Object in focus: The Ryedale Hoard

In May 2020, during the first COVID-19 lockdown relaxation, two metal detectorists found a small group of copper alloy objects very close together, in a field, in the Ampleforth area of Ryedale.

The group is, frankly, stunning. It comprises: 1) a probable sceptre head in the shape of a bust of an Antonine Emperor, 2) a horse and rider figurine, 3) a plumb bob, 4) a horse head with iron shank that was probably a key handle. Individually these objects would all be great, but together they are exceptional. It is recorded by the PAS for posterity: YORYM-870B0E.

The Ryedale assemblage
(C)Portable Antiquities Scheme [CC BY Attribution 2.0]

Sad times though – due to the current law, as set out in the Treasure Act 1996, these objects are not classed as Treasure and so local museums have no rights to try and purchase them directly from the Crown. Currently, this means that the hoard is due to be privately auctioned on 20th May 2021. The auction catalogue is linked here.

Bypassing their aesthetic beauty, here (you can see that for yourself!) this group of objects is fascinating for another reason – it is probably a ritual assemblage that has been deposited together. This deposition, in rural North Yorkshire, was not close to any known settlements and it thus took place in a rural setting. There are few other Roman finds located from the nearby area, as well as plenty of Bronze Age finds.

The sceptre head and the horse-and-rider figurine could, individually, be directly associated with the Roman religious cults of the Emperor and Mars, respectively. As John Pearce suggests in the PAS record: “the plumb bob’s presence might be an offering made during rituals associated with landscape re-organisation”. The plumb bob, if it could be called a groma was a tool used in land demarcation, and this interpretation is certainly compelling. I’d like to dive a little deeper into the possible ritual affordance of each of the objects in turn.

The sceptre head
The sceptre head suggests that a priestly/ritual professional may have been involved, and the link to the Imperial Cult is clear. It is interesting that we do know of a travelling priest of the Imperial cult for York and Lincoln. The sceptre head was carried as priestly regalia, and likely had a longer phase of life before it’s deposition in the performance of ritual for the Imperial cult. As a sceptre it was held by a pole of some form. Perhaps it was buried whole, with the pole, rather than removed from it? Who knows. It’s presence underground was certainly an inversion of how it was used in its earlier life – conspicuous and held aloft during rituals.

The Antonine Emperor’s presence on this object provides a useful archaeological TPQ of the very late 1st-century (perhaps no surprise). That the Emperor’s head was deposited in the ground in this way might be taken as an indication of the Emperor no-longer being around to take offence (so 3rd-Century is more likely?). The presence of other, very similar, imperial busts (e.g. BERK-E24C84) might have meant that, in the right setting, the sceptre’s figure was a familiar face in a familiar style. Kiernan suggests a really compelling idea in Roman Cult Images: The Lives and Worship of Idols from the Iron Age to Late Antiquity that images of Gods and Emperors had to be disposed of in the correct way so that any latent power wasn’t left hanging about – perhaps this was an example of the correct deposition of an Imperial Cult image that needed to be safely re-used elsewhere because a new Emperor was in power?

The horse-and-rider
The horse-and-rider is taken to be a provincial representation of the god Mars, and they are generally found on the eastern side of Britain, particularly in Lincolnshire (see Durham, 2014, 4.4.1). The immediate landscape surrounding the find was likely very rural in the Roman period, with only a probable road nearby and no immediate settlements. Horses were an important method of transport and important in agricultural practices also – Mars had an aspect as an agricultural guardian. The small figurine potentially saw earlier use in a domestic or portable shrine; the small figure free-standing wherever it was set-up. He originally held a small spear – maybe of a different material, but this is now lost.

Horse key
The horse key is, perhaps, trickier to link clearly to religious and ritual practices, but it is an unusual object. The horse was designed to be held in the hand and its back-end projected into an iron key. Perhaps, rather than a horse the original objects would look more like a hippocampus? Keys did have ritual associations in the Greek Magical Papyri, particularly if they had seven teeth. Obviously this part is lost, so we can’t be sure; it is unclear if it went into the ground whole or fragmentary. It was designed to be held in the hand and also performed an important function in securing a building or strong box (given it’s size) – the quality of the key points to the contents that it safeguarded being of some value.

Plumb bob
The plumb bob is, arguably, the most mundane object in this group – a simple, cast lump that held a piece of string downwards to allow measurement. Pearce suggests that it was part of a groma and thus used in land surveying. It is interesting that only one was found – as the removal of any one bob from a hanging groma would render it rather useless. Perhaps the groma too was being ritually discarded or parts had been replaced, leaving this bob available for another use. A groma was designed to set-out, to make, to design, and to designate and this function brings interesting allusions of building and careful planning to a ritual assemblage.

A ritual assemblage

Together then, these four components brought different religious, ritual, and mundane ideas together in an assemblage. In all likelihood they had previously been associated together. Roman ritual practice often incorporated mundane objects related to people or places alongside more unusual and exotic things and their connection was important. The idea then goes that individually powerful objects could be linked to the correct space and the correct time by the addition of mundane things – they metaphysically ‘grounded’ them. If this interpretation of this group is correct, it represents one of the very, very few examples in Roman Britain of a structured deposit of metal objects with ritual intent that can be linked to the protection or blessing of an agricultural space. There are many organic deposits of this type, particularly groups of animal bones, but the Ryedale assemblage appears to be aiming for something different.

The wider landscape here was, perhaps, important with many Bronze Age barrows nearby on the south-facing slope of a hill providing a setting which already could be linked to divine experience, chthonic practices, and a sense of place for the location of this ritual deposition. And this sense is also missing from the interpretation of the assemblage – it was a group of beautiful things, yes, but it was purposely set at a particular place for a particular function. We might also consider what else the hoard included – flowers, foodstuffs, perfumes or drinks all spring to mind as potential inclusions. Perhaps the now fragmentary objects were deliberately broken (sceptre removed from the pole shaft/key snapped/spear taken from the figure/plumb bob removed from a set) in order to be remade in this assemblage?

The hoard is going to auction soon and will sell for about £100k. Laughably, the press ran various stories that it was ‘on public display’ for the first time. What they meant was that it was at the auction house pre-sale! Before COVID there was a government review on the Treasure Act and one of the proposals being consulted on would have allowed this sort of group of objects to be recorded as Treasure and thus more likely to enter a publicly-accessible institution governed by access and care policies rather than a private collection from which it might never resurface. Shame.

It sold for £185,000. This was way beyond the scope of local and national museums which had some skin in the game, so it’s gone to a private seller. We might find out if it was an international buyer if this thing gets discussed for an Export Ban in the coming months. Its like the Crosby Garrett Helmet all over again. The best hope is now that it might turn up in an exhibition at some point in the future…

Writing here in the middle of October, there has been a huge change of fortune and direction for the Ryedale assemblage. Thanks to a well-off private benefactor, the whole group was purchased from the private collector for the Yorkshire Museum! It will, after all, be in a public collection for posterity. Truly this is an unbelievable situation. Let’s not dwell too long on the fact that it was only possible due to a relationship between the museum and some ultra-rich dude who had deigned to be public-spirited with his fortune. After a short stint at the Frieze Art Festival in London it will be entering the YM in mid-October and, hopefully, on public display in Easter 2022. Happy days!

