Sunday, June 30, 2013

Digital Dwelling at Skara Brae

Digital Dwelling at Skara Brae is a collaborative project bringing together three visualisation specialists, each with very diverse methods and mediums of working. The project was initiated following a series of discussions between PhD researchers Alice Watterson and Kieran Baxter together with Dr Aaron Watson, which established a mutual concern for the ways digital methods were shaping archaeologists’ engagement with sites and material culture.

Picture credit: Aaron Watson, 2013.


While field archaeologists engage with the archaeological record through their senses, these experiences are often mediated through technologies such as cameras, survey machines or scanners. This influences and even constrains the kinds of information that is observed and recorded, effectively distancing the field worker from their material. Through the act of making an experimental film the project explores the potential of layered multimedia as an archaeological field method; capturing and communicating very different qualities of the archaeological record to systematic and objective techniques of data collection alone.

As a work in progress, the film moves from the present day to the imagined past; from a remote aerial perspective to an embodied encounter deep within the walls of the village; and from objective interpretation to creative storytelling.

Survey The Neolithic site of Skara Brae, located in Mainland Orkney off the northern coast of Scotland, was surveyed in 2010 by the Scottish Ten project using laser scanners and photogrammetry rigs.


The fieldwork combined site visits to both Skara Brae and contemporary sites within the wider landscape with laser scanning, photogrammetry, kite photography, film, painting and drawing. We made a conscious effort to engage with the site through our creative process with an awareness of acoustics, texture, and the experience of moving through the space. Adoption of a more involved way of recording a site gave us time to linger, observe and interpret.

A disembodied perspective

Kite aerial photography was incorporated into our observations at Skara Brae in an attempt to summarise the complexity of the site in a single overview.

From the oblique angle chosen for this shot, the features within Skara Brae are separated out whilst remaining recognisable, helping the viewer to orientate themselves and establishing the site within its immediate landscape. There is also a dichotomy accompanying this aerial imagery, which is at once familiar and estranged. In contrast to the elevated view from the sea cliffs, this suspended view departs from the experience available to fieldworkers, visitors, or people in the past.

Scratch art and boundaries

In the film the camera moves down into a passageway then turns to focus upon a stone incised with abstract lines which are lit by flickering red firelight dancing across the surface. In this sequence, live action footage is mixed with computer generated shots of Neolithic art.

Scratch art within the passageways appears at apparent spatial boundary points and has been described as being ‘muted’ and ‘secretive’ (Shepherd 2000), implying that its meaning is more than decorative. Our film acknowledges this incised art as the camera lingers across the stone surface, while abstracted shapes evoke memories or visions.

An embodied perspective

The camera turns sharply and enters a low and foreboding passageway. Erratic movement reinforces the sense that we are now looking through the eyes of a protagonist. Hands reach out to guide through the darkness and then the image distorts, suggesting visions or memories evoked within this confined place.

Passage B is an uncomfortable and claustrophobic place, requiring the visitor to crawl around a tight corner and down a slope. We included shots of our hands to directly capture the difficulties of negotiating this space, reinforcing the impression that the protagonist/audience are now situated firmly within the scene; that this is now an embodied experience.


The camera then moves through a narrow entrance, revealing the interior of a dwelling and a figure dimly visible through the smoky atmosphere. The figure is holding a ceremonial artefact – a Neolithic carved stone ball – and during the conclusion of this transformative encounter this is handed to the protagonist.

In this scene the interior of House 7 is a computer model created from laser scan mesh and texture data. Reconstructed elements were then digitally modelled, including the speculative architecture of the roof, artefacts, a costumed character, lighting and atmospheres. The shot of the incised art combines sequences of animated photogrammetry captured in the field and draped with a painted image.

There is evidence to suggest that House 7 was treated differently to other dwellings in the village. It is spatially separated by the uncomfortable crawl down Passage B and two female burials were placed under the right hand bed when the foundations of the house were laid. It is also the only structure which has a door that can be locked from the outside (Richards 1991). These unusual qualities inspired us to convey this space as a convergence of domestic and ritual. The camera is hesitant, suggesting unfamiliarity or caution on the part of the protagonist, and the unexpected appearance of shifting imagery and colour conveys further ambiguity or strangeness, and is also suggestive of the altered states of consciousness often associated with ritual.

Digital dwelling

With creative work like this it would be easy to create a fiction about the site, but we don’t because we are bound by the archaeological record. We work within the space interpretation can occupy while still responding to the evidence.

The narrative arc of the film is driven by a convergence of evidence from the archaeological record and our own sensory engagement as field workers; from the virtual to the actual, and from the sky to the underground. The journey begins with the disembodied perspective of flight, and ends with a direct encounter with an imagined person; from the wider landscape to a single artefact. The film is not a reconstruction as this would suggest that it is possible to see through the eyes of Neolithic people. Instead, it is a story about our own engagement with the archaeological record at Skara Brae. It portrays the past as it is experienced in the present; unfamiliar, emotive, dynamic and transforming.

Past Horizons. 2013. “Digital Dwelling at Skara Brae”. Past Horizons. Posted: May 30, 2013. Available online:

Saturday, June 29, 2013

'World's oldest Torah' scroll found in Italy

The University of Bologna in Italy has found what it says may be the oldest complete scroll of Judaism's most important text, the Torah.

The scroll was in the university library but had been mislabelled, a professor at the university says.

It was previously thought the scroll was no more that a few hundred years old.

However, after carbon dating tests, the university has said the text may have been written more than 850 years ago.

The university's Professor of Hebrew Mauro Perani says this would make it the oldest complete text of the Torah known to exist, and an object of extraordinary worth.

The university says that in 1889 one of its librarians, Leonello Modona, had examined the scroll and dated it to the 17th Century.

However, when Prof Perani recently re-examined the scroll, he realised the script used was that of the oriental Babylonian tradition, meaning that the scroll must be extremely old.

Another reason for the dating is that the text has many features forbidden in later copies under rules laid down by the scholar Maimonides in the 12th Century, the university says.

BBC News. 2013. “'World's oldest Torah' scroll found in Italy”. BBC News. Posted: May 28, 2013. Available online:

Friday, June 28, 2013

Picking up a second language is predicted by ability to learn patterns

Some people seem to pick up a second language with relative ease, while others have a much more difficult time. Now, a new study suggests that learning to understand and read a second language may be driven, at least in part, by our ability to pick up on statistical regularities.

The study is published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Some research suggests that learning a second language draws on capacities that are language-specific, while other research suggests that it reflects a more general capacity for learning patterns. According to psychological scientist and lead researcher Ram Frost of Hebrew University, the data from the new study clearly point to the latter:

"These new results suggest that learning a second language is determined to a large extent by an individual ability that is not at all linguistic," says Frost.

In the study, Frost and colleagues used three different tasks to measure how well American students in an overseas program picked up on the structure of words and sounds in Hebrew. The students were tested once in the first semester and again in the second semester.

The students also completed a task that measured their ability to pick up on statistical patterns in visual stimuli. The participants watched a stream of complex shapes that were presented one at a time. Unbeknownst to the participants, the 24 shapes were organized into 8 triplets — the order of the triplets was randomized, though the shapes within each triplet always appeared in the same sequence. After viewing the stream of shapes, the students were tested to see whether they implicitly picked up the statistical regularities of the shape sequences.

The data revealed a strong association between statistical learning and language learning: Students who were high performers on the shapes task tended to pick up the most Hebrew over the two semesters.

"It's surprising that a short 15-minute test involving the perception of visual shapes could predict to such a large extent which of the students who came to study Hebrew would finish the year with a better grasp of the language," says Frost.

According to the researchers, establishing a link between second language acquisition and a general capacity for statistical learning may have broad implications.

"This finding points to the possibility that a unified and universal principle of statistical learning can quantitatively explain a wide range of cognitive processes across domains, whether they are linguistic or nonlinguistic," they conclude.

EurekAlert. 2013. “Picking up a second language is predicted by ability to learn patterns”. EurekAlert. Posted: May 28, 2013. Available online:

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Language Is in Our Biology

If you want to master languages, you should pick your parents with care, new research from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology shows.

A good working memory is perhaps the brain's most important system when it comes to learning a new language. But it appears that working memory is first and foremost determined by our genes.

Whether you struggle to learn a new language, or find it relatively easy to learn, may be largely determined by "nature."

That's the conclusion of researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), who have studied language skills in Norwegian elementary school students.

Tested on ten-year-old students

Mila Vulchanova, a professor at NTNU's Department of Modern Foreign Languages, led a study of approximately one hundred ten-year-old elementary school students from Norway. Her research suggests that a good working memory is a decisive factor in developing good language skills and competency.

"Our results show a clear statistical correlation between a high level of language competence and a good working memory in the students we tested," she says.

While Vulchanova is a linguist, her team included colleagues and students from the university's Department of Psychology and the Department of Scandinavian Studies and Comparative Literature to help with the research.

The ten-year-olds in the study came from both a rural school and an urban school, but all had Norwegian as their first language.

They were tested on both their Norwegian and English language skills, as well as on working memory skills. All tests were administered orally in order to prevent a variation in literacy skills from affecting the test results.

"The correlation between good language skills and a good working memory was clear. This was true for all of the individual sub-tests conducted in this research, as well as the overall scores on the Norwegian language test," says Vulchanova.

Contradicts conventional assumptions

Vulchanova's results run contrary to some conventional assumptions in both linguistics and cognitive sciences.

Quite often it is believed that children acquire languages regardless of their cognitive abilities, such as perception, spatial understanding, and working memory. In other words, children don't need to learn language per se. It just comes on its own. The results from Vulchanova's research contradict this idea.

"Working memory affects our ability to learn language and our linguistic skills to a great extent," she says.

"Not only is working memory important in learning new words, it is also important in our general language competence, in areas such as grammar skills. Working memory is connected to our ability to gather information and work with it, and to store and manipulate linguistic inputs as well as other inputs in the brain."

The results suggest that working memory is likely to be one of the most important biological factors in language development among children.

