Deciphered Ancient Tablet Reveals Curse of Greengrocer

Owen Jarus, LiveScience ContributorDate: 21 December 2011 Time: 11:37 AM ET


A fiery ancient curse inscribed on two sides of a thin lead tablet was meant to afflict, not a king or pharaoh, but a simple greengrocer selling fruits and vegetables some 1,700 years ago in the city of Antioch, researchers find.


Written in Greek, the tablet holding the curse was dropped into a well in Antioch, then one of the Roman Empire's biggest cities in the East, today part of southeast Turkey, near the border with Syria.


The curse calls upon Iao, the Greek name for Yahweh, the god of the Old Testament, to afflict a man named Babylas who is identified as being a greengrocer. The tablet lists his mother's name as Dionysia, "also known as Hesykhia" it reads. The text was translated by Alexander Hollmann of the University of Washington.


The artifact, which is now in the Princeton University Art Museum, was discovered in the 1930s by an archaeological team but had not previously been fully translated. The translation is detailed in the most recent edition of the journal Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik.


"O thunder-and-lightning-hurling Iao, strike, bind, bind together Babylas the greengrocer," reads the beginning of one side of the curse tablet. "As you struck the chariot of Pharaoh, so strike his [Babylas'] offensiveness."


Hollmann told LiveScience that he has seen curses directed against gladiators and charioteers, among other occupations, but never a greengrocer. "There are other people who are named by occupation in some of the curse tablets, but I haven't come across a greengrocer before," he said.


The person giving the curse isn't named, so scientists can only speculate as to what his motives were. "There are curses that relate to love affairs," Hollmann said. However, "this one doesn't have that kind of language."


It's possible the curse was the result of a business rivalry or dealing of some sort. "It's not a bad suggestion that it could be business related or trade related," said Hollmann, adding that the person doing the cursing could have been a greengrocer himself. If that's the case it would suggest that vegetable selling in the ancient world could be deeply competitive. "With any kind of tradesman they have their turf, they have their territory, they're susceptible to business rivalry.”


The name Babylas, used by a third-century Bishop of Antioch who was killed for his Christian beliefs, suggests the greengrocer may have been a Christian. "There is a very important Bishop of Antioch called Babylas who was one of the early martyrs," Hollmann said.


The use of Old Testament biblical metaphors initially suggested to Hollmann the curse-writer was Jewish. After studying other ancient magical spells that use the metaphors, he realized that this may not be the case.


"I don't think there's necessarily any connection with the Jewish community," he said. "Greek and Roman magic did incorporate Jewish texts sometimes without understanding them very well."


In addition to the use of Iao (Yahweh), and reference to the story of the Exodus, the curse tablet also mentions the story of Egypt's firstborn.


"O thunder—and-lightning-hurling Iao, as you cut down the firstborn of Egypt, cut down his [livestock?] as much as..." (The next part is lost.)


"It could simply be that this [the Old Testament] is a powerful text, and magic likes to deal with powerful texts and powerful names," Hollmann said. "That's what makes magic work or make[s] people think it works."



Stonehenge: Closure of A344 near monument to go ahead

30 December 2011 Last updated at 14:24


Plans to close a main road running past Stonehenge are to go ahead.


English Heritage wants to stop traffic from travelling close to the stones and "restore the dignity" of the World Heritage Site by closing the A344.


The road from the A303 at Stonehenge Bottom to west of the visitor centre has already been approved for closure.


Now, following a public inquiry, Wiltshire Council has approved an independent inspector's report to close the remaining section of road.


In June 2010 the council granted planning permission for a new visitors centre at Airman's Corner, 1.5 miles (2km) west of Stonehenge.


And in November, roads minister Mike Penning approved plans to close an 879m (2,884ft) section of the A344 from its junction with the A303 at Stonehenge Bottom with a stopping up order.


Byways remain open

Now the council has approved a traffic regulation order (TRO) for the remainder of the A344 to Airman's Corner.


But proposals to close a number of byways around the ancient monument were refused.


Druid leader King Arthur Pendragon said the inspector's recommendations and resulting council decision had "erred on the side of common sense".


"I invited the inspector to recommend a modification to the order be made in that should the stopping up order be placed on the lower section of the A344 the remaining section of the metalled road be restricted by a traffic regulation order as requested.


"And he recommended that the proposed TRO be made with modification to the A344 only, leaving the byways in the World Heritage Site still open to all traffic, as they have been."



Tax bill paid with 2,000-year-old Iron Age fire guard

19 December 2011 Last updated at 16:54


A 2,000-year-old Iron Age fire guard has been accepted into Wales' national museum in lieu of inheritance tax.


The Capel Garmon Firedog, once one of a pair on the hearth of a chieftain's roundhouse, is regarded as one of the finest surviving prehistoric iron artefacts in Europe.


Previously on loan to the National Museum it will now be part of Wales' collections of Early Celtic Art.


It was discovered in a peat bog in 1852.


Conservation X-raying of the object, twinned with an experiment attempting to replicate the making of the piece, has demonstrated the sheer skill of the blacksmith.


The piece comprises of 85 separately shaped elements, and originally weighted around 38 kilos.



It is estimated it would have taken around three years to create.


It was found near Llanrwst in Conwy.


It has been dated to approximately 50BC to 50AD, and was a mark of the status of its owners.


The Acceptance in Lieu (AIL) scheme enables taxpayers to transfer works of art and important heritage objects into public ownership in full or part payment of inheritance tax.


In Wales these items must be approved by the minister for housing, regeneration and heritage in the Welsh Government.


The minister, Huw Lewis, said the Capel Garmon firedog is an excellent example of early Celtic art.


"I'm pleased the artefact has been acquired for the national collection, enabling the public to access and appreciate the craftsmanship of this fascinating object," he said.


The firedog is said to be one of the most popular objects in the 'Origins: In Search of Early Wales' gallery at the National Museum in Cardiff.



Chedworth Roman mosaics to go on display

27 December 2011 Last updated at 09:17


One of the longest in-situ roman mosaics in Britain is to go on display for the first time in 150 years at Chedworth Roman Villa, Gloucestershire.


Archaeologists uncovered the mosaic and others as part of a £3m redevelopment.


They said they had known for many years there were more than those already on display inside two Victorian-built timber sheds.


The mosaics will go on show inside a new conservation shelter at the site, which is owned by the National Trust.


National Trust archaeologist Martin Papworth said the mosaics had been seen and noted during Victorian excavations.


"Only two areas were put on display under the old shelters," he said.


"However, when we did some work to check on their condition we were concerned that frost and weather were affecting them and it was agreed they could be better protected by building a new environmentally controlled shelter over that whole section of the villa and excavating them for display."


The mosaics include one of the longest in-situ corridor mosaics in the country, which is 35m (115ft) long.


It will go on display under a special walkway allowing visitors to walk just above the Roman floor.


One remaining section of the corridor mosaic will be excavated next summer.


Conservator Chris Cleere said: "The mosaics were wet when they were excavated and now they are safe inside the new building we will let them dry out and see what happens.


"Then we can assess what type of work we need to do over next summer for the long term conservation.


"In the short term we will clean the mosaics, stabilise them and prepare them for display to the first visitors."


The new conservation shelter, a redeveloped visitor facility and a new education centre will be officially opened on 4 March.



Wroxeter Roman villa needs maintenance work

29 December 2011 Last updated at 17:46


Maintenance is needed at a mock Roman town house in Shropshire, according to English Heritage.


The organisation said the plaster work of Wroxeter's Roman Town House near Ironbridge was damaged by last winter's frost and ice.


Mark Badger from English Heritage said: "Romans did not have the luxury of a damp-proof course."


The property opened in February after being was constructed for the Channel 4 programme Rome Wasn't Built in a Day.


English Heritage said the architect and builders who constructed the property will return to the site in January.


Mr Badger said: "Where the upper walls are protected from the elements by the layer of paint, the lower walls effectively suck water up from the ground, which makes the plaster much heavier, damper and prone to breaking loose.


"We don't expect this property to last for 1,000 years but it adds so much to the Roman experience, putting the whole of Wroxeter Roman City into a far more tangible context for our visitors."


The designs by Professor Dai Morgan Evans were based on a building excavated at the site in Wroxeter, which was originally named Viriconium and is said to have been the fourth largest in Roman Britain.



Was St. Edmund killed by the Vikings in Essex?

December 19, 2011


Keith Briggs, a visiting research fellow in linguistics at the University of the West of England, has proposed a new site for the battle in which King Edmund of East Anglia was killed in 869. If confirmed, the new proposal would change our understanding of the early history of Suffolk and especially of the town and abbey of Bury St. Edmunds.


The story of Edmund, king and martyr, has become a kind of foundation myth for the county of Suffolk, but contains at least one element of truth - in 869 there was a battle between the East Anglians and the Vikings; Edmund was captured and later killed. About 100 years later the story was written down - soon after, Edmund came to be considered a Christian martyr and the new abbey (founded about 1020) at Bury St Edmunds was dedicated to him. Edmund's remains were believed to be housed in the abbey, miracles were attributed to him, and Bury thus became a major pilgrimage site and a rich and powerful abbey for the next 500 years.

