Wednesday, 24 April 2013

The guilty pleasure of Plebs

I confess that I'm not much of a fan of modern comedy shows.  Programmes like Big Bang Theory and The Inbetweeners leave me cold, and don't even get me started on such hideous travesties like Mighty Boosh, Shameless or Lee Nelson.  No, leave me alone with an old episode of Blackadder or Red Dwarf and I'm much happier.

Which is why I pretty much ignored Plebs when it started a few weeks ago.  Despite being set in ancient Rome, I fully expected it to be an absolute mess which was nothing but an insult to its time period and left it well alone.  However...

Since finally succumbing to boredom one evening and watching it, and subsequently watching all 6 episodes of the first series, I have to admit that I've rather enjoyed it.  Although clearly and deliberately anachronistic, the writers do seem to have a decent knowledge of ancient Rome and have made the time period work to their advantage, playing with ancient culture to good effect.  I mean, how many other comedy shows manage to squeeze in gags about the ritual castration of the priests of Cybele?

Granted, some episodes strayed away from accuracy a little, most notably in the final episode when the festival of Saturnalia somehow became New Year. Otherwise, the idea that all five main characters are all relative newcomers to Rome and struggle to some extent to fit in with the local customs is a good vehicle to laugh along with some of the elements of Roman life that now seem strange to a modern audience.  This means that, for example, gladiatorial combat can be shown as being followed football-like by fans and Claudia can even assume that its all a theatrical show and nobody actually dies.

Another element I liked was the master / slave relationship.  Although deadpan slave Grumio is easily the best character, the fact that the two freeborn citizens Marcus and Stylax live with their slave almost as an equal may not be too far from reality. For a small Roman family group with a single slave, there is every chance that the slave would have been very much part of the group dynamic.

Looking at other reviews online, there does seem to have been a rather unusual phenomenon - mainstream comedy reviewers have been lukewarm about the series, but archaeologists and classicists have been rather fond of it.  Surely that's a first for a series like this?  I certainly hope that it has been well enough received for a second series.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Pompeii and Herculaneum at the British Museum and the Roman Finds Group conference

It was a case of Pompeii overload yesterday as I attended the Roman Finds Group's conference at the British Museum and went into the related Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition not once, but twice during the day.

To mention the excellent conference first, its not my intention to break down every word said by every speaker, but here are some of the more thought-provoking things they said, as I saw it.

Dr Paul Roberts (British Museum) - 'Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum'

Dr Roberts is the lead curator of the exhibition and gave an honest and personal account of the displays, to which he has clearly committed a lot of time and love. As you'll read below, I think he's pulled it off magnificently.  His pleas to Roman specialists to try and understand the limitations and intended audience of museum exhibition interpretation was particularly familiar to anyone who has been involved in constructing displays.

It was also interesting to note that 95% of the exhibition's content has come from Italy (much of it leaving the country for the first time), and that this is the first exhibition to feature both Pompeii and Herculaneum in the title, giving the smaller site an equal billing that it so richly deserves.

Professor Ray Laurence (University of Kent) - 'Pompeii: from City Streets to People and Houses'

Professor Laurence took us back outside the houses to the streets that surround them, and certainly made me reflect that, in my ignorance, I had always taken a very 21st Century view of streets and roads - seeing them very much as simply places for traffic to travel down.  An increase in scholarship over the last decade or so has started to change our understanding of the role and use of streets, not just in the way that carts and pack animals used or, just as importantly, didn't use them, but also in how the location of shops, water features and shrines indicate how the streetscape was a place for socialising and the teaching of children, and certainly not just somewhere for vehicles to trundle down.

Alex Croom (Tyne and Wear Museums) - 'Housework in the homes of Pompeii and Herculaneum'

Alex Croom looked back inside people's houses, to the furniture and evidence of household activities.  This stems from her own research in recreating the furniture for the interior of the various buildings reconstructed at Arbeia Roman fort in South Shields.  Issues such as the use of chests and cupboards for longer and shorter term storage (including practical issues such as how sticky used oil lamps become), the fashion of having crisp laundered creases in clothes and even what the Romans stuffed their mattresses with were all tackled.  Even the issue of toilets, chamber pots and dealing with cess pits were discussed - a dirty thought but of course a necessity of life and a practical issue every household had to deal with.

Dr Andrew Jones (University of York) - 'One pot and its story'

In a shorter talk, Dr Jones introduced the 'AAPP' - the Anglo American Project in Pompeii, and he was the first of a number of speakers talking about their involvement with that project.  The AAPP has been re-excavating Insula VI.1, just inside the Herculanean gate (at the top left of the plan below).

Dr Jones' talk focussed around a single amphora, broken during the earthquake of AD62/3 and buried when the bar it was in was repaired.  Inside the broken amphora was a brown soil, which when sieved revealed thousands of tiny fish bones - evidence that its contents were 'garum', the fermented fish sauce the Romans were so fond of.  Analysis of the bones and ceramic fabric has revealed that the sauce contained bonito and sardinella fish, and was made on the Spanish / Portuguese border.

