Diana at Nottingham, or: how modern technology can breathe new life into ancient body parts

Ever wondered how it felt for a Roman to be in a sanctuary at a time when it was still fully operational? To attend a religious ritual? Or to place an object there, to dedicate it, and to ask the gods for something good to happen to you, or say your thanks for something good you had received?

 

These were all questions we wanted to provide answers for when we embarked on our project “Speculum Dianae [Latin for: Mirror of Diana]. Nemi at Nottingham”; a project in the shape of a website which uses modern tools, pod casts and digital greeting cards, to generate a virtual temple and bring ancient experiences closer to our own modern perceptions. We, that are: Ann Inscker from the Nottingham Castle Museums and Galleries; and from the University of Nottingham Damian Schofield, Jez Noond, Jack March (School of Computer Science), and myself (Department of Classics).

The Sanctuary of Diana at Nemi


So, what is this Mirror of Diana all about? It is not a cult object once owned by the late Princess of Wales now offered on eBay, at least not that I am aware of; “Mirror of Diana” is the nickname of the Lake of Nemi, a lake in the Alban Hills south of the city of Rome in Italy. As you can see in picture 1, it is set in a deep volcanic crater and produces stunning mirror images of the surrounding landscape. In the Roman period, this was a very popular weekend resort for rich Roman urbanites who had luxurious villas along the shores of the lake – in the summer, the climate here is much milder and bearable than in Rome itself.
The lake has also been the location for a very ancient and very important cult of the goddess Diana, the goddess of hunting, but also of healing and of procreation, and the protector of slaves. This cult had pretty unusual rites: a slave could challenge the priest to a fight by slapping him with a branch from the forest surrounding the sanctuary. Whoever won the fight was the new priest; and this was a great way for slaves to free themselves. It is this ritual which attracted a wide variety of modern scholars, artists and writers to the site ever since the 18th century. In 1922, Sir James Fraser even named his groundbreaking book on the myths of ancient societies “The Golden Bough” in reference to the Nemi ritual.
This explains the mirror part; but where does Nottingham come in? A place more frequently associated with Robin Hood and the evil Sheriff than with ancient religion…The Nottingham Museums hold – together with the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen (yes, the place is related to the Brewery) – the largest collection of archaeological finds from the site of Nemi, including marble sculpture, bronzes and coins, and a vast array of terracotta dedications to Diana which frequently resemble body parts, eyes, hands, wombs…you name it. These so-called anatomical votives can be explained by the fact that the sanctuary was also a place of healing, a healing sanctuary where people asked Diana to be cured from their diseases.
The reason for these finds to be in Nottingham is that they were given to the museums by the first excavator of the site, Lord John Savile. Savile, who was the British Ambassador to Rome, started excavating on the shores of the lake in 1885, in an area which belonged to an Italian aristocrat, Prince Orsini. The Nottingham Museums still hold the documentation of his campaign, letters and photographs which provide an excellent source to understand how Savile, himself not a professional archaeologist but more of a gentleman adventurer, went about unearthing a large rectangular terrace which formed the core of the Sanctuary of Diana; and on this terrace he located a temple and various cult rooms, and he found large amounts of these small anatomical votives. After only a year, Savile pulled out of the excavations because of disagreements with Prince Orsini. The finds he brought back to Britain landed in the Nottingham Castle Museums because these were the public collections closest to Savile’s family home in Rufford Abbey in Nottinghamshire.

