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Friday, 21 November 2014

Carthaginian Chariots

The following is an outline, based on some extracts from the consultancy info I sent to a colleague teaching Classics overseas regarding Carthaginian chariots:

Carthage, as you may or may not  know relied primarily on her navy, but also maintained a large army made up of Carthaginian forces, and "mercenaries" although we should remember that some mercenary units were mercenaries as we would apply the term today and others were more like levys of allied troops. These included large numbers of Libyan forces, Numidians, Iberians, Greeks, Sardinians and Celts (Gauls, Celto-Iberians and Galatians).

The Carthaginians themselves used chariots in civil processions and chariot racing throughout Carthage's history. In warfare they originally seem to have used a thick and sturdy quadriga (drawn by four-horse team like Seleucid chariots.) They are first mentioned at the Battle of Crimisus River in 341 BC. They were important in the early Carthaginian army and it seems that up until during the Second Punic war the Libyans supplied the bulk of these. (Warry, John. Warfare in the Classical World. pp. 98-99.) This sounds at first a little surprising, given the semi-arid climate of North Africa, but chariots (and horses perhaps a little earlier, but not very common common until they were introduced to Egypt c. 1500 BC) appear in rock art in a number of sites throughout North Africa and the Northern edges of the Sahara - it seems that North Africans, Libyans among them had probably adopted and maintained chariotry and horse breeding for centuries prior to the rise of Carthage, although later Hellenistic and Persian influences would have been established by the Punic wars. The Carthaginian use of chariotry in warfare declined during the Second Punic war and was gradually phased out and completely replaced with war elephants.

How would the Carthaginian chariots have been used? They were drawn up in units at the front of the Carthaginian army (Plut. Tim. 25.1,27.2), like war elephants we should not be too quick to underestimate just how much of a pyschological impact this would have had on unnerving enemy troops, The chariots would then charge forward, firing arrows to thin enemy ranks, and perhaps javelins too at closer quarters, while the sounds of the galloping hooves and thundering wheels, not to mention the dust would be quite intimidating. Horses will not charge a densely packed phalanx of spears, so the chariots would then either whirl away and repeat this several times before the infantry went in, or if they had created a weak point of injured or fleeing troops in the enemy line, they could exploit this and charge through/create more havoc on this gap in the lines and then the infantry could stream through or even encircle and cut down the enemy in the wake of the chariots.

Even though the Carthaginians gradually abandoned chariotry, throughout the Punic Wars Carthaginian forces had smaller but still significant use of mercenary (allied) Celtic chariots. The Gauls were extremely skilled with their light, mobile and manoeuvrable biga (two horse drawn) chariots as Julius Caesar noted in the Gallic wars. In fact our word chariot (and car, and carriage) are derived from Latin Carrum which is a loan word from Gaulish Karros. The Celts tended to use their chariots as "battle-taxis" hurling several heavier javelins at range, but primarily to move elite heroic warriors to, from and to different points on the battlefield, although the warriors tended to dismount and fight on foot and then be driven away to their next destination on the battlefield. The exception seems to have been the Galatians that settled in Asia Minor, as they seem to have adopted the Persian scythed chariot, with rotating blades coming from the axle.

*Now, I did hear once that some Galatian scythed chariots were used by Hannibal's forces to deceive effect on several occasions early into his Italian campaign, however I haven't been able to verify (nor completely rule out) that yet.

Coming Soon...

Gentle Readers,

Friends, Romans and Countrymen, lend me your eyes...

Well it's been awhile since there has been much posting on this blog, but I have been absolutely flat out with a number of projects over the past couple of months (intellectual, creative, academic, course-related and just plain fun ones to boot) and it will be an increasingly busy time at the moment with presenting a paper at the Amphora VIII Conference next week and the count down towards preparing for my PhD confirmation. 

Some events I'll revisit and chronicle soon will be the launch of the Ian Potter Museum of Art's exhibition Between Artefact and Text, my experience of Sir David Attenborough's The Third Dimension tour in Melbourne, My Works in Progress Day Presentation (and some others), a bit of consulting I did for an international colleague on chariots, the Amphora VIII Conference, confirmation and much much more...coming soon!

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

When is a Chariot a Chariot?

Following the recent circulation of  some Early Bronze Age  Georgian "chariots" with 4 wheels. These are probably more accurately referred to as ("pleasure" or "prestige") "carriages" as described by the likes of Staurt Piggott to denote a variation of light, usually spoked-wheeled prestigious (and perhaps ceremonial) transport for rulers or elites, that they could sit on/within. These would have never have been used as mobile military platforms in battle, nor were they even theoretically capable of being used so because of the design. These pleasure carriages were probably used for official processions, transporting images of the gods, in this context the funerary procession and burial, and perhaps elite weddings in a similar manner to "Royal Carriages" used to this day.

I wrote the following to Ancient and Medieval military expert Mike Loades on what I have been finding about the fluid use of chariot in academic archaeological publications:

      When is a chariot a chariot? Well this is one of a number of questions I am working on in my current Ph.D thesis on early chariots in the Ancient Near East and adjacent regions. Astonishingly enough chariots have not been studied in great detail in their own right until recently (largely from the eighties onwards and even then more of a gradual trickle of information), before that it was always either broadly in very little detail, site/object specific or in relation to larger debates like horse domestication, migrations of various ancient peoples because of this there is no universal standard of exactly what a chariot is, but rather a loose set of ideas about structure and function. So in English language literature a (True) chariot is generally considered to be a light vehicle with 2 spoked-wheels, usually drawn by horses (at least capable of being drawn by horses even if in some cases mules, donkeys or oxen could be used when it wasn't in battle) and at least theoretically capable of being used in warfare (whether or not that was actually the case is perhaps less important, eg a raceing chariot, a ritual chariot, a funerary chariot), a hunting chariot). We tend to class civilian 2/3 wheeled vehicles as carts, heavy four wheeled vehicles as wagons and 4 wheeled vehicles but with spoked wheels as carriages. Howrver not everyone uses these terms all the same way. French research papers will tend to class many kinds of vehicles as chariots, German literature will call most of these wagons - sometimes a more specific term is used but sometimes it is not. Russian academic literature has different tendencies again and different attitudes pre and post the collapse of the Soviet Union. In other cases in other countries chariot is used more to evoke a link to antiquity, or to describe any prestigious elite vehicle rather than a technical term for a specific kind of vehicle. Depending on one's own first language, what language the material is being published in, where and for who the information is being circulated to, ideological and personal motivations and preferences - there are many factors that can influence exactly what is being called a chariot in a given context. Finally to complicate it further there are examples of vehicles, either found whole or in part, sometimes only as partial impressions as the organic material has long ago rotten away, as well as models, and visual representations such as in some sculpture and rock art where it is not always clear whether a vehicle belongs to one or another, or is a transitionary form or something different again.

So all chariots are vehicles but not all vehicles are chariots, and not all vehicles that get called a chariot really are chariots depending on your point of view. Context and the details of any individual vehicle are the best ways to decide if what you are looking at is a chariot.

Based on what seems to be the emerging trend in research written in English, but not set in stone just yet either, I would suggest that if a vehicle has 2 spoked wheels and is light enough and maneuverable enough to be capable of being drawn by horses as a mobile fighting platform for warfare, then it can be considered to truly be a chariot.


Thor's Hammer with Runes on it.

Of the over 1000 finds of Mjölnir/Mjølnir 'Thor's Hammer' amulets, only 1, the most recently found one in fact, from Lolland in Denmark has been found with runes on it! This historic find is also the first actual proof of the long held and educated but nonetheless assumed idea that these symbols represent Thor's Hammer from Norse mythology.

The runic inscription reads "Hmar x is" translated into English as "This is a hammer." The x is used as a word divider here, however I would suggest that in addition to this function in relation to the phonetic use of runes, the x could also represent the rune gebo "gift" symbolising that "This hammer is a gift." Just a possibility. Old Norse literature is full of riddles, kennings and multiple layers of meaning. Even the word rune derives from an Indo-European root for hidden or mystery. Given the cultic and ritual nature of these amulets for divine protection and the multifaceted and magical associations of the runes, it is possible that the x which is exactly the shape of the gift rune was chosen deliberately, especially when runestones usually use a vertical stroke or : to indicate word or line dividers (although this varied).

The amulet is bronze with silver and gold coating on different parts of it.  It was found my a metal detectorist as well as some scraps of metal and pins indicating that this may be from a domestic or household context.

See some pictures of this beautiful find here:

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Recent Happenings at the Ian Potter Museum of Art

Recently, I have just set up an account to follow the work of leading academics, network with archaeologists and hopefully put up a few of my own academic works in time. You can search for me on there.

Speaking of which I have just sent off my first academic article for publication, VERY EXCITING (well for me anyway) on wagons, chariots and animal traction.

Uni wise, I have temporarily got my very own office and am loving every moment of it...thats right not just a desk, but a real office. I've also given a few presentations to current Classics and Archaeology Honours students about considering their options for further study, a few consultations and run a pottery (sherd) workshop at the Ian Potter Museum of Art on an assemblage of Khirbet Kerak ware (secretly, I must confess this is one of my favourite pottery wares which I wrote a major essay in my Honours year on), mostly small bowls and drinking vessels, from late Chalcolithic Ahar  اهر East Azerbaijan Province, Iran.

I also had a very nice evening at the official launch of the Secret Lives, Forgotten Stories: Highlights from Heritage Victoria's Archaeological Collection at the Ian Potter Museum of Art. This fascinating exhibition brings together a range of pieces from the grand and historic to the small and very personal offering insights into Victoria's colonial era past. Many have never been available on display to the wider public before. The exhibition is free, daily, so if you are about Melbourne then I would definitely suggest coming to have a look.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Melbourne Museum Aztecs Exhibition

I had a fantastic time at Melbourne Museum's Aztec exhibition this morning! Wearing my Aztec (actually Mayan, shhh!) calendar shirt, I went along to the University of Melbourne Alumni (free) sneakpeak session at 8am, and as luck and actually-working-public transport would have it for once ended up being the first person in line to enter the exhibition like some kind of Mesoamerican archaeology groupie. After avoiding being sacrificed and going under the pyramid through the underworld and past some Spanish armour I re-emerged at 11am - just in time for the "official" opening launch and the Mexican fiesta of flavours, dancing, music and paper flowers that was the Aztec opening party! 

