Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Discovering Buffy

The year was 1999. I had been teaching for ten years. I had been married to Richard for eight. For the first time we had enough money to visit my family in California. Off we flew. Richard's very first trip to the USA.

We fly to LA. My brother Dan picks us up from LAX. We have dinner with him and his lovely wife Meredith in a TexMex place somewhere up high and watch the sun set over the beach where Nic Cage and his angels stand and where the Baywatch people run in slo-mo. That's where my brother and Meredith lived. Santa Monica. Where Route 66 hits the sea at Pacific Palisades. If you have to live in LA, Santa Monica is the place to live. You can reach everything on foot and it’s by Venice Beach and the boardwalk and it has the palm-lined streets and those little pastel houses that are all the best bits of LA.

The next morning my brother has to go to work. But Meredith says she’ll give us the LA tour. Bless her. She drives us through Beverley Hills and Bel Air. Then we drive to the UCLA campus.

Me: 'Why?'

Meredith: 'It's pretty. Also, we can get out and walk.’

Me: 'Walk? In L.A.? Cool.'

Richard (doing his Woody Allen impersonation): 'I can walk to the curb from here.'

Meredith: ‘Oh, look at the big catering trucks. They must be filming something here. Let’s go see.’

Sure enough, down by the student union we see cranes and cameras and people with clipboards.

‘What are they filming?’ asks Meredith, a native Los Angelean.

Random undergraduate: ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Season Four. Opening episode.’

Me: 'I've heard of that. Simon watches it.'
(Simon is my son. Ten years ago he was a teenager, old enough to be left at home with the cat and an air-pistol.)

We stand around for a while watching them set up the shot. It is July. It is hot. I am wearing a pale pink silk blouse over black leggings. Richard has a green silk shirt and a straw hat. Meredith wears cream linen.

Random undergraduate: 'There she goes. There's Sarah Michelle Gellar.'

Meredith: 'She's so short. Smaller than you'd expect.'

A gum-chomping girl with a clipboard comes up to us: ‘Want to be extras?’ she chomps.

We look at each other. ‘Sure,’ we shrug.

‘OK,’ chomps the girl. ‘You three stand over here by these three girls and when the director says "ACTION" act really jazzed to see each other. Like you’re friends who haven’t seen each other all summer. *chomp, chomp* Oh, and don’t look at the camera.’

We do as ordered. A couple of times. We act jazzed. We don’t look at the camera up on its crane. We do it with 'more energy'. We do it with 'less energy'.


‘Imagine,’ I say to Richard that evening. ‘Your first trip to America. You haven’t been in the country a day and already you’re in the movies.’

A week later we leave lovely Santa Monica to go visit my parents and my sister up north in the San Francisco Bay Area. That was the week my sister suggested I ‘write a book for kids, set in Pompeii.’ My ‘light-bulb’ moment.

Back in London, I write the first draft of The Thieves of Ostia over the last two weeks of the summer holidays.

A few months later, we watch Buffy Season Four opening episode, just to see ourselves. You can easily see me with my fluffy hair and pink shirt and black leggings with my back to the camera next to Richard in his hat. Turns out they used that high crane establishing shot for some classic episodes. So Meredith, Richard and I are in The Freshman, Hush and Pangs.

And that was how we discovered the best TV series in the history of the universe. When people ask me which four famous people living or dead I’d like to have lunch with, I always say Jesus Christ, Mary Renault, Mark Twain and Joss Whedon. Joss is a genius.

Bless Joss. Bless Buffy. Bless Meredith. Bless LA. Bless the summer of 99!

P.S. Forgot to mention that I met Anthony ('Giles') Head last year while he was filming outside our riverside flat here in London!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Silchester Open Day 09

Calleva Atrebatum, AKA Silchester, was made famous by Rosemary Sutcliffe in her classic historical novel Eagle of the Ninth. In her forward to the book, she writes this. During the excavation at Silchester... there was dug up under the green fields which now cover the pavements of Calleva Atrebatum, a wingless Roman eagle, a cast of which can be seen in the Reading Museum. Different people have different ideas of how it came to be there, but no one knows, just as no one knows what happened to the Ninth Legion after it marched into the northern mists...

