Saturday, January 31, 2009

Etruscan Treasures from Tuscany new exhibit at SMU museum in Dallas

Wonderful Etruscan grave goods loaned from the Florence Archaeological Museum in Italy are on display now at the Meadows Museum of Southern Methodist University in Dallas. The exhibit runs through May 17. Once again, because of a conflicting schedule, I won't be able to take the opportunity to view these exceptional objects!! Very frustrating!

[Image - Ritual Cart, second quarter of 7th c. B.C., Bronze. From Vetulonia, "Circolo dei Lebeti." Florence, National Archaeological Museum]

If any of you can make it to Dallas to see these treasures, be sure to stop by the Dallas Museum of Art as well as they have a very diverse Greco-Roman gallery including a large collection of gold Etruscan jewelry like these 5th-3rd century BCE gold grappolo earrings.

The Florence Archaeological Museum holds what is arguably the finest collection of Etruscan art in the world, and some of the choicest objects from its collection will come to the Meadows. These extraordinary objects illustrate every aspect of Etruscan life and afterlife over almost a thousand years. The Etruscans were ruled by a theocratic elite that controlled every aspect of Etruscan life; priest/magistrates were believed to be skilled at interpreting the will of the gods. The exhibition will include ritual objects, such as votive bronzes offered to the gods in sanctuaries, or objects used for interpreting the will of the gods, such as the still-mysterious Magliano lead disc. The exhibition also will include an entire temple pediment—the terracotta decoration for the front of an Etruscan temple—showing that the Etruscans were masters at working terracotta as well as bronze (the Etruscan skill at creating decorative objects in bronze was much admired by the Greeks, and adapted by the Romans). Additionally, a multitude of objects will be shown from Etruscan tombs: sarcophagi and ash urns, guardian animals and demons, as well as the splendid gold, silver, bronze, ivory, and ceramic objects that were deposited in the tombs of the wealthy. Especially impressive is the gold jewelry, so technically advanced that it is difficult to reproduce today.
Fifteen years of excavation at the Etruscan site of
Poggio Colla will also be displayed in an accompanying exhibit, New Light on the Etruscans. Overseen by Dr. P. Gregory Warden, a classical archaeologist and University Distinguished Professor of Art History at SMU, and Dr. Michael L. Thomas, archaeologist and Senior Research Associate at The University of Texas at Austin, the site, first excavated from 1968 to 1972 by Dr. Francesco Nicosia, the former Superintendent of Archaeology in Tuscany, was reopened in 1995.

"Archaeological evidence suggests that Poggio Colla was occupied from as early as 650 B.C.E. until at least 187 B.C.E. The site centers on the acropolis, a roughly rectangular plateau of one and a half acres at the summit of Poggio Colla. Excavations have found strong evidence that the acropolis was a sanctuary and have identified a building and an altar associated with the structure. The building’s form evolved from a modest hut-like structure in the seventh century B.C.E. to a monumental complex with stone foundations and tile roofs by the time of its destruction in the second century B.C.E. Since 1995, excavations have unearthed five stone column bases and other parts of a monumental building that are a testament to the scale and importance of this rural sanctuary at the frontier of the Etruscan world...

...Excavators discovered a large circular pit, at the center of which was placed a sandstone cylinder, possibly the top of a votive column or altar. Carefully situated near the cylinder were two sandstone statue bases, the larger of which is inscribed with the name of the aristocratic donor. Buried alongside these objects were a strand of gold wire, a purposely broken bronze implement, and two bronze bowls that had been used to pour ritual libations, as well as the bones of a sacrificial animal. This unique religious context allows us to reconstruct the actual rituals and actions of the priest/magistrate who presided over the ceremonies....

