Monday, January 25, 2016


Although I usually don't post book reviews, I'm in the midst of reading "Dictator"and find it fascinating so hope readers will find the following review an impetus to read the novel.


Cicero is one of the most famous figures from Roman history. Orator, legal advocate, writer, philosopher and politician, he lived from 106BC to 43BC during the turbulent era of the late Republic, which ended with the arrival of imperial Rome under the first emperor Augustus. Author Robert Harris has used Roman history in his fictional trilogy.

Dictator is Robert Harris' final book in his fictional trilogy on Marcus Tullius Cicero, which began with Imperium (2006), centering on Cicero's prosecution of Sicily's Roman governor, Verres, then Lustrum (2009), with the Catiline conspiracy its core. The dictator of the third book is Julius Caesar, whose shadow hovers throughout, while Pompey and Marcus Crassus, allies with Caesar in the trio's triumvirate, feature prominently.

Others of significance include political rabble-rousers Clodius and Milo, Mark Antony, the leading conspirators in Caesar's assassination, Cicero's family and Caesar's adopted son, Octavian. As in the first two books, Cicero's actual secretary, Tiro, narrates the story, playing his part through conversation, opinion and bearing witness to great events.

Dictator begins in 58 with Cicero exiled over the questionable legality of the execution of the Catilinarian conspirators during his consulship a few years earlier.Back in Italy and Rome in 57 he later serves a provincial governorship but returns to Italy in 49, with the civil war having begun between former confederates Caesar and Pompey, the anti-Caesareans' champion. After his victory over Pompey, Caesar pardons the "anti"-aligned Cicero, yet despite this he is sympathetic to Caesar's assassination in 44.

It is within and around these happenings Harris constructs his story and his Cicero, who in this third book feels he has been wronged by his exile and on his return despairs of his lot. Nonetheless, he still has many friends and admirers and does his best to navigate the increasingly dangerous political currents and deal with his uneven married and family life, these personal aspects compassionately couched.

Although Cicero, one suspects, would prefer to concentrate on his writing, of which he does much, he cannot resist politics, his enmity towards Antony proving unwise. One of the most intriguing aspects of the book is Cicero's friendship with and mentoring of Octavian: a young man largely ignored and dismissed – fatally for some – by Rome's political elite.

Harris' Caesar is a much darker portrait than one might usually find in a fictional work (and in some historical accounts). This should not surprise, as Harris has described him as having been perhaps like "Napoleon or Hitler, a genocidal maniac, the archetypal psychopath". For me, this is drawing much too long a bow.

Harris has joined other well-known writers in using Roman history for their novels – Colleen McCullough with her Masters of Rome series, also set in the late Republic; Gore Vidal wrote Julian, about the fourth-century emperor of that name; while Robert Graves, in the 1930s, gave us I, Claudius and Claudius the God, about that first-century emperor.

As well as being rewarding novels in themselves, like Harris' Dictator, with its sympathetic portrayal of Cicero, they can introduce some readers to the ancient world for the first time and maybe whet their appetites for historical accounts. Given the echoes we find of our contemporary times, this can only be a good thing.


About 60 drawings and hieroglyphic inscriptions, dating back around 5,000 years, have been discovered at a site called Wadi Ameyra in Egypt’s Sinai Desert. Carved in stone, they were created by mining expeditions sent out by early Egyptian pharaohs, archaeologists say. They reveal new information on the early pharaohs. For instance, one inscription the researchers found tells of a queen named Neith-Hotep who ruled Egypt 5,000 years ago as regent to a young pharaoh named Djer.

Archaeologists estimate that the earliest carvings at Wadi Ameyra date back around 5,200 years, while the most recent date to the reign of a pharaoh named Nebre, who ruled about 4,800 years ago. The "inscriptions are probably a way to proclaim that the Egyptian state owned the area," team leader Pierre Tallet, a professor at Université Paris-Sorbonne, told Live Science. He explained that south of Wadi Ameyra, the ancient expeditions would have mined turquoise and copper. Sometime after Nebre's rule, the route of the expeditions changed, bypassing Wadi Ameyra, he said.

