An Eastern Sun-god on Hadrian’s Wall

The ancient god Mithras was popular with Roman soldiers and minor officials. His cult probably developed from Zoroastrianism, in the area that is now Iran. There is a lot of evidence for his worship along the western Roman frontier, from Hadrian’s Wall to the Danube. Worshippers had to be initiated into (exclusively male) groups, who met in a distinctive type of building called a ‘cave’, which we now describe as a ‘Mithraeum’.

Mithras was often identified as ‘the invincible sun-god’. The altar on the left of the picture is from a Mithraeum (a temple to Mithras) on Hadrian’s Wall and shows him in this guise. The altar has a niche cut into its back, so that the light from a lamp could have shone through the openings cut around the god’s head, giving the impression of the sun’s rays in the gloom of the Mithraeum.

gnm mithras altars

If you come to our free workshops at the Great North Museum on 9 or 10 May, you can see this altar and handle the examples on the right of the picture. One is a small altar to Mithras from a Roman fort by Dere Street, and the other is a fragment of a relief from Vindolanda showing the sun-god’s face and the rays around his head. Why might people have worshipped the sun in ancient Northumberland? Come and be inspired by these objects to draw, photograph, or write down your thoughts, helped by our experts. Just let us know which date suits you best: rememberingromans@gmail.com

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Meet someone new at the Petrie Museum

There are still a few places left at our free workshops on 18 and 25 April at the Petrie Museum in London. Come and meet some ancient objects and create new memories by drawing, photographing, or writing about them, helped by our experts. We’ll provide all the materials and refreshments.

We’ll have several ancient objects that you can examine up close, and even handle, but you’ll also be able to look round the whole of the Petrie Museum, the UK’s largest collection of objects from ancient Egypt. The museum will be closed to the public, so we’ll have it all to ourselves.

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Perhaps you’ll be inspired by an object like this rather mysterious terracotta head. It depicts someone with short, dark hair and a beard that is neatly trimmed under the chin. It was found in Memphis in Egypt, but it looks more like the way that ancient Egyptians represented people from the Middle East rather than the Nile valley. Was it a portrait of a foreign merchant who had come to live in Egypt? What memories would it have evoked in people who saw it? Let us know if you can join us in exploring these ideas on 18 or 25 April.

Memories of Palmyra

GNM Palmyrene busts

These portrait busts from ancient Palmyra are in the Great North Museum in Newcastle.  We are holding free workshops there on 9 and 10 May, when you can come and meet objects like these and create new memories using photography, drawing and writing, helped by our experts. Come on the day or email us in advance, if you would like to join in: rememberingromans@gmail.com

These reliefs were made to seal burial chambers in tombs outside the important and wealthy trading city of Palmyra in the Syrian desert. The way the individuals are depicted blends Greek, Roman and local artistic traditions. They weren’t really ‘portraits’ in the modern sense, but conventional representations of how people wanted to be remembered. The inscriptions in the local language would have enabled people to identify them.

The woman on the left is Malakt. She is shown wearing local clothing and jewellery, and was buried some time between about AD 150 and 200. The man on the right is Wahballat. He is wearing a Greek cloak and holding writing material in his left hand. The depiction of a curtain behind him suggests that his bust was carved earlier in the second century. The frontal style of the reliefs looks normal now, but was unusual at the time. It appears in eastern Syria and Mesopotamia in the first century AD, and may have spread from there throughout the Roman empire. It had become a normal feature of Roman art by the fourth century, and continued to be used into the early Middle Ages.

How would you photograph an object?

When I look at an ancient pot, I see an archaeological artefact and I photograph it like this, so that I can see its design and decoration, which help me determine when and where it was made.

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When Rory Carnegie, the professional photographer on our project, looks at the same pot, he sees a work of art and photographs it like this, because looking at it differently can sometimes bring out how beautiful an object is.

