OK, just one more post about Lego #buildyourownportus

I can’t stop fiddling. I spent most of today back on LDD recreating the Grandi Magazzini components, to take account of the lessons I learned with the actual Lego model. I also changed the Gothic arch on the reverse, and added some roofing (omitting the ridge tiles, which are not available on Lego’s pick-a-brick service). Here’s a picture of what a few components look like, when put together to make part of the central range of the full building.


The scary thing is, now I’ve got a definitive version, using only bricks I can order from Lego, I can find out actually how much the whole thing might cost. Just the three roofed two story “units” in that picture would cost almost £90, plus postage. Based on those costs – the whole thing could be more than £1,250. Too rich for my blood.

The Magazzini Realised #buildyourownportus

Yesterday, I got the Lego bricks I’d ordered last week. So I set about building, to see if I’d got my LDD (Lego Digital Designer) design right. After I’d ordered them, I’d already spotted a few bricks I hadn’t put into the LLD model, and thus weren’t on my order list. But I was disappointed to that there were a a number of pieces – the corner tiles, the 1×4 bricks – that I’d entirely missed when I was ordering.

So I had to raid my boys collection – luckily he had plenty of the right sort of bricks, plus some others (tiles especially) that weren’t available from Lego’s brick order service. so what I’ve ended up with isn’t exactly the model I designed.

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In the building of it, I discovered weaknesses in the construction – for example, the solid wall can be pushed down off the model too easily when fixing the upper story onto the ground floor. But of course, the advantage of work with your hands, building with bricks instead of of bits, is that structural improvements are somehow more immediately apparent. The concept of learning styles has been pretty effectively debunked over the last few years, but there does remain the idea that you can learn about different things in different ways. My hands could “see” the model better than my eyes looking at the computer model.

One thing I wanted to check that I’d found very difficult to measure was the height of the two units stacked on top of each other. The archaeological evidence suggests the brick walls of the building were 11 metres high (the roof of course was higher still). Using my rudimentary 1 stud = 1 metre scale, my model should stand 11 studs high. Measuring height is very difficult in LDD, because one standard brick is more than one stud high, and especially because the LLD environment does not come with a vertical scale. Comparing my model with other CAD models of the building, it looks shorter, more squat, less elegant than the CAD ones. However, I was please to see that, when measured with a twelve stud tile, my physical model is just about eleven studs high.


So I’m going to deconstruct the model and rebuild it, physically and in LDD, with the bricks beside my screen. My aim is to make it stronger, and use less bricks. I’m not sure we are going to be able to build an entire model during the Festival of Archaeology (especially at standard list prices), but I still want to build the most efficient, model I can.

Which I’m sure was the aim of the Roman builders of the Grandi Magazzini, nigh-on a couple of millennia ago.

Magna Carta 800th Anniversary

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I spent Monday at Runnymede, on the 800th Anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta on that meadow. (Though personally, I like to think that it took place just the other side of the river in the Priory that used to sit beside the Ankerwick Yew.) Four thousand people came to celebrate the anniversary, including the Prime Minister, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and of course the Queen (for one moment I was this far away from her!). I was there as part of the army of volunteers who helped run the event.

My role was part of the team of interpreters there to introduce people to the new artwork which has been commissioned by Surrey County Council and the National Trust to mark the anniversary. There’s a lot more about the piece, called The Jurors, at the end of this link. Its a great piece, by Hew Locke – twelve bronze chairs in the middle of the meadow. It proved a big hit with the crowds, who lost no time in sitting down on the chairs, and making connections between the stories the chairs told and their own lives.

Each chair is decorated with two reliefs, and I’ve chosen just a few of my favourites for the slideshow at the top of the post. Most of these photos were taken a few days before the event, when we volunteer interpreters got our first look at the piece, and they were taken more as a reminder as I revised some of the stories each relief reveals, so forgive the less than artistic photographs. There’s  a lot more details on the stories in the link above, as well as a personal audio guided tour from Hew himself, and, from that site, this is a great YouTube video of how Hew was inspired by the site and how it was made:

Everybody loved The Jurors, and I’ve heard reports from the team at Runnymede that it has attracted little crowds every day since the event. In fact they’ve asked us interpreters to return on a few predicated busy days to help interpret the piece. I think I might, once I’ve checked my diary. It was such a pleasure to work with.

Finally let me close with my picture of the Red Arrows flypast. I only took it on my phone, so its not a brilliant image of the Arrows themselves, but there’s something about the sky that I like.

The Magazzini Simplified #buildyourownportus

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Yesterday I returned to the Lego model of the Grandi Magazzini, that I was building in Lego Digital Designer last year. We’ve got an idea to do a day of modelling during the upcoming 25th Festival of Archaeology. Obviously, we’ll cover the “proper” modelling (CGI and 3D printing for example) as well as Lego, but I thought it would be fun to enable every visitor to the department to make at least one of the “warehouse units” and, over the course of the open day, build up more and more towards the complete Grandi Magazzini.

But to do that, I need to redesign my model. Not all the pieces I used in Lego Digital Designer are actually available. For example, my first model made extensive use of a “BRICK WITH BOW 1x6x2” arch, which isn’t currently available – but more on that later. I needed to redesign the model using only bricks (and colours) that are available on Lego’s pick-a-brick custom order service.

