Israel: Day 18

September 21, 2023 • 9:30 am

On Wednesday I spent about four hours at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, and even that wasn’t long enough to see all the interesting stuff. There are four bits to peruse: archaeology (not just in Israel, but throughout the world), things reflecting Jewish life, art (including Impressionist and post-Impressionist painting), and, in a separate building (“The Shrine of the Book”), the Dead Sea Scrolls (only a bit of the original on display) and the Aleppo Codex (fully on display). As Wikipedia notes:

The Israel Museum (Hebrew: מוזיאון ישראלMuze’on Yisrael, Arabic: متحف إسرائيل) is an art and archaeological museum in Jerusalem. It was established in 1965 as Israel’s largest and foremost cultural institution, and one of the world’s leading encyclopaedic museums. It is situated on a hill in the Givat Ram neighborhood of Jerusalem, adjacent to the Bible Lands Museum, the Knesset, the Israeli Supreme Court, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Its holdings include the world’s most comprehensive collections of the archaeology of the Holy Land, and Jewish art and life, as well as significant and extensive holdings in the fine arts, the latter encompassing eleven separate departments: Israeli Art, European Art, Modern Art, Contemporary Art, Prints and Drawings, Photography, Design and Architecture, Asian Art, African Art, Oceanic Art, and Arts of the Americas.

Among the unique objects on display are the Venus of Berekhat Ram, the interior of a 1736 Zedek ve Shalom synagogue from Suriname, necklaces worn by Jewish brides in Yemen, a mosaic Islamic prayer niche from 17th-century Persia, and a nail attesting to the practice of crucifixion in Jesus’ time. An urn-shaped building on the grounds of the museum, the Shrine of the Book, houses the Dead Sea Scrolls and artifacts discovered at Masada. It is one of the largest museums in the region.

I’m surprised they don’t mention the Aleppo Codex, the oldest Hebrew Bible in existence (there are older versions in Greek), also a big draw to the Museum. But more on that later. I’ll include some labels with the object to avoid taking a lot of time simply to retype them.

The entrance to the Museum Complex, which (save the Shrine of the Book) is in several interconnected buildings, is long and spooky, and reminds me of the underground connection between the two parts of Terminal 1 in O’Hare airport:

The connecting tunnel at Terminal 1 at O’Hare in Chicago:

But there are a few mosaics on the wall to distract you (click descriptions to enlarge)

There were at least a dozen of these eerie coffins:

Here’s one:

A piece of pottery that caught my eye:

And I loved these lions from the sixth century BC. I show one below:

It doesn’t look very fierce! And it has hooves!

An Egyptian statue of the cat-shaped god Bastet:

Another Egyptian cat:

Two locks of hair found at Masada. Could they be from Jews who decided to commit suicide rather than be captured as slaves by the Romans? We don’t know, and, as I’ve noted, the “mass suicide” story of Masada may be fictional.

A big mosaic; I photographed only part of it:

The centaur is on the right.

A famous bit of cuneiform writing, which fascinates me:

On to Jewish Life. Here’s a Jewish wedding dress from Morocco:

And a carriage devoted solely to carrying coffins (Hungarian, 19th century):

A 19th-century Jewish marriage contract (“ketubah”). As one site explains:

The ketubah is a unilateral agreement drawn by witnesses in accordance with Jewish civil law, in which they testify that the husband guarantees to his wife that he will meet certain minimum human and financial conditions of marriage, “as Jewish husbands are wont to do.”

It is not a ceremonial document of scripture or prayer. That is why it is written in Aramaic, the technical legal language of Talmudic law, rather than in Hebrew, the language of the “Song of Songs.” Neither is it a state document establishing the new relationship of man and woman. It makes no mention of the confirmation of G‑d or of society. It is not an instrument of the privileged class, as in ancient societies, but one obligatory on every person. It is also not an affirmation of perpetual love. It is a statement of law that provides the framework of love.

The ketubah restates the fundamental conditions that are imposed by the Torah upon the husband, such as providing his wife with food, clothing, and conjugal rights, which are inseparable from marriage. It includes the husband’s guarantees to pay a certain sum in the event of divorce, and inheritance rights obligatory upon his heirs in case he dies before his wife.

It is not a mutual agreement; the wife agrees only to accept the husband’s proposal of marriage. It is assuredly not a bill of sale; the man does not purchase the bride. In fact, the ketubah represents the witnesses rather than husband or wife. Through this instrument they attest to the groom’s actions, promises, and statements, and to the bride’s willing acceptance of the marriage proposal.

I’m wondering whether the small letters at the lower left around the square are the signatures of the witnesses. Note both the Hebrew and the Aramaic.

NOTE: Joseph points out in the comments that the photo below is not a mezuzah but a megillah. I have crossed out what I wrote before and added what seems to be the correct information. This shows that I am not a very good Jew!

Below is a very fancy mezuzah, a container affixed to doorways in Jewish homes, each containing a klaf, a piece of parchment on which there’s verse from the Torah (see above). The scroll itself is a lot more important than the container, and, if prepared in the kosher way, can cost a lot more than the container (check Amazon).  When I owned a house in Maryland while I had my first job, there was a mezuzah attached to the front door frame, with the top pointing inward, as is the custom. That was one of my only concessions to religious Judaism, and I don’t have one now. Even secular Jews do it (see from the Wikipedia article below)

I didn’t write down the source or date of this mezuzah, but it’s very fancy, with a silver case and a very long handwritten klaf:

This is not a mezuzah, but a fancy megillah scroll in a silver case, which contains parts of the Bible read on special occasions (this one is small, about 6 inches long).  The Britttanica explains the scrolls:

Megillah, also spelled Megilla, Hebrew Megillah (“Scroll”), plural Megillot, in the Hebrew Bible, any of the five sacred books of the Ketuvim (the third division of the Old Testament), in scroll form, that are read in the synagogue in the course of certain festivals. The Song of Solomon (Song of Songs) is read on the sabbath of Passover week, the Book of Ruth on ShavuotLamentations of Jeremiah on Tisha be-AvEcclesiastes on the sabbath of the week of Sukkoth, and the Book of Esther on Purim. The reading of Esther on Purim is prescribed in the Mishna; other readings were introduced in post-Talmudic days.

The NY Public Library notes  that these are usually scrolls of the Book of Esther and are read on the Jewish holiday of Purim.

The Haggadah is a Jewish text, read on Passover, that contains the story of the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt. It is not lifted from the Old Testament but recounts a similar story of Exodus. It was written no earlier than 170 A.D.

The Birds’ Head Haggadah (below) is very famous, as it’s the oldest surviving Passover Haggadah from Ashkenazi Jews. As it says below, it was written about 1300 A.D. Wikipedia has a long article on it that gives theories for why all the humans have bird heads, as in the photo below.

The Birds’ Head Haggadah is so called because all Jewish men, women, and children depicted in the manuscript have human bodies with the faces and beaks of birds. Non-Jewish and non-human faces (such as those of angels, the sun, and the moon) are blank or blurred. Numerous theories have been advanced to explain the unusual iconography, usually tied to Jewish aniconism. The Haggadah is in the possession of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, where it is on permanent exhibition.

Here’s a later Haggadah, apparently from Moravia, and written four centuries later:

The Torah is the archetypal document of Judaism, comprising the first five books of the Old Testament. It is written by hand on a scroll that is kept in the synagogue and read at least once a week. See below for more information. In the bar mitzvah ceremony of becoming a man, a Jewish boy must be able to read from the Torah. (I was never bar mitzvahed because I flunked out of Hebrew school.)

Here’s a section of a Torah from the Museum. The calligrapher has do do a good job because, as it says above, if you make a single mistake, the entire document becomes worthless and you have to start again from the beginning.

There are dozens of fancy Torah cases in the Museum; here are two.

Menorahs are Jewish “candelabras” that burn oil and there are two types. Temple Menorahs have seven branches for fuel and are rarely if ever lit. All temples have one, but it’s mostly symbolic.

