A portion of the cemetery of Valentia, from the Roman Republic
Last week, work took me to Valencia, a city on the east coast of Spain. Like many Spanish cities, it is built on layers of history, and luckily for the visitor, archaeologists digging under one of the city squares found a rich collection of remains from various periods. These have been preserved as El Centro Arqueológico de l’Almoina.
With some 2,500 square meters of remains uncovered between 1985 and 2005, it displays numerous buildings from the Roman, Visigothic, and Moorish periods. Some of them date back to the city’s founding in 138 BC during the Roman Republic as a home for retired soldiers. The city, called Valentia, expanded with typical Roman efficiency until it was obliterated, with equal Roman efficiency, by Pompey in 75 BC during the Roman civil war. It remained abandoned for more than 50 years.
Funerary stela, Roman, middle of the first century AD
In past weeks we’ve looked at the historic city of Córdoba, Spain–its famous mosque/cathedral, its castle, and other sites. To wrap up this miniseries, let’s look at the city’s excellent archaeological museum. Like many local museums in Spain, it covers a broad range of history from the Paleolithic to the Renaissance. It is especially strong in Roman artifacts, and is in fact built on some Roman ruins that can be seen in the basement.
I love these local museums because you get to see just how long people have been living at some of these places. The museum in Córdoba is especially well presented and has some interesting pieces from the city and the surrounding countryside. I’ll let the images speak for themselves.
Before the 1860s, Mayan glyphs were an untranslated Rorschach Test for those who wanted to find lost worlds — spiritual or physical — in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica: “Weird swirly writing style, therefore Egyptians from Atlantis who understood the Secrets of the Universe.”
Then Charles Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg discovered a 16th-century document in a Spanish archive. It seems Spanish government officials were presumed corrupt until proven otherwise, so had to lodge a defence of their actions in office. For some reason, Diego de Landa, Archbishop of Yucatan included a bilingual alphabet in his.
The Mayan Rossetta Stone!
Brasseur rushed off to translate the Madrid Codex — a compilation of Mayan writings that had somehow survived the bonfires of the Inquisition.
Unfortunately, he didn’t realise that the Archbishop had monumentally screwed up, presumably because he was doing the Western thing of TALKING VERY LOUDLY TO THE NATIVES.
So when he said, “How do you write H?” he got back the Mayan for glyphs for… yes, you’ve guessed it, “Ah-che”. We can guess that “K” would have come back as “K-Ay” and so on. This just like in Terry Pratchett’s The Color of Magic where the places are all called things like “Big Tree” and “Your Finger You Fool,” and in Bonny Scotland where the government maps have a superfluity of “Black Lakes.”
De Brasseur heroically wrung a translation out of the Codex and was delighted to find evidence for the fiery destruction of Atlantis and the diffusion of high culture to the Americas from the West: this was a scholar whose mindscape was populated by Phoenicians in Brazil, Mayas at the Temple of Solomon, hidden meanings in colonial documents, and establishment conspiracies to cover up the quality (!) of pre-Hispanic craftsmanship.
The Stele of Castrelo de Val, showing a shield and chariot. This Bronze Age stele is similar to those found in Ireland, Denmark, Sweden, and the Mediterranean.
When one thinks of Spain, one generally thinks of sun-soaked coastlines and arid stretches of plain, but Spain’s northern coast is a green, hilly region with a strong Celtic tradition. The westernmost region, just north of Portugal, is called Galicia. Here you’ll find cider instead of wine, bagpipes instead of castanets, and a rich archaeological heritage.
GALAICOS. Un pueblo entre dos mundos at the Museo Arqueológico Nacional in Madrid explores the ancient history of this region from the Bronze Age to the arrival of Christianity. It reveals a well-populated archaeological region that was connected to the Phoenician and Greek trade routes along the Atlantic coast to the tin mines in Britain. The exhibition shows some interesting examples of artifacts making their way along the trade route to Galicia from Italy, Greece, and North Africa.
A glass walkway allows you to get inside the temple without touching it. You are then treated to a rather cheesy sound and light show.
