Musee de la Romanite, Nimes

I’ve been looking forward to the snazzy new Roman museum in Nimes for as long as I’ve known it was going to be a thing. It opened in early June so on my latest little trip, to Arles, I made a point of heading to Nimes to take a look.
The French rail company SNCF earned my everlasting enmity by cancelling my train, meaning that I arrived in Nimes a full 2 hours later than I should have, so my time was a bit more restricted than I would have liked and I actually ended up having to charge round the last bit in order to get back to the station in time to catch my train back to Arles (of which, more later).

Anyway, here’s the new Musee de la Romanite in all its glory.


I read that the design, by architect Elizabeth de Portzamparc, was, in part inspired by the idea of the fabric of the toga, with ripples and folds of glass panels reflecting the light and the shade, and bringing movement  and interest to what could be a boring, bland glass-box exterior.
From the inside, these panels act as frames for the views,

including the highlight view of Nimes’ 20,000 seat Amphitheatre.

I enjoy the visible engineering on the inside (see also the Institute du Monde Arabe in Paris).

A the entrance, the museum begins with a spiral up to the pre-Roman Gaul collection.

The museum has lots of small-ish spaces and several bigger spaces and I must admit that I found it a little bit confusing trying to work out which space to go into next in order to follow the galleries more or less chronologically.

Maybe it doesn’t really matter, it’s just that I did have a few “where next?” moments, although these might just have been on account of my eagerness to see the things that I was glimpsing through the entrance-ways between the rooms. I can’t say that that spoiled the visit but I did have to hurry at the end when I discovered that I’d missed out a whole gallery! Luckily it was a small gallery so I just about had time to have a look before running off.

There are a few signs that seem to be par for the course with newly opened exhibition spaces. That sense of things being not quite finished in time for the scheduled opening. Some of the labels were clearly temporary.

There may have been the odd balustrade missing. Certainly, a proper rail would be better than ropes here.

Some of the spaces between furniture are too narrow. I saw a man with a pretty normal-sized pushchair unable to get past a bench. There was an alternative way around but I do think that, in a brand new building, either the gap should be wide enough (for a wheelchair actually) or there should be no gap at all and we all just go the other way. TBH, if they just moved the bench, that’s problem solved.

The staircase down to the lower ground floor temporary exhibition gallery is pretty bleak, like those staircases you have to go down when you’re boarding a flight, grey, lifeless, empty. It could do with a few images or something, to liven it up a bit.

But that’s the niggles out of the way and I think that all of these things are just tweaks to be made as the new museum beds in. Now for some of the cool stuff.

The building.

As I said above, I do like the design. It’s modern but not lary or obnoxious. Due to the evil fiends at SNCF, I really didn’t have enough time to investigate all of the spaces; there is a garden somewhere (on the roof?) and the expected cafes and a shop. This isn’t a disaster for me as it gives me more aspects of the museum to discover when I revisit. I will be revisiting.

Models.

Some people apparently think that models in museums are cheesy. I am not one of those people. There were models of the landscape, of the city, of individual structures, of types of artefacts.
I like this landscape model onto which the development of the city and its changing layout are projected. It’s not a complicated idea but it really helps to see the Roman city in its landscape context.

Interactive stuff 😀

Museums are, inevitably, full of stuff that must not be touched, but I’m fond of museums that also incorporate some stuff that you can touch to your heart’s delight.
Best one? For me, unsurprisingly, Roman games 😀😀

Click the link and you can see me winning with walnuts.
The Nut Game

Films 😀

The museum has a range of films about aspects of the collection and about the conservation of particular objects. My favourite was the one about quarrying 😀, which demonstrated how Roman quarrymen (often slave or convict labour) removed blocks of stone from the quarry face using hand tools and wedges.

Context. 😀

There’s a definite emphasis on placing objects and architectural elements into their proper contexts. Where did they come from? Where were they found? Which buildings are they associated with? How were they used? The models and films really help with this, moving the artefacts from being just stuff in display cases to actually being part of everyday life in the Roman town.

Despite being big and expensive-looking, the Musee de la Romanite feels like a local museum. I got the impression that quite a few of the visitors were locals, as I kept hearing exclamations of recognition from people looking at artefacts, particularly in relation to key local landmarks like Maison Carrée and the Temple of Diana. People did seem genuinely interested. There were a lot of people watching that quarrying film, maybe, in part, because it related directly to the restoration of the Maison Carrée.

