A grand day out with the Celts

  1. How many people can you fit on a war chariot?
  2. What did the people Caesar called “Britons” call themselves?
  3. Since you’ve finished with that character in your story, can I kill him in mine?

These are the kind of questions that  have been bandied about over the summer by the team putting together a collection of interlinked tales to form A Year of Ravens – a novel of the Boudican Rebellion (of which, more when it’s published – hopefully mid-November).

Meanwhile, I’ve been to the British Museum:

Display board advertising Celts exhibition at British Museum

…and can now reveal that the answers are as follows:

  1. Three or four, but only if two of them are quite small, everyone is good at balancing, and you don’t actually go anywhere or fight anybody.
  2. We don’t know.
  3. Yes – but not as horribly as you’d intended.

I have to say that whatever they called themselves, I’ve always found the ancient Britons much harder to grasp than the Romans. Not only were the all the written records made by their conquerors, but our notions of who they were are overlain with a lot of  ‘Celtic’ material that either comes from a different place or a different time.  The debate about who the Celts were, or are, often engenders more heat than light.

The arguments faded into irrelevance, though, as I stood and gazed into what – for me – was the star  exhibit: the wonderful Gundestrup Cauldron. It’s a massive silver vessel covered with pictures that are the stuff of dreams, or nightmares: in one famous panel, little figures march forward as if they’re on a factory line, waiting to be hauled into the air and dunked into a mysterious pot of some sort. Above them, a line of figures who have (presumably ) survived a dunking ride away on horseback. I’ve seen photos many times but to see the whole vessel and all its staring gods and warriors and wild animals was just fantastic.

While the exhibition has the REAL ones of these, there are some nice reproductions to see for free – and photograph – in the Museum of London.

Bronze horned helmet and ornate bronze shield cover

It’s hard not to conclude that Celtic artists were having more fun than the Romans and Greeks working at the same time.  The Celts seem to have been unconstrained by any rule that things had to look like what they were supposed to be.  Here (again from elsewhere in the British Museum) is the back of a mirror with a swirly design.

Back of bronze mirror

Here’s the same thing upside down.

Same mirror upside down

Another face looking back, in a less than flattering way? Or is that just imagination? Maybe another reason why we find the Celts so hard to pin down is that they were deliberately enigmatic.

Nothing enigmatic about bling, though. There was a LOT of neckwear on show. Here’s one of the torcs that didn’t make it into the display.

Torc made with twisted gold wire

The exhibition carried on past the Roman withdrawal and down the centuries, with some gloriously detailed medieval manuscripts. Frankly some of what we now think of as Celtic looks suspiciously Viking and a few of the creations from recent centuries seemed to say as much about the times of their creators as about the ancestors they were depicting.

As I neared the exit I was regretting the fact that I couldn’t photograph any of the best Celtic-influenced contemporary art and design when I realised I already had some of it dangling from my very own ears. Here it is.

Silver earrings with woven knot design






Drawing breath

There comes a point when even I have to stop talking. When it seems the supply of words – written and spoken – is drying up, and it’s time to retrench, or retreat, or recharge, or something. The well is empty, and it needs time to refill. So while the editor ponders the first draft of Ruso 7 (which should be published in the spring and may not be called ‘Habeas Corpus’ after all, but more on that at a later date) I’ve been exploring ways of getting in touch with our ancestors that don’t involve sitting at a desk.

Two trowels, one worn down to half-size.The digging of archaeological holes (sorry, “sections”) is always therapeutic, even when the medieval ditch fill you’d hoped to find isn’t there. Still, it was a chance to spend time in the countryside in good company and to try out the new trowel. So much quicker than the old one.  It wasn’t until I put the two together that I realised why.

Then there’s the nearest hill fort (which I’m certainly not digging, and neither is anyone else, as it’s a Scheduled Ancient Monument). You may need the eye of faith to spot the ramparts on the horizon, but those parallel lines running across the bracken are man-made. Although of course women may have been involved too.

View of hillfort ramparts from below

We know absolutely nothing about the people who built the ramparts back in the Iron Age, but here are a few things they may have seen up there. Plus some they definitely didn’t.

