Friday, December 20, 2013

Geisel Hears a Who!

As is my wont on the day before we teachers and students adjourn for winter break, I am showing the original, 1966 Dr. Seuss cartoon  How The Grinch Stole Christmas to my classes.  (Sorry, but the Jim Carrey remake does absolutely nothing for me.  It's like repainting the Mona Lisa or revising War and Peace).  

This year, I am introducing it to my World Studies classes by showing and talking about some of Theodore Geisel's WWII propaganda work.  In particular, we are analyzing this cartoon from February 13, 1942, barely two months after Pearl Harbor:  

A Dr. Seuss cartoon from the left-leaning PM magazine, 13 February 1942.
This piece appeared a week before Franklin Roosevelt issued United States Executive Order 9066 (February 19, 1942), which shortly thereafter paved the way for the Japanese-American internment.  This makes him not merely an observer of the anti-Japanese hysteria on the west coast that followed Pearl Harbor, but an advocate for the policy of detaining these supposed internal enemies.  The first time I saw the cartoon it blew my mind -- could this be the same Dr. Seuss who wrote the racially egalitarian works Horton Hears a Who and The Sneetches?  The blatant racial stereotyping is so far at odds with his later work that is seems to be an entirely different person.  But there at the bottom is the familiar signature: Dr. Seuss.  

On the other hand, Geisel, the grandson of German immigrants, was also an early critic of Hitler's anti-semetic policies, as well as of American isolationists such as Charles Linbergh.  Cartoons such as the two below put him ahead of most of the nation in warning of the dangers posed by German fascism, as well as Japanese militarism.

In this cartoon, Seuss goes after both Joseph Goebbles
and Charles Linbergh.   (From PM magazine, September 18, 1941)

In October 1941, two months before Pearl Harbor, Seuss
poked fun at the Japanese alliance with Hitler's Germany.

You may well ask why I would show both the wonderfully inclusive and anti-materialist Grinch and the darker, racially charged WWII work.  My answer is, as always, that I trust that my students -- including the ones I teach in small Special Education classes -- are fully capable of grasping the complexity of history.  They understand, as well, that individuals are capable of growth; that people can change and can make amends.  The fact is that 13 years after advocating the arbitrary detention of Japanese-Americans, Suess' Horton Hears a Who! was an allegory for the newly democratic and pacifist Japan.  The recurring phrase "a person's a person, no matter how small," is a ringning endorsement of universal human rights.  Seuss dedicated the book to a Japanese friend he met while in Japan working for the US Occupation authorities after the war.  

If anything, my life-long admiration for Theodore Geisel/Dr. Seuss is only enhanced by viewing the darker side he once showed.  That he could so radically change his views, and so publicly as well, took both wisdom and courage, two qualities in woefully short supply 6o years ago, as indeed today. 

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Eloquent Dead

The product of our excavation: a ton of pottery shards
that needed to be sorted by type.  The most common is
the 'fine orange' ceramics that were made on a pottery
wheel.  There were also many pieces of a 'rough' black or
gray type as well as a more refined, and somewhat less
common, 'burnished black' type of pottery.  Finally, some
of the pottery was hand-made rather than on the wheel;
these pieces were much rarer and were highly valued
by the Vacceans. 
Last Saturday was our second day in the lab out back of the Centro de Estudios Vacceas after wrapping up our last tomb excavation on Thursday (about which, see previous post).  We had earlier spent a few work shifts in the lab during inclement weather: we had a seminar during which we learned about the types of pottery the Vacceans manufactured and how to recognize them; we also spent some time cleaning pottery with brushes (including toothbrushes), water and (very) diluted hydrochloric acid.   The last few days of our four-week program, however are devoted to learning preservation and conservation methods for the artifacts we had spent three weeks retrieving from the necropolis of Las Ruedas.  The first lab day, Friday, for instance, we learned how to extract the materials from the pots, cups, bowls and bottles we had excavated.  This material mainly consisted of dirt, sand, and the ever-present rocks, but one had to be careful since often the pots contained iron and bronze artifacts, animal bones, and, as one would expect, human remains.  If something important popped up – such as a major concentration of bones or a pair of bronze scissors one of us found in bowl – one had to stop all work and call over Amador or Marisa (our lab instructors) to see if they needed to  photograph it in situ before continuing.  Once the contents of the pots were removed, fine-screened and preserved, several scrapings had to be made to collect samples from the clay interiors of the
    The Lab in the rear of the Centro is open to the air and
a comfortable place to work when it is hot.  It is also where
we dry our clothes, as attested to by the racks in the back.

