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Photo: Achilleas Zavallis
Will these ancient, mudbrick, high-rise buildings survive the war in Yemen?

When I read fantasies to grandchildren, I explain that although passing through a wardrobe into another reality is not true, the feelings of the characters and the challenges they confront are. In fact, sometimes the issues of our world are made clearer through a fantasy lens.

Some fantasies I read just for my own pleasure. Having just finished Book Two of Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust, I’m thinking about the way selfish monetary interests fuel the real world’s endless Middle East wars. In Pullman’s trilogy, a certain rose oil from the region of the old Silk Road has been found to have priceless properties, and behind-the-scenes power brokers are focused on trying to control it. Rose oil is a stand-in for whatever countries in the real world try to control, frequently another kind of oil.

One of the fiercest Middle East wars wars today is being fought in the small country of Yemen, and the report below is about amazing cultural sites we might not have heard about but for this disaster. I hope that spreading stories about the risks for civilians and cultural treasures will lead to more people demanding peace.

Bethan McKernan writes at the Guardian, “On the edge of the vast Empty Quarter desert that dominates the Arabian peninsula, white and brown towers rise together out of the valley floor like tall sandcastles. Once they welcomed weary caravans traversing the Silk Roads: now they stand as testimony to the ingenuity of a lost civilisation.

“This is the ancient walled city of Shibam, nicknamed the ‘Manhattan of the desert’ by the British explorer Freya Stark in the 1930s, in modern-day Yemen, a country also home to an untold number of other archeological treasures. The kingdom of Saba, ruled by the legendary Queen of Sheba, and many other dynasties of the ancient world rose and fell here, their fortunes linked to Yemen’s position at the crossroads of early frankincense and spice trades between Africa and Asia.

“Today, as a result of Yemen’s complex civil war – now in its fifth year – many of the country’s wonders have been damaged or are under threat. While the destruction pales in comparison to the human cost of the conflict, the country’s rich cultural heritage has also been ravaged. …

“Shibam, a 1,700-year-old settlement in the valley of Hadramawt, has largely escaped direct violence, but is still suffering from years of neglect, despite being a Unesco world heritage site.

“Named for King Shibam Bin Harith Ibn Saba, it is one of the oldest – and still one of the best – examples of vertical construction in the world. In the 16th century, Shibam’s inhabitants found they had run out of space to expand. To compensate, they began to build carefully on a rectangular street grid, and instead of spreading out, they built up …

“The city’s 3,000 residents still largely follow the traditional living pattern, with in some cases up to 40 family members in the same tower. Animals and tools are kept on the ground floor and food is stored on the second. Elderly people live on the third and the fourth is used for entertaining. Higher levels are occupied by more nimble families, with childless newlyweds on the roof. …

“Shibam is largely self-sustaining: its farmers and shopkeepers cater to the small population and many men are employed baking the straw and mud bricks used in construction. As in many Yemeni cities, goats and chickens roam the streets.

“ ‘Lots of young people have left,’ said Ali Abdullah, 28, who was looking after his family’s goats along with his 10-year-old brother, Majid.

‘Shibam is beautiful but there is no reliable money to make here unless they start preserving the buildings again.’ …

“Since Yemen’s Arab Spring revolt in 2011, funding to help preserve the city has dried up, as has the once steady flow of tourists, said Salim Rubiyah, the head of the local association responsible for looking after the public buildings inside Shibam’s walls. …

“Said Rubiyah, ‘I worry that this will be the last generation who are able to make a life here and appreciate the city’s beauty.’

“Elsewhere in Yemen, the story repeats itself. … In Sana’a, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, ancient sites have been razed by Saudi-led coalition bombing [paid for, sadly, by the US]. … Despite Unesco having provided the coalition with a no-strike list of historical sites when the campaign began in 2015, sites such as the Castle of Taiz have been targeted, as well as the Dhamar Museum.

“ ‘We are nervous about the politicisation of heritage and the militarisation of archaeology during the conflict,’ said Sama’a al-Hamdani, director of the Yemen Cultural Institute for Heritage and the Arts. … ‘You can’t be the destroyer and the saviour at the same time.’ ”

More here.

