Miltos: the elusive red pigment

Ancient Greek and Roman texts tell that a red powdered mineral, known as miltos (μίλτος), was used for several unrelated applications[1]. Its use is attested to in Mycenaean clay tablets, inscribed in Linear B as mi-to-we-sa and dated around the second millennium BC.
The variety of applications for which it was used was broad: it was used as a pigment, as a cosmetic, in ship maintenance, agriculture, and medicine. It was precisely this diversity that intrigued the scientists[2].

The ancient texts made it clear that miltos could be found (and mined), in only three places in Graeco-Roman world: Kea in the Cyclades, Lemnos in the northeast Aegean, and Cappadocia in Turkey.

The team examined miltos samples at source. The fact that the substance contained a lot of iron-oxide, which gave it its colour, was uncontroversial, but the researchers were keen to know what else was in each sample to see if the additives meant that different mines produced miltos suited for its different uses.
The scientists analysed five samples: four obtained from Kea, and one originally from Lemnos that had been collected during the sixteenth or seventeenth century and is currently housed in the Pharmacy Museum of the University of Basel in Switzerland. No Turkish miltos was available.

The results show that, yes, different samples from different mines have potentially different abilities – the result of both small amounts of various chemicals embedded with the iron oxide and the microbial communities that live in them.

One of the samples from Kea, for example, was found to have 'exceptionally high' lead levels. This could explain a 360 BC Greek inscription decreeing that Kea miltos could only be exported to Athens because of its value not just for decoration but also because of its role in boat maintenance.

The high lead levels mean that Miltos from Kea would make a very effective anti-fouling agent, preventing the growth of bacterial colonies and barnacles on boat hulls. Another sample from Kea had significant quantities of zinc, arsenic and copper, making it ideal as the base ingredient for a biocidal boat paint. Until very recently all marine antibacterial paints contained zinc and copper.

There are several references in Greek and Roman literature to the presence of miltos on farms. It could be mixed with pitch or resin, and probably was used to ward off plant diseases or as a fertiliser. Key were the microbial communities that lived in them.

The researchers found that such applications were certainly not without merit, and that antibacterial effects varied quite widely across the sample range.

The sample from Lemnos, for instance, was found to contain traces of titanium dioxide, a known antibacterial compound. Interestingly, the samples high in lead were not particularly effective, perhaps, the scientists suggest, because lead is toxic and its effect therefore dose dependent.

The different effects produced by the different samples supports the idea that not all miltos was the same.

[1] Photos-Jones: From mine to apothecary: an archaeo-biomedical approach to the study of the Greco-Roman lithotherapeutics industry in World Archeaology - 2018. See here.
[2] Photos-Jones et al: Greco-Roman mineral (litho)therapeutics and their relationship to their microbiome: The case of the red pigment miltos in Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports – 2018. See here.

Porphyry: the Royal (Purple) Marble

In Antiquity, purple was the colour of power and wealth, although both were mostly in the same hands. People went to extreme lengths (and costs) to acquire that colour.
[An imperial porphyry column in the Hagia Sophia]

A small sea snail, today known as the purple dye murex (Bolinus brandaris), produces a colourless secretion which turns into a brilliant puple dye when exposed to the air. To colour robes of dignitary purple you needed to harvest some 7,500 snails to obtain one gram of pure dye. This amount could colour just 15 cm3 of cloth. Imagine the costs of a robe for a king or high priest.

But, as always, purple clothes weren't enough to display your status. The most powerful even wanted their palaces built with the colour purple and that was a problem.

In 14 AD, a Roman legionary, discovered hard purple rocks in what is now the Gabal Abu Dukhan quarry in the Eastern Desert of Egypt near the Red Sea. Samples were promptly brought to the Emperor Tiberius in Rome. When Tiberius saw that this purple-coloured stone was solid enough for building and carving, he decreed that 'Imperial Porphyry' would be for the use of the Imperial family only. The term porphyry is from Ancient Greek porphyra (πορφύρα) and means 'purple'..

[Carmagnola, an imperial porphyry head in Venice] 

Tiberius quickly established a quarry on Mons Porphyry ('purple mountain') and began to use the stone for the decoration of Imperial palaces and other buildings. Later emperors continued the tradition. Imperial Porphyry was used for panels, floor tiles, statues, sarcophagi, and for the pillars of official buildings throughout the Roman world.

Perhaps most significant was the large circle of Imperial Porphyry in the centre of the floor of the Pantheon in Rome. For the next 300 years, new Emperors stood in this symbolic circle to be crowned.

This use to convey royalty made Imperial Porphyry truly the stone of Empire, causing it to be more significant, powerful and costly to the Empire than gold.

