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Things that go slop in the night: a Samain warning before bedtime.

Open fire in middle of round-house floorNever mind the pumpkins and the witches’ hats: here’s a timely tale borrowed from our Irish neighbours. It wasn’t written down until about 900 years ago but may be much older. Unless a miracle happens, this sort of thing is the nearest we’re ever likely to get to the kind of story Tilla’s people might have been telling around the hearth late at night. So, here’s a snippet from:

 The Adventure of Nera

Our story begins one evening as Queen Medb, her consort King Ailill and their household are settling down to wait for dinner in their stronghold at Raith Cruachan.  Ailill decides to pass the time by setting the men a challenge.

Ailill and Medb have hung two prisoners during the day, and the victims are still outside on the gallows.  Ailill announces that the first man who can fasten a supple twig around the foot of one of the hanged prisoners will be granted whatever he asks for.

Simple enough? On any other night, perhaps. But this is Samain. It’s the night when demons always appear. It’s the night when the dead are no longer bound by magic to remain inside their burial-mounds – and as if that isn’t bad enough, it’s very, very dark out there. One by one, the men venture out… and come straight back. It’s beginning to look as if Ailill’s generosity won’t be tested – but then Nera stands up and insists that he’s the man for the job.

Backpedalling slightly from his offer of unlimited choice, Ailill declares that if Nera can put the twig around a hanged man’s foot, he’ll win a gold-hilted sword.

Nera, heavily armed, goes out in the dark and twists a twig around the foot of one of the hanged prisoners. Success! But then it falls off. Twice he tries again, but the same thing happens. Luckily before he fails a fourth time, the hanged man speaks up and not only tells him how to do it, but congratulates him when he’s got it right.

Nera, no doubt thinking of the gold-hilted sword, is very pleased with himself – but then he realises the prisoner hasn’t finished. In return for the favour, the man demands to be carried to the nearest house so they can share a drink. The man clambers onto Nera’s neck and they set off.

Unfortunately when they get to the first house there’s no drink to be had. The building is protected by a ring of flames. This, explains the hanged man, is because the people who live here always rake the hearth-fire. He needs to move on.

There’s no drink at the next house either, because it’s protected by a ring of water. This, says the hanged man, is a house where they’re always careful to throw out the leftover washing and bathing water and all the slops before bedtime.

But it’s third time lucky – at least for some. The next house is undefended. The hanged man walks in to find used washing-water and bathing-water, and takes a drink from each of them. Then he drinks from the tub of slops in the middle of the house. He spits the contents of his mouth into the faces of the people who live there, and they all die.

“Hence,” goes the story, “it is not good for there to be water left over from washing and bathing, or a hearth-fire which has not been raked, or a tub with slops in it, in a house after bedtime.”

After this Nera returns the prisoner to his torture and goes back to the stronghold only to see it burned down and all the inhabitants slaughtered – or are they? That’s another story. Meanwhile tonight is the night, friends. Rake your fires and put out your slops, or face the consequences.

You have been warned.

Skull of sheep with large horns

If you’d care to read the rest of the Adventure of Nera (which gets more heroic and dramatic but no less weird) it’s part of the Ulster Cycle of tales. The above is paraphrased from the translation in my aged edition of “The Celtic Heroic Age” edited by John Koch and John Carey.

 

 

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Jersey – plus ça change…

i’ve just been enjoying a few days in Jersey, an island which turns out to have hung onto some fine traditions of the past:

1. Stashing cash:

The biggest hoard of Celtic coins in the world was found in Jersey in 2012 – and that’s the ninth hoard from the Late Iron Age that’s come to light on the island. I have to admit this doesn’t look very exciting:

Mass of old coins all stuck together

But as of last Wednesday (they’re still working on it) this is what’s been found in there:

Blackboard list of items found in hoard

You can see some of the latest finds in the museum at La Hougue Bie:

gold items in plastic finds bags

Along with the people who are working on them:

Someone working in a laboratory

The hoard was probably buried at around about the time of the Roman invasion of Britain. Here’s a list of tribes whose coins are in there, with the Coriosolitae showing a strong lead…List of tribes and how many coins they had in the hoard

… which is interesting because they lived just across the water in mainland Gaul.  Jersey, now a major centre of international finance, has clearly been seen as a safe place to store your money for at least 2000 years.

2. Building tunnels:

The Jersey War tunnels, like those on neighbouring Guernsey, are infamous.

Entrance to tunnel with red cross painted above it

They were created during the German occupation in the Second World War, largely by forced labourers working in dreadful conditions. Today they house an exhibition that doesn’t pull its punches about the trials and challenges of living under military rule. Visitors are issued with identity cards naming real Jersey residents, and you don’t find out what your character did in the war until you’ve been through the exhibition. My friends were honoured to find that they’d helped escaped tunnel-workers evade capture, despite the threat of being imprisoned or executed themselves. I was less thrilled to find out I’d been the most notorious collaborator on the island.

Sign in Jewish shop

Notice warning residents not to help escaped American POWs

A tunnel that’s less famous, but far more uplifting, is to be found at the oddly-named La Hougue Bie (It’s pronounced “La hoog bee”. I am telling you this so that should you decide to go, you can ask directions aloud instead of mumbling and pointing at the map like I did.) It’s been there for 6000 years, and nobody now alive knows why. Here’s the entrance.

Stone-lined entrance to tunnel

The  mound above it was built at the same time, but the chapel on top came much later.

Stone-built hill above tunnel entrance with round stone building on top.

This is how you get in – not great if you have a bad back.

Fortunately it opens up into a much higher chamber built of massive slabs of stone, with tall recesses leading off on each side. You’ll have to take my word for this, because the lighting is designed to aid atmosphere rather than photography. Better still, go and visit. It’s stunning.

Very dark cavern built of huge stones

At the equinox, the rising sun shines in through the passage and lights up the chamber.

Looking down stone tunnel towards the light

 

3. Seeing Angels:

After seeing the chamber I wasted several minutes trying – and failing – to see the ancient paintings of angels that are supposed to be still just visible on the walls of the chapel above.  Eventually I gave up and took some photos in the hope that all those splodges would resolve themselves into an angel when I got home.

Old white limewashed wall of chapel

But it turned out they never would, because the chapel is divided into TWO HALVES, and I was staring at the wrong half. Once I’d been pointed towards the other door… an angel appeared! Hallelujah!

Wall with faint angel painted on it

And here are some twentieth-century angels from the glass church of St Matthew:

Angels depicted in glass with lights behind them

4. Enjoying the good life:

Unlike Alderney, Jersey doesn’t seem to have had any Roman military installations. There’s evidence for a temple, but most of the finds from the Roman period seem to be either cash or goodies – beads, brooches, parts of flagons and this:

4th century gaming counter

Which suggests to me that any Romans who did turn up were just here to sell luxury goods or take a holiday. And who can blame them?

Turquoise sea, cliffs and beach

 

 

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Never work with children or animals.

VITA BREVIS finally makes it into paperback in the UK today (hooray!) so it seems right to mark the occasion. I can hardly have a launch party for a book that’s been out in hardback and ebook for some time now, but on the other hand, unless people know it’s there, who will buy it?  In any case, who will notice my modest efforts at publicity in the plethora of “look at my book!” appeals on social media? Luckily I hit upon a cunning plan.

What people really seem to like on social media is pictures of cats. Or small children. Or both. There are no small children at Downie Towers,  but if I were to sneakily photograph a cat next to my book . . . what could possibly go wrong?

As it turned out, quite a lot.

Hand holding up book, tabby cat.
Does this look a bit staged?

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Not really what I had in mind.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The photographer’s knee really adds to the composition here.
Cat looking indifferent
No interest
Cat with head obscuring book
Too much interest
Cat standing over book, looking disdainful
“I read it and I didn’t like it.”
Blurred shot of cat's departing back: half book visible
Wrong in so many ways.
Cat standing over book with head blurred
Speed reading
Cat smelling book.
Always smell a book first.
Cat dozing over book
This book will send you to sleep.
Cat with head obscuring book
Too much cat, not enough book
Cat with head turned away
Too much book, not enought cat
Cat with back to book, looking elsewhere.
Strike action is under way.
Cat staring at cat treat placed on book
Finally, the secret of arousing interest: a free cat treat with every copy.

Read the start of VITA BREVIS in a cat-free zone here.

 

Toga Tuesday!

Butser Ancient Farm in Hampshire was full of Romans last week. There were soldiers and civilians, and families ranging from toddlers to grandparents. They were wandering in and out of the houses, feeding the sheep, eating, playing, laughing, working, shopping and having their hair done.