Here’s one from Wikipedia with the caption, “Reconstruction of the menorah of the Temple in Jerusalem, created by the Temple Institute of Israel”

The more famous menorah is the Hanukkah menorah, which has nine branches with the middle one higher than the others. From Wikipedia:

Hanukkah menorah, or hanukkiah, is a nine-branched candelabrum lit during the eight-day Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. Eight of the nine branches hold lights (candles or oil lamps) that symbolize the eight nights of the holiday; on each night, one more light is lit than the previous night, until on the final night all eight branches are ignited. The ninth branch holds a candle, called the shamash (“helper” or “servant”), which is used to light the other eight.

The Hanukkah menorah commemorates, but is distinct from, the seven-branched menorah used in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Along with the seven-branched menorah and the Star of David, it is among the most widely produced articles of Jewish ceremonial art.

Why the extra branches? Here’s the classic explanation:

Miracle of the cruse of oil (Hebrew: נֵס פַּךְ הַשֶּׁמֶן), or the Miracle of Hanukkah, is an Aggadah depicted in the Babylonian Talmud as one of the reasons for Hanukkah. In the story, the miracle occurred after the liberation of the Temple in Jerusalem during the Maccabean Revolt, and it describes the finding of a jug of pure oil that was to be enough to light the lamp for one day, but that lasted for eight days.

Here’s one from with the caption “A Hanukkah lamp from Lemberg in The Jewish Museum of New York. “

The Museum has dozens of menorahs of all types from around the world: here’s a wall display (click to enlarge):

And there are a ton of paintings in the art wing. I photographed three by famous artists, though hardly their best work.

From Gauguin:

An early and rather crude van Gogh:

And a not-bad Kandinsky, who’s one of my favorite artists.

More art, this time from the New World:

There was a special and rather grim exhibit of the garb that Jews put on their dead when they’re buried.  This male garb has a hat.

I believe these are shrouds for Jewish women:

There was a detailed outdoor model, quite fascinating, of what Jerusalem looked like in the Second Temple Period (ca 516 B.C.-70 A.D.), starting when the Second Temple was built and ending when the Romans put the Jews to flight. The caption is below:

Below: the very large reconstruction, showing the city walls enclosing houses, shops, and, in the center, the Second Temple, which now remains only in the Western Wall and other stuff buried in the Temple Mount.

The structure in the middle of the Temple presumably held the “Holy of Holies“, the inner sanctum that held the Ark of the Covenant said to contain the Ten Commandment stones. Only one person could approach it, the head priest, and then only once a year. Many ultra-Orthodox Jews won’t even climb up the Temple Mount (allowed briefly a few times a week) for fear that they’d be stepping atop the Holy of Holies.

Click to enlarge:

There are two possible Western Walls here, so I took a picture of the two possibilities. Maybe a reader knows which one faced west.

Or is it this one?

The “Shrine of the Book” is famous mainly for holding the Dead Sea Scrolls, only one bit of the originals on display at once. (They’re alternated so they won’t fade.) They were written during the Second Temple Period and discovered in caves on the West Bank between 1946 and 1956. A bit about them from Wikipedia:

. . . the Dead Sea Scrolls are considered to be a keystone in the history of archaeology with great historical, religious, and linguistic significance because they include the oldest surviving manuscripts of entire books later included in the biblical canons, along with extra-biblical and deuterocanonical manuscripts that preserve evidence of the diversity of religious thought in late Second Temple Judaism. At the same time, they cast new light on the emergence of Christianity and of Rabbinic Judaism.  Almost all of the 15,000 scrolls and scroll fragments are held in the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum, located in the city of Jerusalem. The Israeli government’s custody of the Dead Sea Scrolls is disputed by Jordan and the Palestinian Authority on territorial, legal, and humanitarian grounds — they were mostly discovered following the Jordanian annexation of the West Bank and were acquired by Israel after Jordan lost the 1967 Arab–Israeli War — whilst Israel’s claims are primarily based on historical and religious grounds, given their significance in Jewish history and in the heritage of Judaism.

The Shrine building is striking, and is modeled to resemble the tops of the jars in which the scrolls were found. Fountains and a pool surround it.

The eerie underground entry to the exhibits:

And an original bit of a Dead Sea Scroll, many of which are in bad condition; the text was painstakingly reconstructed.  You can make out the Hebrew letters.

Below is a facsimile of the most complete scroll:

The Great Isaiah Scroll (1QIsaa) is one of the original seven Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in Qumran in 1947. It is the largest (734 cm) and best preserved of all the biblical scrolls, and the only one that is almost complete. The 54 columns contain all 66 chapters of the Hebrew version of the biblical Book of Isaiah. Dating from ca. 125 BCE, it is also one of the oldest of the Dead Sea Scrolls, some one thousand years older than the oldest manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible known to us before the scrolls’ discovery.

The Aleppo Codex, written in Israel about 920 AD, is of comparable historical interest, and sits one level below the Dead Sea Scroll display. In this case you can see the original.

As I mentioned above, it’s the oldest extant version of the Bible in Hebrew, and has been used as a benchmark for accuracy by, among others, Maimonides. Much of it has gone missing, perhaps through theft.

Here it is on display:

And a close-up of the text, 1,100 years old:

Lovely gardens surround the Museum. Here’s an olive tree in case you haven’t seen one:

For some reason there are many rubber ducks on sale in the Museum Shop. Perhaps a reader can explain them to me.

Notice the variety, including devil ducks, surgeon ducks, Viking ducks, athlete ducks, and Santa ducks. What’s going on here? Is this Judaica?

Back in town: post-Rosh-Hashanah sale: mini shofars on sale for only five bucks!

And my customary lunch: a falafel sandwich with all the trimmings. I’ve had meat only once in Israel, and haven’t touched a drop of alcohol (I lose my desire to drink when I travel). I had a delicious meat lunch today, though, and you’ll see it in my next (and last) post from Israel.

Here are two women in he falafel shop. Their covered heads and long dresses led me to believe they were Orthodox Jewish women, but their clothing was strikingly attractive and stylish. I thus sent the photo below to a friend who had lived here, along with the question:

Are these women Jews (Haredim?). They have long dresses and big headscarves, but their clothes are pretty fancy.  They are buying falafel sandwiches.

And the reply:

Yes, they are. Fancy clothes are ok, as long as they cover. You are supposed to please your man for continuous procreation.

That made me laugh out loud, though it’s probably true.

Readers’ wildlife photos

July 15, 2023 • 8:15 am

Today we feature another travel/historical/picture contribution from Athayde Tonhasca Júnior.  His captions are indented, and you can enlarge the photos by clicking on them.

Macedonian treasures

Macedonia, in northern Greece, is the descendant of the Kingdom of Macedon of Alexander the Great fame, and not to be confused with Northern Macedonia, the independent country resulting from the dissolution of Yugoslavia. The young country’s choice of ‘Macedonia’ for its name caused a 25-year kerfuffle with Greece, which is still bitter about it (source of the images in parentheses).

Some of the 266 fragments of the Derveni Papyrus, the oldest European ‘book’ and one of the documents in the UNESCO’s ‘Memory of the World’ Programme. The papyrus roll from the 3rd-4th c. BC was found carbonized among the remains of a funeral pyre in northern Greece. The text, read with special photographic techniques, consists mainly of an allegorical-philosophical interpretation of a poem ascribed to the mythical poet Orpheus. One of the lines read: Zeus is the hea[d], Zeus the mid[dle], and from Zeus all things are ma[de], which unsurprisingly resonates with the idea of a Grand Poobah from the Abrahamic religions. Most modern myths such as the Flood, Immaculate Conception, Chosen People, Garden of Eden, Hell, are not original – the Ancient Pagans thought of them first. (Thessaloniki’s Archaeological Museum, AM):

A bill of sale from 3rd c. AD.: Titos, son of Lykos, buys from Amphotera a two-month old slave girl. The girl’s name is Nike. The price is set at 15 silver pieces. Slavery was a fact of life for the Greek city states and every other ancient civilisation. (AM):

JAC: I’ve highlighted Nike’s name

Aphrodite, or Venus for the Romans. Her family tree was unusual even for the imaginative Greeks: she was born from the white foam produced by the severed genitals of Uranus (Heaven), after his son Cronus threw them into the sea (aphros means ‘foam’). Aphrodite had a wide portfolio: goddess of sexual love, beauty and fertility, she was also worshipped by seafarers, prostitutes and warriors. This terracotta figurine is an early representation of Aphrodite, with no features to distinguish her from other goddesses. (Pella Archaeological Museum):

