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Hiding in Plain Sight: Medieval Mermaids in Churches


Why would an ancient, folkloric, but non-Biblical, character such as a mermaid find its way into so many medieval European churches? And can such mermaid imagery and symbology be correlated with the more overt pagan symbols of the Green Man and Sheela na gig?

14th-century mermaid bench-end at St Mary’s church, Ivinghoe, Buckinghamshire (Image: Courtesy John Vigar )

Common Pagan Symbols in Churches

There are numerous stone sculptures and wood carvings in European medieval churches that depict what may appear to be non-Christian imagery. Most discussed are those of the Green Man and the Sheela na gig, which have found various interpretations, from pagan symbols existing surreptitiously within Christian sacred spaces, to simple decorative adornments, created by masons and carpenters with the implicit approval of the Church.

Sheela na Gig, Llandrindod Wells Museum ( Celuici / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Unlike many of the more straightforward carved images of animals and therianthropes in churches, the Green Man and Sheela na gig portrayals are not drawn from passages in biblical texts, strengthening the hypothesis that they are derived from naturalistic pagan belief systems and folkloric ideas, which continued to operate at some level below the radar of Christian orthodoxy throughout the Middle Ages. It appears as if there were a certain ecclesiastical allowance to tolerate these coded populist images, even if they were evoking (especially in the case of the sexually explicit Sheela na gigs) a potentially heretical cosmology.

Late medieval mermaid shown in a wall painting at St Botolph’s church, Slapton, Northamptonshire (Image: Courtesy John Vigar )

But there is another popular non-Biblical image regularly found in churches of all status, especially prevalent in Britain and Ireland: mermaids. They can be found in stone reliefs, bench-ends, misericords, roof bosses, and occasionally in wall paintings in almost a hundred medieval churches, usually prominent, sometimes hidden but most often following a similar design, which remained largely unchanged between the 11th and 15th centuries.

Mermaids in Mythology and Folklore

Mermaids have been a part of the global mythological ontology for thousands of years. They make their first literary appearance in Assyria at about 1000 BC, when the goddess Atargatis turns herself into a mermaid as a self-imposed punishment after accidentally killing her human lover. But this rendering of a mermaid creature may be based on the even earlier tradition of the Babylonian God Ea , who was portrayed as a fish with a human head.


Hiding in Plain Sight

THOMAS LAWRENCE TOSCANO, artistic director of the fledgling OperaOggiNY, lived in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, for 12 years starting in 1993, and has been in nearby Williamsburg since then. Over the years, he became well acquainted with the local churches he stages performances in churches all the time.

“It’s much easier than trying to get into theaters,” Mr. Toscano, who has long gray hair and a bushy beard, said the other day. “Plus, we don’t have any budget.”

Over the summer, Mr. Toscano was casting around for a space for the company’s latest production, Franco Leoni’s “L’Oracolo,” when his inquiries led him to the Rev. Richard Beuther, the pastor at SS. Peter and Paul Roman Catholic Church on South Second Street.

“Father Rick said, ‘You have to come and look at what we have,’ ” Mr. Toscano recalled. The response struck him as strange he had seen the church many times. What more was there?

When the two men finally met, the pastor led Mr. Toscano not inside the church but around the corner, to the parish’s dormant former school on Berry Street. Mr. Toscano, who had been walking past the building for years, knew that structure, too — at least he thought he did. But when Father Beuther took him up a flight of back stairs, past chipping paint and though a metal fire door, Mr. Toscano could scarcely believe what he saw.

At his feet was a 50-foot-wide stage, tilted forward in the Shakespearean style and topped by an intricately detailed proscenium arch. Stretching out before him was enough space to accommodate 600 people, including a rear balcony filled with hundred-year-old seats. The condition of the space was rough there were cracks in the ornamental plaster, most of the seats had been removed, and an area under the balcony was walled off with red plywood. But all Mr. Toscano saw was potential.

“I said: ‘This is enormous! This is unbelievable!’ ” Mr. Toscano recalled. “You can’t build a theater like this these days. Who’s got a billion dollars?”

Since the school closed in 2002, the hall, which actually takes up most of the building, though it is practically invisible from the outside, had been used mostly for the church’s annual Christmas pageant.

But the space had a long history. Opened in 1898 and christened McCaddin Memorial Hall, it thrived as a space for political rallies and speeches, but was soon converted to house a school.

As for the hall itself, “I mostly remember playing basketball there,” said Esteban Duran, a local community board member who grew up in the neighborhood and who introduced Mr. Toscano to Father Beuther.

As it happened, the pastor had been thinking about doing something new with the space. After some quick talks with Mr. Toscano, it was settled: “L’Oracolo” would be staged there. As for the future, both sides would keep an open mind.

That was in September, and Mr. Toscano has been busy ever since, researching the hall’s history, patching holes in the stage, putting new bulbs into the chandelier and the footlight systems (both still work) and trying to persuade potential investors that the space can be restored. The opera, meanwhile, is scheduled to begin its three-day run on Thursday.

Last Wednesday afternoon, as workmen were trundling a rented piano up the stairs, Mr. Toscano was still marveling that the hall, unknown to much of Williamsburg’s cultural community, had been hiding under his nose.

“There’s a phrase in Portuguese: ‘The saint that you live with doesn’t really make miracles,’ ” he said. “Basically, that’s what happened here. They don’t understand what they have. This is not something I’m saying in criticism it’s human nature.”

What they have, he said, is a hall that is hungry for music.

“You want to hear something incredible?” Mr. Toscano said. He pounded out a chord on the piano and gazed up at the rafters, wide-eyed and grinning, as the sound echoed.

