Friday, 28 July 2006

Painting by numbers

It is well-known that the Romans painted their statuary.

And they may have had a penchant for bright colors. For example, it has been suggested that Hadrian's Wall was whitewashed, and the joints between the stone blocks picked out in red mortar. But I recently came across the ultimate in garish decor.

First, some background. The construction of the Forth & Clyde canal in the 1770s, broadly following the ancient line of the Antonine Wall, uncovered various decorative stone slabs now known as "Distance Slabs" (because their purpose was to record the various lengths of wall completed by the different legionary work gangs). Agricultural activity periodically turned up additional slabs, so that 20 are now known, each one different.

In 1865 (according to Lawrence Keppie's Roman Inscribed and Sculptured Stones in the Hunterian Museum), a splendid example was unearthed near Bearsden, and was sold for £2 to a Glasgow lawyer. When Glasgow University declined to purchase the slab from him, it was sold to the American consul and shipped to Chicago!

Photo: Barbara McManus, 1986
Cast of a Roman inscription (Grosvenor Museum, Chester)
Courtesy of the VRoma image gallery.

But, before you cry out for the rendition and repatriation of such an important antiquity, there's bad news. For the slab was lost, presumed destroyed, in the great fire of Chicago in 1871.

Thankfully, the great Hadrian's Wall scholar, John Collingwood Bruce, had the foresight to order several plaster casts of the slab before it departed; which brings us back to the subject of decor.

The ghastly purple slab illustrated here is, in fact, one of these plaster casts, deposited in the Grosvenor Museum at Chester. Whether the Romans would, in fact, have used this color scheme is unknown. My own preference is for the example still to be seen in the Hunterian Museum (Glasgow), which has been rendered in altogether more sobre tones.

Thursday, 20 July 2006

Ahhh, Bisotun ...

Continuing the theme of UNESCO's World Heritage Sites, it seems that Bisotun (more familiar to ancient historians as Behistun) has been included in the latest tranche.

This amazing rock-cut inscription, two-and-a-half thousand years old, has already been the subject of an exhaustive study by the indefatigable Jona Lendering on his excellent Livius web site.

The inscription at Behistun
Darius the Great's inscription at Behistun

Curiously, Darius apparently arranged for the relief to be cut 100m above the ground, so that nobody could tamper with the inscription. But, of course, it is entirely illegible from that distance!

When the Roman legions in Britain commemorated the building of the Antonine Wall with a series of splendid inscribed stones, we presume that they were at least displayed within sight of passers-by.

Monday, 10 July 2006

It's Magic

Magic map
OS Map of Temple of Boclair (courtesy of Magic).

I've discovered a little piece of Magic on the internet.

In a previous post, I drew attention to the Antonine Wall at Dobbies Garden Centre. Now, using the UK government's online rural GIS system (snappily entitled Multi Agency Geographic Information for the Countryside, or Magic), you can tap into large-scale Ordnance Survey mapping to analyse any geographical feature: say, the Antonine Wall at Dobbies Garden Centre!

Aerial view of Temple of Boclair
Aerial view of Temple of Boclair
(courtesy of Microsoft's Windows Live Local)

One of my visitors pointed out that all he could see of our premier Roman national monument was "a bumffle in a field". But what an exciting bumfle!

Using the Magic data, you can see that the Antonine Wall (running from west to east) crosses the A879 and turns abruptly SE. Amazingly, on the aerial view (courtesy of the really, really useful Windows Live Local), you can actually see it as it turns and heads off the right-hand side of the photo.

Now don't tell me that's not impressive. Or, in fact, Magic!

Saturday, 1 July 2006

Dead language?

How ironic.

At a time when interest in the Romans in Scotland stands at an all-time high; when a glance at the television listings suggests a general fascination for things Roman; and when Scotland's Minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport has just endorsed the bid to grant the Antonine Wall World Heritage Status (continuing the theme from my previous post) ... How ironic that, at a time like this, Scotland's premier teacher training institution has chosen to "axe Latin".

Roman inscription from Bar Hill (RIB 2170)

Have the barbarians at the gates finally broken through? Are the philistines in charge? Of course, with even the teaching of History under threat in Scottish schools, the Culture Minister was careful to draw no links with the past, in her professed enthusiasm for res Romana. She simply stated that "This touch of Roman civilisation [sic!] in central Scotland [viz. the Antonine wall] is a reminder of the many European links of our country."

But what a pity if future generations of Scots, the descendants of David Hume and William Hunter, the heirs of Robert Adam and James Boswell, will not be equipped to decipher their rich Roman heritage.