Roman phallic magic bibliography

This bibliography highlights papers, articles, and books relating to ancient phallic imagery. It was started to support a presentation I am giving to the Roman Finds Group in May 2021; a seminar on Roman phallic imagery in Britain.

There are a few caveats to note for this bibliography: It is not intended to cover the topics of sexuality, lovemaking, and gender (on which see: Un-Roman Sex, 2020 and the bibliography at the end of Johns 1983; for a bibliography on genitalia in the ancient world from the Genitalia & Co research project see: here). This one is undoubtedly biased towards anglophone publications as well as those relating to Roman Britain and the NW provinces.  It is a dynamic list and should not be thought of as complete – I welcome messages of additional papers to add in.

Where select pages are relevant, these are noted in square brackets at the end of each entry. Open access copies of texts can be found on the relevant hyperlinks.

Alexander, M. and Bird, J. 1996. ‘Two Roman Phallic Pendants from Surrey’, Surrey Archaeological Collections 83, 245-246.

Bishop, M. 1988. “Cavalry equipment of the Roman army in the first century AD”, in J.C. Coulston (ed.), Military Equipment and the Identity of the Roman Soldier. Proceedings of the Fourth Roman Military Equipment Conference (BAR International Series 394). Oxford, 67–195 [see, especially, type 10]

Bird, J. 1997. “A Romano-British linch pin head from Chelsham”, Surrey Archaeological Collections 84, 187-189.

Blasquez, J.M. 1985. “Tintinnabula de Merida y de Sasamon (Burgos)”, Zephyrus 38, 331-335.

Clarke, J.R. 1996. “Hypersexual Black men in Augustan Baths: Ideal Somatotypes and Apotropaic Magic”, in Kampen, N. B. (ed) Sexuality in Roman Art. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 184-198.

Clarke, J.R. 1998. Looking at Lovemaking: Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art, 100 BC – Ad 250. Berkely and Los Angeles, University of California Press.

Collins, R. 2019. Stone-carved phalli: A typology. Roman Finds Group datasheet 10

Collins, R. 2020. “The phallus and the frontier: The form and function of phallic imagery on Hadrian’s Wall”, in Ivleva, T. and Collins, R. (eds), Un-Roman Sex: gender, Sexuality, and Lovemaking in the Roman Provinces and Frontiers (Routledge Monographs in Classical Studies). London and New York, Routledge, 274-309.

Dasen, V. 2003. ‘Les amulettes d’enfants danse le monde gréco-romain’, Latomus 62(2), 275-289.

Dasen, V. 2015. “Probaskania: Amulets and Magic in Antiquity”, in Boschung, D. and Bremmer, J. N. (eds) The Materiality of Magic (Morphomata 20). Paderborn, Wilhelm Fink. 177-204. [see pp185-190].

Deschler-Erb, E and Božič, D. 2002. “A late Republican bone pendant from the Münsterhügel in Basel (CH)”. Instrumentum Bulletin 15, 39–40

Faraone, C. 2019. The Transformation of Greek Amulets in Roman Imperial Times. [see pp. 59-60, 75-79].

Grant, M. 1997. Eros in Pompeii: The Erotic Art Collection of the Museum of Naples.

Greep, S. J. 1983a. Objects of Animal Bones, Antler, Ivory and Teeth from Roman Britain (Vol I). PhD thesis, University College Cardiff. [see pp274f]

Greep, S. 1983b. “Note on Phallic Amulets Usually Associated with the Roman Army.” In Colchester Archaeological Report 2: The Roman Small Finds from Excavations in Colchester 1971-9, edited by N. Crummy. Colchester: Colchester Archaeological Trust.

Greep, S. 1994. “Antler Roundel Pendants from Britain and the North-Western Provinces”, Britannia 25, 81-97.

Hawkes, C. F. C. 1948. ‘A Romano-British phallic carving from Broadway, Worcs.’, The Antiquaries Journal. 28 (3-4). 166-169.

Holland, L. 2017. “Phallic Amulet/Pendant made of Bone or Horn”, in de Grummond, D. (ed) Wells of Wonder: New Discoveries at Centamura del Chianti. Florence, Edifir edizioni Firezenze. [p154]/

Jelski, G. 1984. “Pententifs phallique clochettes et peltae dans les tombes d’enfant de Gaule Belgique. Une decouverte a Arras”, Revue du Nord 66 (260), 261-280.

Johns, C. 1982. Sex and Symbol? Erotic Images of Greece and Rome. London, British Museum Press.

Johns, C. and Wise, P.J. 2003. “A Roman gold Phallic Pendant from Braintree, Essex”, Britannia 34, 274-276.

Kovač, D. and Koščević, R. 2003. Falosom Uroka Archaeološka Zbrirka Dr. Damir Kovač (The Phallus vs The Curse: The Archaeological Collection of Dr. Damir Kovač). Zagreb.

Lee, A. 2021. “Flexible phalli: contextualising the magic and materiality of a Romano-British antler phallus from Colsterworth Quarry, Lincolnshire”, The Archaeology Journal [10.1080/00665983.2021.188210]

Moore, C. N. 1975. “A Roman Phallic Carving from Long Bennington”, Lincolnshire History and Archaeology 10. 58-59.

Moser, C. 2006. “Naked Power: The Phallus as Apotropaic Symbol in the Images and Texts of Roman Italy” (MA Dissertation, Brown University).   

Neilson, H.R. 2002. “A terracotta phallus from Pisa Ship E: more evidence for the Priapus deity as protector of Greek and Roman navigators”, International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 31(2), 248-253.

Parker, A. 2015. “The Fist-and-Phallus Pendants from Roman Catterick”, Britannia 46, 135-149.

Parker, A. 2017. “A New Perspective on a Roman phallic Carving from South Kesteven, Lincolnshire”, Lincolnshire History and Archaeology, 49, 91-98.

Parker, A. 2017. “A Copper Alloy Bowl with Phallic Decoration in the Collection of the Yorkshire Museum”, Lucerna 52, 5-8.

Parker, A. 2017. “Protecting the Troops? Phallic Carvings in the North of Roman Britain”, in Parker, A. (ed) Ad Vallum: Papers on the Roman Army and Frontier in Celebration of Dr Brian Dobson (BAR British Series 631). Oxford, Archaeopress, 117-130.

Parker, A. 2020. “His and Hers: magic, materiality and sexual imagery”, in Ivleva, T. and Collins, R. (eds), Un-Roman Sex: gender, Sexuality, and Lovemaking in the Roman Provinces and Frontiers (Routledge Monographs in Classical Studies). London and New York, Routledge, 90-113.

Parker, A. 2021. “Phalli Fighting with Fluids: Approaching images of Ejaculating phalli in the Roman world”, in Bradley, M., Leonard, V., and Totelin, L. (eds) Body Fluids in Antiquity. Routledge. 173-190.

