Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Archaeology Closer to Home

I have not mentioned something that has been happening closer to home.

When we first arrived, I was in the kitchen and the light blew out.  We messed around briefly with the fuses and lamps, but ended up calling an electrician. One of the two lights in the kitchen was already broken, so it seemed a sensible thing to do.

When he took the fixture down to look at it, water gushed out of the ceiling. It turned out that the people upstairs had had quite a small flood from the water filter under their sink (now fixed).  It didn't take much water to wreck the light, so we needed to replace them.  The electrician suggested that if we were going to change the lights, we should do the ceiling first.  I wasn't too unhappy about this because the ceiling was horrible - water stained even before this recent flood and really lumpy.  Here you see the ceiling and the temporary light solution.

Or here is a close-up:

So we emptied the kitchen and they put drywall over the existing ceiling and plastered over that, then we left the plaster to dry while we were in Italy.

The existing soffit had to be removed to plaster over the cupboards and when we got back and were preparing to paint the ceiling we discovered an old paint & stencil job that had been hidden by the soffit.  It's Pompeian Red and a distinctly fresco-ey stencil.

Hideous now, but probably quite the thing in the 80s or 90s.  Or the first century CE.

The COG has spent the last couple of days applying coats and coats of white paint to the ceiling. It looks fantastic now, but the other walls and the cupboards all look tired and worn.  

The kitchen needs doing, but it works for us now and so we are going to paint a bit and then leave the rest for later. And a big kitchen reno will wait a while, too. 

Footwear Fashion Update

At first glance these look like  ordinary high top sneakers but they aren't. Built into the inside is a raised heel, so they are like wedge sneakers, with the wedge concealed.  They were all over Sorrento - both in shop windows and on the feet of young women on the street.   Comfortable shoes turned into uncomfortable shoes. For Fashion. 

Fashion does not make sense. Ce n'est pas logique.  Non รจ logico. 

Italian Crosswalk Ingenuity

This zebra crossing in Sorrento had us puzzled - it led right into a dirt filled planter.

Until we realized that it cleverly made a right turn and led to a walkway on the side of the street.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Various Factoids about Pompeii and Herculaneum

1) It is believed that about 16,000 people died in the eruption of Vesuvius.  They've found about a thousand bodies in the part of Pompeii that has been excavated, and about 300 in Herculaneum, in an even smaller excavated area.  But Pompeii and Herculaneum were only two towns of several that were buried and there were many rural areas as well.  Most of this will never be excavated.

2) In Herculaneum, in the largest, richest and most magnificent villa that has been excavated, in either Pompeii or Herculaneum, they found nearly 2,000 papyrus scrolls. They are carbonized, of course, but using modern technology they can be read.  This is the only private library to survive from ancient times.  At the moment, the Italian government is unwilling to let the papyri be read because they are very delicate and it may destroy them.

3) Archeology: I always thought of it as being about discovering things but it also destroys them.  It's particularly obvious when you see the results of 18th and 19th and even early 20th century archaeology. But as one archaeologist said, everytime you dig something up, you are destroying the site.  As techniques improve more can be done with less intrusive methods.

4) The date that is usually given for the eruption, August 24th 79CE, was the day after Vulcanalia, a celebration of  Vulcan, god of fire including volcanoes.

5) The best (only?) contemporary account of the eruption is from letters written by Pliny the Younger to Tacitus the historian. At the time of the eruption, Pliny was 17 and staying with his uncle, Pliny the Elder  in a city north of modern Naples called Misenum.  Pliny the Elder went to rescue some people and died - probably from a heart attack or stroke. The people he went to rescue survived.  Pliny the Younger was driven from his house with his mother by the falling ash and smoke and the darkness at midday. It sounds terrifying - he says that people thought it was the end of the world.

6) The date given by Pliny August 24th, 79 CE, is not supported by archaelogical finds.  The foodstuffs that were carbonized in Herculaneum are from later in the year.  One victim was found with a coin that had not been minted until September. People are dressed in heavy clothing.  There is speculation that the true date was late October or November, but, of course, there is no way to prove this and no explanation for why Pliny would have said otherwise.

More Herculaneum

Herculaneum was amazing  A lot of the time we were walking on volcanic ash and a lot of volcanic material was used as building materials. It was rather poignant.

I will mostly let the pictures speak for themselves below.

A street scene, showing second floors.


