The Fate of Rome (and Russian Trolls): A Very, Very Short Book Review

As I write this, that annual scourge of winter, flu season, is in full flower. Flu requires a seasonal vaccination to provide temporary immunity, so the cycle of projecting the strain and concocting an annual vaccine will continue with mixed results for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, in the United States there are regional outbreaks of measles. Unlike the flu, long-term immunity to measles has been possible by vaccination for decades. But in recent years, an anti-vaccination movement has taken hold and . . . yep; the outbreaks are in areas with high percentages of un-vaccinated persons.

This is an odd intro to a book-review blog, but I think relevant. In my first “Very, Very Short Book Review”, I expressed my desire of “recommending some books with Ancient Dan-type subject matter, but with connections to current events.” Kyle Harper’s The Fate of Rome fits the bill on both counts and triggers the second of this (obviously, very occasional) series.

Kyle Harper, The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, & the End of an Empire (Princeton: University Press, 2017); ISBN: 978-0-691-16683-4.

My copy of Harper, The Fate of Rome (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Harper treats the oft-discussed subject of the Fall of Rome from a different angle than most, focusing on the role of persistent disease morbidity and mortality, unexpected climate change, and three decisive pandemics. With acute rhetorical and story-telling skill, Harper has fashioned a page-turner as he builds his case that decades of exceptionally good climate, resulting population growth, and the extensive connectivity of the Roman world created prime conditions for the three pandemics. The triggers, he argues, are unforeseen climate interruptions from volcanic activity and a normal cooling cycle.

Some have challenged parts of Harper’s arguments and data, and perhaps with good reason. The thing that makes the book such a good read—its engaging style and vivid description—also creates an opening for the charge that Harper uses his rhetorical skill to cover weaknesses in the data. This objection is aided by the book’s awkward reference style.[1] Yes, as is charged, there are a few claims for which it is impossible to find Harper’s sources; but with this crazy system oversights are practically invited. Footnotes are better. That criticism notwithstanding, The Fate of Rome is a marvel of research across a range of specialties in ancient history, climate science, and biology. The beauty and value of the volume, for me, is its attention to the workings and dynamics of systems and human behavior. Here, study of the past is quite relevant for the present.

I feel certain that Princeton University Press’ dust jacket design for Harper, The Fate of Rome, was inspired by my door at The Compound . . . complete with falling leaves (couldn’t locate the fallen leaves for this impromptu pic; photo © Daniel C Browning Jr )

What does all this have to do with the current outbreaks of measles? The three pandemic “plagues” were catastrophic, killing unprecedented percentages of the population. But everyone did not die. The pathogens lost their overwhelming effect when the population was dominated by survivors who gained immunity. Community wide immunity is what keeps pandemic-capable pathogens at bay. Happily, in our modern world, we have easy immunity to some threats through vaccination programs. Yet, movements have developed and persist that decry and resist such programs. This is not the place to argue the science—but the anti-vaccination people rely on disproved studies, pseudoscience, rumor, distrust of government (perhaps understandable), and disinformation planted by Russian trolls. I did not make this up and it is not “fake news!” (check the study published in the American Journal of Public Health here).[2] Indeed, in the wake of the recent measles outbreaks, Facebook is reportedly considering ways to limit anti-vaccine disinformation.

The compulsory vaccination issue is complicated by concerns for individual choice, privacy, and especially religious freedom. I get that and don’t want to presume to have arguments for all angles. But a read of Harper, The Fate of Rome might bring a dose of reality about the way systems can surprise the complacent and potentially change the Fate of Us.

One of Harper’s observations is that the second Roman pandemic, the “Plague of Cyprian” in the mid-third century, is responsible for elevating Christianity to a prominent position in the Empire and paved the way for its dominance in the next centuries. This view is shared by other scholars of the late Empire. Ironically, elements of the faith that once benefited from the fear of rampant infectious disease now may be a factor in allowing one such disease to return (Rule 4).

Anti-vaxxers: the pathogen community thanks you very much (with a special shout-out to Russian trolls for their part in the Collusion).

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[1] Endnote numbers appear only at the end of paragraphs and the corresponding notes (at the end of the book) contain multiple references, sometimes keyed by a short quote from the paragraph to guide the reader to the right source. As I spend at least half of my time in reading a book like this in the notes, this is a maddening system.

