Restoration of Justinian’s Basilica Cistern

Exciting news emerged this week from the world of Archaeology pertaining Mosaic_of_Iustinianus_I_-_Basilica_San_Vitale_(Ravenna)to the Emperor Justinian the Great and one of the greatest Roman feats of engineering and architecture still standing (albeit underground).
 
Anyone who has ever visited Istanbul has surely visited the Basilica Cistern, known in Turkish as the “Yerebatan Sarnıcı”. Located across the street and 645x400-basilica-cistern-set-for-comprehensive-restoration-1483481203740 underground from the Hagia Sophia in the heart of what once was Constantinople – capital of the Roman Empire for one thousand years and before that it was the Greek colony of Byzantium – the Cistern is an architectural marvel completed by the Emperor Justinian the Great (though it was likely begun during the reign of his uncle, the Emperor Justin).
 
The cistern was built to hold water that might keep the city’s thirst quenched in the event of siege or drought – though it was one of many that littered the city it was far and away the most important. But to call it a reservoir is to do it a grave injustice. It is a work of grace and beauty, built underneath the city streets in the heart of Constantinople. To enter it is to enter a magical space, in some ways (to me at least) it feels as ethereal and transcendent as the grand basilica above. The roof that towers above is supported by 336 columns rising 30 plus feet into the air, reflected in the water that still partially fills the room. A number of those columns contain recycled elements, including 0x0-basilica-cistern-set-for-comprehensive-restoration-1483481201380masonry that the Romans recovered from the more ancient Greek city of Byzantium like the absolutely breathtaking Medusa heads that form the base of two columns (see picture to the right).
 
To walk into the Cistern is to step 2,000 years back in time to the last era of the Romans when they still possessed the technological expertise, capital, and desire to build truly monumental works. Imagine that this place (pictures below) was never built to be seen, to entertain visitors, to awe tourists – it was simply built to hold water! Could we build something so regal today even if we tried? Its hard to contemplate. One cannot look at such a thing and wonder about, and to be awed by, the civilization that was capable of creating it.
 
So, the news this week is that Turkey will embark upon an ambitious restoration of the Cistern (along with the Milion that rests above it – the mile-marker from which all distances in the Empire were measured since Old Rome was lost to the Goths). One cannot help but wish them well and hope that the restoration is done with tact.
 
For more on the restoration see here
 

Romans in Medieval Japan

On the eastern side of Okinawa Island in Japan the remains of Katsuren japan_location_map_with_side_map_of_the_ryukyu_islands-svgCastle stand on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean on both sides of the promontory. The castle experienced its golden age in the 15th century CE when it served as a hub of trade and cultural exchange between Japan, Korea, China, and the broader world. Just how broad was its reach? In a wonderful counterpoint to the recent discovery of Chinese skeletons in a 2nd century CE Roman cemetery in London, recent archaeological excavations at Katsuren unearthed a handful of 2nd century bronze Roman coins in recent weeks depicting the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great katsuren-castleon the castle grounds. It is the first time that Roman coins have been discovered in Japan. While researchers cannot know for certain how the 2nd century coins came to the 15th century castle (at a time when the vestigial Roman Empire was confined to the City of Constantinople itself which would ultimately disappear in May of 1453), but they speculate that the lords of Katsuren obtained the Roman coins in trade with China.
 
And as we learned in my prior post, ancient China was more familiar with their Roman counterparts than many might have believed.coin-in-japan
 
For more on the find of Constantine-era coins in Japan please see here:
 
 
And for more on the UNESCO protected world heritage site of Katsuren Castle see here:
 

Chinese Travelers in Londinium

2nd-century-roman-empireIn the second century of the Common Era, the Roman Empire stretched from the Red Sea (Mare Rubrum where the southernmost Roman Legion was stationed at the Limes Arabicus on the Gulf of Aqaba) to deep in the Scottish Highlands (where the Antonine Wall bisected the British Isle from the Firth of Forth to the Irish Sea).

Stunning really. Just look at the world today, fragmented, at odds, in retreat, and contrast that with a world (equally as barbaric of course as anything we know today) where such a broad swathe of humanity looked to Caesar in Rome, for better or for worse.

These things are known. We also know that the influence of the Empire stretched far beyond the imperial borders. Rome’s merchants actively traded with far flung lands, down the African coast, to Yemen, India and even to Asia where the Roman presence has been well documented (where, for example, a splendid piece of Roman glass was uncovered last year in an ancient Japanese burial mound).

