Archive for the ‘Roma, Caput Mundi’ Category

Ancient church in Roman Forum to reopen restored

Friday, June 15th, 2012

Restorers at work at Santa Maria AntiquaAfter more than a decade of restoration work, Santa Maria Antiqua, one of the earliest and most historically significant Christian churches in Rome, will be open to tour groups by invitation only starting in September of this year, then open to the public at large in 2013. Built out of part of a palace complex on the Palatine dating to the reign of Emperor Domitian (reigned 81-96 A.D.), the building was converted into a Christian church in the sixth century. It was the second Christian church consecrated in the Roman Forum, the religious and political center of the ancient city, and thanks to various sackings and demolitions of later structures, it remains one of only two Christian churches in the Forum today. (The other is Santi Cosma e Damiano, built a few decades before Santa Maria.)

Santa Maria AntiquaSome of the materials used and style of the paintings are characteristically Byzantine, an unusual approach in the city of Rome, perhaps the product of artists and workshops from the Eastern Empire. Over the next three centuries, the walls were extensively frescoed, with later works sometimes painted over earlier ones. These layered paintings provide unique insight into the development of Byzantine and early medieval art, especially since much Byzantine religious art was destroyed by 8th and 9th century Iconoclasm in the East. Thankfully, Byzantine control over the West was weak by that time. Popes Gregory II and Gregory III rejected Byzantine imperial edicts to destroy all religious art, thus sparing Rome from the wholesale destruction of early Christian art suffered in Constantinople.

Maria Regina and the palimpsest wallThe earliest painting dates to the middle of the 6th century. It’s known as a Maria Regina because it depicts the Virgin Mary enthroned, wearing a garment festooned with pearls in the style of a Byzantine empress. It’s thought to be the earliest surviving depiction of Mary as Queen of Heaven. It’s on a wall to the right of the apse, and probably was painted before the apse was even finished. On top of her are another six layers of frescoed plaster. Flaking and wear reveal fragments of each layer. This wall is known as the palimpsest wall because of the exposed superimposed layers. The website of the Archaeological Superintendency of Rome has a neato Flash applet illustrating the stratigraphy of the palimpsest.

Eastern medical saintsAnother notable work is the portraits of medical saints, painted during the early 8th century during the papacy of John VII. Historians believe people came to the chapel to be healed by the images of the saints, a tradition of the Eastern Church instituted in Rome during the Byzantine Papacy (537-752) when all the popes were selected by the Eastern Emperor. When the Roman papacy sought the patronage of Frankish King Pepin instead, Eastern customs fell out of favor. This is one of the only depictions of the medical saint tradition extant.

Chapel of TheodotusThe frescoes in the chapel of Theodotus, named after a wealthy and prominent official at the court of Pope Zaccarias (r. 741-752) whose family is depicted in one of the paintings, are some of the best preserved. Sequences include the Crucifixion, the martyrdom of Quiricus (aka Cyricus) and Julietta, and the Virgin and Christ Child accompanied by Saints Peter, Paul, Julietta and Pope Zaccarias.

Theodotus and family; square halo indicates the person depicted was still aliveThe church was abandoned in the 9th century after it was damaged by an earthquake and subsequent landslide in 847. In a classic historical paradox, the earthquake that wiped it off the map is probably what saved the frescoes from getting obliterated by war or new architectural fads. A new church, Santa Maria Liberatrice, was built on top of part of the old church in the 13th century. Santa Maria Liberatrice was rebuilt in Baroque style in 1600.

Santa Maria Antiqua was rediscovered again in 1701 by scavengers looking for building material in the Roman Forum. The apse was excavated and became a popular subject for artists and tourists to visit. They only got three months to enjoy the view, however, because the landowner decided to rebury it.

Demolition of Santa Maria Liberatrice, ca. 1900Urban legend has it that it was rediscovered yet again in 1900, when a monk fell into a sinkhole while digging in the vegetable garden. What we know for sure is that in 1900, as new excavations revealed more and more of the Roman Forum around it, the government decided to dispose of that pesky medieval/Baroque church in their way. Archaeologist Giacomo Boni took on the task of destroying history. The old church was so well built it took them two years to take it down. They had to use dynamite in the end, and no, there was no archaeological survey done on the site at any point during those two years.

Santa Maria Antiqua no roof, 1902-1910Once fully excavated, Santa Maria Antiqua revealed more than 250 square meters (that’s 2690 square feet) of frescoes in brilliant color which of course immediately began to degrade courtesy of exposure to the elements. As excavations in the Forum continued, the church was used as a storage space for ancient artifacts. A wooden roof was built over the central nave in 1910 to try to stop the rapid deterioration.

