Viking hoard highlights the value of responsible metal detectoring

Viking, Silverdale horde
When I used to work as an archaeologist, I heard a lot of bad-mouthing about metal detectorists. These guys scan the ground for coins and other metal objects. Most of the time they only find a few old pennies. It’s when they discover something of historic value that some archaeologists get grumpy. Many archaeologists don’t trust metal detectorists, saying they disturb ancient sites and pocket their findings.

This week’s discovery of a Viking hoard of silver in England shows how responsible metal detectorists, far from being nosy snoopers into the sacred soil of archaeology, can actually help us learn more about the past.

The hoard, found near the appropriately named village of Silverdale, Lancashire, includes silver brooches, coins, arm-rings, and ingots. There are 201 pieces in all, weighing more than two pounds, and they were buried around 900 AD. While artistic value of the jewelry is priceless, it’s one of the coins that tells us something really significant. It’s of a type never before seen and bears the inscription AIRDECONUT which may represent the Scandinavian name Harthacnut. There’s a famous Viking king by that name, but he lived a century later and his coins look different, so this appears to be a previously unknown Viking king.

Interestingly, the other side reads DNS (Dominus) REX, with the letters arranged in the form of a cross. This was a period when Vikings were beginning to abandoned the old gods like Thor and Odin and turn to Christianity. Also in the horde was a fake silver coin made from copper with a thin silver wash, and Islamic coins from the Middle East.

This isn’t the first time a metal detectorist has found evidence for an unknown ruler. Back in 2004, a man using a metal detector uncovered a Roman silver coin in Oxfordshire dating to 271 AD and bearing the face of Emperor Domitianus II. This military officer had been garrisoned in Britain and took advantage of the chaotic political situation to proclaim himself emperor. He minted some coins to celebrate the occasion but his rule only lasted at most for a few weeks. The coin was part of a hoard of about 5,000 coins. This coin is now on display at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

In both cases, the lucky guys did the right (and legal) thing–they reported their finds to the proper authorities. Laws governing such finds differ from country to country, but it’s always important to report anything you find that may be of historical significance. You never know, you might have discovered a new king.

Photo courtesy Portable Antiquities Scheme.

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Caligula’s tomb discovered? Probably not

caligula, CaligulaThe newswires are on fire with a remarkable discovery–the tomb of the infamous Roman emperor Caligula has been discovered near Rome.

The Guardian reports that Italian police caught a man loading a Roman statue onto the back of a truck at Lake Nemi, where Caligula had a palace. They arrested him and when they examined the statue were amazed to see that the man it depicted wore caligae, a type of half boot popular with Roman soldiers. When Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus was a boy, he used to tag along on his father’s military expeditions dressed in a miniature uniform. The soldiers thought this was cute and nicknamed him Caligula, which means “little boots”. The tomb robber led the officers back to the tomb where he found the statue. The police triumphantly announced that they had discovered Caligula’s tomb and the press went wild.

Not so fast, says Cambridge classics professor Mary Beard. In a post for The Times she points out that lots of statues show men wearing caligae. It was the normal footwear for soldiers, after all. She also states that since Caligula was so hated by the powers-that-be and was assassinated, it’s highly unlikely that he was given a fine tomb. More likely he was quietly buried in some unobtrusive spot like many other unpopular emperors.

Yet the story doesn’t end there. Dr. Beard admits she hasn’t seen photos of the statue or the tombs (at time of press they hadn’t been released) and until there’s a full archaeological excavation it’s impossible to say for sure whether the tomb contains the mortal remains of one of Rome’s most notorious emperors.

Caligula has always been the subject of inaccurate reporting. While there’s no doubt that his reign from AD 37 to 41 included many abuses, especially insults against the Senate, many of the charges laid against him are unsubstantiated. Some Roman writers said he slept with his sisters, but there’s no proof of this. Modern writers often say say he appointed his favorite horse as consul, but that’s a misreading of Seutonius, who wrote, “it is also said that he planned to make him [the horse] consul.” That sounds like he’s repeating a rumor.

[Photo of the statue of Caligula courtesy Louis le Grand. It is not the statue the police recently discovered.]

The Visigoths: Spain’s forgotten conquerors

Spain, Visigoth, Visigoths, Visigothic, MéridaWhen most people think of the fall of the Roman Empire, they think of hordes of howling barbarians swarming over the frontier and laying waste to civilization. That’s only partially true. In reality, many tribes were invited, and even those that weren’t came with their families not just to conquer, but to settle. This is why historians prefer the term “Migration Period”. And although these tribes conquered, the Romans ended up changing them more than they changed the Romans.

Take the gravestone pictured here, for instance. The product of “barbarians” who had taken Spain, it has Christian symbolism and is written in Latin. It reads, “Cantonus, servant of God, lived 87 years. He rested in peace on 22 December 517 AD.”

The Visigoths spread over much of the western Roman Empire in the fourth and fifth centuries. Their attacks prompted the emperor Honorius to withdraw his legions from Britain so he could get reinforcements, but this didn’t stop the Visigoths from sacking Rome itself in 410 AD. Like other Germanic tribes, they came to settle, and eventually moved as far as southern France and Spain. There they took over the government but left the society pretty much intact. Roman bureaucrats still ran day-to-day affairs. The Visigoths were already Christian like most Romans by this time, and since they lacked a written language they started using Latin.

Their kingdom lasted from 475 to 711, when they were defeated by the Umayyid Muslims. That’s a long time, but the Visigoths have basically become the Invisigoths, a forgotten people sandwiched in time between the Romans and the Moors. Why? Because they had little effect on the people they ruled. The Iberian Romans continued pretty much as they were, developing from the crumbling Classical era into the Early Middle Ages. These Ibero-Romans vastly outnumbered their Visigothic rulers. The only Visigothic word to make it into Spanish is verdugo, which means “executioner”.