Pink Thrift flowers

Bracken fronds

White flowers



Orange and brown Wall butterfly

Tree growing from side of grass bank

This path runs across the hill between the ramparts.  That’s what those banks are. (You’ll have to take my word for it.)

Wooden steps down overgrown slope

This helpful set of steps on the path was created by a community volunteer group (ahem: *takes modest bow*) under the watchful eye of an archaeologist. One of the volunteers spotted a flint in the soil, which is far more exciting to archaeologists than to anyone else.

It’s important to watch one’s feet here and not be distracted by the view:

View down hill to sea and harbour with yacht.

People assume that the hill-fort was created here to keep an eye on the harbour, but nobody really knows. However, it’s fairly certain that the sea was not sloping as steeply as this in the Iron Age. That only seems to have happened this morning. Sorry.





The library of illegible books

Big news in recent weeks, as Ruso and Tilla have mentioned on their Facebook page. (They must be reading my mind.) It now seems someone’s found a way to read the charcoal ink on the scrolls that were burned to a crisp by Vesuvius almost 2000 years ago. There really is a chance that Herculaneum’s ‘lost’ library could be recovered, although it’ll be years rather than months before we find out what’s on many of the hundreds of documents that are too fragile to be unrolled.

Pic of Dulwich Public Library
Slightly irrelevant, but this is where I was working on Friday. Imagine if all the books were carbonised and we had to guess what was inside them.

All of which got me thinking: what would we LIKE to be in there?

In the past I’ve always said I’d like to find something – anything – written by Britons themselves about their history. Or indeed about anything at all. It would be good to have some opinions that weren’t those of the occupiers. Sadly, given that the British tribes relied on an oral  tradition, that Vesuvius blew up only a few decades after the invasion and that the Romans weren’t all that interested in what barbarians thought, it’s not likely.

Second choice would be a book I only found out about recently. It really did exist, but only quotations remain. Friends who’ve read Ruso’s and Tilla’s first adventure may recall Ruso’s failed attempts to write a Guide to Military First Aid: a book he envisaged as small enough to fit in a man’s pack and useful enough to provide some comfort when a medic wasn’t available. So I was delighted to discover that there really was a book by one Rufus of Ephesus whose title is variously translated as “For the layman” or “For those who have no doctor to hand”. The dates of Rufus’s life are unclear so it just might be early enough. Could a copy of Rufus’s helpful advice be sitting amongst the scrolls, waiting to be deciphered?

Third choice… hm, I bet most of us who try to reimagine the ancient world are conscious of gaps in the evidence that we’d like filled. For instance – I am tired of guessing at how much things cost. I know there are price lists and pay chits but they’re often from later periods and they’re scrappy.  I’d also like some menus for ordinary people, preferably with suggested quantities to go with the ingredients. And could somebody please confirm exactly what women wore underneath?

All of this reminds me of an essay question from Uni days. I’ve just looked it up and it turns out to be a quote from Anthony Burgess (he of the Clockwork Orange) – “is there one person living who, given the choice between discovering a lost play of Shakespeare’s and a laundry list of Will’s, would not plump for the dirty washing every time? – Discuss.”

Call me a philistine, but I’m going to be pretty disappointed if we just end up with a few more versions of Homer and the Aeneid.

Any other ideas? What would you like to find – real or imaginary? What questions would you like answered?

Medicus II on library shelf
OK, I admit to looking while I was there. And there was one. Thank you, Southwark Libraries. I did put it back properly afterwards.



New website, very old gate

Thanks to lovely Stuart, chief shepherd at 3Sheep,  for the revamp of the website. He’s now handed it back to me and I’ve been doing my best not to break it. If anything either doesn’t work or doesn’t make sense please be kind enough to tell me and I’ll see if I can mend it, or at least break it in a new and interesting way.

The gateway on the front page is, for those who care about these things, all that remains of the north gate of Milecastle 37 on Hadrian’s Wall. Here it is again, looking much smaller than it really is in an old photo I’d be ashamed to publish, except for one thing – the chap on the right.