Rooms on a second floor. That's a wooden frame filled with blocks of volcanic rock forming the wall.

 This was a kind of flooring we saw a lot. The background - often used by itself- is made from bits of broken terra cotta roof tiles and amphora mixed with lime. The variation below shows marble tesserae mixed in for a decorative effect.

And this is a sign outside a tavern or lunch place. There's a figure who is some kind of deity associated with protecting small businesses. The four vessels indicate different kinds of wine available and their price. 

A beautiful, fairly intact home.

close-up of the beautiful mosaic flooring

This is a room (dining room?) in the above villa. The floor is the black squares on white background version of the above.  Look at the ceiling - so lovely.

Two thousand year old charred wood around the door frame of the above villa.

More charred wood in another building supporting the second floor.

More of the beautiful frescoes from the above room. This was not a private home, but some kind of club or guild for small businessmen, as far as I could understand.

This is from the House of the Beautiful Courtyard.

The picture below was one of the most amazing places. Probably a food store of some kind - selling wine and beans and other provisions.  The store owners lived above the store.

Look at the charcoaled wood, the frescos and, most remarkably, the leg and a bit of railing from a brass bed frame, just above and to the left of the wooden railing. 

From the same provision store - the charcoaled wooden racks holding amphorae of wine or oil or other things. Amphorae were basically the containers for everything - the mason jars, the tins, the plastic packaging all rolled into one.

From a nearby private villa- notice the wooden grills from the windows and this is a dining room. The dining couches are lower than I've seen in pictures, but there were a lot of houses that had this size. The remarkable thing is that they are wooden. 

Not open to the public, but  you can see through the metal supports that this was a balcony that overlooked the street. 

That's enough for now about Herculaneum.  There were other wonders but I can't find the pictures at the moment. Maybe the COG has some. 

Sunday, April 6, 2014

And Then There Was Herculaneum

Herculaneum is like Pompeii's less popular sibling. But, like many less popular siblings, in many ways it is even more interesting and rewarding, than the better known site. Last Spring, at the Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibit at the British Museum, we learned enough about the place to make me want to see it, too. So the day after we visited Pompeii, we took the same train a bit farther and got off in Ercolano, walking 8 blocks down the street of the modern city, to a park in which the excavations lie. This is what you see looking down at the excavated city.

Pompeii and Herculaneum were destroyed in different ways in the eruption and this means they have been preserved differently. Pompeii had many hours when it rained volcanic ash and rocks. Thus, many buildings collapsed from the weight of the stones, killing some of the victims who were sheltering indoors. Even some of the victims found in the streets were killed by falling debris. Pompeii, thus,  was pretty much smashed and broken before the heat of the pyroclastic flow killed everything that remained alive.

Herculaneum, on the other hand, did not have the raining rock, but was engulfed by 4 or 5 waves of pyroclastic flow to a much deeper depth than Pompeii.  Anything living was killed instantly and all the organic material in the city was fried.  Paradoxically, this means that much survived in the form of charcoal.  But the particular characteristics of the flow that covered the city also made it much harder to excavate. The depth of the flow also meant that some of the present city of Ercolano was built right over the old city. So only about 1/4 of it is excavated.

The story I heard is that a farmer digging a well discovered Herculaneum. Might be true, but whatever happened, by the early 18th century when there was a Bourbon King of Naples, they developed a unique method for excavating the very difficult covering of the city.  They tunneled through it.  The goal was treasure-seeking for the Bourbons and there was little thought given to what was destroyed in the process. Nor was there any established method for excavation.  There are a few places where you can still see the tunnels made by Bourbon excavators.

As we approached Herculaneum, when we were looking down on it as above, we could hear the most amazing noise. We couldn't figure out what it was until we got down to the beginning level of the city. It turned out that it was very swampy and there were zillions of frogs making noises. I took a little video so you could hear it.  By the way, the arches you can see in this video were boat houses and storage areas. This was the beachfront of Herculaneum, which has only been excavated in the last few years. There had only been a couple of bodies found in Herculaneum, so they figured that people were able to be evacuated. However, here they have found over 300 skeletons clustered in these arched caverns.  Also, notice how high the hill surrounding this area is - you glimpse trees on top of the hill at one point.  That is volcanic material, and shows how deeply it was buried. 

