Stones, Bones ‘n Things
As the guy at National Geographic responsible for keeping track of a bunch of scientists, I never know who or what I'll engage with each day. It could be dinosaurs for breakfast, poisonous frogs for lunch, and Inca gold for dinner. I'll post the highlights here as I encounter them. If you have questions or comments about archeology, paleontology, paleoanthropology, or any Society-funded projects, this is the place to post. I'll check things out and invite experts to weigh in on postings from time to time.
Posted Jan 29,2010

IMG_2206.Cambodia.cs Students excavate a kiln at Cheung Ek, Cambodia. Photo courtesy of Phon Kaseka.


Cheung Ek is well known for harboring the infamous killing fields of the Khmer Rouge where some 20,000 Cambodians were murdered between 1975 and 1979. Cheung Ek has a much deeper history, however. Today, this once- horrifying landscape is being investigated by a team of archaeologists led by Phon Kaseka of the Royal Academy of Cambodia.

As it turns out, Cheung Ek was settled around 300 B.C. and played important part in the emergence of Southeast Asia’s first great economy, the mysterious Indian-influenced civilization knows as Funan. Centered in the lower Mekong floodplain, Funan flourished from about the 1st to the 6th century and eventually gave rise to the well-known kingdom of Angkor that culminated in the 13th century.

According to Kyle Latinis of the of the University of Cambodia “Cheung Ek may be one of the pinnacles” to an ostensible complex of sites that has a lot of implications for understanding the rise of civilization is Southeast Asia. Both Roman and Chinese historical texts record trade voyages to Funan and archaeologists have uncovered artifacts from Rome, Persia, India, and Greece at the Funan port town of Oc Eo, a site today located in southern Vietnam. Archeologists also have investigated another important Funan site, Angkor Borei, in Southern Cambodia.

Kaseka’s team is just beginning to investigate Cheung Ek and has already discovered sixty-one pottery producing kilns strung out over a distance of 5 km. The kilns have been carbon dated to the 5th – 7th century and so far are the oldest uncovered in this part of Southeast Asia.

While more work needs to be done, if the kilns were all used around the same time, it supports the idea that Cheung Ek was a major producer of pottery and a critical part of the engine that fueled Funan’s economy. Local potters likely made several kinds of pots, including spouted vessels called kendi used for storing and pouring water, perhaps in ritual ceremonies.

Cheung EK.CS

This Google image shows the Cheung Ek archaeological site which overlaps with the killing fields. The killing fields museum is labeled A. In the lower right-hand corner is a circular wall and moat feature that is part of the site and has a diameter of about 750 m. The kilns, houses, and temples are strewn across the landscape. Copyight 2009 Digiglobe.

Archaeologists can learn a remarkable amount about ancient technology as well as trade from studying kilns and the waste, such as clay debris and pots broken during manufacture, usually recovered from them. By examining the chemical composition of the clay debris and then testing kendi pots dating to the same time periods that have been recovered at sites across Southeast Asia, the team hopes to determine the extent of Cheung Ek’s trade network.


Common with many other Funan period sites, there is evidence that Cheung Ek continued to be occupied after the decline of Funan and well into theera of Angkor. A mysterious large, almost perfectly circular, earthwork dates to at least the 10th century and the team is testing several hypotheses as to its design and purpose. Work has yielded stone inscriptions, architecture, brick temple or shrine foundations and other features characteristic of later periods.

Kaseka’s team is eager to continue excavating the site’s kilns, temples, and houses, but is facing a very difficult landscape. While Cambodia has recovered from its violent past under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, that recovery process is proving detrimental to the nation’s cultural heritage. Rapid and often uncontrolled growth coupled with an external demand for marketable artifacts has intensified, and looting and urbanization are destroying Cheung Ek. 

“Action needs to be taken now,” says Kaseka. As part of a new generation of Cambodian scholars, Kaseka’s fieldwork plans include community education and finding ways to pressure developers and looters from destroying the site and others like it. While sections of Cheung Ek have been preserved as a site museum and memorial to the horrors of the killing fields, attention is also shifting to preserving the rest of this amazing site that will reveal so much about Cambodia’s deep past.

