Where all roads meet

Well, maybe not ‘all’ but 7, in any case.

From the area map at the bus stop.

This is Bavay, in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of northern France, close to the France-Belgium border. A sleepy little village that isn’t really on the way to or from anywhere. But 2000 years ago, Bavay was on the way to loads of places.

Bavay, or Bagacum in the 1st century CE, was the tribal capital or civitas of the powerful Nervii tribe.  Seven major routes passed through Bagacum so it grew into an important site for trading, administration, law courts and the military. Its situation on the road from Boulogne (Roman Gesoriacum) to Cologne (Roman Colonia  Agrippinensis) made it a key stopping off point between the Roman provinces of Germania and Britannia.

The site was known about in the eighteenth century as chance finds and unofficial digs turned up many Roman objects, but the site was really uncovered due to heavy bombing during WW2. The post-war excavations revealed a huge Gallo-Roman forum basilica, the largest outside Italy, measuring 200m by 120m.

In the Claudian period, the town flourished and grew rapidly, with the construction of civic buildings like the forum, the basilica, public bathhouses fed by aqueducts and temples being built and beautified. The town was an important centre for the production of pottery goods and traded in, in particular, bronze-working, and was a key staging post during the conquest of Britain.

I’d been wanting to get to Bavay for a little while and had pondered making my way over there when I was staying in Belgium last year, but it’s a faff to get to on public transport and a lot of routes take absolutely hours to get there. It’s not a natural stopping off point on the way to or from anywhere in particular so this time I decided that I’d just make it the be all and end all of a visit. The easiest route was London > Lille, Lille > Valenciennes, Valenciennes > Bavay, so, timetables checked, I was off.

By the time I got to Bavay it was pouring with rain, and I’d left my umbrella in London. Oh well. There’s a museum to visit at the site, so I started there, hoping that the rain would ease off a bit.

(cue museum break)

By the time I left the museum not only had it stopped raining, but it was scorching hot; cracking flags! My stroll around the site was, therefore, a slow and lazy one. A lot of the better preserved sections seem to have been buried in the building of the later ramparts, hence the excellent state of preservation.

At one end of the site there are the remains of a cryptoporticus; a covered storage area below ground level.

Much of the site has been turfed over but here and there, there are still little patches of the Roman paving. There’s even the odd wheel-rut.

The fortunes and function of the city began to changes in the third-century, when it served as a post for regional defence, and around the turn of the fourth century, the ramparts and city walls were constructed.

Getting to Bavay without a car was a bit of a schlep but it was worth it, as it’s a really interesting site with a great museum. As I had to pass through Valenciennes and Lille to get there, I made a point of visiting a few other places on the way, including the Musee des Beaux Art, Valenciennes and Lille Cathedral, so all in all this made for a great little trip.

Barça, Barça, Baaarça!

Ok, this is just a quickie for Roman gaming fans.

During my all-too-brief sojourn in Barcelona, I visited the City Museum (more of which another time). Now, my work on the Roman collection at the LAARC has turned me into something of an obsessive when it comes to seeking out Roman dice and other gaming equipment wherever I happen to be.

At the City Museum,  the Museu d’Història de Barcelona in the Plaça del Rei, the star attractions are the in-situ archaeological remains of the Roman and post-Roman city. These are amazing and I’ll post some pictures soon, but sitting quite unobtrusively in a display case in one of the small museum areas were these artefacts. Evidence of gaming and, possibly, gambling in Roman Barca.

P1130102

First, these lovely dice. Made from animal bone with either dot-and-ring or dot-and-double-ring pips.

P1130130

NERDS! there’s a fragment of a Type 2 lurking at the back on the right.

P1130137

These are sheep’s knuckle-bones.

P1130111

There could be used in similar ways to dice, but it’s not so obvious how the different sides would be counted, in numerical terms. As the bones’ faces are irregular and uneven, and are assigned different values, weighted to take account of these irregularities. There were also used to play a game called tali (in Latin, or astragaloi in Greek), which is similar to jacks.

I haven’t seen any of these in the London collection that have been securely identified as gaming equipment. Plenty as dinner though.

These are interesting.

P1130104

They’re gaming counters made from the vertebrae of fish. The spines have been trimmed off leaving just the cleaned up centrum and, although they vary in size, they make great counters.

I saw some of these in museums in Tunisia and Algeria and it is particularly interesting to see them here in Barcelona because the museum presents other evidence of contact between Barca and parts of North Africa.

For example, alongside the Gaulish samian ware we see in so many museums, especially in northern Europe, at Barca, the finewares also included African Red Slipware (ARS).

P1130050

Some pieces even have Christian symbolism imprinted or applied to them, highlighting the very active role that Christians in North African cities played in the dissemination and development of early Christianity. A hot-bed of activity which actually moulded the Christian church.

P1130526

Lastly, a lovely piece to see up close, but terribly lit, is this stone gaming board.

P1130161

The game played on this is called Nine Men’s Morris (or a variant of this game) and is a strategy game in which opposing players try to reduce each others’ counters (‘men’).

This is just a tiny glimpse at the delights found in the city museum. And not a Gaudi in sight!

TTFN

A legionary fortress in Wales

And so back again to the legionary fortress at Caerleon, Isca. This is one of the relatively few legionary fortresses in Roman Britain. Home to around 5000 men, Roman citizens recruited to Legio II Augusta, the Second Augustan Legion  from northern Italy, Provence and southern Spain.

Visible remains around the modern town of Caerleon  include an area of barracks, an amphitheatre, stretches of fort walls, a number of ovens in which the troops’ bread would have been baked and impressive bathhouse. We’ve had a little look at the impressive bathhouse, so let’s have a look at the rest of the remains of Caerleon Legionary Fortress.

Let’s start with walls.

There are stretches of the north-west and south-west quadrants’ walls still standing, some now just under the under turf, some standing up to a height of about 3.5 metres.

P1110595
There are the remains of a turret in this stretch of wall but there was a young couple canoodling in there so I couldn’t get a decent picture of it without looking like a total creep.

P1110602

You’ll just have to use your imagination. It looks like a turret.

In the north-west quadrant are the excavated remains of the barrack blocks.

P1110620

Each barrack block had rooms for ten groups of eight men (a century) with a suite of rooms at the end for the centurion.

P1110640

The excavated blocks are just a small proportion of the accommodation in the fortress. These particular barracks are situated nearest to the fort wall in the north-western corner of the fortress, and there was a road that ran around the fortress just inside the walls. Between this perimeter road and fortress wall is a series of circular ovens. They are situated in this area so as to keep the fires used for baking well away from the buildings.

P1110675

In the museum are these two lead bread stamps (because who doesn’t want leadie-bread? Right?). N.b. the bread isn’t original. This isn’t Pompeii!.

P1110414

The top one, and the stamp in the bread says ‘Century of Quintinius Aquila’ [QVINTINI AQVILAE] (2nd century).

And below, ‘Century of Vibius Severus (produced by) Sentius Paullinus’ [VIBI SEVE – SEN PAVLLIN] (1st century).

The museum contains a large number of lovely artifacts, many of them directly associated with the military. There is this well-preserved helmet. You can see the much shinier replica on the model in the background.

P1110509

P1110510

Other bits of soldiers’ kit include this great little field flask,

P1110736

This beautifully decorated 1st century plaque depicts Victory carrying captured arms.

P1110512

There is a selection of the large quantity of gaming equipment found around the fortress. You know how I love gaming equipment.

P1110449

Soldiers were cash-rich in comparison with many of the locals, but some of them seem to have lost/left some of their money behind when they left (or were killed), including this large collection of denarii.

P1110780

And I love this beautifully complete little money box.

P1110717

Well, as this is a Roman jolly, there must be an amphitheatre.

P1110564

This amphitheatre would have held around 6000 people, seated in tiers. The lower part of the structure was built in stone, with timber upper levels. Amphitheatres attached to forts were used for the usual gladiatorial games, beast hunts and the execution of criminals, but also for  military training and drilling.

P1110576

This is a lovely spot for a mooch or a kick-about on a sunny day.

Next time, we’ll meet a few of the individuals who lived, for a while, at Isca, including some of those who actually built the amphitheatre.

A legionary fortress in Wales: Rub-a-dub-dub

After visiting the civilian site of Venta Silurum at Caerwent, it was time for some military action, so I set off for Caerleon and the Roman legionary fortress of Isca.

Many of the (very cool) Roman forts in Britain were home to auxiliary units. Non-citizen troops working and fighting for Rome with the promise of citizenship and a nest-egg at the end of the period of service. A few sites, however, were home to legions; huge forces of citizen troops. Legionary fortresses were huge, the size of an large Roman town, housed at least 5000 men and had all mod-cons and amenities, and Isca was one of these. Home to Legio II Augusta, the Second Augustan Legion.

Visible remains around the modern Caerleon  include an area of barracks, an amphitheatre, stretches of fort walls, a number of ovens in which the troops’ bread would have been baked and impressive bathhouse.

I’ll start with the impressive bathhouse.

P1110315

Fort sites always have a bathhouse but, being attached to a legionary fortress, this one is particularly fine. It had all the usual hot, warm and cold rooms for getting clean but also a large external games and exercise area, an indoor exercise hall and a long swimming pool. More like an Imperial bathhouse.

The visible remains represent only a small part of the whole structure. The section of swimming pool gives a bit of idea of scale and construction. I notices that in the walls of the pool there are lots and lots of pieces of tile, mainly tegulae. I wasn’t sure why this was, except perhaps they helped in getting the stonework really level and watertight.

P1110320

Looking closely (and with the help of some handy indicators) you can see some other signs of fort life.

There are several animal footprints, cat and dog, left when those naughty animals walked across the wet clay times.

P1110279

Other, more human, animals also left their mark.

P1110284

And this more deliberate, and more official mark records the work of the unit responsible for the making the tiles and building the bathhouse, Legio II Augusta [LEGIIAVG].

P1110290

Around to an internal area of the bathhouse. This area is the end of the suite of bathing rooms, the frigidarium.

P1110331

Against the wall is a rectangular plunge pool which would have been filled with ice cold water, perfect for tightening the pores after the sweating and scraping in the hot rooms. On either side of this pool is a semi-circular recess which would have housed basins for dowsing with cold water.

P1110353

Also displayed in this area is this fragment of one of the basins. Carved from purbeck marble and decorated with the Gorgon’s head.

P1110362

Also this fantastic drain cover. It’s quite large. About a metre across.

P1110369

Dotted around the bathhouse site and in the nearby museum are other finds recovered from the bathhouse. There’s this lovely dolphin water spout, probably from the fountain house at the end of the long swimming pool.

P1110698

One of the most interesting places for finds in Roman bathhouses is…the drains. Ok, bear with me.

Roman bathhouses were undoubtedly places in which people could get clean. Bathers would smother their skin in the oil, then spend time in the warm and hot rooms, sweating out the dirt, which was then scraped off with a curved blunt instrument called a strigil. At Caerleon, several bathers seem to have had accidental breakages.  These bottle necks, complete with bone stoppers, are from the little globular bottles that bathers used to carry their olive oil to the baths.

P1110433

But these baths had other functions; they were meeting places, places where deals were done, places to exercise and to relax, places to get a massage, places for naughty assignations, places to play games and get a bite to eat. All  of these activities have left their residue in the drains, heating flues and rubbish dumps of the bathhouses.

At Caerleon, the bathhouse drains have turned up a remarkable number of intaglios. These are the little gems made from materials like jasper, garnet, carnelian, agate, glass and rock crystal, engraved with images such as gods or animals, that were set into jewellery, often finger rings. The heat and damp of the baths evidently caused the gems to come loose as 88 of them have been found in the drains.

20150815_141331

20150815_141215--

There is a bit of reflected light on this, but you can see from the blown up image that this gem depicts a horse.

20150815_141142

Nice, but I bet that a few Romans would have been annoyed at losing them.

But bath-time is over now. I’ll have a look at the rest of the visible remains another time.

Pip pip.

Roman counter culture: Dodgy geezer.

Well, it’s our last week for a little while and it all ended on a rather dodgy note.

And here it is.

P1400855

What a sorry specimen. It’s little more than a chip off the old die. I had just over half of the 6-face and a sliver of a couple of other faces but that’s it.

 And then I turned it over…

P1400828

The first thing to notice is that hole. It lines up with one of the 6 pips, which is odd. The maker has drilled a hole in the die and then covered it over with a dot-and-double-ring pip on the surface. Hmmm.

P1400843

Then there’s that grey stuff. It looks like a tooth-filling. Is it lead? Hmmm.

The other clue that there is something iffy about this die is the weight. Although it’s just a tiny scrap, it weights as much as some other complete dice that we’ve had. Hmmm.

