Wednesday, 28 March 2018

A translation of a translation of a text that claimed to be a translation.

I run a reading groups each semester at The University of Queensland which is called Critical Dialogues. About each fortnight a group of students and academics come together to discuss a text proposed by a member. The group is often small, but the conversations are interesting.
I always try to choose a text that is unusual because I feel that most teaching focuses on historical texts or texts which are readily found in translation when teaching social history, and often students aren't fully aware of the true breadth and scale of the textual material which has survived. I know that I wasn't. So last night I led a discussion on a curious text called Cyranides.
Cyranides is a Greek Hermetic text (that is the knowledge it contains was attributed to Hermes Trismegistos, the Hellenistic incarnation of the Egyptian god Thoth) which is two parts medical, three parts magical, and filled with Greek folk traditions. The two writers whose works were drawn on to compose the surviving text claim that they saw the original text inscribed on an iron stele written in an Eastern language. This is a fake claim to imbue their texts with added authority, and fits into a common topos which you see more frequently in the Byzantine period. A study of the Greek text reveals metrical poems and acrostics,1 all signs that the text was originally composed in Greek. While a German translation was published in the 1970s, I had thought that there was no English translation. I was partially correct. There is no English translation of the Greek text of Cyranides, but there is a 1685 English translation of the Latin translation that was made in Constantinople in 1168. 
It was from this translation that I set the reading: the translation of a translation of a text which claimed to be a translation.
Title page to the 1685 English translation of Cyranides
This English translation can be found freely online thanks to the Google Books digitisation project. The Latin text was published in 1942 by L. Delatte in Textes latins et vieux français relatif aux Cyranides, but I haven't viewed it for myself. The 1685 translation is curious in that neither the translator nor the printer's name is included. The then owner of the Latin text was also unnamed on the title page. A close reading of the introduction shows that the only people named as owning the book were already dead, including Landgavess Eleonore of Hesse whose books can now be found in the Palatine Library at Heidelberg. The translator also points out he was using a rare printed copy of the Latin from 1638 Germany, whose editor and printer did not feature on the text he used. 
So why all the secrecy?
This was acknowledged by the English translator to be a book on magic, and his introduction included a defence of magic with references to the Bible. Add to this the fact that two years before its publication two women were executed and another woman that year was condemned in Devon for witchcraft, this was a dangerous book to own. The translator was protecting himself and the owner of the Latin text by keeping this work anonymous.
I made some rudimentary comparisons between the English translation and the Greek text. The English references the edifice of Solomon as the original setting of the engraved iron stele while the Greek text makes no references to Solomon at all. The English translation is given in four books, while the Greek is in six books. Some of the numbers describing the size of the and dimensions of the site where the work was found also don't match, but overall I was quite surprised by how similar at first glance the content of these texts are. Perhaps the reason for this was that the Latin translation is older than the surviving Greek manuscripts we have.2 
Book one of Cyranides was separated into 24 chapters, each devoted to a letter of the Greek alphabet, featuring a plant, a bird, a fish (loosely interpreted, it could include turtles and seals), and a stone. One of the passages I had people read was the text for letter ε. This passage made references to the medical use of of rocket which was also a little magical. It described the use of rocket in the prevention of lust and male erections which followed a tradition similar to that used in a Pseudo Gelenic text (Kühn's edition of Galen vol. 14 p. 543). This tradition is unusual as rocket was normally seen as an aphrodisiac, as the text of Cyranides described some compounds under the subheading "For an Erection". The ancient herbalist Dioscorides recorded rocket's effects in this department (Materia Medica 2.140.1) while Pliny refers to it as such on three separate occasions (Natural History 10.84.182; 19.54.154; and 20.49.126). It was also noted in the agricultural writer Columella (book 10 lines108-9) and a Virgilian text (Virgiliana Appendix lines 83-4). While Cyranides' text describing measures of rocket seeds and other ingredients reads like a medical text, similar compounds can be found in Greek magical papyri (Supplementum Magicum vol. 2: 76 ["To fuck a lot"] and 83 ["To copulate a lot"]), so Cyranides blurs the line between magic and medicine. Rocket appears to have been the Viagra of its day. 
The bird used for this chapter was the nightingale, and the text explains how parts of it could be used to create to magically form wakefulness, even to cause death. This might have been a kind of sympathetic magic, as Pliny describes how once a year a nightingale would sing for fifteen days and nights continually (Natural History 10.43.81).
This passage also described the creation of amulets in the form of magical stones to make the wearer "amiable to all men, and known, and eloquent; and not only to men, but devils and wild beasts will fly from you." What is fantastic about these directions, is that museum collections today possess stones which appear to have followed this directions. While the text states the stone used must be "euanthes", an argument has been made that this stone should be identified as lapis lazuli.3 While there are a number of lapis lazuli amulets of this type (see the Campbell Bonner Magical Gems Database for a list of some of these), the colour blue seems more important. The amulet had to be engraved with Aphrodite tying up her hair.
Chalcedony magical gem
This pale blue chalcedony amulet from the French National Library also follows the description provided in Cyranides. It has been suggested that the blue colour was more important in practice than the stone itself.4 This might be because part of Aphrodite's secret magical was an anagram of the Greek word for sapphire which could be used to refer to any blue stone. This name was also engraved on the stone, although the text of Cyranides did not demand this to be done.
As for the eloquence, Cyranides also stated that the tongue of a nightingale (along with some rocket root) be enclosed under the stone, so this was likely what was thought to make the wearer eloquent. 
While today we immediate think of Aphrodite as the goddess of love, one of her other early attributes was the "mother of wild beasts" (see the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite lines 68-74), so featuring her on amulet to protect against wild animals is in keeping with Aphrodite's identity. Other amulets which made wild animals and demons flee the wearer while making them popular are described in various ancient texts similar in nature to this. 
As a student I was always taught that we should always use the latest translations and the most recent research to ensure that our own research was current. These are very important points that we need to ensure. But sometimes I wonder whether we need to realise for our own research and in our training of students that sometimes old books can also provide us with a wealth of information which can enrich our arguments. Sure, this book uses old spellings, bizarre capitalisation, and some archaic phrases, but without coming across it in my google research results I would have been completely unaware of the Latin translation of Cyranides which some scholars state requires further investigation. Sometimes old books and translations take us places we never expect to go.