When the Emperor Constantine established Constantinople (now Istanbul) as the new Roman capital in 330 AD, he erected a 30-meter column of Imperial Porphyry with his statue at the top. The statue did not survive, but the pillar itself still stands. Eight Imperial Porphyry pillars also still support the niches of the Hagia Sophia, built by the Emperor Justinian.

In 600 AD the Byzantine Empire lost control of Egypt (and thus of the Imperial Porphyry quarry) to invading Muslim forces. Even its exact location was forgotten for centuries. The ancient quarry on Mons Porphyry was only rediscovered in 1823 by Sir John Wilkinson. It is now a World Heritage site.

An enigma in the Odyssee

Disguised as a beggar, Odysseus finally arrived at his homeland of Ithaca. The swineherd Eumaeus takes Odysseus in as a guest, not recognizing his long lost master. Odysseus gives Eumaios a false biography, before launching into a story about a raid he participated in during the Trojan War. Odysseus does this to test the bounds of Eumaeus’ hospitality, to see if the swineherd will offer him a cloak, whether one of his own or a companion’s. The request for a cloak is the secret message of this ainos, and Eumaeus’ ability to understand it will decide Odysseus’ willingness to trust him.
Odysseus takes on the role of an unnamed Greek soldier at Troy. He refers to this self in the first person, while speaking of 'Odysseus' in the third person, projecting his true identity into a separate character. In the story, the 'beggar' is out on a scouting mission led by 'Odysseus' and Menelaus, who have named him their third in command. When night falls, the 'beggar' realises he has forgotten a cloak and will freeze, so he asks 'Odysseus' for help. Pretending to wake up from a divinely sent (θεῖός) bad dream, 'Odysseus' tells a warrior named Thoas to fetch backup from King Agamemnon, lest his foreboding dream come true and the group be ambushed by Trojans. The dream itself is not explained, leaving us to imagine that it featured a warning about a Trojan ambush. Thoas runs off to get unneeded backup, leaving his cloak behind for the 'beggar'.

Eumaeus, the swineherd, responds to the story with approval. He calls it a good 'ainos', revealing that he understands that this story has a hidden meaning. He then provides Odysseus with one of his own spare cloaks for the night, thus understanding its hidden meaning and proving his hospitality.

The question of exactly what an αἶνος (ainos) was has puzzled historians for ages. The word itself is related to the verb αἰνέω (aineō) ‘to praise’, the word means, 'praising speech', or more basically, 'speech act'. But not all ainoi appear as praise. They can also appear instructions, warnings, or fables.

The word αἶνος (ainos) appears as a sort of doublet in Latin as aenigma ('enigma'), borrowed from Greek αἴνιγμα, itself derived from αἶνος.

So, αἶνος (ainos) is akin to enigma. Perhaps, the telling of an ainos was simply an important part of the ritual of hospitality of the Ancient Greeks. Even today you could tell a 'good yarn' if you repose after a perfect dinner.

Additional reporting by Miriam Kamil.

Was Paliki (ever) an island?

When the Dark Age of Greece, which lasted from 1100 BC to around 750 BC, had finally ended, the entire region was largely depopulated and even the names of some of the lesser islands in the Ionian Sea had been forgotten. When the population started to grow again, they tried to rename the islands based on their 'best guesses'. For most islands that wasn't a problem, but the smaller islands got the 'left-over-names'.

Ithaca (Ithaki) is now the island to the right of Cephalonia and is separated from it by a small channel.
The problem is that it doesn't fit with Homer's description of Ithaca. He claims that 'Ithaca itself lies close in to the mainland the furthest toward the gloom, but the others lie apart toward the Dawn and the sun—a rugged isle,...'

Most scholars agree that the phrase 'towards the gloom' must mean 'towards the direction of the setting sun' or 'west'. Thus, it would be the most western of the Ionian islands. Which 'modern' Ithaca is obviously not.

Nowadays, the most western island is Cephalonia, but that island can surely not be Ithaca, because it is identified as Same which actually makes sense because there is still a town on the island called Sami (Σάμη).

As Homer says: ..dwell in clear-seen Ithaca, wherein is a mountain, Neriton, covered with waving forests, conspicuous from afar; and round it lie many isles hard by one another, Dulichium, and Same, and wooded Zacynthus.

If Ithaca was an island, we can ask, could that island have been what is now Paliki, a peninsula attached to Cephalonia in the northwest. A 'stratigraphic analysis' seemed to reveal that Cephalonia was once two islands separated by a narrow marine channel. Rockfalls over the intervening years (must have) filled the channel and linked the two islands[1]. The problem is that this research was published in a rather obscure journal, which makes that statement rather dubious.

Much, much later, in the first century AD, the Greek geographer Strabo (64 or 63 BC–circa AD 24), who wrote of the channel separating Paliki from Cefalonia[2]: Cephallenia lies opposite Acarnania (modern mainland Greece), at a distance of about fifty stadia from Leucatas (modern Lefkada) .., and about one hundred and eighty from Chelonatas (modern mainland Greece). It has a perimeter of about three hundred stadia, is long, extending towards Eurus (towards the direction of winter sunrise, thus southeast) and is mountainous. The largest mountain upon it is Aenus, ..; and where the island is narrowest it forms an isthmus so low-lying that it is often submerged from sea to sea. Both Paleis and Crannii are on the gulf near the narrows[3].

The problem is, of course, that Strabo lived almost a millennium after the events described in the Odyssey.

I'm not convinced that Paliki was ever an island, as is evidenced by proper research: “Paliki peninsula was almost an island during the Pliocene period. From the beginning of the Pleistocene a gradual uplift of the area started raising the older limestone formations...'[4]

Another obvious question is: if an entire channel was filled in by rubble from landslides, as Underhill and his team from Odysseus Unbound try to prove, where did all that rubble come from? The time period of 3200 years is too short to have such major changes occurring in the natural environment[5].

This post is one of several on the same subject. They all have found a home on Homer's Home. See here.

[1] Underhill: Relocating Odysseus' homeland in Nature Geoscience – 2009
[2] Newton: Strabo's Greece in Nature Geoscience – 2011
[3] Strabo: Geography, book 10, chapter 2, section 15
[4] Gaki-Papanastassiou et al: Geomorphic Evolution of Western (Paliki) Kephalonia Island (Greece) During the Quaternary in Bulletin of the Geological Society of Greece – 2010. See here.
[5] Gaki-Papanastassiou et al: Geomorphological study and paleogeographic evolution of NW Kefalonia Island, Greece, concerning the hypothesis of a possible location of the Homeric Ithaca in Bulletin of the Geological Society of Greece – 2011

Where was Mary Magdalene born?

To some, Mary Magdalene, also known as Mary of Magdala, was the wife of Jesus Christ.

The Gospel of Philip, referred to Mary Magdalene as Jesus’s companion and claimed that Jesus loved her more than the other disciples. Most controversially, the text stated that Jesus used to kiss Mary “often on her ____.” Damage to the text left the last word unreadable, though some scholars have filled in the missing word as “mouth.”
Whether or not this is true, not disputed is that she was very close to Jesus.

The question might arise where Mary was actually born. The accepted theory is that she likely came from Magdala, a village on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee that was primarily known in antiquity as a little fishing town. Its Greek name was Taricheae, meaning 'place where fish are salted'.

It was a large Jewish settlement in the Early Roman period. At the time of the destruction of the Second Temple it served as Josephus’ main military base in his war against the Romans in the Galilee.

However, the enigmatic name, Magdalene, causes bible critics considerable concern. Magdalene is thought to derive from Hebrew migdál ('tower'). Well, one can hardly imagine that a once tiny fishing village would be adorned with a considerable tower worthy of naming Maria. It is therefore quite possible that the village was named ex post facto to accommodate Mary into the Biblical landscape.

So, why would Mary be given the epithet Magdalene?

In the Gospel of Mark (Mark 8:10) Dalmanutha or Dalmanoutha is the unknown destination of Jesus on the shores of the Sea of Gallilee after he fed the four thousand, as recorded in Mark's Gospel (Mark 8:10). It is sometimes believed to be in the vicinity of Magdala, since the parallel passage in the Gospel of Matthew (15:39) refers instead to 'Magadan', which has been taken to be a variant form of 'Magdala'.

Some scholars have remarked that Dalmanutha is akin to Dalmatia, located on the shores of the Adriatic Sea. The etymology of the word Dalmatia is shrouded in mystery. Some translate Dalmatia as 'deceitful lamp' from dalos (δαλος) 'a lamp' and mataia (ματαια) 'deceitful'[1]. The reason is evident: Populations who inhabited the seashore, made fires, simulating false lighthouses to deceit sailors in order that they shipwrecked there, so that they could plunder the wreckage. And Dalmatia, with its rugged coastline, was a good place for that form of piracy.

So daloi mataioi could have been in Greek vernacular a folk etymology of Dalmatia, meaning 'deceitful lighthouses'. Which would explain why the Evangelist, or a later amanuensis, used Dalmatia, a name concerning the Ionian See crossing of Antonius to Dalmatia, for the Mediterranean Sea crossing of Caesar to Egypt.

Its supposed etymology will take us a step further to solve the mystery. Yes, dalos (δαλος) is 'a lamp', but this leads us to pharos (Φάρος), the famous lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and for many centuries one of the tallest man-made structures in the world.

The word pharos is of uncertain etymology, but is possibly related to dalos.

So, have we found here the solution of the name of Mary Magdalene? Dalmoutha may mean 'of (the city of) the lighthouse'. Magdalene can be read as megálos (μεγάλος) and dalos (δαλος), the '(from the city of) great lamp'. This leads us to Alexandria.

