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10 Reasons Why Socrates is Still Relevant Today

From his beliefs on philosophical ethics to the justness of war, the folly of materialism, the necessity of true free speech and the importance of standing up for what you believe in, we count down 10 reasons why Socrates' philosophies are still relevant today.We think the way we do because Socrates thought the way he did, writes Bettany Hughes at the start of The Hemlock Cup, her brand new biography of ancient Greeces greatest philosopher.

Two-and-a-half millennia of history might separate us from the age when Socrates roamed the streets of ancient Athens, formulating and articulating his philosophies to the people. But many of his words and ideas ring just as true in the 21st century as they did back then. (For a run-down of ten great Socrates quotes to reflect upon, check out Owen’s blog here).

From his beliefs on philosophical ethics to the justness of war, the folly of materialism, the necessity of true free speech and the importance of standing up for what you believe in, we count down 10 reasons why Socrates’ philosophies are still relevant today.

Click To Watch Video
Bettany Hughes: ‘The Hemlock Cup’ on the Life of Socrates
With Bettany Hughes’ new book “The Hemlock Cup” about to hit bookshelves, Heritage Key catches up with her to find out more about her journey in writing about Socrates.

1. Theyve Never Been Rendered Obsolete

For starters, its crucial to note that, unlike many other intellectual disciplines of the ancient Greek period such as, say, ancient Greek astronomy, Socrates philosophies remain just as pertinent as the day they were conceived (or at least the day they were recorded by his student Plato).

As one 20th century philosopher, A. N. Whitehead, famously wrote: The safest general characterisation of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato. He wasnt being entirely serious there, but the inference is clear: Socrates and his disciples theories are a crucial foundation of modern Western philosophical thought all others since have basically been constructed upon them.

2. He Taught Us to Question Everything

The highest form of Human Excellence is to question oneself and others, Socrates once said. His dialectic method of inquiry breaking a subject down into a dialogue between two or more people with differing views, both mutually in search of the same truth taught us to assume nothing and to scrutinize everything, and gave us a system by which to do it. It remains a key element of scientific study today beginning with a hypothesis and then distilling it until a definitive conclusion is reached.

3. He Taught Us That Life is Worthless Without Happiness

Socrates asked whats the point in battleships and city walls, unless the people building them and protected by them are happy?

If we arent in pursuit of happiness and understanding in our daily lives, then were basically akin to ants toiling at an ant-hill. Sure, we go about our practical tasks instinctually. But we also need to step back and develop an awareness of the world, and form a conscious relationship with our existence.

Socrates asked whats the point in battleships and city walls, unless the people building them and protected by them are happy? The same remains true today unless were mindful of spiritual well-being in our daily toil, were little better off than insects. As he famously put it: The unexamined life is not a life worth living for a human being. Think about that as you slog away at your 9-5.

4. He Taught Us to Ask if Theres Such a Thing as a Just War

It is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong, believed Socrates. As a soldier in the Greek army during the Peloponnesian War, one who distinguished himself several times for his bravery, Socrates saw enough of military conflict to understand first hand the suffering and devastation it caused.

His was one of the first voices in history to ponder whether there really is such a thing as a just war a war for a cause so true it was worth bloodshed on a mass scale. As UK and American forces remain bogged-down in Afghanistan and still lick their wounds from Iraq, its a question that remains incredibly pertinent today.

The Hemlock Cup

Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life

Bettany Hughes' new book on ancient Greek philosopher Socrates, the Hemlock Cup.

For the first time ever, ‘The Hemlock Cup’ puts Socrates’ questions – How should we best live? What makes us good? What makes us happy? – back onto the streets of Athens where they were born.


5. He Advocated True Freedom of Speech

Athens was one of the first polities in the world to allow freedom of speech all from lowly shoemakers and merchants to rich nobles were allowed to address the Athenian Assembly. Yet they had to speak with aidos a sense of shame, a knowing-your-placeness as Hughes describes it in The Hemlock Cup.

Socrates rebelled against this convention, by developing a system of true free-speech through his dialogue. Athens was uneasy was this, but he spoke his mind anyway (and ultimately paid the price for it). He was way ahead of his time in standing-up for the free expression of ideas something that remains a cornerstone of democratic society today.

6. He Invented Philosophical Ethics

What is the right way to live? pondered Socrates. He was one of the very first philosophers in history to encourage scholars and common citizens to turn their attention from the outside world to the condition of humankind and to ask a simple, honest and undoubtedly critical question: what is right and what is wrong? With it, he effectively created philosophical ethics the debate between good and evil which has shaped moral and legal codes throughout the Western world.

7. He Was a Champion of Human Virtue

Shaped probably by some of the terrible sights he witnessed on the battlefields at Potidaea, Amphipolis and Delium during his military service, Socrates developed a notion of human virtue at odds with the then-prevailing attitude of lex talionis an eye for an eye. He believed in a mixture of temperance, justice, piety and courage all of which led ultimately to wisdom. He had seen so much bad, he wanted to search for something good.

Socrates was a firm believer in friendship and community, and common threads between all of mankind. Virtue, he said, is the most valuable of all possessions. We can always benefit from being a bit nicer to each other.

8. He Warned Us of the Follies of Materialism

Socrates typically cut a pretty down-trodden figure when he wandered the streets of Athens he never wore shoes, and sported the same tattered woolen cloak all year round. He was mocked for it by his contemporaries, but he didnt care his humble attire was a physical reflection of his belief that the pursuit of plenty could only bring mindless materialism.

He even had the gall to suggest to Athenians that they might be better themselves pursuing well-being rather than wealth words that ring truer than ever in consumerist modern society.

9. He Taught Us the Value of Civil Disobedience

Socrates was known as the gadfly of the Greek state he saw it as his responsibility to sting the government into action in areas where it could improve its conduct. He wasnt frightened to publicly speak his mind on the subject of bad governance, no matter the cost. One illustrative quote goes: It seems strange enough to me that a herdsman who lets his cattle decrease and go to the bad should not admit that he is a poor cowherd; but stranger still that a statesman when he causes the citizens to decrease and go to the bad, should feel no shame nor think himself a poor statesman.

As a famous modern advocate of civil disobedience Martin Luther King put it in a letter from an Alabama Prison in 1963: Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths so we must see the need for non-violent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism.

