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.

the Incan empire

The Incan empire is interesting to me on several metahistorical levels: as an early “state” and empire; as an example of early contact between European explorers and indigenous American cultures, which has provided unique historical documentation of the pre-contact culture; and in its use of an unusual, “vertical” landscape.

Overviews of Inca history and culture are available here and at good ‘ol wikipedia. This Incan archaeology blog provides links to information on several Inca town sites. If you are a fan of mummies, PBS, or both, check out this site about Incan ice mummies. And finally, if you feel like going low-tech with a good old-fashioned book, I recommend The Huarochiri Manuscripts, an account from a sort-of-native source (he was working for the Spanish and tailoring his account toward them) of pre-contact religious belief and practice.

Diary of a madman

In the aftermath of World War 2, plenty of literature emerged from the ashes of the Third Reich, much of it journals and memoirs penned by German generals and soldiers recounting their wartime experiences and/or service to Hitler. When, in 1983, a German magazine announced that it had discovered Hitler’s 62-volume personal war diary, historians were understandably excited.

Unfortunately, but perhaps not surprisingly, the “Hitler diaries” turned out to be fakes. (Here’s a more thorough account, with some interesting details about the forger.)

every day is earth day…or at least, today is

Happy Earth Day! The history of America’s relationship to the environment is both unique and multi-faceted. An interesting take on the evolving American attitude toward wilderness and the environment can be found here, and if you’d like to pursue the subject further off-line, the book Wilderness and the American Mind is a good starting point.

Contemporary texts provide insight into American attitudes toward nature. Project Gutenberg, a perennial favorite of mine, has an electronic version of Thoreau’s Walden, which provides an interesting picture, on both intentional and unintentional levels, of nineteenth-century America’s relationship to the environment. Excerpts from the works of the American naturalist Aldo Leopold can be found here. Check out the life and words of John Muir here. An early encounter between Europeans and the land and peoples of the American West is recorded in Lewis and Clark’s journals.

A timeline of American wilderness conservation can be found here; and finally, here is a rather formidable-looking collation of links on American environmental history.

One if by land, two if by submarine

There was no shortage of quirky personalities on the side of the Americans during the Revolutionary War. One of them was David Bushnell, who invented a bizarre machine that he hoped would turn the tide against the powerful British navy. He called it the Turtle, and while it didn’t exactly send the British navy fleeing for home, it did earn Bushnell a place in history as the creator of the world’s first functioning submarine.

The egg-shaped, one-man Turtle took to sea in 1776 to take on a true Goliath of an opponent: the 64-gun British man-o-war Eagle.

A recent effort to build a replica of the Turtle provides us some photos of the re-created craft, and Bushnell’s legacy is nicely laid out in this history of the American submarine.


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!

Happy birthday, Rome!

Today (legend holds) is the anniversary of the founding of Rome by Romulus in 753 BC.

It’s not the oldest continuously-occupied city in the world–that distinction probably goes to Damascus–but from my American perspective, that’s still an impressive lifespan.

Zooming in on the siege of Osaka

By the early 1600s, the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu had essentially established himself as ruler of a newly-unified Japan. But at least one potential threat to his legitimacy remained: Toyotomi Hideyori, the son of a previous ruler, encamped at Osaka Castle with unclear intentions… and a growing army.

Ieyasu decided to take action, and unleashed his troops against Hideyori in 1614. The resulting conflict is often billed as the last great samurai battle. (No word on whether or not Tom Cruise was involved.)

National Geographic has a beautiful (and zoomable) painted map depicting the siege of Osaka Castle, along with a short history of the conflict.

Long-lost secrets of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri! (or maybe not)

The big news earlier this week was the recovery of a huge number of ancient writings penned by authors like Sophocles and Euripedes. It’s tremendously exciting news… assuming it’s not just hype or exaggeration. At least one skeptical voice is getting some attention; if nothing else, many questions need to be answered before we should accept the original story at face value.

This case is a good reminder that we must meet extraordinary historical or archaeological claims with healthy skepticism. It’s often difficult to determine at first glance whether the “expert” quoted in a media story is a respected scholar, a hype merchant, or an attention-hungry fringe theorist. The more extraordinary the claim, the more careful we need to be about embracing it.