The inscriptions carved by a mining expedition show that queen Neith-Hotep stepped up as ruler about 5,000 years ago, millennia before Hatshepsut or Cleopatra VII ruled the country. While Egyptologists knew that Neith-Hotep existed, they believed she was married to a pharaoh named Narmer. "The inscriptions demonstrate that she [Neith-Hotep] was not the wife of Narmer, but a regent queen at the beginning of the reign of Djer," Tallet said.

An inscription found at Wadi Ameyra shows that Memphis, an ancient capital of Egypt that was also called "the White Walls," is older than originally believed. Ancient Greek and Roman writers claimed that Memphis was constructed by a mythical king named Menes, whom Egyptologists often consider to be a real-life pharaoh named Narmer, Tallet explained. The new inscription shows that Memphis actually existed before Narmer was even born.

"We have in Wadi Ameyra an inscription giving for the first time the name of this city, the White Walls,and it is associated to the name of Iry-Hor, a king who ruled Egypt two generations before Narmer," Tallet said. The inscription shows that the ancient capital was around during the time of Iry-Hor and could have been built before even he was pharaoh.


France’s Lascaux Cave, the site of breathtaking Paleolithic paintings dating from approximately 15,000 to 17,000 years ago, has been closed to the public since 1963. But there’s hope for the frustrated cave art aficionado: Agence France-Presse reports that French artists have just finished a spectacularly accurate reproduction.

The facsimile took more than three years of painstaking detail work, writes AFP. Artists used everything from high-tech projections to paintbrushes and dentist’s tools to recreate the cave, which will be installed in the International Center of Parietal Art located close to the site of the real-life cave. Twenty-five painters, sculptors, welders, molders, locksmiths and other artisans are responsible for the feat. The reproduction will be a highlight of the cave wall art-focused center when it opens this fall.

The Lascaux cave paintings have loomed large among anthropology circles since four French teenagers discovered it while looking for their lost dog. It contains some of the most stunning prehistoric art ever seen, including scenes of hunts and animal chases that immediately became iconic. The Lascaux became a victim of its own popularity: It drew in more than 1,500 visitors each day until it had to be shut down to prevent all that breath-produced carbon dioxide from damaging the art.

There are already other Lascaux reproductions out there: “Lascaux 2” lured in more than 10 million visitors, and “Lascaux 3” went on a world tour in 2012. But “Lascaux 4” is on a whole new scale: It’s a full-size facsimile of nearly the entire cave that will only be open to 30 visitors at a time. During busy times, tours will be guided, but visitors who arrive at the museum during slow times will be able to tour on their own with the help of a flashlight.

Can’t wait until fall to get a glimpse of the almost-real-life cave? The nearby Chauvet cave, which was discovered in 1994, has earned national recognition and a complex, expensive reproduction, too. But if you're interested in viewing the Lascaux, you can take a virtual tour of it here. And consider adding the new facsimile to your autumn itinerary—a triumph of ancient and modern artistry, it promises to be about the closest you can get to knowing what it was like to be a Paleolithic cave dweller.

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Bronze ore smelting workshops, burial grounds, clay homes, stone tools and anvils are among the items unearthed during the past year in excavations by teams of international archaeologists at sites across Sharjah, on edge of the seven United Arab Emirates. In Mleiha, in the central region of the emirate, one group found remains of homes made of clay, pottery, and burial grounds.

Researchers at a Bronze Age site in Wadi Al Hilo - a center for smelting, near the eastern coast - found many hammers, anvils, and copper slag related to the metal working process. Carbon testing dated the finds between 8,000 BCE and the Islamic era.

Work continues at Tell Abraq, near the border with Umm Al Quwain, which has archaeological sites dating back to between 3,000 BCE and the Stone Age. Ongoing digs at a site in Dibba Al Hisn have revealed trade and commerce connecting the area with other parts of the ancient world. Excavations in Al Faya mountains and Suhaila have also unearthed stone tools that add valuable information to the prehistory of human beings in the area, some dating from up to half a million years ago.

Teams from the Department of Antiquities also worked on several sites in the central and eastern regions of the emirate. In Umm Al Quwain, about 500 tombs dating back 2,000 years was found at Ed-Dur, one of the largest archaeological sites in the country. Excavations also uncovered pearls, iron and bronze arrowheads, pottery and glassware. The antiquities found at Ed-Dur are being restored and will go on display at the local museum.

