Friday, April 30, 2010

Should you go and see The White Ribbon?

Some people have sent me emails asking if we can go and see 'The White Ribbon' which starts on 6 May.

Well you are probably going to think I am a big baby, but ... No!!

Yes it is superb and yes it does explain quite a lot about the German pre-Nazi psyche, but I just found it too disturbing and depressing. I just don't think that you need this in a year when you have enough HSC stress, etc... I would not have taken my own kids to this when they were in Year 12.

I thought it was an excellent piece of movie art, but I can't really say that I enjoyed it. I kind of wish I hadn't seen it even if I do think that I understand Nazi Germany a bit better after seeing it... if that makes sense!?

But you are big people! lol What you do in your own time is your business. But don't say I didn't warn you!

Can you remember this from year 11? Don't you just love coincidence!

Abraham Lincoln was elected to Congress in 1846.
John F. Kennedy was elected to Congress in 1946.

Abraham Lincoln was elected President in 1860.
John F. Kennedy was elected President in 1960.

Both were particularly concerned with civil rights.
Both wives lost their children while living in the White House.

Both Presidents were shot on a Friday.
Both Presidents were shot in the head.

Now it gets really weird.

Lincoln's secretary was named Kennedy.
Kennedy's Secretary was named Lincoln.

Both were assassinated by Southerners.
Both were succeeded by Southerners named Johnson.

Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln, was born in 1808.
Lyndon Johnson, who succeeded Kennedy, was born in 1908.
John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated Lincoln, was born in 1839.
Lee Harvey Oswald, who assassinated Kennedy, was born in 1939.
Both assassins were known by their three names.
Both names are composed of fifteen letters.

Now hang on to your seat.

Lincoln was shot at the 'Ford' theater.
Kennedy was shot in a 'Lincoln' car made by 'Ford.'

Lincoln was shot in a theater and his assassin ran and hid in a warehouse.
Kennedy was shot from a warehouse and his assassin ran and hid in a theater.

Booth and Oswald were assassinated before their trials.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Sarah Evans found this very interesting artwork on youtube.

Just follow this link for the full story -

Monday, April 19, 2010

More history girls! This is a really excellent blog!!!


Bestselling authors Loretta Chase & Susan Holloway Scott gossip about history, writing, and yes, shoes.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

History Girls

For Japanese Women, The Past Is The Latest Fad

by ANTHONY KUHN npr 13 April 2010

In Japan, the number of female visitors to shogun castles, samurai battle re-enactments and history bookstores has recently increased. Observers attribute this to the rise of the "history girls" — a new urban subculture that some believe signals a kind of empowerment for female Japanese hobbyists.

One of the more public faces of the history girls, or reki-jo, is a fashion model named Anne. She's the daughter of actor Ken Watanabe, and she goes by one name. She's carved out a niche for herself writing and speaking about history and history buffs.

Reki-jo all have their favorite historical periods and characters. Speaking in a Tokyo cafe, Anne says hers is the Shinsengumi, the elite swordsmen of Japan's last shogun, or military ruler.

"The Shinsengumi is popular among Japanese girls because its members are all young, in their teens to early 30s," Anne says. "They changed Japan. The interesting part of their era is that we can see some photos of them, so we can imagine them better and feel closer to them. This history gives courage to young people today."

In TV dramas, the Shinsengumi are all played by popular, young male actors.

The reki-jo idolize these historical figures like rock stars.

Part Of The Nerdy Comic Book Subculture

Ryo Watanabe (no relation to Anne) is one of the media and marketing entrepreneurs who has helped build the reki-jo phenomenon. He created music, a Web site, TV shows and a bar where they can congregate. Watanabe says that history girls populate both virtual and actual worlds.

"The virtual ones just play games and follow individual characters," Watanabe says. "The real ones start with games, but they also do research, read books and visit historical sites. These are the real history girls."

Anthropologists who study such things say that the reki-jo are actually a kind of otaku, a nerdy sort of fan of Japanese comic books and video games.