Brain training can help

When we learn a new language, information that is stored in the brain's memory storage space must be constantly maintained. The brain does this by taking in new linguistic information in the form of new words and auditory strings, and then integrating this with information that is already stored in the "mental lexicon."

This might not sound like good news for people who struggle with their working memory, but Vulchanova says not to give up hope.

"It is possible to train the working memory system, but it is not easy -- especially since the capacity of our working memory is inherited. Mind exercises such as word games or practicing saying numbers in the opposite direction are useful and simple ways to train your working memory," she says.

First language vs. second language

Not only did the researchers find out that there is a close relationship between language competence in the first language and working memory, but that language competence in the mother tongue correlated highly with skills in a foreign language.

"We have found evidence that there is a link between language development and the capacity of our working memory, and that there are common cognitive mechanisms that support the ability to learn both your mother tongue and a second language," Vulchanova says.

"This is important, because it has been the tradition in linguistics to maintain that learning your native language is qualitatively different from learning a foreign language," she says.

Science Daily. 2013. “Language Is in Our Biology”. Science Daily. Posted: May 27, 2013. Available online:

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Eating naartjies in the bioscope: a little guide to South African English

The vocabulary and grammar of spoken South African English are coated in a fine layer of Afrikaans dust. It's been there so long that most of us no longer notice

The first English lesson I ever gave was in a little language school in a sprawling Taiwanese city. The theme was Fruit, a subject about as straightforward as it gets for a native English speaker. Unless you're from South Africa.

To prepare, I flipped through the previous teacher's handmade flashcards and consulted my English guidebook for the names of the "exotic" fruits found in Asia – apple-shaped Chinese pears and otherworldly dragon fruit. But when I flipped over the card showing an innocuous-looking orange citrus fruit, my stomach dropped. Everyone I knew would call it a naartjie ("naah-chi"), and I suddenly realised that this wasn't actually an English word.

I'd heard of clementines and satsumas, but were either of these naartjie in English? I had to enlist the help of my bemused Chinese co-teacher, who told me "tangerine", and, later, "cantaloupe". (Spanspek, the Afrikaans word for "cantaloupe" that all South Africans use, is literally translated as "Spanish bacon", allegedly because a 19th-century Cape governor had a Spanish wife who always chose fresh fruit over a big English breakfast. Their mystified Afrikaans servants coined the word.)

After that first lesson, I had endless opportunities to marvel at how stealthily my mother tongue had colonised the Afrikaans lexicon. I would tell my students that I was holding thumbs for them (from the Afrikaans idiom duim vashou) before they wrote a level-check test. I asked my co-teacher if he could help me move my new couch in his bakkie (bak means "container": add another "k" and an "ie" to turn it into a diminutive, and you've got the affectionate Afrikaans name for a small truck). I texted my British friend asking her if I could borrow a pair of takkies (from tekkies, Afrikaans for trainers). When one of my kindergarten students went through a stage of eating beetles she'd found in the car park, my kneejerk reaction of disgust wasn't "yuck", but sis! (from sies).

Occasionally, the direct translations of Afrikaans prepositions slip out in the wrong context, such as when you used to go sleep by your friend's house when your parents went out to the bioscope (this now defunct English word survived here because of the Afrikaans bioskoop).

Of course, it makes sense for English to have been given a good lick here and there by other native tongues – our country does have 11 official languages. According to the results of the 2011 census as quoted in this Daily Maverick article by Rebecca Davis, English is the fourth most widely spoken mother tongue behind isiZulu, isiXhosa and Afrikaans.

It stands to reason that Afrikaans, which became the language of power when the National party took over in 1948, has influenced South African English more than any other. Afrikaans was used as a tool to suppress the masses throughout apartheid, itself an Afrikaans word that has been appropriated not only by South African English speakers, but in English the world over. As Davis writes, knowledge of Afrikaans was a barrier to entry into the civil service from the late 1940s, which meant that black people were frozen out of high-prestige positions as they were being schooled only in "indigenous" languages.

Fast-forward one generation, and you see the Soweto uprising breaking out on 16 June 1976 to protest against the Bantu Education Department's decree that the compulsory medium of instruction in local high schools is to be Afrikaans, specifically for subjects like maths and arithmetic. Hundreds of people, mostly high school students, were killed in violent confrontations with police that day.

Now, 19 years after our transition to democracy and after nearly two decades of English being the dominant medium of politics, the media, commerce and education, the shards of Afrikaans that were left behind in English still occasionally poke through.

So it's remarkably easy, even for an armchair etymologist, to write a litany of South African regionalisms that English has pilfered from Afrikaans. But there are two words that are foremost in my mind when I think about how Afrikaans has shaped the way I speak.

One is ja (with a soft "y"), meaning "yes", whose ubiquity might be attributed to its pronunciation. It's takes so little effort to say that it's basically an exhale.

The other is lekker, which is like "great", but better. To me, our cheerfully patriotic mantra "local is lekker" is true for everything from our biltong (if you've never sampled our best export, get on the South West Trains line from London Waterloo to Surbiton, get off anywhere between Clapham Junction and Raynes Park, and head for the nearest shop flying a South African flag: you can thank me later) to the way we speak. No matter how ambivalent we may be about our homeland, our hodgepodge potjie of English, subtly spiced with Afrikaans, is just that: ours.

Edwards, Michelle. 2013. “Eating naartjies in the bioscope: a little guide to South African English”. The Guardian. Posted: May 24, 2013. Available online:

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Tenochtitlán: History of Aztec Capital

Tenochtitlán was an Aztec city that flourished between A.D. 1325 and 1521. Built on an island on Lake Texcoco, it had a system of canals and causeways that supplied the hundreds of thousands of people who lived there.

It was largely destroyed by the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés after a siege in 1521, and modern-day Mexico City now lies over much of its remains. In a 1520 letter written to King Charles I of Spain, Cortés described the city that he would soon attack:

“The city is as big as Seville or Cordoba. The main streets are very wide and very straight; some of these are on the land, but the rest and all the smaller ones are half on land, half canals where they paddle their canoes.” (From "An Age of Voyages: 1350-1600," by Mary Wiesner-Hanks, Oxford University Press, 2005)

He noted the city’s richness, saying that it had a great marketplace where “sixty thousand people come each day to buy and sell...” Its merchandise included “ornaments of gold and silver, lead, brass, copper, tin, stones, shells, bones and feathers ...”

Origins of Tenochtitlán

According to legend, the Aztec people left their home city of Aztlan nearly 1,000 years ago. Scholars do not know where Aztlan was, but according to ancient accounts one of these Aztec groups, known as the Mexica, founded Tenochtitlán in 1325.

The legend continues that Huitzilopochtli, the god of war, the sun and human sacrifice, is said to have directed the Mexica to settle on the island. He “ordered his priests to look for the prickly pear cactus and build a temple in his honor. They followed the order and found the place on an island in the middle of the lake ...” writes University of Madrid anthropologist Jose Luis de Rojas in his book "Tenochtitlán: Capital of the Aztec Empire" (University of Florida Press, 2012).

De Rojas notes that the “early years were difficult.” People lived in huts, and the temple for Huitzilopochtli “was made of perishable material.” Also in the beginning, Tenochtitlán was under the sway of another city named Azcapotzalco, to which they had to pay tribute.

Political instability at Azcapotzalco, combined with an alliance with the cities of Texcoco and Tlacopan, allowed the Tenochtitlán ruler Itzcoatl (reign 1428-1440) to break free from Azcapotzalco’s control and assert the city’s independence.

Over the next 80 years, the territory controlled by Tenochtitlán and its allies grew, and the city became the center of a new empire. The tribute that flowed in made the inhabitants (at least the elite) wealthy. “The Mexica extracted tribute from the subjugated groups and distributed the conquered lands among the victors, and wealth began to flow to Tenochtitlán,” writes de Rojas, noting that this resulted in rapid immigration into the city. The city itself would come to boast an aqueduct that brought in potable water and a great temple dedicated to both Huitzilopochtli (the god who led the Mexica to the island) and Tlaloc, a god of rain and fertility.

Aztec social organization

The people of Tenochtitlán were divided into numerous clan groups called calpulli (which means “big house”), and these in turn consisted of smaller neighborhoods. “Usually, the calpulli was made up of a group of macehaultin (commoner) families led by pipiltin (nobles)” writes California State University professor Manuel Aguilar-Moreno in his book "Handbook to Life in the Aztec World" (Oxford University Press, 2006).

Fray Diego Durán, a Spaniard who lived in Mexico a few decades after Cortés’ conquest, wrote that King Motecuhzoma (or Montezuma) I, who reigned from 1440 to 1469, created an education system where every neighborhood had to have a school or temple to educate youth.

In those places “they will learn religion and correct comportment. They are to do penance, lead hard lives, live with strict morality, practice for warfare, do physical work, fast, endure disciplinary measures, draw blood from different parts of the body, and keep watch at night...” (Translation by Doris Heyden)

Another feature of Tenochtitlán’s society was that it had a strict class system, one that affected the clothes people wore and even the size of the houses they were allowed to build. “Only the great noblemen and valiant warriors are given license to build a house with a second story; for disobeying this law a person receives the death penalty...” Fray Durán wrote.

Among the people considered to be in the lower classes were the porters the city relied on. The lack of wheeled vehicles and pack animals meant that the city’s goods had to be brought in by canoe or human lifting. Surviving depictions show porters carrying loads on their backs with a strap secured to their forehead.

Trade and currency

As Tenochtitlán’s empire grew so did its trade. Aguilar-Moreno writes that a pivotal moment in the city’s economic history was its capture of the nearby city of Tlatelolco in 1474. He notes that Tlatelolco was a “trade city” and that the “union of these two cities made the site of Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco the economic and political center of the Valley of Mexico.”

Instead of minted currency people bartered for goods using “cacao beans for small transactions, cotton blankets for mid-range ones, and quills filled with gold dust for large business operations,” writes researcher Carroll Riley in her book "Rio del Norte: People of the Upper Rio Grande From Earliest Time to the Pueblo Revolt" (University of Utah Press, 1995).

She notes that metallurgy played a major role in Tenochtitlán’s economy and society. “Metallurgy was now well established for copper, silver, and gold; there was even enough metal to allow copper to be used for agriculture and industrial tools as well as for armaments and jewellery.”

