The Ulster Museum: From Irish Elk to Spanish Treasure

I love visiting local museums and the Ulster Museum in Belfast is a great example of the genre. I mean no disparagement by calling it ‘local’; because, what it does, brilliantly, is give visitors an excellent overview of Northern Ireland’s history, together with many fascinating objects which illuminate that.

And it starts with a terrific exhibit – that of the long extinct Irish elk.

An Irish elk excavated from a bog – just look at those magnificent huge antlers

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Top Quality Roman Glass – in Germania Inferior

When I went on a ‘Roman Germany’ holiday a few years ago, the last thing I was expecting to see was superb Roman glass that had actually been made there. I knew that, during the Roman Empire, Rome had occupied parts of Germany to the east of the Rhine for several hundred years but I’d imagined a rough Frontier existence with evidence of Roman forts, siege warfare, and Roman armour – not sophisticated, top-quality glass!

Xanten – a reconstructed Roman fort in Germany; purely military – no fancy glass here, surely.

I was wrong. Cologne, for example, had started life as Oppidum Ubiorum, one of the Roman fortresses set up by the Emperor Augustus in about 10 B.C. It became part of ‘Germania Inferior’ – that is Lower Germany,  the area nearest to the Rhine Estuary. Oppidum Ubiorum and the surrounding territory of Germania Inferior was not so much ruled by Rome directly, it was more an area within Rome’s influence –  the Roman Empire’s boundaries tended to be fluid rather than rigid. In due course, Augustus extended the Imperial frontier to include Germania Superior (Upper Germany) and, eventually, 40 forts stretched along the Rhine; he planned to use them as stepping stones to extend the Roman Empire eastwards as far as the River Elbe.

One of the remaining Roman towers along the city walls of Colonia Claudia Agrippinensis.  

Fast forward 60 years or so, and Oppidum Ubiorum was given a new name: Colonia Claudia Agrippinensis, after the Emperor Claudius’s wife who was born there – hence the name Cologne, or Köln, which it bears today. I was beginning to see that the Roman presence in Germany was much more intentional that I had thought.

Reconstructed Roman scaffolding at the Roman fort at Xanten. Nothing fancy, but it was efficient

This is how the Roman system worked: the military garrisons occupying the Rhine land comprised about 80,000 men. Reliable links were essential if they were to expand eastward and secure the Frontier against the Germanic tribes to the east; some of whom were friendly but others were definitely not. Roads, bridges, forts etc. all had to be built, secured, garrisoned, fed and maintained; the Romans also needed to forge and nurture alliances with friendly tribes on both sides of the Rhine. In other words, the Romans set out to create an autonomous economic zone in Germania Inferior – the land which they now occupied, and had named – in which everyone, soldiers as well as civilians could thrive – and could be taxed.

Partial reconstruction of the obligatory military temple to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva at Xanten 

The Emperor, and those who governed Germania Inferior, were also anxious to promote the Roman way of life: the military garrisons needed pottery, for example, leather goods, wool and linen for clothes and furnishings, carpenters, wheelwrights, builders, stonemasons and so on. Every garrison town had a temple to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva; a Mithraeum, and other communal buildings, like baths. Somebody had to oversee all that building.

Roman glass bowls from the Roman fort at Saalberg; officers could expect the best.

Then there were the veterans, soldiers who had served their 40 years’ service and been granted money and land. They wanted to settle, in comfort, near their old legions – and, of course, Rome could call upon them, if she suddenly needed any military back-up. Roman urban prosperity would mean that the amenities the Romans were used to: comfortable homes with central heating, water on tap, a proper sewerage system, public baths, places to eat out or have a drink, not to mention shops, were not just desirable but necessities if Cologne were to thrive. Merchants, too, came to settle in Cologne: the roads were there; the river provided transport; and, in AD 310, the Emperor Constantine the Great built a bridge over the Rhine.

Roman glass ewer, I love the trailing swirls of colour: white, blue and gold.

Cologne gradually became a city which expected luxury. Cologne’s fine white clay encouraged top quality pottery; and around 100 A.D. the almost pure quartzite found nearby began to be mined for the production of glass.

These wonderful glass fish are in the Römisch-Germanisches Museum in Cologne. I just love their quirkiness, not to mention the skill with which they were made. 

As I said at the beginning of my post, Roman glass-making came as a complete surprize to me. Most of the glass objects in the museum were found in Roman or Frankish graves; and it was obvious that the delicate glass objects must have been both costly and highly valued.

The Cologne glassmakers specialized in ‘cage cups’ where a decorated glass cup nestled inside an intricate cage of glass.

The cup pictured above is being held upright by a modern metal holder. Heaven knows how it stood up originally.

Glass birds

These were the first glass objects I saw in the Museum. I couldn’t make out how they stood up without rolling over – perhaps the bases are flattened slightly.  Nor do I know what they are for. But they are plainly things of beauty and they came in different colours, (most people like to collect things in sets).

Glass slippers – shades of Cinderella?

