Age-old cities

Paris.

Just a super-speedy flying visit, but it was nice to be there all the same. But the trouble with super-speedy flying visits  is that, no matter how nice they are, they always leave you wanting more. There’s just not enough time to do everything. I mean, I need to get to Musee Cluny to see the new entrance and walkways around the thermes, and for the winter expo,  Naissance De La Sculpture Gothique. There’s also an exhibition at Cité de l’Architecture et du PatrimoineLe Crac des Chevaliers. Chroniques d’un rêve de pierre, examining the architectural and political significance of the Syrian crusader castle, Crac des Chevaliers. But, in the end, the short time that I had just had to be spent at the brilliant Institut du Monde Arabe for the exhibition Age-old cities: Virtual trip from Palmyra to Mosul

The exhibition takes in four ancient and modern cities affected by recent and ongoing conflict, and presents aspects of them as they are, as they were and as they may be in the future. This is not an exhibition of artefacts  but of images. Using photographs, films and photogrammetric survey footage, taken using drones (carried out by UNESCO), we get a view of the cities as they are today. The use of drones, in particular, reveals the significant damage, destruction even, of whole swathes of the urban environment, with deserted, bombed-out buildings apparently teetering on the brink of collapse and the still-inhabited areas thick with dust and debris. As I’ve been to three of the places featured in the exhibition, I’ve added in a few photos of mine, taken on my visits. Some of the other photos,which were taken in the exhibition, are a bit blurry, as they’re of moving images.

Mosul

The exhibition opens with Mosul, a city which I have never visited. On entering the first main exhibition space, I walked into a large-scale panoramic projection of a fly-over of the city as it is now. Now, I’ve seen plenty of drone footage of areas affected by the ongoing conflict but, particularly on a such a large scale, these images of destruction are truly shocking.

Mosul
Mosul

Sitting on the west bank of the Tigris, opposite the Assyrian city of Ninevah, and around 400km north of Baghdad, Mosul has existed as a settlement, at this location or hereabouts, for at least 2500 years (Ninevah is far older). Capture by daesh on 10th June 2014 and only retaken by Iraqi forces, after heavy bombardment, on 21st July 2017, Mosul and Mosulis have suffered terribly as a result of the conflict in Iraq, with women and religious minorities particularly badly affected. The city had been known as relatively diverse, with the Iraqi Sunni Muslim majority sharing the city with Assyrians, Kurds, Turkmens, Shabaks, Yazidis, Armenians and Mandeans. Although many of the city’s Jews left for Israel in the 1950s, there was still a significant Christian population until the arrival of daesh in 2014.

One  of the specific structures zoomed in on was the al-Nuri Mosque. Famous for its leaning minaret (possibly due to the effects of thermal expansion caused by the sun’s heat), the mosque was the focus of pilgrimage and veneration for 850 years. It was the site at which the daesh leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, self-declared the (so-called) “caliphate” and the daesh flag was flown from the minaret. The mosque was destroyed during the Battle of Mosul in 2017, although there is some disagreement over whether it was destroyed by daesh or by the forces liberating the city.

Still from drone footage of the al-Nuri Mosque, Mosul. 

There is really very little left of the mosque, just the ruin of the domed central hall and the stump of the famous minaret. All the rest is rubble.

As part of the film, we witnessed the digital ‘reconstruction’ of the site. These images are built up using recent photographs from all angles, often people’s holiday snaps (I actually sent some photos of a site in Syria for exactly this purpose), which are digitally stitched together to create a 3d image.

Still from drone footage of the digital reconstruction of the al-Nuri Mosque, Mosul. 

Aleppo

Aleppo Citadel. Photo taken 5th November 2009.

Moving on to Aleppo, again drone footage lays bare the scale of destruction. We tak a fly-over, and through, the ancient souks, part of the ‘Ancient City of Aleppo’ World Heritage Site, now severely damaged,

…and up the ramp to the Citadel.

This really brought back memories of my time there, when it looked very different.

Aleppo Citadel. Photo taken on 5th November 2009.

The walls of the Citadel have clearly sustained damage, and it looked like parts of the interior space had too, although I  found it a bit difficult to orient myself in this complex site.

Leptis Magna

Arch of Septimius Severus              

The section on Leptis (Lepcis) Magna was less of  an agony for me. Although there has been some illegal digging and looting at the site, local residents, working in militias, have tried to stave off the worst of the lawlessness, and there hasn’t been the kind of occupation or intensive bombardment that we have seen at the other sites showcased.

