The Greek Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities recently announced that the latest season of diving at the famous Antikythera Shipwreck — notable among other things as the findspot of the Antikythera Mechanism, an ancient Greek astronomical gearwork ...

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New finds from the Antikythera shipwreck

The Greek Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities recently announced that the latest season of diving at the famous Antikythera Shipwreck — notable among other things as the findspot of the Antikythera Mechanism, an ancient Greek astronomical gearwork device now recognized to be the most complex and sophisticated scientific instrument surviving from antiquity — had located a concentration of large metal objects buried under the seabed, one of which was recovered: the right arm, lacking just two fingers, from a bronze statue. This news, while holding out exciting prospects for the 2018 campaign, is nevertheless like an eerie echo of the past.

When residents of Athens opened their morning newspapers on November 6, 1900, they found among the usual mix of foreign news and domestic politics a front-page story with the headline, “Ancient Statues Under the Sea.” It told how the Minister of Education and Ecclesiastical Affairs, Spyridon Stais, had met Antonios Ekonomou, Professor of Archaeology at Athens University, who was representing a group of Greek sponge divers who claimed to have discovered a hoard of bronze statues at a depth of more than 60 meters near Cape Maleas in the southern Peloponnese. As proof, they had brought back a bronze right arm, missing only its thumb and part of the middle finger.

The divers quickly came to an agreement with the government. Using their brass-helmet-and-hose apparatus, they would scour the sea floor for artifacts at what the archaeologists realized must be the site of an ancient shipwreck, carrying up smaller objects and tying up larger ones so they could be raised to the surface, and the government would send a navy vessel to do the hauling and transporting and archaeologists to supervise. In compensation for their dangerous labor and for skipping a season of commercial sponge-fishing, the divers would be paid generously once the operations were over.

Within days, the troopship Mykali accompanied the sponge divers with their small boats to the shipwreck site, at last revealed to be off the small island of Antikythera in the straits between Crete and the Greek mainland. Work at the Antikythera Shipwreck lasted ten months, ending only when the divers reported that they had searched every accessible area and could do no more.

Image credit: The Antikythera Mechanism. Photo by Giovanni Dall’Orto. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The yield of the 1900-1901 campaign was spectacular but also frustrating. The ship’s cargo turned out to comprise many luxury objects including bronze and marble statuary and fine glassware, to say nothing of the fragments of the Antikythera Mechanism. But the bronzes, the most valued of the salvaged artworks because ancient bronze statuary rarely escaped the melting pot, were shattered in fragments and only one, the so-called Youth of Antikythera, was recovered even nearly complete. Moreover, this was before anything resembling scientific archaeology was possible for an underwater site, so that little could be certain concerning the nature of the ship and its last voyage, though there was general agreement that it dated from roughly the last two centuries BCE (we can now narrow this to within a decade or so of 60 BCE) and that the cargo was being transported from the Aegean Sea to the west, likely Italy.

Since 2014 the Return to Antikythera project has revisited the shipwreck site for one or two diving campaigns each year, applying a dazzling range of new technologies to gather archaeological data, all of which should cast light on an ancient voyage of remarkable significance for our understanding of ancient economies, art, and science. As was the case in 1900-1901, the new investigations have had to work in the face of capricious weather conditions, and parts of the site were clearly worked over pretty thoroughly by the sponge divers. The latest finds, however, are in the location of the ship’s hold, and were protected from earlier excavation by boulders, under which there is excellent prospect of finding some of the missing bronzes and other parts of the cargo in untampered archaeological context — this would truly be a breakthrough!

Can we also hold out hope that missing pieces of the Antikythera Mechanism will turn up? All we know is that the fragments now in the Archaeological Museum in Athens were retrieved toward the end of the original operations in the summer of 1901, when the sponge divers were systematically searching whatever parts of the wreck site that they could reach, and perhaps the ship’s hold is not the most likely candidate for where such a delicate instrument would have been stored in transit. Perhaps, again, some of the brittle, corroded components had disintegrated beyond recognition or were accidentally crushed under a diver’s lead-soled boots. We have a good idea of what to look for, however: a system of gears that simulated the movements through the zodiac of the five planets known in ancient times (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn), and substantial pieces of metal plates inscribed with texts describing the Mechanism’s features, the astronomical theories built into its inner workings, and predictions of eclipses and other astronomical phenomena. If any of this turned up, we would stand to learn a great deal more about ancient science and technology.

