Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Masonic Graffiti at the Pont du Gard

The Pont du Gard has acquired a large amount of graffiti over its long life, starting with Roman workers who would carve the occasional phallus as a good luck totem.

One sub type of graffiti is the Masonic type, left behind by the many stone masons who worked on the site, especially during the major consolidation work in the 1850s.

The use of symbolism typical of Freemasonry confused me a bit.  Here in the States Catholics were forbidden to join the Masons, and in fact a parallel organization the Knights of Columbus was formed.  I figured that France being at least nominally Catholic even after the anti-Clerical Revolutionary era might have the same prohibition.  But my brief look into this rather tangled issue suggests that in France the Papal Bull banning Freemasonry was never accepted, and that there has been an active Masonic community since the 1700s.  I should also note however that it seems to have been, and to be, a more upper class organization, and that simple stone masons may not have been likely members in spite of the obvious vocational link. 

Perhaps the Freemasons have just been borrowing symbolism common to the masons.

Another thing I had read was that apprentice stone masons in France were expected to visit the Pont du Gard as part of their apprenticeship.   This seems to be true, as building trades in France have an unusual "Tour de France" that requires novices to visit different parts of the country to study. 

And here is the evidence, written in stone.

This was actually on a stone railing adjacent to the aqueduct.  None of the Masonic graffiti I saw on the actual structure appeared to be later than 1910.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Pont du Gard

If among the many Roman treasures of southern France you had to pick the single most dramatic it would clearly be the Pont du Gard aqueduct.  It has been photographed by many people, most with better cameras and finer aesthetic eyes than mine:

The aqueduct was built mid 1st century AD when Nimes started to outgrow its local water supply.  The Roman engineers found a spring with sufficient capacity some 20 kilometers away, but to take advantage of the contour of the land they plotted a course that ran 50 kilometers.  Remarkably the entire "drop" over that length was only 17 meters!

Much of the course of the aqueduct was underground, but to cross the gorge of the river Gardon a span some 50 meters high was needed.

They built to last...
A remarkable state of preservation given the age.  The aqueduct is holding up well too.

The stone projections supported scaffolding for repair work

The statistics of this endeavor are stunning.  It took water 27 hours to run from the spring to the final destination at Nimes.  The "drop" over the length of the Pont du Gard proper was 2.5 cm....about an inch.  And it delivered 200,000,000 liters of water a day in its prime. 

The Pont du Gard, and its associated aqueduct system survived the end of Roman rule because it still provided essential water.  Indeed, it is felt to have functioned for at least 400 years, and perhaps as long as 800, the variable estimates being based on how long it took dissolved calcium in the water to finally clog the water channel with the equivalent of the scale you find in old pipes.

After that point it was preserved as a medieval toll bridge.

The Pont du Gard had its challenges over the years, at one point the arches in the second tier were pared down so that horse drawn artillery caissons could cross the bridge.  But with consolidation efforts beginning in the 1700s, and the addition of a pedestrian bridge on the downstream side the Pont was ready to face its greatest challenge.

In 1958 a flood covered the entire lower tier of the Pont du Gard.  As the river is in a narrow gorge the force of water would have been intense.   The Pont du Gard held.  A bridge a few miles downstream constructed with modern technology washed away.

Frontius, a Roman engineer contemporary with this structure is recorded as having said:

"..will anybody compare the Pyramids, or those other useless though much renowned works of the Greeks with these aqueducts, with these indispensable structures?"

I would ask that you pour a libation to the spirit of Frontius and other unknown Roman builders.  In some social settings it is impolite to toast with water, but I am quite sure Frontius would approve.

Tips for a visit.  The site is free, but parking is at a premium and rather expensive.  There is a small but excellent museum on site, it demonstrates the engineering involved in the project.  You will have to hunt for it a little, look to your left as you come up from the entrance to the Pont du Gard.  If you pass the natural grotto in the hillside you have gone too far.  The site can be very crowded at times.  A little peace and quiet, as well as the best views are from upstream.  Walk under the Pont and up onto the river rocks.  If you want a slightly less dramatic section of the aqueduct all to yourself, head for La Pont Rou a couple of kilometers up stream and near the village of Vers.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Darker Side of France

I enjoyed my trip to France.  The people were much nicer in the south than they were in Paris on my last visit some 30 years ago.  And of course, the wine, the food, the sun....

But it is not perfect.  It has a feeling of grandeur in decline, yet with a sort of residual swagger that you do not for instance feel in an England where the Sun is Setting. 

So as I wandered here and there I was not surprised to find among other Detritus of Empire some hints of a darker side of France.  You have to get off the main tourist tracks to do so, but then my feet are always drawn to side streets and back alleys.

