• Keep Informed!

    Sign up to receive email alerts for new books, readings & signing appearances, and other interesting literary happenings!

  • My Novels

Archive for the Category » History «

Photo Tour: A Return To Herculaneum

Almost everyone has heard of Pompeii, but I’ve always favored its sister city, Herculaneum, which was buried in the same eruption as Pompeii in AD 79, but is smaller, less overrun with tourists. My imagination was captured by this book when I read it in college:

Herculaneum: Italy’s Buried Treasure

On my recent visit in October 2013, I found a lot has changed in Herculaneum since I last visited 11 years ago. Some of the changes have been improvements–a visitors’ center, and new ramps and walkways to access the ancient city, which lies in a large pit 16 feet below modern Ercolano–but other changes are due to neglect and erosion.

Our local guide was excellent, leading us on a fairly complete tour of  the city…or at least, what’s still open and accessible to visitors. I noticed that many of the remaining frescoes in the homes are now faded to the point of near-invisibility. Many other houses and streets were closed awaybehind bars and scaffolding, with signs pointing out that restoration work was in progress.

On this visit, we were not able to tour any of the houses of the rich, built on a terrace which once overlooked the waterfront, nor could we enter the Surburban Baths built just below this terrace; I was able to tour both places 11
years ago.

And one of my favorite streets, where the houses still had their wood-and-plaster second stories overhanging the street, is now sadly altered.

Torrential rains over the past several years caused the front of second story to shear away and collapse. I have a photo taken 11 years ago, where I’m standing on this street. I had one of the other members of the group take another photo of me standing in the same place 11 years later. It’s  interesting to compare and contrast the two photos.

All that being said, it was really wonderful to wander the streets of Herculaneum once more, and visit the various houses, shops, and temples.

I studied this city as part of one of my college courses, and have done a lot of  reading since then, so I feel like I know this place and its inhabitants pretty well.

Only about 20% of the city has been excavated, due to the challenges of removing the thick layer of concrete-like pyroclastic flow from the volcanic eruption, which helped preserve wooden furniture and even food in an airtight environment for 2000 years. Plus, the modern city is built on top of the old in a tightly-packed mass of ugly apartment buildings, so any further excavations would entail buying one or more buildings, demolishing them, and then excavating underneath.

Since the Italian government is struggling to preserve and restore what’s already been exposed, the decision was made 20 years ago not to excavate further, for the time being.

When we reluctantly began to make our way towards the exit in the late afternoon, the way out took us past a grim memorial: the cavernous boat sheds built into the bluff along the erstwhile shore (since the eruption, the sea is
now a good mile away).

Within the sheds still lie the bones and skulls of several hundred people, the citizens and slaves of Herculaneum, who fled the city when the eruption began, and sought shelter on the beach, hoping for rescue by the Roman navy.

When a superheated pyroclastic wave rolled over the city, they were all instantly cooked to death. Because only a few corpses had been found in the city itself, it had long been thought that most of Herculaneum’s citizens escaped the eruption, until the boat sheds were excavated in the 1980s, and the grim discovery of what had *really* happened to Herculaneum’s inhabitants.

It was a somber sight as the afternoon’s golden light began to retreat from Herculaneum’s ruined houses and deserted streets, and the ghost city was cast into shadow within its pit.

Loading the slideshow...

Photo Tour: A Return To Pompeii

In case you’re wondering why so many weeks have gone by with no new posts, it’s because I’ve been traveling. I just returned from a marvellous archaeological tour of Sicily and southern Italy, finishing up in the Bay of Naples with visits to two of my favorite archaeological sites: Pompeii and Herculaneum.

The tour allotted an entire day in Pompeii, giving our small group a chance to see the city in depth. This is my fourth visit to this ancient Roman city, and it was really nice to visit some of the houses, theaters, public baths, and even a brothel, in the company of Professor Bob Bianchi.

I also had a decent camera along this time–I’ve taken up photography as a new hobby–and luck with the weather. The last time I was in Pompeii, eleven years ago, it was raining cats and dogs, and I had a rather primitive point-and-shoot Olympus digital camera.

I’ll be sharing more photos in the weeks to come, but for now, here are my impressions of a beautiful autumn day spent wandering the streets, homes, and public buildings of Pompeii:

Loading the slideshow...

Delos: A Taste Of Ancient Greece

As a foretaste of my upcoming trip to visit the ancient ruins on Sicily and in southern Italy, I thought I’d share my experiences in another famous site of the Classical World–the sacred island of Delos.

In May of 2006, I visited the island of Mykonos as part of a cruise through the Aegean Sea. While there, I took the opportunity to hop on a ferry and take a half-hour ride across the harbor to the uninhabited island of Delos, a close neighbor of Mykonos.

Delos was an important site of religious pilgrimage in ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, as well as being an important commercial harbor for transshipment of imported grain from Egypt and spices from the Silk Road.

Like Mykonos, it is a rocky, hilly, barren island, surrounded by clear turquoise waters. It was abandoned in antiquity
due to repeated invasions by armies from the kingdom of Pontus in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) while Pontus was engaged in a war with the Romans,. Nowadays, only a few caretakers and archaeologists live on the island, surrounded by acres of waist-high drystone walls and broken marble columns and shattered pediments wreathed in grass and wildflowers.

Despite centuries of having all sorts of people come to the deserted island to loot its marble columns, statues, and any useful building materials, the ancient city is remarkably well-preserved. After disembarking from the ferry, our tour guide led us through the ancient marketplace, our feet crunching on the remnants of thousands of ancient potsherds, and up the main street (its flat paving stones and drainage system still intact after 2000+ years), past rows of ruined
storefronts and crumbling Hellenistic villas once inhabited by wealthy merchants, and up to the remains of a large theater dug into the hillside (and the huge municipal water cistern with its arched supports).

Most of the city’s buildings and pavements are made from local gneiss, the glittering brown rock that forms the skeleton of the Cycladic Islands. Marble had to be imported from the mainland, so it was used mostly for embellishments, such as carved columns or statues, in private homes and for building temples. Everything else was made from gneiss, the walls build of stacked stones precisely fitted and stable without the use of mortar, then thickly plastered and stuccoed, just as buildings still are in Mykonos.

The surviving gneiss pavements sparkle in the sun as you walk down Delos’s remaining streets, the roofless remains of shops gaping through open doorways, and wildflowers growing everywhere in the empty rooms and courtyards: white and yellow and purple, and even a few fading remnants of last month’s scarlet poppies.

Delos, like the other islands in the Aegean, has few or no natural springs or year-round rivers, and receives rainfall only in the winter months. To ensure year-round supplies of water, a clever system of gutters and drainage channels funneled rainwater off roofs and the stone-paved streets into the private cisterns of homes and the large municipal cistern that supplied the city wells and provided fresh water to ships resupplying in the harbor. Dozens of the ancient cisterns are still water-tight today, and echo with the sound of frogs paddling around the algae-scummed waters. Our guide said that
similar systems were still in use today in Mykonos and its neighboring islands in the Cyclades archipelago.

We spent the morning touring the rest of the city, including the huge complex of temples at one end of the city (the island was reputed to be the birthplace of the twin gods Apollo and Artemis, and was a major pilgrimage destination in the ancient Mediterranean), and the small archaeological museum, crammed with thousands of priceless finds from the city–mosaic floors, wall-paintings, marble sculptures both small and monumental, pottery (including an amazing charcoal
stove made from terracotta, featuring multiple levels of burners), and jewelry.

Here are some of the photos I took during my visit to Delos, though I really wish I had owned a better digital camera back then!

Loading the slideshow...

Photo Tour: Hatfield House (Queen Elizabeth I’s Childhood Home)

During my summer 2000 sojourn in England, working on a software project, I tried to see as much as possible during my weekends. Many of the places I visited were either related to the book I was writing at the time (later published as Twist of Honor), but some were purely for my own edification, to see for myself the location of certain historical events I’d read about.

The July morning started off sunny, so I decided to head to Elizabeth the first’s childhood digs, Hatfield House. Like Henry VIII’s palace, Hampton Court, Hatfield House is public-transportation-accessible– in fact, the Hatfield train station is right across the street from the gates to Hatfield Park. It took about 20 minutes from King’s Cross station by train, and the countryside north of London is very pretty– rolling hills, horse pastures, and hedges.

There are actually two Hatfield Houses: the old house, a late-medieval brick mansion built for a bishop in the 1490′s, later acquired by King Henry VIII after the Dissolution of the Monasteries and partially demolished in the early 1600′s when the Cecil family decided to build a new house next door; and the Jacobean house, finished in 1612, which is where the Cecil family (the current Marquess of Salisbury) has lived since the 17th century.