pots in order to analyze so as to determine what substance(s) they had contained.  For instance, some vessels were interred with wine or beer inside; others contained offerings of food.  We also spent time in the lab devoted to the maddening process of poring through bags of pottery shards trying to find pieces that matched and, even better, that fit together.  It was like being presented with a giant pile of jigsaw puzzle pieces from about 100 different puzzles where most pieces were simply various shades of orange and where only a handful of puzzles had more than one piece in the pile.  More than an hour or so of such tortuous, eye-straining, mind-numbing searching and most of us were courting headaches.  The tedium was, however, relieved occasionally by sudden whoops of delight when two pieces matched.  These were then carefully glued back together, and put to one side in hopes of finding more pieces to build on.  In two marathon sessions, during which we debated whether or not our instructors had purposely given us bags of deliberately mismatched shards, we probably managed to put together a score of pairs, with a few triples and I believe one reassembly of four different pottery fragments.  So, when you next gaze upon a reconstructed piece of ceramic in some museum, say a little prayer of thanks to the toiling archaeology lab rats who painstakingly and lovingly, and oh-so gradually fitted those pieces together and glued them back into a recognizable shape.  I know I will from now on.

The funerary urn from tomb 261 as I began work on it.  I couldn't even see
the identifying card -- it was buried somewhere under that mass of dirt, sand,
ash, rocks and bones.  Note the bronze artifact near the bottom left corner of
the styrofoam tray; I had to clean around it so it could be photographed in situ.
Anyway, yesterday, after cleaning the first pot I had picked out of the line that morning – a beautiful, intact burnished black bowl with a simple geometrical design etched into it – I went back to find one large pot left.  If pot it could be called.  Clearly everybody else had avoided this jumbled mess of shards of various sizes surrounding one larger intact section
My workstation at the lab.  Clockwise from bottom left:
plastic box for bones; styrofoam box for pottery shards;
tray for metal artifacts; fine screener; urn from tomb 261 with
kabob skewer; other tools (dental pick, spoons, x-acto
knife, brush).
mostly held together by a densely packed matrix of dirt, sand, ash, bones and, I was to discover, a few goodies.  What fun!  Actually, it was fun, for me anyway.  I have been asked various times by our instructors which was my favorite task in archaeology, whether in the field or in the lab.  In both instances, though I truly love most of the work we do (with the exception of 'cleaning' the dirt on the floor of the excavation pit), I tend to delight in the small, detailed, meticulous jobs most others shy from.  For instance, I love the painstaking and nerve-wracking process of recovering delicate pots from the soil using tiny dental instruments and soft brushes.  The vessels and other items found in the tombs are sometimes on the verge of fragmentation and are often discovered jumbled together higgledy piggledy, overlapping, atop one another, and firmly embedded in the rocky earth after having spent 2,000 or more years a good meter or two packed under the surface.  Teasing them out the soil one by one reminded me of a combination of pick-up sticks, Jenga and that doctor game from my childhood where, if your tweezers attempt to extract the wrong bone from the tin body of the ‘patient,’ the thing buzzed madly.  Except, instead of a buzzing child’s game, if you screw this up your heart plummets to the bottom of your stomach as you hear the mortified gasps of your colleagues while a 2,300 year old funerary urn collapses and fragments in your hands.  In spite of this potential, I love the patient, deliberate detail work involved. 

So I actually relished the challenge of a good mixed-up, jumbled, fused and
Álvaro, the son of the Director of the
Centro and an archaeological student
at the University of Valladolid, was in
charge of photographing the artifacts
and, occasionally,documenting
items uncovered in situ.  Below: the
funerary urn from tomb 261.
fragmented mass of pottery and earth and whatever surprises lurk inside.  With some trepidation, but mostly with anticipation, I carried the heavy Styrofoam tray over to my work station and got down to the business of picking it apart with a metal dental tool, a long wooden kabob skewer, and a soft brush.  It soon became clear that this was, in fact, a funerary urn.  First, it was of the same burnished black ceramic common for the interment of human remains (the other type being a gray or black rough pottery; never the fine orange pottery most commonly found at the site).  The second sign, a dead give-away, was the presence of a large number of fragments of human bone.  So, duh, funerary urn.

Since the first time I positively identified a fragment of bone as human remains, I have been acutely conscious of what we are about here at Pintia.  Seen from one perspective, and quite a legitimate one, we are glorified grave robbers.  Digging the tombs of Las Ruedas, we are disturbing the long-slumbering ancient dead; we are violating the final resting place to which husbands, mothers, sons consigned the mortal remains of their cherished dead.  On the other hand, the Vacceans as
a people and as a civilization had all but disappeared from humanity’s collective memory until archaeologists started nosing about, uncovering their cities and towns and cemeteries.  Especially the cemeteries.  Ironically, it is the dead who speak most eloquently of the living.  Mere walls and floor plans and scattered artifacts in towns long buried and forgotten tell us some, but not all, of how a people lived; they tell us little of what they thought, how they felt, who they loved and what they valued most in life.  But a a grave and its contents are fraught with symbolism and are a window into the most deeply held ideas and beliefs, the most intimate human emotions – mourning, hope, grief, love, loss.  How we treat death is a mirror on how we value life, after all.  The manner in which a people remember those who have passed into the mysterious, unknowable beyond reveal what a people find beautiful, valuable, useful, and meaningful.  The Vacceans are quite eloquent in this regard.  And, ultimately I feel that they would want their stories told, would want their voices once again to be heard, would want their beliefs, their art, their daily lives to continue to have meaning  and not be forgotten forever.