Aztec writing

The writing used by the people of Tenochtitlán, and by other Aztec groups, was what researchers call “pictorial.” This means that “it is composed predominately of figural images that bear some likeness to, or visual association with, the ideas, things, or actions they represent,” writes Elizabeth Boone in her book "Stories in Red and Black: Pictorial Histories of the Aztecs and Mixtecs" (University of Texas Press, 2000). She notes, however, that this system of writing “also contains abstractions and other marks that were arbitrarily assigned certain meanings, meanings unrelated to their likeness.”

The Aztecs used this writing system to create “codices” made from the bark of fig trees. “Hundreds of manuscripts existed at the time of the Aztecs. All but eleven disappeared with the arrival of the Europeans. The majority were destroyed in a bonfire ordered by [Fray] Juan de Zumárraga in 1535,” writes Houston Museum of Natural Science curator Dirk Van Tuerenhout in his book "The Aztecs: New Perspectives" (ABC-CLIO, 2005). He notes that the Spanish priests objected to the Aztec religious content in the codices.

Templo Mayor

At the heart of the city was a sacred area surrounded by a wall. “Within the enclosure were more than seventy buildings, and these were surrounded by a wall decorated with images of serpents, called a coatepantli,” writes de Rojas.

Archaeologists are still trying to determine exactly what this sacred area looked like, and how it changed over time, but scholars know for sure that the greatest structure was a place that the Spaniards called the “Templo Mayor” (main temple). As mentioned earlier, it was dedicated to the gods Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc.

“Standing about ninety feet [27 meters] high, the majestic structure consisted of two stepped pyramids rising side by side on a huge platform. It dominated both the Sacred Precinct and the entire city,” writes Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Heidi King in an online article.

Two long, broad, staircases led to the top of monument where two temples stood. “The temple structures on top of each pyramid were dedicated to and housed the images of the two important deities,” writes King.

It was a place where great, and gruesome, rituals were performed. “We know of human sacrifice at the top of the Templo Mayor, but it also was the scene of athletes and dancers moving gracefully in and around platforms and braziers,” writes University of Utah professor Antonio Serrato-Combe in his book "The Aztec Templo Mayor: A Visualization" (The University of Utah Press, 2001).

The human sacrifice element should not be underestimated, though. Serrato-Combe points out that there were two Tzompantli (skull racks) located near the Templo Mayor, a bigger one to the west and a smaller one to the north.

A Spanish account of a sacrifice reads that “the high priest who wielded the sacrificial knife struck the blows that smashed through the chest. He then thrust his hand into the cavity which he had opened to rip out the still beating heart. This he held high as an offering to the sun...” (Account by Fray Toribio de Benavente Motolinia, from the book "The Aztec Templo Mayor: A Visualization")

The fall of Tenochtitlán

Michael Smith, a professor at the State University of New York at Albany, notes that when Cortés landed in Mexico in 1519 he was, initially, greeted with gifts of gold from Tenochtitlán’s ruler Motecuhzoma (or Montezuma) II. The king may have been hoping that the gifts would appease the Spanish and make them go away, but it had the opposite effect.

“The gold, of course, made the Spaniards more anxious than ever to see the city. Gold was what they sought,” Smith writes in his book "The Aztecs" (Blackwell Publishing, 2003).

Cortés pushed on to Tenochtitlán, where Motecuhzoma II again gave the conquistador a warm welcome. Cortes then repaid the ruler by taking him prisoner and trying to rule the city in his name. This arrangement quickly soured with dissident groups naming Cuitlahuac, the king’s brother, to take over from the soon-to-be-killed Motecuhzoma.

Cortés fled the city on June 30, 1520, but within several months started marching back with a great army to conquer it. Smith notes that this force was made up of 700 Spaniards and 70,000 native troops who had allied themselves with the Spanish.

“Much of the Spanish success was owed to the political astuteness of Hernando Cortés, who quickly divined the disaffection towards the Mexica that prevailed in the eastern empire.”

This army laid siege to Tenochtitlán, destroying the aqueduct and trying to cut off food supplies to the hundreds of thousands of people in the city. Making matters worse is that the inhabitants of the city had recently been decimated by a smallpox plague to which they had no immunity.

“The illness was so dreadful that no one could walk or move. The sick were so utterly helpless that they could only lie on the beds like corpses...” wrote Friar Bernardino de Sahagún (from "The Aztecs" book).

The sheer size of Cortés force, their firepower and the plague ravaging Tenochtitlán made victory inevitable for the Spaniards. The city was theirs in August 1521. Smith notes that the Tlaxcallan soldiers that were in Cortés force “went on to massacre many of the remaining inhabitants of Tenochtitlán.”

Smith notes that an elegy for the city was later written, it reads:

Broken spears lie in the roads;
we have torn our hair in grief.
The houses are roofless now, and their walls
are red with blood.
We have pounded our hands in despair
against the adobe walls,
for our inheritance, our city, is lost and dead.
The shields of our warriors were its defense,
but they could not save it.

(Translated from the Nahuatl language by Miguel León-Portilla)

The ancient city had fallen, and a new Spanish colonial city would be built atop its ruins.

Jarus, Owen. 2013. “Tenochtitlán: History of Aztec Capital”. Live Science. Posted: May 23, 2013. Available online:

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Rise and Fall and Rise of Zahi Hawass

The long-reigning king of Egyptian antiquities has been forced into exile—but he’s plotting a return

I've always been intrigued by Zahi. He is a showman in front of the cameras, but I've never seen anyone so dedicated to his science.

Zahi Hawass doesn’t like what he’s seeing. Clad in his familiar denim safari suit and wide-brimmed bush hat, the famed archaeologist is standing inside the burial vault of the Step Pyramid of Djoser, a six-tiered, lopsided mound of limestone blocks constructed nearly 5,000 years ago. The huge, gloomy space is filled with scaffolding. A restoration and conservation project, at Saqqara outside Cairo, initiated by Hawass in 2002, has been shoring up the sagging ceiling and walls and staving off collapse. But the February 2011 revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak—and also ended Hawass’ controversial reign as the supreme chief of all Egypt’s antiquities—is now threatening to unravel Hawass’ legacy as well. With tourists nearly gone, funds dried up and the Ministry of Antiquities leadership reshuffled several times in the past two years, preservation work on the pyramid has ground to a near halt. The new minister has diverted reconstruction money into hiring thousands of unemployed archaeology graduates, claims Hawass, in a desperate move to stop protests. “He has done nothing,” Hawass says, with perhaps a touch of schadenfreude in his voice, scrutinizing the rough limestone ceiling and walls.

Hawass alights on the subterranean floor and shines a flashlight on the Pharaoh Djoser’s granite sarcophagus. I follow him on hands and knees through a low tunnel, part of a network of five miles of passages that workers burrowed beneath the pyramid in the 27th century B.C. The air is redolent of mud and dust. “The dead king had to go through these tunnels to fight wild creatures until he could become Osiris, the god of the underworld,” he tells me, stepping back into the sunlight.


In Egyptian mythology, Osiris ruled on earth as the all-powerful king, until the jealous god Set murdered him and usurped his throne. Osiris’ fall set in motion a drama of rivalry and revenge in which Set was finally defeated—and Osiris resurrected. Only through the return of the king could order be restored to Egypt.

For more than a decade Zahi Hawass was, arguably, the Osiris of antiquities. A regal combination of showman and scholar, he ruled a netherworld of tombs and temples, investigating age-old mysteries—the burial place of Antony and Cleopatra, the cause of death of Tutankhamen—for rapt television audiences. Hawass’ megalomania was legendary: In “Chasing Mummies: The Amazing Adventures of Zahi Hawass,” a reality television series on the History Channel, the archaeologist led his trainees on Howard Carter-type adventures, an exercise in self-aggrandizement so unabashed that it prompted a New York Times critic to smirk: “One hopes...Dr. Hawass will unearth some ancient Egyptian chill pills and swallow a generous helping.” Yet he also earned the admiration of peers and millions of fans. The National Geographic Society named him explorer-in-residence in 2001, an honor he shared with primatologist Jane Goodall, filmmaker James Cameron and paleontologists Meave and Louise Leakey. He wrote best-selling books. He commanded lecture fees ranging from $10,000 to $50,000. A traveling exhibition he put together of five dozen artifacts from the Egyptian Museum, “Tutankhamen and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs,” earned $110 million for Egypt during its tour of seven cities in Europe and the United States. It was one of the most lucrative museum shows of all time.

It all ended with the revolution. Hawass was vilified when protests against President Mubarak erupted in Tahrir Square in January 2011. Protesters called him “the Mubarak of Antiquities” and accused him of corruption. Underlings in the antiquities department and jobless and frustrated archaeology graduates besieged his office, demanding his ouster. “And take your hat,” they shouted. In April 2011 he was sentenced to a year in jail, stemming from an alleged case of rigged contract bidding at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. (The verdict was later overturned.) In July 2011, after serving two successive post-Mubarak governments, Hawass finally was obliged to give up his job. According to one Egyptian blogger, Hawass was “escorted out the back door of the ministry into a cab, showered with insults and angry chants from young archaeologists,” an event captured on video and watched by thousands of Egyptians.

Today, Hawass finds parallels between his fall and that of Osiris. “I had lots of enemies—the enemies of success,” he says. “They are the friends of the god Set, the evil desert god in ancient Egypt.” Many in the archaeological community seem to agree. “No one in Egyptology...has accomplished even a tiny fraction of what Zahi has. That, plus his fame, enrages people,” says Peter Lacovara, an Egyptologist at Emory University in Atlanta who has known Hawass for decades. “Zahi is a lightning rod, because he’s got so much energy and passion, and he doesn’t pull any punches,” says one noted Egyptologist in the U.S., who insisted on anonymity because her museum wants to stay on the sidelines. “People became envious of how high his profile became.” Others say that his blustering style and sometimes belittling manner, as well as his utter misreading of the public mood on the eve of Mubarak’s overthrow, all but assured his downfall.

