A chat with an archaeologist: Dr Monnickendam-Givon tells us about a new underground structure found in Jerusalem
The site is in the heart of ancient Jerusalem, just below the Western Wall's plaza. Three underground chambers were found carved into bedrock beneath the plaza: a courtyard and two rooms. Dr Barak Monnickendam-Givon (Excavation Co-Director of the Israel Antiquities Authority) is co-director of the excavation.
How was the site discovered?
The place my team and I are excavating is called the ‘Strauss House’ (Beit Strauss in Hebrew). It was first excavated by Dr Peter Gendelman and Ortal Chalaf of the Israel Antiquities Authority between 2013 and 2016.
In their excavation, they exposed a monumental building dated to the Byzantine that continued to be in use for about 600 years, including a series of renovations during the Abbasid period (~8th-9th centuries CE).
It collapsed during the Fatimid period in the 11th century CE. The original building was composed of a series of rooms that were divided by a set of arches. It had a floor of plain white mosaic.
During fall 2019, my team and I renewed the excavation and continued the work there.
How have you dated the chambers?
Like many other rock-cut installations, the original time of hewing is almost impossible to date.
We do know from the finds inside the system that it was in extensive use during the 1st century CE in the last decades before Jerusalem was destroyed during the summer of 70 CE by the Roman legions.
No finds later than 70 CE were found on the floor of the system (besides some 6th-7th century finds from when the structure was sealed off and the monumental building was constructed above it).
What was the purpose of the chambers?
Since we are dealing with a work in progress, the actual function of the system is as of yet unclear. However, we do have evidence for extensive daily use.
We found hundreds of clay oil lamps, alongside cooking vessels, storage jars and a few stone-made vessels (most of the vessels are broken on the floor).
All the artefacts the excavation yielded are sorted and catalogued for further study by us and other experts from the Israel Antiquities Authority or the academy. All the dirt from inside the system is sent for wet sifting. So, hopefully, we will find some smaller surprises hidden in the soil.
Could anyone else have been inside before the 'official' discovery?
As far as we can see, the only time people entered the system was during the construction of the monumental building. The system was then filled with large boulders, and a column in secondary use was put inside the second room to support the wall of the building.
How are the rooms arranged?
At first, we found an open room carved in the bedrock with no ceiling. On its northern end, there is an opening with three steps into the second room, which is entirely hewn in the bedrock. The third room is located south of the second room, just below the first one.
The system is pretty small by modern standards. The rooms each have an area ~2.5x3m and height ~1.7m. The bedrock to the lower part of the third and deepest room is ~3.5 m.
Was the courtyard ever 'open-air'?
It is hard to say if the first room was covered or not. We believe the first room was roofed and maybe even with a vaulted roof. It is possible that the system was the basement of a building that did not survive but which covered it.
Similarly, were the chambers originally underground?
The system is curved in the bedrock. As far as we know, most of the buildings in Jerusalem 2000 years ago were stone-built on street level.
Some of those buildings had a hewn installation, such as ritual baths (miq'vaot). However, they were only partially carved into bedrock, compared to what we found.
Could there be other underground chambers?
We are still excavating and clearing the third room, so who knows what we will find? We are a long-running project and are planning to be here for the next few years.
How does this compare to your previous finds?
This is my first excavation in Jerusalem. Most of my academic training and past research was on the coastal plain of modern-day Israel, a region known as Southern Phoenicia. So it is very different from my previous excavations.
Any excavation highlights?
Every excavation is unique and has its discoveries. As an archaeologist, I am happy with everything I find. The vital issue is how do we address the findings and what can the study of them tell us about how people lived in the past. The findings continually add to our knowledge about human behaviour and experience in antiquity.
Dr Andrew Cuff (Associate Lecturer in Anatomy at Hull York Medical School) gives us a whirlwind insight into the evolution and life of dinosaurs, what they looked like, and how we dig for their fossilised remains, as well as his work on ancient felids (cats). Please note, unless otherwise stated, pictures are from pixabay.com or unsplash.com, and are purely for illustrative purposes. Subscribe to my blog here.
Do you have a favourite dinosaur period?
Broadly speaking the Mesozoic Era (spanning the Triassic period: 250-200 million years ago, Jurassic period: 200-145 million years ago, Cretaceous period: 145-66 million years ago) was a hugely important time.
