Pic of the Day 2019-01-03: Dry Dry Desert

As I write this on the evening of 3 January 2019, I cannot remember having seen the sun since mid-afternoon of 27 December (and then just after driving through a blinding thunderstorm). It is raining outside and that has been the norm for eons, it seems. So . . . I needed to look at some pics of drier and happier times. And I share these for anyone who needs to experience such vicariously.

Ancient Dan and David Maltsberger at Qasr Bashir, a Roman cavalry fort in Jordan (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2013-06-19)

The qualifications were simple: no clouds and no water. I came upon this, one of my favorite in-the-field selfies (does a timer pic count as a selfie?) with my erstwhile field research friend and colleague, David. We are at one of my favorite sites: Qasr Bashir in Jordan in 2013. It is a great place; devoid of rain, clouds, and other (living) people. And I also have a pic of my wife, Felicia, there in 2015:

Mrs. Ancient Dan in front of the gate at Qasr Bashir in 2015 (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-03-15)

I have many photos of places with bluer skies, but this one meets all the qualifications above every time I visit.

Ancient Dan on the NE tower at Qasr Bashir in 2013 (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2013-06-19)

I’ll not elaborate here on the site, as it deserves its own “You Don’t Get This on the Bus Tour” post. Just enjoy the dry for now.

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Pic of the Day: The Massacre of the Innocents (28 December 2018)

In Western Christian traditions 28 December commemorates the Massacre of the Innocents. In other words, it remembers the killing of the male children under 2 years of age in Bethlehem by Herod the Great in his attempt to eliminate the recently born Messiah/Christ (Matt 2:1-18). The location of the Magi’s audience with Herod is not given, and it could have been in Jerusalem, only 8 kilometers (5 miles) north of Bethlehem. But it also could have occurred at Herodium, an artificially-enhanced mountain top fortress/palace built by Herod on the edge of the Judean Desert.

Herodium from the north (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Herodium fairly looms over Bethlehem some 5 kilometers (3.3 miles) away, and has become a symbol of Herod’s threat to Jesus—and to the Innocents.

Herodium: view from Herod’s summit palace toward Bethlehem; obscured by the dark storm clouds at center horizon (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2012)
A rainbow extends towards Bethlehem (off-frame to left); viewed from the summit fortress/palace at Herodium (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2012)

Not long after the slaughter of the Innocents, the text implies, Herod died and Jesus came from safety in Egypt to Nazareth (Matt 2:19-23). He was buried in a tomb he prepared for himself at Herodium, majestically situated on the slope of the artificially-raised mountain. It was only recently discovered after decades of searching at the site because later Jewish Rebels, who viewed Herod as a collaborator with the hated Romans, destroyed it during the First Jewish Revolt against Rome (AD 66-70).

The destroyed, buried, and recently excavated base of the the monumental tomb of Herod the Great on the slope of the mountain at Herodium;
in contrast, Bethlehem (center, background) is illuminated by the sun (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

You may draw your own conclusions.

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Pic of the Day: Christmas 2018

Late on this Christmas day, I offer a Pic of the Day taken nearly 13 years ago. It is in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, a 5th century basilica (over a 4th century basilica) built over the grotto identified by ancient Christians and revered today, as the birthplace of Jesus.

Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem; 12 Mar 2006 (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The basilica is located in a place of extreme political tension and itself is often overcrowded, loud, dirty, and foggy with the smoke from religious ritual. The pic shows my daughters in the main nave of the church. It remains for me a reminder to keep the right things in focus.

Merry Christmas!

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The Winter Solstice and Christmas, Or: How I Stopped Worrying [about How to Express Christmas Greetings] and Love the Season*

Continuing and concluding my series on the Winter Solstice, we now turn to the question of its relation to the date for Christmas.

The moment of the Winter Solstice generally occurs on 20-21 December in our current Gregorian Calendar. With Christmas set at 25 December, the relation between the two would appear merely coincidental. But there is a bit of history and controversy about the matter, obliquely referenced by today’s “Doonesbury” comic.[1]  This brief look cannot explore the full and complicated story; so, for the nerds I have supplied endnotes with clues to further information.


Roman Calendar Inscription (Menologium Rusticum Colotianum) with Zodiac, Festivals, and Agricultural Activities; © Institute for the Study of the Ancient World / Guido Petruccioli, photographer

The date of Jesus’ birth is not given by the Bible and cannot be known with any certainty. Many commentators have noted that late December is quite unlikely, given details in the gospels’ nativity accounts—but I will not go into that here. The earliest Christian writers give various speculative dates for the event, but none on 25 December.[2] The second-century church father Origen even decried birthday celebrations in general as a pagan practice (Origen, Homilies on Leviticus 8)!

It was in the AD 330s that 25 December was first promoted as a feast day to celebrate Christ’s birth, but only in Rome. By the 380s the date as accepted in Asia Minor, and by the 540s in Egypt. Other churches, especially in the East, continued to observe 6 January, Epiphany, as the Nativity (even to the present).[3]

But why focus on 25 December and why did that date generally prevail? Conventional scholarly treatments argue that the choice was dictated by pagan practice, initiated by the Emperor Aurelian in AD 274. In that year, the argument goes, Aurelian decreed 25 December as the birthday and festival of Sol Invictus, “the unconquerable Sun,” and dedicated a new temple to the god with monotheistic overtones. What does all this have to do with the Winter Solstice? In the Julian calendar in use at the time, the solstice fell on 25 December. Christians then, it is argued, either: 1) began to celebrate the birth of Christ on 25 December under the cover of the pagan solstice holiday to avoid persecution; or 2) later declared Sol’s birthday to be that of Christ in order to usurp it and suppress pagan practice. The argument makes sense but is not as solid as usually assumed.

No text, for example, explicitly says Aurelian named 25 December as the nativity of Sol. Evidence that the date was in honor of Sol Invictus is extracted from the Chronography of 354, an illustrated calendar codex prepared for a wealthy Christian in that year. The original is now lost, but several manuscript copies have survived. In the calendar section, the day equivalent to 25 December indicates the birthday of Invictus (but without “Sol”) and that games (30 chariot races) were ordered/decreed. Elsewhere in the document, under a Chronicle of Rome, the entry for Aurelian includes (without dates), “He dedicated the Temple of Sol,” and “instituted the games of Sol.”[4]

December in the Chronography of 354 with 25 December highlighted; illustrated facing page from the Barberini MS; Calendar: CM = Circenses missus (‘games ordered’), N = Natalis (‘birthday’), LVDI = games, Senatus legitimus = Senate allowed, Dies Aegyptiacus = Egyptian days (unlucky days)

The assumption that Aurelian established a major cult festival for Sol Invictus on 25 December is based on combining the difference references with the Christian date in mind. While the connection is possible, perhaps probable, it is far from proven.[5] Indeed, scholarly arguments construct a “Christian versus pagan” atmosphere that may not have existed at all. The posited cultural struggle continues to play out today, as seen in several websites dedicated to “proving” that Jesus was really born on 25 December—one way to defeat the pagans.

I see a continuation of the manufactured conflict in contemporary debate about correct salutations of this time of year—thus the relevance of the “Doonesbury” cartoon cited above. The divisiveness present in American politics these days encourages me (rightly) to avoid dogmatic political statements. But for holiday greetings, I am at a loss. I tend to use “Merry Christmas” and “Seasons Greetings” interchangeably without thought, as I did in the 1960s and 70s. But even that has become (in my opinion) unnecessarily burdened. I resent that if I say “Happy Holidays” or “Seasons Greetings” I am liable to the charge of paganism, or if I say “Merry Christmas,” I am accused of some attempt to impose my beliefs on others. <Sigh>.

Debates like this generally go nowhere when ideology directs argument, especially in religious matters. For the Winter Solstice and Christmas question, I suggest a practical, “real-life” examination. In popular religion—as distinct from “official” tenets and practice—much borrowing of ideas and imagery occur. Such borrowing does not imply doctrinal syncretism or usurpage as much as cultural trends or symbols of comfort. The depiction of angels in Christian art as winged children, for example, does not mean that the artists or admirers of the work were secret pagans with a thing for Eros!

Bet Alpha Synagogue: floor mosaic with Helios/Sol at the center of a Zodiac, with the four seasons (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Sol Invictus, the Greek Helios, is depicted in a fiery chariot with rays emanating from his head. Oddly, his image appears at the center of zodiac scenes on mosaic floors of several Jewish synagogues in Israel. Did the aniconic Jews suddenly become pagan idolaters? Certainly not. So, what’s with those mosaics in so many different synagogues? Maybe . . . they just liked it that way. Popular culture trends are often counter-intuitive and hard to explain. One view holds that the Helios/Sol image simply represents the sun as a symbol of order and not a deity; [6] much like smiling sun faces on grandfather clocks.

Sepphoris Synagogue: floor mosaic with Helios/Sol at the center of Zodiac

Perhaps the most interesting Helios/Sol image is found in a tomb in the necropolis under St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Mausoleum M contains an image, clearly of Helios/Sol, interpreted as representing Christ. Other details of the tomb are interpreted as Christian by Vatican scholars, obviously motivated to find Christianity in the necropolis containing the apparent tomb of St. Peter. They understand, however, that a Christian tomb depicting Christ in the manner of Sol Invictus does not threaten their theology nor invalidate the tomb owner’s faith.

Christ as Helios mosaic, Mausoleum M of the Vatican Scavi Necropolis below St. Peter’s

So, could early Christians have chosen to celebrate the birth of Christ—an actual date unknown to them—at the season when the gloom of winter begins to reverse and the sun’s warmth begins to make a comeback? I think they could; whether or not a Roman Emperor decided to mark the birth of Sol in the same season. I also hope they could use the situation to explain their own views in an inviting way, taking advantage of the halcyon days a holiday can bring.

And, I have decided that I can hear (or say!) “Seasons Greetings” and know why the season itself is special. And if I hear or say “Merry Christmas,” I will also think of why Jesus’ birth is celebrated in this season.

Seasons Greetings!

Merry Christmas!

Happy Festivus!

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*If you get this reference, you are either pretty old or pretty cool (or both).

[1] I have read “Doonesbury” daily since my matriculation at Georgia Tech in September 1974, where the then-weekly student newspaper, Technique, published the week’s strips. I should add, in the spirit of this post, that I do not read “Doonesbury” out of a dedication to its evident political bias, but for its exploration of various elements of our popular culture. My other daily reads are: “Dilbert,” “Pearls Before Swine,” and “Calvin and Hobbs” (now in perpetual rerun).

[2] E.g., by the 2nd century AD Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies 1.21. For a fuller discussion, see Steven Hijmans, “Sol Invictus, the Winter Solstice, and the Origins of Christmas,” Mouseion (Series III) 3 (2003): 377, n. 2-3; this is an excellent article (full version here) for a deeper view of things discussed here.

[3] See Hijmans, “Sol Invictus, the Winter Solstice, and the Origins of Christmas,” 378ff (and be sure to read the footnotes).

[4] For the Chronography of 354, see the excellent online version at http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/index.htm#Chronography_of_354.

[5] There are other dates more specifically associated with Sol Invictus; Sol is not named on 25 December, and it is not clear that the games instituted by Aurelian are the ones on that date.

[6] This is the view of Hijmans, “Sol Invictus, the Winter Solstice, and the Origins of Christmas,”

The Winter Solstice and Halcyon Days

So today (still, barely, as I write this), 21 December 2018, is the Winter Solstice, making it first day of winter; and tomorrow is a full moon. Though we refer to them in terms of full days, both the solstice and full moons are momentary events: when the sun is at its southernmost point in the sky and when the moon is 180° from (opposite of) the sun, respectively. Those moments occur this year within a 24-hour period. Thus they effectively coincide, as we cannot discern the difference visually. For example, the moon appears “full” tonight, but will not technically be so until tomorrow (December 22) at 11:49 CST (17:49 UTC). And, the sun’s rays penetrate to the burial chambers of the tombs described in my previous post (here) not only on the solstices, but on the few surrounding days as well.

While researching how accurately the ancients could discern these phenomena, I stumbled upon an interesting (to me, anyway) bit of cultural information. It turns out that “halcyon days,” a term now used for a period of calm or peace (frequently nostalgically), originally referred to the few days surrounding the Winter Solstice. For this, we turn to Classical mythology.