Herculaneum was far less crowded and had far far more intact and fascinating things to see. Plus, it was smaller so it was possible to see everything.  Although, we learned here, again, that 2/3 of the site had been closed in 2000 because it was deteriorating rapidly.  But there was still a lot to see.

I'll post many more pictures in the next post.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The COG and I Try The Mediterranean Diet

We have read that the Mediterranean Diet is the healthiest diet there is. In fact, it's one of the few that is proven to be healthy.

So we gave it a try.

Pompeii: 2

The whole experience of Pompeii was a bit overwhelming. I wanted to see everything, learn everything, record everything and also just to walk around and take it in.   And then there were the crowds.  I can't imagine what the summer must be like, when it is even more crowded and very hot.

On the other hand... Pompeii.  And perfect weather.

And there was a magic moment.  One of the buildings, like many of them, had a gate across it, barring entry. But the gate was open, so we went through. It was a pretty simple house with an atrium, a small kitchen to one side and a couple of other rooms, bedrooms or reception rooms. Everything was grey stone because nearly everything in the whole city is grey stone.  The back the wall of the house was about 4 feet high, and when we approached and looked over the wall we saw this:

a beautiful meadow of poppies and yellow flowers, with modern Pompeii beyond it. And beyond that, the Bay of Naples and Capri and the Sorrentine peninsula.  It reminded us that the whole area around Pompeii had once been filled with light and wildflowers and life.  Naturally, the COG took better pictures, so check his out.

I could have used a second day there, and maybe a third. It's too big a place to see in one day, although most people do.  And the COG, who was great, is not that interested in dead Roman cities, so it would have pushed him to the edge.

However, if my sisters ever want to go there, I will meet them in a hot minute and we can see everything and read every book entry, listen to every section of the audio guide etc.

Pompeii: 1

Where to start?  It's a short train ride from Sorrento to Pompeii on a train filled with other tourists, as well as local commuters.  Having bought our tickets we turned to enter the site and this is the first thing we saw. It's the Suburban Baths, which were outside the city wall and were closed to the public.  Actually only 1/3 of the buildings that were open in the 1960s are now open to the public. Still... Pompeii.

Here's another picture of the Suburban Baths, taken from a different position:

We climbed up the steep road of the Porte Marina (which was once the harbor entrance).  The eruption moved the water's edge much farther out, so there is a bustling new city of Pompeii between this and the current port.

And then we were in the ancient city, with Vesuvius a constant backdrop to every view.  This is the Forum, which seems to have been deliberately built to frame this view of Vesuvius.

I had been reading Mary Beard's book about Pompeii and I had what was supposed to be the best guidebook and an excellent app.  But I was constantly torn between the need to just wander and soak up the essence of the place and the need to look things up in my books/apps etc.  There is almost no signage, apart from addresses, and the place is huge. To one side of the Forum is a warehouse containing many artifacts recovered from the site.  It is open to view through locked metal gates - a rather overwhelming assemblage, including plaster casts of victims. Also, amphorae, tables, carts, flour grinding wheels, braziers, parts of pillars, bits of architecture and friezes and statues etc. 

A lot of valuable stuff had been removed from the city by looters and, probably, by property owners who tunneled through the volcanic debris not long after the eruption.  Then, too, it has been under excavation since the 18th century with lots of artifacts being sent elsewhere to museums or just disappearing into some private collection. And that's not to mention the museum in Naples (which we did not visit) which has all the best stuff that was left at the end.

Just the week before we went, we heard that a recently uncovered fresco had gone missing overnight.  

It's sad and rather shocking that this is still happening.  The result is that everything valuable that can be, has been removed and many of the buildings are empty and or closed to the public.  A lot of the best stuff I had been reading about was not available to public view, which was a disappointment. Though, of course, I understood the reasons for it. 

On the other hand... I was in Pompeii and pretty much everywhere I looked there was something wonderful to see.  Like 2000 year old stairs leading to a first floor apartment.

a bit of carving on a wall

A decorative floor:

Or a nearly complete ground floor with an atrium, a mosaic floor, and a glimpse of a peristyle at the end of the building.

to be continued.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Ahhh Italy, continued

First Glimpse of Vesuvius:

Beautiful bus trip from Naples to Sorrento, around the Bay of Naples. Capri in the distance off the peninsula where Sorrento is. (Can I just say that it was so wonderful to be in the Mediterranean again.)

Vesuvius from Sorrento: