The fat of the land

No, this post isn’t about the Prodigy, it’s about muck.

In 2017 a monstrous fiend was discovered lurking in the sewers beneath the streets of Whitechapel. The ghost of Jack the Ripper? No. The FATBERG *screams*

Sewers are good, and necessary, and help to reduce outbreaks of cholera in heavily populated areas like London. Sewers are also a bit smelly and dirty and full of things we never wanted to see again.

The term ‘fatberg’ was first used by London sewer workers to describe the accumulations of oil and grease and ‘stuff’ that build up in sewers, and which have to be cleared out regularly  in order to keep the channels flowing. It’s a real word now because it entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 2015 but in September 2017, the mother of all fatbergs was found in the Whitechapel sewer.

It was big. Weighing ~130 tonnes and stretching along the sewer for over 250 metres, so it had to go. The difficulty was its sheer mass and solidity. The usual method of removal is to blast it with jets of water to break it up, and then suck it out through pipes into tankers for disposal. Unfortunately, the Whitechapel Fatberg was, in places, so rock solid that blasting it with jets of water couldn’t break it up, so the only alternative was for the sewer workers to hack it to pieces with  picks and hand-shovels. Over the course of nine weeks, eight waste engineers, working nine hours a day rid the sewer of the fatberg.

The workers had to wear protective clothing and masks in order to avoid being poisoned by the toxic waste or infected with diseases, which can be breathed in or even absorbed into your system through your skin.

Even though they were only handling a small sample, the conservators at the Museum were also kitted out with similar protective gear. During the process of preservation mould grew on the samples and flies hatched out of them. The samples were x-rayed to see what was inside (and to check for hazards like sharps), then they were dried out, reducing the risk of contamination, and enclosed in three boxes, one inside another inside another. They are now displayed in sealed units.  That Fatberg bites.

And here it is.

I was initially (madly) expecting the chunks to be huge, sofa-sized pieces but, having seen what was involved in preserving them and the hazards they posed, I can see why that could never be.

So why on earth has such a piece of grimness ended up on display in a museum?

Well, the Whitechapel Fatberg’s ‘celebrity’ presented the Museum of London, and the ‘Curator of Fatberg!’, Vyki Sparkes,  with an opportunity to tell the story of something that is common and everyday in our city, as in all cities, waste. The enormous volume of waste generated by a big city is a constant problem that has to be monitored and managed but which we don’t all necessarily consider very often. Putting a piece of it in the museum that tells the story of London helps us to consider it. On display, we’re only seeing a tiny piece of a huge problem but it’s a way to have the conversation about how we can all help to reduce that problem, just a little bit.

We can all think about what we’re flushing down the loo. Flushable wet wipes may be marketed as easy to dispose of, but they don’t biodegrade so flushing them is just shifting the problem to somewhere else. The Fatberg, as it’s name suggests, is made up of a base of fat; oil, cooking fat and fats found in product such as hair conditioner. Some of this, at least, doesn’t have to end up down the drain. We can all make decisions about how we dispose of our waste and also make decisions about what we purchase and how that can help to reduce waste a bit.

You can read about the rationale and process for bringing the Fatberg to the museum on the museum’s own blog.

The good news is that the fat content of the fatberg is actually recyclable. It can be recycled and reused as biodiesel fuel, powering the buses. Other elements have been recycled to make fertilizer.

The Fatberg has just gone on display at The Museum of London and will be there to visit, for free, until the 1st July as part of the ‘City Now City Future’ season.

 

p.s. Is that a Double-Decker wrapper sticking out of the Fatberg?

 

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Saintes Day – Part Deux

In my last post, I added a teaser about the Archaeological Museum of Saintes. It’s a tiny little museum, just one room, but the collection is excellent and represents life in Roman Saintes,  Mediolanum Santonum, really well.

The items on display include several elements of building material, some just functional, some decorative. On display were several fragments of very nicely painted wall plaster.

