Walking the walls at the Porta Appia

October 21st, 2018

I have been awake for 18 hours, 15 of them spent walking. Jet lag and a determination to get some walls under my belt as soon as possible make a beautiful and terrible partnership. I’m going to keep this short, therefore, as I am barely capable of seeing the screen.

Three words: Museo delle Mura. It’s one of those marvelous gems hidden in plain sight inside the gigantic ancient, medieval and Renaissance gate/fortress of the Porta Appia. You walk up to the massive archway and just to the right is a door into a museum. Entrance fee: zero. Just buzz to be let in and up you go.

The contents are limited — a few plaster casts of brick crosses from surviving sections of the walls and gates, plastic models of the phases of construction, a topographical map illustrating the perimeter of the Servian Wall (ca. 4th century B.C.) and the far larger expansion of the city’s defenses built by Aurelian (271-275 A.D.).

The real treasure here is the museum itself. It’s really misnamed. It should be the Museo nelle Mura, the Museum in the Walls, instead of the Museum of the Walls. The modest displays are eclipsed by a truly fantastic wall walk that takes you through four of the surviving towers in the stretch of the Aurelian Wall, later given a second story by Honorius with more arrow slits and a roof.

Wee spiral staircase to the right flanking tower.The interior spaces, particularly in the two massive gate towers, are magnificent, but you will never get a view of Rome and environs like you do from the very top of the right tower. That’s if you dare to take the tiniest, tightest of spiral staircases to get up there, which of course I did because I am a most generous blogger.

Here’s the wall walk seen from above:

Here’s the Appia Antica heading south from the gate:

There’s much more, but that will have to tide you over for now as my moribund state demands sleep.

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Greetings from the cats of Largo Argentina

October 20th, 2018

It is fitting that my first post from Rome should be about the cat sanctuary at Largo Argentina. Last year I never managed to visit the sanctuary itself because I kept missing the open hours. Still, the remains of Pompey’s Theater and four other Republican-era sacred sites are liberally peppered with their most famous denizens, one of whom stared at you with supreme disinterest from yesterday’s post.

In 2012, the Torre Argentina Roman Cat Sanctuary was threatened with eviction by the Superintendency for the Archaeological Heritage of Rome. Officials had grandiose plans to improve the site for tourism because it had made some (largely spurious) press about the supposed discovery of the exact spot where Julius Caesar was assassinated there. The sanctuary was deemed “a health hazard” even though it is kept scrupulously clean to prevent the spread of communicable diseases and the authorities indulged in a fancy that the space it occupies, basically a moist cave underneath the tram tracks, should be excavated and opened to visitors hungry for more of those sweet vaguely Caesar-associated remains.

At the time, the sanctuary reached out to supporters to write letters and donate funds to keep the doors open. Nobody else is doing anything about the feral and stray pet population, while they have spayed and neutered more than 30,000 cats on a shoestring budget. The hope was they could stave off the eviction and become officially recognized by the city instead of having to effectively squat at the site where the cats already live.

I wasn’t able to get a follow-up on the story. I saw last year that they had not been evicted and thought they might even have gotten that longed-for official recognition because of the signs warning tourists not to feed the cats which are cared for by the sanctuary. Now that I’ve been there and spoken to the volunteers, I can reveal the outcome of the 2012 brouhaha: not a damn thing. As so often happens, the big plans fell through because the Superintendency is always strapped for cash and can barely manage to maintain the archaeological patrimony that is already a big draw for tourist money. They have not received official recognition. The current mayor of Rome has no interest whatsoever in the sanctuary, and that’s just how they like it. Being ignored by the authorities works just fine for them because the status quo is way better than threatened crackdowns or failed build-ups. Meanwhile, they tell me, firemen, municipal police, Carabinieri, etc. bring cats to them all the time so they’re official in practice if not in theory.

The volunteers are dedicated, warm, welcoming and so enthusiastic about their charges. They made a point of taking us into the back room where the disabled cats live in safety and comfort without having to cope with the dangers of the Roman city center. Blindness is very common in the stray cat population here because most of them are born to stray mothers and quickly get eye infections when they’re too young to recover from them.

The sanctuary is always in need of funds to support the tireless work they do. I promised I would promote their Distance Adoption program which gives you all the warm fuzzy feelings of saving a cat that is probably a little too wonky to be adopted plus the bragging rights of having rescued a cat who whiles away the hours sprawled over the place where Julius Caesar was stabbed.

I will leave you with a view of the entrance to the sanctuary adorned by Quinoa, their cat of the month. He enjoys sleeping, being petted while sleeping and taking occasional breaks from sleeping to snack.

Under the table is a three-legged furry blur named Pioppo who is available for distance adoption, just fyi.

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Programming Note of Awesomeness

October 19th, 2018

Guess who speaks fluent French and is flying to Rome today? THIS MOI! Yes, I am heading back to the motherland for the second year in a row. My aim for this trip is to walk the ancient city. I mean, like, all of it. I have exactly two site visits booked, but otherwise the week will be dedicated to exploring the greatest open-air museum in the world without schedule or expectation. I will walk the pomerium, tracking every extant snippet of the ancient walls and gates I can find. I will criss-cross the center. I will go back and forth over the Tiber whenever the spirit moves me.

If all goes well, there will be some posts that refer back to earlier stories I’ve written. If not, then you’ll receive the full benefit of my dubious pictorial skills documenting my adventures in the Capital of the World. Rest assured, I will relay all your best wishes to the cats.

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Rembrandt’s Night Watch to be restored in public view

October 18th, 2018

Like it’s not enough that to commemorate the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt’s death in 2019 the Rijksmuseum will be putting on an epic exhibition displaying every one of his paintings, drawings and prints in its permanent collection, the museum will also undertake its most ambitious conservation project ever: the full restoration of The Night Watch in public view.

The Night Watch last received extensive treatment in 1975 after a deranged former teacher slashed it with a bread knife he’d stolen from the restaurant where he had lunch that day. He explained to the security guards and bystanders who pried him off the masterpiece and restrained him that he had been ordered by God to slash the painting. That was an emergency salvage operation to repair the severe cuts in the canvas, some more than two feet long and one whole chunk cut out that was a foot wide and 2.5 inches wide.

The new restoration is occasioned by the regular monitoring of its condition. Conservators have begun to see alarming changes taking place gradually but surely. The little dog in the lower right of the canvas, for example, is getting whiter and whiter. He’s basically a ghost dog at this point. The first step is a complete examination and assessment of the entirety of the painting. Several imaging techniques, high-resolution photography, microscopic analysis and computer tools will be used to create a detailed map of the artwork at every level, from stretcher to canvas through paint layers to varnish.

The timing of the project is ideal from the standpoint of conservatorial expertise as well. Rijksmuseum experts complete the thorough restoration of the portraits of Marten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit last year, so they have fresh experience in conserving large-scale Rembrandts. The team that will work on The Night Watch will include experts from other museums and institutions of higher education around the world.

But wait, there’s more!

The Night Watch will be encased in a state-of-the-art clear glass chamber designed by the French architect Jean Michel Wilmotte. This will ensure that the painting can remain on display for museum visitors. A digital platform will allow viewers from all over the world to follow the entire process online continuing the Rijksmuseum innovation in the digital field.

Taco Dibbits, General Director Rijksmuseum: “The Night Watch is one of the most famous paintings in the world. It belongs to us all, and that is why we have decided to conduct the restoration within the museum itself – and everyone, wherever they are, will be able to follow the process online.”

I would like to take a moment to thank The Netherlands for being awesome. Their museums’ websites consistently provide the highest resolution images possible and have been doing so since cribbing off your office T1 lines was the only hope a regular person had of downloading such pictures in less than five hours. They do world-class renovations of the historic buildings the museums inhabit, generously loan out incredibly rare masterpieces to museums around the world while the spaces are being refurbished and then make the greatest of all promotional videos to celebrate the grand reopening.

The exhibition, All the Rembrandts of the Rijksmuseum, runs from February 15th to 10 June 10th, 2019. This will be the first time in history that the more than 400 artworks by Rembrandt in the Rijskmuseum’s collection will be on display at once.

Because I never need a pretext to repost it and this time I actually have one, here’s the greatest of all promotional videos:

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Remains of Celtic settlement found in Lucerne

October 17th, 2018

An archaeological survey at the site of a housing development in Egolzwil, Switzerland, has discovered rare remains of a Celtic settlement. Canton archaeologists excavating the site about 20 miles northwest of Lucerne unearthed evidence of a Celtic-era street and dwelling, the first traces of an actual Celtic settlement discovered in the canton. Before this discovery, the only material evidence of Celts having lived in the area were sacrificial remains found at what used to be the Wauwilersee lakeshore.

Wauwilersee, a glacier lake that was drained in the mid-19th century to reclaim the boggy land for agricultural purposes, was the site of one of the earliest human settlements in Switzerland. Remains have been found going back to the late Paleolithic (ca. 12,000 B.C.) and Neolithic pile dwelling settlements have been declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It’s this rich density of material culture dating back thousands of years that spurred the survey before construction of three semi-detaches houses on the Egolzwil-Baumgarten rail line.

