Old Things

Kevin Lewis

March 18, 2023

Burying the Alabaster Goddess in Hellenistic Babylonia: Religious Power, Sexual Agency, and Accessing the Afterlife Through Ishtar-Aphrodite Figurines from Seleucid-Parthian Iraq
Stephanie Langin-Hooper
American Journal of Archaeology, April 2023, Pages 209–240 


This article presents a new evaluation of alabaster figurines wearing crescent crowns, identified as the syncretized deity Ishtar-Aphrodite, from the Seleucid-Parthian period in Babylonia (ca. second century BCE–first century CE). Unlike previous studies, this article recontextualizes the alabaster goddesses as the most opulent and explicitly divine versions of two popular types in the broader, flourishing figurine tradition of Hellenistic Babylonia. Miniaturization theory, which elucidates the sensory and perceptual effects of small-scale objects, forms the methodological basis of this analysis, in dialogue with archaeological data and textual sources from Mesopotamia and the wider Hellenistic world. Using this approach, I argue that these figurines were open to identification as both goddesses and mortals so that a girl or woman could use them to construct her own sexual agency and facilitate her journey to the afterlife, even as she invoked the goddess’ assistance with both. The few unambiguous goddess figurines were depicted with crescent crowns to link their elite owners to the Babylonian temples and their prestigious astrological knowledge. This article makes the contribution of articulating the significant intertwining of Greek and Babylonian cultural values and religious beliefs that shaped these figurines, which were hybrid in more than just style.

Persistence of gender biases in Europe
Taylor Damann, Jeremy Siow & Margit Tavits
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 21 March 2023 


Prior work suggests that modern gender bias might have historical roots but has not been able to demonstrate long-term persistence of this bias due to a lack of historical data. We follow archaeological research and employ skeletal records of women’s and men’s health from 139 archaeological sites in Europe dating back, on average, to about 1200 AD to construct a site-level indicator of historical bias in favor of one gender over the other using dental linear enamel hypoplasias. This historical measure of gender bias significantly predicts contemporary gender attitudes, despite the monumental socioeconomic and political changes that have taken place since. We also show that this persistence is most likely due to the intergenerational transmission of gender norms, which can be disrupted by significant population replacement. Our results demonstrate the resilience of gender norms and highlight the importance of cultural legacies in sustaining and perpetuating gender (in)equality today.

Notre-Dame de Paris: The first iron lady? Archaeometallurgical study and dating of the Parisian cathedral iron reinforcements
Maxime L’Héritier et al.
PLoS ONE, March 2023 


The study of iron reinforcements used in the construction of Notre-Dame de Paris offers a glimpse into the innovation that took place on this building site in the mid-12th century, adapting metal to create a novel architecture. The restoration of the monument after the 2019 fire offered unique possibilities to investigate its iron armatures and to sample 12 iron staples from different locations (tribunes, nave aisles and upper walls). Six of them were dated thanks to the development of an innovative methodology based on radiocarbon dating. They reveal that Notre-Dame is the first known Gothic cathedral where iron was massively used as a proper construction material to bind stones throughout its entire construction, leading to a better understanding of the master masons’ thinking. Moreover, a metallographic study and slag inclusion chemical analyses of the staples provide the first study of iron supply for a great medieval Parisian building yard, renewing our understanding of iron circulation, trade and forging in the 12th and 13th century capital of the French kingdom. The highlighting of numerous welds in all iron staples and the multiple provenances sheds light on the activity of the iron market in this major medieval European city and the nature of the goods that circulated, and questions the possible importance of recycling.

A surge in obsidian exploitation more than 1.2 million years ago at Simbiro III (Melka Kunture, Upper Awash, Ethiopia)
Margherita Mussi et al.
Nature Ecology & Evolution, March 2023, Pages 337–346 


Pleistocene archaeology records the changing behaviour and capacities of early hominins. These behavioural changes, for example, to stone tools, are commonly linked to environmental constraints. It has been argued that, in earlier times, multiple activities of everyday life were all uniformly conducted at the same spot. The separation of focused activities across different localities, which indicates a degree of planning, according to this mindset characterizes later hominins since only 500,000 years ago. Simbiro III level C, in the upper Awash valley of Ethiopia, allows us to test this assumption in its assemblage of stone tools made only with obsidian, dated to more than 1.2 million years (Myr) old. Here we first reconstruct the palaeoenvironment, showing that the landscape was seasonally flooded. Following the deposition of an accumulation of obsidian cobbles by a meandering river, hominins began to exploit these in new ways, producing large tools with sharp cutting edges. We show through statistical analysis that this was a focused activity, that very standardized handaxes were produced and that this was a stone-tool workshop. We argue that at Simbiro III, hominins were doing much more than simply reacting to environmental changes; they were taking advantage of new opportunities, and developing new techniques and new skills according to them.

Cult, herding, and ‘pilgrimage’ in the Late Neolithic of north-west Arabia: Excavations at a mustatil east of AlUla
Melissa Kennedy et al.
PLoS ONE, March 2023 


Since the 1970s, monumental stone structures now called mustatil have been documented across Saudi Arabia. However, it was not until 2017 that the first intensive and systematic study of this structure type was undertaken, although this study could not determine the precise function of these features. Recent excavations in AlUla have now determined that these structures fulfilled a ritual purpose, with specifically selected elements of both wild and domestic taxa deposited around a betyl. This paper outlines the results of the University of Western Australia’s work at site IDIHA-0008222, a 140 m long mustatil (IDIHA-F-0011081), located 55 km east of AlUla. Work at this site sheds new and important light on the cult, herding and ‘pilgrimage’ in the Late Neolithic of north-west Arabia, with the site revealing one of the earliest chronometrically dated betyls in the Arabian Peninsula and some of the earliest evidence for domestic cattle in northern Arabia.


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