empire. (It gets bonus points for sounding like something out of an HP Lovecraft story.)

Mohenjo-Daro: Best city name ever?

Here’s a great site about the Harappan civilization, which flourished from 2600-1700 BC in the Indus River Vally in India and Pakistan. This civilization had been forgotten by the ages until archaeologists began uncovering it in the 1920s. It had huge, well-planned cities which compared favorably to the older civilizations in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Unlike those civilizations, however, it had little in the way of elaborate palaces, temples, or monumental artwork. Since the Harappan script has not been deciphered, what this might mean for the political and religious organization of the Harappan cities is largely unknown.

About 1500 BC, the “Vedic Aryans” moved into the region. The “Vedic” refers to the group as the originators of the “Vedas,” the Hindu scriptures; while the term “Aryan” is derived from the word the originators of the Vedas used to refer to themselves. The same word is used in the Zoroastrian texts, and in fact the place name Iran is a version of the word “Aryan” . 19th-century (AD) scholars made a linguistic link between these groups and groups moving at about the same time into Greece and across Europe–all of these groups spoke related languages, from the Indo-European family, at least by the time that the languages started to be written down. Based on the racial thinking of the time, these scholars dubbed all of these groups “Aryan”, and attributed to them a racial capacity for building great civilizations.

Which gives one to ask a number of questions: First, does a shared language equate to a shared race? Modern scholars would say no, especially because “races” are impossible to define biologically (much less linguistically), and are largely a product of politics rather than science.

Second, if the Aryans were such great civilization-builders, how do we address the fact that at least in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Indus Valley, great civiiizations arose with no help from “Aryans”? And that it took 1000 years after the end of the Harappan civilization and the arrival of the Aryans for another urbanized civilization to appear? Not to mention that it took close to another thousand years and the influence of Rome for anything like civilization to develop anywhere in Europe?

It comes as news to no one that the concept of the “Aryan race” has been discarded by scholars over time. But it’s a little alarming to think how much “politics” is capable of influencing supposedly scientific notions, not to mention the softer social sciences. I wonder which of our deeply held, supposedly scientific notions will one day prove to have led us astray?

Cooking up the past

Spice up your next dinner with some tasty recipes from a 700-year-old cookbook! The article makes some interesting observations about the literary traits of recipe compilations of yore, as well.

Cold War, we miss you

CONELRAD is an interesting site with lots of curiousities from the Cold War era. I was tipped off to this site by my parents, who experienced more of the Cold War than I did. Alas, the cruel whims of history dictated that I would grow up in the least interesting part of the Cold War–the final stretch right before it ended. (And by “least interesting part” I guess I mean “the part of the Cold War during which nuclear armageddon, while a definite possibility, did not seem like an absolute certainty.”) Explaining the site’s unusual name, dad also related the following tidbit, which I’m sure he won’t mind me quoting here:

The name Conelrad comes from the name of the emergency alert system for atomic attacks that was set up on all broadcast radio stations back during the peak of the cold war (50’s). Even ham radio operators were required to continuously monitor a broadcast station while transmitting so that if a Conelrad alert was broadcast they could stop their ham transmissions immediately so that the enemy bombers could not use their signals to home in their positions. (Yes, I used to have to do that when I was a kid.)

And sure enough, you can read all about CONELRAD on Wikipedia. As for myself, I was too busy playing with my G.I. Joe toys during the early 80s to be much aware of the subtle and terrifying developments of the Cold War. The entirety of my understanding of the conflict at the time came from Viktor Suvorov’s Inside the Soviet Army,* which inexplicably found its way onto my childhood bookshelf alongside the Chronicles of Narnia and the Empire Strikes Back Picture Book.

* strangely listed on Amazon as a “board book.” Is it just me, or are board books usually those thick-cardboard storybooks for babies? That’s not the Inside the Soviet Army that I remember, but then it has been a few decades.

The trouble with women

In which I invent a new, or at least not usually acknowleged, genre: the historical editorial.

