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.  

I will also be doing a FREE school event at the Hay Literary Festival on 23 May 2019. Book your place here

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.

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Interactive Mithras by Caroline Lawrence

The evening of Thursday 17 May 2018, just over a week from the date of this post, is your chance to meet me, Caroline Lawrence. I will be welcoming children (and their guardians) to an ancient Roman underground temple: London’s Mithraeum. This is the first #MuseumsAtNight session at the Mithraeum which only opened to the public last year. 

I am honoured to have been invited and will be doing some fun interactive activities to prepare kids aged 8-13 for the Mithraeum’s Immersive ExperienceThere will be four separate sessions, each lasting about half an hour. 

To brainstorm ideas for a new book I am writing called The Girl with the Ivory Knife, I will be trying to recreate some of the sensations of being a worshipper of Mithras. 

This will be difficult in one sense. Mithraism was a Mystery Cult which means that lots of its rites and rituals were purposely kept secret, like a secret club. 

On the flip side of the coin, because we know so little, we can play around with various ideas based on the evidence and what we think we know. 

Here’s my script for what I hope to say:

First you need to know THREE BASIC THINGS.

Who Was Mithras? 

We think that Mithras was a new god created out of different older gods. This is called syncretism and is something the Greeks and Romans often did to link cultures together. Serapis was a blend of Dionysus, Hades, Osiris and Apis for Greeks in Egypt. Sulis Minerva linked a Roman god to a British deity. Mithras was certainly partly inspired by the Persian god Mithra (no ‘s’) and a creation story involving the stabbing of a cosmic bull. The Greek goddess of victory – Nike – is sometimes shown stabbing a bull. Mithras wore distinctive Persian clothes, which happens to be the same thing the Trojans wore, a long-sleeved tunic over leggings and the famous Persian cap which looks like a Smurf hat. He also has a billowing cloak, a dagger and sometimes a bow and arrow. Mithras looks a lot like Paris, the Trojan who started the Trojan War and killed Achilles by firing a poisoned arrow into his heel. 

What Did Worshippers Want?

The worshippers of Mithras wanted part of themselves to live forever. They may have believed that a series of initiations took the soul on a journey whose goal was immortality. There is lots of evidence for seven grades of achievement. Why seven? Because the Greeks and Romans believed in seven planets: the five they could see and also the sun and moon. They thought each ‘planet’ and the god who went with it ruled a sphere, or a ‘heaven’. So when you reached the highest level you were in the seventh heaven. One ancient document encourages the worshippers to say ‘stella sum’ or ‘I am a star.’ I wonder if they imagined the soul getting purer and purer as it rises through the grades until it is a little twinkling star, looking down on earth and waiting go into another body. (Yes, Mithraists probably believed in reincarnation) But, like every journey, there is often a battle or an ordeal. Each time a follower of Mithras wanted to go to a higher grade he had to go through a scary initiation.  

What’s with the bull?

If the cross is the symbol of Christianity, this very complicated and mysterious image of Mithras stabbing a bull is the symbol of Mithraism. It’s called a ‘tauroctony’ (tar-AWK-tony) which is Greek for ‘bull-slaying’, though that word never appeared in ancient times and we’re not even sure he was actually killing a bull. People have written whole books about the ‘tauroctony’ but for now just know that some of them have the signs of the zodiac around it, along with two men holding torches. The signs of the zodiac are linked to planets of course and the guys with torches might be guarding the gates to the heavens. The one with his torch up ushers the soul in its upward journey towards the stars. The one with his torch down is showing the immortal soul the way back down to a mortal body.  

Did you notice I keep saying ‘men’? That’s because, unlike almost every other religion known to us, Mithraism was for men only. So the first thing I will do is to give all you girls a sex change and grow you up real fast. Imagine you are a Roman man, probably a soldier. 

Next, I will assign you your grades or levels. As I said, there are seven. The avatars are Raven, Bridegroom, Soldier, Lion, Persian, Sun-Runner and Father. Each has its own ruling planet and the god who goes with that planet. They each had their own attributes. And each probably had a special colour and sound. 

Who wants to be a Raven?

You get a black wristband. You are the lowest and possibly most common grade. You are under the protection of the planet/god Mercury. Your code name is Corax. Several accounts talk of Ravens flapping their arms and making a ‘cawing’ noise. Everybody flap your arms and make a cawing noise!

Who want to be a Bridegroom?

Your attributes are a lamp and a garland. You get a yellow wristband. Bridegrooms are under the protection of the planet/goddess Venus. Your code name is Nymphus. The sound you made might have been ‘Yo!’ which was the ancient equivalent of ‘Yay!’

Who wants to be a Soldier?

You get an orange wristband because the soldier’s colours were red and yellow and when you mix red or yellow you get… orange! Soldiers were under the protection of the planet/god Mars. Your code name is Miles (MEE-layz). The sound you made might have been ‘Sin dex!’ Or maybe you just stomped. Everybody stomp and say Sin dex, which is short for sinister, dexter or ‘left, right’!

Who wants to be a Lion?

Lions get a red wristband. You were under the protection of the planet/god Jupiter. Your code name is Leo for one and Leones for more than one. Leonibus means ‘to or for the lions’ and you will hear it in the salutation ‘Nama, leonibus!’ or ‘Hail to the lions!’ No prizes for guessing the sound ‘Lions’ made! Everybody roar!

Who wants to be a Persian?

You get a white wristband because of your protective planet. Any guesses? Yes, the moon. Of course you know the moon isn’t a planet, but the Mithraists counted it as one. Your code name is Persis. Nobody has a clue what sound the Persians made but we know that sometimes worshippers made vowel sounds like Aahh, Eh, Ayyy, Eeee, Oh, Oooh, Ohhh because each planet had its own vowel: alpha, epsilon, eta, iota, omicron, upsilon & omega! So maybe the Persian made a vowel sound mentioned in one papyrus text: Or maybe they purred like a Persian cat. Everybody purr!

The sixth grade is very mysterious and we think very few people reached this level. Who wants to be a Sun-Runner?

 You get a gold wristband. You are under the protection of the ‘planet’ Sol, the sun! Your god is ‘Sol’ in Latin and ‘Helios’ in Greek. Your code name is Heliodromus. Your attributes are a torch, a crown with rays like the statue of the sun god (the Statue of Liberty wears a sun crown) and a whip. Why a whip? Because the sun was often imagined driving a fiery chariot. What sound did you make? Perhaps a whip-crack, or maybe a neigh! Everybody whinny! Now everybody say ‘Nama, Heliodromis!’ Which means ‘Hail to the Sun-Runners!’

The seventh and highest grade was the Father. 

Their colour was the purple of royalty so you get a purple wristband. But there was only one for each Mithraeum. So only one of you can be Father. Fathers were under the protection of the planet/god Saturn. Their code name is Pater. Their sound might have been ‘Hey, you kids! Get off my lawn.’ (joke!) Now everybody say ‘Nama, patri, tutela Saturni.’ Which means ‘Hail to the father, under the protection of Saturn.’

(If you want to see all the chants in Latin and English go HERE

You’re about to go down into the Mithraeum for the Immersive Experience. The word mithraeum has not yet been found, but we do know they said ‘Cave of Mithras’. They called it this because the temple was designed to look like a cave. In Roman times you had to go down seven steps, (natch!) into a dark space mysteriously lit by torches. Today you have to go seven meters below street level, because you usually go down to go back in time.

Because this temple was restored to almost the exact position it occupied in Roman London, I had an idea that it would be the perfect spot for a time portal. When you go to another time, it’s like beaming to a planet in Star Trek. You don’t want to beam into a wall or ceiling. So, if you want to travel to Roman London in the mid third century, the Mithraeum is the perfect place to put a portable portal. (Say that three times quickly!)

