Visiting Glasgow is always a pleasure for me. The rough-and-tumble of the city feels familiar and comfortable, and I have a long-ish history with it, largely through its music. But as well as the art galleries, architecture, music and foodie scenes, I’ve become very interested in Glasgow’s archaeology, and its industrial and maritime history. With this in mind, on a recent quick visit I boarded the (free!) ferry outside the Riverside Museum and headed over to Govan.
Govan may not be at the top of the list for many visitors to Glasgow, but it really should be on there somewhere, not least to see the amazing 10th/11th century Govan Stones at Govan Old Church. However, alongside these ancient monuments, there is also evidence of Govan’s more recent, industrial, history to be seen: Govan Graving Docks.
The docks are situated on the south side of the Clyde, just west of the Science Centre. A ‘graving dock’ is another name for a traditional type of dry-dock where the repair and maintenance of ships is undertaken. The ship is floated into the dock basin and then water-gates (or caissons) are closed behind it and the water is then pumped out of the basin, leaving the ship resting on blocks. These docks were constructed by the Clyde Navigation Trust in the late-nineteenth century, opening in stages between 1875 and 1898, and were used for the maintenance and refits of Clyde Steamers and other large vessels up until their closure in 1987.
I wasn’t sure how accessible the site would be but the gate was open, so I made my way in to the dock area where there are three large basins, a couple of derelict buildings and other bits and bobs of dock equipment.
The docks are a Category A listed monument but also on the Buildings at Risk Register for Scotland. In Glasgow, as in other industrial and maritime cities, many ex-industrial sites and structures have long since been sold off to developers and now command top price as luxury apartments and high-end shopping and dining areas, so the graving docks are special; a rare survival of Glasgow’s industrial and mercantile past (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-glasgow-west-45331246).
Some of the fragments of equipment look like winch or crane bases, haulage wheels and some lengths of track. Around the basins there are stone-cut steps allowing access to the working space around the undersides of the ships’ hulls.
This basin still has its depth-markers.
The water-gates are a bit battered but still basically intact.
After some time of wandering around and generally peering at stuff, I made my way back to the gate, only to find that it was now shut! Fearing that I would have to attempt to climb the fence (an unseemly activity for a woman of my advanced years), I tried the bolt and, to my relief, it wasn’t locked*. I did get a few funny looks from the mechanics working in the garages along by the docks but I bet I’m not the first random dock-fan that they’ve seen.
For lots of lovely information about Govan Docks, have a look at the excellent Hidden Glasgow website, where you can see photos of the docks in use. Other references are also below.
* Sam Wineburg
** Don’t worry, I made sure that the gate was shut behind me.
I was having a little look at some of my travel photos recently, ones that I haven’t posted online before and I realized that I am strangely fascinated with what I can see out of the plane window. This is slightly weird because, truth be told, flying actually freaks me out a bit, but I’ve found that focusing on the view of sites and landscapes on the ground, distracts my mind, stopping me thinking about crashing down to my death in a ball of red-hot flames.
Anyway, here are a few views from the cheap (economy) seats.
Flying over Lebanon, out of Damascus airport, I loved the ripples and curves made by the ranges of hills and mountains in the Bekaa Valley.
In Algeria, flying is pretty well a necessity. The country is enormous and the country’s history has left it with a legacy of, frankly, unsafe areas. There are still a few places where kidnapping is a very real possibility, making driving dangerous.
The distance from the Ghardaia region back up to Algiers is over 600km so travelling by road is a bit of a schlep. The flight is an hour and the views are spectacular. The landscape starts as golden desert, peppered with towns north of Ghardaia.
As you get further north, the landscape turns to lush green with lakes and reservoirs.
Flight from Ghardaia to Algiers, Barrage Bouroumi, Mahaizia
Flying into Tripoli, on the coastal plain were miles of neatly planted olive groves.
The olive trees look very sparsely planted but this is the only way get a good yield of fruit, as the tree roots need space around then.
Flying out of Keflavik Airport, Iceland, I flew directly over one of the places where I’d spent much of my time on my first visit.