During the Triassic, the world is recovering from the largest mass extinction of all time and has a wide diversity of weird and wonderful species that evolve and try to fill some of the roles that were previously filled by the then extinct species.
The Jurassic is when dinosaurs really take over the world, and their marine reptile cousins dominate the seas. However, the Cretaceous is the specific time within that range I’d want to see most.
I’ve loved dinosaurs since I was young and somewhat boringly T. rex is my favourite dinosaur, so of course I want to go see it. And if I could safely watch the end of the non-avian dinosaurs with the impact at the end of the Cretaceous about 66 million years ago, who wouldn’t want to go?
So avian dinosaurs survived the end of the Cretaceous?
Birds are dinosaurs. They didn’t all die at the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous. We know this because we find a huge diversity of feathered dinosaurs, particularly from China that help show this. Although it is a surprise to many, we’ve known it since the discovery of Archaeopteryx, around 1861, which was during Charles Darwin’s lifetime.
What did dinosaurs look like?
We can tell the colour of some dinosaurs from their feathers and skin. In really well preserved specimens, the melanosomes (the pigment giving organelles in our cells) are still visible. Round ones give browns/oranges, and sausage shaped ones give blacks.
So, we know that some dinosaurs (Sinosauropteryx) were stripy from alternating regions with and without the melanosomes.
We know that Microraptor was nearly completely black, but also likely iridesced (produced different colours depending on the light shining on it). Think pigeon necks which show purples and greens even though there is no actual colour there.
An ankylosaur (the armoured dinosaurs with the big hammer-like tail), Borealopelta, is incredible. It’s a multi-tonne dinosaur fabulously well preserved so that we can tell it is counter-shaded i.e. the skin on top is dark and on the belly is light – think a lot of antelope in Africa. Counter-shading is used to help camouflage, so it suggests these massive dinosaurs were still very much in the food chain even at that size.
The Velociraptors in Jurassic Park should be covered in feathers too! Also they should be the size of the Dilophosaurus, and the Dilophosaurus should have been the size of the Velociraptor.
Speaking of ‘Jurassic Park’, can we use computer wizardry to analyse how dinosaurs might have moved?
Yes. Let’s use a study we published last year as an example.
We looked at a dinosaur called Mussaurus. It belongs to the group called the sauropodomorpha. Most people know the later sauropods, the massive, long-necked, long-tailed dinosaurs like Diplodocus, Brontosaurus etc. Mussaurus was an earlier member which hadn’t yet reached great sizes.
We have a growth series from hatchlings all the way up to adults, and can reconstruct their skeletons, and then put flesh back on them. Using some clever maths, we then calculated their centre of mass.
This was then used to show that the hatchlings walked on all 4 limbs, whilst the adults shifted to walking on just their hindlimbs. It’s a fascinating transition, and today we think only humans do something similar.
Why are there more fossils of immature than fully mature dinosaurs?
Dinosaurs are much like all other animals. They produce a huge number of young because so few get to adulthood. This is due to predation, disease, and nutritional requirements.
It is possible dinosaurs had even higher mortality rates for their young due to their extreme growth rates and the food that must have been required, particularly for the largest species.
Did they really have tiny brains? And does that equate to stupidity?
It is true that many dinosaurs had relatively small brains particularly for their body size. This is true even for most of the assumed “intelligent” species such as the raptors.
This does not mean they are stupid, but may have implications for group hunting, and a recent paper suggests that it is highly unlikely they hunted in groups.
That being said, birds are living dinosaurs, and some of them are amongst the most intelligent of living species. Corvids (the family that includes crows), are known to be able to fashion tools and solve complex problems. Underestimate their intelligence at your own risk!
Have you been baffled by any fossils you’ve come across?
Spinosaurus will forever be an enigma and an annoyance to me. It was the first species I published on so will always have a place in my heart.
For those who aren’t aware of what Spinosaurus is, it was a giant dinosaur from North Africa, with a sail on its back, a thick tail, and a very strange skull. It featured in Jurassic Park 3, although that reconstruction has changed several times in the years since.
The original fossil was found in Egypt, but was destroyed during WW2 in a bombing raid on Munich. Several more specimens have been found, but because we cannot compare it to the original, it is tough to say if they are the same thing and exactly how the relate.
All I can say is that the more we find of it, the stranger it seems to become!
