18 December 2009


Although I'm an archaeologist, I still have the classics at heart. So let's begin this edition of Carnivalesque with a nod to those who may dream of reading the world through the prism of Ancient Greek, which is what you can do on Akropolis World News .

The brainchild of J. Coderch (Senior Language Tutor in Greek and Latin at the University of St. Andrews) AKWN offers the latest headline stories in ancient Greek. Dr Coderch hopes that this news service will help students lose their fear of the language while it offers everyone the pleasure of seeing Thucydides’s and Plato’s language used for current affairs. He wants to get away from the idea that ancient Greek is a “closed world” and promote it as almost a living language.

Of course, there are words that the ancients never knew -- such as 'airplane', 'tank', and 'computer', not to mention President Obama -- which therefore are taken from modern Greek and adapted into the Attic language.

So you can now read in plain Attic dialect (above):

Inhabitants of Hiroshima and Nagasaki criticise Obama's speech

The full news article in Ancient Greek will be found here.

A question for Dr Coderch: How would Plato have dealt with "Click on Google Map"?

Via ArchéoFacts (Quand le Passé nous revient),

The West Bank and East Jerusalem Searchable Map

Winner of the ASOR 2009 Open Archaeology Prize, an Israeli-Palestinian Archaeology Working Group (as part of a research project authored by Prof. Rafi Greenberg [Tel Aviv University] and Adi Keinan [University College London] gathered details about each site in the West Bank excavated or surveyed since 1967. Data includes the site name(s), GIS grid location, description of the site's major components (e.g. olive oil press; ritual bath; sheikh's tomb; church, synagogue, village); details about the periods when the site was occupied (e.g. Neolithic, Byzantine [Christian]; Iron Age II; Ottoman); and information about the excavators or surveyors and relevant publications/bibliography.

The database is available in a visually searchable Google Map interface. Click on any pin on the map, Plato, and read on....

From the holy land to the heavens, Alun Salt is blogged on The Astronomical Orientation of Ancient Greek Temples (on Anthropology.net):

Despite it appearing to be a simple question to answer, there is no consensus as to whether or not the alignments of ancient Greek temples reflect astronomical intentions. Now, Alun Salt presents the results of his survey of archaic and classical Greek temples in Sicily, comparing their alignments with temples in Greece. He argues that Greek temples are, in fact, astronomically aligned and that this acts as an ethnic marker of religious activity.

Temples in Sicily and Greece do, however, differ in their alignments. The reason for this, he suggests, is that temples in Greece were frequently built on sites that had been sacred for generations -- reaching back into the Bronze Age at places like Thermon, where the later classical temples were built over the remains of a Mycenaean era megaron. In Sicily, on the other hand, they were built by Greeks who saw themselves as immigrants in a distant land. With no historical precedent to shape the construction, temples were much more likely to be purely the products of seventh-, sixth- and fifth-century cosmology. Thus, it is no coincidence that he found that 40 of 41 Sicilian temples in Sicily were oriented to face sunrise. The sole exception was the Temple of Hekate, which he suggests may have been built to honour a Moon goddess.

I do like that exception.

Read the whole paper (with statistical analyses of temple orientations) at PlosOne, the open access on-line journal of peer-reviewed science.

Rome Still Matters...

... not just for historians but for everyday Europeans.

For the blog Roman Imperialism,
Rome is the archetypal empire, shaping our conceptions of and attitudes towards modern as well as ancient imperialism. How we view ancient Rome is often how we view ourselves, as in New Europe, New Rome. Is the European Union a Good Thing, or a Bad Thing? For most of us, opinions may change day by day but there is one group

"whose view of Rome isn't ambiguous in the slightest, and who therefore have no hesitation in drawing analogies with the equally satanic force of the European Union: the Christian lunatic fringe. "

An obliging lunatic-fringer blogged, Europe will one day almost certainly be the heart of the Antichrist beast-system of governmental, economic and religious control prophesied to engulf the world.

The fifth world empire symbolized in the statue is prophesied to be an extension of the fourth kingdom. That is exactly what the EU is – an extension of the ancient Roman Empire.

Europe will be where Antichrist rises to power as the new emperor of Rome's successor ...."

... and let's not start on the number of websites that think Tony Blair is the obvious candidate for the joint post ... of European President and Antichrist.

We can thank our lucky stars he didn't get the job!

Et tu Brute?

Meanwhile, over at LacusCurtius & Livius, they have been busy demolishing some Common Errors that practically everyone believes about the ancient world . This is CE # 26:

The last words of Julius Caesar are often quoted as Et tu Brute?, “You too, Brutus” They are also quoted as Tu quoque, Brute?, which means the same.

That those famous last words are quoted in two versions, already suggests that something’s gone wrong. They cannot both be correct.

In fact, Caesar probably did not say either.

According to Suetonius ( Life of Caesar, 82.2 ) he just sighed, or said something in Greek.

Read what that might have been ... and click for an overview of all the Common Errors. Which ones do you believe in, dear Reader?

What we believe about the past may be all wrong, but we believe it all the same.

A stunning 7-part series, Displaying Modernity, by Dimitris Plantzos at (pre)texts examines the appropriation of Cycladic art by both Greek nationalism and modernist aesthetics in the 20th c. This art is viewed as thoroughly 'Hellenic' -- though if we are to believe its modernist enthusiasts, it is anything but that. You might say that these opposing claims have manufactured Cycladic art as a full-blown 20th c. cultural phenomenon. While, for the Greek nationalist imagination,

Continuity of landscape is all we need to establish the uninterrupted sequence of Greek art-history, even if we cannot really argue that it was the same 'collective consciousness' of the Greek city-state that actually produced the spirituality of Cycladic sculpture.

The series concludes, "... the silent, featureless, poignantly blind faces of the Cycladic figurines functioned (they still do) as double-faced mirrors reflecting the country’s 'antiquity' and its 'modernity' at the same time."

Perhaps this is not the illegitimate appropriation of prehistoric archaeology so much as its inescapable consequence and an integral part of our object of study. To be read and savoured over the holidays: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI, Fini.

Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo

There's quite a lot of it about in the blogging world. LatinLanguage.Us signals this "delightful opening of a hendecasyllabic wishing the best for two of the poet’s critics."

Umm, yes.

This opening line by the 1st c B.C. poet Catullus (16.1) has been the focus for lawyers trying to prove that investment banker Mark Lowe illegally dismissed one of his female employees. Mark Lowe, you see, had studied Greek and Latin at Oxford. And so...

Out of court, Mary Beard, the eminent professor of classics at Cambridge University, was interviewed on National Public Radio. An excerpt:

RAZ: And what's it mean in English?

Prof. BEARD: I can tell you what it means in English, and you will have to bleep it out. It means (BLEEP).

RAZ: Oh, my gosh. Well, here's roughly what it means.

Prof. BEARD: What it indicates is that what you should do to your enemies is something quite different from love them in the Christian sense.

