Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Birthplace of Vespasian?

A news story that's been doing the rounds internationally recently has thrown up some rather interesting questions regarding the practices of archaeology and as a result, what the readers of news sources want to know about classics and what is simply not newsworthy for the average reader.

That story is regarding the recent discovery of a sumptuous villa near the (reported) birthplace of the Emperor Vespasian. Filippo Coarelli, the leader of the excavation, claimed:

"it was not marked as belonging to Vespasian's family, but its extravagant trappings were an indication of its ownership.

"It's clear that such things could only belong to someone with a high social position and wealth. And in this place, it was the Flavians," he said, referring to Vespasian's dynasty".

This has caused quite the furore in classical circles with the identification of the villa as Vespasian's birthplace, with most commentators considering it a mistaken (or perhaps mislead) identification. Mary Beard in a Times column titled "Vespasian's villa? Don't you believe it", highlighted the general worries of informed commentators:

"It's just a large Roman house of roughly the right date in roughly the right place".

The whole episodes highlights the fact that unless a find can be tied into the icons of the classical past (Emperors or famous men/events) - then people are usually just not very interested. Further to this, the fact that this year is the 2000th since the birth of Vespasian has caused cynical observers to label the find too perfectly timed and the leap to name it's owner too quick and ill thought out.

Beard also mentions the sad fact, which is tied into the above, that despite the advances of modern archaeology and what we can learn from it, there is still, to some extent, an obsession with finding a Vespasian "lived here spot", and in many respects that is a little tragic. When she labels this a "non-story", I don't think she's too wide of the mark.

Nevertheless, if one can remove the fantasy and wishful thinking, the discovery of any large villa should be interesting enough in of itself, for it may contain some previously unknown works, or some painting which may contain hitherto unknown information or evidence - one never knows. For me, at least, the true excitement lies there.

In other, less controversial news, a Roman ship wreck (5 in actual fact) has been found off the coast of the small Italian island of Ventotene (located between Rome and Naples). The ships are thought to be somewhere between 1600 and 1900 years old, which could place them anywhere from the reign of Trajan to the reign of Honorius, Emperor of the Western Empire.

Seemingly well protected by their situation in deep water, the ships have been labelled, rather unoriginally, as "underwater museums". Nevertheless, the discovery of their well preserved cargo - including wine, oil and the popular fish sauce Garum - is quite exciting.

The discovery location has spurred the belief that the ship was engaged in trade between Italy and Rome's African provinces, as it falls on a common trade route. Finds such as these are, of course, not altogether uncommon, but this one is especially well preserved and every discovery hints at new information or evidence, and that makes each one special enough.


Sources for "Vespasian's" Villa:

The BBC: "Roman Emperor's Villa Unearthed".

Mary Beard's Times Online column: "Vespasian's Villa? Don't you believe it".

Sources for the Roman shipwrecks:

The BBC: "Ancient Roman shipwrecks found".

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