Thursday, 26 December 2019

PAS: Just nod meekly or you're blocked

Ha! That was an interesting outcome. Paul Barford, an archaeologist, highlighted a recent Twitter announcement by Jo Ahmet, the Finds Liaison Officer (FLO) for Kent:


Kent FLO:
Heard about this fantastic #AngloSaxon #Treasure #Donation to @MaidstoneMuseum ? Before It goes on display, get a sneak peak now and hear the finder talk about its' discovery.
kentonline.co.uk video/maidstone-museum receives
find more info below: finds.org.uk database record 917780
#ResponsibleDetecting #Thanks 

Barford let the insane superfluity of hashtags (#Thanks - seriously?!) pass without comment but he did rib Ahmet about his apostrophe abuse in the phrase "its' discovery". When David Petts, a Durham academic, leapt to the FLO's defence, the FLO tweeted his gratitude:

Kent FLO:
Thank you David. Also, for once despite my specific learning difficulty I believe ” its’ “, in this context is correct. Being as the sentence is possessive....”it is discovery” is not what I had intended to say 

He then followed that with a GIF of Obama shrugging, as if to ask why the fuss since he was perfectly right anyway.

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Okay, it's a small point but having worked as a copy editor myself, I thought I'd just set the record straight. Without making any comment whatsoever on the FLO's content or anything else, I simply posted a single tweet to point out the correct grammar:


I thought no more about it but a couple of days later I idly wondered if he had thanked, or at least acknowledged, me. Here's what I found:


Whoa! A trifle touchy? If the representative of an organisation seeking 'outreach' to the public is so averse even to someone politely trying to settle a minor point about grammar, I can only imagine what the reaction would be if another member of the public had the audacity to question his attribution of a find. Something like this perhaps?

Kent FLO: Heard about this fantastic #AngloSaxon #Treasure?

Fred Bloggs: I believe the artefact actually dates from the Roman period.

Kent FLO: You're BLOCKED! You can't follow or see my Tweets any longer!

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I'm pretty casual with spelling and grammar in private emails to friends or even in posts on my personal page on Facebook. No big deal. However, perhaps the era of Political Correctness has changed everything but when I was at college we were told that public announcements are a different thing (Ahmet tweeted under the official 'Kent FLO' banner).

It was instilled into us that poor spelling and grammar not only diminish your own credibility, they reflect on the image and standards of the whole institution on whose behalf you are writing. Time to take EXTRA care - especially if you know you have a "specific learning difficulty". After all, finding correct spelling and grammar nowadays is only a mouse-click away.

I suppose you can take the other route - not give a flying fig about the image of the PAS or the British Museum - and I doubt an errant apostrophe is a capital offence even in the leafy suburbs of Kent but crudely blocking someone who merely confirms correct usage seems a bizarre overreaction. I've always had a fond respect for the institution behind the PAS and I'm not sure that somewhat paranoid response is the message its official representative should be sending out to members of the public.

Surely, a simple thanks (or even #Thanks) would have done the trick.



Friday, 16 August 2019

Please Do NOT Wash

An eBay seller based in East Sussex states "Here for Sale is a Very High Quality Roman Bronze Double Spouted, Double Busted Oil Lamp. Dating From Around 200 - 400 AD" and makes an earnest plea to the successful buyer:

"Please Do NOT Wash as This May Cause Damage to The Item."

I can totally understand his worry. It must have taken ages to put all that fake orange crap on the item in the first place. It would be tragic to wash it off and reveal the brand new shiny metal underneath.

(A genuine patina would of course be unaffected by soap and water - and does not wash off.)

But perhaps more worryingly, the fact that the item doesn't even remotely resemble any real Roman lamp (or is even a decent replica) appears to be lost on the people bidding for it.

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UPDATE: Sold for £118.

It's a trifle disconcerting to see how readily some people are parted from their money. I could understand someone willing to pay, say, £50 or even £60 for a really good-quality accurate replica of a Roman bronze lamp to use in an historical re-enactment - but that thing is nothing even remotely like a real Roman lamp. If they turned up with it in front of knowledgeable people, it would just be a laughing stock.

But then, perhaps I'm being too much of a purist. I watched a bit of the 2014 movie Exodus: Gods and Kings on TV last night and winced as I noticed the pharaoh was happily using Hellenistic lamps that hadn't even been invented until over a thousand years after the supposed events in the movie. I'm guessing Ridley Scott wasn't overly bothered by anachronisms.

The most disconcerting thought is the niggling suspicion that at least some of the people bidding for that eBay monstrosity were under the impression that it was actually genuine - despite clearly not having the vaguest idea of what a genuine example looks like. At that level of brainlessness, I imagine they would still be none the wiser even if they DID wash it and saw the brand new shiny metal underneath.