Thus, as I coaxed each fragment of bone out of the matrix of dirt, sand, ash and rocks, I did not feel like one who is violating another; rather, I felt that I was helping to bring back to life at least a small part of the world that the Celtic Vacceans – and specifically this Vaccean in front of me – cherished so.  For quite some time I did not know or remember from which tomb this broken pile of pottery and admixture had come, since there was so much stuff spilling about that it covered the identifying card pinned to the Styrofoam.  At some point, however, I noted that what I had in front of me was none other than the mortal remains of the woman[1] whose tomb was the first I had excavated; the first tomb of the season, and the one that I had excavated on my own.  Of a sudden I felt a peculiar kinship with these bones in front of me; I felt protective, possessive and…tender.  This was family.  So I was even more careful and gentle as I scraped, poked, brushed, picked.  I came to see the clear plastic box into which I was transferring these fragmented remains of my ancestor – my great great great great grandmother/aunt/cousin – as another ‘final’ resting place.  A catafalque of sorts to carry her on to the next step of her journey; this time not to the afterlife, for she has long since been ensconced there.  Rather, she was headed for a new life – a rebirth in which her bones will speak to us if we listen closely enough.  These fragments and splinters and fragile, crumbling ghosts of white that I was so carefully coaxing out of the urn would help us understand her life and the lives of those she loved and lived among.
Bronze artifacts from the funerary urn.  Carlos Sanz, the Director, upon
examination determined that the two oblong pieces were pasadores, or
decorative pins to act as buttons fastening clothing around the body.  Not,
as I had suspected, a torque.  The fused mass of bronze to the right, he
determined was a brooch.  

Ben, my fellow volunteer and the only
other male in the group, found both
animal bones and metal artifacts in his
pot.  At bottom, the shape of a 2,000
year old pair of scissors is just dis-
tinguishable.  Below: the urn during
cleaning, before I called in help when
the main piece started to crumble around
the edges
Along the way, the urn also gave up a few new mysteries.  As I did the initial sorting of the mess, I immediately came across a piece of bronze – actually, two or three slightly curving joined lengths totaling about 5” long.It was more or less sitting on the top of the heap of stuff, waiting to be plucked up; however, I had to clean around the whole area in order to have it photographed in situ.  One end terminated in what looked to me like the female part of a ball joint.  Amador told me it was a brooch for fastening clothing; I suspected it was a torque, but what do I know?  Later on, another length of bronze about 3” long with rounded knobs on each end – looking like the male ends of ball joints.  Again, Amador opined that it was another brooch.  Two in the same urn?  I have my doubts yet, and wonder if I will ever discover what they decide it is once it is properly cleaned and curated.   The second piece looked to me like the central link of a torque of some sort.[2]  

There were other bits of bronze to be found, mostly unrecognizable.  The rest of the contents comprised bone fragments, ash, dirt, sand and rocks.  When it was all out, picked, sorted and sifted I was left with a bunch of pottery shards of varying sizes and shapes and a large section of a jug with a narrow rim and a handle.  All of this had to be brushed clean and then gently cleaned with water.  A few of the smaller fragments crumbled on contact with the water, they were so fragile, and when I finally started, gingerly, on the large piece, the edges started to crumble as well.  I immediately called for Amador and gratefully relinquished the urn to his experienced, professional care.  

I may one day see this piece restored in a museum or as an illustration in a book, perhaps.  I hope I will learn what secrets the bones reveal once analyzed, whether it was a woman or a man or a young person.  In any event, I don’t think I shall ever forget that morning spent with my – all of our – ancestor’s funerary urn.  It is as much a part of me now as any other formative event, something I shall take with me when I leave here and will carry with me for the rest of my life. 

Funerary urn from tomb 261 prior to cleaning

[1] My most Fearless of Readers will recall that my friend Carlos the Potter told me that he thought tomb 261 to be that of an aristocratic woman the very first day of its discovery.  He seems to have a nose for these things, because it was later confirmed by Carlos 'El Jefe' Sanz, the director.  When I asked what he thought, he examined the bones and pronounced the remains as belonging to a woman of approximately 30 years of age.  He discerned this in a matter of minutes from a few fragments of cranial bone, careful to caution me that this was tentative prior to formal analysis by experts at the University of Valladolid.  Still, it was pretty amazing to watch him.  So, we'll stick with the tomb belonging to a woman.  This is somewhat unusual in that she was buried with a wine goblet and ladle, items usually associated with male interments.  
[2] Carlos E.J. also examined the bronze pieces and decided that both the oblong artifacts were, in fact, clasps to hold clothes together.  He also pronounced as a brooch what looked like to me as an indefinable blob of bronze.  Like I said, what do I know?

