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Two weeks ago, I paid another visit to my favorite reconstructed Roman fort—but this time, I was not alone, oh no! I was accompanied by my Roman rubber duckie, who felt straight at home in front of the porta praetoria, the main gate…

The Roman rubber duckie in front of the main gate of the Saalburg
…and between the Emperor Augustus‘ feet…

Duckie between the feet of the Emperor Augustus

But I didn’t visit the fort just for a photo shoot with the Roman rubber duckie, no, it was market day at the Saalburg, and at various stalls spread across the whole museum you could learn about antique crafts such as pottery (did you know boiling earthenware in milk will seal off the pores and make it waterproof?), spinning, glass making, and bone carving. I was quite surprised to learn that objects made from bone can be dyed, e.g., with onion skins or even green rust, which produces a lovely turquoise color.

Game counters made from bone

Game counters made from bone

There was also a stall with Roman cosmetics on display. Apart from a lead foundation (to make your face look all nice and pale) (it might get paralyzed a little, mind you, so perhaps you might want to use chalk powder instead, even though it doesn’t look as pretty as the lead), Roman ladies also used eyeshadow (the more colorful the better), rouge, and eyeliner.

Most make-up was available as a powder. A bit of powder would be mixed with a bit of oil and then applied to the face.

Roman cosmetics

Roman cosmetics

One of the highlights of the Roman market was definitely the military demonstration: a small group of auxiliary soldiers went through a number of exercises, while their (rather dashing) optio watched on with eagle-eyes. 🙂

Auxiliary soldiers & their optio
A Roman horseman going through a few simple weapons‘ exercises formed the crowning glory of that demonstration. He was in full regalia, including a silver mask, which the Roman cavalry wore on special occasions, e.g. for cavalry games.

Roman horseman
All in all, it was another delightful trip into the Roman past!

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a picture of the main gate to the Saalburg

Saalburg: Porta Praetoria (the main gate)

As I have surely already mentioned in an earlier post, one of the settings of my upcoming Roman romance EAGLE’S HONOR: RAVISHED is based on a real fort at the Upper German-Raetian limes: the Saalburg, which today is a renowned open air museum with reconstructions of several of the Roman buildings and fortifications. As I was preparing the Author’s Note for my novel, it struck me how many lives this Roman fort has had – and not just in the Roman period.

The first fort on this site was built in timber, but was soon replaced by a larger fort built in timber and stone.  A few years later, that fort was expanded and its defenses strengthened. Finally, at some point in the early 270s, the Romans gave up this stretch of the border and withdrew across the Rhine. The fort was abandoned and fell into ruins.

The Germanic people who moved into the area didn’t have much use for stone buildings, but from the Middle Ages onward, the stones from the fort were used for various building projects in the region. The original Roman name of the fort was forgotten; indeed, the very fact that this used to be a Roman fort was forgotten as well. The modern name, Saalburg, dates to the early 17th century and suggests people took the walls to be the remains of an early medieval castle.

It was only in 1723 when a stone altar bearing the name of Caracalla was found that people realized the Saalburg was actually a Roman ruin. But at that point only antiquarians (who were generally considered to be really strange people anyway) were interested in musty ruins, and so the Saalburg continued to be used as a most convenient stone quarry until 1818.

In the early 19th century archaelogy was still in its infancy, carried out by interested amateurs. In England William Cunnington, who started to do excavations of prehistoric sites in Wiltshire in about 1798, revolutionized the methods of archaeology, e.g., by carefully recording digs and finds. But it would take another few decades before archaeology became professionalised.

The increasing professionalisation of archaeology becomes also apparent when we look at the history of excavations of the Saalburg: from 1870 onward, the excavations were state-funded, and the men overseeing the digs aimed at using scientific methods and presenting their findings in a scientific way.