This is Ásbrú, a former NATO base where the festival ‘ATP Iceland’ was held in 2015. It’s all brightly coloured, crinkly-tin shed, like many of the buildings in Iceland. Simple, functional and not especially decorative.I enjoyed the festival, and I enjoyed Iceland too.
And here’s, not the Blue Lagoon spa, but a similar hot water pool.
The heated water is the outflow from the Reykjanes Power Plant nearby.
Flying down to Marseille, I spotted a very exciting looking quarry.
Flying into Frankfurt means flying over the extensive forests that surround it. I was struck by the appearance of the motorways immediately adjacent to the airport.
This is where the Bundesautobahn 5 meets Bundesstraße 43 and the Bundesautobahn 3. Not quite Spaghetti Junction, but a striking intersection nonetheless.
Living, as I do, in Olde London Towne, I generally fly in and out of London airports, mainly Stansted (because it’s the right side of town for me), Heathrow (because it’s on the tube) and City, (because it’s actually IN London, as opposed to being somewhere in a field in a neighbouring county).
This means that sometimes I get to fly up the Thames. This is absolutely my favourite, even though the approach to City is slightly terrifying. The first time that I was actually aware of this, and actually thought about it properly, was when I was flying back from Damascus. I happened to glance out of the window and thought, “that’s Southend Pier!”. And it was.
Since then, every chance I get, I try to spot cool ‘something-on-Thames’ things.
Here is one of the wind farms in the Thames Estuary
and nearby, the Maunsell Forts at Shivering Sands.
This is not the greatest photo because we were in a raging storm at the time, but this is a cluster of six, originally seven, ‘army’ style WW2 anti-aircraft gun emplacements, situated in the Thames Estuary. The seven individual platforms were originally connected by walkways and were arranged as a cluster of six, housing guns and the seventh housing the searchlight.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have been able to get a bit closer to the forts as The Waverley does a couple of trips each autumn.
Further into town, we fly over some very familiar sights. The Thames Barrier
Canary Wharf, the Isle of Dogs, Greenwich and the O2
Just a super-speedy flying visit, but it was nice to be there all the same. But the trouble with super-speedy flying visits is that, no matter how nice they are, they always leave you wanting more. There’s just not enough time to do everything. I mean, I need to get to Musee Cluny to see the new entrance and walkways around the thermes, and for the winter expo, Naissance De La Sculpture Gothique. There’s also an exhibition at Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine, Le Crac des Chevaliers. Chroniques d’un rêve de pierre, examining the architectural and political significance of the Syrian crusader castle, Crac des Chevaliers. But, in the end, the short time that I had just had to be spent at the brilliant Institut du Monde Arabe for the exhibition Age-old cities: Virtual trip from Palmyra to Mosul.
The exhibition takes in four ancient and modern cities affected by recent and ongoing conflict, and presents aspects of them as they are, as they were and as they may be in the future. This is not an exhibition of artefacts but of images. Using photographs, films and photogrammetric survey footage, taken using drones (carried out by UNESCO), we get a view of the cities as they are today. The use of drones, in particular, reveals the significant damage, destruction even, of whole swathes of the urban environment, with deserted, bombed-out buildings apparently teetering on the brink of collapse and the still-inhabited areas thick with dust and debris. As I’ve been to three of the places featured in the exhibition, I’ve added in a few photos of mine, taken on my visits. Some of the other photos,which were taken in the exhibition, are a bit blurry, as they’re of moving images.
The exhibition opens with Mosul, a city which I have never visited. On entering the first main exhibition space, I walked into a large-scale panoramic projection of a fly-over of the city as it is now. Now, I’ve seen plenty of drone footage of areas affected by the ongoing conflict but, particularly on a such a large scale, these images of destruction are truly shocking.
Sitting on the west bank of the Tigris, opposite the Assyrian city of Ninevah, and around 400km north of Baghdad, Mosul has existed as a settlement, at this location or hereabouts, for at least 2500 years (Ninevah is far older). Capture by daesh on 10th June 2014 and only retaken by Iraqi forces, after heavy bombardment, on 21st July 2017, Mosul and Mosulis have suffered terribly as a result of the conflict in Iraq, with women and religious minorities particularly badly affected. The city had been known as relatively diverse, with the Iraqi Sunni Muslim majority sharing the city with Assyrians, Kurds, Turkmens, Shabaks, Yazidis, Armenians and Mandeans. Although many of the city’s Jews left for Israel in the 1950s, there was still a significant Christian population until the arrival of daesh in 2014.