Elizabeth I grew up in the old Hatfield House, which was built around a large courtyard, similar to Hampton Court. Only the Great Hall part of that house remains, known now as the Banqueting Hall. It’s normally open to visitors, but I didn’t get to go inside today because there was a wedding reception in progress.

The oldest part of the Jacobean house is also open to visitors– the Cecil family still lives in the house, but they’ve moved to one of the renovated wings. The place is enormous… it’s a pity that we weren’t allowed to take photos inside the house, because a lot of the old decor and furnishings remain. (2013 update: the official Hatfield House website features a number of photos from inside the house.)

The chambers are wood-paneled and high-ceilinged, the ceilings carved and gilded in most of the rooms. There are portraits of Cecils and their royal friends hung everywhere on the walls. The first Cecil raised to nobility, as Lord Burghley, was Elizabeth I’s trusted advisor and Chief Minister for most of her reign. Another Cecil served as Prime Minister multiple times under Queen Victoria.

One of the most interesting things about being a really old building is seeing the little signs of wear and tear– the steps in the staircase are hollowed from thousands of feet, and the oaken planking that serves as the flooring in the upper stories is a little uneven, and the house itself has sort of sagged and settled over the centuries, so that the floors in some chambers are no longer level.

All of the rooms open to visitors were quite impressive, but my favorite was the library. It was floor-to-ceiling books (10,000 of them, some of them dating back to the 1560′s), had a gorgeous view over the side garden (the docent was a dear and let me snap a photo of the knotwork hedges from the window, since you can’t really see the patterning from the ground level), and a really fascinating collection of original historical documents on display.

Among the highlights– several letters penned by Elizabeth I to William Cecil, a letter from her brother Edward to Henry VIII (in Latin, with lots of corrected bits), a deposition signed by Henry VIII regarding the annulment of his marriage to Anne of Cleves, and a letter written by Elizabeth when she was 15 to her sister, Queen Mary Tudor, denying that she was pregnant or living in scandalous circumstances.

Another cool display was downstairs in a long gallery called The Armoury. The suits of armor displayed there hadn’t been worn by any ancestors, though– they were Spanish, part of the booty awarded William Cecil after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.

And finally, a funny story about more recent happenings. The family was one of the first to have a telephone and electricy installed in the house, in 1881. However, the electic system was pretty dangerous, and the wiring in the Great Hall frequently burst into flames during dinner parties. According to the tour book, “the family members sitting beneath would nonchalantly throw up cushions to put the fire out and then go on with the conversation.”

Loading the slideshow...

Photo Tour: Leeds Castle

I was lucky enough to spend the summer and autumn of 2000 working in a suburb of London, and I tried to explore as much of London and the surrounding English countryside as possible during my sojourn.

One weekend near the end of September, I decided to visit Canterbury (hey, I was an English Lit. major…how could I forgo a chance to retrace the steps of the Wife of Bath?). On the way back to London, I decided to stop off at Leeds Castle.

The previous day had been uncharacteristically warm for England–82F and sunny. Alas, this brief interval of good weather did not last.

Ominously, the further I got from Canterbury, the cloudier it got. By the time I disembarked at Bearsted and hopped on the bus going to the castle, the sun had completely disappeared. I was hoping it was only fog– there’s nowhere in England that’s very far from the sea.

But the stopover proved well worth it. Leeds Castle is acres of eye candy– a postcard-perfect medieval castle in the middle of a lake, surrounded by miles of gorgeously-landscaped grounds.

I took the tour of castle first. Sadly, the foundations that owns the caste does not allow photos indoors, but it was still interesting. The building’s interior was a mix between medieval and modern (it was lived-in until about 1963, when the last owner, Lady Baillie, bequeathed it to a foundation to open to the public, because the upkeep — and the inheritance taxes– would have bankupted her heirs).

The core of the castle is Norman (those guys really went on a castle-building binge after conquering England in 1066), but with lots of later additions.

From the 13th-century on, the castle and the estate was a traditional gift of the kings of England to their queens, and most of the queens of England through Anne Boleyn were listed as owners of the Leeds Castle. From the 16th century on, it was owned by the Culpeper family and their descendents.

Although most of the rooms are furnished in the modern style, two of rooms, the Queen’s Bedroom and the Queen’s Bath, are furnished as they would have been for Queen Catherine de Valois in the early 1400′s. (Interesting tidbit: Queen Catherine, the wife of Henry V, married her Welsh gentleman-attendant, Owain Tudor, after Henry V died. She died in childbirth at the age of 36 or 37; he was executed by beheading for his presumption in marrying the Dowager Queen. Their descendants eventually rose to the throne of England.)

