A miscellany of talks by BAS members

A miscellany of talks by BAS members

Saturday 9th December 2017

Love, sex, fertility and protection: Venus figurines in Roman Britain
by Matthew Fittock

Representations of the goddess Venus are rare in Roman Britain – except for pipeclay figurines, of which 401 are currently known. These small mould-made statuettes were probably manufactured in central Gaul and by the 3rd century they were widely distributed in north-western Europe. They present a Classical pose of Venus, albeit rendered in Gaulish style.

Pipeclay statuette of the Roman goddess Venus found at the London General Post Office excavation in 1975. (Copyright Museum of London)

Their purpose is unknown: suggestions have ranged from love and sex to fertility and protection. Nine different types with slightly different poses have been described. They are distributed mostly in the south-east, especially in London where 107 have been recorded, but there is also a notable assemblage from Hadrian’s Wall. The concentration in London suggests this was the port of entry for redistribution: they occur mostly in urban settlements and less frequently in rural sites and villas. Timewise, they are concentrated in London and the south-east during the 1st and 2nd centuries, but show a wider distribution in urban and military sites during the 3rd and 4th centuries.

A pipeclay figurine of Venus. Recovered from a Roman child’s burial in London. Early 3rd century. (Copyright Museum of London)

They are found mostly in domestic and rubbish deposits. Only 21 have been found in temple contexts, but none inside temple buildings. Instead they occur in nearby pits and ditches, often near streams. Eleven others come from funerary deposits and one had been burnt in a cremation. In this context they are often associated with high status child burials where they may have had a protective function. A child’s grave at Colchester included no less than 13 figurines. A child buried in London with three figurines had suffered from severe malnutrition and rickets, suggesting a link with sick children.

Pipeclay figurines might be supposed to have been more readily available than metal figurines, but both forms are rare in Roman Britain. Their rarity, distribution and occurrence in well-furnished graves has suggested a possible link with high status immigrants.

A Roman factory in Provence
by Andrew Hutt

At Barbegal, 12 km north-east of Arles in Provence, France, there is an impressive series of Roman watermills that could have processed sufficient flour to feed 12,000 people – the entire population of the Roman town of Arles. Watermills are rare in Roman Britain: two examples with horizontal wheels were discovered in the Danebury area in Hampshire, but at Barbegal the mills had vertical wheels and were powered by water from an aqueduct.

Reconstruction of the complete run of waterwheels and associated workshops.(Copyright Scientific American)

Sixteen overshot wheels and their associated wheelhouses and workshops were arranged in two parallel rows of eight down a steep hillside on either side of the mill leat which was fed by the aqueduct. These watermills were constructed in the 1st century AD and continued in use until the 4th century. In addition to grinding flour, the power from the mills could have been utilised for other purposes, such as turning wood and working stone.

The remains of one of the mills at Barbegal (Wikipedia Creative Commons)

These overshot watermills form one of just three known sites: the others are in Syria and North Africa. The Barbegal site was only recognised in the 1970s and it is possible that other similar sites could exist in places where a steep bank is associated with an aqueduct.

European cave art – non-destructive visiting
by Tim Lloyd

The purpose and function of Palaeolithic cave art remain a mystery. The beautiful paintings of the Ardèche in south-eastern France and the French Pyrenees attract vast numbers of visitors every year – but how can these paintings be observed without inviting their destruction?

The famous lion panel from the Chauvet cave. (Copyright Patrick-Aventurier)

Chauvet cave in the Ardèche was discovered in 1994. The original entrance had become sealed and so the paintings were very well preserved. They portray rhinos, bears, horses, lions – masses of them and a herd of horses – and have been radiocarbon dated to c. 30,000 years ago although they are stylistically later (Magdalenian). It was decided not to open the cave to the public in order to preserve the paintings and the cave is now sealed except for limited access by professional archaeologists.

General view of the reconstructed gallery. (Copyright Caverne du Pont d’Arc)

At the Caverne du Pont-d’Arc centre, a replica of the cave has been created out of fibreglass in which the paintings have been expertly reproduced. This is associated with a vast exhibition area which includes life-sized models of mammoths, and the inevitable gift shop – Tim has the T-shirt!

Part of the Salon Noir. (Copyright the Wendel Collection)

The comparatively little-known Niaux cave in the French Pyrenees is a vast complex of caverns and very difficult and dangerous to access. It contains large paintings of bison, horses, antelopes and deer, among others, and has been dated to the Magdalenian period, about 13,000 years ago. A reconstruction of the Niaux cave forms part of the Parc de la Préhistoire, a nearby activity centre for young and old.

Reconstruction of the Salon Noir. (Copyright Parc de la Prehistoire)

Here the paintings have been reproduced as if they were new: ultraviolet light has revealed hidden features and the reproductions are considered to be very accurate.

Reproduction of a panel from Marsoulas. (Copyright Parc de la Prehistoire)

Reproductions of paintings from Marsoulas cave, which is not open to the public, are also presented.

A collage of images from Altamira, Lascaux and Chauvet. (Copyright Tim Lloyd)

Tim has cleverly reproduced some of these cave paintings on the wall of his wife’s study to inspire her reading on palaeopsychology.

report by Janet Sharpe

Exploring the archaeology, history and architecture of Berkshire