Saturday, March 17, 2012

Archaeology 101, pt 1

On Tuesday, we met our driver and loaded up the van for our road trip. Our first stop was the archaeological site at Viminacium, a legionary camp (then town) that was home to two legions, the 7th Claudia, and the 4th Flavia Felix, until Domitian instituted a law forbidding the stationing of more than one legion in a place, and the Flavia was re-stationed at Sigidunum (the site of modern Belgrade). It took about an hour and forty-five minutes to get there, so we had a chance to talk a bit about the differences in the different houses of worship we’d visited the two days before. Milos explained some of the reasons for the differences in the Orthodox cathedral to what people used to western Christian sects expected. Emily K pointed out the differences in ritual, but also the commonality of having very clear rituals to follow. Emily S’s comments began a discussion on the position of women in Abrahamic religion, which led to a more general overview of each religion’s holy books, the development of canon, and interpretations of behavioral rules found in scripture. There were disagreements, and most everyone had something to say, or ask, or correct.
By the time we were finished, we’d made it to the farming and mining area outside Viminacium. We saw the signs of a thermoelectric plant from a distance, and then the first of several strip-mining rigs. I suppose we should be grateful that strip mining is in part responsible for unearthing enough of the site that the digs were started, but it’s clearly a challenge to the archaeologists’ plans; not only is there the possibility that parts of the site will be destroyed, even though the rigs have been moved further away, but also, the local farmers who own the land have less incentive to sell their land to the foundation. Mixed in with the mining and power equipment were several villages.
The houses in the villages represented a vast mixture of ages, styles, and social position. There were many tiny derelict houses, perhaps one or two rooms with covered patios, stuck here and there, often near barns or on the roadside. Milos said that they were the homes of agricultural workers, mostly Roma. It’s clear that there is a strongly ingrained hostility to Roma here, as there is in many parts of Europe. In Belgrade, it’s very common to be approached by children, or mothers with babies, begging for money. It’s different than the panhandling we experience in big American cities; we are more used to adult men, I think. Apart from these houses, there were older homes, most several stories high, as well as newer homes and some in the midst of construction. They are all constructed of brick and/or cinder block, with stucco or plaster on the exterior. There was very little wood construction, and the houses were all variations on the same style.
The house that Milos’ family lives in was much like these houses. The ground floor is the original part of the house. As his brothers grew to adults, the family added stories, so that each son can move into his own apartment when he marries. Each apartment has a separate entrance, and there are terraces on each upper floor. The houses we saw outside Viminacium were much the same, although it seemed more common there to have terraces that ran around the house on all four sides. The similarities in style, and the fact that families still build their own homes, seem to me to be connected. Most of the men seem to have building experience; it’s not so much that form follows function as it is that form follows experience and training.
We arrived at Viminacium and were taken to the ruins of the mausoleum first.
Once we'd looked at the site, we were taken to the Underworld; Charon waited for us at the entrance, and although there was no boat or Styx, our guide, Bilana, paid our way:
I can't show you pictures of the frescos, some of which were original, because we couldn't take any :-)
But I can tell you that we had to walk almost doubled-over to see them. We walked along a tunnel, and off to the sides were little nooks. We could stand inside each one, each less than a square meter in breadth, and a bit under two meters high. The frescos were on the ceiling and down to the upper half of the walls. The earlier ones were pagan, but the last (of the three) included an laburnum. The Christian connection plays a very large part in the tour, which makes sense considering that the camp lasted till the mid-fifth century. Still, it's interesting that the several hundred years of pagan tradition are not as evident. Partially, this is down to the state of the digging. I asked Bilana if there were a Mithraeum, and she said they had recently found what appeared to be one, but it hasn't yet been excavated.
Once we had finished in the mausoleum, we went across to the main complex of the site. I was really impressed with the whole thing. Obviously, it is all new, and like most reconstructions, it was borderline kitschy, but it was also incredibly cool, and I can see it being used by scholarly groups for many years to come. It is planned as the first in a series of such complexes; the foundation has been applying for EU grants to build several facilities all along the Roman military routes in the Balkans, primarily in Serbia. Each will have a hotel and conference center, but the focus will be on the archaeology.
Our tour of the main complex went something like this:
First, a large peristyle courtyard built large enough to hold performances of several kinds...
Signage in Latin!

Got to go meet the gang, but stay tuned for the rest of the tour!

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