—Christina Elson


For a related story on the killing fields museum click here.
Posted by Chris Sloan | Comments (0)
Filed Under: anthropology, Current Affairs, research, Science
Posted Mar 5,2009

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Posted Feb 23,2009

Sicilian mummy pix 1Many mummies, such as this one from Savoca in Sicily, are on the verge of disappearing because there are inadequate resources to protect them. Photo courtesy of Dario Piombino-Mascali.


One of National Geographic's iconic topics is mummies.
Whether it’s
King Tut or frozen Inca children, National Geographic brings you their
stories. In poll after poll, readers demonstrate a fascination with
mummies. Yes they can be macabre, and I suppose that’s part of their
lure, but there is something noble about them as well. Nothing
connects us with the past so much as these people of the past, these
mummies.

Despite our fascination with mummies, remarkably little thought is
given to what happens to mummies after the media buzz is over. The
answer is, unfortunately, that the majority are not receiving the care
they deserve.

Thousands of mummies all around the world are decaying because of poor
storage conditions. The basement of the Cairo museum has hundreds of
mummies in need of attention. In Siberia and in the Andes, mummies are
defrosting because of warming temperatures at high latitudes and
altitudes.

I'm pleased we presented the story of mummy scientists Dario
Piombino-Mascali, Albert Zink, and Arthur Aufderhide in the February
issue. Scholars like these are highly trained in anatomy, forensics,
pathology, radiology and related specializations. To them, mummies are
a unique opportunity—there is simply no better way to study a
society’s diet, health, and life span. The story also illustrates the
critical condition of these Sicilian mummies. Some have been
vandalized and all are at risk of disappearing if left in their
current conditions.

I met Piombino-Mascali, Zink, and Aufderhide at a conference in the
Canary Islands in 2007. The February article on the Sicilian mummies
came out of that conference. The mummy scientists will be meeting
again soon. This time we will talk about raising awareness about the
future of mummies world-wide.  It seems to me that if scientists can
dig mummies up and the media can run stories about them, then together
we can find ways to raise awareness about mummy conservation. Mummies
might have a lot more secrets to reveal in the future and it’s the
least we can do for our ancestors.

Do mummies deserve a better deal? What cultural dimensions should
scientists and the media should consider ? What do you think about the
future of mummy studies?

Posted by Chris Sloan | Comments (1)
Posted Feb 18,2009


Mcgovern.lrArchaeologist Patrick McGovern in 1980 holding up a juglet discovered at one of the largest early Iron Age (ca. 1200-1050 B.C.) burial caves in the Holy Land. The excavations were funded by the National Geographic Society. The undisturbed cave was located by a cesium magnetometer and yielded some of the earliest low-carbon steel artifacts found anywhere in the world. Photo by Helen Schenck, courtesy of Dr. Patrick McGovern.



In his inaugural speech President Obama called for putting science in its rightful place. This was music to the ears of many scientists and science-supporters. Science needs to be nurtured for the sake of the long term benefits, not short term goals. In the entry below, guest columnist Dr. Christina Elson points to one place that apparently did not get the message.-CS


While America and Britain ramp up programs to show science in action, the University of Pennsylvania Museum has taken what most people consider a big step backwards by threatening to strangle out of existence the positions of eighteen of its researchers. They include archaeology’s reigning crime scene detectives.

The American economy is suffocating from job losses, home foreclosures, and a dissolving financial sector yet newly elected President Obama is prioritizing our role as a world leader in science and technology. Great Britain just launched a massive new initiative called “Science: so what? so everything” to make science and scientists more accessible. Too often people in both countries see science as elitist and incomprehensible. Making it more accessible shows why our economy and national security benefit when we invest in science education and research.