It was a pretty confronting experience to view so many objects associated with or used in repeated human sacrifice though, especially when in some instances increased suffering of the victim (who may have been groomed for this and lived a life where their every whim was satisfied for quite sometime before their grisly end, sometimes for up to a year), some bled, others burned, flayed alive and/or their still beating hearts removed from the body and then thrown down the steps of the pyramid shaped temples. Or the idea that the tears of infants would bring more bountiful rains from the water god who was sustained by their blood. Behind all of this is a notion that individual sacrifice and death were essential to sustain cosmic powers such as the sun and gods, which in turn provided the life for new souls to be born.

One could argue that the smaller collection of artifacts linked to the Spanish conquistadors, rather belies the gravity of the cataclysmic contact with Europeans and the disease and conflict that resulted. Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond famously discusses this in great detail for those who would like to look understanding how and why this clash of civilisations was so dramatic. 

I liked the fact that the exhibition addressed many aspects of Aztec culture, including art, agriculture (often in raised aquatic garden beds), literature. an explanation of the calendar system, ethnogenisis and origin stories, pottery production, textiles, sport, remarkably modern looking flutes and whistles, and impressively a system of universal education for teenagers regardless of their class.

Some of my favourite highlights were the archaeological site presented as it was found - a sort of re-in situ, the stone statue of a dog, the 15th C Spanish suit of plate armour and piece of horse armour, and the amazing whole pieces of pottery that had survived the collapse of 2 civilisations: pottery from Teotihuacan 'the birthplace of the gods' a city  over a thousand years old when the Aztecs came across it's eerily abandoned ruins, from which they would find, honour and sometimes relocate relics like these pots in their temples for purposes of preservation and education or create new pieces in styles inspired from interpretations of the artifacts they found. — at Melbourne Museum

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime Stories, Oral History and Rock Art Sheds Light on Extinct Species

Years ago my family took me on a trip to the gorgeous wilderness of the Grampians National Park ( in the western side of Victoria, Australia. It is a breath taking place. It is also known for it's beautiful Aboriginal rock art. One site is known as Bunjil's Shelter. Bunjil is a great spirit, ancestor and creator in many Koori stories and traditions, and often takes the form of an eagle. The rock shelter contains paintings thousands of years old, showing a seated man Bunjil,  and his 2 dogs. You can't tell from this picture and as the site is sealed off to protect it from damage by people, either accidentally from the oils in our skin or worse from deliberate damage, I can't find a good picture of it, but there is reportedly a picture of an extinct Thylacine, just barely visible on one of the top curved walls (the right I believe - but I saw it over 10 years ago now), a species extinct for centuries if not millenia in Victoria.

Above is a selection of Australian Aboriginal rock art from across our country-continent featureing the Thylacine or Tasmanian Tiger which is thought to have died out on the mainland 2,000 years ago years ago, but survived on the island of Tasmania until it was falsely believed to prey on sheep and was exterminated by European settlers. Sadly the last known representative of the species died in Hobart Zoo, Tasmania, Australia in 1936 (pictured below). The top picture is from a cave in New South Wales, the 2nd from Victoria, the third from Western Australia and the 4th showing a human and Thylacine from the Northern Territory. In the case of the Thylacine, there is hope that due to a number of well preserved specimens with salvageable DNA and it's recent extinction by human hands, that the species may be able to be cloned and brought back from extinction!


There are still reports of sightings of these animals in remote areas to this very day, although none of these have been able to be shown to be proven conclusively. Australia is a vast place and still has some very remote wilderness, some species like the Mountain Pygmy Possum and the Adelaide Pygmy Blue Tongue Lizard were assumed to be extinct for decades before small populations were rediscovered. And other species here like the Night Parrot remain in the mysterious ether between extinction and survival: the species was thought to have died out over a century ago, and yet 20 years ago a fresh specimen turned up as roadkill along a remote outback highway.

And that's not all, recently a species of lizard was actually discovered which had only been known from rock art prior to now.It's yellow head thought to only be artistic, not litteral.

It seems we could learn a lot from Australia's extensive Indigenous history, folklore, art and culture. Indigenous colonisation  of Australia is thought to have begun  between 50,000-70,000 years ago making Australia's Indigenous peoples and their culture amongst the most ancient and successful of human civlizations. One that is still with us to today in the modern globalised world. 

It is also around this very same time that the climate was changing rapidly, the continent was drying out, habitats were changing, fires became so frequent that Australian flora adapted to being burnt and the megafauna became extinct. It is still a contentious issue whether or not human beings caused the extinction of the megafauna, whether it was due to climate changes well underway before mankind arrived or perhaps some combination of these and other factors. For more on this debate a comprehensive starting point can be found in
Tim Flannery's  1994 book The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of the Australasian Lands and People.
Ancient stories of Indigenous people encountering some of these prehistoric fauna occur in Dreamtime oral tradition folklore passed on over spans of time which must span millennia. The ABC  First Footprints program noted a flood story relating to the end of the last Ice Age, making it amongst the oldest continuous oral traditions on earth.
Giant emus and kangaroos also abound in Aboriginal Dreamtime stories. Long thought to be just fanciful stories, we now know that there were many species of Ice Age megafauna much larger than their present day relatives. Likewise Moari folklore in New Zealand of giant birds called moa and a giant eagle that hunted them was thought to be a mere myth until the bones of nine moa species were discovered, the largest being up to 3.6m tall and they were indeed preyed upon by harpagornis, a giant eagle with a 3m wingspan. Fossil harpagornis talons fit into identical shaped holes found in some moa fossils.  Perhaps if we paid more attention to the wealth of Indigenous wisdom in Indigenous Dreamtime stories, with an open mind, we could learn something about these ancient creatures.The First Foot Prints documentary series also featured this fascinating piece of educational rockart discovered in May 2010, possibly 40,000 years old, at the Nawarla Gabarnmung site in the Northern Territory that compares the size, beak and bill shape accurately between the modern emu (right) and the extinct giant genyornis (left).

