15. Mithymna: the Fortress on the Hill

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Roman ruins at the north end, facing Turkey.

There is something breathtaking about the shores, mountains and harbours around Lesbos. Mithymna is a gem of a town, with all the fine features you hope for as a tourist destination, but a significant amount of history is embedded in every corner.  928 (2)As one of the largest Greek islands, and the nearest to Turkey, there is a remarkable amount of cultural fusion and warmth that shaped my experience of living in Mithymna (Μήθυμνα / Molyvos) for several months, some years ago.

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Taking a libation at the Mithymna castle.

While being housed during the spring months in Mithymna, I explored the winding cobblestone streets, photographed dangling flowering plants and occasionally sampled the vibrant restaurant scene at the harbour.

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Mithymna harbour

These elements, along with adorable roaming stray cats and dogs (some of whom we adopted), formed idyllic scenes that made it a beautiful and tranquil location to study some Byzantine History and Reception Studies (in effect, the study of modern interpretations of the ancient world) during my undergraduate degree.

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A charming painting in the old schoolhouse where we took lessons.

What a draw for a historian!Greece 608Like many ancient city centres, Mithymna has a foundation story whose characters possessed the very names of the location – in this case, Mithymna (daughter of a mythical son of the god Helios) who was married to the personification of Lesbos. Hard to prove, so I’ll take the Oxford Dictionary of the Classical World’s word for it.

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Mithymna Castle

The history of Mithymna is actually the stuff of legends, literally. The Bronze Age warrior Achilles was said to have breached the fortifications of Mithymna due to the amorous machinations of King Peisidikis’s daughter.

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View from Mithymna castle of Efthalou.

The city fell to the Achaeans, as the events of the Illiad take place not far away across the water (you can see Turkey from the shores of Mithymna).

Mithymna had been an important location in the Classical period as it was caught  between the Athenians, their ally, and the Spartans throughout the Peloponnesian War (431 – 404 BCE). To and fro, the balance of power shifted from Athens to Sparta, and back again throughout the war; and smaller allied cities were caught in the fight, or served as proxies for the conflict. 957 (2)Mithymna and Mytilene had a solid rivalry throughout this conflict and beyond, which I will go into when I post about Mytilene. But for the time being, some dark business went down during this three decades long war, and Mithymna and Mytilene had some serious issues to work out afterwards.

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Splendid isolation on the beach

Remaining significant throughout the Hellenistic period, Mithymna played politics as it was captured by Macedonian forces and Persians, with tyrants ousting and aligning themselves with the conflicting superpowers when they gained control of the island cities. With the division of Alexander’s brief empire by his successors, King Lysimachus and later Ptolemy would control the island. With the influence of the Ptolemaic ruler, my academic obsession, the cults of Isis and Sarapis were introduced and worshiped.

Which brings us neatly to the Roman period.

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A bit of Roman road and tomb.

Sprinting through so much history, I can barely touch on how many fascinating moments in ancient history in which Mithymna has played a part, but one of the elements which leaves a physical trace, which I was thrilled to see, was the Roman archaeological remains dispersed throughout the city.Roman Tombs Molyvos 3The formal alliance between Rome and Mithymna was dated by an epigraphic source to 129 BCE. The Roman poets and writers spent many words to describe the quality and superiority of Mithymnian wines.

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While staying in Mithymna, I was fortunate enough to meet a local archaeologist who gave us a small tour of the closed excavation.

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Finds from this trench were rich in pottery and sea shells.

At that point, they had a great deal of pottery and many interesting rubbish dumps from the Roman period. It appeared that they were producing pottery, and likely distributing the wines in vessels made at this centre.Roman Tombs MolyvosWith the political upheaval in the 5th century AD of the western half of the Roman empire, Lesbos fell into the orbit of political authority from the Byzantine power-base of the eastern empire. This orientation affected the flavour and practices on the island as Christianity became the prevalent belief system and religious power throughout the empire. Greece 012Thank you for reading my blog!

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14. Starting a PhD: a non-linear approach

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St. Andrews Cathedral…be seeing you soon.

For the last few months I have taken a hiatus from writing my blog to focus on applying for a PhD at the University of St. Andrews. What a harrowing adventure! From start to finish, it was a good 3-month process with dozens of re-writes, stress and the agonizing wait to hear back. Even starting early, and following advice from friends and online, there were so many unknowns going into it. There were many moments of self-doubt, which had the uncanny ability to creep in when I needed it the least. With the support of some amazing teachers, mentors and friends, I managed to get someone interested in the incredibly nerdy stuff I love – Roman Aegyptiaca. In a post coming soon I will write about what that is, but for now…I will be studying Egyptian-looking things in Roman cities.

