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.

P1530544 P1530524 P1530534

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.

P1530590 P1530599 P1530605

P1530648 P1530636

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.

P1530678 (2)

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.


P1530922   P1530923


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.

P1540003 P1530994


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.

P1540367 (2)


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.


PANO_20160703_120550 (2)

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 –

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


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.

13 12

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

23 22

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.

The Kingdom of the West: Hercules at Volubilis

Hercules, the Greek Herakles, was a bit of a hit in ancient Morocco. Ancient writers, writing about the Phoenicians in North Africa, identified Hercules with the Phoenician god Melqart and there are reports of many temples across North Africa dedicated to Hercules.

At Volubilis, the best-known Roman site in Morocco, there are a few indications of the continuing allegiances to Hercules/Melqart into the Roman period. At the centre of the city stands the Basilica and the Capitol which is the site of the temple to the three main Roman deities; Jupiter, Juno and Minerva.


The people of Roman Volubilis were giving the proper respect to the Roman gods, but old habits die hard. At the side of the temple platform, almost unseen at the base of a door pilaster…


is this tiny little image of Hercules.


He’s holding a bag and his club and is nude, as befits all ancient heroes.

There’s another, similar but larger image on a stone block near the entrance to the site. In an area where a number of grave markers have been lined up, is this,


There’s no text on it, and I’ve no idea where it may have originally been found, but it’s certainly the same Hercules image, although he does look a bit less cut than the temple Hercules.

Just off the decumanus maximus is the House of the Labours of Hercules, so-named account of this mosaic.


The mosaic depicts the Twelve Labours, albeit in a rather naive style.

Here’s Labour Twelve – ‘Dog Walking’ (capturing the hell-hound Cerberus).


And Labour Six – ‘Duck  hunting’ (slaying the Stymphalian Birds).


Labour Seven – Capturing the Cretan Bull.


And the  Fifth Labour – Cleaning the Augean stable.


And here is Hercules’ earliest heroic task, killing the snakes sent by Juno to kill him in his cradle.


There are other references to Hercules around the ancient province. You can see one here.

The Heads: 97% sausage

I haven’t posted a music blog for a while. I have been to a few gigs this year, and some pretty good ones too, but I’ve been busy writing about Iran and Morocco.
So to inaugurate the 2016 MooseandHobbes music blah blah, it’s The Heads.😀 Whoop whoop.
The last time I saw them play was in September at Liverpool Psych Fest, and that was an absolute blast so I was well up for some more. This week I was looking at two gigs in two nights, in London and Manchester, so I  was gearing up for an onslaught.
First up, London. The Lexington, between King’s Cross and Angel, is where I saw The Heads before. That was a fun gig; loud and dancey. They also had lots of merchandise on the stall, in a variety of colours, so the HeadsHeads were in Nerdvana.
The set was totally funky and included a number of songs that are basically long jams. The last time I saw them they could have been charged with ABH but although this was, I think, the same setlist, this gig had more of a groove and less of a battering, opening with the extended build of Bedlam. I particularly enjoyed Quad and Cardinal Fuzz, but, loving a wig-out as I do, Stodgy brought a grin to my face. It’s amazing how different the same songs can sound.
At first I was thinking that it could have been louder (I always think this, so it’s not unusual), but by the end, me and my pal Jeremy were yelling at each other, so I think that the volume increased as the set went along.
As an aside, I was also struck by the make-up of the audience. I think that I only saw about 6 women in the whole place! Including me!! Maybe I was looking in the wrong place and all of the feminine elements were clustered together somewhere else. Odd.
The next day I was off up to Manchester for more action at The Ruby Lounge (and Romans too, but that’s another story). I met up with Leeds pals Ann (@ann_sequinworld) and Andy. Ann had done her leg in so was hobbling a bit, but was, otherwise, on good form.
They played the same set, but the gig was a bit of a different beast again. Higher volume and a much harder, edgier sound meant that, although the set was still pretty funky, it had considerably bigger teeth.
I don’t know who this chap is, but he had a setlist and a startled expression. Clearly, fame awaits him.
So how did these two gigs compare? Let’s look at the round-up:
  • London: more funkalicious, a bit quieter, ~97% sausage.
  • Manchester: harder, louder, lower sausage ratio. Maybe 65-70%.
7 4
The Heads were due to be playing in Prestatyn the following night, at ATP Stewart Lee. This is one of those holiday camp festivals that I find a bit much (I won’t even try to explain why, they just don’t suit me), so I didn’t plan to go, even though the line-up is great. Judging by this couple of gigs, this last gig at ATP will probably be harder than a Honey Badger with a flick-knife. I just wish it wasn’t at Pontins.
And so I made my way back to London and crashed out. That was good. A couple of days of Total Heads was just what I needed to blast the cobwebs out of my brain.
Now, if only I could get a bit of Loop…