Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The real Alfred the Great

History Extra


In 878 King Alfred had to flee for his life when Twelfth Night celebrations at his residence in Chippenham, Wiltshire, were rudely interrupted by a surprise Viking attack, well outside the normal campaigning season. Alfred took refuge in the marshes at Athelney in Somerset, where he allegedly burnt the cakes, a story first recorded in the 11th century. The point of this anecdote was to emphasise how low the King’s fortunes had sunk in order to make his comeback at the battle of Edington (also Wiltshire) later in the same year all the more dramatic. By defeating the Viking leader Guthrum, Alfred ensured that his kingdom of Wessex in southern England remained free of the Viking occupation that had overrun the eastern half of the country, and set the stage for his successors to make themselves kings of all England.

 Alfred’s victory at Edington did much to earn him the epithet “the Great”, though this was not widely applied to him before the 16th century. However, his successes against the pagan Vikings are arguably not the most remarkable thing about him; medieval kings, after all, were expected to win battles. No, what really makes Alfred stand out in the canon of Anglo-Saxon leaders are skills and interests that few of his contemporaries shared.

 A chance find near Athelney in 1693 brings us closer to what made Alfred such an unusual king. This is the famous Alfred Jewel, which incorporates the Old English inscription “Aelfred mec heht gewyrcan”: “Alfred had me made”, and it is believed that the Alfred in question must be the ninth-century king. But what sort of artefact is the Jewel, and why may Alfred have commissioned it? The answer probably lies in the socket at the end of the artefact’s animal-head terminal. This presumably once held a thin rod, giving us reason to suspect that the Jewel is an æstel, a pointer to help those who were not experienced at reading to spell out the words. A unique reference to the gift of an æstel occurs in a letter sent by Alfred to his bishops, some of whom, it appears, were in need of improving their reading skills which they were expected to hone on the volume that accompanied the gift. The book was a translation into Old English of a key Latin work of the early Middle Ages, the Pastoral Care by Pope Gregory the Great, and the leader of the translation team was the King himself.


The Alfred Jewel, which was discovered in 1693 near Athelney, where Alfred took refuge from the Vikings in 878. It bears the inscription ‘Alfred had me made’. (Ashmolean Museum/Salisbury & South Wiltshire Museum)

 Kings who read books in the early Middle Ages were pretty unusual, but a king who was an author as well as a successful military commander was as rare as the proverbial hen’s teeth. Alfred was an adult learner. His Welsh biographer and adviser Asser describes how in 887, when the King was 38, he began to study Latin works. From his reading, Alfred seems to have gained a much clearer idea of his own responsibilities as a Christian ruler, and to have felt that others in his kingdom who were also in positions of responsibility would benefit similarly if they got down to study. Not only were his bishops expected to find time to do so, but so were his secular leaders and administrators. In addition to the translation of Pastoral Care, Alfred was involved in the translation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, Augustine’s Soliloquies and the first 50 Psalms. Such books were usually only available in Latin, but Alfred was not afraid to break with convention, and so did much to launch English as a language of learning.

 The works selected for translation were not so far removed from Alfred’s other concerns as king as they might at first appear. King David of the Psalms, and many of the classical characters referred to by Boethius, were military and political leaders with similar concerns and problems to those faced by Alfred himself. To a certain extent we can see the King treating these works as self-help guides. In the letter he sent to his bishops with the æstel and their copy of Pastoral Care, Alfred looked back on earlier periods and concluded that those in which rulers had been successful in warfare and wealth were also those in which wisdom had flourished. By wisdom, the King meant the knowledge to act and think correctly as defined by the Bible and those who commented upon its meaning. The bishops were further encouraged to make the same connection through the gift of a valuable æstel. They had literally acquired wealth (ie the æstel) with wisdom, (their copy of the translation of Pastoral Care) whose import they were to pass on to the wider population via the priests whom it was their duty to train. The people would learn that it was their duty to fall into line behind the King and to accept the demands that he needed to make upon them in order to be successful in warfare against the Vikings. 

An enquiring mind and willingness to adopt original solutions for practical problems appear to have been characteristics of King Alfred. The æstels may be an example of the “wonderful and precious new treasures made to his own design” described by Asser. Another may be the splendid silver Fuller brooch, with its depiction of the five senses in which “Sight” bears a close resemblance to the enigmatic central figure on the Alfred Jewel. When the King wanted a more accurate way of allocating his time equally to his different responsibilities, he designed a candle-clock, and when the winds whistling around his wooden palaces caused his candles to gutter, he ordered lanterns of wood and horn to be made to contain them. When he saw how the Vikings were making use of fortified sites, he ordered new fortresses to be built in Wessex, existing ones to be strengthened and garrisons to be placed within them. These burhs, as they were known, played a major role in Alfred’s ability to see off further Viking attacks after his defeat of Guthrum at Edington in 878.

 But in Asser’s biography, and through comments in the translations associated with him, Alfred also appears as an introspective man who was troubled by the problems of reconciling the expectations of him as a military and Christian leader. He also suffered serious illness from adolescence onwards. Illness had first come upon him when he was worrying about how to avoid teenage lust, and entered a new phase when he fell ill at his wedding in 867 when he was about 20. From this time we are told he had recurring agonising attacks and was always on edge because he never knew when he might be struck down again. (One modern diagnosis of Alfred’s symptoms is that he suffered from Crohn’s disease, a chronic abdominal disorder.)

