Friday, April 26, 2013

You Can Be an Archaeologist Detective!


My friend Dr. Hella Eckardt (no, that's not her) is a brilliant archaeologist. She knows that the graves of dead people from Roman times provide lots of clues about how they lived. Over the past few years, she and her clever colleagues have studied over 150 skeletons from Roman Britain (between 200-400 CE).

Recently Hella and a team from the University of Reading chose four of the 150 graves to investigate in detail. Together with webmasters from the Runnymede Trust, they have now designed a website that allows schoolchildren (and anybody else) to “look into” those graves and make their own deductions. You can look at the bones of four individuals, including a little girl. You can hear what experts have to say about what the bones, teeth and grave goods tell us.

Then you can make your own deductions and even write a story if you like. That’s what I did. I took the clues the experts gave me and made up a possible story for each of the four. I even got to help name them! We called the little girl Savariana. The young man is Brucco, the exotic and rich young woman from Africa is Julia Tertia and the man from the Black Sea region is Piscarius.

Yesterday a panel of experts spoke to over two hundred schoolchildren in year 3 (aged 8 and 9) at the Museum of London. The children came specially to help us “launch” the new Romans Revealed website.



The speakers were introduced by Dr. Nina Sprigge (far right in the picture below). Her job is to enthuse teachers and schoolkids about the museum's collections and she does a great job.

The children and their teachers got to hear Hella (in the middle) talk about how diverse Roman Britain was, with goods and people coming from all over the empire.

They got to hear Dr. Caroline McDonald (far left below) tell us about all the bones in the vaults of the Museum of London: they have over 17,000 skeletons!

Caroline McDonald, Hella Eckardt, Nina Sprigge & the Spitalfields Lady!

Debbie Weekes-Bernard from the Runnymede Trust brought some booklets with ideas for exciting lessons teachers can build around this new website.

Valentine Hansen & me
Valentine Hansen played the part of an ex-soldier in Britannia. He taught the children to say "hello" in Latin and what it meant to have three names.

I got to speak too! I briefly told the kids how I get ideas by playing with my replica Roman objects, including my infamous Roman bottom wiper: a sponge on a stick! (Learn more HERE!)

Dr. Helen Forte was there, too. She is a Latin teacher but also illustrates the Minimus Primary Latin course and some of my books. She did some of her marvellous drawings for the Romans Revealed website.

But the oldest guest by far was a woman from Rome. She was two thousand years old. You guessed it! She is the skeleton. Although visitors to the Romans Revealed website will only examine virtual bones on the Romans Revealed website, the Museum of London had brought out real bones!

Valentine examines a reconstruction of the Spitalfields Lady

The so-called Spitalfields Lady is probably the most famous of the 17,000 skeletons in the Museum of London vaults. We think she used to look like the bust in the picture up above.

Spitalfields Lady today
But today she looks like THIS! (right)

Dr. Becky Redfern, a researcher at the Museum of London, told us that we can tell by her teeth that she was born in Spain but then grew up in Rome! She then came to Londinium (the Roman name for London) where she sadly died. She was very rich and you can see the objects buried with her in the Museum of London Roman gallery.

You can't see a real skeleton like the Spitalfields Lady unless you visit the Museum of London, but you can visit four other skeletons by a click of the mouse. Have fun and tell me what you think of it!

Romans Revealed!

Caroline Lawrence writes historical fiction for children with kid detectives. She has written over twenty books set in first century Rome including The Roman Mystery Scrolls series – illustrated by Helen Forte – which would be perfect for kids in year 3 or up studying the Romans!



Saturday, April 06, 2013

12 Tasks for the British Museum

The British Museum at night
I am a bit of a nerd. I like lists. I like challenges. I like setting myself tasks.


In my Roman Mysteries Travel Guide I set 12 tasks for kids to achieve at some of the sites where my Roman Mysteries are set. You don't have to do them, but they could make your trip even more fun.

