What happens in Konstantinopel stays in Konstantinopel *

The fifth- and sixth-centuries CE was a period of enormous change in the Roman empire. In the west, pressure from Visigoths and Huns hastened the end of imperial rule, Rome was no longer the centre of ‘Rome’ as, in the eastern empire, Constantinople (previously called Bysantium and Nova Roma (New Rome)) grew in importance, influence and wealth following its enrichment and enlargement by  the Emperor Septimius Severus and, later, the Emperor Constantine. In this large, bustling city, opportunities for entertainment were plentiful and the most important site, both socially and politically, was the hippodrome.


Horse racing in the ancient world was enormously popular, even more so than the gladiatorial combats and beast hunts held in the amphitheatres, and Constantinople’s Hippodrome was large enough to hold audiences of around 100,000 people. As was the case with the staging of gladiatorial games and beast hunts in the Colosseum, the events held in Constantinople’s Hippodrome were important politically as well as socially, and provided the opportunity for the populous to connect directly with the Emperor.

Unsurprisingly, gambling on the horses was always a big part of the fun. At the Bode Museum on Museum Island in Berlin is this fascinating object, purportedly found somewhere near the Hippodrome, and acquired by the Bode Museum in 1891. It’s a racing-themed gambling machine!


I spent ages looking at its features to work out how it would have worked.

There’s a zig-zag slope from the top to the bottom, with a groove running along the edge of it, suggesting that there was a wall running along it. At various points along the slope there are holes, some of which go all the way through to the next level down, some of which don’t.



Balls, would be rolled down the slope in a race, mimicking the races in the Hippodrome. It’s like a penny-in-the-slot arcade game. The machine is decorated with images of horse-racing and, especially, winning, to encourage those good feelings that help to loosen the purse-strings.

On the two side panels are scenes from the hippodrome.


Here (above) is the start of the race. At the top, men carry a banner while musicians play pipes.


Below this is a scene from the race preparations. In order to decide which team would race in which lane, coloured balls corresponding to the colours of the teams would be spun in a sort of tombola and be dropped out into the receptacle beneath.


Along the bottom the charioteer whips his team on. At each corner is one of the conical posts, called the metae, which mark the turning points.


The other side shows the end of the race.


Again, banner-bearers and musicians are show at the top. Below this is the winning charioteer, displaying his winner’s garland to the admiring lady up at the window.


And along the bottom, the winner crosses the line with his whip help up in celebration.


And this is what a champion horse look like. Look at those ears!


Of the museums that I visited on Museum Island, the Bode seemed to be the least busy. It’s right at the northern end of the island and, perhaps, doesn’t have the big draws of, say, the more famous Pergamon Museum. The ongoing renovations also cut it off a little from some of the other museums. Nevertheless, the Bode is really worth a visit as it has a lovely collection of late antique and medieval artefacts, and the building itself is worth seeing too.


* The is the German spelling of Constantinople.




Hidden Arlon

Secret places are the best. Even if they’re not really all that secret. Anything that takes just a little more effort to go beyond the ordinary is just better. It just is.

So, If I find myself in Arlon, in the Luxemburg region of Belgian, hurrying to an appointment with a nice lady called Suzette, who is from the tourist office. Hurrying because the bus took ages and my legendarily terrible sense of direction has lead me round in circles trying to find the office. All’s well that ends well though, and having met Suzette, we set off to have a look at the ‘not really hidden but you need someone with the key’ history of Arlon.

The first of two sights on the ‘hidden’ list is one of the towers of the Roman city wall, known as Tour Jupiter. This was discovered when the owner of the house on the site was doing some works and stumbled across it. Excavations were carried out in 1948.


It consists of part of the wall and tower built in the late third-century.


The wall seems to have been built in response to incursions by hostile Germanic neighbours, and the tombs and funerary monuments of earlier townspeople were fair game as building material (as is so often the way). This has lead to the survival and recovery of many pieces of carved stonework, some of them very fine and in great condition. Many of the pieces have been removed to the local museum (more of which later) but some pieces proved impossible to remove without compromising the stability of the wall. This is where it gets really good.

I’m already underground, but in order to see a couple of the best bits, I had to go further, down the ladder to the level of the wall foundations and actually crawl into a small space under the wall (I can literally feel your envy right now😀 ).


The view under the wall. A bit wobbly as I had my mobile (with torch) in one hand and camera in the other, whilst trying to crawl under a wall!


And here are two of the nicest carved pieces.

The ‘Neptune stone’ with the god in profile, with a billowing robe and his tell-tale trident.


Medusa the Gorgon, here with long flowing locks as well as snakes.



The second tower, Tour Jupiter, is, as so often seems to be the case these days, in a car park.


During the construction of a new home for elderly residents in 2009, this section of wall with its tower was unearthed. The decision was taken to preserve it in-situ and it can be seen at any time through the glass doors.


If you know someone with the key, you get a better view.


Again, earlier Roman gravestones and altars have been co-opted as foundation stones. A little bit if ferreting turns up this carved hand, with, possible a face on the other face of the block.

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This Jupiter stone was also turned up in the foundations. Here, the god is depicted in the form of Jupiter Caelus, the sky god.


This carving was originally painted, and there are still traces of a red pigment visible.


After seeing the towers, Suzette showed my several other sites and features of Arlon but, for the purposes of this blog, I’m going to stick to Roman Arlon and skip forward to the town’s museum, The Archaeological Institute of Luxembourg.

The museum contains the single example of an inscription bearing the Roman name of the town, Orolaunum Vicus.


This museum is also home to an impressive collection of the many stone altars and funerary monuments found in Arlon. Here is a small selection.

After the museum, I walked down to have a look at the remains of the 4th century bathhouse.


This site is gated but  free to access, and has been the site for the Roman bathhouse, and for an early basilica in the 5th century, and was used as a cemetery site until the 19th century.

It’s quite overgrown but you can see some of the walls and there is an information board to help to make sense of the site.

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There is also a cover-building with the remains of the bathhouse.



If you happen to be in Luxembourg (the country) or southern Belgium, Arlon is really well worth a visit. Contact the Tourist Office in advance about visiting the Roman Towers –  visite.arlon@gmail.com . They’re very helpful.

There is a very useful tourism website here: http://www.arlon-tourisme.be/uk_region.php?variable=arlon%7CRegion%7CArlon%7Cuk 

The Land of Fire and Ice 2: Harpa


One of the most prominent buildings in Reykjavik is the Harpa concert hall.


Sited by the old harbour, on the waterfront, the building was designed by Danish artist Olafur Eliasson.

The design is supposed to reflect aspects of Iceland’s natural landscapes and colours. The glass panels are shaped and coloured to suggest fish-scales.

The dark-coloured interior, with black walls and the hexagonal reflective panels on the ceiling, echo the basalt rock columns and dramatic black sand beaches of many of the coastal areas of the island.



The construction was started in 2007 but was pretty well abandoned as a result of the 2008 financial crash. Eventually, the Icelandic government decided to fund the completion of the concert hall, although not of the additional elements of the development that had originally been planned (apartments, shops, a luxury hotel and banking headquarters).

The site is now a landmark buildings and it’s free to go in and have a look.



The Land of Fire and Ice 2: Gone spelunking

noun: the exploration of caves, especially as a hobby.

Iceland is a country very obviously built by massive geological forces, barely contained and constantly poised to make a move. On the Reykjanes peninsula, west of Reykjavik, the Tvibollahraun lava field bears witness to the volcanic eruptions that spewed lava over a huge area. The area is fairly stable now, but these volcanoes are not extinct and the forces that created this lava field could start up again any time.


The surface looks cracked and split, grown over with famous Icelandic moss. In some areas, the ground has been levelled for housing, industry and the international airport, but these only account for a fraction of the whole area.


One of the features popular with visitors is Leidarendi cave. This is actually made from a series of lava tubes, created when the cooler surface of the lava flow has solidified while the inside of the flow has remained liquid. The liquid lava continued to flow, leaving a tube of volcanic rock behind it.


