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]

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.

Israel Restores Ancient City

Israel, Avdat
The government of Israel has just completed a $2 million restoration of the ancient Nabatean city of Avdat, The Jewish Press reports.

Avdat is in the Negev Desert and was one of the westernmost points on an extensive incense trade network the Nabateans built stretching as far as the southern Saudi peninsula that flourished from the 3rd century B.C. to the 2nd century A.D. Incense was important in rituals for many civilizations, especially for Roman funerals. The trade network began to wither when Romans converted to Christianity and stopped needing incense to cover up the stink of their cremations.

The extensive ruins include houses and an acropolis with a Nabatean temple. Avdat later became part of the Roman and then Byzantine Empire. Remains of a Roman military camp and a Byzantine church can be seen there. The church has a floor made up of marble tombstones with still legible epitaphs. Like in the more famous Nabatean city of Petra, a sophisticated irrigation system allowed for agriculture and even vineyards in the harsh desert region. The residents even had enough water to make themselves a bathhouse.

The city was destroyed by an earthquake in the 5th century and was rebuilt. Another earthquake in the 7th century finished it off.

The site, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, suffered vandalism in 2009. The vandals pulled down columns, smashed stones and wrote graffiti over parts of the site. They were never caught. Now Avdat has been completely restored and the local archaeologists boast that it’s better than it was before.

Avdat hit the news last year when it was discussed in historian Tom Holland’s book “In the Shadow of the Sword,” in which he suggests that Muhammad was from Avdat and not Mecca. He also calls into question much of the Muslim tradition for its own origins. The book was criticized by scholars and Holland even received death threats, presumably not from scholars.

The site is in Avdat National Park, so a visit to the ruins can also include hiking and wildlife photography. Check out the gallery for some images of this amazing site. If it looks a familiar, that’s because it was the site for the filming of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

[Photo courtesy Urij]

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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.