“This is an instrument,” he said later, gesturing to the space around him. “And that’s what’s amazing about my experience in this theater the last two months. The instrument is coming back to life. Sitting here, the sun goes down, it starts to get dark, and you start to feel the theater. The walls begin to wake up, and it begins to remember what it’s here for.”


History Hiding in Plain Sight

Walking downtown Wilmington, you can stumble upon historic house plaques and roadside markers with names you may or may not recognize. On their own, these tidbits elicit curiosity, but don’t offer much context. Some sites may have never been marked. Others may have vanished. The story lines can seem unbound. But, with a guide to connect place-to-place, the tidbits talk to each other, giving life and understanding to our collective past.

“Marcus Garvey said a people without history is like a tree without roots,” says Islah Speller, who created a foundation, mini-museum and black history walking tour to nurture those roots.

Speller begins her tour with her own Dutch Colonial home, the Burnett-Eaton House, 410 N. 7th St. Dr. Foster Burnett (1894–1945) ran a home clinic and founded the first local African-American hospital, Community Hospital (est. 1921) and nursing school across the street, at 415 N. 7th St. The James Walker Memorial Hospital permitted black patients but not black doctors. Speller shows photos of her home’s former exam and X-ray rooms, even a nurse filling prescriptions in the pharmacy.

Dr. Hubert Eaton Sr. (1916-1991) married Dr. Burnett’s daughter, Celeste. He became the hospital’s chief and a resolute activist for equality. He successfully sued the Board of Education to force upgrades to then “separate but equal” schools. He compelled integration at Wilmington College (now UNCW), the county library and even the municipal golf course.

Walk one block south to the home of Dr. Leroy Upperman (1913-1996), 315 N. 7th St., the first resident at Community Hospital, who later joined the surgical staff of the integrated New Hanover Regional Medical Center. It opened in 1967, the closing day of the segregated hospitals. UNCW’s Upperman African American Cultural Center is named in his honor.

Continue two blocks south to 713 Princess St, the home of Dr. James Francis Shober (1853-1889), North Carolina’s first black doctor. The son of a slave, Dr. Shober graduated from Howard Medical School and moved to what was then the state’s largest city to serve a black population of over 10,000 people. (Dr. Eaton wrote his biography.) Turn around and you’ll face the Giblem Lodge (est. 1866) at 19 N. 8th St. Built by the Free and Accepted Prince Hall Masons, it was Wilmington’s first black lodge in the heyday of lodges. Later, it doubled as the city’s first black library.

Four blocks south and three east mark the site of New Community Hospital (est. 1939) next-door to Williston Senior High School (est. 1915), 401 S. 10th St., “the greatest school under the sun.” All Williston alums are proud, but some are famous. Althea Gibson, the first black female Wimbledon champion, graduated from Williston while being mentored by Dr. Eaton, living at his nearby home, 1406 Orange St., with its regulation tennis courts.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was scheduled to speak at Williston on April 4, 1968, but extended his stay in Memphis. He was murdered that day. Protests at Williston would snowball into riots.

Schools integrated the next year, closing Williston (it later reopened as a middle school) in favor of New Hanover and Hoggard. The loss of these pillars — the hospital and school — left a spiritual and physical hole. Racial tensions between students boiled over, causing a mass boycott. Black students took refuge at Gregory Congregational United Church, 609 Nun St., to start their own school. Riots and arson spread citywide. Black protestors and white supremacist groups clashed. In February 1971, the firebombing of a white-owned store and gunshots fired at the responding firemen led to the arrests of eight black students, a white social worker, and the Rev. Ben Chavis. They would become internationally known as the Wilmington Ten, who were imprisoned for almost a decade before the charges were overturned. In 2012, they were officially pardoned by Gov. Beverly Perdue. A marker was erected in November on Nun St. Standing between it and Williston is a new pillar, a community center named for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 401 S. 8th St., shining like a beacon.

Speller’s tour is comprehensive. Homes of black architects, builders, inventors, educators, as well as schools, businesses, churches and monuments — from slavery to 1898 to Jim Crow to the Civil Rights struggle — all within walking distance. The aim is simple. “Through the cobblestone streets of the city, we will learn of their indomitable spirit.” And feel its presence stirring.


Who was John Geometres, and what makes your edition and translation of his work important?

John Geometres was one of the most esteemed poets and authors in Byzantium. He was the poet laureate of his time (the second half of the 10th century), but we don’t know much about his life, for which our only source is his own poems. He was a military officer of high rank and belonged to a lay confraternity attached to the church of the Theotokos in the district of Constantinople known as “ta Kyrou.”

Although Geometres’s profile as a poet and critic has received considerable attention, Geometres the theologian remains mostly unstudied. His most important work, The Life of the Virgin Mary, remains unpublished. This is the most comprehensive treatment of the Virgin’s life produced by any author up to his time. My project, which I’m collaborating on with Fr. Maximos Constas, will produce an edition of the Greek text and an English translation, to be published in the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library series. This text, which is considered a critical missing piece in a larger puzzle connecting early Marian writings with later works, will undoubtedly be valuable to students and scholars.

The preparation of text editions and translations is of fundamental importance for medieval Greek, where significant texts, even by major authors, remain unpublished or are only available in old, unreliable editions.

What are the challenges you are facing in your work?

Editing a text involves collating the Byzantine manuscripts it’s found in. This is necessary because the authors’ autographs (their original manuscripts) of almost all ancient and Byzantine texts do not survive. Today we only have faulty copies, which derive from the original through an unknown number of intermediate copies. We need to reconstitute the text Geometres originally wrote, so we look for such errors in the three manuscripts transmitting his Life of the Virgin. Doing this also helps us establish the relationships between the manuscripts: for example, if copies share the same error, it first occurred either in one of them or in a common ancestor.