The images I saw looked pretty similar to the way that it looked when I was there 10 years ago. The ancient structures are partial and the site is, largely, a ruin, albeit a very impressive one, but there weren’t obvious signs of recent extensive damage. Nevertheless, the fly-through of the macellum (marketplace) and the virtual reconstruction of the Severan Basilica was pretty impressive and provided a little respite before the final key site featured, one which I knew I would find hard to witness.

Palmyra

Temple of Bel, Palmyra. Photo taken 8th November 2009.

When I visited Palmyra, and the modern town Tadmur, in late 2009, it was an impressive, pretty well kept ancient site. The main site itself was open for visitor to wander in and look around and it was possible to wander pretty far, as it’s a very large site.

Some people in my hotel were getting up before dawn to go on a camel ride. I, being less interested in camels, got up at the same time and accompanied them for a little way on foot before heading off into the low hills on my own. These hills are the site of the necropolis of Palmyra and I was fortunate enough to have these evocative tower tombs all to myself in the silent, pink, early morning. *

 

 

Several of these tombs were destroyed and/or damaged by daesh in 2014/15.

One of the other notable instances of willful vandalism was the dynamiting of the Temple of Bel (above) and I found myself feeling particularly sad at the images of the theatre and the Temple of Baalshamin, when I found myself standing, virtually, in the rubble of the building.

This was a building in which I had stood, gazing at the beautiful decorative friezes and the carved columns, and thanking my good fortune at having the opportunity to be there.

Temple of Baalshamin, Palmyra. Photo taken 8th November 2009.

Temple of Baalshamin, Palmyra. Photo taken 8th November 2009.

But I couldn’t help but think past the structural damage and the willful and shocking destruction of the ancient temples, to the devastation wrought on the people living in the modern Palmyrene town of Tadmur. I couldn’t help thinking about the people murdered by daesh in the theatre, including Palmyra’s Head of Antiquities, Khaled al-Asaad (January 1932 – 18 August 2015). 

Throughout the exhibition there are short films, talking heads and personal accounts of the effects of all of this destruction on the people living in these cities but, particularly as a visitor whose French is a bit shaky, the focus of the exhibition really is on the effects of conflict on the built environment. The images recorded by drones are largely devoid of people, the streets thst I remember as bustling and busy with the usual comings and goings of the city, are eerily empty of life. A notable exception is a short film documenting the filmmaker’s return to Aleppo to speak with the people still living there.

He meets the shopkeeper who, despite being surrounded by the dust and debris of countless explosions, still diligently cleans his stock before putting it on display. And there’s the young woman recording a video message on her phone, to send to her sister, who is not in the city.

The young woman doesn’t say anything of any importance, just chats and reads the news and laughs and hopes that she will still be alive tomorrow.

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The exhibition ‘Cités millénaires Voyage virtuel de Palmyre à Mossoul‘ is on at the Institut du Monde Arabe until 10th February 2019.

For updates on the current situations in these regions, follow: @AinSyria ‏ and @AinIraq

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*I had the tombs all to myself except for the small child who chased after me for about half a mile asking for sweets. I had no sweets with me so I gave him a pen. He seemed satisfied with this alternative. I wonder where he is now, and I hope he’s ok. 

 

 

 


 

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Horse guards parade.

The Hadrian’s Cavalry exhibition currently on display at ten sites across the northern frontier lured me up north for a short visit. As I didn’t have the time to get to all of the exhibition sites, I prioritized the expos in Newcastle and Carlisle at the Great North Museum: Hancock, at Arbeia Roman Fort & Museum, at Segedunum and at Tullie House Museum & Art Gallery.

I’ve previously written about the extreme coolness of Roman cavalry parade helmets, so this is a little bit of an extension of that, as well as just a general Roman cavalry parade helmet love-in.

First up, Arbeia.

Arbeia Roman Fort, situated at a strategic point on the River Tyne was founded in about 120CE and was occupied right up until the end of the Roman period in Britain. Throughout this long life-span, the fort served as a base for (among others) auxiliary units of cavalry from Spain,  the First Asturian, and boatmen from Mesopotamia. It was converted into a supply station in the Severan period, handling the import of commodities destined for troops in the military zone.

At Arbeia Roman Fort, the Hadrian’s Cavalry exhibition, ‘Uncovering cavalry‘ is more about highlighting objects in the existing collection with just a couple of additions of objects on loan. This iron cavalry helmet from Limesmuseum Aalen is known as an ‘Alexander’ type due to its resemblance to portraits of Alexander the Great from around the same period, CE150-250.

Many surviving cavalry helmets are made from copper-alloy, sometimes coated in silver, but far fewer iron helmets have been found as they are more prone to corrosion. This helmet was found in a scrap metal dump near the workshops of Aalen cavalry fort.

A quick hop over the Tyne on the ferry took me to Segedunum. The larger exhibition there, ‘Rome’s elite troops – building Hadrian’s cavalry’, looks at the make up of the cavalry units and some of the manoeuvres used by cavalry units in battle.

Segedunum Roman Fort was built in about 127CE, when Hadrian’s Wall, originally starting at Pons Aelius (Newcastle upon Tyne) in 122AD, was subsequently extended by four miles to the east, to Wallsend. The fort was home to mixed cavalry-infantry units including the Second Cohort of Nervians in the 2nd century and, in the 3rd and 4th centuries the Fourth Cohort of the Lingones.

Alongside objects from Segedunum’s own collection are several helmets and helmet cheek-pieces on loan. One unusual helmet from Musée d’Art Classique de Mougins is this double-eagle crested helmet, a type worn by members of the Imperial Horse Guard in the third century.

  

Also in the exhibition is this silvered shield boss on loan from a private collection in the UK. The boss shows significant damage, probably sustained in battle during the Dacian Wars.

The boss is decorated with incised images of mythological subjects; Mars, Medusa, Jupiter, Apollo and Hercules. The outer part is decorated with images related to battle; shields, winged Victories, armour and a helmet.

There are two inscriptions on the boss; at the top, a statement of the ownership of the shield by Marcus Ulpius, a member of the Imperial Horse Guard in the time of the Emperor Trajan, and at the bottom, a record of the donation of the shield boss as an offering by Flavius Volussinus in memory of Marcus Ulpius.

Back in town, I went off to Newcastle’s Great North Museum: Hancock to see two helmets of a particular type. The display there, ‘Hadrian’s Cavalry: Shock and awe – the power of the Roman cavalryman’s mask’ shows the Ribchester Helmet (on loan from The British Museum) together with a second helmet of the same type (on loan from a private collection).

 

The Ribchester Helmet was found in Lancashire in 1796, as part of the Ribchester Hoard. It’s a bronze ceremonial helmet with a distinctive peak. The second helmet has been dated to roughly the same period as the Ribchester Helmet; 70-110CE/75-125CE.

Also at the GNM is Mithras.

The museum is home to a brilliant collection of Mithraic images and objects collected from sites along and around Hadrian’s Wall. Alongside more familiar mithraic imagery of the Tauroctony and the companions of Mithras, Cautes and Cautopates, this collection also includes this amazing carved stone sculpture of the birth of Mithras, with the god emerging from the Cosmic Egg.

Added to this, until 27th August, are three objects on loan from the collection at the Museum of London. The three marble busts were found buried under the floor level of the Mithraeum at Bucklesbury. They are a marble head of Minerva, the head of Serapis and the head of Mithras himself.

This is such a great idea. Bringing together the two best Mithras collections in the country. It’s also a good opportunity to have a bit of  look at Mithraeism in two different environments; the Mithraeums up on Hadrian’s Wall were in a military zone and associated with forts; e.g. Housesteads/Vercovicium and Carrawburgh/Brocolitia, while the London mithraeum was in civilian, urban area. The accompanying film also looks at the discovery of the London mithraeum in the 1950s.

A swift trundle west to Carlisle brought me to Tullie House Museum for the Guardians on the edge of empire – cavalry bases and Roman power exhibition, and more helmets. This is the largest of the exhibitions that I visited and there were some fantastic objects on display.

The fort at Carlisle, Stanwix/Uxelodunum, is thought to have housed cavalry troops, most the Ala Petriana. Home to a thousand mounted troops and their horses and support staff. This unit’s exceptional service earned them Roman citizenship while still serving. This is the unit in which Flavinus the signifer whose memorial now stands in Hexham Abbey, served, albeit at an earlier date.

The exhibition focuses, again, on the role and organization of the cavalry on the frontier and has an impressive range of helmets, face masks and other armoury pieces on display.

There are some pretty showy pieces, including this 2nd-3rdc. CE ‘Ostrov’ type helmet from Musée d’Art Classique de Mougins.

The helmet is a shape similar of one found in a burial at Ostrov, Romania and has a distinctive Phrygian cap shape on the upper part, topped with the head of a griffin and covered in scales.