The settlement remains were found on a hill overlooking the former Wauwilersee shore. The dig found a pathway about 13 feet wide made of small, compacted pebbles and the remains of a house that had burned down. It’s not known whether the path was a road linking locations within the settlement or if it was a stretch of a larger road that connected Egolzwil to the nearby town of Schötz. Most of the archaeological material unearthed consists of potsherds, small stones from the pathway, larger round stones used in construction of the dwelling and scorched fragments of the house’s clay walls. One stand-out artifact is a bronze fibula, a large pin used to secure garments together. It is of a type commonly dating to the 1st century B.C.

Very little is known about the Celtic period (ca. 800-15 B.C.) in the canton of Lucerne which is why this dig, so small in surface area, is so large in historical significance. That the house was burned down in the 1st century B.C. is particularly intriguing because of the potential connection to the events recorded by Julius Caesar in the opening of Gallic War. It all starts with Orgetorix, the richest and most powerful leader of the Helvetii (the varied, loose confederation of Celtic peoples in the Swiss Plateau) who in 61 B.C. persuades other leaders to head for larger and greener pastures by invading Gaul. Orgetorix never did his dream of war come true because his compatriots turned on him, afraid he would make himself king. He died (possibly by suicide) while on trial. That didn’t stop them from going through with the whole Gaul plan, though. In 58 B.C., they lit the match on the tinderbox that became the Gallic War.

When they thought that they were at length prepared for this undertaking, they set fire to all their towns, in number about twelve-to their villages about four hundred-and to the private dwellings that remained; they burn up all the corn, except what they intend to carry with them; that after destroying the hope of a return home, they might be the more ready for undergoing all dangers. They order every one to carry forth from home for himself provisions for three months, ready ground. They persuade the Rauraci, and the Tulingi, and the Latobrigi, their neighbors, to adopt the same plan, and after burning down their towns and villages, to set out with them: and they admit to their party and unite to themselves as confederates the Boii, who had dwelt on the other side of the Rhine, and had crossed over into the Norican territory, and assaulted Noreia.

Noricum, believed to be in modern-day Austria, was a long-time Roman ally, provider of a great deal of the army’s weapons and tools. In return, Roman forces had defended it against Germanic incursions since the early 2nd century B.C. The Helvetian invasion triggered Caesar’s response, and the rest, as they say, is history.

So, there is a general possibility that the Celtic house was burned down when the Helvetii arsoned themselves out of a homeland to ensure there would be no going back, but there’s no evidence of this fire having been part of the exodus. It could simply have been an accidental house fire like any other. More investigation will have to be done.

The excavation will only continue through the end of the month. With no time and no money to extend the dig, the site will be infilled for now for its own protection. Archaeologists plan to return when they have the wherewithal to excavate the site further.

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October 79 AD date found on Pompeii wall

October 16th, 2018

A charcoal date scribbled on the wall of a villa in Pompeii that was undergoing renovations when it was buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. is the most precise contemporary evidence yet that the traditional date of the destruction of Pompeii, August 24th, is off by months. The note is dated the 16th day before the Kalends of November (November 1st), which would have been October 17th. There is no year, but the inscription wasn’t meant to be permanent. It was written in charcoal on a white wall that was probably going to be frescoed over as part of a renovation of the home and even if it hadn’t been painted, the charcoal would have quickly faded. That’s why archaeologists are so sure it was left in 79 A.D.

The source of the August date for the eruption is Pliny the Younger. It’s found in a letter written to his friend the historian Tacitus three decades after he witnessed Vesuvius’ fury destroy Pompeii, but the date has been questioned since the early days of Pompeiian archaeology. The discovery of organic remains of autumnal produce like pomegranates, chestnuts, grapes and of heating braziers in homes suggested the city had not been destroyed in the sweltering heat of a southern Italian August. One silver coin also provided strong evidence of a fall date. Minted by the Emperor Titus in 79 A.D., the coin is inscribed with a list of the emperor’s titles one of which notes he was acclaimed imperator 15 times. Titus’ 15th acclamation as emperor took place on September 8th.

So if the eruption took place in October, how to explain Pliny’s letter to Tacitus describing it as having happened in August? He barely escaped a cataclysm that destroyed multiple cities and claimed his uncle’s life. It’s not the sort of thing you’re likely to get so wrong, even 30 years after the event. The answer is transcription errors. Pliny’s original correspondence has not survived, obviously. The text has come down to us in various states of completion from copyists and, like a game of telephone, mistakes get transmitted and even amplified over the centuries. It’s easy to see how scribes might have confused September (the ninth month of the Julian calendar) with November (the ninth month in the ancient Roman 10-month calendar as indicated by the prefix “nov”).