Kind of a trifecta here, xenophobia, anti-semitism and anti-immigrant sentiments all at once

Antifa refers to an anti-fascism movement.  Anti Antifa would be a double negative, so a pro fascist poster.  I looked on the internet, so you don't have to, it seems to refer to a sort of skin head neo nazi thing.  They have concerts of unpleasant music.

This does not translate well with my nifty internet app.  But appears to speak well of Mussolini.  A great man and a great people or some such.  For all the snippy comments from the French on our horrid right wing politics I think our Gallic friends have some 'splainin' to do!

The French are big on statues.  Many philosophers and humanists, but not a few soldiers as well.  Including this square jawed worthy:

Meet Sergent Blandin.  He died on the "Field d'honneur" in Algeria in 1842, heroically refusing to surrender when his small detachment was set upon by 300 Arab horsemen.

Here is the front of the statue:

Note the red painted inscription....zooming in:

I guess there is no specific point to the above examples of French imperfections.  All countries, all peoples have some.  And the difficult economic times are hitting Europe even harder than here in the states.  Also, the French have a reputation to maintain, of a passionate, hot tempered, argumentative bunch of folks. 

We can't expect them to be correct all the time.

Friday, November 25, 2011

A Klingon Christmas

As I mentioned when discussing amphitheaters, the whole notion of fighting and blood shed as entertainment leaves me a bit cold.  But I know who would like it.

Klingons, that's who!

And right in time for the holidays I bring you tidings of....A Klingon Christmas Carol.

This is so far as is known, the only full length play ever written and performed in Klingon.  It has had a very successful run in Minneapolis and last year expanded to Chicago.

It is a re-telling of the Charles Dickens story "A Christmas Carol".

So, you think I'm kidding, don't you?

I went to see it a couple of years ago, accompanied by my Number Three son.  His has been the most eclectic upbringing of our little tribe.

As I recall the ticket office was manned by humans, but all other staff including some highly impressive ushers, were in full Klingon mode.

As to the production it was delivered with gusto.  I image that most actors enjoy a role where subtle nuanced performance can be discarded.  These are lusty, expansive, boisterous characters.  You can chew the scenery a bit.  Literally I suspect.

The lines indeed are all delivered in Klingon.  There is a system of projection screens giving the real time English translation.  I suppose it is possible that there was the occasional flubbed line here and there.  Who really would know?  Just spit out a collection of sharp edged consonants and keep going!

There is also a narrator, in this case a rather dispassionate Vulcan.  She spoke in English for our benefit, the display screens only being used when she used a Klingon word that needed translation.

Her first lines:

"Marley was dead.  He was as dead as a Glask'ek"

And the display screen flashed "Red Shirt".

The audience was delighted.  We all got the joke.

If you didn't get it then perhaps you are not their prime market demographic.

But if you wanted to go, here is the ticket info for the upcoming season.

Minnesota performance?  As of my scheduling this post the Minnesota production seems tentative...

Klingons in Chicago!

I would display caution in the purchase of concessions.


Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Bull versus the Bear-the Amphitheater at Nimes

The amphitheater at Nimes was built just a little later than that at Arles, and improved on the design in some respects.  It is an impressive building, but surprisingly you just happen upon it as you walk down the narrow streets of central Nimes:

It has the usual layout;

The upper reaches of the amphitheater are better preserved than at Arles.  If you know where to look you can see slots where huge timbers were placed to support the valerium, a big canvas sun awning.  Teams of sailors were on hand to deploy it, their experience with sails being helpful.

An interesting feature at Nimes is that you pick up an audio program at the admissions desk.  It directs you to various spots where you stop and listen to information on the stadium and on gladiatorial combat in general.  Although this made for a more structured visit than my random wanderings at Arles it was very well done.  I learned a great deal on the subjects.

The events held at amphitheaters were violence in three acts.  In the morning it was man versus animal, and animals versus each other.  Hunters took on lions.  A classic match up was to have a bull and a bear chained to each other and fighting to the death.  I rather suspect some element of this has crept into the Wall Street imagery of the bull and the bear in conflict, but have so far not been able to prove the link.

In the poorly attended mid day segment criminals and other unworthies were put to death in unpleasant fashion and/or made to kill each other in combat.  The early Christian condemnation of the arena stems from this.  Arena by the way was an alternate name for the amphitheater.  The name comes from the Greek for "sand" that being sprinkled liberally on the floor to soak up blood.

The audio program went into considerable length on the main event, gladiatorial combat between the equivalent of prize fighters.  There were formalized types and extensive betting, but rarely would a defeated survivor be dispatched as this would require an indemnity be paid to his owner.  And "thumbs down" was not the signal, it was something more like how umpires call strike three.

This is a stonework detail of two bulls over the entrance.  The area has been known since Roman times for their breeding.  There are still bull fights in the Nimes (and Arles) arena, an interesting continuity through many centuries.

At the close of the Roman era Nimes was contested territory between Visigoths, Franks and later Saracens.  So as at Arles the amphiteater became a fortress.  Here is a medieval sketch of Nimes, showing the fortified arena on the left side.

Also note the Tour Magna at top

There was even a military order the "Knights of the Arena" who lived in and defended the place.

My interest in Rome as opposed to other ancient societies is due in part to my ability to relate to their interests.  They enjoyed good wine.  Their mosaics of lusty satyrs chasing nubile nymphs-who don't seem to be fleeing with full effort-shows us the endless interplay between men and women.  They had their philosophical and religious musings, and generally showed a tolerance for the beliefs of others that would do our modern age credit.

But the amphitheater feels wrong.  To cheer for the death of men or even of animals is an unworthy thing, a legacy we have not entirely left behind us, but have largely tamed.  As I sit at the keyboard the arch rival Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers are doing battle.  And are doing so in an arena that is in its design almost identical to the amphitheaters of the Roman era.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Into the Arena-the Amphitheater at Arles

A visit to the impressive remains of Roman amphitheaters in southern France poses many challenges.  It is difficult to be brief, as both the subject and the structures are huge.  And it is also difficult to do them justice photographically, again due to the scale.  Better cameras, aerial views etc can help.  If you want to see good photos of Roman amphitheaters go here.  If you just want to see lots of photos, read on.

The amphitheater at Arles dates to AD 78-80.  When intact it had two complete tiers of seating and could hold 21,000 people.

The second level of seating has mostly been lost, replaced here by modern bleachers as the site is still in use as a bull fighting venue.

In Roman times there were definite social strata.  The slaves and women sat in the now vanished cheap seats.  Middle status seating looked like this:

The better seats look a bit more comfortable.  Relatively speaking of course, it is still stone. But I suspect there were some seat cushions involved.

note the carved pattern lower center.  some kind of row marker.

As in the Theater, the best seats were down front.  The local worthies were on display there, sitting in front of inscriptions reminding everyone of their generosity.  Here is a surviving fragment that proclaims that a certain C. Junius Priscus paid for the podium, a gold statue to Neptune, four bronze statues and two days of games with a banquet!

In Roman times the wealthy were expected to maintain their social status by lavishing public buildings and related benefits to their communities.  In modern times the magnates of the sports world instead rather Visigothically shake down their cities for money to build stadiums!

In the overview you can see various exits, or vomitoria.  These were arranged so that patrons in the better seats never mixed with the lower orders.  Each had their own exits.  Here is a view showing the stone slabs that allowed exit from the upper levels:

Most of these gang ways have collapsed over time, it is felt to be a design flaw and a number probably went down in antiquity under the weight of spectators.  In that particular instance it would have been better not to be a member of high society!

Here is another view of the interior galleries, for once I caught the light just right.

Once you pay admission you are free to just wander about.  There are lots of enigmatic little features:

Some kind of wooden structure must have been anchored here.

Someone named AC carved their name into the stone on December 19, 1943.  This was during the Nazi occupation.  Is AC still telling tales of it in some French nursing home?

Most of the amphitheater survived because it was incorporated into the city defenses in the post Roman era.  It in fact became an impressive fortress.  Here is one of the towers added in medieval times:

And lastly a view of the site in the 1600s.  Note the arches bricked over for defense, and the self contained community, complete with church, that developed as the defensive role for the place waned.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Middle School Kids with Killer Robots-What could Possibly go Wrong?

There was a time, about a decade back, where combat robots were a big deal.  You remember Battlebots?  For a variety of reasons they are no longer in the public eye, but it should be well noted that the odd folks who built them went on to construct the drones and bomb disposal robots of the 21st century.

Back then I started a basic robotics class for middle schoolers, and here I am in 2011 gearing up for another campaign.  Here in abridged form is the stirring introductory speech I give each year:

"Welcome to Robotics.  I would now like a show of hands.  How many of you took this class to learn about electronics, and design, and material science?"

(A few hands dutifully go up. Slowly)

"Right. OK, who took this class because you think its cool to build machines that pound other machines into smoking rubble?"

