TA’s thoughts: teaching ‘gender’ in Roman culture


Being a Teaching Assistant has led to a few realisations in the last few months. One particularly noteworthy point occurred last week. A colleague and I were covering a two hour lecture in the Introduction to Roman archaeology course for first year undergraduates. The course itself is core for the Classical Archaeology students, and optional for everyone else. This year we have a variety of students including more than a handful of psychology students.

As a result, the teaching is actually quite challenging. You can’t make quite the assumptions you would normally make. You can’t assume that the students are doing the core modules in archaeological theory, and you can’t assume that they know anything about the Roman period.

The lecture topic was Diversity of Identity. I took the first hour in what I have to admit was a pretty dry run-through of ‘legal identities’ – citizen, slave, freedman, decurion, senator, equestrian etc., and the legal rights of women and children. The material was not massively inspiring, but I think very necessary to actually understanding the lives and experiences of Roman people. I will definitely focus on making it more engaging if I teach it again, but that’s for another time.

The second half of the lecture was taken by my erstwhile TA’ing colleague. She gave a far more engaging lecture on gender in the Roman period, discussing not just ‘men’ and ‘women’ and ideas of masculinity and femininity, but going on to discuss ‘non-procreating’ genders and ‘being and doing’ gender. It was a really good lecture and got the class thinking and talking – she was even thanked for it afterwards by one of the students who has decided to do ‘gender’ as her essay topic.


However one thing occurred during the lecture that I was completely unprepared for. When we showed a quote discussing the emperor Elagabalus, which happened to mention his desire for a sex change, one or perhaps two of the students giggled.

Perhaps I was niave, but I didn’t expect adults to giggle at this concept. Perhaps I’m just so blinkered by my own cultural norms that I don’t see anything weird about wanting a sex change. Or perhaps it just never occurred that anyone would actually laugh out loud at the idea.

Needless to say, I applied a stern look and the giggle died out. But I knew immediately that this behaviour had the real potential to be hurtful to members of the class. I realise now we should probably have laid down ground rules before discussion gender, and in fact trying to discuss gender without sexuality is just trying to avoid the tricky bits.

Perhaps I should have tackled it straight-on, and simply confronted him in front of the class about the laughter. I know some people who might have done so. But that seems a little confrontational, and what if the student were laughing out of nervousness simply to cover his own uncomfortable emotional reaction to the topic?

I have to admit that I never thought that any teaching I did would bring up subjects awkward enough to make students uncomfortable, or even to offend. But I think gender and sexuality have the real potential to put students in vulnerable positions. The last thing I want, particularly when trying to teach gender archaeology in an enlightened way, is to reinforce sexual or gender norms.

Thinking back, I’m probably lucky that none of the students spoke up from religious standpoints. Normally you wouldn’t expect an archaeology, whatever their personal religious beliefs, to apply those to past cultures. But the class were students, not archaeologists.

The discussion could have become extremely challenging if any of [ed. the students] had voiced judgemental or homophobic view points.I have to admit I really wouldn’t have been ready for it. I wouldn’t have tolerated unacceptable language, but the act of repressing a student’s views is detrimental to the learning environment.


How to deal with these problems? If I took this class again I think I would make it very clear that I have absolutely no tolerance for thoughtless behavior when talking about gender and sexuality. This is difficult, because usually I like to make the class laugh – and had done so in the previous hour when mentioning Augustus’ rather failed attempts to control the sexual behaviour of the Roman elite. How do you make it okay to laugh, but not okay to laugh at people just because they’re different?

Perhaps the emphasis has to be on making it clear that I expect the students to put aside their own cultural frameworks and to attempt an objective analysis of the topic, and that personal opinions on gender and sexuality should not impinge on the discussion.

Although I didn’t teach the subject badly, looking back on it I didn’t ensure the kind of safe and unthreatening environment necessary for the students to feel able to discuss gender without limitations or fear. Creating that kind of environment is difficult, and I’m not sure how to do it, but if I teach this topic again I’m definitely going to try.

Crosby Garrett helmet goes for £2,000,000

Crosby Garrett helmet awaiting display at Christies

I just watched the Christie’s auction online. I thought things were going well when lots of the items failed to sell, or went for the lowest estimate.

Unfortunately that didn’t happen to the Crosby Garrett Roman cavalry helmet that I analysed a couple of weeks ago. In the end it went for a round £2,000,000.

Well, ultimately £2,281,250 after all the premiums etc are added.

So I guess we can wave goodbye to it, and watch it leave the country to a private collection. I guess it’s possible it was sold to a museum, but that’s a lot of money. I imagine it was a rich private collector. Either way, it was a telephone bid, so I don’t think anyone who was actually present in the room would have found much out about the bidder.

