Pasts Imperfect (2.24.22)
Forgotten Books, Mesopotamian Beer, and More
This week, Colin McCaffrey discusses a new project trying to assess how much of the past we have lost. Then we look at how archaeologists reconstruct Mesopotamian beer, the oldest pants in the world, ancient Indian glass factories, lectures on the diversity of the Roman Mediterranean, and more.
Forgotten Books (Colin McCaffrey)
Every scholar working to reconstruct the past laments how much of the premodern world is lost to the sands of time. What survives of this cultural record is not a representative sample of what was produced, and this makes even understanding how much was lost a challenge. A new project, Forgotten Books, tries to calculate this loss and correct for the “survivorship bias” in what remains. Without correcting for such a bias, there is “the risk that we will underestimate the cultural diversity of past societies.” Ecologists face similar challenges in estimating the diversity and population of an ecosystem from a limited set of observations, and they have developed a number of statistical tools to assist their analyses. In an article published this week in Science Mike Kestemont, Folgert Karsdorp, and collaborators apply some of these statistical methods to assess the loss of cultural artifacts such as books.
These methods include the application of unseen species models developed by Taiwanese environmental statistician Anne Chao to estimate the loss of vernacular narrative literature from medieval Europe. By analogizing works to species and known surviving documents to sightings, the authors estimate a document survival ratio of approximately 9%. Survival of works varies regionally—at low end, only 36.8% of English works are estimated to survive compared to 81% of Irish. Assemblages with a more even distribution of documented works tend to preserve their diversity over time, and the authors note that this may in part account for increased survival rates of works in insular communities. The authors suggest that similar analyses using ecological models might be fruitfully applied to other domains of cultural survival and loss. (For example, papyri remains suggest a very uneven distribution of works in Greco-Roman Egypt which would imply a higher rate of loss of under-represented works.)
The project’s website provides a helpful overview, while Mike Kestemont discusses it on the Science podcast. Details matter for this sort of investigation, and there are plenty in the paper’s supplement. The project’s approach might be fruitfully compared with Part III of Reviel Netz’s Scale, Space, and Canon in Ancient Literary Culture (Cambridge, 2020)
Public Scholarship on the Web
Over at Peopling the Past, Tate Paulette, an archaeologist who specializes in ancient Southwest Asia, discusses “Bringing the Beers of Ancient Mesopotamia Back to Life.”
Excavation of an ancient Giribawa glass factory within Kurunegala (Sri Lanka) has revealed 20 furnaces that were used for glass production. Others in the area date to around the 7th-8th centuries CE and also include glass beads. To learn more about ancient glass, we’d suggest taking a look at the open access monograph edited by Alok Kumar Kanungo and Laure Dussubieux on Ancient Glass of South Asia, which came out in 2021.
At Candida Moss’ column at The Daily Beast, she discusses the recent news that the Diocese of Phoenix, Arizona, announced that a priest, Father Andres Arango, did thousands of invalid baptisms due to uttering a single incorrect word. As Moss and Matt Gabriele note, a focus on unity and identity through precise words—down to the iota—is part of the long history of Christianity:
At stake here is also the identity and unity of the church. “Since antiquity,” said Gabriele “[baptism] has been a particularly important ritual within the Church, a way of delineating who is within the Church and can be saved and who can’t.” The Donatist schism in fourth-century North Africa, for example, centered on whether the priests who had colluded with the Roman authorities during the Great Persecution had invalidated their office and lost the Holy Spirit. If, as the Donatists believed, they had, then all of those baptized by the now spiritually impotent priests had to be re-baptized. The resulting debate decided that authority rested on the ritual itself not the moral status of the individual priest. The rest, as they say, is history.
The discovery of a Neolithic shrine from around 7,000 BCE in the Jordanian Desert is a big deal. “The ritual complex was found in a Neolithic campsite near large structures known as “desert kites,” or mass traps that are believed to have been used to corral wild gazelles for slaughter.”
Do you like to row boats? Would you like to row a late Roman style boat? We got you. A reconstruction of the late Roman navis lusoria type is looking for some Danubian rowers for a November cruise.
Our ship named “Danuvia Alacris” will cover about 40 km a day which, will be rowed and partially sailed, if possible. The crew, which will consist of about 18-20 rowers and a leadership team of 4-5 people, will have an international composition, so the language on the ship will be English,” the project announcement page reads.
Scholars at the German Archaeological Institute have radiocarbon dated two pairs of pants excavated at a cemetery in western China dating to 1300 BCE-1000 BCE. They are now the oldest known pair of trousers by about 1,000 years. Sinologist and archaeologist Mayke Wagner, who led the study, noted that the two people buried in the pants were likely warriors or policeman warn on horseback:
“The trousers were part of their uniform and the fact that they were made between 100 and 200 years apart means it was a standard, traditional design,” says Wagner, whose team worked with a fashion designer to re-create the garments. “They are surprisingly good-looking, but they are not particularly comfortable for walking.”
Online Lectures and Conferences
The Department of Classical Studies at Brandeis University is excited to announce their next virtual event by Dr. Nandini Pandey, Johns Hopkins University, for her talk "Diversity and Inclusion, or Racial Capitalism? From the Roman Arena to the Modern University" on Monday, March 7th at 6:00 PM ET. To sign up for the Zoom, please email David DeVore: email@example.com.
At Everyday Orientalism, Juliana Bastos Marques, Amy L. Daniels, Aaron de Souza, Usama Ali Gad, Mekhola Gomes, and Khodadad Rezakhani will discuss “Afro-Eurasian Antiquities beyond the Euro-American Gaze” on February 25, 2022 at 10am to noon EST. Register here.
New Online Journal Issues @YaleClassicsLib
Histos Suppl. Vol. 14 (2022) #openaccess Herodotus—The Most Homeric Historian?
Les Études Classiques Vol. 89, No. 1-4 (2021) Hommage au Professeur Lambert Isebaert (II)
Antiquity Vol. 96, No. 385 (2022)
Journal of the History of Ideas Vol. 83, No. 1 (2022)
Humanistica Lovaniensia Vol. 70 No. 2 (2021) #openaccess NB: Theodore R. Delwiche ““And why may not I go to college?” Alethea Stiles and Women’s Latin Learning in Early America”
Judaïsme Ancien - Ancient Judaism Vol. 9 (2021)
Clotho Vol. 3 No. 2 (2021) #openaccess
The Public Books section "Antiquities" continues to take pitches for articles to be published in 2022. You can pitch to our “Pasts Imperfect” column at the LA Review of Books using this form and to the new JSTOR column here. Thanks for reading!