Claros: End of the Sacred Way (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

A relatively little-known myth referenced by several ancient writers holds that Alcyone, daughter of Aeolus (guardian of the winds), married Ceyx, son of the morning star (Lucifer!), and together they ruled the city of Trachis in Thessaly. Some sources report that they loving referred to each other as Hera and Zeus, which offended the real gods. Ceyx embarked on a journey to consult the oracle at Claros, across the Aegean, and the offended gods allowed a thunderstorm to capsize the ship, drowning Ceyx.

Alcyone grieves on seeing the body of Ceyx; Ceyx and Alcyone – Richard Wilson, R. A. (1713-1782)

In her sorrow, Alcyone hurled herself off a breakwater to certain death, but was transformed by some merciful unnamed deity into a Kingfisher; halcyon in Latin, from the Greek αλκυών. With dead Ceyx also thus transformed, the pair nested and Alcyone laid eggs which were sheltered from winter winds by Aeolus for seven days (Ovid, Metamorphoses 11. 410-748) preceding and after the Winter Solstice (Plutarch, Moralia. Whether Land or Sea Animals Are Cleverer 35). These calm days were called “halcyon days” by ancient sailors (Hyginus, Fabula 65), who greatly revered Alcyone on account of their safe passage at that time.

My own experience of getting out an about in the days around the Winter Solstice have not evoked the phrase “halcyon days” —especially today, as I navigated among hordes of crazed shoppers to and through various local businesses. It seems we have created the very opposite of halcyon days in this season. And as Winter Solstice 2018 heralds the heaviest travel day for Christmas 2018, air, land, and sea-farers in the eastern U.S. are facing treacherous weather. May we fare better than Ceyx and find mercy from a known God.

My comparison of Christmas Chaos to the Halcyon Days of yore brings up the question of the relation of yuletide to the Winter Solstice. Is there a connection? Could be . . .

Next: Winter Solstice and Christmas, Or: How I Stopped Worrying [about How to Express Christmas Greetings] and Love the Season.

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The Winter Solstice and Hope

Today (21 December 2018) the Winter Solstice will occur at 16:23 (4:23pm) CST (22:23 UTC). It is the moment at which the Sun is directly above the Tropic of Capricorn, its most southerly point in Earth’s sky for the year. The Winter Solstice marks the official beginning of winter and is the origin of much tradition and practice in human culture—perhaps to include when we celebrate Christmas (we’ll get to that in a subsequent post). There are plenty of sites that explain the solstices; earthsky.org has perhaps the coolest visual representation here. As usual, Ancient Dan focuses on the ancient and weird connections; and a three-part series is anticipated.

Our modern lives are too indoor, too climate-controlled, and too well-lit for a constant awareness of celestial phenomena. The ancients, however, were keenly aware of such things. Hence our calendar months; though adjusted for the solar year, they have origin in the ever-visible cycles of the moon. The struggle to reconcile lunar cycles with the solar year dominate the history of the calendar and its religious ties. Which heavenly body should dictate human ritual? The moon has a rhythmic influence but the sun rules the sky as the “greater light” (Gen 1: 16).* More importantly, for our purposes, the sun clearly determines the seasons.

Brú na Bóinne: Newgrange, looking NE (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-09)

The influence of the sun on daylight time and seasons is more pronounced at higher latitudes (meaning more northerly for the Near East and Classical worlds). So, it is not surprising that alignments to solar phenomena are more obvious in megalithic monuments in northern Europe. Stonehenge is the most famous example, but there are others.

Newgrange passage tomb; view of entrance from SE (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-09)

The most interesting are tombs, such as Newgrange in Ireland (see a good overview site here). Newgrange is a Neolithic “passage tomb,” in which a narrow passageway of megalithic stones leads to a built chamber under a tumulus mound of stones or earth. At Newgrange, the sun penetrates into the tomb chamber at sunrise on a few mornings immediately around the Winter Solstice. This phenomenon is facilitated by a “roof box” opening above the entrance that permits light to stream directly down the 60 ft. passageway.

Newgrange; entrance to the tomb passage, with “window box” above (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-09)

Sadly, photos are impossible in the chamber at Newgrange (crowds and rules). Happily, there is another site that is more remote and less controlled with similar features.

Carrowkeel passage tombs; tomb G in foreground (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-16)

A number of passage tombs on isolated hills can be seen at Carrowkeel, in County Sligo. These are considerably smaller than Newgrange, but with better ambiance than the crowded tourist site. One of them, Cairn G, has a roof-box, as seen in the previous pic. The passage is short (in length and height!) and can be entered by those able to negotiate the large entrance stone. The size makes it difficult to photograph, but I offer the following views:

Carrowkeel passage tomb G; burial chamber (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-16
Carrowkeel passage tomb G; looking out from chamber (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-16)
Carrowkeel passage tomb G; panorama looking from tomb chamber (left) to entrance and roof-box (right) (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-16)

From an engineering point of view, it is tempting to ascribe a stress-relieving function to the roof-box (i.e., to take pressure off the entrance lintel). But, roof-boxes are not a consistent design feature of passage tombs. For example, the adjacent Cairns at Carrowkeel (Cairn H, pic below, and K) have no roof-boxes, despite an apparently greater mass of tumulus stones above the entrance.

Carrowkeel Cairn H (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-16)

As at Newgrange, the alignment of the rare roof-box at Carrowkeel Cairn G seems significant. The sun shines directly through it to the back of the tomb chamber at sunsets on days surrounding the Summer Solstice. As there are no written sources in the Neolithic period (these things date to about 3200 BC), scholars must extrapolate the intended significance. It usually goes something like this: the sun was seen as in decline or even dying during its annual reduced time overhead and recession to the south; the Winter Solstice marked the end of the sun’s decline and beginning of its growth; the Summer Solstice, then, marked the beginning of the sun’s decline; and this cycle was celebrated in solar worship and as a form of hope for the deceased.

While I don’t want to recommend Pagan religion, it is interesting to speculate that they may have found some comfort and hope in a generally depressing part of the year. Maybe that aspect is part of why we celebrate Christmas when we do (but, again, more about that later). Certainly Christmas is a promise of redemption in a tough season.

Meanwhile, back to Newgrange. The interpretation usually assumed (as above) holds that the Newgrange tomb is oriented to mark the end of a downturn (death of those buried within?) and the hope of increasing light, warmth, and life with the sun’s reversal. Perhaps ironically, our visit there was 10 days after life as I knew it suffered a sudden and unexpected “death.” But it was at Newgrange that my wife and I met new friends that continue to bring joy to our life as we now know it.

New friends Denise and James Ricks at New Grange (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-16)

Next up: Winter Solstice and Halcyon Days (which sounds counter-intuitive): Click Here!

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Footnote

*Then again, as noted by Pink Floyd, “the sun is eclipsed by the moon” (see here for some eclipse thoughts involving PF).

Pic of the Day 2018-10-03: Sela and “The Rock”

A brief mention of “wondrous” landscapes in my graduate Geography seminar last night and tonight’s episode of a daring Bible study series at University Baptist Church have inspired me to return to my recently neglected blog with this Pic of the Day (actually several pics) installment; which also clearly rates cross-listing as a You Don’t Get This on the Bus Tour post!   

Brett Harris, new co-pastor at UBC, is leading a study of “Overlooked and Avoided Scriptures,” with frank discussion on seeking the good news in neglected or troubling passages. Tonight was the whole (1 chapter) book of Obadiah, frequently described as a song of hatred against Edom. Edom was a brother nation to Israel/Judah (descended from Esau, older twin of Jacob/Israel) with which Judah had an ugly sibling rivalry. During the study I looked with interest at the translation of Obadiah 3 which makes reference to Edom living in the “clefts of the rock (from which the LORD will bring them down in v. 4). “Rock” renders the Hebrew Sela‘, which also designates a place by that name. I also grabbed a copy of The Good News Bible, a translation known for its line-drawing illustrations, curious to see how it handled Obadiah. It included this illustration:

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The Good News Bible got it right. The site of Sela is still called today (in Arabic) es-Sela. The place was rightly called “The Rock” by its inhabitants: 

Sela:

Sela, at left-center and center, is a deceptively large, rugged, and isolated massif in the mountains of Edom, today southern Jordan; for scale, the end of a paved road might be made out at right center (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-03-12)

The path up, from about two thirds of the way there (You definitely Don’t Get This on the Bus Tour):

Sela: Katy Bynum, Shane McInnis, Gabe May, Jana Barkley

Sela: the entrance path (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-03-12)
Sela:

Remains of the entry gate of the plateau at Sela (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-03-12)

What passes for a plateau is a jumble of deep crevices, higher peaks, and dome-shaped rocks incised with hints of the structures once built onto, under, and atop them.

Sela: Shane McInnis

One of  Sela’s many rock-cut structures (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-03-12)
Sela: Katy Bynum

Sela: hints of former grandeur (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-03-12)

It is truly a “wondrous” landscape, with no other human beings in sight, which practically forces you to contemplate what once was there and what happened.

Sela: Stacey Figueiredo

Wonder(ing) woman at Sela (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2018-03-12)
Sela: Shane McInnis

Wondering man at Sela (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2018-03-12)

The site is unexcavated but surface finds indicate its most intense occupation was during the Iron II period, the time of the Israelite kingdoms and Obadiah. Sela also appears in 2 Kings 14:7 and 2 Chronicles 25:12 (often translated “a rock), where ten thousand Edomites were thrown from the top by the Judean king Amaziah.

Sela:

View from near the top of Sela; there is that road again, and just below the end of the road (at center) stands my lovely wife, wondering what possessed us to climb “The Rock” (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2018-03-12)

Did Obadiah’s prediction of doom for Edom and Sela literally occur? Ironically, it may have been by the hand of the same enemy that vanquished Judah and occasioned the prophet’s railing against the “brother” nation for not rendering aid. The enigmatic last king of Babylon, Nabonidus (555–539 BC), is known to have campaigned near Edom. An unreadable monumental inscription in Babylonian style, surely commemorating a conquest, can be seen on the lower slopes of the Sela massif. 

Sela: Nabonidus Inscription

An inscription, in the rectangular frame on the stone face at top center, features a Babylonian king (almost certainly Nabonidus), symbols of Babylonian deities, and an illegible cuneiform text (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2018-03-12)

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The Lost Derelict Aircraft

As I noted in my last Derelict Warplanes I have Known post, some of the best “derelict aircraft” discoveries are serendipitous. And some serendipitous ones have surprises.

It was 9 July 2004, during a family vacation to Hawai‘i. Earlier in the day we had climbed Diamond Head, the extinct volcano overlooking Waikiki Beach, and explored some World War II bunkers. Then we decided to go as far as possible around the North Shore of Oahu. No one else was around as we reached the end of the paved road at Mokule’ia Beach. Not far beyond, we topped a small rise and were shocked to see debris from an apparent plane crash—and no small plane; it was a major wide-body commercial jet! A large jet engine (most of it) was just out toward the beach from us, a few airliner seats were sitting about, and a pile of broken bits were collected as if for sorting.

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Parts of a jet engine on Mokule’ia Beach; Oahu, HawaiʻiHawaiʻi (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Confused by the expected sight, it took me a few moments to realize something was not right. Not that I am an expert on crashes, but the debris field was too compact and too recognizable. There was no sign of fire. The wreckage was apparently that of a Lockheed L-1011. That didn’t make much sense because major air carriers had phased the L-1011 out by 2001, and it was only used by third-world airlines by 2004. A partial airline name and logo were visible on the aft fuselage (the forward part of the airframe was nowhere in sight).

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Aft fuselage with partial airline name and logo on Mokule’ia Beach, Oahu, Hawaiʻi (9 July 2004; photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

A crane was attached to the to the aft fuselage as though cleaning up the site. But I had heard nothing of a crash. Had we really been so absorbed in our Hawaii vacation not to have seen such news? Also, there were no NTSB people with clipboards around. In fact, no one seemed to be there . . . until we noticed a lone guy nearly asleep in a fold-up chair in the shade.

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Assorted plane crash debris, apparently collected, on Mokule’ia Beach, Oahu, Hawaiʻi (9 July 2004; photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The man was a guard. Having disturbed him, our access to the debris was limited (darn it). But he also confirmed my growing suspicion: this was a film set. He said it was for a “movie” called Lost. I managed to get a few pictures seen here (they are not great—I had finally retired my old 35mm film camera and digital photography was still iffy).

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Inverted aft fuselage of Lockheed L-1011 on Mokule’ia Beach, Oahu, Hawaiʻi (9 July 2004; photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

That fall, ABC debuted its hit TV series Lost. The whole family became fervent fans and reveled in our recognition of the early episode scenes. In the end (if you watched the whole series, you know what I mean), we had mixed feelings about Lost, but it was a great ride we might have missed if not for the derelict plane . . . that wasn’t really.