10. He Taught Us to Stand Up For What We Believe

Socrates lived and breathed his philosophies however much they were scorned, ridiculed, laughed at or feared and he ultimately died by them. The state swatted its gadfly, by trying him as a corrupter of youth and forcing him to commit suicide by poisoning himself.

He could have renounced his beliefs, and made a groveling defence during his trial but he chose instead to stand tall to the last and accept his punishment, even turning down an opportunity to escape. There was undoubtedly a degree of recklessness and martyrdom to Socrates death, but the lesson it teaches us about standing up for what we believe in to the very end remains powerful and enduring.

The Hemlock Cup‘ hits the stores (and Amazon) October 7th. It is not ‘merely’ a Socrates biography; using a unique combination of archaeological, geological and historical clues, the historian recreates for the reader the world of Socrates with a vivacity not before achieved.

Bettany Hughes visited every spot were the philosopher was said to have walked, loved, fought and philosophised and investigated the many digs that are uncovering the world of ‘Golden Age’ Athens. She brings this fresh evidence to bear on the life of the man whose idea ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ is thought to be at the root of what it is to live in the 21st century.

King Tut Inc – Treasures Worth More Outside of Egypt

AnubisAccording to figures quoted at an archaeological conference last week by Dr Zahi Hawass, the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) has generated more revenue in recent years from sending treasures of Tutankhamun abroad than it has from collections in the countrys own museums. That includes the Howard Carter collection at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, which features key pieces from King Tuts tomb such as the Golden Death Mask (some amazing picture of which you can view here) and coffins deemed too fragile or unwieldy to travel outwith the country.

The SCA has made over $100 million from its pair of official touring exhibitions of King Tut which have criss-crossed North America since 2005. Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs has visited Dallas and San Francisco on its travels and is currently in the middle of a long run at the Discovery Times Square Exposition in New York (even though Hawass insists it deserved the Met), while Tutankhamun the Golden King and the Great Pharaohs has been to Atlanta, Indianapolis and Ontario and is at present resident at Denver Art Museum.

At the conference Egypt between past, present and future, organised by the Al-Samra Institution for Environment and Development, SCA secretary general Hawass quoted the total revenue taken in the same period by the SCA both from museums inside the country and antiquities traveling abroad as being one billion Egyptian pounds about $176 million. That means the income from other touring exhibitions and Egyptian museums combined was worth just over $76 million a huge sum, but still $24 million less than the amount made by Tut on his travels.

It underscores the overwhelming success of Dr Hawass and the SCAs policy of using touring exhibitions to bankroll their activities back in Egypt.

Yet, doesnt the increasingly dramatic skew towards externally generated revenue also suggest that the SCAs business activities abroad are beginning to eclipse their responsibilities closer to home even though recent industry analysis shows that tourism in Egypt is bucking global trends and growing at a dramatic rate? Has Dr Hawass turned the SCA into a purely profited-driven operation, which has lost sight of its obligation to ensure its treasures are accessible to the largest possible number of people, both in Egypt and around the world, and not just the highest bidder?

Shouldnt the SCA focus on amassing all of their treasures at home, and bringing as many of these new tourists as possible into Egypts museums?

Brand Tut and Egypt Inc.

Hawass makes no bones of his desire to wring every available penny out of Brand Tut and Egypt Inc. In reference to the boy kings earliest foreign adventures the famous exhibitions in Britain and America in the 1970s, which the Egyptian authorities had to fund out of their own pocket the SCA supremo earlier this year told Businessweek: If I had managed the old exhibits, Egypt would be rolling in money.

Certainly, profits have skyrocketed since Hawass took charge of the SCA in 2002, and continue to rise. In a five year period between 2003 and 2008, the SCA earned almost $350 million from a total of 23 different exhibitions sent abroad around $70 million a year. With Tuts profit-margin ever increasing, that figure could double over the next five years.

The fee levied for each King Tut exhibition is a whopping $10 million for six months, with several million dollars more being earned by the SCA in sponsorship and merchandising (the SCA retains exclusive rights to sell replicas of its artefacts, for example).

The result has been the creation, in effect, of a hierarchy of King Tut haves and have nots. The Australian Museum in Sydney recently complained that they nor any other Australian institution for that matter could not afford such price tag, despite Hawass professing to being eager to see Tut travel down under. It explains why Tut hardly has a wide variety of stamps on his passport. Greater Los Angeles has almost 20 million people within 1.5 hours drive of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art where Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs debuted in 2005. Thats nearly as much as as Australias entire population combined.

But for a spell at the O2 Arena in London between November 2007 and August 2008, and at the Museum of Ethnology in Vienna from March and September 2008, the King Tut travelling collection has spent almost all of its time in North America since 2005. Predominantly its been in the USA. The worlds largest economy has established something of a monopoly over the Tutankhamun roadshow.

Should Egypt be Sending its Treasures Abroad at All?

Many voices argue that the SCA shouldnt be sending its treasures abroad at all, complaining that it puts irreplaceable antiquities at unnecessary risk of damage, loss or theft.

The SCA counter by insisting that the strictest standards of care and security are always met, and that all artefacts are insured to the hilt. The money raised from commercial activities in foreign countries, they say, is essential to fund the care of monuments and museums in Egypt, which are massively expensive. The Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza, currently under construction and due to open in 2012 or 2013, is the main project currently being largely funded with King Tuts earnings abroad. Its price-tag currently stands at an estimated $550 million.

Further, the SCA argue that Tut tours act as important ambassadors for Egypt, sparking interest in the country and its wealth of ancient heritage, giving the tourist industry which generates around 11% of GDP extra impetus. The host countries too stand to reap considerable returns from the exhibitions.

Theres no denying that the Egyptian tourist industry is rude health at present figures released this week show tourism revenues defied global trends and reached $5.58 billion in the first half of 2010, compared to $4.6 billion in the same period last year. Industry analysts predict revenues to reach $12.4 billion by the end of the fiscal year, up on $10.8 billion in 2009.

Yet, shouldnt the fact that the profits from Tut on tour are now so outstripping revenue from Egypts museum suggest to the SCA that their focus should be on amassing all of their treasures at home, and bringing as many of these new tourists as possible who include holidaymakers driven out of the eurozone by high prices, and increasing numbers of Russian visitors into Egypts museums?