However, the site of the battle (recorded as Hægelisdun) was forgotten, and different modern historians have suggested that it was at Hoxne in Suffolk, Hellesdon in Norfolk, or at Bradfield St Clare near Bury. The new proposal by Dr. Briggs is unusual in that it is based on a detailed analysis of the linguistic structure of the various place-names involved. UWE Bristol has several experts among its staff in the study of both place-names and personal names from the viewpoint of historical linguistics. The use of place-names has long been recognized as an essential input into the broad study of settlement and migration, but the current work is an intriguing example of a precise conclusion about one historical event being drawn purely from place-name research.


Dr. Briggs makes a strong case that Hægelisdun is actually the name of a hill in Essex, in fact the hill on which the town of Maldon is now situated. The argument uses historical documents which show that this hill was called Hailesdon, and moreover was the headquarters of a local chieftain in the ninth century, showing that this place was of strategic importance and likely to be a target of the Vikings. Maldon is one of the East Anglian estuaries which allowed Viking ships to penetrate the hinterland, and these estuaries were always vulnerable. Maldon is known to be the site of another major Viking battle, in the year 991.

Dr. Briggs said, “In 869 the Vikings were proceeding in the direction of London; soon afterwards King Alfred the Great halted their advance and took the English throne, while the rule of the Vikings, the Danelaw, was established in the north and east. This was thus a crucial time in English history, making the role of Edmund in these events of especial interest.

“It was never likely that Edmund was really buried in his eponymous abbey. Probably the whole legend which makes him a hero and martyr is manufactured, as were many other similar stories in the Middle Ages. But any progress towards confirming the germ of truth which started this process is worthwhile. And it does now seem that Edmund ranged more widely than just Suffolk, and probably had an Essex ally against the Vikings.”

Provided by University of the West of England



Archaeologists hunt for Viking heritage in Sherwood Forest

Archaeologists to probe 'Thing'

30 December 2011 Last updated at 07:42


The land surrounding a mysterious ancient monument in Sherwood Forest is to be researched after a local history group received a £50,000 lottery grant.


A Thynghowe or Thing, an open-air meeting place where Vikings gathered to discuss the law, was discovered in Sherwood Forest seven years ago.


Experts surveyed the site this year and suggested the wider area be looked at.


The Friends of Thynghowe now plan to search for further evidence of Vikings including a "court circle".


Historians Lynda Mallett and Stuart Reddish found references to local people meeting on a hill in a 200-year-old privately owned document that describes a walk around Birklands.


Clues in the document led them to a place now identified as Thynghowe and a standing stone, which is named in old maps as the Birklands Forest Stone.


Here Viking elders would have stood and given verdicts over disputes to large crowds.


Only a handful of such sites are known in the British Isles and the historians formed The Friends of Thynghowe to protect and conserve it.


Experts surveyed it in January 2011, following funding from Nottinghamshire County Council.


The Heritage Lottery Fund grant will now enable The Friends of Thynghowe to carry out a survey in January 2012.


A plane will fly over the designated area of Birklands taking laser measurements of the landscape, recording the features mainly hidden beneath the trees.


Where these photographs appear to show ditches or circles, a team of volunteers will carry out surveys of the land.


Ms Mallett said: "Workshops and training are planned for both archive research and surveying techniques used in the forest.


"We aim to encourage people who may not have done this sort of thing before to come on board and discover their heritage," she said.


"There are thousands of years of history in the area from Iron Age field systems all the way to World War II, and we will be recording everything we find," said Ms Mallett.


"We will be looking for the 'forgotten heritage of Birklands'."



Cairo institute burned during clashes

Egyptian academics and volunteers scramble to save thousands of rare manuscripts that chart history of the nation

Associated Press in Cairo

guardian.co.uk, Monday 19 December 2011 23.37 GMT


Volunteers in white lab coats, surgical gloves and masks stood on the back of a pickup truck along the banks of the Nile in Cairo, rummaging through stacks of rare 200-year-old manuscripts that were little more than charcoal debris.


The volunteers, ranging from academic experts to appalled citizens, have spent the past two days trying to salvage what's left of some 192,000 books, journals and writings, casualties of Egypt's latest bout of violence.


The Institute of Egypt, a research centre set up by Napoleon Bonaparte during France's invasion in the late 18th century, caught fire during clashes between protesters and Egypt's military over the weekend. It was home to a treasure trove of writings, most notably the handwritten 24-volume Description de l'Egypte, which began during the 1798-1801 French occupation. It includes 20 years of observations by more than 150 French scholars and scientists, was one of the most comprehensive descriptions of Egypt's monuments, its ancient civilisation and contemporary life at the time.


It is probably now burned beyond repair.


Its home, the two-storey historic institute near Tahrir Square, is now in danger of collapsing after the roof caved in.


"The burning of such a rich building means a large part of Egyptian history has ended," the director of the institute, Mohammed al-Sharbouni, said at the weekend.


Al-Sharbouni said most of the contents were destroyed in the fire that raged for more than 12 hours on Saturday. Firefighters flooded the building with water, adding to the damage.


