Review: David Kidd and Jean Stokes. 2020 The People’s Roman Remains Park, The Harton Village Press, South Shields £15.00 illustrated.

This is a superb account of the 1875 excavations of the Roman fort at South Shields published by two locally based historians, David Kidd and Jean Stokes. It draws painstakingly on newspaper clippings, drawings and photographs collected by Robert Blair, excavation committee secretary, held in the local history collection of The Word, South Shields. Taking this evidence along with museum artefacts the book attempts to produce an ‘eye-witness’ account of the earliest excavations.

South Shields fort showing site in context of local housing. Image credit: Claire Millington

The result is both detailed sourcebook and a rich narrative history of the excavations at South Shields, with its perspectives sharply focused on the people who were involved in the dig in their various capacities.

Key source material is provided by the ‘scrapbook’ of Robert Blair, whose collection of contemporaneous news clippings and drawings of the excavations and finds – highly accurate to judge from the accompanying photographs – were posthumously indexed and conserved by local historian Amy Flagg, who deposited it in the town library as a resource for the people of South Shields.

The site was facing a probably rushed rescue dig ahead of development when the antiquarian Dr Robert Hooppell selected it for his attention. With his prodigy Robert Blair the two men campaigned for its better treatment, engaging the support of the Shields Gazette and Daily Telegraph, raising funds, and hosting well-attended public meetings. Excavations were carried out by workmen assigned to the dig by local landowner, naturalist and member of The Newcastle Society of Antiquaries, Mr Ralph Carr Ellison, with local volunteers supplementing work in the evenings and at weekends at least in the early part of the dig.

Stories of these men and probably women as well as – to judge from a photograph p.84 and back cover – children are lacking in the account, most probably due to the sources collected by Robert Blair. Seeking out their stories as a possible future project would be worthwhile. Kidd and Stokes discuss well the people of South Shields, from the pilots who volunteered on the excavation, to the Muslim seamen who came with the opening of the Suez canal.

The parallels drawn between the Yemenis intermarrying into local families and regiments at the fort being chapters in what is a long history of migration to the town are well made, as evidenced by (among others) the Syrian Barates whose now-famous tombstone for his wife and former slave Regina were unearthed during the excavations. A picture of Mohammed and Rosetta Muckble, proprietors of the Yemeni seamen’s boarding house in 1930 helps to round out this picture of the port. My hesitation over the description of Barates relationship with Regina as “a great love story in history” (we have only his view, for a start) is a quibble compared with the authors’ willingness to tackle head on the fact of Roman slavery being endemic, which is too often glossed in much writing about Roman antiquity. Similarly effective is the discussion of the lives of gladiators and the 1977 visit of Muhammed Ali to South Shields. A picture of a blue glass vase depicting the face of a black gladiator from Robert Blair’s collection makes an effective counterpoint to a photograph of Ali’s visit.

Barates tombstone for Regina, his freedwoman and wife. Image credit: Claire Millington

The book describes tussles over the future of the site and the reluctance of the local authority to fund a proper museum for the excavation finds which became increasingly a problem. In 1876, money raised by the excavation committee from local subscriptions and donations more widely, including from the Duke of Northumberland and John Clayton, ran out and excavations ceased. The permission for the dig granted by the landowners, the Ecclesiastical Commissioners had included that finds were to be placed in the Free Library, which had at that time a small room in the back serving as a public museum. The quality and quantity of finds however threatened to overwhelm the library, and new curators and premises to house the collection were found by the town Corporation. Somewhat reluctantly the excavation committee handed the finds over – two-weeks before the new museum opened.

The permission for excavations had not included the question of the site’s future, which it was assumed would be used for house-building, as had the land around its perimeter. A new campaign was launched for its preservation, garnering the support of the British Archaeological Association. Grudgingly, despite the gift to them of the site by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, the Corporation turned the site into what was to become, in 1881, Britain’s first publicly-owned archaeological park.

Throughout I was struck by the role of the local institutions, public and private -the detailed reporting of excavation findings by Shields Gazette and Daily Telegraph, the public lectures stipulated as a funding condition of the Marine School college, cheap public transport and the mixed role of the Corporation in helping and hindering various activities.

Particularly significant was the role of the Mechanics Institute in providing the night classes and lectures that continued Robert Blair’s somewhat modest education – a dame school followed by a small private school before becoming a solicitor. The recording of the excavations is better than many of its time – plans were drawn and photographs made, work proceeded systematically and Blair’s self-taught drawing abilities are evident. It is accurately described as “a model for its time”. The foundational importance of these institutions to the outcomes of the excavation and subsequent preservation and management of the site is skilfully wrought into the narrative and offers a case study in this respect.

At £15 the book is modestly priced and well illustrated – I can see it appealing to a wide readership. The profits from its sales go to benefit the site and its museum and I recommend it to anyone interested in the history of South Shields, Roman forts or public archaeology. It can be purchased by emailing its author Jean Stokes (jastokes@virginmedia.com).

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How to survive a Siberian lead mine in winter, and this sodding virus

A story has been hovering about the edges of my attention throughout this crisis, and as we are getting a good look at what winter will probably bring – more restrictions, more cases, more deaths and more disability – it seems increasingly relatable. So perhaps now is a good time to tell it.

It was a comprehensive school teacher, a Mr Corrigan who knew how to interest 16 year olds in history, who told it to me, and it was about a man who had been sent to mine lead in Siberia, in one of the Soviet gulags. I don’t recall the man’s name, or much about the escape he made, but I assume he was Cornelius Rost, a German soldier and war prisoner who wrote about his experiences in So weit die Füße tragen.

Clemens Forell, the fictionalised Cornelius Rost in the 1959 film of the book.

The story that enthralled me was about how Cornelius survived the lead mines. As Mr Corrigan told it, he was eating a crust of bread so stale and hard and in it he found a lump inedible even to him. He spat it out; it was his tooth. He put his hand into his mouth and wiggled and found teeth had come loose. A doctor who was imprisoned in the mine told him that this was the result of lead poisoning. And deep in that mine, in the coldness of Siberia’s winter, Cornelius made a plan to survive. It was quite simple. He asked the guards if he could go up to the top every day. They thought he was mad, but he persuaded them. He also persuaded a few fellow prisoners. When they were outside in the sub-zero temperatures they stripped naked and washed in the snow. Scrubbed it through the lice in their hair. Rinsed and spat out their mouths. Every scrap of skin scrubbed with snow. Then they dressed and were taken back down to the warmth of the deep mine.

He did this every day. Every single day. His fellow prisoners, the doctor even, they quickly found excuses and stopped bothering, their lives were tough enough without that too. But Cornelius carried on. Eventually he was able to make an opportunity and escape, unlike the rest of the prisoners, who were by then struggling with lead poisoning on top of their privations.

