23 November 2008

My Money On Zenobia

A new Zenobia coin!

At the Amsterdam All-Zenobia Day (which already feels like half a year ago. Oh, it is.... Sorry for the delay), Arjan Senden, a Dutch numismatist -- and specialist in Roman coins and medals -- presented a sensational new find: an addition to the very very limited and always rare coins minted for Zenobia.

Here she is (left), a simple bronze coin, but the title says it all:


That's monetary shorthand for 'Septimia Zenobia Augusta', her brazen claim to the imperial throne. To hammer home the point, the reverse shows the goddess Juno with the text IUNO REGINA, Queen [of the gods] -- as imperial a reverse as she could possibly choose.

The coin was found somewhere in Israel, and its text in Latin (rather than Greek) suggests that it was struck in one of the three small-change mints in the neighbourhood: Berytus, Ptolemais (modern Acco), or Tyre. Although it's not sure that any of these civil mints were still in operation as late as the 270's AD, yet, as Arjan says, the nice black patina of the coin does have the look of these regional coins.

Well, I am willing to bet an equal weight of Euro-change (10.97 grams) that Zenobia's issuer will turn out to be Phoenician Tyre.

First, because the last Empress known to have had coins produced at Tyre with the title of Augusta was Salonina, wife of Gallienus, who died only a few years earlier (empress 253-268 AD). So, even if the local mint had closed for a dozen years or so, it could easily have been reopened. And the coin is made in a rude manner, which is consistent with the work of a secondary or 'auxiliary' mint: the edge shows at one place a rough little piece, cut from a series produced with a mould. This normally happens with coins of an auxiliary mint during a campaign, rapidly producing coins to pay the troops.

Badges of Honour

I would add that there is an interesting link between Tyre and Palmyra. An inscribed marble base found in Tyre may once have held a statue dedicated to Zenobia's husband. It reads (in Greek):
To Septimius Odenathus, the most illustrious (senator?). The Septimian colony of Tyre.
So, the great warrior prince Odenathus had earned public honours at Tyre during his lifetime. Zenobia was certainly sensible enough to have kept up these close ties. The moment that Tyrian coins acknowledged her as Empress might have come when Palmyran troops were moving through the area on their way into Egypt in the years 270-272 AD.

Coins of Honour

The closest parallel for the new coin must be the bronze piece found at Palmyra itself (left) in 1960. It was mistakenly classed as a tesserae, a token, but it is clearly a coin and also produced in an auxiliary mint (my amateur guess is Damascus). It too is in Latin and closely copies the finer, more familiar -- but still very rare -- Zenobia coinage of Antioch (in black & white below).

I don't know why anyone thinks these are real portraits of Zenobia. However many times the Syrian Tourist Office or Palmyran guidebooks reproduce these coins, they remain entirely stereotypical images of a mid-third century empress. Her bust is set on a crescent moon. Her features are youthful and regular. Even though the fleshiness of the nose or the roundness of the chin may change, such changes seem random rather than attempted portraiture. Her head is crowned by a diadem and the very characteristic hairstyle follows the pattern introduced by Tranquillina (empress 241-244), the wife of Gordian III: her wavy hair is divided into bands, leaving the ear free, and gathered into a braid pulled up from the neck to the forehead.

So what did Zenobia look like?

Two coins from Alexandria may hold the clue. The first (below, left) is another typical genre portrait, not much different -- except for language -- from the Antiochene coins: youthful regular features, with little individuality. The hairstyle follows another fixed pattern -- dating back to Julia Mamaea (so possibly a more authentically Syrian style), but also copied in the early Alexandrian coinage of Salonina (so you could argue that it's fashionable and nothing more) -- with longer waves and caught in a soft bun at the neck. In any case, this is another conventional portrait of an empress; the Alexandrian mint surely had no portrait of Zenobia to hand so they seem to have modelled her after a late Severan Syrian empress.

But a second Alexandrian issue (below, right) presents a very different picture. Probably struck not many months after the first, this Zenobia looks like another woman entirely.

Is this the real portrait of Zenobia?

No longer youthful, but early middle-aged (as was likely to be true), the empress has strong, even sharp features, a high forehead, long aquiline nose, strong chin, and large ears. Her expression, too, is changed -- now having something (according to one expert*) of oriental solemnity about her. I'm not sure I'd go that far. But, yes, I otherwise agree: this is another woman, a far more realistic portrayal than the other, off-the-shelf imperial portraits.

Here's another view of the second Alexandrian issue, a modern mould taken from one of the coins (left).

If any picture is the real Zenobia, this is it!

Why else did the Alexandrian mint strike a second, quite distinct series of coins -- so soon after the first -- if they didn't mean to portray the new empress much more as she really was?

Readers, what do you think?

* E. Equini Schneider,
Septimia Zenobia Sebaste (Rome 1993) 96-98, an excellent discussion of Zenobia's (and her son, Waballath's) coin imagery.

15 November 2008

Thumbs Up For A Four-Star Uppity Woman, Sir!