Ancient sources are never as cut and dried as we might wish. There are inconsistencies with the archaeological record and even among the extant manuscripts. The August date comes from the most complete surviving copy of the letter which refers to the “nonum kal. septembres” (nine days before kalends of Septembe), not from all of them. Other copies of Pliny’s letters, including one now in the Girolamini Library in Naples, refer to the kalends of November, three days before the kalends of November and nine days before the kalends (month missing but was probably also November).

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Farmer finds 1,500-year-old farming tools

October 15th, 2018


A set of 1,500-year-old agricultural and carpentry tools have been discovered in the ancient Green city of Alexandria Troas on the Aegean coast of northwestern Turkey. The cache was discovered by accident by a farmer. He found earthenware pithos, a massive storage vessel, dating to the 5th-6th century A.D., in a field he owns that includes part of the ancient city wall.

A pithos alone would have been an exciting artifact. It proved to be geometrically more exciting when it was found to contain iron and bronze tools used for agriculture, carpentry and the making of other tools. The objects include sickles, soil scrapers, weed cutters, soil tampers, plows, long nails, and hand tools like saws, grinders, drills and spatula scrapers. The tools date to the late Roman, early Byzantine era, the 5th century A.D., and were stored in the pithos for centuries.

Founded around 306 B.C. as Antigonia Troas, the city was renamed after Alexander of Macedon in 301 B.C. and rose to become a prosperous port town under the Roman Republic and Empire. It had a population of around 100,000 at its peak and was a major port for trade and transportation between Asia Minor and Europe. Paul of Tarsus used it as a departure and arrival point on his travels to Europe and back. Its importance faded under the Byzantine Empire as the harbour silted up, but it was significant enough to remain the see of a bishopric until its abandonment some time in the Middle Ages.

[Ankara University archaeology professor and excavation leader Dr. Erhan] Oztepe said it is the most interesting finding of 2018. “Iron and Bronze [Age] agricultural and carpentry tools show us the economy of the ancient city and farming activities in the Alexandria Troas and nearby regions of the Early Byzantine period,” he said.

Kemal Dokuz, the head of Provincial Directorate of Culture and Tourism, highlighted the importance of the ancient site for tourism. “St. Paul stayed in this city and this place is as important as Ephesus to the Christian world. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism has spent $1 million [$170,165] on Alexandria Troas excavations within the last 5 years,” he added.

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New ritual objects found in ancient Santorini public building

October 14th, 2018

Excavation of a prehistoric structure in the Bronze Age city Akrotiri on the Greek Cycladic island of Santorini has unearthed new evidence of ritual activity. The building, known as the House of Thrania, was an important place in its day. In 1999 a golden goat was found there inside a clay urn accompanied by a number of horns, a deposit that suggests a ritual purpose. Archaeologists believe the House of Thrrani was not a personal dwelling, but rather a public building and the most recent discoveries support that hypothesis.

The excavation of the northwest corner of the space revealed, in successive chronological layers from oldest to most recent, first a group of clay amphorae and then rectangular clay shrines covered with clay lids. After careful investigation of one of the rectangles, archaeologists found a marble protocycladic female figurine placed diagonally across the bottom of the shrine.

In the southeast corner of the room, the team unearthed three more rectangular clay shrines. The two smaller ones contained a mass of clay in an oval configuration. The largest contained four vessels, two pre-Cycladic marble vases placed upside down, one marble vase placed right-side up and one made of alabaster also placed right-side up.

The ongoing research in Akrotiri on Santorini gradually has revealed a place of rituals, very close to Xesti 3, an important public building with rich fresco decorations on the southern boundary of the settlement.

According to archaeologists, the excavation finds are undoubtedly related to the perceptions and beliefs of the ancient society of Thera — as is the official name of Santorini — and generate essential questions about the ideology and possibly the religion of that prehistoric Aegean society.

Akotiri’s Bronze Age society was a Minoan colony, the best preserved Minoan city outside of Crete. It was destroyed and preserved in one fell swoop by the eruption of Thera in the mid-second millennium B.C., one of the most cataclysmic volcanic events in the history of the earth. It was that world-shattering eruption that kept Xesti 3’s frescoes in such vibrant color and that kept all the ritual clay vessels and their contents largely intact underneath the destruction layer.