Those details can be confirmed by the numerous samples we have of the extinct giant herbivore genyornis from the fossil record. Emus uniquly  have feathers with a double plume and a single shaft, whereas, according to Indigenous lore the genyornis, contrary to what might be assumed by the superficial resemblance to an emu, were singular. This is logical given that we now know the species existed and it's closest living relatives are waterfowl not emus. Rupert Gerritsen has postulated a longer period of survival for this species in temperate south-west Victoria in his 2011book Beyond the Frontier: Explorations in Ethnohistory.

A fascinating letter or opinion piece written into Australian Geographic many years ago, one that I am still trying to retrack down, had a fascinating article about an Aboriginal story about a Wonambi or Wagyl, a rainbow serpent. There are many varying myths about giant rainbow serpents creating features in the landscape across Australia, while others are more naturalistic cautionary tales of those eaten by giant snakes that dwelt in springs and billabongs. Interesting several species of large prehistoric pythons are known from fossils in Australia and have been given the genus Wonambi, elsewhere in the world their closest relitives died out 55 million years ago, but in Australia they clung on until they became extinct some 50,000 years ago - making for the tantalising possibility that Australia's indigenous people did indeed encounter such creatures, and some notion of this surviving in their oral history down to today. That article in an Australian Geographic contained a Dreamtime myth of a woman who was killed by a wonambi after attempting to steal it's eggs. If there is some truth in the tale, then we can learn some things from myths that would otherwise be unknowable, in this case we can see some signs of parental care for the snake's nest. Of course we cannot know this for a fact, but it is an insight we may not have even considered before otherwise. The article finishes with the question, what colour was a wonambi? Well brown and yellow of course, as this too is recorded in the myth.

An artists impression of the Wonambi naracoortensis.

Interestingly, even Thylacoleo the marsupial lion as discussed and this website below in regards to some interesting rock art. We can see the colour, patterning and texture of the animal's fur from several sites across Arnhem land, that begin to build up a consistent picture for us of what the animals looked like, even showing the large bristles on the back - all fascinating details preserved by people that had seen and even hunted such animals thousands of years ago before they became extinct. We even get a few suggestions of it's possible hunting behaviour in these scenes.

For much more on this fascinating topic and additional resources see:

Starting My Ph.D

Over the past few weeks I have undertaken the daunting but exciting task of commencing research for my Ph.D. My thesis topic is about the dissemination of chariots and chariot technology between cultures  in the Ancient Near East, and beyond into surrounding regions such as the Aegean and Transcaucasia, in the Middle Bronze Age to the Early Iron Age. It is an exciting work in progress and follows on from my earlier Honours thesis on the development of early chariots and their use in ancient warfare. I've been very busy but having a great time and feel there is a real welcoming and supportive Academic and postgrad community. As I'm settling in, here is some photos of my nice surrounds where I study in castle (looking)  Old Quad building (the international 8 hour work day started after strikes on the construction of this beautiful gargoyle-adorned sandstone building commenced in 1856) at the University of Melbourne.

Here are some images of some decorating we did in the office.

And when I look up, I have a lovely dome to ngaze towards the heavens - except it's been blue tacked up there.

The mighty clock tower of the Old Arts building, where I have my  coursework units.

And some of the views from within the castle of Old Quad.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Digging up Daleks.

This was a really unusual find recently, perhaps one of the most unusual yet. And better still, it is not a hoax - it really happened! While dredging rubbish from a lake in Hampshire, UK, volunteers uncovered a dalek. Yes that is right, I did say a DALEK as in the villains from the popular science fiction television series. While it is still a mystery why this dalek suit ended up in the lake it may have something to do with Dr Who episodes filmed in the area in the 1980s by the BBC.

Have a look at this amazing picture of the dalek being brought to the surface from the mud and moss

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Archaeological Excavation: Samtavro, Georgia 2009

The first archaeological excavation I was part of was the excavation at the Roman - Medieval burial grounds at Samtavro, near the ancient capital of the Kingdom of Iberia, Mtskheta, in the Republic of Georgia in 2009.

