Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Washington Underground

I'm a fan of subways.  London is the classic of course.  Munich is my personal favorite.  But Washington D.C. has an extensive and very efficient system.  Really modernistic:
This is very cool, but if you stop and think about it, also a little creepy.  It has something of a catacombs vibe, but you just know the builders of the system were also thinking about their potential as bomb shelters.

And speaking of creepy, the first time I saw the entrance to the Dupont Circle station it gave me a vague sense of recognition and disquiet:

The commuters blithely descending into the depths brought to mind this scene from the film adaptation of The Time Machine (superior 1960 version):
Here the Eloi-clueless futuristic chuckleheads-are lured down underground for a visit with their troglodyte Morlock cousins, whose interest in them is purely culinary.

As we left the station on our final day in fact, there was some kind of malfunction in the PA system, so behind us I heard a harsh, guttural voice mumbling things I could not quite make out.  A Morlock, almost for sure.

Head for the exit!

Monday, May 28, 2012

The National Christmas Tree

I thought this would be a simple post.  Silly picture, a few observations, move on.  But like so many things in Washington DC it is more complex than we flatlanders would think.  Pictures first:
Behold the National Christmas Tree.  Right in front of the White House.  It has a plaque to prove it:
The Tree does not look healthy.  It seems to be missing a top, and with the best photo I could get on a windy, cold April looks sick.

But I remember National Christmas Trees looking quite lovely in recent years, and had the impression that they were cut and hauled in from various states of the Union.  So I did what we all do these days, went to wikipedia and learned all kinds of  Random Stuff.

The tradition began in 1923.  Like a lot of things in D.C. this was the idea of a lobbyist, a certain Frederick Morris Feiker who was helping an electrical industry trade group sell the idea of using Christmas lights.  It was a temporary tree, and as will be a recurring issue, it was damaged in transit and needed to have extra branches affixed to its lower sections.

The next year "Silent Cal" Coolidge surprised everyone by giving a speech criticising the cutting of live trees for Christmas.  Who knew he had that going on in his head?  So a live tree was planted and President Coolidge was a sport and threw the switch lighting it up.

Unfortunately the weight and heat of the massive strings of lights tended to cook the early trees, so it was necessary to bring in replacements in both 1929 and 1931.  The tree was moved several times over the years and went dark for most of World War Two.

Temporary trees on the Ellipse seemed to be the general rule in the Post War era, with various distractions such as en route train derailments, anti-War protests and so forth.

A living tree was reintroduced during the eco-concious year of 1973.  Unfortunately if fell off the flatbed truck in transit and died off by the Bicentennial year of 1976.  Jimmy Carter's daughter Amy lit the tree that year, but in keeping with President Carter's" sweater-in-the-White House ethos, it was only lit for a few hours each day.  Like so much undertaken during the Carter years, this tree ended badly.  It was weather damaged and developed a 45 degree lean!

Time for another new tree.  Amy got to light this one as well, but only the top star....the rest were to stay dark until the hostages got home from Iran.

The 1978 tree had a good long run, but in February 2011 it was damaged in a wind storm, its top being sheared off.  I assume my picture is of this tree.

A new tree was planted a few months later.  Only 25 feet tall and apparently not in as central a location, I missed it entirely.  But I have no doubt that the current Administration has statistics that prove it is growing at a fantastic rate.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Sonny Bono. Remembering a C-Lister

You have to be over 50 I suppose to remember Sonny Bono.  He was one half of the Sonny and Cher duo that had a few top 40 hits and a modestly popular TV show in the late 60's and early 70's. 

Cher went on to greater fame, reaching B-List celebrity status with some decent movie roles.  Sonny, well, he was mostly her comedic foil.  He was short, he had less talent, he wore awful clothes.
Cher divorced him in 1975, although remarkably The Sonny and Cher show stumbled on a couple more years.