I’m not hiding where I’m going with this. And I’m not suggesting that the virus that is tearing through us is a direct parallel, or even the tiniest student room is comparable with a gulag.  Or that you should stay home if your partner is violent. What I wonder though is how much strength Cornelius must have found to accept the absolute reality of what he faced –death by lead poisoning –and even imprisoned to face what he needed to do, and to do it, even when his friends lost heart and sought to dissuade. Somehow he looked beyond the immediate and saw a future for himself. That’s really what I think this story is about right now. The absolute need to look beyond the immediate and to put your own future at the heart of what you do. Not your present employer’s needs, not the ridicule and messages about ‘overreacting’ and ‘learning to live with it’, not the rents of landlords.  We are not being asked to go out into a Siberian winter and strip wash in the snow. For most people the changes are no worse than unpleasant. Six months into a crisis is a hard place. To have the future we want though, we need to be healthy, without the disabilities of Long Covid curtailing lives, and without losing early people we love.

Butugychag Tin Mine – A Gulag camp in the Kolyma area of Siberia. Oxonhutch CC BY-SA 3.0

Cornelius’ doctor, who told him how to prevent lead poisoning, sent a letter with him for his wife. He was unable to get out, to see that future, and his wife carried that grief. Doctors in this pandemic have made huge sacrifices, given their lives and spoken out against the authorities who, like those running the gulags care very little about us. Right from the very start. They speak out; we should listen, think and take their advice to stop the spread of this disease. Break rules that need to be broken. Force our politicians to act.

Li Wenliang: Coronavirus death of Wuhan doctor sparks anger. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-51409801
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Sometimes it’s good to rewrite history especially when it involves typologies, whether for Roman forts or more importantly, coronavirus transmission.

One of the things I’m finding more difficult in my PhD is a big chapter dealing with the archaeology of the houses of auxiliary Roman commanders at forts. It’s not that I’m exactly short of material – I’ve looked at excavation reports for upwards of 50 sites, each of which has varying numbers of forts, buildings, and rebuilds at each. In this I’m looking to define the sorts of features that these buildings had – the basic layouts, building materials, facilities (underfloor heating aka hypocausts, fancy baths, wall paintings?) from what are mostly the remains of foundations.

To not improve matters, many of these were excavated at the end of the C19 or the early C20, and so the records are of their time and can’t always answer my questions. Generally, I’m interested in what these structures can contribute to our views on their lives. This means firstly answering some pretty basic questions. Were there splendidly appointed bathing facilities? (Usually not.) Sumptuous mosaics? (Not at all.) A big water tank in the courtyard? (Yes often, I think so, and weirdly this point is controversial and much discussed in several papers that also try to define fort buildings.)

One thing that is clear is that there was not a standard build for these houses.  A basic form, with some patterns I can identify and tentatively seek to explain is probably the limit of this approach. Trying to categorise material remains in some way is a standard archaeological approach and can show how things change over time or in different places. It’s something that archaeologists have been thinking about and doing for a long time, as this lovely (and I hope out of copyright) picture of Roman nails by the famous archaeological illustrator Beatrice Potter* shows.

Archaeologists have tended to interpret the remains of Roman forts as though they have a standard format. Part of the confusion comes from applying the descriptions of much earlier temporary marching camps from Polybius’ Historiae and Pseudo-Hygenus’ De munitionibus castrorum (C2 BC,) and the much later Vegetius’ Epitome rei militaris (probably late C4 or early C5 AD but relying on sources as early as the middle republic). This approach, along with preconceptions about what Roman military practice must have been, has been a bit misleading.

Fig.19, The principal features of an auxiliary fort. In Anne Johnson (1983) Roman Forts

I’m not suggesting that using typologies is a bad thing, but they can become quite rapidly outdated. With archaeology it’s not good but well, nobody dies. Unfortunately there seems to be a serious problem right now that really does matter. This is the method of typologising droplets by size, and then assigning risk of Sars- CoV-2  transmission on the basis of how far each type travels. However, the research is based on late C19 and early C20 papers.** Which frankly has horrified me since the first month of lockdown when I looked it up.  So I’m really happy that actual relevant serious and senior experts (which I’m definitely not) are delineating better what we need to know about stopping transmission both of this virus – and others we should expect to come. This is the paper. I think it’s well worth reading. BMJ 2020;370:m3223 https://www.bmj.com/content/370/bmj.m3223#ref-3

“Typologies, subsisting usually on the frontiers of research, are less durable than classifications in that their descriptions are accepted only to the degree that they continue to provide solutions to problems.”

https://www.britannica.com/science/typology

*Mostly famous for other things. But her scientific work ought to be better known. Some day I want to visit this museum: http://armitt.com/armitt_website/beatrix-potter

**i.e., about the time many of those Roman forts I’m studying were being excavated.

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Braving face: how not to talk on Twitter or on first century Roman frontiers either.

Since I’m stuck mostly at home and avoiding like the plague (hah!) the normally normal chats and catch ups I enjoy, I’ve been spending an awful lot of time on social media. Which is no substitute at all for actually seeing people. And it’s horrible. Discombobulating. We are all experiencing huge disruption and know – if we’re lucky, only from the news – that terrible things have been happening.  Nothing is normal any more and the future looks more uncharted, our assumptions do not hold.

Gone in the disruption are many of the quiet, private chats. The ones where you can show different faces that at least feel less ‘authored’ than those we present on Twitter and Facebook. I’m not suggesting that our more private faces are somehow more authentic – just that there are differences. We all know (don’t we) that how we present ourselves matters, even if it took a sociologist to say it in so many (a lot) of words:

“Face is an image of self, delineated in terms of approved social attributes – albeit an image that others may share, as when a person makes a good showing for his profession or his religion by making a good showing for himself .”

Goffman 1967

This is what I’m finding tough I think. I know that life is disrupted for everyone in lots of different ways. But at the personal level that’s not what I’m seeing discussed. Where can I say (repeatedly) that I’ve had a bad couple of weeks, that it’s getting to me, the uncertainty, the grief, the fear and disappointment of this year? That I’d been home for so long with illness last year and my health’s improved so much that I was looking forward so so much to doing some ordinary things, coffees with friends, working in the library? That even though I’m pretty fortunate this year is tough? That I’m around to give and also need to get some support? Phone calls with friends and conversations at home have become the absolute mainstay of keeping afloat.  I wish though that the professional dumbshow that social media demands didn’t demand quite so much silence about real problems, about mental health or financial difficulties. Or any of the many things that mostly go unspoken.

Back though to Goffman – he’s still my go-to sociologist (even if that quote’s a bit old and I don’t really have much to do with sociologists, sorry) because he’s quite useful in thinking through some sources I’m using for my PhD. These are a series of letters sent between Claudia Severa and Sulpicia Lepidina, two wives of commanders stationed at forts up by Hadrian’s wall in the first century (i.e., before that wall was built).

