Saturday 9 February 2019

Ways to Die in Londinium

by Caroline Lawrence

When I went back in time to look for the blue-eyed girl with the ivory knife, I never thought I would actually find her. The only reason I took the job was for the money. 

So starts my new book, in which a 12-year-old London schoolboy named Alex Papas is recruited to go back in time to Roman London to find a girl who lived in the mid-third-century AD. 

Why did I decide to leave my usual literary stamping grounds of the sunny Mediterranean and set some books in Roman Britain, specifically London? 

Because whereas Roman Britain used to be dull and dry – on account of very few written sources – the past decade or so has given us some superb material to work with. Recently, more than 14,000 individual artefacts were recovered in the restoration of the Mithraeum to its original site under Bloomberg LP’s new European headquarters. 

Also, scientific advances in DNA and stable isotopes means that archaeologists such as Dr Rebecca Redfern can study a skeleton and determine eye and hair colour, maternal place of origin and even where the subject grew up. 

In 2003, the grave of a 14-year-old girl was found on Lant Street near Borough tube station in Southwark, about half a mile south of the Tate Modern. Her grave goods suggested she was a rich girl. They included two small glass bottles and a clasp knife on a chain. 

The exotic ivory handle of the knife was carved in the shape of a leopard. Despite these rich objects, close study of her bones showed that the girl suffered from rickets, a disease often associated with malnutrition. Her teeth were very bad, too, and suggest that she was either a slave or grew up under hard conditions. Her skeleton is actually on display during free interactive sessions called Written in Bone for kids in Key Stage 2, i.e. aged 8-11. 

The so-called Lant Street Teen came into the headlines recently when her DNA and stable isotopes were analysed. They showed that she grew up in the Southern Mediterranean – possibly even North Africa! – and that she had blue eyes. Even more astonishing, archaeologists can tell that at the age of about nine she made the long and arduous journey to Britannia. Sadly, she died about five years later and was buried with her grave goods on an expensive bed of white chalk. 

I was intrigued by this discovery and thought it would be fun to imagine a scenario that might bring the blue-eyed girl from North Africa to Britannia and explain all the fascinating aspects of her bones. 

Around the same time, I attended the re-opening of London Mithraeum with its well-researched display of artefacts and spooky immersive experience. It occurred to me that it would be the perfect place for a time portal to the third century AD. That was when I decided to write my first timeslip book. 

In the book, originally called Ways to Die in Londinium, my main character Alex has been chosen to go back to Roman London for several reasons. First, he is small for his age and probably won’t hit puberty for a while. Why is this important? One of my contrivances is that for every hour you spend in the past, it takes a year off your life expectancy… unless you are a kid, in which case you only lose a month per hour. That’s why bazillionaire Solomon Daisy hires Alex to go back and find out more about the so-called Lant Street Teen. 

Second, Alex does Latin club at school and therefore knows some basic Latin phrases. 

Third, Alex speaks modern Greek, close enough to Ancient Greek to be just about understood. And Greek was a lingua franca at that time. 

I have a few other contrivances to make the book fun and exciting. For example, the three rules of Time Travel are:  

1. Naked you go and naked you must return. 
2. Drink, don't eat. 
3. As little interaction as possible.

Alex is clever and resourceful. He memorises a map of third-century Roman London and learns several useful Latin phrases such as puellam oculis caeruleis quaero et cultro eburneo (I seek a blue-eyed girl with an ivory knife.) 

Alex prepares in other ways, too. In the back pocket of his jeans, he has a small notebook. One of the page entries reads:

Ways to Die in Londinium:
1. Death by illness (no antibiotics)
2. Death by infected cut (no antiseptic cream)
3. Death by chariot (hit and run)
4. Death by starvation 
5. Death by choking (no Heimlich manoeuvre)
6. Death by fire (or inhaling smoke)
7. Death by rabid animal bite
8. Death by mugger
9. Death by rampaging gladiator

As Alex learns more about the perils of time travel he adds:

10. Death by misunderstood gesture
11. Death by transporting into something solid

And eventually:

12. Death by Angry Priest of Mithras
13. Death by Thames Foreshore Mud

That's only the beginning!  

As a student of history, I am constantly reminded of how blessed we are to live in a time of prosperity, leisure and superb medical care, especially compared to almost any previous historical period. 

On Wednesday 20 February and Friday 22 of the same month from 1-2pm, I’ll be doing two family-friendly interactive talks called Ways to Die in Londinium

I will ask kids to come up with some ways that a Roman Londoner might die. 

I will then show them some real and ancient (replica) artefacts and ask which would have been most valuable to an ancient Roman Londoner. 

I might also ask if they can guess which one of the following would have been worth its weight in gold?

Chocolate bar
Alarm clock
Mobile phone
Puppy Soft Andrex 

Finally, I will read some passages from the first Time Travels Diary

I want to remind myself (and kids) just how privileged we are to be living today. 

Caroline's two halfterm events at the Museum of London are now sold out but there are other fun Roman-themed events including Styx, Stones and Roman Bones

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