There’s also this intriguing lump of decorative plaster. Called opus musivum, it’s a type of decorative mosaic-work used on wall and ceilings. This fragment contains cockle, two kinds of sea-snail and winkle shells, blue glass, yellow-ochre stones and Egyptian blue.

Ceiling in Opus muivum, Second quarter of the 1st century. Found at Les Sables, Saintes.

The presence of this range of decorative options suggests that among the townspeople of  Mediolanum Santonum were at least some who were fairly well-off.

The cases at the end of the museum have some very nice examples of pottery and glassware found in Saintes. Again, some of these pieces suggest a population with a reasonable level of disposable income, with beautiful coloured glass, moulded pottery and silveware on display.

Spout of a vase or mortarium in the shape of a grotesque mask.

Alongside this very nice, high quality material is the more ordinary and everyday. I particularly liked the evidence for those who prepared the food and drink.

There’s this iron skillet, used for frying foods.

A wooden spoon, an indispensable kitchen item.

Any, my favourite, matches!

Just a couple more of the very interesting objects on display.

As I have worked on a volunteer project looking at Roman dice and gaming equipment with the Museum of London, I’m always on the lookout unusual examples on my travels. In Saintes I hit the jackpot. There’s this clay marble palette, complete with marbles.  The marbles here aren’t particularly spherical or regular, but this does look ‘in progress’ rather than the finished articles.

Among the more ordinary dice there were are also these two unusual ones.

Made from boxwood (l) and beech wood (r), they have attached tenons which may have been used to suspend the dice from a lanyard or thong. Some ordinary dice have been found in contexts which suggest some ritualistic purpose; in burials, is an example, and we suppose that they may have been used as amulets, lucky charms or keepsakes. These examples do point to some sort of amuletic purpose. They may have been worn on a leather thing around someone’s neck for good luck.

There is lots more is this little one-room museum, but outside there’s something else. In an old disused 19th century abattoir just next to the museum is the ‘Lapidaire‘. This is where the Roman stonework, colonnades, building blocks, monumental stonework, capitals and a bit of aqueduct, are kept and displayed.

Unfortunately for me, it was shit when I visited. Fortunately, it’s possible to see into the building through the shutters, so I didn’t miss out altogether. Whatever signage there might be was out of sight so I have no information to impart, just some pretty pictures.

There s clearly some very nice, and substantial, stonework in there. I understand that much of it was found built into the old ramparts, robbed from here and there at a time when protection was of paramount importance. It’s well worth a look, even if that does mean peering through the shutters from outside.

That’s all from Saintes for now.

TTFN

Saintes Day

This is a little look at a whirlwind day out in Saintes, with lots and lots of Romans. After an early start from Bordeaux, I arrived in Saintes at about 9am and set about looking for some of the remains of the Roman town, Mediolanum Santonum.

Stage 1: The arch. On its own.

The Arch of Germanicus, dating from 18-19 CE,  originally stood at the end of the bridge across the Charente River, marking the entry to the city. Now it’s on its own on a stretch of embankment near the Tourist Information Office.

The inscription tells us about the donor, a wealthy citizen of Mediolanum Santonum by the name of C. Julius Rufus. He seems to have been a pretty important man, locally at least, and the inscription lists his lineage to four generations: ‘Caius Julius Rufus, son of Caius Julius Otuaneunus, grandson of Caius Julius Gedemo, great-grandson of Epotsovirid(i)us’, his position in society: ‘priest of Rome and of Augustus at the altar at Confluens’, and his title: ‘prefect of works’.* He paid for the construction of the arch in honor of the Emperor Tiberius, his son Drusus Julius Caesar, and his adoptive son Germanicus. 

Looking rather festive on my visit, the arch we see today is actually a reconstruction. It was dismantled in the 19th century when the old bridge was demolished but later restored in its present location.

Stage 2: The city wall. Mind your step.

As with many Roman cities, the turbulence of the third century prompted the building of additional fortifications and there is a short stretch of the city wall remaining in-situ.

Now, I quite like France, but there’s one thing in particular that I really really hate about France. Dog-shit. There’s dog-shit everywhere. No-one cleans up after their dog. This means that some patches of grass are an absolute minefield (shitfield?), this one included. After weighing up the odds, I decided that I wasn’t going to risk it. The combination of sloping ground, lots of rain making slippery grass and naughty inconsiderate dog owners made this particular patch of grass no-woman’s land (seriously, there was shit everywhere). I stayed up on the pavement and took what pictures I could from there.

But you can still see the large, well-shaped stone blocks that the wall was built from. There are a few bits of reused stone that I can see amongst the rectangular blocks which indicates that by the time the wall was built, older buildings, shrines and memorials were considered expendable.

Stage 3: The amphitheatre. A hidden gem.

Heading up the hill, cross the main road near the bus stops, turn right and then left up a residential street, walk along a bit, turn left and…the surprise of seeing the entrance to an enormous amphitheatre was not at all dulled by the fact that I was actually looking for an enormous amphitheatre.

And it is enormous, originally seating about 12,000-15,000 spectators (although possibly up to 20,000) and with all the features expected of a well appointed 1st century entertainment venue. Built in 40-50 AD, construction began under Tiberius and was completed under Claudius, this is one of the best preserved amphitheatres in France. It’s set in a natural bowl-shaped valley and the seating (cavae) takes advantage of the natural slopes most of the way round.

From the ticket office, you can walk most of the way round the outside where the upper levels of seating would have been. A lot of the original seating had gone and it looks like some of the stonework is actually modern concrete, but it give a good impression of how the seating looked. You can walk up the steps of some of the vomitoria to get the views over the arena.

The two ends of the amphitheatre still have the remains of two striking features. At the east end, the East Gate.

This is the main entrance facing the town and processions (pompa) would make their way up from the town to the amphitheatre, entering through this gate. This is the way by which victorious gladiators would also leave the amphitheatre, hence it’s alternative name, Porta Sanavivaria, ‘the Gate of the Living’.

Opposite the east gate is the dark and slightly intimidating Porta Libitinensis, ‘the Gate of the Dead’. This where the bodies of vanquished gladiators were carried out of the arena.

When I visit some types of Roman site; bathhouses, forums, paved streets and amphitheatres, I’m always on the lookout for the remains of Roman games. Sometimes, etched into the stone paving, you can see gaming boards for such games as ludus duodecim scriptorum and Nine Men’s Morris. I did take the time to look along all the remaining seating, but the only one I found was this not-so-ancient one…

Stage 4: The bathhouse. Just a little bit.

Ten minute’s walk from the amphitheatre, on a corner just outside the cemetery that’s just up the road from the church of St. Vivien are the remains of the Thermal Baths of St Saloine.

These baths dated from the second half of the first century, during a second phase of development in Mediolanum Santonum, and were abandoned as the city contracted in the fourth century. The baths were fed by the aqueduct which brought water from as far away as Font-Morillon (in the village of Fontcouverte).

There isn’t a huge amount of it left but it is still possible to identify the caldarium (hot room),

with its retaining wall, with these large niches.

A few other wall lines have also been identified however, most of the building has been destroyed, either used as a quarry or in the later uses of the site, which was converted into a church and cemetery.

Stage 5: The museum. Small but perfectly formed.

Back towards the Arch of Germanicus and, next door to the tourist information office is the Musee Archeologique de Saintes. The entrance fee is included in the ticket price for the amphitheatre. Bargain!

It’s a wee little museum, just one room, but every case is a winner. I was going to post a few images here but there are so many very cool things to share that this post is in danger of becoming an epic, so I’ve decided to add those as a supplementary post.  Here’s just a couple to whet your appetite.

So on a Roman level, Saintes was a bit of a success. As well as all these brilliant sites to visit, I also spotted random bits of suspiciously Roman-looking stonework, reused here and there in walls and the like.

I also had the most fantastic cappuccino ever. Not only did it look like a work of Spiderman-influenced art, it also tasted fantastic and wasn’t overly milky. Yum yum, and thank you Thes et Cafes, my recommendation for sustenance and fortification in Saintes.

