Sunday, September 26, 2010

"Ice Pack" archaeologists race to preserve artifacts revealed by global warming

 Dr. Patrick Hunt of Stanford University, who is attempting to find Hannibal's route over the Alps, encountered not even snow flurries this season when his team began their work.  Dr. Hunt has directed Stanford’s Alpine Archaeology Project since 1994, conducting high altitude research in the Great St. Bernard pass between Switzerland and Italy. In 1996 he found the 9000 ft. high quarry for the Temple of Jupiter in the Fenetre de Ferret pass adjacent to the Great St. Bernard Pass and directed a team that found a Roman silver coin hoard in the Swiss Alps in 2003.

[Photo: Dr. Patrick Hunt examines a stone that may have been traversed by Hannibal's army accompanied by elephants in 218 BCE in the Great St. Bernard Pass between Switzerland and Italy.  Image courtesy of the Alpine Archaeology Project]

"This is the first summer since 1994 when we began our field excavations above 8,000 ft that we have not been inundated by even one day of rain, sleet and snow flurries," Hunt observed.

Dr. Hunt invited me to accompany him and his team into the Alps a couple of years ago, but I had to decline because of health concerns.  I certainly never imagined that global warming, as catastrophic as it is for the planet as a whole, would offer such an unprecedented opportunity to archaeologists seeking artifacts preserved at the higher elevations.

A team led by Norwegian archaeologists Trond Vihovde and Elling Utvik Wammer have discovered hundreds of items produced by pre-Viking cultures in the wake of a melting Juvfonna ice sheet in Norway.

Bows and arrows, specialised hunting sticks – used to drive reindeer towards archers – and even a 3,400-year-old leather shoe have been found at the site in the Jotunheimen mountains, home of the "ice giants" of Norse mythology. These finds have been logged with a GPS satellite marker before being taken for examination. From these measurements, archaeologists reckon people using hunting sticks – each about a metre long with a flapping piece of wood attached by connecting thread – were set up about two metres apart. They then drove reindeer toward hunters who needed to get within 60ft of an animal to have a chance of hitting one with an iron-tipped arrow.

Such a hunt would require 15 to 20 people, Piloe adds, indicating that Norway had an organised society around the start of the dark ages, 1,500 years ago. - The Guardian
The biggest problem now is that fragile artifacts, if not recovered and properly conserved, quickly deteriorate and even disintegrate.  We may not have enough "ice pack" archaeologists to reclaim these artifacts before they are gone forever.  

I fervently hope Dr. Hunt is successful in his search for evidence of Hannibal's crossing.  Perhaps he will at least find remains of some of the elephants since most died crossing the mountains.  I found the following video about Hannibal's war elephants produced by the BBC on YouTube.  I was surprised to learn in this video that the Carthaginians used to feed their elephants wine just before a battle to make them easier to enrage.  I'm not too sure that was necessarily a good thing since war elephants were so unpredictable.

Ten Discoveries That Rewrote History   Alpine Archaeology   Hannibal, Carthage, and the Punic Wars   The Ghosts of Cannae: Hannibal and the Darkest Hour of the Roman Republic 
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Monday, September 13, 2010

Pompeii focus of new lectures series from The Teaching Company

When I received the latest catalog of courses from The Teaching Company I saw that they are now offering the 24-lecture series "Pompeii: Daily Life in an Ancient Roman City".  Pompeii has intrigued me since I was a young girl back in the 50s.  I don't even remember when I first learned about it since classical history was not covered in the school curriculum of my small hometown.  Besides being mesmerized by images of the beautiful frescoes, mosaics and sculptures that had been recovered from the site, I was admittedly rather morbidly drawn to the images I had seen of the plaster casts made of the hapless residents who met tortuous deaths that fateful day in 79 CE.  

For some time I thought Pompeii was a recent archaeological discovery, not realizing that it was actually rediscovered clear back in 1599 CE. I could hardly believe that despite the more enlightened thinking of the Renaissance period, architect Domenico Fontana, appointed to resume excavations in Pompeii, after working on St. Peter's under Pope Sextus V and erecting the massive Egyptian obelisk in front of the cathedral, actually chose to cover the find near Naples back over because of the "shocking" nature of the sexually explicit images and artifacts that he found there.  Wholesale plundering of the site began in 1748 under the auspices of  the King of Naples, Charles of Bourbon.

It was not until Giuseppe Fiorelli took charge of the excavations  in 1860, though, that techniques were developed to create those casts of the victims of Pompeii by pouring plaster into voids in the ash layer that were found to contain human bones.  

