Romans in the Park: A Visit to Ancient Verulamium

For travelers accustomed to visiting ancient classical sites in the Mediterranean and Near East, Roman ruins in England may at first seem underwhelming. They tend to be relatively small in size and often poorly preserved; sometimes little more than a few courses of brick remaining. But it is precisely this manageable size, and the fact that so many Roman sites in England have been so thoroughly studied for so long, that allows the modern visitor to appreciate more intimately these sites. A short train ride north of London, St Albans is a case in point.

A settlement has existed at St Albans since the late Iron Age, when it was a center for the Celtic tribe of the Catuvellauni. With the arrival of the Romans in AD 43, the town began to grow and prosper. But in AD 60 or 61, the year of the Boudiccan Revolt, the town was largely destroyed. Verulamium recovered quickly and by AD 140 the town had doubled in size, covering 100 acres, and featuring a Forum, public baths, many prosperous private townhouses and outlying villas. Despite fires and other blows, the town continued to grow and had sufficient resources at its disposal around AD 275 to build an impressive defensive wall and ditch enclosing an area of 203 acres.

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Long surviving section of Verulamium’s city walls

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Surviving section of Verulamium’s city wall known as St Germain’s Block

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Mosaic preserved in situ and featuring subfloor heating, from a townhouse in Verulamium AD 160-190

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The Abbey Church at St Albans showing use of recycled Roman brick and other building material

Today the site of Verulamium sits in an idyllic public park, with playing fields, ponds, bike and walking trails and large expanses of open green space and woods, all just at the edge of St Albans itself. The antiquities of the ancient site were recorded as early as the 16th Century, with serious excavations beginning in the mid-19th Century. Much of the site was listed as a public monument in 1923 and acquired by the City of St Albans in 1929. Mortimer and Tessa Wheeler began systematic controlled excavations in 1930. They were followed by the likes of Kathleen Kenyon and other prominent archaeologists, and excavations continue on a smaller scale today. Verulamium Museum was opened on the site in 1939, with major improvements in 1998.

Verulamium Museum houses an outstanding collection of Roman mosaic floors, some of the best Roman wall paintings to have survived in England, and a vast collection of small finds, from the most humble to the magnificent. The quality of the displays is excellent and includes recreated rooms from private homes in the town and finds from the many outlying wealthy villas in the region.

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Example of the high quality displays in the Roman Verulamium Museum

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The Shell Mosaic, circa AD150, now in Verulamium Museum

Display of Roman Brooches in Verulamium Museum

Display of Roman brooches in Verulamium Museum

Display of Roman Oil Lamps in Verulamium Museum. Both Local and Imported Examples.

Display of Roman oil lamps in Verulamium Museum. Both local and imported examples.

This writer recommends a visit to Verulamium Museum prior to setting off to see the remains of the town. A very good guide book is available from the Museum shop. There are also many good restaurants in the High Street of St Albans for the hungry visitor.

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A Stroll Through Herculaneum

Rather than offering an overview of a particular class of antiquities, archaeological site or museum, this entry in Clio’s blog consists of some the writer’s favorite images compiled from visits to the ancient Roman seaside resort town of Herculaneum, which was buried, like it’s more famous neighbor, Pompeii, in the famous eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79. Each image includes a brief descriptive caption. Some useful online resources about Herculaneum are listed at the bottom. Enjoy!

Fourth Style fresco, back wall Hall of the Augustals, Herculaneum

Fourth Style fresco, back wall Hall of the Augustals, Herculaneum

Hall of the Augustals, Battle of Hercules & Acheloo, Herculaneum

Hall of the Augustals, Battle of Hercules & Acheloo, Herculaneum

Hall of the Augustals, Entrance of Hercules into Olympus, Herculaneum

Hall of the Augustals, Entrance of Hercules into Olympus, Herculaneum

Hall of the Augustals, inauguration dedicatory plaque, Herculaneum

Hall of the Augustals, inauguration dedicatory plaque, Herculaneum

A Taberna, or cook shop. The large pottery jars set into the counter top contained hot and cold foods that could quickly be dished out to customers. This was basically the "fast food" of the time.