During the clashes a day earlier, parts of the parliament and a transportation authority office caught fire, but those blazes were put out quickly.


The violence erupted in Cairo on Friday, when military forces guarding the cabinet building, near the institute, cracked down on a three-week-old sit-in to demand the country's ruling generals hand power to a civilian authority. At least 14 people have been killed.


Zein Abdel-Hady, who runs the country's main library, is leading the effort to try and save what's left of the charred manuscripts. "This is equal to the burning of Galileo's books," Abdel-Hady said, referring to the Italian scientist whose work proposing that the earth revolved around the sun was believed to have been burned in protest in the 17th century.


Below Abdel-Hady's office, dozens of people sifted through the mounds of debris brought to the library. A man in a surgical coat carried a pile of burned paper with his arms carefully spread, as if cradling a baby.


The rescuers used newspapers to cover some partially burned books. Bulky machines vacuum-packed delicate paper.


At least 16 truckloads, with around 50,000 manuscripts, some damaged beyond repair, have been moved from the pavements outside the US Embassy and the American University in Cairo, both near the burned institute, to the main library, Abdel-Hady said.


He told the Associated Press that there is no way of knowing what has been lost for good at this stage, but the material was worth tens of millions of dollars.


"I haven't slept for two days, and I cried a lot yesterday. I do not like to see a book burned," he said. "The whole of Egypt is crying."


He said that there are four other handwritten copies of the Description of Egypt. The French body of work has also been digitised and is available online.


There may have been a map of Egypt and Ethiopia, dated in 1753, that was destroyed in the fire. However, another original copy of the map is in Egypt's national library, he said. The gutted institute also housed 16th-century letters and manuscripts that were bound and shelved like books.


The most accessible inventory at the moment for what was housed in the institute is in a book kept in the US Library of Congress, according to William Kopycki, a regional field director with the library. He said the body of work that was destroyed was essential for researchers of Egyptian history, Arabic studies and Egyptology.


"It's a loss of a very important institute that many scholars have visited," he said during a meeting with Abdel-Hady to evaluate the level of destruction.


What remains inside the historic building near the site of the clashes are piles of burned furniture, twisted metal and crumbled walls. A double human chain of protesters surrounded the building on Monday.


At a news conference on Monday, a general from the country's ruling military council said an investigation was under way to find who set the building on fire. State television aired images of men in plainclothes burning the building and dancing around the fire on Saturday afternoon. Protesters also took advantage of the fire, using the institute's grounds to hurl firebombs and rocks at soldiers on top of surrounding buildings.


A military colonel, helping out with rescue efforts at the library, said about 10 soldiers have been tasked with assisting the volunteers.


Volunteer Ahmed el-Bindari said the military shoulders the brunt of responsibility for using its roof as a position to attack protesters before the fire erupted.


"When the government wants to protect something, they do," el-Bindari said. "Try to reach the interior ministry or defence ministry buildings. You won't be able to."



SCAF offers all potentials to rebuild Scientific Institute


Head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi said the Armed Forces will offer all potentials to rebuild the Egyptian Scientific Academy and restore its cultural and scientific role.


The remarks were made by Tantawi on Saturday 31/12/2011 during the inauguration ceremony of the largest specialized center for vertebral column diseases at the medical rehabilitation center of the Armed Forces in Agouza district.


Tantawi hailed the medical care system at the Agouza center, calling for developing all medical centers and facilities and benefiting from foreign experts.


He called on the Egyptian people to combat all forms of sabotage and treachery against Egypt.


Tantawi voiced hope the burning of the institute would be the last act of sabotage to take place in Egypt




Analysis by Rossella Lorenzi

Fri Dec 30, 2011 01:47 PM ET


A centuries-old mouthpiece of a pipe, which might have been used to smoke hashish, has been unearthed in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem, according to the Israel Antiquities Authority.


Bearing the Arabic inscription "love is language for the lovers," (literally translated, it reads "heart is language for the lover") the clay pipe was likely intended as a gift between lovers.


According to Shahar Puni, of the Israel Antiquities Authority, the object dates from the 16th to the 19th century, when Jerusalem was part of the Ottoman Empire, a Turkish state that stretched from southeastern Europe, across northern Africa and through most of the Middle East.


"Clay pipes of this kind were very common in the Ottoman period, and were mostly used for smoking tobacco, and some were even used to smoke hashish," Puni said in a statement.


"The Ottoman authorities tried to combat this practice but failed when it became clear that smoking was firmly entrenched in all levels of society," Puni said.


Smoking was popular amongst both men and women, and was often done in cafes and in groups of friends.


Indeed, 19th century drawings show Jerusalemite women smoking clay pipes similar to the one unearthed in the Jewish Quarter.


"Pipes were also used as a piece of jewelry that could be worn on a garment," Puni said.