I have been teaching a quarter-long class on “Women in the Ancient World.” It’s a little odd that I should be teaching such a class, since I have never studied women as a separate subject in my own career as a student, nor do I think much of feminist historical theory, insofar as I have experienced it. But the class has been quite eye-opening, in that I have learned a lot both about attitudes toward women in history and the attitudes of my students towards women in history.

In thinking how to sum up my experience with the class, I think that one way to categorize what I’ve learned is that historically, women have been viewed not as partners and co-pilgrims in the journey of life (whether equal or unequal ones), but quite often as a problem to be solved. I think this view is easy to substantiate, and has nothing to do with man-bashing or extreme feminist theories; but that this view is difficult to wrap modern heads around because it differs substantially from modern viewpoints–those of modern defenders of traditional gender roles and even those of modern misogynists, as well as those of feminists and believers in gender equality.

In class, it seems that the most diverse viewpoints–the most feminist as well as the most ardent defenders of traditional gender roles and relations–agree that women are different from men. Women are different biologically, they are typically not as physically strong and, in premodern times, spend much of their adolescence and adulthood either pregnant or caring for small children. Hence, a division of labor is virtually mandated by biology. Further, women are different temperamentally.

Both the feminist and traditionalist views seem to want to view these differences as complementary and equally good. But it seems to me that in antiquity, the differences between men and women–or rather, the differentness of women–was viewed as a problem to be solved, or at least endured.

To begin from the time when people began to think about things in a way we today would recognize as rational (as opposed to religious or practical), in Classical Greece, the problem of women was put by men in terms which are impossible to misinterpret. Women are the cause of all evils in the world, as typified by the myth of Pandora. Women are biologically and intellectually inferior to men. Women are frequently compared to animals, and while it’s not denied that they are humans, they are certainly more animal-like than men are. Marriage, for men, is to subject oneself to the tyranny of an irrational and demanding entity. Marriage was to be undertaken as a duty to the state, not to be expected to be a source of personal enjoyment or fulfillment. Some, though not all ancient writers concede that a good wife is indeed a great good for a man, but she is so rare than no man should expect to get one.

Women are good for only one thing, and that thing is not what more modern misogynists think it is–young boys are much better for that. It’s not what defenders of complementary gender roles think it is, either–women in general make very poor companions, and they are very unlikely to be diligent in their work, preferring to gossip with the servants and sneak around with other men whenever they can. The only thing women are good for is procreation. And they are not so much good for that purpose, since they are liable to try to contracept or abort without the husband’s permission (with the husband’s permission, there’s no problem with either of these things, nor with exposing an infant to die if the husband decrees it). Rather, they are the only option for that purpose. One ancient male writer wonders why Zeus saw fit to saddle them with women as the only way to produce an heir. Wouldn’t it be better, he wonders, to procure an heir by making a donation in a certain amount to the temples? Despite the gods’ undeniable avarice, it seems they didn’t respond to this suggestion.

In the ancient view, women were not fragile and in need of protection, as in the Victorian or Islamic formulation. Rather, they were cloistered, veiled, denied citizenship or virtually any public role, because they were dangerous. A later Roman writer, writing at a time when women had begun to take on more public although not political roles, wonders nervously what is to become of the men if the women were to get equal rights?

In the pre-Graeco-Roman Ancient Near East, the female gods are at least as fierce and cunning as the male gods, perhaps even more so. Inanna of Mesopotamia, Anat of the Canaanites, and Bastet of the Egyptians are like ancient berserkers, losing all capacity for rationality or mercy when exacting revenge on enemies. Isis tricks the aging Ra into giving her his power by poisoning him and offering the antidote if he tells her his secret name.

Of course, the ANE goddesses were also seductive and sexual, whereas the Graeco-Roman goddesses, with the exception of Aphrodite, were much less so. Artemis seems in some ways like a continuation of the antisocial ANE goddess, and was a “virgin” (meaning she was unmarried), and as such was not a threat to men as human women (who did not have the option of being unmarried) were. Athena is representative of how great it would be if a woman could indeed be more like a man–but real women aren’t like Athena. Hestia is the embodiment of the perfect wife and mother, except for one thing: she was neither married nor a mother. Hence, she was the perfect woman: she kept to female roles without imposing her presence on any poor man. Hera was married, and her marriage can easily be seen as representative of the trouble with marriage: though subject to Zeus, she continually chafed at this, and was eternally jealous, quarrelsome, and sought to throw spokes in the wheels of any of the various wacky enterprises Zeus undertook.

