• Autopsy of Late Antique Mérida

    Despite the silent and calm summer we have been continuing our work on the ATLAS project, but at a slower pace. To speed up our work on the current case study, Mérida, we decided to visit it and get a feel of the Rome of Hispania, as Schulten called it. This visit provided us with several opportunities. First and foremost get in touch with the latest work done in the field of Late Antique Mérida and meeting with the experts and team members in Mérida.

    However, one does not simply walk into Mérida. First the Hamburg team, Sabine and Pieter, had to get to Madrid, early flights and all that. From there Ada joined for the train ride between Madrid and Mérida. We learned that digital displays and announcements are not to be trusted in Ciudad Real. We had to change trains and go to Vía 3, according to our information, the displays and the intercom system. However, personnel told us to go to Vía 4. Waiting at Vía 4 the announcement told us that the train for Mérida was about to arrive in minutes at Vía 3, doubt took over: “What if the man is wrong… We will miss our connection and will have to spend the night at the station of Ciudad Real…”  The man was right and all other information proved to be wrong, so we took our train from Vía 4 and made it to Mérida. We were really in the inland of Spain. As we moved more inland the outside temperature only rose, even though time passed and the evening had started… Arriving at Mérida in the early evening we were treated to the magnificent view of the so-called Templo de Diana.

    The first view of the Temple of Diana

    Tuesday first full day in Mérida

    The omens were aligning on Tuesday, that morning the birds flew the right path. By chance we chose the restaurant next to the Instituto Arqueológico de Mérida (IAM) headquarters for breakfast. The IAM director, and ATLAS member, Pedro Mateos found us enjoying breakfast while entering his office. After discussing research topics over a café con leche, he gave us a tour of the most important sites.

    We started with one of his favourites: Santa Eulalia, which he excavated between the 80’s and 90’s. We immediately had some interesting discussions on topics. A very relevant topic was how to bring together and interpret the main sources: archaeology, epigraphy and the written Lives of the Saints? These three seem to support each other for some parts, but what about the other parts? We will have to turn to this in the next few years.

    Santa Eulalia (left) and the team under guidance of Pedro at the Morería (right)

    Having such a great guide we were able to visit the latest excavations: a building from the 5th century that is located in the colonial forum. The local archaeologist Rocío Ayerbe showed us around the site and gave some early interpretations of the complex site. When looking at these excavations one wishes the city was in a green field. But then some of the buildings would not have been preserved as well as they have now. One of these buildings we have seen just now, the temple at the colonial forum. We visited this site with Rocío and Pedro to look at the often overseen foundations of another late antique building adjacent to the temple. As usual in many other cities, in late antiquity the forum plaza had been overbuilt. Rocío had to leave us and we moved through the city with Pedro. He gave us a tour of the Morería underneath the building of the Junta de Extremadura at the ancient walls of Emerita. This archaeological site holds a road crossing and some houses. We turned our attention to the reoccupation and reorganisation in later periods. A large domus from the early imperial period was carved up in smaller houses and iron smelting areas. The tour continued to the imperial temple where an interesting inscription was found for the joy of the epigraphists in the group.

    This extensive visit by the hand of our colleague aroused our interest in late-antique Mérida even more and after saying goodbye to Pedro we headed for the National Museum of Roman Art (MNAR). Fortune smiled on us again as we were able to enjoy a full tour of the museum from its director, Trinidad Nogales, who was just finishing the details of an exhibition in Santa Cruz de Tenerife opening the next day. So, as we told you on Twitter, we were able to stop and take in one of the many interesting inscriptions that the museum preserves, such as the long epigraph that informs us of the restoration of the circus between 337 and 340. But we were also able to discover the museum’s fantastic library, to which we hope to be able to return and consult its extensive collection very soon. For now, Trinidad offered us a small sample with the gift of several books that will undoubtedly be of great help to us in our project.

