Rome with a Vieux

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are some very nice fragments of painted wall plaster.

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

  

and other fragmentary pieces, some statuary, some sculptural.

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

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

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

So, here are a few favourite objects on display…

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

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

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

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

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

Roman knives with carved bone handles.

And I particularly liked this:

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

  

 

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

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

More info here:

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

Perseus Tufts – vieux la romanie

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

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Le Plan de Rome

It’s Rome, but petite.

In a dimly-lit room in the University of Caen is an expression of one man’s obsession. Le Plan de Rome, built by the French Architect Paul Bigot.

The Plan de Rome is model, an 11x6m three-dimensional terrain-map of the city of Rome in the 4th century, the time of the Emperor Constantine. Made from painted plaster, the model is, in fact, made up of 104 individual models at 1/400 scale.

Bigot began his model in the early 20th century, as a 3D plan of the Circus Maximums and then, in order to provide scale for his initial model, he began modelling the surrounding urban area, eventually building a model of about 3/5ths of the city.

The Caen model was shown at the Universal Exhibition of 1937 and was subsequently used for teaching and for public talks, but it gradually suffered due to neglect. Interest in the model was revived during the 1980s and it was conserved and redisplayed at the Université de Caen Normandie in the 1990s.

My visit to Caen coincided with the Student’s Carnival, so scenes of mayhem, carnage and passed-out-drunk-in-the-street Pikachus were the order of the day, but I was able to slip into Building F of Campus 1 to take a look at the Plan. Although it is possible to see it from the ground floor, the best view is from the first floor landing.

During his life, Bigot actually built four versions of the Plan but only two survive. Of the other two models, one previously located in the Sorbonne in Paris was damaged during the second world war and subsequently destroyed during the student riots of May 1968. The other model, made for a 1913 exhibition in Philadelphia has disappeared. The other surviving model is in the Cinquantenaire Museum in Brussels. It has a little more colour that the Caen model.

A more recent development has been the development, by the University, of a virtual model of the Plan, allowing visitors to experience a 3d fly thought of the streets of the 4th century city.

Site models can sometimes seem a bit cheesy and old-fashioned, especially when pitted against modern virtual reality, but I actually like a good model. The Plan de Rome gives a fly-over view of the ancient city and we can get a sense of the narrow, crowded streets filled with buildings; and the juxtapositions of the mundane side-by-side with the monumental. I wasn’t able to see that when I was there, as it’s only on certain days, but there are bits of it online here and there and it looks good. An opportunity to move from the bird’s eye down to street level.

The Plan is available to view from the upper corridor whenever the building is open (I guess) but it’d be worth looking out for a ‘tour’ and virtual fly-through if you happen to be in Caen. Details and dates are on the website.

http://www.unicaen.fr/cireve/rome/index.php

https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plan_de_Rome#Les_quatre_versions_du_Plan_de_Rome

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.

.

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)