Age-old cities

Paris.

Just a super-speedy flying visit, but it was nice to be there all the same. But the trouble with super-speedy flying visits  is that, no matter how nice they are, they always leave you wanting more. There’s just not enough time to do everything. I mean, I need to get to Musee Cluny to see the new entrance and walkways around the thermes, and for the winter expo,  Naissance De La Sculpture Gothique. There’s also an exhibition at Cité de l’Architecture et du PatrimoineLe Crac des Chevaliers. Chroniques d’un rêve de pierre, examining the architectural and political significance of the Syrian crusader castle, Crac des Chevaliers. But, in the end, the short time that I had just had to be spent at the brilliant Institut du Monde Arabe for the exhibition Age-old cities: Virtual trip from Palmyra to Mosul

The exhibition takes in four ancient and modern cities affected by recent and ongoing conflict, and presents aspects of them as they are, as they were and as they may be in the future. This is not an exhibition of artefacts  but of images. Using photographs, films and photogrammetric survey footage, taken using drones (carried out by UNESCO), we get a view of the cities as they are today. The use of drones, in particular, reveals the significant damage, destruction even, of whole swathes of the urban environment, with deserted, bombed-out buildings apparently teetering on the brink of collapse and the still-inhabited areas thick with dust and debris. As I’ve been to three of the places featured in the exhibition, I’ve added in a few photos of mine, taken on my visits. Some of the other photos,which were taken in the exhibition, are a bit blurry, as they’re of moving images.

Mosul

The exhibition opens with Mosul, a city which I have never visited. On entering the first main exhibition space, I walked into a large-scale panoramic projection of a fly-over of the city as it is now. Now, I’ve seen plenty of drone footage of areas affected by the ongoing conflict but, particularly on a such a large scale, these images of destruction are truly shocking.

Mosul
Mosul

Sitting on the west bank of the Tigris, opposite the Assyrian city of Ninevah, and around 400km north of Baghdad, Mosul has existed as a settlement, at this location or hereabouts, for at least 2500 years (Ninevah is far older). Capture by daesh on 10th June 2014 and only retaken by Iraqi forces, after heavy bombardment, on 21st July 2017, Mosul and Mosulis have suffered terribly as a result of the conflict in Iraq, with women and religious minorities particularly badly affected. The city had been known as relatively diverse, with the Iraqi Sunni Muslim majority sharing the city with Assyrians, Kurds, Turkmens, Shabaks, Yazidis, Armenians and Mandeans. Although many of the city’s Jews left for Israel in the 1950s, there was still a significant Christian population until the arrival of daesh in 2014.

One  of the specific structures zoomed in on was the al-Nuri Mosque. Famous for its leaning minaret (possibly due to the effects of thermal expansion caused by the sun’s heat), the mosque was the focus of pilgrimage and veneration for 850 years. It was the site at which the daesh leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, self-declared the (so-called) “caliphate” and the daesh flag was flown from the minaret. The mosque was destroyed during the Battle of Mosul in 2017, although there is some disagreement over whether it was destroyed by daesh or by the forces liberating the city.

Still from drone footage of the al-Nuri Mosque, Mosul. 

There is really very little left of the mosque, just the ruin of the domed central hall and the stump of the famous minaret. All the rest is rubble.

As part of the film, we witnessed the digital ‘reconstruction’ of the site. These images are built up using recent photographs from all angles, often people’s holiday snaps (I actually sent some photos of a site in Syria for exactly this purpose), which are digitally stitched together to create a 3d image.

Still from drone footage of the digital reconstruction of the al-Nuri Mosque, Mosul. 

Aleppo

Aleppo Citadel. Photo taken 5th November 2009.

Moving on to Aleppo, again drone footage lays bare the scale of destruction. We tak a fly-over, and through, the ancient souks, part of the ‘Ancient City of Aleppo’ World Heritage Site, now severely damaged,

…and up the ramp to the Citadel.

This really brought back memories of my time there, when it looked very different.

Aleppo Citadel. Photo taken on 5th November 2009.

The walls of the Citadel have clearly sustained damage, and it looked like parts of the interior space had too, although I  found it a bit difficult to orient myself in this complex site.

Leptis Magna

Arch of Septimius Severus              

The section on Leptis (Lepcis) Magna was less of  an agony for me. Although there has been some illegal digging and looting at the site, local residents, working in militias, have tried to stave off the worst of the lawlessness, and there hasn’t been the kind of occupation or intensive bombardment that we have seen at the other sites showcased.

