Wednesday 9 March 2016

Ancient Roman Doorporn

by Caroline Lawrence
Captain Stephen (right)
As I write a new series of historical novels for kids set in Roman Britain, I am lucky enough to have three expert readers. The first one is a published scholar who works for English Heritage. I’ll call her Ms. English Heritage. The second is a retired professor of Latin. I’ve never met him but he enthusiastically offered to help make my writing more accurate and I gratefully accepted. I’ll call him Professor Chips because he reminds me of the iconic Mr. Chips, but at university level. The third one is an enthusiastic re-enactor who inhabits many different periods, dressing as everything from of a Roman Legion commander to World War One Flying Ace to the Captain of a USS Starship from the TV show Star Trek. I’ll call him Captain Stephen.

All three of these experts have been giving me valuable feedback.

Some of their comments I have to ignore because I'm writing for ten-year-olds.

Ms. English Heritage did not like my use of a mynah bird saying ‘Ave, Domitian,’ because Domitian was not in the vocative case. 

Professor Chips wanted me to call my main character Iuba rather than Juba. 

Captain Steve didn’t like my use of thumbs-up to mean ‘good’.

But mostly their advice is just what I want.

For example, crests on the helmets of the Praetorian Guards were white not red, Captain Stephen informed me. 

The massive basilica in Londinium was still under construction in AD 94, according to Ms. English Heritage.
roll-down shutters in modern Naples
Romans did not have roll-down shutters on their shops like the ones we see in modern Italy, stated Professor Chips.

‘What? Never?’ I say over the phone to Professor Chips one Sunday morning. (He has called me, not the other way round. He’s that keen to help!) ‘Maybe we’ve just never found them,' I suggest. 'I’ve seen lots of roll-down shutters in modern Naples.’

‘No evidence whatsoever,’ he states firmly in his best school master tone of voice.
another roll-down shutter from modern Naples
Stubbornly, I keep my roll-down shutter scene until the final proof pages stage. Then I have a minor panic. What if Professor Chips is right?

I decide to ask Dr. Sophie Hay, a Roman archaeologist who has spent the past ten years in Rome and Pompeii. Sophie gets excited about ancient roads and walls and often discusses these topics using the hashtag #roadporn or #wallporn.

Any evidence of roll-down slat shop-door shutters at Pompeii? I tweet. Like the ones we find in Italy today?

Sophie Hay: Roll down? No, but roll across, yes!

Perdita chips in: There are some in the Trajan markets so it would be surprising if not at Pompeii/ Herculaneum.

Prof Christensen asks: But where does the door roll up into?

Perdita guesses: Long since gone but into space above opening?

Steven Ellis joins the conversation: No, sills above mirror thresholds below. Shuttered.
famous plaster cast of shuttered doors from Pompeii

I tweet the famous photo of a plaster cast of shop shutters from Pompeii.
Me: Did Romans pull door shutters across or were they concertinaed?

I get a flurry of responses from three Roman Door Experts including the aforementioned Steven Ellis.
modern roll-down shutters by Dr M. Taylor Lauritsen
Dr. M. Taylor Lauritsen contacts me via email. ‘If you are referring to the variety of shutters that are pulled down from the lintel,’ he writes, ‘then the answer is a definite no. There are a handful of examples of sliding slatted screens, but these moved in the horizontal rather than vertical direction. Almost all shop doors would have been of the standardised design that we find throughout the towns of central Italy, with which I suspect you are already familiar.’

Dr. Sera Baker tells me that wide shop doorways were shuttered and that the word for wooden plank, tabula, might be why shops were called tabernae! She says the shutters may have been put in position individually as a series of panels, rather than fixed to one another. Each panel might have had a ring through which a bar was passed and then locked. Sera also mentions a small ‘night door’ that could give access to the shop when the shutters were bolted. This is exciting.

Pes dexter, an article by Steve Ellis, informs me that this ‘night door’ was often on the right, to encourage Romans to step over the threshold with their right foot. Even more exciting: I am obsessed with thresholds and the superstitions around them!
model of Roman London (Londinium)
But I still can’t visualise how the shutters were locked. In my book, a rich Roman boy has been robbed and beaten and left in a tannery on the docks of Londinium. A girl is trying to rescue him and needs to get in and out of the warehouse door, which has been left unlocked.

Then Dr. Evan Proudfoot comes to the rescue. He’s not on Twitter but one of my tweep friends messaged me his contact details.  

‘The secret to the plaster cast,’ Dr. Proudfoot writes, ‘is that it's actually a (heavily restored) negative impression, and that's why we don't see any locking mechanism on it.  As far as I can tell, the iron shutter bars were normally attached to rings on the outside (external) face, so that they could be locked and unlocked without someone having to stay behind in the shop.’

At last I understand how Roman shutters worked!

I quickly tweak the three relevant paragraphs in the proof pages, and get them into my long-suffering editor just in time.

Some people find Twitter a haunt of trolls and narcissists, but to a detail-obsessed historical author like myself, it is a godsend. Within 48 hours of posting my tweet about roll-down shutters I was in touch with no fewer than four Roman door experts and had the answer to my question. Plus it was huge fun. 

I sincerely thank all the hugely generous scholars and Classicists who helped me figure out a tiny but important detail of Ancient Rome: how Roman shutters worked. Long live Ancient Roman #Doorporn!

Escape from Rome, the first in Caroline Lawrence’s new Roman Quests series for kids, is out on 5 May 2016. It is dedicated to the real Ms. English Heritage, Professor Chips and Captain Stephen.


Sue Purkiss said...

Crikey! Doing the research for a historical novel is like detective work, isn't it? What fun!

Sue Bursztynski said...

Wow, you have quite a Twitter list! I enjoy my Twitter account and get a lot of interesting and useful info from links from various posts, but this is amazing. I must look up these folk and follow them myself.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

I recognise so much of this since it's my own way of working - with re-enactors and historians on board - am a re-enactor myself. I had a similar scenario for finding out about 11th century coffins that I only needed for one line in a novel! It's great to be able to find out this sort of material and we're so fortunate that it's now available almost at our fingertips and via the kindness and enthusiasm of others.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Yes, Elizabeth, et al, one can spend a day or more researching a paragraph, a line, even a single WORD! But we secretly love it, don't we?