London is a massive city with 2,000 years of history behind it. It’s hard to tell these days, but the banking and financial center of it all, with its frantic building, insider wheeling and dealing, and massive cocaine consumption, is actually the oldest neighborhood. This center of commerce is called “the City”, and its area corresponds to the Roman city of Londinium, founded around 43 AD.
Not much has survived the centuries, just a section of the original city wall and a few traces in the cellars of later buildings. In 1954, however, a subterranean temple was found that belongs to one of the ancient empire’s foremost mystery religions — Mithraism. Little is known for certain about this religion since its rites were private and most written accounts are by early Christians seeking to destroy the faith.
The cult centered around worship of the god Mithras, who originated in Persia. One common scene in Mithraic iconography shows Mithras being born out of a rock, and this may be why his temple, called a mithraeum, is generally located underground. It was a secretive religion that only accepted men, and this is one of the reasons it eventually lost out to the more inclusive Christianity.
Attic red figure cup of a female musician playing at an altar, c. 480 BC.
It’s the summer art season here in Madrid, and tourists, locals, and immigrants like me are fleeing to the air conditioned sanctuaries of major exhibitions to avoid heat stroke and see some culture.
One of the more interesting exhibitions is at the Caixa Forum, an exhibition space run by one of Spain’s major banks. Music in Antiquity traces the development of various musical instruments in Europe and the Middle East, and looks at how music was used in various ancient cultures.
About 400 artifacts from the Louvre, the National Museum in Athens, Metropolitan Museum of Art and other institutions trace some 3,000 years of history.
The rather unobtrusive entrance to the tomb. Like most mastabas, its superstructure has disappeared over time.
Put on your pith helmets, Black Gatereaders, because today we’re going into an ancient Egyptian tomb!
This tomb, on the Giza plateau, was built for Idu, an inspector of priests of the pharaohs Khufu and Khafre and overseer of scribes. Idu made sure the rites and rituals in honor of the departed pharaohs were done properly, and that the priests had all the equipment they needed. Idu lived in the VI Dynasty, probably during the reign of Pepi I (2332-2283 BC), a couple of hundred years after the death of these two important pharaohs. The most prominent Egyptian pharaohs had cults that lasted centuries.
The title of this post is a not-so-clever way to say I’m taking the month of December off from blogging. Back in February, I spent a few weeks in Egypt writing my neo-pulp detective novel The Case of the Purloined Pyramid, which recently won the Kindle Scout contest. It’s coming out soon and I’m using part of my advance to head on back to Cairo to write the next one, The Case of the Shifting Sarcophagus.
I’ll be seeing friends, hopefully making new ones, helping a colleague with his fascinating book proposal, and visiting some sights. Mostly I’ll be wandering around the old medieval neighborhood, where one of my heroes has his antiquities shop. Nothing like walking the actual streets to get the old brain pan bubbling!
Marble statue of a discus thrower. Second century A.D. copy
of a fifth century B.C. Greek original. Said to have been found
in Hadrian’s villa in Tivoli. The Emperor Hadrian had quite a
thing for beautiful young athletes. His favorite youth, Antinous,
was immortalized in numerous statues. Antinous didn’t have
those awesome deltoids, though.
It’s autumn, and that means here in Madrid the summer art shows are wrapping up and the autumn exhibitions are upon us. Madrid has several fine galleries and world-class museums to choose from, and the line-up this year is looking pretty good. Stay tuned for some fun shows here on Black Gate.
In the meantime, one of the last of the summer shows to finish is Agon! Competition in Ancient Greece at the Caixa Forum, a private gallery owned by one of the big Spanish banks. The show brings together dozens of objects from the British Museum in London, some of which are usually on permanent display there and others that I’ve never seen before.
The pyramid of Menkaure (2532-2504 BC) and
its three Queens’ Pyramids, looking east
We’ve all seen the pictures. Tucked beside the massive pyramids at Giza are a few little pyramids. They are generally described in one line as the “Queens’ Pyramids” or “satellite pyramids” and not mentioned any further. They seem like such an afterthought to the awe-inspiring pyramids of Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure, not to mention the Sphinx, that they get all but forgotten. But why were these monuments built? And who were they for?