This body of work aims to explore the islands of Britain not as we see them in the 21st century, but as a foreign and occupying power saw them two millennia before, the Roman Empire. This is not a journey through the “green and pleasant land”, but through a land inhabiting the “very edges of the known world”, a marginal and hostile place. This vision of an outpost of Empire is as much informed by the cultural needs and prejudices of the occupiers as by observed reality. Roman Britain perches on edge of the world and has a totem-like power, a strangeness and exoticism which seem unfamiliar. I wish to use these ideas as lens to allow us to see our landscape afresh, see its continuing echoes of wildness.
Perhaps the ultimate articulation of the Roman “idea of Britain” is the 2nd century map by Ptolemy. Both scientific and mythical, it is rather like examining the map of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, both careful and fanciful. However, Ptolemy’s Britain is much more gripping than any fully imaginary land This map allows one to cross the space between Roman imagination and science and the present and observable. One can simultaneously fix oneself in the contemporary and historical reality of a place and relate that to a diagram that is as enigmatic as it is precise. My main guide through Britannia will be Ptolemy’s map, which combines geographic accuracy with wilful re imagining.
And this also has been one of the dark places of the earth …thinking of very old times, when the Romans first came here, nineteen hundred years ago..” darkness was here yesterday. Imagine the feelings of a commander… ordered suddenly to the north… Imagine him here– the very end of the world, a sea the colour of lead, a sky the colour of smoke– and going up this river with stores, or orders, or what you like. Sandbanks, marshes, forests, savages,–precious little to eat fit for a civilized man, nothing but Thames water to drink.
”Heart of Darkness” —Joseph Conrad.
But we must go, some to the parched Africans,
some to find Scythia, and Crete’s swift Oaxes,
and the Britons wholly separated from all the world.
Eclogue I – Virgil