If you look hard enough, you can still see traces of the Visigoths. Four of their churches still stand, two in Spain and two in Portugal. One of the best is San Pedro de la Nave near Campillo, Spain. Two shots of this church are in the gallery. Bits of other buildings have been incorporated into later structures. In Mérida, a Moorish fortress called the Alcazaba uses a bunch of pillars taken from a Visigothic hospital. They’re shown in the gallery too. The Visigoths had a distinct artistic style of carvings in low relief, showing plants or animals or people in Biblical or battle scenes. The Visigothic Museum in Mérida has an excellent collection of these.

The Germanic tribes were also good at making jewelry, and the Visigoths were no exception. They liked huge, intricately carved pins called fibulae to hold their cloaks, and wore bejeweled belt buckles big enough to make any Texan proud. Several of their chunky gold crowns also survive, with the names of their kings spelled out in gold letters hanging like a fringe around the edge.

So when visiting Spain’s many museums and historic sights, keep an eye out for remnants of Spain’s underrated rulers!

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Exploring Extremadura, Spain’s historic southwest

Coming up next: The wine and cuisine of Extremadura!

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Exploring ancient Rome in Mérida, Spain

Spain, Roman, theatre, Merida
It’s Christmas. What do you get an avid traveler who used to be an archaeologist?
For my wife the answer is obvious–a trip to a Roman city!

So here we are in Mérida, capital of the province of Extremadura in Spain, not far from the Portuguese border. In Roman times it was called Emerita Augusta and was capital of the province of Lusitania. This province took up most of the western Iberian peninsula, including most of what is now Portugal. The city was founded in 25 BC as a home for retired legionnaires on an important bridge linking the western part of the Iberian peninsula with the rest of the Empire. Putting a bunch of tough old veterans in such an important spot was no accident. The city boasts numerous well-preserved buildings and together they’re now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It’s a five-hour ride from Madrid on a comfortable train. Almudena and I brought along my five-year-old son Julián to give him a bit of classical education. (No cute kid photos, sorry. Too many freaks on the Internet)

Our first stop was Mérida’s greatest hits–an amphitheater for gladiator fights and one of the best preserved Roman theaters in the Roman world.

Both of these buildings were among the first to go up in the new city. Since the Romans were building a provincial capital from scratch, they wanted it to have all the amenities. The theater was a center for Roman social and cultural life and this one, when it was finished in 15 BC, was built on a grand scale with seats for 6,000 people. One interesting aspect of this theater is that it underwent a major improvement between the years 333 and 335 AD. This was after the Empire had converted to Christianity, and the early Christians denounced the theaters as immoral. The popular plays making fun of the church probably didn’t help their attitude. As I discussed in my post on the death of paganism, the conversion from paganism to Christianity was neither rapid nor straightforward. At this early stage it was still unthinkable to found a new city without a theater. The backdrop even has statues of pagan deities such as Serapis and Ceres. Although they’re from an earlier building stage than the Christian-era improvements, the fact that they weren’t removed is significant.

%Gallery-112089%Julián didn’t care about that, though. He was far more interested in the dark tunnels leading under the seats in a long, spooky semicircle around the theater. At first his fear of dark, unfamiliar places fought with his natural curiosity, but with Dad accompanying him he decided to chance it. It turned out there was no danger other than a rather large puddle we both stumbled into.

On stage he got a lesson in acoustics. The shape of the seats magnifies sounds. Voices carry further, and a snap of the fingers sounds like a pistol shot.

Next door was the amphitheater, where gladiators fought it out for the entertainment of the masses. Built in 8 BC, it seated 15,000, more than twice the amount as the theater. This was a city for veteran legionnaires, after all! Julián didn’t know what gladiators were so I explained it to him and soon throngs of ghostly Romans were cheering as Sean the Barbarian fought the Emperor Julián. He wanted to be a ninja and was disappointed to learn that there weren’t any in ancient Rome.

These two places are enough to make the trip worthwhile, but there are more than a dozen other ancient Roman buildings in Mérida as well. The best way to sum up the experience of walking through these remains was what I overheard some Italian tourists: “Bellissimo!
If the Italians are impressed, you know it’s good.

This is the first in a new series: Exploring Extremadura, Spain’s historic southwest

Coming up next: More Roman heritage from Mérida!

Colchester Castle celebrates 150 years as a museum

It’s not often that a museum becomes a museum piece.

The Colchester Castle Museum recently celebrated its 150th birthday. Located in Essex, England, and housed in one of the best preserved Norman castles in the world, the museum boasts a massive collection of Roman artifacts.

Colchester used to be the capital of Roman Britain until it was leveled by the warrior queen Boudica in 60 AD. As the leader of the Celtic Iceni tribe, she had defied the recent Roman conquest of England. As punishment she was whipped and her underaged daughters raped before her eyes. Boudica raised an army and wreaked a terrible revenge across Roman Britain, slaughtering an estimated 30,000 people at Colchester alone before she was defeated at the Battle of Watling Street.

The Normans built a castle here around the year 1076 on the foundations of the temple to the Emperor Claudius. The foundations were so large that the castle ended up being the biggest ever built in England. After a stint as an interrogation center for suspected witches, it eventually became a museum in 1860. Today it houses an excellent collection of Roman artifacts as well as collections from other periods. An interesting article in the Chelmsford Weekly News reports the collection is the product of generations of collectors and includes not only priceless archaeological treasures but oddities such as a crab with oysters growing on its shell.

[Photo courtesy Filip Walter via Wikimedia Commons]