Thought-Pourri: Childhood Fantasy Edition

When I was a child, I wanted to grow up to be many things. From policeman to paleontologist, superhero to symphony conductor, it was possible to imagine being all of these things simultaneously even though, practically speaking, such a combination of professions was always going to be impossible. For many, the abandonment of childhood dreams such as these becomes a cause for sadness and disappointment, perhaps even a source of residual bitterness throughout life, because things rarely turn out quite the way we had hoped when we were small.

Yet just because you’re never going to be something like an archaeologist – one of my other fantasy professions – doesn’t mean that your sense of wonder and excitement regarding archaeology has to be put away, left behind to collect dust in some forgotten corner of your mind. In fact, I find that as I grow older, the things which I loved as a child possessed of a very active imagination are the things which still fascinate me today. True, I may never get to find the remains of some undiscovered Egyptian tomb or what really happened to the Roanoke colonists, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t take pleasure in the efforts of those who do manage to go out and do these things.

So although this week’s news roundup is not, strictly speaking, about art, nevertheless I want to encourage you both to read these interesting stories about recent archaeological finds dating from the 1st century AD, and also to think about what it is that you have pushed to the side in your brain, as the concerns of life and work have become more pressing: perhaps they are worth rediscovering.

Building Bath

The English city of Bath, originally a sacred site for the Celts thanks to its hot springs and mineral-rich waters, really took off architecturally speaking when it became a Roman spa resort town known as Aquae Sulis; visitors to the spot can enjoy some of the most extensive Roman ruins in Britian, as well as a wealth of Medieval, Georgian, and Victorian architecture. Recently, a volunteer with the local archaeological society uncovered what are probably the very first mosaic floor tiles plunked down by the Romans in Bath during the 1st century AD, not long after the Emperor Claudius invaded Britain and began to establish colonies on the island. While the mosaics themselves are not particularly impressive, I think the takeaway here is about how average people, who are interested in subjects like art, history, architecture, and the like, can make a significant contribution to our understanding of these subjects. Don’t assume that you have to have a PhD in something in order to be able to make a difference.


Stormy Spain

Another group of locals, this time in Spain, have helped archaeologists recover Roman ruins from roughly the same period as the newly-discovered Bath mosaics. Last week, an unusually powerful storm revealed the remains of a long-lost Roman aqueduct in Cádiz, in southern Spain; residents out walking on the beach after the storm had passed spotted the ruins, and had the sense to immediately contact local authorities to come out and survey the discoveries. Once one of the largest engineering projects in the Roman Empire, the Aqueduct of Cádiz was built in the 1st century AD to carry fresh water from springs on the Spanish mainland across the bay to what was then an island, where present-day Cádiz was founded some 3,000 years ago, (supposedly) by the legendary Hercules. Amazingly, despite being submerged under sea water for centuries, parts of the structure are still held together by their original mortar.


Seeing Saudi Arabia

In an ongoing effort to change outside perceptions of his country, Crown Prince Mohammed of Saudi Arabia, who supposedly helped to bring about the acquisition of Leonardo’s “Salvator Mundi” for the new Louvre Abu Dhabi, may be making a fascinating archeological site more accessible to researchers and visitors. In today’s edition of The Art Newspaper, Anna Somers Cocks describes her visit to the ancient city of Hegra, modern-day Mada’in Saleh, a UNESCO World Heritage site which sits in the NW Arabian desert about 250 miles from the city of Medina. It was founded in the 1st century AD by the Nabateans, whose rich and bizarre architecture – a mixture of Greek, Roman, Persian, and other influences – will be known to you from “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”: the climactic final scenes were shot in the ancient Nabatean city of Petra in modern Jordan. The Saudis want to invest in drawing more interest and visitors to the remote archaeological site, and as there are well over 100 monumental tombs which need to be fully excavated and studied, such a project would likely keep scientists occupied and tourists enthralled for decades.



Coffee With Caligula: Ancient Roman Artifact Rediscovered In New York Apartment

An interesting story that has been making the rounds in the art and archaeology press of late has been the rediscovery, inside a Park Avenue apartment, of a mosaic from one of the ships built for the Roman Emperor Caligula in the 1st century AD. Caligula had luxurious pleasure craft for the use of himself and his entourage when he visited the imperial villa located on Lake Nemi a small resort town about 20 miles south of Rome, which were covered in statuary, mosaics, and other fine materials. It turns out that this particular floor section went missing sometime around World War II, and ended up in an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where it had been converted into the top for a coffee table. The owner of the piece has – understandably reluctantly – returned it to Italian authorities, and you can read more about the unusual circumstances involved in this story here.


Caligula was a bit of a nut, as you probably remember from your World History class, who succeeded his Great-Uncle Tiberius to the Imperial Roman throne. Among other bizarre acts best not shared here, he infamously made his horse a Inciatus a priest, and was considering making him a Roman Consul, as well. Following his assassination by the Praetorian Guard, he was succeeded by his uncle Claudius, whose fictionalized two-volume autobiography by Robert Graves – “I, Claudius” and “Claudius the God” – is not only an absolute page-turner, but also the basis for one of the most engrossing TV miniseries ever produced. If you’ve not seen it, you definitely need to make that a priority at some point.

