Roman Mystery Pot Full of Holes – Solved! (Maybe)

Okay, okay … I know yesterday I was doubting whether that pot in a London (Ontario) museum was Roman, but after watching a zillion folks trying to figure it out yesterday and today on Twitter and Facebook, it suddenly struck me: it’s an octopus trap. Here’s a detail from a famous fishing mosaic in the Sousse Museum in Tunisia (here’s the original source from which it was untimely ript):

From the Stoa Image Gallery

These two happy fellows are clearly fishing with perforated pots of roughly analogous size to the mystery pot and the one guy seems to be pulling an octopus out of one … just a suggestion (if anyone can point me to a better photo of this section of the mosaic, it would be greatly appreciated). By the way, it’s full of holes to make it easier to pull up …

UPDATE (an hour or so later): while looking for a photo of a japanese octopus trap, I came across this one from Tunisia (not sure of the date) in some Mediterranean Pottery Museum … can’t tell if it has holes or not (certainly not as many as our mystery pot):

Ptolemaic Polar Bear?

Taxidermied polar bear head
Image via Wikipedia

Deep in my ‘to blog’ file is an item clipped from the Telegraph, inter alia:

Polar bears have been kept in menageries for millennia. The Egyptian king Ptolemy II kept one in Alexandria in the third century bc.

To which I naturally responded, “Whaaaaaaa?” … some poking around, though, found the source: Athenaeus’ Deipnosophistae. Here’s the relevant section in translation (via Lacus Curtius 5.201 … not really sure how refs to Athenaeus work):

After he has spoken of very many other things, and enumerated many droves of animals he adds: “One hundred and thirty Aethiopian sheep, Cthree hundred Arabian, twenty Euboean; also twenty-six Indian zebus entirely white, eight Aethiopian, one large white (51) she-bear, fourteen leopards, sixteen genets, four caracals, three bear-cubs, one giraffe, one Aethiopian rhinoceros. Next in a four-wheeled cart was Dionysus at the altar of Rhea, having found refuge there while being pursued by Hera; he had on a gold crown, and Priapus stood at his side, with a gold ivy-crown.

In the note referenced there, the Loeb editors suggested a polar bear or albino syrian bear. The Greek (also via Lacus Curtius) simply says:

ἄρκτος λευκὴ μεγάλη μία

i.e., one large, white (female) bear.

Could it have been a polar bear? Perhaps … plenty of sites on the web which talk about polar bears seem to think so. Some even go so far as to have the white bear leading a phallic procession involving a 55 metre long gilded phallus (copressing this section of Athenaeus big time). Another possible polar bear mention is in Calpurnius Siculus’ seventh Eclogue, which describes (inter alia) some wild-beast-hunt-type activities in some amphitheatre … here’s lines 57-72 (Lacus Curtius):

ordine quid referam? vidi genus omne ferarum,
hic niveos lepores et non sine cornibus apros.
hic raram silvis etiam, quibus editur, alcen.
vidimus et tauros, quibus aut cervice levata
deformis scapulis torus eminet aut quibus hirtae
iactantur per colla iubae, quibus aspera mento
barba iacet tremulique rigent palearia setis.
nec solum nobis silvestria cernere monstra
contigit: aequoreos ego cum certantibus ursis
spectavi vitulos et equorum nomine dictum,
sed deforme pecus, quod in illo nascitur amne
qui sata riparum vernantibus irrigat undis.
a! trepidi, quotiens sola discedentis harenae
vidimus inverti, ruptaque voragine terrae
emersisse feras; et in isdem saepe cavernis
aurea cum subito creverunt arbuta nimbo.

… and a translation from the same source:

Why narrate each sight in order? Beasts of every kind I saw; here I saw snow-white hares and horned boars, here I saw the elk, rare even in the forests which produce it. Bulls too I saw, either those of heightened nape, with an unsightly hump rising from the shoulder-blades, or those with shaggy mane tossed across the neck, with rugged beard covering the chin, and quivering bristles upon their stiff dewlaps. Nor was it my lot only to see monsters of the forest: sea calves also I beheld with bears pitted against them and the unshapely herd by the name of horses, bred in that river whose waters, with spring-like renewal, irrigate the crops upon its banks. Oh, how we quaked, whenever we saw the arena part asunder and its soil upturned and beasts plunged out from the chasm cleft in the earth; yet often from those same rifts the golden arbutes sprang amid a sudden fountain spray (of saffron).

