Archaeology in Saudi Arabia!

Here’s a fascinating story about some thaw in the longstanding Saudi freeze on archaeology on the Peninsula. The hostility to even acknowledging the pre-Islamic past is still pretty strong – especially since some of the sites are specifically Jewish or Christian. I didn’t know about the 5th Century church discovered by accident and fenced off for the last 20 years!
One of the standing questions is what was the economic shape of Mecca in the time of Muhammad? Patricia Crone and Michael Cook believe that it was pretty pitiful, not a major trading center, but a pilgrimage center. There won’t be any excavations in Mecca anytime soon – but anything that explores the spice trade will help.

Dante Blogging – Inferno Canto XI

Canto XI

Is it worth talking about Dante as a fair judge?

Dante is even-handed only in the sense that he damns a certain number of Guelphs – otherwise he’s not to be trusted. I was thinking about this because I had a talk this weekend with a friend of a scene in Purgatory where someone Dante thinks was pretty bad in life scraped in because of a moment-of-death conversion (I can’t find it now – it’ll wait). Some of the folks in Hell don’t seem to have been given a chance for repentance, even when they had the leisure for it – like Pope Celestine in Canto III – who, after all, lived for 10 months in imprisonment after making what Dante calls “il gran rifiuto.” Think he might have repented?

Similarly, Dante sometimes works with poor historical information, like here in Canto XI, when he damns Pope Anastasius as a Monophysite (one of the last of the Christological heresies of early Christianity). But then Dante was no historian – there’s a reason most of his characters are, more or less, current events. By the way, I’m not at all offended by the idea of a pope in hell (I like John Chrysostom’s quip, that hell is paved with priest’s skulls), but given the rules Dante sets up it seems unlikely – they have too many chances for sacramental confession. I have no particular doubt that Teddy Kennedy made a good end, for instance. He had a lot to confess, but so do I.

Dante’s got a job, though – he has to populate the rings of Hell.

Oh – a quick aside – I wonder why the Modern Library and Anthony Esolen titled the three books Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. He may well have explained that in some front matter I missed, but it seems a little odd to stick to the Italian in one but not the other two. Maybe a pure marketing decision – name recognition for the first may really be that high?

OK – back to the rings of Hell. Now is a time to draw on the board again – Hell has order inside which chaos is confined. Look at the bottom right (Christ’s left) of the mosaic from the west wall of the cathedral at Torcello (one of the islands in the Venetian lagoon). Those boxes each contain a variety of the damned – I’d click to enlarge. Similarly, Virgil offers in Canto XI a quick explanation of the layout of the rings of Hell.

All the remaining sins have some element of force or fraud – we’re past the traditional Seven Deadly Sins and into something more offensive to God. The violent are neatly divided into those who have committed violence against their neighbors, against themselves, or against God. The lowest rings, though, are crimes of fraud. Or,

Since fraud’s a sin peculiar to mankind
  God hates it more; and so the fraudulent
  sink farther down, assailed by greater pain.

The Torcello mosaic and Dante go a long way to reminding us that the Middle Ages exulted in order. Whether they achieved it or not is another question – but any explanation of the history of ideas or the history of culture that presents some kind of change from disorder and darkness to balance and brightness because of some self-styled Renaissance is up against it – what can be more neurotically balanced than Aquinas? What vision of the Cosmos is more orderly than Ptolemy’s as elaborated by Muslims and medieval Christians? The philosophical movement that goes along with imitation natural landscapes is the Enlightenment, not the Scholastics – who preferred their horti to be conclusi.

Oh well – professors are always fighting yesterday’s battles. In fact, most of my students don’t seem to have a lot of cultural baggage about the Middle Ages. They haven’t really ingested any periodization at all. I should probably shut up and move on.

Click here for all the Danteblogging and none of my other ramblings.

Dante Blogging – Inferno Canto IX

Les Alyscamps

Originally uploaded by Nick in exsilio.

Canto IX

Canto IX is a Canto of anticipation – Virgil and Dante wait outside the gate of the City of Dis for someone to open the door. I noticed three things – two of them go together and the third bewildered me for a bit – Esolen’s note helped a lot, though I’m going to have to see what the Lectura Dantis commentary* makes of it, too.

