Ciao from Italy!

Ciao from Italy! I did it, I took the jump and I was super brave. I am writing from my comfy little studio flat (con balcony) in Pompei Santuario, the lovely modern version of the Pompeii we all know (and I love!) and the people here are just are lovely. As I write the noise of shouting Italians from the nearby cafe floats into the apartment. A chatting Italian family upstairs can also be heard and finally the children who play in the street seem to have gone to bed. Notoriously I’m not a big lover of noise but this is something different. In fact, when it goes quiet her, it doesn’t feel right. You can’t go anywhere, on a train, to a shop, to a bar, without someone chatting to you. The other day while having a beer after a day of laying out trenches I was. Named ‘Bellisima’ by an old Italian lady. “Belisima! Belisima!” She’d call and wave. Then she’d tell me many nice things in Italian about life. I got some jists but frankly hadn’t a clue really. On her leaving of the square, which by the way is particularly beautiful, lousiest and green and hugged by the looming sight of the cathedral, she gave me a white rose. That was lovely. The next day a small girl at a train station gave me ‘molti fiori’ (another girl tried to say in Italian what this meant – many flowers). It was very sweet. One by one she would give them to me. So far I have:

  • Taken my first solo flight!
  • Stayed in an apartment on my own for the first time
  • Revisited Pompeii Scavi on my day of arrival 
  • Been on site at my first ever archaelogy all dig/project 
  • Revisited the beautiful Sorrento and sunbathed in the harbour with a beer
  • Eaten my first dinner alone at a restaurant (at lunch and in the street so not so scary)
  • Revisited Herculaneum (today)
  • Taken a trip to the top of Vesuvius (amazing, and also today)
  • Learnt a little bit of Italian along the way (so far)
  • Been bitten sooo many times by mosquitos 

SO many firsts, and I’m feeling rather proud of myself, like a puffed up little bird!

I have so many pictures, so many stories, but they will have to come later when I am not so tired. Tomorrow I am going on a proper tour guide group thing to Amalfi and Positsno from Sorrento. Or, if that doesn’t work out, I’ll grab a bed for a tenner and sunbathe by the sea in the harbour again. Both sound pretty marvellous to me. After tomorrow it’s back to the trenches (literally, these are the marked out areas for excavating at archaeological sites!) until I leave on Friday. Not bad for a volunteering stint!

Here goes nothing..!

Even before Christmas I had been planning to leave my current career of three and something years to follow my dreams; by no means was it an easy decision. The thought of changing paths encompassed every day until I was tired of the idea of it. I’d played with the thought many times but, on receiving a Distinction for my MA in Classical Civilisation at Birkbeck, I took it as a sign to move on. Time has a habit of moving quickly and I didn’t want to still be in the same position in a few years time. So I set about putting things in place for the summer and quit my job! It was bittersweet; exhilarating and scary all at the same time. I’d made so many strong friends at work and it was mostly now the main body of my social life; we drank at least three times a week together, and that was usually on a light week.

I’ve had a lot of mixed responses to my decision to swap my full-time job and security for complete uncertainty. Well, almost complete. Everyone has had positive responses, but mostly the guys have teased me about my choice of ‘digging’ for a career (media is very ‘lad’ and banter heavy!) “Why do you want to just dig up pots for a living?!” they would ask in incredulity. This was of course not what I was going to do but I went along with the joke anyway, creating fictional stereotypical archaeologist characters for my future friends, such as Babs who wears a fleece and likes a good cuppa.

Many have struggled to understand the point of what I want to do. “Hasn’t everything been found already?” Again this is a massive misconception; the possibilities, avenues and discoveries to be had in ancient history are endless; this is part of its charm for me. I once said I am doing it to make a difference and do something that will be remembered (I had in mind my goals of being published etc.) and this was met with utter disbelief. “Yeah because everyone needs to know about Roman gardens. That’ll really make a difference.”

In answer I could easily attack the media industry that I have honestly grown to love. It is vibrant, full of young people with ambition and gumption, creative and idea-driven. However, it is ultimately a disposable industry. Nobody enjoys adverts. In fact, if I had heard one more self-important speaker at a conference exclaim how wonderful consumers find their latest ‘disruptive’ advert, how it has changed their lives and, without their realising, made them act… just give me a pillow to scream into now. People today have been driven into the ground with consumerism and messages shouting in their faces (see my blog post on The American Dream? for America’s take on this). Really they want something to belong to, an identity. Why else are memes so important? Points of similarity and our abilities to identify these are what makes us human. History in many ways can provide some of the answers to these gaping holes in our capitalist lifestyles.