One of the specific structures zoomed in on was the al-Nuri Mosque. Famous for its leaning minaret (possibly due to the effects of thermal expansion caused by the sun’s heat), the mosque was the focus of pilgrimage and veneration for 850 years. It was the site at which the daesh leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, self-declared the (so-called) “caliphate” and the daesh flag was flown from the minaret. The mosque was destroyed during the Battle of Mosul in 2017, although there is some disagreement over whether it was destroyed by daesh or by the forces liberating the city.
Still from drone footage of the al-Nuri Mosque, Mosul.
There is really very little left of the mosque, just the ruin of the domed central hall and the stump of the famous minaret. All the rest is rubble.
As part of the film, we witnessed the digital ‘reconstruction’ of the site. These images are built up using recent photographs from all angles, often people’s holiday snaps (I actually sent some photos of a site in Syria for exactly this purpose), which are digitally stitched together to create a 3d image.
Still from drone footage of the digital reconstruction of the al-Nuri Mosque, Mosul.
Aleppo Citadel. Photo taken 5th November 2009.
Moving on to Aleppo, again drone footage lays bare the scale of destruction. We tak a fly-over, and through, the ancient souks, part of the ‘Ancient City of Aleppo’ World Heritage Site, now severely damaged,
…and up the ramp to the Citadel.
This really brought back memories of my time there, when it looked very different.
Aleppo Citadel. Photo taken on 5th November 2009.
The walls of the Citadel have clearly sustained damage, and it looked like parts of the interior space had too, although I found it a bit difficult to orient myself in this complex site.
The section on Leptis (Lepcis) Magna was less of an agony for me. Although there has been some illegal digging and looting at the site, local residents, working in militias, have tried to stave off the worst of the lawlessness, and there hasn’t been the kind of occupation or intensive bombardment that we have seen at the other sites showcased.
The images I saw looked pretty similar to the way that it looked when I was there 10 years ago. The ancient structures are partial and the site is, largely, a ruin, albeit a very impressive one, but there weren’t obvious signs of recent extensive damage. Nevertheless, the fly-through of the macellum (marketplace) and the virtual reconstruction of the Severan Basilica was pretty impressive and provided a little respite before the final key site featured, one which I knew I would find hard to witness.
Temple of Bel, Palmyra. Photo taken 8th November 2009.
When I visited Palmyra, and the modern town Tadmur, in late 2009, it was an impressive, pretty well kept ancient site. The main site itself was open for visitor to wander in and look around and it was possible to wander pretty far, as it’s a very large site.
Some people in my hotel were getting up before dawn to go on a camel ride. I, being less interested in camels, got up at the same time and accompanied them for a little way on foot before heading off into the low hills on my own. These hills are the site of the necropolis of Palmyra and I was fortunate enough to have these evocative tower tombs all to myself in the silent, pink, early morning. *
Several of these tombs were destroyed and/or damaged by daesh in 2014/15.
One of the other notable instances of willful vandalism was the dynamiting of the Temple of Bel (above) and I found myself feeling particularly sad at the images of the theatre and the Temple of Baalshamin, when I found myself standing, virtually, in the rubble of the building.
This was a building in which I had stood, gazing at the beautiful decorative friezes and the carved columns, and thanking my good fortune at having the opportunity to be there.
Temple of Baalshamin, Palmyra. Photo taken 8th November 2009.
Temple of Baalshamin, Palmyra. Photo taken 8th November 2009.
But I couldn’t help but think past the structural damage and the willful and shocking destruction of the ancient temples, to the devastation wrought on the people living in the modern Palmyrene town of Tadmur. I couldn’t help thinking about the people murdered by daesh in the theatre, including Palmyra’s Head of Antiquities, Khaled al-Asaad (January 1932 – 18 August 2015).