Otaku nerds build identities for their favorite characters — choosing, for example, kimonos, hairstyles and weapons — and give their characters attributes: three points for strength and four for charisma.

Patrick Galbraith, a doctoral student at the University of Tokyo and author of The Otaku Encyclopedia, says that the history girls signal the rise of the female otaku. And what do male otaku do?

"They're really kind of focusing on what types of women they're interested in, and they create this kind of fantasy discourse about the female, and they consume these fetishized fantasy images," Galbraith says. "And women also have been doing this for a very long time, but it's always been below the surface."

A Way To Connect

People in Japan increasingly define themselves through the media they consume rather than work, family or school ties. Of course, this is true elsewhere, but Galbraith says the 1990s decline of Japanese corporate culture has pushed the country's hobby culture into the mainstream.

"And so now we are seeing more and more people who are making connections through consumption, through shared media, through shared patterns of social existence," Galbraith says. "And maybe reki-jo is one example of that, because really they are, I think, people who share an interest, but almost nothing else."

On a Wednesday night, the reki-jo head down to Ryo Watanabe's bar to talk about warlords, sieges and assassins. In her metal-studded leather attire, Miyuki Miyamoto is dressed more for a mosh pit than a history seminar. And she's proud of it.

"I like to be called a reki-jo," Miyamoto says. "Ten years ago, I had a negative image as a serious, isolated girl who likes history but has few friends. Now I feel more recognized as one of a group."

Observers say that even in the 19th-century Edo era, Japanese grouped around pop culture experiences as a way of coping with the anonymity and solitude of urban life. Their point: The otaku culture's roots run deep in Japan, and perhaps there's a little otaku in all of us.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Guess where I am now??? lol

Happy & home and away from all the volcanoes in Iceland!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Forget Chuck Norris! I need Abe Lincoln!

More of me in Dracula Territory!

More things that I have now learned about Bulgarian Vampires!

40 Day Journey of the Dead

Bulgarians believed that spirits of the dead embarked on a journey immediately after death that visited every place they had visited during their life on earth. Their journey lasted for 40 days and then the spirit went on to its next life. However, if the dead were not properly buried, they may find that their passage to the next world was blocked, and might return to this world as a vampire.

How you become a Vampire

Certain people are predisposed to becoming vampires. These included people who died a violent death, those excommunicated from the church, and drunkards, thieves, murderers, and witches. There are stories of vampires who returned to life and started their lives over again in foreign towns, even to the extent that they would marry and father children. ( Actually, I think that I may have taught some! lol) Their only abnormality being their nightly journey in search for blood.

Characteristics of a Vamp

Bulgarian Vampires are renowned for their gluttonous blood drinking and ability to move objects like a poltergeist, and their capacity to produce noises like a firecracker! lol People apparently try to rid their town of them by offering them rich food or excrement!!! Go figure!

Ustrels - Spirits of Dead Children Never Baptised

The ustrel are yet another type of Bulgarian vampire!!! (As if they don’t have enough!!) - the spirit of a child born on a Saturday but who died before being baptized. The ustrel come to life on the ninth day after burial and seek the blood of cattle or sheep. They feast all night and return to their grave before dawn. After 10 days of feeding, the ustrel would become strong enough that it no longer needed to return to its grave. It would rest during the day either between the horns of a calf or ram or between the hind legs of a cow and would attack the fattest animals at night.

To get rid of ustrels, a vampire hunter (vampirdzhija) needs be hired to find the vampire. After the vampire is identified, the community performs a ritual known as the lighting of a needfire. This ritual begins on a Saturday morning. All the fires in the village are put out and the cattle and sheep are gathered in an open space. The villagers then guide the animals to a crossroads where two bonfires stand on either side. This ritual is thought to rid the animal of the vampire that has taken up residence in them and trap it at the crossroads, where wolves devour it! (Makes sense really!!)

How to Kill a Vamp

They use the traditional stake, BUT they also have a method called bottling, where a specialist called a djadadjii chases after the vampire with a holy icon. The djadadjii then drives the vampire towards a bottle that contains its favorite food. Once the vampire is lured into the bottle, it is corked and thrown into a fire. (Simple really!)

