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

Advertisements

The road to Roadburn

Roadburn festival has been on my radar for a few years now but for one reason an another, I haven’t actually made it over there to join the festivities. 2018 was the year it finally happened so this is, in no particular order, my Roadburn.

A fairly early flight (via Eindhoven) meant that I was in Tilburg by lunchtime, checked into the hostel where I was staying and at the festival venue in no time. Strolling down ‘Weirdo Canyon’ I immediately spotted my pal Simon. In some contexts, Simon’s looks might make him stand out; bald head, great big bushy beard, extensive ink-age; but at Roadburn he rather blends in, so I was quite impressed that I managed to spot him so easily.

013

A cold drink and a catch up was followed by a stroll around to the main 013 venue  to see what was what and as the Het Patronaat venue opposite had no queue, we went in and managed to catch a bit of a Q&A session with members of the Norwegian collaborative project, Hugsjá.

They talked about the development of an extended work exploring the origins, people, nature and folklore of Norway, and it’s relationships with the land and the sea and I ended up the next day seeing some of this work performed.

It consisted of songs or ‘movements’ in an extended storytelling of the first people to populate the land that became Norway, the importance of the sea, the ancient shipping routes and the harbours. The performers used familiar instruments like drums, guitar and violin, but also animal horns and a lyre. This work was very absorbing and I was glad to have caught at least some of it, although the lure of other artists (more of which later) proved too strong for me to remain for the entire piece.

This year’s festival had an ‘east meets west’ theme with the Artists in Residence, Earthless, from San Diego, colliding with Japanese bands on the Guruguru Brain record label, and with Damo Suzuki. I was very keen to see the ‘Japanese Psych Experience’ bands; Minami Deutsch, Kikagaku Moyo and Dhidalah, and also the incomparable Damo,  so I made a particular point of getting to the venues where they were playing well in advance. I was very glad that I did because it meant that I was able to get great views of the performances and not be squashed into a corner or totally unable to get into the venue. The Green Room, in particular, is one of those venues that looks empty for ages and then, all of a sudden, you can’t get in the door. It looked like plenty of my fellow festival-goers were as keen as I was to see these bands so the venues were very full.

So, Minami Deutsch, a great favourite of mine. I’ve seen them a few times, the first time at Liverpool Psych Fest, but don’t tire of their rather louche krautrock rhythms. They’re a great demonstration of how good it can be when you play exactly the same musical motif over and over again for about 5-10 minutes straight. If the motif is good to start with, 10 minutes of it is awesome. Judging by the crowd’s reaction to this, I was not the only one who approved. And you can actually dance to them 😀

  

Kikagaku Moyo, who I’d only previously seen at PXYK, also channel some of the kraut-y grooves, but in, perhaps a less single minded fashion. They mix up the rhythms more often and have a strong Indian slant to their psych music, including a sitar, played guitar-style. Their upbeat set built to quite a party party big-finish. A lot of fun.

 

Dhidalah struck  me at first as a bit more prog. Now, my prog tolerance is pretty low so I was pretty glad that they didn’t drift off too far down the noodle path but pulled out a strong, driven  psych set, a bit darker and harder-edged than the other two bands and definitely got me onside. I’d like to see them again soon.

 

Damo Suzuki, famously an ex-member of Can, was the lure that tore me away from Hugsjá. Damo played two sets over the festival, the first in the Koepelhal with Earthless, and the sitar player from Kikagaku Moyo and the second in the Green Room with Minami Deutsch. Both of these sets pleased me greatly. With Earthless, the set began rather slowly, meandering and building, with Damo’s familiar  ‘Waken to the Night’ refrain, basically a long long extended psych work-out, gradually growing into an absolute bit of a beast. The long run out had me actually thinking that someone was going to have to come on stage with a big long comedy hook and drag the drummer off-stage physically. The audience loved it.

Damo‘s second audience, in the packed Green Room , was equally thrilled with his ultra-krautrock set with Minami Deutsch. I’d gone into the room and adopted the position on the balcony super-early in order to get a good spot because this was one of my absolute dream  pairings. I wasn’t disappointed. Again the set started out quite mellow, with a long lead in, but ended in krautrock wig-out heaven. Damo and the guys from Minami Deutsch seemed made to be together. My dying wish is for these two Damo sets to be released as ‘Live at Roadburn’ records so that I can own them forever.

There was more east meets west action later on with an actual ‘East Meets West’ psych jam featuring Earthless and Kikagaku Moyo. Beginning with just two players on stage, Earthless’ Isaiah Mitchell on guitar and Kikagaku Moyo’s Ryu Kurosawa, who were joined by other players, one by one, two by two until the stage was filled with musicians and the main hall at 013 was filled with the sounds of (what appeared to be) a semi-improvised jam involving guitars, basses, various kinds of drums, sitar, shaky-tappy-things and a gong! A big gong!

