More on that tomb in Amphipolis

A while back I wrote about the increasingly famous dig at Amphipolis, and explained why Alexander the Great is not in there.

The plot thickened slightly a few hours ago, when the Greek Ministry of culture released pictures of a terrific mosaic.

Here's the mosaic (I've taken all these from the press release):

Yes, the centre is damaged.  But the rest of the image is remarkably clear.

The guy on the left is Hermes.  He's got the staff in his left hand (it's called a caduceus).  He's got the wacky hat.  The hat is because Hermes travels a lot.  He wears the wide-brimmed affair to keep the sun off.

He won't need it where he's going on this trip though, because Hermes is leading someone to the afterworld.

In addition to being Messenger of the Gods, Hermes also leads dead people to Hades.  In that guise he's known as Hermes Chthonios.  If you're an H.P. Lovecraft fan then you'll be familiar with that last word.  It simply means "underground".

Weirdly, the guy on the chariot is probably Lord Hades himself.  It might seem odd that Hades needs a guide to get home, but this is a standard motif.  He's sometimes depicted on a chariot racing home with a very reluctant Persephone in tow.

The extremely erudite and in this case well-informed PhDiva has suggested the guy on the chariot might be Philip II, who was the father of Alexander.

Don't get excited.  This isn't the tomb of Alexander's father, unless there's something hideously wrong with the identification of another tomb at a place called Vergina.

Personally I think the jury will be out for some time on the identification of the driver.  If it's Hades, then it really doesn't say much about who's inside.

What is very interesting is that the picture looks much like another one at Pella, which was the capital of Macedonia in the time of Philip and Alexander.  The Pella mosaic shows an Abduction of Helen by Theseus.

If you told me the same artist did both, I wouldn't argue.  More likely it was a standard style of the times.  But it makes identical dating and the link to Pella very strong.

It also raises the probability that the tomb holds someone  closely associated with Alexander.  But that's just a guess.  Who it is remains a mystery.

The oldest known curse inscribed on a cup

Constantina Katsari is a professor of ancient history at the University of Leicestershire.  As you might guess, she's Greek, and that's her specialty.  Over on her blog, she reports today the discovery of the oldest known curse inscribed on a drinking cup.

I've previously written about ancient Greek magic and curse tablets.  The Greeks believed in magic, though a very different kind to the sort we think of these days.  Mostly they wrote curse tablets.

Constantina reports the cup that's been discovered dates to 730-690BC, which puts it an astounding 250 years before the time of Nicolaos and Diotima, and the cup says I am (the cup) of Akesandros and (whoever steals me) will lose his eyes (or money).

Pythagorean Tuning

Ancient Greece had only four musical instruments that got much air play:  the aulos, which was a V-shaped double flute, pan pipes, the kithara and the lyre.  MP3 players were thin on the ground back then, and music notation was primitive and not much written, so we have almost no idea what the music sounded like.  (Though there've been attempts to reconstruct based on the few surviving lines of notation).

But weirdly, we have a very precise knowledge of how the instruments were tuned.

That's because one day, a lad by the name of Pythagoras noticed a few things about how the kithara and lyre players tuned their strings.  This is the same Pythagoras who came up with the theorem you learned in school about triangles, so it will come as no surprise that he did a minute analysis.

What Pythagoras noticed was firstly, that a string twice as long as another produced the same note but one octave down.  Ditto that a string exactly half the length was precisely one octave up.  This is a piece of pure physics that anyone could spot.

The second thing he noticed, and this was hugely important, was that musicians consistently went for a note in between the octave ends that divided the string in the ratio 3:2.

Musicians will be nodding their heads knowingly, because these days we'd call that ratio a perfect fifth.  Ancient Greek music was based entirely on perfect fifth intervals.  What's more, the interval from the perfect fifth to the next octave up is what we'd call a fourth.  We almost have enough to play the blues.

With no electronic tuners and no way to delicately adjust string tension, probably the best they could manage was to get every string to the same tension and vary the lengths.

So here's how they tuned:  start with a note X, with a string that I'll call a length of 1.  (X has some arbitrary frequency that the musician's picked by ear.)

Now the next octave up is a string of length 2:1 compared to the first string.

The perfect fifth between those octave notes is at 3:2.   That's the first perfect fifth.

Remember in this system, we get each successive note in the scale by going up a perfect fifth from the last.  So to get the perfect fifth up from one at 3/2, we have to multiply the length again by 3/2.  That gives us 9/4. The only problem is, 9/4 is more than 2:1.  We've fallen off the end of the scale!

Not to worry, just drop that note down an octave.  Which we do by halving the string.  That note becomes 9:8.

Our scale now has notes at:  1, 9:8,  3:2, and 2:1

We now go up a perfect fifth from the 9:8 note.  Which we do by multiplying it once again by 3/2.  That gives us a note at 27:16.  Our scale now has notes:  1, 9:8,  3:2, 27:16, 2:1

I won't leave you in suspense.  Here's the final Pythagorean Scale:

1:1   9:8   81:64   4:3   3:2   27:16   243:128   2:1

It's doubtful that Pythagoras invented this.  It's much more likely that he formalized a system that was already in place.  But I'd be willing to bet anything he was the first to work out the ratios.  Musicians were probably tuning up perfect fifths by ear.

