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






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…

Damnatio Memoriae

We don’t often venture to comment on the news here at Downie Towers, but current attempts to erase the name of Jimmy Savile from public display put me in mind of this:

Bronze Roman corn measure
Bronze Roman corn measure (‘modius’) found at Carvoran. Now in Chesters museum near Hadrian’s wall.

The focus is somewhat awry, but that’s not why you can’t read the top line of the lettering. It’s been deliberately defaced. The name that’s missing is that of  the emperor Domitian, a vicious tyrant  who by the end of his reign was so paranoid that he had polished walls installed in his galleries so that he could see the reflection of anyone trying to creep up behind him.  Nonetheless, he was murdered.  Afterwards the senators “even had ladders brought and his shield and images torn down before their eyes and dashed upon the ground; finally they passed a decree that his inscriptions should everywhere be erased, and all record of him obliterated.”

You can read the rest of  Suetonius’s marvellously gossipy biography of Domitian here. And there’s a better-focused photo of the modius here.

Now you see it… now you don’t. Now you see it.

I was deeply disappointed – outraged, actually – when the wonderful Roman cavalry helmet found at Crosby Garrett was auctioned a couple of years ago. Tullie House Museum, who would have put it on public display, couldn’t outbid the offer of two million pounds made by a private buyer, and one of the most exciting Roman finds Britain has seen for years disappeared from sight.

And now it’s back! It’s not for sale. It’s not in a museum. It’s not for ever. But for a few brief months, the Crosby Garrett helmet is on display at the Royal Academy, as part of their Bronze exhibition. I’m hoping to catch it before it vanishes again on 9 December.

Death in Durham

Just back from a long weekend with friends in lovely Durham, where they seem to be having a festival of old bones. The archaeological museum  in the Old Fulling  Mill is currently running an exhibition of Skeleton Science, showing the sorts of investigations bioarchaeologists make into the remains that their non-bio colleagues dig up.

The signs of injury and illness were pretty much what anyone who’d spent as much time as I have watching this sort of thing on TV would expect. What was sobering, though, was the suggestion that a female skeleton from the late nineteenth century might have minor rib deformation ‘due to corset wearing’. Thank goodness we no longer live in an era where you are likely to be injured by your own clothes.  The exhibition runs until 21 October.

Following this, we decided to head for some light relief at the cinema. Here’s what we found:

Lower half of skeleton with skull between legs

Upper half of skeleton with skull by pelvis

Yes, just off the cinema foyer was – another skeleton exhibition!

Even without a bioarchaeologist we could deduce that these gentlemen’s heads were not in the usual place. They’re some of the decapitated skeletons  found in the Driffield Terrace cemetery in York, better known as ‘The Headless Romans’ and the subject of a Timewatch programme back in – I think – 2006, suggesting they were victims of a purge under the Emperor Caracalla.

Since then more work has been done, and the bites of exotic animals have been found on some of the bones.  Maybe these men weren’t executed after all? Maybe they were gladiators?

The bones are still throwing up surprises. This Spring, one of the ‘men’  – not on display – turned out to be a woman.

What all of this means is literally anyone’s guess.  Instead of presenting an ‘explanation’, the display offers four different theories and invites us – the public – to look at the evidence and choose for ourselves.  It’s a good illustration of the fact that, as one of the guides explained, ‘archaeology is always only theories’. (Although the fact that the exhibition’s been called ‘Gladiators’ illustrates something else about archaeology – you have to make it sound exciting if you want people to take an interest.)

Apparently the display is so popular that the closing date keeps being postponed. For those who can’t get there, there’s a website where you can see for yourself and join in the voting.

After dinner we went for a stroll and ran across this beautiful place full of birdsong:

Entrance to cemetery with Commonwealth War Graves sign

Commonwealth War Graves sign

War grave

A timely reminder that the objects of our fascination were once real people, deserving not only our interest but our respect.

To bury Jupiter, not to praise him

Regular readers may remember that we’ve been to Maryport a couple of times before on this blog: the first time mostly to admire a very battered old tombstone and the second time to report that more digging was scheduled for the fort. The excavators were hoping to find out more about the splendid altars to Jupiter on display (along with that old tombstone) in the  Senhouse Museum.