It doesn’t seem to be primarily women’s sexuality that was a problem for the Greeks, as it was for the ancient Hebrews, Christians, and modern Muslims. Rather, it is the fact that by their very nature they were a threat to men. Not a potential threat, but a very real and immediate threat, both right this minute and for all time, written into the cosmology. Women were the source of all problems that men encounter in life, said the Greeks, in so many words.

Women were a problem for the Greeks. Of course, men were a problem too, and in one sense the solution to both problems were the same: men were a problem to be solved by men, and so were women. Men solved the problem of themselves through politics and philosophy (note the rise and prevalence of Stoicism, a male pursuit). They solved the problem of women in similar ways. Sumptuary laws limited the public appearances of respectable women to none at all–since wives were a luxury commodity like other forms of conspicuous consumption. The roles of nonrespectable women, slaves and prostitutes, were clearly delineated from those of respectable ones. Both of these nonrespectable categories had much more varied and interesting lives, and simultaneously much worse ones, for the most part, than respectable wives.

There were exceptions to this view of women, of course. Socrates had all sorts of good things to say about a heterae (a kind of geisha-like woman) of his acquaintance, and nothing at all good to say about his own wife, and seemed to prefer the sexual companionship of boys to that of women. But he did believe that women were or could be the intellectual equals of men, and for this and other peculiar opinions was executed as a danger to the morals of the young. Plato followed his lead on this. He proposed a utopia in which family relationships were so diametrically opposed to anything actually practiced anywhere in the world–women holding all societal roles equally to men, and this equality protected by the abolition of the family–that one wonders where in the world this was coming from, and who in the world would want to live that way. The answer, apparently, was that nobody did. Finally, the Epicureans, the main rival to the Stoics, accepted women students on the same basis as men–but nobody every thought very highly of Epicurus or his philosophical school.

During the Hellenistic and the later pre-Christian Roman periods, women had much broader public roles than in the classical Greek or republican Roman periods, but they were still potentially dangerous creatures. The devoted wife and mother finally did get her due, and women were more able to control their own lives rather than to pass from the absolute control of her father to that of her husband. There was also more freedom for women to not be respectable, if they liked, and still lead reasonably pleasant lives. Women had more economic and legal powers.

But there were two things women could never do: hold political power through voting or holding public office, or serving in the military. The reasons for the latter are fairly obvious. What were the reasons for the former? For one, military success was one sure way of garnering political influence, and that was not possible for women. For another, there were still doubts about women’s intellectual capacity and ability to control their emotions, although women’s intellectual ability was now more recognized.

Finally, women were dangerous. As noted above, Romans feared the consequences of giving women political power–they didn’t know what might happen, but they were pretty sure it wouldn’t mean anything good for them. Whether or not one believed women were capable of taking on traditionally male roles, it was better to keep women under men’s thumb as much as possible. It was more “seemly,” it kept the established social order from descending into an unpredictable chaos, it was, above all, safer.

The appearance and rise of Christianity fundamentally challenged the Graeco-Roman notion of the nature and proper roles of women, and it too made the Romans nervous. The early Christians were persecuted because they threated the established Roman order, both as pertains to women and in more important ways. And when the church inherited the project of ordering society from pre-Christian Rome, it too had to tackle the trouble with woman–leading to an entirely new formulation of the problem as well as a new set of solutions, which I hopefully will eventually favor you with my interpretation of.

The Uruk period

With the Uruk period in ancient Mesopotamia we see the very beginnings of writing and are, therefore, almost into a historical period! How exciting! I’m sure that’s how the ancient Mesopotamians felt about it.

As in the Ubaid period, the term “Uruk” refers to three things: a time period, an ancient city (now an archaeological site), and a material culture. The time period is ca. 4000-3000 BC, and the city is the main and almost the only source of information we have for the period.

