Herod the Great’s Tomb May Not Be His

Herod
Wikimedia Commons

Israel is a country filled with ancient sites. One of the more popular ones to visit is the Herodium, the palace of the infamous Herod the Great, now part of a national park just outside Jerusalem. Herod was a lavish builder and created quite the crib between 23-15 BC. The historian Josephus, writing half a century after Herod’s death, says that when the king died in 4 BC, he was laid out on a gold bed in a tomb at the site.

Back in 2007, an archaeological team uncovered a tomb at Herodium and proclaimed they had found Herod’s final resting place. Ever since it’s been a popular stop for tourists who wander about the ruins of the palace, baths, and synagogue of the Jewish king who pledged allegiance to the Roman Empire.

Now another group of archaeologists say that it’s not the tomb of Herod. They say the 32×32 ft. tomb is too small for a king, especially one famous for his grandiose building projects such as the desert fortress Masada and the rebuilding of the Second Temple. Most royal tombs were larger and included coffins of marble or gold rather than the local limestone found in this structure. Royal tombs also had large courtyards in front of them so people could come pay their respects, something lacking in the Herodium tomb.The researchers suggest it was the tomb of one of Herod’s family.

Archaeologists have been quick to discover the tombs of famous people in recent years. The discoveries of the tombs of Caligula and the Apostle Philip have both been disputed. Now it appears that Herod will return to the long list of famous people for whom their final resting place remains a mystery.

British Museum Opens Exhibition On Life And Death In Pompeii And Herculaneum

Pompeii
Today the British Museum in London opens what is sure to be the hit exhibition of the year.

Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum” examines the daily life of the Roman world, as it was preserved in two cities buried under volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. Through fine art and mundane objects, we get to see what life was like for ordinary Romans.

Romans like the baker Terentius Neo and his wife, whose likenesses were preserved in a fresco on the wall of their house. “Baker” is a misleadingly humble term for Terentius, who was obviously well-to-do, and who had a literate wife who is shown as his business partner.

The exhibition is laid out like the House of the Tragic Poet, one of the homes excavated at Pompeii. A video reconstruction prepared by Giunta Regionale della Campania shows what it looked like when it was being used. As you wander through the atrium, bedroom, kitchen and garden, you learn about different aspects of Roman culture.

The ash that buried the cities and killed its inhabitants preserved frescoes and graffiti that show us a snapshot from the time. Slogans from an election held a few months before still adorn public walls, including a painting of a candidate distributing free bread. Other graffiti boasted of sexual conquests or lost love.

A large amount of the exhibition space is devoted to brightly colored frescoes that once decorated interior walls. Some show religious or natural scenes. One room that overlooked a garden had walls painted like a garden, giving the illusion of being outside.

%Gallery-183881%While much of the focus is on the upper classes, several displays show how the more common Romans lived. In the kitchen, for example, we see the workplace of the slaves. Here, there’s a simple altar for them to worship their gods, and a worktable covered in carbonized food. One blackened loaf of bread bears the stamp, “Made by Celer, the slave of Quintus Granius Verus.”

The kitchen also revealed an odd fact about Roman homes – it was where the toilet was usually located. One wonders how many Romans died because of this ignorance of microbiology.

Another oddity of Roman life was how sexual the art was. What we may see as crude today was considered funny or magical to the Romans. A young woman wore a pendent in the shape of a penis to ensure luck and fertility. A phallic wind chime was supposed to bring luck to the household. Then there’s the sculpture of the god Pan porking a goat. Nobody is sure what the Romans were thinking when they made that one.

The final part of the exhibition is dedicated to the sobering casts of the dead. When the citizens of Pompeii and Herculaneum were buried by the eruption, they rotted away, leaving their ghostly shapes in the hardened ash. Archaeologists have poured plaster into many of these cavities to reveal men, woman, and children in their death throes. A particularly poignant scene is of a family of four. One child still sits on the mother’s lap, while another, who could have been no more than four, lies nearby, her face so well preserved as to be recognizable.

These bodies will be one of the main draws to the exhibition, but I have to admit to a certain guilt at my voyeuristic fascination with them. What does our obsession with these casts say about ourselves? Cambridge historian Mary Beard has written a thoughtful essay on this and comes up with no easy answers.

