Did Howard Carter steal from The Tomb?

Howard Carter, the British explorer who opened the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922, will forever be associated with the greatest trove of artifacts from ancient Egypt. But was he also a thief?

Dawn was breaking as Howard Carter took up a crowbar to pry open the sealed tomb door in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. With shaking hands, he held a candle to the fissure, now wafting out 3,300-year-old air. What did he see, those behind him wanted to know. The archaeologist could do no more than stammer, “Wonderful things!”

This scene from Thebes in November, 1922, is considered archaeology’s finest hour. Howard Carter, renowned as the “last, greatest treasure seeker of the modern age,” had arrived at his goal.

Carter obtained about 5,000 objects from the four burial chambers, including furniture, jars of perfume, flyswatters, and ostrich feathers — the whole place was a dream of jasper, lapis lazuli, and turquoise. He even discovered a ceremonial staff adorned with beetles’ wings.

The “unexpected treasures,” as Carter described them, suddenly brought to light an Egyptian king previously almost unknown — Tutankhamun, born approximately 1340 B.C., who ascended the throne as a child. A statue shows the boy king with chubby cheeks and a delicate face. Tutankhamun later married his older sister and conceived two children with her, both born prematurely. The fetuses were found in small but magnificent coffins.

The king died at the age of 18. An ardent racer — six of his chariots were also discovered in the tomb — who often went ostrich hunting in the Eastern Desert with his dog, Tutankhamun may have suffered a chariot accident and died of subsequent blood poisoning.

Lotus Flowers and Nightshade Berries

Interest in the young Egyptian monarch remains high today. An exhibit of replicas currently on show in Hamburg has drawn 150,000 visitors to date. Nothing even nearly comparable has ever been recovered from these earliest periods of human culture. With 27 gloves, 427 arrows, 12 stools, 69 chests, and 34 throwing sticks, the sheer volume of objects is breathtaking.

When Carter first opened the cavern, it still smelled of embalming oil. Lotus flowers and nightshade berries still rested on the coffins.

The grandeur of the find rubbed off on its discoverer. Carter was awarded an honorary doctorate and US President Calvin Coolidge invited him to tea. Horst Beinlich, Egyptologist at Würzburg University, calls him a “thoroughly honest man full of idealism.”

It appears, however, that this isn’t quite true. Documents show that the hero of the tombs cheated on many counts, manipulating photographs, forging documentation on the discovery and deceiving the Egyptian Antiquities Service.

The discoveries in that tomb set in motion a power struggle that has been only partially uncovered. Carter wanted to send as much of the treasure as possible to England and the United States. This plan quickly met with resistance. Egypt had been a British protectorate since 1914, but the administration of antiques lay in the hands of a particularly intractable Frenchman.

In the end, Carter’s entire scheme went awry and the pharaoh’s golden treasures remained in Cairo, marking the end of an era of ruthless appropriation of cultural assets. Carter and his team went away empty-handed.

Pocketing This and That

Or at least, that was the official word. Secretly, however, the Carter team helped themselves, despite lacking authorization. Objects in several museums have now been revealed to belong to Tutankhamun’s treasures.

The most recent example is a small ushabti, or servant for the dead, made of white faience and standing in the Louvre. On a recent visit to the Paris museum, Egyptologist Christian Loeben couldn’t believe his eyes. “Tutankhamun’s throne name is written on the figure,” he explains. “It can only have come from his tomb.”

Forbidden treasures in the form of two golden hawk’s heads were also found in Kansas City. Examination revealed them to be part of a collar that had lain directly on the mummy’s skin, which was coated with 20 liters (5 gallons) of embalming oil. The jewelry broke when it was pulled away, and Carter collected the pieces to give as a present to his dentist.

Objects of Tutankhamun’s have also wound up in Germany. A museum director in the state of Saxony, who wishes to remain anonymous, confessed to SPIEGEL that he is in possession of several blue faience beads. “Carter pocketed them as the tomb chambers were being cleaned and later gave them to his secretary,” he says. The museum director came across these dubious items through an auction house.

‘Unstamped Things’

Such handling of foreign property only serves to strengthen a suspicion Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, raised in the 1970s. Based on internal file notes, he documented cases in which Carter and his partner, the English Earl of Carnarvon, allowed their fingers to wander. They gave a clasp that showed the pharaoh on a war chariot as a present to Egyptian King Fouad I, for example. American oil baron Edward Harkness received a gold ring.

Carnarvon himself was looking for a fresh supply of such treasures. He wanted “unstamped things,” he wrote from Highclere Castle to Thebes on December 22, 1922, meaning pieces without a cartouche containing a name, so that they would be difficult to identify.

Carter was only caught in the act once. He’d slipped a painted bust of the young pharaoh into a side chamber, without a registration number. Inspectors discovered the bust, a “masterpiece of antique sculpture” in Hoving’s words, in a wine crate. The archaeologist talked his way out of the situation, and the scandal was never made public.

Most of the time, Carter’s subterfuge worked. A series of mostly small objects disappeared. Who stole what when — and where the pieces ended up — remains one of Egyptology’s greatest mysteries.

Ancient Tomb Robbers?

What’s known for sure is that the Metropolitan Museum of Art alone contains around 20 objects presumed to have originated from KV 62, Tutankhamun’s tomb. These include a small dog made of ivory, a gazelle, rings, a splendid painter’s palette, and even two silver coffin nails.

The Brooklyn Museum has in its possession, among other things, a statue of a girl, an ointment spoon, and a blue glass vase. A cat carved from black hematite turned up in Cleveland. The owners release very little information on the disputed objects.

“Nobody likes to talk about these unpleasant things,” explains Loeben, the Egyptologist. In England, Carter is known as a brilliant counterpart to Heinrich Schliemann, the German archeologist who excavated ancient Troy. That Carter earned his money through antique dealing, though, is normally hushed up.

