ICYMI ~ The Classical World in the News ~ January 12-17, 2016

[I’m thinking of making this a regular feature]

The Ancient Greece and Rome section of my Explorator newsletter for this week (full issue available here):

Horse burials from an 8th century necropolis in Athens:


Plenty of evidence found during A1 construction suggests the Romans were in Yorkshire a decade earlier than previously thought:


Remains of a Bronze Age village near Aquileia:


Nice feature on some Greek pots at Yale:


Bice Peruzzi is studying burial practices in Central Apulia:


That Bodicacia inscription is now in the Corinium Museum:


Studying/recreating Greek pottery:


Feature on the Battle of Watling street and other Boudiccan things:


Roman London was a pretty cosmopolitan place:


Lessons from the Iliad:


They drained the Great Bath at Bath:


On black Classicists:


Review of Holland, *Dynasty*:


More on Knossos being larger than previously thought:


More on Roman toilets and parasites:


Is this to-be-auctioned Inscription to Vitiris Known?

Before I get the blogosphere posts up, I need to ask about an eBay auction that distracted me last night. It concerns this stone:


The text reads:





As of today, it’s an ebay listing at: Ancient Roman Stone Votive Altar For The God Vitris – 3rd Century AD

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.
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?

Wooden Toilet Seat from Vindolanda

From a Vindolanda Trust press release:

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.

… and the photo, of course:

Vindolanda Trust

Vindolanda Trust

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 …

Ruts in the Roman (?) Road at Ipplepen

From the University of Exeter:

The excavation at Ipplepen, run by the University of Exeter, is back on site following the discovery of a complex series of archaeological features thought to be part of the largest Romano-British settlement in Devon outside of Exeter.

Wheel ruts found in the newly excavated road surface are thought to be like those at Pompeii caused by carts being driven over them. This is cause for excitement according to archaeologist Danielle Wootton, the Devon Finds Liaison Officer for the Portable Antiquities Scheme. She said:“The road must have been extensively used, it’s intriguing to think what the horse-drawn carts may have been carrying and who was driving them. This is a fantastic opportunity to see a ‘snap shot’ of life 2000 years ago.”

The geophysical survey and a significant number of Roman coins found when the site was first discovered highlighted the importance of this extensive site and its potential to explore the relationship between the Romans and Devon’s native population.

This year’s dig, directed by Dr Imogen Wood has uncovered a few more Roman coins, two of which date from between AD 43 to AD 260 and around six late Roman 4th century coins. One can be accurately dated to AD 335 – 341. However, the location of personal artefacts, such as the newly discovered Roman hair pin , brooch and bracelet are equally as thrilling for the archaeological team.

The pin would have been used to hold the hair together much in the same way similar items are used today. Danielle Wootton said:“Roman women had some very elaborate hairstyles which changed through time like our fashions do today. Hairpins were used to hold complex hairstyles like buns and plaits together and suggests that Devon women may have been adopting fashions from Rome. This period in history often gets flooded with stories about Roman soldiers and centurions; this is interesting as they are artefacts worn by women.”

Green and blue glass beads have been unearthed, which suggests that colourful necklaces were also worn. Two amber beads have been discovered which are likely to have travelled many miles possibly from the Baltic coast to their final location at Ipplepen in the South Devon.

Wootton explained:“During the Roman period amber was thought to have magical, protective and healing properties. These very personal items worn by the women that lived on this site centuries ago have enabled us to get a glimpse into the lives of people living everyday lives on the edges of the Roman Empire.”

Pottery has also been discovered by the Archaeology Department’s students and local volunteers on the excavation. Dr Imogen Wood, University of Exeter said:“The pottery recovered suggests people were making copies of popular roman pottery for cooking and eating, but also importing a small amount of fine pottery from the continent such as drinking cups and Samian bowls for dinner guests to see and envy.”

The excavation is being carried out until the end of July and is likely to reveal further exciting finds which will help to further our understanding between Roman Britain and its native population. […]

Hmmm … I wonder if this is a Roman road we’re talking about; we certainly seem to be expected to infer that. I also wonder, given how frequently wheel ruts in a Roman context are linked to other things, whether we should be taking bets on how quickly we see the Railroad Gauge Canard again?


Alternate/Derivative sources:

Our previous coverage of the site and its finds:

… and possibly this:

Head Hunting Romans?

Maev Kennedy writes a very interesting piece in the Guardian which is just beginning to be picked up by other outlets:

Scores of skulls excavated in the heart of London have provided the first gruesome evidence of Roman head hunters operating in Britain, gathering up the heads of executed enemies or fallen gladiators from the nearby amphitheatre, and exposing them for years in open pits.

“It is not a pretty picture,” Rebecca Redfern, from the centre for human bioarchaeology at the museum of London, said. “At least one of the skulls shows evidence of being chewed at by dogs, so it was still fleshed when it was lying in the open.”