How did dinosaur lifespans compare to today’s animals?
We honestly don’t have great estimates for the oldest a dinosaur could reach.
Dinosaur bones, like trees, develop rings which can be used to count their age. However, when they get to adulthood some of their earliest rings start getting destroyed as marrow cavities develop, so we can only estimate the age of those oldest individuals.
For example, the oldest known Tyrannosaurus rex is about 28, but they may have been able to get older. Some suggest the sauropods may get much older, possibly 100 years or more, but there is no evidence to support this yet.
Are there any ‘living fossils’? Crocodiles?
The assumption that some species are “living fossils” unchanged over tens or hundreds of millions of years is a misunderstanding of evolution. No species has survived exactly as it was millions of years ago.
Every generation has some change due to how the genes are mixed during sexual reproduction. We do not look exactly like either of our parents, but we share similarities to both.
If we were to go back a dozen generations these similarities would be much harder to see, but we would still all be humans. If we went further back, you would also find it impossible to find the exact generation where we were no longer Homo sapiens and instead one of our earlier relatives.
Slow and subtle changes are still happening in all living species, even if some of them look similar to fossils from millions and hundreds of millions of years ago.
Can you give us some examples of more recent human evolution?
In the last tens of thousands of years humans have evolved the ability to consume milk (lactose tolerance, although only certain populations), and various genetic conditions that reduce the impact of malaria (such as sickle cell traits).
These characteristics provided selective advantages to those who had them. For example, we now find sickle cell traits widespread in regions with malaria, where it provides immunity, but the trait’s prevalence rapidly declines outside of malarial regions.
Modern medicine, and our cultures have meant many more people survive and reproduce than used to, and it is arguable that our culture is what is now primarily evolving. However, these cultural changes do have physical implications.
For example, modern generations are amongst the tallest ever, our jaws are increasingly gracile and we have more problems with impacted wisdom teeth (and some people not even having them anymore).
Who knows what our species will look like in thousands of years!
I understand you’ve 3D-printed a crocodile. What’s next on the printing menu?
The 3D-printed crocodile was a personal challenge. I tried to make it into a museum style mount and was fairly pleased with the results. The files are all available online if anyone wants to have a go, or even improve upon my design.
As for what I would like to print next, I would like to print my own skull. I have often wanted to do outreach events showing how we can reconstruct the soft tissues on skeletal remains. I would love to have the public attempt to reconstruct a face from a known skull, and then they can compare their results to the actual face. In this case, mine.
You also study and research felids (cats). When did they evolve?
The first cats evolved around 25 million years ago, and the first big cats several million years after that.
You’ve looked at how the style of felid mobility doesn’t change much with size. Why is this?
Because of how muscles scale with increasing size, large animals are usually relatively weaker than small ones. To compensate, animals tend to change their posture becoming more upright (straight legged) as they get bigger.
If you look at a mouse you will see it moves and stands with its legs bent, whilst elephants have almost completely straight legs under their bodies.
Cats don’t follow this change with all felids having the same crouched posture from the smallest cat to the largest tigers and lions. With big cats being relatively weaker and not changing their posture, they are actually worse at walking and standing efficiently.
Why then would they keep the crouched posture? The crouched posture helps with rapid acceleration as is needed in all cat ambush hunts. Being inefficient at other behaviours may explain their “laziness” and why big cats sleep up to 20hrs a day.
Could you give us a brief overview of a typical day on a dig?
A typical dig day depends heavily on what you are doing.
It will always begin early at the crack of dawn so that you can get breakfast and make sure you are fully hydrated. Then you are on the way to either your dig site or where you are going prospecting as soon as you can to make the most of the sunlight.
If you are digging you are usually excavating, initially with big tools (pickaxes/shovels) and then down to knives/dental tools when you are close to the bones. You then wrap them with wet paper towel before covering that with burlap and plaster. This hasn’t changed much from the 1800s.
There is usually an hour or so in the middle of the day to relax during the peak of the heat, and then it’s working until 5 or 6 in the evening. Then, it’s back to the camp/accommodation for food, often a beer, and then to bed.
If you are prospecting the only real difference is usually less digging and a lot more walking as you search the area for either whole bones, or more usually the little exploded fragments of bone that have eroded out from the hills. You follow the bits back up the hill to find the source and hopefully a lot more bone!
