30 December 2012

Princesses At The Dawn of History

Once upon a time, there was an Etruscan princess named Larthia who lived in Caere (now Cerveteri), a splendidly wealthy neighbourhood not very far from where Rome stands today.  Sometime before 660 BCE, she died and was buried (presumably with her husband, whose name is unknown) in what is called the Regolini-Galassi tomb:* 
In the first chamber lay the remains of a warrior, with his bronze armour, beautiful and sensitive as if it had grown in life for the living body, sunk on his dust. In the inner chamber beautiful, frail, pale-gold jewellery lay on the stone bed, earrings where the ears were dust, bracelets in the dust that once was arms, surely of a noble lady, nearly three thousand years ago....
The treasure, so delicate and sensitive and wistful, is mostly in the Gregorian Museum in the Vatican. On two of the little silver vases from the Regolini-Galassi tomb is the scratched inscription--Mi Larthia. Almost the first written Etruscan words we know. And what do they mean, anyhow? 'This is Larthia' -- Larthia being a lady? (D. H. Lawrence, Etruscan Places )
When the tomb was opened, they found an amazing wealth of precious artefacts, elaborate furnishings, silverware, gilded and bronze vessels decorated with lions and griffins, and immense golden pectoral pieces and a golden brooch over 30 cm [12"] long, decorated with embossed figures of sphinxes and griffins, which had once covered the body of the princess.

In addition, there were  two wide cuff-like bracelets (left) decorated with granulation and repoussé, depicting three women with alternating palm trees (top of post) and the Mistress of Animals between two rampant lions visible in the top rows (left). 

This splendid piece of jewellery is now on show in Athens, having a starring role in the long-awaited exhibition of Princesses of the Mediterranean at the Dawn of History which opened last week at the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens.  The featured princesses are all real women, not goddesses nor legendary heroines. Or, rather, what we have are their burials and bones and their sumptuous grave goods -- objects from 24 women's graves found in Greece, Cyprus and Italy, truly at the dawn of history (10th-5th centuries BCE).  We don't know, of course, if they were princesses in our modern sense but they were certainly Princeps -- the first and highest ladies in their lands. Almost none is known by name: Larthia is a rare exception.

But she was far from exceptionally well-buried for a high-born Etruscan lady.  Many such princesses lived and died in the cities of the Etruscan federation.  Even outside of Etruria proper, from an Orientalizing tomb (Lippi 89) in the farthest east -- almost on the Adriatic shore -- comes this ornate bronze throne (left) decorated with scenes of women spinning wool and weaving cloth.  Very likely, it originally belonged to the lady buried close-by in the richly-furnished Amber Room Grave which, as its name suggests, was filled with enormous quantities of precious amber beads as well as other treasures, such as bronze urns inlaid with amber and a decorated bronze axe, presumably a ceremonial or ritual symbol of rank and power rather than a weapon. This throne, normally displayed in the local museum at Verucchio (near Rimini) is being shown for the first time outside of Italy.

And a Princess from the Etruscan Heartland

A princess of the next generation (ca. 625 BCE) was honoured in the Pietrera tomb at Vetulonia with this almost life-size limestone statue (left) --  one of four stone free-standing husband-wife couples housed inside the tomb; she is among the oldest examples of stone sculpture in Etruria. Her hands are posed flat on the breast, the right one over the left, in a gesture common in the ancient Near East to show reverence and submission.  Nonetheless, the costume of this woman and her hair-style, with her hair hanging down  in loose strands running over her shoulders, is found only in Etruria and reflects Etruscan custom.  She may well be dressed and posed as a priestess, but does she represent one of the aristocratic ladies buried in the tomb or is she a guardian female ancestor?

And now back to Greece 

During the darkest of the Dark Ages (ca. 1100-900 BCE), on the island of Euboea off the eastern coast of Greece, at the site of Lefkandi, there rose the most fascinating and mysterious building of that time (left) -- the Heroön, or monumental tomb, built some time around 950 BCE.  This unique structure had a curved (or apsidal) end and was surrounded by sophisticated colonnades which supported a wooden veranda.  At about 50 m long by 13.8 m wide [165' x 45'], it is the largest monument known anywhere in Greece during the Dark Ages.  And it was excavated by none other than my revered Oxford tutor, Mervyn R. Popham (1927-2000), so it is always a bitter-sweet pleasure for me to return to the site -- even if, as today, it is only a virtual visit.  In the large Central Room of the Heroön, Mervyn discovered two pits side by side (red arrow). 

The southern pit contained a double burial.  A large elaborately-decorated bronze amphora held the cremated remains of a warrior wrapped within a shroud of fringed linen.  This was placed within a still larger bronze bowl, and next to it lay his iron sword with wooden scabbard and an iron spearhead.  The bronze vessels sat near the right leg of the skeleton of a woman who was probably in her late twenties at the time of her death: she had been laid out on her back, her head to the west.

And she was dressed up to the nines in gold for her burial.  She wore gold hair coils, gold earrings, a gold pendant on her throat and a necklace of gold and faiënce beads, and sheet-gold disks embossed with spirals connected by a moon-shaped gold plaque were placed over her breasts.  Beside her head had been placed an iron knife with an ivory handle, perhaps a hint of her status, occupation, or family ties. 

Or perhaps it meant something much grimmer: note that her hands still rest close together, having been folded over on her stomach while her feet are also crossed. Because this happens so very rarely in natural burials, Mervyn suspected that the young woman had been bound and deliberately killed (that damn knife!) to accompany her lord-and-master to the other world.  If so, she certainly went out in style.

They both did, really. Within a short space of time, the upper walls, roofing, and support posts of the Heroön were dismantled, the rooms filled in, and a tumulus of pebbles, mudbricks, and earth was raised over the whole building. Thus, the edifice may have been intended for destruction from the beginning -- to remain forever as a hero shrine for a warrior whose name, alas, is long forgotten as well as that of his golden princess.

I leave you with an image of her golden brassiere of glorious dimensions, on show, too, at the Cycladic Museum.  Each disk measures 30 cm [12"] in diameter:  she must have been quite a woman.

Princesses of the Mediterranean at the Dawn of History Showcasing more than 500 objects from 24 Greek, Cypriot, and Italian Dark Age women's burials.  The exhibition runs until 10 April 2013 at the Museum of Cycladic Art, Athens.  Highly recommended.

Happy New Year to all my readers!

* Named after the excavators who found the unplundered Etruscan tomb in 1836,  the arch-priest of the locality, Alessandro Regolini and General Vincenzo Galassi.

** The other shaft contained the skeletons of four horses, the iron bits still in their mouths. These animals were apparently thrown headlong into the shaft as a funerary sacrifice to accompany their late master into the next world.

My thanks to Dr Stephanie Budin who first reported on the Princesses exhibition on the Pandora Studies group website (digest # 360) on 8 December 2012.

Sources, in addition to the press kit of the Cycladic Museum (and I am most grateful to the Press Officer, Alexia Vasilikou, for sending me this information), include the website Mysterious Etruscans (don't be put off by its name!);  M. Nielsen, Greek Myth, Etruscan Symbol;  C.G. Thomas, C. Conant, Citadel to City-State, Ch. 4:  Lefkandi: New Heroes of the Ninth CenturyWomen of Lefkandi, at Wesleyan University Online Museum of Greek Art and Archaeology;  British School of Athens.  'Jewellery from a female burial'. Early Excavations at Lefkandi: The Protogeometric Building and the Cemetery of Toumba. Web. 3 Dec. 2012;  M.R. Popham, E. Touloupa, L.H. Sackett, 'The Hero of Lefkandi', Antiquity, 1982, 169-198.


Top: Gold bracelet (detail), 675-650 BCE. From the Regolini-Galassi tomb, Cerveteri. Museo Gregoriano Etrusco, Vatican.  Photo credit: Vatican Museums. Via Cycladic Museum, Athens.

Top left: Gold bracelets,  675-650 BCE. From the Regolini-Galassi tomb, Cerveteri. Museo Gregoriano Etrusco, Vatican.  Photo credit: Vatican Museums.  Photo via Mysterious Etruscans website.

Middle left: Bronze-decorated wooden throne showing women spinning and weaving from Verucchio tomb Lippi 89, end of 8th-early 7th century BCE. Museo Civico Archeologico Verucchio. Photo credit: © Archaeological Superintendence of Emilia Romagna, via RayTalk for Archaeology .

Lower left 1: Head and torso of a female funerary statue (ca. 625 BCE).Vetulonia, Pietrera tumulus.Florence, National Archaeological Museum.  Photo credit: Fernando Guerrini and Mauro del Sarto. Soprintendenza Archeologica della Toscana. Via Cycladic Museum, Athens.

Lower left 2: Lefkandi, graphic restoration of the apsidal building by J. Coulton, via Lefkandi, Euboea: Wesleyan University Online Museum of Greek Art and Archaeology

Lower left 3:  Plan of southern burial shaft containing the cremated body of a man buried with his weapons and an inhumed woman with gold jewellery:  Jewellery from a female burial.

Lower centre: Photograph of the female burial in the southern pit, via Women of Lefkandi.

Lowest centre: Gold discs with stamped decoration placed over the woman’s chest, from the burial of the Lady of Lefkandi, ca. 950 BC. © Archaeological Museum of Eretria, 11th Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities Photographic Archive. Photographer: Eirini Mieri. Via Cycladic Museum, Athens.

11 December 2012

New Light and New News on Nefertiti

6 December 1912: This is the excavation photograph (left) taken of the painted plaster and limestone bust of  the most beautiful woman in the world shortly after it was dug out of the ground on that day.

6 December 2012: Exactly one hundred years later, the Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection at the New Museum of Berlin is celebrating the amazing appearance of Nefertiti's bust in a sculptor's studio in the ancient city of Amarna, on the Nile halfway between Cairo and Thebes.

Her name is once again in bright lights.

But that's not all she has to celebrate this year: she just received an exceptional 100th anniversary gift -- a major new discovery about her life has just come to light, too.   But, first, the show.

In the Light of Amarna: 100 years of the find of Nefertiti

'Amarna' refers to the ruins of the ancient Egyptian city of Akhetaten (Horizon of Aten), the new capital city founded by Pharaoh Akhenaton.  There, in the desert and far from the old centres where they worshipped animal-headed gods, he established a magnificent city for his own 'religion of light', whose sole deity was the sun god Aten.  He gave Aten an imposing new temple that was 600 metres (2,000') long! The whole city was built within three years and populated in the year 1343 BCE.  Glory was short-lived, however: the city and its god, and Egypt's brief flirtation with monotheism, were abandoned a few years after Akhenaton's death (ca. 1331). At the beginning of the 20th century, extremely successful excavations took place there under the direction of the German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt (financed by the wealthy Jewish banker and art patron, James Simon).  The finds were shared between Cairo and Berlin.*

The exhibition illuminates the context of the discovery of the bust of Nefertiti in the sculpture workshop of the master craftsman Thutmose, along with numerous objects, including the pigments and tools used by the artisans.  At the centre of it all, of course, is the "radiant grandeur" of the bust, 50 cm (20") tall, whose "anxious charm" once delighted the German writer Thomas Mann. In the Light of Amarna sets out to provide a deeper understanding of the revolutionary period in which the ancient Egyptian queen lived.

Nefertiti, renowned as one of history’s great beauties, was the powerful chief wife of Pharaoh Akhenaton.  Surprisingly, however, hardly anything is known for certain about her life.

Her name means The Beautiful One Has Arrived. She was probably the daughter of an upwardly mobile provincial family already close to the royal house.  Nefertiti's aunt appears to have been the "Great Royal Consort" of Pharaoh Amenhotep III,  Akhenaton's father.  Her own father had had a successful career, rising to the rank of general of the chariot force.  Her marriage to Akhenaten may have been her second. In religious and state art she is portrayed as almost her husband’s equal. A limestone statue of the queen (left) shows her later in life than the famous bust: she has lines around the eyes and mouth. 

There have been fantastic speculations about her fate in relation to that of her husband, Akhenaten, and of Tutankhamen, who succeeded Akhenaten after his father's death.**  Nefertiti had been mentioned for the last time in texts from Akhenaten's Year 12 [although he reigned until some time in the Year 17].  This is often explained by assuming she died early (a plague was raging in the Nile Valley at that time; according to a Babylonian clay tablet, an Amarna queen was one of the victims), or that a conflict arose between the queen and Akhenaten, leading to her being banished. Other scholars assume Nefertiti's name was changed because she was appointed to serve as a second 'king' beside Akhenaten soon after Year 12: her name as king was thought to be that of a female pharaoh Ankhetkheperure Neferneferuaten (who used the epithet 'Effective for her husband' in one of her cartouches).

New News and Lots of New Light

Just in time for Nefertiti's centenary celebrations, sensational new evidence about the royal couple has been discovered in the Dayr al-Barshā excavations in Middle Egypt, not far north of Amarna.

A barely legible building inscription written in red ochre on a pillar in the local limestone quarry was deciphered by the Egyptologist Athena Van der Perre (Leuven University, Belgium).  It begins with a date on the 15th day of the third month of the flood season in Year 16 of Akhenaten, his highest certain date.  More important, however, is the fact that the third line evokes queen Nefertiti as Akhenaten's chief wife:  Great Royal Wife, His Beloved, Mistress of the Two Lands, Neferneferuaton Nefertiti. This proves that Nefertiti and Akhenaten were still officially recognized as the royal couple a year before the end of Akhenaten's reign.  There can be no question of Nefertiti disappearing!  And, equally, as late as Year 16, her name had not changed: she is still simply the beloved Nefertiti.

The Beautiful One has Arrived

It still remains likely that she assumed the function of  co-regent, but we can now prove that this did not happen before Akhenaten's last year, and perhaps only after his death. Drs Van der Perre explains:

If Tutankhamen succeeded Akhenaten immediately, as many assume, then the at least three years that Nefertiti reigned as king must have overlapped with Tutankhamen's reign -- with Nefertiti functioning as a kind of queen mother. Another option is that Nefertiti ruled Egypt for some years after the death of Akhenaten, and that Tutankhamen was her successor. There is still a lot of uncertainty, but several old ideas about Nefertiti's early disappearance must now be discarded.

Nefertiti's own life and [co-]regency presumably had ended by Year 3 of Tutankhaten's reign (1331 BCE) when the religious Counter Reformation began.  Tutankhaten changed his name to Tutankhamun, returning to the official worship of the god Amun.  He abandoned Amarna and went back to the old capital of Thebes.  Damnation followed: angry successors destroyed the images of the heretics, their names were obliterated and almost all traces were removed.  Her mummy disappeared.

And so, while we have the face whose "smile is animated with an inner light" (as French Egyptologist Christian Jacq described her), we still do not know what happened to the body of the most beautiful woman in the world.

*  On the bust and its recently-discovered inner limestone sculpted core, see Vanity, Thy Name is Uppity Woman.  On the history of its discovery and the continuing  controversy between Germany and Egypt over who owns it, see Two-Timing Nefertiti and Two-Timing Nefertiti II.

** Tutankhamun was the son of Akhenaten and his sister-and-wife (mummy KV35YL), whose name is unknown but whose remains are identified as 'The Younger Lady' mummy.