The most recent allegations go further. Carter is said to have fudged archaeological facts, leading generations of researchers astray. The focal point of the criticism is Carter’s theory that the tomb had been looted multiple times in antiquity.

Thieves broke into the sanctuary “immediately following the burial rituals,” Carter wrote. Backed up by corrupt necropolis officials, they ransacked all the tomb’s chambers, he claimed, and other bandits later came and stole cosmetic oils.

The archaeologist gave signs of a break-in as proof, saying he had to force his way through a series of doors that had been broken open and then re-sealed by necropolis guards, all in ancient times.

Robbers With a Thing for Small Jewelry

Carter described the robbers’ destruction in vivid detail. Chests had been rifled through and stoppers pulled from alabaster vases and thrown to the ground, he said. The robbers had torn ornamentation made of precious metals from the furniture and chariots, as well as stealing a 30-centimeter (12-inch) solid gold statue.

That scenario represents the prevailing opinion today. In his standard work “The Complete Tutankhamun,” British Egyptologist Nicholas Reeves accepts the figure that 60 percent of the tomb’s small ornaments and jewelry were lost. But is it true? No independent witnesses were present when Carter first entered the tomb.

It’s also clear that he lied on at least a few points. Alfred Lucas, one of Carter’s employees, revealed that his boss secretly broke open the door to the burial chamber himself, afterward relocking it with deceptive authenticity using an antique seal, to hide his transgression. That report appeared in 1947, but only in a little-read scientific journal in Cairo. Hardly anyone took notice.

‘The Break-In Was Faked’

Hoving’s revelations in the 1970s similarly attracted little interest. Many saw him as fouling the nest.

But suspicions continue to grow, especially among German Egyptologists, who doubt that the looting of the tomb in antique times really played out the way Carter described. “Much of the story is exaggerated,” Loeben believes. His colleague Rolf Krauss goes further and says, “The break-in was faked.”

Feeding these suspicions are articles 9 and 10 of the excavation license, which allowed goods from a tomb to be contractually divided up only if it had been previously robbed. If a pharaoh’s tomb was found intact, all its contents would go to Egypt.

“Under these conditions, it’s clear the discoverers must have tried construe the state of their find in their favor,” is Krauss’ analysis. This casts a dubious light on the man considered a leader in his field.

The Ambitious Young Carter

The son of an artist known for his portraits of animals, Carter arrived in Egypt in 1891, when Victorian-era colonialism was at its height. The young man developed a knack for finding hidden burial chambers. Before hitting it big with Tutankhamun’s tomb, Carter had already found three other royal tombs — all of them empty. He liked being connected to the powerful, working intermittently for American millionaire and amateur archaeologist Theodore Davis.

The young Carter was somewhat awkward in his personal interactions. After coming to blows with some French tourists, he lost his job as inspector for the Egyptian Antiquities Service. Carter was stubborn and hot-tempered, Hoving says, adding, “Few people could be around him for an extended period without being driven up the wall.” But his knack for finding tombs is undisputed. Starting in 1907, Carter began his obsessive pursuit of the child pharaoh whose corpse had never been found, hunting every possible clue.

Eventually he defined a triangle in the Valley of the Kings. The untouched sanctuary would be found there, he believed, somewhere under the mounds of detritus.

Carter quickly found a sponsor for the plan, although dozens had failed before him in the same pursuit. Lord Carnarvon was in poor health after a serious car accident, but the nobleman dandy, who had once circumnavigated the globe, had a mania for eerie shrines to the dead and embalmed mummies.

The Path to Tutankhamun

During the Tutankhamun project, Carnarvon’s teeth fell out one after another, and he died of an inflamed mosquito bite five months later — the beginnings of the myth of the “curse of the pharaoh.”

Carter didn’t have an easy time either. Oppressed by the heat and buffeted by dusty winds, he urged on a team of local laborers. One unsuccessful season followed another. After four years, the group was only a few centimeters from the discovery site. Suddenly, though, the boss withdrew his workers and continued the dig elsewhere.

There is a strong case for the theory that Carter had tracked down the entrance to the tomb at this point, but kept silent for tactical reasons, keeping a trump card up his sleeve. It can be said, at the very least, that when Carnarvon wanted to cut off funds in the summer of 1922, things moved surprisingly fast. Carter returned to Britain and begged for financial backing for one last campaign.

‘A Magnificent Tomb With Seals Intact’

Hardly had he arrived back in Thebes, or so runs the legend, when an assistant dashed into the excavation tent and reported a sensational find — a buried set of stairs leading down to a sealed door. Was there intrigue behind this announcement? A half brother of Lord Carnarvon thought so. He claimed Carter had crept secretly into the underground chambers three months before.

The official story is that Carter, by his own account, felt “almost overwhelmed” by the urge to break open the irksome door, but resisted, and buried the stairs once again. The next day, November 6, 1922, he cabled Lord Carnarvon, “At last have made wonderful discovery in the Valley. A magnificent tomb with seals intact. Recovered same for your arrival. Congratulations.”

Then he waited more than two weeks, ostensibly without taking any action, for his chain-smoking sponsor to arrive. Carnarvon traveled to Luxor by ship, railroad, and steamboat on the Nile. Together with his daughter Evelyn, then 21, he alighted at the glamorous Winter Palace Hotel and rushed, having barely slept, to the Valley of the Kings. Not until then did the men open the sealed door, whose mortar showed clues of a previous break-in.

Behind it lay a corridor filled with rubble.

By afternoon on November 26, the workers had removed the debris and exposed a further walled-in doorway. Carter managed to clear a peephole in the blockade, and caught a glimpse of the “wonderful things” in the antechamber.