What propelled you into palaeontology?
I, like many other kids, got into dinosaurs when I was young. I can vaguely remember getting a book from my uncle about dinosaurs aged about 4. It may not have been the first one, but it’s the first one I remember. Don’t ask which one as I can’t remember the title anymore.
Around that time, or within a few years, an aunt took me fossil hunting on the Jurassic Coast in England, at a place called Charmouth, and I found my first fossils. The rest is sort of history, but definitely not without a lot of support from my parents who encouraged my passion and didn’t try to turn me to banking/law.
What is your favourite book?
I don’t have a single favourite, and read a weird collection of pop-sci books.
I really enjoyed I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong. I’d also recommend A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived by Adam Rutherford, Tamed by Alice Roberts, The Dinosaur Hunters by Deborah Cadbury, Bad Science by Ben Goldacre and the Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf.
What is the question that keep you awake at night?
At the minute there are many. I am in my first teaching role, and concerns about students during Covid-19 lockdowns are weighing heavily. Are they okay, how can we support them more to complete their theses etc.?
My job uncertainty is another. Academia is an unpleasantly unstable career choice. I am not trying to put people off their passions, just trying to be honest. I did a PhD, 6 years after it in research, and am unable to find a permanent post. My current contract is 2 years teaching, so where will I be next? Will this job become permanent? Covid-19 hasn’t helped allay those concerns as most universities are warning of dire financial circumstances.
Academically, I think beaks are incredibly interesting. All birds today possess a beak. Layers of keratin (like your fingernails) sitting on skin and bone. Such a simple structure, yet birds have modified it in a huge diversity of ways, from hummingbirds, to toucans, parrots and ducks. They are vital for procuring their food and manipulating their environment, so are touch sensitive, and in toucans the beak also helps thermoregulate (control temperature).
But it’s not just birds. The platypus and echidna both have beaks, and the platypus beak even has electroreception too. If we look in the fossil record, there are extinct bird lineages that evolve beaks, many non-avian theropods (the meat eating dinosaurs), all the ornithischian dinosaurs (everything from duckbilled dinosaurs, to the horned ceratopsians), maybe a sauropod, some pterosaurs, some crocodyliforms, and some extinct mammal-like reptiles.
Why do all these groups evolve beaks? Why is a beak better than teeth? How does evolving a beak affect your skull function?
If you could know any one thing from the past for certain, what would it be?
Why did the non-bird dinosaurs die out at the end of the Cretaceous whilst many other reptiles survived.
Can you give us a brief overview of your current work?
My primary job is teaching anatomy to medical students as well as MSc students.
My research at present is a combination of projects including the evolution and locomotion of dinosaurs, feeding in dinosaurs, and felid/cat locomotion.
My MSc students are working on projects about hunting in Neanderthals, craniofacial reconstructions, and looking at shape variation and sexual differences in pelves of humans and chimps.
Dr Leire Olabarria (lecturer in Egyptology at Birmingham University, UK) gives us a fascinating insight into the life of typical workers in Ancient Egypt, their methods for recording information, and similarities to today! Subscribe here.
If you had to pick one period of interest within all of ‘Ancient Egypt’, which would it be?
"First Intermediate Period, which is now seen as a period of creative innovation and regional change."
The history of Egypt is long and rich, and each period has its own interesting features.
If I had to pick just one it would be the First Intermediate Period (22nd to 21st century BCE), which was regarded for many years as a chaotic dark age of decentralisation between the time of the pyramids (the Old Kingdom) and the classical period of Egyptian civilisation (the Middle Kingdom).
Scholarship has completely changed the way we understand the First Intermediate Period, which is now seen as a period of creative innovation and regional change.
Could you give us some understanding of the ‘daily life’ of a ‘typical' Ancient Egyptian?
"...laundry lists, letters criticising lazy co-workers, documents disinheriting children who do not care for their parents, and even sketches for window frame replacements!"
The ancient Egyptians were not any different to us in that we are all human, with our insecurities, desires, ambitions, and dreams. There are a number of sources that provide windows into the daily lives of ancient Egyptians that show that they were very similar to us.
An excellent example is the site of Deir el-Medina, which was a purpose-built settlement for the workers who carved and decorated the royal tombs of the Valley of the Kings in the New Kingdom (16th to 11th century BCE).
