Sunday, October 13, 2019

Fun with First Lines

illustration by Linzie Hunter
Some people collect stamps, Star Wars action figures or ceramic pigs. 

I collect first lines. 

I love to go into a bookshop or library and pick a book off the shelf and open it up to check the first line. 

Here is one of my favourites: 

In the beginning was the Word and the word was with God, and the word was God. 

You might think it is from John’s Gospel in the New Testament portion of the Bible, but it’s also the first line of Umberto Eco’s book The Name of the Rose, now being televised on the BBC. 

Here’s another of my best first lines. One of the oldest, too. 

Sing goddess, the wrath of Achilles... 

It’s the first line of Homer’s epic Greek poem The Iliad

I also love Virgil’s riff on it, the first line of his Aeneid, an epic poem in Latin. 

I sing of arms and the man... 

How about this one?

Call me Ishmael. 

That is one of the most fa
mous first lines in the world. It’s from Moby Dick by Herman Melville. But did you know that Kurt Vonnegut begins his book Cat’s Cradle with this first line? 

Call me Jonah.

Can you see the point I’m making? Good first lines can be begged, borrowed and adapted. 

Another of my fave first lines is from the Anthony Horowitz’s Stormbreaker

When the doorbell rings at three in the morning it’s never good news. 

That first line inspired the opening of my book Escape from Rome. 

The Emperor’s men came at midnight. 

But I don’t think Anthony Horowitz will sue me. All writers gain inspiration from one another and in fact it’s a kind of tribute when you use a famous first line as inspiration. 

I’m a writer-in-residence at the junior division of Kings College School Wimbledon this week. Hopefully we’ll have time to play a fun game I call Dr Frankenstein’s First Lines.

This is one of over a hundred tricks and tips I include in my new book How to Write a Great Story. The principle is pretty obvious. You take a fave first line (or two) chop them up and stitch them together, a bit like Dr Frankenstein does with his monster. 

I’ve used it in schools and it’s proved really fun and inspirational. Here are a few great first lines we have played with. 

Sophie had waited all her life to be kidnapped.

(from The School of Good and Evil by Soman Chainani)

When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle, everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen. 

(from The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett)

The Iron Man came to the top of the cliff. 

(from The Iron Man by Ted Hughes)

And finally, here is a first line I actually didn’t nick from anybody else but am proud of because I use it to tell you the hero, the genre and the setting. And I did all that in the first line! 

Flavia Gemina solved her first mystery on the Ides of June in the tenth year of the emperor Vespasian.

(from The Thieves of Ostia by Caroline Lawrence)

Feel free to play with it and have fun. 

Happy Writing! (And chopping…)

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Ideas 4 Teachers

Ideas for Teachers based on the Roman Mysteries by Caroline Lawrence


Romans used a sponge-stick instead of toilet paper. Discuss what was the same and what was different about Roman times.

Take a real object or a replica artefact. Study it in silence for a full minute. Touch it. Sniff it. Listen to it. Taste it. Now write a story or poem about it.

In Ancient Rome educated people signed documents with a signet ring, which could be recognised even by those who couldn't read. If you had been a well-educated and rich Roman, what design would you have on your signet ring? A god, like Mars or Venus? A hero, like Hercules or Atalanta? An animal, like a cricket or dolphin? Or a mythological creature, like the hydra, which had the body of a dog and nine snake heads? Design your ring.

Read the passage in The Thieves of Ostia where Flavia buys Nubia. Now put yourself in Nubia's position and write in the first person about how Nubia feels.

Read the passage in The Thieves of Ostia where Jonathan's father discovers that someone has cut out Lupus's tongue. Put yourself in Lupus's position and write in the first person about Lupus.

Find a passage that triggers a memory of something that happened in your own life. You might have felt sad, happy, jealous, excited, etc. Compare the scene in the book with the incident from your life. How were they similar? How were they different? Detail how you felt during that experience. 

What is a book cover designed to do? Do you think the covers of the Roman Mysteries are good? What aspects do you like about them? What don't you like? Choose a title of a Roman Mystery that you've read and design a cover for this book that would appeal to boys. Design a cover that would appeal to girls. Now design a cover that would appeal to everybody!

The author of the Roman Mysteries uses primary sources like letters by Pliny the Younger, history by Suetonius, poems by Catullus. Read part of a letter, speech or poem by a real historical character. Write a story around it or about it.

Think about some movies or TV shows that use Greek myths (e.g. My Fair Lady is based on the myth of Pygmalion). Star Wars, The Matrix, Spiderman, Lord of the Rings all use elements of Greek mythology. Choose a famous or obscure Greek myth and make it into a modern story. Or make it into a science fiction story. Or set the story in medieval times. You get the idea...

For more ideas related to specific books in the series, check out the THEMES and TOPICS blog post. 

