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Homer's Iliad to become an epic online performance
One of the ancient world's longest poems, The Iliad, is set for a marathon performance this summer as part of a festival celebrating ancient Greek culture.

One of the ancient world’s longest poems, The Iliad, is set for a marathon performance this summer as part of a festival celebrating ancient Greek culture.

Theatre director Rupert Goold plans to bring Homer’s epic to life with the help of 50 star names from the worlds of the arts, academia and politics.

The event will begin at the British Museum in London on 14 August and continue into the night at the Almeida Theatre.

Every word of the 15,000 line poem, about the fall of Troy, will be spoken.

The whole thing will also be streamed online - for 15 hours. “It’s all or nothing,” Goold told the BBC.

The Rosetta Stone

A valuable key to deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, the inscription on the Rosetta Stone is a decree passed by a council of priests. It is one of a series that affirm the royal cult of the 13-year-old Ptolemy V on the first anniversary of his coronation (in 196 BC).

In previous years the family of the Ptolemies had lost control of certain parts of the country. It had taken their armies some time to put down opposition in the Delta, and parts of southern Upper Egypt, particularly Thebes, were not yet back under the government’s control. Before the Ptolemaic era (before about 332 BC), decrees in hieroglyphs such as this were usually set up by the king. It shows how much things had changed from earlier times that the priests, the only people who had kept the knowledge of writing hieroglyphs, were now issuing such decrees. The list of good deeds done by the king for the temples hints at the way in which the support of the priests was ensured.

The decree is inscribed on the stone three times, in hieroglyphic (suitable for a priestly decree), demotic (the native script used for daily purposes), and Greek (the language of the administration). The importance of this to Egyptology is immense.

Soon after the end of the 4th century AD, when hieroglyphs had gone out of use, the knowledge of how to read and write them disappeared. In the early years of the 19th century, scholars were able to use the Greek inscription on this stone as the key to decipher them. Thomas Young (1773–1829), an English physicist, was the first to show that some of the hieroglyphs on the Rosetta Stone wrote the sounds of a royal name, that of Ptolemy.

The French scholar Jean-François Champollion (1790–1832) then realised that hieroglyphs recorded the sound of the Egyptian language and laid the foundations of our knowledge of ancient Egyptian language and culture. Champollion made a crucial step in understanding ancient Egyptian writing when he pieced together the alphabet of hieroglyphs that was used to write the names of non-Egyptian rulers. He announced his discovery, which had been based on analysis of the Rosetta Stone and other texts, in a paper at the Academie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres at Paris on Friday 27 September 1822. The audience included his English rival Thomas Young, who was also trying to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs. Champollion inscribed this copy of the published paper with alphabetic hieroglyphs meaning ‘à mon ami Dubois’ ('to my friend Dubois’). Champollion made a second crucial breakthrough in 1824, realising that the alphabetic signs were used not only for foreign names, but also for the Egyptian language and names. Together with his knowledge of the Coptic language, which derived from ancient Egyptian, this allowed him to begin reading hieroglyphic inscriptions fully.

Soldiers in Napoleon’s army discovered the Rosetta Stone in 1799 while digging the foundations of an addition to a fort near the town of el-Rashid (Rosetta). On Napoleon’s defeat, the stone became the property of the British under the terms of the Treaty of Alexandria (1801) along with other antiquities that the French had found.

The Rosetta Stone has been exhibited in the British Museum since 1802, with only one break. Towards the end of the First World War, in 1917, when the Museum was concerned about heavy bombing in London, they moved it to safety along with other, portable, 'important’ objects. The Rosetta Stone spent the next two years in a station on the Postal Tube Railway 50 feet below the ground at Holborn.

Find out more in this BBC podcast about the Rosetta Stone.