Again and again, authors have attested to this “solemn moment,” in which the archaeologist looked in on that “eternal place,” dazzled, spellbound, awed — yet managing to keep his head. Then, according to the excavation leader, he stopped, in order to notify the Egyptian inspector general as duty required.

Carter’s words: “We had seen enough. We plugged the hole again.”

Lord Carnarvon’s Alternate Story

All that is a lie. What really took place can be gathered from a report — to this day never published, but studied in detail by Hoving — that Lord Carnarvon wrote shortly before his death. Instead of waiting dutifully as regulations required, the party forced its way through the narrow opening right away.

Using tallow candles and a weak electrical lamp, the interlopers first entered the antechamber. Golden beds and beautifully carved chairs were piled up in the narrow room, as well as gaming tables and precious vases. Oval basins held food for the dead pharaoh.

Animal figures shone from the posts of gilded litters, monstrous in the weak cone of light from the lamp. The explorers moved chests, trampled brittle woven baskets, and pocketed perfume jars, opening chests in the side chamber as well.

But the most important question remained: Where was the mummy? At last the intruders discovered another bricked-in entranceway, framed by two life-sized black sentinels. Although being found out would have cost them their license, the group broke blocks of stone away from the door. And everyone pushed their way through.

Now they stood inside the room with the four gilded wooden shrines, each inside the next, with four coffins nested inside. In the innermost of these lay the mummy, with a beaded skullcap on its shaved head. Carter rattled the outermost door and the hinges sprang open, creaking. It wasn’t until yet another seal obstructed his progress that he paused, with a shiver.

A Holy Mess

The conspirators left the underground tomb chambers hours later. Overwhelmed and blissful, they rode home by donkey in the wan moonlight, agreeing to keep silent about their activities. Only Lady Evelyn hinted at the events of that night in a letter, thanking Carter for taking her into that “most holy place.”

The negative scientific consequences of those nighttime misdoings are still felt to this day. No one knows how the tomb really looked in its untouched state. Carter always attributed this to the barbarism of ancient thieves — but the chaos in the tomb could just as well have been caused by Carter himself.

In any case, he exaggerated the damages, asserting for example that seals were already broken off the jugs of wine. But where, in that case, are the remains of those seals? Carter also claimed that objects had been stolen out of the chests. “But that can’t be substantiated using the content labels attached to the chests,” Loeben says.

Loeben also considers the claim that previous thieves had broken off golden figures from the wagons absurd: “That kind of ornamentation didn’t even exist.”

Thus the suspicion remains that the tomb’s discoverer systematically lied and misled. He wanted to present Tutankhamun’s tomb as already defiled, hoping in this way to obtain permission to remove half of the finds from the country, in accordance with the license agreement.

That the British explorer left empty-handed after all had to do with Carnarvon’s untimely death in April 1923. With Carnarvon went the excavation license, and the cards were reshuffled. Even the US State Department intervened — on Carter’s side — in the political and legal tug-of-war that ensued.

In the end, Egypt won. Carnarvon’s heirs received £36,000 (about $137,000 at the time) in compensation for costs incurred by the excavation.

‘The Very Footprints…’

It can hardly be denied any longer that antique dealer Howard Carter grabbed Tutankhamun’s valuables and helped himself to artifacts from the 3,300-year-old tomb. The details of the swindle, however, have only come to light in bits and pieces.

Carter’s theory of grave robbery in ancient times has also lost most of its clout. It has become increasingly clear that his arguments are often based on exaggerations — or are simply nonsense.

The British archaeologist claimed, for example, to have discovered “the very footprints of the last intruder” on a white bow case.

Krauss, the German Egyptologist, examined the photographic evidence from the 1920s. “A footprint is indeed visible in the photograph,” he explains, “However, it was made not by Egyptian sandals, but by modern shoes with heels.”

His suspicion? “They could be Howard Carter’s own prints.”



Ancient auditorium in Rome unveiled

02_hadrianArchaeologists on Wednesday unveiled the remains of an ancient auditorium where scholars, politicians and poets held debates and lectures, a site discovered during excavations of a bustling downtown piazza in preparation for a new subway line.

The partially dug complex, dating back to the 2nd century A.D., is believed to have been funded by Emperor Hadrian as a school to promote liberal arts and culture. Known as the “Athenaeum” and named after the city of Athens, which was considered the center of culture at the time, the auditorium could accommodate up to 200 people, experts said.

“Hadrian, who was a cultured emperor, wanted to re-establish the tradition of public recitation, conferences and poetry contests, as it used to happen in classic Greece,” Roberto Egidi, an archaeologist overseeing the digs, said during a tour. Egidi said the identification of the auditorium as Hadrian’s is “a likely hypothesis” due to the building’s specific structure, as well as references in ancient texts. The digs have turned up two terraced staircases used for seating, a corridor and marbled floors, Egidi said.

Egidi also said the building’s upper floors are believed to have crumbled during an earthquake. The auditorium was discovered during excavations at Piazza Venezia, a busy intersection in the heart of Rome, just a few meters from the Roman Forum.

RomeArchaeologists have been probing the depths of the Eternal City for months to pave the way for some of the 30 stations of the city’s planned third subway line. Many of the digs are near famous monuments or on key thoroughfares and several archaeological remains — including Roman taverns and 16th-century palace foundations — have already turned up at Piazza Venezia.

Francesco Giro, a top official with Italy’s culture ministry, said the entrance to the subway would be close to the auditorium, but in an area where digs turned up only ancient sewers. The archaeological investigations are needed only for the subway’s stairwells and air ducts, because the 15 miles (25 kilometers) of subway stations and tunnels will be dug at a depth of 80 to 100 feet (25 to 30 meters) — below the level of any past human habitation.

However, most of the digs still have yet to reach levels that date back to Roman times, where plenty of surprises may be waiting. Rome’s 2.8 million inhabitants rely on just two subway lines, which only skirt the city center, leaving it clogged with traffic and tourists. Plans for a third line that would serve the history-rich heart of Rome have been put off for decades amid funding shortages and fears that a wealth of archaeological discoveries would halt work.