Whatever its ultimate cause, Hawass’ departure has raised concerns about the future of Egypt’s antiquities. He may have antagonized people, but he was also an effective and enthusiastic manager who “cut through the bureaucracy,” says Naguib Amin, a consultant and friend since their days as graduate students in the U.S. Now many projects, including Saqqara, have stalled, and some say that Hawass’ fall has adversely affected both fund-raising and stewardship of the country’s treasures. “Antiquities are collapsing in front of my eyes,” Hawass says. Lacovara says that the new director of antiquities, Mohamed Ibrahim Ali, “is well respected and has done an excellent job....He has restored stability [and] things are running smoothly.” But Hawass says that Lacovara, who has ongoing projects in Egypt, may be reluctant to criticize the new boss. “I wanted to support Ibrahim, I wanted him to be good, but he is not doing anything,” he insists. Some colleagues in the ministry agree, saying that Ibrahim lacks Hawass’ dynamism, and has been forced to slash budgets because of a steep decline in revenue.

Egyptian tourism, a big piece of the country’s economy, has declined by as much as 50 percent since 2010, raising questions about whether the government will decide that it needs Hawass and his famous face to revive it. President Mohamed Morsi has never discussed the issue publicly, and Hawass has been critical of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement to which Morsi belonged and whose members dominate his administration. However, he also points out that in 2010, Muslim Brotherhood members overwhelmingly supported a bill he introduced to impose more severe sentences for antiquities theft and ban domestic trafficking in ancient artifacts. “Mubarak’s party was against me,” he adds, and only a watered-down version passed. Some former colleagues believe that Morsi may have no other choice but to bring back Hawass. “His charisma was bringing in money,” says Ali Asfar, the director of the Pyramids. “Nobody can fill his shoes.” Kamal Wahid, the director of Saqqara, concurs. “Every site misses him,” he said. “Tourism [at Saqqara] is down to 10 percent of what it was before the revolution. We are waiting until Dr. Hawass comes back again.”


I first met Hawass on a cool morning last December, at the office that he now uses on the ninth floor of a dilapidated high-rise apartment building in a busy Cairo neighborhood near the Nile. Hawass’ two-room suite is at the end of a gloomy hallway redolent of home cooking. He shares the space with a female assistant and a protégé, Tarek El Awady, whom Hawass hired as a field archaeologist, sent to graduate school and later appointed as director of the Egyptian Museum. Determined to snatch Egyptology out of the hands of Westerners who had dominated the field since the days of the emperor Napoleon, Hawass “encouraged training and opportunities for young Egyptians to a degree never seen before,” says Lacovara.

El Awady, now on a leave of absence from the museum, escorted me to Hawass’ small office. There the former antiquities chief, wearing denims, was sitting behind a cluttered desk, talking on the phone to members of a Russian television crew that was due to interview him in a few minutes. Suddenly, Hawass began screaming in Arabic into the phone. The tirade went on for 20 seconds. Face bright red, he hung up and looked at me apologetically. “Stupid man,” he said, shaking his head. He explained that he had attempted to give directions to the crew’s Egyptian driver, who had interrupted him. Hawass’ temper is legendary—the History Channel reality series shows him berating his colleagues unmercifully—but I was surprised that he had shown me that side of his personality within a few seconds of meeting him.

I had planned to join Hawass at a lecture for foreign tourists he was scheduled to deliver inside a temple at Luxor that evening, but the sponsors had pulled the plug because there had been too many cancellations. The past week had been among the most violent since the revolution. Six people had died the night before in clashes between supporters of Morsi and his opponents, and crowds were gathering around the presidential palace in Heliopolis to demand that Morsi rescind a decree giving him near-dictatorial powers in advance of Egypt’s constitutional referendum.

“Morsi is worse than Mubarak, he doesn’t listen to the people,” Hawass told me, as his assistant brought in two cups of green tea. He is a burly man with a dominating manner and, despite his recent troubles, an air of total self-confidence. “What he did with the constitution is dictatorship. I always say give the opportunity to Muslim Brotherhood to rule. But they are not trained to rule....I think it is going to be civil war.”

Hawass is still fighting the legal problems that ensnared him during the revolution. Last spring the prosecutor general banned him from traveling outside Egypt, pending investigation of dozens of charges of impropriety and corruption brought against him by a pair of former colleagues. Hawass stands accused of wasting public money and exposing Egyptian antiquities to possible theft by shipping them overseas without permission. He gave up his National Geographic contract, an arrangement that paid him $200,000 a year, after questions were raised about possible conflict of interest. As antiquities chief, Hawass administered many sites that the Geographic used in its television programs and other projects. (He insists that he left because “I can make more money” without an exclusive arrangement for his lectures and books.)

This is a lengthy article. I recommend going to the website and reading it in it's entirety.

Hammer, Joshua. 2013. “The Rise and Fall and Rise of Zahi Hawass”. Smithsonian Magazine. Posted: June, 2013. Available online:

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Study shows how bilinguals switch between languages

Individuals who learn two languages at an early age seem to switch back and forth between separate "sound systems" for each language, according to new research conducted at the University of Arizona.

The research, to be published in a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, addresses enduring questions in bilingual studies about how bilingual speakers hear and process sound in two different languages.

"A lot of research has shown that bilinguals are pretty good at accommodating speech variation across languages, but there's been a debate as to how," said lead author Kalim Gonzales, a psychology doctoral student at the University of Arizona. "There are two views: One is that bilinguals have different processing modes for their two languages — they have a mode for processing speech in one language and then a mode for processing speech in the other language. Another view is that bilinguals just adjust to speech variation by recalibrating to the unique acoustic properties of each language."

Gonzales's research supports the first view — that bilinguals who learn two languages early in life learn two separate processing modes, or "sound systems."

The study looked at 32 Spanish-English early bilinguals, who had learned their second language before age 8. Participants were presented with a series of pseudo-words beginning with a 'pa' or a 'ba' sound and asked to identify which of the two sounds they heard.

While 'pa' and 'ba' sounds exist in both English and Spanish, how those sounds are produced and perceived in the two languages varies subtly. In the case of 'ba,' for example, English speakers typically begin to vibrate their vocal chords the moment they open their lips, while Spanish speakers begin vocal chord vibration slightly before they open their lips and produce 'pa' in a manner similar to English 'ba.' As a result of those subtle differences, English-only speakers might, in some cases, confuse the 'ba' and 'pa' sounds they hear in Spanish, explains co-author Andrew Lotto, associate professor of speech, language and hearing sciences at the University of Arizona.

"When most people think about differences between languages, they think they use different words and they have different grammars, but at their base languages use different sounds," Lotto said.

"One of the reasons it sounds different when you hear someone speaking a different language is because the actual sounds they use are different; they have a sound code that's specific to that language," he said. "One of the reasons someone might sound like they have an accent if they learn Spanish first is because their 'pa' is like an English 'ba,' so when they say a word with 'pa,' it will sound like a 'ba' to an English monolingual."

For the study, the bilingual participants were divided into two groups. One group was told they would be hearing rare words in Spanish, while the other was told they would be hearing rare words in English.

Both groups heard audio recordings of variations of the same two words — bafri and pafri — which are not real words in either language.

Participants were then asked to identify whether the words they heard began with a 'ba' or a 'pa' sound. Each group heard the same series of words, but for the group told they were hearing Spanish, the ends of the words were pronounced slightly differently, with the 'r' getting a Spanish pronunciation.

The findings: Participants perceived 'ba' and 'pa' sounds differently depending on whether they were told they were hearing Spanish words, with the Spanish pronunciation of 'r,' or whether they were told they were hearing English words, with the English pronunciation of 'r.'

"What this showed is that when you put people in English mode, they actually would act like English speakers, and then if you put them in Spanish mode, they would switch to acting like Spanish speakers," Lotto said. "These bilinguals, hearing the exact same 'ba's and 'pa's would label them differently depending on the context."

When the study was repeated with 32 English monolinguals, participants did not show the same shift in perception; they labeled 'ba' and 'pa' sounds the same way regardless of which language they were told they were hearing. It was that lack of an effect for monolinguals that provided the strongest evidence for two sound systems in bilinguals.

"Up until this point we haven't had a good answer to whether bilinguals actually learn two different codes — so a 'ba-pa' English code and a 'ba-pa' Spanish code — or whether they learn something that's sort of in the middle," Lotto said. "This is one of the first clear demonstrations that bilinguals really do have two different sounds systems and that they can switch between one language and the other and then use that sound system."

This is true primarily for those who learn two languages very young, Lotto said.

"If you learn a second language later in life, you usually have a dominant language and then you try to use that sounds system for the other language, which is why you end up having an accent," he said.

Research on bilingualism has increased in recent years as the global climate has become more intermixed, Lotto noted. These new findings challenge the idea that bilinguals always have one dominant language.

"This raises the possibility that bilinguals can perceive speech like a native speaker in both languages," said Gonzales, whose own son is growing up learning English and Chinese simultaneously.

"The predominant view of late has been that bilinguals will never be able to perceive a second language beyond what a late learner is capable of, or someone who learns a second language late in life. So even if you learn two languages simultaneously from birth, you're always going to perceive one of them like a late learner," Gonzales said. "Our findings cast doubt on that prominent view in the bilingual literature."

EurekAlert. 2013. “Study shows how bilinguals switch between languages”. EurekAlert. Posted: May 20, 2013. Available online:

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Light cast on lifestyle and diet of first New Zealanders

A University of Otago-led multidisciplinary team of scientists have shed new light on the diet, lifestyles and movements of the first New Zealanders by analysing isotopes from their bones and teeth.

In research published this week in the prestigious international journal PLOS ONE, the team are able to identify what is likely to be the first group of people to colonise Marlborough's Wairau Bar possibly from Polynesia around 700 years ago. They also present evidence suggesting that individuals from two other groups buried at the site had likely lived in different regions of New Zealand before being buried at Wairau Bar.

The researchers, co-ordinated by the Department of Anatomy's Associate Professor Hallie Buckley, undertook isotopic analyses of samples recovered from the koiwi tangata (human remains) of the Rangitane iwi tupuna (ancestors) prior to their reburial at Wairau Bar in 2009.

