Saturday, April 24, 2010

Bignor Roman Villa

It was a glorious day for an AA100 dayschool at Bignor Roman Villa.

That was lucky because the toga is not the warmest of garments.

Looking good, though the glasses are a bit of a giveaway.

After sending the students round on a tour by themselves (difficult to do a guided tour with the whole group because the rest of the punters can't get past), we spent some time looking at the details of archaeological method. Bignor has a nice little photo album showing how dedicated archaeologists are, with a number of people in wet weather gear digging away in the middle of winter. They reminded me of all the OU tutor-in-a-kagoul videos that we know and love.

The we looked at what sort of deductions we could make about daily life from the evidence we had in the villa. And I pointed people to Lindsay Allason-Jones's book "Daily Life in Roman Britain", which is a very accessible read. I also pointed them to Sheppard Frere's article on Bignor, which demonstrates the kind of academic endeavour that underpins a book like Allason-Jones's. The Frere article is 60 pages long and carries a minutely detailed record of the excavations at Bignor, and is therefore largely indigestible unless you're really determined. But without that kind of work we wouldn't get books like Daily Life in Roman Britain. (Sheppard Frere, C. M. Kraay, Francis Grew, Dorothy Charlesworth, B. R. Hartley, M. G. Wilson, Martin Henig, Christopher Salter, The Bignor Villa, Britannia, Vol. 13 (1982), pp. 135-195. Accessible via the Open University Library.)

I gave the students as exercise to do on continuity and change. Looking at what has changed and what is different is a good way of getting to grips with what life was really like and how it works. One very tiny example is the lack of buttons and zips in premodern times - the way clothes work is completely different now. On a larger scale we looked at Stane Street, one of the principal roads of Roman Britain which passes just east of the villa on its way from Chichester to London. It's almost entirely out of use now. There are roads between Chichester and London, but they are by no means the most important in the country. So the question I asked the students was why. The answer is a variety of things but one of the key ones is that Chichester functioned as a very good port in Roman times and hence was a good place to garrison. As the harbour silted up (so now it does a very good trade in pleasure boats) and as ships got bigger, so the natural places to go became the deeper harbours of Portsmouth and Southampton further along the coast.

We had a look at a map of the whole Roman Empire in my trusty atlas of world history, so we got a good look at how trade functioned to unite the empire and to provide ways of funding the imperial apparatus.

Then we had a few goes with the toga.

This is me doing a bit of open air oratory.

This is Miles, one of the students, looking very senatorial. A purple stripe along the edge signifies a senator. Miles already knows that his name actually means "soldier" in Latin, hence "military" etc.

We had a good look at the theme of leisure and work, given that part of the block material in "Place and Leisure" is about leisure in the Roman villa. One of the issues I wanted to get across was the whole idea of someone's leisure being someone else's work. Supplying food and heat for the owner and his family was a full time occupation for quite a few people. This is nicely illustrated by the furnace outside the winter dining room that supplied the hypocaust. While the family were entertaining inside, some poor sucker was outside, probably barefoot in the mud, feeding charcoal into the furnace. (No photo of that, must get one next time I go.) That issue alone organises a lot of the economic and social structure of Roman imperial times, and to be honest, any time that doesn't have electricity. The daily business of life takes up a lot of effort on somebody's part. The Romans were a highly organised society, with a great ability for large scale and accurate engineering works like roads and aqueducts, and they had a very capable bureaucracy, able to keep the empire functioning for hundreds of years. But nearly everything still worked on muscle power, either human or animal, which makes their achievements all the more remarkable.

Our final activity was a quick look at mosaics; I have a little kit. We looked at the process of making the tiles, then constructing the mosaic. Again one of the issues is the time it took to do everything manually. They reckon that the whole of the long corridor (about 50 yards altogether, of which we can see about half) would have taken six people six months to lay, and the much smaller but more complicated box mosaic, would have taken a person eighteen months. Nice work if you could get it, I suppose, compared to being outside feeding a furnace.

A pretty good day altogether, I think, and thanks are due to Lisa and Karen at Bignor for helping it to happen.