Archaeology student Noah scrapes the soil near Hadrian’s Wall, once a barrier that divided Roman Britannia from wild Caledonian tribes, in the hope of uncovering an ancient artefact around which he can build a project-defining story.
He makes an intriguing find, but hasn’t anticipated the distraction of becoming the object of desire in a developing love triangle in the isolated academic community at Vindolanda. He’s living his best life, but must learn to prioritise in a race against time to solve an astounding 2,000-year-old riddle, and an artefact theft, as he comes to realise his future career prospects depend on it.
In the same place, almost 2,000 years earlier, 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.
These are the protagonists whose lives will brush together in the alternating strands of this dual timeline historical novel, one commencing his journey and trying to get noticed, the other trying to stay intact as he approaches retirement.
How will the breathless battles fought by a Roman officer influence the fortunes of a twenty-first century archaeology mud rat? Can naive Noah, distracted by the attentions of two very different women, navigate his way to a winning presentation?
Dreaming of a Dig
[Archaeology student, Noah, continues his desk research into Centurion Gaius Atticianus]
On Monday morning, I picked up where I’d left off with the Corbridge tablets. From what I’d translated, added to guesswork on what was missing, I deduced that Gaius was at Coria to report that his unit had been attacked by unknown barbarians, whilst conveying a payroll chest from Vindolanda to Coria for safekeeping. The garrison at Vindolanda was under siege from a large force of Caledonian warriors. He had diverted his unit off the Via Vespasian (not Hadrian, as I’d earlier speculated with Sima) at milestone twenty-six, to the estate of Lucius Gabia, Magistratus, roughly a mile from the road. Here, he buried the chest of coins and the cohort standard. The rest of the report was unclear after that, but he referred to a grave marker for a Domina Drusilla Gabia.
“Hmmm, instructions on where to find buried treasure,” I said. I looked around, but none of the half dozen academics or staff were looking in my direction. My pulse had quickened and my mind was racing. Firstly, that stretch of the Roman road from Coria to the Vindolanda turn-off was constructed in the reign of Emperor Vespasian, between 69 and 79 CE. This was a new discovery, and Maggie would be pleased to hear of it. Secondly, Gaius was reporting that he had to bury the cohort payroll chest in the grounds of a villa estate, close to a tombstone, so perhaps in a family burial enclosure. This was approximately one hundred yards along a side road marked by a milestone marking twenty Roman miles. Perhaps it had been recovered, or perhaps not, particularly if all those involved in the desperate action had not lived to return at a later date. Also, it was possible others had long since read the report and recovered the chest. It was a long shot if it was still buried.
I did some investigation and found that the milestones along what came to be called the Stanegate, in the post-Roman period, started from Segedunum Roman fort, now Wallsend in Newcastle, to the east, and increased in number as they progressed west. So, 26 Roman miles, indicated on the miliarium reported by Gaius, equates to 24.5 imperial miles. A check on UK driving distances showed me the distance from Wallsend Roman Fort to Corbridge Roman town to be 24.37 miles. So, the XXVI (26) milestone would have been situated roughly two hundred yards west of the track to the Roman fortified town of Coria.
I got the detailed Ordinance Survey Map of Northumberland and measured two hundred yards west of the turning to Coria, using my ruler. The road was predictably straight, apart from a few kinks that mirrored the river course. I studied the rural location for a clue to a track that might have once led to a Roman farm estate. Green fields lined both sides of the current road, and the map showed some dotted lines to farm houses. Now, if I could only get an idea if there were Roman estates on one or both sides of the road with an entrance track close to that point.
Sima came over, curious at my sudden burst of activity and my poring over a map.
“What you doing?” she asked.
“Oh hi. I think I’ve stumbled onto something from one of the tablets. A report from…” I checked myself, wondering if I should rush into spilling the full story whilst it was still formulating. Maybe caution and further investigation on my part was prudent before talking about it. “A report from an officer at Coria in the days or hours before the fire of 180 CE. I’m just checking on something that he referred to.”
“Good for you, Sherlock. I hope it leads to something useful.” She paused and leaned closer, then continued in a hushed tone. “Thanks, Noah, for not running for the hills. I’m all right now. I’m usually calm and collected.”
“I know, Sima. I’ve noticed. I hope it all works out for you. Remember, you can grab me anytime if you want to offload.”
There was relief in her smile when she turned towards her office, leaving me to get on with exploring my theory. I decided to send an email to Maggie, bringing her up to speed with my findings, and ask for ideas on how I could identify the location of a Roman estate to the east of Coria, one owned by the Gabia family in the year 180. If we could narrow down the search area, it might make a field study possible.
[In the year 180 CE, Centurion Gaius Atticianus is forced from the road by a barbarian attack]
A guard of shields awaited the runners as they filed through the gap into the estate, and Gaius staggered past sandstone columns to collapse in a heap beside his men on the grass, panting hard by a gravel track that led to an imposing villa. The last of the men entered and the gates were slammed shut and barred. Gaius noted that the high walls had metal spikes on the tops and grinned at his morsel of good fortune.