Some of these altars are in such fine condition that they might almost have been cut last week.  Their miraculous preservation is the result of having spent most of their lives underground, safely buried by the Romans themselves. Nobody knew exactly why or when, but it was clear that they had been placed there with some degree of care. It brought a moving scene to mind – proud standards flapping in the sea breezes off the Solway,  the troops all dressed in their best, lined up for an annual ritual of burial and sacrifice on a new altar presided over by the Commanding Officer. Or perhaps  a unit ordered to close down the fort that had once been their home, hurrying to bury the sacred altars lest they be despoiled by the locals, and marching away never to return.

Well, they’ve dug. And as anyone who’s been following the story will now know, the ‘sacred burial’ theory has been completely overturned. According to the excavators’ final update,  “the Maryport pits containing complete altars are, in fact, massive post-pits in which the altars have been used simply as packing. There was no ritual deposition of these stones – when buried they were simply convenient foundation packing material.”

You can read the whole of the excavators’ update here.* It’s a fascinating insight into how a theory that had seemed so plausible  – not to mention romantic –  was overturned by a closer look at the evidence.  It’s also a reminder that our sometimes sweeping assertions about ‘Roman Britain’ cover a period of several hundred years. To one Roman building crew, the Jupiter who had been all-powerful to their predecessors was simply a handy source of  stone.

Until, of course, somebody comes along with another explanation.

Meanwhile I’m mightily glad I haven’t written a ritual-burial scene into any of the novels.


*There’s a good article in October’s ‘Current Archaeology’ too.

Mostly armchair archaeology

Several technological goodies have popped up this week, so I thought I’d put them all together in one post.

First – many thanks to Mark, who’s sent a link to details of a smartphone app through which visitors can explore the sites and streets of Roman Londinium. (His original comment is under ‘Welcome’ above.) This one does involve leaving the armchair, as I think you have to be in London to use it. It’s the work of the fine folk at the Museum of London and seems to include the chance to pinpoint the find-spot of those famous leather bikini briefs.

Sadly I’m unable to test it since, apart from not being in London, I have the wrong kind of phone.  If anyone can give it a try, do please let me know what you think of it.

The other three are all gleaned from the latest Roman Society newsletter.   “Identifact provides three entertaining quizzes for students to learn and test their skills in classical architecture, Ancient Greek pottery and Romano-British small finds.” Allegedly,” This is simple to use and fun to try out.” It’s certainly fun once you get the hang of it, so it’s worth persevering with the mysterious zoomy things all over the screen.  It’s been created by the Centre for Interdisciplinary Artefact Studies at Newcastle University.

The next goody isn’t as zoomy as the previous one even though it’s created by the same people. Inscripta is “an e-learning resource aimed at teaching students to transcribe, transliterate and translate Romano-British inscriptions.”  You see a photo of the inscription, hear it read out and see it typed. Then you have a shot at translating it yourself before clicking to reveal what the experts make of it.   (Warning – this one works fine in Internet Explorer but doesn’t seem to like Chrome.)

Finally, in celebration of their centenary in 2010,  the Roman Society have begun to put the best of their large collection of photos on the web. You can see the ones up so far, and offer them your own, at  www.romansociety.org/imago

That’s it. Now I’m off to play with them.  If anyone’s found anything else along these lines, please send it in!

This was Deva

Photos of the fabulous Roman Weekend in Chester are over on the Facebook page, but here’s one to give you the idea…

Gladiatrix defeating condemned prisoner


Roman Tours, who organised the event, would love to build a Roman marching fort – and they may be one step nearer to it very soon. They’ve been chosen by Barclays as finalists in the ‘Take one small step’ competition for grant money. You can see their entry – and vote for it – here:   Or just text ‘ROMAN’ to 62555. Even better, do both.

Good news and bad news

First, the good news. The lovely shiny new Historical Writers Association website is now up and running, with a forum for readers and writers to meet, discuss, question, argue, or just lurk quietly. The HWA will be running a  Festival of Historical Literature  during English Heritage’s  Festival of History in July – of which more later, no doubt.

Meanwhile, one place I’ve personally done a lot of quiet lurking (in the interests of research, you understand) is the Roman gallery in the Museum of London. So it’s deeply saddening to hear about the serious job losses looming there, especially amongst the curators.  Er – aren’t curators, the experts who actually know about things, the very people a museum should be holding onto at all costs?