‘Miss’ revisits the Ashmolean

Nobody was killed the first  time I went to  Oxford’s  Ashmolean Museum, but they might have been.

View of the Ashmolean Museum from the street

After a long journey cooped up on the bus, the last thing two classes of  eight-year-olds wanted to do was to stare at old stuff in glass cases. The teachers and ‘Parent Helpers’ (of whom I was one)  managed to keep them under control around the museum – in the sense that nothing was actually broken – but by the time we stopped at the service station on the way home, most of the children were stir-crazy.

The teachers – how I admire teachers! – instigated a  game of run-over-the-grass-to-that-wall-and-back. Meanwhile, several of the girls wanted to find the toilets. As I went to escort them across the road, they rushed off on their own.  Ignoring shouts of, “Wait!” they ran straight  into the path of an oncoming car.

The car stopped just in time. The girls fled. Nobody was hurt, but the thought of what might have happened still makes me shudder.

All of which is a very longwinded way of introducing the good news that the revamped Ashmolean is a lot more exciting than the old one.  I spent a delightful afternoon there yesterday. Cleverly concealed behind the traditional facade, the display space has been hugely expanded  – all watched over by Apollo, see below  – and is capped by ‘Oxford’s First Rooftop Restaurant’.

Staircase at Ashmolean Museum with statue of Apollo

As my previous visit consisted largely of counting children and responding to cries of ‘Miss!’  it’s hard to compare the new with the old. But it all seems much lighter, brighter and infinitely more approachable than I remember. The Roman gallery will be small but perfectly formed as soon as they’ve finished labelling everything (these are early days), but the thoughtful way the material is themed means that Roman items are spread across several displays. ‘Human image,’ for example, has a  reproduction statue of Augustus painted in the way his subjects would have seen it.

Painted statue of Augustus with red cloak

My favourite item is more modest.  As one who has knitted several (largely unappreciated) socks over the years, I have to admire the work that went into the making of this  stripy sock for an Egyptian child who lived sometime between AD300 and the early 400’s.

Sock with purple orange and green stripes

Had the photo been executed with similar skill, you would be able to see that the fabric looks like ordinary knitting, although according to the label, it was all done with one needle (yes, some of us do think this is interesting). Sadly the photo is dreadful, so you’ll have to take my word for it – or better still, pop in to see the real thing in the ‘Textiles’ display.

Not to be outdone, I see the very lovely Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge is opening its revamped Gallery of Greek and Roman Antiquities tomorrow. Here’s a link to the  BBC’s  slideshow.

Racing to save the Circus

Colchester Gazette poster Save Our Roman Circus

I’ve always appreciated Colchester’s Roman walls. They served as a landmark every morning from the windows of the school bus, reminding us that we were nearly at the bus station and if the homework wasn’t done by now, there was going to be trouble.

Fortunately the present-day citizens of Colchester are a lot more awake to their heritage.  Now that the site of Britain’s only Roman Circus has been discovered on their doorstep, they’re running a determined campaign to buy  some of the land and create a Visitor Centre so we can all see what our ancestors got up to on a day at the Chariot Races.

To see how they found the site and why it’s worth saving – and to watch a real chariot in action – sit back and enjoy the Time Team Special.

They only have until 28 February to raise the money. Let’s hope the gods are smiling on them.

Seasonal reading

Robin on bird table in the snow

Snow outside, Wallander on the TV and all around us, conversations that begin, ‘In places where they have weather like this every winter…’ or, ‘I remember in 1947/1963…’

It seems like the right time to check out Stieg Larsson’s ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.’

Is it as good as they say?* So far, yes. Yet curiously, although the story begins in Sweden in late December, none of the characters is complaining that they can’t get anywhere because of the snow. Clearly, in places where they have weather like this every winter…

* LATER – Yes, absolutely.

Happy 1600th Anniversary

Here at Downie Towers the first morning of the New Year was heralded by a long-overdue and strangely satisfying sort-out of the airing cupboard.

Fortunately,  greater things beckon. AD410*  was the year in which the Emperor Honorius allegedly told the Britons they would have to organise their own defences against invasion, because Rome had no troops to spare. I say ‘allegedly’ because there’s a suggestion that Honorius wasn’t writing to us but to somebody else. I don’t know how credible this is, so let’s not go there. For the purposes of this blog, Roman Britain came to an end 1600 years ago. Except…

It seems that very little in the ‘end of Roman Britain’ debate can be asserted without someone else arguing that you’ve misinterpreted the evidence. So there should be plenty of lively debate when the commemorations get going later this year. Here’s a link to the 410 website to find out about digs, events, exhibitions and opportunities for the rest of us to watch the experts disagreeing with each other.

One thing’s definite about Roman Britain, though. End it certainly did, inspiring an unknown Anglo-Saxon to write a wondrously glum poem now called ‘The Ruin’. I mean no disrespect to the Anglo-Saxons, who wrote some fabulous poetry, but it’s reassuring to know that even in the eighth century, things just weren’t what they used to be.

*readers who dislike ‘AD’ may substitute whatever term they wish