John Geometres was a highly accomplished and original Byzantine author. His inventive and often inspired poetry, and the verbal artistry of his rhetorical prose works, have been commended by scholars. His Greek is often very elaborate and not easy to understand, let alone translate into English.

Another challenge is the longstanding question about the relationship of Geometres’s text to a Georgian Life of the Virgin attributed to the 7th-century Byzantine theologian Maximus the Confessor. During the first months of my fellowship I wrote a substantial article that offers my response to this debate. It is based on a rereading of these texts, without the questionable assumptions imposed on them by modern scholars.

The evidence offered by some Athonite manuscripts was extremely important. Working with original manuscripts is one of the pleasures of editing a text, although in recent years, visiting a library to consult manuscripts is becoming unnecessary: high quality scans can be sent by email or are uploaded online by the libraries. As classics scholar Michael Winterbottom recently observed, this is “convenient but unromantic.”

You also reported some discoveries at Mount Athos related to Dumbarton Oaks.

My research on Athonite manuscripts and related archives at Mount Athos in Greece revealed an autograph note, dated 6 June 1953, written by Dumbarton Oaks cofounder Robert Woods Bliss in the guestbook of the Holy Monastery of Dionysiou: “It is in a spirit of reverence that I came to this monastery to view the great manuscripts of its library which contain the most outstanding and well preserved manuscripts ever existing. I am grateful for the privilege of having been allowed to see them. Robert Woods Bliss, Co-founder of Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection in Washington D.C.” Prior to this discovery, Bliss's visit to Athos had been unknown and undocumented.

During this visit, Robert Bliss was accompanied by John Thacher, the first director of Dumbarton Oaks. Interestingly, the guestbook also reveals that Thacher and Marvin Ross, curator of medieval art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, had visited the same Athonite monastery a year before: “For the pleasure of having seen the most superb manuscripts on Mt. Athos and all the other treasures. June 10, 1952. Marvin Ross, Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore MD. John Thacher, Dumbarton Oaks, Washington DC.”

Julia Ostmann is Postgraduate Writing and Reporting Fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. Photo by Elizabeth Muñoz Huber, Postgraduate Digital Media Fellow.


Mystery Writer Finds Istanbul's Byzantine Past Hiding In Plain Sight

The Hagia Sophia is one of the city's most well-known Byzantine monuments, but it's also home to a lesser-known memorial: a plaque for the man who encouraged the Fourth Crusade's plundering of the city. Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

The Hagia Sophia is one of the city's most well-known Byzantine monuments, but it's also home to a lesser-known memorial: a plaque for the man who encouraged the Fourth Crusade's plundering of the city.

Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images

Istanbul makes an exotic first impression: Boat traffic on the Bosporus sends waves brushing up against the shores of both Europe and Asia as enormous mosques and monuments from previous empires stand guard.

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The city wears its history more openly than many, but that doesn't mean it's always easy to find. So writer Selcuk Altun spins mysteries that take his heroes into forgotten corners of the city, where once-majestic monuments go unnoticed amid the bustle of modern life.

Turkey's current Muslim leadership focuses primarily on the Ottoman Empire, but Altun's novel The Sultan of Byzantium is a homage to the Byzantines who ruled Istanbul — then Constantinople — for a millennium before the Ottomans came along.

It begins with a quiet academic living in Istanbul who receives a cryptic message that will change his life. It's from a mysterious organization that tells him he's a descendant of the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine Palaeologus, and it poses a series of tests to determine whether he's a worthy successor. Along the way, he discovers that other descendants, including his father, died under mysterious circumstances.

In the book, Altun sets the stage for an exploration of Istanbul's Byzantine past, an era he thinks deserves a lot more attention than it gets these days.

"In my opinion, Byzantium civilization is highly underrated," Altun says, "and not only underrated but also mis-[re]presented. Nowadays, when you say the word 'Byzantium' it's synonymous with grand-scale conspiracy and intrigue."

Altun says he wrote The Sultan of Byzantium as a kind of antidote to the thick, plot-heavy thrillers of writers like Dan Brown. In Altun's book, the main character considers Byzantine civilization the greatest in history, and the author still gets excited being around its monuments.

Touring Istanbul's Obscure Byzantine Monuments

It's early on a weekday morning and commuter traffic is whizzing by, carrying passengers on cellphones who don't notice that they're traveling in a VIP lane of sorts: the Byzantine Golden Gate, reserved for victorious generals and visiting dignitaries. These walls were built in the fifth century to protect Byzantines, but by the Middle Ages they were also protecting medieval Europe from rapacious Eastern armies.

Traffic passes under Istanbul's ancient Valens Aqueduct, which once carried water to the city's royal cisterns. LWYang/Flickr hide caption

Traffic passes under Istanbul's ancient Valens Aqueduct, which once carried water to the city's royal cisterns.

Altun points to differences in the limestone where later stone masons carried out renovations.

"The renovation part is really debatable," he says. "The original stones and renovated stones, they are not in coherence. Actually, in the infamous earthquake of 1999, some of the renovated stones fell down, but nothing happened to the original stones."

From there we move inland to a giant monument that, to motorists passing through its arches, must look like an old bridge — it's actually the ancient, 90-foot-high Valens Aqueduct, which once brought water to the royal cisterns.

"When Greeks and Romans started coming and settling in this city," Altun explains, "the city had a major problem: The nearest source of water was called Belgrade Forest, 25 kilometers [about 15.5 miles] west of [the] city. So they built these huge water bridges, called aqueducts. And to me it has a special meaning: You are coexisting with history."

To reach our next destination, we climb steep, winding streets alongside creaking bicycle carts. We're looking for Tekfur Palace, home of Palaeologus, the last Byzantine emperor. It's tucked away amid modest apartment blocks in a working-class neighborhood.