Featured image credit: Photo of the beach at the east of Kytheria, by Comzeradd. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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Nine things you didn’t know about love and marriage in Byzantium

The Byzantine civilization has long been regarded by many as one big curiosity. Often associated with treachery and superstition, their traditions and contributions to the ancient world are often overlooked. Referencing A Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities, we’ve pulled together nine lesser known facts about love and marriage in Byzantium.

Beauty pageants

The imperial court would often organize bride shows, basically beauty pageants, to find a wife for the heir to the throne, who would give the winner a golden apple. The most famous show was for the Byzantine Emperor Theophilos. He was allegedly smitten by the beautiful but sharp-tongued Kasia, and tested her by saying, “the worst evil came into the world through woman,” referring to the temptation of Eve. To this she responded, “And so did the best of the best,” referring to the promise of salvation, Jesus, born of Mary. Theophilos didn’t like the riposte and chose Theodora instead, giving her the golden apple.

Rules and restrictions

By the eleventh century, the Church had put in place a complicated set of restrictions on marriage. Among other rules, marriage was forbidden between two persons who were connected by up to seven degrees of genealogical relation, counting inclusively. Additional rules prohibited marriage between persons related via spiritual kin­ship, especially that established by baptism, or by the prior marriage of mutual relatives. It was a complicated enough business that special treatises were required to sort it all out.

A Cinderella story

Court officials touring the provinces in search of suitable brides for the imperial prince were apparently given a painting of what a perfect or ideal match should look like, and they tried to match it to the candidates they met. They also carried an impe­rial shoe of the right length for the ideal bride and tested it on their feet.

Men and divorce

By law, a man could ask for divorce if his wife had questioned his mas­culine honor—say, through infidelity or immoral behavior; caused him bodily harm by attempts on his life through magic or physi­cal violence, or jeopardized his attempts to procreate. He could also demand divorce if his wife was incapable of fulfilling her conjugal duties due to an incur­able illness— say, madness or leprosy. Madness was sometimes distin­guished from demonic possession, which did not constitute grounds for divorce.

Women and divorce

Women could demand divorce if the marriage threatened their chastity— say, through incitement to prostitution or accusations of infidelity; or their bodily integrity by attempts on their life through magic or physical violence; or if the man could not fulfill his duties because of an illness (again, madness or leprosy), was implicated in serious crimes, or was sexually impotent for more than three years or absent for more than five. A woman could also ask for divorce if her husband was convinced that she was cheating on him and persisted in this belief even after discovering that he was wrong.

Image Credit: “Emperor Theophilos Chronicle of John Skylitzes.” Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.


Ecclesiastical writer and priest Anastasios of Sinai used soil as an analogy to explain why some rich people desire to have children but cannot, whereas many poor people can easily have many children: soil that has received too much water is not fertile, whereas soil that has been watered mod­erately is.


There was a statue of Aphrodite near the hospital of Theophilos in Constantinople which was said to have the following power: if a woman was a virgin or a chaste wife, it would allow her to pass unmolested, but if she had been naughty or adulterous, it would cause her to lift up her dress and expose the shame of her privates for all to see. It was, accordingly, used to perform chastity tests. But the sister-in- law of the emperor Justin II had the statue destroyed because it did this to her when she was passing by on other business.

