Roman Wall Blues (World Heritage Day 2017)

Roman Wall Blues. Picture by my dad.
Over the heather the wet wind blows,
I've lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose.

The rain comes pattering out of the sky,
I'm a Wall soldier, I don't know why.

The mist creeps over the hard grey stone,
My girl's in Tungria; I sleep alone.

Aulus goes hanging around her place;
I don't like his manners, I don't like his face.

Piso's a Christian, he worships a fish;
There'd be no kissing if he had his wish.

She gave me a ring but I diced it away;
I want my girl and I want my pay.

When I'm a veteran with only one eye
I shall do nothing but look at the sky.

W.H. Auden

You can read more about this poem, and the music composed for it by Benjamin Britten, here! Sadly the free download no longer works, but you can still listen to a clip here.

So I've been on an unexpected Roman history kick recently. It started when my parents were visiting last week, and we took a day trip with Rabbie's Tours to the Borders and Hadrian's Wall. It was very cool to drive along Roman roads, and see stones that have been piled in the same place for centuries. It was hard to imagine what an impact it would have made on the landscape at its original size, up to 5 metres high and stretching from horizon to horizon. As it is now, it can easily blend in with the other countryside drystone walls, but its linear neatness is remarkable even now.

A serious historian examines the wall. Picture by dad.

The most exciting part of the trip for me was visiting Vindolanda, the site of a fort and settlement where there has been extensive archaeological work done. The museum there has an impressive selection of everyday objects that have been extremely well preserved, including one of the oldest handwritten documents in Britain, which happens to pass the Bechdel test!

Tablet no. 291. Claudia Severa wrote a birthday party invitation to Sulpicia Lepidina c. 100AD.
Original textile fragments and needles, and reproduction dye and weave samples.
Brooches, just some of the many pieces of jewellery found there.
There is an entire wall of leather shoes on display; these are some of my favourites.

So now I want to do a Roman Britain impression. Clearly I'm easy for some good material culture.

Unfortunately I didn't have time to put together an outfit, but on Tuesday I did get to participate in an exciting event at the Antonine Wall. As part of the Word Heritage Day Scotland in Six event, Dig It! organised a Picts vs Romans road race and bake-off. Guess which one I helped with?

The organisers asked me to make this Roman pear custard (page 6 of the recipe book). The recipe was already adapted for modern use, so it wasn't too hard, just a slight challenge because I've never made custard before! I was up early to see my parents off- too early, as it turned out, because when I went to buy ingredients I ran up against Scottish licensing laws. A second trip to the shop later, I got to be the person buying multiple bottles of cheap white wine and Madeira at 10am. Here are a couple in-progress pictures of cooking because I remembered to take them!

I pared many pairs of pears.
The interesting combination of seasonings called for in the recipe.

In the evening, I met up with some other volunteers and made the trip to Falkirk. The event was based at Callendar House, and featured Roman and Pictish reenactors, a food historian with some recreated Roman food, and an impressive array of cakes. My custard came dead last in the bake-off; apparently Roman cuisine is a bit of an acquired taste! I was pleased with how it turned out, though. It's light and fruity and mainly tastes of cumin, and is successfully a custard! The event itself was really fun, too. The organisers and other volunteers were all friendly and enthusiastic, and everyone participating seemed to get into the spirit of things. There were a lot of good costumes among the runners, and the cake was well received!

Romans and Picts battle in front of the Antonine Wall earthworks.
The Great Roman Bake-Off! I did my best to channel my inner Sue Perkins.
Not pictured: my four votes.
Woad Women: predecessors of the Indigo Girls? Pictish picture by Patrycja.

The last couple weeks have been a fun diversion into ancient history, but now I have to get back to the 19th century and finish up my 1870s ballgown as I only have a couple weeks!


  1. Interesting excursion into the even further past than your usual. It's fun that you got to try out a recipe from the time!



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