16 September 2013

Roman Machines

Yesterday I enjoyed visiting the local museum in Palmerston North for its Roman Machines exhibition, which displays modern scale model reconstructions of some of the finest examples of Roman engineering. Many originate in the timeless designs of Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, as recorded in his famous Ten Books on Architecture (De Architectura libri decem), which is the only surviving such work on architecture from the period - the first century BC. The exhibition covers a wide range of Roman industry, from instruments of war like the onager catapult and the ram in testudo (the siege engine otherwise known as the tortoise), to construction tools like the Vitruvian crane and the Calcatorian crane, and the industrial machinery like the Archimedes screw pump and the mighty noria water-wheels. My friends and I marvelled at the norias that still growled noisily at the heart of modern Hama in Syria back in 2008 before the nation's present dilemma; here's a brief - and very noisy! - video of them in action. (There were no photos allowed in the exhibition. Pity).
Roman drainage wheel relay,
Rio Tinto mine, Spain (via Wiki)

The exhibition contained an interesting collection of militaria, including various replica equipment for legionaries and a mocked-up infantry shield-wall (testudo), plus a few key items that would be familiar to any fan of Gladiator or Spartacus. I also enjoyed learning about the machinery of the hypogeum (underground) at the Colosseum, which was used to raise and lower cages containing wild animals so as to deliver them to the action above. Heinz-J├╝rgen Beste of the German Archaeological Institute in Rome explained the hypogeum to the Smithsonian Magazine in 2011:

“See where a semicircular slice has been chipped out of the wall?” he said, resting a hand on the brickwork. The groove, he added, created room for the four arms of a cross-shaped, vertical winch called a capstan, which men would push as they walked in a circle. The capstan post rested in a hole that Beste indicated with his toe. “A team of workmen at the capstan could raise a cage with a bear, leopard or lion inside into position just below the level of the arena. Nothing bigger than a lion would have fit.” He pointed out a diagonal slot angling down from the top of the wall to where the cage would have hung. “A wooden ramp slid into that slot, allowing the animal to climb from the cage straight into the arena,” he said.

There's also a great opportunity to explore the detail of a fine full-size print of the famous Tabula of Peutinger (Tabula Peutingeriana), a six metre-long scroll depicting the entire road network of the vast Roman Empire from around the fifth century AD, at the very end of imperial Roman history. The map itself is now in Vienna, and is a medieval copy of the Roman original. It contains intricate detail that would have aided long-distance travellers to plan their itineraries, particularly if they were travelling to one of the empire's three great cities: Rome, Constantinople or Antioch.

The exhibition runs at Te Manawa in Palmerston North until 6 October, then it moves to the Southland Museum in Invercargill until mid-January 2014, and it finishes up at the Waikato Museum in Hamilton from January to May 2014.

See also:
Blog: Two sides of Roman London, 28 January 2010
Blog: British Museum Hadrian exhibition, 20 October 2008
Blog: Napoli, Herculaneum, Pompeii, 3 April 2008
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