This bronze sculpture of Eros is contorted
by the heat from the volcanic blast of
Vesuvius.  Photographed at Boscoreale
by Mary Harrsch.
I had never seen any of the casts myself until only recently when I attended the "Pompeii: Stories From An Eruption" exhibit at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. It included a number of casts, the most poignant being that of a child killed when a staircase collapsed in the House of the Golden Bracelet. 

When I finally got a chance to visit Italy for the first time in 2005, my friends and I rented a car and drove down to Pompeii for a day of exploration.  We entered through the main gate and began exploring the necropolis before we got to the remains of the villas.  Most of the artwork I had read about had been removed for conservation and display, much of it in the Museo Archaeologico di Napoli in downtown Naples so it was a bit of a treasure hunt searching for any small frescoes or particularly interesting mosaics that had been left behind.  

The bronze sculptures of a wild boar surrounded by hunting hounds that you see in the courtyard of the House of the Citharist as well as the bronze faun that you see in situ at the House of the Faun are actually reproductions but they help you envision the respective villas in their original state.

The infamous fresco of the well-endowed Priapus is still there though (or it was at least as late as 2005). It was smaller than I thought since most television programs that feature it normally zoom in for a startling closeup. Apparently, it was plastered over at one point by excavators for modesty's sake and was not rediscovered until 1998 when it was revealed by a heavy rain.  As for human casts, I saw only two victims on display in the site itself at the time.

When I returned to Naples in 2007, I entered Pompeii through a side entrance and quickly found myself exploring one of the public baths.  Somehow I had missed it on my first visit.  I also had a chance to visit Boscoreale, a neighborhood about a kilometer north of Pompeii where aristocrats lived in luxurious villas and a villa rustica is being currently excavated.  The museum at Boscoreale is small but quite interesting.  There I saw casts of a poor watch dog and a boar caught by Vesuvius' blast as well as a round loaf of Roman bread burnt to charcoal. 

In 2009, I was thrilled to attend the exhibit "Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture Around The Bay of Naples" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  I learned about the resurgence of archaism in Roman art that was discovered in Pompeii and the other villas surrounding Vesuvius and wrote an article about it for Heritage Key.  If that exhibit is still making the rounds I would highly recommend visiting it if it should make an appearance in a museum near you.

I am sure the new lecture series will point out even more details that I've probably overlooked and give me background information on the structures I admired there.  The lectures are presented by Dr. Steven Tuck, Associate Professor of the Classics and Art History at Miami University.

"After earning his B.A. in History and Classics at Indiana University, he received his Ph.D. in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. He held the postdoctoral Arthur and Joyce Gordon Fellowship in Latin Epigraphy at The Ohio State University.

An esteemed teacher, Professor Tuck was named a University Distinguished Scholar in 2005 and an Outstanding Professor in 2007, 2008, and 2009 at Miami University. He has served as a national lecturer for the Archaeological Institute of America and was a regular lecturer for the Continuing Education program at the University of Evansville, presenting lectures on topics including ancient social and political history, and archaeology.

Professor Tuck is the author of many articles featured in international journals on topics such as the spectacle schedule at Pompeii, the decorative program of the amphitheater at Capua, and triumphal imagery across the ancient Roman world. He is the author of Latin Inscriptions in the Kelsey Museum: The Dennison and De Criscio Collections." - The Teaching Company

The lectures cover the history of the area clear back to its early settlement by the Etruscans, as well as the region's geology and commercial development including Pompeii's thriving wool industry and viticulture.  Dr. Tuck explores the upper class homes including the Villa of the Papiri as well as the House of the Vettii and the House of the Tragic Poet.  He also spends one lecture on the Praedia of Julia Felix, a collection of gardens, baths and shops that served as sort of a Roman country club of the period.  These remains are some of the most complete that I saw in Pompeii and some of the gardens have now been replanted by site restorationists.  When I saw the fresco of a thoughtful Roman woman (above) from the Villa di Guilia Felice in Pompeii at the Museo Archaeologico di Napoli, I wondered if it was a portrait of Julia herself thinking about all the money she was making with her various enterprises!

A slideshow of my images from Pompeii and the art recovered from Vesuvian ash:

Learn more about Pompeii!

The Complete Pompeii   Pompeii: The History, Life and Art of the Buried City   Pompeii (The Roman World)   Ancient Mysteries - Pompeii: Buried Alive   The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found    Pompeii: The Living City  Bodies From the Ash: Life and Death in Ancient Pompeii   Pompeii: Public and Private Life (Revealing Antiquity)   Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town   Pompeii - The Last Day/Colosseum - A Gladiator's Story
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Sunday, September 5, 2010

Marine archaeologists target possible Roman remains off coast of Montenegro

Marine archaeologists have begun work on a site that may prove to be a submerged Greek or Roman temple off the coast of Montenegro.