Archaeologists discover amphitheatre at Portus

Cleaning the first layerUniversity of Southampton archaeologists leading a major excavation of Portus, the ancient port of Rome, have uncovered the remains of an amphitheatre-shaped-building, solving a mystery which has puzzled experts for over 140 years.

The excavation team, working in collaboration with the British School at Rome, is conducting the first ever large-scale dig at Portus on the banks of a hexagonal shaped man-made lake which formed the 2nd century harbour, near the Italian capital.

“When the site was visited by archaeologist Rodolfo Lanciani in the 1860s he marked on his plans the remains of a theatre, but subsequently no trace of the building could be found,” says Portus Project Director and leading expert in Roman Archaeology at the University of Southampton, Professor Simon Keay.

Portusportimage72dpi“Our team has rediscovered this ‘theatre’ and proved it was in fact a building more akin to an amphitheatre. Lanciani had only found half of the structure, leading him to misinterpret its shape and function.”

Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, experts from Southampton have been working with colleagues from the BSR, The Italian Archaeological Superintendency for Ostia and the University of Cambridge, to carry out extensive excavation at Portus. They have uncovered a large Roman warehouse, the ‘amphitheatre’ and what the team have identified as an Imperial palace. This is likely to have played host to renowned emperors such as Hadrian.

Portus_amphitheatre72dpiPortus was Rome’s gateway to the Mediterranean for most of the Imperial period and played a key role in funnelling food, slaves, wild animals, marble and all manner of luxury goods from across the Mediterranean and beyond to the citizens of Rome. It was vital to the survival of the Empire and the only real ‘transport hub’ serving the city.

“The ‘amphitheatre’ we have discovered was similar in ground area to the Pantheon in Rome, but it is unclear exactly what it was used for,” continues Professor Keay.

“Gladiatorial combat may have taken place there – wild beast baiting, the staging of mock sea battles, or it may have been a form of Roman ‘folly’, shaped like an amphitheatre, but used as a monumental garden. It is unusual to find this type of building so close to a harbour.”

Portus_marble_head2LHaving solved one riddle, archaeologists have now uncovered another; the white marble head of a statue unearthed at the site of once-luxurious rooms close to the ‘amphitheatre’. It is thought the head dates back to the 2nd or early 3rd century, however it is less clear who it depicts.

“The elderly bearded male wearing a flat skull-cap could suggest it is Ulysses, however it is equally possible it is a representation of one of the Greek sailors who accompanied him on his travels. For the moment his identity remains a mystery,” concludes Professor Keay.

Part of the ‘Portus Project’ involves the work of the University of Southampton’s Archaeological Computing Research Group. They are producing computer generated images which bring the port to life and provide archaeologists with a valuable ‘tool’ with which to explore the site. The University of Southampton and the BSR are jointly using ground-penetrating radar and other techniques to map buried buildings and Portus_marble_head1Lother structures. The Portus Project has also been undertaking a geophysical survey of the Isola Sacra, an island to the south of Portus, and has found a major new canal and traces of Rome’s marble yards.

Research has been underway at Portus for several years and Professor Keay hopes to continue working there. “This is one of the most important archaeological sites in the world,” he says.

“Certainly it should be rated alongside such wonders as Stonehenge and Angkor Wat in Cambodia. So much of this Imperial port has been preserved and there is much more to learn about its role in supplying Rome and in the broader economic development of the Roman Mediterranean.”


Via Aurelia – the Roman Empire’s lost highway

Bruno-Tassan-milepost-near-PelissanneAt first glance, it didn’t appear that impressive: a worn limestone pillar, six feet high and two feet wide, standing slightly askew beside a country road near the village of Pélissanne in southern France. “A lot of people pass by without knowing what it is,” Bruno Tassan, 61, was saying, as he tugged aside dense weeds that had grown over the column since he last inspected it. Tassan was showing me a milliaire, or milestone, one of hundreds planted along the highways of Gaul at the time of the Roman Empire. The inscription had worn away ages ago, but Tassan, a documentary filmmaker and amateur archaeologist, was well versed in the artifact’s history. This particular stone, set in place in 3 B.C. during the reign of Augustus, was once a perfect cylinder, set along the nearly 50 miles between Aquae Sextiae (Aix-en-Provence) and Arelate (Arles). “It’s one of the last standing,” Tassan said.

In 12 B.C., Augustus, at the height of his power, commanded his legions to build a highway that would traverse the province of Gallia Narbonensis, or southern Gaul, the last of whose unruly tribes had only recently been subdued. Over the next ten years, surveyors, engineers and construction crews carried off one of antiquity’s greatest feats: grading and paving a road from the mountains above the Mediterranean near modern Nice to the Rhone River, 180 miles distant. For nearly four centuries, the Via Aurelia served as the region’s principal artery, over which armored legions, chari­oteers, couriers, traders, government officials and countless others passed. It was the Interstate 95 of its time, complete with rest stops and chariot service stations every 12 to 20 miles—a crucial part of a 62,000-mile road network that extended from the Iberian Peninsula to Asia Minor. Along this paved and finely graded route, Rome maintained its control over far-flung provinces, developed commerce, and disseminated its culture and architecture. But as the empire began its long decline—Rome would fall in the fifth century A.D.—the Via Aurelia began to disintegrate. In contrast, the Via Domitia, an even older Roman route, constructed around 122 B.C. in neighboring Languedoc-Rousillon, has been well preserved, thanks to the intervention of local governments and private interests.

segment-of-Via-Aurelia-between-Frejus-and-CannesTassan and a handful of fellow enthusiasts have appointed themselves custodians of the Via Aurelia. During the past few years, he has matched pre-medieval maps to 21st-century aerial photographs, located broken bits of ancient macadam and tried to protect a handful of 2,000-year-old stone walls, sarcophagi, aqueducts, bridges and road markers that point to the engineering sophistication, as well as the reach, of ancient Rome. He has created a Web site devoted to the Via Aurelia, conducted tours for growing numbers of Gaulophiles and hopes to make a documentary about the road.

