I understand Manfredi has written a number of classically-inspired works; this is the first I have read. It roams a little outside the usual realm of these things, because it decides to play not with the Romans but with the Etruscans, the civilization which preceded the Romans to the north of their city. The Etruscans are notoriously tricky to get a handle on, not least because reading Etruscan is a nightmare (helped mainly by texts written in parallel with Latin versions), and very little of it has survived. Manfredi builds his story on an actual bit of Etruscan culture, a thing called a Phersu which appears most famously in a tomb painting from the so-called Tomb of the Augurs. (If you’re interested, there’s a recent article about the state of Phersu research freely available here, and some reasonable photos of the frescos here.) Manfredi does not restrict himself to the scholarly consensus (or whatever its condition was in 2001 when the book first appeared); instead, he takes the nuggets of scholarly work and builds up a story that suits himself – one which he can then use to build up a plot that mixes supernatural terror with a police procedural murder whodunit. The Ombra Della Sera statue also plays a significant role in unravelling the mystery of what happened centuries ago and how it is connected to a modern case of tomb robbery.
I will freely admit that the Etruscans are not my home turf and so I can’t really comment on Manfredi’s manipulation of the ancient sources. However, a couple of things stand out. The first is the way Manfredi makes the fragmentary knowledge of the Etruscans a feature rather than a bug – part of the problem faced by his investigators is that they know so little of Etruscan culture, heritage and language that they are often groping in the dark for hypotheses. Yet at the same time, Manfredi’s authorial voice allows him to claim knowledge of what Etruscan life was really like, particularly in a flash-back at the end of the novel to the events which ended in the tomb around which the plot revolves. There’s an interesting interplay between the supposed ‘lost’ world of the Etruscans, the contemporary characters’ lack of knowledge about it, and the author’s imaginative reconstruction of what fills in the gaps. It’s actually a really nice illustration of why fiction can help us think about academic subjects with a freedom that we don’t have in rigorously formal academic writing (although obviously the usefulness of that depends on how much attention is paid to the things that academics think can’t be ignored, but that’s by the by).
Last week was very much a week where all sorts of things seemed like very good ideas on their own, but in aggregate started to look just the tiniest bit over-optimistic. One of those things was attending the conference Between Words and Walls, organised by April Pudsey and Jen Baird of Birkbeck. I don’t think I have ever been to a conference before where I have had to explain why I’m there quite so often – and, let’s be honest, perhaps it’s not immediately obvious why I was there. The conference wanted to examine the study of ancient housing, how to combine the archaeological sources with the literary sources without privileging either, and consider new methodologies for studying the ancient house. It is an entirely fair question to ask how all that links in with what I do.
However, there is actually a very nice link between my stuff and ancient housing. A lot of the study of ancient housing has started looking at what, for want of a better term, you might call the sociology of living – that is, how the shape and layout of houses reflects the hierarchies of the families living in them, and what we might extrapolate about kinship relationships based on the space that families inhabit. This is where the link with my research comes in – although my work on Seneca’s concept of the family is currently based on his representation of the idealised philosophical family, I can’t discuss that without a good grounding in the social history of the Roman family, of which the study of housing forms a part. I told you it made perfect sense.
From mthat perspective, there were a couple of very interesting papers. Jen’s paper on houses at Dura-Europos included as a case study the records of a house which was given to four brothers as an inheritance, and the process of splitting one oikos into four oikoi - but within the same building. This is kind of mind-exploding from an ancient housing point of view, because when we think about houses, there’s a tendency to assume that one family unit inhabited one building, and that each building was a single oikos. If you have the sense of multiple households living in a single structure, that changes a lot of our assumptions about life in the ancient world – population density, the hierarchy of shared spaces within the shared structure, the practicalities of living in such small quarters, not to mention the difference between what the legal document says and what may have actually happened. The paper given by Heather Baker offered a brilliant counterpoint with evidence from Hellenistic Uruk, with tablet documentation of parts of houses being sold off to family members, or records of habitation that suggest multiple households in a single building again. Heather also bought out the evidence this gives us for female economic activity in this period, which for various reasons is not as well documented in other spheres of life.
It has been ages since I went to visit the Roman baths at Bath. I think the last time was a school trip when I was somewhere around year nine – certainly not for a while. (I don’t count the very nice afternoon I spent there a couple of days after returning from the US for a friend’s hen do, as the purpose of that visit was strictly to visit the Pump Room rather than the baths themselves.) I recently had the opportunity to go along and visit the baths properly on my travels, and I thought now was as good a time as any to refresh myself with the evidence for the baths that we have. I’ve been trying to incorporate as much material from Bath into my teaching as I can – this is part of a broader pedagogical commitment to using as much Roman Britain evidence as possible, partly for my own professional development and partly to incorporate provincial evidence alongside more mainstream Roman and Italian approaches. Last year’s Religion, Myth and Ritual course, for instance, made good use of Bath as a site that demonstrates syncretism (the combination of local and Roman deities, as in Sulis Minerva), and also the expansion of Roman religious structures into the provinces. It has turned up less in this year’s Roman Life Course teaching, but I wanted to see the site for myself and decide what I made of it.