For decades the Penn museum provided a home for world class scientists. The Museum’s archaeology detectives use all manner of techniques to discover fascinating things about the way ancient people lived and died, used plants and animals, and created and shared technologies. For example, Dr. Patrick E. McGovern (whose work has been reported by this organization) analyzed chemicals in ancient pot sherds to discover the origins and spread of wine making in the Near East and China. His colleague Dr. Naomi Miller recently figured out what King Midas might have had for dinner by providing archaeobotanical evidence for the chemical analyses of beverage and food residues found inside vessels.

The Museum’s director Dr. Richard Hodges insists that Penn is not making a financial decision. Rather, it’s finding a strategic balance between research and public outreach. People like Dr. McGovern are supposed to be supported with grants, not the institution’s operating budget. Come June, if they don’t have funding they’ll get taken off life support.

The Penn Museum also has self-esteem issues. How do you reach out when it sounds like most Philadelphians visit you only once in a lifetime? An expensive facelift and more amenities might do the trick. After all, getting people to the museum for any reason, if only because you can get a good cheesesteak there, greatly strengthens opportunities for outreach. In London you can walk into the overwhelming British Museum for free, get some coffee, and admire the Elgin marbles. In Philadelphia they ask you for a ten dollar “Admission Donation” and there’s a mummy.

If Penn wants to ramp up public outreach it might be exactly the wrong thing to let these scholars go. National Geographic is a massive organization that funds exacting research and has a powerful media arm. It succeeds in making science accessible in part because people here work hard to engage in meaningful conversations with scientists (and yes, as a scientist I’ve had any number of fun, funny, frustrating but ultimately meaningful conversations with “creative types”).

The kinds of discoveries Penn researchers make are incredibly appealing and picked up by news outlets that broadcast far beyond the city of Philadelphia. More excitingly, the work is tangible, tactile, and ideal for creating visualizations showing science in action. One hopes Penn’s facelift isn’t just about building more exhibit cases full of “stuff”  but also investing in a media-rich environment that can broadcast its in-house research locally and internationally. Shouldn’t Penn be excited to have such great assets? My colleagues and I can only wonder why Penn isn’t trumpeting plans to make it’s scientists as accessible as a cup of coffee or gourmet meal. After all, they are the exhibits.

What do you think about the future of science research in the US? Is science it too elitist? How can scientists and the public connect better?   

For NG new coverage of some of Dr. McGovern’s
https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/07/0721_040721_ancientwine.html
https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/07/0718_050718_ancientbeer.html
For more information about the layoffs at Penn
https://pennmuseumpetition.wordpress.com/
For information on Great Britain’s new science initiative
https://sciencesowhat.direct.gov.uk/

Posted by Chris Sloan | Comments (1)
Posted Jan 7,2009

Gold_photo  A golden Thracian wreath excavated from the Mogilanska mound in Vratsa, Bulgaria in the 1960s. Photo by James Stanfield.


The gold of ancient cultures is a blessing and a curse. It stirs the public imagination yet spawns neglect of good science and encourages crime.

Ancient gold is so fascinating to the general public that it steals the media spotlight from other important archaeological findings. Excavations with no gold compete for media attention with gold-rich ones and the vast majority of gold-poor excavations never make it into popular print or TV. This is a shame, but if it were not for the occasional gold find, many archaeological efforts would not get prominent media attention. I would argue that some attention, even if it leans on gold, is better than none. 

Gold fever sells magazines, books, and TV shows, but it also leads to plundering of archaeological sites. This looting results in the loss of context for gold and other artifacts and sometimes leads to destruction of a site. This is a worldwide problem, but two areas where the problem is severe are Bulgaria and Ukraine.

In Bulgaria there has been an archaeological gold rush. In the last decade, Thracian tombs, in particular, have been excavated legally and illegally on an unprecedented scale. Archaeologists compete with people who raid sites for treasure, usually at night. Sometimes these raiders are armed and organized. Bulgaria is one of Europe's poorest countries, a major factor fueling the thefts. Illegal trafficking in antiquities is now big business for Bulgarian organized crime. There is no sign of a recession.