What else? Oh yeah, artefacts 😀

This post is getting too long so you’ll have to wait until the next one for the artefacts but I’ll just whet your appetite with a few. Suffice it to say that the museum takes in a wide range of object types; building material; pottery; metalwork; statues; glassware; mosaics; the lot.

Yasss 😀

So, yeah, SNCF.

Having charged round the last bits of the museum and, literally, run to the station, I found that my train back to Arles was delayed by an hour.

*shakes fist and calls down the curses of the gods*.

museedelaromanite.fr 

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Le Plan de Rome

It’s Rome, but petite.

In a dimly-lit room in the University of Caen is an expression of one man’s obsession. Le Plan de Rome, built by the French Architect Paul Bigot.

The Plan de Rome is model, an 11x6m three-dimensional terrain-map of the city of Rome in the 4th century, the time of the Emperor Constantine. Made from painted plaster, the model is, in fact, made up of 104 individual models at 1/400 scale.

Bigot began his model in the early 20th century, as a 3D plan of the Circus Maximums and then, in order to provide scale for his initial model, he began modelling the surrounding urban area, eventually building a model of about 3/5ths of the city.

The Caen model was shown at the Universal Exhibition of 1937 and was subsequently used for teaching and for public talks, but it gradually suffered due to neglect. Interest in the model was revived during the 1980s and it was conserved and redisplayed at the Université de Caen Normandie in the 1990s.

My visit to Caen coincided with the Student’s Carnival, so scenes of mayhem, carnage and passed-out-drunk-in-the-street Pikachus were the order of the day, but I was able to slip into Building F of Campus 1 to take a look at the Plan. Although it is possible to see it from the ground floor, the best view is from the first floor landing.

During his life, Bigot actually built four versions of the Plan but only two survive. Of the other two models, one previously located in the Sorbonne in Paris was damaged during the second world war and subsequently destroyed during the student riots of May 1968. The other model, made for a 1913 exhibition in Philadelphia has disappeared. The other surviving model is in the Cinquantenaire Museum in Brussels. It has a little more colour that the Caen model.

A more recent development has been the development, by the University, of a virtual model of the Plan, allowing visitors to experience a 3d fly thought of the streets of the 4th century city.

Site models can sometimes seem a bit cheesy and old-fashioned, especially when pitted against modern virtual reality, but I actually like a good model. The Plan de Rome gives a fly-over view of the ancient city and we can get a sense of the narrow, crowded streets filled with buildings; and the juxtapositions of the mundane side-by-side with the monumental. I wasn’t able to see that when I was there, as it’s only on certain days, but there are bits of it online here and there and it looks good. An opportunity to move from the bird’s eye down to street level.

The Plan is available to view from the upper corridor whenever the building is open (I guess) but it’d be worth looking out for a ‘tour’ and virtual fly-through if you happen to be in Caen. Details and dates are on the website.

http://www.unicaen.fr/cireve/rome/index.php

https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plan_de_Rome#Les_quatre_versions_du_Plan_de_Rome

Pompeii – the immortal city

I love Eurostar. I love being able to just hop on a train in town at St. Pancras and then, a couple of hours later, hop off the train somewhere with different currency. No boring schleps to and from airports, just a quick train ride. It’s so civilized.

I love the fact that if there’s something interesting happening in, say, Brussels, actually going over there is no more of a kerfuffle than going to Leeds or Bristol. So what interesting things are happening at the moment? Well, in Brussels, at the Brussels Stock Exchange, is the exhibition Pompeii, the immortal city.

Any exhibition about Pompeii comes with the possibility of a certain amount of baggage. It’s a big blockbuster story of a city frozen in time by a natural disaster, and just invites cliches. This exhibition walked what could be a fine line, as it utilized quite a lot of blockbuster effects but, overall, I think that it told a good story and it certainly had a lot of interesting things to have a look at.

The exhibition starts with a story. The story of an ordinary Pompeian family. Of Caius, the only one of that family who survived. Once we’d met the characters, we went into a rotunda for our ‘immersive experience’. Signs made it clear that this was an artistic reimagining and not a scientifically correct rendition of events in AD 79. There’s a lot of lava.

I can’t always be bothered with these sorts of ‘experiences’, especially if they’re used a a cover for ‘not much actual material’ but this was good  and I stayed to watch it a couple of times.

 

 

I needn’t have worried that there wouldn’t be anything substantial to back up the pyrotechnics, as there was plenty. I’m just adding a couple of favourites here.

One feature of Pompeian archaeology that is always impressive is the range and quality of painted wall plaster that has survived. The images produced are often mythological or idealised but there are also realistic depictions of scenes of daily life and the ordinary objects that Pompeians had and used on a daily basis. At Pompeii, because there is so much well-preserved material, we have the opportunity to compare the pictures with the real things. A favourite is the loaf of bread, carbonized by the heat from the eruption.

The bread was formed into circular loaves and pre-scored into portions before baking. Often, the loaves were stamped with the name of the producer. Pompeian advertising. Images of this kind of bread can been seen in frescos depicting  feasts and sumptuous table settings, and showing shops with the bakers doling out loaves from tall stacks.

Another, rather unusual object on display was this large, squat pot, found at Herculaneum. It has holes in it, so isn’t made to contain a liquid.

Inside there are ledges running all around the pot at different heights.

This is a glirarium. When I work at outreach events, I sometimes ask visitors “what did Romans eat?” If there are children around, they will inevitably answer “dormice”.

During the Roman period, edible dormice (Glis glis) were a delicacy, but only for the well off. The wild dormice were caught in the autumn and kept in these pots to be fattened up on walnuts, chestnuts, and acorns, and then turned into a savoury treat for the well to do. Recipes by Apicius include dormouse stuffed with pork and seasoned with pepper, nuts and laser and then roasted in the oven or boiled in broth. For a savoury/sweet twist, the dormouse was dipped in honey and sprinkled with poppy seeds.

Yum*.

Alongside the artefacts from Pompeii, on loan from various Italian museums, there are reconstructions and working models, showing how things looked and how things worked. I actually quite liked these as they were firmly in the ‘How Stuff Works’ camp. Just as an example, here the ‘odometer’, used for measuring distances like the mileage clock on a car.

The ratchet is attached to the wheels of a cart and for every Roman mile travelled, a little stone drops into the box. In an expanding empire (in both the Republican and Imperial periods), being able to measure distances was really important for travel and trade, and for moving armies and their supplies. Milestones marked the distances between places. Odometers measured those distances.

 

 

There was also this reconstruction of a screw-press for producing olive oil.

I was slightly confused by this reconstruction. It didn’t seem to say that this was a scale model, but it looks extremely small for an olive oil press. The stone pressing bed is only about 50cm square.

If it was this size, it’d only be able to manage relatively small quantities of olives for pressing at any one time. Maybe it’s for domestic use? I’m not sure either, if a stone like the one here has been found at Pompeii or if this was just intended to be an illustration of a screw-press in a more general way, as there is olive oil production associated with the Pompeii hinterland.

Moving on…

With Pompeii exhibitions, the people themselves are often the star attractions. Casts of the imprints left by the people who died and were entombed in volcanic ash are a poignant reminder of the human cost of natural disasters. This exhibition has two of the casts.

I liked the way that they were displayed, inside their own circular room with the the falling ash provided by av. It was quite atmospheric. It was possible to get quite close-up and  see details of the casts; the lady’s ‘Livia’ hairstyle and the fact that she wore a shawl.

One of the other famed, but less often seen victims of the Vesuvian eruption was Pliny the Elder. The eyewitness account written by his nephew Pliny the Younger in a letter to Tacitus, describes the lead-up to the eruption, the events on the day of the main onslaught, the desperate rescue efforts and the report of the death of his uncle.

In the early 20th century, an engineer by the name of Gennaro Matrone began excavating in the area around Stabiae. Among the ~70 skeletons that he excavated, was one which was found wearing a gold chain around the neck, bracelets and a short sword. Matrone’s interpretation of this find was that these must be the remains of Pliny the Elder. Archaeologists at the time rejected this identification on the grounds that a Roman commander would not be wearing  such jewellery.

More recently, researchers have agreed that the description of the jewellery found with the skeleton does seem to be compatible with decorations worn by military commanders of the 1st century. Further, the skull is that of a man in his mid-fifties, the age at which Pliny died.

Sadly Matrone sold the jewellery and reburied the skeleton, keeping only the skull and the remains of the short sword, so the identification of these remains as Pliny the Elder is still uncertain. But tests have been ongoing, so it’s not impossible.

 

I enjoyed this exhibition and thought that it was a good mix of crowd-pleasing special effects and satisfyingly interesting archaeological artefacts. The exhibition makes extensive use of av devices. Visitors are issued with a headset on arrival and can follow the narrative of the Pompeian family, which links many of the objects. I had a bit of trouble with the headset, which kept cutting out, so I didn’t get to hear all the bits of linking storyline, but I’m not sure that I really needed it. I was happy to just have a look at the displays and there was some written information available too.

The exhibition Pompeii, the Immortal City is on at the Brussels Stock Exchange until 15th  April 2018.

*I’ve never actually eaten a dormouse so I have no idea what one tastes like. Also, I’m vegetarian, so the chances of me ever finding out what a dormouse tastes like are slim to none.

Saintes Day – Part Deux

In my last post, I added a teaser about the Archaeological Museum of Saintes. It’s a tiny little museum, just one room, but the collection is excellent and represents life in Roman Saintes,  Mediolanum Santonum, really well.

The items on display include several elements of building material, some just functional, some decorative. On display were several fragments of very nicely painted wall plaster.

There’s also this intriguing lump of decorative plaster. Called opus musivum, it’s a type of decorative mosaic-work used on wall and ceilings. This fragment contains cockle, two kinds of sea-snail and winkle shells, blue glass, yellow-ochre stones and Egyptian blue.

Ceiling in Opus muivum, Second quarter of the 1st century. Found at Les Sables, Saintes.

The presence of this range of decorative options suggests that among the townspeople of  Mediolanum Santonum were at least some who were fairly well-off.

The cases at the end of the museum have some very nice examples of pottery and glassware found in Saintes. Again, some of these pieces suggest a population with a reasonable level of disposable income, with beautiful coloured glass, moulded pottery and silveware on display.

Spout of a vase or mortarium in the shape of a grotesque mask.

Alongside this very nice, high quality material is the more ordinary and everyday. I particularly liked the evidence for those who prepared the food and drink.

There’s this iron skillet, used for frying foods.

A wooden spoon, an indispensable kitchen item.

Any, my favourite, matches!

Just a couple more of the very interesting objects on display.

As I have worked on a volunteer project looking at Roman dice and gaming equipment with the Museum of London, I’m always on the lookout unusual examples on my travels. In Saintes I hit the jackpot. There’s this clay marble palette, complete with marbles.  The marbles here aren’t particularly spherical or regular, but this does look ‘in progress’ rather than the finished articles.

Among the more ordinary dice there were are also these two unusual ones.

Made from boxwood (l) and beech wood (r), they have attached tenons which may have been used to suspend the dice from a lanyard or thong. Some ordinary dice have been found in contexts which suggest some ritualistic purpose; in burials, is an example, and we suppose that they may have been used as amulets, lucky charms or keepsakes. These examples do point to some sort of amuletic purpose. They may have been worn on a leather thing around someone’s neck for good luck.

There is lots more is this little one-room museum, but outside there’s something else. In an old disused 19th century abattoir just next to the museum is the ‘Lapidaire‘. This is where the Roman stonework, colonnades, building blocks, monumental stonework, capitals and a bit of aqueduct, are kept and displayed.

Unfortunately for me, it was shit when I visited. Fortunately, it’s possible to see into the building through the shutters, so I didn’t miss out altogether. Whatever signage there might be was out of sight so I have no information to impart, just some pretty pictures.

There s clearly some very nice, and substantial, stonework in there. I understand that much of it was found built into the old ramparts, robbed from here and there at a time when protection was of paramount importance. It’s well worth a look, even if that does mean peering through the shutters from outside.

That’s all from Saintes for now.

TTFN

Saintes Day

This is a little look at a whirlwind day out in Saintes, with lots and lots of Romans. After an early start from Bordeaux, I arrived in Saintes at about 9am and set about looking for some of the remains of the Roman town, Mediolanum Santonum.

Stage 1: The arch. On its own.

The Arch of Germanicus, dating from 18-19 CE,  originally stood at the end of the bridge across the Charente River, marking the entry to the city. Now it’s on its own on a stretch of embankment near the Tourist Information Office.

The inscription tells us about the donor, a wealthy citizen of Mediolanum Santonum by the name of C. Julius Rufus. He seems to have been a pretty important man, locally at least, and the inscription lists his lineage to four generations: ‘Caius Julius Rufus, son of Caius Julius Otuaneunus, grandson of Caius Julius Gedemo, great-grandson of Epotsovirid(i)us’, his position in society: ‘priest of Rome and of Augustus at the altar at Confluens’, and his title: ‘prefect of works’.* He paid for the construction of the arch in honor of the Emperor Tiberius, his son Drusus Julius Caesar, and his adoptive son Germanicus. 

Looking rather festive on my visit, the arch we see today is actually a reconstruction. It was dismantled in the 19th century when the old bridge was demolished but later restored in its present location.

Stage 2: The city wall. Mind your step.