History not only builds our collective identity but also our sense of belonging. It reminds us that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves. It is a world of infinite possibility, discovery and stories. Is is our past, present and future. Now why wouldn’t I want to be a part of that?

My boyfriend in the present, my parents in the past and the nature of my own upbringing have given me the courage to take the biggest step of my life into the unknown. I cannot thank the people who have been integral in getting me to where I am now.  Today is my fifth from last day in work- here goes nothing!

The American Dream?

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The American Dream

This year I will be visiting America for the very first time. That’s right, and I’ve never even been out of Europe. I feel extremely privileged to finally be visiting the land of Uncle Sam, of stars and stripes and dreams. Since its conception in 1776, the US has had its fair share of ups and downs in its small history. A timeline in the exhibition showed the events of the last 50 years and boy, has there been some notable moments! However, America has always held a reluctant air of mystery for myself. While Britain is by no means innocent, vices related to consumerism, vanity, greed, wrath and pride; with Trump this doesn’t appear to be improving. Warhol nailed it in a quote that greets you on the way in and immediately encapsulated the ‘idea’ of America:

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Andy Warhol is a genius

It’s funny but reading this I almost felt less of a fraud visiting an exhibition about a country I have never even been to. However, I have, like all of us, encountered it, and frequently. Let’s move on.

I met Marilyn next, and Warhol’s Electric Chair, both haunting in their own way. The colours almost mocked the nature of the subject, the repetition only emphasising the loss attached to both; Marilyn’s reflected her overwhelming fame and suffocating life in the spotlight, while the Electric Chair, by his own admission, became less shocking the more you saw it. Marilyn still epitomises the issue with fame and the chair demonstrates still the numbing quality of death in society today… or so I saw it.

The next artwork almost confirmed my suspicions with the last two. An outrageous collaboration of drastic scenes against the mundane by Rosenquist; a beach umbrella sheltering us from an atomic bomb, a shattered lightbulb, a girl having her hair dried with a bomb cone… it was absurd but perfect.

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James Rosenquist

Of course I then came across some Roy Lichtenstein; I’d have been disappointed if I hadn’t. His work reminded me of the media’s coverage of wars, trivialised and told to us as stories almost fictional.

After this the featured image on all promotion of the exhibition, the work of Jasper Johns. I enjoyed his techniques in layering colours over one another.

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Jasper John

More Rauschenburg met me around the corner, followed by Jim Dine’s unnerving self-portraits (typically a bathrobe with no head!) Alex Katz’s self-portrait was important, I feel. It was tucked away in a corner but was one of the main images that made me stop and think. Now, this is Pocket Rome, so I had to give Rome a mention at some point! Faces have been so important in history for communicating the identities of nations; it is still happening now. As humans we identify with faces and their use in media can be anything from aspirational to intimidating to propagandist (think Roman coins and statues of rulers).

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Alex Katz

Katz wanted to intimidate the viewer with a man “smiling in your face” rather aggressively. He demonstrates the wrong with America, the commercialism, the vanity, the focus on the ‘perfect image’. His perfect white teeth, tanned skin, trimmed eyebrows, hair stuck in one place; we all know people like this and often we know the smile isn’t real. Deep!

Richard Estes presented four poster images of shop fronts; these are exactly the image I have of America, and I was reminded once again of the Warhol quote at the start of the exhibition.

Andy Warhol did of course continue to pop up; I particularly enjoyed his Chairman Mao and Vote McGovern. The colours were gorgeous and it was strange to see them in this way.

Later I was pleased to at last see a classically influenced piece of work by Dotty Attie. It was weird and beautiful and altogether unnerving. Undertones of incest become more apparent when you witness Attie’s own breakdown in to smaller cards of the image. She has captioned each one, emphasising elements such as Cupid’s fingers on his mother’s nipple, or accentuating their nakedness. This strange image stood out against the others of colour and modernity.