The Speculum Dianae website


So much for the history of Nemi at Nottingham. Now let’s fast-forward to our virtual temple in the guise of a website. We had two reasons to present the material Savile unearthed alongside his 19th-century photographs of the excavations and our modern comments in the shape of an interactive website. One was that even though the Nemi finds are an important part of the museum collections at Nottingham which get the attention from scholars worldwide they are currently not on display in the Castle Museums and Galleries but packed away in the storerooms; which means that public audiences miss out on exciting objects which can throw an interesting and at times rather hilarious light on ancient everyday religious life, e.g. the terracotta statuette of a woman which shows all her intestines as if she was lying on a table in one CIS morgue or other – imagine using this in a biology class! Gives a whole new edge to the use of Classics…and definitely needs to be brought to public attention; what better way to do this than a website?
The other reason was that the five of us are all interested in the question how we reconstruct things based on the evidence we have (how much of Mickey Mouse does one need to be absolutely certain that it really is Mickey? The ears? The four-finger-only hand? If I only have a bow tie and reconstruct Mickey, do I need to tell you that everything but the bow tie is the product of my imagination, dynamic and colourful as it might be, but not necessarily in tune with factual reality?); and we ask this question from a variety of perspectives – with Damian and Jack e.g. coming from the angle of legal forensics, which to the common Classicist like myself greatly appeals but can also be somewhat disturbing (how much of a body does one need to reconstruct a 3D image of how the victim looked when still alive? And how reliable is this type of evidence in court?).
For the Nemi website, we focused our different approaches on the objective to show our audience how people see ‑ in our case the Romans, Lord Savile, and we ourselves as modern interpreters – and how they experience the world which surrounds them. At its core is the attempt to single out segments of this experience of seeing and understanding ancient material, and in this specific case an ancient sanctuary. By working through these segments, you can construct an experience of the sanctuary which re-enacts to a certain degree the one an ancient visitor to the site would have had. At the same time however, you can also experience all the variables, necessities for assumptions and deductions from current practices that form the basis of modern archaeological research.
In doing this, we wanted to move away from an absolute reconstruction, allowing you to experiment with multiple interpretations of the evidence. This is meant to maintain the critical distance to the reconstruction of the site – a distance missing from many modern 3D reconstructions which frequently replace historical uncertainty with impressive computer-generated reconstructions, and critical analysis with a ‘seeing is believing’ attitude which negates what this very process of seeing actually incorporates.

And here is how we did it (do test the website and let us know whether this works for you). The site has three different sections :
(a)Explore the Sanctuary
(b)Build a Virtual Temple
(c)Send a Virtual Votive

The explore section offers specialist talks (ok, we do look a bit odd, but have you ever tried to read from a teleprompt?) on various topics around the sanctuary. We opted for video talks which introduce the team members to maintain a personal approach. These talks are accompanied by slide shows, introducing to Nemi. 
Moving to the temple section. Here, you can choose from photographs of architectural elements Savile found at the site, and you can see how choosing different elements can have an effect on how the temple you reconstruct looks. In modern scholarship, hardly anything is known about the actual temple(s), except for the existence of some foundation walls, for which Savile’s 19th-century photographs still form the best source, and elements of architectural decoration which come from different periods. Together, they suggest the existence of two or three different temple buildings replacing each other over time on the same site (4th century BC to 1st century CE).

In the last section, you can place a dedication in the temple. Here, the principles of a virtual greeting card are adopted to introduce to one of the main activities in a Roman sanctuary: making a dedication, presenting something to the gods.
You can choose from ca. 80 objects, presented in different categories (Congratulations, Condolences, Celebrations…) which reflect the intentions with which the Romans made dedications in the sanctuary. Here, you can access an image and a catalogue-style text about the piece, and you can add an individual message and send it to your friends or family or anyone you want to say something to (mind you, this puts your recipient in the role of a god – I bet there are quite a few people out there who will love that!). A notification is sent to the recipient with a link to access the votive site, to see the object dedicated together with your message, and the academic explanation.
Just like in the explore section, our idea was to give as much space as possible to the actual objects: the images form the most prominent part, but they are not entirely left to their own devices: the catalogue-style explanation contextualises the artefact in its historical context, while your personal message makes it also part of a modern experience, your experience ‑ a level of emotional interaction which is vital for the process of seeing, but hardly ever stimulated in an academic context. At the same time, this emotional experience is not entirely random: this placing of a wish, connected to an artefact, mirrors the process of ancient dedication, and sets you as the dedicant together with your recipient in proximity to an ancient experience, directly introducing to a vital aspect of Roman religion. But, hey, it is also great simply to send a last-minute birthday greeting…
 
With the “Speculum Dianae” site we want to send you on a journey to practice the interpretation of visual evidence and at the same time learn about a fascinating corpus of archaeological material. In visualising the artefact along with ancient mind frames and modern assumptions about it, we aim to generate a reconstruction which creates a broader scope for interpretations and allows for changes of these very interpretations, very likely to occur over time – academics, and especially Classicists change their mind all the time, I could tell you stories…

The current website, which was funded by the Humanities and Social Sciences Strategy Research Fund and the Visual Learning Lab at the University of Nottingham, is only the beginning of our attempts to reconstruct an ancient site – watch this space! We are currently working on a more extensive 3D reconstruction of the Nemi site and its finds, and on an interactive tour-guide which can be used on a PDA computer with which you can learn about the site and record your thoughts, ideas, and feelings while moving through it. In this way, you can map your modern experience alongside with what we know about the ancients. In pursuing this project, the team at Nottingham is also supported by volunteers and placement students – so, if you want to become part of the Nemi experience, do get in touch!

E

1 The Lake of Nemi as it looks today (shot from between the fragrant rubbish bins of a supermarket…you wouldn’t have guessed…). The Sanctuary is located on the opposite shore (follow the arrow).

ver wondered how it felt for a Roman to be in a sanctuary at a time when it was still fully operational? To attend a religious ritual? Or to place an object there, to dedicate it, and to ask the gods for something good to happen to you, or say your thanks for something good you had received? These were all questions we wanted to provide answers for when we embarked on our project “Speculum Dianae [Latin for: Mirror of Diana]. Nemi at Nottingham”; a project in the shape of a website which uses modern tools, pod casts and digital greeting cards, to generate a virtual temple and bring ancient experiences closer to our own modern perceptions. We, that are: Ann Inscker from the Nottingham Castle Museums and Galleries; and from the University of Nottingham Damian Schofield, Jez Noond, Jack March (School of Computer Science), and myself (Department of Classics).

 

The Sanctuary of Diana at Nemi

So, what is this Mirror of Diana all about? It is not a cult object once owned by the late Princess of Wales now offered on eBay, at least not that I am aware of; “Mirror of Diana” is the nickname of the Lake of Nemi, a lake in the Alban Hills south of the city of Rome in Italy. As you can see in picture 1, it is set in a deep volcanic crater and produces stunning mirror images of the surrounding landscape. In the Roman period, this was a very popular weekend resort for rich Roman urbanites who had luxurious villas along the shores of the lake – in the summer, the climate here is much milder and bearable than in Rome itself.

The lake has also been the location for a very ancient and very important cult of the goddess Diana, the goddess of hunting, but also of healing and of procreation, and the protector of slaves. This cult had pretty unusual rites: a slave could challenge the priest to a fight by slapping him with a branch from the forest surrounding the sanctuary. Whoever won the fight was the new priest; and this was a great way for slaves to free themselves. It is this ritual which attracted a wide variety of modern scholars, artists and writers to the site ever since the 18th century. In 1922, Sir James Fraser even named his groundbreaking book on the myths of ancient societies “The Golden Bough” in reference to the Nemi ritual.

This explains the mirror part; but where does Nottingham come in? A place more frequently associated with Robin Hood and the evil Sheriff than with ancient religion…The Nottingham Museums hold – together with the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen (yes, the place is related to the Brewery) – the largest collection of archaeological finds from the site of Nemi, including marble sculpture, bronzes and coins, and a vast array of terracotta dedications to Diana which frequently resemble body parts, eyes, hands, wombs…you name it. These so-called anatomical votives can be explained by the fact that the sanctuary was also a place of healing, a healing sanctuary where people asked Diana to be cured from their diseases.

The reason for these finds to be in Nottingham is that they were given to the museums by the first excavator of the site, Lord John Savile. Savile, who was the British Ambassador to Rome, started excavating on the shores of the lake in 1885, in an area which belonged to an Italian aristocrat, Prince Orsini. The Nottingham Museums still hold the documentation of his campaign, letters and photographs which provide an excellent source to understand how Savile, himself not a professional archaeologist but more of a gentleman adventurer, went about unearthing a large rectangular terrace which formed the core of the Sanctuary of Diana; and on this terrace he located a temple and various cult rooms, and he found large amounts of these small anatomical votives. After only a year, Savile pulled out of the excavations because of disagreements with Prince Orsini. The finds he brought back to Britain landed in the Nottingham Castle Museums because these were the public collections closest to Savile’s family home in Rufford Abbey in Nottinghamshire.

 

The Speculum Dianae website

S

2 The tripartite intro screen of the Speculum Dianae website with the “Explore”, “Build” and “Send” sections

o much for the history of Nemi at Nottingham. Now let’s fast-forward to our virtual temple in the guise of a website. We had two reasons to present the material Savile unearthed alongside his 19th-century photographs of the excavations and our modern comments in the shape of an interactive website. One was that even though the Nemi finds are an important part of the museum collections at Nottingham which get the attention from scholars worldwide they are currently not on display in the Castle Museums and Galleries but packed away in the storerooms; which means that public audiences miss out on exciting objects which can throw an interesting and at times rather hilarious light on ancient everyday religious life, e.g. the terracotta statuette of a woman which shows all her intestines as if she was lying on a table in one CIS morgue or other – imagine using this in a biology class! Gives a whole new edge to the use of Classics…and definitely needs to be brought to public attention; what better way to do this than a website?