Hope that helps all you Stephenie Meyers fans! lol The problem is that these people aren’t laughing when they tell me this stuff! Gulps!!!!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

After spending some time in the Bulgarian mountains I now believe in Dracula!

The following is from -

Bulgarian beliefs concerning undead vampires are quite varied. Bulgarian names for an undead vampire include: Vampir, Vorkolak, Ouber, Ustrel, …

The pure Bulgarians call this being by the genuine Slavonic name of Upior; the Gagaous (or Bulgarians of mixed race) by that of Obour which is Turkish; in Dalmatia it is known as Wrikodlaki, which appears to be merely a corruption of the Romaic. It seems that the names vampir and obour as used in Bulgaria often mean the same thing.

In one account from Bulgaria translated and quoted in The Darkling by Jan Perkowski, the vorkolak is said to be the soul of an outlaw who perished in the mountains, or in the forest, or along a country road, and whose corpse is eaten by crows, wolves, or some other such scavengers. This soul cannot enter heaven or hell, and so it remains on earth. This vorkolak haunts the place where he was killed. At night, this spirit strangles and drinks the blood of anyone who comes by. The way to rid a place of a vorkolak, is to erect a cross, bless water, and hold a church service at the spot where the outlaw died.

In another account from Bulgaria quoted in the same book, a vampir is a corpse which returns from the grave. A person who died a violent, unnatural death or whose corpse was jumped over by a cat before burial becomes such an undead vampire. (This belief is found all over Eastern Europe where there is belief in undead vampires.) In a case mentioned in this report, a man became a vampir as the result of a fatal fall from a roof. The bones turn to gelatin at first and during the first forty days after burial he performs mischief such as releasing animals from their pens, scatters house hold items, and suffocates people. If not destroyed within the first forty days, the vampir developes a skeleton and becomes even more fierce. At least during the first forty days, the vampir can be destroyed by a Vampiridzhija (a professional vampire hunter) or devored by a wolf. The report doesn't make clear what it takes to destroy the vampire after he develops a skeleton.

A bit of a laugh, for sure, but I wouldn't be sleeping outdoors up here! lol Wooooooooooooooooo! lol

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Plovdiv's Roman Amphitheatre

The Roman Amphitheatre in Plovdiv was only found in the early 1970's after a massive landslide. This led to a major archeological excavation, including the removal, over the next 10 years, of earth covering what was left hidden before the landslide.

There was evidence of damage to parts of the amphitheatre by Atilla the Hun when he attacked Plovdiv in the 5th century AD, but in general it is a magnificent structure that has stood the test of time.

It was completed under the rule of the Roman emperor Trajan, and is the largest Roman building in Bulgaria. The amphitheatre stands between the south-western slope of the Dzhambaz Tepe and the Taxim Tepe within the old town.

Built with a capacity of around 7 000 seats, each section of seating had the names of the city quarters engraved on the benches, so the citizens at the time knew where they had to sit.

Just to put things into context, Plovdiv is supposed to be contemporary with Troy and Mycenae, and older than Rome, Athens, Carthage or Constantinople.

What's for lunch in Bulgaria?

My lunch, not the lunch of 5 people, and not surprisingly I didn't finish it! lol

The pita bread in the middle was hot and had hot melted cheese and garlic in it. Wow!!!

Mr Sheldrick does ancient Thrace 2!

Slavery in the Thracian community existed on a smaller scale than in the Greek states. According to Herodotus, however, the Thracians did on occasion sell their own children into slavery ( just like me! lol). The state of Philip II (359 - 336 B.C.) and his son Alexander the Great (336-323 B.C.) resembled more closely the classical form of slave ownership. Both kings were involved in Greek and Balkan affairs. Alexander took the Greek world out east, drafting into his army lots of Thracians. The Celts, too, took possession of some Thracian lands. Their state, with the capital of Tile existed from 279 to 211 B.C. The Celts seem to have kicked off here, after which they seem to have moved over the entire continent, finally reaching the British Isles and Ireland. Scythian and other tribes also migrated to the Thracian lands. For a very long period, too, the Thracians repelled the attempts of the Roman empire to conquer them. It was only two centuries after they first set foot on the Balkans in the year 45 A.D., that the Romans succeeded in subjugating all Thracian lands.