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The Office de Tourisme is a good source of information about what to see and do in and around Saintes. And for the archaeology, the Société d’Archéologie et d’Histoire de la Charente-Maritime .

*https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arch_of_Germanicus

Archaeology at high speed

Visiting the Musee d’Aquitaine in Bordeaux, I made my usual mistake; spending and hour-and-a-half in the Roman galleries and only then twigging that there are about another six galleries to see plus a temporary exhibition *eyes-roll*.

In this case, the temporary exhibition in question was ‘L’archéologie à Grande Vitesse : 50 sites fouillés entre Tours et Bordeaux’ (trans: ‘High-speed archaeology at high speed: 50 sites searched between Tours and Bordeaux’) an exhibition which takes in 400,000 years of human activity along the new 340km long high-speed rail route, the “Sud Europe Atlantique”.

The exhibition is very much about the archaeology and the processes of investigation, with artefacts used to illustrate points along the way and to tell the stories of the people living in this region of France away from the main known archaeological sites. Covering such a huge time period could result in a scattergun approach but concentrating on the process of archaeology, and the work of the archaeologists gives the exhibition structure and following the rail line provides the ‘why?’ for the exhibition, as well as giving us a thread to follow.

This reminded me very much of the excellent Crossrail exhibition presented by the Museum of London (and MOLA and Crossrail) in London last year. The major engineering works are the rationale for the excavations with the archaeology uncovered being the main focus of the exhibition. Of course, Crossrail took us through mostly urban and industrial sites whereas the Sud Europe Atlantique takes us through swathes of countryside where there has been little or no urban development, as well as rural settlement sites.

The exhibition includes films from the excavations and some pretty nifty interactive screens where we can see into tunnels and 360° around inside sites. I liked the way that the screen view was also projected onto the walls.

There are sections on sites representing different time periods from the paleolithic to the modern, with models showing how the sites may have looked, with interpretations based on things like visible wall-lines, the positions of post-holes, pits, wells, and so on. The finds on display range from whole burials, through to pottery, incised gems, stone tools, coins, part of a Roman pulley (my favourite) and a mystery object (the last 2 images below), listed as “objet indetermine (antiquite)”. It’s ~6-7cm long). Know what it is? Answers on a postcard to Musee d’Aquitaine.

Speaking of site models, the exhibition also included these stunningly realistic models of life on a construction/excavation site.

Every details is accurate, careful excavation of articulated skeletons,

site photography,

section drawing and plotting points using a dumpy level,

 

the finds tent,

and more.

There’s even a naughty-but-cute Site Dog.

‘L’archéologie à Grande Vitesse : 50 sites fouillés entre Tours et Bordeaux’ closes on 4th March 2018.

2017 and all that

Some of you, if you are Facebookies, may have been inundated with ‘Year in Review’ videos which are, frankly, rubbish. Facebook is crap at picking the images that tell the story of your year and always end up with old, reposted pictures, your ex who just dumped you or that one from where you saw an old mattress dumped in the street. The only way to do it is to chose your own images and tell it your own way. So here’s mine.

Around the world

In 2017 I’ve mostly been interested in Northern Europe. I don’t know why, but that’s just the way it was. So, here’s a whistlestop tour through my whistlestop tours.

Boom!! Cologne

Bang!! Paris

Wowee!! Rome, with The Couple Formerly Known As Trowelsworthy (TCFKAT).

Kablammo!! Orvieto

  

Crash!! Mainz

 

Kapow!! Bad Durkheim

Badabing!! Frankfurt

Bazinga!! Bavay

Wow!! Paris (again). Thanks for the cheapo tickets Eurostar.

Bang!! Senlis

Crash!! Leiden

 

Whoopee!! Amsterdam

Other places are available.

Tourists at home

It’s fantastic to visit far, or not so far away places, but home is best and being a tourist in your own home is great fun. On many of my touristic days out, Craig has been my travelling companion but I started the year, in traditional style, at the Twelfth Night celebrations on Bankside.