The other reason was that the five of us are all interested in the question how we reconstruct things based on the evidence we have (how much of Mickey Mouse does one need to be absolutely certain that it really is Mickey? The ears? The four-finger-only hand? If I only have a bow tie and reconstruct Mickey, do I need to tell you that everything but the bow tie is the product of my imagination, dynamic and colourful as it might be, but not necessarily in tune with factual reality?); and we ask this question from a variety of perspectives – with Damian and Jack e.g. coming from the angle of legal forensics, which to the common Classicist like myself greatly appeals but can also be somewhat disturbing (how much of a body does one need to reconstruct a 3D image of how the victim looked when still alive? And how reliable is this type of evidence in court?).

For the Nemi website, we focused our different approaches on the objective to show our audience how people see   in our case the Romans, Lord Savile, and we ourselves as modern interpreters – and how they experience the world which surrounds them. At its core is the attempt to single out segments of this experience of seeing and understanding ancient material, and in this specific case an ancient sanctuary. By working through these segments, you can construct an experience of the sanctuary which re-enacts to a certain degree the one an ancient visitor to the site would have had. At the same time however, you can also experience all the variables, necessities for assumptions and deductions from current practices that form the basis of modern archaeological research.

In doing this, we wanted to move away from an absolute reconstruction, allowing you to experiment with multiple interpretations of the evidence. This is meant to maintain the critical distance to the reconstruction of the site – a distance missing from many modern 3D reconstructions which frequently replace historical uncertainty with impressive computer-generated reconstructions, and critical analysis with a ‘seeing is believing’ attitude which negates what this very process of seeing actually incorporates.

 

And here is how we did it (do test the website and let us know whether this works for you). The site has three different sections (see picture 2):

  1. Explore the Sanctuary

  2. Build a Virtual Temple

  3. Send a Virtual Votive

 

The explore section offers specialist talks (ok, we do look a bit odd, but have you ever tried to read from a teleprompt?) on various topics around the sanctuary. We opted for video talks which introduce the team members to maintain a personal approach. These talks are accompanied by slide shows, introducing to Nemi.

Moving to the temple section. Here, you can choose from photographs of architectural elements Savile found at the site, and you can see how choosing different elements can have an effect on how the temple you reconstruct looks. In modern scholarship, hardly anything is known about the actual temple(s), except for the existence of some foundation walls, for which Savile’s 19th-century photographs still form the best source, and elements of architectural decoration which come from different periods. Together, they suggest the existence of two or three different temple buildings replacing each other over time on the same site (4th century BC to 1st century CE).

 

In the last section, you can place a dedication in the temple. Here, the principles of a virtual greeting card are adopted to introduce to one of the main activities in a Roman sanctuary: making a dedication, presenting something to the gods.

You can choose from ca. 80 objects, presented in different categories (Congratulations, Condolences, Celebrations…) which reflect the intentions with which the Romans made dedications in the sanctuary. Here, you can access an image and a catalogue-style text about the piece, and you can add an individual message and send it to your friends or family or anyone you want to say something to (mind you, this puts your recipient in the role of a god – I bet there are quite a few people out there who will love that!). A notification is sent to the recipient with a link to access the votive site, to see the object dedicated together with your message, and the academic explanation.

Just like in the explore section, our idea was to give as much space as possible to the actual objects: the images form the most prominent part, but they are not entirely left to their own devices: the catalogue-style explanation contextualises the artefact in its historical context, while your personal message makes it also part of a modern experience, your experience   a level of emotional interaction which is vital for the process of seeing, but hardly ever stimulated in an academic context. At the same time, this emotional experience is not entirely random: this placing of a wish, connected to an artefact, mirrors the process of ancient dedication, and sets you as the dedicant together with your recipient in proximity to an ancient experience, directly introducing to a vital aspect of Roman religion. But, hey, it is also great simply to send a last-minute birthday greeting…

 

With the “Speculum Dianae” site we want to send you on a journey to practice the interpretation of visual evidence and at the same time learn about a fascinating corpus of archaeological material. In visualising the artefact along with ancient mind frames and modern assumptions about it, we aim to generate a reconstruction which creates a broader scope for interpretations and allows for changes of these very interpretations, very likely to occur over time – academics, and especially Classicists change their mind all the time, I could tell you stories…

 

The current website, which was funded by the Humanities and Social Sciences Strategy Research Fund and the Visual Learning Lab at the University of Nottingham, is only the beginning of our attempts to reconstruct an ancient site – watch this space! We are currently working on a more extensive 3D reconstruction of the Nemi site and its finds, and on an interactive tour-guide which can be used on a PDA computer with which you can learn about the site and record your thoughts, ideas, and feelings while moving through it. In this way, you can map your modern experience alongside with what we know about the ancients. In pursuing this project, the team at Nottingham is also supported by volunteers and placement students – so, if you want to become part of the Nemi experience, do get in touch!