Tag: Archaeology

My Scotland Bucket List

My Scotland Bucket List

Scotland Top Ten

Last week, someone on Quora asked me what places I would visit in Scotland if there were no restrictions on how long I could be there or how much money I could spend.  I came up with a list so fast, I started thinking maybe Scotland needs to be at the top of my “Places I Need to Go” list.  And what’s not to love about a country whose national animal is the unicorn? Here’s my Scotland Top Ten list:

1. Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye

Okay, if I had to pick just one area instead of ten, the Isle of Skye would probably be it. There’s just something about a sparsely populated island that I find intriguing. Maybe it’s the unspoiled landscapes, maybe it’s the chance to have a large area to yourself for a while, maybe it’s the feeling that your place in the universe isn’t so tiny and inconsequential after all. Whatever it is, I can’t get enough of islands like that, and Skye is especially beautiful.

Scotland Top Ten: Dunvegan Castle looks out over the water.Image via Flickr by Bea y Fredi

Dunvegan Castle covers ten different building periods from 1200 to the 1850s. It consists of a series of five separate buildings, each with its own unique character and story to tell. The remote setting of the castle, coupled with its backdrop of sky, mountains and sea, make it a must-see.

Visitors may see one of the castle’s most cherished heirlooms of clan MacLeod – the Fairy Flag. The exact origins have been lost in time, but most say that the flag was given to an ancient clan chieftain by the fairies. Stories of how the flag has brought luck to the family are legendary, dating from before the 15th century up through World War II. It has been credited with the ability to:

  1. multiply a clan’s military forces
  2. save the lives of certain clanfolk
  3. cure a plague on cattle
  4. increase the chances of fertility
  5. bring herring into the loch at Dunvegan.

The fabric of the flag is silk; specifically silk from the Far East. Some theories hold that the flag was brought home by a clansman who had fought in the Crusades. Today, the flag is in very fragile condition but can be seen in the drawing room of Dunvegan Castle.

2. Fairy Pools on the Isle of Skye

Scotland Top Ten: Fairy Pools on the Isle of Skye are truly magical places.
Image via Flickr by evocateur.

Who hasn’t seen these amazing images of fairy pools on Pinterest or Instagram? Well, the good news is that they are FOR REAL and fairly accessible. To get there, you will need to hike through the Glen Brittle forest. The water flows between pools with waterfalls of various shapes and sizes. Idyllic!  On a sunny day, the turquoise waters of the natural pools are so clear, it’s easy to see the stones at the bottom. After a good rain, the water rushes along at a brisk pace. Visitors could attempt to swim in the fairy pools, but most accounts say that the water is quite cold.

3. Culloden, in the Highlands

I have Diana Gabaldon to thank for my semi-obsessive fascination with the Scottish Highlands. It’s difficult to resist the temptation to travel there once you’ve read her Outlander series of books or seen the associated television show.  The landscape has contrasting qualities that make it mysteriously enticing… at once beautiful and brutal, welcoming and harsh, refined and barbaric.

Scotland Top Ten: The battlefield at Culloden is a must for anyone interested in Scottish history.
Image via Flickr by nicksarebi

On 16 April 1746, the final Jacobite Rising came to a head in one of the bloodiest battles in British history… the battle of Culloden. Jacobite supporters, seeking to restore the Stuart monarchy to the British thrones, gathered to fight the Duke of Cumberland’s troops. In less than an hour, around 1,500 men were slain – more than 1,000 of them Jacobites.

The Culloden Visitor Centre beside the battlefield featuers artifacts from both sides of the battle and interactive displays that reveal the background to the conflict. It’s worth noting that this site commemorates a tragic event in Scottish history – one that changed Scotland forever. Visitors should keep that in mind by maintaining a solemn and respectful manner when at the site.

4. The Enchanted Forest event near Pitlochry, Perthshire

Scotland Top Ten: The woods come to life at the Enchanted Forest event in Pitlochry
Image via Flickr by J McSporran

Described as a premier sound and light event, the Enchanted Forest has won many awards in the UK. Last year, the show was sold out with 73,000 attendees. This year they are selling 80,000 tickets and will likely sell out again.

Each year the festival has a theme, and partners with local charities to benefit from the income it generates. It runs for about a month in the fall, and takes place in the evening. Visitors walk through Faskally Wood, which is transformed into a magical place by music, colorful lighting, and interactive special effects. You can expect to spend 60-90 minutes enjoying the show, but are welcome to stay longer if you would like.

5. Dunottar Castle Ruins, Aberdeenshire

Scotland Top Ten: Dunottar Castle sits in ruins on a clifftop in northeastern Scotland.
Photo by John Roberts on Unsplash

The castle is in ruins, but it’s so dramatic and romantic I still feel a need to see it in person. The oldest part of Dunnottar Castle still standing is the late 14th century keep. However, a chapel and other fortifications stood on the site at least 100 years earlier than that. We know this because in 1296 Scottish hero William Wallace killed an entire English garrison inside the castle with only a handful of men.

One of Dunnottar’s other significant places in history is that it was the hiding place for Scotland’s Crown Jewels after Charles II’s coronation in 1651. Within a year, Dunnottar was under siege by English troops. Six women smuggled the jewels out of the castle to safety, pledging to throw the jewels into the sea rather than see the English get their hands on them. Today, the Honours of Scotland are the oldest surviving set of crown jewels in the British Isles.

History aside, though… look at that view! I can’t wait to stand there and take it all in.

6. The Royal Scotsman train

Scotland Top Ten: Ride the Royal Scotsman on the line from Perth to Inverness at Dalnaspidal, nr Dalwhinnie, Badenoch and Strathspey, Scotland
Photo courtesy of Belmond.

Travel is a wonderful experience to be sure, but the actual mechanics of getting from A to B often leave a lot to be desired. Cramped seats on a budget airline, rental cars that are unfamiliar, crowded subways. Blech. I have a not-so-secret desire to travel in first class style so I can actually enjoy the journey as well as the destination. There’s no better way to do this than by riding the Royal Scotsman train, operated by Belmond.

The rail cars, which run April-October, are outfitted in mahogany and Edwardian elegance. Each journey carries no more than 36 guests and 12 staff.  With those numbers, you can be certain that you will be treated like royalty. The observation car even has a veranda that you can step out on to watch the scenery pass by. This palace on wheels even has a spa car! During the day you will enjoy excursions throughout the Scottish Highlands, and in the evening you will relax to a fine gourmet dinner. Meals and beverages are included in your fare, but it carries a hefty price: roughly $5750 for a three day journey or a whopping $13,000 for a seven day journey – and that’s per person.

Oh well, I can still dream, can’t I?

7. Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo

If you fly to Scotland, the chances are good that you will fly into Edinburgh, the capital city. Just a word of warning. The latter half of this city’s name is pronounced nothing like the US city of Pittsburgh. It is somewhere between Edin-burrow or Edin-brah. I usually use the former pronunciation.  As long as you don’t say Edin-burg, I think you’ll be fine.

So, what is there to see in this Scottish city?  Plenty! But the thing that appeals to me most is the Royal Military Tattoo.

Scotland Top Ten: The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo is a must for anyone who loves pageantry.
Image via Flickr by DVIDSHUB

Now, this tattoo has nothing at all to do with needles and ink. The term “tattoo” derives from a 17th-century Dutch phrase doe den tap toe (“turn off the tap”) a signal to tavern owners each night, played by a regiment’s Corps of Drums, to turn off the taps of their ale kegs so that the soldiers would retire to their lodgings at a reasonable hour. With the establishment of modern barracks and full military bands later in the 18th century, the term “tattoo” was used to describe the last duty call of the day, as well as a ceremonial form of evening entertainment performed by military musicians.

Each performance begins with a fanfare, which is usually a piece of music composed specifically for that year’s show. The Massed Pipes and Drums then perform, marching through the gatehouse of the castle and performing a traditional pipe band set. Then, the show’s featured acts perform individually. These acts could be either civilian or military. Whatever they are, you can bet that you will be entertained! The show concludes with a fireworks spectacular at each performance.

8. Up Helly Aa Festival in Lerwick, Shetland

Scotland Top Ten: The Up Helly Aa fire festival in the Shetland Islands is like none other in the world.
Image via Flickr by Vicky Brock

You’re watching a horde of fur-clad Vikings marching through the streets carrying torches. You might think you’ve suddenly traveled through time, but a more likely explanation is that you’re in Lerwick, Shetland on the last Tuesday in January.

Groups dress in costumes and carry torches through the town. At the end, they throw their torches into a replica Viking longship, resulting in a massive bonfire. Then the groups visit local halls to attend private parties. At the hall, each group performs an act, which may be a send-up of a popular TV show or film, a skit on local events, or singing or dancing.

9. The Glasgow Necropolis

Scotland Top Ten: The Glasgow Necropolis is a Victorian cemetery situated on top of a hill.
Image via Flickr by p_a_h

As I’ve written about elsewhere on this blog, I love old cemeteries. This one in Glasgow, the name of which means City of the Dead, is situated on a hilltop. Over 50,000 people are buried there, but only 3500 or so of the burial sites are marked. A monument to John Knox, leader of the Scottish Reformation, stands near the summit of the hill, surrounded by some of the larger memorials. If it seems odd to put a monument in a cemetery, I would agree; however, the monument predates the cemetery, not vice versa.

Among the graves you will find in the Necropolis is the grave of William Miller, also known as Laureate of the Nursery. He is the author of the “Wee Willie Winkie” nursery rhyme.

10. The Garden of Cosmic Speculation in Dumfries

Scotland Top Ten: The Snail Mound and the Snake Mound in the Garden of Cosmic Speculation.
Image via Flickr by yellow book

Sadly, this site is only open one day a year, so I would have to plan my travels carefully. The Garden of Cosmic Speculation is a 30 acre sculpture garden that is inspired by science and mathematics. The owner, Charles Jencks, says that “the garden uses nature to celebrate nature, both intellectually and through the senses, including the sense of humor. A water cascade of steps recounts the story of the universe, a terrace shows the distortion of space and time caused by a black hole, a ‘Quark Walk’ takes the visitor on a journey to the smallest building blocks of matter, and a series of landforms and lakes recall fractal geometry.”

It’s such a unique place, I would love to be able to see it someday!

What about you?

Have you visited any of these places? Would you add any to my list? Let me know in the comments section below!

 

Scotland Top Ten: Places You Should Visit in Scotland Before You Kick the Bucket
Why Viking World Needs to Be Your First Stop After a 5 AM Arrival in Iceland

Why Viking World Needs to Be Your First Stop After a 5 AM Arrival in Iceland

I Get in at What Time?

If you are flying to Iceland from the United States or Canada, the chances are overwhelmingly good that you will arrive at Keflavik Airport sometime between the hours of 5 and 7 AM. The chances are equally good that after getting through immigration, baggage claim, and picking up your rental car, you will be wondering what to do after an early morning arrival in Iceland.

Check in time at your hotel/hostel/airbnb won’t be for another six hours or so. To complicate matters, most stores and attractions won’t be open for at least two to three hours. So what can you do? You’ve just landed in a foreign country but you can’t go anywhere or see anything because everything is closed. To make matters worse, it’s still dark outside and your body thinks it’s the middle of the night.

A Stroke of Genius

Fortunately, someone had the brilliant idea to build a museum fairly close to the airport, have it open at 7 AM every day, and serve a breakfast buffet with admission. Viking World Museum (Vikingaheimar in Icelandic), absolutely should be your first stop in Iceland.

When we picked up our rental car, we asked the clerk about the museum. He told us that it wouldn’t be open until 9:00 am at the earliest. The web site said 7:00 am, though, so we decided to take a chance and at least drive by it because we had nothing if not time to kill.

Getting to the museum from the airport only took about ten minutes. When we arrived, we noted that the lights were on and it did, in fact, appear to be open. So in we went, bleary eyed and not sure what to expect. Admission to the museum is 1500 ISK, which is in the ballpark of $15 per person. The breakfast buffet, which includes the museum exhibits, is 1800 ISK, just $3 more per person.  It’s probably the only place in Iceland where you can get a meal for $3.

UPDATE 4/30/18: The price for breakfast + museum admission, according to Viking World’s website, is now 2000 ISK, about $20 per adult.

It was an impressive spread, too, with scrambled eggs, hard boiled eggs, toast, sausage, pastries, fish in two types of sauce, fruit, jellies, biscuits, and probably some other things that I can’t remember. We took our time eating and when we’d had our fill, we proceeded into the museum exhibits.

The Exhibits

The first floor exhibits told the story of how Vikings expanded across the North Atlantic Ocean and settled in Iceland. The expansion began around 800 AD and lasted about 200 years. There were archaeological finds and reproductions. One of the most interesting to me was the burial boat of a Viking chieftain.

The burial boat of a Viking chieftain at Viking World Museum in Iceland.

In the Viking culture, it was customary to provide the dead with objects that they might need in the afterlife – men with tools and weapons, women with jewelry and utensils. Placing the bodies of the dead, along with these items, in an actual boat implies a belief that the dead journeyed to the next life.

The sample burial boat shown above held a plaster figure of a man, with a shield, furs, a drinking vessel, antlers, and other animal bones.

Just beyond the burial boat, there was a collection of figures known as tupilaks. These menacing figures, carved from bones or antlers, functioned as sort of Viking voodoo dolls.  Shaman chanted over the tupilaks to give them life, then put them into the sea to find and kill their intended victims. However, if the victim had his own witchcraft skills, he could send the tupilak back to kill its maker. Here are a few of the specimens on display:

tupilaks at Viking World Museum - what to do after early morning arrival in Iceland.

