Archive for the ‘Roma, Caput Mundi’ Category

Donor gives €1 million to restore a pyramid in Rome

Saturday, December 31st, 2011

Pyramid of Gaius CestiusJapanese businessman Yuzo Yagi will donate €1 million ($1.3 million) to restore the tomb of Gaius Cestius, a marble-clad pyramid built in Rome between 18 and 12 B.C. Egyptian style had become a fad in Rome following Octavian’s conquest of Egypt in 30 B.C., and the wealthy Gaius Cestius, who in life had been praetor, tribune of the plebs and a member of the Septemviri Epulonum, a religious college responsible for throwing banquets for the gods, left instructions in his will that a pyramid be built in 330 days to house his remains.

Built out of brick-faced concrete on a foundation of travertine, Cestius’ pyramid is 100 Roman feet (about 97 imperial ones) square at the base and 125 Roman feet (about 120 imperial ones) high, making it an extremely acute pyramid with a very pointy top. White Carrara marble slabs face the exterior which was entirely sealed with no entrance point after Gaius Cestius’ burial. Inside is a frescoed burial chamber that held Cestius’ ashes; it was looted in antiquity and tunneled into by disappointed thieves during the Middle Ages.

Pyramid of Cestius in the Aurelian wall, Porta San Paolo on the rightThe pyramid was built at the intersection of two Roman roads outside of the city, but as the city expanded the entire structure was incorporated into the Aurelian walls during their construction between 271 and 275 A.D. It’s still embedded in a particularly well-preserved area of the wall next to the Porta San Paolo gate. Getting absorbed by the wall might have been the best thing that ever happened to the pyramid. None of the other crazy vanity pyramids ancient sources mention having been built in Rome have survived.

The other side of the pyramid abuts the Cimitero Acattolico (the non-Catholic cemetery, also known as the Protestant Cemetery though people of many faiths are buried there) where the Romantic poets Shelley and Keats slumber eternally. It’s one of the most beautiful and fantastical spots in Rome, a favorite of my childhood thanks to the huge colony of semi-feral cats who live at the pyramid’s base. Whenever we were in the area for the San Paolo market, I’d insist we stop so I could look over the railing at the cats.

Pyramid burial chamber, tunnels from the Middle AgesLike many of the most beautiful spots in Rome, the pyramid of Gaius Cestius is in dire need of maintenance. The marble exterior is pollution-blackened, cracked and bristling with vegetation. Water is seeping through the walls and damaging the frescoes, already faded and degraded from millennia of looters/hostile elements, in the burial chamber. Past restorations haven’t been kind to it either. The acid used to clean the exterior in the 1970s left the marble vulnerable to attacks from microorganisms and particulate matter.

Restoration work was last done in 2002. Advances in technology since then will allow restorers to use new organic products to clean the surface and protect it from future damage. They also plan to use steel beams 23 feet long to stabilize the marble blocks. While they’re at it, researchers will follow up on some ultrasound data from a few years ago which turned up anomalous blank spots on the inside. They will use endoscopes to explore the anomalies. They’re probably not secret chambers but everyone’s hoping for them anyway.

Yugo Yazi is the owner of Tsusho Limited, an Osaka-based chain of 400 clothing outlets. He has been doing business in Italy, importing Italian clothes for his stores, for 40 years. All he asks in return for the donation is that a plaque with his name on it be placed near the pyramid. No advertising heinousness. He will sign the official agreement in January and work is slated to begin in April.

Keats' grave in the Protestant Cemetery, Pyramid of Cestius visible in the right backgroundAnd now, let’s usher in the new year with two wonderfully on-topic verses from Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Go thou to Rome–at once the Paradise,
The grave, the city, and the wilderness;
And where its wrecks like shatter’d mountains rise,
And flowering weeds, and fragrant copses dress
The bones of Desolation’s nakedness
Pass, till the spirit of the spot shall lead
Thy footsteps to a slope of green access
Where, like an infant’s smile, over the dead
A light of laughing flowers along the grass is spread;

And gray walls moulder round, on which dull Time
Feeds, like slow fire upon a hoary brand;
And one keen pyramid with wedge sublime,
Pavilioning the dust of him who plann’d
This refuge for his memory, doth stand
Like flame transform’d to marble ….