At Lake Nemi, Caligula had more to do than simply float about all day, soaking up the sun. The imperial family owned at least one villa by the lake shore, and could take excursions to interesting sites around the perimeter. I’ve always been particularly fascinated by one of these locations, the Temple of Diana Nemorensis, which is located on the north end of the lake. Although it no longer exists, it was a very ancient site of pagan worship, dating back at least to at least the 4th century BC, and had a rather bizarre ritual associated with it, which will call to mind a scene from “Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade” involving Indy and the ancient crusader.

The presiding priest at the Temple of Diana Nemorensis was known as the Rex (“King”) Nemorensis, and held that position against all comers only for so long as he could best those who would seek to supplant him in physical combat. If a sitting occupant was killed, then the man who bested him would become the new Rex Nemorensis. By long-standing tradition, only runaway slaves were eligible to compete for the position.


Not only did Caligula allow this practice to continue during his reign, but there are stories that he enjoyed watching the ritual take place. In fact, so much did he enjoy this rather gruesome day trip whenever he was in town, that according to the Roman historian Suetonius the emperor once sent one of his own slaves to fight the sitting Rex Nemorensis, since Caligula felt that the current priest-king had held his position for too long. There’s no word on who won, but no doubt both men, in their way, were going to lose, whatever the outcome.

You can see some of the remains of Caligula’s ships at a museum located near Lake Nemi today. There are many interesting objects that were once part of these vessels, but my personal favorites are the bronze animal heads – including lions, wild boar, and panthers – with rings in their mouths, which were used to help tow the boats around the lake (they could float but were too heavy to properly row or sail.) Presumably, the coffee table fit for an emperor will soon be rejoining them.


TBT: Ancient Edition

As curated link posts have been the thing of late, and I received a number of positive comments in response to my most recent iteration of same, here are a few topics that have piqued my interest in the area of ancient art over the last few days:

More Problems At The Met

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York continues to reel from one disaster to another of late. The latest kerfuffle involves two works from antiquity which the museum has had to hand over to authorities. On Monday, the news leaked that the Manhattan District Attorney had seized a magnificent Greek vase decorated with scenes of Dionysus from the 4th century BC, which had been on display at The Met since 1989. Authorities believe the object was looted from a tomb sometime in the 1970’s.

The following day it was revealed that, a month earlier, the Manhattan D.A. had also seized another object of Ancient Greek origin from The Met. This time the art in question was a fragmentary Greek marble sculpture of a bull’s head, which may have been looted from Lebanon during the long civil war which that country suffered through for much of the 1980’s. The sculpture was on long-term loan to The Met from collectors in Colorado, who have unwittingly been drawn into an international dispute while ownership of the sculpture is sorted out.

Bulgarian Baptism

Archaeologists have recently discovered an ancient baptismal font dating from around the 5th century A.D. at a dig in the very ancient city of Plovdiv – at one time it was known as Philippopolis, a wealthy and luxurious town named for the father of Alexander the Great. The font was donated by a Bishop Makedonii to the Christian basilica which once stood on the site, and which seems to have been the largest Christian church in the country at one time. The city was burned to the ground by the Huns in the mid-5th century, so this new basilica replaced the old one, remnants of which have also been found. You can see the font, as well as the magnificent mosaic floors of the church, by following the link.

France’s “Little Pompeii”

Meanwhile in France, the excavation of a new housing construction site in Sainte-Columbe, a town outside the city of modern-day Vienne, has uncovered the most important archaeological site to be found in that country in the last 50 years. A series of houses and public buildings dating from the time of Christ are being excavated, and because so much of it is well-preserved, archaeologists are referring to it as a “Little Pompeii”. It is believed that a series of fires eventually caused the residents to abandon the town and move elsewhere, but as in any disaster scenario it means that many things were left behind, as-is. While the beautiful mosaic floors will be moved to a nearby museum, scientists may be able to reconstruct what one of the houses looked like, from top to bottom, since during the blaze it collapsed on itself like a stack of cards.

A Brassiere Fit For A Queen

Finally, there are lots of interesting stories about the Queen of late – such as this piece about the sort of tipple which she enjoys at various times of day – but this one is quite something. In 1953, on the occasion of the Queen’s coronation, the then-President of Panama sent a rather unusual gift: a large gold Pre-Columbian-style breastplate. It’s something that Queen Boadicea or even Wonder Woman would appreciate, but I don’t imagine HM tried it on for size when she received it.

For unknown reasons it went into storage and was forgotten about, until curators sorting through the royal basements and attics came across it, and realized its significance. Although originally dated to sometime around 1300, experts now believe that the piece could date from as early as 700 A.D. If you happen to be in London, you can toddle along to see it in the “Royal Gifts” exhibition, taking place at Buck House now through January 10th.