STORIES IN STONES – Ruth Downie
STORIES IN STONES
Sometimes I wonder if I was a pig in a former life. I’m still extraordinarily happy scraping around in mud, shifting buckets of earth and baling out flooded trenches. Being human and thus able to hold a trowel, I can cut a nice vertical section, or ease the dirt out of a mosaic with a sharpened stick and a paintbrush while balancing on a plank so as not to wreck the archaeology. (If I had three wishes, one thing I would ask for is the ability to hover six inches above the ground, thus avoiding the painful contortions required when a site director says, “Just clean that feature up, but don’t tread on anything.”)
The delight of all this grubbing about is that sooner or later you unearth something nobody else has seen for hundreds of years. A piece of pot with the maker’s thumbprint in it. The remains of someone’s dinner: an animal bone still bearing the mark of the butcher’s knife. If our ancestors could see the way we treasure their rubbish, they would probably find it very funny.
For me, the urge to write novels set in Roman Britain came from archaeology rather than classical literature. Having no more interest than the average pig in the things school Latin had to offer – sailors and farmers who spent their time loving pretty girls and gazing at tables in the present tense – I confess that I abandoned it as soon as possible.
This turned out to be a big mistake. University entrance was only open to those with Latin O-level. So the farmers and their furniture were hastily dusted off, and in the scramble towards the exam I discovered that it was possible to pass with a minimal amount of grammar as long as you could remember exactly how Gaul had been divided into three parts.
It worked, but it wasn’t inspiring, and I’ve been playing catch-up ever since. I still feel as though the world of classical literature is a glittering party, where I’ve sidled in through a back door that’s covered with inscriptions and graffiti and gossip, and I’m now hiding in the corner, marvelling at the sight of the gods at play and waiting to be thrown out at any moment.
Most of my characters wouldn’t have been invited to the party either. They’re the ordinary, unimportant people whose rubbish remains, but whose stories have been lost. However – the Medicus series has now reached the year of Hadrian’s visit to Britannia, and it would have been crazy not to include him. Especially as, according to rumour, his marriage to Sabina was deeply unhappy and his tour of Britannia seems to have coincided with a scandal involving Sabina and some of his top men. The two best words a fiction writer can hear when confronted with a historical puzzle are “nobody knows.” Guess what the scandal was really about? Nobody knows! So I made something up.
Given the above, you may share my wonder at the fact that I’ll be in the company of so many fine and famous academics and authors at Heffers Classics Festival. When I’m not scribbling notes and sitting with my mouth open in awe, I’ll be talking in the Fiction side of the festival about the stories that archaeology can tell us and the lost tales that have slipped down the gaps between the stones. I’ll also be taking part in a balloon debate, where the unfortunate Dido’s troubles continue as she finds herself represented by… me. Will I do her justice? Will I let her down in a hideously embarrassing fashion? We’ll find out on Saturday, 2nd November.