Who else? The Heads! There was me, down the front, bopping away to loud heavy psych whilst nudie sex films played in the background. Aye me! In any case, this largely instrumental set was good and heavy and a lot of fun, even if the background blow-jobs were a little distracting at times. Honestly, I didn’t know where to look!

 

I remarked afterwards that one of the things that I kinda like about The Heads is the way they get on, RRRRROOOOCCCCCKKKK!!!!! and get off. No messing. There was some proper happy-bopping during this set (Simon was up on the balcony and remarked that it was one of the sets that didn’t just involve the audience in ‘head nodding’ but in full on dancing).

With Godflesh I had a bit of a dilemma because of schedule clashes so I only saw a bit of the set. It sounded pretty typically Godflesh; loud, intense, crushing but also quite sparse. No frills. In fact the only frill on stage was Justin’s new (to me) long-ish hair!

My disappointment at missing most of their Roadburn set was offset by the fact that they’re playing at Raw Power next month, so I won’t be going without for long.

Godspeed you! Black Emperor played in the main room of 013 and I went in after The Heads had finished. This is a big room but it was packed to the gills, especially so after The Heads’ packed crowd piled in. I managed to find a spot high up on the top balcony where I could see and also, eventually, sit down on the step. From my eyrie I was able to allow Godspeed’s somewhat melancholic winds swirl around me. Dark music in a dark room to people dressed almost exclusively in black.

Dark.

I was only able to see a bit of Boris‘ set because of their proximity to The Heads, but I do enjoy their sense of theatre and the intensity of their performance. They use silence to put their audience on edge because we know what’s coming after. Noise.

So, there were some specific bands that I was very keen to see but in between those I was quite happy to meander into this venue or that and just see what I could see. It’s a fairly relaxed sort of a festival so it’s pretty easy to chill out in between bursts of frantic activity. One of the gigs I wandered into was Sólveig Matthildur.

Playing solo with electronic music and vocals, this felt like quite an intimate show; a lone performer, a small venue with a low stage and the personal revelations between songs – a song written as a piece of coursework, judged critically and given a low grade but nevertheless feeling special to the writer. I’d be happy to see more of this artist.

Thaw are Polish black metal. I’m not particularly a black metal fan but I don’t mind a bit here and there and I did quite enjoy this. All that darkness in the middle of a bright sunny afternoon. One of the songs was even a sort of black metal duet, with the different voices expressing different parts of the song. Lovely. Talking of black metal, I also caught a bit of מזמור :: MIZMOR which was fun.

 

More generally, I just really enjoyed the festival. The venues are very nice, although sometimes a bit difficult to get into if there’s a popular band playing. Strategic planning is the key if there’s a band you particularly want to see. The new venues a short distance from the main 013 site were good, and I really liked the little warehouse/railway-sidings area they were in.

It’s a bit of a mare to find accommodation and it’s not particularly cheap, you can basically wave your money goodbye, but it’s pretty easy to have a good time and Tilburg is  a nice town with decent shops and cafes, and a lovely ice cream shop. The Roadburn crowd is generally pretty chill so it’s not a stressy or aggressive festival and, although there is all day drinking, it doesn’t descend into the kind of  rollocking, drunken vomit-fest that we see with so many festivals.

So that’s pretty much my Roadburn. Not very doom-y, not very black metal-y and just two days this year before I went off looking for Roman stuff, but there are already plans afoot for next year, together with an expanded crew. There’s even talk of camping :/

Oh yeah, Roadburn socks 😀

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

Pompeii – the immortal city

I love Eurostar. I love being able to just hop on a train in town at St. Pancras and then, a couple of hours later, hop off the train somewhere with different currency. No boring schleps to and from airports, just a quick train ride. It’s so civilized.

I love the fact that if there’s something interesting happening in, say, Brussels, actually going over there is no more of a kerfuffle than going to Leeds or Bristol. So what interesting things are happening at the moment? Well, in Brussels, at the Brussels Stock Exchange, is the exhibition Pompeii, the immortal city.

Any exhibition about Pompeii comes with the possibility of a certain amount of baggage. It’s a big blockbuster story of a city frozen in time by a natural disaster, and just invites cliches. This exhibition walked what could be a fine line, as it utilized quite a lot of blockbuster effects but, overall, I think that it told a good story and it certainly had a lot of interesting things to have a look at.

The exhibition starts with a story. The story of an ordinary Pompeian family. Of Caius, the only one of that family who survived. Once we’d met the characters, we went into a rotunda for our ‘immersive experience’. Signs made it clear that this was an artistic reimagining and not a scientifically correct rendition of events in AD 79. There’s a lot of lava.

I can’t always be bothered with these sorts of ‘experiences’, especially if they’re used a a cover for ‘not much actual material’ but this was good  and I stayed to watch it a couple of times.

 

 

I needn’t have worried that there wouldn’t be anything substantial to back up the pyrotechnics, as there was plenty. I’m just adding a couple of favourites here.

