‘Letters of Thomas Hatton from Williamsburg, Virginia, 1758-1759’ published in The New American Antiquarian

The Bodleian Plate (c. 1781/2) depicting buildings, flora and fauna in 18th-century Williamsburg

My article ‘Letters of Thomas Hatton from Williamsburg, Virginia, 1758-1759’ has just been published in the inaugural number of The New American Antiquarian, a new journal dedicated to publishing primary sources relating to North America in the period up to 1825. In 1758 a recently ordained Church of England deacon, Thomas Hatton, arrived in colonial Williamsburg to take up a position as under-master at the grammar school attached to William and Mary College. He sent a number of letters and meteorological observations back to England which were preserved by his friend George Ashby, later a prominent antiquary. I first encountered Hatton’s letters among Ashby’s papers in the Suffolk Record Office over a decade ago, and I was struck by the unusual nature of this correspondence. Hatton did not spend long in Virginia and soon returned to England, but his letters give a glimpse of the colony at a critical moment, during the French and Indian War and bitter disputes between Anglican clergy and the burgesses of the colony that foreshadowed the conflicts of the American Revolution. Hatton’s correspondence also contains meteorological data on the colony that is, in all likelihood, unique.

I am delighted that The New American Antiquarian was able to bring to light this interesting collection of letters, which will hopefully be of interest to researchers of colonial Williamsburg and English North America.


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

Premiere of ‘St Edmund: From King to Legend’

This evening I attended the premiere of Christian Horsnell’s documentary film ‘St Edmund: From King to Legend’ at Abbeygate Cinema in Bury St Edmunds. The film tells the story of the development and significance of St Edmund’s cult between 869 and 1020, when a Benedictine abbey was founded at Bury St Edmunds. Christian Horsnell interviewed me for the film early in 2020, and after this evening’s screening Christian and I both answered questions from the audience about the film and about St Edmund.

There will be further screenings of the film at Abbeygate Cinema in the coming week and you can book tickets here.


Talking Jubilee beacons on BBC Radio 4

This afternoon BBC Radio 4’s PM Programme featured an interview in which Evan Davis spoke to me about the history and folklore of beacons. The segment was recorded on 1 June at Castor in Cambridgeshire, where we witnessed the lighting of the village’s new gas-fed beacon for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee.

Although the tradition of lighting beacons for royal jubilees dates back only to Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, the lighting of fires has long been a symbol of great national events. Beacons that served as warnings, and as a primitive system of telegraphy, are now a symbol of national unity as well as a powerful emblem of continuity with the ancient past; the high places in the landscape where beacons are lit today may well be the same places where beacons have been lit for as long as humans have sought to communicate over long distances.

You can listen to the interview here from time signature 31:00.


Review: Queens of the Wild by Ronald Hutton

My review of Ronald Hutton’s new book Queens of the Wild: Pagan Goddesses in Christian Europe: An Investigation has just been published by First Things magazine, and explores the light this book sheds on the real history of paganism in the medieval period.


Launch of Pagans in the Early Modern Baltic

Yesterday (31 May) the Lithuanian Embassy in London hosted an online launch for my recently published book Pagans in the Early Modern Baltic. The Lithuanian Ambassador to the United Kingdom, HE Renatas Norkus, recorded a message welcoming participants before Dr Pavel Horák hosted the event. I gave an introduction to the book, exploring some of its main themes, before Prof. Vytautas Ališauskas of Vilnius University responded with his reflections on the book, followed by Dr Toms Ķencis of the University of Latvia. There was then an opportunity for me to respond to questions sent in by listeners. The launch produced an interesting discussion, and it is my hope that it marks a new development in the study of Baltic religion beyond the Baltic states.

I am very grateful to the Lithuanian Embassy for hosting this event, to the academic participants and to all who attended online.

Arc Humanities Press is currently offering a 40% discount on the book (until 24 June) if the book is purchased via the websites of Arc Humanities Press or Amsterdam University Press. Enter the code PEMA40 when prompted.


Review: Les derniers païens by Sylvain Gouguenheim

Sylvain Gouguenheim, Les derniers païens: les Baltes face aux chrétiens xiiie–xviiie siècle (Paris: Passés Composés, 2022), hardback, 444pp.

