Archaeology in the news: BREAKING NEWS! Tiberius reminds you he was emperor.

New statues have been found in the grotto that was part of Tiberius’ swimming pool at his villa in Capri! (Yes, this emperor used a giant natural cave as part of his pool. Playboy Mansion has NOTHING on this.) Below is the original link and the article text. Enjoy!

Sept. 28, 2009 — A number of ancient Roman statues might lie beneath the turquoise waters of the Blue Grotto on the island of Capri in southern Italy, according to an underwater survey of the sea cave.

Dating to the 1st century A.D., the cave was used as a swimming pool by the Emperor Tiberius (42 B.C. – 37 A.D.), and the statues are probably depictions of sea gods.

“A preliminary underwater investigation has revealed several statue bases which might possibly hint to sculptures lying nearby,” Rosalba Giugni, president of the environmentalist association, Marevivo, told Discovery News.

Carried out in collaboration with the archaeological superintendency of Pompeii, the Marevivo project aims at returning the Blue Grotto to its ancient glory by placing identical copies of Tiberius’ statues where they originally stood.

Celebrated for the almost phosphorescent blue tones of the water and the mysterious silvery light flowing through fissures in the rocks, the Grotta Azzurra, as the cave is called in Italian, is one of the top attractions in Capri.

The island was the capital of the Roman empire between 27 and 37 A. D., when Tiberius made a permanent home there to take advantage of the mild climate and its seclusion.

Dividing his time among 12 villas and orgiastic feasts, the emperor used to bath in the almost hallucinogenic blue light of the cave, swimming among naked boys and girls.

The story goes that those who displeased him were thrown into the sea from a rock near his Villa Jovis. Perched 1,000 feet above the sea with Mount Vesuvius’s cone in the distance, this was the most magnificent of his residences on the island.

The Blue Grotto might have been equally amazing. In 1964, archaeologists recovered three statues from the sea bottom. One sculpture depicts the sea good Neptune, while the other two statues each represented the Greek god Triton, who was the son of Poseidon (Neptune, for the Romans).

According to the archaeologists, the position of the Tritons’ shoulders (the arms are missing) would suggest that the marine creatures were blowing into large seashells as if they were trumpets.

Triton was known to carry a twisted conch shell, on which he blew to calm or raise the waves.

The recovered sculptures confirmed an account by Roman scholar Pliny the Elder (23 A.D. – 79 A.D.), who described the sea cave as populated by a Triton “playing on a shell.”

Now on display at a museum in Anacapri, the three statues have provided a glimpse of the original setting of the Blue Grotto.

According to the reconstruction, a swarm of Tritons headed by Neptune might have lined the rocky walls of the cave. Bathed in the magic light of the grotto, the statues stood with waters at their knees.

During the Marevivo survey, aimed at finding the original bases of the three statues, divers found a total of seven bases at a depth of 150 meters (492 feet). This suggests that at least four other statues lie on the cave’s sandy bottom.

“The sculptures were all placed at the same level. It is likely that other statues will come to light as the project continues with new underwater investigations,” diver Vasco Fronzoni told Discovery News.

The Grotta Azzurra’s reputation as a natural paradise was seriously threatened last month. The cave was closed twice due to fears that its waters had been contaminated by raw sewage.

Aimed at returning the grotto to its full ancient glory, the Marevivo project is also expected to pave the way to a more strict controls to preserve the natural wonder.

“By next summer, tourists to the Grotta Azzurra will enjoy a really unique experience,” Giugni said.


Archaeology in the news: Staffordshire Hoard

Hold on to your Viking helmets, gentle readers, because as of last week the so-called Dark Ages are about to get a complete overhaul with the discovery of what is being called largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found!

Here’s the link to the official AP article: Shinies!

So here is a basic run-down for those of us who aren’t lucky enough to have gold-encrusted private farm land in England. Our hero, Terry Herbert, like many Britons, has some farm land and also has a metal detector to use upon this land. Britain has been blessed with many centuries of habitation and exciting cultures who had a habit of leaving things in the ground and never coming back for them. Sometimes these things were meant to stay in the ground (grave goods, offerings, etc.) and sometimes they were meant to be buried temporarily and eventually reclaimed (fleeing one’s home/town). In any case, there are a good number of now-empty land areas that once had homes, forts and other kinds of buildings and habitations built on them that for one reason or another became uninhabited and eventually reclaimed by the land. The cool part is that you can still see where a good majority of these buildings are from the air since the land has since been farmed and plowed several times over.

