Augusta Raurica Museum: Roman Lives and Roman Treasure

Augusta Raurica Museum, 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.

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.

Exhibition

And that brings us to the exhibition on children, which has been going since 2013 and is still going, as of 2020.  It is lovely.  It’s been very thoughtfully arranged so that children can see everything and tags are written in German, French and English.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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).

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.

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.

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.

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.

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, the pretty little bead 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Love and Marriage

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.

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.

Kaiseraugst Treasure

So – following the delightfully presented exhibition on children and Roman life in Augusta Raurica, the museum continues with a further room on the unpromising-sounding Kaiseraugst Treasure.  I’m not that interested in things made of ‘precious’ materials, because they’re usually quite gaudy, it’s hard to see the details, and altogether they can be just too blingy.  I entered this room thinking I’d be in and out in, like, a minute – but no.  It was amazing!  And so’s its story.

Imagine this: it’s winter, 1961, and there you are, a 12 year old boy, playing in an open field.  Lying in the snow are a dozen disk-like objects and in a flurry of excitement, you take one to your teacher at school and show him.  He says its just some rubbish and tells you to throw it away.

Now imagine being that teacher: you felt pretty stupid, right, when you found out that you told the boy to throw away the so-called Ariadne Plate, one of the masterpieces of late antique art.

Over the course of the next few weeks, various people saw these treasures and a local landlady took five plates home with her, stored in the inn that she ran down the road.  Then, through an enquiry from a guy who’d found a Latin inscription on a piece and wondered what it meant, Rudolf Laur-Belart got involved.  He was a Swiss expert on the ancient world and in January 1962, he supervised a proper excavation of the site that had churned up all these objects.  But the collection was not complete.  In 1995, a notary announced that he had 18 further items that had been passed on to him from the family of a deceased client.

Now, only one piece is missing: it is only known to exist because it left an impression on a silver tray.

So what is the treasure?  It’s 58kg of pure silver turned into plates, trays, spoons… random other little objects.  The value of the treasure in the 300s was huge – the equivalent of the annual pay of 230 soldiers.  It belonged to a high-ranking supporter of the Emperor, from whom some of these items came as gifts.  One of the items has a label saying it belonged to an army commander, Romulus, but it’s thought that the whole treasure may have belonged to two officers, who buried it in AD 351 because they were worried about the political situation.

Their loss is our gain.  And what a gain!

One of my favourite objects was an incredible plate with an intensely decorated central medallion and rim.  The central scene shows a beautiful villa by the sea, densely populated with fish and cupids in boats.  Around the edge are scenes showing a hunt, with barely clad men chasing boars, deer and rabbits.  The combination of the central idyll and the outer action-packed scene gives the message that this was aimed at the elite, who could indulge in this sort of lifestyle.  Of course, the fact that it’s made of silver also does that, but you know what I mean.

The Roman Villa

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.

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 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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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

So In Summary

The exhibition and the Kaiseraugst treasure are both very enjoyable to explore in the museum, and honestly, the treasure alone would make a trip to town worthwhile.

They’ve really tried to make this villa as evocative as possible, but without the real objects (real dead rabbits and real little boys going to the toilet) there is an unlived-in feeling of a show home. The static rooms seem a little drab.  However, I’m sure that during their event days, with people dressed up as Romans, cooking real food etc., the place must be good fun.  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.

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)

SaveSave

No Comments

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: