Category Archives: Archaeology

Maximinus Thrax

Roman archaeology has been one of our long-abiding passions, even an obsession, and as field archaeologists for some three decades, we worked on excavations of several Roman sites in Britain, from rural hovels to villas, towns and fortresses. We even spent our honeymoon on Hadrian’s Wall, and have visited countless other sites throughout the Roman Empire, pored over exhibits in museums and written papers and books on Roman themes. Recently, we were very pleased to be sent a newly published book called Maximinus Thrax: From Common Soldier to Emperor of Rome by Paul N Pearson (Pen & Sword Military hardback, 2016, ISBN 9781473847033, xxiv prelims, 296 pages, illustrations, maps, appendices, endnotes, bibliography and index).

 

Before saying anything more, we must declare an interest. In the dim and distant past, Continue reading

Saucy Romans

The Romans liked to eat well, and some of their choices of food are still regarded as wholesome today, particularly the staples of bread, olives and wine. They also had a liking for pungent fish sauces such as liquamen, muria and – the best-known one – garum. The production of these sauces was a by-product of the fish-processing industry, mainly in Roman settlements along the Atlantic coasts of Spain, Portugal and north Africa, where there was an abundant supply of fish. Fish sauce, especially garum, was so popular that it was exported across the Roman empire as an expensive delicacy. Doubtless in far-flung garrisons on the edges of the empire, many ex-patriot Romans found garum a welcome reminder of home comforts back in Italy.

Roman meal
Raw materials for a Roman meal

Manufactured taste

Garum was produced on an industrial scale in purpose-built factories. One factory Continue reading

Talking Archaeology

It’s good to talk – isn’t it?

In days long past, while working as archaeologists in London and Surrey, we were regularly asked to give talks, sometimes as the main entertainment or as part of a programme of talks with several speakers. Rather than simply describe our discoveries, we had to illustrate them with 35mm slides, so there was a lot to prepare, especially if we had to take our own projector equipment, such as screen, projector, projector stand and extension leads. The talks were hosted mainly by local and county archaeology societies, most of whose members enjoyed archaeology as a hobby and quite often worked as volunteers on excavations. Because archaeologists were public servants (and therefore poorly paid!), we were expected to give talks as part of the job, usually with no remuneration, but we did enjoy doing them. The most memorable one was to a packed hall somewhere in the City of London, and afterwards they took us off to an old pub, leading us down dark alleyways and pointing out parts of the city that we never knew existed. That was quite magical. Continue reading

Sweetness and Light

Raw beginnings

Cyprus, a beautiful island in the eastern Mediterranean, is now mainly known as a popular holiday destination. With its pleasant beaches, beautiful mountains and bright sunshine, it is difficult to imagine that this island was once the heart of the sugar industry that supplied western Europe. Before the medieval period, honey was the source of sweet flavouring. The cultivation of sugar cane probably originated on the islands of the south Pacific, gradually spreading to India and China. It slowly expanded westwards, to Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean, and by the 10th century there is evidence of a sugar industry in Cyprus.

Sugar cane in EgyptSugar cane growing in Egypt (left) and before processing

When western armies went on crusade to the Holy Land, they encountered sugar cane for the first time. Gradually, sugar became known in Europe, initially as a medicine. Continue reading

Three-Age System

Discovering prehistory

In the early days of archaeology, even before it was generally called ‘archaeology’, antiquarians realised that the earliest humans had no idea of metals, but used stone for tools and weapons. The first metals were those requiring the most simple technology – copper, gold and bronze. Later on, it was discovered how to produce iron. The antiquarians were faced with the problem of how to organise and record their findings and theories, because they were quite literally working with a blank sheet. They ended up using terms like ‘Stone Age’ and ‘Iron Age’, named after the main materials used for tools and weapons.

This was the discovery of prehistory – ‘before history’ – when our ancestors talked with each other but wrote nothing down, Continue reading

Learned Societies

ROYAL HISTORICAL SOCIETY

We were recently both honoured to be elected as Fellows of the Royal Historical Society. This prestigious learned society was founded in 1868, and is currently based at University College London. The society’s website is here.

SOCIETY OF ANTIQUARIES OF LONDON

We are also Fellows of the Society of Antiquaries of London, which was founded much earlier, in 1707, and is today based at Burlington House in London (next door to the Royal Academy). The Society also owns and manages Kelmscott Manor, the Cotswold retreat of William Morris, which is open to the public from April to October. The Society produces an invaluable fortnightly digest of news from the heritage sector, called Salon, and Continue reading

Corn Dollies

TOURIST CRAFTS

Probably due to the mechanisation of harvesting cereal crops, the tradition of making straw shapes and figures (‘corn dollies’) largely died out by the early years of the 20th century in Britain. From about the 1960s, the craft was revived, particularly for tourist souvenirs. The term ‘corn’ referred to cereal crops such as wheat, though nowadays corn can also mean ‘corn on the cob’ or maize. Many of the traditional and revived ‘corn dollies’ bore no resemblance to dolls or figures.

Corn Dolly A simple corn dolly, made in the 1960s

THE LAST STRAW STANDING

Before the 20th century, local harvest customs were widespread throughout Britain, and although they differed from place to place, various elements were common to most. When the final patch of corn was cut, Continue reading