Storms, War and Shipwrecks: Treasures from the Sicilian Seas

A fabulous exhibition at the Ashmolean - Storms, War and Shipwrecks: Treasures from the Sicilian Seas - revealed some little-known secrets of the battles for supremacy in the southern Mediterranean during the Roman rise to ascendancy. 

IMG_4243Battles between Carthage and Rome were especially savage - and the Sicilian coast was on the front line.  IMG_4247

The exhibition displays the astonishing cast-metal rams bolted onto the front of warships, making for devastating weaponry, as well as detailing the superior Roman tactics at sea. 

Intriguing finds show just how precarious was life at sea - but also how far it was the bread and butter of ancient Mediterranean empires.


Finds from the seabed include flagons, pottery and coins. Intriguingly, it seems the Emperor Justinian, keen to win Rome back for the newly-established Eastern Empire, and an enthusiastic Christian, shipped the equivalent of 'flat-pack' churches to newly-forming Christian communities.



The lost children of Carthage

100_0211 Archaeological evidence suggests an alternative explanation for infant remains found in the North African city of Carthage than those presented by classcial writers, I argue in the November-December 2010 issue of Minerva. You can read the article here100_0215

Carthage was subject to virulent negative Roman propaganda, and one of the charges levelled at the Carthaginians was that they sacrifced their children to the god Baal. However, the evidence from the ancient city's 'tophet' suggests they mourned the loss of infants, deposting their remains with care and dedicating them to Baal and his female consort, Tanit.

Rethinking circumcision as a traditional practice

This paper was originally given to the annual University of Calgary Chacmool archaeology conference in September 2004. It was subsequently published in the conference proceedings: Que(e)rying Archaeology, Proceedings of the 37th Annual Chacmool Conference, Susan Terendy, Natasha Lyons, Michelle Janse-SMekal (Eds.), University of Calgary, 2009.

Traditional vs Modern

Morocco December 2011 058Female circumcision (FC) is currently practiced widely across much of the Middle East and northern and central Africa. There is an extensive debate about how best to understand and respond to FC, which extends across academic, humanitarian and activist discourses. This paper argues that while this debate frequently places the practice in the context of assumptions about ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’, these assumptions often have not have been subject to critical analysis. Specifically, it argues that attempts to read female circumcision as a ‘traditional’ rather than a ‘modern’ practice can work to obscure a fuller understanding of the phenomenon and may actively deny the sexual rights of vulnerable women. It therefore suggests these conceptual divisions need revision if we are to develop a fuller understanding of female circumcision, and its justification.

Download article (pdf)

Female circumcision: historical evidence

If it is relatively easy to debunk the notion that invasive circumcision of young girls in Africa and the Middle East is an extensive time-honoured 'traditional' practice, what does the historical evidence actually tell us about the real nature of these practices? It points to a complex history, with roots in the development and spread of Judaism in the Middle East and East Africa in the first millennium BC and which appears to have been influenced decisively by the arrival of the Portuguese and the development of Islam on the East African coast and its trade in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This is a subject I will return to in further detail later.

"Cradle of Civilization" plundered by war

Iraq's archaeological record is one of the richest in the world. Along with Egypt and the Indus Valley, southern Iraq was home to one of the earliest civilizations which emerged around 4000 BCE and was built by the Sumerians — as the Akkadians, the later inhabitants, called their predecessors.

The restored remains of the great ziggurat of ancient Ur, in southern Iraq.

The Sumerians were among the first people to build cities. By circa 3000 BCE, Sumer was divided into independent city-states. Each city had a temple dedicated to its god or goddess at its center and was ruled by royal, priestly, and political elites.

At their peak, the Sumerians commanded a formidable agricultural and trading economy, centered on the great Euphrates and Tigris rivers and surrounding irrigation systems and canals. Regular tribute, either of labor or money, was paid to the city's temples by the local farming population. This gave the city-states real stability and wealth; allowing them to thrive for over a thousand years. In fact, they were rich enough to raise professional armies and wage war on one another.

It is the archaeological remains of Sumerian cities, as well as those of subsequent civilizations, that have been systematically pillaged since 2003 as the result of our own present-day wars. In the words of UK journalist Simon Jenkins, "Under Saddam you were likely to be tortured and shot if you let someone steal an antiquity; in today's Iraq you are likely to be tortured and shot if you don't."

