Saturday 13 November 2021

Thoughts on conferences, COP26 ... and birds


Puffins, Red on the RSPB UK Conservation List

Those who are already acquainted with my blogs may recognise this puffin photograph, taken some years ago at RSPB Bempton Cliffs. The flutter of these wings inspired 'Puffin's Assembly', one of the poems in my poetry collection, Driftwood by Starlight (The Seventh Quarry Press, 2021). 

The poem, about an imaginary convocation of threatened seabirds, was partially inspired by the avian parliament in The Birds, a comedy by Aristophanes, the play from which we get the term, 'Cloud-cuckoo-land'. In my brief text the birds confront the Climate Crisis, extinction, habitat loss and coastal erosion. 
I suspect Chaucer may have been influenced by Aristophanes when he came to write The Parliament of Fowls
With COP26 running into extra time as I drafted this post, it seemed appropriate to be thinking about what I might call actual, imaginary or motivational assemblies.
The avian crew in The Birds under the direction of the Hoopoe were motivated (rightly or wrongly in this particular case) by the idea of building their own kingdom in the sky. Chaucer's birds gathered for the important business of finding a mate. 
As a child, I was captivated by the tale of The Little Grey Men by BB. Melissa Harrison has recently brought out a story in two volumes for children (and adults) which continues the tale in a 21st century setting, taking into account our current environmental concerns. Harrison's books, By Oak, Ash and Thorn and By Rowan and Yew, have been beautifully written - and have been exquisitely produced by Chicken House. I have no wish to spoil the narrative for you, but just wanted to mention the fact that the story includes a convocation of sorts, 'a grand conference', not only for the protagonists who are on a mission, but for 'all the animals' as well. I will refrain from saying more in the hope that you may decide to read the books.  
As we consider Climate Crisis and other world issues, such as Covid-19, we become acutely aware that it is in many senses only now that we have the opportunity to make things change. The past has happened. Tomorrow is uncharted territory.

Thursday 7 October 2021

National Poetry Day 2021, Theme of 'Choice'


Upper left: Basil Brown's (reconstructed) shepherd's hut at NT Sutton Hoo, Suffolk

Upper right: drystone beehive cell (for a monk) in the grounds of Kilmartin Museum, Scotland

Lower left: reconstruction of a Provençal 'borrie' for oxen (and shepherds, apparently), The Eden Project, Cornwall

Lower right: beach huts on the shore at Southwold, Suffolk


I have often envied writers who have or have had a 'shed' at their disposal for writing, reading and contemplation, whether the structure has been a driftwood hut, a remote bothy or a garden gazebo. Dylan Thomas and the Reverend R.S. Hawker both had writing huts with coastal views. I would definitely opt for one of these.  

Of course, it isn't only writers who have huts. The photograph below shows a hut on Romney Marsh in Kent, provided for the 'lookers', folk who were asked to care for huge flocks of sheep on behalf of the land owners, who considered the marsh an unhealthy place in which to live. 

Unlike the shepherds, who only minded a single flock, lookers were responsible for sheep belonging to more than one owner. The workers were based at their huts by day, and at lambing times found themselves camping out in them overnight. 

It seems ironic to me that the hut in the photo below, designed for these lookers, seems so devoid of windows. I see there is a stable-style door; I do not remember if there was a window at the back. Perhaps this hut was mainly used for the storage of tools and other equipment. The chimney suggests an internal fire place. 


Driftwood by Starlight (The Seventh Quarry Press, June 2021), my poetry collection, includes my poem 'Hawker's Hut' (p.29); Parson Hawker's driftwood structure nestles in the cliff above the sea at Morwenstow in Cornwall. 

'Hawker's Hut' was read out at Ipswich Library today as part of Suffolk Poetry Society's National Poetry Day reading on the theme of 'choice'.

Lookers' huts on Romney Marsh in Kent, like the one in the photograph above, are mentioned in my poem, 'Lost' (p.12). This poem also has an allusion to the poet, Edward Thomas. 


Driftwood by Starlight (The Seventh Quarry Press, June 2021) can be purchased online, here. The cost is £6.99/$10.