The Thracians were employed as mercenaries in the armies of various rulers as early as the Hellenic epoch, later in the Roman auxiliary troops, and from the second century onwards in the legions. The great slave uprising in the Roman empire (74-71 B.C.) can also be attributed to Thracian history not just because its leader and military commander Spartacus was a Thracian (it seems most likely that he came from the Medi tribe which inhabited the areas along the Strouma River) but also for the reason that most of the insurgent slaves were Thracians and Gauls. Historical chronicles tell of many Thracian revolts against the Roman conquerors. The Odrysae tribe (which lived in-the Rhodope region) rebelled in the year 21 A.D., and the tribes settled south of the Balkan Range revolted in the year 26 A.D. The new ways introduced by the Romans ushered in a new stage in the development of the slave-owning society.

A great number of fortified settlements, to serve as military posts for the defence of the Roman empire, were constructed. Roads, bridges, public buildings, water-supply and sewage systems were constructed on a previously un-heard-of scale.

In the third century a process of decline began to take place in the life of the Roman empire. Spent in its efforts to assimilate the conquered peoples, the empire began to be influenced by the inferior cultures it had conquered. The Roman army was manned with soldiers from the rural population of the Danubean provinces. (The manning of the Roman army with Germans was to come later.) There were many Thracian cohorts in the empire. Thracian and Illyrian peasants also gained supremacy in the internecine strifes of contenders for the throne. From 236 to 238 Maximinus Thrax held the imperial throne. The Thracian armies secured the throne for Septimius Severus. The Thracian lands became the theatre of wars and conflicts.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

More Plovdiv

Mr Sheldrick does Plovdiv

Plovdiv is the second-largest city in Bulgaria with a population of 380,683. Plovdiv's history spans some 6,000 years, with traces of a Neolithic settlement dating to roughly 4000 BC. Known for most of its history by the Greek name Philippopolis after Philip, the father of Alexander the Great, it was originally a Thracian settlement before being conquered by Philip and finally becoming a major Roman city. In the Middle Ages, it retained its strategic regional importance, changing hands between the Byzantine and Bulgarian Empires. It came under Ottoman rule in the 14th century. In 1878, Plovdiv was made the capital of the autonomous Ottoman region of Eastern Rumelia; in 1885, it became part of Bulgaria with the unification of that region and the Principality of Bulgaria.

Plovdiv is situated in the southern part of the Plovdiv Plain on the two banks of the Maritsa River. The city has historically developed on seven syenite hills, some of which are 250 m high. Because of these seven hills, Plovdiv is often referred to in Bulgaria as "The City of the Seven Hills".

Mr Sheldrick does ancient Thrace!

Bulgaria is the land of the Thracians who were a conglomerate of numerous tribes. The formation of the Thracian tribal community appreciably pre-dates - the Roman, the Celts, the Germans, the Slavs and the Scandinavians. The ancestors of the Thracians had lived on the Balkan Peninsula as far back as the new Stone Age. The name 'Thracians' first appeared at the end of the second millennium B.C. (according to Homer). 'From that time on this term gradually became the common name for the inhabitants of the area between the Carpathians and the Aegean Sea, the Black Sea and the valleys of the Morava and Vardar rivers'. During the twelfth and eleventh centuries B.C. the Thracians settled not only on the peninsular mainland and the Mediterranean islands, but also moved south-eastwards into Asia Minor. Thracians took part in the Trojan War. Homer recorded that the Thracian chieftain Rezos appeared before the walls of Troy with the most handsome and well-built horses, whiter than snow and fleet as deer.
During the first millennium B.C. the Thracian tribes were a relatively unified tribal entity.