On Saturday 18 July 2009, the University of Reading held one of its two annual Open Days at the site. (The second Silchester open day will be held on the 2nd of August, but the site is also open to visitors 10-4:30 every day except Fridays.) It was a perfect day. Sunny, with a cool breeze and fluffy clouds. The crowds poured in. Archeology students at the University of Reading who are digging on the site were encouraged to dress up... and it didn't have to be Roman.

There were tours of the site for adults and for children. Children could also try digging and recording grids. They saw a garden with Romano British plants and learned how to wash finds. Some of the most exciting artefacts were on display. Brooches, keys and coins. Kids could even get a Celtic tattoo (like Joseph, right).

My brilliant pal Hella Eckhardt (below in the blue shirt) invited me to come do some talks at the Open Day. Hella is a lecturer in the department of Archaeology. She is doing research on isotopes which prove that people came to Britannia from all over the Roman Empire. She gave me three lovely helpers, enthusiastic young archaeology students named Lydia, Laura and Zoe. They told me how much they loved being archaeologists.

video
When you first see the site, it looks like a big dirt field with lots of confusing holes and trenches, but when the site director Amanda explains it, it comes alive. Amanda's nephew Felix (below) is a top fan of the Roman Mysteries and he had brought a bagful of books for me to sign. He was brandishing a big wooden sword so you can bet I signed them cheerfully and without complaining.

I did the kids' tour, because they always tell you about the interesting things like toilets and food. After lunch I went up to the church (built on the site of a temple) and gave my talk called 'How to Write a Roman Mystery'. Thanks to Hella it was very well attended and I met some wonderful fans and scholars both young and old!

At the end of the day, Laura and Zoe showed me the Roman amphitheater. Apparently the male diggers play extreme frisby here on their free afternoons and the girls sit on the verge and cheer. 'Why don't you play, too?' I ask my lovely and vivacious guides. 'Oh,' says Zoe, 'They get very competitive and quite fierce.' After a long day of digging and their games of extreme frisby, the young archaeologist go to the local pub which provides special 'Diggers' Dinners'.

If you like history, camping, pub food, digging in the dirt and extreme frisby, then archaeology is obviously the career for you!

For more info on Calleva Atrebatum check out my blog entry on Roman Silchester from two years ago!
.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Gory Roman Medicine

I've just spent the weekend in Wales at a Roman site called Caerleon. Known as 'King Arthur's Mount' it is the site of a Flavian fort and amphitheatre. (Flavian means it was built during the reign of the three Flavian emperors: Vespasian, Titus and Domitian). The fort was probably started about AD 75 as part of the Roman conquest of Britannia. In addition to the amphitheatre, which lay just outside the fort walls, there are remains of barracks, a giant smithy and a bath house. Excavator Peter Guest says it's an archaeologist's dream because nobody has built over the fort since Roman times. The fields have mainly been used as rugby pitches.

Anyway, the annual Military Spectacular put on by the National Legionary Museum of Wales was held last weekend (11 & 12 July 2009). As well as the fabulous Ermine Street Guard (more on that in another blog) there were falconers, like young Aaron (above left), two Roman doctors and the most famous Romano British cook in Britain: Sally Grainger.

My old friend Sally does all her Roman cooking on proper Roman hearths with coals and everything. She uses ancient recipes, especially those of Apicius, and has been on TV documentaries. She is probably one of the most accurate 'Roman' cooks in the world. Helped by her faithful partner Chris, she made a delicious patina of mushrooms, leeks, lovage, eggs, liquamen and honey. Here she is adding the honey. 'Patina' was the name for the pot as well as the dish (like casserole). The dish was what you see and the result was a kind of crustless quiche. In my books, Alma often cooks Flavia and her friends a nice patina. (Come to think of it, Alma is a lot like Sally!) She let me try her mushroom and leek patina. It was delicious.

