Eboracum 2018 – Romans and beyond

 

Display board announcing Eboracum Roman Festival

To begin at the beginning…

Model sheep on 'green' roof of portacabin over station Left Luggage sign
Somebody needs to notify Little Bo Peep about this… In the background: part of York railway station. Train is my favourite way to arrive in the city, especially since the station is built over a Roman cemetery, some of which is probably still down there under the platforms.
City wall-walk with York Minster on the horizon
From the station area it’s a grand walk along the walls toward York Minster. As I haven’t yet worked out how to record video on the new camera, please imagine the Minster bells ringing out across the city.
Sign saying Nether Hornpot Lane
No, I don’t know why either, but York is full of this sort of thing.
Quaint narrow street with scaffolded cathedral at the end
York Minster – a new addition to the Downie Towers collection of Famous Landmarks Seen Through Scaffolding (Nimes amphitheatre, the Trevi Fountain, the Parthenon…)
Statue of Constantine apparently pointing at the scaffolding
Constantine, who was first proclaimed emperor here in Eboracum, explains the scaffolding to a visitor.

 

Medieval black and white timbered house
Not Roman, but interesting…
Sign saying Barley Hall and announcing an exhibition of costumes from Wolf Hall
Wolf Hall costumes! Obviously I have to go in now, even if it isn’t Roman.
Banqueting hall with ornate tiled floor
Wow. Barley Hall is a much-restored building and many of the contents are reproductions. As a result, instead of looking like a museum, it looks and feels like a fresh and comfortable home.
Windows 'glazed' with translucent strips of horn
A window ‘glazed’ with strips of animal horn. I’ve heard of horn-glazed lamps before (the Romans had them) but never seen the real thing. It feels very smooth and strangely plasticky to the touch.
Man's and woman's outfits, 16th century
Here they are! Just two of the Wolf Hall costumes on display. Fans of the series will be able to project Cromwell (Mark Rylance) and Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy) onto those blank white faces.
Model of vegetable stall with trader and customer
A quick diversion to the Jorvik Centre to discover that almost everyone in Viking York was slightly out of focus – witness this trader trying to sell fuzzy vegetables to a blurry lady. The Jorvik Centre displays are excellent but I have no idea how to work the camera in low light.
Gruesome display of offal with a (model) rat on the table
Be glad this is out of focus: it’s the butcher’s. And yes, that grey thing with a pointy nose and a tail up on the chopping-block is indeed a rat. This is the sort of thing that makes the Jorvik Centre fine family entertainment. (Actually my favourite item on display was a very old sock with holes in it – made by naalbinding, for anyone who’s interested in textile production. There’s a good photo of it on the Jorvik Centre website.) But when, you ask, are we going to get to the Romans? Well, this is how they were looking on Friday night…
One tent up, lots of kit piled up on the grass.
…because anything involving camping always starts with a big heap of poles and plastic boxes in a field.
Sign saying "Meet the Roman authors here" outside half-timbered building
By Saturday morning even the writers had got organized, although I wish I’d pulled the banner up straight before taking this picture.
Three men in Roman military outfits
Ben Kane chatting to a couple of Roman soldiers who’d travelled from a city way beyond the bounds of the Empire – Los Angeles.
A miniature statue of the Emperor Augustus and a large pebble with a face drawn on it.
Followers of LJ Trafford‘s Facebook page will already know statue Augustus and stone Tiberius, who regularly feature there. This is one of their rare public appearances.
Author and man in Roman uniform talking over bookstall
Here’s LJ Trafford herself, talking to Graham Harris, festival organiser.
Man and bookstall
Paul Chrystal cunningly brought something to appeal to those who had only come to the Festival because some Romanophile had dragged them along. In amongst the Classics and Ancient History was, “Pubs in York.”
Two men talking over a bookstall
Harry Sidebottom is a little fuzzy around the edges here but you have to admit that the offer of “Any Hot or Soft Drink and a cake, £2.50” has come out very nicely.
Man holding up two books.
Alex Gough. In focus (!) along with the splended “Watchmen of Rome”. Yesss!
Woman and bookstall.
Penny Ingham, whose “The Saxon Wolves” I’ve just read and very much enjoyed, with its depiction of Roman Britain falling into ruin.
Jane Finnis, Romanophile and Yorkshirewoman, whose Roman-era murder mysteries are set practically on the doorstep.
Man holding up book,
Another of Yorkshire’s finest – Simon (SJA) Turney, looking very proud of his latest book, “Caligula” – as well he should.
Bookstall in front of mullioned window
The Hospitium is probably the most splendid location in which I’ve ever set up a bookstall.
Six women in Roman or Ancient British clothing
Thanks to LA Hambly (in white with red stripe) there was a Romano-British Fashion Parade. The tags around our necks aren’t jewellery, they’re our passes in and out of the Museum Gardens – handmade by Sandra G-Neville (right).
Clay tablet threaded on string
Too late, I found out they also got us discount in the local pub.
Emperor in purple robes escorted by Roman troops
At the command of the Emperor, the troops marched around the streets of the city. (If you’re keen on marching photos, there are more in last year’s blog post.) Here they are returning to base camp…
Roman soldiers with bottles of water.
…where they were very glad to down plenty of water. Marching is hot work.
Woman blowing bellows on hot coals
Meanwhile somebody was getting dinner ready.
Two people playing a board game
Other people were playing games
Roman artillery
Or admiring weaponry
Or watching this military scribe at work. I’m sure he and Albanus would have had a fine time discussing the best types of sealing wax and where to buy pens.
Roman saddle with four horns.
Re-enactor Sara Parkes explained this Roman-style saddle to me. Unlike modern saddles, it fits several sizes of horse. It’s also very comfortable and easy for the rider. (As someone with a talent for falling off, I was pleased to see there’s a wide choice of things to cling onto.)
Man talking across a table laid out with helmets, etc
This chap was explaining something as I passed. Perhaps someone had asked him why there was a disembodied arm on the table in front of him.
Wooden loom with weaving, threads held down by clay weights.
Once you’d got this loom set up, you would hope not to have to move it until you’d finished weaving. Because although it packs down into a box, all those weights holding the wool in position  (which are the only thing between you and an almighty tangle) have to be removed for transit. Thanks to the lady from The Roman Military Research Society who took the time to explain it to me.
Man and a woman in Roman and British costumes
On the right: Medicus Anicius Ingenuus of the IX Hispana legion. I failed to learn the name of the British lady on the left, even though she was kind enough to give me some very useful tips on Naalbinding (one of the ways people used to make socks before knitting was invented).
Papyrus scroll written on in Latin.
And here’s my absolute favourite item of the weekend: the Medicus has copied the writings of Celsus on the subject of surgery onto this papyrus scroll so that he can carry it with him on his travels with the Legion. I’m sure if he and Ruso were to meet, they would have a lot to talk about.

 

 

 

 

 

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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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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A long way from Rome

Apologies for the blog silence. I’ve been travelling beyond the farthest reaches of the Empire.  At least, that’s what I thought, but one of the displays in the Hong Kong Maritime Museum (which is well worth a visit if you’re passing that way) was eerily familiar.

img_20161118_123048602

“That,” I cried to Longsuffering Husband, who thought he’d got away from all that stuff for a while, “is Roman glass!” And indeed it was. Over 5,700 miles from home.

According to the caption, “between the second and ninth centuries, some of these containers were either imported to Xi’an, or transported via the maritime silk route to China. Objects from other cultural contexts were adopted for domestic use. For example, Roman glass containers were used to hold rosewater as part of Buddhist ritual practices.” 

It’s only fair to point out that the rest of the displays are distinctively Chinese, and even a dolt like me who knows nothing about ships couldn’t fail to be impressed. Here’s one of the models I managed to get in focus:

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This isn’t going to turn into a catalogue of holiday snaps. There are plenty of much better photos of Hong Kong on the net, none of which have my relatives grinning in the foreground. But here are just a couple, to prove we didn’t spend the whole trip wandering around museums.The first one’s taken from the Peak overlooking the city:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And here’s Lo So Shing beach on Lamma island, accessible only on foot:

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I didn’t find anything else Roman to foist upon Longsuffering Husband. But last Wednesday night as we joined the crowds at Happy Valley racecourse, set in the middle of the city, I couldn’t help thinking this was probably the nearest thing to the Circus Maximus* that I’m ever likely to experience.

(*clicking this link will get you to an article called “Brothels, bars and betting shops”. As far as I’m aware, anyone going to Happy Valley in search of brothels is going to be disappointed.)

So, with apologies for the dire video quality (I’m a writer, not a film-maker)  here’s a very quick glimpse of the race on which Longsuffering Husband won 70 Hong Kong dollars – enough to buy us both a coffee. Wild times!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

VITA BREVIS is (almost) out in the UK!

At last! The hardback of VITA BREVIS, the story of Ruso and Tilla’s trip to Rome, goes on sale in the UK tomorrow (22 September). Vita Brevis HB coverYou can read the beginning here.

This publication is less nerve-wracking than usual because the book’s already been released in the US and in other formats here, and I’m grateful to everyone who’s said kind things about it.  It may well come to a bookshop or library near you, and is available online (see below). But…  the mighty Amazon UK don’t have it in stock. It’s probably a glitch that’ll be fixed before I’ve finished typing this*, but I was surprised – and ashamed, to be honest – by how alarmed I felt at facing publication day without the Big A on board. (*LATER – it wasn’t, but it is now.)

All of which left me thinking that life must have been so much simpler in the days when a book was either on the shelf in front of you, or it wasn’t. So I took a little look back to the early 1900’s, when one small seaside resort in Devon could support FIVE circulating libraries/bookshops, all competing for the cash of locals and visitors alike:Advertisement for circulating library

As each library was run on a subscription basis, readers would have to choose between them. (Maybe things weren’t as different then as we imagine. It’s not so far from the Netflix/Prime/Other-subscriptions-are-available debate, is it?) There’s a refreshing honesty about the advertising, though:

Advertisement for library

Perhaps the deciding factor would be price.

List of subscription prices

Hm. Shall I buy a year’s access to Class A books, or nine gallons of stout?

Brewery price list

Rather than commit to a subscription, you could always buy books outright from the same shop.

WH Smith advert for Cheap Editions

Some of the books on sale would be published on the premises. Indeed, should you wish to write your own book, pens and paper would be readily available to purchase. Sadly delivery by drone was not on offer, but someone from Vince’s would obligingly wheel your books through the streets to you in a splendid wooden hand-cart. (I used to have a photo of this but annoyingly, I can’t find it.)

Full marks to Vince’s yet again for imaginative marketing…

Advert for paper to make hats with

I have no idea why enough people might want a paper hat to warrant the cost of the advertisement. Maybe they were sunning themselves on the beaches? It’s a reminder that despite the parallels, those were very different times. Here’s an advertisement from the autumn of 1914.

Advert for maps made by Englishmen

I like to think we’ve moved on. And mindful of the awful events about to engulf the readers of these advertisements, I think I’ve got that mere hiccup on a 21st century website back into some sort of proportion.

 

The research for this post was done at the delightful Ilfracombe Museum.

* VITA BREVIS is available from bookshops or online at:

Bloomsbury UK

Hive

Blackwells (who also own Heffers in Cambridge, where I believe there is stock on the shelf.)

Waterstones

The Book Depository

Amazon UK

If anyone has any other suggestions, please share.

 

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!

 

 

 

 

 

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