Tuesday, April 24, 2007

2000-year-old Chariot Discovered Intact

News has been filtering out of Bulgaria since this weekend about a discovery of an intact chariot of the 2nd century B.C. in a tomb in Bulgaria. (Some reports say the chariot dates to the 2nd millenium B.C., but this appears to be in error). The ancient land of Thrace comprised much of what is today Bulgaria, northeastern Greece and European Turkey, but much about their culture is unknown, due largely to the dearth of written records. Many spectacular tombs have been discovered in Bulgaria in recent decades (the pic in the header is one such, of the 4th c. BC), of which this is only the latest. Although the wooden parts of the chariot had rotted away, its shape could be reconstructed based upon the iron fittings used in its construction. It apparently was pulled by three horses, had two wheels and a bronze roof, and the passenger rode in an iron seat.

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Monday, April 23, 2007

Back Online!

My internet service has been restored, and there was much rejoicing.

I'll be posting some chunkier tidbits a bit later, but for now I'll tide you over with this classic column from the Straight Dope.

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Friday, April 20, 2007

Technical Difficulties

My apologies for the lack of posts the last couple of days. My cable went out at home, and so I have no internet. Work has been very busy which has limited my ability to post. Once this is all straightened out I have a bunch of material ready to go. Soon!

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

More Bad Archaeology Reporting

This is a bit old, but I intended to make a brief comment on it as an example of how not to make archaeological findings accessible to the public. Discovery News posted an article on a recent British survey of caves in northern Britain. One of the results of the survey was that ancient humans did not randomly select caves to dwell in, but favored those with large entrances and deep passages, eastern or western aspects, and level areas in front.

So far, so good. Not terribly surprising perhaps, but there are differences in cave selectivity depending on region and the purposes for which the cave was used. I suspect the main goal of the project was simply to survey caves for evidence of occupation and then catalog them. The problem lies in the introductory 'grabber' paragraph:

House buyers today usually peruse properties with a checklist of desired features in mind. This aspect of human behavior has apparently not changed much over the millennia, according to a new study that found prehistoric cave dwellers in Britain did exactly the same thing when choosing their homes.

The study found no such thing. A 'checklist'? A checklist implies writing, which of course these prehistoric people did not have. We can say that they preferentially settled certain kinds of caves, but this says nothing about the selection process. For all we know, the local shaman took the omens and declared a particular cave propitious for settlement. I understand that the reporter was trying to phrase the findings in a way a layman would understand, but this was the wrong way to go about it.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Terrorist Targets, Tehran Try Tablet Tussle

The American Bar Association has posted a summary of a legal case currently making its way through the justice system, which presents many interesting aspects. In brief, here are the facts: Several Americans were among those injured in a series of terrorist bombings carried out by Hamas in 1997. They took Iran, as one of the backers of Hamas, to federal court. The Iranians didn't show up. Upon presenting their evidence for Iranian support for Hamas, the court ruled in their favor. They were awarded $423 million and change, $300 million of which were punitive damages. That's where things get interesting.

Given that Iran didn't even bother to send anyone to present its case, it's no surprise that they have no intention of paying the award. Collecting is a bit difficult when the United States doesn't even have diplomatic relations with the other country. In theory, the plaintiffs can petition the court to seize Iranian assets in the U.S., but there are precious little of those left. Most of what remains, such as the old Iranian embassy, is immune from seizure by international law.

But the plaintiffs have found some objects in the U.S. that may be accessible. The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago (which has a very nice museum, by the way, I recommend a visit) has possession of 15,000 clay tablets recovered in 1923 from the ancient Persian capital at Persepolis, in Iran. The tablets were taken to the U.S. for conservation and study, but with the intention of eventually returning them to Iran. A number of the tablets have already been returned in past years. The plaintiffs are now trying to gain possession of these artifacts. The University of Chicago has argued in court that the tablets are immune from seizure under the Foreign Sovereignty Immunity Act. The plaintiffs, on their part, claim the tablets fall under an exemption in the FSIA regarding property "used for a commercial activity." They argued that the Oriental Institute has used the tablets in commercial activities (I don't have the details, but presumably the argument is that by publicizing the tablets, the Institute has benefitted financially from them).

