Monthly Archives: November 2017
During the nine-year-long Battle for Gaul, Julius Caesar fought his way across northwest Europe. He invaded Britain twice; in 55BC, and again in 54BC. But while archaeologists have found evidence of the war in France, there has been very little discovered in Britain – until now.
At a site called Ebbsfleet, in northeast Kent, my colleagues from the University of Leicester and I finally uncovered the site where Julius Caesar’s fleet landed in 54BC. A series of surveys and excavations, spanning from 2015 to 2017, revealed a large enclosure, defended by a ditch five metres wide and two metres deep.
We dated the ditch all the way back to the first century BC, by examining the pottery and using radiocarbon dating techniques.
At the bottom of the ditch, we found the tip of an iron weapon, which was later identified as a Roman spear, or “pilum”. Similar weapons were discovered at the site of Alésia in France, where the decisive encounter in the Battle for Gaul took place. What’s more, the defensive ditches at Alésia are the same size and shape as those we discovered at Ebbsfleet.
In Caesar’s own words
Our dig was situated next to Pegwell Bay, a large, sandy beach with chalk cliffs at its northern end. This striking landscape also helps to confirm that we really have found the location of Caesar’s base. Most of what is known about Caesar’s voyage comes from his own written accounts, based on his annual reports to the Roman senate.
When the Roman fleet set sail from France, they intended to use the wind to help them cross the Channel to find a large, safe place to lay anchor and prepare for battle. But the wind dropped, and the fleet was carried too far northeast by the tide.
At sunrise, Caesar saw Britain “left afar on the port side”. Only high land would have been visible from a small ship far out at sea. And the only such land in northeast Kent are the cliffs near Ebbsfleet. Caesar also describes how he left the ships riding at anchor next to a “sandy, open shore” – a perfect description of Pegwell Bay.
Given Caesar’s own words seem so clear, it’s surprising that Pegwell Bay has never been considered as a possible landing site before. Instead, Caesar was long thought to have landed at Walmer, 15 kilometres to the south. One reason might be that, until the Middle Ages, Thanet was an island.
The Isle of Thanet was separated from the mainland by the Wantsum Channel. But no one knows how big the channel was 2,000 years ago; it could be that whatever disadvantages it presented were offset by the presence of a large and safe beach, where 800 ships could land and disembark 20,000 men and 2,000 horses in one day.
Peace by force
Despite the imposing size of Caesar’s fleet, it was long thought that his landing had little lasting impact on Britain. Caesar himself returned to France immediately after the two campaigns, without leaving a garrison. Yet the discovery of the landing site gives us cause to question this assumption.
Historical sources, royal burials and ancient coins indicate that from about 20BC, the kings of southeast England had strong links to Rome. But historians have found it hard to explain how these alliances came into existence. The suggestion that they sprung from diplomatic ties forged by the emperor Augustus at that time has never been convincing.
But Caesar tells us that he reached a peace accord with the Britons in 54BC, even taking hostages from the ruling families to ensure the agreement was respected. Perhaps the alliances which came to light in the 20s BC were originally established by Caesar, a generation before emperor Augustus asserted his authority over the Roman Empire.
The close ties between Rome and the kings of southeast England assured emperor Claudius of a relatively easy military victory, when he first set out to conquer England in 43 AD. So it seems Caesar’s earlier conquest could have laid the foundations for the Roman occupation of Britain, which lasted more than 300 years.
For Caesar, the consequences of his invasions were clear. In his day, Britain lay beyond the known world. By crossing the ocean and conquering Britain, Caesar caused a sensation in his homeland. He was awarded the longest public thanksgiving in Rome, winning great acclaim and glory in the process. Mission accomplished.
Type “Holy Grail” into Google and … well, you probably don’t need me to finish that sentence. The sheer multiplicity of what any search engine throws up demonstrates that there is no clear consensus as to what the Grail is or was. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of people out there claiming to know its history, true meaning and even where to find it.