It’s reasonably safe to go down into the lava tubes, although for complete novices like me, this should only be attempted with an experienced guide. There are no lights or steps, and there has been only the barest minimum of development for visitors. A path through the lava field, a couple of very basic maps of the accessible areas, and a few chains to protect specific features inside the caves. That’s it.

So, kitted out with rather fetching orange overalls, a helmet and head-torch, we set off.



The walk through the caves involves a fair amount of stumbling, stooping, shuffling, bumping and crawling. Every surface is uneven and the only light comes from our head-torches.


Inside the cave, there is evidence for the forces that created the cave in the first place.  In some areas, the walls of the cave are bubbled and cracked from when the molten rock settled and cooled.


In some ares, the rock still has the look of runny toffee, with drips, blobs and folds that have solidified.

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At the end of one part of the tubes, known as The End of the Road, is the skeleton of a dead lamb that stumbled into the cavern and, unable to find its way out again, died there.


In order to get an idea of what this would have been like, we switched off all our torches, leaving only the torches of our two guides.


It’s really dark.

Stumbling along one of the other passages, we came to a place where the molten rock had dripped and dripped leaving a ceiling of rock stalagmites and other weird rock features.

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Just towards the far end of the tube we had to literally crab-walk on our bellies (in plank position!) through a really narrow section. I just tried not to think about the weight of rock above me. On the other side we were rewarded with one more rock feature.

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Here, the walls of the cave are smooth and you can see where the molten lava has smeared along the solidified sides of the lava tube.

Soon we came to the opening of the cave and we were back out into the fresh air.


This visit was great but definitely not for anyone who suffers from claustrophobia.

The Land of Fire and Ice 2: Littoral-ly Iceland

Iceland may not be the first place that springs to mind when thinking about a beach holiday but think again. Just think a little differently. Iceland has miles of beaches and, although it may sometimes be a little chilly for sea-bathing, a day at the beach is still a welcome treat.

First up, in the north-west of Reykjavik at the very end of the Seltjarnarnes peninsula, is the tiny tidal island of Grótta. 


It can only be reached safely at low tide, by way of a stone causeway. When I visited, having walked the couple of miles up the coast from downtown Reykjavik, the causeway was just visible but being washed over by the freezing north-Atlantic. In any case, the island has been strictly off-limits since 1st May, for the protection of nesting birds (Grotta is a nature reserve).

The beach here is made up of a mixture of light and dark particles of crushed rock and shell.


And grasses line the edges of the beach, quite close to the water’s edge.


It was a pleasant evening so I had a little chill-out here, watching the terns and gulls swooping about, catching little fish.


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On the coast nearby is a fish-drying hut (a bit smelly).


And there is also a small hot pool. Perfect for bathing feet after a long walk.

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Icelandic landscapes tend towards the elemental, the stark, the dramatic. We see it in the volcanic landscapes, mountains and glaciers. The south coast (as well as other areas) provides enough drama for even the most demanding audience, with miles of black sand beaches.


Near Vik, the beach is made from finely ground black basalt, pulverized by the north Atlantic.


Dotted along the coastline are sea-stacks and rock arches, the remnants of long-since eroded cliffs.


A little way down the coast from Vik is Reynisfjara beach.


Here, the stunning black sand and pebble beach also has caves, basalt columns and cliffs of slate shards.




This is a must-see stop for tourists, so the beach is quite busy at times (I was fortunate is getting a few photos with just enough people in them for scale, but not too many to detract from the natural beauty).



The waves you can see in the photos don’t look too alarming but they are, in fact, lethal. The force and reach of the breakers is  so deceptive that every year people are caught out by them. In February of this year, a tourist taking photographs at the beach was swept out to sea and killed. If you do visit, do take note of the tide-line and keep a close eye on the incoming waves.


Iceland doesn’t really have the golden sands of traditional beach holidays but in a suburb of Reykjavik, just close to the university, is a lovely, golden-sanded beach; Nauthólsvík. Created especially to give the urban population a little pleasure beach nearby.