“They come from a peculiar area by the Walbrook stream, which was a site for burials and a centre of ritual activity – but also very much in use for more mundane pursuits. We have evidence of lots of shoe making, so you have to think of the cobbler working yards from these open pits, with the dog chewing away – really not nice.”

“We believe that some of the heads may be people who were killed in the amphitheatre. Decapitation was a way of finishing off gladiators, but not everyone who died in the Roman amphitheatre was a gladiator, it was where common criminals were executed, or sometimes for entertainment you’d give two of them swords and have them kill one another. Other heads may have been brought back by soldiers from skirmishes, probably on the Hadrian or Antonine walls – again, it would have taken weeks to bring them back, so not a nice process.”

The 39 skulls were excavated at London Wall almost within sight of the Museum of London in 1988, and deposited at the museum, but the scientists have only recently applied improved forensic techniques to them. Redfern and her colleague Heather Bonney, from the Earth Sciences Department of the Natural History Museum, publish their results for the first time this week in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

The tests revealed that almost all the skulls are of adult males – some could not be identified – and most bear scars and slash marks of many wounds inflicted around the time of death. Many also have multiple healed wounds, one with the shattered cheek bone typical of a violent punch in the face, showing their lives were not tranquil. On some there is clear evidence of decapitation with a sword: possibly all were killed in that way, but if the fatal blow was through the neck the proof has vanished with the rest of their bodies.

“Whether they died in the amphitheatre or in battle, decapitation with a sword is a very efficient way of ending a life – somebody very much wanted these people dead,” Redfern said.

The evidence suggests that they were left for years decomposing in the open pits.

“There is none of the fracturing you’d expect if they’d been put on spikes, so it looks as if they were just set down and left – though of course you could have had a nice shelf to display them on.”

There is evidence of head taking from across the Roman empire, including Trajan’s column in Rome which shows clean shaven Roman soldiers presenting bearded barbarian heads as trophies to the emperor. Heads are also shown being held up in triumph on tomb stones of cavalry officers in Britain and elsewhere. Although pits of body parts have been found in Britain, the London skulls, deposited over several decades, are an unprecedented find from the Roman capital.

Hundreds of skulls have been found for centuries along the course of the long vanished Walbrook – most recently by the team working on the new Crossrail station just outside Liverpool Street station.

They have often been interpreted either as washed out of Roman cemeteries, or as victims of Boudicca’s revolution, when the East Anglican leader of the Icenii tribe swept south to London in AD60, torching Roman settlements and towns.

However the work of Redfern and Bonney may force archaeologists to have another look at the skull finds.

The London Wall skulls are far too late for Boudicca: they have been dated to the 2nd century AD, a time of peace, prosperity and expansion for the Roman city.

“These were all young men, very untypical of what we usually find in Roman burials, where we tend to get the very young and the old,” Redfern said.

“Most people in second century London lived peaceful quiet lives – but as we now know, not everyone. This is a glimpse into the very dark side of Roman life.”

Folks who have 35 bucks burning a hole in their pocker might want to check out the original article: Headhunting and amphitheatre combat in Roman London, England: new evidence from the Walbrook Valley (JAS), although most of us will have to be satisfied with the abstract, I’d imagine:

In 1988, the disarticulated human remains of forty Roman individuals were discovered at 52-63 London Wall, London. Examination of the sample using techniques employed by forensic anthropology and entomology found that some of the material had been deposited in open waterlogged pits. The majority of the sample was adult males who had evidence for multiple peri-mortem blunt- and sharp- force injuries; many also had healed injuries, suggesting that violence was a common feature of their life. Despite the fact that this material was recovered from an industrial area in the upper Walbrook valley of London, the evidence for trauma, their context and associated archaeological and environmental evidence reveals that these deposits are markedly different from other published examples of human remains from the Walbrook stream and River Thames, and may represent the remains of headhunting by the Roman army and/or defeated gladiators.

… which makes me wonder if we are actually dealing solely with skulls. Whatever the case, we should probably also mention for comparanda purposes that pile of skulls found during the Crossrails project last October: Possible Pile of Roman Skulls See also the followup bringing up the Boudicca thing again: (Crossrail Roman Skulls Followup.

That said,  my memory also seems to recall an article in either a journal or a festschrift sort of thing (possibly non-Classics specific) called “Romans as Headhunters” vel simm. but I can’t seem to locate it …

UPDATE (an hour or so later): tip o’ the pileus to Peter Kruschwitz on twitter who tweaked my memory of this article which is worth tracking down if you’re interested in Roman ‘headhunting’: Voisin, J-L., “Les Romains chasseurs de têtes” , Du châtiment dans la cité EFR n° 79, 1984