This sort of blockbuster exhibition is something the British Museum does well, and this is one of their best yet. From the high art to crude graffiti, from naughty sculptures to a baby’s cradle, the breadth and richness of Roman life are brought to life in an experience no one with an interest in the ancient world will want to miss.

“Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum” runs until September 29.

Ancient ‘Toilet Paper’ Discovered In Fishbourne Roman Palace

Roman
An examination of some strange ceramic disks found at the Fishbourne Roman Palace is changing how we look at some of the most private aspects of Roman life.

Excavations at the palace in the past 50 years have uncovered dozens of pieces of broken pottery that had been deliberately shaped into flat disks. Archaeologists tentatively called them gaming pieces but were never convinced that was correct. Now a new study published in the British Medical Journal suggests they were used to wipe Roman ass crack.

Palace curator Dr. Rob Symmons said in a press release, “Obviously, we will have to think about re-classifying these objects on our catalogue and then we will look into a scientific analysis to identify any tell-tale residues that prove that these objects were used for anal cleaning. Which should be fun.”

Perhaps dip them in water and sniff?

It was already known that the Romans used sponges soaked in vinegar on the end of a stick to wash their rear ends. Ceramic disks wouldn’t have been as hygienic (or comfortable) but could have worked.

Fishbourne in West Sussex is the largest Roman villa in Britain. Built in the first century A.D., its floors were decorated with elaborate mosaics that are in a remarkable state of preservation. It’s unclear who lived there. Archaeologists have suggested either a Roman governor or a local British chieftain who threw in his lot with the conquerors. The palace burnt down around the year 270.

[Photo courtesy Fishbourne Roman Palace]

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Naughty Roman Frescoes Uncovered In Colosseum

Colosseum
Archaeologists working on a conservation project at the Colosseum in Rome have discovered ancient frescoes of gladiators and erotic scenes, Agence France Press reports.

The brightly colored fragments were found on the walls of a corridor currently closed to the public for restoration. The scenes show gladiators being honored with laurels. There are also erotic scenes, although the researchers didn’t go into detail about what they showed.

The popularity of erotic art in the Roman Empire has led to the perception that it was a permissive society. Actually that was only half true. Many Romans were straight-laced and sexually conservative. A good parallel is the modern United States, where a large number of people frown on public displays of nudity or sexuality, while on the other hand Americans produce and consume vast amounts of pornography. Often these are the same Americans. A 2009 study found Utah has the highest per capita consumption of online porn.

Archaeologists are still working on uncovering the delicate pictures and hope to have them preserved and on view to the public by 2014.

Ancient, Renaissance, and early modern graffiti was also found, raising the question of how old graffiti has to be before it stops being vandalism and starts being of historic interest.

The Colosseum has been quickly decaying in recent years, with bits falling off and archaeologists discovering that the building is beginning to lean.

[Image of gladiator fresco from the Roman amphitheater in Mérida, Spain courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Temple To Phallic God Priapus Found In Bulgaria?

Priapus
There’s something weird going on in the Bulgarian Black Sea port of Sozopol.

Last year, Bulgarian archaeologists dug up the graves of two vampires and analyzed the purported bones of John the Baptist. Now the Sofia Globe reports they’ve found a temple to the Classical god Priapus. This deity, best known for his huge erect penis, was the god of fertility and its opposite – erectile dysfunction. He acted as a sort of metaphysical Viagra.

Bozhidar Dimitrov, head of the National History Museum, said archaeologists excavating in Sozopol have found a clay phallus inscribed with the words “to Priapus.” This sort of item was common as a votive offering to the god. There’s no report on whether a building was found on the site. Actual temples to Priapus are rare, since he was a minor god worshiped mostly in the countryside or in gardens. His fertility extended to plants as well as people and he was also the god of merchant sailors, which would have been important in a thriving port such as Sozopol.

Priapus was a popular god in the Roman Empire. The above image, courtesy Wikimedia Commons, is of a fresco in Pompeii. You can find statues of the god and little phallic amulets in any large collection of Roman antiquities. The British Museum has several. Jump the cut to see a cute little figurine of Priapus with a little surprise.Priapus
This is actually two shots of the same bronze figurine dating to the first century AD and found in Picardy, France. On the right it appears as a man walking with a cloak wrapped around him, but pull the top off and presto! Instant fertility. It’s on display in the Musée de Picardie à Amiens. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.