 Some modern historians have found this picture of Alfred as an apparent neurotic invalid with sexual hang-ups difficult to reconcile with Alfred the man of action who excelled in hunting and warfare (as Asser also tells us). Yet, whatever their doubts, it would appear that Alfred found a way of turning illness to his advantage. When he was able to achieve so much in spite of bad health and his many other preoccupations as king, it was rather difficult for his nobles to claim they did not have time to learn their letters.


Harry Mileham’s 1909 oil painting showing King Alfred translating Pope Gregory the Great’s key Latin work, Pastoral Care. (Bridgeman)

 An early medieval micro-manager
Alfred’s demands on his subjects seem to have caused some resentment. Asser speaks of resistance to the building of fortresses as well as to the need to improve literacy skills. A document about a land dispute from the reign of Alfred’s son, Edward the Elder, asks “if one wishes to change every judgement which King Alfred gave, when shall we finish disputing?”, so reinforcing the picture that Asser paints of a King who was given to enquiring closely into legal cases. Alfred was much more of a micro-manager than many early-medieval kings and was aware of how his administrators might abuse their positions. But any resentment towards his demands is likely to have been countered by another of his characteristics – generosity. Generosity and conspicuous bravery, which Alfred also seems to have possessed, were the two most valued traditional attributes of early medieval kings. The converse of that was that Alfred could be harsh to those who defied him. Without going into details, Asser reveals that Alfred dealt severely with those who shirked fortress work or plotted the death of one of his foreign ecclesiastical advisers. In fact, it was fear of the consequences, as well as the lure of treasures like the Alfred Jewel, that persuaded members of the nobility to at least make a show of following their ruler’s interest in books, and encouraged defeated Vikings to embrace Christianity.

 It is almost impossible to get a full understanding of the character of any early medieval person, even one as relatively well recorded as King Alfred. Asser’s biography and the translations may provide some genuine insights, but they are also deliberately concerned with presenting a persona that promoted contemporary ideals of Christian kingship, what today we might refer to as spin. Asser makes no bones about revealing that King Solomon of the Old Testament, another ruler closely associated with the pursuit of wisdom, was a model for some of what he says about Alfred. Perhaps such a persona was actively adopted by the King to impress his subjects and mark his difference from them. The end result was, as the 19th-century historian Edward Freeman put it, that Alfred appears as “the most perfect man in history”.

 In the reign of Victoria in particular, he was adopted as an exemplar of all that was best in the English character and as the founder of English institutions and empire. The desire for Anglo-Saxon origins for 19th-century innovations led to some startling claims. For instance, Alfred’s modest provision of better schooling at the royal court led Arthur Conan Doyle to assert that “his standard was that every boy and girl in the whole of the nation should be able to read and write”. It was in this spirit that international celebrations were held in Winchester for Alfred’s millennium in 1901 which culminated in the unveiling of the statue of the King by Hamo Thornycroft. In 2008 a more 21st-century evaluation of Alfred is to be made in Winchester in the exhibition, Alfred the Great: Warfare, Wealth and Wisdom, which will explore the interaction between these concerns – something on which Alfred himself seems to have reflected to exceedingly good effect.


A statue of Alfred in Winchester. (Alamy)

 What did Alfred actually do?

1) Alfred travelled twice to Rome as a young boy, at the ages of four and six, and was received by the Pope. On his second visit he was accompanied by his father, King Æthelwulf. On the return journey they stayed with the great Frankish king, Charles the Bald, whose daughter married Æthelwulf.

 2) Alfred succeeded his brother Æthelred I as king of Wessex in 871, when he was 22 years old, in the midst of a major assault on the kingdom by a Viking army. Nine major battles were fought between Vikings and West Saxons in that year. They ended in stalemate and a temporary truce.

 3) After narrowly escaping capture by Vikings in 878, Alfred rallied to decisively defeat the Danish leader Guthrum at the battle of Edington in Wiltshire. Guthrum agreed to convert to Christianity, take the Anglo-Saxon name of Athelstan and retire to East Anglia, where the Anglo-Saxon royal family had been ousted in earlier Viking attacks.

 4) In 886 Alfred restored the city of London and moved the settlement from the Strand to inside its refurbished Roman walls. Control of London was given to Ealdorman Æthelred, the ruler of the western part of Mercia, who also became Alfred’s son-in-law. Their alliance was a major factor in countering Viking attacks.

 5) Alarmed by poor standards of learning in Wessex, Alfred recruited scholars from other parts of Britain and Europe in the late 880s. These included Asser from Wales and Grimbald and John from the Frankish empire. These men assisted Alfred in the translation of key Latin works into Old English.

 6) Alfred issued a new law code for his subjects that drew upon previous Anglo-Saxon laws and contemporary Frankish practice. Parallels were drawn between Anglo-Saxon and Old Testament law-making. The royal officials who administered the local law courts were encouraged to learn to read and also to act impartially.

 7) Between 892 and 896 Alfred had to face a second phase of major Viking attacks. Thanks to the reforms he had instigated in military service, and his foresight in having additional fortresses built and garrisons placed within them, the Vikings were unable to establish themselves and eventually dispersed.

