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Maia Atlantis: Ancient World Blogs -

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    My thanks to CJB for the link to this paper.  (He posted it in a comment, so I am promoting it so that readers don't miss it.)

    It ( is in French.  Google translate isn't too awful with French but it mangles it somewhat and I can't persuade it to translate the whole article.  When I have time, I will read it in French to try to catch the full sense of what they are suggesting. 

    One central theme is that Akhenaten was survived by a King (Smenkhkare) and Queen (Meritaten) who had similar throne names and therefore were easily confused so it isn't possible to say which partner outlived his/her spouse to rule alone, although they lean as usual towards the Queen.  Smenkhare is seen as the occupant of KV55 and the son of Akhenaten, which is familiar territory.  Less usual is their belief, if I am reading it correctly, that Smenkhare was the brother of Tutankhamun.  That means the Amarna reliefs fail to show two sons of Pharaoh, but six daughters. 

    The Younger Lady is identified as Sitamun but they pose the question that the wife of Smenkhare might actually not have been Meritaten the daughter of Akhenaten but the daughter of Smenkhare himself.   I need to re-read that section.

    There is a lot more, with a lot of discussion of implications of the Amarna letters and foreign relations.  The paper cites a lot of references.  Since Google translate won't translate the second half for me, and skim reading something in French is a real stretch for me, I can't say too much more.  I will try to spend time to read it carefully when I have time to translate it fully.

    My thanks again to CJB for what is an interesting and thought-provoking paper.

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    Here are the results of my first analysis of the new Metspalu et al. (2011) data (populations with _M endings), together with a large number of other samples from various sources, including Chaubey et al. (2011) (_Ch endings), that I had not used before.

    Uploaded with

    Spreadsheet of population averages; no outliers removed in source datasets. I'll defer all the technical and other details for when I release Dodecad v4, which will (most likely) be based on the same dataset.

    Fst divergences:

    MDS plot of first two dimensions based on above table.

    You can use DIYDodecad 2.1 with the 'K12a' calculator, which incorporates the K=12 inferred clusters of the above analysis.

    Instructions: uncompress the contents of the K12a bundle to your working directory, and follow the instructions of the DIYDodecad 2.1 README file, substituting 'K12a' for 'dv3' in all those instructions. Terms of use: 'K12a', including all files in the downloaded RAR file is free for non-commercial personal use. Commercial uses are forbidden. Contact me for non-personal uses of the calculator.

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    Dealer Dave has excelled himself, with one of the longest deranged comments on the doings of the preservationists in a long time, cross posted in several places. Mind you, most of it is, as is usual, cut and pasted from my blog with a bit of the traditional lowbrow vindictive coiney sniping and anti-gubn'mint rabble rousing (this time with a nautical theme) thrown in. I must have touched a nerve with the post about the first of the coiney comments on the Cyprus MOU renewal. As a result of the usual misdirection introduced by this particular blogging "Professional Numismatist", a number of matters of fact need to be straightened out:


    I) Dealer Dave, counting on the fact that they are too lazy to check for themselves, tries to convince his coiney readers that Paul Barford:
    does not understand the 1983 CCPIA, which essentially anticipated that nearly all MOUs would NOT be renewed and would instead be allowed to lapse unless very convincing evidence could be shown, to the effect that the proposed continuation of what was presumed to be a temporary emergency justifying extraordinary measures would be justified. Congress did not ever intend that MOUs should automatically be renewed unless some extraordinary situation intervened.
    [There is no question here of "automatic" renewal of course, this whole discussion is taking place because the process of the renewal of the Cyprus MOU is being referred to the CPAC].

    But did the US Congress never intend renewals as Welsh asserts? The one-click approach to finding out the ACTUAL WORDING of the Act (as Public Law 97-446; or as 19 U.S.C. 2601 et seq. I'll use the latter, but the wording of the other is the same, note that Welsh cites no such references) pretty quickly reveals :
    2606 (e) Extension of agreements
    The President may extend any agreement that enters into force with respect to the United States for additional periods of not more than five years each if the President determines that --
    (1) the factors referred to in subsection (a)(1) of this section which justified the entering into of the agreement still pertain, and
    (2) no cause for suspension under subsection (d) of this section exists.
    That's actually completely the opposite of what Welsh asserts. How is it possible that a coin dealer in the US apparently gets so muddled about the wording of the main law which has any effect on what he does?

    Most other nations when they became state party to the Convention did so with the intent of applying its measures permanently (or until they denounce the Convention as per its Articles 23 and 24). As far as I am aware [and I am sure Peter Tompa can provide the other examples if they exist] only the USA considers that it is something they can chose to abide by only when THEY please, and most of which they can choose to ignore except for temporary occasions when they might (perhaps), if you ask them nicely, and convince them that they really should, consider applying a few of the principles to their international trade in artefacts for a while before they stop.


    II) Dealer Dave reckons that I am unaware that:
    the title of the 1970 UNESCO Convention does not really describe what it is about,
    yes, I would indeed be surprised about that, because the title and the contents are quite clearly by the same hand(s) and the title describe the contents of the Convention. According to Dealer Dave the "actual" purpose of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property:
    "is very clearly to control "looting" in all its forms, from stripping a nation of ethnological and historical artifacts that have never been buried, to smuggling antiquities that might once have been buried.
    No it is not. Just look at it, read it. It is about the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, in other words, smuggling. The reference to "looting" (actually "pillage") comes from the US legislation supposedly "implementing" it which refers to the single article (9 of 26) which mentions archaeological looting as PART of the problem of illicit trade. Again we see an attempt by the US to impose its own values on the rest of the world.

    It is Mr Welsh who does not understand, the Convention covers movement of cultural property across international borders which a state party to the Convention wishes to regulate the passage of, and not just that which is looted and pillaged. It is the legitimacy of that movement (and not merely the origins of the objects themselves) which is the subject of that Convention (see Art. 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10-15, 17). "As any fule can see".


    III) Dealer Dave asserts that the CPAC is "entitled to recommend to the US Government that the requests of the Cypriot government are not in the best interests of the USA". Is it? Is that its actual mandate? I thought that was what the CCPIA leaves up to the President to decide and the task of the CPAC is something else, that's what the CCPIA says.


    IV) Dealer Dave apparently thinks its awfully important to regulate metal detector use to prevent archaeological artefact looting (here we are agreed). In answer to what I wrote, he asks whether I can "establish that Cyprus is doing anything effective to actually regulate use of metal detectors on that island?" Well, despite the fact that it has nothing to do with the smuggling of antiquities, I suppose we could ask metal detectorists what they know about that. Here, for example, is a thread on a European metal detecting forum talking about beach detecting (not archaeological sites, shallow beach detecting is not - I would say - in general archaeologically destructive): "the local police [...] told her that anyone detecting on the beach or land would be scooped right away" (interesting to note another detectorist saying something quite significant in the circumstances: "Try the Turkish sector" since it is the looting following the Turkish invasion which is behind the whole fuss over Cyprus).

    Dealer Dave is confused (and showing his woeful ignorance on the matter) when he says that metal detectors must be regulated because:
    "metal detectors can only be used to search for buried metal artifacts"
    Metal detectors are used in airports, schools, government offices and museums to check people entering the building, in food processing plants, sawmills, they are used by contractors to search for pipes and cables before using a mechanical excavator (or under plaster), they are used to search for lost change on beaches and fairgrounds (there are lots of You Tube videos of US detectorists getting excited by finding 1930s wheaties), they are used by meteorite hunters, gold prospectors. They can be used in token hunts on rallies, and childrens' games at English fairs, US exhibitions, and on the PAS website. All of which are archaeologically harmless (well, except - I would say - the PAS website one). This is one reason why I think the term "metal detectorist" is ambiguous and why when I am trying to be more lucid, I tend to speak of the problem I am concerned about as "artefact hunting".


    V) Neo-colonialist Dave says "
    nations such as the Republic of Cyprus must solve their own problems, and that it is unfair and unreasonable to create difficulties for US collectors because foreign governments are unable to control the behavior of their own citizens. A government that cannot do that, ipso facto stands indicted as being incompetent to be the steward and guardian of cultural property of any sort.
    Let's leave aside that obvious fact that (just as the looting of Iraqi sites when the country was under US/UK-led occupation), the problem of looting on Cyprus is not actually always a problem of the Cypriot government "not controlling" its OWN citizens; Mr Welsh apparently needs reminding that part of the island is under foreign occupation. Also I'd be interested to learn of a nation that has no criminals or ofenders - equally when it comes to making money out of ancient collectables.

    Taking the sort of isolationist attitude expressed by Welsh above to its logical conclusion, Welsh would presumably then have the US withdraw from all international conventions involving international co-operation to achieve a common aim. For the rest of us, the illicit trade by culture criminals in items which form the world heritage is not the problem of any one government, but one of those problems that all thinking people should be concerned about and decent people should be joining in to do something about. That antiquity dealers and collectors see themselves as somehow above all that and even actively oppose it is a shame. I personally think they should indeed be shamed and ashamed of themselves for this and the way they go about it.


