Posts Tagged ‘Archaeology’

Time is Hungry

January 26, 2012 3 comments

Dave the WriterIt ate the Etruscans and then, eventually, those upstart Neo-Etruscans, the Romans. Time is funny that way.

One day some years ago, it had also eaten most of an Italian hill town named Civita di Bagnoregio, east of picturesque Lake Bolsena and south of the much more famous hill town of Orvieto in Italy.

My bride and I had walked across the long, narrow bridge to the Civita one cool morning, pursuing our duties as Card-Carrying Etruscophiles. As you may know, the Etruscans thrived in what is now eT(r)uscany from about 800 BC. They also launched a lot of what we think of as Ancient Roman culture.

Around 2,500 years ago, when the Etruscan rapper, Big ‘E’, and his crew founded the Civita, it was much larger, though still a very defensible place high above the two surrounding stream valleys. One of the plusses for them then was the soft tufa rock. It erodes fast and offered a steep approach to deter Bad Guys. It could also be easily shaped into walls, structures and stone-cut storage rooms inside the hill.

One of the minuses today is that more than two-thirds of the ancient town has fallen away, a loss hastened by the big quake of 1695 AD. Long ago, the two valleys were filled with gently-sloping, fertile fields. Now, they’re a relatively barren landscape of what the locals call calanchi (gullies, ditches and small ravines). That’s what happens in a few thousand years wherever tufa overlays sand, as it does in this countryside. But, intense Medieval agriculture surely hurried the process. The medievals weren’t as into maintenance as the ancients.

The fertile terrain of ancient times was likely quite well-preserved until the Fall of Rome in the West, when irrigation and terracing systems were no longer maintained. Those pesky barbarians just thought that plundering wealth would produce the same quality of life as civilization. kind of like today’s Occupy movement. Even so, though we don’t see now the landscape that the ancients saw, it is a lovely and fascinating view.

Normal Italians live back along the ridge line in the rest of Bagnoregio (literally ‘The King’s Bath’, a name given the place by Medieval Lombard invaders). Only about thirty people still live in the small Civita area, mostly Brits and Americans, for uniquely Brit and American reasons. There’s a simple church, though, so at least one Italian priest probably lives there as well.

The evening of our visit day, over another in a long series of relaxing Italian dinners, we were moved by what we’d seen to wax philosophical about Time’s perspective on human history. Incidentally, we measure human history as starting when dogs finally domesticated us, about 15,000 years ago.

No Sequoia or Gingko tree alive today was alive then. Yet, 15 millennia is far less than an eye blink in the time of life on Earth. And, science has only been around since, say, Galileo, maybe 400 years. That’s long enough to be perverted and corrupted by power-hungry politicians (a redundant phrase, I know), but  it’s s not nearly enough time for many of us to give up the Old Ways.

A sizable percentage of us still freak out over an extra-snowy winter or a few extra-dry summers. Just a century or so ago in similar circumstances, many people wondered why God was punishing them and offered sacrifices to appease His wrath—human sacrifice in the more barbaric cultures.

Today, the High Priests of Climo-hoaxuality tell us that we have sinned against The Earth and The Mother of All Dooms rushes down upon us for our transgressions. So, we must sacrifice our evil and unjust Prosperity on their sacred Altar of Perpetual Tax. Our prosperity, not theirs. And, many Believers rush to do so.

Surely a deep, fundamental aspect of human nature is in there somewhere when so many people worship this foolishness. Theirs’ is not a set of feelings subject to the mind. But, it must have had some survival value for small groups of hunters and gatherers chasing primeval food or we wouldn’t still be so easily duped by Preachers of Wrathful Cataclysm.

Thankfully, for people with time to relax, sip Chianti and reflect on a day with the Etruscans, Galileo’s new-fangled notion of reason does a good job putting things in perspective.

I highly recommend it.

Agriturismo and the Road to Grumentum

December 28, 2011 Leave a comment

Dave the WriterIn ancient times, she was Queen of Roads, the Appian Way, leading travelers south from Rome to Brundisium at the heel of Italy’s boot on the Adriatic.

