As we get stuck into another busy term of 21st century university life, the week we spent as Roman school teachers on an ancient farm in Hampshire feels literal worlds away. But what a wonderful world it was…
From the moment we arrived at Butser Ancient Farm, Aster and I were immersed in a new (or rather very old) way of life. From ancient breeds of four-horned sheep, to Roman-style cleaning equipment, it was as though we had stepped through a portal into a calmer, more peaceful world. After a quick look around, we were soon stuck into our chores, and I discovered that a traditional broomstick is surprisingly effective tool for ridding a school room of dust and cobwebs.
As dark descended, we called it a night and adjourned to the Anglo-Saxon period for dinner. Eleanor made us a delicious fried fish recipe from ancient Roman recipe-writer, Apicius. It was meant to be the tail of a large female tuna caught near Byzantium, but that proved difficult to source, so Lidl salmon fillets had to make do! Apicius recommended eating it with white wine vinegar, so we did, and it worked remarkably well!
After preparing a garlicy, cheesy paste (moretum) and olive relish for lunch the next day, we all went to our respective time periods to sleep – in my case an iron age round house. I don’t think any of us slept well that first night, due to nerves, excitement, and the unfamiliar surroundings, but my chosen hay bale was still remarkably comfortable.
After breakfast the next morning we got ourselves costumed, then waited expectantly for our first students to arrive. We didn’t have to wait long as, just after opening time, two girls in ribbons and yellow tunics bounced in with an exuberant, ‘salve magistra!’ and the Ancient Schoolroom was officially under way.
After that the days sped by as we all settled into a relaxing and fulfilling routine. The teaching was full on, but so much fun, and it was wonderful to see how engrossed the children (and some adults) became in the activities. The school room began to feel like a second home with an air of safety and serenity that I really hope, at least some, real ancient Roman schools had. I have some lovely memories: a girl and her grandmother sprawled on the floor happily matching Phaedrus’s fables with their respective morals; a group of children crowded around Charles, eagerly learning compound interest; adults leaving us with their charges while they went to get coffee, as their unexpectedly studious children didn’t want to stop learning; recognising the same children coming back on different days because they felt they hadn’t learnt enough the first time; children sitting contentedly at Aster’s feet, writing and drawing with ink for the first time; parents thanking us for allowing their children to express their knowledge and enthusiasm about Roman mythology; and, my favourite memory of all, a tiny 6-year-old boy sitting patiently on a bench waiting for ‘the lady’ (aka Professor Eleanor Dickey) to teach him more maths.
Of course, even teachers have to eat sometimes, and food played an important part in our time at Butser. Lunch was always a welcome affair of Roman or Celtic style bread, served with moretum, olive relish and sometimes even butter and honey!
Our Roman dinners were as delicious as they were diverse, ranging from a ‘simple’ meal of porridge cooked in a genuine porridge pot and served with freshly foraged blackberries, to a fish soup made with fresh mussels and a whole sea bass, expertly prepared by Nadin. And those were just the meals we prepared for ourselves! One evening we had the great privilege of dining with Sally Grainger, author of Cooking Apicius, and her husband Dr Christopher Grocock. We demolished a beautiful loaf of bread; tasted about seven different types of garum (I particularly liked the swordfish one); indulged in a rich stew full of chicken, sausage, and pork belly; and got to observe Sally making goat’s cheese and honey cakes, which were even tastier than they looked.
As well as teaching, cooking, and eating, our week at Butser seemed to help all of us learn and grow in other ways. Aster discovered a natural talent for reed-pen making and tried a whole host of unusual foods for the first time; I turned out to be very good at lighting and tending fires, and embraced my new role as ‘fire woman’; and we all learnt and taught how to make corn dollies at a festival of Lughnasadh hosted by the farm, where we also listened to stories, drank mead, and danced to fiddle music.
By the end of the week we had all got quite used to sleeping on hay bales and constantly smelling of smoke, but we never took for granted the ability to explore and forage in the countryside, or the late-night bonding around a roaring fire, or the magic of gazing into an unpolluted night sky at the shining moon and twinkling stars.
I cherish my memories of the Ancient Schoolroom’s first time at Butser, and I look forward to making many more in the summers to come!
Written by Jacinta Hunter