Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Common Errors About the Ancient World

A CORRESPONDENT SENT me a link to a fascinating blog of Classical history, maintained by historians Jona Lendering and Bill Thayer, which can be visited here. At this time, the first article is entitled The First Law of Archaeology, which is “if you do not know what it is, it has something to do with religion.” This, of course, is a sarcastic commentary.

Of general interest is a series of articles called Common Errors, which lists misconceptions about the ancient world. Article 33, Cradle of Civilization, notes that pilgrims ought to have a skeptical attitude towards historical sites (but I must add that this does not preclude piety) and specifically realize that buildings have been rebuilt, modified, and redecorated over the millennia.

More damaging is the contemporary intellectual understanding of the ancient past. Inspired by the Enlightenment, most secular universities divide antiquities into two separate departments. If you want to study Greek or Latin, you must study in the Classics department, which typically views its subject from the direction of rationalism and humanism. Woe unto you if you are interested in Ecclesiastical Latin. Likewise, Near Eastern antiquities are assigned to the Semitic languages department, which tend to be interested primarily in religion. This division of knowledge, not found in the Medieval universities, has led to numerous noxious philosophies and a false view of history (such as West = rationalism, East = mysticism).

People have long assumed that classical sculpture, in its finished state, was unpainted. The aesthetic theories developed from the Renaissance thought that this was actually a good thing, and these theories led unfortunately to a rejection of beauty in the arts. But Church art, even from late Antiquity, is generally colored, but this evidence was rejected as a Medieval barbarism (due to the theory that Catholicism = bad). The article White Sculpture states that ancient Greek and Roman buildings and statuary were in fact painted and used stones of many colors.

However, modern recreations of these painted statues appear garish, ugly, and comical. Were I a gambling man, and if I had the funds, I would bet that these in fact were not painted in a simplistic and garish fashion as depicted. The sculpture is so finely done that I would bet that these were painted in an equally fine manner — a garish and bright base coat of paint would be overpainted by other tones, giving great surface modulation and detail, in a way that would look elegant. Just like we find in Medieval statuary and icons, and probably even better. This multiple layering of paint is a common technique found everywhere.

The articles The Gnostic Gospels and The End of the Library of Alexandria dispels the idea that early Christians burned the books of pagans and heretics. Rather, the natural process of decay would ensure that books — if they are not frequently re-copied — would soon disappear. This is the fate of the great Library of Alexandria: some 4000 manuscripts would have to be copied every year to preserve the collection, and this copying is expensive and can hardly be done under the conditions of warfare and the dissolution of society.

We are in a similar situation today. Very many books in our libraries are at risk of being lost; the fact that Google has scanned millions of these books may in fact hasten their destruction — why support multiple physical copies of a book of marginal importance when everyone has electronic access to these online? But please note that the optical character recognition of these scans is often horrendous, and will cause even more headaches for future scholars than hand-copied manuscripts of ages past. Our electronic infrastructure is very fragile and should not be relied on.

1 comment:

  1. The language situation which you have described is not necessarily true of most European universities. The theological programmes which you may find here offer Ecclesiatstical Latin, Koine Greek, Hebrew, and some even offer Akkadian, Hittite, Ugaritic, and other Semitic languages of importance for biblical exegesis. It is sad that many American universities and seminaries are so underdeveloped and closed-minded with their sense of contextuality and their approach to historicism. As one who lives in Belgium and works in the Faculty of Theology at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, I can testify that my university, the oldest existing Catholic university in the world and still going strong with 37,000 students, is a world leader in preserving medieval books and ancient texts and encouraging students to utilise them in a means to further develope an appreciation for the sources of western culture and society.