I've just been to the British Museum's fab new exhibition called Life and Death in Herculaneum and Pompeii. [N.B. This show has now finished!] For the benefit of teachers, parents and kids, I thought I would highlight twelve of my favourite objects, ones you could try to spot when you visit the exhibition!

famous plaster cast of a Roman dog
I. The plaster cast of the watchdog. So sad... yet so happy, because he is now one of the most famous dogs in the history of the world. Plaster casts like this were made when archaeologists poured liquid plaster of paris into empty cavities made by decayed bodies, then chipped away the hardened ash to get the shape of the person or animal who had been there. I used to think he was left by accident in the confusion, but now I think his master or mistress left him on purpose to guard the house. They expected to return in a few hours and didn't want anyone to loot their house while they were gone. Roman Mysteries link: my first Roman Mystery – The Thieves of Ostia – was inspired by the memory of a dog barking in the night and I asked the question: What would happen if someone started killing the watchdogs in Ostia, the ancient port of Rome?

herm of Caecilius
II. Caecilius's willy! This is the thing the Cambridge Latin Course never shows us and it came as quite a shock for me. This statue is called a herm and was set up by a freedman (ex-slave) of Caecilius. It shows a "warts and all" portrait bust of the banker Caecilius on top and then half way down are his private parts. The willy makes you giggle and thus turns away evil and bad luck! It's apotropaic. Roman Mysteries link: In the first scroll of The Colossus of Rhodes, Flavia's nursemaid Alma gives Lupus and his friends little willy amulets to keep away bad luck. Some of them have wings and bells on them for extra good luck. You will also see a teeny-tiny penis amulet in the last case of the exhibition. 

Lupus paints a fresco in book #6
III. Fresco of a garden with plants and birds - you can't miss this beautiful three-wall painting. A fresco was a painting done on fresh plaster. When the plaster is still damp, it sucks up the paint applied and the pigment becomes part of the wall. You can see some plants and birds they had in the first century CE. The hanging actors' masks at the top were probably used to keep away evil. You can see the casts of the family of four who lived here at the end of the exhibition. They were found cowering under the stairs. Roman Mysteries link: In Roman Mystery #6 The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina, Lupus helps a fresco painter finish the labours of Hercules.

It's used for WHAT?!?
IV. Two portable toilets or chamberpots - one in clay with flanges for you to sit on, one in bronze with a lid so it won't slop when the slave goes to empty it in the gutter or (hopefully) down the cesspit. My husband Richard always says: "The first lesson of history is No toilet paper. What did they do when they went to the loo?" Romans often had toilets in their kitchens next to the hearth. And of course the communal multi-seater public toilets are famous. They have holes on top – for the obvious thing – and holes at the front  for a sponge-on-a-stick or spongia, the Roman version of toilet paper. (For a page of Pinterest images about Roman Toilet habits, go HERE.) Roman Mysteries link: In The Dolphins of Laurentum, Lupus doesn't realise what the sponge-stick is for and he uses it to beat a drum.

marble boy and dolphin fountain
V. Statue of a little boy in marble - this is a rare depiction of a real little boy. Notice his hair was painted reddish-gold. He was part of a fountain in someone's garden and held a dolphin from which water spouted. Stories of dolphins befriending humans were extremely popular in Roman times and dolphins were even a symbol for early Christians. Apparently there is a tragic tale associated with the archaeologists who discovered this piece but I have no more details. Roman Mysteries link: Also in Roman Mystery #5, The Dolphins of Laurentum, there are several tales of boys and dolphins, including a real one told by Pliny the Younger, who was 17 when the volcano erupted. He is one of our main eye-witnesses to the events of that terrible day. 

another puteal from Herculaneum
VI. Carbonised windlass and marble well-head - today we just go to our tap and turn it on. Back in Roman times they had several methods of getting water. In some houses, rain water fell through a rectangular hole in the roof (compluvium) into a rainwater pool (impluvium) and then drained down into a storage tank or cistern. Many Roman houses in Pompeii and Herculaneum have a well-head (puteal) so that you can draw water from the cistern. But Pliny the Elder warns that cistern water is often slimy and full of horrid things. Most Romans probably got drinking water from private or public fountains, where the water came straight from the aqueduct. The windlass was the wheel you wound the rope around. The carbonised windlass in case 46 is from Herculaneum. Roman Mysteries link: In Roman Mystery #2 The Secrets of Vesuvius, the well on Flavia's uncle's farm inexplicably dries up the day before the volcano erupted. This is something that really happened. 

oscilla in situ at Herculaneum
VII. Oscillum - nobody knows exactly what these marble discs were used for. They hung between columns of a peristyle and oscillated! (Yes, that's where the word comes from; it means to swing or twirl.) The discs may have been for decoration or to scare away birds or to keep away evil. My learned friend Prof. Girolamo Ferdinando De Simone says "90% of oscilla are connected with Dionysus, god of the region." Roman Mysteries link: One of my Roman Mysteries short stories "The Perseus Prophecy" (In The Legionary from Londinium and other Mini Mysteries) has a rich matron killed by a fallen oscillum. But was it an accident or murder? Flavia Gemina has to use her detectrix skills to solve the mystery! 