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5becce96818cc.image_Photo: Dani Hemmat
The elongated rocks seen above are called lithophones and are used to make xylophone-like music. Found in Colorado as well as other parts of the world, they are 6,000 years old.

Do you sometimes imagine being a person in a completely different period of history? What would it feel like? One thing I’m pretty sure of: you would behave has if your time period was the only one.

But today, let’s imagine living 6,000 years ago, before the European invasion, in what is now Colorado. Let’s imagine having an urge to make music.

Dani Hemmat writes at the Left Hand Valley Courier, “Colorado has rocks that, well, rock. They are called lithophones, and a local archaeologist who first came across these strangely shaped stones 40 years ago is finally sharing their musical story.

“Longmont archaeologist Marilyn Martorano first laid eyes on the long, baguette-shaped rocks almost four decades ago, as a volunteer at what is now Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in southern Colorado.

“The clearly hand-shaped stones, which had been discovered in the area, were housed in the on-site museum when Martorano first saw them. They were a strange set of artifacts for which no one had yet determined a use. Martorano put them back into their drawer, assuming that someday someone would figure out their purpose.

“Thirty years later, Martorano borrowed the rocks from the museum to study. While many had postulated that the rocks were tools for grinding, the absence of typical marks led Martorano away from that theory. She studied for three years, without success.

“The day before she was to return the rocks to the museum, a friend sent her a video that showed a collection of stones from Paris — stones that looked exactly like those she’d been studying. The rocks, musical stones classified as lithophones, had been found all over the world, but never in Colorado. After watching the video, Martorano started tapping the mysterious stones, and their purpose was suddenly clear. …

“ ‘The rock is very dense, usually volcanic, granite or basalt. In order to be shaped, it can’t be hit too hard or too soft,’ Martorano said.

“She presented some of her findings and artifacts during her open-to-the-public presentation on Nov. 8 at Front Range Community College (FRCC). FRCC instructor and Niwot musician Michael DeLalla had heard about Martorano’s work on public radio, and reached out to her. …

“Martorano demonstrated the different tones achieved by hitting the lithophones with wood, antler and bone. The lithophones produce sounds ranging from the sound of tapping on a crystal glass, to a wooden marimba, to a xylophone.

“ ‘Out of the 22 artifacts we studied, we got a minimum of 57 notes out of them. That’s at least two different notes from each stone,’ Martorano said. …

“While most of the stones Martorano has studied have come from the San Luis Valley area, lithophones have been found in the eastern plains of Colorado and near Salida as well. One Colorado percussionist, Jeff Shook, has found several lithophones while digging post holes.”

More here.

 

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Photo: Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities
A trove of ancient gold coins hidden in a soapstone jar was recently unearthed in Como, Italy.

When you were a kid, you believed in the possibility of finding buried treasure. I, for one, believed so thoroughly, I could be easily taken in. My neighbor Kenneth Jukes was a great one for tall tales, and I remember distinctly being persuaded by him that some charcoal refuse in a stream was actually gold. I took it to my parents who were annoyingly skeptical. My grandmother said to my father, “But what if it is … ?” Kenneth looked sheepish.

Nevertheless, people do find gold in unexpected places. Kids may know things grownups have forgotten.

As Amanda Jackson and Gianluca Mezzofiore report at CNN, “Archaeologists are studying a valuable trove of old Roman coins found on the site of a former theater in northern Italy. The coins, at least 300 of them, date back to the late Roman imperial era and were found in a soapstone jar unearthed in the basement of the Cressoni Theater in Como, north of Milan.

” ‘We do not yet know in detail the historical and cultural significance of the find,’ said Culture Minister Alberto Bonisoli in a press release. ‘But that area is proving to be a real treasure for our archeology. A discovery that fills me with pride.’

“Whoever placed the jar in that place ‘buried it in such a way that in case of danger they could go and retrieve it,’ said Maria Grazia Facchinetti, a numismatist. … ‘They were stacked in rolls similar to those seen in the bank today. … They don’t go beyond 474 AD.’ …

“The ministry did not place a value on the coins. But reports in the Italian media suggest they could be worth millions of dollars.

“The historic Cressoni Theater opened in 1807 before transitioning into a cinema and eventually closing in 1997. The site is not far from the Novum Comum forum area, where other important Roman artifacts were discovered, according to the ministry.”