4 C. Faraone, 2011. 'Text, Image and Medium: the Evolution of Graeco-Roman Magical Gemstones,' in C Entwhistle and N. Adams, 'Gems of Heaven': Recent Research on Engraved Gemstones in Late Antiquity c. AD 200-600, British Museum.

Friday, 16 March 2018

Mummification in Roman Egypt - what can be learnt from one papyrus

Today the Queensland Museum opens its latest exhibition, Egyptian Mummies: Exploring Ancient Lives in conjunction with the British Museum. 
Like most children who dreamed of being an archaeologist when she grew up, I spent years looking at books devoted to Egyptology, and the vast majority I came across focussed on the Pharaonic period. When I became an ancient historian, my interest in Egypt broadened to look at its culture not just from the Old to New Kingdoms, but to also find interest in the pre-dynastic and later periods of its history. 
Given that I now look at Roman history more than other periods, I find the cultural milieu of Graeco-Roman social practices and Egyptian practices of particular fascination. It is because of this that I am excited that this exhibition is covering a period which includes the Roman era. The Queensland Museum's webpage states:
"Discover how they were embalmed and what life along the Nile valley was like. Explore visualisations based on the CT scans of the mummies, as well as ancient texts, coffins, masks and funerary objects to unravel their mysteries."
Well, one of my favourite papyri which dates to a period a little later than the lifetime of the latest individual, provides an interesting insight into the nature of mummification around 267-74 CE. It reads thus:
"Melas. . . to Sarapion and Silvanus . . . greeting. I have sent you by the grave-digger the body of your brother Phibion and have paid him the fee for transporting the body, being 340 drachmae of the old coinage.1 And I am much surprised that you departed for no good reason without taking the body of your brother, but collected all that he possessed and so departed. And from this I see that you did not come up for the sake of the dead, but for the sake of his effects. Now take care to have ready the sum spent. The expenses are: cost of preservatives 60 old drachmas; cost of wine on the first day, 2 choes 32 old dr.; for expenditure on loaves and relishes 16 dr.; to the grave-digger for the desert journey, besides the above-mentioned fee, 1 chous of wine 20 dr., 2 choes of oil 12 dr., 1 artaba of barley 20 dr.; cost of linen 20 dr.; and fee as aforesaid of 340 dr.; total on reckoning the whole expenditure five hundred and twenty drachmas of the old coinage, total 520 dr. You will therefore make every effort to serve the person who will bring the body by providing loaves and wine and oil and whatever you can, in order that he may testify to me. Do nothing. . . I pray for your health."1
I love everything about this papyrus! I love how the writer who seems to be the embalmer admonished the recipients for failing their deceased brother, but I also adore the itemised account for the expense of embalming Phibion. While the latest research and scientific imaging which the exhibit will showcase can tell us a lot about the process, this papyrus letter can also tell us much, especially with a little research.
Map of the Great OasisThis papyri was found at Kysis within the Great Oasis in the Western Desert, but was written at a different Great Oasis settlement, El-Kharga. The distance between Kysis and El-Kharga is approximately 120 kilometres, and the majority of the distance appears to have been through desert. See the map to get an idea of where these towns were. 
The "gravedigger" (νεκροταφος) was involved in rituals associated with death, so his actions as the transporter of Phibion would in no way desecrate his remains. The "old coinage" to which Melas referred could be coinage used in Egypt prior to the reforms of Diocletian, but another papyrus which dates to 260 CE states that banks had to accept all coins bar those absolutely spurious or counterfeit.2 There is not way to tell precisely how old "old coinage" was, but it seems reasonable that older coins weighed more, and therefore were worth more. To get a sense of just how much this bill was, it should be noted that the daily pay rate for a labourer in Egypt in 258/9 CE was just drachmas per day, so this expense was significant, at least for Egypt's lowest classes.
Transporting bodies was not unknown in antiquity. The sarcophagus of one Publius Aelius C--illus (maybe Camillus?), who appears to have lived in the second century CE, was found in Ankara, but the sarcophagus bears an inscription that says he was transported there from Alexandria.
The "preservative" is actually φαρμακα in Greek. This word can also mean poison, drug, or spell. Embalming methods in the Roman period were different to those of the Pharaonic period, and chemical testing has been done on mummies, including some from the Great Oasis area which date somewhere between 30 and 400 CE. While some mummies have been excavated at Kysis, all those which have had testing performed on them have come from a more easterly site. Despite the geographical distances, the techniques used in the Great Oasis area are comparable to those used along the Nile. 
The majority of embalming materials at this time were oil based, with varying quantities of resin, bitumen, and sometimes beeswax. The oil is plant based, and if it is like the resin, is likely pine or cedar derived. It is impossible to differentiate chemically between these types. Egypt has no resinous plants, so the oils and resins were all imported, and researchers merely state that large amounts were used, without determining how much that might be in real terms. We know that these were applied to both the inside and the outside of the body, and that resin was applied hot, which would have added to the price. 
