Friday, 11 July 2014

A trip to Coventry - 'Roman Empire: Power and People'

The latest British Museum touring exhibition doing the rounds is currently residing at the Herbert in Coventry, and having failed to make it down to Norwich to see it at its previous venue, I was very pleased to be able to head across this evening to not only look around the exhibition, but also attend a very good lecture on Roman numismatics, of which more later.

I have to start with a tiny grumble, though not one that the Herbert has any control over.  Its something that afflicts every BM touring exhibition - a ban on gallery photography.  I get why some exhibitions have copyright problems, but the archaeology in this show doesn't suffer from this hindrance.  Likewise, some material is susceptible to light damage, but only allowing non-flash photography is now standard in most institutions.  There are no photographic restrictions when the objects are on display in the BM or in their local galleries, so why the change in policy when they are part of a formal exhibition like this?  It feels like such a backward step when we should be encouraging people to share their gallery experiences and promote the subject in the process.

But enough with the grumbles as the exhibition is very good, and strikes a lovely balance between BM material (British and international in nature) and local material.  This is a nice parallel with the study of Roman archaeology in general, which can vary hugely in scale between the truly classical and international and the incredibly local picture encountered in the different parts of Roman Britain.  A particularly nice example of this was the film of the Herbert's archaeology curator, Paul Thompson, teleporting around the Midlands to talk about local sites, which I really enjoyed.

Some of the objects on show are wonderful, and the selection for a touring show is adventurous.  Items like the gilded bronze Hercules from Birdoswald, the stone carving of Horus in armour, the flourite 'Crawford Cup', and the variety of fine marble tomb monuments and altars are objects of the highest quality and benefit from the detailed attention they are given.  Also to be lauded is the decision to place so many of them on open display.  The lack of a pane of glass between viewer and object, as we all know, enhances the experience immensely.

On a more local level, it was an unexpected thrill to see items such as the Mars rider figurine from Norton Disney and a votive plaque with Vulcan from the famous Barkway hoard - both items I only knew from photographs and had not expected to come face to face with during my visit.  I was also very happy to see the coins and pot from the Selby coin hoard, which I have previously blogged about because of the funky science used to examine it.

One area where photography was allowed was a neat section where visitors can step into a Roman coin and become the Imperial portrait of Constantius Chlorus, father of Constantine the Great.

The second element of the trip was a very enjoyable evening lecture by Dr Clare Rowan of Warwick University.  Her topic was 'Coinage and Communication in the Roman Empire', which she tackled with palpable enthusiasm, keeping a good balance between the development of Roman coinage and its myriad imagery and social contexts.  Her blog on Roman numismatics can be seen here, and is well worth checking out.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Derbyshire's Corieltavian cave coin cache

There has been a lot of media buzz recently over the discovery of a small hoard of 26 coins at Reynard's Cave at Dovedale in Derbyshire. The excitement has even spread to Lincolnshire (part of the Corieltavian heartlands) and I spent a while on the phone with the Lincolnshire Echo this afternoon discussing the finer points of our understanding of the Iron Age and why this find is significant to us.

Leaving aside the rather unusual find spot for the moment, the first thing that makes the hoard significant is the fact that of the 26 coins, 23 are examples of the later Iron Age inscribed coins of the Corieltavi, but 3 are Roman Republican silver denarii.  One of the holy grails of late Iron Age archaeology is concrete evidence of material and cultural relationships between Britain and the Roman Empire prior to the invasion of AD43.  The presence of pre-invasion coinage included with material of Iron Age date (as was discovered at the incredible shrine site at Hallaton in Leicestershire) always offers this exciting possibility.  The problem lies in the fact that Republican denarii, due to their silver content, circulated for a long time and can still be found in 2nd Century AD contexts.  It will therefore be interesting to see when these coins were minted (denarii began to be produced in 211BC) and how worn they are.  Iron Age coins fell out of production very soon after the Roman invasion, however, so there does seem to be a good chance that the hoard dates at the very least to the time of the invasion.