Paulinus rushed to his side, and helped him to his feet. “Sir! There are thirty estate workers manning the walls with our men, throwing sharp objects and rocks at the bastards!”
“Good job, Paulinus,” Gaius puffed, trying to catch his breath. “Let us hide the chest and standard and join in the fight.”
“Already in hand, sir. The lady of the house pointed out a grave that has been part-dug in their family plot, sir. Two of the boys are burying them. Remember the gravestone is in the name of Domina Drusilla Gabia. Her recently demised mother, apparently.”
“Then we must be grateful for the gap between her mother’s death and burial,” Gaius replied, holding the stitch in his side. He turned at the noise of fighting beyond the wall. “And we must also be thankful for their high walls. Do they run all around the compound?”
“Aye, sir. They cannot come behind as a high thorn hedge prevents it. There is a small gate at the rear to a covered pathway that goes through an orchard to the woods, protected on each
side by thick bushes, then down to the river. The owner is a magistrate, Lucius Gabia, who had made provision for an escape should the need arise. There is a path along the riverbank to the bridge at Coria. Our escape route, if these devils don’t get behind us.”
“Praise the gods that the magistrate had enemies or is of a nervous disposition. We should send the civilians now, with the wounded and a couple of guards,” Gaius replied.
“Aye, sir,” Paulinus said, shouting orders as he ran off.
Gaius looked up at the serene, beautiful villa, with red roof tiles and a grape vine climbing up a lime-washed wall, a peaceful scene at odds with their predicament. Then he saw Aria and the other wives helping the wounded with bandages and splints in the side garden through an archway. He bowed to a matronly lady who must be the magistrate’s wife, standing in the shade of the patio, giving instructions to her fretting attendants.
He jogged past the stricken soldiers, asking how badly were they wounded, to Aria, who looked up with a cry of relief. “My love, I am so pleased to see you unhurt!” She dropped a bandage roll and threw her arms around him. Brutus ran to him and hugged his thigh with the grip of a bear cub.
“The gods be praised, I’m unhurt, Aria, but must return to my men. I have ordered two guards to take all the civilians and wounded out through the rear pathway to the river, and from there to the bridge at Coria, where the guards will look after you until we can follow.”
Her tear-stained eyes widened in fright. “No, you must come with us! To stay here is to die at the hands of those barbarians!”
“I must stay and organise an orderly retreat…”
“Come with us, Papa!” Brutus cried, squeezing his leg tight.
“You have a strong grip, my son,” Gaius said, lifting the boy. “Soon you will be the one protecting your mother. But for now, I need you both to be strong and prepare to leave. You may have to help the wounded, so do not carry anything heavy. Now pass on my instructions and organise the wounded to leave.”
He kissed the boy’s forehead, bent and put his son on the ground, then pulled Aria to him by her slender waist. He looked into her liquid green eyes and then kissed her lips with all the passion and madness of the moment. “Go now, my love, and I promise you, I will follow.”
He held her shoulders at arms-length, then she turned away with a look of sorrow, grabbed Brutus by the hand and ran to the lady of the house to inform her.
“May the divine Jupiter and all the Caesars protect you!” he shouted, then turned and jogged from the peaceful surroundings, through the archway and down the gravel drive, past men shovelling soil onto a grave, to the scene of chaos at the main gates.
Thank you, Tim Walker and The Coffee Pot Book Club
About the Author
Tim Walker is an independent author living near Windsor in the UK. He grew up in Liverpool where he began his working life as a trainee reporter on a local newspaper. After studying for a degree in Communication studies he moved to London where he worked in the newspaper publishing industry for ten years before relocating to Zambia where, following a period of voluntary work with VSO, he set up his own marketing and publishing business. He returned to the UK in 2009.
His creative writing journey began in earnest in 2013, as a therapeutic activity whilst recovering from cancer treatment. He began writing an historical fiction series, A Light in the Dark Ages, in 2014, inspired by a visit to the part-excavated site of a former Roman town. The series connects the end of Roman Britain to elements of the Arthurian legend and is inspired by historical source material, presenting an imagined history of Britain in the fifth and early sixth centuries.
The last book in the series, Arthur, Rex Brittonum, was published in June 2020. This is a re-imagining of the story of King Arthur and follows on from 2019’s Arthur Dux Bellorum. Both titles are Coffee Pot Book Club recommended reads. The series starts with Abandoned (second edition, 2018); followed by Ambrosius: Last of the Romans (2017); and book three, Uther’s Destiny (2018). Series book covers are designed by Canadian graphic artist, Cathy Walker.
Tim has also written three books of short stories, Thames Valley Tales (2015), Postcards from London (2017) and Perverse (2020); a dystopian thriller, Devil Gate Dawn (2016); and three children’s books, co-authored with his daughter, Cathy – The Adventures of Charly Holmes (2017), Charly & the Superheroes (2018) and Charly in Space (2020).
Amazon Author Page: http://Author.to/TimWalkerWrites
Facebook Page: http://facebook.com/TimWalkerWrites
Newsletter sign-up and free short story: https://eepurl.com/diqexz