Monday, July 29, 2013

Qué Linda, Qué Rara, Qué Buena

Fearless Readers, the digging is done.  We have finished at the site we dug in the necropolis of Las Ruedas in Pintia.  The 4x8 meter pit now sits open and empty amongst the brooding stone stelae marking the tombs of the ancient dead – devoid of activity, awaiting what fate I know not.  There are still tombs there, for sure; being such a small group of six volunteers, we were only able to fully excavate three of them.  I assume the good people at the Centro de Estudios Vacceas here in the tiny village of Padilla de Duero will spend August finishing up with what is left to discover in the remaining tombs, but even that is open to question.  In order to dig, they need people – it is a team effort to safely and scientifically excavate tombs 2 meters down in the earth.  Putting a team together requires funding, and money is scarce in Spain right now as is true elsewhere, especially for ‘academic’ pursuits such as archaeology.
Jessie pointing to one one of the first pots
we uncovered in what would become tomb
263. Below: Two minutes later, she found a
perfect round top of a ceramic bottle.
See my more complete album of the
Tomb 263 Excavation.  See also my
Artifacts Album

I put quotes around ‘academic’ because I feel that the term conveys the connotation that poking around in the past, digging the dead and puzzling out the mysteries of history is somehow an unneeded ‘extra,’ something that we can do without.  I would contend otherwise, for I feel that it is an urgent necessity, this securing of our shared history as human beings.  Consciousness of past and future is an inherent, perhaps unique trait of us homo sapiens sapiens; it is an integral part of what makes us human.  We are the only extant species that possesses this sharp consciousness of being, of existing, and of mortality.  To ignore the past, to neglect history, is to diminish our shared humanity.  Just sayin’…

So anyway, I had mixed emotions about ending the dig portion of the four-week program here at Pintia.  I love the process of excavation in all of its steps, from the heavy pick-and-shovel grunt work of getting down to the artifact-bearing strata to the meticulous, painstaking task of oh-so-delicately revealing, defining and removing artifacts.  (Okay, so there is one chore I really did not enjoy at the site.  Cleaning.  In order to see what is going on in the site as a whole – what areas are darker, or lighter or of different composition of soil and sand and rocks – and specific target areas in the pit, we had constantly to sweep the dirt clean.  Right.  Clean dirt.  Who knew?  Anyway, that was a dusty, unrewarding, often seemingly meaningless, almost Sisyphean task as you swept an area ‘clean’ only to have more pebbles and dust trickle down from elsewhere.  But I digress…).  Therefore, to reach the end of that phase, especially given the uncertain future of our site, was a bit of a let down, the end of the exciting work.  On the other hand, we ended the digging phase with a huge bang – excavating a tomb that the folks here viewed as one of the richest and most unique in terms of specific artifacts that they have seen in a while.  Tomb 263.

I uncovered this beautifully incised
rectangular piece of ceramic as we
were about to close up for the day.
I had to wait until the next morning
to discover that it was the handle to a
large ladle (below).  The staff arch-
aeologists got quite interested at this
point, since such a large, decorated
 ladle is rare.
As with my first tomb – number 261 – it began with our interpreter and staff archaeologist, Rita, pointing to a dark spot in the pit and telling me and my fellow volunteer Jessie, a.k.a ‘Kiwi’ (a wonderful young aspiring archaeologist from New Zealand) to get to work.  So we got our basic excavation kits together and got to work on a fairly unprepossessing patch of dirt which was undistinguished save for its nearly perfectly circular shape, not quite three feet in diameter.

N.B. The basic excavation kit, by the way, consists of the following: a trowel, the brush end of a broom, a dustpan and a bucket.  Lots of buckets, actually.  This is what you use when you put away the pick and shovel.  Later, when you have uncovered artifacts, you mostly put away the trowel and dustpan and broom in favor of the little dental tools, a small soft paint brush, and a little scoop fashioned out of the top of plastic soda bottles.  Archaeologists are great borrowers and improvisers of tools. 

So, Jessie and I got to work.  Scrape-scrape, scoop, bucket; repeat as needed; lug full bucket to edge of pit, hand up to the screeners above; repeat as needed.  And so on. Our little hole didn’t seem promising initially, and we both started to express doubts as to its fertility in terms of artifacts when a half hour or so passed with only dirt and rocks to our credit.  Then I felt my trowel scrape on something non-rock-like and suddenly the orange curve of a bowl emerged. We paused for a quiet and cautious woo-hoo – one pot rim does not make a tomb – and started gingerly excavating around the bowl.  Another curve of orange appeared and then, so suddenly that she let out a startled squeak and started back a bit on her heels, a small hole appeared in the dirt in front of Jessie.  She had uncovered the perfectly round top of a bottle, a complete one judging from the void into which the dirt and sand trickled.  It was at this point that our little circular hole became tomb 263 of Las Ruedas. 
Day two of digging tomb 263.  Jen, Jess and I spent the morning working
feverishly and excitedly.  Smiles such as Jen's were the rule of the day.