The Picture I use on this blog as my profile picture, when you scroll down and look at the 'About me'  section on the main page is a water colour portrait done by the site artist Larry Pavlenishvili, who asked to paint me because I looked interesting...I guess because of my mixture of pale but sun burnt skin, light small blue eyes, long strawberry blonde hair with natural highlights from working in the sun at that time and ginger beard. The Georgians also loved my iconic "aussie" hat which is actually a leather broad rim hat that I got to go on a school trip to Central Australia, which got a bit heat warped out of shape. Every archaeologist needs an iconic hat right? Indiana Jones wouldn't be the same without one!  It was painted while I was sitting on the side wall of a high status  Roman tomb, resembling a terracotta house, where they found the gold ring a couple of days after I left, and the portrait was finished while I sat on the large capstone of a partially excavated Medieval stone lined cist tomb, both under the large shelter of what is today the Samtavro open air museum. You can read a little about the dig below:

And if you read the Article 'Unearthing New Mysteries in an Ancient Kingdom" in Articulation December 2009, you can see some good photos of the site and some of the tombs. I worked on many graves, but you can see one of them in the photo of  the inhumation burial you can see in this Roman period terracotta lined  cist tomb on the right, and you can see the large trench I worked in the right hand half of the trench in the photo above the photo of some of the treasures found: My trench partner Aleksandra Michalewicz and I excavated, bagged and recorded the bronze and silver bangle bracelets and a necklace with over 200 beads of semiprecious stones, including several interesting shaped ones such as a milk bottle that were once worn on a necklace. You can see those finds in the photo of the finds, below the trench photo. The photo to the left of this is that tomb where the 12-13 year old girl was buried with these adornments.

The publication of the full excavation reports of the 3 year excavation at Samtavro were  published in 2010 and can be accessed here from

Were the Ancient Greeks and Romans Colour Blind?

A recent piece doing the rounds at the moment looks at famous phrases in Classical Literature, like 'the wine-dark sea' to describe the Mediterranean in the Iliad. Sea's are not red so what this points out is a difference in how ancient people compared to modern people viewed the world. One difference is probably not so much how they perceived colours they saw, but how they described them. It's quite common across ancient languages to describe things more generally and context fills in the layers of more specific meaning, and terms for colours often refer to a hue eg a modern dictionary will tell you a word means say 'red' but in another language that may refer not to a specific shade but a spectrum of shades bronze like orange, brown-reds to crimson to burgundy or purplish-red colours. There can also be a range of symbolism with a colour as well eg green with envy. It seems there is a tendency for modern languages, and especially in English to try and classify everything more specifically just think how many specific terms there are today for every form and sub genre of music or dance etc.

Another thing worth noteing is then, as now, metaphors, allusions, kennings and poetry may be employed for a powerful emotional and symbolic effect. You cannot assume everything was intended literally, especially when browsing snippets of colour descriptions from a range of ancient texts, and quoting them outside of their original and intended context.

Rethinking the Role of Museums

We were also lucky to have visiting Director of the Georgian National Museum Professor David Lordkipanidze host a discussion on museums and museum management at the Archaeological Reading Group, held in the Classics Library. Georgia is going back to the future as it were, with it's thinking on what a museum is/can be/aught to be, and looking towards that more 19th century idea that a museum should be the prime place for bringing together science and culture, maintains collections but also keeping these available to and linked to the latest research.

So then that the museum holds exhibitions, maintains collections, provides space for art, theatre and cultural expression, is utilised for public and academic education (and careers) and outside but linked to universities and laboratories as a premiere research institution, this nationally and internationally, and horizontally and vertically creating networks of exchange and ideas! But the seeds have to be planted now, so that our museums can still stay relevant to modern times, and do not become an extinct institution.

He also sees arts/humanities/social sciences and the natural and hard sciences as naturally complementing one another, and perhaps they should overlap and communicate more in their work and institutional settings, especially museums. Archaeology is taught here as an arts subjects however overseas and even interstate within my own country, it can be studied as a science. I have always felt Archaeology straddles the borders between the natural sciences and the purer humanities. After all if archaeologists fail to take into account scientific data then something is seriously lacking in their methods, but likewise scientific data lacking a cultural context (and archaeology is all about context!) of the people who have left the material culture behind that is being studied, then the data itself becomes meaningless figures if not applied in light of that humanities understanding. Eg Understanding and chemically analysing why a pottery vessel is found in a context, when it was deposited, what chemical residue it contained, and if possible, why this was done. I personally agree and fully appreciate a view that can embraces both sciences and the arts, but then perhaps this is more akin to the minds of the ancients, and more easily embraced by those today who study them.

Amazingly thoughtful and inspiring stuff from a little reading group chat!! Time to plant some intellectual seeds.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

The First Humans Out of Africa: Hominin Dispersal in the Old World.

In the past few weeks I've had my uni orientation for commencing my Ph.D  in Archaeology and finding my feet as a postgraduate researcher. So far I've met lots of interesting people, taken lots of nice photos, got some pretty good resources and have been made to to feel very welcome by the staff, fellow Classics and Archaeology postgrads and lecturers! We also had Professor David Lordkipanidze, the head of the Republic of Georgia's National Museums come out to Melbourne and give a talk on both his archaeological, or rather paleoanthropological and neuroscience work on the Dmanisi homonid, which raises a few interesting questions about human evolution, the postgrads were fortunate enough to get the chance to show him a little bit around Melbourne and get to ask him a couple of questions, which was a great opportunity both in terms of answers to questions but also in terms of that more vocational advice you can only get from someone who has built up a respected and well established international career as a leader in their field. can watch the recorded public lecture here:

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Volunteering and the Environment

This Sunday is Clean Up Australia Day, why not establish (formally or informally) your own local site to clean up litter and pollution from a local waterway, woods, park, public space. It's easy! And beneficial for not only yourself, but your whole community and the local environment.   According to the Australian Bureau of Statistcs( and Volunteering Australia ( just over a third of Australians volunteer.