Hawass has insisted on several occasions in the past that once the two King Tut exhibitions currently running in the US come to an end in 2011, the boy kings treasures will never leave Egypt again. But the SCA chief has since contradicted himself by announcing that Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs will appear in Seattle between May 2012 and January 2013. He also hasn’t given up hope on Tut visiting Australia. I want to see King Tut go to Australia, he told the Sydney Morning Herald last December. Nothing like this has ever been to Australia before, and it will be many, many years before the opportunity will come again.

Savings and Loans

The debate over touring exhibitions raises questions about the real motivation behind Hawass and the SCAs zeal for artefact repatriation. The Rosetta Stone, the Bust of Nefertiti and the Dendera Zodiac are among a list of Egyptian antiquities in the possession of foreign museums that Hawass has firmly in his sights he wants them back, and has vowed to make life miserable for anyone who keeps them. He often offers a moral argument for why the artefacts should be repatriated theyre Egyptian treasures, taken under colonial-era conditions, and they should be returned to their country of origin.

Yet, doesnt the fact that so many of Tuts treasures have been abroad for over five years now suggest that Hawass has no moral qualms about precious Egyptian treasures residing abroad for long periods of time, as long as its the SCA and Egypt that are profiting from them? If the Egyptians were successful in getting the Rosetta Stone or Bust of Nefertiti back, are we to believe that they would really keep them in Egyptian museums on a permanent basis when they could clearly reap spectacular profits from sending them out on loan to the US?

When the Grand Egyptian Museum is completed, and Egypt has a brand new focal point for its collections not to mention all the exhibition space necessary for displaying them can we expect to see the full panoply of Tutankhamun treasures and all other key pieces from the land of the pharaohs currently in the SCAs possession assembled permanently in one place? Judging by the huge figures quoted by Hawass, that seems unlikely.

If you can’t wait for the treasures of Tutankhamun to be prized away from America’s greedy grasp, you can check them out now, for free, in Heritage Key’s King Tut Virtual!

Easter Island Was Devastated by Western Invaders and Not Internal Conflict

An archaeologist from the University of Manchester has produced new research suggesting Western invaders should be blamed for the demise of the ancient people and culture of Rapa Nui or Easter Island, further contradicting the once popular idea that its primitive, warlike Polynesian inhabitants had already themselves provoked societal collapse long before the remote southeastern Pacific island was first visited by European explorers in 1722.

Backing an already substantial body of opinion, Dr Karina Croucher a post-doctoral researcher in the School of Arts Histories and Cultures argues that the Easter Islanders must have had a sophisticated and successful culture until the Westerners arrived and it is time we recognise that. She blames disease, slave raids, violence and the ravages of colonialism wreaked upon the island by Europeans as the true causes of the indigenous Polynesian populations decline.

Dr Crouchers research, which is funded by the British Academy, has comprised a study of the relationships between rock art and the body, and a re-evaluation of the mysterious and iconic anthropomorphic moai statues (such as Hoa Hakananai, on display at the British Museum) on Rapa Nui, which was named Easter Island by its first recorded European visitor, Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen.

It must have been quite a place to live. I imagine the sounds of the carvers dominating the soundscape as they worked on the rock.

Easter Islands ancient inhabitants who may have first arrived on the island as early as 300-400 AD have been accused of toppling moai during conflicts, and over-exploiting their natural resources. But Dr Croucher claims that, when examined together, the art which adorns Easter Islands landscape volcanoes and statues, body tattoos and carved wooden figurines shows a different picture of what the islanders were like.

The carved designs including birds, sea creatures, canoes and human figures mimic natural features already visible in the landscape and show their complex relationship to the natural environment, she said. They were a people who saw themselves as connected to the landscape, which they carved and marked as they did their own bodies and the moai statues.

She highlights early accounts from expeditions which describe the inhabitants of Easter Island who may have numbered more than 3,000 in the 18th century as having a trading surplus, which proves that they were successful and self sufficient.
Dr Croucher claims that ancient artonEaster Island proves how connected its people were with the landscape,and that they were a "successful and sophisticated" culturewho were unlikely to have brought about their own demise. Picture credit- University of Manchester.Dr Croucher claims that ancient artonEaster Island proves how connected its people were with the landscape,and that they were a "successful and sophisticated" culturewho were unlikely to have brought about their own demise. Picture credit- University of Manchester.
It must have been quite a place to live, she continued, I imagine the sounds of the carvers dominating the soundscape as they worked on the rock.

Archaeological evidence supporting a theory of pre-European internal-collapse is thin on the ground. Rather than a story of self-inflicted deprivation, I agree with the view that substantial blame has to rest with Western contact, said Dr Croucher. Visitors brought disease, pests and slavery, resulting in the tragic demise of the local population and culture.

A series of tragic and devastating events killed or removed almost the entire population of Easter Island in the 1860s.

Peruvian slave raiders struck in December 1862 and returned repeatedly over the course of several months, removing around 1500 men and women around half of the islands population most of whom quickly died from tuberculosis, smallpox or dysentery.

When the survivors were released in 1863 after international protests, they brought these diseases back to Easter Island with them, killing most of the remaining population. Several hundred inhabitants more were driven off the island to work on sugar plantations in Tahiti. By 1877, a population of just 110 people was recorded.

Easter Island is one of the worlds most isolated inhabited islands. It has a population of around 3,500 people, of mixed Polynesian and Chilean descent. Research published last year suggested that the mysteriously rapid deforestation of the island after 1100 may have been caused by an invasion of Polynesian rats.

CSI Nemea: Alberta University Anthropologist Investigates Ancient ‘Murder’

University of Alberta professor of anthropology Sandra Garvie-Lok is on a CSI-style hunt for answers to a 1,500-year-old crime. Her victim: John Doe, an unidentified male with severe cranial trauma, killed at the ancient Greek city of Nemea during the Slavic invasion of Greece in the 6th century AD. The verdict: murder, most likely but how and why?

