From Eboracum to Ipplepen

It’s been a busy few days – first, a long weekend in York, a city crammed with Roman activity past and present. Then down south to spend five days in search of the far more elusive Roman Devon.  Finally, with all photos downloaded and all mud washed off, there’s time to update the blog…

The Eboracum Roman Festival was a resounding success and will hopefully be back again next year.

 

Roman soldiers march in Museum Gardens York
Setting off to march around the city.
The centurion of the LEG XX leads his men
Don’t argue with the centurion. He’s got a big stick and some very scary headgear.
More Roman soldiers march through the park
Best not to argue with this lot, either.
Children dressed as Roman soldiers
Hidden around the corner – the Roman Army’s secret weapon.
Barbarian parents assess their chances against Rome's smallest soldiers.
Barbarian parents assess their chances against Rome’s smallest soldiers.
Children vs parents, armed with foam pipe insulation
Into battle!
Parents are defeated by small Romans
Small Romans 1, Barbarians 0
Not all Roman games are violent.
Not all Roman games are violent.
Display of Roman food on stall
Time for some feasting
Traditional Arabic dancers with red skirts
And dancing, with Ya Raqs traditional Arabic Dancers

 

Display of reproduction Roman pots
And of course shopping – beautiful repro Roman vessels made by Andrew MacDonald of The Pot Shop in Lincoln.
Repro indented pottery beaker
This one came home with me.
Picture of dish with gritted surface, woolen braid and spindle
And so did this. It’s a mortarium, used for grinding up food (or medicines, presumably). The delicately-woven braid also came home…
Woolen crafts on stall
Made by the talented Catherine Stallybrass of Curious Works. (The spinning in the last pic is mine. Catherine’s is much finer.)
Beads on display
Terrible photo, lovely jewellery – a mini-display from Tillerman Beads. The blue ‘melon’ beads at the front are usually found in military contexts (I’m told) and would probably have been worn by men.
Bookstall with Simon Turney and Ruth
Oh look, some more people selling things! The Roman soldier, who removes his writerly specs when on parade, is Simon (SJA) Turney. The Romano-British woman clutching her phone is me. The Writers’ Tent also held Jane Finnis (whose books are set in Roman Yorkshire) and Brian Young, and we were delighted when Caroline Lawrence dropped by, too, but I can prove very little of this because I was so busy chatting I forgot to take photos of us all. Big thanks to Sandra Garside-Neville for this pic.
Display of repro Roman items
The spiky thing at the front is a caltrop, the Roman equivalent of barbed wire. Very nasty to tread on, both for people and animals.
The Multiangular tower in York museum gardens
Some parts of Roman York are still standing. This corner of the fort is now in the Museum gardens (the lower part is Roman, the top was built later).
Pic of screen with digital image of the tower
It was being surveyed by AOC Archaeology over the weekend – you can just about see it on the screen.
Picture of an urban privet hedge.
Archaeology is what makes all this possible. And often there’s very little to see. So hats off to John Oxley, City Archaeologist, who managed to make even this hedge interesting when he explained that the grave of the woman who’s now known as “ivory bangle lady” was found just behind it.  (There’s more about her in the Museum.) After his “Waking the Dead” tour (part of a great programme of Festival talks) I shall never walk through York Railway station again without thinking of the vast Roman cemetery that once covered the same land – and the burials that may still lie undisturbed beneath it.
Roman soldiers walking away
It was over too soon.  The tents are folded, the men have marched away (hopefully to return next year) and it only remains to thank the organisers for such a brilliant event – especially Sandra Garside-Neville and Kurt Hunter-Mann for their kind hospitality.
And then… it was the long drive down to Devon for some nuts-and-bolts archaeology.
Buttercups in flower
It may look like an innocent field of buttercups, but beneath it lies a Roman road. This is Ipplepen in South Devon, site of a Romano-British settlement that was only found in 2007. Not as spectacular as York, but hugely significant in the history of Devon, where evidence for the Roman occupation can be very hard to pin down.   Students from Exeter University are exploring the field next door this year, and it was a privilege and an education to spend a few days as a volunteer with them. This is the sort of thing we found under the buttercups:
Section through a ditch
Yes, I know it’s an empty hole in the ground. And yes, people are standing around staring into it. But this is MY hole in the ground – or at least, the left half is. The right-hand side was dug by someone else. It’s that shape not because we disagreed, but because of the way the original digger, many hundreds of years ago, worked with the angle of the rock. It’s just a part of the picture that will emerge over the coming weeks as the team dig and record and make sense of what they find. I promise there will be far more interesting things to see on the Open Day on 25 June – here are some pics from Open Day 2014.

