Augusta Raurica Museum Part One: A Peek into Roman Lives

In Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

The museum of the Roman settlement of Augusta Raurica is a little gem.  Yes it’s small, but the quality of the local finds is so amazing that it makes for an extremely interesting and fun place to visit.

View of the outside of the museum at Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

View of the outside of the museum at Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Actually, the museum consists of three parts: in the picture above you can see that there are doorways: this is where we have a reconstructed Roman house.  Then there is the museum with an exhibition on Roman children, and then there is the Kaiseraugst Silver Treasure.

This post will look at the exhibition.

At the Beginning…

There are a few small items on display as soon as you go into the building.  There are some of beautiful quality, and there are others which are just plain interesting.  Like this little ‘grotesque’ dude wearing a cloak and the one below of the louche drunkard.

Clay "grotesque" man, 2nd century AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Clay “grotesque” man, 2nd century AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Clay drunk man, 2nd century AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Clay drunk man, 2nd century AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Annoyingly, I didn't take a picture of this one's label, so don't remember what it was.  Enjoy all the same. Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Annoyingly, I didn’t take a picture of this one’s label, so don’t remember what it was.  Enjoy all the same. Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

These two fine tiny (under 6cms) silver statuettes were found in the debris of a house fire and probably belonged in a household shrine, the lararium.  Minerva on the left is shown in her classic Greek guise as a military type, with the helmet, breastplate and (at one point probably) a lance.  Hercules is also classically presented, a lion’s skin thrown over his arm, and holding three apples of Hesperides.  In his other now missing hand he probably would have held a club, while the little creature next to him is a boar that would have been attached to Hercules’ base.

Minerva and Hercules, 100-150 AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Minerva and Hercules, 100-150 AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

This interesting relief shows Mercury getting ready to bring a blade down on a sacrificial goat, held by an attendant who is himself nicely holding his model-face expression.  Mercury, tanned and naked, though suffering from a lack of toning, is carrying a caduceus, and wearing a cloak over his shoulder.  He even has a nimbus of white around his head, and he’s very clearly derived in style from the Roman design.  The rendering of the faces, the bodies… well, everything really, shows that this was produced by a local workshop.  Due to the fragmentary inscription, it is thought that Mercury was allied with the local version of the god, Cissonius.  This was normal Roman practice in areas that they were converting to their ways – they took the local gods and drew parallels with their own.  This way, the locals didn’t feel they were losing their own culture completely, and the Romans got their own way.

Mercury making a sacrifice, 2nd century AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Mercury making a sacrifice, 2nd century AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Exhibition

And that brings us to the exhibition on children, which has been going since 2013 and is finishing early 2017.  It is lovely.  It’s been very thoughtfully arranged so that children can see everything and tags are written in German, French and English.  Look how nice they’ve made it.

Some of the nice images used to set the tone at the museum in Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Some of the nice images used to set the tone at the museum in Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Child Gods & Erotes

The bust of the young Hercules starts the exhibition and is interesting for a feature which I failed to capture in the below picture: he has a cudgel on his head.  Yes.  A cudgel.  This is what makes this attributable to Hercules.  He was known for his great strength even as a baby: he was the result of one of Jupiter’s liaisons with a mortal woman, which incurred the wrath of Jupiter’s wife, Hera.  She tried to kill the baby and sent snakes to do the job, but little Hercules just strangled one in each hand.  What nice rattles they must have made.  Anyway, this type of story naturally gets adopted by people who want to prevent metaphorical snakes getting at their baby, so figures of Hercules were used as a way of keeping their child safe and warding off ill fortune.

Young Hercules, bronze with inlaid silver eyes, 1st century AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Young Hercules, bronze with inlaid silver eyes, 1st century AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

One very attractive piece in the collection is a bronze vessel, an authepsa, which was used to keep mulled wine warm.  As a fan of mulled wine, I’m going to go with the idea that one of these lived in every Roman home.  The inside was filled with hot coals and through a metal pipe the liquid could be kept warm for hours. It has a lovely spout for pouring, but the face at the top and the little cupid foot are also just beautifully done.

