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

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The great aqueduct of Paris

With that blog title I might be overegging this a bit, so let’s just call it ‘the once fairly big aqueduct of Paris’ instead.

Paris’ Roman remains are a bit hit and miss. Of ‘hits’, there’s the fabulous bathhouse at Cluny, there’s the amphitheatre, and there are the archaeological remains in the Crypte archéologique on the l’île de la Cité. Of misses, there are many; the city walls now seem to consist of a little chunk in a carpark stairwell and the odd bump in the road and, other than in the aforementioned Crypt, there are no houses to be seen, nothing that looks military, and there’s precious little left, structurally, to do with the trade coming into the city. And then there’s the aqueduct.

Any self respecting Roman town had to have an aqueduct, of some sort, to bring the water for all the public baths and drinking fountains, meeting the needs of the Roman ‘metropolitan elite’. So where is the aqueduct of the Parisii?

Well, Lutetia Parisiorum did indeed have an aqueduct. One which covered the 26 or so kms from Wissous (near Paris Orly Airport) to Paris. Built in the 1st c, CE, this aqueduct had a capacity of about 2.000 m3/day, water which fed public fountains, some private houses and, of course, the grand baths at Cluny. Rediscovered in 1903 by Eugène Belgrand and excavated by Louis Tesson, the collecting basin into which the sources fed was uncovered and then covered up again so it isn’t possible to see that. But, on its was to Paris, the aqueduct crossed the La Bièvre river by means of a bridge, a few scraps of which remain.

Near Arcueil-Cachan station on RER line B…

No, not the big obvious structure, cutting its way through the valley. That’s part of the two later aqueducts that run along the same route as the Roman one. Here we can just see the 1860 Arcueil/Bertrand Aqueduct which sits on top of the lower piers of the 1620 ‘Medicis’ aqueduct. No, I was looking for these scant remains.

Can you see them? Yes? No?

How’s this?

And here’s another little bit sticking up over the top of the buildings that were built up against the later aqueducts.

It’s not much, and a bit squashed in between all the later construction, but there it is, the aqueduct of Lutetia.

A couple of miles further north in the ZAC Alésia-Montsouris area off the Avenue de la Sibelle, another stretch of the aqueduct was uncovered  in the year 2000 during building works and, after some ‘debate’, the decision was taken to preserve a few vestiges of it in the new public garden and playground and in the basements of some new flats. There isn’t a huge amount to see, just a few bits and bobs dotted around, but it became a bit of a challenge to try and find as many bits as I could. So here they are:

There’s even this, frankly rather random chunk stuck in a wall niche alongside the park.

So there you are. They’re not obvious and they’re certainly not pretty and finding them involves tramping round some fairly unremarkable blocks of flats. But I went looking for an aqueduct and found three. However, without the bloggy assistance of www.romanaqueducts.info, I’m certain that I wouldn’t have found any of them at all.

 

 

 

From the ashes

I’m certainly not the first to post a ‘first look’ review of the newest museum space in London, and I’m pretty sure that I won’t be the last, but here I go. Just a quick look.

By now I’m sure you’re all familiar with the story of London’s Temple of Mithras. Discovered during the clearance for redevelopment of a bombed out site near Cannon Street (1952-4). Saved for the nation (sort of) due to intense public interest. Relocated to the wholly inappropriate site on the concourse of Temple Court, Queen Victoria Street. And there it sat for 50 years do so until…

Now, finally, returned and restored to (more or less) its original site following the re-redevelopment of the site by Bloomberg for its new European headquarters. So, after much waiting and with high expectations, I was finally there.

Oooooh, it’s good. It is. It’s good. I mean, it’s Bloomberg, who have all the money in the world, so it’s a bit ‘corporate sleek and shiny’ but that’s ok. It’s nicely done. Understated rather than flashy. On entering, visitors’ first encounter is with the modern as the entrance hall, Bloomberg Space, holds (at the moment) a tapestry and sculpture by Isabel Nolan but we’re soon into the Roman, which is what we’re all here for, with a wall of finds from the 2011-14 excavations.

This collection is just a tiny proportion of the ~14,000 artefacts excavated from the site and includes a representative sample of everyday objects, as well as a few star finds.

This is the sort of display that could be a bit frustrating as the floor-to-ceiling format means that many of the objects are way above eye level. But, never fear, visitors are provided with ipads giving close-up views and information about the objects on display. This can also be accessed on your phone, which is handy.

From there, visitors begin to descend down to the earlier street levels, with a timeline running down the stairs for orientation. You can see how far back in time you are travelling, the lower down you go.

At the next level down we’re starting to get into the mithraic mindset. Three interactive stations give information about mithraism, about the cult in the Roman world, its iconography and possible meanings and about the London Mithraeum specifically.