Wednesday 15 September 2021

'Driftwood by Starlight' ... Posts Relating To My Poetry Collection


When Driftwood by Starlight, my first full poetry collection, was published by The Seventh Quarry Press in June 2021, Maria Lloyd (@mariatlloyd), a research student at the University of Reading, set me some questions about a number of the poems, and particularly about those that relate to the Ancient World in one way or another.

You can find my responses in blog posts (1) to (3) below. I hope you will find something of interest if you click on the links.

(1) Questions from Maria Lloyd here. A post on 'Monte Testaccio, Mound of Potsherds', p.35.

(2) Questions from Maria Lloyd here. A post on 'Wildfire', p.31.

(3) Questions from Maria Lloyd here. A post on 'The Ocean's Tears', p.24 and 'Ice-Blue Blood', p.25.  

 • • •

While I was in Cornwall earlier in the summer, I took the opportunity to re-visit some of the settings in the book. Posts (a) to (c) below refer to these. 

(a) Cadgwith on The Lizard peninsula, setting for 'The Serpentine Stile', p.9. See here.

(b) The Penwith Moors and Mên-an-Tol, setting for '(W)hole Thoughts from Mên-an-Tol', p.28. See here.

(c) Zennor, setting for 'Zennor Voices', p.19. See here.

Tuesday 31 August 2021

DRIFTWOOD BY STARLIGHT: Questions from Maria Lloyd (3)

Reconstruction (Piet de Jong) of floor motifs, Throne Room, Nestor's Palace, Pylos

Driftwood by Starlight, my first full poetry collection, was launched online on Tuesday 3 August. The book was published in June 2021 by Peter Thabit Jones of The Seventh Quarry Press. It can be purchased for £6.99/$10 from the publisher's online shop here.  

Maria Lloyd, who holds a Masters degree on The City of Rome from the University of Reading, read the collection and decided to set me some questions. I am attempting to provide a few answers in this mini-series (without giving too much away ...). Thank you, Maria. 

Post One (click here) concerned my poem 'Monte Testaccio, Mound of Potsherds' on p.35 of Driftwood by Starlight.

Post Two (click here) has as its focus the poem, 'Wildfire', on p.31. 

This is Post Three, and we stay with an archaeological theme as we switch our focus from the Roman World to Ancient Greece.

Let's turn to Maria's question. It relates, of course, to all the poems in the collection; but for the purposes of this post I shall apply it to 'The Ocean's Tears' on p.24 and 'Ice-Blue Blood' on p.25:

'You appear to write on a wide range of topics but what were the triggers that made you want to write about these topics in particular?' 

Many of us have a sense of adventure lurking somewhere inside us, even if in some cases we turn out to be largely armchair travellers. The classical world has fascinated me for decades so it is not surprising that aspects of ancient Greece and Rome surface in my poems from time to time. The Odyssey is a favourite ancient text. 


Homer in hand at Nestor's Palace, 'sandy Pylos', Peloponnese, 2010. Photo: © David Gill

The two poems I mention above were the result of my engagement with 'Homer', the blind bard. How much of the Iliad and Odyssey can actually be attributed to him is debatable since the tales of Troy are part of the oral tradition in which songs were passed on from singer to singer.  


Bust of Homer, Mount Egcumbe

The bust above, photographed in June 2021 during our Cornish holiday, is similar (though not, in fact, identical) to a sculpture of Homer found near Baiae on the Bay of Naples and purchased by Townley (BM Cat. Sculpture 25).

The two poems I consider in this post exhibit similarities and differences. They are not 'a pair', though it was a deliberate choice to place them opposite one another in the collection. Both concern the tale of Troy to some degree. They each have (in my mind at least) a 20th century UK beach setting.

'The Oceans Tears' is a Tercet Ghazal, a form developed by Robert Bly from the traditional (Arabic) Ghazal of Persian origin. I first encountered Ghazals with a three-lined stanza or 'sher' on The Ghazal Page, a web resource run by Gene Doty, which, sadly, is no longer available. 

'Ice-Blue Blood' is also written in three-line stanzas, but (to give words from this poem a new context) there the similarity ends, at least as far as form is concerned.