Edited from The National UAE (5 January 2016)
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Proof of intentional killing is extremely rare among prehistoric hunter-gatherers, but the evidence found at Nataruk by Lake Turkana is clear-cut. Skeletons dating to 10,000 years ago, bearing marks of a violent death and possibly bondage, provides fresh evidence that prehistoric hunter-gatherers did not necessarily live in bonhomie. Disturbingly, two of the 12 people found by Lake Turkana, Kenya were not marked by signs of violence but seem to have died with their hands bound, a team of archaeologists reported in Nature.

"Evidence for inter-group violence among prehistoric hunter-gatherers is extremely rare," writes the team led by Marta Mirazón Lahr of Cambridge University. Yet she found some. She and her colleagues discovered the remains of at Nataruk, a site near the edge of Lake Turkana, in 2012. Among them were ten bodies with clear signs of lethal traumas.

One man had been bashed on the head twice, above the right eye and on the left of his skull, smashing the bone. Another had a small obsidian knife embedded in his skull, but what killed him was probably a completely different weapon, which was used to crush his face. Wounds found on the head and neck bones of others could have been caused by arrows, which indicates that the attackers were distant, suggesting inter-group conflict. Some suffered broken knee and hand bones. One body was of a woman in advanced pregnancy: the position of her body and limbs suggest she had her feet and hands bound. Stone tools were found too, 131 with the bodies and hundreds more right around them.

These ancient people, whom the authors date to 9,500-10,500 years ago, had not been lovingly buried: the bodies were not found in any orderly orientation or manner. Six of the dead were children. At least, observe the scientists, there was no evidence of 'trophy-taking' (such as scalping).

The Nataruk site is not the first or even the oldest evidence of actual inter-group war. In mid-2014 scientists from Bordeaux University in France reanalyzed bodies in a graveyard dating back roughly 13,000 years in today's Sudan, and concluded they had come across not only the oldest evidence of war, but racial war at that. The bodies were of two distinct types: One group involved in the ancient battles in Jebel Sahaba by the Nile River were tall with relatively short torsos, projecting features and broad noses. The other group was shorter, had longer torsos and flatter faces.

The Turkana finds show the battle in Sudan had not been a bad-tempered blip in the history of Neolithic man. The reason for the slaughter cannot be known; although Turkana is a fertile site, there are signs of early settlement, such as clay pottery, so one possibility is that that groups in the area were struggling over resources. Or maybe they all had plenty of resources but had violent tendencies toward outside groups.

So in any case, the archaeologists believe the Nataruk finds show "intentional killing" of a small band of foragers, which constitutes, they say, "unique evidence of a warfare event among hunter-gatherers in prehistory".

Edited from Haaretz (20 January 2016)
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Monday, January 18, 2016


Unauthorized excavations were discovered to be taking place on the Temple Mount, the Hebrew news site has been reported after photos of a bulldozer near the Dome of the Rock appeared on Arabic Facebook pages.

On one such page it was claimed that the digging was being done in order to repair a water canal that was leaking into one of the smaller domes of the compound. A posting on that page — called “Al-Aqsa Mosque” — also asserted that Israeli police attempted to put a stop to the work, prompting the Waqf (the Islamic trust that manages the Temple Mount) to intervene to allow it continue.

In response, an Israeli organization called “Students for the Temple Mount” called on Minster of Culture and Sport Miri Regev, who heads the Knesset committee dealing with rights of Jews on the Temple Mount, to intervene and put an end to “this flagrant contempt for Israel’s holy sites.” They also demanded the arrest and prosecution of those carrying out such unauthorized digs.

Excavation on the Temple Mount, a site holy to both Jews and Muslims, is an extremely sensitive matter. In the past, Waqf-authorized digs have destroyed historical remains reflecting the site’s Jewish origins. Palestinians, on the other hand, routinely accuse Israel of attempting to compromise the structural integrity of the Temple Mount’s mosques whenever it carries out archaeological excavations in the compound’s vicinity


Studies suggesting that prehistoric interbreeding between early humans and neanderthals could have resulted in modern allergies have been published in the American Journal of Human Genetics, a high-profile journal dedicated to the study of our genes. The theory states that unusual genes that can cause allergies were passed on to early humans when they bred with Neanderthals and Denisovans, a separate species of early hominid who lived in Asia, after humans migrated out of Africa.

