Friday, February 10, 2006

Friday Archaeology Blogging: Regina and Barates

Let us commence with this:

Britain is likely to lose magnificent Roman tombstone
By Dalya Alberge, Arts Correspondent

EXCITEMENT over a Roman gravestone discovered in the centre of Lancaster has been dampened by the news that, although the artefact is barely out of the ground, Britain is likely to lose it to an overseas buyer.

Archaeologists said yesterday that the gravestone, which depicts with great clarity a mounted trooper holding a sword and the head of a man he has just killed, was a unique find.

The stone has yet to be dried, conserved and studied, but its owner — the developer on whose land it has been found — has already sought valuation advice from Sotheby’s.

Christopher Tudor-Whelan, director of Tudor-Whelan Property Holdings, which specialises in commercial investment properties, hopes to sell it in New York. He confirmed yesterday that he has been told that he can expect to sell it for “up to $100,000” (£57,500).

Sounds to me like Christopher Tudor-Whelan, director of Tudor-Whelan Property Holdings which specialises in commercial investment properties, is deserving of a swift kick in the fork. But that's just me (and, for the sake of fairness, it's worth pointing out that there are artefacts in the British Museum whose provenance is, shall we say, somewhat odd).

The gravestone, which commemorates a cavalry officer of the late 1st century or early 2nd century AD, was unearthed when archaeologists excavated land in the city centre before construction work began on a block of flats. Experts are overwhelmed by the artefact’s quality, although it is in three pieces and yet to be reassembled.

The stone, which originally would have measured 2.5m (8ft) in height, features a solar face, reminiscent of the famous Medusa head from Roman Bath, above the trooper’s head. The beheaded victim kneels on the ground, holding his sword.

Eight feet?!?!???! That is one monster of a tombstone...

Although beheading war victims was accepted Roman practice, it is thought that no such depiction of a man on horseback has been found before.

Importantly, the stone also bears an inscription that provides clues to the man to whom it was dedicated — a citizen of a Celtic tribe in northern Europe, the Treveri, which is known to have occupied an area where Belgium, Germany and France meet. The tribe was said to have provided Julius Caesar with his best cavalry.

The inscription refers to a man called Lucius Nisus Vodvilleius, or Insus, son of Vodullus. The precise name is unclear as it is abbreviated.

Oh, Lucius Nisus Vodvilleius (or perhaps Insus, son of Vodullus), what sins did you commit in life, that your tombstone ended up on land belonging to Christopher Tudor-Whelan, director of Tudor-Whelan Property Holdings, which specialises in commercial investment properties?

Anyway, enough snark. I selected this particular article for this week's FAB mostly because my very favourite archaeological find in the entire world ever is a Roman tombstone from Britain, dating probably to the 3rd century A.D. And, here it is:

The inscription on the bottom reads:


"To the spirits of the departed and Regina, freedwoman and wife of Barates of Palmyra, a Catuvellaunian by race, thirty years old."

Alright, so we have this Barates, from Palmyra in the Middle East. As a young man, 17 or 18 years old, he enlists in the Roman army, and gets posted to Britannia, which is as far away from, and unlike, Syria as it is possible to get in the Roman Empire. Britain in the 3rd century was not as awful as it had been, say, 200 years earlier, but it was still cold, wet, and dangerous (In fact, the emperor Septimus Severus died in Britain while conducting military operations in A.D. 211). We can only imagine what it must have been like for a Syrian teenager.

However, our man Barates did alright. At some point, at one of the slave auctions, he encountered Regina, a Celtic woman from the tribe that had been in the vanguard of the opposition to Rome so many years before. Apparently a man of taste and discernment, Barates bought Regina. And then he did an unlikely thing; he not only freed her, but married her as well. This he did not have to do; had he merely wanted somebody to boink, he could have kept her as a slave. In fact, his act of marrying her was probably illegal, given that he was likely a soldier. Evidently, he fell in love with her, enough so that when she died, he paid for an ornate tombstone, and added a poignant little lament in his native language (Aremaic) beneath the traditional Latin inscription.

Barates never went back to Syria. He died in the North of what is now England at the age of 63, according to his tombstone, which was found some distance, but not too far, from that of his young wife.

Anyway, I've obviously taken a few liberties with the evidence here in constructing the tale of Barates and Regina, but the core facts of the story (including Barates' affection for Regina) are likely enough. Which is why, when I read shit like this:

Asked how he had felt when [the tombstone of Lucius Nisus Vodvilleius] was unearthed, [Christopher Tudor-Whelan, director of Tudor-Whelan Property Holdings, which specialises in commercial investment properties] said: “The archaeological guys were more excited than me. I thought, ‘Oh my God, this will hold up the development’. At the end, the proof of the pudding is how much it is worth.”

my foot starts twitching...

For anybody interested in looking at the tombstones of Regina and Barates in more detail, they are published in Collingwood & Wright, The Roman Inscriptions of Britain: Volume I (Oxford U. Press, 1965), and are reference numbers 1065 and 1171 respectively.


Alison said...

I have roses in my garden whose ancestors made the journey back to Europe in the saddlebags of men returning from the Crusades, and more than a few of these roses are named after Persian women.

So you're a punk rock photographer/archaeology prof then?

Bazz said...

I wear many hats... :)

I'm actually not a prof - still stuck in grad studentdom. And I haven't yet figured out how to get my own photographs up on blogger. However, my field of study is (Roman) archaeology, and yeah, the punk thing is pretty important to me.

Anyway, tell me more about these roses! What sorts of names do they have?

Alison said...

"Isfahan" and "Zepherin Drouhin" are the two that I have. ZD is actually pretty common. And now that you've called me on it, I have to admit that the historical record is not as clear as I would like regarding their geneology and much of their history would be more properly termed folk history, but Thibault IV of Champagne would seem to have returned from Damascus in 1240 AD with these two.
Always love to see your witty comments at Creekside.

Bazz said...

I googled Thibault of Champagne (aka Thibault le Chansonnier), and he seems to have been quite the character. Beating on the Albigensians, writing (and singing!) love songs to the Queen of France, and yes, bringing the roses you mentioned back from the Middle East. Good times! :)

There's actually a pretty good picture of him here.