Questions of History Raised by Roman Empire Treasures

A few weeks ago my husband and I went to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City to see the exhibit of Roman Empire luxuries—gold jewelry, silver platters, bronze statuettes, and other artifacts. I was most impressed with the jewelry.

I don’t wear much jewelry other than earrings, but I drooled over the Roman necklaces and bracelets. Most were made of gold and many were encrusted with gems. They would be fabulous if created today, and realizing that they were made 2000 years ago put me in awe. Their appeal transcends the centuries.

Which made me think that people haven’t changed that much in two millennia. Our notions of beauty and adornment aren’t much different. The size of the pieces are comparable to a lot of 21st-century jewelry items, and, indeed, they wouldn’t look out-of-place in many of our social gatherings (if one could afford them).

coin pendants 275 CE Rennes 20160717_133447

Coin pendants found in Brittany, France. I would wear any of these.

Despite the appeal of these pieces—which I assume was as great during the Roman Empire years as it is today—they were lost for over a millennium. Some of the items from the exhibit were found in Brittany in France in 1774, and analysis showed they were probably buried in about 275 C.E. And more necklaces from around 200 C.E. were found in eastern France in 1809.

necklaces e France 20160717_133825

Necklaces found in eastern France. I would wear most of these.

So these items were probably in the ground for about 1500 years. What made their owners bury them? What happened to the owners that they could not retrieve them?

coin pendant Egypt 20160717_133738

Necklace of coins found in Egypt. The piece I loved the most.

Another necklace of Roman coins came from an Egyptian tomb outside Alexandria, and dates back to about 240 C.E. This piece is similar to the coin pendants found in France, and is of the same era. That makes me think of how vast the Roman Empire was—from Alexandria to Brittany. And in a day without modern communications.

Some of the silver was found in Berthouville in northwestern France in 1830 by a farmer plowing his field. The happenstance of this discovery boggles my mind. Why hadn’t earlier generations of farmers found the silver?

The value of the 54 pounds of silver pieces found in Berthouville has been equated to the annual salary of 30 soldiers. In today’s terms, a U.S. Army E-4 corporal makes about $33,000/year, so thirty soldiers make about $1 million/year. Still a fortune worth hiding. Again, why was the silver buried, and why wasn’t it reclaimed by its owners?

paten w cross 20160717_135512

Paten engraved with cross

Thinking of the historical developments during the Roman Empire period also impressed me. Greek and Roman gods were depicted on the early coin jewelry created in the mid-200s C.E. One of the later pieces in the exhibit was a Christian paten from Constantinople in about 500 C.E. The shift from paganism to Christianity must have revolutionized their culture. But was that change more significant or less than what the “modern” era has seen in the 240 years since the signing of the Declaration of Independence?

And then I thought, what else might be buried from past cultures? And which of our treasures might find their way into a museum 1500 years from now?

Many questions. Some might be answered by future generations. Some might never be answered.

The Nelson-Atkins exhibit is entitled “Luxury Treasures of the Roman Empire,” and it lasts until October 2, 2016. If you’re in the Kansas City area, go see it!

When have you been impressed by ancient artifacts?

On Birthdays and Owls: Remembering My Mother

Mother with owl pin

My mother wearing one of her owl pins

Today would have been my mother’s 82nd birthday. One of my most popular posts on this blog is the one I wrote to mark her 80th birthday. By that time, she was in assisted living because of her Alzheimer’s, and she could not really celebrate her birthday that year.

Last year—her 81st birthday—was even worse. She didn’t know that it was her birthday. I sent birthday cards, but my father had to read them to her. I called, but she didn’t do well speaking on the telephone. “Hello” and “Thank you” was about all she would say.

Still, this year, I miss making the effort to mark the day as hers. And I miss my father, even knowing that today would have been hard for him if he were alive, as last Christmas was hard for him without her. He had already marked March 4 as her birthday in his Day-Timer. He and I would have talked today and reminisced about my mother.

One thing I did recently to remember my mother was to take out her owl pins. My father gave them to me last summer after she died.

She had a thing about owls.

owlI don’t remember when or why she started collecting owls. It might have been because she liked the Owl character in Winnie the Pooh (who, though the wisest being in the One Hundred Acre Wood, spelled his name WOL). But my mother always considered herself more like Eeyore than like Owl. It might have been because owls are supposed to be smart, and she knew she was smart. It might have been because an old barn owl lived in the fields behind our house.