First the bewildering bit:

O voi ch’avete li’ntelletti sani,
  mirate la dottrina che s’asconde
  sotto ‘l velame de li versi strani.

O you whose intellects see clear and whole,
  gaze on the doctrine that is hidden here
  beneath the unfamiliar verses’ veil

The literal sense is easy enough – Dante is addressing (ideal) living readers, asking them to interpret – to read verses for doctrine hidden behind the veil. But what? This occurs as Virgil turns Dante away from Medusa and covers his eyes to save him from petrification. Is it to tell us to look when Dante can’t? But then what are we to see?

Actually I think that’s pretty close – we, readers who Dante kindly addresses as persons whose intellects see clear and whole, are to look at Medusa. He can’t.

Esolen helps here. “Dante, we must understand, is in real danger. When Virgil covers his charge’s faace with his hands lest he see the Gorgon and be turned to stone, we must not think it idle….Whatever the danger is (despair?), we are to remember that its approach to Dante might well cause the loss of his eternal soul” (428). Esolen also refers to Dante’s explanation of the 4 ways of interpreting (from the Letter to Can Grande). Since we can read this literally as turning to stone or (the moral sense) the loss of his soul by staying stuck in Hell we are reading beyond the veil. How does that sound? It satisfied me over coffee, at least.

The picture on the right, from the photo stream of my Flickr friend Nick in Exsilio, brings us to the 2 related points. There are two great moments of classical recall and reuse in Canto IX – one of which Dante may have gotten in the folkloric sense.

First, Dante asks Virgil for some reassurance – Dante is once again on the verge of the despair Esolen mentions. Dante asks “has anyone from Limbo ever been this far in Hell?” (tercet 6). Virgil replies that he himself has been all the way to the circle of Judas, when sent by the witch Erichtho to drag a soul up to the land of the living to speak a prophesy. That’s a reference to Lucan’s Pharasalia, book 6, where just like in Virgil’s Aeneid, book 6, we read about the Underworld. We last saw Lucan in the Castle of Limbo in the company of Homer, Horace, and Ovid. Ah, intertextuality!

So, yes, Virgil has walked this path before – yet another reason for Dante to stop whining.

But once the angel from Heaven opens the gates of Dis and our pilgrims walk through, they see a vast field of jumbled tombs, which Dante compares to the Alyscamps at Arles (thanks, Nick!) and a sarcophagus field at Pola – across the Adriatic from Ravenna. You may also remember the Alyscamps from some very orange and yellow van Gogh paintings, which show a rather prettified park version. In Dante’s day it was more of a mess, probably – an area outside the city walls filled with tombs. Alyscamps is the Occitan for what northern French calls “Champs Elysees.” In medieval legend, which may have some relevance for Dante, these were the tombs of the army of Roland, slain by Saracens. Vivid visual image for a field of tombs, though.

*So far only the first two volumes are out. Each Canto gets a good essay in commentary, but each essay’s author is free to focus very narrowly. So far it’s always been interesting but never immediately useful. I’m sure the 2nd time through I will mine lots more to talk about with students.

Click here for all the Danteblogging and none of my other ramblings.

The Golden Virgin of Essen

This statue of the Virgin and Child was made around 980 for Abbess Matilda, granddaughter of Emperor Otto I. I like it for two or three reasons. First, it’s all golden and great. Second, she’s got great enamel goggle eyes – and they’re weirder in person than in photographs. Third, she undercuts a particularly tedious assertion of those kinds of people who like to see the invention of the reflective individual in the 12th or 13th Century.*

They tend to say things like “all Virgin and Child sculptures from the 11th Century are hieratic and stiff and frontal and formal and not very nice. Then in the delightful Gothic era we begin to see mothers who interact vividly with the child Jesus.” I know, I’m not being fair, but one does get tired of the condescension, whether from Lady de Burgh** or other medievalists.

Well hell. Look at this one. So she’s not making eye contact with Him – but the whole pose is as dynamic as a Schoene Jungfrau of the 15th Century. This artist had seen something in touch with the Classical – something Byzantine, something real, something naturalistic. The monastery at Essen undoubtedly had stuff that had percolated west from the 9th Century capital of the world – Constantinople. That marriage for Otto II with the Theophanu girl, whoever she really was, came with gear.*** In fact, one of the immediate successors of the abbess who commissioned this statue was even named after Theophanu.