Bronze vessel, 1st century AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Bronze vessel, 1st century AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Detail of a bronze vessel, 1st century AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Detail of a bronze vessel, 1st century AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Detail of a bronze vessel, 1st century AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Detail of a bronze vessel, 1st century AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Detail of a bronze vessel, 1st century AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Detail of a bronze vessel, 1st century AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

An interesting depiction of what was probably a slave boy carrying a tallow lamp on his head. A second lamp was probably attached to the straps on his shoulders.
Clay lamp holder, AD 50–150, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Clay lamp holder, AD 50–150, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Venus and Breastfeeding Mothers

Statuettes of Venus and of breastfeeding mothers are quite common throughout the Roman Empire, and demand was large enough for them to even be made in Augusta Raurica.  Venus wasn’t just about love – she also was consulted in matters of fertility and when young girls came of age they would dedicate their toys to her.  She can therefore be seen as being a proper, all-round female protector, which helps explain her popularity.

Because the statuettes were made in moulds, they could be mass-produced which in turn made them affordable for the masses.  The moulds were made by a simple process: a solid original, probably made of bronze, would be pressed into clay, fired, and the fired imprints could then be used repeatedly.  This fragment of a mould was used to make statuettes of Venus – as you can see its form is very basic, and it would have made simple figures which could then be painted.

Clay mould for Venus statuette, AD 200–250, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Clay mould for Venus statuette, AD 200–250, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

As in the modern world, the benefits of breast-feeding your own baby was analysed and speculated on.  Wet-nurses were used by the rich, but on the whole women were encouraged to do the job themselves.  If a woman had problems, such as not producing enough milk, she was encouraged to avoid foods that caused bloating, and perhaps eat animal udders. The usefulness of amulets, made for example from chalcedony (which is a white and chalky mineral that looks like milk), and of visiting pilgrimage sites were also recommended.  Statuettes like the breastfeeding mother below could therefore have been dedicated in a temple as a direct request for help.

A large number of statuettes of breastfeeding mothers have been found in this region of the Empire.  They are usually presented in a wicker chair – which was associated with women – and either one or two babies are suckling away.  These could represent ideal mothers, mother goddesses – they could also have been used as votive objects dedicated to gods for protection.

Clay figurines of mothers, 2nd/3rd century AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Clay figurines of mothers, 2nd/3rd century AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Clay breastfeeding mother, late 2nd century AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Clay breastfeeding mother, late 2nd century AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

The glass bottles are probably for feeding babies, while the ceramic ones have been interpreted as being used for expressing milk.  The breast is pressed against the large opening, and then by sucking on the spout, enough of a vacuum is created that small amounts of milk can be expressed.  If this is true, it’s darn clever.

Two clay bottles, 1st/2nd century AD; two glass bottles, 2nd-5th century AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Two clay bottles, 1st/2nd century AD; two glass bottles, 2nd-5th century AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Glass feeding bottle, 170–230 AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Glass feeding bottle, 170–230 AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Fragments of a glass feeding bottle, probably left as a votive offering, 150-250 AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Fragments of a glass feeding bottle, probably left as a votive offering, 150-250 AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Superstition

There were extremely high mortality rates for babies and children in the Roman world with an estimated one in every three children dying in their first year.  Just one in two children were expected to reach adulthood.  Parents were understandably worried about their offspring.  As with most cultures, superstition took hold immediately the child was born – it was important to keep away the ‘evil eye’, a concept that is still found in the eastern Mediterranean where the evil eye is put everywhere.  In the Roman period, these amulets could take many forms – Pliny the Elder extolled the virtues of putting goat’s dung in some cloth and attaching it to a child (particularly a girl) to stop them being restless, but on the whole amulets were used for protection and to ensure safety from unseen, evil forces.

It is interesting that the Middle-Eastern evil eye motif is found in the ancient world: in the bracelet below it is in the centre, with pieces of amber between the glass beads.  Amber was imported from the Baltic coast and was a popular amulet, being recommended by Pliny the Elder (Natural History XXXVII).

Glass and amber bracelet, 350–400 AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Glass and amber bracelet, AD 350–400, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

The deer antler pendants that were found in Augusta Raurica were used against danger and illness by both children and adults.  Because deer shed their antlers in the spring and regrow them, deer came to be symbols of fertility, longevity and resistance to illness.  In the Celtic world, deer antler amulets were already used, perhaps to draw the protection of the god Cernunnos, who was depicted with an antler crown and brought prosperity and growth.

Deer antler coronets, 1st-3rd century AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland.  The one on the right has a carved phallus in the middle.  The phallus was also a popular amulet, so this was a particularly powerful token.

Deer antler coronets, 1st-3rd century AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland.  The one on the right has a carved phallus in the middle.  The phallus was also a popular amulet, so this was a particularly powerful token.

