Sunday, January 01, 2006

A new resource for a new year

One way to celebrate the New Year is to subscribe to one of my favorite e-mail lists, Explorator, run by the hard-working David Meadows for some years now. Explorator is a Yahoo list and you can subscribe to it by sending a blank e-mail message to

In return you will be sent a regular guide to recent "ancient history" stories in the news. I put "ancient history" in quotation marks because Mr. Meadows is really interested in just about any story concerning the period before 1700 CE. I don't care -- I'm interested in everything, too.

For a sample of what Explorator offers, see the Classics Central web site at

Here are three of the stories that caught my attention in the most recent newsletter:

First, news from the unnamed "Burnt City" in eastern Iran, via the "Iran Mania" website. Occupied between 3200 and 2100 BCE, it was one of the largest cities of its time, but no records but archaeological evidence survives.
We don't know its name; its designation comes from the fact that it was burnt repeatedly over its period of occupation. Today's find is evidence of another disaster: a number (unspecified) of skeletons of stillborn fetuses in a cemetary, indicating perhaps a period when the mothers of the city were starving.

The story from "Iran Mania" is pretty typical of the material Explorator collects. It's not a scholarly report, it's journalism (and you'll note that the story was filed from London, not by people on the spot in Iran). Nevertheless, I'll bet if you read it you'll know a lot more about the Burnt City than you did before. For one thing, you'll know that there is a Burnt City. I admit that this was news to me.

A second story comes from The Christian Century, which reports that "the long-lost Gospel of Judas will soon be published." There are a number of "non-canonical" scriptures from early Christian times, meaning writings that didn't "make the list" as authoritative parts of the New Testament. In the last century, many of them have been recovered in desert treasure troves. The most important of them is the Nag Hammadi collection found near a village of that name in Upper Egypt, briefly described here.

People are so interested in religious material from the early Christian period that controlling it and making money off it gets in the way of straightforward publication and normal scholarly study. You'll note that this story says that the current copy of the Gospel of Judas has been known to exist since at least 1983!

Finally, a story that has a personal collection. Oxford University Press has published two books by two Oxford scholars, Peter Heather and Bryan Ward-Perkins on their views of the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century CE. OUP has posted an interesting interview with both of them on the official OUP blog.

The personal connection? This is exactly the period I studied for my doctoral dissertation, which became my first book, and the scholar they single out for contradiction, Walter Goffart, was my thesis supervisor.

I have to say that I'm particularly interest in what Ward-Perkins has to say. He's been doing interesting work for years but as far as I know this is his first book pulling it all together.

Rhetorical question: didn't anyone at OUP think that publishing books called The Fall of the Roman Empire and The Fall of Rome in the same quarter of the same year might confuse potential buyers and, say, impact sales?


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