Some of Aphrodite’s later incarnations: The Birth of Venus, by Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510) © Uffizi Gallery, Wikimedia Commons, and The Birth of Suburbia, by Rosaleen Ryan.:

Hermaphroditus, the son of Aphrodite and Hermes. The water-nymph Salmacis, seeing him bathing in a pool, fell in love and prayed that they may never be separated. The gods acquiesced and joined the pair into one body with a dual nature, boy and girl. Among Greeks and Romans, Hermaphroditus was worshipped by – unsurprisingly – hermaphrodites, and also by ‘effeminate men’. But he was also seen as a deity of marriage for representing the union of a man and a woman. Hermaphroditus has experienced an unexpected revival into the modern pantheon, as the Church of Woke often cites him in mendacious arguments for the idea of sex as a continuum. (AM):

A votive relief dedicated to Hades, the god of the dead and the ruler of the underworld. 2nd c. AD. The Greeks had a god or demigod for any imaginable situation or activity. Listeners of A Way with Words mentioned some gods missing from the museum, including: Lemonades, god of cool refreshments; Ledes, god of low power lamps; Marmalades, god of chunky fruit spreads; Seus, god of children’s literature; Mediocretes, god of things that are slightly below average; Herpes and Chlamydia, the incurable romantics; Auricles and Ventricles, protagonists of a heart-breaking story; Apallo, god of shock and dismay; Diabetes, the god of carbonated sodas; and Phlebotomies, god of vampires. (AM):

You may have attended symposiums, but not likely the ones put together by the Ancient Greeks. Symposiums were gatherings of upper-class men in the andrones (‘men’s quarters’), which were furnished with couches along the walls. The lads would dine and drink in a semi-reclining position, which was a mark of elegance and decorum (the standing figure is a slave, who are always depicted as small). Household women did not take part: instead, cultured and sophisticated courtesans (the hetairai) were hired to entertain the guests with music, songs, dances and their ‘feminine charm’. (AM).

A helmet and funerary mask from ~520 BC. The warrior was buried wearing his helmet and his face was covered with a golden mask. The facial characteristics must have been created by pressing the gold sheet against the dead man’s face. (AM).

This gold chest is believed to have held the bones of King Philip II, and the gold wreath of oak leaves adorned his dead body. Philip II turned the kingdom of Macedonia into a regional power and prepared the ground for his son, Alexander the Great. The discovery of Philip’s tomb near modern Vergina in 1977 by Greek archaeologist Manolis Andronikos is one the most remarkable archaeological findings ever. (Royal Tombs of Vergina):

A replica of the Horologion of Philippi from 250-350 AD. This amazing instrument was used to calculate time, latitude, the height and the azimuth of the sun or some other star. You can find out how it works here. Only the Antikythera Mechanism could be more spectacular and awe-inspiring (AM):

A clay alabastron (a vessel used for storing oil) with a bust of the god Dionysus from the 2nd-1st c. BC. It is shaped like a phallus, which was a symbol of fertility and well-being, and a charm to avoid bad luck. Phallic amulets, often in the form of winged willies, really took off with the Romans. They were depicted in jewellery, pendants, lamps, relief carvings, mosaics, etc. and given to male children to ward off the evil eye and keep them healthy during their early years. These phallic charms were known as fascini (sing. fascinus), which is fascinating. (Museum of the Roman Agora, Thessaloniki):

Alexander III, aka the Great (356-323 BC). As king of Macedonia, Alexander created the largest empire in the ancient world until the Romans came to the stage, and he laid the foundations for the Hellenistic Period, when Greek language and culture spread throughout the Mediterranean. Alexander was no thicko: he studied literature, science, medicine and philosophy under the supervision of Aristotle, his private tutor. This head bust embodies all that riles the Woke apostles: empire, male dominance, whiteness. So inevitably the Classics are being cancelled, sometimes by classicists themselves. (Pella Archaeological Museum):

This lead tablet from the 4th c. BC contains a curse in the dialect spoken by the population of Pella (the ancient capital of Macedon). Among other things, it says: ‘…were I ever to unfold and read these words again after digging (the tablet) up, only then should Dionysophon marry, not before; may he indeed not take another woman than myself, but let me alone grow old by the side of Dionysophon and no one else”; ‘But please keep this (piece of writing) for my sake so that these events do not happen and wretched Thetima perishes miserably’. Curse tablets with magic texts intending to cause harm or to ward off evil were a big thing among Greeks and Romans. They were placed in graves, thrown into wells or nailed to the walls of temples. A whole collection of them was found in the English city of Bath. (Pella Archaeological Museum):

Lead was also a handy resource for psychological warfare; Greeks and Romans used catapults (sling shots) with deadly efficacy, but some of their lead bullets were intended to carry messages to threaten, insult or taunt the enemy. In 41 BC, during the civil war of Augustus, Octavius (the future Emperor Augustus) cornered his enemies Lucius Antonius and Fulvia (Mark Antony’s brother and wife) in the town of Perugia. During the long siege that followed, the opposing armies showered each other with glandes (lead bullets). Many of these projectiles have been recovered from the archaeological site, and some make interesting reading, although nothing like the Aeneid or Metamorphoses. The precision and concision of the Latin language made these messages come across sharply and to the point: sede, laxe Octavi: ‘sit [on this], gaping-arse Octavius’; peto landicam Fulviae: ‘I’m aiming at Fulvia’s clitoris’; salve Octavi, felas: ‘Hello Octavius, you suck cock’; L. Antoni calve; Fulvia, culum pandite; ‘L. Antonius you baldy; Fulvia, spread you cheeks’ (during that period, Romans saw baldness as a disfigurement subject to ridicule; Cesar had a big chip on his shoulder because of his thinning hair). This taunting tradition has endured: American military staff scribbled their names and messages on ‘Fat Man’, the bomb that obliterated Nagasaki, and today you can pay to send a custom message on artillery shells that Ukrainian soldiers are firing at the Russians. Image: Greek lead bullets with a winged thunderbolt on one side and the inscription “ΔΕΞΑΙ” (Dexai) meaning ‘take that’ or ‘catch’ on the other side. 4th c. BC © Marie-Lan Nguyen, British Museum:

An attempt, using skeletons and grave goods, to see if gender was “nonbinary” in ancient European cultures

May 28, 2023 • 9:30 am

This new article, published in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal (click on title screenshot below), floats an idea that in principle is interesting, but in practice breaks down in both theory and practice.   And that idea is this:  one can determine the degree of “non-binary” genders in ancient societies by examining their graves.

One can, with a fair (but not complete) degree of accuracy, determine the sex of a skeleton, using either its pelvis, its head, or a combination of features. You then look at a bunch of European graves from the Early Neolithic  through the Late Bronze Age (ca 7500 to 3200 years ago), and see if the sex of the skeleton comports with the “grave goods” buried along with it. Some grave goods—especially weapons—suggest that the individual buried was of male gender, while others, like hair ornaments, beads, or needles, suggest that the associated skeleton was of female gender.  You then correlated the biological sex of the individuals with the individuals’ “gender” as indicated by the grave goods. The proportion of “mismatches” among total graves is said to show the degree of “non-binary” people in the local society.

Pape and Ialongo’s “binary” hypothesis is that gender will match sex nearly all of the time, while the alternative is that there will be an appreciable number of mismatches. Of course, for most graves we lack both types of information or one type of information: either the identified biological sex or grave-good gender.

This hypothesis got a lot of attention a while back with reports of sex-determined female skeletons associated with weapons, in particular the publication in 2017 of a 1000-year-old Viking grave whose occupant was a female (determined by bone DNA and therefore accurate). But she was named the “Birka female Viking warrior” because her body was associated with  “a sword, an axe, a spear, armour-piercing arrows, a battle knife, two shields, and two horses, one mare and one stallion”. A female skeleton with male “grave-goods”!

Here’s the grave (sketch from Wikipedia):

This gave rise to speculations that women were often warriors in Viking times, like Xena, Wonder Woman, or the women in Wakanda; and heartened feminists and those who appreciate women behaving out of their “gender roles”. Some have even suggested that the Birka warrior was a trans man.

