Vatican

What do buildings archaeologists do at the weekend?

Day of Archaeology was one of those occasional days on which my regular job found me staring at a wall, tapping away on my computer. I decided not to post about that… But I also postponed posting because I knew that the next day I was going to go to Westminster Abbey. Amazingly, for a London-based buildings archaeologist, it was my first ever visit there. It’s also come at an interesting time because in the last few weeks, I have also visited (for the first time) Vatican City and the Tōdai-ji temple complex at Nara in Japan. All three are monumental structures, religious centres and World Heritage Sites. I thought that to prove once again that archaeologists are never truly away from work, I would share a few weekend-y thoughts on how the three compare.

Piazza San Pietro

Piazza San Pietro

History

Unsurprisingly, I’m more familiar with the history associated with Westminster Abbey than the Vatican or Tōdai-ji, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the cult of personality at its centre. I think you would learn more about what Britain thinks about its own history through a trip to Westminster Abbey than anywhere else. Its memorials are, as in most churches, dominated by aristocracy and the military. In the UK, larger religious buildings in particular have a tendency to be overwhelmingly martial spaces and the same is true at Westminster Abbey. There are plenty other people commemorated here too, of course, not all of them dead (at the time of installation!). Look closely at the less well-known memorials and you’ll find ‘the mothers’. I spotted more than one on with text along the lines of ‘When XX died, her mother, who loved her more and longer than anyone, and was sadder than anyone else when she died and suffered greater pains than all others, paid for this memorial…’ Well, the dead are buried by the living after all. There’s also an amusing memorial where the text praises the exact manner in which the subject kept her household expenses. You can certainly find a less obvious history than the ‘main’ one, if you look (and don’t be led by just the audio guide).

I felt at the other two sites that although there is, of course, a great history associated with each, they also had more obviously active presents beyond the tourism. There were lots of people praying at Tōdai-ji and frequent pilgrim processions at the Vatican as well as nuns all over the place. It would be hard to pray at Westminster Abbey even if you wanted to.

Stuff

Westminster Abbey is full to bursting with stuff. It’s like a packed antiques shop or, perhaps more accurately, like the too-well-used shed of someone who can’t bear to throw anything away. Although large parts of the Abbey are great to look at, moving even, there are corners where the addition of a defunct exercise bike, some broken skis and an unused bread maker wouldn’t look out of place.

We didn’t actually go into any of the Vatican buildings, so can’t comment on them, but Piazza San Pietro, in front of the Basilica, was not nearly as busy as I expected. There are statues everywhere, but generally on the top of buildings so the space is very open. Tōdai-ji is a huge space and packed as it was with school-children (as most of Japan seemed to be) it didn’t feel busy at all.

Interior of Great Buddha Hall at Tōdai-ji

Interior of Great Buddha Hall at Tōdai-ji

If I’m honest, the amount of stuff combined with the number of people made Westminster Abbey a slightly less-then-pleasant experience in parts.

Not on the tour!

Westminster Abbey has a route. You all walk around the place in the same way. This means that you also get the chance to peer past the ropes and see what hasn’t made it into the visitor experience. Noël Coward’s memorial, for instance, is beyond the rope at the point where people turn to go out into the cloisters. He’ll generally be missed. The rope actually passes directly over Andrew Bonar Law, so I suspect he’s missing out too. Thomas Telford is at an odd angle so you have to try pretty hard to see that his statue is him. My favourite memorial, to Mrs Mary Kendall, is just inside a door so most people walked straight past it.

I was a bit too over-awed to do much ‘around the back’ exploring at Tōdai-ji. We went around the back of the Vatican though and happened upon a scene of people coming in and out of a courtyard hotel with a bouncer on the door, next door to a shop selling ‘religious articles’, and a sudden rush of immigrant hawkers running away from the Vatican police. It struck me as a beautifully medieval moment and quite different to the ‘front’ side.

So, a few thoughts on a few sites. For the rest of my weekend, I’m going to see some more archaeology, then I’m going to write about some archaeology, then edit someone else’s archaeology.