The site is well presented and preserved – the free audiotour, narrated by Alice Roberts, also gives you plenty of light background information on what you are seeing (although I will say I found it rather less informative than I would have liked – something I didn’t feel with the audiotour of the Royal Academy’s Bronze exhibition, even for commentary on the Greek and Roman items). The visitor is quickly given a sense of the scale of the complex, how little of it is actually on display compared to how much is buried beneath the streets of modern Bath, and the sort of activities that would have taken place there. The intersection of bathing and religion is a fascinating one, particularly given the provision in the bathing complex of a pool of water pumped directly from the sacred spring (courtesy of a surviving lead pipe similar to the one found at Carleon); the reconstruction of buildings from the temple complex also suggest that the practice of incubation took place here. This is the posh name for when people seeking an oracle or healing slept overnight in a small purpose-built structure in the temple courtyard; they would then report their dreams to the local priest, who would interpret them. The act of sleeping in the god’s domain overnight was also itself supposed to act as a cure.
Over the bank holiday, I went down to Cardiff to visit some friends of mine who are getting married in September, and to deal with some associated admin in my role as head bridesmaid and troublemaker. I had thought to myself “gosh, isn’t it a shame that I am going to be in Wales and not have an opportunity to go over to Caerleon to see the dig that has turned up a Roman port on the banks of the Usk, but I can’t possibly ask my friends to change whatever their plans are to humour my professional interests”. Imagine my delight when it turned out they had already decided to take me for a visit! Sadly I didn’t think to bring my camera with me so I don’t have photographic evidence. I should also mention that the dig has its own blog, with plenty of photos and narrative description, and it’s well worth clicking through to visit it.
As we went on the Sunday of the bank holiday, the site was properly set up for vistors, with plenty of volunteers and students from the University of Cardiff to show people around, explain selected finds and, erm, dress up in appropriate costume (come on, you can’t have an open day for this kind of thing without having someone dressed up as a soldier, there’s probably a law against it). The target audience was of all ages, with plenty of activities for the children, and good guided tours around some of the most interesting trenches for adults. I’d like to take the opportunity to thank Luke, a second year at Cardiff, who acted as our guide – he was lucid, enthusiastic and did an excellent job of explaining what the team had found and why it was important.
And what have they found? If you’ve been following the coverage, you’ll know that they’ve found a port complex that appears to be part of a larger military settlement in this area. Just up the hill from the dig site is the Caerleon amphitheatre, which I’m shocked to say I didn’t know existed until visiting it, and a legionary camp; what the University of Cardiff thinks they have uncovered is the administrative buildings of the port which would have run alongside the River Usk. It’s a bit difficult to envisage how the site would have looked, because there’s now a blooming big hedgerow running alongside the river that blocks a direct view to the Usk, but we got a bit of an idea from standing on top of the amphitheatre to look out over the landscape. (more…)
I was very fortunate to have a chance to visit the Billingsgate Roman house and baths at the weekend, which the Museum of London opened up to celebrate the Festival of British Archaeology. One of the things I’ve been looking forward to about being back in the UK is the chance to actually visit Roman sites, which tend to be a bit thin on the ground in New York. I jumped at the opportunity to visit this site, as it’s usually completely inacessible to the public. That’s because it occupies the basement of a particularly undistinguished office block on Lower Thames Street, just next to the river. You wouldn’t even know that the remains were there, if it weren’t for the posters advertising it outside the building (removed by the time I took the photo on the left, although you can still see the open door that leads down into the basement).
The site actually has quite a remarkable recent history. The “significant” bit, the bath house, was discovered in 1848 when the Victorians were putting up the Coal Exchange; as well-educated men of the period, they recognised that they’d got something important in the basement, and when the legislation for the Ancient Monuments Act of 1882 went through Parliament, the bath house was one of the sites included under its protections (along with Stonehenge, which isn’t bad company to be in). When the Coal Exchange was demolished in the late 1960s and the current buildings put up, the presence of the bath house meant that Proper Archaeology had to be carried out into the surrounding area; it was those works that uncovered the footings of the house, and that ensured the remains were put into a basement that enabled them to be accessed and conserved. There was talk, before the financial crash, of demolishing the present building and putting something up that was less – well, concrete, and that had a purpose-built space for the remains, but obviously that’s not going to happen any time soon. The site is open for viewing, from what I can tell, about two or three times a year; the next opening will be in September, I believe, so I’m feeling jolly lucky that I happened to be in London this weekend.
The house itself has a pretty interesting history too, although I have to admit that I think it’s a bit of a sad one, mainly because I’ve recently been reading a lot about reconstructing the history of domestic spaces in Pompeii. That work relies a great deal on the detritus of everyday life such as dropped hairpins, lost bracelets and rings, forgotten children’s toys and so on. There appears to have been none of that sort of thing found at Billingsgate, which on the one hand means it’s a fascinating site for the history of building, but strangely missing evidence of human habitation. (more…)