The district court found against the Institute, saying that only Iran itself could assert sovereign immunity. At that point, Iran finally showed up in court. The district court recently rejected their motion for summary judgment, so now we're waiting for the plaintiffs to prepare their case that the tablets have been used in commercial activity.

The possible effects of a judgment in favor of the plaintiffs are wide-ranging. The tablets would presumably be sold off on the open market, breaking up the collection and limiting scholarly access to them. Furthermore, the plaintiffs have already targeted other tablet collections, and presumably other kinds of artwork held by public institutions, might be targeted particularly items on long-term loan. Exchanges of art or other objects between the U.S. and other countries may become more difficult if those countries come to worry that they may lose possession of those objects due to actions by U.S. courts. This is something to keep an eye on.

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Monday, April 16, 2007

Interpreting DNA Evidence

Last week, I posted a link to a NYT article that discussed recent DNA studies of people and cattle in Italy. These studies found genetic similarities between current populations of both species in Italy and those in various regions of the Near East. This link was then interpreted as evidence that the ancient people known as the Etruscans arrived in Italy from the Near East (either directly or indirectly) sometime in the last three or four thousand years.

John Hawkes' has a post on his anthropology blog that examines another such attempt to use DNA evidence to reconstruct ancient migrations, this one published in Science. The results have been controversial, which has led to much scholarly back-and-forth. I thought this would be a salutary example of the dangers of overinterpreting DNA evidence. So what's the controversy?

For those wanting more detail, Hawkes ably sums up the issues involved, but in brief the evidence is this: DNA testing of people from North Africa found that they possess specific variations in their mitochondrial DNA similar to people living in the Near East. Based on the differences between these lineages and other mitochondrial DNA, we can estimate the time at which these groups branched off from their neighbors. In this case, the answer is about 45,000 years ago. The authors argue that this indicates that there was a migration into North Africa from the Levant around that time, displacing the earlier people that lived there. The date corresponds to the first peopling of Europe, and the authors suggest that both movements were part of the same pattern of migration.

Not so fast, say two other scholars. There are other ways for genes to move around. A later movement of peoples might have brought over these lineages. Or there might have been gradual diffusion of genes (via a series of short-distance interactions) instead of large-scale population movements. The archaeological evidence suggests that there was no large scale migration from Europe or the Near East into North Africa until much more recently, around 5000 BC.

For now, the evidence is insufficient to decide between the alternatives: 40,000 year-old mass migration? Slow diffusion? Recent mass migration? These are precisely the same problems that come into play in the Italian studies. Just because you share a common ancestry with someone 5000 years ago in the Near East doesn't mean that a bunch of people came over from the Near East at precisely that moment. There are lots of ways that genetic material can circulate.

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Friday, April 13, 2007

Famous Fictional Archaeologists: Daniel Jackson

Born: July 8, 1965
Education: University of Chicago
Specialty: Egyptology, alien artifacts
Likes: Abydos, Sha-Re
Dislikes: violence, getting killed

Although ostensibly an Egyptologist, Daniel Jackson exhibits a strong case of Omniscient Archaeologist Syndrome. We find that he is fluent in 23 languages (including Spanish, Russian, Mandarin and German) and can almost instantly grasp texts written in most obscure alien dialects. His most famous decoding involved the symbols on the Stargate itself, which allowed its use as an interstellar portal.

We first see Daniel Jackson at a lecture in a large lecture hall (presumably in New York or Chicago), attempting to convince a group of stuffy archaeologists that the pyramids were not built by the Egyptians, but are much older. It is interesting that in the snippet of lecture we hear, Jackson provides not a shred of evidence for this contention. On the other hand, a fuddy-duddy archaeologist stands to ridicule Jackson for this belief. The argument he uses, it might interest the reader, is perfectly legitimate, in that the pyramid contains an inscription with Khufu's name (discovered by Sir Flinders Petrie in 1883, but only confirmed in 2001). It is not clear what response Jackson would make to this, as his lecture dissolves in the midst of his reply. Sure enough, his theories are verified by the discovery of the Stargate. However, I feel sympathy for his well-meaning interlocutor.