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As close as I got to the engine on Mokule’ia Beach, Oahu, Hawaiʻi (9 July 2004; photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

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Fear and Dying Every Day: A Very, Very Short Book Review

I have been toying for some time of initiating an occasional series of “Very, Very Short Book Reviews,” with the idea of recommending some books with Ancient Dan-type subject matter, but with connections to current events. Headlines the past two days have pushed me to launch.

One of most respected thinkers of his time and easily categorized among the “best people,” he became a chief advisor to the most powerful man in the world. But the inner circle of that man—who rose to his position of rule against all expectation— was a world of unpredictable chaos and eventually Fear.1 Immersed in the ruler’s world of egotism, amoral acts (even regarding his own family), questionable leadership decisions, and demands for unquestioned loyalty, the advisor found himself anchored there by his stoic sense of duty to help guide the errant ship of state as near to a safe channel as possible. He once wrote an anonymous piece satirizing the foibles of undue power and glory.2 In later writings he seems to present his struggle of loyalty, duty, and compromise in the guise of philosophical observations to a friend who served in the same corrupt administration.

However modern and contemporary the above scenario may seem, the philosopher/thinker was Seneca the Younger, tutor and advisor to the Emperor Nero in the mid-first century AD. Whatever one may think of current politicos and their lieutenants, or whatever the judgement of history on Seneca and his relationship with Nero, his situation remains thought-provoking and surprisingly relevant.

Seneca’s story is brilliantly told and analyzed by James Romm, Professor of Classics at Bard College (which school also, not insignificantly, gave us Steely Dan and Chevy Chase). My choice to read Romm’s book began with an interest in Seneca as a potential player in Nero’s relations with the earliest Christian church in Rome (he is the first Emperor known to have persecuted them, and traditionally the executor of Peter and Paul). I soon found Seneca’s collusion and conflict in the halls of power far more interesting and timely than I had imagined.

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My copy of Dying Every Day and Seneca’s anonymous work, The Apocolocyntosis, or The “Gourdification” of Claudius (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Read it and learn that ancient history is significant today and everyday.

James Romm, Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014); 290 pages, ISBN: 978-0-307-59687-1; buy at Amazon

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1 A reference to the new book; Bob Woodward, Fear (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018).
2 For the parallel, see the anonymous OpEd piece in the New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/05/opinion/trump-white-house-anonymous-resistance.html

The Aftereffects of Storms

Some of the best “derelict aircraft” discoveries are serendipitous. This post’s subject is such a case. It was during a research trip in Turkey in late May of 2011. My former student and then colleague Mark Nicovich and I had been dogged by a nasty Anatolian spring thunderstorm all day. The storm caught us on the unprotected plateau of “Midas City” and, apparently making up for an earlier near miss, hit us with an unmerciful downpour and then pelted us with hail for about 20 minutes. The glories of the site (a future post, no doubt) made the assault quite worth it, even though the Canon SLR I borrowed from my daughter Rachel, was killed by the soaking.

Midas city:
With the assailant moving away to the Northeast; Mark Nicovich stands drenched and battered on the acropolis plateau of Midas City, a Phrygian site named for the most famous Phrygian king (late morning of 28 May 2011; photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

We returned to our rental Skoda and headed along a parallel path with the storm, intent on beating it to Gordion, the ancient Phrygian capital, some distance away. After a brief stop at Amorium, we were driving rather speedily northward when I spied two planes off to the right, near a major interchange: an old biplane of some kind and an unmistakable F-4E Phantom jet. Despite the race with the storm, the unidentified biplane dictated a stop. We took the ramp of the interchange, pulled over on the side of the highway, got out, and crossed the access road by foot to what now was obviously a monument display. Thankfully, I had my small backup Sony camera in my pocket.

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Roadside Sivrihisar Uçağı monument in Eskişehir Province, Turkey, featuring a Breguet 14 (replica) and (incongruously) an F-4E Phantom; both Turkish Air Force veterans (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The plane of interest (nothing against the F-4E, but they are common) proved to be a Breguet 14, a World War I French bomber/scout plane mounted on concrete pedestals! A century-old largely wood and fabric airframe would never be appropriate to mount on an all-weather permanent display, so I was not surprised (but a little sad) to find that the Breguet 14 was a replica (but a well-done one, and thus deemed fit for this series). 

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The replica Breguet 14 of the Sivrihisar Uçağı monument; and the edge of the lurking thunderstorm (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The Breguet 14 was a French designed and built World War I workhorse, operating as a two-seat scout plane and bomber. Its incorporation of comparatively large amounts of metal in the airframe was innovative and made it one of the most durable planes of the war. Consequently, it continued in production after the war and was used in a number of airforces into the 1930s. That included Turkey. Which brings us to this particular memorialized plane.

Translation of the signage reveals that during the Turkish War of Independence the people of the Sivrihisar district of Eskişehir Province (where the monument is located) raised money and bought the plane for the nascent Turkish Air Force as a contribution to the war effort. In gratitude for the patriotic act, the Breguet was named Sivrihisar Uçağı, meaning “Sivrihisar aircraft.

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The replica Breguet 14 of the Sivrihisar Uçağı monument with explanatory signage . . . and our surprisingly fast and durable rental Skoda (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

A little extra research revealed that the donation was raised by Sivrihisar residents after their occupation and then liberation in the Battle of Sakarya, one of the pivotal campaigns of the Turkish War of Independence. During that battle, a Greek Air Force Breguet was captured by forced landing, put into service by Turkey, and named Sakarya Uçağı (see here for that info in Turkish). I surmise that the utility of that plane was the inspiration for the purchase of the Sivrihisar Uçağı, and it provided the precedent for naming the latter. So the storm of conflict brought out Turkish resolve.

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The Sivrihisar Uçağı Breguet 14, captured from the Greeks (pic from www.HAVACIYIZ.com)

Speaking of Turkish resolve . . . immediately after our visit to the monument and pulling back on the highway, we were flagged down by a waiting Turkish policeman. Unlike many before him on our journey, he spoke excellent English and explained that we were speeding. As we had not even gotten up to speed when he pulled me over, I protested briefly. He calmly explained that he had detected our speed from the other side of the other highway before we had exited. He thought we had tried to avoid apprehension by doing so and was waiting for us, but I explained that we saw the biplane and turned to investigate. He understood and we had a nice talk about the history of the airplane. Then he issued my summons and gave friendly instructions on how to pay. We parted as friends, Mark and I admiring his Turkish sense of duty and patriotism, and the officer appreciative of our interest in his history.

In the end, we beat the storm (barely) to Gordion, where we had a nice visit and another reminder of the good things that can emerge from storms:

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Tumuli (tombs) and corn poppies (of a decidedly Turkish red) that emerge after spring rains at Gordion (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

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Derelict Aircraft I have Known, number Zero

My piece on a derelict Soviet MiG 17 jet fighter aircraft in Texas was something of a departure from the usual Ancient Dan fare, to be sure. To continue that theme as a series of occasional posts will permit me to do several things: 1) indulge my interest in old historical aircraft; 2) share a bit of my own background; 3) conduct a little research on claims or appearances; and 4) show pictures of old ruined stuff. This entry attempts to do all four (not necessarily in that order).

I inherited a love of airplanes from my Dad, who—as confirmed by his own mother—apparently announced at the age of five that he wanted to be an aeronautical engineer. He did that, graduating in Aeronautical Engineering from The Georgia Institute of Technology in 1955.

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My Dad, Daniel C Browning Jr (yes, we have EXACTLY the same name), checking the propeller of his first aircraft; about 1935

While in college Dad became aware of a WWII Japanese Zero sitting in the small back lot of the privately-owned Atlanta Museum on the edge of downtown, within walking distance from Georgia Tech. He would occasionally trot over there to see the derelict plane, a rare example of a famous type that made its appearance to U.S. forces at Pearl Harbor and outperformed all American aircraft at the beginning of the war (only a decade before Dad’s matriculation at The Institute). 

When I was quite young, Dad showed me the Zero during one of many trips to Atlanta to attend Tech football games. After I enrolled at The Institute in 1974 (as an Aerospace Engineering major) I would also go and visit the Zero from time to time. I will admit now that I never paid for admission to the museum itself, because one could simply drive to the street behind the building and access the ungated lot after hours! It was “Ground Zero” for my appreciation of derelict historical aircraft.

Mitsubishi A6M5 type 52 "Zeke" ("Zero") fighter, behind Atlanta Museum
Remains of a WWII Japanese Naval fighter aircraft, Mitsubishi A6M Reisen, Allied codename “Zeke,” but popularly known as “Zero,” behind the Atlanta Museum in March 1978 (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr) [Note the sign in the background]
I showed the Zero to numerous friends, who may have appreciated the historical significance of the famed fighter aircraft but usually did not share my fascination with the sad remains. Most of the pictures here are from a visit in March 1978, with several Huntsville buddies in tow, made with a Kodak Instamatic 126-film camera I kept in my 1967 VW Beetle.

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Bygone warbird and 70’s “Free Bird” hair: buddy Glenn Wills with remains of a Japanese Zero behind the Atlanta Museum in 1978 (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Mitsubishi A6M5 type 52 "Zeke" ("Zero") fighter, behind Atlanta Museum
Wing of Mitsubishi Zero fighter, behind Atlanta Museum; note damage from removal of cannon armament and faintly visible U.S. white star insignia under repainted Japanese red sun marking (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Now for the nerdy and research stuff. Many sites provide good histories of warplanes, including the Japanese Zero, so I will not rehearse that here. But the now-defunct Atlanta Museum advertised its Zero, the one I frequently visited, as the first one captured by U.S. forces in WWII (a claim documented here). The story of the first recovery of an intact Zero (by U.S. Navy in the Aleutian Islands campaign of 1942; (see Wikipedia’s excellent review) is fascinating and the specific plane was significant for American intelligence and strategy for countering the superior-performing Japanese fighter.

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The “Akutan Zero,” recovered on Akutan Island in the Aleutians in 1942; the damaged plane was intentionally crash-landed with the intent of rescue by a Japanese submarine stationed for that purpose, but the landing gear stuck in the bog and flipped the Zero, killing the pilot (photo: U.S. Navy); Note the carburetor intake and exhaust ports under the nose of this A6M2 model 21 Zero

The specific Zero captured on Akutan Island in the Aleutians was an A6M2 model 21, the early type used in the attack on Pearl Harbor. But, already in the 1970s, I could see (as an obviously nerdy type) that the Zero I knew so well was a later A6M5 model 52. The giveaway was the later larger engine with carburetor intake at the top and exhaust manifolds distributed along the side of the (missing) cowling instead of a pair underneath the nose. The Atlanta Museum Zero could not be the same plane as the Akutan Zero! [I think I warned that this was the nerdy research part—but it does combine my loves of warplanes and historical research.] The relevant bits can be seen in my first Zero photo above and in this one: 

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Mitsubishi A6M5 model 52 Zero owned by the Atlanta Musuem in 1978; note late model carb intake on top of engine and side exhaust ports (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr) [Note to those who would appreciate it: the “Blue Thing with Teeth” was edited out.]
Some digging has revealed that despite the Atlanta Museum’s claim, their Zero was captured later in the war, apparently with several others on Saipan, and shipped to the U.S. for evaluation—according to the Warbirds Directory. That source, however, still identifies the former Atlanta Museum plane as an A6M2 model 21 (listing here in pdf form, [see third entry]), which it clearly is not. In any case, the Atlanta Museum closed in 1993 and the Zero was eventually procured by the Flying Heritage & Combat Armor Museum in Everett, Washington, where it is displayed in unrestored condition.

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The Atlanta Museum Zero in the Flying Heritage & (photo courtesy Randy Malmstrom)

An excellent album of pictures of the Zero in its new home (source of the one above) can be seen here on Facebook, including a good history properly identifying it as an A6M5 type 52. 

I have not yet visited the Zero in the Flying Heritage & Combat Armor Museum. Dad would have loved to see it.

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Adada

With the conflict between Turkey and POTUS in the news this week, I felt prompted to feature an unusual and unappreciated site in the former, long on my list of potential “You Don’t Get This on the Bus Tour” and/or “Pic of the Day” posts.