In the Light of Amarna: 100 Years of the Find of Nefertiti
Neues Museum, Berlin
Fri 7 December 2012 - Sat 13 April 2013

Sources (in addition to press releases from the Neues Museum) include Matthias Schulz, 'Re-Examining Nefertiti's Likeness and Life', via Spiegel Online International; Lutz at Egyptian Dreams; the Dayr al-Barsha Project;  and Aayko Eyma on the EEF-Digest (2-9 December 2012) -- to whom I am also grateful for the notice of the new inscription from Dayr al-Barsha.

Illustrations (all Neues Museum Press Photos)

Upper left: Photo of the bust of Nefertiti, taken 1912, document of the official division of finds © Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft (DOG).

Centre: Unfinished model head of a statue of Nefertiti, limestone. Donation James Simon. © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Photo credit: Sandra Steiß

Lower left: Standing figure of Nefertiti, Limestone.  Donation James Simon. © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Photo credit: Sandra Steiß.

Below left: Head of Nefertiti from a former double seat statue of the royal couple, grey granite. Donation James Simon. © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Photo credit: Sandra Steiß.

11 November 2012

Lady Sale and the Buddhas of Bamiyan (Part II): Multiple Updates

Catastrophe II (What led up to it = Part I here)

The British army began its retreat from Kabul on 6 January 1842, aiming to reach the garrison at Jallalabad 90 miles (140 km) to the east.  Jallalabad had been seized by the British three years earlier (a running sore for the Afghan rebels), and was now held by troops under the command of Lady Sale's husband, Major-General  'Fighting Bob' Sale.  The rebel chiefs had sworn to allow the British unimpeded passage to exit the country but, scarcely beyond their cantonment gate, the insurgents began to harass them, picking off stragglers and, soon after, attacking the rear guard. 

Lady Florentia Sale, then 51 years of age, along with her pregnant daughter Alexandrina (the youngest of her eight children) rode out with the troops.  Despite the ghastly conditions, she continued the diary begun four months earlier at the start of the rebellion (later published in London as A Journal of the Disasters in Affghanistan).

Thursday, 6th January [1842]
We marched from Cabul. The advanced guard consisted of the 44th Queen's, 4th Irregular Horse, and Skinner's Horse, two H. A. six-pounder guns, Sappers and Miners, Mountain Train, and the late Envoy's escort. The main body included the 5th and 37th N. I.; the latter in charge of treasure; Anderson's Horse, the Shah's 6th Regiment, two II. A. six-pounder guns. The rear guard was composed of the 54th N. I., 5th Cavalry, and two six-pounder II. A. guns. The force consisted of about 4500 fighting men, and 12,000 followers.*

The troops left cantonments both by the rear gate and the breach to the right of it, which had been made yesterday by throwing down part of the rampart to form a bridge over the ditch. All was confusion from before daylight. The day was clear and frosty; the snow nearly a foot deep on the ground; the thermometer considerably below freezing point.
There were a dozen women in Lady Sale’s party, and 22 children. At the start of the march they travelled with the advance troops, but this arrangement soon ended as it became clear that the Afghans had no intention of keeping to their agreement. As the retreating army plodded grimly south, parties of armed men swept down the hillsides. Frost-bitten, disorganised, impossibly positioned at the bottom of steep-sided defiles, the Kabul garrison began to die. At first in ones and twos. Then in scores, and hundreds.

On January 8th, Lady Sale reports that the enemy was keeping up a sharp fire from all sides. Several persons were killed quite close to her. 
The troops were in the greatest state of disorganization: the baggage was mixed in with the advanced guard; and the camp followers all pushed ahead in their precipitate flight towards [India] . . .The pony Mrs. Sturt [her  daughter] rode was wounded in the ear and neck. I had fortunately, only one ball in my arm; three others passed through my [sheepskin cloak] near the shoulder without doing me any injury. The party that fired on us were not above fifty yards from us, and we owed our escape to urging our horses on as fast as they could go over a road where, at any other time, we should have walked our horses very slowly....
By now, more than half of the force was frostbitten or wounded; and most of the men, she tells us, could scarcely put a foot to the ground. At this point, the leader of the Afghan revolt -- a son of the ruler deposed by the British two years earlier -- Sirdar Akbar Khan , arrived on the scene under the flag of truce.  He suggested that he take the ladies and children under his protection, house them in one of the nearby forts and later, when it was safe, escort them back to the Indian frontier.
Overwhelmed with domestic affliction [the agonizing death that day of her son-in-law, Lieut. Sturt], neither Mrs. Sturt nor I were in a fit state to decide for ourselves whether we would accept the Sirdar's protection or not. There was but faint hope of our ever getting safe to Jellalabad .... But although there was much talk regarding our going over, all I personally know of the affair is, that I was told we were all to go, and that our horses were ready, and we must mount immediately and be off.
 Reluctant they may have been ... but also very lucky.

Last Stand at Gandamak

On January 13th, the remnants of the British-Indian army were annihilated near Gandamak, 35 miles (56 km) from JalalabadThis painting (left) made in 1893 gives their last stand an heroic glow but, if Lady Sale's diary
is anything to go by -- after she left, derived from survivors' reports -- their end wasn't nearly so pretty.


We marched; being necessitated to leave all the servants that could not walk, the Sirdar promising that they should be fed.  It would be impossible for me to describe the feelings with which we pursued our way through the dreadful scenes that awaited us. The road covered with awfully mangled bodies, all naked: fifty-eight Europeans were counted; the natives innumerable. Numbers of camp followers, still alive, frost-bitten and starving; some perfectly out of their senses and idiotic. The sight was dreadful; the smell of the blood sickening; and the corpses lay so thick it was impossible to look from them, as it required care to guide my horse so as not to tread upon the bodies.
Lady Sale, her daughter, with the other ladies, children and their few surviving servants, were taken to a local fort (what we would now recognize as a fortified compound) and housed in primitive but decent conditions.  Over the next few days, they were joined by a small number of wounded British officers who had been taken alive to be held as hostages or for ransom.  On the 17th January, they were moved to a compound higher in the valley: Thus all hopes (faint as they were) of going to Jellalabad were annihilated; and we plainly saw that, whatever might be said, we were virtually prisoners.

There was nothing virtual about it: they were decidedly prisoners.  Through that winter and well into spring, they were taken from fort to fort, sometimes higher in the mountains, sometimes further down, dragged hither and thither hard on the heels of Akbar Khan, while negotiations went on for their ransom or use as chips in exchange for British-held prisoners. All the while, too, the British outpost at Jellalabad was besieged by an Afghan force led by the same Akbar Khan.  Until, after a siege lasting five months, General Sale suddenly counter-attacked, capturing the main Afghan camp, baggage, stores, guns, and horses, and the Afghans fled back to Kabul.

On 16 June, Lady Sale writes: A report prevalent amongst the Affghans that our force has marched from Jellalabad; and that we consequently shall soon be removed from hence.

Thank heavens they weren't yet on the move.  On July 24th, Lady Sale dryly recorded the arrival of her granddaughter: At 2 P.M. Mrs. Sturt presented me with a grand-daughter;—another female captive.

Back to Bamiyan

On 9 August, there are more rumours: The servants have a report that we are forthwith to be taken away, to, or towards, Bokhara [beyond the Hindu Kush; now in Uzbekistan]. For two days there have been eight camels here ...in case of the [British] force coming up.