Throughout the exhibition there are short films, talking heads and personal accounts of the effects of all of this destruction on the people living in these cities but, particularly as a visitor whose French is a bit shaky, the focus of the exhibition really is on the effects of conflict on the built environment.The images recorded by drones are largely devoid of people, the streets thst I remember as bustling and busy with the usual comings and goings of the city, are eerily empty of life.A notable exception is a short film documenting the filmmaker’s return to Aleppo to speak with the people still living there.
He meets the shopkeeper who, despite being surrounded by the dust and debris of countless explosions, still diligently cleans his stock before putting it on display. And there’s the young woman recording a video message on her phone, to send to her sister, who is not in the city.
The young woman doesn’t say anything of any importance, just chats and reads the news and laughs and hopes that she will still be alive tomorrow.
The exhibition ‘Cités millénaires Voyage virtuel de Palmyre à Mossoul‘ is on at the Institut du Monde Arabe until 10th February 2019.
For updates on the current situations in these regions, follow: @AinSyria and @AinIraq
*I had the tombs all to myself except for the small child who chased after me for about half a mile asking for sweets. I had no sweets with me so I gave him a pen. He seemed satisfied with this alternative. I wonder where he is now, and I hope he’s ok.
The Netherlands is home to some cracking museums; the Rijkesmuseum, Rijkesmuseum van Oudheden, Allard Pierson, the museum at Castellum Hoge Woerd and many more.
But I’ve never been to the north of the country, so I had no idea what was up there. That is, until, a Twitter post by @FollowingHadrian about an exhibition of Iranian (Persian) archaeology and artefacts at the Drents Museum in Assen. As I’m always on the lookout for exciting things of an archaeological bent to do and see, and as I was actually due to be in the Netherlands (albeit much further south) over the August Bank Holiday, I immediately set about working out how I could fit in a very quick trip north to have a look.
Artefacts in the exhibition were on loan from the excellent National Museum of Iran, which I visited when I was in Tehran in 2015, so I was very keen to get another look at them. As well as artefacts that I remember seeing, there were ones that were either not on display, or which I just didn’t see or notice, so there were plenty of ‘new to me’ things to see.
The Drents Museum was purpose-built as a museum in 1854, but the exhibition was in the newer extension, opened in 2011. The exhibition space, downstairs, is quite large, although not huge, open and nicely lit and there seemed to be a good number of people visiting the exhibition, including groups, although it was not packed (this was a Monday* lunchtime, so I wouldn’t have expected it to be really packed).
The exhibition, Iran: Cradle of Civilisation, takes in a really broad sweep of Iranian/Persian history, including prehistoric artefacts dating from as early as 7000BCE right into the Islamic period, ending in about 1700CE.
Prehistoric culture is represented by some really beautiful and delicate pieces. I was particularly struck by this small stone bowl (it’s about 4-5 cm in diameter). It’s carved out of a piece of the darker-coloured stone in which there are lighter bush-coral inclusions.
2600-2400BCE, Shahdad, National Museum of Iran, Tehran
This terracotta bowl is decorated with a painted frieze of dancing figures. Perhaps commemorating a particular occasion or a festival of some sort.
4800BCE, Chogha Sabz, National Museum of Iran, Tehran
4800BCE, Chogha Sabz, National Museum of Iran, Tehran
I was particularly fascinated by this clay ball, as it brought to mind the stone balls seen in collections in the north of Britain (have a look at the Huntarian Collection in Glasgow for some examples).
Clay Bulla, 3200BC, Susa, National Museum of Iran, Tehran.
It isn’t really known what the balls found in Britain were for but the accompanying film explained this Persian ball. It’s a seal!
The ball is covered with figures of human and animals.
I stood in front of the screen filming the whole video because it really explained this artefact very well. You can see the video here: Clay Bulla (message to anyone from the Drents Museum: If you would prefer it if I took this video down, please let me know and I’ll do so).
The two objects below, although not particularly fancy looking, are evidence for the technological development of the region. The first a rather mucky-looking footed-dish, is actually a crucible in which copper was smelted.