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Khoiak Procession from the Nile Mosaic of Palestrina, Italy (2014)

While the outcome might seem straightforward, (person X likes (topic), studies Y = goes on to PhD) the path is rarely as clear as this. An interesting part of the curation on social media, is all of the crap that you don’t want people to see can easily be ignored, not reported or underplayed. I focus and emphasize the things that I am most proud of, that arguably demonstrate a clear connection to my goals and objectives. It’s not always a conscious choice, but it excites me to share upcoming adventures (research trips, excavation work, conferences etc), and even if those activities are the exception to fairly humdrum periods of time, I try focus on the positive and engaging elements in my life. That curation presents a deceptively well-planned and linear pathway however.

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Roman road excavation. Merida, Spain (2014)

Like many people in the ‘millennial’ category, I have taken a strange circuitous route to finding a path. For many years I was uncertain what it was I wanted to do, or how I would even get there. My professional or academic shortcomings would emerge when I contemplated pursuing any concrete direction. Supporting myself through school involved things that looked remarkably unrelated: Italian train information CSR, custom picture framer, freelance artist, call centre CSR, book and video store sales person, maternity store sales clerk, telecommunications CSR, office administrator for an engineering firm, work-study intern with a museum, housing assistant, university credit secretary, repairs assistant, catering delivery driver, and endless amounts of ‘exposure’ work (free) and side-hustle to get through.

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‘Work for exposure? Oh can I?’ Roman wind chime. Merida, Spain (2014)

Despite working in areas that for many would happily suffice as a career, I have always been half in and half out. Every work placement is an opportunity to learn useful skills, but nothing had any real resonance to me or inducement to stay long term. I always had an eye to what might be ahead and to apply to any and every opportunity, often ending comfortable employment for a scrambling uncertainty.

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Egyptian relief. Louvre, Paris (2016)

Sure, I love ancient history, archaeology and art…but what can I really do with all this?
Throughout all of that, I knew I wanted to spend my life studying and sharing aspects of ancient history through art and writing, but unsure as to what my mixed-bag of skills would allow me to do. When I drew all of my work experience, hobbies and passions together a picture emerged that put the question to rest: I want to be an educator of Ancient History. Fundamental to this was attaining a PhD, and getting more focused and industry specific work experience.

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See? So much time spent on ancient walls. Hadrian’s Wall, England (2013)

Having been accepted to St. Andrews, I now have several months to plan and prepare – skills my varied work experience has hammered into me. Much of the existential angst of ‘what will I do and where will I be next?’ can finally be put to rest for the next few years. With the patchwork of experience that has sustained me, now behind, I look forward with more clarity and focus.

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13. Behind the Scenes: Learning to Supervise in Aeclanum

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After the two-month excavation in Policastro Bussentino last year, I was keen to improve on the skills I had learned. I had discovered during that excavation that I was actually really interested in taking more of a leadership role, but was not yet sure how much I knew, or yet needed to learn, to do so. A fortunate meeting with my former teacher, Dr. Ben Russell from the University of Edinburgh, alerted me to a dig that would be happening in Aeclanum (modern Mirabella Eclano) for September 2016. The excavation is an ongoing joint-venture with the University of Edinburgh and the Apolline Project (http://www.apollineproject.org/) with co-director, Ferdinando De Simone.Screenshot_2016-10-09-16-18-38~2With this in mind, I had been anticipating an exciting few weeks with two of my brilliant friends, both currently undertaking PhDs at the University of Saint Andrews and Edinburgh University. Packing for the trip (both passports in tow!) is one of the best parts…slowly I am getting more and more efficient.
With a few days spent adventuring and relaxing in Rome beforehand, we were all ready to get our hands dirty.

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Ms Moodie, Ms King, and Me (from left) surprisingly clean !

 

One of the most interesting parts of getting involved in a dig like this is that while the directors and supervisors were well-seasoned, the site itself was essentially starting in many areas with virgin soil. Previous excavations had been carried out several decades before (in a few areas), and more recently a commissioned archaeological dig had been done by a commercial unit. 20160909_214648But a variety of reasons, the work being done in this season could be viewed as the ground work for the future of the site. That is an exciting prospect for anyone to be a part of, but I was especially keen since my understanding of how to supervise a trench was somewhat problematic. I was fairly sure there was a lot that I did not yet understand, but was keen to get in and learn.

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Saggio Cinque hard at work!

