The link below is to an article that takes a look at the ancient Greek city of Helike and how it disappeared in an earthquake.
Tag Archives: ancient
It’s a simple enough equation: good soil is the key to good food. And good soil starts with trees.
Alexander the Great conquered a vast empire that extended from Greece all the way to India. However, his ancestors’ fortune was a mixed bag. A new series of studies show the ancient Macedonians may have been struck by one of the earliest environmental disasters linked to human activity.
Ancient sediment records sealed in lakes for thousands of years reveals how logging may have affected erosion, which ultimately destroyed the capacity of the ancient Macedonians to grow food.
More trees, on the other hand, appears to have made soil erosion less susceptible to climate change. The lessons for modern people – and our future prosperity – are clear.
Soil is a kingmaker
Something wonderful happens when rocks, formed in the guts of the Earth, come into contact with air and water: they break down into clays (and other things) to form soils. Because of their ability to store water and nutrients, soils are the food basket of land plants and all the animals that feed on them, including us.
Preserving soil has been the key for success to all past civilisations. Those who lost it would rapidly be precipitated into oblivion. This happened everywhere: the Middle East, Greece, Rome and Mesamerica.
Preserving our soil should therefore be at the centre of our concerns (although it rarely gets a look-in on the nightly news).
Erosion isn’t just a problem because the land loses soil. This soil enters waterways, increasing the sediment load of rivers. This high sediment load harms freshwater and coastal ecosystems, including fish population and, ultimately, us. We therefore need to better understand how climate change and humans shape soil erosion.
Macedonian timber and the first environmental disaster
The chemistry of sediments deposited on lake’s bottom records how the environment changed over hundreds and thousands of years. Recently, we have studied sediments from Lake Dojran, straddling the border between Northern Macedonia and Greece. We looked at the past 12,000 years of sediment archive and found about 3,500 years ago, a massive erosion event happened.
Pollen trapped in the lake’s sediment suggests this is linked to deforestation and the introduction of agriculture in the region. Macedonian timber was highly praised for ship building at the time, which could explain the extent of deforestation.
A massive erosion event would have catastrophic consequences for agriculture and pasture. Interestingly, this event is followed by the onset of the so-called Greek “Dark Ages” (3,100 to 2,850 years ago) and the demise of the highly sophisticated Bronze Age Mycenaean civilisation.
Further to the west, at the crossroads between Albania and Norther Macedonia, Lake Ohrid holds a much longer storyline: an international scientific drilling program is uncovering the past million year of climate and environmental stories locked in Lake Ohrid sediments.
We recently looked at Lake Ohrid on a more modest time scale, similar to the Lake Dojran project: the past 16,000 years.
At Lake Ohrid, there are also signs of increased soil erosion around 4,000 years ago. These results are consistent with previous suggestions of a human role on soil erosion at other lakes in Greece.
Overall, there are clear signs that deforestation and the development of agriculture precedes the Greek “Dark Ages”. While the causal link cannot be established with certainty, this timeline could represent the first negative feedback loop where humans depleted environmental resources, which in turn harmed communities.
Trees can make soil less sensitive to climate change
Lake Ohrid tells us another interesting story: until 8,000 years ago, soil erosion was closely following climate change. During dry and cold periods, erosion was shallow, probably as a consequence of dry conditions; while during warmer periods, higher levels of erosion delivered more sediment to the lake.
Around 8,000 years ago, something interesting happens: trees become the dominant type of vegetation cover. While trees were already abundant in previous warm periods (and less during cold periods), from 8,000 years ago onwards, they overwhelm the type of pollen that fell into the lake and became trapped in the sediment.
This tree dominance has an important consequence for soil erosion: after 8,000 years ago, soil erosion became shallow and remained so, even while the climate continued to oscillate. We can see soil erosion became less sensitive to climatic fluctuations.
We already knew that trees, thanks to their deep roots, help stabilise soil and prevent its loss; what we learn here is that over a certain threshold of tree cover, they also make soil erosion much less sensitive to climate change.
Lake Ohrid provides us with an important lesson, especially as we are increasingly concerned with how our soil and water resources will be affected by global warming. If we want to preserve our soils and rivers (and feed our communities) we need to ensure that enough of our landscape is covered with trees.
Planting trees and forest management should not be a concern for nature enthusiasts only, but for all us – regardless of political inclination – who enjoy eating. Understanding the past is not simply about learning from our ancestors’ mistakes so we do not repeat them, but freeing ourselves from their grip so new paths unfold ahead of us.
You don’t have to be an avid gardener or know all the Latin names of plants to appreciate the opportunity for reflection that a stroll in the garden can afford us. The explosion of colours, shapes, and textures in the garden, the tenacity and ingenuity of the plants, so determined to claim their right to life and beauty, can suspend for us the troubling aspects of everyday life.
But gardens are also bound to their political and religious history, traces of which can be found in our ongoing cultural obsession with them. The connection between the famous gardens of Versailles, once the coveted possession of Louis XIV, and our humble back garden is deeper than we might imagine.
Friday essay: what is it about Versailles?
In the book of Genesis, our creation begins in Eden, the “garden of God” which our ancestors, Adam and Eve, failed to appreciate. Having lost our privileged access to this divine garden because of their sin, we perpetually try to re-create it – in our homes, in our cities, in our heads. The earthly garden as a reflection of the paradise we can hope to experience after death is also a central motif in the Qur’an, a promise delivered by Allah himself.
Gods and kings
In the ancient Near East, in whose fertile soil the Biblical traditions took shape, kings (who often assumed priestly duties) were believed to have the monopoly of communicating with the gods in the royal garden. This was seen as a microcosm of the divine garden.
In the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh (from around 2000 BCE), the hero-king Gilgamesh travels to the wondrous garden of the sun-god, where flowers boast precious gems instead of leaves, in a quest to claim immortality. Although immortality eludes Gilgamesh, the divine garden offers him wisdom. Thus equipped, he returns to his city, Uruk, also known as “the garden of Gilgamesh,” and builds magnificent walls which will etch his name into the memory of mankind.
Guide to the classics: the Epic of Gilgamesh
In another story, despite his uneasy relationship with the fertility goddess Inanna, whose advances he eventually rejects, Gilgamesh poses as her dedicated gardener. He carves a throne and a bed for Inanna from the Huluppu tree while she makes him a magical drum and drumstick from it to summon warriors to battle. When Inanna’s favourite tree is threatened by a serpent nesting at its roots, only Gilgamesh and his companions rush to her aid.
Throughout the Near East, the garden was a place where gods confirmed the legitimacy of kings. Sargon I (1920-1881 BCE), the founder of the Akkadian-Sumerian empire, poses in the epic The Legend of Sargon as a humble gardener, and was hand-picked by the goddess to become the king.
Ancient Near Eastern kings invested exorbitant sums of money in building magnificent royal gardens, architectural marvels which crystallised in people’s minds their unique communion with the gods. Sennacherib (704-681 BCE) likely commissioned the famous hanging gardens to be built near his capital Nineveh, although we still commonly refer to them as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
The notion was also known to the Israelite king Solomon (circa 970-931 BCE), who proudly announced his construction of lavish, well-irrigated gardens and groves, and was widely used by the Achaemenids (a Persian dynasty). Indeed the Persian word for an enclosed garden, pairi-daêza, was introduced into Greek as paradeisos (“paradise”) by the historian Xenophon.
In his biography of Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Achaemenid Empire, the Xenophon notes with admiration the king’s impeccable gardening skills which matched his royal virtue. Seleucus I, Alexander the Great’s general who came to rule Babylon, also embraced the profile of the king as gardener. His famous garden at Daphne, outside Antioch, renowned for its abundance of shady laurel trees, tall cypresses, and perennial fountains, was closely associated with the foundation of the Seleucid dynasty and Apollo, their divine patron. In the east the tradition never lost its appeal.
From the Middle East to the world
The Romans, who inherited the kingdoms of Alexander’s successors, adopted the ideology of gardens with renewed zeal, transplanting it in Europe. The Roman Empire withered, but generations of aspiring aristocrats and rulers, including Charlemagne, Count Robert II of Artois (1250-1302), Cosimo de’ Medici (1389-1464), and Henri II (1519-1559) never forgot the sense of grandeur and superhuman aura that exotic, exclusive gardens could afford them.