Sonny probably dipped down to D-Level status at that point, with small parts in bad movies, as well as appearing on both of the Grave Yards of Lost Careers, Fantasy Island and Love Boat.

But he was possessed of a certain pluck, was our friend Sonny, and following the path of Reagan and Eastwood he went into politics, becoming first Mayor of Palm Springs and finally a U.S. Congressman in 1994.

His political career was uneventful.

Sonny Bono died in a skiing accident in 1998.  The autopsy showed no drugs or alcohol in his system, he just ran into a tree.

I have always had a fondness for Sonny.  Lets face it, despite good looks and a strong voice Cher must have been atrocious as a wife.  That whole thing with his daughter/son Chastity/Chaz only got really weird after his death, but still.....  And rather remarkable in both the worlds of politics and celebrity, he never seems to have taken himself too seriously.  Referencing his rather unsuccessful solo singing career he would sometimes say when performing: "I'd like to play a medley of my Greatest Hit".

So Sonny had friends in this world and that counts for something. One of these friends, a local real estate developer named Geary Simon, kicked in $25,000 to renovate an 800 square foot patch of ground near Washington D.C.s Dupont Circle to serve as the Sonny Bono Memorial Park.

We made a pilgrimage there in April.  Here are some pictures.  Enjoy them and remember a man who remained cheerful through much adversity, a man who made the most of being on the C-List.

Sonny Bono Park.  At O Street NW and New Hampshire
Another view

An apple juice bottle stuck on the fence

The photo above was taken by my wife on our 30th anniversary.  I am contemplating how fleeting is fame, and indeed, is life itself.  Beneath the round memorial marker I understand there is a time capsule containing artifacts from Mr. Bono's career.  Darn, even his name has been appropriated by another singer.....
Remains of a modest fan tribute.  The most appropriate kind for a modest man.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The American Meridian

Until we stumbled upon this marker on the campus of George Washington University I had no idea that there had ever been an American Meridian!
Apparetly back in the feisty youth of our Republic we had a sort of Admiration/Hate thing going on with London.  It's part of the same mindset that produced the anti-foreign "Know Nothings" I suppose.  In any event it was considered unseemly for our great land to measure things from the Prime Meridian that runs through the Royal Observatory at Greenwich.

By 1848 we had our own Observatory, thank you very much, and the American Meridian runs smack through it.  Never mind that it is less logical to have your measurements based on a longitude of 77.2.48 instead of a nice round Zero.

So for about 40 years we measured our state boundries, in such places where rivers did not mark them, based on the American Meridian.

Like all tourists to Greenwich I have stood with one foot in East and one in West.  The obsolete American Meridian does not have the same feel to it, but what the heck.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Zero Stone

Milestones interest me.  I suppose I first encountered them in that odd card game Mille Bornes:
But the French just took them over from the Romans, who used them as mile markers along their extensive network of roads.  You know the old saying, "All Roads Lead to Rome".

Supposedly this was based on fact, with a Golden Milestone, the Milliarium Aureum in the middle of the Roman Forum acting as the starting point from which all Roman roads were measured.

Actually the Golden Milestone was probably just gilded bronze, and most Roman milestones do not mention distance from Rome, but it was still an interesting idea.  It was later copied by the Byzantines with a marker called the Milion at Constantinople, and dubiously by a stone artifact called The London Stone, in central London.

So it stands to reason that eventually somebody in Washington D.C. would figure we needed an official central milestone there.  I am just a little surprised it took until 1919 for it to happen.

And here it is, the official United States Zero Milestone.  It is just across the street from the White House, on the south side and near the National Christmas Tree.  It was intended to be the measuring point for all road distances until it became evident that the mileposts would be getting a little awkward down there by San Diego.  It was also the starting point for a couple of early experiments in the military use of motor vehicles in cross country travel, but otherwise seems mostly to serve as a backdrop for Japanese tourists.  They take pictures of themselves standing next to this.  After, of course, they take pictures of themselves with the White House in the background.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

An Obelisk for a New Nation

If you wander through this blog periodically you already know that I have a fascination with obelisks.  Especialy as they relate to national self image.  As a symbol of, well, of national potency it was once considered essential to have an extremely phallic monument in your national capitol, be it Rome, London or Paris.

The Washington Monument may or may not be a true obelisk, it depends on your definition of things.  Ancient Egyptian obelisks were monolithic, that is they were carved from rock as a single unit.  The Washington monument is made up of laid blocks of stone, as were some lesser ancient obelisks, also it is hollow with stairs and an elevator inside it.

But lets give it points for scale.  It is the world's tallest free standing stone structure, and at 555 feet it dwarfs the largest ancient obelisk, that standing at the Piazza di San Giovanni in Rome.  In fact, that obelisk is just short of a puny 150 feet even with the cheating assistance of a modern base.

The Washington monument had some notable classical influences.  The competition for a design was announced in 1836, the same year a genuine Egyptian obelisk was erected in Paris.  The construction of the monument was a difficult process.  The first stones were laid in 1848, but construction was suspended from 1858 to 1877.  You can in fact see a difference in the stone color between the first and second phases of the project:
Interestingly the project ground to a halt in a controversy with Roman origins.

In the late 1840s a proposal was floated to have states, territories, societies and so forth donate commemorative stones for the inside of the structure.  It seems to have been a PR move at a time when funds were lagging.  Lots of donations were forthcoming, just under 200 commemorative stones can be seen inside the Monument today.

There were many in the spirit of the original suggestion, and more than a few odd ones from Masonic groups, a Temperance Society, a couple of photographers and sundry volunteer militia troops and fire brigades.  But one stone pretty much closed the project down.

Pope Pius IX decided to donate a block of black marble from the Temple of Concord, part of the ancient Forum of Rome.  This outraged a group of citizens called "No Nothings" who were ferociously anti-immigrant and specifically against any Roman Catholic influence in goverment.  Under cover of dark the Pope's stone vanished, supposedly broken up and tossed in the nearby Potomac river, where it will doubtless ruin some far distant archeological survey of the site.

The Know Nothings also arranged to take over the management of the project but like most vandals proved less adept at building up than at tearing down.  Only a few courses of shoddy work were laid on their watch, all of which had to be removed and redone when the project resumed post bellum.

Some other cool commemorative stones and pseudo Roman touches remain inside the monument, the following images are from the Library of Congress:
Although information is surprisingly hard to find on this topic, I did read that the Pope's stone was replaced in 1982.  I think this is it.

The Library of Alexandria is not a single structure of known location.  So this stone is likely a best guess.  Most of the Library was apparently washed into the sea in a tidal wave.

A rather nice bit of mosaic floor.  It has suffered the fate of so many classical examples, damaged by later additions.

When you see lonesome ruins of antiquity in some desert landscape it is easy to get all Byronesque and romantic, imagining waves of barbarians storming the gates followed by a long gentle decline.  But in fact many of the great ruins of the classic era, places like Leptis Magna, had a fairly abrupt demolition by earthquakes.

Surprisingly on my recent visit the interior of the Washington Monument was closed for the same earthquake struck the area in August of 2011.  The interior of the Monument is closed for visitors while the National Parks Service mulls things over.  I tried to get some pictures of earthquake damage, but the Park Ranger on duty that day did not seem eager to point out specific problem areas.  I suspect he is under orders to keep mum.  Still....
And from the National Parks Service site:

The above is an interior view showing a crack clear through on the little viewed Western side.  This might not be as bad as it looks, the Monument has much thinner walls at the top than at the bottom, but just try and find experienced obelisk repair men these days!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Rome on the Potomac

(Note to regular readers.  I'll be taking a break from England/Archeology now to give a little attention to my recent first ever trip to Washington DC. Back across the pond in a bit)