 8) Alfred founded a monastery at Athelney and also a nunnery at Shaftesbury where one of his daughters became abbess. A new religious community was established in Winchester which was greatly enlarged after Alfred’s death in 899 by his son and successor Edward the Elder to become New Minster and the place of Alfred’s burial.

 Alfred’s World: Kingdoms under Viking attack
When Alfred was born in 849, there were four Anglo-Saxon kingdoms still in existence – Northumbria, East Anglia, Mercia and his own kingdom of Wessex, which consisted of England south of the Thames, plus Essex. Wales was also divided among a number of kingdoms and Alfred’s biographer Asser came from one of these, Dyfed in the south west. A further Welsh-speaking province was the kingdom of Strathclyde, but the two most significant players in the north of Britain were the Picts and the Irish of Dalriada (Argyll and adjacent islands) who were in the process of amalgamating to form Scotland.

 The greatest kingdom in mainland Europe was that of the Franks. Their famous king, Charlemagne, (768–814) had ruled a huge swathe of land consisting of the modern countries of France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland and most of Italy. However, during the ninth century these were divided into smaller kingdoms ruled by his heirs. Charlemagne had sponsored a major revival in Christian learning and culture, and in the ninth century it was to Francia that kings of less sophisticated areas, such as Wessex, looked for inspiration. Alfred had two Frankish clerical advisers, Grimbald from St Bertins and John from Saxony.

 The stability of all areas of western Europe was seriously threatened in the ninth century by attacks from Viking raiders from Denmark and Norway. Although similar in most respects to other peoples of western Europe, the Scandinavians were not Christians, and their raids became increasingly aggressive and difficult to counter as the century progressed. In fact, during the period 866–78, Viking leaders took over East Anglia, and much of Mercia and Northumbria. Wessex alone survived the onslaught and at the time of Alfred’s death in 899 he was the only Anglo-Saxon king still ruling in Britain.

 Barbara Yorke is professor of early medieval history at the University of Winchester.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

10 things you (probably) didn’t know about the Great Fire of London

History Extra


On 5 September 1666, the 33-year-old Samuel Pepys climbed the steeple of the ancient church of All Hallows-by-the-Tower and was met with the “the saddest sight of desolation that I ever saw; everywhere great fires, oyle-cellars, and brimstone, and other things burning”. Leaving the church, he wandered along Gracechurch Street, Fenchurch Street and Lombard Street towards the Royal Exchange, which he found to be “a sad sight” with all the pillars and statues (except one of Sir Thomas Gresham) destroyed. The ground scorched his feet and he found nothing but dust, ash and ruins. It was the fourth day of the Great Fire of London and, though some parts of the city would continue to burn for months, the worst of the destruction was finally over.

 Thanks in part to Pepys’s vivid diary entries, the story of the Great Fire is well known. Alongside the fortunes of Henry VIII’s wives, the Battle of Britain and the fate of Guy Fawkes, it forms part of a scattering of familiar islands in the muddy quagmire of British history. We all know, roughly speaking, what happened: during the early hours of 2 September 1666, a fire broke out in Thomas Farriner’s bakehouse on Pudding Lane, which blazed and spread with such ferocity and speed that within a few days the old City of London was reduced to a charred ruin. More than 13,000 houses, 87 churches and 44 livery halls were destroyed, the historic city gates were wrecked, and the Guildhall, St Paul’s Cathedral, Baynard’s Castle and the Royal Exchange were severely damaged – in some cases, beyond repair.

 Those with more than a passing knowledge of the crucial facts might be aware of accounts of King Charles II fighting the fire alongside his brother, the Duke of York; of Samuel Pepys taking pains to bury his prized parmesan cheese; or of the French watchmaker Robert Hubert meeting his death at Tyburn after (falsely) claiming to have started the blaze. Here are 10 more facts you may not know about the Great Fire of London…

 1) It did not start on Pudding Lane Thomas Farriner’s bakehouse was not located on Pudding Lane proper. Hearth Tax records created just before the fire place Farriner’s bakehouse on Fish Yard, a small enclave off Pudding Lane. His immediate neighbours included a waterbearer named Henry More, a sexton [a person who looks after a church and churchyard] named Thomas Birt, the parish ‘clearke’, a plasterer named George Porter, one Alice Spencer, a widow named Mrs Mary Whittacre, and a turner named John Bibie.




Billingsgate, London, pictured in 1598. Until boundary changes in 2003, the ward included Pudding Lane. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

 2) The Great Fire of London was not Thomas Farriner’s first brush with trouble In 1627, the then 10- or 11-year-old Thomas Farriner was discovered by a city constable wandering alone within the city walls, having run away from his master [it is not known why he had a master at this time]. He was detained at Bridewell Prison, where the incident was recorded in the book of minutes.

 During the 17th century, Bridewell (a former Tudor palace) was a kind of proto-correctional facility where young waifs and strays would often be sent to receive a rudimentary education, many of them then cherry-picked to become apprentices to the prison’s patrons.

 During the boy’s hearing, it transpired that he had attempted to run away from his master three or four times previously. Farriner was released, only to be detained once more in 1628 for the same reason. A year later he was apprenticed as a baker under one Thomas Dodson.