One feature of Pompeian archaeology that is always impressive is the range and quality of painted wall plaster that has survived. The images produced are often mythological or idealised but there are also realistic depictions of scenes of daily life and the ordinary objects that Pompeians had and used on a daily basis. At Pompeii, because there is so much well-preserved material, we have the opportunity to compare the pictures with the real things. A favourite is the loaf of bread, carbonized by the heat from the eruption.

The bread was formed into circular loaves and pre-scored into portions before baking. Often, the loaves were stamped with the name of the producer. Pompeian advertising. Images of this kind of bread can been seen in frescos depicting  feasts and sumptuous table settings, and showing shops with the bakers doling out loaves from tall stacks.

Another, rather unusual object on display was this large, squat pot, found at Herculaneum. It has holes in it, so isn’t made to contain a liquid.

Inside there are ledges running all around the pot at different heights.

This is a glirarium. When I work at outreach events, I sometimes ask visitors “what did Romans eat?” If there are children around, they will inevitably answer “dormice”.

During the Roman period, edible dormice (Glis glis) were a delicacy, but only for the well off. The wild dormice were caught in the autumn and kept in these pots to be fattened up on walnuts, chestnuts, and acorns, and then turned into a savoury treat for the well to do. Recipes by Apicius include dormouse stuffed with pork and seasoned with pepper, nuts and laser and then roasted in the oven or boiled in broth. For a savoury/sweet twist, the dormouse was dipped in honey and sprinkled with poppy seeds.

Yum*.

Alongside the artefacts from Pompeii, on loan from various Italian museums, there are reconstructions and working models, showing how things looked and how things worked. I actually quite liked these as they were firmly in the ‘How Stuff Works’ camp. Just as an example, here the ‘odometer’, used for measuring distances like the mileage clock on a car.

The ratchet is attached to the wheels of a cart and for every Roman mile travelled, a little stone drops into the box. In an expanding empire (in both the Republican and Imperial periods), being able to measure distances was really important for travel and trade, and for moving armies and their supplies. Milestones marked the distances between places. Odometers measured those distances.

 

 

There was also this reconstruction of a screw-press for producing olive oil.

I was slightly confused by this reconstruction. It didn’t seem to say that this was a scale model, but it looks extremely small for an olive oil press. The stone pressing bed is only about 50cm square.

If it was this size, it’d only be able to manage relatively small quantities of olives for pressing at any one time. Maybe it’s for domestic use? I’m not sure either, if a stone like the one here has been found at Pompeii or if this was just intended to be an illustration of a screw-press in a more general way, as there is olive oil production associated with the Pompeii hinterland.

Moving on…

With Pompeii exhibitions, the people themselves are often the star attractions. Casts of the imprints left by the people who died and were entombed in volcanic ash are a poignant reminder of the human cost of natural disasters. This exhibition has two of the casts.

I liked the way that they were displayed, inside their own circular room with the the falling ash provided by av. It was quite atmospheric. It was possible to get quite close-up and  see details of the casts; the lady’s ‘Livia’ hairstyle and the fact that she wore a shawl.

One of the other famed, but less often seen victims of the Vesuvian eruption was Pliny the Elder. The eyewitness account written by his nephew Pliny the Younger in a letter to Tacitus, describes the lead-up to the eruption, the events on the day of the main onslaught, the desperate rescue efforts and the report of the death of his uncle.

In the early 20th century, an engineer by the name of Gennaro Matrone began excavating in the area around Stabiae. Among the ~70 skeletons that he excavated, was one which was found wearing a gold chain around the neck, bracelets and a short sword. Matrone’s interpretation of this find was that these must be the remains of Pliny the Elder. Archaeologists at the time rejected this identification on the grounds that a Roman commander would not be wearing  such jewellery.

More recently, researchers have agreed that the description of the jewellery found with the skeleton does seem to be compatible with decorations worn by military commanders of the 1st century. Further, the skull is that of a man in his mid-fifties, the age at which Pliny died.

Sadly Matrone sold the jewellery and reburied the skeleton, keeping only the skull and the remains of the short sword, so the identification of these remains as Pliny the Elder is still uncertain. But tests have been ongoing, so it’s not impossible.

 

I enjoyed this exhibition and thought that it was a good mix of crowd-pleasing special effects and satisfyingly interesting archaeological artefacts. The exhibition makes extensive use of av devices. Visitors are issued with a headset on arrival and can follow the narrative of the Pompeian family, which links many of the objects. I had a bit of trouble with the headset, which kept cutting out, so I didn’t get to hear all the bits of linking storyline, but I’m not sure that I really needed it. I was happy to just have a look at the displays and there was some written information available too.

The exhibition Pompeii, the Immortal City is on at the Brussels Stock Exchange until 15th  April 2018.

*I’ve never actually eaten a dormouse so I have no idea what one tastes like. Also, I’m vegetarian, so the chances of me ever finding out what a dormouse tastes like are slim to none.

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?

 

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