Saturday, August 13, 2016

A Thesis on Hippodrome Curses in Ancient Antioch Finally Surfaces

Many moons ago I wrote of Dr Florent Heintz's thesis on agonistic curses in the ancient Roman world. 

Agonistic Magic in the Late Antique Circus, PhD dissertation, Harvard University, 1999, Florent Heintz

A failed attempt at getting my hands on the original text via Interlibrary loans at the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue yielded only a bunch of microfiche (yes..) that was impossible to work with as it could not be searched, nor copied nor printed.

Time has passed and now Dr Heintz's thesis has finally appeared on in a three volume posting.   

He starts with a reference to the 1959 film Ben Hur which is best remembered for its chariot race which was set in the hippodrome of Antioch. The start of the chariot scene involves the various competing charioteers using invocation to the gods (or curses) to advance their chances in the race.

On the specific parts of the thesis related to Antioch we can finally record verbatim here:

"During the 1934 and 1935 seasons of excavations in the Antioch hippodrome, the Princeton expedition uncovered five lead curse tablets in the area of the central barrier: 'There were drains along both sides of the spina and across both ends between it and the metae; these yielded a number of lead tabellae defixionum." Although their imminent publication was announced shortly after their discovery, at this point in time only two out of the five tablets have been fully unrolled, and only one deciphered. The inscription contains 61 lines of Greek, of which two-thirds are taken up by an unusually lengthy invocation to some chthonic aspects of otherwise Olympian deities (Zeus, Dionysos, Poseidon), and to Hecate in particular. The cursing formula is reduced to a minimum (three imperatives: καταδησ[ατε, ερημωσατε and καταστρεψατε) and is followed by a list of names of 41 "horses of the Blue faction" (-τουζ ιππουζ του καλλαινου), the same faction cursed in Beirut (C5) and Apamea (C6). 

Some of the cursive letter shapes clearly place the inscription within the Late Antique period (roughly 4th to mid 6th c.). Evidence for the presence of the Blues and Greens in Antioch appears only in the late 5th century with the report of a violent confrontation between circus factions under the reign of Zeno (490). It is possible that our tablet predates this riot and thus provides the first testimony for the presence of circus factions in Antioch. But it is equally possible that it post-dates the riot; in any case, the question will remain open until further work can be done on the Antioch excavations field-books so as to narrow down the date of the tablet based on archaeological evidence.
The three remaining tablets are heavily corroded and brittle and present such a daunting array of technical challenges that only one of them stands a chance of being unrolled without too much damage. One is pierced with an iron nail and will probably have to be left untouched. Two tablets appear to be made of unusually large sheets of lead which have been first rolled up very tight before being folded in two; both ends then seem to have been pressed together on a convex surface intentionally to form a more compact object. It is conceivable that the folding and pressing process had a ritual function similar to the piercing of other tablets with nails: to lock the spell in place and symbolically immobilize the target. 

C7.2. ANTIOCH (lead horse figurines). 

Also from Antioch comes a series of nine small horse figurines made of lead. Although they are not archaeologically documented like the curse tablets from the same site (they were brought to the museum by a local), they are still extremely interesting in that they seem to represent a three-dimensional counterpart to the figures of horses and charioteers engraved on some circus defixiones (C1.2; 2.3). Each horse figurine is engraved with either one or two names of horses. All together the names amount to a number of 12, which roughly coincides with the average number of horses cursed for each faction on circus tablets from necropoleis in Rome (C1.2) and Carthage (C2.4). It has been noted that the figurines show no trace of mutilation, piercing or binding, which could arguably speak against their magical function. But the nine pieces were probably part of a magical ensemble which included written curses and other implements (F7.3-4). In the absence of a documented context, one is left to wonder where the figurines were originally deposited, whether in the hippodrome itself or in a grave". 

Monday, January 18, 2016

The Princeton Antioch Photo Archive

The Princeton-led expedition to excavate Antioch in the 1930s produced a trove of photographs, the vast bulk of which have never been seen in public. Even sifting through the works that have been published over the decades since there is only a minute fraction of the total number. Sometime back we discovered that there is a catalogue of these photos which is available online here:

We have engaged in some correspondence on the theme with Trudy Jacoby, the director of the Visual Resources Collection of the Department of Art and Archaeology at Princeton. Here are her comments on the progress they are making in bringing this material within access of Antioch scholars around the world:
"...the Antioch dig photographs are part of the Research Photographs Collection in the Department of Art and Archaeology. There are over 5,000 photographs and all of them have already been digitized....We will be adding thumbnails to the catalog listing in the future."

