Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Warden Churchyard, Northumberland

Almost all church yards are dense with history, and in the UK you find some really remarkable examples.

Up in Northumberland, near Corbridge we made a brief stop at a place called Warden Churchyard.

The church proper is very old, with the squared off, military look to its tower leading some to speculate that the Saxon architect of this place might have used a still extant Hadrian's Wall turret as his inspiration.

You find all different layers of history.

Here, next to the door of the church we find what is felt to be a very worn down former Roman altar. It has a later carving of The Green Man on it.  Green Man was an odd hold over of pagan fertility cultism that the Church just looked at and shrugged.


I did read one source that fancifully claimed that the break in the middle was to "release" any pagan influences before the stone was allowed onto hallowed ground.  This is somewhat unlikely, stones have a tendency to break on their own.

Here's something you don't see every day....



A series of graves with iron cages on top.  No, not a concern about the Dead Rising Up as zombies. But something slightly unpleasant.

This is probably a "Mortsafe".  For a long time there was a stigma against dissecting dead bodies for medical education.  In medieval times it was opposed by the Church and even into the modern era it was not regarded favorably.  Medical students who wished to study anatomy would sometimes turn to "Resurrection Men".  For a fee these guys would go out under dark of night and dig up a nice fresh corpse for you.  The practice was wide spread, both in the UK and elsewhere.  It was especially prevalent and reviled in Scotland, where beliefs in the resurrection of the body after death were quite strong.

As a result measures designed to stop grave robbing were the most elaborate in the immediate vicinity of Scottish medical schools.  My examples from above are "over the border" in England but not by that much.

I actually question whether the intent here was preventing grave robbing.  Warden Churchyard is a long ways from any plausible market for a dead body, and the shelf life would be, er, limited.  Also, grave robbing was much reduced after the passage of the Anatomy Act of 1832 made access to unclaimed bodies much easier for students of medicine.  The death dates on these stones are all much later.  I can see an 1862 clearly and there was another that seemed to be from 1891.  Perhaps this was a mortician selling out old stock.  Or maybe somebody just indulging a rather macabre whim.

Our last stop today is a sad one.  Have a look.


An especially fine military monument in a country that lost so many of her best and bravest.

Now take a closer look.


Poor Private Thomas Harrison.  He died on the last day of World War One.  Literally on the 11th day of the 11th month.  For all we know it might have been on the 11th hour, the exact moment that the guns fell silent.

His name is relatively common, so I have not been able to find out much about him.  The designation
N.F. stands for Northumberland Fusiliers.  This was a long established Regular Army regiment that during the course of the Great War expanded into a bewildering 51 battalions and fought from the beginning to the bitter, bitter end.

I am not sure why Private Harrison died in Cardiff, Wales.  A reasonable guess might be that he died of wounds while in hospital.  The 3rd Western General Hospital there was a rather large establishment.



Monday, June 29, 2015

A Tomb with a View at High Rochester

It is natural to think of Hadrian's Wall as the frontier of the Roman Empire.  It stood astride the lofty hills with keen eyed sentries marching ceaselessly, ever vigilant as they looked northward into the dark, barbaric lands beyond.

But that was not entirely true.

The Wall, and earlier the Stanegate frontier that it roughly paralleled, were not a static, rigid edge of Empire.  At various times the Legions marched practically to the furthest extremity of Scotland in their attempts to chastise and/or subjugate the stubborn inhabitants.  For a while the Antonine Wall was the northern frontier.  And even when Hadrian's Wall was where Rome officially ended, there were a series of outpost forts further north.

We don't quite understand this situation.  In some instances they may have been an early warning system.  Certainly they were linked by a system of signal towers to the main defensive line.  In other cases they were friendly territory, tribesmen in the lowland regions might have been allied subordinate kingdoms or bought and paid mercenaries.  Perhaps in other cases these really were the armed camps with lurking hostiles that our imagination would make them.

On our recent trip to Vindolanda we made a quick trip up to one of these outpost forts, a place called High Rochester.  In Roman times it was called Bremium, and was located about 15 miles north of Hadrian's Wall on what is now called Dere Street.

Dere Street was one of the main north south roads heading north into Scotland, and High Rochester was an early site, built by Agricola on his punitive campaign after the Boudiccian revolt.

But today lets leave the fort aside.  The most interesting thing at High Rochester are the tombs outside the fort.

This artist's conception appears in The Outposts of Hadrian's Wall by R. Embleton.  It is based on what information can be pieced together from early antiquarian accounts.  The circular tomb on the left remains today.  The three rectangular tombs had their stones robbed out to make field walls, and have pretty much lost their shapes entirely.  The site today:


On our little road trips we do tend to strike poses suitable for 1970's album covers.

