Tag Archives: archaeology

Were Pagan Temples All Smashed Or Just Converted Into Christian Churches?

This week over at the Forbes column [access it here], I discuss an article in the new volume of the Journal of Late Antiquity (10.1) It is a great piece of scholarship written by ancient historian Feyo L. Schuddeboom and is called “The Conversion of Temples in Rome.” The article effectively uses archaeological evidence for temple conversion within the city of Rome during the period of Late Antiquity (ca.300-800 CE in this case) in order to further dismantle the myth that all Roman temples were smashed to bits by angry pagans. Using the case study of Rome, Schuddeboom also suggests that temples being converted to churches was usually a pragmatic act rather than one meant to demonstrate the “triumph” of Christianity over paganism.

The article has a helpful map within it. It was also a great excuse to insert some pictures from Santa Maria Antiqua; a 6th century church in the Roman Forum. I was lucky enough to be able to see this converted quadriporticus church near to the ramp that leads up to the Palatine from the Forum Romanum and to glimpse at its recently restored frescoes (see images below).

Enjoy these photos and this amazing new issue of the JLA. If you care to read about another converted temple in Rome, feel free to read my article on the history of Roman Curiae. The Curia Senatus was a Roman temple and also the Roman Senate House–since senate meetings could only technically be held within a consecrated space in the city of Rome.

Pass the Dormice: Breeding, Selling, And Eating Honeyed Dormice in Antiquity

Ponticuli etiamferruminati sustinebant glires melle ac papavere sparsos.
“There were also dormice rolled in honey and poppy-seed, and supported on little bridges soldered to the plate”

–Petronius, Satyricon, 31 (trans. Heseltine).

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The famed so-called ‘asaratos oikos‘ mosaic now at the Vatican Museum has a small mouse on it that is much smaller than the Roman dormouse would have been.

Look, I know you may think mice are cute. I, myself, raised adorable hamsters as a child and thus have sympathy for all rodents. But we do have to face the fact that these little critters may or may not be delicious haute cuisine.

First of all, dormice (Lat. a glis) are quite large rodents that are more akin to squirrels. Roman villas oftentimes raised edible dormice to be eaten locally or sold at the market to those with expensive taste. Excavations at Poggio Gramignano in Teverina (about 70 km north of Rome) have turned up the remains of the three standard types of dormice: the Garden dormouse, the Hazel dormouse, and the Edible dormouse.


Photo of buried gliraria via the Museum of Prehistory – San Lazzaro, near Bologna. 

These rodents were fattened in buried ceramic vessels with little ledges inside them and with holes poked through the walls. Water could be poured through the top. These vessels were called dolia or gliraria, and during the winter hibernating period, dormice were given chestnuts, walnuts, and acorns along with water (Mart. 3. 58; 13. 59) in these little ceramic hamster cages. Pliny notes that the little critters also like beechnuts. Archaeological examples of these ceramic vessels have been found at Pompeii and elsewhere in Roman Italy.

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A glirarium for fattening dormice exhibited at the National Archaeological Museum in Chiusi. (Wikimedia, CC-BY-SA 3.0, Marco Daniele).

As Roman archaeologist and ancient Umbria expert Claudio Bizzarri has noted, there was often a villa economy predicated on smaller livestock that could also turn a profit for a villa owner (what we might call today a side hussle): “The pastio villatica concerned the more prized and profitable courtyard animals such as pigeons, doves, thrushes, geese, ducks, peacocks and hare, but also boar, roe and fallow deer and even snails, dormice, freshwater and saltwater fish.” Ancient historian Grant Nelsestuen discussed in his recent book on Varro the Agronomist the fact that the pastio villatica was a rural setup used to rear small or unusual animals near to the villa and mostly catered to the luxury market–but dormice were indeed relatively easy to raise in gliraria containers. 


A Roman glirarium recently shown at the British Museum but from Pompeii (Inventory Number SAP 10744 38.3 x 33.5 cm Collection/Museum: Pompeii Excavation: Pompeii, II,1,11).

