Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Interactive Mithras by Caroline Lawrence

The evening of Thursday 17 May 2018, just over a week from the date of this post, is your chance to meet me, Caroline Lawrence. I will be welcoming children (and their guardians) to an ancient Roman underground temple: London’s Mithraeum. This is the first #MuseumsAtNight session at the Mithraeum which only opened to the public last year. 

I am honoured to have been invited and will be doing some fun interactive activities to prepare kids aged 8-13 for the Mithraeum’s Immersive ExperienceThere will be four separate sessions, each lasting about half an hour. 

To brainstorm ideas for a new book I am writing called Ways to Die in Londinium, I will be trying to recreate some of the sensations of being a worshipper of Mithras. 

This will be difficult in one sense. Mithraism was a Mystery Cult which means that lots of its rites and rituals were purposely kept secret, like a secret club. 

On the flip side of the coin, because we know so little, we can play around with various ideas based on the evidence and what we think we know. 

Here’s my script for what I hope to say:

First you need to know THREE BASIC THINGS.

Who Was Mithras? 

We think that Mithras was a new god created out of different older gods. This is called syncretism and is something the Greeks and Romans often did to link cultures together. Serapis was a blend of Dionysus, Hades, Osiris and Apis for Greeks in Egypt. Sulis Minerva linked a Roman god to a British deity. Mithras was certainly partly inspired by the Persian god Mithra (no ‘s’) and a creation story involving the stabbing of a cosmic bull. The Greek goddess of victory – Nike – is sometimes shown stabbing a bull. Mithras wore distinctive Persian clothes, which happens to be the same thing the Trojans wore, a long-sleeved tunic over leggings and the famous Persian cap which looks like a Smurf hat. He also has a billowing cloak, a dagger and sometimes a bow and arrow. Mithras looks a lot like Paris, the Trojan who started the Trojan War and killed Achilles by firing a poisoned arrow into his heel. 

What Did Worshippers Want?

The worshippers of Mithras wanted part of themselves to live forever. They may have believed that a series of initiations took the soul on a journey whose goal was immortality. There is lots of evidence for seven grades of achievement. Why seven? Because the Greeks and Romans believed in seven planets: the five they could see and also the sun and moon. They thought each ‘planet’ and the god who went with it ruled a sphere, or a ‘heaven’. So when you reached the highest level you were in the seventh heaven. One ancient document encourages the worshippers to say ‘stella sum’ or ‘I am a star.’ I wonder if they imagined the soul getting purer and purer as it rises through the grades until it is a little twinkling star, looking down on earth and waiting go into another body. (Yes, Mithraists probably believed in reincarnation) But, like every journey, there is often a battle or an ordeal. Each time a follower of Mithras wanted to go to a higher grade he had to go through a scary initiation.  

What’s with the bull?

If the cross is the symbol of Christianity, this very complicated and mysterious image of Mithras stabbing a bull is the symbol of Mithraism. It’s called a ‘tauroctony’ (tar-AWK-tony) which is Greek for ‘bull-slaying’, though that word never appeared in ancient times and we’re not even sure he was actually killing a bull. People have written whole books about the ‘tauroctony’ but for now just know that some of them have the signs of the zodiac around it, along with two men holding torches. The signs of the zodiac are linked to planets of course and the guys with torches might be guarding the gates to the heavens. The one with his torch up ushers the soul in its upward journey towards the stars. The one with his torch down is showing the immortal soul the way back down to a mortal body.  

Did you notice I keep saying ‘men’? That’s because, unlike almost every other religion known to us, Mithraism was for men only. So the first thing I will do is to give all you girls a sex change and grow you up real fast. Imagine you are a Roman man, probably a soldier. 

Next, I will assign you your grades or levels. As I said, there are seven. The avatars are Raven, Bridegroom, Soldier, Lion, Persian, Sun-Runner and Father. Each has its own ruling planet and the god who goes with that planet. They each had their own attributes. And each probably had a special colour and sound. 

Who wants to be a Raven?

You get a black wristband. You are the lowest and possibly most common grade. You are under the protection of the planet/god Mercury. Your code name is Corax. Several accounts talk of Ravens flapping their arms and making a ‘cawing’ noise. Everybody flap your arms and make a cawing noise!

Who want to be a Bridegroom?

Your attributes are a lamp and a garland. You get a yellow wristband. Bridegrooms are under the protection of the planet/goddess Venus. Your code name is Nymphus. The sound you made might have been ‘Yo!’ which was the ancient equivalent of ‘Yay!’

Who wants to be a Soldier?

You get an orange wristband because the soldier’s colours were red and yellow and when you mix red or yellow you get… orange! Soldiers were under the protection of the planet/god Mars. Your code name is Miles (MEE-layz). The sound you made might have been ‘Sin dex!’ Or maybe you just stomped. Everybody stomp and say Sin dex, which is short for sinister, dexter or ‘left, right’!

Who wants to be a Lion?

Lions get a red wristband. You were under the protection of the planet/god Jupiter. Your code name is Leo for one and Leones for more than one. Leonibus means ‘to or for the lions’ and you will hear it in the salutation ‘Nama, leonibus!’ or ‘Hail to the lions!’ No prizes for guessing the sound ‘Lions’ made! Everybody roar!

Who wants to be a Persian?

You get a white wristband because of your protective planet. Any guesses? Yes, the moon. Of course you know the moon isn’t a planet, but the Mithraists counted it as one. Your code name is Persis. Nobody has a clue what sound the Persians made but we know that sometimes worshippers made vowel sounds like Aahh, Eh, Ayyy, Eeee, Oh, Oooh, Ohhh because each planet had its own vowel: alpha, epsilon, eta, iota, omicron, upsilon & omega! So maybe the Persian made a vowel sound mentioned in one papyrus text: Or maybe they purred like a Persian cat. Everybody purr!

