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The Rosetta Stone – An important key to understanding the ancient world

The Rosetta Stone

Image via Flickr

The Rosetta Stone is a large gray stele naturally tinted blue and pink measuring almost four feet high, over two feet wide and almost a foot thick.

It is a fragment of a larger, original stone, and was discovered in 1799 by a captain of Napoleon’s army, Pierre-François Bouchard, near Alexandria in the proximity of Rashid (Rosetta) in the Nile Delta.

The stone is inscribed with an order issued at Memphis, Egypt, in 196 BC by King Ptolemy V. The top and middle texts are in Ancient Egyptian using hieroglyphic and Demotic scripts; the bottom is in Ancient Greek.

Ptolemy’s decree is mostly the same in all three languages, so the Rosetta Stone was used to decipher the Egyptian hieroglyphs. Before the discovery of the stone, the hieroglyphs had been undecipherable.¹

The English scientist, physician and Egyptologist Thomas Young – famous for his double slit experiment – helped to decipher the Rosetta Stone.

Report of the arrival of the Rosetta Stone in England in The Gentleman’s Magazine, 1802 – Wikipedia

The stone was probably first displayed in a temple.  One theory suggests it was moved sometime between early Christian and medieval times, and later used as building material for Fort Julien near Rashid (Rosetta).

Today it sits in the British Museum, along with a replica in the BM’s King’s Library.

Not surprisingly, a contemporary language education tool is called Rosetta Stone.

A crowd of visitors examining the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum – Wikipedia


 Alleged Louvre attacker’s father says son is not a terrorist (

 Hieroglyphs of Blood and Bone Paperback on Amazon (


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The Glory and, sadly, the Gory of Rome

young woman taking pictures at the Pantheon, Rome

Rome is the vibrant capital of Italy, with a long and complicated history, dating back to the 8th century BCE.

The founding of Rome is understood in terms of two mythic tales. One about Romulus and Remus. The other about Aeneas. The Romulus and Remus myth seems to have mostly won out. Any popular videos I’ve seen about Rome tell about their being suckled by a she-wolf but ignore the tale of Aeneas. Such is life… and history.

I’m not a Roman historian so, rather than spend days rewriting something I’m only mildly interested in, I have highlighted some main points here. Readers wanting more could also check out the lively podcast at Spotify: The History of Rome (mobile).

The Capitoline she-wolf with the boys Romulus ...

The Capitoline she-wolf with the boys Romulus and Remus. Museo Nuovo in the Palazzo dei Conservatori, Rome. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Roman Religion before the time of Christ is quite engaging. It overlaps with Greek myth. The strong-armed Romans borrowed much from Greek culture, which they admired for its sublimity.

But Roman Religion also has its own quirks—including the belief in personal deities for almost every occasion, divination, and from a contemporary perspective, irrational superstitions.

I strongly recommend John Ferguson’s The Religions of the Roman Empire.¹  Also, Sir J. G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough² offers some intriguing theories about pagan priestly succession in ancient Rome.

According to Frazer, a potentially new priest challenges and ultimately slays an old priest. So being a priest is not exactly a cushy job in some corners of ancient Rome. This didn’t apply to all pagan priests. I’ve highlighted the story here.

Pre-Christian Rome fell in the 5th century to Germanic invaders. In the 6th century Rome became an important center for the Christian Church, with Vatican City on the West bank of the Tiber river.

When the Roman Empire was at its peak, the city of Rome symbolized worldly power and also of the cruel persecution of the early Christians. Ironically, the geographic focal point for the persecution of Christians eventually became the worldwide center for Christianity and later, with the East-West Schism and Protestantism, for Catholicism.

The “Hammer or Witches” was a disturbed and irrational ‘manual’ supported by leading theological universities. It told how to identify and torture witches. It was a bestseller, second only to the Bible for almost 200 years.

The historian Arnold Toynbee and others observe that soon after the Christian Romans gained power, they began persecuting individuals (heretics and witches) just as the pagan Romans had previously persecuted Christians.

Toynbee believes it is mostly power – and the greed and arrogance that goes with it – that is responsible for this barbarous behavior among human beings. Religious justifications are just window dressing. The real cause of persecution is human brutishness and misery.

How many people like this do we know today? Is it any wonder we usually don’t want to have anything to do with them!

In 1871 Rome became the capital of modern Italy.

¹ Chances are you don’t have to pay $40 for this book. It’s in most major libraries. And secondhand and remaindered booksellers tend to sell it for under $10. I once saw it in used paperback for a dollar.

²  This is a huge, multi-volume work but there are several abridged versions.