'The Ocean's Tears' includes a number of items that point to the Homeric world (gold, bronze, arrows and horse). Troy was never far from my thoughts during the drafting of this poem. 


Entrance to the 'Troy: Myth and Reality' exhibition, British Museum, 2019-2000

Those who have visited King Agamemnon's citadel at Mycenae will be familiar with the cyclopean walls to which I allude in the third verse.

Mycenae, linked to King Agamemnon. Photo: © David Gill

The Lion Gate entrance to the citadel at Mycenae. Photo: © David Gill

Mycenaean walls, with jeep for scale. Photo: © David Gill

'Ice-Blue Blood', on the other hand, begins with an epigraph from William Cowper's translation of Homer about a many-legged creature. I have long been intrigued by artistic renderings of octopus and squid in the Ancient World (see assorted examples on Greek pottery below), and have wondered whether these representations have any symbolic meaning beyond the visual. I believe I read that in one part of the ancient Greek world, the octopus motif could have been applied as a kind of early trademark, but I would need to explore this further.


Octopus fragment found at Phylakopi, Melos (Fitzwilliam Museum)

Octopus (9), Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY (early 20th century reproduction of stirrup jar, Crete)

Octopus in the 'Troy' exhibition, British Museum

Amphora from Tholos tomb II at Routsi, Archaeological Museum of Chora, near Pylos

The octopus was a popular part of the so-called 'Marine Style' of pottery, which originated on Crete in the late Bronze Age and was embraced by potters on the mainland. Monsters, some more cephalopod-like than others, abound in Greek mythology. They are not all creatures of the sea. The Hydra, which appears in a number of myths and sources such as Hesiod, had several heads. Cerberus, or Kerberos, the hound referred to but not actually mentioned by name in the Iliad, had two, three, or even 'many' heads. 


The first open lecture I attended as an undergraduate at Newcastle University in 1979 was given by Dr John Pinsent of Liverpool University on the unusual theme of ancient art and cephalopods. He had authored a paper called The Iconography of Octopuses: a First Typology (BICS 25, 1978) about the development of octopus representations in late Mycenaean vase painting. 


More recently I came under the influence of a large blue graffiti octopus known locally as 'Digby'. Digby, designed by John D. Edwards, is part of the Never Ending Mural community arts project in Ipswich and a popular local icon (see here). There may well be a nod to the spirit of Digby in my poem. And, as I hinted earlier, the impact of squid and octopus representations on ancient artifacts should not be overlooked. There is something very fluid, fascinating and changeable about these marine animals. It is worth remembering that while the wine-dark purple colour from the Murex shell (see also here) was prized as a costly dye in Ancient Greece, humans have been writing and drawing with cuttlefish ink, known to us as 'sepia', since times of antiquity. 


Speaking of early writing, I began with a photograph relating to Nestor's Palace at Pylos in the western Peloponnese. It seems worthy of note that large quantities of Linear B tablets were found here. Ironically, these clay tablets were baked, and therefore preserved for posterity, in a devastating fire.

Linear B tablet (a cast, I think), Archaeological Museum of Chora

In his poem, 'Upon a Foreign Verse', George Seferis reminds his readers that Odysseus is a human hero, and as such a very different 'being' from the otherworldly monsters he encounters. Scylla in Odyssey Book XII has twelve feet and six particularly long necks, each ending in a head and three rows of teeth. She makes the Loch Ness monster seem extremely benign. Were Homer's sea monsters inspired by atmospheric shadows whipped up by storms at sea or by sightings of giant octopuses? I guess we shall never know.  

Tuesday 17 August 2021

DRIFTWOOD BY STARLIGHT: Questions from Maria Lloyd (2)


Photos from my album, taken (pre-digital!) in Pompeii, February 1986

Driftwood by Starlight, my first full poetry collection, was launched online on Tuesday 3 August. The book was published in June 2021 by Peter Thabit Jones of The Seventh Quarry Press. It can be purchased for £6.99/$10 from the publisher's online shop here.  

Maria Lloyd, who holds a Masters degree on The City of Rome from the University of Reading, read the collection and decided to set me some questions about it. I am attempting to provide answers (without giving too much away ...). 

Thank you, Maria.  

