Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Last Chance for Pompeii Exhibition!

9.10 on a Sunday morning!
You've been meaning to go to the British Museum Pompeii Exhibition all summer but it finishes at the end of September. At time of posting this, pre-booked tickets are almost sold out – just a few left for September weekends – so you might have to show up early to get one of 500 tickets released first thing each morning (not necessarily for immediate entry) OR find a friend who is a Member (i.e. a Friend) with guest privileges to take you OR become a Member yourself. If you become a Member, you can go whenever you like, breeze past the queue and go straight in. Then you can check your emails over coffee or tea in the brand new Members' Room.

The exhibition has had rave reviews but one problem is that it is almost always too crowded to enjoy. My best tip is to get yourself a Membership, show up on Saturday or Sunday just before opening at 9am, join the orderly queue outside the gates, go straight in to the exhibition (no need to queue at that point), ignore the filmstrip (you can come back to that later) and go straight into the exhibition which you can then enjoy in blissful emptiness (above right). But don't blithely take my word for it: always check the latest on opening times.

I have already blogged about TWELVE FUN THINGS TO SEE but here are TEN MORE THINGS to look out for.

1. ET TU, PHOENIX? One of the first things you see past the inscriptions and graffiti is this jolly fresco of a Phoenix above two peacocks. Peacocks are real, but the Phoenix is a mythical bird of fiery resurrection. Curator Paul Roberts calls this a "pub sign". It was found on a wall of a fast food joint in Pompeii. The slogan says "The Phoenix is happy (or 'lucky'), and you!" What interests me is the expression "Et tu" which is used elsewhere in Roman contexts as an apotropaic slogan. Apotropaic is Greek for "turns away evil" and it refers to anything that averts bad luck. Apotropaic images include the raised palm of the left hand, erect phalluses, eyes and the unflinching gaze of a full frontal face. All these things "turn back evil". The words "et tu" (and you) seem to have a similar meaning. Our modern equivalent might be "back at you!" In Roman times, if a person approached you with good intentions, saying "et tu" would be a blessing. But if they came at you with evil intent, then the phrase is a curse. This puts Julius Caesar's last words, Et tu, Brute*, in a whole new light!

2. COMIC RELIEF? Next to the famous fresco of Dionysus and Vesuvius in the atrium room is a small marble relief showing the earthquake of AD 62 or 63. If you look closely you will see it is quite comical. For example, the two men depicting equestrian statues look silly and are staring straight out (an apotropaic device) and their horses are actual long-eared donkeys.  Humour is another apotropaic device so I think this sculpture may be saying something like, "We laugh in the face of earthquakes!"

first time seen by public
3. PANTHER TABLE - Curator Paul Roberts said if he could take home one item when the exhibition finishes, it would be this one. That's probably because it languished in a storeroom for many years and he was the first to show it to the public. Like the goat, snake and dolphin, the panther is associated with Dionysus, the patron god of the region. This wonderful table probably would have been painted.

4. BALL 'O' PIGMENT - In a bowl just on the left as you enter the triclinium (dining room) you will see a bowl with two greyish balls. This is how fresco paint came. You would chip off some pigment, grind it in a mortarium, then add egg and water and perhaps a few other ingredients. Finally, the paint was applied to the still-damp plaster. The plaster sucked up the colour and when it dried the painting became part of the wall. That's why these paintings have survived so well. These are the less exciting "white" and "grey" pigments.

5. The NAVEL OF THE WORLD or omphalos is shown on a fresco in the far end of the triclinium room on the right. This fresco screams Apollo. Cupids (the lolcats of the Roman world) frisk around with his bow, his quiver, his lyre, his tripod and possibly a runaway patera. The tripod is especially linked with Apollo because the Delphic oracle sat on one to prophesy. And Delphi was the site of the navel of the world. If you want to know what the navel of the world looked like, there it is underneath the tripod, looking like a fat bollard.

2000 year old loaf of bread
6. Still in the triclinium room is a glass case full of Roman-type "samovars" and portable hearths. Look out for a BRONZE KRATER WITH ARGONAUTS. A krater was for mixing large batches of water and wine. I only noticed the argonauts on my fifth visit, mainly because this room is usually so crowded!

7. ANCIENT PIZZA - OK, it's not pizza because they had no tomatoes in Roman times, but this round loaf of bread looks like puffy pizza. But what's that strange dent around its perimeter? London-based Italian chef Giorgio Locatelli recreated the loaf and came up with a possible cause: a piece of string was tied around the dough, baked in and then used to carry the loaf home.

8. In the culina (kitchen), look out for a PESTLE SHAPED LIKE A THUMB. It is made of white marble and is found below the hare mould for terrine and next to the beautiful sieve with the maker's signature punched in holes. The mortarium containing the thumb pestle has a fun panther face for draining liquid and on the bottom a crude apotropaic Medusa face for turning away evil when it's hung up on the kitchen wall. (You can't see this in the current display mode).

9. Also in the culina you will see a giggle-inducing FRESCO OF MAN DOING A POO (right). This is often cited as an example of Roman belief that demons or other nasty things lived in the sewers. The naked youth is being protected by two lucky snakes and the goddess Fortuna. The curators have placed this fresco in the culina room, because that is where most private Roman latrines were found: in the kitchen, usually right next to the hearth. Paul Roberts says this was because Romans classed wet and smelly things together. (For more about this, see my post on Demon in the Toilet!)

10. Near the end of the exhibition – in the same case as a soldier's sword – is a collection of treasures found on a little girl's charm bracelet. Ironically, considering the cataclysmic bad luck she experienced, most of the objects had an apotropaic sense... but what's with the shrimp? I have heard of apotropaic farting, but never an APOTROPAIC SHRIMP! Answers and suggestions below, please.

