Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Tree Shaped Tomb Stones - UK examples

Obviously the UK has a lot of church yards.  In many cases the congregations are small and the upkeep costs enormous.  So some churches and their associated cemeteries are always falling into ruin, but most are being kept up from a combined appreciation of history and faith.

Until a recent jaunt off into the "Lake District" I had never encountered anything that resembled the "Tree Shaped Tomb Stones" I hunt for in the States.  And in one day I find three of them.



A lovely specimen even if it was hard to line it up for a good photo.  There is just too much verdant greenery and weathered stone on all sides!  This is at a posh little town called Grassmere. The cemetery is mostly noted for the grave of the poet Wordsworth but this of course is not it.  I got down and peered at the weathered inscription, it dates from 1899. Interesting that this is exactly the age of similar US specimens.  



Next up is a monument I ran across in a little place called Gosforth.  Its inscription is pretty far gone, but I was able to make out 1916.  Again, very similar to the time period in which you would find this style in the US.  The church yard held a second example that was identical but even more weathered.

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.



Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Vindolanda 2017 Day Seven

Chasing features.  Well, they are not going anywhere so tracing features would make more sense.

Our "Demolition Rubble" north of our cement floor actually has under it an interesting pebbled, compacted floor.  It rather looks water proof which would be in keeping with the theory that this is some sort of bath suite for the commanding officer.  Elsewhere there might be a "plunge bath" coming up but it is covered over with a later floor surface which may make the proof impractical.  This area of the excavation only has a few more weeks of excavation scheduled.

A few pictures.  Feel free to refer back to earlier posts where high hopes for underfloor heating, etc were being entertained.

Here is an end of day over view.  Our earlier cement surface on the left. Our work today is the lower, and presumably older, surface to the right.



Here is the transition between the compacted cement stuff in the upper part of the photo and the new pebbled surface below.  There is a somewhat arbitrary line of rock left dividing them, our prior expectations of a wall being unrealized.


Worm's eye - oh, they don't have any - view of the pebbled surface.  If you squint really hard you can imagine that the pretty stones were placed on purpose.  If that is the case then the delightfully warm sunshine has started to effect you.


And as to what it means.  Who knows?  For certain there were multiple layers of flooring in the same "room", and the room might have expanded and contracted in size over the roughly twenty years of occupation.  Or was it occupied earlier?  Or later? It sure would help to find a nice coin on the floor but whoever was detailed to tidy it up at the end did a very efficient job.

Vindolanda 2017 Day Six

Sometimes the plastic bag you get at the beginning of the day tells you what to expect:





But this was not as bad as you might expect, clearing rubble does get you to interesting things underneath and there are always a few odds and ends that find their way into areas like this.

So another day of digging in idyllic weather.

Elsewhere on the site some fun bits of the highly decorated Samian ware are popping up.  Enjoy a close up of grape vines, leafs and happy looking birds.






By the end of the day we had a few less posh pottery fragments and a curious bit of polished bone.

Close to quitting time I came up with an odd bit of rounded stone.  I had it in and out of the discard bucket a couple of times.  But something about the color, weight and shape just did not fit the multitude of other stones that went under the trowel.

Finally I brought it to the supervising archeologist - who in general does not like "pot lids"  for an official ruling.




Yep, pot lid.  A worked bit of pottery or as in this case stone.  It is the most humble of artifacts but at least I got to deploy the staff of recognition as my modest contribution to the advancement of ancient times got recorded and bagged.


Sunday, May 7, 2017

A Diggers Day Out. Phalli and Sulphur.

On the weekend between our digging days we try to organize something diverting to do.  Weather and weariness permitting it often includes a walk, ideally to see a few minor sights that are not on the usual tour circuit.

On a warm but grey Sunday it was off and hiking.

First stop was along a section of Hadrian's Wall, where my friend Pete has all manner of inscriptions and such tagged on his phone.  So he had no difficulty pointing us right to this:


He seems inordinately pleased with himself.

Next up was a cross country trek that took in the ruins of a minor castle, first recorded as have a "license to crenellate" in 1380.  I wonder if you can still apply for one of those somewhere?


Another member of our party, Scott, has a dream of buying a home in this part of the world.  This would be something of a "fixer-upper".