 3) Far from levelling the city, the Great Fire of London scorched the skin and flesh from the city’s buildings – but their skeletons remained The ruins of many of London’s buildings had to be demolished before rebuilding work could begin. A sketch from 1673 by Thomas Wyck shows the extent of the ruins of St Paul’s Cathedral that remained. John Evelyn described the remaining stones as standing upright, fragile and “calcined”. What’s more, the burning lasted months, not days: Pepys recorded that cellars were still burning in March of the following year. With plenty of nooks and crannies to commandeer, gangs operated among the ruins, pretending to offer travellers a ‘link’ (escorted passage) – only to rob them blind and leave them for dead. Many of those who lost their homes and livelihood to the fire built temporary shacks on the ruins of their former homes and shops until this was prohibited.


Old St Paul's Cathedral burning in the Great Fire of London, 1666. By Wenceslaus Hollar. (Photo by Guildhall Library & Art Gallery/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

 4) At the time of the Great Fire, England was engaged in a costly war with the Dutch Republic and was gearing up for one last battle The conflict, known as the Second Anglo-Dutch War, was the second of three 17th-century maritime wars to be fought between the English and the Dutch over transatlantic trade supremacy. By September 1666 there had already been five major engagements: the battle of Lowestoft (1665); the battle of Vågen (1665); the Four Days’ Battle (1666); St James’s Day Battle (1666); and Holmes’s Bonfire (1666).

 In the confusion of the blaze, some believed that the Great Fire of London had been started by Dutch merchants in retaliation for the last of these engagements – a vicious raid on the Dutch islands of Vlieland and Terschelling – which had occurred barely a month earlier. That attack had been orchestrated by Sir Robert Holmes (renowned for his short fuse and unpredictable nature) and resulted in the destruction of an estimated 150 Dutch merchant ships and, crucially, the torching of the town of West-Terschelling.

 While the attack was celebrated with bonfires and bells in London, it appalled the Dutch, and there was rioting in Amsterdam. Aphra Behn – at that time an English spy stationed in Antwerp – wrote how she had seen a letter from a merchant’s wife “that desires her husband to com [sic] to Amsterdam home for that theare [sic] never was so great a desolation & mourning”. Behn was supposed to travel to Dort to continue her espionage, but declared that she “dare as well be hang’d as go”.

 5) Though we do not know exactly how many people died as a result of the Great Fire of London, it was almost certainly more than commonly accepted figures In the traditional telling of the Great Fire story, the human cost is negligible. Indeed, only a few years after the blaze, Edward Chamberlayne claimed that “not above six or eight persons were burnt,” and an Essex vicar named Ralph Josselin noted that “few perished in the flames.” There was undoubtedly enough warning to ensure that a large proportion of London’s population vacated hazardous areas, but for every sick person helped out of their house, there must have been others with no one to aid them. What’s more, parish records hint at a far greater death toll than previously supposed.

 At the parish of St Giles Cripplegate, for example, the number of burials increased by a third (presumably a result of citizens from destroyed parishes using this surviving church). Interestingly, there was a disproportionate rise (by two-thirds) in the number of deaths due to being “aged” and an increase in deaths attributed to “fright”. Likewise, the parish records of St Boltoph Bishopsgate show that the mean age at the time of death rose by an astonishing 12 years, from 18.3 to 31.3. This suggests either that older people were more likely to die in the month of September or that, in an age in which infanticide was rife, the deaths of young infants were not being recorded – perhaps even both.

 The diarist John Evelyn certainly believed that the foul smell in the air at the time of the fire was caused by the bodies, beds and other combustible goods of “some poor creatures”, and the poet John Dryden – who, it must be said, was out of London at the time – wrote of “helpless infants left amidst the fire”. When reports reached France, a substantial loss of life was implied: “The letters from London speak of the terrible sights of persons burned to death and calcined limbs, making it easy to believe the terror though it cannot be exactly described. The old, tender children and many sick and helpless persons were all burned in their beds and served as fuel for the flames.”

 6) Louis XIV of France offered to help It took more than a week for news of the fire to reach the French royal court in Paris, but when it did there was talk of little else. The Venetian ambassador in the French capital declared that “this accident… will be memorable through all the centuries.” 

Privately, Louis XIV must have been thrilled. It was wrongly believed that the fire had destroyed England’s magazine stores and that the English navy would be forced to retire. Because of a 1662 treaty with the Dutch Republic, France had been obliged to enter the Anglo-Dutch War on the side of the Dutch, but the French king had neither the appetite nor the navy to play an active role.

 Louis XIV publicly ordered that he would not tolerate “any rejoicings about it [the Great Fire], being such a deplorable accident involving injury to so many unhappy people”, and offered to send aid in the shape of food provisions and anything else that might be required to relieve the suffering of those left destitute.


King Louis XIV of France, c1690. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 7) There had been a genuine plot to burn the City of London In April 1666, a group of parliamentarians led by John Rathbone and William Saunders were tried at the Old Bailey and found guilty of conspiring to assassinate Charles II, overthrow government and fire the City of London, letting down the portcullis to keep out assistance. The trial was recorded in the London Gazette, which revealed that the plotters purportedly had the support of a conspirator in Holland and had planned to execute their “Hellish design” on the anniversary of Oliver Cromwell’s death, 3 September.