I guess the assumption is that the bears fighting the ‘sea cows’ (i.e. seals) must be of the polar variety, even if their colour isn’t specified. First to make the suggestion appears to be George Jennison in his very brief,”Polar Bears at Rome. Calpurnius Siculus, Ecl. VII. 65-6″ Classical Review 35 (1922), 73. Jennison notes there is no evidence of exhibition of “animals from the distant north” in Nero’s (and Calpurnius’) time but that they do become frequent in the time of Gordian I and beyond.

I’m coming up empty on the northern animals from Gordian I and on side of things …

Rethinking Roman Textiles and Fashion

Very interesting item from Spiegel, although there does seem to be some ‘playing to the crowd’ in this one:

When the prefect Flavius Cerialis hosted a banquet at Vindolanda, a Roman fort in what is now northern England, the aroma of grilled chicken, goose and venison, seasoned with pepper from India, filled the air. Plenty of beer was also on hand for the festivities.

The only thing dampening the mood of the occupying forces was the wet weather, and the clammy fort’s select guests were forced to bring their foul weather wear to the feast. On such occasions they favored a garment known as the paenula — a wide, draping mantle made of wool, or sometimes leather or felt — and wrapped a type of large shawl, called a laena, around their necks.

The Romans at Vindolanda compiled lists of the textiles they used, writing in ink on thin wooden tablets, and these descriptions offer insight into their clothing habits. Now, for the first time, experts are taking a closer look at samples of the textiles described in those historical documents, mud-brown scraps of cloth that have surfaced from the swampy ground beneath the ruined fort.

To keep their wooden buildings from sinking into the mire, the legionnaires trampled unneeded household objects and trash into the soggy earth. This practice of fortifying the ground beneath their dwellings now yields a rich source of artifacts for today’s excavators.

Archeologists are delighted with their Vindolanda finds. “It’s an explosion of sources,” exults Michael Tellenbach, director of the Reiss-Engelhorn Museum (Rem) in the southwestern German city of Mannheim. Together with other European researchers, Tellenbach is at work unraveling the world of Roman fashion.

Soft and Comfortable

These textile researchers have been searching museums and gravesites for traces of antique fabrics. Even corroded coins have revealed impressions of textile structures. Rem, the museum complex in Mannheim, has also acquired a scanning electron microscope, which allows researchers to view the fabrics used in the Roman wardrobe with an unprecedented level of detailed accuracy.

These fabric scraps, it turns out, provide evidence that Rome developed an unparalleled textile industry. Romans established factories throughout their empire, having learned effective loom building from the Egyptians. Dyes allowed the creation of riotous color compositions popular with the Roman people. Gradually, these techniques grew into mass production of a type not seen again until the High Middle Ages, a millennium later.

Materials were thoroughly prepared before manufacturing began. Experts combed out sheep’s wool to make the fibers more uniform. “Extremely professional production allowed for astonishingly high quality,” reports archeologist Annette Schieck. “The fabrics were very soft and comfortable.”

Some 1,500 years later, clothes found in the deserts of Egypt and Syria are “still so intact and flexible, some of them could still be worn,” Schieck says. As recently as the 18th century, she adds, poor fellahs in Egypt regularly looted Roman graves in search of ancient garb.

New discoveries concerning the cut of these garments may also unseat long-held notions in the field. While examining clothing fragments from the collection at the Roman-German Central Museum in Mainz, Sylvia Mitschke, a restoration expert in Mannheim, discovered pieces of fabric called gussets sewed inside underwear to make them more comfortable.

Monogram or Logo?

Until now experts believed Romans did not use the technique, which places triangular inserts along seams to strengthen and expand a garment. They assumed instead that the size and shape of their garments were determined by the dimensions of the loom, since the search for evidence of any type of ancient sewing patterns had proved fruitless.

The prevailing opinion was that form-fitted tailoring was a foreign concept to the Romans, with both genders wearing similarly sack-like garments. Women accented their femininity by fastening a belt directly beneath the bust, while men buckled their own belts at the hips.

The latest findings from Mannheim point archeologists in a new direction, though. “This has definitely thrown us off a bit,” Mitschke says. It looks as if the Romans might have understood the art of textile design after all.

Now, textile experts are on the hunt for the ancient world’s equivalent to modern fashion labels. It’s possible that previous clues and signs in this direction weren’t sufficiently appreciated. For instance, Kolumba, the art museum of the Archdiocese of Cologne, holds a tunic with the letter kappa embroidered onto it in red thread. Is it simply the owner’s monogram — or could it be the logo of a fashion designer?