Jackson's interest in Egyptology derived from his parents, who worked for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In a tragic accident, both died while installing a new exhibit when they were crushed by a large stone sculpture. Haunted by the event, Daniel briefly considered becoming an Egyptology-themed super hero ("The Mummy") before enrolling in the University of Chicago and following a more conventional academic career.

Hint for young archaeologists: hone up on your marksmanship and spacecraft piloting skills. You never know when you might be scooped up by a super-secret Air Force program combining archaeology and travel to different planets.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Death of Archaeology

Last night I attended a lecture by Christopher Roosevelt of Boston University. The topic was the destruction of archaeological sites in Turkey. As an archaeologist, I am well aware of the ongoing destruction of the planet's cultural heritage. However, rarely is one confronted by the nitty-gritty details, and the results are depressing.

Professor Roosevelt has been cataloguing burial mounds, known as tumuli, in an area of western Turkey that between the 8th and 6th centuries BC formed part of the Kingdom of Lydia. Wealthy members of the aristocracy would be buried in stone tomb chambers that would be covered with large mounds of earth. These would stand as monuments to both the deceased and their descendants, and were designed to be visible in the landscape. Unfortunately, such visibility has attracted thieves, both in antiquity and today. Not one intact Lydian tomb has ever been scientifically excavated.

Whatever the ravages these tombs suffered over the previous 2500 years is nothing compared to what they have undergone in the last few decades. Roosevelt was able to locate about 650 tombs. Of these, 80-90% show signs of recent illicit excavation. Furthermore, many tumuli known from earlier studies are no longer extant -- these amout to around 15% of the total. Many of these have been leveled using bulldozers or other earth-moving equipment by people in search of treasure. Treasure-hunting in Turkey is quite an industry, even if illegal. There are even web sites that glamorize the activity and provide tips on how to conduct an dig for gold. Needless to say, preserving archaeological contexts are not among the suggestions.

Much of the material gets smuggled to countries such as the U.S., France, and Japan via middlemen, often operating in Switzerland. The U.S. in particular has fairly weak importing restrictions. If a source country can prove material was taken illegally out of the country, sometimes they can get it returned, as with the so-called "Lydian Hoard," which the Met returned to Turkey a few years back. However, the material comes divorced from its archaeological context, and it isn't necessarily safe even when returned, as small museums regularly experience theft in countries such as Turkey.

It would be wrong, however, to think that this is a problem restricted only to developing or "Third World" countries. Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States all are suffering from looting to a greater or lesser extent. Even the lower-end estimates are disturbing to read. Moreover, the demand for antiquities in the West, Japan, and even emerging economies such as China, are driving the trade. It's like the drug trade, except that the results are permanent depletion of a resource that's limited enough to begin with.

Sorry to end on a sad note, but this is a problem without an easy solution. The political will and money are simply lacking to deal with something on this scale. It's up to archaeologists to try and raise public consciousness before it's all gone, forever.

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Saturday, April 7, 2007

Ancient Acoustics

Researchers at Georgia Tech have announced that they have been able to determine what makes the acoustics at the Greek theater of Epidauros, one of the best-preserved from the ancient world, so good. They conducted experiments in which they determined that the pattern of seats in the theater effectively filters out low-frequency background noise, such as crowd murmur, leaving higher-frequency sounds such as the voices of the actors in the orchestra, or circular stage of the theater. They suspect that the actors would have been comprehensible even without the lower-frequency tones because of the ability of the human brain to reconstruct missing tones in human speech.

They also hypothesize that the results were serendipitous, and the Greeks did not understand why the acoustics at Epidauros were so good. At least, no extant theater produces such good effects. On the other hand, no theater is nearly as well-preserved, though some have been reconstructed.

My only question with the piece is if they did experiments or modelling to determine what the effect of a packed theater would be on the acoustics. Would the sound waves react off the seats in the same way if they were filled with people?