The women and children, including the new-born Julia Florentia, finally set off on the 25th, with ten British officers who were ill with fever.  Among them was Lt. Vincent Eyre. They reached Bamiyan on September 3rd: 

Marched at daylight [the last] seven miles to Bameean. The road wild and uneven, with narrow paths and many ascents and descents. This valley is nowhere more than a mile broad; but it is very fertile, and produces particularly fine grain....  Looking back from hence, we saw Zohak [the fortress drawn by her late son-in-law a year earlier] behind us, on a high point. At Bameean they refused to take us into the fort; and we pitched our tents just under the ancient fortress and city which were destroyed by Jhenzhis Khan; when upwards of 300,000 persons perished. The caves, ruins, and towers, extend for miles. There are two large images which have been described by former travellers: opposite to the largest was our encampment.

And that (I'm sorry to say) is all she tells us about the Buddhas of Bamiyan.  Not that she was oblivious to the antiquities:

From the 5th to the 9th we made excursions to see the caves, &c. At first some difficulty was made: but about thirty men [were sent] to guard us and our pencils; for several went intent on sketching. I only copied the frescoes that were on the walls and ceiling near the large image; but Mr. Eyre made some very pretty and correct sketches of the ancient city, &c.
Now Lady Sale had more on her mind than pencils: their getaway!  On the morning of September 11th, a conference took place in her room between two of their Afghan captors and five British officers:
Here in the course of an hour all was settled. The gentlemen present signed their names to the paper; in which we promised to give Saleh Mahommed Khan 20,000 rupees, and to insure him 1000 rupees a month for life; and that if the government did not extricate us from this difficulty, we would be answerable for the money. Thus they held the promise of five British officers as sacred. In heading the paper, they insisted that we should do so in the name of Christ; as rendering it perfectly binding. 
On the 16th, the prisoners made their escape.
We marched to Killa Topchee on a fine sunshiny morning; which we hailed as a presage of the future. We were not, however, without considerable anxiety; for our present state was replete with danger. We had every reason to believe that [one of the Afghans], on leaving us, had gone to Akbar, and revealed our plans; and consequently every man we saw was suspected to be the avant courier of troops sent to reclaim us....[When we] had taken shelter under some huge masses of rock, Saleh Mahommed Khan came up to us; and speaking in Persian to Capt. Lawrence, told him that he had succeeded in getting a few muskets; which, together with ammunition, he had brought with him on a camel: and requested that he would ask the men, which of them would take them.
Capt. Lawrence then said, "Now, my lads, here's Saleh Mahommed Khan has brought arms and ammunition for some of you: who volunteers to take muskets?"
I blush to record, that a dead silence ensued. Thinking the men might be shamed into doing their duty, I said to Lawrence, "You had better give me one, and I will lead the party."
Well, I think that should be her last word; don't you?

Meanwhile, back on the home front

In Britain, the fate of those hostages, writes Llewelyn Morgan in his book The Buddhas of Bamiyan, dominated public opinion in a way that has been compared to the American hostage crisis in Iran in 1979-1981 [though I doubt it extended to hanging yellow ribbons; stiff upper lips and all that]. 

On their release, the former captives, especially the tough-as-nails Lady Florentia Sale, were celebrated -- a substitute victory for the humiliating retreat from Kabul.  Lady Sale became a household name to high and low in Victorian society.  When her family visited Britain in 1844, landing at Lyme Regis (from a ship which the press were delighted to discover was called the 'True Briton'), Lady Sale, her husband, daughter, and granddaughter Julia were mobbed by well-wishers: “As soon as their presence became known,” according to The Times, “the nobility and gentry of the neighbourhood, and the inhabitants of Lyme, vied with each other in offering their congratulations, while the church bells poured forth their merriest strains of harmony…” There were similar scenes in Londonderry, Liverpool, Southampton, and London.

Her Journal of the Disasters in Affghanistan, accompanied by Lt Eyre's sketches of the CABUL PRISONERS became a publishing sensation.  The last three of Eyre's images were of Bamiyan, one for each of the Buddhas and a fold-out panorama of the cliff face (reproduced centre, above).  In this strange way, the crisis that gripped the British nation hugely contributed to the growing celebrity of the Buddhas of Bamiyan.

The Buddhas of Bamiyan
by Llewelyn Morgan

Published in the U.K. by Profile Books

In the U.S.A. by Harvard University Press

$19.95 • £14.95 • €18.00
ISBN 9780674057883
Publication June 2012

Also Available As
ISBN 9780674065383

* Thousands of grooms, cooks, sweepers, dog-handlers, water-carriers and other non-combatants who were considered essential to an Indian army on the move. 

Updated 28 December 2013

I just received this message from Llewelyn Morgan:

Dear Judith,

I wrote some more about Julia Florentia Sturt/Mulock, getting a bit closer to satisfying my curiosity.

Have an excellent New Year!



Updated 2 December 2012

Taliban attack NATO base at Jalalabad for the third time this year.

Suicide attackers storm an airfield in Jalalabad, using car bombs, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and small arms.

Jalalabad: Now why does that ring a bell?  Spelling's changed, weapons changed, but history marches on:


Sources. Besides Llewelyn Morgan's Buddhas of Bamiyan, and his webpage which focuses on the fates of Lady Sale's daughter and grand-daughter, I have made great use of Lady Sale's journals, freely available online: the first volume (in replica) covers the rebellion in Kabul, the second the disastrous retreat, and the third her captivity.

 Illustrations Top: Portrait of Lady Sale (CABUL PRISONERS) by Vincent Eyre. Note her wearing a turban. Photograph courtesy of Leicester Galleries. Middle left (above): The last stand of the survivors of Her Majesty's 44th Foot at Gandamak, painted by William Barnes Wollenin 1898.  Photo credit: Wikipedia. Middle left (below): Prison Scene (CABUL PRISONERS) by Vincent Eyre. Photograph courtesy of Leicester Galleries. Lower centre: Caves of Bameean (CABUL PRISONERS) by Vincent Eyre. Photograph courtesy of Leicester Galleries. Below left:  A painting of Lady Florentia Sale escaping from Kabul on horse (1844), by Richard Thomas Bott. Photo credit: Wikipedia.

01 November 2012

Lady Sale and the Buddhas of Bamiyan

Just this morning, as I sat down to write a review of a splendid new book on The Buddhas of Bamiyan by Llewelyn Morgan, I saw this headline in the New York Times, Taliban Hits Region Seen as 'Safest' for Afghans -- a grim report on what's up in Bamiyan today. So I decided not to write a formal review after all, but rather to recount the gist of Morgan's remarkable history which turns out to be, alas, only too timely.

The colossal Buddhas (pictured above) are, of course, no longer in their niches, having been dynamited to bits by the Taliban in 2001. But, first, let me tell you what came before -- it's a long story: the Buddhas 'lived' for over 1,400 years -- and then to the extraordinary true tale of Lady Sale. 

Bamiyan is an oasis town in the centre of a long valley that separates the mountain chains of Hindu Kush and Koh-i-Baba --some 140 miles/230 km northwest of Kabul. In the late-6th and early-7th century CE, first the smaller (38 meters/120 feet) and then the larger (55 meters/175 feet) Buddhas were cut at unmeasurable cost into the tall, sandstone cliffs surrounding Bamiyan.  The taller of the two statues is thought to represent Vairocana, the “Light Shining throughout the Universe Buddha”. The shorter one probably represents Buddha Sakyamuni, although the local Hazara people believe it depicts a woman (Muslims generally interpreted the two Buddhas as man and wife).

The two colossi must once have been a truly awesome sight, visible for miles, with copper masks for faces and copper-covered hands.  The outer robes (or sangati) were painted dark blue on the inside and pink, and later bright orange, on top.  In their latest phase, the larger Buddha was painted red and the smaller white.  Travellers as far back as the 11th century speak of one red Buddha and one moon-white. 

