YAY! Here’s the second episode of the Drunk Archaeology podcast! In this 65-min program, Donna Yates of anonymousswisscollector.com, Meg Lambert of traffickingculture.org, and Sarah Parcak of the Laboratory for Global Observation talk about looting and the illicit trade of antiquities. While drinking “Buried Treasure” and “Tomb Raiders”. In Scotland.
The official description includes all sorts of info about Vitiris, and concludes with:
Height: 9 ½ inches. Condition: Very good, with some repair to the right cylindrical roll. Provenance: Reputedly found in Durham. Ex. British private collection, north-east England. Acquired 1980’s and shown to a professor at Newcastle Univeristy who provided a translation.
I can’t find this particular inscription listed in any of the online databases (did I miss it)? Is this item from Art Ancient known/published? I wonder who the Newcastle prof is/was?
Finding something that you can relate to is always a special moment on an archaeological dig. At Vindolanda this is a common occurrence, a site where the special qualities lie not only in the discovery of gold and silver or artefacts which relate to the military might of the Roman Army but also of everyday ordinary items which nearly 2000 years later become extraordinary to the modern day visitors, volunteers and archaeologists alike. Personal letters, worn shoes, baby booties, socks, combs, jewellery, tools and textiles are just some of the items preserved in a remarkable condition that provide you with a unique window into the lives of people stationed at this most northern outpost of the Roman Empire.
Now archaeologists have another piece of this very personal human hoard at Vindolanda, a wooden latrine (toilet) seat, was discovered by the Director of Excavations, Dr Andrew Birley, in the deep pre-hadrianic trenches at Vindolanda. There are many examples of stone and marble seat benches from across the Roman Empire but this is believed to be the only surviving wooden seat, almost perfectly preserved in the anaerobic, oxygen free, conditions which exist at Vindolanda. Although this wooden seat is not as grand as a marble or stone toilet bench, it would be far more comfortable to sit on in the cool climate of Britannia. The seat has clearly been well used and was decommissioned from its original purpose and discarded amongst the rubbish left behind in the final fort at the site before the construction of Hadrian’s Wall started in the early second century.
Dr Birley commented on the find ‘there is always great excitement when you find something that has never been seen before and this discovery is wonderful….’ Andrew went on to say ‘We know a lot about Roman toilets from previous excavations at the site and from the wider Roman world which have included many fabulous Roman latrines but never before have we had the pleasure of seeing a surviving and perfectly preserved wooden seat. As soon as we started to uncover it there was no doubt at all on what we had found. It is made from a very well worked piece of wood and looks pretty comfortable. Now we need to find the toilet that went with it as Roman loos are fascinating places to excavate – their drains often contain astonishing artefacts. Let’s face it, if you drop something down a Roman latrine you are unlikely to attempt to fish it out unless you are pretty brave or foolhardy’. Discoveries at Vindolanda from latrines have included a baby boot, coins, a betrothal medallion, and a bronze lamp.
Archaeologists now need to find a ‘spongia’ the natural sponge on a stick which Romans used instead of toilet paper, and with over 100 years of archaeology remaining and the unique conditions for the preservation of such organic finds a discovery may just be possible.
The wooden seat will take up to 18 months to conserve and once this process is complete the artefact will be put on display at the Roman Army Museum.
I’m sure there are plenty of us who have visited the site of an ancient Roman latrine and shuddered at the thought of sitting on that cold, cold, stone. I’d suspect this would be a thing — like napkins at dinner parties — which someone would bring with them to the loo. Probably a ‘luxury item’ as well. I wonder if it had a special word in Latin …
In my precaffeinated minutes this a.m. I was jarred awake by a typically hyperbolating Daily Mail headline proclaiming: Game over for Greece’s mystery grave: Tomb raiders plundered site in antiquity – dashing hopes of finding artefacts dating back to Alexander the Great’s reign. Inter alia, a number of times the mantra was repeated, but here’s one excerpt:
[…] Experts had partially investigated the antechamber of the tomb at the Kasta Tumulus site near ancient Amphipolis in Macedonia, Greece, and uncovered a marble wall concealing one or more inner chambers.
They said that a hole in the decorated wall and signs of forced entry indicate it was plundered, but excavations will continue for weeks to make sure. […]
Now before I deal with the (actually reasonably good evidence) for the claim, I want to sort of ‘run through’ the course of the excavation (with photos from the Ministry of Culture, in the order they’ve appeared at their site), which led me to ask some questions about this tomb that I hope someone can answer. First, here’s an early image that made the rounds of various press agencies, which shows the first revelation of the “sphinxes”. I want folks to notice that the outer wall is ‘continuous’. We can also clearly see the archway with the “sphinxes” and a wall that was built in front of them.
The blocks in front were removed …
… and we were presented with a photo of the “sphinxes” … notice there is much dirt behind them. Some of us were idly speculating that there was a hole of some sort behind the “sphinx” on the right, but in hindsight it struck me that there really wasn’t enough room for someone to get behind the “sphinx” to dig like that.
Next, they began clearing the ‘entrance’ to the tomb and we heard, inter alia, of a mosaic pavement, but alas, we never did see a photo of same. This would suggest that they had cleared right to the ‘floor’ of the entrance, but I’m not sure that is the case. The photos from the entrance clearing did reveal some nice (painted) details, however. Ecce the initial views (we posted these already):
Then they were inside the vestibule:
This photo gives an idea of the soil filling the vestible (i.e. in the space behind the “sphinxes”. There clearly was a lot to be removed:
There’s a photo of the dirt having been cleared from behind the “sphinxes”:
Looking through that you can possible see a trace of the photo that’s causing “disappointment”:
If you look in the upper left, you’ll see the small (40cm x 60cm, according to various reports) hole which possibly provided access to the inside. You can also see the level of the dirt inside and — I’m assuming, from the white shading there –the level the dirt was at. The hole (if it is a hole going all the way through) is large enough for a small person to get through. But how did they get in to dig that hole? The vestibule has a barrel-vaulted stone roof, it appears, so something horizontal from the front? It really doesn’t make sense to me. If it was plundered in antiquity, I doubt they went ‘through the front door’.
Then again, and this is why I have questions, why is this vestibule filled to the top with dirt? Is this a typical Macedonian practice (I honestly don’t know). Or was this done later in antiquity, perhaps around the time of the ‘beheading of the sphinxes’? Even then, however, why was it all blocked off with those massive blocks? Done at the time of burial or later in antiquity? If at the time of burial, wouldn’t they have used better dressed stones? And when/why did they fill the space between the blocks and the “sphinxes” with dirt? Was all this meant to be ‘hidden’ or was it once open for passers by to see?
Folks wondering about the ‘latest’ can turn to this a.m.’s Greek version of Kathimerini, where it is revealed that the next few days will be spent protecting the paint and shoring up walls and the like:
… and here are the Ministry Press Releases whence came the above photos (they have other titles, but the MoC’s website has things set up somewhat unconventionally and it’s an incredibly slow site to access):