Saturday, 26 January 2013

A wander around Oxford's Port Meadow

While Lincoln City were busy throwing away greater possession and chances to lose at home to Forest Green Rovers and slip back ever closer to the relegation zone, I was thankfully spending today doing something far more relaxing.

I spent the day wandering around Oxford's Port Meadow with my wife, who is currently studying for her PhD there.  Oxford, not the meadow...

I knew nothing of the place beforehand, but its actually a fascinating mixture of nature and history.  The site is 300 acres of common land, given to the freemen of Oxford by Alfred the Great for their help in his wars against the Vikings.  The right to graze cattle there was recorded in Domesday Book and has been retained ever since.

The site features an interesting and varied mixture of archaeological remains for those who know where to look.  There are Bronze Age round barrows, an Iron Age settlement, the ruins of a Medieval nunnery and 17th Century fortifications.  The site has never been ploughed and certain areas are designated as Scheduled Ancient Monuments.  One sign, on the walls of Godstow nunnery, makes particular mention of this and the laws regarding metal detecting.

On the natural side, the site is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, and is basically a flood-meadow on the banks of the River Thames.  Going, as we did, just after the bad weather meant that you didn't need to be an experienced naturalist to work out what a flood-meadow is...

Port Meadow also has the distinction of being the place where Lewis Carroll first made up a story that would go on to become Alice in Wonderland.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Fresco and graffiti discoveries at the Colosseum

I admit to being a few days late in covering this news, but what the hell.  Better late than never.

Work at Rome's Colosseum has revealed traces of previously undiscovered frescoes and graffiti.  I say 'work' because most media sources seem to have described the discovery as happening 'during restoration'.  Whether it actually was pure restoration (i.e. an attempt to restore something to its original appearance) that was happening rather than any other act of conservation such as the removal of accretions intended to preserve and stabilise the remains seems unclear.  But I digress into pickiness...

It seems that two things have been discovered - firstly evidence for formal paint schemes covering walls of a passageway leading to some of the lower class seating areas, and secondly graffiti that said lower class visitors have scratched into that paint scheme.

The decorative paint scheme raises interesting questions about the rest of the building, and to what extent such a paint scheme might have originally covered the iconic structure.  The presence of such a decorative scheme shouldn't surprise us, of course.  We have an odd tendency to see the past in monochrome and forget that many things were originally painted or gilded - classical statuary being a pertinent example.

The paint scheme in this instance seems to have been very fitting for the setting, with laurels, arrows, victory wreaths and even erotic scenes.  In case you're wondering why that last one is apt, there is certainly evidence to suggest that long days at the arena could lead to imaginative ways to kill time despite the crowds.  Although he was writing about a day at the chariot races, the 1st Century poet Ovid showed that his mind was on other than the spectacle,

"You, on the right, Sir - please be careful.
Your elbow's hurting the lady.

And you in the row behind - sit up Sir!
Your knees are digging into her back

My dear, your dress is trailing on the ground.
Lift it up - or there you are, I've done it for you

What mean material to hide those legs!
Yes, the more one looks the meaner it seems.

Legs like Atalanta,
Milanion's dream of bliss

A painter's model for Diana
running wilder than the beasts.

My blood was on fire before.  What happens now?
You're fuelling a furnace, flooding the Red Sea.

I'm sure that lightweight dress is hiding
still more delightful revelations.

But what about a breath of air while we wait?
This programme will do as a fan.

Is it really as hot as I feel? Or merely my imagination
fired by your sultry presence?"

The Colosseum isn't the first amphitheatre to reveal traces of paintings.  When the arena at Pompeii was first uncovered, a fresco running around the curtain wall was revealed, framing the action on the sand with images of fighters, referees and slave attendants.  Despite fading soon after discovery and now no longer visible, it clearly demonstrates how incomplete even the best of our surviving remains can be, and how major elements of the ancient experience can be lost to us.

The graffiti discovery is less of a surprise, considering how prevalent such scrawls are across the Roman world, and that an amphitheatre would seem a logical place for people to feel inspired to write on.  Although I haven't seen any detailed descriptions of what the graffiti consisted of, early reports have suggested palm fronds and crowns (symbols of victory) and the word 'VIND', referring to victory or revenge.  

It will be interesting to see what further details emerge as the current discoveries are further studied, and more of the area 'restored'.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Venta Icenorum - Roman Caistor by Norwich

Sometimes you go and attend a talk and its very nice.  Interesting.  Relaxing even.  But other times you attend a talk and come home buzzing with new ideas and desperate to re-read every book you own on the subject to immerse yourself in it.  I'm pleased to say that the talk I attended tonight was definitely in the latter camp.

It was the monthly lecture for the Society for Lincolnshire History and Archaeology (which if you're based in Lincolnshire and interested in history or archaeology there's really no excuse for not being a member of).  The speaker was Dr Will Bowden of the University of Nottingham, and the subject that he spoke so entertainingly and eloquently about was the Caistor Roman Project.

Now, there are one or two Caistors to choose from in Britain, but this one is the Caistor in Norfolk, just south of Norwich - Venta Icenorum to the Romans.  The site is a greenfield, owned by the Norfolk Archaeological Trust, and there has been an ongoing archaeological field school there since 2005.

The name 'Venta Icenorum' translates as 'the market of the Iceni'.  I'm sure everyone know the Iceni as the tribe of Boudica and the famous revolt of AD60, but this famous connection has actually hampered the study of this important town as previous archaeologists have been desperate to link its development to the aftermath of the uprising, in the AD70s.  One of the main research goals of Dr Bowden's project has been to understand the development of the town purely from the archaeological evidence, not from famous stories.  It now appears that the main early development was slightly later, at the very end of the 1st Century and into the 2nd.  Just as interesting is the end of the Roman period, as there is evidence that the Forum underwent a refurbishment in the 4th Century.  Such investment is very rarely found, and perhaps speaks of the continued status of the town in the final years of Roman governance.

Another element of the story I found particularly fascinating is the question of just how built-up Roman towns actually were.  The traditional view is that, within their imposing walls, sizeable Roman towns were densely packed with brick and tiled buildings, interspersed with fora, temples, basilicae and colonnades.  While these classical edifices undoubtedly existed, it is becoming more and more obvious that the towns were far more hotchpotch than that, with timber and brick buildings growing up side by side, and growth happening organically rather than through large, planned urban developments.  The existence of green spaces such as orchards or even brownfield sites within the walls are harder to prove archaeologically, but shouldn't be discounted.

A few finds from the site are worthy of mention.  Firstly, on the religious front, a defixio was found in the area in 1981.  A defixio is a lead tablet inscribed with a curse - asking a deity to punish another person for wronging them.  This curse was a plea to Neptune, asking that the thief of a sizeable haul - a wreath, bracelets, a cap, a mirror, a head-dress, a pair of leggings and ten pewter vessels - be punished.  Neptune was very generously offered the leggings if he assisted...

The second find is of a palaeolithic flint handaxe.  Rather than being evidence of ancient occupation of the site, however, this was incorporated into the Forum building and seems to reflect the belief that prehistoric axes were actually the remains of lightning bolts ('fulgur' in Latin).  By having one incorporated into the building, perhaps lightning wouldn't strike twice!

This wonderful project is up for an award - Current Archaeology Research Project of the Year, so click here to go and vote for it!

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Stories from The Collection #6 - 'Bronze Age gold penannular ring'

This is the sixth in a series of posts about recent acquisitions to the collections of The Collection: Art and Archaeology in Lincolnshire.

This article was published in the Winter 2012/2013 issue of ‘Lincolnshire Past and Present’ magazine, published by the Society for Lincolnshire History and Archaeology.

The Collection has recently acquired a new example of Bronze Age goldworking, found in Lincolnshire and reported as Treasure, increasing the number of these important early pieces in the museum’s collections.

In September 2011 a metal detector user discovered a Bronze Age gold penannular ring at Welton, northeast of Lincoln.  The ring, measuring only 15mm in diameter and weighing 10.67 grams, consists of three solid strands of gold soldered together.  X-ray fluorescence analysis at the British Museum’s Department of Conservation and Scientific Research revealed that the surface of the ring consisted of 83-85% gold, 14-15% silver and approximately 1% copper.

The ring is superficially similar to a growing number of Bronze Age penannular rings found in Britain, and to the only other example currently known from Lincolnshire – found at Gayton le Marsh and now also in the collections of The Collection.  The rings date from the Middle to Late Bronze Age (c.1,300-1,000 BC) and are therefore indicative of the earliest uses of gold found in Britain.

The purpose of these penannular rings is still not fully understood.  Solid examples (consisting only of one thicker piece of gold), are often referred to as ‘ring money’ and thought to be an early form of currency. Another suggestion has been that they were worn in the hair as ornaments.  Of course, it is misleading to draw a firm line between ‘currency’ and ‘jewellery’, as an object of value designed to be traded or given in gift exchanges could also be worn as high status jewellery.  Important finds in Cambridgeshire, Berkshire and Norfolk of penannular rings threaded onto gold wire have provided an alternative method of wearing or storing such rings.  In these instances, 6 or 7 rings were found together.

The Collection would like to thank the Friends of Lincoln Museums and Art Gallery for their kind support in enabling the museum to purchase this important object.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

The Mithraeum at Rome's Baths of Caracalla

I was recently very excited to hear that a mithraeum underneath the Baths of Caracalla in Rome has been restored and reopened to the public.

A mithraeum is an underground temple used by worshippers of the Persian deity Mithras.  The male-only cult became popular in Rome in the 1st Century AD, particularly with soldiers, and mithraea have been found across the Empire, including in Britain.  One feature of the cult is that it was very secretive about its initiation rites and practices.  A famous and distinctive image found in numerous mithraea is the 'tauroctony' - the bull slaying scene.  The images below, of a tauroctony and the head of Mithras, are from the Walbrook mithraeum in London and can be seen in the Museum of London.

The example at the Baths of Caracalla is exciting because it is linked to such an important and prominent public structure.  I very much hope to see it at some point, but in the meantime I have been waiting for someone who has visited it to post some good images on the web.  I'm pleased to say that the 'Leaping Without a Net' blog has just done such a thing, so head over there now to see them.

Travels with Li Dongni - Rome, Italy (October 2005)

My recent trip to Naples, Pompeii and Herculaneum put me in a rather reminiscent mood about a trip to Rome I made some years ago, and it seemed wrong that this blog, which contains a fair amount of posts pertaining to Roman archaeology, didn't have anything from the Eternal City itself.

The trip was an unashamed tourist trip, and an attempt to cram in as many famous sites as possible.  What does seem incredible, seeing as the trip was only 7 years ago, was how few photos it now appears I took, even though at the time I remember it feeling like thousands.  How things move on...

The Colosseum

How could I begin anywhere else?  I'm sure everyone remembers their first view of the Colosseum.  Its one of those heritage sites that lives up to every inch of your expectations.  One 1843 guidebook even says, 'there is no monument of ancient Rome which artists and engravers have made so familiar to readers of all classes ... and there is certainly none of which the descriptions and drawings are so far surpassed by the reality.'  
Of course, on this trip there were some differences to a visit today (7 years later), like dodgy 'gladiators' hanging around harassing tourists.  In fact, if you look closely, you'll also see a few stones still attached that have probably fallen off by now too...

The Forum Romanum

The heart of the Roman Empire, but a difficult site to interpret from the remains on the ground. I challenge anyone to keep track of every bit of building, or remember exactly which temple each isolated column belongs to.  Still, despite being built on a swamp, the Forum still manages to exude a tangible sense of history, when you think just how many legendary Roman figures lived out their political lives here.

Capitoline Museums

One of Europe's great collections, the Capitoline Museums contain the cream of the crop of Roman marble sculpture, including some of the most ultra-iconic pieces from the Roman world.  With apologies to the Louvre, between this and the Vatican, I'm not sure if there's any other 'art museums' you really need to see...

The Vatican

The ultimate symbol of the ridiculous wealth of the Catholic church, its hard to know whether to be impressed or disgusted by the Vatican as you think of how many starving children would benefit from the millions of pounds worth of treasures inside.  Still, those treasures are there, and they are certainly a fantastic collection, which includes famous sculptures such as the Augustus of Prima Porta and the 'Laocoon group'.


One of Rome's most famous architectural gems, the Pantheon still retains the record for being the single largest unsupported concrete dome in the world.  Although the name means 'all the gods', there is uncertainty as to whether the temple was indeed intended to be a shrine to honour every single god in the Roman world (of which there were an almost incalculable variety), or whether the name referred to the dome, which reflected the heavens.  Ironically, there even seemed to be confusion about this in the later Roman Empire.  Another thing that often confuses people is that the Pantheon is famous for being built by Hadrian, but the inscription over the entrance clearly proclaims that the temple was built by Marcus Agrippa (a friend of Augustus, who lived around 160 years before Hadrian).  The reality is that Agrippa's temple was rebuilt by Hadrian, but the original dedicatory inscription retained.

Since AD609 the temple has been used as a Christian church, hence the interior looking rather more baroque than Roman.

Mamertine prison

Not a major site on the tourist trail, but one I made a point of visiting.  The Roman legal system didn't use imprisonment as a punishment, relying instead on financial penalties, hard labour, capital punishment or, worst of all, banishment from the Empire to live among the barbarians.  The Mamertine prison is therefore a unique site, used it seems as a short term detention cell.  Its dingy interior makes you glad you're not the one being thrown in there for any length of time.  Note the Christian altar - legend has it that St Peter was held there and the prison has been used as a chapel since the Middle Ages.

Baths of Diocletian and the National Roman Museum

The Baths of Diocletian (built between AD298 and 306) were the grandest public baths in the city.  Although subsequent use of the buildings has left the ancient remains looking impressive but much changed, the site's main function is now as the home of the National Roman Museum.  With this name in mind, it is somewhat surprising that the museum contains displays of epigraphic inscriptions and pre-Roman culture rather than larger scale Imperial statuary and the like.  Surprising, but in no means disappointing, as the variety of the displays made this one of my favourite museums in the city.

Trajan's column and market

Trajan's column is rightly famous as one the best contemporary sources of the Roman army 'in action'.  Although built as a triumphal monument for Trajan's campaigns against the Dacians, it is often forgotten that the monument also serves as Trajan's tomb, as his ashes were later interred in the base.

Near to the column, and still part of Trajan's forum, are the surprisingly lesser known remains of Trajan's market.  This multi-storey complex seems to have contained shops and administrative offices, and is a wonderful maze to explore.

Circus Maximus

The Circus Maximus now pales into comparison with the Colosseum as a visitor attraction, but in its day it was the larger and possibly even more prestigious of the two.  Chariot racing has never caught the modern imagination in the same way as gladiatorial combat, but was hugely popular in the ancient world.  The Circus Maximus held around 150,000 spectators compared with the Colosseum's comparatively paltry 50,000.  Nowadays it is actually a nice place to have an after-dinner wander, in the shadow of the Imperial Palace on the Palatine hill.