Tag Archives: Roman

Unravelling the Roman town of Ocriculum (Otricoli) and a bit more besides.


Cover: ‘Fall’ by Geoff Uglow. Oil on canvas.

My name may be on the cover, but I am not entirely sure how it got to print. Not that it isn’t worthy of publication, obviously, but exactly how do you go about neatly printing and binding ten years of fieldwork, note taking, report writing, background research, photography, illustrations, and animated discussions? It is a little bewildering that it can be done at all. And that just accounts for the academic side of the project. I am very proud of this book and appreciate the incredible amounts of scholarly work, contributed by so many, in order for it to go to press, but I am conscious that it doesn’t tell the full story. I have worked on the Roman site of Ocriculum (Otricoli) for so many years that the memories and the personal experience are as much part of the project as the academic findings.

Ocriculum is a complex site to say the least. It’s a stunning Roman site that straddles the undulating topography of hills, saddles of land and a small valley that opens up to the water’s edge of the River Tiber. It was the first stop north of Rome on the via Flaminia (c. 220BC) and acted as a port (Porto dell’Olio) and road stop for travellers and goods passing up and down Italy.


Detail of the Carta d’Italia by Jacopo Gastaldi (1569)


Detail based on the Carta Sabina by Mauro Giubilio (1592) redrawn by Giovanni Maggi (1617)


Plan of the Porto dell’Olio by Francesco Sforzini (1688)

Ocriculum was partly excavated in the 18th century by the Vatican under the patronage of Pope Pius VI. As a result many of the finely crafted statues, including Augustus, Claudius, Jupiter, Venus and members of the Julio-Claudian family are on display in the galleries of the Vatican Museum under the constant gaze of tourists flooding through the corridors on their way to the Sistine Chapel.

Plan of Ocriculum by Pannini (1784)

Plan of Ocriculum by Pannini (1784)


Bust of Jupiter, now in the Vatican Museum (Sala Rotonda)

Today, the major monuments of Ocriculum still stand, giving an air of grandeur to the site. The theatre nestles against the slope of a hill and the bath complex sits proud in an infilled valley and once housed the glorious polychrome mosaic, which now endures the footfall of the Vatican Museum tourists in the Sala Rotonda.

Pannini watercolour of the bath house with the octagonal mosaic (c.1784)

Pannini watercolour of the bath house with the octagonal mosaic (c.1784)


The bath complex as it stands today. Photo Sophie Hay

The amphitheatre is almost invisible from most angles of approach, but once stumbled upon, its impressive rock cut bank that forms half of the seating area, is testimony to the intelligence of Roman construction. Meanwhile, the arcaded Grande Sostruzione (large substructure) dominates the side of a hill and exemplifies the monumental scale of architecture found on the site. The substructure was principally a revetment structure and would have supported the large podium and temple that lay on the promontory above and commanded views across the site and the Tiber valley.


Reconstruction of the amphitheatre by Pannini (1784)


The amphitheatre as it is today with the modern town of Otricoli, built on archaic foundations, up on the hill above. Photo Sophie Hay


The Grande Sostruzione by Ludovico Prosseda (after Guattani)

A section of the via Flaminia has recently been excavated by the Soprintendenza per Umbria and the allure of walking on a well-worn paved road, flanked by the remains of tombs never ceases to leave an impression on the visitor.


View of the excavated section of the via Flaminia with tombs. Photo Sophie Hay

But the real beauty of Ocriculum, for me, lies in the inconspicuous details. The fact that we discovered part of the Roman temple after brushing aside a caking of chicken droppings in their coop, is but one. Other hidden archaeological gems lie in the fabric of modern farmhouses. There are a few houses on site but none of them are casual in their location. The farmhouse that appears isolated is actually resting on the remains of opus reticulatum walls with existing arches, the floor of a barn is made of opus spicatum and the walls of one farmhouse organically incorporate the remains of a large Roman cistern. No, nothing is casual about the farmhouses of Ocriculum, and that they embrace the archaeology seamlessly, makes the surprises all the more joyous.


A farmhouse appearing to grow out of the remains of a Roman cistern. Photo Sophie Hay

Sunken trackways bisect the site, exposing traces of arcaded buildings, wells and walls that hang tantalisingly out of the sections. Imagining what they relate to, where they go and what they could tell us about the site is all part of the attraction. The site is neither abandoned nor unkept but has a lovely romantic sense of being overgrown and a little left to the wilds of nature, that leave one with the feeling of discovery. The rolling topography compounds that sense and rearing up over a hill reveals a view across the Tiber Valley; a view that from a few metres back, would have been unimaginable. Meandering along the path that leads through the site reveals new vistas, new monuments and new perspectives at each turn. It is not a site that can be best understood from a map, but is one that has to be walked through to enjoy the games the Roman architects must have been playing with the landscape.


View through the undergrowth of the bath complex sitting on the infilled valley. Photo Sophie Hay

The view of the town from the River Tiber was paramount and it is no coincidence that the temple lies on a spur of land that dominates the river valley. The approach to Ocriculum by boat is a less considered theme and one we can no longer experience as the river has changed course dramatically. But we should imagine the architecture of Ocriculum spoke just as much to traders arriving along the Tiber, as to those arriving by road.


View from the location of the temple site looking north into the Tiber Valley and the location of the port of Ocriculum. Photo Sophie Hay

The other secret of Ocriculum is the people. Foremost, is the distinguished family that initially allowed us to roam their lands with our various bits of survey equipment and who welcomed us so warmly and continue to treat me as one of their own. It is a huge honour to be acquainted with the Floridi family and their genuine respect and love for the Roman site rubs off instantly on all those who meet them. I asked Count Floridi to write a preface to the book for this precise reason. Archaeology is important but it is also important to understand the site in its modern context. He writes from the heart and that is what makes this site so special now. It still has meaning on a personal level.

It is for this same reason I suggested the artist, Geoff Uglow (Sainsbury Scholar at the British School at Rome 2002-4) be featured in the monograph. The perception of the site as it is now, through the eyes of an artist who lived there for two years, is as important a document as the archaeological recording of the remains. It is Geoff I have to thank for capturing the essence of Ocriculum; the overgrown but yet, well loved ruins and for making the cover of the book so evocative. These people, together with the locals who brought us fresh jam, handed us cold beers after long hot days, told us stories of hunting wild boar  among the ruins, who made mead, performed gladiatorial battles in the amphitheatre, and who floated the effigy of their patron saint up a candle lit Tiber and just made us feel at home, really make Ocriculum and our project there so special and memorable.


Artist Geoff Uglow, painting al fresco, a Roman altar that had been brought to the surface by ploughing. Photo Sophie Hay

I think that is why I find it a little hard to comprehend how we managed to package up our project in print. We didn’t, of course. It is not a criticism of the book (heaven forbid!) but there are two strands of the story missing. The development of ideas are often inspired by lively conversation, spotting something in the data that just clicks into place, or studying an old plan that reveals a previously unknown clue. It is the excitement of these turning points shared with others that never make it onto the pages. Although the scholarly work is accounted for, what is not legible in the text is the journey of getting there. Nowhere amongst the bulk of the pages are the traces of the discussions we wrestled with, the problems we had, or the interpretations we laboured over, changed, thought through and changed again. The ‘process’ is missing. For me, these are the most thrilling and exciting moments of a project and embody the joy of writing and working with others.

The other missing part of the storyline is the human experience. Although, by adding Count Floridi’s account and that of the then Director of the British School at Rome, Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, we tried to inject a sense of place and people, the rest of the pages lack a link to the human landscape. There are no anecdotes, although there is nothing more excruciating to an outsider than having to endure the recounting of the “do you remember when…” genre of stories, since clearly they won’t. But those stories are all part of the project and are, in this author’s mind, intrinsic to the process of how the publication made it onto the bookshelf. Archaeological fieldwork monographs have adopted a formal, scientific written style. They are scholarly works, after all, but I just wish some local colour could be splashed across some of the content. Just something to remind the reader that there was, and is still, a pulse amongst the ruins.

Who doesn’t read an archaeological account from the turn of the 20th century and find charm, humour and yet, a precise account of the archaeology? My favourite, but perhaps most extreme example, is the archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley who often evoked a sense of place, time and conditions and the sense that there were humans in the landscape, then, as now. His asides were witty and the telling of anecdotes seemed to provide light relief, without distraction. He wrote,

“I have proposed to write of the lighter side of our work, and to leave archaeology in the background, but since in all tales the background must needs count for something, let me say a little about the scene in which are cast many of the events that follow”

Woolley 1920 Dead Towns and Living Men p74

Perhaps a compromise is to flip this somewhat extreme style; presenting the archaeology in the foreground but set it against a background comprised of the cast and events that complete the story. I need these missing threads, in much the same way I relish the hidden archaeology on site that make the story more complete. This information is important and should be documented as we are losing a tradition and a richness of the picture of archaeology in progress. Populating the archaeological landscape with humans is what we do on a daily basis, as archaeologists, so we should be more prone to filling it with contemporary lives. It is how places live on. On some small level it is the archaeology of Archaeology.

I am only wrestling with these thoughts now my first co-authored book has been published, and our last word, has seemingly been written. The finality of publishing a book, rather than an article, is daunting. It feels as though the the untold story that I yearn to tell will never get told. The published book also signifies an end to the immediate discussions, the camaraderie of fieldwork and the privilege of working at a site that for me embodies far more than just an archaeological story. That is, perhaps, why I want to believe that we will go back to Ocriculum and reveal just a little more by pulling back some vegetation, by inspecting the eroding cliff edge a little more closely or by talking to the local farmer who has turned up an archaeological find in his field. 

But in the meantime, don’t get me wrong, I am just thrilled and honoured to see my name on the cover of a book about a site I have loved for the ten years I’ve had the privilege of wandering through its ruins trying to understand it better. I think we have achieved that but the history of the site is by no means over, and we will not have had the last word.

All images, other than the author’s photographs are taken from Carlo Pietrangeli’s seminal book on Otricoli: ‘Otricoli: un lembo dell’Umbria alle porte di Roma’. published by Ugo Bozzi Editore in 1978.


What I do for a living: now available in English

Forma Urbis Nov 2012

Forma Urbis Nov 2012


…. and here is the English version for those of you who don’t mind missing out on the type-setting of the Italian version. But it should all be now very clear what I actually get paid to do.

