An ancient detective story came to a satisfying conclusion this week – not least because the Bad Guys get forgotten
SOMETIMES, you can find comfort in the strangest of places and in the smallest of things.
Yesterday was one of those days.
There was a picture in my newspaper of a thumb-sized shard of green-blue glass, with an enchanting story to tell about the distant, exotic past.
The fragment was from a Roman perfume bottle – shaped like a fish, about 1,800 years old and so ‘exceptionally rare’ that it has taken a two-year international investigation for experts to be confident of where it came from.
It now seems that the glass – found at Chedworth Roman Villa in Gloucestershire in 2017 – journeyed across ancient Europe from what is currently The Ukraine, where the only other example of a bottle design like it has ever been found.
The fact that the bottle had been brought from the far eastern reaches of the Roman world to one of the grandest houses in Britain at the time speaks, archaeologists say, of the fabulous wealth and influence of the owners.
“(It) underlines that the occupants were in touch with the furthest regions of the Roman Empire and wanted to show off that influence. It’s amazing that a small fragment has told us so much,” said Nancy Grace, the lead investigator on the project.
So there you have it: a big mystery story teased out from the smallest of clues; a tale of extreme exoticism, huge wealth, and great antiquity: played out over thousands of miles and thousands of years and bought to a detective-style conclusion by modern experts.
It’s satisfying on all sorts of levels but, to me, the most pleasurable aspect of it is more bittersweet: I like the fact that people like the villa owners, who were once so stupendously rich and powerful, can still disappear almost utterly from memory.
Yesterday, reading about them – and their flushing toilets, central heating, Look-at-me! perfume, mosaics and exclusive marble fittings – I couldn’t help feeling a frisson of pleasure at their almost complete extinction from history.
The archaeologists say that they might have been Roman, or just Britons living in a Roman styl-e.
They might have been on the council that administered the local area from nearby Corinium (Cirencester) but we don’t know for sure. We don’t even know their names.
What we do know – and this is the bit that I quite like – is that, once the Romans left Britain for good in 410 AD, that was pretty much it for them and history.
As Chedworth’s official website says, soon after this period of ‘wealth and decadence’, the villa was abandoned and fell into disrepair.
The roofs fell in, and a wood grew up through the mosaic floors, while soil from surrounding banks buried the buildings.
It wasn’t until after a lucky find by a gamekeeper in 1864 – almost 1,500 years later – that the archaeological effort to revive the physical remains of the once-splendid villa first started.
Now we can visit, finding pleasure and a source of fascination in what the experts have uncovered about the house – but there’s been no parallel resurrection job on the memory of the nabobs who once ruled there.
And so what? Reading this, you might feel that I am being rather unnecessarily bitter and vengeful about the lost potentates. They might even have been decent people, and they have been gone for over 1,700 years, so what’s my beef?
I suppose I’m not really thinking about them personally, but of the current powerful.
I’m thinking about Trump and his Tower. About Kim-Jong-un and his missile silos. Li Keqiang, Erdogan – even Boris and Nigel and their Bleeding Brexit.
To know that there will come a time when the powerful and the tyrannical will not only just be gone but utterly forgotten – just like me, just like you – is somehow profoundly comforting.
It’s a bit like the ending of The Handmaid’s Tale. You’re gutted that you don’t find out what happened to Offred, but at least you know that Gilead is gone and almost completely forgotten.
Like the bottle story, it’s so gone that it is having to be reconstructed hundreds of years later by a gang of historians.
So in these days, in these circumstances, is it really such a crime to delight in the misfortune of a few ancient power-mongers and hope that the current lot will go the same way?
A little bit of shard-en-freude, if you will.