Their history can be classified in two main periods: the first one dates from the end of the second millennium B.C. until the end of the 6th century B.C. During this period, and particularly after the eighth century B.C., Greek colonizers began to settle along the Aegean and Black Sea littoral. Quite a number of Greek city-colonies had Thracian names, including Byzantion- later Byzantium (Greek settlers from the town of Megara formed this colony, naming it after Byzas the Thracian). The second period, from the end of the 6th century until the turn of the 3rd century B.C. was the Golden Age of the Thracian state and culture.

According to Herodotus, the Thracians were a multitudinous people. Compared to the Greek city-states, whose total population numbered around 200-250 thousand, the tribal nucleus of the Thracian ethnos alone, the people living between the Danube and the Aegean Sea, numbered around one million throughout the first millennium B.C., according to rough estimates.

What the Thracians named their rulers is unknown (the Greeks called them basileus and the state basileia). The state ruler had a council of representatives of the tribal aristocracy. The taxes from the Thracian tribes within the state were levied in gold and silver as well as in the form of gifts such as cloth and other articles. A dragon was depicted on the standard of the Thracians.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Fortune-telling, bad breath and stress in Roman society

From The Times Literary Supplement

March 17, 2010

Is my wife having a baby? Am I going to see a death? Am I going to be sold? - a few of the questions listed in one of the most intriguing works of Classical literature
Mary Beard

Is my wife having a baby? Am I going to see a death? Will I become a councillor? Am I going to be sold? Am I about to be caught as an adulterer? These are just a few of the ninety-two questions listed in one of the most intriguing works of Classical literature to have survived: the Oracles of Astrampsychus, a book which offers cleverly randomized answers to many of ancient life’s most troubling problems and uncertainties. The method is relatively straightforward, but with just enough obfuscation to make for convincing fortune-telling (“easy to use but difficult to fathom” as one modern commentator nicely put it). Each question is numbered. When you have found the one that most closely matches your own dilemma, you think of a number between one and ten and add it to the number of your question. You then go to a “table of correspondences” which converts that total into yet another number, which directs you in turn to one of a series of 103 lists of possible answers, arranged in groups of ten, or “decades” (to make things more confusing there are actually more lists of answers than the system, with its ninety-two questions, requires or could ever use). Finally, go back to the number between one and ten that you first thought of, and that indicates which answer in the decade applies to you.

Confused? Try a concrete example. Suppose that I want to know if I am about to be caught as an adulterer, which is question 100. I think of another number – let’s say five, giving a total of 105. The table of correspondences converts this to the number 28. I then go to the twenty-eighth decade, and pick out the fifth answer, which brings good news: “You won’t be caught as an adulterer” (and in some versions adds the extra reassurance: “Don’t worry”). If I had chosen the number six, the same procedure would have offered me only a temporary reprieve: “You won’t be caught as an adulterer for the time being”. Number seven would have brought bad news of a different kind: “You’re not an adulterer, but your wife loves another man”.

The introduction to this little book of oracles – it amounts to some thirty pages in modern editions – claims that its author was a fourth-century-BC Egyptian magician, Astrampsychus, who used a system first invented by the famous philosopher-cum-mathematician Pythagoras. Not only that: by way of an advertisement, it also claims that the book had been the vade mecum of Alexander the Great, who relied on it to decide matters of world governance, “and you also will have unwavering renown among all people if you use it too”. In fact, however wayward Alexander’s decision-making processes may have been, they could not have depended on this system of oracles, which was almost certainly nothing to do with any fourth-century magician or with Pythagoras, but was a product of the Roman Empire of the second or third centuries ad. Our best guess is that the book was not so much an early self-help manual but part of the equipment of professional, or semi-professional, fortune-tellers – who would probably have invested the mechanical process of consultation with some impressive ad-lib mystery and mumbo-jumbo.