    I leave it up to the reader to decide the degree of intellectual honesty revealed by this polemicist. The original coiney commentator had in a brief text written at the behest of the dealers quite clearly got it wrong in several places. ACCG spokesman Welsh could have agreed and written something addressed to coineys to avoid a situation where they are all repeating the same nonsenses, wasting their own time and that of everyone else. Instead of doing that, Welsh sets out to convince his readers (among other things) that both the US law (CCPIA) as well as the Convention say something other than what they mean, though he provides not a smidgen of evidence (still less any kind of a link to the original text) to substantiate his claims.

    Vignette: Dealer Dave thought it necessary to explain to his US readers what an ovicaprid is, for their information, this is not an ovicaprid, just looks a bit like one.

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  • 12/10/11--21:31: Essex Tekkie "Eagle1"
  • .
    On 8th December 2011, on a metal detecting forum in a topic " Re: The Twinstead Sovereign Hoard - Statement we find the information from member "Eagle1" that

    "We are gradually getting all declared [....] We have identified people of have (sic) found these sovereigns and have not yet come forward".
    That is the coins - in fact a few days earlier it was reported that in the previous week just "47 and 3 halves" had so far been handed in. "Eagle1" assures list members that "the police are not looking to criminalise people needlessly. All I want is for the entire hoard to be declared, a decent article in the Searcher and the reputation of us detectorists to be restored". The interesting thing is that "Eagle1" signs himself "Andy Long, Essex Police Wildlife & Environmental Crime Officer". The policeman who should be policing "detectorists" is himself a metal detectorist.
    "All I want is a sensible resolution to the whole situation. Please feel free to contact me. I am your friend not your enemy, I enjoy this hobby and do not want to see it needlessly tarnished!"
    Does PC Long use his metal detector to seek out and collect archaeological artefacts? How long has he been doing this and where, and how many PAS records does he have to his name? What contacts does he have after-hours with people who buy and sell archaeological artefacts on eBay, and does he buy and sell archaeological artefacts himself? Does he belong to any "metal detecting" clubs, if so which ones, and what d they stand for? Does he attend commercial artefact hunting rallies? Is he an NCMD member for example, abiding by the code of practice of that organization?

    I would say this situation raises a number of questions and doubts.

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  • 12/10/11--21:59: Satius est...
  • .
    Detectorist "Gwawrer":

    "Its better out of the ground and in your hand for the history or monetary value rather than left in the ground to rot doing nothing for anyone".
    Just being potential archaeological information about the past for future generations, eh? Is that the "best practice" the PAS is teaching them? And if it's not actively "rotting", what then?

    Is that not a little like saying shoot the rhinos and release their horn onto the Asian quack medicine market where there is a need for it, because all of them will eventually die of old age in the end anyway?

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    This Day in Ancient History - December 11

    The erudite Roman Varro (116-29 B.C.) says the name of Rome was once Septimontium. This would have been before the people living on ...

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  • 12/11/11--00:40: Article on Sefer Yetsirah
  • ARTICLE ON SEFER YETSIRAH by Marla Segol (Skidmore College) in Societas Magica Newsletter, Issue 21 (2009): Magical Letters, Mystical Planets: Magic, Theosophy, and Astrology in the Sefer Yetsirah and two of its Tenth-century Commentaries.

    Introduction: In this essay I discuss the treatment of two important themes in the late antique work, the Sefer Yetsirah, and in two of its tenth-Century commentaries, Sa’adya Gaon’s Commentary on the Sefer Yetsirah, and Shabbetai Donnolo’s Sefer Hakhmoni. These themes are the effective power of symbols, and of the Hebrew letterform specifically, and theosophy, the belief that the created world can be used to learn about the divine. The Sefer Yetsirah expresses an effective view of symbols and a theosophic view of the universe. This theosophic view is intrinsic to the astrological outlook that informs the work. The commentaries on the Sefer Yetsirah take different positions regarding these themes, relying on non-Jewish sources and cosmological models to reinterpret the magical function of the Hebrew letterform, and the theosophic significance of the created world. In so doing, the commentators reinterpret the Sefer Yetsirah in light of contemporary debate.
    The editor of the 2005 critical edition, Peter Hayman, thought that the original version of the Sefer Yetsirah could be as early as the first few centuries CE.

    (Via Abu 'l-Rayhan Al-Biruni on FB.)

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    GRADUATE PROFILES IN COPTIC STUDIES at Claremont Graduate University School of Religion. There are some big names on the list.

    (Via Alin Suciu on FB.)

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  • 12/11/11--00:57: Interview with J. Z. Smith
  • INTERVIEW WITH J. Z. SMITH (Supriya Sinhababu, Chicago Maroon)

    A word of advice for anyone hoping to contact Jonathan Zittell Smith before he returns to campus next fall: Use the mail slot. The religious studies professor— better known as J.Z.—doesn't pick up the phone and has never "seen the Internet." In a two-hour interview, Smith weighed in on chain smoking, dead religions, and the Babylonian Talmud.
    The interview is a few years old, but this is the first time I've seen it. I caught a glimpse of Jonathan Z. Smith at the San Francisco SBL/AAR meetings last month, so he's still active in the field.