Woman in doorway of round house

 

Lady with display of Roman goods

Some of them were even having their photos taken in silly poses:

Ruth sitting on couch with mirror

This splendid family day out was one of the Roman Days that Butser are running every week over the summer holidays, and last week’s theme was Wardrobe and Weapons. Costumes were on offer for anyone who wanted to dress up and the multi-talented Fiona Rashleigh was on hand to create authentic-looking hairstyles from unpromising material:

Plaited hair held in place with pins

The hairpins, the mirror (the one I’m holding in the photo) and much else were made by Fiona’s partner Steve Wagstaff, who crafts replica Roman items that jump off the display crying out, “Buy me! Buy me now!” I’m not sure who made the shoes in the picture below, but more of Steve’s work can be just about seen on the far table.

Some of the photos of visitors in costume will be used to inspire new murals on the walls of Butser’s very own Roman Villa, which is currently being renovated:

Builders' vans outside villa

Here’s what it looked like when we visited back in 2010:

Painted walls inside the Roman villa

Portrait of Peter Reynolds
Peter Reynolds, founding Director of Butser Ancient Farm

Front aisle of villa with row of tables

Olive branch painted on a wall inside the villa

Hopefully the renovated Villa will be open again later in the year. Meanwhile there was still plenty to see and try out, including felt-making (but no photos, because they all came out blurry) and this – weaving a braid from the ends into the middle. Painstaking and highly skilled work. I’m guessing you’d want to choose your partner carefully.

Two women weaving braid

One end of the woven braid

The other end of the braid

These are the farm’s Manx Loughtan sheep, an ancient breed. They’re about to be disappointed when they find out we haven’t brought any food.

Sheep running towards camera

This young chap will soon be off to charm the lady goats at a rare breed farm. Hopefully nobody’s told him that the best brushes for painting murals on Roman walls are made of… goat hair.

Close-up of young goat

And finally, a couple of useful thoughts to take home from a great day out:

Notices on gate - Archaeology is not what you find but what you find out, and Absence of Evidence is not Evidence of Absence

 

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Of Scotland and the price of peace

Scottish river in sunshine
A holiday snap from Dumfries and Galloway. Not Fife, where the silver was found, but it’s the nearest we got.
Just back from travelling in the Scottish borders to find that Jean, Sam and Alice have kindly sent me a link to this story of Roman silver being discovered in Scotland.
It’s interesting that the experts think the silver is a bribe rather than a stash of plunder. The historian Cassius Dio tells us that a Roman governor of Britannia, Virius Lupus, was “compelled to purchase peace… for a large sum”. The people he paid were the Maeatae, who lived somewhere around the Stirling area. The silver was found in Fife, which isn’t very far away. I’m not suggesting that it IS that ‘large sum’ – it seems to come from a later date. But there are vast gaps in the historical records, and who knows how much treasure changed hands over the years as power and allegiances shifted?
The money paid by Lupus, incidentally, didn’t bring peace for long. Maybe the Maeatae asked for too much. Maybe they carried on causing trouble. Whatever the reason, the aptly-named emperor Severus arrived in Britain not long afterwards and conducted a vicious campaign against them and their neighbours. (I happen to know all this because by a happy coincidence, it’s the background to the story Simon Turney and I put together earlier this year: The Bear and the Wolf.)
Cover of The Bear and the Wolf
Incidentally, while their name has vanished, it seems the Maeatae live on – here’s a fascinating article from The Scotsman about where today’s Scots really come from.

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VITA BREVIS now in paperback in the USA!

Vita Brevis HB coverVITA BREVIS, the story of Ruso and Tilla’s trip to Rome, is published in paperback in America today!

Ask at your local bookshop, or find it at Barnes and Noble or Amazon. Meanwhile, also in the USA, MEDICUS – the first book in the series – is still a July Deal on Kindle.

Apologies to friends here in the UK – the paperback IS on the way, and will appear on 7 September.  Hive (which supports your local bookshop), Amazon and The Book Depository already have it listed and will be very happy to receive pre-orders.

 

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MEDICUS – Kindle deal in N America

I’m delighted to say that MEDICUS, Ruso and Tilla’s first adventure, is a Kindle bargain deal for the month of July in the US and Canada.  Thanks to Camilla for sending this link to Amazon.com.

Cover of Medicus with review quote

It isn’t available electronically in the UK at the moment I’m afraid… it WILL be back, and believe me, there will be major celebrations at Downie Towers when it is.

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Eboracum 2017 – join the Roman army!

Hoarding advertising Roman Festival

Soldiers address children
Right. Line up, you lot. And get that hair cut! Half of you look like a bunch of girls!
Display of writing materials
Write and tell your Mum you’ll be home in twenty years.

 

Souvenir stall, Roman-style
You’ll travel to distant places and collect exotic souvenirs.
Display of food
The Legion will feed you.

 

Weaver working at loom
The Legion will clothe you.
Centurion with microphone
Our friendly centurions…

 

Soldiers marching
…will teach you how to march.

 

Soldiers marching around arena
and march…
Soldiers marching
and march…
Legionaries in armour
(did we mention the marching?)
Soliders with drawn swords
…and fight.
Soliders surround civilians
And how to round up civilians who make trouble.
Man explaining display of medical instruments
If anything goes wrong, our highly-trained doctors will look after you.

 

Another display of medical instruments with bloodstains
Using the very latest equipment.
Centurion in straw hat. Soldiers
In time, you too may become a Centurion.
Soldier without armour (Graham Harris)
Or a festival organiser
Smartly dressed Tribune and lady
But without the right connections, you will never become a tribune and wear this splendid helmet.

 

Display of archaeology in tent
In the distant future, people like this will dig up your rubbish and display it to the public. Yes, really.

 

Writers talking to people over book displays.
And people like these will write books about you. (L to R – Ben Kane, Sandra G-Neville, ? , Harry Sidebottom, Penny Ingham)
Alex Gough and Simon Turney
Alex Gough and Simon (SJA) Turney
Jane Finnis
Jane Finnis
John Salter and Brian Young in Roman military kit
John Salter and Brian Young
Ruth with books
and another one.

Finally – as a reward for all that marching, people will remember you and your Emperor with parades through the streets of Eboracum.

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Have shoes, will travel

The first half of June’s looking pretty busy with a rush of events up and down the country at which I’ll be showing off my now not-so-new Roman shoes.

Reproduction Roman shoes

1-4 June

Heading north for the Eboracum Roman Festival in York – a spectacular event for all ages. I’ll be in the Authors’ Tent in the fine company of Alex Gough, Ben Kane, Brian Young, Harry Sidebottom, Jane Finnis, John Salter, Penny Ingham, and Simon (SJA) Turney. Quite a few of us will be in costume, although possibly some of the guys dress like that all the time.

Centurion soldiers and the Emperor marching

13 June

I’ll be taking the shoes to visit the library in the pretty North Devon town of South Molton. We’ll be starting at 6 pm, it’s £2 a ticket and there will be nibbles. Hopefully we’ll all have finished eating before I start discussing Roman medical prescriptions.

17-18 June

The shoes head north again to Milton Keynes. While the town is only 50 years old this year, the site it’s built on has a long heritage, and I’ll be joining friends to celebrate it at their Festival of History. There’ll be loads to see, and it’s free! I’ll be somewhere in a big tent with some Roman archaeology (and some books, obviously).

Milton Keynes Festival of History poster

 

 

 

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Wide-eyed in the Big City – visiting Roman London

Two trips to London since Christmas! Back in February I meant to do a blog post about seeing some of the Roman writing tablets found on the Bloomberg HQ site, but never quite got around to it. Besides, there were no pictures: perhaps to avoid fisticuffs around the display tables, it was a no-photography event. So I came home with a splendid book instead.

Cover of book about writing tablets from Bloomberg excavations

It’s OK to take photos at the exhibition of the archaeology from the Crossrail line  at the Museum of London in Docklands, and some of them are below. Of course they don’t exactly tie up with the writing-tablets, as the Crossrail project runs from one side of London to the other, so purists may want to look away now. Photographers likewise.

Here’s a selection of writing styli (styluses?) from Roman London. This is what scribes would have used to scrape letters in the black wax coating of wooden writing-tablets. The wax from the Bloomberg tablets has gone, but enough of the scrapes remain for Roger Tomlin to be able to decipher some of the script, including the very earliest mention of the name of London itself, shown on the book cover above. (After a chat with the archaeologist at one of the display tables at the Bloomberg event, my notes include a very enthusiastic, “There is a typology for styli! Over the years the weight shifted towards the writing end.” Immediately followed by, “or was it the other end?“) Anyway, the sharp end is for writing and the blunt end is for rubbing out mistakes in the wax. In my experience, never very successfully.

Writing styli from Roman London

It’s likely that the wood for the tablets themselves came from recycled wine barrels. Waste not, want not.

The Bloomberg documents show that London was a centre of commerce from its earliest days. On 8 January AD57, Tibullus promised to repay Gratus 105 denarii for goods supplied. This was no small sum: it would have taken an ordinary soldier several months to earn that much. The records of loans and payments range from a handful of denarii to several hundred being handed over as a deposit for a larger contract. The coins below, found by the Crossrail excavators, definitely weren’t used by Tibullus and Gratus – these were issued by later emperors, Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius.

Roman coins

Security for large amounts of cash is always a headache. In a reversal of the usual problem, we’ve found the keys and lost the locks.

Two keys

One of the surprises of the writing tablets has been the discovery of how quickly the province got back on its feet after the disaster of Boudica’s rebellion. In AD60 or 61, London was burned to the ground and 70,000 people were said to have been killed. Whatever the precise date and casualty figures, the burning was real enough: the evidence is still there in a thick black layer of soot. But as early as 21 October AD62, Marcus Rennius Venustus was arranging with Gaius Valerius Proculus to have twenty loads of provisions brought from Verulamium – another town that had fallen victim to Boudica’s forces.

Transporting those supplies down the main road that’s now the A5 would have depended on draft animals, so no wonder Taurus was annoyed when Catarrius turned up and removed his ‘beasts of burden’ unexpectedly. Unfortunately much of his letter of complaint to ‘Macrinus his dearest lord’ is lost, so we shall never know exactly what happened. But here are a couple of the 17 hipposandals (overshoes for horses) that turned up during the Crossrail excavations, and in the middle, an ox goad, in case the stick it was fitted onto wasn’t enough to get the heavy transport moving.

Two metal hipposandals and a spiky ox goad

One of the tablets is an account of payments for beer, although it’s not clear whether Crispus was supplying the beer, or buying it to sell to customers in his tavern. Tertius, however, is pretty certain to have been a brewer of some sort, assuming that’s what “bracea…” means (there’s a discussion about this in the book).  He turns up again some years later, mentioned in a tablet found in Carlisle: “Domitius Tertius the brewer.”

Pottery cup

I’m not sure that really is a cup, but it’s the nearest picture I could find that relates to beer… and while we’re relaxing in the bar, why not pass the time with a board game?

Gaming counters

Perhaps the masters were busy networking in the bar while the slaves got on with the practical tasks… There’s mixed evidence for slavery in Roman London. Alongside letters that show freedmen were involved in high-value transactions, and documents that show trusted slaves carrying out business on behalf of their masters, there’s also archaeological evidence that for some, things were very different:

Manacle

That’s a manacle. The archaeologists weren’t entirely sure what to call this (and you, gentle reader, will have even more trouble, since the picture below is out of focus), but it was found around the wrist of a skeleton and would have been very heavy and uncomfortable.

Rusted iron ring

One of the things that struck me on perusing the tablets – and which we’d never have known about from artefacts alone – is the high number of non-Romans transacting business in Londinium.  Not always happily. I’d love to know what Litugenus and Magunus fell out about, and what the result of their court case was, but frustratingly that particular tablet ends with the cliffhanger, “…my preliminary judgement is…” Maybe Luguseluus, Ambiccus or Mogontius, who also had Celtic-sounding names, could have told us.  (As I’m always on the lookout for character names for books, these have been duly noted. Don’t expect Namatobogius to be popping up any time soon, though. His name may have meant “breaker of enemies” but its glamour hasn’t really stood the test of time. Deuillus is out as well. Too hard to pronounce.)

Something else I hadn’t considered before was a point made Dr John Pearce when he was talking about the context of the tablets. Although the young city of Londinium was more resilient than we’d realised, its existence was still precarious. It was constantly at risk from fire, flood, plague, and political violence. It depended on extended networks of contacts, many of whom (visiting traders, the Governor’s staff) would have been transient. Even in death, Londoners were not secure – parts of the burial grounds were very low-lying and an odd row of skulls that turned up below Liverpool Street station may have been washed away from their original resting-places by the waters of the now-vanished Walbrook.

Below is the face of Silenus, companion of the god of wine. He’s thought to have been part of a pot placed in someone’s grave. I’d like to imagine that whoever lay beside him is somewhere in an afterlife, feasting in the company of the other Roman Londoners whose snatches of conversation we’ve been privileged to overhear.

Face from pot

Note: The Crossrail exhibition runs until 3 September 2017 and much, much better photos and video of it can be found here. (Thanks to historian Lindsay Powell  for the link!)  There’s lots more to see in the permanent Roman London gallery in the main Museum of London. I understand some of the writing tablets will be on display when the new London Mithraeum museum opens in Bloomberg’s London HQ later this year – there’s a good video about the history of the site and the plans for the museum if you scroll down here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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