I also met someone new: Roger Morgan AKA Gaius Festus Severus, a Roman doctor or 'medicus'. Like Doctor Mordecai in my books, he believes a doctor should bleed only in certain circumstances, not as a panacea. In the film clip below, Festus demonstrates how bleeding is done on a boy who seems to have a swollen hand. (The 'swollen hand' was actually one of those big foam hands with the thumb out so you can do a giant thumbs-up or thumbs-down, but I didn't want to spoil the doctor's fun)

video

Festus also showed me how trepanning is done. Trepanning is when you remove a circular piece of the skull to relieve pressure after a concussion. As Festus explained, it is known from neolithic times. I found his demonstration absolutely fascinating.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Circe Invidiosa

One of the most striking paintings in the Waterhouse exhibition at London's Royal Academy is a tall painting of a beautiful woman tipping luminous turquoise water into an azure pool. It is a luscious vision of blue green.


Going closer, I see the title is Circe Invidiosa: Jealous Circe. I know who Circe is - the sorceress who turned Odysseus men in to swine - but I don't know this particular story. So I do some detective work. Ovid. Metamorphoses. Of course.

In Metamorphoses Book 14, Ovid tells of a fisherman named Glaucus who comes to Circe with a problem. He loves a girl named Scylla. She lives on the island of Sicily and although he has courted her in every manner, she has rejected him. Circe looks Glaucus up and down and says 'Forget love potions. Become my lover. Spurn the one who spurns you and reward she who admires you, and in that one act be twice revenged.'

'Seaweed will grow on the hills,' says Glaucus, 'before I love anybody but her.'

The sorceress is furious and decides to take revenge, not on Glaucus, whom she decides she loves, but on the innocent Scylla. Circe Invidiosa (jealous Circe) prepares a terrible potion and pours it in the grotto where Scylla goes to bathe. As soon as Scylla steps into the pool, the 'water around her groin erupts with yelping monsters'. Seven dogs' heads rise snarling out of the sea. Scylla screams and tries to slap them away. But every blow causes her pain because they are part of her. Her lower limbs have become horrible man-eating dogs.

Revolted and traumatized by this metamorphosis, the once-beautiful Scylla takes shelter in a grotto near the straits of Messina, the place where Sicily almost touches the toe of Italy. And when sailors pass by, her monstrous dog-heads dart out and gulp them down still living. Poor Odysseus loses six men this way.


Waterhouse has shown Circe wearing a stunning gown of peacock feathers. The poison matches her dress. It is a luminous turquoise, like a liquid jewel. But this beautiful mixture will cause unimaginable horror and pain to poor innocent Scylla. Mercifully, the monsterfied girl is eventually turned into a rock, and so her suffering ends.



Note that Circe is shown standing on one of her many beasts in thrall, a kind of dog-faced sea creature that hints at what is to come.

Nowhere does Ovid say Glaucus is good looking, so why does Circe want his love? I think Circe is like one of those beautiful girls who wants every man to desire her, and always pursues the one man who doesn't. Ovid describes her as passing through a crowd of fawning animals. These are enchanted men who have drunk the potion of Circe's beauty and have been made bestial by their desire for her. Although she has a crowd of admirers, she wants Glaucus, the one man who seems resistent to her beauty. But you know that if ever he was ensnared by her and professed his love, she would soon grow bored with him.

J.W.Waterhouse: The Modern Pre-Raphaelite was an exhibition at London's Royal Academy in 2009. It is now finished, kaput, over.

If you liked this post check out my takes on these other paintings by Waterhouse: Ariadne, Hylas, Adonis, Narcissus and Orpheus.

[The Roman Mysteries books are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans as a topic in Key Stage 2. There are DVDs of some of the books as well as an interactive game.] 

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Odysseus by Waterhouse

The story is so familiar to us that we forget how bizarre it is.

The Greek hero Odysseus is on his way home from the Trojan War. He has been warned that the Island of the Sirens is deadly to sailors. No man can hear their beautiful music - their 'siren song' - without wanting to go to them. But their island is ringed with deadly rocks and all who try to reach them are shipwrecked and drowned.