Read more on OnIslam (formerly Islam Online)

Axum: The Ancient Civilization of Ethiopia

Axoum_stèlesRecent celebrations in Ethiopia no doubt aroused the envy of the Greeks, who have been campaigning fruitlessly for years to convince the British government to return the Elgin marbles. The altogether luckier Ethiopians have, in contrast, finally persuaded the Italians to return a 1,700-year-old stone obelisk looted by Mussolini nearly 70 years ago during the fascist occupation of Ethiopia. The obelisk is the finest of more than 100 stone monoliths which stood in Aksum (Axum), capital city of the ancient Aksumite kingdom that flourished in northern Ethiopia between 100-600 CE and which, according to legend, was where Menelik I, son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, brought the Ark of the Covenant from Jerusalem. As yet, however, few know much about this ancient African civilization, and its role in the development of trade, arts, and religion in the centuries that also witnessed the spread of the Roman Empire, the birth of Christianity, and the rise of Islam.

Bearing the Brunt of the French Identity Crisis

DSCN0518 Despite decades of privilege, it seems that modern societies across the West are still finding it hard to come to terms with their good fortune, and perhaps more significantly, with the ways such privilege has been secured. The result is a series of initiatives that, although purportedly designed to protect Western civilization and its values, in reality expose exploitation and hypocrisy. 

Consider the following examples. The United States of America invaded Iraq in 2003 on the basis that it was routing the fundamentalist terrorists and bringing “democracy and freedom” to the beleaguered Iraqi people. The UK government backed such a mission in the belief that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, despite the fact that no weapons of that description have been found in Iraq, either in the months leading up to the invasion or afterwards. The French, meanwhile, adamantly opposed the invasion of Iraq because they believed it was illegal under international law. Yet, at the same time, they initiated a campaign against what they believe to be the “aggression” of Islamic religious symbols at home.

Like the United States and the United Kingdom, whose “enemies” were figments of their own imagination, the biggest threat to the French way of life appears to be young Muslim women who want to wear headscarves to school.

Medieval Africa: Great Zimbabwe and the Arabic Connection

800px-Gr_Zimbabwe_visitorsOne of the tragedies of the modern colonization of Africa has been the reinvention of African history in a European image. Prior to Portuguese incursions, from around the 1500s, Europeans knew very little about the geography and culture of Africa. It was a “dark continent,” and most European knowledge had been received through the limited filters of the Bible, classical histories, and other fragmented sources. As Western interests and colonies became established across Africa, it was presented as a place ripe for discovery by the civilizing forces of modern empires. But in so doing, African history was largely written within a Eurocentric framework. As a result, many aspects of that history were distorted or ignored.              

The Western “discovery” of Africa from the 16th century onwards, was underpinned by two basic assumptions—both deeply racist. The first held that black people were incapable of understanding or writing a history of their own; therefore, white people had to discover and write it for them. But the second assumption was even more insidious—black people were deemed incapable of having a history. Thus, throughout the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, the history of Egypt, of the Bible, and of other sources with direct bearing on the history of both the Middle East and Africa, were reinterpreted and reinvented to present a view of ancient civilizations of which the West was the sole inheritor.

One astonishing example of this re-writing of history is the treatment of Great Zimbabwe, the greatest stone monument in sub-Saharan Africa....

Read the whole article here (originally published on Islam Online)

Photo: wikicommons

Good Muslim, Bad Muslim

Lukiskes_mosqueMahmood Mamdani, Professor of Government and Director of the Institute of African Studies at Columbia University, is widely acknowledged as one of the foremost analysts of the history and politics of the nation state in the developing world. Mamdani’s area of expertise is the constraints imposed by Western colonial and post-colonial powers on the prospects for popular non-Western nationalist movements to create viable states, and hitherto his work has focused on Africa.

Mamdani’s latest book, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War and The Roots of Terror, shifts focus from Africa to the Middle East. But in so doing, it sketches, with similar clarity and insight, the same themes that have bedeviled African national development: most crucially, the ways in which Great Powers, principally the United States, have treated the Middle East as subjugated territory on which to play out their geopolitical ambitions.

The results, as Mamdani shows, have been an unmitigated disaster for the populations of many Middle Eastern countries, notably Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine. But because the US has couched its regional ambitions in the language of morality, Mamdani persuasively argues that the logic and propaganda it uses to facilitate such aggression will ultimately turn in on itself, and lead, not to a world dominated by a US Empire, but to a world with which the US will have to make accommodation.

Read more.