More at CNN.

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Photo: Martin Lemke
The city of Bassania in Albania is no longer a legend.

There is always more to be discovered. Maybe just under our feet.

That is what some archaeologists found not long ago in Albania.

As Christina Ayele Djossa writes at Atlas Obscura, “Sometimes, rocks are more than crumbled pieces of the earth. Sometimes, they unveil clues about our planet’s ancient past or future. For archaeologists from the Antiquity of Southeastern Europe Research Centre at the University of Warsaw, the rocks in Shkodër, Albania, turned out to be the ruins of the 2,000-year-old lost city of Bassania.

“Back then, Bassania was an economic and military stronghold, part of the Illyrian kingdom, which existed from 400 to 100 B.C. The ancient city contained numerous settlements and fortresses, one of which the archaeologists unearthed.

“What they found were ancient stones of a fortress guarded with large bastions and roughly 10-foot-wide stonewalls and gates. These defensive buildings, according to University of Warsaw professor Piotr Dyczek, are common in Hellenistic architecture. The team confirmed the age of the ruins by analyzing nearby coins and ceramic vessel fragments, which dated back to the time of the Illyrian kingdom. …

“But this city, and the Illyrian kingdom, ultimately fell to a Roman invasion in the beginning of the first century. This may be why it took so long for archaeologists to find Bassania. … The Polish and Albanian archaeologists also speculate that the location’s geological infrastructure has something to do with it. The ruins are found on a ‘hill locally called “lips of viper” in [the village of] Bushat, a few miles from Shkodër,’ wrote Dyczek. After years of erosion, the stone remnants look like a part of the sandstones and conglomerates that make up the hill. So to a passerby, it might look like a bunch of stones, not a structure made by humans.”

Now I want to know why any hill would be called “lips of viper.” Always more discoveries to be made.

More at Atlas Obscura, here.

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Photo: Vincent Francigny / Sedeinga archaeological mission
A large cache of recently discovered texts offers insight into one of Africa’s oldest written languages.

Archaeologists, whether professionals or amateurs like those in a recent post, keep discovering new wonders. They remind us never to make the mistake of thinking that everything has been discovered.

Jason Daley writes at Smithsonian magazine, “Archaeologists in Sudan have uncovered a large cache of rare stone inscriptions at the Sedeinga necropolis along the Nile River. The collection of funerary texts are inscribed in Meroitic, one of Africa’s earliest written languages.

“As Charles Q. Choi at LiveScience reports, the find is full of potential. … The archaeological site of Sedeinga — once part of the kingdoms of Napata and Meroe (which were jointly referred to as the ‘Kush kingdom’ by their ancient Egyptian neighbors) –- includes the remains of 80 small brick pyramids and more than 100 tombs created during a cultural period from about 700 B.C. to roughly 300 C.E.

” ‘The necropolis’ miniature pyramids were initially inspired by Egypt’s massive monuments, but during a later time, Meroitics refashioned the tombs and pyramids to include chapels and chambers where they could worship the dead. …

“In addition to the funerary texts, archaeologists also found pieces of decorated and inscribed sandstone. … One of the more interesting new finds from the dig is a lintel, or structural beam from a chapel with a depiction of Maat, the Egyptian goddess of order, equity, and peace. This is the first time archaeologists have found a depiction of Maat with black African features.

“Another find of note, a funerary stele, describes a high-ranking woman by the name of Lady Maliwarase and details her connections with royalty. Similarly, a lintel uncovered during the excavation explores the lineage of another woman of high rank, Adatalabe, who counts a royal prince among her blood line.

“These kinds of inscriptions are sure to help historians continue to piece together the story of Meroe. For instance, as Francigny tells Choi, the aforementioned finds reveal that in Meroe kingdom matrilineality — the women’s lineage — was important enough to record.”

More here.

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Image: Tom McShane
The author of those lines is an unusual 10th century figure — Shmuel HaNagid, prime minister of the kingdom of Granada in Spain, head of both Granada’s Muslim army
and Andalusia’s Jewish community.

The force of history works in mysterious ways. Here is a story about how an ancient Arabic poetic tradition was preserved because Jewish poets valued it.