What a nexus object! I was very happy to visit Her.

*You know, like this book.
**Gratuitous Jane Austen reference.
***Really. We’re still debating who Theophanu was – niece of the Emperor?

Porphyry Column of Constantine

My life story – I walk up to famous, tall thing only to find it scaffolded (see Freiburg Münsterturm).

This elaborate scaffolding surrounds Constantine’s Porphyry Column, now known as the Burnt Column – Çemberlitas in Turkish (and I can’t get the little thingy to come out on the final s, sorry). From a distance I could see the porphyry surface, at least.

The Romans carefully placed it on the main street, running along a ridge top, from forum to forum. The elevation – along with it’s own enormous height something like 110 feet – means that it is visible from the Sea of Marmora and the Golden Horn. Constantine topped it with an enormous statue of himself as the Sun. That’s Constantine all over.

I walked around it several times, then finally spotted the inconspicuous entrance to the Çemberlitas Hamam. Gosh that was pleasant, but it was all for knowledge – Sinan designed the building! Click here and look at the images of the dome.

Looking at layers

Ninth Century mosaic, with motifs lifted from 5th and 4th century examples. Set in a plan lifted from a 4th century basilica. 18th century baldachino, reusing some porphyry columns from the 16th century baldachino – and goodness only knows where they came from before that. Under the baldachino? A crypt full of relics! See why I love Santa Prassede?



Originally uploaded by Michael Tinkler.

Yes, really, I went all that way for this photograph.

Einhard, Charlemagne’s biographer, reports that shortly before Charles died the word PRINCEPS faded from the inscription sinopide scriptum, “written in red.”

Magical thinking, or prophecy?

The mosaic inscription as it stands is a 19th Century restoration – but I like it.

Archaeology and Shipbuilding

Archaeologists are pushing back the invention of frame-construction for ships by 500 years to about 500 instead of 1000. This is based on over 3 dozen ships recovered from two different abandoned harbors in the Eastern Mediterranean.
This is neat, too:

Four long, narrow vessels discovered in the [Istanbul] harbor contain holes in their sides for oars. Encircling these openings are remains of leather sleeves, known from historical accounts to have kept water from splashing into the ships. One boat retains the wooden benches on which rowers sat. Another contains boards once used as oars.
“For the first time, we’ll be able to work out the ergonomics of rowing on these boats,” Pulak said.

Year in Metal Detectorism Review

The BBC posts a round-up article on some of the most splendid finds of the year – with a slide show of good photographs!
Here are the two most significant sentences about policy and amateur archaeology:

The Treasure Act in 1996 ruled that finders and landowners would be eligible for rewards for finds.
Museums have since reported a 10-fold increase in items of treasure offered to them.

What used to happen to finds? Well, less was found before metal detectors were invented and became popular, but what was found sometimes took the same path into local museums but otherwise might have sat on shelves in houses around Britain or have been sold on the private market without ever being documented.
Now, at least, someone’s keeping some serious attention on what turns up. The Portable Antiquities Scheme site is a great place to watch the process – I visit often!

Carnivalesque 45 – a blog carnival of Ancient and Medieval findings

Welcome to Carnivalesque 45 – a blog carnival of Ancient and Medieval findings!
Lots of people are talking conferences – it’s a way of not thinking about grading, of course. J. J. Cohen at In the Middle gets some organizational information about what sort of audience to expect for his paper at the Leeds Congress and breaks out into a rash:

Yeah, nooo pressure at all. I’ll just wear a nice suit and juggle oranges on a unicycle while reading from my translation of Judith Butler’s Giving an Account of Oneself into medieval Latin. Slowly.

Dr. Virago complains at Quod She about her future office, but then she shows pictures of the Modern Panopticon! She’s right – those are a lot of windows to clap to.
What brings people to the blogs they read? Jonthan Jarrett at A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe (IN a Corner of Tenth-Century Europe? I’m not sure) looks at his referrer logs and decides to do something for the searchers.

