Common Errors (38): Via Belgica

25 August 2010
The road between Tongeren and Maastricht

The road between Tongeren and Maastricht

Centuries before the Romans arrived in Gaul, even centuries before the Celtic culture spread over Europe, there were already people living in what is now northern France and southern Belgium. Although these people were usually farmers, there must have been traders among them too, because we are certain that already in the last phase of the Neolithicum, there were important roads. They can be recognized if you plot the burial mounds on a map; immediately, you will see that they are arranged in long lines. The people wanted to be buried along a road.

One road appears to have been of extreme importance, as people continued to be buried along it in the Bronze Age, Iron Age, and Roman Age as well. It leads from modern Amiens to Bavay, Tongeren, and Cologne – in other words, it connected the capitals of the Atrebates, Nervians, Tungrians, and Ubians, the main ethnic units of Gallia Belgica at the time of the Roman conquest. It was used by Caesar when he invaded Belgica in 57 BCE and defeated the Nervians, was used by the Fourteenth legion Gemina when it had to suppress the Batavian Revolt (70 CE), and was used in the late fourth century by Frankish warriors who left Toxandria and settled on more fertile soils.

In the Middle Ages, the road from Bavay to Tongeren was called Chaussée Brunehaut (“road of Brunhilde”), a name that is still officially used and can be found in many municipalities in northern France and southern Belgium. This Brunhilda was one of the most powerful rulers of the late sixth and early seventh century. She became the heroine of many sagas, and it is now difficult to see behind the legend and find out whether she really had something to do with the streets still named after her.

The modern name Via Belgica, coined by archaeologists and planologists, is rather ill-chosen. The Romans named their roads after the men who built them: Via Appia or Strata Diocletiana. If a street has a geographic element in its name, this invariably indicates a destination, not the country it traversed (Via Labicana, Via Portuense). Via Belgica would therefore be the name of the road leading to Belgica and can never have been an indication for a road through Belgica.

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Roman Festival Nijmegen

20 June 2010

A Roman cavalryman

Few sites are as suited for a Roman festival as the Kops Plateau in Nijmegen, one of the oldest Roman military settlements in the Low Countries, and almost certainly the headquarters of the legions that Augustus sent out to conquer the east bank of the Rhine. Drusus must have been here, perhaps Tiberius too. The site was later used by a mounted unit of auxiliaries, and may have hosted Caligula and Corbulo.

This weekend saw the third installment of the “Romeinenfestival”. There were shows by several Roman reenactment groups (from Holland Fectio, Corbulo, and X Gemina; from Belgium XI Claudia and the Corpus Equitum Legionis X Equestris; from Germany XV Primigenia and Time Trotter; from Britain the Roman Military Research Society, and from Hungary the Familia Gladiatoria). Elsewhere, you could buy books and objects. My friend Richard, who accompanied me, was more interested in pottery and returned home with a replica of a Drachendorff 37 bowl. I bought some books and a lead defixio; I still have to think of a person I want to curse, write down the name, bury it with a dead cat, and we’ll see what happens.

It was possible to eat Roman-style food, and various archaeological companies explained their activities. Children could take part in an excavation, and on one part of the Kops Plateau, the archaeology of the Prehistory and the Middle Ages was explained. It was interesting to compare the products of the various smiths on the field. The object I found most interesting was a big fifteenth-century gun: a careful replica of an original found in the Meuse. The Roman coach was also worth seeing.

Among the shows were the usual military exercises, which are always impressive. We watched a gladiatorial contest and a reconstruction of a Roman cremation. Had we been there on Saturday, we might have seen a reconstruction of the Mithraic mysteries – plus the soccer match Holland-Japan, because there are more important things than ancient history and archaeology.

One of the most interesting things was the place where people could show old objects they had found in their backyard – usually recent stuff, but who knows what they may have discovered. Maybe a dead cat with a lead defixio.

***

Meanwhile at LacusCurtius: chous.


General Update

22 May 2010

Tomb of Amyntas, Fethiye (Telmessus)

Right now, Livius Onderwijs (the school in Holland that owns Livius.org), owns some 36,000 photos, and although I’m dreaming of make it all available, I first must finish the conversion to a content management system. That will take some time, because the website is not the first priority. Nevertheless, I managed to make some additional stuff available. It’s not worth summing up everything, but you may like the bizarre landscape of Bin Tepe, the tombs and theater of Telmessus (modern Fethiye), and the museum pieces of Laurum (Woerden).

I also put online an article on Polybius that was published earlier in Ancient Warfare magazine. If you have time to read only one article, make sure it’s this one, because the man is really interesting.