Dating from the Middle Ages, the Vatican Gardens, owned by the Pope, continue to evoke the political and religious dimensions of the garden, which were especially celebrated in Britain with the ascension of Henry VIII in 1509. European colonization of the Middle East saw the idea of the garden reintroduced in the places of its origin, but, also imported in the New World. Gardens such as the Victoria gardens in Mumbai showed off the legitimacy of British rule.
The science is in: gardening is good for you
The connection of the garden with politics remains strong. Community gardens are cast as an epitome of democratic values, and the Royal Gardens in all major Australian cities advocate inclusiveness, despite their monarchical titles. Gardens surrounded ancient temples to bring worshippers closer to god; gardens surround war memorials inviting us to reflect on life lost and life gained.
So next time you’re wandering around your own garden, reflect on the fact that you’re walking in the footsteps of the kings and queens of yesteryear, in your own slice of paradise.
A series of floods that hit the ancient city of Angkor would have overwhelmed and destroyed its vast water network, according to a new study that provides an explanation for the downfall of the world’s biggest pre-industrial city.
Our research, published in Science Advances, explains how the damage to this vital network would have triggered a series of “cascading failures” that ultimately toppled the entire city. And it holds lessons for today’s cities about the danger posed when crucial infrastructure is overwhelmed.
Angkor, in modern-day Cambodia, was founded in 802 AD and abandoned during the 15th century. Its demise coincided with a period of highly variable rainfall in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, with prolonged droughts and extremely wet years.
We know Angkor’s water distribution network was heavily damaged by flooding during that period. But we didn’t have an explanation of how this triggered the city’s eventual collapse and abandonment.
Angkor is an unusual archaeological site because the remains of the city can still be seen on the ground and, particularly, from the air. It is thus possible to map precisely the constructed features that made up its urban fabric and, from this, to interpret the function and flow of the living city.
We used existing archaeological maps of Angkor to chart the city’s water distribution network, which was made up of hundreds of excavated canals and embankments, temple moats, reservoirs, natural river channels, and other features. This sprawling network, covering more than 1,000 square km, provided both irrigation and flood defence.
We then used a computer model to simulate the effects of flooding, such as would have occurred during huge monsoonal rains, to see how the system would have coped with the biggest deluges.
We found that large floods would have been channelled into just a few major pathways, which would have suffered significant erosion as a result. Other parts of the network, meanwhile, would have had less water flow and would have begun to fill up with sediment.
The resulting feedback loop would have caused damage to cascade through the network, ultimately fragmenting Angkor’s water infrastructure.
There are two main messages from our research. First, it demonstrates how climatic variability in the 14th and 15th centuries could have triggered the demise of the city.
Second, it shows how Angkor’s fate resonates with today’s concerns about the resilience of our own urban infrastructure – not just to extreme weather (although that is important), but also to other potentially damaging events such as terrorism.
Angkor was once the largest city on Earth. But its huge growth made it unworkable, unwieldy, and ultimately irreparable. Its critical urban infrastructure was both complex and interdependent, meaning that a seemingly small disruption (such as a flood) could fracture the entire network and bring down an entire city.
Ancient Angkor, it seems, experienced the same challenges as modern urban networks. As we move further into a period characterised by extreme weather events, the resilience of our urban infrastructure will be tested.
As cities grow, their infrastructure becomes more complex. Eventually, networks such as roads, water infrastructure or electricity grids reach a critical state that is neither predicted nor designed by those that operate them. In these networks, small errors or outages in one part of the network can quickly propagate to become a much larger failure. One example would be an electrical fault that triggers a wide-scale blackout.
Government agencies around the world have developed or are developing strategies to deal with threats to critical infrastructure, including from terrorism, natural disasters and, increasingly, extreme weather events related to climate change. Resilience can be built into infrastructural networks by increasing redundancy (or alternative flow paths) and emphasising modularity, so that cascading failures, if they occur, can be localised while maintaining the function of the wider network.
Our research on the demise of Angkor’s infrastructure sounds a warning from history about the dangers of the complex urban environments in which most humans now live, and the urgent need to prepare for a more variable future.
The werewolf is a staple of supernatural fiction, whether it be film, television, or literature. You might think this snarling creature is a creation of the Medieval and Early Modern periods, a result of the superstitions surrounding magic and witchcraft.
In reality, the werewolf is far older than that. The earliest surviving example of man-to-wolf transformation is found in The Epic of Gilgamesh from around 2,100 BC. However, the werewolf as we now know it first appeared in ancient Greece and Rome, in ethnographic, poetic and philosophical texts.
These stories of the transformed beast are usually mythological, although some have a basis in local histories, religions and cults. In 425 BC, Greek historian Herodotus described the Neuri, a nomadic tribe of magical men who changed into wolf shapes for several days of the year. The Neuri were from Scythia, land that is now part of Russia. Using wolf skins for warmth is not outside the realm of possibility for inhabitants of such a harsh climate: this is likely the reason Herodotus described their practice as “transformation”.
The werewolf myth became integrated with the local history of Arcadia, a region of Greece. Here, Zeus was worshipped as Lycaean Zeus (“Wolf Zeus”). In 380 BC, Greek philosopher Plato told a story in the Republic about the “protector-turned-tyrant” of the shrine of Lycaean Zeus. In this short passage, the character Socrates remarks: “The story goes that he who tastes of the one bit of human entrails minced up with those of other victims is inevitably transformed into a wolf.”
Literary evidence suggests cult members mixed human flesh into their ritual sacrifice to Zeus. Both Pliny the Elder and Pausanias discuss the participation of a young athlete, Damarchus, in the Arcadian sacrifice of an adolescent boy: when Damarchus was compelled to taste the entrails of the young boy, he was transformed into a wolf for nine years. Recent archaeological evidence suggests that human sacrifice may have been practised at this site.
Monsters and men
The most interesting aspect of Plato’s passage concerns the “protector-turned-tyrant”, also known as the mythical king, Lycaon. Expanded further in Latin texts, most notably Hyginus’s Fabulae and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Lycaon’s story contains all the elements of a modern werewolf tale: immoral behaviour, murder and cannibalism.
In Fabulae, the sons of Lycaon sacrificed their youngest brother to prove Zeus’s weakness. They served the corpse as a pseudo-feast and attempting to trick the god into eating it. A furious Zeus slayed the sons with a lightning bolt and transformed their father into a wolf. In Ovid’s version, Lycaon murdered and mutilated a protected hostage of Zeus, but suffered the same consequences.
Ovid’s passage is one of the only ancient sources that goes into detail on the act of transformation. His description of the metamorphosis uses haunting language that creates a correlation between Lycaon’s behaviour and the physical manipulation of his body:
…He tried to speak, but his voice broke into
an echoing howl. His ravening soul infected his jaws;
his murderous longings were turned on the cattle; he still was possessed
by bloodlust. His garments were changed to a shaggy coat and his arms
into legs. He was now transformed into a wolf.
Ovid’s Lycaon is the origin of the modern werewolf, as the physical manipulation of his body hinges on his prior immoral behaviour. It is this that has contributed to the establishment of the “monstrous werewolf” trope of modern fiction.
Lycaon’s character defects are physically grafted onto his body, manipulating his human form until he becomes that which his behaviour suggests. And, perhaps most importantly, Lycaon begins the idea that to transform into a werewolf you must first be a monster.
The idea that there was a link between biology (i.e. appearance) and “immoral” behaviour developed fully in the late 20th century. However, minority groups were more often the target than mythical kings. Law enforcement, scientists and the medical community joined forces to find “cures” for socially deviant behaviour such as criminality, violence and even homosexuality. Science and medicine were used as a vehicle through which bigotry and fear could be maintained, as shown by the treatment of HIV-affected men throughout the 1980s.
However, werewolf stories show the idea has ancient origins. For as long as authors have been changing bad men into wolves, we have been looking for the biological link between man and action.
In 1932, the musicologist Wilfrid Perrett reported to an audience at the Royal Musical Association in London the words of an unnamed professor of Greek with musical leanings: “Nobody has ever made head or tail of ancient Greek music, and nobody ever will. That way madness lies.”
Indeed, ancient Greek music has long posed a maddening enigma. Yet music was ubiquitous in classical Greece, with most of the poetry from around 750BC to 350BC – the songs of Homer, Sappho, and others – composed and performed as sung music, sometimes accompanied by dance. Literary texts provide abundant and highly specific details about the notes, scales, effects, and instruments used. The lyre was a common feature, along with the popular aulos, two double-reed pipes played simultaneously by a single performer so as to sound like two powerful oboes played in concert.