View of present-day Vindolanda. CC BY-SA 3.0 Nilfanion 

The women write not exactly lively accounts of their lives to each other, more a sort of polite filling in the gaps between the in-person conversations they mention in their letters and they obviously had on a frequent basis. Or at least we know what Severa writes about –Lepidina clearly wrote back but her letters are long lost. Severa’s letters are not entirely complete but you can clearly get the gist.

“… greetings. Just as I had spoken with you, sister, and promised that I would ask Brocchus and would come to you, I asked him and he gave me the following reply, that it was always readily (?) permitted to me, together with …. to come to you in whatever way I can. For there are certain essential things which …. you will receive my letters by which you will know what I am going to do …. I was … and will remain at Briga. Greet your Cerialis from me. Farewell my sister, my dearest and most longed-for soul. “

Tab.Vindol. 292 (trans. Bowman)

Most of the text is written out by a military scribe, probably at Severa’s dictation although Severa could write and in fact did handwrite herself.

This is actually Tab. Vindol 291, a birthday invitation from Severa. Her distinctive handwriting is at the bottom right. CC BY-SA 3.0 Victuallers

Once you get over boggling at the survival of writing on thin slips of wood about the size of postcards (the basic science: they were excavated from muddy, anaerobic contexts where things don’t rot) they are still fascinating. They are somewhat frustrating in that the women don’t talk in their letters directly about what – compared with their normal posh lives – must have been privations and extraordinary events. Almost certainly these women will have travelled – commanders wives seem mostly to be  from similar backgrounds to their husbands – before being stationed in frontier forts a long way from their regular friends and family. They do however write with a sharp focus on the pleasure that each others visits will bring. These meetings, these conversations were important and to be savoured.

Now though we’re not talking about that are we? In the professionalised, highly-mediated contexts of social media we’re not saying how much we miss these meetings, those conversations that we have. I don’t really know why, but I think it’s making things harder.

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Choose risk, choose life.

DnD dice, writer’s own. Rolling a natural 20 is only a 5% chance. It happens a lot.

I’ve been ultra-cautious with SARS-CoV-2 floating around* not because I’m a timid little mouse, but because I’ve already had experience of having my life ripped up in the aftermath of infections for months and months and months. Lockdown? It went on for a paltry what, seven weeks and then was lifted a bit and now everyone is now customising the rules – or laws, it’s hard to tell anymore – to suit.

Life has risk, we all take risks, weighing up when to cross the road or happily catching the night bus (as I frequently used to). Why is this any different? It’s at my own risk, goes the bleat. No such thing in a pandemic though is there? Your risk is my risk is my granny’s risk is my 44-year old friend-having-chemo-to-survive-cancer’s risk. It’s the cleaner in the ICU’s risk. This is the problem. Actually, it’s not only that. Leaving aside the pond-slime who post that it’s ‘only fatties’ and ‘underlying health problems’ who die, it’s clear that most people don’t grasp that this is a novel virus that can do more than kill you, even though it is slowly trickling out that there can be long-term post viral health problems from Covid 19. The type of problems that disable you and don’t care if you’re in your twenties, or the most self-importantly elite of professionals, or have a PhD to write up (me).  In my experience these are exactly the people who seem to have some sort of fantasy about what being chronically ill is like. That they can sort of write their own rules. That it couldn’t happen to them, that they’re too busy. Or have responsibilities. So they just can’t be ill. Push on through. Mind over matter.

That’s faulty thinking (for the CBT crowd at the back). If you get a virus like SARS-CoV-2 (or many others though the risk is greater with SARS-CoV-2) even quite mildly, there are a good number of people who simply don’t recover. Whose life is put on lockdown, house or bed-bound and they are effectively expected to put up with it, because there are minimally effective treatments and no cures.  Even if you escape organ damage (lung, heart, kidney, brain common) there are other sequelae. There are various not very good names and diagnoses – post viral fatigue syndrome, chronic fatigue syndrome, and myalgic encephalitis for what amounts to a set of core, disabling symptoms. You might recover, particularly if (like me) you are lucky enough to have an early diagnosis and the financial and practical support so you can rest as much as you need to and pace out the tiny amounts of activity that you can still do. Most people improve a bit. Some people get entirely better (fingers crossed). Many don’t improve at all. That’s a long-term lockdown that you cannot customise to suit.

So choose your risks carefully. It’s not like crossing the road where you keep on crossing roads and unless you’re really unlucky you learn that it’s a pretty safe thing to do. The risks of catching covid 19 from ignoring the public health rules are much higher. It’s more like a dice roll. Keep rolling and your number will come up. But eventually the pandemic will be over, even if it’s a year or more away. Choose that life.

* yes, it seems increasingly clear that does float around, just like my microbiologist dad said as well as every credible scientific paper this nerd read. It is transmitted within tiny aerosolised droplets that hang about for at least a few hours in the air, so if someone in the pub restaurant office gym lecture-theatre room with you is puffing them out every time they breathe, the concentration of droplets and virus is continually increasing. Good luck.

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History lessons from the statue of Clodia Anthianilla, that most splendid girl

Much has been written about statues of late and whether they should stay up or be taken down or, in the case of the notorious slave trader Colston, be pitched into the Bristol Channel. Reading the demands from people of both ‘sides’, what people seem to care most about is whether the person portrayed deserves a spot in our streets and town squares.  Few people have called for the statues to be destroyed – even Colston was only graffitied and thrown down, although the footage looked as though there was some damage done in the process. His statue has been retrieved already and is undergoing conservation. What matters is where the statues are put – and who gets to decide this.

This strongly reminds me of a statue that I have been researching recently. It is of Clodia Anthianilla, whose parents commissioned a funerary cenotaph at Brindisi to remember her after she died in AD144. This is her, or at least we think it is, because the statue was found next to the base, and is of a young girl dressed appropriately for the rich young lady she clearly was.

This sculpted head found next to the statue is probably of her too.