As you can see the upper earthen dome is no longer present.  A lot of it was probably removed when an Inland Revenue officer named William Coulson took a break from his usual job of intercepting whiskey shipments long enough to excavate this feature.  He fount an urn with cremated remains , presumably of a Roman officer, and a coin of Septimus Severus (222-235).

One one of the stones there is a carving of a long eared animal of some sort.  Fox, bunny, donkey, take your pick I guess.


The tombs at High Rochester are on a windy hillside.  Sheep wander about.  You are standing on the modern day border between England and Scotland.  There is not much in the way of land marks although in places you can see the track of the ancient Roman road.  We had heard that there were other tombs nearby so we scrambled up and down a while eventually running into a farmer who pointed us in the right direction.


There turned out to be about a dozen of these things, earthen mounds with a ditch around them.  You can make out a row of three in this picture.  Presumably these were the graves of lesser folk, or perhaps it is just a matter of any stone work being long gone.  There are no records regarding excavations, but it is hard to imagine that there has not been a bit of midnight digging over the years.


Pete relaxing atop an ancient Roman grave.  I am not sure why this struck me as a bit more cheeky than the entire bunch of us standing on top of the bigger example.  Maybe because I knew the occupant of that one had moved elsewhere circa 1850?  We had another week of excavation ahead of us so I decided to play it safe.  After Pete got up I carefully put a 10 pence coin down as an offering to the Manes and the Lares.  As we went on to have a very productive week my little gesture must have done some good.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Eloping - 21st century version

I have said it before but it bears repeating.  Words are sneaky things, not be be implicitly trusted. If you take your eye off of them for a while they change meanings on you.

Today's example is the word "elope".

The usage that most of us associate with the word is something like this:


Here we have a visual that sums it up.  Dark of night.  Ladder up against a second story window. Said window the room of a winsome maiden as identified by the pink fru-fru curtains.  The implication is that her family - usually a blustering, shotgun toting Daddy - disapproves of the young man involved, and that the young couple will decamp forthwith to some jurisdiction where they can be married that very night by a Justice of the Peace who is willing to be rousted from a deep sleep to mumble through the minimal ceremony required.

Sometimes the image also includes a young lady in a bridal dress coming down the ladder.  Sorry, but that's just silly.  If you want to sneak away under cover of darkness you wear Ninja black, and not something with a long train you are going to trip over.  And if you actually have a fairy tale wedding dress, well, neither parental approval or necessary funds appear to be lacking, now do they?

As to the word elope, there are various interpretations of its etymology.  My most reliable sources trace it back to the 1590s and a Middle Dutch word ontlopen.  This means to run away from, and likely derives from hlaupan an earlier Germanic word that means to run but also give us lope (to run with a long bounding stride) and leap (obvious meaning and connection).  The French word aloper is probably derived from the German source, and being French is a bit naughtier.  The original meaning was to run away from your husband with your lover.

But here in the astonishing but slightly silly 21st century, eloping does not mean what it meant a generation or so back.  Essentially there are no young ladies who are required to get Daddy's permission to marry, and one wonders just how many are deterred by even the carefully phrased, modern sensibility versions of paternal misgivings.

A delightful young lady of our acquaintance recently was telling us about a friend of hers who "eloped" because it was cheaper and less bother than doing the whole elaborate ritual that has become a modern Wedding.  And it seems as if this has become, while I was looking elsewhere, a Big Deal.

There are "elopement packages" offered by exotic venues and destinations.  So much for the whole "can't afford to get married" line of reasoning....you are going to Paris!  There are blogs with practical advice.  There are elopement checklists (HERE is one that includes ring, dress, flowers, photographer, attendants and music, but inexplicably leaves the ladder out altogether).  There are - please shed a tear for modern civilization - Elopement Planners.

Ah, well.  My researches have saddled me with the odd vision of a bride and groom running across a darkened lawn in great loping strides as attendants throw rice and the photographer takes a lot of shots with a powerful flash.  A flower girl holds a bouquet of glow sticks.  Muted music plays in the background so as not to disturb the neighbors. A reception follows at the local Perkins which is open 24 hours a day.

Not that you were asking, but as an aside, consider the word antelope.  Graceful creatures they both lope and leap with proficiency.  Clearly a related word?  Nah, not even close.  The word comes from anthelops a semi-mythical beast first mentioned by Eusebius of Antioch circa 336 AD.  They were savage creatures living somewhere out past Mesopotamia.  They were said to be very difficult to catch and could saw down trees with their horns.