Since helping to co-found the Friends of Frog Hollow Inc, a community volunteer non-for-profit environmental organisation in late 2002, I have helped revegitate over 90,000 native trees, shrubs and grasses back into the upper and mid lengths of the Eummemering Creek and helped protect, preserve and enhance both the quality of this important faunal and floral link, as well as the access for people to enjoy the area via bridges, boardwalks, walking and cycling trails. If all goes well, a link to Lysterfield Lake Park will be established, effectively allowing people (and wildlife!) to travel From the Mountains to the Sea or in other words from the Dandenongs to Port Phillip Bay!

Volunteer like the fine people in this video featuring a familiar Dean talking about the importance of grassroots environmentalism, conserving, re-establishing and linking 'green corridors' of wildlife habitat

Or locate a site near you!

The Friends of Frog Hollow does not have an official website as our small group of members all work closely with one another, however we facilitate broader events in conjunction with other events and bodies such as the City of Casey Council, Melbourne Water, Clean Up Australia Day, National Plant A Tree Day and Arbour Week (and their websites and events). You can keep updated by joining our facebook group at:!/groups/163354060407176/?fref=ts

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

An Ancient Greek Symposium

I quite enjoy going to cultural festivals and events. With Melbourne's diverse and vibrant multiculturalism there are many such free events throughout the year where you can experience the sights of various cultural performances, the sounds of various kinds of folk music and dance, and the smell and taste of foreign cuisine in the heart of your own city. Over the past couple of months I was able to enjoy the Scandinavian Christmas Bazaar, a Mexican Festival, Chinese New Year celebrations, Maslenitsa Slavic Pancake Festival and the (modern) Antipodes Greek festival. And the turning of the wheel of the year will I'm sure bring many more such enjoyable events.

Another event I attended to was not only a cultural but also living-historical experience. Athanasios of the Ancient Hoplitikon of Melbourne Inc invited me to the Ancient Greek (and Roman) re-enactment group's annual symposium. All of the attendees were clad in Classical costume, myself in a white a knee-length Ancient Greek chiton, with a black swirling trim (which always reminds of the waves on the Aegean Sea at night), Grecian sandals, a pair of metal cuffs and my gold snake ring, a replica from Pompeii.

Upon arrival and a warm welcome we were taken for a tour around the group's grand new palatial white canvas tent. Everything was handmade to period pieces made with lavish detail, skill, patience and a passion for the past. Within the tent was a sumptuous feast for both the stomach and the eyes, with a plethora of traditional Greek foods. One end was open at the sides to catch the summer breeze, while the other was enclosed with several replica wooden Ancient Greek klinoi lounges. From the wooden support columns hung olive oil burning lamps, spears, a standard and a Hermes' caduceus staff were near the entrance, and arms, bronze armour, the accutraments of an ancient Olympic athlete and pottery. Outside club members moved about a the artillery of a Roman scorpion.

After that we held a re-enactment of an Ancient Greek holocaust style sacrifice and libation , our gracious host conducting the ritual in Ancient Greek. Naturally, the only thing sacrificed in this re-enactment was some of the finest red wine present. Then the guests grabbed small votive objects from a table and left them on the altar. In historical re-enactment, as a hobby there is often a trade off between safety and modern sensibilities vs period practises, either because ancient practises are only partly understood or obviously in combat, for safety of the participants and public. But one aspect that is often overlooked is the actual culture, ritual and lifestyle of people in the past. So it was great to see and experience this part of the re-enactment which is sadly all to often overlooked by other groups. Then we drank a small portion of a sweet wine to wet the appetite and continued on to enjoy our feast, watered down wine from a krater, our fine company and exquisite surrounds.

A modern symposium is an academic conference for presenting papers, while an ancient symposium was a sort of house party with food, music, entertainment and  plenty of wine, but it would have had other aspects to it other than just a party. It would have had some kind of ritual element to it, as well as being sociable, holding serious debates and discussing philosophy and making important political contacts and making business deals all rolled into the one kind of function.

 I must say I had a great time and thoroughly enjoyed sipping my wine from a metal kylix, a replica of one thought to date back to 300 BC, while reclining on a kline. A kline might at first appear unusual, it is not quite a couch or a bed, and is quite high. Yet, when you actually use one you can fully appreciate what you have seen on vase paintings, it is the perfect height to let you socialise while another person standing can talk to you face to face, not to mention the comfort of a posture that allows for digestion and rest while still being upright and active enough to engage with those around you and your surroundings. Even the simple oil lamp lighting, when placed appropriately and reflecting off the white canvas, with the glint of bronze in the background, created a warmly lit environment as if near a campfire.

It was the unexpected ingenuity and simplicity of carefully considered things like this, both in terms of designs from Antiquity and their re-creation in the present by Athanasios and the Ancient Hoplitikon that reveals the civilised art of holding a symposium.