The Gallery Attendant on duty when I visited was also very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the exhibition, and I had several conversations with her while I was looking round. She was particularly interested in this 3rdc. CE Amazon face mask (from Archäologische Staatssammlung München) and wondered about its origins and possible influences on the styling.

 

It really has a strong eastern look, reflecting the exoticism of the Amazon warriors. But comparing  it with the second Amazon face mask in the exhibition (mid-2nd – mid-3rdc. CE, from Archäologisches Landesmuseum Baden-Württemberg) just shows up how exotic this one really looks.

This 1stc. CE ‘kalkreise’ type face mask (below), on loan from a private collection, is interesting as it has markings on the cheeks. As Imperial cavalry forces were usually auxiliary, i.e.non-citizen, units raised in provinces incorporated into the empire, these could have been indicative of tribal tattoos.

It’s really interesting to see the number of helmets and masks, and other pieces of armour, on display that are from private collections. This makes these displays even more worth seeing while they’re on, as there’s no telling whether they’ll be displayed in public again.

So there you are. A little peek at a few of the Hadrian’s Cavalry exhibitions. It would have been nice to have been able to do all ten as a road trip but I only had time for a flying visit. And I should also just point out that these exhibitions are in addition to the already excellent Roman collections at the museums and sites in question. Of course, on the back of seeing these exhibitions and displays, I’m now going to have to get down to Mougins to visit the museum there, and it has encouraged me to add more of Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Belgium to the (never-ending) list.

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The Hadrian’s Cavalry exhibition continues until 10th September at ten sites along Hadrian’s Wall and down the western coast as far as Maryport.

More Bridges of the World

On the walkways of Tower Bridge there is currently a display of other iconic, interesting, ancient and modern bridges around the world.

There are some big hitters in the display; the Pont Neuf; the Golden Gate Bridge; Ironbridge, and some interesting but less widely known examples, for example the Moses Bridge at Fort de Roovere, Halsteren, Netherlands. Looking at this exhibition, an in-passing conversation got me thinking about other bridges that have taken my fancy on my travels, so here are a few ‘Other Bridges of the World’.

The Tower Bridge display include a beautiful bridge which I was fortunate to visit in Isfahan, Iran, the Allāhverdi Khan Bridge, more commonly known as Si-O-So-Pol.

Here are a few of my images of this lovely bridge.

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A little way to the west of the Si-O-So-Pol bridge is another mid-17th century beauty, the Khaju Bridge.

Again, the bridge is built of two levels of arcades, and has the original tiles and paintings still intact.

The bridge works as both a bridge and a weir, but it also has a function as a buildings for meetings, a space for the Shah Abbas, the Persian Safavid king, to relax, take tea and admire the view.

The weir’s effect on the river is very evident but, as long as the water isn’t too high, it’s quite safe to sit by the water to enjoy the cool space on a hot day.

When I visited, the area around both of these bridges and along the riverside was peppered with people; individuals, couples, groups of friends and families, all enjoying the same relaxing space as the Shah Abbas. Strolling along the riverbank, sitting by the water, listening to music and eating ice-cream. Some things never change.

The sole Roman Bridge in the Tower Bridge display is the Pont du Garde, near Nimes in France.

I’m including another Roman bridge here for good measure. In Algeria, crossing the El Kantara gorge in Biskra, on the journey south to Ghardaia, we came to the El Kantara Roman Bridge.

The bridge was substantially rebuilt under Napolean but its roots are Roman. Built, probably, by the Third Legion Augusta, who were stationed at Lambaesis, this bridge crossed the gorge which was, and still is, the gateway to the desert. This made it a vital point of access for trade and people.

The bridge eventually fell into disrepair but was  renovated and widened under Napoleon.

Some of the original Roman construction blocks can be seen, and there is also an area of the original pavement, although it doesn’t look like it’s still in situ.

During our visit, we were joined at the bridge by a wedding party, and the happy couple has photos taken by the side of the river and on the bridge. We were told that it’s a bit of a tradition in the area to have wedding photos taken there and it’s certainly a lovely spot for it.

In the exhibition is a bridge which became a victim of war and, subsequently, a symbol of  post-war recovery and reconcilliation: Stari Most, the Mostar Bridge.

Originally built in the 16th century, on 9th November 1993, the Mostar Bridge was destroyed by Croat forces in the Croat-Bosniak War. Its destrucion has been described as a deliberate attack on the culture of Mostar in an act of “killing memory”*, so its reconstruction and reopening in 2004 acted as a symbol of the town’s recovery, both physically and culturally.