Parker, A. and Ross, C. 2016. “A New Phallic Carving from Roman Catterick”, Britannia 47, 271-279.

Peña, A. G. 2008. “Amuleto fálico Romano hallado en la Puebela del Rio (Sevilla)”, SPAL: Revisita de Prehistoryia y Archquelogia de la Universidad de Sevilla 17, 329-334.

Plouviez, J. 2005. “Whose Good Luck? Roman Phallic Ornaments from Suffolk”, in Crummy, N. (ed) Image, Craft, and the Classical World: essays in honour of Donald Bailey and Catherine Johns. Montagnac, Editions Monique Mergoil. 157-164.

Richlin, A. 1992. The Garden of Priapus: Sexuality and Aggression in Roman Humour. London and New York, Oxford University Press.

Shaffrey, R. Forthcoming. “Meaning in Millstones: Phallic Imagery on Romano-British Millstones”, Britannia

Stewart, P. 1997. “Fine Art and Coarse Art: the image of Roman Priapus”, Art History 20(4), 575-588.

Turnbull, P. 1978. “The Phallus in the Art of Roman Britain”, Bulletin of the Institute of Archaeology, University of London 15, 199-206.

Whitmore, A. M. 2017. “’Fascinating Fascina: Apotropaic Magic and How to Wear a Penis”, in Cifarelli, M. and Gawlinski, L. (eds), What Shall I Say of Clothes? Theoretical and Methodological Approaches to the Study of Dress in Antiquity. Boston, MA, Archaeological Institute of America. 47-65.

Whitmore, A.M. 2018. “Phallic Magic: A Cross Cultural Approach to Roman Phallic Small Finds”, in Parker, A. and McKie, S. (eds) Material Approaches to Roman Magic: Occult Objects and Supernatural Substances (TRAC Themes in Roman Archaeology 2). Oxford, Oxbow. 17-32.

Whitmore, A.M. 2020. “Egyptian faience flaccid phallus pendants in the Mediterranean, near East, and Black Sea regions”,  in Ivleva, T. and Collins, R. (eds), Un-Roman Sex: gender, Sexuality, and Lovemaking in the Roman Provinces and Frontiers (Routledge Monographs in Classical Studies). London and New York, Routledge. 310-345.

Additional resources:

Corpus Signorum Imperii Romani (various)
Roman Inscriptions of Britain – RIB 631, RIB 983, RIB 2157
Portable Antiquities Scheme [Search Roman + Phallic]
Artefacts.mom.fr [Object type AMP ‘Phallic amulet]

Quaestiones in Magica: Britta Ager

I’ve recently invested in two cups and a very long piece of string so, for the first time Q.I.M. has gone international! Huzzah. Ever wondered why your grape vines never produce good wine? Worried that your wheat isn’t growing quick enough? Well, get on the phone to Britta Ager, Assistant Professor of Classics at Arizona State University, and I’m sure she’ll recommend the best ritual sacrifice to sort you out. Hi Britta!

What are you currently researching and how did that come about?

BA: “I just finished a book and am moving on to new projects, so everything is in the very early stages, but I’m trying to get to work on a book on Roman farmers and how they use agriculture as part of their public personas. People like Varro have a lot to say about how your farm can help you cultivate a political career or a reputation as wealthy, tasteful, and virtuous, and we have plenty of evidence for elite Romans vacationing in the countryside and, essentially, glamping. My dissertation was half on magic and half on Roman agriculture, and after working on magic for several years, I’m looking forward to getting back to the agronomists, all of whom I really love and haven’t dealt with for too long. I also have a half-finished article on agricultural tree curses (a genre we have more examples of than you might expect) and a vaguely thought out piece on the reception of classical antiquity in modern perfumes. 

I still need to make some final revisions on the book I finished this spring, The Scent of Ancient Magic, which deals with how Greco-Roman conceptions of magic and smell overlap and interact. That should be out in 2021.”

AP: This sounds like the next, best word in sensory approaches to ancient magic and I am so here for this.

What was the most recent (academic) book you bought? And have you opened it yet?

BA: “My last department kindly bought me all of the volumes in the Senses in Antiquity series which I didn’t have, and no, other than the volume on smell which I was already using I haven’t read a word yet. One of these months. On the plus side, I do actually know where they are, unlike most of my books, which are still in boxes after moving this summer. Surely that counts for something.” 

The hardest question in three words: magic or religion?

BA: “It depends! 

The way that the same objects and behaviours can be categorised differently depending on who is using them and who is observing, or even due to factors like the political climate, is one of the aspects of ancient ritual which I find fascinating. On the one hand, I’m with Stuart McKie: it’s all ritual. On the other hand, this glosses over so many distinctions which mattered to the ancients, and I think we ought to talk more about how the category of ritual helps or doesn’t in relation to magic–or whatever we call it!–without a performative aspect to it, like wearing an amulet or dosing your oxen with a quasi-magical veterinary remedy.”

Imagine you are on commission and trying to sell me an ancient curse, spell, amulet, or ritual. Choose your favourite and give me the pitch.

BA: “Has a tree ever, like, really irritated you? I can show you how to get back at that leafy bastard.”

AP: Smash the trees!

2020 has been an undeniable mess. How are you finding the world of academia right now?

BA: “Weird and disorienting. I moved to a new job in Arizona in the middle of the pandemic, and it’s been a strange time to start somewhere new, teaching remotely, at the opposite end of the country. Between the lack of familiar seasons and working at home, time has lost all meaning. I guess it’s Christmas next week? My colleagues and students here are great, though, and I’ve really enjoyed the enthusiasm with which classicists have come together online for talks and happy hours and demonstrations and game nights. ” 

If you could have a toasty caffeinated beverage with anyone in the field of religious and magical studies, classics, and archaeology, who would it be and why?

BA: “Oh, that’s a hard one. But I would have loved to meet Catherine Bell and gotten to talk to her about her work on ritual.” 

It turns out that the Oracle at Delphi has turned up again in 2020. I put your name down earlier on and you’re next in the queue. You get one question. What is it?

BA: “C’est quoi Gritty? What does the appearance of this prodigy portend for 2021?”

AP: I will happily bow to the true ginger overlord

Hit me with an excellent blog and/or someone on twitter we should all follow.

BA: “Serious discussion of Classics and gaming has been taking off, and I’m delighted by it. I’ll recommend Andrew Reinhard (@Archaeogaming) and his website https://archaeogaming.com/, and Jeremiah McCall (@gamingthepast) and his https://gamingthepast.net/. I love that we’re getting a new generation of scholars who have grown up as gamers. In addition, if you have any forthcoming papers, talks, blogs, or anything that needs plugging do let me know.

On the same note, I just received a “Classics Everywhere” grant from the SCS to put together a series of events on Classics and video games. We’re going to have some typical academic discussion, but we’ll also be hosting things like streams of classically inspired games. I’m just beginning to organize this, so anyone who is interested in participating can get in touch with me at britta.ager@gmail.com or @brittaager on Twitter.” 