Even an early Muslim visitor was impressed:

The people of India [i.e. non-Muslims] go on pilgrimages to these two idols, bearing with them offerings, incense and fragrant woods.  If the eye should fall upon them from a distance, a man would be obliged to lower his eyes, overawed by them.
Besides the huge Buddhas, there were numerous caves carved out of the ochre-coloured sandstone cliffs.  When the Chinese pilgrim monk Xuanzang visited Bamiyan in 630-631 CE, some 2,000 monks were worshipping and meditating in these caves. One must imagine hundreds of stone and wooden staircases running along the hill face, linking caves that are now inaccessible, their entrances carved and painted and festooned with fabrics.  

On The Silk Road

Behind the cliffs rise the high peaks of the Hindu Kush, perpetually under snow.  Bamiyan, itself about 2500 m (7500') above sea level, is at the heart of this formidable barrier between India and Central Asia and the valley provides comparatively easy passage through it.  So whoever held Bamiyan effectively controlled traffic along a major branch of the fabled Silk Road.  In the Buddhist period (most of the first millennium CE), this strategic position made Bamiyan both a lucrative halt for caravans carrying goods across the vast reaches between China and points west, and a bone of contention for powers on either side of the Hindu Kush.  Rich convoys and predatory armies have been regular features of Bamiyan's history.

Arabian Nights

Despite folk stories of instant conversion, Islamisation was a gradual, uneven process along the Hindu KushAlmost a century after the first Arab soldiers reached Afghanistan, another Buddhist monk, Hyecho, visited Bamiyan in 727 CE on his travels from China to India and still found there 'many monasteries and monks'.   The northern plains of Afghanistan were conquered by Arab armies by the end of that century but it took another three or even four hundred years for the eastern parts of the country to embrace Islam.  Bamiyan was said to have been converted at least three times: in 754-75; or again in 775-85; then, in 870, an Arab strongman captured the city and sent as loot 'fifty idols of gold and silver' to Baghdad, so obviously the monks were still rich and thriving; finally, almost another century later, the founder of the Ghaznavid Empire was said to have done the deed.  Whatever actually happened, Buddhists must have lived alongside Muslims in the valley for some time: as late as 1078, a local official still boasts the title of 'monastery keeper'.  

But it was all for nought.

In 1221 Genghis Khan arrived with his Mongol hoards.  Bamiyan tried to resist -- never a good idea with Genghis -- and the town was taken by force:

Genghis gave orders that every living creature, from mankind down to the brute beasts, should be killed, that no prisoner should be taken, that not even the child in its mother's womb should be spared, and that henceforth no living creature should dwell therein. 
In time the valley was repopulated by the people who now live there, the Hazaras.  They believe that they are direct descendants of Mongol troops and their families who settled there, and they are quite possibly right: recent DNA tests seem to confirm their Mongol origin.  In time, these new inhabitants, too, were Islamised but, for unknown reasons, they became Shi'a -- another cause of tension with the Sunni Pashtun majority and that underlies some of their deadly confrontation with the Taliban in our own times.

If any fool this high samootch [cave] explores,
Know Charles Masson has been here before.

Visitors of an entirely different kind arrived in Bamiyan in the 19th century, adventurers and spies heading to or from British India.  The antiquarian Charles Masson (actually a deserter from the British army) arrived in 1832.  An early excavator of Buddhist sites, he also worked surreptitiously for the British as their 'Agent in Cabul for communicating intelligence of the state of affairs in that quarter on a salary of Rs. 250 per annum.'  It didn't take long for Afghan authorities to realize -- correctly -- that English archaeologists was just another way of saying English spies.

Europe's Favourite Psychopath

What these early adventurers shared was a classical British education and one figure above all inspired their interest: Alexander the Great.  As the British progressed further into the north-west of India, the more they encountered territory familiar to them from the stirring accounts of Alexander's campaigns in the 4th century BCE:

To look for the first time upon the [Indus River] that had borne upon its surface the world's victor two thousand years ago.  To gaze upon the landscape he had viewed.... 
Thrilling stuff!  Another Englishman, Alexander Burnes, author of the bestselling Travels into Bokhara, and something of a sex symbol in his day, travelled to the Indus in 1831 to deliver a gift of five shire horses to the ruler of Punjab.  Needless to say, he was also there to spy out the lay of the land.  He had a particularly bad case of Alexander-itis:
 [Alexander] has reaped the immortality which he so much desired, and transmitted the history of his conquests, allied with his name, to posterity.... And, while we gaze on the Indus, we connect ourselves, at least in association, with the ages of distant glory.
A year later, Burnes was at Bamiyan writing about 'the gigantic idols of Bameean', quite convinced that this was the city founded by Alexander the Great, Alexandria ad Caucasum.  Burnes would soon return to Afghanistan, this time as part of an invading army as the British played out their fantasies of regime change in Kabul.  They wanted to make Afghanistan a friendly buffer state between British India and the Russians on the other side of the Hindu Kush. And so began the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1841).

So easy to get in, so hard to get out.

British and Indian troops occupied the country.  Alas, poor Alexander Burnes -- unlike his hero, this Alexander was ripped apart by a mob in Kabul on 2 November 1841, one of the events that led to an infamous massacre of British troops as they retreated from Kabul two months later.

Another visitor to Bamiyan was Lieut. John Sturt of the Bengal Engineers, who had been sent to survey the all-important passes over the Hindu Kush.  He stopped at Bamiyam on his route back.  The officer, suffering from 'Koondooz  Fever' (malaria) camped below Zohak, the fortress perched on the red cliffs at the eastern end of the Bamiyan valley.  That's where he made the charming drawing of the ruins (above, dated 1840).  A little over a year later, Sturt, too, would be dead, mortally wounded during the chaotic and bloody retreat of the British forces from Kabul.

Lulled into a false sense of security, the British had reduced the number of their troops in Afghanistan and brought their wives and families to join them. They went hunting, horse-racing and held amateur theatricals in Kabul.  But it was not a safe place for European interlopers. The country rose against them, and the outnumbered British and Indian soldiers tried to retreat back to India.  As they withdrew through the narrow passes from Kabul to Jalalabad in freezing conditions in January 1842, the British column was attacked from all sidesFew survived. 

Lieut. John Sturt, who had made that tranquil drawing of Zohak at the entrance to Bamiyan, died in agony of an abdominal wound, leaving his pregnant wife Alexandrina and his mother-in-law Florentia, Lady Sale, to be taken prisoner on the very day he died By a strange quirk of fate, their captors would take them to Bamiyan, then at the very edge of Afghan territory.  They marched there along with their fellow captives, including Lieut. Vincent Eyre, who had been seriously wounded in the disastrous retreat, and his wife and young son.

Lieut. Eyre kept an illustrated diary of their ordeal.  But I fear this post is already over long and so we must postpone the saga of the CABUL PRISONERS (as they were famously known in England) to another day.

[Part II: click here]

The Buddhas of Bamiyan
by Llewelyn Morgan

Published in the U.K. by Profile Books

In the U.S.A. by Harvard University Press

$19.95 • £14.95 • €18.00
ISBN 9780674057883
Publication June 2012

Also Available As
ISBN 9780674065383

* Mass spectrometer tests have determined the age of the organic material in the clay layers. The construction of the smaller Buddha is dated to between 544 and 595 and the larger Buddha between 591 and 644.

Sources include the website
Azaranica, a news aggregator on Hazaras and Hazarajat; Hans van Roon on The Silk Road Blog;


Buddhas of Bamiyan, from Iwan Lawrowitsch Jaworski: Reise der russischen Gesandtschaft in Afghanistan und Buchara in den Jahren 1878-79, Jena : 1885; photo credit: Andreas Praefcke via Wikipedia.
Middle: Reconstruction of colours of the Buddhas robes at the end of the 10th century.  Technische Universitaet Munchen via The Silk Road Blog.