GNM jug

How would you photograph it? Come and meet Rory at our workshops in London on 18 or 25 April, or in Newcastle on 9 or 10 May, and have a go at creating new perspectives of old objects – we’ll provide the camera and print the results for you. Come on the day or let us know which workshop suits you best: rememberingromans@gmail.com

Face to face with Mummy Portraits

Both the Petrie and the Great North Museum have examples of ancient mummy portraits. The woman on the left is from the Petrie collection in London and the man on the right is in the Great North Museum in Newcastle.

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These portraits are a fascinating example of the blending of ancient cultures in Egypt under the Roman empire. They were made for a community who probably regarded themselves as descendants of Greek settlers. From the 1st to the 3rd centuries AD they buried their dead with highly realistic portraits painted on wood of people wearing Greek or Roman clothing and jewellery, but which were set into mummy bandages or coffins that followed age-old Egyptian burial traditions.

The portraits must have been painted specifically to commemorate individuals who had died. But did they represent them as they really were, or as they wanted to be remembered? The faces appeal to our modern sense of photorealism, but were they originally intended more to evoke memories of class, gender, profession, or cultural background? If you come to our free workshops on 18 or 25 April in London or on 9 or 10 May in Newcastle, you can come face to face with mummy portraits and explore what memories they hold.

An Eastern Empress remembered in the North

Making pots in the form of a moulded human head was a unique Romano-British fashion in the 3rd century. This example in the Great North Museum seems to have the face of the Roman empress Julia Domna, one of the most powerful women in the ancient world.

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Julia Domna came from a prominent Syrian family and married the future emperor Septimius Severus, who was born in what is now Libya. She was a patron of writers and philosophers at Rome, and travelled to Britain with the imperial family in AD 208.  She probably lived in York while the army campaigned north of Hadrian’s Wall. They left Britain after Septimius Severus died in York in AD 211. Her sons Caracalla and Geta became co-emperors, but Caracalla soon murdered his brother and ruled alone. Julia Domna remained at the centre of power, managing all imperial correspondence until Caracalla was killed by a bodyguard in AD 217.

Was this pot a souvenir made to commemorate Julia Domna’s time in Britain? What memories would people have had of this remarkable empress when they saw it? What memories does it still hold? We will explore these ideas in free workshops at the Great North Museum in Newcastle on 9 and 10 May. Come along on one of the days or email us in advance to book a place: rememberingromans@gmail.com

Petrie Museum workshops coming soon!

Don’t miss out on the chance to handle and experience museum objects in a new way at our workshops in the Petrie Museum in London on 18 and 25 April.

You’ll meet objects like this ceramic oil lamp that provided light in the home of ancient Egyptians living at the opposite end of the Roman empire from Britain. It’s a simple object, but certainly not ordinary – and it was a constant part of some family’s life. What memories would they have had when they lit it each evening? What memories does it evoke in us today? Come and tell us what you think – just let us know which workshop you would like to come to.

See our Workshops page for more information.

Objects for the Newcastle workshops

These Roman pots from North Africa are just some of the objects that participants will be able to examine and even handle at our workshops on 9 and 10 May at the Great North Museum. There will also be lamps, a glass vessel, pieces of sculpture, and coins of Roman emperors who came from North Africa or the Middle East, such as Septimius Severus, Caracalla, and Philip the Arab.

What memories might these objects have evoked in the people that saw and used them in the past? What memories do they evoke for us today? Come and join us to explore these ideas – just let us know which workshop suits you best.

See our Workshops page for more details.

Syrian Archers on Hadrian’s Wall

The Roman army recruited Syrians because of their specialist archery skills. One such unit was based on Hadrian’s Wall not long after it was built. They continued to worship Syrian goddesses while they were in Britain. It looks like the unit was still here 300 years later, when Roman rule ended. This relief, which is in the Great North Museum, shows a Hamian archer holding his bow in his left hand.

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For a memorable encounter with this little known example of shared history, come to one of our free relaxed workshops on 9 or 10 May at the Great North Museum in Newcastle. Come along on the day or book your place in advance by emailing us at: rememberingromans@gmail.com

Read more about Syrian archers in Britain on these websites:

http://www.romanarmy.net/images/Pages/Military/hamians.htm

http://www.caerleon.net/history/army/archers.html