New Ways of Looking into Past


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How we can reconstruct and visualize history has been much on my mind this week (when I was not consuming and digesting turkey, that is). First, I ran another micro-workshop on Monday and Tuesday. While during the last week’s workshop we designed the overall architecture of the database, in the second workshop we sat down with two highly accomplished and knowledgeable historians and started pouring content into the database. One of the two polities (states)  that we were coding was the Roman Principate. This is the Roman Empire in its classic form, from the end of the civil wars of the first century BCE to the end of the civil wars of the third century CE. The second state was the Ptolemaic Kingdom, which was ruled by the dynasty established by one of Alexander’s generals in Egypt.

I was surprised (pleasantly) how well the coding went. In two days we coded about a hundred variables for both polities, focusing on social complexity, warfare, and ritual. Especially interesting and new to me was the data on rituals, because until I became involved in the project led by Harvey Whitehouse, which is one of the two research grants that currently support construction of the database, I did not pay much attention to rituals. Yet rituals are very important – they are one of the most important psychological mechanisms for building social cohesion. So if we want to understand how ancient societies functioned and, in particular, build up social cohesion that is the basis for cooperative action, we have to figure out their ritual life. And we need to test our theories about the role of rituals in social evolution. In particular, how they helped (and continue helping) to integrate large societies.

But in addition to the research value of what we were doing, it was just fascinating for me to learn the historical details (at least, what is known) and thus gain a glimpse into the life in the ancient Mediterranean. A big part of the reason why I am doing history research is that I enjoy history for its own sake.

Both Rome and Ptolemaic Egypt had their state religions, but in addition there was a multitude of mystery cults that were quite similar across the whole Mediterranean region. For example, the Cult of Isis originated in Egypt but spread to the rest of the Mediterranean during the Ptolemaic period.

We are interested in the mystery cults because we want to know about ‘dysphoric’ rituals, and initiation mysteries were apparently the most common kind of a dysphoric ritual in Antiquity. ‘Dysphoric’ is the opposite of euphoric; such rituals typically involved some kind of unpleasantness. It could range from mild forms, such as fasting, vigil, to more extreme – being frightened, humiliation, pain, mutilation (including tattooing), and even the risk of death. The most common dysphoric ritual in the modern world is hazing that new initiates into gangs or military units have to endure.

We know very little about the nature of initiation rites in the mystery cults, because they were kept secret. But sometimes we gain a little glimpse into that hidden world. Most scholars (but not all) agree that the famous sequence of frescoes in the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii depicts an initiation of a young woman into the Dionysus cult. The dysphoric elements of the ritual possibly include her being scared by something:

and flagellation:

As a final note, there are lots of arguments about exactly what is depicted on these frescoes, and some scholars even disagree that they depict an initiation rite. But we are extremely lucky to have even this much information. For most other cults we know nothing about their dysphoric rituals.

This is of course one of the central issues for historians – how we can reconstruct and imagine what it “really looked like” in the past. A good illustration is the Roman Forum, or what’s left of it. It is extremely hard to imagine what it looked like, when all you have to go on is this:

By an interesting coincidence, just as I was thinking about this issue (what is knowable and what is not in history), I received an e-mail notice of a new journal, Digital Applications in Archaeology and Cultural Heritage. It’s editor-in-chief, Bernard Frischer, is also the director of the project called “Rome Reborn,” a digital model of Ancient Rome. Here’s what the Roman Forum looks like, according to this the reconstruction:

This is a very worthwhile project. It looks like the digital humanities are finally coming into its own. What we do with the historical database is oriented more at the scientific side of things, but there are also many other initiatives that will also enhance our enjoyment of history, such as those that digitally reconstruct ancient cities and societies. And it is going to get much better. A few years ago there was a wildly popular video game, Assassin’s Creed, in which the main character traveled in historical cities (and in three dimensions – he could climb up on the roofs and travel across them). The player got to visit wonderful historical places, meet interesting people (kill them…). This screenshot shows how well-textured a historical reconstruction can look like, if you throw lots of $$ into the project:

Once the programming prowess of video game developers is combined with the specialized knowledge of expert historians – and eventually this will happen – we will have a virtual time machine. And I want this machine to take me not just to Ancient Rome, but to Hellenistic Alexandria, Persepolis during the Achaemenid Dynasty, Luoyang and Kaifeng, and Tikal during the height of the Mayan civilization.

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