Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Cups and scrolls

I recently finished the outstanding novel The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, which tells the story of the events of The Iliad, focusing on the doomed love affair between Achilles and Patroclus (it's told from Patroclus's point of view).  The best novelizations of history and historical fiction -- other examples that come to mind are Robert Graves's I, Claudius and Claudius the God, Sigrid Undset's Kristen Lavransdatter and The Master of Hestviken, and Guy Gavriel Kay's Under Heaven -- don't just tell a story but actually transport you back into a different time and place.  They succeed at portraying the underlying humanity we share with all people, however far back you go, while communicating the fascinating otherness we experience when immersed in a different culture.

It's this same curiosity about other times and places that explains why I'm fascinated with archaeology.  The idea of seeing, or even touching, an item that was handled by people hundreds or thousands of years ago is an absolute thrill.  This is why I was so excited to read two wonderful pieces of research sent my way by a friend and loyal reader of Skeptophilia.

The first one is why I started this post with The Song of Achilles, because it's a study of an artifact called Nestor's Cup, a 2,800 ceramic vessel with the inscription, "I am Nestor's Cup, good to drink from.  Whoever drinks this cup empty, straightaway the desire for beautiful-crowned Aphrodite will seize him."

As an aside, I'm not sure that getting the hots for Aphrodite would, in the long run, be a good thing.  In The Iliad and The Odyssey the gods mostly come across as petulant, willful, and perpetually horny teenagers, and mortals were generally better off avoiding getting noticed by them.  As far as Nestor himself, he's over and over called "a great and wise counselor," but if you know the story, this comes across as a little weird because Nestor is the one who convinced Agamemnon to take the Achaeans into battle (with disastrous results), and was also the one who gave Patroclus the advice that ended up getting him killed.

So if Nestor handed me a cup and said, "Hey, drink this and Aphrodite will be ready to hop in bed with you!" I doubt I'd be all that inclined to take him up on it.

Be that as it may, the artifact itself is fascinating.  It was found in a burial site in Pithekoussai, a Greek colony on the island of Ischia (currently owned by Italy).  It may have originally been used as a drinking vessel, as per the inscription, but in the eighth century B.C.E. it was buried along with the ashes of three adults, and various other fancy and expensive items.

"Our research rewrites the history and the previous archaeological interpretation of the tomb, throwing new light on funeral practices, culture and society of the Greek immigrants in the ancient West Mediterranean," said study co-author Melania Gigante.  "Pithekoussai is widely considered one of the most important archaeological findings of pre-classical Mediterranean archaeology."

The other story comes from an even more famous site -- Herculaneum, which along with Pompeii was destroyed by a catastrophic pyroclastic flow from Mount Vesuvius in 79 C.E.  Wealthy communities like Pompeii and Herculaneum were mostly inhabited by the Roman upper crust, who were well-read and owned extensive libraries.

Unfortunately, Roman books and scrolls -- being made of parchment or paper -- would have been incinerated during the eruption, as the material in pyroclastic flows can easily reach a temperature of 1,000 C.  However, the temperatures rose (and then dropped) so fast, and the remains then blanketed by ash, that the scrolls in the libraries weren't burned to cinders but instead were carbonized in situ, where they were found, still rolled up, when the ruins were excavated.

The problem is that these blackened cylinders are exceptionally fragile.  Unrolling them would immediately cause them to crumble into tiny fragments.  So while there might be traces of the ink left behind, how could you ever open them up to see it?

It was impossible... until now.

Using a non-invasive laser imager and a complex machine-learning algorithm, archaeologist Luke Farritor of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has succeeded in discerning a single word -- πορϕυρας, meaning "purple" -- in a proof-of-concept that gives antiquarians hope of reading at least some of Herculaneum's damaged scrolls.

The most exciting part is that the majority of the documents we have from the Greeks and Romans are copies of copies of copies that finally made their way into medieval libraries.  The inevitable errors (not to mention deliberate editing) from this kind of literary Game of Telephone mean that we really have no idea how close our versions are to the originals.  If we could read the scrolls of Herculaneum, this would bring us one step closer to seeing what the ancients actually wrote, as well as opening up the thrilling possibility of recovering works that were thought to be lost forever.

So that's the news from the world of antiquity.  My thanks to the eagle-eyed reader who sent me the links.  Now I think I'll sit and drink my coffee (from an ordinary, non-Aphrodite-summoning mug) and ponder what it was like to live thousands of years ago, and see -- at least faintly -- through the eyes of the ancients.


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