Tassan has also sought to solve some of the lingering questions about the highway, including how the Romans managed to transport milestones, weighing an average of 4,400 pounds, from rock quarries to road-building sites, often a dozen or so miles away. The Roman legal code in place at the time forbade chariots from carrying loads heavier than 1,082 pounds, the maximum that the vehicles’ wooden axles could safely support. “Did they carry them on foot? Did they get a special exemption?” Tassan wondered aloud, as he scrutinized the worn Pélissanne pillar. “It remains,” he says, “a mystery.”

Experts on the era acknowledge that Tassan has made a unique contribution to ancient Gaulian scholarship. “Everyone knows about the Roman amphitheaters of Arles and Nîmes,” says Michel Martin, curator in chief of the library at the Museum of Arles and Ancient Provence. “But the Via Aurelia is a largely lost piece of Roman history. Bruno has done much to keep it alive and to protect the little that’s left.”

aqueducts-near-FontvieilleA series of military triumphs paved the way for construction of one of the greatest roads through the empire. During the second century B.C., the region that is now France was a no man’s land of warring tribes—a vast stretch of untamed territory lying between Rome and its colony of Hispania (present-day Spain and Portugal). In 125 B.C., citizens of the Greek colony of Massalia (Massillia in Latin), now Marseille, a port since 600 B.C., came under attack from the powerful Salyen tribe, a Celtic confederation whose holdings extended from the upper Rhone to the Alps. Marseille appealed to its nearest power, Rome, for help; in 123 B.C., Roman consul Caius Sextius Calvinus led a force of legionnaires to face the Celts, who were legendary for their ferocity. (“They cut off the heads of enemies slain in battle and attach them to the necks of their horses,” the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus wrote of them in the first century B.C.) The Roman legion thrashed the tribe at the Celtic garrison of Entremont, a fortification set on a 1,200-foot-high plateau. The victorious Sextius Calvinus then founded the settlement of Aquae Sextiae on the site of nearby thermal baths, giving the Romans a firm foothold in southern Gaul.

Nearly 20 years later, a Teutonic horde stormed across the Rhine River intent upon seizing Aquae Sextiae. A small force of Roman soldiers lured the invaders toward the town; 3,000 troops then attacked the Teutons from behind, killing 90,000 and capturing 20,000. “By the conditions of the surrender [of the Teutons] three hundred of their married women were to be handed over to the Romans,” the Christian scholar Jerome wrote in the fifth century A.D. “When the Teuton matrons heard of this stipulation, they first begged the [Roman] consul that they might be set apart to minister in the temples of Ceres and Venus; and then when they failed to obtain their request and were removed by the [guards], they slew their little children and next morning were all found dead in each other’s arms, having strangled themselves in the night.”

Flavian-Bridge-Via-Aurelia-FranceAfter the slaughter of the Teutons, Rome consolidated its control over the region. In 62 B.C., the last southern tribe to rise against the empire was subjugated. Julius Caesar established a naval base at Fréjus and founded Arles as a settlement for retired veterans of his Sixth Legion, whom he had led to a series of bloody victories in Asia Minor. When Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C., his adopted son Octavian, later renamed Augustus, rose to power and made the development of Gallia Narbonensis, his province in southern Gaul, a priority.

One afternoon I drove through a series of long tunnels north of Nice to La Turbie, a medieval village hugging the hills 1,600 feet above the Mediterranean. Here, where the Alps jut sharply down to the sea, the Romans built a section of their new highway in 12 B.C. Surveyors, engineers and construction crews improved and linked paths that had existed since the time of the Greeks, cleaving passes through the mountains, introducing a sophisticated drainage system, erecting milestones and standardizing the road width to 15 feet—wide enough for two chariots to pass. It wound along the rugged coast to Fréjus, then cut across fertile plains to the Rhone. There, the thoroughfare merged with the Via Domitia, running west through the Spanish Pyrenees. When the two roads met—a convergence comparable to the 1869 linking of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads at Promontory Summit, Utah—Roman control over the Mediterranean basin was cemented.

La-Trophee-dAugustine-above-Monaco-and-the-Mediterranean-at-La-TurbieThe Romans commemorated the feat with a victory monument at La Turbie, placing, in 7 B.C., a statue of Augustus on a limestone cylinder surrounded by 24 Doric columns. This is what I had come to see: I hiked along a wooded footpath to a hilltop clearing, from which the 115-foot-high Tropaeum, or Trophy, of Augustus—still partially standing after two millennia—dominates the landscape. The emperor’s statue has disappeared, and only four of the marble columns that encircled the monument remain intact. One side of the great marble base features reliefs of winged deities flanking a Latin inscription that hails Augustus and the pacification of Gaul. Sheltering myself from a fierce wind, I gazed down the rocky coast of Italy; directly below, the hotels and villas of Monaco glittered at the edge of the turquoise sea. It seemed a fitting place to proclaim Rome’s glory.

monument-to-emperor-AugustusThe Via Julia Augusta, as the highway was initially called, greatly improved overland travel in the empire. Roman legions could shuttle long distances along it at an average speed of almost four miles per hour. Messengers could travel between Arles and Rome, a distance of about 550 miles, in a mere eight days. “The highway was a means for Rome to assert its power,” curator Martin told me. “Its real purpose was to move troops and public couriers at the fastest rate possible.” By the third century A.D., the highway was known as the Via Aurelia and regarded as an extension of the empire’s road from Rome to Pisa, commissioned in 241 B.C. by the censor Caius Aurelius Cotta.