On the base of the statue is quite a long inscription:

Clodiae L(uci) f(iliae) / Anthianillae / M(arci) Coccei Gemini praef(ecti) ala[e] / L(ucio) Lolliano Avito T(ito) Statilio Maximo co(n)s(ulibus) X K(alendas) April(es) in schola Poll(ia) / q(uod) v(erba) f(acta) s(unt) de honoranda morte Clodiae Anthianillae q(uid) d(e) e(a) r(e) f(ieri) p(laceret) d(e) e(a) r(e) i(ta) c(ensuerunt) / cum Clodia Anthianilla splendidissima puella et cuius in/crementa etiam supra aetatem florentia inter ornamen/ta municipi n(ostri) sperabantur acervissima morte rapta sit paren/tibus suis Clodio Pollioni patrono municipi n(ostri) spl(endidissimo) eq(uiti) R(omano) et bene / de re p(ublica) n(ostra) merito et Seiae Quintil(l)iae matri ornatae feminae quo/rum dolori publica municipi n(ostri) tristitia consentit placere / decur(iones) et in illorum solacium et in memoriam honestissimae / puellae locum posteritatis dari item statuam quam frequentis/simo loco publice poni cens(uit) / L(ucius) Clodius L(uci) f(ilius) Pollio / pater piissimae filiae / h(onore) a(ccepto) i(mpensam) r(emisit)

(AE 1910, 203 = AE 2003, 352)

It is the inscription that tells us all we really know about Anthianilla, which is very little. She is described as a puella, which means a girl of between about 12 years old and her first motherhood.  Her husband commanded an auxiliary cavalry wing and probably in his forties or older, judging by the typical norms of his job. Anthianilla is described as splendidissima, which is an absolutely bog-standard description of a girl of equestrian status.  And that is all that we can learn about her from either inscription or the statue.

The inscription goes on to say that the town has been deprived of this very splendid girl who it is hoped would in her lifetime have become a credit to the town. Then we come to the reason why it gets its spot – which it says has been selected because it’s well-frequented. The town council has decided that a statue of her can be put up in such a public place to console her grieving parents and in her memory. Her Dad happens of course to be the town patron, and so deserving of (and paying for) this honour, and her Mum is a femina ornata – a nice touch emphasising the sort of woman it was hoped Anthianilla would have become. It says much more about the feelings and importance of the people – her parents and the town council – who decided a statue of her was needed than it does about Anthianilla or anything else.

This means that as a biography the inscription isn’t much help. It does though give some insight into the sorts of decision-making that led to the honour of a statue for such a young girl being put up in such a public place. Poor Anthianilla wasn’t a Greta Thunberg, or a Malala Yousafzai. She was a young girl married off to a much older man at what to us is an obscenely young age. Most people at the time who might have objected to this little rich girl being given such an undeserved honour would have had no say. Our reasons would be different, but we definitely wouldn’t choose to put up a statue honoring this girl and her marriage, and a museum seems to be a good place for this statue to reside and be studied.

The importance of a rationale for a statue, and the decision-making over who is honoured, and where, are as evident in this statue as they are in the protests and discussions in the Black Lives Matter debate. On their own, statues usually say very little about biography, or even history. But they can tell us a lot about power, and right now that is why they matter.

There’s more about the statue and the inscriptions and some pictures here: http://www.brundarte.it/2016/07/18/clodia-anthianilla/

The images of the statue come from https://arachne.uni-koeln.de/arachne/index.php?view[layout]=objekt_item&search[constraints][objekt][searchSeriennummer]=3014

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Writing and thriving on through

It’s a little over two weeks since I finally sent my extensively re-written and somewhat lengthened chapter off in the likely vain hope that it might lead to a post-doc. This has obviously taken me far longer than I anticipated, unsurprisingly given that the pandemic landed in the middle of my plans and things jumped up the priority list ahead of the PhD. The process did underscore some useful things though.

Firstly that I can’t continually put my health on hold and do the PhD first. No matter whether it’s making sure I’m in good shape in case I get covid19 or managing existing fubars. Taking a walk, taking a break, these are things that are never urgent but are always important. So in figuring out a schedule that is manageable these things get done. This isn’t how the Eisenhower matrix works, but screw that, I don’t have anyone to delegate things to and research tends to sit a lot in that not urgent/important quadrant and can be planned. Having spent a lot of time on quadrant 1 stuff (if that’s how you want to characterise the ‘prioritise survival of self and friends/family’) it’s good to be dealing with this stuff again.

This sounds like a luxury doesn’t it? Deciding what I will and won’t prioritise, and putting a walk (“How lovely!”) or a nap (“Wish I could!) into the schedule. But it’s actually a question of productivity as much as anything. Unless you have small children afoot and no equal partner there are in fact a minority of people who can’t do some activity and/or take some rest in order to support their health. (And those who can’t are not the ones telling me “How lovely! Wish I could!”). In fact they sound suspiciously like the people in this piece, who “hope to buckle down for a short stint until things get back to normal.” I join the author in wishing anyone who pursues that path the very best of luck and health and point again at the piece as being the only one I’ve read that actually gives sound advice from someone who has been there when the world changes.

So it was with some semblance of a plan and schedule already in place that I went yesterday to an online training course in building resilience. I wasn’t exactly sure I needed it but I was curious and thought it might be useful.

It did do what it said was on the tin, considered how you can use your strengths to cope in the crisis. But I think it needed to be franker. The world is changing rapidly and our old lives cannot be reached. Dealing with the basics in Maslow’s hierarchy has been necessary and may be again.

Only one of the models offered in the course seemd to me to sit well both with Maslow’s hierarchy and Aisha S. Ahmad’s piece in the Chronicle. The idea that you function (survive), overcome (mental shift) and adapt (a new normal). The number of new normals I’ve had in life is maybe unusual, maybe not – career changes, country moves, stints at home caring for family and serious disruptive ill-health seems more than a typical load at my point in a lifespan. In any case, I’ve certainly not arrived in my discipline through what is a supposedly standard route. But I have been here before, and know that the mental shift will happen, fight it as I may because who wouldn’t want their life to return to normal? And it is horrid, the unexpected death last weekend of a relative both from covid19 and not from covid19 (undiclosed and terminal cancer) shook me. The loss of the old seems to need to be acknowledged and mourned and models can’t reach. So I’ll finish with a poem ‘One Art’ by Elizabeth Bishop. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47536/one-art

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Reader, I have done nothing.

I have done nothing. Read an email about re-enrolment, one from my supervisor about the university’s arrangements. Nothing that counts, not read Ovid in exile, merely wondered when I might take a walk. How to get safely to hospital and back for a scan I must have. And whether another scan I need is really safe or essential. And counted every blessing – and I have so many. I sat in my garden and thought about people who don’t and what I can do that makes things in any means easier. And thought of the divide between those whose work is safe at home, and those badly paid whose work is essential and who face more risk. And planned and cancelled and re-planned on the fly. And been ahead of the curve because I have been here before, planning ahead for the panic buying. Making sure we have enough but not too much. I write this sitting in a supermarket queue to make the one edit I shall make to an order I put in ahead of the curve. There were 179,232 people ahead of me when I logged on, an hour ago. Now there are 144,153. And we are the lucky ones. And I have contacted and talked and checked and asked and wanted to know and again and again if we’re all still here, still coping, still here.

Next week may be steadier and work may be possible.