I will refer you all to a previous blog I did about how the Anglo-Saxon and Viking folks were fantastic craftsmen. This new hoard is really just a physical example of ‘No really, look at what these people could do!’ The thing with hoards is that you can never really be 100% sure why the stuff is there, but you can definitely learn a lot about the people who made the things (or acquired them) and that in turn helps create a better picture of the ancient world, which is never a bad thing in my book. Let’s try to take a step beyond OMG IT’S GOLD!!1!. Gold was a pretty plentiful material and as it is rather malleable it was a favorite for use in jewelry and decorative things. Yes, it also had a certain pretty shiny factor.

This particular hoard comes to us from what used to be the kingdom of Mercia. Mercia was one of several large Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that existed in what is now the modern UK. So far, this hoard seems to be dated to between 675 and 725 AD, which falls right smack into the area of time referred to as the Dark Ages. The darkness was not due to a lack of light sources (they had candles a-plenty and many burned buildings to attest to this constant fiery presence) but due to the lack of records of pretty much everything in the wake of the intense power vacuum that the Roman Empire left after it’s collapse. So it’s not as if people weren’t doing anything noteworthy, it’s just that no one thought to really write it all down at the time so now all we can do is guess and theorize as to how things went back then. When in doubt, ‘ritual purpose’. One of the many reasons we have hoards of things (or treasure, if you prefer…) is due to these mysterious rituals and their ritual purposes! Why would a group of people bury a whole lot of perfectly good victory spoils, jewelry and weapons? A ritual! Why would someone leave several pots full of coins in the ground? Ritual! Why would someone be so silly as to put a bunch of sword hilts, but no swords?? Ritual! As far as I’ve learned, most experts still have no conclusive answer as to why these hoards are/were there, but they are happy to have them all the same. They provide a wealthy of material knowledge of whatever group and time period they come from and help fill in knowledge gaps. The best I can think of is that it was an ancient example of ‘Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time…’ But I digress. This hoard is pretty darn special and it makes me wish I were back in the UK. It will be very interesting to see what new things we can learn about the Anglo-Saxons from the 11 lbs. of things that have already been unearthed AND the things that have yet to come out of the ground. Perhaps we will finally learn why a good amount of things were bent/broken! The AP article seems to suggest that a certain bracelet with an adorably misspelled Biblical quote on it was bent out of spite by angry pagan Anglo-Saxons. News flash: lots of Anglo-Saxons WERE Christian. Also, I prefer to use the term ‘polytheistic’, because the term ‘pagan’ irks me. Lets try to view history without the Judeo-Christian Goggles of Judgement, okay? My guess is that a lot of the rather thin and malleable things (bracelets, hilts, crosses, misc. jewelry items, etc.) were bent under the pressure of the dirt…as that is what usually happens to thin metal things when they are underground for a while. They bend! Swords and weapons can be broken ceremonially (No one gets to use this. Ever!) but thin things bend when pressure is applied. But that’s just my theory. I mean, why would you want to bend a perfectly good bracelet-as-offering-or-personal-item? 😛
In conclusion, here’s a picture of some of the shiny goodies that make up the Staffordshire Hoard!


Greetings once again, oh gentle readers! Today you best prepare yourselves for what is sure to be a super exciting topic (or so it is to me…). Ready? HIEROGLYPHS! 😀 Hooray! Without further ado and emoticons, let’s get this party started.

First up, there are a few issues that must be addressed quick smart. I will present them in handy list form for easy reading.
1. “Hieroglyphics” is an adjective, not a language. “Hieroglyphs” is. You can definitely describe the language of the Egyptians as hieroglyphic, because they were most definitely using sacred symbols (hiero=sacred, glyphs=glyphs). We’ll stick to referring to it as ‘hieroglyphs’ or ‘Middle Egyptian’ since that’s the bit that is most commonly used for learnings.
2. The kiddie stamp sets are lying to you. There is no A-Z correspondence between our English alphabet and the transliteration we’ve been using to understand hieroglyphs. The Egyptians had a phonetic writing system so the fun symbols stand for sounds and ideas, rather than individual letters.
3. The Egyptians had an amazing sense of humor and perception of the world they lived in. This is reflected in their language and usually results in much giggling from undergraduate and graduate students alike.
4. We’ll be using 2 books today: Gardiner’s Egyptian Grammar and How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs.

Right. Now we party. Since we’re not dealing with individual letters, here’s what sounds we’re working with. I have to warn you, once you get the handle of the transliterations will result in your sounding like an idiot whenever you read your transliterations out loud. Just a heads up. Here’s a bit of a run-down of the symbols that a lot of you are probably familiar with. These symbols are what we refer to as the 1-consonant signs. These are the ones found in stamp sets, sticker sets and basic guides/websites.
So let’s take a quick look at what’s going on here.
A-is not ‘A’. It’s a vulture being more of an ‘ah’ sound and more specifically, a glottal stop.
B- is a leg, and it’s a regular ‘b’ sound.
C-is not C. It’s cow udders and it’s actually more of a ‘kh’ sound like ‘ich’ in German.
D- is alright. It’s a hand and it’s a regular ‘d’ sound.
E- is not E. It’s usually identified as a ‘reed leaf’ but it’s actually pampas grass. If you have these plants near you, take a look when they’re blowing in a breeze and you’ll see the resemblance! It’s not the vowel ‘i’, but more of an ‘eeee’ sound. Like the ‘ea’ bit in ‘tea’.
F-is fine. The sign is a horned viper that just happens to make a ‘ffff’ sound when angry. See what they did there?
J- is not J. The little snake here is actually a ‘dj’ sound like in ‘joke’ or ‘dieu’ en français.
H- isn’t plain ‘H’, but a more…emphatic ‘h’.
G-is fine. It’s ‘g’ as you know it.
K-is fine too. It’s a basket.
L-is tricky. There really isn’t a traditional ‘l’ sound in the Egyptian language so people like to use the lion to make it work with English.
M- is an owl that can be an owl or a funny wedge shape should you need to conserve space. Really!
N-is wavy water. It’s fine where it is.
O/W-is not that. The little birdie can be either the birdie or a spiral (again, space saving) usually gets written as a ‘w’ but said as a weak ‘u’. Think ‘oo’.
R-is just ‘r’. It’s the opening of the mouth.
S- is not just ‘s’. The folded cloth is usually written/said as a normal ‘s’ sound. There is also a rectangle that is for a ‘sh’ sound.
T- can either be a hill or a bread loaf, but it’s a regular ‘t’.
TH- is not that either! Arg! It’s a ‘tj’ sound like the ‘t’ in ‘tune’.
Y-Well, it’s almost right. It’s transliterated as ‘y’ but usually just said as ‘ee’
Z-um, no. No ‘z’ in Egyptian. Ever. That symbol is the horizontal space-saving version of ‘s’
KH-CH- ah, the placenta of mystery. This symbol is one that even the experts aren’t 100% on. I’ve seen it identified as a placenta, ?, unknown…but whatever it is or isn’t, it is certainly not the sound made when combining ‘kh’ or ‘ch’. It’s a sound closer to the ‘ch’ in ‘loch’ and usually just gets written as an ‘h’ with a little half-circle under it.

Moving on. Signs usually get put together with others to make multi-consonant signs but they can also be exactly what they are. If you put a single vertical line under a sign, it will automagically become that sign. So for example, if you took the sign for ‘m’ up there and put a line under it, it would not be an ‘mm’ sound, it would instead be a mouth.

There are also signs that are called determinatives. These symbols usually go at the end of a phrase. Signs like people, specific animals or buildings contribute to phrases like ‘palace’ (has a house at the end), ‘people’ (has…2 people, a man and a woman) and ‘hungry’ (has a little man at the end).

Finally, here’s a peek at the ancient Egyptian sense of humor. I have a few favorite signs, which are at the same time cute, smart and hilarious. Behold!
The noble Puffer fish. This is probably my favorite glyph. Why? Because it is the determinative for the phrase ‘to be discontent’. Puffer fish puff up when…discontent. Hee!

To fall over. Aaah!