But not only that, I wanted to make it slightly easier to build physically – my previous model would not have allowed for building a single unit and then plugging it on to the main model, at least not without some deconstruction. I alos wanted to use fewer bricks. They are not cheap on the pick-a-brick service.

With those three aims, I set about remaking the model, sticking as much as possible to the dimensions of my previous attempt which, a little bit through judgement, but also with a lot of luck, just about managed to keep to the one stud per metre scale I’d decided upon.

I lost some of the detail in the bricks I couldn’t use, but the most missed brick was the BRICK WITH BOW 1x6x2, which was a lovely Romaneque arch. I had to replace it, in most places with two half-arches. In some places it actually worked better the arches of each floor’s colonnade are now closer to the 5.2 metre width that the evidence points to. The 1x6x2 brick restricted each opening to a width of just four metres. Inside though, the “vaulting” on the rearmost room looks distinctly “gothic”. I decided I could live with that, but the same thing happens on top floor of the rear external walls. Those half-arch bricks are relatively efficient, cost-wise, so I’ve retained them on that rear wall for the time being. But I fear their impact in multiplicity, across the exterior might give the wrong impression, it might make the building look like a monastery, more ecclesiastical than mercantile.

Its funny isn’t when visualizing something, how you have to be aware of the interpretations that people bring with them to the visualisation. If people had never seen gothic architecture, I might be happier to leave these arches as they are. But I have another idea involving a shallower arch, which while still not “Roman” in shape, may be less of a compromise. This solution will look more 19th century industrial, but perhaps that “industrial” interpretation is closer to what we think was the original use of the building.

Right now though, I’m leaving it as is. Its time to move away from the computer and the theory, and try to build what I’ve designed in real life. So I’ve ordered the required bricks from Lego (for £25 including postage) and when they arrive I’ll see how easy it is for my boy (our target market for this I’m sure) to put together.

On Sirmione, jewel of peninsulars

Sirmio, jewel of islands, jewel of peninsulas,
jewel of whatever is set in the bright waters
or the great sea, or either ocean,
with what joy, what pleasure I gaze at you,
scarcely believing myself free of Thynia
and the Bithynian fields, seeing you in safety.
O what freedom from care is more joyful
than when the mind lays down its burden,
and weary, back home from foreign toil,
we rest in the bed we longed for?
This one moment’s worth all the labour.
Hail, O lovely Sirmio, and rejoice as I rejoice,
and you, O lake of Lydian waters, laugh
with whatever of laughter lives here.

Catallus Poems, 31 Sirmio


Last week, the family and I took a break in Italy. We stayed on the shores of Lake Garda, and the first thing we did, was visit one of the most important cultural attractions of the Lake, GardaLand.

But the very next day, we went to the southern peninsular, Sirmione. At the very tip of this rocky finger which, on the map at least, seems to command views right up to the Northern end of the lake, lie ancient Roman ruins.

They are misnamed. Known, since the eighteenth century at least, as the Grotte di Catullo, most of the visible ruins date from long after that pre-Christian poet died. But as his poem (above) evidences, he did once live on the peninsular, and regard it as his home. And there is evidence of another, older, villa upon which the buildings that these ruins describe was built.


The scale of the place is fascinating. We arrived on the ferry from Peschiera del Garda, which is the very best way to arrive because it showcases the ruins as the ferry rounds the tip of the peninsular. From the water, the great brick and stone arches (which, if I read the interpretation correctly, comprise just the footings and undercroft of the villa) look huge. Their presence alone makes the massive scale of building five at Portus less surprising. You mind yourself thinking, as your boat chugs round to the dock, that this could not be some private villa, but surely, such an impressive building, which such a commanding view of the lake, must have had some sort of governmental purpose? The modelled illustrations on the interpretation boards play up the that sense of scale. And on a hot day (like the day of our visit) you wonder if you really want to take the walk from one end to the other. But then, you are surprised by the compactness of the site. Or at least I was. While walking among the pillars and columns, I was still impressed and overwhelmed by their height, but walking between them, traversing the site, across its width and length, and domestic scale reasserted itself, and yes, you can believe it might have been a villa (all-be-it an impressive one).


I mentioned the interpretation panels, and its worth returning to them. There’s a language problem – and its not that I don’t know any Italian. The panels were all double sided and repeated the same information in Italian, German, French and English. The problem was the language of archaeology. Take this example from the MiBAC introductory leaflet:

“…and to confirm the building currently to be seen was created as a single project defining its orientation and spatial distribution, following specific criteria of axiality and symmetry.”

My computer doesn’t even think “axiality” is a word at all, but I think I understand. The problem is, if I understand at all, its only because I’ve been hanging around with archaeologists quite a lot recently. And I don’t think this is a problem of poor translation from the Italian – the less jargon-y text is translated perfectly well. I think its evidence that the interpretation project could have benefited with a storyteller on the team.

I’m rushing off soon, so one final interesting note. The archaeological evidence shows that as the building fell into decline and disuse, it became a place to inter the dead. This is a practice that puzzles me and many fellow students on the Portus MOOC, yet it seems quite widespread. I wonder if the next iteration of the MOOC should explore this aspect even more…