Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Writing Londinium with the Seven Senses

Trying a garland made by Patty Baker (Kent)
by Caroline Lawrence

[This is a shortened and edited amalgam of two papers I gave in early-October 2018, one for the University of Kent and one for a conference called Sensory Experience in Rome's Northern Provinces hosted by the Roman Society at Senate House in London. Go to #SERNP2018 to see lots more about this]

Archaeologist Lindsay Allason-Jones, a visiting fellow at Newcastle University recently said, ‘It wasn’t until I wrote a book from the point of view of a Romano-British woman that I started to think about things like where did she keep her house key?’  


This is what I have discovered. As I write characters who have adventures in the ancient world, I have to imagine them moving through space with the sights, sounds, smells, and all other sensory experiences in order make it seem real to my young readers. This is especially important for children who need to be grounded in a sensory world. 

Here is how I used the seven senses to portray Roman Britain in my most recent series of books for kids, the Roman Quests, and also in my new work-in-progress The Girl with the Ivory Knife, in which a 12-year-old London schoolboy travels back in time to 3rd century Londinium (Roman London). 

SIGHT is the first of the five senses. For my Roman Quests I wanted to get an overview of what Roman London would have looked like. 
Model of London's port at Museum of London Barbican 
• Ruins aren’t so helpful to me… I need more
• Museums are useful, with their statues, inscriptions and artefacts. The Museum of London and its archaeology department MOLA gave me tons of material. 
• Models are very special. Storytellers know the power of the miniature.  
• Interactive maps like the one produced by MOLA are super.
superb Bath Roman Baths
• 3D computer walk-throughs on YouTube are too clean but often introduce light effects. 
• Google maps and Google Earth help me get a birds’ eye view of the terrain or walk along a road from Chester to Leicester, for example. 
• Alan Sorrell’s marvellous paintings and drawings. See my blog about him HERE
• Visiting sites like Butser Ancient Farm, Bath Roman Baths & Fishbourne provide 3D spatial and sensory experiences especially when they are peopled by re-enactors. 
Hard to Be a God (2013)
• Re-enactment events provide an abundance of unexpected revelations especially when they are performed by those who are passionate about getting details right. I particularly admire the members of Britannia, the Ermine Street Guard and Leg II Augusta. 
• Watching movies. For my book set in Roman London, a place you would NOT want to visit, I watched Hard to Be a God (2013), like Fellini Satyricon only with more mud, excrement and chickens. 
• Film sets can give you inspiration, too. 

London’s Mithraeum hadn’t reopened when I was writing the Roman Quests and besides, those books are set in the late first century. But I could use the Mithraeum for my new work in progress about the boy travelling back in time.

For my Time Travel book, I tried to think of things we don’t see today that would have been commonplace then. 
• A sky full of stars
• Crucified man on a cross
• People in rags and barefoot
• Indoor darkness – a world with no electricity
• Someone carrying a torch, a very symbolic object
• Someone with a staff (Main purpose? To beat off dogs!)
• The different stages of animal sacrifice
• A mind-boggling array of diseases & deformities
• Especially eye infections, skin disorders and toothache

For the first time I could relate ancient objects to modern ones. E.g.
• A tunic could be described as a big T-shirt and a toga as a blanket
• Mithras’ Persian cap is like a Smurf hat
• A Mithraeum initiation could be described as a flight simulator 
• And the seven grades as ascending levels of a video game...


Sophie Jackson on what smells to put in the Mithraeum
SMELL is one of the most evocative senses, and one of the hardest to convey in words. Giacomo Savani, one of the organisers of the conference, started with a quote from Rosemary Sutcliffe in which she speaks of the blue reek of wood-smoke. Evidence hints that my time travelling boy Alex might have  smelled burning pine cones in Londons Mithraeum, which he will use as the site of a portable portal to third century Londinium. However, Sophie Jackson (above), one of the key archaeologists involved in recreating the Mithraeum Experience, said the smell of men, cooked chicken and damp might have drowned out any pine freshness! 

A Saturnalia dinner with Stephen Cockings
Other scents from Roman London:

• To Alex, a girl smells like apple pie (clove oil for her aching teeth) and church (frankincense perfume)
• Someone’s breath smells of garlic
• Alex gets headache from breathing oil lamp smoke 
• He also smells the peaty smell of outdoor braziers
• And the roast pork smell of body being cremated 
• With an undercurrent of incense burned against demons


Smelly and Tasteable things
TASTE is one of the easiest of the senses to tap into.
• Posca, water with a splash of vinegar, was often drunk by soldiers.
• I make mine with red wine vinegar but you could use white, too.
(Adding even a little wine or vinegar to water kills bacteria. The Romans didn’t know about bacteria, germs or viruses but somehow they knew adding vinegar to water was good.)
• Honey was a hot food, prescribed for those of a phlegmatic humour. 
• Olives, especially the little bitter black ones are ‘a taste as old as cold water…’ (Lawrence Durrell in Prospero’s Cell)
ELMA mastic gum from Chios
• How did they serve a hot sausage in Roman London? Probably with a cabbage leaf wrapper. A clever idea I got from a fast food stall at a Reenactment event.
• Mastic gum. One of the sniffable objects at the Museum of London’s Roman Dead exhibition (on until 28 October) is something called mastic. I first discovered mastic while reading the first century AD epigrams of Martial. He talks about a man who picks his teeth with a mastic toothpick. But it was mainly used as gum to be chewed to freshen the breath. In fact, we get the word ‘masticate’ from mastic. Read more HERE.

SOUND is harder to replicate than taste in my opinion, especially music. Armand DAngour has been doing fun experiments into ancient Greek music and I often listen to Indian music to try to get an idea of how exotic Roman music might have sounded. We do know about other sounds, such as: 
interactive sound at Museum of London Docklands
• The crowing of a rooster or cluck of chickens in the street
• Dogs barking in the night 
• The wailing of bereaved, more common and more audible then? 
• The shouts of peddlers, bread sellers, a rag-and-bone woman...
• Tepidarium echoes with the sound of slaps and grunts of masseuse
• Blacksmiths hammering
• Door hinges squeaking
• Bells and rattles to frighten off demons and cover unholy sounds

TOUCH can be experienced not just with fingertips and lips, but also with our bare feet. Here are just a few a time traveller might have encountered in Londinium. 

interactive touch at Museum of London Docklands
• Wet grass against bare legs in a tunic
• Bare Feet on a muddy, gravel-studded road
• Or on a mosaic floor or on London brick
• Glutinous mud of the south bank foreshore
• Warmth of a kiln and hard-baked earth around it
• A piglet snuffling at someone’s armpit
• Itchy mosquito bites on bare legs
• Stepping in squishy, still-warm manure
• loom-woven linen & woollen belt pouch
Carbantinae (one-piece leather shoes) rub top of feet
(The Roman Dead also has a display where you can touch a replica hobnail boot, top and bottom.)

KINESTHETIC means the awareness of the position and movement of the body. Many of the objects I’ve been talking about are interactive. You have to engage with them in a kinesthetic way. 
Richard and Caroline Lawrence in Nimes
• Wearing the clothes including hobnail shoes on the cobbled streets of a Roman town like Nimes.
• Playing with an oil-lamp or a pigskin lamp
• A Saturnalia Dinner
• Leather bikini bottoms as worn by girl acrobats
• NO Bogus Roman Handshake
• NOT using a sponge stick
• Trying out a wax-tablet
• Using a strigil and oil


Tom, Giacomo and Patty try out a strigil and scented oil
At the Sensory Archaeology Conference, co-presenter Tom Derrick brought homemade oil-based Roman perfume. To demonstrate the difference of smell in the bottle and on the skin he borrowed my replica strigil to let people rub his scented olive-oil on their arms and then scrape it off. One conference member, Mr. Colin Gough, observed, One thing that surprised me was the amount of oil left after a good strigiling (is that even a word?). Unless the Romans were a lot better at it there must’ve been a lot of sticky people leaving the baths plus the oil slick on the water! 

THE SIXTH SENSE is the final sense I want to think about. 


A double flame lamp at a Saturnalia dinner
Have you ever meditated about your site, your text, your historical character, your artefacts, your bones? By meditation I mean a contemplation of your world, characters, etc using your non-verbal visual imagination. It's like a virtual reality game but with added sounds, smells and things you would feel? If you meditate, try it. If you find meditation hard, try writing a fictional piece about your subject. Maybe not the main subject but something peripheral. Someone or something on the edges of your topic. You can even do a poem or haiku. 

At the moment I’m involved in a marvellous project based around the archaeology of the House of Amarantus in Pompeii. I had the idea to write a scene from the point of view of a sixteen-year-old slave girl who has recently arrived in Pompeii from Britannia. She sleeps on a mat in the doorway of her mistress’s bedroom. My idea of showing not telling the kids about the layout of the house is that she wakes up one night in pitch black and has to grope her way to the loo. 

So close your eyes for a moment and imagine waking up in the peristyle walkway of a fairly posh Roman house. Think of five different things your fingers might encounter as you push yourself to your feet and start to grope your way along the corridor. Think of five different things you might hear. Think of five different things you might smell. Where do you have to avoid evil spirits in the house? Think of five different ways your body is reacting to this night-time grope. 


Whether we are scholars, writers, historians, teachers or all of the above, let us study the past not just with our heads but with our hearts and with all the senses.

My Roman Quests are perfect for kids studying the topic of Romans in Key Stage 2. My first time travel book, The Girl with the Ivory Knife, is out early April 2019. It is based on real bones and sites from Roman London. 

2 comments:

Donna S said...

What an absolutely fascinating post! I read historical novels all the time and have never really thought about this. The authors describe scenes and objects you would see, hear and perhaps smell but not go into much else as far as sensory goes.
Thank you so very much!Donna

Caroline Lawrence said...

Thank you, Donna!