    Library of the MNAR (left) and Trinidad as guide

    On leaving the museum, Pedro had prepared a surprise meeting for us with the Consorcio Ciudad Monumental de Mérida in what we consider to be the best restaurant in Mérida (an opinion supported by gastronomic professionals), located next to the so-called Arch of Trajan: A de Arco. We met Félix Palmer with whom we discussed the objectives and proposals of our project and who was kind enough to make sure that we could visit the different monuments managed by the Consorcio. We finished the meeting quite late and decided to stay for lunch in the same restaurant and what a discovery! We enjoyed  a fantastic meal and some delicious desserts, special mention for the chocolate cake!

    The Day of Extremadura

    On Wednesday, after finding several cafés closed, we headed back to the restaurant where we had breakfast the day before. Mental note for the future: it is important to check regional and local festivities before organising a trip… It turned out that it was the Day of Extremadura and, of course, many businesses were closed. Luckily, the museums and monuments were open so we started that morning by visiting the Visigoth Collection of the MNAR. Although it is a small exhibition, the truth is that they have very interesting pieces that show the monumentality of Visigothic Mérida. It’s a pity that, despite asking for it and looking for it in several places, we couldn’t get hold of the publication of the catalogue… We’ll keep an eye out for the publication of the new edition!

    Our tour continued and we went further into the history of Mérida with a visit to the Alcazaba. Most of this part of Late Antique Mérida is a bit too late for us, but it holds some very nice elements of the period between the third and eighth century. It starts with the perimetral walls of the city. These early Roman walls were reinforced in the Visigothic period and later the material was used to create the Alcazaba in the ninth century. One of the constructions using spolia from the visigothic period is the central tower with aljibe (cistern). The tower has an ingenious system to provide water in case of a siege. Inside we find a stairs going down below the water level of the Guadalquivir (in Arabic al-Wādī al-kabīr) passing in front of the base of the Alcazaba wall, positioned on the old Roman dike. Due to water pressure the Guadalquivir water is pushed through the sand and get filtered before entering the cistern (see image).

    Drawing of the Aljibe (Consorcio Ciudad Monumental de Mérida)

    Entrance with Visigothic columns (left) and the aljibe (right)

    Of course what drew our attention is the use of Visigothic capitals in the construction of the Aljibe. Especially the location in the more secluded parts did puzzle us. Why use such nicely carved columns in sections where not many can appreciate them? Some of us were disturbed more by the asymmetric use of the spolia. The Alcazaba proved to hold more than only some spolia of our period. However, as so often the Late Antique period is slightly forgotten. There is a domus that definitely needs some research. Looking forward to dive into this area of Mérida.

    In the late afternoon Jesús García, one of Pieter’s friends and researcher of the IAM, was so kind as to offer us a ride to some sites in the territory of Mérida. After a rather interesting drive along back roads and what seemed nothing more than a dirt road created by tractors, we arrived at the palaeochristian basilica known as Casa Herrera. However, Fortune did not smile upon us that time, Casa Herrera was Casa Cerrada. Well-fenced and well-locked we could only gaze upon the standing columns in the distance. No despair, Jesús knows the lands like the back of his palm and continued the back roads towards the maintenance channels of the aqueduct Los Milagros. From there it was a rather pleasant drive along asphalted roads, oh the joys of modernity, to the Roman Prosperina dam feeding the aqueduct from its reservoir. With the sun setting we sat along its beaches (well not all agreed on whether this can be considered beaches) and had a great dinner enjoying the views over the reservoir.

    Last day in Mérida

    Our last day started with making up for a mistake made. Taking a picture of the inscriptions at the entrance of the Sta Eulalia:

    Marti · sacrum
    Vettilla · Paculi

    Iam non Marti, sed Iesu Christo D.O.M.
    eiusque sponsae Eulaliae Vir. Mart. denuo consecratum

    The inscriptions are rather interesting, the upper one is a second century dedication to Mars by Vettilla of Paculus. The second one is a reconsecration written in a later period, translated:

    Now not to Mars, but to Jesus Christ, God Omnipotent and Merciful, and his spouse Eulalia virgin martyr, consecrated anew.