The premise for my work-in-progress is this: When 12-year-old London schoolboy Alex Papas is recruited by eccentric bazillionaire Solomon Daisy to go back to Roman London, his mission is to get information about a mysterious blue-eyed girl whose bones were discovered in a cemetery in Southwark. But things go wrong almost from the start and when Alex finds the girl he is totally unprepared for what happens next.

Now I will read a chapter from Ways to Die in Londinium!

To hear the chapter and participate in Carolines interactive Mithras experience, book your FREE place HERE. There will be four slots between 6pm and 8pm. Each will last about half an hour each: my talk plus the Immersive Experience!

P.S. Ten Fun Things About London's Mithraeum.   

Friday, January 12, 2018

Interview with a Roman Sewer Expert

A few years ago I interviewed Erica Rowan, an archaeobotanist who has excavated Roman sewers around the world. Erica grew up in Toronto and studied Classics and Health Science at McMaster University in Canada, graduating with both a BA and BHSc. She then read for an MSt in Classical Archaeology at Oxford and was later awarded a DPhil in Archaeology, also from Oxford, with a specialisation in Roman archaeology and archaeobotany. In September 2014 she took up the two year post of Leventis Associate Research Fellow at the University of Exeter and then spent a year at Exeter as a teaching fellow. She is now a lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London

exhibition poster from 2015
I first met Erica at the Corinium Museum in May of 2015 when she participated in a fascinating exhibition called Food for Thought. Wanting to know more about Roman eating and toilet habits, I lured her to an interview in London by promising lunch in the members room of the British Museum. The interview took place in October 2015, but ancient toilets and sewers never go out of fashion so I thought I would post a slightly edited transcript as a New Years Treat. 

Caroline: So, Erica, you’re an archaeobotanist, which basically means you study plant remains and especially food remains. Are you happy to be doing sewers? Is it quite fun?

Erica: It is quite fun. You get to see what people actually ate. 

Caroline: Is being an archaeobotanist a separate thing from being a ‘poopologist’? Or are they essentially the same career description? 

Erica (laughs): They’re slightly different. Human waste only survives in limited number of contexts; latrines, sewers and the like. Archaeobotanical remains, and especially carbonized material, tends to preserve at almost all sites. 

Caroline: You’ve been on digs at Aphrodisias in Turkey, Herculaneum in Italy and Utica in Tunisa, a Phoenician site. So what were the Phoenicians eating? 

A New York Sandwich... with pepper! 
Waiter (interrupting): One New York sandwich and one Middle Eastern Salad. 

Caroline (laughs): I’m the Middle Eastern Salad. 

Erica: And I’m the New York Sandwich. 

Caroline (looking at the newly arrived platter): So which of these things would the Phoenicians have been eating in Utica, in Tunisia? 

Erica: Not potatoes, tomatoes or cauliflower. 

Caroline: But they might have had a balsamic vinaigrette? And chicken?

Erica: Yes. Chicken, bacon, cheese… But the earliest material I have from Utica is Roman, not Phoenician.

Caroline: Ah! What sort of remains tell you it’s Roman? Fragments of fish sauce jars for example? 

Erica: No, we dated the site from the context. Its hard to tell Roman influence from food remains because the whole Mediterranean had the same staple foods. 

Caroline: What do you mean by staples? Is fish sauce a staple?

Erica: A staple food would be anything they depended on. In the Mediterranean the three main staples are grains, wine and olive oil. 

Caroline: Is there any evidence of food fads?

Erica: Not in Utica, but in Herculaneum black pepper was very popular. The people eating it were not necessarily upper class but they were willing to pay. It comes all the way from India so is expensive. 

Caroline: So it was a status symbol. 

Erica: Yes. 

Caroline: Speaking of black pepper, may I grind you some? And smile! I’m taking a picture. 

(Erica laughs and submits to having her photo taken.)

Caroline: So what got you interested in Classics? What was your spur moment?

Erica: My friend made me go see Gladiator and I really liked it, although it’s not historically accurate... Also, we were studying the Romans in high school. 