 

Visitors gathered round table under marquee
Sam Moorhead from the British Museum explains the coin finds to visitors. (2014)
Small bracelet made of twisted metal
Imagine the story this little bracelet could tell. (2014)
Roman soldiers talk to visitors
Winning the hearts and minds of the natives. (2014)

And now, it’s back to the thing that makes all this gallivanting possible – writing the next book.

 

 

 

 

Eboracum Roman Festival – counting down to 1 June!

Poster for Eboracum Roman FestivalI know… no blog posts for ages, and then two in a row. But just in case anyone’s missed the publicity so far… Eboracum Roman Festival is coming very soon, and it’s going to be spectacular.

There’s a splendid programme of events for all ages, and much of the festival is freely open to the public. Clicking here will take you to the page where you can book for the things that aren’t. There’s also more detail about individual events on the Facebook page.

I’ll be around over the weekend, sharing the Novelists’ Table with  fellow-scribes including SJA Turney, and giving a talk on Saturday afternoon in York Explore – the library and archive centre. Come and say hello, enter the draw to win a free book, and admire my lovely nearly-new Roman shoes, of which I’m very proud!

 

 

 

 

 

“What’s new & old & read all over?”

Judith Starkston takes a good look at the current state of fiction set in the ancient world for the latest edition of Historical Novels Review. This is technically a members-only publication but the many writers who chipped in with our opinions are allowed to leap the fence and go public!

As writing is usually a solitary occupation I was fascinated to see what the other contributors thought. Hopefully you will be too – just click the slightly wobbly photo of the magazine cover below (sorry) to take a look.

Many thanks to Judith, the HNR team and all my fellow-contributors.

HNR May 2016

 

Stuff

I don’t post much on the Net about my family, partly because it’s of little interest to anyone else and partly because I like them and want them to carry on liking me.  Today is an exception, because family matters have been much on my mind of late. And the question of how family matters become history. And how all of history is really the version we choose to tell of the stories of everyone’s families.

It’s almost two years since my father died. My mother has now moved to a new home, taking all the items she wishes to keep and washing her hands of the rest with admirable practicality. Their house has become home to another couple, and I guess we’ve all moved on. But then there’s the Stuff. That’s moved too, but only from my parents’ home to ours.

View of clutter including a book called NO MORE CLUTTER

I have to admit that some of the things in that photo are ours (including the book on the right) but not all. Most of the Stuff consists of items that have been carefully collected over the years but which take up far too much space for my mother to house them. Or indeed anyone. I know much of it has to go, and that if we keep only the important things, Downie Towers will feel less like a junk shop. The problem is, how do you judge what’s important?

Some decisions aren’t too difficult. A bulging manila envelope found inside the “Old Photos” suitcase (my mother is very good at labelling) turned out to be full of the hair I’d had cut off when I was thirteen. That went in the compost bin, where it caused further consternation because every time anyone lifted the lid it looked as though one of us had buried a human head in there. I must ask my sister what she did with the collection of her own baby curls that came back to haunt her via the Royal Mail. My brother was spared, because by the time he arrived my mother seems to have lost interest in the preservation of body parts. I suppose we should be grateful there were no teeth.

There are books. There are photos: too many albums to count. There are postcards from family holidays, some sent by generations long gone. More books. There are records of the purchase & sale of houses, and the documents from Dad’s work as Executor for his own father. And more books. Proudly-preserved details of the achievements of children and grandchildren. Yet more books. Letters my generation was never intended to read, and which my sister and I chose to burn. The Guest Book from when my parents ran a Bed and Breakfast. Still more books. One of them held a folded place-marker I vaguely remember making, bearing the word “Daddy” in wonky crayon. I burned that, too. What else do you do?

In fact, what do you do with any of this stuff? It’s been here for months and I know that’s partly because I’m both sentimental and a terrible ditherer. It’s also, perhaps,  something to do with being an historical novelist. These aren’t just Things, they are Sources, and it’s hard to throw away sources even though I know I’m never going to write a novel about mid-twentieth century Britain. At least, not yet.

But the truth is, we have to make some choices. There is no such thing as ‘doing nothing.’ Inertia is effectively a decision to hand over large chunks of space in Downie Towers to the preservation of somebody else’s treasures.

I guess we siblings will divide all the photos between us. None of us has much idea who some of the people were, but comments like “Related to Nanny???” on the back of the pic below mean we dare not part with it.

WP_20160314_001

And then we come to the books. Hundreds of them. Books, for my Dad, were a route to freedom. Books were what lifted him from being an eleven-plus failure, a boy who left school at thirteen, to being a man with a belief that most people could understand anything if they put their mind to it for long enough. Books made him a man who was awarded a Doctorate in political history at the age of sixty-five, after studying on top of a full-time and very demanding job. Books were what made him a man who in his eighties, despite poor health and failing eyesight, sat at his desk every morning to translate New Testament Greek simply for the love of doing it.

So I’m working through the books very slowly. The easy ones – the volumes on cricket, the annual editions of Colemanballs – have found homes, either with family and friends or with the charity shop. The few items the Library can use have gone there. I’ve snaffled most of the Ancient World items, and one day I might even read them. Books that are worth money are slowly being listed for sale. Last weekend there was an historic moment when our dining table reappeared from under the boxes of books I knew were only valued at 1p on Amazon but were too good to throw away. Surely a needy student somewhere must want a battered biography of Asquith, or an out-of-date textbook on constitutional law, or the memoirs of the wife of an Archbishop? What about those old paperback classics – the yellowing, tatty Thomas Hardy and James Joyce we were chucking out because we have Dad’s (pristine) editions?

In the end Husband despaired of me ever finding a student with these very special needs, and phoned the local charity bookshop. The organizer came that afternoon, filled a couple of carrier bags and tactfully confirmed that the rest of what was there was, basically, rubbish. So I went and did something else while Husband took them all up to be recycled. Because it was too painful to think about books which had been so proudly and carefully acquired over many years going to the tip.

Photo of soldiers outside First World War hospital
This photo is a treasure even if none of those men was Great-Uncle Harry.

It’s not all negative. When he wasn’t translating Greek, Dad’s mornings at the desk were spent writing his memoirs – 1000 pages of typescript that we haven’t yet got around to reading because we’re overwhelmed with Stuff. Maybe we need to crack on with sorting out the Stuff. Because then we’ll have time to find out how Dad himself wanted to be remembered. From a book. Of course.

Meanwhile, here’s a timely TED talk I’ve just picked up from fellow-scribe Vicky Alvear Shecter. It’s by author, illustrator and wise person Elizabeth Dulemba, asking  Is your stuff stopping you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Park in the Past

In Roman times a basic marching camp could be built in less than a day – often by men who’d already carried heavy kit for many miles through hostile territory, and now needed somewhere safe to bed down for the night.

Park in the Past badge

Building a Roman fort in the twenty-first century is going to take a little longer. These days, even big men with swords have to negotiate the complexities of land ownership, planning permission and Health and Safety. Besides, these men (and women) are aiming to create something much better than a rectangular ditch with a few tents inside it. Park in the Past have a  vision of not only a full Roman military fort but an Iron Age village beside a lake, set in a beautiful area of the North Wales countryside that’s open to all.

It’s a hugely imaginative community project that’s working to give new life to a former quarry site near the aptly-named village of Hope, near Wrexham.

There’s lots of info on their website, and the site really is as stunning as their photos. It’s not yet open to the public but I was lucky enough to join a preview tour, and was bowled over not only by the potential, but by the way nature is already beginning to flourish, and reclaiming this former industrial site.

Some of the guiding lights behind the project are the people who run Roman Tours in Chester and the city’s annual Saturnalia shenanigans. They also organised my one and only close encounter with a Roman emperor a while back:

With the Emperor

The man with the gold wreath on his head is Domitian, exercising the power of life and death over brave gladiators. He was aided by a lot of cheering and booing from the crowd.

 

 

 

 

Suppose a part of Ancient Rome survived?

Portrait of Alison MortonFriends who followed the Blog Hop a couple of years ago will have met my writing friend Alison Morton. Alison’s created a gripping alternative thriller world, where her 21st century Praetorian heroines survive kidnapping, betrayal and a vicious nemesis while using their Roman toughness and determination to save their beloved country. Unfortunately, their love lives don’t run as smoothly. If you haven’t visited Roma Nova, now is a good time to start because…

Picture of Nova Roma box set…for a limited time only, there’s an e-books box set available. It contains the first three books ­­– over 1,000 pages of action adventure and alternative historical thrills in three novels which have 140 five star reviews on Amazon between them.

INCEPTIO – the beginning: New Yorker Karen Brown is thrown into a new life in mysterious Roma Nova and fights to stay alive with a killer hunting her… “Breathtaking action, suspense, political intrigue” – Russell Whitfield “Grips like a vice.  Excellent pace, great dialogue and concept.” – Adrian Magson

PERFIDITAS – betrayal: Six years on, where betrayal and rebellion are in the air, threatening to topple Roma Nova and ruin Carina’s life. “Sassy, intriguing, page-turning … Roma Nova is a fascinating, exotic world” – Simon Scarrow

SUCCESSIO – the next generation: A mistake from the past threatens to destroy Roma Nova’s next generation. “I thoroughly enjoyed this classy thriller, the third in Morton’s epic series set in Roma Nova.”
– Caroline Sanderson in The Bookseller.  Historical Novel Society indie Editor’s Choice Autumn 2014

The box set is now available at a special price of $5.99 on Amazon, iBooks, Kobo, and Nook

Grab it while you can!

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

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Blog tour: My writing process

Thanks to Judi Moore, multi-talented author of “Is death really necessary?” for inviting me to join the blog tour that hunts out the answers to four questions. Mercifully, “Is death really necessary?” isn’t one of them.

Judi’s answers can be found here.  Mine are below. I’m charged with handing on the baton, and have contacted a couple of writer friends, but the rules say you can offer up to three links – so if anyone fancies joining in, let me know.

1.      What am I working on?Cover of TABULA RASA

The seventh Ruso novel, provisionally called HABEAS CORPUS, and set in Rome. Thus my head will be in entirely the wrong place when the sixth, TABULA RASA, comes out later this year – that one’s set on the northern border of Britannia and will look very much like the cover on the right. (I believe that’s Hercules clutching the golden apples of the Hesperides. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong!)

2.      How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Its genre is “Roman Crime” and there’s a surprising amount of it about. I’d normally reply that I’m more interested than most in the Romano/British tensions, having a leading character from each side and setting the books out in the far reaches of the Western Empire. Although of course Jane Finnis and Rosemary Rowe both set their crime novels in Roman Britain.

Setting HABEAS CORPUS in Rome is going to be a bit of a step in the dark, both for me and for Ruso and Tilla, who will have to be careful not to trip over the descendants of other fictional characters.

3.      Why do I write what I do?

Out of fascination with the era – so much ‘like us’ and yet so different. Also, the problem of how to get along with people who don’t share our culture is universal, and it’s especially acute during a military occupation. In a sense it’s easy for the people at the extremes. Their thinking isn’t challenged. It’s the people who rub shoulders every day with individuals from the ‘other side’ who have to make crucial decisions on how to behave, what risks to take and how much trust to offer. Peacemakers may be ‘blessed’ but they don’t have easy lives.

4.      How does your writing process work?

I know several writers who sit down at the desk and produce between 1000 and 5000 words a day. Clearly their brains work much faster than mine, and they have much better self-discipline.

Often the only way to make progress is to spend a lot of time getting it frustratingly wrong, then to go for a lone walk only to realise (on a good day) what I should have written. Thus many hours are spent producing words that end up in the ‘dump’ file the next morning. I keep a running total of the word count on a virtual sticky note on the desktop, just to reassure myself that I am making progress, if rather inefficiently.

What about planning, you may be asking? Oh, I can show you plans. Official synopses. Splendid creations in multi-coloured felt-tip. Photographs on whiteboards. Photographs of whiteboards. Maps with pins and stickers. Spreadsheets. Character lists. Charts drawn up using special software. Then you can wonder, as I do when these things resurface during a clear-up, what on earth most of them have to do with what’s in the book.