Big profits can also be made from antiquities trafficking in Ukraine. This newly independent  country is getting a reputation as a haven for "Black Archaeology"—the looting of archaeological sites, often with organized crime backing.

While a government-led anti-looting effort could go a long way toward stopping illegal digging for artifacts in Ukraine, such an effort is apparently a long way off. President Viktor Yuschenko is a well known collector. According to an informative article written by a senior researcher of the Institute for Ukrainian History and published in ArtNews in December 2007, Mr. Yushchenko is genuinely interested in Ukrainian heritage and promoting national identity, but may not be overly concerned about whether the items he collects are from black archaeology or white. In this same article the director of the Institute for Ukrainian History, Dr. Petro Tolochko, suggests that the president "...obviously doesn't understand that his participation in this illegal business legitimizes it." A report from Transitions Online in 2005 suggests "Yushchenko's private passion for the past is, it seems, shared by many of Ukraine's new rich. They have proved ready and willing to pay good money to decorate dachas and even local restaurants with archeological rarities, and the number of buyers has grown thanks to Ukraine's economic recovery over the past five years."

Both Ukraine and Bulgaria are using archaeology, including glamorous golden objects, to help establish a strong national identity. Countries like these have every reason to be proud of their heritage. But this pride should also be based on knowledge gleaned not just from the gold, but from dirty, unglamorous archaeological work that can tell us much more about our past than golden objects can. And if looting is allowed to continue, these countries might as well forget about national identity. A few trinkets of their past will be sold to the highest bidder. The rest will have been destroyed by looters and there will be nothing left from which future generations can learn.

What do you think about the role of ancient gold?

Read "The Real Price of Gold" from the January 2009 issue of National Geographic.

Posted by Chris Sloan | Comments (4)
Posted Dec 21,2008

BinghamHiram Bingham was 36 years old when he first climbed Machu Picchu in
1911 and set up camp in the ruins.
Photo by E.C. Erdis.



Hiram Bingham is a household name around National Geographic. It is one of those bigger than life names, like Peary, Leakey, and Powell, that will always be associated with a place. In Bingham's case, the place is Machu Picchu. Archaoelogist Christina Elson posts here on some of the complexities that have emerged in the wake of Bingham's achievements.-Chris Sloan


Quechua farmers, German treasure hunters, Peruvian prospectors, European missionaries—it sounds to me like pretty much everyone got to Machu Picchu (“old peak” in Quechua) before the lanky Hiram Bingham in 1911. Bingham, in fact, said in his 1922 book “Inca Land Explorations in the Highlands of Peru” that on the day of his visit he met several farmers living at the base of the peak who were planting crops up on the old Inca terraces. Even Bingham’s guide Melchor Arteaga had already seen the ruins at least once. Melchor didn’t feel like climbing the snake-infested trail on a rainy day. He and his farmer pals sent Bingham up there with a kid while they hung out by a warm fire. I suspect that since archaeologists started exploring the world’s more remote corners in earnest, they’ve found the majority of “lost” sites in similar fashion.

Bingham wasn’t a casual visitor or looter. He took extensive photographs and collected everything he excavated for further study. Sadly, these artifacts—the core of what archaeologists call “the data”—are now at the center of a legal battle between the government of Peru and Yale University. After several years of negotiation Peru sued Yale on December 5th in a Washington D.C. Federal Court for the return of thousands of artifacts and for monetary damages.

Like many archaeologists, I’m interested to see how the case unfolds. One thing I don’t much care for that has been asserted in Yale documents and mirrored in press reports is a description of the collection as mostly “bits and pieces of pots, bones, and other small fragments that are similar or identical to countless objects already in Peru” and over all lacking in “museum quality pieces” (see “Myths and Facts about the Machu Picchu Materials at Yale University”). The repeated assertion that the collection lacks museum quality pieces reinforces problematic and pervasive ideas that it’s OK to assign relative value to cultural heritage. Unlike art historians, archaeologists learn as much from mundane sherds as they do from exquisite vessels. Most archaeologists would say that all of the pieces that make up this collection are of equal “value” and that excavated collections should be curated together along with the drawings, photos, and notes that document them (granted it’s OK to loan artifacts for exhibits). Each artifact is unique but only fully understood when studied within the context of the entire collection. Hopefully, the advent of new analytical techniques and ideas about Inca history means archaeologists will want to study this collection for a long time.