Robbery has already been ruled out the unfortunate soul, whose cadaver was discovered crushed in a small, graffiti-stained tunnel entrance, had cash and other possessions on him. Was he perhaps slain in battle, seeing as he appears to have been an eye-witness to the merciless Slavic attack on the Byzantine Greek city? Possibly, but he doesnt appear to have been a soldier rather, Doe was a poor peasant farmer who either caught an unlucky blow as the slaughter raged around him or was left with no other choice but to take up arms and desperately join the fight to defend his home.

Its a tough case to crack, and will probably never be solved. But its just the kind of challenge that anthropological investigator like Garvie-Lok a specialist in osteology, the study of bones thrives upon.

This kind of connection to peoples lives is why I got into this, she said, in a University of Alberta press release. I really do feel while Im studying the bones that Im touching someone elses life, Im reaching out to the past. Thats why I like this job.

A Terrifying and Brutal End

Invasions of the Greek peninsula in the 5th and 6th centuries AD by barbarian tribes saw the Greek provinces of the Byzantine Empire rocked by an orgy of violence, rape and pillaging. Slavs, Eurasian peoples who spread across the continent from their Central and Eastern European homelands roughly after the 5th century BC, and Avars, another group of nomadic eastern European peoples possibly of Asian origin, were especially nasty.

The Slavs and Avars were pretty brutal, said Garvie-Lok, who was called in to examine her deceased subject by a University of California, Berkeley team who have been working at Nemea since 2004.

It must have been sheer terror that led Doe to end his days squeezed into such a sorry hovel. If he was hiding in that unpleasant place, added the anthropologist, whose findings were recently published in the International Journal of Historical Archaeology, he was probably in a lot of danger. So, he hid out, but he didnt make it.

Yet, evidence namely the few coins and other possessions Doe was carrying suggests that he perhaps wasnt purely acting in desperation, but may have been acting quite rationally.

It was common in Greece when things fell apart like this for people to bury coins under a rock or inside a wall, hoping that whoever was coming through wouldnt find it and maybe they could collect the coins and move on after things calmed down. Of course, things didnt calm down for this guy.

Gallop-By Spearing or Last Ditch Defence?

The potential for deriving clues as to how and why a person died from centuries-old human remains have been well-proven recently by CT-scan investigations on the mummy of King Tut. They delivered the convincing verdict that Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun was killed by an infection (sickle-cell disease specifically, according to the latest research) to a wound sustained days before his death.

That he was hiding with his possession when he died is a pretty clear reflection that, for him, his world was ending.

While the head injury the Nemea tunnel victim sustained was serious, it wasnt the fatal blow well never know which wound killed him. Likewise, we can never be certain as to the circumstances under which it was struck. It may have been simple bad luck a gallop-by spearing, and a case of wrong place, wrong time, as Garvie-Lok puts it or the inevitable fate of an amateur fighter engaged in a last ditch struggle.

It was unusual for leaders of the Byzantine Empire to conscript, which suggests that if Doe did take up arms, it was because it was the only option he had to protect his family, possessions and community. Or he was pressed into service because everything was just going south, we cant be sure, says Garvie-Lok.

Either way, that he was hiding with his possession when he died is a pretty clear reflection that, for him, his world was ending.

Open Verdict

There wont be any suspect, trial and conviction at the conclusion of this case. Not simply because of the obvious fact that the killer also perished many centuries ago, but also because no anthropologist investigating a historic death can ever reach a conclusion with any certainty.

As viewers of TV cop shows such as The Wire or CSI will well know, two things are vital to a homicide being solved a fresh, uncontaminated crime-scene, and the option of questioning a suspect and forcing them into a confession. Neither, of course, are possible in Garvie-Loks investigation.

She dislikes the forensic cop show comparison the whole weve-got-the-answer-in-12-hours thing as she puts it and cautions that her work is much more laborious and time-consuming. A clear-cut, open and shut verdict is never going to lie at the end of a trail of clues just a stack of probabilities.

In this job, youre always talking about likelihoods, she said. Until we develop a time machine, we cant go back and know for sure.

Caves of Altamira Reopen: Spanish Culture Ministry to Defy Scientists’ Warnings

Cave of Altamira, SpainThe Spanish Culture Ministry have announced that the Caves of Altamira the so-called Sistine Chapel of Paleolithic art are to reopen after eight years of closure, despite serious warnings from scientists that the world-famous ancient drawings and polychrome rock paintings within may suffer irrevocable damage from moisture generated by visitors.

In a statement to reporters on Tuesday, Spanish Culture Minister Angeles Gonzalez-Sinde and the sites board of directors announced that public access will resume before the end of this year, albeit on an unspecified, restricted basis.

The cave complex located in the Cantabria region of northern Spain, and first discovered in 1879 was closed to the public in 2002, after green fungus generated by the body heat and breath of visitors was found to be forming on the facade of paintings in the main hall.

A replica of Altamira located just a few hundred metres away in a museum in the nearby town of Santillana del Mar has drawn 2.5 million visitors since 2001. But local government officials in Cantabria have lobbied for the reopening of the real thing, and successfully, after Altamiras board of directors last week voted in favour of resuming public access at the site which at its peak of popularity in the 1970s attracted as many as 3,000 people per day.

Altamira is an asset we cannot do without, the Cantabria regions president, Miguel Angel Revilla, commented.

Altamiras Paleolithic art is between 14,000 and 20,000 years old, and represents the first set of prehistoric cave paintings ever discovered. Several famous painters, including Pablo Picasso, are said to have been inspired by its charcoal and ochre images, which include several iconic depictions of red and black bison.

Decay of the paintings caused by a change in the fragile atmosphere in the cave was first detected in 1977, and Altamira was subsequently closed for five years, before reopening in 1982 with heavily restricted access. The waiting list to view the caves which were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985 later grew to the point where visitors had to book up to three years in advance.

Its Revillas intention to now try and attract heads of state to visit the caves. In recent years Revilla has been forced to turn down requests to visit Altamira from former French president Jacques Chirac and Mexican president Felipe Calderon, but he has expressed a hope that Barack Obama will be one of the first people to people to witness the cave complex’s ancient masterpieces after access resumes.

I have already written the invitation letter, Revilla said, and in English.

The caves have recovered from the damage, but to open them again is not a good idea. The risks are immeasurable.