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Dotty Attie’s Venus and Cupid

One of the last images I saw, and that I shall finish on here, I think captures the tone of the last year in the US:

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Mel Bochner

Haven’t we all. To be fair though, despite the undertones of civil strife and distaste for the higher orders, race wars, gender wars, foreign wars, America is one amazingly diverse and interesting place. And I for one cannot wait to visit it for myself.

What the Meroe Head of Augustus and Napoleon have in common

Last night I took a trip to my most favourite building in the world, the British Museum, with my partner. I was going for one special reason, to see the Meroe Head in its own special room; I had of course seen the head before but this time it was being viewed in a new light, allowing visitors to understand the head in its bigger context and history. Before going to see the head of Augustus, we took a stroll over to Room 90 to visit Bonaparte.

Now, it is well known that Napoleon Bonaparte took a shine, like many before and after him, to the prominence of the Roman empire, and in particular the figure of Augustus as an image to base himself on. When I walked into exibition, however, I was amazed to see a head figured very much like the Meroe Head itself.

Bonaparte  Meroe Head

Just look at that face, the gaze, that pose, the hair alone… It has Augustus, shown on the right (the Meroe Head), written all over it. To top this all off, written in Greek around the bottom of the bust, at the bottom of the pillar, is a passage from the Odyssey. Both heads would have been used to disseminate the idealised images of each empire’s rulers.

The similarities don’t stop there; both Augustus and Napoleon were creators and leaders of empires, created out of civil unrest and great violence, both abandoning republican politics for authoritarian rule. However, indisputably Augustus’ rule extended far beyond that of Napoleon, and his control of his image and how it was disseminated throughout the world was far more sophisticated. Just take a look at this cartoon from my trip last night…

Bonaparte Cartoon

In this Bonaparte says ‘Away from my sight peace, thou art hateful to me’, while the devil rowing says ‘We shall wade through seas of blood after this…’ Meanwhile the evil looking skeleton declares ‘A more expert trade at my hand does not exist’. The little fellow on the bank shouts ‘Oh Heartwell I sigh for thy peaceful shades’. Apologies, as I am not an expert in the affairs of Napoleon, I can’t explain the land chap’s speech, but I think it is pretty clear to all what the figures in the boat are referring to. I think it is also reasonable to state that there would have been a good number of Roman citizens in the empire feeling similar to the man on the land, viewing Augustus as a ‘reckless’ Napoleon of their day. This scene would have been especially relatable to those seeing the civil war following the events of the Ides of March.

Finding of the Meroe Head

As a last note, take a good look at this. On the left you can see where the Meroe Head was found, beneath the steps of a temple, for the Meroe people to step on his decapitated head when going about their daily business, thus secretely reminding themselves of their defiance of Roman rule years before when they removed all images of Augustus. On the right is the resting place of the Meroe head itself, this picture taken at the time it was found. Whatever the similarities between the two busts I came across at the museum yesterday, I feel sure that Napoleon’s head wasn’t found in the same compromising position!

A Lego Pompeii has been created!

I just had a bit of a moment – it has just come to my attention, via the lovely Mary Beard’s post on The Times blog, that in Australia there exists a Pompeii made of Lego.

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The wonderful little town brings to life many different aspects of the town’s history, from ancient to current times, taking in ancient characters and some from the present day, including Mary herself with her distinctive red coat! So disappointed I can’t go… If anyone does though, please share some pictures with me!

Link to Mary’s blog piece on Lego Pompeii here

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The Meroë Head of Augustus: statue decapitation as political propaganda

3 days ago marked 2,042 years since Octavian, the heir of Julius Caesar, was given the title of Augustus in 27 BC. The British Museum are commemorating this marvelous occasion with a display, free of charge, in Room 3. If you’re in London with some spare time, it’s bound to be a good way to spend it. You have until the 15th of February, so don’t hang about! I still need to book time in with the main man myself…

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David Francis, Interpretation Officer, British Museum

In his Twelve Caesars, the Roman historian Suetonius describes how the emperor Augustus’ eyes ‘shone with a sort of divine radiance’ and that it gave him profound pleasure ‘if anyone at whom he glanced keenly dropped his head as though dazzled by looking into the sun.’

