Category Archives: Archaeology

SEVEN SLEEPERS

Yedi Uyurlar Mağarası (Cave of the Seven Sleepers)

Seven early Christians were sealed into a cave where legend has it they slept unharmed for centuries.

EDIT PLACE

What started as a political protest against Roman paganism became the stuff of religious legend.

In January of 250, the Roman Emperor Decius issued an edict that everyone under his reign must perform a sacrifice dedicating themselves to the empire and to the Roman gods. Understandably, this caused an uproar among young Christian communities, who, though persecuted, had previously been free to worship. Refusal to submit came at the price of death. All the same, many Christians refused to deny their faiths.

Seven young men in Ephesus refused to make the sacrifice and hid in a cave on the outskirts of the city. Tired from fleeing, they fell asleep. The Roman sentries came upon the Seven slumbering peacefully in the cave. Rather than killing them outright, they sealed them in, perhaps in a mockery of Christians’ reverence for Jesus’ entombment. That was the last their families and friends ever heard of them.

Sometime much later, the myth continues, the farmer who owned the land thought to open the cave, perhaps to use as an animal pen. He was shocked to find seven young men inside, still asleep. When the light hit their faces, they awoke. Feeling hungry, they pooled their money and sent one of them to the village to buy food. They warned him to watch out for Romans, but, believing they had slept for a full day, they thought the coast was clear. When the young man reached the market and tried to buy bread, vendors were dismayed to see that he carried Decian coins—which were at least 150 years old by then. The bishop was called in (in the century they slept Christianity had resurfaced full force) to interview the Seven Sleepers, and they all died peacefully just a few hours after.

The cave outside Ephesus was excavated in the 1920s, revealing a number of 5th and 6th century Christian graves. An ancient Church sits atop the cave as well. Religious pilgrims still pay visits to the holy Cave of the Seven Sleepers.

The details of the myth are hotly disputed among the various cultures that tell it. Christians believe that the Seven slept for between 128 and 200 years, but the Qur’an states that they slept for around 300 years. Even the location is unclear. Though this cave in Ephesus is the most commonly visited by religious pilgrims, caves in Jordan, China, Tunisia, and Algeria lay claim to the myth of the Seven Sleepers.

Whatever the truth of story is, its lore has seeped into common culture. For example, in Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish, a sysover (“seven-sleeper”) is someone who sleeps long and hard. Seven Sleepers Day is June 27th, and is the German equivalent of American Groundhog Day.

A LOATHSOME SLIME

Our Ancient and Medieval ancestors were much, much more ingenious that most modern people give them credit for. Someone should create/produce an app/algorithm to scour ancient and medieval medicinal texts (and other kinds of texts) to see what other advantages could be gleaned.

Rather than doing this kind of work (and this is hardly the first example I’ve seen of such historical re-creation) by piecemeal examination and experimentation.

By the way I not long ago finished another set of brilliant lectures by Mike Drought of Wheaton College.

Take cropleek and garlic, of both equal quantities, pound them well together… take wine and bullocks gall, mix with the leek… let it stand nine days in the brass vessel…

So goes a thousand-year-old Anglo Saxon recipe to vanquish a stye, an infected eyelash follicle.

The medieval medics might have been on to something. A modern-day recreation of this remedy seems to alleviate infections caused by the bacteria that are usually responsible for styes. The work might ultimately help create drugs for hard-to-treat skin infections.

The project was born when a microbiologist at the University of Nottingham, UK, got talking to an Anglo Saxon scholar. They decided to test a recipe from an Old English medical compendium called Bald’s Leechbook, housed in the British Library.

Some of the ingredients, such as copper from the brass vessel, kill bacteria grown in a dish – but it was unknown if they would work on a real infection or how they would combine.

Careful collection

Sourcing authentic ingredients was a major challenge, says Freya Harrison, the microbiologist. They had to hope for the best with the leeks and garlic because modern crop varieties are likely to be quite different to ancient ones – even those branded as heritage. For the wine they used an organic vintage from a historic English vineyard.

As “brass vessels” would be hard to sterilise – and expensive – they used glass bottles with squares of brass sheet immersed in the mixture. Bullocks gall was easy, though, as cow’s bile salts are sold as a supplement for people who have had their gall bladders removed.

After nine days of stewing, the potion had killed all the soil bacteria introduced by the leek and garlic. “It was self-sterilising,” says Harrison. “That was the first inkling that this crazy idea just might have some use.”

A side effect was that it made the lab smell of garlic. “It was not unpleasant,” says Harrison. “It’s all edible stuff. Everyone thought we were making lunch.”

The potion was tested on scraps of skin taken from mice infected with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. This is an antibiotic-resistant version of the bacteria that causes styes, more commonly known as the hospital superbug MRSA. The potion killed 90 per cent of the bacteria. Vancomycin, the antibiotic generally used for MRSA, killed about the same proportion when it was added to the skin scraps.

A loathsome slime

Unexpectedly, the ingredients had little effect unless they were all brought together. “The big challenge is trying to find out why that combination works,” says Steve Diggle, another of the researchers. Do the components work in synergy or do they trigger the formation of new potent compounds?

Using exactly the right method also seems to be crucial, says Harrison, as another group tried to recreate the remedy in 2005 and found that their potion failed to kill bacteria grown in a dish. “With the nine-day waiting period, the preparation turned into a kind of loathsome, odorous slime,” says Michael Drout of Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts.

If the 9th Century recipe does lead to new drugs, they might be useful against MRSA skin infections such as those that cause foot ulcers in people with diabetes. “These are usually antibiotic-resistant,” says Diggle. However, he doesn’t recommend people try this at home.

It wouldn’t be the first modern drug to be derived from ancient manuscripts – the widely used antimalarial drug artemisinin was discovered by scouring historical Chinese medical texts.

Harrison is due to present the research at the Society for General Microbiology conference in Birmingham, UK, this week.

WHOSE CRYPT?

Still more from Amphipolis…

You know though, from a fictional and gaming point of view, and not just an historical one, finding more than one person in a great tomb is a Godsend of a story idea.

Everything from mistaken identity, to multiple burials over time, to different kinds of burials and relics and remains, to different types of animals and creatures (maybe extinct ones), to even ancient enemies being buried in the same tomb.

The possibilities are manifold… and excellent.

Picture of the two sphinxes found under an apse at the Kasta Tumulus, near ancient Amphipolis in Macedonia, Greece

Two guardian sphinxes sit on a marble lintel at the entrance to the tomb at Amphipolis.

Photograph courtesy of Greek Ministry of Culture

Kristin Romey

National Geographic

Published January 26, 2015

Media reports and the blogosphere are fueling speculation that the remains of a woman found in a massive tomb in northern Greece may belong to Alexander the Great’s mother, Olympias, who was executed when she was about 60 years old.

The Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports reported last week that the remains of five individuals have been found in the burial chamber of the elaborate tomb beneath what is known as Kasta Hill in the ancient city of Amphipolis. Archaeologists excavating the site have dated the tomb to the final quarter of the fourth century B.C., around the time of Alexander the Great’s death in 323 B.C. (See “Behind Tomb Connected to Alexander the Great, Intrigue Worthy of ‘Game of Thrones.’”)

But the discovery has failed to settle the issue of whether the monument may have belonged to a family member or close associate of the famous Macedonian conqueror. And many historians are dismissing the rampant hypothesizing as a distracting parlor game. (See “Who’s Buried in Largest Tomb in Northern Greece? New Finds Raise Intrigue.”)

“We have so far an elaborate monument that’s partially damaged and vandalized,” points out Frank L. Holt, a University of Houston professor who has written several books on Alexander the Great. “It contained bones and cremains of persons unknown who may have nothing to do with the original structure or with each other.

“The chronology remains uncertain,” he says. “The royal status of the bodies, and of the building, cannot yet be verified. Why the headlong rush to judgment?’

Women and Men, Old and Young, Buried and Burned

From the 550 pieces of human bone recovered from the burial chamber, researchers have so far identified a woman over 60 years old, two men between the ages of 35 and 45, a newborn infant of unknown gender, and a very small set of cremated remains that most likely belonged to an adult of unknown age and gender.

About a quarter (157) of the remains are intact enough to allow researchers to eventually identify the gender, age, and height of the individuals, while the rest are fragments of vertebrae and other skeletal remains. An unknown number of animal remains, including bones of horses or donkeys, were also found in the chamber.

Complicating interpretation of the remains is the fact that none of the bodies were found in their original burial places, and no significant burial objects have been reported found.