Documents retrieved from the village comprise laundry lists, letters criticising lazy co-workers, documents disinheriting children who do not care for their parents, and even sketches for window frame replacements!
That does sound eerily familiar! How were the workers at the Deir el-Medina site treated by their ‘employers’? Did they have rights as we would recognise them?
"...workmen organised the first known strike in history..." (12th century BCE)
That is an excellent question. Workers at Deir el-Medina were employed by the state, who would pay them in rations. The pay was relatively generous, but when times of scarcity came about the rations were reduced by the government.
The situation became untenable and the workmen organised the first known strike in history, which is recorded in the Turin Strike Papyrus, dating to the time of Ramesses III (12th century BCE).
If your readers are interested in this topic, I highly recommend the book Village life in ancient Egypt by A. G. McDowell, as it is a compilation of texts from Deir el-Medina translated into English, including accounts of the strike I have just mentioned.
Moving on to mummification, was this a typical procedure for most Egyptians?
"It was the heart that was regarded as the seat of cognition and emotion."
There was not a single type of mummification in ancient Egypt.
First, there were coexisting methods that would cater for people’s varying resources or financial means. Second, the process itself changed over time.
We need to remember that Egyptian history covers many centuries. Even though sometimes we may get the impression that Egypt was an immutable civilisation, we shouldn’t let ourselves be fooled, as Egypt was in fact dynamic and diverse.
Regarding the process itself, many people are surprised to discover that the brain was ideally discarded. It was the heart that was regarded as the seat of cognition and emotion.
Did Ancient Egyptians use hieroglyphs to write down or record all their information?
"Several scripts were known in ancient Egypt, and the hieroglyphic writing system was just one of them."
It is important to make a distinction between script and language. Several scripts were known in ancient Egypt, and the hieroglyphic writing system was just one of them.
Hieroglyphs were often chosen for monumental inscriptions, while other more cursive scripts such as hieratic would have been preferred for day-to-day matters.
Scripts are used to render languages, and ancient Egyptian language goes through several phases, with Middle Egyptian being regarded as its classical stage.
Although ancient Egyptian language is well understood, our knowledge keeps improving constantly, for example with more nuanced interpretations of the verbal system or with new editions of texts that propose more accurate renderings of some terms.
Their language recording capabilities sound quite complex, in comparison with English, for example. Could the average Ancient Egyptian read and or write?
"...there may have been forms of partial literacy."
Great question. Based on what we know from ancient Egypt it seems that a very small percentage of the population may have been able to read and write. However, we need to bear in mind that there may have been forms of partial literacy.
Monumental inscriptions were often formulaic and perhaps some people may have been able to recognise some typical expressions.
Many monuments would include instructions to the literate elites who would pass by a monument to, for example, perform an invocation offering and recite the name of the deceased so that they would be remembered. Some of those expressions might have been be widely recognisable, as they played an important role in the cultural repertoire of the ancient Egyptians.
What led to you being an Egyptologist?
"...fascinated with history, archaeology, and ancient civilisations..."
I wish I could say that I always wanted to be an Egyptologist, but that is not the case for me.
When I was a child I was fascinated with history, archaeology, and ancient civilisations, but the drive to become an Egyptologist came about organically as I started reading more about the history of Egypt.
If it hadn’t been Ancient Egypt, what would have been #2 on your list?
"...I guess I fulfilled my childhood dream in some sense!"
When I was a child I wanted to be a writer. I loved to read and I dabbled at writing some short stories. I am still an avid reader and I now write about ancient Egypt, so I guess I fulfilled my childhood dream in some sense!
And as an academic, are your dreams disturbed by burning questions? Any advanced civilisations that disappeared without trace...
"...the past as we know it is already captivating, fun, and fascinating enough..."
Fortunately I am a heavy sleeper, so it takes more than a tricky question to keep me awake at night!
On conspiracy theories, I think the past as we know it is already captivating, fun, and fascinating enough. I honestly think it is sad that antiquity is simply not interesting enough for some people so that they need to come up with conspiracy theories about entirely new civilisations for which there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever.
Please can you give us a brief overview of your current work?
"If you are interested in uchronias, alternate history, and counterfactuals, keep your eyes peeled!"
I am a lecturer in Egyptology at the University of Birmingham, where I teach on the history, archaeology and language of ancient Egypt. My specific field of expertise is kinship and family, and my book on this topic came out only last month.