And when plans were made to not just excavate the remains of the fort, but also to reconstruct key buildings such as the principia (the headquarters building), the latest archaeological and historical findings were employed to make the reconstruction as faithful to reality as possible. This first phase of reconstruction work lasted ten years, from 1897 to 1907, and received support from Kaiser Wilhelm II himself.

a sketch of the military standards at the Saalburg

The military standards at the Saalburg

While this support was no doubt beneficial, it also meant that the Kaiser took an active interest in the project and in some cases influenced the way the reconstruction was done. The most obvious example of this is the presence of an eagle standard in the shrine of the standards in the principia. In Roman times, only legions fought under the eagle standard, and the Saalburg never housed a legion, but only ever auxiliary troops. However, due to the imperial symbolism of the eagle, the Kaiser insisted that the eagle standard was included.

Moreover, in the years since 1900, new research into Roman military architecture has revealed that parts of the early reconstruction are incorrect, for example, the walls surrounding the fort would have been white-washed and the towers of the main gate wokuld have had been higher. Further reconstructions from the 2000s reflect these newer findings.

The Saalburg today thus presents itself as a fascinating hotchpotch of visions of what a Roman fort might have looked like, and it represents yet another phase of that old Roman fort that was first built in this place in the early 2nd century.

Would the soldiers who were stationed here during the reign of Emperor Hadrian recognize their old home in the Saalburg. Bits of it, perhaps. Though I’m not quite sure what they would make of the eagle standard in their shrine…

sketch of an Assyrian winged bull with the cover image of DEVIL'S RETURN

Earlier this year when I was in Berlin for the LoveLetter Convention, I visited the Pergamon Museum, which houses several truly fantastic artefacts from classical antiquity (like the huge, huge, HUUUUUUGE Pergamon Altar), among other things. I wasn’t really all that clear about those other things, so I was completely bowled over when I went through the entrance hall and up to the first floor & found myself facing the magnificent Ishtar Gate from Babylon. It is one of the most mind-bogglingly beautiful things I’ve ever seen.

Lion from the Ishtar Gate, Pergamon Museum, Berlin
But I was almost as thrilled when I found several sculptures and bas-reliefs from other ancient cities of the Near East in another suite of rooms – like Mr. Human-Headed Winged Bull here. (I might have even squeed a little.) (Quietly.) (Totally on the inside.) (I think…)

human-headed winged bull in the Pergamon Museum, Berlin
All that inside squeeing was due to the fact that the hero of my novella DEVIL’S RETURN has taken part in Austen Henry Layard’s excavations of the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrod, where he would have seen the same kind of statues and bas-reliefs I was admiring in the Pergamon Museum:

So Alex told them about Layard’s latest excavations, and their plan to prepare for his visit later this year. He described the alabaster sphinx that had been found in one of the buildings of Nimroud, and the strange creatures in the bas-reliefs: ferocious lions and winged bulls with human heads, dragons and fearsome monsters with heads of lions, bodies of men, and feet of birds.

Many of the 18th and 19th-century archaeological excavations seem to have been done in a rather haphazard way (“Oh, look! There’s a mound! Let’s dig it up and see what’s inside!”) and very often by people who were mostly interested in the pretty things they could drag back home and show off to their friends & acquaintances. (Lord Elgin and the sculptures from the Parthenon come to mind here.) (Though, to be fair, he seems to have primarily wanted to get them for the British Museum, not for his own sitting room.)

In other cases, archaeological excavations were motivated by a desire to give the finger to Britain’s neighbors across the Channel, in particular to the arch-rival France. Indeed, securing Assyrian antiquities for the British Museum to rival those in the Louvre was one of the main reason for the British ambassador in Istanbul, Sir Stratford Canning, to finance Layard’s first excavations. In 1846 Layard received additional funding from the British Museum itself for the excavations that are briefly described in DEVIL’S RETURN. The first of the artefacts Layard found (i.e., the bas-reliefs and sculptures he had removed from the walls of the ancient city) arrived in London in 1850 and were soon exhibited at the British Museum, where, judging from the long article in The Illustrated London News, they received considerable interest.

illustration of an Assyrian sculpture from an article in THE ILLUSTRATED LONDON NEWS
DEVIL’S RETURN is out now (Amazon | Kobo). Follow my adventurer-hero Alexander Crenshaw from the ancient cities of Assyria to the fashionable soirées of London high society, where he will face the biggest challenge of them all: his long-lost love…

Do you know the scene in Mary Poppins where Mary, Bert, and the children jump into one of Bert’s chalk paintings on the sidewalk? Something similar happened to me last weekend, though there were no dancing penguins involved nor any chalk drawings. Nevertheless, I suddenly found myself walking through the setting of a long-time favorite novel of mine.