These small delicacies were often part of the starter of the meal for Romans, referred to as the gustatio. Roasted dormice rolled in honey and poppyseed was one of the starters for Trimalchio’s guests in Petronius’ Satyricon. The lone surviving cookbook, authored by Apicius (who may or may not have been a mix of various chefs), notes the following recipe for glires (stuffed dormice): “[It] is stuffed with a forcemeat of pork and small pieces of dormouse meat trimmings, all pounded with pepper, nuts, laser, broth. Put the dormouse thus stuffed in an earthen casserole, roast it in the oven, or boil it in the stock pot.” Double-stuffed dormice appear to have been best when roasted rather than boiled.

To conclude, I want to circle back to the irregularity of these little guys in the Roman diet. The tie between dormice and the luxury market is important to remember; most Romans did not subsist on honeyed dormice (and I think you might get scurvy if you did). Just as most extant Roman literature provides a reflection of elite living rather than a mirror of the impoverished day-to-day life of most Romans, many of the recipes and satirical anecdotes that survive from antiquity provide a skewed idea of the quotidian Roman diet. Archaeological objects like gliraria can indeed give us some insight into the luxury market, but they shouldn’t then be taken as typifying the contents of all Roman tables.

Author’s note: A table of the surviving gliraria is listed by ancient historian Kim Beerden in her 2012 article on the fattening of Roman dormice.

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Kim Beerden, Table 1: Dormouse-jars, in “Roman dolia and the Fattening of Dormice,” Classical World, Volume 105, Number 2 (Winter 2012): 227-235.





Modeling the Tincu House: A New 3D Model from Roman Gabii

Over on the Forbes blog this week, I explore the new publication of an interactive 3D model for a mid-Republican house from the site of Gabii. The University of Michigan Press and the Gabii Project were kind enough to let me read the new e-publication, which links together maps, 3D models, an archaeological object database, and text in order to create a multimedia publication. Admittedly, the publication is not fully open-access. It costs $150.00 to buy, a price-tag that will largely be paid by libraries and research institutions. However, the database is online and easily searchable, and you can read the introduction to the publication as well.


Map of Gabii, a city-state about 11 miles to the east of Rome. It was active in the first millenium BCE until the 3rd century CE (Image via the Pelagios Project’s Peripleo map).

The most significant aspect of this e-publication (beyond continuing to make the case for digital publications generally) is that it begins to engrain a set of best practices for all archaeological publications in the future. I excavated for many years as an undergraduate, and excavation reports can often take a decade or more to be released. Even then, they are limited in circulation because these publications are usually gigantic  over-sized folios that are both expensive and unwieldy. However, the Gabii Project shows how digital tools can and should be integrated both on the ground and when it is time to publish. Excavators use on-site tablets to allow modeling and GIS mapping in real time, and then transfer data quickly to a central cloud. As such, final excavation reports can be produced, published, and disseminated much more quickly than ever before. In the process, they have also saved me a lot of bookshelf space.


Screenshot of the new 3D interactive publication of the Tincu House, a house dating originally to the early third century BCE (Image used with permission from the Gabii Project and the University of Michigan Press under a CC-BY 4.0 International License).

August 24, 79: An Hour-By-Hour Account Of Vesuvius’ Eruption On Its 1,937th Anniversary

At around noon on August 24, 79 CE, Mount Vesuvius began to erupt and spew ash and then pumice stones down on the towns below it. The eruption lasted well into the morning of August 25th. One of the towns demolished was Pompeii, but the cities of Herculaneum, Stabiae, Oplontis, and many others–some as far away as 73 km–were heavily hit by the volcanic blasts. I wrote this post reconstructing the hour-by-hour of the eruption over on the Forbes blog before I knew of the heartbreaking events in Amatrice. While it may not be the most sensitive post to read this morning, it is a reminder of the profound impact of natural disasters even today. BTW: Over at Bustle, they have a set of links to help you donate time, money, and blood to the victims of the Amatrice earthquake.

