Sunday, 10 May 2009

Vindolanda, near Hadrian's Wall

The road that runs alongside Hadrian's Wall. Evening, twilight and the road undeviating, up and down like waves this road goes. Every landscape has its genius loci, its spirit, atmosphere, mood and subtlety. We drive along this straight road, no bends or twists or curves to accommodate the landscape's contours, it's like something placed over the top, a strip of duct tape, yet it has the feeling of having risen up out of the earth. This feeling reminds me of public gardens, where growing things have been tended, encouraged, shaped and trimmed. They glow in this attention. Yes, this landscape glows, an unobtrusive candle softens the rock ridges with their occasional brief lines and fringes of trees, like patches of stiff, arrested stubble. Between two rounded hills on the horizon, one solitary tree. It seizes attention.

This almost empty landscape has a welcoming familiar feel it it. It's a little like a secret too, an undiscovered valley, with civilization bustling and brimming and self-involved, on either side. Gossip and restlessness, fascination with fractured self-reflections lie just a finger's width away. Glass-fronted supermarkets, shiny car surfaces, windows catching partial, buckled images. People stop at a filling-station, as do we, and there's the traffic on the approach roads to Newcastle, the grumbling of cars slowing down at a roundabout and speeding up again. Even the bleakest, most abandoned landscape feels homely compared to this. We head quickly back to this ribbon road, this felt strip like a long bridge over the boulder land and its grassy skin. The few trees have twists and sudden turns in their trunks as if they had a history of grappling with something. The landscape wraps itself around the road.

Vindolanda Writing Tablets

Among many fascinating artefacts found during archaeological digs at Vindolanda camp near Hadrian's Wall are the writing 'tablets'. These are letters, written on thin pieces of bark. The ink used was soot, mixed with water. They were discovered purely by chance. A video in the museum showed people handling lumps of oozing mud. Then fragile brown slithers were uncovered, cleaned, and X-ray photographed, which showed up the writing. I imagined the incredible excitement that must have been felt when they realised that these marks formed letters, they were writing. And after that, the laborious process of deciphering each letter. Handwriting has changed in almost 2000 years (they date from around 120 AD) yet astonishingly, it hasn't changed that much.

It made me think of the process of creation itself, beginning with mud, with something that comes out of the earth, is cleaned and honed into the patterned flight that writing holds in its alphabet wings.

The subject matter is deliciously mundane – will you come to my birthday party? Can you send me some more money? And a derogatory reference to the locals – Brittunculi – wretched little Brits!

While what they're written on and the process of extracting them from their layers of mud and history – is brushed with miracle and revelation. A curious reversal.

A couple of images of Berat, Albania – a tiny church on the steep hillside going down from the
citadel quarter which is perched on a high rock above the rest of the city. And a narrow cobbled path between old buildings in the citadel quarter. You can read about my Berat experience here.