Once, after a lovely evening of drinks and dinner, my date invited me back to his apartment to see the Greek vases he had inherited from his godparents. I’m an art historian who studies the criminal underside of the antiquities market. As he rooted around in his cupboards, I tried to think of the most tactful way to tell him that the vases, bought without any information about their source, had probably been looted from an archaeological site. He finally unearthed them from an old Tupperware box above his refrigerator. The objects he plunked down in front of me had clearly not been looted. ‘Oh, but these are all fakes!’ I blurted out with relief. Way to ruin a date.
Reports have been circulating in the press of a discovery at Olympia of 13 lines from very early in Book 14 of the Odyssey, inscribed on a clay tablet. These reports all seem to be based on an announcement by the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports; various muddles in the English press reporting, such as calling Book 14 a ‘rhapsody’, can probably be blamed on Google Translate. The report also claims that the clay tablet, which the archaeologists are said to have provisionally dated to Roman times, ‘probably before the third century AD’, is ‘extraordinarily unique’ (πέραν της μοναδικότητάς), because it ‘may perhaps preserve the oldest known extract of the Homeric epic’. Hordes of newspapers have repeated the claim. There are plenty of papyri of parts of the Iliad and the Odyssey that are far older than the third century AD, however, including the first ever discovered, a piece of papyrus housed at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, which dates to the first half of the third century BCE. There are even earlier bits of Homer on other materials, such as a line from Odyssey 9 on a potsherd found in ancient Olbia (in modern Ukraine), dating to the fifth century BCE.
The photographer Marc Atkins and I are working on a project called Fields of England. We go into fields we have known for a long time, and others we just know about, but have never seen: battlefields, minefields, deserted village fields, fields undersea, gathering places, burial grounds, places of execution, places where treaties have been signed – but this is a list of field-genres. If we have learned one thing, it is the limitation of genre. There are as many genres as there are fields. And almost as many Englands.
The Iraq National Museum reopened on 28 February. Many of the treasures of ancient Mesopotamia are in the British Museum or the Pergamon in Berlin, or were lost to looting after the 2003 invasion, but some wonderful objects are now on show in Baghdad. I visited last week. As I was looking at pieces of Iraq’s great civilisations in glass cases, the extremists of Daesh (as the Islamic State is known in Arabic) were smashing up the original sites for being idolatrous.
Dead bodies are being evicted from East London to make way for the new Crossrail station at Liverpool Street. Crossrail is gentrifying the soil. Last week archaeologists began digging up skeletons from what used to be the Bedlam, or Bethlehem, burial ground. The cemetery took its name from the lunatic asylum, which was close by, and some of the people buried there were former inmates. But it was mostly used, between 1569 and 1738, by East London parishes as an overflow cemetery for ill-favoured corpses, an underground slum for the dead.
On Monday, six days before the general election, the Greek Ministry of Culture published a preliminary report by the osteo-archaeological team studying the skeletal remains found in the mound of Amphipolis in northern Greece. The bones were found in November, since when there had been a lot of speculation about who they might have belonged to. Alexander the Great’s name came up a lot, as did his mother’s, Olympias.
‘Settlement through excavation is the same as settlement through building,’ according to Yonathan Mizrachi, an archaeologist who works with Emek Shaveh in Jerusalem. The organisation explores the connection between archaeology and politics in Israel and Palestine, particularly in and around Jerusalem. Earlier this year it published a report, written by Mizrachi, called From Territorial Contiguity to Historical Continuity: Asserting Israeli Control through National Parks in East Jerusalem.
The news that archaeologists had found, or thought they’d found, the body of Richard III under a council car park in Leicester ought to have been cause for celebration. He (or presumed he) is exactly where he ought to have been according to historical sources. He had an arrow in his back and his head had been bashed in. There could be no clearer physical proof of the complete ruthlessness of Henry Tudor. Apparently the body has curvature of the spine, so Thomas More and Shakespeare weren’t too far off when they called Richard crook-backed. History seemed to have been vindicated. But somehow I just didn’t feel good about it. Partly it was the solemn University of Leicester press conference, where men in suits tried to hold in sober academical check their triumph at a great historical find. They had discovered, after more than 500 years, a body that had been killed in a very nasty way, then dumped with the minimum of decorum required to avoid a public outcry. I wondered how archaeologists in the future might reveal that they had discovered the bones of bin Laden.
Since the weekend, the Greek police have rounded up around 6500 immigrants in Athens. About 1500 have been found to be without documents and are currently imprisoned awaiting deportation, in overcrowded detention centres where conditions are ‘dire’. More than three-quarters of the people targeted by the police are completely innocent. But most of the media (even the Guardian) have described it as an operation against lathrometanastes or ‘illegal’ immigrants.
Elie Wiesel is not known for his sympathy towards the Palestinian cause for self-determination. He was recently made the chairman of the board of the Elad Association, also known as the Ir David Foundation, an organisation that has been actively erasing the Palestinians’ cultural heritage and facilitating the confinement of Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem. In 2002, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority hired Elad to run the City of David national park, in the densely populated Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan. Elad has spent millions of dollars trying (unsuccessfully) to demonstrate King David's presence in that area.