An international archaeological team has launched a search of a Montenegrin bay after a 16-year-old British schoolboy last year uncovered the submerged remains of what could be a lost, ancient temple while snorkelling in the Adriatic.

Archaeologist Charles le Quesne, conducting the first searches of the stones off Maljevik beach found last summer by his son says:

‘most likely that they are medieval, from a local quarry and possibly intended for use in the nearby Fransiscan Monastery at Ratac near Bar’. He added that the team would also look at nearby Bigovica Bay, an ancient harbour just south of Bar with a series of wrecks dating from the Second Century BC to late antiquity. - Balkan Insight

The first recorded settlers of present-day Montenegro were Illyrians, the Docleata.

Bronze plate depicting llyrian warriors in combat (280BC)
from southern Albania.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia user
Illyria appears in Greco-Roman historiography from the 4th century BC. The Illyrians formed several kingdoms in the central Balkans, and the first known Illyrian king was Bardyllis. Illyrian kingdoms were often at war with ancient Macedonia, and the Illyrian pirates were also a significant danger to neighbouring peoples.

In the Illyrian Wars of 229 BC, 219 BC and 168 BC Rome overran the Illyrian settlements and suppressed the piracy that had made the Adriatic unsafe for Italian commerce. There were three campaigns, the first against Queen Teuta the second against Demetrius of Pharos and the third against Gentius. The initial campaign in 229 BC marks the first time that the Roman Navy crossed the Adriatic Sea to launch an invasion.

The Roman Republic subdued the Illyrians during the 2nd century BC. An Illyrian revolt was crushed under Augustus, resulting in the division of Illyria in the provinces of Pannonia in the north and Dalmatia in the south.

The Roman province of Illyricum or Illyris Romana or Illyris Barbara or Illyria Barbara replaced most of the region of Illyria. It stretched from the Drilon river in modern Albania to Istria (Croatia) in the west and to the Sava river (between Bosnia and Herzegovina and northern Croatia) in the north. Salona (Solin near modern Split in Croatia) functioned as its capital. The regions which it included changed through the centuries though a great part of ancient Illyria remained part of Illyricum as a province while south Illyria became Epirus Nova.

According to the Romans, the Illyrians were tall and well-built. Herodianus writes that "Pannonians are tall and strong always ready for a fight and to face danger but slow witted"  Remains recovered from the period indicate Illyrians were of only average height, however.

The cult of the dead played an important role in the lives of the Illyrians, which is seen in their carefully made burials and burial ceremonies, as well as the richness of the burial sites. In the northern parts of the Balkans, there existed a long tradition of cremation and burial in shallow graves, while in the southern parts, the dead were buried in large stone, or earth tumuli (natively called gromile) that in Herzegovina reached monumental sizes, more than 50 meters wide and 5 meters high. The Japodian tribe (found from Istria in Croatia to Bihać in Bosnia) had an affinity for decoration wearing heavy, oversized necklaces made out of yellow, blue or white glass paste, and large bronze fibulas, as well as spiral bracelets, diadems and helmets out of bronze. Small sculptures out of jade in form of archaic Ionian plastic are also characteristically Japodian.

Human sacrifice also played a role in the lives of the Illyrians. Arrian records the chieftain Cleitus the Illyrian as sacrificing three boys, three girls and three rams just before his battle with Alexander the Great.

The Illyrians were influenced by the Celts in many cultural and material aspects and some of them were Celticized, especially the tribes in Dalmatia and the Pannonians. Illyrian chiefs wore bronze torques around their necks much like the Celts.  The Illyrian town of Rhizon (Risan, Montenegro) had its own protector called Medauras depicted as carrying a lance and riding on horseback.

Slavs colonized the area in the 5th and 6th centuries, forming a semi-independent principality called Duklja, that was involved in Balkan medieval politics with ties to Rascia and Byzantium and to a lesser extent Bulgaria.  Duklja gained its independence from the Byzantine Empire in 1042. In the next few decades Duklja expanded its territory to the neighbouring Rascia and Bosnia and also became recognized as a Kingdom. Its power started declining at the end of the 11th century and by 1186, it was conquered by the Serbian Empire. - Compendium of Wikipedia sources

Learn more about it:

Archaeology of Roman Pannonia
Pannonia and Upper Moesia: History of the Middle Danube Provinces of the Roman Empire (The Provinces of the Roman Empire)

Piracy in the Ancient World   Piracy: The Complete History (General Military)   The Underwater Dig: Introduction to Marine Archaeology

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Saturday, September 4, 2010

Sophocles to "Elektra"-fy audiences attending Greek theater exhibit at the Getty

Votive mask of a Satyr Greek made in
the eastern Mediterranean
300-100 BCE
Photographed at the Getty
by Mary Harrsch.