    (Via Nicola Denzey Lewis on FB. And yes, I know, Facebook is on a roll this weekend.)

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    Review of Rosario Moreno Soldevila, Diccionario de motivos amatorios en la literatura latina (siglos III a. C.-II d. C.). Exemplaria classica, Anejo II. Huelva: 2011. Pp. 529. €30.00 (pb). ISBN 9788415147190.

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    Review of P. M. Fraser, A Lexicon of Greek Personal Names, Supplementary Volume. Oxford; New York: 2009. Pp. xxi, 424. $80.00. ISBN 9780197264287.

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    Review of Raymond Barfield, The Ancient Quarrel between Philosophy and Poetry. Cambridge; New York: 2011. Pp. x, 278. $90.00. ISBN 9781107000322.

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    Assembly of the Gods with Leto, Artemis, Apollo, Athena, Zeus, and Hera on marble from the sanctuary of Eshmun in 350 B.C. CC Flickr User stevendamron
    I had planned ...

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  • 12/11/11--02:50: That Euro Dinner
  • B46E9A276610353A69D849F3DD475F

    In principle, I'm all for a united Europe, a single currency and a fiscal union -- and feel dismayed at the Cameron stance. (Though I have to say that the appalling fates that have been predicted for the UK, outside the "real Europe", haven't so far sounded that dreadful to me "The New Switzerland", "The Singapore of Europe", "Norway without the oil". Could be worse, couldn't it?)

    My problem is not the principle. It's how the vast superstate is organised and by whom? Thinking of this tends to bring out the rampant democrat in me. I can't say that I feel too keen on having a national budget "approved" by the European commissioners, and sent back for improvement if it doesn't come up to scratch on their view.

    But there's also a giant questionmark, of course, over how you negotiate all this -- horribly brought out by the procedures this week.

    I am in Italy right now, and I haven't been following what's been going on hour by hour -- so I'm only just catching up on that dinner and all night meeting.

    I'm not sure, in any case, that it is a great idea for anyone to take big, long-term decisions over fiscal union with the pistol of Greek default and Italian collapse held to their heads. But, more to the point, how could anyone make sensible decisions in the way these leaders, elected and un-elected, were asked to do? (Clever as Mario Monti may be, do we really think it is OK for an entirely unelected leader to commit the Italians to a significantly new version of the EU treaty -- even if it IS to their short term advantage?)

    OK, the whole public side of these discussions may only be a "staged" version; the real talking might well have been going on elsewhere. But is a nine hour late night dinner a good way of doing important business? The Italian papers are saying the Boyko Borisov (Mr Bulgaria) actually put his hand up a one point and asked to go to bed...and well he might have.

    The other reports are equally dispiriting. David Cameron is reported to have drunk nothing but black coffee for 9 hours and to have complained about all the 'blah blah blah' of the technical discussions. Other leaders are said to have "knocked it back" a bit. I think, on balance, I would rather put my trust in the guys who put it away -- and if Cameron really did complain about the blah blah blah of technicalities, then I feel like saying "that blah blah blah is your job, mate".

    Then there is all the hierarchy of dining. Apparently the leaders themselves ate in one room, with their EU ambassadors eating next door. They had same food (a slightly strange combination of soup, cod, chocolate cake and ice-cream) but the leaders got better wine (another reason why Cameron's coffee option seems duff one). The idea was presumably to give the leaders the opportunity to bond in private; but maybe it might have been a good idea for them to have had some expert advisors in the room with them (not just a blackberry away).

    So think about it: the combination of serious exhaustion, encroaching tipsiness (or irritable sobriety), and too many calories. Is that a great way to rewrite the organisation of Europe?

    Perhaps it has always been thus. Perhaps, underneath the formal programme, the conference at Versailles was organised no differently (and my guess is that there would have been rather more booze).

    But look what a disaster that was.




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    New research is being carried out on artefacts recovered from a site at Udal (North Uist, Outer Hebrides, Scotland) where achaeology provides an 'unbroken timeline' of occupation from the Neolithic,...

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    Striking 'earth mother' figurine discovered in France French archaeologists have discovered an extremely rare example of a Neolithic 'earth mother' figurine on the banks of the river Somme. The 6,000-year-old...

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    Experts believe they have found evidence of a 4,000-year-old Stone Age camp in the Midlands - thanks to a dog walker. Roger Hall discovered a handful of strange-shaped rocks while...