Sigh, I give up hope in humanity!


Friday, 19 July 2019

Gaza Apollo - the story continues

Ever since a bronze statue of Apollo surfaced - and then promptly disappeared - in Gaza over five years ago, historians, curators, collectors, political groups and just about everyone have been yearning to either possess it or at least get a better look and know more about it. Currently, it appears to be in the custody of Hamas - and perhaps not likely to re-emerge any time soon.

In the meantime, a documentary by Nicolas Wadimoff was released last year and Al Jazeera have announced an abridged version. See it here while it lasts (until 14 August 2019). Frankly, I could do without the cheesy philosophical interludes but the film does offer a few excellent insights into some of the context and characters involved.

My personal thoughts? I suspect the statue is authentic (ancient Greek or a Roman copy) but its condition does not seem to suggest that it was lying under the sea for centuries. I tend to think it was originally found on dry land and perhaps, as one of the people in the film speculates, dropped overboard for some reason while being transported in modern times. It's quite possible it was being smuggled by boat between two other countries and jettisoned or lost off the Gazan coast when the venture was inconveniently interrupted. Who knows?

At any rate, whatever its origin, my two greatest concerns - assuming the statue really is authentic - are that it is likely to be in urgent need of conservation and that it eventually ends up properly curated on public display.

My thanks to Michael Press for publicising this news.

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Latest find at Vindolanda

Loving this latest find announced yesterday (15 July 2019) by the Vindolanda Trust. The artefact was merely described as a "beautiful little oil lamp that was uncovered from the Antonine excavation" but I'll flesh that out a bit with my own analysis. The object is a Firmalampe (factory lamp), a late form of Loeschcke Type X, and was made in the Rhineland during the 2nd century AD. Although Trier was the prime production centre, the style and fabric here suggest it was possibly made in Cologne. Many examples bear a maker's mark in raised letters on the base, sometimes of an Italian maker with a branch workshop(?) in the Rhineland, but the marks are less common on this later style.

Oil lamps never really caught on to a large extent in Britain. British-made examples tend to be relatively crude and typically mica-dusted. A large proportion of the oil lamps found in Britain were imported, normally from Gaul, Germany or Italy. They are found mainly in urban or military contexts, and are very rarely found in any context at all after the 2nd or 3rd century.

The likely reasons for their comparative rarity in Britain are the cost of importing olive oil and their unfamiliarity outside urban or military environments. The preferred lighting in most of Britain consisted of open lamps (e.g. Loeschcke Type XI) burning animal fat, or possibly tallow candles.

Friday, 5 April 2019

Puzzle jug solution? The mystery of an ancient Egyptian lamp.

Getty Museum
A "curious" type of lamp produced in Ptolemaic Egypt has caused even leading scholars in lychnology to scratch their heads over the years. The lamps are made of pottery, some examples on a wheel and some in a mould, they date from around the 3rd to 1st centuries BC and are said to be quite common at excavations in the Alexandria area.

Popularly known as 'jug' lamps, they do indeed resemble that type of object but what would be a spout is located near the bottom rather than at the top. The frequent presence of carbon residue around the 'spout' confirms that it is actually a nozzle for a wick and the object is a lamp.

But here's the conundrum that has puzzled scholars: Not only does a chamber that rises far higher than the fuel level dictated by the lowly placed nozzle seem completely pointless, the upper part of the chamber is riddled with holes. What on earth is the point of adding an apparently useless perforated extension above the fuel chamber of a lamp?

Could the object have been used as a burner to produce smoke (e.g. as insect repellent)?

No, the function I propose may have helped to discourage insects but not through the application of smoke. While carbon residue around the nozzle proves use of a flame there, that around the holes above it is merely secondary and there are no burn marks inside the vessel itself. In addition, that scenario would not explain why all the holes are concentrated in only one place.

Could the object have doubled as some kind of filter or sprinkler?

No, but it is likely that the object did perform two roles and it is those holes that give the best clue to the object's true probable purpose. While the bottom part of the chamber would have contained liquid fuel (such as olive oil) for the lamp to function, the part above the nozzle clearly did not. The contents of the upper part would need to be a relatively dry and solid substance.

That substance was almost certainly incense. Incense was used not only for religious and other formal occasions at public locations in the ancient world, it also played a traditional role in the domestic environment where it was commonly heated at household shrines, valued for its supposed medicinal properties or simply employed as an aromatic amenity.

If the upper part of the chamber was intended to hold incense, why are there no burn marks inside it?

Incense does not always need to be literally burnt to be effective. Merely heating it is sometimes a preferable alternative. Slow, gentle heating not only avoids the smell of charring and the discomfort of smoke, it releases the fragrance of the incense over a much longer period. The concept is still practised today.

How did the fuel and incense stay separate if they shared the same chamber?

It is important to bear in mind that these lamps tend to be very small (typically only 4 to 6 centimetres in diameter) and it was apparently not thought necessary - or even desirable - to create a physical barrier between the fuel and the incense. The liquid fuel would naturally sink to the bottom of the chamber and, as found in modern practice, lumps or pellets of incense heated on top of a bed of olive oil produce a harmonious aromatic blend.

Okay, so why the holes when any aroma would have vented perfectly well through the open top of the chamber anyway?

As I said, it is the holes that give the best clue to the object's probable purpose. But it is easy to misunderstand the reason for them. Confusion can be caused by incorrect assumptions about the direction of flow. I suspect the holes were not created primarily to let aroma out; they were created to let heat in.

Pottery is a poor conductor. The body of a pottery lamp does not become warm enough to have much effect on any incense placed inside it. The heat would be provided by the flame on the outside of the lamp - which is why all the holes are concentrated in only one place, directly above a scoop-sided wick-hole deliberately located as close to them as possible. The holes allowed the heat from the flame to reach the incense.

Conclusion: The objects would thus serve as both lamps and censers. Though not always immediately obvious to the modern eye, ancient technology could be quite ingenious.

RomQ Reference Collection

I was not around when the lamps were made and used, and of course my solution to their unusual form is only a hypothesis. Not quite as dramatic as solving murder mysteries perhaps but I personally find that trying to interpret the more intriguing artefacts from the past can be just as satisfying - even if my simple deductions may sometimes strike other sleuths as "elementary".


Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Leather books from Turkey

I see that yet another dubious artefact has been seized from 'smugglers' in Turkey ('Hebrew manuscript recovered from smugglers in central Turkey', Daily Sabah, 12 March 2019). Turkish authorities love to publicise their leading role in 'recovering' truckloads of antiquities supposedly stolen from war-torn Syria - but there's a slight hitch. Pretty much all of the 'recovered' objects proudly displayed in their photos appear to be tourist-grade fakes (just one example).

The latest seizure is no exception. Lots of these peculiar leather books (aptly dubbed 'Golden Brownies') have been turning up over the past few years (none from reliable sources). Despite the self-congratulatory smugness of the Turkish police at having brilliantly cracked a Syrian smuggling ring, most scholars regard these garish items as no more than modern fake tat aimed at gullible buyers.

What's more, it seems quite likely that they are being produced in Turkey itself rather than in Syria - so actually not 'smuggled' at all. One has to wonder whether the part in the suspects' statement about the object having been "stolen from a museum [unnamed] in Syria" was naively believed by the suspects themselves or conveniently inserted by those who pressured them into signing it. After all, what self-respecting museum would curate such rubbish?

Paul Barford has compiled a list of the characteristics of these 'Golden Brownies' and his note of their sources suggests that most of them appear to be originating from western Anatolia (and quite possibly manufactured there or transported from a centre further east).

It would seem that far from helping to thwart the looting of Syria's cultural heritage, all the Turkish authorities have really done is expose a thriving fake industry in their own country.



Friday, 16 November 2018

How reliable is the PAS database? (Part 2)

While idly exploring the database of the UK's Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) I came across this entry for a pottery lamp supposedly found in Norfolk in 1986 (record created 11 years ago, updated 2 years ago):


Here is the PAS identification (with my comments below):
"Romano-British"
It has nothing to do with Romano-British culture.

"known as a 'factory lamp' or firmalampe"
It does not even remotely resemble that type of lamp.

"Probably made in Gaul or Germany."
It was made in northern Syria, at the opposite end of the Roman Empire.

"2nd or 3rd century."
It is not earlier than the 5th to 6th centuries AD.
I appreciate that PAS staff have a large workload and I hate to nitpick but artefacts of this type are very well known (Kennedy Type 20) and extensively recorded in the literature. More worryingly, although they are common on the modern antiquities market, it is extremely unlikely that they ever formed part of Britain's ancient archaeology.


The PAS identification (a 'factory lamp' made in Gaul during the 2nd century) fits plausibly into Romano-British archaeology. The reality is far more doubtful.

The difficulty here seems to be that the identification of the object was an unwarranted assumption, guided by the narrow confines of what would be expected within a supposed British context and tailoring it to fit, rather than accepting that the discovery of the object was very different to that of a documented excavation and that the object could not safely be treated in the same way. Familiarity with a much wider international typology than that of Wheeler's localised (and long outdated!) London in Roman Times was called for. The episode highlights the importance of recognising that PAS recording is not a substitute for traditional archaeology.

I once mentioned that PAS records are inherently open to abuse and are thus unreliable. A careless and  incorrect identification compounds the problem. It is misleading and potentially distorts our perception of the British past. Moreover, it lends credibility to nonsense invented to exploit that misperception.


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