lazy, hazy, crazy history

August is no time for serious reading and research. Hence, in place of a serious post, here is a fun quote followed by some Egyptian eye candy to peruse while you’re waiting to head out to the beach.

History is not in the sources. The sources are nothing but the universe in which the historian’s hypotheses are tested. The sources are the remnants and relics of the historical processes that the historian wants to reconstruct. The sources challenge the historian’s creativity by being the most painful obstacle in his path: there are always too few, or too many, or both, and taken together, they never square…The sources are the scattered remnants of a past world that is irretrievably lost, because it is past. Although we have only the sources to reconstruct that lost world in our imagination, the sources are nothing if they are not used by our imagination. A house is more than a number of bricks, and a picture more than seven ounces of paint.

-Knauf, Ernst Axel. 1992. The Cultural Impact of Secondary State Formation: The Cases of the Edomites and Moabites. In Early Edom and Moab: The Beginning of the Iron Age in Southern Jordan, ed. Piotr Bienkowski. Sheffield Archaeological Monographs 7. J.R. Collis Publications, p. 47

Let’s play Stump the Grad Student. After six years of studying this stuff, I knew numbers 1, 2, 5, 9, 12. So often I hear myself saying this, but I hope my profs at the U of C never hear of this.

There are many pictures of Egyptian artifacts on the internet, but I feel they look their best at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and there’s more than the usual mummies.

If you feel you need more words with your pretty pictures, here are some, and some more.

talking Turkey

Argh, what a horrible pun. So I guess since I have to go to Turkey later this summer, I might as well learn a bit about the place. Here are a couple of links I’ve found, I’ll post some more as I find them.

It seems that a fellow named Mustafa Kemal Ataturk is more or less responsible for modern Turkey. A short bio can be found on a fun, quirky site that I found; a longer and more glowing account of his life–and pictures!– can be found here.

The “Turkey Travel Planner” grapples with the broad spectrum of Anatolian history. If you have no patience with all that clicking, Lonely Planet sums it all up for you on a single page. The Oriental Institute, of course, has the ancient aspects well in hand. Pretty spiffy, huh?

near eastern archaeologists

Looks like there’s some rain in the forecast for this Memorial Day weekend. It’s like I always say; what better way to spend a rainy weekend than reading online articles about the lives of the founders of Near Eastern Archaeology?

Okay, I’ve never said that. But if you find the above contention strangely compelling anyway, you might check out these links.

Many of the early Near Eastern archaeologists were characters, to say the least. You’ve no doubt heard of T.E. Lawrence aka Lawrence of Arabia, but you may not have heard as much about his archaeological pursuits. You can also find links to what must be everything you’d ever need to know about him here.

You may not have heard of one of his associates, Gertrude Bell, a very forceful-sounding lady who not only interested herself in Near Eastern archaeology, but was an important player in the politics of the region around the time of World War I. The Gertrude Bell Project is making her writings and photos available online.

Somewhat more staid and scholarly than the above was William Foxwell Albright, who played a major role in forming the aims and methodology of the discipline of Biblical Archaeology. An interesting article about him may be found here, and a couple of interesting quotes from him regarding the significance of Palestine and the Bible here and here.

An interesting perspective on Near Eastern Archaeology may be found, of all places, in the works of mystery writer Agatha Christie. Her second marriage was to archaeologist Max Mallowan, who excavated at Nimrud and elsewhere. Agatha accompanied Max on his excavations, and wrote about archaeology and archaeologists in her autobiography and her book Come, Tell Me How You Live, neither of which seem to be especially easy to come by, unfortunately. She set a few mysteries in the ancient and modern Near East as well, including Death Comes As the End and They Came to Baghdad.

Either of which would make excellent rainy weekend reading, in my opinion, even if we’ve strayed rather far from history per se.

Have a great Memorial Day weekend!

History and the Bible

There are many annoying things about history, and for me, one of them is the debate over “biblical minimalism”: the argument that the Old Testament Bible is not a useful historical source, because it was written more or less de novo in the Hellenistic period. Despite the fact that more “mainstream” scholars reject this argument as absurd, too much ink, breath, and healthy blood pressure levels have been sacrificed over it.