After uncovering a third pot – for a total of four items in our newly designated tomb – we began to try to define the extent of the hole.  To do this, Jessie worked backwards and eastwards from the north end, while I started to explore the southern portion.  Just as the morning’s work at the dig was coming to a close at about noon, my trowel once again scraped on ceramic. This time, however, it was not the familiar curve of a pot rim or the edge of a bowl, it was rectangular shaped and beautifully incised with a typical Vaccean geometrical pattern.  (Carlos the potter later taught us the technique used to create such incised patterns; we got to make our own little salt boxes.  What fun!).  Unfortunately, that was it for the day and we had to cover the tomb with a tarp and cover that in turn with screened dirt.  This was to protect the contents from the weather and, hopefully, fool overly curious potential grave robbers.  The people here have in the past come back to a site in the morning only to find that thieves in the night had pilfered the very artifacts that the archaeologists had uncovered the previous day.  Once safely covered and disguised, we broke for lunch and siesta until our evening shift at the site.

After lunch, another volunteer was added to our little team.  Since the piece I had uncovered digging back was some distance from the first group, there was a suspicion that either the tomb was big, or it was a double tomb.  Thus the welcome addition of Jenna, a.k.a. ‘Blondie,’ a.k.a. ‘Rubia’, a Minnesotan studying at my own alma mater, the University of Wisconsin.  We carefully uncovered the tarp and, trying to keep as much of the ‘clean’ dirt in it, gently removed it and lugged the heavy, awkward bundle to be screened above.  Then began the process of cleaning the surface of the remaining loose dirt, sand and rocks before continuing.  We had just finished this task when the wind suddenly picked up and started whipping the awning above us around violently – and then it began to rain.  We had to rush to retrieve the tarp, get a few buckets of clean dirt, and cover up our tomb again.  Sigh….  But wait.  Ten minutes later, the wind was back down and, although dark clouds still lowered overhead, the rain had stopped.  So, back to removing the tarp, cleaning and then, of course, the wind and rain began again and we had to rush to cover up again – this time more efficiently, as we had wisely made sure we had clean dirt on hand just in case.  It was like a fire drill – we got pretty good at it after the first couple of times.  It was disappointing, having to abandon our work for the time being and spend the rest of the evening cleaning pottery in the lab.  But, there was always tomorrow….

And tomorrow came bright and sunny and the three of us began to work in earnest on our
As we dug further and further back from the
original four pots, we uncovered artifact
after artifact, some quite rare and beautiful.
Below: the end result.  1.5 meters of tomb
with a total of 17 artifacts, including a painted
duck egg.  Angeline's bar was hopping that night!
tomb.  I continued to scrape my way southwards while Jen and Jess worked the other edges.  First, I found that the incised, rectangular piece of pottery was the handle to a ladle – and a big one too.  Then the real fun began.  As the three of us scraped away, it seemed that every five or ten minutes one of us let out a whoop of discovery, and then another, and another as pot after pot after bottle after bowl kept emerging from our lengthening grave.  All morning we were lost to the world, almost unaware of the discomfort of our cramped, crouching postures as we struggled to find the right angle to approach the multiplying artifacts.  In the end, when we broke for the day, we had uncovered a total of 17 artifacts: from the first bowls, to the rare and beautiful ladle, to a pinch-pot type of wine pitcher in burnished black ceramic (something nobody there had ever seen before), to a tall, Phoenician style pitcher that they also oohed and ahhed over.  But the most amazing find was something that Jen uncovered.  At first she was unsure what it was – she kept muttering, stone? pottery? stone? – until she finally shouted EGG!  She had managed to uncover a partially intact, 2,000 year old painted duck egg!  We all marveled at this – we had seen one in the collection at the Center, but to discover one of these exquisite, fragile, almost ephemeral objects was a stunner.

At the end of this exhilarating, exhausting shift, we three were hot, dirty, and achy from the unnatural, contorted positions into which we had forced our bodies to get at the precious artifacts.[1]  And we couldn’t have been happier or more satisfied with our work that day.  The rest of the team shared our excitement and sense of accomplishment as well.[2]  Angelina’s bar down the street from the center was lively before lunch afterwards and the three of us were unable to pay for any drinks that day.

Carlos 'El Jefe' doing some emergency field conservation to preserve a
particularly fragile pot.  He performed the delicate tasks of bringing that and
the duck egg out; the entire team took turns taking out most of the other artifacts.
The next day, Carlos ‘El Jefe’ returned from a conference to see our handiwork.  He immediately jumped into the hole – to some horrified gasps from, well, me among others – and after a brief examination he was beaming and exclaiming ‘qué linda, qué rara, qué buena.’  We all felt, I think, like a high school team upon winning the championship and basking in the approval of the coach.  Then, with the projects documentarians again recording events on video, we each took turns – the entire team – gently, tenderly freeing the pots from the ancient earth and handing them up into the safety of the curators’ hands until the tomb was empty and, finally, silent.  
End of the day, end of the dig.  Now: to the lab...

[1] I have experienced this post-crouch achiness before at Montpelier as well as with tomb 261.  One discovers muscles one had entirely forgotten about while straining in a dig; after my first tomb I found that there was a large, blue-black-purple-y blotch on the inside of my right ankle.  It was not tender, as most bruises are, and I had no idea when or how it had appeared.  I chalked it up to the natural hazards of unnatural archaeological crouching and stooping.
[2] One always has to remember that each artifact one discovers belongs to the entire team; the person actually in the pit with trowel and brush relies on others to screen, to lug full buckets around a maze of no-go areas to hand up top, to bring fresh, empty buckets, to fetch new tools, to force preoccupied diggers to hydrate and stretch now and again.  Not to mention people to map, draw, photograph and measure everything.  Nobody digs alone.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Hysterical Tourism

As I mentioned in my last post on these pages, Tuesdays the folks here at the Centro des Estudiantes Vacceas in Padilla de Duero, where I am one of  six volunteers helping out at an archaeological dig, take us worker bees out for excursions.  It is part of what makes this such a well-rounded program for anyone interested in history, archaeology and culture.  Basically, they work us half to death in the sere heat of the Spanish Meseta Central for five days at a time[1], give us a day off on Mondays, then take us out to play the next day.  Frankly, Fearless Readers, I cannot think of a better way to spend a month in the summer.

The Atlantic Coast of Northern Spain.  Foggy but beautiful nonetheless.

La Primera Excursión: Romans and Royal Beaches

The first week we went north towards the coastal town of Santillana del Mar in the province of Cantabria in search of cool waters in which to bathe.  On the way, we stopped for a real
The villa at La Olmeda is now safely ensconced inside a
striking new building of which they are justly proud.  Tours
are well-organized, informative, and available in English and
some other languages.
treat for us archaeological groupies and wannabes: the extraordinarily well-preserved Roman villa at La Olmeda in the Province of Palencia.  This was once the 4th-5th century (CE) demesne of some Roman big shot in northern Spain who presided over what several of us decided was nothing less than a proto-feudalistic estate.  This part of Spain was known as the ‘breadbasket’ of the Roman Empire because of its fertile farmlands devoted to cereals, and therefore it attracted Romans to colonize the area, build huge latifundia, and make a mint exporting grain to the ever-voracious and restive Roman citizenry (‘bread and circuses’, remember).  As the empire was beginning to crumble from both internal rot and external threats, the remnants of Roman authority began to improvise some form of order out of the threatening chaos.  What we saw, I feel, was the germination of a new form of social-political organization: an economic unit comprised of a large estate run by a landowner ensconced in an impressive, elegant and luxurious house, who rented out land to tenant farmers to grow crops for local and export markets, and provided a small local security force to keep the peace.  The system seemed to work pretty well for a time, but frankly, it was downhill from there on out all over Europe.

Just one of the striking mosaic floors gracing the Roman villa of La Olmeda.
This one features mythological and hunting scenes.
(This is a good counter example for those who take for granted the idea that progress is linear and goes only one way – forward.  This villa had indoor plumbing, central heating, and used concrete extensively in its construction.  When European civilization collapsed – for that is exactly what happened after the fall of the Roman Empire – these innovations were lost for a millennia and a half.  The Romans even developed a form of concrete that hardened under water in order to construct seaports; this 2,000 year old technology has yet to be matched.  Ordinary folk had to create myths to explain the presence among them of these edifices which, even in ruins, they couldn’t fathom building themselves.  But I digress…).

Dining room with underfloor,
hypocaust heating.
Historical speculation aside (and, to be honest, that period of time is a bit hazy to me), what we saw way cool.  This was a site some unusually wise farmer discovered one day while doing some work on his land sometime in 1968.  I say he was wise because, against his own economic interests, he decided it would be neat to see if the pretty mosaic tile floor he had stumbled across amounted to anything and called some archaeologists in to take a gander.[2]  Sure enough, after some digging, and some more digging, over the years they uncovered mosaic floor after mosaic floor delineating the entrance, hallways, a huge formal reception hall, several dining rooms (one with under-floor heating called hypocausts – something we are only now getting around to emulating), and many whose function was up for speculation.  All of this surrounded an inner courtyard with a fountain supplied by water piped in underground.  In the back of the house was a large bath area with changing rooms, sauna, steam rooms, a ‘tepidarium’ with merely warm water pools next to the big hot 
Part of the facade of
the 12th C Colegiata de
Santillana del Mar.
Medieval Spanish
churches are built like
water bath.  It was all supplied with water piped in under the tile floors and heated by a nearby wood-burning furnace.  Very sumptuous indeed. 