The second thing of interest is that the coins are Corieltavian, when Derbyshire was part of the tribal area of the neighbouring Brigantes.  This in itself shouldn't surprise us too much, as Corieltavian coins are often found in Yorkshire - indeed, it used to be thought that they were made by the Brigantes, with only 20th Century scholarship proving their East Midlands manufacture.  Nevertheless, the hoard is indicative of the fact that this group of Corieltavian coins had been obtained by a Brigantian, perhaps as part of a trade agreement, as payment for a service or as part of a gift exchange to seal an alliance.

Finally, we turn to the cave itself.  The finder apparently was sheltering from the rain in the cave and happened to have a small metal detector with him, which he used on the floor and found the first few coins.  This then led to an excavation which uncovered the rest.  The excavation is worth noting, as it was carried out using personnel from Operation Nightingale - a wonderful scheme to get wounded servicemen and women into archaeological fieldwork.  Its a great scheme and it seems like the thrill of archaeological discovery will long remain with those involved.  But why were the coins buried in a cave in the first place?  It may simply have been seen as a safe location, but there remains the possibility that the cave was a sanctuary of some sort, and the protection of more spiritual inhabitants of that dark and secluded place may have been sought.  Of course, 'ritual' is a dirty word in archaeology and such theories of sacred caves remain completely baseless without more evidence to support them.

The hoard is currently going through the treasure process, and will hopefully be acquired by Buxton Museum.  I for one can't wait to head across for a look at them in due course, and to see the results of the identification work on them which is only just beginning, and will hopefully begin to answer some of the questions we still have about how and when the hoard was constructed and deposited.

Monday, 30 June 2014

A mythological interpretation puzzle - a Greek mirror with the Judgement of Paris?

In the archaeological collections I curate is a Greek bronze mirror.  Its provenance is sadly unknown, it simply being brought back from journeys to Greece and Italy by its collector along with numerous other relatively minor antiquities in the later 19th Century.

It is of interest for the image engraved on its surface.  Traditionally interpreted as the 'Judgement of Paris', a closer look at the imagery makes me question that interpretation, but I'm at a loss as to what another interpretation might be.

The story of the 'Judgement of Paris' is a well known one.  It occurs at the wedding feast of Peleus and Thetis (the parents of Achilles), to which all of the Olympian deities had been invited except Eris, Goddess of Discord.  True to her name, to gain revenge she cast a golden apple into the crowd addressed 'to the fairest'.  This of course caused havoc among the assembled deities, with Hera, Aphrodite and Athena all claiming the apple and the title that came with it.

Zeus was asked to mediate and, in a somewhat cowardly move, delegated the impossible task to Paris, prince of Troy.  Each of the goddesses appeared before Paris, who was tending sheep at the time, and offered him a bribe in return for naming her the victor.  Hera promised him an empire, while Athena offered him victory in battle and supreme wisdom.  Aphrodite's bribe was to give him the most beautiful woman in the world, and it was this promise that swayed Paris to proclaim Aphrodite the winner.  Of course, the woman in question was Helen, wife of Menelaos, and Paris' subsequent abduction of her ended rather badly for Troy.

The famous scene of judgement, with each of the goddesses standing before Paris, has been depicted in art many times, and has been an extremely popular subject with painters from the Renaissance to the modern day.

The classic depiction is as seen on the Athenian jar below, in the collections of the British Museum and dating to c.470BC.  In it, Paris is seated on the right and the three Goddesses line up to offer him their bribes.  Nearest to him is Hera, then Athena, and finally a veiled and modest-looking Aphrodite.  Each goddess is identifiable via their attributes.

So what is the image on our mirror, and how does it differ from this typical depiction?  Here is the mirror with the image outlined.