Clay crucible 4000-3700BC, Tappeh Qabrestan, National Museum of Iran, Tehran. When copper ore is heated to a temperature above 1084c it will melt and can then be poured into moulds. At first only pure copper was melted, but the coppersmiths gradually started to mix it with other metals. One of those experiments lead to the discovery of bronze (copper and tin).
The second, a mould for casting a copper axe-head. Found at the site of Tappeh Ghabrestan, northwest of Tehran, which is known for its finds associated with copper-working, with furnaces and moulds dug into the ground as well as these smaller, terracotta moulds.
Terracotta mould, 3500-310BCE, Tappeh Ghabrestan, National Museum of Iran, Tehran
Although these not the fanciest exhibits in the exhibition, they are hard evidence of technological development and expertise in the region.
So what are the fanciest artefacts?
From the third millennium BCE, comes a gorgeous selection of carved soapstone vases, pots, cups and bowls. Soapstone is soft and relatively easy to carve, so it lends itself to these kinds of intricate, detailed designs. The imagery include real and imagined creatures, demons, deities, scroll-work and complex, interlocking geometric designs. I spent a long time admiring these wonderful artefacts and wanting so badly to be able to touch them.
Soapstone pot, 2600-2400BCE, Jiroft, National Museum of Iran, Tehran
2600-2400BCE, Jiroft, National Museum of Iran, Tehran
2600-2400BCE, Jiroft, National Museum of Iran, Tehran
Soapstone vase, 2600-2400BCE, Jiroft, National Museum of Iran, Tehran
Soapstone dish with an image of a ‘scorpion-man’, 2600-2400BCE, Jiroft, National Museum of Iran, Tehran
2600-2400BCE, Jiroft, National Museum of Iran, Tehran
2600-2400BCE, Jiroft, National Museum of Iran, Tehran
Soapstone weight, 2600-2400BCE, Jiroft, National Museum of Iran, Tehran
From the 6th until the 3rd centuries BCE, the first Persian empire, the Achaemenids, founded by Cyrus the Great, dominated this part of the world. This dynasty, which included the other Persian ‘Greats’, Darius, and Xerxes, is notable for, among other things, its fine gold work. Examples in the exhibition also include beautiful vases and drinking horns (rhyton).
Gold cow, 559-331BC, Hamadan, National Museum of Iran, Tehran.
Gold rhyton, 559-331BC, Hamadan, National Museum of Iran, Tehran.
And one of the many highlights of this exhibition, this wonderfully weird pottery jug. Fashioned in the form of a man tending his bird-beaked pot-beast 😀
Pottery jug 850-550BCE, Kaluraz, National Museum of Iran, Tehran. This jug appears to have a spout in the shape of some kind of beak. Such beaked jugs were used for special wine ceremonies at burials. The Kaluraz cemetery is well known for its beautiful pottery vessels. This is the finest example – functional and yet artistic.
And there were even some reliefs from the imperial city of Persepolis.
Relief, 559-331BC, Persepolis, National Museum of Iran, Tehran.
Relief, 559-331BC, Persepolis, National Museum of Iran, Tehran.
Many reliefs at Persepolis show representatives of the 23 peoples of the empire, who came to the imperial city to pay tribute to King Darius. on the left, a gift-bearer climbing the stairs and on the right, a ma presenting a gift of arms to the King.
A whole wall of the exhibition space was transformed into a famous and spectacular monument, the original of which is situated at the World heritage Site of Behistun in north-west Iran (there are several spellings of this: Bisotun, Bistun or Bisutun).
The life-sized figure holding a bow, as a sign of kingship, is Darius the Great, beneath his foot is a figure, possibly the pretender to the throne, Gaumata. Behind him are two attendants and facing him are bound captives representing the conquered peoples. The symbol above the scene is the Faravahar the central symbol of the Zoroastrian religion.
The text, is written in three ancient languages; written in three different cuneiform script languages: Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian (an Akkadian dialect) and it provided the key to the decipherment of cuneiform, in much the same way the The Rosetta Stone was the key that unlocked Egyptian hieroglyphs. The inscription begins with the biography of Darius the Great, for whom the monument was created, and the history of the empire following the death of its founder Cyrus the Great. It describes the battles fought and won, and the rebellions put down by Darius and the generals subjugated.