 8) People let their imaginations run away with them By 6 September, news of the fire had travelled as far as Berwick, where local soldiers claimed that they had seen visions of “ships in the air”. Reporting the phenomenon back to Whitehall, one Mr Scott assured his contact that he believed it to have just been their imaginations. As he travelled across Wiltshire to gather more information about the fire, Bulstrode Whitelocke bumped into his friend Sir Seymour Pyle who had “had too much wine”. Pyle claimed that there had been a huge fight between 60,000 Presbyterians and the militia, which had resulted in the death and imprisonment of 30,000 rebels. Whitelocke soon discovered that Pyle had been “drunke & swearing & lying att almost every word”.


London Bridge on fire during the Great Fire of London, 1666. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 9) The Great Fire of London was predicted A few weeks before the fire, one Mr Light claimed to have been asked by a “zealous Papist”: “You expect great things in ’66, and think that Rome will be destroyed, but what if it be London?”

 Meanwhile, five months before the fire Elizabeth Styles claimed to have been told by a Frenchman that at some point between June and October there would not be “a house left between Temple Bar and London Bridge”.

 In 1651, an astrologer named William Lilly created a pamphlet entitled Monarchy or No Monarchy that contained illustrative predictions of the future state of England. The images depicted not only a city blazing with fire, but scenes of naval warfare, infestations of rodents, mass death and starvation. Unsurprisingly, Lilly was called in for questioning following the fire of 1666.

 10) The Great Fire wasn’t the only blaze in London in 1666 London was thrown into a panic during the evening of 9 November when a fire broke out in the Horse Guard House, next to Whitehall Palace. It was believed that the blaze had been caused by a candle falling into some straw. According to Samuel Pepys, the whole city was put on alarm by the “horrid great fire” and a lady even fell into fits of fear. With drums beating and guards running up and down the streets, by 10pm the fire was extinguished, with little damage caused.

 Rebecca Rideal is a specialist factual television producer and writer whose credits include The Adventurers’ Guide to Britain, Bloody Tales of the Tower and David Attenborough’s First Life. She runs the online magazine The History Vault and is currently studying for her PhD on Restoration London during the Great Plague and the Great Fire at University College London. Her latest book, 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire (John Murray, 2016), is out now.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Sunk by a Tsunami, Underwater Archaeologists Finally Find the Ruins of the Roman City Neapolis

Ancient Origins


After almost a decade of searching, the ruins of the city of Neapolis have finally been located. Based on their finds so far, researchers have confirmed that a tsunami hit the area in the 4th century AD. They have also decided the city likely held a monopoly over a fermented Roman delicacy.

 Phys.org reports the vast Roman ruins were discovered off the coast of Nabeul, in northeast Tunisia. The submerged city stretches over 20 hectares (almost 50 acres). As some of Neapolis’ ruins remain aboveground, underwater archaeologists have been searching the region for the last seven years in hope of finding the underwater counterpart. Favorable weather allowed them to finally attain that goal this summer.

Based on underwater prospecting carried out at the site, the researchers have asserted Neapolis was partially submerged by a tsunami on July 21 in 365 AD, a natural disaster that also damaged Alexandria in Egypt and Greece’s island of Crete. This confirms an account recorded by the Roman soldier and historian Ammien Marcellin.


According to the Independent, Neapolis does not show up in many other records because it sided with Carthage over Rome during the Third Punic War in 149–146 BC.

 The researchers have discovered monuments, streets, and about 100 tanks that were used in the production of a fermented fish condiment known as garum.

Mounir Fantar, the head of a Tunisian-Italian archaeological mission said: “This discovery has allowed us to establish with certainty that Neapolis was a major center for the manufacture of garum and salt fish, probably the largest center in the Roman world. Probably the notables of Neapolis owed their fortune to garum.”

Vistor Labate described some details on Roman cuisine during the Empire era for Ancient Origins:

“[A]s Rome expanded and became more prosperous, food became more diverse. Romans became acquainted with the foods and cooking methods of the provinces […] The cena, which initially consisted of only one course, developed into two courses during the Republic: a main course and a dessert served with fruit or seafood. By the end of the Republic, it evolved into a three-course meal: the appetizer (gustatio), the main course (primae mensae) and the dessert (secundae mensae).”


‘The Romans of the Decadence’ (1847) by Thomas Couture. ( Public Domain )

But Labate writes that not everyone could eat that way, social class definitely played a role in the foods available to an individual:

 “[R]egular Romans could not afford to eat meat and expensive exotic foods from the provinces. They often ate the porridge made of emmer, salt, fat and water (the puls) with bread sprayed with a little bit of salt. Richer Romans ate the same porridge but added chopped vegetables, meat, cheese and various herbs to it. Bread was a staple food in ancient Rome which was often eaten with honey, olives, cheese or egg, noting that Romans also dipped their bread in wine.


‘Still life with glass bowl of fruit and vases’ by a Pompeian painter in 70 AD, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples, Italy. (Public Domain)

And if you are curious to know more about that fish paste, Pompeii Food and Drink describes it (and provides):

 “It was made by the crushing and fermentation in brine of the intestines of fish such as tuna, eel, anchovies, and mackerel. Because the production of garum created such an unpleasant smell, its fermentation was relegated to the outskirts of cities. The finished product was quite mild and subtle, and was mixed with wine, vinegar, pepper, oil, or water to enhance the flavor of many dishes. Garum is similar to fish sauce used today in Thai and Vietnamese cooking.”

Maybe garum would be a delicacy for some modern palates too?