The Meroë Head. Roman, 27?25 BC (British Museum 1911,0901.1) The Meroë Head. Roman, 27?25 BC (British Museum 1911,0901.1)

The Meroë Head, the only bronze portrait of Augustus to have survived with its original inlaid eyes, perfectly captures the enigmatic gaze of the Roman emperor. Depending on how the light falls, the expression of the head can vary from haughty disdain to melancholic introspection. The whites of the eyes are further emphasised by the dark green sheen of the emperor’s skin and hair. This is a result of the oxidation process that has covered the original bronze surface with a deep marine green patina. This otherworldly…

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Reading the Romans

For those interested more in what we can learn from funerary reliefs, Mary Beard wrote a great little summary on the British Museum blog a couple of years back as part of her Meet the Romans series on BBC Two. If you didn’t catch it, I’ll try and source a link to it as it was a brilliant watch.

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Mary Beard, Professor of Classics, University of Cambridge

If you want to find some really vivid stories about ordinary ancient Romans – not just about the toffs, the generals, and the emperors – some of the very best places to look are their tombstones. These give some amazing insights into the lives of real Romans – not those right at the very bottom of the social heap (people down there couldn’t afford a memorial) but those not all that far from the bottom.

OK, the epitaphs are written in Latin – but it’s often very easy Latin. And even if you don’t know a single word of the language, you can get quite a lot out of them with only a very little help.

In the BBC Two series Meet the Romans, we have looked at some really memorable – and quirky – epitaphs. I’m particularly keen on one…

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Labour in Ancient Rome – The Tomb of Eurysaces the Baker

A couple of weeks ago I began my new module in Old Labour – Working in the Ancient World at Birkbeck as part of my Masters study. One of the first assignments was to find a piece of evidence that epitomises labour in the ancient world. Luckily I had the perfect idea in mind from memory.

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This fantastic (and admittedly slightly tacky) structure is a tomb. It belonged to Marcus Vergilius Eurysaces and sits by the Porta Maggiore (map here). Eurysaces was a baker, and we know this for two reasons. 1. the inscription on the tomb states he is (no brainer!) and 2. the tomb is designed to give this away to Roman eyes. What I mean by this is that the tomb was deliberately constructed to portray the characteristics of baking that would be more immediately obvious to a Roman than to the average person today. Let’s explore the tomb in more depth…

Looking at the image above, you will see various busy scenes. These scenes are friezes from around the top of the tomb (you can see them slightly on the top image, above the circle openings). The top panel here is from the west side and shows the weighing of bread. The second panel is from the South side and shows the consignment and grinding of grain and the third panel, from the North side, shows the kneading, formation into loaves and the baking of the bread.

In these panels alone we can get a good idea of what processes baking would have consisted of from start to finish. But why were they there? Let’s think about the audience of this tomb. The location of the structure is on a main road into Rome that itself would have been lined with the tombs of other city dwellers (tombs had to be placed outside of the city walls to prevent bad luck and disease, amongst other reasons; see reconstruction below). Travellers to Rome would have approached the gates and been welcomed by many tombs, including Eurysaces’. These panels would have been high up, around the top of the tomb, so for a traveller on the floor, they may not have been very clear. However, they are still legible so one could argue they just simply add to the message of the tomb as a whole, playing their part in telling the story of Eurysaces and the baking process he was so proud of. What else might the traveller have taken notice of? Well, as I’m sure you also have, they may have noticed the upright columns and the inverted holes in the walls of the tomb. These are also significant to the bakery trade; the columns and holes are representative of tools used for kneading bread.

Appian Way Tombs

Source: http://etc.usf.edu/clipart/44900/44986/44986_appian_tombs.htm 

With regards to the finding of the tomb itself, it was found in the Aurelian Wall, which had luckily for us served to preserve it. The excavation of a funerary relief of a couple holding hands (below) has also been suggested by some scholars to be Eurysaces and his wife, who is also mentioned on the tomb. A pot in the shape of a bread basket is also thought to be his wife’s final resting place, although this is also disputed. The close proximity of other tombs nearby, including that of bakers, has contributed to the skepticism of some, although we can’t deny it would be nice to have them all together and finishing the story. It would also help us to learn more about him if we knew it was him and his wife. Furthermore, there is more uncertainty surrounding this tomb. One of the main debates to come of the structure is whether Eurysaces was a freedman or not. The garishness of the building itself can be assigned to the typical nature of freedmen in funerary monuments, in which they would often be guilty of making up for status by being a little over-the-top with decoration (think Del Boy!) While we can definitely say this of this tomb, we can’t for sure know whether he was a freedman or just a guy with bad (Roman) taste (although I must say I absolutely love the tomb design!). There is no evidence in the inscriptions found on this tomb to suggest that he is a libertus (freedman), as it was fairly common (although against what basis it isn’t clear) for freedmen to declare their background. For example, one may say on his tomb ‘Marcus Vergilius, Freedman of Lucius So-And-So’ or have his previous master’s name incorporated into his own. Eurysaces does not do this. However, the freedman debate is further enhanced by his particularly Greek sounding name, often the indication of a previous life as a slave, but again we can’t be sure.

Either way, freedman or not, this guy had guts, and an abundance of pride for his career, not to mention a good amount of money to build it in the first place. The tomb is one of the best examples of Romans showing pride in their occupation and source of wealth that I think we have, and thus shows that despite Latin literature’s often biased nature for labour being a bad thing in Rome, and associated with the lowest, it can’t have always been a bad thing to associate oneself with. For example, what about the garum seller from Pompeii, he was hardly hard off! But that’s a story for another day…

Christmas in Ancient Rome (AKA Saturnalia)

Today we celebrate Christmas as a Christian festival, unfortunately commercialised by the West in more recent years. However, the falling of Christmas has fallen conveniently; in the same month as one of the highlights of the Roman calendar, Saturnalia.

Saturnalia was the 17th day of the month December in the Julian calendar, and celebrated the god Saturn. Later the festivities continued on up to the 23rd December (or Christmas Eve Eve to some of us!)

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Thomas Couture captures Roman Saturnalia festivites that may look a familiar scene to modern readers!


“The Best of Days” (Catallus)

Saturnalia was a festival that many looked forward to, particularly slaves as it was the one day when they did not have to work and when they were treated to a banquet of the sort usually enjoyed by their masters. The day would begin with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn (in the Roman Forum) and then would continue with a large, public banquet at the temple, which we know thanks to Livy. After eating, individuals would give gifts to their loved ones and then the party would begin. The festival had a carnival atmosphere and overturned the norms of Roman virtues – gambling was permitted, among other normally taboo activities (including the virtual equality of slaves for the day, as previously mentioned). As History Extra describe it, “It was a topsy-turvy holiday of feasting, drinking, singing in the street naked, clapping hands, gambling in public and making noise.”

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Gambling (dice games) portrayed in a Pompeiian image in the Osteria della Via di Mercurio

Carrying on the ‘topsy-turvy’ festival, the aristocracy would ‘put together’ any outfit they fancied, wearing colours and material outside of their usual conservative outfits. This was called the ‘synthesis’. Also, people would wear the pilleum, the hat worn by slaves who had been freed, to symbolise being free for the day. Thanks to Macrobius, we also know that the rowdy festival-goers would greet one another as we might on Christmas day, shouting “Io Saturnalia!” to one another.

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Slaves celebrating the Saturnalia with a drink or two

Even more along the same lines as us, Aulus Gellius confessed to playing trivia games with friends as a student, and the public would play other silly games, such as bobbing for corks in icy water (much like apple bobbing at Halloween!) Chariot racing was also a large part of the day, with up to 36 races per day carried out by the late fourth century AD.


Not the highlight of everybody’s calendar

Seneca was known to have a moan about the mob getting out of control “in pleasantries”and Pliny the Younger revealed in a letter that he was not such a party animal, holing himself up while the rest of the household partied on the festival day.

As can be expected, early Christians objected to the festivities of the day too. Even though the Church fathers could not before decide on the official date of the birth of Christ, they at last settled on the date 25th of December in the late fourth century (yes, that late!) Now, I don’t intend to be controversial here, but it is to me not a coincidence that the Church Fathers decided on a time of year that was the time when the Roman world came together not only to celebrate a Pagan god but also to celebrate in a way that didn’t quite sit well with the value of the Church. The Church even complained when the festivities of the Saturnalia continued into the eighth century with the old Pagan values.