Adada (lat/long = 37.572972, 30.984000): the city has an unusual but melodic name, probably Pisidian in origin (modern uses of the term, however applicable to my thoughts below, may not be fit for a family-oriented post). The name first appears in the now lost writings of the geographer Artimidorus of Ephesus (2nd century BC), quoted by the later geographer Strabo (Strabo 12. 570). 

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The “Acropolis” at Adada, from the Agora (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The site of Adada in the mountainous region Pisidia of Asia Minor (modern Turkey) is an underappreciated delight where encountering other human beings is a rarity. There is a nicely paved agora/Roman forum and adjacent Acropolis reached by well-preserved steps.

Adada: Acropolis and Roman Forum
Adada: Roman Forum from Acropolis (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Looking NNE from the acropolis, the remains of several buildings preserved to roof height can be discerned between the scattered oak trees a few hundred meters away.

Adada: Bouleuterion from Acropolis
Adada: View NNE from the Acropolis (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The closest building is the Bouleuterion (city council house), but I am more fascinated with the three between it and the small theater. They are ruins of temples dedicated to the Roman Emperor Trajan, the Roman Emperors (presumably collectively), and the Emperors in conjunction with Zeus-Serapis. 

Adada: Temple of Emperor Trajan
Adada: Temple of Emperor Trajan (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Of the former, there is not much left aside from a single wall. The Temple of Zeus Megistros Serapis and the Emperors is better preserved, but with the roof and entrance scattered about on the surrounding ground.

Adada: Temple of Zeus Megistros Serapis and the Emperors
Adada: Temple of Zeus Megistros Serapis and the Emperors (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The Temple of the Emperors is the most photogenic, with entrance door frame standing, two walls fully intact, and the part of the rear cornice in place.

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Adada: Temple of the Emperors Taken at Latitude/Longitude:37.575976/30.985520. km (Map link)

Adada: Temple of the Emperors
Adada: Backside of the Temple of the Emperors (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Aside from the aesthetic quality of Adada’s remains (I love good ruins in deserted locations!), the site evokes thoughts on the nature of Roman Emperor worship. Why did the ancients occasionally deify their rulers and, in the case of Rome, build temples to them? Was it genuine conviction that the rulers were gods, or was it mere political expediency? Or (as I rather suspect) was it a fair dose of the latter, carried forward by the human nature to adore heroes, align ourselves to alpha-leaders, and idolize celebrities (of all kinds) who make perceived contributions to our lives while ignoring their foibles (especially after their death)? 

Emperor Worship was a tool of the Imperial Roman government since (before?) its inception. Asia Minor (modern Turkey) led the way in institutionalizing this practice—no doubt initially for political ends. Perhaps to encourage local acceptance of the practice, or maybe as a natural religious evolution—both possibilities are disturbing—in many places Emperors were identified with popular local cults; particularly as Zeus who was equated with pre-Roman (and even pre-Hellenistic) local deities.

Adada’s temples provide us with a spectrum of this phenomena. It may not be too far-fetched to suggest that the same dynamics of politics, religion, and human nature can be seen in our own times. It might be worth noting that refusing to give the Emperor the honors due him, in the eyes of Rome or its local agents, was tantamount to rebellion (as for the Jews of Jerusalem in AD 66) or disloyalty (as for early Christians that refused to worship him). Perhaps the lesson is this: there is a potential cost for attempting to rise above humanity’s baser instincts. 

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Ancient Dan on the ruins of the Temple of the Emperors at Adada (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

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A Relic of the Forgotten and Cold Wars (that now seem less forgotten and cold)

A MiG 17! I had seen it in the 1980s and was immediately interested. But I never had time to stop and my usual route changed. But things changed again (as they often do), it was still there I noticed, and finally I recently stopped to take a gander.

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MiG 17 nose and cockpit (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The MiG (Mikoyan-Gurevich) 17 was a development of (and visually difficult to distinguish from) the MiG 15, which was the first Soviet-built operational swept-wing fighter jet. The MiG 15’s combat debut in the Korean War stunned the United States Air Force, brought American daytime bombing raids to a halt, and signalled increased Russian interference in the Korean War (see that very interesting story here). Seventy years on, we are still having angst over North Korean acquisition of advanced military technology and getting evidence of Russian nefarious interference . . .

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MiG 17 alongside US 80 In Forney, TX (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)
Produced in the U.S.S.R., and by contract in China and Poland, the MiG 17 (and variant designations) was a mainstay of Soviet Bloc and other communist countries’ air forces for much of the Cold War period. It did not achieve operational status during the Korean War, but was used in large numbers by the North Korean air force for years and is still in service there. The MiG 17 was operated by North Vietnam during the Vietnam War and scored several stunning victories over technically superior USAF fighters.

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MiG 17 on an antique row in Forney, TX; note the square painted-over emblems under the red star insignia (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Back to the specific plane that occasioned this piece. It has greeted observant drivers since at least the mid-1980s alongside US 80 east of Dallas, among a stretch of antique dealers in Forney, Texas. The Mig is parked in front of De Ridder Antiques, which I found in June of 2018 with signs proclaiming “GOING OUT OF BUSINESS.”

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MiG 17 in front of De Ridder Antiques, which has other oddities, including the “South Park” schoolbus with characters in the windows, a giant gorilla, and (inside) a very large architectural model of the Ulm Cathedral (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The plane sports the red star insignia of the U.S.S.R., visible from the highway. But on closer inspection, I saw that the red stars were painted over square patches of silver paint, covering other symbols. I surmised that the MiG 17 had once belonged to the Polish air force, which used a square insignia. My suspicion was heightened by a Polish word on one of the service covers under the fuselage and then confirmed by the proprietress of the adjacent store, who I take to have been Willie de Ridder. Sadly, my inquiry as to whether the MiG 17 was for sale was met with word that it was already sold. Whether the MiG stays alongside US 80 remains to be seen. I do hope it remains to be seen, as a reminder of past conflict and a warning against going there again.
While something of a departure from my usual musings, I may do more with “derelict warplanes I have known” if there is sufficient interest.
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The Talking Heads of Rapa Nui, part 8: A Warning to Us All

This is the end (for now, at least) of my series of posts on Easter Island (sorry it has gotten so long; I got really interested). Having covered the remoteness of moai makers, the meaning of moai, moai manufacture, moai moving, moai mania, moai mysteries, and moai myths, it is now time to give my Rapa Nui wrap-up.

In a nutshell, a culture in complete isolation on a marginal island in the south Pacific managed to create unexpectedly large statues (moai) on equally impressive platforms (ahu) with stone age technology and limited resources. The organization and innovation required (unless one goes with ancient aliens) implies an advanced and flourishing society. But, when Europeans arrived, the great construction projects had ceased and the Rapanui people were living in poverty on a nearly barren island. Within another 140 years, every moai had crashed to the ground and the once impressive ahu lay in total ruin, the sites of makeshift tombs.

Akivi
From Order . . . (re erected moai at Ahu Akivi; photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Repeating the question of my previous post: What happened; and why should we care? In other words, what caused the cultural collapse on Rapa Nui, and is it a warning to greater modern society? Is Easter Island a post-apocalyptic preview?

Akahanga
. . . to Chaos (Broken moai head among ruins at Akahanga; photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The first question (what happened?) is the most difficult to answer, but the history of interpretation provides some instruction in itself. Archaeologists and historians inevitably tend to view data through the lens of their own times and experience, and this can be seen in theories about Easter Island. My admittedly over-simplified review of academic reconstructions follows.

Thor Heyerdahl, famous for his Kon-Tiki adventure and book, organized and led an expedition to Easter Island in 1955. He theorized that the “Long Ears” were the original settlers of the island from South America and responsible for the monumental building, but were nearly eradicated by a rebellion of later settlers of Polynesian origin, the “Short Ears.”1 There is an implied ethnic/racial bias in Heyerdahl’s view, especially since he preferred to think of the South American settlers as ultimately hailing from Europe. It was a theory of the times; now definitively disproven by genetic and other data which show Easter Island was settled only by Polynesians. Nevertheless, how can ethnic bias and violence—seemingly on the rise in our times—not be a warning to us all?

New data emerged in the 1980s-90s demonstrating that the treeless Easter Island found by 18th century Europeans was once heavily forested with tall palm trees, akin to Wine Palms found in Chile. Further, the palms’ decline and extinction occurred during the time span of human occupation and seems to have preceded the end of moai erection. Significant data supports ecological disaster, with deforestation as a major component, as the cause for societal collapse and starvation.2 

Anakena
Palms at Anakena today are not native; indeed, the average temperature of Easter Island would not have permitted coconut palms like these, if transplanted by the settling Polynesians, to fruit; today however, because of global warming, they do bear coconuts! The palms that once heavily forested Easter Island were similar to Wine Palms of Chile (the largest of all palms) but are now extinct through deforestation (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

One view is that deforestation was caused by cutting trees for moai transport and erection and that depletion of the trees brought that activity to an end.3  More likely, the forests were cut to create farmland for an increasing population and to provide cooking fuel. In any case, deforestation occasioned many other problems, such as soil erosion, loss of groundwater retention and thus habitat for taro and other crops, depletion of building material and fuel, and a lack of wood to make boats for deep-water fishing. The loss of deep-water protein and other food sources would precipitate a spiraling shortage and result in social chaos.

Papa Vaka: Tuna and Shark petroglyphs
Petroglyphs at Papa Vaka of tuna and shark, deep-water species reachable only with large canoes, which were unavailable after deforestation on Easter Island (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Things apparently got very bad.

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A kavakava statue, the emaciatied depictions of which support the starvation and desperation recounted in ethnological memory; from the Sebastian Englert Anthropological Museum (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

There are even claims of cannibalism in the ethnological record, although unconfirmed by archaeology (see caption of pic below). As a further consequence, destruction of Rapa Nui’s environment by deforestation also trapped the inhabitants on the island, as boats sufficient for escape could no longer be built! Easter Island, with a population unable to leave their isolated home and resources depleted by their own overuse, seems a microcosm for the Earth itself and a warning for its inhabitants wantonly exploiting its bounty.

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Ana Kai Tangata, often translated “Eat Man Cave” and thus cited as evidence for cannibalism; however the name can also as easily render “Man Eat Cave” (meaning a cave where man eats)—ironically, this very cave was used for a scene in the 1994 film Rapa Nui in which the protagonists escape the island in a boat after the last tree was felled and chaos erupted (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Not everyone is comfortable with the notion that Easter Islanders caused an ecological disaster of their home; and, perhaps more to the point, many resist the idea that we all may be doing the same. Consequently, there has been some push back and presentation of mitigating evidence. As we have seen in this series, the moai were demonstrably transported without extensive timber requirements, so deforestation cannot be blamed on monumental moai mania. Archaeological evidence also suggests that Polynesian Rats feasted on the small nuts of the Easter Island Palm and prevented regrowth of trees, so man was not the only agent of deforestation. And, it is rightly pointed out, the Rapanui were marvelously innovative in the face of environmental change, evidenced by their resourceful use of lithic mulch to salvage marginal crop areas and development of sheltered crop enclosures to conserve moisture.5 

Ahu Te Peu
The northwest coast of Rapa Nui from the area of Ahu Te Peu, showing the treeless landscape strewn with stones used as lithic mulch, an ingenious method of preserving some soil productivity after deforestation (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Still, evidence is irrefutable that islanders cut down the old growth (and slow regrowth) forests. If Polynesian Rats prevented regrowth, it is only because they were brought there by the Polynesian settlers themselves! In effect, the rats turned a theoretically renewable resource into a non-renewable one. They also helped the settlers in irradiating the once-extensive bird population of Easter Island. It is a clear case in the microcosm of catastrophic introduction of an invasive species—like so many examples in the larger world. There is no cultural condemnation here. The Rapanui did not intentionally overpopulate, overfish, introduce invasive species, and deforest with bad intention. But they did do those things and the unforeseen consequences ruined their world.

Surely we are smarter than Easter Islanders that lived a stone-age existence, and surely we can overcome the problems we create with our superior technology. Really? Recall that the famous “mysteries” of Easter Island involved how they manged to build the fantastic monuments—such that we still do not know definitively, and many are willing to chalk it up to aliens! No; these were amazing and innovative people who attempted and accomplished great things . . . and who still ruined their environment beyond repair. We all should take heed. 

