Monday, August 23, 2010

A Roman athlete from Apollonia, Albania

As you know, I’ve just returned from a few days in Albania, so I was intrigued to see new discoveries announced from the important site of Apollonia. My sister and I noticed a new sondage as we walked up to the acropolis, but is seems that the discoveries were not made there, but in the residential area in the west part of the town.

The excavations, which are being undertaken by joint French and Albanian teams, have unearthed an intact bust of an athlete dating from the 2nd C AD. The French have been involved with the site of Apollonia since 1924 when Leon Rey started his campaigns. He excavated there until the Italian conquest of Albania in 1939. On the fall of communism in 1991, the French returned and are now working under Jean-Luc Lamboley from Grenoble University. Lamboley hails the discovery as the most important in the last 50 years in Albania because of the quality and condition of the bust.

The bust is large, being 84cm high and 53cm wide, and was discovered upright in a drain in the west part of the town which was a residential area in the Hellenistic and Roman eras. The archaeologists also discovered the foot of a bronze statue wearing a roman sandal in the same sewer.



Apollonia was a Greek colony, founded by settlers from Corinth and Corcrya (Corfu) in the 7th C BC. At that time it had a navigable river and large harbour and as well as trade it also exploited the bitumen which occurred naturally in the area. However, the river silted up and, once the harbour was lost and the plain unhealthy, the city gradually fell into disuse, gaining prominence again only for a short time as a bishopric.


For archaeologists, this is an advantage, the fact that no modern town was built on its ruins makes for excellent excavating conditions. If you visit the site you can see several sculptures and stele of very good quality on show in the nearby monastery. Other finds can be seen in Tirana, which is where the newly discovered bust will reside at present until there is a properly secure museum at the site.

I rather like the fact that the bust depicts an athlete. We know games took place at Apollonia, and the famous bouleterion was commissioned by an organiser of games. It's a pleasing fit, even if he is not exactly a handsome brute!


The team of French and Albanian archaeologists are trying to study how Apollonia evolved from a Greek colony to a Roman settlement. "This site spans a thousand years of history and we can study here how the classic Greek civilisation was transmitted and evolved into a Roman city” said Lamboley.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Wall paintings discovered in Nabataean Jordan

As part of my preparation for my tour to ancient Macedonia this week I’ve been reading up on Greek painting so I was really interested to find that some very high quality wall paintings dating back around 2000 years have been revealed near to the world heritage site of Petra in Jordan.

The paintings, which were discovered some time ago, had been very difficult to see as they had been obscured by soot, smoke and other matter (including graffiti) over the centuries. Now, thanks to the expertise of conservation specialists from the Courtauld Institute in London their full glory has been revealed. The image below is courtesy of the Courtauld Institute and shows a 'before and after' of a putto playing a flute.


Unsurprisingly, not many paintings survive from ancient Greece, although we know that painting was an art even in the classical period and the tradition of illustrating key points in history such as battles goes back at least as far as the representation of the Battle of Marathon in the Stoa Poikile (Painted Stoa) in Athens.

Most of the information on Greek painting comes from later, usually Roman, sources but Xenophon in his Memorabilia reports Socrates discussions with a painter, sculptor and cuirass maker. The craftsmen are listed in descending order of esteem – there was not a very high view of craftspeople generally in the classical world, but artists were viewed as higher than most, possibly because painting involved less physical labour.

Socrates points out that a good cuirass maker serves the physical demands of men, a good sculptor succeeds in representing man’s emotions by imitating bodily actions, but only the painter is capable of representing what seems to have ‘neither shape nor colour’  -  the essence of man.

It was the judgement of later authors (including Cicero, Diodorus and Quintilian) that painting came to perfection not before the 4th century BC and authors tell us many names and describe masterpieces. They also tell us that copies were made and that sometimes these copies were passed off as originals!

By the 2nd century BC, there were collections of paintings in the great Hellenistic centres of Pergamon, Alexandria and elsewhere but the paintings were all on panels and so they have perished. Paintings would also have hung in temples, and possibly other public buildings, so we should not consider that all ancient painting was of the nature of frescoes. Many of them would have been encaustic on panel, such as the mummy portraits from Fayuum and other places in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt.

However, it is true Macedonian tombs have preserved for us a whole variety of paintings, including the masterly scenes of Hades’ Rape of Persephone at the royal tombs in Vergina. Moreover, some Greek paintings were copied and appear preserved on the walls of houses in Pompeii and the surrounding area. Not all were straight painted copies – the famous Alexander mosaic is a mosaic version of a lost painting of Alexander the Great’s victory at the battle of Issus.