Drawing Milecastle 37

His name, I discovered later, is Alan Whitworth. He was working for English Heritage. The object in his hand is a drawing-board and he was drawing the Wall.

Yes. That Wall. All of it. When we met him he had five miles left to go.

I’ve thought about this encounter many times when I’ve been struggling with archaeological drawing. It’s not a job I enjoy. It’s slow, painstaking, awkward, and surprisingly easy to get wrong. I can’t begin to imagine what personal and professional qualities would be required to record a wall seventy-three miles long. To be honest I had begun to wonder whether we’d misunderstood what he said – surely nobody would take that on? But no, we hadn’t, and here’s the evidence.

The pleasure of being a guest

I’ve had the pleasure of being a guest twice this week – first on a virtual trip across to Alison Morton’s blog, where I was sharing a few mental meanderings about historical truth and donkey poo.  Alison is the author of the Roma Nova series, set in a world where the Roman Empire hasn’t fallen – so ‘historical truth’ is an interesting issue.

Then, while practially every other writer of historical fiction in the entire universe was at Harrogate (again, Alison’s blog will give you the low-down) I had the privilege of joining a group of visitors from the US on a visit to Hadrian’s Wall. Just as we were turning to leave Sewingshields (near Vindolanda) the sun came out, the rain began, and magic happened.


.Rainbow over cliffs at Hadrians Wall

England’s Westernmost Roman Town (so far).

Had a grand day out today visiting what the BBC says is “England’s westernmost Roman town“. Exeter University are running a 4-week dig there at the moment. I’m not sure they’ve actually dug up any buildings yet (tho’ there are some round houses showing on the geophys) but they do have a lovely stretch of Roman road, Devon-style, and plenty of evidence that “Roman” fashions had caught on here.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis was probably a child’s bracelet. There are a few more photos over at the Facebook page . The project’s official page is here.

(And where, I hear you ask, is this town? It is, or rather was, just outside the village of Ipplepen, near Newton Abbot. That’s near Exeter, which I assume was itself England’s westernmost Roman town until this one turned up.)

Ham Hill

To my shame, I knew next to nothing about Ham Hill until it appeared on the news a couple of weeks ago.  Turns out it’s by far the biggest Hill Fort in the country, and it’s day-trip distance from our house.  So last week, prompted by this link sent by a couple of kind readers, I abandoned the desk and headed over there to catch the site tour on the final day of the dig.

For proper pictures and text written by people who know what they’re talking about, I recommend the official website… but these are the photos that came back to Downie Towers last Thursday.   There is no ‘establishing shot’ of the hill because it’s too big – the ramparts are almost three miles long – but here’s one of the main digging area. The circle is the ‘drip channel’ for rainwater around an Iron Age round house.

Wide shot of cleared excavation area

Iron Age burial practices remain a mystery: it seems our ancestors’ bodies were often moved about after death – or rather, parts of them were. Although there was no mention of the ‘mass slaughter’ reported in the press (maybe that was elsewhere on the hill?), the site has no shortage of skeletons and a couple more skulls were found in a boundary ditch  (near the mechanical digger in the photo) not long before we arrived. There seemed to be very little attached to them in the way of bodies. Here’s one of them being carefully excavated:

Excavating a skull

As the old joke goes, “A large hole has appeared in the ground.  Police are looking into it”. Or in this case, visitors, who are learning that these pits were probably created for grain storage. I’ve heard of these things but never seen one before. It’s said that if you fill it with grain and seal the top with clay, the grain on the outside sprouts in the damp and the carbon dioxide thus produced preserves the grain in the middle.

That’s the theory, but by the time the archaeologists got to the pits on this site the grain was long gone: they had been back-filled with earth in antiquity and had odd items in them that appeared to be offerings. Two contained curled-up skeletons of young women.

As I said, Iron Age burial practices are a mystery.

Grain storage pit

Ham Hill has been inhabited for thousands of years, and this beautiful flint arrowhead would have been ancient even in the Iron Age.

Flint arrowhead

Modern archaeology involves a lot of paperwork. Below: another day at the office.