Quaestiones in magica: Joely Black

Today we welcome Joely Black into the Mysteries of this blog-cult. Joely is a PhD Student at the University of Manchester, her thesis is titled “Practical Magic: Making and Using Magical Objects in Rituals in Late Antique Egypt”. She’s very nearly finished and I really hope to be able to read it as it sound damn cool!

Joely Black: Not making Christmas gingerbread but playing with super cool ancient figurines!

What are you currently researching and how did that come about?

JB: “I study how objects become magical in Roman Egypt, using magical textbooks. It all happened by accident really. I came back to academia after a long break, and decided to study Classics. At an introductory session on epigraphy, I learnt about curse tablets. Then my (now) supervisor discovered a Christian amulet with a tax receipt on the back. I found myself asking all kinds of questions about how these objects became magically effective, and it all followed on from there.”

What was the most recent academic book you bought? Have you opened it yet?

JB: “I haven’t bought any academic books in a while! The last book I got from the library before lockdown was Chris Faraone’s “The Transformation of Greek Amulets in Roman Imperial Times”. I have opened it! I was worried he’d done what I’m doing, and I’d have to change my whole thesis, but he’s doing something slightly different, so I’m safe (for now).”

The hardest question: magic or religion?

JB: “As Stuart McKie said, “It’s all ritual!” But also, I’m all for the idea that it was all experimental. It’s like the science of reaching the gods to get what you want to happen. I feel like I just chucked a bomb into the middle of the magic v religion debate, there!”

AP: ‘The Machiavellian theory of ancient magic’?

Imagine you are on commission and trying to sell me an ancient curse, spell, amulet, or ritual. Choose your favourite and give me the pitch.

JB: “Is your divination skull giving you false predictions? Upgrade now to Kephalomancy 2.0 for a faster, cleaner divination experience. Recommended by all good necromancers and now available at all good stockists.”

2020 has been an undeniable mess. How are you finding the world of academia right now?

JB: “I’m midway through a six month funded extension to my PhD, so I’ve been keeping my head down trying to keep writing. It’s hard work though. I could probably write a whole essay on how I feel about it!”

If you could have a toasty caffeinated beverage with anyone in the field of religious and magical studies, classics, and archaeology, who would it be and why?

JB: “That’s a tough one, because there are so many people doing amazing work right now. I’d love to talk to Chris Faraone about his work on amulets, and Esther Eidinow about victimhood and cursing. I shouldn’t say more, because either one could be my external examiner so…”

AP: I am gate-crashing this coffee shop. Let’s get them here on the blog too!

It turns out that the Oracle at Delphi has turned up again in 2020. I put your name down earlier on and you’re next in the queue. You get one question. What is it?

JB: “Stuart stole my response to that.”

AP: Credit where it’s due; shows you’ve done your homework

Hit me with an excellent blog and/or someone on Twitter we should all follow.

@DrHelen Kara – she makes excellent resources to help people become better researchers. I’ve been working on a comic/illustrated blog idea to share my work and I’ve had some invaluable help from her. Also @JoVanEvery for more support for doing good research and staying health in these crazy times.

Previous Questiones in magica:
Stuart McKie, Teaching Fellow
Barbara Roberts, PhD Student
Antony Lee, PhD Student
E-J Graham, Senior Lecturer

Get in touch (@adamarchaeology) with offers of participation or to nominate someone I should bother. Remember, this is a safe space for shameless self-promotion.

Quaestiones in magica: E-J Graham

Ever worried that you take up too much of your PhD supervisor’s time? Through the looking glass already? Why not double down by sending one of them a series of interview questions about their research? Hi E-J!

E-J is Senior Lecturer in Classical Studies at the Open University. Her research focusses on Roman Italy, though she often delves into the worlds of ancient disability, death and commemoration in the ancient world, sensory archaeology, and votives. E-J has just published a new monograph Reassembling Religion in Roman Italy (Routledge, 2020). E-J has a couple of excellent PhD students at the moment including Barbara Roberts and Me.

E-J: Not in Delphi

Easy first question – what are you currently researching and how did that come about? 

E-J: “I’ve actually just reached the end of a book project so I am currently in a bit of an in-between place, worrying I might not have anything else to say ever again. That project was a long-term one that grew out of a combination of the various strands of my research on the ancient body and material religion. The book – Reassembling Religion in Roman Italy (Routledge, 2021) – was published in November. It adopted a new materialist and posthumanist approach to religion in Roman Italy, focusing specifically on the application of assemblage theory to address some quite big questions about the material basis of religious knowledge. In terms of what is next, I’m planning to stay focused on developing those perspectives, exploring how they fundamentally change the ways that we understand different aspects of ancient religion. I’m currently finishing off a paper that extends this sort of thinking to the lares shrines of Pompeii, and I have some thoughts about relational ontologies that I want to try out in the context of some terracotta objects from Veii.”

What was the most recent (academic) book you bought? And have you opened it yet?

E-J: “Actually it was related to those Veii terracottas: an ex-library copy of Giovanni Colonna (2002) Il santuario di Portonaccio a Veio.  And yes, I have opened it, to find that many of the pages are uncut so I guess it wasn’t used very much in that library! I haven’t read it all yet, although I did look through to find that it does indeed contain the information that I was hoping it would, albeit restricted to a single page (which I have skim read).”

The hardest question in three words: magic or religion? 

E-J: “Religion. The final chapter of my book considers how assemblage theory might help us to understand questions about religion and magic in different ways. Although, to be honest, I am not actually sure that there is any such thing as ‘religion’, just a host of relational assemblages of things that combine in ways to have affects that people sometimes recognise as ‘religious’ because of their existing ontologies. So, if it is acceptable, possibly neither but with a slight lean towards religion when I am required to apply a label to what I am interested in.”

 AP: Good thing my PhD doesn’t argue almost the exact opposite then…

Imagine you are on commission and trying to sell me an ancient curse, spell, amulet, or ritual. Choose your favourite and give me the pitch: 

E-J: “Have you been injured or been involved in an accident that was or was not your fault? Do you have an illness that bloodletting hasn’t cured? Are you hoping to get pregnant or needing help with childbirth related worries? Then come on down to your most trusted local sanctuary and pick up one of our EXCLUSIVE* handcrafted** terracotta anatomical votive offerings! Simply vow to the god of your choice that you will offer them a gift in return for their help with your personal health concerns, purchase your chosen item***, and present it to them in thanks. (Terms and conditions apply).****

*Not actually exclusive: they are made in series and all look much the same (unless it is one of the weirder looking wombs).

** The craftsperson uses their hands to press clay into a reusable mould. Bespoke painting on request, at additional cost.

*** Prices may vary depending on the complexity and availability of the body parts required.

**** Your health may get worse as well as better. The Gods™ accept no liability for the absence of healing or lack of fertility after a petition has been made. Only one offering can be used per request and it will become forever the property of The Gods™ on deposit. No ‘buy one get one free’ discounts are available. Your request may be declined subject to purity and piety checks, menstruation status, recent sexual behaviour, and the fickle whim of The Gods™.”

AP: This is rapidly becoming my favourite question to ask people!

2020 has been an undeniable mess. How are you finding the world of academia right now? 

