16. Studying the Regina Caeli: the journey so far into the cult of Isis.

Isis Bar“I divided the earth from the heaven. I showed the paths of the stars. I ordered the course of the sun and the moon”. (Kyme Aretalogy in honour of Isis)

Since backpacking in Europe in 2001, I have been drawn to images and archaeological sites relating to Isis. There are some things that just strike the right chord for you. My first experience with Isis (in a Greco-Roman style) was at the Capitoline Museum in Rome.

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Capitoline Isis, Rome (2014).

The statue fit my understanding of what classical sculpture was, and simultaneously had something a bit unusual. The features were so exquisitely carved, and the goddess’s accoutrements were unlike anything I had seen before. While visiting Pompeii during the same trip, I didn’t quite make the connection between the figure in the statue that I’d seen in Rome and the temple in which I had been standing.

During my undergraduate studies, I came across her again while reading Lucian’s ‘Metamorphosis (The Golden Ass)’. My attention was drawn to the way that Lucian described the power of this mysterious foreign goddess. What was so brash about Lucian’s novel was how much he subtly revealed, through winks and nods, about the mystery cult. He described esoteric celebrations, events and magical healing, all the while saying, ‘but it’s a secret, so I can’t really talk about it’. The story is familiar, in a Shakespearean kind of way, through all the hubris, metamorphoses, changes of fortune, and bawdy humour.

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Isis-Thermoutis, Musee des Beaux Arts, Lyon (2017).

I was fascinated by this religious movement and how it functioned within the religiously pluralistic Roman society. Isis and her cult would ultimately provide some of the foundation of early Christian practices such as baptism, in addition to the depictions with Horus (the infant nursing on her lap is a dead ringer for the baby Jesus), presaging the metamorphosis into the Virgin Mary.

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Isis (holding the snake) and Io (sitting atop the shoulders of the personified Nile) wall painting, Museo Nazionale Napoli (2014).

Jumping in with both feet, I was excited and wanted to understand more about this deity. However, my introduction to the topic began at a much later point in the history of the Cult of Isis; to understand the cult and its significance, I would need to go farther back and approach it more broadly.Scanned from a Xerox Multifunction Device002-1~2My Masters at the University of Edinburgh was spent exploring the Greek and Hellenistic routes of the cult, from multiple angles, to start filling in the picture (and creating many of my own pictures).

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Some of my sketches of Isis statues over the last 4 years.

Isis’s power as a deity in Egypt rested in being the wife of Osiris and mother of Horus. She bridged the continuity of kingship from one king to his descendant. Her original function as the literal and symbolic role – as the throne and king-maker in Ancient Egypt – changes quite dramatically once the cult is exported into Greece and Italy.

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Isis cradling Horus – from the MET archives.

While the period of Isis worship in the pre-Hellenistic era (before 323 BCE) is interesting, what has captivated me more specifically is what happens with the cult in the Hellenistic-to-Roman period. Like a character from Sailor Moon, she gained many headdresses, wands, tools, and visual associations with other deities (Demeter, Aphrodite, Athena, Nike).

This is the period that I focused on during my MSc, researching the symbols and iconography over time, with an emphasis on the tiny figurines used in her worship. What I discovered was that her strength was in her flexibility. Her image could be adapted to all needs, wants and interests. She could be a local or international deity. She could be closely affiliated with a particular ruling dynasty, or one specific location.

Another investigation looked at the cult’s relationship with Athenian government in Delos, and some of the territorial quarrels that occurred between temples run by different factions on the island. The evidence of a push and pull scenario between Delos’ new overlords (the Athenians) and the previous residents, in the mid-second century BCE. Running cults was big business and politically useful to establishing ones career, and the Athenians had no interest in allowing an Alexandrian ‘Egyptian’ to maintain a monopoly on the worship of Isis in this economically powerful port.

While few temples of Isis remain in even remotely good shape, Pompeii possesses on of the most famous examples.