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    Bollettino di studi latini, XLI (2), luglio-dicembre 2011

    Éditeur : Loffredo Editore
    495-1004 pages

    Sommaire du numéro :

    G. Polara - A. de Vivo, Aenaria - Pithecusa – Inarime
    l. Fratantuono, Dirarum ab sede dearum: Virgil’s Fury Allecto, the dirae, and Jupiter’s Parthian defeat
    M. Neri, sidonio Apollinare (epist. 9,9,10) e la possibile attribuzione del De ratione fidei a Fausto di Riez
    P. Pleroni, digressioni nelle Variae di Cassiodoro: ancora qualche considerazione
    P. Tomè, nevio, lucilio e il grammaticus Parthenius: due autentici ‘falsi d’autore’ nell’Orthographia di Giovanni Tortelli
    Note e discussioni:

    Lire la suite...

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  • 12/11/11--03:59: Vitruvius on Trees
  • Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, better known as Vitruvius, is one of those rare individuals from the ancient world whose thoughts and ideas have survived him. He was a contemporary of Julius Caesar, and wrote the only significant surviving book about Roman architecture. His book, De architectura, known as The Ten Books on Architecture, is dedicated to emperor Augustus, and provides a unique insight into the thoughts and perceptions of architect living two thousand years ago.[1]

    The passage of time has effectively shredded the vast the majority of written material from the ancient world, so it is difficult to set Vitruvius in a wider context. Most of what we know about him has been second-guessed from his book, and his precise origins and even his name remain the matter of debate.[2]
    It is thought that he served a soldier with Julius Caesar, probably in the artillery, and then worked as an architect after he retired from the army.

    However, following its rediscovery in 1414, a series of translations in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries made De architectura an important text for the Renaissance. It was central to the understanding remains of the classical world, and consequently, influential in the subsequent development of architecture.

    After Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci circa 1487.
    [based on Vitruvius ideas about proportion] [3]

    The scope of the Ten Books, covering architecture, civil and mechanical engineering, as well as all manner of matters arising, including how to make a ballista, illustrates the range of activities undertaken by ‘architects’ in this period.
    We are going to concentrate on Book II, which concerns raw materials, and specifically chapter IX, which is about timber.

    Rationality and the elements

    This work not being intended for a treatise on the origin of architecture, that origin, and the degrees by which it passed to its present state of perfection, is only incidentally mentioned.
    Marcus Vitruvius Pollio:
    de Architectura, Book II [0.9][4]

    Sadly, Vitruvius is not going to tell us much about of prehistoric timber building, although he does mention it; he is interested in modern state of the art architecture, albeit in best aesthetic traditions of the ‘classical’ world. Predictably, ancient texts written in a dead languages, even one as well known as Latin, present translation problems, particularly with technical vocabulary. We do not have many texts that discuss trees, so it there is room for confusion as to precisely which species the text refers to.
    The importance of chapter IX is that it illustrates not only what Vitruvius knew about timber, but also how he rationalised their various properties and understood trees in general. Importantly, Vitruvius can rationalise the material world. It all makes sense to him; it is not subject to divine whim and superstition. He is anxious to back up his explanations with examples and parallels from nature.
    As might be expected, his observations about the properties and uses of different types of timber are perfectly valid; unfortunately, by contemporary standards, his explanations of these characteristics are not. The following is a good example of how Vitruvius looks in translation, and why I intend to paraphrase much of the rest of the chapter.

    5. The qualities of trees vary exceedingly, and are very dissimilar, as those of the oak, the elm, the poplar, the cypress, the fir, and others chiefly used in buildings. The oak, for instance, is useful where the fir would be improper; and so with respect to the cypress and the elm. Nor do the others differ less widely, each, from the different nature of its elements, being differently suited to similar applications in building.

    6. First, the fir, containing a considerable quantity of air and fire, and very little water and earth, being constituted of such light elements, is not heavy: hence bound together by its natural hardness it does not easily bend, but keeps its shape in framing. The objection to fir is, that it contains so much heat as to generate and nourish the worm, which is very destructive to it. It is moreover very inflammable, because its open pores are so quickly penetrated by fire, that it yields a great flame
    Marcus Vitruvius Pollio:
    de Architectura, Book II [10.5-6][4]

    Vitruvius tells that fir, above [5], what a modern carpenter might generically call ‘deal’, is light, strong, and suitable for framing, but is susceptible to worm [termite] attack and is flammable; all this is as true now as it was then. However, what has changed is the way we rationalise these properties and fit them into the wider material world.

    In the classical world, the properties of matter were often described in terms of the four elements, water, air, earth and fire, with room for a more spiritual fifth element.[6] Not only was this the system that developed into what we know as alchemy, but also it was at the root of much rational thinking throughout ancient Eurasian culture. This basic four/five element system seems to be present in Mesopotamia in the Bronze Age, and is evidenced in India, Tibet, China, and Japan, from where it subsequently developed into various complex systems of understanding. [below]
    The widespread nature of this system suggests it developed fairly early, and probably in the Fertile Crescent, although from a classical perspective, it was formalised by a Greek philosopher called Empedocles, from Agrigentum in Sicily (c. 490–430 BC). [7]
    There is no point in discussing the nature of this understanding further, and from now on I will edit out this material and paraphrase his observations about the properties and uses of timber.
    The important point to appreciate is that Vitruvius believes he has a rational perspective; today we would call it scientific. But that would be inappropriate in this context, and with the benefit of technical hindsight, we know just how wrong he turned out to be.
    Two thousand years ago, Marcus Vitruvius Pollio was master of his craft, educated, well read, and was writing from the familiar perspective of someone living at a time of unparallel progress and technological achievement, in a culture at the top of its game.

    Felling trees
    As a builder, one of Vitruvius’s principle concerns is what we would call the moisture content of the timber, and the importance of drying or seasoning it before use, reducing the risk of cracking and distortion. He tells us that timber should be felled from early Autumn onwards, and well before spring, which is much as expected, but his method of felling is very different from the modern approach.
    3. In felling a tree we should cut into the trunk of it to the very heart, and then leave it standing so that the sap may drain out drop by drop throughout the whole of it. ……. Then and not till then, the tree being drained dry and the sap no longer dripping, let it be felled and it will be in the highest state of usefulness.
    Marcus Vitruvius Pollio:
    de Architectura, Book II [9.3] [4]

    In other words, the tree is killed, but left standing until dry enough for use.

    In his discussion of the importance of draining the sap from wood before use, he mentions the practice of tapping the trunks of trees specifically to extract the sap.
    . . .When these are tapped at the base and pruned, each at the proper time, they pour out from the heart through the tapholes all the superfluous and corrupting fluid which they contain, and thus the draining process makes them durable.
    Marcus Vitruvius Pollio:
    de Architectura, Book II [9.4] [4]

    His text is not specific as which to types of tree were tapped, although this may have been obvious to his readers. Trees have traditionally supplied a range of oils and resins, and maple syrup is a good modern example of the technique. It is a use of trees that is hard for archaeologist to detect, except through chemical analysis.
    One of the most intriguing examples of the use of resins in the ancient world, comes from the hair of an Iron Age bog Body from County Meath, Ireland.
    Clonycavan man from [left] met an unpleasant and violent end between 392 BC and 201 BC, and analysis of his Mohawk hair style discovered it was held in place with a preparation made of plant oil and pine resin imported from south-western France or Spain.[8]

    Fir: We have already quoted Vitruvius' ideas about this tree, noting that is light but stiff, and useful f0r frameworks, but is susceptible to termite attack, and is easily flammable, disadvantages that limit its applications in building.
    He then discusses the nature of fir as a timber distinguishing between types of timber: ‘knotty’, which is derived from the upper part of the trunk, and ‘clear’ which was from the lowest 20 feet.
    The lowest part, after the tree is cut down and the sapwood of the same thrown away, is split up into four pieces and prepared for joiner's work, and so is called "clearstock."
    Marcus Vitruvius Pollio:
    de Architectura, Book II [9.7] [4]
    This basic conversion produces the best quality timber, which we would call ‘boxed heart’, [right], which is then is further split into quarters, presumably through the centre, providing squared timber suitable for the framing work Vitruvius describes.
    It is worth noting that a great deal of less valuable timber would be used in temporary scaffolding and the formwork required for the creation of masonry and concrete structures.

    In the following chapter [X] he explains why the situation and aspect are important, in particular why;
    ...the lowland firs, being conveyed from sunny places, are better than those highland firs, which are brought here from shady places.
    Marcus Vitruvius Pollio:
    de Architectura, Book II [10.2] [4]

    This emphasises the craftsman’s insistence on the highest quantity materials, a prime consideration in the choice of structural timbers. Anyone choosing timber has the same concerns about stability, straightness of the grain, presence of knots, and susceptibly to insect attack, although the latter is becomes less important in northern Europe.

    Cypress and pine: While these timbers are apt to warp, their pungent sap makes resistant to insect attack, and this durability in greatly valued in buildings. These trees also produce useful resins.

    The cedar and juniper tree: Vitruvius tells us that these timbers are also resistant to termite attacks, and hence, very long-lasting when used in buildings. The cedar is also the source of an oil used to treat things like paper to make it resistant to rot and insects, (cedrium).

