Why other histories matter

brothel fresco
Photo Lupinare III (cc) Nick in exsilio.

I have an interest in ancient pros­ti­tu­tion. It’s not what I’d call a guilty pleas­ure, because when you read about the miser­able lives the women had it’s hardly pleas­ure, but there is plenty of guilt. I don’t find ancient pros­ti­tu­tion sala­cious but given the expli­cit art, I can see how people would think it is and this trig­gers the feel­ing of being a dirty old man. Yet more and more I think to under­stand how ancient cit­ies worked you need to know about the seedy under­belly of the city. For every poet whose frag­ments sur­vive and whose words are pored over by philo­lo­gists, thou­sands of pros­ti­tutes died after miser­able lives missed only by their friends. I wouldn’t say that the study of poetic frag­ments is wrong or inher­ently inferior to the study of the ancient under­classes, but I think for the sake of hon­esty about the clas­sical world someone needs to tell these stories.

Someone who’s just done this recently is N.S. Gill. She’s pos­ted Firebaugh’s notes on Roman pros­ti­tu­tion. In some ways it’s depress­ing the notes are still rel­ev­ant enough to be worth post­ing. The lan­guage is dated. Well, no even that might not be true either des­pite Firebaugh refer­ring to ‘har­lots’. Even more depress­ing is how little atti­tudes to pros­ti­tu­tion have shif­ted since ancient times. For instance who becomes a prostitute?

According to the Romans it would seem that they were women who were mak­ing a delib­er­ate choice.

If the girl was young and appar­ently respect­able, the offi­cial sought to influ­ence her to change her mind; fail­ing in this, he issued her a license (licen­tia stupri), ascer­tained the price she inten­ded exact­ing for her favors, and entered her name in his roll. Once entered there, the name could never be removed, but must remain for all time an insur­mount­able bar to repent­ance and respectability.

I sus­pect it was a choice, but the choice was between pros­ti­tu­tion and star­va­tion. It is also a stain on the woman’s char­ac­ter, not the client’s. In mod­ern terms it’s been noted that crim­inal fines for pros­ti­tu­tion can actu­ally lead a woman back onto the streets in order to pay it off. Again it’s the woman’s choice. The notion of the will­ing pros­ti­tute serves the need of the cli­ents who could either be wish­ing for a will­ing part­ner, or else wish to feel mor­ally jus­ti­fied in their actions.

It’s not a choice any­one would want to forced to make. The Constitution of the Athenians gives a pretty grim pic­ture of where flute-girls, not the low­est pros­ti­tutes, fit­ted in the import­ance of the city.

[T]en men are elec­ted by lot as … City Controllers, five of whom hold office in Peiraeus and five in the city; it is they who super­vise the flute-girls and harp-girls and lyre-girls to pre­vent their receiv­ing fees of more than two drach­mas, and if sev­eral per­sons want to take the same girl these offi­cials cast lots between them and hire her out to the win­ner. And they keep watch to pre­vent any scav­enger from depos­it­ing ordure within a mile and a quarter of the wall; and they pre­vent the con­struc­tion of build­ings encroach­ing on and bal­conies over­hanging the roads, of over­head con­duits with an over­flow into the road, and of win­dows open­ing out­ward on to the road; and they remove for burial the bod­ies of per­sons who die on the roads, hav­ing pub­lic slaves for this service.

I can­not believe any­one would want to be classed along­side dung and corpses. Life for the typ­ical pros­ti­tute must have been miser­able. It might explain why people have tra­di­tion­ally over­looked ancient pros­ti­tutes when writ­ing his­tor­ies, but it doesn’t explain why they are import­ant. Being poor merely makes you poor rather than inher­ently more worthy than the rich.

Another reason for ignor­ing pros­ti­tutes and the rest of the under­class is they have been con­sidered invis­ible. Could it be they are leav­ing traces, but it’s we in the cur­rent era who choose not to see them? A recent thesis by Clare Kelly-Blazeby could turn upside down a lot of assump­tions about the ancient city.

She’s been look­ing for archae­olo­gical evid­ence of tav­ernas. You wouldn’t think drink­ing would be dif­fi­cult to find in the ancient world. The texts have many ref­er­ences to the masses get­ting drunk in their bru­tish way. Yet whenever drink­ing assemblages have been found it’s been inter­preted as archae­olo­gical evid­ence of the sym­posium. The sym­posium is the drink­ing party of the élite. It’s the set­ting for many debates and the sort of his­tory which you can see chan­ging the world.

On top of that it’s very archae­olo­gic­ally vis­ible. Not only are there the cups and bowls there’s also the lay­out of the sym­po­sion, the room where the sym­posium was held. It con­veni­ently has couches arranged around the walls, head to foot so every­one reclines on their left side. Kelly-Blazeby has found that many assemblages of drink­ing cups are not asso­ci­ated with sym­po­sions, but ordin­ary look­ing houses. Even today archi­tec­tur­ally Greek tav­ernas can look the same as ordin­ary houses. After re-thinking what a tav­erna of the sort would look like, she’s rad­ic­ally altered how we see the urban eco­nomy and town plan. It also means we need to re-think what we mean by élite, which in some cit­ies may be a lot smal­ler and more élite than pre­vi­ously acknowledged.

Sometimes look­ing at unfash­ion­able his­tor­ies can mean that more his­tory is being writ­ten. Yet some­times, like in the case of Gender History, or Crime or Class it not only makes more his­tory it also makes the sub­jects of tra­di­tional his­tor­ies richer and more vibrant. This is why I’ve found Mercurius Rusticus’s sum­mer strop both fas­cin­at­ing and pitiable.

Given two sexes and a vivid ima­gin­a­tion regard­ing sexual taboos seems to be a con­stant of human his­tory I think it’s a con­stant issue which needs to be tackled. I don’t think gender dif­fer­ences can be seen every­where in the his­tor­ical record, but it is wor­ry­ing if people can’t even see there is a ques­tion. If they can’t see these issue in the past, then why think they’re equipped to be able to see them in present?

Bad news for the Christians


There’s a 1st cen­tury BC tab­let which has been found pre­dict­ing a Messiah that will rise after three days. I can’t really see this shak­ing Christianity by con­nect­ing it to Judaism. The whole concept of a Messiah is Jewish. It’s not like Judea was short of Messiahs in this period. As for proph­ecies Matthew is known to have drawn on Jewish proph­ecies for his gos­pel, hence the whole being born in Bethlehem thing. It is of his­tor­ical interest though. It seems like a mes­siah proph­ecy we didn’t know about before. That could have told us more about the devel­op­ment of Christianity.

Sadly it can’t tell us a lot, because the mater­ial is unproven­anced. Anyone who’s Christian has had inform­a­tion about tab­let of import­ance to their faith trashed and it’s inform­a­tion which can­not be replaced. It’s been com­pared to find­ing the Dead Sea Scrolls.* It’s not like find­ing the Dead Sea Scrolls. It’s like burn­ing them unread and sift­ing through the ashes to see what you can make out.

However as long as there’s a mar­ket for unproven­anced and illi­cit antiquit­ies there’ll be a profit to be made from other people’s beliefs.

See also: The Boston Globe and Jim West’s web­log.

*Actually in some ways it is. An awful loot of inform­a­tion about them has been lost too due to the trade in unproven­ance antiquities.

The Burglars. Photo (cc) John Carl Johnson

Why context matters


Finding buri­als is not always easy. Bodies decay over time, and their vis­ib­il­ity can vary for a num­ber of reas­ons. One reason in par­tic­u­lar is the wealth of the deceased. If you’re rich you can afford a very lav­ish and very vis­ible burial. As a res­ult our under­stand­ing of the past can be skewed in favour of the social élites. That’s one reason why archae­olo­gists get so excited about large cemeter­ies. News is com­ing out of Italy of one such cemetery near Fiumicino air­port. What has been found is a nec­ro­polis with around three hun­dred skel­et­ons. What makes these spe­cial is that they’re the skel­et­ons of the poor.

There’s vari­ous reas­ons why the Italian archae­olo­gists think they were poor. The grave goods aren’t as plen­ti­ful as you get from the richer sites. In the tombs there are ceramic tank­ards, oil lamps and what remains of ancient shoes. There’s also around sev­enty coins, mainly of Trajan and Faustina, used to pay the fer­ry­man Charon. The coins date the tombs to the early second cen­tury BC. The loc­a­tion may not have been as pres­ti­gi­ous, this was down towards the ports of Rome, which played a vital role in con­nect­ing Rome with its empire. In Trajan’s period, Portus, a new port was being built to ser­vice Rome’s boom­ing eco­nomy. Most tellingly, like the other poor people of the ancient world, their poverty is writ­ten into their bones. The cor­rel­a­tion between poverty and deform­ity was recog­nised in the ancient world. Mark Steel has a nice line on it:

Aristotle wrote over 2,000 years ago, “It is nature’s inten­tion to dis­tin­guish even the bod­ies of free­men and slaves. The lat­ter are endowed with strength to suit their employ­ment while the upright car­riage of the former renders them unfit for servile work.”

So Ancient Greece was full of mas­ters burst­ing to spend the day labour­ing but just not up to it with that upright carriage.

The Greeks in par­tic­u­lar noticed that the aris­tro­cracy were on the whole much bet­ter look­ing than the callous-handed labour­ers they employed and recog­nised cause and effect, just not in the right order.

The buri­als are mainly men. Anthropologist Paola Catalano estim­ates the ratio of men to women is around 3:1. Sexing skel­et­ons is not always easy, but the pre­ser­va­tion of bones in the sandy soil is a help. Additionally they’re also mainly adults, with many more adult buri­als than adoles­cent or juven­ile buri­als. The skel­et­ons are deformed due to the stress of work. They have stress frac­tures and crushed ver­teb­rae, her­nias and ten­don inflam­ma­tion. Don’t ask me how you spot the last two on a skel­eton — I have no idea. The evid­ence is that these are the people who built Rome and made it what it was. The value of the site is that it is a one of the largest cemeter­ies excav­ated, and the grave goods can tell use what life was like for the aver­age Roman, not only from what they have but also from what they lack.

At least that should be the case. Many ver­sions of the news story over­look a detail men­tioned in the Italian press.

Il Messaggero reports that the site was found fol­low­ing an invest­ig­a­tion by the Guardia di Finanza, one of Italy’s many police forces, at Fiumicino. The police were involved in track­ing down two tombaroli, grave rob­bers. A raid on thei homes revealed more evid­ence of pil­la­ging and they are now chas­ing down a third indi­vidual who they think was involved. The mater­ial, if it had got to mar­ket, would have said little about Roman life. In an auc­tion house they would have just been reduced to trinkets. No-one would know where they had came from or what they meant. As it is we will not know what was des­troyed in ran­sack­ing the tombs. One of the most poignant finds would cer­tainly have been trashed by the tombaroli if they had worked it over. To the right is a neck­lace found in a child’s tomb. The indi­vidual pieces wouldn’t make any sense at all and would be value­less, except in con­text with each other.

And that’s why con­text matters.

More Reading:
Il Messaggero
ANSA (English)

Are Sainsbury’s mis-selling energy?


I was stopped in the bread aisle today by a nice lady who wanted me to switch my energy sup­ply to Sainsbury’s. It’s a com­mon thing in the UK and the energy com­pan­ies are col­lect­ively known for the eth­ical stand­ards they employ when selling their energy plans. It’s not a sur­prise so many of them spon­sor weather bul­let­ins — “Today’s weather is brought to you in asso­ci­ation with Happy Energy, because we’re a shower of bastards.”

What’s inter­est­ing is the sales pitch that you get as you try and find a loaf. My energy sup­plier was recom­men­ded by Greenpeace. Generally that’s enough to per­suade sales people from wast­ing my time. It’s grow­ing less effect­ive. I demurred say­ing that I didn’t want to sign any­thing because I was con­cerned that there was going to be a push for nuc­lear power and I’m not con­vinced it’s a good thing. Sainsbury’s, she assured me, had noth­ing to do with nuc­lear power. Sainsbury’s even sold a Green Energy plan.

Sainsbury’s don’t actu­ally have their own power sta­tions, they re-sell and right now they’re reselling for EDF. What was the news when I got home? French energy giant EDF has already said it plans to build four nuc­lear plants in the UK by 2017, without sub­sidies, fol­low­ing the government’s announce­ment. BBC News.

