#Weeknotes 31 (20 Aug) – Mind the gap in context
This week I’m travelling to Scotland with the family. We got lucky with the weather and managed to tour a castle, relax on a beach, enjoy famous fish and chips, and explore some ruins.
I’m not so much of a history person but I quite enjoyed our visit to Vindolanda, the Roman archaeological site was an eye-opener. Due to the area of the site having anaerobic soil, it was able to preserve large amounts of organic Roman objects such as leather boots and shoes from the Roman period in Britain. Thanks to the findings from the site, we’re able to have a better understanding of everyday Roman life never seen before.
When looking at the plans of the uncovered sites, I was impressed that the military fort built in the 2nd century A.D. had not only hospitals and latrines but also baths for the people to clean and enjoy. I was just thinking how nice that they had such luxury facilities back then for a military station and village. I was imagining nice hot public baths to relax in after a tough day of training and work. They sure know what to prioritise!
Then I got hit with the reality when the tour guide explained how the baths actually worked back then. Whilst they had basic sewage in place, it wasn’t mandatory to dispose of your unspeakable fluids and solids in the designated areas. People also didn’t have a habit to clean themselves, some might not have cleaned themselves for months and maybe even a year. So imagine the smell of the filth mixed with livestock manure along with smoke everywhere (there were constant cooking and fires to heat up the baths), it’s not pleasant. So go to the baths to clean yourself! Except the water isn’t refreshed so people end up washing themselves in each others filth which causes some to develop temporary blindness!
At this point, I felt sick. And this time it’s not due to me being pregnant.
This reminded me why knowing the full context is so important. I went from feeling admiration for the ‘seemingly’ luxurious lifestyle of the Roman people to horror. And all it took was for someone to queue me in on the smell at the times. It made all the difference. I’m someone who can’t fall asleep without a quick shower before bed. I feel fortunate to be born in this era where cleanliness and sanitation (and longevity!) is the norm.
When we explored Stirling Castle, I was reminded again that things left behind aren’t always how they appear in front of us.
A photo of a Stirling Head at the Stirling heads gallery
I took this photo of one of the Stirling heads sculptures they usually display on the ceilings of certain rooms in the castle. The top version of the head sculpture is usually how we uncover them centuries after they’re built. What gets lost in translation often with sculptors, monuments, and buildings is that often the original paints, decors and flourishes erode with time. By the time we discover them, they’re visually monotonous and it’s easy to assume they always looked that way. It was like that for me at least. But as soon as you start to analyse it closer and put together the missing visual pieces, the seemingly dull objects suddenly become vibrant and full of life. It’s like seeing a caterpillar, but never knowing what it could transform into. That would be such a shame!
This topic reminds me of a podcast I listened to a while back that talked about how little we understand about the dinosaurs. At least, when it comes to their appearance. I can’t remember the specific podcast, but after a quick search, this article explains how without modern-day inspirations, if we just look at animal bones to reimagine their physical forms, we’d likely get it very wrong, just as we have been with visualising dinosaurs.
This is mostly due to all the soft tissues around the bones do not get preserved so it’s difficult to estimate the ratio and proportions. Those dinosaurs could have all been very cuddly and fluffy. Maybe one day we’ll know for sure.
Having the right context sure changes things.
I’ll leave you with this related-but-not-really funny comic: