I’m still busy working on re-formatting which is proving to be very slow and tedious. I’ve also found out the version of Photomatix I was using to develop my photos was out-of-date. Here’s some photos I reprocessed to test the new version. They were taken at the Lunt, a recontructed 1st century AD Roman fort near Coventry. It was one of those days it was either about to start raining, or else it was raining or both. If you’re wondering about both, I got to the car while it was raining. Then it really started to rain.
From TypicallySpanish comes the news that two men have been arrested in connection with some 1st century amphorae which may have come from the Bou Ferrer wreck off the Costa del Sol.
The looted amphorae. Photo Guardia Civil.
If you’re like me you might have a vague idea you’ve heard of Bou Ferrer, but can’t remember where. That’s because it’s not been widely reported in the English-speaking world. Spanish weblog Terrae Antiquae had the details back in November 2006. The Bou Ferrer, named after a diver who worked on the wreck is potentially hugely exciting. It’s big, 30 metres long, carrying 400 tonnes of freight. It’s also extremely well preserved. It’s embedded in the seabed which means the timbers have survived in excellent condition. So far forty amphorae containing garum, a sauce made from rotting fish guts, have been recovered. There’s about 1200 amphorae on the wreck.
Informacion.es says the amphorae were recovered after they heard a man had a collection of amphorae from various eras including some from the Bou Ferrer. After hearing this they chased round various antiquities dealers. The typical plan is to shuffle round the artefacts until they get convincingly lost. Then you turn up with them at an auction house calling them “Property of a European collector”. Trading artefacts found after 1970 is a problem due to UNESCO conventions targetting the trade in illicit antiquities, but simply saying they’re part of an old collection is good enough for a lot of dealers. They may well check on the Art Loss Register, but given that the amphorae have been recently lifted from the seabed they won’t appear on that. This is why it was imperative that the Guardia Civil hit when they did because if they’d tried following them through the twisty-turny dealing that make up the antiquities market there’s a good chance they’d lose them.
To be honest I have trouble seeing them as art. They’re pretty ugly looking and I can’t imagine they’ll look that much more sexy when they get cleaned up. So why are they important? Well, they’re clearly of Dressel type mumble mumble. I don’t know much about amphorae shapes, but there are plenty of people who do. They’re categorised by their profile, known as their Dressel type after Heinrich Dressel who categorised various shapes of amphora and then worked out which shapes were popular when. A large number of amphorae gives you a large sample size and gives you a good chance of putting a date on the shipwreck.
It’s also important that the wreck is excavated properly because there’s a lot of other information there which looters wouldn’t be interested in. For instance ships commonly carried things like roof tile as ballast. Or did they? Recent work by Phil Mills suggests that a simple tile=ballast approach is naïve and that actually people were shipping tile because it had value, rather than just because it made the ship more stable at sea. If that’s the case the ballast in this ship might be interesting. It lies on the route from southern Spain to Rome. Was it just garum that the Romans wanted? What else is in the wreck? If it’s not valuable then there’s a good chance it’ll be lost if looters turn over the ship. The seizure is great news.
…and as I said there’ll be a test. Find out which museum fails it tomorrow.
Finding burials is not always easy. Bodies decay over time, and their visibility can vary for a number of reasons. One reason in particular is the wealth of the deceased. If you’re rich you can afford a very lavish and very visible burial. As a result our understanding of the past can be skewed in favour of the social élites. That’s one reason why archaeologists get so excited about large cemeteries. News is coming out of Italy of one such cemetery near Fiumicino airport. What has been found is a necropolis with around three hundred skeletons. What makes these special is that they’re the skeletons of the poor.
There’s various reasons why the Italian archaeologists think they were poor. The grave goods aren’t as plentiful as you get from the richer sites. In the tombs there are ceramic tankards, oil lamps and what remains of ancient shoes. There’s also around seventy coins, mainly of Trajan and Faustina, used to pay the ferryman Charon. The coins date the tombs to the early second century BC. The location may not have been as prestigious, this was down towards the ports of Rome, which played a vital role in connecting Rome with its empire. In Trajan’s period, Portus, a new port was being built to service Rome’s booming economy. Most tellingly, like the other poor people of the ancient world, their poverty is written into their bones. The correlation between poverty and deformity was recognised in the ancient world. Mark Steel has a nice line on it:
Aristotle wrote over 2,000 years ago, “It is nature’s intention to distinguish even the bodies of freemen and slaves. The latter are endowed with strength to suit their employment while the upright carriage of the former renders them unfit for servile work.”
