Some thoughts from Bucharest

I’m not long returned from a few days in the Romanian capital. It’s a very interesting place, far more so than I had expected it to be before I went. Somewhat unusually for a major European city it’s not especially old; I think it was only during the seventeenth century that it was able to consolidate its position as the capital. Nonetheless, I was able to find a number of interesting things harking back directly or indirectly to the middle ages and beyond….

(1) My first sight of Romania out of the aeroplane window was of open fields divided into long thin strips. It’s something I’ve seen only once in England (many years ago somewhere near Boscastle on the way to Tintagel) but would have been a common sight across much of the country up until about 200 years ago. Thus, in a way, flying over present-day Romania was like flying over the landscape of the flatter parts of pre-inclosure England.

(2) The National History Museum in Bucharest is a strange place, reportedly always on the cusp of a major overhaul but for the meantime its main galleries are occupied by temporary exhibitions featuring piles of typewriters or, more confusingly, nothing at all. It does have two permanent exhibitions towards the rear of the buildings that are worth a look (although maybe not the price of one of the museum’s extortionately expensive photography permits – something of a Romanian speciality by all accounts). The first of these, the lapidarium, is centred on a plaster cast of Trajan’s Column, although unlike the one in the V & A it is not displayed to its full height; instead panels are displayed along walls allowing the viewer to inspect them at close quarters and thus get a clearer understanding of the events they depict. Around it are many original pieces of Roman, medieval and post-medieval sculpture from across Romania. The two pieces in particular that caught my eye were stones from a Roman fort on which were inscribed descriptions of its boundaries; no English translation was provided but I presume that these were the limits of the area under its jurisdiction. I dimly recall reading about a carved (?Greek) boundary description in Della Hooke’s instant classic, Trees in Anglo-Saxon England, but am unaware of British parallels. Are there any?

(3) I’m a sucker for gold artefacts, so the vault housing Romania’s national treasures was a real treat as it contained an extraordinary quantity of them. What is more, most of it was very old gold. I’d never heard of the Eneolithic period (a.k.a. the Copper Age), nor of the Getic period, a regional Iron Age culture, but the size and quality of the artefacts manufactured in both was astounding. Most of the Roman stuff was typically exquisite, as were the Grecian artefacts, but the medieval period more than held its own. Some of the sixth-century AD pieces from princely burials bore a resemblance to the slightly later inlaid metalwork from Sutton Hoo. I’m not sure if direct stylistic/cultural connections can be made between them. Just before I went away I bought Barry Cunliffe’s Europe Between The Oceans 9000 BC-AD 1000, a mighty tome that was a bit too heavy to put in my bag as holiday reading but which promised to provide some contextual explanation for much of what I’d seen on my return. Disappointingly, I found it doesn’t seem to go into much detail when it comes to what was going on in Romania or its earlier incarnations, but this one thing should not detract from what is an incredible achievement on Cunliffe’s part; it is a book whose sheer length and breadth will ensure that I will be reading it for years to come.

(4) Finally, another picture. This one shows the remains of a citadel built in the fifteenth century by Vlad Tepes, better known over here as Vlad the Impaler or Count Dracula!

Curtea Veche, Lipscani, Bucharest

Curtea Veche, Lipscani, Bucharest


About Robert J S Briggs

Back to being a part-time early medievalist; Surrey born, London based, been known to travel
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