A bridge in my own alternative exhibition has suffered a similar fate and, we must hope, may yet act as a symbol for the future. In the northern Syrian town of Deir-ez Zor stood the Deir ez-Zor suspension bridge (Arabic: جسر دير الزور المعلق‎‎).

Deir ez-Zor suspension bridge, early misty morning.

This bridge was built in 1927, under the French Mandate and acted as a pedestrian route across the Euphrates, connecting the Levant region of the city on the southern bank with the Upper Mesopotamia region on the north bank. When I visited Deir-ez Zor in 2009, I was particularly gleeful about being able to walk from the Levant to Mesopotamia.

 

The bridge was destroyed in May 2013 in shelling by the Free Syrian Army.

Deir-ez Zor has suffered horribly in the Syrian War and this situation continues with no obvious end in sight. Clearly I have no idea how the situation in Syria will be resolved but I can only hope that one day, soon, the Deir-ez Zor Suspension Bridge might act as a symbol for the end of war and the beginning of recovery, as has the Mostar Bridge.

To end on a slightly less depressing note, a bridge that’s a bit more modern.

One of the (many) things I like about Newcastle is the great abundance of bridges over the Tyne. There are railway bridges and road bridges, some of them towering above the river and the streets below them.

There’s a swing bridge!

Walking over the Tyne Bridge feels like an act of folly due to the thunderous traffic, but it’s quite fun nevertheless.

But there is also a more recent and more chilled out bridge taking pedestrians from the city over to the Baltic on the Gateshead side of the river: the Gateshead Millennium Bridge.

Work on the bridge began in 1999 and it opened to the public in September 2001. It is a bit of a symbol of the regeneration of the riverside area. I’m pretty sure that anyone who lives in an old industrial city can testify, ‘regeneration’ can be a double edged sword. Down at heel, even derelict areas can be brought back to life and made really nice. The addition of a decent cafe is always welcome. But in the rush to lure new money and new people to an area, ‘regeneration’ can often ignore the people who already live or work there. I’m not sure exactly how the people of Newcastle feel about their riverside’s regeneration but, as a visitor, I like it.

It’s a tilting bridge which consists of two steel arches, one which carries the footpath and the other which acts as a counterweight. Like Tower Bridge, the Gateshead Millennium Bridge ‘opens’ for river traffic to pass underneath, but rather than using the split roadway idea, the entire bridge tilts.

Despite having seen and walked across this bridge lots of times, I’d never seen it actually tilting but on a recent quick jolly up north to see some of the Hadrian’s Cavalry exhibition, I was able to catch it on its regular midday tilt**. It’s brilliant 😀 I already liked this bridge but, having now seen it tilting, I like it even more.

These are just a few bridges that have impressed themselves on my memory on my travels. There are others that I really like, in Constantine, Algeria; at Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland and, of course, in London, but I think that I’ll leave those for another day.

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*https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stari_Most#Reconstruction

** There’s a little Youtube video here: https://youtu.be/lQ0ZqeE7vB0

2016 – annus horribilis

Where to start with 2016.

What an absolute shower. Brexit, Trump, our heroes dropping like flies, Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary. This is all, all awful.

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Which is why I’m not going to write another word about any of it and focus on all the cool things about 2016.

2015 ended like this…

And 2016 started like this…

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I spent the New Year in Jordan, at Petra and also a few other places like Madaba and Amman, over the course of a week or so. This was pretty cool, although it was quite cold and there was something going on at Petra which meant that the army was called out. This was, initially, slightly alarming, but it was all fine and I was able to spend some quality time looking at archaeology and cats. Two of my favourite things.

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By the end of January, I’d handed in my notice at work and was looking forward to some freedom. As I had to work quite a long notice period, freedom had to wait, but at least it was on the horizon.

If it’s Tuesday, this must be…

I’ve been travelling a fair bit this year, mostly, but not exclusively, in northern Europe and mostly chasing Romans, so here’s a little round-up (with links where I’ve already blogged my travels).

At Easter I popped off to Morocco for a bit. Friends had warned me to be careful because some people have had negative experiences, especially in Tangier, getting a lot of hassle from pushy touts and over-eager shopkeepers. I had no problems at all (except for one grumpy taxi driver). No, I had a great time visiting some of the Roman sites in northern Morocco, including Volubilis

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Lixus

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Chellah

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and Tamouda.

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I think that most people don’t really think of Morocco as a Roman area and, it’s true, the Romans only really settled the north, away from the main tourist areas of Fez, Marrakesh and the desert. Still, Romans were what I wanted and Romans were what I got.