This life-sized replica, measuring 15 x 6 metres, was created especially for this exhibition and installed at the same height as the original would be viewed. This gives a good idea of how the original in-situ would be seen, although, obviously, in a very different location.
When I was looking at visiting this exhibition, one of my burning questions was how on earth it had come about. I assumed that there must be some professional connections between curators in Assen and Tehran that had enabled the Drents Museum to secure such an amazing array of loans. Handily, the exhibition included a film answering this, and other questions, and the curatorial connections between the museum services has resulted in this exhibition and a return exhibition of Dutch art and archaeology now on display in Tehran. You can watch a mini-doc about the exhibition here: https://drentsmuseum.nl/en/exhibitions/iran
Gold applique, 2200-1700BC, Tappeh Hissar, National Museum of Iran, Tehran.
This is certainly one of my exhibitions of the year and I would love to visit again, but I doubt that I’ll be able to get to Assen again before the exhibition closes on 18th November. However, I think I’m going to have to plan a return visit to the Drents Museum in the not-too-distant future, for the next exhibition, ‘Nubia – Land of the Black Pharaohs‘ I just wish that exhibition catalogue was available in English. If it had been, I would have snapped it up.
*I should say that the Drents Museum, just like pretty well every other museum in the Netherlands, isn’t generally open on Mondays. I was lucky in that I was visiting at the end of the school holidays and it happened to be open on the day that I was able to get there.
On a flying visit to Paris I decided to take in a couple of places that I’ve never been. One of those places is a church in the 14th arrondissement. Paris is full of churches, of course, but this one is a bit different.
Ok, it doesn’t look very different. In fact, it looks pretty conventional. But wait till you see inside.
It’s not really a stone building at all. It’s steel frame construction with just an outer cladding of stone.
In the mid-19th century, the population of this Paris district grew rapidly, quickly outgrowing the existing church. These were working people, many working in construction, but also many poor Parisians. Taking advantage of the interest in Paris’ 1900 Universal Exhibition, the parish priest, Father Soulange-Bodin, started a subscription to raise funds for a new parish church and the church that was built, L’eglise Notre Dame du Travail, Our Lady of Labour, was consciously designed, by the architect Jules Astruc, to reflect the lives and livelihoods of so many of its parishioners.
Overtly industrial in its design, the nave is built over a steel and iron framework.
This, in a way, reminds me of Tower Bridge. It’s so deceptive. On the outside it’s all stone, traditional, old-fashioned even, but on the inside it’s all modern (for the time) materials and construction techniques. And the modernity of it, the engineering, isn’t covered up or disguised, but displayed and celebrated.
Some of this was reused metalwork, having previously been used in the construction of the Palais de L’Industrie, which had been built on the Champ de Mars in 1855 for an earlier Universal Exhibition .
Even the artworks inside the church reflect the world work work. Saint Luke, the Evangelist, venerated as a patron saint of artists, physicians, surgeons and butchers; Saint Eloi (Eligius), patron saint of metal-workers and those who work with horses; and Saint Fiacre, the patron saint of gardeners.
The church can be found in the 14th arrondissement in the district of Plaisance (nearest metro: Pernety on L 13.
I’ve been looking forward to the snazzy new Roman museum in Nimes for as long as I’ve known it was going to be a thing. It opened in early June so on my latest little trip, to Arles, I made a point of heading to Nimes to take a look.
The French rail company SNCF earned my everlasting enmity by cancelling my train, meaning that I arrived in Nimes a full 2 hours later than I should have, so my time was a bit more restricted than I would have liked and I actually ended up having to charge round the last bit in order to get back to the station in time to catch my train back to Arles (of which, more later).
Anyway, here’s the new Musee de la Romanite in all its glory.
I read that the design, by architect Elizabeth de Portzamparc, was, in part inspired by the idea of the fabric of the toga, with ripples and folds of glass panels reflecting the light and the shade, and bringing movement and interest to what could be a boring, bland glass-box exterior.
From the inside, these panels act as frames for the views,
including the highlight view of Nimes’ 20,000 seat Amphitheatre.