Top Image: Underwater archaeologists off the coast of Nabeul in northeastern Tunisia at the site of the ancient Roman city of Neapolis. Source: Tunisian National Heritage Institute and the University of Sassari

By Alicia McDermott

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Iron Age House Fire Took Place When Neighbors Were Few and Far Between

Ancient Origins



A woman thumps a knocking stone in the kitchen to prepare grain in preparation for tomorrow’s big meal. Her family have all gathered and are busy at various tasks about the house – her husband has just sat down after putting some deer carcasses to smoke, their son is helping mend some fishing nets, and their daughter has taken a lamp to go upstairs and find out why the baby is crying. Suddenly she hears “Fire!” and everyone rushes out into the cool night… soon the Iron Age stone roundhouse has gone up in flames.

A team of archaeologists are trying to discover what happened at an Iron Age stone roundhouse located at Clachtoll broch in Assynt, Scotland. They say it appears the home was quickly abandoned after an accidental fire or arson, but they are unsure which even is more likely. The date for when the building caught fire and collapsed has been given as sometime between 150 BC and 50 AD.


Clachtoll Broch, Assynt Mid Excavation July 2017 by jamesmcc on Sketchfab

The work at the Iron Age site is being led by AOC Archaeology and is considered a major project. As Graeme Cavers, head of surveys at AOC Archaeology, explained to The Press & Journal : “It is a conservation project we are doing. The site is right on the edge of the sea on a cliff edge and will be a bit unstable later.”


The Iron Age roundhouse at Clachtoll broch in Assynt, Scotland. ( AOC Archaeology )

The AOC Archaeology Group’s blog on the site reports that most of the artifacts have been discovered in a layer of charcoal. They would have been typical for daily life in the Iron Age, and include items such as: mats or sacks, grains, animal bones and deer antlers, pottery fragments, iron pieces which may have been used in tools, stone whorls, and seven broken lamps. Mr. Cavers told BBC NEWS :

"One of the objects that is interesting is a knocking stone which is for the preparation of grain before it is ground into flour. We have found that stone in a state that it is filled with burnt grain. So that looks like it was in use on the day that the building caught fire."



A stone whorl found in the lower rubble layer. ( AOC Archaeology

) The Iron Age roundhouse at Clachtoll broch isn’t the only site of archaeological interest in Assynt. Actually, the location is better known for its Neolithic cairns which were likely used for burials and as family shrines. The area seemed to be less popular in the Bronze Age – only a few small cairns for single burials, some roundhouses in secluded valleys, and various burnt mounds have been identified.


Example of a Neolithic burial cairn at Camster, Caithness, Scotland. (David Shand/ CC BY 2.0 )

 But Assynt gained interest once again in the Iron Age and several large farmsteads have been found. According to the website Visit Sutherland :

 “Iron Age houses seem to have been deliberately isolated from their neighbours and were focal points surrounded by their own woods, fields, loch or burn and often with a beach suitable for landing a boat. The largest is Clachtoll Broch […] it collapsed in the last few decades BC and was never re-occupied, although there are signs of later habitation around it.”

 It is expected that work will finish at the site at the end of September.

 Top Image: Aerial view of the Iron Age roundhouse at Clachtoll broch in Assynt, Scotland. Source: AOC Archaeology Group

By Alicia McDermott

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Mycenean Tombs with Skeletal Remains Discovered near Legendary Nemea


Ancient Origins


New Mycenaean tombs have been unearthed during recent excavations at the Mycenaean cemetery of Aedonia, a village near Nemea, Greece. The Mycenaean cemetery of Aedonia includes several Late Bronze Age cemeteries dating from the 15th to 13th centuries BC.

 New Mycenean Tombs Excavated in Nemea
Tornos News reports that new Mycenaean tombs have been uncovered and examined during the second period of the advancing excavation works taking place near Nemea, Greece, which were completed on 29 July, as the Greek Ministry of Culture stated. Two chamber tombs have been discovered at the Mycenaean cemetery at Aedonia (a village almost 10 km outside Nemea) by a team led by Dr. Konstantinos Kissas of the Corinth Antiquities Ephorate, with the collaboration of Dr. Kim Shelton head of the Nemea Center for Classical Archaeology of the University of California at Berkeley.

According to their reports, the Mycenaean cemetery at Aedonia is composed mainly of chamber tombs ordered in clusters. Additionally, Tornos News reports that the hammocks are graves sculpted on the rock, which are made of three sections: the road, a downhill runway directing from the surface of the ground to the opening, and the entrance of the tomb blocked by asymmetrically positioned stones, closing up the underground burial chamber.


Entrance of the tomb blocked by stones (Greek Ministry of Culture)

One Tomb Looted, One Intact
One of the tombs, which had been looted in the 1970s, has been dated to between 1350 and 1200 BC. The second tomb is believed to be a few hundred years older as Greek Reporter mentions. Burials were also discovered in three pits and on the floor of the second chamber. One of the pits measured more than 3.5 meters long, and had been covered with large stone slabs. According to Greek Reporter, archaeologists found the human remains of three individuals there, while a second pit contained two more burials, copper arrows, and five knives, two of which had handles decorated with fine gold leaves.

Broken pieces of two piers, and commemorative vases adorned with flowers, were also spotted in the third pit. The burials on the floor were accompanied by plain vases and stone buttons.


