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Bringing Augustus To Life: A John Williams Quote

5 May

Just  before the current lock-down started in the United Kingdom I had the deep pleasure to read the novel Stoner, by the American academic and novelist John Williams.  It left a strong desire to explore his work further and I was excited to learn that each of his four published novels are unalike in form and style, focusing on completely different periods and utilising a variety of perspectives.  As time turned, and it became apparent that we would have to lock ourselves away from the social world, I sought continuing joy through the written word.

I quickly came across the next book by Williams that caught my attention – a self-titled work of fiction focused on the life of Augustus (64 BC – AD 14), otherwise known as Gaius Octavius.  He was the adopted heir of Julius Caesar who went on to become the first Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus, ruling from 27 BC to AD 14 following the vanquishing of Caesar’s assassins and victory in the subsequent civil war.  Following Augustus’s numerous victories in battle and the consolidation of his political power, he helped to implement changes that oversaw Rome transition from a Republic to its first phase as a burgeoning imperial empire, thus helping to usher in a relatively prosperous and peaceful 200-year period known as the Pax Romana.  Augustus was arguably one of Rome’s most remarkable and adept political leaders.

The remarkable bronze Meroë Head of Augustus with striking glass pupils and calcite irises. Found in 1910 at the ancient Nubian site of Meroë, Sudan, the Greek-style statue is thought to date from 29 BC. Image credit: Wikipedia.

In Williams’s epistolary novel we are first introduced to Gaius Octavius through his friends and from there we follow his life, with nuanced views and fictional scenes giving emotional heft to the historical fact.

I’ll end it there with the novel description as I really just wanted to draw attention to the quote below from Williams himself, taken appropriately enough from a letter to a friend detailing his struggle of how to represent the novel’s historical figures and fictional viewpoints in a accurate manner, as it pays to bear in mind that the novel is as much about the people surrounding Augustus as it is about himself:

Those people were very real and contemporaneous to me. I wanted a kind of immediacy in it,  but I couldn’t figure a way how to do it. I also knew that all educated Romans were great letter-writers. Cicero would write eight, ten, twelve letters a day. And the Roman postal service was probably as good as our postal service is today. . . I wanted the characters to present themselves. I didn’t want to try to explain them. I didn’t want to have a twentieth-century vision of the Roman times. So the epistolary form lets the people speak for themselves… The provincial notion of how much more advanced we are – that’s nonsense.

– Quoted from Williams (2003: x).

There is a great point made repeatedly throughout the novel that history, both what we as individuals chose it to record and what it actually records through the medium of time, can only ever be what survives.  In ‘Augustus’ we are instead presented with fictitious multi-faceted views of historical figures and it is to the credit of William’s imagination and literary skill that they seem so alive and vital in this supremely accomplished novel.

Bibliography

Williams, J. 2003. Augustus: A Novel. Vintage: London.

Williams, J. 2012. Stoner: A Novel. Vintage: London

Flesh On The Bones

29 Mar

I apologise for not updating in a while.  I have been busy volunteering in York for YAT, whilst also starting to volunteer for a local council in the Cultural Services department (covering museums, collections, art galleries & education outreach).  Over the past few weeks at YAT I have had the chance to get my hands on a few of the skeletal remains, recently dug up from the ongoing Hungate site.  This included the cleaning of two Roman era skulls, of various mixed in femora (thighs) and humerii (upper arm bones), and studying a number of cleaned skulls alongside getting the chance to lay out a human skeleton.

Differences between femur & humerus elements

I am always struck by how gracile the human skeleton is, especially compared the faunal remains often found on archaeological sites.  In the first instance of seeing actual human bones, I’ll never forget remembering how small they seemed.  Of course, as osteoarchaeologists, we have to put the flesh back on the bones so to speak, to help tease out the information contained within the skeleton.  Yet, first we must know what we are dealing with.  The two elements above are quite distinctive in their size and robusticity.

As I cleaned the various bits and bobs of the skulls and bones, it was hard to remember that they came from a society and culture very different to the one I am living in now.  From the northern fringes of the late Roman Empire in the city of Eboracum, these bones had lain mostly undisturbed (apart from some Viking & Medieval action).  They had survived due to good soil preservation whilst the Empire they knew crumbled.  Everything they had once known has since become lost or amalgamated as invaders and settlers, cultures and societies, came and went.   As I cleaned each bone in isolation, in my white laboratory shirt and blue gloved hands, the archaeologists outside where digging through the layers and contexts, unearthing and freeing the remains.  This was a part of the process of archaeology- planning, researching, excavating, finding, documenting, cleaning, labelling, storing then onto investigating and researching.  Each step is vital and may uncover new things. 

When you are holding a persons earthly remains in your hands, its hard not to think what that person may have seen, heard and felt during their lifetime.  How different was this city to them?  Who had they loved?  What conditions did they live in?  What job did they have?  What relationship did they have to the other people found nearby? How and why did they die?

By holding a mandible (lower jawbone) in my hand, seeing the teeth in their sockets, and observing any tooth wear or loss, you can help to start to visualise the person before you.  If you are lucky and you have most of the skeletal elements preserved, you can start to observe sex and age characteristics of the person.  Studying the entire skeleton can highlight the height as well as the rough size of the human before you.  By observing any abnormalities or pathologies present you can start to get a feel for the person in front of the bones.  If you are truly lucky, you may get to study the skeleton within a population, and pick up on familiar traits within a selection.  Indeed, you can start to put flesh back on these bones. 

Lateral Mandible, Note The Muscle Attachment Points

It is the inquisitive nature of the archaeologist in the study of human material remains that they keep asking questions.  This is a very exciting time to be involved with, and interested in, thee study of human remains from archaeological sites.  Sites such as the Towton battle ground, from the War of the Roses in 1461 in England, are being excavated once again to see if there are any further remains of the estimated 28,000 victims of that Palm Sunday battle.  A osteological report on a clutch of the skeletons discovered in 1996 can be found here (carried out by Malin Holst, of York Osteoarchaeology).  The analysis of the remains show the male combatants to be from a wide age range, and a wide social range.  A further selection of the skeletons also show just how vicious and violent some of the wounds were. 

In a later post I will include some of my own research into how human osteology can help answer some of the questions regarding the Mesolithic-Neolithic agricultural change by studying European cultures.

Alongside general posts expect some posts detailing the vertebrae, skull, ribs, pelvic, arm, leg, foot and hand elements.  Specific areas in human osteology such as the use of chemical analysis (radiocarbon dating & stable isotope dietary data), metric and non-metric traits, lab procedures, ethics and palaeopathologies will also be discussed later on.

To end this post, have a beautiful song.