Dream interpretations

According to a book of dream-prediction attributed to Ahmet, if you dream that you have relations with

  • a classy escort, it means that you will become rich
  • a nun, it means that grief is in store for you
  • a common whore, your wealth will grow, but by unjust means
  • a beautiful woman, you will find joy and wealth within a year
  • an old woman, you will obtain power from an ancient source

Featured image credit: “Marriage Ring with Scenes from the Life of Christ” provided  by the Walters Art Museum. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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On serendipity, metals, and networks

“What connects archaeology and statistical physics?”, we asked ourselves one evening in The Marquis Cornwallis, a local Bloomsbury pub in London back in 2014, while catching up after more than a decade since our paths crossed last time. While bringing back the memories of that time we first met when we were both 16, it hit us that our enthusiasm for research we did as teenagers had not faded away: Jelena has always been occupied with game theory and networks, while Miljana has never stopped pursuing evidence for the world’s earliest metallurgy in the Balkans. Apart from sharing excitement that things at the end did not turn out too bad for us, two postdocs at the time at UCL and Imperial College London, we didn’t know details about each other’s research. Nevertheless, that winter night in The Marquis Cornwallis we decided to investigate the connection – not only for the sake of science, but for the thrills of reliving the days we spent together as teenagers in the famous Balkan ‘nerd hub’, Serbian Petnica Research Centre.

The first run of metals data through complex networks algorithms happened the night before we were due to deliver our ideas on how networks research can benefit early Balkan metallurgy research at a physics conference. Needless to say, we (over)committed ourselves to delivering a fresh view on this topic without giving it a thorough thought, rather, we hoped that our enthusiasm would do the job. That night, the best and the worst thing happened: our results presented the separation of modules, or most densely connected structures in our networks, as statistically, archaeologically, and spatiotemporally significant. The bad news was that we stumbled upon it in a classic serendipitous manner – we did not know what was it that we pursued, but it looked too good to let go. It subsequently took us three years to get to the bottom of networks analysis we made that night.

In simple terms, what we did here is present ancient societies as a network. A large number of systems can be represented as a network. For example, human society is a network where the nodes are people and the links are social or genetic ties between them. A lot of real-world networks exhibit nontrivial properties that we do not observe in a regular lattice or in the network where we connect the nodes randomly. For example social networks have the property called ‘six degrees of separation’, which means that the distance between any of us to anybody else on the planet is less than six steps of friendships. So any of us knows somebody, who knows somebody etc (six times) who knows Barack Obama or fishermen on a small island in Indonesia. Another property that is common in complex networks is so-called modularity. This means that some parts of the network are more densely connected with each other than with other parts of the network. Successful investigation of modularity or community structure property of networks includes detecting modules in citation networks, or pollination systems – in our case we used this property to shed light on the connections between prehistoric societies that traded copper. It turned out that they did not do it randomly, but within their own network of dense social ties, which are remarkably consistent with the distribution of known archaeological phenomena at the time (c. 6200- 3200 BC), or cultures.

What we managed to capture were properties of highly interconnected systems based on copper supply networks that also reflected organisation of social and economic ties between c. 6200 and c. 3200 BC.

Our example is the first 3,000 years of development of metallurgy in the Balkans. The case study includes more than 400 prehistoric copper artefacts: copper ores, beads made of green copper ores, production debris like slags, and a variety of copper metal artefacts, from trinkets to massive hammer axes weighing around 1kg each. Although our database was filled with detailed archaeological, spatial, and temporal information about each of 400+ artefacts used to design and conduct networks analyses, we only employed chemical analysis, which is the information acquired independently, and can be replicated. Importantly, we operated under the premise that networks of copper supply can reveal information relevant for the specific histories of people behind these movements, and hence reflect human behaviour.

Our initial aim was to see how supply networks of copper artefacts were organised in the past, and as the last step of analysis we planned to utilize geographical location only to facilitate visual representation of our results. Basically, if two artefacts from the same chemical cluster were found in two different sites, we placed a link between them. In the final step, the so-called Louvain algorithm was applied in order to identify structures in our networks, and we used it as a good modularity optimization method. Another advantage is this approach is that we can test its statistical significance and put a probability figure to the obtained modules.

What we managed to capture were properties of highly interconnected systems based on copper supply networks that also reflected organisation of social and economic ties between c. 6200 and c. 3200 BC. The intensity of algorithmically calculated social interaction revealed three main groups of communities (or modules) that are archaeologically, spatiotemporally, and statistically significant across the studied period (and represented in different colours in Figure 1). These communities display substantial correlation with at least three dominant archaeological cultures that represented main economic and social cores of copper industries in the Balkans during these 3,000 years (Figure 2). Basically, such correlation shows that known archaeological phenomena can be mathematically evaluated using modularity approach.

