“Above all the exhibition tells a story of power and transformation, a tale of the circulation of Roman things and thought through the empire and beyond. For 400 years, from Claudius’s conquest in AD43 until the end of Roman rule around 410.”
This article titled “Exhibition to bring Roman empire to Bristol Museum and Art Gallery” was written by Charlotte Higgins, chief arts writer, for theguardian.com on Friday 6th September 2013 14.49 UTC
Upstairs at the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery what look like rough clumps of rubble have been laid out on the floor in a rough circle.
At first glance it might perhaps be some kind of contemporary sculpture – an artwork contemplating the friability and fragility of the material world, perhaps – until closer inspection reveals it to be a Roman mosaic, badly broken up, and then pieced back together.
Only a keen eye may detect its once fine design. Orpheus, the great musician of myth, sits at its centre strumming a lyre, while a fox leaps at his feet. Around him circle animals − entranced by his glorious music − a bull, a stag, a leopard, a lion, a hind, a bear. They are interspersed with trees: even they, according to the poet Ovid’s account of the tale, were held spellbound by his song.
The mosaic, found at Newton St Loe during the building of the Bath to Bristol railway in 1837, is nearly 2,000 years old and showing its age. It has recently been jigsawed together and displayed for only the second time in its history after it was pickaxed from a wall of Keynsham railway station in 1851. Now it provides a poignant taster of a major new British Museum touring exhibition that opens in Bristol on 21 September.
Following the success of the museum’s Pompeii and Herculaneum show, which has been visited by 390,000 people so far, this latest exhibition, Roman Empire: Power and People, intends to bring the Romans beyond London. The aim, said Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, is to “allow visitors to get close to our Roman ancestors and appreciate both the breadth of the Roman empire and its local impact on Britain”.
The exhibition contains more than 100 treasures from the British Museum along with objects from Bristol’s own collection: artefacts as varied as a sculpture of a barbarian captive from the emperor Trajan’s villa; a marvellously preserved woollen sock from Egypt (with a handy gap between the two largest toes for inserting a sandal-thong); and a Roman coin bearing the emperor Claudius’s head that was found in India – where it may have been traded as bullion, in the absence of a domestic coinage system.
Above all the exhibition tells a story of power and transformation, a tale of the circulation of Roman things and thought through the empire and beyond. For 400 years, from Claudius’s conquest in AD43 until the end of Roman rule around 410, Britain was an artery in this imperial system that stretched from the Solway Firth to Syria. Over the course of these long transits of time and geography, the purpose of ideas and objects (like that of the gold coin in India) was frequently changed, lassoed by the local populace for their own use.
Some of the most intriguing objects in the exhibition are from Bristol’s own collection. There are remnants of what was once a temple at Nettleton Shrub in Wiltshire – a large octagonal building perhaps in honour of Apollo.
But what kind of Apollo? An altar here was dedicated to “Apollo Cunomaglos”. According to Bristol Museum’s curator of archaeology, Gail Boyle, the word Cunomaglos is Celtic, meaning “hound prince”. An intriguing merging between Olympian and local deities had occurred (the Romans being relaxed and pragmatic about that kind of thing, unless the Christians were involved).
Also discovered amid the remains was the bottom half of a sculpture depicting a woman, probably the goddess Diana, with her collared dog gazing adoringly up at her. Though the sculpture has seen better days, you can see his long silky ears, finely turned paws and almost quivering nose.
Not far away in Lydney in Gloucestershire, a Roman temple celebrated an otherwise unknown, probably Celtic, god called Nodens, for whom visitors left beautifully carved sculptures of dogs. Iron Age Britons had a thing for dogs: King Cunobelinus, Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, has a canine name.
It is thanks to Isambard Kingdom Brunel that the Newton St Loe mosaic exists in any form now.
“Pray don’t give away our Roman Remains. We are collecting a really valuable Geological and general museum to be attached to the railway establishment,” he wrote in a letter in 1837. When the railway workers cut through into the Roman villa, a junior engineer, Thomas Marsh, made beautiful, precise plans and illustrations of the remains, and the splendid Orpheus mosaic, in a more or less pristine state, was set duly into the wall of Keynsham station.
No one knows why it was later broken up so brutally and sent to the nascent Bristol Museum. Stored in tea-chests, it ended up both singed (after a fire in the museum store) and frost-damaged. But it still exists, just as Roman Britain has a way of asserting itself – however fragmented – into the familiar landscape of our modern world. In Ovid’s story abut Orpheus, the singer-poet ends up being torn limb from limb, broken apart by angry maenads. But he keeps on singing.
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