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Thursday, April 5, 2007

Famous Fictional Archaeologists: Evelyn Carnahan

Born: December 16, 1905
Education: Unknown
Specialty: Egyptology
Likes: Books, hieroglyphics
Dislikes: Baimbridge Scholars, Imhotep

Evelyn Carnahan is the closest thing to a real archaeologist we have encountered so far. Her early career is unknown, but she ends up employed as a librarian by the Museum of Antiquities in Cairo. There we discover she has been rejected by the Baimbridge Scholars due to lack of field experience. For once, we have an archaeologist with a clear area of specialization.

The question of field experience is an interesting one. There are some similarities between Evelyn and the real archaeologist Harriet Boyd Hawes, although Boyd belonged to an earlier generation. The young Harriet Boyd became interested in ancient Greece, and graduated from Smith College with a degree in Classics. She entered graduate work at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens in 1896 as its first female student. As was the rule, her male colleages went off after completing their studies to participate in various digs in Greece, but Harriet was told that that was inappropriate work for a woman, and that she should choose a more "academic" research topic, requiring only library work. She ended up ignoring her professors' advice and taking her fellowship and going to Crete, then an independent country, where there were fewer rules about who could and could not perform fieldwork. In the first decade of this century she, along with her friend Edith Hall Dohan, who had encountered similar prejudice supervised a series of important excavations on this island, whose publication was, and continues to be, of seminal importance in Greek archaeology.

A closer contemporary would be Dame Kathleen Kenyon, born in 1906. Kenyon became the first female president of the Oxford Archaeological Society. Her most significant work was done in Palestine, at Samaria, Jerusalem, and Jericho, where her work laid out the prehistory of the region for the first time.

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Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Bad Archaeology Reporting

Yesterday, the New York Times had an article about DNA evidence for the origin of the Etruscans that really raised my hackles at the bad reporting contained therein. To understand what all the hullabaloo is about, first we have to say a few words about who the Etruscans were and why we care about their origins.

The Etruscans were a people that lived in central Italy, just north of Rome, centered on an area that still bears their name, Tuscany. Their heyday ran from c. 600-300 BC, when they were absorbed into the growing Roman Republic. The Etruscans had a great influence on Roman culture; not only were two of the seven legendary Roman kings Etruscan, but more concretely, Etruscan art had a great influence on early Roman art. Perhaps most significant to us is the fact that the Etruscans gave the Romans their alphabet, which in turn is the ancestor of the one I am using to write this post.

The Etruscans are unusual in that the language they spoke is not related to any of the others spoken in Italy at the time. In fact, Etruscan is related to no known language. Etruscan is also not fully deciphered, although we can get the basic gist of most texts and certain Roman authors occasionally mention Etruscan words and their Latin equivalents. Sadly, the encyclopedic history of the Etruscans (who called themselves the Rasna) written by the Emperor Claudius doesn't survive.

The Etruscan language has led to all sorts of speculation about their origins. The Greek historian Herodotus tells us that the Etruscans (who he calls Tyrrhenians) originally came from western Asia Minor. He relates a story that during the reign of Atys, king of the Lydians (a legendary figure with no firm dates), the Lydians experienced a severe famine. To take their minds off their hunger, the Lydians invented board games -- a clear origin myth. When the famine continued, they decided to send half the population away under the leadership of the king's son, Tyrrhenius. They settled in Italy and became the Etruscans.

Herodotus' story was given great credence for many decades, until archaeological examination of both the Etruscans and Lydians showed that there is no identifiable connection between the two peoples. The Lydians spoke an Indo-European language quite unlike Etruscan, and there are no connections in pottery shapes or artistic iconography that would lead us to suspect any relationship. The closest archaeologists have been able to come are some short inscriptions found on the island of Lemnos -- off the coast of Turkey -- written in a language resembling Etruscan. The longest of these -- the so-called "Lemnos stele" -- dates to the 5th century B.C. Herodotus tells us the inhabitants of Lemnos were Pelasgians, the name given to the legendary pre-Greek inhabitants of the Aegean area. Thucydides says they were Tyrrhenians, or Etruscans. There does appear to be a linguistic connection, although since neither Etruscan nor Lemnian is fully deciphered, and since we have little Etruscan and less Lemnian preserved, we cannot reconstruct the exact relationship. The archaeological evidence does not support the idea of a recent migration in either direction, however.