The Wairau Bar Koiwi Project is part of a larger archaeological project being conducted in collaboration with the Rangitane iwi, the Canterbury Museum and the University of Otago. The interpretation of these new data was strengthened by collaboration with colleagues from SPAR, the University of Otago archaeologists who undertook the more recent archaeological excavations at the site.

"By examining ratios of carbon and nitrogen isotopes present in bone collagen we were able to estimate individuals' broad dietary makeup over a 10-20 year period prior to death. Our analysis of strontium isotopes in teeth allowed us to distinguish between people growing up in geologically different landscapes," says Dr Rebecca Kinaston, who conducted the isotope analyses on the bones and teeth.

The tupuna were originally buried in three separate groups in a large village at the Wairau site. First excavated over 70 years ago, this ancient settlement is one of the most important archaeological sites in New Zealand because of its age and the range of east Polynesian type artefacts found there.

Previous research found that one of the burial groups displayed distinct cultural differences to the two other burial groups at the site. These included the positions in which they were interred and the presence of more numerous and rich grave offerings, including whale bone ornaments and moa eggs generally not found with the other two groups.

The new isotopic analysis of bone collagen and teeth suggests that members of this first group shared similar diets and childhood origins, while individuals in Groups 2 and 3 displayed highly variable diets and spent their childhood in geologically different areas to Group 1.

"Interestingly, Group 1 individuals showed a dietary trend similar to that identified in prehistoric individuals from a site in the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia, with both sets of people sharing a low diversity in protein sources," Dr Kinaston says.

In contrast, dietary patterns in Groups 2 and 3 were found to be in line with individuals who spent most of their lives eating from a wide range of protein sources, such as would be available through New Zealand's then bountiful seal, moa and other bird populations.

The large range found in Group 2 and 3's strontium isotope ratios could reflect that they grew up in regions outside of Wairau Bar—but not where Group 1 did—and also that they were hunting and gathering across a wide geographical range, says Associate Professor Hallie Buckley.

"This is consistent with other archaeological evidence that the first settlers in New Zealand were highly mobile. That members of Groups 2 and 3 were still buried back at Wairau suggests that this village may have fulfilled both a ceremonial and home base function."

If this is the case, this may represent the roots of the tangihanga ritual, in which Maori are buried in their ancestral lands, developing among these first New Zealanders, Associate Professor Buckley says.

EurekAlert. 2013. “Light cast on lifestyle and diet of first New Zealanders”. EurekAlert. Posted: May 15, 2013. Available online:

Friday, June 21, 2013

Thoughts of Faith and God Decrease Tolerance for Ambiguity

New research finds exposure to Christian ideas—or even standing in the shadow of a cathedral—nudges people in the direction of black-and-white thinking.

It’s clear that religious faith confers a variety of benefits. Being part of a community of fellow believers has been shown to boost both mental and physical health.

But at what cost? New research suggests one disturbing answer: Thoughts of faith and God apparently spur people to view the world in black-or-white terms. A just-published study finds exposure to Christian concepts or imagery increases one’s intolerance for ambiguity. This dynamic was demonstrated in a variety of experiments conducted in three different countries: Germany, Austria, and the United States.

Writing in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, psychologists Christina Sagioglou of the University of Innsbruck and Matthias Forstmann of the University of Cologne note that “one prototypical characteristic of Christian morality seems to be the two-tier distinction between ‘virtuous’ and ‘sinful’ behaviors.”

With that in mind, the researchers reasoned that exposing people to Christian content would “shift a person’s cognitive style” so that he or she thinks in more dualistic terms, and is less comfortable with ambiguity. They present evidence supporting their theory in the form of five experiments.

The first featured 65 participants recruited from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. “Ostensibly to assess word comprehension,” they began by unscrambling 10 sets of words to form simple sentences. For half of the participants, five of the sets contained religion-related words such as faith, church, heaven, prayer, and divine.

Afterwards, they completed a 20-item survey designed to measure tolerance for ambiguity. Participants were asked their level of agreement with such statements as “There is a right way and a wrong way to do almost everything” and “It bothers me when I am unable to follow another person’s train of thought.” Finally, they answered five questions measuring their underlying level of religiosity.

Those who had worked with the religion-related words reported greater discomfort with ambiguity. They also generally perceived less ambiguity, in that they were more likely to agree with statements such as “practically every solution has a problem.”

Among those who did not unscramble sentences containing religious words, higher levels of religiousness “significantly correlated with ambiguity intolerance,” the researchers add. This suggests a black-or-white attitude is intrinsic to the mindset of the very religious, while for others, it can be triggered by exposure to religious concepts.

A second experiment, featuring 49 participants, found this dynamic also held true for visual stimuli. After they unscrambled either religion-related or neutral sentences, as above, participants were shown “two black-and-white pencil drawings of female faces: one ambiguous, the other non-ambiguous.” They then rated how much they liked each, on a one-to-seven scale.

The straightforward drawing featured the face of a young woman, seen clearly from the front. The ambiguous drawing can be interpreted in one of two ways: as a depiction of a young woman, as seen from behind and slightly to one side, or an image of an older woman seen in profile. Neither drawing contained any references to religion.

Those with religious concepts on their mind “liked the ambiguous drawing significantly less,” the researchers report. “Participants primed with religion clearly preferred the non-ambiguous drawing to the ambiguous one.”

Perhaps the most striking experiment featured 81 people who were approached at one of two central locations in Innsbruck, Austria: the cathedral square, or a square surrounded by civic buildings. They filled out a questionnaire measuring their tolerance for ambiguity, and their underlying religiosity.

The results: While there was no difference in religiosity between the two groups, “participants approached at the cathedral indeed reported significantly more ambiguity intolerance than did participants approached at the civic square,” the researchers report.

This echoes earlier research that Americans whose polling place is a church are more likely to support candidates and causes supported by the religious right. The looming presence of religious iconography is apparently enough to influence at least some people’s feelings and perceptions.

One obvious question raised by this study is whether this effect is specific to Christianity. Sagioglou and Forstmann doubt it, noting that a 1981 study found a correlation between ambiguity intolerance and religiosity among Indian Muslims and Hindus. If their thesis is right, any faith that divides people or actions into “good” and “bad” will presumably have the same effect.

It’s worth noting that some experts on Christian ethics, such as Harvey Cox in his sophisticated analysis of Jesus’ parables, find a great deal of nuance. But this research suggests that, in most people’s minds, religion is linked with moral rigidity.

As the researchers write, this attitude no doubt gives people structure in their lives and contributes to their well-being. But it’s also a plausible route to prejudice and general close-mindedness.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the television drama that best dramatizes ethical gray areas, The Good Wife, is also one of the very few in which the lead character is an atheist.

Jacobs, Tom. 2013. “Thoughts of Faith and God Decrease Tolerance for Ambiguity”. Pacific Standard. Posted: May 16, 2013. Available online:

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Neanderthal culture: Old masters

The earliest known cave paintings fuel arguments about whether Neanderthals were the mental equals of modern humans.

In a damp Spanish cave, Alistair Pike applies a small grinder to the world's oldest known paintings. Every few minutes, the dentist-drill sound stops and Pike, an archaeologist from the University of Southampton, UK, stands aside so that a party of tourists can admire the simple artwork — hazy red disks, stencilled handprints, the outlines of bison — daubed on the cave wall tens of thousands of years ago. He hopes that the visitors won't notice the small scuff marks he has left.

In fact, Pike's grinder — and the scalpel that he wields to scrape off tiny samples — is doing no harm to the actual paintings, and he is working with the full approval of the Spanish authorities. Pike is after the crust of calcite that has built up over the millennia from groundwater dripping down the wall. The white flecks that he dislodges hold a smattering of uranium atoms, whose decay acts as a radioactive clock. A clock that has been ticking ever since the calcite formed on top of the art.

The results of an earlier round of sampling in El Castillo cave, published last June1, showed that the oldest of the paintings, a simple red spot, dates to at least 40,800 years ago, roughly when the first modern humans reached western Europe. Pike and his colleagues think that when they analyse the latest samples, the paintings may turn out to be older still, perhaps by thousands of years — too old to have been made by modern humans. If so, the artists must have been Neanderthals, the brawny, archaic people who were already living in Europe.

The answer won't be known for at least a year, but if it favours the Neanderthals, it could tip — if not resolve — a debate that has rumbled for decades: did the Neanderthals, once caricatured as brute cavemen, have minds like our own, capable of abstract thinking, symbolism and even art? It is one of the most haunting questions about the people who once shared a continent with us, then mysteriously vanished.

An early date for the paintings would also be a vindication for the slight, dark-haired man watching as Pike works: João Zilhão, who has emerged as the leading advocate for Neanderthals, relentlessly pressing the case that these ice-age Europeans were our cognitive equals. Zilhão, an archaeologist at the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies at the University of Barcelona in Spain, believes that other signs of sophisticated Neanderthal culture have already proved his point. But he is willing to debate on his opponents' terms. “To my mind, we don't need that evidence,” he says of the paintings. “But I guess for many of my colleagues this would be the smoking gun.”

The front line in the Neanderthal wars runs through another cave: Grotte du Renne, 1,000 kilometres away in central France. As early as the 1950s, excavations there unearthed a collection of puzzling artefacts. Among them were bone awls, distinctive stone blades and palaeolithic baubles — the teeth of animals such as foxes or marmots, grooved or pierced so that they could be worn on a string. They were buried beneath artefacts typical of the first modern humans in Europe, suggesting that these objects were older. A startling possibility loomed: that artefacts of this style, collectively known as the Châtelperronian industry, were made by Neanderthals.

Close cousins of modern humans, Neanderthals evolved in western Eurasia and had Europe to themselves for more than 200,000 years, enduring several ice ages. In spite of their survival skills and big brains — comparable to our own — they had never been linked to sophisticated tools of this kind, or to ornaments. Yet in 1980, archaeologists reported finding a Neanderthal skeleton among Châtelperronian tools at another site in France2. And in 1996, French palaeoanthropologist Jean-Jacques Hublin and his colleagues reported that a skull fragment from the ornament layer in the Grotte du Renne was unmistakably Neanderthal3.