The first post in this mini-series on the blog (click here) concerned my poem 'Monte Testaccio, Mound of Potsherds' on p.35 of the collection.

This second post concerns the poem, 'Wildfire', on p.31. Page numbers in this post refer to Driftwood by Starlight. Let's turn to Maria's questions.

From Maria Lloyd: p.31 'Wildfire'
[Q1] Is this poem based on a specific individual part, or parts of Pompeii that fascinate you and have been combined? 
[Q2] Is your repetitive use of 'I wonder who will live and who has died' something that interests you?
[Q3] What is your process in writing poetry? You appear to write many different types of poems. How did you land on the format of each poem?
Once again, here is a little background information before I attempt to offer specific answers. David (Gill), my archaeologist husband, was a Rome Scholar at the British School at Rome in the mid-1980s. We had recently married and were to spend that year living in the School, where I washed bones and sherds of pottery in my spare time. The railways offered what was known as a Biglietto Chilometrico, a pass for 1000 kilometres. 
We left Rome by train on a snowy morning in February 1986, and arrived in Naples that afternoon. Vesuvius was coated in snow and we were bitterly cold. However, we made the most of our few days in the area, visiting Pompeii, Herculaneum and the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli
Photo: © Caroline Gill 1986
We moved south to Reggio before crossing the Straits of Messina (in the train, on the ferry). We landed in Sicily only to find Etna bathed in warm sunshine. We cast off our winter coats and feasted on gifts of juicy oranges.
Perhaps I should backtrack at this point. I spent my junior school years in Kent, not very far from Lullingstone Roman villa, which we visited on a school trip. As a dog-lover, I was fascinated by the Roman paw-prints I saw in bits of tile (and if my previous post alluded to cats, this one will give a nod to the dogs of the Roman world). 
Pawprints in tile, Lullingstone Roman Villa. Photo: © Caroline Gill

Almost ten years later I was able to visit the Pompeii AD79 exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, this time on a secondary school trip. I had not studied any Latin at that point, but I knew about the 'CAVE CANEM'/'Beware of the dog' mosaics, such as the one (with these words) at the entrance to the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii shown below, or the guard dog mosaic (without words)
from the House of Orpheus
'CAVE CANEM' mosaic, Pompeii. Photo: © David Gill
I went on to study aspects of Pompeii and Herculaneum at university, but it was not until our year (1985-6) in Rome that I was able to see these sites for myself.  
Let's turn to the first question. 
[Q1] Is this poem based on a specific individual part, or on parts of Pompeii that fascinate you and have been combined? 
My 'Roman dog encounters' mentioned above comprise one of several strands that unfurled as I studied (and went on to teach) aspects of classical civilisation, bringing the ancient world to life in my mind's eye. I mention 'life' and yet, of course, when it comes to the devastation caused by the volcanic eruption, we are talking 'death', a fact reflected in the title of the 2013 British Museum exhibition, Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum
'Wildfire' was not especially based around memories of particular areas or aspects of the archaeological sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum; although, almost inevitably, some features* struck me, or pulled at a proverbial heart-string, more than others. Who would not be affected by the small details (a loaf of bread, for instance, left to smoulder in an oven in Herculaneum) that make the tragedy seem real to those of us who were not there as eye witnesses? 