A Taberna, or cook shop. The large pottery jars set into the counter top contained hot and cold foods that could quickly be dished out to customers. This was basically the “fast food” of the time.

The interior or back room of the Taberna. The huge ceramic vessels sunk into the floor, called Dolia, held large stocks of staple goods needed for food preparation.

The interior or back room of the Taberna. The huge ceramic vessels sunk into the floor, called Dolia, held large stocks of staple goods needed for food preparation.

Black & White Mosaic Floor in a Corridor, House of the Alcove, Herculaneum

Black & White Mosaic Floor in a Corridor, House of the Alcove, Herculaneum

Frigidarium (cold room) plunge pool in the Forum Baths at Herculaneum. The roof above the pool has collapsed and vegetation now grows in profusion above.

Frigidarium (cold room) plunge pool in the Forum Baths at Herculaneum. The roof above the pool has collapsed and vegetation now grows in profusion above.

Marine Mosaic Floor, women's section, Forum Baths, Herculaneum

Marine Mosaic Floor, women’s section, Forum Baths, Herculaneum

Men's changing room of the Forum Baths, Herculaneum. The surviving stucco and painted decoration is superb.

Men’s changing room of the Forum Baths, Herculaneum. The surviving stucco and painted decoration is superb.

Mosaic floor, Women's changing rooms, Central Baths, Herculaneum

Mosaic floor, Women’s changing rooms, Central Baths, Herculaneum

Interior Fresco with Architectural Fantasy, House of the Wooden Screen, Herculaneum

Interior Fresco with Architectural Fantasy, House of the Wooden Screen, Herculaneum

Mosaic Panel, Neptune and Amphitrite, House of the Neptune Mosaic, Herculaneum

Mosaic Panel, Neptune and Amphitrite, House of the Neptune Mosaic, Herculaneum

Nymphaeum opposite the Neptune Mosaic, House of the Neptune Mosaic, Herculaneum

Nymphaeum opposite the Neptune Mosaic, House of the Neptune Mosaic, Herculaneum

House of the Mosaic Atrium, garden enclosed by portico. Most of the plants and trees currently growing on the site are the same as those in antiquity.

House of the Mosaic Atrium, garden enclosed by portico. Most of the plants and trees currently growing on the site are the same as those in antiquity.

HERCULANEUM RESOURCES

1. Friends of Herculaneum Society – Engaged in raising awareness about Herculaneum, supporting research and promoting conservation of the site and objects found there.The society funds projects at Herculaneum and offers site visits. The Oxford chapter’s website includes a link to the US branch of the Society: http://www.herculaneum.ox.ac.uk/?q=Home%20Introduction

2. The British School at Rome Herculaneum page:  http://www.bsr.ac.uk/research/archaeology/ongoing-projects/herculaneum

3 . the Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei (the local Italian governmental heritage authority) http://www.pompeiisites.org/# . Their site, which covers Pompeii, Herculaneum and other sites around the Bay of Naple, is available in English and includes information on admission prices and times to the sites.

17th Dynasty Rishi Coffin Discovered

http://luxortimesmagazine.blogspot.nl/2014/02/17th-dynasty-rishi-coffin-discovered-in.html

Clio Ancient Art

Babylon 1947

This faded, tattered old picture is something more personal than our usual offerings here at Clio Ancient Art: A 1947 photo of my extended family, on my mother’s side, on a day trip to visit the ruins of Babylon. They are gathered around, and on, the guardian lion at the Ishtar Gate, carved from basalt and dating to the 6th Century BC.

Is it any wonder I pursued archaeology in academia and later became an antiquities dealer?

Much has changed in the world of archaeology, and in the legitimate antiquities trade, since this image was taken. The very scene where this was taken has undergone dramatic changes, none of them for the better, and not one person in this image is still alive. But whatever tumult this lion of Babylon has seen in the last few decades is certainly no worse than what had come before.

Perhaps this stone lion is a reminder to us of the valuable lessons history has to offer, and the beautiful handiwork of human creativity, if we are prepared to stop and examine the past without sectarian, nationalist, ethnic or religious prejudice.