Piece of the True Cross Discovered? Does it Matter?

One of most interesting bits of archaeological news to emerge recently has been the discovery in the 7th-century Balatlar church in Sinop, Turkey (on the southern coast of the Black Sea) of a small stone box decorated with incised crosses.  Inside, archaeologists found a splinter of wood.  It is not just ANY piece of wood, they claim, but a fragment of the True Cross, the cross upon which Jesus Christ was crucified.


Professor Gülgün Koroğlu holds a piece of the reliquary in which the fragment was found. Photo, UK Daily Mail.

My gentle readers may be forgiven their skepticism if their first question is: “Seriously?” Logically speaking, we would be hard pressed to accept at face value claims that a piece of wood buried in a box is a tiny piece of the True Cross.  In fact, it is easy to scoff at such claims, but as a scholar with a keen interest in religious relics of several historical periods, I want to address the question and explain why this discovery is significant.

(Also, I have been extremely frustrated with the way media outlets have covered the story (see links below), trying to spin it as “proof” of Christ’s historical existence.  Despite what individuals may or may not believe about that question, a relic of the True Cross is not a piece of evidence one way or the other, and suggesting that it might be just leads people to ask the wrong questions and argue about the wrong points.  [end of soapbox])

First, I’d like to address the question of whether the relic is real or not:

Verifying the historical authenticity of relics is extremely problematic.  True Cross fragments – many of which have been identified over the centuries – are particularly questionable because according to Christian legend, the True Cross was not even recovered until about 300 years after the crucifixion, when the emperor Constantine’s mom Helena went poking around in the Holy Land. So, even if one could somehow prove that a fragment was a piece of the cross that was “found” by Helena (an impossible task, I think), one would still be no closer to proving it was part of the instrument of Christ’s crucifixion. From a scientific standpoint, I find it extremely unlikely that that object survived for 300 years to be discovered by Helena.  So my PERSONAL answer as to whether this fragment of wood is part of the cross of the crucifixion is “no.”  But that doesn’t diminish my interest in the find, nor does it mean I disagree with the archaeologists who have declared it to be a piece of the True Cross.  You see, they are not necessarily claiming it is a splinter from that specific object, but rather are announcing their discovery of a piece of wood believed in the early medieval period to be a piece of the True Cross.  There is an important distinction to be drawn between those two things, a distinction of which many who are responding to the story (journalists and commenters alike) seem to be unaware.


Piero dell Francesca, “Discovery and Proof of the True Cross”, 1466. Fresco in the Bascilica of San Franceso, Arrezzo, Italy.

A glance through the comments section of any of the online news pieces will find people lining up to mock the archaeologists who announced the discovery for their apparently un-scientific method – declaring that an object is a piece of the True Cross simply “because we say so.”  Skeptics, not content to take that declaration on faith alone, want hard proof before they will accept such a claim.  Those skeptics, however, are missing a key point:  faith is, in fact, the most important thing bearing on a relic, and faith was as important in determining the identification of the object in the historical period in which the relic was first discovered as it is now.

Let me explain.  On a recent cruise of the Black Sea on the line Voyages to Antiquity, on which I was speaking as a guest lecturer, we boarded the ship in Istanbul, where the passengers visited Topkapı Palace before we set sail.  The seat of the Ottoman sultans, Topkapı’s treasury houses one of the world’s most important collections of Muslim religious relics, an assortment that includes objects related to Old Testament figures revered in common by Muslims, Christians, and Jews.  On the ship later that day, a passenger asked me whether the Sword of David displayed in that collection is real.  I gave him the answer my students always hate to hear: “What do YOU think?”  A classic way to dodge a question with no answer – or at least no scientifically verifiable answer – it’s also the most pertinent question in this case, because the importance of relics lies in the power people assign them.  As I like to point out in presentations I give on saints and relics, whether a relic is “real” is not the important thing. The important thing is that people have agreed that it will stand in for whatever object it represents (in this case the True Cross, in others the head of John the Baptist, etc.), take on the power of that object, and serve as a focus for veneration. That converts a simple object into a source of religious and social power.