So Ancient Greece was full of masters bursting to spend the day labouring but just not up to it with that upright carriage.
The Greeks in particular noticed that the aristrocracy were on the whole much better looking than the callous-handed labourers they employed and recognised cause and effect, just not in the right order.
The burials are mainly men. Anthropologist Paola Catalano estimates the ratio of men to women is around 3:1. Sexing skeletons is not always easy, but the preservation of bones in the sandy soil is a help. Additionally they’re also mainly adults, with many more adult burials than adolescent or juvenile burials. The skeletons are deformed due to the stress of work. They have stress fractures and crushed vertebrae, hernias and tendon inflammation. Don’t ask me how you spot the last two on a skeleton — I have no idea. The evidence is that these are the people who built Rome and made it what it was. The value of the site is that it is a one of the largest cemeteries excavated, and the grave goods can tell use what life was like for the average Roman, not only from what they have but also from what they lack.
At least that should be the case. Many versions of the news story overlook a detail mentioned in the Italian press.
Il Messaggero reports that the site was found following an investigation by the Guardia di Finanza, one of Italy’s many police forces, at Fiumicino. The police were involved in tracking down two tombaroli, grave robbers. A raid on thei homes revealed more evidence of pillaging and they are now chasing down a third individual who they think was involved. The material, if it had got to market, would have said little about Roman life. In an auction house they would have just been reduced to trinkets. No-one would know where they had came from or what they meant. As it is we will not know what was destroyed in ransacking the tombs. One of the most poignant finds would certainly have been trashed by the tombaroli if they had worked it over. To the right is a necklace found in a child’s tomb. The individual pieces wouldn’t make any sense at all and would be valueless, except in context with each other.
And that’s why context matters.
Excavations recently restarted at Herculaneum. Archaeologists promised some spectacular finds when they started and they already have one. The Soprintendenza di Pompei has announced the find of a Roman period throne built in wood and ivory. Previously this type of throne was only known from wall paintings. It’s usually rare to find anything wooden on an archaeological dig. Organic materials are quickly munched away by bacteria. The reason this throne survived is due to the way everything else in Herculaneum died.
Like Pompeii, Herculaneum was in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius — but it was a lot closer. When Vesuvius erupted ash was thrown into the air. Some of this fell on Pompeii. A lot fell back on Vesuvius itself causing a pyroclastic flow. A torrent of hot gas, ash and rock tumbled down the hillside and scorched everything in its path — including the inhabitants of Herculaneum. The estimated temperature is 400°C (about 750°F). Remains have been found which suggests that this was hot enough to almost instantly boil victims brains in their skulls. The organic materials, like wood, were carbonised and dried within a couple of seconds, sterilising them. Ash continued to fall until it was almost 25 metres (90 feet) deep, ensuring the town was locked in its own time capsule. In the photo here the fragment looks blackened, which suggests that it’s one of the carbonised finds.
This is why odd things have a habit of being found in Herculaneum. This throne was found in the Villa of the Papyri, which got its name from the 1700 or more papyri found there when the site was excavated. However, this throne is very odd — not just because it’s rare or high status. It also has unusual decoration. It has imagery related to the god Attis. Attis wasn’t your typical Roman god.
There’s surprising news today. Burials of around thirty Romans have been discovered. This would please an archaeologist anywhere, but the oddity is that they’ve been found in a suburb of Copenhagen, Denmark. My first reaction is that the translation is wrong, but the original text reads:
Arkæologer på hemmelig mission
Arkæologerne fra Kroppedal Museum har fundet en gammel romersk gravplads, men afslører ikke stedets geografiske placering, før de er færdige med udgravningerne.
