Musings on the ghost (or skeleton) of Christmas past and working in a museum

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

It’s nearly mid-winter, and outside my office window at Bishop’s Stortford Museum all I can see is darkness, wind and rain. This is a season where time seems to wrinkle and the past can seem awfully close sometimes, an atmosphere no doubt heightened by the fact that I work in a museum. Staring out of the window I can’t help but wonder how the people whose cultures we try to preserve would have experienced the world when they were alive at this time of the year, during the run up to Christmas. Take for example Titus, the museum’s famous Romano-Roman skeleton, found in the 1950’s by construction workers in Bishop’s Stortford. For years his remains resided at Bishop’s Stortford College in the History faculty until he came to rest at the museum, his current location

‘Titus’ now lives on the second floor of the museum. Image ©Sarah Stephens Photography


Christmas in Titus’s day, although such a long time ago, was remarkably similar to today. In fact Titus was likely to have been living in a period not long after the first records placing Christmas upon the 25th of December came into being in 354 AD. Indeed the pagan feast, a celebration of the sun, which Christmas replaced was not that much older, having been decreed in 274 AD by the Emperor Aurelian and placed on the 17th of the same month. In those days this was known as the Feast of Saturnalia. Amongst wealthy Romano-British the day was a very lavish affair; shops and schools were closed, gambling was allowed and there would have been a general jubilant atmosphere; contemporary records suggest that presents – particularly candles, symbols of light – were exchanged and between friends and family and, for a change, the masters of the house served the slaves, and groups of male friends would throw lots to become a ‘king for the day’ who would then be able give the others silly orders. Alongside all this there was more general merriment, marked by the exchange of figs, honey and pastry as well as coins. No mince pies though!


Roman Gold Coin from the museum collection. Image ©Sarah Stephens Photography

Back to my original point, it seems to me that museums are both about things (a Roman skeleton in this case) but also about imagination (here the life and times and Christmas celebrations of the human story that lies behind the skeleton’s bones), a way that both artefacts and their stories can stir our sensibilities so we can float away on our imagination, no more obvious than at such a wintery, cold time of year.

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