Tupilak carved figure at Viking World Museum - what to do after an early morning arrival in Iceland.

From there, we went into a room that was showing a documentary about the Viking settlement of Iceland and Greenland. My poor daughter was suffering badly from jet lag, and she fell asleep almost as soon as we sat down. We decided to stay put for a while and let her rest.  I’m not a big fan of watching movies when you travel, but this one was exceptionally well done and informative.

Up and Away

When we decided to move on, we headed up to the second floor of the museum, where we were able to walk on board the huge Viking longboat that dominates the museum’s interior.

Okay, so you know by the name longboat that it’s going to be, well, long.  But until you’re actually standing on it, you can’t fully appreciate just how big this type of boat really was.

Viking World Museum’s ship Íslendingur (which means The Icelander) is an exact replica of an ship excavated from a burial mound in Norway in 1882. That ship dated to A.D. 870, the time of the settlement of Iceland. It is likely that the settlers of Iceland sailed ships similar to the this one, with crews of about 70 men to power its 32 oars.

This ship isn’t just a pretty replica, however. It’s a seaworthy vessel that sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in the summer of 2000. It made the journey to commemorate Leif Eriksson’s trans-Atlantic voyage one thousand years earlier.

Viking World Museum longboat  Íslendingur - what to do after an early morning arrival in Iceland.
The length of  Íslendingur

 

Viking World Museum - what to do after an early morning arrival in Iceland.
Local students made the shields on the sides of Íslendingur. In Viking times, shields were used not just for defense, but also protection from the elements while rowing.
After exploring the massive ship, we moved on to the Fate of the Gods exhibit, an artistic expression of Norse mythology. These were very colorful figures arranged in dramatic ways to evoke the suspense and emotion of tales from Norse mythology.
Viking World Museum exhibit on Norse mythology - what to do after an early morning arrival in Iceland.
Odin and his ravens, Huginn and Muninn, in the Fate of the Gods exhibit.

 

Norse mythology exhibit at Viking World Museum - what to do after an early morning arrival in Iceland.
Thor defeats the Midgard serpent.

When we exited Fate of the Gods, it was about 9:00 AM and the sky was just starting to lighten. The huge window located in front of the longboat provided us with a lovely view of the harbor outside.

View of the harbor from Viking World Museum - what to do after an early morning arrival in Iceland

So, if you’re getting into Iceland in the pre-dawn hours, I really recommend stopping by the Viking World Museum for breakfast and a little history. It will be an enjoyable way to kill a few hours and acclimate to your new surroundings.

Wondering what to do after an early morning arrival in iceland? Check out Viking World Museum, which opens at 7 AM every day.
21 New UNESCO World Heritage Sites – Part 2

21 New UNESCO World Heritage Sites – Part 2

For my post on the first ten new UNESCO World Heritage sites, click here.

11. Taputapuātea, center of the “Polynesian Triangle”, French Polynesia

The Marae, or burial site of Taputapuatea in French Polynesia - one of the new UNESCO World Heritage sites.
The marae of Taputapuātea.

Taputapuātea on Ra’iatea Island is part of the Polynesian Triangle – the last part of the globe to be settled by humans. The property includes two forested valleys, a portion of lagoon and coral reef and a strip of open ocean. At the heart of the property is the Taputapuātea marae complex – a political, ceremonial and funerary center. The site has a paved courtyard with a large standing stone at its center. Widespread in Polynesia, the marae were places of learning where priests and navigators from all over the Pacific would gather to offer sacrifices to the gods and share their knowledge of the genealogical origins of the universe, and of deep-ocean navigation. Taputapuātea is an exceptional testimony to 1,000 years of mā’ohi civilization.

12. Tarnowskie Góry, lead-silver-zinc mine, Poland

The mines of Tarnowskie Góry and the underground water system there - are one of the new UNESCO World a Heritage sites.
Today, you can tour the mines of Tarnowskie Góry.

Southern Poland contains one of the main mining areas of central Europe.  The site at
Tarnowskie Góry includes the entire underground mine with adits, shafts, galleries and even a water management system. According to UNESCO, Tarnowskie Góry represents a significant contribution to the global production of lead and zinc.

According to legend, in 1490 a local peasant-farmer named Rybka found a strange, heavy, metallic stone while plowing the field near village of Tarnowice. He presented his find to a local priest; within three decades the town became the largest silver mining center in the area. Its population rivaled in size some of the major cities of the Renaissance world. Prospectors were coming from all corners of the continent, some as far as Spain. They were spurred on by the massive amount and quality of ore, so high that on many occasions it was said to be practically pure, metallic silver. Silver, lead and zinc were bountiful in these grounds and the evidence of an early metal production dates back to at least 3rd century AD. Sadly, in the beginning of the 20th century, the source of the silver ore dried out and the mining stopped completely.

13. Sambor Prei Kuk temple zone, Cambodia

The temples of Sambor Prei Kurt, Cambodia are one of the 21 new UNESCO World Heritage sites.
A temple in Sambor Prei Kuk

Sambor Prei Kuk is a Khmer name meaning “the temple in the richness of the forest.” The archaeological site has been identified as Ishanapura, capital of the Chenla Empire that flourished there in the late 6th/early 7th centuries. The vestiges of the city cover an area of over 15 square miles and include a walled city center as well as numerous temples. Ten of the temples are octagonal, unique specimens of their kind in southeast Asia. Decorated sandstone elements in the site include lintels, pediments and colonnades – they are true masterpieces. The art and architecture developed here became models for other parts of the region and lay the ground for the unique Khmer style of the Angkor period.

 

14. English Lake District, United Kingdom

The Lake District in England is one of 21 new UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Located in northwest England, the English Lake District is a mountainous area whose valleys have been modeled by glaciers in the Ice Age. From the 18th century onwards, the Picturesque and Romantic movements celebrated this area in paintings, drawings and words. It also inspired an awareness of the importance of beautiful landscapes and triggered early efforts to preserve them. Interestingly, only one of the lakes in the Lake District is called by that name, Bassenthwaite Lake. All the others – such as Windermere, Coniston Water, Ullswater and Buttermere – are meres, tarns and waters.

15. Valongo Wharf, archeological site, Brazil

The Valongo Wharf in Rio de Janeiro is one of 21 new UNESCORTED World Heritage sites.
The Valongo Wharf, now surrounded by the city of Rio de Janeiro.

Valongo Wharf Archaeological Site encompasses the entirety of Jornal do Comércio Square in the center of Rio. It was the landing site and center of trading of African slaves from 1811 until the banning of the transatlantic slave trade in 1831. An estimated 900,000 Africans arrived in South America via Valongo.

