Beneath Trajan’s Baths, a Mysterious Painted City
In 64 A.D. a devastating fire blazed through Rome, destroying half the city. In the decades that followed, such familiar structures as Nero’s palace, the Colosseum and Trajan’s Baths rose from the ashes.
What did Rome look like before the fire? A fresco discovered this February, dating to the first century A.D., may hold the answer.
Italian archaeologist Elisabetta Carnaburgi discovered the fresco in a dark tunnel beneath the ruins of Trajan’s Baths, in central Rome. The large faded painting, 18 feet wide by 10 feet high, shows an unusual bird’s-eye view of an ancient city, with robust walls and seven defensive towers. The walls enclose residential buildings, small houses with loggia-adorned balconies, a palace and a theater. A river meanders through the heart of the city, much as the Tiber River flows through Rome.
Now this fresco is at the center of controversy. Archaeologists and historians are debating whether this elegant urban tableau, dubbed the “Painted City,” represents ancient Rome, another city, or simply an ideal metropolis that existed only in the artist’s imagination.
Italy’s venerable art historian Federico Zeri has hypothesized that the city may be Londinium (today’s London). Others argue that the strong shadows cast upon the painted city’s bridge indicate a bright Mediterranean locale. The cowboy-hat-shaped roofs of the twin towers by one of the city’s gates also seem to evoke the architecture of the eastern Mediterranean.
The fresco does appear to depict buildings in ancient Rome—the Theater of Marcellus, the Temple of Vesta and the Temple of Apollo—known only from the pages of classical literature.
According to a number of scholars, however, the city’s topography does not match that of pre-inferno Rome. A Temple to Apollo probably did exist, for example, but it was not located near the theater. Another temple believed to have been adjacent to the Temple of Apollo does not appear on the fresco at all.
In May, archaeologists discovered a second wall fresco, in a room in the same tunnel. Measuring 9 feet long and 3 feet wide, the fresco depicts male nudes harvesting grapes, accompanied by a musician playing a double flute. Some experts suggest that the two frescoes are paired paintings, with one representing an ideal city and the other an ideal countryside—similar to the Allegory of Good Government, a painting by the 14th-century Sienese artist Ambrogio Lorenzetti. More recently, a large wall mosaic was discovered nearby, raising hopes that still more ancient art will be found.
But what should be done with these remarkable discoveries? Rome’s mayor, Francesco Rutelli, has suggested that the “Painted City” be housed in a museum, away from the damp, musty, underground tunnel. Archaeologists warn, however, that moving the fragile frescoes would cause irreparable damage. For the time being, they will remain where they are.
Haifa University, Israel
13th century B.C.
4 inches high
Found in 1997 near a fortified gate at el-Ahwat, in central Israel, this ivory carving of an ibex (see photo, above), or wild goat, may have been used as a bottle stopper. The ibex is a common motif in Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Levantine art. A famous example from fourth-millennium B.C. Mesopotamia is a carving of a ram caught in a thicket, discovered by British archaeologist Leonard Woolley in the Royal Cemetery of Ur (2600–2400 B.C.). Depictions of ibexes/goats, first found in the Tumuli of Kerma, a Nubian site in modern Sudan, are attested in Egypt since the Second Intermediate Period (c. 2200–1998 B.C.). There are numerous examples from the New Kingdom (c. 1567–1085 B.C.), notably from the tomb of Tutankhamun (c. 1361–1352 B.C.) and from reliefs of Seti I (c. 1306–1290 B.C.). Ivory ibexes/goats have also been uncovered at the Levantine sites of Late Bronze Age Megiddo and Iron Age Lachish, both in Israel (see David Ussishkin, “Answers at Lachish,” BAR 05:06)—though these examples are not as elaborately or finely carved as the piece from el-Ahwat, which has been excavated since 1993 by a team from Haifa University.
Ramesses II: The Urban Pharaoh
(Reprinted with permission from The Wall Street Journal. Copyright 1997 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.)
My brush with the Byzantine world of Egyptian antiquities began when I was hurtling along the tangle of overhead highways that crisscross Cairo and caught a glimpse of the crown of Ramesses II through the dust and smog below me.
Later, trying to cross Ramesses Square through Cairo’s ferocious traffic, I looked around for the famous statue and finally found it, hidden within a cage of scaffolding, dwarfed by office buildings, the railroad station and the highway. But what on earth was this priceless 3,000-year-old antique doing in the middle of the busiest square of the most polluted city in the world, being inexorably eaten away by the dirt in the air and vibrated to pieces by the subway trains rumbling underneath it?