E-J: “Busy, difficult, overly screen-based, and more tiring than expected. At the OU teaching has been very close to business as usual because we are a distance learning university anyway, but everything that goes on behind the scenes to make that happen and to support students has become more difficult and at times quite stressful. I’ve been able to get to more research seminars across the world than I might normally do, so that is one positive, although I miss the chance to chat things though with people afterwards, and all the invigorating creative and weird discussions I used to have with my colleagues. Not to mention the selection of homemade baked treats that used to be on offer at meetings.”

If you could have a toasty caffeinated beverage with anyone in the field of religious and magical studies, classics, and archaeology, who would it be and why? 

E-J: ” If it was archaeology in general, then probably Rodolfo Lanciani. His 19th century ‘excavations’ (I use that term loosely) in Rome inspired my PhD thesis, and ever since then I have had a real love/hate relationship with him. I’d love to ask him what he actually found on the Esquiline, and where he put it all.

In terms of ancient religion (and still being alive), I’ll also very happily go for an inspiring cuppa any time with my OU and fellow votive fan Jessica Hughes.”

AP: Save on shoe leather and invite Jess for a brew with Rodolfo as well?

Hit me with an excellent blog and/or someone on twitter we should all follow.

E-J: “Well, I can’t really not say @OpenMatRel – the account for the Baron Thyssen Centre for the Study of Ancient Material Religion at the Open University – and of course in terms of blogs there is The Votives Project. But aside from that, I recommend the most excellent @drcorabeth.”

AP: Definitely check out all of these things.

Finally – it turns out that the Oracle at Delphi has turned up again in 2020. I put your name down earlier on and you’re next in the queue. You get one question. What is it? 

E-J: “Anyone who has talked to me in any format over the last 14 months will tell you that I went to Delphi for the first time last September, because I have not stopped raving about it since. What an amazing place it is – it left a real mark on me. In terms of a question though, that is tough. I definitely want to know if I will ever go back, so perhaps that.”

AP: Going back to Delphi to ask if you’ll ever go back to Delphi? That’s meta.

Thanks E-J! To hear more about E-J’s recent work check out this interview on the Coffee and Circuses Podcast. The recently published monograph is the focus of a series of seminars hosted at the Open University by the Baron Thyssen Centre for the Study of Ancient Material Religion in spring next year. In particular, I will urge you to tune in on 14th April 2021 to hear a discussion about Chapter 7: Magic, between E-J, myself and Stuart McKie.

Previous Questiones in magica:
Stuart McKie, Teaching Fellow
Barbara Roberts, PhD Student
Antony Lee, PhD Student

Get in touch (@adamarchaeology) with offers of participation or to nominate someone I should bother. Remember, this is a safe space for shameless self-promotion.

Quaestiones in magica: Antony Lee

We’re back with more informal questions on ancient magic from people who definitely have better things to be doing! Thanks for the interest folks.

Today’s client is museums-archaeologist Antony Lee, now a full time PhD Student at Durham University. His thesis topic is: “Gods behind glass: Exploring approaches to Romano-British religious experiences in museums”.

Antony Lee: Often found lounging on ruins.

Easy first question – what are you currently researching and how did that come about?

AL: “Its only easy if you don’t ask me what my actual research questions are at any given moment… But I’m researching how museums in Britain are presenting religious beliefs and practices in Roman Britain, particularly how lived religious experiences are being engaged with. So I’m looking at a selection of museums across the country, large and small, and analysing how they are integrating and interpreting religious material in their displays and how they are representing ‘native’ and ‘Roman’ religious interaction. It also means I’m looking at how museums are dealing with the juicy bits of religious experience like the materiality of and embodied engagement with material culture, how senses and emotions played a part in religious ritual, how they are defining difficult terms like ritual, religion and magic, and whether non-temple based religious acts such as structured deposition and everyday magic are being included.

I’m a museum bod through and through and think that museum displays still have a huge part to play in how our communities understand their own heritage and how it fits into bigger narratives. I’m really keen on finding new ways that we can not only better reflect current academic thinking but do so in a way that’s more engaging to a non-specialist visitor. The dry ‘catalogue of named gods illustrated by a row of figurines’ approach that many museums take is not only unreflective of the religious reality but also rather uninspiring for visitors. I have a mad vision of how religion can be a way that we can start to better challenge visitors’ long-held and generally uncritical perceptions of Roman Britain, and get them to see the period in a little less familiar and comfortable light.”

What was the most recent (academic) book you bought? And have you opened it yet?

AL: “‘Beyond the Romans’, the new TRAC Themes volume. Does flicking through it count as opening it? If so, yes, if not then its on the ever-tottering pile on my desk! Although there are some specifically religious chapters in it, I think I’ll be reading Jay Ingate’s chapter on water supplies first. People’s relationships with water is such a fascinating subject to look at through a posthuman lens.”

AP: I completely forgot this was coming out. NEED!

The hardest question in three words: magic or religion?

AL: “Damn you Parker! Both, no wait, neither. Both terms are so entwined and crippled by later usage, yet both have ancient origins which make it hard to dump them entirely. I definitely prefer to see them both as equally valid manifestations of the ways that humans have attempted to understand and influence the world around them. One person’s solemn ritual is indeed someone else’s heretical magic and I think this is why we continue to struggle to find a universally satisfactory definition for either term – both terms are so utterly relative to the person using them and the acts they are describing. I therefore hereby decree that any and all interaction with any supernatural forces shall henceforth be called ‘Nargle’…”

AP: *More maniacal laughing*…

Imagine you are on commission and trying to sell me an ancient curse, spell, amulet, or ritual. Choose your favourite and give me the pitch:

AL: “Building a nice new house for the family I see? Lovely spot you’ve chosen. Well, those foundations look nice and solid now but you can’t trust wood and plaster to last for ever now, can you? I once knew a chap, built a lovely house down near Corinium. Spent a fortune on it, but one night the roof caved in! Boom, 5 generations and 53 kiddies all wiped out in one night. You know where he went wrong? Forgot his foundation deposit, didn’t he! No, I’m sure you want the best for your lovely wife and kids there, don’t you? Just let me go to my cart and get my basket of puppies. I can give you a great deal, buy two spaniels and a dachshund and I’ll give you this cockerpoo free. Bury one in each corner of the building under the floor with a nice broken cooking pot and you’ll have a happy home for generations. Oh, is that a boundary ditch you’re digging too? Better not take any chances with that either, don’t want any misfortune getting past that threshold, do you? It’s a bugger to get out once its set in. How about a nice horse for under the entranceway? Now, my brother sells good cooking pots, let me give you his details…

(In the context of keeping this vaguely palatable for a family audience, I went with puppies rather than stillborn babies…)”

AP: This made my day. I am so glad I asked!

2020 has been an undeniable mess. How are you finding the world of academia/classics/heritage [delete as appropriate] right now?

AL: “Without wishing to be overly-dramatic, I think that it’s the big problems that are the most worrisome at the moment. Academia in general is rather under attack right now and its only likely to get worse. Too many people across the world seems to be caught up in an increasing anti-intellectual mindset, and the study of the past is right there at the centre of it. When every bit of scholarship or new discovery is popularly presented as either ‘experts baffled’ or ‘history rewritten’ we shouldn’t be too surprised when people don’t understand the nuances of what we do or the relativistic nature of historical enquiry.