Figure 1. Three community structures (modules 0, 1 and 2) presented throughout c. 6200 – 3200 BC in the Balkans. Provided by the author and used with permission.
Figure 2. Distribution of archaeological cultures / ‘copper industries’ in the Balkans between c. 6200 and c. 3200 BC (shaded), with the most relevant sites. Note colour-coding and size of nodes consistent with the module colour (Module 0 – red, Module 1 – blue, Module 2 – green). Provided by the author and used with permission.

Although serendipity marked the beginnings of our research, our plan is to take it from here with a detailed research strategy plan, which now includes looking at other aspects of material culture (not only metals), testing the model on datasets across prehistoric Europe, or indeed different chronological periods. We can say that the Balkan example worked out well because metal supply and circulation played a great role in the lives of societies within an observed period, but it may not apply in cases where this economy was not as developed. The most exciting part for us though was changing our perspective on what archaeological culture might represent. Traditional systematics is commonly looking at cultures as depositions of similar associations of materials, dwelling and subsistence forms across distinct space-time, and debates come down to either grouping or splitting distinctive archaeological cultures based on expressions of similarity and reproduction across the defined time and space. But now we have the opportunity to change this perspective and look at the strength of links between similar material culture, rather than their accumulation patterns. This is a game changer for us. And we hope that this research inspires colleagues to pursue this idea of measuring connectedness amongst past societies in order to shed more light on how people in the past cooperated, and why.

Featured image credit: Mountains in Bulgaria by Alex Dimitrov. CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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The coinage of the Roman Emperor Nerva (AD 96-98)

On 18 September, in AD 96, the 65 year-old senator, Nerva, became emperor of Rome (Figure 1). His predecessor, Domitian, was assassinated in the culmination of a palace conspiracy; there is no evidence that Nerva had anything to do with the plot. The Senate officially damned Domitian’s memory, erasing his name from public monuments and tearing down his statues and portraits. Rome’s senatorial aristocracy bitterly resented him on account of his autocratic governance and the excessive treason trials and executions that befell senators towards the end of his reign.

Figure 1. Portrait head of Nerva (Image Courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu, California).

Nerva had no children and ruled for only sixteen months until his death on 27 January AD 98. As historical sources attest, there was palpable tension with the armed forces owing to their affections for Domitian and thirst for vengeance. In the summer of AD 97, the imperial bodyguard surrounded Nerva in his palace and forced him to hand over the conspirators in Domitian’s assassination for punishment. In the fall of that year, Nerva adopted the popular military general, Trajan (ruled AD 98-117) as his son and successor, evidently easing tensions and the threat of civil war. Nerva’s reign is thus often characterized as mere interlude in history, between the Flavian Dynasty and the remarkable reign of Trajan, during which the empire reached its greatest geographical extent, and public building, art, and literature flourished. In most history and art history textbooks, Nerva is given at best a cursory treatment.

Roman authors no doubt convey accurately the tensions between Nerva’s administration and the army, but perhaps it is unfair to characterize Nerva’s rule as a simple interlude and to suggest that he was a relatively weak and ineffective emperor based on these circumstances. The military tensions have prompted scholars to read anxiety and weakness into the coinage, the best source of visual art in Nerva’s reign since his brief rule left little time for public building encrusted with relief sculpture. Images of Victory on Nerva’s coinage are interpreted by scholars as reflective of the emperor’s desperation to capitalize on military victories, or to flatter the army, even though Victory appears only on rare denominations, quinarii, and was the standard image to adorn those coins since the reign of Augustus (27 BC-AD 14) (Figure 2). Historians often read Peace, seated and holding a branch and scepter, on Nerva’s coinage as hope for stability (Figure 3). A closer look indicates, however, that Peace was a standard image on the imperial coinage when a new emperor took power, even when transitions of power were relatively peaceful (e.g., from Vespasian to Titus, or Nerva to Trajan). Indeed, much of Nerva’s coinage program is traditional when viewed in terms of precedents, and later uses, and need not be read as the appeals or aspirations of an impotent and pleading ruler.