Clever Odysseus thinks of a way to hear their song and not die. He tells his sailors to tie him to the mast. 'No matter how much I struggle and beg,' he says, 'don't untie me until the Island of the Sirens is beyond the horizon.' He then tells the sailors to plug their ears with wax and row for all they are worth.


They do. Odysseus, tied to the mast, hears the song of the Sirens. It is so beautiful that he forgets everything he did and everything he wants. He doesn't care if he dies, if only he can be with them a few moments more, surrounded by that beautiful music. He struggles and shouts and rages at his sailors: 'Untie me! Let me go!' But they stare resolutely ahead, pulling on their oars, their heads filled with the sound of their own deep breaths and their hearts pumping. The Sirens are enraged. Why is this ship full of men not falling into their trap? They rise up off their deadly rocks and flap closer to see, for they are monsters: birds with the heads of women.

They fly as close as they dare to the boat, making their song as beautiful as possible. Odysseus writhes in the ecstasy of their song and the agony of his bondage. The sailors see these terrible creatures and pull harder on their oars. Waterhouse has shown them with bandages around their ears to double the effectiveness of the wax.

Finally they will escape and Odysseus will claim that he was the only man who heard the Sirens' song and lived.

Waterhouse has chosen to show the Sirens as bird-headed monsters. He almost certainly got this idea from the famous red-figure vase (above) showing Odysseus and the bird-woman Sirens. We know he knew this vase because he puts it on a tapestry - reversed - in one of his paintings of the enchantress Circe (left). You can see it behind her head: quite murky, but recognizable if you know the vase.

Some say the Island of the Sirens is Capri, the beautiful island off the Amalfi Coast on the Bay of Naples. The Bay of Naples is one of the most beautiful places in the world and I have chosen to set two books near there: The Pirates of Pompeii and The Sirens of Surrentum. In the second book the seductive patron Pollius Felix describes the struggles of bound Odysseus as ecstatic.

Don't listen to his 'siren song', Flavia!

J.W.Waterhouse: The Modern Pre-Raphaelite was on at the Royal Academy in 2009 but has now FINISHED. For more Waterhouse check out my blogs on AdonisAriadneCirceHylasNarcissusOdysseus and Orpheus.

Narcissus by Waterhouse

The myth of Narcissus is a famous one.

Narcissus was a beautiful Greek shepherd of fifteen who cruelly scorned all those who loved him, including a nymph called Echo. She followed him around, echoing the final words of his sentences but was so thoroughly ignored that she pined away to nothing until only her voice remained. The Roman poet Ovid is one of those who tells the story and Waterhouse has almost certainly used his account. Here is the story as Ovid told it and Waterhouse painted it.


One day, while hunting in the woods, Narcissus comes to a pristine pool of water and bends over it to drink. Mirrors were almost unknown in those times - especially to rustic shepherds - and when he sees his reflection, he thinks there is a beautiful youth under the water. The youth seems to be alive and responding. When Narcissus smiles, so does the youth. The youth is so beautiful that Narcissus falls in love. He bends forward to kiss the boy in the water and the 'boy' rises up to meet him. But just when the moment of consummation should occur, just when their lips should touch, the boy's image blurs and ripples and Narcissus gets a mouthful of water.

Eventually Narcissus realises it is his own reflection in the water but he still cannot bear to pull himself away. He has fallen in love with himself. Like Echo, who is watching him, he will pine away to almost nothing. He will become a flower, nodding its head over the reflection in a pool. You can see the flower at his feet. The narcissus is another name for a daffodil, which I have always thought is a rather boring flower for Narcissus to turn into.

Notice that Waterhouse has used the same boy model as he used for Hylas and the Nymphs. That dark hair, the well-shaped head, those perfect features, the smooth limbs. He is not at all feminine, but he is beautiful. Waterhouse has painted his sunhat on the ground to his right and his quiver of arrows on his left, just by the edge of the painting. The quiver makes us think of the god of love. In Roman art, Cupid is often shown as a baby with bow and arrows, but in Greek mythology Eros was an adolescent, like Narcissus. He was beautiful and smooth enough to be desired by both men and women.