Forma Urbis geophysics En

What I do for a living (includes an Italian version)

Forma Urbis Nov 2012

Forma Urbis Nov 2012

A little taste as to what I do as an archaeological geophysicist.

A recent article published in the popular Italian archaeology magazine, Forma Urbis, that I wrote as a synthesis of some of the projects I have been involved in over the years.

Citta e Territori

This is the Italian version. English one on its way…

Algeria: Day 9 Tiddis

A fond farewell early the next morning to my room mate; the first of the group to leave.
The remaining group paid a visit to Constantine Museum which was pretty sparse but had some truly stunning pieces.

Museum entrance (note ubiquitous presence of bunting )

Museum entrance (note ubiquitous presence of bunting )

A candid shot inside the museum

A candid shot inside the museum

The rooms were heaving with small stelae leant up against the walls depicting the Punic God Tanit with her up-stretched bent arms and stylistic triangular body. I am reminded immediately of my Masters dissertation on Punic burial practices and the numerous such depictions that I had consulted. North African archaeology is a little nostalgic for me. I first came to work in Libya in 1995 and from then I developed a love affair with the region of North Africa and its rich history. It was always a distant love affair and every now and then I would dip my toe back in whether it be through a dissertation topic, a season of excavation or surveying projects, so seeing familiar objects casts me back to the days when this fascination started.

Detail of a mosaic

Detail of a mosaic

After the museum visit we bid goodbye to three more travellers and the rest of us clambered aboard our distinctly empty bus to go and visit the Roman site of Tiddis. There were a couple of people who had seen this site before but for the rest of us Tiddis surprised and impressed us far more than we had thought possible and made us all fall instantly in love with it. North of Constantine there is a hill of deep orangey/red soil overlying a grey/red rock sitting in a sea of lush greenery. Seemingly, growing out of the natural bedrock in an organic manner is a Roman town. The man made construction blends perfectly with the natural rockface. The arch of the entrance to the town is camouflaged at certain angles by its backdrop which is composed of the same coloured stone.

Camouflaged gateway

Camouflaged gateway

The Roman town is a true spectacle. Up high, the walls blend into the rock but as the town spills out into the fields below there is a vibrancy of red against green that is almost edible.

Red on green

Red on green

Snigger worthy phallus

Snigger worthy phallus

The main road clings to the contours and weaves up the steep slope leading passed a rock cut Mithraeum. Guarding the entrance are two carvings of phallus’ that, despite my distinguished and lerned company, cause much mirth. Even successful academics cannot resist a snigger at a rude relief which is wholly reassuring.



As we wind up the hill the view just gets more and more stunning and three quarters of the way up we are greeted by a relief of Saturn and thank the Gods (or perhaps just Saturn) as it gives a chance for the puffed out amongst us to pause and catch our breath.

As we scramble up the crest of the hill we are amply rewarded by a view down the other side which reveals a deep-cut gorge. The sense of location, location, location has never been more apparent.

The gorge(ous) viewExcuse bad, bad pun.

The gorge(ous) view
Excuse bad, bad pun.

More sniggering

More sniggering

On the way down we passed a stone with a rather rude inscription: LIVIDI LINGUE MENTULA(M). Not for the faint hearted so I will avoid a literal translation but suffice to say it was inscribed by a man in need of a sexual favour.

We wend our way down to visit the best preserved house in the town which must have survived on account of its solid, stoutly built walls. it was built on a series of terraced levels to compensate for the steep slope and the view down the valley must have been enjoyed then just as it was being devoured by the group now.

More red on green

More red on green

Back to the bus and a rather sad trip to Constantine aiport where we were to drop off some of the group. And then there were three. Myself and my two Pompeiian buddies. We head back to Constantine and treat ourselves to a well earned rest. We meet for dinner and we are seated at a small table. We cast our eyes over the large, actually huge, table where the group had been seated the previous evening and we feel the sense of the trip coming to a close.

Algeria: Day 8 Lambaesis, Timgad

The trick in the hotel in order to assure a bright start to the day is to avoid the brown water in the coffee flask provided and order a real and strong coffee at the bar for the princely sum of 30p. Day 8 of our adventure requires me to do this more than on any other day for 2 reasons the first is sheer tiredness, the second is that I am being commandeered to do some fieldwork today and I need to be awake.

Detail of a relief on the 'Praetorium' Detail of a relief on the ‘Praetorium’

Before the research begins we stop off at Lambaesis. Until recently I had not heard of this site but after attending a few lectures in Rome given by Prof David Mattingly I soon understood this to be the hub of urban centres in the fringes of the Roman Empire. I am glad he assured me of that since the site does not wield this sensation at all. It possesses nothing of the charm and character of Timgad and the remains left one devoid of any emotion at all. The site is now overshadowed by the local, but nevertheless substantial, prison. We were then given strict instructions that no photograph could include the prison. Just as well it was a grey day otherwise its best angle would have undoubtedly featured the prison in all its glory serving as the backdrop. Cue one collection of rather drab photos of a so-called “praetorium” – a large boulder of a building squatting on site.