The bitumen which has been found on Roman era mummies has been in small amounts, and chemical analyses indicate that four of the mummies tested had bitumen sourced from the Dead Sea region used in their treatment and another two bitumen from elsewhere, likely the Red Sea Egyptian coast. The presence of these fossil hydrocarbons has skewed the Carbon 14 dating which was attempted.
It should be noted that natron was not used in the mummification process in the Roman period.
I believe that Melas is the embalmer because of his separation of the cost of the preservative from that of the linen, rather than just giving a total cost for embalming. The letter seems to make a point of being an itemised account, but given that we no that the embalming preservatives were made from various materials, it poses the question of how this material was brought into the Great Oasis region, or Egypt generally. Was it bought 'ready made' or did each embalmer use his own 'proprietary blend'? I think in the case of the Melas he was using a ready mix owing to his itemised account, but given that the majority of the ingredients used would have been imported, I wonder whether it was being manufactured outside of Egypt. Unfortunately there is no evidence to say one way or another as far as I am aware. In addition, I haven't been able to find any near contemporary evidence regarding the prices of these materials.
Like the embalming preservatives, we do not know how much linen was used. One study I found which did not define the period to which it was referring calculated that 375m2 was used in mummification. The cheapest linen, described as third quality linen, cost 700-800 denarii per "web" under the Diocletian Price Edict (the 301 CE edict which stated what the maximum price of standard goods could be). We do not know precisely how big a "web" was, but it is thought that the largest Roman looms could weave cloth 2 metres in width. Twenty drachmas seems a great price, and I do personally think that, given the tone of this letter, Melas might have inflated his prices, he might have used "cast-off" linen; material which had previously been used as bedding or garments, and were now fairly worn. It is known that linen of this type was used in mummification.
The use of wine and food within the embalming process I think is fascinating. This gives a hint into the use of consumables likely as a part of the rituals which accompanied the preservation of the body. Melas states that 2 choes of wine was used on the first day. Exactly how much wine this was can be given as between 2.88 and 3.24 litres. In all likelihood, more than 6L of wine was used on the first day, billed at 32 old drachmas. Under the Diocletian Price Edict, 6L of cheapest wine could not be charged at more than 88 denarii, so it seams a very reasonable price, but it is extremely difficult to compare Egyptian drachmas to denarii owing to the differences in weight, the comparable silver content, and issues of hyperinflation during the third century. When you compare this to the cost of the wine provided to the gravedigger, it appears that this wine was not something the embalmer would have been consuming as he worked, but instead used in either for ritual fearing or sacrificed in funerary rites.
The "loaves and relishes" were likely used in the same way as the wine, but the "relishes" could also have referred to "little morsels and victims sacrificed beforehand", which would also fit well with this idea of ritual acts accompanying the embalming. 
The costs associated with the transportation are also interesting. In addition to the wine which at 20 drachmas, he was also to be provided with oil. We know from another papyrus that 1 cotyla of oil cost 4 drachmas, and each chous was made of 12 cotylae, so elsewhere in Egypt 10-20 years previous to this, the same amount of oil would have cost 96 drachmas; therefore I think that either old drachmas were worth plenty more than the current coinage, or this was an incredibly reasonable price. The price of an artaba of wheat in 255 CE was 16 drachmas, and wheat was and still is more expensive than barley, so Melas might have inflated this price, but the price of barley in the Diocletian Price Edict was a great deal more again.
The largest expense was the transportation of Phibion is the greatest expense. The 320 drachmas for the 120km trip breaks down to 2.666 per kilometre, but this is not the measure we should use. One Roman mile equals approx. 1,480m, so the distance travelled was around 81 Roman miles, and thus cost approx 3.95 drachmas per mile. According to the Diocletian Price Edict, the most that was meant to be charged for a donkey load was 4 denarii per mile, but again, it is difficult to compare drachmas to denarii
Given the tone of this letter, I like to think Melas jacked up his prices to punish Phibion's brothers for their behaviour. He does not seem to do so through his actual prices, but I wonder whether the demand for "old coinage" was a way to do so. While I have named Phibion and Melas throughout this blog, I was tempted to leave out Phibion's brothers names, as remembering the names of the Egyptian dead is a way to keep them alive in the afterlife according to ancient Egyptian religion, and I must admit that I agree with Melas' attitude towards them. I think his "I pray for your health" sign off is one of the most passive aggressive phrases I've ever read from antiquity, and it delights me.
If you live in Brisbane, or find yourself visiting here between 16 March and the 26 August, do go see the exhibition. I have not yet been myself, but have it on excellent authority it is a wonderful as well as respectful exhibition, which endeavours to teach us how science is allowing us to better understand ancient Egyptian mummies of a variety ages. And do say the names of these people; I think it is a wonderful thing we can do for them.