Today we call someone a 'narcissist' when they are obsessively self-centered and have no empathy for others.

I am basing my next book, Brother of Jackals, around the myth of Narcissus, but in a way it's never been done before. This painting is one of my inspirations. Thank you, Ovid. Thank you, Waterhouse.

P.S. J.W.Waterhouse: The Modern Pre-Raphaelite was an exhibition at London's Royal Academy in 2009. It has now finished.
.

Hylas by Waterhouse

I often steal plots from Greek myths. After all, their authors are long-dead and can't sue me. For my ninth Roman Mystery, The Colossus of Rhodes, I used the Voyage of Jason and his Argonauts as the structure for my Roman detectives' search for a criminal mastermind.

In the myth, Jason is on a quest for the Golden Fleece and he has assembled many heroes on board his ship the Argo. For example Hercules and his special friend Hylas, a beautiful youth.

In The Colossus of Rhodes, I get Flavia and her friends match the crew of their boat, the Delphina, with the crew of the mythical Argo. Here is the list Flavia and her friends compose:

Lupus the ship-owner is like Jason, the Brave Hero on a Quest
Flavia Gemina is like Atalanta, the speedy Heroine
Jonathan would like to be Peleus, a Hero and father of Achilles
Nubia has agreed to be Hercules, because both wear lionskins
Captain Geminus (a twin) is Castor, Pollux's mortal Brother
Aristo (a talented musician) is Orpheus, whose Lyre tamed Beasts
Bato (former junior magistrate) is Mopsus, a Wise Soothsayer
Flaccus (aristocratic snob) is Acastus, arrogant son of King Pelias
Zetes (Flaccus's slave-boy) is Zetes, the Hero who could fly
Silvanus (handsome youth) is Hylas, young Squire of Hercules
Atticus (old and Greek) can be Argus, who built the Argo
Punicus (Phoenician helmsman) is Tiphys, Helmsman on the Argo

(pp 24-25)

In my book, Flavia makes Silvanus, a handsome Ostian youth, correspond to Hylas. This could be bad news for Silvanus. The original story of Hylas goes like this:

Jason and his crew have anchored somewhere on the coast of Bithynia to take on water. Hercules and his boyfriend Hylas go off to fetch water but Juno, Hercules's great enemy, sees a chance to torment him. She makes sure that Hercules and Hylas are separated. She then tells a beautiful huntress nymph called Dryope that there is a handsome boy in the woods who would make a perfect husband. His name is Hylas.


The poet Gaius Valerius Flaccus (played by Ben Lloyd-Hughes above) tells the story like this:

Dryope the huntress nymph flushes a swift deer out of the trackless woods and tricks Hylas into pursuing it, away from Hercules. The stag leads him far away to a place where a bright fountain gushes forth. With a single bound the deer leaps over the pool and is gone. Disappointed, the handsome youth finally stops his pursuit. As sweat bathes his limbs and his chest rises and falls, he greedily sinks beside the pleasant stream. The dappled light that shifts and plays upon the lake shows the gleam of his beautiful body. He does not notice the nymph's shadow or the perfumed scent of her hair or the splash of water as she rises up to embrace him. He cries out to Hercules for help as she throws her smooth arms around his neck, but in vain. Hercules is far away and cannot hear him, and the lovely nymph she draws him down into the water, her strength helped by his falling weight.

In the painting by Waterhouse (below) the painter makes the scene much more watery and adds six more nymphs, bringing their total number to a mystical seven. We see Hylas with his water jug, entranced by their beauty. If you go to the Waterhouse exhibit at the Royal Academy, be sure to invest an extra £3 in the audio guide. The guide tells us that the nymphs eyes are black with desire and that the exchange of looks between Hylas and the head nymph Dryope is almost mesmeric. She is hypnotising him, bewitching him, seducing him. She wants to draw him out of the world, into a life of watery pleasure. He is captivated by her beauty and he is unconsciously leaning forward. At any moment he will plunge into the water.


