Monday, April 07, 2008

Clue for a Mini-Mystery

In March 2008, I gave a talk at the Museum of London (MOL), asking fans to help me find a Roman artefact which could be a clue for new Mini-Mystery in a forthcoming collection, The Legionary from Londinium and Other Mini-Mysteries.

I particularly asked for artefacts or objects which could stand in for orange seeds in a Roman Mystery adaptation of The Five Orange Pips by Arthur Conan Doyle, a Sherlock Holmes mystery. (see my previous blog, below) I said I would look favourably on objects from the MOL and objects relating to Boudicca's revolt in AD 60.

I already had two ideas of my own in mind. First, pomegranate seeds: because in the myth of Persephone they represent death. Second, copper scales from a soldier's armour currently on display at the MOL. These would have been perfect: light and easy to send, found in Roman Londinium and dating to the revolt of Boudicca. But nobody suggested either pomegranate seeds or scales from a legionary's armour.

However, there were over thirty entries, all of them good some of them very inventive. Where people sent me more than one idea, I chose the one I liked best.

Here were some suggestions for objects which could be substituted for orange pips in my adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes mystery:

Aisling: five grape seeds from grapes used to make wine
Clare: gold coin of Fortuna holding a rudder (like one in the MOL) which was paradoxically cursed!
Clement: blue glass beads, once belonging to Boudicca
Emily: five exotically coloured fish scales from a poisonous African fish that only Nubia recognizes
Otana: five barley grains (barley was sometimes used as a punishment for soldiers)
Sanne: five mosaic pieces, each with a letter which makes a secret message
Sarah: part of a jewelry set, the letters on the jewels spell Boudicca
Sebastian: five human teeth from a murder victim
Vera: a strand of Boudicca's hair which point to her murderer
Victoria: five scraps of papyrus (the mystery comes in the form of a letter from Britannia)

Some ideas for artefacts which could be clues to a different sort of crime included:

Alexia: gladiator's trident, a murder weapon
Alice: leather bikini bottom, found under Titus' mattress, from a murdered acrobat
Connie: iron strigil, used to cut off Lupus' ear from behind
Connor: a Roman spoon with traces of poison on it
David: coin broken in half each half given to twins separated at birth
Elizabeth: green glass bottle, which held deadly poison
Emilie: a statue, when you turn its hand a trap door opens, leading to captured children
Gigi: a goblet, with traces of dried blood showing it was used as a weapon
Harry: ten hairpins, found in the river Thames: murder weapon (ouch!)
Helen: forged Roman coins forging currency was a serious crime in Roman times
Helena: iron brooch of a dog, stolen from the Emperor Titus
Jonathan: jewel, the only clue left from a murder/robbery
Joshua: a mosaic, from a burned villa
Libby: pieces of lead waste (mined in the Mendip Hills) used as a blunt instrument
Roberta: a leather bikini bottoms from the body of a female acrobat who slandered the Emperor
Rosa: iron slave chain and shackle, the murderer strangled someone with it
Susie: brooch of hunting dog, which means 'I'm hunting you, murderer'
Tatiana: theatrical mask, it comes alive in Flavia's nightmare and is Pluto
Theo: a ring, which says 'Curse your riches, Titus'
Zachary: a hammer, dry blood on it, attempted murder weapon for Publius Pollius Felix because he kissed lots of girls

I love all the suggestions, especially five-year-old Rosa's idea of slave shackles used to strangle someone. (It made me think of the first murder in No Country for Old Men.) I also loved Helen's idea about counterfeiting coins, and may use that in a future mystery. And I was very tempted to use Zachary's bloodstained hammer to give that naughty Felix a well-deserved scare!

But in the end I went for Otana's Five Barley Grains. Although barley grains aren't strictly an artefact, there are some ancient Roman barley grains in the Roman exhibition at the MOL. Also, Otana didn't just suggest the barley grains and leave it there. She gave me two pages of back-up research, citing Roman authors, telling me why barley grains would be good. She taught me some things I didn't know about Roman legionaries. For example:

Soldiers who were bad or clumsy at drill were often punished by having their allowance given in barley rather than wheat.
Vegetius, De Re Militari book I

If a cohort exhibited misconduct or cowardice they were often 'decimated'. This means that every tenth man was beaten or killed. The remaining men received rations of barley instead of wheat and were ordered to encamp outside the camp on an unprotected spot... It was a public disgrace for a soldier to receive barley rations.
Polybius, Histories fragment of book VI

Barley bread was much used in earlier days but has been condemned by experience, and barley is now mostly fed to animals.
Pliny the Elder, Nat Hist

Barley Grains could therefore be a perfect substitute for Orange Pips in The Legionary from Londinium. To an ordinary person they would seem harmless and inoffensive, but to a soldier they would mean disgrace and punishment and could easily tie in with Boudicca's revolt. So I am going to use Otana's idea.

Thanks to all the entrants, who will each get a signed copy of The Code of Romulus.

Well done to the three honorable mentions - Rosa, Helen and Zachary - who will each get a signed version of The Legionary from Londinium when it comes out next year.

Contratulations to Otana! She will get a Roman Mysteries tee-shirt, a signed copy of The Legionary from Londinium and of course her idea will appear in the book itself, with a credit to her.

Thanks also to Sandra Hedblad and the MOL for hosting this event.

And thanks to all who attended! Keep reading and writing!

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