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This is a man-made beach, utilising golden sand brought in especially for the purpose.



The water here is much too cold for all but the hardiest of swimmers to bath in but the construction of sea walls enclosed a small lagoon and allows hot geothermal water to mix with the cold sea water, raising the temperature to a more tolerable level for bathing.

Opened in 2001, it’s hugely popular with Reykjavik residents, particularly as it’s safe and clean (it’s a blue flag beach), and has hot tubs and changing facilities.


Outside the enclosed area are other beaches that have been left much more to nature, with seaweed, wading birds, shellfish and moon jellyfish.

This is the perfect spot for a Sunday chill out.


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Raising The Curtain

This week, fellow LAARC volunteer Guy organised a brilliant Friday afternoon visit for himself, John and me (aka, the Dice Brigade). London was home to some of the most famous Elizabethan/Jacobean theatres, playhouses and theatrical spaces including The Globe, The Rose, The Theatre and The Curtain. This visit was to the ongoing excavations at The Curtain in Shoreditch (the overall site has been called the Stage by the developers).


The Curtain was one of the London theatres in which the plays of Shakespeare were performed during his lifetime. Indeed, this is the site of the first performance of Henry V, and Shakespeare himself acted there.

MOLA, Museum of London Archaeology, has been carrying out these excavations and now the site has been opened up for visits. The tour started off with a talk about the site and excavations, and some key points to look out for on the site. Only five of these Elizabethan/Jacobean theatres have been excavated and MOLA has been involved in all five of the excavations, so they know what they’re looking at.

What was, possibly, most surprising about the site was that it didn’t look something like this…

Map L85c no. 7, detail of Globe

It looked something like this!


Rather than the “Wooden O” of Henry V‘s Prologue, The Curtain was a rectangular structure, constructed from a combination of a pre-existing tenement building at the front, a boundary  wall at the back, and two new side galleries to connect the two, with an internal yard.

On site, the front part of the theatre has been pretty comprehensibly trashed by later buildings, huge chunks of 1970s concrete, in particular, mean that only a few scant traces remain.


There is a little bit of the entrance to the theatre and a sliver of the yard surface still in-situ though.


The stage end of the theatre is a bit of a different matter, as there are some really good remains still in-situ.


Here we could get an proper idea of the size of the theatre, and it’s really pretty big. To take the photo above, I was standing at  about the mid-point between the two side galleries. Looking in this direction, the side gallery is about where the ground begins to slope upwards in the trench. There is a blue line, but it might be a bit difficult to see.

In this close-up you can see part of the low wall that formed a platform onto which the wooden super-structure was built. This kept the wooden elements out of the wet marshy ground.


In front of the wall is a hard, compacted surface which made up the yard where the Groundlings stood to watch performances.

The archaeologists haven’t yet found any traces of the stage, but they do know where it would have been.


As there was a lot of later redevelopment in the 17th and 18th centuries, with the theatre being converted back to tenements, there are also the remains of flats, drains, floors and hearths from these later periods.



There was also something that I’d never even heard of before, the remains of a knuckle-bone floor.


This is literally an area of flooring, on the inside of the entrance to the building, which is made from the cut-off foot bones of sheep. These were embedded into the floor to create a sort of door mat on which boots could be cleaned before entering the building.


The current redevelopment of the site is, as with so many London sites, for (luxury?) flats. However, the developers seem to be taking their responsibilities particularly seriously when it comes to recording, preserving and making accessible the history of the site to the local community and the general public more widely. We were told that the archaeologists have been given a, frankly, remarkable length of time to excavate the site. Significantly,  not only are the remains going to stay in-situ and on display, but there is also going to be a performance space built into the new development. Time will tell if this comes to fruition but it’s heartening that some developers are at least thinking about their impact on the communities that they (sometimes) crash into. This is particularly striking in contrast to the current government’s attempts to weaken legislation in relation to the archaeological investigations and recording of sites for development. We stand to end up back in a situation where developers are allowed to do this (below) to the site of the first performance of Henry V without even ensuring that the destroyed archaeology has been properly recorded.


If you think that we should be taking our heritage seriously, have a read of this for more information – http://rescue-archaeology.org.uk/2016/06/17/rescue-says-government-response-to-stop-destruction-of-british-archaeology-neighbourhood-and-infrastructure-bill/

Thanks to Guy for organizing this visit and getting the tickets and thanks to MOLA for opening up the site for visits. For more on this excavation, follow MOLAs excellent blog here

– http://www.mola.org.uk/blog/excavating-shakespeares-playhouses-rose-curtain

Boats and boats and boats

When I visited Nimes a year and a half ago, I’d started looking round at other places in Southern France that might be worth a look. There are loads, representing a whole range of Roman sites; industrial, commercial, ritual, residential. So much to see, but I have to start somewhere so, taking advantage of my new-found (but, alas, only temporary) freedom, I decided to pay a visit to Marseille.

Marseille, ancient Massilia, or Massalia, was founded by settlers from the Ionian Greek colony of Phocea (in modern western Turkey) in about 600BCE. The city had a significant Greek and Phoenician history before the Romans showed up, and there is plenty of archaeological evidence for his very long ancient history.

A key feature of Marseille, today as in the past, is its harbour.


The line of the harbour, Vieiux Port, today has been regularised with built concrete harbour walls and quays, but the coast round here is very uneven, with lots of small inlets, islands and promontories.


The ancient coastline wiggled about even more, and would have been a mass of tiny inlets, beach areas, estuaries and islands but as the city was being established the valuable anchorage in this area was being exploited and improved.

The walls of one of the docks are several hundred metres inland of the present one, in the grounds of the city’s history museum, Musee d’Histoire de Marseille. Here there are in-situ remains of part of the Flavian waterfront, docks, streets, a fresh-water storage facility and a range of buildings.

The large grassed area on the right of the wall would have been ‘ Horn’ harbour basin, with barges mooring up here, and loading and unloading.


This part of the dock wall has been made from reused earlier Roman material.


This harbour was subject to continual silting and was abandoned in the early third-century. The nearby fresh-water basin was constructed with the aim of reducing the silting (from streams running into the harbour), with the fresh-water used for supplying the ships.


As an important port, handling trade and transport from other areas along the southern European coast, and also from across the Mediterranean, North Africa. Still today, Marseille is a key port for ferries and cruise ships sailing from Algeria and Tunisia.

What is great to see in the city’s museums is evidence of the boats and barges that came to grief on this coast. There are over 50 known shipwrecks in the bay around Marseille, and each one adds evidence to the story of the city.  I’m just going to go large straight away.


In the city museum there are the remains of several large transport barges found during excavations in the city.


6th century BCE wooden boat.


It’s possible to see the construction methods…..



I was particularly keen to visit the Roman Docks Museum (free entry, people!), which has actually been built around an in-situ warehouse that stood alongside the quay for much of the Roman period.


Along the Roman waterfront, goods barges would moor up and unload cargoes of goods, including commodities like wheat, salted fish garum and olive oil, and a key feature of the waterfront is the unloading and storage area.


The gigantic storage pots, dolia, which were buried in the warehouse floor, are still where the Romans left them. Several are intact (or reconstructed), so we can really see the massive size of these pots.



This one even has part of the lid.


This is only a small museum space, but there are loads of artifacts associated with the trade handled by the ancient city, many of them from shipwrecks. I love this intact pot, which has a filter element at the top.


And if you’re interested in amphorae, this is a great place to see a whole range of the amphorae found in this area.

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There are even some of the amphora lids, detailing the contents and traders.

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As I understand it, Marseille has had quite a few ups and downs and hasn’t always had the best reputation as a city. Now it really seems like it’s on an up and I was not at all disappointed with my stay there. For a Romanist, especially one interested in maritime Rome, this is an excellent place to visit. I only wish I’d been able to stay longer.