So-called 'Praetorium at Lambaesis So-called ‘Praetorium at Lambaesis

We pay a quick visit to the tiny dusty museum and inside we are met by mosaics, statues and finds from the site. Outside in the garden are inscription after inscription, funerary monument and after funerary monument. It is a little like a showroom of Roman carving and inscribing techniques.

Detail of a mosaic Detail of a mosaic
Bunting Algerian style Bunting Algerian style

And, if for any reason we have a bunting crisis and we find ourselves with a bunting deficit, I am going to Algeria to cash in. The Algerians love bunting and pop it up absolutely everywhere. I love bunting too although I am not entirely sure why a series of small bits of paper or material hanging at regular intervals from a length of string makes me smile and feel good quite the way it does, but it does. I love the Algerians for their shared love of bunting.

The team splits in two for the day. I and my two favourite Pompeiian archaeologists head to Timgad in a car and the others head back to Constantine via various sites along the way. And so the research began. I had the task of recording the presence of troughs called “auge” in all the buildings in the northern half of the town. Armed with an iPad with a database and map installed I began the dizzy task of circling each insula block peering in each room like a nosy neighbour. A systematic approach is obviously the only way to do something like this but it is surprising how disorienting it is circling vaguely identical blocks of houses and knowing where you have been.

Beautiful but inaccurate plan of Timgad Beautiful but inaccurate plan of Timgad

Slow start as I acquainted myself with the program. It is also nerve-wracking to collect data for someone else as you are more than aware that they will have their methods and their needs that you can only hope to emulate. I can say with absolute certainty that I saw half of the town at a level of detail that most visitors do not engage. It felt absolutely great and a huge priviledge to be helping the research and doing fieldwork on this site for these particular project directors. I know I may sound a bit gushy but really, when you respect a person as much as I admire and respect these two people there is little in ones career that trumps just being a part of what they do.

The day passed really quickly and there was somewhat of a race to the finish line in order to complete the site record. It had been grey all day and it had even rained and yet there was this quite magical moment when I had just finished and was heading up the steps to the forum to meet the others when the clouds moved an inch and let the low sun flood its evening orangey glow across site. I watched as the light moved across the ruins like a floodlight revealing the textures and shapes of the urban fabric which until now had been flattened by the overcast weather. It really was astonishing.

View down the Cardo Maximus as the sun broke through View down the Cardo Maximus as the sun broke through
Evening light with theatre in the background Evening light with theatre in the background

I ran to the Hadrianic Arch. It was late and all but a handful of visitors were left on site. I met up with one of the boys and we sat on the temple steps just outside the city with our backs to the sun, gazing across site over the Arch which was bathed in this glorious warm light. This was it. This was the moment of the entire trip for me. I knew it as it was happening too which just added to its poignancy. I reached into my bag and grabbed for a chocolate bar a friend had given me in the UK weeks before. I snapped it into pieces and shared it. A day of non-stop racing around town deserved a moment like this with an absolutely incredible and breathtaking view accompanied by the sweet taste of chocolate. The third member of the team arrived, ate the chocolate I had saved, and we took some photos with us and the arch (although the result was that our heads in the self portrait blocked out the arch but we know it’s there!) This was a powerful nugget of time spent at a site that had just delivered more than I had ever imagined, even after a 20 year wait, with two friends who delighted in this moment just as much as me and after a day of fieldwork. What a reward.

The Severan Arch bathed in evening light The Severan Arch bathed in evening light

We then raced through town to meet our infinitely patient driver and headed for Constantine. Goodbye Timgad. It has been a pleasure. And I am delighted to note that someone has managed to capture the true essence of the Trajanic Arch in the medium of ceramic. My only regret, and it is probably greater than you would expect. is that i didn’t boost the local economy by purchasing one. By the time we left the vendors had shut up their stall. I will simply have to come back one day.

Timgad tat Timgad tat

The journey to Constantine was not without incident. We were subjected to Western 80’s dance music – the driver did not look like he would be a fan of this type of music but looks can be deceptive. In this case, truly deceptive. At one point we spot what looks to be a horse galloping and spinning out of control across a field, the rider, dressed in traditional costume, evidently having no success in reining in the animal he was astride. This was entertaining by itself but only got more comedic as the horse and rider then joined the stream of traffic on the road. Weaving between the thankfully almost stationary lorries and cars the horse still appeared to have the upper hand in the ‘who was in charge’ stakes. Not sure whose decision it was, my money was still on the horse, but the pair mounted the verge on the side of the road and then careered down the narrow path without much attention to the pedestrians only to disappear from view. As we rounded the next corner all became clear – there was some sort of local fair in town and the horse and rider obviously belonged to one of the tents that had been temporarily erected for the occasion. What was never resolved was whether it was a stunt or a genuine runaway moment. My money is on the latter.

We met up with the others in Constantine, at the Hotel Cirta which had begun to feel a little like home, or at least the closest you can get to when you are on the road, since we had spent the most nights here. One of the team had thoughtfully brought a cake from Italy and so we tucked in after dinner to celebrate Easter and to toast our last meal as a group. The next day would see the beginning of the teams’ departures.

Algeria: Day 7 Timgad

Back to Timgad. None of yesterday’s excitement has actually dissipated as I walk through the entrance gate to site. I busy myself with acquainting myself with parts of the town that I did not visit yesterday. Overwhelming is the topography.