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Temple of Isis and her #1 fan, Pompeii (2016).

Pompeii had one of the best-preserved temples (though most of the decorations were long since removed and put in museums). It was fascinating to see the spread of Egyptian-looking artefacts which tend to denote cult membership. The items that were recovered from Pompeii are varied and showed decorations and materials of incredibly high quality that were made for, and used by, the Temple of Isis.

Another leg of the journey in my first large research project involved a trip to Palestrina (ancient Praeneste), some 40 km east of Rome. Part of what I wanted to see was the Egyptian artefacts, which remain some of the most exquisite examples of mosaic work from ancient history.

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The Nile Mosaic of Palestrina, Italy (2014).

The Nile Mosaic of Palestrina was breath-taking in person and represented an interesting fusion of culture and appropriation of the Hellenistic Alexandrians and the native Egyptians. Although it is an uneven cultural balance, with the prioritising of the Macedonian elite over the native Egyptians.

 

It is a rare gem of the exquisite mosaic work that was part of art market in Italy, before the Rome dominated the Mediterranean. It highlighted aspects of Egyptian cult which would find its way into Italy, though altered for Italian tastes.

 So, what is next?

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Isiac procession relief, Palazzo Altemps, Rome (2014).

This September I will be stepping into the subject and delving deeper into urban design, Egyptian architecture and the art styles that appear in Roman cities. There are so many aspects and angles to investigate with this topic, and being able to work on a PhD toward this end is like a dream come true. 20160610_150009There are still so many sites, statues, and sistrums to see in my journey into my studies of this Cult of Isis!

Thank you for reading my blog!

A bientot!

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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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12. Baiae: the original Sin City

Ancient BaiaeIMG_20151011_102302733Whilst I was excavating in Policastro Bussentino, I decided to use my down-time productively and get to know the cities in southern Italy. The train routes were cheap and plentiful along the Tyrrhenian coastline, with beautiful views on this regional train ride from Napoli Centrale.

One such a day trip, I ventured from Naples on an ambitious outing to see some ancient cities of Magna Graecia. I say ambitious because by foot it is a very long walk from Baiae to Cumae along a winding hillside with no shoulder or footpath- all in all, a 15 mile walking day.IMG_20151011_103057308_HDRWhen I arrived at the ancient town of Baiae in Gulf of Puzzuoli, I had the unique experience of being in a spectacular archaeological site entirely alone.IMG_20151011_120941032_HDR It was a beautiful clear morning and I rocked up without having purchased a ticket (tickets you are supposed to buy at Cumae first then head over to Baiae, unbeknownst to me). Luckily, the park steward let me in for free and after I explained my disorientation!IMG_20151011_105811204_HDRThe archaeological park was stunning, as you can see. The multi-story bath complex was built into the hillside, and standing atop the complex it is not hard to imagine why the super-rich of the Republican period into the Principate were drawn to this place. This area was rich in volcanic activity (Vesuvius is very close, of course) which the Roman architects and engineers were able to channel into sulphur springs – perfect for hot baths!IMG_20151011_105329200_HDRThere seemed to be endless rooms, and many with mosaic floors still remaining in situ. The mosaics are, appropriately, water-themed with divinities and typical meander and wave patterns. Water and neglect have left them in the current state of disrepair they are in, but you can see evidence of the gorgeous technical ability.IMG_20151011_103901841IMG_20151011_110414060A surprising amount of painted plaster was still visible as well, with typical decorative motifs and some strange ones. The frescoes date to two particular stylistic phases: the middle of the 1st century A.D., called the 3rd Pompeian style (notably because of the ‘Egyptianising’ features they possess. That stuff is my research jam, and I shall in due course dedicate many 1’s and 0’s of the internets to discuss it.
Below I’ve tried to highlight the figures which have zoomorphic features and elements meant to evoke Egypt (costumes and symbols).IMG_20151011_113345586A later, 2nd century A.D. phase is also present, which could be viewed as slightly irregular and a bit shabbier in execution. This little green dragon below was part of that later design. IMG_20151011_113317462Temples, Pools or …? 
There were a few cisterns still, and one was even fully intact. The echo inside made singing sound like I was using a microphone. Yes, I sang a few Disney songs before giving my spot to the tourists who were waiting at this point, bemused, outside. Nothing like being in a archaeological sites for belting out tunes (Florence and the Machine). Amusingly, it wasn’t until a month later I learned the name of it was called the “Temple of the Echo“. While not a temple, the name was still pretty on point.