The images I saw looked pretty similar to the way that it looked when I was there 10 years ago. The ancient structures are partial and the site is, largely, a ruin, albeit a very impressive one, but there weren’t obvious signs of recent extensive damage. Nevertheless, the fly-through of the macellum (marketplace) and the virtual reconstruction of the Severan Basilica was pretty impressive and provided a little respite before the final key site featured, one which I knew I would find hard to witness.

Palmyra

Temple of Bel, Palmyra. Photo taken 8th November 2009.

When I visited Palmyra, and the modern town Tadmur, in late 2009, it was an impressive, pretty well kept ancient site. The main site itself was open for visitor to wander in and look around and it was possible to wander pretty far, as it’s a very large site.

Some people in my hotel were getting up before dawn to go on a camel ride. I, being less interested in camels, got up at the same time and accompanied them for a little way on foot before heading off into the low hills on my own. These hills are the site of the necropolis of Palmyra and I was fortunate enough to have these evocative tower tombs all to myself in the silent, pink, early morning. *

 

 

Several of these tombs were destroyed and/or damaged by daesh in 2014/15.

One of the other notable instances of willful vandalism was the dynamiting of the Temple of Bel (above) and I found myself feeling particularly sad at the images of the theatre and the Temple of Baalshamin, when I found myself standing, virtually, in the rubble of the building.

This was a building in which I had stood, gazing at the beautiful decorative friezes and the carved columns, and thanking my good fortune at having the opportunity to be there.

Temple of Baalshamin, Palmyra. Photo taken 8th November 2009.

Temple of Baalshamin, Palmyra. Photo taken 8th November 2009.

But I couldn’t help but think past the structural damage and the willful and shocking destruction of the ancient temples, to the devastation wrought on the people living in the modern Palmyrene town of Tadmur. I couldn’t help thinking about the people murdered by daesh in the theatre, including Palmyra’s Head of Antiquities, Khaled al-Asaad (January 1932 – 18 August 2015). 

Throughout the exhibition there are short films, talking heads and personal accounts of the effects of all of this destruction on the people living in these cities but, particularly as a visitor whose French is a bit shaky, the focus of the exhibition really is on the effects of conflict on the built environment. The images recorded by drones are largely devoid of people, the streets thst I remember as bustling and busy with the usual comings and goings of the city, are eerily empty of life. A notable exception is a short film documenting the filmmaker’s return to Aleppo to speak with the people still living there.

He meets the shopkeeper who, despite being surrounded by the dust and debris of countless explosions, still diligently cleans his stock before putting it on display. And there’s the young woman recording a video message on her phone, to send to her sister, who is not in the city.

The young woman doesn’t say anything of any importance, just chats and reads the news and laughs and hopes that she will still be alive tomorrow.

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The exhibition ‘Cités millénaires Voyage virtuel de Palmyre à Mossoul‘ is on at the Institut du Monde Arabe until 10th February 2019.

For updates on the current situations in these regions, follow: @AinSyria ‏ and @AinIraq

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*I had the tombs all to myself except for the small child who chased after me for about half a mile asking for sweets. I had no sweets with me so I gave him a pen. He seemed satisfied with this alternative. I wonder where he is now, and I hope he’s ok. 

 

 

 


 

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A Persian Odyssey: Slight Return

The Netherlands is home to some cracking museums; the Rijkesmuseum, Rijkesmuseum van Oudheden, Allard Pierson, the museum at Castellum Hoge Woerd and many more.

But I’ve never been to the north of the country, so I had no idea what was up there. That is, until, a Twitter post by @FollowingHadrian about an exhibition of Iranian (Persian) archaeology and artefacts at the Drents Museum in Assen. As I’m always on the lookout for exciting things of an archaeological to do and see, and as I was actually due to be in the Netherlands (albeit much further south) over the August Bank Holiday, I immediately set about working out how I could fit in a very quick trip north to have a look.

Artefacts in the exhibition were on loan from the excellent National Museum of Iran, which I visited when I was in Tehran in 2015, so I was very keen to get another look at them. As well as artefacts that I remember seeing, there were ones that were either not on display, or which I just didn’t see or notice, so there were plenty of ‘new to me’ things to see.

  

The Drents Museum was purpose-built as a museum in 1854, but the exhibition was in the newer extension, opened in 2011. The exhibition space, downstairs, is quite large, although not huge, open and nicely lit and there seemed to be a good number of people visiting the exhibition, including groups, although it was not packed (this was a Monday* lunchtime, so I wouldn’t have expected it to be really packed).