157 "From Melas To Sarapion And Silvanus" (P. Grenf. ii. 77) in Select Papyri, Volume I: Private Documents. Translated by A. S. HuntC. C. EdgarLoeb Classical Library 266. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1932, page 373.
2 P. Oxy. 1141 and Bowman, Egypt after the Pharaohs, p. 92.
Other bibliographic information.
Bennett, 2010. “Mummies for Export? The Repatriation of a Corpse from Alexandria to Ancyra in the Roman Imperial Period.” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, vol. 96, pp. 216–219.
Bowman, 1996. Egypt After the Pharoahs, 332 BC-Ad 642.
Gessler-Löhr, 2013. "Mummies and Mummification" in Riggs, The Oxford Handbook of Roman Egypt.
Buckley & Evershed, 2001. "Organic chemistry of embalming agents in Pharaonic and
Graeco-Roman mummies", Nature, 25 October 2001, pp. 837-41.
Malek, 1980. Atlas of Ancient Egypt. This is where the map is from.
Maurer, Möhring, & Rullkötter, 2002. "Plant Lipids and Fossil Hydrocarbons in Embalming Materialof Roman Period Mummies from the Dakhleh Oasis, Western Desert, Egypt", Journal of Archaeological Science, 29, 751–762.
Mayerson' 2004."Pitch (πίσσα) for Egyptian Winejars an Imported Commodity", Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, Bd. 147,  pp. 201-204.
West, 1916. "The Cost of Living in Roman Egypt" Classical Philology, Vol. 11, pp. 293-314

Friday, 22 December 2017

Material Culture and Australia's Racist History

Firstly, I must apologise that this post is not about ancient history. 
The National Museum of Australia (NMA) today posted to Facebook an "On this day":
 "#OnThisDay in 1901, the Immigration Restriction Act, which later became known as the White Australia Policy, became law."
It was illustrated with a medallion I'd never seen before which made me both sad and angry. This image:
Given that just last night I'd discussed how national histories can make us feel awkward, comparing the English treatment of the Irish to Australia's treatment of its indigenous population, it seemed appropriate that this image should appear on my newsfeed.  
The White Australia Policy is the other element of Australia's history which makes most reasonable Australians cringe.
The appearance of this medallion emotionally gutted me because I'd done a little research on some medallions which were dug up in the yard which had once belonged to members of my extended family. I found out that those medallions were presented to schoolchildren in 1919 to celebrate the end of World War One. I was left pondering whether this medallion similarly had been given to children. My mind was racing about what effect this might have had going forth. 
Make no mistake, while Australia presents itself as a successful multicultural nation, in reality my society has a constant burning racist undertone that no one feels particularly comfortable discussing. I pondered whether medallions might have played a role in this. I had to know.
I followed the link included in the post, but it was just a discussion of the White Australia Policy for which this image was included as an illustration.
I searched the NMA database to find out more about the object, but it only provided a rudimentary description including that the reverse featured the words PROTECTION POPULATION PRODUCTION PROGRESS, and that it was made in 1906. In short, it didn't have the information I sought.
My previous research on Australian medallions made me aware of the fact that Museums Victoria includes more material relating to the history of objects.
It didn't disappoint me.
Museums Victoria informed me that this medal was commissioned by the Australian Natives' Association (ANA) circa 1910, as an expression of support for the White Australia Policy. The white metal used to visually depict Australia as white was aluminium.
According to Museums Victoria, the ANA was a Friendly Association, a term I'm finding quite ironic and is making me angry (there's a reason I'm an ancient historian, I can maintain less bias when looking further into the past without giving myself an ulcer), which "provided benefits to its Australian-born members." The little more I've read on it reminds to some extant of Roman collegia.
Further information on the ANA provided by Museums Victoria state that it was formed in Melbourne in 1871 composed of "native-born" Australians which promoted the Federation of the Australian states (to which it spread out of Victoria even to New Zealand) as they thought Australia should develop independent from Britain. By 1882 it had 511 members and £1,787 in funds, and by 1898 its membership increased to 10,063 with £95,569.1 They also considered that those born in Australia were being disadvantaged by not receiving a British education, and therefore sought to develop educational facilities in Australia. One of the most prominent members of the association was Alfred Deakin who later became Prime Minister, but also included other individuals who helped draft the Australian constitution, including George Turner, John Quick, Alexander Peacock, and Isaac Isaacs. 
So I looked at an image this morning and worried that the item featured might have been given to children. I was relieved to find out it wasn't. Instead, this group helped fashion Australia's constitution. It was worse!
Currently in Australia a great deal of attention is being devoted to our constitution, particularly section 44. John Quick wanted to include in the document a definition of "citizen" which might have prevented our current constitutional crisis while still seeking 
"to equip the Commonwealth with every power necessary for dealing with the invasion of outside coloured races."2
It is therefore hardly surprising that this group would happily promote the White Australia Policy on a medal.
Following Federation, the ANA promoted in addition to the White Australia Policy, national defence, railway expansion, nature conservation (so they weren't all bad), and Australian football.
So some concluding thoughts:
  • Wow, the word "native" in the Victorian period had multiple uses! Given that the word has for some time been used pejoratively, I found the Australian Natives' Association quite shocking. 
  • Given that ANA members thought that Australian-born caucasians were at a disadvantage, I do wonder what their reaction to the citizenship crisis would be. The more I consider this question, the more I think they would be upset that those born in Australia like Barnaby Joyce and John Alexander have been caught up in this would have them rolling in their graves.
  • The Australian Football League (AFL) has some well-known problems associated with racial vilification. I do wonder what effect the historical association with the ANA has had on the culture of the sport might have had.
  • The promotion of Australia Day by the ANA makes me reevaluate yet again the appropriateness of it as a day to celebrate being Australian. Apparently at one time it was actually known as ANA Day.
  • I am really glad I've had nothing to do Australian Unity, because I think I'd find it very uncomfortable to be associated with a company whose origin was so openly racist. Yes, I know the modern company can't help its past any more than I am personally responsible for Australia's history, but...
1. See Johnson, Judy 1984 The role of the Australian Natives' Association in the Federation of Australia; One Nation With One Destiny. It can be accessed at
2. Record of the Debates of the Convention(Melb 1898) Vol. IV at 246 quoted in Rubenstein, Kim 1997 "Citizenship and the Constitutional Convention Debates: A Mere Legal Inference" Federal Law Review  vol. 25 p. 306.

Monday, 6 November 2017

Accessible Academia

Researchers and students truly ought to take a moment to realise just how fortunate we are. We are researching during the rise of digitisation projects all over the world. Today I was once again struck by just how fortunate I am to be researching at this very moment.
Using nothing but my iPad, today I managed to download both volumes of Daniel and Maltomini's 1991 addition to the Greek Magical Papyri, the Supplementum Magicum from my university's eSpace collection. The University of Queensland had digitised these in June 2016 and made them available to staff and students. I looked at the magical text which outlined how to cure insomnia. The text advised writing a name on a laurel leaf and placing it under the head, but it did not specify the name. My curiosity was piqued. Was the papyrus incomplete and the name lost? Was there some magical symbol which acted as a name drawn on the papyrus and not included in the transcription of the text? The book said that this second century CE text was housed by the Public and University Library of Geneva. A quick google search later, I was looking at a high quality digital image of that papyrus. There was nothing missing.
I was afterwards struck by how in less than hour I had managed to complete two research tasks at home which, if I had attempted to do them a decade earlier, would have taken me weeks if not months to do. The trip from home to uni to look at a physical copy of Supplementum Magicum would have taken as long as both tasks did, and arranging a trip to Switzerland to view one papyrus would not have happened, but a study trip which included it would have taken months to organise, (and as an honorary research fellow the trip would also be self-funded). A decade ago there was no way I could have looked at this papyrus before I referred to it at an upcoming conference. For me, this accessibility goes beyond saving time and money, as it also saves me pain.
While a lot of blogs and research projects are being devoted to "digital humanities" (and I continue to fail to understand exactly to what this term refers), I would like to draw some attention to how digitisation projects are especially helpful to historians with physical disabilities. 
I feared how the progression of my arthritis would affect my ability to research and read in general (holding books and papers can be painful), but the combination of electronic devices like iPads and digitisation projects have been extraordinarily beneficial to me.
Databases like JSTOR and Project Muse are an obvious boon, and they rely on the digitisation of early volumes of a variety of journals. Yet these represent a tiny portion of the benefit I have derived from digitisation projects. My research on the ancient medical text Medicina Plinii led to my discovery of a multitude of digitised resources which allowed me to complete my research predominantly using my iPad. A specialised ancient medicine resource was Galen of Pergamum: The Transmission, Interpretation and Completion of Ancient Medicine (Corpus Medicorum Graecorum). It provides digitised copies of critical editions of various Latin and Greek medical texts. For more generic research, even more helpful were projects like Google Books and Internet Archive.  When following up on random references to obscure ancient texts which no one has bothered to publish new editions for almost a century, these digitisation projects are invaluable. As an ancient historian I also benefit from the Loeb Digital Library, but also found online collections of out of copyright Loebs pages very useful. Digitised patristic texts can also be found online. Various digitisation projects have even enabled me to download PDF copies of texts which my library never owned. I can now look at a 17th century book which in 2005 I photographed using film in 2005 while at the University of Otago online, and I don't have to use a magnifying glass to read the pages. 
In addition to the digitisation of printed books and journals, institutions all over the world are digitising ancient papyri and medieval manuscripts. Whereas before I had to trust the notes included in critical editions of Greek and Latin texts, today I can go online and look at the pages of manuscripts and papyri for myself, just like I did today. The digitisation of this sort of material is most beneficial for ancient historians, especially those of us in Australia who are so far removed from the large European collections: we are able to look at these works without expensive international travel. These projects are beneficial as they democratise access while helping to preserve the well-being of these artefacts. But for people with physical disabilities, the ability to look at an ancient manuscript without causing ourselves pain or mishandling material is an additional benefit as well.
Every time I go online to view a papyrus or manuscript, I thank my lucky stars for being able to research during this time period. Not only can I look at all this material from Australia, I can do so in a manner best suited to my physical disabilities: on my iPad with my feet up. Digitisation projects directly lead to accessible academia, and I am truly grateful for it.
I've included below some helpful links to various digitised collections which include materials helpful to the study of ancient history in no particular order which I have used.
Virtual manuscript library of Switzerland. They have also developed an app.
There are many other projects. Google manuscript digitisation projects and dive in. A wonderful world of ancient texts and medieval manuscripts are just a few clicks or taps away.

Friday, 27 October 2017

Euphorbia: identifying the late addition to Graeco-Roman materia medica

Euphorbia (also spelled euphorbea) was a relatively late-comer to the medical materials used in the medicine of the classical world. The plant was discovered by King Juba of Mauritania in the Atlas Mountains, probably during the reign of Augustus. Despite the fact that this plant was discovered centuries after the earliest Greek medical writings, this plant was quickly adopted by doctors of the Mediterranean world, and was described in both Latin and Greek texts.
The success of this was likely the result of Juba writing a treatise about the plant, describing it and how its latex was harvested for use, and might also have been assisted by his decision to name the plant after his physician, Euphorbus, rather than after himself.1 It is not possible to determine how much borrowed "authority" this naming might have bestowed the material, but we do know that Euphorbus's brother was famed in Rome for saving the life of Augustus.2
This latex was soon used for a variety of conditions, including but not limited to, the dispersal of cataracts when mixed with other ingredients because it burns3; in the treatment of snake bites by placing it into a deep cut made into the top of the head (I don't even want to think about what experiments occurred to discover this as this is one of the earliest uses recorded)4; and lethargus when mixed with vinegar (often translated as lethargy, but is more akin to a comatose condition) where the smell was thought to promote sneezing and thus wake the patient.
But what exactly is this plant? When looking at historical sources which describe materia medica, identifying the species of plant or animal is the most difficult thing to do.6 Pliny described it as having the appearance of thyrsus (that is the staff carried by a maenad) and the leaves of the acanthus. Dioscorides stated that it resembled the giant fennel,7 the plant from which maenads made her thyrsus. The thyrsus was often taller than the maenad, and the plant commonly considered to be the giant fennel, Ferula communis, commonly grows 1.8-3m tall. So, this euphorbia which grew in the Atlas Mountains should be extremely tall, yet for more than a century now, ancient euphorbia has been identified as Euphorbia resinifera,8 a plant which is indigenous to the Atlas Mountains and produces copious amounts of latex used in folk medicine,9 but it only grows to 61cm in height and has no acanthus-like leaves. It looks like a ground-cover, whereas the giant fennel is completely different and tall.
Photograph of Euphorbia resinifera from a public garden Giant fennel growing at Delphi with woman beside to compare size

Yes, the plant described by Pliny might have evolved into this smaller form, but there is no evidence on which to base this. What it does gave in common is the appearance of the latex once dried. Pliny stated that it looked like frankincense, while King's American Dispensatory described the dried latex of E. resinifera as "irregular, yellowish, or brownish, slightly friable tears, of a wax-like appearance",10 a description that could be used also for frankincense.
According to the Euphorbia Planetary Biodiversity Inventory project, there are at least 2100 species of Euphorbia, something that I wish I had known when I impulse purchased a Euphorbia at a nursery last year because of my ancient medical research (by comparing cyanthia-the bunches of flowers- it appears that I had bought a E. millii which is actually Madagascan). While research is being done on the chemical composition of the various latexes of the more commonly known species, there isn't a lot of time devoted to the appearance of the latex. So today I made a small incision in my E. millii plant. Before I even removed my stanley knife, a bead of latex immediately welled up. 
Euphorbia millii latex
While Pliny described the harvesting of euphorbia latex as resulting in irritation, I placed this small amount of latex on my wrist and experienced no irritation. I did NOT place any in my eye, because I am not an idiot. No one recommends placing any Euphorbia latex near your eyes or any place really (please note that pointsettia are Euphorbia this Christmas). It's smell was extremely faint, and in know way unpleasant. If I can manage to obtain a sufficient quantity, I will attempt to dry this latex to see what it looks like. If it resembles frankincense, we might need to consider the idea that numerous Euphorbia species' latex look like frankincense and that this resemblance is not sufficient to identify ancient euphorbia with E. resinifera.

1 Pliny Natural History 25.38.77-8. The whole of this section of Pliny reads: 

"In the age too of our fathers King Juba discovered a plant to which he gave the name euphorbea, calling it after his own physician Euphorbus. This man was the brother of the Musa we have mentioned as the saviour of the life of the late Emperor Augustus. It was these brothers who first adopted the plan of bracing the body by copious douches of cold water after the bath. Before this the custom was to bathe in hot water only, as we find that it is also in Homer. But the treatise also of Juba on this plant is still extant, and it makes a splendid testimonial. He discovered it on Mount Atlas: it has the appearance of a thyrsus and the leaves of the acanthus. Its potency is so great that the juice, obtained by incision with a pole, is gathered from a distance; it is caught in receivers made of kids’ stomachs placed underneath. Fluid and like milk as it drops down, when it has dried and congealed it has all the features [the Latin states effigiem, so this does refer to appearance] of frankincense. The collectors find their vision improved. It is employed as treatment for snake-bite. In whatever part of the body the bite may be, an incision is made in the top of the skull and the medicament inserted there." Trans. Jones and Andrews 1956 (Loeb Classical Library).

