Leamington Spa Museum exhibition and talk

As the nights draw in and the blue skies of Greece and Warwickshire in September now are preserved only in my photos, my Lord Rootes-Walking the Roman Provinces project has been rounded off with an exhibition and talk at the Leamington Spa Museum.  I tried to give the talk a bit of an agenda, moved by all I saw on my walks, as you will see here. The speech and exhibition were both favourably received by the audience at the time, and I hope they can be as contentious and thought-provoking here:

Speech for Leamington Spa museum:

This talk is focussed on thinking about the legacy and history of landscapes in several countries, and how they can be preserved and interpreted in the present. The information and experiences which lie behind the talk were gathered from a walking tour in Greece and England that I completed this summer. The project was sponsored by the Lord Rootes Fund at my University, Warwick, as an addition to my degree programme in Ancient History and Classical Archaeology.

For this summer’s tour, I walked as closely as possible next to or near to the Fosse Way (a Roman road which stretches from Exeter to Lincoln, and is now a major A-road when it crosses through Warwickshire). I then compared my impressions of the legacy that that ancient past had left along the Fosse Way route to the thoughts that came to me as I walked in the footsteps of Pausanias, a 2nd century CE Greek travel writer who described sites, routes, and peculiarities of regions in the Roman Greece of his day. I travelled largely the paths Pausanias travelled and then described in Phokia: a journey starting from Delphi and circumnavigating Parnassos (the god Apollo’s holy mountain). Throughout most my travels I reflected that walking was the best way to understand how peoples- past and present- have adapted to the landscapes around them. Peoples are also, in subtle and surprising ways, adapted by those landscapes. I felt and still do believe that walking, as the most ancient form of transport, does not give that sense of disconnection that the car, for example, does. In walking I was able to have a close if changing perspective on the survival of the ancient past, and so engage more deeply in a place’s history.

In investigating more closely here the legacy that the past has, I would like to share my experiences of – and also compare – two places, one from Britain and one from Greece, which I encountered during my journeys. The first comes on the first day of my walking along (or more rightly near to) the Fosse Way. Having started from Cirencester, I took a slight detour to probe something of the hinterland of a road which was, and which remains, one of the main arteries of transport and communication in England. I think that we need to remember at this juncture that Roman roads were built to accelerate the movement of the military, and so aid the spread of what the Romans considered to be civilisation. This military expedient often shifted the emphasis of human habitation around Roman roads away from older ancient British settlements to particular kinds of dedicated new-builds on the road itself.

In exploring the hinterland around the Fosse Way, and I hoped to see how Roman culture spread out from the initial focused purpose of the road itself. Turning back to my detour on that first day in England: I followed several minor roads to Chedworth Roman villa. To get to the villa on foot is itself something of a struggle: there is a forest and, more shockingly, to the unwary traveller, a pheasant farm between the modern village and the villa. But once I had arrived at the villa I wanted to find an ancient Roman shrine that lay close by. The villa, with its legacy so obviously intact and trumpeted, held less attraction to me. I wished to explore its environs, in order to recover some of the original experience of a Roman arriving in this specific environment. A bit unsure of where this shrine happened to be, I was engaged in conversation by an older man about its location. He told me three things that I think throw something of a light onto the British attitude to its more obscure ancient past. Firstly, he said (and this was slightly worrying to the footsore traveller), that he had little clue where the shrine might be. Secondly, that the shrine I thought was Roman was actually Iron Age. And thirdly, that it might lie on private land where others had tried to find it but had been deterred. I do not wish to cast any aspersions on this genial man who took the trouble to engage a rather wild-eyed and even more wild-headed apparition, but armed with his information I too failed to find any trace of this shrine. Chedworth villa is one of the most famous and important in terms of its artistic quality in the British Isles. But that Chedworth villa’s surrounding structures and support sites are barely known about, possibly not maintained, and probably inaccessible is something I find hard to stomach. In England, it seems, we are concerned to preserve a few rare landmarks that might attract visitors and finance for restoration, but we are not interested in recovering the full original context for those sites, especially where to do so would mean confronting private ownership of land. We are unable, in other words, to see our heritage sites in the full surroundings which would be walked and experienced by their original builders. We don’t fully experience or understand how and why our heritage sites came to exist in the first place. There was no equivalent to Pausanias in Roman Britain narrating journeys across and through that landscape, so that we could now envisage it as they did. Yet we are negligent in obscuring what traces of that civilisation that do survive, hidden in thickets and hedgerows and cut off from the public. This means that we have lost our links to that past, forgotten our debt to the Romans who initially shaped our landscape.