Below: The fortress guarding the entrance to the Bamiyan valley, a lithograph of Shahr-i Zohak, based on a drawing by Lieut. John Sturt, Bengal Engineers (23 August 1840). Photo credit:
Leicester Galleries.

16 October 2012

Kaloomte, the 'Supreme Warrior' Queen

Meet Lady K'abel, Snake of Snakes.

Sometime in the 7th century CE, in the city of el-Peru, -- a Maya kingdom in the northernmost province of today's Guatamala --  there ruled a Supreme Warrior Queen, and this is what she looked like.

Centipedes and Snakes

During the 7th century, the kings who ruled el-Peru* belonged to the Centipede Dynasty (the Wak) and they were loyal vassals to the Snake kings (Kan) who had their seat at Calakmul*, far away to the northeast in what is now Mexico.  After 638 CE, a powerful king of the Snakes conquered towns and turf around the lands of el-Peru and established an empire in the Maya lowlands.  The Centipede king of the time, K'inich Bahlam II, had allied himself with the Snakes, and won as his reward a wife from the royal Snake Dynasty, most likely the king's own daughter, the princess K'abel.  

K'abel and her husband ruled for at least 20 years (672-692), and she very likely continued to govern for some time after his death.  These were golden years for el-Peru.  King K'inich Bahlam commissioned monument after royal monument, and K'abel, too, was regularly portrayed on great stone stele -- not least on that masterpiece pictured above, which boasted the signatures of nearly a dozen carvers, the work of an entire community of artists. 

More than just a pretty face

And more than just a queen, K'abel held the mighty rank of Kaloomte, meaning 'Supreme Warrior' -- a title connected with the paramount storm god 'Chahk with the axe' -- which made her higher in authority and gave her greater status than her husband, the king.  Maya epigrapher Stanley Guenter comments:
This is a title that references the bellicose storm god , and “warlord”, I think, is an appropriate, if rough, gloss. (I think the title would have fit somewhere between our own titles warlord and emperor ...). That said, I don’t think this is a title that should be translated as “warrior” as I see little reason to believe that the person holding the title actually was directly axing people and/or places.
Whether K'abel ever strode into battle and axed a living enemy is unknown.  The title is certainly military but it might mean no more (and no less) than Queen Elizabeth II's rank of "Commander-in-Chief of the British Armed Forces".  It's likely, though, that as Kaloomte, she served as military governor of the el-Peru kingdom under the auspices of the House of the Snake King, to which she belonged.

In the portrait above, K'abel holds a military shield in one hand and  ritual regalia in the other hand, exactly as we see on a similar portrait of the ruling kingAccording to Prof. Olivia Navarro-Farr, one of the directors of the excavation at el-Peru, what is certain is this:
She had a long life, and she was a powerful woman who was depicted as such. That's important, because history remembers her as a formidable figure with a supreme title.
Formidable.  Yes indeed.  Figuratively ... and now literally.  She was a big woman.

Welcome to her tomb! 

The news broke last week that the queen's tomb almost certainly has been found.  And, blessedly, its contents were intact.

Here's the story.

Earlier excavations in the main temple of the city centre at el-Peru (circled, left) discovered that, long after the fall of the last royal dynasty, worshippers still used this sacred place and continued to do so into the early 9th century CE.  These post-royal city dwellers placed layers of offerings over the ruined temple. They also dragged heavy fragments of royal stone slabs and arranged these along the front of the building.  In 2012, excavators decided to dig into the temple to define its architecture and determine why it remained so revered after the fall of the last dynasty.

A shrine over a shrine over a shrine ...

In the post-royal period of the site's history, a masonry shrine had been placed on the main staircase of the temple.  Underneath this, in its last phase (after 750 CE) was a monumental fire altar which had been dedicated by the sacrifice of a mature woman buried below it.  Beneath that, they found another shrine, this one much earlier, and underneath that was a tomb containing the skeletal remains of a person who was buried with a vast wealth of grave goods. 

This is a royal tomb

The tomb contained the remains of a single mature individual who was buried with many rich offerings, including a number of ceramic vessels datable to 700-750 CE, as well as considerable amounts of  jewellery and figurines made from jade -- a material so highly prized by the Maya that it was equal only to the feathers of the Resplendent Quetzal bird in value.

(Left) You can see the skeleton's skull just above the broken plate, which probably represents a round shield.  

The burial turns out to be that of Queen K'abel.  And this is how we know....

It contained a small alabaster jar carved into the form of a conch shell (left): in Classic Maya religion, the conch shell is the dwelling place of royal ancestors and gods.  Conch shell trumpets would be blown during religious rituals to invoke the royals and deities.

The head and arm of a woman emerges out of the shell. She has the woman's characteristic strand of hair in front of her ear.  Her lined face indicates an advanced age.   All these factors strongly suggest that the vessel depicts a royal woman well past her youth who is buried in the tomb.


On the other side of the jar is a brief text of four hieroglyphic signs (right).  These name the jar's owner as "Lady Waterlily Hand" (an alternative spelling of the name Lady K'abel: the glyph for K’abel is hands holding waterlilies) and "Lady Snake Lord", which identifies her as a princess of the Kan Dynasty of Calakmul.  Matching the names given to queen K'abel in other inscriptions, the hieroglyphs leaves no question it's the same woman.

So, what did she look like in death?

Studying the skeleton showed that the queen was a mature individual (which accords with what we know of her in history), with more robust than gracile facial features and a sturdy frame -- traits consistent with the forceful portrait of Lady K’abel on the stela at the top of this post.

So, the archaeologists who set out to discover why there was so much ritual activity surrounding this particular temple at the site, got a very decisive answer: these worshippers were venerating a warrior queen: 

Such a burial would be unusual for most Mayan women, but it seems perfectly appropriate for the interment of a woman afforded the rare title of Supreme Warrior.

"She's an exceptional kind of woman, from a historical standpoint," says Prof. Navarro-Farr, who discovered the tomb. "She was a strong, politically savvy and important person, and I think her tomb does provide new kinds of evidence that shed light on the key role of women in dynastic rulership."

And as Prof. Rosemary Joyce reminds us (on her blog Ancient Bodies/Ancient Lives), the high rank and status of Lady K'abel was far from being so very singular:
Dynastic marriage patterns, in which powerful families sealed alliances by marrying off young women to less powerful ruling families at other sites, virtually demand that we expect many sites to yield evidence of noble or ruling women whose status might be higher than that of their local spouse.
And indeed they do. An elite circle, to be sure, but a well-peopled one.  By now, we should get used to it: "The fact that there were women powerful enough to be buried with the greatest degree of celebration possible in the Classic Maya world should no longer come as a surprise."

Welcome, Lady K'abel, to the Kaloomte club.

*  These are the modern names of the sites: the Maya names were Waka (el-Peru) and Ox Te' Tuun (Calakmul).

Sources include the report from the excavation team at Washington University in St. Louis website; James Owens for National Geographic News; Mesoweb Encylopaedia (el-Peru); Faine Greenwood interviews Olivia Navarro Farr for the Global Post; The History Blog; and David Stuart's Maya Decipherment blog, including the comments by Karen Bassie, Stanley Guenter, and of course the blog-owner himself; and Rosemary Joyce at Ancient Bodies/Ancient Lives.


Top:  Stele 34, portraying Lady K'abel (dedicated in 692 CE) looted from the site of el-Peru/Waka in the sixties and bought regardless by the Cleveland Art Museum, where it is now on display.  Her name appears in the text panel below her round shield.  Photograph: Cleveland Art Museum via Maya Decipherment blog.