All I know is that her collection began before I went to college, because the first needlepoint project I made my freshman year in college was an owl for her.

Mother's owl pins

My mother’s owl pins

Anyway, she had two owl pins that she wore frequently through the years. One bird is gold-plated with green shiny eyes. The other is iridescent white like mother of pearl and intricately carved. The white pin was one of the last pieces of jewelry my mother wore (other than her engagement and wedding rings).

Neither pin is of a style I am likely to wear, but I like having them, because of the memories they bring to mind.

MTH owl pin

My owl pin

At some point during my professional life, I acquired my own owl pin. I’m pretty sure I bought it, but I don’t remember why or where. I think I bought the pin about the time I was thirty. That’s about when I realized how much my personality was like my mother’s—and as a daughter struggling for independence I finally accepted our similarities as well as our differences. I am an introvert, as she was an introvert. I am smart and disciplined, as she was smart and disciplined. I love to read, as she loved to read. I am a writer, as she wanted to be a writer (and ultimately she did let herself write, as I have let myself write).

I haven’t worn my owl pin much in the last fifteen years or so. But when I take out her pins, I take out mine as well. And I remember how much I am like my mother, and how most of the time now I am glad for our similarities.

How do you resemble the generations that came before you?

My Grandmother’s Celtic Cross

My grandmother's Celtic cross pin

My grandmother’s Celtic cross pin

I’ve written other posts this year about jewelry I received from my maternal grandmother—earrings she bought for me and another heirloom she gave me. Today’s post is about a Celtic cross pin that belonged to my grandmother, which my mother gave me shortly after my grandmother died.  

I don’t know the origins of the pin—whether my grandmother bought it for herself on a trip to Ireland, or whether my mother bought it for her. My grandmother, whom I called Nanny Winnie, relished her Scotch-Irish heritage, and wore the Celtic cross proudly. Nanny Winnie never cared whether it matched her clothes or not, and was as likely to wear it on a purple print blouse as on a green or black sweater that would more clearly highlight its charm. She wore it frequently with blue.

It’s a cheap piece, though pretty. Gold-plated, not gold. A polished bit of blarney stone glued in the middle. But I wear it proudly as well, and I think of my grandmother when I do.

The pin reminds me of my grandmother’s aging, not of her prime. It was the last piece of jewelry she wore.

Nanny Winnie needed first assisted living and then in a nursing home before she died. She suffered from dementia, as her daughter (my mother) does now. Items of clothing and other belongings had a mysterious way of disappearing from Nanny Winnie’s rooms. Finally, my mother took home anything of value, leaving my grandmother only this Celtic cross.

Nanny Winnie’s standards of dress remained firm through most of the progress of her dementia. She had loved to swim all her life, and I remember her in swimsuit and muumuu cover-up when she took her grandchildren to the beach. But other than the beach, she always dressed up when she left her home. Always.

Even as she aged, she didn’t like to wear pants. It wasn’t until near the end of her life (she died at 95) that she could be talked into those velour pantsuits that many older women wear. Through all the years I knew her, she wore a skirt and hose when she went out, even after she moved to assisted living. Her hair had thinned, and she wore a wig (though she had begun that innovation when I was a child, so she wouldn’t have to style her hair after swimming). And she put on this Celtic cross, pinned to whatever blouse or sweater she wore that day.

The last time I saw Nanny Winnie was on a visit to my parents’ home that I made a year or two before she died. On Sunday we picked her up to take her to Mass. She sat in the pew, a little confused by then with all the sitting and standing and kneeling, but she knew it was important to be there. She wore her wig, still as much a part of her dressing as shoes. And she wore this Celtic cross pinned prominently on a blue sweater.

What reminds you of loved ones who have passed on?

Memories Prompted by an Amethyst Pin

cropped amethyst pinMy maternal grandmother gave me an amethyst pin many years ago. I don’t remember exactly when, but I wore it frequently with a purple plaid dress I had in 1985, so I probably received the pin about that time.

I enjoyed wearing it with a navy or grey blazer over the plaid dress. And I wore enough purple and pink accessories with my dark suits that I could wear the amethyst with many things. Unlike the clunky gold and silver pins and necklaces so many female attorneys wore in the 1980s to make a power statement, the pin was subtle, yet dressy.