(All hands go up with enthusiasm)

"Here is the basic plan.  You will each build a robot.  It will weigh either one pound or three pounds.  You must make weight.  If you show up at the tournament with an enormous 58 pound tank I will not say you can't compete.  I will however say that you can't compete in Earth's gravitational field" (1)

"Other than that the rules are simple.  No flame throwers.  No hand grenades. (2)  And no live animals." (3)

"The end of class tournament will be in January.  Robots will go head to head.  Some people object to a competition where there are Winners and Losers.  This will not be that kind of event."

"Instead there will be Winners and Debris".


(1) I am willing to make an exception.  If you have also constructed the world's first Anti-Gravity generator you are good to go.  I only ask to be invited to your Nobel Prize Acceptance ceremony.

(2) By this I mean you are not to design robots intended to explode and/or burst into flames.  Sometimes this happens by accident.  That is Right, Meet, and Salutary.

(3) Live Plants are OK.  Dead animals in whole or part would be legal.  A taxidermy chipmunk would get you some serious favoritism from the judges.

Periodic updates from now to late January

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Nimes-The persistance of Words

Nimes is an active, fun city to visit.  The ancient and the modern make comfortable neighbors.  It is a very old city, going back to the Iron Age and deriving its name from the local spring deity, Nemausus.  There are some impressive Roman remains to be seen.  In addition to the amphitheater and the "Temple of Diana" there is the so called Maison Carree.

This is one of the best preserved Roman temples north of the Alps.  They have even figured out the inscription that was once on its front:

If you look very closely on the flat horizontal stretch above the columns you see an irregular series of holes.

These were mounting points for large bronze letters that spelled out:


This dates the temple, it was dedicated to the two adopted sons of Augustus.  Lucius died in 2 AD just after being "designated" consul.   The words have lasted 2009 years. 

And counting.

But that is not even a record for Nimes.  After the unsettled medieval period Nimes became a center for textile manufacture.  In particular they made a very durable fabric for work clothing called serge de Nimes.  Later made exceedingly popular by Levi Strauss the fabric type has been shortened to denim, still honoring Nemausius after some 2500 years.

For a fleeting moment I thought I had another "persistance of Nimes" phenomena.  Right across the street from the Maison Carree is this:

I was so darned sure that the Lacoste logo was based on the city emblem of Nimes, here seen rather handsomely on a parking bollard.

This preserves the image from Roman coins minted in Nimes.  There is some debate as to whether it simply commemorates the victory of Augustus over Egypt (note the chains on the crocodile), or if it indicates that demobilized veterans of that campaign were settled here.

Note the abbreviation for Colonia Nemausus.

Alas, the historical convergence was a little too good to be true.  From the downfall of Cleopatra to mid level sportsware is too great a leap.  The real story of Lacoste is here.

When we were there the Maison Carree had been converted into some kind of theater showing a 3D film of the history of Nimes.  It seemed heavy on the gladitorial stuff we had just learned about, and members of our party were footsore.  We passed.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Roman Stone Overhead?

Home base during our recent trip to Provence was a place ambitiously called Provence Paradise .  Ambitious, but not inaccurate.  We had a delightful stay and I recommend the place.

The main building is a refurbished 17th century building once the home of the owners of a tile factory or "Tuilery".  There must have been some more generalized pottery being made on site as well, the walls have chunks of it built into them.

In any case the owner, an energetic fellow named William, learned of my interest in things Roman.  He pointed out a couple of walls that he thought might go back to Roman times, then showed me an inscribed stone built high up into the building.  He had been told that it was Roman, and had been relocated from the city wall of St. Remy.

The stone was high up in the wall-in fact it is on the outside of our second story bathroom wall-so my photo is not ideal.

My first thought was, well, maybe.  St. Remy was not thought to have had Roman era walls, but old stones sure get incorporated into medieval walls.  And a radiate pattern of stone work was not unknown in Roman times.  Here is an example from the Theater in Arles:

But there were some problems that soon presented themselves.  For instance, our possible Roman stone has as a central feature a crucifix in the modern style.  Not really used in the Roman era.

Even after Constantine legitimized Christianity the Chi Rho version was more prevalent.

Of course if you refer back up to the first picture you do see roman numerals.  I considered whether this might have some ecclesiastical import, perhaps something to do with Stations of the Cross.  But there are supposed to be 14 of these, and the inscriptions on the stone-at least the part available to me-only appear to go up to ten.  (in fairness the numerals to the right of  X are indistinct).

I also note the unusual progression of numbers.  Reading from left to right it at first glance looks like:

                                                                2   3  (cross)   9   10

but if you flip it upside down and use a little imagination it becomes

VIII   (IIIIV ?)   X   XI  (cross)   II   I   (?)

