This week has been full of Heritage Open Days around the UK (lots on this weekend too, so do check out your local area). I’ve been too busy to go far, but I did find time to go along to a talk on Romans and Britons, given by curator Alex Croom at Arbeia Roman Fort. That’s where I learned about the Duck Dinglehoppers of South Shields. But more on that later…
The talk focused on the relationship between Romans and Britons in the North East of England: what little we know about it, anyway. The lack of British material culture poses a problem, as does the fact that any likely sites for British settlements in the Arbeia area have been covered with rows of terraced houses since Victorian times (one of which is mine: sorry, Iron Age Britons!).
But there were a lot of snippets of information that I found useful – and ever so slightly hilarious. One was that the local, northern Britons would probably be seen as backward and uncivilised by the Britons from further south – no change there then! Our pots were all rough, we didn’t have a lot of fancy stuff, and we weren’t interested in imported foreign wares. The ex-slave Regina, who was born into the southern Catuvellauni tribe but died in the territory of the Brigantes near Hadrian’s Wall, might well have been, as Alex Croom put it, ‘a bit sniffy’ about the local culture up north. Possibly a reason why she was called ‘Queenie’…? I now have a mental image of her being appalled, like today’s southerners, at the sight of the Geordie Brits all heading off to the pub in the middle of winter with no coats on.
Then there’s the influence of British design upon Roman fashions, including items like brooches and belt buckles. There’s a fascinating contrast between the Roman patterns – all regular and symmetrical – and the British style of organic asymmetry (for which I think the technical term is ‘squiggly’) which began to creep in. It’s interesting that even though the Romans and the Britons had very different (and in many ways apparently incompatible) cultures, people seemed to manage to get past that if there was a profit to be made. Again, it all seems very familiar…
There were quite a lot of people at the talk – enough to fill the little gallery. All were grownups, mostly of retirement age. And yet we all got a childish delight from being allowed to touch things. Replica items were passed around; then the curator began to open up the cases and pass around the real thing. Seeing the awe on people’s faces reminded me again that those glass cases create a distance, positioning us as the viewer of something removed from us in space and time. But being able to actually handle a bracelet worn by a Roman woman or a game-piece possibly made by a British craftsman 2,000 years ago brings the past to us and makes it personal. I used to do the same thing when I taught a lot of school groups: but I’d almost forgotten that the principle applies just as much to adults as it does to kids. I’m now planning some fun tutorials for the upcoming year…!
But it was when the curator introduced us to the duck spoons that I felt my world tilt. How could I have lived in this town all my life and not known about them? Life will never be the same.
These are items made of bone which look like little spindly teaspoons, but with an unexplained hole in the spoon bit. They’ve been found in various locations, and appear to be made to a British design, but nobody quite knows what they’re for. Are they for stirring or straining something? Are they accessories – like brooches, but fastened in a different way? Are they some kind of hospitality gift, like a commemorative teaspoon? Your guess is as good as anybody else’s. It’s an enigma. I’d like to call it a spoonigma, if that’s ok with you.
However, the thing that really intrigued me is that the possibly-not-spoons found in South Shields have ducks on the end. Nowhere else do the ducks appear: but several have been found here, in and around Arbeia.
Yes, that’s right. My town is the Duck-On-A-Thing-That-Might-Not-Be-A-Spoon Capital of the World. I can’t even tell you how excited I am by this.
But as you know, I’m not an archaeologist. I’m not even really a historian, although I can do a good impression when called upon. I study books and I teach languages. Perhaps that’s why I don’t really feel a driving need to find out what this artefact really is. Like Scuttle, I’d be happy to call it a dinglehopper and invent my own creative explanation.
What I do want to know is whether my town has historically been associated with ducks. Today people from South Shields are called Sandancers: but perhaps we were called something different 2,000 years ago. Was the town known locally as Duck Town? Did my ancestors manufacture the Iron Age equivalent of tea-towels and coasters, to cash in on the reputation of Duck Town? I have a nasty feeling I might be descended from the Brigantean version of Del Boy, standing by a market stall shouting, ‘Buy your Duck Town gifts here! Joke spoons – laugh as your guests pour soup down their togas!’
Or – worse – were we the Duck Worshipers, with our ritual libation-stirring holey duck spoons? Were we the only people whose god wasn’t absorbed by the Roman Empire and matched with a Roman god – like Sulis Minerva or Mars Thingsus – because our god was just too silly for the Roman pantheon?
That’s why I try to avoid archaeology and material culture: I always end up stuck with these big existential questions. I’m off back to my books now, where I’m safe…
This week’s links from the Classical Internet
Shipwreck will be open to visitors – Greek Reporter
Discovering Tenea – BBC Travel
Redrawing the Roman Empire map – The Guardian
Identifying make-up applicators – The Telegraph
Gruesome discovery in Devon – Devon Live
Comment and opinion
Women in Republican Rome – Phys.org
Locusta the assassin – Ancient Herstories
Untranslatable words – Idle Musings
European classical DVDs – Steven Saylor
Scanning Plautus – In Medias Res
The bizarre death of Pyrrhus – The Historian’s Hut
Classics and The Lion King – Society for Classical Studies
Wall inscriptions – Per Lineam Valli
Inscriptions of Segesta – Current Epigraphy
All about Ennius – Latinitium
NASA, Nazis and Latin – Eidolon
Podcasts, video and other media
Learning from animal bones – The Dirt Podcast
The surprising Sabines – The Partial Historians
Lysistrata – Overdue
Comics and Classics – Coffee and Circuses
History for people who don’t like History – You’re Dead To Me
Get involved in a dig in York – The York Press