Tuesday 9 August 2016

Leeches, Lepers & Anal Surgery by Caroline Lawrence

You wait for ages for an exhibition on Ancient Medicine and then two come along at once, both in Chester, no less. It started when I decided to make a flash visit to Chester, AKA Roman Deva, site of some scenes in Death in the Arena, the latest in my Roman Quests series of books for kids set in Roman Britain.  

I tweeted about my planned day trip and a Chester historian named Emma Stringfellow tweeted back, offering to be my guide for the day so that she could show me her town. Why such generosity towards an author she has never met? Because Emma loves history, archaeology and Chester. She even coaxed the usually manically busy Dean Paton into giving up a few hours of his precious Saturday morning to show me In Good Humour, a Roman medicine exhibition mounted by his organisation Big Heritage, as well as his exhibition of Medieval Medicine called Sick to Death

Emma was waiting for me bright and early at Chester Rail staton at 8.45 on Saturday 23 July 2016. We walked into town, and she helped me find my bearings, pointing out Wales to the west and the road towards Northwich that my characters would be taking on their road trip. On my request we stopped at the partially-excavated amphitheatre with its modern mural and replica of an ancient tethering block for criminals or beasts. 

As we walked on, Emma gave me an idea of the layout of the town and the three-dimensionality, something you can only get from being there. She showed me the (modern) Roman garden and took me up onto the ramparts of the Saxon Wall. Chester, known as Deva in Roman times, boasted one of the three big legionary fortresses in Roman Britain. Built on a sandstone plateau, the fortress and area behind the amphitheatre would have overlooked the river Dee, which Emma said was carved out by glacial ice-melt. I was impressed by her knowledge of Chester. 

After a walk along the ramparts to get a feel for the shape of the fortress – the city streets still reflect its basic layout – we met Dean Paton at the Watergate Deli. He generously bought me tea and a croissant and told me about himself. Dean is the director of a company called Big Heritage which gets grants from organisations like the Wellcome Institute to put on historical and educational exhibits.  A man after my own heart, he wants to get families interested in history and does this by making exhibitions that are informative and fun.

Refreshed and briefed, I followed them to the Grosvenor Museum for its permanent Roman exhibition including one of the biggest collection of Roman tombstones, all recovered by the Victorians while repairing a later Medieval wall. One tombstone of a centurion Marcus Aurelius Nepos, was erected by his wife, but her own epitaph is missing. Its a mystery! 

Big Heritage’s Roman medicine exhibition – In Good Humour – strongly references the four humours, the most important aspect of Graeco-Roman Medicine and one that is ignored by almost all authors of historical fiction. I love that the introduction to the exhibit shows the four humours (Latin for ‘liquids’) that each manifest qualities of the four elements. The coloured tubes represent red blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm (mucus). 

The ancients believed that everyone had one (or two) dominant elements and that these determined a persons temperament. E.g. Someone with too much yellow bile is ‘choleric’ HOT & DRY. They might be hot tempered but decisive and often need cooling foods and environments. A doctor aimed to help his patients find a balance of the humours. At the simplest level you could treat a fever by prescribing cool cucumber and cure a cold with hot peppers. 

I have blogged elsewhere about the humours and cupping and I’ve even posted a test for kids – Which Temperament Are You – so I was thrilled to see not only a mention of cupping vessels, but some live leeches. Dean put his hand on a wire grill above a tank of water and within moments skinny black leeches sensed the heat and began to curl up to the surface in the hopes of gorging on warm, sweet blood. They offered an alternative to wet cupping which involved cutting the arm (in the crook of the elbow) or hand (between the fingers) and letting blood flow into the cup. 

The exhibition boasts some marvellous skeletons showing examples of Schmorl’s node. This is a growth on the spine of someone who has been working too hard, probably – but not necessarily – a slave. More bones offered clues: a badly broken leg, an amputated arm bone and a skull with a hole in it from trepanning, some of which showed signs of healing and therefore indicated that the patients survived.  

There was a wooden toilet seat (Oh joy!) which reminded me that another method of balancing the humours was the clyster (enema). This might possibly be the oldest Roman loo seat from Britannia. Dean and I posed on replica toilets nearby. Just the sort of thing to grab the interest of a child. Some other notable items in the exhibition were amulets to keep away evil, various herbs to be smelled and a fine inscription in Greek by a doctor from Asia Minor to Asclepius, the god of healing.

Emma and Dean then took me along the ramparts of the upper walls to Big Heritage’s second exhibition on ancient medicine. Still in preparation the day I went, Sick to Death is now open. As you enter the spooky 14th century Water Tower, you pass the lifelike model of a medieval dysentery sufferer sitting on the loo and suffering a bad case of ‘the runs. Just the sort of thing to delight children and make their parents go Ewww! 

But what’s inside is even more gruesome: a realistic leper begging for alms, a partly dissected criminal with his organs in bowls below him, and a life-sized placard of The Wound Man. A creepy plague doctor with his beak-like nose to be filled with aromatic herbs looks like something out of Star Wars. The exhibition is interactive so you can smell bowls of herbs and touch replica skulls showing the pockmarks of syphilis or the hole made by an arrow. 

More serendipity: a roving Roman doctor arrived when I was there. He showed me his bag of Roman instruments, so beautifully made that it would be hard for an expert to tell them from the real thing. Dean pulled out a Roman doctor’s probe and told me how the second century doctor Galen could tell by tapping what was going on under the skin. 

Surgery was a tricky proposition back in Roman times, and only used as a last resort. So I hesitated when the doctor invited me to try out a little anal surgery. In the end I agreed. He handed me a finely balanced replica scalpel and watched as I bent over a man’s (thankfully) replica backside and excised a bright red fistula (Latin for ‘ulcer’). The fistula looked a lot like one of those maraschino cherries they put in cocktails. I won’t be drinking one of those for a while. 

At the end of a satisfyingly squirmy morning I offered to treat Emma and Dean to lunch. To my surprise, Dean suggested Spud-U-Like at 39 Bridge St. He wasn’t just being considerate of my wallet; he knew that in their basement dining room you can sit next to sandstone hypocausts from the huge Roman bathhouse in the 2nd century fortress. After our jacket potatoes Dean said goodbye but Emma took me to the Dewa Roman Experience and then dropped me at the Chester Tourist Centre so I could buy a copy of Roman Chester, the book she had been brandishing like a talisman all day. As I travelled home from Chester, my mind was buzzing with ideas and my heart was full of gratitude, thanks to the generosity of two of its most passionate resident historians.

Thank you, Emma and Dean! 

In Good Humour at the Grosvenor Museum is on until 6 November 2016. 
Sick to Death at The Water Tower, Chester Walls, is on open every day in August 2016 from 10.30 to 4.30pm

Death in the Arena, book 3 of the Roman Quests, will be published in 2017. Escape from Rome, book 1, is out now. 

1 comment:

Joan Lennon said...

Fabulous and revolting in equal measure!