It wasn’t enough. From 1912 until 1957, 12% of the frescoes were detached from the wall, transferred to new supports and kept in the Forum museum. In 1980 the church was closed permanently to the public and conservation work began in situ this time. In 2001, a program of thorough documentation and restoration was begun with funding and collaboration from the World Monuments Fund, among others, and it’s this program that is finally coming to an end. Some of the detached panels have been returned to their original locations.

The portraits of saints, surrounded by images of date trees and improbable fringed curtains, will remain partly unrestored and noticeably eroded.

“It leaves space for imagination,” said Werner Matthias Schmid, a principal conservator for the project, while giving a recent tour of the damp and dimly lighted church. Glaring white patches where paint had peeled away have been toned down to a grayish color. “We diminished the distortions of the losses,” he said.

The conservators have methodically documented their decisions about every millimeter of the restoration, as they stabilized flaking paint and undid failing old repairs. [...]

The conservators have found Latin and Greek inscriptions in the murals in addition to traces of ancient brush strokes. The saints’ eyes and pearl strands are formed from dots of white lime. “Up close they’re almost three-dimensional,” Mr. Schmid said.

And now my favorite part: the before and after pics.

Medical saints before restoration Medical saints after restoration
The Crucifixion before restoration The Crucifixion after restoration
Christ's crucified feet before Christ's crucified feet after
Chapel of Theodutus before restoration Chapel of Theodutus after restoration

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Janet Stephens: Intrepid Hairdressing Archaeologist

Thursday, January 26th, 2012

Some time ago, I was wandering around the Internet nerding out over old things as is my wont when I came across the YouTube channel of a genius. Before my astounded eyes, professional hairstylist Janet Stephens recreated the hugely intricate hairstyle of Empress Julia Domna (170–217 A.D.), wife of Emperor Septimius Severus, using only period-appropriate tools and a sculpted bust of the empress as an example. No pins. No perms. No hairspray. Behold Janet’s amazing skills in action:

Naturally I watched the rest of her videos in quick succession. Then I secured a copy of “Ancient Roman Hairdressing: On (hair) pins and needles,” a paper she wrote that was published in the 2008 edition of the Journal of Roman Archaeology (JRA). The depth of her knowledge blew me away. She is fully conversant in the archaeology (including unpublished artifacts), ancient literary sources and published scholarship of Roman hairstyling, and not just Roman but Etruscan and Greek as well.

Her work in this field is unique because her experience as a stylist gives her particular insight into how hair works and what can be accomplished with what tools. She upends a number of assumptions — that Roman women must have used wigs to achieve their more elaborate hairstyles, that they used hairpins — and injects a whole new simplicity and accuracy to the very vocabulary of ancient hairdressing.

Virtually all commentators demonstrate modern technological biases that lead to anachronistic speculation: in both looking at images and interpreting literary passages, they assume that the Romans used the same hairdressing technologies as do moderns. In addition, not being hairdressers, they fail to understand the technical possibilities of the tools that the Romans did have at their disposal. I will analyze the physical capabilities of the single prong hair-pin in order to show the impossibility of its application in many contexts. As an alternative I will propose sewing needles, arguing that, as Roman women of the 1st c. A.D. abandoned vitta-based [(vittae were linen or woollen ribbons used to tie the hair together when arranging it)] coiffures in favor of more elaborate fashions, they used needles (artifacts well attested in antiquity) invisibly to stitch together the style’s various components.

And that’s just the second paragraph. The rest of the paper lives up to its promise and then some.

Her most recent video, Julia Domna: Forensic Hairdressing, a recreation of a later hairstyle of the hirsute empress, was presented to great acclaim at the Archaeological Institute of America’s Annual Meeting in Philadelphia earlier this month.

(Correction: I initially wrote she had done the recreations live, but that was my misunderstanding. In fact, Janet’s Julia Domna videos were running on a computer while four pre-styled mannikin heads, one at each stage of Julia’s hair loss as portrayed on coins, provided real-hair examples for the people attending to examine. A 4×8 foot graphic illustrated the probable progression of hair loss from one stage to another.)

Shocked and awed by her combination of scholarly research and styling craftsmanship, and cat-killingly curious about how all the elements came together, I asked Janet Stephens if she would submit to an interview and she has most graciously done so.

* * *

Janet StephensQ: How did you first begin to research ancient hairdressing?
A:
My research began with a visit to the Walters Art Museum in 2001. They had just finished renovating the Greek/Roman collections and displayed a number of portrait busts at eye level, out in the center of the room, like a cocktail party. I had never seen the back of a roman portrait before—they are usually placed high on shelves/pedestal with the backs tight up against a wall. As I circled the portraits I saw the logic of the hairstyles and determined to try some at home. It was electrifying, can’t thank the Walters enough.