Elaborate costumes, complex choreography, scenic architecture, and the iconic masks of tragedy and comedy depicted in the visual arts of ancient Greece from the 5th to 1st century BCE are the focus of the new exhibit at the Getty Villa, "The Art of Ancient Greek Theater" on display now through January 3, 2011. 

The exhibition is being presented in conjunction with the Getty Villa’s annual outdoor theater performance. This year's production will be Sophocles’ Elektra, directed by Carey Perloff, artistic director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, with a new translation commissioned from Timberlake Wertenbaker. Performances are scheduled Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings, September 9 through October 2, 2010.  A two-day international scholarly conference that will further explore the themes of the exhibition will be held September 24-25, 2010.  In addition, the Villa Theater Lab will present Understanding a Satyr Play: The Trackers on November 19 and 20, 2010.

Scene from "Seven Against Thebes" by Aeschylus
depicted on a red-figure storage jar produced
in Campania, Italy about 340 BCE.  Photographed
at the Getty Villa by Mary Harrsch.
“Ancient art and theater share a strong and enduring connection–one that is inspired
by mythology and the social, cultural, and political realities of life in ancient Greece and Rome,” says David Bomford, acting director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. “With this exhibition and our annual production in the outdoor theater, we are delighted to bring ancient theater alive at the Getty Villa and invite our visitors to join us and discover how those themes found in ancient times persist today.”

In addition to the Getty's own collection of Athenian and South Italian vases, marble reliefs, figurines and masks, the exhibit will draw from major collections in Denmark, Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, The Netherlands, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and elsewhere in the United States.

I found a humorous description of the history of Greek comedy by Brander Matthews in "The Development of Drama" published in 1912:

"Comedy seems to have sprung into being at the vintage-festival of the Greek villagers, when all was jovial gaiety and jesting license in honor of Dionysus. "On public occasions," so a recent historian of the origin of art has reminded us, "the common mood, whether joy or sorrow, is often communicated even to those who were originally possessed by the opposite feeling; and so powerful is infection of excitement that a sober man will join in the antics of his drunken comrades--yeilding to a drunkenness by induction." And these seasons of contagious revelry were exactly suited to a development of the double desire of mankind for personation--one man seeking to get outside of his own individuality and to assume a character not his own, while another finds his satisfaction rather in the observation of this simulation, in being a sympathetic spectator when actions are represented not proper to the actor's own character.

So it came to pass that there were companies of young fellows, often disguised grossly as beasts or birds, who broke out into riotous phallic dances, enjoyed equally by those who looked on and by those who took part. In time the dancers grouped themselves in rival bands, the leaders of which indulged in a give-and-take of banter and repartee, certainly vulgar and personal, and probably as direct and artless as the chop-logic dialogues of the medieval quack-doctor and his jack-pudding, or of the modern ring-master and circus clown. The happy improvisation of this carnival spirit which happened to delight the crowd one year would surely be repeated the next year deliberately, perhaps only to evoke an unexpected retort with which it would thereafter be conjoined in what might prove to be the nucleus of a comic scene of some length. Thus a species would tend to appear, as the tradition was handed down from season to season, enriching itself constantly with the accretions of every venturesome jester. However frail this framework might be, it would be likely to contain a rough realization of the more obvious types of rural character; and almost from the beginning there would be abundant and irreverent parody of heroic legend and of religious myth." - Brander Matthews, The Development of Drama
  Perhaps because of its riotous origins, Greek theater, like other aspects of Greek culture, was only tentatively embraced by the Romans.  Until the Theater of Pompey was built in 55 BCE, theaters were temporary structures of wood that were erected before scheduled performances and torn down afterwards. The construction of two stone temples had been attempted in 179 and 174 BCE but never completed.  Then a third temple was begun in 154 BCE but the consul P. Scipio Nasica, declared the structure to be "undesirable" and "harmful to public morals" (Livy, Periochae 48.68) and had the construction torn down.  Even in the late Republic, Pompey was forced to disguise his theater as a temple to Venus. Until 145 BCE audiences were not even allowed to sit while attending a theatrical performance.

A decree of the Roman Senate forbade sitting at theatrical performances "so that the manly behavior of standing might be known as proper to the Roman people for the relaxation of their spirits (Valerius Maximus, Memorable Words and Deeds 2.4.2)." - Introduction to Greek and Roman Comedy
There were several key differences in both the construction of  theaters and in the structure of the performances presented to Roman audiences.

The Roman theater, although similar in form to the Greek theater, developed a magnificence and splendor in keeping with Rome's imperial status.  This grandeur is most evident in the stage building, which was raised to the height of the seating area.  Thus the stage building was normally three stories high in comparison with the two stories of the skene in later Greek theaters.   The orchestra in the Roman theater for the most part became a seating area because of the virtual disappearance of the chorus from Roman drama." - Introduction to Greek and Roman Comedy
I found a rather anti-Roman comparison of Greek and Roman theater written by Wilhelm Schlegel in 1904.  Like many Victorian-era classicists of the period, he appears to idolize the cultural contributions of the Greeks and consider the Roman poets and playwrights little more than copyists!

Other deviations from the Grecian mode of representation were also sanctioned, which can hardly be considered as improvements. At the very first introduction of the regular drama, Livius Andronicus, a Greek by birth, and the first tragic poet and actor of Rome, in his monodies (lyrical pieces which were sung by a single person, and not by the whole chorus), separated the song from the mimetic dancing, the latter only remaining to the actor, in whose stead a boy, standing beside the flute-player, accompanied him with his voice. Among the Greeks, in better times, the tragic singing, and the accompanying rhythmical gestures, were so simple, that a single person was able to do at the same time ample justice to both. The Romans, however, it would seem, preferred separate excellence to harmonious unity. Hence arose, at an after period, their fondness for pantomime, of which the art was carried to the greatest perfection in the time of Augustus. From the names of the most celebrated of the performers, Pylades, Bathyllus, &c., it would appear that it was the Greeks that practiced this mute eloquence in Rome; and the lyric pieces which were expressed by their dances were also delivered in Greek. Lastly, Roscius frequently played without a mask, and in this respect probably he did not stand alone; but, as far as we know, there never was any instance of it among the Greeks. The alteration in question might be favourable to the more brilliant display of his own skill, and the Romans, who were pleased with it, showed here also that they had a higher relish for the disproportionate and prominant talents of a virtuoso, than for the harmonious impression of a work of art considered as a whole. - Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature by Wilhelm Schlegel

To see a variety of both Greek and Roman art objects embellished with theatrical masks or scenes from theatrical performances, I encourage you to view the following slideshow of artifacts I have photographed at the Getty as well as the British Museum, The Louvre, and various museums in Italy:

For those of you who can visit the Getty Villa in November, I highly recommend that you attend one of the performances of "Elektra" in the Villa's reproduction of a Greek theater.

The story of Elektra carries forward the tragic history of the House of Atreus.  Years after the bloody murder of King Agamemnon, his widow, Clytemnestra, and her lover Aegisthus, rule the city with an iron hand, while their daughter Elektra prays to the gods that her exiled brother Orestes might return to avenge their father's death.  Believed to have been written near the end of Sophocles' life, Elektra embodies the playwright's most profound portrait of the endurance of the human spirit, brilliantly ablaze with the warring, inner flames of hope and despair. - Elektra Director, Carey Purloff
Actually, both Sophocles and Euripedes wrote plays about Elektra (sometimes spelled Electra) the very same year.  A modern reviewer compares the two versions, pointing out that in his opinion Sophocles' characters adhere to societal values regardless of the personal consequences where Euripedes appears to advocate the assessment of alternative solutions and a degree of thought independent of societal dictates. 

I see next year the Getty will present "The Trojan Women".  I had the privilege of attending a performance of a modern adaptation of "The Trojan Women" presented by the drama department at the University of Oregon at their Robinson Theater a couple of years ago and enjoyed it immensely.

I learned even more fascinating information about Greek theater when I listened to  The Teaching Company's excellent lecture series on Greek tragedy presented by Professor Elizabeth Vandiver of Whitman College.  I found it absolutely riveting!

The Art of Ancient Greek Theater    A Short Introduction to the Ancient Greek Theater: Revised Edition   Classical Tragedy - Greek and Roman: Eight Plays in Authoriative Modern Translations  Seven Plays in English Verse   Sophocles: The Complete Plays (Signet Classics)   Ten Plays by Euripides   Aeschylus I: Oresteia: Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides    Aristophanes: The Complete Plays   The Pot of Gold and Other Plays (Classics)   The Roman Theatre and its Audience   
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