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Self-centering in a time of coronavirus

Today I feel so much worse than I have for some weeks, dismayingly so. I’m worried.  Mostly about friends and family but also the amount of unknowns. What does this mean if I get the virus? Will it push back my recovery, when I’d started to hope that I might be someone who recovered? Will it push it into the severe form, where you cannot get out of bed, or read, or even have the curtains open? This can last for years. The advice from the ME Association is do all you can to not get it. Thankfully I am lucky enough to feel safe and secure enough financially, to live in a village where I can go out with little risk, and a garden I love large enough for me to potter around (and a gardener to maintain what I no longer can). My husband works from home and is very caring. He has taken on virtually all chores and we have a weekly cleaner. I’m also well-practiced at ‘social isolation’, and socialise online, not only FB and Twitter and WhatsApp, but voice chat while gaming, and telephone calls, and Skype and many online tools that keep me in close contact with friends who I’ve known in many cases for years.

ME/CFS crashed through my life early last year and has changed it beyond my own recognition. For months I could only get out of bed and sit in a chair and doze, perhaps send one, two emails. Then sleep all afternoon. Sometimes I forced myself to do things, such as memorably going into London to the library, or for a meeting, which was a mistake. I was also anaemic (iron deficiency, and vitamin D) and my GPs had nothing to offer beyond iron tablets, antibiotics for recurrent infections (lab tests confirmed antibacterial), a diagnosis and several months of waiting to see a specialist (actually, this is among the best-case scenarios for CFS/ME).  Rest and be patient, or exercise and lose weight I was told, depending on who I saw. It quickly became apparent that there was no real help on offer for the CFS/ME in any reasonable timescale so, with my PhD on hold, I tried between naps and dizziness, brain fog and flu-like fatigue to find and work my way through the medical literature.  Instead of clear advice I found an enormous amount of very heated debate. This has been written extensively about online and in medical and scientific journals if you want to look it the exact details and form your own view as I’ve had to.  

The crux of the debate is what are the underlying causes in the continuation of the disease, and connected to that, whether it is several conditions that produce similar symptoms. It is classified as a multi-system neurological disorder and its prevalence in women is at least double that of it in men, once factors like women being more likely to visit a doctor are added in. Its recent diagnosis and treatment have roots in psychiatry, and little to no attention has been given to its relationship to the history of women’s medicine, although it seems to have been once considered an organic disease called neurasthenia and predominantly diagnosed in white men of professional status.[i] It is presently considered “medically unexplained”, which is a euphemism for medically inexplicable, and a risk factor for having a medically unexplained conditions is being female or from a lower socio-economic background.[ii] So we’re part-way back to hysteria. Recent research has however been finding biological abnormalities, and links to auto-immune conditions, in particular Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. Auto-immune diseases are found much more frequently in women than men, which is probably because women’s immune systems differ to allow carriage of a pregnancy. The problem once again seems to be the relationship between medical models predicated on men, and insufficient knowledge about women’s bodies.  

This scrappy research I’ve had to do is not like my PhD. I claim no expertise whatsoever in medicine. Humanities research training however is useful to me in dealing with such a contested area. Humanities focus on your own relationship to your research – what are your biases, perspectives, weaknesses – and shows that you have no neutral place to stand. In the absence of effective treatments or evidence for the underlying  aetiology of the disease progression all I can really do is try to keep an open mind and find something that works for me.

There are only two ‘available’ (postcode lottery) treatments on the NHS –CBT and graded exercise therapy, neither of which are much help and in fact surveys by patient associations say they cause harm. Both assume that continuing CFS/ME is a perceptual problem and straightening out your faulty thinking will help. The idea of women being irrational, unreliable witnesses is such a trope that well, google it. The US CDC no longer recommends these treatments and defines CFS/ME as a neurological condition. A review of the NHS treatment recommendations is due at the end of the year.  There is little other evidence for treatments such as various supplements, although there are some reasonably good studies, and research is now looking for a straightforward biological diagnostics and treatment. There isn’t enough research yet into these, most probably because huge quantities of research funding went on the funders assumption that it was largely made up in (female, low economic status) patients’ heads.

The absence of evidence being used to construct a model that doesn’t stand up under scrutiny chimes with my own research which considers how the absence of (much) evidence has been used to construct an absence of women in Roman military buildings. Archaeologists only find what they actually look for and have tended to dismiss or explain away evidence. Absence is then created. In the case of CFS/ME, now that medicine is starting to look more closely at the biological abnormalities that are found in patients, it seems likely a better understanding of the disease processes should emerge.

But this is CFS/ME and it’s tricky. The relationship of these researchers to their research has been negatively highlighted. Most of these clinicians and medical researchers have themselves CFS/ME and this is used to undermine their reliability as researchers.  There can indeed be a desire to avoid the stigma – and consequences – of a diagnosis that involves the mind and mental health. On the other hand, much money has been spent, and reputations built, on research grounded on ME/CFS being a problem of the mind: this equally raises issues of cognitive bias, and conflicts of interest.[iii] [iv] In summarising the criticisms so briefly I’ve tried to take the people out of it, because some of the criticism has been outright and threatening abuse.  In fact I’m not sure we have good mechanisms for handling abuse and reasonable criticism when it is all mixed up like this – other examples of this pattern seem to include MPs (including Jo Cox) and Mary Beard – with the abuse always seeming to follow particularly predictable and nasty lines such as misogyny, racism, antisemitism and the like. Abuse stops effective criticism and puts off researchers and then we all lose.

However, the relationship of the mind to the brain does seem pretty fundamental in a neurological condition, which is what CFS/ME does appear to be. There is no clear separation between the two, which is explored by Jo Marchant in ‘Cure: a journey into the science of mind over body’, primarily the placebo and nocebo effects.  The one thing that she finds to be consistently important to survival rates and improved functioning in almost every type of illness is that “if we feel safe, cared for and in control – in a critical moment during injury or disease, or generally throughout our lives – we do better. We feel less pain, less fatigue, less sickness. Our immune system works with us instead of against us. Our bodies ease off on emergency defences and can focus on repair and growth.” It’s not only the drugs we need for this condition. The support I’ve had has a lot to do with why I am so much better. And it does fuck with your psyche; I used to see myself as semi-indestructable, unstoppable. I can’t any more.

When I started thinking about this blog, I was mostly thinking about myself, my research and how this fits with CFS/ME. Since then covid19 has torn holes in our lives and my concerns seem almost a useless thing to write and post. But I think that last thing is important. It’s the caring and focusing concern on other people that will improve our own survival rates and reduce post-viral complications such as CFS/ME. We’re all in the middle with this.


[i] http://www.simonwessely.com/Downloads/Other/OldWine.pdf

[ii] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11448704

[iii] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC479220/pdf/jmedeth00004-0041.pdf

[iv] https://blogs.plos.org/absolutely-maybe/2019/02/08/consumer-contested-evidence-why-the-me-cfs-exercise-dispute-matters-so-much/

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Like a Trojan…

This doesn’t exactly count as work, and needed a tiresome amount of energy-planning, but I did manage to get to the Troy exhibition before it closed or got corona-infested.* Hurrah. Although the exhibition was very crowded there were some lovely things to see, and I think it told well some of the different stories relating to the Trojan war, with roughly two-thirds of the material coming from ‘antiquity’ and around a third being modern reception.