Perhaps you, the reader, are not convinced that ecological disaster even occurred on Easter Island or, more likely, that it is relevant to the rest of us. Fair enough. There is something here for everyone. Above I recounted theories that attribute collapse of the microcosm to racial or ethnic conflict and social class rebellion. To these must be added others not discussed for lack of space: tribal warfare, failure of the religious system, epidemic disease introduced by visitors, materialistic culture, disruptive foreign influence, and innate human nature. None of these are lacking in our wider world, but the last one frightens me the most.

One Makhi
Contemplating collapse; Ahu One Makhi (photo by Felicia J Browning; © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Proponents of deforestation as the key to ecological collapse like to speculate on the thoughts of the Easter Islander(s) that cut down the last remaining tree. Jared Diamond wonders, “Like modern loggers, did he shout ‘Jobs, not trees!’? Or: ‘Technology will solve our problems, never fear, we’ll find a substitute for wood’? Or: ‘We don’t have proof that there aren’t palms somewhere else on Easter, we need more research . . .’.”6 While this speculative monologue has rhetorical value for Diamond’s points (with which I agree), I rather think the real thoughts were more disturbing for humanity. If not “acting under orders,” I suspect the last hewer was thinking, “I’m going to get this wood before someone else does!”

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1Implicit throughout Thor Heyerdahl, Aku-Aku (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1958).
2The data is stated most definitively in John Flenly and Paul Bahn, The Enigmas of Easter Island (Oxford: University Press, 2002).
3A violent class struggle between the poor workers and the well-fed elite is easily imagined;as in the historically-convoluted 1994 motion picture Rapa Nui.
4The view of Easter Island as a microcosm of the future of human society in the face of resource destruction is taken up by Jared Diamond in his excellent (and sobering) book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (New York: Viking, 2005), chapter 2 and throughout the later discussion.
5See Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, Carl. The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island (New York: Free Press, 2011).
6Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (New York: Viking, 2005), 114.

The Talking Heads of Rapa Nui, part 7: What Happened on Easter Island and Why Should We Care?

What happened on Easter Island and why should anyone care? It is appropriate first for me to answer a slightly different question pair: what caused me to care enough to dig into the story of the island, and why did I bother to make this series of blog posts about Rapa Nui’s story?

[This is part 7 of a series; see the others (but in reverse order) here.]

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The origin of my interest in Easter Island: Yours truly in 1966 (age 9) at Jungle Land, an amazingly kitschy attraction featuring a pseudo-Polynesian and tropical theme in Panama City Beach, on Florida’s “Miracle Strip;”; its “perilous Journey to the Center of the Earth” (led by bikini-clad “jungle girls”) included a large moai head, and I bought a ceramic wood-grained one in the gift shop that day which stayed on my desk as a pencil-holder through my college days (current whereabouts unknown—I blame my brother-in-law Bruce for its disappearance) (photo by the original Daniel C Browning Jr; © Daniel C Browning Jr [Jr])
I wanted to visit Easter Island since my youth—the same was true for my wife—and we had an opportunity to do so this past Spring. I excitedly dove into reading about Rapa Nui’s monuments, history, and “mysteries.” As I came to the academic literature with minimal specific knowledge, but with archaeological and historical experience in other areas, I found the history of interpretations of Easter Island particularly fascinating. Looking at the data without an agenda, I was struck by the similarity of issues in scholarly reconstructions to problems in my own fields. For me, Easter Island became a case-study of how traditional material and interpretation of physical remains can be used (and abused) in historical reconstruction.

It also happens that I developed an interest in the collapses of civilizations and “ends of the world as we knew it,” such as the end of the Bronze Age in the ancient Near East and Mediterranean world (about 1200 BC). Easter Island provides an opportunity to study (and for many to opine upon!) a collapse of a completely isolated culture (at least before 1722). As for why anyone else should care, it turns out that many have interpreted the collapse of Rapa Nui’s impressive moai culture as a warning for the world at large—something of a pre-apocalyptic preview, as it were.

Tongariki from Rano Raraku
The largest ahu on Easter Island, Tongariki, viewed from from Rano Raraku (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Before taking on the collapse of Rapa Nui statue culture (in the next installment), I turn to whether the fall of the moai is directly related to the cessation of their construction. In other words, did the forces that brought an end to moai making, moving, and erection on ahu also cause them to be toppled?

Ethnological legends gathered by early 20th century researchers spoke of a major conflict between Rapanui groups called the Hanau Momoko and Hanau ‘E‘epe, long translated (wrongly) “short ears” and “long ears” respectively. The former, according to the account, rose up against the latter and eradicated them. As moai generally have elongated ear lobes, it was often assumed that  “long ears” represent chiefs of the privileged elite or dominant clans.

Rano Raraku
Moai at Rano Raraku quarry; note the extended ear lobes (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Early interpreters could not resist assuming that the conflict remembered in the legends was a memory of a rebellion of the less-privileged group (“short ears”) against the elite (“long ears”). But it turns out that the terms probably have nothing to do with ears and should be translated “thin people” and “stocky people.” If the “thin people” are assumed to be the workers who labored to make statues for the elite “stocky people,” it is a short jump to connect intentional felling of the statues with a class rebellion. This is the view (but with the old translation) assumed in the rather historically-convoluted 1994 motion picture Rapa Nui.

Anakena: Ahu Nau Nau
Head of a moai on Ahu Nau Nau at Anakena with extended ear lobes (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Also, as noted in my previous post, all statues were noted standing by European explorers who first came to Rapa Nui in 1722—although moai making had apparently ceased before that time. By 1868, however, all the moai had fallen. It is tempting to relate the toppling of statues with internecine conflict; i.e., victorious groups felling monuments of rival clans. But the ethnology preserves only a single account of a moai pulled down by people (apparently the largest erected one, called Paro). On the other hand, legends also tell of priestly curses and moai falling in a nocturnal conflict between the gods. These memories suggest non-human causes for the toppling of many moai. Indeed, despite unsupported assertions to the contrary,1 the ethnology and physical evidence at fallen moai sites is consistent with consequences expected from earthquakes.2

Vinapu: Ahu Vinapu
A row of moai fallen in the same direction at Ahu Vinapu (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Easter Island’s many rows of moai fallen in the same direction is is quite like so many lines of fallen columns toppled by earthquakes in Late Antique sites of the eastern Mediterranean—my usual stomping grounds. A good example is the major earthquake in the Sea of Galilee region in 749:

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Church ruins at Hippos above the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee; note the columns lying fallen in the same direction, a result of the earthquake of 749 (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

So the fall of the moai may well be unrelated to the cessation of their creation. Nevertheless, the collapse of the cultural system on Rapa Nui that created the moai and its causes are the main show in terms of why we should care about what happened there. To that I will turn in my final post in this series.

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1Steven Roger Fischer, Island at the End of the World (London: Reaktion, 2005), 64.
2Edmundo Edwards, Raul Marchetti, Leopoldo Dominichelti, and Oscar Gonzales-Ferran, “When the Earth Trembled, the Statues Fell,” Rapa Nui Journal 10.1 (March 1996): 1-15.

The Talking Heads of Rapa Nui, part 1: Easter Island and the End of the World

Since my last post,* I was able to take my wife on a trip that we have both desired to make for most of our lives: a trek to Easter Island. As I have just completed teaching a brief series of classes on the subject for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Southern Mississippi (more affectionately: OLLI), I’ll offer a few summary posts here.

Most folks have heard of Easter Island; but when it is mentioned have to think for a moment and then remember something like: “oh; that is the place with all the stone heads.” That’s it—sort of.

Rano Raraku
A couple of the famous heads at Rano Raraku quarry on Easter Island (photo ©Daniel C Browning Jr)

There is much more to the island than the heads—and the “heads” are really statues with full torsos (only the legs are not depicted). More about the statues, properly called moai, and other island wonders in a later post. For now, a couple of notes about the island itself and its situation . . .

Easter Island is so-called because it was “discovered” on Easter Sunday, 5 April 1722, by a Dutch expedition of three ships commanded by Jacob Roggeveen. The Dutch were looking for the legendary Terra Australis which had appeared on maps since antiquity.1

While its small size (a rough triangle of 16, 18, and 22 km; see map below) eliminates it as the fabled lost continent, Easter was (and is) an exceedingly hard to find place without modern navigational aids. Sometimes touted as “the most remote place on Earth,” it is actually the third-most remote-from-other-human-settlements permanently-inhabited island (but just barely).2 Easter Island lies in the South Pacific some 2,112 km (1,312 mi) east of Pitcairn Island (where mutineers of the HMS Bounty settled) and 3,680 km (2,287 mi) west of South America (see map inset).

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Elevations and major physical features of Easter Island, with inset showing isolated location in the South Pacific (map © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Easter Island was formed by three volcanoes; in order of appearance: Poike, Rano Kau, and Maunga Terevaka, the last creating the most recent lava flows that bound the three pieces together. There is no coral reef, so the coastline (which ) consists of rocky shores and cliffs all around excepting one sandy beach at Anakena.

Poike from SE coast
The SE coast of Easter Island with Poike in the distance (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Its remoteness, lack of resources, and relatively poor fishing made it a marginal place for human habitation. Yet, when the Dutch and subsequent European explorers arrived, they found a native Polynesian population and impressive constructions. As Easter is the easternmost island of Polynesia, they seem to have arrived by a voyage of discovery and settlement from the west (exactly where is a subject of great debate). Their megalithic monuments, moai, and their apparent downfall impressed European visitors and fueled speculations about various “mysteries” (I’ll get to those in later posts).

About the name . . . Easter Island is obviously a European-imposed designation. What did the natives call it? Ethnological collections do not preserve a prehistoric (before European contact) name. But one was born during one of the most terrible periods in the island’s history. In the 1860s Blackbirders (really just slavers) kidnapped many natives from Easter and other Polynesian islands to work in guano mines and as house servants in Peru. A cheif’s son was taken but then freed on a subsequent stop at the island of Rapa, when natives there seized and liberated the ship. In comparing geographies of their islands, the young future leader realized that his home was a more appropriate Rapa, meaning “extremity,” than Rapa itself and coined the name Rapa Nui, “Greater Extremity” (Rapa is thus sometimes now called Rapa Iti, or “Lesser Extremity”). The name Rapa Nui is used for the island itself today, while the combined form Rapanui designates the indigenous people group and their language.3

The name Rapa Nui was somewhat incomprehensible to a people who spoke a different form of the language and formerly knew of no other landmass, so it was apparently translated into the language of Easter Island as Te Pito ‘o te Henua, the name given to later ethnographers (in the 19th and 20th centuries). The phrase has been translated “The Navel of the World.” It is a poignant expression of the Rapanui perspective in which they could see, from Maunga Terevaka, their island in its entirety and nothing else but ocean to the horizon in every direction.4

But Te Pito ‘o Henua can also be translated “The End of the World.” As it happens, that is an eerie summary of recent interpretations of Rapa Nui’s tragic history, which posit it as a preview and warning to all inhabitants of the World.

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A bad thing happened . . . typical fallen moai at Ahu One Makhi (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Continue to Part 2: Click Here!

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*It has been an even two seasons since my last post, so it is time to get back into the habit.
1Terra Australis (sometimes Terra Australis Incognita, “unknown land of the south”) was an assumed undiscovered southern continent based in large part on the logic of even land-mass distribution between the hemispheres—and would be an interesting topic in its own right.
2Tristan da Cunha is the most remote at 2,400 km (1,500 mi) from both St. Helena and Africa; while St. Helena is 1,950 km (1,210 mi) from Africa. Given that Easter’s nearest neighboring populated place, Pitcairn Island, has only 50-60 inhabitants, an algorithm incorporating distance to quantity of population would rank Easter more “remote.”
3Steven Roger Fischer, Island at the End of the World (London: Reaktion, 2005), 91.
4See, for example, Sebastian Englert, Island at the Center of the World (New York: Scribners, 1970), 30-31.

Pic of the Day 2017-12-10 (and 2015-07-11): “Lord Help”

Ruins of the ancient city of Knidos (also Cnidus) lie at the end of a long peninsula jutting into the Aegean Sea from SW Turkey. In antiquity one came there mostly by sea, as did the Apostle Paul (Acts 27:7) while a prisoner en route to Rome.

Cnidus-Knidos: Apollo and Round Temple
Knidos: View west over the Apollo and Round Temple terraces (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr).

Exploring the site on a very hot July day in 2015, I literally stumbled across an inscribed marble block that caught my eye. The words ΚΥΡΙΕ ΒΟΗΘΕΙ (“Lord Help”) framed by crosses appear above the central feature: a carved labyrinth about 21 cm across. A larger cross just right of the labyrinth with an alpha and omega beneath its arms makes it clear this was an early Christian inscription. Other decorations include two palm trees and a bush(?) as well as a grapevine emerging from some kind of vessel.1

Cnidus-Knidos
The Knidos Labyrinth (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr).

