Passport


(February 4, 1999, Gazette)

Harlow semester reveals lives of the ancients

By Jennifer Baird, Meghan Miller and Daniel Stewart
Special to the Gazette

Descartes wrote that "Travelling is almost like talking with men of other centuries."

The truth in this phrase was genuinely impressed upon us during the three months spent at Harlow with the Arts Semester, Celts, Romans and Saxons, when history became a tangible thing. We were guided around ancient sites of the Romans and Anglo-Saxons by our professors, Drs. Nigel and Stefanie Kennell, as well as other experts. At some sites the students even took over, as each of us had two reports to give, on the site of the topic of the report. As a group we visited many places, including the three cities destroyed in the Boudiccan revolt of the first century AD - Londinium, Verulamium, and Camulodunum (modern London, St. Albans, and Colchester). In Colchester we had the privilege of touring the city, its important sites, and an ongoing excavation by Phillip Crummey, head of Colchester's archaeological trust.

We travelled as far afield as Bath, where the beautiful ruins are so evocative they whisk you back to a time when the Romans themselves were bathing there, and the original drain is still functioning after 1500 years. We got to other spectacular sites on the road less travelled, such as the amazing tumuli at Bartlow, or the seventh-century church at Bradwell-on-Sea, built on the site of the Roman fort of Othona. We even got to walk as the Romans did, around the perimeter of what was ancient Londinium, now in the heart of the City of London, where a surprising amount of evidence is still visible.

Much time was spent wandering through the vast British Museum, keeping company with the Parthenon marbles, the Battersea shield, innumerable Greek vases, Bronze Age sculpture, incredibly detailed mosaics from the Mediterranean, the Mildenhall treasure and the Portland Vase.

We rambled through the hills of Danbury, overlooking hedgerows that mark Anglo- Saxon homesteads, and tumbled down over the hills of Norfolk (as the missing wall of Burgh castle did years ago) as we explored the site. No ruins were as imposing as those at Bury St. Edmunds, where the ducks ruled the park (and there were strict instructions not to chase them!). At the ninth-century church of Brixworth the sheep owned the churchyard (be warned, soggy sheep smell bad, as will your shoes if you don't watch where you step).

The language component of the program went well, and we had a forum where Latin came to life; we read in Latin the histories of Caesar, Tacitus, and of Nennius, learning their views on the Romans and Saxons in Britain. The readings we worked through described the very sights we visited; we read of the Boudiccan sack of the Temple of the Divine Claudius in Camulodunum and then stood in its vaults underneath what is now a museum in Colchester.

In addition we toured such wonderful institutions as Cambridge's Fitzwilliam Museum and the Museum of London. We were sometimes given special access. During one behind-the-scenes handling session, Leslie Webster, Deputy Keeper in the Department of Medieval and Later Antiquities of the British Museum, standing amongst the museum's subterranean storage facilities, brought out pieces of the Sutton Hoo ship burial, one of Britain's national treasures, and then passed them around the group. One item was a priceless, magnificent, gold shoulder-clasp. It was absolutely exhilarating to be able to hold it, look at it up close, then on another trip to see it back on the other side of the glass as part of the Museum's central displays and to buy the postcard of it.

The Roman villas at Fishbourne and Lullingstone proved remarkable, where ancient gardens were recreated and mosaics and wall paintings hinted at their original splendour. At the site of the battle of Maldon, as the tide rose at a startling rate flooding the causeway and encroaching on our standing room, we learned just why the Vikings wanted to get off the island so badly. At St. Augustine's abbey in Canterbury there were substantial remains, and just a short walk away we visited St. Martin's, a beautiful little seventh century church where Æthelberht, King of Kent when Augustine arrived, was baptized.

In addition to learning of the Britain of the past, we also got to experience contemporary Britain, and all things British - Cornish pasties, the Tube, Strongbow, double-decker buses, Trafalgar Square, roundabouts, Victoria Station, steak and kidney pie, Charing Cross Road, and rain.

Even the town of Harlow itself had much to offer us, including a Romano-British temple and Harlowbury chapel that had Saxon features, and on Guy Fawkes night we celebrated with the community, and shared their bonfire and fireworks. Just 40 minutes outside of London by train, Harlow lent itself perfectly to many day trips into London to explore the city on our own - and, despite the best attempts of maniac British drivers, no one was even hit by a car. Aboard the Buzz bus, famous for taking the "scenic route," we got lost on our very first day on the way to the The Maltings, but at least we got to see London from all sides and Windsor Castle twice, and it gave us practice for the many times we had to shout, "Are we there yet?" from the back of the bus.

Lectures about architecture are one thing, but walking into the building you're learning about is something else. Just as hearing about Roman coins is that much more fabulous in the coin room of the Fitzwilliam, surrounded by nineteenth-century mahogany cabinets (some shaped like ornate ancient temples, others splendidly carved) which house the museum's substantial collection. The semester at the Harlow Campus gave everyone involved a new appreciation of the histories and the lives of the Romans and the Anglo-Saxons. It enriched our lives and will never be forgotten, and is definitely a program we would recommend to others. We owe many thanks to the Kennells, to the Classics Department, and to the Medieval Studies Program for making it all possible.