In Greece, in contrast, everyone I met and dealt with in Athens and Phokia had an idea of who Pausanias, the travel writer whose route I followed, was. From the taxi-driver in Athens, to the daughter of a hotel owner in Amfikleia (a provincial town in the region), and through to the young owners of a hotel in Eptalafos (another small provincial town in the mountains above Delphi), who picked me up in the middle of the night when I was lost on an obscure road and deemed me mad. All had heard of Pausanias and knew something about who he was, what he was writing about, how it related to them. They gave me advice about how to enjoy the sites and paths he described. Pausanias’ routes around Phokia had to be reconstructed, as he usually only gives quite bland statements quantifying distances, and some of the trodden ways have faded back into the landscape. Yet this reconstruction of the routes themselves does not detract from the fact that all but one of the sites I visited in Greece were still largely intact, even if slightly uncared for (Greece does not seem to need the active preservation by charities that England does to make its past real and live) . The Greeks would readily point me to archaeological sites, which have also been incorporated into modern local landscapes. Settlements may have altered from military to civilian use there, as various local wars receded, but the ancient cities of the region were still very much as Pausanias had described the, and seen by modern people as very much their own.

For example, one of the most successful of the Greek legs of this project was the uncovering and chance discovery of the shrine of Athena at Elateia, and the holy spring near it. The spring was no longer providing water for ritual purification, and the site had lost its original religious meaning and purpose. But the same spring was providing water for drinking of farm animals, whilst also being readily accessible to walkers. Ancient Greece has been incorporated into the modern – and the origins of particular sites are remembered and a current part of everyday life. The knowledge of the Greeks about their ancient sites, in addition to the openness of these same sites—there were few barbed wire fences, keep-out signs, or pheasant farms here—stands in marked contrast to Britain.

If I may also take a direct contrast (albeit a slightly extreme one) with Chedworth’s Roman villa: the temple of Apollo at Delphi is fully excavated, and its surrounding features and structures can be fully explored- from the nearby shrine of Athena Pronoia, to the sacred spring, to the holy Korykian cave from where (so mythology puts it), worshippers of the wild and untamed god Dionysus go raving up to Parnassos: Apollo’s holy mountain. The whole site is open for display, and visited by many Greeks. It can still be experienced as far as we can engage with the continuing presence of the ancient world into our own. The histories of the margins are not left to be painstakingly reconstructed or resurrected from very limited possibilities, but have a place in modern Greece.

So my project ‘Roman Walks in the Provinces’ was largely an exploration of how much has survived, and the degree of its preservation and incorporation. Pausanias gave me a very vivid sense of the Greek landscape which, miraculously, I could recover as I moved along his routes. In contrast, I found that the Fosse Way and its related sites has lost almost everything except for the odd feature, the in-depth archaeological record of the famous Cirencester and Chedworth, and the road’s actual straightness (which incidentally is very dangerous for the modern motorist). Much of the original context for the sites is not recovered or maybe not recoverable. The physical remains from the sites, such as they are, are largely concentrated in museums not at the site, but in adjacent towns or in national collections in London. This is not a criticism of museums themselves, they stand largely alone in preserving Roman Britain, but it is a criticism of British attitudes to these things. The Romans were in Britain for longer than the British Empire held India. However, the sites that remain to us are sadly dilapidated. Preservation is key for ancient sites, and though some might argue that the greater ‘development’ of towns and cities in Britain over Greece, or that Greek sites are of greater historical value, as the reason for this, it remains a fact that the preservation in Greece is stronger, and that the idea of preserving landscape and context for the ancient remains is current and a full part of normal peoples’ sense of themselves and of their country. It was almost, from my experience, as if the Greeks simply care more.

I do not see the Greeks carting round their capital such a building of cultural and historical significance as is being proposed for the largely intact temple of Mithras in London. This is one of the most remarkable temples (due to it being founded for a military cult and being placed in a largely civic sphere), that remains from Roman Britain. I feel that more education about the local historical landscape and the public ownership of sites would do much to help us understand our past and place with regards to it. This is no Michael Gove-esk statement asking for a British or English-centric view of history—a strange notion: how can you think of a place’s history in isolation to others’ and only from its own viewpoint? No, what I would like to see is a greater interest in local points of history from which a wider understanding of that history’s spaces, places, and context can be garnered. Roman Britain was not only about Hadrian’s Wall, the traces of other walls in surviving fortifications, or the big sites like Silchester or Chedworth. It was also (and mainly for the people living their lives in a specific place and landscape) the other smaller by-ways and tiny villages half-civilised and half-unknown nestled around the landscape. In re-finding this landscape I think much can be re-interpreted about our own culture. And so I would like to finish this talk with a question: Britain, with all its current nationalist vigour, is a nation which was partially shaped by the trained classicists who served in various governments into the 20th century, classicist who certainly governed by making comparisons with ancient Rome. Why do we continue to go further down the path of destruction with regards to its only live connection to Rome and its civilisation, the full sites and routes which lie around us, and which we can still walk to and through?

Walking in the Roman Provinces Leamington Spa Museum

Rootes Project exhibition close up on one panel 157 Rootes project exhibition close up on title Rootes Project exhibition on one printed image


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