Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Gateway to the Gods: an ancient temple site at Marcham (Oxfordshire)

So I absolutely haven't blogged for way too long. But when I logged in just now hoping to recap the 9th Celtic Conference in Classics (Dublin, June 2016, hashtag #celtclass) for you, I saw that I had some other ideas lined up and other events to write up. I should probably tackle those first, before I forget.

The first of the ideas was to belatedly (so belatedly it's virtually POSTHUMOUSLY) put down some thoughts on visiting the 'Gateway to the Gods' exhibition on the archaeological digs held from 2001 to 2011 at the Roman temple complex in Marcham near me in Abingdon. On this map go down from Frilford centre, along the A338 until you hit the river Ock. In the top right corner of the cross formed by the road meeting the river is the temple complex:

The exhibition was held across several rooms of the attractively rustic and yet well-run Vale & Downlands Museum in the South Oxfordshire town of Wantage - allegedly the birthplace of King Alfred. There's certainly a statue of him, and a pub named after him, too. I didn't know it was on but we were in Wantage that day anyway for the fantastic second hand book shop, and saw the poster:

The exhibition was quite modest in its scope and setup, which is why six months later I can no longer give you the sorts of details that I would have liked to. However!

The site is apparently was one of the biggest sites of Roman (or was it? probably mixed!) worship in the whole of Roman Britain! That's definitely not nothing. It seems to be a stroke of good luck that much of it is underneath fields (read: the site largely hasn't got modern buildings on them) so digs have been taking place regularly for many years. I find it very interesting how a site's importance in antiquity is no guarantee whatsoever for its importance or continued use or similar use into the present day.

Marcham is known worldwide as the host village (actually, its subvillage of Frilford, but y'know) to local farm shop and petting zoo Millets Farm as well as The Place Where My Parents Put Petrol Into Their Diesel Car In 2007. Incredible what's beneath our feet much of the time, unbeknownst to us.

Anyone who wants to know more can in fact order a small 20-page informational booklet for £2 by emailing trendlesproject@gmail.com. In fact, my copy arrived two days after emailing them, including a small note on how to get payment to them. Very trusting! Some of the recaps which follow here have definitely benefited from refreshing my memory on the basis of the booklet.

The exhibition largely consisted of plans and even an animated reconstruction of what the site would have looked like, and these visualisations displayed next to plans made it awesome and very vivid. I can't post photos from the booklet without permission, but the book's publicly available cover image is an artist's impression of the main religious building to be found there:

As you all know, I do not relate to the past primarily through objects, and much prefer text for learning about & feeling close to antiquity (see my talk for the TECHNE 'Object in Focus' workshop on not being a visual person). But I found these really fun. Other buildings on the site included an amphitheatre. I cherish the fond but misplaced hope that in 50 years' time when I'm old we may be hosting local theatrical productions in a restored version on site! (Aim high, right?)

My main beef with viewing objects and archaeology is that it requires oodles of imagination of a kind which I don't think I have. Buried remains are not what we might imagine if we're not experts: often it's about deducing what used to be there from a shape or a trace material. For example, a square hole filled in with material different to the surrounding material, which indicates the existence of a posthole which supported a beam which would have supported some sort of built structure. Especially in the wet climes of our part of the world, materials such as the wooden posts themselves have long rotted away.

(This is why people get very excited when under exceptional circumstances (basically, anaerobic e.g. sealed off from the corrupting influence of air and all it carries, like oxygen) we do discover British organic finds, like two months ago in London. This one was particularly exciting for me personally, as one of the names attested on one of the wooden tablets was that of Julius Classicus, one of the ringleaders of the Batavian rebellion against Rome of AD69 - the Roman historian Tacitus' treatment of this revolt makes up about half of my thesis. More information on Julius Classicus can be found here, though don't believe everything you read on Wikipedia, as Classicus isn't as easily classified into Gaul or German as all that. Tacitus' representation, our only source on the rebellion and most of its protagonists, has a fluidity of identity as one of its defining features of this area and its people. The Vindolanda tablets from Hadrian's Wall are another good example.)

In that sense, the reconstructions were testimony to archaeologists' amazing skill at reading big things into little things. I'm sure it's something many people respond to incredibly enthusiastically, and when done well I can almost see what they're getting at (ha ha).

Unfortunately, however, the sorts of archaeological finds that are most easily displayable from such sites are things like coins and potsherds. Coins I find fascinating, especially if they're not random finds but found in hoards (e.g. in a container of some sorts, which was buried for reasons we will probably never know, but never recovered for reasons we will also never know but probably involve death or similarly awful things rather than forgetfulness or not caring), but again more because of the stories - here we are, words again! - behind them than as objects to look at. A report on the Roman coin finds of Marcham can be found here.

Potsherds and arrowheads and cup handles and things, however, I am not keen on, even though I'm aware that in the right hands these things can tell us massive amounts about how people lived, what they ate, where the stuff they used was made, etc. There was a bit of that in the exhibition, but I basically read the labels and then move on. The booklet, however, has close-up photographs of some of the more unusual or pretty objects founds and does a great job at explaining (in my beloved words!) why these deserve our attention. The Roman brooch with its Roman-style imagery which is nonetheless made by a native process, for example, or the slipper-shaped brooch which may mean that Mercury or a native or Romano-British hybrid god with a similar function was one of the deities worshipped there. Good stuff!

I know nothing about visitor numbers or how the exhibition was received (and the internet is proving remarkably elusive in this regard), but I hope they'll do another one in ten years or so, as I didn't get the impression archaeologists feel they've exhausted the site.

The final room in the exhibition was dedicated (of course) to dressing up as a Roman, so here's the obligatory photo of me in a sheet:

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