The Neanderthals and Denisovans had been living in Europe and western Asia for hundreds of thousands of years before humans arrived, and thus had adapted to the local pathogens.Through breeding with these local species, humans eventually picked up Neanderthal and Denisovan genes, making them resistant to these pathogens too.
Through studying human DNA collected by the 1,000 Genomes Project, a team from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany found three of these genes that still play a role in human 'innate immunity'. Picking up these important genes allowed humans to travel throughout the world and colonize new areas without being made extinct by diseases that they had no defense against.

However, even though these Neanderthal and Denisovan genes played an important role in our history, they create problems for people who still carry them. These genes which quickly react to harmful pathogens can also cause the immune system to overreact to certain things, such as pollen or animal hair, possibly leading to allergies developing in some carriers. As Janet Kelso from the Max Planck Institute told NPR, "I suppose that some of us can blame Neanderthals for our susceptibility to common allergies, like hayfever."

While the origins of our modern allergies may be interesting, the discovery is hugely significant in terms of understanding human history, as it sheds light on how much human breeding with other early species may have affected our evolution.


Scientists believe that they have identified the oldest known images of erupting volcanoes, daubed in red and white pigments over other cave paintings in south-eastern France around 36,000 years ago. The puzzling and apparently abstract images were first found in 1994 among startlingly precise paintings of lions, mammoths and other animals at a complex of caverns at Chauvet in the Ardèche.

A team of French scientists, ranging from geologists to palaeontologists, now believe that the surging, fountain-like images are the only example in Europe of prehistoric paintings of landscapes or natural phenomena. The oldest images of volcanoes previously identified were drawn 8,000 years ago at Catalhoyuk in central Turkey. The findings of the French team – published at the scientific website PLoS One – could transform conceptions about prehistoric art. The cave paintings at Chauvet are already among the oldest, most beautiful and most elaborate in the world.

Like all other known cave art in Europe, they depict animals and – in the case of Chauvet – human hands. If the volcano thesis is accepted, historians may have to revise their theories about the meaning and purpose of cave paintings.

The claims are based on a new geological survey which dates volcanic eruptions in the nearby Bas-Vivarais area to between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago – coinciding with the period when Chauvet was occupied by humans. Carbon-dating of drawings both beneath and above the separate crimson and white “volcano” images suggests that they were drawn during this time.

The team, led by Jean-Michel Geneste, head of archaeological research at Chauvet, wrote: “It is very likely that humans living in the Ardèche river area witnessed one or several eruptions. We propose that the spray-shape signs found in the Chauvet-Pont d’Arc cave could be the oldest known depiction of a volcanic eruption.” The nearest Vivarais volcano was 22 miles north-west of the Chauvet caves. Although volcanic eruptions take various forms, the Vivarais explosions are believed to have resembled a giant fireworks display – much as depicted in the paintings.

When the Chauvet complex was discovered in 1994, paleontologists were puzzled by the seemingly abstract images among detailed and anatomically accurate pictures of lions, mammoths , rhinoceros and deer. “Their irruption in the caves seemed unusual and anachronistic because they were not figurative,” Mr Geneste said. He and his team now believe that the Chauvet artists were doing what they usually did – creating art from the most extreme and dangerous manifestations of the natural world around them.


This week in the journal "Nature" there is a picture of a great many stone artifacts that were found lying scattered on a gravelly surface near Talepu on the Indonesian Island of Sulawesi during the first deep excavations at the site in 2009. Scientists have discovered stone-age tools at least 118,000-years-old on an Indonesian island but no trace of the early humans that made them, according to a study recently released.

The research, published in the journal Nature, also points to a possible link with the first peoples to arrive in Australia.

Unearthed at four separate sites on Sulawesi, the trove of several hundred implements is likely to fuel a long-simmering debate about the identity of now-extinct human species that first came to the island chain. In 2003, fossil remains from a diminutive species of hominin—a terms that groups extinct lineages of early man and modern humans—was discovered in the neighboring island of Flores. Dubbed the "Hobbit", Homo floresiensis had arrived there at least a million years earlier, dating tests revealed.