Unfortunately, as both Wikipedia and Science noted (see other criticisms here), we can’t at all be sure of this conclusion, and there are now enough doubts from scholars to cast the “woman Viking warrior” hypothesis in doubt. Perhaps she was not a warrior but was buried like one—she might have been a leader. Or she could have been a very rare exception, a Viking “tomboy” who, like Joan of Arc, liked to fight. We’ll probably never know the answer, but given that the skeleton was definitely XX, the woman-warrior theory can’t be definitively be ruled out—nor can it be ruled in.

At any rate, click to read the article, and note the first three words of the title:

The authors do accept a biological definition of sex and a “social-construct” definition of “gender,” though they admit that some of their colleagues also regard sex as a social construct, in which case this study would have no meaning,

The authors attempted sex and gender matching in 1252 individuals taken from 7 European sites. (The study was based on previously published data, not the authors’ own measurements or observations.)  Because of the difficulties of identifying sex in young skeletons, and the imperfect accuracy of knowing sex from skeletal morphology—that was judged from different studies matching DNA with bones—they got data on 297-299 individuals, or about 24% of the skeletons.  Before we look at the results, let’s note a few problems with this analysis (to be sure, the authors are aware of these):

a.) The errors in determining sex from skeletons.  The authors note that, from other studies, a pelvis can diagnose sex with 85%-99% accuracy, while a skull with mandibles gives a 70-90% accuracy. Thus some of the data may be polluted by inaccurate sex determination.

b.) Some grave goods may not indicate sex. Weapons, the authors argue, are always indicators of a male skeleton (as are animal teeth or boar tusks), but what about ceramic vessels, beads, and wire? Those are always taken to indicate females, but we have no strong assurance of this, though items like hair spirals and needles are likely to indicate women. But what if a buried male didn’t have a weapon? Would they put one in the grave anyway?

c.) Grave goods may have gotten mixed up among burial sites.

d.) Even if a weapon in a female grave indicates that she was some kind of warrior, does that mean she was “nonbinary”? That term has various meanings, today usually a person who identifies as both male and female, sometimes fluctuating over time. Does a woman who carried a weapon fit this description because “fighting” is a man’s role? Does that mean that Joan of Arc, or Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird were “nonbinary”? Did they identify as such? (I doubt it.) I’m not so sure about using that term (as we’ll see below, there’s some ideology lurking in this analysis).  Are tomboys or effeminate men considered “nonbinary”?  I haven’t seen them described that way.

But of course the biggest problem above is a): misidentification of the sex of skeletons, as the earlier publications didn’t use DNA. If the proportion of mismatches is close to the proportion of misidentified skeletons (as it seems to be), then the “nonbinary” individuals could simply be identification errors.

So let’s see what the authors found (they used old versus “new” data differing in re-analysis of “bone sex”):

Match of sex and gender:  26.5% or 27.2% of the total sample

Mismatch of sex and gender (“non-binary”): 2.9% or 2.2% of the total sample

The rest of the data had either no determination of both sex or gender, or determination of only one.

Thus, of all the doubly-identified individuals, between 8% and 10% of them were “non-binary”.  Given the error rates for misidentifying sex using bones, this is within the error range, and so the “discordant” identifications could simply represent misidentifications of sex. The authors do recognize this:

The general results of our analysis seem to support traditional models: if one singles out the cases for which we have both sex and gender determinations (based roughly on one-third of the total sample, mostly adults: Fig. 5), the association pattern appears overwhelmingly binary, with 90.0 per cent (or 92.6 per cent considering the new data) of burials showing matching sex and gender indicators (Fig. 6). Finally, we can also observe that for 10.0 per cent (or c. 7.4 per cent based on the new osteological data) of this portion of deceased individuals the osteological and archaeological determinations contradict each other.

But they still hold out for a possible “non-binary” explanation (my emphasis):

There are two possible ways to interpret this portion: a minimalist approach—in line with the usual procedures—would suggest interpreting it as a product of the error margins of determination methods; as an alternative, one could acknowledge that non-binary minorities were systematically represented in the burial rite of prehistoric Europe. . .

. . . We conclude that available data—despite potential biases—support the hypothesis that some degree of gender variance was formally accepted in the burial rite of prehistoric Central European societies. However, the error margins of traditional methods of sex determination cannot be accurately quantified, hence the actual size of the ‘non-binary minority’ is still largely uncertain.

The authors are tenacious in saying that there was “gender variance” in these early societies, despite the fact that there’s no good basis for that conclusion. And yes, there possibly were a few nonbinary individuals in these populations, though I don’t think you can judge them from this kind of analysis. To be “non-binary”, at least in the modern sense, you have to identify yourself as being both male and female, or fluctuating between them; you can’t just be recognized by your society as “man-like” if you’re a woman or vice versa.

To be conservative, I’d say that it’s most likely that the exceptions were errors in determination, though of course we do have examples of non-binary people from many modern societies. But we can’t go back to the Bronze Age and figure out what was going on. Perhaps historians know something about this.

But there’s one aspect of this paper suggesting that the research was motivated at least in part by ideology. And that’s the authors’ determination of whether the mismatches were “exceptions” or “minorities”: to me a distinction without a difference. Here’s how they define them early in the paper:

The question is what these exceptional cases actually represent: are they exceptions or minorities? The difference is crucial, as it defines the very possibility that we will ever be able to understand what these cases actually mean. From an archaeological point of view, we will never be able to understand exceptions: by definition, an exception is something that occurs so rarely that it does not provide enough statistical evidence. By the same token, as far as the perception of a certain social phenomenon is concerned, exceptions escape classification, hence they are difficult to frame within one’s world view. Minorities, on the other hand, are recurrent. No matter how small, a minority will always provide enough data to be singled out from the statistical norm and modelled consequently. Similarly, in the social domain a minority can be acknowledged by laws and explicitly assigned rights and duties.

Clearly, if you find one just mismatch (and it’s real) then it is an “exception”. But what about three, five, ten, or twenty? Are they “exceptions” or “minorities”? (Their claim that “exceptions are so rare that they do not provide enough statistical evidence”. But evidence for what?)

The authors consider the distinction between “exceptions” and “minorities” very important because while exceptions don’t have “rights and duties”, or are protected by law, “minorities” have those features.  But there is no cutoff given between “minorities” and “exceptions”!   This is very weird but it gives you a sense of the ideology lurking behind this research.

In point of fact, in modern society there’s no difference between “minorities” and “exceptions”: those whose gender doesn’t comport with their biological sex deserve exactly the same rights and protections as others—with a few exceptions like sports, prison occupancy, etc.—regardless of how common or uncommon they are.

The mask slips when the authors put this paragraph near the end of the paper:

Framing this divergence from the statistical norm as minority rather than exception helps understand its potential relevance. While an exception would be limited to a single person that is different from others—someone that is not included, and in a way unpredictable—a minority can be formally acknowledged, protected and even revered.

Revered? And can’t you acknowledge those who don’t conform to the norm no matter how rare they are?

Note that in the first paragraph above they say “exceptions” may not be one-offs but simply “sufficiently rare”, while right above they say they are “single persons”. The authors can’t seem to make up their minds.

At any rate, the last paragraph suggests—and here I’m guessing—that the authors thought that if they found an appreciably high number of discrepancies between skeletal sex and grave-good gender, that would somehow validate and revere transgender people in society. (Note that homosexuals are neither “trangender” nor “non-binary”.) But the connection between frequency and rights is nonexistent.  If murderers constituted 10% rather than a much smaller fraction of Americans, that would not give them any more rights, even if you think (as I do as a determinist) that murderers never have a choice about whether they kill someone.

At any rate, this is the kind of mishigass you can get yourself into when you try to use archeological data to justify modern social norms.  Again, I’m just guessing, for the ideology is well hidden in this paper, but I think this is the basis for the whole analysis.  And it also depends on the reader accepting that a person whose biological sex didn’t match their grave goods must have been “non-binary”.

h/t: Gavin

Lactase persistence in populations that drink milk: a classic story of human evolution re-evaluated

July 29, 2022 • 9:15 am

The classic tale of “gene-culture coevolution” in humans—the notion that cultural changes in behavior changed the selection pressures that impinged on us—is the evolution of “lactase persistence” (LP) over the past four thousand years.  LP is a trait that allows you to consume, as an adult, lots of milk or dairy products without suffering the side effects of indigestion, flatulence, or diarrhea.