Despite this wealth of information, the sense and sound of ancient Greek music has proved incredibly elusive. This is because the terms and notions found in ancient sources – mode, enharmonic, diesis, and so on – are complicated and unfamiliar. And while notated music exists and can be reliably interpreted, it is scarce and fragmentary. What could be reconstructed in practice has often sounded quite strange and unappealing – so ancient Greek music had by many been deemed a lost art.
But recent developments have excitingly overturned this gloomy assessment. A project to investigate ancient Greek music that I have been working on since 2013 has generated stunning insights into how ancient Greeks made music. My research has even led to its performance – and hopefully, in the future, we’ll see many more such reconstructions.
The situation has changed largely because over the past few years some very well preserved auloi have been reconstructed by expert technicians such as Robin Howell and researchers associated with the European Music Archaeology Project. Played by highly skilled pipers such as Barnaby Brown and Callum Armstrong, they provide a faithful guide to the pitch range of ancient music, as well as to the instruments’ own pitches, timbres, and tunings.
Central to ancient song was its rhythms, and the rhythms of ancient Greek music can be derived from the metres of the poetry. These were based strictly on the durations of syllables of words, which create patterns of long and short elements. While there are no tempo indications for ancient songs, it is often clear whether a metre should be sung fast or slow (until the invention of mechanical chronometers, tempo was in any case not fixed, and was bound to vary between performances). Setting an appropriate tempo is essential if music is to sound right.
What about the tunes – the melody and harmony? This is what most people mean when they claim that ancient Greek “music” is lost. Thousands of words about the theory of melody and harmony survive in the writings of ancient authors such as Plato, Aristotle, Aristoxenus, Ptolemy, and Aristides Quintilianus; and a few fragmentary scores with ancient musical notation first came to light in Florence in the late 16th century. But this evidence for actual music gave no real sense of the melodic and harmonic riches that we learn of from literary sources.
More documents with ancient notation on papyrus or stone have intermittently come to light since 1581, and now around 60 fragments exist. Carefully compiled, transcribed, and interpreted by scholars such as Martin West and Egert Pöhlmann, they give us a better chance of understanding how the music sounded.
Ancient Greek music performed
The earliest substantial musical document, found in 1892, preserves part of a chorus from the Athenian tragedian Euripides’ Orestes of 408BC. It has long posed problems for interpretation, mainly owing to its use of quarter-tone intervals, which have seemed to suggest an alien melodic sensibility. Western music operates with whole tones and semitones; any smaller interval sounds to our ears as if a note is being played or sung out of tune.
But my analyses of the Orestes fragment, published earlier this year, led to striking insights. First, I demonstrated that elements of the score clearly indicate word-painting – the imitation of the meaning of words by the shape of the melodic line. We find a falling cadence set to the word “lament”, and a large upward interval leap accompanying the word “leaps up”.
Second, I showed that if the quarter-tones functioned as “passing-notes”, the composition was in fact tonal (focused on a pitch to which the tune regularly reverts). This should not be very surprising, as such tonality exists in all the documents of ancient music from later centuries, including the large-scale Delphic Paeans preserved on stone.
With these premises in view, in 2016 I reconstructed the music of the Orestes papyrus for choral realisation with aulos accompaniment, setting a brisk tempo as indicated by the metre and the content of the chorus’s words. This Orestes chorus was performed by choir and aulos-player at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, in July 2017, together with other reconstructed ancient scores.
It remains for me to realise, in the next few years, the other few dozen ancient scores that exist, many extremely fragmentary, and to stage a complete ancient drama with historically informed music in an ancient theatre such as that of Epidaurus.
<!– Below is The Conversation's page counter tag. Please DO NOT REMOVE. –>
Meanwhile, an exciting conclusion may be drawn. The Western tradition of classical music is often said to begin with the Gregorian plainsong of the 9th century AD. But the reconstruction and performance of Greek music has demonstrated that ancient Greek music should be recognised as the root of the European musical tradition.
Ancient Egypt continues to throw up one fabulous surprise after another.
Today my colleagues and I published our analysis of an intact Egyptian prehistoric body (from around 3700-3500 BC) that had been housed in a museum in Turin, Italy, since 1901. The results provide strong evidence that embalming was taking place 1,500 years earlier than previously accepted.