The exhibition, Iran: Cradle of Civilisation, takes in a really broad sweep of Iranian/Persian history, including prehistoric artefacts dating from as early as 7000BCE right into the Islamic period, ending in about 1700CE.

Prehistoric culture is represented by some really beautiful and delicate pieces. I was particularly struck by this small stone bowl (it’s about 4-5 cm in diameter). It’s carved out of a piece of the darker-coloured stone in which there are lighter bush-coral inclusions.

2600-2400BCE, Shahdad, National Museum of Iran, Tehran

This terracotta bowl is decorated with a painted frieze of dancing figures. Perhaps commemorating a particular occasion or a festival of some sort.

I was particularly fascinated by this clay ball, as it brought to mind the stone balls seen in collections in the north of Britain (have a look at the Huntarian Collection in Glasgow for some examples).

Clay Bulla, 3200BC, Susa, National Museum of Iran, Tehran.

It isn’t really known what the balls found in Britain were for but the accompanying film explained this Persian ball. It’s a seal!

The ball is covered with figures of human and animals.

I stood in front of the screen filming the whole video because it really explained this artefact very well. You can see the video here: Clay Bulla (message to anyone from the Drents Museum: If you would prefer it if I took this video down, please let me know and I’ll do so).

The two objects below, although not particularly fancy looking, are evidence for the technological development of the region. The first a rather mucky-looking footed-dish, is actually a crucible in which copper was smelted.

Clay crucible 4000-3700BC, Tappeh Qabrestan, National Museum of Iran, Tehran. When copper ore is heated to a temperature above 1084c it will melt and can then be poured into moulds. At first only pure copper was melted, but the coppersmiths gradually started to mix it with other metals. One of those experiments lead to the discovery of bronze (copper and tin).

The second, a mould for casting a copper axe-head. Found at the site of Tappeh Ghabrestan, northwest of Tehran, which is know for its finds associated with copper-working, with furnaces and moulds dug into the ground as well as these smaller, terracotta moulds.

Terracotta mould, 3500-310BCE, Tappeh Ghabrestan, National Museum of Iran, Tehran

Although these not the fanciest exhibits in the exhibition, they are hard evidence of technological development and expertise in the region.

So what are the fanciest artefacts?

From the third millennium BCE, comes a gorgeous selection of carved soapstone vases, pots, cups and bowls. Soapstone is soft and relatively easy to carve, so it lends itself to these kinds of intricate, detailed designs. The imagery include real and imagined creatures, demons, deities, scroll-work and complex, interlocking geometric designs. I spent a long time admiring these wonderful artefacts and wanting so badly to be able to touch them.

From the 6th until the 3rd centuries BCE, the first Persian empire, the Achaemenids, founded by Cyrus the Great, dominated this part of the world. This dynasty, which included the other Persian ‘Greats’, Darius, and Xerxes, is notable for, among other things, its fine gold work. Examples in the exhibition also include beautiful vases and drinking horns (rhyton).

And one of the many highlights of this exhibition, this wonderfully weird pottery jug. Fashioned in the form of a man tending his bird-beaked pot-beast 😀

Pottery jug 850-550BCE, Kaluraz, National Museum of Iran, Tehran. This jug appears to have a spout in the shape of some kind of beak. Such beaked jugs were used for special wine ceremonies at burials. The Kaluraz cemetery is well known for its beautiful pottery vessels. This is the finest example – functional and yet artistic.

And there were even some reliefs from the imperial city of Persepolis.

Many reliefs at Persepolis show representatives of the 23 peoples of the empire, who came to the imperial city to pay tribute to King Darius. on the left, a gift-bearer climbing the stairs and on the right, a ma presenting a gift of arms to the King.

A whole wall of the exhibition space was transformed into a famous and spectacular monument, the original of which is situated at the World heritage Site of Behistun in north-west Iran (there are several spellings of this: Bisotun, Bistun or Bisutun).

The life-sized figure holding a bow, as a sign of kingship, is Darius the Great, beneath his foot is a figure, possibly the pretender to the throne, Gaumata. Behind him are two attendants and facing him are bound captives representing the conquered peoples. The symbol above the scene is the Faravahar the central symbol of the Zoroastrian religion.

The text, is written in three ancient languages; written in three different cuneiform script languages: Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian (an Akkadian dialect) and it provided the key to the decipherment of cuneiform, in much the same way the The Rosetta Stone was the key that unlocked Egyptian hieroglyphs. The inscription begins with the biography of Darius the Great, for whom the monument was created, and the history of the empire following the death of its founder Cyrus the Great. It describes the battles fought and won, and the rebellions put down by Darius and the generals subjugated.

This life-sized replica, measuring 15 x 6 metres, was created especially for this exhibition and installed at the same height as the original would be viewed. This gives a good idea of how the original in-situ would be seen, although, obviously, in a very different location.

When I was looking at visiting this exhibition, one of my burning questions was how on earth it had come about. I assumed that there must be some professional connections between curators in Assen and Tehran that had enabled the Drents Museum to secure such an amazing array of loans. Handily, the exhibition included a film answering this, and other questions, and the curatorial connections between the museum services has resulted in this exhibition and a return exhibition of Dutch art and archaeology now on display in Tehran. You can watch a mini-doc about the exhibition here:  https://drentsmuseum.nl/en/exhibitions/iran

This is certainly one of my exhibitions of the year and I would love to visit again, but I doubt that I’ll be able to get to Assen again before the exhibition closes on 18th November.  However, I think I’m going to have to plan a return visit to the Drents Museum in the not-too-distant future, for the next exhibition, ‘Nubia – Land of the Black Pharaohs‘ I just wish that exhibition catalogue was available in English. If it had been, I would have snapped it up.

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*I should say that the Drents Museum, just like pretty well every other museum in the Netherlands, isn’t generally open on Mondays. I was lucky in that I was visiting at the end of the school holidays and it happened to be open on the day that I was able to get there.

Our Lady of Work

On a flying visit to Paris I decided to take in a couple of places that I’ve never been. One of those places is a church in the 14th arrondissement. Paris is full of churches, of course, but this one is a bit different.

Ok, it doesn’t look very different. In fact, it looks pretty conventional. But wait till you see inside.

Ta-da.

It’s not really a stone building at all. It’s steel frame construction with just an outer cladding of stone.

In the mid-19th century, the population of this Paris district grew rapidly, quickly outgrowing the existing church. These were working people, many working in construction, but also many poor Parisians. Taking advantage of the interest in Paris’ 1900 Universal Exhibition, the parish priest, Father Soulange-Bodin, started a subscription to raise funds for a new parish church and the church that was built, L’eglise Notre Dame du Travail, Our Lady of Labour, was consciously designed, by the architect Jules Astruc, to reflect the lives and livelihoods of so many of its parishioners.

Overtly industrial in its design, the nave is built over a steel and iron framework.

This, in a way, reminds me of Tower Bridge. It’s so deceptive. On the outside it’s all stone, traditional, old-fashioned even, but on the inside it’s all modern (for the time) materials and construction techniques. And the modernity of it, the engineering, isn’t covered up or disguised, but displayed and celebrated.

Some of this was reused metalwork, having  previously been used in the construction of the Palais de L’Industrie, which had been built on the Champ de Mars in 1855 for an earlier Universal Exhibition .

Even the artworks inside the church reflect the world work work. Saint Luke, the Evangelist, venerated as a patron saint of artists, physicians, surgeons and butchers; Saint Eloi (Eligius), patron saint of metal-workers and those who work with horses; and Saint Fiacre, the patron saint of gardeners.

The church can be found in the 14th arrondissement in the district of Plaisance (nearest metro: Pernety on L 13.

https://www.notredamedutravail.net/

https://www.facebook.com/NotreDameDuTravail/

Musée de la Romanité, Nimes – Part Deux

Roman Nemausus grew out of a earlier, iron-age settlement on Mont Cavalier, which was repurposed as a Roman town in the years before about 28BCE. Early coins indicate that the town was a colonia and it was made the capital of the province, Narbonne, by Augustus in about 16 to 13 BCE.

The shiny new Musée de la Romanité is the new home for the archaeological collection of Nimes which had previously been housed in the old museum, which (I think) was part of the University. I saw some of the collection there about three years ago but even then the museum was only partially open and there was a lot that I was unable to see. So having (finally!!) arrived in Nimes, I headed straight for the museum without further delay. The collection spans the history of the city from its early, iron-age, incarnation and through the Roman period.
Rather than an exhaustive trawl through everything in the museum, I’ll just highlight a few of the objects and displays that I particularly liked.

Representing the iron-age are these gorgeous stone warriors.

Statue de guerrier casque et en armes. Seconde moitie du Ve s. av J-C. Nimes, Grezan  

Interesting details include the breastplaate with its strapping, the torque around his neck, his sunburst medallion and what looks like a chain or rope around the waist. Also note the long tail of the helmet crest.

Bustes masculins avec torque et pectoral incises, decor incise et peint sur le socle. VIIe – VIe s av. J-C Sainte-Anastasie (Gard), Camp-Guiraud

This very stylised statuary is very different frrm the later, much more naturalistic classical style, but presents the Gaulish warriors as proud, strong and well-equipped. Displaying the busts in the round means that it’s possible to really see all the fine details of the armour and acoutrements, and then compare the detail from the busts with other objects on display in nearby cases.

 

The incised design on the Ste  Anastasie (above) warrior would have been painted in bright colours, and the huge helmet that he wears, possibly made of leather in real life, is decorated with rams’ horns.

It was very good to see these examples of pre-Roman Gaulish statuary and to think about how warriors, of the kinds who would have battled against the Roman forces, were representing themselves. And these were urban, or at least proto-urban people, living in fortified towns as in the model of the town of Castels at Nages, below.

This was one of the largest Gaulish towns in southern France. Built in the third-century BCE, it consisted of identical, stone-built houses, tightly packed in blocks and, by the first-century BCE, surrounded by substantial ramparts. It declined and was abandoned as the Roman administration took control  of the region, and the people moved into newer, Roman-style towns.

From the iron-age, there is also this cracking horse/bull/animal/thing.

Animal hybride decouvert sur le chantier de fuilles de villa Roma (1990). Epoque pre-Romaine (?).

  

This hybrid creature has, more or less, the body of a horse with the hooves of a bull. It’s clearly a special creature as its tail has been twisted into a fancy coiffure. the holes in its back were probably fixing points for decorative elements such as wreaths or horse-furniture (saddle, reigns…that sort of things).

  

As Nimes is a city with a number of Roman structures still standing, it’s unsurprising that the museum features artefacts that relate directly to those structures; the amphitheatre, Maison Caree, and the Temple of Diana, are all represented in the museum. This is great for visitors and locals alike and really helps to connect the exhibits in the museum with the city outside.

I’m a big fan of the display of decorative architectural elements, from various sites around the town, depicting theatrical mask.

I was very impressed with this large decorative frieze of garlands and ox-skulls.

The holes in the ox skull reminded me of the skull found at Vindolanda that had been used for target practice but these holes were probably to hold decorative elements like garlands and ribbons. Some of these architectural elements are originally from early Roman buildings but were reused, in antiquity and later, to decorate buildings in the town.

There are some nice mosaics on display in the museum, and there is a good view of some of them from the mezzanine level.

I particularly like this mosaic carpet with the monochrome swimmers in the border.

There was one in the old museum that I particularly liked but which I didn’t see in the new museum.

It’s not impossible that I just missed it due to hurrying but I do hope it goes on display if it isn’t already.

The last time that I was in Nimes, about three years ago, I’d visited the museum that was connected with the university, which was home to the Roman collection at the time.  Barely noticeable in one of the cases was a particular die, which I spent some time trying, and failing, to get a decent photo of. When I visited the new museum, I went in looking for this specific die.

Found it! 😀

This particular die  is a sort of hexagonal drum with a hole in one end and a lug on the other. The numbers (pips) are on the faces that run around the drum. As far as I could see, the numbering is regular, i.e. opposing faces add up to 7; 1>6, 2>5, 3>4.

When I saw it before, I was wondering how it was used, and about the significance of the shape. I think that I’d decided that it was one of a set which fitted together in a row, lug to dimple, and could be spin around. They reminded me of those stacker pencils that kids have. Has anyone seen any others like these anywhere?

As well as the above die, this case had a complete set of gaming counters and several other very nice dice.

There was also this object. I had no idea what it was until I read the caption. It’s a papyrus roller!

Derouleur de papyrus. 1er – 2er s. ap. J-C. Os

There was this glass funnel and syphon. The syphon, in particular, struck me as a remarkable survival.

I was also intrigued by this reconstruction of a portable fireplace, with utensils.

Dating from the 1st century CE, it was found during excavations of courtyard house 11 at the ‘Solignac / Villa Roma’ site. It’s made of a central bed made of bricks, set into a frame, probably made of wood, but long-since disappeared. The reconstruction is based on the various metal fixings and findings that were excavated; nails, laths and clamps. The utensils found were tongs, a knife, a tripod and a grill.

Lastly, I also liked these plumb-bobs. No particular reason, I just liked seeing them.

That’s all for now. Pip pip.

Musee de la Romanite, Nimes

I’ve been looking forward to the snazzy new Roman museum in Nimes for as long as I’ve known it was going to be a thing. It opened in early June so on my latest little trip, to Arles, I made a point of heading to Nimes to take a look.
The French rail company SNCF earned my everlasting enmity by cancelling my train, meaning that I arrived in Nimes a full 2 hours later than I should have, so my time was a bit more restricted than I would have liked and I actually ended up having to charge round the last bit in order to get back to the station in time to catch my train back to Arles (of which, more later).

Anyway, here’s the new Musee de la Romanite in all its glory.


I read that the design, by architect Elizabeth de Portzamparc, was, in part inspired by the idea of the fabric of the toga, with ripples and folds of glass panels reflecting the light and the shade, and bringing movement  and interest to what could be a boring, bland glass-box exterior.
From the inside, these panels act as frames for the views,

including the highlight view of Nimes’ 20,000 seat Amphitheatre.

I enjoy the visible engineering on the inside (see also the Institute du Monde Arabe in Paris).

A the entrance, the museum begins with a spiral up to the pre-Roman Gaul collection.

The museum has lots of small-ish spaces and several bigger spaces and I must admit that I found it a little bit confusing trying to work out which space to go into next in order to follow the galleries more or less chronologically.

Maybe it doesn’t really matter, it’s just that I did have a few “where next?” moments, although these might just have been on account of my eagerness to see the things that I was glimpsing through the entrance-ways between the rooms. I can’t say that that spoiled the visit but I did have to hurry at the end when I discovered that I’d missed out a whole gallery! Luckily it was a small gallery so I just about had time to have a look before running off.

There are a few signs that seem to be par for the course with newly opened exhibition spaces. That sense of things being not quite finished in time for the scheduled opening. Some of the labels were clearly temporary.

There may have been the odd balustrade missing. Certainly, a proper rail would be better than ropes here.

Some of the spaces between furniture are too narrow. I saw a man with a pretty normal-sized pushchair unable to get past a bench. There was an alternative way around but I do think that, in a brand new building, either the gap should be wide enough (for a wheelchair actually) or there should be no gap at all and we all just go the other way. TBH, if they just moved the bench, that’s problem solved.

The staircase down to the lower ground floor temporary exhibition gallery is pretty bleak, like those staircases you have to go down when you’re boarding a flight, grey, lifeless, empty. It could do with a few images or something, to liven it up a bit.

But that’s the niggles out of the way and I think that all of these things are just tweaks to be made as the new museum beds in. Now for some of the cool stuff.

The building.

As I said above, I do like the design. It’s modern but not lary or obnoxious. Due to the evil fiends at SNCF, I really didn’t have enough time to investigate all of the spaces; there is a garden somewhere (on the roof?) and the expected cafes and a shop. This isn’t a disaster for me as it gives me more aspects of the museum to discover when I revisit. I will be revisiting.

Models.

Some people apparently think that models in museums are cheesy. I am not one of those people. There were models of the landscape, of the city, of individual structures, of types of artefacts.
I like this landscape model onto which the development of the city and its changing layout are projected. It’s not a complicated idea but it really helps to see the Roman city in its landscape context.

Interactive stuff 😀

Museums are, inevitably, full of stuff that must not be touched, but I’m fond of museums that also incorporate some stuff that you can touch to your heart’s delight.
Best one? For me, unsurprisingly, Roman games 😀😀

Click the link and you can see me winning with walnuts.
The Nut Game

Films 😀

The museum has a range of films about aspects of the collection and about the conservation of particular objects. My favourite was the one about quarrying 😀, which demonstrated how Roman quarrymen (often slave or convict labour) removed blocks of stone from the quarry face using hand tools and wedges.

Context. 😀

There’s a definite emphasis on placing objects and architectural elements into their proper contexts. Where did they come from? Where were they found? Which buildings are they associated with? How were they used? The models and films really help with this, moving the artefacts from being just stuff in display cases to actually being part of everyday life in the Roman town.

Despite being big and expensive-looking, the Musee de la Romanite feels like a local museum. I got the impression that quite a few of the visitors were locals, as I kept hearing exclamations of recognition from people looking at artefacts, particularly in relation to key local landmarks like Maison Carrée and the Temple of Diana. People did seem genuinely interested. There were a lot of people watching that quarrying film, maybe, in part, because it related directly to the restoration of the Maison Carrée.

What else? Oh yeah, artefacts 😀

This post is getting too long so you’ll have to wait until the next one for the artefacts but I’ll just whet your appetite with a few. Suffice it to say that the museum takes in a wide range of object types; building material; pottery; metalwork; statues; glassware; mosaics; the lot.

Yasss 😀

So, yeah, SNCF.

Having charged round the last bits of the museum and, literally, run to the station, I found that my train back to Arles was delayed by an hour.

*shakes fist and calls down the curses of the gods*.

museedelaromanite.fr 

The ancient dead speak

Last weekend, me and my fellow explorer Craig, visited an exhibition that we’ve been looking forward to for a while. At the Museum of London Docklands, ‘Roman Dead‘.

This exhibition tells the stories of some of the people of Roman London, as seen through the evidence of their mortal remains, and of the funerary practices and methods of commemoration used by Roman Londoners. Literary evidence tells us that the ancient burial grounds of Londinium began to be discovered at least as early as the 1570s as John Stowe writes, in his A Survey of London in 1598, that as the ground around Spitalfields was being broken up for clay, the workers discovered cinerary urns (pots used to hold the ashes of people who were cremated), the cremated  bones and other remains of earlier Londoners.

This burial group, dating to 60-200CE, was found at Bishopsgate. The large glass jar would have held the cremated remains (in the tray in front), with a samian cup used as a lid.

The smaller glass jars may have been used to hold oils and perfumes used in the funerary rites or offerings to the gods.

I was interested to see the map of known burial grounds around Londinium (in red), particularly the two on the Southwark islands.

The burial grounds were situated just outside the city limits to avoid the pollution of the living by the dead and archaeologists have unearthed evidence of a wide range of funerary practices carried out by the people of London. The exhibitions includes evidence of cremations and inhumations (burials), a range of grave goods, buried with the deceased, and evidence of some more unusual practices. For example, the skeletal remains of a woman whose skull was removed, after death and possibly much later, after the body had decomposed, and placed on top of her pelvis.

As it is today, so it was in Roman London. We see people from all over the Roman world; from Britain and all parts of mainland Europe, the Middle-East and North Africa, and they all came to, or travelled through Londinium. Some of them died here. Some of these different funerary practices may have been influenced by people’s different areas of origin, by changing tastes and even by changing religions, but some perhaps also by the desire to ‘do what Granddad would have wanted’, possibly harking back to older tribal or cultural traditions not current in Roman Britain but which, in the face of death, felt to surviving family members or friends like the right thing to do.

The objects in the exhibition work around the people in the exhibition. Well, the remains of the people anyway. As well as cremated remains, on display are the skeletal remains of 28 individuals. With funerary collections, I particularly like to see the whole assemblege, or as much as possible of it, displayed together, if possible reassembled as it was in the ground. I think that seeing all of the objects together with the remains can tell us something about the people themselves, but also about their loved ones, their friends, the people who arranged and carried out the funeral rites. We can’t see the remains exactly as those people saw them at the point of burial, but it’s the closest that we can get.

So here are a few of the grave goods found:

The centrepiece of exhibition is this well preserved stone sarcophagus found last year near Harper Road in Southwark.

Stone sarcophagi are rare in London, this is only the third one found, so it’s a big deal. Most people buried in Roman London would have been buried in wooden caskets or possibly just laid in the ground wrapped in a shroud, so the lady interred here, and her family, must have been quite wealthy to be able to afford such a burial. This is the first time that the sarcophagus has been shown and I was struck by how big it is. It’s not overly wide, but it did look really long.

In the accompanying film archaeologists, conservation experts and one of the curators talk us through the discovery, recovery, investigation and conservation of the sarcophagus. When it was discovered, the archaeologists could see that it was badly cracked so it wasn’t excavated onsite. Instead a wooden frame was constructed around it, holding it firmly together and allowing it to be lifted out of the ground by crane, still filled with earth that had accumulated in it, and taken to the lab to be excavated in more controlled conditions. The breaks int he stone are very visible, even after conservation.

In the lab the remains of the occupant and a few fragments of the grave goods were found, already disturbed by grave robbers. There’s no way to know all of the objects that the lady was buried with, but the few pieces that remain include an engraved intaglio, probably from a finger-ring, and a tiny fragment of gold, possibly the remains of an earring.

The object that I think amazed me the most was this:

It may not look like much at first, just a rough plank of wood. And so it is, but it has been reused as the base of a wooden coffin. Close inspection reveals some marks left on the wood. The imprints left by the body.

The marks left by the knees.

And by the ribs.

This, for me, was the object that really made me go “Wow!”. The dead really do leave a lasting impression.

The Roman Dead exhibition is at Museum of London Docklands until 28th October 2018 and it’s free to visit. Yes! Free!

 

 

Rome with a Vieux

It was the Easter holidays and I had a few days off work so I decided to take myself off for a short trip to France. Staying in Caen for a couple of days gave me an opportunity to visit the nearby site of Vieux La Romaine.

According to the Tabula Peutingeriana, the Romans knew this site as Aregenua and it was the capital of the Viducasses tribe.

My journey to the site will be familiar to anyone who has ever had to try to travel in rural France, or rural anywhere for that matter, without a car, and started with a bus that had to be booked in advance. Thank goodness that they had an online booking system for that, as my French really isn’t up to telephone conversations. In my mind’s eye I see those poor French people wincing when they hear me murdering their beautiful language with my gawd-blimey norf-Laandaan accent.

Anyway, the bus from Caen took me to the village of Esquay-Notre-Dame, which is about 2 miles from Vieux, where the Roman site is, then I walked. This is fine, it’s only 2 miles. However, on the day of my visit, the rains fell… and fell… and fell, meaning that I arrived at the museum a little soggy.

No matter. The site more than made up for the weather.

As well as the museum, the viewable site consists of a section of the forum, which is currently under excavation;

‘Ma Maison a La Cour an “u” ‘ (the house with the U-shaped courtyard),

and ‘La Maison au Grand Perisyle’ (the grand peristyle house);

Unsurprisingly, I spent quite a bit of the time in the museum, which tells the story of the town of Aregenua and the people who lived there. Aregenua was sited at a crossroads of Roman routes so it provided an important staging post and, although it wasn’t particularly big and was never walled, the town had all the usual amenities; temples, baths, forum, and aqueduct.

We can see some fragments of the buildings, and the elements on display include these columns, probably from a temple, which are intricately decorated with Bacchic scenes, and the tendrils and foliage of plants.

There are some very nice fragments of painted wall plaster.

Statues, mostly fragmentary, including the titular goddess of the town.

  

and other fragmentary pieces, some statuary, some sculptural.

One interesting thing about the museum is the lengths that they have gone to to encourage touching.

Not touching everything, obviously, but certain objects actually have ‘please touch’ signs to encourage a more tactile visit than is often the case with museums.

As it was clear that many school groups visit the site (I saw about 4 different groups in the time that I was there), catering to the desire to interact very directly with objects seemed like a good way to go.

So, here are a few favourite objects on display…

I also really liked the Roman key exhibit. It included the usual case full of Roman keys in all shapes and sizes, but it can sometimes be hard, when looking at keys as inanimate objects, to work out how they actually worked, so there’s a model to try out. Which I did.

Click here to see how the replica Roman key and lock work.

There is a whole display of Roman gaming equipment, including a, fragmentary, gaming board and a type-2 die with rather fancy pips.

And there is a whole case devoted to bone-working. The Romans used animal bone to make a wide range of objects, from dice to combs, hairpins to knife handles. This case actually contains unfinished pieces and the offcuts and detritus left behind when things are carved out of animal bone. This is about the process rather than the finished articles.

But here are a couple of the finished pieces, knives with carved bone handles.

Roman knives with carved bone handles.

And I particularly liked this:

This is archaeological stratigraphy explained, and it’s an attempt to show how jumbled up and confusing archaeology in the ground can be. There are all sorts of different phases of building and land use, walls, floors, demolition and collapse, burials, later features cutting through earlier ones. I think that it’s great that the curators at the museum have actually gone to some lengths to explain how tricky archaeology can be to unpick and how archaeologists working on-site, and in the labs, work out what the remains are telling us about the site and its people.

  

 

I spent ages in the museum and at the sites outside, and had a little play with the ‘Roman’ games near the grand peristyle house.

Then, with another pre-booked bus to catch back to Caen, I set off, still in the rain, back to Esquay-Notre-Dame. A good, if soggy and a bit muddy, day out.

More info here:

Vieux la Romaine – http://www.vieuxlaromaine.fr/accueil.html

Perseus Tufts – vieux la romanie

http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.04.0006:id=aregenua