...a habitation and center of ceramic production [was] discovered in a field below the acropolis of Poggio Colla. The structure includes a room with a circular hearth surrounded by cooking vessels. A terraced outdoor work space preserved several carbonized post holes, perhaps the remnants of wooden drying racks surrounding a large fire pit. At the southern end of this terrace, set into a pit up against a terrace wall, excavation uncovered a deposit of unusual stands of a type usually used for banqueting. At the opposite side of the building were the remnants of three kilns. These teardrop-shaped kilns were used to produce simple fine-ware bowls of at least three different sizes."
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Monday, January 26, 2009

23 Knives - CSI: Ancient Rome?

I saw this blurb about a play written about Julius Caesar's autopsy and couldn't help but wish I could take a quick trip to New York to see it!

"The mission of Resonance Ensemble is to present classic plays in conjunction with modern plays inspired by them. This season they change things up a bit, by presenting George Bernard Shaw's classic Caesar and Cleopatra along with the premiere of Christopher Boal's 23 Knives; both plays are inspired by Shakespeare's works.

23 Knives is based on the real-life figure of Antistius (Patrick Melville), whose only surviving record in history is of having been the man to perform the autopsy of Julius Caesar after he was assassinated, and who presented his findings as testimony in front of the Roman forum (from which comes our term "forensics").

Boals spins an amusingly modern take on the piece- at times it feels much like an episode of CSI:Ancient Rome. In his version of events, Marcus Antonius (Ryan Tramont) has chosen Antistius for the job of discovering which of the many stab wounds actually killed Caesar, because Antistius had won a court case by getting a murderer acquitted. But, unbeknownst to Marcus Antonius, Antistius is a fraud- a Greek who, pretending to be a physician, came to Rome when Caesar gave an edict to allow knowledgeable Greek physicians room to live there. With the help of his slave Janus (Todd Alan Crain), he sets about actually performing a real autopsy, supervised in part by Musa (Brian D. Coats), another slave who actually knows something about medicine, or so it seems. Like any good con man in fiction, Antistius begins to take on the nobler qualities of the character he pretends to be, beginning to feel a duty to the truth, and when he discovers unsettling evidence of even fouler play than anticipated, won't lie to the forum in accordance with the official story Marcus Antonius would like to have spread." - Broadway World
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Friday, January 16, 2009

Chemical Warfare in Roman Syria

Interesting article about chemical warfare in Roman Syria was posted by the University of Leicester:

"A re­search­er has iden­ti­fied what he says may be the old­est ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ev­i­dence for chem­i­cal war­fare: a poison-gas at­tack that killed about 20 Ro­man sol­diers in the wan­ing years of their Em­pire.

The grim events occurred in a mine at the city of Du­ra-Europos, Syr­ia, around 256 A.D., ac­cord­ing to ar­chae­o­lo­g­ist Si­mon James of the Uni­ver­s­ity of Leices­ter, U.K.

The city, on the riv­er Eu­phra­tes, had been con­quered by the Ro­mans, who in­stalled a large gar­ri­son. The city lat­er suf­fered a fe­ro­cious siege by an ar­my from the pow­er­ful new Sasa­nian Per­sian em­pire. The dra­mat­ic sto­ry is known en­tirely from ar­chae­o­log­i­cal re­mains; no an­cient text de­scribes it, James said.

Ex­cava­t­ions dur­ing the 1920s-30s, re­newed in re­cent years, have re­sulted in spec­tac­u­lar and grue­some dis­cov­er­ies, he added.

The Sasa­nians used the full range of an­cient siege tech­niques to breach the city. These in­clud­ed build­ing “mi­nes” or tun­nels un­derneath the city walls in an at­tempt to make them col­lapse.

Ro­man de­fend­ers re­sponded by build­ing “counter-mines” to thwart the at­tackers, James said. In one of these nar­row, low gal­ler­ies, a pile of bod­ies—a­bout 20 Ro­man sol­diers still with their weapon­s—turned up in the 1930s. James re­cently re­vis­ited the site to un­der­stand how the war­riors died.

“It is ev­i­dent that, when mine and coun­ter­mine met, the Ro­mans lost the en­su­ing strug­gle,” he said. “Care­ful anal­y­sis of the dis­po­si­tion of the corpses shows they had been stacked at the mouth of the coun­ter­mine by the Per­sians,” he added. The Per­sians had used their vic­tims “to cre­ate a wall of bod­ies and shields, keep­ing Ro­man counterat­tack at bay while they set fire to the coun­ter­mine, col­laps­ing it.”

