Rome in Africa: Africa in Rome – Do you know where you’re going to?

 First things first. I should fess up straight away that the title of this new occasional-if-I-can-be-bothered series has been shamelessly plagiarised from a study day I attended at UCL recently. My excuse is that the study day got me thinking about a possible new blog series and it sums up perfectly the relationship between the Empire and its southern provinces.

So for my first post of this if-I-can-be-bothered series, I turn my gaze on the roads and routes of Roman North Africa. I might also bung in a  gateway for good measure. So, where and why did the people of Roman North Africa travel? How did people get from here to there? And how do we know what we know?

Let’s start with the last question. How do we know? Well, amongst others things, we have the late Roman equivalent of the AA Route Planner, the Tabula Peutingeriana, the Peutinger Map (this is just a bit of North Africa, but the map covers the whole empire).


This is a late Roman work, preserved in a single medieval copy, now housed in the Austrian National Library in Vienna.

Looking at the map, you can see that it isn’t really what we would recognise as a map. It doesn’t purport to be a realistic depiction of space and it doesn’t really show the geographical relationships between places. Rather, it’s a sort of schematic showing how to get to places. A network, if you like. It shows road networks, rivers and mountain ranges. Towns and cities are named and some are indicated by pictorial symbols, incuding images of ramparts, fortifications and turreted buildings. And, crucially, distances between them.

Here’s the section showing the city of Bulla Regia, in Roman Numidia, now in modern Tunisia, and the east-west road running through it.


And here’s the road.


It might look a bit rough and ready now, but this was a major road running from Carthage to Hippo Regius (in modern Algeria), and was a good quality paved road. It even had high bevelled curbs to protect buildings from getting bashed by passing carts.


The site has several well-made roads making up its grid plan.


Travelling on a  road like this was a significant step up from a dirt track and, with North Africa being such an important region in early Christianity, roads like these made it possible for important figures in the early Christian church to travel around relatively quickly and easily, spreading their word. St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo Regius, for example, passed through Bulla Regia in the late 4th century and had a go at the locals for going to the theatre (and for other naughty things too).

And when St. Augustine went home to Hippo Regius,


he would have walked on this beautifully paved road.


The Roman city, an expansion of the earlier Phoenician city, had all the usual mod-Rom-cons, including drainage, a public water supply and properly constructed roads. You can still see the ruts made by countless cart-wheels.


Roads in the Roman world created the possibility of inter-connectedness. Even a place on the other side of the empire was, theoretically, within reach.

In the ancient world, a significant proportion of long-distance travel was by water; river or sea. This was how the vast quantities of commodities, wheat, olive oil, slaves, etc, were exported from production and distribution sites in North Africa  to other places around the Mediterranean. Another aspect of the connected empire.

The harbour at Apollonia, in the east of modern Libya, was the port of the great Greek, and later Roman city of Cyrene.


The site is slowly disappearing under the water, the victim of rising sea levels and erosion. Even so, it is still possible to see the remains of the busy harbour. These include harbour-front facilities like storage vats, shops, quays etc,



and also the major works like moles and sea walls.



Cyrene, via Apollonia had strong trade links with Greece and the eastern Mediterranean, but also served points along the southern Mediterranean and as far as Rome itself. A key export from this region was Silphium, a now-(probably)-extinct member of the fennel family, which was highly prized in the ancient world.

Before I finish, here’s that gateway.


This is the Tocra Gate at Ptolemais, also in eastern Libya (western Cyrenaica).


This was the entrance into the city from the roads to the east and here we can evidence of comings and going. And also of hangings around.

The inner wall of the gateway is covered with etched graffiti,


some of it not so old, but some very old indeed. Although I frown on vandalism, I still love the idea that we have here the marks of people coming and going over at least a couple of thousand years. Traders and travellers passing though; bored squaddies supposed to be on guard, whittling their names into the walls for posterity to see.


Markos woz ‘ere.


If you’re interested in mapping the ancient world, there’s a good round up of resources here – . You can also have a look at the Ancient World Mapping Center.

Roman Counter Culture: Live and Let Die (pl. ~ce)

Algeria was marvellous and I even managed to spot some gaming equipment while I was there, but now I’m back :D and back at the LAARC.

So, dice.

John and Guy have kindly saved some dice for me to digitize, although they (accidentally) saved the dodgy ones ;)

Getting back into the swing of the project was fun, and I deliberately chose a little challenge for myself this week. Did I say ‘little challenge’? I mean teeny tiny challenge.