Labyrinths have a long history of religious application, including Christian use.2 The Knidos Labyrinth is certainly one of the earliest known Christian examples. My image is not the greatest Pic of the Day example—it is hard to make out details and it is marred by two large drops of sweat I got on the stone before realizing I needed to photograph it. Nevertheless, I was inspired to post this because earlier tonight University Baptist Church (Hattiesburg, MS) announced the completion of a new Labyrinth at its monthly Celtic Worship Service. It is outside and integrated into the architecture and landscape of the campus. Again, not great pics, but the best I could do on the fly with low-light and my cellphone:

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The new labyrinth at UBC, Hattiesburg.

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The new labyrinth at UBC, Hattiesburg.

The Labyrinth and Celtic Worship service are perhaps a bit odd-sounding to most evangelical protestant Christians (including this one at first). Rather than attempt some full explanation in this short blog, I will merely note that both focus on prayerful contemplation, and this is a good thing in these raucous and distracted times. Beyond that, you might check the Celtic Worship link and give the Labyrinth a go. It is always open and much easier to visit than the Knidos Labyrinth.3

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The author excitedly showing his discovery to his colleague (photo by David C Maltsberger, used with permission).

Final words: the inscription on the Knidos Labyrinth first struck me a prayer for those lost in a maze (literally or figuratively). But a labyrinth of this type has only one winding path and no dead ends. One cannot get hopelessly lost on the path, but might tire of the changes in direction and despair of reaching the goal. Perhaps it is more appropriate to think of the inscribed words as the best general appeal for the twisting path and blind turns of life: “Lord Help.”

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Footnotes

1 Staffan Lundén, “A New Labyrinth at Knidos,” Caerdroia 33 (2003): 6-12.

2 For a nice overview of labyrinths and their recent revival, see The Labyrinth Society’s webpage.

3 Nevertheless, the Knidos Labyrinth has inspired several full-size versions; see Erwin Reißmann, “The Knidos Labyrinth,” BLOGMYMAZE LabyrinthBlog, December 17, 2008.

 

Pic of the Day 2017-10-08 (belated)

Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia in the pre-sunset (6:03 pm) light (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr).

One of the most glorious things to do in Istanbul is take in the sunset and twilight light on Hagia Sophia. The proper vantage point is between the venerable church (then Mosque, then museum) and the nearly equally famous (but not nearly as impressive or historic) Blue Mosque, from which nice views of the latter can also be had. Patience rewards one with a transition of stunning views—and you can grab a durum döner to go at the adjacent Dervish Cafe and enjoy it with the changing light.

Hagia Sophia in the twilight
Hagia Sophia in the twilight, about 45 minutes later (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr).

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Pic of the Day 2017-10-06: Interfaith Interaction in Ancient Rough Cilicia?

This Pic of the Day post is 5 days delayed, but it is serendipitously appropriate in light of a fine talk I heard tonight at University Baptist Church on Ecumenism and Interfaith Dialogue as a “pillar” of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Mississippi—delivered by a former student and now CBF of MS Coordinator, Dr Jason Coker.

Of interest in current research by myself and David Maltsberger is Çatıören, yet another (of many) ancient ruins partly concealed by the jagged rocks and accursed (I have certainly cursed them) scrub oaks of aptly-named Rough Cilicia. The main attraction for us is a building that apparently served as a synagogue, owing to the Jewish menorah symbol carved on the lintel of the entrance door.

Çatıören: synagogue
Ancient synagogue at Çatıören; identified as such by the Menorah carved into the doorway lintel (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr).

Çatıören: synagogue
Lintel with carved menorah over doorway of Çatıören synagogue (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr).

The date of the synagogue is debatable. The building’s walls are of a Hellenistic style of masonry, but it is likely that its final use coincides with that of a nearby church and therefore probably 5th-6th centuries AD. The juxtaposition is all the more interesting when an equidistant pagan temple to Hermes is considered.

Hermes Temple
Temple of Hermes in 2016, taken from the tower above the Jewish synagogue at Çatıören (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr).

The Hermes Temple has symbols representing the caduceus of Hermes in relief prominently carved above the main doorway. Crosses, naturally, are found on the Christian basilica. Cilicia is known to have remained a mix of paganism and Christianity (and Judaism) several centuries into the Christian Era. The religious structures at Çatıören highlight this cosmopolitan situation.

Çatıören, viewed from the South
Çatıören, viewed from the South, with locations of the Temple of Hermes, Jewish synagogue, and Christian church indicated (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr).

The carved symbols on those structures no doubt represent group identification in a period of pluralism; and perhaps even an attitude of exclusivism or tribalism, such as we see too often in today’s world. But it is also possible that they represent identification in a period of dialogue and mutual peace. Returning to tonight’s church discussion: Jason made the cogent observation that ecumenism and interfaith dialogue carry a certain risk—and that dialogue, understanding, and acceptance of others should not imply or include a loss of conviction in one’s own beliefs. There is no way to know for certain, but I would like to think that the residents of Cilicia in late antiquity carried on in such a manner. I found evidence of this ten minutes after leaving Çatıören in the necropolis (cemetery) of Korykos (modern Kizkalesi). There, sarcophagi (big stone coffins) with Jewish menorahs, pagan symbols, and Christian crosses lie next to each other with no hint of animosity—only symbolic proclamations of the faith under which they lived and died.

Korykos: Necropolis 3
A Jewish sarcophagus (with menorah on the “horn” of the lid) lies adjacent to a Christian one (cross on the side) in the Korykos Necropolis (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr).

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Pic of the Day 2017-10-04: An ancient garden statue center

Yesemek
A Sphnix statue in basalt at Yesemek (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr).

Yesemek is a rather unusual archaeological site in Turkey, 6 km from Syria. The “ruins” are really a workshop for production of standard Hittite (and Neo-Hittite) monumental statuary used to decorate palaces and public buildings.

Yesemek
Basalt carvings at Yesemek (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr).

The basic forms were created here and then transported and perhaps detailed at the cities where they were installed. Hundreds of standardized forms still stand on the hillside, like the concrete statue places found outside of cities all over the world today.

Mountain gods
Mountain gods with moon discs; basalt statuary at Yesemek (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr).


 

Lion or bear-man
A lion-man (or is it a bear-man?) relief at Yesemek (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr).

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Shaken, and also Stirred

Shaken, and also Stirred: Recollections of the Mexico City Earthquake (of 1985)

Exactly 32 years ago (according to the Gregorian Calendar convention as I write this) I was preparing to fly into Mexico City after the major earthquake there (19 September 1985). Like most Americans, I was horrified by the destruction and dismayed by the suffering displayed on our television screens in the aftermath of the 8.1 magnitude temblor. But what could I do? At the time, I was a PhD student and of limited resources. My friend Brad Gray, a fellow student who had grown up as a missionary kid in Mexico City, suddenly asked me if I would like to go down and help with disaster relief. His father was then Partnership Missions director for the Baptist General Convention of Texas (BGCT). Brad, an excellent organizer with local knowledge and fluent Spanish, would be on the ground helping direct the effort by an organization within the BGCT called “Texas Baptist Men.” When I protested that I didn’t speak Spanish and had no real connection with the group or special skill, he replied, “we’ll find you a job; come on!” So, I agreed to what would be a life-changing experience.

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A destroyed building with rescue workers on top in the aftermath of the 19 September 1985 Mexico City earthquake. (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The Mexico earthquake this week—on the very day of the 32-year anniversary of the 1985 event—has triggered memories of the earlier event. I hope, dear reader, you will indulge my reminiscences in this post.

I was not a “first responder” (I use quotes because that term was not used then), nor was I to be involved in the dramatic work of searching for survivors or victims. The Texas Baptist Men had developed a disaster relief team and equipment, including a fully self-sustained kitchen built into an 18-wheeler setup that was ready to go and provide thousands of meals a day. Similar rigs prepared and operated by the Baptist Men organizations in several other states were going down as well. This was a mission to provide food for displaced survivors, coordinating the effort through the Baptist Convention of Mexico.

The several mobile kitchen rigs arrived and set up in various high-need locations around Mexico City. The Texas unit was established in a soccer field in the barrio called Tepito, a place known then (and still, apparently) for being somewhat lawless. It was a poor neighborhood in which the quake destroyed a great many old buildings, displacing a large percentage of the residents.

Texas Baptist Men's Disaster Relief mobile kitchen set up in the soccer field of the community center in the Tepito barrio
Texas Baptist Men’s Disaster Relief mobile kitchen set up in the soccer field of the community center in the Tepito barrio, late Sept-early Oct, 1985; note the ham radio antenna, the only means of communication. (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

With all the states’ Baptist Men Disaster Relief units set up in similar locations, but widely dispersed, the main problem would be logistics. By this time, a few days after the earthquake, international aid had flowed into the city in the form of basic food supplies, but it and other staples were in government warehouses. The Mexican government (primarily the Social Protective Services) authorized distribution of supplies to the kitchen units, but they would have to be picked up from the warehouses. A 1.5-ton box-van brought by the Texas Baptist Men was suitable for the job, but no one in their crew was confident about driving it into parts unknown with little information, no real directions, damaged infrastructure, and no communications. Just then, a 28-year-old PhD student with an underdeveloped sense of caution arrived with no other assigned job.

The working area behind the mobile kitchen unit.
The working area behind the mobile kitchen unit. (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Brad gave me keys to the box-van and the task of fetching basic food stuffs from far-flung warehouses and delivering the same to four mobile kitchens buried in the chaos of a wreaked major city. With a few pesos I obtained a couple of city maps—there were no GPS helps in those days and no cell phones. Communications between the kitchen units and the hotel base were not a problem, as virtually all of the involved laymen were ham radio operators and each kitchen unit had its own radio setup. This did not help me, however, while on the road. My lack of Spanish was also still a concern, but within hours Brad got a fellow missionary kid down from Texas to be a translator.

The Chevy box-van
The Chevy box-van used to transfer supplies from government warehouses to various state Baptist Men’s mobile kitchen disaster relief units in Mexico City, following the 19 Sept 1985 earthquake; with pilot/navigator AncientDan, and translator Greg. (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The aid team was billeted in a local hotel that had survived relatively unscathed. They even had a functioning kitchen and produced a huge pot of huevos rancheros every morning. They were fantastic and still today I think of them most days as I make my own version. The daily routine after breakfast was to get my assignment, consisting of what supplies to get at which government warehouse, and to which kitchen units to deliver them. Another assignment was often waiting when I made delivery.

Driving through the city I was struck with the odd juxtaposition of devastation and normal life. Parts of the city were demolished and other parts were visibly unaffected. Tent cities of displaced persons could be seen with businessmen in suits walking by on the way to their offices. Life goes on; normally for some, and profoundly differently for others.

Makeshift shelters
Makeshift shelters in a public space along a major artery in central Mexico City after the 1985 quake. (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The warehouses were all over the place and I would navigate there using my trusty maps (I still have them). In most cases, I was obliged to go to a government office for approval from some bureaucrat, where I was invariably told, “you may get the [so-and-so] in [so-many] hours.” Awkward sitting around in a stark office with no activity followed—which I finally concluded must have been an encouragement to offer some incentive for quicker service. Not having any significant cash with which to provide such incentive, I learned it was best to say (through my translator and new friend Greg), “we’ll be back then.” Not wanting to waste gas, we might jump on the subway and grab some food or explore. In one case, I determined there was an archaeological site of interest nearby, so I managed a quick visit (possibly soon the subject of a “You Don’t Get This on the Bus Tour” post).

The delivery truck and food line
Residents of Tepito, lined up for meals, next to “my” delivery box-van, at the Texas Baptist Men’s disaster relief unit. (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The delay in signing approval forms was decidedly not to arrange labor to help load. It was usually just the guy with the key, Greg, and me who would stack the supplies in the box-van. We loaded thousands of pounds of sacked corn and rice (I don’t remember beans) and the like. The most memorable loads were weiners and chickens. They came from meat-processing plants. For the weiners, we drove into a “refrigerated” building (it was merely not too hot) and past hundreds of hog carcasses hanging on hooks (a macabre sight stuck in my head to this day) to a room-sized locker. It was filled with linked weiners—all unboxed. We simply coiled them on the metal floor of the van.