Coming to train on this dig, I was pretty keen to support younger students and help them feel confident. One or two items tend to come up whilst excavating in field schools which I tried to be mindful of. Traveling alone for the first time and living in a large group can push peoples comfort boundaries (shocking, I know). So with experience traveling quite a lot in Italy, and the last six months of working for Italiarail (the American vendor for the train network in Italy, Trenitalia), we were able to give advice and help sort out peoples’ logistical issues fairly easily! All these things in mind, it was a grand opportunity and beautiful location.20160906_104206

The Site
Aeclanum is situated in modern Mirabella Eclano,  Irpinia region of Campania (inland). Connected by the legendary Roman road-building, Aeclanum was situated in a central point along the Via Appia. During the Social Wars (around 89 BCE), Aeclanum had been sacked by Sulla’s forces. It was rebuilt, and seemingly flourished in the 2nd CE when it became the Colonia Aelia Augusta Aeclanum. There is evidence of many phases of rebuilding, additions and repairs/re-purposing until Aeclanum sort of disappears from history after 662 from the campaigns against the Lombards of Benevento.20160913_081552The site itself was set within some idyllic green hills and edible vegetation was scattered throughout. Quite a few buildings were excavated and reconstructed already on the site, which drew tourists to this lovely town. Some building identifications are being reviewed, as new methodologies and interpretations were being applied to this site.20160916_162807There were number of specialists on-site to do digital mapping, ceramic analysis, and even drone photography (which took brilliant photos)! There were many types of dwellings, buildings and some roads visible. The scope of the site is not yet fully known, but there were many intriguing possibilities.20160913_081738The paving stones and hypnotic brick patterns were lovely to see every day. I’ve always been impressed by the effort and artistry of the brick work, especially as recently was pointed out to me, they would have been covered. 20160916_162845Of course! The work is so beautiful on its’ own that it seems a completed decoration. Though I cannot do the architecture justice through simple quick pen sketches in my Moleskin, I do keep trying!Scanned from a Xerox Multifunction Device005-1This one is, as usual, a bit squint, but it is a lot of fun to have little drawings of my travels to mark the memories.

The Team

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Saggio Cinque (Trench 5). Photo by Crystal Rakes

Our group was a mix of University students from all levels and people who came on this dig to get experience for a career shift as they sought to start a new direction in their lives, which is always commendable!

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The energy and effort of the students I got to work with was excellent. Rain or shine, our team of Saggio Cinque was a hard-working group, and hilarious. My senior supervisor (who I tried to learn as much as possible from) brought very approachable and engaging teaching methods to the site which was a huge help.20160915_185841All in all, these were not box-ticking learning objectives, rather an attempt at trying to give a taste of the concrete outcomes they needed to start a career in archaeology. I may have only a few weeks as a junior supervision, but it was incredibly informative right away being on the other side of a field school.I can’t go in to much detail, or perhaps shouldn’t, as it is an evolving and ongoing project and season, so what I can say about what we encountered in Saggio Cinque (now famously under the hashtag #SaggioCinque) was the following.

The Presence of Absences20160914_175757aMy previous dig experience in Greece included evidence of ancient and modern grave robbing. Working on a salvage dig was fast-paced and quite hush-hush about what we found, since the graves were near the surface and not hard to spot. 20160906_105647Whereas, what was surprising in Aeclanum, was seeing the evidence of someone trying to remove the massive limestone slabs (unsuccessfully) and apparently giving up. Poaching finished building materials and re-purposing them for newer buildings was pretty standard practice in antiquity,  but it was interesting to see evidence of a failed attempt.

Politics and Archaeology
Whilst our archaeological field school lodged in Mirabella Eclano, there was a bit of a press furor going on around us. Some of you might have seen this picture:20160912_133305(Archaeologists in the Nursery, Moms in Revolt) newspaper headline, a local misunderstanding about our accommodations. This strange bit of press, while seeming contentious, actually gave the opportunity for some interviews on site and publicized some of the exciting things we were doing. 20160914_175748To hear an interview with our site directors, you can check out this Sound Cloud link:
https://soundcloud.com/airadioariano/aeclanum-sta-per-concludersi-la-prima-fase-della-campagna-di-scavo20160914_172739Mirabella Eclano
The people of Mirabella Eclano were always very kind and gracious. I had a lot of great conversations using a mixture of French/English/Italian with quite a few locals. There were some real gems of cafes and restaurants; my favourite cafe, Zucchero e Vaniglia, served some incredible pastries and perfect portable coffees- superior additions for a dig break.20160908_075359Our main port of call, however, was the cafe/bar at Hotel Aeclanum. Many drinks, chats and post-dig hangouts took place at this tried test and true hotel bar.
The town of Mirabella Eclano was full of affordable little restaurants and bars, beer festivals, and very pretty views .20160914_172650

If you are curious and would like to find out more or maybe get involved, please check out the Apolline Project Website: http://www.apollineproject.org

Ciao for now!