Animal teeth pendants were also popular – if they came from animals that were seen as powerful, like lions and bears.  Pliny the Elder states that a wolf’s tooth helped stop a baby from being startled and also helped with teething (Natural History, XXXVIII).  Interestingly, a fake tooth has been found in Augusta Raurica, which shows how widespread the belief was that they were manufactured.

The lunala pendant has also been found in Augusta Raurica – shaped like the crescent moon, it was to gain the protection of the goddess Diana, who was a guardian of growth.  These were worn by women and children.

Lunula pendants, 1st-3rd century AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Lunula pendants, 1st-3rd century AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

The use of prayer to ensure children’s safety was also common and could be taken very seriously, as is proved in the shrine dedicated by a mother to Apollo.  Along with Aesculapius, Apollo was worshipped as a god of healing and this shrine was found in a sanctuary which also had various tubs.  It’s thought, therefore, that it was used as a type of spa, perhaps with medically trained priests, who helped the sick – like the son of Maria Paterna, who put up what would have been an expensive token of thanks.

To Apollo. Maria Paterna has willingly and suitably kept her pledge for the health of her son Nobilianus.

Maria Paterna shrine, c. 150 AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Maria Paterna shrine, c. 150 AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Detail of the shell in the limestone in the Maria Paterna shrine, c. 150 AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Detail of the shell in the limestone in the Maria Paterna shrine, c. 150 AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Since smiling is something that happy, healthy little babies are associated with, statuettes of smiling infants are thought to have been used to thank deities for the birth of a healthy child.  They are also used as grave goods and archaeologists have even found fragments of these statuettes in urban areas, so they may have been used in household shrines.  Why they are so ugly, though, is a real mystery to me.

Clay statuettes of infants, 1st–3rd centuries AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Clay statuettes of infants, 1st–3rd centuries AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Burials

Sadly superstition wasn’t going to keep all children safe.  Children died.  It was customary for them to be buried if they’d not started teething, but on the whole cremations were popular until Christianity brought in the tradition of burials.  The remains from cremation would be buried in urns or pits, along with grave goods.

A lot of child graves have been found in Augusta Raurica and the grave goods are similar to those found with adults.  There are clothes, jewellery, food, coins and vessels but also child-specific items like feeding bottles, toys and amulets.  The idea of having items the parents associated with that child buried with them is both moving as an idea, and probably valuable as a cleansing mourning process.  For example, this pretty little necklace was found in the grave of a two year-old child – you can imagine that you couldn’t bear keeping it after she’d died.

Glass bead necklace, 300-350 AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Sheep by the forum, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

A grave was found in the Kaiseraugst fort cemetery for a four/five year old girl.  In that period there was a custom of burying grave goods with girls that were similar to those buried with adults.  This girl had musical instruments around her, some cymbals, clappers and rattles.  In other Roman sites similar finds have been made, where the deceased were from upper-class families, so the inclusion of these instruments wasn’t because the child belonged to a dancing group, but rather it’s thought that they represent the music that would have been played at the girl’s wedding.

Grave goods: original bronze fittings, wooden reconstructions, cAD 350, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland.  There is also a silver hair pin and a bronze bracelet.

Grave goods: original bronze fittings, wooden reconstructions, cAD 350, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland.  There is also a silver hair pin and a bronze bracelet.

I don’t usually like taking pictures of graves or bones, but this particular example was interesting, as it is a type that is rarely found in this region.  A newborn baby was buried in an amphora which was buried at the Kaiseraugst fort cemetery.  The amphora was probably used carry olive oil from Tunisia.   In order to fit the body in the vessel, it had to be opened lengthwise.  Amphora weren’t exactly posh items, so it does make you wonder if this was from a poor family who wanted to bury their child as best they could.  After all, the burial dates from AD c300-420, a period that was known for its social and economic problems – maybe the amphora was all the family could find.
Amphora burial of a baby, 300-420 AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Amphora burial of a baby, AD 300–420, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Play and Education

There are lots of clay animals found in the Roman world, and many were placed in graves. Used as toys, they are frequently placed with dead children.  Being made of clay, they were obviously fairly cheap and made for a toy that could be accessible to all classes.

Clay toys of chickens and ducks, 1st/2nd century AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Clay toys of chickens and ducks, 1st/2nd century AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Roman children didn’t just play – they also were forced to get an education.  While it was possible to write with pen and ink on vellum paper, this was a very expensive process: the most common form of writing was done on wax tablets, with a metal pen or stylus.  These styli are probably the fanciest I have seen – they’re like the Mont Blanc pens of their age.  The pointed tip was used to write on wax tablets, while the flat end was used to ‘erase’ by scraping back the wax.