    After taking the pictures we continued to the Xenodochium, which we already mentioned last July. It is here that we saw the reconstructions of some of the columns from the Visigothic Museum and the context started to make sense. Again it was clear to us that the late antique period has ample to offer, but has not received the attention it deserves. We will try our best to make late antique Mérida shine a bit brighter.

    Our tour of the city then continued by visiting some of the elite houses. First stop was the Casa de Anfiteatro. Thinking we were visiting an early Roman domus, we were up for a surprise. This domus continued well into the third century and thereby enters our research period. Near the domus some mausolea were found, among them one of the most famous: the Mausoleum of the Rivers. The entrance of the mausoleum held an inscription with depictions of the two rivers Anas (Guadalquivir) and Barraeca (Albarregas). From there we visited another domus constructed in the early imperial period, the Casa Mitreo. This time we were prepared that the domus would have continued into our period. However, it would not be Mérida if we were not surprised by what has been preserved. Here we stood eye in eye with the Mosaic of Cosmology, dated to the fourth century. Those following us on Twitter will know that this one is up for a #MosaicMonday.

    Mosaic of Cosmology

    After this tour it was time for lunch. And as three times is a charm, we went back for more joy at our preferred lunch venue. During our lunch we discussed the plan for the afternoon, including going back to the hotel to do less fun work. Let’s be honest, visiting archaeological sites and museums is fun and joyful, even though it does count as work for us. After the lunch and work break we continued our archaeological tour of Mérida. With a visit to the theatre and amphitheatre. These two buildings were excavated in the early 20th century, with a clear focus on the earliest phase of the buildings. As so often the archaeological layers of late antiquity were only a nuisance that needed to be cleared to get to the earlier layers. As a result only little is known about the late antique use of these buildings. Interestingly there is some evidence for late antique use of the amphitheatre, which we found in one of the books gifted on the first day!

    To make our trip a full circle we decided to have the last dinner at the first magnificent view: under the columns of the temple of Diana. We had a spot exactly in front of the temple and enjoyed a nice evening recollecting what we had seen and done. The next few weeks we will continue our literature study of Mérida, but now with clear pictures of the sites and epigraphy in our mind.

