The recession is hitting our historical heritage hard. Governments all over the world are cutting back on staff, delaying maintenance on existing sites, allowing sites to “disappear” in the name of progress or jobs. National Geographic has a slide show of twelve ancient landmarks on the verge of vanishing. Many of the stories in this round-up are touched by the money factor. We’ll start with Italy’s woes.
Italy has more World Heritage Sites than any single country and people from all over the world flock to see them. Tourism accounts for over a third of Italy’s gross domestic product (GDP) yet the culture budget has declined 30% over the last seven years. Drastic cuts in this year’s proposed budget will reduce expenditure on culture to just 21 cents per 100 euros. France spends 3 times more as a percentage of GNP and Germany 2.5 times more. The continued cuts are showing up in deteriorating sites, delayed maintenance, layoffs, and shortened hours. All this, plus several embarrassing site closures, led to a recent strike by workers at hundreds of archaeological sites, museums, and other cultural sites. (Link to original article.)
And what were those embarrassing site closures? Emperor Nero’s “Golden Palace,” in the center of Rome was closed indefinitely earlier this year after suffering repeated water damage. Less than a year ago the “House of the Chaste Lovers” in Pompeii collapsed. This was followed by the collapse of “House of the Gladiators” in November. The houses themselves can probably be restored, but the frescoes that gave them their names are plaster dust. Having seen these for myself in a visit to Pompeii several years ago, I can attest to the loss. (Link to original article.) Recently, a garden wall collapsed near the “House of the Moralist.” Only this morning two more walls collapsed. The houses remained undamaged, but what about next time? (Link to original article.)
Italy does have some good news: more historical sites (which will need money for research and conservation) are coming to light. A 2000 year-old temple to Diana the goddess of virgins and the hunt has been excavated in the national park of Maremma in Tuscany. The temple has seven internal rooms and contained many votive items including several statues of Diana and her twin Apollo. (Link to original article.) A “mini-Colesseum” is being excavated on the site of Portus, a 2C A.D. harbor on the Tiber River. The oval amphitheater, measuring 138 feet by 125 feet, and capable of seating 2000 people, was found inside an imperial-style palace sporting a colonnaded garden, beautifully decorated rooms and a marble three-seat toilet. (Link to original article.)
And finally, from the misty beginnings of Roman history and myth, Italian archaeologists have unearthed a 6C B.C. residence from the acropolis of Gabii, twelve miles from Rome. They believe it to be the palace of Sextus Tarquinius, son of the Etruscan Tarquinius Superbus (Tarquinius, the Proud), the legendary last Roman king. According to Roman historian Livy, who lived 500 years later, Sextus raped his cousin’s wife Lucretia, who then committed suicide. The people of Rome were so outraged they deposed Tarquinius Superbus and founded the Republic. The people of Gabii killed Sextus and demolished his house. Whether or not the story is true, there is a good deal of archaeological evidence linking the house to the Tarquinii, including a terracotta fragment of the roof that features the image of the Minotaur, the family emblem. (Link to original article.)
We follow the Romans to the British Isles, where archaeology is also facing budget cuts. In an amusingly titled article “Skeletons Halt Work on Clinic” we find that it’s not the contents of the morgue, but significant Roman finds that have delayed the development of a health clinic in Musselburgh, Scotland and caused local officials headaches. Not only well-preserved skeletons; but a defensive wall, horse bones, eating utensils and weapons have been found; delaying the health clinic for at least another year. In older layers, archaeologists have uncovered Iron Age remains and flints. (Link to original article.)
And it’s not only modern Romans facing tough times. Researchers have determined that over half the highly prized colorless glass tableware, sampled from 19 late antiquity sites across Britain, was made with recycled glass. Researchers theorize that there may have been a shortage of glass in the northern regions of the Roman Empire during the 3rd and 4th centuries, when trade routes were disrupted by barbarian incursions and dynastic upheavals. Glass making is believed to have originated around 2500 B.C. in Mesopotamia with glass blown from a tube occurring in 1C B.C. Skilled Roman craftsmen learned to decolor glass, which takes on the colors of chemical elements in the sand, by using antimony or manganese. Colorless glass items were considered luxury goods. (Link to original article.)
As always, there are a number of science related stories in the news. Forensic genetics has shown that the Vikings may have brought a Native American woman back to Iceland 1000 years ago after their voyages to the New World. Spanish scientists say that 80 people from four families in Iceland possess a mitochondrial type of DNA normally found only in Native Americans and East Asians. (Link to original article.) In a dicier study, some Chinese scientists are trying to link a population in a remote part of China with nearly 2/3 Caucasian DNA to a “lost legion” of Roman soldiers. They speculate these soldiers fled after Crassus‘ crushing defeat by the Parthians in the 1C B.C. and fought as mercenaries in a war between the Huns and the Chinese. Other Chinese scientists are skeptical, saying the area lies along the Silk Road and there were ample opportunities for intermarriage. (Link to original article.)
But those Romans did move their troops and slaves all over their world. Further study of 18 decapitated skeletons, dug up in 2005 in a Roman cemetery in York, shows they came from all parts of the empire. Gundula Muldner of the University of Reading in the UK studied the bones for chemical clues called isotopes, which can tell where a person grew up based on local food and water. Five of the 18 came from York; the rest from elsewhere in England, France, Germany, the Balkans and the Mediterranean. Two possibly come from colder millet-eating places beyond Roman borders. Researchers haven’t agreed on whether the headless Romans were soldiers, gladiators, or traders. There’s evidence backing each theory. (Link to original article.)
And a follow up on the last History in the News: The Turkish Environmental Minister has responded to the criticism of the government’s intentions to flood two important archaeological sites in this article. And Britain is debating its Treasure Act after losing an exquisite bronze Roman helmet to a private auction.