Nuclear power itself is not neces­sar­ily a deal killer for me, but being misled about it is. I’m also doubt­ful about the green nature of Sainsbury’s power. I’m sure they want to invest in renew­able resources, but what is a renew­able resource? Ask Lord Sainsbury. Lady O’Cathain offered me the oppor­tun­ity of … agree­ing that nuc­lear is a renew­able source of energy — it clearly is so. The Times.

So was the nice lady mis-selling Sainsbury’s energy, or do they have a con­tract with EDF that the elec­trons they sell are driven by non-nuclear power?

Archaeology, Photography and HDR

Minard Castle
Minard Castle. Photo (cc) Mike 138.

If it were true that the cam­era never lies, then pho­to­graphy wouldn’t be a prob­lem. It does though. Or at least a pho­to­graph isn’t a wholly object­ive record of real­ity. A couple of years back I was happy with this and was dis­cuss­ing illus­trat­ing an event using a photo mosaic. The uni­ver­sal reac­tion to this idea was hor­ror, which sur­prised me. What I was plan­ning to do was take a pho­to­graph of a site and manip­u­late the sky behind it — and make clear that this was a recon­struc­tion not an ori­ginal image. The over­whelm­ing neg­at­ive reac­tion meant that I’ve never done this. The altern­at­ive, that I draw a recon­struc­tion of the event, and throw in a few ima­gin­ary people, with spec­u­lat­ive hair­styles and clothes, stand­ing around in small groups — without any evid­ence for this — was con­sidered fine. I assume that people are ok with draw­ings being highly spec­u­lat­ive, but still expect photo-quality images to be ‘real’, whatever that might be.

Photo edit­ing is a ser­i­ous prob­lem as pro­grams like Photoshop make it easier than ever to mess around with the expos­ure or the col­ours of a photo. If you’re pho­to­graph­ing the res­ult of an exper­i­ment, where the amount of col­our­a­tion is an import­ant part of the res­ult, like in bio­logy, then chan­ging those col­ours is effect­ively falsi­fy­ing your result.

I am won­der­ing how far this extends to archae­ology.
Continue read­ing

Egypt, Antiquities and Copyright

Mickey Mouse Copyright Laws
Mickey Mouse Copyright Laws. Based on a photo (cc) Liber.

One of the advant­ages of being slow in writ­ing is that you can look at what every­one else is say­ing about some­thing. Often people will have thought about the same prob­lem and already anti­cip­ated prob­lems in your own line of thought, so you can avoid mak­ing a fool of your­self. Other times it’s a sur­prise, and this is one of those times. News from the BBC is that Egypt is ‘to copy­right antiquit­ies’.

Egypt’s MPs are expec­ted to pass a law requir­ing roy­al­ties be paid whenever cop­ies are made of museum pieces or ancient monu­ments such as the pyr­am­ids and this law will apply around the world.

To a greater or lesser extent other blog­gers think they can’t do this and they can’t enforce it. In con­trast I think they can and they can. This isn’t just my very basic under­stand­ing of law. It’s also the fact that museums in the West have been doing this, more or less, for years. Below is where I make a fool of myself.
Continue read­ing

Bones of ancestors returned in Africa


Reuters is now allow­ing embed­ding of video clips. In this one bod­ies exhumed from a Mapungubwe archae­olo­gical site in north­ern South Africa are being returned for reburial. It’s a stag­ger­ingly good idea.

I didn’t think it would be. As far as I under­stand it Mapungubwe was one of the most com­plex Iron Age soci­et­ies in Africa. It had extens­ive trad­ing links with other soci­et­ies. At the same time you have to look at the con­text of the excav­a­tion. The bones were taken in 1933. It might have been archae­ology, but it was also about gain­ing con­trol of the land for the Whites. At the same time re-burying the bones would, I thought, mean los­ing inform­a­tion about a major fea­ture of African his­tory and the local com­munit­ies would be vic­tims again. Actually this is not the case because the reburial is rather clever.

The remains are being bur­ied in sealed con­tain­ers in sealed vaults. This sat­is­fies the local people that the bones are being rebur­ied. At the same time it will hope­fully leave them safe should they wish to invest­ig­ate their past — but the next time it should be with their consent.