Roman London Uncovered In Massive Excavation

Roman London
Archaeologists from the Museum of London have uncovered three acres of Roman London, they announced in a press release.

The team was excavating ahead of construction of Bloomberg Place, in the heart of what used to be Londinium, the capital of the Roman province of Britannia. Over the course of six months, archaeologists picked their way through seven meters of soil to find some 10,000 artifacts dating from the very start of Roman occupation in the 40s A.D. to the end in the early fifth century.
Roman LondonRoman LondonThis painstaking work revealed whole streets of the ancient city with wooden buildings preserved up to shoulder height, prompting archaeologists to dub it the “Pompeii of the North.” The damp soil not only preserved the buildings, but also perishable artifacts such as the leather shoe and the basket shown here. The team also found a previously unexcavated section of the Temple of Mithras.

Other finds include phallic good luck pendants; a hundred writing tablets, some containing affectionate personal letters; and the bed of Walbrook, one of the “lost” rivers of London. There’s also this amber amulet in the shape of a gladiator’s helmet shown here.

Bloomberg Place will be Bloomberg’s European headquarters once it’s completed in 2016. A museum on site will exhibit the finds to the public.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City has deep connections with London that were the subject of a recent feature in the New York Times.

[All images copyright Museum of London Archaeology]

Hiking A Roman Road In England

Roman
At first glance this looks like a muddy field with an Australian contract lawyer walking away into the middle distance. Look again, though, and you’ll notice something strange. Why is there no substantial vegetation in a big straight swath through this field?

The answer is that it’s a Roman road. Only a few inches below the soil are the original stones laid down 2,000 years ago when this was the Roman province of Britannia. This is one of many Roman roads crisscrossing the land from its southern shore all the way up to Hadrian’s Wall on the border with Scotland.

This photo shows a portion of the Roman Way, a 174-mile walk along three Roman roads in Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Hampshire, and Berkshire. We walked the 22.5-mile (36-kilometer) stretch between Dorchester and Alchester.

I had visited Dorchester and its medieval abbey three years ago while hiking along the Thames Path and was happy to revisit the rare medieval wall paintings and the historic High Street lined with 17th century coaching inns. This main road running through town is actually part of the Roman road.

We followed it north and were soon out into the countryside, passing through fields and between hedgerows that were bringing forth delicious blackberries. In many spots the Roman road is clearly visible as a bank raised slightly above the surrounding land. Like in Dorchester, at times it’s still used as a road and we had to detour to keep on trails.

%Gallery-164134%The landscape is dotted with little villages. One of the first we came to as we headed north towards Oxford was Toot Baldon, where a Norman church and its overgrown graveyard of mouldering stones provides a splendid view of the surrounding countryside. Shadows of clouds made dark blots on patchwork fields while a murder of crows circled above a distant hedgerow.

We came upon another church, built in the 12th century, a couple of villages further on at Horspath. The sun shone through the brilliant stained glass to illuminate the interior with a kaleidoscope of colors. Not far beyond, we walked up onto a wooded ridge called Shotover. This was a forest in Saxon times and later became a royal hunting ground.

At the crest of the ridge we followed a clearly visible road, but it wasn’t the Roman one. Instead it was the London-Oxford coaching road and was considered a dangerous stretch. The thickets on either side of the road were infested with highwaymen who would relieve travelers of their hard-earned shillings and guineas. The highwaymen were a polite bunch and generally bid their victims a pleasant good night before riding off with their money.

From Shotover we got another fine view, this time to the north and west, where we saw the fringes of southern Oxford and a pair of hills called Mother Dunch’s Buttocks, named after a lady of the local manor from the 17th century. Heading down the slope at the far end of Shotover, we entered the C.S. Lewis Nature reserve, a bit of wild land with a pond that are said to have inspired the famous author to invent Narnia. His house is nearby.

Within a few minutes we were at Oxford Park and Ride, mainly used for commuters but also a good starting-off point for both legs of this hike. Heading north from there ran the second part of our trail. For a time it skirted the eastern edge of town but soon we were walking through fields and past centuries-old thatched farmhouses. After a long stretch we came to Beckley, where we took shelter from a sudden downpour in the Abingdon Arms, a local pub. A pint later, we ventured out to visit the local church, yet another Norman structure. This one rebuilt in the 14th and 15th centuries and decorated inside with paintings of Biblical scenes.

Beyond Beckley lies Otmoor, a large fenland and nature reserve. A nearby Ministry of Defense shooting range keeps anyone from thinking of building on it! There was no shooting the day we went and ll wee heard was birdsong back by deep silence. There are several blinds scattered about for people interested in birdwatching. The rain made this part of the hike very squishy. Anyone hiking in the UK should definitely wear good water-resistant boots.

Not far from here some locals discovered the wooden pilings of a Roman bridge, and we saw more Roman remains stuck in the wall of the church at Merton, where the builders mixed local stone with Roman tiles scavenged from the nearby Roman fort of Alchester. The church is dedicated to St. Swithun, whose remains were moved here from the cathedral at Winchester in 971. His spirit disapproved of the move and caused it to rain for 40 days.

