So what did the Romans do for us?

1st March 2008 at 00:00

Take two to three large fish, grab them by the head, slit them open and rip out the innards. Place in a bowl in a warm room and allow to rot for several days. Pour off the sauce and use when serving oysters."

Fortunately this recipe is not from a home economics class but from the merchant Marcus Alpius Peregrinus - in conversation with a group of key stage 2 pupils visiting the Roman Gallery at the Museum of London as part of studies for the Invaders and Settlers topic.

After a major refurbishment and with information from the latest archeological excavations, the new gallery is attracting large audiences. The aim of the display is to be as accessible as possible. The time scale, for instance, is indicated by referring to two names everyone knows: Boudicca and Hadrian. It was after Boudicca torched the first settlement on the site of what is now London, in AD 60, that the city was re-built as a planned town on the Roman model. By the time Hadrian visited Londinium in AD 122, the city was flourishing.

The army, trade, transport and religion are all covered, but the accent is on everyday life - what Londinium looked like and how it felt to live there. A reconstructed street, for instance, has interiors of artisans' workshops, showing commodities like shoes, glass and furniture. The centrepiece is three room settings formed by two dining rooms (from different periods) and a well-stocked kitchen.

The larger and later dining room is particularly fascinating. The floor is the Bucklersbury mosaic which was found in the City of London in 1869, and the walls are decorated in a bird and leaf fresco based on fragments of wall plaster excavated at Austin Friars, south of Liverpool Street Station, in 1987.

The room settings provide a stage for actorinterpreters who take the parts of typical characters from Roman London: Marcus, the veteran soldier who has gained his citizenship and turned trader; and the maid Martia Martina, a one-time slave who has been given her freedom.

This is the first time the Museum of London has used actors with school groups, yet even before the gallery opened, all the sessions with Marcus and Martia were booked up. Education officer Emma Webb says pupils receive an "intangible" benefit: "The actors are from the Spectrum Dance Company and have considerable experience of museum interpretation work. I hope they will generate more enthusiasm and interaction and consequently a greater interest in the displays themselves."

Two classes, each divided into groups, met Marcus that morning. Confronted by a bearded, toga-clad figure, the first group found it hard to suspend disbelief. Invited to identify with the native Britons, they tended to resent the Roman invader, even if he had brought straight roads and fine buildings. It then emerged that Marcus did not originate from Italy at all, but from Belgium. As for the natives, he suggested, they did not think too badly of the Romans, after all some parents sold their children, as young as eight years old, into slavery.

For the next class the actor changed his tack, speaking to the group as 20th-century British children, rather than as native Britons in 100 AD. The result was a highly successful interchange of information. We learned all about Marcus's daily life: his pride in his house with its flint foundations and ragstone walls to keep out the damp; what he ate (from dormice to ravens) and how he used only a knife, not a fork; how he spent a long time every day at the public baths, discussing business, while immersing himself in the water to the accompaniment of a musician; how he wrote the number six as VI and how the pupils wrote it "like a wiggly worm".

He, in turn, learned about fish fingers and showers and how the barbecue is the modern equivalent of the charcoal brazier he used for heating. He volunteered that he wanted a good slave to teach his son. The group told him they already had one - their teacher.

The actor clearly fired the group's imagination, going by the way they studied the displays and answered the teachers. However, they seemed most interested in the artefacts they already knew about - the massive jugs they had seen on a video, the oil lamp they had sketched in school - showing the importance of preparation for all visits.

The general consensus from the teachers was that the encounter had brought the visit to life. Allan McLean, from Bowes Primary School, said: "While my pupils tend to focus on the Romans as soldiers, the actor reminded them that they were civilised people, who brought us good things."

Alex Lee, from Hollbeach School, found it "a good interactive session, a reflective exercise". Alex Russell from Langley Park School thought it was very positively done, however, he thought the display as a whole needs "a more hi-tech element with more opportunities for interactive videos and screens. "

The museum's education department hopes to be able to run more actor sessions in the future. Meanwhile the new gallery still merits a visit, though teachers would find a preliminary tour useful. Around 2,000 objects are on show, from jewellry to children's shoes. Models show the importance of the busy port, the forum and basilica and the splendid public baths. Older students may also be interested in the excavations that brought the latest objects to light. The room setting for Marcus' house, for instance, is based on evidence from present-day Watling Court and Southwark Street site where the objects on display were found.

Resource packs with activity sheets and object cards are being prepared. To book school visits to the gallery contact the Interpretation Unit on 0171 600 3699 ext 200

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