(Soundbite of music)

If you want to know what Catullus really meant, have a look at Mary Beard's blog on the subject.

After all that bleeping, the archaeologist in me is still twitching about ceramics (as is our wont) so here is Graham's Potted History on Experimental Archaeologist or Ancient Technology Specialist.

Should archaeologists or practitioners of the particular technology under investigation conduct experimental archaeological experiments?

"As a potter I wouldn't dream of stomping onto an ancient site, spade in hand, and starting digging unless I was under the strict guidance of someone who knew exactly what they were doing. However there does see to be a tendency for archaeologists to construct a replica kiln, fire it, without consulting anyone who might know how to fire the thing, and then writing up the results in a learned journal as if it meant something.

After firmly damping down an experiment intended to reproduce the workings of the Norton Priory kiln , Graham concludes,

I’m not saying don’t experiment, in fact I’d like to see much more experimentation. What I am saying is; if you experiment with ancient technologies seek out the best expertise you can find. I love working with archaeologists and by working together we can get great results that combine the best aspects of both disciplines.

A real downer, if not a 'kil(n)er' for us digging folk.

But we get our own back with a sharp jab at astrophysicists in Leap Second Dating, describing a novel gravimetric dating technique for archaeological artefacts. Stephen Chrisomalis at Glossographia has the story:
Two astrophysicists (Takehisa Fujita, Naohiro Kanda) are claiming that the predictions of general relativity allow us to estimate the time shift of the earth’s rotation around the sun at ~ 10.3 minutes / 1000 years. The same process that leads to us adding ‘leap seconds’ to the calendar allows us to measure the difference in sunrise / sunset over long time periods.
“[S]ome of the archaeological objects may well possess a special part of the building which can be pointed to the sun at the equinox.” So, if you expect the alignment to occur at sunrise but you’re off by 10 minutes, well, it must be because it was built 1000 years ago -- a shift of 10 minutes per millennium. I can't say I understand any of this but I do grasp that there is a huge caveat: “It should be noted that the new dating method has an important assumption that there should be no major earthquake in the region of the archaeological objects.” Or, for that matter, any other movement of the celestially-aligned features, or so I imagine.

O Lord, Give me back my wiggles on the calibration curve.

Speaking of wiggles, the Catalan church around the turn of the first millennium knew how to make wiggle room.

Over at TenthMedieval, Jonathan Jarrett takes on Yer Actual Simony, when Count Ermengol I of Urgell (993-1010) and Bishop Sal·la of Urgell (981-1010) agree that Sal·la’s nephew, also called Ermengol -- seen left in the mitre -- will succeed his uncle as bishop ... and set out the price that Count Ermengol demands for ensuring that this occurs: 100 pesa now, or else 200 later of which 60 to be paid now.

We don’t know how much was actually being paid because we don’t know what the promised 100-200 pesa was worth at this time -- perhaps 100 times an ounce of gold or a pound of silver; anyway, a lot.

You could probably just about argue that this is not simony, but insurance: Count Ermengol doesn’t say that he will oppose Ermengol as bishop if the money isn’t paid, just that he won’t help him or perform the investiture. Technically he’s being paid to ensure that Ermengol does become bishop. However, I don’t think many canon lawyers in Rome would have seen it that way. I also don’t think anyone in AD1003 Catalonia cared.

Still, all's well that ends well and Ermengol not only gets the bishopric but was later recognised as a saint -- albeit largely for his war-leadership against the Muslims; so subsequent papacies have forgiven him this unfortunate slip into simony.

Two Ermengols in one document is confusing (even the scribe tied himself up into knots to keep them unentangled), but medieval bloggers can cope. As does also Hannah Kilpa Trick of Mony wylsum way. In Structure and Symmetry in the Gilte Legend, Trick sorts out the plethora of Julians in the Gilte Legende, all cloistered under the entry for St Julian (v. 1 pp. 141-47) just to make sure we know which St Julian is the right St Julian. And that's the Julian she tells us about.

The future saint, fleeing a prophecy that he will kill both his parents (laid on him as punishment by a hart he was hunting), moves away, marries and gets set up as a lord in a nice feudal castle. When his parents find his castle, his wife invites them in, lavishes hospitality on them and gives up her bed to them, going to sleep elsewhere for the night. Returning home, Julian sees a man and a woman in his wife’s bed and kills them both in a fit of jealousy. As he emerges from the bloody chamber he meets his wife and is slightly chagrined to hear her explanation.

In this reworking of the Oedipus myth, Julian flees his castle and becomes a hermit – albeit a hermit with a wife, who refuses to desert him. Until one day, a horrible slimy smelly old leper turns up and says HELP ME ACROSS THE RIVER. He helps the leper, and, because he's dying of cold, “toke hym in his armes and bare hym to his bedde and hilled hym diligently” And lo and behold, the leper is secretly an angel sent by God to receive his penance and promise him that he will be taken to God soon.

This story invites a structural diagram (I think the red blob is the murder). All in all, a very clever example of certain elements from classical legend rewritten enough not to feel disjointed and inserted seamlessly into a medieval Christian moral setting.

As an Aegean archaeologist, I like stories like this that transform Greek myths -- and those, too, in which a memory of the pagan past suddenly floats to the surface -- just what happens in Will Wonders Never Cease: St. Erkenwald with Claustrophilia . Karl Stee, on In The Middle, tells about the late fourteenth-century Middle English alliterative poem St. Erkenwald, a story that purports to take place in seventh-century London, during the rededication of England's pagan temples to Christianity.
Deep in the greatest temple, which would become St. Paul's, workmen unearth a gothic tomb, carved with mysterious letters. Prying it open, they discover an immaculate body, royally dressed. The bewildered citizens summon their bishop, Erkenwald, who speaks to the corpse, which confesses itself an ancient pagan judge, buried as a king for his righteousness, but barred as a pagan from heaven. Erkenwald weeps, accidentally baptizing the corpse, which promptly rots while its spirit ascends to paradise. Then Erkenwald and the crowds parade through London, while the bells of the city ring out about them.
In the poem, "time is piled up, mixed, all moments touching: it takes place 'noȝt fulle longe' [not very long] after the crucifixion, yet somehow in the seventh century; the judge, asked when he had lived, answers enigmatically, interweaving dates, and the 'New Werke' at St. Paul's took place in the thirteenth, not the seventh, century. The alliterative christening of London's temples preserves as much as it converts: those of Jupiter and Juno become the churches of Jesus and James," sustaining the past as a point of contact, as an echo.

Meanwhile, as the crowd goes out to celebrate and, thinking that the past is finally shut up, they leave nothing behind in St. Paul's except an empty tomb.

Bloody but not unhorsed, there is yet more wiggle room for the knights in Christ as Tourneyer who claimed God's blessing for rapine and slaughter while pledging fealty to the Prince of Peace.

Richard Kauper's new book on Holy Warriors, which is reviewed in Muhlberger's Early History, examines how clerics and military elites avoided the contradictions inherent in their fusion of chivalry with a religion that urged you to turn the other cheek, and where, lest we forget, the meek shall inherit the earth.

