The sea peoples of the Bronze Age Collapse™ sound like something Buzzfeed would write. Do we actually have no clue where they come from or is it one of these over-hyped non-mysteries like the crystal skulls ?

Just fyi, this is not intended to be one of my hardcore scholarly posts, and it has been quite a few years since I’ve looked deeply into these issues. This response is more like I’m your quirky grandma pounding wine over lunch.

So, the Sea Peoples. You know how when you’re younger you think it was The
Barbarians who caused Rome to Fall in 476, but then you get older and
eventually learn that the “Barbarians” were actually hardcore Romanized and a
massive empire can’t just fall in one year because of one group of icky
outsiders anyway? Well, the “Sea Peoples” are to the Bronze Age Collapse as the “Barbarians” are to the Fall of Rome.

The Eastern Mediterranean Empires of the Late Bronze Age were a series of highly cosmopolitan, internationalized, and interconnected economic and political system ranging from Ancient Greece, to Asia Minor, to Egypt, to Sumeria. Complex systems like
that take a long time to build up, and require a lot of little problems building up over a span over the course of years to cause a widespread collapse. And when we say
“collapse” I think it’s incorrect to think of just cities being destroyed. By “collapse” I
mean the breakdown of international trade routes and economic systems and
systems of communication.

So as for what actually happened. We have primary resources; a lot in fact. We have a rich archaeological record, linguistic evidence, not to mention evidence from
geologists and climatologists. But these pieces of evidence tell a lot of little stories which only together could form a situation in which all that infrastructure could totally break down.

There were climate related problems; droughts, for example, unusual flooding patterns. There was unusually heavy volcanic and seismic activity. Some of the trade routes were impacted by these natural occurrences, causing minute snafus over a variety of interconnected economic systems, leading to a lot of big economic snafus over time. Empires were dealing with civil unrest and rebellions, undoubtedly partial results of the earthquakes and droughts and economic issues.

Though I’m primarily speaking of Sumeria and the Eastern Mediterranean, the Western and Central Mediterranean were hardly isolated from these economic and natural incidents, and these dominant international systems. Peoples of the West and Central Mediterranean responded to these disruptions by migrating east to the great imperial centers, which where all lowkey already breaking down.

These migrants, the “Sea Peoples,” likely settled and assimilated into into the civilizations they are purported to have destroyed. Some, I’m sure, were met with hostility upon their arrival. Others wanted to relocate politically and engaged in warfare, and others still wanted to plunder these slowly failing economies for all they were worth. So really, the “Sea Peoples” were multiple groups of migrants from dispersed areas migrating to a massive geographical area in a series of waves in response to a widespread set of structural problems. Meaning, that they were reacting to a set of pre-existing problems, not causing them.

Also, a lot of archaeological and linguistic evidence points to the “Sea Peoples” being of Etruscan and Aegean descent and I can’t tell you how much that thrills me.

Secondary Sources:

A Short History of Plumbing, Toilets, and Sanitation

In 1856, East Indian Railway Company workers summoned General Alexander Cunningham to the Indus River Valley site, where they had uncovered the ruins of an ancient city. The archaeologists who had rushed to the scene were stunned—as archaeologists digging under the auspices of the British Empire were wont to be—by the sophistication of the civilization the workers had begun to uncover. One particular point of interest was the complex system of underground brick lined sewage drains, complete with running water and rudimentary flush toilets.

To put it in different terms, these British archaeologists uncovered a civilization which had had an underground sewage system circa the third millennium BCE in the same year that the city at the seat of the British Empire—London—had begun to experience the sanitation problems which would lead to the “Great Stink” of 1858.


“Father Thames Introducing His Offspring (Diptheria, Scrofula, and Cholera) to the Fair City of London,” originally published in the July 3, 1858 edition of Punch Magazine. Image courtesy of the Museum of London.

In the 1850s, the modern flush toilet began to replace the chamber pot in the daily waste disposal of many Londoners. This increased the volume of waste being poured into cesspits, which often overflowed into the streets, overwhelming the medieval drainage system, and emptied into the Thames. The unusual heat levels of the summer of 1858 merged with the bacteria in the sewage-filled waters of the Thames to produce a stench so overwhelming that the House of Commons nearly shut down.

Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro weren’t the only ancient cities to have a finer grasp on the intricacies of sanitation than the capital of the British Empire.

The sewage of Rome and Istanbul is still partially carried through 1000+ year old pipes, and the first inverted siphon system (u-shaped pipes for those of us who are not engineers) was put into use in the palaces of Crete over 3000 years ago. Those pipes are still in working condition. The Ancient Minoan peoples had a stone sewage system periodically flushed with clean water, and flush toilets dating to around the mid-second millennium BCE have been found in the Minoan archaeological site of Akrotiri.

In the mid-12th century CE the Arab, or possibly Kurdish, engineer Al-Jazari invented a hand-washing device which made use of flush technology (he also invented the first water supply system to be driven by gears and hydropower, and a robot boy band among other things).


Illustration of his water-raising device from Al-Jazari’s work, The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices. Image courtesy of the Topkapi Palace Museum.

In 1596, Sir John Harington developed a forerunner to the modern toilet and had it installed in his house. He also had one installed for his godmother, Queen Elizabeth I, but she refused to use it because the noise freaked her out.

By the 1850’s, the flush toilet had become a standard fixture in the homes of the bourgeoisie, leading to many much needed updates to old and overburdened sewage systems.

And because I’ve been picking on Britain a lot in this post, I will say that a 31st century BCE hydraulic waste removal system was discovered in one of Britain’s oldest known Neolithic villages: Skara Brae, Orkney. Way to remove that waste, Skara Brae.

Chanukah and Historiography, or, the Hasmoneans are Rly Embarrassing

You know, I was going to try to be unpredictable and not make a Chanukah post, but lol @ that tbh.

Today, Chanukah is kind of a cute holiday about god saving the Jewish people from cultural genocide with lots of songs about candles and spinning tops. With presents. But at its barest of bones, Chanukah is a celebration of the fact that a bunch of guerilla fighters beat the Greek establishment out of Judea while using spinning tops as an instrument of subversion. Which begs the question: how did candles and spinning tops come to dominate this holiday which arose from the ousting of an empire of the hands of a few Jews?

First we have to ask what actually happened. Modern scholars fall into two main camps on this issue. One camp views the uprising told of in 1 and 2 Maccabees not as a revolt against the Greeks, but as the result of a civil war between orthodox and reformist Jews. Meaning, there was a civil war between Jews who did not wish to assimilate to the Hellenistic way of life, and Jews who did. The Greek leadership responded to this war by punishing the Orthodox camp (by doing stuff like letting their pigs defecate in the temple). The Maccabean uprising, according to this theory, was the result of Greek intercession in the civil war.

The other camp argues that the revolt began as a religious one, and simply grew into a nationalistic one. Now, because this isn’t my field of study within Jewish history I cannot argue in favor of either camp. I will, however say that, in light of subsequent inter-Jewish conflicts, and in light of conflicts within the present day global Jewish community, the first theory—the one which states that the revolt began with a war between orthodox and modernized Jewry—rings true to me.

The Maccabees, who founded the ruling Hasmonean dynasty, ruled the land independently from 140 BCE to 37 BCE, at which point it was completely dominated by Roman power.*

It would seem that an event of this magnitude would have been deemed worthy enough to merit inclusion in the Biblical canon, but instead, 1 and 2 Maccabees were banished to the Apocrypha.** For, the Hasmoneans were actually pretty corrupt leaders whose policy led directly to the Roman conquest of Judea, and thus the destruction of the Second Temple.

For this reason, later rabbinical scholars, not wanting to glorify the Hasmoneans, relegated 1 and 2 Maccabees to the Apocrypha and emphasized the role of god and miracles in the uprising over the Maccabees themselves. That is why, today, we have a holiday about latkes, dreidels, and candle lighting.

*Rome conquered and divided the land in 63 BCE, but the Hasmoneans retained a semblance of independence until Herod the Great strengthened his rule in 37 BCE.

**These books are apocryphal in the Hebrew Bible, and in the Protestant scriptures; they are canonical within the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox texts.

The Euphronios Krater, UNESCO, and Illegal Excavations

A krater is a decorative bowl the Ancient Greeks used to mix wine with water. Euphronius—an Athenian vase painter active in the late 6th, and early 5th century BCE—was a highly influential painter, and was instrumental in the transition from the Late Archaic style of vase art to the Early Classical style. Euphronios and about six other contemporary artists—known by art historians as the Pioneer Group—revolutionized the red figure vase painting technique (as seen pictured above).

There are 27 vases painted by Euphronius currently in existence, and the Euphronios Krater is the most renowned example of his work due to the brightness of its colors and the fact that it is completely intact. It is also remarkable in that it was signed by both Euphronios and the potter, Euxitheos.

In 1972, American antiquities dealer Robert Hecht Jr. sold the Krater to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for $1.2 million. Hecht claimed to have acquired the piece from a Lebanese dealer named Dikran Sarrafian, whose family had owned the piece since 1920.

Because he had documentation to verify this, the Met deemed his custody of the Krater legal under the standards put in place by UNESCO in 1970 (see below), and concluded that their purchase too would be legal. The Italian government was immediately suspicious, as it suspected that the Krater had been acquired through an illegal excavation, but they could not prove anything at that point in time.

The UNESCO (the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property of 1970, in highly simplified terms, set into law that any cultural object which had been stolen or illegally excavated after 1970 had to be returned to its country of origin. Every country which ratified the Convention had to follow these terms regardless of the year at which it was ratified. Italy ratified it in 1978, and the United States ratified it in 1983. You can read the full text of the Convention, including the set definition of “cultural property,” here.

The installation of this law caused museums, archives, and dealers to pay much better attention to the documentation of objects they wished to acquire into their collections. If they could not verify that the object had been acquired legally after 1970, or they could not verify the provenance of objects held in private hands before 1970, the repository would not accept the item. As you may imagine, this only resulted in the creation of very impressive forgeries of documents.

Which brings us back to the Euphronios Krater. Despite the Italian government’s continued belief that the Krater had been illegally excavated, the Met would not discuss the issue until 2001. Between 2001 and 2005 it came to light that Hecht had not purchased the piece from Dikran Sarrafian, but had knowingly purchased it from a network of illegal excavators headed by Italian art dealer Gaicomo Medici. The Krater has been illegally excavated from an Etruscan tomb in 1971, and smuggled out of the country by Hecht shortly thereafter.

Hecht is currently standing trial on allegations of trafficking illicit antiquities, and Medici’s court hearings began in 2005. In 2006, after all of this had come to light, talks between the Met and the Italian government started up again, and in January of 2008, the Krater was returned to Italian soil.

The Elgin Marbles: Needs Subtitle

The Elgin Marbles are sculptures housed in the British Museum, which once adorned the Athenian Parthenon. They were removed from the Parthenon by Thomas Bruce, the seventh Lord of Elgin and British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, in 1803, and have been on display in the British Museum since 1816. In 1981, it became a stated goal of the Greek Cultural Minister to repatriate them to the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.

The Parthenon after centuries of worship, war, and imperialism

The Parthenon was constructed between 447 and 438 BCE and served as a temple of Athena. Like many ancient religious sites, the Parthenon continued on through the centuries as a center of worship; it was used as a church in the Byzantine period, and as a mosque after the fifteenth century Ottoman conquest.

Though the Parthenon underwent the expected wear and tear of the centuries, it wasn’t until the 1680s that it was actually damaged when undergoing fire from Venetian troops.

Elgin began his ambassadorial career in 1799 and remained in the post of British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire until 1803. Like many men of his class, he had a passion for antiquities—particularly for those of the Classical Greek persuasion—and jumped at the chance to reside in such an exotic locale.

Busy with his ambassadorial duties, Elgin appointed a team led by his private secretary, Philip Hunt, to represent his interests in Athens. Hunt’s job was to organize digs in the Acropolis area, and remove inscriptions and reliefs from the site. Elgin’s team received permission from the Ottoman government to carry out said activities.

Hunt interpreted the decree to mean that it allowed for the removal of sculptures from the structure of the Parthenon itself, and persuaded the governor of Athens to share this interpretation. Elgin, believing that the Ottoman government was indifferent towards the survival of the sculptures, supported this. As the sculptures were being removed, Elgin’s team further damaged the sculptures by cutting them into smaller pieces in order to more easily remove them.

Detailing from the Elgin Marbles

Their removal was controversial even at the time. Elgin had the marbles shipped to England in 1803, and, unable to shed the stigma attached to them, stored them in a damp shed for thirteen years.

Parliament purchased the marbles in 1816, and promptly deposited them in the British Museum. They have been there ever since.

Gallery of the British Museum where the marbles are on display

Greek rhetoric on the subject of the Marbles is deeply emotional, speaking of them in terms of children being violently removed from their family, and national heritage being mutilated. Greece has accused the British Museum of further damaging the marbles through harmful cleaning processes, further exacerbating the dialogue surrounding the issue.

Though this post focuses on the pieces residing in the British Museum, other sculptures from the Parthenon are in the Louvre, Copenhagen, Italy, and around half are in the Acropolis Museum in Athens. It is the eventual goal of the Greek government to reunite all of the sculptures in the National Archaeological Museum, pictured below.

The Greek National Archaeological Museum

The British Museum, along with a consortium of major museums across the world, has stated that repatriation would set a very damaging precedent for the global museum system. It has also been argued that, after 200 years of British residency, the Marbles have become a part of British culture.

The debate is ongoing.

The Rosetta Stone: Contested Key to Hieroglyphic Translation

The Rosetta Stone

The Rosetta Stone is an Ptolemaic-era Egyptian artifact which provided the key to a modern understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphs. It is inscribed with a decree issued by King Ptolemy V in 196 BCE, with the decree is inscribed in three Hieroglyphs, Demotic script (a post-Late Egyptian, pre-Greek language spoken in Egypt beginning in 650 BCE), and Ancient Greek. The same text is presented in all three languages, thus scholars were able to decipher the Hieroglyph text through their knowledge of Ancient Greek.

close-up of panels inscribed in each of the three languages

As time went on, the stele, which was probably a fairly ordinary one at the time of its issue, eventually ended up in use as a building material in the construction of Fort Julien on the Nile River Delta. A French soldier found the stele in 1799, and recognized its value to Western scholarship. As it was not being used in any academic or official propensity, he took it.

Word spread quite rapidly of this find, and lithographic copies and plaster casts of the stele began to circulate around the European scholarly community.

However, as this was taking place to the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars, in 1801, British troops attacked and defeated the French troops stationed in Egypt. The British took the Rosetta Stone from the French in a move sanctioned by the Treaty of Alexandria, and its subsequent removal from Egyptian soil was approved by the Ottoman government. It has been on display at the British Museum since 1802.

In July of 2003, Egypt made its first request for the repatriation of the Rosetta Stone.