16. Venetian Works of Defense, Croatia, Italy, Montenegro

The Venetian defense work of the 15th-17th centuries are one of 21 new UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Aerial view of the Venetian defense system in Palmanova, Italy.

This property consists of 15 components of defense works in Italy, Croatia and Montenegro, spanning more than 600 miles between the Lombard region of Italy and the eastern Adriatic Coast. The fortifications throughout Venice and its mainland territories protected the Republic of Venice from other European powers to the northwest. Those of Venice’s overseas territories protected the sea routes and ports in the Adriatic Sea to the Levant. They were necessary to support the expansion and authority of Venice. The introduction of gunpowder led to significant shifts in military techniques and architecture. These changes are reflected in the design of alla moderna bastioned fortifications, which spread throughout Europe.

17. ǂKhomani Cultural Landscape, South Africa

The Khomari Cultural Landscape of Botswana and South Africa is one of 21 new UNESCORTED World Heritage site.
Bushmen in the ǂKhomani Cultural Landscape

The ǂKhomani Cultural Landscape is located at the border between Botswana and Namibia. The area contains evidence of human occupation from the Stone Age to the present. They developed specific knowledge, cultural practices and worldview related to the geographical features of their environment. The ǂKhomani Cultural Landscape bears testimony to the way of life that prevailed in the region over thousands of years. In fact, a set of tools almost identical to that used by the present-day inhabitants of the area was discovered at Border Cave in 2012. Those tools dated to 44,000 BC!

18. Landscapes of Dauria, Mongolia, Russia

Dauria Landscape, an area in Russia and Mongolia, is one of 21 new UNESCO World Heritage sites.
A Daurian hedgehog.

Shared between Mongolia and the Russian Federation, Dauria is a sea of grass that forms the best and most intact example of an undisturbed steppe ecosystem. Because of the climate’s distinct wet and dry periods, Dauria contains a wide diversity of species. The steppes serve as habitats for rare species of animals, such as the White-Naped crane and the Great bustard, as well as millions of vulnerable, endangered or threatened migratory birds. It is also a critical site on the migration path for the Mongolian gazelle.

The region has given its name to various animal species including Daurian hedgehog, and the following birds: Asian brown flycatcher (Muscicapa daurica), Daurian jackdaw, Daurian partridge, Daurian redstart, Daurian starling, Daurian shrike and the red-rumped swallow (Hirundo daurica).

19. Los Alerces National Park, Argentina

Los Alerces National Park in Argentina is one of 21 new UNESCORTED World Heritage sites.

Los Alerces National Park is located in the Andes Mountains of northern Patagonia. The park is vital for the protection of some of the last portions of continuous Patagonian Forest. A number of endemic and threatened species of flora and fauna make the park their home. The park was created in 1937 in order to protect the alerce forest, and other plants of the Patagonian Andes. The National Park has the largest alerce forest of Argentina. The slow growing alerce is one of the longest-living trees in the world; some in the park are around 3,000 years old, with many of them over 1,000 years.

20. Qinghai Hoh Xil, China

Qinghai Hoh Xil in China is one of 21 new UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Qinghai Hoh Xil is the largest and highest plateau in the world. This extensive area of alpine mountains and steppe systems is situated more than 4,500 m above sea level, where sub-zero average temperatures prevail all year round. Despite the harsh climate, Hoh Xil is home to more than 230 species of wild animals, 20 of which are under Chinese state protection.  Protected species include the wild yak, wild donkey, white-lip deer, brown bear and the endangered Tibetan antelope, or chiru. The abundant plateau pika, a small burrowing rodent, is the main food of the region’s brown bears; the bears also feed on the yak and antelope.

21. Historic city of Ahmedabad, India

The historic walled city of India is one of 21 new UNESCO World Heritage site.
Entrance to Bhadra Fort in Ahmedabad

The walled city of Ahmedabad, founded in 1411 by Sultan Ahmad Shah presents a rich architectural heritage from the sultanate period. This is nowhere more evident than in the Bhadra citadel, the walls and gates of the city, and numerous mosques and tombs. The city consists of densely-packed traditional houses in gated streets with features such as bird feeders, public wells and religious institutions. The city continued to flourish as the capital of the State of Gujarat for six centuries, up to the present.

new UNESCO World Heritage Sites
21 New UNESCO World Heritage Sites – Part 1

21 New UNESCO World Heritage Sites – Part 1

World Heritage Sites

At the beginning of July, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) added 21 new locations to their list of World Heritage sites. A World Heritage site is a place of special cultural or physical significance. Some of the more famous UNESCO World Heritage sites are the Taj Mahal, Easter Island, Petra, Stonehenge, and the Sydney Opera House.

Here’s part one of my guide to the new sites, in which I’ll show you ten of them:

1. Aphrodisias, Turkey

The Temple of Aphrodite in Aphrodisias, Turkey. One of the 21 new UNESCO world heritage sites.
The Temple of Aphrodite at Aphrodisias, Turkey (source)

The name might make you think of aphrodisiacs, and you wouldn’t be too far off.  The town takes its name from the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite. Aphrodisias became a World Heritage site due to its archaeological site and the marble quarries northeast of the city. The temple of Aphrodite there dates from the 3rd century BC and the city was built one century later. The city’s wealth came from the marble quarries and the art produced by its sculptors. The city has several large and ancient structures, including temples, a theatre, a stadium that held up to 30,000 people, and two bath complexes.

2. Asmara, Eritrea

Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, is one of 21 new UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Eritrea’s capital city of Asmara. (source)

Eritrea is a small nation north of Ethiopia, and bordering the Red Sea. Eritrea was occupied by Italy between roughly 1890 and 1941. The Italian influence had such a strong impact on this country that in the late 1930s, many people referred to the capital city of Asmara as Piccola Roma (Little Rome). Asmara became a World Heritage Site because of its well-preserved colonial Italian modernist architecture.

3. Assumption Cathedral and Monastery of Sviyazhsk, Russia

Assumption Cathedral and Monastery of Sviyazhsk Russia - one of 21 new UNESCO World Heritage sites
The Assumption Cathedral and Monastery of Sviyazhsk. (source)

Sviyazhsk is both a town and an island situated where the Volga, the Sviyaga and the Shchuka rivers meet. Founded by Ivan the Terrible in 1551, Sviyazhsk’s position was one of economic and political power.  In fact, it was key to the expansion of the Russian empire. The cathedral’s frescoes are among the rarest examples of Eastern Orthodox mural paintings.

