Author Archives: Aston Kwok

About Aston Kwok

A History and Legal Studies teacher @ Sydney, Australia

Extracts of an interview with Jared Diamond

I have been quite fascinated by Jared Diamond as a teacher of historiography, for many reasons. He is not a historian by training, and his methods and choice of sources are not what most academically trained historians would have chosen or focused on, but his work is undoubtedly historiographically significant.

I have included here part of an extract of an interview he did with NPR.

What led you to this topic, the collapse of societies? 

It’s simple. It was the most fascinating as well as the most important subject I could think of, and one that I’d been interested in for decades, just as many people develop a romantic interest in sites of collapsed societies, like the Maya cities overgrown by jungle or the Anasazi skyscrapers in the U.S. desert. So there was this romantic mystery that drew me to it. There was also the puzzle of why some societies collapse and other societies have gone on in the past for thousands of years without collapsing. Then, finally, there was the importance: what we can learn today in facing problems, many of which are essentially the same as the problems that undid past societies. Maybe we don’t have to repeat their mistakes, maybe we can learn. So I did it because I thought it was so fascinating and also so important.

You write in the introduction that when you set out on this project, you thought it would be more narrowly about just environmental damage. Did something change over the course of your research to broaden the scope of the book?

Yes, something changed. Namely, I learned that there is no case of a pure environmental collapse. Easter Island comes closest, but you still have to ask, Why did the Easter Islanders do these foolish things, like cutting down the trees? So there’s still the human element. But in virtually all cases other than Easter Island, there’s not only human environmental impact, but in many cases there’s climate change, and usually there are issues of enemies who try to walk in on a society when the society gets weakened for any reason. There are also issues of friends or trading partners who may be getting weak and collapsing themselves, so that even if you’re managing your own resources okay, you may be done in by your neighbors’ problems. And then there’s the whole human element of how people either respond or fail to respond to these problems. So, in short, the framework got complicated as I learned, and I realized that life is more complicated than my initial naive fantasy.

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Resources for research in Pompeii and Herculaneum

Useful research resources for Pompeii and Herculaneum.
Please note that your research subtopics might cross over into other subtopics.

Also:

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Ancient Sewer Reveals Roman Diet – Scientists found veggie heavy evidence (Newser, 15 June 2011)

What might the following discovery suggest about the lives in Herculaneum, especially in terms of:

  • Diet?
  • Class?

(Note: for other news related to Pomepii from Newser.com, click on this link.)

Researchers have discovered the biggest load of crap from ancient Rome, and they’re using it to determine how Romans lived 2,000 years ago. After sifting through 750 sacks of human excrement discovered in the sewers below the town of Herculaneum, scientists have deduced that Romans ate a lot of vegetables, sea urchins, fish, figs, olives, and eggs, report the BBC and Daily Mail. The waste also had a high white blood cell count, indicating a bacterial infection.

We can find out such a lot about what Romans ate by sifting through the poo and in essence it is the classic Mediterranean Diet, plenty of fish and fruit,” says one of the leading researchers. Along with its neighbour Pompeii, Herculaneum was buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. The sewer also had pottery, coins, beads, and jewellery.

(Newser.com, 15 June 2011)

A stretch of garden wall ringing an ancient house in Pompeii, neighboring Herculaneum.   (AP Photo/Salvatore Laporta)

A stretch of garden wall ringing an ancient house in Pompeii, neighboring Herculaneum. (AP Photo/Salvatore Laporta)

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Ancient Pompeii Is Collapsing : Parts of 2 Structures Crumbled

What caused the collapse in this article? What can be done to prevent future collapse?

Pompeii’s “perfectly preserved” streets were uncovered in 1748; centuries later, that perfect preservation no longer holds. A series of collapses have fouled the site in recent years, with officials confirming that an 11-foot-long stretch of tomb wall was found to have crumbled early yesterday, on the heels of a more modest collapse the day prior at the Temple of Venus. Heavy rains are believed to be the cause—or at least part of it. The Italian government intends to delve in to the issue, with the country’s culture minister calling site officials to Rome tomorrow for an emergency meeting, reports Reuters.

At issue is what appears to be a growing trend: More than a dozen buildings have broken apart since 2010, leading to questions about how well Pompeii is being managed. The Telegraph reports that concerns first emerged after the 2010 collapse of the House of the Gladiators, which resulted in $145 million being provided for restoration work that began in February 2013. But some say that safeguarding “a few important houses” is not what Pompeii needs. “It needs workmen who can provide daily maintenance,” like keeping drainage channels clear, says one Pompeii expert. “Nothing is being done to reduce the risk of (damage from) rain.” She cites “in-fighting at the ministry of culture” as problematic, and the Sydney Morning Herald adds that corrupt officials and the local mafia (more on the Camorra crime family here) got in the way of previous maintenance and restoration work. And while maintenance workers may not be digging around the drains, researchers are, and they recently announced an unusual find.

(Newser.com, 3 March 2014)

Bricks and rocks are seen on the ground after, according to Italian media, they collapsed from The Temple of Venus, in the ancient Roman city of Pompeii. (APhoto/Salvatore La Porta)

Bricks and rocks are seen on the ground after, according to Italian media, they collapsed from The Temple of Venus, in the ancient Roman city of Pompeii. (APhoto/Salvatore La Porta)

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Pompeii’s Latest Woe: Thieves – Frescoes Stolen (Newser.com, 19 March 2014)

Read the article below and study the sources.