I was particularly interested in the info on the London Mithraeum. This is also, basically, a waiting area as the visit to remains of the mithraeum itself includes an av presentation which gives visitors an impression of the atmosphere and sounds of the mithraeum in use. This runs about every 20 mins and then there’s time to stay and have a proper look at the remains too.

And here it is, finally, the London Mithraeum.

The presentation is, again, quite understated. Nothing too flashy. Even the av atmospherics aren’t over the top. They just give an impression of what a mithraeum would have been like, subtly filling in the spaces where the walls and columns would have been and bringing just enough life into the space. Looking at the remains themselves, this reconstruction is much more sympathetic than the 1960s one. Nuclear cement bonding…gone. Crazy crazy-paving…gone. Instead we have, as far as possible, the original remains, including the timber risers for the steps, the well and (look closely by the entrance) the door pivots.

So, all in all, this new museum space is a bit of a triumph. I could probably have done without Joanna Lumley’s breathy delivery on the voice-over, and I’d like to see some more detailed info about the recent MOLA excavations and the actual process of reconstructing the remains. Maybe just the addition of the MOLA publications for reference or printed copies of the  excellent (and free!) downloadable booklet. But these are minor points and personal preferences.

The London Mithraeum is free to visit but you do need to book a slot. Get booking because it’s proving popular. You get a free booklet when you visit and the use of the aforementioned ipads for info onsite.

Written in stone

Fifteen or so miles west of Mannheim is the town of Bad Durkheim. It’s an attractive spa town; a bit sleepy I think. Getting there from Mannheim is pretty easy, although slightly complicated by works on the S-Bahn line. And this is what I was there for.

Up on the hill above the town, in a clearing in the woods is the old Roman quarry known as Kriemhildenstuhl. I’ve been to Roman quarries before but if I ever say to someone that I’m going on holiday to visit a quarry, I tend to get a slightly blank look and a hesitant enquiry about what on earth there is to see in a quarry. A quarry is, after all, just a big hole on the ground. It’s what we see after people have taken away all the stuff that they want. It’s the gap that’s left.
But wait! There’s a lot more going on here than just a big empty hole in the ground. Let’s have a closer look.

The first thing that’s really clear to see is the way that the stone was being cut.

Big squarish blocks cut out of the rock face, which were then taken out to be cut up into usable-sized blocks, or cut down into columns away from the main quarry face. We can also see the marks left by the cutting tools. These are really clear, all over the exposed surface of the rock.

Now, there’s plenty of evidence around the Empire for Roman soldiers getting a bit bored and scribbling on things, and Kriemhildenstuhl has oodles of it. Some of the inscriptions are indicated on the cliffs, others not, but there’s a very handy guide at the site to help with spotting them.

There are squiggles and doodles all over the place.

The unit working the quarry was Legio XXII Primigenia, “Fortune’s Twenty-Second Legion”, who were stationed at Mainz, Moguntiacum, around 200CE.  We can tell this because they left their mark all over the quarry faces.

The Legion’s insignia were the Capricorn (half goat, half fish) and the demi-god Hercules. So here’s Capricorn…

And here are some fellows who may or may not be Hercules…

Keeping with the military theme, these shapes could be representing stylised military standards.

Soldiers from the 22nd seem to have had a fondness for horses, as there is plenty of graffiti of a horsey nature etched into the rock.

There are also birds and other animals.

Some pics require a little ‘eye of faith’. Is this something?

A number of the soldiers have etched inscriptions into the rock; names, regiment, “I woz ‘ere”, that sort of thing.

Kriemhildenstuhl is just one feature in these hills and there seemed to be walking trails going in all directions, including up to a ridge immediately above the quarry. The view of the quarry from above was great.

This upper ridge provided a nice spot to chill out, have a drink and relax before setting off down the hill and back to Mannheim. The local authority had kindly provided the most chilled out park bench ever for just this purpose.

Horse guards parade.

The Hadrian’s Cavalry exhibition currently on display at ten sites across the northern frontier lured me up north for a short visit. As I didn’t have the time to get to all of the exhibition sites, I prioritized the expos in Newcastle and Carlisle at the Great North Museum: Hancock, at Arbeia Roman Fort & Museum, at Segedunum and at Tullie House Museum & Art Gallery.

I’ve previously written about the extreme coolness of Roman cavalry parade helmets, so this is a little bit of an extension of that, as well as just a general Roman cavalry parade helmet love-in.

First up, Arbeia.

Arbeia Roman Fort, situated at a strategic point on the River Tyne was founded in about 120CE and was occupied right up until the end of the Roman period in Britain. Throughout this long life-span, the fort served as a base for (among others) auxiliary units of cavalry from Spain,  the First Asturian, and boatmen from Mesopotamia. It was converted into a supply station in the Severan period, handling the import of commodities destined for troops in the military zone.

At Arbeia Roman Fort, the Hadrian’s Cavalry exhibition, ‘Uncovering cavalry‘ is more about highlighting objects in the existing collection with just a couple of additions of objects on loan. This iron cavalry helmet from Limesmuseum Aalen is known as an ‘Alexander’ type due to its resemblance to portraits of Alexander the Great from around the same period, CE150-250.

Many surviving cavalry helmets are made from copper-alloy, sometimes coated in silver, but far fewer iron helmets have been found as they are more prone to corrosion. This helmet was found in a scrap metal dump near the workshops of Aalen cavalry fort.

A quick hop over the Tyne on the ferry took me to Segedunum. The larger exhibition there, ‘Rome’s elite troops – building Hadrian’s cavalry’, looks at the make up of the cavalry units and some of the manoeuvres used by cavalry units in battle.

Segedunum Roman Fort was built in about 127CE, when Hadrian’s Wall, originally starting at Pons Aelius (Newcastle upon Tyne) in 122AD, was subsequently extended by four miles to the east, to Wallsend. The fort was home to mixed cavalry-infantry units including the Second Cohort of Nervians in the 2nd century and, in the 3rd and 4th centuries the Fourth Cohort of the Lingones.

Alongside objects from Segedunum’s own collection are several helmets and helmet cheek-pieces on loan. One unusual helmet from Musée d’Art Classique de Mougins is this double-eagle crested helmet, a type worn by members of the Imperial Horse Guard in the third century.

  

Also in the exhibition is this silvered shield boss on loan from a private collection in the UK. The boss shows significant damage, probably sustained in battle during the Dacian Wars.

The boss is decorated with incised images of mythological subjects; Mars, Medusa, Jupiter, Apollo and Hercules. The outer part is decorated with images related to battle; shields, winged Victories, armour and a helmet.

There are two inscriptions on the boss; at the top, a statement of the ownership of the shield by Marcus Ulpius, a member of the Imperial Horse Guard in the time of the Emperor Trajan, and at the bottom, a record of the donation of the shield boss as an offering by Flavius Volussinus in memory of Marcus Ulpius.

Back in town, I went off to Newcastle’s Great North Museum: Hancock to see two helmets of a particular type. The display there, ‘Hadrian’s Cavalry: Shock and awe – the power of the Roman cavalryman’s mask’ shows the Ribchester Helmet (on loan from The British Museum) together with a second helmet of the same type (on loan from a private collection).

 

The Ribchester Helmet was found in Lancashire in 1796, as part of the Ribchester Hoard. It’s a bronze ceremonial helmet with a distinctive peak. The second helmet has been dated to roughly the same period as the Ribchester Helmet; 70-110CE/75-125CE.

Also at the GNM is Mithras.

The museum is home to a brilliant collection of Mithraic images and objects collected from sites along and around Hadrian’s Wall. Alongside more familiar mithraic imagery of the Tauroctony and the companions of Mithras, Cautes and Cautopates, this collection also includes this amazing carved stone sculpture of the birth of Mithras, with the god emerging from the Cosmic Egg.

Added to this, until 27th August, are three objects on loan from the collection at the Museum of London. The three marble busts were found buried under the floor level of the Mithraeum at Bucklesbury. They are a marble head of Minerva, the head of Serapis and the head of Mithras himself.

This is such a great idea. Bringing together the two best Mithras collections in the country. It’s also a good opportunity to have a bit of  look at Mithraeism in two different environments; the Mithraeums up on Hadrian’s Wall were in a military zone and associated with forts; e.g. Housesteads/Vercovicium and Carrawburgh/Brocolitia, while the London mithraeum was in civilian, urban area. The accompanying film also looks at the discovery of the London mithraeum in the 1950s.

A swift trundle west to Carlisle brought me to Tullie House Museum for the Guardians on the edge of empire – cavalry bases and Roman power exhibition, and more helmets. This is the largest of the exhibitions that I visited and there were some fantastic objects on display.

The fort at Carlisle, Stanwix/Uxelodunum, is thought to have housed cavalry troops, most the Ala Petriana. Home to a thousand mounted troops and their horses and support staff. This unit’s exceptional service earned them Roman citizenship while still serving. This is the unit in which Flavinus the signifer whose memorial now stands in Hexham Abbey, served, albeit at an earlier date.

The exhibition focuses, again, on the role and organization of the cavalry on the frontier and has an impressive range of helmets, face masks and other armoury pieces on display.