Duke Henry of Lancaster, one of Edward III's best generals in the Hundred Years War, wrote a spiritual autobiography, visualizing what he saw as the ideal knight's resemblance to Jesus:

In discussing how the tears shed by the Blessed Virgin will wash the wounds of his own wretched body, [Duke Henry] comes to nasal wounds, a topic which puts the realist in him in mind of the blows that struck Christ's nose during his scourging. Christ's nose, he thought, must have looked like that of a habitual tourneyer, and his mouth must have been discolored and beaten out of shape.

Christ did fight in a tournament, he avers, and he won it, securing life for humanity.

A very martial Christ indeed.

Luckily, No One Has Come to Blows [Yet] Over The Staffordshire Hoard

As everyone who has a television knows, a few months ago a jobless metal-detecting enthusiast hit the jackpot on his first outing, pinging the so-called "Staffordshire Hoard", a buried cache of Anglo-Saxon gold consisting mostly of war booty -- sword fittings, decorative armour clasps and panels, and some jewellery -- probably from the end of the seventh or the beginning of the eighth centuries.

While the media have focused on the value of the hoard (estimated at 3.3 million pounds [$5.5 million]), Got Medieval enthused instead over the weird entwined and stylized beasties that decorate the items from the hoard.

Like these animals around the edges of a golden dagger hilt (left).

Though to our eyes they look like four-legged eels or duck-billed monsters, these synchronized leg-biting animals are probably wolves -- or lions or domesticated dogs.

The labels elucidate the various parts.

This, in turn, helps makes sense of another image on a folded-up brooch in the hoard (below) -- variously described as person's crossed arms, a pair of fish or eels, Ouroboros serpents, or even as meant to represent Odin's two ravens.

The labelled wolf-parts makes it clear what this is: a foreleg and paw attached directly to a snout that's chewing on an identical foreleg and paw attached directly to a snout that is chewing right back. In other words, it's a bit of visual nonsense made up out of isolated elements of the highly stylized seventh- and eighth-century decorative vocabulary.

Interestingly, what I'm calling "stylized visual nonsense" is a feature that characterizes earlier migration-era art. As time goes on, these clever bits of wonkiness fall out of fashion in favor of less-stylized, more realistic depictions of animals....[W]ith the Anglo-Saxons and Celts of the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries, art gradually lost its experimental abstract character and slowly became, for lack of a better term, "square," even conservative.

And to end the Carnival, a last remark or two on another subject dear to my heart, to wit, the flower of my adopted homeland, the tulip.

Unlike everything we have ever learnt (especially in Dutch), the tulip may not have arrived first in Holland more or less directly from the Ottoman Empire. According to the latest blooming theory, as reported on Medieval News, the origin of the flower is in Byzantium and it arrived in Europe in the 11th century in what is today Andalusia, then still under Islamic domination, and hundreds of years before tulips were known in Amsterdam.

Based on the Umda, a botanical work dated from between the 11th and 12th centuries, it seems likely that an 11th century agronomist from Toledo, Ibn Bassal (the so-called¨the onion-vendor's son¨) played a major role in the introduction and the early cultivation of the tulip in Iberian territory.

According to researchers at the School of Arabic Studies in Cordoba, "The existence of representations of tulips in the temples of Konya (Turkey) which date from the 11th century, and the mention of al-Andalus in the Umda, point towards the introduction of tulips into Europe some 500 years before the references known up until today."

Yikes! Their introduction into Holland had previously been dated to the end of the 16th century.

The tulip is the national flower in Iran, Turkey and the Netherlands. Turkey has precedence . Already by the 13th century, the Turkish poet Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi had imagined the tulip with, "the most sad smile of them all."

So, it is with a most sad smile that we Dutch may have to hand the palm to al-Andalus.

On the other hand, Ibn al-‘Awwam, who wrote the Kitab al-Filaba -- an agricultural document about a century after the Umda -- grubbily described the tulip as a 'Macedonian onion', so we might still argue that they didn't give it quite the recognition it deserved. Admittedly, al-‘Awwam could distinguish a tulip from an onion:
Its flower is yellow inside and pink outside, shaped like a cube. Another beautiful and aromatic flower is found in its interior. It grows in moist and mountainous places and is cultivated like the yellow narcissus.
But, even if true, it took the Dutch to bring this bloom down from the mountains and plant it securely in the Low Lands ... just in time for the "Tulip Mania", too.

End of Carnivalesque # 57 and end of 2009 as well. My warm thanks to those who contributed so many fascinating blog nominations, and to all readers my best wishes for a peaceful, productive New Year.


All from the mentioned blogs except Alun Salt's photo of Temple B at Naxos from Flickr, showing the wall of the later Temple built shortly after the first temple which you can see above left. It's aligned further south than the Temple A it replaced, which means it would have been aligned towards sunrise in early or late summer.

17 December 2009


My review of The Poison King, a new book by Adrienne Mayor,* appears today in the Times Higher Education. Here's what I wrote:

The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome's Deadliest Enemy

Just the potion to needle a republic

Judith Weingarten delights in the life of a leader who tested Romans with his battles and intrigues

17 December 2009

Why do we know so little about Mithradates the Great, king of Pontos, who reigned from 120 to 63BC and was one of Rome's deadliest enemies? He seems to have dropped off history's radar. While Racine could opine, in his 1673 tragedy Mithridate, "Il n'y a guère de nom plus connu que celui de Mithridate", today even a well-educated person is likely to draw a blank. True, Mithradates fought the Romans in Anatolia and around the Black Sea, areas about which we know little and care less. Our awareness is rapidly increasing, however, stirred by the Danish National Research Foundation's Centre for Black Sea Studies, whose publications remove any excuse for ignorance other than stubborn parochialism.

Not everyone wants the full academic works, of course, and now, thanks to Adrienne Mayor's provocative book, we can add Mithradates to our list of heroes - or devils, depending whose side you are on. The Poison King is the first full life since Alfred Duggan's flawed 1958 study He Died Old (whose title was taken from lines by A.E. Housman, "I tell the tale that I heard told/Mithridates, he died old"). Otherwise, you'd have to go back to the 1890 work Mithridates Eupator, roi de Pont by Theodore Reinach, for whom Mithradates was not just an enemy of Rome but of European culture; an Ottoman sultan, really.

Who else but an Asian barbarian would have ordered the massacre of at least 80,000 Italian men, women and children living in western Anatolia, as Mithradates indubitably did in the spring of 88BC? This discreditable war crime clouds the start of Mayor's book, which otherwise begins as almost a fairytale. An expert folklorist, Mayor well knows that Mithradates' history is entwined with legend and heroic archetypes, or simply propaganda. Yet she writes: "Even if something reported in the past had small odds of occurring, that doesn't mean it didn't happen." Perhaps not.