[2] David A. Broniatowski, et al, “Weaponized Health Communication: Twitter Botsand Russian Trolls Amplify the Vaccine Debate,” American Journal of Public Health. 108(10): 1378–1384. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2018.304567.


Pic of the Day 2019-02-03: Stadiums with a Past

I am pretty unexcited about this evening’s “big game” between the bandwagon team of dubious integrity and the other guys that rammed their way in via an egregious no-call. Perhaps you, dear reader, need a diversion from the endless-but-not-timeless hype of the afternoon.

This week, the question came up in conversation (I don’t even remember with who), “what happened to the Georgia Dome?” [For the uninformed, Super Bowl LIII will be played in the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium which has replaced the former as Atlanta’s main sports venue.] The answer: it was “blowed up” (video here) and removed from existence to make way for the great hood ornament stadium (here is a time lapse of the transition). Apparently Atlanta has some recycling issues (as here). Rather than go on about our “throw-away society,” I offer the contrast of stadiums that have endured to tell about their culture in a way the Georgia Dome never will. Today’s Pic(s) Of The Day:

The stadium at Aphrodisias, in Turkey; looking west (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2012-05-21)

We begin with the well-preserved stadium at Aphrodisias, in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey). It is fairly typical in construction, but has semi-circles of seats at both ends, creating a closed oblong shape.

The stadium at Aphrodisias, in Turkey; view to the east in late afternoon light (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2012-05-21)

There are several nicely-preserved stadia in Turkey, including the recently-exposed huge example at Magnesia-on-the-Meander. It is difficult to capture without a panoramic view:

Panorama of the large recently-exposed stadium at Magnesia-on-the-Meander, in Turkey (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-27)

This example is open on one end, which is more typical. It also has some trappings found in other ancient stadiums that we would find familiar, such as reserved sections (as the regular bench seats with inscribed group names at left).

The Magnesia-on-the-Meander stadium also sports some luxury features that, coupled with its huge size, make it something of the Mercedes-Benz Stadium of Roman Asia. Premium seating is found down low, in a ring pictured below, and in apparent box-seat sections at the end. No retractable roof, though, but with a view and weather like this who cares?

Premium seating ring in the stadium at Magnesia-on-the-Meander, in Turkey (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2014-05-18)

Finally, a couple of views of the best-preserved stadium in Greece; the one at the high point of the remains of ancient Delphi; home of the famous Oracle of Apollo:

The stadium at Delphi, site of the great Oracle of Apollo; view to east from the closed end, taken before an earthquake made it unsafe (and not allowed) to enter the stadium (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 1985)
View to west from the open end of the stadium at Delphi, from behind the nicely-preserved starting line and judges boxes(?) (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 1985)

As you can see, the Delphi stadium is on the side of a mountain (Mt Parnassus), and the lower (south) side has a significant retaining wall. In that wall, on the east end, is an inscription also having a modern echo. It places limitations on wine brought in or out of the stadium:

Delphi stadium: inscription on east end of southern retaining wall, with regulations on wine brought in or out (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-05-14)

You may be wondering why I have not included famous structures like the Colosseum in Rome. That is because the Colosseum is actually an amphitheater, not a stadium. An amphitheater is like a theater in structure, but the seats go all the way around in an oval. Our modern “stadiums” are actually built more like Roman amphitheaters than Greek or Roman stadiums. Modern structures that many people call amphitheaters are really just theaters . . . confusing; but amphitheaters will have to wait for a different post.

View of Delphi theater and Temple of Apollo just below (site of the Oracle) and other remains further downslope (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-05-14)

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P.S.: Go Rams!


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The Talking Heads of Rapa Nui: Take Me to the River . . .

But there is no river on Rapa Nui. Indeed, Easter Island has no perennial watercourse of any kind. Perhaps there were streams prior to deforestation but, by any estimation, water resources were and are a major issue for inhabitants of this small remote island with irregular rainfall. That and other environmental limitations make the erection of the famous statues (moai) on their even larger platforms (ahu) all the more impressive and mysterious.

