Amelia Peabody's biographer, Barbara Mertz, enters the Field of Rushes

If you like historical mysteries then you probably already know about Amelia Peabody, the late Victorian sleuth.  Peabody's colourful and somewhat forceful personality was matched only by that of her husband Emerson ("the greatest Egyptologist of this or any other era").

As you might guess, Peabody and Emerson did all their best work in Egypt.  They solved crimes while digging at famous archaeological sites, and helping out their less experienced colleagues, such as young Howard Carter.  Many of the crimes that Peabody solved were linked to ancient Egyptian myths or folk stories, thus creating the novel situation of an historical mystery inside an historical mystery.

Peabody's private journal fell into the hands of Barbara Mertz, herself an Egyptologist, who writing under the name Elizabeth Peters has given us a fictionalized account of Peabody's career.

It is with sadness that I learn today that Barbara Mertz has died at age 85.  She also wrote reams of other stuff, including a short series about an art history sleuth named Vicky Bliss whose boyfriend is an international thief, which I thought every bit as good as the Peabody stories.  Alas, there shall be no more.

The world's oldest organisation

I was talking to my elder daughter the other day about this question:  what is the world's oldest extant organisation?

The obvious candidate would be the Catholic Church, since it's approaching its 2000th birthday.

I think we can do better though.  My suggestion for the oldest organisation in the world is the Egyptian Public Service.

Egypt is recognizably the same country it was when Menes united the upper and lower Egypts in about 3100BC.  He must have created an organisation to run the place and I'm sure every Pharoah inherited it from his predecessor.

Even in periods when Egypt was thoroughly invaded by Persians, by Romans, by Muslims and by the French, there probably remained a small core of public servants, somewhere, who kept the basic wheels of government running.  (I'm talking about the public service here, not the governments that commanded it.)

I don't think there was any period when Egypt was so destroyed that there was no administration of any sort.  (Someone who knows Egyptian history better than me might correct that.)

If so, then the world's oldest organisation is a bit over 5,000 years old.

You too can decipher ancient texts

Thanks to The History Blog for pointing out a fascinating research project in which YOU get to decipher for-real ancient mysterious texts.  The Oxyrynchus Papyri were discovered by a couple of archaeologists, over a hundred years ago, in an ancient garbage tip.  The problem is, they're in a zillion tiny pieces.  And of course fragment shapes don't match precisely because papyrus has worn away and they don't necessarily have all the bits.  They need to identify the letters on all the fragments, so a computer can then speedily push bits back and forth until everything forms valid ancient Greek words.

So now Oxford University's enlisted the help of some astrophysicists, who are very good at sticking lots of tiny pictures together, to build a site where anyone can help them by identifying the letters on the fragments.  They need our help because computers are not conspicuously good at identifying handwritten ancient Greek.  People however are good at that sort of thing, even if they don't know a word of the language.

It's known for sure that there are some major lost works hidden in those fragments.  They've already pulled out parts of a lost play by Euripides.  

But if you come across any fragments that say Ἀτλαντὶς, just pass over them quietly, okay?

When Historical “Facts” Aren’t So Factual

Vicky Alvear Shecter is far too modest. Vicky's a regular commenter on this blog, but I'm sure lots of people don't realize she's the author of two fantastic biographies. Alexander the Great Rocks the World and, only recently, Cleopatra Rules! The Amazing Life of the Original Teen Queen. Her first young adult novel, Cleopatra's Moon, is out in summer 2011. When it comes to ancient history she knows what she's talking about. Vicky's a docent at the Michael C. Carlos Museum of Antiquities at Emory University in Atlanta. So I imposed on her to do a guest post, and here it is.

Speaking to high school kids at a Junior Classical League conference last year, I offered a word association game. When I got to “Cleopatra,” I got:


“Wow,” I remember thinking. “They went from queenly to unseemly in a matter of seconds!” The spirit of Augustus Caesar must have danced a little jig of victory because 2,000 years after his propaganda war against the queen, we are still maligning her with insults related to her ultimately unknowable (and irrelevant) sex life.

What’s worse, little has changed since Augustus worked up Romans into a frenzy of outrage, fear and loathing for a powerful woman.

“Tell me,” I asked the teens. “What’s the first word you use to disparage a girl you don’t like or that you find threatening.”

“Slut,” they admitted a bit sheepishly. “Whore.”

Augustus’ model for taking a strong woman down, it seems, went deeper than we could even imagine. We are still acting it out today.

And yet, when it comes to Cleopatra, the facts don’t jibe. Most modern scholars now believe that the queen had only two relationships her whole life—both with Roman leaders with whom she politically aligned for the preservation of her crown and kingdom: Julius Caesar and Marc Antony.

All agree that Augustus masterminded a smear campaign against the queen of Egypt so thorough, we still automatically accept it today. We picture her as a seductress instead of as a brilliant politician who kept her kingdom from being eaten alive by Rome for twenty years. We imagine her as a femme fatale instead of the devoted mother of four children. That’s right., four.

In writing Cleopatra Rules! The Amazing Life of the Original Teen Queen—I’ve learned two important lessons:

1) Don’t automatically accept ancient “facts” as facts, and

2) Do not, under any circumstances, ask teens to play a word association game!