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|Subject: Poignant grave goods Tue 13 Dec 2016, 08:31|| |
A recent find in Windisch in Switzerland set me wondering about the nature of grave goods and their ability, even sometimes after a period of millennia, to speak directly to the observer of the life of their owner.
In fact the artefact excavated in November in the one-time legionary camp of Vindonissa, situated right on the frontier between Rome and the "barbarian" Germanic hinterlands, may not strictly speaking be classified as a "grave good" (there was no associated skeleton or evidence of cremated remains), but then how else to explain it?
What archaeologists found when exploring a Roman burial place situated just outside the walls of the fortified village that had been founded in the reign of Tiberius and which existed mostly as a military outpost until the mid 2nd century CE, was a plain ceramic bowl, the contents of which are - in archaeological terms - unique, to say the least. No less than 22 individual oil lamps had been carefully buried in this container, each of which contained a single coin.
The terracotta lamps were stamped with various images - some featuring the goddess Luna, others including gladiators, some erotic scenes, a few lions and one peacock. The cooking pot in which they had been deposited was found at a layer indicating they had been buried intentionally in the early years of the fort's existence, at a time before Vindonissa expanded into a thriving civic community.
Interpretation of the find was initially understandably confused, nothing like this had ever been found before, though a suggestion that its context and nature must surely indicate a funereal purpose of some description certainly makes sense. The favourite theory, though utterly unverifiable, is that the carefully buried urn and its contents represent a legionary's tribute to 22 colleagues whose remains had not been recovered from whatever battlefield on which they'd fallen, each lamp's symbol possibly representing the character or life of the individual being honoured, the coin inserted into each a payment to Charon for safe passage across the Styx into the afterlife, and the lamp itself a vital aid on that journey into eternal darkness. A full burial for these soldiers may not have been possible, but a colleague had done his best to alleviate their ordeal nevertheless.
Throughout history the practice of depositing goods with interred remains has gone in and out of fashion, though even when sometimes officially discouraged by whatever prevalent social mores might have pertained it has still stubbornly persisted as an occasional exception to the rule. The criteria for selecting which goods should be interred, though varying between practicality and sentimentality, has still over millennia never strayed far from choosing items of some personal significance for the person they accompanied, be it items they themselves might once have owned, or simply symbols of their status, career or character.
It is these items of personal ownership, as well as those apparently selected with some care to represent the deceased's character and life - as possibly exemplified by the symbols on each of the Vindonissa oil lamps - which are most likely to evoke a poignancy in the observer. Every now and again archaeology uncovers such examples which, even so many years after the life and indeed society of the grave's occupant have long expired, still invite the observer to appreciate and identify with the occupant of the grave. Are there any you may also have seen, read or heard about which maybe have struck you also as eloquent and touching emissaries representing lives once lived?
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|Subject: Re: Poignant grave goods Tue 13 Dec 2016, 10:50|| |
A very plausible theory but - and here my feminist nerve endings begin to twitch - why ascribe this to 'a legionary'? Isn't it just as possible to imagine grieving women each bringing a lamp and a coin and placing them in the bowl? I see that the deposit is dated to 'the early years' suggesting it was from before the full development of a vicus but might there have been camp followers even then?
Do we know if the bowl and the lamps were new?
One of the most poignant I can immediately think of is the mesolithic Vedbæk grave of the young woman and her new born child who had been laid on a swan's wing. It's this gesture rather than the multiple tooth and shell pendants and other items that grabs at the heart strings.
I'll need to think of other examples.
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|Subject: Re: Poignant grave goods Tue 13 Dec 2016, 13:12|| |
My own feminist nerve endings twitch when I hear the assumption that any sweet and compassionate gestures in antiquity must surely have been made only by women. I'm sticking with my mental image of a soft-hearted big lunk of a tear-stained squaddie (maybe Pollo from the "Rome" series?) tenderly filling each lamp with his hard-earned obuli, one for each fallen comrade, and lowering his cooking pot with pious reverence into the hole while uttering a litany of prayers and oaths in equal measure.
One rather sweet incidence of grave goods I recalled (and found again only after much googling) was from Grimmelshofen-Stühlingen, not a million miles from the Windisch burial in fact and also once a Roman outpost. The grave however was Alemannic and dated from the 7th century, shortly after the tribe had been taken over by the Franks and "strongly encouraged" to become Christian. The grave was one in a group with every indication of a Christian burial of the period, an east-west alignment and no grave goods. They were also near a rudimentary church in a small graveyard, a departure from the Alemanni's previous use of vast "grave fields".
Previously however, as pagans, the tribe had long adopted the Roman tradition of placing three obuli or similar coins over the eyes and in the mouth of the deceased, and in one of the graves the skeletal remains - of a woman in her thirties - included a hand still tightly clenched around the three coins, obviously secreted into her closed fist on burial by a cautious friend or relative, just in case all this new-fangled Christian stuff wouldn't mean she'd be caught short-changed should Charon nevertheless pop up to greet her on her journey and demand his usual fee.
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|Subject: Re: Poignant grave goods Wed 14 Dec 2016, 08:25|| |
Not quite ancient history, but I found it amusing and it certainly qualifies as a concerted bid for poignancy, if not necessarily poignant as such.