The dead man was previously assumed to have been naturally mummified by the desiccating action of the hot, dry desert sand. But now we know it was deliberately preserved.
Together with our previous research, this new information tells us that the prehistoric Egyptians – those living 1,500 or more years before the Pharaohs – already had knowledge of the processes required to preserve the body, and practised a developed religious belief system about the afterlife.
We had hints
Prior to this new study, our analysis of funerary wrappings from prehistoric bodies from sites in central Egypt proved that the ancient Egyptians who lived before the time of the pharaohs used some body preservation techniques.
Reports of pellets of resin in pouches with the bodies in early burials excavated at prehistoric sites at Badari and Mostagedda in Middle Egypt (c. 4500-3350 BC) had made me wonder whether they were already using resin in a rudimentary form of mummification.
Resin is an substance harvested from certain trees, particularly pine, and is a preservative component of embalming mixtures.
In our previous work we did not have whole bodies – only small fragments of linen in British museums. The pieces of fabric were the only surviving evidence the bodies had been wrapped, and had been donated by the excavators in the early 20th century in return for funding for excavation.
But we didn’t have any further samples to expand this work – until now.
Preparing for the afterlife
The central tenet of ancient Egyptian mummification was preservation of a perfect body so that it could enter into the afterlife as a complete entity. If a crocodile had bitten off a leg, a wooden prosthesis would be substituted.
The wrapped bodies at prehistoric sites generally had not come under intense scrutiny when excavated, because in the 19th and early 20th centuries interest was overwhelmingly in the artefacts. Furthermore, there had been no reason to believe that the prehistoric Egyptians were using any preservative balms on their dead.
Like the British, the Italians were conducting their own excavations to fill the Museo Egizio in Turin. Perhaps the best-known archaeologist is Ernesto Schiaparelli, director of the museum between 1895 and 1928.
Schiaparelli went on a number of missions to Egypt to excavate and purchase mummies and artefacts from antiquities dealers, including the prehistoric body in this current study (identified as “Turin S. 293, RCGE 16550”), bought between 1900 and 1901.
It is only one of 20 bodies of this period (c. 3600 BC) in international museums. Although there are few written records on the body’s provenance, Gebelein in Middle Egypt is the most probable source.
A recipe for preservation
In 2014, a research grant from Macquarie University afforded a unique opportunity to forensically examine this Turin mummy.
Working with an international team, we took minute samples of textile and skin for biochemical analysis, radiocarbon dating, textile analysis and DNA analysis of pathogenic bacteria.
The mummy had not undergone conservation in the museum which meant that contamination was minimal, making him an ideal subject for scientific investigation. The downside of not having been conserved and consolidated is that he is extremely fragile and damaged.
Chemical analysis of the residues on the textile wrappings from the torso and wrist using a technique known as gas chromatography-mass spectrometry revealed the presence of a plant oil or animal fat, a sugar/gum, a conifer resin and an aromatic plant extract.
The resin and aromatic plant extracts are the two main antibacterial components that would have repelled insects and preserved the soft tissue underneath. Chemical signatures indicate gentle heating, so it was indeed a “recipe” that was probably applied by dipping the linen into the melted mixture and then wrapping.
Radiocarbon dating of linen – one sample each from the body and the basket of fragments accompanying the body – gave a date range of around 3700-3500 BC. Both samples shared the same early spinning technology observed in Egyptian linen between about 5000 BC and 3600 BC, when a momentous change in the direction of the spin took place.
No pathogenic DNA was detected by metagenomics, either because it had not survived the environmental conditions in Egypt or the museum (which until recently was not climate-controlled).
As a result, we do not know whether he died from an infectious disease. Furthermore, his extremely fragile state prevented him from being moved for X-ray analysis.
Together with our previous research, the information gleaned from this complete mummy tells us that the prehistoric Egyptians already had knowledge of the processes required to preserve the body, as well as an already developed religious belief system about the afterlife.
They had access to resins from the Eastern Mediterranean, suggesting long-distance trade. That similar components were used in the balms in burials 200 km apart, and indeed continued to be used in similar proportions by the pharaonic period embalmers when their skills were at their peak some 2,500 years later, shows the enduring nature of ancient Egyptian ingenuity.