I read a lot of stuff relative to the ancient world that probably would not interest the average bear, but occasionally I run across articles that a broader audience of readers might find intriguing, so I thought I’d pass along a few recent links.
Have you ever heard of a feline archaeologist? In Rome, two guys chasing a stray cat saw it disappear through a small crevice and go underground. Widening the opening, which recent rains appear to have uncovered, they discovered a catacomb-like tomb that could be 2,000 years old. Niches for funeral remains were cut into the wall, and a pile of bones littered the floor. No word on whether the cat was rewarded with an Indiana Jones fedora.
At the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, preservationists have restored an Egyptian mummy case that had fallen into disrepair with the aid of an engineering student who designed an internal support system from LEGO components. The mummy case, which belonged to an Egyptian official named Hor, is made of cartonnage, a lightweight but strong material made from thin layers of plaster, linen, and glue. The mummy case was already damaged when it was found in Thebes in 1896, as thieves had ripped out the gilded wooden face.
While in storage for more than a century, the cartonnage had sagged out of shape. The restoration project found a way to mount the case face down while conservators carefully reshaped Hor’s final home. To maintain the shape when the case went on display, six adjustable, padded LEGO jacks were placed inside. (A video report is available here.) Think LEGO will use this to develop a new line of Egyptian-themed toys? If you think mummies and heiroglyphs are fun, did you know there are more than 100 Egyptology-themed pages on Facebook?
Finally, scholars at Oxford University think they are near a breakthrough in translating proto-Elamite, the world’s oldest undeciphered written language. A number of tablets found in what is now southwest Iran date back to 2900-3200 BCE. They use a clay writing system that appears to have been borrowed from the cuneiform writing used in Mesopotamia. Proto-Elamite adopted some common symbols, such as those for counting and some agricultural goods, but 80-90 percent of the symbols remain undeciphered. Linguists at Oxford have managed to figure out that many tablets relate to property and agricultural records, including the meager rations given to poor laborers. High-tech lighting techniques are now being used to photograph the tablets from every angle to produce high-resolution, near 3-D images. The images are being posted online in a cooperative venture with the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative in hopes that a sort of “academic crowdsourcing” may lead to further progress in understanding the texts.
One of the greatest problems in deciphering the texts, according to project director Jacob Dahl, is that no scholarly tradition of standard spelling or rules had developed when the tablets were first written, leading to many apparent mistakes and inconsistencies.
Alas, with cuneiform as with people, a track record of inconsistency can make understanding a difficult task.