Wednesday, June 24, 2015

How to Make Formica....the hard way.


Sometimes I just snap a picture because I find the image interesting, then later try to figure out what it is all about.  But in this case I just had to think a bit, to remember something I knew a long time ago.

In Italian "formiche verdi" means "Green Ants".  Formiche is plural.  One ant is "formica" just like the floor covering stuff.  But the link between the two meanings of the word takes a side step.

Ants, some of them anyway, have a sort of low grade venom.  It stings when they bite you.  The stuff is called formic acid.  If you prefer the pun, it is "ant-acid".  It also puts the sting into stinging nettles.

Formic acid was first isolated by English naturalist John Ray in 1671.  He collected what must have been a very large number of dead ants and distilled the stuff out of them.  Now of course it is made synthetically, and in a sort of spoil sport re-naming is technically called methanoic acid.

The modern day uses of formic acid are many.  The biggest use is as a preservative for livestock feed. It also is used in the manufacture of the artificial sweetener aspartame.  And of course as a binding resin for making a variety of textiles and such.

Formica was invented in 1912.  It was supposed to be an electrical insulating substance made up of layers of paper bonded together with a resin.  The name is a pun in several ways.  The insulation it was supposed to replace was mica.  So this new substitute would be used "for" mica.  And of course the resin contained formic acid, which one could in theory still manufacture by distilling down a huge pile of "formica".

The use as a flooring material came later.  At least in our house the ants seem to have no qualms whatsoever in walking across it.


Monday, June 22, 2015

More Obelisks of Isis

Last week when I was rounding up the various remnants from the Isis/Serapis/Minerva complex in Rome's Campus Marti I alluded to there being additional obelisks.  These are similar in size to my favorite Roman obelisk, the one in front of Santa Maria sopra Minerva.

The Iseum/Serapeum complex must have been a most impressive place.  Don't you wish you could have a peek at it in its prime?  Well, you can.  But only a tiny peek.

Even many fans of things Roman have never heard of the Severan Marble Plan.  This was a huge, highly detailed map of the city of Rome that was mounted on a wall near the Forum.  Think of one of the modern day city maps you encounter, but without the "You are Here" arrow to help orient you.

The Plan has suffered the usual fate of Roman antiquities, it has been battered, burned and burgled. But maybe 15% of it survives.  And happily for our tale it has fragments that depict the Serepeum. (There were actually other Iseum/Serapeum complexes in Rome, but that is another story).



These are from the Stanford University reconstruction of the Severan Plan, a most impressive on line effort.  You can see the word SERAPAEUM in the two pieces.  The little dots probably represent obelisks.  The exact number of them is unclear.  But lets visit a few.....

Here we are on the steps of the Pantheon.  In front of us is the Piazza della Rotanda.  It's a fun place, lots of people around, lots of things happening.  Tourists taking pictures, merchants hawking stuff, a discrete presence of Italian police watching out for any nefarious activity by modern day followers of a far darker ISIS.  In the background is the sound of a busker band playing Pink Floyd's "The Wall".




The obelisk only had to travel about 500 feet,  but did so by an indirect route.  It was found in 1373 near the church of San Macuto.  It was moved to the Capitoline Hill before being brought back in 1711 to be added to an existing fountain by Barigioni.  It is close enough to its mate in front of Maria sopra Minerva that you would be able to see both if not for the corner of a building being in the way.

This obelisk originally was made for Rameses II who had it adorning the temple of Ra in Heliopolis. The star, mountains and cross on top are the emblems of the Pope who was responsible for its final move, Clement XI.

The fountain is pretty swell.

Here is another obelisk.  Not quite as much fun.  This was one of the last pair found, only turning up in 1883 near sopra Minerva.  This was shortly after Italian reunification and the country was in a feisty, expansionist mode.  It was set up near Termini, the main rail station in Rome.  It became a commemorative marker for the 500 Italian soldiers who died in an obscure colonial war battle at Dogali in Ethiopia.  In 1924 it was moved to its current location near the Baths of Diocletian close to the Piazza della Republica.


Oh, this obelisk saw some grandeur in its day.  Like our earlier specimen it was a Ramses II item from Heliopolis.  Nowadays it is getting along in much reduced circumstances.  There is graffiti on the wall behind it.  Derelicts sleep on the benches in the little park that surrounds it.  A close up of the plinth:


A lion to recall Africa.  An empty bottle and a scrawl to show its current circumstances.

Other obelisks from the Iseum/Serapeum complex have ended up here and there.  The relatively small size of these makes them something that is easier to related to on a human scale.  It also makes it easier to haul them off to other places.