Stylish cockerel found in Cirencester Roman grave

Monday, December 19th, 2011

The team from Cotswold Archaeology excavating the site of a major Roman-era cemetery in Cirencester (the one with the surprisingly high proportion of inhumations) has unearthed a beautiful little artifact that embodies three of my favorite things: chickens, decorative enamel and harlequin patterns. Just shy of five inches tall, the cast copper alloy (probably bronze) figurine was discovered in a child’s grave adjacent to another child’s grave where an intact pottery flagon was found earlier this year. Archaeologists estimate that it dates to the 2nd century A.D.

The breast, wings, eyes and probably the ‘comb’ of the cockerel are beautifully inlaid with enamel, which now appears green and blue. There is a separate plate at the tail end which could be its fanned tail feathers, although it is difficult to tell at this stage. The cockerel also has its beak open as if crowing – could this be a message to one of the gods of the afterlife?

Neil Holbrook, Chief Executive for Cotswold Archaeology commented: “The cockerel is the most spectacular find from more than 60 Roman burials excavated at this site. It was excavated from the grave of young child and was placed close to its head. Interestingly a very similar item was found in Cologne in Germany and it looks like they both could have come from the same workshop based in Britain.”

Roman Britain was an important center of enameled decorative objects, especially the north of the province. The Cologne piece has different colored enamel and is missing its tail, but it’s so similar that archaeologists have little doubt it came from the same shop, possibly even the same maker.

As for why the cockerel was buried with the child, it was probably an offering to Mercury, messenger of the gods and mover between states who escorted the souls of the newly deceased to the afterlife. The rooster was one of his symbols. Julius Caesar noted in Book six, Chapter 17 of his Gallic Wars that Mercury was the most popular deity among the Celtic peoples of Gaul and Britain.

They worship as their divinity, Mercury in particular, and have many images of him, and regard him as the inventor of all arts, they consider him the guide of their journeys and marches, and believe him to have great influence over the acquisition of gain and mercantile transactions.

Caesar, in keeping with interpretatio Romana, the Roman practice of equating local deities with those in the Roman pantheon, may have actually been referring to the Celtic god Lugus which shared some of Mercury’s characteristic attributes, including the rooster. Once Roman occupation was established, dedications to Mercury proliferated over Gaul and Britain, marking him as a far more prominent and popular deity than he was in Rome itself.

As with the other artifacts discovered in this excavation, after it is cleaned and conserved the cockerel is destined to go on display at Cirencester’s Corinium Museum.


Reputed Roman fort turns out to be actual Roman fort

Saturday, November 26th, 2011

Local legend has long had it that the overbuilt and overgrown masonry structure known as “the Nunnery” perched over Longis beach on Alderney, a Channel Island just eight miles from the coast of France, was originally a Roman fort. Despite multiple archaeological explorations from the 19th century on, however, little evidence has been found to support the tradition. Roman stonework and tiles are visible high up on the ramparts, but they could have been repurposed during Medieval construction rather than original.

In fact, a 1930 excavation found Medieval material at deep layers and that, contrary to Roman architectural punctiliousness, the fortress was built directly on the sand. More recently, a 2002 excavation along the fallen east rampart (it collapsed from erosion sometime before the 18th century) showed Medieval midden piles at what archaeologists thought was the level of construction.

In 2008, the Alderney Society and Guernsey Museum collaborated on a project to pin down the origins of the Nunnery. With the permission of the landowner and tenants, Dr. Jason Monaghan, director of Guernsey Museums, organized a team of a dozen volunteers to spend the last week of August excavating the site. That first year they found a handful Roman objects — fragments of tile and pottery — deep down under the north wall.

Now, on the fourth consecutive year of these volunteer-staffed, week-long excavations, Monaghan and his team have found confirmation of the local legend: the remains of a Roman-era tower in the middle of the Nunnery. The team was specifically looking for one because the other 4th century Roman forts that dot northern England all have central towers, so the apparent absence of one here suggested later construction.

“The walls are 2.8m (9ft) thick, we don’t know how high it was, but it would have been a very big structure – it’s as thick as Hadrian’s Wall.”

The tower was found to be about 18 sq m. (58 sq ft). He said the team dug down to prove the outside walls were also Roman before doing the same for the gateway. [...]