Figure 2. Gold aureus of Nerva from January, AD 97. The obverse depicts a portrait of Nerva with his titles; the reverse depicts Victoria (Victory) seated left on a throne, holding a wreath in her right hand and a palm branch in her left. She is labeled VICTORIA AVGVST(I), “Victory of the Emperor.” © Trustees of the British Museum.


Figure 3. Bronze sestertius of Nerva from September, AD 96. The obverse depicts a portrait of Nerva with his titles; the reverse depicts Pax (Peace) seated left on a throne, holding an olive branch with her right hand and a scepter in her left. She is labeled PAX AVG(VSTI), “Peace of the Emperor.” © Trustees of the British Museum.


The search for the “character” of an emperor in the visual arts is a specious exercise and has sometimes misdirected art historical study. For instance, some art historians have sought to see cruelty and wickedness in the portraits of Caligula and the empress Julia Domna. Political art operated differently than historical texts that faulted certain imperial figures only after their deaths to magnify the virtues of living emperors. Political art would have glorified the living emperor just as any contemporary literature would also have aggrandized him. Additionally, coinage and other state-sanctioned art was probably not produced at the instigation of the emperor to make appeals for support. The Senate and Roman People frequently dedicated monuments, such as arches, to the emperor. Like poetry, panegyric, and honorific monuments that glorified the emperor, one may read coin imagery as praise for the emperor and as communicating expectations of his rule.

In the reign of Nerva, there is a strong correspondence between contemporary text and the coinage. For example, personifications of Fairness and Justice mirror the Martial’s and Frontinus’s praise of these qualities in Nerva (Figures 4 and 5). A common image on each of Nerva’s denominations is Liberty, who holds the cap of a freed slave and a rod (Figure 6). The coins visualize the pronounced rhetoric of liberty espoused by writers such as Tacitus, Martial, and Pliny in the age of Nerva and Trajan.


Figure 4. Gold aureus of Nerva from January, AD 97. The obverse depicts a portrait of Nerva with his titles; the reverse depicts Aequitas (Fairness) standing towards the left, holding scales in her right hand and cradling a cornucopia with her left. She is labeled AEQVITAS AVGVST(I), “Fairness of the Emperor.” © Trustees of the British Museum.



Figure 5. Silver denarius of Nerva from January, AD 97. The obverse depicts a portrait of Nerva with his titles; the reverse depicts Iustitia (Justice) seated right on a throne, holding a scepter in her right hand and an olive branch in her left. She is labeled IVSTITIA AVGVST(I), “Justice of the Emperor.” © Trustees of the British Museum.



Figure 6. Bronze sestertius of Nerva from January, AD 97. The obverse depicts a portrait of Nerva with his titles; the reverse depicts Libertas (Liberty) standing towards the left, holding the cap of a freed slave in her right hand and a rod in her left. She is labeled LIBERTAS PVBLICA, “Public Liberty.” © Trustees of the British Museum.


Tacitus wrote that it was in Nerva’s reign that imperial rule was first joined with liberty. The Senate and Roman People also erected an inscription dedicated to Liberty on the occasion of Nerva’s accession. The rhetoric of liberty, which pervaded literature in the decades after the assassination of Domitian, promoted the new age in which Rome would be ruled by evenhanded emperors such as Nerva and Trajan.

The coinage of Nerva does not communicate, as has been asserted, the realities of Nerva’s vulnerable position and the anxieties of his reign, but instead projected the image of a progressive and capable ruler who was the opposite of Domitian, exercising the qualities of fairness, justice, and liberty. The messages on the coinage were not concocted at the emperor’s instruction to appeal for support, but instead visualized the written and spoken rhetoric in the weeks and months after Nerva assumed power and illustrated the expectation that he would rule differently than his predecessor.

Viewed in this light, and without judgement of historical hindsight, what coins from Nerva’s reign depict is the contemporary praise directed at his administration in the aftermath of Domitian’s assassination. Other coins celebrate new policies and reforms for which Nerva would have been praised, as they corrected Domitian’s abuses and perceived maladministration. When Nerva was alive and wielding power, his public image was that of a progressive reformer, the antidote of hated and demonized predecessor; it was not the image of a desperate ruler in an anxious historical interlude.