One morning I was instructed to pick up 1,000 pounds of chicken from a certain warehouse.  After the usual formalities, we arrived at a locker similar to the weiner room. I was naïvely expecting packaged cut-up pieces like breasts and thighs. When the door was opened, thousands of plucked chickens tumbled out and onto the floor. Slightly troubled, we casually tossed them individually into the back of the van in a great pile. I vividly remember making the delivery (to the Louisiana Baptist Men site?) because when we opened the back of the truck, the local ladies that were recruited to cook began yelling excitedly, “Pollo! Pollo! Pollo!” and joyously hauled them off to the giant pots. What I had subconsciously rejected for my own consumption was a major blessing to those in need.

Driving in power-deprived Mexico City was a trip (in the 70s sense of that term). I learned that even functional traffic lights were routinely ignored and that fortune (as well as actual movement) favors the bold. Also, the larger and more beat-up vehicle had the right-of-way in this system, so the old Chevy box-van was a winner! The only things that didn’t yield to me were garbage trucks, dump trucks, and city busses. Getting to the kitchen sites was a bit of a challenge. Roads were closed, choked with piles of debris, or incredibly narrow in the barrios where the rigs were positioned. In one case, access was only through an alley that was a half a centimeter too narrow. Both ends of the rear step/bumper scraped with a horrible din on the stone curbing for several hundred feet, to the alarm of the neighborhood adults and great amusement of their kids. Veterans of my Study Travel and Excavation Program adventures may correctly conclude that Mexico City in 1985 profoundly shaped my driving tendencies.

The Results
The Results: thousands residents of Tepito get a meal at the Texas Baptist Men’s disaster relief unit. (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Without resorting to clichés, I find it difficult to verbalize exactly how this experience was “life-changing,” as I noted in the first paragraph. I credit it with giving me confidence in strange and foreign situations, and in finding my place of service to others—which often seems to be in the weird peripheral or transitional areas. But the impact of my experience was not so much about me as about the chance to observe and process.

My observations and some random thoughts (in no particular order):

  • I find it difficult to take pictures of people under duress (thus there are no dramatic pics here).
  • Life goes on. I did take a picture of a man in a business suit walking to his office past a destroyed building and across the street from a tent encampment [unfortunately, I didn’t load that picture to post from my current whereabouts]. It was a striking (to me) juxtaposition.
  • Life can be crappy in its continuation. You and I (and all people) must decide if we will try to make it less crappy for those we can help.
  • I am not convinced that a selfless desire to help others is completely inherent. I rather think we must be shaken by events and be stirred to to the point of that decision.
  • True Religion is helping those that do not have the means to help themselves, and true mission activity is found in genuinely providing aid rather than mere words (I strongly recommend reading James 2).
  • It is better to build bridges than walls.

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A Serendipitous Adventure: The Belevi Tumlus

You Don’t Get This on the Bus Tour, 2.

While scanning for high ground from which to get a better overview pic of the Belevi Monument, my adventure companions and I noticed something odd about the adjacent hilltop. It had a very uniform dome-like summit, as would be expected for a man-made tumulus . . . but tumuli generally are built up on flat ground rather than on top of a natural hill. Yet, it seemed that a ring wall surrounded the uniform summit . . . or was that a natural rock outcropping? Zooming in with photographic technology made it obvious: we had to climb the hill, heat and limited time notwithstanding.

Belevi Tumulus; View from the Belevi Monument
Belevi Tumulus; View from the Belevi Monument

For background, if you haven’t read it already, see “Not Quite Ready for Prime Time,” for which this post is the promised rejoinder.

Adventure!  

A quick review of resources indicated just enough water for the anticipated rigor of the climb and to avoid a time-killing return to the vehicle. Up we went.

Sure enough, a wall surrounded the summit; so well-built that we wondered if it could be modern. But clambering up the last steep bit to the base, we could see that it was ancient and of elegant quality. Climbing over the wall would be difficult and of uncertain gain at that point (on the E side), so we split up and walked around the circuit.

Stacey at the circuit wall of the Belevi Tumulus
Stacey Figueiredo at the circuit wall of the Belevi Tumulus (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Tumuli are built so as to obscure the entrance for tombs contained therein, so we were not hopeful. But Shane, who went clockwise, found a tunnel opening on the south, enclosed and originally concealed by the circuit wall but now accessible.

Finding an entrance was very exciting but unexpected. As the Belevi Monument did not require underground exploration equipment, we were without proper lights and, in my case, a good camera for unlit tight spaces. Still, the tunnel beckoned and in we went.

Stacey and Shane at the Tumulus entrance passage
Stacey and Shane at the Tumulus entrance passage (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Entrance passage to Belevi Tumulus (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)
Entrance passage to Belevi Tumulus (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The tunnel was constructed, apparently, by cutting down from above and then lining the passage thus made with masonry and roofing it over with large cut slabs before debris was piled and rounded above. This nearly straight and level passage led for about 20 yards (18.3 m) to an anteroom space and two successive burial chambers—the second at approximately the center of the tumulus. Unfortunately, the sides and roof of the tunnel were coated in a greasy black soot, which evidently came from a burned tire. What moron would lug a tire up this hill and then torch it in the tunnel? This can only be explained by Rule One.

Shane and Stacey at the anteroom before the first burial chamber (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)
Shane and Stacey at the anteroom before the first burial chamber (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

So, blackened by the tire fire residue, we arrived at the burial chambers. The first is approximately square with fine stone walls featuring “crown molding” along the tops. The roof is formed by four large blocks laid across the corners as though a second tier of wall masonry was rotated 45 degrees. The effect is somewhat like the recessed ceilings popular in recent American home construction. While it is very interesting in appearance (and hard to photograph) its structural function relieves pressure on the thus-reduced roof space.

An Engineering Digression:

A problem in tumuli, pyramids, cairns, and other big piles over chambers is the resulting pressure on the roof slabs of the latter. The same problem occurs for any spanned space with significant structural loads. The arch is the most common way of dealing with this from the Roman period on.

Another technique is found in the innermost burial chamber of the Belevi Tumulus, which is smaller and more rectangular. It has a “corbelled arch” roof, in which each successive course of masonry is slightly inset to the center. In this inner chamber, a hole in the roof gave access to a relieving chamber above. From it a small tunnel led to another relieving chamber over the outer burial chamber. Relieving chambers are another way of “relieving” roof pressure, as they are slightly smaller and help transfer to the load to the walls rather than the roof of the chamber below. The most famous relieving chambers are those in the Great Pyramid of Giza. Such chambers are usually not visible and provide potential hiding places for treasure. It is likely that the holes giving access to the relieving chambers at Belevi were created by treasure hunters, whether ancient or modern.

Shane looking up through the hole in the second chamber ceiling; from the relieving chamber (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)
Shane looking up through the hole in the second chamber ceiling; from the relieving chamber (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Access to the relieving chambers through the hole in the center of the inner chamber roof was a challenge—imagine the scene in Moana, where she escapes the cave through such a hole! For us it was only possible by boosting, using each others’ shoulders as a ladder, and wriggling through the tight hole (I split open an elbow and resolved to lose some girth). Given the coating of black tire tar, we did not emerge as deftly or cleanly as Moana. Getting back down was a tad more exciting still. In case anyone wonders, there was no physical treasure, but the exploration itself was a priceless enriching Adventure.1

Aftermath of Adventure at the Belevi Tumulus (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)
Aftermath of Adventure at the Belevi Tumulus (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The Belevi Tumulus (38.0142° N, 27.4675° E)

True enrichment only comes with learning, so it was incumbent upon the Adventurers to research the site. As it happens, the tumulus was known already in the 19th century and sporadically investigated by Austrian and German archaeologists between 1933 and 1971.2 The date of the tumulus remains uncertain, but the early Hellenistic period seems the most probable. Thus, it is roughly contemporary or slightly earlier than the Belevi Monument below.

A nice quarry from which stones for the tumulus’ construction were taken can be seen near the entrance passage. Great skill went into the design of the circuit wall, as the stones of lower courses have grooves on their upper surface into which bosses on the bottom of the higher courses fit. This feature prevented outward collapse from the force of the tumulus bulk inside and above the wall—another engineering marvel of this well-constructed tomb!3

A scatter of squared blocks on the summit of the mound suggest a monument stood there, high above the local terrain. But to whom? There is no sarcophagus or inscription to identify the owner. Clearly a person of some import, they remain unknown and without even the speculations that accompany the occupant of the Belevi Monument over which their final resting place silently looms.

Belevi Monument (the stone massif at lower center-left); from the Tumulus (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)
Belevi Monument (the stone massif at lower center-left); from the Tumulus (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

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1 Shane McInnis, so enthralled by the experience, made a pronouncement claiming the tumulus as his own.

2 See (in German), Sandor Kasper, “Tumulus von Belevi,” Archäologischer Anzeiger (1975): 223-32.

3 See (in English!), George L. Bean, Aegean Turkey 2d ed. (London: Benn, 1979), 149-50.

Not Quite Ready for Prime Time: The Belevi Monument

You Don’t Get This on the Bus Tour, 1.

This is the first true post in my series “You Don’t Get This on the Bus Tour,” for which one should read my introduction. As noted there, I selected my first site to continue the theme of the introduction and serve as an exemplar of the kind of places I want to feature.

The Background: potentially boring, but necessary to connect to the aforementioned theme

One of the curious things about the Seven Wonders of the ancient world is that, except for the Pyramid(s) of Egypt, all are essentially or completely gone. The sites of most are reasonably well established; but even where vestiges remain, they hardly hint at the structure’s former splendor . . .  and certainly do not evoke wonder. This is especially ironic in the case of the one Wonder (apart from the Great Pyramid) that was built to preserve and amplify the memory of a single person: the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus. An uninformed modern consideration of the name might create the assumption that this Wonder was a funeral building for some dude named Halicarnassus. That would be fake news.

Actually, Halicarnassus (Greek: Ἁλικαρνᾱσσός) was an ancient Greek city (modern Bodrum) in Caria (SW Turkey). It became the capital of a quasi-independent fourth-century bc kingdom under Mausolus, who was the dude. Mausolus was a “dynast,” nominally the satrap of the region under the Persian king, but with hereditary royal power. He built up his realm, and apparently his ego, through political savy and occasional rebellion. At his death, his sister, wife, and successor Artemisia oversaw construction of his huge and elaborate funerary monument. The structure came to be known—as typically, with the Hellenistic Greek suffix –εῖον—as the Μαυσωλεῖον (“[the shrine] of Mausolus”), normalized through Latin as The Mausoleum. It became the epitome of, and thus the actual word for, an elaborate funeral structure. The irony for Mausolus is that everyone knows his name as a term for a memorial building, but hardly anyone remembers the man. And his monument is no longer there—it was reduced to construction material by the Knights Hospitaller to fortify the castle of St. Peter in Bodrum harbor in the 15th century.

But this post is not about The Mausoleum.1 It is about a similar, smaller, and actually preserved funerary monument some 110 kilometers to the north, not far from ancient Ephesus. It was apparently the second-largest tomb structure in Asia Minor—after The Mausoleum—and thus easily overlooked in compendia of Wonders.

The Belevi Monument

The Belevi Monument, so-called for its proximity to Belevi, a town near Selçuk (ancient Ephesus), is today a hulking mass of cut bedrock, fallen stone masonry, and heaps of marble decorative fragments. Its dilapidated state notwithstanding, the monument remains an impressive sight and ranks as a wondrous site in my book (if you haven’t read the introductory post for this series, do so now for that dichotomy!).

As there are no surviving inscriptions, opinions on the date of the monument rest on analysis of stylistic details of the decorative remains. Most favor a Hellenistic date of the third century bc, and suggest the occupant of the tomb must have been an important ruler after Alexander the Great. The Seleucid king Antiochus II is an intriguing possibility, given that he died in Ephesus in 246 BC. While his body would normally be returned to Syria for burial, political conditions of the day may have prompted burial near Ephesus. His wife Laodice, under suspicion of having poisoned him, also may have felt motivated to make an extravagant show of burying and memorializing Antiochus II. Others suggested a date in the 4th century, during Persian domination,2 in which case a nameless local nabob lay there. The most recent study claims that pottery suggests a date in the early 3rd century,3 perhaps too early for Antiochus II.