Pliny Natural History 25.38.77 and 19.38.128.
Dioscorides De Materia Medica 3.82.3.
4 Dioscorides De Materia Medica 3.82.3; Pliny Natural History 25.38.78; Medicina Plinii 3.37.6; Philomenus 28.2; and Aelius Promotus 23.
5 Pliny Natural History 26.72.118; Serenus 55 lines 1001-2; Medicina Plinii 3.18.4; Pseudo-Theodorus Ad II, 2 (15); Cassius Felix 63; Aretaeus De curatione acutorum morborum 1.2.11&13; Alexander Therapeutica 4; and Aëtius 3.114.
6 Aliotta, G, De Santo, NG, Pollio, A, Sepe, J, & Touwaide, A 2004, ‘The diuretic use of Scillafrom Dioscorides to the end of the 18th century’, Journal of Nephrology, vol. 17, p. 342.
7 Dioscorides De Materia Medica 3.82.1.
8 For example King, J, Felter, HW, & Lloyd, JU 1905 King's American Dispensatory volume 1, p. 743 and Beck, LY 2011 Pedanius Dioscorides of Anazarbus De materia medica, pp. 221.
9 Bouiamrine, EH, Bachiri, L, Ibijbijen, J, & Nassiri, L 2017,  'Use of medicinal plants in Middle Atlas of Morocco: potential health risks and indigenous knowledge in a Berber community' Journal of Medicinal Plants Studies,vol. 5, p. 340.
10 King's American Dispensatory volume 1, p. 743.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Slanting the Facts: infographics misrepresenting the past and the present

Infographics. They appear quite often in our social media news feeds. Sometimes they seek to be informative. Sometimes they seek to be humorous. Sometimes they seek to obfuscate. Sometimes they seek to do all three. Yesterday, I created one which does just that.
As an historian I find the moral judgement of the past by modern standards infuriating when done in earnest, but when it is done as a joke, I find it hilarious, and my newly designed infographic was designed thus. Years ago, quite possibly even a decade ago, my younger brother and I started joking about how members of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, you know, the ones who often get naked) would react if they travelled back in time to the Graeco-Roman period. As often happens when we start such discussions, we followed through to the most absurd outcome, in this case to what degree they would despise Heracles. I joked that I'd buy a shirt which featured that joke.
This private joke has continued between us since then, and having recently concluded a major research project I decided to devote some time to art, and decided the time had come to bring this old joke to fruition. While I was obviously always going to include the Nemean Lion, Lernian Hydra, and Stymphalian Birds, I knew I had to decide not just what to include, but what to exclude. I knew I couldn't include all twelve labours, as not all of them led to the maltreatment of animals, and this was meant to be something that could work as a t-shirt. 
I had always wanted to include Cerberus because I was amused by Robin Bond's depiction of the French Maid character attacking Dionysus dressed as Heracles for being so mean to "that poor puppy" in Aristophanes' Frogs. This posed a problem. If molesting animals (which I'm sure PETA would include) was to be included, I would have too many examples to include. I needed to reconsider the Twelve Labours more critically. As this wasn't an academic paper, I checked out Perseus Project's Hercules, Greece's greatest hero online exhibition
I had forgotten completely about the Hind of Ceryneia, and decided to include her because she was Artemis' pet, and Heracles did shoot her. When I reacquainted myself with the Cattle of Geryon, I came across a character I had never noted before, Orthros, Cerberus' two-headed brother, whom Heracles killed to take the cattle. I made the tough decision to abandon Cerberus for his ill-fated, less famous brother. None of the other animals in the labours were killed (I am a Harry Potter fan and know what happens to those who consider centaurs animals), so I decided to add the snakes Hera sent to kill Heracles as a baby. So I ended up with six examples; a good size to fit on a t-shirt or infographic.
When I drew the Nemean Lion, I had unintentionally made him look happy, so I made the decision to try make these creatures look as harmless as possible. My hydra looks quite cartoonish, with one head looking particularly quizzical. I drew the Stymphalian Birds in flight deliberately to reflect the practice of duck hunting where the birds are shot while in flight. I based the hind on a sitting red deer doe to suggest even more timidity, and the open-mouthed head of Orthros was based on my own dog, Pompey. Given my deliberate attempts to downplay the potentially monstrous natures of these animals, I based Hera's snakes on corn snakes, the least scary snake I could think of as an Australian. 
Once my drawings were completed, I needed to figure out my text. While I still like the idea of mocking PETA, I decided to make my infographic more general for two reasons: they get enough attention already, and they would consider the majority of the labours as animal abuse. While I think the attribution of anachronistic moral approaches to history would fit especially with PETA, similar anachronistic approaches to the past occur all the time online, so it still fits the joke to give a more generic description. I also decided to use the name Hercules, instead of Heracles, as it is more widely known thanks to Disney. I then decided to consider each of Hercules' actions in chronological order outside of their proper context with the intention to make him look as bad as possible: 
  1. Killing small creatures at a young age has become a stereotypical indication of a potential psychopath, so I described him as a "natural born killer".
  2. Wearing fur was PETA's excuse for naked photo shoots, so I highlighted this element of the Nemean Lion story.
  3. If you consider the Lernian Hydra as an animal instead of a monster, you realise that it is the only one of its kind, and thus its destruction can be described as an "extinction event" by modern standards, and is something rightly decried against by myriad environmental advocacy groups worldwide.
  4. Any pet owner would find hunting a pet abhorrent, and thus hunting the Ceryneian Hind which was Artemis' pet seems a horrible act.
  5. Bird shooting continues to be protested annually in Australia each duck season.
  6. Dog lovers hate the idea of dogs being killed. Consider the negative attention police forces worldwide have been receiving for shooting people's dogs when executing warrants, or even chasing fugitives.
So I finished designing this infographic and potential t-shirt design yesterday.