The castle grounds were filled with all sorts of cool stuff. They converted the medieval tithing-barn (where the portion of the crops due the lord of the estate by his tenant farmers was stored) into a restaurant. There was also a maze, a formal garden, and a Jacobean-style walled garden, with all sorts of sweet-smelling flowers laid out in geometric beds, divided by brick pathways.

My favorite, of course, was the exotic-bird aviary, complete with lots and lots of parrots: cockatoos, macaws, eclectuses, Amazons, lorikeets, conures, and toucans. Being off-season… and pouring rain by this time… I had the aviary all to myself. It was a hoot to see how the parrots reacted to the heavy downpour. Instead of huddling in their heated nestboxes, they came out in the large wired enclosures, hung upside down with wings and tails spread wide, and gleefully bathed in the rainshower.

(Lady Baillie, the final private owner of the castle, loved birds, and it was she who established the aviary at the castle. Her suite of rooms at the castle are decorated with paintings of birds and bird statues– a woman after my own heart!).

Soaked to the skin (I’d left my umbrella checked into the castle cloakroom, near the gates, along with my backpack), I decided to head home. It rained all the way back to London, but I was so glad I had decided to make this detour.

Loading the slideshow...

Crusader Hospital Becomes A Tourism Center In Israel

Archaeology Magazine is reporting that building in the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem which dates from the eleventh century will be opened to the public next year as a restaurant and visitor center following a long period of excavation and restoration.

This building was a hospital, drawing on Muslim medicine to treat patients during the Crusader period. According to the Israel Antiquities Authority, the hospital, operated by the Knights Hospitaller, was capable of serving 2,000 patients at a time, as well as serving as an orphanage.

“We’ve learned about the hospital from contemporary historical documents, most of which are written in Latin. These mention a sophisticated hospital that is as large and as organized as a modern hospital,” they said.

—————-

The newly-restored hospital in Jerusalem probably looks very similar to the one I visited on the island of Rhodes a few years ago, while doing research for the House of the Rose novels:

From In the Footsteps of the Crusaders
From In the Footsteps of the Crusaders

Photo Tour: Medieval English Castle

In August of 2000, Marian and I toured Orford Castle, located on the east coast of England, about halfway between London and Norwich.

At the time, I was working in London on a six-month software development project, and Marian came out to visit me for a couple of weeks, during which we did some on-site research in Belgium for the second half of Glass Souls and toured medieval sites in southwestern England. We were in the early stages of plotting a historical romance set in early 13th-century England (a book, alas, we never got around to writing) and decided that Orford Castle might be a good setting, so we took a detour on the way home to London and spent an afternoon visiting this extremely well-preserved medieval fortress.

Construction began on the castle in 1168, as part of King Henry II’s plan for improving England’s coastal defenses along the English Channel. It was intended to guard the harbor of Orford, then an important port.

The castle has an unusual polygonal shape, with two round Great Halls (one located in the lower story and one in the upper story), with a maze of tiny corridors leading to various chambers (kitchen, chapel, latrines, prison cells, etc.) around the perimeters of these halls. Since it was in the nature of a military barracks rather than a residence, some of the usual luxury features of a residential castle are not present at Orford Castle.

A complete floorplan can be found on Orford Castle’s Wikipedia page.

Loading the slideshow...

 

King Richard’s Lionheart

This just in from France -

King Richard I, the 12th century warrior whose bravery during the Third Crusade gained him the moniker Lionheart, ended up with a heart full of daisies, as well as myrtle, mint and frankincense.

Those were among the findings of a French study, announced Thursday, which analyzed the embalmed heart of the English king more than 810 years after he died.

 Full Story:  http://www.sfgate.com/world/article/Spices-found-in-Lionheart-s-embalming-4319146.php#ixzz2MKYPVdE0

Massage And Medieval Medicine

I had a really nice massage this afternoon, with a bonus treatment I wasn’t expecting. Given that I spend a lot of time on the computer,  between my Day Job in IT, and the writing I do in the evenings and on the weekends, I try to schedule a deep-tissue massage every three weeks or so.

This time around, my cousin recommended a “medical spa” near my home. Ben, my massage therapist,  turned out to be a Chinese chiropractor, so my massage concluded with “cupping,” which (contrary to medieval European practice) proved to be painless. I was tickled to have such an ancient technique practiced on me.

First I was vigorously massaged, using a combination of shiatsu (pressing and stretching my knotted back and shoulder muscles through a towel) and Swedish massage, done directly on bare skin with massage lotion. I particularly love getting my hands massaged, with the MT loosening the tendons and ligaments in the palm, and stretching each finger and my wrists.

Once I’d been sufficiently tenderized (and was feeling so relaxed that I was floating in a trance-like state), Ben announced he was going to “cup” me. I had visions of the medieval European practice, and figured I was about to end up with a back full of giant hickeys.

Luckily, Ben’s treatment was far less extreme.

He first slathered a fragrant medicinal oil to my back, which felt cold at first then hot and slightly tingly, like a muscle rub.

Then I heard the clinking of glass and the sounds of a cigarette lighter being struck as he heated a glass cup from the inside using a cigarette lighter (I didn’t see this part, but heard enough to guess what was going on). The cup was then applied, upside down, to the oil-anointed skin of my back, where a slight vacuum seal formed. He slid the cup around my back (it didn’t give me the characteristic “hickey” mark I was expecting from cupping, mostly thanks to the oil, I think) until the seal broke, then he repeated the heating process, and reapplied the cup, sliding it around some more.

The effect was similar to someone using a massage roller on my back, with the putative added benefit of drawing bad qi (humors) from the skin (a very medieval concept, prevalent in the Galenic and Hippocratic theories of medicine). Now, I’m very much a believer in modern Western medicine (hurrah for germ theory, vaccinations, and antibiotics!) but the historian in me is fascinated with the survival of ancient medical traditions and their practice today. Especially when it’s something as harmless and gentle as cupping (I’d prefer not to be bled or purged, thank you very much!)

The treatment concluded with accupressure applied to various point on my scalp, as well as on my forehead, temples, and around my eyesockets.

After the treatment, once I’d dressed and oozed out to the reception area, feeling pleasantly boneless,  the receptionist informed that there had been a mixup with the gift voucher I was using, because I was supposed to also have gotten a foot reflexology treatment (another ancient medical treatment). My cousin (who had treated me with the gift voucher) and I decided to rebook for next Sunday…stay tuned for further adventures in medieval medicine!

Bodies And Shadows: Caravaggio And His Legacy, At LACMA

Last weekend, I drove to Los Angeles to visit with a good friend, and to indulge in one of my favorite pastimes–visiting museums.

On a warm, sunny Southern California winter afternoon, we toured the Page Museum at the Rancho LaBrea tar pits, with its unrivaled collection of Ice-Age fossils. There’s nothing like getting a real idea of the size of a mammoth by standing next to a reconstructed skeleton, tinted a mellow dark brown by millennia of immersion in asphalt, and realizing that you don’t even come up to its knee!

By happy coincidence, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is located next door to the Page Museum. And even happier, they are currently featuring a special exhibition, Bodies and Shadows: Caravaggio and his Legacy.

Now, I’ve been interested in Caravaggio since reading two compelling books about his life and art:

The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece, a real-life detective mystery about the search for one of Caravaggio’s paintings, and M : The Man Who Became Caravaggio, a controversial biography of the artist that paints a vivid picture of his life and times.

Both books paint a fascinating portrait of a man who was simultaneously sensitive and gifted with a brush, while also living the life of a street tough with a long arrest record, a hard drinker, and even a murderer. And to me, his paintings have always had more life to them than the stylized, impossibly perfect figures of saints and angels of many of his contemporary artists.

Commissioned to create paintings illustrating various incidents from the Bible or allegorical subjects, he used his apprentices, carpenters, painters, prostitutes, and other denizens of his working-class Roman neighborhood to bring characters to vivid life–callused feet, dirty fingernails, and all.  Even his still-lifes of fruits and flowers are bursting with sensual vitality (and in some cases, rot).

In addition to his gift for depicting naturalistic figures in classical or Biblical settings, his use of light and shadow was unparalleled and influential. One of the interesting features of the exhibition was the grouping of contemporary and later paintings around each of the six Caravaggios on display, showing aspects of that influence.

Caravaggio died relatively young–at age 38 or 39, possibly waylaid and murdered on his return to Italy from exile abroad, though some have speculated that he fell ill and died after making landfall, or possibly succumbed to complications from lead poisoning (which might also account for some of his bizarre and paranoid behavior in the final years of his life).

Switch to our mobile site