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Child “vampire burial” found in Roman cemetery

October 13th, 2018

An international team of archaeologists has unearthed the skeletal remains of a child with a rock inserted into its mouth in a 5th century cemetery in the central Italian region of Umbria. Led by University of Arizona archaeologist David Soren who has been excavating the cemetery in the municipality of Lugnano since 1987, archaeologists from Stanford University and Italy discovered the unusual burial this summer. The body was found inhumed in a sort of lean-to grave created by propping two large roof tiles against a wall, a style characteristic of Roman Italy. The articulated skeleton had been placed on its side and its jaw was wide open. It could not have fallen open like that naturally when the body was on its side, and the stone had teeth marks on the surface indicating it was intentionally placed between the jaws during burial.

Stones deliberately the placed in the mouth are believed to be ritual gestures meant to contain the danger posed by a corpse from the spread of infectious disease or from the dead themselves rising from the grave to plague (literally and metaphorically) the living. That’s why they’re known as “vampire burials” even when they bear no specific connection to the vampire legends per se.

A deadly outbreak of malaria swept the area in the mid-5th century. Children and infants were especially hard hit, and the cemetery was likely dedicated to the interral of the young victims. Because of its sadly vulnerable population, it is called “La Necropoli dei Bambini” (the Necropolis of the Children). It was the site of a 1st century B.C. Roman villa, an elite country home that had long since been abandoned by the time malaria struck in the 5th century claiming the lives of so many children. DNA testing of several of the bones unearthed in the cemetery confirms the presence of malaria. The ten-year-old’s bones have not been DNA-tested yet, but he or she did have an abscess in one tooth, a common side-effect of malaria.

Until now, archaeologists believed the cemetery was designated specifically for infants, toddlers and unborn fetuses; in previous excavations of more than 50 burials, a 3-year-old girl was the oldest child found.

The discovery of the 10-year-old, whose age was determined based on dental development but whose sex is unknown, suggests that the cemetery may have been used for older children as well, said bioarcheologist Jordan Wilson, a UA doctoral student in anthropology who analyzed the skeletal remains in Italy.

“There are still sections of the cemetery that we haven’t excavated yet, so we don’t know if we’ll find other older kids,” Wilson said.

Excavation director David Pickel, who has a master’s degree in classical archaeology from the UA and is now a doctoral student at Stanford, said the discovery has the potential to tell researchers much more about the devastating malaria epidemic that hit Umbria nearly 1,500 years ago, as well as the community’s response to it.

“Given the age of this child and its unique deposition, with the stone placed within his or her mouth, it represents, at the moment, an anomaly within an already abnormal cemetery,” Pickel said. “This just further highlights how unique the infant — or now, rather, child — cemetery at Lugnano is.”

There is other evidence in the cemetery that the survivors enlisted magical ritual to counter the child-killing epidemic. Infants and toddlers were buried with talismans like raven talons, toad bones and bronze cauldrons containing the burned remains of sacrificed puppies. The three-year-old girl, the oldest child found in the cemetery before the most recent discovery, was buried with stones weighing down her hands and feet, another practice meant to keep the dead from rising.

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Prehistoric cave art revealed by water level drop in Turkey

October 12th, 2018

Fishermen have discovered ancient rock art on the shore of the Atatürk reservoir near Adıyaman, southeastern Turkey. Water levels in the reservoir have dropped around 10-15 meters (32-49 feet), exposing the low part of a cliff face that has been underwater since at least 1990 when the dam was completed.

The art spotted is an expansive tableau of carved drawings more than eight meters (26 feet) long and two feet wide. The carvings, created using an etching method, include human and animal figures underscored by linear motifs believed to represent a settlement on a slope. Animals depicted include mountain goats, horses, wolves, foxes, storks and a variety of indeterminate shapes. There are at least two hunting scenes, one including images of people armed with bows and arrows hunting wild goats and another with men on horses chasing a chevrotain, an extremely cute striped ungulate more commonly known as mouse-deer.

The size of the tableau and the richness of the animal and human life depicted are of particular interest to scientists. The carvings are in excellent condition, undiminished by so many years covered by water, which gives researchers the opportunity to learn more about prehistoric life in the area. The location is also significant and it is likely to have held religious meaning to the carvers.

The rock art dates at least to the Paleolithic era, but may be even older. Experts believe they may have been carved as far back as 2.6 million years ago. The carvings will be studied further as long as they are exposed. They will remain in situ even when the water returns to its previous level and covers it. The water didn’t damage it before, indeed, it helped preserve it.

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