The sixth grade is very mysterious and we think very few people reached this level. Who wants to be a Sun-Runner?

 You get a gold wristband. You are under the protection of the ‘planet’ Sol, the sun! Your god is ‘Sol’ in Latin and ‘Helios’ in Greek. Your code name is Heliodromus. Your attributes are a torch, a crown with rays like the statue of the sun god (the Statue of Liberty wears a sun crown) and a whip. Why a whip? Because the sun was often imagined driving a fiery chariot. What sound did you make? Perhaps a whip-crack, or maybe a neigh! Everybody whinny! Now everybody say ‘Nama, Heliodromis!’ Which means ‘Hail to the Sun-Runners!’

The seventh and highest grade was the Father. 

Their colour was the purple of royalty so you get a purple wristband. But there was only one for each Mithraeum. So only one of you can be Father. Fathers were under the protection of the planet/god Saturn. Their code name is Pater. Their sound might have been ‘Hey, you kids! Get off my lawn.’ (joke!) Now everybody say ‘Nama, patri, tutela Saturni.’ Which means ‘Hail to the father, under the protection of Saturn.’

(If you want to see all the chants in Latin and English go HERE

You’re about to go down into the Mithraeum for the Immersive Experience. The word mithraeum has not yet been found, but we do know they said ‘Cave of Mithras’. They called it this because the temple was designed to look like a cave. In Roman times you had to go down seven steps, (natch!) into a dark space mysteriously lit by torches. Today you have to go seven meters below street level, because you usually go down to go back in time.

Because this temple was restored to almost the exact position it occupied in Roman London, I had an idea that it would be the perfect spot for a time portal. When you go to another time, it’s like beaming to a planet in Star Trek. You don’t want to beam into a wall or ceiling. So, if you want to travel to Roman London in the mid third century, the Mithraeum is the perfect place to put a portable portal. (Say that three times quickly!)

The premise for my work-in-progress is this: When 12-year-old London schoolboy Alex Papas is recruited by eccentric bazillionaire Solomon Daisy to go back to Roman London, his mission is to get information about a mysterious blue-eyed girl whose bones were discovered in a cemetery in Southwark. But things go wrong almost from the start and when Alex finds the girl he is totally unprepared for what happens next.

Now I will read a chapter from Ways to Die in Londinium!

To hear the chapter and participate in Carolines interactive Mithras experience, book your FREE place HERE. There will be four slots between 6pm and 8pm. Each will last about half an hour each: my talk plus the Immersive Experience!

P.S. Ten Fun Things About London's Mithraeum.   

Friday, January 12, 2018

Interview with a Roman Sewer Expert

A few years ago I interviewed Erica Rowan, an archaeobotanist who has excavated Roman sewers around the world. Erica grew up in Toronto and studied Classics and Health Science at McMaster University in Canada, graduating with both a BA and BHSc. She then read for an MSt in Classical Archaeology at Oxford and was later awarded a DPhil in Archaeology, also from Oxford, with a specialisation in Roman archaeology and archaeobotany. In September 2014 she took up the two year post of Leventis Associate Research Fellow at the University of Exeter and then spent a year at Exeter as a teaching fellow. She is now a lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London

exhibition poster from 2015
I first met Erica at the Corinium Museum in May of 2015 when she participated in a fascinating exhibition called Food for Thought. Wanting to know more about Roman eating and toilet habits, I lured her to an interview in London by promising lunch in the members room of the British Museum. The interview took place in October 2015, but ancient toilets and sewers never go out of fashion so I thought I would post a slightly edited transcript as a New Years Treat. 

Caroline: So, Erica, you’re an archaeobotanist, which basically means you study plant remains and especially food remains. Are you happy to be doing sewers? Is it quite fun?

Erica: It is quite fun. You get to see what people actually ate. 

Caroline: Is being an archaeobotanist a separate thing from being a ‘poopologist’? Or are they essentially the same career description? 

Erica (laughs): They’re slightly different. Human waste only survives in limited number of contexts; latrines, sewers and the like. Archaeobotanical remains, and especially carbonized material, tends to preserve at almost all sites. 

Caroline: You’ve been on digs at Aphrodisias in Turkey, Herculaneum in Italy and Utica in Tunisa, a Phoenician site. So what were the Phoenicians eating? 

A New York Sandwich... with pepper! 
Waiter (interrupting): One New York sandwich and one Middle Eastern Salad. 

Caroline (laughs): I’m the Middle Eastern Salad. 

Erica: And I’m the New York Sandwich. 

Caroline (looking at the newly arrived platter): So which of these things would the Phoenicians have been eating in Utica, in Tunisia? 

Erica: Not potatoes, tomatoes or cauliflower. 

Caroline: But they might have had a balsamic vinaigrette? And chicken?

Erica: Yes. Chicken, bacon, cheese… But the earliest material I have from Utica is Roman, not Phoenician.

Caroline: Ah! What sort of remains tell you it’s Roman? Fragments of fish sauce jars for example? 

Erica: No, we dated the site from the context. Its hard to tell Roman influence from food remains because the whole Mediterranean had the same staple foods. 

Caroline: What do you mean by staples? Is fish sauce a staple?

Erica: A staple food would be anything they depended on. In the Mediterranean the three main staples are grains, wine and olive oil. 

Caroline: Is there any evidence of food fads?

Erica: Not in Utica, but in Herculaneum black pepper was very popular. The people eating it were not necessarily upper class but they were willing to pay. It comes all the way from India so is expensive. 

Caroline: So it was a status symbol. 

Erica: Yes. 

Caroline: Speaking of black pepper, may I grind you some? And smile! I’m taking a picture. 

(Erica laughs and submits to having her photo taken.)

Caroline: So what got you interested in Classics? What was your spur moment?

Erica: My friend made me go see Gladiator and I really liked it, although it’s not historically accurate... Also, we were studying the Romans in high school. 

Caroline: Fun! So Tell me a bit about being an archaeologist. Are you out in the sun and the rain? Under a tent? Or is it mainly lab work in a basement?

Erica: It depends on the site. If it’s a small section I’ll excavate it myself. When I was in Aphrodisias I excavated a section of a drain. 

Caroline: With a trowel and everything?

Erica: Yes. I take my samples and then do flotation and process them on site.

Caroline: Flotation?

Erica: It’s a method used to identify plant remains using buckets of water and sieves. You put the material in agitated water. The soil and sand sink but seeds, grains and lighter objects float to the surface. 

Caroline: What did you find at Aphrodisias? The staples? Anything remarkable? 

Erica: I’ve found wheat and barley, and also grapes, olives and peaches.

Caroline: Do you remember your first dig? 

Erica: I was in Jordan for seven weeks. It was an amazing experience. The site was Humayma, about an hour north of Aqaba, and very dry. There were about a dozen of us from Queen’s University on this particular dig. 

Caroline: Describe an average day?

Erica: We would drive up there every day. We would get up at 5.30 am, pile into a minibus at 6am and get to the site around 7am. We were working with Bedouin. They would make us extremely sweet black tea when we arrived. It was really good. Then we would dig until about 10am and stop for breakfast, cooked in a frying pan over a file kindled by the Bedouin. I was excavating part of a bath complex.

Caroline: What did you eat for breakfast?

Erica: They would bring fresh flat bread baked by their mothers or wives. And we would bring food, too: canned tomatoes, corned beef and peas. They would heat the food in frying pans over a kindling fire and we ate it with the fresh flatbread. Then we would dig again until 1pm when we finished for the day. We would go back, have lunch, sort and wash the pottery and then leave it on the roof of the building to dry. Once that was done you had the rest of the afternoon free. 

Caroline: What was Aqaba like? 

Erica: It’s not too big. A fort town. Pretty modern but with a few old buildings including a fort and giant flagpole. I really liked it. I liked Tunisia, too. 

Caroline: When were you in Tunisia? What period was the site?

Erica: The site was Utica, so about 30 minutes outside Tunis. It was a Punic, then Roman, then Islamic site. I was there from 2013 to 2015. 

Caroline: I love going to places like that. Sometimes I think it’s the closest we’ll get to travelling back to the past. 

Erica: In Tunisia you go to these outdoor barbecues in a big group and they cook freshly slaughtered meat for you. If you drive past at a certain part of the day you often see an animal they’ve slaughtered just hanging there. There’s no blood so they must have drained it before they hang it outside underneath a tent. They put the head on display. There are often live sheep tethered to the tent near where they cook the meat. 

preparing to slaughter a ram in Morocco 2006
Caroline: A dozen years ago my husband and I saw a ram slaughtered, inflated, skinned and dismembered at a Berber village outside Marrakech, Morocco all in the space of about half an hour. It was like a scene out of the Old Testament: Genesis book 22, the binding of Isaac. There was a thorn thicket and everything.

Polite Woman (interrupting):  I wonder if we might borrow your salt and pepper; we seem to be in rather short supply.  

Caroline (laughs): Sure. Here’s our luxurious pepper. And salt. 
(to Erica) Have you ever been on a dig here in Britain? 

Erica: Yes. An Iron Age and Roman site called Marcham near Oxford. It was a rural sanctuary site. 

Caroline: What did you notice about the diet there? 

Erica: Cereal and chaff. I was doing flotation. In the Iron Age, people were bringing their crops and processing them there. 

Caroline: When you process grain its like a biblical threshing floor, correct?

Erica: Yes. You often find burnt chaff nearby, which shows it was used for kindling. 

Caroline: Did they dedicate some of it the grain after threshing? Or just take it back home? 

Erica: They ate it.

Caroline: What evidence do we have for a Roman presence at Marcham?

Erica: There were a lot of oysters, even though Marcham is quite far from the coast. Experts can tell which coast an oyster comes from by the markings on its shell. 

Caroline: What’s the most memorable revelation you’ve had digging through sewage material? 

Erica: The diversity of their diet. That particular sewer at Herculaneum served Romans from the lower and middle classes. It was below an apartment building with shops at ground level and people living behind and above. There were a few independent apartments on the upper floor, but nothing elite. From that one sewer we catalogued 114 different types of food including fish, shellfish and plants but not including other animal meat. They didn’t seem to have any food taboos; privately they would just eat anything. It’s often assumed the poor would eat cheap bread and wine but they’re eating a huge variety of things, and seasoning their food with dill, coriander, fennel…

Magna Roma menu cover
Caroline: sometimes when you read their recipes they really seem to overdo it, with up to a dozen spices. I once ate at a short-lived restaurant called Magna Roma near the Colosseum in Rome. The owner tried to replicate authentic Roman dishes. But the food tasted so strange that the restaurant folded after just a few years.  

Erica: Some friends and I tried to recreate some Roman dishes and I think it’s actually more like Asian than modern Italian food. 

Caroline: Yes! They say that garum is more like Thai Fish Sauce than like Worcestershire Sauce. It’s pretty revolting.

Erica: The fish sauce is essentially salt because they didn’t add salt. And although there were often lots of spices the quantities were quite small, so the taste was hidden. My friends and I made a lentil dish with chestnuts, honey, red-wine vinegar, and Thai Fish Sauce. Within those ingredients you can’t identify any one thing. It’s a good holiday dish for winter. Feed it to people and don’t tell them what they’re eating. Then afterwards you can mention it had fish sauce in it! 