View across the forum View across the forum

We, as a group, have all been staggered by the undulating topography of Timgad. As archaeologists, we have considered the town plan and aerial photographs of this site and as a group we are all fully aware of the site whose layout exemplifies the archetypal “playing card” town with its regular square blocks of buildings and street grid. What none of us, who had not previously visited the site, had anticipated was that the town was built on a slope which in turn incorporates at least two hills. Town plan drawings and aerial photographs have a habit of flattening reality into a comprehensible and readable singular plane. Never did I think there was anything like the dramatic contour lines onto which the town is surplanted. It may be a detail but it changes the experience, feel, and character of the town. Suddenly the town has vastly more personality than I thought it would have. Suddenly there are vistas across site that I didn’t think existed. Suddenly there is a wonder in terms of how the architecture of the city copes and overcomes the difference in height, sometimes within the space of a singular block of buildings. Suddenly everything is more interesting. and suddenly walking around the town is hugely more exhausting.

View up to the Severan Arch with theatre in the background View up to the Severan Arch with theatre in the background

The theatre is nestled against a hill using the natural topography to support its bulk. Below is the forum which is not the prettiest I have ever seen but sits in a commanding position adhering to the text book example.

Theatre Theatre

From the forum the Arch of Hadrian stands proud of the ruins and is the natural magnet of all visitors. But I avoid temptation and head for the southern end of town where the only tourists are members of my group exploring a bath house, their voices echoing from the underground rooms.

The Capitolium The Capitolium

I head to the Capitolium temple and am immediately stunned by the scale of the architectural fragments. There is something quite humbling about standing next to a column capital only to find you are shorter than it (I should qualify that I am 1.72m high). The fluted column drums lie strewn around and these too make me feel Lilliputian in size. The sun bursts out and the shadows and colour of the stone pressed against the blue sky punctuated by white clouds is simply irresistible to the lens. Of course simultaneously, seemingly the population of Timgad’s visitors are also drawn to this precise spot and I stand at the ready to grab the break in the tourist flow before the break in the cloud snaps shut.

Lunch is taken at a local restaurant where a table of suitable proportions for our group is assembled in a matter of seconds and chairs appear from nowhere to accommodate us. The most divine bean stew is brought to the table and the ravenous party devours it in seconds; the only noise is the crunch of fresh crusty bread and a communal “mmmmm”.

After lunch I join a break away group and drive off to visit the Roman- Byzantine site Ksar Baghai. I admit at this stage I have not fully understood the plan for the afternoon. I am abandonning Timgad only because I know I have another full day on site tomorrow with 2 others while the rest of the group return to Constantine. We drive for over an hour, get lost in a small village, ask for directions, get a bigger police escort than before but who look awfully smart in green as opposed to blue, and navigate around pot- holed roads until we reach an area enclosed by a prison-like wall. This site must be spectacular to be protected by such a wall. A tanned, blue-eyed Berber opens the gate and reveals the site. Only that once the gate is drawn open all I can see is a field.

Field with column Field with column

Now, I know I said that as a geophysicist I get excited about open fields but there are times and places and this was neither. Seriously. It then became clear that we were here to look at the surface scatter of pottery rather than walk through and admire the ruins, which was just as well since, apart from one column at the far end of the field, they were totally non-existent. In the end we kept ourselves entertained by unsystematically walking over the field hands clenched behind our backs, heads down, like a gentlemanly stroll along the promenade, in search of glazed pottery indicating later occupation of the town. We found some. In fact we found a lot and so those that had requested our eagle-eyed services were delighted. One research question duly answered. One of our party noted that we could be the only tourists to have visited this site. A simultaneous feeling of pride but a stronger feeling of “well, did you see it was just a field? Of course we are” filled the minds of my immediate company. The substantial wall, by the way, acts as a deterrent to looters.

Time to drive back to Timgad and pick up the remainder of our group.

Footnote: Since this day, my amazingly wonderful friend has accepted a (I thought I was joking) gauntlet that I threw down and recreated one of my photos in watercolour. I adore it. I adore the sentiment. I adore the person. Thank you.

Watercolour of Timgad Capitolium Watercolour of Timgad Capitolium

Algeria: Day 6 Timgad

Mosque at the foot of my bed, Setif Mosque at the foot of my bed, Setif

The day started a little earlier than scheduled by the call to prayer bellowing out of the minaret which so happened to be at the foot of my bed. Well, it sounded like it was but it was right next to the hotel. I readily admit that I am no connoisseur of the call to prayer but if I had to judge this particular call I would return the verdict that it was clear, unruffled and evidently broadcast from a recently purchased sound system rather than a relic from the 80s. This all meant that although it was ridiculously loud it sounded rather beckoning which indeed is the point. Most of my other experiences have been a little of the grinding noise of static with a rumble of a murmured voice.