Ever since then, the Grotte du Renne has been exhibit A in the case that Neanderthals, like ourselves, trafficked in symbols, using ornaments as badges of identity for individuals or groups.

Hublin himself did not go that far. He suggested that the Neanderthals had fallen under the spell of strange new neighbours: modern humans, who were thought to have reached Europe around the time of the Châtelperronian industry. Neanderthals might have acquired the ice-age bling from modern humans, or made the pendants themselves under the influence of the new arrivals.

That conclusion infuriated Zilhão, turning him into the passionate advocate he is today. He questioned the evidence that modern humans were already on the scene and detected a bias against our extinct cousins. “Why was the equally if not more legitimate hypothesis — that the Neanderthals themselves had been the authors of this stuff and made it for their own use — not even considered?” asks Zilhão.

On a visit to rock-art sites in Portugal, he discussed the paper with Francesco d'Errico, an archaeologist who is now at the University of Bordeaux in France. D'Errico had the same reaction, Zilhão recalls. “And he said: 'OK, let's do something about it.'” Since then, the pair has fought a two-front war, advancing evidence for Neanderthal capabilities while challenging studies that reserve symbolism and abstract thinking for modern humans.

Unknown artists

More than 15 years later, the Grotte du Renne continues to be a battleground. Since 2010, three papers have given duelling interpretations of the artefact-bearing layers. In the first, a group led by dating expert Thomas Higham of the University of Oxford, UK, used new carbon dates to argue that the layers were scrambled, mixing older remains with younger4. If that was correct, said Higham's team, the relics adjacent to the telltale skull fragment might not have belonged to Neanderthals after all.

Within months, Zilhão, d'Errico and their colleagues fired back with an analysis5 of how artefacts of different types were distributed in the Grotte du Renne, concluding that the layers were undisturbed and that the Neanderthal link could be trusted. A group led by Hublin (now at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany) presented its own dates last year, backing Zilhão's claim6. But Hublin still denied the Neanderthals full credit. Neanderthals did make the objects, now dated to between 45,000 and 40,000 years ago, he said — but only after they encountered modern humans. And this time he had fresh evidence to draw on.

Carbon dates measured by Higham and others at caves in Italy, Britain and Germany suggest that modern humans began expanding into Europe as early as 45,000 years ago, several thousand years earlier than was thought (see Nature 485, 27–29; 2012). Zilhão strenuously disputes those claims, doubting whether the shells or animal bones used for dating truly reflect the age of the human fossils at the sites, or whether the human remains are modern. “The evidence to show an early presence of modern humans in Europe is worse today than it was 20 years ago,” he declares.

Hublin, however, has no doubt that our ancestors had already entered the picture when Neanderthals in France began making bone awls and animal-tooth pendants. To assume that Neanderthals invented these technologies on their own is to accept “an incredible coincidence”, he says. “Just as modern humans arrive with these things in their pocket — bingo!”

Like minds

Despite the stalemate, Zilhão says that the record of Neanderthal behaviour tens of thousands of years before modern humans arrived in Europe proves his point. Neanderthals are believed to have buried their dead, suggesting that they had some kind of spirituality. They made glue for securing spear points by heating birch sap while protecting it from the air, a feat that even modern experimental archaeologists have trouble replicating. Many Neanderthal sites include lumps of pigment — red ochre and black manganese — that sometimes seem to be worn down like stone-age crayons. Zilhão and others think that the Neanderthals painted themselves, creating striking patterns on their pale, northern skin that were every bit as symbolic as the art and ornaments of modern humans.

“You don't need to have shell beads, you don't need to have artefacts with graphical representation to have behaviour that can be defined archaeologically as symbolic,” he says. “Burying your dead is symbolic behaviour. Making sophisticated chemical compounds in order to haft your stone tools implies a capacity to think in abstract ways, a capacity to plan ahead, that's fundamentally similar to ours.”

Where Zilhão sees a clear pattern, sceptics see uncertainties. Harold Dibble, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, is re-examining supposed Neanderthal burial sites. At one, the French cave of Roc de Marsal, he says that what seemed to be a deliberately excavated grave is actually a natural pit. At another, La Ferrassie, he sees evidence that sediments swept into the cave by water — not grieving kin — could have buried Neanderthal remains.

As for the ochre crayons, Dibble is dismissive. “You see some wear on a piece of ochre and soon you've got Neanderthal body painting,” he says. “What a lot of logical leaps.” He and others say that the pigment has many possible uses: as an insect repellent, a preservative for food or animal skins, an ingredient in adhesives. Even Wil Roebroeks of the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, who found evidence for ochre use as early as 250,000 years ago at a Dutch Neanderthal site7, says that Zilhão “jumps too fast from the presence of ochre to body decoration”.

Ask Dibble, Hublin and other sceptics what would persuade them that Neanderthals had minds like ours, and their answer is simple: a pattern of art or other sophisticated symbolic expression from a time when no modern humans could possibly have been around. “But I don't think it exists,” says Hublin.

Zilhão, however, points to a singular finding from a Neanderthal site in southern Spain that he reported three years ago8: three cockle shells each with holes near one edge, as if they had been worn as ornaments. One contains a trace of red pigment, and a fourth shell is stained with a mixture of colours, as if it had been used as a paint container. The shells, says Zilhão, imply symbolic thinking fully equivalent to that of the modern humans who left troves of beads in South Africa 75,000 years ago. And at roughly 50,000 years old, he says, the Spanish shells date from a time well before modern humans reached the region.

Critics are not satisfied. The perforations are natural, as Zilhão himself noted, which suggests to Hublin and Dibble that rather than systematically fashioning ornaments, Neanderthals might have picked up a few odd shells on a whim. “When you've got isolated occurrences, one-offs, that's not going to convince most of us,” says Dibble.

The paintings in El Castillo could help to establish a pattern. The research group was conservative with the ages it reported last June1, which put the earliest calcite at nearly 41,000 years old. Nervous about damaging the pigment, the team left several millimetres of the veneer intact at each sampled spot. Deeper, older layers might push back the paintings' minimum ages by several thousand years.

That prospect brought the team back to El Castillo last October. Grinding and scraping through a long day, the researchers concentrate on the red disks and hand stencils that had yielded the earliest dates last time around. The goal, says Zilhão, is “to date pigments in these paintings to an age that is clearly and to everyone's satisfaction beyond the range of modern humans in Europe”.

Yet an early date may not settle the long-running dispute. Hublin sets the bar high. “If Zilhão finds a date of earlier than 50,000 years ago, I'll be convinced!” he says. Any younger, and modern human influence would remain a possibility, he says, noting recent hints that our ancestors had advanced into Turkey or even central Europe by 50,000 years ago. And one example of crude painting — what Dibble calls “Neanderthal doodling” — might not be enough to win over the doubters. Zilhão's knockout blow may simply lead to more fighting.

Yet signs of a middle ground are emerging. Chris Stringer, a palaeoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London, says that 20 years ago, he believed that if the Neanderthals made the Châtelperronian ornaments, they were blindly imitating modern humans. “Our interpretation was that they were copying but that they didn't have the brainpower to give full value” to the objects. He wouldn't say so now. Two decades of discoveries of sophisticated Neanderthal tools and weapons have made him think that “the gulf was not as great”: that the difference between Neanderthals and ourselves was a matter more of culture than of ability.

“You can see the Neanderthals were held back by various factors that were not down to their brains,” he adds. The climate of ice-age Europe kept their population size “frighteningly small”, he says — at times just a few thousand people across a whole continent, most of them dead by the age of 30. How could such a sparse, beleaguered people develop and sustain a sophisticated culture?

That's not so different from what d'Errico, Zilhão's comrade-in-arms for almost 20 years, now says. He still thinks that the Neanderthals probably invented the Châtelperronian artefacts before modern humans were on the scene. But he is open to the idea that aspects of modern human culture preceded their wholesale arrival in Europe. “It's possible that some influence did spread,” says d'Errico. “I'm less militant than João.” That takes nothing away from the Neanderthals, he adds. “The fact that Neanderthals can absorb influences, can re-elaborate them, can make them part of their own culture, is very modern behaviour.”

But there is a final stretch of ground that neither side will concede. Were the Neanderthals truly the same as us, cognitively? No, says Stringer. The Neanderthal genome, decoded9 in 2010, differs from that of modern humans in some regions linked to brain function, he notes. And this year, he suggested that, compared with modern humans, larger volumes of Neanderthals' brains were devoted to vision and to controlling their heavier bodies10 . That might have left them with less capacity for social awareness and interaction. “If you imagine a Neanderthal in modern society, there would still be differences,” says Stringer.

Zilhão rejects any distinctions. Emerging from the cave into a rainy evening, he muses that if he pushes back the age of the El Castillo paintings, his critics may argue that he has simply proved an earlier presence of modern humans in Europe. “To which I will say, 'Of course. Neanderthals were modern humans too.'”

Appenzeller, Tim. 2013. “Neanderthal culture: Old masters”. Nature. Posted: May 15, 2013. Available online: Article References:

Nature 497, 302–304 (16 May 2013) doi:10.1038/497302a

  1. Pike, A. W. G. et al. Science 336, 1409–1413 (2012).
  2. Lévêque, F. & Vandermeersch, B. C. R. Acad. Sci. Paris 291, 187–189 (1980).
  3. Hublin, J.-J., Spoor, F., Braun, M., Zonneveld, F. & Condemi, S. Nature 381, 224–226 (1996).
  4. Higham, T. et al. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 107, 20234–20239 (2010).
  5. Caron, F., d'Errico, F., Del moral, P., Santos, F. & Zilhão, J. PLoS ONE 6, e21545 (2011).
  6. Hublin, J.-J. et al. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 109, 18743–18748 (2012).
  7. Roebroeks, W. et al. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 109, 1889–1894 (2012).
  8. Zilhão, J. et al. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 107, 1023–1028 (2010).
  9. Green, R. E. et al. Science 328, 710–722 (2010).
  10. Pearce, E., Stringer, C. & Dunbar, R. I. M. Proc. R. Soc. B 280, 20130168 (2013).