I enjoy the visible engineering on the inside (see also the Institute du Monde Arabe in Paris).
A the entrance, the museum begins with a spiral up to the pre-Roman Gaul collection.
The museum has lots of small-ish spaces and several bigger spaces and I must admit that I found it a little bit confusing trying to work out which space to go into next in order to follow the galleries more or less chronologically.
Maybe it doesn’t really matter, it’s just that I did have a few “where next?” moments, although these might just have been on account of my eagerness to see the things that I was glimpsing through the entrance-ways between the rooms. I can’t say that that spoiled the visit but I did have to hurry at the end when I discovered that I’d missed out a whole gallery! Luckily it was a small gallery so I just about had time to have a look before running off.
There are a few signs that seem to be par for the course with newly opened exhibition spaces. That sense of things being not quite finished in time for the scheduled opening. Some of the labels were clearly temporary.
There may have been the odd balustrade missing. Certainly, a proper rail would be better than ropes here.
Some of the spaces between furniture are too narrow. I saw a man with a pretty normal-sized pushchair unable to get past a bench. There was an alternative way around but I do think that, in a brand new building, either the gap should be wide enough (for a wheelchair actually) or there should be no gap at all and we all just go the other way. TBH, if they just moved the bench, that’s problem solved.
The staircase down to the lower ground floor temporary exhibition gallery is pretty bleak, like those staircases you have to go down when you’re boarding a flight, grey, lifeless, empty. It could do with a few images or something, to liven it up a bit.
But that’s the niggles out of the way and I think that all of these things are just tweaks to be made as the new museum beds in. Now for some of the cool stuff.
As I said above, I do like the design. It’s modern but not lary or obnoxious. Due to the evil fiends at SNCF, I really didn’t have enough time to investigate all of the spaces; there is a garden somewhere (on the roof?) and the expected cafes and a shop. This isn’t a disaster for me as it gives me more aspects of the museum to discover when I revisit. I will be revisiting.
Some people apparently think that models in museums are cheesy. I am not one of those people. There were models of the landscape, of the city, of individual structures, of types of artefacts.
I like this landscape model onto which the development of the city and its changing layout are projected. It’s not a complicated idea but it really helps to see the Roman city in its landscape context.
Interactive stuff 😀
Museums are, inevitably, full of stuff that must not be touched, but I’m fond of museums that also incorporate some stuff that you can touch to your heart’s delight.
Best one? For me, unsurprisingly, Roman games 😀😀
Click the link and you can see me winning with walnuts. The Nut Game
The museum has a range of films about aspects of the collection and about the conservation of particular objects. My favourite was the one about quarrying 😀, which demonstrated how Roman quarrymen (often slave or convict labour) removed blocks of stone from the quarry face using hand tools and wedges.
There’s a definite emphasis on placing objects and architectural elements into their proper contexts. Where did they come from? Where were they found? Which buildings are they associated with? How were they used? The models and films really help with this, moving the artefacts from being just stuff in display cases to actually being part of everyday life in the Roman town.
Despite being big and expensive-looking, the Musee de la Romanite feels like a local museum. I got the impression that quite a few of the visitors were locals, as I kept hearing exclamations of recognition from people looking at artefacts, particularly in relation to key local landmarks like Maison Carrée and the Temple of Diana. People did seem genuinely interested. There were a lot of people watching that quarrying film, maybe, in part, because it related directly to the restoration of the Maison Carrée.
What else? Oh yeah, artefacts 😀
This post is getting too long so you’ll have to wait until the next one for the artefacts but I’ll just whet your appetite with a few. Suffice it to say that the museum takes in a wide range of object types; building material; pottery; metalwork; statues; glassware; mosaics; the lot.
So, yeah, SNCF.
Having charged round the last bits of the museum and, literally, run to the station, I found that my train back to Arles was delayed by an hour.
*shakes fist and calls down the curses of the gods*.
Last weekend, me and my fellow explorer Craig, visited an exhibition that we’ve been looking forward to for a while. At the Museum of London Docklands, ‘Roman Dead‘.