*Clever clogs among you might know that what Julius Caesar really said was the Greek version, kai su, teknon, but it makes no difference: the Greek phrase has exactly the same sense as the Latin, maybe even more so! Also teknon can mean "child" or "son", but also more derogative "kid" or even "punk". So Julius Caesar's last words to his final murderer Brutus had a meaning of "You'll get yours, too, punk!"

For more apotropaic images including two "kai su" mosaics, visit my PG-rated Apotropaic Pinterest page.

Caroline Lawrence writes history mystery books for kids aged 8 to 80. No. Really! All the pictures in this post are © Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei / Trustees of the British Museum

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Roman Museum Canterbury

Too bad the Roman Museum in Canterbury is set back from the road. This fabulous resource needs to be more visible to kids, grown-ups, families and tourists.

The Museum came into existence thanks to the notorious Baedeker Bombers of World War II. These were Germans flyers who used the Baedeker Guide Book to inspire their hit list. By some miracle they missed the world-famous Cathedral that was the goal of so many pilgrims from the time of Thomas à Becket onwards. Instead, they devastated the surrounding area. But in so doing they exposed the remains of a Romano-British Villa with impressive mosaics and hypocausts.

I was invited to Canterbury by Ray Laurence, a professor of Classics at the University of Kent. He is famous for his animated TED talk on Roman teenagers. He is also passionate about the Museums of Canterbury and wanted to show me what was special about them. During a packed day, I visited this museum, the fabulously quirky Beaney Museum and watched Paul Burnett dig an Iron Age Site. I also had lunch with enthusiastic members of the Classics faculty.

Because of my interest in all things Roman, we went to the Roman Museum first. A colourful mosaic (above) welcomes you in and a suitably imposing looking Roman soldier encourages you to "Descend through two millennia of Canterbury's history" to Durovernum Cantiacorum. Apparently, each step down represents 100 years' worth of archaeological layers finally ending with the 300 AD layer. This is already a great lesson for kids that when you go down into the earth, you are almost always going back in time!

Where once you saw the back of a museum clerk beavering away at accounts, you now see a horse and cavalry rider, which is much more exciting. In fact for a while it was too exciting. This entry area used to be so dimly that the looming figure scared younger children, so they have bumped up the lights enough to show that horse and rider have "been in the wars". For those little kids who are easily scared, there is a mouse (reminiscent of Minimus from the Latin course) to show the way. (right)

This is my kind of museum. In other words, good for someone with a short attention span. A choice selection of real finds are protected by glass but many of the authentic replicas are touchable. Mannequins show what Canterbury's Roman market might have looked like, with suitable artefacts nearby.

A useful touchscreen computer (kids love these) tells us that although we know where the Temple was, we don't have a clue which god or goddess was worshipped there! Was it dea nutrix, the goddess who suckles two babes at the breast? Excavators found more than one of these little votive figures in Canterbury. They come from Gaul (France) and that is also where we find other examples of a temple right next to a theatre and with a water trough attached. Maybe a young visitor to the museum will grow up to be the historian who solves this mystery! In the meantime, here is an informative audio clip of Prof. Laurence talking about dea nutrix figurines.

Interactive is the key word here at Canterbury's Roman Museum. In one of the first rooms I found a couple of grown-ups playing a Roman board game (below). They were definitely not posed (though by this time Ray and I had been joined by Allison Coles from the University of Kent and a reporter from the Canterbury news.) I could overhear some more interactivity drifting in from a room up ahead: "Put down that sword, Max! Put it down. Let someone else have a go..." It was only a replica of the wooden rudis given to a freed gladiator. The interactive room has some brilliant tasks for kids. In addition to dress-up, there are colourful plastic trays with real artefacts, shapes to place them and information about them. There are some great replica artefacts, including bronze strigil, wood wax tablet and a sponge-stick! Children are encouraged to handle these and guess their function.

Other highlights of the Museum include:

a digital reconstruction of a Roman town house
cavalry horse-harness fittings (look behind the model horse)
rare tools: a spade, carpenter's square and mason's trowel
mosaics and hypocausts in situ
roof tiles with the paw prints of a Roman dog
painted fragments of frescoed walls
finds from Canterbury's Roman baths including gaming counters (or were these bottom wipers?)
votive figurines, including a horse goddess and the dea nutrix
a silver treasure with Christian symbolism
glass vessels, some with cremated remains inside

One of the best interactive features was a magnetic mosaic wall. This could have been cheesy, but it's great. The pattern and tesserae are authentic-looking. It's both clever and fun. Kudos to whoever thought this up. (Or borrowed the idea!) 

It is not until you reach the end of the museum that you see the original remains of the Roman villa and learn about how the German bombing brought this site and museum to light. You realise that the museum is situated exaclty where the Roman villa and bath house stood. Those who are keen to learn more can read the old newspaper accounts and even see photographs of the Sheppard Frere and the other archaeologists who dug in the early 1950's, but this is an optional bonus for budding aficionados, and cleverly placed at the end not the beginning.

The Roman Museum was due to close in 2009, but was saved by the simple argument that Canterbury is remarkable not just for its cathedral and archbishop, nor for having the oldest parish church and oldest school in the UK, but also for its Roman past. The case was put by my new friends Dr Paul Bennett, Director of Canterbury Archaeological Trust, and also Prof. Laurence. Thankfully the council listened to them, and invested. The result is a delightfully vibrant gem of a museum, one that deserves to be visited by adults and children alike.

P.S. To see more pictures from this museum and the Beaney House of Art & Knowledge, go to my Pinterest page.

P.P.S. In a recent Canterbury Times article, Professor Laurence shares some tips on how to help kids get the most out of a museum visit.