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

History of Ancient Sparta

Sparta is a city in Laconia, on the Peloponnese in Greece. In antiquity, it was a powerful city-state with a famous martial tradition. Ancient writers sometimes referred to it as Lacedaemon and its people as Lacedaemonians.

Sparta reached the height of its power in 404 B.C. after its victory against Athens in the second Peloponnesian war. When it was in its prime, Sparta had no city walls; its inhabitants, it seems, preferred to defend it with men rather than mortar. However, within a few decades, after a defeat against the Thebans at the Battle of Leuctra, the city found itself reduced to a “second-rate power,” a status from which it never recovered.

The prowess and fearlessness of Sparta's warriors has inspired the Western world for millennia and, even in the 21st century, has been incorporated into Hollywood films like "300" and the futuristic video game series "Halo" (where a group of super- soldiers are called “Spartans”).

Yet the real-life story of the city is more complicated than popular mythology makes it out to be. The task of sorting out what is real about the Spartans from what is myth has been made more difficult because many of the ancient accounts were written by non-Spartans. As such, they need to be taken with the appropriate grain of salt.

Early Sparta

Although there is evidence of Bronze Age habitation not far from Sparta, it seems that the city itself was not founded until the early Iron Age, in the time after 1000 B.C. Four villages — Limnae, Pitana, Mesoa and Cynosoura, which are located near what would be the Spartan acropolis — came together to form the early city.

Historian Nigel Kennell writes in his book "Spartans: A New History" (John Wiley & Sons, 2010) that the city’s location in the fertile Eurotas valley gave its inhabitants access to an abundance of food, something its local rivals did not enjoy. Even the name Sparta is from a verb meaning “I sow” or “to sow.”

Although Sparta made efforts to consolidate its territory in Laconia, we also know that, at this early stage, the people of the city appear to have taken pride in their artistic skills. Sparta was known for its poetry and it pottery, its wares being found in places as far flung as Cyrene (in Libya) and the island of Samos, not far from the coast of modern-day Turkey. Researcher Konstantinos Kopanias notes in a 2009 journal article that, up until the sixth century B.C., Sparta appears to have had an ivory workshop. Surviving ivories from the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia at Sparta depict birds, male and female figures and even a “tree of life” or “sacred tree.”

Poetry was another key early Spartan achievement. “In reality we have more testimony to poetic activity at Sparta in the seventh century than for any other Greek state, including Athens,” writes historian Chester Starr in a chapter of the book "Sparta" (Edinburgh University Press, 2002).

While much of this poetry survives in fragmentary form and some of it, such as from Tyrtaeus, reflects the development of the martial values that Sparta would become famous for, there is also work that appears to reflect a society concerned with art, rather than just war.

This fragment from the poet Alcman, which he composed for a Spartan festival, stands out. It refers to a choir girl named “Agido.”

There is such a thing as retribution from the gods.
Happy is he who, sound of mind,
weaves through the day
unwept. I sing
the light of Agido. I see it
like the sun, whom
Agido summons to appear and
witness for us. But the glorious chorus mistress
forbids me to either praise
or blame her. For she appears to be
outstanding as if
one placed among a grazing herd
a perfect horse, a prize-winner with resounding hooves,
one of the dreams that dwell below the rock...

(Translation by Gloria Ferrari, from Alcman and the Cosmos of Sparta, University of Chicago Press, 2008)

War with Messenia and subjugation

A key event on Sparta’s road to becoming a more militaristic society was its conquest of the land of Messenia, located to the west of Sparta, and its conversion of its subjects to helots (slaves).

Kennell points out that this conquest appears to have begun in the eighth century B.C. with archaeological evidence from the city of Messene showing that the last evidence of habitation was during the eighth/seventh centuries B.C. before a period of desertion began.

The incorporation of the people of Messenia into Sparta’s slave population was important as it provided Sparta with “the means to maintain the nearest thing to a standing army in Greece,” Kennell writes, “by freeing all its adult male citizens from the need for manual labor.”

Keeping this population of slaves in check was a problem the Spartans would have for centuries with some deeply cruel methods employed. The writer Plutarch (who lived A.D. 46-120) claimed that the Spartans used what we might consider death squads.

“The magistrates from time to time sent out into the country at large the most discreet of the young warriors, equipped only with daggers and such supplies as were necessary. In the day time they scattered into obscure and out-of-the-way places, where they hid themselves and lay quiet; but in the night they came down into the highways and killed every Helot whom they caught.”

(Translation by Bernadotte Perrin via Perseus Digital Library)

Spartan poetry written in the seventh century B.C. also hints at a move to a more martial society. Tyrtaeus writes:

Here is courage, mankind’s finest possession, here is
the noblest prize that a young man can endeavor to win,
and it is a good thing his city and all the people share with him
when a man plants his feet and stands in the foremost spears
relentlessly, all thought of foul flight completely forgotten,
and has well trained his heart to be steadfast and to endure,
and with words encourages the man who is stationed beside him.
Here is a man who proves himself to be valiant in war...

(Translation by Richmond Lattimore, from the book "Greek Lyrics," University of Chicago Press, 1960)

The Spartan training system

The presence of large numbers of slaves relieved Spartan men from manual labor and allowed Sparta to build a citizen training system that prepared the city’s children for the harshness of war.

“At seven a Spartan boy was taken from his mother and raised in barracks, beneath the eyes of older boys,” writes University of Virginia professor J.E. Lendon in his book "Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity" (Yale University Press, 2005). “Boys were whipped to inculcate respect (aidos) and obedience; they went ill clad to make them tough; and they were starved to make them resistant to hunger ...”

If they got too hungry, the boys were encouraged to try stealing (as a way of improving their stealth) but were punished if they got caught.

Spartans progressed through this training system until the age of 20 when they were allowed to join a communal mess and hence become a full citizen of the community. Each member of the mess was expected to provide a certain amount of foodstuffs.

Girls, while not trained militarily, were expected to train physically. “Physical fitness was considered to be as important for females as it was for males, and girls took part in races and trials of strength,” writes Sue Blundell in her book "Women in Ancient Greece" (Harvard University Press, 1995). This included running, wrestling, discus and javelin throwing. “They also learned how to manage horses; they drove carriages in processions and at the Hyacinthia, a festival of Apollo and Hyacinthus, they raced in two-horse chariots.”

Kings of Sparta

Sparta in time developed a system of dual kingship (two kings ruling at once). Their power was counter-balanced by the elected board of ephors (who may only serve a single one-year term). There was also a Council of Elders (Gerousia), each member of which was over the age of 60 and could serve for life. The general assembly, which consisted of each citizen, also had the chance to vote on legislation.

The legendary lawmaker Lycurgus is often credited in ancient sources with providing the groundwork for Spartan law. Kennell notes, however, that he probably never existed and was in fact a mythical character.

War with Persia

Initially Sparta was hesitant to engage with Persia. When the Persians threatened Greek cities in Ionia, on the west coast of what is now Turkey, the Greeks who lived in those areas sent an emissary to Sparta to ask for help. The Spartans refused but did threaten King Cyrus, telling him to leave Greek cities alone. “He was to harm no city on Greek territory, or else the Lacedaemonians would punish him,” wrote Herodotus in the fifth century B.C.

The Persians did not listen. The first invasion by Darius I took place in 492 B.C. and was repulsed by a mainly Athenian force at the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. The second invasion was launched by Xerxes in 480 B.C., the Persians crossing the Hellespont (the narrow strait between the Aegean and Black seas) and moved south, gaining allies along the way.

Sparta and one of their kings, Leonidas, became head of an anti-Persian coalition that ultimately made an ill-fated stand at Thermopylae. Located beside the coast, Thermopylae contained a narrow passage, which the Greeks blocked and used to halt Xerxes' advance. Ancient sources indicate that Leonidas started the battle with a few thousand troops (including 300 Spartans at its core). He faced a Persian force many times its size.

After spying on the Spartan-led force, and waiting to see if they would surrender, Xerxes ordered an attack. The “Medes rushed forward and charged the Greeks, but fell in vast numbers: others, however, took the places of the slain, and would not be beaten off, though they suffered terrible losses. In this way it became clear to all, and especially to the king, that though he had plenty of combatants, he had but very few warriors. The struggle, however, continued during the whole day,” wrote Herodotus. (Translation by George Rawlinson)

After this beaten force withdrew, Xerxes sent an elite unit called the “Immortals” after the Spartan-led force but they too failed. Herodotus noted the battle tactics the Spartans employed.

“The Lacedaemonians fought in a way worthy of note, and showed themselves far more skillful in fight than their adversaries, often turning their backs, and making as though they were all flying away, on which the barbarians would rush after them with much noise and shouting, when the Spartans at their approach would wheel round and face their pursuers, in this way destroying vast numbers of the enemy.”

Eventually a Greek man showed Xerxes a pass that allowed part of the Persian force to outmaneuver the Greeks and attack them on both flanks. Leonidas was doomed. Many of the troops who were with Leonidas withdrew (possibly because the Spartan king ordered them to). According to Herodotus, the Thespians decided to stay with the 300 Spartans by their own free will. Leonidas then made his fateful stand and “fell fighting bravely, together with many other famous Spartans,” Herodotus writes.

Ultimately, the Persians killed almost every Spartan. The helots the Spartans brought with them were also killed. The Persian army proceeded south, sacking Athens and threatening to break into the Peloponnese. A Greek naval victory at the Battle of Salamis halted this approach, the Persian king Xerxes going home and leaving an army behind that would later be destroyed. The Greeks led by the now dead Leonidas had prevailed.

Peloponnesian War

When the threat from the Persians receded, the Greeks resumed their inter-city rivalries. Two of the most powerful city states were Athens and Sparta, and tensions between the two escalated in the decades after their victory over Persia.

In 465/464 B.C., powerful earthquakes hit Sparta, and the helots took advantage of the situation to revolt. The situation was serious enough that Sparta called on allied cities for aid in putting it down. When the Athenians arrived, however, the Spartans refused their help. This was taken as an insult in Athens and bolstered anti-Spartan views.

The Battle of Tanagra, fought in 457 B.C., heralded a period of conflict between the two cities that continued, off and on, for more than 50 years. At times, Athens appeared to have the advantage, such as the battle of Sphacteria in 425 B.C. when, shockingly, 120 Spartans surrendered.

“Nothing that happened in the war surprised the Hellenes so much as this. It was the opinion that no force or famine could make the Lacedaemonians give up their arms, but that they would fight on as they could, and die with them in their hands,” wrote Thucydides (460-395 B.C.). (Translation by J.M. Dent via Perseus Digital Library)

There were also periods when Athens was in trouble, such as in 430 B.C., when the Athenians, who were packed behind their city walls during a Spartan attack, suffered a plague that killed many people including their leader, Pericles.

Ultimately, the conflict between Sparta and Athens resolved itself on the sea. While the Athenians had the naval advantage throughout much of the war, the situation changed when a man named Lysander was named commander of Sparta’s navy. He sought out Persian financial support to help the Spartans build up their fleet.

He convinced a Persian prince named Cyrus to provide him with money. The prince “had brought with him, he said, five hundred talents; if this amount should prove insufficient, he would use his own money, which his father had given him; and if this too should prove inadequate, he would go so far as to break up the throne whereon he sat, which was of silver and gold,” wrote Xenophon (430-355 B.C.). (Translation by Carleton Brownson via Perseus Digital Library)

With Persian financial support, Lysander built up his navy and trained his sailors. In 405 B.C., he engaged the Athenian fleet at Aegospotami, on the Hellespont. He managed to catch them by surprise, winning a decisive victory and cutting off Athens' supply of grain from the Crimea.

Athens was now forced to make peace on Sparta’s terms. They had to tear down their walls, confine their activities to Attica and (as Lysander latter ordered) submit to rule by a 30-man body later called the “thirty tyrants.”

The “Peloponnesians with great enthusiasm began to tear down the walls [of Athens] to the music of flute-girls, thinking that that day was the beginning of freedom for Greece,” wrote Xenophon.

Sparta was now at the peak of its power.

Fall from power

A series of events and missteps led Sparta from being the pre-eminent force in the Aegean to becoming a second rate power.

Shortly after their victory, the Spartans turned against their Persian backers and launched an inconclusive campaign into Turkey. Then in the following decades, the Spartans were forced to campaign on several fronts.

In 385 B.C., the Spartans faced the Mantineans and used floods to rip apart their city. The “lower bricks became soaked and failed to support those above them, the wall began first to crack and then to give way,” wrote Xenophon. The city was forced to surrender against this unorthodox onslaught.

More challenges affected Spartan hegemony. In 378 B.C., Athens formed the second naval confederacy, a group that challenged Spartan control of the seas. Ultimately, however Sparta’s downfall came, not from Athens, but from a city named Thebes.

Spurred on by Spartan king Agesilaus II, relations between the two cities had become increasingly hostile and in 371 B.C., a pivotal battle took place at Leuctra.

“The power of Lacedaemon was shattered by Thebes upon the field of Leuctra. Although an ally of Sparta during the long Peloponnesian War, Thebes had become the lodestar of resistance when victorious Sparta became an angry tyrant in her turn,” writes Lendon. He notes that after a peace was agreed to with Athens in 371 B.C., Sparta turned its attention to Thebes.

At Leuctra, “for reasons unclear the Spartans posted their cavalry in front of their phalanx. The Lacedaemonian cavalry was poor because good Spartan warriors still insisted on serving as hoplites [infantrymen] ...” he writes. “The Thebans, by contrast, had an old cavalry tradition, and their excellent horses, much exercised in recent wars, quickly routed the Spartan cavalry and drove them back into the phalanx, confusing its order.”

With confusion in the Spartan lines, the slaughter was on.

“Cleombrotus, fighting in the phalanx as Spartan kings did, was struck down and was carried dying out of the battle ... Other leading Spartans were soon killed fighting as well,” writes Lendon. The Theban general Epaminondas is said to have called out “grant me one step, and we will have the victory!”

And that is apparently what happened. Lendon writes that “the Thebans pushed the Spartans back one fateful step and then the leaderless Spartans were in flight and their allies with them. Of the seven hundred full Spartan citizens at the battle, four hundred died ...”

The Thebans pressed south, gaining support from communities as they marched and liberating Messinia, depriving the Spartans of much of their helot labor. Sparta never recovered from the losses in both Spartan lives and slave labor. As Kennell writes, the city was now a “second-rate power,” and never again would regain its former strength.

Later history

In the following centuries Sparta, in its reduced state, found itself under the sway of different powers including Macedonia (eventually led by Alexander the Great), the Achaean League (a confederation of Greek cities) and, later on, Rome. In this period of decline, the Spartans was forced to build a city wall for the first time.

There were efforts to restore Sparta to its former military might. The Spartan kings Agis IV (244-241 B.C.) and later Cleomenes III (235-221 B.C.) brought in reforms that canceled debt, re-distributed land, allowed foreigners and non-citizens to become Spartans and ultimately expanded the citizen body to around 4,000 people. While the reforms brought some level of renewal, Cleomenes III was forced to yield the city to Achaean control. The Achaean League in turn, along with all of Greece, eventually fell to Rome.

But, while Rome was in control of the region, the people of Sparta never forgot their history. In the second century A.D., the Greek writer Pausanias visited Sparta and noted the presence of a great marketplace.

“The most striking feature in the marketplace is the portico which they call Persian because it was made from spoils taken in the Persian wars. In course of time they have altered it until it is as large and as splendid as it is now. On the pillars are white-marble figures of Persians...” he wrote. (Translation by W.H.S Jones and H.A. Omerod via Perseus Digital Library)

He also describes a tomb dedicated to Leonidas, who, by this point had died 600 years earlier at Thermopylae.

“Opposite the theater are two tombs; the first is that of Pausanias, the general at Plataea, the second is that of Leonidas. Every year they deliver speeches over them, and hold a contest in which none may compete except Spartans,” he wrote. “There is set up a slab with the names, and their fathers' names, of those who endured the fight at Thermopylae against the Persians.”

Modern-day ruins

Sparta continued on into the Middle Ages and, indeed, was never be truly lost. Today, the modern day city of Sparta stands near the ancient ruins, having a population of more than 35,000 people.

On the ruins of ancient Sparta the historian Kennell writes that only three sites can be identified today with certainty: "the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia beside the Eurotas [the river], the temple of Athena Chalcioecus (“of the Bronze House”) on the acropolis, and the early Roman theater just below it.”

Indeed, even the ancient writer Thucydides predicted that Sparta’s ruins would not stand out.

“Suppose, for example, that the city of Sparta were to become deserted and that only the temples and foundations of the buildings remained, I think that future generations would, as time passed, find it very difficult to believe that the place had really been as powerful as it was represented to be.” (From Nigel Kennell’s book "Spartans: A New History")

But Thucydides was only half-correct. While the ruins of Sparta may not be as impressive as Athens, Olympia or a number of other Greek sites, the stories and legend of the Spartans lives on. And modern-day people, whether watching a movie, playing a video game or studying ancient history, know something of what this legend means.

Jarus, Owen. 2013. “History of Ancient Sparta”. Live Science. Posted: May 15, 2013. Available online:

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The migration of early modern musicians as Europe's identity-forming factor

Transnational project receives EU funding worth almost EUR 1 million over the next 3 years

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart spent more than ten years traveling the European continent – a prominent example of the significant mobility and itinerant life that was characteristic of the careers of hundreds of musicians in the 17th and 18th centuries. Some traveled on a temporary basis only to give guest performances in neighboring regions, others were attracted to new posts even in remote locations and thus left their homeland forever. The migration of musicians made an enormous contribution to the dynamics of the European musical and cultural landscape. It stimulated innovation and the introduction of new styles, overturned conventions with regard to musical and social behavior, and enhanced the interconnections that helped form a distinctly European cultural identity. It is these assumptions that form the starting point of a new research project that will receive nearly EUR 1 million in EU funding over the next three years to focus on the movement of musicians in the Early Modern period between Eastern, Western and Southern Europe. On behalf of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU), Dr. Gesa zur Nieden, Junior Professor at the Institute of Musicology, is participating in the transnational project.

The aim of the research project is to gather as much information as possible about the migration of musicians in the 17th and 18th centuries and compile a corresponding database. Information about individuals – not just instrumentalists but also composers, singers, music theorists, and music publishers – will also be viewed in a wider context to shed light on the cultural phenomenon of migration and mobility among musicians of the Early Modern period.

For example, during the spread of the Italian opera in the 17th century, an unprecedented number of musicians from the Italian Peninsula migrated to almost all European regions and countries. They not only introduced a new and radical style of composition and presentation at European courts, but also used their knowledge and skills to influence existing musical forms, thus establishing new values and rules that were no longer completely identical with the Italian conventions. At the same time, the vibrant Italian centers also attracted musicians from abroad, whose aristocratic patrons sent them there to learn the new style and associated performance techniques. Although these helped to further disseminate the forms of theater associated with the Italian opera when they returned to their place of origin, they also had to adapt what they had learned to the local composition and performance traditions. Against this background, one of the main objectives of the joint project is to arrive at a suitable definition of the very word 'migration', particularly as the mobility of musicians in the Early Modern period was often related to grants and scholarships for arts education, to the accompaniment of diplomats, aristocrats, and diplomatic missions as part of their entourage – or even a period of exile.

In addition to academics from Mainz, research groups in Berlin, Zagreb (Croatia), Warsaw (Poland), and Ljubljana (Slovenia) will also be participating in the research project. This project is one of 15 selected from a total of 593 proposals for funding under the EU research program "HERA – Humanities in the European Research Area." The work on the database will build on a previous project to document the migration of musicians (ANR-DFG-Project Musici). "We want to obtain a better understanding of the individual, local, regional, and 'national' aspects of the migration of European musicians in the Early Modern period. This can be only achieved by means of a comparative analysis that is as comprehensive as possible," said Gesa zur Nieden, the supervisor of the German segment of the project.

EurekAlert. 2013. “The migration of early modern musicians as Europe's identity-forming factor”. EurekAlert. Posted: May14, 2013. Available online: