An army of Lego Classicists is ready to conquer social networks

Adults and children alike, they know LEGO; however, the enthusiasts of the classical world in particular should take advantage of social networks and not lose sight of the LEGO CLASSICIST project. The project was conceived from an idea of Liam D. Jensen, aka The Lego Classicist, an Australian archivist. An army of classicists is now conquering the web and the scholars of the ancient world as well, thanks to a perfect mix of pop art and ancient history.

As revealed by Liam himself, everything started by chance. The idea of recreating the Classics via the LEGO bricks surpassed all expectations. It has been a celebration of the ancient world and, above all, of the work of many scholars that love their job and allow us to know history and archaeology as much as possible, even if they have been working for different organisations and in different fields. Liam uses social networks in an innovative and inclusive way, and announces a new member of the LEGO Classicist family from time to time.

Liam at work, creating one of his LCs. Photo © Liam D. Jensen

In a short time, and thanks to the crowd of people being intrigued by the initiative, the project has become an international one. The power of communication also goes through gaming and the capability of breaking down barriers, which is typical of the renowned LEGO figures: they have gained such a huge popularity worldwide because they are able to create scenarios and adventures that are always fresh and diverse. Many important public figures joined the LC family, among them there is Mary Beard, whose minifigure has become viral to the point that even the BBC talked about that, and she also appeared on the prestigious German archaeology journal Antike Welt, on SALON, the newsletter of the Society of Antiquaries of London, and at the University of Cambridge. Mary Beard herself then used her minifigure during her tv show, Front Row Late.

Presently, Italy may boast three LEGO minifigures, based on important scholars: Alessandra Giovenco, an archivist from the British School at Rome, professor Massimo Osanna, archaeologist and general director at the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, and professor Giacomo Pardini, an archaeologist and numismatist, professor at the University of Salerno. Therefore we asked Liam, so that he may tell us more about his project and on the subject of some of the most significant characters involved.

LEGO CLASSICIST
From left to right: Alessandra Giovenco, Massimo Osanna and Giacomo Pardini. Photo © Liam D. Jensen

When and how was the Lego Classicists Project conceived?

The first Lego figure that went on social media was on the 20thFebruary 2016, but it was not until there were over 3 figures that I came up with the name Lego Classicists and made a Facebook page for them. That was really when it was born.

How many classicists does it include? Are there various or unique types or scholarly specialisations being included?

There are now over 90 in the LC family and I mostly choose scholars directly in the classical discipline but I also like to push outside of these to other ancient world disciplines (such as Egyptian) and I include anyone whom I feel brings support to the study of history, such as Conservators, Librarians and Archivists.

Who was your first character?

Technically the first figure who was made almost by chance is Dr. Tom Hillard, who is a Roman historian and an old friend of the family. But the one who - for the first time - made me start creating them on purpose was Michael Turner, who was the curator and master-mind of the three famous Lego ancient world models that include Lego Pompeii and Lego Colosseum, so I consider Michael to be the first official figure, as he is the real inspiration for the Lego Classicists family.

Starting from Australia, you conquered the world of classicists. Would you have expected such a great interest?

I had absolutely no idea that it would reach the world like this as it really started as just gifts to my friends, but I am so pleased to be inspiring the whole world of Classics in this fun new way.

LEGO CLASSICIST

Italy is being represented by three characters. Could you please tell us about them?

Massimo Osanna and his LC alter ego

Prof. Massimo Osanna’s figure was a request by the Nicholson Museum, Sydney University, when they asked me to make a personal gift for Prof. Osanna and a second one to be placed into the Lego Pompeii model that is still in the Museum today. It was delivered to Prof. Osanna in person at Pompeii by two academics from the University of Sydney.

Alessandra Giovenco is the Archivist at the British School at Rome and I had the very great pleasure of meeting her in my role as an archivist when I delivered a collection to the BSR in 2016.  Our daily conversations together inspired me to bring her into the LC family and I asked the Director of the British School at Rome to give it to her in person on my behalf.

Giacomo Pardini and his LC

Professor Giacomo Pardini had tagged me into a photo with a Lego figure of himself made by his nephew with the words “Almost a Lego Classicist”. Since then we have had an ongoing communication related to Lego and Classics so I felt it was very important to have him join the family properly (although I still think his nephew’s figure is better than mine). I sent his figure to him by mail at the University of Salerno and he received it a few days ago.

All three have responded in the same way that cannot be expressed in words but it is in the looks on their faces that you can see in the photos they send me with their figures. They have all been delighted. Of course, the Romans played a huge role in the development of much of modern culture, so it’s only fitting that there should be many Italian members of the Lego Classicists family in the future.

What is the message that you are trying to convey with your project?

I hope that Lego Classicists gives everyone an excuse to celebrate the ancient world and its study. It aims to help to join the community of international classicists together, to further highlight their work and to make classics and the ancient world more accessible to a wider audience. The real message - I hope - is the idea of serious play and bringing playful yet dignified new perspectives to the study of classical history.

The first Lego Classicist for 2020 is professor Giacomo Pardini from the University of Salerno. Could you please tell us if any other Italian classicist is going to join this great family?

I am in communication with one Italian classicist now whom I hope will join the Lego Classicists family soon and I have another one or two more in mind which will be revealed later.

What is the International Lego Classicism Day and how can we be involved?

LEGO CLASSICIST

 International Lego Classicism Day is a social media event I have been running since 2017 on the 20th of February, which is the Anniversary of Lego Classicists, and I like to use this date as a way to encourage everyone to celebrate, engage, and play with ancient history through Lego bricks.


Archaeologists find Bronze Age tombs lined with gold near the Griffin Warrior

Archaeologists find Bronze Age tombs lined with gold

The family tombs are near the 2015 site of the 'Griffin Warrior,' a military leader buried with armor, weapons and jewelry.

A gold ring depicts bulls and barley, the first known representation of domesticated animals and agriculture in ancient Greece. Credits: UC Classics

Archaeologists with the University of Cincinnati have discovered two Bronze Age tombs containing a trove of engraved jewelry and artifacts that promise to unlock secrets about life in ancient Greece.

The UC archaeologists announced the discovery Tuesday in Greece.

Jack Davis and Sharon Stocker, archaeologists in UC's classics department, found the two beehive-shaped tombs in Pylos, Greece, last year while investigating the area around the grave of an individual they have called the "Griffin Warrior," a Greek man whose final resting place they discovered nearby in 2015.

Like the Griffin Warrior's tomb, the princely tombs overlooking the Mediterranean Sea also contained a wealth of cultural artifacts and delicate jewelry that could help historians fill in gaps in our knowledge of early Greek civilization.

UC's team spent more than 18 months excavating and documenting the find. The tombs were littered with flakes of gold leaf that once papered the walls.

"Like with the Griffin Warrior grave, by the end of the first week we knew we had something that was really important," said Stocker, who supervised the excavation.

"It soon became clear to us that lightning had struck again," said Davis, head of UC's classics department.

Bronze Age Tombs Griffin Warrior Pylos
UC archaeologists discovered two large family tombs at Pylos, Greece, strewn with flakes of gold that once lined their walls. The excavation took more than 18 months. Credits: UC Classics

The Griffin Warrior is named for the mythological creature -- part eagle, part lion -- engraved on an ivory plaque in his tomb, which also contained armor, weaponry and gold jewelry. Among the priceless objects of art was an agate sealstone depicting mortal combat with such fine detail that Archaeology magazine hailed it as a "Bronze Age masterpiece."

Artifacts found in the princely tombs tell similar stories about life along the Mediterranean 3,500 years ago, Davis said. A gold ring depicted two bulls flanked by sheaves of grain, identified as barley by a paleobotanist who consulted on the project.

"It's an interesting scene of animal husbandry -- cattle mixed with grain production. It's the foundation of agriculture," Davis said. "As far as we know, it's the only representation of grain in the art of Crete or Minoan civilization."

UC archaeologists found a sealstone made from semiprecious carnelian in the family tombs at Pylos, Greece. The sealstone was engraved with two lionlike mythological figures called genii carrying serving vessels and incense burners facing each other over an altar and below a 16-pointed star. The other image is a putty cast of the sealstone. Credits: UC Classics

Like the grave of the Griffin Warrior, the two family tombs contained artwork emblazoned with mythological creatures. An agate sealstone featured two lion-like creatures called genii standing upright on clawed feet. They carry a serving vase and an incense burner, a tribute for the altar before them featuring a sprouting sapling between horns of consecration, Stocker said.

Above the genii is a 16-pointed star. The same 16-pointed star also appears on a bronze and gold artifact in the grave, she said.

"It's rare. There aren't many 16-pointed stars in Mycenaean iconography. The fact that we have two objects with 16 points in two different media (agate and gold) is noteworthy," Stocker said.

The genius motif appears elsewhere in the East during this period, she said.

"One problem is we don't have any writing from the Minoan or Mycenaean time that talks of their religion or explains the importance of their symbols," Stocker said.

UC's team also found a gold pendant featuring the likeness of the Egyptian goddess Hathor.

"Its discovery is particularly interesting in light of the role she played in Egypt as protectress of the dead," Davis said.

The identity of the Griffin Warrior is a matter for speculation. Stocker said the combination of armor, weapons and jewelry found in his tomb strongly indicate he had military and religious authority, likely as the king known in later Mycenaean times as a wanax.

Likewise, the princely tombs paint a picture of accumulated wealth and status, she said. They contained amber from the Baltic, amethyst from Egypt, imported carnelian and lots of gold. The tombs sit on a scenic vista overlooking the Mediterranean Sea on the spot where the Palace of Nestor would later rise and fall to ruins.

"I think these are probably people who were very sophisticated for their time," she said. "They have come out of a place in history where there were few luxury items and imported goods. And all of a sudden at the time of the first tholos tombs, luxury items appear in Greece.

"You have this explosion of wealth. People are vying for power," she said. "It's the formative years that will give rise to the Classic Age of Greece."

The antiquities provide evidence that coastal Pylos was once an important destination for commerce and trade.

"If you look at a map, Pylos is a remote area now. You have to cross mountains to get here. Until recently, it hasn't even been on the tourist path," Stocker said. "But if you're coming by sea, the location makes more sense. It's on the way to Italy. What we're learning is that it's a much more central and important place on the Bronze Age trade route."

The princely tombs sit close to the palace of Nestor, a ruler mentioned in Homer's famous works "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey." The palace was discovered in 1939 by the late UC Classics professor Carl Blegen. Blegen had wanted to excavate in the 1950s in the field where Davis and Stocker found the new tombs but could not get permission from the property owner to expand his investigation. The tombs would have to wait years for another UC team to make the startling discovery hidden beneath its grape vines.

Excavating the site was particularly arduous. With the excavation season looming, delays in procuring the site forced researchers to postpone plans to study the site first with ground-penetrating radar. Instead, Stocker and Davis relied on their experience and intuition to focus on one disturbed area.

"There were noticeable concentrations of rocks on the surface once we got rid of the vegetation," she said.

Those turned out to be the exposed covers of deep tombs, one plunging nearly 15 feet. The tombs were protected from the elements and potential thieves by an estimated 40,000 stones the size of watermelons.

The boulders had sat undisturbed for millennia where they had fallen when the domes of the tombs collapsed. And now 3,500 years later, UC's team had to remove each stone individually.

"It was like going back to the Mycenaean Period. They had placed them by hand in the walls of the tombs and we were taking them out by hand," Stocker said. "It was a lot of work."

At every step of the excavation, the researchers used photogrammetry and digital mapping to document the location and orientation of objects in the tomb. This is especially valuable because of the great number of artifacts that were recovered, Davis said.

"We can see all levels as we excavated them and relate them one to the other in three dimensions," he said. UC's team will continue working at Pylos for at least the next two years while they and other researchers around the world unravel mysteries contained in the artifacts.

"It has been 50 years since any substantial tombs of this sort have been found at any Bronze Age palatial site. That makes this extraordinary," Davis said.

 

Press release from the University of Cincinnati, by Michael Miller.


timber Roman timber trade trading

Long-distance timber trade underpinned the Roman Empire's construction

Long-distance timber trade underpinned the Roman Empire's construction

timber Roman timber trade trading
Some of the oak planks in situ in the foundation of the portico. Credit: Bernabei at al., 2019, CC-BY

The ancient Romans relied on long-distance timber trading to construct their empire, according to a study published December 4, 2019 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Mauro Bernabei from the National Research Council, Italy, and colleagues.

The timber requirements of ancient Rome were immense and complex, with different types of trees from various locations around the Roman Empire and beyond used for many purposes, including construction, shipbuilding and firewood. Unfortunately, the timber trade in ancient Rome is poorly understood, as little wood has been found in a state adequate for analysis. In this study, Bernabei et al successfully date and determine the origin and chronology of unusually well-preserved ancient Roman timber samples.

The twenty-four oak timber planks (Quercus species) analyzed in this study were excavated during Metro construction in Rome during 2014-2016. They formed part of a Roman portico in the gardens of via Sannio (belonging to what was once a lavishly decorated and rich property). The authors measured the tree-ring widths for each plank and ran statistical tests to determine average chronology, successfully dating thirteen of the planks.

By comparing their dated planks to Mediterranean and central European oak reference chronologies, the authors found that the oaks used for the Roman portico planks were taken from the Jura mountains in eastern France, over 1700km away. Based on the sapwood present in 8 of the thirteen samples, the authors were able to narrow the date these oaks were felled to between 40 and 60 CE and determined that the planks all came from neighboring trees. Given the timber's dimensions and the vast distance it travelled, the authors suggest that ancient Romans (or their traders) likely floated the timber down the Saône and Rhône rivers in present-day France before transporting it over the Mediterranean Sea and then up the river Tiber to Rome, though this cannot be confirmed.

The authors note that the difficulty of obtaining these planks--which were not specially sourced for an aesthetic function but used in the portico's foundations--suggests that the logistical organization of ancient Rome was considerable, and that their trade network was highly advanced.

Bernabei notes: "This study shows that in Roman times, wood from the near-natural woodlands of north-eastern France was used for construction purposes in the centre of Rome. Considering the distance, calculated to be over 1700km, the timber sizes, [and] the means of transportation with all the possible obstacles along the way, our research emphasises the importance of wood for the Romans and the powerful logistic organisation of the Roman society."

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Citation: Bernabei M, Bontadi J, Rea R, Büntgen U, Tegel W (2019) Dendrochronological evidence for long-distance timber trading in the Roman Empire. PLoS ONE 14(12): e0224077. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0224077

Funding: WT received funding from the German Research Foundation (DFG, TE 613/3-2). UB received funding from the Czech Republic Grant Agency (17-22102s).

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

 

Press release from the Public Library of Sciences.

 


Neo-Assyrian Empire fall

What felled the great Assyrian Empire? A Yale professor weighs in

The Neo-Assyrian Empire, centered in northern Iraq and extending from Iran to Egypt -- the largest empire of its time -- collapsed after more than two centuries of dominance at the fall of its capital, Nineveh, in 612 B.C.E.

Despite a plethora of cuneiform textual documentation and archaeological excavations and field surveys, archaeologists and historians have been unable to explain the abruptness and finality of the historic empire's collapse.

Numerous theories about the collapse have been put forward since the city and its destruction levels were first excavated by archaeologists 180 years ago. But the mystery of how two small armies -- the Babylonians in the south and the Medes in the east -- were able to converge on Nineveh and completely destroy what was then the largest city in the world, without any reoccupation, has remained unsolved.

A team of researchers -- led by Ashish Sinha, California State University, Dominguez Hills, and using archival and archaeological data contributed by Harvey Weiss, professor of Near Eastern archaeology and environmental studies at Yale -- was able for the first time to determine the underlying cause for the collapse. By examining new precipitation records of the area, the team discovered an abrupt 60-year megadrought that so weakened the Assyrian state that Nineveh was overrun in three months and abandoned forever. The research was published in Science Advances on Nov. 13.

Assyria was an agrarian society dependent on seasonal precipitation for cereal agriculture. To its south, the Babylonians relied on irrigation agriculture, so their resources, government, and society were not affected by the drought, explains Weiss.

The team analyzed stalagmites -- a type of speleothem that grows up from a cave floor and is formed by the deposit of minerals from water -- retrieved from Kuna Ba cave in northeast Iraq. The speleothems can provide a history of climate through the oxygen and uranium isotope ratios of infiltrating water that are preserved in its layers. Oxygen in rainwater comes in two main varieties: heavy and light. The ratio of heavy to light types of oxygen isotopes are extremely sensitive to variations in precipitation and temperature. Over time, uranium trapped in speleothems turns into thorium, allowing scientists to date the speleothem deposits.

Weiss and the research team synchronized these findings with archaeological and cuneiform records and were able to document the first paleoclimate data for the megadrought that affected the Assyrian heartland at the time of the empire's collapse, when its less drought-affected neighbors invaded. The team's research also revealed that this megadrought followed a high-rainfall period that facilitated the Assyrian empire's earlier growth and expansion.

"Now we have a historical and environmental dynamic between north and south and between rain-fed agriculture and irrigation-fed agriculture through which we can understand the historical process of how the Babylonians were able to defeat the Assyrians," said Weiss, adding that the total collapse of Assyria is still described by historians as the "mother of all catastrophes."

Through the archaeology and history of the region, Weiss was able to piece together how the megadrought data were synchronous with Assyria's cessation of long-distance military campaigns and the construction of irrigation canals that were similar to its southern neighbors but restricted in their agricultural extent. Other texts noted that the Assyrians were worrying about their alliances with distant places, while also fearing internal intrigue, notes Weiss.

"This fits into a historical pattern that is not only structured through time and space, but a time and space that is filled with environmental change," says Weiss. "These societies experienced climatic changes that were of such magnitude they could not simply adapt to them," he adds.

With these new speleothem records, says Weiss, paleoclimatologists and archaeologists are now able to identify environmental changes in the global historical record that were unknown and inaccessible even 25 years ago. "History is no longer two-dimensional; the historical stage is now three-dimensional," said Weiss.

Neo-Assyrian Empire fall
Deportees after the Assyrian siege of Lachish, Judea (701 B.C.E.). Detail from bas-relief removed from Sennacherib's 'Palace Without Rival,' Nineveh, Iraq, and now in The British Museum. Photo credits: The British Museum

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Weiss' previous research defined the 2200 B.C.E. global megadrought that generated societal collapse from the Mediterranean to China.

In addition to Weiss, researchers from California State University-Dominguez Hills, Xi'an Jiaotong University, University of Minnesota, University of Colorado-Boulder, University of Illinois-Chicago, University of Ankara, and University of Southern California contributed to the study.

The press release for the study Role of climate in the rise and fall of the Neo-Assyrian Empire comes from the Yale University.

The study Role of climate in the rise and fall of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, by Ashish Sinha, Gayatri KathayatHarvey WeissHanying Li, Hai ChengJustin ReuterAdam W. Schneider, Max Berkelhammer, Selim F. Adalı, Lowell D. Stott and R. Lawrence Edwards, was published in Science Advances on Nov. 13rd.