So she takes us on an unlikely romp through Mithradates' omen-filled birth and early years, often relying solely on the say-so of Justin (c AD200), who famously announced that he would leave out events that "did not make pleasurable reading or serve to provide a moral". Taking Justin's word for it, Mayor has Mithradates and a band of companions escape Sinope, the capital of Pontos, after his father's assassination and, to thwart his regicidal mother, travel incognito in the kingdom, "living like Robin Hood in the wilderness for seven years" - a standard mythic-hero theme. But what of the statues and inscriptions honouring Mithradates and his younger brother erected in Delos (BC115-116)? A cunning move by his treacherous mother to counter rumours that she had poisoned the prince as well. Of course, we don't know that she killed her husband, but it lets Mithradates off the hook for undoubted matricide, one of his first acts after a triumphal "return" to Sinope.

Mayor's "thought experiment" goes too far for my taste. Admittedly, it allows the author to take us through the mountains, temples and strongholds of the Pontic kingdom as Mithradates and his merry band travel on. This pays off later when he battles Romans and enemy kings over now-familiar terrain.

The book truly takes off when Mithradates begins his reign. Battles, intrigues, murder, treachery and "loot and love" follow in rapid succession. After every staggering loss, Mithradates slips away and starts again. Now we can understand why no fewer than 25 operas about Mithradates were composed in the 17th and 18th centuries (including Mozart's Mitridate, re di Ponto).The very stuff of drama, here it is carefully researched and narrated with verve. Even if it's overdone to condemn every convenient death as murder by poison (when all we really know are the accusations), Mithradates is indeed the "Poison King". His obsession with plant and animal poisons was notorious, and a universal antidote was still sold as Mithridatium into the 19th century.

Mayor's explanations are almost always plausible and the characters wonderfully drawn. She handily rehabilitates Mithradates as "the Great". No longer a "wily Oriental", the king liberates Greek cities from the blood-soaked greed of Roman oppression. No doubt he was a brilliant ruler, although perhaps not wise. His polyglot Asian armies never matched the Roman legions. I was glad, though, that the Roman generals who beat him time and again - Sulla, Lucullus, Pompey - all came to sticky ends. For the Romans killed hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians in the three Mithradatic Wars, far more than Mithradates had slaughtered in the spring of 88BC. Some Anatolian cities didn't recover from Roman revenge until Byzantine times. Others thrived. History is like that.

This is not a book for the classroom, but I enthusiastically recommend it as a Christmas gift for any history-minded friends or kin. The Poison King was a finalist for the US National Book Award, announced on 18 November - I hoped she'd won.

The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome's Deadliest Enemy

By Adrienne Mayor

Princeton University Press

472pp, £20.95

ISBN 9780691126838

Published 16 November 2009

Reviewer :

Judith Weingarten is an Aegean archaeologist and member of the British School at Athens who lectures and writes about art and intercultural connections in the Bronze Age, with scholarly titles including The Zakro Master and His Place in Prehistory to her credit. Her non-academic passion is Palmyra and the caravan trade, and she is the author of the novel The Chronicle of Zenobia: The Rebel Queen. She blogs regularly at http://judithweingarten. blogspot.com.

* Adrienne Mayor is also the author of The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times (Princeton 2000), Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World (Overlook 2003), and Fosssil Legends of the First Americans (Princeton 2005).

13 December 2009

Zenobia in Cement and Marble Dust

As reported by the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA):

Zenobia, famous for her beauty and courage in fighting the Roman Emperor Aurelian, embraced her kingdom again wearing her helmet and leaning on a spear in her right hand while leaning an armor with her left hand on her left knee surrounded by a group of brave soldiers.

I don't see any brave soldiers surrounding her knees but I do see her standing (left) in what looks like the old town of Palmyra. And -- I'll take a bet on it -- she's installed in front of a souvenir shop.

The statue was created by two Syrian artists, Mohammed Hamdan and Nawaf Rustum. Mr Rustum has this to say about it:

"The idea of the statue was inspired by the great fame of Queen Zenobia and her chivalric behavior. She was able to establish a very strong kingdom and to expand it facing the greedy Roman enemies."

What I like about the statue is this: they have clothed her in Palmyran dress and her jewellery, too is credible. This is a good deal more than you can say for Zenobia in Mansour Rahbani's musical extravaganza, when the queen trod the stage clad in a short red dress and high black boots -- and about which I fulminated at great length (click on the link and you'll still find the smoke rising).

What I don't like is her face. She's no beauty. Nor noble. Rather a cartoon. A cartoon in cement.

Oh well, ashes to ashes and dust to marble dust.

A Timely Reminder

The next ancient/medieval edition of Carnivalesque -- the monthly carnival for top history blogging -- will appear right here at Zenobia: Empress of the East on 19th December.

So please hurry up. Send me your notices of the best early-history and archaeological blogging that you've read in November and December. Whatever posts you found particularly fine, insightful or just plain provoking.

Feel free to nominate your own writings as well.

You can email me directly at judith@judithweingarten.com or use the ancient/medieval nomination form.

29 November 2009

History Carnivalesque

Blogging About History

The next ancient/medieval edition of Carnivalesque -- the monthly showcase for top history blogging -- will appear right here at Zenobia: Empress of the East on 19th December.

So start sending me notices of the best early-history blogging that you've read in November. And keep up the good work as you come across particularly fine, insightful -- or just plain provoking posts as they appear during December.

Feel free to nominate even [or especially!] your own writings as well.

You can email me directly at judith@judithweingarten.com or use the ancient/medieval nomination form.

If you're not familiar with history carnivals, pop over to the History Carnivals Aggregator where you'll find up-to-the-minute news on history-related carnivals. Did you know, for example, that the early modern Carnivalesque now up at Investigations of a Dog has everything from radical politics to sex and violence?

Undoubtedly we, too, shall cover the gamut of groovy activities -- plus whatever else takes Zenobia's fancy -- for the ancient and medieval worlds on 19th December. Hold this date!

Illustration: Cross-gendered maracatu cearense blackface queen at this year's pre-Carnival show in Caucaia, Ceará, Brazil . Credit: Ronald Conner (via Wikipedia.org).

22 November 2009

Two-Timing Nefertiti? (Part II)

"Suddenly we had the most alive Egyptian artwork in our hands," the German Egyptologist Ludwig Borchardt wrote in his diary for 1912, "You cannot describe it with words. You can only see it."

That most alive artwork is the world-famous painted plaster bust of Queen Nefertiti, wife of Pharaoh Akhenaten, who now reigns over the Neues Museum in Berlin, enthroned alone in a domed room that overlooks the length of the Museum (below centre).

But here is what she looked like (left) when Ludwig Borchardt saw her for the first time. The photograph is entitled: "The first presentation of the bust of Nefertiti following its discovery on December 6, 1912."

And today, this most beautiful woman in the world has become the centre of a political storm.

The Story So Far

At the triumphant reopening of the Neues Museum last month (after decades spent renovating the site, destroyed during World War II), the celebrations were somewhat marred by an increasingly bitter dispute between the German and Egyptian governments over who rightfully owns the 3,500-year-old Nefertiti bust.

Nefertiti has been in Germany since 1913 -- but, almost a century later, Egypt is demanding that the object be returned home. Zahi Hawass, general secretary of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, claims that Nefertiti belongs to Egypt. "If she left Egypt illegally," he says, "which I am convinced she did, then I will officially demand it back from Germany.” Strong words, and he added for good measure, "If it can be shown clearly that the work was not stolen, then there is no problem. But I am pretty sure that it was."

The German museum curators deny that Nefertiti was taken out of Egypt illegally.

As with all disputes over artefact repatriation, it is chiefly an ethical argument. The question is whether or not the German archaeologists tricked the bust of Nefertiti out of Egypt between 1911 and 1913, playing a underhand game that violated both the laws of the period and the ethics of the present.

Who's Who

The two principal actors of this story are Ludwig Borchardt (the bearded gent in the foreground of the photo above left), the founding director of the Imperial German Institute of Egyptology in Cairo, who supervised the Amarna expedition between 1911 and 1914, and Gustave Lefébvre, then an inspector of the Antiquities Inspectorate in Asyut, Middle Egypt, where Amarna is located.

At the time, excavated antiquities were subject to a "division of finds" policy, by which a representative of the Egyptian antiquities organization would select those artefacts to be kept in Egypt and the rest would be awarded to the foreign institution that sponsored the dig. The Nefertiti bust was removed from Egypt in the context of this division of finds.

The Case for the Prosecution

Chief archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt was so awed by Nefertiti's stunning beauty that he devised a scheme to smuggle the piece out of Egypt.

Every archaeological discovery had to be brought before the Egyptian Antiquities Authority for inventory and distribution between Egypt and the archaeological expedition. Inspector Gustave Lefébvre (in 1913, the Department of Antiquities was still under French control) was responsible for the divisions of the finds and, not trained as an Egyptologist, settled for a simple 50/50 division where objects made of plaster would go to the Germans.

It seems that Borchardt, already aware of the value of the limestone (sic) bust of Queen Nefertiti, rushed the negotiation, listed the figure as “bust of painted plaster of a princess of the royal family” and presented severely cropped photographs of the object to Lefébvre, who let the precious artifact go.

According to Al-Ahram Weekly, Hawass says that Borchardt did not declare the bust, or hid it under less important objects. Either that or the authorities failed to recognise its beauty and importance. Borchardt himself admitted he did not clean the bust but left it covered in mud when he took it to the Egyptian Museum for the usual division of spoils. Whatever happened, the committee decided to take limestone statues of Akhenaten and Nefertiti and, according to Hawass, the antiquities authorities did not know about the bust until it was put on show in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin in 1923.

The one certainty, he says, is that Egypt never expressly agreed that the bust be included in the German share of the Amarna finds.

The Case for the Defense

Needless to say, the Germans put another slant on events.

Since Amarna was under the authority of the Antiquities Inspectorate in Asyut, it was by chance (and not design) that the inspector there was Gustave Lefébvre. It thus fell to Lefébvre to divide the finds, even though he was not an Egyptologist but a classical philologist and archaeologist.

There had just been a change in rules about how to divide the finds -- much to the disadvantage of the German team and not at all what had been first agreed when the dig started. A letter survives that Bruno Gueterbock (secretary of the German Oriental Society [DOG]) wrote to Guenther Roeder, (Director of the Roemer-Pelizaeus Museum) in 1924 which recalls the meeting in Amarna on 30 January 1913. It recounts how Lefébvre took a telegram out of his briefcase from Gaston Maspero, head of the Egyptian Antiquities Service and the first Director of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. This telegram ordered him to execute the division a moitié exacte (in two exactly equal halves). "We shall be the first victims of the new decree of the ministry of finances", moaned Gueterbock.

"You can imagine," he went on, "that we all had very little hope that this wonderful piece would not go to Cairo, so little, that on the evening before Lefébvre's arrival, all the inhabitants of the excavation house walked in solemn procession, candle in hand, to the storeroom to bid our farewell to the colourful Queen."

"Everybody sat down at the large table in the excavation house and photos of all finds were passed from hand to hand." According to the official diary, Lefébvre was not shown only photographs, but the originals were also presented to him.

After the division, the excavator had the right to pack the material not claimed by Egypt into crates and send them closed to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. There the crates would be stamped without any further examination of the contents. That's why, according to Hawass, the Egyptian authorities did not know about the bust until it appeared in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin in 1923.*

But Borchardt, for his part, published a photograph of the bust in October 1913 -- within ten months of its discovery -- in an academic journal that would have been widely read by Egyptologists.** Although the image is only partial (perhaps the origin of the 'cropped photographs' accusation), it fully demonstrates the quality and significance of the bust.

Zenobia has two soothing thoughts and a modest proposal

The photograph (above left) of the finding of the bust shows an Egyptian workman holding the statue in its early, uncleaned state. While it is fair to say that it does not radiate all the beauty that lay beneath the dirt, it would take a particular kind of idiot not to recognize the importance of the find. Unsurprisingly, Lefébvre later denied having seen it or, if having seen it, did not remember:
A decade later, when questioned by Pierre Lacau [this was about the time when the bust was first exhibited in Berlin*], Lefébvre said he could not remember whether he had seen the bust or not. But Lacau's questions confronted Lefébvre with a dilemma. If he told Lacau that he had not been interested in seeing the original finds, then he had neglected his duties. If he told Lacau that he had examined the bust, how could he have justified that he did not claim the object for Cairo?"
What kind of idiot could have missed its potential splendour? An idiot savant, I'm afraid, whose mind is concentrated on texts and couldn't care less about mucky objects. The breed still exists and you will find them visiting the most exciting digs with inner eye fixed firmly on inscriptions or scraps of papyrus, all but yawning at the impedimenta of archaeologists.

Second, plaster isn't precious. Stone is considered much more valuable. Until last March, when she underwent a CT scan (we wrote about it at Vanity, Thy Name is Uppity Woman), it was universally assumed that this was a plaster bust built up around an inner stone support. Thanks to the scan, we can now see inside -- and have just discovered, to everyone's surprise, that the limestone core is a finely-carved sculpture of the queen (left) in its own right.

This 2009 discovery makes it rather an upside-down accusation to imply that Borchardt disguised the plaster statue as ... a plaster statue.

That's what it was. And not at all "a painted limestone bust" ... as much of the press is now parroting.

So it needn't be due to any 'sleight of hand' that Lefébvre chose to take limestone statues of Akhenaten and Nefertiti instead of the most beautiful woman in the world.

The whole affair will be hashed and rehashed in Germany in early December (almost the centennial anniversary of her discovery). As we write, Friederike Seyfried, head of the Egyptian and Papyrus Collection at the Neues Museum, is travelling to Egypt to meet with Dr Hawass in an attempt to end the increasingly acrimonious arguments.