Once I’d done with work and was free (FREE!!) I was off to Paris.

While there, I visited the last resting place of millions of humans (Les Catacombes de Paris) and hundreds of animals (Le Cimetière des Chiens). It’s rather telling that it was only the latter of these that reduced me to a sobbing wreck.

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Then up to Northumberland to meet up with some digging pals; Tim and Laura, AKA Lord and Lady Trowelsworthy; Pete; Pierre; Scott; Jeff…the gang.

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It’s not often that I get a welcoming committee and a banner!

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And then down to Marseille for a week of sun, ships and … Romans 😀

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And now I must mention ATP.

In the spring, ATP was holding two festivals at a holiday camp in north Wales. I wasn’t going to go because I find the whole holiday camp schtick a bit trying, but a number of friends were at the first of the two. These festivals didn’t exactly go as planned (cue: divers alarums) and the fall out left a rather bitter taste in many mouths.

There had been another ATP festival due to take place in Iceland  at the end of June, which I was going to. To be honest, I was already well prepared for this to go pear-shaped and, as I’d been able to book flights and accommodation for good prices, I had already decided that Iceland was on, whatever happened with ATP. Obviously, as it turned out, ATP went west but I still went north, and had a great time.

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Boats, beaches, puffins, architecture, spelunking, and football 😀

And even…Romans!!

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Seriously, these are the only four Roman coins in Iceland.

In August, I spent some time in Belgium, again looking for Romans. Based in Liege, I made several trips to sites in the surrounding area.

Heerlan

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Tongeren

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Arlon

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and in Liege itself

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At the end, I popped over to Berlin for a few days (the flight from Brussels was £9! £9!!) and hit the museums and hot-spots like a total tourist.

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I was actually back in Berlin again in November, as my friend Katherine was going over and that seemed like a great excuse to join her.

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Levitation France was on in Angers in September, so I went over for that and…Romans (obviously).

Starting off in Nantes

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Then moving on to Angers for the festival with side visits to Jublains

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Le Mans

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and Tours

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Life is good

The dark dreary wintery end of January was brightened up with groovy lights at Lumiere London.

Summer saw a visit to excavations at the Curtain Theatre in Shoreditch

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And I started working on a research project for the Petrie Museum. This is the museum of Egyptian archaeology at UCL and the project was looking at archaeology in the middle east during, and around, the First World War.

Summer also saw me doing a bit of digging with Hendon & District Archaeological Society at a site in north London.

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The society has been investigating Clitterhouse Farm for a while and my friend Roger suggested that I come along for a bit of a dig. We had a lot of fun and found 6 courses of a wall that wasn’t supposed to be there!

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September started off with a horrendous dental nightmare (root canal is hell) which I managed to get sorted, eventually. To cheer me up, the Dice People, John, Guy and me, went on a jolly to Richborough Roman Fort.

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The Dice People also became Lamp People as we spent a few days at the Archive (LAARC) seeking out all the Roman pottery lamps for the next Volunteers’ project. We found some cracking lamps, some of them complete.

London also commemorated the 350th anniversary of The Great Fire of London, by building a huge model of the City on a barge on the Thames and torching it!

This was actually ridiculously exciting.

Luck was on my side when I entered a draw for tickets to attend a lecture by Stephen Hawking at Imperial College. The lecture was on recent developments in the science of black holes. Apparently, 25,000 people applied for tickets so this was a bit of a coup for me.

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Now, I’m a scientific ignoramus so most of the sciencey stuff went whizzing way over my head but Prof Hawking is actually quite an accessible speaker. He tries to make it comprehensible even to thickies like me so the opportunity to attend one of his lectures was a treat.

Also, he’s on Big Bang.

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2016 was also the year that I, rather unexpectedly, became a great-aunt when my nephew and his girlfriend popped out a surprise baby. None of this was planned of course but, hey ho, these things happen. I’m delighted to report that all is well and his name is Roman…ROMAN!! 😀 😀

Music makes me lose control

There has been no Loop in 2016. This is a source of great sorrow to me and the implosion of ATP caused me to assume that there would be no more in the future. I’m pleased to say that there is now the promise of more Soundhead action in 2017, so I live in hope.

Nevertheless, I have been to some cracking gigs this year and here’s a little round-up of some of the best.

Cavern of Anti-Matter at The Moth Club, Patterns in Brighton, Dingwalls (for my birthday), and at Liverpool psych Fest. I like Cavern of Anti-Matter. The band features Tim Gane and Joe Dilworth of Stereolab  fame and sounds pretty well as you’d expect them to sound. This is a good thing. Plenty of bounce, groovy drums and some cool squelchy electro- synths. Nice.

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The Vacant Lots at the Shacklewell Arms, the Prince Albert in Brighton and The Moth Club. The Vacant Lots are definitely too cool for school, but Jared really should be more careful. He actually ended up in stitches (at Homerton Hospital) after the Shacklewell Arms gig.

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My focus in the first quarter of the year was to drag myself to the end of my notice period and escape work with my sanity, and I was helped along by two cracking, and very loud gigs by The Heads.

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I also got to see The Coathangers at The Moth Club and Follakzoid, playing at the Raw Power Festival. I was also treated to a brilliant gig by Sonic Boom with a new find (for me) in support; Happy Meals.

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And Sonic also played at Levitation France, and with Etienne Jaumet (of Zombie Zombie)  at a gig with James Holden at St. Luke’s.

There have also been lots of very good gigs by (in no particular order) Camera, Michael Rother, Damo Suzuki, Xaviers, Silver Apples, Minny Pops and Ulrika Spacek. Girl Band, Big Naturals, Spiritualized, Spectres, K-X-P, Anthroprophh, Zombie Zombie, Traams, and Tomaga.

And a spooky Christmas gig from Low.

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However, the latter part of the year has undoubtedly been owned by Teenage Fanclub.

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I’d had to miss the Teenage Fanclub gig in Islington in September because of the aforementioned dental issue and the resulting facial deformity (seriously, it was baaaad 😦 ) but I was recovered sufficiently to see the Fannies at Rough Trade the following week, with Dave and Adam.

That album I’m holding was their first new album for 6 years and I have been crushing on it, HARD, ever since the second listen (the second listen, mind).

To support the new album, the Fannies had embarked on a pretty extensive tour, first in the US/Canada then the UK. Initially, I only had a ticket for the Cambridge gig but that would just not do, and I was fortunate enough to bag a ticket for the London gig just a couple of days before the gig.

Good move 😀 I haven’t seen TFC in ages but seeing them again filled me with all the same good feelings of old.

After the fun of the London and Cambridge gigs I was eager for more so, having a pal up in Scotland who I knew was going to the Barrowland gig, I set about investigating the possibility of getting up to Glasgow without being utterly ridiculous. This worked out pretty well (despite the initial hiccup of my train being cancelled!!) and I was able to go to a top night out in the East End with Simon, Andy, Rob and Donna. I wished that I could have stayed for the second night (at the ABC O2) but, really, there are limits and I had to get back for the cats.

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So,  2016 has been, nationally and internationally, as dodgy as flip, but, personally, I’ve had a blast. Clearly, I’ve had a pretty self-indulgent year so I’m ending it working some shifts at a Crisis centre. I haven’t done this in a couple of years because I’ve been out of the country but now I’m back in my usual chair with the sewing team. We do repairs and alterations for guests, on items that need a bit of TLC; clothing, bags and rucksacks, sleeping bags, that sort of thing.

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It’s fun and we always have  a good time but housing insecurity and rough sleeping are on the increase and, clearly, it would be far better if this wasn’t necessary at all. It can feel a bit overwhelming and I certainly can’t fix anyone’s problems. I can, however, fix the seam on their trousers, or the zip on their bag, so that’s what I’m doing.

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Of course, I’ll have to go back to work now. I’ve had my fun but, not being independently wealthy, I do actually have to earn a living (my friend thinks that I’ve won the lottery. I haven’t). Still, it was great while it lasted.

So goodbye 2016 and hello 2017. Love to you all from me, and from my own little Beastie Boys, Archie and Bertie.

The Kingdom of the West: Hercules at Volubilis

Hercules, the Greek Herakles, was a bit of a hit in ancient Morocco. Ancient writers, writing about the Phoenicians in North Africa, identified Hercules with the Phoenician god Melqart and there are reports of many temples across North Africa dedicated to Hercules.

At Volubilis, the best-known Roman site in Morocco, there are a few indications of the continuing allegiances to Hercules/Melqart into the Roman period. At the centre of the city stands the Basilica and the Capitol which is the site of the temple to the three main Roman deities; Jupiter, Juno and Minerva.

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The people of Roman Volubilis were giving the proper respect to the Roman gods, but old habits die hard. At the side of the temple platform, almost unseen at the base of a door pilaster…

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is this tiny little image of Hercules.

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He’s holding a bag and his club and is nude, as befits all ancient heroes.