Therefore, although there is absolutely no way to verify the authenticity of the splinter of wood discovered in Sinop as a fragment of the cross on which Christ died, as an artifact it has a valuable story to tell archaeologists and historians, which brings us to the second question I’d like to address:

What is the value of this discovery?

Whether relics are “real” or not, they had real power to the people and institutions that owned them and venerated them, which means they are important in constructing a well-rounded understanding of the historical periods in which they originated. In terms of this specific example, not knowing enough about the excavation of Balatlar church to say specifically how this piece fits into the jigsaw puzzle of history the archaeologists are putting together there, it is difficult for me to make many concrete suggestions about how it might add to their analyses.

But one thing it tells them is that pilgrims would have visited this church to see, touch, and perhaps even kiss this piece of wood (although we know from historical sources that medieval churches with fragments of the True Cross quickly learned that if they allowed pilgrims to kiss the object, their relic would slowly become smaller as some visitors nibbled tiny pieces off it to carry away with them!).  With those pilgrims came many things: fame and prestige for the church; money for the church’s coffers in the form of donations; an injection of cash into local businesses as pilgrims paid for lodging, food and souvenirs; and other less-positive things such as diseases carried from place to place by religious travelers.  Pilgrims were an important part of the medieval economy, and this tiny fragment of wood may help archaeologists flesh out the story of Balatlar church, its community, and how it fit into the social and economic matrix of other communities in its region. So much evidence from one little splinter!

Articles on the find:






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A Striking Visit to Segesta, Sicily

Early in the afternoon of Tuesday, July 9, lightning struck the site of Segesta on Sicily, setting at least two separate grass fires within the grounds of the archaeological park.  Due to the location of the lightning strikes, both the Greek-style theater and the 5th century BC Doric temple – one of the best-preserved and most important examples of Doric architecture surviving from the ancient world – were in great danger.  The site was evacuated, and local fire crews responded swiftly and effectively with tactics including airdrops of water.  Although the line of the fire approached the temple from both the northeast and the northwest, and reached within approximately 50 yards of the building, responders managed to extinguish it before it caused any damage to the structure.  The theater was also unharmed, as were the remains of the city’s agora and of the Byzantine church above it.  Tragically, a young child playing on the beach below the site was killed by lightning.

The picture below, which I took the following day, shows the extent of the fire damage to the surrounding countryside, and its proximity to the temple.  It was taken just below the agora.  The charred area is to the right; a second area of fire damage behind the temple, which reached even closer to it, is not visible.  Image


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Setting Sail

Harryhausen_fleeceMy last post here on my blog was about returning home from lecturing on a cruise on the Voyages to Antiquity line.  Now, almost a year later, it’s time to board the Aegean Odyssey again for another stint!  It’s almost embarrassing how I’ve let this blog fall by the wayside, but this past year has been one of great change as I took on a new academic position at Anderson University in South Carolina.  A cross-country move, 120 new students, and responsibilities teaching the full range of art from all cultures and all historical periods kept me quite busy!

But now it’s time to recharge my batteries on a ship, sailing the Mediterranean and Black Sea.  The highlight of this cruise for me, and the topic of one of my lectures, will be retracing the route of Jason and the Argonauts from Greece to the shore of modern Georgia (ancient Kolchis).  Although we think of as just a story – with all of its fantastic supernatural elements like Harpies, fire-breathing bulls, and warriors grown from dragon’s teeth – for the ancient Greeks the Argonautika was a historical event that they dated firmly in the 13th century B.C.E: 1264 B.C.E. to be exact.  So is it pure mythology, or does the story of the Quest for the Golden Fleece preserve an echo of a real historical voyage made by Mycenaean Greeks in a fairly primitive ship at a time when the Black Sea (which later Greeks called The Inhospitable Sea) represented the very limits of the known world?  I hope this trip will shed some light on that question for me.  After all, Ray Harryhausen’s 1963 film “Jason and the Argonauts” was one of the reasons I became so entranced with ancient myth and legend in my childhood!

As time and internet connect permit, I’ll try to post pictures and short comments along the route of the trip.  

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Home Again, Home Again

Odysseus steps ashore on Ithaka after years of wandering. Sculpture at the dock in Vathy.

I’m still in recovery mode after another wonderful month spent aboard my second (floating) home, the Aegean Odyssey.  As always, cruising the Mediterranean, Adriatic and Aegean – bouncing from fascinating historical sites to breathtaking natural landscapes – made me feel like an adventurer, an explorer, and a time traveler all rolled into one.  This particular voyage felt more like an actual odyssey than most because it included a stop at the home port of the legendary Odysseus himself, on the Greek island of Ithaka (see photos).  Add to that the fact that there were two lovely ladies named Penelope sailing with us (also, of course, the name of Odysseus’s ever-faithful wife who held down the homestead during the long years that her husband fought at Troy and made his epic journey back home) and it seemed downright legendary!  Stay tuned for pictures and posts about some of the most interesting places we made port on the journey. In the meantime, enjoy these photos and the text of “Ithaka” by C.P. Cavafy, a beautiful poem about life, travel, experiences, and our ultimate arrival home.

The port of Vathy on Ithaka. I understand why Odysseus never wanted to leave home in the first place!


When you set out for Ithaka
Ask that your way be long,
Full of adventure, full of instruction.
The Laistrygonians and the Cyclops,
Angry Poseidon — do not fear them;
Such as these you will never find
As long as your thought is lofty,
As long as a rare emotion
Touch your spirit and your body.
The Laistrygonians and the Cyclops,
Angry Poseidon — you will not meet them
Unless you carry them in your soul,
Unless your soul raise them up before you.

Ask that your way be long,
At many a summer dawn to enter —
With what gratitude, what joy!
Ports seen for the first time;
To stop at Phoenician trading centers,
And to buy good merchandise.
Mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
And sensuous perfumes of every kind.
Buy as many sensuous perfumes as you can,
Visit many Egyptian cities
To learn and learn from those who have knowledge.

Always keep Ithaka fixed in your mind;
Your arrival there is what you are destined for.
But do not in the least hurry the journey.
Better that it last for years
So that when you reach the island you are old,
Rich with all that you have gained on the way,
Not expecting Ithaka to give you wealth.
Ithaka has given you the splendid voyage.
Without her you would never have set out,
But she has nothing more to give you.
And if you find her poor,
Ithaka has not deceived you.
So wise have you become, of such experience,
That already you will have understood
What these Ithakas mean.

– C. P. Cavafy (1868-1933)

Arriving at Ithaka.


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Embarking for Another Adventure

Any regular readers will have noticed that I’ve been largely absent from my blog for the last two months or so.  That’s not because amazing things haven’t been happening in the world of archaeology (see my Twitter sidebar at right for links to stories on vampires excavated in Bulgaria, Egyptian animal mummies, and the discovery of one of Caesar’s battlefields in Belgium, for example), but because I’ve been busy prepping for two major events:

First, I am thrilled to announce that in August, I will be joining the faculty of the Visual Arts department of Anderson University (in Anderson, South Carolina) as Assistant Professor of Art History (http://www.auvisualarts.com/faculty.html).  I’m looking forward to being back “home” in the South, and to the opportunity to work with fantastic students who are producing impressive work.  I’ll be teaching everything from prehistoric art to contemporary art, so it will also give me a chance to spend time with some of my passions that lie outside the ancient world, such as medieval and Renaissance painting and architecture.  In the past few weeks of prepping class lectures, I’ve also rediscovered my love of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art, with which I have not had the opportunity to spend much time since my days as an MA student at Tulane.  This is where my preparation for my new courses dovetails wonderfully with my other major upcoming event…

I will be leaving tomorrow to spend a month as an onboard lecturer on the ship Aegean Odyssey for the cruise line Voyages to Antiquity.  This will be my fourth cruise with the line, and I cannot say enough about what a fantastic experience their voyages are.  I will be speaking on ancient and medieval topics such as the veneration, sale, and theft of holy relics in the Middle Ages; the representation of the human form in ancient Mediterranean art from 22,000 BC to the 4th century AD; and the sensory experience of living in a Greek or Roman city.  I will also be accompanying the passengers on tours of archaeological sites such as Pompeii, Olympia, and the palace of the emperor Diocletian at Split (Croatia).  As much as I enjoy sharing my love of history and archaeology with an audience, I am also very much looking forward to benefitting from the expertise of the other lecturers who will be on board, such as Dr. Francis Broun.  Dr. Broun is a specialist in Renaissance art, and he will be prepping us for our stops in Florence, Rome and Venice with lectures on Michelangelo, Bernini and Titian.  I am also especially looking forward to visits to Arles and Marseilles, where Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Cezanne produced some of their best work, pilgrimages that I am hoping will provide me with even more inspiration for my Modern Art course in the fall.