However this oracle book was actually used, it gives us a rare glimpse – as Jerry Toner stresses in Popular Culture in Ancient Rome – into the day-to-day anxieties of the ordinary inhabitants of the Roman Empire. For (never mind the publicity yarn about Alexander the Great) this is not elite literature, or certainly not literature aimed exclusively at the elite; in fact, the question about “being sold” implies that slaves were among the intended clientele. Here we have a long list of the kinds of problems that made ordinary Roman men (and they do seem to be exclusively male questions) anxious enough to resort to fortune-tellers.

Some of these are the perennial issues of sex, illness and success (“Will I split up from my girlfriend?” “Will the one who is sick survive?” “Will I be prosperous?”). But other questions reflect much more specifically Graeco-Roman concerns about life’s fortunes and misfortunes. Alongside worries about the wife’s pregnancy, we find questions about whether or not to rear the expected offspring: a vivid reminder that infanticide was one orthodox method of family planning in the ancient world, as well as being a convenient way of disposing of those who emerged from the womb weak, sickly or deformed. Debt and inheritance also bulk large among the topics of concern, accounting for at least twelve of the ninety-two questions (“Will I pay back what I owe?” “Will I inherit from a friend?”). So do the dangers of travel (“Will I sail safely?”) and the potential menace of the legal system (“Am I safe from prosecution?” “Will I be safe if informed against?”). Even illness may be thought to be the result of crime or malevolence, as the question “Have I been poisoned?” shows.

Toner is excellent at squeezing the social and cultural implications out of this material. As well as reflecting on the perilous, debtridden, short and painful human lives that the oracle book reveals, he notes some surprising absences. There is nothing here (poisoning apart) to suggest a fear of violent crime, despite the fact that we often imagine that the Roman Empire was full of highwaymen, pirates and muggers. Nor is there anything on the institution of patronage. Modern historians have written volumes on the dependence of the poor on their elite patrons – for everything from jobs, to loans or food. Toner speculates that the intended users of these oracles were so far down the Roman social hierarchy that they were below the reach of the patronage system (which only extended so far as “the respectable poor”). Maybe. Or maybe the whole system of patronage was far less important in the life of the non-elite, than the Roman elite writers, on whom we mostly rely, liked to imagine. Or, at least, maybe it was far less important in whatever corner of the Roman Empire this strange little book originated.

Pushing the evidence a little further, Toner suggests that we might see in these oracles a rudimentary system of risk-assessment. He reckons, for example, that the answers on the fate of a newborn baby (where one in ten suggests that the baby will “not be reared” – that is, exposed or killed – and two out of ten suggest that it will die anyway) more or less match up to the social and biological reality of infant survival. Referring to other similar sets of oracles, recorded in ancient inscriptions found in cities in modern Turkey, he points out that 18 per cent of oracular responses warn that a business venture will fail – roughly the same rate of failure implied by the rate of interest that was regularly charged on so-called “maritime loans” (for shipping and trading expeditions). On Toner’s view, in other words, the oracular responses reflected real-life risks and probabilities.

I am not so sure. On that principle, there was an eight-out-of-ten chance that a consulter of these oracles would become a local councillor. That would mean either that those who used these oracles were higher up the social hierarchy than Toner would like to imagine, or that those who asked that particular question (“Will I become a councillor?”) were a self-selected group, or that fortune-telling trades in over-optimism. Conversely, it seems sometimes to trade in gloom. Five out of ten oracular answers to the question “Have I been poisoned?” suggest the answer “Yes”.

Popular Culture in Ancient Rome is, overall, a spirited, engaging and politically committed introduction to the culture of the “non-elite” in the Roman Empire. Toner notes in his introduction that his mother, to whom the book is dedicated, was a “college servant” in Cambridge; and the leading idea of the book – that there is a popular culture in the ancient world to be discovered beyond the elite literature that is the mainstay of modern “Classics” – is driven by a political as well as a historical agenda.