Silver styli, 1st/3rd century AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Silver styli, 1st/3rd century AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

One of the more unique and amusing finds in the museum is a drawing, carved into the painted wall of a rich urban villa, depicting the goddess Diana and a stag.  Apart from showing the admirable drawing skills of the average person, the find was significant because it has the word PONCEM (when/if) scratched on it.  This show that the local language wasn’t eradicated with Roman domination and was still used by those who had received a Roman education.

Graffiti in wall plaster, 2nd/3rd century AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Graffiti in wall plaster, 2nd/3rd century AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

End of Childhood

To mark the end of childhood, there was the popular tradition of giving nuts – real and in clay – which were a symbol of childhood.

Clay nut, Roman era, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Clay nut, Roman era, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Love and Marriage

This attractive gold necklace was found at the bottom of a well, along with waste, animal carcasses and even human remains.  The length of the necklace suggests that it was worn by a young woman, perhaps as a part of her wedding jewellery, but why it got discarded is a mystery.  After all, gold was always valuable, so its being chucked away rather than being reused is rather bizarre.

Gold necklace, 3rd century AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Gold necklace, 3rd century AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Images of love could be found everywhere in the Roman world – their myths were full of seduction and people weren’t bashful about having these scenes in public places.  One of the public monuments that was built at the end of the 2nd century was a fountain: it shows the moon goddess Selene embracing Endymion, the hunter who fell into an eternal sleep – which didn’t stop the couple from having 50 daughters.  There is a gap for the water pipe to the left in front of Endymion’s hand.

Selene and Endymion, limestone, AD 150–200, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Selene and Endymion, limestone, 150–200 AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

The ideal marriage is depicted in the next monument.  The man is holding a staff (vitis) which marks him out as a centurion, while his wife is dressed in a tunic, marking her out as a woman.  By this period, the local craftsmen had honed their skills, and while still delivering a more domestic product, the finish is much more in keeping with the Roman style seen throughout the Empire.

Married couple, sandstone, 210–250 AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Married couple, sandstone, 210–250 AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Detail of married couple, sandstone, 210–250 AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Detail of married couple, sandstone, AD 210–250, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

This statuette of a kissing couple is described as being a Gallo-Roman take on the married couple motif found in Italian monuments.  It really seems more intimate than it actually is, which is why there is something quite tender about the way the couple are interacting with each other.

Kissing couple, clay, 40–60 AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Kissing couple, clay, 40–60 AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Arranged marriages were common in the Roman world, but that doesn’t mean that love didn’t exist between couples.  It was a tradition to write lovely things on the memorial stones of couples, where the one who was still alive praised the virtues of the other – but there is more than just a formula involved in many stele.  Not that using a formula shows lack of feeling, of course – for example in the stele below.

Dedicated to the Manes and the eternal memory of Eusstata, the sweetest wife [coniugi dulcissim(a)e] – who lived 65 years. Amatus erected (the stone).

The term ‘sweetest wife’ is one of the set phrases used to described wives, but it is also a truly tender sentiment that really does say it all.  After all, divorce was easy and it wasn’t an issue – it could even be instigated by women, who would have to accept that she would not get back all of her dowry (as would happen if the husband divorced her) and possibly seeing her children could be a problem – but at least she could do it.

Anyway, back to Eusstata and Amatus: this stone is made more interesting by the fact that their names, and the use of the anchor at the top, indicate that the couple were Christian – but they still kept the dedication to the Manes (souls after death).  It was in the early 300s (which is when this stele is from) that Christianity started to make a real breakthrough in Roman society, but the old cultural traditions obviously died hard.  It’s also remarkable that the couple managed to happily get to their 60s.

Sandstone memorial, 300–350 AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Sandstone memorial, AD 300–350, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

So now that we’ve followed the life of a child through to a happy marriage – and death – I’m going to close with this beautiful item which looks like a slightly better version of a necklace I got from Accessorize in the late 90s.  This was found in a toilet.  Did it fall?  Was it thrown?  Did it slip?  In short – murder, or accident: you decide.

Necklace, bronze, glass, 3rd century AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Necklace, bronze, glass, 3rd century AD, Augusta Raurica, Switzerland

Click here for Part 2

References:

Barbara Pfäffli (2010) A Short Guide to Augusta Raurica, Augusta Raurica

Barbara Pfäffli (2013) Children? Children!  Searching for clues in Augusta Raurica, Museum Augusta Raurica (downloadable here)

 

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