4. Caves and ice age art in the Swabian Jura, Germany

Venus of Hohle Fels part of Swabian Jura Cave Art - a new UNESCO World Heritage site
Carved from wolly mammoth tusk over 35,000 years ago, this female figure is called the Venus of Hohlen Fels. (source)

The Swabian Jura is a German mountain range with a series of caves that have been a treasure trove of prehistoric artifacts.  These caves held some of the oldest figurative art ever found. In addition to figures of animals, archaeologists also found flutes made from swan and griffon vulture bones, and in 2004 a flute carved from the tusk of a mammoth dating from the Ice Age. To date, the Venus of Hohlen Fels, shown above, is the oldest artistic representation of the human body. These artifacts provide us with a fascinating look at artistic development.

5. Hebron/Al-Khalil Old Town, Palestine

Hebron or Al-Khalil Old Town is one of 21 new UNESCO World Heritage sites.
The Cave of the Patriarchs in Old Town Hebron. (source)

The history of Hebron, also called Al-Khalil, primarily falls into two distinct eras.  First is the Mamluk period (1250-1517), in which buildings were constructed using local limestone.  During this period there were distinct, separate quarters of the city based on ethnic, religious, or professional groupings. Second is the Ottoman period (1517 – 1917), during which the town expanded outward and upward. What makes Hebron remarkable is that despite the 400 years of the Ottoman period, and the century that has followed, the Mamluk era quarters of the city are still pretty much intact.

People from three major religions flock to Hebron to see the Cave of the Patriarchs, a series of subterranean chambers located in the heart of the old city. Dating back over 2,000 years, the compound may be the oldest continuously used intact prayer structure in the world, and is the oldest major building in the world that still fulfills its original purpose. It contains the double tombs of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah, considered the Patriarchs and Matriarchs of the Jewish people.

6. Historic city of Yazd, Iran

The Dolat Abad Garden in Yazd Iran. Yazd is one 1 of the new UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Dolat-abad Garden in Yazd Iran. (source)

The City of Yazd bears living testimony to the use of limited resources for survival in the desert by its underground channel system known as a qanat, which draws water and supplies it to the city. The earthen architecture of Yazd retains its traditional districts, the qanat system, traditional houses, bazaars, hammams, mosques, synagogues, Zoroastrian temples and the historic garden of Dolat-abad.

7. Kujataa, Greenland

The first known example of farming in the arctic is found at Kujataa, Greenland. It is one of the 21 new UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Norse ruins next to modern day structures – evidence that the two farming cultures overlapped. (source)

Kujataa is a sub-arctic farming landscape located in the southern region of Greenland. It bears witness to the cultural histories of the Norse hunters-gatherers who started arriving from Iceland in the 10th century and of the Norse farmers, Inuit hunters and Inuit farming communities that developed from the end of the 18thcentury. Despite their differences, the two cultures, European Norse and Inuit, created a cultural landscape based on farming, grazing and marine mammal hunting. The landscape represents the earliest introduction of farming to the Arctic, and the Norse expansion of settlement beyond Europe.

8. Kulangsu, China

Kulangsu China is known for its international architecture. It is one of 21 new UNESCO World Heritage sites.
A view of Kulangsu and its varied architecture. (source)

Kulangsu is a tiny pedestrian-only island off the coast of Xiamen, China. Kulangsu was established in 1903 as an international settlement, making it an important area for foreign exchanges. Today, Kulangsu is a great example of the cultural fusion that emerged from these exchanges. It is most evident in the mixture of different architectural styles on the island.

9. Mbanza Kongo, Angola

cathedral ruins in Mbanza Kongo. The city is one of 21 new UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Mbanza Kongo was the political and spiritual capital of the Kingdom of Kongo, which was one of the largest constituted states in Southern Africa from the 14th to 19th centuries. The historical area grew around the royal residence, the customary court and the holy tree, as well as the royal funeral places. When the Portuguese arrived in the 15th century they added stone buildings to the existing urban area built with local materials. Mbanza Kongo illustrates, more than anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa, the profound changes caused by the introduction of Christianity and the arrival of the Portuguese into Central Africa.

10. Sacred Island of Okinoshima, Japan

Okinoshima is a sacred island in Japan. It is also one of the 21 new UNESCO World Heritage sites.
A Shinto shrine on the island of Okinoshima, Japan (source)

The island of Okinoshima is an exceptional example of the tradition of worship of a sacred island. The archaeological sites that have been preserved on the island are virtually intact, and they provide a chronological record of how the rituals performed there have changed over time. In these rituals, items were left as offerings at different sites on the island. Integrated within the Grand Shrine of Munakata, the island of Okinoshima is considered sacred to this day. However, don’t be in a rush to put this place on your bucket list.  Women are not allowed to set foot on the island, and the priests who live there only permit men to visit one day a year.

Stay tuned… I’ll cover the other 11 sites in my next post!

new UNESCO World Heritage Sites
Recommendations for a Trip to Machu Picchu

Recommendations for a Trip to Machu Picchu

Our Machu Picchu trip was not something that we had planned to do in advance.  In fact, it wasn’t on our radar at all, other than us saying, “I think it would be cool to see Machu Picchu someday.”  But when Spirit Airlines was offering a huge discount on Tuesday & Wednesday fares during the month of May, it meant that we could fly to Peru for just a tad over $200 per person.

At that price, who wouldn’t want to take a Machu Picchu trip?!?!?

This post is going to focus only on Machu Picchu recommendations.  I will have other posts dealing with Lima and Cusco and the Spirit Airlines experience.

The Prelude: Aguas Calientes

Much like Grand Canyon Village in Arizona, Aguas Calientes, or Machu Picchu Pueblo, is a dreadful little town where your options are limited and the prices are inflated.  Recommendation #1 is that if you know that going in, you will be prepared instead of disappointed.

Machu Picchu Trip Aguas calientes

Personally, I did find two aspects of our stay enjoyable.  First, we had a very good meal at Incontri del Pueblo Viejo.  The service was exceedingly slow, even by Peruvian standards, but the food was delicious and the ambiance was nice. Second, I got the best night’s sleep at Gringo Bill’s Hotel. The bed was the most comfortable of the entire trip.

The Preparations

Our plan was to get up at 4:00 AM and catch the first bus to the site at 5:30 AM so that we could see the sun rise over Machu Picchu. Thankfully, I checked the weather forecast beforehand, because it was calling for rain and clouds. We wisely decided to go later in the morning instead. If I had gotten up at 4 AM to see the sun rise and then couldn’t see it, I would have been seriously put out!

Recommendation #2 is to check the weather and prepare accordingly.

We found out that you could buy your bus tickets any day, not solely on the day that you visit Machu Picchu. We decided to go ahead and buy ours the day before so we would be ready to go after breakfast the next day.  I have two important tips for you here: you will need your passport to buy the bus ticket, and the bus ticket office only accepts cash or Master Card.  You will not be able to pay with a Visa.

