Language as Living History: Some Considerations

In an article from earlier this year, former Governor General of Canada Adrienne Clarkson discusses the importance of indigenous languages to the structure and cohesion of Canadian citizenship. More importantly, she states that, in light of the history of cultural genocide in Canada, most of these indigenous languages are at risk of being lost forever and, as such, we are at risk of losing a part of our history and culture. “Losing one’s language is like losing all freedom of expression. It is the loss of a human right.”

That comment resonated with me. As a student of ancient history – Ancient Greek and Roman in particular – I take it as a given that there existed a panoply of languages throughout the Ancient Mediterranean and Near East and that, although Latin became the lingua franca as its empire rose from the Hellenistic world of Alexander (whose own empire used a simplified version of Classical Greek, called “KOINE”, as its attempt at a universal language), a person may find themselves haggling with a shopkeeper or property owner in Aramaic or Gaulish or Greek or Persian or Latin. Multilingualism was a part of the ancient world the way computers are part of the modern one. And this freedom of expression – though never articulated as such – presents a delightful anachronism for me. Human rights, including the freedom of expression, is a concept that did not exist as we know it two thousand years ago. I rail against this when researching slavery in the ancient world and see scholars discussing the morality of it as one does for American slavery and other modern forms of human ownership. Even the idea of a “human being”, an “individual, or a “person” were not part of legal rights in the Roman world.

This, then, raises a question that I cycle through almost daily. How would you say something in another language? Would you say it the same way as you do in your mother tongue? What words were used to describe a legal individual, or infinity in philosophy and mathematics (which only became separate areas of study relatively recently), or the difference between public and private space? How does a dead language like Latin help me to understand my own world and my own inherited thought processes and concepts of self?

I certainly believe that learning more than one language is a huge benefit for anyone. You learn a different way of saying something, of asking a question, of struggling to be understood, and of considering how a language developed through thought and idea to functional communication. You also learn why you think and say things the way you do, for there will always be something intensely unique about your perception of the world, and that perception is informed by the way you describe it to another person, and to yourself.

Language is not only a connection to the past, it is a vibrant demonstration of the cultures of the past and present. As a person sympathizes with another, living or dead, through the words they use, that person grows more familiar with a world they might not otherwise be able – or willing – to connect to any other way. That’s the beauty of language; unlike Yoda’s famous adage, it’s all in the attempt. And in this modern world of fear and hate and distress, trying to understand each other is the most important thing we can ever do.


The Roundup #9

It’s been a hell of a week for editorial cartoonists in Canada. One day, these will be part of the archaeological work of some great doctoral student.

In the meantime, work is underway to explore the possibility that the Egyptian Queen Nefertiti, wife of Akenaten and possibly pharaoh in her own right, may have been buried in a series of rooms off the small burial space of King Tut himself. and the BBC have reported on it, as well as, surprisingly enough, The Economist (this article includes details on the theory postulated by Nicholas Reeves). I expect there will be more articles with the famous bust of Nefertiti, on display at the Neues Museum in Berlin, as the lead photo in the days and weeks and months to come. One thing I’d like to know: why would the ancient Egyptians have wanted to hide her burial chambers?

However, the highlight of the week for me personally was this article on the 6th century BCE sanctuary discovered on the Palatine in Rome. I’ve wandered past dig sites there that were cordoned off from public dalliance, and imagined the wonders beneath the hill ever since the first images were broadcast during initial tests of an area now called the Lupercal.

And with that, here’s this week’s roundup.

From the Beeb:

Archaeologists and scholars are working to decipher a series of inscriptions from a mikveh in Israel. I’m not sure if this is the same ritual bath that was discovered by accident during home renovations, but I’ll be interested to see what ultimately comes of this.

From the Smithsonian:

A feature discusses the viability of tomb raiding in China (and, by extension, elsewhere).

Evidence shows that teenage girls have been language disruptors since at least Shakespeare’s day. Like, totes!

