Review: Amara Thornton and Katy Soar (eds), Strange Relics

Amara Thornton and Katy Soar (eds), Strange Relics: Stories of Archaeology and the Supernatural, 1895-1954 (Bath: Handheld Press, 2022), 227pp.

‘It was something that had rotted in the hoary past, and on which God had mercifully shut the door…’

Handheld Press is doing a wonderful job of bringing attention to the various subgenres of 19th- and 20th-century supernatural and weird tales, and the focus of this volume is on what is perhaps my favourite subgenre of all – the archaeological supernatural story. While the term ‘antiquarian ghost story’ is widely used, especially for the stories of M. R. James, it is arguably both too specific and unhelpfully broad. Most obviously, many (if not most) supernatural/weird stories of the era (and indeed some by James himself) were not ‘ghost stories’ in the sense that they featured an identifiable ghost. Furthermore, ‘antiquarianism’ was already a somewhat outdated concept by the time James began writing his stories, evoking an indiscriminate, even amateurish approach to gathering any and all information about the past. By the turn of the 20th century antiquarianism was well on the way towards dividing into a variety of different disciplines, from archaeology to palaeography, codicology and bibliography. Archaeology was emerging as the scientific study of the material remains of the past, usually as a result of excavation, and the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922, in particular, temporarily turned Egyptologists into the rockstars of their day – a preoccupation reflected in this anthology through two Egypt-set stories, ‘The Ape’ by E. F. Benson and ‘Curse of the Stillborn’ by Margery Lawrence.

Strange Relics is a refreshing anthology because it moves beyond the stereotyped ‘Jamesian’ antiquarian ghost story to include stories that do not so much emerge from meticulous academic antiquarianism (although one James story, ‘View From A Hill’, features in the anthology) but from the new, more ‘scientific’ awareness of archaeology as a distinct discipline in the early years of the 20th century, and from appreciation of the material past for its own sake. As archaeology moved from the dillettantish hill-digging of Victorian gentlemen towards systematic, recorded investigation its full potential for opening a window onto the lost past was unlocked – a fact that was not lost on writers of the uncanny. On the other hand, by no means all of the protagonists of these stories are archaeologists – but they all encounter the eldritch in some way through the material remains of the past.

In their introduction to the collection, Thornton and Soar draw attention to some of the recurring themes of the subgenre in the period under consideration. The first of these is the idea of the survival: either a supernaturally charged thing that has survived from the past, or the survival of an ancient rite (often in a debased form) that somehow perpetuates or reanimates a supernatural power. Clearly, the idea of ‘survivals’ was grounded in the Frazerian anthropology that was dominant for most of the 20th century, which posited the survival of immemorial rites and beliefs under the guise of contemporary customs and festivals – a theme very much to the fore in Eleanor Scott’s ‘The Cure’. The second recurring theme is the idea that the psychic or spiritual can somehow become imprinted on the material (commonly called the ‘Stone Tape’ theory but, as Thornton and Soar show, an idea long pre-dating the 1970s). This is related to a third recurring theme, ‘the blurring of the divide between the past and the present’ or, in the words of Évelyne Caron quoted in the introduction, ‘everything that has been and will be exists at the same time’.

To these three prevailing themes I would add a fourth: anxiety about encountering the past as other. This is a familiar theme in weird fiction, but it is expressed in a particular way in stories of archaeological horror. Many scholars have observed that supernatural tales of the 19th and 20th centuries seem to be processing the anxieties of colonialism, which involved unsettling contact with alien-seeming cultures and beliefs. The Victorians, in particular, seem to have been deeply concerned that the military and ideological power of the coloniser was not always matched by an equal spiritual power; and the fear that the European coloniser, spiritually enfeebled by post-Enlightenment rationalism, might still fall foul of the darker and more potent spiritual capabilities of the conquered culture lurked deep in the Victorian and post-Victorian psyche.

That fear is of course reflected directly in this volume’s ‘Egyptian’ stories – that British domination of Egypt was never truly possible, given the dark depths and unfathomable secrets of Egyptian civilisation. But I would argue that it is also present in all of the stories. ‘The past is a foreign country’, after all, and the process of uncovering or excavating it represents a kind of colonisation by the present of a space previously occupied only by the past, since the present was theretofore unaware of it. Yet just as Victorians were troubled by the recursive influence of ruling an Empire on their own society, so authors of the archaeological supernatural tapped into a latent fear of a revivified past somehow colonising the present (something that arguably happened in the form of 1920s ‘Egyptomania’).

These anxieties were especially heightened, I would argue, when it came to one particular category of archaeological remains found in Britain – those of the Romans, who were themselves colonisers of Britain just as Britain was, in the 19th and 20th centuries, the coloniser of the world. The Romans presented an uneasy mirror image of imperial Britain: where 19th- and 20th-century Britain aspired to rule the world, so Roman Britain was a mere colony of a great empire; and where Britain sought to impose ‘Christian’ values of ‘civility’ on the rest of the world, so the pagan Romans stood for a disturbingly different set of values, for all their sophistication.

H. D. Everett’s story ‘The Next Heir’ crystallises these anxieties particularly clearly, as Mr Quinton becomes captivated by the lure of Roman civilisation – building an urbane villa based on a Roman design – yet becomes psychically and spiritually dominated by the bestial and cruel cult of the god Pan he has revived. As Paul Robichaud has shown in his recent book on Pan’s modern revival, Victorian, Edwardian and interwar authors were obsessed with Pan (even if there is, in reality, scant evidence for any cult of Pan in Roman Britain). Pan appears repeatedly in these stories, whether as the ‘Vaunus’ dimly remembered by medieval masons, Pan Silvanus in Blackwood’s ‘Roman Remains’, or the sinister figure of Pan gradually emerging from cracks on a tile in Dorothy Quick’s ‘Cracks of Time’. It is almost as if this one cult of a therianthropic god represented everything disquieting about the Roman world – although Rose Macauley’s ‘Whitewash’ offers some relief by making the spirit of Tiberius the villain of the piece.

Perhaps it was the thought that Britain could have been dominated by a people who worshipped as strange a god as Pan that proved so horrifying to 19th- and 20th-century minds; or perhaps Pan was simply at the forefront of fictional imaginings of Roman Britain because he was at the forefront of Victorian and Edwardian pagan fantasies. On one reading, the Victorian and post-Victorian fascination with Pan is as aspect of these stories that dates them – Pan was, after all, in the retrospect of the sexual revolution a transparent representation of 19th- and 20th-century anxieties about repressed sexuality. Nevertheless, this collection succeeds in simultaneously capturing prevalent preoccupations of the ‘archaeological weird’ subgenre and its variety. Overall, Strange Relics is a magnificent and well-chosen collection of stories that brings to light an important and intriguing subgenre of weird tale – the archaeological uncanny.


Reimagining Romanitas: Cattle Hill Roman Villa (Villa Ventorum)

The reconstruction of Cattle Hill Roman Villa (now known as Villa Ventorum) on the Hadspen estate in Somerset is one of the most remarkable achievements of experimental archaeology in British history – benefitting from seemingly unlimited private funding that has seen the creation of a replica of a villa authentic in every detail (or, at least, in every detail we know of…). From the moment the opening of Villa Ventorum to the public was announced I was determined to see it. While it is not the first attempt at a villa reconstruction, or indeed a reconstruction of a Roman domestic building in the UK, it is the first to attempt the complete reconstruction of an entire villa on its original scale, with no expense spared, and in such a way that everything is accessible to the visitor – and even set in a reconstructed Roman landscape.

Although the villa was first discovered in 1834, a full re-investigation and excavation of the site took place between 2015 and 2017, resulting in the construction of a museum on top of the bathhouse of the original villa, while the rest of the excavated walls have been reburied and are now marked out above ground with wooden sleepers. The replica villa is located a few hundred yards north of the original and reproduces not only the appearance but also the functioning of the Roman villa: the hypocaust and wall-heating tubuli (which will never be seen by visitors, of course), the wood-fired stokeholes, the gardens, associated water features, and a full range of wattle-and-daub thatched ancillary buildings.

Villa Ventorum is a sort of Roman Dennis Severs’ House – the 18th-century house in London’s Folgate Street designed to look as though a Georgian family has just stepped outside for a moment, leaving everything in its original positions. Thus the kitchen at Villa Ventorum features an uncleaned, sooty stove, dirty cloths, and pigs’ trotters in a basin; in the triclinium, the musicians have momentarily laid down their instruments, while the bedroom of the lady of the house features an open wardrobe and cosmetics strewn over bedside tables. On the master’s untidy office desk lie imagined Latin letters and accounts. Everything is frozen forever on one day in 351, the year chosen for the imagined reconstruction.

Reconstructing a working Roman villa with the limited information we have about villas from archaeology has clearly been a challenge. Getting the hypocaust to work correctly is one of those, and I was intrigued to see scorch-marks on the walls from adjustable vents that allow the heat to escape from the tubuli (there is a backup system in case the tubuli fracture, which would cause carbon monoxide to escape into the villa).

The attention to detail at Villa Ventorum is staggering – from the furnishings to the meticulously crafted doors and windows, the terracotta acroterial decorations, the exquisite frescos – and even a Christian symbol scratched on a wall in the larder, presumably by a slave.

Gorgon-faced acroterial terracottas on the roof of Villa Ventorum
A beautifully painted fresco in the caldarium

Villa Ventorum is not merely history that is looked at, or the sort of mock-up of historical interiors we are all familiar with from museums; it is, rather, an immersive experience that plunges the visitor into a multi-sensory, three-dimensional encounter with a reconstructed Roman past. The experience of entering into the space of a Roman villa, of experiencing its particular qualities of light, is both intense and moving. This is especially true of the bathhouse, where the visitor experiences the light, the heat of both air and water, and the faint smell of woodsmoke from the hypocaust system. The overall sense is of the villa as a living building; as far removed as can be imagined from reconstruction as mere stage-dressing or reconstruction to create a static, dead space.

A view from the gallery
A view along the full length of the collonade
Statue of the Goddess Luna

It is hard to overstate how extraordinary an experience it is to visit Villa Ventorum.

Garden shrine of the Deae Matres