    Last supper at the Temple of Diana

  • Have a great summer!!
    Baelo Claudia and its beach

    … to rest and enjoy! Good holidays to all and we will meet again in September…


  • Official project launch in Madrid
    After three months of the formal start of the ATLAS project we had the chance to officially launch the project in a semi-presential launch event at the Casa de Velázquez in Madrid! For those unaware of the Casa de Velázquez (CdV): It is a French institution to promote artistic, cultural and academic exchange between France and Spain. The monumental house is located in the Ciudad Universitaria and overlooks the Manzanares river valley. Besides its beautiful architecture and views, it also holds an impressive library. What a joy to be able to spend a few days there to start our project and work at the CdV.
    Some pictures of the Casa de Velázquez: to the left the impressive patio; to the right the fantastic library.
    The official project launch took place on Monday the 12th and Tuesday the 13th of July. Twelve members of the project were able to travel to Madrid, the other half was digitally present. After a year of such hybrid events, the CdV had all organised and we were able to have discussions taking place in Madrid, other parts of Spain, Tunisia, Germany, France and the United Kingdom. It was a great opportunity to meet our project members and discuss different aspects of our project. On Monday morning we started with introducing our project. Sabine and Laurent explained the technical and scientific details of the project, and its set-up with our three seats: Casa de Velázquez in Madrid; Université la Rochelle and Universität Hamburg. Thereafter Frédéric introduced the WebGIS to our members. The view of this hybrid presentation was worth taking a picture of.
    Picture of Frédéric, in the middle of the room, presenting the WebGIS at the hybrid workshop.
    Well and not all went as planned with these hybrid presentations. One of the challenges was created by failing microphones. One of our digital participants could not get their microphone to work, but an old-fashioned phone call on speaker simply solved this issue. In the picture below we can see Laurent holding his phone near the microphone so the participants in the room as well as those present digitally (lower right corner) could hear what was said.
    Laurent helping out with an old-fashioned phone call.
    By discussing the WebGIS we reaffirmed some of the database questions we had ourselves. The main one is the obvious: How to deal with the messy reality in a structured database. We can make categories to fit our different archaeological and epigraphic finds, but they often do not neatly follow our planned categories. The question is how far do we go to represent the reality in our model? If we create a separate category for each and every building we will not be able to see the larger patterns, as we have every building entered as an individual building. However, we do need to fit our buildings somewhere. A good example is the already mentioned xenodochium of Mérida, it is the only xenodochium in our ten case studies. Should we enter it as a xenodochium? Or would creating ‘hospital’ or ‘hostel’ as a category be more helpful to understand the spread of similar institutions? We will continue improving our database, whilst entering data and encountering new questions. Our meeting was not only a discussion of the database. As we mentioned before on our Twitter account, we had some keynote lectures planned to start discussions on the research themes.  Prof. Dr. Javier Arce gave the first keynote with the title “Los paisajes urbanos en la Antigüedad tardía”. This opened an interesting discussion on the terminology we should employ to discuss the city. In continuation, Prof. Dr. Sonia Gutiérrez opened an interesting debate with her key-note talk “La ciudad y territorio”. Questions included how to define the territory of Late Antique cities. Some held more than one role (thinking about provincial or diocese capitals). How should we treat their administrative territories? The final keynote presentation was given by Prof. Dr. Touihri “Un réseau de villes dans l’Antiquité tardive”. He brought forward that we should look at our ten case studies within their larger network of cities. Only then can we understand the role and development of cities in Late Antiquity. After these three keynotes and the discussions following afterwards we all had the right mind-set for the workshops on the different themes. 
    Picture of the workshop during the presentation by Prof. dr. Chokri Touihri.
    We planned three workshops to discuss and organise the different research groups befitting the main research topics: urban life; city and territory; urban networks (see under ‘Research Fields’ on this website). During these discussions, we realised that some themes within the Research Fields require more focus. From there we formed several research groups to work on specific subjects of relevance for our project and in line with the main research fields mentioned before. All in all we are very happy with our first project workshop. It was great to meet several members in the Casa de Velazquez. It was even better to be able to discuss the main topics with most members using the digital techniques. We look forward to our next workshop in January 2022 in Hamburg. Fingers crossed we are able to all get together in one place!
  • The first case study. Baelo leading us forward with the WebGIS

    Last month we met in La Rochelle to kick-off our WebGIS database with training by our database expert Frédéric Pouget. After this four day training we were sent into the deep waters of WebGIS. Luckily Frédéric was on the side watching us and making sure all went well. The advantage of this early user process is that we can make changes on the go. Using the WebGIS database we discover some small issues with the search function, but nothing that cannot be solved. Other things we discussed are more on the aesthetic side of things. The icons we have now need improvement. Luckily Sabine knows a very patient designer… Each time he created a new version we wanted icons added or deleted. We fear he has created at least a dozen versions of our icons. However, these will make our maps look smashing.

    Screenshot of the WebGIS with the new icons and the Silla del Papa sheet.

    As you know our first case study is Baelo Claudia, which is quite fun and challenging. The challenge is the fact that there is so much work published and accessible (see for instance: that it is difficult to get acquainted with the whole debate. Studying a site from the desk is another challenge. Understanding archaeological reports and reading the archaeological plans is greatly improved by visiting a site. Under current circumstances that was not an option. However, here Baelo Claudia is again a good starting point since most of the archaeological site can be digitally visited. Now we don’t want to state that this comes even close to visiting the site and seeing it with your own eyes. Autopsy is not just a thing to visit the beach of Baelo. But in these times of travel limitations the street view has been helpful at times.

    Panoramic view of Baelo Claudia.

    As you might have noticed in our Twitter feed we have been working on the epigraphy of Baelo Claudia. Unfortunately, there are only a few late antique inscriptions to be found. Nonetheless, there are some really interesting ones, such as the funerary inscription to Sabina. This early sixth century inscription is a great example showing the presence of a Christian community in Baelo.