It’s a dodgy die, later known as a ‘Fulham’. The maker has hollowed out a little space inside the die and then filled it with with a weight (possibly lead, but I’ll try to find out what this substance is). This would influence the outcome of throws, perhaps increasing the chances of ‘high’ or ‘low’ throws.  Naughty people.

And this brings me on to what we will be doing next. These dice have all been really interesting, but so far we only know a limited amount about them. They’ve been removed from their contexts. We don’t know much about where they were found, what they were found with, or even their dates. We’ve had ‘Roman’, but ‘Roman’ in Britain covers 400 years! Can we narrow that down a bit? We also need to know what, if anything, the conservators made of these objects. What did they think that grey stuff is?

This will be an ongoing task which Guy John and I will be working on over the summer. I’ll post anything of particular interest but for now I’ll leave you with his fantastic little gaming scene from the Bardo in Tunis.

P1200194

Roman Counter Culture: same again, guv.

We’re back at the Museum of London again this week to finish the digitization of the Museum collection of Roman, and later, dice.

This is pretty much ‘more of the same’ except for one beauty at the end, so here they are.

P1400528

Again, these dice have all be taken off display in the Museum for us to work on. They’re probably back on display by now.

I had another one very similar to this (below) last week.

P1400560

And here’s a nice, but rather squat bone type 1 die.

 P1400541

I also had this very nice type 2 die.  Unfortunately one of the plugs was missing from the 4 face, but otherwise, it was in very good condition.

P1400536  P1400538

We also created a record for this lovely jet (-like) die.

P1400532

It’s in really good condition, the only damage being a chip out of one face. These black-material dice don’t scan well, as the edges tend to disappear into the background. This one will be photographed instead. We were all having a conversation about what the white substance in the pips might be; wax? clay? some wort of resin? Dunno, and we’re not going to scrape any out to get it tested, so it’ll just have to be a mystery for now.

Glynn was giving a paper at the Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference (TRAC) utilizing some of the objects that we’ve been working on, specifically the jet and amber pieces. I was attending the conference and can report that his paper went down very well. This lovely amber die, which I’ve been hiding this picture of since November, was a particular hit.

die

Roman Counter Culture: Museum pieces

This was the view from my window this week.

P1400304.

The wall running along the bottom of the photo is the medieval city wall, built on the foundations of the Roman wall which formed part of the city wall and the fort. We’ve relocated for a little while, from the LAARC to The Museum of London to work on the pieces that are actually on display. Glynn had already swiped the necessary dice from the display cases, just for a little while, so we can create digital records of them for the Museum’s Collections Online.

As we only had access to one scanner, we worked on the basis of a division of labour. John scanned the dice and saved the images while Guy and I worked on the descriptions, weights and measures. Then we all started on cleaning up and assembling the images.

P1400305.

I started with a nice Type 2 die…

P1400323.

One of the plugs was missing, but otherwise it was in pretty good shape.

And then this one (below). The 6 face looks nice and square, albeit with slightly wobbly pips.

P1400327.

The 3 face, somewhat less square.

P1400330.

It’s a bit of a wonky one. Most of the faces are different sizes and there’s a distinct curve to the 1 face.

P1400352.

This one is a bit (lot) more regular.

P1400363.

We’ve see a great deal of variety between the dice we’ve been working on. That raises questions about manufacturing techniques and the rationales for production.

From the museum collection, we came across two that looked almost like a pair.

P1400415.

They came from the same site, although not from the same contexts, and Guy and I did think that they looked like they might have been made by the same person. This was just because of the size and shape, and the way that the pips look. The sides are not very even, with the 6 and the 1 faces being nice and square, but the 2,3,4 and 5 faces being quite rectangular. They would have had a definite tendency to land with either the 6 or the 1 face uppermost. They looked like they were reasonably nicely made, but have suffered some damage.

 P1400407.  P1400406.

They were recovered from a cemetery context, which made me wonder – RANDOM SPECULATION ALERT!! – is it possible that these dice were being made specifically as funerary objects? I wondered this because their shape does make them a bit dodgy for use as gaming dice, but wouldn’t matter at all if they were made as symbolic objects to be buried with the dead. They could then be made from oddly-sized off-cuts of bone, and it wouldn’t matter.

I’m going to have a little think about this, and try to have a look at more dice found as part of burials to see if there really are any patterns, or if we just have a slightly tipsy dice-maker here.

More from the Museum next time.