Little Warsaw is Burning

The inaptly named Hungarian art duo, Little Warsaw (András Gálik and Bálint Havas) have thrown more fuel on the fire. They specialize in cultural displacement projects -- and you might say that, this time, they have displaced more than the Museum bargained for.

The two artists created an imaginary body for Queen Nefertiti with its dimensions based on the proportions of the bust. Travelling with it from Budapest to Berlin, they had the original bust briefly set upon it (below, right). Essentially, they took the ancient work of art out of its context and plopped it down in a different place -- about as conceptually modern as you can get. Naturally, the commentary that results and people's unexpected reactions become an integral part of the art project.

Perhaps, though, the commentary got a bit out of hand when they created The Body of Nefertiti.

"Queen Nefertiti Naked in the Berlin Museum!"

The body was deliberately cast in another medium than the bust, to avoid any pretension to stylistic unity. It was clad only in a close-fitting transparent dress, depicting the queen as essentially a nude. Then in Berlin, the pair of artists, under museum supervision, had the ancient Nefertiti head placed on it. The event was taped, and the video and the headless bronze (left) were put on view in the Hungarian Pavilion at the 2003 Venice Biennale, the world's most important showcase for contemporary visual arts.

Nefertiti's short journey from its isolation in a glass case into the world of contemporary art created a dramatic set of visual images. For a short moment, Little Warsaw had effected an installation piece with the bust as an active participant in a 21st century work of art.

Art? What art?

'We don't accept that such an important statue of Queen Nefertiti has been put in jeopardy for this silly project,'' sputtered Mohamed al-Orabi, the Egyptian ambassador to Berlin. "It is not even silly: it is nothing. I mean the project is nothing."

The ambassador further declared (incorrectly, as it happens): ''It contradicts Egyptian manners and traditions. The body is almost naked, and Egyptian civilization never displays a woman naked.'' And he warned, ''The moral and scientific responsibility of the [Berlin] Museum is at stake here,''

Zahi Hawass was even blunter, calling the piece a "degradation of the bust", created in "wanton disrespect".

The Egyptian culture minister was as harsh, calling the installation "mad and ill considered", and adding darkly that the Museum's acquiescence in the project indicated that the famous Nefertiti sculpture was ''no longer safe in German hands.''

Here's what the artists had to say:

The success of the project Body of Nefertiti is in unlocking a sealed artifact. It disturbed the established and conventional identity of the object, freeing the bust for contemporary rereadings. Nefertiti has regained her own personal history, escaped from her sacred shrine, with the unexpected emergence of a new event in her existence.

Of course, they were probably cock-a-hoop at the Egyptian response. The input of viewers to the issues raised by the idea of Nefertiti’s body is all part of the project.

And that is what they got. Among the issues raised was an apparently unutterable offence to modern Egyptian sensibilities ... and possibly, too, an affront to the bust itself.

So, what is it to be?

Does pure beauty mean that you must demand an equally pure line and aloofness in exhibition, use, and display?

Or was the Museum right to allow in -- as the artists think -- a 'breath of fresh air'?

By the simple act of releasing the bust from a glass cage and joining it to an elegant body, Nefertiti was no longer an isolated icon, but, for a fleeting moment, an integral part of a new artwork. Surely, then, the project gave added meaning and renewed vitality to the bust 3,500 years after another artist had created it.

Thutmose, The King's Favourite and Master of Works, who made the statue would have been proud. After all, he had sculpted it to be an artist's model, a piece meant for study ... and undoubtedly for continual contemplation.

* The excavation was paid for by James Simon, founder of the German Oriental Society, (DOG) with his own money. Simon was also the permit holder at Amarna and thus legally owned the German share of what was found there. Neftertiti was first kept in his private collection which is why the bust was not put on show immediately. He first loaned and then donated his share of the Amarna objects to the Berlin Egyptian Museum in 1920.

Mitt.der DOG zu Berlin 43; illus. 19

My thanks to Jan Bailey, who reported on 'Why Nefertiti went to Berlin' to the EEF-list on November 11, 2009, with extracts from KMT Magazine (and who kindly supplied the excavation photograph at the top of this post).

The discussion of the Little Warsaw project and the Egyptian reaction to it owes much to S.K. Urice, "The Beautiful One Has Come -- to Stay", in J.H.Merryman, A.E.Elsen,S. K. Urice, Law, Ethics and the Visual Arts (2006) 415-16.


Upper left: KMT Magazine 19.3 (Fall 2008), 'Why Nefertiti went to Berlin' (Rolf Krauss)

Centre: The Bust of Nefertiti on display at the Neues Museum in Berlin. Image Credit - Jon Himoff.

Middle left: Photo Victor Koen,
Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

Lower left: Little Warsaw 2002-2004: 'Displaced Monuments and Deconstructive Strategie'. Credit: Umelec Int'l

Lower right: 'A problematic juxtaposition'. Credit UWM.edu

Lowest left: The Body of Nefertiti (2003). Credit Acax.hu

13 November 2009

Two-Timing Nefertiti?

There are two Nefertiti stories making the rounds -- one important and one maybe not so much.

We'll start with the lesser news of the day, yet another attempt to tell us what the real Nefertiti really really looked like.

Two Italian scholars -- Franco Crevatin , an ethnologist at Trieste University, and Stefano Anselmo, an expert in the history of cosmetics -- have created a computer-generated image (left) which they believe is closer to Queen Nefertiti's actual face than the one shown in the famous painted bust (below left) displayed in Berlin's newly-opened Neues Museum.*

You may remember the hot news last March when the statue of the most beautiful woman in the world, Nefertiti, went through a CT scan [if you don't remember, have a look now at Vanity, Thy Name is Uppity Woman, which tells you all you need to know]. Briefly, the scan revealed a hidden face under the painted plaster: inside the bust was a limestone core that was, in fact, a highly detailed inner sculpture of the queen. And this limestone face differed in small but significant ways from the external plaster face:

The inner face had less prominent cheekbones, a slight bump on the ridge of the nose, marked wrinkles around the corner of the mouth and cheeks, and less depth at the corners of the eyelids.

Starting from the entirely reasonable assumption that the outer image had been idealized (for portrait painters have always smoothed away their client's blemishes, bumps, and wrinkles), the Italians took the inner core as the 'true' picture of the queen.

"To reconstruct the face," Stefano Anselmo says, "I studied the art of the 18th Dynasty, the epoch of Akhenaten: masterpieces which depict persons possibly physically related to the queen. The artists preferred curved lines for the faces. Taking account of the imperfections revealed by the CAT scan I created slight hints of sagging around the lips, similar to lines, and the first signs of circles under the eyes."

And, as cosmetician, he added, "I worked mainly on the complexion, replacing the greys of the CT scan with a biscuit-amber tone, which was presumably the skin colour of Nefertiti."