Top left:  The main temple in the city centre of el-Peru/Waka, at Washington University , Fig. 2.

Middle left:  Burial 61 from the west. The queen's skull is above the plate fragments, at Washington University , Fig. 8.

Below left and right: The small conch-effigy alabaster vessel, and drawing of the Glyphs on the back of the vessel (drawing by Stanley Guenter), at Washington University , Fig. 10.

Bottom left: Carved jade head from the tomb, much like the one Lady K'abel wears around her neck on the stela at the top of this post, from The History Blog, Tomb of Maya queen, 'Lady Snake Lord' Found.


23 September 2012


The 89th Carnival of Ancient and Medieval History Blogging.

Despite Zenobia's devotion to the women of the ancient world, I'm going to kick off this 89th Carnival by celebrating two male figures: two ancient Greeks to be exact, one quite luscious, the other just a wee bit odd. 

Oh to be in London now that the Motya Charioteer is there. 

This gorgeous marble sculpture (above) -- found on the tiny island of Motya off the west coast of Sicily -- was on loan to London for the length of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. 

Undoubtedly carved in Greece (Athens?) ca. 460 BCE, the young man is identified as a charioteer because he wears what is taken to be a 'regulation' charioteer's sleeveless chiton ... but -- dearie me -- I don't think his outfit looks designed for driving a 4-horse chariot at breakneck speed around eight miles of oval dirt track: not a chiton so see-through skin-tight, clinging to his bulges in so many homoerotic ripples (left). 

Having been muttering about this since I had the pleasure of viewing the guy and his gear up-close some years ago, I finally found someone who agrees with me.

David Lee writing at The Jackdaw: If this fellow is a charioteer, he can only be at the post-race press conference having slipped into something a little more comfortable, and flashy. 

Read his spot-on analysis (and pointed remarks on the chap’s superb buttocks) and drool over the in-your-face photos. 

Not done yet with drooling?  Reverse circumcision should calm you down.

Ancient History Boy's blog, He has a wife, you know, starts off a post on Greek medical practices with a survey of anaesthetics (largely opium), moves to saw-bones stuff and some astonishingly advanced prothetics (check out that sophisticated fake leg), before settling in for a good long natter about circumcision..

Now, Greeks (and Romans) weren’t fans of circumcision.  More to the point the Greeks weren’t keen on seeing the glans at the end of the male member -- that's the bulbous bit at the tip -- that can be covered by the foreskin on an uncircumcised penis.  To keep the glans concealed, athletes or simply those exercising naked in the public gym would use kynodesme (dog ties) -- small leather strips used to tie a knot at the end of the foreskin so it wouldn’t retract.

But what if you were a Syrian or Jew who had just arrived in Rome and wanted to conduct business in the baths, stripped to the buff as usual?  The way was open to reverse circumcision.  There were two options. Ancient History Boy tells you what they were... 

... and one might well need a dose of opium after that Full Monty.

High and mighty Amazons 

Speaking of regulated substances, how did saddle-sore Amazons relax and tend to their bodies after a hard day's galloping over the hot and dusty Scythian plains? 

According to Herodotus (whom you may or may not believe), Scythians didn't bathe very often: only in the spring, and only before getting toned up for a nice funeral.  But, then, they made up for lost time with mind-blowing steam-baths that made them "shout for joy".  Adrienne Mayor spills the beans on the blog Wonders & Marvels.  

Back on the straight and narrow, now for a dose of Biblical blogging.

Israeli scholars claim to have uncovered archaeological evidence of Samson.

Umm, no they didn't: and to their credit, they didn't claim any such thing -- but that didn't stop the media from headlining SAMSON AND THE LION.

Then went Samson down ... to the vineyards of Timnath and, behold, a young lion roared against him.  And the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon him, and he rent him as he would have rent a kid....(Judges 14, 5-6)

With his bare hands, needless to say! 

What the archaeologists actually found was a small stone seal (left; measuring 1.5 cm [0.6"] across) at Tel Beit Shemesh, which depicts a large animal next to a small human figure. The seal has been dated to the 11th century BCE, i.e. the period of the legendary biblical judges - including Samson.  In Judges, Samson fights a lion. So, abracadabra, the seal 'proves' the biblical story.

The blogs PaleoJudaica and God And The Machine bring the media hype down to earth and it's worth looking at Samson chapter-and-verse through their expert eyes.  As for the seal, even if that crude quadruped is a lion (it has a curled tail), I wouldn't put money on that little man coming out on top. 

So, sad to say, there may never have been a Samson but, scarcely pausing for breath, the media circus moved on to the sensation of Jesus' wife.

"Jesus said to them, my wife...." 

A provocative scrap of papyrus from the 4th century makes a direct reference to Jesus having a wife, says Professor Karen L. King, a historian of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School.

This tiny fragment, measuring 4 x 8 cm (1.5" x 3") may thus  cast new light on the history of early Christianity.  The text, written in Coptic (probably translated from a 2nd-century Greek text), contains a dialogue in which Jesus refers to "my wife," whom he identifies as Mary, and a woman who "will be able to be my disciple".

Naturally, what everyone wants to know is: was Dan Brown's thriller, the Da Vinci Code -- making Jesus and Mary Magdalene husband-and-wife -- true to life after all?  Not so fast!

Find out what the fragment does and does not say at some super learned blogs: 

(1) "A Coptic gospel that mentions Jesus' wife?" at PaleoJudaica -- and note that question mark! Is the fragment too good to be true?  Colour him sceptical. 

(2) "The Gospel of Jesus' Wife", reminding us of the Gnostic Gospel of Philip 59, which speaks about Jesus' relationship with his mother, his sister and his companion, all of whom were called Mary, over at NT Blog.

(3) a sharp analysis and slightly variant translation at The Forbidden Gospels.

(4) when a 'wife' is just a 'woman': what the Coptic word means by Craig Evans at Near Emmaus.

(5) and, wait for it ... Is it Real?: is the fragment genuine or (gasp!) a forgery? Follow the discussion in French and English on the Nag Hammadi Seminar Facebook page.

Stop Press: for the very latest take on the papyrus:  The Gospel of Jesus' Wife: The Story is Moving Fast!

And the Carnival is moving fast too, but, before leaving Roman times behind, I can't resist Raising the roof (and not the dead) at Herculaneum.

The extravagant decorations of the House of the Telephus Relief made it one of Herculaneum's most prestigious houses and a superb beach-side property (with cold and hot tub amenities and all mod cons) --  and spectacular views across the Bay of Naples. The roof went flying off in 79 CE, carried away by the force of the eruption of Vesuvius, and it settled on the beach below in 250 or so pieces.  Now, the multicoloured and gilded wooden ceiling has been reassembled and restored to something like its former glory.  Have a look at the grandiose results at World Archaeology.

Giant Roman Milk Pot

This pot would not even have got storage room in the elegant House of the Telephus Relief but, dirt common though it was, its Romano-British owner thought it well worth repairing when the darn thing broke.  They stapled the cracks together with horizontal lead strips laid outside and inside the pot.  And went on using it, perhaps for centuries: pre-break, it tested for containing milk, post-break probably for grain.  The History Blog has all the news of this seriously big great British pot 24" tall and 18" wide (61 x 46 cm).

A little pot of Gladiator Sweat instead? 

In the steamy hot room of the Roman baths, a slave scrapes the sweat, oil and dirt from a muscular gladiator's skin. The slave uses a strigil, a curved metal tool that performs the same task as the modern loofah.