Dr Ria Berg (Institutum Romanum Finlandiae) - 'Did all Pompeiian women have mirrors?'

Dr Berg's research has investigated the frequency and distribution of mirrors and other 'mundus muliebris' (toilet articles) in Pompeii.  She discovered that most mirrors were found in domestic contexts, rather than as possessions gathered by fleeing inhabitants and discovered with their bodies.  Only around half of the houses she studied had mirrors, and these usually only contained one.  Only the largest houses had more than one mirror (such as the House of the Menander and the House of Paquius Proculus).  The location of these mirrors revealed that they were usually stored with other toiletry articles, but in more general storage cupboards rather than in bedroom settings.

Equally interesting was the number of mirrors found in buildings that might have served as brothels ('luparnar'), suggesting some form of communal use, or represent the personal grooming of the girls working there.

David Griffiths (University of Leicester) - 'From dusk 'til dawn: lamps and lighting in Pompeii'

David Griffiths was the second speaker involved in the AAPP project, and his research centres around the socio-cultural and economic implications of lighting in the Roman world.  His study of the lamps from Insula VI.1, specifically those from the House of the Surgeon, demonstrated the growth in artificial light throughout the 1st Century BC.  His work in progress on the amount of olive oil required to light certain homes, business and public buildings is a fascinating step into the more practical realities of keeping the many oil lamps required to light a busy town burning.

Dr Hilary Cool (Barbican Research Associates) - 'Becoming Consumers: the inhabitants of a Pompeiian insula and their things'

Dr Cool's talk opened by challenging just how representative the fabulous material remains from Pompeii are of Roman towns across the empire.  By looking at the objects in use at the point of the eruption, a unique picture of older objects still in use combined with emerging fashions and technology can be gained.

This was demonstrated through the study of glass vessels and loomweights from Insula VI.1.  The glass vessel assemblage showed the emergence of blown glass and a greater variety of forms in the years leading up to the eruption.  In the case of loomweights, the assemblage suggested that, in contrast to the glass, older warp weighted loom technology was still in use at a time when it had been superseded in other places, even in Britain.  However, rather than being seen as evidence of Pompeii being backwards, this is evidence of the traditional role of the Roman matron as a provider of cloth for her family, and these antique loomweights therefore served an important purpose, but not one directly related to their function.  They were symbols of respectability and tradition.

Dr Richard Hobbs (British Museum) - 'Small change in ancient Pompeii'

The conference was entertaining completed by Dr Hobbs, another speaker involved in the AAPP project.  The coinage recovered from the excavations at Insula VI.1 have presented a large and unique assemblage of 1,500 coins, particularly important for determining exactly what coinage was in circulation at the time of the eruption.

The most fascinating element of the talk, though, was the series of coins of the 2nd Century BC from Marseilles (Massilia) and Ibiza (Ebusus).  These were imported into Campania, possibly even in one large, deliberate shipment, but then copied locally.  The Ebusus coinage is particularly interesting as it features imagery of the Egyptian dwarf god Bes.  Dr Hobbs proposed that this image may have been chosen because of Bes' associations with wine and merriment, and that these early coins were being introduced to be used in such contexts.

So there you have it.  A very well organised conference with a great range of entertaining speakers which complemented the themes of the exhibition well, and provided a wonderful insight into the new research being carried out in these most fascinating of archaeological sites.  Huge thanks are due to the Roman Finds Group for arranging it.

The British Museum's exhibition 'Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum' was one that I've been dying to see ever since I first heard about it being planned through the museum grapevine about 3 years ago. I'm delighted to say that it lived up to my every expectation - which not every well-hyped exhibition does.

The first thing to say is that the object selection truly is stunning. The range of iconic objects is second to none, and it must have been a nightmare transporting and installing some of them, let alone managing issues such as environmental controls and security.

Chief among these awkward displays has to be the reconstructed garden fresco from the Villa Arianna at Boscoreale.  The effect is wonderful, and reminded me of the display of the garden frescoes from Livia's vill at Prima Porta in Rome's Palazzo Massimo.

The second triumph is simply the approach and layout. Pompeii and Herculaneum are far too often talked about in fatalistic terms, but this exhibition is about life rather than death. The decision to focus on the Roman home was a brave one, as it means that many facets of the sites are omitted entirely (I don't remember a single brothel reference or mention of the amphitheatre and its famous riot for instance) but it works wonderfully. The use of the layout of Pompeii's House of the Tragic Poet as a model for displaying artefacts in domestic room groupings, with effective but understated set dressing and sound effects worked a treat, and gave the objects from different houses a unity that most books on Pompeii struggle to achieve.

The inevitable Pompeiian body casts were there of course (including the headlining dog), but were wisely limited in number and handled very sensitively, and the interpretation and selections of possessions displayed alongside them made their stories touchingly human.

Picture of a dog at Pompeii recovered from a plaster cast

The carbonised wooden furniture from Herculaneum was perhaps the star of the show, as even going to visit the sites doesn't present the opportunity to see them, which is a real shame. The baby's cradle rightly attracts a lot of attention, but the whole selection of tables, chests and decorative fragments are mind blowing to those of us used to Romano-British archaeology, and it takes a conscious effort to remind yourself just how old they are, and that they're not replicas.

There has been a fashion in British Museum exhibitions over the last few years to have a video presentation of some kind, but the one shown here is definitely a more engaging and graphically inventive presentation than ever before, with some nice playing with words to describe the progress of the eruption, while at the same time linking the ancient city of Pompeii with the modern inhabitants of the Bay of Naples.

So did I enjoy it? Absolutely.  Will I go back and see it again? Hopefully.  Is it as good as going and seeing the sites for yourself?  Not quite, but it is one of the most engaging exhibitions the British Museum has put on in years and deserves all of the plaudits it receives.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Wimpole Hall and the new face of the National Trust

I was recently fortunate enough to be able, as part of a trip to London for work, to call off at Wimpole Hall near Cambridge for the first time.  Wimpole Hall is a large National Trust property with quite a few strings to its bow - large house, formal gardens, large parks with a dramatic folly, and a working farm.  Sadly, time constraints meant that I could only see the hall and have a quick browse around the little array of shops in the stable yard.  Needless to say, I fully intend to return at some point and have a more leisurely look around.

One thing that immediately struck me about the Hall was it that it seems to reflect the face of a new, more progressive National Trust.  The ability to take photographs inside, the way that the interpretation was managed, features such as floor cushions so you could lie down to look at ceilings and being able to see conservators in action all added to the feeling of a modern heritage attraction, not a mothballed 'Stately Home'.  Allied to this, and perhaps most important of all, was the fact that the staff genuinely seemed to love the place.  When walking into a room, it felt as if the room stewards were wanting to chat about their own personal interests, rather than launching into a set spiel that you were going to receive in full whether you wanted it or not.

Construction on the house began in 1640, but the most obvious influence on it today is that of Elsie Bambridge, the daughter of Rudyard Kipling.  She and her husband bought the house in 1938, and much of the furniture and decoration is hers.  It is this sense of personality and homeliness that gives the hall its character, and it makes it more charming than many other much grander, but colder, houses in the country.

In 2010, the hall's library sadly suffered a leak and around 400 books were water damaged.  These are now undergoing a very public conservation programme, and visitors can see the conservators 'in action'.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Waterlogged wood and phallic pendants - new discoveries in Roman London

I have been reading with great interest about the new discoveries in London - the 'Pompeii of the North' as some newspapers would have it.  You can see the major news coverage from the BBC and Guardian through these links, but basically, excavations on the site of what will be Bloomberg's new HQ have been producing some rather amazing finds.

Bloomberg Place archaeological dig

Because the excavation is on the site of the River Walbrook (now no longer in existence), the deposits are waterlogged, providing an amazing level of preservation of organic material such as fences, shoes and over 100 fragments of writing tablets.  There has even been the discovery of a wooden door.

The site looks as if will prove to be of immense interest to those of us with an interest in Romano-British religious belief and cult practices.  The name 'Walbrook' is already well known as the site of the London Mithraeum (an underground 'temple' used by members of the cult to the Persian deity Mithras).  The original site was discovered in 1954 during post war building work, and these new excavations have uncovered a new section of the structure.  Hopefully, the finds will shed even more light on this already fascinating and important site.

Also of interest is the fact that the site has uncovered the largest collection to date of a type of pendants known as 'penis and fist pendants'.  These pendants are known mainly in bone, but are also occasionally found in bronze, and have a penis at one end and a hand at the other, making a gesture known as 'mano fico', or 'fig hand'.  This is when the thumb is pushed between the index and middle fingers, and also has rather sexual connotations.  Rather than being sexual in nature, however, both of these symbols were used as good luck symbols in the Roman period, and the pendants were believed to have been worn to ward off bad fortune (or the 'evil eye').  These particular pendants are associated with the Roman military, so it will be very interesting to see exactly what context this large collection comes from.  The picture below shows one of these pendants, found in Lincoln.

The plan is apparently to display the finds in the new complex when it opens in 2016, and I for one can't wait to see them.  In the meantime, I wish the Museum of London archaeologists the best of luck with the mammoth post-excavation process they now have to go through.  I'm sure the quality of the finds will make it a fascinating one, and I'm equally sure there will be many more revelations as the finds and environmental data are studied in more detail - particularly as the writing tables are deciphered.