Q: When was the first time you tried to recreate a look and how successful was that initial foray?
A:
I think it was my first day off after that visit! I pulled out a long haired mannikin to try out Julia Domna, type 2. I made it as far as the serpentine bun and hit a wall. Bobby pins and hair pins just wouldn’t do the job. It was all library leg work and practical experimentation after that.

Q: Which came first: your love of history or your love of hair?
A:
My love of hair definitely came first (as a child I had the best coiffed dolls in the neighborhood), and my love of hair kindled my love of fashion and social history.

Q: Your article in the JRA demonstrates an astonishingly thorough command of the archaeological record, and of primary and secondary sources relating to Roman hairstyling (and not just Roman, but also Etruscan and Greek). How did you master such a density of material?
A:
Lots and lots of reading, poring over exhibition catalogs, back searching the footnotes to the reading and reading some more! It helped that I am fluent in Italian and, in 2006, I took a German for reading class. Working in my spare time, the research took 6 years.

Q: Did you do all this research on your own or through a school or other institution or …?
A:
I am an independent researcher, but my husband is a professor of Italian at the Johns Hopkins University, so I have library privileges there. We are friendly with colleagues in the Classics/Archaeology department and at the Walters Art Museum. They were kind enough to send me articles and clippings, read drafts and help with some picky Latin, though I try not to impose.

Q: You say in the JRA article that sculptures tell you where to part the hair, what direction to twist it in, even whether the curl is natural or artificial. I’m particularly curious about the latter. How you can identify the source of the curl?
A:
It helps to have a lot of hairdressing experience! This is a complex topic with room for much ambiguity. Identifying artificial curl on a statue requires a visual literacy similar to that necessary to distinguish a particular painter’s work by his brush strokes. It can be difficult to identify artificial curl today because of the vast array of hair care technologies available.

The Romans did not have the range of technologies that we do (electric dryers, plastics, cheap metal clips, air conditioning, hair spray), so changing the shape of hair was both risky (irons heated over fire) or time consuming (air drying wet hair so it takes on an unnatural shape can take many hours). How long these artificial curls might endure depended on climate and weather. I believe most Roman women made do with their natural curl patterns and avoided artificial curling.

But on Roman portraits, curls that are too neat, ribbon-like, evenly sized and orderly may be suspected as artificial. I always examine the entire hairstyle, looking for signs of wave or straightness. I look for signs in hairstyle components where curl would be irrelevant or counterproductive to the finished style, and I pay special attention to mismatches between one zone of the head and another. Artificial curls are arranged in strict rows or stacks, with a logic and consistency to their rotational direction, say clockwise on one side of the head and counterclockwise on the other. Natural curl tends to be chaotic and “frizzy”, there is usually a mix of different diameters of curl and they don’t always rotate in the same directions.

Q: Were you already an accomplished stylist by then?
A:
Yes. I now have over 20 years professional hairdressing experience. I have also taught in an accredited beauty school and as a color educator for a major haircare company.

Q: Did you have to do a lot of trial and error to figure out how certain hairstyles were achieved?
A:
Not really, once I realized they could be sewn together, the styles came together fairly quickly. Using high quality portrait examples is a must, though.

Sabina, wife of Hadrian, as Venus Genetrix, ca. 117, Museo OstienseQ: Which ones were the most challenging and why?
A:
The ones I do on mannikins are the hardest, because I have only my two hands to work with. A live model can follow directions or help out by holding on to a piece of equipment or hair. But in terms of sheer manual dexterity, the “beehive” (ca. 117 A.D.) is the toughest so far.

Q: I was surprised by how much hard science — like the isometric tension keeping bodkins in place and the anatomical requirements of hair length for any given style — was in your JRA paper. Are these factors you can calculate by observation or did you have to learn them by experimenting?
A:
Hairdressers learn a lot of biology and anatomy during cosmetology training and we apply it every day in the salon. We all learn that certain hair lengths work better for certain styles. I prefer using vertebrae to measure hair length because it is precise but not dogmatic. I have used bodkins to dress my own hair and I use them to manage the long hair of clients. You become familiar with how they work and it just becomes a matter of finding ways to describe them.

Q: How did you find those unpublished needles in the Johns Hopkins collection?
A:
The Johns Hopkins University has a very good archaeological collection and museum. Their gracious former curator, Eunice Maguire, helped me with the needles. There is a lot of unpublished material out there.

Q: How was your “Julia Domna: Forensic Hairdressing” presentation received at the Archaeological Institute of America Conference this year?
A:
It seemed to create a a lot of buzz and people said they enjoyed it. It’s not every conference where you go to the poster session and see “heads on pikestaffs”!

Q: Is there anyone else doing anything like what you do?
A:
Dr. Elizabeth Bartman (president of the AIA) and Prof. Katherine Schwab of Fairfield University have each employed hairdressers to recreate the hairstyle of Faustina the Elder and the ancient Greek Erechtheion caryatid hairstyles, respectively. But, so far as I know, I am the only professional hairdresser working as a scholar in her own right on the topic of ancient hairstyle recreation.

Q: Do you have any specific goals, attitudes you’d like to change or new approaches you’d like to establish in the archaeological community?
A:
I would love it if all archaeological museums would display their sculptures out in the middle of the room instead of in niches and against walls! And I wish there were mirrors behind every small sculpture displayed in a case.

Q: For instance, creating consistent terminology (i.e., bodkins and needles instead of curlers/hairpins/bobby pins) standards in the scholarly literature?
A:
That’s a great idea…and I would extend the concept to include technologically neutral descriptions of hair itself.

Q: If you could choose one ancient hairstyle or technique to bring back into fashion today, which one would it be and why?
A:
Selfishly, I would love to see more women of every age wearing their hair as long as they can: that way I could find hair models more easily!

* * *

Inspiring, isn’t she? Not only is Janet Stephens an expert in her profession, but in just six years she taught herself to be an expert in the academic field of ancient hairdressing, maybe even the primary expert. Now run, don’t walk, to watch all of her videos and clamor for more.

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Italian PM returns marble head of Domitilla to Libya

Monday, January 23rd, 2012

Head of Flavia Domitilla returned to TripoliItalian Prime Minister Mario Monti is in Tripoli to sign a new treaty with the post-Gaddafi government, and he brought the head of a first century A.D. Roman sculpture with him to seal the deal.

The head belongs to a statue of Flavia Domitilla Minor, the daughter of the emperor Vespasian and sister of emperors Titus and Domitian. The statue was excavated from the UNESCO World Heritage archaeological site of Sabratha and was on display at Sabratha’s Roman museum in 1990 when thieves broke the head off of the body and absconded with it. (Some of the news stories are saying it was stolen in the 1960s, but I think that’s just one of the AP’s trademark typos getting passed around like a game of telephone.)

It turned up last year as lot #261 of the April 14 Antiques sale at Christie’s London. I will give you one guess as to the provenance they claimed on the piece. Oh yeah. It’s our old friend the Swiss private collection. They removed the lot from their website after they got busted, but this article quotes their original lot notes: “private collection, Switzerland, circa 1975; acquired by the present owner in Switzerland in 1988.” It was still attached to its body in a Libyan museum in 1988. Such a blatant lie.

London-based Libyan archaeologist Hafed Walda saw the lot before the auction and alerted Christie’s that it was the Domitilla head stolen from the Sabratha Museum. They ignored him and sold it to an Italian buyer for £91,250 ($142,000). Archaeologist and brilliant blogger Dorothy King also tried to get Christie’s attention but they blew her off too.

My experience of Christie’s is that that’s par for the course, but just in case … I knew they couldn’t give me the buyer’s details, so I asked the head of department, Ms Georgina Aitken, to pass mine on to the buyer as I had some information about the history of the piece. Ms Aitken said she would not do so unless I told her what the information was. I briefly explained that there was evidence to suggest that the head might have been looted and that the provenance was faked, and that Christie’s were aware of this and did nothing. There are more chances of pigs flying than of this information being passed on to the buyer.

Said buyer took his purchase home only to voluntarily relinquish it a few months later to the Carabinieri Art Squad. Christie’s had the audacity to respond thus:

A Christie’s spokesman said: “Additional information was brought to our attention after the auction. We subsequently cancelled the sale and are assisting all relevant bodies with the return of this object.”

See how weaselly that “additional information” bit is? Because Hafed Walda told them where that head really came from before the auction so they couldn’t say they had no idea they were selling stolen goods again. No, they just got additional info long after the fact, you see, that really clinched it for them. Please. Anyway they just reimbursed the buyer and that’s the end of that. No consequences. This is why they keep selling artifacts from “Swiss private collections” over and over again, even when there’s hard evidence that they were stolen. :angry:

To close on a less enraging note, here’s a fun fact about Flavia Domitilla Minor: she died at just 21 years old three years before her father Vespasian became emperor in 69 A.D. Twelve years after that, her younger brother Domitian became emperor. He deified her and granted her the title of Augusta.

Her daughter Flavia Domitilla converted to Judaism/Christianity (the Talmud claims the former, Eusebius the latter) and was exiled to the island of Pandataria by her uncle Domitian for her “atheism” which included a refusal to worship her own mother along with the rest of the imperial family and traditional Roman pantheon. She is now a Christian saint and her former property is the exquisite catacomb of Santa Domitilla.

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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.

Yuzo Yagi 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 ….

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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