The thumbnails started to appear in 2009 and now they are all uploaded in full size versions. 

We have noted from perusing the list that there are many photos of some of the lesser digs that were undertaken which were never written up in the official five-volume report on the work of the Committee for the Excavation. Particularly exciting for us is the work at the Bridge Gate and the exploration around the Bab el-Kelb (the Porta Canis) from which we have never encountered any photographic record anywhere.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Latest Excavations at the Forum of Valens

A paper has recently been published in Turkish by Hatice Pamir who is the main archaeologist working on Antioch at this time. It has some interesting discoveries and images relating to what might appear to be the Forum of Valens or its fringes. 

The excavation area is located in Haraparası quarter of Antakya, 750 m. southwest of the so-called St Peter’s Grotto, and next to the west side of modern Aleppo road (which tracks the old Colonnaded main street) and adjacent to the Hacıkürüs (ancient Parmenius) river on the north. While not mentioned in the article, I suspect that this is the site where the "Hilton" was being built. 

The excavated area lies on southeast-northwest direction parallel to the ancient grid plan of the city. The area was a suburb of Antakya in 1930s when it was mainly gardens/orchards and then a truck depot/garage for a long time before the excavation.

The rescue excavation provided knowledge of city’s historical sequence in one place. It was also the first systematic excavation since the 1930s, and has revealed four significant building remains: a public building of 5th-6th century AD., a bath complex, a villa of 5th century AD, a row of shops and a stone paved road in two different places. The preliminary analyses shows the area was actively occupied from Hellenistic to the Medieval times.

While my Turkish is way less than proficient I was able to glean some key details of the discoveries. A decision was made in 2009 by the Hatay Archaeological Museum to do some drilling (sounding?) on the site. 

Based upon this work, a further decision to make a substantial excavation was made. As a result some six metres of overburden was removed and an area of a massive 180 metres by 95 metres was excavated. Some idea of the scale can be gauged from the people (little black dots) standing in the centre background of this photograph of the excavation. 

The site is challenging because over time the bed of the Parmenius "river" has shifted backwards and forwards across the plain at the foot of the mountains and in the process has destroyed some of the historic evidence. It has at time runs through the area excavated. 

Below can be seen the necropolis with around 50 graves counted. This relates to the same burial field uncovered in 1936 (numbered 16P at that time). The graves date from the 10th to 14th century.  

Under the graves was a totally different layer of settlement from the 5th to the 7th century consisting of side-by-side shops in an area 25m by 8 m, including storage areas with large ceramic grain-storage containers and some examples of two-colour "fish-scale" mosaics.

The next area uncovered was a marble-floored atrium of exceptional size measuring 58 metres north-south and 70 metres east-east. A marble structure on the East-West axis has been destroyed by the river flow shifting over time. There is series of nine mosaic panels stretching along the west side. These are 14 metres wide and some 90 metres long. This is not some humble building and could indeed be the type of structure which might represent the core of the Forum of Valens. The sixth panel (?) was totally destroyed but there are many pieces of red and yellow glass from the destroyed mosaics. It seems the stone walls of this portico(?) were covered with frescoes. 

There was a layer of ash and burnt wood, interspersed with nails from a collapsed roof, signalling that the structure was destroyed by an earthquake or some sort of natural disaster (or the Chosroe attack). 

There is a gateway onto a main street and a collapsed colonnade (with the photo above showing the fallen columns). After the main destruction some of the surviving parts were re-employed as storage areas. 

The author speculates that because of an inscription on a fallen pediment including the Latin word "Curia" that this was some sort of "parliament". Previous commentators have always placed a Bouleterion in the older part of the Seleucid city, but it is possible that Valens moved important functions to his new forum to enhance its status. 

Under this structure at a depth of around 13 metres was discovered more Hellenistic remains, including the sizable triclinium (dining room) of a house, with some more spectacular mosaics reminiscent of those found at Daphne and elsewhere in Antioch in the 1930s. 

The figure is a Megalopsychia surrounding by pairs of male and female birds (shown below).

The next discovery was some baths. As noted in the past Antioch was famed for the number of bathing establishments and their decor. Below can be seen the floor layout with the floor supports and the hypocausts for distributing sub-floor heat to the various chambers and pools. 

In the frigadarium part of the structure some important finds were made including a headless Hecate Triformis statue and two marble lions. While these baths were not large they were certainly sumptuously adorned.