Tuesday, 4 November 2014

US Coiney Thinks 1880s Novel is Real History

US coiney "scholarship" at its dreadful worst:
"Villa Associated with "Ben Hur" to be Concreted Over, Italian municipal authorities have announced plans to concrete over the villa of the real life arch-enemy of Ben Hur, Roman General Messalla"
trumpets a history-challenged coiney mirroring the tabloid Daily Mail and then goes on to snipe at the Italian government for lack of good stewardship of archaeological remains. Frankly the argument is a wobbly one when all over England (to take the coiney's favourite poster-country), concrete has been poured on historic buildings since at least the 1950s in every single historic town centre in the country, with whole Roman towns under concrete, tarmac, steel and glass. It's not just Britain, the foundations and gardens of many of the original town houses of, for example, Washington DC are now buried under modern buildings. It's what we call progress.

The Italian villa that the sniping coiney lobbyist is so outraged over is situated on the Appian Way at Ciampino, now a southeastern suburb of Rome (and the location of its airport) and is believed to have belonged to Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus (that is Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus who lived 64 BC – 8AD). It was discussed recently (among other places) by Dorothy King.

Anybody even vaguely interested in ancient history should know that Ben Hur and his childhood friend Messalla are totally fictional characters, made-up. That the two Messalas are not even intended to be the same is shown by the chronology of Wallace's (1880) story, Judah's problems start in about 26 AD when a tile falls from his family home and nearly hits Valerius Gratus (Roman Prefect of Judaea province under Tiberius from 15 to 26 AD). It's on the way to the galleys as a result that he first meets Jesus, beginning His ministry - fixing the novel's whole series of fictional events (including his earlier encounter with Messalla in the garrison) firmly in the second decade of the first century AD. The historical Messalla was dead long before that, and in any case was not in Judea at the end of his life.

The Ciampino villa is not being "concreted over" but archaeologists are complaining that a new housing development is too close to the excavated ruins. I do not think we can judge until we've seen the plans, which I have not (but I bet neither have the mouthy collectors).

But to expect anyone arguing for the continuation of the no-questions-asked trade in dugup artefacts to have any real intellectual curiosity or scruples, and actually check their facts before trying to score more cheap points off their imagined opponents would be an unrealistic premise. As we see from lobbyists' activities, the dealers' associations are proud to fund any old mud-slinging rubbish, slinging the crap around indiscriminately they hope some sticks. That's their tactic to try and stave off a proper heritage debate. The trouble with that approach is that some comes back and hits them in the face and adds fuel to the argument of outside observers that many artefact collectors are ill-informed, ill-willed and unable to think things through.

In any case what we have here is a typical antiquitist Two Wrongs argument ("Italians allow development on an archaeological site (like we do) , so we should not lift a finger to stop smugglers smuggling artefacts out of Italy" - just to punish them, I suppose). Quite apart from being childish, chauvinist and chalk and cheese, I have yet to read anything written by an artefact collector that shows even the most rudimentary notion of how development archaeology and heritage management 'work' in real life.Yet they all feel uniquely entitled to comment adversely on the whole process - despite having taken no steps at all to learn about what they are discussing (criticising). So it is not surprising to see the pathetic bunch ("scholar dealer" included) who see nothing wrong with treating a cloying religious fairy tale (revered in the US, but of marginal interest in the wider world) as some kind of real history. It's about their level.

Vignette: it is a STORY book, not history.

1 comment:

Dorothy King said...

Lots of children have fictional friends. They tend to grow out of them as adults ... or get dogs ;-)

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