For me, the glass objects that are obviously just decorative – like the glass slippers above, or the glass birds, or the fishes, are the most poignant. We know that they were grave goods that their owners obviously treasured and wanted to take them with them to the Afterlife, and I’m sure that all those beautifully created little glass masterpieces have stories to tell.

What I love about travelling is that you never know what you are going to find; the important thing is to keep an open mind.

All photographs by Elizabeth Hawksley ©

Elizabeth travelled with Andante Travels

© Elizabeth Hawksley

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Paris and its Merry-go-Rounds

To begin at the beginning: the definition of ‘merry-go-round. When I was a child we called them roundabouts: those colourful rotating machines with pairs of brightly-coloured horses you sat on which went round and round and up and down whilst you held on to the pole which went from the roof, through the horse’s withers, and was screwed into the floor.

This Parisian roundabout gives its customers the choice of riding in a 19th century submarine or on a traditional white horse, or in a 19th century space rocket or sitting in a revolving teacup!

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Painshill: A Gothic and Romantic Landscape

Earlier this week, I visited what is surely the most astonishing landscape garden in England: Painshill, near Cobham in Surrey. It was built by the Honourable Charles Hamilton (1704 –1774) in the eighteenth century. Hamilton was intoxicated – there is no other word for it – by the Classical ruins and Gothic architecture which he’d seen on the Grand Tour. Once back home, he set about buying land in Surrey and started building dramatically ruined follies and then creating a spectacular landscape around them to show them off to their best advantage. His fantastical creation was, and is, unlike anything else in Europe.

Ruined Abbey: all it needs now is ivy, moonlight and an owl!

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A Visit to Thornhill Gardens

Today, I’m visiting Thornhill Gardens in Islington. Other boroughs surrounding Islington have large open spaces: to the north, Hampstead has Kenwood and the Heath; to the south, the City of London offers you the spires of numerous Wren city churches and the dome of St Paul’s cathedral. Two hundred years ago, Islington itself scarcely existed, except as a village with a small spa attached and it was viewed by City dwellers as a pleasant place to take a walk. It sits on a hill, well above the City of London smogs.

Map of Thornhill Gardens 1940-1960s

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Two Sneaky Stories by an Ag Slang Speaker

This post is about ag slang, a secret language which dates back to the Between the Wars years, that is, the 1920s – 1930s, when it became a popular secret language between school children. My mother who was the third of four sisters had learnt it at school, and she taught it to me and my brothers; and I, in my turn, taught it to my two children. My aunts also taught it to their children (I rang round my cousins to check before I started this post.) ‘I’m so sorry to bother you on a Saturday,’ I said, ‘but dago yagou spageak agag slagang?’  (Do you speak ag slang?) There was a startled pause and then ‘Yages – wagell, agI uagused tago!’ (Yes – well, I used to.)

Greenwich Maritime Museum

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Get Stuffed: ‘Animal Furniture’, 1896

Last October, I looked at some articles from the monthly illustrated Strand Magazine which was launched in 1896: Child Acrobats and Stage Dancers; Educating the Blind; and The Battersea Dogs’ Home, 1891, and wrote posts about them.

A couple of days ago, I discovered a further copy of the Strand Magazine. It’s not in a good state; it lacks the back and spine covers and the last few pages have come unstuck – but it is complete. And it contains an extraordinary article: ‘Animal Furniture’

Albatross beak paper clip

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The Launch of ‘The Cabochon Emerald’ in e-books

The Cabochon Emerald, my 7th Elizabeth Hawksley historical novel, which comes out in e-books on Monday 2nd August, owes its existence to a lucky find in a second-hand bookshop: The French Exiles 1789-1815 by Margery Weiner. Weiner’s book absolutely grabbed me: she follows the lives of the some of the 25,000 émigrés who fled the French Revolution and came to England: who were they? Yes, there were aristocrats and members of the clergy (in 1793, the French Government abolished Christianity), but those fleeing for their lives also also included artisans who worked in luxury industries, like jewellers or couturiers, which made them more vulnerable to being arrested. Why did they choose to come to London – a Protestant country, after all; how did they get here; where did they live; and how did they manage to make a living?

The French Exiles 1789-1815 by Margery Weiner 

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Historical Writers Association and a Regency Hamper

Back in April, I wrote a blog about my good fortune in being invited to be one of the judges for the Historical Writers Association Gold Crown Award, and this week I’m writing an update. We have been busy! As soon as I’d said ‘Yes’, dozens of books thudded down onto my doormat, and this is what my study floor now looks like:

My study has turned into an Art Installation of books! There are about ninety Historical novels in alphabetical order, and the books standing upright are there to stabilize them. 

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Commemoration and Dissent

I visited the Museum of London this week – the first time for quite a while and, as I wandered round,  I found myself thinking that it might be interesting to look at how ordinary people chose to commemorate what was going on in their lives – for good or ill. So I shall begin in 1600 in London with a Delftware plate celebrating the long and prosperous reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

Elizabethan Delftware plate, 1600

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