Two burials were found in the second pit (Greek Ministry of Culture)

Nemea’s Rich History and Culture
New Nemea, a small town in Corinthia, Greece, is particularly known for its wine these days, but only a few kilometers to its west, is located the famous ancient Nemea, one of the most significant cities of the ancient world. In Greek mythology, we meet Nemea as home of the Nemean Lion, which was killed by a young Heracles. According to another legend, Nemea was the place where the infant Opheltes, lying on a bed of parsley, was murdered by a serpent while his nurse fetched water for the Seven on their way from Argos to Thebes. The myth suggests that The Seven founded the Nemean Games – the second most famous athletic event in antiquity behind the Olympics – in his honor, with the crown of victory being made of parsley. The Games were first recorded in 573 BC, at the sanctuary of Zeus at Nemea.


Campana relief with Heracles (Hercules) fighting the Nemean lion. Roman, 50 BC-50 (Public Domain)

Nemea is also famous for a bloody battle that took place there: the Battle of the Nemea River. This was the first major battle on the Corinthian front that gave the Corinthian War (395-386 BC) its name.

The specific conflict was the result of simmering tensions between the major Greek powers in the aftermath of the Great Peloponnesian War. Corinth and Thebes felt that they had been denied a just reward for their efforts, and the Spartans didn't help by expanding their power in Thessaly, an area that Thebes felt was within its sphere of influence.

Although the battle of Nemea was a clear Spartan victory it didn't actually give them much of an advantage. It did stop the allied invasion of Laconia, but with Corinth held against them the Spartans were unable to advance any further. Instead they settled back into their base at Sicyon, and awaited the return of Agesilaus. This would prove to be equally frustrating. He won an inconclusive victory at Coronea (394 BC), but was unable to make any more progress and had to retreat west into Phocis.

Fight Against Looting
 Ultimately, Tornos News reports that the Tombs of Aidonia Preservation, Heritage, and Exploration Synergasia has been committed to fight against looting, and for that reason they will apply a program to protect the site and educate the local community about the cultural and archaeological catastrophe looting can cause.

Top image: Remains found in one of the tombs (Greek Ministry of Culture)

By Theodoros Karasavvas

Friday, September 15, 2017

6,000-Year-Old Cave Find Shows Sicilians Made Wine Way Before Previously Thought

Ancient Origins


Researchers have found traces of wine in Sicily dating back to the 4th millennium BC. According to experts, that could mean that Italians have been making and drinking wine for much longer than previously believed.

 Oldest Italian Wine Found
A group of scientists led by Dr. Davide Tanasi from the University of South Florida, analyzed a small amount of remaining wine on an ancient jar found in a cave in Sicily. The results showed traces of tartaric acid and its sodium salt, which occur in grapes and the wine-making process, meaning that the region’s wine production possibly began in the early fourth millennium BC as The Guardian reports.


The jars found in a Sicilian cave were found to have small traces of wine residue. (Image: Dr. Davide Tanasi, University of South Florida)

The finding, published in Microchemical Journal, is considered extremely important as it’s the earliest discovery of wine residue in the entire prehistory of the Italian peninsula. In other words, the discovery could reshape the history of winemaking in Italy, since previous recovery of seeds and samples made archaeologists (falsely) believe that winemaking developed in Italy during the Middle Bronze Age, around 1300-1100BC.

“Unlike earlier discoveries that were limited to vines and so showed only that grapes were being grown, our work has resulted in the identification of a wine residue,” Dr. Tanasi tells The Guardian. He continues, “That obviously involves not just the practice of viticulture but the production of actual wine – and during a much earlier period.”


The jars were found in a cave near Monte Kronio, Agrigento, Sicily (ConsorzioTouristicodeiTempli)

Still not the Oldest Wine in Europe’s History?
The newly found Copper Age containers may contained traces of 6,000 years old wine, making it the oldest known Italian wine, but is it the oldest wine in Europe’s history? Not likely. As previously reported in an Ancient Origins article, archaeologists excavating a prehistoric settlement site in northern Greece in 2013, completed analyses of wine samples from ancient ceramics revealing evidence of wine dating back to 4200 BC, which makes it still the oldest known sample of wine in Europe.

This sample was located at an ancient settlement known as Dikili Tash, 1.2 miles from the ancient city of Philippi and has been inhabited since 6500 BC. Not much is known about the people who lived at Dikili Tash during these periods as of yet, so the 2013 findings offered some insight into these ancient people, although the societal changes that may have been influenced by the consumption of alcohol is still an issue of debate.


"Mosaic of the cupbearers", from the 2nd century AD. J.-C., from Dougga, in the National Museum of Bardo, Tunisia (CC BY 3.0)

 "The find is highly significant for the European prehistory, because it is for the moment the oldest indication for vinification in Europe," said Dimitra Malamidou, co-director of the 2013 excavation at the site. "The historical meaning of our discovery is important for the Aegean and the European prehistory, as it gives evidence of early developments of the agricultural and diet practices, affecting social processes," she added.


Wine boy at a Greek symposium. He uses an oinochoe (wine jug, in his right hand) to draw wine from a crater, in order to fill a kylix (shallow cup, in his left hand). Tondo of an Attic red-figure cup, ca. 490-480 BC. (Public Domain)

It is believed that the wine traces in Dikili Tash represent the oldest known traces of wine drinking in Europe. Previous studies have unearthed a 6,100-year-old Armenian winery, and beyond Europe, scientists have found traces of a 9,000-year-old Chinese alcohol made from rice, honey and fruit.