This is my first die. It’s really small.


Here it is next to an ordinary staple remover so you can see just how really small it is.


Jokes abounded about travel Ludo and the like but, in all seriousness,  I can’t help but wonder what game this was used for. It’s barely visible to the naked eye!

Still, I like a challenge…

While I fiddled about with the smallest die in all the land, John was looking a bit green.


His die, which is also made from animal bone, must have been next to some object or substance that has turned it completed green (perhaps something made from copper).

However, it was Guy’s die that gave us all the best laugh this week.


The maker seems to have a little problem with pip-placement. Was this the first effort of a hopelessly incompetant apprentice? The result of a little too worshiping Bacchus at lunchtime ? Or just Dies Veneris (Friday).

The 5 face is just the most obvious train-wreck, but all the faces are wobbly.


Still, it has six-sides, albeit is a wide range of shapes and sizes, and all the numbers are there so, despite it’s cock-eyed-ness, it is actually a standard die.

This, however, is not.


Hmm. Looks a bit stone-like, doesn’t it? Here’s another couple of images.

Yes. Definitely stone-like.

It’s a stone.

Anyone who has ever dug an archaeological site will know how this happens in the field. You’re down a hole in the ground, up to your knees in mud, you can’t feel your fingers and it looks like rain. What’s this? Something vaguely cuboid. Just put it in the tray and we’ll look at in later, in the site hut.

Mind you, I think that I’m going to have to have another look at it. Having this larger image has made me wonder whether I can see the hint of a single pip in this face.


This might just be the ‘eye of faith’, but it ‘s better to check. Magnifying glass at the ready.

Next week is the last week scheduled for this pilot project so I’ll probably have a few frivolities to share.


Hail, Fellow Travellers

To anyone reading this, this blog post is basically aimed at about 6 people (you know who you are). Anyone else, these are a few pictures from my little jaunt to Algeria. You’re very welcome to have a look at the pretty pictures, so please don’t feel left out :D .

 First things first. Cats!



Algeria seems to be the perfect holiday destination for Crazy Cat People. It’s full of cats and people who love cats :D .





Awww, look at the lovely puddy-tats :D



Oh yeah, and humans!

Here’s Kamar in relaxed mode.



The one and only Mozabite who actually wanted his photo taken. He’s a peach :D


Immortalising the new BFFs.


This lovely Algerian family were visiting Timgad at the same time as us :D



Food (nom, nom).







These look nice, but a bit wasp-y.


And this abomination from Air France.


Shops, and shopkeepers.



The most beautiful greengrocer’s shop in all the land.


The Naughty Shop




The old world…



A brilliant olive oil press from Madauros. There are a few bits missing, but loads of it is there.



P1310977. P1310938.



The Mithraeum at Khemissa (Thubursicum Numidarum).


…and the new.





And a camel for luck.


Roman counter culture: Gaming on the go

I haven’t been at the LAARC this week due to being on my travels but don’t think that I’ve forgotten the marvellous digitisation project.

At all the Roman sites I’ve visited I’ve been on the lookout for any gaming equipment. I thought that Glynn, Guy and John might be interested in having a look at it.

Unfortunately, although I have seen some very nice and interesting gaming counters, in Algeria photography is not allowed in most of the museums. I say ‘most’ because today I struck lucky. At the small but perfectly-formed museum at Setif it was possible to purchase a ticket that allowed photography :D . I managed to find just three counters in the museum (in a case full of Roman bone hairpins!) so here they are.

This one is a convex bone counter with a dot-and-ring design.


These next two are made from the vertebrae of fish!



After leaving Setif we visited the Roman city at Timgad, Thamugadi. Founded in the first century CE under the Emperor Trajan, this was a prosperous site housing veterans and civilians, with a large theatre, baths, temples and a library.
But of particular interest in the context of this post is this…


It’s a gaming board!

We had a go at playing, which involved selecting a hole as a target and then trying to pitch a small stone into it from behind the line. Obviously I was rubbish at it, but it was good fun.

I’ll post any more gaming equipment that I can but for now, “marsalama”.

Roman Counter Culture: A Fistful of Fulhams

First things first, I must come clean and confess that Idon’t think that these dice are actually ‘Fulhams‘. My gaming partners in crime just wanted to get the name into a blog post, so there it is.

Wait. What now? Fulhams? ‘Fulhams’ are dodgy, hooky dice with which the unscrupulous sharps of Roman (and later) London separated the gullible from their cash. Sometimes they might have repeated high or low numbers, and/or they might have been weighted with a little drop of mercury, rigged to throw high or low. Today we’d call them loaded dice. We speculated on what 15th century Fulhamites had been getting up to to have acquired a notorious enough reputation to have dodgy dice named after them.

These ones are from the Museum of London website.


They’re not completely irrelevant though because this week we bit the bullet and worked on some rather tricky dice.

The dice from last time were relatively small and so could be made from one (more or less) solid cube of animal bone. The maximum size possible is determined by the thickness of the wall of the bone.


For larger dice is was necessary to piece together several pieces of bone. A (sort of) tube of bone made from a section of long-bone (a leg, say). The solid walls of the bone could be used to create four sides of the die. Then the two ends were plugged up using little pieces of bone to create the last two sides of the die, like this.

This kind of die was made in several pieces, and has a cavity inside, a feature of which those naughty shysters could take advantage.

Just to confuse matters further, two of our dice  had ‘irregular’ numbering. Mine went 1, 2, 3, 3, 5, 6 and John’s had two 2s. Deliberate ploy or Friday afternoon?

John thinks it’s hilarious. Hilarious!


Mind you, John’s dice was a little the worse for wear.


But it’s very clear to see the bone structure, particularly in the ‘plug’.

I won’t be at the LAARC for the next couple of weeks (Boo :( ) because I’m off on pleasure bent again (Yay! :D ). Guy! Get some photos of the next couple of week’s plunder.

Roman Counter Culture: Time to Die

Fear not, gentle reader, this post will not be filled with foul murders, but with our first dice!

But first more counters and some highly scientific experiments.

You may remember this nice glass counter from last week…


Well, we were having some discussion about the difficulty for getting good definition on the edges when scanning these very dark-coloured counters, especially the dome-shaped ones where we’re losing the bottom edge of the image (we’ve also almost entirely lost the colour; this one is actually bottle green, but more on that issue at a later date).

Guy, John and I are testing the methodology of this project and working though any issues, so we decided that we’d do some experiments with different lighting to try to improve the definition in the images. First up was the torch app on my phone, followed by the whacking great anglepoise lamp that happened to be stowed on a shelf next to my work-spot and finally Glynn remembered that there was a fancy microscope lamp knocking about somewhere so that was retrieved and tested.


Randomly the mobile phone torch app seemed to be the best, mainly because the LED light is the whitest and so doesn’t cause colour distortions on the images. This is definitely a work in progress.

Anyway, aside from these experiments, we spent the morning scanning and recording counters. Here are a couple of mine made from animal bone and glass.

After lunch came the six-sided challenge that is dice.

This was a bit fiendish but actually really good fun and much of the potential fiendishness had already been worked through by Glynn and Michael when they devised the protocols.

Step 1: is the artefact a ‘standard’ dice. Do the spots on the opposing sides add up to 7?


Step 2: If ‘yes’ which of the 16 possible configurations of the spots do you have? (I know! Even on a ‘standard’ dice there are 16 possible configurations of spots!)


Step 3: Transfer the spot sequence onto the net (this is a representation of an unfolded dice).


Step 4: Decide upon a sequence for scanning the individual sides, starting with the ‘6’ side.

Step 5: Start scanning…and so on.


Look at this concentration. It’s legendary :)


So far so good except for the vaguaries of scanner default settings, issues of artefact-scanner-bed positoning, inexplicable disappearances, mysterious black lines, skin-of-the-teeth margins and so on. These are the real-life issues that anyone carrying out this task will come across, and for which we are trying to find solutions and work arounds.


This is great and despite the, sometimes, random issues that crop up, the images are great and the process does work well :D

We’ll be working on more dice next week but this week we went from the LAARC down to London Wall Bar & Kitchen for the Museum of London’s Volunteer Party. These parties are always fun and they include the Marsh Awards for Museum of London Volunteers. The lovely Sue won Volunteer of the Year (Go Sue!), but we also have a surprise when John also won an award for Volunteer Team of the Year as part of the Sainsbury Archive Team. Yay John :D

And just as a token of the Museum’s appreciation, volunteers were all given a cool Sherlock Holmes bag and a copy of the exhibition Catalogue. I has better go and see the exhibition :D


More next time.