Tuesday, November 30, 2010

From Iran to Corinth – Pottery research shows Greek city engaged in long distance trade during medieval times

View Corinth's trade in a larger map

This has been identified at the
oldest albarelli jar known to exist.
It was created in the 11th century in
Fustat and subsequently exported to
At the end of ancient times, Corinth, one of the most famous cities in the Greek world, lay partly in ruins.
“The mid 6th century city fell victim first to bubonic plague, with high mortality levels, and subsequently a deep economic recession that lasted, according to the archaeological finds, for 500 years,” write archaeologists from the American School of Classical Studies at Athens in an overview on their website. The school has been excavating Corinth since 1896.
The city didn’t recover until well into the Middle Ages. But recover it did – starting in the 9th century it began to expand. The area over what was once a Roman forum turned into a “dense mass of houses, workshops, bathhouse and monasteries,” say the archaeologists.
Trade, production and outside contacts all increased. Once again it was a good time to be a Corinthian. “Corinth at its apogee in the later 11th century and the 12th century may have employed as many as 230 cobblers and 70 potters and assistants in twenty pottery workshops,” writes site excavator Guy Sanders in an article.
During this period of recovery it remained under Byzantine rule – although this was interrupted in 1147 when the Normans, led by Roger II of Sicily, raided the city. The Normans were rivals of the Byzantines, competing with them for power in the Mediterranean.
Trade with the Middle East
Now, thanks in part to research conducted by Robert Mason, a curator at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto Canada, we know that medieval Corinth was involved in long distance trade throughout the Middle East. These imports include rare and complex ceramics from places as distant as Kashan Iran, more than 2,500 kilometres away.
Mason is an expert in the pottery of the Middle East. By studying the minerals the pots are made out of, and the decorations on their surface, he is able to determine where and when they were created.
Last summer he was in Corinth carrying out his work and last week he presented his findings at a meeting of the Toronto chapter of the Archaeological Institute of America.
He said that the Corinthians started this long distance trade almost as soon as they got back on their feet. In the 9th and 10th centuries, as Corinth was beginning its expansion, the city imported pieces from Basra, a centre of pottery production located in southern Iraq, near the Persian Gulf.
“How it (pottery from Basra) got there is hard to say,” said Mason. “There’s like one or two in the 9th century (then) a whole bunch in the 10th century.” These examples include lusterware plates that may have been used for church services. Mason described them as “beautiful shining pots, very different from the stuff they would have had locally.” They “might have been gifts,” he said, perhaps from a bishop in the Middle East.
He emphasized that Corinth wasn’t the only city importing goods made in Basra, far from it. “The trading networks of some of these pottery production centres are quite colossal,” he said. “Basra, for instance, covers the full extent of the Old World as found in China, in Spain, South Africa.”
Basra’s pottery was in demand for a good reason. Mason explained that they used a complex technique to create them. “You have a finished vessel and you paint it with this metallic paint which then fuses to the surface in another firing.” However “if you don’t fire it properly the second time you’ll end up with a complete mess.”
Basra wasn’t the only Middle East city that Corinth imported from. All together from AD 800 to AD 1200 the people also brought in ceramics from Damascus, Fustat (in present day Old Cairo) and Kashan.
The focus of this trade moved around. The 9th and 10th century ceramics tended to be from Basra. On other hand the 12th century saw Corinth take in imports from Damascus as well as a small number from Iran.  
Mason was surprised to find that in the 11th century the Corinthians imported albarelli, a type of apothecary (medicinal) jar with a concave waist. They were brought in from Fustat in Egypt.
“We know that albarelli come from the Middle East,” he said. But the examples at Corinth are “the earliest albarelli that exist,” he said, emphasizing that he has never seen one this early anywhere in the world.
Contact suddenly ends
Mason’s work also brought up a mystery. After AD 1200 he could not find a single piece of pottery from the Middle East at Corinth. For some unknown reason the Corinthians appear to have stopped importing ceramics from the region altogether.
“After 1200 there’s nothing there and I don’t know why – it’s not like there’s something unpleasant going on,” said Mason. Trade continued between the Middle East and other places in Europe. “You have pottery from Damascus in places like England and Norway,” he said.
“It’s not like the end of the crusades or anything like that.”
Mason and the other Corinth researchers are trying to find out what might have stopped this trade. A look through the history books reveals that while Corinth certainly didn’t collapse in AD 1200, there certainly were political changes happening at that time.
The Byzantine Empire, which had overseen the revival of Corinth, was in a state of upheaval. “Soon after the death of Manuel Komnenos in 1180, the Byzantine court degenerated into a farcical display of court intrigue, murder and palace coups,” writes modern day historian Nicholas Doumanis in his book on Greek history.
This internal strife weakened Byzantium, allowing it to be sacked by a group of Crusaders in 1204. They did it with the excuse that they wanted to get a debt repaid.  
“The Peloponnese, now under the authority of the ‘Prince of Achaea’, was subdivided into fiefdoms that controlled each locality from a series of fortresses,” writes Doumanis. It would be decades until Byzantium managed to take back territory in the area.  
Whether these events could have led to Corinth cutting ties between itself and the Middle East is unknown, however, the timing seems to make it possible.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Paupers and the pyramids: 400 “poor” burials unearthed near Giza

The "Wall of the Crow" is depicted in this 1837
illustration by Richard Vyse.
At a scholarly conference in Atlanta archaeologists announced that the burials of 400 people – dating between 2,700 and 2,000 years ago – have been excavated on the Giza plateau in Egypt.

