A Persian Odyssey: Slight Return

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 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.

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 know 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.

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).

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.

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

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.

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*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.

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Musee de la Romanite, Nimes

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.

The building.

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.

Models.

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

Films 😀

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.

Context. 😀

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.

Yasss 😀

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*.

museedelaromanite.fr 

The ancient dead speak

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:

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.

The Roman Dead exhibition is at Museum of London Docklands until 28th October 2018 and it’s free to visit. Yes! Free!

 

 

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