In the Villa Celimontana on the Celian Hill of Rome there is an obelisk cobbled together from the parts of several.  At least some of these came from near Maria sopra Minerva.

Another can be found in the Boboni Gardens in Florence.

And still one more, a twin to the Dogali obelisk,  can be found in the small town of Urbino.

Some sources make the claim that the larger obelisk in the Piazza Navona is from the Serepeum, but this is not certain.  It is for one thing a Roman copy of an Egyptian original, and one would imagine that honoring an Egyptian god with a knock off would have been bad form.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Minerva's Leftovers

In a previous post Elephant and Obelisk I touched upon the subject of ancient decor from the religious complex in the Campus Marti region of Rome surviving into the future.  The association with Minerva is actually a mistake, most of the fancy remnants probably came from a large temple complex devoted to the Egyptian deities Isis and Serapis.  By the time the obelisk was placed in front of the church of St. Maria sopra Minerva they had figured this out.  Part of the 17th century inscription - dictated personally by the Pope - reads:

ALEXANDER THE SEVENTH DEDICATED
TO THE DIVINE WISDOM
THIS ANCIENT OBELISK, 
A MONUMENT OF THE EGYPTIAN ATHENA,
UNEARTHED FROM THE GROUND
AND SET UP IN THE SQUARE
ONCE MINERVA'S
NOW BELONGING TO THE MOTHER OF GOD
IN THE YEAR OF SALVATION 1667.

As it happens there are a number of other survivals from the Iseum/Serapeum complex in the Campus Marti.  Some are on display, others alas are remembered less substantially.

We can start with another cat.  Just south of St. Maria Sopra Minerva we have a street named....


The "Gatta" that gives the street its name has a perch high up on a ledge.  It is watching us with a decidedly superior attitude.  The Egyptians put some ridiculous notions of divinity into the empty heads of felines and we have been living with it ever since.


Via Della Gatta intersects with Via di Pi di Marmo.  The street of the marble foot.  There can only be one reason for a name like that and here it is:


Near at hand is an obscure little church called Santo Stefano del Cacco, or alternatively as Santo Stefano de Pinea.  This structure actually reuses in its nave 12 columns from the Temple of Isis, and gets its name from a statue - sadly now lost - that also turned up.  Perhaps the Egyptian god Thot, who has a dog's head, it was felt to look more like a monkey.  Cacco is a corruption of the word Macaque, a much later word for monkey that while originally of African origin, wandered into wider use via Portuguese in the 1700s.

Isis herself might be making a cameo appearance in modern day Rome, although she has wandered a ways out of her usual neighborhood.  Over in Piazza San Marco stands a statue dubbed "Madame Lucrezia".


The style of dress is similar to contemporary depictions of Isis or one of her priestesses.  This is one of the six Talking Statues of Rome which were - and to some extent still are - places where satirical anonymous notes criticizing the politically powerful of the day get posted for the general amusement of all. Madame Lucrezia gets her name from her one time owner, Lucrezia d'Alagno who had a rather saucy affair with the King of Naples back in the 1400s.

Several more obelisks from the Iseum/Serapeum complex are also extant, they deserve their own posts on another day.

Recalling the alternate name for Santo Stefano I will finish by pointing out that the entire region, or Rione, of Rome in which the ancient temples existed is now called Pigna, or "Pine Cone".  This is after a huge bronze pine cone that once graced a fountain near the temple complex but probably associated with a public bath.  I did not make it over to the Vatican where it now resides, so this photo is via Wikipedia and credited to Lance Mountain.


Really quite the collection of odds and ends still in or near their original locations.  Other items including a rather nice crocodile and some sphinxes are to be found in the various museums of Rome.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Wild Life of Rome

Rome is a very busy city so as you go here and there it is surprising to see the occasional non-human resident living a relaxed life alongside all the bustle.  I made it a sort of game....lets see just how close you can get for a picture.


A cat snoozing on the seat of a parked scooter.  Near the Theater of Marcellus.


To give equal time to dogs, some nice paw prints in a tile.  Ostia.  You can generally tell dogs from cats by the claw prints left by the former.


A rather self important looking seagull.  He is perched atop the "Ponte dei Quattro Capi", a Republican era bridge that has linked Tiber Island with Rome since 62 BC.


A little green lizard scampers over stones where the history is layered thick.  On a nameless structure in the Roman Forum.


A pigeon contemplates the ruins of the Imperial Palace on the Palatine Hill.  All the bloodshed, all the dynastic strife.  And it appears as if the Meek actually do Inherit the Earth....