Animal Mummy Coffins of Ancient Egypt
Thursday, January 23, 2014
In ancient Egypt, the practice of mummifying animals became widespread in the first millenium B.C. Until the advent of Christianity, visitors to temples could buy animal mummy bundles as offerings to the gods. Wealthier pilgrims could also splurge on elaborate coffins shaped as creatures to hold these mummies, which ancient Egyptians probably believed represented the souls of the gods. Along with the sale of animal mummies, the production of lavish bronze and wooden coffins must have been an important source of revenue for temples.
The coffins below illustrate the wide array of animal forms taken by Egyptian gods. They will accompany 30 newly rediscovered animal mummies in The Brooklyn Museum's traveling exhibit Soulful Creatures:Animal Mummies in Ancient Egypt. The exhibit's catalogue is available at gilesltd.com.
The Sultan’s African Palace
By SAMIR S. PATEL
Monday, December 02, 2013
From the tenth to fifteenth centuries, the East Coast of Africa was home to hundreds of trading towns collectively known as the Swahili Coast. These wealthy, independent Islamic sultanates brought the riches of the African interior, including ivory, gold, and slaves, to a hemisphere-spanning trade network.
Among the richest and most influential of these towns was Kilwa Kisiwani, located on an island off the Tanzanian coast. At Kilwa’s height in the early fourteenth century, its leader, Sultan al-Hasan ibn Sulaiman, constructed a massive palace called Husuni Kubwa. The site, built of jagged blocks of coral called coral rag, is now only accessible from a worn staircase carved out of the cliff leading up from the water. Its ruin includes traditional Swahili elements, such as a stepped greeting court bordered by guest rooms for visiting merchants, and elements borrowed from other Islamic palaces, such as an octagonal swimming pool, grand audience court, and a residence with some 100 rooms. But the sultan had overreached in his ambition: The palace was occupied for only a short time before it was abandoned, unfinished.
Telling Tales in Proto-Indo-European
By ERIC A. POWELL
Tuesday, September 17, 2013
By the 19th century, linguists knew that all modern Indo-European languages descended from a single tongue. Called Proto-Indo-European, or PIE, it was spoken by a people who lived from roughly 4500 to 2500 B.C., and left no written texts. The question became, what did PIE sound like? In 1868, German linguist August Schleicher used reconstructed Proto-Indo-European vocabulary to create a fable in order to hear some approximation of PIE. Called “The Sheep and the Horses,” and also known today as Schleicher’s Fable, the short parable tells the story of a shorn sheep who encounters a group of unpleasant horses. As linguists have continued to discover more about PIE (and archaeologists have learned more about the Bronze Age cultures that would have spoken it), this sonic experiment continues and the fable is periodically updated to reflect the most current understanding of how this extinct language would have sounded when it was spoken some six thousand years ago. Since there is considerable disagreement among scholars about PIE, no one version can be considered definitive. Here, University of Kentucky linguist Andrew Byrd recites his version of the fable, as well as a second story, called "The King and the God," using pronunciation informed by the latest insights into reconstructed PIE.
Schleicher originally rendered the fable like this:
Avis akvāsas ka
Avis, jasmin varnā na ā ast, dadarka akvams, tam, vāgham garum vaghantam, tam, bhāram magham, tam, manum āku bharantam. Avis akvabhjams ā vavakat: kard aghnutai mai vidanti manum akvams agantam. Akvāsas ā vavakant: krudhi avai, kard aghnutai vividvant-svas: manus patis varnām avisāms karnauti svabhjam gharmam vastram avibhjams ka varnā na asti. Tat kukruvants avis agram ā bhugat.
Here is the fable in English translation:
The Sheep and the Horses
A sheep that had no wool saw horses, one of them pulling a heavy wagon, one carrying a big load, and one carrying a man quickly. The sheep said to the horses: "My heart pains me, seeing a man driving horses." The horses said: "Listen, sheep, our hearts pain us when we see this: a man, the master, makes the wool of the sheep into a warm garment for himself. And the sheep has no wool." Having heard this, the sheep fled into the plain.
And here is the modern reconstruction recited by Andrew Byrd. It is based on recent work done by linguist H. Craig Melchert, and incorporates a number of sounds unknown at the time Schleicher first created the fable:
h2áu̯ei̯ h1i̯osméi̯ h2u̯l̥h1náh2 né h1ést, só h1éḱu̯oms derḱt. só gwr̥hxúm u̯óǵhom u̯eǵhed; só méǵh2m̥ bhórom; só dhǵhémonm̥ h2ṓḱu bhered. h2óu̯is h1ékwoi̯bhi̯os u̯eu̯ked: “dhǵhémonm̥ spéḱi̯oh2 h1éḱu̯oms-kwe h2áǵeti, ḱḗr moi̯ aghnutor”. h1éḱu̯ōs tu u̯eu̯kond: “ḱludhí, h2ou̯ei̯! tód spéḱi̯omes, n̥sméi̯ aghnutór ḱḗr: dhǵhémō, pótis, sē h2áu̯i̯es h2u̯l̥h1náh2 gwhérmom u̯éstrom u̯ept, h2áu̯ibhi̯os tu h2u̯l̥h1náh2 né h1esti. tód ḱeḱluu̯ṓs h2óu̯is h2aǵróm bhuged.