I also do fieldwork in Egypt, where I excavate the necropolis of a provincial town in Middle Egypt. Unfortunately this year we had to cancel our field season due to the Covid-19 outbreak, but I am hoping to be able to go to the field again in spring next year.
I am also about to start a new project for which I will be co-editing a book on the use of ancient civilisations in science fiction literature. If you are interested in uchronias, alternate history, and counterfactuals, keep your eyes peeled!
Congratulations on your book! Can you give us a little overview?
"I elucidate what it meant to be related in ancient Egypt, arguing that kinship went beyond the Euroamerican concept of blood."
Thank you! The book is entitled Kinship and family in ancient Egypt: archaeology and anthropology in dialogue and it has been published by Cambridge University Press in March 2020.
The concept of family is very often taken for granted, but it is a fluid category that needs to be defined within a specific context. In this book I elucidate what it meant to be related in ancient Egypt, arguing that kinship went beyond the Euroamerican concept of blood.
As I see it, kinship in ancient Egypt was based on practice, and that is why I refer to kinship as a performative concept. Kinship was not just given at birth, but it was probably made and remade by means of social practice.
A chat with an archaeologist: Dr Draycott talks about the Ancient Turkish city of Xanthos and other Mysteries of the Past!
I'm thrilled that Dr Catherine M. Draycott (lecturer in Classical Archaeology at Durham University) has allowed me some time to pick her brains about the mysteries of archaeology. Her impressive bio is at the end of the article! Please note, pictures are from pixabay.com and unsplash.com, and are purely for illustrative purposes. Subscribe here.
Let’s start big. Are there any myths or legends you think might be real?
"...it is therefore feasible that there was a war centring on a siege of a city (perhaps Wilusa) which gave rise to epic tales."
The obvious case for this is Troy. Bronze Age Hittite inscriptions from Turkey have some correspondences with the names in the Homeric saga of Troy, e.g. Wilusa (the Greek ‘Ilion’), which suggests a long transmission of stories concerning certain places and people.
Separate from the identification of the site of Troia as Troy, it is therefore feasible that there was a war centring on a siege of a city (perhaps Wilusa) which gave rise to epic tales. It must have been pretty spectacular. That is different from being ‘real’ though. Homer’s Iliad is not a documentary; you cannot ‘find’ Homer’s Troy because it is a fictional city.
Still, there is a tension in archaeology between rejecting that kind of historicist fallacy and at the same time acknowledging that historicity of myths and legends is very compelling to the human imagination and is responsible for a lot of interest in archaeology.
The same can be said of stories in the bible and even other texts such as the Historia of the Greek writer Herodotus. Well-known tales can give one a sense of connection to past sites, places and people. They need to matter; they need to have a narrative hook. Part of an archaeologist’s job is to try to give meaningful narratives without being simplistic about it.
Do you think we’ve “missed” any huge civilisations?
"...certainly major cities and kingdoms."
Yes. I am not sure ‘civilisations’ is the right word, but certainly major cities and kingdoms.
My main research has focussed on looking at art and architecture as a conduit to highlighting the people of ancient Turkey who are not represented in ancient Greek historical sources, but who were important historical actors.
If you could visit any period in history, which would you pick?
"I would like to visit the year 565 BC..."
I have always responded to this question with: I would not, I would visit the future, because I want to know what happens. I think I am revisiting that response now!
I think today (because this will change) I would like to visit the year 565 BC, and I would like to visit all the cities in the western part of ancient Turkey that I do research on, especially Sardis and Xanthos. It is so hard to understand what these cities looked like archaeologically as there are so few – but very tantalising – remains.
Part of my work involves looking at how various cities like Xanthos became wealthy and what that means for history. That means considering the kinds of resources that various places had access to, what connections they had etc. There is very little hard evidence for that, so one has to walk a tightrope of speculation.
Can you tell us a little about the ancient city of Xanthos?
"...a new kind of building in a totally unique architectural style was invented at Xanthos."
Xanthos was a city in an area of ancient Turkey called Lycia, which is in the southwest corner and is now very touristic. It is a place where people spoke a non-Greek, Anatolian language related to Hittite.
