The Lunt


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 I’ve also found out the ver­sion of Photomatix I was using to develop my pho­tos was out-of-date.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.

Spanish police seize looted amphorae (pay attention, there will be a test)


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.

Seized Amphorae
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.

Why context matters


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.

More Reading:
Il Messaggero
ANSA (English)

A throne for a brave man found in Herculaneum


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.
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Roman graveyard (almost) found in Copenhagen

This is how badly I need to learn a Scandinavian language
This shows how little I under­stand the ori­ginal news story.

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.

It’s a shame to lose the pussy­cat, but the finds seem fas­cin­at­ing.
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Roman Camps and Orientations


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.

Wallsend fort
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.
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