Monday, July 15, 2019

Roman Mysteries Themes and Topics

In each of the 17 books in my Roman Mysteries series, I have consciously embedded a Greek Myth. This short guide tells which ones and also highlights the themes, topics and artefacts featured in each book. I hope teachers will find it useful. 

Book 1: The Thieves of Ostia 
SETTING - Ostia, the port of Rome (ITALY) 
June 79 AD
Roman topic: introduction to a Roman town and social structure
Real historical characters: Cartilius Poplicola (resident of Ostia)
Sources: The Aeneid, the Bible, Ostian inscriptions
Greek myths: Aeneas, Cerberus, Perseus and Medusa
featured food: fruit, snails, stuffed dormice (ironically)
artefacts: signet ring, wax tablet, stylus, oil lamp, amphoras, dice
Related posts: How to Make a Stola, A Day in Ostia

Book 2: The Secrets of Vesuvius (theme: parentage and adoption)
SETTING - Ostia, Laurentum, Pompeii, Stabia (ITALY) 
August 79 AD
Roman topic: the eruption of Vesuvius and destruction of Pompeii and surrounding towns
Real historical characters: Pliny the Elder, Titus Tascius Pomponianus, Rectina
Sources: Pliny the Younger, Pliny the Elder, Catullus, Ostian graffiti
Greek myths: the return of Vulcan, Thetis, Achilles
Roman festivals: Vinalia, Vulcanalia
featured food: Pliny's simple fare: cheese, fruit, eggs; Tascius' rich fare: turbot in dill sauce
key artefacts and objects: scrolls, portable inkpot and pen, flute, pan-pipes, parasol, cushions, wooden false teeth
Related posts: Children in Pompeii and Herculaneum

Book 3: The Pirates of Pompeii (theme: slavery and freedom) Nubia's book
SETTING - Stabia, Vico Equense, Sorrento (ITALY) 
August/Sept 79 AD
Roman topic: Patrons and clients, slaves and freedmen
Real historical characters: The Emperor Titus, Pollius Felix (attested in a poem of Statius)
Historical site: the villa of Pollius Felix on the Cape of Sorrento, Scraio (spa town near Sorrento)
Sources: Pompeian graffiti, Statius's 'Silvae' (poems)
Greek myths: Dionysus and the pirates, Ariadne & Theseus
featured food: lemons (recently introduced); goat stew, flat bread, chickpeas, mineral water, sage tea
key artefacts and objects: earrings, hairpins, theatrical masks, lyre, flute, kylix (Greek drinking cup)
Related posts: Serendipity in Surrentum

Book 4: The Assassins of Rome (theme: guilt) 
Jonathan's book
SETTING - Ostia & Rome (ITALY) 
September 79 AD
Roman topic: Nero's golden house, the destruction of Jerusalem, Jewish slave labour, chariot races
Real historical characters: Emperor Titus, Berenice, Domitian, Josephus
Sources: Suetonius, Cassius Dio, Homer, Josephus, the Bible
Greek myths: Odysseus, Polyphemus the cyclops, Penelope the faithful wife
Jewish festivals: Rosh Hashannah, Yom Kippur, Succot
featured food: exotic oranges; buttermilk; honey dipped apples for Rosh Hashanna
key artefacts and objects: wax tablet and stylus, alabastron, loom and weights, bass lyre, tambourine

Book 5: The Dolphins of Laurentum (revenge and forgiveness) Lupus's book
SETTING - Ostia and Laurentum (ITALY) 
October 79 AD
Roman topic: a real maritime villa, sponge-diving on the Greek islands
Real historical characters: Pliny the Younger
Sources: Pliny the Younger's letter about his Laurentum villa (letter II.xvii)
Greek myths: Medusa, Arion and the dolphins, Neptune & Amphitrite
Roman festival: Meditrinalia
featured food: honey glazed prawns, chicken soup
key artefacts and objects: sponge-stick, sea-sponges, dolphin earrings, anchors, ball games

Book 6: The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina (love and marriage) 
Flavia's book
SETTING - Ostia (ITALY) December 
79 AD
Roman topic: Love, betrothal and marriage in first century Rome
Historical site: notable buildings in and around Ostia
Sources: Ostian inscriptions, Ovid, Martial, Apollodorus
Greek myths: Twelve Tasks of Hercules, Pygmalion, Cerberus, Atalanta
Roman festival: Saturnalia
featured food: lentil stew, omelettes, plums, oysters, mushrooms, quail pie, boar, ostrich, love potion!
key artefacts and objects: sigilla (figurines), dice, objects in the household shrine, strigil and bath set

Book 7: The Enemies of Jupiter (theme: hubris) 
Jonathan's book
SETTING: Ostia and Rome (ITALY) 
February 80 AD
Roman topic: medicine and doctors in first century Rome
Real historical sites: Tiber Island, Palatine Hill, Capitoline Hill and the Temple of Jupiter
Sources: Suetonius, Cassius Dio, Galen, Pliny the Elder, Hippocrates
Greek myths: Prometheus and Pandora, Aesculapius, Niobe and her children
featured food: food for medicinal properties, light, medium & heavy foods, etc
key artefacts and objects: bleeding cup, votive parts of the body, medical instruments

