Thursday, March 20, 2014

In the House of the Muses

The Nine Muses
We’re going to a very special place today. It’s one of the only places where you can meet the past, step into it, whisper to it, and sometimes even touch it.

To the curious among us, to the lovers of history, and those who sometimes feel out of place in the present day, this can be a sanctuary, a place of pilgrimage, or a second home.

I’m talking about the Museum.

Have you ever walked among the displays or cabinets of a museum and paused to listen, to look, because some artifact grabbed your attention, because it whispered something to you from its niche?

I have, many times. I love walking among history’s ghosts. They teach, they inspire, they speak to us in ways that books don’t. These ghosts are our direct link to the people of the past, be it a mirror or piece of jewellery, dagger or even a nail.
Red Samian bowl

Someone hundreds or thousands of years ago touched the objects you see in a museum, held them dear, or created things with them.

Today I want to introduce you to some of the museums that have meant a lot to me. I’m not talking about those bastions of cultural heritage like the British Museum, the Louvre, or the Athens Archaeological Museum. We know all about those.

What I want to look at are the smaller site museums that often fly under the popular radar, but which contain the hidden gems that have fueled my academic research, and my novels.

The word ‘museum’ comes from the Greek ‘mouseion’ which means ‘House of the Muses’, or more literally ‘Place of the Muses’.

That is where I want to go.

Many of these museums are located on archaeological sites, and others hold artifacts of nearby places.

A lot goes into researching and writing an historical novel. You want to become acquainted not only with the big events and people of the day, but also the average person and his or her everyday items and routines.

It’s always a given when I’m doing research or travelling that my footsteps always lead me to the local museum.

When it comes to Roman Britain, one of my main stops is usually the National Roman Legion Museum at Caerleon, just outside of Cardiff, Wales.

Caerleon was the base of the II Augustan Legion in Britannia, and if you visit you can  see the remains of barrack blocks, a magnificent amphitheatre, and a wonderful bath complex where the men of the legions washed, socialized and exercised.

The National Roman Legion Museum itself is small but contains a wealth of interesting finds with which you can get right up close and personal. You can check out original pieces of armour and weapons, as well as re-creations, the all-important stone inscriptions that tell us so much about the Roman period, mosaics, amphorae and all manner of items such as the intaglio gemstones that the troops had set in rings but which were lost in the drains of the baths.
Caerleon's Museum

All of these items give some precious insight into the life of Roman legionaries at the edge of the Empire. The museum even has (last time I was there, at least) a re-created barracks room where visitors can see how troops lived together in the real blocks down the street. This museum and the site on which it is located are a great resource that should not be missed!

We’ll head north now to the Wroxeter Roman City site and museum. In Roman times Wroxeter, then Viroconium, was the fourth largest Roman settlement in Britain with about 5000 people. The site itself has impressive remains of a bath complex and palaestra, and the visual interpretations really help to give a sense of what it would have looked like.

Wroxeter's hypocausts
When I was there, it was for research into the Dark Age occupation of Wroxeter, mainly the villa that had been built there and which may have been used by the warlord Vortigern.

But for Roman history, the site museum contains several artifacts that would have been a part of citizens’ everyday lives. A recent addition to the site is the re-created Roman villa, or villa urbana. I love these sorts of re-created buildings because they can really give you a sense of the surroundings and bring a period to life. At sites like these, be sure to look out for days when demonstrations are being put on by re-enactment groups such as the Ermine Street Guard.
Wroxeter's recreated
 Roman Townhouse 


Now we’ll push on to Hadrian’s Wall. There are a number of sites and museums along that 73-mile-long monument. Any one of those is worth a visit – the scenery and history never disappoint!

Of the sites along Hadrian’s Wall, there are three that I would recommend: Birdoswald, Corbridge, and Vindolanda (just south of the Wall).

Birdoswald site and Museum
I went to Birdoswald to study its Dark Age occupation during the post-Roman period, but as ever, I was pleasantly surprised by the Roman history of the site. Birdoswald, or ‘Banna’ as it was known, is one of the best preserved of the 16 forts along Hadrian’s Wall. It is located in Cumbria at the western end of the wall, and has the foundations of barracks, horrea (granaries), a basilica and principia (headquarters building). This was a base for auxiliary forces until about A.D. 400 after which it was used by a local warlord as a power center.

On site is a museum with artefacts, interactive displays and, most interestingly, a very good model of the entire site during the Roman period, including the Wall itself.

Birdoswald drill hall interpretation
For a unique view of Birdoswald, check out the episode of Time Team, in which the archaeologists excavate over their usual 3-day period.

Corbridge (Roman ‘Coria’) is a different site from Birdoswald. This was not fort, but rather a town and supply base for the troops along Hadrian’s Wall where they could mingle and trade with the civilian population. The ruins are extensive and include more horrea, town streets, fountains, sewage systems and markets. The museum, as expected, has numerous small finds that were part of the everyday life of the military and civilian populations.

Corbridge museum artifacts
Site of Corbridge Roman Town










Roman Vindolanda, just south of Housesteads Roman fort on Hadrian’s Wall, is a fantastic site where history and archaeology come vividly to life. This was the site of a fort and civilian settlement that predated the Wall, and the remains are vast, including a fort, a commanding officer’s residence, a barracks, a bath house, and some reconstructions of a Roman wall and a Romano-British residence.

Vindolanda ruins and recreated walls
The best part however, is in the museum. One of the most interesting and important finds to be unearthed at Vindolanda are the series of ‘Vindolanda Tablets’ as they are known. These are the oldest surviving hand-written documents in Britain. These wafer-thin pieces of wood with delicate ink scrawls provide a precious window into the lives of the people who lived and worked at this remote frontier of the Empire. They include a wonderful letter from one lady inviting another to a birthday celebration at her home. It’s a wonderful snap-shot of life on the frontier which must indeed have gotten lonely at times.
One of the Vindolanda Tablets

If you ever do make your way to Vindolanda, be sure to watch for the archaeologists at work. At this site, you can see excavations going on and I must say it’s fantastic when that happens. When I was there, every shovelful that I saw the archaeologists pull up had an artifact it in, a shoe, a piece of fabric, some glass etc. etc. It was amazing!

Our last stop on this small tour of museums profiling Roman collections and sites is the Trimontium Museum in Melrose, Scotland, in the Borders.

Trimontium Museum, Melrose
This site itself was used as a marching camp by Agricola’s troops c. A.D. 80 and had eight subsequent phases of Roman occupation all the way to the time of Septimius Severus’ campaigns into Caledonia in the early 3rd century.

Trimontium is so-named because of the three peaks of the Eildon Hills that overshadow it. It was on the marching route to the north and provided a visible meeting place for the legions and auxiliaries. Some of the most important finds to come from the area are the horse harness and ornamental cavalry armour of the troops that were stationed there.

These finds are wonderful and some can be seen in the museum in Melrose. Some other fun things that the museum had when I visited were some recreated Roman arms and armour that visitors could try on. It was good to heft a scutum and unsheathe a gladius! A very helpful item for research was the four-horned Roman cavalry saddle that I was able to sit in. This gave me a sense of what it was like to sit atop a horse in an age before stirrups. Great insights all around.

This post has turned into a look at museums dealing with the Romans in Britain, but in truth, there are many more little museums that have added a great deal to my knowledge and enjoyment of the ancient world.

Taunton Museum in Somerset was where I got a behind-the-scenes tour of the Cadbury Castle artifacts, as well as the Shapwick Coin Hoard which showed me the faces of Emperor Severus, Julia Domna and Caesar Caracalla up close and personal.

In Greece and Italy, the Olympia Archaeological Museum, and the Palatine Hill Museum in Rome, are places that I long to return to, for all the gifts they gave to me. The Bardo Museum in Tunisia holds some of the most important Roman mosaics in the world, and it was there that I got a good look at life in Roman North Africa.

There are so many!

I’ve really enjoyed this bit of reminiscence, and I hope this post tempts you to take the time to step into the local ‘House of the Muses’ next time you are visiting an ancient or medieval site. They’re everywhere and they all hold some gems.


If you’re lucky, you’ll hear those ghosts whispering in your ear as you pass by.

Yes! That's me having a bit of fun
in Trimontium.



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