Furthermore, the archaeological evidence from Italy shows a slow, steady development from the proto-Villanovan culture of c. 1100 BC to the Etruscans 500 years later. As a result, a consensus has grown that Etruscan culture and civilization was native to Italy and grew out of an Italian milieu, with no influx of outside peoples.

That brings us to the NYT article. It relates a series of DNA tests that have been performed on residents of the Italian city of Murlo, which rests on top of an Etruscan town, on contemporary residents of Tuscany, and on cattle breeds peculiar to the region. According to researchers, all of these populations bear certain genetic patterns that are close to people and cattle from the Near East. Dating DNA relationships is notoriously hard, and only the cattle study is reported as giving a date range: 6400 - 1600 BC. How's that for an error range!

There are two bad things about the NYT article, one egregious, the other less so but still worth pointing out. The first problem is the claim made in the title that this evidence "boosts Herodotus' account." This is nonsense. All of the relationships mentioned link the populations of central Italy to the Levant and Near East -- none to Turkey. Saying this evidence provides any support to Herodotus would be like archaeologists of the future discovering Viking settlements in North America and concluding they support the story of Columbus discovering the New World in 1492. Sorry, Herodotus is wrong. If the Etruscans did arrive from the Near East, it was in the distant past, long before any records Herodotus had access to.

The second bad thing is the continuing desire to use DNA analysis of modern populations to deduce ancient origins. More than two thousand years separate the people of Italy from their putative Etruscan ancestors, and much more than that from any possible migration. This study is better than most in that several independent chains of evidence are combined, instead of relying on a single sample. However, a lot of time has intervened, and there are other ways genetic material can travel other than via mass migration. For example, we know the Phoenicians had trading colonies in Etruria. In addition, in the late Bronze Age there was a series of catastrophes that resulted in the destruction of many civilizations in the Eastern Mediterranean, particularly the Mycenaean civilization in Greece and the Hittite kingdom in Asia Minor. Little is known about what happened, but at the same time Egyptian records report an invasion of outsiders the Egyptians called "Sea Peoples." Who the Sea Peoples were, why they attacked, and what connection, if any, they have with the collapse of Mycenaean and Hittite power are hotly-debated topics. For our purposes, some of the tribes the Egyptians list as making up the Sea Peoples have been linked with peoples of the Western Mediterranean: the Sheklesh might be the Sicels from Sicily, the Sherden from Sardinia, and the Tursa the Tyrrhenians (or Etruscans). Did the Etruscans participate in attacks on the Near East in the late Bronze Age? Did they perhaps take booty back with them?

This is speculation, nothing more, but is indicative of the way people and animals could move around in the ancient world.

Of course, the genetic link may be even farther back. Perhaps the Etruscans migrated into Italy at the start of the Neolithic period. We just don't know. Until we can find a more precisely-datable link, the origin of the Etruscans will still be a bone of contention.

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Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Question Time: Greek Homosexuality

From time to time I am going to answer people have about the ancient world. Until the time when my readership starts sending in questions (which you can do by emailing me at brestian@@sas..upenn..edu -- just take out half the symbols), I will post some of the questions I frequently encounter as a practicing archaeologist. To take the topic of the movie 300 one step further, I will address a question that pops up frequently: were the Greeks really all flaming homosexuals?

This is a topic that is difficult to answer in a straightforward fashion. First, there is the old saw that any sentence beginning with "The Greeks" is false. Every city state had different customs, laws and rituals, and it is impossible to generalize. In addition, almost all our literary and artistic evidence comes from Athens, so it always gets a disproportionate amount of attention. Most of what I say here will deal with that city.

The Greeks did not have words for "heterosexual" and "homosexual." Our notion of sexual 'orientation' would be alien to them. Right there we have a major stumbling block to finding an answer to the question. What we can talk about is what the Athenians did. What they did participate in homosexual liasons quite openly. However, homosexual sex played a rather different role in Athenian society than in ours. Men of similar age did not engage in homosexual sex (at least, we don't have much evidence for it), nor did one individual act as both penetrator and penetrated with a single partner.