According to some accounts, Hylas falls in and drowns. According to others he stays with the nymphs to love them and be loved. But in every case, Hercules and the Argonauts never see him again.

In my book, the young Ostian crewmember named Silvanus goes for water on an island and never comes back. Was he also taken by nymphs? Or did something more sinister occur?

Maybe it's a coincidence, but Waterhouse loved water. It appears in at least half the paintings in the exhibition. He also liked to use symbols. For example, long hair. To Waterhouse, long hair was a symbol of feminine seductiveness. Check out his painting of 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci'. She is wrapping her luscious locks around the neck of a handsome, hapless knight. His armour will not protect him against her perfumed tresses.

Notice, too, that the handsome young model Waterhouse uses is the same one who posed for two other archetypes of Greek male beauty: Narcissus and Adonis. I think his is also the head of Orpheus, a painting not in this particular exhibition.


Back to Hylas and the Nymphs. See how that one nymph to the right of Dryope is seductively fluffing her hair? And the nymph between Hylas and Dryope holds something in her hands. Pearls. You don't notice them until you're standing right in front of the painting. She seems to be offering the pearls to Hylas. Or is it something more sinister? Waterhouse knew (and the commentary tells us) that pearls were thought to be the tears of drowned men.

Run, Hylas! Run!

N.B. J.W.Waterhouse: The Modern Pre-Raphaelite was an exhibition at London's Royal Academy in 2009. It has now finished.
.

Ariadne by Waterhouse

It is a beautiful summer evening on the Greek island of Naxos. We see an adolescent girl sleeping as a boat pulls away from the jetty. The girl’s hair is loose, her tunic in disarray, her cheeks flushed with heat, and she occupies only half the couch. The poppies by her head hint at drugged sleep. It is obvious that she and her boyfriend have been making love. But where is her lover? His garland is there, at the foot of the couch, but he is gone. He is in the ship that is moving out to sea, already catching the wind to sail into the sunset. Having used and abused the girl, he is now abandoning her. When she wakes she will go mad with grief, despair and rejection.

She is Ariadne, the beautiful Cretan princess who risked her life to help Theseus. Having permanently cut her family ties through devotion to the Athenian prince, she then gave herself to him: body, heart and soul. But he used her and deflowered her, and now he is abandoning her.


Poor Ariadne. Who will console her? We know that the beautiful and dangerous god of wine will soon come to her. In fact, he must already be here, just beyond the edge of the picture. We see his pet leopard prowling the foot of her bed. But the leopard is not looking at the girl. The big cat is intent on something beneath the couch. His gaze draws ours and we notice, for the first time, a sleeping female leopard, curled up at Ariadne’s feet. The male leopard eyes her with intense desire. I imagine his master, the god of wine, is just out of our picture on the left, eyeing the sleeping girl with the same intensity. When Ariadne wakes and realises her young Athenian lover has abandoned her, she will tear her hair and beat her tender breasts. What will the leopard’s divine master do? Will he immediately take the distraught girl in his arms and let her vent her rage? Or will he wait until her grief and rage are spent? Will he hold himself back until her self-inflicted scratches and bruises heal and her hair is combed again, and only then console her with love and wine?

We know from a poem of Ovid (Heroides X) that Ariadne will wake that night and see the ship in the distance by the light of the full moon. She will beat her breast and tear her hair and run back and forth over the island in a frenzy of grief. Ovid imagines the letter she might write. She begins by telling Theseus that mitius inveni quam te genus omne ferarum: ‘Every wild beast is gentler than you’. But later she confesses she is she is terrified that there are wild beasts or wild men on the island who will hurt her. She does not know what we know, that a god will find her and console her, and that they will be happy together...

...as far as any abandoned woman can be happy who finds her consolation in Dionysus, the god of wine and madness.

P.S. The Roman Mystery which comes closest in tone to this painting is The Sirens of Surrentum, a book about passion and poison in Sorrento, midsummer of AD 80. See also my blog on the Villa of Pollius Felix in Sorrento.