As if Victoria's casket was not going to be heavy enough already she had, prior to her demise, drawn up quite a detailed list of all the paraphernalia with which she wished to be interred in her funeral. These included (in no particular order):
Albert’s dressing gown
A cloak once worn by the Prince Consort, embroidered by their daughter, Alice
Her wedding veil
A plaster model of Albert’s hand
A photograph of John Brown
A lock of Brown's hair (which her physician placed in her hands, hidden under flowers)
Lockets - one per child, grandchild and great grandchild
Her favourite bracelets
A sprig of heather from Balmoral
Assorted photographs and trinkets from her family
Albert's bible (the de-luxe German edition)
The royal remains plus half a ton of bric-a-brac making their way along Edgeware Road to Paddington Station. I've moved house with less baggage involved.
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|Subject: Re: Poignant grave goods Wed 14 Dec 2016, 22:01|| |
Children's graves, by their very nature tend to tug at the heart, but poignancy is added when the grave goods include the child's well loved toys. I gather that minature figures of animals and people are quite common as grave goods (of adults as well as children) from ancient Egyptian to Roman times, although many, perhaps most, of these may not have been toys at all, but rather having some other ritual significance. Nevertheless I feel that these two items, both from the burials of children, by their very rough unsophisticated construction and tatty, played-with appearance, were probably favourite toys.
A Roman-era rag doll from a child's tomb in the city of Oxyrhynchus in Egypt, made of linen stuffed with papyrus and with traces of coloured wool for the hair:
A rag ball from a child's grave in Tarkhan, Egypt (circa 2500BC) made of rags and wool tied with string:
Then by contrast there's this much more sophisticated doll (end 2nd century CE). She's carved in ivory and wears a diadem in her elegantly styled hair ... but with her moveable joints she was clearly made to be played with. She was found with the mummified body of an 8-year old girl, in a marble sarcophagus under the Palazzo Massimo, Rome.
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|Subject: Re: Poignant grave goods Sun 19 Feb 2017, 10:13|| |
Yes thanks, ID - a very interesting article.
If, as the article suggests, the "Griffin" warrior grave does indeed prove to be a key to ending once and for all this strange "consensus" regarding the Mycenaeans' aggressive role in "destroying" the Minoan civilisation then I reckon we all owe the lad a huge vote of thanks. Both the Minoans and the Mycenaeans, I have always thought, suffer hugely as historical subjects from having had identities foisted on them by 19th and early 20th century British and German academics in particular, not to mention the hugely presumptuous misdiagnoses of the archaeological evidence in which the same academics then engaged that, for reasons little or nothing to do with historiography and everything to do with rather ego-driven and quite nationalistic agendas pursued by many of those writing the literature thereafter, has fostered what is now presented as "consensus" but which, almost from the beginning, has been challenged by those actually interested in deciphering the true history of the middle to late Helladic Period people in the region.
It is telling that we don't actually know even what these people called themselves but pretend we do (a fate not reserved for just these Bronze Age people either), as for me this has always raised alarm bells when certain historians then compound this ignorance with fanciful imaginings of international relations and interaction between them which also then become part of this "consensus" and are recycled in forms ranging from so-called scholarly output to the basic bumph dished out to tourists visiting the region and presented as "fact".
The problem with shorthand identities is that they only suffice when our understanding of any period based on evidence is at its most nascent and putatively forensic stage, but then become huge obstacles to comprehension as that knowledge grows. What should have been stop-gap definitions acquire an importance and authority which then actively impede the process of further learning, to the extent that evidential material is misinterpreted, sometimes ludicrously, or worse, simply discounted or ignored. We are aware and rightly contemptuous of how such ignorance pollutes and discredits so-called "biblical" archaeology, but we should reserve at least some of that odium for what also has been presented as a "common understanding" of the Helladic Period in Greek history too.
If, as the article suggests, the Griffin warrior's grave can indeed be seen as evidence of what was essentially a pervious and dynamically developmental people whose society preserved living remnants of its broader experience (so broad it included what we term "Minoan") and acted in sociological terms as a catalyst towards the establishment of the later Greek city state democracies and all the philosophical, intellectual and political constructs that society engendered, then we can at last stop presuming on the basis of their very recently assigned Homeric appellation a pugnacious and self-contained historical role on their behalf. They didn't know they were "Mycenaeans". They most definitely didn't know they were "Greek" (or what such a term could ever mean). And what this and other recent discoveries hopefully emphasise is that they developed in the region into a cohesive society from origins culturally, sociologically and geographically much broader, more diffuse and more inclusive than "consensus" so far has acknowledged.
The late Bronze Age is a very much traduced period in European history as served by "popular" historical understanding, and to be fair to academia such has been known and attemptedly redressed in recent decades, not least through more thorough and less whimsical analysis of the ever growing archaeological record. In this deconstruction of modern myth imposed on ancient artefacts it is the artefacts themselves which are often the true heroes of the process, especially those which stubbornly and emphatically pose an undeniable challenge to previous slovenly analysis of the period perpetuated over generations up to relatively recently. The Griffin warrior, whether he was a hero or not in his day, becomes one now - though in a sense he or his contemporaries might never have anticipated.
This is probably the wrong thread to discuss the Griffin warrior - his grave and its goods are certainly significant and in no way poignant at all, except perhaps in how they remind us of our previous often wilful ignorance in interpreting his contemporaries' lives, their society and their times, basically since we first labelled him and his people "Mycenaean".