    Another approach we have is that of the digitization of archaeological plans for late antique Baelo Claudia. We aim at providing maps for late antique Baelo for different periods, to show the dynamics of the city. Most of the work has gone in collecting and researching the different elements for the late antique period. Each archaeological trace that can be related to our research period has been entered and described in the database. Last week we gave an example of one of our archaeological sites: La Silla del Papa.

    A few days ago Laurent, Sabine, Pieter and Ada had a virtual meeting to share and discuss all the work done on Baelo Claudia. By then most of the archaeological and all the epigraphic remains were already added to the WebGIS and we could exchange our views and interpretations on the evolution of the late antique city. It is actually very helpful to see all the late antique buildings, urban infrastructures and inscriptions at a glance in the map. Moreover, having incorporated the most recent archaeological findings has provided us with a slightly different picture than that offered by previous studies. Indeed, a general plan of late antique Baelo is still lacking and our project aims at creating one. This will be a great tool for analysing Baelo’s urban development but also for comparing it with the other case studies for which we intend to produce new plans as well.

    Sabine, Pieter, Laurent and Ada at the virtual meeting held on 22nd June.

    Returning to our meeting, we started our discussions on the evolution of Baelo in late Antiquity. In the traditional literature we find that an earthquake (possibly dated to the third century) is treated as a breaking point in history. The focus on the Imperial city and its apparent destruction by this earthquake have led to a clear watershed in research. Often we find that the period from the third century onward is less profoundly treated. Our goal is to bring together the evidence we have for Baelo Claudia in Late Antiquity and reconstruct the late antique city. In the end we will write a discussion of the evolution and our interpretation of Baelo in late Antiquity in the city record. This is an encompassing record that allows for these overarching discussions. It is here that we will revisit the idea of a city in decline after the supposed earthquake of the third century.

    After three months of spending our time on the ‘small town’ at the Atlantic coast it is time to pack our bags and move to our next case study. On July 1st we will refresh at the xenodochium of Masona before entering the next case study at the banks of the Ana.

  • Linguistic immersion and WebGIS workshop in La Rochelle

    As we mentioned in the previous post, this May the ANR-DFG ATLAS project planned a training workshop for our WebGIS in La Rochelle. Thanks to strict compliance with all the relevant health measures, this meeting was able to take place in person between 17th and 21st May at the University of La Rochelle. Laurent Brassous generously welcomed Sabine Panzram, Pieter Houten and Ada Lasheras at the train station. Without a doubt, this workshop has been a success and has allowed us to give an important boost not only to WebGIS, but also to the development of the project in general.

    The workshop started on Tuesday 18th with a detailed presentation of the functioning of the WebGIS website by Frédéric Pouget. During this presentation, he also showed us the ins and outs of the WebGIS database. Interestingly, students of Frédéric Pouget have developed our database as part of a university course. And they did a great job! Frédéric’s explanation has been fundamental for our understanding of the wide range of possibilities offered by these digital techniques, but also for the optimal incorporation of historical and archaeological data. But what is a WebGIS?

    Screenshot of the web interface of the GIS – as you can see, we started with Baelo.

    The acronym GIS stands for “Geographic Information System”, which refers to a set of digital applications that allow the storage, integration and analysis of geographically referenced data (See here for an online course organised by Toletum). Their application in archaeological and historical studies has grown exponentially in recent decades, to the point of becoming essential tools for managing and visualising large volumes of data in the geographical plane, in turn aiding a more complex analysis of the data. In the specific case of our project, this GIS is presented in a web interface hosted on the Huma-Num server, a research infrastructure for the human sciences developed by the CNRS, the Campus Condorcet and the Université d’Aix-Marseille.

    Part of the team at work during the WebGIS workshop. From left to right: Ada Lasheras, Pieter Houten, Frédéric Pouget y Laurent Brassous.