The pin looks Victorian—delicate filigree, ornate spikes, discrete size and color. The gold (not pure, though I can’t find a carat marking) appears to have been hand-shaped, because the points are not quite symmetrical, though it could have become misshapen from wear. The pin might be shinier if I had it cleaned, but I like the patina of age.

I don’t remember my grandmother ever wearing the pin, and I don’t remember how she got it. I do recall that it wasn’t hers originally. She got it from her mother, I think—the Cecelia Ryan I wrote about a few months ago. So the pin must be at least one hundred years old now.

I don’t remember why my grandmother gave the pin to me. Perhaps it was for my birthday, though I think it was one of those “Here, why don’t you take this?” moments, when she was cleaning house.

My grandmother was not a packrat, and was given to spurts of throwing things out. The family still regrets her giving away my uncle’s Lionel electric train. She never had junk drawers in her kitchen, nor clothing she had kept for decades (except for her mink coat, but that’s another story).

And yet, she kept letters my brother and I wrote her when we were in college in the 1970s—letters that somehow survived through my grandmother’s moves from one apartment to another, then to assisted living, and finally to a nursing home.

Now that I don’t dress up for work anymore, I don’t wear the amethyst pin very often. But every once in a while I see it in my jewelry box. I take it out and touch my finger to the handmade points and curls, and I think of my grandmother. I recall not just the pin, but other stories about my grandmother’s long life. I have shared some of those stories in earlier posts, and I will share more in the future.

What gifts have you received that remind you of the giver?

Absaroka Ranch, Wyoming: Sight-Seeing on Horseback and a Gift to Myself

View from Absaroka RanchI wrote on July 15 about the Oregon emigrants’ experience sight-seeing at Ice Slough in Wyoming. My family has vacationed in the Wind River Range not far from Ice Slough, at Absaroka Ranch. Absaroka Ranch is located outside Dubois, Wyoming, at the headwaters of the Wind River, nestled beneath the Absaroka Mountains.

Various Hupp family groups have been to Absaroka Ranch on several occasions between 1988 and about 1996. My first visit was in 1990, when my husband and I and both children went with both sets of our parents and my husband’s sister and her family. That year, we filled up three of the five guest cabins at the ranch.

As the ranch website says, “Horseback riding is the mainstay of your visit here.” Meaning, every morning and afternoon you will ride. There were mountain rides and forest rides and waterfall rides, but twice a day there were rides. Except on Wednesdays, when the horses got to rest (but the humans hiked or rafted or engaged in other strenuous endeavors).

I’d never been horseback riding before 1990, except for one or two short trail rides on level ground. I hope the Oregon pioneers appreciated their horses more than I appreciated mine.  I was stiff and sore throughout my week at Absaroka Ranch, though I must say the scenery was spectacular.

The food was as spectacular as the scenery – from full breakfasts to huge lunches to gourmet dinners followed by S’Mores, ghost stories, and other campfire treats. At least we had something to look forward to after the rides.

Daughter on Two Cents -- little girl on big horse, and proud of it

Daughter on Two Cents — little girl on big horse, and proud of it

The ranch hands did an excellent job of adapting to our wide range of horseback riding capabilities. The grandparents went on one ride (with me and my five-year-old daughter joining them). The adults went on another ride (no, I was not embarrassed to go with the grandparents; I was sore enough after their easier rides). And the older kids went on a third ride (no, my daughter was not embarrassed to go with her four grandparents and me – think of all the attention she got! But when we returned to the ranch in later years, that was another story.)

My daughter – the youngest in our party – was assigned to the biggest horse. A large gelding named Two Cents, who was slow and stubborn.  The ranch hand gave my daughter a stick and told her to swat Two Cents to make him go. She was an enthusiastic swatter, and Two Cents learned to respect her.

Parents got a vacation from children, and children got a vacation from parents. We were all happy.

IMAG0868But I still decided I deserved a treat at the end of the week. I had been a good sport in riding horses. And I had hiked with my husband while the horses rested.

So I bought myself the one major piece of jewelry I’ve ever bought myself – a lovely turquoise necklace made by a Navaho jeweler in the 1950s. Whenever I wear the necklace I remember Absaroka Ranch, our horseback rides, and how hard I worked to earn this reward.

Do you have any mementoes you treasure from past vacations?