Some more plodding through mud and rain (thankfully not of the 40-day kind) brought us to Bicester, once a Roman town and now engulfed in a shopping center. This jarring intrusion of the modern world into a historical hike killed the atmosphere and we quickly caught a bus back to Oxford where we could enjoy a celebratory whiskey.

For a guidebook we used “The Roman Way” by Elaine Steane. The directions are clear and are aided by strips of Ordnance Survey maps for the areas the path passes through. There are also some notes on the history and nature of the region, although you’ll probably want to do some more background reading before heading out. To include everything of interest would have required a book that would be too heavy to carry!

The Leaning Colosseum Of Rome

Colosseum
Rome’s iconic Colosseum is beginning to tilt, the Guardian newspaper reports.

The stadium where gladiators used to hack away at one another to cheering crowds has developed a distinct slant, with one side being 40 centimeters (15.7 inches) lower than the other. Archaeologists have been studying the tilt for a year and have confirmed that it is real and could pose a threat to the monument’s stability. They theorize that the concrete base on which the Colosseum rests may be cracked.

Currently, experts are figuring out what rescue plan, if any, they will suggest to their cash-strapped government.

It’s been a bad couple of years for Italy’s monuments. Despite an expensive restoration, the Colosseum has been crumbling, although not as much as disaster-ridden Pompeii. That ancient city has seen a couple of walls and buildings collapse entirely.

Hopefully a solution will be found to save these ancient Roman ruins without burdening Italy with even more debt.

[Photo courtesy sneakerdog via Flickr]

New series: Our past in peril, Greek tourism faces the economic crisis

Greek tourism, Greek
This is a sculpture of a fallen Greek warrior from the temple of Aphaia on the Greek island of Aigina. Made in the 5th century BC, it’s an important example of Early Classical Greek art. This was a time when Greek artists began imitating life with realistic poses and expressions.

We owe so much to the ancient Greeks–our ideas of art, architecture, democracy, philosophy, theater, and a lot more. When Greece was conquered by the Romans three centuries after this sculpture was made, Greek culture actually flourished, finding new outlets in the receptive and expanding Roman Empire. Horace once said: Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit (Captive Greece took captive her rude conqueror). The suffering yet proud face on this fallen warrior reflects Greek history–cycles of tragedy and triumph.

Suffering yet proud. That’s the impression I get of Greece these days. An economy in shambles, general strikes, people being forced to give up their children. At the same time, an increasing number of Greeks are going back to the land and sea to revitalize the traditional cornerstones of the Greek economy. Meanwhile, Greeks from all walks of life are taking to the streets to protest cutbacks that threaten their livelihood.

The cutbacks threaten our past too. Not the Greek past, our past, because Western civilization is based to a large extent on Greek civilization. Regular general strikes against the austerity measures imposed by the IMF mean that seeing the physical remains of our heritage has become a game of chance. A minister’s suggestion to lease the Acropolis and other ancient sites was treated with scorn one week, and approved the next. Three important paintings, including one by Picasso, were stolen from the Athens National Gallery because cutbacks had left only one guard on duty. And it can get far, far worse. Allowing Greece to fall would be like burning an attic full of family heirlooms and photo albums.

For the next week I’ll be in Greece interviewing museum curators, archaeologists, and regular Greeks about the problems facing our collective past. How are the strikes inhibiting access to museums and sights? How much are staff cuts reducing opening hours and the nation’s ability to conserve and restore our heritage? I’ll also be seeing, strikes permitting, some of the nation’s greatest monuments such as the Acropolis and Agora, as well as lesser-known treasures such as Mistra, briefly the capital of the Roman Empire, and the Crusader castle of Villehardouin.

Unfortunately, this sculpture will not be among them. It’s now the property of the Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek in Munich, Germany. The same country whose banks currently own the second largest share of Greek national debt after France. The statue of the fallen Greek was taken by a German baron in 1811 when Greece was under the control of a different foreign power–the Ottoman Empire.

Next in the series: Athens nightlife: desperate pensioners on the hustle!

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Is the Colosseum crumbling?

ColosseumEconomic instability, a change of government, and now this.

It looks like Italy’s most famous landmark, the Colosseum, may be crumbling. The Culture Ministry has launched an investigation after eyewitnesses spotted bits of stone falling off the Roman ruin on two different occasions in recent days.

An Italian shoe company has promised to restore the Colosseum with an ambitious 25 million euro ($34 million) project, but work won’t start until March.

If the reports are true, the Colosseum isn’t the only monument in trouble. Pompeii has suffered a series of collapses that has raised questions about the site’s management and has escalated into a major scandal. With Italian government deeply in debt and struggling with unpopular austerity measures, it’s doubtful if the glorious legacy of ancient Rome will receive much official funding in the coming fiscal year.

Photo courtesy Sebastian Bergmann.