The Ascent

The next morning after breakfast, we headed down to the area where the trains line up. There was a long line of people, but also a long line of buses, so the line moved quickly.  The bus ride takes about 20-30 minutes, but it feels longer because you’re going very slowly and zigzagging back and forth across the side of a mountain. Recommendation #3: If you are prone to motion sickness, you may want to consider taking some medication.  The ride is pretty bumpy and the bus lurches from side to side quite a bit while navigating the sharp turns.

The Arrival

When the bus finally pulls up to the Machu Picchu entrance point and you disembark, you will probably encounter someone asking if you want to hire them as a guide. Recommendation #4 is to do so, for a couple of reasons. First, there are no informational signs at Machu Picchu, no brochures, nothing to give you any sort of indication as to what you’re looking at or why it’s significant. I suppose you could purchase a guidebook and bring it with you, but who wants to be looking down and reading when they could be taking in the scenery while listening to the information? Not I.

The site

We waited until our guide gathered some more people, and then we entered. I cannot adequately describe the feeling that you get when you enter the site and see the vastness of it. It is nothing short of breathtaking.

There are massive mountains in front of you, with clouds hovering over and in front of them. Clouds, not fog! In both directions, up and down, you see row after row of terraces, where the Incas grew coca. Ahead of you is one lone tree in the midst of the remaining walls and structures.

Here is one of the first pictures I took:

new machu picchu recommendations rules july 2017

Our guide started the tour by telling us to look at the walls.  The Incas were masterful masons and architects.  These walls have been standing for roughly 600 years, and you won’t believe what’s holding them together.  The “cement” that they used was a mixture of clay, llama hair, cactus juice, and ash. Pretty incredible.

machu picchu recommendations stone wall

In other areas, stones had been cut with such precision that they fit together without any sort of cement or mortar.  These stones were smooth and flat, and reserved for use on special buildings, such as temples or the king’s residence.

machu picchu recommendations stonework

Most of the living quarters we saw – whether those of the king or of a common worker – had small cubbyholes built into the walls for them to store belongings.  And here I thought my closet space was on the small side:

machu Picchu recommendations storage space
Inca “closets” – cubbyholes built into the walls of the king’s bedroom.

Our guide told us that the Incas would sacrifice black llamas to their gods. I asked him why black llamas, and he explained that the black llamas were not as common as white or brown llamas. The black llamas, by virtue of their rarity, were considered special and therefore more pleasing to the gods.

There are (at least) four temples in Machu Picchu. One of the best known is the Temple of the Three Windows. Our guide explained that there were three windows to correspond with the symbolic animals that the Inca connected to creation:  the condor represented the spiritual realm, the puma represented the earthly realm, and the serpent represented the realm of the underworld.

machu picchu recommendations temple of the three windows
The Temple of the Three Windows

Perpendicular to the Temple of the Three Windows was the Main Temple. One side of it was sort of lopsided, which was due to natural conditions.

Main Temple machu picchu recommendations
Main Temple with rocks that have moved out of place over time.

I think that my favorite spot in Machu Picchu, however, is the Temple of the Condor, which quite literally resembles a condor.

machu picchu recommendations temple of the condor
Can you see the head and body of the condor on the ground, and its wings jutting up behind it?

At one point in our tour, I looked over to the right, where we had entered. I was amazed to see just how far the rows of terraced gardens extended down the mountain side.  I thought we had entered at the bottom of those rows, but we were in the middle. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that they covered the entire side of the mountain.

machu picchu recommendations terraces
Row after row of terraces – and there are many more that you can’t see here!

There are at least thirty terraces in this photo, and even more that did not fit in the frame!

We also walked around a large grassy area that served as the Main Plaza, an important place for ceremonies, announcements, games, etc.  Our guide clapped his hands to demonstrate how it worked. The sound reverberated off the surrounding rocks and was amplified tenfold. Add acoustics to another skill of the Incas.

Machu Picchu recomendations central main plaza

In general, I was glad that we took our Machu Picchu trip when we did instead of waiting until we were older. Although we did not hike the Inca Trail, it was still a physically grueling place to visit (particularly when you have creaky knees like I do!). Here’s what my iPhone said I did that day:

machu picchu trip workout

138 flights!  Dang.  I’m tired all over again just thinking about it. So Recommendation #5 is to try and get in shape a little before you go. A little pain now will save you from a lot of pain later.

The Incas only lived at Machu Picchu for about 100 years, or three generations. They abandoned the site when the Spaniards began invading the area. So the Spaniards never found Machu Picchu, and for 400 years it sat dormant, slowly becoming swallowed up by the lush vegetation. The world knew nothing of its existence until a Yale professor named Hiram Bingham III found it in 1911.

One thing that I found really odd was how quiet it was there.  There were loads of tourists from all over the world, and yet for the most part it was peaceful and quiet throughout the site. Maybe because there is something about a place that big that reminds us of how tiny a speck we are in the grand scheme of things. Maybe because the history of the place is so sad and, frankly, a little overwhelming. Whatever the reason, Machu Picchu was a travel experience that I will relish for years to come. I highly recommend making the trip to see it.

Note:  Rules for touring Machu Picchu will be changing effective July 1, 2017. Click here to read my blog post outlining those changes and what you can expect

A Visitor’s Guide to Petra, Jordan (Guest Post)

A Visitor’s Guide to Petra, Jordan (Guest Post)

While I’m sorting through my photos and trying to articulate my recent travels in Peru and New York City, I thought it would be a good idea to include a guest post.  This post is from Ketki Sharangpani of Dotted Globe.  Check out her site – she has written about a variety of places and all of her posts include stunning black & white photography. Today, she is providing us with a guide to the famed city of Petra:

Petra is a UNESCO world heritage site in Jordan and is one of the seven new wonders of the world. The rose-red city with its rock-cut architecture has fascinated visitors since its rediscovery in early 19th century. Hundreds of thousands of visitors travel to Jordan to see Petra each year.  As a result, the historical and archaeological site earns the distinction of being Jordan’s most visited tourist attraction.

How to Reach Petra

Petra is in south Jordan, about three hours away from the capital, Amman. Petra is also easily accessible from Aqaba, Jordan, which is a mere two hours away. Many tourists visit Petra as a one day trip from Amman or Aqaba or from neighboring Israel; however, the Petra archaeological site is immense and I recommend a minimum of 1-2 full days to completely understand Petra and the people who once lkived there.

Petra history

Petra was the capital of the Nabateans, an Arab tribe, that settled in the Jordan Valley around the sixth century BC. The city prospered under the Nabateans and was later annexed by the Romans, who built upon the city’s rock-cut architecture.  The Roman expansion of Petra included an amphitheatre, colonnaded streets, and temples. A devastating earthquake in 363 AD led to the abandonment of the city; as a result, Petra was lost to the world. Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, a Swiss explorer, rediscovered the site in 1812. Since then, Petra has fascinated millions of people all over the world.