Benjamin Ramm reports at the BBC, “On 9 December 1499, the citizens of Granada awoke to a scene of devastation: the smouldering remains of over a million Arabic manuscripts, burnt on the orders of the Spanish Inquisition. …

“[Years before], as much of Europe languished in the Dark Ages, the Iberian peninsula was a cultural oasis, the brightest beacon of civilisation. Under the Umayyad dynasty, the caliphate of Al-Andalus stretched from Lisbon to Zaragoza, and centred on the Andalusian cities of Córdoba, Granada and Seville. From the 8th Century, the caliphate oversaw a period of extraordinary cross-cultural creativity known as La Convivencia (the Coexistence). …

“Among the Muslim poets of Al-Andalus, there was a concerted attempt to rediscover and reinvent the literary forms of Arabic, sophisticated and lyrical, rooted in the concept of fasaaha (clarity, elegance). The fire in Granada destroyed part of this heritage, but it survives in an unexpected form – in an imaginative body of Hebrew poetry, which illustrates the extent of cross-cultural exchange.

“Peter Cole, the foremost translator of Hebrew poetry from Al-Andalus, argues in his book The Dream of the Poem that a major legacy of the Moorish writers was to inspire Jewish poets to emulate their work. … The innovations were initiated in the 10th Century by Dunash Ben Labrat. …

“Controversially, Ben Labrat adopted Arabic poetic metre, and was accused of ‘destroying the holy tongue’ and ‘bringing calamity upon his people’. But the Hebrew renaissance that followed produced some of the most beautiful poetry in the language, and the period became known as the ‘Golden Age’ of Iberian Jewish culture. …

“At a time of intercommunal tension, it is tempting to idealise this Muslim-Jewish period of mutual flourishing. There are critics who argue against the notion of La Convivencia – some have called it a ‘myth.’ … Documentation about communal relations during this period is scant, [and] the extent of ‘coexistence’ continues to be a subject of passionate disputation. …

“The kingdom of Granada was the last territory to fall to the Christian Reconquest in 1492, after which Jews were forcibly converted or expelled. Saadia Ibn Danaan, a rabbi who wrote prose in Arabic and poetry in Hebrew, transmitted the tradition to North Africa.” Read more.

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I don’t know what it is about stories like this, but they really float my boat.

Here is an ordinary woman, a hairdresser who loves hairdressing, who tried to recreate an ancient hairstyle and ended up making a discovery that got published in a scholarly journal. What it took was being openminded, curious, and persistent.

As Abigail Pesta writes in the Wall Street Journal, Janet Stephens tried to re-create on a mannequin a hairdo she had seen on a bust of the Roman empress Julia Domna at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.

” ‘I couldn’t get it to hold together,’ she says. Turning to the history books for clues, she learned that scholars widely believed the elaborately teased, towering and braided styles of the day were wigs.

“She didn’t buy that. Through trial and error she found that she could achieve the hairstyle by sewing the braids and bits together, using a needle. She dug deeper into art and fashion history books, looking for references to stitching.

“In 2005, she had a breakthrough. Studying translations of Roman literature, Ms. Stephens says, she realized the Latin term ‘acus’ was probably being misunderstood in the context of hairdressing. Acus has several meanings including a ‘single-prong hairpin’ or ‘needle and thread,’ she says. Translators generally went with ‘hairpin.’

“The single-prong pins couldn’t have held the intricate styles in place. But a needle and thread could. It backed up her hair hypothesis.

“In 2007, she sent her findings to the Journal of Roman Archaeology. ‘It’s amazing how much chutzpah you have when you have no idea what you’re doing,’ she says. ‘I don’t write scholarly material. I’m a hairdresser.’

“John Humphrey, the journal’s editor, was intrigued. ‘I could tell even from the first version that it was a very serious piece of experimental archaeology which no scholar who was not a hairdresser—in other words, no scholar—would have been able to write,’ he says.

“He showed it to an expert, who found the needle-and-thread theory ‘entirely original,’ says Mr. Humphrey, whose own scholarly work has examined arenas for Roman chariot racing.

“Ms. Stephens’ article was edited and published in 2008, under the headline ‘Ancient Roman Hairdressing: On (Hair)Pins and Needles.’ ”

More.

Photographs: Janet Stephens

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