Sam Harrelson

Roman Earthquake Cloaking

I tend to agree with the physicist from UNCC here that the Colosseum and other buildings that exhibit these “metamaterial” designs were probably self-selecting (in that they didn’t fall down during earthquakes), but we definitely don’t give the ancients enough credit with their engineering and scientific prowess…

Scientists are hard at work developing real-world “invisibility cloaks” thanks to a special class of exotic manmade “metamaterials.” Now a team of French scientists has suggested in a recent preprint on the physics arXiv that certain ancient Roman structures, like the famous Roman Colosseum, have very similar structural patterns, which may have protected them from damage from earthquakes over the millennia.

via Ars Technica




New Reading of the Mesha Stele

Potentially huge (I appreciate Thomas Römer‘s scholarship a great deal):

A name in Line 31 of the stele, previously thought to read ‘House of David’, could instead read ‘Balak’, a king of Moab mentioned in the biblical  of Balaam (Numbers 22-24), say archaeologist Prof. Israel Finkelstein and historians and biblical scholars Prof. Nadav Na’aman and Prof. Thomas Römer, in an article published in Tel Aviv: The Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University.

New reading of Mesha Stele could have far-reaching consequences for biblical history – Phys.org




Prehistoric Proto-Writing System

While studying some of the oldest art in the world found in caves and engraved on animal bones or shells, paleoanthropologist Genevieve von Petzinger has found evidence of a proto-writing system that perhaps developed in Africa and then spread throughout the world.

Source: Stone Age Cave Symbols May All Be Part of a Single Prehistoric Proto-Writing System




Introducing the Assyrians

 

Layard’s discoveries caused a media sensation and captured the public imagination. This had a major impact on painting and applied arts, in the UK and beyond, during the second half of the nineteenth century, which led to a brief phase of ‘Assyrian revival’. The Assyrian sculptures at the British Museum largely remain today where they were first installed over 160 years ago.

Source: Introducing the Assyrians – The British Museum Blog

My work, Asia Has Claims Upon New England: Assyrian Reliefs at Yale, covers the American reaction (primarily northeastern colleges meant to educate ministers such as Yale, Harvard, Williams, Union Seminary, Amherst etc) to “Assyriamania.”

The British Museum has an incredible collection of Assyrian artifacts, as does the Metropolitan Museum in New York. However, these small (at the time) colleges were also collecting Assyrian reliefs not just for academic study or curiosity but to prove a point about the Bible to the young men they were training for a life in the ministry.

It’s a fascinating story and I hope to revisit it and do more exploration into the missionary-minded impetus behind collecting and displaying these archaeological (and theological) pieces.

Btw, in “Asia Has Claims…,” I was able to work with Prof. Samuel Paley to produce a computer animation (way back in 2001) that more accurately depicted what the throne room of Ashurnasirpal II’s palace would have looked like (the one drawn in the 19th cent for Layard that’s at the top of this post was waaaaay off).




Sumer and the Modern Paradigm

Modern artists discovered Sumerian art between the world wars, at a time when British and American archaeological missions were working in southern Iraq. But archaeologists like Leonard Woolley, head of the mission in Ur were less fascinated by their finds. They considered Mesopotamian art inferior to Egyptian and to Graeco-Roman art and thought Mesopotamian iconography was an expression of a violent culture. Sacrificed bodies found at the Royal Tombs of Ur were the proof that the Bible was right about the Mesopotamian barbarism.

Source: – ANE TODAY – 201802 – Sumer and the Modern Paradigm




Show and Tell: Handling Art at the Wurtele Center

My time with the incredible finds from Dura Europos at the Yale University Art Gallery are some of my fondest memories…

Walking alongside the shelves, one can step from intricate African sculptures to ancient Greek vases to Chinese porcelain to a collection of Picasso ceramics. Opposite the entrance and behind glass display cases are a series of white, metal sliding shelves. They are filled with, among other things, wooden staffs, tea cups and wall fragments excavated from Dura-Europos, Syria.

Source: Show and Tell: Handling Art at the Wurtele Center




James C. Scott’s New Book

James C. Scott is one of the scholars I always enjoy reading. I was introduced to his work Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts while in a (wonderful) seminary class on the Parables. The insightful connection that our beloved professor made between Jesus’ acts and words in his performance of the parables with the essence of what Scott described as “public” and “hidden” transcripts still resonates with me today anytime I read the Gospels.

I’m excited to read this work as well. Although it seems to have a similar topic as many scholarly takes on the how’s and why’s civilizations collapse, (anyone else notice how both academic works, as well as the entertainment world, is fascinated by dystopias and doom-and-gloom in this Age of Trump?) one of my ongoing fascinations and points of interests is the rise of civilization in Mesopotamia as well as the later “Sea Peoples” of Egyptian history. It looks like both of these topics make an appearance in Scott’s new work:

What if the origin of farming wasn’t a moment of liberation but of entrapment? Scott offers an alternative to the conventional narrative that is altogether more fascinating, not least in the way it omits any self-congratulation about human achievement. His account of the deep past doesn’t purport to be definitive, but it is surely more accurate than the one we’re used to, and it implicitly exposes the flaws in contemporary political ideas that ultimately rest on a narrative of human progress and on the ideal of the city/nation-state.

Source: Steven Mithen reviews ‘Against the Grain’ by James C. Scott · LRB 30 November 2017




Grain counting technologies

“The truth, Scott proposes, may be the opposite. What if early civilization was not a boon to humankind but a disaster: for health and safety, for freedom, and for the natural world? What if the first cities were, above all, vast technologies of exploitation by a small and rapacious elite? If that is where we come from, who are we now? What possibilities might we discover by tracing our origins to a different kind of ancestor?”

via “What made prehistoric hunter-gatherers give up freedom for civilization?” by Jedediah Purdy in New Republic




In honor of #nationalpetday here’s a fun piece on pets from ancient Greece and Rome

roman_dogs

The ancient Greeks and Romans were more lavish than the modern world in their expressed affection for beasts. Theirs was a splendid opportunity to know animal life at first hand, not because there were more animals, but on account of the very close relationship effected by polytheistic principles and religious customs.1 Both literature and art attest that there were but few animals not dedicated to gods or goddesses; since religion penetrated ancient life so deeply, it is understandable that animals were freely admitted into the house, and gradually attempts were made to transform even the fiercer beasts into pets and companions.

Source: Greek and Roman Household Pets — CJ 44:245‑252 and 299‑307 (1949)




Digital Repatriation or Theft?

“I would point to some of the recent trends in 3D scanning as potential new sites for digital colonialism, not just repatriation.  Is prosecution of stolen code related to contested heritage objects a form of digital colonialism?  Is keeping the code private, accessible only to the museum or scholars who obtain access a form of colonialism?  Is publicly releasing the code while holding tight to the physical object reinforcing colonialism?  As this episode tells us, the materiality of these cultural heritage objects holds meaning that cannot be extracted into bits and bytes.”

Source: The Nefertiti Hack: Digital Repatriation or Theft? | Early Christian Monasticism in the Digital Age

Amazing piece of performance art and a very needed conversation…




Don’t Buy Into the Myth of Human Progress

Integral calculus, like theology, are areas we imagine we have forward progress as humans… not always the case.

“What is perhaps more surprising is the sophistication with which they tracked the planet, judging from inscriptions on a small clay tablet dating to between 350 B.C. and 50 B.C. The tablet, a couple of inches wide and a couple of inches tall, reveals that the Babylonian astronomers employed a sort of precalculus in describing Jupiter’s motion across the night sky relative to the distant background stars. Until now, credit for this kind of mathematical technique had gone to Europeans who lived some 15 centuries later.”

Source: Signs of Modern Astronomy Seen in Ancient Babylon – The New York Times

 




Are we sure Chancellor Palpatine didn’t write this?

“Though imperialism is now held in disrepute, empire has been the default means of governance for most of recorded history, and the collapse of empires has always been messy business…Back then it was states at war; now it is sub-states. Imperialism bestowed order, however retrograde it may have been. The challenge now is less to establish democracy than to reestablish order. For without order, there is no freedom for anyone.”

Source: It’s Time to Bring Imperialism Back to the Middle East – ForeignPolicy.com

Yes, western imperialism and colonialism helped cause this mess. Surely there’s a better way forward than re-establishing such hegemonic (and veneer thin) powers in the region.




Dura Europos Looting and Devastation Update

Tragic.

“There is a complete and massive change to this site,” Wolfinbarger says, comparing the pre-war images to those collected in 2014 of the renowned archaeological treasure.

British soldiers discovered Dura Europus in the 1920s. They hit on the wall of the ancient city while digging a trench during World War I. Excavation revealed a provincial Roman town founded in 300 B.C.

Brian Daniels, director of research at the Penn Cultural Heritage Center in Philadelphia, describes Dura Europos as “a snapshot in time.”

“It has the oldest synagogue known in the world and it also has one of the oldest house church known in the world,” Daniels says. “The level of looting and devastation that’s happened to Dura Europus is heart-breaking.”

via Via Satellite, Tracking The Plunder Of Middle East Cultural History : Parallels : NPR.




Dura Europos as a “Moonscape of Craters”

More sadness regarding ISIS and looting at Dura Europos in Syria…

“I am fearful that there will be mass looting as in Syria,” said Katharyn Hanson, a fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Cultural Heritage Centre and a specialist in Mesopotamian archaeology, who is visiting Erbil. She says that Nineveh, Nimrud and other cities of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, which once stretched from the Gulf to the Mediterranean, will “become like Dura-Europos on the Euphrates, a moonscape of craters [from looters pits].” Dura-Europos is a Hellenistic city whose site used to be known as “the Pompeii of the Syrian desert”.

via Iraq: Isis militants pledge to destroy remaining archaeological treasures in Nimrud – Middle East – World – The Independent.




Dura Europos and Its Art



Just received my 1938 first edition copy of M. Rostovtzeff’s Dura Europos And Its Art today. I’ve now been able to secure every first edition of books about Dura (outside of the Final Reports, which I’m working on).

Good day. 




Why We Should Care About Archaeological Destruction

This is terrible…

The Islamic State group released a video on Thursday showing militants using sledgehammers to smash ancient artifacts in Iraq’s northern city of Mosul, describing them as idols that must be removed, according to the Associated Press.

The destructions are part of a campaign by Islamic State, who have destroyed a number of shrines — including Muslim holy sites — in order to eliminate what they view as heresy.

via Islamic State Video Shows Militants Destroying Museum Artifacts in Iraq – Dispatch – WSJ.

While the world was watching the Academy Awards ceremony, the people of Mosul were watching a different show. They were horrified to see ISIS members burn the Mosul public library. Among the many thousands of books it housed, more than 8,000 rare old books and manuscripts were burned.

via ISIS Burns 8000 Rare Books and Manuscripts in Mosul – Yahoo! Finance

Let’s not forget that people of many faiths (ancient and modern) have used the defacement or destruction of art or cultural items as a way to “wipe the slate clean” of previous heresies. From Hatsheput to Josiah pulling down the high places in Israel to the burning of books, these tactics are power plays designed to show that the deity or deities are on one’s side in a presumed theo-political battle.

Lost in the fear that ISIS / ISIL / IS is imminently planning to attack the US is the cultural damage this collection of people are doing to museums and sites in Syria (Damascus, Antioch, Palmyra, Dura Europos) and northern Iraq (Mosul / Nineveh).

Specifically for the stories linked above, the modern city of Mosul sites very near Nineveh, the historical capital of the Assyrian Empire, at its height in the 9th-7th centuries BCE. Believe it or not, Assyrian artifacts caused quite a rage in the late 1800’s after Sir Henry Austen Layard’s discovery of Assyrian palaces in the 1850’s.

These artifacts directly impacted the development of the missionary movement as northeastern universities used these impressive pieces of art as proof of God’s providence (as the folks in Jerusalem were saved from Sennacherib’s invasion by God’s hand according to the book of Kings… the folks in the Northern Kingdom of Israel as well as Lachish were less fortunate).

While doing graduate studies at Yale, I somehow lucked into a dream job at the Yale Art Gallery. I was so fascinated by the Assyrian antiquities there and the story of why Yale, Harvard, Amherst, Williams etc were so passionate about securing Assyrian pieces for their own collections in the 1800’s that I wrote a book about it:

This accompanying text to the Yale University Art Gallery’s famed Assyrian reliefs details the 19th-century American frenzy for reliefs taken from Assurnasirpal II’s magnificent palace in Kalhu near the Tigris River. The discovery of the palace by the British in 1845 captured the Victorian public’s imagination, leading to the discovery of other architectural sites and the deciphering of the Assyrian language. Soon, American missionaries sought to procure artifacts for their alma maters, most often coveting reliefs that were religious in content. William Frederic Williams was one such missionary and former Yale faculty member. He, along with Yale Medical School graduate Henry Lobel, secured six slabs from Assurnasirpal’s palace, which were divided up between Yale, Amherst, and Union Seminary in Utica. Harrelson analyzes at length the two reliefs obtained by Yale. He touches on the technical aspects of the materials as well as the reliefs’ religious iconography, situating them within the palace as a whole.

via Asia Has Claims Upon New England by Sam Harrelson, Yale University Art Gallery

Along with the atrocities being done by groups such as IS to other humans, we should care about the destruction of irreplaceable pieces of world history whenever it happens. For those of us with a more jingoist mindset, we should especially care when these cultural pieces are directly tied to our own history and majority religion.

William F. Williams wrote back to his benefactors at Yale from the city of Mosul in the 1850’s that, “Asia has claims upon New England.” Perhaps that has never been more true in the modern context.

Thomas and I will definitely discuss this on the next Thinking Religion, so give that a listen if you’re interested.

I pray for peace.




Bejeweled Skeletons of Forgotten Martyrs

That’s one impressive way to go out (despite being forgotten)…

In his new book, art historian and author Paul Koudounaris elucidates the macabre splendor and tragic history of Europe’s catacomb saints

via Meet the Fantastically Bejeweled Skeletons of Catholicism’s Forgotten Martyrs | History | Smithsonian.




Yale’s Religious Treasures

My masters degree in religion is from Yale, and it’s great to see the religious treasures there highlighted. However, I can’t believe the Dura Europos baptistry (from the earliest house church we’ve recovered and one of the first depictions of Jesus we have) didn’t make the list (the Mithraeum did, though… which is also spectacular).

Nevertheless, good read and makes me miss my days working in the Yale Art Gallery as a grad assistant…

In reality, this supposed bastion of elite godless education is teeming with people studying religion, teaching religion, and doing religion. Yale has a divinity school with a Christian identity, albeit a non-denominational one that welcomes students of other religions and no religions. It has two large chapels, the famed Battell Chapel on the undergraduate campus and the graceful Marquand Chapel at the divinity quadrangle. And Yale, a place that started out as a training ground for Congregationalist ministers (whose students included none other than Jonathan Edwards) retains to this day a dazzling array of religious treasures and relics, all publicly available.

via 15 Religion Treasures at Yale | Tom Krattenmaker.




Edge of Empires at Dura Europos

2014-06-21 18.56.35 2014-06-21 18.56.45 2014-06-21 18.57.11

Finally got my copy of Edge of Empires: Pagans, Jews, and Christians at Roman Dura-Europos.

It’s a fascinating and beautiful book (I actually took some of the photos in there during my time at Yale University Art Gallery when I worked on digitizing our amazing Dura Europos collection). I could literally go on and on about Dura (ask my wife), but here’s the Amazon description:

Strategically located high above the Euphrates River between Syria and Mesopotamia, the city of Dura-Europos was founded around 300 BCE by one of the Macedonian generals who succeeded Alexander the Great. Within a century, the Near Eastern Parthians overtook and controlled the city until the Roman emperor Lucius Verus captured it in 164 CE. Dura-Europos then thrived as a critical stronghold along the Roman imperial frontier until 256 CE, when the Sasanian Persians destroyed it. By the time of its demise, Dura-Europos was a city positioned at the commercial, political, and cultural intersections of the Mediterranean and Near Eastern worlds. Edge of Empires vividly illustrates the international and pluralistic character of Dura-Europos, highlighting objects that demonstrate the coexistence of multiple religions such as polytheistic cults, Judaism, and Christianity; the great variety of languages spoken by its population; and its role as an international military garrison.

Dura is like an old friend that teaches me new things all these years later.

Now I finally need to get duraeuropos.org off the ground 🙂




Roman Puppy Prints

romandogs

Puppies have always gotten in the way of our work (fortunately):

The paw prints and hoof prints of a few meddlesome animals have been preserved for posterity on ancient Roman tiles recently discovered by archaeologists in England.

via Mashable