Famous Roman ‘Tomb’ May Have Actually Been A Temple

Roman, CarmonaAt the Roman necropolis in Carmona, Spain, visitors are led to the popular “Elephant’s Tomb,” a large underground chamber that gets its name from a crude sculpture of an elephant found there.

Now archaeologists are saying it may not be a tomb at all, but rather a temple to one of the ancient world’s most mysterious religions. A team from the University of Pablo de Olavide, Seville, has analyzed the structure and says it was once a mithraeum, an underground temple for the god Mithras.

Mithraism centered on secret rites centered on the mystical slaying of a bull was one of the most popular faiths in the last years of paganism. Several mithraeums are scattered about Europe, including in London, Mérida, and along Hadrian’s Wall.

The archaeologists point out that its general shape, with a columned, three-chambered room leading to an area for altars, is the same as other mithraeums. They also found astronomical alignments. Sunlight would hit the center of the chamber during the equinoxes, and during the winter and summer solstices, the sun would light up the north and south walls respectively. As the sun shines through the window during the spring equinox, Taurus rises to the East and Scorpio hides to the West. The opposite occurred during the autumn equinox. Taurus and Scorpio figure prominently in the religion’s astrological symbolism, with the God Mithras slaying a bull as a scorpion stings the animal’s testicles.

It was only later that the temple was turned into a burial chamber, researchers say.

Carmona is less than 20 miles from Seville and is a popular day trip from there.
Roman

[Top photo courtesy Daniel Villafruela. Bottom photo courtesy Henri de Boisgelin.]

On The Road With NPR Music: Sean MacLean At KING, Seattle, Washington

Beyond travel, we’re also big music fans here at Gadling; largely because music is a great way to get to know a place. This month happens to be Public Radio Music Month and we’re teaming up with NPR to bring you exclusive interviews from NPR music specialists around the country. We’ll be learning about local music culture and up and coming new regional artists, so be sure to follow along all month.

You might know Seattle for its grunge, alternative and indie scenes – this is after all the home of the Experience Music Project – but as Sean MacLean tells us, if you haven’t been paying attention to the classical music of the region, you’re missing out.

Name: Sean MacLean

Member station: Classical King FM 98.1

Regular Show/Contribution Beat: Northwest Focus, weeknights 8-10 p.m., with live musicians Friday nights at 8. Afternoon/evening host Monday – Friday 4-10 p.m.

1. When people think of music in Seattle, what do they think of?

Options! The Early Music, jazz, rock, and film scoring cutting edge, but also Benaroya Hall, home of Seattle Symphony, where you can sip outstanding Washington State Syrahs while enjoying the view from the giant windows that give out onto beautiful Elliott Bay, then go into the splendid acoustics of the floating hall and have your heart blown wide by timeless music.

2. How do you help curate that musical scene?

Through “Northwest Focus“: since living in Seattle means figuring out what NOT to see that night, we pick the most engaging events to link at our website, and give our listeners a chance to meet local classical musicians on “Northwest Focus LIVE” on Friday nights at 8. The shows are archived and YouTube videos are shared. The groups get exposure, and our audience is enriched. We get a lot of feedback about the quality of the music scene here.

3. How has that scene evolved over the last few decades?

Early Music Mecca! Increase in choral groups! More performances of classical music in crossover venues.

4. What would you say is the most unique thing about the Seattle music scene?

People move here for the healthy lifestyle and surrounding natural beauty. I think you can hear the “health” in their playing. Neither sincerity of interpretation, nor cooperation between musical presenters is not considered naïve. Ironic detachment is not cool here, as it is in many cities. Generosity of spirit is the vibe.

5. What are three new up and coming bands on your local scene right now and what makes them distinct?

In the early music scene, Stephen Stubbs is doing amazing productions with Pacific Musicworks. Then there is Whim Whim who dance to choral music. Amazing. Which brings up The Esoterics, led by Eric Banks, who wrote the music. I don’t know how he ever gets any sleep, with the composing, research, and performance.

6. For a Gadling playlist, what are your favorite tracks?

“Assez Vif” – Seattle Marimba Quartet
“Es ist ein Ros entsprungen (arr. J. Sandstrom)” – Dale Warland Singers
“F. Couperin: Les baricades Mystérieuses” – Les baricades Mystérieuses – arranged by Göran Söllscher
“Gloria: IX. Cum Sancto Spiritu” – Couperin, Francois, Göran Söllscher
“Jardim Abandonado” – Sergio and Odair Assad
“The Great “O” Antiphons – O Radix Jesse (“O Root of Jesse”)” – Opus 7 Vocal Ensemble
“Toward the Sea: III. Cape Cod” – Paul Taub, alto Flute; Michael Partington, guitar

Listen to the complete playlist on Spotify.