When I showed it to my brother he burst out laughing.
Yes, I made it as a gag. Yes, I'd wear it on a t-shirt. No, I don't know if anyone else finds it amusing.
But the humour belies a potential problem in today's online world of infographics and listicles: 
While I have deliberately misread the past for comedic effect, I understand how this is a flagrant act of misrepresentation. Without that comprehension viewers will see that Hercules was all these things without any consideration to his proper cultural background. That approach to history is something I get into arguments about online. 
It isn't something which has a huge societal impact, but just remember the next time you see a similar infographic, it is very easy to slant the facts to generate a bias in its audience.

Monday, 28 August 2017

Coopting the Classics at Charlottesville

A couple of weeks ago I read an interesting article posted on The Public Medievalist site which discussed how white supremacists have appropriated the concept of the medieval past for themselves. The piece entitled 'Leaving "Medieval" Charlottesville' focussed on the use of medieval emblems on flags and shields carried by the white supremacists while going on to discuss the presence of such people within the medieval reenactment community.
While I am an ancient historian, I am also an artist who adores the aesthetics of symbols and heraldry, especially those of the medieval period. I am not reenactor so I don't often wear things which feature these designs, but I always keep my eye open for beautifully designed emblems relevant to the classical world.
So imagine my shock and horror today when I spotted this photograph illustrating a Wired article about Charlottesville.
Screenshot of Wired articleAs I said, I keep an eye out for classical emblems. In case you can't see it, take a closer look:  

Close up screenshot showing patch featuring helmet and swords

A patch featuring a Greek helmet (I'm not sure if it's Spartan or Corinthian) and crossed swords (maybe gladii)

I am not naive. I have watched Sarah Bond receive death threats for pointing out the nature of polychromy in the classical world and how the stereotype of white marble statues became a later aesthetic movement with attached racial issues. I've also seen the abuse she received for pointing out racial diversity in the extant art of the past on Twitter. I don't think there is an ancient historian or classicist with a social media account in the world who did not witness how right-wing trolls completely lost their minds when the BBC produced a children's cartoon which illustrated non-white members of Roman society in Roman Britain.
The modern perception of the racial past is very much on topic at the moment.
The Public Medievalist's Race, Racism and the Middle Ages series has done a great job in introducing to a wide audience some of the historiography surrounding this issue; approaches which can in some cases be adapted for use in earlier history. I especially found Matthew Chalmer's article 'Anti-Semitism Before Semites' particularly illuminating in this manner. 
Yet the sight of this photograph today shook me. This beautifully designed emblem is the sort of insignia I would normally love to have on a badge, or shirt, or a tote to illustrate my love for the ancient world. I could have unwittingly purchased such a patch online and proudly carried it, believing that it identified me as a lover of the classical world. For all I know, this white nationalist might describe himself similarly. But for me, he has perverted his love for the past. 
In his article on Charlottesville, Paul B. Sturtevant wrote as a member of a medieval reenactment group, the Society for Creative Anachronism, but I am writing as an ancient historian and a consumer. This perversion of classical imagery has made me fearful of buying items which represent my passion because I do not want to accidentally imply that I think I am better than anyone else because of the colour of my skin. When the past is manipulated in such a way, is it little wonder that there a Facebook groups devoted to multiculturalism, race, and ethnicity in classics which devotes most of its efforts to discussing how to make people from diverse backgrounds interested in classics?
So to anyone who deludes themselves into thinking that the classical world was strictly white, guess what? You are wrong!
Multiculturalism existed in the ancient world of the Mediterranean. Sure, it wasn't as apparent as it is today, but people of colour could be found in the great cities and they were definitely represented in art (check this out from The Met, for example).
Your use of classical imagery to illustrate your bigotry also serves to illustrate your ignorance - given that these are hardly mutually exclusive, this is not really a shock. 
But that said, this consumer now feels she needs to double check every possible meaning attributed to such designs (I haven't actually been able to see if this is officially used as the insignia for a specific hate group), because the only thing that sickens me more than a white supremacist is the fear that I might be mistaken for one.