As you can see, my next month will be a mix of old and new, ancient and modern, and all in the company of like-minded travelers and a cruise staff that makes Voyages to Antiquity cruises truly trips of a lifetime.  If it sounds like I’m advertising for the company, I am!  For those interested in history and culture, I very highly recommend that you consider sailing with VTA: http://us.voyagestoantiquity.com/.  Maybe you’ll see me on board!

As time and internet connection permit, I’ll try to update this blog with progress and pictures.  We board in Cannes on Saturday!

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Time to order your Mayan calendar refills!

Big news from the world of archaeology today, and the human race breathes a collective sigh of relief.  Researchers at the ancient city of Xultun, in Guatemala, have announced the discovery of a stone-carved Mayan calendar that continues far past December 21, 2012, the date on which a calendar in the well-known (and now infamous) Dresden  codex ends.  Conspiracy theorists have long predicted that the Mayans knew something we don’t, and that they carefully selected 12/21/12 as the last date on their calendar because it would be, literally, mankind’s final day on earth — whether because of some cataclysmic natural destruction event, because an itchy-trigger-fingered head of state launched a nuclear arsenal and set Doomsday in motion, or because the Mothership was scheduled to return and take all the Movementarians off to Blisstonia before destroying our blighted planet.  This newly-discovered calendar (actually a lunar table indicating recurring cycles of the moon) was created in the ninth century AD, about 500 years earlier than the Dresden codex, and covers some 7,000 years of predicted time.  This means two things: 1)  The Mayans had no reason to believe that the world would end eight months from now, and 2) I wasted an awful lot tempera paint on that “Welcome, Aliens” banner.

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The “Cheesy” Phrase on our Great Seal

The Roman dish "moretum." Photo by Bullenwächter (2006). Taken from the website www.romanreligion.org.

The Roman dish "moretum." Photo by Bullenwächter (2006). Taken from the website http://www.romanreligion.org.

E pluribus unum – “out of many, one.”  So reads the Great Seal of the United States of America.  We are a nation made up of  many peoples from varied backgrounds, all of whom come together under a flag that stands for the ideals of personal liberty and equality.  This noble concept of our rich and multifaceted nation is often expressed using another metaphor: a melting pot.  Though that phrase really refers to a crucible in which different metals are (s)melted and mixed together, to be honest, it’s always made me think of fondu.  Silly as that may sound, our motto e pluribus unum really DOES have a culinary pedigree.  The first appearance of the phrase occurs in a Latin poem called Moretum (“Garlic Cheese”).  In it, the writer (who some scholars think may have been Virgil, although that is not certain) describes a man making a simple lunch dish:

“First, lightly digging into the ground with his fingers, he pulls up four heads of garlic with their thick leaves; then he picks slim celery-tops and sturdy rue and the thin stems of trembling coriander.  With these collected he sits before the fire and sends the slave-girl for a mortar.  He splashes a grass-grown bulb with water, and puts it to the hollow mortar.  He seasons with grains of salt, and, after the salt, hard cheese is added; then he mixes in the herbs.  With the pestle, his right hand works at the fiery garlic, then he crushes all alike in a mixture.  His hand circles.  Gradually the ingredients lose their individuality; out of the many colors emerges one (color est e pluribus unus) – neither wholly green (for the white tempers it), nor shining white (since tinged by so many herbs).  The work goes on: not jerkily, as before, but more heavily the pestle makes its slow circuits.  So he sprinkles in some drops of Athena’s olive oil, adds a little sharp vinegar, and again works his mixture together.  Then at length he runs two fingers round the mortar, gathering the whole mixture into a ball, so as to produce the form and name of a finished moretum.  Meanwhile busy Scybale has baked a loaf.  This he takes, after wiping his hands…” (Moretum 88-120, translation by Andrew Dalby and Sally Grainger).

