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 The Time Travel Diaries and see how our ideas compare. 

The Museum of London regularly does a FREE live stream about the Girl with the Ivory Knife which you can watch from the comfort of your own classroom. 

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

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