A lot of people know the story of the Persian Wars, if nothing else through the films of Frank Miller’s 300 and its sequel 300: Rise of an Empire. Often scholars and artists focus on the Athenians and the Spartans. But there were lots of important places in Turkey, which were on the Persian side (having been conquered by them) and are only described a little bit by Greek writers like Herodotus. Xanthos is one of them.
At the time of the Greek-Persian Wars, in about 480 BC, a leader called Koprlle came to power at Xanthos, which we know because his name appears on lots of coins.
He goes on to lead Xanthos and Lycia through a period in which, as indicated by the incredible number of Lycian silver coins produced, it becomes wealthy and it eventually forms an alliance with the Athenians against the Persians – ostensibly at least. The evidence for that is that the name of Xanthos and the Lycians appears on inscribed lists of tribute payers to that alliance.
What I find most fascinating is that in this period a new kind of building in a totally unique architectural style was invented at Xanthos. They look like wooden buildings rendered in stone and it is not quite clear what they were for, but it seems likely they were supposed to look like shrines but function as cenotaphs, which suggests in turn that they were for heroic figures whom the city needed to exalt for some reason at the time.
If you could know any one historical certainty, what would that be?
This changes depending on what I am looking at at any given time, but since I am answering these questions, I want to know for whom those buildings were set up.
Do you think any conspiracy theories from the past hold truth?
"...no not really, although I enjoy the ideas about aliens and pyramids..." (bonus points!)
Well there are lots of conspiracies from the past that are historical ‘fact’ (bearing in mind the problems of reported speech). If you mean conspiracy theories about the past, no not really, although I enjoy the ideas about aliens and pyramids: much more compelling than having to attribute things to the not-terribly-grand narrative that is humanity.
As well as ancient cities like Xanthos and Sardis, what else are you currently working on?
"...images that people decorated their tombs with can tell you a lot about how they wanted to be remembered..."
I am also working on a book on the art used on tombs in Western Turkey from the time it was conquered by the Persians, when tombs and art on and in them become ‘a thing’, up to the mid-fifth century BC – that is, the time that Xanthos was constructing those buildings I talked of before.
The images that people decorated their tombs with can tell you a lot about how they wanted to be remembered and the things that were important to them, but ‘reading’ these is not a straightforward process.
I am also doing separate work on attitudes to archaeology on the part of the public and how this intersects with the racial demography of archaeologists, who are by and large (in the UK and USA) white.
How on Earth did you find yourself within such an interesting career?
"...knowing that I did not want to do a degree in business or commerce..."
I started off not knowing what to do in high school, but knowing that I did not want to do a degree in business or commerce, which seemed to me to be traditional in my hometown (I am from Bermuda – not technically a town).
I drifted from a vague notion of being a hairdresser into art, starting in a degree in ceramic design at what was then Bristol Poly and finishing up with a Bachelor of Fine Art from the School of the Museum of Fine Art in Boston. That degree entailed doing academic courses during which I found I was pretty adept at academic work, and what’s more I liked it, which was not my school experience.
I worked as an artist and journalist in Bermuda for a few years and then went back to higher education to get into research. I first did a diploma in art history and focussed on early art, which led me to Roman art and a masters and doctorate researching ancient art at Oxford.
So, I didn’t grow up with a compulsion to do archaeology and only got involved later on. Although I still work on art, I am now interested in lots of other aspects of archaeology, especially landscapes and economies.
In a different vein, what questions “keep you awake at night”?
Whether the Covid virus is an episode or a permanent state of affairs and whether the internet will last.
And finally, as an author, I am duty-bound to ask about your favourite book!
For fiction I would have to say Gabriel García Márquez, Of Love and other Demons.
For things archaeology related, one is the journalist Gregory Curtis’ Disarmed: The Story of the Venus di Milo. The other is Jeffrey Hurwit’s The Athenian Acropolis: History, Mythology and Archaeology from the Neolithic Era to the Present, because it sets out the available evidence and the different theories about the form of various buildings very clearly.
Those are different from books that I think are world-changing, but they are a joy to read.
This is a periodical blog, probably monthly, featuring articles and interviews on topics I find interesting, and which inspire my writing.
Enjoy space opera?
The quest to unlock the secrets of interstellar travel leads a Roranian crew on an epic journey across space. Saved by a dying machine-lect, stranded in a failing ship, faced with an ultimate choice. Were they too eager in their attempts to reach the stars?