But the strigil (left) is designed to collect the gladiator's gluey mixture of sweat and oil called gloios (γλοίος) in Greek and strigmentum in Latin. Why? Because ‘gladiator sweat’ was worth a lot of money.

Caroline Lawrence explains why it was worth its weight in gold in 'Love Potion Number IX' at  Wonders & Marvels.

Save this date: 19 August 14 CE

Science currently holds that time travel is impossible so I'm afraid you may have to miss that date.  Make do, instead, with its bimillennium celebration in 2014 -- 2000 years to the day after Augustus, first emperor of Rome, kicked the bucket.

We do love to celebrate round dates even though the  roundness of 60, 100, 200 years, whatever, is completely arbitrary.  Somehow, the apparent similarity between two dates separated by a perfect round number -- like 2000 -- has a strong psychological effect. 

Prepare to be psyched.

The way in which such an anniversary is commemorated speaks volumes about the interests, priorities, social structures and political relations in the society which celebrates it.  Mussolini went hog-wild with the bimillennium of Augustus’ birth on 23rd September 1938.  What a great chance for Il duce to signal the perfect parallels between himself and Augustus!  The event was celebrated on a grand scale, including a monster 'Mostra' (that is, exhibition: whence the poster, left) and the reconstruction of the Ara Pacis in Rome. 

Penelope Goodman tells us all about Mussolini's big-time party on her blog, Weavings and Unpickings, and now of her plans for a conference around the bimillennium of his death. A modern obituary, in fact.  I wonder what that will tell about ourselves, and our contemporary society.

Speaking of contemporary concerns and the alarms of our age, how about a a little murder and mayhem? 

Hostage-taking, anyone?

When we think of hostages we tend to think of men with pistols using some innocent as a human shield.  In a grislier mood, we might picture terrorists slitting a hostage's throat from ear to ear when they don't get what they want.  But in the ancient and medieval world hostage-taking was formalised and certainly not criminal. Conquered territories would give up their under-age princes who would be conveyed to an enemy capital or castle, there to be brought up in the winner's ways. A son of a Persian Emperor or a British tribal chief might, for example, find himself in Rome being educated among senator’s sons.  The idea was that, when he went home, he'd be a subservient bridge between top dog and underdog.

It didn't always work like that, especially not in the Middle Ages.  Sometimes, an errant dad got his son's head back instead.  Beachcombing tells us about the ups and downs of Hostage Taking in Ancient and Medieval Times

Now that we've entered the Dark Ages, we search for little beacons of light, such as Chris Cevasco (Author)'s blog which flashes red on 'Lady Godiva - the Naked Truth'.

Mention Lady Godiva and, Chris tells us, the first thing most people think of is the line of chocolates bearing her name. 

Tchah!  Surely, Chris, readers of Zenobia recall higher things than confectionary -- something, for example, about her riding naked on the back of a horse.  Exactly as sprang to the mind, too, of the Pre-Raphaelite artist, John Collier (left). 

But who was Godiva, and why do we remember her at all?  

In truth, very little is known about her.  A mid-11th-century Anglo-Saxon countess, wealthy and pious, whose granddaughter Ealdgyth was Harold Godwineson’s queen when Harold fell at Hastings in 1066.  Godiva lived through the arrival of the Normans, dying less than a year after William the Conqueror took Harold’s throne.

So far, so goodly.

But hardly a reason to baptise any chocolates.  No, it took a cloistered monk to make her famous. The earliest account of her legendary naked ride appeared in Flores Historiarum (Flowers of History; 1326?), written by a monk of St. Albans Abbey.  Read what he had to say, and the later embellishments at Chris' blog

About the time that Godiva was allegedly mounting her horse, anyway in 1042, Edward the Confessor ascended to the throne of England, ending nearly three decades of rule by conquering Danish kings.

1066 and All That

Edward was the last Anglo-Saxon king (genuflect, please, before his image; left).  The great-great-great-great grandson of Alfred the Great, he died childless, leaving England open to conquest from overseas. 

To put it mildly, Edward had a turbulent childhood (well, who wouldn't if your father was Aethelred the Unready, the hapless king besieged by Vikings on all coasts and  Danish kinglets anywhere left undefended?).  When Edward was about ten, his father was deposed and the whole family went into exile under the protection of Edward’s uncle in Normandy. 

The snakes and ladders that followed were worthy of a French farce had the consequences not been so bloody serious.  When, for a brief time, there were more ups than downs, Edward was crowned King of England (April 3, 1042).  That didn't stop invasions, usurpations, and power struggles for a minute.  In 1051, it’s possible that young William, Duke of Normandy visited England and Edward may have promised him the throne at this time....

The whole nine yards at 'Edward the Confessor, King of England' on The Freelance History Writer blog.

Who would have imagined that Edward's promise was to cost Godiva's granddaughter (and her husband) the throne?  Edward didn't become a chocolate but, next best thing, he was canonized as a saint and confessor in 1161.

After the conquest, what did it mean when a writer used French or English?

As time went on, being English was increasingly being defined against being French, but records of government and law long remained multilingual.

The Bavardess blog considers the changes taking place in the 'public sphere' in England in Interpreting Medieval Sources: Orality, Aurality, and Textuality

That may sound daunting but it simply means that texts initially created as written documents also circulated orally whereupon they were read out and listened to in public.  So, it could happen that a French text was proclaimed in English, and then it might go through yet another round of translation and circulation as, for example, being copied into Latin chronicles. 

In those dark days, documents were rarely drawn up in English.  But such  happened in 1405 when some northern nobles agitated for good governance (a 'Northern Spring'?), drafting a set of articles demanding that King Henry IV take steps to reform the system.  The monastic chronicler Thomas Walsingham recorded their complaints, ending with this declaration:
These were the articles that were written in English, whose sense I have translated almost word for word, and have inserted them here as they were expressed, without any bias. [In other words, he has translated them from English into Latin] This seemed necessary to me because of the plainness and inelegance of the language.... 
England was still multilingual at the time although there were a growing number of literary works being written in English (Chaucer, Gower, and, most dangerous of all, Wycliffe's Bible).  Elegant or not, here we came!  

Chaucer was praised as "The first finder of our fair language." And this below may be its terminator:

“Wield the Skillet, Forge the Family Dinner,”

A recent ad campaign for Velveeta stars a manly, quasi-medieval blacksmith, chanting, There’s no more medieval prepared cheese product than Velveeta. That’s the message of Velveeta Shells and Cheesy's Eat Liquid Gold TV ads. When not smiting noodles, perhaps the blacksmith will find time to hammer Velveeta (or its curdler-in-chief, Kraft) who completely misunderstood the metaphor.

Jeff Sypeck at the blog Quid Plura tells what the admen got wrong.
Medieval people associated the consumption of liquid metal with horrific punishments and unbearable pain. In the 12th-century Anglo-Norman Voyage of St. Brendan, the saint discovers Judas on an island, where his unceasing torments include being forced to drink molten lead and copper....
Which doesn't taste nearly as nice as it sounds. Not convinced?  Try this real medieval text:
and one broʒt myche gold and syluer, and þat was molten and casten in hyr þrote, and þat ran out of hyr stomake. And he seide, “Take þe þis for þ[i] cursed and wikked coueitise…”*
Believe me, Velveeta, you won't like it.  And I wouldn't wish it even on a cheese dip.

Here endeth the 89th History Carnivaleque.  My thanks to all who sent me leads: we had a bumper crop of nominations this season.

"One brought much gold and silver, and that was melted and poured down her throat and that ran out of her stomach. And he said, "Take thee this for thy cursed and wicked covetousness."


All images are from the blogs highlighted with the exception of the papyrus fragment (Jesus' Wife) which comes from the Harvard Divinity School webpage.

Blog Archive