Scientists will greet the news of Altamiras imminent reopening with no shortage of dismay. Just last year, the governments main scientific research body, the CSIC, strongly recommended that the caves remain closed. The people who go in the cave have the bad habit of moving, breathing and perspiring, said CSIC researcher Mariona Hernandez-Marine.

We have made it very clear that it should not be reopened at this time, commented Sergio Sanchez Moral, director of a two-year CSIC investigation at Altamira. The caves have recovered from the damage, but to open them again is not a good idea. The risks are immeasurable.

Decay from moisture generated by visitors is a problem at many ancient sites around the world. Lascaux Cave in France, adorned with similarly venerable prehistoric paintings, has fought its own battle with fungus and has been closed for long periods over the last few years (read about the battle to preserve ancient rock art around the world in this article).

Extensive work had to be carried out on the Great Pyramid of Giza in the early 90s, using robots, in order to improve ventilation, after increased humidity from visitors began eroding the monuments stones (more on that in this article). Dr Zahi Hawass head of Egypts Supreme Council of Antiquities last year warned that a number of tombs in the Valley of the Kings, including the tomb of King Tut, may have to close soon if they are to be preserved.

Altamiras paintings are described by UNESCO as masterpieces of creative genius, and as humanitys earliest accomplished art.

Its thought that the caves location, deep underground where it is largely isolated from external climatic influences, is what has allowed its ancient artistic treasures to be preserved for so many centuries. As anticipation of Altamiras reopening grows, it remains to be seen whether they will endure much longer.

Tony Robinson Helps Scottish Tourist Board Promote Archaeological Treasures Trail

Time Team star Tony Robinson has backed a campaign by VisitScotland, Scotlands national tourism board, promoting archaeological tourism in the country of such world-renowned UNESCO Heritage Sites as St Kilda and Skara Brae, and remarkable heritage treasures including The Lewis Chessmen and the Orkney Venus.

The message to visitors: forget all those dull clichs about tartan, haggis and caber tossing, and instead get around the country and discover a rich well of history which runs many thousands of years deeper than William Wallace and the narrow vision of Scotlands past popularised by Braveheart. Scotlands history runs through the Viking and Roman eras, all the way back to the Neolithic period, when a number of Britains first settlements some of them remarkably advanced were founded.

Online Itineraries

The Archaeological Treasures Trail programme, which was unveiled by Robinson last week at an event on Inchcolm Island in the Firth of Forth home to the best-preserved group of early monastic buildings in Scotland will provide tourists with a series of free, five-day online itineraries allowing them to take in a range of sites, artefacts and historical insights, predominantly around the islands of Orkney, Shetland and the Outer Hebrides where most of Scotlands ancient archeological heritage lies.

As well as describing the sites in question, the itineraries also give information on the best transport routes and methods to and from destinations, as well as suggestions on where to eat and historic hotels and B&Bs to stay in.

Scotland is so jam-packed full of archaeology but being such a large country, of course its all spread out, commented Robinson at the launch event. So one of the wonderful things about these archaeological trails is that it shows you how to move from one to the other without wasting a lot of time, as well as showing you things like decent places to eat in between, interesting walks to do, birds to have a look at. So if youre taking your kids, for example, you can have really quite an exciting day without feeling like theyre being dragged around place to place.

Get Your Head Around History

Time Team is the longest-running archaeological series on television, and has visited Scotland on several occasions, most recently for a dig on the Isle of Mull as part of the programmes current series. So Robinson who is also well-known for his role as Baldrick in historical comedy Blackadder is well-qualified to enthuse about the countrys rich archaeological landscape, and how visiting sites such as Inchcolm Abbey can help history enthusiasts visualise the way people lived hundreds or even thousands of years ago.

Historys often a hard thing to get your head round, the idea that there used to be people who were like us but dressed differently, talked differently and had pointy shoes on, said Robinson. But once youre out here, once you see that monastery, suddenly you know there were monks here on this beach, playing ball or whatever monks did, it all becomes different.

The Orkney tour itinerary recommends such places as the Orkney Museum, the Ring of Brodgar, the Stones of Stenness Circle and Henge and Maeshowe all on the first day. Then on its on to such sites Skara Brae a remarkably intact (but sadly endangered) 5,000-year-old sunken stone Neolithic village which was so advanced it even has a toilet with a drain the Broch of Gurness, the Tomb of the Eagles and Links of Noltland (where the Orkney Venus was found), in a packed five-day schedule.

Among the recommendations on the Shetland archaeological trail are Shetland Museum and Archives and the Brochs of Clickimin, Mousa and Scatness, while the Hebrides tour takes in Museum Nan Eilean which will host the Lewis Chessmen Unmasked exhibition from April 5, 2011 to September 12, 2011 the Calanais Standing Stones, Uig Bay (where the Lewis Chessmen are said to have been discovered) and Cladh Hallan, where the Cladh Hallan Mummies were uncovered.

Discover Scotland

Who knows what else is buried out there just waiting to reveal its treasures and tell us more about our ancestors of old?

The islands of Scotland are the perfect place to visit during the summer months and this trail is the ideal way to incorporate an archaeological quest into your trip, added Robinson. It doesnt matter how old or young you are, or how much you already know. Even if you have visited the islands before, the trail shows how there is always more to discover and encourage you to go back and enjoy a different type of holiday.

This is your chance to step back in time and discover Scotlands Stonehenge, explore ancient burial monuments and wander through prehistoric villages complete with stone beds, dressers and central hearths. Who knows what else is buried out there just waiting to reveal its treasures and tell us more about our ancestors of old?

See the Visit Scotland website for the full Archaeological Treasures Trail programme.

Mummies of the World Touring Exhibition to Premiere in California, Tickets On Sale

Tickets went on sale at the weekend for the premiere of Mummies of the World the largest single collection of mummies ever brought together in one exhibition, and the very first exhibition of its kind to be staged in the United States. Opening on July 1, itll take place at the California Science Centre in Los Angeles, and run for a limited time, before moving on to tour an as yet undisclosed string of museums around the US for up to three years.

Organised by American Exhibitions Inc. (AEI), in association with Reiss-Engelhorn Museums (REM) of Mannheim Germany, the exhibition will display with reverence and dignity mummified cadavers plus associated and complimentary artefacts not just from ancient Egypt, but from four continents Asia, Oceania, South America and Europe. Itll cover ages spanning several thousands of years. The oldest mummy featured will date from 6,500 years ago, the most recent the 18th century.