Related » Acts of the Apostles, Aeneas, Aeneid, Julius Caesar, Church FathersMythic Inflation, Romulus and Remus, Vestal Virgin

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Schliemann Trench at Troy by Julian Fong

Schliemann Trench at Troy by Julian Fong via Flickr

Troy is an ancient city with archaeological ruins located in Turkey. According to Homer‘s Illiad, it was attacked by the Greeks for ten years, a conflict commonly known as the Trojan war. In a space of 4000 years the city was rebuilt nine times.

For many years Troy was thought to be a mythical place, much like Atlantis. But in the 1870’s its ruins were discovered by Heinrich Schliemann.

Sadly, Schliemann’s ham-handed excavations did much damage to the ancient site. As the Wikipedia entry about him notes:

Schliemann began work on Troy in 1871. His excavations began before archaeology had developed as a professional field. Thinking that Homeric Troy must be in the lowest level, Schliemann and his workers dug hastily through the upper levels.¹

The fall of Troy, by Johann Georg Trautmann (1...

The fall of Troy, by Johann Georg Trautmann (1713–1769). From the collections of the Grand Dukes of Baden, Karlsruhe. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Michael Wood‘s In Search of the Trojan War, an investigation into the myth and archaeology of Troy, is available on DVD and highly recommended. And the general idea of Troy has cropped up in TV and movies, most recently Helen of Troy (2003) and Troy (2004) with Brad Pitt.

Related Posts » Achilles, Aphrodite, Atlantis, Edgar Cayce, Projection

On the Web:

¹  In 2009 (the last revision for “Troy” at this Wikipedia entry was cited:

His career began before archaeology developed as a professional field, and so, by present standards, the field technique of Schliemann’s work leaves a lot to be desired. Thinking that Homeric Troy must be in the lowest level, he dug hastily through the upper levels.




Practical Archaeology Course 8 by Wessex Archaeology via Flickr

Archaeology [Greek: archaiologia = ancient history] is a relatively new science concerned with the excavation and analysis of artifacts, texts, structures and organic material (such as skeletons) from past civilizations.

The birth of archaeology is often associated with J. J. Winckelmann’s Geschichte der Kunst des Altertums (History of Ancient Art), published in 1764.

When it first appeared, carbon dating was sometimes upheld as the miracle tool that would pinpoint precise dates for discovered objects. But the accuracy of carbon dating is now debated. Almost all agree that carbon dating becomes less precise as we go further back in time.

Others maintain that carbon dating results sometimes can be misleading due to the hoarding and biased interpretation of artifacts and, in some cases, an overzealous desire to advance a career by “proving” a pet theory.

International politics and profit incentives may also come into play with archaeology as ancient remnants are often found in poor, politically sensitive, volatile and even war-torn nations. Local politicians are usually required to authorize certificates for archaeological materials requested for investigation or release from a site, which sometimes slows things down.

The term archaeology was also used by the psychologist Sigmund Freud. Freud employed the image of ruins within an ancient city to portray the relation between the unconscious and the ego (i.e. consciousness).

Archaeology at Crossrail

Archaeology at Crossrail by rich_pickler via Flickr

More recently, the French poststructuralist Michel Foucault used the metaphor of archaeology quite loosely to suggest the possibility of ideologically “buried” forms of knowledge. Foucault’s use of archaeology does not refer to questions like: “Did aliens build the pyramids?” or “What was the location of ancient Atlantis?”¹ Rather, Foucault’s work deals with reconstructing a network of connections, assumptions, expectations, techniques, values and beliefs assumed to exist in a given historical place and time.

Foucault’s archaeological metaphor is directly applied to a historical text, which he calls an “open site.” The notion of an open site suggests that the task of reconstructing historical meaning from texts is necessarily incomplete.

¹ Foucault did not ask these questions, but contemporary postmoderns might. Postmodernism and critical theory are slowly moving toward a greater appreciation of mysticism and esoterica. A good example of this integrative shift can be found in the work of G. E. Gallas.

Related Posts » Anthropology

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Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great by Stavros Markopoulos via Flickr

Alexander The Great (356-323 BCE) was the third Macedonian king from 336-323 BCE. Born in Pella as the son of Philip II, he became the undefeated conqueror of one of the largest empires of the ancient world, including Egypt and Greece.

Tutored by the Greek philosopher Aristotle, in Egypt Alexander founded the port city of Alexandria, a bustling place with a university after that of Athens and a library containing 400,000 to 900,000 books and scrolls.

After consulting an oracle of Ammon, Alexander was convinced that his formidable abilities came from divine power—that is, he believed he was chosen. After seizing the capitals of Babylon, Susa, Persepolis and Ecbatana, in the following three years he took the eastern part of the empire and in 327 BCE set his sights on India. He took the Punjab but his overburdened troops mutinied, leaving him no choice but to retreat. Soon after he died in Babylon.

At the height of his fame, Alexander rose in popularity to the point of nearly being deified.