Headline image credit: Photo of the Tabula Traiana plaque that is found in the Iron Gate gorge of the Danube on the Serbian coast. Was erected to commemorate the defeat of the Dacian kings by the Romans by Rlichtefeld. CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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“O dearest Haemon”: the passionate silence of Sophocles’ Antigone

Anyone reading Sophocles’ Antigone in the Oxford Classical Text of 1924, edited by A. C. Pearson, will sooner or later come across the following passage:


This translates as:

Ismene: But will you kill your own son’s bride?
Creon: Others too have fields that can be ploughed.
Ismene: But these other marriages would not be as suitable as this is for him and for her.
Creon: I hate the idea of evil wives for my sons!
Antigone: O dearest Haemon, how your father dishonours you!
Creon: You are paining me too much, you and your marriage!
Ismene: Will you really deprive your son of this woman?
Creon: It is Hades who will put a stop to this marriage.

Antigone has defied Creon’s decree that the body of her brother Polynices, who had recently fallen in battle when waging war against his homeland of Thebes, should be left unburied; discovered, she has been brought before the new ruler, whom she defies to his face, asserting the primacy of the gods’ laws over human ordinances and tauntingly urging him to exact his punishment. Her sister Ismene now intervenes, claiming (wrongly) that she too was guilty of the burial and asking to share the penalty; in the passage above, she begs for Antigone to be forgiven, reminding Creon that Antigone is betrothed to his own son Haemon.

Image Credit: From ‘Edipo re, Edipo a Colono, Antigone’, Adolfo de Carolis (1929). Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Line 572 has troubled editors of the play for over half a millennium. In the mediaeval manuscripts it is attributed to Ismene–but manuscripts have no authority in such matters, since line attributions were added long after Sophocles’ death by people with no better knowledge of his intentions than we have. The first printed edition of Sophocles, the Aldine published in Venice in 1502, gave the line to Antigone, turning it into a sudden revelation of Antigone’s otherwise unmentioned love for her fiancé. This attribution proved long-lasting and popular; as well as in Pearson’s edition, it appears in the great commentary of Sir Richard Jebb (1900), in whose opinion “it seems certain that the verse is Antigone’s, and that one of the finest touches in the play is effaced by giving it to Ismene…This solitary reference to her love heightens in a wonderful degree our sense of her unselfish devotion to a sacred duty.” A memorable production of the play at New College, Oxford in 2016, directed by David Raeburn, gave the line to Antigone; its passionate delivery was a high point in the performance.

Yet on a formal level, it would be extraordinary for the line-by-line exchange between two characters (“stichoymythia”) to be briefly interrupted in this way by a third party: that doesn’t really happen elsewhere in Greek tragedy. Just as importantly, giving the line to Antigone involves a misreading of her character. In the words of the most recent commentator on the play, Mark Griffith, “it is…much more characteristic of the warm-hearted Ismene to express such concern, than of Antigone, who is already devoted to death and never utters a word about Haimon or her feelings for him.” Sophocles’ Antigone is focused on her brother alone and on the burial of his body. Giving the line to Ismene not only preserves the regular stichomythia–it presents us with an Antigone, usually the most eloquent of tragic characters, who remains purposefully silent, leaving to others the discussion of her marital prospects. As often, the highly formalised conventions of Greek tragedy do not constrain Sophocles’ artistry; rather, his artistry lies in putting those conventions to use.

The newer Oxford Classical Text edited by Sir Hugh Lloyd-Jones and Nigel Wilson and first published in 1990 gives the line back to Ismene. But the Aldine’s attribution to Antigone has not disappeared altogether. It remains there in a note in the apparatus criticus, reminding readers of a dispute between scholars which has lasted centuries, and which all readers must attempt to decide afresh for themselves, without simply relying on the authority of any edition ­– or blogpost.

Featured Image Credit: ‘Antigone in front of the dead Polynices’ by Nikiforos Lytras (1865). National Gallery of Greece. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

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