Despite scholars’ best efforts, the Romans’ relationship to underwear remains an open question. Mosaics laid in the floor of the Villa Romana del Casale in Sicily, which dates from the late Roman period, show shapely women exercising in a sort of bikini, but textile evidence of the use of anything resembling underpants or bras is scarce.

Experts in Mannheim are aware of only three items of surviving Roman clothing that bear a resemblance to underwear. Legionnaires, for example, had to protect their genitals with a type of underpants, since the tunics they wore were about the length of mini dresses. Farm workers, on the other hand, wore loincloths wrapped like diapers.

Unwieldy Togas

Their simple daily wear suggests that Romans placed a great deal of value on the comfort of their clothing. This makes it all the more mysterious that the toga, one of the most impractical garments in human history, attained such popularity in Rome.

Senators and other rich Romans inflicted themselves with these cloth burdens that could reach up to six meters (20 feet) long, meaning the wearer was often unable even to don the garment without the help of a house slave. To wear the toga in a dignified manner, the gentry were also required to keep their lower arm extended to hold its folds. The free citizens of Rome crept about the streets thus swaddled, hardly able to leave their homes without assistance.

But perhaps here, too, established notions are in need of some updating, says archeologist Schieck. “In many cases we owe much of our insight into the practical application of historical clothing to reenactors,” she explains. That is, the subculture whose members don historical outfits as a recreational pastime. Upstanding family men England, for example, have been striding around the countryside in Roman legionnaire costumes during their free time since 1972, when the country’s first Roman reenactment society formed. The group, called the Ermine Street Guard, takes its name from a nearly 2,000-year-old Roman road in the country.

Bits of Roman legionnaires’ uniforms found near a hill called Kalkriese in northwestern Germany suggest a different picture of these troops than is commonly accepted, though. It seems the imperial army wasn’t nearly as smartly dressed as reenactors and Hollywood historical dramas would have us believe. Researchers believe the mighty Roman army looked more like a ragtag bunch of boys who’d just barely managed to agree on the same color shirts and shorts for a game of pick-up soccer.

The idea of soldiers draped in red cloaks, meanwhile, is absolute nonsense. Lustrous crimson robes worn by centurions are an invention of the 20th century. In reality, the military probably favored grays and earth tones.

“Red was a feminine color reserved for women,” Schieck explains. Wealthy ladies owned exorbitantly expensive dresses and coats dyed with secretions from murex sea snails found in Tyre, now in Lebanon. This dye, Tellenbach explains, withstood any amount of washing. Still, women wearing it were quick to seek shelter when it rained, though for a different reason — when wet, the purple-red wool stank horribly of fish.

Cheap Knockoffs

But not everything red was made from the Tyrian snail. Because such luxury items were prohibitively expensive for the average citizen, counterfeiters brewed up cheaper versions of the dye in secret.

The poet Ovid expressly endorsed the discount advantages of such replacement dyes in “Ars amatoria,” his instructional volume on love. “Don’t ask for brocade, or wools dyed purple with Tyrian murex,” the poet wrote. “With so many cheaper colours having appeared, it’s crazy to bear your fortune on your back!”

Yet many luxury addicts set out to do precisely that. Newly wealthy merchants strolled the streets draped in necklaces, covered in perfume and wrapped in the finest Chinese silk. This penchant for fine fabrics even caused an imbalance in Rome’s budget, with considerable sums flowing east for imported clothing. Emperor Diocletian established maximum prices for foreign textiles in an attempt to keep the empire from going bankrupt.

Manufacturers responded to the crisis with innovation. The researchers in Mannheim have discovered indications of production techniques long since forgotten. For example, Romans evidently wove garments from nettles that matched the quality of exotic products from China.

Still, turbans and other foreign garb made their appearance on the streets of the multicultural city. Even barbarians in trousers were tolerated. In fact, it would have been difficult to find clothing that would provoke a negative reaction on the streets of Rome. Only unmanly men were unacceptable.

Ovid, the beauty expert of the antique world, warned against metrosexual proclivities: “Don’t delight in curling your hair with tongs, don’t smooth your legs with sharp pumice stone,” advised the poet, whose 2,000-year-old writings document an eternal truth: “Leave that to (eunuchs). Male beauty’s better for neglect.”