G.I. Jones: Classical Archaeology, Military Balloons, and Early Aerial Photography

In 1898, famed Venetian architect Giacomo Boni was charged with leading new excavations in the Roman Forum (1899-1911) and on the Palatine hill. In order to get aerial photos, Boni enlisted the Italian military’s Brigata Specialisti military balloon, used by the Italian Corps of Engineers. He was amazed at the ability to more accurately draw and map the site from pictures taken 400m off the ground, and in fact took several trips in the balloon before writing his friends eager letters about the adventure.


Photo of Giacomo Boni during the Forum Excavations. Assumedly, he did not excavate in a suit. Photo via Il Primato Nazionale.

The aerial photography taken by Boni helped archaeologists excavating the Forum Romanum to accurately plan the remains of the Forum and to create new, more precise drawings of the area. Below, you can see plans from Il Foro Romano (edited by Prof. Giacomo Boni), and an aerial photograph taken of the site (via Martin Conde’s Flickr page). Turns out that a bird’s eye view was just what archaeologists needed.

ROMA ARCHEOLOGIA - Il Foro Romano ed il Prof. Giacomo Boni:  “Recenti Scorperte nel Foro Romano, da un testimone oculare il Sig. St. Clair Baddeley,” londra (1904) [PDF, pagina 1-216].

Militaries of various countries had been using the benefits provided by balloons since the late 18th century, predominantly for surveillance purposes. Balloons far predated the invention of the camera, and so the first aerial photograph was not taken until 1858 in Bievre, France. The combination of balloons with this new technology was quickly turned to in the planning of the French campaign against the Italians in 1859. The American Civil War of the mid 19th century (1860-1865) was also a notable shift, in that military balloons played a more prominent role in spotting artillery and in gathering intelligence than ever before (Sterling 2008: 13). President Lincoln even created a balloon corps during the war, but ultimately decided against the unit. It turned out that balloons tended to be a target for enemy fire (Bourgeois 2005: 94) and, well, balloons and bullets didn’t mix well.


Founder of the Union Army Balloon Corps, Prof. Thaddeus Lowe, making a balloon ascension on a recon expedition to Vienna, Va (1861)  Photo via the Library of Congress.

Although many consider Stonehenge to be the first use of aerial photography (1906) for archaeological purposes, I think Boni actually beat them to the punch. Whatever the case, archaeology greatly benefited from the invention of this military technology–and this was to be the case for many decades to come.

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Lieutenant Philip Henry Sharpe “Stonehenge as seen from a War Balloon” Photograph: 1906 (taken) 1907 (published). The Society of Antiquaries Magazine. Photo via Luminous-Lint.

The utilization of military technology is something near and dear to my own heart, since the Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World (Princeton: 2000) used military base-maps to build the atlas. As the editor of the atlas, Richard Talbert, stated, “In particular, the (then) Defense Mapping Agency’s Operational Navigation Chart (1:1,000,000) and corresponding Tactical Pilotage Chart (1:500,000) series both offered all but complete coverage of the entire span to be covered by the atlas. Although in the case of both series some of the sheets required are produced by the British Directorate-General of Military Survey, these adhere to U.S. specifications, so that uniformity is maintained” (Talbert 2003: 11). Military maps made the Barrington Atlas possible, and were an early building block for rebuilding the ancient Mediterranean accurately.


From Epi-pens to archaeological drones to cargo pants (okay, maybe that last one is more a detriment than a benefit), military technology has had a great deal of influence on our everyday lives. Archaeologists in particular have benefited not only from the development of cameras for military balloons, but also the creation of Global Positioning System satellites launched by the U.S. Department of Defense in the 90s. Actually, you can thank President Clinton for making the system available to civilians in 1996.  This is a short post to remind us all of the debt we owe military engineers. Archaeologists in particular have benefitted from the military’s continued drive to develop new technology, even if war itself destroys the cultural heritage we hold dear.


Aerial photo of Ostia taken via Google Earth.