As our Top 10 Modern Mummies list highlights, mummification has been performed, in many different ways and for many different reasons, throughout history right up until the present day. Its not a phenomenon that always occurs by design some bodies become mummified by accident after being buried in bogs or frozen in glaciers.

Mummies of the World will give a broad overview of mummification in all its many forms, and consequently provide viewers hope organisers with an educational and scientific window into the cultures, history and lives of people who came before us.

Mummies International at ‘Mummies of the World’

Click To Watch Video
Dr Zahi Hawass explains Ancient Mummy Recipe
Dr Zahi Hawass examines an Old Kingdom mummy found quite by accident in a tomb at Saqqara in 2007. He explains the mummification process and why each stage was carried out.

The Egyptians were very methodical when it came to preserving their dead check out this blog to find out all about the painstaking process they followed (and this video featuring Zahi Hawass).

They would carefully embalm all from famous pharaohs, such as Tutankhamun, Seti I and Ramesses the Great to name just a few that archaeologists have found so far to their pets, be it fish, rabbits or in particular cats, which were considered to be especially sacred (see Dr Salima Ikram discuss animal mummification in this video interview). One of the major displays at Mummies of the World will be of a large selection of Ptolemaic-period Egyptian cat mummies, gathered together on loan from various museums in Germany.

Another mummy that will feature originates from a different part of the world altogether, and predates King Tut by more than 3,000 years. The Detmold Child is an embalmed Peruvian baby of 8-10 months, which survives in incredibly intact condition, despite being radiocarbon dated to between 4504 and 4457 BC thats 1,000 years earlier than even tzi the Iceman. It joins the exhibition on very special loan from the Lippisches Land Museum in Detmold, Germany.

A much more modern mummy on display, also on loan from Germany specifically the collection of Dr. Manfred Baron von Crailsheim will be that of Baron Von Holz, a 17th century nobleman who its thought died in Sommersdorf during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). Von Holz was discovered in the family crypt of the von Crailsheim familys late 14th-century castle, still wearing his boots.

Other esteemed guests of relative youth, mummies-wise, will be The Orlovits Family, who derive from of a group of 18th-century mummies discovered in a long-forgotten church crypt in Vc, Hungary in 1994. Michael and Veronica Orlovits and their son Johannis were preserved intentionally or otherwise by the cool, dry air and oil from the pine boards used to build their coffins. They join Mummies of the World on loan from the Hungarian Natural History Museum in Budapest.

Science of Mummification

cat mummy that will be on display at mummies of the worldAs already mentioned, mummification can be carried out in a number of ways. The ancient Egyptians flavoured drying out a corpse for weeks using natron salt from the bed of the Nile (Dr Ikram explains this on video), then carefully wrapping it in bandages. Techniques practiced in more recent years range from submerging a cadaver in a chemical-filled preservation tank to perfusing it with wax, effectively rendering it a giant human candle.

The science of making and researching mummies will be one of the key focuses of the Mummies of the World exhibition, in a bid to shift peoples perceptions of a practice thats most closely associated with the land of the pharaohs, and lavishly-entombed kings wrapped in dirty bandages. In fact, any body (human or animal) in which soft tissue, skin or hair still exists may be considered a mummy no matter how or where its been preserved.

Broadly speaking, mummies can be divided into two categories: natural (sometimes called spontaneous) and artificial, or human-assisted (sometimes called anthropogenic). Mummies of the former category have been found everywhere from the Andes Mountains and caves in Greenland to acid peat bogs in Scotland and Ireland. Mummies of the latter category originate everywhere from ancient Egypt and Greece to modern day Russia, China and Argentina.

Just to make matters confusing, the exhibition will also highlight a third category of mummification placed somewhere between natural and artificial, as exemplified by the Pazyryk mummies. Found in the Russian Steppes, these were prepared by humans after their death, then left out in the cold to be naturally frozen.

Highlighting the sheer diversity of the mummy phenomenon will be one of the core strands of Mummies of the World. As will be our ability to learn more than ever about mummies through state-of-the-art technologies and techniques. CT-scanning (which has yielded some interesting information about King Tuts cause of death, and the sex of some of the Brooklyn Museums mummies) as well as radiocarbon dating and X-ray have revolutionized the study of mummies, while DNA sampling as Bob Mr Mummy Brier explained in a recent interview with Heritage Key promises to unlock many more of their secrets still.

But is it Ethical to Show Off Dead Bodies?

Any body, human or animal, in which soft tissue, skin or hair still exists may be considered a mummy no matter how or where its been preserved.

Isnt an exhibition based around the display of long-dead, sometimes gruesome human remains slightly macabre, and with it slightly unethical (read Paula’s article for more on the ethics of preserving mummies)? Not so Mummies of the World, say organisers. They claim to have given careful consideration to which mummies theyll exhibit, and why theyre exhibiting them. Theyre confident that Mummies of the World is being staged in the best possible taste, with a strong educational remit, as summed up by this statement from Re. Cecil L. Chip Murray, a member of the California Science Centers Ethics Advisory Council:

The leadership of the California Science Center brings access to our minds of the historic footsteps of humankind as traced through the process of mummification. DNA and other modern specialties allow us to properly determine validity and human ties without desecrating the laws governing respect for human dignity and life. The displays were designed for such times as these and such questions we ponder.

Keep an eye on Heritage Key for photographs from Mummies of the World once it opens, as well of details of future destinations for the touring exhibition. If you make it along to the premier in California, drop us and let us know what you think!

Visit Stonehenge: Our Pick of the Guided Tours

Getting up close and personal with the inner circle of Stonehenge is no mean feat. Despite ongoing campaigns by Druids to open up the henge completely, the iconic Wiltshire monument is fenced off most of the year, and while access during the spring equinox and the summer and winter solstices might be much more free and easy, its so busy its difficult to get properly acquainted with the great and mysterious standing stones in any meaningful way.

But fear not there are a raft of Stonehenge tours to choose from, each of them offering something a little different.

Whether youre a stargazer eager to understand the ancient monument in its astrological context, a mystic keen to get in touch with your spiritual side beneath the triliths, or a denizen of Heritage VX looking to wander between the bluestones at your virtual reality leisure, theres an option here for everyone.

Luxury Tours

Click To Watch Video
Episode 10: Ancient Astronomy
A recent lecture given by astronomer Paul Murdin offered a fascinating insight into how ancient Britons studied the stars, Sun and Moon to understand what it was they saw in the night sky.

Perfect for the Stonehenge fanatic with more than a few quid in their pocket, Tour Stonehenge offer private tours of the standing stones and the surrounding historical landscape led by specially-trained Blue Badge driver-guides, in your choice of private vehicle. They’ll pick you up from your accomodation locally or in London and be knowledgeable and flexible enough to create a bespoke experience catered specifically for you be it investigating burial chambers, learning about the building of Stonehenge or discovering the culture of the enigmatic people who erected the megaliths so many centuries ago.

Click To Watch Video
Episode 8: Spring Equinox at Stonehenge
Nicole Favish heads to Stonehenge to experience the Spring Equinox – the point in the year where the day and the night are of equal length.

You’ll cruise the Wiltshire countryside in a Mercedes limousine, sedan, people carrier or mini-van depending on the size of your party and stop-off at your own choice of destinations from Avebury and its surrounding ancient burial chambers to Salisbury Cathedral and Bath or Winchester and Corfe Castle. Most importantly, you’ll get beyond the rope and past the bouncers into a VIP area where anybody who’s anybody in the world of ancient history wants to go the Stonehenge inner circle.

Cost: You need to contact for a quote, but a guide price for two people is 595.
Set off from: Pick-up from your accomodation, locally or in London.
We like: VIP treatment.
Not sure: A bit lazy, isn’t it?
Book it:
Tour Stonehenge

Tours for Astronomers

Astronomer and Stonehenge expert David Rowan offers a limited number of lucky punters (maximum 24 per group) all-day lecture tours that incorporate not just one but two visits to the henge first at sunset, then after nightfall a couple of hours later. Also included in the package is a guided yomp down the ley line and around the historic landscape that surrounds the site on Salisbury Plain, plus a two-course pub meal. It’s a long day at 13 hours, but Rowan’s tour promises to be a unique experience brimming with both useful information and eccentric personality.

As the sun dips behind the massive megaliths, Stonehenge is transformed into what Rowan describes as an enigmatic temple. Hell explain theories of how the ancients built the massive structure in accordance with events taking place in the heavens. It’s well known that Stonehenge has lunar alignments but there are important solar alignments too, and Rowan will highlight both. On a clear night its possible to see Venus setting behind an ancient trilithon definitely not an experience you have every day.

Cost: 150 pp.
Set off from:
We like: Great chance to get photos of the stones by starlight.
Not sure: Thirteen hours?
Book it:
David Rowan’s website

Tours for Mystics

Knight will encourage participants to touch and feel the stones, experience natural energy forces and ley lines and really get into the mindset of our ancestors.

If you really want to connect with Stonehenge then you need Peter Knight‘s help. Hes a speaker and author specialising in earth mysteries, earth energies, ley lines and astronomical alignments, and he offers a package experience that promises to bring you spiritually closer to the ancient, enigmatic megaliths, and with it nature, man.

Knight’s tour shares some broad similarities with David Rowan’s (above), but it would appear to differ in the fact that it’s an experience for body and soul, as well as the mind. Knight will encourage participants to touch and feel the stones, experience natural energy forces and ley lines and really get into the mindset of our ancestors who over 3,000 years ago were creating this astounding environment. He even threatens promises optional meditations and drumming inside a 5,500-year-old tomb. Both hardened skeptics and enthusiastic spiritualists alike will by the end, believes Knight, be forced to admit to the merit of this hands-on close encounter with ancient history and Mother Earth .

Cost: 100 per group (max three per group).
Set off from:
Salisbury train station.
We like: Small tours with a personal touch.
Not sure: May contain bongo drums.
Book it:
Stone Seeker Tours

Tours for Archaeology Buffs

Maybe you think all this astrological and mystical stuff is mumbo-jumbo? In that case, you need a privately-guided sojourn around the Stonehenge landscape with Expert Tours who promose a level of expertise no other tour company can match. There’s no stone-touching or stargazing on this trip, no sir. Youll be led by a pro-archaeologist, who will give a sober and authoritative account of the latest cold, hard facts about the monument, plus a definitive description of who dug what, wear and when.

There has been lots of archaeological activity at Stonehenge and the surrounding historic landscape over the last few years, with major excavations by the Stonehenge Riverside Project at Durrington Walls representing the latest big dig. So theres always loads of new information to discover and plenty of fresh holes in the ground to see. The tours are totally bespoke, so you can do as little or as much walking as you fancy.

Cost: From 39 pp.
Set off from:
Pick-up from your local accomodation or arrival point.
We like: A great chance to sort Stonehenge myths from facts.
Not sure: Possibly not as much fun as other tours.
Book it:
Expert Tours

Tours for Avatars

If you havent done so already, get set-up for access to Heritage Key VX, and you can travel to Stonehenge at your virtual leisure. There, our trusty bot Owain in his natty white robes will be your guide on a unique tour that allows you to visit the monument throughout the ages, from 2400 BC to the present day.

Stonehenge has changed dramatically over its 4,500 year history. A virtual visit illustrates its shifting make-up, by showing how the Salisbury Plain landscape might have looked before a single stone was raised. Next jump forward through the ages to 2300 BC when the Sarsen stone was put in place then 1500 BC, when Stonehenge was at its peak. By the final stop in the 21st century, youll be able to appreciate how the megaliths have decayed dramatically, yet remain a striking sight.

Cost: Free!
Set off from:
Your desktop.
We like: See Stonehenge through the ages, interact, undertake challenges what’s not to like?
Not sure: Doesn’t quite beat seeing the real thing.
Book it:
Heritage Key VX

Win Points With Our New Virtual Worlds Quiz

Valley of the KingsConsider yourself an authority on the many ongoing projects to survey and virtually-render famous monuments and heritage sites around the world? In that case, you should score high on the new Virtual Worlds Quiz which weve just launched on Heritage Key ten questions, each pertaining to cutting-edge endeavours to research and/or digitally recreate everything from Egyptian burial chambers to ancient Mayan cities.