If I leave aside the porn searches and count only strings that look academic, the two things that bring people to this blog from search engines more than anything else are, firstly, my piece on the First Crusade, which is good as that’s what it’s there for, and secondly, the piece I wrote about Charles the Simple, because it includes a reference to and a map of the Treaty of Verdun. It’s searches for “treaty of Verdun” that bring people to that, and they can’t really be getting what they want out of it. I’m not going to try and fill that gap here, because there are already better sites out there explaining what the Treaty was, but I will do two things. Firstly, I will make an important point about the Treaty’s effect, and then I will do what I do best, or at least most, and tell you a story from a charter that helps to illustrate the sort of thing that was going on.

Dr. Weevil is also checking meta-blog information. He blogged a bit from 14th century essayist Yoshida Kenko that reminded him of the essence of blogging:

If I fail to say what lies on my mind it gives me a feeling of flatulence; I shall therefore give my brush free rein. Mine is a foolish diversion, but these pages are meant to be torn up, and no one is likely to see them. (Kenko, Essays in Idleness 19, tr. Donald Keene)

Then a little later,

Belatedly wondering if anyone else had quoted Kenko’s proto-blogger manifesto, I did a Google search on “Kenko + blogger + Idleness + flatulence”. The first result of “about 93” was my own 11:57pm post, dated (timed?) “9 minutes ago”, which means that Google had it in their database approximately 25 minutes after I posted it. I would be less impressed if I had even 0.1% (e.g.) InstaPundit‘s traffic.

Speaking of meta-blogging, how many of us started out as anonymous bloggers only to be outed? Or noticed? It just happened to Another Damned Medievalist.
Disiecta membra! Got to love them! Carl Pyrdum at Got Medieval shows us a marginal guy ripping himself apart! And monkeys!
We don’t always have to reinterpret the same ol’ same ol’ – we can dig up new stuff! But then we find ourselves in an arms race with, you know, the public. Who sometimes dig things up without consulting the experts. Alun Salt at Archeoastronomy considers all sorts of issues along these lines – starting with Great Britain’s current finding regime, the Portable Antiquity Scheme. The broader consideration is of how we might encourage a world in which a conserved heritage is more valuable than a marketed heritage. Lots of links for people interested in ethics and morals of archaeology. Here’s the Portable Antiquity Scheme in case you don’t already have it bookmarked.
Talking about the ethics and morality of archaeology, Dr. Martin Rundkvist at Aardvarchaeology offers a guest entry by Florian Freistetter of Astrodicticum Simplex – who manages to go to a lecture and restrain himself from standing up and shouting by taking diligent notes:

A few weeks ago, on 17th October, I had the dubious pleasure of attending a lecture by Erich von Däniken with the title Götterdämmerung, “Twilight of the Gods”. The great hall in Jena’s Volkshaus was rather full: I believe there were 650 to 700 people there. It was a strange feeling, being in the same room as all those people and knowing that most of them would probably believe what Däniken was going to tell them.

Speaking of aliens, Michael Drout, in his only political blog posting, asked Why Settle for the Lesser Evil?
Gesta at On Boundaries posted on a Chris Wickham lecture, ‘The problem of the dialogues between medieval history and medieval archaeology.’ Gesta links comments on the same lecture by Jonathan Jarrett and Magistra et Mater, and notes:

What is interesting from my point of view is that clearly I had my teaching head on rather than my research head in this lecture. While Magistra and Jonathan were mulling over the implications for the way they write history, I was pondering how we start to address the problems at undergrad level. I fear I am becoming institutionalised.

Do you know what Zenobia really looked like? Judith Weingarten has some ideas. Coin pictures at Zenobia, Empress of the East!
And since we’re turning to the classical world, let’s talk Classics as a major – and one of those awkward conversations we sometimes have this time of year during registration for Spring classes. Are your students declaring majors? Michael Gilleland at Laudator Temporis Acti has Ed Turner’s letter to young Ted Turner (yeah, that Ted Turner) on the subject. Ed wrote:

“I am appalled, even horrified, that you have adopted classics as a major. As a matter of fact, I almost puked on my way home today.”

How would you help Ted answer Ed?*
Edward Cook at Ralph the Sacred River tells us why the Jesus Bowl is just another crock. Everyone loves Magic Bowls, but this one’s nothing special.
And a different sort of bowl – and back to the idea of the morality of digging up or owning things, Chris Bertram at Crooked Timber talks about buying a Song dynasty bowl. Read the comments.
Just remember, don’t go buying things as if the sales catalog is accurate! David Nishimura at Cronaca pointed out a couple of stories about a Fatimid ewer selling at Christie’s for 3.2 million pounds. The same piece had been cataloged in January of 2008 as a 19th century claret jug and valued at 100-300 pounds. Jug, ewer – is it the price point that inflects the nomenclature? Whatever – caveat emptor!
The December 2008 Carnivalesque Logo (early modern) will be hosted at Investigations of a Dog. Go make suggestions!

*Fun fact to know and tell – Ted Turner started Latin under the same man I did, W.O.E.A. Humphreys at the McCallie School. Note that I am not listed as one of the notable alumni.

Early Medieval Church Silver at Dumbarton Oaks

I got to visit Dumbarton Oaks last weekend with my nephews (and sister!) – the Sion Treasure is a highlight for me. It was the perfect preparation for someone to spend the week reading the Liber Pontificalis and its telegraphic mentions of the largesse of the popes. Here’s what the LP (in Davis’s translation, linked above) says Paschal I gave to the church of Santa Caecilia, which he rebuilt:

For love of the venerable saints [Agatha and Caecilia], to decorate this church [Sta Caecilia in Trastevere] this holy prelate provided an apse adorned with mosaic and a silver canopy of wondrous size, weighing 600 lb 8 oz. He finished and marvellously embellished the holy altar’s propitatorium* and the confessio** inside and out, and its grills, with silver sheets, weighing in all 154 lb 15 oz. At this virgin’s holy body he presented an image of silver sheets weighing 95 lb. In front of the altar’s vestibule he provided a cornice covered in silver sheets and 2 columns, where he placed 1 arch and 2 chevrons, weighing in all 100 1/2 lb. There too he presented 3 sliver-gilt images weighing 48 1/2 lb. For this church’s arches this prelate provided 26 great silver chalices weighing in all 109 1/2 lb. There too he presented 2 silver canisters*** with six wicks, weighing 2 lb 9 oz; a fine gold bowl weighing 3 lb. This pontiff provided 2 silver canisters with nine wicks, weighing 10 lb; 3 silver bowls weighing 5 lb.; a silver gilt thurible weighing 1 lb. (LP, Life 100: chapters 19-20)

And that’s before the biographer lists the fabrics Paschal donated.
This kind of amazing silver work – Dumbarton Oaks’ example probably coming from a provincial monastery in Lycia in Anatolia – was not uncommon in the Mediterranean world. Click and see two other views of the stuff from the same site.
The inscriptions in silver are also splendid and eye-catching – and help liven up for me some of the tedious textual inscriptions I study as evidence for how patrons wanted people to see and use their buildings.
Moments like this also make the neo-Baroque so common in modern 1962 Missal arrangements seem quite dull. This is real silver, not gold leaf or gold thread embroidery. Imagine what people thought about their altars in the 6th century as opposed to what we might surmise from the plaster and gold leaf decorations of the 17th?
*propitatorium – well, it’s the word the Vulgate uses for whatever was on top of the Ark of the Covenant – what the KJV calls the “mercy seat.” It doesn’t show up often in the Liber Pontificalis, so we’re not exactly sure what it is except that it was associated with the altar. Some people translate it as “altar frontal.” I find that more convincing than “ciborium” or some kind of rear ledge over the altar.
**confessio – the container for the body of the saint.
***cannister – some kind of cylindrical floor-based oil lamp

Scholarly Moodswings

I don’t know about you, but I go through life with a kind of academic bipolar disorder. I read things and think thoughts and suppose that they’ve already been thought – and published, usually in German. Then I swing around and realize that nothing has been said before – nothing! There’s so much work to do!
I’m having one of those up moments this week. It’s a nice way to be about your reading.

I’m hosting Carnivalesque and I haven’t sent out any invitations!

Well, I keep saying I’m having a Christmas party and I haven’t even chosen a date, either.
Hey – if you have an Ancient or Medieval bit of bloggery to suggest or show off in the November Carnivalesque Logo, which I hope to go live with on Monday, you can either email me at thecrankyprofessor AT gmail DOT com, send a message to the carnival email address (carnivalesque AT earlymodernweb DOT org DOT uk), or use the nomination form.
Here’s the previous Carnivalesque I hosted, way back in 2005.