Tuesday, August 30, 2011

[Web : Vesti] Holey Roman pot likely held delicate mousey morsels

By Randy Boswell, Postmedia News August 29, 2011

An 1,800-year-old clay vessel, believed to have come from the Roman Empire, thatís been put back together after being found smashed into nearly 200 pieces.

An 1,800-year-old clay vessel, believed to have come from the Roman Empire, thatís been put back together after being found smashed into nearly 200 pieces.

Photograph by: Handout photo, Museum of Ontario Archaeology

A Canadian museum is seeking help from archeologists around the world to solve the mystery surrounding a bizarre, 1,800-year-old clay vessel — believed to have come from the Roman Empire — that was put back together this year after being found smashed into nearly 200 pieces at a dig site in Britain.

The painstaking reconstruction, performed by experts at the Museum of Ontario Archaeology in London, Ont., has revealed a large urn intriguingly riddled with precisely spaced, dime-sized holes.

And chief among the theories about the object's strange design is that it served as a kind of cookie jar for Romans snacking between meals — except that the treats stored inside were likely small rodents.

The vessel, which has a somewhat murky provenance, is presumed to have been excavated in the 1940s at a site dating from Roman-occupied Britain and sent as a gift — still in fragments — to the Canadian museum, which is affiliated with the University of Western Ontario.

Katie Urban, an archeologist with the MOA, spent two months earlier this year piecing the metre-wide jar together after it was rediscovered as a box of pottery shards on a museum storage shelf.

"We thought originally it was part of a drain," Urban told Postmedia News. "But when we put it together, it was in the shape of a pot. It's one of those really good examples of why archeologists put pottery back together."

Her glue job revealed a startlingly complete and well-crafted clay container, similar in design to hundreds of vessels documented from ancient Rome — but rare for its holey construction, and rarer still for its unusual interior features.

It was initially thought the 30-kilogram jar might have served as a type of lamp, with light emitted from the several dozen holes punched into the body of the vessel. There's also a possibility Romans stored food items such as onions or garlic in perforated vessels, said Urban.

Yet it more closely resembles other excavated "gliraria" — Roman-era containers used to keep live dormice, which Urban said were considered a tasty delicacy among the ancient empire's upper classes.

"They would keep a bunch of little dormice, feeding them nuts and things like that to fatten them up before they would stuff them and cook them and eat them," she said. "There's a couple of different recipes known from Roman texts. It would have been a luxury item."

However, the museum's possible example of a dormouse jar lacks the usual interior ramp-like structure that allowed the little rodents to climb around in their cage while waiting to be gobbled, say, by a hungry senator or centurion.

"There's not a lot of good examples of them, but all of the ones we've seen have a kind of built-in ramp that spirals up the pot so that the mice can run up and around," she said. "Otherwise all the mice would be stuck at the bottom. If ours was like that, it must have had a secondary — possibly wooden — platform inside."
And if so, she said, the climbing structure must have disintegrated in the elements after the buried jar was reduced to rubble untold centuries ago — or more recently as the result of a Second World War bomb blast.
Incomplete records indicating how the vessel came to Canada have complicated its identification. But Urban believes the jar was included with a collection of artifacts dug up in postwar London, England — possibly from a bomb crater made during the Blitz — and shipped to Canada as part of a scholarly exchange of research material.

To pin down the vessel's identification as a dormouse container, said Urban, "we need to find something that's very similar to it, which we have not been able to find."

So the museum, best known for its archeological holdings from prehistoric First Nations communities in Canada, has highlighted the mysterious jar as part of a new exhibition showcasing the MOA's relatively small collection of Old World artifacts.

The hope, said Urban, is that stoking public and scholarly interest in the hole-filled vessel will lead to a more certain understanding of its origins, purpose and design.

Read more: http://www.canada.com/Holey+Roman+likely+held+delicate+mousey+morsels/5323628/story.html#ixzz1WVNtzEcP

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