    The cedar grows chiefly in Crete, Africa, and in parts of Syria. It is notably straight grained, and has been used for the roof timbers of famous temples buildings like the Temple of Diana at Ephesus. [9]


    Oak [quercus ]: Oaks are a very widespread species of tree and Vitruvius mentions three, producing timber of differing utility. While common oak [quercus] has a tendency to warp and crack in moist condition, it is very long lasting when used in underground.

    Another oak [aesculus] is very useful within buildings, but because of its propensity to rot, it is unsuitable for exterior work.

    Turkey oak [cerrus] and beech [left] also readily decay and are only suitable for interior use.

    Alder: Alder is another familiar tree, which Vitruvius tells us was grown, then as now, close to riverbanks. He notes that it is of little value for buildings, but is exceptionally durable wood when used under water, and was widely used in his time for piles, notably in Ravenna.

    White and black poplar, willow, lime [right]: These are light, but still relatively stiff woods. They are white in colour and particularly suitable for carving.

    Hornbeam: Vitruvius tells us that hornbeam is very strong and easily worked timber used for yokes by the Greeks.

    Elm [left] and ash; These he regards as timbers as too flexible for use in building; however, he says that when well seasoned, they can make good treenails and pegs for securing joints:

    …….supply a strong material for dowels to be used in joints and other articulations’.
    Marcus Vitruvius Pollio:
    de Architectura, Book II [10.11] [4]

    The larch:

    I have left the larch till last because Vitruvius has much to say on the value of larch, both for it is resistant to termites and rot, and particularly its lack of flammability. Wood that does not easily catch fire has obvious advantages in a built environment. Larch was available in long straight lengths with a clear grain, and was also the source of a liquid resin, good for consumptives. Vitruvius implies that until recently the Larch was known, or at least used, only on the banks of the river Po and the shores of the Adriatic; he then recounts the following story involving Julius Caesar [below right]. [10]

    It is worthwhile to know how this wood was discovered. The divine Caesar, being with his army in the neighbourhood of the Alps, and having ordered the towns to furnish supplies, the inhabitants of a fortified stronghold there, called Larignum, trusting in the natural strength of their defences, refused to obey his command. So the general ordered his forces to the assault.

    In front of the gate of this stronghold there was a tower, made of beams of this wood laid in alternating directions at right angles to each other, like a funeral pyre, and built high, so that they could drive off an attacking party by throwing stakes and stones from the top. When it was observed that they had no other missiles than stakes, and that these could not be hurled very far from the wall on account of the weight, orders were given to approach and to throw bundles of brushwood and lighted torches at this outwork. These the soldiers soon got together.

    The flames soon kindled the brushwood that lay about that wooden structure and, rising towards heaven, made everybody think that the whole pile had fallen. But when the fire had burned itself out and subsided, and the tower appeared to view entirely uninjured, Caesar in amazement gave orders that they should be surrounded with a palisade, built beyond the range of missiles. So the townspeople were frightened into surrendering, and were then asked where that wood came from which was not harmed by fire. They pointed to trees of the kind under discussion, of which there are very great numbers in that vicinity. And so, as that stronghold was called Larignum, the wood was called larch.
    Marcus Vitruvius Pollio:
    de Architectura, Book II [9.15-16]

    I see no reason to doubt the events portrayed. It is an entirely plausible insight into Roman military tactics, and besides, it would be foolish to make up such a story, especially about an incident in the recent past, which would have many other witnesses. It is perhaps not unreasonable for people living in Rome to be unaware of particular tree species in the foothills of the Alps.

    Crediting Caesar with their ‘discovery’ seems entirely in keeping with an imperialist mindset, and not out of tune with the sycophantic tone appropriate in a book dedicated to an emperor, reigning by virtue of being Caesar’s ‘heir’.
    Throughout, Vitruvius is fulsome of his praise of the larch.[left] Perhaps significantly, Vitruvius chooses this point in the narrative to push the idea of importing larch into Rome, to be used for fire resistant eaves to protect buildings and prevent fires from spreading. We will likely never know if this civic-minded innovation was in someone’s pecuniary interest, or if it was adopted.

    Vitruvius is just the sort of person theoretical structural archaeology studies: He is an architect and builder in the widest possible sense: anything involving the fundamental modifying of the environment is his concern.

    In many ways, what he knows is exactly what I would expect him to know about timber. His concerns about structural stability and strength are balanced against environmental performance, and in particular, resistance to termite attack, illustrating the regional nature of architectural systems. Termites have a significant impact on material culture in those areas where they occur, in particular on the choice and potential utility of timbers, but further north, this becomes much less of a concern.