Modern authors, perhaps most (in)famously Dan Brown, offer new interpretations and, even when these are clearly and explicitly rooted in little more than imaginative fiction, they get picked up and bandied about as if a new scientific and irrefutable truth has been discovered. The Grail, though, will perhaps always eschew definition. But why?
The first known mention of a Grail (“un graal”) is made in a narrative spun by a 12th century writer of French romance, Chrétien de Troyes, who might reasonably be referred to as the Dan Brown of his day – though some scholars would argue that the quality of Chrétien’s writing far exceeds anything Brown has so far produced.
Chrétien’s Grail is mystical indeed – it is a dish, big and wide enough to take a salmon, that seems capable to delivering food and sustenance. To obtain the Grail requires asking a particular question at the Grail Castle. Unfortunately, the exact question (“Whom does the Grail serve?”) is only revealed after the Grail quester, the hapless Perceval, has missed the opportunity to ask it. It seems he is not quite ready, not quite mature enough, for the Grail.
But if this dish is the “first” Grail, then why do we now have so many possible Grails? Indeed, it is, at turns, depicted as the chalice of the Last Supper or of the Crucifixion or both, or as a stone containing the elixir of life, or even as the bloodline of Christ. And this list is hardly exhaustive. The reason most likely has to do with the fact that Chrétien appears to have died before completing his story, leaving the crucial questions as to what the Grail is and means tantalisingly unanswered. And it did not take long for others to try to answer them for him.
Robert de Boron, a poet writing within 20 or so years of Chrétien (circa 1190-1200), seems to have been the first to have associated the Grail with the cup of the Last Supper. In Robert’s prehistory of the object, Joseph of Arimathea took the Grail to the Crucifixion and used it to catch Christ’s blood. In the years that followed (1200-1230), anonymous writers of prose romances fixated upon the Last Supper’s Holy Chalice and made the Grail the subject of a quest by various knights of King Arthur’s court. In Germany, by contrast, the knight and poet Wolfram von Eschenbach reimagined the Grail as “Lapsit exillis” – an item more commonly referred to these days as the “Philosopher’s Stone”.
None of these is anything like Chrétien’s Grail, of course, so we can fairly ask: did medieval audiences have any more of a clue about the nature of the Holy Grail than we do today?
Publishing the Grail
My recent book delves into the medieval publishing history of the French romances that contain references to the Grail legend, asking questions about the narratives’ compilation into manuscript books. Sometimes, a given text will be bound alongside other types of texts, some of which seemingly have nothing to do with the Grail whatsoever. So, what sorts of texts do we find accompanying Grail narratives in medieval books? Can this tell us anything about what medieval audiences knew or understood of the Grail?
The picture is varied, but a broad chronological trend is possible to spot. Some of the few earliest manuscript books we still have see Grail narratives compiled alone, but a pattern quickly appears for including them into collected volumes. In these cases, Grail narratives can be found alongside historical, religious or other narrative (or fictional) texts. A picture emerges, therefore, of a Grail just as lacking in clear definition as that of today.
Perhaps the Grail served as a useful tool that could be deployed in all manner of contexts to help communicate the required message, whatever that message may have been. We still see this today, of course, such as when we use the phrase “The Holy Grail of…” to describe the practically unobtainable, but highly desirable prize in just about any area you can think of. There is even a guitar effect-pedal named “holy grail”.
Once the prose romances of the 13th century started to appear, though, the Grail took on a proper life of its own. Like a modern soap opera, these romances comprised vast reams of narrative threads, riddled with independent episodes and inconsistencies. They occupied entire books, often enormous and lavishly illustrated, and today these offer evidence that literature about the Grail evaded straightforward understanding and needed to be set apart – physically and figuratively. In other words, Grail literature had a distinctive quality – it was, as we might call it today, a genre in its own right.
In the absence of clear definition, it is human nature to impose meaning. This is what happens with the Grail today and, according to the evidence of medieval book compilation, it is almost certainly what happened in the Middle Ages, too. Just as modern guitarists use their “holy grail” to experiment with all kinds of sounds, so medieval writers and publishers of romance used the Grail as an adaptable and creative instrument for conveying a particular message to their audience, the nature of which could be very different from one book to the next.