What kind of challenges face Pompeii in terms of conservation?  What sites have thus far been affected?

A man stands by the area where thieves pried off a chunk of an ancient fresco of the Greek goddess Artemis from the walls of Pompeii, Italy, Tuesday, March 18, 2014.   (AP Photo/Marco Cantile, Lapresse)

A man stands by the area where thieves pried off a chunk of an ancient fresco of the Greek goddess Artemis from the walls of Pompeii, Italy, Tuesday, March 18, 2014. (AP Photo/Marco Cantile, Lapresse)

The problems in Pompeii keep piling up—and crumbling down. Just weeks after portions of two of its structures collapsed under heavy rainfall, the ancient city has become the victim of theft, Reuters reports. A custodian discovered that thieves had last Wednesday taken an eight-inch fragment from a fresco showing the goddess Artemis that is located in the House of Neptune. The portion was “chiseled off with a metallic object” in an area closed to the public, the site’s curation department explained in a statement yesterday, a revelation that has only added to frustrations about Pompeii’s maintenance and care—especially given that a new site superintendent was recently appointed, reports AFP.

The AFP describes the results of the theft dramatically, writing of “a glaring white slash in the pink-toned fresco where the god Apollo now stands forlornly alone.” The new superintendent says “everything is being done” to recover the fresco—though police will have no footage from directly inside the ruins to assist them; the only security cameras are perimeter ones. An archaeological expert, meanwhile, suggests petty criminals were at work, as “selling a stolen fresco from a site as well documented as Pompeii would be a very, very tall order. There would certainly not be any market for it in Italy.” Oddly, a fresco fragment previously stolen from Pompeii was anonymously mailed to the curator’s office in January.

(Source: Newser.com, 19 March 2014)

Bricks and rocks are seen on the ground after they collapsed in the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, Sunday, March 2, 2014.   (APhoto/Salvatore La Porta)

Bricks and rocks are seen on the ground after they collapsed in the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, Sunday, March 2, 2014. (APhoto/Salvatore La Porta)

Bricks and rocks are seen on the ground after a section of wall around an ancient shop collapsed in Pompeii as a consequence of a rainstorm, Monday, March 3, 2014.   (AP Photo/Salvatore Laporta)

Bricks and rocks are seen on the ground after a section of wall around an ancient shop collapsed in Pompeii as a consequence of a rainstorm, Monday, March 3, 2014. (AP Photo/Salvatore Laporta)

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Archaeologists Unearth Part of Roman Throne in Herculaneum (Newser.com, 5 Dec 2007)

Undated photo made available by the Italian Culture Ministry in Rome, Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2007 showing part of a wooden throne dug out between October and November in the ancient southern Italian city of...   (Associated Press)

Undated photo made available by the Italian Culture Ministry in Rome, Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2007 showing part of a wooden throne dug out between October and November in the ancient southern Italian city of… (Associated Press)

Interesting discovery in 2007 from Herculaneum.  What might it suggest about Herculaneum that a Roman throne was in Herculaneum?  What significance might be attached to the fact that it was found in the house of Julius Caesar’s father-in-law?

Archaeologists have discovered the remains of a Roman throne in the volcanic ash that buried the city of Herculaneum when Mount Vesuvius erupted in the year 79. Scientists unearthed two legs and the back of a throne, the first ever found. The piece was decorated with ivory bas-reliefs of ancient deities, pine cones and phalluses.

“It’s the first original throne from Roman times that has survived until today,” said Pompeii’s archaeological superintendent. Before now, such furniture had only been seen in artistic depictions. The remnants were found in a first-century house believed to belong to Julius Caesar’s father-in-law. The house has also yielded hundreds of ancient documents.

(Source: Newser.com, 5 December 2007)

ITALY ROMAN THRONE

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Evidence from Pompeii – Pompeiians at giraffe (Newser.com, 4 Jan 2014)

Image

This is an interesting article from Pompeii.
What does that suggest about the dietary habit of the people of Pompeii and Herculaneum, as well as their overall living standard?

By Matt Cantor,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 4, 2014 3:45 PM CST

Researchers digging around the drains of ancient Pompeii have learned about some unusual Roman eating habits. The scientists found the remains of a giraffe and sea urchin in the drain of a onetime restaurant, LiveScience reports. “This is thought to be the only giraffe bone ever recorded from an archaeological excavation in Roman Italy,” researcher Steven Ellis, of the University of Cincinnati, says.

“How part of the animal, butchered, came to be a kitchen scrap in a seemingly standard Pompeian restaurant not only speaks to long-distance trade in exotic and wild animals, but also something of the richness, variety and range of a non-elite diet.”

Indeed, the research contradicts the idea that less-wealthy Romans were a “mass of hapless lemmings” desperate for anything to eat. The team dug up some 20 shop fronts, finding food and human waste in cesspits and latrines. The oldest finds dated to the third century BC; spices came all the way from Indonesia, reports the Daily Mail, which has photos of the excavation.

(Source: Newser.com, 4 January 2014)

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