Colijnsplaat

20 April 2010

The reconstructed temple of Nehalennia

To be perfectly honest, it’s not really worth a detour, but if you happen to be in Colijnsplaat or have to cross the Zeelandbrug, you may consider a quick visit to the reconstructed temple of Nehalennia. It is close to the port (satellite photo) and was built in 2005 to keep the memory alive of the spectacular discovery of the site of an ancient temple, a bit to the northwest, about a kilometer off the coast. In 1970, Nehalennia, until then a little-known goddesses, rapidly became one of the best-attested deities of the pantheon of the Low Countries.

The ruin of the submerged temple was never identified, and will be hard to find, because the waters of the Eastern Scheldt have had about seventeen, eightheen centuries to destroy all. Nevertheless, 122 votive altars were brought to the surface and divers were able to recognize the streets of the ancient settlement. We know, therefore, more about the answered prayers of the faithful than about the sanctuary itself.

The reconstruction near the port of Colijnsplaat is, therefore, entirely hypothetical. Well, perhaps there is one clue. Flemish divers have found a rooftile that was sown with an angle of 45º. Objects like these have been found only in the ruins of Gallo-Roman temples, the ones with a portico surrounding the real sanctuary. It is not much evidence, but so far, the reconstruction seems to be more or less accurate.


Bishapur

8 December 2009

The statue in Shapur's cave

Today, I moved the pages of Bishapur, one of the places I like most in Iran. During my first visit, we were especially interested in locations that were Alexander-related, so we visited a lot of Achaemenid sites; yet, we all agreed that Sasanian Bishapur, for which we had not been prepared, was among the highlights of our trip. The six rock reliefs and the city are really spectacular. I already blogged about the recently reopened museum.

I’ve returned several times, and on each occasion, I discovered something new or met someone interesting. But the best memories belong to the climb to the cave with Shapur’s statue, one of the most splendid places in the world – not the cave with the statue, which is interesting but not very special, but the valley. It is the most beautiful place of Fars. You’ve just not been in Iran if you haven’t climbed that rock and enjoyed the scenery.

The Bishapur pages are something of a jubilee: Livius.org has now reached its 3500th page. I also added a very brief article on the Persepolis Treasury Tablets, and a third page of Amsterdam stone tablets, which brings the grand total to 3502.

And because there’s something to celebrate, here is the last version of my Google Earth markers (1437 sites).


Spijkers op laag water

9 September 2009
Spijkers op laag water

Spijkers op laag water

Only once have I visited a drydock, but I immediately understood what the Dutch expression spijkers op laag water zoeken (“searching for nails in pools”) means. Standing on a scaffolding, some carpenters were preparing the hull of a yacht, and they had dozens of nails with them. When a nail fell to the ground, it was rather silly to go downstairs and look for it, if only because the nails usually dropped into pools and were invisible. I could imagine that one day, the dock’s manager checked those pools, took the nails, presented them to his workers, complained, and ignored that they had actually been able to finish a hull that day. Ever since that day, the carpenters must have said that someone was “searching for nails in pools” when he was focusing on minor errors.

I took this proverb as the title of my book on common errors, because I did not want to suggest that all mistakes were really serious. Two of my best friends believe that the title is wrong, because people will not understand  its  self-deprecating nature. My publisher and another friend believe that the irony will be understood, so in the end I agreed, although some nagging doubt remains.

And there is another doubt. Are the mistakes I am dealing with really that innocent? Many of them certainly are, but if professional scholars repeat them, addressing the problem is not searching for nails in pools, but saying that our academics have become too specialized to have a good view of the entire field.


Roman Boat in Madurodam

8 June 2009
The Roman boat

The Roman boat

Madurodam may be the smallest city of the Netherlands, it can now claim one of the most spectacular Roman finds in recent history: during an excavation, the remains of an ancient ship were found. The mayor, Mr Friso Wesseling, and the Dutch minister of Education, Mr Ronald Plasterk, immediately visited the place, being escorted -for the occasion- by a small bodyguard of two lictores reenactors. Many people attended the press conference.

Excavators The Roman boat again Minister Plasterk

Joking apart now, Madurodam is an open air museum, where important monuments have been rebuilt on a 1:25 scale. It is also a war memorial, dedicated to George Maduro, a decorated war hero who died in Dachau; the proceeds of the museum are for the Society for the Support of the Dutch Student Sanatorium. The Madurodam Roman ship is about a meter long, corresponding to the twenty-five meters of the original boat, which archaeologists know as the “De Meern 1”. As it happens, there’s also a full-scale reconstruction (more…).

The presentation of the new model was part of a symposium on what is, somewhat grandiloquently, called “reverse archaeology” – the idea that archaeology can better be integrated into large building projects, so that people may become more aware of their history.