Caroline: It sounds delicious!

Erica (nodding): We also made a dish of pork and figs. We boiled the figs to make syrup and then cook the pork in that. It was the moistest piece of pork I have ever had. 

Caroline: Fascinating. They found an ancient Roman amphora in the Thames full of olives preserved in sweet grape syrup!

Erica: Columella talks about olives in honey and how it’s both salty and sweet. 

Caroline: That would be such an alien taste.
Erica: When you cook these dishes it doesn’t taste like anything you’ve tasted before. 

Caroline: Thanks for sharing all that, Erica. Do you have a photo of you on a site that I could post?

Erica: Sure... 

Thanks, Erica, for letting me post this interview. Good luck in your future adventures and research! 

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Ten Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About London’s Mithraeum

by author Caroline Lawrence

Sophie Jackson, Catharine Edwards, Fiona Haarer & Michael Marshall
A few days ago I went to see London’s Mithraeum, recently reopened in the basement of Bloomberg’s new building. I’m fairly jaded by museums and wasn’t expecting anything special, but it was great. Coming up out of the ‘experience’ I ran into Sophie Jackson and Michael Marshall of MOLA – two of the archaeologists responsible for the display – along with Catharine Edwards, Professor of Classics and Ancient History from Birkbeck College and lecturer Fiona Haarer of the Roman Society. Although I am one of MOLAs archaeology ambassadors, I had booked the normal way and our meeting was totally serendipitous. Chatting with them, I learned a couple of facts which I share below, along with a few other things you might not know. 

I do urge you to go and I hope this short list enhances your experience!

1. Exit 8. It’s easiest to reach London’s Mithraeum via Bank station exit 8. If you’re coming from Waterloo just get the Waterloo & City line. One stop is all it takes. Exit via the travelator and when it ends make a sharp left to reach Exit 8 which now has London Mithraeum added at the bottom of a list of landmarks. Go up the stairs to street level and continue straight ahead for less than 200 meters, passing the Starbucks on your left. You’ll see entrance to the Mithraeum on your right. It’s on the ground floor of Bloombergs brand new European headquarters. It doesn’t look like a Mithraeum from here; it looks like a modern art gallery because it is a modern art gallery called SPACE. 

2. Dead Time. Entry to London’s Mithraeum is free but you have to book a visit. They won’t just let you roll up. But sometimes if you roll up at their ‘dead time’ of 3pm they might let you in. N.B. Never show up on Monday, when the exhibition is closed. 

3. Three Parts. Like Gaul, the London Mithraeum is divided into three parts. The first part is in the art gallery reception where a guide will give you a Samsung tablet and point you at a modular wall displaying around six hundred roman artefacts all found within a few metres of where you are standing. Tap the outline of an object on your tablet and up comes a superb hi-res image of the artefact. Swipe right and find a line or two about what it is in a nice big, easy-to-read font. Why use a tablet when you can just look? Some of the pieces are quite high up and/or small, and the imagery is superb. 

4. Special Glass. The piece of glass in front of the modular display of Roman objects is state-of-the-art. According to Sophie Jackson, Director and Archaeologist at MOLA, (Museum of London Archaeology), it is the biggest piece of glass you can get of that thickness and with the non-reflective properties. Hidden hinges on the left allow the slab of glass to swing open so that the modular displays can be regularly updated. 

5. Lucky Amulet. The tiniest object in the modular display wall is an amulet of amber shaped like a gladiator’s helmet. It is minuscule, about the size of your little fingernail. According to Michael Marshall, Senior Finds Specialist at MOLA, it was put in a day before we were there, replacing a less sexy pair of tweezers. Michael also told us that this tiny object was spotted by an archaeologist the old-fashioned way, with the naked eye. (Near the amulet is the famous LONDINIO tablet, also recently added by popular demand.) 

6. Go Down to Go Back. Someone at MOLA or Bloomberg had the very clever idea of showing how you have to descend to go back in time. As you go down the black marble stairs you see what the ground level would have been for important moments in Londons history such as the WWII bombing level and the Great Fire of 1666. There is a similar plaque on the back of the elevator. The Temple of Mithras dates from about 240 AD, almost 200 years after Londinium was first established. 

7. Famous Actress Joanna Lumley narrates some of the commentary on the mezzanine level, which is the second part of the experience where ‘clues to what form the cult took are explored in light and sound.’ 

8. Please Touch. You are allowed to touch the three resin casts: the head of Mithras, a tondo with inscription and a 3-D plan of the temple. As a cheerful guide named May explained to me: The exhibition is meant to be touchy-feely!’ The head of the mysterious god Mithras with its distinctive Persian cap was found in 1954 on what was intended to be the last day of excavation of just one of hundreds of bomb-exposed sites in London. Planned building on the site was halted so that the Mithraeum could be excavated and eventually removed to another site. Bloomberg and MOLA have brought it back to exactly the place it was originally found. 

Get Well card by Roman glassmaker David Hill
9. Just Theories. Don’t swallow the written explanations or spoken commentaries whole. Our understanding of this mysterious cult is changing all the time. We don’t really know what they did at these ceremonies. We don’t even know if Mithras was actually killing the bull or just wounding it. In a recent article, scholar Christopher Faraone claims the word ‘tauroctony (i.e. bull-slaying scene) is a nice-sounding Greek noun that appears nowhere in Mithraic inscriptions or literary testimonia and in fact nowhere in ancient Greek. JRS 103, pp 1-21 

10. The Experience. The third and final part of London’s Mithraeum is an ‘experience’ on the site of the ruins themselves. I don’t want to spoil it for you but it involves sound, light and mist. And although it was one of the coldest days of the year this underground space was comfortably warm.
There is a superb free guide to the history of London as revealed in the Archaeology at Bloomberg co-produced by MOLA. You can download it HERE. (Spoiler alert: There are some images in the final pages of the brochure which might spoil the third part of the experience.) 

You can also get an interactive guide to the wall of artefacts on your smartphone or tablet by going to

Bravo to Bloomberg, MOLA and Foster + Partners Architects! You did a great job. 

Book your FREE tickets to the Mithraeum HERE. And if you want to meet me, check out my Interactive Mithras event for Museums at Night at the Mithraeum on Thursday 17 May 2018. 

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Ten Myths About Pompeii

Fun poster for the movie Pompeii (2014)
The poster on the right is huge fun, but if you’ve studied Pompeii at school or read my book The Secrets of Vesuvius, you know its wrong.
There was plenty of warning. 
There was a chance to escape.
There were no flaming rocks.
There were no rivers of lava. 
And there were almost certainly no passionately kissing couples!
You know it was a Plinian eruption, named after the two Plinys, Pliny the Elder, the naturalist who died in the eruption, and Pliny the Younger, the one who wrote about it. You know all about the ash and the pyroclastic surge. 

staged reconstruction of making the casts at Pompeii
You know that the so-called frozen bodies are not frozen bodies at all, but plaster casts made when Italian archaeologists filled the body-shaped cavities in the tufa (hardened ash) with plaster of Paris. When the plaster hardened they chipped away the tufa to reveal shockingly accurate moulds of the vanished dead, sometimes showing folds of cloth and facial expressions. This was a kind of death-mask, but for the whole body, not just the face. And they didnt just take moulds of people but animals, too, such as mules, pigs and a dog. 

Wallace-Hadrill at Pompeii, 2013
I thought I knew all the myths, too. Then I went to the Bay of Naples with Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill and my world was rocked. He showed me that many of my beliefs were actually myths. Wallace-Hadrill was director of the Herculaneum Conservation Project for fifteen years, from 2001 until 2016. Some people call him Professor Herculaneum, because few people know Pompeii’s smaller, richer sister-city better than he does.

Caroline at Pompeii in January 2013
A few years ago, Cambridge Alumni Travel in conjunction with Andante Travels proposed a once-in-a-lifetime chance to visit ruins on the Bay of Naples with Wallace-Hadrill. I jumped at the chance. I had visions of him telling us things no book would reveal and taking us places no tour guide would have access to. I was right. He did get us into places the other tours didn’t reach. But he also demolished some long-accepted facts about the famous eruption of Vesuvius and the cities it destroyed.

By the end of our first hour with Andrew Wallace-Hadrill I realised he was a Myth Buster extraordinaire. Like all great historians and archaeologists, he does not accept facts just because they’ve been repeated in print a bazillion times. He has a knack for looking at things with fresh eyes and reinterpreting the evidence if necessary.

Here are ten of my most cherished beliefs: BUSTED!

Wallace-Hadrill at Pompeii, 2013
Myth #1 – Vesuvius Did Not Erupt on 24 August AD 79. Everybody confidently quotes this as the date of the eruption, but everybody is probably wrong! At the turn of the 20th century, everybody claimed the eruption occurred in November. But Wallace-Hadrill thinks late September or early October is a likelier date. His clue is a lot of ripe pomegranates found near a buried villa at a place called Oplontis between Pompeii and Herculaneum. (This villa is known as the Villa Poppea or Villa Poppaea because it was owned by Nero’s wife Poppaea.) In Italy, pomegranates ripen in late September/early October. The problem is not with Pliny the Younger, whose famous letters tell us the date of the disaster, but with the monks who interpreted his dates as they copied his manuscripts.

Myth #2 – Villa Poppea Not Owned by Nero’s Wife. The Villa at Oplontis probably wasn’t called the Villa Poppea and it probably wasn’t owned by Nero’s wife Poppaea. (Though both things might be possible.) Furthermore, the town where it’s located wasn’t called Oplontis. Or maybe it was. We just don’t know. 

Myth #3 – Population of Herculaneum. Guide books often say the population of Herculaneum was 4,000 people. We simple do not know! Those who hung around were possibly vaporised by the first pyroclastic surge. This explains why so few bodies have been found in the town at the foot of Vesuvius. The only bodies we’ve found at Herculaneum were those sheltering deep underground or in the vaulted boat-houses facing the waterfront. But wait…

Myth #4 – Not Boat-houses. The famous bone-filled “boat-houses in Herculaneum probably weren’t boat houses. Yes, they were by the sea but they probably had a double function as foundations for the Suburban Baths and storehouses for various goods, (but probably not for boats.) Wallace-Hadrill thinks the dozens of skeletons found there were those of people sheltering from what they believed was just another earthquake. He believes there were dozens of earthquakes in the run-up to the eruption, starting with the big one in 62 CE. But wait…

Myth #5 – The Earthquake of 62. The famous earthquake of 62 CE was almost certainly in 63 CE. Scholars got the dating wrong. Tacitus tells us who the consuls were and this allows us to date it precisely.

Myth #6 – Buried Under Hot Mud! Herculaneum was NOT buried by hot mud as all the guidebooks tell you. It was buried under alternating layers of tufa (hardened ash) and lapilli (light aerated pebbles of volcanic matter). You can see it before your very eyes if you just look. 

Myth #6 – Don’t Call it a thermopolium. The Romans called those fast-food places popinae or tabernae. The word thermopolium only occurs once in Plautus (a 3rd century BC Roman comic playwright). It was probably a joke word. Wallace-Hadrill, the Myth-Buster, called this a dubious term.

Myth #7 – Don’t Call it the Decumanus Maximus. Romans did not call the main road through town the Decumanus Maximus. That is a term invented by modern scholars. They probably called it Venus Street. Or Street of the Fishmarket, or similar.

