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.

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“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:

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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

 

 

 

 

 

Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum

1-H&P BannerI  love the British Museum more every time I visit.

Pompeii and Herculaneum were destroyed by the same volcano AD 79, in but in different ways, so that different kinds of things survived in the buried wreckage. Now the British Museum has cleverly put items from the two together to give a vivid picture of Roman life in these towns, which were  unusual only in the horrifying way in which they died.

Husband and I have been to both sites in the past but most of what we saw yesterday was new to us, largely because the Herculaneum museum was closed when we were there and the Pompeii material is housed in Naples. Naples is not the place to venture if you have naively booked a hire car, you only have a long weekend and you have never driven in Italy before. We’ve seen photos, of course. I’ve read books. You can walk through both towns on Google Street View. So while I expected to admire and enjoy, I didn’t expect to be terribly surprised.

Well, silly me.

1-H&P Mummius Max 1

The first surprise was the social mobility. We all know that Roman slaves could be, and often were, freed. They could build up wealth of their own and their children would become freeborn Roman citizens in their own right. What I hadn’t realised was how often it happened. On the engraved list of  male citizens in Herculaneum (there would have been about 500, from a population of 4-5000), over half of them are freed slaves. On the right is one of them: Lucius Mammius Maximus. He became a wealthy benefactor of the city and this statue was put up in the theatre.

Until now it hadn’t occurred to me that the faded figures in the background of some of the frescoes (yes, there are whole walls on display!) were not faded by time and volcanic action, but because they were painted that way. They are of course the slaves, waiting in case the main subjects need assistance with whatever they’re doing, which is sometimes private in the extreme. Where slaves have to appear in the foreground (serving dinner, for example) they’re often disproportionately small.  Playing ‘spot the slave’ is a good game. And interestingly, much use of the written word in both towns is in contexts where only slaves would see it. The labelling on amphorae, for example. They might be slaves, but they were not ignorant.

While we’re on social mobility – how cheering it is to see evidence of women running businesses and owning wealth in their own right. Makers of ancient-world movies where young women are incapable even of doing their own clothes up, please take note.

Apologies for the dearth of pictures from now on. Photography is not allowed in the exhibition itself. So you’ll have to imagine what’s inside here…

1-H&P Reading Room

The second surprise was the Stuff. So much of it. So ornate. Roman society was, as curator Dr Paul Roberts pointed out, all about power, and display of wealth and status. That’s why you would have your strongbox displayed in a prominent place in the house, not cunningly hidden from burglars. Harry Enfield’s ‘look at my wad!’ character would have fitted in very nicely. That’s why you would have beautiful silverware on display, and lovely fountains playing to help you and your guests relax in the garden. Meanwhile, back in the tiny, stuffy kitchen, the slaves would be fetching water with buckets,  and the toilet, used for dumping all sorts of waste, was right next to the cooking-hearth.

The third surprise was about that well-known painting of a man selling the loaves of bread that are stacked up around him. I’ve always wondered why he seemed to be sitting cross-legged on a kind of platform, and handing the bread down, instead of moving about behind a counter like a normal shopkeeper. Apparently he isn’t a normal shopkeeper. According to the blurb, there’s an election approaching, and he is handing out bread to the citizens. It’s not an illustration of everyday life at all. It’s a campaign poster. Now it makes sense!

Beyond the surprises, there was an accumulation of cheering details. When you write historical fiction you spend many fruitless hours pondering the practical ways in which people used to live.  It’s long been obvious to me, and surely to anyone who thinks about it, that normal Romans would not be gadding off to the baths every time they needed a wash. And they weren’t. To my relief, the kind of washing-bowls that I’m sure I must have written into the books (or implied, at least) did exist. There was one on display. Ditto chamberpots (one with two natty extensions on the rim for comfort). There was a useful-looking cooking pan with six little dips in that might have held poached eggs or cakes, and the mystery of what stoppers were made of is finally solved. Amphorae could be sealed with plaster but what of bottles that had to be regularly opened and closed? Wood, fibre or cloth, apparently. Phew. It’s unlikely to appear in a book but it’s nice to know.

Oh, and dormice. I know every fictional Roman banquet has to include dormice, but they really did eat them. You could even keep them in a special pot with built-in feeding bowls while you fattened them up.

The most thought-provoking exhibits, though, were not – for me – the famous plaster casts of the dead. They are shocking, but I have seen them before. What really brought the disaster home to me were the collections of once-useful items that the victims had chosen to take with them, and which were rendered irrelevant in the face of the catastrophe. A soldier died on the beach at Herculaneum wearing his military belt, his sword and his dagger. Many people had grabbed jewellery and coins. One girl had a collection of good-luck charms. People took keys to doors that ceased to exist when they did. Most moving of all, I found, was the set of surgeon’s instruments that had been neatly stored in a protective case, so that the owner would be ready to help someone when needed.