“This ex­plains why the bod­ies were where they were found. But how did they die? For the Per­sians to kill 20 men in a space less than two me­ters high or wide, and about 11 me­ters long, re­quired su­per­hu­man com­bat pow­ers—or some­thing more in­sid­i­ous.”

Finds from the Ro­man tun­nel re­vealed that the Per­sians used and sul­fur crys­tals and bi­tu­men, a nat­u­ral, flam­ma­ble, tar-like sub­stance, to get it burn­ing, he added. These chem­i­cals pro­vid­ed the vi­tal clue, James said: when ig­nit­ed, they give off dense clouds of chok­ing gas­es.

The Per­sians evidently “heard the Ro­mans tun­nelling,” said James, “and pre­pared a nas­ty sur­prise for them.” When the Ro­mans broke through, the Sasa­nians ap­par­ently set fire to the chem­i­cals and pumped the gases in the Ro­mans’ di­rec­tion us­ing bel­lows, he added.

“The Ro­man as­sault par­ty were un­con­scious in sec­onds, dead in min­utes. Use of such smoke gen­er­a­tors in siege-mines is ac­tu­ally men­tioned in clas­si­cal texts, and it is clear from the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ev­i­dence at Du­ra that the Sasa­nian Per­sians were as knowl­edge­a­ble in siege war­fare as the Ro­mans; they surely knew of this grim tac­tic.”

Iron­ic­ally, this Per­sian mine failed to de­stroy the walls, but the Sasa­nians some­how broke in­to the city an­y­way, James said. He has ex­ca­vat­ed a row of cat­a­pult bolts, ready to use by the wall of the Ro­man camp in­side the city, rep­re­sent­ing the gar­ri­son’s last stand dur­ing fi­nal street fight­ing.

The de­fend­ers and in­hab­i­tants were slaugh­tered or de­ported to Per­sia, the city aban­doned for­ev­er, leav­ing its grue­some se­crets un­dis­turbed un­til mod­ern ar­chae­o­log­i­cal re­search be­gan to re­veal them. James pre­sented his find­ings at the meet­ing of the Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal In­sti­tute of Amer­i­ca in Phil­a­del­phia last week.

I found this bit about Dr. James paper on the subject as well:

Death in the Dark, Blood in the Streets: New Insights into the Siege and Fall of Dura-Europos
Simon James, University of Leicester

Around A.D. 254, anticipating renewed invasion of Syria by the Sasanians, the Roman garrison of Dura-Europos massively strengthened the city’s defences, intending to hold it at all costs. The Sasanian attack came c. 256, in a ferocious siege known entirely through archaeology: no historical account survives. This involved the full range of known siege techniques, including artillery, an assault ramp, mines, and countermines. The mine complex around Tower 19 has provided especially gruesome testimony of underground combat, which the speaker argues included the earliest archaeological evidence for “gas warfare.” Other recent research has identified evidence for street fighting during the fall of the city to the Persians, and of the fate of the civil population. Permanent abandonment of the site meant these dramatic remains lay undisturbed until its rediscovery in 1920. Dura exemplifies the potential of archaeology for investigating ancient warfare. Continuing work by the speaker and others also illustrates the value of archival reexamination of early excavations, and of new, limited-scale, targeted fieldwork at “old” sites.

Some additional info on the study of the Roman base:

"Building on his recently-completed study of the spectacular finds of Roman and Sasanian military equipment from Dura, Simon James is now studying other aspects of the Roman military presence in the city. This includes some further work on the remains from the siege itself, and a primarily archaeological study of the Roman military base in the city. In contrast to the West where the imperial armies were normally housed in custom-built fortified bases, in the East urban basing of garrisons was routine. Dura provides the only archaeologically accessible, and reasonably well explored example of such an urban base from the principate." - More

And a nice image of a fresco discovered at Dura-Europos:

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