My search for the answer began at the door of Rawya Ismail of the Egypt Exploration Society. She explained that the 31-foot-tall rose-granite statue, which weighs an estimated 90 tons, had been found in the 1920s in Memphis, the ancient capital, 15 miles from Cairo. In 1954, after the departure of the British and the overthrow of the monarchy, Ramesses—the Pharaoh of Exodus and the king of kings—became, with mild irony, the symbol of newly resurgent Egyptian nationalism. The statue was divided into three pieces, loaded onto trucks and conveyed to Cairo’s equivalent of Times Square.
Practically ever since, committees have been forming, dissolving and reforming to agonize over whether to move the statue again, where to move it, and how. The trouble is, no one knows precisely how it was moved the first time, where the divisions were made and what its internal condition is now. “It took three months to do the main transportation and a long time to make the decision beforehand,” confided Ms. Ismail. “Probably a third of the Egyptian army was involved.”
As to where it is to be placed, debate has raged far and wide. Should it be next to the new opera house, which is in Islamic, not Pharaonic, style? In Giza with the pyramids (a thousand years apart in eras)? On the road to the airport, facing visitors to greet them, or with its back to them to bid farewell? On an island in the Nile like an Egyptian Statue of Liberty? Or back in Memphis where it came from?
I tracked down Professor Abdel-Halim Nureddin, head of the Egyptology department at Cairo University. Until a few months ago, he was head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities and would have been responsible for the final decision. But then a thief was found hidden in the Egyptian Museum. There were questions about security, and, amid suspicions of a conspiracy, he was pushed out.
“I myself believe we have to bring it back to Mit Rahina [Memphis],” he 011said. But he offered an intriguing new point of view, which no one else seemed even to have considered. “The statue is part of the history of the railway station. The farmer who arrives expects to see the statue of Ramesses II. The evidence that he has reached Cairo is that the statue is there. The Ramesses statue is a big meeting place; it means something to all Egyptians.”
Suddenly it seemed blindingly obvious to me. The square should be cleaned up and the statue left in its place, where the ordinary Egyptian could see it, not transported to some theme park miles out of town where only tourists would go. To move it would be like putting the Statue of Liberty in Vermont or Nelson’s Column in Chessington Zoo to protect it from pollution.
Inevitably I ended up at the pyramids, in the office of Zahi Hawass. An archaeologist, and director of the pyramids, he has the air of a King Canute, one man trying to hold back the tide of pollution and people that threatens to overwhelm not only the statue of Ramesses but all the other monuments in his charge.
“Ancient Egyptian statues were not made to be in squares,” he boomed. “Modern squares should contain art pieces from modern days. Why do you have to go to the past? You should leave the past in its place.”
Currently Mr. Hawass has greater headaches than the fate of the Ramesses statue. With the coming of the end of the millennium (according to the Christian calendar, anyway), New Age groups are descending in force on Egypt, demanding to meditate in the Great Pyramid. “We have them all—the Cayce Foundation, the Rosicrucians, the Shriners, the New Age, Eleven Eleveners, Twelve Twelvers ”
Worse, the visionary Edgar Cayce wrote that there is an underground Hall of Records beneath the paws of the Sphinx, containing the secret wisdom of the Atlanteans, the true builders of the pyramids. It would be rediscovered, he predicted, in 1998, and its rediscovery would precipitate the Second Coming. Literal-minded New Agers have been bombarding Mr. Hawass with requests to drill between the paws of the Sphinx. They are also interested in a tiny “door” that is said to lead to a hidden chamber deep within the Great Pyramid.
“I do not mind if anyone will have a theory,” said Mr. Hawass. “But I mind if you have a theory and you want to prove it and you are not a scientist. If you are an amateur, you cannot work in the pyramids.” As a result of his obduracy he is much reviled on the Internet, where the theory is batted about that the Egyptian authorities are operating a massive cover-up to prevent the world from discovering the truth about Egypt’s ancient secrets.
The New Agers I met were not interested in drilling. Fixing me with her clear blue eyes, Darla Deck, who teaches metaphysics and meditation in Wichita, Kansas, told me that this was her first visit to Egypt “in this lifetime.” She and her followers, all startlingly normal American women, had been meditating their way through Egypt. “I’m not from here,” she said. “I’m a love energy from another dimension.” They have no need to excavate, having already discovered the Hall of Records through their meditation. But that is the least of it. As a direct result of their “work,” Ms. Deck told me, “Cairo will fall, in a year or so, into the sands, when the head of the Sphinx falls. It’ll be because of all the shaking underground.”
I felt duty bound to pass this information on to Mr. Hawass, who requested sanctuary in London if he found himself out of a job as a result. “The Great Pyramid of Khufu is the best psychiatrist in the world,” he added with a grin.
From his point of view, all the speculation simply distracts from the truly remarkable discoveries that are being made at this moment. “We’ve discovered the tombs of the pyramid builders,” he said. “Yet people still write books like Fingerprints of the Gods [a New Age bible that claims they were built by Atlanteans]!” The pyramids, it seems, formed the basis of the pharaonic economy. Far from being slaves, the builders were well paid, Mr. Hawass said. They drank barley beer, ate 14 different varieties of bread and had grilled fish on the weekends. Excavations have revealed their bakeries, breweries, homes and sewage systems.
As for Ramesses, a decision has now been reached, as Professor Ali Hassan, the present secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, told me. The statue is to be moved to Memphis, he said, in the very near future. “The army may be involved,” he added grandly. As for the cost: “There will be almost no expense. It will be a privilege for whoever carries the statue.”
But when I consulted a specialist in the preservation and moving of antiquities, I learned that the job has not even been put out for bid yet. Furthermore, the statue is of pure granite and, contrary to popular belief, considerably more resistant to the attacks of time and pollution than the Sphinx or the pyramids. All of which leads one to believe that the Egyptian farmer arriving in Cairo may be able to enjoy it for a while longer.
Operation Stone Age II
Another One for the Guinness Book of World Records
A 7,000-year-old skull from Ensisheim, France (see “Operation Stone Age,” Field Notes, AO 01:01) is no longer the world’s earliest example of successful trephination—an operation in which bone is removed from the skull to relieve pressure inside the head.
After reading about the Ensisheim skull in Nature magazine, British archaeologist Malcolm C. Lillie of the University of Hull recalled an even older trephinated skull that he had identified in 1995. The skull was found in 1953 in the Ukraine, about 250 miles southeast of Kiev, by archaeologist A.D. Stolyar, who published the find in Russian in 1966. Three decades later, Lillie determined that the skull showed evidence of trephination—but then he set it aside to complete his doctoral thesis. Recent radiocarbon tests date the skull to between 7300 B.C. and 6220 B.C.—more than 1,000 years earlier than the Ensisheim skull.
The Ukrainian cranium once belonged to a 50-year-old man. The lesion from the trephination, on the left side of his head, had healed nicely, indicating that he survived long after the surgery.
Have we now found the world’s first brain surgery? Lillie doesn’t think so. There are probably earlier trephinated heads that are simply undated or unidentified, he told Archaeology Odyssey. “It’s just a case of someone getting that obscure prompt to publish material that they have inadvertently been sitting on for awhile.”
Eco-Friendly They Weren’t
Scientists have traced Roman pollution as far afield as Greenland, where a 9,000-foot ice core has revealed traces of lead contamination. Much of the lead, dating from 150 B.C. to 50 A.D., came from Rio Tinto, a mine in western Spain. Romans used lead in plumbing, architecture and ship building—and, unaware of its poisonous effects, as a protective coating for drinking vessels and cookware. Some scholars believe lead poisoning contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire.
Ancient Gold: The Wealth of the Ancient Thracians
New Orleans, LA
Tel: (504) 488–2631
October 31, 1998–January 3, 1999
A spectacular array of over 200 gold and silver objects from royal Thracian tombs. The warlike Thracians were feared in antiquity and immortalized by both Homer and Herodotus.
Gifts of the Nile: Ancient Egyptian Faience
Tel: (401) 454–6507
August 24, 1998–January 3, 1999
The first exhibit exclusively devoted to the lost art of faience—the dazzling, predominantly blue, ceramic of ancient Egypt.
Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology
London, Great Britain
Tel: 011–44-171–387-7050, ext. 2884
reopened April 1, 1998
The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology houses the extensive collection of William Matthew Flinders Petrie, considered the father of Egyptian archaeology, and includes a new papyrus gallery and study room.
Nuzi and the Hurrians: Fragments from a Forgotten Past
Tel: (617) 495–4631
Correspondents of the pharaohs, foes of the Hittites, the Hurrians of ancient Mesopotamia are examined in this exhibit.
Beneath Trajan’s Baths, a Mysterious Painted City