Thursday, August 20, 2009
Ever since Heinrich Schliemann claimed to have excavated the historic Troy of Homer's Iliad in the early 1870s, there has been a neverending determination to prove that archaeological sites are connected with famous people. Some of course have been incredibly significant. Howard Carter's discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen in 1922, or the discovery of the terracotta army of China's first emperor Qin Shihuangdi in the 1970s, would both count as important finds with historical veracity. But then there have been the bogus claims. A few years ago, archaeologists were debating over the veracity of the so-called sarcophagus of a brother of Jesus of Nazareth; the sarcophagus turned out to be a hoax. Watching the Discovery Channel heightens these expectations when they show eye-catching documentaries with historic recreations and computer reconstructions, and they announce revelations such as that the Egyptian pyramids weren't built by slaves or aliens, but in fact were built by slaves AND aliens working together in a proto-utopian desert paradise! The rush to claim authenticity continues. About two weeks ago, news broke on NPR and other news agencies that archaeologists claimed to have discovered Vespasian's country villa northeast of Rome. Vespasian, seen here in a cast of a naturalistic portrait bust from the Pushkin Museum after an original marble at the Louvre (image courtesy of Wikipedia), was an emperor of ancient Rome who established the short-lived Flavian Dynasty. He came to power in the year 69 and was responsible for cleaning up the mess left by crazy Nero. Vespasian ordered the construction of the Colosseum, but he died in 79 before it was completed. The uncovered summer villa in the countryside was large: 161,459 square feet in size. Archaeologists have excavated evidence of highly decorative mosaic floors, baths, and marble halls. Certainly it demonstrated a show of wealth. But as Filippo Coarelli, the archaeologist of the University of Perugia who has led the excavation, told Discovery News, "We found no inscription that says it belonged to the emperor, but the location, dating, size and quality of the building leave little doubt about its owner." And that apparently is the problem. Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at Cambridge University, has been vocal in denying the attribution to Vespasian. In a recent blog post ("Vespasian's villa? Don't you believe it"), she wrote quite adamantly, "It's just a large Roman house of roughly the right date in roughly the right place." In short, it's a coincidence. She also laments the ongoing desire for some archaeologists to glamorize their finds: "As usual a combination of fantasy and wishful thinking has driven this non-story. ... After all the 'advances' in archaeology, and what it can tell us about the ancient world, are we still looking for a 'Vespasian lived here' spot?" I think she has a point, but let's face it, no one outside of academia cares much about the discovery of some unnamed villa. Throw something like Vespasian into the mix and the exoticism of his name alone opens the ears--and wallets--of people outside the academic ivory tower. (Beard has written numerous books on ancient Rome; she is the co-author with John Henderson of Classical Art: From Greece to Rome, a fantastic book about Greco-Roman art and its legacy through the late 19th century.) I've always been fascinated by archaeology and I would love to participate in a dig. Maybe then one day I'll be able to say, "I've found the ancient brothel where Caligula first lost his virginity!"