Toner’s achievement is to open up the world of the Roman tavern, rather than the senate house; the world of the garret rather than the villa. Drawing on material out of the mainstream of Classical literature, from the Oracles of Astrampsychus to the one surviving Roman joke book (the Philogelos or Laughter-Lover) or the book of dream interpretation by Artemidorus, he vividly conjures up a vision of Rome very different from the shiny marble of the usual image: it is a world of filth and stench (for Toner, Rome was basically a dung heap), of popular pleasures, carnival and the lower bodily stratum, of resistance, as well as submission, to the power of the elite. The only misjudged chapter is one on mental health, with its superficial modernizing ideas about the stress levels that affected the Roman poor. Despite Toner’s denial that he is trying “to give retrospective diagnoses of the dead”, we are left with the strong impression that he thinks St Anthony of Egypt was a schizophrenic, and that rank-and-file Roman soldiers were likely to be victims of combat stress and PTSD.

The big question, though, is whether the Rome that Toner conjures up for us is as “popular” as he suggests. Is this dirty, smelly, dangerous world the world of the peasants and the poor, or is it also the world of the elite? Maybe, whatever his political agenda, Toner has succeeded best not in taking us into the real life of the disadvantaged, but in showing us another side of the culture of the elite. For it is far from clear that the texts that we now choose to designate as “sub-elite” or “non-elite” (because that is where they fit on our hierarchy) were really “popular” in the ancient world. There are more hints than Toner admits in the Oracles of Astrampsychus that the intended customers included those who were relatively upmarket. “Will I become a councillor?” (which could equally well be translated “Will I become a senator?”) is not the only question to hint at privileged consumers. An early Christian edition of the text includes the question “Will I become a bishop”, with five out of ten answers indicating “yes” (albeit one, with a realistic view of the problems of power in the early Church, prophesying “You’ll become a bishop soon and you’ll be sorry”). Much the same is true of the Roman joke book. There have been all kinds of modern fantasies that the Philogelos was a record of the kind of banter you would have heard at the ancient parish-pump or barber’s shop. But the compilation of jokes as we have it is much more likely to be a desk-job encyclopedia by some rich, late Roman academic.

Besides, it is almost impossible to identify (even if, like Toner, you are looking hard for them) clearly divergent strands of elite and popular taste. Rome was not a culture, such as ours, where status is paraded and distinguished by aesthetic choices. Quite the contrary. So far as we can tell, cultural and aesthetic choices at Rome were broadly the same right across the spectrum of wealth and privilege: the only difference lay in what you could afford to pay for. This is strikingly clear at Pompeii, where the decoration of all the houses – both large and small, elite and non-elite – follows the same broad pattern, with roughly the same preferences in themes and designs. The richer houses are distinguished only by having more extensive painted decoration and by painting of greater skill: the more you paid, the better you got. Whether there was such a thing as “popular culture” (as distinct from dirt, poverty and hunger) is a trickier issue than Toner sometimes acknowledges.

In Resurrecting Pompeii, Estelle Lazer takes a different approach to the lives and lifestyles of “ordinary Romans” with her meticulous analysis of the human bones of the victims, rich and poor, of the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 ad. It is an eye-opening book in many ways, not least for its description of the conditions in which she worked on these bones in modern Pompeii – about as far from the glamour of Indiana Jones-style archaeology as it is possible to imagine. Apart from some celebrity skeletons and plaster casts of dead bodies on display to the public, most of the human remains that survived the Allied bombing raids on the site during the Second World War were piled up in two main stores, each in an ancient bath building not normally accessible to ordinary visitors. Lazer spent most of her research time, months on end over seven years, in these depots – ill-lit (she worked for part of the time with a hand-held bicycle light) and infested by wildlife. The identifying labels once attached to the bones had long ago been eaten by rodents; many of the skulls had provided convenient nesting boxes for the local birds (covering the bones and what Lazer calls the key “skeletal landmarks” with bird lime); in one store a “cottage industry” had been established, which used the human thigh bones to make hinges to restore the ancient furniture on the site. “This has contributed”, as Lazer writes, with deadpan understatement, “a novel source of sample bias to the femur collection.” From this very difficult material Lazer has drawn some very careful conclusions about the victims of the eruption and the population of Pompeii (and to a lesser extent Herculaneum) more generally. She has no time at all for the more sensational conclusions that have been based on the study of some ancient bones, and is particularly critical of the analysis of more than 300 skeletons that were found in the early 1980s in a series of so-called “boat sheds” along the seafront at Herculaneum. The study of this material was financed by National Geographic, and the magazine got the vivid, personal details about the dead that it had paid for: one, with a skeleton that suggested highly developed muscles, must have been a slave; another, who happened to be carrying a sword and dagger, was called a “soldier”; another was identified as a helmsman simply because it was found near a boat. Lazer not only points out how flimsy these identifications are (the boat turned out to be in a completely different archaeological layer from the “helmsman”, and the so-called “soldier” also carried a bag of carpentry tools); she also underlines how tricky and contested the conclusions drawn from ancient skeletal material almost always are, no matter who is paying and with what sensationalist aims.