You could, in theory, continue adding notes forever, but Pythagoras stopped at 8, presumably because of the practical difficulty of adding more strings.

Pythagorean Tuning was unbelievably successful.  The Greeks used it.  The Romans used it.  It survived to be used in mediaeval times.  In fact it survived until another genius by the name of Johann Sebastian Bach finally killed it off when he wrote a work called The Well Tempered Klavier in the 1700s.

Believe it or not, there are still a few instruments that use Pythagorean Tuning.  This isn't ancient Greek music, but it's using their scale:

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?


Children tend to look like their parents, and the same is true of languages.  Everyone knows, for example, that French, Italian and Spanish look a lot like Latin.

What is less well appreciated is that you can follow this logic back in time, for a long, long way.  Linguists have known for more than 200 years that there's a lot of similarity between Latin, Greek, German, and surprisingly...Sanskrit.  Languages geographically in-between, such as Farsi, are also related.  You can see it not only in similarity of words, but also grammar.

Words that are essentially the same between languages are called cognate.  The Deus of a Latin prayer is cognate with the Zeus of Greek.  Father in English, Vater in German, pater in Latin, patēr in Greek, pitar in Sanskrit are all the same word.  They're cognate.

Together they form a mega-family of languages that stretch from India to Europe, and therefore are known as the Indo-European family.

You can build an ancestral family tree for Indo-European by looking at how much each language has in common with the others, and making the reasonable assumption that anything two languages have in common must originate from their common ancestor.  Inevitably this must take you back to a single original ancestor, which is called Proto-Indo-European, or PIE for short.

Here's a family tree, which I've linked to from the work of Jack Lynch at Rutgers:

This diagram is the best I've yet scene, because it cuts out the hundred or so extra, highly obscure, and utterly dead languages in the family.  You probably don't care about Early Proto-Tocharian.

People have reconstructed PIE by taking that which is common across the entirely family, and tracing the evolution of sounds and grammar backwards to take an educated guess at the original language.

PIE is thought to have originated somewhere in southern Russia or the Caucasus, probably in about 4,000BC, give or take a millennium.  The most popular theory is that the original speakers were a culture called the Kurgans.  Whoever the original speakers were, they migrated in waves across Europe and down through Asia.

It interests me that almost everywhere it went, PIE and its children dominated.  The natural assumption is conquest did the job--consider for example how Spanish and Portuguese came to be the standards in South America--but even in places where the arrival was peaceful, people mostly adopted the PIE structure.  The biggest failure probably is that language Tocharian I mentioned before.  It was an intrusion into China, but withered in the face of Chinese, the world's oldest known extant language.

There seems to be something about PIE that sits well with the human brain.  It appears to be a very good language for thinking about mathematics and physics.  If you exclude all the progress made by PIE speakers, which means everything achieved by Greek, Germanic, English, Sanskrit, Hindi, Latin, French, Spanish and Italian speakers, then there's not a lot left.  That might perhaps be an issue of cultural domination rather than linguistic advantage, but even so it's remarkable.

PIE was highly inflected, and that might be part of its strength.  You can say an awful lot in a few words.  Linguists originally thought PIE must have been somewhat like Sanskrit, because grammatically it's one of the simpler members of the family, but they now know it's the other way round.  Sanskrit is one of the most advanced members because it's simpler.  PIE was grammatically complex.

The earliest recorded PIE language is in fact the proto-Greek of Linear B, decoded by Michael Ventris.

We can tell a lot about their life from the language.  For example, PIE has a word for horse.  But there's no word for wheel.  (How do we know that?  Because every PIE language has a cognate for the Latin equus, but the word for wheel is different everywhere.)

Several people have had a go at writing something in PIE.  The script must obviously be modern since this is long before writing was invented, but it's fascinating to look at anyway.  The most famous thing written in PIE is Schleicher's Fable.  It's been updated several times since he wrote it in 1868(!), and every time someone updates they go out of their way to make the script more confusing with more silly accents, so here's the original, in PIE and then in English:

Avis akvāsas ka

Avis, jasmin varnā na ā ast, dadarka akvams, tam, vāgham garum vaghantam, tam, bhāram magham, tam, manum āku bharantam. Avis akvabhjams ā vavakat: kard aghnutai mai vidanti manum akvams agantam. Akvāsas ā vavakant: krudhi avai, kard aghnutai vividvant-svas: manus patis varnām avisāms karnauti svabhjam gharmam vastram avibhjams ka varnā na asti. Tat kukruvants avis agram ā bhugat.

The Sheep and the Horses

A sheep that had no wool saw horses, one of them pulling a heavy wagon, one carrying a big load, and one carrying a man quickly. The sheep said to the horses: "My heart pains me, seeing a man driving horses". The horses said: "Listen, sheep, our hearts pain us when we see this: a man, the master, makes the wool of the sheep into a warm garment for himself. And the sheep has no wool". Having heard this, the sheep fled into the plain.