Ruth Barker

To Forget and Remember the Quickness of Time

Extract from a conversation between Ruth Barker and the archaeologist Lindsay Allason-Jones, author of Women in Roman Britain (amongst many other titles); and director of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Artefact Studies, University of Newcastle. The conversation took place in Allason-Jones’ office, Newcastle University, on 06/08/10.


Ruth Barker: In the email, I think I said that there were two things I wanted to start by talking about, and they’re both ideas that we’ve almost talked about before.

Lindsay Allason-Jones: But we haven’t quite managed it?


RB: Well, I think they’re questions that we’ve skirted round. One is the relationship between objects and meaning. I’ve become quite interested in this idea of being able to infer something very abstract from something absolutely concrete: how we can start with a physical artefact and use it to think about very intangible things like intention, or belief? So that’s one thing; and the other thing is very difficult to talk about – maybe it’s even impossible to talk about in any meaningful sense, but I’m curious to know what you think about that. I’ve been thinking about what happens to people in Britain imaginatively post 410AD when the Roman occupation effectively ceases – which is a complicated question I know, but I’d like that to be our second point of departure today.


LAJ: Well that [the question of what happens to the British population after the end of Roman occupation] is a tricky one. It comes back to the question of ‘do people need structure in their lives?’; and from there we can also ask whether, in a sense, if you don’t have structure in your life does that effect you - or does that effect the way that historians later on may judge you?

RB: Which seems to be a question about the philosophies of cultures?


LAJ: Well there’s always been an idea that when Roman culture is removed, Britain enters into a ‘Dark Age’ because there’s suddenly very little in the way of material culture that archaeologists can find: there’s little for us to get our hands on. And so it can appear - in the same way that the prehistoric periods can appear - that there’s simply not much there.

There has also been a tendency to assume that because there appears to be ‘primitive’ architecture, therefore there must also be ‘primitive’ religious beliefs and ‘primitive’ everything else. And I think that says more about modern historians, in a funny way. It tells us for example that modern historians want to be able to prove something; they want to be able to get hold of a fact. And in both the prehistoric period and in what’s normally called the Dark Ages we find that provable facts are quite few and far between.

But that doesn’t mean to say that there’s nothing going on during those periods. As I say, those assumptions are useful because they tell us about how we approach the past, rather than because they tell us about the past itself.

RB: That makes me think about the differences between archaeology and history.


LAJ: In the Roman period there is a huge number of documented (and so ‘known’) events of the kind historians study, and you also have lots of material artefacts that archaeologists can find and that might be connected to those known events. But then afterwards, in the post Roman period, you have far fewer known events for historians to look at. One result of this is that the material artefacts that we do have from that period have no context: there are no known events to tie them to. That makes it harder to imagine the situation, somehow.

One reason that the Roman period is so important in the history of Britain is because it’s the first time that a written language exists here. Now in some ways that doesn’t tell us much that we didn’t already know, because we may already have a lot of information about major events from writers like Cicero or Tacitus. But it does give us the names of people, and there’s a huge magic in names. As many different communities will tell you, if you know someone’s name then you have some element of power over them. You can curse them, or you can praise them. In terms of the archaeological community, knowing someone’s names helps us to imagine them. And so, if you have the names of individual people, the past becomes more real.

It’s very rare to know the names of ordinary people from so long ago, but when we do, there’s a kind of magic to it. There was a little girl, for instance, called Pervica, who died at Chesters [the site of a Roman fort on Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland]. And we know her name because there’s a tombstone to her, which says PERVICA MY DAUGHTER. We don’t know whose daughter Pervica was, and we don’t know how old she was, and in fact we don’t know anything about her apart from her name. But, because we do know her name, we know that she, as an individual, existed. Pervica was somebody’s daughter.

Somebody once told me that there’s a philosophy of life that says that you only exist as long as somebody remembers you. As I thought about some of our Roman tombstones, I wondered whether, in that case, someone like Pervica might still ‘exist’ because we know her name again, and so people can remember her again. We make up our own ideas about what these people were like, of course. We don’t always have a great deal of information about them. But on the other hand we know their names, and so they are somehow ‘real’ to us.

So, for 300-odd years after the Romans left we can feel that there was nothing going on in Britain because we don’t know the names of the people who were there. Those people haven’t left us their names, or much information about themselves at all. They seem to have been remarkably loath, in fact, to leave any material culture for us to find. Their buildings weren’t made of stone so they haven’t survived, and therefore it’s very easy for us to believe - because we don’t know their names and they haven’t left a structured culture - that somehow individual people didn’t exist. But they certainly did.