I read somewhere that history begins fifty years ago and progresses backwards as far as there are written records. Before that, it is archaeology – stones and bones. When I was told that Mary Beard has been examining the remains left in Roman latrines, I admired her uncompromisingly energetic exploration, both mental and physical, of the past. It is as infectious as it is disturbing. I shall never forget her exuberant presence on the one occasion I sat next to her at a meal in the college where she teaches and I once studied.
Prelapsarian truths or half truths. Like Adam and Eve, humanity can dream of an ideal state, now as close as can be to times before the Covid plague, blessed by memories of how we used to manage our own future. She is someone who puts flesh on bones to enable us to figure out how people lived, thought, loved, fought and, above all, ate in the past. She sleuthed around the drains and latrines of Herculaneum close to the shore where the waves ingeniously, in spite of the low Mediterranean tides, sluiced them out. Herculaneum, unlike Pompei, has the remains of two-storied buildings and is a more compact archaeological area. It is my favourite Roman archaeological site, preserved for centuries beneath the rather ramshackle township of Resina, until it was discovered and renamed Ercolano in 1969.
My first visit, as often happens, was the most memorable. We bumped south from Rome in a friend’s ancient Deux Chevaux that was in the early stages of disintegration and driven at a disconcerting speed in merry abandon – without anyone having drunk a drop of alcohol! My friend’s mother who had occupied the back seat humming a tune, immediately disappeared into the site.
‘Won’t we lose her?’ I worried.
‘No one gets lost in a grid plan,’ was my friend’s unworried reply. ‘My mother is unmistakable in her nits.’
The ‘nits’ concerned me. Could they have hopped from her woollen garments to me during our drive down from Rome? I began to itch in sympathy with my thoughts.
Undismayed by the possible loss of a mother, my friend led me on an amazing tour of the latrines Mary Beard was excavating and the baths lined with minute mosaic pieces depicting scenes of fish and various inhabitants of the seas as well as a few humans. I wonder what it would be like to walk over them in a sort of cleansing communion with creatures of the neighbouring sea or figures of fantasy, a sensation now probably only found in imitation in high luxury hotels.
Between occasional sightings of her mother in ‘knits’ a few parallel roads along the grid, her daughter pointed out fertility signs of male genitals on little legs running around, usually on walls of bakeries, she explained. A brothel had a waiting room with frescoes, still miraculously not too damaged, to entertain and educate young boys while the male elders – presumably their fathers – were otherwise engaged.
Time passed with crazy haste before we retrieved the lady in drooping knits and installed ourselves in the rickety vehicle to career along the motorway back to Rome.