Sunday, August 21, 2011

Women who wrote in Roman-Devon

Mid-Devon landscape
I am excited to find that a programme to be aired soon on TV features a mysteriously as yet unspecified location in Devon, in the South-West, which archaeologists have identified as being probably the location of a previously unknown Roman town. With a fair bit of googling I have put two and two together and managed to hazard a guess as to where this site is, but will just wait and see. The programme makers are obviously trying to keep the location a secret. The possibility of such a finding only confirms what I’ve thought for years, that the Romans were far more prevalent and present in the western regions of the south-west than most people believed - (one archaeologist friend scoffed when a few years ago I am much as dared suggest that maybe there could be Roman villas lying undiscovered in mid-Devon); that significant known, but as yet un-excavated sites, such as that near my home-town near North Tawton, may well harbour other significant archaeological information about that era and that in light of these possibilities, there is every reason to suppose that women living in the area during the Roman period as well as men may have been engaged in some kind of writing activity. 
       Here are extracts from a longer piece I’ve been writing in which I tease out threads of this hypothesis …
    …  An extensive complex of as yet un-excavated remains from the Roman era lies to the south of the parish of North Tawton in mid Devon, in undulating countryside. Considered now to be much larger than previously thought, and the most significant of a number of other Roman sites on the perimeter edges of Dartmoor, it includes a Roman road and a large military complex of forts which was named in the Ravenna Cosmography. The site, which is one of the largest in the southwest of England, lies in a position of strategic importance next to the Roman road’s river-crossing of the Taw near Newland Bridge. Aerial photos pick up the ‘multi-period complex of crop marks on the east bank of the River Taw’, within which are at least two marching camps (one for half-a-legion of 25,000 men) and several smaller forts; three double ditched features which have double concentric ditches and may have been prehistoric funerary sites; a probably civilian bath-house; and at least one fragment of a tile and one coin have been found on the site, which is a Scheduled Monument.[i]
        Widen the radius just a little on the mid-Devon map outwards from North Tawton and more inscrutable land-features come into view. Just at the outer edges of the North Tawton parish, west of the Roman site and a little south-west of Bow is the fairly recently discovered prehistoric woodhenge, at Broad-Nymet. Identified in the mid 1980’s, at the time of discovery by aerial photography, as a ‘major ritual complex centred on a henge’,[ii] it is now thought by some to have been a major cultic centre for the large surrounding area. As Roger Deakin says in Wildwood
‘Until then the antiquarian map of Devon had plenty of ancient stone monuments all over the higher ground of Dartmoor, where granite was the natural material, but only a white space centred round the lower arable land of Bow and the Nymets.’[iii]
….   Radiating out even further, not too long ago, a Roman villa was found, in 1984, just a few more miles eastwards towards Crediton in a district which according to traditional archaeologists no villas were ever built during the Roman era. The discovery adds another tantalising feature to the jigsaws of broken shards of landscape memorabilia as they wait for specialists to come and piece together a shattered and rich story of the past.
       Perhaps it is not surprising that C20 writers linked with the mid-Devon countryside have intuited the presence of sacredness and ancient auras in these  heartlands, enigmatic and hidden within the features of the under moor area. Several of the poet Sylvia Plath’s last poems written when she was living in North Tawton implicitly pick up a transcendent quality in their background poetic settings: ‘the air is a mill of hooks’ in ‘Mystic’; ‘the far fields melt my heart’ in 'Sheep in Fog’; 'waist-deep in history' the trees are ‘full of wings, otherworldliness’, in 'Winter Trees'; ‘ Fumey, spirituous mists inhabit this place’, in ‘The Moon and the Yew Tree’. All intuit spectral presences in the outer landscape. Plath told at least one friend that she loved Court Green, her home in North Tawton, with its ancient iron-age hill fort mound in the garden and she was well-aware of the Roman site just on the outskirts of the town.
      In Birthday Letters Ted Hughes picks up on Plath’s empathy with the iron-age site and explains that he brought his wife to the heart of Devon, ‘my dreamland’, which was his ‘land of totems. {His] Never-never land’, the town of North Tawton was, for him ‘Lyonesse, [with] inaccessible clouds, submarine trees./the labyrinth/of brambly narrow lanes’.
      … Recent well known and respected historians have begun to pay attention to the vicinity of mid Devon, recognising that a wealth of meaning is buried in the codes of some of the names of locations. One of these, and from whose root-word many other names of places derive, is ‘Nemetostatio’, the ‘nymet station, or fort’. For the historian Michael Wood, ‘Nemetostatio’Tawton; its ‘sacred-core’ may be the Broad-Nymet henge. Michael Wood Woods decided to locate Nemetostatio’s location as Bury, near Lapford, rather than North Tawton, but his evidence is certainly not conclusive and there are many reasons to maintain the traditional link between Nemetostatio and the more central North Tawton locality. Or, even with the henge recently discovered just a little to the east, at BroadNymet. In any case, Bury is only a stone’s throw in terms of crow flight, so maybe all that needs to be done is to widen the circumference of the complex of the sacred-site.
        Etymologically, the name nemetostatio is linked to several interconnected Gallo-Britannic words which are derived from the Latin root ‘nemus’ (a shrine); ‘nimet’ (shrine); or ‘nimed’ (forest sanctuary) and ‘nemeton’, which denotes a natural space of a ‘holy place at a grove’ or ‘sanctuary’ in a woodland setting. Other names linked to them include Beeru or Beer. Place names derived from the root-bases formed from and around ‘nimet’ or nimed’ only occur in a handful of other locations in Britain. Although the specific location of the ‘sacred grove’ itself is still a moot point, the consensus is that the district was ‘a ‘Sacred Wood’ in Devon, called by the Iron Age natives, a ‘nemeton’[iv].The rivers Yeo and Mole were both originally called Nymet and both run through the vicinity of the sacred grove wooded spaces, which they were probably named after. Groves were often linked with sacred pools or springs. An inscription of Nemetona, the goddess of the grove, was found at the hot springs of Bath’. [v].
      … Recent efforts by historians to begin to interpret coded place-names in the maps of the mid-Devon territory matches and locks into that of contemporary archaeologists, whose researches have, through aerial reconnaissance, begun to escalate their discovery of neolithic remains in the locality. The county archaeologist, Frances Griffiths, said of the finds at Broad Nymet that they suggest that the area ‘was a major focus of ceremonial activity comparable with others up on Dartmoor, or further east on Salisbury Plain’. Hidden enigmas held within the ancient features of the countryside parallel and resonate with the possibility that there were people in antiquity living and writing in this landscape, and indeed, that some of these were female. For how do we know that women living and working in the area over a time-scale of many centuries did not engage at some level with written activities? From ancient and earliest times women have traditionally been associated with the linked concepts of sacred groves and written texts, with learning and vision. Not only do many classical texts describe the setting of ‘the grove’, but stories were often recited in woods, whilst the most famous classical female poet Sappho frequently alluded to the setting of ‘grove’ andgrove’ itself was indelibly imbued with female presences and qualities. These included the female Goddesses Nemetona herself and her alter ego, Diana or Artemis; the spring with its nymphs of the grove; and the sibyls and their oracles. Researchers into writers of the Graeco-Roman period have identified Greek women as writers of prophecies and oracles. Poems in the form of ‘verse responses’ would sometimes have been created ‘on the spot’, or alternatively, composed before the presentation of the oracle: such auguries were recorded at the ‘Pythia’, the oracles of Apollo at Delphi.
… By ‘writing’ or ’text’ I do not mean in the narrow sense of ‘poem’ or ‘text’ printed in a book that we, as modern readers, would recognise as such; but rather, the representation of some kind of ‘language’, a code that others could ’read’ or make sense of and understand: perhaps a sigil; or scrawl; a symbol; an inscribed stone; a spell; a charm; a hieroglyph …
… Even when one looks at texts from periods when there is evidence, it is not a case of a black and white duality between men who wrote and women who did not. Pre C5th BC, as far as the traditional canon was concerned, it has been argued that classical literature was mostly written by men; but some of these writings made use of earlier texts by women and imitated their works on the same subjects [vi]The identification of particular women writers in the Graeco-Roman world, from 7BC to 6AD, is problematic and a complex task; but women evidently wrote on a number of topics, including ‘history, philosophy, grammar, literary criticism, musical theory, astronomy, travel, medicine, sex, maths, drama, prophecy, astronomy, alchemy.’[vii] Greek women were known especially for their lyric poetry and epigrams; there were at least one hundred known as poets, the most famous being Sappho; other names included Anyte, Nossis, Erinna, Moero. It is only through such texts as The Greek Anthology, which lists women praised by male poets such as Meleager and Antipater, that their names are still remembered.
      If the situation in cultural places famed for their literature is as complex, what of England, especially the apparent backwater of the south-west extremes of the country?  It can not be assumed that West country women living during pre Roman times, (the so-called ancient Britons or Dumnomnia or Celts), were uneducated and without any form of written language. Historians and archaeologists have recently discovered trade links between the continent and the coastal regions of    Cornwall and Devon, which would have included exchange of cultural artefacts and knowledge. Why not therefore, early manuscripts by women? And, apropos the Roman era, recent research has confirmed that ‘there can be no doubt that there were people on and around Dartmoor in the last few centuries BC and in the early 1st century AD who had links to the Romanised Mediterranean world’.There is evidence that educated and literate peoples were living in the vicinity of Dartmoor after the Romans had left, circa 6AD,
      During the period of the Roman occupation the likelihood of women writing seems only to increase. Mosaic evidence has shown that Roman aristocrats living in England must have ‘owned and treasured literary manuscripts’.[viii] Roman women were known to be highly literate; albeit it might be assumed that to be more the case for those in cultured or high-class positions. Roman women Poets included Sulpicia, Proba, Eudocia, Cornelia, Hortensia and Agrippina. Women who were known as sorcerers were also recognised as being literate. Fragments of evidence exist which indicate that women living on military sites in England whilst their husbands were serving were very capable of literary activity. Claudia Severa, wife of Aelius Brocchus, who was commander of a fort near Vindolanda in northern England around 100AD, sent a birthday invitation to Sulpicia Lepidina, wife of Flavius Cerialis, the commandant at Vindolanda. It was written on a wooden writing tablet and found during excavations in the 1970s. The birthday invitation is thought to be the oldest extant writing of a Roman woman found in Britain.
      There are threads of evidence that bring close the likelihood of women of the Roman era living in the Devon region. In 1878 an inscription was found in the important Roman town of Salona showing that a noble woman of the Dumnomnia tribe had been buried there, far away from her original south-western home. The ‘first Devonshire woman known to history’, whose name was not found, was ‘a noble lady member of the community of the Dumnonii (Devonshire) ... who lived thirty years in this world and departed this life leaving two children with their husband as guardian , on December 15th in the eleventh year of Theodosius and first of Valentinian ... (A.D.425). This lady would have been born during the period when Britain was still part of the Roman empire, but by the time she died the Roman army and governmental establishment had left the country.
       As far as I know, there are no more facts about this unknown ‘lady’, but the author who wrote in 1952 of the finding of the stone, considered her ‘a lady of quality’. Her epitaph designated her as ‘Clarissima Femina’ (Noble lady), which probably meant she was wife of a senator and therefore not only would she have been very wealthy, she would also have had ‘a great estate in the territory of the Dumnonii’. The location of that estate was – and is – a puzzle, for until recently there were supposed not to be any, or many, Roman villas in Devon. So the writer of the article on the anonymous noble lady concluded that she may have lived at the large and decorated villa at Holcombe, near Uplyme in the east of the county and further, that her family had gained their wealth from the Exeter foundry trade [ix]
       My guess is that given recent discoveries re the Romans in the south-west, the range of possibilities as to her home and the source of her family’s wealth will have widened. Was this lady educated? Did she write? Was she interested in the writings of other women who she perhaps knew, or whose work she may well have been familiar with? No one will ever know, for although of noble birth even her name is unknown; perhaps she once had it ornately swirled onto a gleaming decorated pot. Or, being avidly interested in Sappho, maybe she wrote lines of poetry on papyrus. Maybe she sent an invitation on a wooden writing tablet.
…   If women were likely to be creating texts, in one form or another, then why not imagine into the spaces and the silence and reconstruct at least a semblance or impression of the kind of writing that may have, originally, been constructed.
       For there are surely clues everywhere.
       Especially in the landscape itself …
       … One key connection regarding the ambiance of lost enigmatic coded names held within the names of the mid-Devon district is their longstanding and legendary connection with female deities, and so with ritual and sacred enigmatic practices that emphasised and paid allegiance to the feminine principle. Nemetona. Diana. Artemis. Names ring out. Who were they? What did they signify? What connection could they have had with real women living and breathing below the Dartmoor hills? It is of course not possible to answer that question with any certain factual detail. And yet, the clues are out there. For instance, during the period of the Iron-age, the cultic centre of the nymet-sanctuary was common throughout Europe and England. At its heart the origins of the rites enacted at the Nemetona shrines were closely related to the wild, pagan, even violent associations that coalesce around the attributes of the names of these goddess/es. This mid-Devon district was one of the few regions containing such a rich scattering of names within a relatively small area, related to the concept of that rite. So, one might imagine that many people with influence, power and perhaps, culture, might have congregated in the locality. Many of them would be, or would have had connections to the Druids who infiltrated Dartmoor and its environs and in turn centred their pagan cults around the woodland groves and sanctuaries of the female deity Diana/Artemis.
        Until recently it was believed that when the Romans invaded the country they subdued and dominated the native population, but it is now considered that it is more likely that the new inhabitants merged their own belief systems and customs with that of the Iron-age or Celtic natives; that may have included the Druids. Possibly then the infiltration of the new Romanised (and in the North Tawton area, mostly military) people into the vicinity of the people of the sacred-groves, allowed the evolution of new and perhaps more sophisticated cultural exchanges. During the years before the Romans arrived, the period when Dumnonia first appears in documents, when the country was inhabited by different tribes of the Late Iron Age there is no reason to conclude there was a dearth of women capable of contributing to the exchange of communicative text - in whatever form it might take.
        There is every reason to suppose that Celtic-Roman society was considerably swayed by female influence, from the numinous divinities who watched over the world, through to the top echelons of controlling tribal or ruling powers. Recent research into the late period of Celtic-Roman England (5BC-1AD) suggests that some women would have had considerable influence and power. Possibly some women were even female warriors. Then there seems to have been both individual and groups of women who were looked up to and sought out for spiritual advice; these were female magicians with spiritual powers of divination and prophecy, even of poetry and some were organised into guilds.
      One of the ways to scrutinise the hidden enigmas behind the deity presences of Nemetona, Artemis and Diana is to look at how these female goddesses became embedded within parallel and contemporary cultural experiences of other places and countries. Devon’s sacred groves could correspond with what is found in other similar sites [x]. Whatever kinds of text existed within the wider radius of the ancient cult centres may well have had their parallels, or comparable examples in the local Nemeton communities; at the very least, people living in the vicinity would have been familiar with the kinds of communicative writings that were part of the sanctuary rites. Just as examples of art and artifact would have been comparable between sites in different places, texts that did circulate would have had exemplars in the precinct of each location.
     The Nemetona groves of the south-west were concentrated in two areas: the Roman mid-Devon Nemetostatio (fort/station of the sacred groves) site and the famous temple of the Aqua-Sulis shrine of Bath. There may have been close associations between the two: de Bathe is an ancient mansion with longstanding links to Bath and the Bathe family; both sites shared the attribution to the deity Nemetona; both sites seem to have been important during the Roman era as guardings/guardians of river crossings; lastly, possibly both sites had associations with water: traditionally, the sacred sanctuary was often linked with water-cults and just south of the Roman site at North Tawton there are places called West and East Nymph, which may be clues in terms of the ritual sites, for nymphs were mantic divinities also supposed to inhabit groves.
     The spiritual force presiding over the Nemetona-lands was female; cultic activites in the vicinity revolved around worship of the feminine deity. However, looking in a little more depth at the symbolic matrix conveyed by the names of the goddess/es, it should not be assumed that the goddesses’ essence was benevolent. The traditional rites of Nemi, in Greece, centred around Diana, were, paradoxically, full of wildness and violence; yet at their heart were acts of ritualistic healing. The overarching theme conveyed by this goddess matrix is complex and ambivalent. Diana, consort of Jupiter, ‘Queen of the woods’, presided over wild forests, mountains, green glades and sounding rivers; at the sacred grove of Nemi, she was goddess of the oak. The water-nymph Egeria, who accompanied Diana at the site, was said to be a double of Diana herself and also a variant of Dryad, nymph of the oak; Egeria seemed to function as a mysterious Celtic midwife, for she aided birth and conception. Artemis was Diana’s Greek equivalent. She also took on the attributes of personification of the wild in all its guises, and was emblem of liminal rites and ritual initiations. Nemetona, her avatar, is an enigmatic goddess. She is sometimes identified with Sulis, goddess of the spring at Bath and seems to correspond with Artemis and Diana. Some see Nemetona as a war goddess; as such her name would often be linked with the roman god Mars Lucetius. These war-like accouterments serve to re-direct understanding of the mystic sanctity at the heart of her rites towards a more complex and puzzling manifestation.   
       The mysteries of the Nymet-landscape as embodying symbols of an ancient past of ritual and ceremony remain secret, enigmatic and inscrutable. All that can be said is that they are closely related to wild nature and pagan spirituality and may be associated with military themes. The complex character of the Sulis/DianaArtemisian/Nemeton deity perhaps explains that of one of the most prevalent text-based artefacts found at Bath – that of the Curse Tablets/Binding Spells, some of which seem to have been ‘authored’ by women. Hundreds of these ‘tablets’ were found at Bath. Texts had been scratched on thin sheets of lead in tiny letters, then folded and placed underground, or nailed to temple walls. Tablets were dedicated to a particular deity by a person who wanted to condemn another person for a wrongdoing and so invoke the punitive support of the deity. Other tablets known as ‘love spells’ were used as magic spells to cast erotic influence over another desired person. For example, the longest one found in pre-roman Gaul was a spell exchanged between two groups of female magicians, one of whom used a wise woman to create the ‘charm’.
       Given the possible connections between the two sites of Bath and Nemetostatio, it is feasible to suggest that there could have been ‘texts’ such as these tablet-stones created by people - including women - living in the Nymet areas and worshipping at the shrines there. So, women living in and around the mid-Devon territories may have been responsible for such writing-pieces as invitations or notes or letters inscribed on wooden-tablets and versions of these curse, binding or love tablets.
       Taking a broader view, if we avoid close attention to a specific time-scale, but accept that some of the women of the Roman-British women were to a degree literate, for reasons already established, then why not assume that amongst them would have been individuals who were keen to read and themselves emulate texts by other women. These manuscripts would be disseminated through the educated classes, coming in on trading routes alongside other trading activities from Europe and elsewhere. Some historians believe that the complex influence was two-way; that English ideas and inspiration disseminated out and into the continent.
      Possibly we shall never fully understand the significance of the Nemetona sanctuaries in mid-Devon, but for some the numinous spirit of the place of the whole district might be wrapped up within the aura of divine spirituality cast by the ritual places of its pagan past. How they cast their invisible spell over our present and futures! The sacred grove at Nemi, focal point of the Nemetona/Diana pagan worship, is haunted by spectral figures of its complex past, as is that of the mid-Devon locality, where so many labyrinthine pagan sites of consecration lie partially revealed, yet still hidden and invisible within the folds of the land. Nemetona casts her whispering Genius loci mysteriously over those who inhabit the place. Our ancestors speak to us through the sigils written into the map-placed names in the landscape. Their phantoms stalk us, slide up, to whisper words and fragments of text in our ears, slip before us as a shadow gliding in front of our eyes. If we can catch the odd phrase in the wind, or catch a glimpse of a shape, or a hand, then can we not fill in a few of the absences and re-create something of the beings, who after all, were our predecessors? …
We were supposed not to live Here In the outpost of the sacred groves in the middle of Nemetostatio, the shrine within the sacred space (Nothing is sweeter than Eros)  
Because they do not mention the women And anyway there was not supposed to be a villa here not so far west
     We were then as silent as the water-glide of the quiet river ‘led-taw’ sinuous in the valley beneath our villa Nor do they know of the roses those roman roses loved of love beloved, our gallicas wreathing the colonnades of our halls
     Look, see our villa how it is sheathed with green glass and dressed with the finest marble statues set away from the military precisions of the main complex of the battalion
  Indeed as an influential wife of a powerful man she had a voice of her own … she’d wander away from the tessellated pavement towards the perimeters of the site and beside the quiet reeds at the edge of the water, the Led-Taw, she’d recite Nossis, Anyte, Erinna, quoting her earlier compatriot Sulpicia’s love poems on Cerinthus:

Oh the joys of city life!/Is a musty old country house/ any fit place for a girl?/And that freezing river at Arezzo/ …Let your longing for me my love/Lost the heat of a few days ago

How she and Julitta laughed together at the tempestuous nature of that woman, yet indulged her for her responses. Sometimes they conversed on the nature of pagan Hypatia’s – the flawless star of wise learning’s - recent commentary on Neoplatonist philosophy; sometimes it was Pamphilia’s Miscellaneous History which captivated them
Following the snake-shifting silent-river curves both women wore bronze bracelets loose over their arms inscribed with swirling conjugal figurations of snakes and serpents all told a tale in the fabric of the women’s life the clear sheet of water just below the oak saplings on the bank their footprints on the track.
There! You can see them, can’t you? …
     I can’t wait to watch Digging for Britain to find the exact location of the new town and see if it is is where I think. Not central Devon I suspect, but where-ever the site is it can be only a stone’s throw of a distance and within the span of a crow’s flight from the area I know well, the nymet-lands.

Mid-Devon landscape

I have not cited all the sources used in this piece, but here are some:
i. The information on the Roman complex comes from The Book of North Tawton, 7-9, and the website Roman Britain,
[ii]See megalithic,
[iii] Roger Deakin, Wildwood, 122.
[iv] See Blaen, Angela, Devon’s Sacred Grove in Westcountry Folklore, and Stevens, C.D. The Sacred Wood in To Illustrate the Monuments; Essays on Archaeology, 1976.
[v]There are possible links between Roman Bath and North Tawton because of the de Bathe family and their Manor at North Tawton. Nemetona was the Goddess of the ‘eponymous deity of Germano-celtic people known as the Nemetes.
[vi] Plant, I.M., Women Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome; an Anthology, p 2.
[viii] The Art of Roman Britain, Martin Henig, p. 157.
Women Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome by I. M Plant, p. 1
[ix]   For more information on the ‘Roman lady’, ‘see ‘A Lady of Quality of Roman Devon’ in Transactions of the Devonshire Association, 84, 1952.
[x] See The Religion of the Ancient Celts, by John Arnott MacCulloch

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