28 April 2018

Holding Out For A #Heroine

"That hurts"
I write novels about ordinary people; ordinary people thrust into extraordinary situations leaving them fearing they can’t cope, but they do anyway because the alternative is too unpalatable to contemplate.

I don’t write about gung-ho macho men who can make world-changing decisions in an instant; I certainly don’t write about kick-ass women with a mouth full of sharp one-liners.

Who are these kick-ass women, anyway? Where are they from? They’re usually in the 18-25 age bracket. We’re talking millennials here, the snowflake generation who require universities to have “safe spaces” and who whine about gender inequality.

I’ve news. They’ve never had it so good. They should have been my contemporaries in the so-called “swinging” sixties. Heck, we both should have been around in the run up to World War One: poor food, looooong hours, no labour-saving devices, and the forbidding local workhouse standing as the only form of Welfare State on offer. Neither of us would have lasted five minutes.

Yet our female ancestors did, and they still found the time to lay the foundation of, alas, the whining society we have become. No wonder Historical Sagas, particularly those set in the beginning of the 20th century, continue to be read so widely. Forget Downton Abbey. Ordinary women in extraordinary situations determined to make a difference.

Those people still exist. Think of those who run foodbanks and soup kitchens, sit calmly on the end of Samaritan telephone lines, volunteers who help feed the incapacitated on our hospital wards – each has a story to tell but often merely offers a self-effacing smile.

The London Marathon event has just passed. So far over £45m has been raised on just the two major fund-raising platforms. One runner gave his life, thinking more about others than himself.

Following the 2017 London marathon, in total £65m was raised by individual runners for charitable causes big and small, international and close to home. Ordinary people in extraordinary situations who felt they had to do something because the alternative was too unpalatable to contemplate.

Who wants to write about gung-ho macho men and women with a mouth full of smart-ass one-liners? Give me a #heroine every time. They are the ones with the stories worth telling.

22 April 2018

Research: Strong Men, Food Animals and Terracotta Warriors

Fiction writers have a tendency to spend long hours creating, often to the detriment of replenishing their creative well. I particularly enjoy going off-topic. It gives pause for a little perspective on the work-in-progress and I never know what interesting snippets of info might spark an idea.

The reason I was in Chester to view its Roman artefacts (see posts one and two) was to visit nearby Liverpool to take in an exhibition at the city’s World Museum: “China’s First Emperor and the Terracotta Warriors”.

Terracotta general
Facsimile showing original colouring
Back in the mists of time, or 475-221 BC, the seven major states/kingdoms of China participated in hostilities on such a scale that the period is known as the Warring States Era. Born into one of these, the Qin state, was Zhao Zheng who, at thirteen years of age, ascended to its throne. Twenty-five years and many battles later, he was announced as Qin Shi Huang – First Emperor of Qin – and of a united China which he set about extending.

His reign oversaw bureaucratic standardisation on a massive scale: currency, weights & measures, the Chinese script to aid written communication, axle lengths to aid the transport system;  new roads and canals were built, and various western boundaries were amalgamated into what is now known as the Great Wall of China.
Modern replica of excavated half-size chariot to accompany the Emperor

He also looked to the future, and like many who come to believe their own hype, was determined to either discover the elixir of life and thus live and rule forever or, as the next best thing, set himself up for resurrection in similar style. The elixir seemed to involve jade and mercury, which probably helped end his life aged 49. As to his resurrection, there were texts written after his death, rumours about the siting of his tomb, broken terracotta artefacts dismissed as being from close generations. Then in 1974, farmers digging a well… So began proper archaeological excavations, the uncovering of the first Terracotta Warriors and a reassessing of archaeological expectations.

In the same way the circles of raised stones at Britain’s Stonehenge is only a small part of its ritual landscape, so the located tomb of Qin Shi Huang is only a small part (about the size of a football pitch) of the necropolis designed to continue his luxurious life after death, believed to cover 38 square miles.

Detail of bronze cauldron (212kg) used by strongmen in acrobatic feats

Stable boy
As well as the army of over 8,000, plus chariots and cavalry, there is stabling and stable boys – all in terracotta, most life-size. There are bureaucrats, service workers, musicians, acrobats and strongmen, animals intended to feed them all, and animals for pleasure gardens, all in beautifully crafted and painted terracotta.

Alas, as soon as excavations began, problems arose. Within minutes of being exposed to the air, painted surfaces began to curl and flake, which is why the artefacts are plain, or bear only faint glimpses of original bright colours.

However, it has also stayed the hand of over-exuberant archaeologists for fear of destroying as much as is revealed. The tomb of Qin Shi Huang remains intact, though probes have revealed chemical readings for mercury off the scale. Perhaps later written texts were not so far from the mark.
A selection of animals for the pot

The exhibition in Liverpool displays eight excavated warriors, two replica half-size chariots  in bronze (the originals inlaid with silver), and 160 other artefacts, which I found the most fascinating. Who would have thought such a big thing would have been made of heating wine? Or the fine detail of a bronze cauldron weighing 212kg (467lbs) used by strongmen in an acrobatic performance? Or that one man’s megalomania would provide such insight into the craftsmanship and organisational skills of ordinary people 200+ years before our own current calendar began?

This is the sort of stuff writers get out from off-topic research. It certainly replenishes the creative well.

The exhibition “China’s First Emperor and the Terracotta Warriors” continues at the World Museum, Liverpool, until 28 October 2018. The museum’s own collections are well worth a visit, too, as are all the museums and galleries close by.

Click images to resize.

All images are the author’s own, (c) Linda Acaster.