What do you think should happen to the collection Bingham excavated in 1912 at Machu Picchu? Should it stay in the US? Go back to Peru? Who should be allowed to study it? Why do you think Yale and Peru can’t resolve the issue outside of court?—Dr. Christina Elson

A few place you can read up on the Yale-Peru saga involving Machu Picchu
https://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/12/11/ap/latinamerica/main4663600.shtml
New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/ (see especially December 8, 2008, September 17, 2007 and June 24, 2007 articles)
Chronicle of Higher Education: https://chronicle.com (July 4, 2008 article)
Yale: https://opa.yale.edu/news/article.aspx?id=1997

Posted by Chris Sloan | Comments (1)
Posted Dec 18,2008

Austro_head_2 Austroraptor lived just before the extinction of the non-avian (not bird) dinosaurs. Its discovery shows that yet another lineage of maniraptorans grew unexpectedly huge and competed with large T. rex-like carnivores for meat. Art courtesy of Fernando Novas.


A "raptor" is an awesome dinosaur. We learned that in Jurassic Park. What can beat that? Maybe a bizarre giant raptor.

Meet Austroraptor cabazai, just announced today by NGS grantee Fernando Novas of Argentina. Take a look at this thing. It is huge. Average raptors were turkey to dog-size. It has a long snout with small conical hooked teeth. Most carnivorous dinosaurs had blade-like teeth serrated like knives. Novas can't say yet what kind of prey its strange teeth chomped into, but this animal may not have been a flesh slicer like its closest relatives.

Austroraptor also had tiny arms, reminiscent of the puny forelimbs of other dinosaur lineages such as the tyrannosaurs. What is odd about this is that the maniraptoran lineage, which Austroraptor is now the newest member of, is closely associated with birds. Most of its members, such as Deinonychus and Velociraptor,  are known for their long arms and hands. In the lineage that led to birds, these long arms eventually grew longer than their legs and became useful as wings. So it is very interesting to find a maniraptor with tiny arms living 70 million years ago, just 5 million years before non-avian dinosaurs went extinct and avian dinosaurs, aka. birds, flew on.

Megaraptor Other giant raptors are known, such as Utahraptor and Achillobator, both from the northern hemisphere. And it wasn't so long ago that Novas introduced us to Megaraptor, another giant Patagonian raptor. That thing had giant scimitar-like toe claws. I remember that we could just barely fit an actual size photo of the claw in the magazine, which is 14 inches wide. Some paleontologist are now suggesting that the toe claw was actually a finger claw and that Megaraptor was not a maniraptoran but a different type of dinosaur. I'm not so sure. In this reconstruction by Jordan Mallon, (right), it just doesn't look right. But hey, dinosaurs were bizarre. There are minor disputes about Achillobator, but both it and Utahraptor seem solid as maniraptorans.

Right: Did a Megaraptor's giant toe claw turn into a giant thumb hook? Illustration courtesy Jordan Mallon.

Austroraptor is classified by Novas as a member of the Unenlagiinae, a diverse group within the maniraptoran group that includes the tiny dinosaur Shanag from Mongolia and the once bird, now dinosaur, Rahonavis from Madagascar. Now the group not only contains far flung members, but giants and midgets as well. The strangest thing about the Unenlagiian raptors, however, is that two of them, Buiteraptor and Rahonavis had winglike forelimbs (Rahonavis even had quill knobs). If they flew, which Rahonavis almost certainly did, then it is possible that flight evolved independently in two separate dinosaur lineages—one in the south and one in the north. The northern lineage is represented by Archaeopteryx and numerous Asian specimens, among others.

