Saturday, December 31, 2011

Ancient Roman New Year

Two-faced Janus
How did Romans celebrate the new year?

Like us, the Romans celebrated the new year on January 1st, which they called the Kalends of January or Iani Kalendai. The two-faced god Janus was lord of this day. January is named after him. He is the god of beginnings and ends and his name means "gate" or "door". In times of war the gates of his temple were kept open and in peacetime they were barred.

Here are ten things ancient Romans might have done on the first of January.

1. try to think good thoughts all day long
2. greet each other cheerfully, avoid gossip or negative speech
3. sprinkle saffron on the hearth, as incense
4. sacrifice to Janus before any other god in household shrine
5. join or watch a procession to the Capitoline hill, where
6. priest would sacrifice a heifer and
7. swear in the officials elected to serve in that year
8. do a bit of business
9. give honey, dates, coins to friends, family, patrons, clients
10. pray to the god Janus for peace

We know these things from many places but especially from the Roman poet Ovid, who wrote a whole book on Roman Festivals. This book was called Fasti, which literally means 'a register of public holidays'. Boring, huh? But Ovid knew how to make it exciting.

In the first book he invokes "Two-headed Janus, the only one of the gods who can see your own back..." when the god himself suddenly appears to him in a vision!

Ovid is terrified. He feels his hair stiffen and his bosom freeze but he manages to choke out a couple of questions about the meaning of the festival.

[N.B. The following Q and A is paraphrased]

Ovid: Why do you have two-faces?
Janus: I sit at Heaven's Gate and supervise the comings and goings of everybody including Jupiter himself. I need two faces or I'd get my neck in a twist. 

Ovid: Why does the new year begin in midwinter and not in spring when everything is fresh and new?
Janus: Midwinter marks the death of the old sun and the beginning of the new. The year takes its start from that point. 

Ovid: It's forbidden to do business or file a lawsuit on most festivals, but not on January 1st. Why not?
Janus: So idleness won't set the pattern for the whole year. Start as you mean to go on. Do a little business. 

Roman honey - a good omen
Ovid: Why do I offer wine and incense to you first, before any of the other gods?
Janus: I'm the door and the doorman. You get access to them via me. 

Ovid: Why do we wish each other 'Happy New Year!' and say only positive things today?
Janus: Omens are linked with beginnings. On this first day of the year, the ears of the gods are open and your words carry more weight.
oil-lamp with New Year greeting
Ovid: Why is it traditional for people to give each other dates, figs and jars of honey today?
Janus: They are all good omens, ensuring that the whole course of the year will be as sweet as its beginning. 

Ovid: I see why sweet things are given, but tell me the reason for the gift of money.
Janus (laughing): How little you know about the age you live in if you think honey is sweeter than cash in hand!

Ovid: One last thing. Why is there a ship on the back of some coins?
Janus: Now you're pulling my leg, aren't you?

faustum annum novum (tibi precor)
The Two-Faced God
[To to read some fun stories about an 8-year-old soothsayer's apprentice in the Roman port of Ostia, try The Two-Faced God. To read the entire conversation between Ovid and Janus, check out Frazer's translation from the Loeb. To see more about inscribed oil-lamps and tableware, go HERE.]

Monday, December 12, 2011

Saloon Archaeology Museum in Reno

tickets from Piper's Opera House
On the fifth floor of the Ansari Business Building at the University of Nevada's Reno campus is a gem of a museum, currently showing a fascinating exhibition of Western Archaeology. The University of Nevada, Reno Anthropology Research Museum is part of the Anthropology Department. At the time of writing (December 2011) the exhibition called Archaeology of the Mining West features artifacts from saloon digs at Virginia City, the Silver Boom town featured in the 1960s TV show Bonanza and now in my new Western Mysteries series of books for kids aged 9+. (There is also a small case of items from one of the excavations of the ill-fated Donner Party, where pioneers had to resort to cannibalism to survive.)

Jessica Axsom with pictures of a dig
I first heard about the museum from Dr. Jessica Axsom (left), an archaeologist at the Nevada State Historic Preservation Office in Carson City. Every morning for a week in November of 2011, Jessica gave me access to their little reading room so I could do research. On the last day she showed me a whole box of artifacts from Battle Mountain, (where my great-grandmother Corinne Prince was born in the 1870s.) Jessica also showed me pictures of her dig in the Chinatown area of Virginia City, where my books are set. She didn't have any artifacts from Virginia City, but she told me I could see some at the small Anthropology museum in Reno.

Ansari Business Building
Jessica told me to ask for Sarah Heffner, a graduate student in charge of the Virginia City exhibition. A few hours before we were due to fly out of Reno, my sister and husband and I drove to the impressive campus, found the Ansari Business Building and went up to the 5th floor. We were lucky enough to ride up in the elevator with someone who knew Sarah and she kindly took us to the museum. Serendipity: Sarah was there! The museum is literally one room with about half a dozen cases and a research room tucked behind. It is manned by graduate students like Sarah, a "Museum Technician", and volunteers like Robert. (The exhibit itself was designed by a Museum Training for Anthropologists class.)

Sarah Heffner, Caroline & volunteer Robert

antique bottles
A glass case explained that Dr. Donald Hardesty is the recently retired professor of archaeology who was responsible for excavating sites of the Pony Express, the Donner Party and various saloons in Virginia City. In the four or five cases devoted to artefacts found in his digs, I was thrilled to see items from various saloons around Virginia City. The Boston Saloon is particularly fascinating because it is the first African-American Saloon ever excavated. As Dr. Hardesty says, "Archaeology is another way of travelling into the past." Entering the Boston Saloon you might have seen a gaslit space filled with pipe smoke, the smell of lamb chops and fine wine, and the sound of trombone music above the babble of happy voices. (To find out how they deduced this, have a look at this 2-part film clip.)

cases in the small museum

Also on display were artifacts found on the site of Piper's Corner Bar, (later Piper's Opera House), the Hibernia Brewery and O'Brien & Costello's Shooting Gallery & Saloon. It was thrilling to see tickets from the Opera House, poker chips charred by Virginia City's great fire of 1875 and gun shells from beneath the saloon shooting-gallery. There was even evidence of children found in some of the saloons: marbles and a doll's arm! Yes, Virginia City was a wild place, even for kids.

toys from Piper's Opera House Saloon

Artifacts from saloons included bottles, bungs, white and red clay pipes, dice, animal bones, oyster shells, buttons, bullets, coins and even a tooth powder box. A water filter made in London and a glazed earthenware spittoon were represented by photos. There was also a case devoted to the Chinese population of Virginia City, (Sarah Heffner's special subject), including Chinese coins, pottery, tiny medicine bottles, a bone toothbrush and an opium pipe. It was a delightful half hour travelling back in the past. If you have any interest in the archaeology of the Wild West – or Virginia City – and find yourself on the Reno campus, I urge you to go along to the University of Nevada, Reno Anthropology Research Museum. Just tell them Caroline Lawrence sent you!

P.S. You can see more about Saloon Archaeology HERE and you can find out about the Western Mysteries HERE.