In fact, perhaps what I was seeing as a cross is simply the X in XII.  The next digit would then be I.  This seems to closely parallel medieval sundials.  Here are a couple.  

Our example has some quirks, and several numerals that can't be read at this range, but I am confident that this is a medieval sundial, perhaps from a church in St. Remy, although I saw a number of "architectural salvage" businesses about.  Sometimes it is hard to be certain of provenance in Provence. 

If you are curious about sundials, here is more.  Much more:  The British Sundial Society

Saturday, November 12, 2011

A TGV Hobo

This is the French high speed train, the TGV:

We rode this twice on our recent trip, and it was certainly the best train ride of my life.  Clean, quiet, pretty much on time.  The seats were comfortable and compared to our recent airline seating were roomy and luxurious.  The French also have a nice sense of style, they had some very fetching young ladies as attendants on the platform getting people on and off in rapid fashion.  These mademoiselles were decked out in marvelous uniforms that made them look like Cossack officers with lots of pink trim.  I called them the Fashion Police.  Spouse forbid me to photograph them, pointing out that it might be illegal.

And the worst train ride of my life?  Oh, you have to go back a ways.  Once back in my Med School days my brother and I decided we would try being hobos for a trip out west.  We were influenced by a friend of ours, a certain "Shoe" whose relative sense of fun and danger should have been clear to us from his evident enjoyment of marijuana and his overseas work helping clear mines in Cambodia.*

There are a lot of details of that trip that are better left unchronicled, but I will always remember a train of vintage boxcars filled with what looked like nice comfortable cardboard.  We hopped aboard, only to discover that it was a train of cars headed to a repair facility.  They all had damaged wheels.  The train could only limp along with "relative" safety at about 30 miles per hour.  And as we were essentially running on square wheels there was an incessant racket and shimmy to the ride.  After many hours of "chunk-chunk-CHUNK---chunk-chunk-CHUNK" we staggered off this journey of the damned in Glasgow Montana, a community that I am unlikely to ever see again, but will eternally regard as a blessed, tranquil Eden.
*At a recent gathering of old friends I heard various tales of "Shoe's" fate.  He became a banker (probably false).  He still lives by a train yard (probably true).  He married a woman from Cambodia who later left him and joined a Buddhist monastery in France (yes, that seems plausible).

Friday, November 11, 2011

St. Remy de Provence-hunting for Roman ruins

When Glanum fell on hard times during the late 3rd century many of the inhabitants seem to have just moved up the road a bit.  About a mile away at a road junction was some kind of settlement.  I have seen it described as a villa, a road stop or simply "an agglomeration".  Which basically means nobody knows for sure and there have not been any serious excavations. 

In part this would seem to be due to a general lesser interest level in late Roman activity in Gaul.  And of course there is an intact medieval town sitting on top of whatever Roman remains may exist at St. Remy.

The most notable medieval resident of the place was Nostradamus, who in 1503 was born here:
Oh, you can almost see young "Nosty" dreamily staring out the window, concocting those treasure hunting stories that have caused so much mischief ever since!

According to my trusty copy of The Roman Remains of Southern France there are two sites in the central portion of St. Remy where artifacts from Glanum are on display.  The first, the Musee des Alpilles seems to be a general purpose museum with some archeology stuff.  It is in the Hotel de Montdragon, Place Fevrier if you have time for a visit.  Across the square is the Depot Archeologique, housed in the delightfully named Hotel de Sade.

Yet another brief aside.  In this context "Hotel" meant not an inn with lodging, but the often ornate "in town" houses of wealthy aristocrats.  And yes, the Hotel de Sade was owned by that family if only by a bunch of distant relatives.  It now houses a cafe which looks quite nice thank you.

The Depot was supposedly open for hourly tours, but showed no evidence of this being the case.  Undeterred I squeezed past some obstacles down a narrow alley to peek at the Roman remains in its courtyard:

Traces of red tile from the heating system for the baths.

A mix of walls, old and older.  Note the large arch on the right side.

Peeking through the bars.

Now I started wandering about adjacent streets looking for late Roman work that was not in the guidebook.
Neat stonework below and slap-dash work above.  Probably built on a Roman foundation.
I found this rather haunting.  With stones always being robbed out and reused it can be hard to tell ancient from recycled, but this looks very much like an older, Roman archway that at some point in time was half walled up.  Perhaps the post Roman neighborhood was getting a little rough?  Then it got walled off completely, sealing out whatever unpleasantness lurked in the dark alleys of that age.

And another cut down archway.  What was going on here?  It recalls the arch seen behind the Hotel de Sade, but the larger arch has been chopped into by a smaller arch, a modern door and two windows on different levels of the building!