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 Andrew Parkin
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
I guess it has to be the bathing Venus relief from the Roman fort at High Rochester in Northumberland.
When did you first come across this source?
I first encountered this relief when I was an undergraduate studying Ancient History and Archaeology at Newcastle University. It was in the Museum of Antiquities on the University campus which, at the time, housed the collections of the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne. It is now in the Great North Museum and forms a part of the archaeology collections I am responsible for.
Can you tell me a bit about this relief and its context?
The relief comes from the Roman fort at High Rochester (Bremenium) which was one of the outposts of Hadrian’s Wall. For much of its history it was one of the most northerly garrisoned places in the Roman Empire. The relief, dating to the 3rd Century AD, represents Venus and two attendant nymphs. Venus is in the process of bathing and one nymph holds a towel while the other has a water jug. Behind Venus there is a pot turned sideways with a stream of water flowing from it. Bathing Venus or Aphrodite statues are a common in Classical art and this particular relief appears to be loosely based on the 3rd Century BC Crouching Aphrodite of Doidalsas of Bithynia.
What is it about this source that appeals to you most?
Perhaps the thing I find most appealing about this sculpture is the way it merges two worlds. The subject matter definitely comes from the Classical Mediterranean world, but the execution owes a great deal to a more indigenous ‘British’ artistic tradition. The figures are not idealised in the Classical manner. Venus, for example, has an elongated neck, pear shaped body and her hair hangs down in two lifeless bands. Her bodily proportions are distorted, and her stance is almost anatomically impossible. Nevertheless, there is a liveliness to this relief that I really respond to and I like to speculate on what Venus and the nymphs are saying to each other.
I also have more personal reasons for liking this relief. I did some fieldwork at High Rochester in the early 1990’s and it was one of the coldest experiences of my life. The thought of anyone wanting to indulge in outdoor bathing there totally bewilders me. I like to think that the glum expression on Venus’s face is because she is bathing in an inhospitable northern outpost of Empire rather than the Mediterranean of her birth.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
I have been enjoying playing my guitar and catching up on some reading. Currently I am engrossed in Rob Young’s Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music. I also appreciate spending time with my family and cats.
Andrew Parkin is Keeper of Archaeology at the Great North Museum in Newcastle upon Tyne. His background is in archaeology and museum education with over 25 years’ experience of working with archaeology collections. He has also been employed as a lecturer and secondary school teacher, focusing on ancient history, history and archaeology. He has published on a number of artefacts from the Shefton Collection in the GNM and is co-editor of On the Fascination of Objects: Greek Art in the Shefton Collection (2016). He developed the current Shefton Gallery of Greek and Etruscan Archaeology in the Great North Museum and has extensive experience of curating temporary exhibitions, including acting as exhibition lead for Lindow Man: Body of Evidence (2009) and The Extraordinary Gertrude Bell (2016).
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.