Compete now and, as well as bragging rights, you could win a wad of 10 site points. Fear not if you dont know your virtual Qumran from your 3D Forbidden City well give you a sporting chance by recommending some handy sites, programmes and pages on which to do some swotting-up first. Even if you are an expert, remember that only the points from your first go at the quiz count towards your site score, so its worth doing a spot of revision first if you want the full 10/10.

HK VX, Qumran on Your Desktop and French Giza

The Valley of the Kings and Tutankhamuns tomb were the first two ancient world hotspots brought to life on Heritage Key VX, and thus the perfect place to begin your quest for Virtual Worlds Quiz clues. Take a wander through the pixilated Theban landscape and pay close attention to the games you can play there. Next youll need to negotiate a few teleporters and head over first to virtual Stonehenge, followed swiftly by virtual Amarna, where theres oodles more fun to be had, not to mention answers to be found.

“Remember that only the points from your first go at the quiz count towards your site score!”

Back so soon? Well then get straight on with reading Owens fantastic interview with Dr Robert Cargill, the brains behind Virtual Qumran, where important volumes of a certain ancient world must-read were discovered in caves. After that, find out all about French software company Dassault Systemes part in a fascinating project to render in shiny 3D the entire landscape of ancient Giza. Theyve already made a head start with one particular tall, pointy monument that requires no introduction.

NASA Scanners, the Scottish 10 and the Cities Social Networking Built

This blog containing news of an Edinburgh schools pioneering online museum is your next port of call. Follow it up by discovering how NASA laser scanning technology has allowed a team of researchers to gather unprecedented quantities of data about the lost Mayan city of Caracol. While youre at it, move straight onto Marys wonderfully detailed article about the virtual reconstruction of the Forbidden City in Beijing, which has been funded by a certain major computer and technology manufacturer.

Your next destination is this interview with Historic Scotland director David Mitchell, all about the Scottish 10 teams mission to laser-scan a decade of heritage sites around the world, in their own back garden as well as such far flung locales as the United States of America. Speaking of the US of A, some enterprising technology experts there have pioneered a nifty computer programme already applied to the likes of Rome, Venice and Dubrovnik which can render entire cities simply by gathering information from a certain popular social networking website. Heres the link, you know what to do with it.

Play the Virtual Worlds Quiz and all of our other quizzes by clicking here.

Lewis Chessmen Exhibition Opens in Edinburgh: Events to Look Out For

A reunion 180 years in waiting will occur this Friday in Edinburgh, as Lewis Chessmen pieces from north and south of the border are displayed side-by-side for the very first time at the National Museum of Scotland (NMS).

The exhibition (one of our top ten to look forward to worldwide this year) marks the arrival of a 20-piece sample of the ornate, ivory-carved 12th/13th century artefacts in Edinburgh on loan from the British Museum, and the beginning of a tour of the country that between now and September 2011 will visit Aberdeen, Shetland and finally Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis, where the chessmen were discovered buried in a sand dune in 1831 then later split up and sold (read the full remarkable story of the Lewis Chessmen here).

Currently, the British Museum holds 82 pieces of the full collection of 93 which is believed to derive from at least four different sets, probably hand-crafted in Trondheim while the NMS holds the remaining 11.

Throughout the course of the exhibition in Edinburgh, the NMS has a programme of special events planned, allowing visitors to familiarise themselves with the history and saga of the enchanting gaming pieces, which represent probably the most famous archaeological discovery ever made in Scotland. They include workshops for kids, a medieval games weekend and an interdisciplinary seminar highlighting recent research into the origins, history and making of these iconic little figures.

Chess Piece Magician Workshops and Medieval Games Weekend

Sunday May 30 sees two free Lewis Chessmen-themed events for youngsters at the museum, both based around the book The Chess Piece Magician by author Douglas Bruton a fantasy adventure about a boy, Corrie, who finds a stray Chessman with magical properties while on holiday on Lewis, and gets drawn into a mystical battle between good and evil.

In the morning therell be a Chess Piece Magician Creative Workshop, where participants can meet the author and join in with creating their very own island adventure. In the afternoon therell be a drop-in session with Bruton, titled Meet the Author: The Chess Piece Magician, where fans of the book can bring their copy along to get signed.

Saturday June 12-Sunday June 13 is Medieval Games Weekend at NMS, where budding chess champions will be invited to face-off against one another across a checkered board, or simply sit back and watch some chess masters at work. More adventurous gamers can try their hand at Hnefatafl a chess-like ancient Viking game, popular in Scandinavia in the medieval period, which similarly involved protecting a king from marauding opponent pieces. Experts have speculated that the Lewis Chessmen may even be Hnefatafl pieces rather chessmen. Decide for yourself while pitting your wits against other competitors in the centuries-old contest of skill and maneuver.

Unmasking the Lewis Chessmen

The main event of the Lewis Chessmen events series at the National Museum of Scotland is Unmasking the Lewis Chessmen a day long colloquium on the 11th September that will gather and discuss ideas and opinions on the artefacts from a variety of perspectives: historical, anthropological, archaeological, artistic and cultural.

Itll begin with a talk by the NMSs Keeper of Scotland and Europe David H. Caldwell, titled The Lewis Chessmen their place in the Kingdom of the Isles. Dr Heather Pulliam, a lecturer in the History of Art department at the University of Edinburgh will then talk The Lewis Chessmen: Art and Avatar, before Dr Caroline Wilkinson, Senior Lecturer in Facial Anthropology at the University of Dundee, presents her Facial Analysis of the Chess Pieces the use of forensic science techniques for archaeological investigation.

The Norwegian Empire, Fantasy or Fact? by the University of St Andrews School of Historys Alex Woolf is the penultimate afternoon session. Mark A Hall, History Officer at Perth Museum & Art Gallery will conclude with To you he left his brown ivory chessmen, Ships, play and cultural value in the Lewis gaming hoard, before the floor is opened to questions and discussion.

Considering that there have been vehement calls in recent years from Scottish Nationalist politicians for the British Museums quota of the Lewis Chessmen to be repatriated permanently with one minister describing the loan agreement as a step sideways in the debate the conversation should be lively.