    The larch is a familiar conifer that loses its needles in winter

    Vitruvius' interest in the potential of larch as a fire-resistant timber shows not only that the danger of the spread fire in urban areas was a concern for architects, but also illustrates a building culture that was dynamic and open to innovation, despite its “present state of perfection”. The larch story also illustrates the slightly parochial nature of knowledge when judged against modern standards: That Romans should be unfamiliar with the properties of trees growing a few hundred miles away is probably a reflection of the difficulty of trading a bulk cargo like timber.
    However, cedar, greatly favoured by Vitruvius, and a timber of renown throughout the ancient world, would have been an expensive import.

    The Oak that comes most highly recommended is aesculus, but unfortunately the meaning of this term is still the matter of debate.[11] It could be sessile [Q. petraea] or perhaps Italian /Hungarian oak. [right; Q. frainetto] [12].

    He seems to be most familiar with the local fir trees [Abies alba], which then, as now, was probably the standard utility wood. As well as its more obvious uses in buildings, we should not forget that timber was also used for scaffolding, as well as for formwork for some of the more elaborate masonry and concrete forms used in Roman architecture.

    It is notable that only those trees with a direct application to building are discussed, other applications of the timber and many economical important and useful species are not mentioned at all.[13] In all cases the properties are well observed, and as expected, are still the basis of their traditional and contemporary uses.

    The use of selected materials for pegs and treenails, ash being very resilient, and elm very tough, is illustrative of how craftsmen seek out the optimum materials for each application. It is the very essence of woodworking that each component of a fabrication, whether a building or a ballista [below left], would be made from a timber with the optimum set of properties.
    Hornbeam is not a timber traditionally associated with building, but because of its toughness, was traditionally used for things like woodwork in machinery and pulley-blocks. This reminds us of Vitruvius background in military engineering and the wider field that ‘architecture’ embraced.

    He would have been a very useful bloke to have around, and the application of such skills to the battlefield was one of the Roman armies’ principle advantages in the field. They out-engineered their opponents. For example, the range of their artillery upset many of their enemies’ most basic strategic assumptions.

    In the literate Mediterranean world we can readily accept architects, but it is not something that has been considered for the illiterate peoples to the north. It is my contention that most societies had people with this skill set; they were the engineers that were out-engineered by the Romans, the builders responsible for domestic, agricultural and public building before the Roman occupation.

    Vitruvius clearly regards his belief system to be a rational explanation of the physical world. His observations are perfectly valid; it is only the system he uses to connect and explain them, that falls short of modern standards. While the way we rationalise has changed, the need of craftsmen for a rational understanding of their materials and processes has not. Vitruvius would have readily acknowledged that the Greeks had originated his classical elemental science; however, surely their philosophy,like their stories, had an aural and preliterate past. What they chose to write down was not necessarily knowledge created specifically for the purpose, or the direct result of literacy.

    It seems reasonable that fundamental aspects of ‘classical’ thought had much deeper and older roots. The widespread nature of the basic "water, air, fire, and earth" elemental approach to the material world, and its early appearance in a variety of literary traditions, suggests that it was part of shared preliterate system developed early in the Neolithic. It was perhaps one aspect of a complex set of skills and knowledge that underpinned the technological aspects of the Neolithic and subsequent agricultural cultures, both literate and illiterate.

    Sources and further reading
    [2] [last accessed 13/10/11]
    [3] [last accessed 13/10/11]
    Illustration after:
    [4]Passages quoted are from Bill Thayer's translation:
    Other useful translation at:
    Vitruvius: The Ten Books on Architecture. Vitruvius. Morris Hicky Morgan. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. London: Humphrey Milford. Oxford University Press. 1914.
    [5] Illustration after:
    [7] [last accessed 13/10/11]
    [8] [last accessed 13/10/11]
    Illustration after:
    [10] Illustration after:
    [11] Oak trees
    The green oak (cerrus):
    Quercus esculus:
    Italian / Hungarian Oak, Quercus frainetto:
    [12] Illustration after: [last accessed 13/10/11]

    See also:

    Feemster, Wilhelmina, and Frederick Gustav Meyer. 2002. The natural history of Pompeii. [last accessed 13/10/11]

    [13] For a discussion of wider uses of timber see; Ulrich, Roger Bradley. 2009. Roman woodworking. [last accessed 13/10/11]

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  • 12/11/11--04:32: Herculaneum in Mexico
  • For our Mexican blog readers, there's a Herculaneum presentation during the celebrations for Monte Albàn's 24th anniversary as a World Heritage Site.

    17:00-18:00 horas
    Conferencia Magistral
    Herculaneum: Pasado, Presente y Futuro
    Christian Biggi, Director de la Zona Arqueológica de Herculano, Italia

    To see the full programme, click here

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