Dr Monaghan said: “It’s in an extremely good state of preservation… it’s better preserved than all the other small Roman forts in Britain.

“It’s in a better state than what they call the Saxon shore forts off southern England, it’s in better nick than most of Hadrian’s Wall.

That’s one of the reasons that the legend of the Roman fort was doubted for long, because the putatively ancient part of the walls was so exceptionally high, passing 16 feet, while the remains of the forts in Yorkshire, for instance, are shin-high at best. The Roman stonework, set in characteristic herringbone patterns with double rows of tiles, was built on in later years, but you can clearly see the original crenellations that were filled in so the wall height could be raised.

The tower itself was destroyed, probably by the Nazis (I hate those guys) when they built a bunker in the middle of the ancient structure during their occupation of the Channel Islands. They were just one in a long line of people who remade the Nunnery to suit their needs over the centuries. It was a barracks in the Middle Ages, then the governor’s residence, then a farm, even British military housing after the Germans were gone.

One of the things that makes the site so interesting to archaeologists is how many periods of use are still evident. There are only a handful of Roman structures in the Channel Islands and all of them have been laid waste by time. This one shows all of its ages.


Sixty pairs of Roman shoes found in Scottish ditch

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

Archaeologists excavating a site of a future Tesco supermarket in Camelon, Scotland, have discovered a range of Roman artifacts including 120 leather hobnailed shoes in a ditch outside what was once the entrance to a fort along what would become the Antonine Wall. The fort dates to the second century A.D. and so the shoes probably do as well.

The find likely represents the accumulated throwaways of Roman centurions and soldiers garrisoned at the fort, said dig coordinator Martin Cook, an archaeologist with AOC Archaeology Group, an independent contractor in Britain.

“I think they dumped the shoes over the side of the road leading into the fort,” he said.

“Subsequently the ditch silted up with organic material, which preserved the shoes.”

Despite being discards, the hobnailed shoes are in relatively good condition, Cook added.

It’s the largest cache of Roman shoes ever found in Scotland. Other finds at the site include several brooches, coins, animal bones, glass, some standard ceramic pots and some high-quality, expensive French Samian ware ceramic.

The Camelon fort was at the north-west frontier of the empire. It was of strategic importance to the military and was also one of the most densely populated areas of Scotland at that time. There is evidence of significant local habitation in the area of the fort before the Romans came between 80 and 83 A.D., and evidence that habitation resumed as soon as they left in 90 A.D.

There is an earlier fort dating to the first century A.D. on the site as well, but it hasn’t been excavated this time. Both forts predate the Antonine Wall and were probably occupied during the wall’s construction. Camelon had a port on the River Carron, so building supplies could come in via boat.

Thus far the archaeological team has only been able to excavate less than 5% of the fort site, and they have to stop shortly because that Tesco is still going up. The good news all the finds will go on display on the building site for a month in a portable cabin, and Tesco has agreed to build only on the easternmost side of the site to allow the rest of it to be preserved in situ under a parking deck.

The Falkirk Council hopes that once the on-site display period is over, the artifacts will end up in Falkirk Museum. There are many other artifacts from Roman Camelon in the local museum, so all those shoes would be in excellent company.


Roman statue found at Epidaurus

Saturday, October 8th, 2011

The torso of a larger-than-life male sculpture was discovered during restoration work on the Little Theater of Ancient Epidaurus, the Greek city famed for its acoustically brilliant large theater. The statue is the figure of an idealized muscular male standing with a cloak wrapped around his arm and thrown over his shoulder.

Archaeologists think it’s a second century AD Roman copy of an original Hermes by leading Greek Classical sculptor Polycleitus. The enhanced musculature marks it as an Imperial-era Roman copy and although none of Polycleitus’ original works have survived, they were widely copied which is why we have enough of an inkling of what they looked like to determine which statue may have inspired any given copy.

Roman Emperor Hadrian went on a state visit to Epidaurus in the second century A.D., inspiring beautification and flattery projects in the city. This torso could have been a Hermes originally that was then modified in Hadrian’s honor to bear the imperial visage, or modified to bear the visage of another high official. This was a common practice at the time, and is one of the reasons heads so often go missing, because they had already been replaced at least once.

The statue had been built into the wall of a 4th century A.D. building near the Little Theater. The building is in cross proximity to more ancient ones that are thought to have been part of the city Agora.

The Little Theater was built in the same century (4th century B.C.) as the famed Epidaurus Theater. It was rediscovered in 1970 under a field olive trees. As per its diminutive monicker, the Little Theater had 9 tiers and 18 rows of seats and could seat about 2,000, whereas the big one started out with 34 rows (the Romans added another 21 rows) and could seat 15,000 spectators. The large theater, to this day fascinating to all performers and engineers because of its astonishing acoustics that allow anyone seated anywhere to hear with complete clarity the sound of a match being struck on stage, was designed by Polycleitus the Younger, the son of the sculptor who made the original Hermes this torso is thought to have been copied from.

The statue has been transferred to the Museum of Asklepios Epidaurus for cleaning and maintenance.


Unique Roman-era mosaic found in Bulgaria

Wednesday, October 5th, 2011

Archaeologists have found an intricate Roman-era mosaic floor in the southern Bulgarian town of Stara Zagora. According to Dimitar Yankov, chief curator of Stara Zagora’s Regional Museum of History and leader of the archaeological team, the mosaic dates to around the 3rd century A.D. and nothing like it has been found in Bulgaria before. The scene is a Bacchanalian revel and thus far the figure of Semele, Bacchus’ mortal mother, and two dancing women have been revealed. Semele is leading the revels and the dancing women follow her.

“The complex figures of dancing women suggest the mosaic was done by a great master. The clothes are in five shades of blue and the red color varies from pink to dark red. The figures are very fine. One of the women holds castanets in her hands and the other one holds other music instruments. The folds of their clothes suggest their knees are bent. Their ankles are bare and their legs move. There is play of light and shade.”

The building in which the mosaic was found was a temple to Bacchus located a hundred feet from the walls of the ancient forum. Yankov hopes that more of the mosaic remains and that continuing excavations will reveal the god Bacchus himself.

Restorer Nikola Stoyanov notes that the mosaic was created using the opus tessellatum technique where the mosaic tiles (tesserae) in the background are laid out so they align either vertically or horizontally, but not both. The tesserae are just one centimeter square, which give the mosaic its complexity and detail, but will also ensure that any future attempts to remove the mosaic for conservation and display will be an enormous challenge.

It has to happen, though, because the property being excavated is privately owned. In order to ensure that the mosaic is preserved and shown to the public, somebody is going to have to peel thousands of one-centimeter tiles off the floor.


Remains of massive Roman shipyard found in Portus

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

The international team of archaeologists led by the University of Southampton and the British School at Rome excavating the ancient Roman harbor town of Portus have discovered the remains of a massive building they think may have been an Imperial shipyard used to build some of Rome’s largest ships.

Few Roman shipyards have been found, and none for the city of Rome itself. Two small possibilities — one in the city on the Tiber near the Monte Testaccio (an artificial hill the Romans made from broken olive oil amphorae unloaded from merchant ships), the other at Ostia — have been advanced, but they would not have been large enough to service all of Imperial Rome’s ship building needs.

Five stories high and with direct access to both the Claudian and hexagonal Trajanic basins of Portus, this shipyard is on a whole other scale.

The huge building the team has discovered dates from the 2nd century AD and would have stood c. 145 metres [475 feet] long and 60 metres [196 feet] wide – an area larger than a football pitch [soccer field]. In places, its roof was up to 15 metres [50 feet] high, or more than three times the height of a double-decker bus. Large brick-faced concrete piers or pillars, some three metres wide and still visible in part, supported at least eight parallel bays with wooden roofs.

“This was a vast structure which could easily have housed wood, canvas and other supplies and certainly would have been large enough to build or shelter ships in. The scale, position and unique nature of the building lead us to believe it played a key role in shipbuilding activities,” comments Southampton’s Professor Keay, who also leads the archaeological activity of the BSR.

They’ve found a wide vaulted area that formed the western wall of the complex and the western-most bay. Estimates based on this one bay suggest they were 12 meters (40 feet) wide and 58 meters (190 feet) long. The piers on the northern end facing the Claudian basin were 6 x 5 feet, while the ones on the southern end on the Trajanic basin were larger at 10 x 5.5 feet, so archaeologists think that the primary entrance point was a massive arch on southern side, with a smaller but still notable entrance on the north.

