Friday, May 26, 2017

Adventures in Air Travel - Spring of 2017

Ah, flying places.  You never quite know what to expect.  There always seems to be a random element to it, this airport waves you through with a smile, that one picks your baggage apart to scrutinize your deodorant.  But it is still the Modern Magic Carpet that can pick you up in one part of the world and whisk you to another....with drinks in flight!

Lately there have been several high profile cases of passengers being handled roughly by airline staff.  In each instance there were extenuating circumstances.  It seems in general that it is crabby, disagreeable people who get themselves into difficult situations.  While this is understandable it is not an excuse.  The airlines and airport staff are trained quite specifically to deal with just this sort of situation and person, as cheerful and cooperative passengers are not the source of many issues.

So, in the aftermath of the United Airlines fiasco, what was the state of air travel in April and May of 2017?

Scene One.  A perfect trans Atlantic flight.  I had an empty seat next to me and the opportunity to stretch out and snooze.  An arrival sans jet lag, truly a modern miracle.

Scene Two.  Last time I went there Italian border control was a shuffling, milling mass of crabby humanity all waiting for a bored official to apply an entry stamp.  He chatted with his equally non useful colleague and did not even look at people.  Forty five wasted minutes.  This time?  Five minutes and through.  They still did not care a whit but at least they kept things moving.

Scene Three.  We got to our departure gate early for our return transAt flight.  This allowed us time for a bite of lunch and we sat across the way from our actual gate. There an ongoing drama was playing out.

The central figure was a stocky woman wearing a babushka style head scarf.  She was hoppin' mad about something, frequently gesturing at a KLM employee and shaking her fist.  At one point she spit on the floor.  The number of officials in the area increased quickly.  In addition to the two regular KLM/airport ladies there soon arrived: 3 guys in white shirts who donned yellow SECURITY vests and put on gloves. Also, a red uniformed airport official who directed bystanders elsewhere.  Finally, I think it was after the spitting part, four husky guys in deep blue uniforms that said KONILLIJKE MARECHAUSSE turned up.  My Dutch is sketchy so I thought this was the Royal Marines but in fact it was the Royal Constabulary, a fairly serious bunch who are the national police. I find this mildly disappointing, its a better story with Marines.

I give all concerned credit.  One of the "Marines" sat down and talked quietly with her for fifteen minutes.  Then the entire bunch - by now there were 8 or 9 officials involved - escorted her elsewhere.  Later discussing it with other passengers it seems that she was insistent on being arrested and taken to jail.  No doubt a story could be concocted to explain all this but it would be less plausible and less sad than whatever reality was on display there.

Scene Four.  Homeward Bound.  The guy behind us had his leg out in the aisle when the drinkie cart came through.  It bumped into him.  He yelled:  OWW!!!
The attendant of course was apologetic and said the obvious, that it was an accident. The boorish passenger replied in a voice loud enough for the entire airplane to hear: "Everything is an accident.  Even our birth!!!"

It is a good thing that our destination was near.  This guy kept carping at everyone and everything the rest of the way, in between pointing out that we were flying over the rather tony suburb that was his home.  My wife and I both made a point of telling the flight attendants that they had done well.  And this was even before they credited our account with some extra frequent flyer miles.  The official reason for this was that my in flight movie screen had not worked properly but I suspect the proximity of the crabby flyer made them a bit quicker and more liberal with this little "perk".

So what does it all mean?

I think it just means that more people of all sorts are flying.  Air fares are down a bit due to lower fuel costs, and at least Americans are enjoying a swell exchange rate these days.  More pleasant, cooperative travelers.  Also more people with psychological or neurological issues.  Also more garden variety jerks.

Maybe the favorable press on behalf of people who have been forcibly "de-planed" has emboldened some of the latter.  You hear stories of people just plopping down in a first class seat and pretty much daring the stewardesses types to make an issue of it. But for sure the jerks and the impaired are still a tiny fraction of the air traveling public.  Its just such a shame that in confined spaces one such can be heard and experienced by so many.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Tree Shaped Tomb Stones - UK examples

Obviously the UK has a lot of church yards.  In many cases the congregations are small and the upkeep costs enormous.  So some churches and their associated cemeteries are always falling into ruin, but most are being kept up from a combined appreciation of history and faith.

Until a recent jaunt off into the "Lake District" I had never encountered anything that resembled the "Tree Shaped Tomb Stones" I hunt for in the States.  And in one day I find three of them.

A lovely specimen even if it was hard to line it up for a good photo.  There is just too much verdant greenery and weathered stone on all sides!  This is at a posh little town called Grassmere. The cemetery is mostly noted for the grave of the poet Wordsworth but this of course is not it.  I got down and peered at the weathered inscription, it dates from 1899. Interesting that this is exactly the age of similar US specimens.  

Next up is a monument I ran across in a little place called Gosforth.  Its inscription is pretty far gone, but I was able to make out 1916.  Again, very similar to the time period in which you would find this style in the US.  The church yard held a second example that was identical but even more weathered.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Homeward Bound

And after three weeks plus of physical work, travel and dusty ruins I expect the Jet Lag will be severe.

Me for the immediate future.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Groovy Roman stones

Here is a bit of an archeology mystery from my recent trip to Vindolanda.  Just what do we have going on here?  A fancy bit of stone work to be sure.

This is over a short wall from where I had been excavating but appears to be part of the same commanding officer's house circa 180-200 AD.  For perspective here is a side view.

Now, the feature with the round hole in the top may not be in its original location. Note the loose stones and rubble underneath it.  But the larger stone is the interesting one.  It has a slot carved into it.

These turn up in various contexts.  Here is a simple water holding tank just inside the west gate of the fort.

And here a much fancier version in the (later, 3rd century) fort headquarters building. It separated an assembly hall from an official room that may among other things been the paymaster's office.

But as to the purpose of a stone screen near the (presumed) corner of the commander's residence, no theories to offer.  Other of course the observation that one support stone would not hold a heavy stone screen very well.  There should have been a second one but person or persons unknown nicked it a very long time ago.

Moving on from Vindolanda to Rome I was on the lookout for other, similar stones. And of course they kept turning up.

What we have here is a tombstone that at some later date had a slot carved into it. While this may seem highly irreverent it is worth noting that in later eras people did not know how to read Latin.  They did however know how to use a chisel.  This comes from the very jumbled up site that is the tomb of Cecilia Mattea on the Appian Way. 

Now here's one from the Museum at the Baths of Diocletian.  Fancy.

And lets finish up with an odd ball.

Here is a slotted stone near the Museum at Ostia Antica.  Between early antiquities robbers and the enthusiastic attention of Mussolini era archeologists/reconstructors it is hard to say much about age and context.

So my personal opinion that it has an Alien Brain on the top can probably be dismissed out of hand. 

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Monte Testaccio - The Ultimate Detritus of Empire

One of the places that I meant to visit on our last trip to Rome was Monte Testaccio. Literally it means "the mountain of shards".

Oh, this is not on very many people's list of Must See things in the Eternal City, but if you are archeologically inclined it is something special.  Simply put, it is a mountain of broken Roman pottery.

It is almost all amphorae.  More specifically, amphorae used to transport olive oil from Spain to Rome.  The river is nearby, with the great warehouses where oil for public and military distribution were received, stored and distributed.  And what to do with the empties?

You tend to see lots of re-use of pots generally and amphorae specifically.  Even at far away Vindolanda up on the Frontier we find them busted up for road surfacing or set into the ground as storage or as a latrine.  But the amphorae in Monte Testacaccio are of a specific type - Dressel 20 if you must know - that tend to break into large jagged shards.  And even the common Roman practice of grinding them up to mix with concrete was not practical due to oil residue.

So, they were hauled off and broken up on the site.  

Nobody knows how old the ones at the bottom are.  But the 53 million amphorae that make up the Mountain of Shards were accumulated over several centuries.  At present it stands 115 feet high but it might have once been larger.  

About 260 AD the storage and distribution of oil was moved somewhere else and the discard pile was complete.

After the fall of Rome this was a desolate spot outside the walls.  Jousting tournaments were held here in the Middle Ages.  For a while it stood in theatrically for Golgotha, with the Pope leading a procession to it every Good Friday and putting up three crosses on its summit.   

In the early modern era it had a series of caves dug into it for cool storage of wine.

So, lets take a visit to The Mother of All Spoil heaps in the year 2017.

You can get very close to the "Mountain" without seeing it.  It is entirely encircled by rather dodgy looking buildings.  Those farther out are auto repair shops.  Those close in and dug into the hillside are mostly an assortment of clubs and music venues.  The graffiti in this neighborhood is epic.