To see a new book about the religious history of the Baltic is always a good thing, given how under-studied and underappreciated this field is outside the Baltic states. To see one appear in French is especially pleasing, given that study of Baltic religion outside Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia has generally been confined to scholarship in Russian, German and Polish (and, to a lesser extent, English). Sylvain Gouguenheim’s study is one of impressive scale, ranging over the entire history of paganism in the Baltic from prehistory to the eighteenth century. However, Les derniers païens is also a problematic book that, in my view, misses the opportunity to advance Francophone Baltic studies by relying on old scholarship and outdated tropes. Even the book’s title raises troubling questions. It was not ‘the Balts’ who were Europe’s last pagans (or, more accurately, Europe’s last pagan polity) – but the Lithuanians. The choice of title reflects Gouguenheim’s decision to analyse Baltic history through an ethnographic rather than historical lense. In doing so he echoes the Indo-Europeanism of Marija Gimbutas and others, where the history of the Balts begins with their language.

There is nothing wrong with ethnography, linguistics and comparative mythology. But that they play such a central role in a book that is avowedly a work of history is a little disappointing. Gouguenheim rightly highlights the difficulty of reconstructing the history of peoples primarily described by outsiders, and hostile outsiders at that; but he shows little interest in the potential contributions of archaeology to our knowledge of the history of the Baltic, and while briefly acknowledging that Lithuania did produce some writings, he portrays the Balts as illiterate and essentially pre-historical. Indeed, the collision of the literate late Middle Ages with the ‘barbarian’ Balts seems to fascinate Gouguenheim, yet this presumes a somewhat stereotyped view of the Balts as people who had no use for writing. As the letters of Mindaugas and Gediminas show, a society illiterate in the technical sense can still make use of writing – and do so very effectively.

The difficulty with persistently viewing the Balts through an ethnographic lense is that it essentially denies them a history in the normal sense; they remain a collection of tribes, caught in the amber of scholars’ fascination with Baltic languages and folklore, while the magnitude of the political achievements of individual Baltic nations are overlooked. It is striking that, for Gouguenheim and many other scholars, the Lithuanians are first and foremost the ‘last pagans’; they are not the creators of an astonishing empire that stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea. The ethnographic focus on the Lithuanians as Balts means that Lithuania’s multi-ethnic polity is neglected.

The author describes Lithuania’s conversion to Christianity as ‘the passage of a “tribal” society to a sovereign principality, having become one of the great European states,’ (p. 74) yet elsewhere he assures us that the Lithuanians formed a pagan state. Gouguenheim seems torn between the evident truth that Lithuania was a functioning polity and the idea that an illiterate, pagan, ‘barbarian’ people could possibly form such a thing. Part of the problem is, perhaps, Gouguenheim’s fairly uncritical approach to the medieval sources. While he acknowledges the limitations of these sources in general terms, the author presents us with accounts of Baltic pagan atrocities and enormities without comment. Similarly, in the book’s extensive section on Baltic paganism, Gouguenheim relies to a surprising degree on authors like Peter of Duisburg and Simon Grunau who have been systematically critiqued for decades as unreliable witnesses in the scholarship on Baltic religion.

Overall, Gouguenheim’s Les derniers païens is a welcome addition to the scholarship – virtually any book about Baltic religion is – but in my view it misses the opportunity to set aside certain misconceptions and hackneyed tropes about the Baltic region. The book is thorough in its treatment of the sources but its interpretation leaves something to be desired. Gouguenheim is to be commended for taking the story of Baltic paganism into the eighteenth century, and his willingness to engage with this little studied region is admirable.


‘Royal Bury St Edmunds’ in A New Suffolk Garland

Today marks the publication of A New Suffolk Garland, a collection of writing about Suffolk in honour of Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee, for which I was commissioned to write a section about the royal connections of Bury St Edmunds. The essay explores the history of Bury’s royal visitors, royal patronage and the significance of the shrine and cult of St Edmund to the English royal family over the centuries.

Edited by Elizabeth Burke, Dan Franklin, John James and Mary James, A New Suffolk Garland is inspired by A Suffolk Garland for the Queen (1961), an earlier eclectic anthology about the county for Elizabeth II, which stood in turn in a line of Suffolk Garland books stretching back to 1818. For the latest New Suffolk Garland, 90 authors and artists were invited to contribute new writing and illustrations about Suffolk to produce a memorable souvenir of the county and of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee.


‘Folklore For All’ in Hellebore

My article ‘Folklore For All’, a tribute to the 1973 Reader’s Digest book Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain, has been published in the latest edition of Hellebore magazine. The article explores and authors and illustrators of this remarkable compendium of British folklore and customs, that became many people’s introduction to folklore and a standard text that inspired a generation’s love of Britain’s ancient lore and customs.