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.

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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

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Archaeology at high speed

Visiting the Musee d’Aquitaine in Bordeaux, I made my usual mistake; spending and hour-and-a-half in the Roman galleries and only then twigging that there are about another six galleries to see plus a temporary exhibition *eyes-roll*.

In this case, the temporary exhibition in question was ‘L’archéologie à Grande Vitesse : 50 sites fouillés entre Tours et Bordeaux’ (trans: ‘High-speed archaeology at high speed: 50 sites searched between Tours and Bordeaux’) an exhibition which takes in 400,000 years of human activity along the new 340km long high-speed rail route, the “Sud Europe Atlantique”.

The exhibition is very much about the archaeology and the processes of investigation, with artefacts used to illustrate points along the way and to tell the stories of the people living in this region of France away from the main known archaeological sites. Covering such a huge time period could result in a scattergun approach but concentrating on the process of archaeology, and the work of the archaeologists gives the exhibition structure and following the rail line provides the ‘why?’ for the exhibition, as well as giving us a thread to follow.

This reminded me very much of the excellent Crossrail exhibition presented by the Museum of London (and MOLA and Crossrail) in London last year. The major engineering works are the rationale for the excavations with the archaeology uncovered being the main focus of the exhibition. Of course, Crossrail took us through mostly urban and industrial sites whereas the Sud Europe Atlantique takes us through swathes of countryside where there has been little or no urban development, as well as rural settlement sites.

The exhibition includes films from the excavations and some pretty nifty interactive screens where we can see into tunnels and 360° around inside sites. I liked the way that the screen view was also projected onto the walls.

There are sections on sites representing different time periods from the paleolithic to the modern, with models showing how the sites may have looked, with interpretations based on things like visible wall-lines, the positions of post-holes, pits, wells, and so on. The finds on display range from whole burials, through to pottery, incised gems, stone tools, coins, part of a Roman pulley (my favourite) and a mystery object (the last 2 images below), listed as “objet indetermine (antiquite)”. It’s ~6-7cm long). Know what it is? Answers on a postcard to Musee d’Aquitaine.

Speaking of site models, the exhibition also included these stunningly realistic models of life on a construction/excavation site.

Every details is accurate, careful excavation of articulated skeletons,

site photography,

section drawing and plotting points using a dumpy level,

 

the finds tent,

and more.

There’s even a naughty-but-cute Site Dog.

‘L’archéologie à Grande Vitesse : 50 sites fouillés entre Tours et Bordeaux’ closes on 4th March 2018.

2017 and all that

Some of you, if you are Facebookies, may have been inundated with ‘Year in Review’ videos which are, frankly, rubbish. Facebook is crap at picking the images that tell the story of your year and always end up with old, reposted pictures, your ex who just dumped you or that one from where you saw an old mattress dumped in the street. The only way to do it is to chose your own images and tell it your own way. So here’s mine.

Around the world

In 2017 I’ve mostly been interested in Northern Europe. I don’t know why, but that’s just the way it was. So, here’s a whistlestop tour through my whistlestop tours.

Boom!! Cologne

Bang!! Paris

Wowee!! Rome, with The Couple Formerly Known As Trowelsworthy (TCFKAT).

Kablammo!! Orvieto

  

Crash!! Mainz

 

Kapow!! Bad Durkheim

Badabing!! Frankfurt

Bazinga!! Bavay

Wow!! Paris (again). Thanks for the cheapo tickets Eurostar.

Bang!! Senlis

Crash!! Leiden

 

Whoopee!! Amsterdam

Other places are available.

Tourists at home

It’s fantastic to visit far, or not so far away places, but home is best and being a tourist in your own home is great fun. On many of my touristic days out, Craig has been my travelling companion but I started the year, in traditional style, at the Twelfth Night celebrations on Bankside.

Then nose-hunting with Craig

And I also visited the London Lumiere with Pete and Dayna.

Me and Craig went to Freemason’s Hall.

And to the ‘Glad to be Gay: the struggle for legal equality’ exhibition at LSE. This celebrated 50 year since the decriminalization of homosexuality in Britain.

