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.

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]

The Allure Of Ancient Tangier

Tangier
The whole Mediterranean rim has a rich history. The Minoans, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans and many others explored and settled these rocky coasts and islands. Tangier, just outside the Strait of Gibraltar and looking out onto the Atlantic Ocean, was considered the furthest point west by many civilizations. To the north, ancient travelers could see the Iberian Peninsula. South lay the coast of Africa, explored by some civilizations and unknown to others, and to the west stretched the seemingly endless expanse of the ocean.

Tangier became an important port early on. The Phoenicians built a trading post here in the middle of the first millennium B.C. and it was later taken over by the Carthaginians. At that time it was called Tingis, after a Berber goddess. Little is left from those days as the ancient city has been buried under many layers of later occupation.

The Casbah Museum in Tangier has a few artifacts from that time, and an easy walk to the western outskirts will take you to the plateau of Mershan and the necropolis of Al Hafa. Here, on an exposed rock with a sweeping view of the strait and the port, the Carthaginians, and later the Romans, buried their dead. You can see a couple of the lead caskets in the Casbah Museum.

All that’s left here are the graves cut into the rock, many of them now filled with rainwater and reflecting the blue sky above. Even those uninterested in archaeology will enjoy the walk through the quiet, prosperous suburb and the fine vista from the plateau. The dead got the best seafront view in Tangier.

%Gallery-175701%The value of traveling to another famous ancient landmark, the Grotto of Hercules, is more debatable. It was here that Hercules was said to have rested after his labors. This cave opens onto the Atlantic Ocean and the waves splash on the rock, swirling in and out and spraying the large number of foreign and Moroccan tourists who come here. Niches carved into the cave’s interior at some unrecorded time are now used by salesmen to hawk trinkets. Yes, this place is one big tourist trap, although an attractive one.

We had been told that the nearby Roman ruins of Cotta were open to the public but when we got there two soldiers and a cop told us politely yet firmly that this land was owned by the king and we couldn’t enter. They were very apologetic and somewhat confused as to why we thought the ruins were open. They’d been closed for five years.

A longer day trip can take you to the Roman city of Volubilis, five hours away between Fez and Rabat. One of its prized possessions, however, is housed in the Casbah Museum. A sumptuous mosaic from the town house of some wealthy Roman is now the centerpiece of the museum. Called “The Voyage of Venus,” it shows the sexy goddess sailing through the salty spray with her nymphs.

If you’re pressed for time I’d say hit the Casbah Museum first, try to go to Al Hafa if the weather is good, and skip the Grotto of Hercules.

Don’t miss our other posts on Tangier! Coming up next: St. Andrew’s in Tangier: A Church With Muslim Art!

[Top image by Almudena Alonso-Herrero. Bottom image by Sean McLachlan]

Tangier

Giant Roman Mosaic Discovered In Turkey

Roman mosaic
A team from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has discovered an impressive Roman mosaic at a little-known site in Turkey.

The 1,600-square-foot work is part of the forecourt of a Roman bath at the ancient city of Antiochia ad Cragum on the southern Turkish coast. The mosaic dates to the third or fourth centuries A.D. and archaeologists think they’ve uncovered less than half of it.

“Its large size signals, in no small part, that the outward signs of the empire were very strong in this far-flung area,” said excavation director and UNL professor Michael Hoff in a press release. “We were surprised to have found a mosaic of such size and of such caliber in this region – it’s an area that had usually been off the radar screens of most ancient historians and archeologists, and suddenly this mosaic comes into view and causes us to change our focus about what we think (the region) was like in antiquity.”

The team has been excavating the city since 2005 and has worked on a third-century imperial temple and a street lined with shops. They hope to uncover the rest of the mosiac next summer.

“This region is not well understood in terms of history and archaeology … so everything we find adds more evidence to our understanding of this area of the Roman Empire,” Hoff said.

Hopefully the mosaic will be left in situ so visitors can see it in its original setting, like the mosaics in Ephesus and Pergamon, Turkey’s most famous Classical cities.

The best collection of Roman mosaics I’ve seen is at the Museo Nacional de Arte Romano in Mérida, Spain. The Museo Arqueológico Nacional in Madrid also has a grand collection, but the museum is currently closed for renovation. The British Museum in London also has a good collection. I’m sure Rome has some great collections too, but when I visited I was so entranced with the churches, catacombs and monuments that I never made it into any of the archaeological museums!

[Photo courtesy University of Nebraska-Lincoln]

Roman Cavalry Helmet To Be Star Attraction At Royal Academy Exhibition

Roman
A new exhibition at the Royal Academy in London will feature one of Britain’s most stunning archaeological discoveries of the past few years.

Back in 2010, a metal detectorist found this brass helmet in a field in Cumbria, northern England. It dates from the first to third centuries A.D. and is one of a few rare ornate cavalry helmets dating to the Roman period. These helmets were worn for tournaments and parades rather than battle.

Now it will be part of “Bronze,” an exhibition of works made of bronze or brass from the prehistoric period to the present day. More than 150 works from Africa, Asia, and Europe are organized into themes such as the human figure, animals, groups, objects, reliefs, heads and busts, and gods. Examples come from such widely different cultures as ancient Greece, Etruria, Benin, Renaissance Italy, and modern Europe.

To learn more about these helmets, check out this page on Roman parade helmets and this page on more standard-issue Roman cavalry helmets.

Bronze runs from September 15 to December 9.

[Photo courtesy Daniel Pett]