The trick in the hotel in order to assure a bright start to the day is to avoid the brown water in the coffee flask provided and order a real and strong coffee at the bar for the princely sum of 30p. Day 8 of our adventure requires me to do this more than on any other day for 2 reasons the first is sheer tiredness, the second is that I am being commandeered to do some fieldwork today and I need to be awake.
Before the research begins we stop off at Lambaesis. Until recently I had not heard of this site but after attending a few lectures in Rome given by Prof David Mattingly I soon understood this to be the hub of urban centres in the fringes of the Roman Empire. I am glad he assured me of that since the site does not wield this sensation at all. It possesses nothing of the charm and character of Timgad and the remains left one devoid of any emotion at all. The site is now overshadowed by the local, but nevertheless substantial, prison. We were then given strict instructions that no photograph could include the prison. Just as well it was a grey day otherwise its best angle would have undoubtedly featured the prison in all its glory serving as the backdrop. Cue one collection of rather drab photos of a so-called “praetorium” – a large boulder of a building squatting on site.
We pay a quick visit to the tiny dusty museum and inside we are met by mosaics, statues and finds from the site. Outside in the garden are inscription after inscription, funerary monument and after funerary monument. It is a little like a showroom of Roman carving and inscribing techniques.
And, if for any reason we have a bunting crisis and we find ourselves with a bunting deficit, I am going to Algeria to cash in. The Algerians love bunting and pop it up absolutely everywhere. I love bunting too although I am not entirely sure why a series of small bits of paper or material hanging at regular intervals from a length of string makes me smile and feel good quite the way it does, but it does. I love the Algerians for their shared love of bunting.
The team splits in two for the day. I and my two favourite Pompeiian archaeologists head to Timgad in a car and the others head back to Constantine via various sites along the way. And so the research began. I had the task of recording the presence of troughs called “auge” in all the buildings in the northern half of the town. Armed with an iPad with a database and map installed I began the dizzy task of circling each insula block peering in each room like a nosy neighbour. A systematic approach is obviously the only way to do something like this but it is surprising how disorienting it is circling vaguely identical blocks of houses and knowing where you have been.
Slow start as I acquainted myself with the program. It is also nerve-wracking to collect data for someone else as you are more than aware that they will have their methods and their needs that you can only hope to emulate. I can say with absolute certainty that I saw half of the town at a level of detail that most visitors do not engage. It felt absolutely great and a huge priviledge to be helping the research and doing fieldwork on this site for these particular project directors. I know I may sound a bit gushy but really, when you respect a person as much as I admire and respect these two people there is little in ones career that trumps just being a part of what they do.
The day passed really quickly and there was somewhat of a race to the finish line in order to complete the site record. It had been grey all day and it had even rained and yet there was this quite magical moment when I had just finished and was heading up the steps to the forum to meet the others when the clouds moved an inch and let the low sun flood its evening orangey glow across site. I watched as the light moved across the ruins like a floodlight revealing the textures and shapes of the urban fabric which until now had been flattened by the overcast weather. It really was astonishing.
I ran to the Hadrianic Arch. It was late on site and all but a handful of visitors were left on site. I met up with one of the boys and we sat on the temple steps just outside the city with our backs to the sun, gazing back across site over the Arch which was bathed in this glorious warm light. This was it. This was the moment of the entire trip for me. I knew it as it was happening too which just added to its poignancy. I reached into my bag and grabbed for a chocolate bar a friend had given me from the UK weeks before. I snapped it into pieces and shared it. A day of non-stop racing around town deserved a moment like this with an absolutely incredible and breathtaking view accompanied by the sweet taste of chocolate. The third member of the team arrived, ate the chocolate I had saved, and we took some photos with us and the arch (although the result was that our heads in the self portrait blocked out the arch but we know it’s there!) This was a powerful nugget of time spent at a site that had just delivered more than I had ever imagined, even after a 20 year wait, with two friends who delighted in this moment just as much as me and after a day of fieldwork. What a reward.
We then raced through town to meet our infinitely patient driver and headed for Constantine. Goodbye Timgad. It has been a pleasure. And I am delighted to note that someone has managed to capture the true essence of the Trajanic Arch in the medium of ceramic. My only regret, and it is probably greater than you would expect. is that i didn’t boost the local economy by purchasing one. By the time we left the vendors had shut up their stall. I will simply have to come back one day.
The journey to Constantine was not without incident. We were subjected to Western 80’s dance music – the driver did not look like he would be a fan of this type of music but looks can be deceptive. In this case, truly deceptive. At one point we spot what looks to be a horse galloping and spinning out of control across a field, the rider, dressed in traditional costume, evidently having no success in reining in the animal he was astride. This was entertaining by itself but only got more comedic as the horse and rider then joined the stream of traffic on the road. Weaving between the thankfully almost stationary lorries and cars the horse still appeared to have the upper hand in the ‘who was in charge’ stakes. Not sure whose decision it was, my money was still on the horse, but the pair mounted the verge on the side of the road and then careered down the narrow path without much attention to the pedestrians only to disappear from view. As we rounded the next corner all became clear – there was some sort of local fair in town and the horse and rider obviously belonged to one of the tents that had been temporarily erected for the occasion. What was never resolved was whether it was a stunt or a genuine runaway moment. My money is on the latter.
We met up with the others in Constantine, at the Hotel Cirta which had begun to feel a little like home, or at least the closest you can get to when you are on the road, since we had spent the most nights here. One of the team had thoughtfully brought a cake from Italy and so we tucked in after dinner to celebrate Easter and to toast our last meal as a group. The next day would see the beginning of the teams’ departures.