But beginning around A.D. 235, the Via Aurelia fell on hard times. After centuries of political stability, a series of military coups roiled the empire. Roman divisions began turning on one another, the value of currency plummeted, urban renewal ceased and towns and entire districts were abandoned. The empire revived briefly under Diocletian (A.D. 284-305) and Constantine (A.D. 306-37). But in 406, the Rhine froze over and barbarians spilled into Gaul. By the 470s, Arles had surrendered to the Visigoths, opening the whole of Provence to barbarian control. Over the next millennium, roads, bridges, aqueducts and other public works commissioned by Augustus and his successors disintegrated, and the precise route of the Via Aurelia was lost.

map-of-Via-AureliaIt remained largely forgotten until 1508, when Konrad Peutinger, a book collector from Augsburg, in Bavaria, acquired a 22-foot-long medieval scroll portraying a map of the world, from the Atlantic to the mouth of the Ganges, as it existed during the Roman Empire. The map’s origins were obscure: a 13th-century monk from Colmar had apparently copied it from a Roman source, possibly a fourth-century A.D. map, or an even older one drawn by Agrippa, aide-de-camp to Augustus, at the dawn of Roman dominance. Whatever its origins, the Table of Peutinger, as it became known—with detailed topography, a rendering of the entire Roman road network, and 550 illustrations of rest stops, Roman amphitheaters and other features along the routes—was widely published. It has offered archaeologists an incomparable opportunity to track down lost vestiges of the Roman world. During the 1960s, in the Italian town of Torre Annunziata, near Pompeii, researchers used the Table of Peutinger to locate and excavate a sumptuous villa from the first century B.C.

Museum-of-Arles-and-Ancient-ProvenceI first met Bruno Tassan on a sunny afternoon in June at an outdoor café in Salon-de-Provence, a medieval town 24 miles west of Aix. Burly and suntanned, with a shock of white hair, Tassan grew up in a village near Grenoble. He spent 25 years working as a graphic designer before retiring last summer to pursue a lifelong fascination with ancient Gaul. “When I was 17, my mother gave me a copy of The Civilization of Rome [by French historian Pierre Grimal], and from that point I was hooked,” he said. In 1998 he began working on a documentary about another historic route, the ancient Christian pilgrimage trail to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, where the remains of St. James, one of Jesus’ Apostles, are said to be buried. To research the project, he set off on a 900-mile journey by foot across southern France and the Pyrenees, following the Roman road network. “I traversed three regions, and in two of them, the Roman road was in good shape,” he told me. “The Via Domitia, which crosses two French départements, and the Via Acquitana, which joins Bordeaux and Astorga in Spain, were both well marked and preserved.” This was not the case, however, he would learn, for the Via Aurelia.

What was going on, says curator Martin, was a process of urbanization and development around the Côte d’Azur that largely bypassed Languedoc-Rousillon, site of the Via Domitia. “Here you’ve got more roads being built, more auto routes, and, of course, more destruction,” Martin says. “The vestiges of ancient Gaul just aren’t as valued as they should be.” As development accelerated, more and more of the road was fragmented into sections, stretches of it paved over or subsumed by housing tracts and factories. Rediscovering the surviving traces of the Roman route has been a matter of deduction, legwork and tapping into the historical memory.

Saint-Chamas-Provence-FranceAfter finishing our espressos, Tassan and I set out by car to inspect remains of the Via Aurelia that he had identified around the town of Salon-de-Provence. We crossed beneath an expressway, traversed an irrigation canal, bounced through fields of grapes, then turned down a narrow dirt road—actually a piece of antiquity—that cut a straight line between an olive orchard and a row of fenced-off villas.

Tassan peered through a barrier of cypress trees into a private garden, pointing out 20-foot-high ruins of a stone wall—what was left of a 2,000-year-old rest house where Via Aurelia travelers could water their horses, repair their chariots and lodge for the night. “Some rest houses had prostitutes as well,” Tassan said. “Everything you could want for your journey.” (The Table of Peutinger, which functioned as a kind of Michelin Guide of its time, graded guesthouses according to three classifications, basic, moderate and luxury, using a different illustration for each; the cushiest was represented by a rectangular villa with a pool in the middle.) Two guard dogs barked furiously at us, hurling themselves against a fence. Tassan admired the inn’s ruins for another few seconds, then said, “Bien, let’s get out of here.”

We continued toward the village of Saint-Chamas, turning off the main road from time to time to pick up short stretches of the Via Aurelia—dirt paths, a row of ancient and cracked paving stones, narrow asphalted strips through vineyards. Approaching Saint-Chamas, we came across the ancient road’s second-best-preserved vestige—after the Trophy of Augustus: Flavian’s Bridge, marked by elegant arches at either end, spanning the Touloubre River. “This is a real treasure,” Tassan said. Each arch, built from blocks of tawny limestone, rose about 20 feet high; atop a delicately carved pilaster stood sculptures of two crouching lions. (In 1944, a speeding U.S. Army truck accidentally rammed into one of the arches and knocked it down; American construction teams reassembled it and built a new bridge a few yards downriver.) Tassan pulled out a tape measure, knelt and measured the distance between grooves on the bridge’s stone surface. “One point forty-two meters [4.5 feet],” he announced with satisfaction—the standard width of a Roman chariot axle.

first-century-AD-arenaThe next day, I found Tassan in a blue mood. We had spent the morning touring a construction site near Marseille, where workers, oblivious to the damage they were inflicting, had been laying an oil pipeline across the Via Aurelia’s original stones. Now we stood on a hilltop near the medieval village of Mouriès, not far from Arles, looking for traces of the ancient road. Though he was certain it had descended from this crest, he couldn’t find a hint of it, not even after a dozen scouting expeditions. “I met an 80-year-old man who told me that when he was small, there was a road that ran through the olive fields here, and he said, ‘that was the Via Aurelia.’ But it doesn’t exist anymore.” It was an all too familiar story. “All these vestiges are in danger of disappearing,” Tassan said as we drove down the slope. “Of course, modernization is obligatory, but there should be some effort made to preserve what’s left. Why can’t it be like the Via Domitia? The milestones were saved, plaques were put up. Here, I’m afraid it’s all going.”