Then nose-hunting with Craig

And I also visited the London Lumiere with Pete and Dayna.

Me and Craig went to Freemason’s Hall.

And to the ‘Glad to be Gay: the struggle for legal equality’ exhibition at LSE. This celebrated 50 year since the decriminalization of homosexuality in Britain.

The City of London Police Museum.

 

We went to Banqueting House for ‘Long Live Queen James’, an evening exploring LGBT stories from the court of King James I/VI.

And we had a poke around the restoration works at Ally Pally.

 

The Supreme Court, with Jeremy

I went to Highgate Cemetery with Sacha and Stuart.

And with Craig and Jeremy to the London Transport Museum.

(“Exchange stations shewn thus”)

Plus loads more. Seriously, London is very cool. Go and look at it.

Moosic, moosic, moosic

There have been some stonking gigs this year. This isn’t all of them, but it is some of them. How many can you name?*

 

Random Romans

There are always more Romans about, so I went to have a look for some. I popped up for a quick visit to Newcastle and Carlisle to see some of the Hadrian’s Cavalry exhibitions.

 

I went to Hull! I’ve never been to Hull before but they have a fantastic Roman mosaic collection so I decided to make the effort and go and have a look. Well worth it.

I managed a couple of short trips up to Glasgow and Edinburgh, taking in Bothwellhaugh Roman bathhouse in Strathclyde Country Park with Ellen and Simon,

 

the bathouse and Antonine Wall remains at Bearsden,

and finally made it to Eagle Rock at Cramond.

 

Back in town, the eagerly awaited opening of the London Mithraeum didn’t disappoint.

When I was in Germany, I popped down to Speyer to see the Roman Collection at  Das Historische Museum der Pfalz (The Historical Museum of the Palatinate).

What else? What else? Volunteering on a schools’ project at the Museum of London’s Archaeological Archive (Me! Working with children!!), and I spent half the year working at Tower Bridge (actual paid employment!). This is surely enough to pack into 12 short months.

So that’s 2017 from me, and from my boys, Archie and Bertie. I hope you’ve had a good year and roll on 2018.

 

Oh, and here’s that one from where I saw an old mattress dumped in the street.

Senlis – Into the woods

Ok, I didn’t actually go into the woods. It was raining, I had a cold, it’s about 4 miles away and there’s no regular bus, plus I needed to catch the 3.15 bus in order to get back to Paris. So no, I didn’t actually go into the woods. But I did go into the museum, which is just as good, because in the museum is this:

So what’s the deal with the woods then? Well, in 1825, in the Foret d’Halatte, a temple was discovered.

Early investigations in 1873-4 uncovered the general size and shape of the small temple and precinct, and also recovered 297 stone ex-voto figures, and statues, now in the collection of the Musee d’arte et d’archaeologie.

Built in the mid-1st century, on what was then grassland, and abandoned by the early 5th, the temple was lost to view as the forest grew and established itself. As many of the ex-voto figures display genitals or breasts, the temple has been interpreted as a temple of healing, possibly with a focus on sexual health, conception and pregnancy.

This incomplete statue is of a female figure who appears to be pregnant. Maybe she is some sort of protective mother-goddess.

And there are numerous infant figures, so perhaps supplicants went to the temple to ask the gods for safe deliveries and to protect their babies from childhood diseases, the need for protection being more keenly felt during times of high infant mortality.

There are even animal figures. Perhaps these gods were thought to have the power to ensure healthy livestock and crops as well as protecting the human population.

During excavations in 1996-9, a further 66 ex-voto figures were discovered, as well as a deposit consisting of a pot and the skull of a ~40 year old man buried under the floor of the cela, the inner sanctum. This has been interpreted as a possible foundation deposit, drawing on ancient tribal customs even well into the Gallo-Roman period.

Also found in the cela were the seven gallic coins in the image above. The deposition of coins in sacred spaces  is not unusual. The copper-alloy votive objects (below), several of them phallic or otherwise relating to reproduction, sexual organs or child-rearing, were also found at the site.