At a Pentagon promotion ceremony yesterday, Ann E. Dunwoody ascended to a peak never before reached by a woman in the U.S. military: four-star general, the U.S. army's highest rank.* By law, the Army is limited to 11 active-duty four-stars.

Through the Brass Ceiling

Ann E Dunwoody is now head of the Army Material Command, in charge of weapons, equipment and uniforms for the army. There's a lot of that stuff about.

She said she had never expected to rise so high in the ranks in her career.

In the U.S. army, there are 21 female generals, most of them one-star. The first female one-star was named in 1970, the first two-star in 1978 and the first three-star in 1996. Women make up 14% of the army's active-service strength of more than 500,000 soldiers.

Behind every successful woman there's an astonished man

"There is no one more surprised than I, except of course, my husband," she told an auditorium packed with the military's top brass.

Gen Dunwoody is married to Ret. Air Force Col. Craig Brotchie (on her right in the video below).

Gen. Ann Dunwoody takes over her service's Material Command amid efforts to repair, upgrade and replace huge amounts of weapons, vehicles and gear used in Iraq and Afghanistan. In an interview with Defence News, she says she plans to build on wartime advances in the way the service tracks, stores and manages its equipment. She's pretty sanguine about it. The U.S. taxpayer, maybe, less so.

A member of Dunwoody's family has served in every American war since the Revolution. Her 89-year-old father, Ret. Brig. General Harold H. Dunwoody, served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam and earned two Purple Hearts. Her niece just returned from a tour in Afghanistan as an Air Force pilot. And her brother-in-law was an Air Force veteran.

Not eligible to attend the then all-male U.S. Military Academy -- like her brothers, father, grandfather and great-grandfather -- Dunwoody graduated from the State University of New York and was commissioned into the Women's Army Corps in 1975.

"So I went down to Fort McClellan as a college junior for six weeks of training. It was kind of exciting. Truly, I thought this would be a two-year detour en route to my teaching profession, but I was also excited that someone was going to pay me to jump out of airplanes. Here we are, 33 years later."

So, what's it like to be the U.S. military's first female four-star general?

It is very humbling. I am very grateful to the generations of women who have gone before me and opened the doors through their determination and commitment. I keep telling people I have been so fortunate that I have worked for and with people who have given me opportunities throughout my career. You can be motivated and talented, but if people don't give you those opportunities, you may or may not be able to reach the potential that you have.

I know what she means. In 1975, an Army study found that both men and women in the military agreed the best role for a female soldier was as a cook.

Let's hear it for the cook!

When she was nominated as a four-star (a rank that must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate), Gen Dunwoody said:

“I grew up in a family that didn’t know what glass ceilings were. This nomination only reaffirms what I have known to be true about the military throughout my career, that the doors continue to open for men and women in uniform.”

Women soldiers throughout the crowd yesterday cheered, some as they wiped tears of joy. Gen Dunwood needs to be an inspiration for girls out there, too. Let's make sure that girls hear the news:

Yes, you can!

But the closet door is still closed for gays. Now, isn't it time that those doors opened as well?

* the "five-star general" or General of the Army is reserved for war-time use only and is not currently used in the 21st century U.S. military.

08 November 2008


No, I am not not pointing a Grimm-like Hansel & Gretel finger at the Israeli archaeologist, Leore Grosman of Hebrew University of Jerusalem (shown left, setting out her wares). Although she is responsible for finding the uppity Israeli witch.

Her team recently discovered in a small Israeli cave a woman’s skeleton pinned down in an unusual position by large stones and accompanied by a rare collection of grave offerings -- including 50 complete tortoise shells , the pelvis of a leopard, the wing tip of a golden eagle, the tail of a wild cow, two marten skulls (a member of the weasel family), the forearm of a wild boar, and a large human foot belonging to another person entirely.

Of course, 'witch' is only the newspaper term applied to the woman (as in Tomb Raider Digs Up Witch). She's not a witch at all ... but a shaman. A Natufian (Middle Stone Age) shaman -- one of the earliest known from the archaeological record.

The Natufians were a people who lived 11,500 to 15,000 years ago in what is now Israel, Lebanon and Syria. Most archaeologists see Natufian culture as a transition between hunting and gathering and the sedentary lifestyles of early farmers. Finding an early shaman grave during this transition makes sense. These people are starting to live in more permanent communities; they're in more contact with one another from day to day. We start to see evidence for new ritualized behaviours at this point in time.

The Shaman

The word shaman is derived from the Vedic śram , meaning 'to heat oneself' or to practice austerities. But the type is much more archaic, being part of the prehistoric cultures of Siberian hunters and proto-historical peoples in almost all parts of the world, and shamanism continues to this day wherever hunter-gatherer bands still survive . The shaman is everywhere a mystical, priestly figure -- a healer, seer and visionary.
I am she who puts together, she who speaks, she who searches. I am she who looks for the spirit of the day. I search where there is fright and terror. I am she who fixes, she who cures the person that is sick.
Shamans have mastered death. In visions and dreams, they entered the realm of the dead. Their intense suffering in this other world and their subsequent recovery establishes the shaman as one who has met death and been reborn. The spirit of light is now within: ''something that gleams like fire, that gives the power to see with closed eyes into the darkness, into the hidden things'. The shaman can communicate with the world of gods and spirits:
Slowly I perceived that a voice was trying to tell me something. It was a bird cry, but I tell you, I began to understand some of it. That happens sometimes. I know a lady who had a butterfuly sitting on her shoulder. That butterfly told her things. This made her become a great medicine woman.
The shaman's spirit ascends into the sky. The soul is transformed into a bird, the wings and body of the spirit-bird.
I heard a human voice, strange and high-pitched, which could not come from an ordinary living being. All at once I was way up there with the birds. I could look down even on the stars, and the moon was close to my left side. It seemed as though the earth and the stars were moving below me. A voice said, 'You are sacrificing yourself here to be a medicine man. In time you will be one. You will teach other medicine men . We are the bird people, the winged ones, the eagles and the owls.'

Inside Hilazon Tachtit Cave

The she-shaman's remains were discovered in a cave at Hilazon Tachtit, west of the Sea of Galilee. The cave functioned as a burial site for at least 28 other individuals. But only the shaman was treated differently. Her skeleton was separated from the other bodies by a circular wall of stones. In addition, at least 10 large stones had been placed on the head, pelvis and arms of the body, which the researchers suggest helped to protect the corpse and keep it in a specific position, or possibly to hold the body in its grave. She was also buried in an unusual position, lain on her side against the curved wall of the oval-shaped grave. Her legs were spread apart and folded inward at the knees.

Grosman said the elaborate nature of the burial rituals and the method used to construct and seal the grave suggest the woman had a very high standing within her community.

Analysis of the bones shows that the shaman was about 45 years old. The wearing of her teeth and other ageing signs on the bones suggested the woman was old for her time. She was 1.5 m in height [4' 9"] and had an unnatural, asymmetrical appearance due to a spinal disability -- a fusing of the coccyx and sacrum along with deformations of the pelvis and lower vertebrae -- that would have affected her gait, causing her to limp or drag her foot.

The Natufians went to great lengths to construct a unique grave at the top of a 150-meter (450') slope in order to bury a relatively old and disabled woman.

Many descriptions of shamanism have noted that healing and spiritual powers have often been attributed to physically disabled individuals. In 2006, researchers re-examined a 9,000-year–old woman’s skeleton and grave offerings from a German site and concluded that she had been a shaman. Skull abnormalities would have caused the woman to experience altered states of consciousness that were seen by others as signs of spiritual powers. The researchers based this idea on reports of similar skeletal deformities in modern people that cause numbness, itching, tingling and other unusual sensations.

"Clearly a great amount of time and energy was invested in the preparation, arrangement and sealing of the grave," Grosman said, adding that the burial site was unlike any other found in the Natufian or the preceding prehistoric periods. Hundreds of Natufian graves have been excavated in the Near East but, the she-shaman was not buried like others with everyday items and tools, as hunters, warriors, or political leaders were. Ancient community members must have perceived the woman as having a close relationship with the spirits of the animals buried with her -- hence, the arranged turtle shells and parts of wild pigs, eagles, cows, leopards, martens, not to mention that gory human foot.

All this sheds some light on Natufian rituals, says Grosman in this month's journal of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. For example, the tortoise shells were scattered around and beneath the body. Before arranging the shells inside the grave, humans cracked open the tortoise shells along the reptiles' bellies (so as not to crack the back part of the shell) and sucked out the meat, either as food or for an offering to the dead. They carefully took out the insides by breaking the belly, but left the back intact. The empty shells were then placed around the deceased woman. Pig bones were cracked open and their marrow removed before the bones were placed beneath the woman's hand.

Burials of shamans often reflected their role in life, incorporating healing kits and animals whose spirits were considered to have a special connection with the shaman. "Tortoises, cow tails, eagle wings, and fur-bearing animals continue to play important symbolic and shamanistic roles in the spiritual arena of human cultures worldwide today," Grosman writes.


Did shamanism help set off the cultural upheavals that accompanied the agricultural revolution in the Near East?

Or was it (as we know of it today), rather, the result of the very same changes?

Such a profound transition from a nomadic, hunting-gathering culture to a sedentary, agriculture-based lifestyle was surely accompanied by new rules, rituals, and belief systems. That's only natural. When things change dramatically, people tend to try to re-establish the legitimate order of things by using ritual and religion to deal with change.

A little like Sarah Palin, really.

Perhaps in a strange way, too -- and a world away -- this Papua New Guinea shaman could be one of the last spiritual descendants of that Uppity Natufian witch of 12,000 years ago.

Credit for the artist's drawing of the burial: P. Groszman

Shamanic quotations from Joan Halifax, Shamanic Voices, New York, 1979.

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