Young children are able to tolerate milk while nursing, of course, but after weaning many of them no longer tolerate milk—they are lactose intolerant (LI). The ability to digest lactose goes away after weaning because the gene producing the necessary enzyme gets turned off.

The gain of LP, which enables you to drink milk and eat dairy products into adulthood without ill effect, rests on single mutations in the control region of the gene producing lactase, an enzyme that breaks down the milk sugar lactose.  These mutations have arisen independently several times, but only after humans began “pastoral” activities: drinking milk from domesticated sheep, goats, and cows. And the mutations act to keep lactase turned on even after weaning. (Why humans turn off the gene after weaning isn’t known, but presumably involved the metabolic cost of producing an enzyme that wasn’t used in our ancestors, who didn’t drink milk after weaning until about about 10,000 years ago—when farming and animal domestication began.)

Based on analysis of fossil DNA, the LP mutations began spreading through Europe (starting from what is now Turkey) about 4000 years ago. And so the classic story—one that I taught my evolution classes—is that humans began drinking milk from captive herds, and that gave an advantage to retaining the ability to digest milk even after weaning. Ergo, natural selection for the nutritional benefits of milk led to the spread of LP mutations, as their carriers may have had better health (ergo more offspring) than individuals who turn off the enzyme at weaning).

This leads to the “coevolution” that is the classic evolutionary tale: a change in human behavior (raising animals for milk) led to selection for the persistence of the milk-digesting enzyme, and thus to genetic evolution. The “coevolution” part is the speculation that being able to digest milk without side effects would cause humans to raise even more dairy animals and drink even more milk, intensifying the selection for LP, and so the gene for LP would keep increasing in frequency.

A new paper in Nature, which is being touted all over social media, argues against this classic story, suggesting that it’s more complex than previously envisioned.  Although the new results are touted as overturning the earlier story, they really don’t. There is still human genetic evolution promoted by a change in culture, and there’s still a reproductive advantage in drinking milk.

The new part of the story is simply that that reproductive advantage comes not constantly (as previously envisioned), but only during times of famine and disease, when those who couldn’t digest lactose were at a severe disadvantage because the diarrhea caused by lactose intolerance would contribute to the death of diseased or malnourished individuals. This is a twist on the main story, but doesn’t overturn it completely. There’s still the connection between culture and human evolution, and there’s still a reproductive advantage to LP that leads to natural selection and genetic evolution of our species.  What’s different is how and when the selection acts (see “the upshot” at the bottom).

Click the title screenshot below to read, or you can download the pdf here. The full reference is at the bottom, and Nature deemed this worthy of two News and Views pieces in the same issue: (here and here).

First, the authors show the spread of dairy use in the figure below (the redder the color, the more milk usage over time in Eurasia. This was estimated from looking at the frequency of pot shards that had milk residue (click to enlarge). By 1500 BC, milk use was widespread.

Caption (from Nature): Interpolated time slices of the frequency of dairy fat residues in potsherds (colour hue) and confidence in the estimate (colour saturation) using two-dimensional kernel density estimation. Bandwidth and saturation parameters were optimized using cross-validation. Circles indicate the observed frequencies at site-phase locations. The broad southeast to northeast cline of colour saturation at the beginning of the Neolithic period illustrates a sampling bias towards earliest evidence of milk use. Substantial heterogeneity in milk exploitation is evident across mainland Europe. By contrast, the British Isles and western France maintain a gradual decline across 7,000 years after first evidence of milk about 5500 BC. Note that interpolation can colour some areas (particularly islands) for which no data are present.

One reason the authors doubt the classical story is that while dairying and milk-drinking by adults began about 10,000 years ago, the gene for LP (determined from sequencing “fossil DNA”) didn’t spread widely until about 4,000 years ago.  Why is that? The mutation for LP is dominant, which means it could have spread widely very quickly, as even carriers of one copy would have a reproductive advantage. This temporal disparity is what led the authors to propose their alternative hypotheses for the spread of the LP alleles (there are several).

Further, when the authors tried to correlate the frequencies of the LP allele with the frequency of milk use (the classical explanation), they found no correlation—that pattern was indistinguishable from a general rise in frequency over Europe regardless of milk use.

One other set of data led to the new hypothesis. That is the observation that LI people in both Britain and China can still drink lots of milk without suffering any measurable health or reproductive effects (milk drinking has recently proliferated in China).  Of course, things are different now from 4000 years ago, but one of the differences led to the authors’ two hypotheses: the spread of the LP allele was promoted especially strongly in prehistoric times by the prevalence of famine and of disease—with the latter coming often from animals, either domesticated or those that hang around settlements. (As the authors note: “about 61% of known and about 75% of emerging human infectious disease today come from animals”).

So the authors erected two hypotheses, the crisis mechanism and the chronic mechanism. I’ll let them describe the hypotheses that they tested (my emphases)

Given the widespread prehistoric exploitation of milk shown here and its relatively benign effects in healthy LNP individuals today, we propose two related mechanisms for the evolution of LP. First, as postulated in ref. 24, the detrimental health consequences of high-lactose food consumption by LNP individuals would be acutely manifested during famines, leading to high but episodic selection favouring LP. This is because lactose-induced diarrhoea can shift from an inconvenient to a fatal condition in severely malnourished individuals and high-lactose (unfermented) milk products are more likely to be consumed when other food sources have been exhausted. This we name the ‘crisis mechanism’, which predicts that LP selection pressures would have been greater during times of subsistence instability. A second mechanism relates to the increased pathogen loads—especially zoonoses—associated with farming and increased population density and mobility. Mortality and morbidity due to pathogen exposure would have been amplified by the otherwise minor health effects of LNP in individuals consuming milk—particularly diarrhoea—due to fluid loss and other gut disturbances, leading to enhanced selection for LP We name this the ‘chronic mechanism’, which predicts that LP selection pressures would have increased with greater pathogen exposure.

In other words, the reproductive advantage of having the LP allele came from the reproductive disadvantage (through death) of lactose-intolerant people during times of famine and disease.

They tested the two hypotheses by correlating indices of famine and of disease deduced from archeological and paleontological evidence:

Crisis mechanism: “Subsistence instability”, or famine, was assessed by prehistoric fluctuations in population size, which, the authors say, is correlated with the likelihood of famine (they provide no evidence for the latter supposition). But the correlation gives a significantly better fit to the pattern of LP allele frequency than just assuming uniform selection over time and space.

Chronic mechanism:  The authors hypothesized that the frequency of disease would correlate with the likelihood of “zoonoses” (diseases caught from animals), which itself would correlate with temporal variation in settlement densities.  These data, which to me would be correlated with “prehistoric fluctuations in population size” above, also explained LP allele frequencies better than an assumption of uniform selection.

Of course, there’s no reason (and the authors say this) that both mechanisms couldn’t operate together. Curiously, though, indices of the density of domestic animals did not support the “chronic mechanism” though measurements of the proportion of wild animals around humans did.  This implies that, if the “chronic mechanism” is correct, people were getting sick not from their horses, dogs, cattle, or sheep, but from wild animals (perhaps from eating them).

Other hypotheses that the authors mention but didn’t test include “drinking milk as a relatively pathogen-free fluid”, allowing “earlier weaning and thus increased fertility.” I would add that if diseases are causal here, they could come not from being around animals, but having drunk contaminated water, giving an advantage to those who prefer milk. But there’s no way of assessing that from the archaeological record.

The upshot: On the last page of the paper the authors say that they’ve debunked the prevailing narrative:

The prevailing narrative for the coevolution of dairying and LP has been a virtuous circle mechanism in which LP frequency increased through the nutritional benefits and avoidance of negative health costs of milk consumption, facilitating an increasing reliance on milk that further drove LP selection. Our findings suggest a different picture. Milk consumption did not gradually grow throughout the European Neolithic period from initially low levels but rather was widespread at the outset in an almost entirely LNP population. We show that the scale of prehistoric milk use does not help to explain European LP allele frequency trajectories and thus it also cannot account for selection intensities. Furthermore, we show that LP status has little impact on modern milk consumption, mortality or fecundity and milk consumption has little or no detrimental health impact on contemporary healthy LNP individuals.

Instead, they say that they find support for the increase of LP alleles through both famine or pathogen exposure.

Well, the data are the data, and their indices comport better with those data than does the classical hypothesis—the “prevailing narrative.” I’m still not convinced that their proxies for famine or disease are actually correlated with famine and disease themselves, but other researchers will undoubtedly dig into that.

What I want to emphasize is that if the work of Evershed et al. is accurate, it still does not overturn the story of gene-culture “coevolution”.  The “coevolution” is still there, the fact that a change in human culture influenced our evolution is still there, and the fact that drinking milk conferred higher reproductive fitness is still there. What has changed is only the nature of selection. Granted, that’s a significant expansion in understanding the story, but to listen to the media—social or otherwise—you’d think that the “classical narrative” is completely wrong. It isn’t. It’s still correct in the main, but the way selection acted may be different from what we used to think. The media love “evolution scenarios are wrong” tales, and that seems to be the cast of at least some stuff I’ve seen in the news and on social media.


Reference: Evershed, R.P., Davey Smith, G., Roffet-Salque, M. et al. 2022. Dairying, diseases and the evolution of lactase persistence in Europe. Nature.

Tuesday felids

May 3, 2022 • 1:00 pm

We are now in Cadiz, Spain, at the location below that’s circled in red.

and visited a small underground archaeological dig from Phoenician times.  There I saw remains of a cat from the 8th century BC:

Here it is below. I believe the earliest evidence for cat domestication is about 10,000 years ago from Cyprus. This one is considerably younger, and these don’t look like cat bones to me, but I assume the experts know what they’re digging up.

Finally, I found a gorgeous stray tabby kitten on the streets of Rabat, Morocco, and couldn’t resist petting it. It promptly crawled into my lap and, purring, fell asleep. I was very sad that I couldn’t bring it home with me (“Rabat” would be a great name for a cat). And I couldn’t do what Muhammad was reputed to do: cut off the sleeve of his robe when the call to prayer came but his favorite cat, Muezza, was sleeping on it.

This afternoon we’re off to Jerez for a sherry tasting (most other folks are in Seville, but I’ve been there.)

Today’s readings

February 13, 2021 • 1:15 pm

Here are a couple of readings for your weekend delectation. Click on the screenshots to read them. I’ve quoted an excerpt from each, and Sullivan’s piece may be paywalled:

In The Guardian, Adam Rutherford asks us to see Darwin as a man of his time, complex and imperfect by today’s moral lights, but not to be erased or cast aside. I’ve written much of what’s in this column before, but it’s good to see Adam agree.

No one sensible is calling for the cancelling of Darwin, though that does not mean that he and his work are exempt from historical reassessment. His descriptions of differences between the sexes and various human populations are well documented and studied, and some of it now makes for uncomfortable reading. He was right about some of the most important ideas anyone ever had, and wrong about others. Unlike the work of Galton, his ideas did not generate policy implications, which, at least in Galton’s case, were enacted around the world for much of the 20th century with genocidal consequences. These distinctions require discussion, scholarship, context and nuance, and above all, they should be intellectually honest.

Who knows what we will be scalded for in 150 years’ time. This is the process of history. Modern debates framed along the spurious lines that we cannot change history, and therefore should cast our statues in aspic, fail to understand that history, by definition, is always changing. It is the past, not history, that is fixed, and the job of historians is to constantly reassess it with new discoveries and new analysis in our current culture.

This is ultimately why The Descent of Man is my favourite Darwin book, because even the greatest of us are merely people – complex and flawed. It is a deeply humanist book. Darwin casts aside the idea that “savage races” are distinct from the civilised, while using language that bears the indelible stamp of imperial dominance. Yet at the same time, he sees that humankind’s strength lies in cooperation, liberalism and kindness. . .

From John McWhorter’s Substack column; “It Bears Mentioning” (free, but you should subscribe):

McWhorter attacks several tropes implying that structural racism is alive, well, and operating today. A sample, with the tropes in italics:

The role of Black labor in building the Southern economic infrastructure has been routinely denied.

Okay, has been – but the use of the perfect here is subtle. Elvis has left the building – it implies that his leaving rings with import here in the present, unlike Elvis left the building. Just who, today, is denying black people’s role here? Which professionals? Which people anyone listens to? Or, if the denial was common coin in the past – which it was – then precisely what do we do with that in the today in which we live?

The contributions that Black scholars have made in the humanities, the life sciences and the natural sciences have been lost because of segregated workplaces.

Have been – okay. But which contributions of this kind are being “lost” today, anymore than, of course, those “lost” by pretty much all scholars, since none but a sliver of scholarship ever really sees the light of day? Would a trawl of the books covered by The New York TimesThe Washington PostThe Atlantic and The New Yorker actually reveal a downplaying of important black work?

The work of Black creative artists has been disregarded since it became appropriated into the national cultural apparatus.

Can we really say this especially of America since last spring, when so very much welcome attention has been paid to black art of all kinds? Does the current situation really justify this acrid judgment?

Note that in certain circles, my very posing of these questions – just asking questions – is considered deeply obnoxious, arrogant, inappropriate. That feeling is so deep-seated that you can forget that it isn’t normal.

From Andrew Sullivan’s The Weekly Dish. The title speaks for itself:

. . . the violence was real and, in several cases, fatal. And no clownishness should distract us from the gravity of the event, or who was responsible for it. For four years, we had a president who expressed contempt for democratic procedures; who had long viewed every US election as rigged; who refused in 2016 and 2020 to respect the results in advance; who claimed millions of illegal aliens had voted for his opponent in 2016; who attempted to stop the counting of votes after election night; who tried to lean on state officials and legislators to reverse certification; who falsely claimed, without any credible evidence, that he had won in a landslide; who wouldn’t attend his successor’s inauguration; and who has refused even now to concede he lost at all.

There has never been a president who has done any of this: express contempt for the democracy he leads, refuse to accept the legitimate results of an election, and attempt to stay in power by marshaling violence in the streets. There are no parallels among any first-world modern democracies for this kind of behavior by a head of state or prime minister. No Western leader, after losing an election, has ever insisted he actually won it in a landslide — and refused to grant any legitimacy to his successor. It is such a grotesque violation of a president’s oath of office that, only a few years ago, it would have been deemed an impossibly far-fetched scenario.

Impeaching and convicting a president for this is therefore a no-brainer. It is the bare minimum we need to do to restore democratic stability. That any Senator is even considering acquitting Trump is a scandal, a sign that one major party has abandoned even the most basic rules of democratic life. That so many “constitutional” Republicans, like Mike Lee of Utah or Rand Paul of Kentucky, have managed to find some arcane way to justify this excrescent assault on our democracy reveals their moral depravity and intellectual incoherence. That so many ordinary Republicans can justify this in any way — and still insist that the election was stolen — is a sign that one party in our system has effectively ceased to be a democratic one at all.

From Wilfred Reilly, a black man, at Spiked. Stuff like this will undoubtedly get him labeled a “self-hating black”. Here he talks about several gaps between blacks and whites—inequities—that are universally ascribed to present racism. Reilly disagrees:

Thirty years ago, economist June O’Neill unpacked a well-known ratio of 82:100 for the earnings of black vs white men. Less technically put, black guys made about 80 cents for each dollar that white guys earned. This gap was – then as now – almost universally attributed to racism. But O’Neill pointed out that simply adjusting for variables like median age, where someone lives and years of education closed the gap substantially.

The most common age for a black person in the US is 27, while the most common age for a white person is 58, and blacks are far more likely than whites to live in the south – where wages are lower for everyone.

Adding tested IQ to the equation closed the ratio to 95.5:100, and adjusting for years of work experience (which is closely related to age) closed it to 99.1:100. O’Neill followed up this research in 2005, finding similar results. Controversial as it sounds in our hyper-politicised society, people of different races with the same qualifications succeed to roughly the same degree today. While few would deny that proportionately more black Americans are poor today because of past conflict and oppression, the effect of contemporary racism seems to be in the order of a few percentage points.