Possibly my favorite objects were these two paintings by Evelyn de Morgan.

I also really liked this cup with Circe welcoming Odysseus into her home, presented with the ultimate icon of ancient female respectability: a loom. (OK, if you’re Roman, you’ll probably get a wool-basket with drop spindle. The point is you supposedly do wool-working and don’t just hive it all off to your slaves.)

This Roman marble relief was another high point. There are often names added to the characters, even though the stories were clearly well-known. Here Paris is being lured by Eros, while Helen is being coaxed by Aphrodite and Peitho. I don’t think this is the version of the tale where Helen is abducted away to Egypt by the gods, and therefore held entirely blameless.

Finally, the star piece. Who can resist this pretty boy Achilles dying slowly from that famous arrow?

Filippo Albacini ‘The wounded Achilles’ 1825

*working assumption.

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Generation brain game

There are some bits in research that you know in the best of times are going to make your brain hurt. These are not the best of times and I decided I may as well get on with it anyway and tackle one of them right now.

Gates at Apulum

Gates of Apulum (Codrinb / CC BY-SA 3.0 RO)

So over the past couple of days I’ve been mostly polishing a draft chapter (which I need to send to someone – that super-exciting post-PhD possibility) where I’d found a great snarl-up.

My argument was unclear and didn’t convey what I was trying to say. In this part of the chapter I’m looking at a Roman family tree that has been reconstructed before but I don’t think it’s quite right, or at least it’s not as certain as has been argued. So I needed to tease out again the familial relationships within several Latin inscriptions put up at Apulum.

In this family tree are either two or three generations of men who have the same name and I am trying to settle the number. What I have are five inscriptions which variously state the men’s names, their father’s names, sons and daughters and a wife, an adoptive father,  and different positions that the men held.

Crucially to my argument, is the fact that the inscriptions were all put up by people during their lifetimes so none of them sums up a life in the way that an epitaph often does. This means the inscriptions that were put up later can have roles added to them that don’t appear in the earlier inscriptions. The roles might also be presented differently – grouped and in reverse chronology, or summarised. Oh and because it’s not complicated enough, there are no dates on any of the inscriptions, although there is contextual information that helps, such as when the army units they commanded changed their names.

Marble_inscribed_statue_base_MET_DP165551

Example of an inscribed Roman-era statue base. The big holes would have had attached a bronze statue to the base. (Roman Metropolitan Museum of Art / CC0)

The inscriptions are mostly cut into  statue bases, and the whole thing looks very much like a series of PR exercises for an opportunistic family on the make. What I’m looking at is some good Roman social climbing.

So I went through the inscriptions again, teasing out the whole who’s who and then started to try to explain my reasoning more carefully. I need to get hold of a couple of publications to check again the previous work on this family and make sure I’m representing its arguments fairly, and then finish explaining my argument.

What’s left to do is among the easier things though, for me at least. Other people’s mileage may differ but it’s the crunchy and complex primary material that is the tough and interesting stuff. Having untangled this particular knot I am feeling a bit more confident about returning to writing up too.

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More than twittle-tattle: diplomatic histories and research angles

Day of sofa sitting yesterday as clearly I did ‘too much’ last week. I hate this. Walked as far as the garden shed and back and that was it.

Better though this morning and following the lure of a paper found via Twitter: Steiner (2017) ‘Beyond the Foreign Office Papers: The Making of an International Historian’,which has some quarry in at least nine wives mentioned in connection with their husband’s work. Perhaps the most notable is the wife of Owen O’Malley, himself in 1943 appointed ambassador to the Polish government and asked to report on the responsibility for the mass graves of Polish officers which advancing German troops had just discovered at Katyn, near Smolensk. 2 Asked in effect to choose between writing the truth as he knew it to be, and the answer required by the government, he opted for the former and came very close to losing his job entirely. In the end he was downgraded and his career progression curtailed. 3 Plus ça change. 4

Steiner writes however of “the prodigious efforts of his wife – who sought interviews with Sir Warren Fisher, the head of the civil service and one of O’Malley’s judges, but also with many of the senior Foreign Office figures, Labour leaders, lawyers and friends with influence – that the verdict that O’Malley should resign from the service was dropped. The full story is told in her book, in Permission to Resign: Goings on in the Corridors of Power.” The interrelationship between the clear impact that these diplomats’ wives had and the unofficial and uneasy position that they held in relation to the Foreign Office (as it then was) is resonant with the positions and roles of the wives that I research within the imperial Roman army. Another book for me to find then.

Her paper reminds me of something else too, that I knew from my own work as a diplomat but irritatingly had drifted out of focus. The Foreign Office and the Colonial Office used to be different beasts, and the FCO building on King Charles Street used to be four separate buildings around one quad housing the Foreign Office, the India Office, the Colonial Office, and the Home Office.

Foreign_and_India_Offices,_London,_1866_ILN

These were not connected internally, and rumour put about during my training had it that this was to stop junior civil servants wasting time chattering. This proved impractical however, and as part of the changing usages doorways still referred to as ‘holes in the wall’ were inserted. A nice analogy to consider with my analysis of spatial usage in forts.

The histories of the Colonial Office and the Foreign Office are quite distinct, although obviously part of the same imperialist system. Steiner writes that the men “who staffed the three consular services, still separately recruited by exam before the introduction of the 1943 reforms, trained in languages, not at a special establishment in England but through local teachers when taking up their posts. They were, with but a few exceptions, second class citizens, badly paid, rarely received by their ambassadors abroad and ignored when they returned to London.” Another lense then to use in considering the roles of the auxiliaries within Rome’s imperial expansion and maintenance.

Final thoughts: Steiner situates her paper somewhere between memoir and academic paper. It is a descriptive account of her relationship to her subject, told through her methods and foregrounding her relationships with the people whose papers and memories she used as her material. I’ve not entirely settled yet how I deal with my own interests that are inextricable from perspective on my research. All researchers I think have this to deal with and in some ways my task is perhaps easier because it was my perspective on the material that in part attracted me to this material. It’s really helpful though to have papers like this one to be able to think this through with.

  1. https://doi.org/10.1080/07075332.2017.1285798
  2. https://www.independent.ie/opinion/columnists/eoghan-harris/eoghan-harris-brave-mayo-mandarin-who-kept-katyn-in-focus-26650728.html
  3. See No.2 and https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1928/apr/25/foreign-office-mr-omalley
  4. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-48939821
  5. https://history.blog.gov.uk/2014/12/08/administrators-of-the-british-empire
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Good days

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I’ve had a spate of good days and am hoping that these continue. This means that last week I was able to give a talk – the first in a year. It was for the Banbury Historical Society and proved to be a really good way of getting back into my PhD. Although doing it also pushed me to the edge of what I can do physically right now. So between now and 1 April, when I shall be formally re-enrolling to complete writing up, I need to figure out what I can do on an average day, how many average days a working week holds, and what support I will need.