We drove from Setif to look at an open grassy field. Archaeologists are a strange breed and archaeological geophysicists, of which I am one, even stranger in that this nondescript location was hugely exciting. Fragments of Roman pottery and the odd later piece littered the ground and yet no real evidence at ground level of a settlement, other than a few humps and bumps. Satellite images, by contrast, trace the walls of the settlement which covers about 60 hectares. That’s big by the way. Very big. If you consider that a football pitch is roughly 1 hectare that should put it neatly into perspective. But at the same time, arm a team with geophysical instruments and the likelihood of retrieving a complete town plan in a matter of weeks is pretty high. That was a shameless plug for my work by the way. That is why open, flat fields excite the likes of me. No less exciting is being herded out of the field by armed policemen just as one of my companions decides she needs a human wall while she relieves herself in a stealth-like manner. Living on the edge, us.

A stop for a much needed coffee, distinctly the best coffee we have tasted on this trip, comes further down the road. Lunch is bought and one of the group discovers there is an under the counter racket of a type of baklava (sweet ,sweet cake for the uninitiated). I have never seen the faces of people change quite so fast into smiles between mouthfuls. Caffeined and sugared up we reboard the bus and continue our journey south.

Numidian King's tomb Numidian King’s tomb

We stop for lunch at a Numidian tomb for a king. It’s enormous and was spotted on the skyline from miles away by our party. No coincidence that it sits on a saddle of land visible all along the valley. It is reminiscent of an Etruscan tomb but a lunchtime discussion after devouring some intensely wonderful food, quickly reveals that it was most likely an imitation of the tomb of Alexander the Great. But since we are not entirely sure what that looked like we are, as someone pointed out, amidst a circular argument. It is round and not too dissimilar to a muffin in form (it was pre-lunch hunger that led me to this analogy). A drum base with a beautifully constructed conical dome.
Back in the bus talk is rampant with expectation for our next stop Timgad.

I have honestly waited more than 20 years to see Timgad. Ever since a first year undergraduate lecture at University on Roman urbanism and a rather yellowed slide of the site slid into view after a whirr and a click of a slide carousel. Since that day when I marvelled at the sheer scale and precise layout of the town with its neat roads, insula blocks and child-like design of a Roman city I have wanted to set foot in it. Algeria never topped the tourist destination list and certainly in recent history it was the place to avoid so Timgad alluded me. But here I was sitting on a bus rattling my way south seeing signposts to Timgad counting down the kilometres to our destination. Excited? And how.

We caught a glimpse from afar and the layout of the rectangular shaped town divided equally into little islands of buildings by a criss-cross network of roads looked simply spectacular. Walking into the site was pretty awe inspiring as it rises up in front of you and the sheer density of the remains is breathtaking. And all this coming from someone who has spent years working in Pompeii. It takes something quite special, and emotion helps at this point, to stun me. Timgad is stunning.

View across Timgad View across Timgad

I break from the group to catch the dying light on site and am not quite sure where to point my camera first. I head to the highest point to survey the town from a vantage point and to simply get an idea of the scale of the town. Jaw droppingly impressive from up high. It just goes on as far as the eye can see and everywhere there are columns jutting out of the otherwise low residential quarters.

Severan Arch Severan Arch

The eye is drawn to the spectacular Hadrianic Arch that announces to the arrivals from the west that you are entering the core of the town. It is constructed from a beautiful orange stone and this far south the land is a dusty brown colour as opposed to the lush green environment in the north. But no less majestically, it rises out of the ground and is framed by colonnaded roads. Again the site is scattered with locals wearing bright clothes which is fabulous until I point a camera at something and seemingly the entire visitor population seems to descend on that spot. Patience is a virtue. This time I give in and snap away happily. Safe in the knowledge we will return to the site the next day I take a casual walk to the extreme west gate and since there are no major monuments here I only share the walk in the company of darting lizards. From the west gate it is the magic of turning round and looking back up towards the town, the Hadrianic Arch now inviting and drawing you back to the town. I still cannot believe I am here.

View from the West gate with the Decumanus Maximus winding up the hill View from the West gate with the Decumanus Maximus winding up the hill

I do get drawn back up the colonnaded street and make my way to the temple but not before I have been asked to have my photo taken by a young family. The irony is not lost on me – there I am trying to avoid people in my photographs and suddenly I am being asked to feature in theirs.

The group meets up by the museum which has been famously closed for an age. But the doors swing open for us (“shrvoom”) and the the incredible mosaics found on site dazzle us. Room after room, wall after wall are covered with stunning mosaics. Each mosaic has a million details you want to capture. Each expression of the faces, each animal depicted, each intricate design, each representation of a familiar food. The eye nor the camera can capture them all.

Detail of a mosaic Detail of a mosaic
Flip-flop advertising mosaic Flip-flop advertising mosaic

Back to a hotel in Batna which thankfully does not smell of roast chicken nor bad drains. I have and will spare details but suffice to say this is a great hotel room.

Algeria: Day 5 Djemila, Setif

Today was devoted to Djemila. The name means ‘beautiful’ and the site did not disappoint. Set high in the hills on a dramatic sloping ridge it occupies a majestic location. Those of the group with specific study reasons to visit and myself who saw the sunshine, the orangey sandstone set against the blue sky and green backdrop and wanted to frame it through my lens, immediately wanted to be on site. We were however diverted into the museum which was amazing, don’t get me wrong, but it was just a shame to miss out on the best of the weather conditions by being indoors. But a kind invitation is a kind invitation and the museum was packed with glorious mosaics displayed on the walls side by side and top to tail over every inch of the wall just like the famous over-crowded, multi-tiered display in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. Our group turned into the mosaic paparazzi and there was a throng of camera shutters opening and closing echoing throughout every room.