Book 8: The Gladiators from Capua (theme: blood and sacrifice) Nubia's book
March 80 AD
Roman topic: gladiators, beast-fights and the opening of the Colosseum in spring of AD 80
Real historical sites: the Flavian Amphitheatre (the Colosseum), Domus Aurea, Mons Testaccio
Real historical figures: Titus, Domitian, Carpophorus the beast-fighter, Martial
Sources: Martial, Suetonius, Cassius Dio, Ovid, Statius, Seneca, Pliny
Greek myths: Orpheus, Ganymede, Prometheus, and more
Jewish festival: Passover
featured food: barley porridge for gladiators, snacks sold at games, etc.
key artefacts and objects: gladiatorial arms and armour, ancient souvenirs, raffle balls thrown to crowds

Book 9: The Colossus of Rhodes (theme: vows and promises) Lupus's book
SETTING - Ostia, Greek islands including Patmos, Symi & Rhodes (ITALY and GREECE) 
April 80 AD
Roman topics: the seven wonders of the world, ancient 'tourism'
Historical sites: Rhodes, Symi , Kalymnos
Sources: Pliny the Elder, Apollonius of Rhodes, Homer
Greek myths: Jason and the Argonauts by Apollonius of Rhodes
GREEKS #KS2 and #KS3 
Related posts: The Colossus of Rhodes, Ancient Gum, Hylas

Book 10: The Fugitive from Corinth (theme: jealousy) 
Nubia's book
SETTING - Corinth, Delphi, Athens (GREECE) 
May 80 CE
Roman topics: Greeks in the Roman world
Historical sites: Corinth, Delphi, Athens
Sources: Pausanias, Apollodorus, Herodotus, Aeschylus
Greek myths: Theseus's Athenian adventures, Eumenides

Book 11: The Sirens of Surrentum (theme: sex and decadence) Flavia's book
SETTING - Sorrento (ITALY) 
June 80 AD
Roman topics: Roman philosophy and the failed plot to kill Nero
Historical characters: Nero, Seneca, Lucan, Polla Argentaria, Flaccus
Sources: Seneca, Lucan, Suetonius, Tacitus, Statius, Propertius
Greek myths: Dido and Aeneas, Odysseus and the Sirens
Related posts: Villa LimonaPoison in the Garden 

Book 12: The Charioteer of Delphi (theme: faithfulness) 
Nubia's book
SETTING - Ostia & Rome (ITALY) 
September 80 AD
Roman topics: chariot races and factions
Historical site: the Circus Maximus
Historical characters: real charioteers like Scopas, Hierax and Crescens
Sources: Ovid, Juvenal, Martial
Greek myths: Pelops and Oenomaus
Roman festivals: Ludi Romani
ROMANS #KS2 and #KS3
Related posts: Fun Chariot Facts, Names of Roman Horses

Book 13: The Slave-girl from Jerusalem (theme: death and birth) Jonathan's book
December 80 AD
Roman topics: childbirth, funerals, wills, Roman law courts, gestures of a rhetor
Historical backstory: destruction of Jerusalem and siege of Masada
Sources: Josephus, Quintilian, Cicero, Juvenal, Seneca, Roman legal documents
Greek myths: Cassandra and the Sack of Troy
featured food: pea and leek soup, mastic chewing resin, sage tea, chestnut flour
key artefacts and objects: birthing chair, funeral pyre, bier, tombs, seal-box for wills
ROMANS #KS2 and #KS3 
Related posts: Roman Law Courts

Book 14: The Beggar of Volubilis (theme: piety) 
Flavia's book
SETTING - Ostia, Sabratha (LIBYA), Volubilis (MOROCCO) 
March 81 AD
Roman topics: Roman theatre, Cleopatra's descendants, sightings of Nero
Historical sites: Sabratha, Tripolis, Volubilis, Ghadames
Sources: Strabo, Pliny the Elder, Plutarch
Greek myths: Diana and Actaeon
featured food: millet porridge, roast locusts, lizard meat, camel-milk pancakes, senna tea, cola nuts
key artefacts and objects: bow, arrows, quiver, betrothal ring, bath-set, Nero's emerald, lens
Egypt #KS2 and #KS3 
Related posts: Ugly Cleopatra, Volubilis

Book 15: The Scribes from Alexandria (theme: going home) Nubia's book
SETTING - Alexandria, stops along the Nile to Nubia (EGYPT)
May 81 AD
Roman topics: Roman Egypt especially Alexandria, eunuchs, the Great Library, the Nile
Historical sites: Canopus, Alexandria, Giza, Edfu, Aswan, Nubia
Sources: Strabo, Martial, Juvenal
Egyptian myths and legends, including story of Isis, Osiris and Seth
featured food: sun-bread, bean porridge, palm wine, onions, leaf-cups, dom-fruit
key artefacts and objects: hieroglyphs, graffiti, riddles, codes, treasure map
Egypt #KS2 and #KS3 
Related posts: The Seth Animal, Upside Down Egypt

Book 16: The Prophet from Ephesus (theme: redemption) Jonathan's book
SETTING - Halicarnassus, Heracleia, Ephesus (TURKEY) 
August 81 AD
Roman topics: early church in Asia Minor
Historical sites: Halicarnassus, Ephesus, Hierapolis, Laodicea
Historical characters: St John the Apostle, Tychichus
Sources: Strabo, the New Testament
Greek myths: Pluto and Persephone, Endymion and Selene
featured food: grapes from the vine, cucumber, sour cherry juice, sheep entrail kebabs, pomegranates
key artefacts and objects: dolls, travel baskets, reed flute, lyre, carpets, looms

Book 17: The Man from Pomegranate Street (theme: resolution) Flavia's book
SETTING - Ostia, Rome, Sabina, Castelgandolfo (ITALY) 
Sept 81 AD
Roman topics: mysterious death of Titus in September AD 81
Historical sites: Rome, the Sabine Hills, Palace of Domitian and the Emissario on Lake Albanus
Historical characters: Titus, Domitian, Ascletario, Gaius Valerius Flaccus, Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus
Sources: Suetonius, Babylonian Talmud, Apollonius of Tyana
Greek myths: Romulus and Remus, Rape of the Sabine Women, Death of Odysseus
featured food: Sabine olive oil, brown bread, honey, grapes, imported oysters
key artefacts and objects: needle-sharp stylus, graffiti, wedding veil and the spear to part the bride's hair

[The 17 books in The Roman Mysteries are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans as a topic in Key Stage 2. Carrying on from the Roman Mysteries, the Roman Quests is a four-book series set in Roman Britain. You can watch The Roman Mysteries on Amazon Prime.]

Thursday, June 27, 2019

ADORN: Protective Roman Jewellery

Many people who lived in ancient times believed that when you looked at something your eyes would emit little particles of fire, (a bit like Superman with his laser vision.) That meant that an angry, jealous or envious person could actually hurt the person they were looking at. The anger or envy in their heart, transmitted by the beams, could make someone sick and even cause their death. This was called the ‘evil eye’ and children were considered particularly vulnerable. People also believed in a world full of gods, demigods and spirits, not all of them friendly. For this reason, people often wore magic amulets to avert the evil eye or distract demons. Borders, patches and knots in clothing often served this purpose. but it is most clearly seen in jewellery. 

At a new exhibition of jewellery dating from the Bronze Age to the 21st century, I was lucky enough to get a sneak peek at some of the objects and spotted five different types of protective Roman jewellery. 

The first object I spotted is this marvellous little medallion showing the gorgon Medusa. Any face shown looking back will reflect back the ‘evil eye’ but Medusa is doubly powerful, her gaze can turn you to stone! In addition, the amulet is made of jet which was considered a special substance in Roman times because it warms quickly in your hand and if you rub it, then it can move things like dust and hair, seemingly by magic (but really by static electricity.) Jet was very popular with women, so I imagine the British wife of a retired Roman soldier wearing this around her neck for protection. If you look carefully you will see this Medusa also has snakes at her throat as well as in her hair, probably because demons and evil spirits dislike snakes. 

Speaking of snakes, these charming little bracelets are stylised serpents. They are made of copper-alloy and come from the later Roman period in Colchester. I think they are a bit sad because they are quite small and may have been worn by a little girl after she died. Perhaps she wore them when she was alive to scare away evil spirits. Snakes were associated with death and rebirth in the Roman world and so these might also protect her in the afterlife. We have found other serpent bracelets from the Roman world. Girls and women seemed to like snakes more than men, but that may just be because men didn’t wear bracelets. 

In Roman times baby boys were often given a gold bulla (the word means ‘ball’) to hang around their neck. This was a protective amulet and when the boy reached manhood he would offer it to a god in thanks for protecting him. I have never seen a girl wearing a bulla medallion, but these earrings would have provided twice the protection of a single bulla. They are exactly the same style as some found in Pompeii and might have come all the way from Italy. 

If boys often wore amulets that resembled the sun (gold balls), girls often wore amulets in silver that looked like a crescent moon. The goddess of the moon was Diana and the moon is often associated with females. The lunate or moon-shaped pendant can be seen on many of the so-called Fayum portraits, paintings of Romans living in Egypt in the 1st and 3rd centuries AD. The protective qualities of the silver moon on this bracelet are enhanced by the beads which are made of jet, amber and glass, all ‘magical’ substances. See the coin with the hole? That was another good-luck token. This was literally a ‘charm’ bracelet in that it has protective properties. 

You might have trouble finding these gemstones in the exhibition because they are TEENY tiny, about the size of your little fingernail! They are called intaglios which means they have something engraved into them. These stones would probably have been put in a ring and then used as the owner’s seal or signet. In Roman times a person’s ring was their ‘signature’! In the case of both these semi-precious blue-black gemstones we think the figures are satyrs. Satyrs were mythical creatures – half goat and half man – sacred to the god of wine, Dionysus. Also known as Bacchus, Dionysus was another god who could protect you, and after death he often led worthy souls down to the underworld. So, like all the other objects in my list they served an additional protective function in addition to their decorative use.

The exhibition is called ADORN but they could also have called it ADORN & PROTECT! It is on from 27 July 2019 until 16 February 2020 at Colchester Museums. The show is included in the price of entry to the Castle. For more information, go HERE.

Thanks to curators Glynn Davis and Pippa Pickles for showing me around! The superb photos were taken by Douglas Atfield and are all copyright Colchester Museums. I have used them with permission.

Saturday, March 09, 2019

Time Travel Diaries

In 2003, London builders were digging foundations for a new block of flats about half a mile south of the Tate Modern when they came across human bones in what appeared to be an ancient graveyard. Archaeologists were called in. They realised the bodies were from Roman times. Some of the dead had been buried in wooden coffins, others on a bed of white chalk dust, and some had both: a layer of chalk at the bottom of a coffin. 

One skeleton, that of a girl, had some expensive grave goods. There were two small glass perfume bottles either side of her head. There were the remains of a small wooden casket decorated with bone and bronze at her feet. Also, at her left hip were a small key and a clasp knife. 

The knife was unique. An iron blade folded into a handle of ivory, carved in the shape of a leopard devouring its prey. 

Ivory was an exotic and expensive material, suggesting that the girl may have been wealthy. 

However, her bones show signs of possible malnourishment, suggesting she was poor. 

The skeleton also told archaeologists that the girl died aged about 14. 

Because her remains and grave goods were so interesting, samples of her teeth and bones were sent to be analysed. 

From the teeth we got a DNA sample, which showed that she had blue eyes and that her mother was from Northern Europe. But stable isotopes in her ribs tell us that she grew up in the southern mediterranean, possibly even North Africa. They also tell us that from the time she was nine she started eating a London diet. This meant she made the long trip from North Africa (possibly) to Britannia (definitely) aged only nine years old.

We also know that she was tall for her age, she had bandy legs that were getting better and she had very bad teeth with several large cavities. 

There is no tomb or other identifying marker with her, so we don’t know her name or why she ended up in Londinium (Roman London). 

As soon as I read about her, I longed to go back in time to Roman London to meet the blue-eyed girl with the ivory knife and find out her real story. But of course Time Travel hasn't been invented yet – and probably never will be – so there was no way to know. 

One of the differences between an archaeologist and an author is that an archaeologist has to stick to the facts, but an author can use his or her imagination to create a story. 

So I did just that. With the help of bioarchaeologist Dr Rebecca Redfern and other clever people at the Museum of London, I gathered as many facts as I could about her. Then I used my imagination to make up a possible scenario that would explain why a blue-eyed girl from North Africa would come to Londinium in the late 3rd or early 4th century AD, and why sh
e would have those particular objects in her grave. 

To link the story to modern times, I had a 12-year-old London schoolboy travel back to find her. That way I could describe Roman London in terms that a modern kid would understand. Also, having a modern boy go back in time to find a girl from the past adds risk and humour. And maybe even romance. 

I used as many real settings from Roman London as I could: the amphitheatre, a bathhouse, the massive basilica and – best of all – London's newly re-opened Temple to Mithras. This temple is in almost exactly the same place it would have been in the third century so it is the perfect place for a portable time portal. 

You could take the same facts about the Lant Street Teenager and make up a completely different story. In fact there are thousands of possible stories that could be told about her. 

Why don't you have a go? Write a story about how and why a blue eyed girl with an ivory knife travelled thousands of miles by ship to arrive at Londinium in the late third century. 

Then read my book and see how our ideas compare. 

The Time Travel Diaries will be published on 4 April 2019. On the day before, 3 April 2019, I will be doing a FREE live stream from the Museum of London, where her bones reside and where school groups can come to do a free workshop called Written In Bone.  

P.S. All the lovely black and white illustrations from the book are by the brilliant Sara Mulvanny and they are her copyright, too. 

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Crazy Dead Romans!

If you go down to Canary Wharf today you’re in for a big surprise. At the Museum of London Docklands there is an exhibition called Roman Dead. In a dimly lit room, you will find over a dozen real (!) skeletons along with ashes of the dead. You will also see tombstones, inscriptions, funeral urns along with hundreds of grave goods (personal objects buried with the dead). It may sound gruesome, but it’s utterly fascinating. Some of the things in the Roman Dead Exhibition might make you agree with Obelix (from the Asterix graphic novels), when he taps his head and declares, ‘These Romans are crazy!’

I have been obsessed with the ancient world for over forty years. I have been writing books set in the Classical world for nearly twenty years. What first attracted me to study the ancient Greeks and Romans was how much like us they seemed from their literature. But the more I learn about them, the less I find I know. Yes, they are like us in many ways. But they are also unlike us in many other fascinating ways. Here are some of the objects that made me go ‘What on earth were the Romans doing with THAT?’

Several rattles have been found in or near Roman burials, suggesting that they were shaken at funerals. Imagine shaking a rattle at a modern funeral! The Roman Dead exhibition even provides a hands-on shakeable rattle near three tubs containing different things you might have smelled at a funeral (bay leaves, frankincense and mastic). This type of rattle was called a sistrum and was especially popular in ceremonies for the Egyptian-Roman goddess Isis. We know that other instruments might have been played, and that mourners might have cried out the name of the deceased. One theory is that the noise kept away the ghosts and evil spirits that presumably haunted the graveyard. 

No, I’m not telling you to go kill yourself. I’m giving you the singular of the word ‘dice’. A tiny die is one of many objects in the exhibition made of Whitby Jet. This rare substance was considered to have magical properties in Roman times. It looks like stone but in fact it is ancient fossilised wood from the Jurassic era. The Romans didn’t know that. But they did know that when you rub jet against wool or skin it attracts a static charge and can move hair and other small particles without touching theme. Romans didn’t know the scientific explanation. They believed jet to be a magical substance that could keep away evil. So maybe this was a good luck charm to keep away evil spirits as the soul of the dead person made the journey to the underworld. But why a die?

This pot with a face on it looks jolly, doesn’t it? But it’s an urn to hold ashes of the dead! One theory is that pots like this represent a death-mask of the deceased. Another theory suggests that head pots could stand in for the heads of defeated enemies because some Romans and lots of Celts liked to chop off the heads of their enemies so they wouldn’t be able to have a happy afterlife! Then, to make sure the restless spirit didn’t haunt them, they would drop the head into a pit or stream. In another part of the museum you will see actual skulls of decapitated people, almost certainly either hated enemies or vile criminals. 

What on earth is going on here? We have the complete skeleton of a woman aged between 36 and 45 found deep underground at Hooper Street, Tower Hamlets. She was buried in a wooden coffin on a bed of chalk powder. Some time after she was buried, but before she turned to bone, someone dug her up again, removed the top of her skull and placed it over her pelvis! Then the coffin was reburied and rocks were piled on top. Among the rocks was a copper-alloy key. Was the key part of the reburial? Or accidentally dropped? Why was she buried on a bed of chalk? But most importantly, why was the top part of her skull placed over her pelvis? Maybe the newly positioned skull, rocks and key (along with a ceremony we can’t guess at) were designed to stop her spirit from haunting those still above earth, like those heads dropped in pits or water. 

This sarcophagus (the word means flesh eater in Greek!) was found in Southwark (south London) only last year. It inspired the exhibition. It weighs two and a half tons and was brought a great distance. That must have cost a lot of sesterces! Why put a body inside such a heavy stone box? Roman magic expert Adam Parker believes that many things done to a body were to protect the living from its ghost but also perhaps to protect the body from being dug up and used for magic. We know from authors like Pliny the Younger and Apuleius that witches used body parts in their spells. Is that what’s going on here? Or was the lady buried in this sarcophagus a Christian who believed in a bodily resurrection and wanted to keep her corpse intact? We have no idea! 

Also from Southwark comes a small copper-alloy key which you can see in one of the cases. It was found near the left hip of a girl’s skeleton. She is called the Lant Street Teen because of the location of her grave and because her age at death was estimated to be fourteen. She was also buried with a wooden box, two small glass bottles and a folding knife. Because of the richness of her grave goods, samples of her bones were tested. Her DNA tells us she was of European ancestry and had blue eyes. But the isotopes in her teeth indicate that she lived in the southern Mediterranean – possibly North Africa – until she was nine, when she made the long journey to Londinium. Her skeleton is not in the Roman Dead exhibition because it is used in workshops for schoolchildren at the Museum of London’s Barbican site! 

In Roman times most keys looked more like big combs on a handle than modern keys. They fit into a pattern of holes to lift up a crossbeam on the inside of the door. Unlike the big iron key on the left, the Lant Street Teens copper-alloy key also has little teeth. But what did it open? Surely not a door; it’s far too delicate. Perhaps it opened the box that was found at the girl’s feet? But although the box had copper-alloy decoration, no lock was found. Was the key a magic charm of some sort, like the one found in the stones piled on the Hooper Street Woman’s grave? What was the key for?

Also belonging to the Lant Street Teen and found next to the copper-alloy key at her left hip was a folding knife with an iron blade and an ivory handle carved into the shape of a leopard. I have noticed that small folding knives like these are often found in the graves of women. In life, they would have been useful for personal grooming, eating and cloth- making. Several other folding knives found in Romano-British graves have fierce animals on them. Why? Why would a girl have a hunting hound or big cat on her knife handle? Perhaps these show the knife can ‘bite’. Or perhaps the animals on the handles symbolically protect their owner and keep away evil. Therefore a knife like this might have dual purpose of being a tool but also protective, making it a practical version of a lucky rabbit’s foot. But we don’t really have the faintest clue. 

The blue-eyed fourteen-year-old girl who owned these items fascinated me so much that I am writing a book about her called The Time Travel Diaries. In this book an eccentric bazillionaire is also obsessed with her. His boffins have accidentally invented a time machine. Unfortunately, he can’t go back so he recruits a twelve-year-old London schoolboy to go back to third century Londinium (using Londons Mithraeum as a portal) in order to find her. In this book, I tried to imagine what Roman London would really have been like. 

I will be reading chapters from The Time Travel Diaries at a FREE family event on Saturday 18 August 2018. And I will also be telling you lots more amazing things I have learned about these Crazy Dead Romans, including the answers to some of the questions I raised in this blog post. For more information and to get your name on the list for my free event, go HERE.

P.S. Thanks to MOLA, London’s Mithraeum and Juliette Harrisson for huge support (and some of the photos!) 

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Sherlock Holmes of Roman Kent

Hector the dog, an archaeologist's best friend
by Caroline Lawrence

‘There’s a bit of ragstone,’ says Simon Elliott for perhaps the fifth time that morning. It is Tuesday 19 June, 2018. He and his wife Sara are taking me on a tour of Roman features near their home in East Farleigh near Maidstone on the River Medway in Kent. 

I first met Simon at the Guildhall Library in London when I attended one of his lectures on Roman London, (the setting of my own fictional work in progress.) A tall man with a big voice, vast knowledge and accessible nature, he would make a great tour guide. 

Blocks from a Roman villa?
After picking me up from the train station Simon and Sara drive me across the Medway to the ancient parish church of East Farleigh. Simon points out nicely incised blocks that make up the gate to the churchyard. ‘Those probably come from one of the Roman villas nearby,’ he says. 

‘The incisions in the stone help the plaster stick,’ adds Sara, his wife and (today) our driver. 

‘And these blocks of ragstone on top of the churchyard wall show water-wear. I think they might have been part of a Roman lock and weir system.’

A beam-slot visible above tufa block
He takes me to the church itself and points out things on the outer wall. Mainly built of small regular blocks of ragstone, Simon shows me some odd-shaped stones probably from the Roman Villa at East Farleigh. These include a long block of tufa (not tuff volcanic rock, but a type of limestone favoured by Roman in bathhouses because it is light and porous) and also a block with a visible beam-slot. 

As we leave the church he points to a big shrub. ‘There’s a bit of ragstone,’ he says happily. I never would have noticed. 

Simon promoting his book on Severus
Simon Elliott came to archaeology late in life. A management consultant, he always loved history and his first passion was Alexander the Great. But living in East Farleigh he was sucked down the ‘rabbit hole of the Roman occupation in Britain’ when he learned it was the site of at least five quarries supplying stone to Roman London. Realising that nobody had done much to consolidate theories about who owned and ran these quarries, and how they worked, Simon went back to university as a mature student. 

In 2011 he got an MA from University College London and now, in 2018, he is about to publish Ragstone to Riches, a popularised version of his PhD thesis on the Roman quarries of Kentish ragstone. An amateur in the best sense of the word – he loves what he does – he is opening up a whole new aspect on the world of Roman Kent. 

slide from one of Simon Elliott's lectures
In the past ten years Simon has made several possible discoveries in and around East Farleigh: a possible canal from a giant quarry to the Medway, two Roman roads, a Roman cemetery and a Roman milestone. A few years ago he also discovered the so-called Medway stones (four big chunks of ragstone recovered from a possible wreck) and has a theory that Romans installed locks and weirs to make the Medway deep enough for boats to carry stone on a two-day trip to London. Another of his theories posits the playing-card shape of a field near him as a marching fortress turned headquarters for the quarrying industry. 

He has even come up with a new theory about the site of the Battle of Medway, Aulus Plautius’ important victory against the Britons in AD 43. 

This ‘amateur’ is now beginning to make a living from Roman archaeology. In the past few years he has published four acclaimed non-fiction books, got himself a gig as a tour guide with posh Andante Tours and is now making TV documentaries.

Simon and Caroline by the walled garden of Timbers
Our next stop after the Norman church is ‘Timbers’, a house with beautiful gardens that include part of a massive quarry, the so-called Dean Street Quarry. Known to older locals as ‘The Roman Quarry’ Simon’s theory is that this was one of the main sources of the stone from which London was built. By previous agreement with the owner we are allowed access. 