I’m thinking about this last first, as it’s more calculable. The next few weeks are going to be suck it and see what I can do for a working day. I am really looking forward to having some sort of schedule again. When the CFS/ME was really bad and I could hardly get out of bed, most everything ‘to do’ slid into endless tomorrows. It’s nowhere near that bad now. Today I have had a half-hour Skype call, eaten lunch, put on make-up and gone into town, been to two shops and am now in a cafe where I have sent an email to disability services and am writing this. I’m supposed to keep activity levels constant, and I’m using steps as a crude measure. Currently this is 5,000 steps a day, although this has slid, perhaps due to ‘overdoing’ it with academic work, perhaps just I’ve been doing academic work and not had enough energy for both. It’s a masterclass in prioritisation, something I’ve never been good at, tending instead just to pile everything on and somehow do it all.

So far as far as I can see, I’m going to mostly need more time to complete writing up. If I can manage four hours of concentration a day, that is enough to get a lot of work done. The other thing I shall need is to have minimal trips to the library. Walking from Oxford station to the Sackler and back is definitely too much of a stretch (and it is so painful to admit that; it’s really such a short distance). Maybe further down the line it will be possible though. There are no buses that go that way, although there is one that goes back from near Waterstones, so a taxi there, and a walk-and-bus back might be ok. As long as I can definitely get a seat on the train. Mostly though, I’m going to need digital scans and helpful librarians. I’m pretty optimistic about this – mostly it will be libraries and librarians I already know and they are helpful so it seems realistic.

And I got a huge boost as someone contacted me about my research with ideas for something post PhD, possibly a post-doc. It’s strictly in-confidence and full of ifs, buts, and maybe’s, so I can’t say more. Still though, it’s another step forward.

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Re. starting this blog

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Spoons from Hoxne Hoard. Mike Peel CC-BY-SA-4.0

It’s four years since I last wrote this blog. A lot has happened in those four years and I wanted to get back to blog writing. But one of those things was serious illness* last year – serious to me, in that it’s chronic, and odds-on permanent, even if it will probably not kill me. So it’s in some ways a fresh start, and in some ways not.

Why not start a new blog then? Why continue this, which is old, and in blogging terms, discarded. There is the illness and that’s reason enough. Everything I do is stripped to bare essentials. My energy is like a sand timer, and it runs out, quickly. I must think about the basics, how much will a shower cost, have I enough for a bath, to hang out laundry. Setting up a new blog, deciding, designing, that carries a cost. If I do this, then I do not do that. Try to do too much, and my legs fold under me, I end up on the ground. On my bedroom floor. In a bus queue. It’s not a choice.

There is a reason, another reason why I am choosing not to pay this cost and instead just to pick up and continue. And this is that although I might look back a little embarrassed about what I’ve said once, or something I was trying out I think now doesn’t work or fit, it’s still part of who I am and what I did and what I do.

Mostly I think I shall be writing about working to complete the PhD. The doubts and questions I have and what happens on the way. If all goes to plan – hah! life laughs at plans! – I shall be formally re-enrolling to finish writing up come April. So the next few weeks I will be looking at what accommodations I need, what’s realistic, figuring out what a working day can be and what it cannot. I’ve been on a trajectory of recovery, a slow getting-better, and maybe I will be one of the people – the specialist said 1 in 3 – that this will go away and that has to be a factor. So, the blog is back, and I am too.

*This. https://www.cdc.gov/me-cfs/about/index.html

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Experimental epigraphy: the Greenwich inscription revisited

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Life and PhD and general priorities have interrupted plans to go and properly record the Greenwich riverwall inscription – I’m now thinking that RTI might be the best way to go, although the wooden brace in front of part of … Continue reading

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An original Oresteia?

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A peculiarity in staging classical tragedies is that they are too frequently judged by how close the performance is to how it would have (supposedly) been in antiquity. The risk is that this critique consigns these works to connoisseurship, or … Continue reading

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Gathering Momentum

HARN Weblog

[Just as a by the way, I was going to call this post ‘snowballing’ but on checking the spelling I discovered that while I think of snowballing as meaning either throwing snow around or corporate speak for increasing speed and mass there’s a section of the interwebs that think of it very differently! Who knew? I’m still stunned!]

Anyway, moving swiftly on – I had an email from Claire this week. Remember her Wikipedia editathon? Following on from her involvement with the TrowelBlazers editathon to tackle the absence of entries about women archaeologists on Wikipedia, Claire highlighted on her blog how there was the same masculist problem for women classicists and she decided to hold her own editathon. The session was hugely productive with editing of the Wiki entries for Eugénie Sellers Strong, Anna Maria van Schurman, Gisela Richter, Betty Radice, Virginia Grace and

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‘Experimental epigraphy’ at Greenwich riverwall

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There’s an especially fun-sounding area of archaeology termed ‘experimental‘, which pretty much means actually trying things out to see if your ideas about how things might have worked might actually be right. I don’t get to play though, as my PhD … Continue reading

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Re-reading these childish things

Again and it seems I’m writing anything but my thesis. Although that’s not quite true – I’ve about double the amount of words I’m allowed for the upgrade hurdle that all PhD candidates must clear to get from MPhil to … Continue reading

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A jocular and political tale in which a blogger may be digressing out of her depth

As I continue to study for a doctorate, I’m uncomfortably aware of how little I know about most things outside my field. So much so that it feels almost wrong to stray away from my subject and write about three … Continue reading

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Edit-on dudes: #ClassicsWomen are into Wikipedia

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This week, after a lot of planning and persuading people to get involved, I ran a Wikipedia editathon to create and improve the pages of women who have been important to classics disciplines. (And I mean disciplines – philology, archaeology, … Continue reading

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Escaping the heat? Kenwood House’s dairy

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On Sunday, wanting to escape both research and the furnace-blast of London’s heat-wave, I walked through the woods at Kenwood House, recently of Hollywood fame as home to Dido Belle, daughter of a slave, Maria – and niece of the … Continue reading

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Of childbirth and curses – a trip to Norwich museum

A short while back I met up with my Granny to go to ‘Roman Empire: Power and People’, a much-publicised exhibition that is stopping off at Norwich Castle Museum as part of its UK tour. The exhibition was as showy … Continue reading

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‘Made in translation’ (or gloomily lamenting lost languages)

Went last night to the excellent ‘Sappho in the City’; came home to a pile of catch-up editing for Wikipedia.* In an odd coincidence, translation was at the heart of both these activities. (Even if Josephine Balmer’s translation of Sappho … Continue reading

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Absent or absenting? Archaeology, women and Wikipedia

Sometimes I think archaeology is a bit like a jigsaw puzzle – one that’s missing half the bits and with no picture on the lid to tell you what it should look like.  As well as worrying about the bits … Continue reading

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Confessions of an archaeology volunteer

I confess: I am an archaeology volunteer and, after some of what I’ve encountered recently about volunteers in archaeology, ‘confess’ feels like the right verb. But should it? After all, according to the standards set out by the Institute for … Continue reading

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Trig Lane trip

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Another FROG trip today, less formal than Greenwich, just three of us catching the early low tide to see what the foreshore by Trig Lane riverstairs was up to. This stretch of the river is quite different to Greenwich – … Continue reading

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Verulamium visited

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Went today to see the lovely Roman ruins at St Albans, or Verulamium as it was known from C1 AD when the Romans were rampaging about making a nuisance of themselves/in cahoots with the locals (depending on which academics’ arguments/the … Continue reading

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What use is art?