Determining the sex of pre-adult skeletons is always a guessing game. There has been no reliable DNA sequence obtained from any of the human remains at Pompeii or Herculaneum. Most striking of all, two different studies of the bodies in the boat sheds have produced estimates of the average height of the victims that differ by several centimetres. There is clearly something more involved here than getting out a ruler and just measuring the skeletons.

But despite (or maybe because of) her caution in drawing ambitious conclusions from the bones, Lazer has a great deal to say about the population of Pompeii – beyond the well-known fact, now repeatedly demonstrated from the analysis of hundreds of teeth and jaws, that the levels of oral hygiene in the Roman world were truly dreadful. (When the Roman poet Martial attacked some of his contemporaries for their bad breath, it was probably not poetic fantasy.) One important observation relates to the demographic profile of the victims. It is often said that those left behind in the city, as Vesuvius rumbled and eventually exploded, must have been the weaker section of the population: the very young, the very old, the disabled, or those in some other way incapacitated. In carefully going through the stored bones, Lazer has found no indication of any such bias: the surviving human remains seem to represent a typical distribution of age and sex that you would expect in a Roman town.

Even more important for our understanding of Roman society in general is the relative homogeneity of human remains. Pompeii was a port town, and to all outside appearances decidedly multicultural – from the famous temple of the Egyptian goddess Isis to the Indian ivory statuette found in one of the houses. Yet the tell-tale visible characteristics of the skeletons (for example, double-rooted canine teeth, or particularly distinctive formations of the tibia) suggest to Lazer a relatively homogeneous population, “either as a result of shared genes or a common environment during the years of growth and development”. More than that, the tell-tale characteristics of the skeletons at Herculaneum appear to be consistently and significantly different. This would imply that – whatever their multicultural trappings – these small towns around the Bay of Naples were more like inbred Fen villages than the homes of a mobile population, as we often assume.

Resurrecting Pompeii is a remarkable (if not always elegantly written, or meticulously edited) book, partly because Lazer is so careful never to go beyond what her most exacting standards of proof will allow. She also consistently writes with respect for the material she is dealing with, never seeming to forget that her material is all that is left of the human victims of a terrible natural disaster, albeit 2,000 years ago.

The eruption of Vesuvius was, of course, an ancient tragedy of rare proportions. But in the calculations of the victims, in their decision whether or not to run for it or to stay put, it must remind us of the dilemmas of those who consulted the Oracles of Astrampsychus. As Toner suggests, the fact that seven out of ten answers to the question “Am I going to see a death” say “yes” tells us something of the realities of ancient life, for everyone.

Jerry Toner 
248pp. Polity. £55 (paperback, £17.99).

Estelle Lazer 
408pp. Routledge. £65.

(Mary Beard’s most recent books are The Roman Triumph, 2007, and Pompeii: The life of a Roman town, 2008. It’s a Don’s Life, a collection of her TLS blogs, was published last year. She is Professor of Classics at Cambridge and Classics editor of the TLS.)

Mr Sheldrick goes Bulgaria!!!

Gatwick Airport has this amazing Air Bridge - you walk over the planes when you go from one terminal to another - they taxi directly beneath you as they go out to take off.

This is my hotel - the Sofia Hilton

This is a typical Bulgarian restaurant... I think!? lol