Digger sitting in wheelbarrow

The site is being excavated because it will soon vanish into this…

Deep quarry with heavy duty yellow truck looking very small

…which might seem a shame, but they need the Ham stone for repairing ancient buildings – presumably, ones like this in the nearby village…

Old stone house in nearby village

…so it’s all in a good cause.

Many thanks to the Ham Hill excavators for a fascinating tour, and here’s the link to the ‘proper’ website again, where you can find out lots more.

Fiction and Fakery

I was going to start this post with the Goebbels quote, “The bigger the lie, the more it will be believed.” Unfortunately it turns out that Goebbels probably never said it. According to this site, what he actually said was, “The English follow the principle that when one lies, one should lie big, and stick to it…” Of course he may not have said that either, since I’ve only picked it up from the Internet, but it suits my purposes.

This is all by way of introducing a marvellous article by Charlotte Higgins in Friday’s Guardian. It begins thus (and this IS a genuine quote, copied and pasted):

In 1747, the sensational discovery of an ancient chronicle redrew the map of Roman Britain and gave us place names we still use today. There was only one problem. It was a sham. 

You can enjoy the rest of the article  here.

The antiquarians of the day were taken in, and despite what seem (with retrospect) some obvious blunders, De Situ Britanniae (On the Situation of Britain) was not exposed as a fake until a hundred and twenty years after its  alleged discovery.

Its author, Charles Bertram, drew on ancient sources to make his work convincing, and there’s no doubt that he intended to deceive. Whereas writers of historical fiction are honest folk who draw on ancient sources in order to weave new tales in and around the accepted ‘facts’…er, it’s all sounding rather similar, isn’t it? Except that reader and writer usually agree on the rules of the game. We all accept that much of what’s inside the book is made up. While we ‘believe’ in Marcus and Esca and their attempts to regain The Eagle of the Ninth, we all know they’re simply an invention of Rosemary Sutcliff’s imagination. However… I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve assured me that the Ninth Legion really did vanish in Scotland: something that now, in the face of evidence discovered long after the book was published, seems highly unlikely.

Sometimes we believe what we want to believe.  And sometimes an invention is useful.  It is, after all, very handy to have a collective noun for the range of hills that stretches up the spine of Britain. And the fact that it sounds remarkably similar to the Appenines, which stretch up the spine of Italy, might suggest a Roman source. Or an inventive mind…

Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum

1-H&P BannerI  love the British Museum more every time I visit.

Pompeii and Herculaneum were destroyed by the same volcano AD 79, in but in different ways, so that different kinds of things survived in the buried wreckage. Now the British Museum has cleverly put items from the two together to give a vivid picture of Roman life in these towns, which were  unusual only in the horrifying way in which they died.

Husband and I have been to both sites in the past but most of what we saw yesterday was new to us, largely because the Herculaneum museum was closed when we were there and the Pompeii material is housed in Naples. Naples is not the place to venture if you have naively booked a hire car, you only have a long weekend and you have never driven in Italy before. We’ve seen photos, of course. I’ve read books. You can walk through both towns on Google Street View. So while I expected to admire and enjoy, I didn’t expect to be terribly surprised.

Well, silly me.

1-H&P Mummius Max 1

The first surprise was the social mobility. We all know that Roman slaves could be, and often were, freed. They could build up wealth of their own and their children would become freeborn Roman citizens in their own right. What I hadn’t realised was how often it happened. On the engraved list of  male citizens in Herculaneum (there would have been about 500, from a population of 4-5000), over half of them are freed slaves. On the right is one of them: Lucius Mammius Maximus. He became a wealthy benefactor of the city and this statue was put up in the theatre.

Until now it hadn’t occurred to me that the faded figures in the background of some of the frescoes (yes, there are whole walls on display!) were not faded by time and volcanic action, but because they were painted that way. They are of course the slaves, waiting in case the main subjects need assistance with whatever they’re doing, which is sometimes private in the extreme. Where slaves have to appear in the foreground (serving dinner, for example) they’re often disproportionately small.  Playing ‘spot the slave’ is a good game. And interestingly, much use of the written word in both towns is in contexts where only slaves would see it. The labelling on amphorae, for example. They might be slaves, but they were not ignorant.