P.P.S. If you liked reading about Waterhouse's Ariadne, you might enjoy my blogs about some of his other treatments of figures or scenes from Greek Mythology: Circe, Orpheus, Adonis, Narcissus, Hylas and the Nymphs.

P.P.P.S. J.W.Waterhouse: The Modern Pre-Raphaelite was an exhibition at London's Royal Academy in 2009. It has now finished.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Oil Lamp Clues

The detective and the historian have similar jobs.

The detective has to reconstruct the events of a crime.
The historian has to reconstruct the events of the past.

Both use concrete objects as clues.
Both read statements taken by eyewitnesses.

In the case of the historian, or historical novelist, we call these 'primary sources'. My favourite witnesses are Martial, Suetonius, Pliny the Elder and his nephew Pliny the Younger, just to name a few. They are my 'informants'.

This is one of the reasons historical detective stories are so satisfying to write and to read. The two genres go beautifully together.

Researching my mystery stories set in imperial Rome, The Roman Mysteries, I love Nancy-Drewing the halls of museums for information about how ancient Greeks and Romans really lived. I especially love any artefact that gives me a glimpse into the mind of a first century Roman. For this reason I usually move quickly past the gold wreaths and silver treasure troves and go to the humblest display cases, those showing objects of every day life.

For example, in the British Museum, Room 69 has wonderful displays of Greek and Roman life. The stylus and wax tablets and inkpots of school children; dice, knucklebones, marbles and board markers for games of strategy and gambling; little votive statues offered at a shrine; a baby’s ceramic potty or feeder cup; the cook’s strainer or bun pan; the engineer’s plumbline and papyrus 'blueprint'.

A beautiful rock crystal dice in the games display case of Room 69 became a vital clue to the identity of Ostia's dog-killer in The Thieves of Ostia. The naughty apotropaic pendants in The Colossus of Rhodes can be seen in the display case about superstition in the same room.

In the Museum of London, You can see carbonized seeds of the flowers they planted and food they ate in Londinium. There are also oyster shells, fish sauce bottles, hair-pins, coins, brooches and templates for the cobbler to make sandals. They have naughty apotropaic amulets, too.

But in all museums, I particularly linger at the oil-lamp collection. These were not the cheapest lighting in Roman houses, those were candles made of tallow (animal fat). But oil lamps were cheap, cheerful and extremely popular. Made of clay in moulds, they were produced en masse. The variety and type of designs on them tells us a lot about the Romans, and especially what they liked: which types of entertainment, which gods and goddesses, which birds and animals. Some of the oil lamps are funny or rude. They show drunken Cupids, or maenads and satyrs. Some are X-rated! Others are perfectly innocent.

They also tell us details about Roman life. An oil-lamp with a quadriga from the British museum reminds us that racing chariots were small and light, unlike heavy wooden ceremonial chariots. (Ben Hur Live, take note!) Just as a modern football supporter might buy a souvenir mug after the match, in ancient Rome you might take home an oil lamp from the Circus Maximus, daubed with the colour of your favourite team: the Reds, the Greens, the Blues or the Whites.

A delightful oil lamp in the Museum of London is shaped like a foot with a sandal. I love the detail, especially the hobnails, faithfully reproduced on the bottom.

At one time you could buy reproductions of this sandal oil lamp in the museum shop. I bought one a few years ago and one day I decided to try it out. I filled it with olive oil and put a piece of string in the 'toe nozzle', to act as a wick. I was sceptical. Surely a piece of string would burn up in a few seconds, I reasoned. But it didn't. It burned for hours and when the flame began to diminish I just poured olive oil in the 'ankle hole' and it burned brightly again.

I turned out all the lights in my riverside flat and crept around, holding the oil lamp and pretending I was Flavia looking for clues. I observed that the light was quite flickery and spooky, and that the lamp gave off a fair amount of black smoke. Over time, this smoke would have discoloured Roman ceilings and walls. I also noticed that my hand got a bit greasy. Clay oil lamps are porous and 'sweat' oil, unlike their more expensive bronze counterparts. Also, oil can dribble out of the nozzle if it's full.