Caroline: Fun! So Tell me a bit about being an archaeologist. Are you out in the sun and the rain? Under a tent? Or is it mainly lab work in a basement?

Erica: It depends on the site. If it’s a small section I’ll excavate it myself. When I was in Aphrodisias I excavated a section of a drain. 

Caroline: With a trowel and everything?

Erica: Yes. I take my samples and then do flotation and process them on site.

Caroline: Flotation?

Erica: It’s a method used to identify plant remains using buckets of water and sieves. You put the material in agitated water. The soil and sand sink but seeds, grains and lighter objects float to the surface. 

Caroline: What did you find at Aphrodisias? The staples? Anything remarkable? 

Erica: I’ve found wheat and barley, and also grapes, olives and peaches.

Caroline: Do you remember your first dig? 

Erica: I was in Jordan for seven weeks. It was an amazing experience. The site was Humayma, about an hour north of Aqaba, and very dry. There were about a dozen of us from Queen’s University on this particular dig. 

Caroline: Describe an average day?

Erica: We would drive up there every day. We would get up at 5.30 am, pile into a minibus at 6am and get to the site around 7am. We were working with Bedouin. They would make us extremely sweet black tea when we arrived. It was really good. Then we would dig until about 10am and stop for breakfast, cooked in a frying pan over a file kindled by the Bedouin. I was excavating part of a bath complex.

Caroline: What did you eat for breakfast?

Erica: They would bring fresh flat bread baked by their mothers or wives. And we would bring food, too: canned tomatoes, corned beef and peas. They would heat the food in frying pans over a kindling fire and we ate it with the fresh flatbread. Then we would dig again until 1pm when we finished for the day. We would go back, have lunch, sort and wash the pottery and then leave it on the roof of the building to dry. Once that was done you had the rest of the afternoon free. 

Caroline: What was Aqaba like? 

Erica: It’s not too big. A fort town. Pretty modern but with a few old buildings including a fort and giant flagpole. I really liked it. I liked Tunisia, too. 

Caroline: When were you in Tunisia? What period was the site?

Erica: The site was Utica, so about 30 minutes outside Tunis. It was a Punic, then Roman, then Islamic site. I was there from 2013 to 2015. 

Caroline: I love going to places like that. Sometimes I think it’s the closest we’ll get to travelling back to the past. 

Erica: In Tunisia you go to these outdoor barbecues in a big group and they cook freshly slaughtered meat for you. If you drive past at a certain part of the day you often see an animal they’ve slaughtered just hanging there. There’s no blood so they must have drained it before they hang it outside underneath a tent. They put the head on display. There are often live sheep tethered to the tent near where they cook the meat. 

preparing to slaughter a ram in Morocco 2006
Caroline: A dozen years ago my husband and I saw a ram slaughtered, inflated, skinned and dismembered at a Berber village outside Marrakech, Morocco all in the space of about half an hour. It was like a scene out of the Old Testament: Genesis book 22, the binding of Isaac. There was a thorn thicket and everything.

Polite Woman (interrupting):  I wonder if we might borrow your salt and pepper; we seem to be in rather short supply.  

Caroline (laughs): Sure. Here’s our luxurious pepper. And salt. 
(to Erica) Have you ever been on a dig here in Britain? 

Erica: Yes. An Iron Age and Roman site called Marcham near Oxford. It was a rural sanctuary site. 

Caroline: What did you notice about the diet there? 

Erica: Cereal and chaff. I was doing flotation. In the Iron Age, people were bringing their crops and processing them there. 

Caroline: When you process grain its like a biblical threshing floor, correct?

Erica: Yes. You often find burnt chaff nearby, which shows it was used for kindling. 

Caroline: Did they dedicate some of it the grain after threshing? Or just take it back home? 

Erica: They ate it.

Caroline: What evidence do we have for a Roman presence at Marcham?