Still, there are the pleasures of discovery and mysteries at every turn. After a few minutes, we stopped outside the rural village of Fontvieille, a few miles northeast of Arles. A double row of great stone arches—the remains of two aqueducts that once ran beside the Via Aurelia—marched in parallel lines through the arid brush. We followed them to the edge of a promontory; below us, golden fields of wheat extended in all directions; the scene looked as it must have at the height of the Roman Empire. Two thousand years ago, water ran down this hill via the aqueduct to a mill, where wheat was ground into flour, then transported along the Via Aurelia to feed the growing population of Gaul. The height of the arches was delicately calibrated to maintain an even flow and pressure—another example of Roman engineering skill.

“You can see that the two aqueducts were built side by side,” Tassan pointed out. “One fed the water mill just below, the other provided water to Arles. Now we’re going to see something unusual.” We followed the second aqueduct as it veered sharply to the right, away from the promontory, through an olive grove. Then, abruptly, it disappeared.

“What happened here?” I asked him.

He shrugged. “It could have been destroyed by the barbarians, to cut off the water supply to Arles,” he replied. “But that’s just a hypothesis. Nobody knows.”

Tassan stood pensively beside the last stone arch for a time. Then, he pulled out his tape measure, got back down on his hands and knees, and began examining one more set of chariot-wheel grooves on the ancient road.

Writen by Joshua Hammer


Babylon ruins reopen in Iraq

Ishtar's gate

After decades of dictatorship and disrepair, Iraq is celebrating its renewed sovereignty over the Babylon archaeological site — by fighting over the place, over its past and future and, of course, over its spoils.

Time long ago eroded the sun-dried bricks that shaped ancient Babylon, the city of Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar, where Daniel read the writing on the wall and Alexander the Great died.

Colonial archaeologists packed off its treasures to Europe a century ago. Saddam Hussein rebuilt the site in his own megalomaniacal image. American and Polish troops turned it into a military camp, digging trenches and filling barricades with soil peppered with fragments of a biblical-era civilization.

Now, the provincial government in Babil has seized control of much of Babylon — unlawfully, according to the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage — and opened a park beside a branch of the Euphrates River, a place that draws visitors by the busload.


It has begun to charge a fee to visit the looted shell of the grandiose palace that Mr. Hussein built in the 1980s, along with the hill it stands on. And it has refurbished a collection of buildings from the Hussein era and rented their rooms out as suites. For $175 a night Iraqis can honeymoon in a room advertised as one of Mr. Hussein’s bedrooms (though in truth, almost certainly a mere guest room).

“Our problem, in terms of archaeology, is that we actually deal with ignorant people, whether in the Saddam era or the current era,” said Qais Hussein Rashid, the acting director of the board of antiquities, which has legal authority over Babylon, but apparently not very much power.

“Most of the people and some officials have no respect for heritage,” he went on. “They think archaeological sites are just a bunch of bricks that have no value at all.”


Now with the support of some officials in Baghdad, the local government has reopened the excavated ruins of Babylon’s ancient core, shuttered ever since the American invasion in 2003. It has done so despite warnings by archaeologists that the reopening threatens to damage further what remains of one of the world’s first great cities before the site can be adequately protected.

The fight over ancient Babylon is about more than the competing interests of preservation and tourism. It reflects problems that hinder Iraq’s new government, including an uncertain division between local and federal authority and political rivalries that consume government ministries.

“The political situation in our country is not stable,” Mr. Rashid said. “The federal government is weak.”

Mr. Rashid’s board, part of the Ministry of Culture, is at odds with the newly created State Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, its priorities made clear in its name — and the dispute is not their first.


The agencies clashed over the reopening of the National Museum in Baghdad in February, and then as now, the tourism ministry, which favored reopening, prevailed. Its power stems not from the Constitution, but from proximity to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who has pressed for reopening historic and cultural sites as symbols of the country’s stability and progress. His government made control of ancient sites a provision in the security agreement with the United States that took effect in January. Next month, the American military will turn over the last of them, Ur, the ancient Sumerian capital in southern Iraq.

“Our goal is that these sites will be tourist attractions — to convey the real, civilized image of Iraq and to bring as many tourists as possible,” said the tourism ministry’s director, Qahtan al-Jibouri. “Iraq needs another source of funding in addition to oil.”

The ruins at Babylon have long suffered. Mud bricks lack the durability of the marble of Greece or the limestone of Egypt, leaving behind little more than heaps of earth. “You need to be kind of a romantic to love the Mesopotamian sites,” said Elizabeth C. Stone, an archaeologist at Stony Brook University on Long Island.


In the 1980s Mr. Hussein ordered the reconstruction of Nebuchadnezzar’s palace and other buildings, using cheap bricks on foundations built 2,600 years ago. Many were stamped with a tribute to the “Protector of Great Iraq” in the way Nebuchadnezzar marked bricks with his own stamp in cuneiform, still visible today.

Archaeologists were appalled, but could hardly complain at the time. Such is not the case with the American and Polish troops who occupied the site from 2003 to 2004. The work they carried out to turn the area into a base, as reported by a British Museum study, provoked international outrage, though the extent of the damage is a matter of debate and perspective.

One thing officials agree on is blaming the Americans. Mr. Rashid, in a conspiratorial and anti-Semitic vein, suggested that Jews stationed with the Polish troops might have deliberately singled out the site because of their captivity in Babylon. The director of the ruins, Maryam Musa, who has worked in Babylon for 30 years, said the damage could never be repaired or adequately compensated for.