This exhibition tells the stories of some of the people of Roman London, as seen through the evidence of their mortal remains, and of the funerary practices and methods of commemoration used by Roman Londoners. Literary evidence tells us that the ancient burial grounds of Londinium began to be discovered at least as early as the 1570s as John Stowe writes, in his A Survey of London in 1598, that as the ground around Spitalfields was being broken up for clay, the workers discovered cinerary urns (pots used to hold the ashes of people who were cremated), the cremated bones and other remains of earlier Londoners.
This burial group, dating to 60-200CE, was found at Bishopsgate. The large glass jar would have held the cremated remains (in the tray in front), with a samian cup used as a lid.
The smaller glass jars may have been used to hold oils and perfumes used in the funerary rites or offerings to the gods.
I was interested to see the map of known burial grounds around Londinium (in red), particularly the two on the Southwark islands.
The burial grounds were situated just outside the city limits to avoid the pollution of the living by the dead and archaeologists have unearthed evidence of a wide range of funerary practices carried out by the people of London. The exhibitions includes evidence of cremations and inhumations (burials), a range of grave goods, buried with the deceased, and evidence of some more unusual practices. For example, the skeletal remains of a woman whose skull was removed, after death and possibly much later, after the body had decomposed, and placed on top of her pelvis.
As it is today, so it was in Roman London. We see people from all over the Roman world; from Britain and all parts of mainland Europe, the Middle-East and North Africa, and they all came to, or travelled through Londinium. Some of them died here. Some of these different funerary practices may have been influenced by people’s different areas of origin, by changing tastes and even by changing religions, but some perhaps also by the desire to ‘do what Granddad would have wanted’, possibly harking back to older tribal or cultural traditions not current in Roman Britain but which, in the face of death, felt to surviving family members or friends like the right thing to do.
The objects in the exhibition work around the people in the exhibition. Well, the remains of the people anyway. As well as cremated remains, on display are the skeletal remains of 28 individuals. With funerary collections, I particularly like to see the whole assemblege, or as much as possible of it, displayed together, if possible reassembled as it was in the ground. I think that seeing all of the objects together with the remains can tell us something about the people themselves, but also about their loved ones, their friends, the people who arranged and carried out the funeral rites. We can’t see the remains exactly as those people saw them at the point of burial, but it’s the closest that we can get.
So here are a few of the grave goods found:
Gold finger ring with an engraved intaglio showing two mice. Possibly referencing the story of the town mouse and the country mouse.
Jet Medusa brooch.
Coloured mosaic glass dish
Coloured mosaic glass dish
Finger ring with an engraved intaglio.
Tiny glass jar, possibly for unguent.
Rattles used in funerary rites.
The centrepiece of exhibition is this well preserved stone sarcophagus found last year near Harper Road in Southwark.
Stone sarcophagi are rare in London, this is only the third one found, so it’s a big deal. Most people buried in Roman London would have been buried in wooden caskets or possibly just laid in the ground wrapped in a shroud, so the lady interred here, and her family, must have been quite wealthy to be able to afford such a burial. This is the first time that the sarcophagus has been shown and I was struck by how big it is. It’s not overly wide, but it did look really long.
In the accompanying film archaeologists, conservation experts and one of the curators talk us through the discovery, recovery, investigation and conservation of the sarcophagus. When it was discovered, the archaeologists could see that it was badly cracked so it wasn’t excavated onsite. Instead a wooden frame was constructed around it, holding it firmly together and allowing it to be lifted out of the ground by crane, still filled with earth that had accumulated in it, and taken to the lab to be excavated in more controlled conditions. The breaks int he stone are very visible, even after conservation.
In the lab the remains of the occupant and a few fragments of the grave goods were found, already disturbed by grave robbers. There’s no way to know all of the objects that the lady was buried with, but the few pieces that remain include an engraved intaglio, probably from a finger-ring, and a tiny fragment of gold, possibly the remains of an earring.
The object that I think amazed me the most was this:
It may not look like much at first, just a rough plank of wood. And so it is, but it has been reused as the base of a wooden coffin. Close inspection reveals some marks left on the wood. The imprints left by the body.
The marks left by the knees.
And by the ribs.
This, for me, was the object that really made me go “Wow!”. The dead really do leave a lasting impression.