Whether the audience always understood that message, of course, is another matter entirely.
What does society want and need from the arts and humanities? That’s a question that we’ve been asking in a recent project called Bridging the Gap, which explored the wider social, cultural and economic value of arts and humanities research and how to better unlock that value.
One thing that has emerged are the ways that the arts and humanities, like any academic discipline, contribute specific content to the wider world. That could be content about a particular place or point in history, or detail about an artist.
Content isn’t to be dismissed, and as my colleagues and I discovered during our research, there is a continuing demand for specific subject expertise in a range of quarters. One thing we heard time and again from those working in the heritage sector is how important knowledge of a particular historical issue is to the way that content is interpreted. In a stately home for example, academic expertise on something like the changing nature of domestic service across the 19th and 20th centuries feeds in to shaping visitor experiences.
But there are times when the link is far less obvious. It isn’t always easy to predict what knowledge will be relevant where and when. During the recent Ebola outbreak, it was not just specific medical knowledge that was crucial, but also the more seemingly esoteric knowledge of anthropologists with expertise in West African mourning and burial rituals. The specific content knowledge of the arts and humanities is a rich resource that can be drawn upon to inform and shape anything from policy to museum display.
But academic research into the arts and humanities is also much more than just content.
A wider skillset
What we were particularly interested in examining were those moments when arts and humanities researchers bring something more than their subject specialism to the table. To test this we undertook something of an experiment, sending two groups of arts and humanities researchers into the wild. We chose two National Trust sites at Stourhead and Sherborne, which none of the researchers had specialist knowledge of. In both cases, they knew far less than the staff there who possess in-depth and intimate knowledge of these places. We were interested in seeing what, if anything, they brought from the wider skill set of the arts and humanities.
We were surprised by the results. In both cases, something very similar happened. The teams ended up falling into a set of ways of working that characterise arts and humanities research. They asked questions, read the various texts they discovered, looked for stories and isolated a range of broader themes. The results were “big narratives” that provided those working at these sites with novel ways of looking at, and thinking about these familiar places. For example at Sherborne, they connected two seemingly unconnected buildings – a 17th-century hunting lodge and 20th-century airfield building – through their balconies and ideas of the view.
The researchers brought something of value to the heritage sector, but in a less obvious, direct and measurable way than the subject-specific knowledge of a historian of domestic service who helps shape display practice both upstairs and downstairs in a country house.
Being both a specialist and generalist is something that academics are well used to as they combine research and teaching within their day-to-day life and persona. And it is something that we discovered more arts and humanities researchers are embracing, in particular in their interactions with the creative industries.
Here we were struck by the way that the most successful collaborations were ones where the distinct identities of arts and humanities researchers and businesses in the creative industries blurred. One inspiring example was Olion/Traces, an app offering visitors to St Fagans National Museum of History in Cardiff an innovative way of experiencing the museum grounds as it melds fact and fiction, the archives and the site itself. This innovative interpretative tool was co-developed by an academic, Jenny Kidd from Cardiff University, a creative producer, Allie John at yellobrick, and a heritage professional, and Sara Huws from the digital media department at Amgueddfa Cymru/National Museum of Wales.
What the team found was that Kidd wasn’t simply involved at the “ideas” stage, inputting her specialist knowledge and then stepping back. But rather, all three were involved at each and every stage of development and feedback. Olion/Traces is one example of new and fruitful ways of working, where arts and humanities researchers become active participants in the creative economy.
This sense of new ways of working in the arts and humanities is something that I’ve thought a lot about personally. In some ways I am still a traditional researcher whose specialist knowledge of the Holocaust is, for example, drawn upon by museums who want content to create a new display. But, alongside that, I’ve also discovered the opportunities, and challenges, of working alongside others in the creative economy, in my case working with artists Stand+Stare to develop a sound journal called Mayfly. In our research, we discovered plenty of other academics from the arts and humanities who are using their knowledge and skills in unexpected – as well as expected – ways.