The discovery was made by researchers with AERA (Ancient Egypt Research Associates), a group led by Mark Lehner that conducts work at Giza.
Research shows that these individuals were malnourished and lacked grave goods. The pyramids at Giza were built about 4,500 years ago, so these people would have been buried long after it was constructed.
The burials were found beside a 200 meter long ancient wall called the “Wall of the Crow.” The wall was first constructed in the time of the pyramids and is located just south of the Sphinx.
Analysis indicates that these 400 individuals were not well off.  These graves are generally poor, with little or no grave goods, and belong to people on the lower end of the socio-economic scale,” writes archaeologist Jessica Kaiser in a paper she presented at the conference. “There is a high incidence of haematological disorders present in the [bone] material, suggesting a sub-standard diet for this population.”
Haematology means blood disorders.
Curiously the men appear to be in worse shape than the women. “Traumatic injuries (fractures and dislocations) are almost exclusively occurring in the males, suggesting a definite difference in lifestyle between the sexes,” writes Kaiser.
An Egypt ruled by foreigners
The Egypt these people lived in was a very different place than the one that existed at the time Giza’s pyramids were built. Between 2,700 and 2,000 years ago the country was under the sway of a large number of foreign rulers.

Starting in the 8th century BC the country was ruled by Nubian kings who had come from the south in modern day Sudan. Then in 671 BC the Assyrians drove them off, took control of the country, and decided to allow a series of native born rulers (also called the Saite Dynasty) to reign starting with Necho I.
These native rulers did not last. In 525 BC Egypt was conquered again, this time by the Persians. Then In 332 BC Alexander the Great came into Egypt inaugurating a line of Greek rulers. Finally in 30 BC the Roman Emperor Octavian took over after the suicide of Cleopatra – turning Egypt into a Roman province.
The Wall of the Crow
“The Wall of the Crow” is the local name for a 200 meter long wall found just south of the Sphinx. AERA’s work suggests that construction of the wall started at the same time that the pyramids were being built 4,500 years ago.
The area beside the wall has been used as a burial ground for millennia, indicating that the structure had religious importance. The AERA team writes on their website that “the Late Period (747-525 BC) residents of nearby towns must have considered the area around the Wall of the Crow as sacred ground.”
Giza is not the only Egyptian pyramid complex to be used as a burial ground long after it was constructed. Archaeological work at Seila, a pyramid slightly older than the ones at Giza, indicates that there are nearly one million mummies buried in its vicinity.
“It seems very reasonable to suppose that the pyramid designated that as a sacred place,” Seila Pyramid excavator Kerry Muhlestein said. “Once that place is a sacred place it typically will remain a sacred place.”

Monday, November 22, 2010

Unreported news

A Terracotta General, on display at the
Royal Ontario Museum as part of a
special exhibition. Photo by Owen Jarus
In October site excavator Dr. Duan Qingbo
told a Toronto audience of new research
indicating that foreigners had helped build
the army.

The Terracotta Warriors are one of the most fantastic archaeological discoveries of the 20th century.

Thousands have been found near the First Emperor's tomb in Xi'an China. Each of them has a unique face, suggesting that they were modelled on real people who lived 2,200 years ago. 

Last month Duan Qingbo, an archaeologist who has been leading digs at the tomb for nearly 20 years, stopped by the Royal Ontario Museum to give a lecture. In it he dropped a surprise – new evidence which suggests that foreigners helped construct the First Emperor’s tomb. I was at the lecture and wrote a story for both Heritage Key and The Independent (UK).

It’s a fascinating discovery and one that is now in the public domain.

Now, with the launch of this new website, I hope to bring you more of these kinds of stories. Untold tales of heritage research and discovery.

Why do this?

Let me take you back a bit. In July 2009 I started a position as the Toronto Correspondent with Heritage Key Media. It is an online publication, based in London UK, that publishes news and feature stories on ancient history and archaeology. It also has virtual 3D programming.

I’ve always had an interest in the ancient world so this position was more fun than work. I dived into it – writing news articles, features, reviews, short bios and descriptions. As I adjusted to the position, and got the lay of the archaeological land, I began to realize that there were many heritage stories that were not being widely covered.

The discovery of a 2,000 year old East Asian skeleton in southern Italy, an enigmatic Islamic gold medallion found in Petra and new research by UBC Professor Thomas Schneider that tells the real story of Nazi Egyptology (not the fictional version seen in Hollywood films), there were so many untold stories to write about! More than a dozen of my pieces were republished in The Independent (UK), a major British newspaper.  

Unfortunately this position came to an end recently. Heritage Key continues on albeit with more of a focus on the virtual 3D programming (if you haven't tried it yet, I would encourage you to do so - it's quite a treat!).  

Which brings me to this new site:

On it I plan to continue my work – writing heritage stories that have not appeared widely in the news media. The site I’m using is technically quite simple and to support this work I have some advertising via the Amazon Associates Program.

Telling the stories

Over the next few months I’m looking forward to telling you untold stories of heritage discovery. There is so much out there to talk about!

I would encourage you to follow my twitter feed http://twitter.com/ojarus I have also created a RSS link if you prefer to use an online reader.

If you know of a heritage story that has not been widely reported on then please contact me at owen@unreportedheritagenews.com I check my email constantly so you shouldn’t have to wait long for a reply.

Also, if there is an error, please don’t hesitate to contact me at the same address. Once I verify the error I will correct it immediately. A journalism professor once told me that the best newspapers are those that are full of corrections so – please – correct away!

Thank you and best wishes,