Wednesday, April 29, 2009

1st Century Millefiori dish found in east London

When I was in Rome last month, I saw millefiori articles for sale in shops all over the city. My friend Pat collects millefiori paperweights so, of course, we had to check out each one.

Although the technique used to create these little glass masterpieces is associated with Venice, it actually goes back to ancient Rome, as indicated by the estimated age of this dish discovered in the section of London that was originally part of Roman Londinium.

A rare Roman millefiori dish has been unearthed by archaeologists from the grave of a wealthy Londoner.

The dish, which has gone on display at the Museum of London in Docklands, was found during excavations in Prescot Street, in Aldgate, east London.

It was pieced together from its many fragments.

It is made up of hundreds of translucent blue indented glass petals, bordered with white embedded in a bright red glass background.

The dish formed part of the grave goods of the Roman Londoner whose cremated remains were uncovered in a container in a cemetery in Londinium's (the Roman name for London) eastern quarter. - BBC News
The millefiori technique involves the production of glass canes or rods, known as murrine, with multicolored patterns which are viewable only from the cut ends of the cane. A murrine rod is heated in a furnace, pulled until thin while still maintaining the cross section's design, and then cut into beads or discs when cooled.

[Image right courtesy of Murano Millefiori]

[Millefiori] canes, probably made in Italy, have been found as far away as 8th century archaeological sites in Ireland, and millefiori was used in thin slices to brilliant effect in the early 7th century Anglo-Saxon jewellery from Sutton Hoo. - Wikipedia

Friday, April 17, 2009

Second century sculpture of Roman boxer found in Jerusalem

This is an interesting find from the excavations in Jerusalem. At first I thought it might be a well worn head of the Roman emperor Hadrian himself but the experts suspect it is a boxer from the shape of the ears.

Archaeologists have unearthed a marble figurine they say dates back to the second or third century C.E. during an excavation in Jerusalem's City of David.

The marble bust of a bearded man's head was discovered during the excavations that the Israel Antiquities Authority is conducting in the Givati car park in the walls around Jerusalem National Park.

Dr. Doron Ben-Ami and Yana Tchekhanovets, directors of the excavation at the site on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, said that the figurine's short curly beard and head tilted to the right is indicative of Greek influence and can be dated to the time of the emperor Hadrian or shortly thereafter (second-third centuries C.E.).
According to Ben-Ami and Tchekhanovets, "The high level of finish on the figurine is extraordinary, while meticulously adhering to the tiniest of details."

They added that the pale-yellow shade of the marble may point to the eastern origin of the raw material from which the image was carved, but they are still verifying that matter.

The figure's stylistic motifs, such as its short hair style, the prominent lobes and curves of the ears, as well as the almond-shaped eyes, suggest that the object most likely portrays an athlete, probably a boxer.

Boxing was one of the most popular fields of heavy athletics in Roman culture and more than once Roman authors mention the demand by the Roman public in general, and the elite in particular, for boxing matches.- More:
I had never visited the City of David website and was quite impressed with the number of multimedia elements it includes. I particularly liked the Timeline feature that provides a slider to change a picture of the modern city to resemble a view from centuries ago. They also included a nice fly-thru of a reconstruction of the ancient city. Be sure to have your computer's volume control turned down a bit, though, as the music is a little overwhelming!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

3rd century Roman Christians ate on average 30% freshwater fish

I found the following article very interesting especially since I explored the catacombs for the first time on my recent trip to Rome. My friend and I took the Archaeobus out to Appia Antica and disembarked at the Church of Saint Sebastian. While my friend waited I toured the catacombs there. Actually, the most interesting tombs were not the simple Christian niches but three pagan Roman tombs in the heart of the complex that predated most of the Christian burials. The three tombs standing side by side carved with architectural elements into the rock reminded me of a miniature Petra. The interior of two of tombs were embellished with terracotta flowers. The third tomb was decorated with delicate frescoes.

[Top Left: Roman mosaic floor, Palazzo Massimo Alle Terme, Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome, Italy. Photo courtesy of Mary Harrsch]

“The eating habits of Rome’s early Christians are more complex than has traditionally been assumed,” say Leonard Rutgers and his colleagues in The Journal of Archaeological Science. Their work was based on analysis of 22 skeletons found in the Catacombs of St Callixtus on the Appian Way, an area utilised in the 3rd to 5th centuries AD (although some of the skeletons were radiocarbon-dated to the 2nd century)..."

