Jane here, very interested by Lyn’s post yesterday on history, and the way it evolves as new discoveries shed fresh light on the past.
It’s especially fascinating when the changes involve famous figures like Napoleon. What if it turns out they buried the wrong body when Napoleon died on St. Helena, or exhumed the wrong remains from the island twenty years later to bring back to the tomb where he now lies – or not – in France? A reason for burying the wrong body might have been because the real corpse was missing, (he had disappeared maybe some time before his death was officially announced, but the myth of his existence was kept going,) or because the dead Emperor showed physical signs of having been ill-treated or even murdered, which his British captors couldn’t admit to. A marvellous mystery indeed!
Changes in history happen all the time in the Ancient Roman period
where my books are set – and I do mean “happen”, not “happened”, because of course
the past remains unaltered, it’s our understanding of it that deepens and widens. This
isn’t a modern phenomenon. The excavation of Pompeii and Herculaneum, which had
lain buried for many centuries after Vesuvius destroyed them in a day, was like
opening a time-capsule to reveal how ordinary people lived in first-century Italy.
But modern techniques mean that archaeologists can investigate and preserve items
that, even half a century ago, would have been impossible to restore, as tantalising as a closed book.
The writing-tablets found buried at the
Vindolanda fort in Britain, on the northernmost frontier of the Roman Empire,
are a case in point; they needed sophisticated cleaning and photography to bring their contents alive. But what a worthwhile restoration! The wooden tablets show everyday life at a military post in a way that, before, we could only imagine. Mixed in with the official military records
are letters with a personal feel to them, such as a note from an officer’s wife
inviting a woman friend to her birthday party, and a request for orders from a
junior officer on manoeuvres away from the fort, which ends which a moan that
his unit has run out of beer. We don't just know that people lived and fought around Vindolanda; we now have some idea of their thoughts, dreams and ambitions while they were there.
This sort of discovery is meat and drink to a writer. It fleshes out the skeleton of history that the Romans themselves left us, confirmed by archaeology: accounts of Caesars and their doings, of battles and rebellions, and political shenanigans that make modern double-dealing politicians look almost straight by comparison. It lets us see just a little of everyday life. And with every passing year, modern techniques of discovering and conserving will bring us more and more unexpected and detailed views of it. Which is one of the delights of reading and writing about the ancient past. We don’t know all the answers, we never will; but the body of knowledge we do have grows ever larger and more interesting.