Petra’s top attractions

The Petra site is immense and visitors need to walk long distances to see all the sights. Horses, horse-carriages, donkeys and camels are available for rent from the local Bedouins.

1. Walk through the Siq

Visitors need to walk through the mile-long Siq, a narrow rock canyon wedged between tall sandstone cliffs, to reach Petra. Partially carved by nature and partially carved by the Nabateans, the winding passage of the Siq features beautiful sandstone patterns on its walls. Nabatean sculptures are engraved in the walls of the Siq; in addition, water conduit systems are built into the sides.

Petra Jordan Siq
The Siq – a narrow gap through which visitors to Petra must pass.

2. The Treasury

Petra’s most celebrated monument is the Treasury. Visitors exiting the Siq get their first view of Petra in the form of the Treasury, a majestic rock-cut façade. An urn, rumored to hide a Pharaoh’s treasure, is at the top of the Treasury. The elaborately carved façade features intricate patterns; most of the details are well-preserved even today. The Treasury is one of the most photographed tourist sites in the world.

petra jordan treasury
The iconic Treasury of Petra.

3. Roman Theatre

Originally built by the Nabateans, the theatre accommodated 4000 people. The Romans expanded the theatre to accommodate 7000 people when the Roman Empire annexed Petra. The theatre is an excellent place to sit and watch the sun set over the spectacular Royal Tombs.

petra jordan roman theater
The Roman Theatre of Petra, as seen from above.

4. Royal Tombs

The Royal Tombs refers to the Urn Tomb, Silk Tomb, Corinthian Tomb, and Palace Tomb. These are the most magnificent tombs at Petra, built for Nabatean royalty. These majestic and intricately carved tombs are opposite the Roman Theatre.  Additionally, they offer breathtaking views of Petra’s city center.

5. Monastery

The Monastery is the largest Nabatean structure in the archaeological park, one that can only be reached after climbing a hike consisting of 800 steps. The Monastery, like the Treasury, is another building carved out of sheer rock façade. Visitors can actually go inside the Monastery in order to fully appreciate the grand monument.

petra jordan monastery
The monastery of Petra in Jordan.

6. High Place of Sacrifice

The High Place of Sacrifice is on a cliff top high above the Petra town center. Visitors need to hike the ancient Nabatean staircase to reach High Place of Sacrifice. Along the cliff top, visitors will see hand-carved stone obelisks, rock altars for sacrifices, and a cistern. Because of its location, the High Place of Sacrifice offers sweeping views of the valley.

Other attractions

In addition to the ancient buildings, the site includes many other attractions like the Petra museum and Nabatean museum, both of which display pottery, ornaments, coins, tools and statues excavated there.

The nearby archaeological site of Little Petra, located north of the main site, is also popular with tourists. Little Petra has fewer crowds and offers visitors a more relaxed opportunity to understand Nabatean architecture and sculptures.

Petra By Night takes place on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8:30 pm. During this event, thousands of candles light up the Treasury and Bedouin music floats through the air.  Visitors can soak up the atmosphere while enjoying a cup of tea. Petra looks magical in the flickering candlelight and this event remains among most popular things to do in the city.

About the Author

Ketki Sharangpani is a travel writer and blogger on a quest to illustrate the world through travelogues & photoessays. Currently, she is basking in the sun and breathing salty air off the Gulf Coast. Read her free 8 Day Jordan itinerary and follow her attempt at captioning the world on Dotted Globe.  Dotted Globe Ketki Sharangpani

Russia’s Hermitage Museum

Russia’s Hermitage Museum

Six Things You May Not Know About the Hermitage Museum

The state Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, is one of the oldest and largest museums in the world. Catherine the Great founded the Hermitage in 1754 and it has been open to the public since 1852. In addition to its stunning architecture and beautiful works of art, the museum has a fascinating history. Here are six secrets of the Hermitage.

Secrets of the Hermitage #1: It’s really big.  Like huge.

It covers 765,567 square feet and contains over 1 million works of art, over 1 million numismatic objects, over 770,000 archaeological artifacts, and nearly 14,000 pieces of arms and armor. There are 2.7 million exhibits and displays in all. I’m thinking it’s probably not the sort of place you want to try and see in just a couple of hours.

Secrets of the Hermitage #2: It isn’t just a building.

The museum is actually a complex of many buildings, including the Winter Palace, which was the main residence of the Russian tsars.

hermitage-museum-st-petersburg-the-raphael-loggias
Interior of the State Hermitage Museum

Catherine expanded the museum beyond the palace to have additional buildings erected, creating the Hermitage Complex. The Russian rulers hosted all kinds of festivities in these buildings, which helped the Hermitage garner a reputation as not only a dwelling place for the Imperial family, but also as an important symbol and memorial to the imperial Russian state.

rsz_catherine_ii_the_great_by_fedor_rokotov
Portrait of Catherine the Great by Fyodor Rokotov

Secrets of the Hermitage #3: Its initial pieces were art rejects.

The King of Prussia rejected the initial collection of artwork that started the Hermitage. The first pieces (225 or 317, there are differing accounts as to how many) obtained by Catherine the Great were assembled by an art dealer named Gotzkowsky. He put the collection together for Frederick II, King of Prussia, who was not impressed and did not want them. Frederick’s loss was Catherine’s gain: that collection included 13 works by Rembrandt.

Secrets of the Hermitage #4: Art can be addictive.

Catherine didn’t stop after that initial purchase. In her lifetime, she acquired 4,000 paintings from the old masters, 38,000 books, 10,000 engraved gems, 10,000 drawings, 16,000 coins and medals, and a natural history collection filling two galleries. Competitive art collecting was popular in European royal court culture at the time of her reign, and Catherine was an enthusiastic collector. Her art collection enabled her to gain European acknowledgment and acceptance, and to portray Russia as an enlightened society.

Secrets of the Hermitage #5: Special precautions were taken in WWII.

Art treasures from the museum were evacuated in World War II. Officials feared that the artwork would be lost in the event of an attack, so items from the collection were taken from the museum to the train station. Two trains then carried art treasures off into the Ural Mountains for safekeeping. It turned out to be the right call: two bombs and a number of shells hit the museum buildings during the siege. Once the war was over, the collections were returned unharmed.

evacuation of art from hermitage.jpg
Protecting the art treasures from the State Hermitage Museum.

Secrets of the Hermitage #6:  Crazy cat … museum?

A population of about 50-60 cats lives in the basement of the Hermitage museum. In 1745, Elizabeth of Russia required cats in the palace in order to keep the mice at bay. In times past, the cats would freely roam through the galleries of the museum.  These days, however, they are only permitted in the basement or on the museum grounds. They have their own press secretary, Instagram account, and three caretakers.  You can even adopt a Hermitage cat!

cats-of-hermitage-st-petersburg

The Hermitage should definitely be one of your top five things to see in Russia – where else could you see such a vast collection of art in a lavish setting like a palace? Just be sure to allow plenty of time for your visit.