I can buy the subtle differences -- shallower eye sockets, less pronounced cheekbones, lines around the mouth and a tiny bump on the bridge of the nose. I'm less convinced by the thickening of her lips or rounding of the chin. (I see no justification for these changes: check back to scrutinize her scanned images on the earlier post).

But the skin colour truly shocks.

Compare the colour painted on the plaster bust as she now appears (left). The artist certainly didn't idealistically lighten her skin (or she would have been chalk-white, as women often are on wall paintings). Rather, her skin has very much the tone you see on Egyptian women today.

You don't believe me?

Have a good look at the luscious Khadiga el-Gamal (right), wife of the heir to the Egyptian throne; oops, sorry, I mean wife of President Hosni Mubarak's son.

''Reproducing the face of a queen who is surrounded by such mystery required months of painstaking, detailed work,'' Franco Crevatin said.

Yes, indeed. Perhaps they should have spent more of this time travelling in Egypt. And less time contemplating Black Athena.

Lovely earrings, though.

Who Two-Timed Whom?

The new reconstruction will add just one more controversy to the many Nefertiti disputes that continue more than 3,500 years after her death.

Hot right now is the issue of repatriation: does she stay in Berlin or hotfoot it back to Egypt? This tug-of-war plagued her triumphant exhibition as the über Meisterwerk in Berlin's Museum Island's Neues Museum. The Egyptian Antiquities Department allege that she was exported illegally by the German excavation team in 1912. "Entirely legal!" huff and puff the Germans.

More on "Two-Timing Nefertiti?" in the next post.

Meanwhile, here she is in all her outer glory:

* Their findings were published this month in Focus Storia, an online history journal.


Upper left: Reconstruction of the 'true face' of Nefertiti, © Stefano Anselmo, Casa della Vita
Centre left: Image of the bust of Nefertiti courtesy the Neues Museum

Lower right: Photograph of Khadiga el-Gamal from ArabianBusiness.com

Video of the bust in the Neues Museum: Eine Kurzfilm von Kathrin Rosi Würtz (via YouTube.com)

05 November 2009

The Persian No Spin Zone

Early in 244 CE, the hapless Emperor Gordian III led the Roman army into Mesopotamia to wage war against the second Sassanian-Persian King of Kings, Shapur. Their armies met in battle near the city of Misikhe (modern Fallujah in Iraq).

In the ensuing battle, the Roman army was obliterated -- or was it?

Gordian died in the battle -- or did he?

It depends whose propaganda you believe.

The Case for the Persians

The Persian version of events, carved in stone with a trilingual inscription (at Naqsh-e Rustam near Persepolis in Iran) , claims that Gordian III was killed in the battle:
When at first we [Shapur] had become established in the Empire, Gordian Caesar raised in all of the Roman Empire a force from the Goth and German realms and marched on Babylonia against the Empire of [Persia] and against us. On the border of Babylonia at Misikhe, a great frontal battle occurred. Gordian Caesar was killed and the Roman force was destroyed.
An elaborate rock carving of Shapur's triumph at Bishapur in the Shiraz region of Iran, pictured left, makes the same point: it shows Gordian III trampled under the hooves of Shapur's horse (that's his head you see beneath its forelegs).
Then Philip Caesar came to us for terms, and to ransom their lives, gave us 500,000 denarii, and became tributary to us.
Whether or not Shapur is truthful in reporting that Philip acknowledged his suzerainty (he's the one kneeling before the Persian king's horse), a peace of sorts was concluded. What is certain at least is that the Romans built a cenotaph for Gordian at a place on the Persian side of the Euphrates river, some 50 miles (70 km) north of Dura Europos, and then Philip departed for Rome (see our report on his 'Short, Sad Dynasty').

The Roman Spin on Events

Roman sources do not mention the battle of Misikhe at all. Instead, Philip, while still Praetorian Prefect, is universally blamed for causing Gordian III's death, either having him murdered or stirring up mutiny by deliberately cutting off the troops' food supplies. In these truncated editions, it was only after the Roman army withdrew to the Euphrates that Gordian was assassinated and Philip took his place.

To make matters murkier, some late sources actually add the claim that Gordian was victorious in the Mesopotamian campaign:
While returning in triumph, [Gordian] was killed by the treachery of Philip ... when he was not far from Roman territory (Jordanes, Hist. Rom. 282)

[Gordian] engaged the barbarians and through conducting the war in a most brilliant manner, he defeated the [Persians] in a series of fierce battles. Then ... as he was returning to the frontiers of his own empire, he was murdered by Philip.... (John of Antioch, frag. 147)

Gordian ... routed Shapur, the king of the Persians in battle. But as he was approaching Ctesiphon [the Persian capital], he was murdered by his own troops at the instigation of the Prefect Philip.... (Syncellus 443).
Were the Romans defeated, or not? Historians ever since have been divided on the issue.

No more. A lucky find in Fars settles the matter.

If it is possible for me, then I shall establish a fire here.

So begins the inscription of a man called Abnun, who was master of ceremonies of Shapur's harem.* It is written on a stone fire altar (left), found near Barm-e Dilak in Fars province, a short distance south of Old Shiraz. The stone has a round depression on the top to hold the sacred fire. Human busts in niches and texts are carved on all four sides. Winged 'angels' flutter between the four human figures. The faces of the figures and 'angels' have been erased, presumably at the hands of iconoclastic Muslims, and its lower part broken off and lost.

This type of fire altar is unique but it is, in fact, the very earliest altar known from the Sassanian Empire so, perhaps, we just didn't know what they looked like at this date.

Happily, we do know for certain its date. The year was 244 CE:

When in the year 3 of Shapur, King of kings―when the Romans were coming against Persia and Parthia, then I [Abnun] was here in all-happy Frayosh.

The place name 'Frayosh' is a bit of a guess as some of the letters are missing. But what follows is entirely clear:

When it was heard that the Romans were coming, then I entreated the gods, saying, ‘If Shapur the King of kings [is victorious, and] the Romans are smitten and worsted, so that they fall into our captivity, then I shall allow myself to establish a fire here.’

So, when Abnun heard that the Romans had invaded the empire, he prayed to the gods for Shapur's victory. As an incentive to get the gods on his side, he vowed to dedicate a sacred fire at Frayosh if his king won

That did the trick.
Then, when it was heard that the Romans had come and Shapur the King of kings had smitten them and had worsted them [so that they fell into our captivity, then I began to] establish [a fire], and its name was made ‘Remain (i.e., live long) Shapur and Abnun’.
You don't get better historical evidence that that! Gordian III was defeated at Misikhe and Abnun dedicated this fire altar to his sovereign.

The Romans were economical with the truth.


* Translation of “The Fire Altar of Happy *Frayosh” by D.N.Mackenzie, via the Sasanika website.


Upper left: Photograph credit to Livius Picture Archive.

Lower left: M. Tavoosi, 'An inscribed capital dating from the time of Shapur I', Bulletin of the Asia Institute 3, 1989, Figs ii, iii. Originally described as a capital of a building, it has since been recognized and accepted as a fire altar, albeit of a new type; see R.N. Frye, 'Historical Interpretations in Middle Iranian', in (W. Skalmowski & A. Van Tongerloo, eds.) Medioiranica, 1993, 65-69.

31 October 2009


On this day at the Russian Imperial Court, we are told, they would chant this Troparion commemorating the Holy Martyrs Zenobia and Zenobius:

As brother and sister united in godliness
Together you struggled in contest, Zenobius and Zenobia.
You received incorruptible crowns and
Unending glory and shine forth with the grace
Of healing upon those in the world.

Since a saint's day is an annual event -- and I religiously celebrate St Zenobia's Day every year* -- I won't repeat her story here, but point you to my first post of 31 October 2007 (when I was also a day late. Shame!). Their history is complex -- not to say confused -- and it's all the fault of the 10th C Byzantine monk, Symeon Metaphrastes, who fully deserved his nickname, 'the Re-writer'.

Click over to that post -- Zenobia: Martyr Saint of Cilicia and her brother -- and see what you can make of it. Annual reflection has not made me any wiser. You might be luckier.

* Late again, I'm afraid, despite the best efforts of the 'Orthodox Church in America' webpage to remind me that it falls on the 30th of October, thanks to their October Liturgical Calendar (whence this image as well as the Troparion [translated and arranged in Western musical notation by ©I'vow Bakhmetev])

28 October 2009


Autumn colour isn't just for trees: Zenobia changes colour too.

Zenobia pulverulenta, I mean. And she's a shrub.

With nodding white bell-shaped flowers exuding an exotic, spicy, almost cinnamon-like Syrian scent.

This Zenobia, however, is no native of Syria.

The shrub grows wild only in the moist sandy areas and bogs of the south-east USA. Still, she's a true queen, with gracefully arching branches and blue-green leaves covered with a fine silvery down -- hence her nickname of "Dusty Zenobia". The leaves are now just changing into their autumn finery, a mix of orange, red, and purple colours.

The Genus of Zenobia

Zenobia has her very own genus. As you would expect of an empress, it's a terribly exclusive club -- containing just the single species of shrub that bears her name.

Restoring Zenobia to her proper rank.

The privilege of bestowing a name on a plant lies with the person who first classifies it and publishes an adequate description in botanical terms. He (rarely she) may name it more or less as he pleases within the rather broad limits of a few botanical rules. For one thing, it is frightfully bad form to name a discovery after oneself. For another, it must appear to be in Latin (the ending of nearly all genus names makes them look like Latin -- even when the word is Greek or commemorates modern people and places).

Not all names stick. They can be changed, for example, by someone who manages to uncover a case of faulty classification of a known plant.

Zenobia was once misclassified -- and therein lies a tale.

She belongs to the family of Ericaceae, subfamily Vaccinioideae, and was placed among the tribe of Andromedeae as a mere subgenus, as if she were just another bog standard Lily of the Valley.

Naming plants after classical figures was all the rage in the early years of scientific botanizing. In fact, it happened that botanists so often honoured the three Graces (Charities) or the minor goddess Charis when they described a new genus -- and were enchanted by the beautiful flowers or graceful growth forms -- that the name was given to five genera in five different families.

Andromeda was a popular choice, too.

Andromeda was the daughter of King Cepheus and Queen Cassiope of Ethiopia, whose mother got the girl into terrible trouble by boasting of her beauty. She claimed that the princess was lovelier than the sea nymphs, thereby irritating their father, the god Poseidon. To punish this arrogance, Andromeda was chained naked to a rock as a sacrifice to a sea monster. She was saved by the hero Perseus, who became her husband. The image of a beautiful virgin in chains to be eaten by a beastly sea monster was an irresistible attraction for artists throughout the ages (such as Titian, right) -- and to 18th century botanists.

Andromeda was established as a plant genus in 1753 by the famous classifier and namer of plants and animals, Carl Linnaeus, who gave the name to a little heath he found in Lapland. Gradually, as more and more species were described and included in the genus (some having three or four hundred species), it became apparent that it contained much too heterogeneous a collection of species.

In 1834, the Scottish botanist David Don published "A New Arrangement of the Ericaceae," in which he separated a number of species from the genus Andromeda, creating at the same time several new genera -- which meant, of course, that he was now allowed to give them new names. He followed in Linnaeus' footsteps and created bevies of classical females, such as Cassandra (that didn't stick either; she's now Chamaedapkne), Cassiope (the bragging mother of Andromeda), Leucathoe (daughter of the king of Babylonia who was changed by Apollo into a sweet-scented shrub; perhaps incense), and our Zenobia. Clearly, he thought that plant names should be charming rather than descriptive. And believed that, somehow, the romance of plants could be hidden in their names.*

Why Zenobia?

David Don left no obvious clue to explain why this American shrub should be honoured by the name of the third-century warrior queen of Syria.

He did clarify, however -- albeit in scholarly Latin -- that he had named the new genus after the highly honoured queen of Palmyra, valorous (or virtuous; the word is the same), learned, and famous for her misfortunes.** Perhaps he thought that spoke for itself, and added "whatever opinion may be formed of [her] title to rank as [a] separate gen[us], the arrangement of the species will, I trust, be found to be more natural than any hitherto proposed."

We agree.

What God has joined together, let no man separate (Matt. 19.6).

Enter the Dutch

Of all the gardeners on earth, the Dutch variety are least likely to leave well enough alone.

So it is hardly a foolish boast when the Dutch Garden Centre Esveld says, "Nowhere else in Europe will you find as many garden plants!" Zenobia is the proof of the pudding.

They offer three different kinds of Zenobia shrubs.

Left: the Zenobia pulverulenta that we know and love.

Right: Zenobia pulverulenta "Raspberry Ripple", with rose-flecked flowers.

Below right: Zenobia pulverulenta "Blue Sky", with blue-green leaves.

True, they are still of the same species, pulverulenta (= Latin for "Dusty" Zenobia).

But how long, dear reader, do you think it will take the Dutch to make a new species?

They're working on yet another variety as we speak -- the mysterious unphotographed Zenobia pulverulenta viridis. I bet it's going to be greener than ever!

A pity they didn't make it Z.p. virilis, ' Dusty Zenobia, Brave and Manly' in honour of our warrior queen.

* All the dirt on The Gods and Goddesses in the Garden: Greco-Roman Mythology and the Scientific Names of Plants, by Peter Bernhardt, Rutgers Univ. Press, 2008; partially available on Google Books.

** The Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal, Vol. 17, 159.


Top left: SC Gardener

Right: Titian, Perseus and Andromeda (1553-1559), Wallace Collection, via Wikimedia Commons

Below left: I am most grateful to Nurseries PlantenTuin Esveld for this and the following two photographs. Credit Nurseries PlantenTuin Esveld, Boskoop, Netherlands.

Below right: Credit Kwekerij R. Bulk, Boskoop.

Bottom right: Credit Nurseries PlantenTuin Esveld, Boskoop, Netherlands.

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