Oops, I forgot to mention the buildings…

Catacombes et dolce vita

Passionné par l’archéologie depuis très jeune, j’ai commencé, comme la plupart de mes collègues, en tant que bénévole sur des chantiers à l’âge de 16 ans. J’ai débuté professionnellement en 1991 avec mes premiers contrats en tant qu’ouvrier de fouille à l’Afan. J’exerce actuellement à l’Inrap.
Le domaine funéraire m’a toujours fasciné et j’ai orienté ma carrière vers la direction d’opérations archéologiques en milieu funéraire (formation universitaire et choix des chantiers quand cela était possible). Mes thématiques de recherche concernent les pratiques funéraires et particulièrement :
– la fouille des cimetières juifs médiévaux en Europe,
– les crises de mortalité (épidémies et phénomènes de violences inter-humaines),
– les espaces monastiques (funéraire ou non) ainsi que
– la chrono-typologie des inhumations.
Depuis désormais une vingtaine d’années, je m’efforce de diffuser et de communiquer au travers d’articles, de conférences et d’expositions les résultats de mes travaux de recherche. Je considère en effet que le métier d’archéologue ne s’arrête pas à la rédaction du rapport de fouille et qu’il convient de transmettre nos connaissances envers la communauté scientifique mais aussi vers le grand public.

A l’occasion de ce “Day of Archaeology”, je souhaite vous faire partager une journée typique d’une mission exceptionnelle dans les catacombes des saints Pierre et Marcellin à Rome.

En 2005, ma collègue Dominique Castex (CNRS, Bordeaux) avec qui je collaborais régulièrement m’a proposé d’assurer avec elle la co-direction d’une mission dans cet espace funéraire alors géré par le Vatican.
Une telle occasion ne se présente pas deux fois et il faut savoir la saisir même s’il s’agissait :
1/d’une mission de deux mois,
2/que ma compagne était enceinte de six,
3/que nous déménagions la veille de mon départ à Rome !
Grâce à sa compréhension et beaucoup d’abnégation de sa part une solution a rapidement pu être trouvée : je la laissais avec les cartons et je rentrerais régulièrement en avion jusqu’à ce qu’elle puisse me rejoindre et profiter un peu de la Dolce Vita.

Making observations in the Saint Pierre and Saint Marcellinus catacomb © SSPM

Reconnaissance dans la catacombe des saints Pierre et Marcellin. © SSPM

La vie de chantier au Vatican

La journée classique commençait avec un réveil vers 6 heures pour un petit déjeuner en commun avec les autres membres de l’équipe. Celle-ci était composée d’étudiants en anthropologie à Bordeaux et parfois de quelques collègues et amis qui s’étaient rendus disponibles pour participer à cette formidable expérience.
Nous étions logés dans le centre de Rome ce qui présente beaucoup d’avantage pour profiter des charmes de cette ville merveilleuse. La contrepartie était le temps de trajet pour se rendre sur le site : métro jusqu’à la gare de Termini puis le bus 105 pendant 40 minutes.
Les portes de la catacombe étaient ouvertes à 8 heures par les fossore, les ouvriers du Vatican spécialisés dans les travaux très spécifiques que nécessite la catacombe. Ils nous apportaient une aide essentielle concernant l’organisation technique de la fouille et le repérage dans ce réseau souterrain. Celle-ci possède en effet près de 4,5 kilomètres de galeries réparties sur deux à trois niveaux par endroits et dans lesquelles il serait très facile de se perdre.
Nous atteignons alors le secteur « X » de la catacombe au sein duquel nous fouillions des cavités remplies de squelettes recouverts de plâtre. Chacun se glissait alors en position horizontale sur sa planche et dégageait les ossements qui affleuraient quelques centimètres plus bas. Une fois mis au jour, venait le temps de l’enregistrement, celui des photos, puis des dessins. Suivait ensuite le « démontage » des squelettes avec leur dépôt dans des sacs et leur évacuation vers la surface pour une étude anthropologique par d’autres membres de l’équipe. Une courte pause déjeuner Chez Anna, la pizzeria du coin et nous rejoignons notre petit coin de fraîcheur (16-17° en permanence) pendant que la « surface » subissait les assauts du soleil avec des températures de plus de 30° en ce mois de septembre.

On the field © Denis Gliksman

Le terrain ! © Denis Gliksman

Uncovering a level with skeletons. © Denis Gliksman

Dégagement d’un niveau de squelette. © Denis Gliksman

Après l’effort le réconfort ?