The medium - engraving onto bronze - means that a certain amount of subtlety in the design is lost, but the four figures are clearly shown.  The central figure is female, and has a small amount of drapery wrapped around her legs.  To the right is a seated male figure, naked apart from a Phrygian cap.  The the left are two more figures, one seated and one standing with only head visible.  The seated figure appears to be male and both wear the same Phrygian caps as the figure on the right.

The Phrygian cap is often associated with Paris, but he is more usually depicted as a shepherd, with animals beside him, and wearing a baggy tunic and trousers.

So what scene do we actually have here?  Three males with Phrygian caps surrounding and all paying attention to the central female figure.  She has her body turned towards the right hand seated figure, but her head turned towards the two left hand figures.

Is this a version of the Judgement of Paris after all?  If so who are the other two figures in place of Aphrodite and Athena?  Or is this actually a representation of a completely different mythological episode - if so, all suggestions gratefully received!

Sunday, 29 June 2014

A mosaic montage part 3 - Lullingstone Roman villa

The third and final instalment of Roman mosaic related goodness from my recent trip down south takes us to Lullingstone villa, just south east of London.  You can catch up with my previous looks at Fishbourne Palace and Bignor villa by following these links.

Lullingstone is an English Heritage site, discovered during excavations beginning in 1949, and located down one of the longest, windiest and most poorly signposted roads I have ever encountered.  Still, good archaeology is rarely located in the most convenient locations.

The villa is contained within a large building, just as Fishbourne and Bignor are.  While this is undoubtedly a vital element of the site conservation, I have to admit that it does serve to detach the site from its landscape somewhat and serves to disorientate the visitor as to which direction they are facing, and how the original structures relate to each other.  On the flip side, however, it does allow for museum displays to be positioned around the edges of the actual remains and related to them, and for a wonderful high level view of the remains to be obtained.  Swings and roundabouts I suppose.

Lullingstone is a very compact villa, with a tightly packed suite of rooms clustered together, and which developed from its origins between c.AD100-150 to its heyday in the years following AD360.  One thing I have to say about the images below is that its amazing how overpowering the green lighting on the remains appears.  I don't remember it looking that strong on site!

The displays surrounding the physical remains are well set out in terms of explaining the development of the villa, its wider context and displaying a nice variety of finds from the site.  There are also a very neat and colourful selection of cartoons to accompany the displays.  Although aimed at kids, I confessed I enjoyed looking at them too!

I haven't mentioned mosaics yet, of course, and truth be told, Lullingstone only has one surviving pavement.  Thankfully, its a fantastic one!  Located in a central position in the house, the pavement covers both a reception room and an apsidal dining room.  The element of the mosaic in the reception room features a large and slightly random assemblage of geometric borders and panels, but centres around a square with the four seasons and a feature image of the hero Bellerophon.  In the image, Bellerophon is riding Pegasus, and is spearing a fire breathing Chimaera.

The dining room apse contains the most famous element of the pavement - the image of Europa being abducted by Jupiter in the guise of a bull.  This element of the pavement is also a fine example of a mosaic clearly designed to sit in the centre of a triclinium - the classical Roman dining furniture.

In the myth, Europa was a Phoenician woman with whom Jupiter became infatuated.  To ensnare her, he (rather bizarrely) turned himself into a white bull and hid with her father's herd.  When tending the cows she noticed the fine, white bull, and as she stroked it, it picked her up on its back and whisked her away to Crete.  There Jupiter revealed his true identity and Europa became Queen of Crete.  Honestly, what's the point of being the universe's most powerful deity if you have to go to such lengths just to get some mortal girl?  The mosaic shows the pair as they are flying across the ocean (yep, it was a flying bull), its hooves dipping into the water, and the near naked Europa clearly enjoying the ride and the sea wind whistling through her hair.

