A Wellcome Debate….

January 30, 2013
Gary Duckers

Well, that was a brain scrambler!

We’re just gathered some fine minds from the worlds of heritage and education to start putting the final planning stages of our Wellcome Trust “Roman Medical Roadshow” project into fruition.

We decided to meet up in the Baltic Triangle of Liverpool – home to the city’s burgeoning creative community. Perhaps it was in the hope that a concentration of creative juices would lubricate our grey-matter, or perhaps it was because our warm hosts Agent Marketing provided us with a board room supplied with ample purple marker pens, an abundance of coffee and enough sugary treats to incapacitate Augustus Gloop.

Our cast assembled from the four corners of the earth (well, Chester and Liverpool mostly) and over the first caffeine injection, the usual formalities of introducing various strangers began. Our team included a Senior Education Manager representing National Museums Liverpool, a gaggle of archaeologists, bone specialists, a lecturer in pedagogy and teacher of 25 years, a governor of a host of schools and the Big Heritage team. It was like watching the A-Team assemble only with fewer explosives, more sweets and a speculum.

Speaking of specula (is that the plural?) our collection of medical implements made the perfect ice-breaker as we asked the group to hazard a few guesses as to their functions. Despite the fun involved, we got down to the business of bringing to light the history of medical practice in Roman Britain to the public. We obviously can’t go into too much detail yet, we wouldn’t want to spoil it! However, we can say that we have devised a series of events which the adjectives creative, engaging, educational and most of all brave best describe it.

It’s relatively easy to throw together a run-of-the-mill workshop about the Romans. There’s a raft of historical evidence and material culture lies in museum stores across the UK in abundance. However, one of the things that the Romans left behind that we’re trying to filter out is their own overly biased and sometimes self-inflated opinion!

There’s still an antiquated perception of Roman culture as being one that set out from Rome and  ‘enlightened’ the cave-dwelling inhabitants of wherever they liberated, when in fact their greatest asset was their ruthlessness in conquest and their ability to absorb ideas from those they conquered. Medicine of course, is no exception to this. Whilst chatting to Dr Ralph Jackson at the British Museum in December, he jokingly reminded us that Galen, purportedly the greatest Roman physician, is so important to Roman medicine because Galen himself told us that he was, and his texts have survived largely unaltered as opposed to other pretenders to the throne.

However, we’re not labouring under any lazy Roman agenda at Big Heritage and we’re not trying to create just any old workshop. We’re trying to take the last 20 years of archaeological investigation and filter it for a non-academic audience to offer them a balanced perspective of medical practices in Romano-British society. No rose-tinted glasses, and with the bones of the Roman dead being given a voice equal to the loudest of any Roman chronicler. We want this project not only to deliver its core aims and objectives, but also to challenge preconception, encourage wider debate and really engage people with the past. Not lecture to them, not shout down at them from an ivory tower, but deliver the facts as clearly as possible and allow them to offer their own voice to the wider debate – something we feel will provide enrichment, multivocality and enduring quality to our work.

Dean Paton

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