1-H&P outside the BMSeeing for yourself:

The British Museum site has the info and there’s a promise of an iphone/Android app coming soon. Meanwhile if you’re thinking of going – do book.  It was packed. There are other events happening in conjunction with the display, so check out the events page for a chance to see Robert Harris and/or Lindsey Davis, amongst others.

1-H&P shop

For those in the UK who can’t get there, the Museum are doing a live event screening in cinemas around the country on 18 June. If you can’t get to that… well, you could drop some very large hints to your loved ones that the catalogue would make a fine present…

Damnatio Memoriae

We don’t often venture to comment on the news here at Downie Towers, but current attempts to erase the name of Jimmy Savile from public display put me in mind of this:

Bronze Roman corn measure
Bronze Roman corn measure (‘modius’) found at Carvoran. Now in Chesters museum near Hadrian’s wall.

The focus is somewhat awry, but that’s not why you can’t read the top line of the lettering. It’s been deliberately defaced. The name that’s missing is that of  the emperor Domitian, a vicious tyrant  who by the end of his reign was so paranoid that he had polished walls installed in his galleries so that he could see the reflection of anyone trying to creep up behind him.  Nonetheless, he was murdered.  Afterwards the senators “even had ladders brought and his shield and images torn down before their eyes and dashed upon the ground; finally they passed a decree that his inscriptions should everywhere be erased, and all record of him obliterated.”

You can read the rest of  Suetonius’s marvellously gossipy biography of Domitian here. And there’s a better-focused photo of the modius here.

Now you see it… now you don’t. Now you see it.

I was deeply disappointed – outraged, actually – when the wonderful Roman cavalry helmet found at Crosby Garrett was auctioned a couple of years ago. Tullie House Museum, who would have put it on public display, couldn’t outbid the offer of two million pounds made by a private buyer, and one of the most exciting Roman finds Britain has seen for years disappeared from sight.

And now it’s back! It’s not for sale. It’s not in a museum. It’s not for ever. But for a few brief months, the Crosby Garrett helmet is on display at the Royal Academy, as part of their Bronze exhibition. I’m hoping to catch it before it vanishes again on 9 December.

Death in Durham

Just back from a long weekend with friends in lovely Durham, where they seem to be having a festival of old bones. The archaeological museum  in the Old Fulling  Mill is currently running an exhibition of Skeleton Science, showing the sorts of investigations bioarchaeologists make into the remains that their non-bio colleagues dig up.

The signs of injury and illness were pretty much what anyone who’d spent as much time as I have watching this sort of thing on TV would expect. What was sobering, though, was the suggestion that a female skeleton from the late nineteenth century might have minor rib deformation ‘due to corset wearing’. Thank goodness we no longer live in an era where you are likely to be injured by your own clothes.  The exhibition runs until 21 October.

Following this, we decided to head for some light relief at the cinema. Here’s what we found:

Lower half of skeleton with skull between legs

Upper half of skeleton with skull by pelvis

Yes, just off the cinema foyer was – another skeleton exhibition!

Even without a bioarchaeologist we could deduce that these gentlemen’s heads were not in the usual place. They’re some of the decapitated skeletons  found in the Driffield Terrace cemetery in York, better known as ‘The Headless Romans’ and the subject of a Timewatch programme back in – I think – 2006, suggesting they were victims of a purge under the Emperor Caracalla.

Since then more work has been done, and the bites of exotic animals have been found on some of the bones.  Maybe these men weren’t executed after all? Maybe they were gladiators?

The bones are still throwing up surprises. This Spring, one of the ‘men’  – not on display – turned out to be a woman.

What all of this means is literally anyone’s guess.  Instead of presenting an ‘explanation’, the display offers four different theories and invites us – the public – to look at the evidence and choose for ourselves.  It’s a good illustration of the fact that, as one of the guides explained, ‘archaeology is always only theories’. (Although the fact that the exhibition’s been called ‘Gladiators’ illustrates something else about archaeology – you have to make it sound exciting if you want people to take an interest.)

Apparently the display is so popular that the closing date keeps being postponed. For those who can’t get there, there’s a website where you can see for yourself and join in the voting.

After dinner we went for a stroll and ran across this beautiful place full of birdsong:

Entrance to cemetery with Commonwealth War Graves sign

Commonwealth War Graves sign

War grave

A timely reminder that the objects of our fascination were once real people, deserving not only our interest but our respect.