We need to find better ways of not just presenting new findings but taking people with us on the journey and understanding why we now look at the past differently to the way we did when people were at school 50 years ago – and why that’s a good thing! The strength of the negative response to the National Trust’s acknowledgement that the proceeds of slavery paid for some of its properties has laid bare a dark side to popular perceptions of history.

There’s a worrying widely-held belief that history is a place of unchanging ‘facts’ that have no impact on the present, and we shouldn’t spoil people’s pleasant fantasies by looking at things from different perspectives. There’s an insatiable popular appetite for history and heritage, but we’re in danger of the narratives being controlled by pseudo-scientific nonsense-peddlers and those who don’t wish for everyone’s voices past and present to be heard. Nothing annoys me more that people saying that ‘museums shouldn’t be political’ when all they mean is ‘I don’t want you presenting a picture of the past different to the one I’m already comfortable with’. Sorry, that was a rant, but it felt good…”

If you could have a toasty caffeinated beverage with anyone in the field of religious and magical studies, classics, and archaeology, who would it be and why?

AL: “Not a religious scholar (or even a scholar at all!), but if I could have a fireside chat with anyone in the history of the field then it would be Roque de Alcubierre. I’d love to hear his first-hand story about those early excavations at Herculaneum and the experience of being lowered down the well into what we now know was the theatre. It would be fascinating to get his version of events about the subsequent accusations of incompetence made against him by Winckelmann and others. His assistant Carl Weber is always touted as the better excavator but I’ve always felt Alcubierre has been a little shabbily treated by posterity. Although he clearly didn’t do everything right he was a pioneer and certainly made more records of his finds than his accusers claimed, all while under pressure from the highest levels of the aristocracy desperate for new finds to adorn their homes. I’d love to know how he reacted to Winckelmann’s famous jibe that he ‘knew as little about antiquities as the moon did about lobsters’”

AP: Coffee with a dead 18th century engineer? I’m sure with the right spell we could get that sorted out in a jiffy.

Hit me with an excellent blog and/or someone on twitter we should all follow.

AL: “I’m actually involved with a new initiative – a new group (hopefully to be an SSN) being set up looking at the care and interpretation of religious collections in museums and religious institutions – so it would be remiss of me not to take the chance to promote it a little! The new blog for the group is at https://religioncollections.wordpress.com/. Although it covers all religions and periods I’m keen for ancient religion to be well represented and we’re looking for content to be submitted from anyone with an interest in the subject”

AP: This is a safe space for shameless self-promotion. Great project! Go check it out folks.

Quaestiones in magica: Barbara Roberts

I am already impressed and surprised by the willingness of friends and colleagues to answers these daft questions I send them. To those who respond to my emails: I salute you! The second offering to The Gods of the Place is fellow OU postgrad and generally excellent human: Barbara Roberts.

Barbara Roberts is a PhD student researching Amulets in Late Roman Italy at the Open University with the Baron Thyssen Centre for the Study of Ancient Material Religion.

What are you currently researching and how did that come about?

BR: “I’m currently working on a chapter of my PhD dissertation – the whole dissertation is going to be on amulets in late Roman Italy and Sicily. This chapter is meant to build on an argument for including non-worn items and structural features under the term ‘amulet’ (from statuettes to mosaic pavements), describe what evidence there is in my area of interest, and consider how they might have affected people’s sense of place. It’s a lot but I’m excited by it!”

What was the most recent (academic) book you bought? And have you opened it yet?

BR: “I’m pretty sure it’s my copy of Ancient Botany by Gavin Hardy and Laurence Totelin, and yes, I have, but I haven’t read it cover to cover just yet.”

The hardest question in three words: magic or religion?

BR: “Welp – I think I could talk around this idea for hours! In terms of favourite concept to mull over it’d probably be magic, but I do unfortunately think they’re otherwise too equally important and inextricably linked to argue one’s primacy over another. Coward’s way out, I know!”

AP: “It’s a right mire, self preservation is key”

Imagine you are on commission and trying to sell me an ancient curse, spell, amulet, or ritual. Choose your favourite and give me the pitch.

BR: “Want to bring success to your small business venture? It’s easy! Just follow these instructions to build a three-headed wax statuette in its own little juniper-wood temple, feast with it, leave a written strip of hieratic papyrus in it, and sing to it every morning. It could not be easier to gain power.*”

*Ease of ritual not guaranteed. Spell comes from PGM IV (lines 3125-71).

AP: “Always read the T’s and C’s”

2020 has been an undeniable mess. How are you finding the world of academia right now?

BR: “I’m lucky to be at the stage I am in this dissertation, where making progress has been tough but not totally insurmountable and I’m still supported by funding. However, it’s been profoundly frustrating to see the lack of support given to friends and peers in less fortunate positions. The sense of community I’ve felt among fellow PhD students is wonderful, but it really doesn’t make up for how the pandemic has worsened already precarious situations.”

If you could have a toasty caffeinated beverage with anyone in the field of religious and magical studies, classics, and archaeology, who would it be and why?

BR: “I don’t think I’d enjoy their company, but with the additional requirement of time travel I’d love to pick the brains of any of the 19th-century antiquaries, folklorists, and anthropologists who dealt with amulets, like Frazer, Elsworthy, Lovett or Tylor. I’d like to know more about how much they based their definitions and theories of magic, amulets and apotropaicism on their readings of classical texts and how much to interpreting their own contemporary observations.”

AP: “Fully respecting this dedication to the cause!”

It turns out that the Oracle at Delphi has turned up again in 2020. I put your name down earlier on and you’re next in the queue. You get one question. What is it?

BR: “Well, assuming I will only get a response that only makes sense after the fact, I think I’ll stick to the banal and ask if I’ll ever finish one of my knitting projects!”

Hit me with an excellent blog and/or someone on twitter we should all follow.

BR: “If you haven’t already, take a look at FastiRomani on Twitter, run by Britta Ager (@BrittaAger). It’s both educational and oddly soothing.”

Thanks Barbara! Here’s another recent interview with Barbara with the oh-so-very-pluggable Comfort Classics. Seriously check out all of CC! Follow Barbara on twitter @barbaroberts. Frankly the world needs more PhD students on ancient magic; I thoroughly look forwards to reading BR’s finished work.

For the other instalment of QIM (am I really calling it this?): Stuart McKie.

Quaestiones in magica: Stuart McKie

Attempting to try something different here on the Roman magic blog, by asking a series of informal questions of Classicists, archaeologists, academics, and others about ancient magic. Welcome to the loony fringe, dear reader. I make no apologies for any poorly translated Latin in the title.

The first victim in the chair is a Roman magic co-conspirator, Dr. Stuart McKie, who rarely seems to say no to my daft ideas. Stuart is a Teaching Fellow in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at Durham University.

Dr. McKie. He earned the wreath for ‘Best pose whilst wearing a wreath’.

Easy first question – what are you currently researching and how did that come about?