Shortly after leaving Tremaine Castle we went through a farm where one of the black and white sheep dogs took a liking to our party.  She insisted on following us for the next five miles.  We tried at times to leave her behind, reasoning that if we let her through some of the many gates we crossed through it might be hard for her to return home.  But the dog, we later learned her name was Tess, would have none of it, simply leaping over every gate and wall along the way.


A trek off the beaten path has to have some excuse for a destination, and in our case it was a little notation on the Ordinance Map.  It said "Holy Well, (Sulphurious)".  We had heard tell that monks from the nearby Lanercost Priory used to come up once a year to bless the spring.  Well, that seems worth a look.


It is a pretty little spot, right along a steam called Kings Water.  It does smell quite a bit like sulphur.  Note the pewter cup, it is attached to the rock with a little chain.   The spring is crystal clear water running down but leaving that bright white mineral residue.

When given a chance to drink from a Holy Well it is probably a good idea to do so. First a little whiff...


Then a healthy swig.


I feel I should give a "wine review" of the stuff.

-Clarity: Superb
-Bouquet: A bit assertive.  Definite tones of creosote with a hint of chlorine.
-Taste: It recalls an egg salad sandwich that you ate after it had been in the fridge a day or two too long.
-Aftertaste: A long swig from my water bottle.

But does it make you more Holy?  Here Pete is doing his best at being Beatific.  Not sure he is managing it well especially as he did not partake from the Well.  He claims he had a nip on a previous walk through.....


Saint Peter the Very Lesser.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Vindolanda 2017 - Down Stream

Frankly the excavating today was not stimulating.  When an area is being finished off at the end of a five year "Scheduled Monument" permission there are just a lot of little areas to tidy up and square off.

I shall spare you.

As compensation, lets have a stroll about the site and consider a matter that rarely is addressed in formal archeology discussions.  Who is relieving themselves uphill from whom.

I don't for a moment doubt that Emperor Augustus back in Rome had plumbing facilities not too different from our modern amenities.  Perhaps he had a slave on duty 24/7 ready to empty an amphora of rose scented waters on demand.  But for the average folks things were a bit less savory.

Roman forts are usually laid out with a standard template.  Roughly rectangular but with rounded corners.  Think of a playing card.

But under the surface there is an entire infrastructure.  Foundations, channels for heated air.  And drains.  Lots and lots of drains.  Occasionally water pipes too, wooden being more common than other materials.

What ran in these channels is a fair matter for discussion.  Clearly their main function was run off of rain water.  But when excavated they are usually full of small bones and other domestic trash.  And as to more basic matters, well one way that the recently exposed cavalry barracks were identified as such was by a series of channels running down the center of the rooms.  You can order soldiers to use the latrines, or the occasional set-in-the-floor pot that might have been the indoor equivalent, but horses don't obey those sorts of orders.  Probably soldiers didn't either.

Lets follow a series of channels from the higher ground of the fort on down.


Above are a couple of smaller stone channels.  As is often the case on this site you find little sections intact, in other places parts have been borrowed for later reuse.


Here are a couple of bigger ones.  On the right another shallow, but wider channel. The small deeper excavation to the left is a single segment of a buried channel with upright stone sides.


 Coming down the slope we have a crazy race track of multiple channels.

Near the bottom they still carry water.  This was on a day when it had not rained for a week.  I have seen the system full of rushing water on  rain soaked days.


The destination of course was a latrine.  These were usually at the corners of the forts, at least those used by the common soldiery.  A few other locations such as the Commander's house had smaller and more private accommodations.  Upstream of course.

The water, and other stuff, constantly running into the troughs of the latrine in theory kept it cleared out.  In practice maybe not.  Of course with stuff going there had to be an outlet.  Above you can see it, a nicely formed arch in the external wall of the fort.  And it ends up:


Running to the outside.  It would have dumped directly into the fort ditch.  While this may have added a little bit of disincentive for raiders or simple thieves to try and sneak into the fort one can only imagine the olfactory experience of living surrounded on all sides by an inefficient sewage treatment plant!

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Vindolanda 2017 Day Four

Generally speaking archeology is a mixture of "features" and "small finds".  The former are walls, pits, roadways.  The latter are the fun stuff, coins, jewelry, bits and bobs.

Of course we should be delighted with "features".  But some part of us really wants to find things.  It is our nature.

But there are consolations.  On my fourth straight day of Features and no Finds it was an enjoyable bit of work.  Perfect weather, good company, and a Feature that we actually got to excavate completely.  And even - more or less - come to understand.

Now, when I start to speculate on things be aware that mine is an uneducated opinion, colored liberally by ideas with scant substance but which amuse me on some level. So, back to our cement floor.


Here is my best End of Day picture.  In the foreground is the nice patch of Opus Sig - to call it in the digging vernacular - that swell white cement that made us think we were in the bathing suite of the commanding officer of the fort.  Way at the far end there was another smaller patch, so certainly it was going to be Op Sig all the way...

Nope.  Across from left to right and just past the good cement there appears to be the foundation for a wall.  Not a round house as previously suspected.  Beyond is a floor surface that is mostly not real cement, more of a compacted surface of pebbles with just a smear of white cement in one spot.  And to the right of it?  The rugged remains of another wall. This probably lines up with the remaining wall seen out beyond our structure.

Below is another view just showing the area we cleared today.


It looks as if there was a larger room with a nice cement floor.  At some point later on it was cut up, a wall put across the top edge and the right side of the brown pebbly surface you can see above.  There is one solitary patch of decent cement that you can see here.  The remainder is crummy stuff, compacted brown dirt, pebbles and in places a sickly yellow degraded cement.

As to when this happened it is hard to be sure.  It would have been great to find a coin on this floor to allow us to date it exactly.  But there was nothing to be found but the occasional nail and a few bits of bashed up pottery.

And as to why?  What would prompt somebody to subdivide a nice room and redo it in shoddy materials?  It was not an obviously impoverished era in Roman history...the Antonine Emperors ran things fairly well, thanks.

Maybe the answer is more personal.  Every decade or so the fort would get a new commander.  We know from extant writing tablets that they would bring their wives along.  Maybe the commander, or his fine lady, just had horrible taste!

With this project done it is off to a new assignment tomorrow.  Details by and by..


Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Vindolanda 2017 Day Three

A day of magnificent weather.  Blue skies, sun, warmth but just enough gentle breeze to keep things comfortable.  It could not be improved upon.





And the archeology?  Well, not bad.  I should not be complaining.


We are actually working on two different and interesting archeological "features". I have already mentioned the fancy cement floor of the fort commander's residence. We continued to expose it bit by bit.  Admittedly this was fairly monotonous work, not a lot of surprises along the way.  Just a lot of soil to be shifted.

At one point we did find this perfectly square clay tile set into the mix of rubble and clay.  Why?  We shall never know.  Alas it did not have a maker's mark, graffito or critter paw print.




Here is the trench at the end of day three.



What we have here is nice white cement on the right.  Grotty, pebble filled cement on the left.  And in between a groove full of random stones.  It also has a bunch of soft soil and even some empty spaces.  Notice that it is slightly curved?

Current theory, subject of course to revision, is that this is the foundation of one of the "Severan Round Houses".  These are an enigma, and appear to be unique in Roman forts.

Here is an aerial view elsewhere in the fort, of a couple of round houses that have been preserved.



These things popped up in the very early 200s, and were only in use for a few years. Nobody can explain them definitively.  Theories abound.

They resemble the houses used by the native Britons.  So were they for Prisoners of War captured when Septimus Severus tried to march up and conquer Scotland?  Or for "loyal" Britons who were sheltered under the walls of the Roman fort for their safety? (The fort in this era was adjacent, the square foundations you see above are earlier...and later, it is a confusing site).  Some even claim that they resemble the huts used by Septimus' North African troops.  

We don't know the answer, in part because without exception the round houses are almost entirely free of artifacts.  

So, as a day of digging it was good but I don't expect to find much in the way of clever artifacts in the next few days, and we seem to have the features fairly well explained by now.

But it was a marvelous day.  It was so nice in fact that I decided to walk the two miles back to the pub which is my home away from home on the excavations.  Five different diggers slowed down to offer me rides, all of which I declined.  Sun, gentle tail wind, time to think and relax, some days are just to nice to be riding in a car.

And at the end of the trail....