The City of London Police Museum.

 

We went to Banqueting House for ‘Long Live Queen James’, an evening exploring LGBT stories from the court of King James I/VI.

And we had a poke around the restoration works at Ally Pally.

 

The Supreme Court, with Jeremy

I went to Highgate Cemetery with Sacha and Stuart.

And with Craig and Jeremy to the London Transport Museum.

(“Exchange stations shewn thus”)

Plus loads more. Seriously, London is very cool. Go and look at it.

Moosic, moosic, moosic

There have been some stonking gigs this year. This isn’t all of them, but it is some of them. How many can you name?*

 

Random Romans

There are always more Romans about, so I went to have a look for some. I popped up for a quick visit to Newcastle and Carlisle to see some of the Hadrian’s Cavalry exhibitions.

 

I went to Hull! I’ve never been to Hull before but they have a fantastic Roman mosaic collection so I decided to make the effort and go and have a look. Well worth it.

I managed a couple of short trips up to Glasgow and Edinburgh, taking in Bothwellhaugh Roman bathhouse in Strathclyde Country Park with Ellen and Simon,

 

the bathouse and Antonine Wall remains at Bearsden,

and finally made it to Eagle Rock at Cramond.

 

Back in town, the eagerly awaited opening of the London Mithraeum didn’t disappoint.

When I was in Germany, I popped down to Speyer to see the Roman Collection at  Das Historische Museum der Pfalz (The Historical Museum of the Palatinate).

What else? What else? Volunteering on a schools’ project at the Museum of London’s Archaeological Archive (Me! Working with children!!), and I spent half the year working at Tower Bridge (actual paid employment!). This is surely enough to pack into 12 short months.

So that’s 2017 from me, and from my boys, Archie and Bertie. I hope you’ve had a good year and roll on 2018.

 

Oh, and here’s that one from where I saw an old mattress dumped in the street.

Senlis – Into the woods

Ok, I didn’t actually go into the woods. It was raining, I had a cold, it’s about 4 miles away and there’s no regular bus, plus I needed to catch the 3.15 bus in order to get back to Paris. So no, I didn’t actually go into the woods. But I did go into the museum, which is just as good, because in the museum is this:

So what’s the deal with the woods then? Well, in 1825, in the Foret d’Halatte, a temple was discovered.

Early investigations in 1873-4 uncovered the general size and shape of the small temple and precinct, and also recovered 297 stone ex-voto figures, and statues, now in the collection of the Musee d’arte et d’archaeologie.

Built in the mid-1st century, on what was then grassland, and abandoned by the early 5th, the temple was lost to view as the forest grew and established itself. As many of the ex-voto figures display genitals or breasts, the temple has been interpreted as a temple of healing, possibly with a focus on sexual health, conception and pregnancy.

This incomplete statue is of a female figure who appears to be pregnant. Maybe she is some sort of protective mother-goddess.

And there are numerous infant figures, so perhaps supplicants went to the temple to ask the gods for safe deliveries and to protect their babies from childhood diseases, the need for protection being more keenly felt during times of high infant mortality.

There are even animal figures. Perhaps these gods were thought to have the power to ensure healthy livestock and crops as well as protecting the human population.

During excavations in 1996-9, a further 66 ex-voto figures were discovered, as well as a deposit consisting of a pot and the skull of a ~40 year old man buried under the floor of the cela, the inner sanctum. This has been interpreted as a possible foundation deposit, drawing on ancient tribal customs even well into the Gallo-Roman period.

Also found in the cela were the seven gallic coins in the image above. The deposition of coins in sacred spaces  is not unusual. The copper-alloy votive objects (below), several of them phallic or otherwise relating to reproduction, sexual organs or child-rearing, were also found at the site.

Although the museum is home to archaeological collections and art collections, I’m afraid that I spent so much time in the basement looking at the temple archive that I hardly had time to do much else, but I would still encourage a visit to the museum at Senlis the next time you’re in the area. It’s an easy trip from Paris, although you do need to check the bus times to and from the nearest train station at Chantilly.

Link: www.persee.fr/doc/pica_1272-6117_2000_hos_18_1_2479 (in French)

Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city*

Much as I’d love to go to Nineveh, that great city, the security situation in Iraq at present does not allow it so I’ve had to make do with the wonderful exhibition at the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden in Leiden.

Rijksmuseum van Oudheden

In its heyday, of all the cities in the ancient Neo-Assyrian empire, Nineveh was the greatest and the most populous. It has had a lasting impact on western consciousness, particularly on account of Biblical references, especially relating to Jonah, and its semi-mythical status.

Etching of Jonah made by Dirck Volckertsz Coornhert between 1548 and 1552, Rijksmuseum.

Situated on the east bank of the Tigris River and encircled by the modern city of Mosul, Iraq. Nineveh was located at the intersection of importants trade routes crossing the Tigris on their way between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. It was the capital city of Assyria’s most powerful kings and the hub of the Neo-Assyrian Empire at its height.

The area of Nineveh has been settled since the late neolithic period, around 6,000BCE and there has been a city there since at least 3000BCE. During the Old Assyrian period (around 1800BCE), the city was known as an important centre for the worship of Ishtar, the ancient goddess of love, sex, beauty, fertility, war and power.

The expansion and embellishment of Nineveh as a royal city began in 705BCE on the accession of King Sennacherib, after the death on the battlefield of King Sargon II – ‘The Unfortunate’. This is when Nineveh turned from a primarily religious centre into a royal capital.

The walls of the palaces were clad in limestone panels with reliefs depicting kings and other important men, battle scenes, gory scenes of the execution of prisoners and, less gorily, daily life.

Much of what we know about the rulers and events in the history of Nineveh, the names of kings, information about great battles, building projects and religious life, comes from the contemporary texts, written on clay and stone in cuneiform. Many texts are yet to be deciphered, but the epigraphic habit of the Assyrian courts has yielded important information.

Clay cylinder describing the construction of the palace of Sennacherib, 704-681 BCE, Nineveh.

Mud brick from the ziggurat of Nimrud, inscribed with the name of King Shalmaneser III, 859-824BCE, Nimrud.

Even the limestone floor tiles from the palace of Ashurnasirpal II (9th c. BCE) were covered with text, here, an ode to the king.

The exhibition at the RVO has sections on different aspects of Nineveh; its wider historical and cultural context, biblical references, it rediscovery by western explorers (although it was long known about by Arab scholars), the construction and expansion of the city, trade, religion and daily life.

There is also an extensive section on Nineveh’s more recent history. When daesh invaded the city of Mosul in 2014, one of their stated aims was to destroy the ancient city. In early 2015, the group began posting films of artefacts, sculptures and even parts of the city wall begin destroyed. The two Iamasi below are similar to those featured in one particular destruction video posted by the terrorists.

Replicas of two Iamasi from Nimrud (the originals are in the British Museum).

This part of the exhibition examines the evidence for recent destruction and the response of the international community of archaeologists, heritage experts, scientists and digital imaging experts in their efforts to record and retain as much information about the city as possible, even in the face of its destruction.

Mosul and Nineveh

This has included the use of satellite imaging, 3d printing, digital photography, CGI and even the use of small drones, used to investigate, among other things, a series of underground tunnels dug by daesh fighters, which unwittingly uncovered new discoveries of antiquities.

I’ve posted a little film about this last initiative on youtube but don’t expect too much quality-wise. It was just me pointing my camera at the projection on the wall. It’s an interesting watch nevertheless.

 

The exhibition ‘Ninevah – Heart of an ancient empire‘  is on at the Rijksmusem van Oudheden in Leiden until 25th March 2018.

*Jonah 1:2

The great aqueduct of Paris

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

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

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

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

Near Arcueil-Cachan station on RER line B…

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

Can you see them? Yes? No?

How’s this?

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

From the ashes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And here it is, finally, the London Mithraeum.

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

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

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