With an online dictionary I get that as roughly:
Archaeologists on a clandestine mission
Archaeologists from Kroppedal Museum have found an ancient Roman graveyard, but will not reveal its location before finishing the excavation.
A follow-up to The Orientation of Roman Camps and Forts. This is an application of the Binomial Distribution test that I’m using in my own work applied to the data from the original paper, which is why you may have the impression you’ve already read this recently. My analysis may not be correct, so I’m putting it up on iScience and submitting that to Carnival of Mathematics and Tangled Bank to see if people think the maths is wrong. I’m also putting it up on Revise and Dissent where it will get submitted to the History Carnival and Four Stone Hearth to see if it’s intelligible and sounds reasonable to Historians and Archaeologists.
Roman Camps and their Orientations reconsidered.
There is currently a debate in the pages of the Oxford Journal of Archaeology on the orientations of Roman camps and forts. Richardson (2005:514–426) argues that the orientation of these camps is non-random and relied on some form of astronomical observation. He presents data which he argues supports his case. Recently Peterson (2007:103–108) has argued this relies on a flawed use of the Chi-squared test. I accept Peterson’s findings that Chi-squared is not a useful method. However examining the camps as a binomial distribution would be feasible and would make explicit the archaeological and astronomical assumptions made in the argument.
What is a Roman Camp?
The sites being examined are Roman camps and forts in England. One of the major advantages that the Roman army had over the native opposition when occupying new territory was their organisation. The Roman army was effectively a professional army taking on amateurs. Their camps reflect this organisation. Typically their early camps a ditch surrounded by a bank in a playing-card shape. They followed a set design. The rationale for this was if there were attacked by surprise equipment and people would be in the same place at each camp, minimising the effects of the surprise.
A Roman fort at Wallsend. Photo from Google Earth
The ancient sources give some detail on how to lay out a Roman camp. The main gate should face the enemy, or the line of advance (Vegetius 1.23, Hyginus 56). The rear gate should be on the higher ground to aid surveillance. Sites overlooked by hills were considered a bad idea, as were sites near woodlands which would allow the enemy to sneak up on the camp. The basic layout of the camp could be set up quickly by surveyors using gromae, surveying tools for laying out lines at right angles. Hyginus (chapter 12) states that you set up your groma at the junction at the centre of the camp and lay out your roads to the gates from there.
This would appear to be an efficient method of laying out a camp. Were observations to orientate the camp also part of the method? It doesn’t seem necessary, but Richardson (415,422–23) provides quotes from ancient sources which suggest this is plausible hypothesis in some circumstances.
The only reason I got Pompeii: The Living City by Alex Butterworth and Ray Laurence is that I know Ray Laurence is one of those lecturers who can make make even the most tedious subjects interesting. Otherwise I tend not to go for Pompeii books or television because a lot of it is what Dana Stevens has called disaster porn. The fate of the city does overshadow this book, but the subtitle tells you what is so great about the book. It’s not one long dirge of “Oh my! They’re all GOING TO DIE!!!” The volcano plays a strong part in the book, but it shows how the preservation of the site enables Pompeii scholars to be able to piece together everyday life in the city, even to the extent of being able to follow prostitutes around the city. Butterworth and Laurence have to an extent done this by writing a book that combines reconstruction with historical analysis.
This leads to a narrative problem which wouldn’t have occurred to me. The reader knows it’s going to end very badly. This will be in their mind as they read the book, but how can you acknowledge that without having people in the book say that the volcano looks dangerous? It’s a particular problem because one of the shocks of Pompeii is that the Romans thought Vesuvius was an extinct volcano. Fortunately the authors have a very convincing villain in the form of Nero who was Emperor for a lot of the period prior to the eruption.
They say Hadrian’s Wall is in a region where you can experience all four seasons in one day. Here are four from my recent daytrip on April 9.
Blackwell’s have made an issue of the Oxford Journal for Archaeology accessible to the public. This is a particularly good one for me as it includes a paper by A. Richardson, The Orientation of Roman Camps and Forts. In some ways it’s slightly annoying as it was something I planned to look at after completing my thesis, but it’s a good illustration of work that could be done by anyone with an interest in ancient astronomy.