Friday, 18 October 2013

Pompeii and Herculaneum: A Late Review and a Bit of Background

I finally got round to seeing the British Museum's Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition last month (just before the exhibition closed) and I have to say, that was fantastic!

I'd finally been able to plan a day when I would be in London so was able to book in advance and walked straight into the exhibition. After walking along a dark winding corridor (purposefully reminiscent of the Mausoleum of Hadrian in Rome?) you arrive at an audio-visual introduction to the exhibition, detailing the history of the excavations and the kinds of objects that have been found.

Most exciting of all was how the exhibition space had been planned - constructed in the shape of a 'standard-type' Roman house, (I think perhaps modelled on the plan of the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii), each 'room' of the exhibition reflected the objects and function of that part of the house.

The exhibition certainly focused on the 'Life' in Pompeii and Herculaneum, bringing together an atmospheric street-front with a detailed domestic interior, much of which included items from museums all over Europe, so it was particularly thrilling to see them all in one place, which really gave a good impression of what real Roman life was actually like.

A carbonised loaf of bread, stamped by the baker, from the cucina (kitchen) of a Roman house.
The 'Death' aspect was certainly more serious, and took up less of the exhibition, and perhaps rightly so. When I was last in Pompeii (not that regular an occurrence, honest!) I was with a group of Classics students and we decided that we didn't need a map as we had studied these streets and could find our own way. Our confident attitude apparently meant that we were a magnet for American tourists, who would come up and ask "where the bodies" were. For a start, the "bodies" are plaster casts, filling the empty space caused by decayed organic matter that was encased in volcanic ash, but more importantly why, when you're visiting a very special heritage site like Pompeii, would your main concern be the physical remains of humans? It just felt very morbid. And meant that visitors were less interested in the fantastic wall-paintings and mosaics of the buildings than they were in seeing dead people. Anyway ...

I was pleased that the British Museum exhibition didn't focus too much on the 'Death' side of the exhibition, other than to point out that it was a particularly tragic event, where whole families died suddenly, as the casts at the end of the exhibition showed.

Perhaps of more interest to a specialist, is the question of 'what happened after Vesuvius?', which was not really asked in the exhibition. Well, the work of projects such as the Apolline Project, which I took part in a few summers back, aims to show that there were more settlements up and down Vesuvius than just Pompeii and Herculaneum. Evidence from a post-AD 80s site also shows that resettlement of the area, according to brickstamps, actually occurred within 15-20 years after the well-known eruption. Certainly the Vesuvian eruption was a tragedy, but life had to continue.

The 'Villa with Baths', Pollena Trocchia, excavated by the Apolline Project.
All in all I was very excited to actually attend the exhibition, and very impressed with its scale and treatment of the topic. I was a little disappointed by how crowded it was, making it difficult to move round, but that perhaps shows how much this exhibition captured the public interest (and how people want to feel as though they have got the most out of their money!)

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

"Sex and the Satyr"

As a follow-up to what I wrote yesterday, this is what the Daily Mail thinks of Roman sex ... (And I have to say, I wish that I'd come up with 'sex and the satyr').

It's a shame, actually, that the DM finds it necessary to use shock headlines to capture interest as, despite the odd factual inaccuracy and an over-blown description of the eruption that both Pliny the Younger and Mortimer Wheeler would be proud of, the article is not that bad (!).

It does try to focus on the human side of the exhibition, (having pulled the reader in by highlighting the Romans' "hedonistic" habits), detailing individual stories, the lives of families, and, of course, individual brothel prostitutes. (There were probably not as many brothels as have been previously thought. Just because a building has small cubicula and erotic paintings does not necessarily mean that it's a brothel).

As Paul Roberts, who is senior curator of the exhibition, points out, the phallus was a protective symbol of luck and, rather than being shocked by the statue of Pan and the goat, the Romans would have found it amusing. And so should we. It presents a lightness and a sense of humour amongst the casts of dead families and the carbonised remains of daily life.

As, thankfully, the Guardian emphasises, we should not be viewing this exhibition as 'sinful'; these are facts of every day life and entertainment. And that doesn't mean we can't enjoy them, either appreciating them for their artistic value, their historical interest, or simply because we find them 'a bit naughty' today.

And in case you missed that image, here it is again, courtesy of the DM:

[Edit] And to add, with reference to this article, that if divine epiphany was the purpose of gods appearing as animals and having sex with women (and not just amusing stories of horny gods), then this piece is even more (pardon the pun) satirical. Satyrs, like pygmies, were frequently used in Roman art to create a mockery of situation. Here the divine epiphany is turned on its head, with the god-like satyr having sex with an animal, rather than taking the full form of the animal itself. Come on, it's amusing!

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Five Stars in Pompeii and Herculaneum

Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum
28th March - 29th September
British Museum, London

I am excited about this, I have to say. The exhibition opens on Thursday and I can't wait for the excuse to go and see it next time I'm in London.

Vanessa Baldwin, who was on my undergraduate course at university, is actually co-curating the exhibition (I'm only a little bit jealous), and has even co-written the guide book to go with it! Knowing her, I'm convinced it's going to be good.

The whole point is that this exhibition is about daily life, rather than public spectacles, theatres or famous statues. We can expect commonplace items, such as tables, which have been remarkably preserved in the ash of Vesuvius in the eruption of AD 59.