Bacchus & Vesuvius
VIII.  Fresco of Vesuvius with Bacchus - The god of wine makes his presence felt everywhere on the Bay of Naples. This marvellous fresco of Vesuvius before it erupted clearly shows it covered with vineyards. The guy inhabiting a cluster of grapes and wearing a vine-leaf garland is Bacchus, the god of wine, or perhaps his Greek equivalent, Dionysus. He is not giving his pet panther some wine; he is pouring a libation. This fresco was part of a lararium or shrine and you can see an altar near the front. Note the snake, too. You will see a lot of snakes in this exhibit, some with red crests. They were considered good luck. One Roman who did not like snakes was the poet Virgil. Just read book two of The Aeneid if you don't believe me.
Roman Mysteries link: In The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina, our heroine detectrix gets a visitation by Dionysus the god of wine. Always a bit dangerous! 

IX. Skeleton mosaic - This black and white mosaic of a female skeleton (once a beautiful slave-girl?) holding wine jugs looks quite creepy and indeed it is. But it's a memento mori, a reminder that one day we will all be dead so we should eat, drink and be merry while we can. Roman Mysteries link: In The Sirens of Surrentum, my most romantic Roman Mystery, set one year after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, a rich patron named Pollius Felix serves wine in silver cups decorated with skeletons to remind everyone that vita is brevis. You will learn about Stoics and Epicureans in this book. And also how to commit suicide with a sponge-on-a-stick. You can still visit the ruins of the remains of the fabulous seaside villa of Pollius Felix on the Capo di Sorrento. 

"Don't eat me!"
X. Glirarium - a clay jar to fatten dormice. (NB dormice with one "o" NOT "doormice") Everybody thinks Romans ate stuffed dormice all the time. In fact, they probably only ate them rarely as a special treat, if at all. But this jar shows they did eat them. This glirarium (in case #15, next to a wonderful carbonised loaf of round bread), looks like a portable toilet at first but if you look inside you see the spiral track for captive mice to run up to get food. The poor critters were fed and kept in the dark until they became nice and plump. Then you would kill them, roll them in honey and poppy seeds and bake them! By the way... nobody knows for SURE if that's what this pot is. Take everything with a grain of salt. Including dormice. Roman Mysteries link: Also in The Sirens of Surrentum, Flavia's father does not want her to visit decadent Baiae because it is "a glirarium of licentiousness". 

pouring plaster into man-shaped hole
XI. Resin woman - most of the casts you see in this exhibition were made with liquid plaster of paris, like the first cast of the dog at the beginning of this exhibition. But this one from Oplontis (a place between Herculaneum and Pompeii) was made of resin. The picture I've put on the right is from a 1954 film called Viaggio in Italia or Voyage to Italy. It shows the Bay of Naples as it would have looked nearly 60 years ago. There are even some (probably staged) shots of archaeologists making the plaster casts. If you look closely at the resin woman, you can see folds of the fabric she was wearing outside and some of her bones inside. You can also see some of the jewellery she had with her as she fled the eruption.

XII. Two books by me! Along with fun books like Dorkius Maximus and The Rotten Romans, you will find two of my Roman Mysteries in the children's bookshop at the end of the exhibition. Despite the "Famous Five-ish" cover, The Secrets of Vesuvius and The Pirates of Pompeii are full of accurate facts and they will transport you back to AD 79 so you can experience what children went through before – and after – the eruption of Vesuvius! You can also watch a BBC TV series based on the Roman Mysteries though it is not as accurate, and please visit my Facebook page where I post fun news about Ancient Romans regularly. Let me know YOUR favourite item in the exhibition by leaving me a comment below. And if you want to learn more about Roman kids or critters, read the summaries of two talks I gave in May: Animals in Herculaneum and Pompeii and Children in Herculaneum and Pompeii 

Want more? See TEN MORE THINGS, including curator Paul Roberts' fave item.

And visit my Pinterest pages: VesuviusRoman Children and Roman Toilet Habits...

P.S. This show has now finished.

Caroline Lawrence is a graduate of UC Berkeley, Newnham College Cambridge, SOAS and UCL, but has the mentality of an 11-year-old thus making her eminently qualified to introduce kids aged 7+ to the world of Ancient Rome. Best of all, she teaches through stories: The Roman MysteriesThe Roman Mystery Scrolls and the new Roman Quests series, set in Roman Britain!