Gold for the price of silver

This blog post is dedicated to Lady Trowelsworthy, without whom none of this would have been possible. Your Ladyship, you are a star :star:

This weekend, the madness overtook me.

This happens sometimes.

Awesome mosaic museum, but it’s 2000 miles away in Gaziantep? No problem. Really cool and rarely-played play being produced, but it’s in Newcastle? Be rude not to. Loop playing…well, most places. Yep. I’m going to see them in Yorkshire, Liverpool, Glasgow (if I can get a ticket) and Iceland!

This time it was the combination of the opening on an infamous and long-inaccessible Roman archaeological site, and the fact that two of my friends were going, making me chew my knuckles with envy. But it was in 5 days time…in Rome.

Oh well, why not.

My two digging buddies, Kathryn and Badger happened to be on holiday in Rome at the same time (not together) and were meeting up to pay this visit. This is like a solar eclipse, the perfect alignment of two entities, in this case, one from Canada and the other from the US. Even better, there are few people I’d rather visit an infamous and long-inaccessible Roman archaeological site with so it was just too good to pass up, especially when Badger started taunting me on Facebook.

So off I went. On a day trip to Rome. This does actually sound crazier than it was in the end. Yes, I had to leave home at stupid o’clock to catch an early flight and, yes, it was a long day, but actually it was fine, if a little tiring.

And this is what it was all for.


The Domus Aurea. The Golden Palace of Nero. You remember Nero; barking mad, played the fiddle, bit of a pyromaniac*.

The Domus Aurea is what you get to do if you happen to be the master of all you survey. You take over great swathes of land, in the middle of the metropolis no less, and build yourself a giant, ostentatious, marble-clad pleasure palace. Expense!? Pah! Inconvenience!? Phooey!

The land on which Nero built had previously been occupied by a smaller palace and by the urban villas of Roman families but the great fire that tore through Rome in 64CE swept all that away leaving a convenient area for this new Imperial pied-à-terre. There have long been stories about Nero’s possible involvement in that fire so perhaps this should be considered it a little suspicious.**

Suetonius, that arch Roman gossip-monger, reports (60 or so years after the fact):

There was nothing however in which he was more ruinously prodigal than in building. He made a palace extending all the way from the Palatine to the Esquiline, which at first he called the House of Passage, but when it was burned shortly after its completion and rebuilt, the Golden House. Its size and splendour will be sufficiently indicated by the following details. Its vestibule was large enough to contain a colossal statue of the emperor a hundred and twenty feet high; and it was so extensive that it had a triple colonnade a mile long.***


So it was pretty big.

There was a pond too, like a sea, surrounded with buildings to represent cities, besides tracts of country, varied by tilled fields, vineyards, pastures and woods, with great numbers of wild and domestic animals. **

This “pond” took up the area that is now home to the Colosseum so, clearly, “pond” is a relative term.

Anyway, our visit. Together with Kathryn, Lord Trowelsworthy, and assorted family members, we donned our hard hats and headed in.


In the rest of the house all parts were overlaid with gold and adorned with gems and mother-of‑pearl. There were dining-rooms with fretted ceils of ivory, whose panels could turn and shower down flowers and were fitted with pipes for sprinkling the guests with perfumes.***

Ok, the gold, marble, ivory fretwork and perfume sprinklers no longer exist, but an amazing quantity of beautifully painted plaster survives.

There is also moulded plaster appliqué, much of which would originally have been gilded, and ceiling mosaics.

P1010136 P1010133


This is all the more amazing because conditions  in the site are far from ideal. Following Nero’s death, the Domus Aurea was a bit of an embarrassment to the new Flavian Emperors, so they stripped out all the costly materials for use elsewhere, had the ground levelled and built large new public buildings on the site. As well as the aforementioned Flavian Amphitheatre known as The Colosseum, these also included the great Baths of Titus.


The remaining buildings were preserved by being buried under these later constructions but since their rediscovery in the fifteenth century, water ingress has caused increasing damage. The site has suffered even further as, during the Facist era, Mussolini had a public park built around the Baths of Titus, i.e. right over the top of the Domus Aurea, and the roots of the many trees planted in this park have opened up holes through which water makes its way into the building below. The site is plagued by damp and running water, causing the frescos to decay and to become dislodged, so it’s unclear how much longer it would survive without significant intervention.

Running water was visible in a number of places and at one point we seemed to be in a little rain shower.



The hard hats were necessary because the condition of the structure is pretty poor, with chunks having actually fallen out of the walls.

The site has actually been closed to visitors since 2008, having been open periodically before then, and it is now only open at weekends until August. The plan over the next four years or so is to completely remove the overlying park and carry out emergency repairs and ongoing resoration in order to safeguard the future of this important Roman building. If you want to see it this year, you’ll need to get a wriggle on.

When the edifice was finished in this style and he dedicated it, he deigned to say nothing more in the way of approval than that he was at last beginning to be housed like a human being.***

Phew! It sounds like Trimalchio’s Feast!


So was it worth hopping a flight to Rome for? Of course :) It’s only 900 miles, or 2.5 hours, so what the heck****. And I was lucky enough to have two of the best people to make this visit with. Kathryn and Lord T, I salute you both and wish you a smashing rest-of-holiday :D

Oh yeah, and that tree near the site entrance is a loquat tree.



* this is all slander, innuendo and outright invention. Probably. Possibly.

**Again, this is almost certainly slander of the most slanderous type. The fire was accidental and a not-uncommon occurrence in ancient cities. The really notable thing about this particular fire was the sheer extent of the damage caused.


**** Please don’t hate me for this. I’m well aware of how lucky I am to be in a position to be able to do this. It’s just that I believe in taking legitimate opportunities where they arise. It could all go horribly wrong next week and then I’ll have to go back to not being able to do this.

For more information on the project to save and restore the site see here

Ton Up

So I’ve reached my one-hundredth post.

What shall I write about?


How about the fact that it’s my one-hundredth post? How about nothing?

I mean, rather than turn this into some sort of magnificent occasion, with a telegram from the Queen and bunch of roses, perhaps I’ll just let it slide by in a flurry of nothingness.

In a world where every little thing is hailed as ‘epic’, where every commonplace event gets pumped up into the biggest thing ever, maybe I’ll just let it pass with barely a comment.

Maybe I won’t even post any pictures. How d’ya like them apples?

I’ll see you on the other side of 100.

With pictures and all :D

Since writing the above something momentous has happened. Something worthy of the Ton.

Loop are releasing new material :D

This statement is from the Loop Facebook page:


“Towards the end of 2013 saw the reformation of one of the most revered and respected late 80’s UK alternative bands, LOOP. The group, founded by Robert Hampson, hadn’t played together since the early 90’s but got together to curate a night at the legendary All Tomorrow’s Parties at Camber Sands. US dates followed in 2014 and they then got back in the studio to start recording. The result is three brand new releases coming over the next year which see the band return to their hugely unique and era defining sound whilst sounding fresh and exciting.

The first release is ‘Array 1’, four tracks and 32 mins of haunting, aggressive, beautiful noise. ‘Precession’, ‘Aphelion’, ‘Coma’ and ‘Radial’ are the first songs to be heard from their recording session done in Sub Station Studios in Rosyth in Scotland with the current line up of Robert Hampson (vocals/guitar), Hugo Morgan (bass), Wayne Maskell (drums) and Dan Boyd (guitar). With only an early version of ‘Precession’ having had any previous outing (at a show at the Garage in London at the end of 2014), this is the very first new music from the band since their third album, 1990’s lost classic ‘A Gilded Eternity’.

The next tracks will be released in the Autumn in keeping with Loop’s previous habit of putting out music in batches, Hampson describes it as “one project, with the same concept, delivered in bulletins”.

With the music out on 22nd June 2015, this ties in with a show at the Roundhouse in London on 28th June where they are part of the line-up of ATP’s Season at the Roundhouse. The event, curated by post rock band Mogwai to celebrate their 20th Anniversary, will be spread over six nights and see performances from the likes of Public Enemy, GZA, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and The Jesus and Mary Chain.

22nd June (24th June for the US) – ‘Array 1’ – 4 track release

18 June HEBDEN BRIDGE, Trades Club
19 June LIVERPOOL, Kazimier
20 June GLASGOW, Barrowlands (ATP with Mogwai)
28 June LONDON, Roundhouse (ATP with GZA)”

And here’s the first track from Array 1, Precession –
I’m delirious.

Surprise Surprise

St. Paul’s Cathedral is one of the most photographed sites in London. Well the outside of it is anyway. Usually, photography is forbidden inside the cathedral. It’s a working church and the powers that be have decided to try to preserve the spirituality and peace of the building. No mean feat when you consider that it was visited by over two million people last year (2014)*

But this week, for the first time in its history, St. Paul’s Cathedral was opened up to photographers who have been asked to capture images of all those specials places, those magnificent views, those random details that make the church such an iconic place. ‘Surprise St. Paul’s 2’** was announced and 300 tickets sold to anyone with a tenner. So photographers with some pretty professional looking kit rubbed shoulders with iPhone snappers, all taking advantage of this amazing opportunity.

I was lucky enough to snap up one of these coveted tickets, so here are a few of my pictures (taken on my battered old Panasonic Lumix).

St. Paul’s is a church that is full of amazing ceilings.



And those views that everyone is after.




It’s the home of a million upshots.


And plenty of #wallporn.



Crypts are always photogenic.


Here is Wellington’s tomb.


And here and there are reminders of the older St. Paul’s. The one destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666.


And of the affiliations of the Catherdal’s architect, Sir Christopher Wren.



Smaller details are as interesting as the grand sweeping vistas. This putto has good co-ordination.


And look at these impressive chops.


I wonder how many illustrious bottoms have parked themselves here.


A reminder that this is a working church, with regular services (one of which finished just before we were let in). All that singing can be thirsty work.


I also found myself watching other visitors, finding and capturing their own favourite views.



But I’ll leave you with the man/God/ghost himself. He is, after all, the star of this show.




I lit the two candles here. I’m not at all religious, but many members of my family are. One candle was for my Nan and the other for my cousin Merry, who passed away just recently.

You can see some of people’s images on Twitter under the hashtag #SurpriseStPauls. There are loads of really good ones.



**’Surprise St. Paul’s 1′ was for photos of the outside of the building.

Like a Daydream

Well we have all known for a while that this was happening, but here it is at last.


On April 1st, Ride sent emails out via the mailing list advertising 3 small, low-key warm-up gigs; two in the US and one in their hometown, Oxford. It being April 1st, many people assumed that it was an April Fool. It wasn’t.


Having missed out on the Roundhouse tickets, I was pleased to nab a couple of tickets for the Oxford date. And so, joined my my friend Jeremy, I took the Oxford Tube to see Ride for the first time since…oh, I don’t know when.


I’m glad to report that it was really pretty good. They stuck to a crowd-pleaser set, nothing much too obscure at this stage, starting with Polar Bear. Then proceded with a set that included Ride classics such as Seagull, Dreams Burn Down, all that. Vapour Trail was lovely. Drive Blind was great, although a little ‘cleaner’ than I remember, and included a little mini-holocaust of  around 5 minutes.

Here’s Loz beating up his drums during the mini-holocaust.


The first encore was Leave Them All Behind and then the second was Like a Daydream and then Chelsea Girl to finish.

A couple of niggles, some guy yelling what I understand was an Oasis chant (seriously, eyes-roll), and THE HAT.


It’s like an elephant in the room. Some kind soul should, gently but firmly, have a chat with Mark Gardener and explain that he really really doesn’t need it. We’re all older. And honestly, that’s fine. There’s no need to dress up like a spiv.

So, anyone with Ride gigs to look forward to, you’re almost certainly going to have a great time. But be aware, the show may contains strobes.


And for more Ride-related nonsense, you can check out @RideTheNetwork on Twitter and the Ride Appreciation Society on Facebook. There’s also a review up here Also, If you go on Twitter and search “Ride Oxford”, there’s lots of very good fan-filmed footage.

Roman counter culture: Dodgy geezer.

Well, it’s our last week for a little while and it all ended on a rather dodgy note.

And here it is.


What a sorry specimen. It’s little more than a chip off the old die. I had just over half of the 6-face and a sliver of a couple of other faces but that’s it.

 And then I turned it over…


The first thing to notice is that hole. It lines up with one of the 6 pips, which is odd. The maker has drilled a hole in the die and then covered it over with a dot-and-double-ring pip on the surface. Hmmm.


Then there’s that grey stuff. It looks like a tooth-filling. Is it lead? Hmmm.

The other clue that there is something iffy about this die is the weight. Although it’s just a tiny scrap, it weights as much as some other complete dice that we’ve had. Hmmm.

It’s a dodgy die, later known as a ‘Fulham’. The maker has hollowed out a little space inside the die and then filled it with with a weight (possibly lead, but I’ll try to find out what this substance is). This would influence the outcome of throws, perhaps increasing the chances of ‘high’ or ‘low’ throws.  Naughty people.

And this brings me on to what we will be doing next. These dice have all been really interesting, but so far we only know a limited amount about them. They’ve been removed from their contexts. We don’t know much about where they were found, what they were found with, or even their dates. We’ve had ‘Roman’, but ‘Roman’ in Britain covers 400 years! Can we narrow that down a bit? We also need to know what, if anything, the conservators made of these objects. What did they think that grey stuff is?

This will be an ongoing task which Guy John and I will be working on over the summer. I’ll post anything of particular interest but for now I’ll leave you with his fantastic little gaming scene from the Bardo in Tunis.


Roman Counter Culture: same again, guv.

We’re back at the Museum of London again this week to finish the digitization of the Museum collection of Roman, and later, dice.

This is pretty much ‘more of the same’ except for one beauty at the end, so here they are.


Again, these dice have all be taken off display in the Museum for us to work on. They’re probably back on display by now.

I had another one very similar to this (below) last week.


And here’s a nice, but rather squat bone type 1 die.


I also had this very nice type 2 die.  Unfortunately one of the plugs was missing from the 4 face, but otherwise, it was in very good condition.

P1400536  P1400538

We also created a record for this lovely jet (-like) die.


It’s in really good condition, the only damage being a chip out of one face. These black-material dice don’t scan well, as the edges tend to disappear into the background. This one will be photographed instead. We were all having a conversation about what the white substance in the pips might be; wax? clay? some wort of resin? Dunno, and we’re not going to scrape any out to get it tested, so it’ll just have to be a mystery for now.

Glynn was giving a paper at the Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference (TRAC) utilizing some of the objects that we’ve been working on, specifically the jet and amber pieces. I was attending the conference and can report that his paper went down very well. This lovely amber die, which I’ve been hiding this picture of since November, was a particular hit.


Roman Counter Culture: Museum pieces

This was the view from my window this week.


The wall running along the bottom of the photo is the medieval city wall, built on the foundations of the Roman wall which formed part of the city wall and the fort. We’ve relocated for a little while, from the LAARC to The Museum of London to work on the pieces that are actually on display. Glynn had already swiped the necessary dice from the display cases, just for a little while, so we can create digital records of them for the Museum’s Collections Online.

As we only had access to one scanner, we worked on the basis of a division of labour. John scanned the dice and saved the images while Guy and I worked on the descriptions, weights and measures. Then we all started on cleaning up and assembling the images.


I started with a nice Type 2 die…


One of the plugs was missing, but otherwise it was in pretty good shape.

And then this one (below). The 6 face looks nice and square, albeit with slightly wobbly pips.


The 3 face, somewhat less square.


It’s a bit of a wonky one. Most of the faces are different sizes and there’s a discinct curve to the 1 face.


This one is a bit (lot) more regular.


We’ve see a great deal of variety between the dice we’ve been working on. That raises questions about manufacturing techniques and the rationales for production.

From the museum collection, we came across two that looked almost like a pair.


They came from the same site, although not from the same contexts, and Guy and I did think that they looked like they might have been made by the same person. This was just because of the size and shape, and the way that the pips look. The sides are not very even, with the 6 and the 1 faces being nice and square, but the 2,3,4 and 5 faces being quite rectangular. They would have had a definite tendency to land with either the 6 or the 1 face uppermost. They looked like they were reasonably nicely made, but have suffered some damage.

 P1400407.  P1400406.

They were recovered from a cemetery context, which made me wonder – RANDOM SPECULATION ALERT!! – is it possible that these dice were being made specifically as funerary objects? I wondered this because their shape does make them a bit dodgy for use as gaming dice, but wouldn’t matter at all if they were made as symbolic objects to be buried with the dead. They could then be made from oddly-sized off-cuts of bone, and it wouldn’t matter.

I’m going to have a little think about this, and try to have a look at more dice found as part of burials to see if there really are any patterns, or if we just have a slightly tipsy dice-maker here.

More from the Museum next time.