David (Gill) in Herculaneum. Photo: © Caroline Gill
I have visited Eyam in Derbyshire where plague victims cut themselves off from surrounding villages in order to contain the disease. I have explored the remains of Scottish villages that were abandoned during the Clearances (my poem, 'The Ceilidh House' on p.16 alludes to this). Stones, graves and broken walls can tell a powerful tale, and sometimes these features are all we have to go on. 
But Pompeii and Herculaneum are different. We are, for example, confronted with the reality of normal aspects of life, including shopping (the Market of Macellum, a fast-food counter ...), art in the form of wall paintings and mosaics, garden features and so much more. It is as if the inhabitants have just gone out for a short while, leaving their stone guard dogs at the ready. 
And yet it is not at all like that. I find I only have only to stare at the plaster casts made from the remains of the people (see here; and also top right on this blog page for a photo of a figure, head in hands) and their animals (dog, boar or pig, and horse) to begin to sense something of the horror.
[Q2] Is your repetitive use of 'I wonder who will live and who has died' something that interests you?
[Q3] What is your process in writing poetry? You appear to write many different types of poems. How did you land on the format of each poem?
I am taking these two questions together, and will attempt to answer [Q3], at least in part, in relation to [Q2]. 
One of the exciting aspects of my poetry journey to date has been exploring the different ways in which 'form' and 'craft' can shape a poem, whether by 'form' I mean something named and specific like the Sestina, and my collection includes one of these ('The Figure at the Phoenix Mine', p.22); or something less precise, perhaps like an unrhymed couplet. 
The craft of poetry can be applied in numerous ways, some more tangible (the acrostic in an acrostic poem perhaps, like 'Et in terra pax', p.14), and some more subtle (for example, the deployment of sound-symbolism or contronyms). I was delighted back in 2012 to have three sample 'form poems' (a folding-mirror, a clang and a bref double with echo) included in The Book of Forms including Odd and Invented Forms by Lewis Putnam Turco (UPNE 2012). 
Let's turn more specifically to 'Wildfire'. This poem was written during the pandemic; it was not intended to be a 'happy' poem. Poets use the currency of metaphor and sustained metaphor. How much of my poem was actually about the eruption of Vesuvius in AD79? This is a question I continue to ask myself. 
What I knew from the outset was that I wanted the reinforcement that repetition would afford. 'Wildfire' is a villanelle (think: 'Do not go gentle into that good night' by Dylan Thomas). The form, allowing for only two rhyme sounds throughout, and the 'pared-back' nature of my theme seemed complementary. 
Maria, you highlight my line, 'I wonder who will live and who has died'. Images of those 103 heart-wrenching plaster casts (the child, the man crawling along the ground ...) were rarely far away, but I was also trying to understand what was behind the words written to Tacitus by Pliny the Younger, whose account of the eruption was discovered, or recovered, in the 16th century. Hence the epigraph at the top of my poem. 
I tried to absorb the text of the letter in translation and attempted to imagine what it might have been like not only for the Younger Pliny, but also for other survivors such as Cornelius Fuscus. Some of those who escaped asphyxiation from the pyroclastic flow at Herculaneum probably left by ship almost as soon as they became aware of the danger. 
At the time of writing (my records state I began to draft 'Wildfire' on 20 April 2020), I had been in lockdown for some weeks. My outlook was changing, and perhaps that was partly why the subject for this villanelle came to me at that particular moment of flux. People we knew were beginning to catch Covid. There was fear in the air and the virus seemed close at hand. 
I was delighted when Susan Jane Sims of Poetry Space accepted the poem for her anthology, Locked Down: poems, diaries and art from the 2020 pandemic, and I was able to read it at one of her online launches. 
So much of our knowledge concerning Pompeii and Herculaneum has arisen, phoenix-fashion, from the ashes of civilisation. Thank you, Maria, for your questions; I am left wondering what the current pandemic will teach future generations about the society in which we find ourselves.
* * *
* A few favourites ...
  • the spacious House of the Faun, with its mosaic of a Nilotic scene, displaying a crocodile, a hippo, a snake and various ducks. The mosaic is housed in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli.
  • the fresco of Terentius Neo, a baker, and his wife, who holds a writing stylus to her lips and a wax writing tablet in her right hand. I would love to know what she had written or was about to write ... 
  • Fresco of garden scenes from the the north wall of the House of the Golden Bracelet. I am reminded of William Morris and his 'Strawberry Thief' design ...
  • a street with raised stepping stones to allow pedestrians to cross in safety, while allowing access for carts (see my photo below).
February 1986. Photo: © Caroline Gill

  • the artistic depictions of octopus and dolphins at one end of the black and white mosaic of the Triton (who bears what seems to be an oar) from the women's section of the Central Baths on Cardo IV.
  • the Villa of Papyri, with its bronze piglet. I gather this villa was owned by Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, the father in law of Julius Caesar. 
  • the streets, which seem so real. Some of the adjacent buildings have a second storey.

Photo: © Caroline Gill

Monday 9 August 2021

DRIFTWOOD BY STARLIGHT: Questions from Maria Lloyd (1)


Driftwood by Starlight, my first full poetry collection, was launched online on Tuesday 3 August. The book was published in June 2021 by Peter Thabit Jones of The Seventh Quarry Press. It can be purchased from the publisher's online shop here

Maria Lloyd, who holds a Masters degree on The City of Rome from the University of Reading, read the collection and decided to set me some questions about it. I shall attempt to provide some answers (without giving too much away ...) over the course of the next few posts. 

Thank you, Maria.  

This first post concerns my poem 'Monte Testaccio, Mound of Potsherds' on p.35. As I mentioned at the launch, this particular poem is intended to be something of a flight of fancy.

Let's hear from Maria on the subject of Monte Testaccio ...

  • I love your use of words associated with cats; 'prowl' 'flick' 'flit', the idea that cats prefer the rich.
  • Your use of ancient figures and terms is interesting: Antony, Cleopatra, bread and circuses.
  • [Q1] Can you explain paragraph 3 'fur shivering through you'?
  • [Q2] Can you explain: 'Testaccio reeks of centuries which nothing went to waste'?

Thank you, Maria, and before I attempt to answer the questions you pose, I would like to offer a little background information. 

David (Gill), my archaeologist husband, was a Rome Scholar at the British School at Rome in the mid-1980s. We had recently married and were to spend that year living in the School, where I washed bones and sherds of pottery in my spare time. By then I had taught Classical Civilisation A Level in two different school settings in the UK and had gained a qualification in the teaching of English as a Foreign Language (RSA TEFL). I believe this qualification is now known as a Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults or CELTA.  

I was fascinated by the Ostiense area around the Piramide Metro station in Rome. My eyes were immediately drawn to the imposing pyramid tomb of Caius Cestius. You can read more about the tomb here


Pyramid tomb of Gaius Cestius, Rome.  Photo credit: © David Gill

The 'Non-Catholic Cemetery for Foreigners in Testaccio, Rome' was nearby. It contains a memorial stone to Keats, who died from TB at the young age of 25. 


Memorial to Keats, Rome. Photo credit: © David Gill

It has been documented that the poet wanted the words you see above as his epitaph: 'Here lies one whose name was writ in water'.

Memorial stones to Keats (left) and his friend, Severn (right). Photo credit: © David Gill

John Keats memorial plaque, Rome. Photo credit: © David Gill

Acrostic verse on the Keats memorial plaque, Rome. Photo credit: © David Gill

There is also a memorial tablet to Shelley, who drowned in a shipwreck off the Italian coast at the age of 29. The tablet bears the famous 'sea-change' line from The Tempest.


Memorial stone to Shelley, Rome. Photo credit: © David Gill

It is a well-known fact that Shelley's heart failed to burn when his body was washed ashore and 'cremated'; Mary Shelley kept his heart, which was found among her possessions after her death. Edward John Trelawny, who also gets a mention in my poem, was an author friend of Shelley's. Trelawny was able to identify the body of his friend on the beach.


Tombstone of Edward J. Telawny, Rome. Photo credit: © David Gill

There were often a lot of colourful cats in the area around Piramide Metro Station. It was some time before we realised that there was special provision for stray cats nearby. My reference to 'bread and circuses' was perhaps in part due to the free hand-outs the cats were receiving. It was, of course, also a nod to the satirist and poet Juvenal, who evoked Roman life so vividly (Juvenal, Satires, X. 70-81. Penguin translation here).

As a cat-lover, I have often observed how felines have a way of whiskering their way into unexpected places. A couple of the Testaccio ones sneaked into my poem.

Let's turn to [Q1] which concerns the lines in my poem that run as follows;

Can you feel the fur 

that shivers through you silently ... 

along those Tiber tales?

Those who live alongside cats will doubtless have noticed not only the occasional twitching, but also the rippling of fur, perhaps while the feline appears to be dreaming. When this rippling occurred in one of our cats, I sometimes wondered what was actually going on in her head. 

Science (see here for example) may offer its own answers to the question of animals and their ability to dream, but those who care for feral cats in Tel Aviv (see here) are of the opinion that cats do indeed dream, at least in certain phases of their sleep. I included the word 'Tiber' here since nearby Ponte Testaccio arches over the river. I also sensed a certain alliterative resonance between the river's name and the word 'tabby', which does not appear in the poem in an overt way. Curiously, some websites suggest that one of Queen Cleopatra's favourite cats was named 'Tivali', which would resonate pleasingly with 'Tevere', the Italian word for the Tiber (please let me know if you can verify this with a more reliable source).


Members of the feral cat colony. Photo: © Caroline Gill (1985)

The cemetery lies in the lee of a strange mound, known as Monte Testaccio. This mound is approximately 46 metres tall and is composed of amphora sherds. This fact is reflected in the name since 'testo' (Latin) and 'cocci' (Italian) both mean 'potsherd'. I check myself here on the grounds that 'sherd' and its alternative, 'shard', are considered words to avoid in modern poetry. However, and in my own defence, I only use the word 'Potsherds' in my translation of a proper noun in Italian! 

I will now attempt to answer [Q2] (see above)


Monte Testaccio (in the background), Rome. Photo credit: © David Gill

Why I included the word 'reeks' ... 

We think immediately of synonyms such as 'smells' or 'stinks'. The word we know as 'reek' has an interesting etymology, linked to the Old Irish word, 'cruach', which leads on to the more familiar 'rick' (think: hayrick), implying a pile, mound, stack or stook.

Monte Testaccio, as I have mentioned, is composed of stack on stack of cast-aside amphorae. Most if not all of these clay vessels would have contained olive oil, surely one of the purest kinds of food imaginable. 'Purest', that is, until it turns rancid. Olive oil was not only a significant part of the Roman diet; it was also a useful commodity in terms, for example, of lighting and medicine.

I was perhaps influenced at the time of writing (and this poem was first published way back in 2003) by an increased awareness of the growing practice of 'taking things to the tip' or civic amenity site, with its mountains of landfill waste and accompanying odours. By this time I would have encountered the Tucson Garbage Project through conversations at the British School in Rome and through reports. My pot-washing activity in the 'Camerone' (a spacious archaeology room) at the School may not have been particularly challenging in terms of smell, but the water could look pretty grimy with washed-off sediment!

Perhaps at this point I should mention ‘garum’, the famous fish sauce, a popular and pungent part of Roman cuisine. There is a link here to an article attributed to Jason Daley on the Smithsonian website about it (and its presence in Israel).


It seems unlikely, at least from my reading on the subject, that amphorae containing garum were placed on the Testaccio mound. However, I find it interesting that Dr Elizabeth Bartman (of the archaeo-culinary Elifant Tours) specifically mentions potsherds found on Testaccio from Baetica, in what we would know as the south of Spain, 'most with olive-oil residues but some with traces of fish'.


Professor Amanda Claridge, who was Deputy Director of the British School at Rome during our year as residents, seems less convinced, however, that there is evidence for amphorae containing garum on the Testaccio site. In her book, Rome [1998] in the Oxford Archaeological Guides series, she asserts on p.367 that the surface of the mound ‘consists almost entirely of olive oil amphoras’, dating from 144 AD (with the exception of a slightly earlier sherd) to the middle of the third century. Professor Claridge points out that 'a core of older material must lie deeper in the hill'. Who knows what may yet come to light.


An article, 'Trash Talk' (Jarrett A. Lobell), in Archaeology, seems to suggest that there is currently no evidence for a (separate) mound anywhere in Rome comprising amphorae filled with garum. Professor Claridge indicates that there is scope for further study since commodities other than 'oil amphoras' must have 'passed through the port' of Rome.  


And finally we come to the last line of my poem. I decided to stick with the traditional form of the word 'perfect' in relation to feline taste (culinary and otherwise); but I can't say I wasn't tempted to insert an 'urr' in place of the more conventional 'er' spelling!



Also consulted: David Peacock and D. F. Williams Amphorae and the Roman Economy: An Introductory Guide (Longman 1986). 

My thanks to Maria Lloyd for setting me this task.

The next post in this mini-series concerns my poem, 'Wildfire', on p.31 of Driftwood by Starlight.