14 April 2018

Research : Roman Amphitheatre at #Chester

Model 1:75 size amphitheatre of Deva Victrix
In the second of my posts on Roman Chester, I focus on its amphitheatre, found within sight of the fortress' south-east corner tower (set in the green area to the mid left of the amphitheatre aerial view), one of twenty-two towers in its fortress wall.

Amphitheatres were one of the go-to entertainment venues of Roman life, and life in Roman Britain was no exception. There would have been an amphitheatre at every major population centre, particularly close to a legionary fortress which might hold a contingent of 5,000 men, plus the population of the civilian settlement outside its walls.
Deva Victrix ampthitheatre aerial view (Open Government Licence v1.0)

Few amphitheatres are known in Britain, never mind survive, simply because Roman fortress builders did their job too well. The legions might have left British shores in the 5th century, but those fortress walls made good defences for later Saxon and Viking strongholds, and the townships that followed way into the Norman medieval period, and beyond to the English Civil War in the 17th century. 
As these population centres expanded, so areas outside the walls were flattened and the old stonework re-used. The amphitheatre at Caerleon (Isca Silurum) in South Wales survives as grass and stone humps because Caerleon did not expand beyond large-village size.
View across the arena floor
View from the seating area
However, Chester (Deva Victrix) had been chosen for a fortress site because it lay on the navigable River Dee, a position that continued to play a pivotal role in the city’s expansion beyond the Industrial Revolution of the 18-19th centuries.
Not until 1929, when excavating workmen discovered a curved stone wall, did archaeologists move in hoping to find its amphitheatre. Even then, it was another 80 years before full excavations took place.

Due to listed buildings on the site, a little less than half the arena area could be uncovered. 
Even without the recent trompe l’oeil mural along the cut-off wall to help the illusion, to stand within the now gravelled arena space and look towards the low-level walls prompts a shiver of intimidation. 
When it was in use, the outer wall would have stood 12m/40ft high carrying seating on two raked decks for 7-8,000 spectators overlooking the ellipse-shaped arena below measuring 98m/320ft by 87m/286ft.  
Impressive isn’t the word.

To view other amphitheatres in Britain click HERE
Visit my post on Chester's Roman grave plaques HERE

All images other than that stated (c) Linda Acaster

9 April 2018

Research: Roman Tombstones in Chester

Part of the "Rows", buildings with elevated walkways
Having never visited Chester, I’ve now been twice within six months. The city is renown for its medieval Rows, elevated walkways of merchants’ living and business premises dating from the early 1300s and often displaying parts of the original beams and wattle and daub internal construction. Still used as shops and eateries, these stand on the line of the thoroughfares which once led through the Roman fortress Deva Victrix

As in York, Eboracum, the fortress walls still stand, somewhat repaired over the centuries to maintain their defensive properties. They now keep a tight rectangular grip on the heart of the city, their lengths a testimony to the might and organisational skills of Rome in the 1st Century AD. 

It’s well over a year since The Bull At The Gate, Book 2 of the Torc of Moonlight trilogy launched, but once bitten by a period’s research it doesn’t easily relinquish its hold.

On this occasion I’d come especially to visit the Grosvenor Museum, a splendidly ornate Victorian edifice built in 1885-6 to house the burgeoning collections of the Chester Archaeological Society, among others. I knew it had a “Stone Room” containing tombstones, or grave plaques, from the Roman period. I hadn’t been prepared for the number, nor for their state of preservation, though taking photographs in the low light of museums isn't always easy. Click the images to gain a larger view.

Sextus, son of Sextus

The repaired stone on the right commemorates Sextus, son of Sextus, possibly from a cavalry squadron attached to Legio XX, and shows him on horseback with a boy on foot carrying weapons. 

Above the picture is a triptych of his portrait flanked by lions about to bite caught rams. According to the museum's information board, lions were used to symbolise the sudden attack of stalking death.

Marcus and wife
Not all plaques were tooled with such artistry, nor were they all completed. This plaque is for a centurion, Marcus Aurelius Nepos, and his wife. 

He carries a vine staff in his right hand as a symbol of his rank, but he is shown bearded and wearing civilian clothing, so he'd probably retired from service.

His wife is shown much smaller as a sign of deference to him. She is wearing a mantle, carrying a cup, and lifting the hem of her overdress to show a skirt beneath - perhaps pointing to their relative wealth. However, there is no inscription for her, and that dedicated to her husband is cramped beneath his feet. Did funds run out? Did Marcus organise the carving of their dual commemoration while still alive and another hand part finished the job?

The museum uses this plaque in an interesting recording to give voice to the unnamed wife, and convey a sense of the time. 

Caecilius Avitus of Emerita Augusta
Of course, we need to be reminded that Roman tombstones, or funerary plaques, were not raised bare. Earlier peoples believed in colour, and the Roman civilization was no exception.

Meet Caecilius Avitus, his plaque as it was unearthed, and the museum's replica as it would, or might, have looked. With its abbreviations completed, the inscription reads:

"To the spirits of the departed Caecilius Avitus of Emerita Augusta, an optio of the Twentieth Legion Valeria Victrix. Served 15 years lived 34 years. His heir had this stone made."

Emerita Augusta is now Merida in south-west Spain. Caecilius Avitus may not have had a long life, but his commemoration doubtless lives far beyond his imaginings.

Needless to say, the Grosvenor Museum in Chester, is well worth a visit. It runs its entry on a donation basis.

All images are copyright to Linda Acaster.

See also: my post on Chester's unearthed Amphitheatre