Roman Fort Attacked By Moles, Archaeologists Benefit

mole, Roman fortWhen you stroll through a museum, you generally assume that all those ancient artifacts you’re seeing were dug up by professional archaeologists or found by accident by some farmer plowing his field. Mostly you’d be correct, but researchers into England’s Roman past are getting some unexpected help. . .from moles.

Moles at the site of Epiacum, a Roman fort dating from the first to the fourth centuries AD, have been getting busy digging holes in the soil and turning up all sorts of archaeological goodies. The site is protected by English Heritage and nobody, not even the local farmers, is allowed to dig on it. The moles have apparently never heard of English Heritage and have been tossing out Roman pottery, jewelry, and even a bit of old plumbing.

Volunteers have been sifting through the moles’ backdirt, under the watchful eye of English Heritage, and the artifacts are being sent to a nearby museum.

Epiacum, known locally as Whitley Castle, lies twelve miles to the south of Hadrian’s Wall and protected some nearby lead and silver mines. Click here for more information about visiting the site.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Italy’s Famous Monuments Hit By Austerity Measures

ItalyHard economic times in Italy are threatening that country’s priceless cultural heritage.

The Times of Oman reports that billionaire Diego Della Valle said he’s thinking of withdrawing the 25 million euros ($33 million) he promised last year to restore the Colosseum, which has been crumbling due to lack of maintenance. An even more serious problem is Pompeii, which suffered a couple of spectacular collapses in 2010.

The Times reports that the government is increasingly looking to private investors to save the day, and is also promising to release 105 million euros ($138 million) from the European Union for a four-year maintenance plan for Pompeii.

Italy only spends 1.8 billion euros ($2.4 billion) annually on culture, just 0.21 percent of the gross domestic product and barely enough for basic maintenance. With tourism being a major portion of the Italian economy, it seems shortsighted not to preserve and restore the very sites that tourists come to see.

Not all news coming from Italy is bad. The government has finally cracked down on the fake Roman centurions and gladiators who prowl around the Colosseum, bullying tourists into taking pictures with them for exorbitant prices. The government says they are all ex-cons and are operating without a license. Some of the fake gladiators climbed onto the Colosseum to protest, showing that they care more about money than preserving their national heritage.

[Photo courtesy Adam Kahtava]

New exhibit sheds light on Antonine Wall, the Roman Empire’s northernmost border

Antonine Wall, ScotlandThere’s not much left of it now, just a deep swale in the earth and a few stones jutting out of the grass. Almost two thousand years ago, though, it was the northernmost boundary of the Roman Empire.

The Antonine Wall protected a narrow part of Scotland between the Firth of Forth and the Firth of Clyde, from the 140s to 160s AD. After the Emperor Hadrian built Hadrian’s Wall across what is now the border of England and Scotland, his successor Antoninus Pius decided to move 100 miles further north to gain a military and propaganda victory and add more land to the empire. The wall was built of turf on a stone foundation and stretched 39 miles, as opposed to the stone Hadrian’s Wall that ran 73 miles. Forts placed at regular intervals strengthened the both walls.

Now a new permanent exhibit at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow brings together numerous artifacts from the wall to show what life was like for the soldiers living up there. Included are several elaborate sculptures commissions by Antoninus Pius to show off his great victory.

The Antonine Wall was only used from 142 to 162, and briefly again around 208. Later emperors decided it wasn’t worth the expense and effort and instead used Hadrian’s Wall as the northernmost boundary. Despite this short lifespan, several communities sprang up around it and there were at least two Roman baths. Excavations have yielded some interesting artifacts such as preserved sandals and a gravestone that shows someone from the Middle East lived there.

I’ve walked the length of Hadrian’s Wall along the Hadrian’s Wall Path and would love to do the same with the Antonine Wall, but sadly there is not yet a trail going along this important remnant of the glory of Rome.

Antoninus Pius, Antonine Wall

[Wall photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Photo of coin of Antoninus Pius also courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

An IKEA for ancient Roman housewares

Is your domus lacking style? Do you need to redecorate your cubiculum or latrina? A museum exhibit in the Netherlands can help.

Through January 6, 2012, the Limburgs Museum Venlo presents IXEA: The Roman Store (“IXEA: je Romeinse woonwarenhuis” – site in Dutch and German), an installation that combines displays of re-imagined Roman housewares with the familiar layout of an IKEA store. IXEA, presumably Latin for IKEA, follows the Swedish store’s formula with almost copyright-infringing accuracy: there’s the blue and yellow logo, the shop-by-room concept, and a cheap Roman meatball lunch in the café. Best of all are the exhibit’s housewares, all of them labeled with Latin names and all available for purchase. You can pick up a “Romulus” toy wooden sword, a “Secundus” wine goblet, or a bust of Emperor Hadrian. Furniture available for online ordering include lounges, tables, and storage cabinets modeled after items found in the ancient Roman city of Herculaneum.

While it may seem strange for a small museum in the Netherlands to put on a show about ancient Rome, consider the history of the province of Limburg. Its location on the Meuse River has made it a strategic trading post for centuries and evidence of a Roman settlement here include coins, a stone bridge, a Roman sarcophagus, and, in the town of Vlengendaal, a 1st century villa containing frescoes. One bedroom in the IXEA exhibit displays wallpaper modeled after the Vlengendaal frescoes.

[Photo credits: Museum Limburgs Venlo]

[Via Ben Lamb on Twitter]

Gladiator died because of ref’s error, says archaeologist

gladiator, gladiatorsA gladiator who fought 1,800 years ago may have died because of a bad call from a ref.

Archaeologists have long puzzled over a line in the epitaph of Diodorus the gladiator’s gravestone. It reads, “After breaking my opponent Demetrius I did not kill him immediately. Fate and the cunning treachery of the summa rudis killed me.”

The summa rudis was a referee who oversaw gladiator games. Unlike what we see in the movies, real gladiator fights were highly ritualized and had strict rules. One rule was that if a man pleaded for mercy, it was up to the sponsor of the fight (a local bigwig or even the Emperor) to decide if the defeated gladiator should live or die. Another rule was that if a gladiator fell without being pushed down by his opponent, he was allowed to get up and retrieve his weapons before the match continued.

Now gladiator expert Prof. Michael Carter says he knows what this inscription means. His theory is that Diodorus knocked down his opponent and backed off, waiting for the sponsor’s orders to either kill him or let him go. The referee, however, ruled his opponent fell down on his own. He was allowed to pick up his weapons and fight on. . .and ended up killing Diodorus.

Whoever wrote Diodorus’ epitaph seems to have believed the ref did it on purpose. We’ll never know for sure, but it just goes to show that among the countless dusty old inscriptions preserved in museums and archives, there are stories of real people and how they lived, and died. So next time you’re shouting at a ref for making a bad call, think of poor Diodorus and remember that some bad calls are worse than others.

The gravestone was originally found in Turkey and is now in the Musee du Cinquanternaire in Brussels, Belgium. The best place to see where gladiators fought and died is, of course, Rome, where the Colosseum has opened its underground tunnels to show where gladiators, prisoners, and wild animals waited their turn to entertain the crowd. There’s also a well-preserved amphitheater in Mérida, Spain.

[Photo of gladiator grave courtesy Wikimedia Commons. No photo of Diodorus’ grave was available at press time, but you can see a photo of it here.]