Perhaps if we could get more people to sit down together for a simple homemade meal, we might come closer to solving some of our disagreements in this grand melting pot of a nation.

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Roman “Love”: Getting The Girl No Matter What

A meme not created by me. Unfortunately, I can't find the site again to give credit where credit is due.

In case you hadn’t noticed, it’s Valentine’s Day.  While most of us associate the holiday with Hallmark and florists and guilt, the roots of today’s festivities, like so many of our modern holidays, stretch back to ancient times.  Here’s a short article from National Geographic that briefly explains how St. Valentine’s Day may have grown out of the Roman tradition of the Lupercalia, in which naked young men who were members of an association called the Luperci (from Latin word for “wolf”) ran around the Palatine hill in Rome striking young women with whips made from goat skin.  The event, which took place on February 15, was a purification rite and was also designed to promote fertility in the women.  The purification aspect of the rite was the oldest part, a very ancient tradition called the Februa, from which we take the name of our month.  At some point, it was combined with the Lupercalia.

What the Nat Geo article does not address is that the goat skin came from sacrifices performed earlier that day.  A dog and some goats were slaughtered in the Lupercal, the cave at the foot of the Palatine hill in which Roman tradition said that a she-wolf reared the twins Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome.

Coin from the reign of Constantine (minted 322-323 AD) showing Romulus and Remus suckled by the she-wolf. You can buy one of these on Ebay for $45.00, "used." Caveat emptor, as always.

The association of the cave with the wolf suckling the twins, a popular motif in Roman art, explains the fertility aspect of the Lupercalia.  Following the sacrifice, the bloody knife was wiped on the foreheads of two laughing youths (they were required to laugh), then cleaned with a piece of wool dipped in milk – another reference to the wolf nursing the twins.  Only then did the Luperci make their naked way around the Palatine with their whips.

The last year in which we know the Lupercalia was celebrated was 494 AD, after which the Church banned Christians from participating.  The fact that the Church had to make such a law tells us, of course, that up until then Christians were involved.  The bishop of Rome at the time, Gelasius I, transformed the Lupercalia into the feast of the Purification of the Virgin, thereby turning the fertility aspect of the rite completely on its head while retaining echoes of the older original purification rituals.

That’s the story of the Roman Lupercalia and its association with modern Valentine’s day.  But I’d also like to share with you today another aspect of ancient “romantic” life.  Many of us are familiar with the beautiful love poems of Roman authors like Ovid or the delightfully off-color (but still deeply romantic) Catullus; if you have never read any of their poetry, do yourself a favor and find some.  But many people are less aware of another type of love writing from the Greek and Roman world: romantic spells.

Many ancient magic spells, which were engraved on lead tablets, aimed to do harm to others – to spoil their crops or cause them bodily harm, for instance. But some spells enlisted the aid of outside powers to ensnare or otherwise control an object of desire.  For example, one ancient spell issues commands to Myrrh.  Myrrh was a spice strongly associated with lovemaking in the ancient world, and it was often burned to “set the mood” for an amorous encounter.  It is addressed as a magical force here.  The spell reads (in Greek): “Myrrh, as you burn, so also will you burn her…arouse yourself, Myrrh, and go…” (PGM 36 333-60).  Whoever wrote the spell told Myrrh to “arouse” itself.  He (or she) likely intended a double meaning.  The command is that Myrrh should get a move on and get the job done, but the phrase is also probably a reference to the known quality of myrrh as a sexually arousing scent.  This lovesick individual orders Myrrh to physically enter the body of their beloved, to take them over completely, to infect their very bones.  I leave it up to my readers to decide whether or not such a controlling, consuming passion is romantic.


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Building a 14th-century courtyard in 21st-century New York City

Silk, gold and velvet Floral Tent Panel from the Reign of Shah Jahan (1628-58). Created about 1635 in India. Metropolitan Museum of Art accession number 1981.321. On display in Gallery 464.

