Monday, May 22, 2017

Homeward Bound

And after three weeks plus of physical work, travel and dusty ruins I expect the Jet Lag will be severe.

Me for the immediate future.


Friday, May 19, 2017

Groovy Roman stones

Here is a bit of an archeology mystery from my recent trip to Vindolanda.  Just what do we have going on here?  A fancy bit of stone work to be sure.



This is over a short wall from where I had been excavating but appears to be part of the same commanding officer's house circa 180-200 AD.  For perspective here is a side view.



Now, the feature with the round hole in the top may not be in its original location. Note the loose stones and rubble underneath it.  But the larger stone is the interesting one.  It has a slot carved into it.

These turn up in various contexts.  Here is a simple water holding tank just inside the west gate of the fort.




And here a much fancier version in the (later, 3rd century) fort headquarters building. It separated an assembly hall from an official room that may among other things been the paymaster's office.




But as to the purpose of a stone screen near the (presumed) corner of the commander's residence, no theories to offer.  Other of course the observation that one support stone would not hold a heavy stone screen very well.  There should have been a second one but person or persons unknown nicked it a very long time ago.

Moving on from Vindolanda to Rome I was on the lookout for other, similar stones. And of course they kept turning up.



What we have here is a tombstone that at some later date had a slot carved into it. While this may seem highly irreverent it is worth noting that in later eras people did not know how to read Latin.  They did however know how to use a chisel.  This comes from the very jumbled up site that is the tomb of Cecilia Mattea on the Appian Way. 

Now here's one from the Museum at the Baths of Diocletian.  Fancy.


And lets finish up with an odd ball.



Here is a slotted stone near the Museum at Ostia Antica.  Between early antiquities robbers and the enthusiastic attention of Mussolini era archeologists/reconstructors it is hard to say much about age and context.

So my personal opinion that it has an Alien Brain on the top can probably be dismissed out of hand. 






Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Monte Testaccio - The Ultimate Detritus of Empire

One of the places that I meant to visit on our last trip to Rome was Monte Testaccio. Literally it means "the mountain of shards".

Oh, this is not on very many people's list of Must See things in the Eternal City, but if you are archeologically inclined it is something special.  Simply put, it is a mountain of broken Roman pottery.

It is almost all amphorae.  More specifically, amphorae used to transport olive oil from Spain to Rome.  The river is nearby, with the great warehouses where oil for public and military distribution were received, stored and distributed.  And what to do with the empties?

You tend to see lots of re-use of pots generally and amphorae specifically.  Even at far away Vindolanda up on the Frontier we find them busted up for road surfacing or set into the ground as storage or as a latrine.  But the amphorae in Monte Testacaccio are of a specific type - Dressel 20 if you must know - that tend to break into large jagged shards.  And even the common Roman practice of grinding them up to mix with concrete was not practical due to oil residue.

So, they were hauled off and broken up on the site.  

Nobody knows how old the ones at the bottom are.  But the 53 million amphorae that make up the Mountain of Shards were accumulated over several centuries.  At present it stands 115 feet high but it might have once been larger.  

About 260 AD the storage and distribution of oil was moved somewhere else and the discard pile was complete.

After the fall of Rome this was a desolate spot outside the walls.  Jousting tournaments were held here in the Middle Ages.  For a while it stood in theatrically for Golgotha, with the Pope leading a procession to it every Good Friday and putting up three crosses on its summit.   

In the early modern era it had a series of caves dug into it for cool storage of wine.

So, lets take a visit to The Mother of All Spoil heaps in the year 2017.

You can get very close to the "Mountain" without seeing it.  It is entirely encircled by rather dodgy looking buildings.  Those farther out are auto repair shops.  Those close in and dug into the hillside are mostly an assortment of clubs and music venues.  The graffiti in this neighborhood is epic.



Here we find a truck decked out in vines and a tiki deck.  The sign on it says "Cult Services".  It seems to be audio/video stuff, probably real popular in the artsy neighborhood.



Of course I had to peek in their parking lot.  Washed out bits of amphora all over the place.


But that pales to insignificance when you go around to the north end of the site.  Here a section of the hill has been cleaned of dirt to show you the packed amphora fragments below.


Stacks and stacks.  Too many to count.  Too many to excavate.  Too many to scrub up.



I don't think Monte Testaccio would warrant a special visit unless you come on one of the infrequent days where they unlock the gate and let you climb to the top.  There is still a cross up there by the way.  But it is in an area where there are some other fascinating things - which we shall return to anon - and as an add on visit it is worthy.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Ancient Feet - Coming and Going

Today a story about setting out and turning back.  Or about setting off and hoping to come back.  It takes place on The Appian Way.

"The Queen of Roads".  This was a main route for travelers to set out from Ancient Rome.  A couple of miles out you had a place where you could turn back and see the great city for the last time.   At this spot a place of worship was established.  

Rediculus was one of the lares, the protector gods of Rome.  When Hannibal's army approached in 211 BC Rediculus appeared in an apparition, or perhaps in a storm of hail, admonishing the Carthaginian to turn back.  The word redire in Latin means to turn back and is likely the origin of the god's name.  Later interpretations that Hannibal was made to look ridiculous don't sound likely.

The Temple of Rediculus was built at this spot, and a larger campus, or field of Rediculus was nearby.  There do not seem to be visible remains.

The notion of this being the spot where you either went forward or back was established, and it was here that travelers would stop to give an offering to their safe return from far journeys.  One wonders how many - with real or perceived omens - aborted their journey and turned around?

Fast forward a few centuries.  According to the apocryphal Acts of Peter this is the spot where the Apostle, and first Pope, encountered a vision of Christ.  Peter was fleeing the city ahead of persecution but came to a halt when he met Christ.  Asking Him:  "Master, where are you going?" Peter was told "I am going to Rome to be crucified again."

Taking the hint that it was his, Peter's, job to return he did so.  And met his martyrdom.

Peter's words in Latin "Domine Quo Vadis?" are linked to the church that was later built on the site.  Miracles being what they were back then, a stone slab depicting the actual footprints of Jesus were long kept there.  What you see now in situ is a replica.

So, what do modern travelers find at the Field of Rediculus and at the Church of Dominie Quo Vadis?



A nice little church.  That is the Appian Way running right in front of it.



Jesus looks to be about a size 10.



And here is a nice bust recognizing Henryk Sienkiewicz.  He wrote the novel "Quo Vadis" which is the only reason people have heard of this place.  If my Italian is holding up it looks as if he won the Nobel Prize for it.

We were actually having a rather tough day when I took these photos.  It was hot. There were large crowds on the Road as it was a local festival.  In places the original Roman paving stones were quite jarring as we rode our bikes over them.  But we did not turn back at Quo Vadis, we soldiered on for as long as the time on our bike hire allowed.  More pictures of the day, of course, in due course.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Living Vicariously next to the Vicus

As has been the case in other recent seasons the work crew was divided between those working inside the Fort at Vindolanda, and those working in the vicus, that being the civilian settlement outside the fort*.

The vicus is where the really amazing stuff tends to emerge.  With anaerobic preservation metal objects pop up without a speck of tarnish and wooden objects are still intact after nearly 2000 years.   

Sigh.  This year I was on the crew inside the fort.  Most of my digging pals were over in the vicus trench.  Envious?  Oh, just a bit but I have been down in the "good stuff" the last few seasons.

So I live vicariously through their anaerobic adventures.

Of course this got me musing.  Is there an etymological connection between vicus and vicarious?  

Close but no cigar.  Vicus is a latin word meaning "group of houses".  It survives to the modern era in the word vicinity.  

Vicarious -  meaning to live through the adventures of others - derives from vicis to "exchange or interchange".  The sort of Walter Mitty sense of it is first recorded only in 1929.  It also survives as the word "Vicar" through one of its secondary meanings, a place or position.  And if you are on an Etymology roll, vicis also gives us Vice President and "vice versa", each indicating a sort of replacement.

Vicus and Vicis.  Off by a single letter.




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* stuff being jostled around a good deal over the long occupation of Vindolanda some areas of Vicus are now underneath parts of the fort.  And vice versa.  It's complicated.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Vindolanda 2017 Day Nine

A little puzzle to start the day.

Is this: Geology, Archeology or Pudding?


I will give you a clue, it is not an artifact.  I would never clobber anything important hard enough to split it in two.

The other two categories are tougher.  Pudding you see is a catch all description of pretty much any foodstuff in the UK.  Dessert, main dishes, appetizers.  The category encompasses almost anything edible and a few things that I would say are not.

So, rock or dessert.  I will just say that it is pretty darn heavy but as a clue that is not going to help you much.

Moving more rubble today.  I did not personally find anything but next to me came up a nice ring.  I don't generally show pictures of metal finds but this has already been on the Vindolanda official twitter feed so the embargo is off.



It is a really big ring, presumably a man's size.  In the above photos it is modeled by one of the staff archaeologists.  She claims this means she is now "married to the site". 1800 years is a substantial age gap in any relationship but lets hope they make things work out.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Vindolanda 2017 Day Eight

Another day of removing "Demolition Rubble", this time just to the north of where I had been the day before.  Glorious sunshine, which is good fortune in its own way, but how to improve my luck regards actually finding things amidst the rubble?

Well, I spotted this interesting little rock glittering in the sun.

Of course it is not an artifact, just a rock that has fractured in interesting ways.  And, no, I don't actually believe in the magical powers of crystals.  But what the heck, I held it up over the trench then set it on a nearby wall.

It took a while, all day in fact, but eventually I did find something.


It is the bottom part of a bowl, and the delightful pumpkin orange color identifies it immediately as Samian Ware.


A quick splash from my water bottle and a wipe with my sleeve (you don't of course do this with fragile artifacts or surface worn pottery)

As soon as it came out of the ground I just knew it would have a pottery stamp on it. You don't find these very often and it is a great help to dating sites as the patterns of what variety of Samian was made where and when are pretty well mapped out.


As I said earlier, I don't really believe in the Powers of Crystals.  But to some extent I believe in karma.  To share my good fortune I loaned the crystal to an adjacent trench where they set it up like some mystical wifi router distributing luck to its immediate environs.