    But, of course, this training workshop was not all theory, we also put it into practice! From Tuesday 18th to Friday 21st we have been incorporating all the information gathered on Baelo Claudia which, as you know, is the case study we decided to start with last April. The workshop allowed us to share and debate ideas with the La Rochelle members Laurence Tranoy and Stephanie Guédon to improve the database in its earliest days. Thus, in parallel to the debate on the names and organisation of the different elements or on the way of presenting the information, we have been able to implement new improvements in the database and WebGIS itself.

    As you can imagine the course and discussions at La Rochelle university have been a linguistic challenge for those less well-versed in French. For Ada and Pieter this was a deep immersion into French. The WebGIS training incorporated a French class, as all was explained in French, but by a very patient Frédéric, speaking slowly and kindly repeating when needed. Where we went completely astray, Laurent was so kind as to provide a translation in Spanish. As this is the language we all have in common, we decided to use this language for our discussions. Admittedly, we also used German and English just to complicate matters a bit more. In practice we have no problems representing the multilingual nature of our project. Nonetheless, one of our discussions is how to represent the trilingual nature of our project in WebGIS. Well that needs some thought and discussion, we will return to this in another blog. Follow us on this page, or even better via Twitter: @ATLAS_cities

  • We have started!

    On April 16th the ANR-DFG project ATLAS started with the first meeting to kick-off the project. This first meeting was in a small group and, as has become standard at these times, digital. We had three homeworkers joining in: Sabine Panzram joining from Hamburg, Laurent Brassous from La Rochelle and Pieter Houten from Utrecht. Ada Lasheras joined in from her new workplace: Casa de Velázquez in Madrid. The three home workers were a bit envious, as we had planned to do the first meeting at the Casa de Velázquez. We had hoped to start the project with a meeting including the whole team of almost thirty researchers. However, as we are quite an international team, mostly coming from France, Germany, Spain and Tunisia, we will have to wait before we can gather all in one place. Fingers crossed that we will meet soon!

    Ada (left) at work in the Casa de Velázquez in Madrid and Pieter (right) at home in Utrecht

    The very international set-up brings another challenge with it: what language to speak. To be as inclusive as possible we are a multilingual project, being Spanish, French and English the main languages. This way we hope to be able to communicate with as many people as possible in our research areas. Our website and blogs will be in these three languages. On how multilingual communication works within the team we might dedicate another blog…

    Back to our first digital meeting, after the introductions we discussed the first steps of our project. We started with a taster of the intuitive and very promising WebGIS interface. As the full title of the project already implies, in the next few years we will investigate the urbanism of Late Antique cities from the southern Iberian Peninsula (mostly from the ancient Baetica province) and North Africa(Africa Proconsularis). To be precise, we will look at ten cities, five in each region, as case studies. The WebGIS allows us to collect and analyse the archaeological, literary and epigraphic data for each of our ten case study cities (see map). In the next three years we will start working on these case studies one by one. During the meeting, we have decided to start with Baelo Claudia as the first case study. If you know about recent publications on Late Antique Bolonia we should not miss, let us know!

    The study regions and case studies (4th century CE)

    One of our goals is bringing together the most relevant publications of each of the case studies and for the study of Late Antique urbanism in general. With the open access principle in mind, we are using the reference manager Zotero to bring together the bibliography. After the project, we will publish our Zotero bibliography with the most relevant references online. Using this open source programme we aim at providing you with all the needed material to advance the study of ‘our’ Late Antique cities.

    The first steps have been made; our research is slowly taking shape online. As we want to keep up the spirit and hope to combine the digital with the analogue, we aim at a meeting in La Rochelle to get formal training for the WebGIS. We hope that the situation clears soon and permits an analogue meeting at our Atlantic coastal seat at La Rochelle.

    We hope you enjoyed the first blog of our project. Next month we will introduce the team with a bit more detail. Our goal is to write a short blog each month. If you think we should address something about our research, let us know! Stay tuned for further news, information about the research questions we tackle, events we are organising and the challenges and fun of our project!