Note that he’s talking about contemporary racism, not past racism, whose reality he readily admits. But the solutions to past versus present racist practices may be very different.

And some archaeology. I didn’t know any of this, but geologists have long known that the stones of Stonehengs were quarried in Wales—a long way away. Now there’s increasing evidence, recounted in this article, that the big stones of Stonehenge were actually erected in a similar circular structure in Wales, and the dragged 175 miles (they didn’t have wheels).

You can read the original paper in the journal Antiquityand it all fits: stone positions, dates, and the same “function” of showing the solstice. Here’s the remnants of the original circle in Wales (I’ve put an arrow by the original circle, just recently undearthed).

As one archaeologist says about The Big Drag from Wales to the present site:

[Dr. Parker Pearson] favors a land route, over which the massive stones, each weighing up to four tons, could be hauled on rows of poles and wooden sledges by as many as 400 people. “This would have been like going to the moon,” he said, “but the Neolithic equivalent.”

Another Jesus relic goes down the drain

March 21, 2020 • 12:30 pm

UPDATE: Greg found the debunking paper from J. Archaeological Science Reports (Science got the name wrong), and a judicious inquiry will land you the paper.


I’m about to start reading the book below, which was published on March 1 and was kindly sent me by the author, Andrea Nicolotti, a professor at the University of Turin: specifically “Professor of History of Christianity and Churches”. That’s ironic because, according to Andrea, the Shroud of Turin is a bogus relic—something that most people acquainted with the evidence have realized for a while. As Andrea wrote me:

There is no evidence that the shroud comes from the time of Christ. On the other hand, there are three major contrary proofs: 1) the historical documents, which points to the 14th century (that was showed for the first time by a serious French historian more than 100 years ago); 2) the radiocarbon analysis, which points to the 14th century; 3) the study of the type of fabric, which points to the 14th century. Obviously these three arguments are ignored or manipulated by believers in authenticity. In my book you will find a detailed discussion of the historical matter (point 1) and the story of the C14 radiometric dating (point 2). I have also published an in-depth study about the type of fabric, but in another book (point 3)—unfortunately only in Italian. In the book you will receive I can’t go deeper into all the scientific aspects, because it remains a history book. In any case, I know all the literature about the argument, and if you will have any doubts on some issues I can provide you with the bibliography.

It’s a long book—524 pages—but I’m looking forward to finally seeing all the arguments collected in one place.

As the cover says, the Shroud is “the world’s most famous relic” (at least of Christianity), but another famous one has just bit the dust, at least according to Ann Gibbons’s new article in Science (click on screenshot). Her piece recounts a new analysis published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, a journal I can’t access through my library.

It’s a short piece about what was thought to be the “Nazareth Inscription” a Greek inscription on a piece of marble acquired in 1878 by a curator at the Louvre, and left behind with a note that the stone “came from Nazareth”. The Greek inscription is an “Edict of Caesar” that threatens death to anyone who robs the grave that the marble presumably topped.

Naturally, Biblical scholars—often faithheads who want to prove the truth of the Bible rather than question it—took the curator’s note and the inscription to mean that, yes, Jesus himself was in that tomb. The article, says epigraphist (one who studies inscriptions) John Bodel of Brown University, was “considered by many Biblical scholars to be the oldest physical artifact connected to Christianity.”

Well, rational people should abandon that view, according to the new article in the journal by Kyle Harper. Chemically analyzing the marble, Harper showed that it was a close match to the chemical composition of rock from a marble quarry on the Greek island of Kos. That doesn’t rule out that the marble was mined in Kos and transported to Nazareth, but Bodel considers that unlikely.

Further, says Gibbons, other epigraphists argue that the kind of Greek used on the inscription “was rare outside of Greece and Turkey.”

So what is this thing, if not a warning to leave the bones of Jesus alone? Gibbons summarizes the paper’s conclusions:

Based on the style of the inscription and the age of the quarry, Harper and colleagues propose the object was carved in the first century B.C.E. for a ruler on Kos known as Nikias the Tyrant. Sometime after his death in about 20 B.C.E., angry citizens of Kos pried open his tomb and dragged out his corpse, according to an ancient Greek poem.

Then-Emperor Augustus, who knew of Nikias, may have ordered the tablet to re-establish law and order in the region, Harper says, although that inference has not yet been proved. Harper’s team plans to use stable isotope analysis on other Roman and Greek marble artifacts, too, he says. “We want to apply this to other tales.”

And another beautiful idea destroyed by ugly facts.  It’s curious, but not surprising, that every time a bit of evidence offered to support Jesus’s existence is debunked, “Biblical scholars” and believers don’t reduce their belief in a Bayesian way. But when evidence is adduced in favor of Jesus (e.g., they once thought the Shroud of Turin was real because they said it contained pollen from spring-blooming flowers of the Holy Land), they strengthen their belief. This is no way to deal with evidence. But it’s Christianity, Jake!

h/t: Ken


Ilhan Omar about to introduce pro-boycott (read: pro-BDS) resolution in Congress

July 18, 2019 • 9:00 am

If you had any doubts about Ilhan Omar’s Islamist and anti-Israel agenda in Congress, have a look at her latest attempt at legislation: House Resolution 496 (see pdf here).

The two screenshots below, which link to the articles, are from the Al-Monitor and the Forward, respectively.

From the Forward:

The bill was prepared by Omar, her fellow Muslim Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, and Democrat John Lewis of Georgia, an African-American with a long history of civil rights activism. (This underscores the sad fact that the black community is becoming increasingly dismissive of Israel’s right to exist. The Black Muslims became explicit anti-Semites a long time ago.)

If you read the resolution, you’ll see that it’s clever, not mentioning BDS but instead describing boycotts that were harder to criticize; and also affirming Americans’ civil rights to boycott nations or companies—which doesn’t need affirming. But it also criticizes recent legislation created by several states to punish companies that cut ties with Israeli companies operating from the West Bank. (I happen to agree that states shouldn’t be regulating companies in this way.) That legislation has been declared unconstitutional several times, and so it’s up to state governments and then the courts to confect such legislation and then adjudicate its legality. Congress, as far as I know, can’t make a law that prohibits states from penalizing countries via boycotts.

To support the “social justice” of her resolution, Omar uses several examples of boycotts, of course leaving out BDS resolutions:

“(1) attempting to slow Japanese aggression in the Pacific by boycotting Imperial Japan in 1937 and 1938;

(2) boycotting Nazi Germany from March 1933 to October 1941 in response to the dehumanization of the Jewish people in the lead-up to the Holocaust;

(3) the United States Olympic Committee boycotting the 1980 summer Olympics in Moscow in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the preceding year; and

(4) leading the campaign in the 1980s to boycott South African goods in opposition to apartheid in that country;”

How convenient of Omar to use boycotts of Nazi Germany as a way to leverage boycotts of Israel!

But the legislative proviso is largely irrelevant, for the real point of Omar et al.’s legislation is exactly what you’d think: to publicly punish Israel by affirming BDS and to give a Congressional imprimatur to that punishment.  In fact, Omar has made that explicit in interviews. From the Forward (my emphasis):

Representative Ilhan Omar introduced on Tuesday a Congressional resolution defending the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.

The resolution does not explicitly mention Israel, but does state that “all Americans have the right to participate in boycotts in pursuit of civil and human rights at home and abroad” and criticizes anti-boycott legislation that has been passed in more than half of the 50 states. (Some of those laws have been overturned for violating the First Amendment.)

“We are introducing a resolution … to really speak about the American values that support and believe in our ability to exercise our first amendment rights in regard to boycotting,” the Democrat from Minnesota told Al-Monitor. “And it is an opportunity for us to explain why it is we support a nonviolent movement, which is the BDS movement.”

The Al-Monitor quote is exact, and can be seen at the first link above.

Now this resolution doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of passing, much less even making it to the House floor: as the Forward says, “Democratic leaders are reportedly planning to soon introduce their own resolution condemning the BDS movement. That resolution has 340 co-sponsors.”  If you want to say that Omar is indeed making legislation rather than tweeting and making speeches, here’s one example of that “legislation”.