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A reconstruction of the Belevi Monument, based on one done by the original investigators in the 1930s, which heavily influenced subsequent reconstruction of the Mausoleum; origin of this version unknown (a search produced it on Pinterest, where there was no attribution)

In the final analysis, we cannot be sure who occupied this now most-fabulous, but relatively unappreciated, ancient tomb of Asia Minor. I cannot help but find more irony in that fact. But that is one of the things that makes the site intriguing.

The Site (38.0147° N, 27.4722° E)

The Belevi Monument is visible, if you know where to look, from the O-31 Izmir-Aydin Otoyol (Turkey has fantastic limited-access motorways). But to visit the site, one must exit at the Belevi interchange, drive through the town, cross under the O-31, turn through a tunnel back under the O-31 and arrive via a decent gravel road. The ruins are obvious and are surrounded by a rather effective fence. Before 2015, the gate was generally open but the site is now apparently closed and the official gate locked. There is another somewhat-official access (not involving climbing the fence!) which I used on my two most recent visits.

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The Belevi Monument today: Taken from the hill (looking NNW) from which the central core was cut; the burial chamber is discernible at left center (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr; Latitude/Longitude: 38.014550/27.472482)

The monument itself is impressive for a tomb in its sheer bulk. The central rock block, created by cutting away the hillside, is almost 30 meters square and over 11 meters high. It was faced with marble blocks on a stepped base with a Doric frieze at the top—from which numerous triglyphs lie strewn about. The facing covered and concealed the burial chamber, cut in the central core opposite the remaining hill face.

Belevi Monument
The funerary chamber on the N side; taken as a panorama in order to avoid the pesky tree (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Above the solid block core was a built (faux-burial?) chamber surrounded by a marble colonnade and topped by pairs of winged lions and urns. The roof was probably pyramidal in shape, but this is not certain. Some of the winged lions and the sarcophagus from the burial chamber are in the Selçuk museum, but a myriad of column, capital, frieze, and other decorative fragments remain scattered about the site for inspection.

Belevi Monument
The Belevi Monument from the NE (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

It is possible, but rather precarious and probably imprudent, to climb to the top of the ruins. Folks apparently have been doing so for some time, however, as there is an ancient mancala (game) board carved into the highest remaining masonry stone on the NE corner. Mancala (and other game) boards can be found on ancient ruins and streets around the eastern Mediterranean, but this one has perhaps the best setting of any I have seen.

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View from the atop the Belevi Monument: the corner stone at left center has the mancala board (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

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The mancala board; left far corner of stone (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

A Digital Sight on a Site You Must Check Out:

Owing to the proximity of the hill from which the base was cut away and some large trees just opposite the burial chamber, the Belevi Monument is surprisingly difficult to photograph from the ground, so the following may compensate for my attempts.

I serendipitously stumbled upon a spectacular 3D photogrammetric model of the Belevi Monument ruins by a group in Istanbul. Presumably they used drone-produced pictures for this, as evidenced by the problematic trees and lack of detail of the burial chamber. In any case, it is awesome. If you look carefully and use my pic as a guide, you can even see the mancala board on the top stone at the NE corner! Go here to see it: https://www.oddviz.com/portfolio/the-belevi-mausoleum/.

While looking around for better photo angles in June 2016, my companions and I noticed an odd shape on top of the adjacent hill . . . and, of course, decided to investigate (if it involves a steep uphill climb in the heat, it must be good, right?). What we found will be the subject of a follow-up post—next time, on “You Won’t Get This on the Bus Tour!”

Thanks for reading!

-Ancient Dan

1 For The Mausoleum, see John and Elizabeth Romer, The Seven Wonders of the World: A History of the Modern Imagination (London: Seven Dials, 1995), 77-106; or Peter Clayton and Martin J. Price, eds., The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (London: Routledge, 1990), 100-123.

2 See the overview in George E. Bean, Aegean Turkey 2d ed. (London: Benn, 1979), 148-49 (unfortunately, now out of print).

3 See the online summary of research by Austrian Academy of Sciences, “The Mausoleum of Belevi,” https://www.oeaw.ac.at/en/ancient/research/research-archive/ancient-cults-and-burials/belevi/.

Pic of the Day 2019-01-14: Dolmens in Spain

Having got on a roll with dolmen Pic(s) Of The Days, I decided to put some little-known examples from Spain into the mix (also, I wanted to get something there on the Pic Of The Day Map).

The Gorafe depression, a canyon carved by Rio Gor in the “Bad Lands” of Spain; Parque Megalítico de Gorafe with many dolmens extends along the ridge on the right; with some larger ones downslope, as the one with a tumulus at lower left, and others on the opposite ridge—240 in all (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2017-03-17)

Spain is rich in Neolithic remains. Here I present dolmens in the Parque Megalítico de Gorafe. The “Gorafe Megalithic Park” and surrounding area is home to 240 dolmens. Most are rather un-sensational, but they preserve a range of types in the development of megalithic tombs. And the open-access park itself is a model of cultural heritage preservation for an isolated collection of easily destroyed monuments, and for presentation with durable, unintrusive signage.

One of many visually unimpressive but well-conserved dolmens in Parque Megalítico de Gorafe: number 111, near the canyon cliff edge (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2017-03-17)

The most impressive dolmen in the park is number 134, some 40 m below the canyon cliff edge, but still about 100 m above the Rio Gor.

View of the back side of Gorafe 134 (Parque Megalítico de Gorafe), on a ridge about a third of the way down into the canyon (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2017-03-17)

Number 134 combines elements of various megalithic tombs. It appears to be a mashup of dolmen, wedge tomb, and passage tomb features.

Gorafe 134; Parque Megalítico de Gorafe, Grenada Province, Spain (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2017-03-17)

I don’t think you get this on the bus tour; but there is a nice dirt road along the canyon top, and a car pull-off below with a trail up to number 134 (along with 132, 133, 135, and 239).

Gorafe 134; Parque Megalítico de Gorafe, Grenada Province, Spain [Ancient Dan added for scale] (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2017-03-17)

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Pic of the Day 2019-01-13: Dolmens [sic] you might get on the bus tour

Because I am about to attend the “Celtic Worship” service at University Baptist Church, I decided to make an additional brief POTD post of domens in Ireland, as a continuance to what has now become a short series of dolmen pics. But are they dolmens? North European megalith-admirers have a lot to work with and have created an array of categories, such as the “portal tombs” featured in yesterday’s post.

Poulnabrone Portal Tomb; County Clare, Ireland (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-14)

Perhaps the most wide-photographed “dolmen” in Ireland is more officially known as Poulnabrone Portal Tomb. Resembling the form of most Middle Eastern dolmens, it stands majestically in the weird landscape of The Burren, in County Clare. Portal tombs have entrances flanked by tall megaliths supporting the roof, and Poulnabrone fits that description. The parallel sides of the chamber, however, are constructed of multiple megaliths while Jordanian examples usually have a single stone on each side.

Parknabinnia Wedge Tomb; County Clare, Ireland (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-14)

You might well see Poulnabrone Portal Tomb on a bus tour, but off the main road over the hills but not far away are other “dolmens” even more evocative of the ones in Jordan. An example is the Parkanbinnia tomb (above). These are called “wedge tombs” because the sides generally converge slightly away from the entrance—which is too low to enter standing and, presumably, thus does not rate the designation “portal.”

Meggagh Wedge Tomb; County Clare, Ireland (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-14)

Finally, moving to the east side of Ireland, the Brownshill Dolmen has the largest capstone known. It is also officially a portal tomb.

Ancient Dan stands in the portal of the Brownshill Dolmen, Ireland (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-10)

Brownsville Portal Tomb is also easily reached by passing bus tours. But you should still get a car . . .

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Pic of the Day 2019-01-12: Balykeel Dolmen (you also don’t get this on the bus tour)

Mrs. Ancient Dan’s response to my Facebook share of the previous POTD post (about dolmens in Jordan) is a reminder that most people have seen dolmens in Ireland or other parts of NW Europe rather than Jordan. So, to continue the dolmen theme—and to get an Ireland location on the POTD Map—I will add a couple of posts on dolmens there. This one is an underappreciated gem; the Ballykeel Dolmen.

Ballykeel Dolmen (Mullaghbawn, Newry, Northern Ireland) appears to point at the nearly full moon (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-18)

Ballykeel Dolmen is off the beaten path (making it a “You Don’t Get This on the Bus Tour” listing), nestled between some residences outside of Newry, Northern Ireland. The site is protected and fenced with a gate an explanatory sign (more portable than intended on our visit), but it is underappreciated and visited only by those that know they want to go there.[1]

Ballykeel Dolmen site (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-18)

The dolmen lies at the east end of a cairn (pile of stones and dirt) that was built up to and around it in antiquity. It proved a pleasant spot for a sunset picnic dinner in May 2016 with a former student (then studying at Trinity College, Dublin). Takeaway fish and chips (from Fiships in Camlough, Newry) hit the spot!

Ancient Dan enjoys a fish and chips picnic with Van and Felicia at the Ballykeel Dolmen site (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-18)

Unlike middle eastern dolmens, which are almost universally “trilithions” made from two parallel vertical slabs and another spanning their tops, Ballykeel and many other so-called “portal tombs” in Ireland have a tripod of megaliths supporting the roof slab with one pair of supports forming the entrance “portal.”

Ballykeel Dolmen, showing the three supports with entrance on the right (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-18)
Ballykeel Dolmen, Northern Ireland, with Van for scale (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-18)

If you ever visit Ireland, do it with a car. That way you can find and enjoy great out-of-the-way and mysterious sites like Ballykeel Dolmen.

Next up: dolmens [sic] you might get on the bus tour!

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[1] BTW, a great place to find megalithic and other ancient sites to visit wherever you may travel is the Megalithic Portal; here is their page for Ballykeel Dolmen as an example.

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Pic of the Day 2019-01-11: Dolmens and Tombs (you don’t get this on the bus tour)

Dolmen scholar James Fraser’s work was featured in a Jordan Times article yesterday that I shared on Facebook earlier today. In his honor I present this related POTD post. Dolmens are megalithic structures known in northern Europe and elsewhere, but are especially numerous in hills adjacent to the Jordan River, particularly (and almost exclusively) on the east side in the country of Jordan.

Dolmens above Wadi Jadideh, Jordan, with Mount Nebo in the distant background at right (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2012-06-30)

These dolmens have been variously interpreted, but are almost certainly tombs dating to the Early Bronze I period (about 3700-3000 BC). Under this interpretation, the mystery is why some, but not all, Early Bronze I settlements have dolmen fields nearby.

David Maltsberger and I conducted the Irbid Region Dolmen Survey, Jordan, in 2012-2013, with a primary interest in dolmen orientation. During the work, I concluded that dolmen construction was determined by the type of bedrock present (and suspected that orientation was largely a function of the terrain and slope). David and I met James Fraser when we presented our study at a conference. He was finishing a dissertation on dolmens and kindly shared his research with us. It has now been published as Dolmens in the Levant, PEF Annual XIV, 2018.

Dolmens at Kfur Yuba, near Irbid, Jordan, cataloged during the Irbid Region Dolmen Survey, (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2013-06-13)

Fraser beat us to the punch on the geology issue and added the astute observation that dolmens were used as family tombs for EB I settlements in areas of hard bedrock, while other EB I settlements carved family tombs into their softer geological substrate. There is one place where both types of tombs exist side-by-side; at Dahmiyah, overlooking the Jordan Valley.

A porthole dolmen at Dahmiyah, Jordan (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2013-06-20)

At Dahmiyah, a number of dolmens have “porthole” entrances (above), in which a framed opening is carved through the closing slab. This feature doesn’t make much sense functionally. But this odd entrance mimics the openings of nearby carved cave-tombs from the same period. In other words, it represents a cultural continuity even with a change of tomb type.

“Dr. Dave” Maltsberger and Ancient Dan with EB carved tombs at Dahmiyah, Jordan (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2013-06-20)

The difficulty of access to Dahmiyah earns this post a “You Don’t Get This on the Bus Tour” cross-categorization.

“Dr. Dave” tentatively peers into a spider-infested EB I tomb at Dahmiyah (it might be noted that the photographer is already fully invested in the arachnid hole; (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2013-06-20)

Unfortunately, difficult access does not prevent exploitation of the hillsides there. The area is now a quarry —the tragic fate that threatens many dolmen fields (that hard bedrock is still in demand). Indeed, dolmens are disappearing from the landscape at an alarming rate . . .

A damaged porthole dolmen and an excavator—the main natural predator of dolmens—at Dahmiyah, Jordan (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2013-06-20)

Next up: something almost completely different; a dolmen in Ireland (click here to go to it).

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