There’s another, similar but larger image on a stone block near the entrance to the site. In an area where a number of grave markers have been lined up, is this,

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There’s no text on it, and I’ve no idea where it may have originally been found, but it’s certainly the same Hercules image, although he does look a bit less cut than the temple Hercules.

Just off the decumanus maximus is the House of the Labours of Hercules, so-named account of this mosaic.

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The mosaic depicts the Twelve Labours, albeit in a rather naive style.

Here’s Labour Twelve – ‘Dog Walking’ (capturing the hell-hound Cerberus).

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And Labour Six – ‘Duck  hunting’ (slaying the Stymphalian Birds).

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Labour Seven – Capturing the Cretan Bull.

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And the  Fifth Labour – Cleaning the Augean stable.

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And here is Hercules’ earliest heroic task, killing the snakes sent by Juno to kill him in his cradle.

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There are other references to Hercules around the ancient province. You can see one here.

The Kingdom of the West: The fruits of the earth and the sea.

The Roman province of Mauretania Tingitana only occupied the very northern tip of what is now Morocco, from, roughly, Rabat in the south-west up to the northern coast and as far east as the Moulouya river, near the modern border with Algeria. The wealth of Roman Morocco was based on the production of commodities that the empire needed. Grain, olive oil, garum (fish sauce), all brought enormous wealth to the Phoenicians, the Romans and, later, the Byzantines.

Of the sites that I visited on my short sojourn to northern Morocco, two sites in particular provided evidence of the large-scale production of commodities for export; Volubilis and Lixus.

Volubilis is probably the best known Roman site in Morocco, visited by coachloads of tourists and schoolchildren. It has all the requisite Roman attractions for a major tourist site: Triumphal arch: tick; mosaics: tick; nicely paved roads: tick; temples and public buildings: tick. There is also a museum, but there’s nothing in it (a common occurrence in Morocco, apparently).

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I was interested in all of those things, but also in these:

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In one quadrant of the city, everywhere you look are the remains of olive presses, for the production of olive oil. I’ve seen these at other sites of course, SEE HERE, but not so many in one area.

If you’re looking out for these on your travels, look for the pressing bed, with the channels along which the oil runs:

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And the tanks that the oil runs into.

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Here it’s left to settle so the pith and skin and bits sinks to the bottom and the pure oil can be skimmed off and put into storage containers, like this dolium in the Musee Archeologique de Tetouan .

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And all around there are the remains of olive mills, used for pre-crushing the olives prior to pressing, and quern-stones for grinding wheat.

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In a small building at around the centre of the excavated site, there is a reconstruction of an olive press.

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We don’t get to see elements like the beam and tethering ropes, organic elements that rarely survive in the archaeological record. We only see the stone elements.

North-west of Volubilis, out on the Atlantic coast is the town of Larache. Just up the road from the modern town, and on the bank of the Loukkos River is the ancient city of Lixus.  The city was settled by the Phoenicians in the 7th centurey BCE, but had been founded centuries earlier, in 1180 BCE, by a Berber king.

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The new city of Larache from the old city of Lixus.

Ancient Greek writers cited Lixus as the site of the Garden of the Hesperides, the keepers of the golden apples (the same golden apples that Hercules was after).

When I visited, it wasn’t for the apples. It was for these:

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These concrete-lined tanks were used for large-scale production of salt-fish and garum, the fermented fish sauce that was essential for Roman cooking. We’ve seen these before, in Tunisia.

Its situation just near the coast and on the bank of a major river, meant that fish formed a key commodity for the city and brought a great deal of wealth to it. There are loads of these tanks built in banks on the lower part of the site.

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Over 100 of these tanks have been identified which confirms that this is no local cottage industry, but large-scale manufacturing for export.

It can sometimes seem like Roman sites are remote and out of the way, because they are often situated away from modern cities and a bit off the beaten rack, but the large-scale production of important commodities could only happen in a connected market economy. However remote a site might seem today, in the Roman period roads, sea and river routes and long-distance trade meant that even the furthest-flung corner of the empire could be important to the wider Roman world.

Lixus is visited far less often than the better-known Volubilis, but I’d recommend it. The site is lovely, a hill by a river, with gorgeous views. The remains are in pretty good condition and there is quite a lot to look at, including an amphitheatre, baths, houses and temples.

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There were mosaics found at the site but these have all either been covered over for protection or moved to the museum in Tetouan (as in the example below).

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Unfortunately, the planned on-site museum isn’t open (this seems to be a common occurrence in Morocco).

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