Thursday, June 21, 2007

A murder mystery preserved in peat

The summer solstice brings us new Prehistoric and Roman Britain galleries at The British Museum, and the Guardian celebrates same with a nice tie-in piece about the death and times of Lindow Man:
A single brown fingernail lies on the leather bag of his chest, which tapers to nothing where the peat-cutting machine chopped him in two. His arm lies next to him, but these fragments of a body would mean nothing, were it not for the look on his face. A face that is 2,000 years old is not expected to have a "look". Death destroys individuality - but not his. When the remains came rising out of a Cheshire bog in 1984, that deflated torso would turn out to be packed with biological information, clues to a violent death, but it's all there for anyone to see, the full horror of it, in his face. It is the face of the eternal victim, bound and garrotted and thrown into the marsh.
Full article is at the Guardian.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The walls of Durobrivae

A quickie as I head out the door this morning...

Archaeologists working on the medieval castle in Rochester, Kent—founded by the Romans as Durobrivae shortly after the invasion in 43—have stumbled upon the remains of a Roman-era city wall. Graham Keevill, an archaeologist on the dig, was enthusiastic about the condition of the accidental find:
"We don't have many Roman city walls surviving in England. To get an unexpected one like this is fantastic. It is also a perfect example."

He said the wall had "high-quality" facing stones on each side, and its rubble core, made up of stone, flint, sand, and gravel, would have been poured in "to set hard almost like concrete, to bind the whole wall together".

Friday, June 15, 2007

Justinian's Flea

The Economist has a mixed review of William Rosen's Justinian's Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe. Some highlights:

Mr Rosen argues his position methodically and thoughtfully. He has a lot of ground to cover and he will not be rushed. So there are chapters not only on Justinian and the plague but also on the migration of the Goths, Visigoths, Ostrogoths and Huns; on Byzantine architecture; on Roman law; on China and the silkworm; and on the emergence of Islam...

At this point, thumbing the remaining 200 or so pages to come, one begins to wonder whether the whole thing might be somewhat overlong and overdone. There is no sense of its having been padded—just a slightly crushing abundance of riches, of multiple lines of inquiry, to every one of which Mr Rosen gives his close attention...“Justinian's Flea” reads like several books in one and the glut is, by the end, a little hard to digest.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Grip harsh iron rather than the tender wheat

Piazza San Silvestro, Rome
By 799, they didn't observe the Robigalia in Rome anymore. Gods of mildew were a thing of the past, as were vile sacrifices of dog and sheep guts. But people still knew that a higher power had to be enlisted on April 25 to prevent the crops from succumbing to blight and mold. They turned to the bishop, as they had done for most things since the days when chunks of masonry first began falling off the empty buildings on the Palatine Hill. Just as his fifth-century namesake had interceded on Rome's behalf against other, more immediate (and better armed) threats to the public interest, Pope Leo III stepped into the void.

His service was not welcomed by all. Leo struggled to establish himself in the long shadow of his dynamic predecessor, Pope Hadrian, who had been dead for less than four years. Most of the awestruck pilgrims lining the papal procession route hadn't heard the rumors swirling around the new pope, which were scandalous. He had told lies before God, some said. He was an adulterer, whispered others. These were not the sorts of things that were said about popes, even unpopular ones. The rumors were a matter of concern even in distant Aachen, where the Frankish king Karl—the man later generations would call Charles the Great, or Charlemagne—worried that his pious friend, Hadrian, had been succeeded by a moral midget.

Two of Hadrian's relatives who served on Leo's staff were determined, with the help of some friends, to resolve the problem. The Major Litany, as the Christianized vestiges of the Robigalia were now called, took Leo from the Lateran to the Milvian Bridge by way of the monastery of SS Stephen and Silvester, eventually winding up at the fourth-century Basilica of St. Peter on the Vatican Hill.

It was near the monastery that they made their move, according to the Liber Pontificalis:

They suddenly leapt out of their place of ambush so as to slay him impiously...when this happened, all of the people round him, who were unarmed and ready for divine service, were scared of the weapons and turned to flee...without mercy, they [the attackers] cut his clothes off him and attempted cruelly to pluck out his eyes and totally blind him. They cut off his tongue and left him, or so they thought, blind and dumb in the middle of the street.

Unfortunately for the attackers, they couldn't bring themselves to deliver the coup de grace. They locked Leo up in a monastery on the Caelian Hill, near the great round church of San Stefano Rotondo. Grievous as his wounds were, Leo made a full recovery within a few weeks. Soon after that, while his erstwhile assassins debated what to do with him, Leo's chamberlain successfully executed a late-night jail break. He would return to the immediate safety of St. Peter's, yes, but then what...?

You'll have to buy the book to find out what happened next, but Jeff Sypeck's "Mutilation of Pope Leo III Commemorative Walking Tour" proved just as unexpected a highlight of our whistle-stop trip to Rome as did our twilight visit to the Salarian Gate. When he's not nagging Charlemagne to stop leaving funny little hairs stuck to the soap, Jeff can often be found at his new blog, Quid plura?

(Title is from Ovid: Fasti, Book IV.)

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Endangered sites

The World Monuments Fund has released its annual list of the world's 100 most endangered historic sites. Iraq's sites get top billing, as do Machu Picchu and Ireland's Hill of Tara, which is infamously threatened by a highway construction project.

That Chicago Tribune article is mistaken about the Tara project, which would not actually go through the hill. Ireland may appear to be busily ignoring its heritage in favor of its economic boom, but they're not quite that far gone...yet. The highway would be about a mile from the site, but its reasonably supposed that many undiscovered Tara-era sites are imperiled by the construction. As it happens, the highway project was temporarily halted in April after preservationists discovered an Iron Age temple.