To dance. Party time!

And that will conclude today’s rather hasty introduction to Middle Egyptian hieroglyphs. Hopefully you all enjoyed that? The language is a hell of a lot more complicated than I can sum up in a simple blog. But then again, I think that’s a theme for most of the things I write about here. There’s just too much to cram into one post! More next time!

Archaeology on TV: Out of Egypt

Greetings once again, gentle readers! One of the positive benefits of staying indoors to avoid the sub-optimal air quality here is that I have been spending a lot of time catching up on my TLC/History/Discovery Channel programming! I discovered one night, much to my chagrin, that a new show was premiering on the Discovery Channel entitled ‘Out of Egypt’. A nice lady from UCLA was apparently going around the world to show us viewers how all sorts of other civilizations were influenced by the Egyptians. I had 2 issues with this right off the bat. 1) ‘Out of Egypt’ is the title of my Masters dissertation. 2) While I love my Egypt, not *everyone* was influenced by them but there are lots of fun parallels to explore. On the night of the premiere, I decided to give it a bit of a grudging watch to see what sort of madness would unfold. The first episode, naturally, was on pyramids. Pyramids of the world! Pretty standard for this sort of thing so we were off to a fair start. There was of course the usual traipsing around the Giza Plateau and surrounding areas to see pyramids of various ages and sorts, and then it was off to Latin America for a look at the pyramids of the Aztec and Maya empires. Once again, pyramids were walked upon, experts were spoken to and all of it was done in glorious HD. It was at this point I changed the channel and opted for the newest episode of ‘Mad Men’ because I just couldn’t take another segment of the show. Why? Let’s take a look at a basic breakdown of the issues and questions of the Egypt/Mexico pyramid adventure:

Me: Well, yes…to a degree. Pretty shiny things would have been included because people tend to hold onto their good jewelry. One never knows what sort of parties might go on in the afterlife so you need to look your best. Also, pharaohs, being the kings (and queens!) and all that, would have had more jewelry and ornate things than the average Egyptian. It was all placed in and around the deceased so they could come back and use it in the afterlife…and then it was promptly plundered. There’s a very good chance the gold n’ jewels n’ treasure wasn’t around very long. It’s also very possible that bodies and goods never even made it into the pyramid for a myriad of reasons. Sooo…

Me: Didn’t I just cover this?

Me: And so do Egyptian ones if they’re in Saqqara…

Me: *facepalm* Yes, sacrifices happened. Any point of the Latin American portion of the show would have been a wonderful time to mention that in the mythology of the area (Aztec, Mayan, Inca) the gods didn’t have blood because they were, you know, divine and godly and otherworldly and all that. Thus, sacrifices involving blood were required so the people could provide the gods with nourishing blood and in turn allow them to continue existing and provide food, rains, good battles, etc. Sometimes this blood came from the losers of a recent battle, sometimes it came from their own people. That’s just how they rolled. A lot of the flair was just that…flair. One needs to make sure your people and enemies know who’s boss.

Me: *points to Egypt* Pyramids have antechambers. So to all the tombs. Trufax.

Me: Yay! Parallel to Norse mythology!! Yggdrasil anyone? Or any other type of Tree-Of-Life? No? No parallels? Oh, okay then.

Me: Didn’t we just do this?
Expert Man: Yes…they did.
Me: Is this show being serious right now?
Expert Man: They would have been in public, yes….people would have watched since it was usually for religious purposes…

Me: Wait, wasn’t this show about showing us connections between other cultures and Egypt? Where are my connections? Oh, hey! A new episode of ‘Mad Men’! *click*

Once again, my desire to change the face of historical programming on TV has been heightened. I’m sincerely hoping that the show I saw was the product of questionable editing. The host seems pretty knowledgeable, as she is an Egyptologist from UCLA with a PhD and everything, so I can only hope better questions were asked and that editing demons simply made off with the good sound bites. I was really hoping there would be some good connections made between cultures and it wouldn’t simply be a rehashing of the same tired and somewhat sensationalized information that gets recycled on these shows.

If you want some quality archaeology and/or history to watch, check out Time Team America. They do it right. Some parts are a little hokey but it provides the best overall depiction of the archaeological field process and the fun shenanigans and discoveries that occur in the field.