Augusta Raurica Museum Part Three: Peeing in the Kitchen

Continued from Part Two

Upon turning left at the main entrance of the museum of Augusta Raurica, a swish automatic door opens and takes you back to the Roman world.  Well, a version of it, anyway.

It’s modelled on the urban villa-type from Pompeii.  It has an interior courtyard surrounded by porticoes and while there is a small garden, there is no water feature, which you’d usually expect to find in a villa of this size.

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View of the little garden in the atrium of the Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

View into the dining room of the Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

View into the dining room of the Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

Just as you come into the house on the wall is a little lararium, all bedecked with replicas of some statuettes found in the town.  The painting at the back is a copy of a famous Pompeiian lararium, with the genius (a protective spirit) of the household in the centre, flanked by the lares, who protected the home.  The snake at the bottom is to bring fertility.

The lararium in the Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

The lararium in the Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

The lararium played a fundamental part of family life in the Roman world – it was common to have the other gods that were relevant to the family also placed there.  This family has, from left to right, Mercury, Venus and Lar (the singular of lares) and there is a white incense pot as well.  It was the duty of the paterfamilias (the head of the household – the eldest male) to make sure the lares were kept happy: they would give offerings of spelt, grapes, wine, incense… anything that fell on the floor during banquets, presumably.

To the left of the courtyard is a room that houses a carriage.  Now, I have only ever seen a Roman carriage in a museum in Cologne, so seeing a reconstructed one was very interesting.  The structure is a cross between a carriage and a wagon and presumably there could be quite a lot of variation in the general appearance, depending on the person’s wealth.  This one looked quite comfortable, and after looking along the base, we decided that there may have been some sort of suspension, but we might have been more optimistic than accurate.

Reconstructed carriage in the Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

Reconstructed carriage in the Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

The next room brings you to a caupona – basically a Roman fast-food joint/bar.  If you have been lucky enough to visit either Ostia or Pompeii, the design will be familiar.  The pots in the counter along the front would have held food, probably warm, and they also had wine (usually with spices added – you can see a strainer on the wall).  Because people who lived in apartments didn’t have space for kitchens, it was necessary to eat out.  While the counters face the street so that people could be served on the go, some caupona would have had seating as well.

The sadly under-stocked caupona in the Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

The sadly under-stocked caupona in the Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

The next room shows people at work in a row of shops.  You can see these figures from the outside, doing their thing: the butcher’s wife down at the end is making sausages, the blacksmith is hammering away at something, and a bronze-maker and his slave assistant are working at little statuettes.

People getting on with their jobs in the Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

People getting on with their jobs in the Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

That poor girl is going to get stuck in the oven one day in the Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

That poor girl is going to get stuck in the oven one day in the Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

So now we re-enter the villa itself.  There is a simple bedroom, with a bed.  Roman rooms didn’t have much permanent furniture – most items would be moved about by the slaves as they were needed.  There would be a chest for clothes and maybe additional tables or lamp stands, but on the whole, the bedroom was a functional place.

An uncomfortable bed in the Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

An uncomfortable bed in the Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

This is the room next door, dominated by a giant loom.  The good materfamilias (mother of the household) was expected to make fabric for the family.  I find weaving fascinating, and would have loved to have seen it in action, because I have only ever seen modern looms, in Wales, and clearly this isn’t like what I saw there.

A loom with fabric in mid-progress in the Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

A loom with fabric in mid-progress in the Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

The Romans were very serious about their bathing – it was something of an art.  However, it was also very unusual to have your own bath in your villa because they were expensive to run and you needed quite a lot of space to house the three rooms required for the process.  Most people would go to public baths which were run by the local council and therefore their reputation and cleanliness was variable.  The owners of this house, though, decided that they would invest in some baths, with a nifty hypocaust system for underfloor heating.

Pretty fishies on the ceiling of the baths in the Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

Pretty fishies on the ceiling of the baths in the Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

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A rat caught in the hypocaust of the Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

So, having crashed the party and gone for a bath, you’re probably now going to want to stay for dinner.  This little set up looks quite comfortable – Romans reclined when they ate, which usually strikes me as being uncomfortable, but these couches were slanted down at an angle that didn’t look too bad.  Not that as a woman I would have worried about that – I could sit in the nice comfortable wicker chair at the front.

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Setting for dinner in the Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

Remains of a fresco which inspired the room's wall design in the Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

Remains of a fresco which inspired the room’s wall design in the Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

The kitchen is probably the most curious room – not least because there is a boy sitting on the toilet.  This surprised me actually, and I’ve subsequently looked it up to find that in Pompeii archaeologists have found cess-pit toilets in kitchens.  This still really surprised me – after all, even though the Romans didn’t know about germs and hygiene in the way we do today, they had common sense and an aversion to bad smells, so why would they do such a thing?

Well at least he can keep an eye on the snails cooking on the stove as he does his business in the kitchen of the Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

Well at least he can keep an eye on the snails cooking on the stove as he does his business in the kitchen of the Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

The rest of the kitchen is fun to explore because it has lots of pots and intriguing bits and pieces to peer at.

Neat little kitchen in the Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

Neat little kitchen in the Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

Preparations for dinner - snails again! - at the Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

Preparations for dinner – snails again! – at the Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

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Looking back at the start of the villa in the Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

So In Summary

They’ve really tried to make this villa as evocative as possible, but without the real objects (real dead rabbits and real spices and real little boys going to the toilet) there is a lack of the authenticity they’re going for.  This gives it something of the unlived-in feeling of a show home.  In some ways, I find it easier looking at the villas in Pompeii, without recreation – it’s easier to picture or feel the way life would have been when you’re standing in rooms that have the shiny original frescoes and the odd bits of real marble and dusty mosaics.

When it’s all laid out before you like in Augusta Raurica, just looking at the static rooms can seem a little drab – and it’s not their fault, it’s just they don’t have the same shiny frescoes and bits of marble and dusty mosaics.  For sure the place has its own charm and I’m certain it comes into its own when they have their event days, with people dressed up as Romans, cooking real food etc..  Honestly, it’s great that they’ve created this area to try and educate people about the Roman way of life and I think they’ve done a good job of showing a complete Roman building – and although ruins suit me fine, I think this could be a good way for adults and children who are less familiar with ancient history to form their own impression of how life might have been in the Roman world.

Further Information

The museum has an awful lot to offer visitors – I had a great day!  Please do check out my entry on the whole of Augusta Raurica for further information on what’s around.

Unusually for Roman sites, Augusta Raurica has a very thorough website: www.augustaraurica.ch.  The museum is child friendly, and so is their website:  there is a fantastic little downloadable booklet for children, explaining life in a Roman home, with a story and pictures, but good information as well: Augusta Raurica Story.

How To Get There

Located close to Basel, Augusta Raurica is best reached through aiming for the train station of Kaiseraugst.  From there it’s a 10/15 minute walk to the main sites.  For information on transport, check out: www.sbb.ch.

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