Myth #8 – Don’t Call it a lararium. Romans might have worshipped Hercules or Diana there, rather than the Lares of the household. Call it a shrine, an aediculum in Latin.

Myth #9 – So-called Discovery of Pompeii. Pompeii was not really “discovered in the 18th century. They knew it was there but just weren’t interested or were discouraged by the church from investigating too deeply.

Myth #10 –  The Phallus is Not Always Apotropaic. In Pompeii, guides will tell you that the male member points the way to brothels. Experts tell you it was a symbol of good luck, used against the evil eye. They are correct, but to bust a busted myth: sometimes the phallus did point the way to a brothel. (See picture above of a phallus on a paving stone of the Via dell’Abbondanza, Pompeii’s main drag.)

Wallace-Hadrill at Herculaneum, 2013
The main thing I learned from our time with Professor Herculaneum was this: There’s a lot we don’t know. Don’t believe things just because you’ve read them or heard them. Always check the primary sources in conjunction with the archaeological evidence and make up your own mind.

For those of you not lucky enough to travel to the Bay of Naples with Andrew Wallace-Hadrill as a tour guide, don’t despair. His lavishly-illustrated and clearly-written book, Herculaneum Past and Future, is now out in paperback. It is a wonderful resource.

I have written nearly thirty history-mystery books for children set in Roman times. Three of my Roman Mysteries are set on the Bay of Naples during and after the eruption of Vesuvius: The Secrets of Vesuvius, The Pirates of Pompeii and The Sirens of Surrentum. Find out more at my website:

P.S. A version of this post was first published on Wonders & Marvels in February 2013, a month after our trip to the Bay of Naples. 

Saturday, October 28, 2017

The Naples Tunnel

So-called crypta Neapolitana of Seneca
by Caroline Lawrence

Traveling from the Roman resort of Baiae to Naples one day nearly 2000 years ago, the Stoic philosopher Seneca decided to take the land route instead of the short but choppy sea voyage. Part of the road took a shortcut through a mountain by means of the famous Naples Tunnel. But the Crypta Neapolitana turned out to be almost worse than a sea voyage, a virtual visit to death. In one of his famous Letters to Lucilius, Seneca describes his harrowing journey.

bronze portrait thought by some to depict Seneca
When I had to return from Baiae to Naples, I convinced myself there might be a storm so I wouldn't have to endure another sea voyage. But the road was so waterlogged that I might as well have gone by ship. Anointed with the mud of the road and then dusted in the Naples Tunnel, I felt like a wrestler. Nothing could be longer than that prison, nothing gloomier than the torches that enabled us to see not through the darkness but rather the darkness itself. Had the place any other light sources it would still be clouded by dust which even in the open air is heavy and annoying. How much more so in that tunnel where the dust swirls back on itself. Shut up without any ventilation, it blows into the faces of those who stir it up. In this way we simultaneously endured two opposing inconveniences: on the same road, on the same day we battled both mud and dust. (Letter to Lucilius 57.1-2)

Emerging from the gloom into daylight restored Seneca to his usual good spirits, but thinking about the claustrophobic darkness of the tunnel afterwards prompted him to write about the nature of death and the immortality of the soul

Mergellina station seen from Tomb of Virgil
Seneca’s tunnel was in constant use up until about a century ago, when the middle of the tunnel collapsed, but you can still see both ends. The eastern (Neapolitan) entrance is found near the so-called Tomb of Virgil in the Parco Vergiliano a Piedgrotta. Located near Mergellina train station (only a half hour’s walk from Castel dell’Ovo) this Parco Vergiliano (with an e) is not to be confused with the large Parco Virgiliano (with an i) four miles southwest. In 2013 it barely appeared on Google maps but now you can easily locate it by typing in the words Parco Vergiliano a Piedigrotta. It is behind the Church of the Madonna of Piedigrotta and easily reached by taxi or by train to Mergellina. 

Hand-made tile plaque about myrtle at Virgil's Tomb
Virgil, of course, was the great Roman poet who wrote the Eclogues, the Georgics and the Aeneid, my favourite Latin poem. I was lucky enough to visit the Parco Vergiliano in September 2013 with Andante Travels. In this densely populated city without many public gardens the so-called site of Virgils tomb offers a cool, green oasis. Flanking the paths are plants and herbs mentioned in the works of Virgil, all beautifully labelled with tile plaques giving descriptions and the Latin names.

Another plaque tells about Virgil and you can see a modern bust of him in a niche, done in 1930 on the 2000th anniversary of his birth. Although the poet was born in Mantua and studied in Rome, he called Naples his home.

The plaque reads:

A modern bust of the ancient poet Virgil
Mantua me genuit, Calabri rapuere, tenet nunc Parthenope. Cecini pascua, rura, duces...

Mantua bore me, the Calabrians snatched me away, now Naples holds me. I sang of pastures, countrysides, leaders...

The steep hill is formed of honey-coloured tufa cloaked in ivy and dripping with vines. Like honeycomb, the soft rock is perfect for tombs, niches and tunnels, which the Neapolitans call galleria. The biggest of these tunnels is the dramatic Crypta Neapolitana – Seneca’s tunnel. Next to it is one contender for Virgil’s tomb, a cave carved into the hill with a bust of Virgil in a niche nearby. Nearby is another tomb, that of Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) a hunchback poet who was a great worshipper of Virgil. Sometimes this area is called the Hill of the Poets. 

