Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Just Dig Up All The Car Parks!

Archaeologically speaking, 2013 was the year of the car park.  Just a quick google search of "archaeology car park" provides numerous examples of what lays hidden beneath the vehicles of the northern hemisphere.  This year, a veritable archaeological treasure trove was discovered.
Everyone is aware that the remains of Richard III were discovered beneath a Leicester council car park.  It brought the world's attention to what may lie below the concrete and asphalt.  The perceived randomness of such a major historical/archaeological discovery led to an historical awareness in popular culture I wish ancient history could get without Russell Crowe's poor acting.  Social media was peppered with images of Leicester's new parking signs:

Even the Queensland Police Media Facebook page made jokes about how Richard could wait centuries to get out of a car park, drivers could wait 10 seconds.
However the burial place of Richard III was not the only thing dug up from under a car park this year.    A "Thing" (literally - that's what it is called) was discovered under Cromartie Memorial Car Park in Dingwall, Scotland.  A thing is a medieval Norse assembly ground/parliament which took the form of a mound.  I had no idea of this term until the report confirming the site was indeed a thing on 22 October.
Earlier in the year, the skeleton of a medieval knight, along with other burials and the remains of a thirteenth century monastery were excavated under the former car park in Edinburgh.  Over in Ireland, three sets of human remains, including those of a child, were uncovered in Derry.  Excavated in September, they are thought to date to the Siege of Derry (1688-9).  Once more, they were discovered under another car park.  
Again in November, the archaeology gods shined down upon another British car park.  This time an Iron Age skeleton was found in a site designated to be the car new park of the Horse & Groom pub in Bourton-on-the-Hill, Gloucestershire.  While complete testing is yet to be completed, "Rusty", as he has been named by the pub owners, is thought to date to c. 100 BC, and was found in addition to other historical artefacts, including the remains of a very unusual medieval farm.  
Archaeological car park bonanza, however, is not limited to the British Isles or the year 2013.  A friend of mine from Algeria informed me of a Roman cemetery 500 metres from his house, a mere 10 metres from a car park.  It cannot be said whether it might continue under it.  In 1973, excavations conducted in Stonehenge's car park revealed three Mesolithic post holes (G. Vatcher and F. De M. Vatcher, "Excavation of three post-holes in Stonehenge car park", Wiltshire Archaeological and History Magazine 68 (1973), pp. 57-63).  The site of these holes was marked by concrete circles in asphalt of the old visitor's centre.  I am unsure how they are placed in the newly developed complex, but the digital reconstructions Digital Digging provides suggests that they are still placed in the car park.
My Facebook feed this year was full of the statement "Another car park", but the last such statement was accompanied by my favourite discovery, which happened to have taken place 60 years ago.  BBC News gave me a Christmas present entitled Vatican to open poignant ancient Roman cemetery.  I was immediately excited.  The first line stated:
An ancient Roman cemetery discovered under a Vatican City car park 60 years ago to be opened to the public early in 2014.
Yet another car park, but not in 2013, but 60 years before!
2013 was a year of great discovery, in archaeology and in history, but it wasn't the first time stuff had been found under a car park, and it surely won't be the last, but because a former ruling monarch was found beneath one, we will now regard these discoveries in a new sense of interest.  The discovery of Richard III's remains in a Leicester City car park has impacted popular culture and historical reception.  I doubt anyone had thought that the Richard III of Shakespearean fame would become known as "The Car Park King".
But please note, someone has already written the book "Raiders of the Lost Car Park".
His name is Robert Rankin.  
He's hilarious.  