Epigraphic evidence supports the existence of a major shipyard in Portus. Inscriptions found at the site mention that the guild of shipbuilders (the corpus fabrum navalium portensium) had a presence in the port. There’s artistic evidence that Roman’s had shipyards like this. A mosaic found in a villa just outside the ancient city of Rome shows the facade of a large building with a ship nestled in each arched bay.

One key piece of evidence still missing is the remains of any of the ramps that would have been necessary to launch newly built ships from dry dock into the harbor. Professor Keay thinks they may be hidden beneath the concrete embankment built in the early 20th century. Getting under there would be challenging, to say the least, and there’s no reason to believe any of them have survived.


The Antonine Wall gets its own gallery

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011

Roman emperor Antonius Pius, Hadrian’s successor, had a lot to prove when he ascended the throne in the summer of 138 A.D. He had risen through the political ranks, not the military, and in fact as far as we know, Antonius never even got near a Roman legion. It was in Britain that he decided to prove his commander-in-chief chops by sending governor Quintus Lollius Urbicus north of Hadrian’s Wall into southern Scotland.

Around 142 A.D. Antonius ordered that a wall be built marking the new northern border of Britannia. Urbicus deployed troops from the II Augusta, VI Victrix and XX Valeria Victrix legions to build the wall, starting with a foundation of stone topped with a turf rampart that was as high as 13 feet in places. The height of the wall was supplemented by a deep and wide ditch on the north side for added protection against the Caledonian hoards. It took 12 years to build and ended up stretching 39 miles across Scotland coast to coast from the Firth of Forth to the Firth of Clyde.

For reasons not entirely clear to this day, the Romans abandoned the Antonine Wall just eight years after its completion in 162 A.D. Since the turf wall didn’t last as well as Hadrian’s stone one, what we have left in place today are the defense ditches, remains of the stone foundations of the wall and of the 20 plus forts and fortlets that guarded its length. Excavations have also unearthed a wealth of artifacts, including some that put Hadrian’s fancy pants wall to shame.

The University of Glasgow’s The Hunterian Museum in Glasgow has just opened a new permanent gallery dedicated to the sculptures and artifacts found over three centuries of research, excavation and study of the Antonine Wall.

Through The Hunterian’s rich collections the gallery investigates four key themes: The building of the Wall – its architecture and impact on the landscape; the role of the Roman army on the frontier – the life and lifestyle of its soldiers; the cultural interaction between Roman and indigenous peoples, and evidence for local resistance; and the abandonment of the Wall and the story of its rediscovery over the last 350 years.

Among on the artifacts on display are 16 of the 19 surviving distance slabs, marble slabs elaborately carved by the legions to mark their work on the wall.

The sculptures are, in general, more elaborate and richly decorated than their counterparts on Hadrian’s wall, featuring such scenes as Victory placing a laurel wreath on a Roman legionary standard, and the distinctive mascots of the soldiers’ legions: a running boar for the XX; a Pegasus and a Capricorn (after the Emperor Augustus’s star sign) for the VI.

The sculptures also clearly project the move north as a splendid military victory: several depict Caledonians being trampled by Roman cavalry, or simply crouching in submission, bound and naked.

The gallery emphasizes that life along the wall was not the stark existence you might expect from the northernmost border of the Roman Empire. The remains of bathhouses have been found along the wall, and the number of valuable consumer goods like red Samianware dishes and glass found suggest that some people in the area lived very well indeed.


Gladiator training school discovered in Austria

Monday, September 5th, 2011

Model of the Carnutum gladiator school complexUsing cutting edge ground-penetrating radar technology, archaeologists from the Ludwig-Boltzmann Institute have discovered extensive remains of a large gladiator school under the Roman legionary city of Carnutum, 24 miles east of Vienna.

Ground-penetrating radar attached to tractorThe site was first surveyed with ground-penetrating radar in 1996. Evidence of structures was detected, but the technology wasn’t keen enough to give researchers a clear idea of what was under there. This latest and greatest radar was attached to the front of a tractor and relayed real-time three-dimensional images of what was underground.

It’s the first gladiator training school found outside of Italy and it appears to be excellently preserved.

The Vienna institute team has been able to make detailed images of the gladiator school. They reveal that its centre was dominated by a circular arena equipped with wooden benches.