I've had a look at some of the objects that are being featured:

Terentius Neo and his wife
Terentius Neo, baker, and his wife. AD 50-79.
Not only is this a lovely portrait of a man and his wife, it is also exceptional for being a portrait. This represents the people who actually lived in this house, the man staring straight out at the viewer, his wife's eyes slightly averted. She also has a stylus pressed to her lip in a contemplative gesture, whilst he rests his chin on a scroll. This shows how they are not only thinking, but they are also able to think, to read and to work, which was also a sign of just how successful a baker he was. She also holds a wax tablet, which shows that she was involved in the business side of the bakery. It shows how educated this pair were, (or how educated they wanted the viewer to think they were) and it is both delightful and unusual to find such a portrait preserved in a Roman house.

House of the Golden Bracelet fresco:
House of the Golden Bracelet, Garden fresco.
This lovely fresco was found along the wall of the triclinium (dining room) of a large town-house. This particular scene shows an open and fantastical garden, populated by all kinds of species of birds, so to seem as though the dining room itself was open to a garden. The 'heads' hanging from the sky are in fact theatre masks, which reflect a flimsy theatre-like structure painted above this open scene. Painted women recline in the rectangular pictures, supported by the heads of herms, making this garden something of a picture gallery - a pinakothekai - in this fantasy garden.

Pan and goat:
Pan and goat. (see Telegraph article)
Don't be prudish, this is sex and sex is amusing and fun. Notice how Pan even seems to be leaning tenderly over the goat, as if reassuring her that everything will be ok? This piece is bound to get a few giggles in the exhibition. It completely throws us as we have no idea whether to take it seriously or as a joke. Normally is it confined to the 'Secret Cabinet' room of the Naples Museum. I can't wait to see how they explain this piece. The phallus was seen as a lucky object, and fauns were naughty, cheeky and sexually depraved. They were also part-goat. So really, I see this as an amusing talking point in a Roman garden, not meant to shock, but just, titillate.

In any case, I'm excited for the new exhibition and can't wait to see what objects have made it out of Italy to amuse and interest us in the UK.

Reviews of the exhibition can be found here:

Monday, 25 March 2013

Digging Deeper: Whatever Happened to 'Time Team'?

With the last ever episode aired last night, barring a few special editions, I still can't understand why Time Team had to end.

I grew up watching Time Team. It was part of my Sunday evening TV as a child. As I grew older I would come home from working in a café on a Sunday and watch it whilst making dinner. I didn't see much of it whilst at university, (lack of working television is definitely a factor here), but with catch-up websites such as 4oD, there was never really that much of an excuse.

But even to me, it feels like a show that belongs in the 1990s, with garish jumpers, scruffy hair and trips to the pub. Like watching Last of the Summer Wine, but with a factual element. (Not to say that these features didn't make it great at the time; they were part of its character).

Reading an article in The Guardian, it seems like Channel 4 had just run out of patience with the show. They gave it some (I'd like to think) well-meaning last-ditch attempts at hiking up its viewing figures: the establishment of the Time Team club, where one lucky member a month could take part in a dig, adding a new presenter, trying to 'jazz up' the format (and losing Mick Aston as a result). 

1.5 million viewers was apparently not high enough, having reached a peak of 2.5 million in 2008 (compared to repeated episodes of shows like Come Dine with Me reaching 1 million viewers during the day time). But after 5 years of attempting re-vamping, was cancelling the series really the best decision?

Mick Aston accused the show of "dumbing down" and "pratting about", which really did seem to be the problem with some of the newer episodes. In my opinion, it wasn't that people found the old format unintelligible, it was that the show had all the edge of a well-used trowel and had just become boring and predictable, regardless of the site upon which they were working.

It wasn't that the show needed more glitz and glamour to increase viewing numbers; the essential format worked and archaeology shows remain popular, as the BBC has found out. What was missing was the excitement and relevance that comes with archaeology in the 2010s:

  • There are breakthroughs in archaeology (both academic and practical) every day, exciting excavations and reconstructions such as the recent work on Richard III are just part of that, and it seems such a shame that Channel 4 is closing this window on the archaeological world. Time Team lost its relevance because it existed in its 90s bubble, without reference to the rest of the archaeological world.
  • Time Team did not need to be just a three-day long dig; as a generalisation the most interesting finds only came up on the third day, by which time the Team had cleared off to the pub. Why was the show not made longer, so that we could really see what that entire Iron Age village might have looked like?
  • Experimental and reconstruction archaeology has become a Big Thing. And who doesn't enjoy seeing how things were made in ancient times? Ever see Two Men in a Trench, which pushed Neil Oliver onto our tv screens? It was ridiculous, but I learned things, and I loved it!
  • There are incredible excavations going on in Britain throughout the year. Vindolanda, York, Dorchester (hey, I like Romans). I don't remember local museums, local relevant digs or anything like that coming in to the show. Local societies were featured, but only because they asked the Team there in the first place.
  • And why not feature some of the archaeologists as individuals and names? I wanted to know who these people were, how they became archaeologists and how they knew how to use a trowel. 
For me, as one of those missing viewers after 2008, Time Team had lost its relevance.

The Daily Mail referred to Time Team as "Tony Robinson's archaeology series". Is that all it ever was? Tony Robinson was certainly a lead figure, and we can't expect him to continue presenting a series forever. After years of watching the series, I began to find his presenting manner irritating. His foolish style was no longer amusing, and I began to believe that after his many years on the show, that he had learned nothing about the field. And perhaps that is what the Channel 4 producers had forgotten about the viewers; we learned and grew up alongside Time Team, and many of us have dabbled in archaeology because of it.

So, Channel 4, I put it to you: where is our archaeology programme? What will you fill our viewing hours with instead? Why not start again, without Tony Robinson, and with real archaeologists, excavating sites that have real relevance? Why not, for example, see a dig through all the way to the end? And why not give an archaeology programme the chance to capture the hearts and minds of the next generation of wannabe archaeologists?