There are some pretty showy pieces, including this 2nd-3rdc. CE ‘Ostrov’ type helmet from Musée d’Art Classique de Mougins.

The helmet is a shape similar of one found in a burial at Ostrov, Romania and has a distinctive Phrygian cap shape on the upper part, topped with the head of a griffin and covered in scales.

The Gallery Attendant on duty when I visited was also very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the exhibition, and I had several conversations with her while I was looking round. She was particularly interested in this 3rdc. CE Amazon face mask (from Archäologische Staatssammlung München) and wondered about its origins and possible influences on the styling.

 

It really has a strong eastern look, reflecting the exoticism of the Amazon warriors. But comparing  it with the second Amazon face mask in the exhibition (mid-2nd – mid-3rdc. CE, from Archäologisches Landesmuseum Baden-Württemberg) just shows up how exotic this one really looks.

This 1stc. CE ‘kalkreise’ type face mask (below), on loan from a private collection, is interesting as it has markings on the cheeks. As Imperial cavalry forces were usually auxiliary, i.e.non-citizen, units raised in provinces incorporated into the empire, these could have been indicative of tribal tattoos.

It’s really interesting to see the number of helmets and masks, and other pieces of armour, on display that are from private collections. This makes these displays even more worth seeing while they’re on, as there’s no telling whether they’ll be displayed in public again.

So there you are. A little peek at a few of the Hadrian’s Cavalry exhibitions. It would have been nice to have been able to do all ten as a road trip but I only had time for a flying visit. And I should also just point out that these exhibitions are in addition to the already excellent Roman collections at the museums and sites in question. Of course, on the back of seeing these exhibitions and displays, I’m now going to have to get down to Mougins to visit the museum there, and it has encouraged me to add more of Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Belgium to the (never-ending) list.

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The Hadrian’s Cavalry exhibition continues until 10th September at ten sites along Hadrian’s Wall and down the western coast as far as Maryport.

Where all roads meet

Well, maybe not ‘all’ but 7, in any case.

From the area map at the bus stop.

This is Bavay, in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of northern France, close to the France-Belgium border. A sleepy little village that isn’t really on the way to or from anywhere. But 2000 years ago, Bavay was on the way to loads of places.

Bavay, or Bagacum in the 1st century CE, was the tribal capital or civitas of the powerful Nervii tribe.  Seven major routes passed through Bagacum so it grew into an important site for trading, administration, law courts and the military. Its situation on the road from Boulogne (Roman Gesoriacum) to Cologne (Roman Colonia  Agrippinensis) made it a key stopping off point between the Roman provinces of Germania and Britannia.

The site was known about in the eighteenth century as chance finds and unofficial digs turned up many Roman objects, but the site was really uncovered due to heavy bombing during WW2. The post-war excavations revealed a huge Gallo-Roman forum basilica, the largest outside Italy, measuring 200m by 120m.

In the Claudian period, the town flourished and grew rapidly, with the construction of civic buildings like the forum, the basilica, public bathhouses fed by aqueducts and temples being built and beautified. The town was an important centre for the production of pottery goods and traded in, in particular, bronze-working, and was a key staging post during the conquest of Britain.

I’d been wanting to get to Bavay for a little while and had pondered making my way over there when I was staying in Belgium last year, but it’s a faff to get to on public transport and a lot of routes take absolutely hours to get there. It’s not a natural stopping off point on the way to or from anywhere in particular so this time I decided that I’d just make it the be all and end all of a visit. The easiest route was London > Lille, Lille > Valenciennes, Valenciennes > Bavay, so, timetables checked, I was off.

By the time I got to Bavay it was pouring with rain, and I’d left my umbrella in London. Oh well. There’s a museum to visit at the site, so I started there, hoping that the rain would ease off a bit.

(cue museum break)

By the time I left the museum not only had it stopped raining, but it was scorching hot; cracking flags! My stroll around the site was, therefore, a slow and lazy one. A lot of the better preserved sections seem to have been buried in the building of the later ramparts, hence the excellent state of preservation.

At one end of the site there are the remains of a cryptoporticus; a covered storage area below ground level.

Much of the site has been turfed over but here and there, there are still little patches of the Roman paving. There’s even the odd wheel-rut.

The fortunes and function of the city began to changes in the third-century, when it served as a post for regional defence, and around the turn of the fourth century, the ramparts and city walls were constructed.

Getting to Bavay without a car was a bit of a schlep but it was worth it, as it’s a really interesting site with a great museum. As I had to pass through Valenciennes and Lille to get there, I made a point of visiting a few other places on the way, including the Musee des Beaux Art, Valenciennes and Lille Cathedral, so all in all this made for a great little trip.