The school houses a heated training hall which combatants would have used during cold central European winters. There are also a bath house, administrative offices and small cell-like rooms for the gladiators themselves.

Gladiator school complexThe school complex spread over 2,800 square meters (3,350 square yards) and was surrounded by a thick wall. Outside the walls was a cemetery. The tombs are elaborate, far more so than in a nearby cemetery from around the same time. The fancy burials could indicate that this was a cemetery set apart for gladiators killed in the games. Gladiators were slaves and were on the social fringes, but success in the arena made them popular heroes, so after their gory deaths gladiators would be buried in style.

Inside the walls there is a courtyard with a small 19-square meter (23-square yard) stadium where the gladiators could practice and put on show fights for visitors and trainers. When it was too cold outside, they would train in the hypocaust heated hall. Don’t be fooled by the heated floors and baths. The gladiators were hardly living in the lap of luxury. Their sleeping cells — because calling them bedrooms would be far too generous — were tiny, just five feet square. There were 40 of these sleeping cubicles in the complex.

Gladiators today training in the Carnutum amphitheaterThe school was right next door to one of two amphitheaters in town. One amphitheater was part of the army garrison and reserved for the legionaries’ blood sport enjoyment; the other, part of the civil town. The school was adjacent to the civil amphitheater, the remains of which are still visible today and are, serendipitously enough, host to a summer gladiator training school.

There are no plans currently to excavate the remains. Only a fraction of the Carnutum site has been excavated so far, and the success of the radar scans will allow archaeologists to make a detailed model of the complex without having to touch spade to soil.


Roman port discovered in Wales

Saturday, September 3rd, 2011

Archaeologists digging on the banks of the River Usk near the Roman fortress of Caerleon in South Wales have uncovered the remains of what is only the second Roman port ever found in Britain. The other is in London, and it was a commercial port that appears to have gone up haphazardly over time as individual merchants built docks for their own needs. The Caerleon port is a single structure, most likely built to supply and move the legions stationed at the fortress.

The Cardiff University team has found in relatively good condition the main quay wall, jetties, landing stages and docking wharves next to a group of several Roman buildings they discovered in a dig last year.

“We are excavating the remains of a previously unknown complex of important Roman buildings that survive remarkably well considering how long they have lain underground.

“The port or harbour is a major addition to the archaeology of Roman Britain and adds a new dimension to our understanding of Caerleon as we can start to think about how the river connected the fortress and Wales to the rest of the Roman Empire.

“We believe that the port dates to period when the Legions were fighting and subduing the native tribes in western Britain and it’s incredible to think that this is the place where the men who took part in the conquest would have arrived.

“Our trenches are also looking at several buildings adjacent to the port and we have also found rooms with under floor heating systems, collapsed walls and roofs, as well as many thousands of objects made, used and lost during the Roman period.

The fortress was built in 74-75 A.D. during the final push under Julius Frontinus to quell the feisty local tribe, the Silures. Claudius’ troops first invaded in 43 A.D., remember, so the Welsh had been giving Rome the pointy end for 30 years by the time the r Legio II Augusta quartered permanently at Caerleon. Historians previously thought that Roman troops had built their own roads then walked them to Wales, but the discovery of the port suggests that the front lines against the Silures were supplied far more promptly and safely by river.

During the four years that Julius Frontinus was governor of Britain (74-78 A.D.), he not only built the fortress of Caerleon and, presumably, its port, but he also established a series of smaller forts 10 or so miles away from each other to house auxiliary troops. This network would have relied on the headquarters for supplies, so all the more use for a functional water route.

In what is probably a coincidence but a cool one, Frontinus is most famous today as the author of De Aquaeductu Urbis Romae, a comprehensive two-volume report of the aqueducts of Rome written when he was appointed Water Commissioner by emperor Nerva in 95 A.D. It’s incredibly nerdy. He lists every aqueduct, its history, size, condition, discharge rates, water quality and source. He mapped the entire water system, set up regular maintenance to prevent leaks and ensure clean and even delivery, and he tracked down and eliminated an enormous number of illegal taps on the lines where local landowners and merchants had connected their own pipes to the main channel to divert water for their selfish needs.

The Guardian has an excellent digital rendering of the port and fortress that it won’t let me embed because it’s mean.