SM: “I am currently finishing my book on curses from the Roman west, which is an expansion of my PhD thesis. That’s about all I’ve got time for at the moment, but I’m also planning a project on magic and the human body, looking particularly at what Pliny the Elder has to say about it all. The idea came from thinking about how magical objects like curses interact with human bodies. I came to the realisation that the body was considered a magical object in itself, which is something I don’t think a lot of scholars have explored.”

What was the most recent (academic) book you bought? And have you opened it yet?

SM: “It was Marco Simon and Piramonte (ed), 2020. Contesti magici = Contextos mágicos, and yes I have! There’s loads of amazing articles in it, so I think I’ve almost read it cover to cover!”

The hardest question in three words: magic or religion?

SM: “Urg. Why Adam, why!? I’m going to make it worse by saying It’s All Ritual, aren’t I?”

AP: Laughs maniacally

Imagine you are on commission and trying to sell me an ancient curse, spell, amulet, or ritual. Choose your favourite and give me the pitch.

SM: “Meet hot singles in your area! Curse them to be eternally tormented by hell daemons unless they have sex with you!”

2020 has been an undeniable mess. How are you finding the world of academia right now?

SM: “The standard dumpster fire. Being precariously employed in a global pandemic has not been fun, and I’ve been luckier than a lot of people.”

AP: Solidarity brother!

If you could have a toasty caffeinated beverage with anyone in the field of religious and magical studies, classics, and archaeology, who would it be and why?

SM: “Obviously it’s you Adam.”

AP: I didn’t even pay him to say that. Guess I owe you coffee now, eh?

It turns out that the Oracle at Delphi has turned up again in 2020. I put your name down earlier on and you’re next in the queue. You get one question. What is it? 

SM: “No way, I’ve read enough Herodotus to know that I’ll misinterpret any answer she gives, and end up dooming myself to an unwinnable war in central Asia.”

Hit me with an excellent blog and/or someone on twitter we should all follow.

SM: “I’m going to say @TraffordLJ – come for the awesome historical fiction, stay for #phallusthursday”

AP: I fully endorse this endorsement.

Thanks Stuart! Keep an eye out for the last-word on Roman Curses in the West hitting all academic bookshops in 2022 (and probably some disreputable ones as well, also in 2022. Hopefully there will be a rescheduled Magic conference organised by Parker and McKie in 2021 as well.

Follow Stuart on Twitter @bigfridge224

**If you weren’t sure, I am AP.

New curses from Britannia

Over the past 4 (almost 5) years I have created a database of the magical objects from Roman Britain. Actual details of how, what, and why, will be present in the final submission of my thesis at the back end of 2021. Over 2,000 objects are included [Audience: Oooooooo].

As part of the data-gathering process, one of the hardest things to do was to decide when to stop. At some point one had to start sifting through and analysing some of this data and try to draw meaningful conclusions from it all. Methodologically, this makes sense. However, the nature of commercial archaeology and academia in Britain means that stuff keeps turning up and is going to continue to do so. The database I’ve created and stopped adding to at the end of 2019 is already out of date! Obviously I want to present an accurate a picture as I can, but keeping this up to date is one more thing to worry about. Rather than ignore it, for the short term I have chosen to worry about it and add in additional objects absent from THE DATABASE into a separate, but identical database. It probably isn’t sustainable forever, but as objects seems to passively enter my sphere of awareness via twitter, or direct emails, or new articles, I still feel the need to capture that information somehow.

Thus, the latest edition of the journal Britannia, of which I have long been a fan includes some newly published curses in the “Roman Britain in 2019: Inscriptions” section. The author of this section is Roger Tomlin, who has probably done more than anyone for the study of Greek and Latin language in Roman Britain. He is the nexus for all Romano-British inscriptions and undoubtedly has his work cut out keeping up with it all. The downside to this is that there are some large collections of tricky textual objects which have been published sporadically. Thus, in 2020 we are treated to the addition of two more curse tablets from the shrine at Uley. They were excavated in 1977-1979 (see Woodward and Leach 1993). Up until 2016, 41 of approximately 140 curse tablets from the shrine had been published. I think this these are the newest additions to the corpus since then, but that’s TBC.

One of the published Uley tablets. In the British Museum: BM, 1978,0102.156
(C)Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Whilst we might only have a third of the corpus now available in translation, and all down the good works of Dr. Tomlin, there remains a significant portion of this valuable dataset hidden away by their academic gatekeepers [Audience: Boooo].

Anyhow, let’s forefront some new magical texts from Roman Britain, all published in: Tomlin, R. 2020. “Roman Britain in 2019. I – Inscriptions”, Britannia 51. First View. DOI: https://doi-org.libezproxy.open.ac.uk/10.1017/S0068113X2000049

Curse tablet from Uley (Tomlin 2020, no.12)
Irregular rectangle cut from hammered lead sheet, 92 by 79 mm. Both faces inscribed.

[Side 1]
diu[o] Mercụ rio doṇ aui
qui me ma[li] coṇ sili
desputauerit ouem
inuolauerit ipse
deus interscia(t) sangu(i)n[̣ e]
uị li si ser(u)us si liber si
puer si pueḷ(̣l)a

[Side 2]
licet qu[o]d ̣ [n]eṣ c̣ io
ap̣ut .e[. . .].mụ icạ n
diui ipseụ [s . . .] me
inp[.]ope..[. . .] nẹ ssi
ips.[.]seu[̣ .]s[. . .].

Translation: “To the god Mercury I have given (the man) who of evil intent has ?robbed me (and) has stolen (my) sheep. Let the god himself ?kill (him) with his vile blood, whether (he is) slave or free, whether boy or girl, even if, which I do not know, at the . . . of the god himself . . . me . . . unless . . .”

Curse tablet from Uley (Tomlin 2020, no.13)

si quis
ouem su[um de pro]
prio tulerit Virilis, si ser(u)us [si liber]
si baro si mulier, si ser
us [si liber ?ut]
nọ n ̣ [i]lis permittas nẹ c̣ [. . . ?nec]
bib(e)re (nec m)anducare n[ec ante dies]
nouem san(g)uinem suum [. . . ni]
si uindictam meam u.[. . .]

[. . .] . . . qui . . . [. . .]
[. . .]sạ n.ep..[. . .]uit
[. . .] sanuine.

Translation: “If anyone . . . has stolen his sheep . . . from the property of
Virilis, whether slave [or free], whether man or woman, whether slave [or free], may you not permit them [. . .] nor to drink nor to eat [. . .] nor [before] nine [days] . . . his blood unless . . . my vengeance . . . who . . . has . . . with (his) blood”

What is the obsession with the sheep? To avoid any confusion with the English use of ‘sheep’ as singular and plural, in Latin ovem is the plural of ovis so this theft is dealing with a flock rather than a single sheep. One of the earlier published curses, although fragmentary, also mentions sheep (McKie 2016, no. 166), and the rather famous curse from Honoratus notes his loss of two wheels and four cows (McKie 2016, no. 173). Clearly these tablets speak of the grievances of a rural farming community in the area of modern Gloucestershire and something tending towards a tradition of cursing in a move to resolve these issues.