At the moment it seems as though the arts* and humanities are being put on trial and found wanting. Unlike science, technology, engineering and mathematics, these are not disciplines that can cure cancer, explore distant galaxies or even invent faster … Continue reading

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Wall marks?

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Some real archaeology this weekend – joining fellow ‘frogs’ on the Thames Discovery Programme to survey the ancient timbers at Greenwich. Lots of washing mud off the medieval jetty – and scrubbing the weed from the riverwall…to uncover some curious … Continue reading

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Over the Lethe and far away

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St Mary-at-Lambeth church now hosts a garden museum which (as I visited today during lunch) I hadn’t time to look at. The grounds were pretty though, and felt like spring – and had some interesting graves in them. There was … Continue reading

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A desk less disorganised

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My desk had gotten rather here-be-dragons-ish, all snarly and study unfriendly, so I tried to tame the mess a bit. My ‘classics’ books also seemed to have gone forth and multiplied, so they got sub-divided and re-shelved more manageably. And … Continue reading

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Right TRAC?

Went to the Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference this weekend (yes, for the wag who asked, there is an actual Roman Archaeology Conference too).  I’ve been to a fair few conferences in the role of hireling/organiser, setting them up, writing delegate … Continue reading

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All tech bright and beautiful.

Technology can be made exciting, cool and tempting. After all, if you’re to reach for that apple, you’ve first got to reach for your purse. And nobody wants to waste money buying the wrong thing. What about wasted time though, … Continue reading

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Invading, with elephants.

As part of the far too random reading I’ve been doing for my dissertation I stumbled on a fascinating detail of ancient history:  apparently* elephants took part in the siege of Colchester in AD43.  Somewhere outside the town, the Roman … Continue reading

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Phone a desk friend at the library

I was late to the library yesterday and was lucky to find my favourite desk still available. Now I love this desk, despite the implied nerdiness and even if it doesn’t, strictly, count as a desk, being as it is, … Continue reading

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One tomato two tomato three tomato four

Been struggling this past week to fit in both day job and dissertation and still have time for sleep and sanity. So I thought I’d give the Pomodoro technique a go. Like many shiny new things it was designed by … Continue reading

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In your own words, please…

Today I shall do as I am paid and write words for other people to claim that they said. Even though we allegedly take great care, marking words off carefully with speech marks to denote what, exactly, someone actually said, … Continue reading

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In praise of study cats

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There is something oddly insulting about the term ‘cat blog,’ which I understand to mean the kind of scribbling rant which could only be written by a woman, as raving and decrepit as the animals whose odor pervades her solitary … Continue reading

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Missa accomplished

Lunch over, our house-guest packed and off, finally I made a nice cup of tea and settled down, the afternoon blocked out for a good patch of study. Immediately the phone rang. Against the background din of a bus, my … Continue reading

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The world according to Gove

I’m not persuaded by the ‘one history of one little island’ that Michael Gove appears to be pushing. Not least in that anything so appealingly simple must appeal only to the simple-minded; technology is pulling the threads of the world … Continue reading

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A heartbreaking dot of staggering genius

I was trying to concentrate on an MA assignment I’ve to write on Greek tragedy and a quatrain started woodpeckering round my brain in that way, procrastination, deadline, or no, you just have to go google it. The lines were: … Continue reading

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How Dewey we categorise, there are so many ways

Books are my vice, I read and hoard and hope to read and maybe will one day have the time to read, the yards that stretch, lining up in wait on bookcases. Like my time, my shelves are not endless … Continue reading

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A thoroughly modern Lysistrata?

Went to see UCL student’s production of Lysistrata tonight. It was good – their opening night and it felt as though it still needed to gel a little (it’s a three-night run so hope that it does). No masks, some of the chorus spoken, some sung. Characterization was in large part great – and there was some fab comedy with swords doing duty for the phalluses that would have been…prominent…in the original. Not sure which text they were using however some of the rhythms felt ‘authentic’ enough, and there was some dance and singing. It came alive at those points.

The performance struck me as seeming very much of modern times, which is how we’re not supposed to understand it, from what I understand of the scholarship. I do wonder if it says something about our modern age that something written by men, for men, and of women, can still seem to have so much to say to us.

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Euphemistically speaking

There’s an interesting little book called Gobbledigook* which bemoans the corporate jargon that has invaded public language like a platoon of tanks and is encroaching on language at large. It argues that jargon itself is meaningless, and worse, grinds into … Continue reading

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In the beginning were the rules

I took down this blog for a while, in part due to the theft of my lap-top, in part due to wondering if saying what I think makes me mouthy as well as ignorant, so I ought to stick to what I know, ie, not very much.

No matter. I happened on a piece that I am evangelical about sharing. In fact, I’d like anyone who has to deal with writers to be locked in a room and made to read and agree with it, just so you understand what we’re trying to do. The piece is called A manifesto for the simple scribe: the 25 commandments for journalists. OK, the title says ‘my’ and I’ve changed it to ‘the’, so sub me.

Or, better yet, tell me what you think about it.

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A soothingly middlebrow silence

This post starts with two paragraphs of back story which if you are a thoroughly post-modern Millie, feel free to skip; it’s included for readers who wonder which planet I hail from. How we look at literature (or any other … Continue reading

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Round like a reader and a writer, like a writer that should read

That past fortnight I’ve been busy writing my novel and very remiss with this blog. In the time that work doesn’t gobble up, I am trying to squeeze in more reading as I think that it does improve my writing. I … Continue reading

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The how and the what of it

What is it about?  That’s the first question that pops into mind when I see a book cover, or a magazine article, or the blurb for a film.  What is it about?  And that ‘about’ pretty much determines how interested … Continue reading

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Of sense and imagery

Not much time for blogging as have been putting wordcount into my novel. Words by the sackload of them. Or something approaching that. In between times I was re-reading Wild Fang (Jack London)* who I think is underrated as a … Continue reading

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