Medieval fresco of Santa Maria dell’Idria above the tunnel
Undaunted by the background noise of the Mergellina train and police sirens, our Andante guide proclaimed Tennyson’s Ode to Virgil. Then he told us there is another possible tomb to Virgil on a higher level. 
Climbing the brick stairs with the aid of a sturdy wooden handrail we found a small Roman aqueduct that ran above Seneca’s tunnel. From up here you can get a closer look at a niche with a faded fresco of Madonna and Child. Mounting more stairs takes you to a beehive-shaped tomb that also might be Virgil’s. This atmospheric freestanding cylindrical tomb is of the columbarium type, with niches for ash-filled urns. There is a convenient tripod where you can burn fragrant bay leaves in memory of the great poet. The view from up here is breathtaking; you can see right across the bay to Vesuvius. 

Caroline Lawrence in Virgil's tomb
Although Virgil’s real burial place is probably lost in antiquity, this site became a popular place of pilgrimage. During the Middle Ages the poet became known as a magician. This belief might have started because of one of his poems, the so-called Messianic Fourth Eclogue, in which Virgil seems to have miraculously prophesied the birth of Christ. (The poet died in 19 BC.) Other legends grew up around him and by the mid-14th century a book called the Cronaca di Partenope or Chronicle of Parthenope (Parthenopeis another name for Naples) recounts some amusing achievements of Virgil the Magician. For example, he made a metal horse that cured all sick horses, a golden fly that kept away all flies, and a magic leech that, thrown into a well, rid all Naples of her leeches. 

Virgil the Magician also placed a magic hen
s egg somewhere in the eponymous Castel dell’Ovo. As long as the egg remains, goes the legend, the castle will stand strong. 

painting of the Naples Tunnel by Gaspar Vanvitelli c 1700

My favourite legend is that Virgil himself drilled the Naples Tunnel merely by turning his intensely poetic gaze on the hill, not unlike Superman with his laser vision. According to one eighteenth century travel writer, the grosso popolo of Naples revered Virgil more for his magical creation of this tunnel than for the Aeneid. So it is fitting that you will find Virgil’s Tunnel near one of his possible tombs in the vibrant city he loved so much. 

My two retellings of stories from Virgil’s Aeneid are The Night Raid, about Nisus and Euryalus from book 9, and Queen of the Silver Arrow, about Camilla from books 7 and 11. The reading level is easy but the content is dark.

A version of this post was originally published on the Wonders and Marvels blog

Monday, September 18, 2017

Roman Londoners from the Bloomberg Tablets

by Caroline Lawrence

It is a cool grey Saturday morning in mid-September I am on my way to a London square near St Paul’s cathedral. A writer in search of inspiration, I am hoping to meet some ancient residents of Roman London or Londinium, as it was called. 

fragment of Samian ware with archer now at MOLA
For many centuries it was believed that St Paul’s cathedral was built on the site of an ancient temple dedicated to the Roman goddess Diana. After the great fire in 1666 when the architect Christopher Wren was digging the foundations for his new St Paul’s, he kept a sharp lookout for evidence of Roman occupation. Although he found no trace of a Temple of Diana, he did find other Roman artefacts including fragments of popular Samian ware, a type of imported, glossy orange pottery beloved by rich Romans in Britain. 

Over three hundred years after the new St Pauls rose from ashes, the multi-national company Bloomberg were digging the foundations for their new European headquarters in the City of London. Like Wren they also found Roman artefacts; not just a few, but over fifteen thousand. These were preserved in the waterlogged soil of the Walbrook, one of several streams that feeds into the Thames. The Roman goodies included leather shoes, pottery, brooches, hairpins, rings and – most exciting of all – over four hundred writing tablets. 

Unlike the famous Vindolanda tablets, most of the so-called Bloomberg tablets are not postcard-thin wafers of limewood designed to be inscribed with ink, but stylus tablets made of silver fir reclaimed from imported wine barrels. Also known as wax tablets, these were slim tiles of wood with a shallow depression for a layer of wax. This wax was scratched away with a sharp stylus to reveal the wood underneath. The London tablets were mainly covered with soot-blackened wax, which contrasted with the pale wood underneath. 

As a Classicist, Londoner and writer of historical fiction for kids, I was thrilled when MOLA, the Museum of London Archaeology department, invited me to be one of their ambassadors of archaeologyI jumped at the chance and was rewarded with a copy of the first of several volumes about the Bloomberg finds and also a private tour of the MOLA repository in Hackney. At Mortimer Wheeler House I saw some of the tablets and artefacts up close. The ancient combs, shoes and brooches were fun, but Ive seen plenty of those before in museums. 

What I hadnt seen were items like the wonderful iron stylus from Rome (left) with an inscription on its hexagonal sides declaring: I have come from the City. I bring you a welcome gift with a sharp point so that you may remember me. I hope I bring you good fortune when the way is long and the money sack is empty. As archaeologist Michael Marshall (above) remarked, this is the ancient equivalent of My Parents Went to Rome and all I got was this lousy T-shirt. 

And then there were the famous tablets. Most would have about the size of a small paperback book (140 cm x 110 cm), but with with the thickness of a smartphone. A few are the size of an iPad and a few are tags. Some have a central depression for the impression of signet rings. Roman wills had to be witnessed by no fewer than seven men and they were always recorded on sturdy wax tablets. 

When you look at the tablets you are amazed that anyone can make sense of the faint chicken scratchings left by the stylus as it pushed through the wax nearly two thousand years ago. But a combination of ultra-modern technology and old-fashioned genius makes this possible. 

Genius photographer Andy Chopping records the traces of scratches left by the stylus and gives them to genius epigraphist Roger Tomlin (above). A kind of code-breaker of ancient Latin cursive, Tomlin has been able to decipher parts of 80 of these tablets. (See how they do it HERE.)