Its no great secret that the Founding Fathers had a thing about Rome.  They hoped to take the best of it and, avoiding its failings, transplant it to new shores.  Some of the borrowings are direct.  We too have a Senate, a Capitol.  Others are stylistic, hence the dramatic architecture:
Other influences are more subtle.  Note this statue of George Washington:

Here we see The Father of His Country leaning on a Fasces traditional symbol of Roman authority.  Note that this version is without a protruding axe blade, indicating that within the capitol city the ruler did not have the arbitrary power of life and death.  Make of it what you will, but in the House Chamber you see this:

Perhaps this indicates that power comes directly from the People, or is a reference to the power of Congress to declare War, under which condition the ancient Romans allowed the State the power of Life and Death even in Rome, as symbolized by carrying the Fasces with the axe.

As to the later association of the symbol with 20th century Fascism, well we have avoided it so far.

Tune in over the next little while for more images of Rome as transplanted to the Potomac.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Leaving Northumbria

On my excavating trips to Vindolanda I always take the opportunity, once, to climb up a very steep hill and stand next to the Wall constructed by the Emperor Hadrian some 1800 years ago.

I look back down on the Twice Brewed Inn in fading light.

It is a view designed to make you think.  The Wall and the landscape are unchanging, people come and go.

I hope to be back, but you can never quite be sure.  I have seen older diggers wobble a bit when pushing a heavy wheelbarrow and with the soggy weather and wet dirt I have myself been a little more tired when my head hits the pillow.

And we have things happening in the year ahead.  Last kid out of High School, first kid getting married.  And who knows what else.

On certain Roman coins of the Late Empire there was a motto.  FEL. TEMP. REP.  In full it was FELICITAS TEMPORUM REPARATIO.

May the Good Times Return.

Speaking of returning I am starting the homeward journey.  Between uncertain Wifi and probable jet lag I may not post for a few days.

From the Twice Brewed Inn on the edge of Empire.


Friday, May 18, 2012

Vindolanda 2012 final day

There is a story going around the site.  Supposedly since an altar to Jupiter Dolichenus (a weather god incarnation of Jupiter) was discovered and moved last year, Vindolanda excavations have not had two straight sunny days for digging!

Today was grey, cold and drizzly, but at least we dug the whole day.  My finds, well, the usual sort of thing:
A nail.

An alarming pig tooth.

More Roman roof tile.

But if my finds were mundane at least there was some interesting stuff coming up elsewhere on the site.

A decorated Samian ware bowl with some kind of critter on it.  Probably a stag, but I was rather hoping for another example of the " Warrior and Bunny" pattern we found last year.  Sadly, the neck looks wrong.   (But what a nice bunny tail!)

Another Samian ware decoration.  Perhaps another gladiator?  Or since the legs look a bit furry, maybe a satyr.

But the prize of the day, week and year to date was clearly this:

Big deal, right?  It's just a small bit of wood.  Wrong.  This is a writing tablet.  It takes very special conditions for these things to survive, and Vindolanda is known for such condtions.  This is the first one found this year.  It was quickly placed in a tupperware tub and covered with water from my famous "trench warfare" ditch.  Down to the lab it went, and a couple of hours later the word comes back:

"Visible writing seen."  From here it goes through a very complex conservation program and is sent to the British Museum to be decyphered.  The whole process takes a couple of months, and it will be very interesting to see what words of a Roman soldier or merchant or who knows what have survived 1800 years to turn up in a trench 20 feet from me.

Of course it was a novice, first year digger who found it!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Vindolanda 2012 day nine

After weather forecasts most grim we were surprised to get a full day of digging in, albeit wallowing about in mud the last hour or so. 

Here is a nice shot of the trench that had such water issues yesterday:

It is a convenient place for washing off tools.

Obviously I am onto a new patch, and it interestingly seems to be the place where a number of things of similar color got dumped.  An early form of recycling sorting?  Unlikely.