Altun says he can't blame Turks for not recognizing the amazing history all around them after all, they aren't taught to appreciate it.

"Seventy years ago," he says, "in the history department of Istanbul University, there was a subdivision of Byzantine history. Today, there is no division or subdivision to study Byzantine history, although Istanbul — old Constantinople — is the center, is the heart of the Byzantine civilization."

Tekfur Palace is also known as the Palace of Phorphyrogenitus, or "born to the purple" in Greek. It was home to the last Byzantine emperor. Gryffindor/Wikimedia Commons hide caption

Tekfur Palace is also known as the Palace of Phorphyrogenitus, or "born to the purple" in Greek. It was home to the last Byzantine emperor.

The Tekfur Palace was saved by its very obscurity — rampaging crusaders missed it when they sacked the city in the 13th century. In the novel, this is where Altun's narrator discovers who has been putting his life in danger throughout the book.

The Final Crusader Insult

Our next stop is by far the most popular Byzantine site in Istanbul. Known as the "Church of Holy Wisdom," Hagia Sophia was an astonishing architectural achievement for the sixth century. Altun says a thousand years passed before a bigger church was built in Spain.

As massive lines of tourists fill the plaza outside the church, Altun pauses to describe what he calls "the Mona Lisa of mosaics" — an image of Jesus, Mary and John the Baptist in the church's upper gallery. In the book, this is where his hero discovers the final crusader insult to the venerable church: Across from the glorious mosaic lies a marker for the grave of a Venetian doge named Dandolo.

"He was the one who provoked and motivated the mercenaries of [the] Fourth Crusade to plunder the city," Altun says. "When he died, he was 100 or 101 years old, and there is a plaque saying, 'Here is Dandolo.' "

The plaque remains, but historians say the bones were probably removed after the Ottomans conquered the city and turned the church into a mosque. It's now a museum, but some Turkish officials want to make it a mosque again. Altun hopes that won't happen.

A retired bank executive, Altun calls himself a reader and a book lover more than a writer. All proceeds from his books go to a scholarship fund for literature students. He hopes his modest mystery will give readers an urge to know more about a once-grand empire hiding in plain sight in modern-day Istanbul.


Hiding in Plain Sight: New Seleucid Discoveries at the ANS

They say that admitting that you have a problem is the first step on the road to recovery. One of my recurring problems is that when my wife asks me to get an item out of the fridge I cannot find it. When I report that the item in question is not there, nine times out of ten she will walk over and pull it out without even having to search. Usually when this happens, the item was sitting at the front of the shelf —and at eye-level to boot—hiding in plain sight.

As I continue to prepare the ANS Seleucid coin database for the Seleucid Coins Online project it has become increasingly clear that previously unpublished coins—both control varieties and types—have also been hiding in plain sight in the Society’s trays for decades, despite the close attention of many specialists over the years. It is only now that almost the entirety of the Seleucid collection has been photographed and the images associated with the MANTIS database entries that these new coins have been revealed. The new discoveries in the trays mirror the general state of Seleucid numismatics, which has seen new types and control varieties appear at a remarkable pace in commerce over the years. Since Seleucid Coins, Part 2 was published jointly by the American Numismatic Society and Classical Numismatic Group in 2008, hundreds of previously unknown coins have been recorded. The purpose of this post is to introduce a few of the interesting new Seleucid discoveries in the ANS cabinet.

Figure 1: Alexandrine tetradrachm (ANS 1944.100.77077).

Perhaps the most intriguing of the coins is the Alexandrine tetradrachm from the bequest of E. T. Newell accessioned as ANS 1944.100.77077 (Fig. 1). Based on the original database entry, Newell considered this coin to belong to an oft-discussed series of tetradrachms struck under Seleucus I Nicator (312–280 BC) frequently bearing an anchor symbol and which he attributed to the north Phoenician mint of Marathus. The Marathus anchor Alexanders were subsequently reattributed as a whole to neighboring Aradus in 1998 before closer analysis of the historical and hoard evidence permitted the identification of their true origin at a mint in Babylonia (Uncertain Mint 6A in Seleucid Coins, Part 1) in 2002. Despite the interest in sorting out this Alexandrine series, neither Martin Price, Arthur Houghton, myself (when I was reviewing the trays for SC 1 in 1999–2000), nor anyone else seems to have noticed this coin and therefore it does not appear in the pages of The Coinage in the Name of Alexander the Great and Philip Arrhidaeus (1991) or Seleucid Coins, Part 1 (2002). It continued to be overlooked as late as 2015, when the American Journal of Numismatics published a new study of Uncertain Mint 6A by Lloyd Taylor.

Figure 2: Anchor Alexander, uncertain Mint 6A (Newell’s Marathus) (SC C67.5a, see CNG Electronic Auction 376, lot 237).

Artistic style and the monogram in the left field of the new coin indicate production at Uncertain Mint 6A (Newell’s Marathus). Indeed, the obverse die seems to have been cut by the same hand as a die employed for that mint’s anchor Alexanders (SC C67.5a, see CNG Electronic Auction 376, lot 237 Fig. 2). However, the wreath around the left field monogram and the bee symbol below it also suggests a degree of influence from the so-called “Imperial Workshop” of Babylon (SC 82.2b Fig. 3)—now thought to have coined Alexander tetradrachms for Seleucus’ arch-enemy, Antigonus the One-Eyed, during his occupation of Babylonia (315-308 BC).

Figure 3: Alexandrine tetradrachm of Babylon I, the “Imperial Workshop” (ANS 1944.100.80957).