The Uruk period saw the development of several cultural factors which marked the transition from relatively egalitarian, sedentary agricultural towns to what we would call a “civilization.”

One of these was the development of public architecture. This architecture was “monumental,” in that it was built to impress; it was “public” because it was meant to serve, belong to, or encompass the whole community rather than a single family (even if not everybody got to participate directly in what went on in these buildings).

The city of Uruk had two major public complexes in the Uruk period. One of these was the Anu ziggurat and White Temple, both dedicated to the Mesopotamian sky-god Anu. Several architectural features of the building complex had appeared first in the Ubaid period, showing the continuity between the two phases.

Several hundred meters from the Anu ziggurat is the “Eanna precinct,” dedicated to the rather alarming goddess Inanna, who was the patron goddess of Uruk.

Along with monumental architecture, monumental art made its first appearance in the Uruk period. The best-known of these artifacts is the Warka vase (Warka being another version of the word Uruk). It depicts a procession of people bringing offerings to Inanna. The difference between this object, which shows specialized knowledge and excellent workmanship, and earlier art which mainly consisted of small clay figurines, marks a change in the way society worked.

Along with these changes, the Uruk saw a continuation of the trend of social complexity (professional specialization and differences between socio-economic classes). This can be seen in the production of the above monumental buildings and art; and also in such texts as the “Standard Professions List,” which lists various jobs held by people (though most people’s livelihood still came from agricultural pursuits both now and throughout Ancient Near Eastern history).

The Uruk also saw an increased settlement hierarchy (large cities surrounded by smaller towns which are themselves surrounded by smaller hamlets, each playing a part in the centralization and distribution of various kinds of goods). Cities were still independent at this stage, and most likely in various relationships of cooperation and competition with each other.

Most important to the beginning of a truly historical period, the Uruk saw the origins of writing in the form of cuneiform script representing the Sumerian language. Cuneiform consisted of impressions made with a reed stylus in carefully prepared, moist clay. It began as a pictographic text, and may have had a three-dimensional precursor in the from of bullae and tokens (scroll down for pictures, but read the text if you like). Both bullae and tokens and the earliest writing were probably ways of keeping track of things: stored goods, goods being shipped from one place to another, etc. The development of cylinder seals at this period is another aspect of such record-keeping bureaucracy: officials in charge of such things had their own seals, and used them to make impressions on bullae, tablets, and other pieces of ancient red tape to show that whatever transaction was taking place was officially approved.

Much as there was an “Ubaid expansion” in the previous period, there was an “Uruk expansion”: a period in the middle to late Uruk in which characteristic Uruk artifacts are found in western Iran, northern Mesopotamia, northern Syria, and parts of Anatolia. It is not clear what type of interaction this “expansion” represents. The most prominent theory, promoted by Guillermo Algaze, is that the Uruk expansion represents a Marxist-style World System. According to this theory, the Uruk enclaves represented by the Uruk material culture were trading colonies intended to ensure access to foreign resources for Mesopotamian cities. The Uruk peoples dominated the regions they touched through economic means rather than through military or political might.

There are, as you might imagine, a number of objections to this theory. First, there is no evidence of power asymmetry between the Mesopotamian “core” and the Anatolian (for example) “periphery”: the Anatolians controlled production of Anatolian traded goods and their side of the exchange. The terms of the exchange were not set by the Mesopotamian side of things.

Second, the Marxist model suggests that long-distance trade would have fundamentally changed the societies it touched, re-forming them along the lines dictated by the needs of the “core” entity. But this has not been established, as Algaze himself concedes.

Finally, the model assumes the existence of a political entity with the level of organization and resources needed to control a far-flung region. But Mesopotamia was not unified at this period, rather it consisted of several competing city-states. Algaze suggests the existence of several “cores” controlling parts of the “periphery,’ but this is a theory for which we will probably never have enough documentation to prove its truth or falsity.

Next: the Early Dynastic period
(Objections to the World Systems model from Gil Stein and Piotr Steinkeller).