Ahu and Moai of Rapa Nui (Easter Island), with inset of location in the South Pacific (map © Daniel C Browning Jr)

An interesting new study highlighted by CNN in this linked story claims to have solved “the mystery” of why Rapa Nui (Easter Island)’s ahu and moai were built where they were. In the technical article (online version here for the academically interested),[1] a team of scholars concludes that the island’s famous structures were built at locations where fresh water was available. In some ways this seems like an obvious solution, but the study employs GIS and statistics to solidify the case. The authors include Terry Lipo and Carl Hunt, who acknowledge the environmental stress and deforestation realities but rightly emphasize the ingenuity of the Rapanui people in their excellent 2011 book.[2]

This addition to my series on Rapa Nui/Easter Island is to call attention to this important study and allow me to add a related personal anecdote.

Ahu Tongariki, Rapi Nui (Easter Island, Chile): guardians of fresh water? (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2018-03-13)

As an archaeologist with a desire to see everything everywhere, I naturally sought to visit as many of the 200-300 ahu as possible on a 5-day visit to Rapa Nui. Most tourists and bus tours concentrate on the well-known sites with restored ahu and re-erected moai, or the half-buried “heads” of moai at the Rano Raraku quarry. We saw those, but I dragged my long-suffering wife to many other ruins that appear to be “piles of rocks.”

Ahu Hanga Tetenga, SE coast of Rapa Nui (Easter Island); note two fallen and broken moai, one fallen to the left of the ahu and a fractured one on top (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2018-03-10)

At the relatively unimpressive and little-visited Ahu Hanga Tetenga on the SE coast, I noticed a fenced cattle pasture across the road as I turned down the trail to the site. Exiting our rental “jeep” (a 4×4 Suzuki Jimny) I anoticed a pronounced droning noise mixed with the sound of the surf. But attracted by the ruins, I ignored all this and headed for the pile of rocks that once was a proud ahu with two toppled and broken moai.

Ahu Hanga Tetenga, SE coast of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) with two fallen moai; the water pump referenced in the text is at the water line out of frame below and to right (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2018-03-10)

I gawked and photographed as Felicia admired the South Pacific. Suddenly the droning noise ceased and, within a minute, a lone motor scooter careened down the slope from the cattle yard above and beyond the road — headed straight for my wife! The rider dismounted as I walked swiftly and warily that direction. He passed Felicia without a word and bounded down the short cliff to the water, where I was able to crane and see a gas-powered water pump that had quit. He retrieved a hidden gas can, added fuel, and restarted it. Passing us without comment, he jumped on the scooter and bounced away over the rocky landscape to tend his cattle. Unbelievably, it did not occur to me to photograph the pump system or the rancher who was there less than two minutes. His water pipe is faintly visible here:

Ahu Hanga Tetenga, SE coast of Rapa Nui (Easter Island): a mostly-buried and barely perceptible water pipe, highlighted slightly in this pic, runs from the short cliff behind the sign, under a line of stones, and off to the left (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2018-03-10)

I remembered commenting to Felicia as we turned down the path, “I wonder how they get enough water for those cattle in this desolate place?” Now we knew. The rancher was pumping from a “seep,” where the fresh water aquifer of the island invisibly spills out of the submerged rocks into the ocean. Such seeps are common and long-utilized on Rapa Nui. The location of Ahu Hanga Tetenga, just above this source, vividly demonstrates the study’s conclusions.

Ahu and Moai of Rapa Nui (Easter Island), showing water sources in the cited study area (map © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The article, just published last week (10 January 2019) not only presents a reasonable and well-defended case, but it is also a model of “open access” publishing (meaning that it is available to anyone without subscription). The authors even provide links to shapefiles (GIS data) used in the research. I happily downloaded and incorporated them to improve my own data and map of Rapa Nui (above). Now I have a need to go back to get a pic of that pump . . .

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[1] R. J. DiNapoli, C. P. Lipo, T. Brosnan, T. L. Hunt, S. Hixon, et al. 2019. Rapa Nui (Easter Island) monument (ahu) locations explained by freshwater sources. PLOS ONE 14(1): e0210409. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0210409.

[2] Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, Carl. The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island (New York: Free Press, 2011).


The full “Talking Heads of Rapa Nui” series (best read in order)
Part 1: Easter Island and the End of the World
Part 2: Easter Island Moai and Ahu
Part 3: The Making of a Moai
Part 4: The Mystery of Moai Moving
Part 5: Hats Make the Moai?
Part 6: The Fall of the Moai
Part 7: What Happened on Easter Island and Why Should We Care?
Part 8: A Warning to Us All

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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