The Romans: Dream or Nightmare?

By James, N. | Antiquity, December 2012 | Go to article overview

The Romans: Dream or Nightmare?


James, N., Antiquity


'Sagalassos: city of dreams' was an exhibition inviting us to consider how archaeologists and their public make sense of archaeological discoveries. It is a topical theme. Shown at the Gallo-Roman Museum, Tongeren, Belgium, the exhibition displayed finds of the Hellenistic, Roman and other periods from Sagalassos in south-western Turkey. It ran from October 2011 to last June.

Starting with the feet, lower right leg and head from a gigantic statue of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, most of the exhibits were mounted amongst scaffolding which divided them by age and theme and helped to direct us along a path leading to the main display's far corner. There, signs drew us along a blank corridor to a sort of dark vault. Picked out for emphasis was the fragmentary Classical frieze of a dance, but other things lay indistinctly in the background. Next we found a dark passage covered with printed calls of distress in languages ancient and modern. That led, through a curtain, to a chamber, throbbing with Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex, where lights picked out two urns while, after a moment, we made out models of twisted corpses on the floor. Then we discovered what those other indistinct shapes were: sculptures hung above a pool of flowing water and, beneath a kind of awning, the face of Demeter over a field of poppies (Figures 1 & 2). Through the rather eerie gloom, between tilting walls, we found the corner of a potter's workshop, sherds scattered across collapsed shelving--a pair of ancient pots on show above. Here it transpired that the buckled walls and the awning supported a ramp like the side of a fallen building. Clambering up and down it to admire a bust of Zeus was a novel experience, in a gallery. Finally, we entered a bright chamber of stark white walls where scaffolding supported the gigantic sculpted limestone foot, lower leg and head of Emperor Hadrian (James 2008b: 1105). Where those of Marcus Aurelius were arranged as though standing there, Hadrian's were horizontal.

Presentation

Lent by Burdur Museum, most of the exhibits were found at Sagalassos by Marc Waelkens and colleagues. The scaffolded gallery showed how the town was first settled in the Hellenistic era but regional prehistoric context was provided by exhibits from the Epipalaeolithic and Neolithic (striking pottery from Hacilar) to the Mycenaean and Phrygian periods. It also illustrated the discovery, in 2005, of Duzen Tepe, only 2km away, much larger than Sagalassos from c. 500 to the third century BC but lacking Hellenistic culture and evidently subject to Sagalassos. Respecting the town's Greek idiom, the Romans confirmed Sagalassos as the district's capital while, like their ilk in other provinces, the local elite exploited 'the Roman project' in pursuit of their own 'dreams'. As the two great statues suggest, they benefited further from Hadrian's policy of civic patronage and then again under Marcus Aurelius (Figure 1; Boatwright 2000). Coins illustrated the town's mint and there were sections devoted to farming and groves, crafts, a macellum ('shopping mall', it was suggested, in English), burials, and worship. The gallery showed how the early 400s brought fresh investment, including churches. The town endured earthquake in about 500 and plague in the early 540s. Then--as the dark gallery of 'experience' suggested--Sagalassos was heavily damaged by earthquake in the early 600s, and it dwindled away over the next six centuries.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]

The middle of the scaffolded gallery was given over to a topographic model and, overhead, striking photography of the site (Figure 3). Electronic touch-screens offered details about the model's features in Dutch, French, German, English and Turkish. The last part of this gallery described briefly but brightly the history of exploration and research, concentrating on the prolific work that Waelkens has carried out with so many specialists and, in particular, on architectural reconstruction by anastylosis (Figure 1). …

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