Although the museum is home to archaeological collections and art collections, I’m afraid that I spent so much time in the basement looking at the temple archive that I hardly had time to do much else, but I would still encourage a visit to the museum at Senlis the next time you’re in the area. It’s an easy trip from Paris, although you do need to check the bus times to and from the nearest train station at Chantilly.

Link: www.persee.fr/doc/pica_1272-6117_2000_hos_18_1_2479 (in French)

Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city*

Much as I’d love to go to Nineveh, that great city, the security situation in Iraq at present does not allow it so I’ve had to make do with the wonderful exhibition at the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden in Leiden.

Rijksmuseum van Oudheden

In its heyday, of all the cities in the ancient Neo-Assyrian empire, Nineveh was the greatest and the most populous. It has had a lasting impact on western consciousness, particularly on account of Biblical references, especially relating to Jonah, and its semi-mythical status.

Etching of Jonah made by Dirck Volckertsz Coornhert between 1548 and 1552, Rijksmuseum.

Situated on the east bank of the Tigris River and encircled by the modern city of Mosul, Iraq. Nineveh was located at the intersection of importants trade routes crossing the Tigris on their way between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. It was the capital city of Assyria’s most powerful kings and the hub of the Neo-Assyrian Empire at its height.

The area of Nineveh has been settled since the late neolithic period, around 6,000BCE and there has been a city there since at least 3000BCE. During the Old Assyrian period (around 1800BCE), the city was known as an important centre for the worship of Ishtar, the ancient goddess of love, sex, beauty, fertility, war and power.

The expansion and embellishment of Nineveh as a royal city began in 705BCE on the accession of King Sennacherib, after the death on the battlefield of King Sargon II – ‘The Unfortunate’. This is when Nineveh turned from a primarily religious centre into a royal capital.

The walls of the palaces were clad in limestone panels with reliefs depicting kings and other important men, battle scenes, gory scenes of the execution of prisoners and, less gorily, daily life.

Much of what we know about the rulers and events in the history of Nineveh, the names of kings, information about great battles, building projects and religious life, comes from the contemporary texts, written on clay and stone in cuneiform. Many texts are yet to be deciphered, but the epigraphic habit of the Assyrian courts has yielded important information.

Clay cylinder describing the construction of the palace of Sennacherib, 704-681 BCE, Nineveh.

Mud brick from the ziggurat of Nimrud, inscribed with the name of King Shalmaneser III, 859-824BCE, Nimrud.

Even the limestone floor tiles from the palace of Ashurnasirpal II (9th c. BCE) were covered with text, here, an ode to the king.

The exhibition at the RVO has sections on different aspects of Nineveh; its wider historical and cultural context, biblical references, it rediscovery by western explorers (although it was long known about by Arab scholars), the construction and expansion of the city, trade, religion and daily life.

There is also an extensive section on Nineveh’s more recent history. When daesh invaded the city of Mosul in 2014, one of their stated aims was to destroy the ancient city. In early 2015, the group began posting films of artefacts, sculptures and even parts of the city wall begin destroyed. The two Iamasi below are similar to those featured in one particular destruction video posted by the terrorists.

Replicas of two Iamasi from Nimrud (the originals are in the British Museum).

This part of the exhibition examines the evidence for recent destruction and the response of the international community of archaeologists, heritage experts, scientists and digital imaging experts in their efforts to record and retain as much information about the city as possible, even in the face of its destruction.

Mosul and Nineveh

This has included the use of satellite imaging, 3d printing, digital photography, CGI and even the use of small drones, used to investigate, among other things, a series of underground tunnels dug by daesh fighters, which unwittingly uncovered new discoveries of antiquities.

I’ve posted a little film about this last initiative on youtube but don’t expect too much quality-wise. It was just me pointing my camera at the projection on the wall. It’s an interesting watch nevertheless.

 

The exhibition ‘Ninevah – Heart of an ancient empire‘  is on at the Rijksmusem van Oudheden in Leiden until 25th March 2018.

*Jonah 1:2