Friday, April 20, 2012

Everything you know is wrong

"Did you know that Indians can travel through time?  That they invented the wire recorder?"

Those statements may not be true outside the Firesign Theater universe (where it is possible to run for President on the platform "Not Insane"), but equally unlikely things may be.

Matt Gabriele directed me to a long article at Spiegel Online International on the Samaritans, then  and now.  The Samaritans are the heirs of the Kingdom of Israel which broke away from Judea after the death of Solomon, and which included 10 of the 12 tribes of Israel.  That kingdom was the big deal Israelite kingdom until it was defeated by the Assyrians, who deported much of the population ("the ten lost tribes of Israel").  At least, that's the commonly accepted story. This article references research that seems to indicate that up until about 150 BCE, the city of Samaria, or nearby Mount Gezirim, was still the big center of Israelite worship.

Working behind security fences, the archaeologist has been digging on the windswept summit of Mount Gerizim.
His findings, which have only been partially published, are a virtual sensation: As early as 2,500 years ago, the mountain was already crowned with a huge, dazzling shrine, surrounded by a 96 by 98-meter (315 by 321-foot) enclosure. The wall had six-chamber gates with colossal wooden doors.
At the time, the Temple of Jerusalem was, at most, but a simple structure.
Magen has discovered 400,000 bone remains from sacrificial animals. Inscriptions identify the site as the "House of the Lord." A silver ring is adorned with the tetragrammaton YHWH, which stands for Yahweh.
All of this means that a vast, rival place of worship stood only 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Jerusalem.
It is an astonishing discovery. A religious war was raging among the Israelites, and the nation was divided. The Jews had powerful cousins who were competing with them for religious leadership in the Holy Land. The dispute revolved around a central question: Which location deserved the honor of being the hearth and burnt offering site of God Almighty?
 Well, we will see.  But if it is so, it certainly qualifies as a case of "everything you know is wrong."

Then there is this:  early medieval historians have for a very long time considered the 7th century CE to be the bottom of a great post-Roman depression, a period of economic primitiveness, where among other things, coins were few and hardly qualified as money.

Well, Jonathan Jarrett reports on a paper by Michael Metcalf that reveals something quite astonishing to me (the more astonishing in that I used to keep up with this stuff:

For example: we can now identify nine hundred dies used in the striking of the surviving corpus of seventh-century thrymsas. There are various well-established means for multiplying these figures up towards an estimate of the whole coinage, which when applied here reasoned for three million plus coins total, on a multiplier of five thousand coins per total extrapolated dies, and more probably something like a million in circulation at once.7 Of the gold. If we use modern parishes as a guide to how many villages there were (and you see here what I meant by ‘adventurous’), we might then expect there to be 300-odd gold coins in any given village at once! Now, I am pretty dubious about this kind of arithmetic, as you will know, although even if you halve these figures and double the number of ‘villages’ (a thing that didn’t really exist in the seventh century but let’s just assume it means ‘district’ or ‘area’ and that’s fine8—and one point that came up in questions that I’d never considered is that one thing that must be missing from distribution maps of coin finds is settlements, at least where they have continued, because you can’t metal-detect in towns!) that is still quite a lot of gold to spread out. All the same, even if the actual numbers are rubbish, one point is still true: doing the same maths with the same multipliers for later Anglo-Saxon England nets you much much less. Unless there was something specifically weird about the way money was produced in one or other period (and there certainly was about the later period, given how widely and in what small quantities it might be minted, but that ought to exaggerate the later figures, not shrink them), England was more monetised in the seventh century than it was even in the eleventh.
And how is it that everything we knew was wrong?  Somebody invented the wire recorder, I mean, the metal detector.

Interesting times.

Image:  an early 7th century thrymsa or gold shilling.

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