Yet a find announced this week in the Journal of Archaeological Science reveals the discovery of skeletons in an ancient Roman cemetery in South location-of-southwark-cemetery-on-lant-streetLondon – the Roman’s Londinium – that appear to have belonged to two men of Chinese origins – proves that the Romans retain the ability to surprise.

Chinese in Londinium in the 2nd Century! Moreover, two additional skeletons of African descent were also found in the same small cemetery after sampling dental enamel from 20 sets of human remains from between the 2nd and 4th centuries CE. Who were they? Where did they come from? Did they travel there of their own free will, or as soldiers or slaves (or as the native born descendants of any of the above)? These questions remain unanswered skeleton-lant-street-teenager-museum-londonthough scientists and archaeologists continue to explore little Southwark, mere steps away from Shakespeare’s Globe Theater.

The City of London is known as a cosmopolitan place and much was made of immigration in the recent debate over Brexit, as immigration is being discussed in much of the Western world. The argument goes that the City was once a certain, way, and then immigration changed the fundamental nature of things. These skeletons provide an interesting wrinkle that will not change the discussion but perhaps it should.

Here we have proof that nearly 2000 years ago the Romans were able to create and sustain a world in which travelers from the opposite side of the planet could comfortably travel and did so, from China (which the Romans knew as Serica, its people as Seres) to Londinium. The find also weakens the previously held view that Roman-era London was a parochial, homogeneous place.

It would appear that London has been cosmopolitan ever since it was Londinium, back in the mists of time.

And that seems something to celebrate.

For more on this find see the following link:

http://www.independent.co.uk/…/chinese-skeleton-discovery-r…

News of a Tyrant in Jerusalem.

nero-in-jerusalemArchaeologists digging on Mount Zion just unearthed a truly beautiful Roman coin, exceptionally rare both for its quality, condition and the era in which it
was minted (and lost).

The coin (see below) depicts the Emperor Nero, the last Emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty and was estimated to have been minted and buried in approximately 56CE, just over a decade before Jerusalem was leveled by the
Romans during the devastating Revolt. The coin was unearthed on the grounds of a private villa that was sat on the slopes of Mount Zion and that was almost certainly razed during the subsequent destruction of the city by the Roman Army as the team of archaeologists from the University of North mount-zion-2Carolina who said:

“This mansion and others like it were utterly destroyed by Titus and the Roman legions, when Jerusalem was razed to the ground,” he said. “It is likely
– owing to the intrinsic value of the gold coin – [that] it was hidden away ahead of the destruction of the city, and was missed by the marauding and looting Roman soldiers.”

A coin of this quality is very rarely found and it is particularly interesting mount-ziongiven the fact that it points to the Romans’ presence in Jerusalem before the destruction of the Second Temple (in 70CE).

For more on this discovery see this link to the Jerusalem Post.

Caesar’s Gold, A Murder Mystery in Sweden

On a windswept island twenty times the size of Manhattan off the coast of Sweden, investigators are scouring a crime scene for clues, to understand who was behind a terrifying massacre whose details are only now coming to light. Yellow crime scene tape circles the remains of homes, and the remains of their former inhabitants, under a slate grey sky. Many dozens of people, Sandy-Borg-Excavations-CISmen, women and children fell victim to a horrendous attack on the island. Most remarkable is that the dastardly attackers had to overcome towering fifteen foot stone walls capped with battlements and manned by some of the most fearsome warriors Europe has ever known to commit their crime.

So what does it have to do with Rome?

To begin with, this attack happened some 1,500 years ago.Oland Map

And the investigators that even now study this dark deed are archaeologists from Kalmar County Museum, located on the mainland just across from the island.

As described in Archaeology Magazine (link to the full article below):

“Built around A.D. 400, it encircled an area the size of a football field. Now called Sandby Borg, the site is one of more than a dozen similar “borgs,” or forts, on Öland, all built during the Migration Period, a tumultuous era in Europe that began in the fourth century A.D. and hastened the collapse of the Roman Empire.”

But there is more “Rome” in this story than simply the time period in which Sandby Borg was devastated by unknown assailants. Again quoting from Archaeology Magazine:

“Archaeological excavations and chance finds [on Öland] have turned up hundreds of Roman coins, bronze statues, glass beads, and vessels dating to
the first four centuries A.D., when Öland had extensive contact with the Roman Empire. As the empire began to decline, Scandinavian warriors from the islands of Bornholm, Gotland, and Öland found that a set of skills different from what they had sharpened before was now in demand. They had traveled thousands of miles south between a.d. 350 and 500 to work as mercenary bodyguards for the last of the Roman emperors, who paid well to guarantee their loyalty. Ölanders had long brought their wages back to the windswept Baltic island in the form of Roman solidi, gold coins commonly issued in the late empire. The solidi found on the island are distinctive, matching dies that have been uncovered in Rome. “A lot of them are very fresh, in mint condition,” Victor says, without the characteristic wear of coins that have been passed from hand to hand in trade. “There’s a direct link to Rome, and later to Milan and Arles.”