Though Ancient Rome built more than 50,000 miles of paved roads, on this day, my bride and I were checking out just a hundred yard stretch. It was in the grassy ruins of Grumentum, a Roman ‘hub’ city on a bluff overlooking the Agri river valley’s rich farmland about 60 miles inland from the Gulf of Taranto.

We were there to explore the archaeological site and found out something that surprised us. There was lots more traffic back then than we would have guessed. Grumentum was an inland city of only moderate size, but check out the ruts in the roadbed made just before the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West. You can tell the traffic went on for quite awhile after the maintenance had stopped.


In addition, we also got our fill of other ruins on the site. We love it when there are few visitors and long grass has grown up. But, that’s not true for everyone. So, the site manager had a local guy’s flock of sheep wandering around to ‘mow’ the lawn in a ‘green’ way. And, maybe—just, maybe—some fine mutton cuts wound up on the manager’s dinner table in the time-honored Italian Way.

There was just one other couple exploring the site when we were there: friendly German folks who spoke no English. From time to time over the hours, we’d pass at hailing distance and grin cheerfully at each other.


Once, we were passing in an area the sheep had just left. They’d cropped the lawn as expected, but also left a sea of processed-grass lumps for us to gingerly cross. At our closest point of approach, the German guy raised the sole of his shoe, pointed at it, shook his head and observed “Agriturismo.”

At that, my bride and I let out two long and appreciative belly laughs. ‘Agriturismo’ is the Italian word for the business of hosting city-dwellers who vacation on farms to get close to nature.

Who knew, we’d get free Agriturismo with our Grumentum admission ticket?

Categories: 2011 Posts Tags: ,

The Egyptian Wing

December 14, 2011 Leave a comment

Dave the WriterIn 1891, his Imperial Highness, Emperor Franz-Josef I, absolute ruler of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, cleaned out his closet.

For a couple hundred years, nobles vying for influence treated the chain of emperors and future emperors to some mighty fine gifts. A strong interest in the ancient world was de rigueur for people in the social stratosphere back then, and the Empire’s royal family was no exception. So, many of the most amazing and priceless gifts were from the time of Pharaonic Egypt, before young Cleopatra fell out of a rolled-up rug and took a shine to an old, balding Roman soldier.

Upwardly-mobile dukes and barons and such would send out their own ‘Doktor Joansses’ to scour ancient sites for the finest artifacts, many seemingly untouched by the millennia.

Eventually, even the huge Schönbrunn Palace ran out of closet space for all the magnificent treasures. Thus, old, mustachioed Franzy had a big, new closet built. It’s a marvel; the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna was clearly built to the taste of kings.

Later posts will cover a few on my favorite treasures there. But, this one’s focus is the wonderful building, one of the best-loved by the Viennese themselves. For my bride and I over the two-days we spent devouring its collection, the Egyptian Wing sums it up. From the head of Isis surrounded by beautiful, multi-colored marbles to the walls, ceilings and columns inside covered with bright pseudo-Egyptian reliefs, we passed through rooms truly worthy of those best-of-the-best items on display.

Whether you’re interested in Ancient Egypt or not, if you make it to Vienna, the museum building itself is worth the price of admission. And besides, with the Arab Spring having turned into the Muslim Brotherhood Winter, it’s probably the most prudent way to see the top Egyptian stuff anyway.

Pastel Archaeology

November 28, 2011 1 comment

In an another post, Republic and Empire, I wrote that it seems to me like some images convey the feel of a place and its past much better than others. Two High Dynamic Range photos of Rome’s Forum illustrated the point.

But, other ancient places evoke other feelings. And, other kinds of images may be more effective telling someone more than the look of a place. Perhaps even pastel paintings?

(Click here to see a larger image)

Priene was a Greek city on what is now the west coast of Turkey. It used to be at the mouth of the Maender River, but was constantly overrun. So, Alexander the Great moved it to a much more defensible site—on a high, rocky, bluff jutting out from nearby Mt. Mycale—when he took it back from the Persians. The small city, never more than 5,000 people, was home to one of the original Seven Sages of the ancient Greek world and is the best surviving example of Greek city planning, with a grid of streets and different areas designed to serve different purposes.

(Click here to see a larger image)

It was later sacked by Mithradates but prosperous again by the reign of Augustus. Then, the river finaly silted over the last bit of harbor. It struggled on through a long slow decline, until it was abandoned after the Ottoman Conquest in the thirteenth century.

It’s a lovely place and not much visited, so the feel of tumbled stones and ruins is easy to pick up. For me, these pastel renderings seem to match that feeling best.

Click on the link below and compare them to standard color photos in an earlier post about nearby Miletus, which of course has its own unique feel.

Do you have a preference? Or, are you like me and it depends on how a place feels when you’re there?


Click here to see a gallery of these and other pastel images of the ruins at Priene. Or, click here to read an earlier post about Filiz, a fascinating young Turkish woman we met roaming the ruins of Priene. 

Some Things Last a Thousand Years

November 20, 2011 1 comment

A while ago, my granddaughter paced around the kitchen at lunchtime like an agitated tigress in a small cage while our microwave re-heated her pizza. After 30 seconds or so, she looked over at me and murmured under her breath in mock-exasperation, “This is taking forever!”

I smiled and gave her an understanding nod. For her, CDs are quaint, old technology where it takes so long to find the song you want. And, her mother’s box of cassette tapes in the closet at home comes from a time when Merlin advised Arthur about Mordred and dinosaurs roamed the earth, a time when those wacky Saudis came over to New York and got their Jihad on.

But, it’s possible for many more things than heating her pizza to last longer than a 20 second sound bite, or a school year, or even a human life span. Some of them can even last far longer than the average Sequoia.

A few examples: Han China, most major religions, Rome in the West, the Eastern Roman Empire, Byzantium, in the east, the Republic of Venice, and the Oracle at Delphi.

Delphi was the most respected source of prophesy and divine answers in the Classical world. Also, for me, Delphi is unique in that list of long-lived human things because it says a lot about human nature.

My favorite comment about that mysterious source of cryptic pronouncements on the shoulder of Mount Parnassus comes from historian and author Henry Adams back in 1898 (before the dinosaurs):

Delphi, I should think perhaps is the Greekest thing of all. It comes nearest to being serious, and is charming; a transparent and elegant fraud that no one more than half believed in except when it suited them, but that was artistically satisfactory and socially perfect.”

Just like power politics and professional doomsaying, the oracle business was based on a perpetual con. Today, we have our predictors of the end of the world (one who even tried it twice this year alone) and the pathetic Climate Fraudsters who are now only fit for roles on Walking Dead. Back then, they had the Pythia, a much more elegant vessel for fraud.

In Classical times, she was the Gods-touched young woman who delivered divine messages in a hallucinated trance. I can’t think of her without recalling the movie ‘300’. In it, a young, half-dressed Pythia in the sacred room of mysteries writhes on the floor to erotic, pounding drums, finally gasping out the gods’ reply to Leonidas’ question. Most of the time, she is surrounded by vile, slavering, deformed old men, the Ephors. To show one of the timeless aspects of human nature represented by ancient oracles, those actors could have been stunt doubles for Ted Kennedy and Chris Dodd when they tried to get into Princess Leia’s pants.

But, as Adams said, Delphi managed its con artistically and in a way that resonated socially. It did this in an astounding setting over a thousand years. The reason was that Delphi always seemed to manage the right tone and degree of ambiguity to survive. Well, most of the time.

There was that tussle with Nero. He had recently murdered his own mother and gone to Delphi with a question. In hindsight, the Pythia’s reply may have been a tad ill-considered. From out of her sinuous trance, she hurled:

“Your presence here outrages the god you seek. Go back, matricide! The number 73 marks the hour of your downfall!”

As you might imagine, Nero was not completely happy with this. Among other indications of his displeasure, he had the Pythia buried alive. Even so, he took the last part of what she said as meaning he would have a long reign and die at 73. Since he was only 30 at the time and most folks didn’t reach fifty, 43 years sounded like a good run in the Debauched Absolute Ruler of the Known World business.

But, as with so many prophesies uttered by the Pythia for so many others, he got it wrong. Not long after, there was a brief revolt that deposed Nero with extreme prejudice. It was led by a Roman named Galba–who was 73 at the time.

Prophesies are so much easier to get right after the fact, aren’t they?

Cybele Didn’t Have an iPad

October 23, 2011 Leave a comment

And neither did her priestesses. Back in the time when a Great Mother of the Gods headed most early pantheons in one form or another, what did people have?

And how did having that instead of something else affect how they thought about things. When you’re writing a novel or two set in those times, as am I, thinking about questions like these is homework.

But, similar questions can also be though-provoking for regular folks. Honest.

Think about the Classical Greeks: democracy, beauty, physical perfection, simplicity, clean lines…

Not so fast. What if the White House or the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. was decorated like the image at the left? Would you feel a bit differently about those buildings? Well, that is how Greek temples were decorated. This reproduction is in the museum at Paestum, a Greek and Roman ruin south of Salerno in Italy. The modern world sees simplicity in Greek ruins and sculpture becase the paint has worn off. They saw something else.

And, what message does the stuff at the right convey? This broken pot of coins was found buried under the marble flooring of someone’s ancient home. Why?

Probably because the owner thought he or some member of his family might have a chance of returning to dig them up after ‘the bad guys’ went away. In this case, for 2,600 years, no one came back.

With an iPad, of course, the homeowner could just have shifted his funds to an offshore account, and his heirs could have enriched many lawyers fighting over them.

And then there’s this guy. He’s from the late Bronze Age in Greece, the time around the Trojan War, well over 3,000 years ago. He used to be carrying something. A spear? Maybe he was wearing all kinds of finery as well. And fancy boots, or sandals?

Was he a God? An ancestor? The owner? He’s less than two feet tall, so he must have been on a shelf or table. Why?

I know! He wasn’t holding anything; he’s playing a Kinect game, or maybe PlayStation Move. That’s gotta be it. No one plays Wii games anymore.

Let’s see, a bronze fan with traces of gold foil decoration. Here we have the closest ancient equivalent of central air conditioning. But, everyone must have had fans of some sort, if they wanted them. A basic fan is cheap and simple to make. Did normal people fan themselves on hot days?

What else did they have to beat the heat? Rich Romans could have iced drinks in August if they wanted. And, thinking of keeping cool, Rome had public baths and more clean water per capita than New York City does today. In fact, it’s been said that one of the things that made a city Roman was having public baths.

There weren’t iEverythings way back when, but folks used a zillion tools and trinkets and other items that were long gone through deterioration before there were archaeologists to look for them. Just like the ‘net and iStuff shapes User/Addicts’ world view today, the ancients’ views were shaped by the things they had.

For me, it’s fun to think about that. OK, now you can go back to Angry Birds.

Fiesolian Fun

October 15, 2011 2 comments

There’s a small hill town just north of Florence, Italy.

It’s been there, on and off, since Etruscan times, around 700 BC—long before the Romans founded their colony of Florentia down on the Arno.

Not too long ago, we went there on a day trip from Florence and were happy visitors to this relaxed, pleasant community. At least three things recommend Fiesole besides the serene break from Florentine crowds: the great view of Florence and the Arno plain, the lovely archaeological park, and Brunelleschi’s restored Madonna of Fiesole in the Bandini Museum.

Rome took over here from the Etruscans around 90 BC. And, the small town, with it’s own temples, baths and theater thrived for 400 years. In the Dark Ages, it was a ghost town, fallen to ruin. Some plucky folks resettled before 1000 AD, but Florence crushed them in 1125 as it expanded power through the region. No town to speak of surrounded the cathedral and monastery until the 1900s.

Today, Fiesole is an attractive, upscale suburb of the great city down below. There’s no train station, and the bus takes 45 minutes. Judging from what we experienced, that’s a good thing.

The archaeological area is among the most park-like of any we’ve visited. Moreso even than Ostia Antica, but much, much smaller. It’s easy to take in; under an hour will be plenty for most folks, with another 20 minutes at the small museum on site. And, there’s a modern, glass-walled restaurant overlooking the ruins with decent food. And air-conditioning.

If you have time for a day trip when you next visit Florence, treat yourself and take the inexpensive bus ride up to Fiesole. I don’t think you’ll be sorry.

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