With the exception of the anchor, field symbols are otherwise unknown at Mint 6A and the mint is already known to share a wreathed monogram with the “Imperial Workshop” (SC 67.5a and SC 81–85). While the obverse die seems to belong to Taylor’s Series II, which he dates to c. 306–304 BC, the treatment of Zeus and the absence of an anchor symbol connect the new coin to Taylor’s Series III, which he dates to 304–303 BC. The possibility of influence from the “Imperial Workshop” of Babylon will require further study and may perhaps demand revisiting and revision to the Marathus/Aradus/Uncertain Mint 6A complex of Seleucus’ Alexandrine tetradrachms yet again. And to think that the coin has been sitting in the cabinet since the mid-1940s!

Figure 4: Unpublished bronze coin of Seleucus II Callinicus (246–226 BC) from an uncertain mint (ANS 1982.175.9).

Somewhat less embarrassingly old is a previously unknown bronze coin of Seleucus II Callinicus (246–226 BC) accessioned as ANS 1982.175.9 (Fig. 4). It has only been overlooked in the trays since 1982. The denomination (B) and types are very similar to a series struck at a Syrian mint formerly identified as Apamea, but now known as the uncertain ΔEΛ Mint (SC 706 Fig. 5). However, while both the new coin and the ΔEΛ Mint issues feature a bull butting left on the reverse, the latter carries a depiction of Seleucid dynastic god, Apollo, on the obverse. The new coin features the diademed portrait of the king instead of Apollo, but this fact went unrecognized by the original database cataloguer and by anyone who has seen it over the last several decades. The coin is not listed in Seleucid Coins Part 1. Based on the reverse type, the coin may be a new issue of the ΔEΛ Mint, but in the absence of any visible control monograms this attribution must remain tentative. The type combination of the head of Apollo and a bull butting right also occurs on bronze denomination A at Seleucia on the Tigris (SC 773).

Figure 5: Bronze denomination B of Seleucus II Callinicus (246–226 BC) struck at the ΔEΛ Mint (ANS 1944.100.77000).

A third discovery is not overly embarrassing and does not really expand our knowledge of Seleucid numismatics, but it is rather fun. The cut fraction of a gold stater (Fig. 6) accessioned as ANS 1997.92.1 has been carried in the database for two decades now as a Bactrian issue of Antiochus II Theos (261–246 BC), apparently based only on the limited remains of the portrait. Only the royal title BAΣΙΛΕΩΣ remains on the reverse. However, close analysis of the reverse shows the small tip of a thunderbolt above the legend, which can only mean that the coin was struck under the rogue Seleucid satraps of Bactria, Diodotus I and Diodotus II. Although early Diodotid staters struck at a facility designated “Mint A” did include a legend naming their distant monarch, Antiochus II, the positioning of the thunderbolt here points to production at “Mint B,” which did not employ a legend naming the Seleucid king on staters (Fig. 7). Therefore, the cut stater given to Antiochus II is not a proper Seleucid coin at all, but rather an issue struck by the Diodoti after they claimed full autonomy from the Seleucid Empire in c. 255 or c. 246 BC.

Figure 6: Cut fraction of a gold stater originally attributed to Antiochus II (ANS 1997.92.1).

These three discoveries are not the only ones made while working through the database, but are among the most interesting to date. They are exciting because they show that there are still new things lurking in the ANS Seleucid trays waiting to be revealed. The long time that some of these coins have lain in the cabinet unrecognized for what they are despite the number of eyes that must have fallen upon them is also comforting. Clearly I am not the only one who cannot see what is in plain view at the front of the fridge.

Figure 7: Diodotid gold stater of “Mint B” (ANS 1980.109.108).


The what?!

A York friend tipped us off about an amazing little book: A Walk Around the Snickelways of York, by Mark W. Jones, which explained it all.

Author Jones actually created the term snickelway in the 1980s by blending snicket - a passageway between walls or fences, ginnel - a narrow passageway between or through buildings, and alleyway - a narrow street or lane. Now local people in York use the word as if it is as old as the city of York itself.

Armed with a copy of Jones's book, we headed for Bootham Bar, one of the entrances through York's ancient walls. The gateways through York's walls are called bars and Bootham Bar is the oldest, marking a nearly 2,000 year old Roman way into the city.