From the archaeological context and a few dates on some of the tablets, we know these documents go right back to the very first years of London’s existence as a Roman town and cover a period of about twenty years, from roughly AD 60 to about AD 80. They give us an extraordinary glimpse into the life of Roman Londoners, naming merchants, craftsmen, soldiers and politicians who lived in the new outpost of the Roman Empire. 

Fittingly for London, almost all the legible tablets have something to do with business and commerce. Each tablet is given a label with a code including the letters WT which stands for Writing Tablet

One thrilling tablet, WT44, was written when Nero was emperor and is dated to 8 Jan AD 57. In it, a freedman named Tibullus notes that he owes another freedman named Gratus 105 denarii for some merchandise which was sold and delivered. 

This tablet sent a chill down my spine when I remembered that Boudica burnt Colchester, St Albans and London only three years later during her brief but violent rebellion. It is claimed that she killed over 70,000 people. Did Tibullus and Gratus survive? 

Tablet WT45 shows how quickly London rose from the ashes and St Albans, too. It is business as usual as Marcus Rennius Venustus agrees to bring twenty loads of provisions from Verulamium to London. It is dated 21 October AD 62, within two years of Boudica’s rebellion.

Another extraordinary label, WT6,  gives us the first historical mention of London. Dated between AD 65 – 70, it is addressed to a certain Mogontius. We don’t know who he was but the name is a Celtic one, linked to the god Mogons who was worshipped in Britain and Gaul and might have been extra-popular with soldiers. 

The tablets are written according to certain conventions. Although the messages themselves are often scrawled in a hard-to-decipher type of writing called cursive, the addresses are usually written in easy to read capital letters. They are either in the dative case or have the Latin word dabis – the verb to give in the second person singular future tense – ‘you will give’ . This was considered more polite than the imperative da! Give! And might be translated ‘Please give...

So we have tablets addressed thus:

Please give this to Bassus

To Atticus, son of [name lost]

To Sabinus, son of Pirinus

Please give this to Junius the cooper, opposite Catullus’ place

One tablet is addressed to Tertius the Brewer, who might be Domitius Tertius, a brewer mentioned in a tablet from Carlisle. Maybe he sourced his barrels from Junius the Cooper.  

Other Romans named include Julius, Florus, Jucundus son of Flavius and the merchant Optatus. 

My favourite name is Namatobogius; I hope to meet him and find out who he was. 

When I finally arrive at Paternoster Square I am greeted by MOLA development and community project officer Magnus Copps (his real name) who introduces me to four members of The Vicus re-enactment group: Matt the baker, Simon the saddler, Chris the merchant and a lady scribe who wants to remain anonymous. When I ask them which Bloomberg Roman Londoners they are, they say they aren’t specific Londoners mentioned in the Bloomberg tablets, just generic Roman Britons. 

After a flash of disappointment, I take the initiative and assign them possible roles. 

Simon is wearing a fetching Celtic style tunic so I provisionally give him the name Namatobogius. When he does other events with The Vicus – for example at Fishbourne Roman villa or Caerleon legionary fortress – he plays the part of an auxiliary with the Hamian archers, co-incidentally the cohort that appears in my second Roman Quest bookHe tells me you can use hair from a horse’s tail as a bowstring, and how the Romans used tannin-rich oak, apple or chestnut to dye leather.

With his bright blue eyes, long yellow hair and torque, Chris from Cambridge is obviously Belgic. But hes wearing a Roman style toga. This fits his persona of an injured auxiliary from Germania who took early retirement and set up as a merchant. At first I dub him Optatus, a merchant mentioned in the tablets. But when he mentions that he is a micro-brewer, I give him a new persona: Tertius the Brewer. Appropriately, he is holding a beaker. His handmade socks and new shoes are totally authentic. He also confirms what I have always suspected, that it is impossible to run in a toga. 

Matt Hoskins, a cub scout leader from Poplar, a district of Southeast London, is a genial baker in his mid-twenties. With his pale skin, dark hair and tattooed arms he could be Celtic, so I might dub him Mogontius. He is a font of information about sourdough mixture, different types of flour and bugs in honey. He shows me a libum, a type of honey cake made with cheese and decorated with bay leaves. He also demonstrates Locatellis theory of how Roman bakers wrapped twine around their round loaves before baking so the customers could easily carry them away when hot. And possibly to keep them out of reach of vermin. 

But what about women?

Vindolanda gave us the famous birthday invitation sent by Sulpicia Lepidina to her friend Claudia Severa, but of all 92 persons named in the 80 legible Bloomberg tablets, not one is female. So I can make the elegant lady scribe anybody I want her to be. But it would be nice to have an authentic name, so I hop over to the online site of RIB, Roman Inscriptions in Britain, and immediately find two possible candidates.

She could be Tullia Numidia, commemorated in the epitaph of a now lost tombstone from London. Or how about Tretia Maria, named in a curse tablet (right) found near Moorgate? The author of the tablet (a lead one in this case, not from Bloomberg) is afraid of Tretia blurting out a secret. He or she writesI curse Tretia Maria and her life and mind and memory and liver and lungs mixed up together, and her words, thoughts, and memory; thus may she be unable to speak what things are concealed...

Liver and lungs mixed up together? That’s a bit nasty. But wait! Writers have to be nasty. We have to give our characters interesting opponents and force them to undergo tests and trials. Otherwise the reader will be bored. So Tretia Maria it is. And even as I write it I wonder: Could Tretia be a misspelling of Tertia? In which case, she could be related to Tertius the Brewer: his beautiful daughter perhaps or younger sister. Perhaps Mogontius the baker and Namatobogius the cobbler are both vying for her affections. But what is the secret she knows and who wants to stop her blurting it out?

I feel a story coming on… 

To learn more about the tablets, and the ancient stories they reveal, check out Voices from Roman London. And you can follow MOLA on Twitter: @MOLArchaeology