As with many Roman cities, the turbulence of the third century prompted the building of additional fortifications and there is a short stretch of the city wall remaining in-situ.

Now, I quite like France, but there’s one thing in particular that I really really hate about France. Dog-shit. There’s dog-shit everywhere. No-one cleans up after their dog. This means that some patches of grass are an absolute minefield (shitfield?), this one included. After weighing up the odds, I decided that I wasn’t going to risk it. The combination of sloping ground, lots of rain making slippery grass and naughty inconsiderate dog owners made this particular patch of grass no-woman’s land (seriously, there was shit everywhere). I stayed up on the pavement and took what pictures I could from there.

But you can still see the large, well-shaped stone blocks that the wall was built from. There are a few bits of reused stone that I can see amongst the rectangular blocks which indicates that by the time the wall was built, older buildings, shrines and memorials were considered expendable.

Stage 3: The amphitheatre. A hidden gem.

Heading up the hill, cross the main road near the bus stops, turn right and then left up a residential street, walk along a bit, turn left and…the surprise of seeing the entrance to an enormous amphitheatre was not at all dulled by the fact that I was actually looking for an enormous amphitheatre.

And it is enormous, originally seating about 12,000-15,000 spectators (although possibly up to 20,000) and with all the features expected of a well appointed 1st century entertainment venue. Built in 40-50 AD, construction began under Tiberius and was completed under Claudius, this is one of the best preserved amphitheatres in France. It’s set in a natural bowl-shaped valley and the seating (cavae) takes advantage of the natural slopes most of the way round.

From the ticket office, you can walk most of the way round the outside where the upper levels of seating would have been. A lot of the original seating had gone and it looks like some of the stonework is actually modern concrete, but it give a good impression of how the seating looked. You can walk up the steps of some of the vomitoria to get the views over the arena.

The two ends of the amphitheatre still have the remains of two striking features. At the east end, the East Gate.

This is the main entrance facing the town and processions (pompa) would make their way up from the town to the amphitheatre, entering through this gate. This is the way by which victorious gladiators would also leave the amphitheatre, hence it’s alternative name, Porta Sanavivaria, ‘the Gate of the Living’.

Opposite the east gate is the dark and slightly intimidating Porta Libitinensis, ‘the Gate of the Dead’. This where the bodies of vanquished gladiators were carried out of the arena.

When I visit some types of Roman site; bathhouses, forums, paved streets and amphitheatres, I’m always on the lookout for the remains of Roman games. Sometimes, etched into the stone paving, you can see gaming boards for such games as ludus duodecim scriptorum and Nine Men’s Morris. I did take the time to look along all the remaining seating, but the only one I found was this not-so-ancient one…

Stage 4: The bathhouse. Just a little bit.

Ten minute’s walk from the amphitheatre, on a corner just outside the cemetery that’s just up the road from the church of St. Vivien are the remains of the Thermal Baths of St Saloine.

These baths dated from the second half of the first century, during a second phase of development in Mediolanum Santonum, and were abandoned as the city contracted in the fourth century. The baths were fed by the aqueduct which brought water from as far away as Font-Morillon (in the village of Fontcouverte).

There isn’t a huge amount of it left but it is still possible to identify the caldarium (hot room),

with its retaining wall, with these large niches.

A few other wall lines have also been identified however, most of the building has been destroyed, either used as a quarry or in the later uses of the site, which was converted into a church and cemetery.

Stage 5: The museum. Small but perfectly formed.

Back towards the Arch of Germanicus and, next door to the tourist information office is the Musee Archeologique de Saintes. The entrance fee is included in the ticket price for the amphitheatre. Bargain!

It’s a wee little museum, just one room, but every case is a winner. I was going to post a few images here but there are so many very cool things to share that this post is in danger of becoming an epic, so I’ve decided to add those as a supplementary post.  Here’s just a couple to whet your appetite.

So on a Roman level, Saintes was a bit of a success. As well as all these brilliant sites to visit, I also spotted random bits of suspiciously Roman-looking stonework, reused here and there in walls and the like.

I also had the most fantastic cappuccino ever. Not only did it look like a work of Spiderman-influenced art, it also tasted fantastic and wasn’t overly milky. Yum yum, and thank you Thes et Cafes, my recommendation for sustenance and fortification in Saintes.

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The Office de Tourisme is a good source of information about what to see and do in and around Saintes. And for the archaeology, the Société d’Archéologie et d’Histoire de la Charente-Maritime .

*https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arch_of_Germanicus

Senlis – Into the woods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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