Wednesday, 11 December 2013


I love Christmas time.  No, I'm not a Christian.  I don't even pretend to be.  But I love Christmas because it is an amazing collage of bastardised religious rites and superstitions from all over Europe (and possibly further) which have been rebranded for the modern world.
Like the red shoes the current pope has decided not to wear were a leave over from the Roman Pontifex Maximus, so Christmas is a motley crew of Roman, Celtic, and possibly other cultures of which I am unaware, are the final remnant clinging to existence in this new world.  It is a mid-winter (or in my geographical case, mid-summer) festival which arrives a few days late and provides my family an excuse to take time off and torture each other with gifts which include cryptic clues written for no other reason than to torment the recipients.  My family had an unreasonable number of December birthdays, so instead of trying to accommodate both sets of gift giving we abandoned birthday presents (when the lone March birthday boy received the best gifts) and focused on Christmas gifts instead.  
Yet despite none in my immediate family being overtly Christian, we happily enter the Christmas spirit safe in the knowledge that ancient Romans would have no issue with our non-devout participation.  A number of the rituals we associate with Christmas may well be a reflection of the Roman Saturnalia: remove the pom-poms from Santa hats, and you find yourself wearing a brightly dyed freedom cap worn by slaves during this period (they even appear to have been red), especially at a household meal during which masters served the slaves - a possible origin for your work Christmas party.  Like Santa hats, these were made of felt, and were often red.  And like our Christmas celebrations today, the Romans were big on gift giving. 

6th-century mosaic from Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna - featuring the three wise men.

While Martial wrote little poems about Saturnalia gifts, for example broad-brimmed hats (14.29) which could keep the sun off your face at games, or a literary warning label for the wooden candlestick (14.44), and even snow (14.118), and Macrobius wrote dialogue between a number of pagans spending the festival together during the late empire, my favourite Saturnalia work is without compromise Statius' Silvae 4.9, because unlike us, he was willing to whinge about a crappy Saturnalia gift, not merely to close associates, but in poetic meter and then published the gripe.  The fact that this stingy gift-giver is called "Grypus" adds to my amusement.  So not only did the Romans have huge parties, wear silly hats, reward their workers, and eat too much, but they also had rude mongrels who were willing to bitch about the quality of the gift they received.  I include a translation below by A. S. Kline for your entertainment, and to prove that while our festivals change, humanity remains the same.
Book 4.9 
 To be sure it’s a jest, Grypus, to send me
A little book in return for my little book!
Yet it could only be thought amusing
If you sent me a proper one to follow.
For if you persevere in joking, Grypus,
It’s no joke! Look, let’s consider both.
Mine is purple, on fresh parchment,
Adorned with a pair of knobs at the ends.
Beside my time, it cost me a denarius:
Yours, moth-eaten, putrid with mould,
Like the sheets that drain Libyan olives,
Or hold incense, or pepper from the Nile,
Or serve when cooking Byzantine tunny.
And they’re not even your own speeches,
Those you thundered as a youngster there,
In the triple Forum, or to the Hundred,
Before Caesar made you his controller
Of the supply train, general overseer
Of relay stations on every highroad;
No, you send me Brutus’ boring stuff,
Bought by you, for a Caligulan penny,
From some wretched bookseller’s bag.
Were there no caps for sale, stitched
Out of cloak trimmings, no towels, no
Yellowed napkins, writing paper, dates
From Thebes, or figs from Caria? No
Handful of plums or Syrian prunes
Gathered together in a crumbling cone?
No dry wicks, no peeled onion-skins?
Not even eggs, no oats, no rough meal?
No slimy shell of some creeping snail,
That has wandered the Libyan plains?
No lump of bacon or mouldy ham?
No Lucanian sausage, no little Faliscans,
No salt, no honeyed-dates, no cheese?
No bread made with washing soda,
Or raisin wine boiled with its lees,
Or muddied dregs of sweet wine?
Why not give me stinking candles,
knife, or some thin letter-paper?
Or how about a little jar of grapes,
Dishes turned on a Cuman wheel,
Or a set (what’s to be afraid of?)
Of white cups and white saucers?
But as though you were balancing
Scales, you give the same, tit for tat.
What! If I greet you in the morning
With my loud after-breakfast belch,
Must you do likewise in my house?
Or if you treat me to a sumptuous
Feast, must you expect the same?
Grypus, I’m angry with you, so
Farewell; only please don’t send
Me now, with your customary wit,
Your own hendecasyllables in reply!