What caught my eye this week
This week, because it’s the annual Heritage Open Week, I went along to a short talk at Arbeia Roman Fort by curator Alex Croom, on the subject of the tombstone of Regina.
Of course, I’m supposed to know all about Regina already. I’ve been using her image and her inscription for years in university tutorials and school classes, to make points about the movement of people, cultural integration, identity through language, et cetera. Beyond that, I’ve always been rather attached to Regina; her stone was found at the end of my street (in what is currently Morrisons’ car park), so I reckon she probably had many of the same complaints as I do about the way the wind whips off the sea in the autumn, or how noisy the seagulls are first thing in the morning.
But there’s always more to learn – and I learned a lot about Regina’s clothing (unbelted after the provincial fashion, which would be scandalous in 2nd century Rome), hairstyle (long ringlets – not the imperial fashion of the day) and the luxurious folds on her dress (implausible given the style and fabric, but typical of Palmyran tombstones).
The questions from other visitors also got me thinking – like, ‘Did the people back then not care about dates?’. Anyone familiar with Roman tombstones wouldn’t even bother to ask; but it was one of the first things that struck this visitor, and it made me think. What did ‘people back then’ care to commemorate, if not dates? They didn’t seem to care much about the age of the deceased; it’s true that in the case of children, inscriptions could be very specific – but adults tended to have their age rounded to the nearest ten (Regina was ‘30’ when she died, and Victor on the next-door tombstone was ‘20’). So the passage of time seemed not to be something that needed to be marked accurately.
Instead, what we see when we look at the tombstone is a focus on place. Barates is from Palmyra, we’re told. The viewer (ancient or modern) could have deduced this from the Palmyrene inscription at the bottom, and perhaps even from the style of the carving, with its distinctively Syrian tweaks. But Barates takes the trouble to tell us in the inscription where he comes from – even though this is his wife’s tombstone, not his.
Barates also bothers to inform us that Regina came from the Catuvellauni tribe of southern Britain. Care has been taken over this; the word ‘Catuvellauni’ has been misspelled and then corrected by the sculptor – who may himself have come from Palmyra, judging by the quality of his Palmyrene lettering. Nobody involved with this monument was native to the region.
However, not all of the places commemorated here are distant or foreign. There’s also a focus on place, in a different way, in the portrait of Regina; she sits in a high-backed wicker chair, dressed up to the nines, with her strong-box and her basket of wool beside her, much as she may have done in her own home. It’s worth remembering that this would have been painted, so the domestic setting could have been vivid and convincing; and it has also been suggested that the tombstone was mounted on the inside of a small tower structure.
That idea – that this was a little walled structure, and not just a headstone – makes a difference to how I imagine the monument. Beside the windswept road which took soldiers down the hill and away from the bleak North Sea, there would have been a little room with a brightly-coloured figure of a woman in it, sitting in a comfy chair and holding her spun thread on her lap as she looked out at her visitors, drawing them into her cosy domestic world. The face of the carving has been destroyed – but I like to think that Barates would have chosen to represent her wearing a smile.
Do look around for other things that are happening or open for Heritage Week – there are all sorts of treats this weekend!
This week’s links from around the internet
From Classical Studies Support
Discussing women in Homeric epic – Classical Studies Support [please do read and share: my sister’s second book is coming out soon, and I’d like everybody to know about it!]
Tragic loss of cultural heritage – BBC
..and commentary on the news – Arts Journal
Finding Aphrodite in a car – The Washington Post
…and an amphora in holiday snaps – RT
New discoveries at Kythnos – Argophilia
Wearing moustaches in honour of Aristophanes – BBC
What happens when you store an artefact in a car park – Daily Gazette
Comment and opinion
On falling in love with Classics – Sententiae Antiquae
Remembering David Watkin – The Times Literary Supplement
Interview with Mary Beard – Time
A Roman energy drink – Quartzy
An unusual angle on the Elgin Marbles controversy – EU Greek Reporter
… and the Elgin Marbles and Brexit – The Independent
On ‘Dr Mothers’, with some great personal stories – Eidolon
Why you shouldn’t chuck your chickens overboard – The Historian’s Hut
Homer and six degrees of separation [met with scorn on the internet!] – The Conversation
Reflecting on the value of studying languages – Ars Longa
Artefacts as messy loot – Hyperallergic
When learning History makes you uncomfortable – Forbes
… and teaching misogynist art – Hyperallergic
Dancing naked on the Acropolis – Neos Kosmos
Recreating Greek music – The Week
Emending ‘If you’re happy and you know it’ [I follow manuscript tradition W] – Eidolon
Thinking about SPQR – Classical Fix
Classical (?) music – Society for Classical Studies
Women and Greek theatre – Classical Wisdom Weekly
Sophocles and technology – The Spectator
Bad contributor behaviour – The Edithorial
What made someone Greek? – Le Temps Revient
On the growing popularity of Greek stuff – BBC
The toxic relationship of monsters and heroes – Classically Inclined
Teaching, tantrums and Tacitus – Eidolon
On naming your baby classically – Medium
Podcasts, videos and other media
Clips of Michael Scott’s new programme (starts on Friday) – BBC Two
…and an interview about the use of technology in the programme – iNews
On Cleopatra and the death of Caesar – Giants of History