You Won’t Believe These 30 Images of Ancient Ruins Hiding in Plain Sight

Jerusalem, Israel. The Old City in Jerusalem. The first evidence of settlement in the area has been dated to between 4500 and 3500 BCE. A walled-in area within the modern city, The Old City of Jerusalem contains many important religious sites, such as the Temple Mount and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Photographed by Shmuel Spiegelman, January 31, 2004. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AOld_City_(Jerusalem).jpg Herculaneum (modern-day Ercolano, Italy). Herculaneum, and the more famous city of Pompeii, were destroyed when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE. While Pompeii was destroyed by layers of volcanic ash that covered the city, the larger, more successful city of Herculaneum was destroyed from the mixture of heat, ash, and gasses that erupted from the volcano. After the G. Dagli Orti/DeA Picture Library. https://www.britannica.com/place/Herculaneum. Rome, Italy. The Pantheon, Rome, Italy. Archaeological evidence found in Rome and the surrounding areas indicates that the area has been settled for about 10,000 years. It was the capital of the Roman Empire and many claim it is the birthplace of Western civilization. When the Roman Empire fell in the 5th century CE, Rome fell under the control of the papacy, and it was the capital of the Papal States from the 8th century to 1870. Photographed by Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz, April 27, 2016. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APantheon_Rome_04_2016_6466.jpg Philadelphia (modern-day Amman, Jordan). Roman amphitheatre at Amman cut into the side of a hill. Amman is the capital of Jordan and a major tourist location. The Romans conquered the area in the 1st century CE and controlled the area for the next four hundred years. The long period of Roman rule resulted in many Roman ruins that can still be seen in Amman today, including the Roman amphitheatre in Amman that was constructed under the reign of Emperor Antoninus Pius in the 2nd century AD. Photographed by Dennis Jarvis, October 11, 2004. https://www.flickr.com/photos/archer10/2216808473/. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AJordan-16B-072.jpg Byblos, Lebanon. Evidence found in Byblos dates the first occupants back to the Neolithic period, and it has been continuously inhabited since 5,000 BCE. You can find many ancient and medieval sites within the city. Photographed by Giorgio Montersino, August 27, 2009. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AByblos_5.jpg Berytus (modern-day Beirut, Lebanon). The Roman baths in Beirut, Lebanon. There have been people living in Beirut and its surrounding areas for more than 5,000 years. In the city, the Heritage trail leads to the city&rsquos historical and archaeological sites, including baths left over from the Roman period. Other archaeological ruins in the city have been identified as Greek, Phoenician, and Byzantine. Photographed by Steven Damron, December 27, 2009. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ARoman_baths_5.jpg Oea (modern-day Tripoli, Libya). The Marcus Aurelius Arch in Tripoli, Libya, built in 163 CE. The Phoenicians established the city of Oea in the 7th century BCE, and it eventually came under Roman control. The Romans renamed the city Regio Syrtica, and the Marcus Aurelius arch still stands from the Roman occupation. Tripoli has been continually occupied since it was founded, so many ancient buildings and structures have either been destroyed or they have been buried and built over. Photographed by Daniel and Kate Pett, April 2008. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMarcus_Aurelius_Arch_Tripoli_Libya.jpg Barcino (modern-day Barcelona, Spain). Templo de Barcino (aka Temple of Augustus), Barcelona, Spain. Barcelona was established as a Roman military camp, although archaeological evidence shows that the area has been settled since about 3,000 BCE. The Romans controlled Barcelona until it was conquered by the Visigoths in the fifth century. The ruins of an ancient Roman temple were found in the late 19th century, which has been attributed to the Roman emperor Augustus, but this hasn&rsquot been proven conclusively. Photographed by Javi Guerra Hernando, September 27, 2009. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABarcelona-Templo_de_Barcino_(I).jpg Agadir (modern-day Cadiz, Spain). The Roman Theatre in Cadiz, Spain. Cadiz was founded by the Phoenicians in 1104 BCE, and it later came under the control of Carthage and Rome, who renamed it Augusta Urbs Iulia Gaditana. The Roman theatre in Cadiz, built during the first century BCE, is the second-largest Roman theatre discovered today, next to the theatre found in Pompeii. Photographed by Peejayem, September 15, 2007. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ATeatro_Romano_de_C%C3%A1diz_-_Grader%C3%ADo.JPG Anurahapura, Sri Lanka. Kuttam Pokuna pools, Anurahapura. Evidence of settlement in Anurahapura dates back to the tenth century BCE, and the king of the Anurahapura kingdom made the city his capital in the early fourth century BCE. The city is now known for its surviving ancient ruins from this period, including the Kuttam Pokuna, a site of ancient pools and its collection of monasteries that are sacred to Buddhists around the world. Wikimedia Commons. Damascus, Syria. Ruins of the ancient city of Damascus. The area around Damascus has been settled since around 6,000 BCE, but the settlement didn&rsquot prosper until the Aramaeans settled there before 1,000 BCE. You can still see the ruins from the Roman and Byzantine periods of occupation. Photographed by Ron Van Oers. Copyright by UNESCO. http://whc.unesco.org/en/documents/107610 Carthage, Tunisia. Archaeological site of Carthage. The city of Carthage was founded by Phoenicians in the first millennium BCE, and it eventually grew to dominate the trade from its prime location on the Mediterranean Sea. Carthage grew in power and military might, and engaged in the Punic Wars against Rome. After Rome defeated Carthage, the Romans destroyed the city and sold its people into slavery. Eventually, Rome rebuilt the city into Roman Carthage, which became a major hub in their African provinces. Photographed by Christian Manhart. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AArchaeological_Site_of_Carthage-130237.jpg Byzantium (modern-day Istanbul, Turkey). The Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey. Istanbul was founded in 660 BCE and became one of the most powerful ancient cities. The famous Hagia Sophia was built in the sixth century, after two previous churches on the same site were destroyed. Istanbul was the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire and contributed to the spread of Christianity throughout the empire until the Ottomans conquered it in 1453. Photographed by Arild Vagen, March 1, 2013. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHagia_Sophia_Mars_2013.jpg Korama (modern-day Göreme, Turkey). Panorama of Göreme from a hilltop. Göreme has been settled since between 1800-1200 BCE, and it is famous for its tombs and buildings cut into its high-altitude rocks. It became a place frequently fought over by the Greeks and Persians, and the people of Göreme dug tunnels into the rocks for safety. The town soon became a sanctuary for Christians who fled persecution from Rome, and Christianity has continued in the area to this day. Photographed by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen, July 31, 2009. http://bjornfree.com/galleries.html. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AGoreme_Panorama_From_Southeast.JPG Jericho, West Bank. Tell es-Sultan, Jericho. There have been 23 layers of ancient civilizations discovered to date at Jericho, and the city has been inhabited since about 10,000 BCE. Tell es-Sultan is the earliest dated site and is located a few miles from the modern city. After many centuries of relative prosperity and growth within and around Jericho, the city lost its influence and power after the Romans crushed the Great Revolt of Judea in 70 CE, and it became a Roman garrison. In the 4th century, a newer, Byzantine city of Jericho was built where the modern city now stands. Photographed by Deror Avi, December 5, 2012. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ATell_Es_Sultan_Early_Bronze_IIIb_period_Palace_P1190735.JPG


Hiding in Plain Sight: Medieval Mermaids in Churches - History

As you read this, visitors to Lisbon are snapping photos with three of the top landmarks in the city, completely unaware of a darker truth that is hidden in plain sight about these ionic places. Three major monuments are not what they seem…

From 1926 to 1974 Portugal was authoritarian state called the Estado Novo – or New State. It began with a military coup in 1926, ending the First Republic. The ruler of the Estado Novo, from 1932 to his death in 1969, was a finance professor named António de Oliveira Salazar. Under Salazar, architecture was used to foster a sense of nationalism and the past was often aggrandized and used to justify Portugal’s far-flung colonial empire. Salazar regime told Portuguese to honor "Deus, Pátria e Familia” or "God, Fatherland, and Family."

