Week 3 is treat week on my latest project with the Museum of London and Bromley Museum. One of the benefits of volunteering for the Museum of London is that they balance the hard graft with sessions designed to inspire, teach and open up the objects in the archive. If you have a thirst to know more, a passion to see more and a willingness to listen and try to understand then you are certainly in the right place.
It always surprises me how much the Museum of London staff share with volunteers. I have come to realise they are all passionate about what they do, but what really impresses me is their attitude to volunteers. They are inclusive, they want to share their knowledge and love of history, but not in a preachy didactic way. They don’t care what background you have, what they offer is a two-way street, an exchange of ideas, they are trying to teach us how to open up our minds to think about what we know and question what we see. Why was an object used? What was it made of? Why do you think it was found in a particular spot? What does it tell us?
With history, with archaeology we don’t have all the answers, the Museum of London staff know a lot, an amazing amount, but they don’t know everything. But I now understand that before you get anywhere you have to learn to ask the questions. My history degree was a long time ago, I have forgotten what it is to focus on a topic, a time period, to try to understand, to ask questions, to not be afraid to say what you are thinking. I still struggle to really look at the objects and pick up on the clues before me. I never realised how hard it would be, but my passion pulls me on, I don’t think that it will ever let me down.
I am so excited by week 3, I get to return to Mortimer Wheeler House, the Museum of London archive is fast becoming my second volunteer home. Our morning is all about death, honour and respect in the Roman World. Our Roman villa at Keston, Kent is our first point of reference. It is a large site that contains three cemeteries. The North Cemetery – the largest of the three – contains two large stone mausolea, an apsidal tomb, a stone coffin, there are a number of cremations and inhumations, adults, children and infants. There is also the most amazing small lead coffin which we have on display at Bromley Museum. We have grave goods, gifts for the spirit life, the most enigmatic and beautiful of which has been described as a glass tear catcher.
There is evidence of occupation at our Keston villa from the Late Neolithic Bronze Age 2000BC, right the way through to a Saxon hut dated 450-500AD. It is easy to forget when dealing with bags of small bits of broken pot that these are the ephemera of lives lived. Generation upon generation were born at Keston, we don’t know their names or characters but we can piece together what we do have, what we do know. They lived and worked at Keston, we have a home and trades, pottery kilns and corn drying ovens. We also have death, remembrance and respect. Francis Grew, the archive manager sets our site into context for us, we talk about Roman cremation and burial, the change in practices, the spread of Christianity, respect for the physical body not just the spirit.
I have been to a funeral this week and my head and heart are full and heavy with loss and sorrow. When we talk of death and burial of someone 2,000 years ago we don’t talk of sorrow, of sadness of the physical pain of losing a loved one. We are not so different to our ancestors, we need to mark a loved ones life, a physical tangible expression of who they were and how we feel about them. We don’t think of the tears that fell for a child, the empty space left by a wife or mother, the much missed steadfast presence of a father or grandfather.
We talk about the physical monuments, the sculptures, statues, inscriptions that have survived from the Roman world into today, we are moving away from our intimate Roman villa existence, we are talking of Roman London, Roman Britain and across the Roman world. Here grief and death, funerary architecture takes on a different role. It is a complex mix of sorrow and remembrance but the permanence and thought behind large mausoleum, statues and carved stone coffins bring in other themes of status, importance and power. There are over arching themes to consider, the place of civic pride in the process of erecting these monuments to the dead. The politics of death and honour. Facing our own mortality, the finality of death mirrored in imagery and design.
If you think about modern-day London, the strategic placements of monuments to honour the great and worthy of our society. A recent debate over a statue to Margaret Thatcher that has courted controversy. Surely there would have been similar debates in Roman London. These types of statements, large, unmissable, saying so much more about the living than the dead. Intriguingly not all evidence pointing to high status military men or political power house families. But many set up by women, wives, honouring their husbands and their family name. Reading the inscriptions they often say who placed the statue or tombstone, perhaps a sign of the importance of being seen to carry out this role within the community.
Not to mention the important role these permanent imposing structures had on a native British population facing a conquering Roman army with strange customs, Gods and practices. How did the Roman soldier face death so far from home in a strange land. Did a memorial in death become more important when friends and family were far away? Why erect a memorial, a space and place to be remembered when loved ones may never see or visit?
Our morning musing are transferred from staff room to archaeological store. This is always the best bit, today we get to see inside Bay 4 where London’s history in stone is stored. It never ceases to amaze me when you open the door and see bay after bay of London’s past, waiting to be rediscovered, objects waiting to tell you their story. Francis guides us round this amazing place, the theory and reality of funerary sculpture meeting before our eyes. We crane our necks for a view of carved chunks of Roman London, we crouch down and peer at lions carved on a sarcophagus, we twist our heads to make out the arm, foot and wing of a fragmentary figure. I could stay all day, all week, all year.
I love the historical mash-up, Medieval stone and Roman carvings. It mirrors exactly the London we walk around today, different buildings, different time periods, squeezed up against each other, easy to over look, you need to stop, stare, turn a corner, take time to decipher what you are seeing. Curves and angles, figures and leaves, carved and worked by the sculptors skill. Francis questions us, asks us to think about what we are seeing. I love the way funerary sculptures have been found reused in the Roman London wall. It is how they have survived, their fragmentary inscriptions a message of love and respect reaching from the past. Their reuse a practical consideration, the properties of stone do not change, our history has always been about building dismantled, stone reused. How many times have these stones been used? Where did they begin their story? And perhaps almost as interesting as beginnings I am always intrigued by the final story, how they ended up on a shelf in an archive. Where were they found? Who took the time, had the idea, skill and knowledge to act as saviour, delivering jigsaw pieces of our history to the Museum of London’s care.
Francis shares with us the story of a stone sarcophagus, it is peeking at us through wooden wheels, a strange resting place but an even stranger story of discovery and like most objects, the mysterious gaps in our knowledge, the things we will never know, they make these objects even more magical. Our time is soon up, we must go, I linger, take pictures. I don’t want to leave, I have only seen a fraction of what lies in Bay 4.
The final part of the morning, we return our thoughts to Keston. A masterclass in engagement and public presentation awaits. With a day in Tesco fast approaching we are fearing our inadequacies, fearing our lack of knowledge. How will we present items from our Roman villa to the shoppers of today. We are given 10 pearls of wisdom, 10 gifts to guide us on our way. I am not going to write them here, they deserve a post on their own. Our Museum of London guide has distilled his knowledge and experience for us. It is not for me to give away his secrets.
I am surprised at myself by the end of our session. I am more confident, I think I can do this, we shall have to see how the next few weeks work out. I began this post by referring to Week 3 as treat week, and it really has been the most wonderful, thought-provoking inspiring treat. I now know why Mortimer Wheeler House is fast becoming a home, I am put at my ease in its walls, I meet good friends and share good times, and I never want to leave and I always want to come back for more. I know there are stories waiting for me every time I return, new things to see and new things to try to understand. I will be counting the days till I return again.