What can beat a bizarre giant dinosaur? Maybe a giant bizarre idea like flight evolving twice.

Posted by Chris Sloan | Comments (1)
Posted Dec 10,2008

NefertitiNefertiti is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful of ancient queens. Was part of her beauty due to an epicanthic fold in her eyelids? Photo by Victor Boswell.

In the March/April issue of Archaeology magazine art historian Earl Ertman suggests that Nefertiti had an epicanthic fold in her eyelids. He says this produces "an East Asian appearance." Ertman goes on to suggest that this trait, if a true reflection of Nefertiti's appearance, may be due to a genetically-based syndrome, that is abnormality. He also points to depictions of Nefertiti's daughters and even King Tut (the wooden head depiction) that show this trait as well, suggesting the trait could be inherited by offspring.

This is an interesting observation, but I immediately thought of the Khoisan, a fascinating group of sub-Saharan Africans who have an epicanthic fold. They also show the largest genetic diversity in mtDNA of all human populations. I'm no geneticist, but why look for genetic abnormalities in Nefertiti when the genes for an epicanthic fold are right there among the African ancestors of all humans?

And since we're talking again about Egyptians and African ancestry, here is a bit more information my colleagues and I pulled together on ancient Egyptians.

GEOGRAPHY

Egypt’s population was influenced by human migration long before the first dynasty of pharaohs emerged around 3150 B.C. The geography of northeast Africa makes it an easily traversable region. To the north and east are the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. The Nile Valley creates a continuous north-south corridor that is surrounded by oases, stepping stones in the desert making it possible for humans to travel in every direction.

Both archaic and modern forms of humans probably passed though Egypt on their way “out of Africa.” We also know that the Sahara desert was drying between 6700 B.C. and 3600 B.C., and drought drove refugees from across northern Africa into Egypt, Nubia (what is now southern Egypt and northern Sudan), and Sudan. These immigrants mixed with people already living in the fertile Nile Valley.

As towns and villages sprang up along the Nile, people and goods moved up and down river contributing to population diversity. By the time the Egyptian state formed, people living along the Nile were in regular contact with their neighbors and, while we can detect some diversity in the general physical characteristics of northern and southern populations, these people shared a way of life that became the foundation for Egyptian civilization. The early Egyptian state is simply a politically complex expression of this indigenous African culture.

After 3150 B.C., Egypt entered into a number of peaceful and hostile relationships with foreign powers in Africa and the Near East. We know that Libyans, Nubians, the Hyksos (from the Levant), and Persians all came to Egypt as traders, diplomats, and conquerors—likely further contributing to population diversity.

Sounds like a melting pot to me.

Posted by Chris Sloan | Comments (3)
Posted Nov 28,2008

EygyptskinThis painting by an ancient Egyptian artist shows Nubians bringing gold to the pharaoh. Obviously differences in skin color registered in the minds of ancient Egyptians, but what these differences meant and how they saw themselves is a subject of debate. Photograph by Kenneth Garrett, courtesy of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Egypt.


I was already thinking about starting a new thread on ancient Egyptians when I received a comment that set the tone for where I wanted to go with the discussion. I've entered it here as the first comment in this new thread. (Those wishing to follow the earlier thread can find it posted January 14).

What this is all really about is human variation in ancient Egypt. Words like "black" and "white," which have been used a lot in the preceding thread, really don't have much meaning when it comes to understanding a population.  Here are a few thoughts to get the discussion going. These thoughts were pulled together by myself and some colleagues. We were assisted by S.O.Y. Keita (see our video of Dr. Keita), a scientist with keen insights into this topic and a fellow who is referred to several times in the first comment.


Egypt_skin

This sculpture from an Egyptian tomb is a good illustration of the problem in assuming that Egyptian artwork alone should guide us on what ancient Egyptians looked like. What would you say about the ethnicity of this Egyptian couple? They lived in the time of the great pyramid builders, about 2500 BC. Photo by Richard Nowitz.