There is a general tradition that the curse tablets in Roman Britain were ‘Prayers for Justice’, but this seems to be particularly true of the Uley shrine (well, of those curses we can access). I wonder if it’s because of the association between Mercury and commerce, and therefore wealth? He was the right to dude to be asking about losing money?

I shall certainly look forwards to seeing more.


McKie, S. 2016a. ‘The Social Significance of Curse Tablets in the North-Western Provinces of the Roman Empire’. PhD Thesis, Open University.

Tomlin, R. 2020. “Roman Britain in 2019. I – Inscriptions”, Britannia 51. First View. DOI: https://doi-org.libezproxy.open.ac.uk/10.1017/S0068113X2000049

Woodward, A. and Leach, P. 1993. The Uley Shrines: Excavation of a Ritual Complex on West Hill, Uley, Gloucestershire, 1977-9 (English Heritage Archaeological Report 17). London, English Heritage and British Museum.

Redundant thoughts

At the start of this month I tweeted that my job was at risk. And then it became official. Here’s an update.

I’ve been on furlough since March and now my professional role is officially at risk as a result of COVID-19. I don’t want pity – that’s just a stark reality of 2020 and many other people have had worse to deal with than I have. Closing UK museums over the summer was absolutely the right thing to do, but the fiscal implications are dire. The Trust  I work for is a charity and has reasonable pots of money in from grants to support its existence; mostly it is (was) self-sustaining through money gained from entry tickets, commercial ventures, and events. Nothing open or being opened in a much reduced capacity has made that bottom line a lot closer than anyone wanted it to be. Many jobs in the Trust will go and several new ones are being made to redeploy some of those affected. The new organisational layout is basically a war-cabinet, an arrangement of people who will batten down the hatches to weather the ongoing storm for 12-18 months.

None of this is ideal. There will be a huge loss of skills and experience in the curatorial, learning, public engagement, finance, comms, and VE teams. In some cases, these people are basically irreplaceable. Yet here we are. Museums people are a wonderful group of passionate geeks and nerds who scrape a living doing something that they’d would (and probably have, at some point) be doing for free had things worked out differently. I know I’m not irreplaceable but being 2 months shy of 10 years continued service I certainly know a thing or two about the broken old stuff and it’s a shame that might not count for much. The problem is that this knowledge isn’t income-generating unless it’s feeding into an exhibition or other venture.

There are new jobs being made available; on which I can’t say too much other than they are museum generalist types undertaking, it seems, all of the work and all of the paperwork without having a specialist collection to deal with. I imagine that all of the people applying for these jobs will have been working with one of the specialist collections already, so Christ only knows how we are to be dragged away from that which we know best.

I hate everything about having to fight against friends and colleagues for a slice of this pitiful cake. I hate being Machiavellian and pushing my own skills and experience, to get a higher score on an Expression of Interest. I hate lying to myself and having to write applications and similar things like I am the best thing that ever happened to Museums Archaeology because I don’t believe that, even superficially, for a second. Whilst gainfully employed I’ve still been unsuccessful in the jobs market for the past 3 years (the current tally is, I think, 6 interviews in a row without a job offer). Given how niche this sector is, vacancies in my region don’t come up all that often and are wildly competitive when they do. I recently came 2nd for a role in a nearby museum which was more junior than my current one, and that doesn’t do self-confidence any good. A combination of that and the fact that my current job was being financially down-graded before COVID took hold doesn’t lead me to believe that my skills and experience are as highly sought after as I’d like them to be. This means the jobs market isn’t a welcoming place for me, I think. I suspect many colleagues will also be wanting to weather the storm, like I wish to, in a role that is at least in a familiar place with familiar people and familiar systems. Who can blame us? No-one goes into working in museums because it’s lucrative – we do it for the love of our heritage, love of truths and of stories, and we do it because we feel connected to this stuff.

Thus, today I submitted my EOI for a job that isn’t my job. What was the alternative? The jobs market in this sector is dire at the best of times and the undoubtedly new influx of fellow curators and historians into it following cuts and redundancies elsewhere in the country will make it more competitive than ever. There are people’s jobs that will go and that has real world implications. I suspect this will disproportionately affect the younger half of the museum’s workforce who may be already have been precariously employed and living in rented accommodation. I am lucky to live in a cheap part of the country in a house that has my name on the mortgage and have a wonderful partner who was a) already the breadwinner and b) isn’t at risk of redundancy. This is a blessing and I know how fortunate I am for all of these things.

I’ve had many conversations with friends and colleagues over the past few weeks and they all seem, like me, physically and emotionally exhausted by the stress of it all. One of the things we are agreed on is that it would be nice to have someone to blame – we are losing jobs because of a virus that didn’t exist a year ago. That’s pretty fucked up. I cant imagine going back to work and having empty desks or names removed from the signing in board; one of them might yet be mine, but this is a a proper sucker punch from the hand of fate.

The Trust must do what it has to in order to survive and I broadly support that idea as I, as a curatorial person, have always been aware that my interactions with the old things will be fleeting and ephemeral. They will be here long after I’m gone (professionally and corporeally, both are true) and that is, I think, reassuring. Perhaps counting one’s blessings are the only sane thing to do at a time like this?

As this is my PhD blog I should mention that somewhere. Personally, this does have implications for my PhD as I have no head-space to think about magic and materiality in Roman Britain and getting those all-important words written down for the first draft has become temporarily impossible. Thankfully the OU respects that its students are real people with real lives and real problems, and I should be able to reclaim this time at the end of the programme if I need it. How could I write meaningful, suspenseful things about archaeological theory when my capacity to deal with anything has been cut so thinly? Case in point, on Wednesday I went to the barbers for the first time in 2020 looking for a proper haircut. The bugger chopped it way too short before I could do anything about it and I was a miserable mope for the rest of the day and most of the following day. I’m so stressed I can’t deal with something so simple, so thinking about opening my thesis up gives me chills at the minute. And that’s fucked up too.

What are the solutions to any of these problems? Damned if I know. I’m not a public health expert, or an economist, or a politician. I’m just a history nerd who likes to talk about Medieval pots and pictures of Roman willies and is horrified that my chances to continue doing this might be taken away by something I have next-to-no control over. If I end up unemployed I’m sure I could go work on a forklift at the Wren kitchens HQ in town or become a postie walking all over the place and be thankful for the opportunity, but museums have a way of getting into your soul. Not working in a museum, with archaeology, would be an existential crisis. I’m sure many of my colleagues feel the same: this is what I do, this is what I am. That’s a very capitalist way of thinking about the world, defining yourself by your job, but Museums are not part of the normal world. They are wonderful places ran by passionate people. It’l be a shame to lose some of that.

If you have read my small rant then thanks for doing so. I repeat: I don’t want pity. If you want to help in any way, then go to your recently re-opened museums, buy a mug from their online shop, or just retweet their frantic digital engagement. Museums have been brought to their knees once again and this time the pressure isn’t going to go away. Museums are for everyone and the idea that some of them might not exist this time next year is not worth bearing, so help them out. Please.