Stones at Oland

So this long, exposed island was populated by retired bodyguards that had enriched themselves in service of Caesar, the last Caesars to rule the Western Empire. And when they were released from duty they returned home with the gold that they had accumulated and they stashed that wealth in homes with turf walls that they raised behind massive stone fortifications knowing that word would spread of their wealth. That their hard won wages would prove to great a temptation in their horrendously violent age.

And that concern would prove to be terribly prescient.

Caesar’s bodyguards, and their families, fell not long after those protective walls were built.

Their story is dark, and fascinating, and well recounted in Archaeology Magazine for those interested in more..

 

From Londinium, With Love…

“I ASK YOU IN YOUR OWN INTEREST NOT TO LOOK TOO SHABBY.”

A message that only true friends or family could deliver and only then with a certain degree of caution – it takes love to tell the unvarnished truth!

The note could easily have been written by any of us today, in a text or email. Instead it was written 2,000 years ago in a Roman settlement known as LONDINIUM, modern London. It, along with a treasure trove of
wood tablets was just discovered during a construction project for Bloomberg’s new European headquarters in London.

Bloomberg headquarters construction

Most amazing is that this note (one of 405 writing tablets unearthed on London’s Queen Victoria street), was written on bees’ wax pressed on wood. The original wax has long disappeared but impressions from the writing were pressed into the wood which was miraculously preserved.

As one article described:

“The preservation of the tablets is in itself remarkable, as wood rarely survives when buried in the ground. The wet mud of the Walbrook, a river that dominated the area in the Roman period but is now buried, stopped oxygen from decaying the wooden tablets, preserving them in excellent condition.”

image_3925_1-Bloomberg-Tablet-30 Tablets found on site

The find is historical for another reason. On one of the wood tablets, archaeologists identified the earliest mention of the city’s name ever found, dating to mere years after the city’s founding in 43CE.

“IN LONDON, TO MOGNOTIUS.”
(“Londinio Mogontio”)

image_3925_2-Bloomberg-Tablet-6

 

 

 

Sends chills up the spine….

A Ghost from Caesarea…

220px-CaesareaA pile of marble, concrete and sandstone sits off a highway between Haifa and Tel Aviv.

Once a city.

Once a Roman colony, its residents Roman citizens, one of the most important cities in the Roman orbit.

Colonia Prima Flavia Augusta Caesarea.

 

Named after the first Emperor, Caesar Augustus, the city sat on the turquoise Mediterranean coast in Rome’s Palestina province and dominated Mare Nostrum’s waters, a beacon in the Roman east for many centuries.

Caesarea's location on the Mediterranean

The city had many distinguishing features but none more remarkable than its massive, man-made harbor, the biggest in the world when it was built enclosing 100,000 square meters. It was known as Sebastos Harbor (“sebastos” from the Greek for Augustus), and its construction was made possible by the Caesarea_maritima_(DerHexer)_2011-08-02_098 220px-Caesarea_maritima_BW_4Roman’s brilliant invention of a new kind of concrete upon which they built their world-spanning Empire. A mix of lime and pozzolana (volcanic ash imported from Italy), this almost indestructible concrete has the unique quality of growing harder with time – even underwater – one of the reasons why there are so many well preserved Roman maritime ruins in the world.

Recently, somewhere in those waters off Caesarea, two divers discovered an ancient Roman wreck, a ship that sunk in the age of Constantine the Great – 1,600 years ago. IAA (Israel Antiquities Authority) archaeologists who explored the wreck speculate that the ship must have foundered when trying to make the harbor in a storm, depositing its cargo in the sand where it has been well preserved for nearly two millennium.

Among its contents were exceptional statues, including one of the Moon Goddess Luna (see below) that’s as beautiful as any I have seen, a grand collection of Roman coins, anchors, and other metal objects that were bound for recycling according to the IAA. Thanks to the storm they never made it to the foundry, giving us one of the most important maritime discoveries of Roman artifacts in Israel in the last three decades.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR4486.
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