Here we find a truck decked out in vines and a tiki deck.  The sign on it says "Cult Services".  It seems to be audio/video stuff, probably real popular in the artsy neighborhood.

Of course I had to peek in their parking lot.  Washed out bits of amphora all over the place.

But that pales to insignificance when you go around to the north end of the site.  Here a section of the hill has been cleaned of dirt to show you the packed amphora fragments below.

Stacks and stacks.  Too many to count.  Too many to excavate.  Too many to scrub up.

I don't think Monte Testaccio would warrant a special visit unless you come on one of the infrequent days where they unlock the gate and let you climb to the top.  There is still a cross up there by the way.  But it is in an area where there are some other fascinating things - which we shall return to anon - and as an add on visit it is worthy.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Ancient Feet - Coming and Going

Today a story about setting out and turning back.  Or about setting off and hoping to come back.  It takes place on The Appian Way.

"The Queen of Roads".  This was a main route for travelers to set out from Ancient Rome.  A couple of miles out you had a place where you could turn back and see the great city for the last time.   At this spot a place of worship was established.  

Rediculus was one of the lares, the protector gods of Rome.  When Hannibal's army approached in 211 BC Rediculus appeared in an apparition, or perhaps in a storm of hail, admonishing the Carthaginian to turn back.  The word redire in Latin means to turn back and is likely the origin of the god's name.  Later interpretations that Hannibal was made to look ridiculous don't sound likely.

The Temple of Rediculus was built at this spot, and a larger campus, or field of Rediculus was nearby.  There do not seem to be visible remains.

The notion of this being the spot where you either went forward or back was established, and it was here that travelers would stop to give an offering to their safe return from far journeys.  One wonders how many - with real or perceived omens - aborted their journey and turned around?

Fast forward a few centuries.  According to the apocryphal Acts of Peter this is the spot where the Apostle, and first Pope, encountered a vision of Christ.  Peter was fleeing the city ahead of persecution but came to a halt when he met Christ.  Asking Him:  "Master, where are you going?" Peter was told "I am going to Rome to be crucified again."

Taking the hint that it was his, Peter's, job to return he did so.  And met his martyrdom.

Peter's words in Latin "Domine Quo Vadis?" are linked to the church that was later built on the site.  Miracles being what they were back then, a stone slab depicting the actual footprints of Jesus were long kept there.  What you see now in situ is a replica.

So, what do modern travelers find at the Field of Rediculus and at the Church of Dominie Quo Vadis?

A nice little church.  That is the Appian Way running right in front of it.

Jesus looks to be about a size 10.

And here is a nice bust recognizing Henryk Sienkiewicz.  He wrote the novel "Quo Vadis" which is the only reason people have heard of this place.  If my Italian is holding up it looks as if he won the Nobel Prize for it.

We were actually having a rather tough day when I took these photos.  It was hot. There were large crowds on the Road as it was a local festival.  In places the original Roman paving stones were quite jarring as we rode our bikes over them.  But we did not turn back at Quo Vadis, we soldiered on for as long as the time on our bike hire allowed.  More pictures of the day, of course, in due course.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Living Vicariously next to the Vicus

As has been the case in other recent seasons the work crew was divided between those working inside the Fort at Vindolanda, and those working in the vicus, that being the civilian settlement outside the fort*.

The vicus is where the really amazing stuff tends to emerge.  With anaerobic preservation metal objects pop up without a speck of tarnish and wooden objects are still intact after nearly 2000 years.   

Sigh.  This year I was on the crew inside the fort.  Most of my digging pals were over in the vicus trench.  Envious?  Oh, just a bit but I have been down in the "good stuff" the last few seasons.

So I live vicariously through their anaerobic adventures.

Of course this got me musing.  Is there an etymological connection between vicus and vicarious?  

Close but no cigar.  Vicus is a latin word meaning "group of houses".  It survives to the modern era in the word vicinity.  

Vicarious -  meaning to live through the adventures of others - derives from vicis to "exchange or interchange".  The sort of Walter Mitty sense of it is first recorded only in 1929.  It also survives as the word "Vicar" through one of its secondary meanings, a place or position.  And if you are on an Etymology roll, vicis also gives us Vice President and "vice versa", each indicating a sort of replacement.

Vicus and Vicis.  Off by a single letter.

* stuff being jostled around a good deal over the long occupation of Vindolanda some areas of Vicus are now underneath parts of the fort.  And vice versa.  It's complicated.