In the 1990s, historical linguists created another short parable in reconstructed PIE. It is loosely based on a passage from the Rigveda, an ancient collection of Sanskrit hymns, in which a king beseeches the god Varuna to grant him a son. Here, Andrew Byrd recites his version of the “The King and the God” in PIE, based on the work of linguists Eric Hamp and the late Subhadra Kumar Sen.
Here is an English translation of the story:
The King and the God
Once there was a king. He was childless. The king wanted a son. He asked his priest: "May a son be born to me!" The priest said to the king: "Pray to the god Werunos." The king approached the god Werunos to pray now to the god. "Hear me, father Werunos!" The god Werunos came down from heaven. "What do you want?" "I want a son." "Let this be so," said the bright god Werunos. The king's lady bore a son.
And here is the story rendered in reconstructed Proto-Indo-European:
H3rḗḱs h1est; só n̥putlós. H3rḗḱs súhxnum u̯l̥nh1to. Tósi̯o ǵʰéu̯torm̥ prēḱst: "Súhxnus moi̯ ǵn̥h1i̯etōd!" Ǵʰéu̯tōr tom h3rḗǵm̥ u̯eu̯ked: "h1i̯áǵesu̯o dei̯u̯óm U̯érunom". Úpo h3rḗḱs dei̯u̯óm U̯érunom sesole nú dei̯u̯óm h1i̯aǵeto. "ḱludʰí moi, pter U̯erune!" Dei̯u̯ós U̯érunos diu̯és km̥tá gʷah2t. "Kʷíd u̯ēlh1si?" "Súhxnum u̯ēlh1mi." "Tód h1estu", u̯éu̯ked leu̯kós dei̯u̯ós U̯érunos. Nu h3réḱs pótnih2 súhxnum ǵeǵonh1e.
A Civil War POW Camp in Watercolor
By NIKHIL SWAMINATHAN
Sunday, November 10, 2013
On November 27, 1863, Union Private Robert Knox Sneden was captured by soldiers under the command of Confederate leader John Singleton Mosby at Brandy Station, Virginia. It would mark the beginning of a year of captivity for the topographical engineer-turned-mapmaker. He would spend six-and-a-half months at the infamous Andersonville prison in southwest Georgia, a site that would come to symbolize the brutal suffering of the Civil War.
Almost a year after his capture, Sneden was paroled and left under the supervision of Isaiah White, a physician serving Camp Lawton, a newly built POW camp in east Georgia where Sneden had been transferred two months earlier. During his short stint there, Sneden produced several drawings of the prison and its surrounding environs. He would later turn these into watercolors once he returned to New York after the war. “In exchange for promising not to escape, Sneden worked as a clerk for an army surgeon at Camp Lawton," says Andrew Talkov, head of program development at the Virginia Historical Society, which keeps an archive of 5,000 pages from Sneden's personal memoirs that includes the Camp Lawton paintings. "Because of that position, he had greater liberty to move freely around the camp."
Sneden's paintings offer insights about the construction of the prison, how the prisoners lived within it, and the layout of the Confederate encampment that surrounded it. The artwork helped to orient the archaeologists excavating Camp Lawton nearly 150 years after its brief stint holding prisoners of war. “Sneden’s drawings give us imagery in many cases where imagery doesn’t otherwise exist," says VHS lead curator Dr. William M. S. Rasmussen. "Sneden had an incredible visual memory and he combined it with notes and sketches he made in the field to produce an impressive visual record of life during the Civil War.”
Click on the map to view a larger, scrollable version of Sneden's depiction.
National Museum, Baghdad: 10 Years Later
By ANDREW LAWLER
Thursday, April 11, 2013
The round hole made by an artillery shell was visible long before we pulled up next to the National Museum in Baghdad in early May of 2003. The puncture, just below a frieze of a king in a chariot, was in the replica of a Babylon gate next to the exhibit halls. An American tank sat in the archway. Though I had seen images of the destruction that took place a month before, the sight was startling.