Simon takes me through a beautifully landscaped back yard. It includes a Roman-style walled garden with geometric beds, a rectangular pond and even a giant amphora. We pass ancient cherry and black walnut trees. 

panoramic view of the Dean Street Quarry looking east

‘I’m about to take you into the hole where most of the stone from Roman London comes from. This is a big reveal,’ Simon promises. ‘If you want to film anything, film this.’ 

LIDAR shows quarry as a long channel
He’s right. We step through a gate (and across a threshold of anti-badger wire) and onto the top of a steep grassy slope that plunges down into a narrow mini-valley stretching north and south. This lush valley was once the quarry used by the Romans on a monumental scale. 

Sara, working late the night before, waits in the car and Simon takes me down the steep hillside to where a groundsman is using a tractor mower to cut the grass. This part of the back garden is beautifully landscaped but the opposite side of the quarry, where it slopes up again, is thickly wooded. Sunshine barely makes it through here. 

Clambering up part of the wooded incline, Simon shows me how the slopes would have been terraced. 

‘There’s a bit of ragstone,’ he says. ‘You can see it is obviously quarried and ready to be moved. I always say this quarry was the ancient version of IKEA, with flat pack stones ready to be transported.’

This is the sort of exploration I could never do unless I had access to a kind expert with a car, someone who knows the area. 

One of the reasons Simon knows the area so well is because he takes his dog Hector on long walks and is often discovering things. 

‘You have a great back yard,’ I comment as we puff up the hill back to the gardens of ‘Timbers’. 

‘It’s a big back yard,’ he replies. ‘The problem with being an archaeologist is that you’re always looking down.’ 

At one point, while looking down, he finds a piece of (possibly Roman) iron slag in a wheat field and is as excited as a child with a new toy. ‘Look what I found!’ he tells his wife Sara. ‘Iron slag!’ 

‘Yes, dear,’ she says indulgently, and shoots me a twinkly look. 

Horseshoe shaped bend in the River Medway
Later, over lunch, they tell me they got married at London Zoo, where they had their first date. They have two children at University. Alexander is doing War Studies and Elizabeth, studying chemistry, has done some of the illustrations for Simon’s books. 

We have an excellent meal of hamburgers and steak sandwiches at the Horseshoe Pub, possibly named after the horseshoe-shaped bend taken by the river Medway, visible on Simon’s Quarry Tour map. Simon’s theory is that the commander Plautius crossed at the southern end of the horseshoe, above the tidal flow and therefore on drier ground. 

After lunch Simon takes me to see traces of a road that might have connected the quarry to an opulent Roman villa, one of four or five in the immediate area. We walk past apple and pear orchards, as well as ancient cherry trees. Apart from Simon’s fascinating commentary I hear only the sound of birdsong and the crunch of our feet. 

Possible wheel rut in foreground
‘There!’ he says. ‘See the stones? That’s a Roman Road.’ 

‘Is this Watling Street?’

‘No. This is my Roman Road.’

‘What, you discovered it?

‘Yes, I did. While walking my dog Hector. Look! You can even see the wheel rut in that stone.’ 

He’s right. I see a rut just like the wheel ruts in the big hexagonal paving stones of Pompeii. ‘Has anyone ever noticed this road before?’ I ask.

‘Very few of the locals knew this was here,’ says Simon. ‘Not even the farmer.’ 

‘What did he say when you told him?’

Roman milestone? Or tombstone?
‘He was blown away. He also owns the land with the milestone.’

‘And did you find the milestone as well?’ 

‘Yes. Hector chased rabbit into the windbreak. When I followed him in, I tripped on the neck of a Roman amphora, one of several that held cremated remains. My milestone might be a tombstone,’ he adds. ‘We won’t know until we excavate it.’ 

The best time to explore is late October, when the vegetation has died down, but I ask to see the milestone/tombstone now, so Simon gamely leads the way along a springy vegetal path of brambles and burrs between a field and the windbreak. Happily, he finds the stone. 

Roman ash heap with critter holes & cherry
Following a path through another windbreak, this one marking the northern Roman road, Simon points out circular patches where nothing grows. ‘Those mark ash heaps, he says, ‘the sites of charcoal burning, iron manufacture, or both.’ By one of these barren circles I see another old cherry and am reminded that this is a tree brought to Britain by the Romans. 

Sometimes I confess I can’t see what Simon points out. Is he only seeing what he wants to see? Or is it really there? His theories will soon be proven or disproven by excavation at close range and LIDAR (3-D laser scanning) from a great height. Plus he told me that he has a lengthy list of sites to investigate as he continues his career as an historian and archaeologist, including a possible Roman villa near a local church. 

I suspect his theories will be proved correct. Sherlock Holmes famously tells Doctor Watson, ‘You see but you do not observe.’ I am like Doctor Watson; I see, but don’t notice. Simon Elliott notices everything.

Simon Elliotts new book about Septimius Severus in Scotland is out now. Caroline is working on a novel for children set in 3rd century Roman London.