I just started reading a book called The First Historians: The Hebrew Bible and History and found a fun online interview with its author, Baruch Halpern, who might be considered one of the main anti-minimalits. A rebuttal to Halpern’s arguments and an outline of the “minimalist program” can be found in this essay by Philip Davies.

Women & Gender in the Ancient World

I found this the other day. I haven’t had a comprehensive look through it yet, but looks like quite a plethora of info on women (and other folks) in the classical world and in Biblical times.

the battle(s) for Masada

Last year when I was in Israel, I was able to visit the site of Masada. They take archaeology seriously over there, and a lot of sites are made into national parks. They are all informative and well-kept, but Masada is clearly something special. Most sites had a small shed where you stopped to buy entry permits, Masada had an enormous, very nice building with multiple ticket windows, a large gift shop, concesssions, and so forth. Masada is, of course at the heart of Israeli nationalism, based on Josephus’ stirring account of the small group of Zealots who bravely defended Masada against a Roman siege, and finally preferred to die rather than become slaves to the Romans.

The Zealots were vastly outnumbered by the Romans, but when you are there it is clear that this site was eminently defensible: sheer cliffs rise nearly straight up from a wide plain. The Zealots re-used the wall and structures which had been built by Herod the Great as an oddly-located royal resort. The view is beautiful, and you could see incoming troops many miles in advance of their arrival. It is hot, breezy, and very dry up there, and it’s easy to start getting dehydrated in a very short period of time, so access to water was important, but Masada had a vast capacity for water and food storage.

The heroic tale of Masada based on Josephus’ account and supported by the work of the great Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin goes something like this, but there are some naysayers to this narrative. Nachman Ben-Yehuda deconstucts the Masada Myth and discusses how it has been used to bolster nationalism. Ben-Yahuda has also cast aspersions on archaeological work at Masada.

Whatever the truth of the story of the Zealots, Masada is a beautiful and impressive place; and one would have to be at least somewhat heroic to attempt to live there (currently, the two choices to ascend to the top of the site are the Snake Path, 900 feet in elevation–remember the temperature tops a dry 100 out there–or by cablecar). The main thing I wanted to post in regards to Masada, however, was this picture of the Roman seige tower from Masada. A picture like this was on display at the site, and we all commented on the resemblance to the Lord of the Rings.

Queen of the desert

Zenobia is one of antiquity’s more fascinating individuals. She was queen of the city of Palmyra (which you can see on the far right side of this map of the Roman Empire). During the mid-3rd century, she annexed a surprisingly large swath of Syria (and beyond) and declared independence from Rome.

That sort of thing rarely ended well for the would-be-secessionists, but Zenobia held out until a Roman army under Aurelian finally defeated her. From this entertaining account of Aurelian’s victory we get a brief glimpse at Zenobia’s feisty attitude:

[Zenobia responds to Aurelian’s demand for her surrender, writing:] “Zenobia, Queen of the East, to Aurelian Augustus. No one, saving you, has ever required of me what you have in your letter. One ought in war to harken only to the voice of courage. You demand that I surrender myself, as if you did not know that the Queen Cleopatra preferred to die rather than to live in any other save her station. The Persians do not abandon us, and we will wait their succors. The Saracens and the Armenians are on our side. The brigands of Syria have defeated your army, O Aurelian; what will it be when we have received the reinforcements which come to us from all sides? You will lower then that tone with which you–as if already full conqueror–now bid me to surrender.”

Fightin’ words, to be sure.


Web sites about archaeology frequently consist mostly of ads attempting to entice potential volunteer diggers; but some are more substantive. One particularly good resource is the website of The Megiddo Expedition, which excavates at Megiddo, the site of one of the major cities of the kingdom of Israel and the future site of Armageddon.

Another interesting site (both archaeological and web) is that of Çatalhöyük in Turkey. The fact that it is prehistoric (Neolithic) allows perhaps too much scope for imagination in interpreting some of the odder finds, but you’ll find a wide range of opinion on this site, from scholarly to New Age.

An impressive archive of archaeological sites in Turkey can be found at, “the first archaeological site inventory on the net.” Happy surfing!