The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Susan Raikes
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
Having worked in museum education all my career, the answer to this question has to be an object, but which one out of so many wonderful, fascinating, beautiful things that I have had the privilege to work with? Could be any of about 20, but, of all the fancy and famous things it could be, I am going to go for a sock! A woolly, stripy child’s sock from Roman Egypt, radio-carbon dated from 3rd or 4th century. You can see it here: and it’s definitely worth spending some time taking a really good look.
The formal object description tells us it is a sock for the left foot of a child with separation between the big toe and four other toes worked in 6 or 7 colours of wool in a single needle looping technique sometimes called naalebinding and worked from the toe upwards. If you’re really into knitting then there are lots more lines on how the stripes are achieved!
When did you first come across this object?
I was lucky enough to be the first person ever to put this lovely object on public display. Until a couple of years ago I worked at the British Museum, leading the learning teams and also the museum’s activity across the UK. Thanks to my exceptionally talented and patient colleagues, in my ‘spare’ time I curated an exhibition called Roman Empire: Power and People which toured the UK. I was very keen to get my love of the ordinary object into the show and the sock was just being researched and cleaned and conserved at the right time for the people of Norwich, Coventry, Wallsend, Bristol and Dundee to see it up close. It later also starred in the wonderful Faith after the Pharaohs exhibition at the BM in London.
Can you tell me a bit about the sock and its context?
The sock comes from Antinoupolis, close to modern Sheikh Ibada, at the east bank of the river Nile. Antinoupolis (I use the spelling that the British Museum does, although there are many others and you may have other preferences) was founded by the Emperor Hadrian in AD130 in honour of the loss of his lover (something else you can argue about if you want to!) Antinous who drowned in the Nile.
From 1913 to 1914 the Egypt Exploration Fund, led by John de Monins Johnson (1882-1956) excavated in the rubbish heaps along the ancient city wall of the town with the primary purpose of finding papyri, but also found leatherwork and textiles, including our sock.
What is it about this sock that appeals to you most?
I mentioned the fancy knitting techniques employed in the making of this object already, but it’s not the knitting that makes me return to this object again and again. It’s the combined sense of the ordinary, everyday thing that we all still have and still recognise instantly, and the wonder of the fact that such a thing has survived the centuries and is as colourful and comforting as it was when it was first knitted (or naalebinded? naalebound? answers on a postcard please!).
So often it is easy to forget, as we fall in love with their art, or poetry, or military tactics, or whatever floats your personal classics boat, that the people of the ancient world are the same people as we are – with hopes and fears and mundane daily tasks to do and… cold feet. Pair this sock (excuse the pun) with the Vindolanda tablets in which soldiers are receiving socks and underpants to keep them warm on Hadrian’s Wall (you can see one here) and you start to get a human connection with real people, just like us. To my mind at least, objects do this more strongly than texts. And it’s that human connection that gives me comfort as well as wonder and joy.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
Being outside with my dogs, Stanley and Mabel (my husband vetoed Alcibiades and Aspasia as too embarrassing to call out in the park!), always cheers me up and I love reading pretty much all historical fiction. I am currently re-reading all of Lindsay Davies’ books – Marcus Didius Falco can always make me smile no matter what’s going on in the outside world.
Susan Raikes is Director of Learning at the Science Museum Group and is passionate about the power of museums to intrigue and inspire and their unique position in providing creative learning environments.
Previously, Susan spent 10 years at the British Museum, with responsibility for all education programming and national partnership work. She also curated two touring BM exhibitions: Roman Empire: Power and People for the UK and Rome: City and Empire for an international tour and wrote accompanying books and catalogues. Prior to that, Susan worked in museum education roles for Tyne & Wear Museums and the Sussex Archaeological Society.
You can find her on Twitter @sraikes.
Catch up with all the other Comfort Classics interviews here.