Ancient Egypt: Origins in Space and Time
Some scholars continue to debate the skin color of ancient Egyptians, believing skin color can tell us something about the origins of Egypt’s culture and people. Most scientists agree that this region of Africa, the continent where modern humans evolved, was a melting pot of people for millennia. Human remains from the Nile Valley date back to between 30,000 and 50,000 before present.

Today, skin color is often used to group people irrespective of their language, culture, or national affiliations. To the best of our knowledge, skin color was not the primary factor of classification in ancient Egypt. Ancient Egyptians understood that culture, customs, and language play an important role in determining group affiliations. From artwork still visible in their temples and tombs, however, it is clear that the ancient Egyptians were aware of skin color differences within their own population and that they sometimes associated foreigners with particular skin colors.

Ancient Egyptians had their own ideas about where they came from and how their society achieved greatness. Today, scholars want to understand the origins and background of ancient Egypt and Egyptians using modern scientific and historical perspectives. This approach requires synthesizing evidence from geography, archaeology, linguistics, and biology.

Read the first comment and jump in!

Posted by Chris Sloan | Comments (25)
Posted Nov 24,2008

HerodHerod directs the massacre of babies in Bethlehem from a balcony in this early Renaissance painting by Giotto. It was one atrocity Herod may not have been guilty of.

I remember being terrified of Herod when I was a church-going little boy. He's the one who, according to the New Testament author/apostle Matthew, killed the baby boys of Bethlehem. According to Matthew, Herod did this to eliminate competition from a new Jewish king he'd heard about from the magi. Now I know that there were many Herods in the Bible, all bad mind you, but the guy responsible for the baby-killing is known to history as Herod the Great.

Few scholars think Matthew's account should be considered history. There is no contemporary account or archaeological evidence of the event. In early accounts the scale of the massacre varies widely. It was reported by the Byzantine and Syrian churches as 14,000 and 64,000 dead respectively. The problem is that Bethlehem at that time was a tiny town. The slaughter of its few baby boys under the age of two, perhaps as few as half a dozen at the time, would hardly rate as a massacre.

Flavius Josephus, a Jewish chronicler of events who lived shortly after Herod the Great, said plenty of bad things about this monarch, but nothing about a massacre in Bethelem. It is not clear why Josephus would not have mentioned this if it was as horrific an event as my Sunday School teachers told me it was.   

That Josephus does not mention the massacre is particularly interesting to me because it is through a careful reading of Josephus that architect-turned-archaeologist Ehud Netzer was able to find Herod's tomb in the Herodium, a large mound south of Jerusalem, after more than 30 years of searching. An account of his discovery can be read in this month's National Geographic. If Josephus was so accurate about where Herod was buried, maybe he was accurate about other things, too.

Among the things Josephus reported was that Herod was a murderous ruler. He didn't just kill in-laws, he banished his first wife and son and killed his second wife and two of his sons by her. He also wanted a host of Jewish dignitaries to be executed when he died. Luckily, that didn't happen. 

He was quite an opportunistic politician. He deftly navigated Roman waters and somehow survived the turmoil that followed the murder of Julius Caesar. Although Herod was a supporter of Mark Antony, he was able to explain to Octavian (later to become Augustus Caesar) that it was all a big misunderstanding and they ended up being best buddies. A temple Herod dedicated to Augustus in Caesarea Maritima didn't hurt the relationship.

In previous postings on this blog I've urged caution regarding the claims of archaeologists announcing major Bible-related discoveries. There seems to be little scholarly objection to Ehud Netzer's claim that he has discovered Herod's tomb, or what's left of it. Just days ago Netzer also found some unique Roman-style paintings in the complex.

Ehud Netzer's work has brought a lot of new attention to Herod. It is refreshing to hear about Herod's accomplishments as a builder. But let's not forget he was a political creature not unlike the many cruel despots of his time. And he was someone quite capable of a massacre in Bethlehem, whether it happened or not.  I may never be able to call him Herod "the Great."

Posted by Chris Sloan | Comments (16)
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