Uncovering the past: Ancient drinking games, lost scrolls, & more!

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As some Pagans attempt to revive ancient or indigenous religions they often rely on the work of historians, primary texts, and archaeologists. For this reason, when something new pops up that challenges long held academic ideas on cultural or religious practice, we pay attention. Here are some of the new(er) finds making waves in archaeological circles.

You, too, can drink ancient booze
Looking for the perfect drink to offer your Gods or ancestors? Why not serve them (and you) a fermented beverage recreated from ones that existed thousands of years ago? Dr. Patrick McGovern is the Director for the Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health for the University of Pennsylvania Museum and he’s been breathing new life into ancient brews.

McGovern tests the residue left behind in ancient vessels used for making, storing, or drinking fermented beverages and identifies the chemical markers that the drink ingredients leave behind. If he finds traces of tartaric acid he knows grapes were used.

Some of the beverages he’s recreated are the Midas beverage, Theobroma ale, and Etrusca ale.

The Midas beverage was based on residues found in the Midas tomb in Turkey, from about 700 B.C.E. It fermented grapes, barley, and honey along with common Mediterranean spices like saffron and cardamom.

The Teobroma ale was based on a Honduran beer from around 1400 B.C.E. and has bitter chocolate notes. And, the Etruscan ale was recreated from a find in a 2,800 year old tomb in Italy and was fermented from wheat, barley, hazelnut flour and flavored with pomegranates and myrrh.

All three of these beverages, plus five more, can be purchased from Delaware-based Dogfish Head brewery.

How to Play an Ancient Greek Drinking Game
Forget quarters and beer pong, kottabos could be the hot, new drinking game. Kottabos was played in ancient Athens during evening get togethers called symposia. Symposia had a social and religious purpose. It involved male guests reclining on couches, while drinking, discussing civil and philosophical topics, playing games, singing, and enjoying the company of flute girls.

Heather Sharpe of West Chester University of Pennsylvania and a few of her students attempted to figure out how kottabos was actually played using a replica of a kylix (a drinking cup) and grape juice. According to images on pottery, there were two ways to play kottabos. One way was to try to knock down a disc balanced on a tall stand placed in the middle of the room with the dregs of wine flung from a cup. The second version of the game depicted players throwing their wine at small dishes floating in a larger bowl of water in an attempt to sink them.

A man plays kottabos  on this kylix, Metropolitan Museum of Art. [Creative Commons, Marie-Lan Nguyen]

A man plays kottabos on this kylix, Metropolitan Museum of Art. [Creative Commons, Marie-Lan Nguyen]

The students quickly learned that an overhand flicking-style throw was more successful than underhand or sideways throws. The students also learned that if you missed the target in the middle of the room, you were apt to hit another player laying on the couch right across from you. Just imagine how messy it would get if you were playing this game after several hours of drinking. Good thing the floors of Athenian homes were stone or packed earth.

So Easter Island didn’t collapse?

[Public Domain]

[Public Domain]

Archaeologists have long thought that Easter Island’s native population collapsed due to farming practices which damaged the environment of the island. A new study shows that the Rapa Nui people might not have been the object lesson of overpopulation and the over-farming of a fragile environment as environmentalists originally thought.

An international research team has used a technique known as obsidian hydration dating to test various artifacts found around the island. What they discovered was that, although the population declined on some parts of the island at various times, the population increased in other areas during the same time period.

So far the group has been unable to find any evidence of a dramatic population decline, or collapse until Europeans reached the island in 1722 A.D. and promptly infected the Rapa Nui with smallpox and syphilis.

The Easter Islands are famous for the large stone heads called moai that dot the island and the Ivi Atua religion which is still practiced today. This religion is polytheistic with a strong focus on ancestor veneration. It’s thought the moai were representations of deified ancestors and were the living faces of the past.

The Fading of Paganism in ancient Cyprus
While the Cyprus area maintained Pagan beliefs alongside the official Christian religion for longer than most other areas of the Roman empire, well into the 7th century, Polish archaeologists excavating at Nea Paphos found a 1,500 year old amulet which sheds light on the fading of Paganism in the 5th century.

The amulet has a palindrome inscribed on it, which is an inscription that reads the same forwards as it does backwards. In English, the inscription reads “[a god] is the bearer of the secret name, the lion of Re secure in his shrine.”

Bottom, Egyptian god Osiris. Above, Harpocrates.   [Photo by Marcin Iwan, artifact from the excavations of Jagiellonian University in Krakow at Paphos Agora]

Bottom, Egyptian god Osiris. Above, Harpocrates.
[Photo Credit: Marcin Iwan, artifact from the excavations of Jagiellonian University in Krakow at Paphos Agora]

Yet it is the carvings on the front of the amulet that show the fading of Paganism. There is a depiction of the Egyptian god Osiris lying in a boat along with Harpocrates, the Greek god of silence. Harpocrates is erroneously shown covered in bandages, which suggests that the artist, and presumably much of the surviving Pagan population in the area, no longer fully understood the gods who they were still attempting to worship. 

Carbonized scrolls live again in Herculaneum
The library at Herculaneum, which contained between 600 and  700 scrolls, may finally be excavated. Buried by a volcanic eruption in 79 AD, the library was first uncovered in 1752. However, the papyri scrolls contained in the library were so badly burned and fragile that there has never been a safe way to unroll and read them. As a result, the full library has never been uncovered.

But now the Institute of Microelectronics and Microsystems is using a new method of x-raying the scrolls, combined with special software to digitally “unroll” the scroll, so they can finally be read.

The first scroll examined is thought to be the work of a scribe from around the first century B.C.E. copying a work of  Philodemus defending Epicurean philosophy. The other scrolls could possibly contain lost works by Greek or Roman philosophers. Additionally, prior excavations at the site have revealed more rooms, which means that even more scrolls may be found in the future.