Inside it was worse. The administrative area was in shambles. Filing cabinets were turned over, and papers dating back to the museum’s founding by British archaeologist Gertrude Bell in the 1920s, were strewn about. Small fires had destroyed some offices. In the display area, angry mobs had shattered the cases and smashed 2,000-year-old statues. The primary storage facility had been breached, and some 15,000 objects—no one knows exactly how many—were gone. Among the missing pieces were thousands of tiny cylinder seals, as well as several iconic artifacts such as the Lady of Warka, a stone head of a woman found at Uruk, which is considered the world’s oldest city.
Had museum officials not hidden 8,366 of the most valuable artifacts in a safe place known only to them, this event might have been a catastrophe for cultural heritage in Iraq. For a while, no one knew for certain how much damage had been done; I was with a team of U.S. archaeologists who arrived to assess the situation. Most of the museum’s estimated 170,000 artifacts were eventually found to be safe. The rampage had earned front-page headlines across the world. It was entirely preventable.
Some 2,500 years earlier, the Persian king Cyrus the Great was able to storm nearby Babylon, then the world’s largest city, but texts from the time relate that there was no chaos or looting. However, in 2003, American troops failed to secure what was second on their own list, after the Central Bank, of important places to protect in the modern Iraqi capital. Archaeologists had visited the Pentagon prior to the invasion to provide military officials with detailed coordinates of all major Iraqi cultural heritage sites.
The looting of the museum was over less than 48 hours after it began on April 10, 2003. But it was only the start of a decade of disaster for Iraq’s cultural heritage, a heritage that includes the world’s first cities, empires, and writing system. More than ancient vases and display cases were affected. The invasion began a grim era of sectarian violence and lawlessness in the very land that developed the state, legal codes, and recorded history itself. That era continues. “These are still very tough days,” says Abdul-Amir Hamdani, an Iraqi archaeologist who today is working on a doctorate at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Stony Brook. I first met Hamdani in May 2003 on the sidewalk outside U.S. military headquarters in the southern city of Nasiriya, where he was desperately attempting to get help to stop the vandals poaching ancient sites. “There is still nothing protecting many sites from looting and destruction.”
Looting, particularly in southern Iraq, which was the center of ancient Mesopotamia, had already begun in earnest in the late 1990s and grew to alarming proportions by 2004 and 2005, long after the National Museum was secured. The United States, its allies, and the fledgling government of post-Saddam Iraq did little to address the sources of the problem. Looting notwithstanding, Hamdani says that today’s principal threat is unbridled development; he served time in jail a few years ago for protesting construction on ancient sites. It is true that, now, foreign archaeologists are working in the northern part of Iraq called Kurdistan. A few western excavators are even digging in the southern regions that have long been off-limits. Looting at archaeological sites has decreased. But young archaeologists in the country long ago drifted to other less controversial and more remunerative work as the older generation retired, emigrated, or died.
More ominously, a new generation of Iraqis has grown up without any access to the impressive network of museums across the country that were once crowded with schoolchildren. They know little of their ancient past. Many Iraqi politicians today have a bent toward Islamic fundamentalism that is no friend to secular archaeology. Liwaa Semeism, the tourism minister overseeing the State Board of Antiquities, is a member of a splinter Shiite party. He has reduced the board’s authority and is openly hostile to foreigners. American archaeologists are now forbidden to excavate in Iraq until a trove of Jewish artifacts removed by the U.S. government is returned. And Semeism recently suggested that Germans might not be welcome either until the famous Babylonian Ishtar Gate—the model for the National Museum gateway—is returned.
The National Museum of Iraq today has beautifully renovated galleries and state-of-the-art climate control and security systems run by a staff that still consists of a core of underfunded but dedicated curators. But despite all the effort and money lavished on it by foreign governments, the museum remains closed to all but the most senior VIPs in an attempt to protect it. The fear is that throwing the museum’s doors open to the public exposes the collection and the newly-restored building to risk from another attack.
New elections later this month could bring greater political stability to the country. Eventually, as they have done from Nebuchadnezzar to Saddam, Iraqi leaders may again see their heritage as a major asset. “If you want to think about unity, then the ancient past is a broadly shared culture,” says Elizabeth Stone, a SUNY Stony Brook archaeologist who spent years excavating in Iraq. “Ancient Mesopotamia was real, and that could be used as a basis for natural unity.”
Hamdani will be returning to his home country this summer to continue his research. More than half of the stolen objects from the National Museum have been recovered, the gaping hole in the gate has since been carefully patched, and the tanks are gone. It is worth noting that there were no follow-up congressional hearings or independent investigations to pinpoint the parties responsible for the negligence connected to the museum debacle. No one in the U.S. military was criticized, demoted, or court-martialed. A Marine, who blamed Iraqis for using the site as a base to fight the Americans, wrote the only formal report on the matter.
The chaos that engulfed this land may finally be receding. A decade later, however, the true cost to our understanding of such a rich share of humanity’s heritage has yet to be tallied.