A snapshot of relatively recent Classics, Archaeology and Ancient World Studies orientated student groups at the University of Melbourne.

This is by no means and exhaustive history of all the classics orientated student club activities at the University of Melbourne, but rather in Herodotian style, a combination of the things I witnessed, read, gossiped about or participated in during my time here. I’m sure there are others out there with other pieces to add to the story as well. Given the natural fascination we all have for the ancient past, it is fitting that some of the forerunners of the  Melbourne University Classics and Archaeology Students Society (MUCLASS) are recorded briefly for our present bemusement and for posterity.

MUCAAS was the Melbourne Uni Classics And Archaeology Society. I like to think that its origins, now lost in the mists of time, may extend back to some long forgotten mystery cult of antiquity. In reality, the oldest reference to MUCAAS (or perhaps some proto-MUCAASian club?) I have come across goes back to 2001. A newsletter of the Australian Society of Classical Studies from September 2004 notes that the undergraduate Classics society at the University of Melbourne has finally settled on the name of MUCAAS. By 2006 I had started at Melbourne and in O-Week promptly joined two of the clubs with unintendedly funny sounding acronyms: MUCAAS and PIS (political interest society). After joining, my first challenge was to find the legendary MUCAAS rooms. This involved entering the impressive fortifications of Old Quad, scaleing the great staircases, navigating the Labyrinth while avoiding the minotaur, before arriving at a descrete and occasionally locked door to a seemingly empty tiny storeroom in the upper west wing of Old Quad. This kind of feat is something postgrads and lecturers do daily, but to someone in their first week of university life it was just a little epic.
My persistence paid off, because I had reached the first of the three rooms of MUCASSia, and beyond the first lay a further two rooms adorned with walls covered in pictures of sites and artifacts from the ancient world, a couple of desks, bean bags, cushions and copious amounts of theatre backdrops and props. It was quite common to find Classics tutors typing, translating, working on theatre pieces and doing the Latin crossword. It was from this crenalated acropolis that MUCASS produced a periodic newsletter called (SIC) which contained submissions from its members such as: essay extracts, poetry travel stories, reviews of ancient themed movies and video games and fake advertisements for things like second-hand chariots. MUCASS also ran trivia nights, movie nights and dramatic reading nights, which simply involved people getting together to read aloud bits of ancient literature in either the original text or a translation, but to add their own rendition of the text. This was simple and yet extremely comical and captivating.   

There was always a passion in MUCASS for Classical theatre. Members translated Greek and Roman plays, wrote and practiced scripts, produced backdrops, costumes and props all by themselves. There was usually one play every semester or two. By 2003 the theatre element of MUCAAS had become a small but sophisticated theatre company in its own right, known as Omiprop Productions. Some of their plays included Aristophanes’ Lysistrata (2001), Aristophanes’ Frogs (2003), Euripides’ Helen (2005), Senecca’s Phaedra (2006), Euripides’s The Bacchae (2007), Aristophanes’ Lysistrata again in 2008 at the Melbourne Trades Hall as part of the Fringe Festival. This was followed by Plautius’ Mosteilaria (2009) and The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus (2009) based on Sophocles’ fragmentary Satyr play Ichneutae.
MUCASS was gradually superseded by Omniprop, although granted there was a lot of overlap, until MUCASS ceased its other activities. Omniprop found that eventually many of its core members were studying and teaching Classics abroad, especially at Oxford, or had become successful actors and artists and so it became increasingly hard to keep up producing productions here at the University of Melbourne. By 2010 there was no regular campus-based signs of either group and the MUCASS rooms needed to be cleared out for more post grad work spaces. It was the end of an era. Omniprop still exists to this day but lies dormant, at least for the time being.

 I had enjoyed a number of Omniprop’s performances between 2006-2009, but I had another interest, re-enacting and living history. This involves trying to replicate as closely but safely as possible aspects of life in the Ancient world, be that costume, food, armour or combat etc. In late 2008 a fellow student Allan, and myself set about thinking how this could be done at Uni, and in 2009 the Melbourne Ancient Re-enactment Society (MARS) was underway. Though not an affiliated club with the student union MARS focussed mainly on costume making and replicating the equipment and fighting of Thracian  peltasts, all be it with wooden short ‘waster’ swords and rubber tipped javelins. MARS held a number of DVD nights, 3 themed trivia nights (Greek, Roman and Egyptian), an attempt at mullum making and a visit to the Pompeii exhibition at the Melbourne Museum. In 2009 the club was also asked to dress  up in costume and armour for the unveiling of a bronze bust to King Leonidas in Brunswick, because, as it turned out Brunswick is sister cities with Sparta! All these events happened in 2009, by 2010 the club became less active except for weekly training. Ultametly MARS needed too much space, cost and time to run on campus and this was exasaserbated by differing ideas on whether the club should focus more on Classical culture and history aimed at University of Melbourne students or on a more generic martial arts style model outside of the University. By 2011 MARS wound down as a club.
And there you have it. All of this helped set the stage, so that completely independent of these clubs and events a new club could emerge. That is however another story. As a new member to MUCLASS, I leave the task of its origins and early history to someone better suited to the task. What will they say about MUCLASS  in the future? Only time will tell. So no pressure, but this could be the best Classics, Archaeology and Ancient World Studies student club to emerge at the University of Melbourne in our day.

