Respecting sacred sites
The Aboriginal people of Australia have succeeded in having Uluru closed to tourists because their behaviour was deemed to be incompatible with the red rock’s spiritual significance. The people of the region regard Uluru as the place where the spirits of the ancestral beings continue to reside – tourists climbing the rock in large numbers are incompatible with the respect that the resting ancestors are due. Instead of climbing the rock, visitors can now walk round the base – a distance of 10km – and learn about the creation stories associated with the rock’s many caves and fissures.
Might it have been different if valuable resources had been discovered at Uluru? In Arizona, representatives of the Apache nation are trying to prevent one of their cherished landscapes, called Chi’chil Bildagoteel, from being turned into a vast copper mine. Though called Oak Flat in English, the land is anything but flat. Chi’chil Bildagoteel consists
of a high desert plateau, rising out of the surrounding oak forest to a height of 1,200m, fringed by sheer cliffs and canyons. Oak Flat is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is rich in archaeological sites dating back 1,500 years, including burial grounds and numerous examples of rock art. The activist group called Apache Stronghold says that the mining proposals will ‘close off a portal to the Creator forever and completely devastate the Western Apaches’ lifeblood.’
In 2014, the Federal government passed a law giving 980ha (2,422 acres) of National Forest land to the Western Apache in exchange for 2,163ha (5,344 acres) of Oak Flat land. Apache Stronghold has taken to the courts to argue that not only is this far from equitable, it is no substitute for an irreplaceable holy ground. They also argued that the land transfer bill violates an 1852 treaty between the United States and the Western Apache that promised the Oak Flat area would remain under Apache control in perpetuity.
When Apache Stronghold applied for an injunction calling a halt to the land exchange, the judge ruled that there was no infringement on the right of the Apache nation members to practice their religion, even though the effect of the land swap was to privatise the landscape and prohibit public access. Wendsler Nosie, leader of Apache Stronghold, said that the disappointing court ruling of 11 March 2021 means that Chi’chil Bildagoteel will now become private property, ‘and I will be subject to illegal trespassing for praying on my sacred homeland.’
Support for the Apache cause has come from Stephanie Barclay, law professor and director of Notre Dame Law School’s Religious Liberty Initiative, who said, ‘our religious freedom laws wouldn’t allow the government to demolish churches with impunity, and the same should be true of a site that has been sacred to the Apache people for generations.’ Senator Bernie Sanders plans to introduce a Save Oak Flat Act in Congress to repeal both the land exchange and the approval for the copper mine. The Washington, DC-based Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, an independent federal agency that advises the President and Congress on national historic preservation policy, says that approval was based on a rushed environmental impact and mitigation statement that they described as ‘insufficient’.
It’s the same the whole world over
A song by the English folk group Show of Hands tells the story of a Roman soldier who has been posted to Hadrian’s Wall. He now contemplates the futility of his life, ‘watching over a cold frontier, a thousand miles from Rome’. The song was inspired in part by the discovery in the 1970s and 1980s of the Vindolanda tablets, consisting of correspondence written in ink on slender tablets of birch, alder, and oak. Once conserved and viewed under infra-red light, the tablets revealed much about life as a soldier garrisoned at Vindolanda Fort, including plaintive letters pleading for warm underwear and requesting more supplies of beer.
Further insights into the lot of the Roman soldier have now come from a papyrus payslip, found during excavation of a 1,900-year-old Roman army camp at Masada, in Israel. The fragmentary document gives the soldier’s name as ‘Gaius Messius, son of Gaius, of the tribe Fabia, from Beirut’. The receipt shows two payments, each possibly representing a month’s pay. Despite receiving a first stipend of 50 denarii, poor Gaius was left penniless after deductions of 16
denarii for ‘barley money’, 20 for food, five for boots, two for leather strappings, and seven for a linen tunic.
The second payment of 62 denarii again saw deductions of 16 denarii for ‘barley money’ and 20 for food, then additional deductions for an ‘overall cloak’ and a ‘white tunic’. The amounts for these items are missing, but it is a safe bet that repayment of these debts probably wiped out the balance of Gaius’ stipend yet again.
The full text (in Latin and English) can be read on the website of the Database of Military Inscriptions and Papyri of Early Roman Palestine (search for 0022, Gaius Messius), where the document is dated to AD 72-75, which corresponds to the date of the Siege of Masada (AD 74), in which hundreds of Jews committed suicide rather than be taken prisoner by the Roman army. It is not known whether Gaius took part in the siege, nor what unit he belonged to, but the deductions for barley suggest that he had a horse to feed and might have been a cavalryman.
Who invented the hangover?
Those soldiers demanding beer at Vindolanda probably came from one of the parts of northern Europe too
cold for vines, where beer was the staple tipple. But who gets the credit for inventing beer? This is one of the most competitive subjects in world archaeology – every year at least one archaeological team claims to have trumped all others by announcing ‘the oldest evidence for beer-making in the world’.
This year is young yet, but a team of Egyptian and American archaeologists has already announced that it has found ‘the oldest high-production brewery in the world’. The 5,000-year-old ‘beer factory’ is located at Abydos, 450km south of Cairo, and is certainly built on an impressive scale. At the core of the facility there are eight basins measuring 20m in length, 2.5m in width, and 0.4m in depth. Each contained 40 large ceramic vats, arranged in two rows, supported by rings of sun-dried mud struts, or ‘fire legs’. Residues in the pots show that they were used for slow-cooking, or ‘mashing’ a mixture of grain and water that was then strained and fermented to produce beer.
Small access ports, or stoke holes, were built into the side walls between each pair of vats for the introduction of fuel and fire, as well as airflow. Wood charcoal was found next to some of the ports, and evidence for the presence of fire was everywhere. All told, the brewery could produce around 22,400 litres of beer at a time, which was enough to serve around 15,000 people.
That gives us a sense of the scale of funeral rites at Abydos, which was the site of the Umm el-Qa’ab royal necropolis where early pharaohs were buried. Dr Matthew Adams, of the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University and one of the project directors (along with Dr Deborah Vischak of Princeton University), said that the beer was probably brewed ‘to supply the funerary cults of Egypt’s first kings, in which rituals were conducted both to worship them as divine figures and to sustain them in the land of the dead.’ In addition, there is abundant evidence in the form of ceramic beer mugs that ritual offerings of beer played an important part in whatever rituals took place at the abundant temples, or ‘cultic enclosures’, for which Abydos was renowned. Clearly, then, Abydos was not only the earliest brewery and the forerunner of the great royal cemeteries built later at Giza, Saqqara, and the Valley of the Kings, it was also the birthplace of the funeral wake and possibly too of the mass hangover.