The scene is enhanced by the Latin script above it, which reads:


This translates as 'If jealous Juno had seen the swimming of the bull more justly would she had gone to the halls of Aeolus'.  This is an allusion to Virgil's Aeneid, when Juno went to Aeolus (the ruler of the winds) to get him to hinder Aeneas on his travels.  The reference here is that she should have been more concerned with her husband's ludicrous schemes to abduct mortal women!  Its a lovely classical reference, and clearly designed to be a talking point for the well-educated diners reclining around the pavement.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

A mosaic montage part 2 - Bignor Roman villa

This is the second of three posts looking at the mosaics at some of the sites I visited on a recent trip to southern England.  The first was about Fishbourne Palace and can be seen here.  This time, its Bignor Roman villa in the spotlight.

Bignor is an independently managed site, fascinatingly still owned and operated by the descendants of the man who discovered the villa in 1811 - George Tupper, who began showing visitors around the site as early as 1814.  Bignor, then, is as old a heritage attraction as you'll find anywhere.

The development of the site is fairly typical for this type of rural complex.  There is some evidence of later 1st Century occupation, but the first substantial stone building on the site wasn't constructed until the 3rd Century.  This was rebuilt and expanded upon during the later 3rd and 4th Centuries until it reached its peak as a full courtyard villa -  a central garden enclosed by suites of rooms on all sides.

The first mosaic that George Tupper discovered was one of the finest in the entire complex, and one of two tessellated pavements that Bignor is now most famous for - the Ganymede pavement.  Believed to be the floor of a dining room, the pavement features a roundel with the boy Ganymede being abducted by Jupiter in the guise of an eagle (more of that story in a moment), with a hexagonal piscina to the side, itself surrounded by 6 maenads.

Ganymede was a Trojan shepherd who, because of his beauty, was abducted by Jupiter to become the cup bearer of the gods.  Jupiter did this in the form of an eagle (just one of Jupiter's many animal disguises), and the scene here shows Ganymede being lifted away, and he almost seems to be waving goodbye to his mortal life.  Ganymede has become a symbol for homosexual love, particularly that between an older man and a younger boy - something rather prevalent in the classical world.  The reference to drinking and merriment is continued with the inclusion of the dancing maenads around the piscina - they were the female followers of Bacchus, god of wine and revelry.  The subject of the mosaic would definitely suggest that the room was intended to be used for eating, drinking and the entertaining of guests.

Ganymede is a common and easily identifiable character in classical art.  Just for the sake of it, here he is in a photo I took at Naples Museum, sharing an intimate gaze with Jupiter.

Bignor's other superstar mosaic is the 'Venus and the Gladiators' pavement, probably the floor of a winter dining room, built as it was over a hypocaust.  

The collapse of the main section of the mosaic, which provides a wonderful view of the hypocaust structure, has sadly made it difficult to interpret the floor as a whole, as the crucial central image has been completely lost.

The mosaic contains a great variety of imagery, but it is the apse at one end that gives it its name, bearing as it does a portrait of a female in a roundel, with a long panel beneath featuring cupids acting as gladiators.  The female portrait is most commonly associated with Venus, but the identification is not entirely secure, and definite attributes of the goddess are lacking.  It remains a possibility that the figure is in fact mortal.

The panel with the cupids stands as one of the most recognisable and characterful elements of any surviving mosaic in Britain.  A series of scenes portray the story of a gladiatorial contest between a retiarius (a net man) and a heavily armoured secutor. The final scene shows that the secutor emerged the victor.

Aside from these two outstanding keynotes, the villa possesses a wonderful array of other pavements, including one that may possibly bear a maker's name (the letters 'TER' above a dolphin perhaps being short for Terentius) and an amazingly long corridor mosaic, currently the longest on display in Britain (though the now lost corridor from Greetwell villa, just east of Lincoln is just one that is believed from drawings to have been even longer).

Away from the main building, though originally part of another wing of the house, can be seen the slight remains of the bath house and yet another mosaic, this time a Medusa with wonderfully wavy snakes in her hair.  As this was situated in the changing rooms, I wonder if people avoided treading on her to avoid bad luck?