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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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?
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:
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.
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.
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.
I’ve been musing on Parkinson’s Law. Not the famous one (“work expands to fill the time available”) but another from the same book: Parkinson’s Law of Triviality. “The time spent on any item on the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum involved.” (If you’re wondering what this has to do with high heels, fear not: we’ll get there in a moment.)
Here it is in action, in a chapter called “High Finance”. A group of men – this was 1957, remember – meet to approve spending plans. The items on the agenda are:
2. A bicycle shed. Cost: £350. Several members who kept silent because they knew nothing about atomic reactors now feel that they should start pulling their weight. “A sum of £350 is well within everybody’s comprehension. Everyone can visualise a bicycle shed. Discussion goes on, therefore, for forty-five minutes, with the possible result of saving some £50.”
3. Refreshments at meetings. Cost: £21 a year. “Now begins an even more acrimonious debate… every man there knows about coffee – what it is, how it should be made, where it should be bought – and whether indeed it should be bought at all. This item on the agenda will occupy the members for an hour and a quarter…”
Parkinson’s Law of Triviality was a great comfort to me when I had a job recording the minutes of committee meetings, but only recently did I see its application in a wider sphere. And this is where the high heels come in.
I have to admit to being something of a Facebook addict, and as anyone else on Facebook will know, the political storms over recent months have resulted in furious postings from all sides. Sensible questions, valid warnings and the sharing of genuine news have often been drowned out by the sound of name-calling, and discussions have frequently descended into bitter squabbles involving CAPITAL LETTERS and ‘unfriending’. Sometimes I feel there are crowds of people shouting at each other in my living room.
Have I backed away? Of course not. It’s gripping stuff, and it affects all of us. Many of the fundamental assumptions of Western society have been called into question. People are passionate because this matters. I have enormous respect for my articulate, clear-sighted, committed friends and am grateful to them for keeping me up to date. But have I contributed much to the debate? Er… no. Even though Downie Towers has rung to the sound of my ranting in the kitchen, and the number of comments I have started to type and then deleted would fill a small book.
I feel as though I should contribute. One should do one’s bit. So I click ‘like’ on things that I, er, like, and occasionally manage to get the end of a comment and press ‘post’. In the real world, I vote. Sometimes I sign petitions. I write to my MP. I have even been known to march through the streets in support of a good cause. But I tend not to engage in debate with strangers on the Internet. Like the atomic reactor, I feel the cut and thrust of “live” political debate is beyond me. Some people may feel I should speak up. More people may feel there are plenty of opinions on the Internet already.
And yet I feel I should do… something. Say something about something. So when this came up on the BBC website, I found myself latching onto it like a drowning sailor with a lifebelt. At last, a subject I fully understood. I am, after all, the woman who once broke a bone in her foot by falling off her own shoes. I am the woman who tottered around in agony at her son’s wedding because she had found the perfect pair of shoes but didn’t have the perfect pair of feet. Don’t get into an argument with me about the merits of forcing women to wear high heels, because you will lose. Yes! At last, something I could post on Facebook!
Until I did. And then I looked at it, and thought, dear lord. The world is going to hell in a handbasket, and you’re posting about shoes. I deleted it, and wondered what was the matter with me. Then I realised. It was Parkinson’s Law of Triviality in action.
Friends, please feel free to comment. But anything political will be deleted. Apparently I can’t cope.
Big thanks to Fiona and the staff at the lovely Walter Henry’s bookshop in Bideford, who marked the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death on Saturday with tea and cake and fine hospitality. The collective noun for a gathering of local readers, writers and historians should probably be ‘a gossip’ but we fell respectfully silent to listen to a sonnet by the late Bard, read by his living namesake, writer Liz Shakespeare.
Peter Christie explained why he believes Shakespeare came to Bideford: we know (I didn’t, but I do now) that the King’s Company came all the way to Barnstaple to flee the plague in 1605, so having travelled that far, surely they would travel down the road and play the only other big town in the area? Whose plays were being watched in contemporary accounts of money being ‘wasted’ on the theatre?
Finally Janet Braund Few entertained us with a demonstration of Elizabethan costume and manners. Something we clearly needed, since several of the wenches present had turned up wearing men’s breeches and in a further assault upon modesty, not one of the married ladies present had her head covered. We had all, as the saying goes, let our hair down.
Rather than shock any sensitive readers with photographs of this scandalous attire, here is a picture of a bag.
And here’s the book I bought to go inside it, recommended to me by children’s author and farmer (so she should know), Victoria Eveleigh.
“The Britain of today,” asserted Pliny back in the first century, “performs the rites of magic in manic fashion.” Given the piles of plastic Halloween tat in the shops here, it’s hard to see that much has changed.
I’m normally as cynical as Pliny about this sort of thing, but at four o’clock this morning, all alone in a dim and silent Downie Towers, I turned to find that the wardrobe and book-case had silently slid themselves along the wall to block the bedroom door.
Unable to find a rational explanation for this, and surprised by how calm I was, I thought, So it really is true about poltergeists after all. Then as I watched, the blanket draped over the book-case lifted. A batch of ring-binder files floated out from beneath it and turned in mid-air, ready to place itself on a different shelf.
“#*@/$!*” I shrieked, not so calm now, and woke myself up.
I’m pretty sure Dr Freud would say it was something to do with reading this:
…combined with frenzied bouts of furniture-shifting as we finally face redecorating a house crammed with too many books and papers. But in the middle of the night it is hard to think rationally.
The book—in the daytime, at least—is a fascinating source of ancient texts. It includes the earliest version of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice and tales of Pythagoras, who was not only good at geometry but could also appear in two places at once. That’s something they never told us at school.
Pliny, despite his scorn for “the empty craft of the mages,” goes on to list dozens of their supposedly medicinal uses for the hyena. If you have a recently-deceased hyena to hand, and you caught it while the moon was traversing the constellation of Gemini, here’s a remedy you might want to try:
“Their most emphatic recommendation is the use of the end part of the intestinal tube against the unfair behaviour of leaders and rulers.”
Meanwhile, in view of the date, you might also want to remove one its larger teeth and tie it to yourself before darkness falls. “It is said to be helpful against the terrors of the night and the fear of ghosts.”
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.
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?
A friend recently sent me this link to news of MASTERPIECE, a “reality show for writers” soon to be broadcast on Italian television. I read the article with mounting amazement, wondering, who on earth would go in for something like that? And then I remembered.
It started with a conversation over the wine and peanuts one evening at a friend’s dining-table, when someone said, “Is anybody going in for this BBC thing?”
“This BBC thing” turned out be a competition called END OF STORY. Half a dozen famous writers had each written half a short story and the public were invited to submit their own endings. Someone did note that the small print obliged entrants to take part in a TV programme, but there was no need to worry: it was a national competition so the chances of that happening to any of us were infinitesimally small. Several of us agreed that finishing someone’s story seemed like a fun thing to do, and then we moved on to the business of the evening: the struggle to write something fit to be read aloud in response to whatever writing exercises this month’s leader had brought.
I had completely forgotten about END OF STORY when the phone call came. I was on the long-list for the Fay Weldon group! I had won a mug, a t-shirt and, better still, lots of kudos! The excitement of this news was slightly tempered by the memory of the small print, but I pushed it to the back of my mind. TV appearances were like accidents. They only ever happened to other people.
Until the next phone call.
Day later I was in Glasgow, one of a row of shell-shocked wannabe writers seated on chairs under studio lights. Cameras were poised to catch close-ups of our reactions as the panel of judges delivered their verdicts on a screen in front of us. Professional writers, we were told, must expect to have their work critiqued. They were treating us like professionals. It was too late to point out that I didn’t really want to be a writer after all: that despite the encouragement of a very patient agent, my attempt at a novel set in Roman Britain was headed for the bonfire. That I’d decided it was time to stop wasting time with words and find something useful to do with my life.
I’m told I looked very calm, but that may have been something to do with the painkillers. It certainly wasn’t the Buck’s Fizz on offer in the dressing-room. I’m still not sure whether that was a sign of the BBC’s generosity or its need to get us to relax in front of the cameras. Either way, I’d turned it down. I had enough trouble walking in a straight line as it was: earlier that week I’d managed to fall off my own shoes and crack a bone in my foot, and had to lurch into the studio on crutches. Maybe that’s why I didn’t run away.
After it was over they took each of us into a side room and asked, “How do you feel?” Since then I have watched hundreds of people being asked this question in front of cameras and to my amazement they all seem to know the answer. Whatever I managed to stammer evidently wasn’t interesting enough to broadcast. What I should have said was, Stunned. We contestants had begun to feel that we were all in this together, but now three of us had been eliminated. I wasn’t one of them.
Somebody’s bum looks big in this, but for once it’s not mine. Made it down the stairs on one crutch!
Two of the objections to the idea of a ‘live’ writing contest are that writing is neither easy to do with an audience, nor very interesting to watch. Mercifully the BBC had thought of that, so the putting together of words was firmly in the past by the time we got anywhere near the cameras. However, being a professional writer involves all sorts of things that are nothing to do with writing. In the interests of entertainment and education, the producers came up with new challenges for us.
By some twist of fate the one who hated having photographs taken was sent for a professional photo shoot. The one who was in the slough of despond because not only was her novel headed for the bonfire but she’d just failed an interview for her own job was to be given… an interview! I don’t think they filmed the moment when the production crew thought I’d done a bunk down the back stairs on my crutches, but it would have made good telly.
Finally we got to meet Fay Weldon, whose story we’d all attempted to complete, and who was both kind and generous with her critiques. And then it was all over. I was alone on the way to Euston with a fresh challenge: how to manage an overnight bag, a bunch of flowers, a bottle of champagne and a crutch.
It’s all over. Still hoping they don’t film my feet. Only wearing those sandals because nothing else will fit round the bandage. (Yes, that is Big Ben outside. The finals were filmed in London.)
Six END OF STORY programmes went out on BBC3 back in 2004. As I understand it, the twin aims were to encourage writers and to entertain viewers.
Did they succeed?
They certainly encouraged me. Shortly after it was all over they rang to say they were thinking of making a follow-up programme about the finalists. Could they send a camera crew round to ask about the writing?
Now the writing, as you’ll be aware if you’ve been paying attention, was on the road to destruction. (Destroying stalled novels was so much more fun in the days when we had paper. I had enough failed drafts in the bottom drawer to make a merry blaze.) But of course I still couldn’t say that to the lovely people at the BBC. They had pushed me through the streets of Glasgow in a wheelchair when the crutches got too much, and been enormously kind about my terror of interviews. So when two chaps turned up with a camera I burbled vaguely about working on a Roman novel. “Great!” they said. “We’ll be back in January to see how it’s going!”
I did my best to keep smiling.
Did they entertain the viewers? Maybe not as much as they’d hoped. It wasn’t until January had slipped into February, February into March that I began to look up from the frantic efforts to produce something – anything – to talk about next time, and to wonder if they were coming back at all. By the time I realised there would be no follow-up programme, the first draft of the Roman novel was almost complete.
That book later became the first in the Ruso series. The sixth should be published next year. The one contestant with whom I’ve kept in touch is also still writing.
My best wishes go to all the brave contenders on MASTERPIECE. I have much to be grateful for, and I hope it works for them as well as the BBC’s rather more restrained approach worked for me.
As for that foot injury – not even the humiliation of falling off my own shoes was wasted. Ruso suffers a broken metatarsal in rather more heroic circumstances at the start of the third novel. Believe me, those scenes on crutches were written with feeling.
For more thoughts on MASTERPIECE, here’s a debate in the Guardian. Anyone else care to comment?
While I’m busy talking, two friends will be sending their new books out into the world this month. Good luck to Rebecca Alexander, whose debut THE SECRETS OF LIFE AND DEATH has just been launched by Del Rey. My copy hasn’t arrived yet but I’ve read some of the early chapters of the book that Rebecca’s working on at the moment, and they’re gripping.
Alison Morton’s PERFIDITAS comes out today – the sequel to INCEPTIO. What would have happened if Rome had never fallen? Well, Latin homework would have been a whole lot easier. And we’d never have heard of Edward Gibbon. But that’s my take on it, not Alison’s. Hers is far more creative. Find out more – including what Simon Scarrow and Sue Cook say about PERFIDITAS – here.
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.
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:
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.
Ham Hill has been inhabited for thousands of years, and this beautiful flint arrowhead would have been ancient even in the Iron Age.
Modern archaeology involves a lot of paperwork. Below: another day at the office.
The site is being excavated because it will soon vanish into this…
…which might seem a shame, but they need the Ham stone for repairing ancient buildings – presumably, ones like this in the 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.
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…