Now, I have visited Britain often enough to know that strange feeling of familiarity that overcomes you when you walk through Burlington Arcade or take a peek into that seventh heaven of bachelorhood of the Regency period, Albany, or visit one of Britain’s numerous country houses: as a reader of historical romance, you’re bound to recognize these places from the novels you’ve read.

But what happened to me last weekend was a bit different, more visceral, probably because it was so unexpected: as a lover of Rosemary Sutcliff’s books set in Roman Britain, you don’t really expect to be easily transported back to that time by any place given that most of the remains of the Roman empire are mere ruins. Even Hadrian’s great northern frontier wall in Britain has been reduced to a mere stubble of its former existence.

I live near the lines of another of these great Roman frontier walls, the Germanic Limes, and a mere 40-minute drive from my town lies a reconstructed Roman fort, the first of its kind, re-built in the late 19th century.

a picture of the main gate to the Saalburg

Saalburg: Porta Praetoria (the main gate)

And as I was walking amongst the reconstructed houses, past the reconstruced barracks, I suddenly remembered a passage from one of Sutcliff’s novels, about how each Roman fort looks the same no matter where you are in the empire. They might not have looked exactly like the Saalburg (all the walls would have been white – something that historians back in 1900 didn’t yet know), but still I felt this sudden, keen connection to Sutcliff’s characters.

Indeed that feeling was so strong, that the sight of the eagle standard nearly made me burst into tears because I was so touched. (Alas, the Saalburg eagle not only is a fake, but it is also anachronistic, for these forts were manned with auxiliary troops rather than legions, and the auxiliaries didn’t have eagle standards. However, Kaiser Wilhelm II, who commissioned the building of the Saalburg museum, insisted on the eagle.)

a sketch of the military standards at the Saalburg

The military standards at the Saalburg

What I always find so fascinating about visiting museums and all those British country houses is that, for me, it is always the small things, the everyday items, that makes me feel a connection to the people of the past who used them. Amidst the exhibits in the Saalburg, you can also find pretty Roman shoes (which would make perfect summer shoes!), pretty dishes and vessels (have I already mentioned that I have this thing about tea sets?)….

a sketch of a small Roman vessel

A small Roman vessel from the Saalburg

…as well as pretty fibulae, Roman brooches. These come in all shapes, including cute, colorful animals:

a sketch of Roman brooches found at the Saalburg

Roman brooches from the Saalburg

You can just imagine a gruff Roman soldier buying such a pretty brooch for his sweetheart. (And then you start to imagine all kinds of things, and all at once your Muse is yelling into your ear how wonderful it would be to write a novel set here at the old Roman frontier, and then she forces you to buy all kinds of research books and… Oh gosh, I don’t just have a tiny problem in regard to tea sets, but also in regard to research books! *blushes*)

a picture of a pile of research books

My Muse made me do it

Now let’s hear it: Which setting of which novel or film would you like to visit? Pemberley, perhaps?

I heard on the radio this morning that September 25 is National Museum Day!  I had no idea there was such a thing, but I am all for it.  I’ve loved wandering around museums, all sorts of museums, ever since I was a little kid, and it’s still one of my favorite things in the world.  Museums are always so packed with intriguing objects, new information, interesting people, and quiet nooks.

Here are some of my favorites!  (Just a few…would take too long to list all museums I love)

The Frick

British Museum

Musee d’Orsay

The Met (inlcuding the Cloisters–so beautiful!)


So happy Museum Day!!  What are some of your favorites???

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