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11. Roman Glass

Ancient Glass:Roman Innovation and Beauty

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Roman glass collection at Three Hills Roman Heritage Museum – Melrose, Scotland 2016

Spending time in museums throughout Europe, and a few in North America, you frequently see examples of ancient glass. When I started to look through my photos, I noticed that I am consistently drawn to the delicacy and incredible skill of glass objects. Egyptians, Greeks and Romans achieved incredible feats through their splendidly colourful, highly decorated and inventive glassware. As broadly as we might imagine using glass objects today, there were items for specific purposes (perfumes) or more banal uses (water). From the most utilitarian to the highest prestige item, the presence of Roman glassware is one of the most enduring, yet delicate, symbols of empire that remain.

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The Portland Vase – 1st Century AD Cameo Glass – British Museum. 2016

Early glass production was an elite (read: desperately expensive) tradition from the Hellenistic period, inherited from the Egyptians, which involved densely coloured glass. The small faces below give you an indication of the opaque colors, often used in beads and small functional objects d’art.

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Small glass theatre mask ornaments – Museum of Egyptology, Turin 2016

The consumption of glass items before the 1st century AD, would have been limited by cost and access to skilled artisans. The Romans incorporated previous techniques and over time made it’s production truly their own. Interestingly, however,  at this point there was still no Latin word associated with it.
Through changes to techniques of manufacturing glass, new styles and skills were developed in Italy.

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Roman Vessel – British Museum 2016

Glass blowing techniques opened up new styles of vessels, and perhaps today we take for granted that glass jugs and beakers were once new technology.

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Roman Vessel – British Museum 2016

So ubiquitous was the eventual production of glass during the 1st century AD, that the ‘Aqua’ and clear coloured glasses produced within the empire were priced into common consumption. Glass was no longer simply a decorative series of beads on elite necklaces, or thick-walled vessels of the Hellenistic period into the late 1st century,. With Roman inventiveness, soaring thin-walled vessels which used pigments and lines display the skill of the craftsmen to show pearl hues, and movement on the vessels’ surface.

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Roman Vessel – National Museum of Scotland, 2016

The dexterity, grace and occasional silliness in the manufacture of Roman glass products is a overlooked aspect of the study of Roman material culture. Not ignored, but next to a beautiful statue or sword, a tiny perfume bottle might not seem that interesting.

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Roman Vessel – Museo di Antichità Turin 2016

These small vials contained perfumes and precious oils, chalices for fine mixed wines, and other vessels for elite good. Sometimes I wonder if they were show-pieces or of a more personal nature perhaps?

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Portrait on glass – Naples National Archaeology Museum 2015

The cost of the items would suggest they were probably kept on display, but it is hard to know. Serving items would imply a public-use, and thus on show, but perfume bottles for a woman’s toilet could have been a more private piece of consumption.

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Painted Roman Vessel – Museo di Antichità Turin 2016

 

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Three Hills Roman Heritage Centre- Melrose, Scotland 2016

These gorgeous glasses were made of combinations of these elements pictured below, with added including colourants:

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1.Sand; 2.Potash; 3. Seaweed ash; 4.Lime- National Museum of Scotland

The Cage-Cup
On a recent visit to Milan in April, I had the incredible fortune to not only meet up a burgeoning academic in the fields of religion and slavery in the Ancient World, but also a local expert of Milan’s historic sites! Ambra Ghiringhelli, an PhD student with the University of Edinburgh, showed me some of the wonderful archaeological sites in Milan with fantastic local details. One such item she drew my attention to was the cage-cup of Milan.

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The cage cup of Milan – Museo Archeologico Milano 2016

The cage cup of Milan is an excellent example of what ‘living the good life’ in the Late Roman Empire would look like. Just another example of the 1% finding a way to make something that was now in the financial reach of many citizens of the empire, into a higher higher-level prestige item, again out of their reach.

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The cage cup of Milan, 2016

The striking combination of glass colours and types; geometrical patterns, in contrasting colours from the inner cup, sit on top with lettering. The skill required in putting together something like this would have been quite sophisticated. There are multiple techniques involved, which scholars are still not in total agreement on how this was precisely done.

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Silver base cage-cup in Edinburgh 2016

The National Museum of Edinburgh has its own small example of what a Roman cage cup looked like in the northern province of Britannia. However, the Edinburgh example is made from metal but follows the same principles.
There have been about 50 examples of cage-cups found to varying degrees of preservation.

Thank you for checking out my blog, and feel free leave questions or comments!