As readers who are interested in the international art scene or are supporters of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York know, last November marked an important milestone in the museum’s history: the Department of Islamic Art reopened its 15 galleries to the public after a major $50 million overhaul.  The purpose of the project was to rethink the way the objects are displayed – the context in which they are presented, the curatorial order that is applied to them, and the message the museum wants to send about the history of Islamic art and its relationship to Western art.  It had been many years since such extensive work was undertaken at the museum, and the project was widely debated by scholars and patrons, and was closely watched by the governments of Islamic countries.  The curators knew that when the galleries re-opened their doors on November 1, 2011, visitors would be flocking to the rooms not only to admire 1500 years of breathtaking art, but also to examine and critique how a Western cultural institution had chosen to interpret and display the material culture of  the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia.  Though not as obvious as the words of politicians or the actions of military leaders, the handling of these reworked galleries would be perceived by some as a pronouncement on the relationship between Islamic culture and the West.

Something that has been less discussed is the actual physical restructuring of the gallery space.  As part of the re-design, the curators chose to construct a historically accurate replica of a Maghrebi-Andalusian-style medieval courtyard.  In order to do so, they hired a crew of Moroccan artisans whose families have been creating traditional architecture for generations.  Nine months ago, the New York Times ran an excellent piece on the project.  Yes, I realize that I am far behind in sharing this but I am, after all, an archaeologist – it’s my job to “dig up” history, in this case fairly recent history!  This article is really worth a read, not only because it gives fascinating detail on the centuries-old techniques for creating the glowing, almost overwhelmingly intricate decoration that characterizes much medieval Islamic architecture, but also because it shines a light on the cultural understanding (as well as occasional misunderstanding) that was necessary to produce the finished galleries.  The work of the Moroccan artisans and their relationships with the curators also raised political and gender issues, both of which played a role in the dealings between the skilled craftsmen of Arabesque (the Moroccan company that produced the work) and the curatorial staff of the Met.

I’d be very pleased to read comments from any readers who have had the opportunity to visit the new galleries: what were your first impressions?

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Tea, Travel and Trade

My tea box. Thrilling, isn't it?

This morning a package arrived from my hometown in Texas with a birthday gift from my grandmother: a tea box.  Drinking tea is something I have only taken up relatively recently.  At first I used the occasional cup of tea as a social substitute for coffee, to which I am allergic (I know, I know – the horror!).  But while living in Istanbul a few years ago, daily cups of tea became a ritual – a pick-me-up in the morning with a warm simit (a bagel-like bread), the center of an afternoon break for a blisteringly hot, liberally sugared treat served in a delicate rose-shaped glass – I became addicted to tea not just for the caffeine but for the flavor and the aroma.  Now I seek out new teas to pick up as souvenirs during my travels.  When I sit down with a cup here in my home in Los Angeles, the smell of it can transport me back to the place where I first tasted that particular variety.  In the tea box I filled this morning, I have English and Celtic breakfast teas as well as nana (spearmint) tea from Jordan and a super-aromatic blueberry tea from the coast of Croatia.  If I want to take a quick mental trip, I  let a cup sit on my desk to steep while I read or write.

One of the truly amazing things about our modern world is how easy it is to acquire foodstuffs from foreign lands, whether we pick it up while visiting, buy it at a specialty market, or order it on the Internet. We have kobe beef from Japan, coffee from Hawaii and South America, or pistachios from the Middle East literally at our fingertips.  We often value these ingredients more highly than their domestic counterparts because it’s true that some products are simply better when they come from a certain environment.  Although it is much easier now than at any other time in the history of the world to acquire such luxury goods, the trade in food items from exotic locations is far from new.  As part of my research on the sensory experience of the ancient world, I have had the opportunity to learn very interesting facts about the history of some of the foods and spices that we now take for granted.  Just as I enjoy searching for local teas on my travels, ancient people carried their own savory souvenirs home from abroad to consume or sell, and the trade in food items and perfumes was a vital part of the ancient economy.  I thought readers might enjoy some of these interesting “tidbits” we know from archaeological and written sources about ancient trade in food and spices:

The Greeks and Romans used cilantro (coriander) in their cooking.  They certainly weren’t the first though –  archaeologists recovered samples of cilantro from the tomb of Tutankhamen, dated to about 1352 B.C.!

