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.

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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.

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.

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

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

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These are sheep’s knuckle-bones.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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!.

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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.

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

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

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

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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.

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And I love this beautifully complete little money box.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Other, more human, animals also left their mark.

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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].

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

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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.

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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