And the oldest existing colour illustrated printed book – a 1633 volume of a Manual on Calligraphy and Painting – has been digitized to both protect the original and to allow for further study. Check out what else was recently digitized using this remarkable new technique!


Work continues at a site in Denmark believed to be a Neolithic sun temple complex.

In the first of three shipwreck stories, a gun carriage from The London has been brought to the surface. This ship carried Charles II from the Netherlands in 1660 to restore the monarchy in England, and then exploded five years later when the explosives it was carrying ignited.

The bell from the HMS Hoodthe British flagship destroyer that was sunk by the Bismarck in the Denmark Strait in 1941 with the loss of all but three of over 1,400 lives, has been raised and will become part of a memorial at the National Museum of the Royal Navy.

And finally, the mystery of one of the cargo ships of the 19th century Baron de Rothschild may have been solved with the discovery of a ship of similar description off the coast of Israel.

Restoration work is underway to maintain the breathtaking Domus Aurea of Nero in Rome.

And a plague pit from the 17th century has been discovered during construction of the new high-speed Crossrail in England near Liverpool Street Station. To demonstrate the extreme nature of the epidemic that affected England at this time, The Guardian has created an interactive map of the plague victims uncovered during this construction project.

The Roundup #1

In my first attempt at a regular posted series, and because I’ve now had a least two people tell me how much they enjoy the archaeology articles that I regularly post on Facebook, here is my first Roundup for the week of June 15th to 19th, 2015.

My favourite of the week has got to be the Spartan invasion of the London Underground.

From the Telegraph UK:

Our hopes that Palymra had avoided the destruction wrought by ISIS/ISIL on Nimrud and Hatra have been dashed…to pieces.

From the Smithsonian:

Following the filming of a documentary for PBS, Providence Pictures donated a most interesting contraption to the Colosseum in Rome, complete with revealing wolf!

Despite at least once notable typo, the Smithsonian delves into the world of Proto-Indo-European and show how a single ancient language group affects billions of people worldwide.

Arsonists have destroyed artefacts from the site of Tel Kishon in Israel. Yes, fire still wrecks things, even old things.

And a stunning, creative endeavour by two documentarians from China at the site where the Buddha statues in Bamiyan were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.


Gladiators etched in stone from the ancient Greek city of Aphrodisias. I’m such a sucker for gladiatorial imagery.

Bulgarian officials have confiscated a series of silver coins, some bearing the image of King Philip II of Macedon (father of Alexander the Great) at Sofia International Airport. Well done, Bulgaria!

Evidence of the Biblical king Eshba’al is discovered on a 3,000 year old jar in the Valley of Elah.

Dog mummies abound in the catacombs of Saqqara near the temple of Anubis.

And JSTOR Daily’s latest:

The forgotten pyramids of Sudan.


This Neat Thing – 4th January 2015

I was watching the UFC fight between Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier with the roommates last night and, among a variety of other things, I noticed the tattoo that Jones has across the right part of his chest: Philippians 4.13.

Being the uneducated heathen that I am, I went straight for my copy of the New Testament as well as that endless source of information – questionable or otherwise: the internets. Here’s what I found:

Translated as I can do all this through him who gave me strength ( or as I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me (King James version,, in Greek it reads as follows: πάντα  ἰσχύω ἐν  τῷ  ἐνδυναμοῦντί  με. (

I usually head to a Bible in Greek whenever questions about translation come up, since I feel that the Greek is much more dynamic in its ability to suggest subtlety in the ideas presented therein than English or Latin can be (indicative, subjunctive, and optative moods make for brain-bending delights). Also, the Greek translation of the Bible is much more accurate than the Vulgate (St Jerome didn’t particularly excel at the Greek language when he translated the Vulgate from Greek into Latin). Finally, the Greek version is older; closer to the time of Christ himself, and that gives me added reason to revere this kinda-not-exactly-almost primary source.