And the 340-Democrat-sponsored condemnation is just: BDS is basically an anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist movement, its leaders deeply infused with the desire to get rid of Israel as a nation. If you don’t already know that, I’ve already adduced lots of evidence in previous posts.

At any rate, let there be no mistake about Omar and Tlaib’s aims in Congress: to undermine and destroy Israel and, I think, to push an Islamist agenda. While I defend their right to do this, and condemn Trump’s racist remarks about the four Justice Democrat—who include Tlaib and Omar—I see these two as anti-Semites who will use their time in Congress to forward an agenda of Islamism.  (You could claim that, at least for Omar, this reflects the will of her constituents, but I don’t know what their will is, and of course their are non-Muslims in her district as well.)

Elder of Ziyon analyzes this call for boycotts and explains why it’s more anti-Jewish than anti-Israel:

Even if this resolution gets defeated, their underlying logic that implies that Israel is a violator of human rights on par with Nazi Germany will be debated in Congress and enshrined in the proceedings of Congress forever. As I have recently noted, the debate itself is what BDS is after, not the boycott – they want to normalize anti-Zionism and its antisemitic components as a mainstream opinion.

As I have noted in the past, BDS is explicitly antisemitic. The call to boycott “Israeli” goods does not extend to good created by Arab Israelis. The call to boycott “settlement” goods only applies to goods created by Israeli Jews, not Israeli Arabs. A look through the businesses in industrial parks in Mishor Adumim, Barkan, Atarot and other “settlements” show quite a few with Arab names, like Radwan Brothers Refrigeration and Air Conditioning or Khaled Ali Metals or the Shweiki Glass Factory.

None of them are on the lists of “Israeli” companies to boycott. Because they are not owned by Jews.

Note well that these companies are owned by Israeli Arabs, who are citizens of Israel and live behind the “Green Line”. But they’re not called “settlers”—only the Jews in that area are given that name. Regardless of what you think about Israelis in the West Bank—and I think that any two-state solution will have to displace some of them—the fact that the targets are Israeli Jewish but not Israeli Arab companies bespeaks not an attempt to undermine Israel, but to undermine Jews.

Just as I (and Omar) contend that Trump is racist, I also contend that Omar and Tlab are anti-Semitic, and have behaved in accordance with that view since taking office. It will be interesting to see how Ocasio-Cortez votes if this bill ever comes to the floor. One thing is sure: although she may vote in favor of it, or may abstain, she won’t vote against it. After all, that would cause fissures in “The Squad.” In the past, Ocasio-Cortez has avoided answering all questions about BDS, and has waffled on Israel, about which her knowledge seems sketchy, and has also waffled on a two-state solution, which she once approved but then babbled incoherently when asked if she still supported it.

The usual anti-Semitic organizations are of course in favor of Omar et al.’s bill: here’s the odious and ill named “Jewish Voice for Peace”, known for their anti-Semitic activities on college campuses.

National Geographic touts a 3-D film on the “tomb of Christ” (now with bonus comment by Alvin Plantinga)

April 25, 2018 • 12:30 pm

UPDATE: Note that an “Alvin Plantinga” has commented favorably on the National Geographic fiction (comment #14 below). I can’t be sure that it’s the Alvin Plantinga, known for convoluted Sophisticated Theology™, but I’m guessing it is. If you respond to him, be polite!


What the bloody hell is happening with National Geographic? Article after article is about religion—often Christianity—and all of these latter assume that Jesus was a real person (the implication is a divine person). Is this the way the Murdochs, who now have a controlling stake in the magazine, expect to turn a profit?

Reader Scott called my attention to a new exhibition at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C. Here, Ceiling Cat help me, is the announcement (click on screenshot to go to page):

At the bottom of the photo you can read this: “PLAN YOUR VISIT: Exhibition features a short 3-D film with active 3-D glasses. Exhibition not recommended for guests susceptible to motion sickness or dizziness.”

Not recommended for those susceptible to fairy tales, either!

The whole page and its accompanying pdf pamphlet cast no doubt on the claim that this is indeed the tomb of Christ, nor, indeed, on the existence of Christ himself. The only nod to skepticism is this brief statement in the pdf file:

EVERYONE, WHETHER DEVOUT OR NOT, can feel a spiritual power when visiting holy sites such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, home to what many Christians believe is the site of Jesus’ burial and resurrection.

Can feel”? Or “will  feel”? (There’s a difference.) At any rate, the whole allure of this exhibit is the claim that it really is Jesus’s burial spot, something that couldn’t be verified unless there were some contemporary information inside the tomb.

But as we all know, and which Biblical scholars are loath to admit, there is no evidence for the existence of a Jesus person outside of Scripture—and if he existed, there should be. I’d love for National Geographic to publish a scrupulously honest article: “Jesus: Did he really exist?” Imagine how subscriptions would drop!

For example, in the first video below, produced by the magazine, it exhorts you at 40 seconds in to “Team up with conservation experts and historians as they race to restore the tomb of Christ.” Really? Is there no doubt about this? And get a load of the “science and faith” bit at the end, as if they are complementary ways to establish the provenance of this tomb.

In the second video, also by National Geographic, they open the sealed tomb! At 1:34, the caption appears: “This is the first time that anyone alive today has seen the holy bed.” That, of course, presumes it’s the holy bed. Do they expect to find an engraving that says “Jesus slept here”?

Of course there are no remains or other indications of what was in this spot, but that of course is just what the Bible predicts! In this case, the absence of evidence IS evidence.

At best the archaeologists might be able to date the cavity to around the time Jesus is supposed to have lived, but that will convince only the credulous. There’s a reason they’re called “sheep.”

When did National Geographic completely abandon its scientific bent to pander to the faithful? If you still subscribe, why?

National Geographic again osculates Christianity: touts possible discovery of Jesus’s tomb

November 28, 2017 • 10:30 am

For several years I’ve been pointing out National Geographic’s increasing descent into religious osculation, its lips placed firmly at the level of the Christian tuchas.  They love, for instance, to write articles about connecting Mary and Jesus to archaeology, which, though hardly conclusive, act as confirmation bias for Christians who aren’t comfortable accepting the Gospels based on faith alone. Those people need evidence and National Geographic gives it to them. If Christians didn’t want real empirical evidence, articles like this one wouldn’t be published.

Here, for instance, is one of those articles that gives succor to Christians who are encouraged to think that Jesus’s tomb has been located. Despite the site’s disclaimers (“purported tomb”), everything in the piece, including a video featuring an enthusiastic pro-Jesus professor, points toward the conclusion that yes, Jesus’s tomb has been found (sans bones, of course).

What, exactly was found? Well, a limestone tomb beneath Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre that was apparently discovered by the Romans and supposedly turned into a shrine around AD 326. The evidence for its site as Jesus’s burial place?? A marble slab (engraved with a cross) over the cave, which is taken for evidence of a shrine (e.g., Jesus), and the dating of the mortar affixing the slab to the limestone to about 345 AD.  That’s about it. Since this was either during Constantine’s reign (the Roman emperor who became a Christian) or shortly after he died, one can confect a story that Christian Romans were making memorial of Jesus’s tomb.

Against this conclusion are the facts that the “tomb” contained several niches for different bodies (this is a bit unclear), that there is no dating that it existed around 33 AD (when Jesus was supposedly crucified), the absence of any writing on the slab to indicate that Jesus was buried within, any evidence of the bones (and of course there wouldn’t be any since he was bodily resurrected), and the nonexistence of extra-Biblical evidence for Jesus’s existence as a person.  Christians would argue, of course, that Jesus wouldn’t get a new tomb, but his body simply dumped with others, and of course would scoff at the paucity of evidence for a real-life Jesus.

Regardless, what’s clear here is that National Geographic has abandoned any journalistic objectivity or skepticism, assuming that Jesus really existed and was crucified, and and has failed to point out the weaknesses of its case. I wonder why any atheist or science-minded person would even subscribe to this rag any more.

Here’s the memorial over “Jesus’s tomb”; the article doesn’t show the “tomb” itself.


h/t: Graham