After Las Olmedas, it was on through the Cantabrian mountains to the northern coast and a former royal spa town called Santillana.  Although it was very foggy, the coast was beautiful and the fine sand beaches were broad.  Some of us braved the cold Atlantic waters, including your Intrepid Traveler, and eventually the sun came out and we basked a bit and had lunch.  Afterwards there was some walking around the old historic district and thence to our last stop, La Altimeria caverns. with vibrant Paleolithic art on the walls and ceilings, this is Spain’s equivalent to the Lascaux caves in France.  Although the original cave is closed to the public now to conserve it, the replica they have built looks and feels real enough and it was well worth a trip. 

Thus our first excursion.  It was such a full day that we got back to the Center past 1:00 am; as a result, we were granted an 8:00 wake up for work the next day, rather than the usual 6:00.  Yay.

The Atlantic surf of the Cantabrian Coast at Santillana del Mar.  Though
it was cool-ish and foggy, some of us did venture into the water,
 including Your Intrepid Traveler

Aqueduct in Segovia.  Yes, the stupid arm gesture again...

La Segunda Excursión: More Romans and More Royals

Our second Tuesday excursion wasn’t quite as far-ranging geographically or temporally (no Paleolithic art this time round), but no less interesting and instructive.  We headed south towards the big central mountain range called the Sierra de Guadarrama.  There, perched in the foothills north of the mountains, a good 1,200 feet higher in elevation than Madrid to the south, lies the city of Segovia.  Thanks to its higher elevation and cool northern breezes, Segovia was a favorite place for the royalty and other notables of Madrid to summer.  They were not the first to realize this, however.  The Celtic Vacceans had a settlement here, and then the Romans made it a regional power center from which to control northern Spain.  It was so important for the Romans that they built a tremendous acqueduct to supply water to the
Segovia boasts two of my favorite things about
Europe.  Café Culture, and Really, Really
Old Architecture.
military camp they established there.  Construction of the aqueduct was begun under the Emperor Domitian (81-96 CE) and runs 11 miles to bring fresh, mountain spring water to the city.

(Another example of reverse-time.  The aqueduct is a marvel of engineering and is still studied today for its innovations.  Allowed to deteriorate during the middle ages – after all, who needs water piped into your house? – and partly destroyed by the Moors at any rate, it underwent restoration under Isabella and Ferdinand and then again in the 19th century.  With the Romans forgotten, medieval locals had to invent a myth about a young water-girl and Satan to explain the presence of this impressive piece of infrastructure.  But, again, I digress…). 

The city is built on a high prominence that is boat shaped – the broad stern is where the aqueduct enters the town, while the imposing Alcazar (citadel) dominates the prow of the ship and thereby the surrounding territory.  It has been fought over for millennia – the city was taken by the Moors and largely abandoned by its citizenry when the Umayyads invaded the Iberian Peninsula starting in 711 CE, then it was retaken in 1079 by King Alfonso VI of Castile-León during the reconquista.  Once repopulated it became something of a boom town in the late middle-ages as it controlled major trade routes involving wool and textiles; it also boasted a sizable Jewish population.  The Jews, however, were kicked out in 1492 by Queen Isabella, whose coronation as Queen of Castille-León took place here in 1475.  At any rate, by 1600 it had a population of 27,000, quite sizable for its day, before it underwent a drastic decline in the 17th century (today about twice as many people live in Segovia as did in 1600). 
Two examples of the squat little towers of Segovian aristocratic palaces
 in the Plaza del Juan Bravo. (Perhaps more on him...later.)
Speaking of Queen Isabella of Castille-León and her husband Ferdinand of Navarra (okay, so I’m only now speaking of him), they had something to do with the look of the city of Segovia.  It seems that during the middle ages the local gentry were prone to feuds that reached the level of mini-civil wars.  As a result, the nobles of the town built fortress-like palaces complete with towers to keep an eye on rival families (this also happened in other European medieval towns, perhaps most famously in Florence).  When Isabella and
Like all medieval towns, Segovia favors pedestrians over automobiles
Ferdinand married and united their two kingdoms, thereby creating the nascent modern state of Spain, feuding nobles were the last thing they needed.  Their goal was to complete the reconquest of the rest of the peninsula from the Moors which had begun shortly after the 8th century invasion from North Africa (a goal which the dual monarchs achieved in 1492 – that date again) and create a unified, Catholic Spain.  Nobles quarreling amongst themselves was definitely not part of the game plan, so Isabella[3] ordered the aristocrats of Segovia to lop off their towers.  So, as you walk the streets of the old town, you are constantly reminded of this powerful woman by the sight of these funny-looking, truncated towers sort of sticking up from the corners of massive palaces.   