In the Greek, Philippians 4:13 is written in such a way as to, first, emphasize the individual. Greek is an inflected language and so you don’t need to include a word for ‘me’; the verb ending will identify the subject and the declension of the nouns as well as the structure of the sentence itself will identify the object. Adding the Greek for ‘me’ at the end of the sentence also emphasizes it, since most often in Greek and Latin the last word of the sentence is the most important or the most emphatic. Orators and rhetoricians would save the main verb of the sentence to the very end to keep their audience on tenterhooks as to the meaning of everything that came before, adding suspense and style and drawing attention to the man’s unique approach to an idea.

Second, because the main verb of this sentence ‘[I] can (do)’ is absent, the focus comes onto the verb in the dependent clause that refers to the strength that has been given or bestowed upon the ‘me’ of the sentence. Therefore the verbal focus of this sentence is the gift of ‘strength’ received from the unnamed ‘him’.

Third, whoever the ‘him’ is, he is either famous enough of the context of previous sentences in this passage is enough to give us the context of who he is. Another delight of Ancient Greek and Latin is that they both afford the opportunity for a speaker to ensure that his audience constantly keeps the details of the speech or text in mind; they refer to a subject and object as infrequently as possible (unless other literary or rhetorical devices are in play) and instead rely on the inflections of the language itself to keep his audience with him.

Finally, the very first word of the sentence – oftentimes equally as intentionally placed as the last word – is ‘all’. All? All what? What does ‘all’ encompass? This rather innocuous word at the beginning manages to draw the listener’s/reader’s attention on what’s coming next, but suggests to him/her the extent to which God or Christ (if indeed this is the ‘him’ referred to later on) is a god of all things.

And this is why I love Ancient Greek as a language. Indirectly, the speaker/writer has managed to focus the listener’s/reader’s mind on ideas of ‘all’, ‘strength’, and self bestowed by a mysterious figure. It gives the whole thing an air of the ephemeral, anchored by ‘me’, the corporeal, the real, the temporal, the earthly. This single sentence in Greek suggests many of the great questions that Christian scholars still grapple with, and all with six simple words. Of course, Jon Jones’ reasons for getting it tattooed on his chest likely extend to his own religious background and education and understanding of the available English translations which, as you’re probably already getting the hint, make a subtly different statement than the Greek does. I have absolutely no doubt that the original Hebrew and/or Aramaic further intensifies the complexity of this statement in Philippians. And I have equally little cause to wonder why this book made its way into the New Testament. It is a series of letters between the people of Philippi in Greece and that father of church declarative dogma, St Paul.

The letters themselves, written by Paul in prison in Rome, regularly refer to a ‘gift’ – generally understood to be the gift of the Messiah to humankind as well as the gift brought to Paul from Philippi – which instantly calls the reader’s attention back to the focus of 4:13 – the gift of strength by ‘him’, thus adding yet another layer to the description and brevity of Paul’s reverence for God and Christ. Philippians 4:13 also comes at the end of the series of letters as Paul describes his contentment as he awaits his punishment. Concepts of martyrdom and ecstatic experiences of God or Christ are well known among Roman observations of Christians being sent to their deaths. They are content, calm, happy in the belief that their god will save them from the ravages of this world by taking them to the kingdom (yet to) come, Heaven, where they may be close to the divine at last.

Whether Jon Jones is content when he enters the octagon or whether his belief that his fighting prowess has been bestowed on him by God is not the issue here. What is important to understand is that there are always a variety of ways to read a quote, both in translation, in context, and out of it, that can change one’s entire understanding of the meaning, the content, and the action of the text. It also demonstrates that it’s important to do your research before getting a tattoo, just in case what you think you’re getting is not what others will understand. There is a permanence to language – both modern and ancient, vibrant and extinct – that makes looking into its details an endlessly fascinating and very neat way to pass the time.