Reality T.V. And The Roman Town House And Disquieting Views Of The Past

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This 4th century Roman house is quite a landmark. It sits beside a rural crossroad below Wenlock Edge, and even though we know it is there, it always takes me by surprise whenever we drive that way to Shrewsbury – its time-slipped Mediterranean demeanour striking false notes in the midst of 21st century Shropshire farmland. But then this was once the style de nos jours across most of England – the way we were, almost fully Romanized, twenty to sixteen centuries ago.

And of course it is a re-creation, but then that is surprising in other ways. For a start it is built on the site of an actual Roman city, otherwise known as Wroxeter or Viroconium, and it is not usual for the heritage-powers-that-be to allow building work on their sites of international archaeological importance. For another, it is a product of a Channel 4 ‘Reality TV’ show broadcast in six episodes back in 2011. ‘Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day ‘ was a piece of experimental archaeology turned mainstream viewing, in which a team of UK builders was set the task of building the town house using ONLY traditional Roman methods.

They had 6 months to master new skills, guided by a 2000 year old manual written by engineer Vitruvius, and under the watchful eye of project planner Professor Dai Morgan Evans, who had based the design on an actual building excavated at the site. By all accounts it was a bit of a bumpy ride.

These days Wroxeter is in the care of English Heritage and if you follow the link you can find out more about the once fourth largest Roman city in Britain. The site’s immense historical importance meant the town house project could only proceed by first creating a foundation raft that would protect the remains in the ground. Originally, too, it was intended that the house would have a limited time span. However, it is still with us, and we finally decided to make an actual visit in November last year – on Remembrance Sunday in fact, when many of us were pondering on quite another momentous historical event, the centenary of the end of World War One.

A strange case of mixed millennia then. The day was bright and blustery day with an icy wind blowing up the Craven Arms gap between the Shropshire Hills. As we peered into the re-created domestic quarters  (in much need of some serious house-keeping) we could hear the peeling bells of Shrewsbury’s churches several miles away. It sounded joyous too, this commemorative toll on so many million wasted lives.

And so it was one of those moments of complete chronological, if not ontological disorientation when you wonder what life, the universe and everything means. A ‘Who am I? Why am I?’ reaction. I took a few photos and fled back to the warmth of the visitor centre where there were two lovely young English Heritage women to chat to, and where one could also submit to the soothingly anodyne effect of graphics panels on topics Roman.

I came away thinking there are many versions of ‘reality’ that we buy into, man-made, manipulative and specious. Nonetheless, there are still some actual Roman remains at Wroxeter, the rising facade of the great Baths Basilica. And of course I remember a couple of weeks I spent here in the 1970s, a Prehistory and Archaeology undergrad, apparently gaining some required excavation skills in order to obtain my degree.

In fact I probably learned more from the gang of prisoners let out each day from their penal establishment. They worked close behind the line of us middle class student excavators, emptying our spoil buckets, barrowing the dirt into skips, all the while intent on shocking us with talk of lurid prison doings. One among them, though, grew so fascinated with the excavation process that he was promoted to the digging line and even worked through his lunch break. ‘I’m going to do this when I get out,’ he said, head down, trowel in hand, scrape-scraping away. Yes. That was a real reality glimpse. I learned a lot from that.

copyright 2019 Tish Farrell

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Lens-Artists: Architecture

DES RES ~ Nouveau Roman Anyone?

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I think I may have mentioned somewhere on this blog that, a few miles up the road from Wenlock, we have the remains of Wroxeter Roman City aka Viroconium aka Uriconium. In its day it was one of the largest urban settlements in Europe (AD 47 – AD 650). Most of it still lies under farm fields within the broad sweep of the River Severn, although the outlines of houses and roads have been eerily revealed in aerial photos and  LADAR surveys.

For centuries, too, farmers at their  ploughs have turned up marvellous Roman artefacts. Even now, if you walk the fields after harvest you can easily spot the polished terracotta shards of fine Samian pottery among the wheat stubble. Archaeological excavations have been on-going for decades. I dug there myself aeons ago, as an undergraduate archaeology student who needed to rack up some fieldwork  experience. The exposed remains are now in the care of English Heritage, and many of the finds are on display in the site’s small museum. More of the collection has been recently re-displayed at the county’s new Shrewsbury Museum.

But now we come to the Roman Villa in the photo – this ‘desirable town residence’. Its appearance here was prompted by Jo’s ‘restoration’ challenge. Strictly speaking, this is not so much a restoration as a  reconstruction. Although on the other hand, you could say that its builders did attempt to use only Roman construction methods – thus ensuring the restoration of long-lost skills. They did, however, have to apply for present day planning permission before they could start work.

And the whole project came about as part of a TV series on UK’s Channel 4 – Rome wasn’t built in a day. You can have virtual tour of the villa HERE

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Of the original city, there is not a great deal to see, although the remaining high-standing basilica wall is pretty impressive, and did feature rather splendidly in Simon Schama’s epic A History of Britain TV series. You can see the first episode in which it and the surrounding remains feature at 40 minutes in:

Simon Schama’s A History of Britain

 

One of the reasons why the physical remains of this large and long-lived city are so few is because the building stone was recycled through the ages. If you walk down the lane to Wroxeter Church you will find that Roman pillars have been used to make the gateposts. Doubtless much more of the Roman stonework found its way into the body of the original Anglo-Saxon, later Gothic church. The church is redundant now, and looking rather sad.

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And finally, I can’t leave you without showing off some more Roman treasures that may be found in Shrewsbury Museum’s Roman gallery. The finest object of all is a polished silver mirror, made in the Rhineland but found in Wroxeter forum’s courtyard. It dates from the AD 2oos. Its convex design, and the weight of the silver suggests it would have been held by a slave or servant so ‘my lady’ could admire her latest hair-do. Enjoy!

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Back of a convex silver mirror, circa 3rd century AD, Shrewsbury Museum.

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Restored section of Roman mosaic floor from Whitley Grange Roman Villa, near Shrewsbury.

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The Shrewsbury Hoard: over 9,000 coins dating from 280 AD to the following century. The coins were wrapped in cloth bags and buried in a big storage jar.

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copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

 

 

For more restored pieces go to: Jo’s guest challenge ‘restoration’. Also check in at Paula’s response at Lost in Translation Thursday’s Special