28 January 2010

Two sides of Roman London

Last weekend I paid a visit to the Museum of London to take in a free tour of its Roman collections relating to the era when the city was known as Londinium and acted as the focal point for Rome’s overlordship of much of the British mainland.  The tour, which was excellent and informative, covered the basics of Roman settlement on the Thames, ranging from the architecture and religious practices to class variations in styles of living.  Naturally, the authentic Roman relics were fascinating and the dioramas and displays the museum has produced to illustrate this part of history are creative and well executed. 

SONY DSCOne aspect of the tour was notable for a slightly less conventional reason.  Museums are justly proud when they hold items in their collections that are unique, and it appears that one particular item of clothing on display has only survived in one other site.  This is a well-preserved Roman leather bikini, probably made for dancing girls in the 1st century AD.  The bikini trunks (pictured below) were discovered down a Roman timber-lined well in Queen Street in 1953 along with ‘a wooden ladder … a wooden spoon and a wooden dipper’ and are almost completely intact.  The museum’s display is accompanied by a sketch of a contemporary statue from Rennes in France (right) that shows the bikini being worn along with skateboarder-style pads to reduce wear and tear on the dancer’s knees.  Granted, the bikini is a simple item of clothing, but the similarities between this 1900-year-old item and modern clothing is remarkable.



After my museum visit I took up a suggestion of the tour guide and paid a visit to the nearby Guildhall Art Gallery.  This was not specifically to view its paintings, although they were interesting enough (particularly ‘Israel in Egypt’, the large ancient Egyptian scene painted by Sir Edward John Poynter in 1867).  My main goal was to visit the gallery’s basement.  I had not heard of its contents before, and it’s certainly not a high priority on the tourist circuit. 

Perhaps it should be.  In the basement’s large open space is set out the foundations of London’s Roman amphitheatre.  The foundations themselves aren’t spectacular to look at, because there’s not much left above the floor level and most of the oval walls of the amphitheatre itself actually lie outside the gallery’s own foundations and so are either buried or lost.  But when you visit you are able to get a sense of those gladiators who would’ve walked the same route into the amphitheatre where up to 7000 baying spectators awaited the spectacle of combat.  You can walk over the original timber-framed drainage pipes underneath the entrance floor, now protected by plastic covers.  Unfortunately, the one thing you can’t do is take photographs down there, so I can’t show you what it looks like other than to point out this link with a single picture, plus an overhead view of the Guildhall Yard above with the outline of the amphitheatre marked out in dark paving stones, which is perhaps better admired in this top-down view to get a sense of the scale of the structure:

Map picture
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