Watching the auction was extremely nerve-wracking. For a while the bid was with someone in the room, and I had hoped that maybe it would be a museum in the UK. But it was not to be.

I’m happy for the finder – doubtless Christies will take a good percentage, as well as a fee for the restoration, but he has to have made some good money. I’m pretty sad about the sale though. As only one of three such helmets to be found in the UK, it was really valuable to us. And the brief surface analysis suggested that it was metallurgically interesting as well.

I hope this will startle legislators into doing something about our Treasure laws. Because the helmet was not gold or silver, it wasn’t considered ‘Treasure Trove’ and protected by the Treasure laws, so there was limited legal protection for it.

I wonder what will happen to the helmet now? I wonder where it will go? Will we ever see it on display in the UK?

Success in Huttenberg

Well, I say Huttenberg, but to be honest I think I visited the village once!

The trip to Austria went really well. Not only did I have an absolutely fantastic time in a beautiful country eating fantastic food and drinking suprisingly nice beer (I am not a beer drinker normally!) but the site… the material takes your breath away!

Six excavated furnaces. Literally tonnes of finds including not just tap slags, but beautiful furnace walls, roasted and unroasted ores, charcoal samples, unfired clay samples, untempered clay samples, and rarest of all – bloom fragments. Hell, not just bloom fragments but a number of what appeared to be rather uninspiring lumps and in fact turned out to be failed blooms. Whole, massive, failed blooms.

Cut failed bloom from the Huttenberg site of Briggite Cech, Austria

The bright lines you can see are metallic iron. It’s formed around what was probably charcoal, and in beautiful swathes. You can see how unimpressive the lump itself was prior to cutting. The fact that it contains such rare and exciting material is hardly visible from the outside, and just shows you that often you can’t judge metal production debris on outside appearance alone.

Tom Birch slicing slag on the saw

In this case, we (okay, Tom did the hard work!) cut the piece because we found it responded in places to a magnet. I know not everyone bothers to check their material with a magnet, but I can really reccommend it. This piece does actually look rather a lot like a bloom, now that I’ve seen experimental examples.

I can only say how lucky we were to have a saw, and a large water-cooled one at that. Without it we’d have probably passed over this piece due to its size and weight. After we found this one, we found another group of these which the excavators had decided to keep because they weren’t sure what they were. I really couldn’t ask for more exiciting material!

All I can say is keep your eyes open for these in the future, they’re fascinating for people like me. They look a lot like blooms, are much more dense than slag cakes (I could only just lift this one), and respond to magnets. I’d rather see these things routinely chopped in half than just discarded as undiagnostic rubbish.

Anyway, after two solid days taking samples from the extensive site archive, I have eight boxes weighing a total of about 80kgs on their way to me by Austria postal service, estimated time of arrival: three weeks. Frankly, I can hardly wait to see them and get them sorted out. The material is really exciting, the site archive was really easy to get to grips with and better than anything, the site director is really enthusiastic about my work which makes the whole process very enjoyable. Fingers-crossed everything gets to me safely!

pXRF of a Roman parade helmet

Just a quick preliminary post on work I hope to undertake next week – taking the Institute’s portable XRF machine out to take a peek at this beautiful Roman period military parade helmet.

I don’t have any pictures yet, because the ones I’ve seen are all copyright of Christie’s who are the auctioneer, but it’s the one on the front cover of the catalogue.

I’m not quite sure how I feel about the object. It was metal-detected in England, but obviously it’s not gold or silver so isn’t ‘Treasure’ so there was no way to ensure the museums got a chance to gather the funds to buy it. It’s gone from field to auction house in just a couple of months, which seems to have flat-footed everyone and made it pretty difficult for any of local or national museums to get together the funds necessary to buy it.

Of course, there’s also a good chance it will be too expensive for any of them to buy anyway. I guess the best case scenario is probably that a foreign museum buys it – there would at least be the chance of getting it on tour at the local museum. Worst case scenario it’s bought by a foreign collector, leaves the country and is never seen again.

Which is of course why we are trying to ellicit as much information as possible out of it in the time we have. Unfortunately the object has been ‘restored’ rather than conserved, so what you see in the catalogue is in fact a composite reconstruction of all the little pieces it used to be in. This makes it look great, but makes it much less useful for research. It’s bound to have been coated with something (similar to a varnish), which might make the pXRF less successful, and I’m going to have to be careful not to analyse bits of adhesive, or wax inserts.

Of course, there’s also the chance that I won’t find anything interesting at all! Fingers-crossed though, and I’ll update on Monday after I return.

EDIT – For some information on the actual helmet, rather than my distracted ponderings on the morality of such things, have a look at this page on of the Portable Antiquities Scheme (thanks Dan!). There’s even pictures of it in its pre-restoration form.