Detail of a hunting mosaic

Detail of a hunting mosaic

Detail of a mosaic

Detail of a mosaic

After a hearty lunch we headed to site. The entrance charge is minimal and brilliant for it. The grassy bank leading down to site was full of people playing football, having picnics and enjoying the view. If there is anything more pleasing than seeing a Nation embrace their heritage then let me know. The flip side to a purist (read fussy) photographer like me, and this is hugely selfish, is that waiting to frame a monument through my viewfinder that is free of humans is a lengthy process. Inevitably the sun dips behind a cloud at the critical point. But that is my problem.

View down the ridge with the Severan Arch

View down the ridge with the Severan Arch

We entered the main core of the town by the Severan Arch which leads into a large open space dominated on one side by a Temple dedicated to the Severan family. Winding down the ridge by way of the colonnaded street and it became a game of dashing ahead to capture the view empty of people. Issue here was that the group was playing the game and we were all speed walking to be the first to steal the classic and iconic views. Soon though, people became entranced in their field of study and we dispersed in smaller groups.

Severan Temple in the forum dedicated to the Severan family

Severan Temple in the forum dedicated to the Severan family

View down the Cardo Maximus

View down the Cardo Maximus

With a site of this magnitude it becomes overwhelming very quickly you have to accept that you won’t see everything and the pleasure comes from taking routes through the site dipping in and out of houses, public monuments and not having the sensation that you might be missing something behind each wall you pass (even if you are!)



We clamber up the site through some unkept ruins which are evocative for the very reason they are not completely excavated leaving the immagination to run wild as to what lies beneath.

View from the top of the ridge

View from the top of the ridge

At the crest of the hill lay the Byzantine churches reached by way of a processual route up a street sectioned off with what would have been a series of doors – as each one opened you could progress a few more more metres. Gladly one of the group reinacted the “shrvroom” sound of a door opening as we processed our way over the last lip of the hill to the baptistry.

We bump into our different groups at various points but we all reconvene at the coffee shop at the entrance. At this point it is a delight to hear how each group experienced the site, gleaned the information (or not) that they were seeking to find and all whilst supping on a much needed coffee.

We drive to Setif where we are priviledged that the archaeological museum has stayed open for us and we are treated to an intricate and richly coloured mosaic depicting the Triumph of Dionysus. It is the most fabulous 3rd century AD mosaic depicting the transport of wild animals from Africa. Replete with a giraffe, elephant, lion, camels and a mixture of natives and Romans the scene is spellbinding. For a moment the group is lost for words and then the excited chatter starts again.

Detail of the Dionysis Mosaic, Setif

Detail of the Dionysus Mosaic, Setif

Algeria: Day 4 Khemissa, Mdaurouch

Left Guelma and headed south. Must admit after yesterday’s slight dashing of high hopes I decided that I was going to approach today ill-informed as to exactly what we were off to visit. Risky strategy although it is actually less risky when you travel with lerned scholars, as they retain all the information (and more) that you would otherwise be scrabbling to find amongst the pages of numerous books. But it worked. Head was suitably blown.



We headed south of Guelma. Stopped off on the way to buy a picnic lunch. These random moments in towns are all memorable. We arrive, pile out of the bus and for half an hour the locals get to watch a bunch of tourists race around trying to find the right shop for the right ingredient. Everything is new to us and things like local graffiti, a sheep in the back of a battered truck, the strange colours of fizzy pop drinks, the display of bread and the young men kicking around on the streets are all intriguing. Meanwhile, the locals look on, clearly enjoying the random entertainment we reciprocally provide.

The first site was Khemissa. Nothing in the guide book, as I took a sneaky peek (am not a massive risk taker evidently). But as we rounded the corner and took our first glimpse of the stunning orange coloured stone set against lush green grass, a Simpsons-esque blue sky with white fluffy clouds I decided that this site was going to be a photographer’s dream and that bearing in mind it was a Roman town I would identify the salient landmarks on my own and thus I departed from the group and headed off to explore.

View over the forum at Khemissa

View over the forum at Khemissa

Set on a hill but spilling onto the plain below, this site was already dramatic but it’s position in the surrounding landscape was truly glorious. The archaeology seemed to grow out of the hillside and the view from the small old forum which was perched on a terrace and bounded on one side by an appropriately small basilica, was simpy breathtaking. Clambering over ancient ruins reminds me of my family holidays when I was young and sometimes it is more the experience of the place and its effect on me that means more to me than wanting to know the minutiae of detail of every stone and inscription. It reminds me of my youth.

General view across the Khemissa

General view across the Khemissa

Dropping down the steep slopes I meet two other travellers busying themselves with unravelling the residential quarter of the site. I pick up snippets of their thoughts, we discuss a reused block with an inscription that had been part hollowed out into two troughs, and then I was on my way. What a priviledge for me to be able to dip into moments like that.