So, the survival of these examples from Petra is very important as it shows the spread and extent of Hellenistic art and techniques. Petra was a Nabataean town. The Nabataeans were great traders who were the middle men between the incense growers of south Arabia and the market for the product in the Mediterranean, which was extremely profitable. They built a kingdom on the profits from this trade which stretched from Jordan down into the Arabian peninsula, including the amazing site of Madain Saleh in Saudi Arabia, and they were at their height in the 1st centuries BC and AD (the suggested approximate date of the paintings) until conquest by the Romans. They absorbed artistic influences from all of their contacts, so it is not surprising that they should adorn their dwellings with wall paintings.

Just as with the Macedonian paintings, there is a great deal of naturalistic intricacy to the Jordanian paintings: flowers, birds and insects can be all identified. Grape vines, ivy and can be discerned. The paintings are even embellished with gold leaf.

The paintings are not at the main site of Petra, but at Siq al-Barid in Beidha, about 5km away and are located within an area where ritual dining is thought to have taken place. The discovery of their true beauty and high quality following this three year conservation programme is to be welcomed for adding to the corpus of ancient paintings and it is hoped that continued study of the paintings will help to fill some of the gaps in our knowledge of the transition from Greek to Roman paintings.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Where to stay in Durres, Albania

I've just returned from a long weekend in Albania. I went with my sister Rosemary as she had never been to the country before and I wanted to show her what an amazing place it is. We had a really fabulous time, and I wanted to share with you a hotel recommendation if you are planning to visit Durres.
Durres is a very old city - it was founded by Greek colonists from Corcyra and Corinth as Epidamnus and a dispute over its relationship with its mother city was one of the causes of the Peloponnesian War. In Roman times it was known as Dyrrachiuim and amongst other things was a backdrop for Caesar and Pompey's struggles in the Civil War, with Pompey landing his troops there. It was the start of the Via Egnatia, the famous Roman road that led to Byzantium (Istanbul), and later Venetian Durazzo. So there is plenty to see there, and it is also a good base for day trips to other places of interest.
We stayed at the Aragosta hotel in Durres. The hotel is on a relatively quiet street, the Rruga Taulantia, and is ideally situated for walking into the town to see the Byzantine walls, late Roman Forum and Roman Amphitheatre, and of course the archaeological museum. Some parts of the town get really busy in high season, but this is a little out of the really crowded beach areas and situated so that you can sit on the terrace and enjoy the beautful sunset whilst overlooking the beach, which is not very wide but very well maintained and clean. As a guest at the hotel you can reserve an umbrella and sunbeds on the beach at no extra cost - and it gets busy onthe beach so if you are there in high season and you want to use the beach you must make sure you reserve a space.
Staff at the hotel speak English and the rooms are well-equipped and furnished to a very high standard. Breakfast can be eaten on the terrace overlooking the beach and is substantial (including bacon and eggs!) The restaurant is also excellent, and reasonably priced. For more information and to book, have a look at the website http://www.aragosta.al/.
I think that this is the only time I have been quoted a price online which had actually gone down when I came to pay. It really was very good value and I would highly recommend it as a base for visiting Durres and the surrounding areas.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The oldest house in Britain is brought to light

Archaeologists working at Star Carr near Scarborough in Yorkshire have uncovered the oldest house in Britain to date. The circular structure, 3.5 metres in diameter, dates back to between 9200 and 8500 BC and pre-dates other Stone Age buildings in Britain by up to a thousand years.

Starr Carr is one of Britain's most important prehistoric archaeological sites. In an astonishing season in 1950, archaeologists discovered twenty one head-dresses made of deer skulls and antlers and dating to the Stone Age. It is thought that they were used for hunting-related rituals or ceremonial dances. Precious beads fashioned from deer teeth, shale and amber have also been found on the site and these are often associated with ritual activity in this period.

This season has been equally fruitful. Archaeologists have brought to light the remains of a well-built wooden platform on the edge of a now long-vanished lake. They believe this may have been used as a location from which precious objects were thrown into the water as offerings to their ancestral spirits or deities.

The recent discovery of the remains of the house is challenging views of the level of sophistication achieved at this time in Britain. It was clearly a permanent structure rather than a temporary wigwam-style building and consisted of up to 18 upright posts, each around 20 centimetres in diameter.

Inside there was a living/sleeping area defined by a 20-30 centimetre thick layer of moss, reeds and other soft organic material placed in a shallow 2.5 metre diameter depression. The presence of burnt flints suggests that the building also had a small hearth.

So who was the occupant? Perhaps a hunter - excavations at the site reveal that the inhabitants were hunting and eating animals - including deer, elk, aurochs and smaller animals such as beaver, wild boar, badger, hare and pine marten. The discovery of a wooden paddle suggests that they may also have used boats.

Another suggestion is that it may have been the home of a shaman. Parallels from hunter-gatherer societies in other parts of the world suggest that whilst other members of the tribe would have less permanent structures, the shaman was provided with a more well-built home, presumably in order to safeguard the welfare of the whole community.

Only a small percentage of the site has been excavated to date, and therefore it is hoped that more structures will be unearthed in the future, increasing our knowledge of life in prehistoric Britain.