Here are some roof tiles as they pop up from the ground:

I think they wash up nicely:
Now here is an odd one:

It is actually the bottom part of a Roman wine amphora, something like this:

You do not find these very often, and they are of particular interest for two reasons.  Firstly, if you get lucky and find the right part among the various shards I recovered, they often have a painted on label indicating the wine maker.  And in the modern era you can even test residues of wine in these things and figure out sort of "CSI style" what the origin of the wine was.  Of course, some were reused as in floor latrines which might confuse the analysis. 

After a recent silly post on British ice cream I could not resist a posed shot:

Finally this came up late in the day in a nearby deep trench.  I have a post clean up picture as well-we washed him off in the pool shown above-but I rather like this image of the mud covered skull of a Roman cavalry horse from the late 1st century AD!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Vindolanda 2012 day eight

Our trench continues to play some tricks on us.  Here is a nice view first thing in the morning, when one of our supervisors had done stalwart work coming early and clearing out a bunch of the dark backfilled 1930's trench.
Unfortunately, continued excavation of the fill unleashed a remarkable torrent of water cascading into the trench!  The whole site is wet, but this was very unusual....some kind of capped off underground channel was unleashed and water poured in at about twice the rate of a garden hose.  Shortly we had this:

What you can't really appreciate from this picture is that the water was about a foot and a half deep in the excavated area. Bailing buckets and running a pump reduced the water level a bit, but it continued to threaten the rest of the trench, and troweling deeper into the undisturbed layer became problematic.

This certainly, and literally, put a damper on the day, but I did find one thing I rather like.  It is a bit of broken Samian ware pottery with a naked gladiator on it.

A few other items coming to light on other areas of the site.  Here is an interesting one:

This appears to be a cooking pot, or at least a good portion of it.  Is the brownish residue the remains of its final contents?

Weather forecast seems....ok tomorrow but wetter on Friday.  As the entire site is presently "water challenged" it is possible that the Vindolanda updates will end early.  But, two days to go!

Trench Warfare

A tale of a trench.  Here we start out with the turf removed.  It looks idyllic, no?
We spent a lot of time removing the upper dark stuff, which seemed to be randomly assorted rather than in nice layers.  It also seemed to be very much an artifact poor area.  Neither of these are unheard of occurrences, but in retrospect.....

Around lunch time yesterday I found a nice clean, straight edge on the western side of the trench:

See the clean straight band of clay that runs across just above the deeper section I have troweled down to?  It was not a natural phenomena, and much speculation ensued.  Was it a drainage ditch cut through and silted in?  Better still, was it a beam slot, something carved into a natural surface?  But the really observant among you may have spotted something else here:

Modern bottle neck.  Here it helps to know, as I do, a few facts about glass manufacturing techniques.  This is post World War One, and likely in the 20s or 30s.  So I did not buy the theory of 19th century antiquarian freelance trenches!

Here you start to see how much of a problem we have:

Note the color change at the lower end of my deeper trench?  All the dark area is simply backfill from a previous, unrecorded excavation, and is a total waste of time and energy.  The lighter stuff in the lower half of the picture seems undisturbed, and indeed has some nice pottery bits showing through.

So, half our trench is at the moment worthless.  We are not yet sure how deep the damaged area runs, but best guesses as to the culprits run something like this:

In the 1930s the site was worked intermittently by an academic who went off to war in 1939.  (British Intelligence officer, really a rather remarkable chap).  At some point he seems to have put his laborers to the same task we are on just now, tracing the water channel for the bath house.  They did not find it.  And having taken the most logical spot and mucked it up for us, we may not either.  And no written record was made.

Ah well, such is life in the trenches.  I suppose it could be worse.  I heard a tale at the pub last night.  We will leave a few details mercifully absent, but it involved hard work, assurances of a virgin area, and at the bottom a trowel marked with the initials of a rather senior emeritus director of excavations!

Marvelous weather forecast for today, I will post pictures and notes of whatever we salvage from the difficult circumstances.