Ancient Roman Nanotechnology — The Lycurgus Cup

In the 1950’s the British Museum acquired one of the most amazing archaeological finds from Ancient Rome.  The Lycurgus Cup is a beautiful 1,600 year old goblet crafted from glass by the Ancient Romans.  The cup depicts the punishment of Lycurgus, a mythical king who was ensnared in vines for committing evil acts against the Greek god Dionysus.  The craftsmanship and artwork of the cup are certainly amazing on their own. During the age of the Roman Empire the Romans were master glassmakers, producing some of the finest pieces of glassware in history.   However the Lycurgus cup has one incredible property that goes far beyond traditional glassmaking.  When exposed to light, the cup turns from jade green into a bright, glowing red color.  For decades historians, archaeologists, and scientists had no idea why this occurred or how the Romans made the cup with such light changing properties.  Then in 1990 a small fragment of the cup was examined by scientists under a microscope.  What they discovered is truly amazing.

The Lycurgus cup is not only made of glass, but is impregnated with thousands of small particles of gold and silver.  Each of the gold and silver particles are less than 50 nano-meters in diameter, less than one-one thousandth the size of a grain of table salt.  When the cup is hit with light, electrons belonging to the metal flecks vibrate in ways that alter the color depending on the observer’s position.  What is even more amazing is that the addition of the particles to the glass was no accident or coincidence.  The Romans would have had to have known the exact mixture and density of particles needed to give the cup light changing properties.  This would have been done without the aid of a microscope, without the knowledge of atomic theory, and 1,300 years before Newton’s Theory of Colors.

Today the Lycurgus Cup has profound affects on modern nanotechnology.  After studying the cup, researchers and engineers are looking to adapt the technology for modern purposes.  A researcher from the University of Illinois named Gong Gang Liu is currently working on a device which uses the same technology to diagnose disease.  Another application of the technology is a possible device which can detect dangerous materials being smuggled onto airplanes by terrorists.  

The legacy of Ancient Rome continues.  Arena’s, baths, arches, and  nanotechnology. 

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Literature from Mesopotamia: The Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet 6

This Neo-Assyrian tablet preserves parts of the sixth tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh. In this tablet, the goddess of love and war, Ishtar, attempts to seduce Gilgamesh who rejects her. When Ishtar’s father, the god Anu, sends the Bull of Heaven down to punish Gilgamesh for spurning her, Enkidu kills the creature. One of the most significant works of Akkadian literature, the story grapples with the themes of friendship, mortality, and the origins of man. (Source)

Nineveh, 7th century BCE.

British Museum.

The Descent of Ishtar to the Underworld

To the place where those who enter do not depart, to the road whose journey does not end, to the house where those who enter are deprived of light, where dust is their sustenance, clay their food…

Written in Akkadian, this tablet from the famed library of Ashurbanipal, the last Neo-Assyrian king, tells the mythological story of the goddess Ishtar’s descent to the underworld. Upon her arrival, she finds its first gate shut and threatens to break it down until the gatekeeper, acting on the orders of Queen of the Underworld, lets her through. At each of the seven gates of the Underworld, she must shed a layer of clothing or jewelry, leaving her powerless upon her arrival before the Queen. Ishtar, the goddess of love and fertility (…and war), was thus trapped in the underworld, and her absence left the world above in suffering and chaos. Eventually, by the agency of gods greater than the Queen of the Underworld, Ishtar is released and her apparel restored to her, and order is restored to the world. (Source)

The work is a beautiful piece of Akkadian poetry with roots in the much earlier Sumerian myth of the Descent of Inanna, the Sumerian name for the goddess of love and fertility.

To hear a recording of the poem in Akkadian alongside one English translation, see here.

Neo-Assyrian (c. 900-600 BCE), Nineveh.

British Museum.

Ancient Legal Textbook from Mesopotamia

If a woman hates her husband and has said to him, “You are not my husband”, they will throw her in the river.

Written in cuneiform, this clay tablet records a series of legal terms, phrases, formulae, and some precepts, translated from Sumerian into Akkadian. Scribes may have used this work when learning to draft everyday legal documents, such as contracts and trial records. Although this copy comes from the library of the Neo-Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, the original on which this would have been based probably dates to the second millennium BCE. Such a text may have served to help scribes draft formulaic legal documents and to promote their understanding of Sumerian, a long-dead language by this period of Mesopotamian history. (Source)

Neo-Assyrian (c. 900-600 BCE), Nineveh.

British Museum.