* A variation of this article (plus pictures!) was published in the first edition of the re-launched perodicle of the Melbourne University Classics and Archaeology Student's Society, Orpheus in September 2013.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Summer Solstice Stroll through the Labyrinth

It is always rather perplexing that even in the heat of summer we in Australia  are surrounded by (mass marketed consumerist) images of a nostalgic white Christmas, complete with Santa in Sami-like costume, polar reindeer pulling a sled and landscapes dotted with North American or Eurasian conifers or the occasional snow man. But why not - it's Christmas time after all. Aside from all the normal Christmas-ness, I thought I would also go to some other borrowed Northern hemisphere tradition-based events that have been adapted more appropriate for the season here and the Summer Solstice.

Of course, in Europe, Northern Asia and North America there would be a range of traditional, semi-traditional, traditional inspired and not-so-traditional-at-all  midsummer festivals and events to attend. And there would be plenty of people, festivities and general merriment at them. Meanwhile in Australia, not so much.

So on Saturday the 21st of December I enjoyed hanging out with the Melbourne Heathen Moot and participating in an energetic rite somewhere between a blot and a sumbel. On the next day I enjoyed meeting up with the Druids of Silver Birch ADF for Summer Solstice celebrations and picnic feast at Rushall Reserve, not far from the main city of Melbourne. The sun was shining but it was luckily not too hot and native plants were blooming, the fragrances drifting through the air while the sound of kookaburras calling and the Merri Creek bubbled along in the background. Since it was such a nice day I decided to go for a bit of a walk.

From the flat stone spiral of Rushall Reserve, past the community garden and on to Rushall station I had a pleasant and scenic stroll through Rushall and the surrounding reserves, following the meandering Merri Creek with it's otherworldly yet seemingly harmonious fusion of native and European flora. Wild Oaks, elms, ash and  weeping willows, and yet silver wattles, narrow leaved-peppermint Eucalyptus and hop goodinia side by side in place. The path is doted with the occasional long-forgotten concrete, brick and cobblestone ruins of an older Melbourne, contrasted with more modern trail markers, boardwalks and drinking fountains, and this combination of old (although relatively recent in historical terms) and modern is embodied in the red brick or blue stone Roman arches of colossol traffic bridges you must pass through on the journey, following the city head trail. I passed signs indicating a local Friends of Merri volunteer community group was active in revegetation works and was surprised to see signs warning about snakes or advising that echidnas lived in the area, so close to the city! I saw more wildlife than I expected too, not only the expected introduced birds and magpies and wattle birds, but rainbow lorikeets, honeyeaters, families of ducks with ducklings, skinks and a big blue-tongued lizard. I met a number of pleasant and friendly local walkers, joggers and cyclists on the way, and thought that with this green web and lung of fresh air, such a place would be a nice place to live if you lived close to the city. Interestingly there was also some rather different graffiti in some places including a rock-art style  horned figure with a spear sprayed onto a wall and a stone carved with New Grange styled spirals and 2 horses that had been painted white to emphasise the markings.

Along the way I was surprised to come across a labyrinth! Being only a stone outline on the ground this labyrinth was safely free of King Minos' Minotaur, although in a similar pattern to much of the "labyrinth" style symbolism found in carvings (and the shapes of various folk dances!!) from the Balkans to the Baltic. Although the symbolism is not completely understood it often involves a katabiasis - a journey 'against life' into the (symbolic) underworld and a triumphant return to the land of the living. And in a homage of sorts to that tradition, this labyrinth bears a sign on a nearby cairn of stones welcoming passers by to walk through the labyrinth as a personal reflective and meditative quest. The labyrinth is located at Hawson's Hollow, Clifton Hill (Melways ref 2D: E2) and was built by local residents over the summer of 2001 - 2002. Out from the shade of the adjacent 'wishing tree, where people tie up their wishes,' a mysterious lady with a lovely pentagram necklace and in a long black flowing felt dress approached me and said 'I think you should walk the labyrinth' and I replied 'I may just do that', to which she insisted 'Oh, I think you should. I think you'll get a lot out of it.' Given that it was the Summer Solstice, I wasn't that surprised by this. I can't say I had any personal revelations per se in the labyrinth, but controlling your steps and breathing, maintaining your balance thought the narrow winding knee-high passages does seem to help facilitate a mental state somewhere between reflective alertness and a quite deep meditation, and if nothing else it can aid you in re-evaluating various things going on in life and approaching solutions from previously unconsidered paradigms. And admittedly I felt good afterwards, so at least being able to try the experience was well worth it. Thanks for the encouragement lady in black!

As I continued on to the Quarry Park I was able to see some of the geological history in rocky out crops, with scant signs of tool marks, a interesting menhir-like stone sign, a stone shamrock memorial marker with a Gaelic inscription, the ruins of the Aboriginal School and after the pleasant roughly 45 minute 3km walk I arrived at Yarra bend state park where the Merri Creek joins the Yarra and then flows into the broad thundering Dight's Falls.

A nice way to spend the afternoon on the longest day of the year, don't you think? Try the walk sometime for yourself.