Bath complex with a view at Khemissa

Bath complex with a view at Khemissa

We meet for our lunch in the Roman theatre (after drinking the cold coffee I had usurped in the morning) and then we are on our way to the next site of Mdaurouch. Again, no entry in the guide book. The guide book is officially useless. Not as perfectly situated as the last site but Mdaurouch won on scale. It resembled a graveyard in that the remains, as viewed from afar, consisted mainly of upright blocks which form the framework of the wall construction. So each upright looked like a tombstone. It made the site a little impenetrable and difficult to understand but once we started walking the joy was in the detail and the walk.

'Pompei' in an inscription at Mdaurouch. Cannot help but post this.

‘Pompei’ in an inscription at Mdaurouch. Cannot help but post this.


Detail of the forum in Mdraurouch

Detail of the forum in Mdaurouch


Numidian tomb at the far end of Mdaurouch

Numidian tomb at the far end of Mdaurouch

Fun drive home to Constantine which involved passing a sign indicating we were 100km from our destination and then 30 mins of driving later another sign indicating we were still 100km from Constantine. We broke open the bacardi and suspicious fruit juice cocktail at that point.

Algeria: Day 3 Hippo Regius

Once numerous carbohydrates had once again be procured from the breakfast buffet we set off for Annaba which lies on the coast and was the Roman town of Hippo Regius. The drive north from Guelma took us through some beautiful rolling hills reminiscent of Umbria in Italy and down to the sea. I had high hopes for Hippo. It was important to Julius Caesar as a city in the Roman North African province, was a major port, was linked to Carthage and well, let’s face it, the name Hippo just on it’s own is just superb. the thing with expectation is that it heaps pressure on the unknown to perform. Apparently that memo never reached Hippo. Underwhelming is to describe it affectionately. In comparison to the squeals of joy and childlike excitement experienced at Thibilis yesterday, the mood was distinctly sombre as we were escorted amongst the ruins.

Roman Hippo overshadowed by the modern cathedral on the hilltop

Roman Hippo overshadowed by the modern cathedral on the hilltop

Some of us broke free from the group but like sheep were herded back to the main flock and the guards corralled us to prevent our uncontrolled enjoyment of the site. It was raining too which didn’t help. Much of the site was a soggy marsh and was so overgrown that access to the site beyond the confines of the roads was limited. Under the roads ran huge drains which demonstrated that in antiquity the water issue had been understood and addressed. We have learnt nothing.

Ghostly Vespasian

Ghostly Vespasian

We saw some pretty lovely mosaics in the museum and as the guide tip-toed across the admittedly poor example they laid on the floor and forced people to walk on it he then rubbed his hands across the face of those on the displayed on the wall whilst explaining their meaning. Give and take in the world of conservation. There were some curious portraits of Emperors but none so creepily displayed as that of Vespasian that, ghost-like, seemed to be peering out of the wall.

A short drive later and we were being buffeted by gale force winds on Cap de Garde. The winds were bracing but the view and rush of fresh air was just what we needed. We trailed the cliff and found evidence of a marble quarry. I am no specialist but with winds that strong I am not convinced it was a popular place to quarry and the scant evidence really left the feeling that someone went up once, grabbed what they could in the decent marble veined rock department and never returned. But like I said, I am no expert, just practical.

Bunting and Mosque

Bunting and Mosque


A quick trip to a mosque to see some reused columns inside but I was more taken with the streets outside. With sea salt in the air, the crisp white paint of the houses and the contrasting blue shutters I was more than happy to capture those. Anyone who knows me, knows my obsession with photographing doors and windows. My photo albums are a riot.



Street scene

Street scene

A drive around Annaba, the modern city of Hippo and we climbed the hill to see the Cathedral that bears resemblance to the Sacra Coeur in Paris. St Augustine of Hippo is synonymous with the city and part of his arm resides as a relic inside the cathedral. Upon entering it is not unlike what I imagine it would be like to be swallowed up by the candy sweet production room of Willy Wonker’s chocolate factory. Pinks, yellows, reds, blues and shades of pastel colours usually only seen in a Dulux colour chart in order to fill the gaps between colours you might actually want to paint something. All pretty hideous. But there was St Augustine’s arm bone (if you believe in relics) so worth having your senses bombarded to the point I could taste the sweet stickiness of candy in my mouth.

St Augustine, well his arm bone at least.... if you believe in relics that is.

St Augustine, well his arm bone at least…. if you believe in relics that is.

The next adventure was a mission (impossible) to get coffee. Firstly, our every step was shadowed by two or three policemen which just had the effect of making Annaba feel far more dangerous than it was. This also made walking inconspicuously around a town and blending in impossible. It thus made finding a coffee very hard as our entourage was huge. Secondly, the other hardship was that the coffee stands were closed. We eventually find one open, squeeze passed our armed guards only to find the vendor really didn’t feel like dirtying his freshly cleaned coffee machine. His only job is to make and sell coffee but no, don’t be as ridiculous as to ask him to ply his trade. We get sent on a wild coffee chase as we ask directions to find coffee which only aggrevates our body guards as the scene turned into a Benny Hill-esque runaround the bustling streets. We return to the bus empty handed and resort to buying a coke in order to quench our need for caffeine. Tomorrow we lay plans to steal carbohydrates and coffee from the breakfast buffet.