Asked who did worse by Babylon, Mr. Hussein or the Americans, however, she became taciturn. “Is it necessary to ask such a question?” she said uncomfortably, and declined to answer.

Mohammed Taher, an archaeologist and former director of the ruins who opposes reopening Babylon, said what was being done now was little better than what had been done before. “I would like to rebuild Babylon again for scientific research, not like Saddam,” he said as he guided visitors through the remains of Ishtar Gate with bas reliefs of Babylon’s gods; the Temple of Ninmakh; the Processional Way, with brick paving stones mortared with bitumen; and a symbol of Iraq itself, the Lion of Babylon, a 2,600-year-old sculpture.


What was clear during his tour was that nothing had been done to prepare the place for its official opening, now scheduled for June 1. No gates or fences prevent rambunctious tourists from rambling over ruins that can crumble like sand. The site’s shops, cafe and museum remain abandoned, shuttered and dusty.

A $700,000 project by the World Monuments Fund, financed by the State Department, was supposed to address both conservation and tourism at Babylon, but has not yet begun work at the site.

Security in Iraq has improved immensely, allowing the Iraqis to once again think about the past as part of the country’s future, even if Iraq is not yet ready for tourism as most of the world knows it. One visitor, Esma Ali, a university student from Hilla, said she had grown up in the shadow of Babylon, but had never visited it before, and she did so with a sense of awe.

“I feel our history is coming back,” she said.


Remains of Gallo-Roman vineyard discovered in Gevrey-Chambertin

burgundyGevrey-Chambertin, 12 km from Dijon, is famous throughout the world for its Burgundy wines. It is now possible to conclude that winegrowing in this region goes back to the Gallo-Roman era, as testified by the findings of excavations by the Institut National de Recherches Archéologiques Préventives (INRAP), at the spot known as “Au dessus de Bergis”.

Carried out in collaboration with scientists from the ARTeHIS Laboratory (CNRS/Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication/Université de Bourgogne), the archeological dig revealed 316 rectangular pits aligned in 26 rows, interpreted as being the remains of a vineyard from the first century AD.

Commissioned by the French Government (DRAC Bourgogne), excavations covering nearly 12,000 m² were completed during the summer of 2008 before building work started to enlarge a housing estate planned by Gevrey-Chambertin town council. The dig, divided into two sectors, revealed a series of hollow remains (pits, pot-holes and ditches) from different periods. For the Gallo-Roman era, an area of more than 6000 m² was covered by more than 300, regularly spaced and aligned pits, surrounded by a continuous peripheral ditch. These rectangular pits are 90 to 130 cm long by a little less than 60 cm wide, and sections of the soil filling them indicate the void left by the trunk and roots of a small shrub. Many of the pits are split into two compartments by a small ridge of rubble and soil.

How can these remains be interpreted? The alignment and rectangular shape of the pits are similar to those found at the sites of other Gallo-Roman vineyards discovered in both southern France, the region around Paris and in the UK. The small dimensions of the pits mean that the hypothesis of an orchard can be excluded. The “ghosts” of small shrubs observed in the filing earth are of the size of a vine stock.

The two compartments separated by a ridge correspond to the recommendations of Pliny the Elder and Columella, two 1st century Latin authors, which were to plant two vine stocks in each pit and arrange them “so that the roots of the two layers in the same pit do not twist around each other, which will be easy to do by placing rocks no heavier than five pounts in the bottom of the pits, transversally and across the middle.” These pits are the first example how these viticultural and agronomic precepts were applied in Gaul. Some pits are edged by smaller, more shallow ditches. The secondary ditches probably served for provining, an ancient technique for the vegetative propagation of vines, when the above-ground part of the plant (stem, branches, etc.) was buried so that it developed its own roots before being separated from the parent plant and living as a new, independent individual.

How can we date these remains? Vines planted in rows are characteristic of Antiquity (and of the 20th century, but old land registers contain no trace of recent vineyards). Not only do these pits closely resemble those in other Gallo-Roman vineyards, but the spacing within rows, and the distances between rows, are multiples of the Roman foot (29.6 centimeters). The excavations showed that the pits were dug in ancient soil (from the Neolithic to the protohistoric periods), at a time that can thus be situated after the Gallic period. According to the fragments of pottery found in the pits, they probably date from the 1st century AD.

These pits in Gevrey-Chambertin are the first traces of Gallo-Roman vineyards to have been discovered in Burgundy. They are surrounded by numerous archaeological remains from the same period: villas, houses and graves, in the eastern part of the town and close to this site. They confirm interest during Antiquity for vines and wine in the region, although this was already known from numerous objects already found: a horn of plenty containing a bunch of grapes and belonging to one of the divinities of the shrines at the source of the Seine, the monument to the wine merchant from Til-Châtel, the gravestone of a couple of vineyard owners from Tart-le-Haut (the man carrying a bill-hook), the God with a barrel from Mâlain, etc. All these objects are on display in the Musée Archéologique in Dijon. The pits in Gevrey-Chambertin also confirm that vines were grown on plains at that time (as found at the other known sites), while slopes are preferred today for the production of good wine.

Archeologists working on this dig also revealed a Neolithic II lowland house (dated at between 4000 and 3500 BC) and the remains of a Neolithic III house (3500-3000 BC), which are rarities in the open plains of this region and provided confirmation of its Neolithic II and III chronology. From the Early Bronze Age, a farm and its outbuildings (2300 to 1650 BC), one of the southernmost buildings of this type, was excavated, together with a farm from the Late Bronze Age (1000 to 900 BC). And a house from the beginning of the Second Iron Age (450-350 BC) filled a gap in the documented records for this period in Burgundy.