Lisbon was transformed in this period – with new avenues, neighborhoods, roadways and public works. Many used the same streamlined and neo-historic style seen in Germany and Italy. Three of the symbolic monuments of the Estado Novo are today in every major guidebook, but their dark past is often obscured.

This must see riverside statue with the luminaries of the 15th and 16th centuries is always full of people snapping selfies. Most guidebooks incorrectly say it dates to 1960. The original “Monument to the Navigators” was a temporary statue built for the infamous The Portuguese World Exhibition (Exposição do Mundo Português) of 1940. This exhibition was the commemoration of the nation’s founding 1140, but the theme was of colonialism and the justification of Portugal holding territories in India, the Far East and Africa. The propaganda spoke of the Portuguese Empire as a unified state that spanned multiple continents.

The original monument was designed in 1939 by Portuguese architect José Ângelo Cottinelli Telmo, and sculptor Leopoldo de Almeida, for the Portuguese World Exhibition. As propaganda, it represented a romanticized concept of 15 th and 16th century Portuguese exploration. A stone version was built in 1960 to mark the 500 th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry.

São Jorge’s Castle (Castelo de São Jorge) sits high above Lisbon overlooking the Rossio and the Tejo River. The fortified hilltop has Roman and Moorish sections, and most date to the post-1147 medieval period of Portuguese history. Everyday thousands of visitors climb its walls and enjoy the view. Very few know that the castle dates to… 1940, opening for the Portuguese World Exhibition. In the 1930, 40s and 50s, the Estado Novo regime launched a nationwide campaign to restore national monuments, from churches, cathedrals, castles and palaces – the idea was to inspire the population with proud structures from the past. Photos of Lisbon from the early 20 th century show that little of the walls had survived. Castles were outdated by 1460 – as cannons came on the scene. São Jorge’s Castle was in ruin by 1755 when a massive earthquake shook the city, toppling the remaining walls. While many sections of defensive walls can be spotted around the Alfama, the castle itself was completely rebuilt between 1939-40, creating a new structure that is one of Lisbon’s key monuments today – built to inspire by an authoritarian state.

Cais das Colunas

Visitors throng to the River Tejo in front of Praça de Comericio – the heart of Lisbon. The grand dock called Cais das Colunas is a central point for sunbathing and dipping ones feet in the Tejo. Two white columns rising from the tidal waters of the Tejo River mark it.

Online sites attribute them to the post 1755 rebuilding of the city, and say they evoke the Temple of Solomon – but that is not the truth. The dock was resorted in 1939 to welcome President Óscar Carmona home from a trip around the Portuguese empire. Salazar met him in massive photo opp – and the pillars were inscribed with their names. Look beyond the tourists, and see the all caps letter on the famous columns’ base – they read SALAZAR and CARMONA. It is a fascist monument.


Hiding in Plain Sight: Medieval Mermaids in Churches - History

A baby is sipping at a pint of what looks like Guinness. Children on impossibly green lawns play-fight or pose on bicycles too big for them. Ice cream is consumed messily funny faces pulled shoulders straightened. A couple sit on a Technicolor patch of grass, a wire fence separating them from a beach. In swimwear and with smooth tans, they bask in the glow of their post-war affluence.

Are they living the American Dream? Were colours brighter then? The images – part of a collection of colour film slides called The Anonymous Project, and now published in a Taschen book, Midcentury Memories, raise more questions than they answer.

(Credit: The Anonymous Project)

Found in flea markets or online auction sites in the US and the UK, these photos of intimate moments and family gatherings from the 1940s to the 1980s are removed from their context. We don’t know the names of the people shown, or the places they inhabit. Yet that doesn’t stop us making our own connections.

“I realised that once you take away the details… a lot of people see themselves in the images,” says Lee Shulman, the founder of The Anonymous Project, which since January 2017 has accrued 800,000 slides – making it what’s believed to be the largest collection of its kind in the world. “We can relate to them more once you remove that information.”

(Credit: The Anonymous Project)

Colour is a large part of that relatability. Just as colourisation is bringing historical photos to life, the images collected here take us directly into the lives of strangers. “Colour photography brings you closer to the subject, it breaks down a barrier,” Shulman tells BBC Culture. “I wanted people to project themselves into the images and think ‘that could have been me’. Some of the images are from the 1940s – they’re extraordinary.”

(Credit: The Anonymous Project)

Many of the slides were taken on Kodachrome, a film first introduced in 1935. “It’s strange to think colour photography was that early on – it was really ahead of its time,” says Shulman. “The images are quite old but the quality of them is so beautiful, modern in some respects, that the timing of them gets lost.”

(Credit: The Anonymous Project)

In the foreword of Midcentury Memories, Richard B Woodward writes: “The Anonymous Project is singular for what it reveals about how we have chosen to portray ourselves across years and cultures – a secret history… that has been lying in plain sight for 75 years.” By rescuing thousands of slides from the oblivion of the attic or the garage, the collection “has liberated these fragments of history from their consigned darkness, and the tyranny of the linear slide show, allowing the rituals of family outings in the 1950s and ’60s to stimulate our imaginations, much as Proust’s was by medieval legends”.

(Credit: The Anonymous Project)

The project has allowed these images to be saved: while the technology was cutting-edge when it first came out, the chemicals used to create the slides fade over time. As Woodward writes: “The technology that created and animated these images is now defunct. Kodachrome 64 film was discontinued in 2009. The last Kodak slide projector was manufactured in 2004… orphaned memories are being salvaged here as well.”

(Credit: The Anonymous Project)

In some ways, Shulman believes he is preserving a record of shared human experience. “When I look at these images – I’m a father now – I see exactly the same instances of life today as it was then. I think there’s a common collective memory that is beautiful,” he says. “We all have family stories and family issues in everyone’s family, but we are part of a larger family – and that’s something that stands out for me in the project.”

(Credit: The Anonymous Project)

The way slides were originally viewed was another way of coming together. Despite being superseded by new forms of photography, the slide had an appeal that chimes with how images are circulated today. “I think this was the first social media of its time,” says Shulman. “It was just a way of sharing images – you’d get the images back, and you’d invite all your friends and your family over, and you’d do these evening projections. It was the first kind of home cinema – you’d watch them together. There’s a sharing experience and a cinematic experience in that.”

(Credit: The Anonymous Project)

It tied in with the idea of the ‘magic lantern’ the thrill of collectively viewing a projected image. “I remember when my dad used to get out the projector, and I thought it was mad and magic and beautiful. It’s a meeting of photography and cinema together – when the lights go down, and an image appears it is a magical moment.”

(Credit: The Anonymous Project)

While many images are posed, an equal number remain frozen in an off-kilter moment, their subjects caught napping in an armchair with a party hat fixed to their head or enthusiastically performing the Conga, arms forever held aloft. The vibrant colours and incongruous settings lend some of them a surreal air: an angler lying next to his herbaceous border alongside nine freshly caught fish a reveller sitting in front of a wall plastered with posters of Hawaii, wearing a hangdog expression and a bedraggled garland.

(Credit: The Anonymous Project)

There is an unexpected composition to many that was the result of the technology used. “The fact that they’re slides is important to me, because each piece is unique,” says Shulman. “For me, it’s the most honest type of photography – today you can recrop and everything, but you couldn’t do that at the time – you’d take your slide, and you’d get it back and it would be framed as you took it. So there’s the beauty and the imperfection of that, which I love.”

(Credit: The Anonymous Project)

That said, Shulman doesn’t believe these images fit neatly into the category of ‘amateur photography’. “Anyone taking pictures had to be pretty professional, because they had to have good gear they had to know how technically to take a photo, how to use the equipment – it was much more complicated than it is today,” he says. “But there’s one thing about this type of photography that touches me the most – when you see an image that’s beautiful, the relationship between the photographer and the subject is so intimate. Sometimes you get someone looking over their shoulder at the camera, and it’s a lover looking at their partner, or a parent looking at their child – it’s so charged with emotion. Sometimes you get that look to the camera that you just don’t get elsewhere.”

(Credit: The Anonymous Project)

Because of that relationship, these photos offer a kind of shorthand – a way into their subject’s lives, since they never thought strangers would be viewing them. “You’re going into a very intimate moment of people’s lives,” says Shulman. “I think behind closed doors we represent ourselves differently… it’s really touching, and lovely to see – it’s very joyful.”

(Credit: The Anonymous Project)

There’s a danger that looking at the images could veer towards voyeurism, because they are so emotionally intimate. Shulman denies that. “I feel like I’ve built up this massive family – I feel like I know them all.” Often, having seen multiple slides, he says: “I do feel very attached to these people, and I feel like a guardian of their lives. It’s quite a responsibility in some respects. But I don’t feel voyeuristic in the respect that in a way I’m giving them a second life, bringing them back to life – there’s something beautiful about the idea this kind of collective memory isn’t forgotten.”

(Credit: The Anonymous Project)

It could be argued that this is only a collective memory for a select group of people – most of the images show a certain demographic white and affluent. “The demographic was middle-class in the US because it was an expensive pastime. It didn’t represent everybody. But that middle-class society was interesting, because of that post-war moment where there was excess, and people trying to live the American Dream,” says Shulman. But “even with the social differences”, he believes the images express a kind of universal “emotional value”.

(Credit: The Anonymous Project)

“There’s a lot of love and tenderness in the images. Of course, it’s rare to take a picture of someone crying in a family photo, but what I do see is that family is still of enormous importance to everybody – family is a core support. What’s lovely is sharing, again – there aren’t many pictures of people on their own doing nothing. It’s very much people together sharing an experience.”

(Credit: The Anonymous Project)

There were some parallels that Shulman didn’t expect to see. “I was surprised – despite the social codes of the time about men and women, I see very strong women having an amazing time together smoking cigars. There’s a lot more complicity in these images than I imagined that I would have seen.” The images themselves were clearly valued by their owners. “When I get the boxes of slides, they’re so beautiful – people kept them as very precious moments in their lives,” he says. “The object itself was a very precious thing. It was like storing memories into boxes in a very beautifully ordered way.”

(Credit: The Anonymous Project)

And the images might have relevance for our own fates – at least, how we live on in photographs. “Records of days at the beach or sitting in the kitchen or riding in a car will eventually become untethered from our biographies,” writes Woodward. “In a shorter time than many of us would like to think, our names will begin to disappear, even if the images of our anonymous selves endure.” One day, we might all be anonymous.

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Watch the video: Hiding in Plain Sight 7118 (January 2022).