The old, historic quarter of Segovia, like any other medieval town, is purely a walking city.  Pedestrians definitely take precedence over the few cars who struggle up its inclines and down its narrow, meandering streets.  If you ever make it there, plan on at least an entire day to see the main sites.  We spent some time at the aqueducts, then walked up the hill to the old town and wandered from the stern of the city to the prow, stopping along the way to take pictures and to visit two main sites: the massive, late flamboyant gothic pile of a Cathedral, and the Alcazar.  Both are worth a visit and neither costs an arm and a leg. 
Late, flamboyant gothic.

The Cathedral was built starting in 1525 to replace an earlier church which had burned.  The outside is a riot of gothic psychedelia; it is an example of a late version of gothic called, appropriately, flamboyant.  Looking at its forest of ornate spires and its projecting gargoyles, I think I see where the 19th-20th century Spanish architect Gaudí might have got some of his inspiration.  The only nod the exterior gives to the contemporaneous Renaissance style was the addition of a dome instead of skyward-projecting main spires.  However, once you enter, there is an immediate contrast.  The interior is serene simplicity, with graceful, unadorned
arches supporting the ceilings far above.  In the side chapels, however, which were paid for by the local hoi-polloi as private chapels and mausoleums, there is ample evidence of the questionable taste of the rich; they are dominated by baroque and rococo art and sculpture with heavy emphasis on gold gilt decoration and such.  Unfortunately, photography is not allowed inside, and being a timid Midwesterner, I tend to follow the rules. 

Window in the Alcazar
Next it was on to the bow of the ship and the Alcazar.  Again, worth a visit if you are into massive, hulking castles – which I am, of course.  The tour of the inside takes you through about a dozen or so impressive rooms with ornate ceilings and plenty of evidence of its partly Moorish history – try as they might, the Spanish could not quite erase the Mujedar style of the original Muslim citadel.  There are the usual paintings, royal apartments, a couple of rooms with medieval and Renaissance weaponry, and a permanent exhibit on the history of the Spanish artillery corps.  The view of the surrounding countryside from the battlements on the prow of the castle is quite impressive as well.

Have fun stormin' the castle!  (Sorry, couldn't resist)
Remnants of Moorish fresco in one of the staterooms of the Alcazar de Segovia.

After dinner in Segovia, we headed for our last stop of the day, the La Granja palace in nearby San Ildefenso.  Up in the foothills just south of the city, this was the site of a favorite hunting lodge of Spanish royalty.  It was surrounded by forests teeming with game; vistas of mountain peaks all around tempt the eye.  Then, in the 18th century, King Philip V, who was a grandson of the French King Louis XIV (known as the Sun King and also famous as the builder of Versailles), got homesick and decided to build a down-home place to hang out at.  What you got was a sprawling ‘mini-‘ Versailles, complete with extensive formal gardens out back with dozens of fountains sporting fanciful mythological gold gilt statuary etc etc.  The tour of the palace is okay – they have the most amazing tapestry collection ever – but once you’ve seen one over-the-top humongous rambling palace filled with 18th century antiques, scores of ceiling paintings from Greek and Roman mythology and high windows and French doors overlooking the grounds, you’ve seen them all.  Okay, so it’s worth a stroll through the royal apartments, but the real draw of the place is the gardens.  Plan on spending a good couple of hours wandering the formal paths, gawping at the ornate fountains, and marveling at the folly of man.  Frankly, what the fuck?  I mean, both of these powerful men (Louis XIV and Philip V), inherited these wonderful, peaceful, rustic hunting lodges surrounded woods and
Frankly, what the fuck?
nature and they loved visiting these quiet retreats so much that they decided that the thing to do was to rip out enough trees to build a ginormous, deluxe palace with hundreds of rooms filled with ornate furniture and ceiling art of questionable taste, and then to put the rest of the forest to the axe to in order to make way for a vast, manicured, formal, regimented garden complete with plumbing, and then to invite half the aristocracy of Europe over for parties that lasted for months.

Tomorrow’s excursion is purely local.  We are headed for the nearby provincial capital of Valladolid, location the university for which we archaeological volunteers have been nominally toiling, and a city with sights of its own.  About which, of course, more later…. 

[1] I am mostly jesting of course.  The field work is indeed at times tough, arduous work which I nonetheless find fulfilling.  Then there is the pay-off when you start finding really cool, really old stuff and get to break out the little tools and brushes – what fun!  However, about that, more later…
[2] For most farmers, construction companies, developers, etc, the last people they would call in such a situation would be meddling archaeologists who might declare the site of historic importance to world culture blah blah blah and halt all work indefinitely.  The owner of the land on which La Olmeda was discovered, Javier Cortes Álvarez, once again demonstrated his altruism in 1984 by donating the estate to the provincial government of Palencia.

[3] It was Isabella who ordered the lopping of Segovia’s towers partly because the town fell within the boundaries of her original domain of Castile-León, and partly because she wore the pants in that marriage, or whatever they wore back then.  If you wonder why she had the upper hand (aside from her strong personality), a quick look at a map of Spain will demonstrate that she brought into that powerful union roughly twice as much real estate as did her husband.