Africas Ancient Rock Art Ravaged by Time
David Coulson is a busy man.
He is working with the Getty Conservation Institute to photograph thousands of paintings and engravings that cover cave walls throughout Africa. More than 30,000 images, some possibly dating to 6000 B.C., are recorded in one region of Algeria alone and scholars estimate that only ten percent of Africas rock art is documented. However, the art is deteriorating, which is why Coulson is in Africa: to record for posterity images from ancient times.
These paintings and engravings are not only beautiful, they also tell important stories about the past. Algerian rock art from nearly 8,000 years ago depicts the Sahara as a fertile plain full of life, including a now-extinct species of buffalo (Bubalus antiquus). Paintings of domesticated cattle begin to appear around 3500 B.C., according to radiocarbon tests, suggesting that humans made the transition to a pastoral society at about that time. Horses appear rather late, about 1200 B.C., when the Sea Peoples are thought to have introduced them into the region.
Weather and natural erosion are partially responsible for the arts deterioration, but human contact is also a major factor. Locals often scrape off pigments to use in medicines, and their cattle lick the rocks to get at salt. Coulson also tells horrifying stories of encountering visitors urinating on the art, trying to bring out the paintings vivid colors by rinsing away layers of accumulated dust.
Coulsons photographs are being collected in an archive at the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles. Neville Agnew, the Institutes associate director of programs, says that many African nations are aware of the arts importance but lack the funds to protect and promote it. With the help of the Getty archive, the art will, at least, be preserved in images.
Who Says They Werent Brain Surgeons?
Cut a thin hole in the skull; then remove a bit of bone in order to relieve pressure on the brain. This surgical technique, known as trephination, would seem to be a delicate operation performed only in the sterile, high-tech environment of a modern hospital.
Not so! Man has been drilling holes in heads for thousands of years. French and German archaeologists report the discovery of a Stone Age skull (roughly 7,000 years old) at Ensisheim, France, providing the earliest known evidence of the art of trephination. The well-preserved skull, which belonged to a 50-year-old man, shows signs of two clean, artificial punctures. Both punctures had healed, one of them completely, indicating that the man had survived at least one of the operations.
Archaeologists have found a number of Stone Age skulls with cranial punctures, but in every case the wounds could have been caused by other meansby a blow to the head, or by deterioration after death. This is the first Stone Age skull showing certain signs of a deliberate surgical act.
Does Pompeiis Sister City Contain a New Library from the Ancient World?
Buried in lava during the 79 A.D. eruption of Mount Vesuvius that also destroyed Pompeii, Herculaneum may contain the greater treasure: a cache of books from the classical world tucked away within the citys most elegant mansion.
Artifacts from this seaside town began turning up in the early 18th century, when local peasants digging irrigation ditches stumbled across sculpted marble fragments. Much of this ancient statuary was then ground up to make a stucco coating for the peasants modest dwellingsliterally turning archaeological riches into dust.
The mansions discovery came in 1750. Archaeologists working under the direction of Charles III, the Bourbon king of Naples, constructed a network of mine-like shafts and subterranean tunnels that allowed them to enter the mansion in small gondola-like boats. Inside lay more than 1,000 scrolls of carbonized papyrus, containing Greek and (only a few) Latin texts.
This was an astonishing discovery: No other papyrus library has ever been found in Italy. This library, moreover, contains the only extant archive of first-century B.C. Greek literary proseincluding the only known works of the Greek philosopher and poet Philodemus, who followed the doctrines of Epicurus (341270 B.C.).
The Villa of the Papyri, as the mansion has been dubbed, once belonged to none other than Julius Caesars father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoniusa highly literate man who befriended poets and philosophers. According to Marcello Gigante, a retired professor of philology from the University of Naples, 18th-century excavators most likely found only a portion of Caesoniuss library. A collection of Latin textsperhaps containing works by Cicero, Lucretius, Virgil or Horaceprobably remains buried somewhere in the villa, given the buildings prominence as a meeting ground for first-century B.C. scholars. All private and public Roman libraries had both Greek and Latin wings, Gigante told Odyssey. Archaeologists have recently discovered that the Villa of the Papyri has at least one additional lower floor, raising speculation that more scrolls, probably Latin, will be found.
In one of natures more symmetrical paradoxes, the lava that destroyed Herculaneum in 79 A.D. preserved its scrolls for modern scholars. Papyrus lasts for about 1,000 years in humid climates; exposed to the slow assault of Herculaneums muggy, seaside air, Caesoniuss scrollsunlike papyri from Egypt and the Near East that have been preserved by the dry desert airwould have disintegrated by the time they were discovered in the 1750s.
These papyri, however, are extremely difficult to read. Fires from Mount Vesuviuss eruption badly charred the scrolls, rendering them extremely brittle. Of the 1,800 existing scrolls, only about 300 are legible. In some instances, as many as 50 layers of a rolled-up scroll are stuck together in a plywood-like sheath of papyrus only one centimeter thick. To separate the layers, scholars apply a solution of gelatin and acetic acid to the scroll. Once the papyrus fragments are loose, they are photographed. Though the texts themselves remain housed in the National Library of Naples, they can be studied from these photographs by scholars around the world. But this is an arduous task; even erudite scholars have a tough time navigating through Philodemuss thick, esoteric prose.
Until recently, no excavation work had been done at the villa since 1765. Over the centuries, the exact location of the building was forgottenuntil 1980, that is, when archaeologists discovered two shafts used by Herculaneums 18th-century excavators. Since the late 1980s, excavations directed by Italian archaeologist Antonio de Simone have uncovered a corner of the Villa of the Papyri as well as mosaics and wall paintings from the buildings main floor.
But these modern excavations have incited protest from property owners who cultivate carnations on the land above the buried building; the archaeologists have been forced to dig new shafts to avoid trampling the flowers. Also, if excavation of the villa proceeds, several private houses and a school will have to be razed.
The immediate need, however, is money. In 1990, Italys Culture Ministry approved a $1.5 million grant to excavate the villa and its immediate surroundings. About $1 million is needed to continue digging. According to Gigante, Italian Minister of Culture Walter Veltroni is in favor of further exploration of the villa. It seems the excavations will continue with long-range funding, Gigante said. If not, scholars may never know if that long-lost Virgil eclogue or forgotten Horace ode lies buried beneath the rubble.
mid-2nd or early-3rd century A.D.
5 feet long
Teeth still sunk in the head of her male prey, claws still tearing at his shoulders, this sandstone lioness was discovered by a ferryman in the tidal flats of the River Almond, just west of Edinburgh. A team from the City of Edinburgh Museums Archaeological Service and the National Museums of Scotland pulled the carving from the clinging mud with ropes and cranes.
Although the stautes iconography is Roman, its style of carving is not classical; a Roman official probably commissioned a Celtic sculptor to carve the beast for his tomb, during Romes occupation of the area under the reign of either Pius Antoninus (138161 A.D.) or Septimus Severus (222235 A.D.).
What does this vicious scene signify? One clue comes from the statues base, now broken off, where two snakes originally crawled from under the lions stomach. For the Romans, snakes represented the spirit of the deceasedso the imagery appears to represent the endurance of the spirit even in the face of violent death.
Woman of Zagazig
c. 1300 B.C
limestone with obsidian, ivory and carnelian
37 inches high
Septuplets theyre not, but they are a lapful. This limestone woman with children was found 62 miles north of Cairoby a villager digging the foundation of a house. She sits on a chair with lions legs; baboons are carved into both sides of the chair. The ancient artist fashioned the womans ethereal gaze by inlaying her eye sockets with ivory and obsidian. Three children, now headless, lean against her breast, wearing necklaces of bright carnelian set into the limestone. Archaeologists remain unsure of the statues function; and some even assign it a much later date in the Saite period (664525 B.C.).
Archaeologists Believe Theyve Uncovered Euripedes Scriptorium
For much of his career, Euripedes (480406 B.C.) chose to compose his tragedies far away from the bustle of ancient Athens. He preferred the solitude of a remote cave on the island of Salamis, west of the Greek capital in the Saronic Gulf. For centuries, the only clues to the whereabouts of Euripedes den were buried in literary texts: Descriptions of the cave can be found in the works of the fourth-century B.C. poet Philochoros and Euripedes third-century B.C. biographer, Satyrus.
Now, after more than three years of excavating at a cave perched above the Bay of Peristeria on the southern coast of Salamis, a team of 15 Greek archaeologists believes it has found the spot where the reclusive playwright wrote such works as Medea, Hippolytus and Hecuba.
The archaeologists, led by Y.G. Lolos of the University of Ioannina, have uncovered several objects dating to the fifth century B.C., including three glazed vases bearing graffiti and a red lekythos (a vase used to store oil or perfume) adorned with a depiction of the winged-goddess Nike.
In late 1996, they unearthed the caves most significant treasure: a black glazed cup, dating to around 430 B.C., inscribed with the letters EURIPPthe first six letters of Euripedes name. Though the cup dates to the fifth century B.C., it was inscribed much later, probably in the Hellenistic Age (323 B.C.31 A.D.) or in the early part of the Roman period. Loloss team believes the cave was once the meeting place of a local cult that worshiped Euripedes and that one of its members probably inscribed the cup with the playwrights name to memorialize his den.
Fun in the Sun on the Banks of Lac Léman
How to beat the heat in, say, 2000 B.A.C. (Before Air Conditioners)? Romans couldnt do better than to summer in the ancient equivalent of Saint Moritz.
Remains of a Roman amphitheater were recently uncovered in Nyon, Switzerland, during the construction of an apartment building. Many of the theaters rectangular stone blocks had been removed and reused in other structures, but the large arena (120 by 165 feet) is still well preserved, as are two animal cagesthe ancient equivalent of the stars dressing roomsbuilt into the structures wall. Archaeologists also found an inscription dedicated to the Roman emperor Trajan and referring to the year 111 A.D., perhaps the date when the theater was finished.
Looking out over lovely Lac Léman, the colony at Nyon was founded by Julius Caesar in 45 B.C. The remains of a forum, a large building that was probably a bath, and a first-century A.D. basilica have also been uncovered.
Going My Way?
Two thousand years before Heavens Gate cult members strapped themselves in for a journey into eternity aboard the starship Hale-Bopp, Julius Caesar hitched a similar ride. In 44 B.C., just after Caesars murder, a comet loomed in the Roman skiesso bright it could be seen for a week in broad daylight. The Romans believed this celestial visitor was a sign of Caesars deification. Thus Augustus, whom Caesar had adopted in 45 B.C., proclaimed himself Son of God when he became the first Roman emperor in 27 B.C.
Alphabets and Scripts