This gave me an idea. Maybe Flavia could find a greasy handprint on a wall at the scene of a crime. She would deduce from this clue that the crime had been committed at night, because the perpetrator had been holding an oil lamp. Furthermore, the perp must have been poor, or he'd have taken a bronze oil lamp that didn't sweat oil... I used this idea in my volume of Roman Mystery Mini-Mysteries, for 'The Case of the Citruswood Table'.

Recently, I came across the most delightful collection of oil-lamps I have ever seen, in the most unexpected place. My husband Richard and I were exploring the volcanic Aeolian Islands, just north of Sicily. The largest of the 'seven sisters' is an island called Lipari. The second floor of the Archaeology Museum there has at least a hundred Roman oil lamps, all beautifully displayed.

Here are some of my favourite oil lamps from the Archaeological Museum of Lipari:

Several of the oil lamps show gladiators, some defeated and some victorious. (This was obviously a popular subject.) Defeated gladiators kneel on one knee and lift the forefinger of their left hand to beg for mercy. Victorious gladiators hold up their shields and brandish their swords.

Gods and goddesses are popular, too. One delightful lamp shows Venus with her hair down. The person who owned it might have worshipped the goddess of love. Or an oil lamp with a depiction of Venus bathing might simply have been a romantic hint to his girlfriend.

One charming oil lamp shows a peacock. The peacock was Juno's special bird, so it might belong to someone who worshipped her. Or it might just stand for beauty. Another oil lamp with a picture of a blacksmith (below) might be Vulcan, god of the forge.

Love is a favourite subject for oil lamps. This is fitting. After all, lamps were mainly used after dark. A tipsy Cupid helps his even tipsier friend home after an evening of banqueting. (at the top of this post) Or two Cupids try to bag a hare. Pliny the Elder tells us that ignorant people believed eating hare made you more beautiful! A girl might have given her boyfriend or husband an oil lamp with cupids on it. And he might have given her a lamp with an erotic scene on it. There were many of these, showing a men and women in various positions reminiscent of the most notorious frescoes from Pompeii.

A theatre-goer, poet or playwright might have a theatrical mask on his oil lamp. We often forget that the theatre - tragedy, comedy, pantomime and mime - was as popular as the race-track or the arena. Ancient Romans might also have collected oil lamps that showed their profession. The blacksmith on this lamp (right) holds tongs in his right hand and a hammer in his left. Most craftsmen and artisans wore sleeveless tunics. He has forgotten his. His 'heroic nudity' may indicate that he is Vulcan, god of the forge. A sailor might have a ship on his. Or if you had an ancestor who fought in a famous naval battle, your favourite lamp might be one with a warship on it.

Mythical creatures appear frequently on oil lamps: nereids, sea-horses, tritons etc. Real but exotic animals like a camel (left) or a hyena (below right) are also popular. These might have reminded the owner of a day at the arena, where beast fights made up the morning events. Such oil lamps show us that camels and hyenas were known in first century Rome.

Birds were popular. The dove and the pomegranate (below) both speak of love. We have seen Juno's peacock. You might give an oil lamp with an owl on it to a wise daughter, or a hawk on a branch to your son. A sparrow plucking a berry may have hinted at your love for someone.

Or it may have been an innocent gift for a nature-lover. You find deer and horses on oil lamps, too, especially when they are doing something exciting, like racing or eluding the hunter.

Oil lamps are the ancient equivalent of modern coffee mugs and tee-shirts; they provide us with clues about what the ancient Romans liked and what made them laugh. If these delightful artefacts are anything to go by, the ancient Romans liked sports, love, animals and stories. Just like us!

P.S. My pal Aesopus just reminded me of this Latin proverb: Fallaci nimium ne crede lucernae. = Don't trust too much in deceptive lamp light!

[The 17+ books in the Roman Mysteries series are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans, Greeks or Egyptians as a topic in Key Stage 2 and 3. There are DVDs of some of the books as well as a fun interactive game.]