The traditional Athenian homosexual relationship involved an older man (the erastes, or "lover"), and a younger boy or man (the eromenos, or "loved"). These names are modern; the Greeks did not distinguish them so precisely. The younger partner would be anywhere from 13-20 years of age. The erastes would court the young man with gifts and admiring words. The eromenos would become enamored with the older man's wisdom and experience, but would never take an active role in the relationship. The eromenos was always the one sought, the one pursued, the one penetrated. K. J. Dover has likened the eromenos to the role of a young Victorian woman, who was never supposed to initiate courtship or sex, but simply be an object of admiration and desire. Together, the two would form a mentor-pupil relationship. This could have practical benefits, as the erastes could educate the eromenos in politics and civic life, and use his connections to ensure the eromenos would find success when he got older.

Actually consenting to be the eromenos for money, particularly with multiple partners, was considered prostitution, and was illegal in Athens. We have an account of the prosecution of an Athenian in the 4th century named Timarchus for this crime. In Athens, there was no law-enforcement agency; private individuals brought other Athenians to court for alleged crimes, and in this case the real reason Timarchus was prosecuted is in retaliation for his actions as ambassador to Philip II. What is interesting is that the prosecutor, Aeschines, anticipates that the defense would attempt character assassination against himself (a standard tactic), and says that he never stooped to prostitute himself, although he too served as an eromenos. This public admission, done without apparent embarrassment, indicates the institution was widely accepted at the time. Occasionally we find philosophers speaking disapprovingly, but only in the context that lust for either sex was a sign of lack of self-control.

The erastes-eromenos relationship wasn't permanent. Once the "boy" reached adulthood, sooner or later he would marry and have kids, and the erastes would be left behind, although ties of friendship would continue. In turn, the former eromenos might well become an erastes himself when he got older.

Unlike in modern society, men engaging in homosexual behavior were not, by and large, characterized as feminine (the eromenos, as the passive partner, could be an exception). Indeed, having an erastes and eromenos serve together in battle was seen as a good thing, as the erastes would endeavor to provide a good role model, and the eromenos would strive to meet the example of his mentor. For those who have seen 300, remember "The Captain" and his son Astinos? Make them erastes/eromenos instead of father/son and you have it. The Theban Sacred Band, a crack unit, was composed of 500 homosexual pairs, and was feared in battle for that very reason.

Foreigners, such as the Persians, could be depicted as effeminate, and occasionally as the subordinate partner in a homosexual relationship. Here, it is the status, rather than the action, that is derogatory. For example, there is an Athenian red figure vase with a nude Greek with the inscription "I am Eurymedon" (a reference to the Greek victory at the battle of the Eurymedon in the 460s), while on the other side is a Persian bent over with the inscription "I am bent over" (i.e., "I'm fucked!")

We know very little about homosexuality at Sparta. In Plato's Laws, he has an Athenian speaker speak negatively of Spartan homosexuality as unnatural -- not only one of the few examples of anti-homosexual opinion, but one of the few references to Spartan practice. We also have a comment in Aristophanes to Spartan homosexuality, but it's hard to know how much weight to place on a comedic author. The historian Ephorus tells us that on Crete, the pursuit of the eromenos was highly ritualized, with a show of mock resistance by the family of the pursued youth.

All this involves elite males, as Greek literature was created for the elite, and depictions of homosexual behavior on Greek vase painting was used for the Greek ritual known as the symposium. About women we know little, about the lower classes and slaves even less. The modern word 'lesbian' does come from the island of Lesbos, for it was the home of the poetess Sappho, who wrote poems to her lover in the sixth century B.C. (whence also "Sapphic love")

In short, Greek homosexuality is difficult to generalize about, and by and large it took forms that would be very unfamiliar to us. The Greeks are often brought into both pro- and anti-GLBT rhetoric by individuals who don't really know what they are talking about. Like most aspects of ancient society, it can only be understood in context.

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