While we’re on social mobility – how cheering it is to see evidence of women running businesses and owning wealth in their own right. Makers of ancient-world movies where young women are incapable even of doing their own clothes up, please take note.

Apologies for the dearth of pictures from now on. Photography is not allowed in the exhibition itself. So you’ll have to imagine what’s inside here…

1-H&P Reading Room

The second surprise was the Stuff. So much of it. So ornate. Roman society was, as curator Dr Paul Roberts pointed out, all about power, and display of wealth and status. That’s why you would have your strongbox displayed in a prominent place in the house, not cunningly hidden from burglars. Harry Enfield’s ‘look at my wad!’ character would have fitted in very nicely. That’s why you would have beautiful silverware on display, and lovely fountains playing to help you and your guests relax in the garden. Meanwhile, back in the tiny, stuffy kitchen, the slaves would be fetching water with buckets,  and the toilet, used for dumping all sorts of waste, was right next to the cooking-hearth.

The third surprise was about that well-known painting of a man selling the loaves of bread that are stacked up around him. I’ve always wondered why he seemed to be sitting cross-legged on a kind of platform, and handing the bread down, instead of moving about behind a counter like a normal shopkeeper. Apparently he isn’t a normal shopkeeper. According to the blurb, there’s an election approaching, and he is handing out bread to the citizens. It’s not an illustration of everyday life at all. It’s a campaign poster. Now it makes sense!

Beyond the surprises, there was an accumulation of cheering details. When you write historical fiction you spend many fruitless hours pondering the practical ways in which people used to live.  It’s long been obvious to me, and surely to anyone who thinks about it, that normal Romans would not be gadding off to the baths every time they needed a wash. And they weren’t. To my relief, the kind of washing-bowls that I’m sure I must have written into the books (or implied, at least) did exist. There was one on display. Ditto chamberpots (one with two natty extensions on the rim for comfort). There was a useful-looking cooking pan with six little dips in that might have held poached eggs or cakes, and the mystery of what stoppers were made of is finally solved. Amphorae could be sealed with plaster but what of bottles that had to be regularly opened and closed? Wood, fibre or cloth, apparently. Phew. It’s unlikely to appear in a book but it’s nice to know.

Oh, and dormice. I know every fictional Roman banquet has to include dormice, but they really did eat them. You could even keep them in a special pot with built-in feeding bowls while you fattened them up.

The most thought-provoking exhibits, though, were not – for me – the famous plaster casts of the dead. They are shocking, but I have seen them before. What really brought the disaster home to me were the collections of once-useful items that the victims had chosen to take with them, and which were rendered irrelevant in the face of the catastrophe. A soldier died on the beach at Herculaneum wearing his military belt, his sword and his dagger. Many people had grabbed jewellery and coins. One girl had a collection of good-luck charms. People took keys to doors that ceased to exist when they did. Most moving of all, I found, was the set of surgeon’s instruments that had been neatly stored in a protective case, so that the owner would be ready to help someone when needed.

1-H&P outside the BMSeeing for yourself:

The British Museum site has the info and there’s a promise of an iphone/Android app coming soon. Meanwhile if you’re thinking of going – do book.  It was packed. There are other events happening in conjunction with the display, so check out the events page for a chance to see Robert Harris and/or Lindsey Davis, amongst others.

1-H&P shop

For those in the UK who can’t get there, the Museum are doing a live event screening in cinemas around the country on 18 June. If you can’t get to that… well, you could drop some very large hints to your loved ones that the catalogue would make a fine present…

These men are after your money…

…and they’re armed.



Having seen what they look like, you’ll be pleased to hear they won’t be dropping by to collect. Instead authors Ben Kane, Anthony Riches and Russell Whitfield will be walking the length of Hadrian’s Wall this April (yes, dressed like that) and they’re on the hunt for sponsors*.

All the money they raise will go to two excellent causes –  Combat Stress and Medecins Sans Frontieres.   If you want to join in without getting the blisters,  here’s where you do it.

*UPDATE, 9 April – offers of sponsorship for the walk are now heading towards £9,000!