New Find Sheds Light on Vinification in Ancient Sicily
From the so far findings, the team of researchers conducting the study has managed to understand how the ancient Italians were using the pottery jar and what they were drinking almost 6,000 years ago, “The goal was that to shed new light on the use of certain ceramic shapes and infer some hypothesis about ancient dietary habits,” they write as IBTimes reported. And add, “Insights into the diets of early societies can be gained, indirectly, from the cultural evidence of artifacts related to food procurement, preparation and consumption, and [from] human skeletal remains.”

However, scientists suggest that more direct proof for dietary habits derived from the distinguishing of intact plant and animal remains collected during the excavations but also from the analysis of the amorphous remains of foodstuff associated with artifacts.

 Wine Could be an Offering to Gods According to Experts
Ultimately, Dr. Tanasi told CNN that the wine may have been left in the cave as an offering to underground deities. “The cave site of Monte Kronio is also a cult place used for religious practices from prehistory to Classical times,” Tanasi said. And added, “This discovery has important archaeological and historical implications.”

The next step for his team is to find out whether the wine was red or white, according to Dr. Tanasi’s statement.

Top image: Fresco depicting two lares pouring wine from a drinking horn (rhyton) into a bucket (situla), they stand on either side of a scene of sacrifice, beneath a pair of serpents bringers of prosperity and abondance, Pompeii, Naples Archaeological Museum (CC BY-SA 2.0)

 By Theodoros Karasavvas

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Ancient Mall Found in Famous Theater City of Aspendos Shows Commerce and Entertainment Went Hand-in-Hand

Ancient Origins


The ancient city of Aspendos was a major commercial center in Roman times. The recent excavations of a large shop complex with offices and storage facilities dating back some 2,000 years provide more insight on the products that were stored and sold near the city’s famous theater. Akin to cinemas found in shopping malls today, the Romans here combined both commerce and entertainment too.


A 2000-year-old two-story shop complex has been excavated at Aspendos, Turkey. (CROSS)

Many coins were discovered in the shops from the Hellenistic and Roman eras. Aspendos coins, minted from the 5th century BC, were often used in the Hellenistic era. The recently unearthed coins had the figure of a slingshot stone on one side and a horse depicted on the other. The appearance of a horse can be connected to Aspendos’ recognition for horse breeding.


Example of a silver stater coin from Aspendos dating to 370-333 BC. Obverse: Olympic games-type scene: two wrestlers grappling, the letters delta and alpha between their legs; Reverse: Olympic games-type scene of a slinger, wearing short chiton, discharging sling to right, triskeles on right with feet clockwise. (Ancientcointraders/CC BY SA 4.0)

Hacettepe University Archaeology Department’s Veli Köse is currently heading the excavations at Antalya and told Hurriyet Daily “We think valuable materials were sold or held in these stores. Some were used as offices. The fact that such a unique structure was unearthed right next to the agora in the city center supports this idea.”

 Some of the products that were apparently stored and sold in the complex include: a small glass amphora, pieces of oil and perfume bottles, candles, a bronze belt buckle, a bone hair pin, and lots of studs and rings.




Some of the artifacts found at the shop complex location of the site of Aspendos, Turkey. (Daily Sabah)

The shops were the focus of the recent excavations, yet the team also found hundreds of mussel shells in a field and some wall painting remnants at other locations around the site.

 “The existence of two-storey shops and a structure complex in an ancient city symbolizes that this place was an important commercial center. We also know it from the inscriptions. Aspendos is famous especially for grain harvest and horse breeding,” Köse concluded.

 The ancient city of Aspendos was established in the 10th century BC. It was likely the most important city in Pamphylia, with its golden age being the Roman period – a great time for trade and commerce. Legends say the famous Greek diviner Mopsos founded the city, however, evidence of a Hittite settlement brings up some debate about the first inhabitants. The city came under Persian rule in the 6th century BC. It was then taken by Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC. By the Roman period, Aspendos was an important harbor city. Yet, it fell from grace in the Byzantine period with the empire’s centralization policies. It has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2015.


Ruins of the Basilica at Aspendos, Turkey. (Saffron Blaze/CC BY SA 3.0)

The city is most famous for its Roman theater, the Aspendos Ancient Theater, which seats 7,000 people. The theater is one of the most visited historic sites in Turkey's Antalya province and it is the best preserved ancient theater in the country. Another feature that makes the theater famous is its remarkable acoustics. Even the slightest sound made at the center of the orchestra can be easily heard as far as the uppermost galleries. The theater hosts events by the Aspendos Opera and a ballet festival in the summer.


The theater at Aspendos, Turkey. (CC BY SA 3.0)

Apart from the theater, the Aspendos archaeological site also contains the ruins of a small temple, a nymphaeum (fountain shrine), the foundations of a bouleuterion (council chamber), and a Roman aqueduct.


Roman aqueduct of Aspendos, Turkey. (Bernard Gagnon/CC BY SA 3.0)

Top Image: The famous Roman theater at Aspendos, Turkey. Source: Saffron Blaze/CC BY SA 3.0

By Alicia McDermott