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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The Acropolis: Greece’s most famous monument weathers the crisis

The Acropolis, Athens, Greece
Visiting Greece and not visiting the Acropolis is unthinkable. Set atop a high rock overlooking Athens, the temples here were built primarily to honor the city’s patron goddess Athena in all her attributes. The buildings here are some of the best examples of Greek architecture and have had a profound effect on the architecture of all the Western world. While I have a preference for medieval sites like Acrocorinth, and I’ve visited the Acropolis before, I couldn’t help but go back.

The last time I was there was 1994, and a lot has changed. There has been a great deal of restoration and the world-class Acropolis Museum has opened up.

Here’s one attraction that the Greek government needs to preserve as it passes through its worst economic crisis since World War Two. People still flock here and it’s a major reason why Greece is an important tourist destination. Tourism accounts for 18 percent of the Greek GDP and tourist numbers went up last year. Several sources told me there were two reasons for this: budget-conscious Europeans are traveling closer to home and people are staying away from North African favorites like Tunisia and Egypt.

Even though sites like the Acropolis generate billions of euros a year in revenue, the Ministry of Culture survives on just 0.7 percent of the national budget, and that budget is shrinking faster than the supply of Greek olives I brought back from this trip. In the past year the ministry has seen its budget slashed by almost a third, with warnings of more cuts to come. Museums are already feeling the pinch and now ministers, archaeologists, and site directors are scrambling to find ways to maintain their their heritage. There are even plans to lease the Acropolis for film backdrops and photo shoots to help raise funds.

%Gallery-146241%This last bit is actually nothing new. Archaeological sites have always been available for rent, but costs were enormous and most projects were rejected out of hand. Now the Acropolis will go for the bargain-basement price of $1,300 a day for a photography session and about $2,000 a day for filming.

Despite Greece’s financial woes, restoration and conservation are continuing. Funds are still coming through from the government and from the European Union. The most visible is the restoration of the pronaos (front inner porch) of the Parthenon shown here in this image by flickr user dorena-wm, who obviously had better luck with the weather than I did. This image was taken last year and now there is considerably more scaffolding obscuring the front. The photo I took last Sunday is in the gallery.

At the Erechtheion, where Poseidon and Athena competed for possession of Athens, the interior of the famous south porch with its caryatid columns is screened off as the ceiling is cleaned with an innovative laser system developed specifically for this project. In ancient times it was believed that Poseidon, the sea god, struck at the ground here with his trident and a salty spring gushed forth. Athena created an olive tree, the first in the world. The Athenians judged that the olive tree was more useful and so dedicated their city to her. The city continued to honor the sea god, though, and the Erechtheion is devoted to his local aspect Erechtheus. Athens owed her power to her great navy, and so it was smart to honor the god who rules the waves, even if he did come in second place in the competition for the city.

No reconstruction was going on when I went, though. I took advantage of Sundays being free to revisit the Acropolis. It was low season and bitterly cold and overcast, but there were still large crowds exploring the ruins. One family from Crete entered at the same time I did and took the same route through the monuments. The father gave a long lecture about the place to his young son and daughter. It was heartening to see how much they enjoyed it. They asked questions, told him some things they’d learned in school, and were obviously having a good time. They took dozens of pictures and I offered to take one of them all together. That got us talking. The father’s English was limited, but his national pride was obvious even through the language barrier. As we talked, his kids went off to take more pictures.

The Acropolis Museum was opened in 2009 to much fanfare and became an instant success. Between between June 2010 and May 2011 more than one million and three hundred thousand Greek and foreign visitors passed through its doors. The museum explains the importance of the site from earliest times through the Classical era and beyond. It’s probably best to see this museum before you see the Acropolis as it will give you a much deeper understanding of that most historic of attractions.

To combat museum fatigue, take a break at the restaurant or café. Prices are remarkably reasonable and floor-to-ceiling windows give a splendid view of the Acropolis and two of its buildings-the Parthenon and the Sanctuary of Athena Nike.

The museum is not free on Sundays but that didn’t stop the crowds coming out in full force. The restaurant, café, and gift shop were all doing a brisk business. Most popular was the third floor, where a reconstruction of the Parthenon sculptures can be seen. As the labels make clear, most of these are plaster casts because between 1801 and 1805 Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire that then ruled Greece, got permission to remove about half of them. As you can see from the display at the Acropolis Museum, he took the best ones. Now they are in the British Museum in London, while several other sculptures were taken by other antiquarians and ended up in other museums.

The Greeks want their sculptures back. The British Museum says they took them with permission of the government that was then in power. Here is the official Greek position and here is the British Museum’s position.

The economic crisis has added a new dimension to the struggle to return the sculptures. While the plaster casts in the Acropolis Museum are very well done, seeing the real thing is always better. Getting them back would be a major coup for a country that has only had bad news for far too long, and it would help bring in much-needed tourism revenue. But with both sides dug in, it looks like the Greeks won’t be getting good news like that anytime soon.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Our Past in Peril, Greek tourism faces the economic crisis.

Coming up next: The Athens War Museum

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.