Can we find any corroborating evidence of that discovery? Curiously, all of Mary's epithets (migdal, Dalmanutha, Magdalene) relate to towers or lighthouses.

In the Gospel of Luke (2:39) we read 'When they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own city of Nazareth'.

However, in the Gospel of Matthew (2:14) we find 'So Joseph got up and took the Child and His mother while it was still night, and left for Egypt'.

Strange. But not if we accept that the chronology in the gospel of Matthew is garbled. Suppose that Matthew was not writing about Jesus' youth, but of an event after his death.

Then we understand what is actually written here: Joseph escapes with Mary Magdalene with her child to safety. Her child? Well, that would be Barabbas which is simply an Aramaic phrase (Bar Abba) meaning 'son of the father'. Can Barabbas be the son of Jesus and Mary Magdalene?

[1] Charnock: Local Etymology: A Derivative Dictionary of Geographical Names – 1859 (pp. 81)

The origins of rice in Italy

When asked about rice (Oryza sativa) in Italy, your answer will probably be: risotto. Yes, it is a dish made with riso ('rice'), but where exactly did that rice originally came from?
Rice was first introduced in Greece following Alexander the Great’s expedition to Asia, who went as far as the banks of the Indus, in about 320 BC. The Arabs introduced rice in the south of the Iberian Peninsula in the eighth century.

Later, rice may have been introduced to Italy by early Venetian commerce, often personified by Marco Polo (1254-1324), although no written document about these possible introductions survives.

There is evidence of rice growing in Portugal in the thirteenth century and it was re-introduced by the Portuguese navigators after the opening of the route to the Indies in the late fifteenth century. Rice probably spread to from Portugal to Italy, first in the Kingdom of Naples, followed by the wetlands of Tuscany, near Pisa, in 1468, and then in the plain of the river Po, where the crop became definitively established.

Rice cultivation expanded to ca. 20,000 ha in the area around Milan until the 1700s. At that time, the only rice cultivated in Italy was Nostrale, a variety susceptible to rice blast (Magnaporthe oryzae).

To guarantee the continued rice cultivation that was seriously threatened by this fungal disease, new varieties were introduced from China and Japan at the beginning of 19th century. These varieties were characterized by their high yield and resistance to rice blast.

As a consequence, five novel Italian rice varieties were cultivated in Italy in 1872: Ostiglia, Bertone, Novarese, Francone, and Giapponese.

So, where did these rice varieties originate. Did they come from China, from India, From Japan (as can be deduced from the name of the Giapponese variety), or even from another source?

Recent scientific evidence point to a genetic affinity to China's northern provinces, such as Hebei, Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang Provinces[1]. This makes sense because the climatic conditions there are relatively similar to those of Italian rice cultivation regions.

Although the tales such as Marco Polo’s contribution to the introduction of rice from China to Italy may never be fully confirmed, results from this study provide solid genetic evidence to confirm the close linkage between Italian and Chinese rice varieties.

[1] Cai et al: The Puzzle of Italian Rice Origin and Evolution: Determining Genetic Divergence and Affinity of Rice Germplasm from Italy and Asia in PLoS One - 2013. See here.

The Short History of Altinum

Altinum was an ancient town of the Veneti, the namesakes of Venice. It was situated some 15 kilometers southeast of modern Treviso and on the mainland shore of the Laguna di Venezia. Being also close the the mouths of the rivers Dese, Zero, and Sile, it was perfectly situated for trade. The city developed into a major port and trading centre for timber, oil, wine and wool.

Altinum became part of the Roman Empire and was a flourishing port and trading centre during that period. Yet its fortune turned when it was ransacked by the Huns in the year AD 452. The city recovered but the shoreline continued to silt up, eventually blocking off access to sea trade and leading to the abandonment by its inhabitants for the island of Torcello at the northern end of the Venetian Lagoon.
The remains of Altinum were plundered for its stone for use as building materials in Torcello and the emerging Venice, leaving very little archaeological remains above ground level. The remains have also been affected by agricultural activities since the late nineteenth century. But it also meant that Altinum was the only Roman city in northern Italy that has not been buried by medieval and modern cities.
During a severe drought in 2007, a team led by Paolo Mozzi, a geomorphologist, took aerial photos of the site in several wavelengths of visible light and in near-infrared. Because the crops planted on the land were in different stages of ripening, thanks to differences in the amount of water in the soil. When the images were processed to tease out subtle variations in plant water stress, a buried city emerged.

The study has also revealed numerous previously unknown associated buildings around the port area, allowing archaeologists to determine the wider extent of the Altinum port system and how other previously known structures, such as a Roman tower was positioned along the navigation route that led from the port to the sea. They discovered a complex network of rivers and canals, revealing how the people mastered the marshy environment in what is now the lagoon of Venice.