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Top-view of the cistern”Temple of the Echo”
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Inside the “Temple of the Echo”

 

The ‘Temple of Diana’ that lay just outside of the archaeological park is a husk of its former self, but still pretty damn impressive. IMG_20151011_121904582This was built during the reign of Hadrian, one of the greatest building emperors of the Roman Empire. The influx of funds in the 2nd century A.D. – which manifested earlier in the frescoes being added to – coincides with the building of this structure. Called a temple erroneously, it has been argued to be a pool, a further spectacular addition to the bathing complex. As I neared the bottom of the hillside, I could see a MASSIVE temple-looking structure, across the (modern) street, outside of the bath complex. I stood to sketch it for a while, and saw that it was a ‘Temple of Venus‘, which, given the history of this elite spa-town, would have made perfect sense.IMG_20151011_120828100_HDRProlific in his building, this massive Hadrianic era building could have been a casino, pool, or possibly religious building- all suggestions I read at the site. The lingering naming of the building, ‘Temple of Venus’ betrays the varying perceptions of it that carried on over the last thousand years since it was in use.The political landscape in Rome during the late Republic into the Principate involved the elevation of the Julio-Claudians and funding to their parton deity- Venus. Julius Caesar had a villa in the area, and other notables like Pompey Magnus, Caligula and Septimus Severus all frequented the area.

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Temple of Venus at Baiae
Augustus (nephew to Julius, nee Octavian) took over the entire complex (and much of the town), adding it to his sizeable imperial property. Controlling where the rich went to relax, socialise and play was pretty much Augustus’ raison d’etre during his early formation of how the empire would be run.
Anyone watching the Versailles (2015) series right now could imagine the same processes occurring in Rome under Octavian as was happening in the court of Louis XIV. Like the French nobles who were forced to adopt new practices and behaviours, Rome’s elite probably required some wrangling to stay in the lines as Augustus delineated them.  Controlling spaces goes a long way towards controlling behaviours and shaping ideas.
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Squinty little study of shapes at the Temple of Venus

The analogy of Versailles can be taken farther, as Baiae developed a reputation  for moral bankruptcy, with salacious and scandalous behaviour taking place in the steamy rooms of this wellness retreat. One commentator on the depravity of Baiae’s baths and wellness centre was Seneca the Younger, describing it as a “vortex of luxury” and amusingly, “harbor of vice”. I suspect he may not have been on the guest list for the sexier parties.With Romans, physical wellness was linked with spiritual wellness. The presence of temples in a site like this would make a lot of sense.IMG_20151011_110934785A  significant part of the blue-bloodedness of Julius Caesar, and thus his descendants, was his claim of being related to the divine being Venus (through Aeneas, of Trojan war and founding Rome fame). He is a big deal in mythology, and would have been in the eyes of the Roman people. To claim mythical descent through him to Venus, the Julians linked themselves to the divine.It would be very appropriate then to have a bloody great big temple in this playground of the wealthy with their patron deity stamped allover it. When sacrifices and homages were being paid to that divinity, the connection to the Imperial family couldn’t have been far from the person’s mind.IMG_20151011_123803760Not surprising then, that as time and memory faded the original meaning of these buildings more mundane structures, nestled along the coast, took on impressive religious connotations.

Thank you for checking out my blog!
Ciao !

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