Erica: There were a lot of oysters, even though Marcham is quite far from the coast. Experts can tell which coast an oyster comes from by the markings on its shell. 

Caroline: What’s the most memorable revelation you’ve had digging through sewage material? 

Erica: The diversity of their diet. That particular sewer at Herculaneum served Romans from the lower and middle classes. It was below an apartment building with shops at ground level and people living behind and above. There were a few independent apartments on the upper floor, but nothing elite. From that one sewer we catalogued 114 different types of food including fish, shellfish and plants but not including other animal meat. They didn’t seem to have any food taboos; privately they would just eat anything. It’s often assumed the poor would eat cheap bread and wine but they’re eating a huge variety of things, and seasoning their food with dill, coriander, fennel…

Magna Roma menu cover
Caroline: sometimes when you read their recipes they really seem to overdo it, with up to a dozen spices. I once ate at a short-lived restaurant called Magna Roma near the Colosseum in Rome. The owner tried to replicate authentic Roman dishes. But the food tasted so strange that the restaurant folded after just a few years.  

Erica: Some friends and I tried to recreate some Roman dishes and I think it’s actually more like Asian than modern Italian food. 

Caroline: Yes! They say that garum is more like Thai Fish Sauce than like Worcestershire Sauce. It’s pretty revolting.

Erica: The fish sauce is essentially salt because they didn’t add salt. And although there were often lots of spices the quantities were quite small, so the taste was hidden. My friends and I made a lentil dish with chestnuts, honey, red-wine vinegar, and Thai Fish Sauce. Within those ingredients you can’t identify any one thing. It’s a good holiday dish for winter. Feed it to people and don’t tell them what they’re eating. Then afterwards you can mention it had fish sauce in it! 

Caroline: It sounds delicious!

Erica (nodding): We also made a dish of pork and figs. We boiled the figs to make syrup and then cook the pork in that. It was the moistest piece of pork I have ever had. 

Caroline: Fascinating. They found an ancient Roman amphora in the Thames full of olives preserved in sweet grape syrup!

Erica: Columella talks about olives in honey and how it’s both salty and sweet. 

Caroline: That would be such an alien taste.
Erica: When you cook these dishes it doesn’t taste like anything you’ve tasted before. 

Caroline: Thanks for sharing all that, Erica. Do you have a photo of you on a site that I could post?

Erica: Sure... 

Thanks, Erica, for letting me post this interview. Good luck in your future adventures and research! 

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Ten Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About London’s Mithraeum

by author Caroline Lawrence

Sophie Jackson, Catharine Edwards, Fiona Haarer & Michael Marshall
A few days ago I went to see London’s Mithraeum, recently reopened in the basement of Bloomberg’s new building. I’m fairly jaded by museums and wasn’t expecting anything special, but it was great. Coming up out of the ‘experience’ I ran into Sophie Jackson and Michael Marshall of MOLA – two of the archaeologists responsible for the display – along with Catharine Edwards, Professor of Classics and Ancient History from Birkbeck College and lecturer Fiona Haarer of the Roman Society. Although I am one of MOLAs archaeology ambassadors, I had booked the normal way and our meeting was totally serendipitous. Chatting with them, I learned a couple of facts which I share below, along with a few other things you might not know. 

I do urge you to go and I hope this short list enhances your experience!

1. Exit 8. It’s easiest to reach London’s Mithraeum via Bank station exit 8. If you’re coming from Waterloo just get the Waterloo & City line. One stop is all it takes. Exit via the travelator and when it ends make a sharp left to reach Exit 8 which now has London Mithraeum added at the bottom of a list of landmarks. Go up the stairs to street level and continue straight ahead for less than 200 meters, passing the Starbucks on your left. You’ll see entrance to the Mithraeum on your right. It’s on the ground floor of Bloombergs brand new European headquarters. It doesn’t look like a Mithraeum from here; it looks like a modern art gallery because it is a modern art gallery called SPACE. 

2. Dead Time. Entry to London’s Mithraeum is free but you have to book a visit. They won’t just let you roll up. But sometimes if you roll up at their ‘dead time’ of 3pm they might let you in. N.B. Never show up on Monday, when the exhibition is closed. 

3. Three Parts. Like Gaul, the London Mithraeum is divided into three parts. The first part is in the art gallery reception where a guide will give you a Samsung tablet and point you at a modular wall displaying around six hundred roman artefacts all found within a few metres of where you are standing. Tap the outline of an object on your tablet and up comes a superb hi-res image of the artefact. Swipe right and find a line or two about what it is in a nice big, easy-to-read font. Why do you need a tablet when you can just look? Because some of the pieces are quite high up and/or small, and the imagery is superb. 

4. Special Glass. The piece of glass in front of the modular display of Roman objects is state-of-the-art. According to Sophie Jackson, Director and Archaeologist at MOLA, (Museum of London Archaeology), it is the biggest piece of glass you can get of that thickness and with the non-reflective properties. Hidden hinges on the left allow the slab of glass to swing open so that the modular displays can be regularly updated. 

5. Lucky Amulet. The tiniest object in the modular display wall is an amulet of amber shaped like a gladiator’s helmet. It is minuscule, about the size of your little fingernail. According to Michael Marshall, Senior Finds Specialist at MOLA, it was put in a day before we were there, replacing a less sexy pair of tweezers. Michael also told us that this tiny object was spotted by an archaeologist the old-fashioned way, with the naked eye. (Near the amulet is the famous LONDINIO tablet, also recently added by popular demand.) 

6. Go Down to Go Back. Someone at MOLA or Bloomberg had the very clever idea of showing how you have to descend to go back in time. As you go down the black marble stairs you see what the ground level would have been for important moments in Londons history such as the WWII bombing level and the Great Fire of 1666. There is a similar graphic on the back of the elevator. The Temple of Mithras dates from about 240 AD, almost 200 years after Londinium was first established. 

7. Famous Actress Joanna Lumley narrates some of the commentary on the mezzanine level, which is the second part of the experience where ‘clues to what form the cult took are explored in light and sound.’ Listen to the commentary as you watch a ghostly light show on the walls. 

8. Please Touch. You are allowed to touch the three resin casts: the head of Mithras, a tondo with inscription and a 3-D plan of the temple. As a cheerful guide named May explained to me: The exhibition is meant to be touchy-feely!’ The head of the mysterious god Mithras with its distinctive Persian cap was found in 1954 on what was intended to be the last day of excavation of just one of hundreds of bomb-exposed sites in London. Planned building on the site was halted so that the Mithraeum could be excavated and eventually removed to another site. Bloomberg and MOLA have brought it back to exactly the place it was originally found. 

Get Well card by Roman glassmaker David Hill
9. Just Theories. Don’t swallow the written explanations or spoken commentaries whole. Our understanding of this mysterious cult is changing all the time. We don’t really know what they did at these ceremonies. We don’t even know if Mithras was actually killing the bull or just wounding it. In a recent article, scholar Christopher Faraone claims the word ‘tauroctony (i.e. bull-slaying scene) is a nice-sounding Greek noun that appears nowhere in Mithraic inscriptions or literary testimonia and in fact nowhere in ancient Greek. JRS 103, pp 1-21 

10. The Experience. The third and final part of London’s Mithraeum is an ‘experience’ on the site of the ruins themselves. I don’t want to spoil it for you but it involves sound, light and mist. And although it was one of the coldest days of the year this underground space was comfortably warm.
There is a superb free guide to the history of London as revealed in the Archaeology at Bloomberg co-produced by MOLA. You can download it HERE. (Spoiler alert: There are some images in the final pages of the brochure which might spoil the third part of the experience.) 

You can also get an interactive guide to the wall of artefacts on your smartphone or tablet by going to

Bravo to Bloomberg, MOLA and Foster + Partners Architects! You did a great job. 

Book your FREE tickets to the Mithraeum HERE