King Tut's tomb. Cilantro not pictured.

Ginger and pepper were also used in Rome, but they were incredibly expensive.  One Roman writer (Pliny the Elder) compared their prices to those of gold and silver. In fact, the same black pepper that we keep as an inexpensive staple of our pantries was so valuable in antiquity that Roman emperors stockpiled it in the treasury as an alternate form of currency.

In addition to using saffron in food, the Romans also occasionally mixed it with wine and sprayed it over the crowds at the theatre.  I haven’t tried this myself, but I imagine that it would have coated everyone in a slightly yellow, sticky, aromatic, and VERY expensive film.  Talk about conspicuous consumption!  Pound for pound (or, really, ounce for ounce), saffron is still the most expensive spice in the world.

Very rare spices became symbolic of their place of origin in the ancient world, which made them political tools.  Balsam of Mecca, also called Balsam of Palestine, which was used as a medicine and as a men’s grooming item, was said to grow only in two royal groves in Palestine.  As the Roman army approached the Jewish capital in the first century A.D., the defenders attempted to destroy the groves to prevent them from falling into the hands of the enemy.  They were unsuccessful, and the Romans transplanted some of the trees to Rome.  The political message was clear; as Pliny noted, “The balsam-tree is now a subject of Rome, and pays tribute together with the race to which it belongs.”  Sadly, the transplanted trees did not survive in their new environment.

The demand for some spices in the ancient world was so great that it may have caused their extinction.  Silphium, a spice used as a digestif and to ease the pain of toothaches, seems to have disappeared in the first century A.D.  Roman writers say that the last stalk found growing in the wild was given to the emperor Nero as a gift, and we know of the plant only through images of it struck on ancient coins minted in the area where it grew.  Recently, however, the Italian archaeologist Antonio Manunta compared the plant Cachrys ferulacea that grows only in eastern Libya to the ancient coin images and suggested that it may, in fact, be silphium.  Unfortunately, Libya is not the easiest place to conduct further research at the present time.

Silphium on a coin from Cyrene (modern Libya), late 6th or early 5th century B.C.

Ambergris was another rare and popular trade item.  What is it?  It’s a dried form of something that is secreted or regurgitated by sperm whales.  That’s right, it’s either whale vomit or whale feces that floats around in the ocean until it washes up on shore where it can be collected.  The Romans used it in perfumes.  Think it sounds like something you absolutely would not want to put on your body?  Better read your labels closely then, because it’s still a major component of many fine perfumes, such as Miss Dior.

Nero, the big spender

The Romans spent massive amounts of money on frankincense, which did and still does come from the Arabian peninsula, much of it from the area now occupied by the nation of Oman.  Pliny reports that when  Nero’s wife Poppaea died in 65 A.D. (possibly kicked to death by Nero himself), the emeperor sprinkled and burned  more than a full year’s worth of the spice production of Arabia (which surely included frankincense) over the course of one day of the public rites of mourning!  An exaggeration perhaps, but it does give us an idea of how lavishly the Romans spent on exotic spices and perfumes.


These are only a few examples of the ways some ancient cultures employed spices and perfumes in their daily lives, and as trade items.  There are many questions that historians and archaeologists have been unable to answer – we know, for example, that many ancient cultures such as the Egyptians, Hebrews and Romans used cinnamon, but we don’t know where in the ancient world cinnamon came from.  In the fifth century B.C., the Greek writer Herodotus wrote that giant birds used cinnamon sticks from some unknown source to build their nests, but Pliny later claimed that that story was a bunch of hooey cooked up by cinnamon traders to inflate prices.  Modern cinnamon is native to Southeast Asia and it is likely that that was the source in antiquity as well, but the closely-guarded secret of its origins remained a mystery for millennia to all but those who cultivated and sold it.
Speaking of cinnamon, a nice cup of cinnamon tea sounds good right about now.  Luckily, I can pick up a packet at my local grocery store, no giant bird-corralling necessary!

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