Friday, November 30, 2007

Lupercal Video

A web video on the Daily Telegraph site shows some video of the recently discovered grotto on the Palatine Hill in Rome. The mosaics look third-century at the earliest.

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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Ancient Roman Maps

This week, the Austrian National Library in Vienna displayed the Tabula Peutingeriana, or the Peutinger Table, to the public for one day. Unless you live in Vienna that news may not be of much significance, but it does provide an opportunity to discuss a rare and priceless object.

The Peutinger Table is actually a linen strip, some 20 feet long and about a foot and a half wide, that bears a road map of the Roman Empire and neighboring lands to the east. It is the only object of its kind, although we have literary texts called itineraries that list roads and the stops along them in a similar fashion. The first think one notices about the Peutinger Table is it's bizarre shape. The Mediterranean has been stretched out into a narrow blue stripe, and none of the shapes of the landmasses are recognizable. Nor is the map to scale. This is because the Peutinger Table is not so much a map as it is a visual list of roads, like the itineraries. Major cities are shown by small buildings (or, in the case of the largest cities, with more elaborate drawings), while the roads connecting them have small kinks in them to represent smaller settlements or stopping points. The distance between each stop is written in Roman miles, which is the most important information on the map. To a traveller, the exact relative position of, say, Massilia (Marseilles) and Rome was not important -- what was important is which roads led from the one to the other, and how far the journey was. The distance could be calculated by adding up the total mileage, or more likely by counting the number of stops and using that to calculate a duration in days (one, two, or three stops per day, depending on mode of travel).

The Romans in fact do not seem to have used proper scaled maps much at all, although there are some exceptions. The 3rd century marble city plan of Rome, hung in the Temple of Peace in what was probably the city deeds office, is drawn on a rough scale of 1:240, although it is hardly exact. On a smaller scale, the astronomer Ptolemy devised various projection systems to reduce the globe to a system of longitude and latitude lines, which in principle allowed the depiction of places in their true relative positions. Acquiring precise coordinates at that time was extremely difficult, however, and we don't have any evidence that his system was widely used in the construction of maps.

If you want to know more about the Peutinger Table, you don't need to go to Vienna. The entire map has been made available online. Check it out!

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Friday, November 23, 2007


Apparently, not everyone is convinced that the recent discovery on the Palatine is really the Lupercal, as reported. An interview with Adriano La Regina, former superintendant of archaeology in Rome, was published by La Stampa yesterday. When questioned about the recent discovery he said that what Angelo Bottini, the current superintendant, found was merely a nymphaeum, or fountain house, that likely formed part of the Domus Transitorium, which was Nero's older palace at the foot of the Palatine. He notes resemblances between the architecture and decoration and that of Nero's Golden House. He says that the literary sources indicate that the Lupercal was located somewhere a short distance to the west of the recent excavations. Until the results are published, it won't be possible to assess which of the two interpretations are correct, but I'll keep an eye on this dispute as it plays out.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2007


(Photo by Benvegnù-Guaitoli)

Italian newspapers are reporting an announcement by archaeologists that the Lupercal, the legendary cave in which Romulus and Remus were suckled by a she-wolf, has been found (English version here). Ancient Rome was littered with places that the Romans related to their mythical past. Romulus was said to have founded Rome on the Palatine hill, and in later years there was an actual Hut of Romulus on the hill, preserved, the ancient Romans believed, from the city's origin. Later archaeological excavation discovered the foundations of Iron Age houses on the hill, which must have been discovered by the Romans while building on the hill and reconstructed in a bit of ancient archaeology. Literary sources also tell of a cave in which the twin brothers were suckled after their father exposed them by the Tiber. Later, they were discovered and raised by the shepherd, Faustulus. The Romans identified the supposed cave and built a shrine there, which was the central place of the festival known as the Lupercalia, but it had been lost until the recent discovery (although there are Renaissance accounts that indicate it still existed then).

(Photo by Benvegnù-Guaitoli)

The grotto was discovered during the recent restoration work done on the House of Augustus. A small shaft (shown above) led researchers to a domed hall, much of which was filled with debris. The dome is covered with painting, stucco and seashells, in very vivid colors. The location is appropriate, as Augustus restored the cave and reinstituted the Lupercalia as part of his program of religious revival.

From literary sources, we know the Lupercalia was celebrated on February 15. Priests, known as Luperci, would sacrifice two male goats and a dog, and two young patrician youths would be smeared with the blood, after which it would be wiped off with wool dipped in milk. Leather thongs would be cut from the skins of the sacrifices, and the priests would run around the Palatine, striking everybody they came upon. Girls who were struck were thought to become extra fertile. The ceremony lasted until the end of the 5th century, when it was outlawed by Pope Gelasius.

Further excavation of the site may tell us more about the Lupercalia and the cult activity here.

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Monday, November 19, 2007

Modern Ruins

Bethlehem Steel, photograph © Shaun O'Boyle

The material archaeologists dig up and that ends up in museums sometime seems like it appears by magic. You dig a hole and bits and fragments of the past appear. Sometimes, even among archaeologists, we begin to believe that these objects are the past, rather than objects in the present, the result of a long series of postdepositional processes. One result of this disconnect between the present and the past is that I am often asked why we can find the things we do. Why does digging into the ground reveal a two-thousand year old house? It's not intuitive that such a result would naturally follow. We can, of course, easily visualize the kind of event that 'flash freezes' the past, such as the volcanic eruption that buried Pompeii (although even here it would be incorrect to view the excavations as producing a true snapshot of the ancient city as it was lived in). The long, slow processes of erosion, scavenging, sedimentation and decay that produce much of the archaeological record, however, proceed at a pace that is usually imperceptible, and about which we usually remain unaware. The photographs of Shaun O'Boyle help bring those processes to light, and remind us that the archaeological record is being constantly created, all around us, as we live and talk and breathe.

What O'Boyle does is photograph modern ruins. Born out of an interest in archaeology, he has chosen to record the present past, places and things that still exist, and in some cases, such as the Bethlehem steel yard above, were still in use until quite recently, but today are abandoned and undergoing the slow transformation that will, perhaps, end in their discovery by later generations of archaeologists. His photo essays remind us that the ways places are abandoned are varied and complex. Some places are deliberately abandoned, and objects that still have value are salvaged (or 'curated,' in archaeology-speak) by the owners or others, a process that can take years. Some places are left in a hurry, due perhaps to natural disaster or invasion, and most of their contents are still in place. If a place is abandoned, but legal ownership can still be defended, the contents may remain for a long time, until eventually they are discarded, such as the furniture of this abandoned hospital ward (original image here):

Abandoned Hospital ward, photograph © Shaun O'Boyle

Sometime buildings are reused, by new owners or squatters, sometimes they just sit until an earthquake or fire causes them to collapse, and sometimes they are demolished, and new structures built on the foundations of the old. Understanding these processes are key to interpreting archaeological material. How did the material get where it is? Was it originally part of the same assemblage, or did later occupants add to the debris? Did some of the items originally occupy a second floor and fall to the ground when the building burned? Answering these questions can be difficult but is an important part of what archaeologists do.

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Thursday, November 15, 2007

Archaeologists discover 4000 year old temple in Peru

Reuters is reporting that archaeologists excavating at the site of Ventarron have discovered a temple and fire altar dating to approximately 2000 BC. They also report that murals have been found inside the temple, which would be among the oldest examples known from the New World. This is a significant find and combined with the discovery last summer of a slightly older temple at Buena Vista, is further indication of the sophistication of civilization in South America at this early date.

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