Guardians at the Wall by Tim Walker introduces us to a group of archaeology students in northern England scraping at the soil near Hadrian’s Wall, the barrier that once divided Roman Britannia from wild Caledonian tribes.
Twenty-year-old Noah makes an intriguing find, but hasn’t anticipated becoming the object of desire in a developing love triangle in the isolated academic community at Vindolanda. He is living his best life, but must learn to prioritise in a race against time to solve an astounding ancient riddle, and an artefact theft, as he comes to realise his future career prospects depend on it.
In the same place, 1,800 years earlier, Commander of the Watch, Centurion Gaius Atticianus, hungover and unaware of the bloody conflicts that will soon challenge him, is rattled by the hoot of an owl, a bad omen…
From Noah’s Story
I turned at the sound of Mike’s approach, his gumboots bouncing on the wooden boards preserving the moorland grass around the outer edge of the dig. Beyond him, white woolly blobs ripped at the tough turf with teeth and jaws suited to the harsh environment.
“Once you’ve photographed it, make an entry in the day log,” he said, before leaving me to check on the four volunteers who were sieving soil for hidden fragments of pots or small coins in a long wooden box outside the marquee.
It was the site of a settlement of wood and mud-daubed huts and their adjacent animal pens built by the Brigante people, next to what had once been the stone walls of the Roman fortress at Vindolanda. The Romans would have referred to the cluster of buildings as a ‘vicus’. Every fort had one. The fortress site had been excavated almost continuously since the 1930s, and had yielded a wealth of finds that revealed a detailed picture of how successive Roman garrisons had lived their lives – including written records and correspondence that had miraculously survived for almost two thousand years entombed in layers of peat and soft clay. Now a number of archaeology undergraduates had come together to excavate and map the vicus that had once serviced the needs of the Roman occupiers.
I returned to my trench and resumed scraping the earth beside the street. After ten minutes, I stopped abruptly as my trowel blade made contact with a solid object. “Another stone,” I muttered. I dug around it, slowly scraping the dark, loamy soil and patches of sticky clay, then I burrowed gently with my fingers to get underneath the object. It was no ordinary stone. I picked up my paint brush and swept away the clinging soil to reveal a carved face on a smooth, rounded stone, its form and facial features exposed to the sun and air for the first time in almost two millennia. And my eyes were the first to behold it. Time froze. The excavation didn’t exist, just my breathless awe at the face that had last been touched by the hands of someone from the Roman era. I embraced our private moment and then my excitement erupted.
“Mike! I’ve found something!” I yelled in the direction of my crouching supervisor.
Mike stood up and strode purposefully towards me, springing on the boards like a March lamb, calling, “I’m coming!” He knelt down and stared at the stone face peering out of the soil. “Yes, you’ve found something alright, young Noah. Brush away the surface and then photograph in situ before easing it out.”
One careful centimetre at a time, I freed the object, and I held it in my calloused hands, gently brushing away the top layer of clinging soil. I raised the carving and saw grooved swirls and inscriptions that would be revealed when it was clean, and the delicate features of the statuette. It was carved from light grey marble, had a flat base, and stood about ten inches tall. I estimated the weight to be about two pounds – a bag of sugar.
The other students and volunteers had stopped what they were doing and now gathered around, making cooing noises or remarking ‘nice’ and ‘lovely’. I brushed some more, exposing details of the impassive face and shrouded body that suggested it was a female form, its hands cradling the mound of its belly. After admiring her for a few seconds, I handed her over to Mike, grinning like a bridegroom.
“Hmmm, it looks like a deity of the Brigante tribe, perhaps a goddess of fertility or one to ward off evil spirits. Could be carved from a lump of marble found in the quarry pits that produced the blocks used to build the fortress walls. There’s a vein of quartz running through it that perhaps influenced its selection. I’ll take it to Professor Wilde to get her opinion. Well done, lad. Now everyone, back to work. Noah’s shown us that there are riches still to be discovered!”
I beamed with pride as if I’d uncovered the tomb of a pharaoh, and as Mike continued the process of recording and tucked up my beautiful goddess nice and safe, my eyes followed his every move, and I nodded as he talked me through it.
A Bite of… Tim Walker
Is writing as an escape from the sorrows of existence, an exercise in futility, or an excuse to tell lies and get paid for it? Or is there another option…
Since failing to return answers that resonated with examiners during my unexemplary school days, I came to realise that my mind is not programmed the same way as other ‘normal’ students. Although a career in academia was out, I found I could still inflict my bizarre thoughts, weird interests and out-of-step views on our covetous, consumerist society by writing and self-publishing fiction. The fact hardly anyone reads my odd, disjointed sentences and I struggle to break-even is not in the least bit concerning, as the pleasure is in the ecstasy of invention. In my own small way, I’m contributing to the book mountain that will fuel the fires of the encroaching fascist state.
If you knew nobody would ever read a word you wrote, would you continue writing?
Yes. I am exorcising my many ghosts.
Do you think your political beliefs inform your writing in any way?
I can’t help myself here. I’m a confirmed liberal and find the politics of greed and nastiness deplorable and, well, downright nasty. This inevitably finds its way into my world-creation or interpretation. But what is liberal about the Roman Empire, built on military conquest? Well, once native tribes were pacified, the Romans were at pains to assimilate them into their way of doing things and show them the benefits of their cultural, artistic and agricultural advancements. They also named many of their towns after the name of the local tribe, and incorporated native deities into their polytheistic belief system. Once you were on side, a better life was offered, although captives of war were worked as slaves. I’m interested in how the Romans ordered their province of Britannia, and wonder what elements were retained, or adapted, by subsequent administrations. It was, ultimately, a pyramid society with the emperor at the top, with citizenship a prized class (above subjects) and opportunity for advancement for outstanding individuals; but there was also cronyism and the vested interests of a ruling elite. What’s changed?
In drawing the character of my battle-hardened centurion, Gaius Atticianus, I had to show him as a tough, unflinching leader, a man promoted through the ranks on merit, but I also wanted to show his human side – he is fair in his judgements and trusting by nature, something that comes back to haunt him. To distance him from the soldier trope (and show my archaeologist character’s assumptions to be wrong), he is a family man who loves his wife, and avoids the pleasures of the brothel. Gaius is not a liberal, as he is fully committed to the aims of the empire and is committed to his vows of loyalty and duty. However, he is caring and is not a mindless killer, would prefer living in a time of peace, and seeks diplomatic solutions wherever possible. This puts him on a collision course with other officers who seek battle for glory and gain.
Ex-alligator wrestler Tim Walker lives on a tropical island in the middle of the Sea of Tranquility with his pet hedgehog, Bumfluff, Barry, a grumpy rhinoceros who doesn’t answer to any name, and a swarm of worker nanobots. When he is not chiselling prose on stone tablets his hobbies include bat darting and mud sculpture.
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