Vers 16 heures les portes se refermaient avant que ne reprenne la longue transhumance des archéologues vers leurs douches et leurs lits tant attendus. Commençait alors l’autre journée de l’archéologue : celle administrative et scientifique. De 18 à 20 heures, je consultais ma messagerie internet et répondais aux mails les plus urgents sans oublier d’appeler à la maison pour prendre des nouvelles de la future maman. Il fallait ensuite se consacrer à la rédaction des articles que je devais rendre de façon urgente pour « avant-hier, sans faute » !
Après l’effort le réconfort ! C’était le temps du repas pris régulièrement en commun, tels les moines du prieuré, à moins que nous ne cédions à la tentation des nombreuses trattoria du quartier où la diversité des pâtes et pizzas rivalisait avec les merveilleux vins italiens. Nous refaisions le monde le temps d’un repas avant de terminer la soirée en rentrant et en dégustant une glace à proximité de la fontaine de Trévi, toujours remplie de ses nombreux touristes. Telle est la dure vie d’un archéologue en exil …

The real Bruschetta ! © Philippe Blanchard

La vraie bruschetta ! © Philippe Blanchard

Philippe Blanchard, archéologue à l’Inrap, UMR 5199

Catacombs and dolce vita

Passionate about archaeology from a very young age, I began, like most of my colleagues, as a volunteer at sites when I was 16. My professional career began in 1991 with my first contracts as an excavator for Afan, now I’m currently working for Inrap.
The funerary domain always fascinated me and I oriented my career toward the direction of archaeological operations in this field (university education and choice of field sites when possible). My research topics concerned funerary practices, and in particular:
– the excavation of Jewish medieval cemeteries in Europe,
– mortality crises (epidemics and violent inter-human phenomena),
– monastic spaces (funerary or not),
– the chronology and typology of burials.
For the past twenty years, I have worked to communicate the results of my research through articles, conferences and exhibits because I consider that the profession of archaeology does not stop with excavation report writing and that it is our job to transmit our knowledge to both the scientific community and the general public.
On the occasion this “Day of Archeology”, I would like to share a typical day on an exceptional project in the Saint Peter and Saint Marcellinus catacomb in Rome.

In 2005, my colleague Dominique Castex (CNRS, Bordeaux), with whom I regularly collaborate, asked me to co-direct a mission with her in the funerary space then managed by the Vatican.
This kind of opportunity knocks only once and I had to cease it even if:
1/it was a two month mission,
2/my wife was six months pregnant,
3/we had to move the day before my departure for Rome!
Thanks to her devotion and sacrifice, we quickly found a solution: I left her with our boxes and I flew home often until she could join me for a bit of the Dolce Vita herself.

Making observations in the Saint Pierre and Saint Marcellinus catacomb © SSPM

Making observations in the Saint Pierre and Saint Marcellinus catacomb. © SSPM

Life on an archaeological site in the Vatican

A typical day began at around 6:00 am for breakfast with the team. The team was composed of anthropology students from Bordeaux and sometimes a few colleagues and friends who found time to participate in this amazing experience.
We were housed in the center of Rome which was great for enjoying the charms of this marvelous city. The disadvantage was the commuting time to get to the site: taking the metro to the Termini station and then bus #105 for 40 minutes.

The doors of the catacomb opened at 8:00 for the fossores, the Vatican employees specialized in the very specific work of managing the catacomb. Their help was essential for the technical organization of the excavation and for finding our way around in the underground tunnels. This space consists of nearly 4.5 kilometers of galleries distributed across two or three levels in places, where it is very easy to get lost.

We then reached sector “X” of the catacomb where we excavated cavities filled skeletons covered with plaster. Each of us got into a horizontal position on our board and uncovered the bones peeking out a few centimeters below. Once they were uncovered, it was time to record, photograph, and draw them. We then “unearthed” the skeletons and put them into bags to take them up to the surface to be studied by other members of the team. After a short lunch break at Anna’s, the local pizzeria, we returned to our cool little hideaway (always 16-17°) while the “surface” was assaulted by the sun with temperatures over 30° during this month of September.

On the field © Denis Gliksman

On the field. © Denis Gliksman

Uncovering a level with skeletons. © Denis Gliksman

Uncovering a level with skeletons. © Denis Gliksman

After the effort, a bit of comfort?

At around 4:00, the doors were closed again and we began the long journey back to our much awaited showers and beds.
It is then that the second day of the archaeologist’s began: that of administrative and scientific tasks. From 6:00 to 8:00 pm, I checked my email and answered the most urgent messages, while remembering to call home for news from the future mom. It was then time to write various articles that were urgently due “yesterday, of course”!

After the effort, a bit of comfort! This came with the meal regularly enjoyed as a group, like monks in the priory, except when we gave in to the temptation of the numerous trattoria in the neighborhood, or the diversity of pasta and pizzas rivalling the marvelous Italian wines. We solved the world’s problems during the time of a meal before ending the evening with an ice cream near the Trevi Fountain, always teeming with tourists. Such is the hard life of an archaeologist in exile…

The real Bruschetta ! © Philippe Blanchard

The real Bruschetta ! © Philippe Blanchard

Philippe Blanchard, Inrap archaeologist, UMR 51 99