The address for The Hermitage Museum is 2 Palace Square in St. Petersburg.  You may purchase tickets up to 180 days in advance online in US dollars for $17.95 (one day) or $22.95 (two day). However, admission is free on the first Thursday of every month for all visitors, and it is free daily for students and children. Closed on Mondays, New Year’s Day, and May 9.

Vindolanda and Chesterholm Museum at Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland

Vindolanda and Chesterholm Museum at Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland

The weather was less than ideal when we traveled to Hadrian’s Wall. Cold, wet, cloudy… pretty miserable. I say that up front because it is quite possible that the weather affected my mood. Between the bad weather and my general lack of interest in the ancient time period, I wasn’t very excited about our visit. But Hadrian’s Wall was on hubby’s bucket list, so we went.

Standing in front of a wall built nearly 1900 years ago that is still standing is a pretty remarkable experience.  Emperor Hadrian ordered the building of a wall in order to defend against possible invasion by Scotland in AD 122.  It was 84 miles in length, separating the Roman-conquered England from Scotland. Along the wall were three major forts and many smaller camps.

Caveat Emptor: There is a combination ticket you can purchase that is good for admission to the Vindolanda site and the Roman Army Museum. The museum located at Vindolanda is the Chesterholm Museum, not the Roman Army Museum. They are two different entities in two different locations. Sadly, I did not discover this until I began writing this blog post; the woman in the information center/ticket counter/gift shop did not mention it to me. (Perhaps she would have if I had bought my tickets from her, but I had pre-purchased online, and showed her my combination tickets upon arrival.) So while I paid for admission to the Roman Army Museum, we never got to see it because we mistakenly thought we already had seen it.  Oh well.

Chesterholm Museum

We started in the museum, since it shared the same building as the information center and we were already there.  The first display we saw was several dozen shoes like this one.

vindolanda-hadrian's wall roman sandal chesterholm museum northumberland

Of all the shoes in the museum, and the thousands not displayed, there is only one matched pair.  I was amazed at how intricate and lovely this one is.

You may wonder how a nearly 2000 year old leather sandal could show no signs of deterioration or decay. There soil at Vindolanda is “anoxic” or lacking oxygen.  This condition prevents degradation of both organic and non-organic materials. A little farther down, you’ll see photos of metal items that are shiny and in great condition.  Those same items may have rusted or disentegrated completely if found elsewhere.

Beyond the shoes, reminding us of the military presence at the site, is a display of spears and other weapons.

vindolanda-hadrian's wall chesterholm museum roman spears northumberland

We saw a chamfron (headgear for a horse) that was still in one piece, and ambled into a larger section of the museum which seemed more focused on everyday life for the Romans in England, and less on the military aspect of life at Vindolanda.

Vindolanda digs have unearthed dozens of Roman coins.   Can you imagine the prestige of opening a small pouch and pouring out just a couple of these?

vindolanda-hadrian's wall roman gold coins chesterholm museum northumberland

One of the more interesting items at the museum is the gladiator glass.  This expensive, imported glass bowl had a design of gladiators painted around it.  The two pieces were found about 60 feet apart – one in 1992 and the other in 2007.

vindolanda-hadrian's wall glass-jar chesterholm museum northumberland

We saw separate rooms full of plastic tubs.  One room had bones, one had wood, one had pottery… all just waiting to see if this piece fits with that piece.  I imagine it’s like having a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle, throwing the box in the air while the wind is gusting at 25 mph.

My favorite part of the museum was the ladies items.  There were glass beads for jewelry, rings, pins, and so on.  There was even this wig:

vindolanda hadrian's wall northumberland chesterholm museum wig

The sign informed us that it was made of moss hair (whatever that is) and was likely used to repel insects.

Next to the wig, we saw a dozen or so combs recovered from the site.

vindolanda hadrian's wall roman combs chesterholm museum northumberland

Vindolanda’s biggest discovery and claim to fame, however, is a collection of 752 wooden writing tablets. They are the oldest surviving handwritten documents in Britain.  These tablets record official military matters as well as personal messages to and from the people who lived there. One of the tablets is an invitation to a birthday party held in about 100 AD.  It is perhaps the oldest surviving document written in Latin by a woman.  The tablets are at the British Museum, but you can still see images and translations of them at the Chesterholm Museum.

Vindolanda

When we finished touring the museum, we headed back out into the cold drizzle and walked up a hill to get to the Vindolanda site.  People lived in the area from as early AD 80 to some time in the 5th century.  Initially, the buildings were wooden, but by the time the mid-4th century rolled around, the Romans used stone, and it is that which remains for us today.  It was impressive in size, but I guess that’s to be expected for one of the major forts held by the Roman Empire.

Much of the site’s remains from the 4th century were left exposed so you can see both military and village buildings, from soldiers’ dormitories to the mausolea.

This is part of the principia, or headquarters building:

vindolanda-hadrian's wall northumberland headquarters building

And this is the mausolea:

vindolanda hadrian's wall northumberland roman mausoleum

You get the idea.  Lots of low rock walls outlining different sized squares and rectangles.  However, this was a surprise:

vindolanda hadrian's wall northumberland child's grave roman

The sign says:  “In the summer of 2010, the remains of a 9-11 year old child was discovered here in an unmarked grave dug through the corner of this barrack room.  The child was buried shortly here sometime after AD 213 and the before the middle of the 3rd century.”  Hmm, sounds sketchy.  (Read more about this potential murder from 1800 years ago here. Talk about your cold cases!)

Another interesting spot had rectangular stones standing upright at fairly evenly spaced intervals:

vindolanda hadrian's wall northumberland hypocaust

I did not see any sign for it, but I found out later that it is  a hypocaust – a heating system.  The Romans would used short pillars like these to elevate the floor of a building.  Rather than have a fireplace in their living quarters, they would have a fire burning and hot air/smoke circulating underneath the floor.  The pillars allowed the air to flow under the floors freely and heat the room above without any smoke entering the room.

Pretty brilliant, I’d say.  If the day we were there was any indication, heat was a very important necessity!

I tried to imagine what this place looked like when it was inhabited. I am not great at visualizing things, but I did find this drawing to help me along:

vindolanda then hadrian's wall northumberland

Even though the weather was miserable, and this period of history holds no interest for me, and I got gypped out of seeing the museum I paid extra to see, the ruins and museum provided a window into the daily life of Roman Britain.  It is a must-see for anyone with an interest in the Roman Empire or Ancient Britain.

Also, archaeology students should definitely look into visiting – you can even apply to participate in a dig on the site!

Vindolanda and the Chesterholm Museum are in Hexham, Northumberland NE47 7JN.  Telephone +44 (0)1434 344277.  Hours vary by season, so call or consult the web site when planning your visit.