"...Half of the sample were taken from loculi, half from cubicula burials. Bone preservation was poor, making sexing and ageing difficult, although one person was definitely very old, between 82 and 85 at death, while another was a breast-fed baby of around 2.
Collagen, the organic portion of bone, was taken mostly from toe bones, in a few cases from fingers or limb bones.It was analysed for its carbon and nitrogen stable-isotope content: these elements are good indicators of diet. Most samples had more or less the same isotopic levels, “confirming that the people buried in the Liberian region of the catacomb formed a single population and suggesting that, by and large, these people had access to the same kind of food resources,” the team reports. Comparing the catacomb results with those from other sites in Italy and in the western Mediterranean, the higher nitrogen and lower carbon figures indicate the consumption of freshwater fish. The contribution of such fish to the diet of the early Christians in Rome ranges from 18 to 43 per cent, averaging at around 30 per cent.
Although this is surprisingly high, fish were still a supplement to an otherwise terrestrial diet, likely to have included sheep, goat and cow meat as well as cereals, fruit and vegetables..."
"...“While distancing themselves from Jewish food taboos and generally avoiding meat derived from pagan sacrifices, the early Christians are normally hypothesised to have eaten the same food as their non-Christian Roman contemporaries,” the team says. “Within the larger context of what is currently known about Roman dietary habits, the inclusion of freshwater fish therefore comes as unexpected and raises questions about the social origins of Christianity as well.”
“When Romans ate fish at all, they are normally believed to have consumed sea fish. Freshwater fish has not been considered as an essential ingredient in the classical Roman diet.” In AD301, the Emperor Diocletian’s Edict on Prices tried to fix the cost of freshwater fish at around a half to a third of its marine equivalent, so that even the poor could eat it. Roman fish probably came from the Tiber, and would have been a free or cheap source of protein." - More: TimesOnline
The importance of fish to the Romans is easily seen in their beautiful mosaics. Although mythical sea creatures are usually portrayed in mosicas found in bath complexes, very realistic food fish are depicted in floors of Roman tricliniums (dining rooms).
[Image: Marine Life Mosaic from House VIII Pompeii demonstrating the vermiculatum technique Roman 2nd century BCE, Museo Archaeologico di Napoli, Naples, Italy. Photo by Mary Harrsch]
If you are planning a trip to Rome and want to visit the catacombs, I see that Frommers recommends the catacombs of St. Domitilla. They expressed their opinion that the catacombs of St. Sebastian were the least satisfying. From their description, though, it sounds like the catacombs of St. Callixtus contain the most examples of funerary art since it is the site of nine pope burials and the tomb of Saint Cecilia. Frommers seemed to think their tours were cheesy, though. I remember reading their review before going to Rome but when the Archaeobus stopped at the first site of catacombs, the area looked rather unkempt. I decided to keep going and the stop at the Church of Saint Sebastian looked more inviting so I disembarked there. Our tour guide had been giving tours there for 26 years and she was quite knowledgable and didn't appear to dispense any particularly biased information. She pointed out Christian epigraphy including the fabled sign of the fish and the Greek Chiro (supposedly painted on the shields of Constantine's soldiers). Towards the end of the tour you enter a large subterranean dining room where families would come and feast to commemorate their departed loved ones. I knew feasting was part of the Roman funeral experience but I always thought it was held outside the actual burial site. Family diners carved their prayers on the walls. Although photography is not allowed inside the catacombs, visitors are welcome to photograph the interior of the church that is decorated with several beautiful paintings and sculptures.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Art Repatriation Brings Painting Fragments Back Together

When I first read that the Getty was returning yet another piece of art to Italy I couldn't help but groan, thinking of the huge bare space I saw on my last visit where the beautiful table support of griffins attacking a doe (that was returned to Greece) once stood. But in this case, the repatriation was voluntary and for a very good cause. Apparently, scholars saw the painting in a 2008 exhibition catalogue and recognized it as part of another painting fragment that had been returned to Italy voluntarily by a private collector in New York.

The J. Paul Getty Museum said Tuesday it will send a piece of an ancient Roman wall painting back to Italy.

A 35-by-31-inch piece of a 1st century landscape fresco is being returned because it appears to belong with another fragment returned earlier by another collector, according to a museum statement.

The fragment shows two painted panels bordered in red and gold. Inside the panels are several Roman buildings in a cityscape.

The museum noticed about a year ago that the piece, which was donated by a couple in 1996, appeared to belong to the same painting as another fragment that a private collector was returning to Italy. - Mercury