The new find shows "that Flores was not the only island once inhabited by archaic humans before Homo sapiens"—a.k.a. modern man—"got there around 50,000 years ago," says lead author Gerrit van den Bergh, a researcher at the University of Wollongong in Australia.

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(Because I wrote a book with Caroline Malone for Oxford University Press several years ago I'm always delighted to see new information on the site.)

Some 3,400 years before the A303 carriageway split the Stonehenge landscape in half, some people cut a beautiful pit a meter deep into the hard chalk using picks made of red deer antlers.

The newly discovered pit was neatly shaped to hold a huge wooden post. A trench links to a second equally impressive pit for another massive post. In the rolling chalk downland, these would have been visible for kilometers. The line of the trench seems to lead on towards the neighboring field, under a later bank but carefully avoiding an earlier long barrow.

Phil McMahon, Historic England archaeologist, and Nick Snashell, of the National Trust, speculate on the feature's purpose. "A gateway? A boundary marker? A palisade? The truth is we just don't know," Snashall said. "We won't even have a date until we get the lab results back."

Their survey - which includes aerial photography, ground penetrating radar, the study of old maps showing now-vanished monuments, and excavations - is assessing the route of a proposed tunnel to replace the present road. Tourists very rarely venture across the road, but thousands of monuments lie among the fields and clumps of woodland.

Many of the known sites have never been excavated, and the survey has revealed some new ones, including a puzzling square enclosure which could be prehistoric, Roman or medieval, almost on the shoulder of the road. The survey has also shown how intensively the landscape was farmed for thousands of years: one long barrow was completely ploughed out above ground by the time the Romans arrived.

While broad agreement about a new road plan has been reached between various government authorities, the Stonehenge Alliance - a group that includes local residents, landowners, historians, druids, and the Campaign to Protect Rural England - argue for a much longer tunnel with the entrance and exit placed well outside the world heritage site. The alliance believes that doing nothing about the present road would be much better than doing the wrong thing.

Edited from The Guardian (21 December 2015)
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Excavations in Kurdistan at three sites along the Sirvan - a tributary of the Tigris - have led to the discovery of artifacts including stone tools, the bones of hunted animals, and the remains of hearths belonging to the middle, new, and post-Paleolithic eras.

According to Freydoun Biglari, head of the archaeological team, one of the key findings of the season was the identification and exploration of a rock shelter containing artifacts belonging to the middle Paleolithic era, probably aged between 40,000 to more than 70,000 years - the earliest evidence of human presence in the province.

"Given the fact that the human fossils from this period have been found in Bisitun and Shanidar caves, it is safe to assume that the residents of the area had most likely been from Neanderthal species that have become extinct about forty thousand years ago."

With the extinction of the Neanderthals, Biglari says a new homo sapiens entered this area, and the signs of their habitation have been discovered in two other locations there. Biglari says the finds suggest hunters inhabited the valley from 40,000 to 12,000 years ago, until the end of the last Ice Age, hunting mountain goats in the heights overlooking the valley.

Edited from Tasnim News Agency (29 December 2015), Mehr News Agency (30 December 2015)
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A team of scientists have obtained or confirmed a date range between .9 and .85 Mya (million years ago) as a time when a species of Old World monkey (Theropithecus) and an early species of human occupied the cave site of Cueva Victoria in southeastern Spain.

The location is not far from where many scientists have hypothesized that humans may have crossed over into Europe from North Africa through the Strait of Gibraltar at a time when sea levels were low enough to provide a land bridge between the two continents.

Using paleomagnetism, uranium-thorium, and vertebrate biostratigraphy dating techniques, Luis Gibert of the University of Barcelona, Spain, and colleagues from several other institutions conducted testing on fossiliferous breccia samples and other deposit samples from the cave. Their results showed that the fossil evidence for the Theropithecus presence was constrained to a range between .9 and .85 Mya. Similar dates have been obtained through previous studies on the Cueva Negra cave in the same region of Spain, which contained evidence of early human (Homo) fossils associated with what is arguably considered to be the earliest Acheulean-type stone tools in Europe.