Category Archives: Fieldwork

Note of a trip to the Circus Maximus in May 2019, by Marilyn Booth

Marilyn Booth completed her MA in Classical Studies with the OU in September 2018. Her dissertation focused on the sensory experience of everyday Romans in the home, working environment and public spaces. Her interest continues and this report enabled her to consider likely sensory experiences of one such relatively undervalued public space, the Circus Maximus.

I visited the Circus Maximus in late May 2019, two days after the opening of a new virtual/augmented reality exhibition (The Circo Maximo experience) in the site’s archaeological area. While much of the site remains unexcavated and open to the public as a free space, I had been aware that I could visit the archaeological area, which has largely been excavated and revealed in the last fifteen years (Buonfigio, 2015).  As Figure 1 below shows, there are 8 information points dotted around the site at which visitors direct their headsets in order to initiate a dedicated virtual reality presentation of the site.

Figure 1: Panoramic views of Circo Maximo Experience site

Figure 1: Panoramic views of Circo Maximo Experience site

Some 40 minutes’ worth of such information is  provided, centred around 8 broad themes:

  • The Valley and the origins of the Circus
  • The Circus from Julius Caesar to Trajan
  • The Circus in the Imperial Age
  • The Cavea
  • The Arch of Titus
  • The Shops of the Circus (tabernae)
  • The Circus in the medieval age and in modern times
  • “A day at the Circus”

There is also an opportunity to experience a panoramic viewpoint from the top of the medieval Torre della Moletta. As such, the overall experience provides a relatively comprehensive introduction to the life of the Circus for visitors, giving a real sense of the site’s evolution over time, as well as providing a useful introduction to the role of religion and the site’s potential significance in archaic Rome. It also provides a unique sensory experience in its own right, adding new elements to any potential sensory analysis of the site.

Experiencing the space

The area covered by the visit represents a relatively small portion of the south eastern (Porta Capena) end of the Circus site, as shown in Figure 2, with sections of the cavea and tabernae open to view.  The area corresponds to the curved end of the stadium, which also housed a triumphal arch dedicated to the Emperor Titus.

Figure 2: Google Map of the Circus Maximus showing the archaeological area visited

Figure 2: Google Map of the Circus Maximus showing the archaeological area visited

The visit took place between 10 and 11.30 am on an unseasonably cool May morning.  Temperatures were in the early 20 degrees Celsius, with both sunny and overcast skies witnessed during that time period.  The sun was almost directly overhead for much of the visit duration and would remain so for the majority of the day. In the site’s early iterations, there would have been no respite from the elements. While the current site contains none of the shelter that would have been available to users in later iterations, it was obvious that there was little respite from the overhead sun at many points in the day for both spectators and those involved directly in the action in the middle of the Circus space.  While on an obviously much smaller scale, a recent visit to Shakespeare’s Globe for a summer afternoon performance showed that even roofed enclosures do not provide complete shelter from the midday sun.

The reconstructed course

The virtual reality presentation certainly brought the site to life, and from a sensory perspective bring both the colour and size, as well as the spectacularly opulent nature of the site into sharp focus.  Visually, this is a stunning and evocative realization of the site.  Aurally, sounds including the roar of the excited crowds, the galloping horses and grinding machinery are also evoked.  Less easy to replicate are potential smells, and taste elements, although forcing the viewer to sit down while a virtual race occurs (presumably to avoid complete disorientation and dizziness) was a useful device.  Equally, the ability to touch the various extant construction materials, and interact with surfaces including elements of the cavea and tabernae, enriched the experience.  Those surfaces ranged from the rough brickwork of the tabernae, to original roadways and passages, to the smooth and cool marble remains of the Arch of Titus which were scattered across the site.

Once “inside” the virtual reconstruction, rich golds and reds marked the starting gates, and the viewer is even given a viewpoint from the spectacularly lavish emperor’s box at one point.  Unsurprisingly, the view from both here and the judges’ box / Temple of Sol opposite were clearer and less constricted than many people within the stands would have experienced.

Figure 3: Reconstruction of the Carceres or starting gates at the straight end of the course (Virtual views taken from Circo Maximo’s Instagram account and website)

Figure 3: Reconstruction of the Carceres or starting gates at the straight end of the course (Virtual views taken from Circo Maximo’s Instagram account and website)

The demonstration effectively showed how the course evolved from an ad hoc space used in the archaic period, with elements such as the early shrine to Consus eventually being incorporated into the splendidly opulent Euripus or spina in the middle of the racetrack area. While citizens would undoubtedly have been exposed to grandeur at other iconic sites, including forums and temples, clearly there would have been a sharp and highly visual contrast with the lack of splendour in the majority of non-elite homes: the insulae buildings dotted across the city.    However, as the presentation tracked the development of the  course over time, it became clear that questions could be asked about just how clear views were for spectators, with the amount of material housed on the Euripus increasing over time, creating a crowded and distracted space that could only have obstructed the view for many audience members. The obelisk visible in the virtual image in Figure 4 below is now located in a square beside the Lateran Palace, and personal photographs show that it does, in fact, split the view of the site for the viewer.

Figure 4: reconstructed Euripus views

Figure 4: reconstructed Euripus views

Words associated with “dust” are quite common in ancient descriptions of the site, and that dusty element was recreated as racing quadrigae thundered past, conjuring up clouds of dust.   The virtual element also vividly brought home the Circus’ key role in iconic historical events, including its position as the starting point for the fire of AD 64.

Figure 5: The AD 64 fire consumes part of the cavea and a triumphal arch

Figure 5: The AD 64 fire consumes part of the cavea and a triumphal arch


 The tabernae, such as that depicted in Figure 7, evoked the type of construction used in the Markets of Trajan, perhaps not unexpected given Trajan may have been the last emperor to develop the site.  As such, his architects and building teams may have used similar techniques and materials, albeit on a different scale. While there are relatively limited tabernae remains at the Circus, they were surprisingly complete in some instances.   I was able to physically stand up upright in one of the “shops” and stretch my hands out without reaching either side wall, a contrast to the experience of a researcher who had previously told me that they were unable to stand fully upright in one of the shops above the insula dell’ara coeli.  At 1.55m tall, I am relatively short by both modern and Roman standards, so this may or may not have much significance.  However, it showed that some people at least would have had a relatively comfortable experience while in the work or leisure environment that these small shops represent.  However, it is also clear that that comfort would have been somewhat compromised at various intervals during a day’s activity at the Circus: during particularly crowded moments, for example during arrival to or departure from the site, these would still have been constrictive spaces for people working within them as crowds congregated in the relatively narrow corridors and streets around the outside of the building, cutting off light and space in which to move.

During races, workers and customers would likely have heard what was going on in/at the racetrack and performance space behind the back wall of the relevant taberna, but been relatively isolated from the action, only looking out at a windowless corridor (Figure 8) or road around the circus which would likely have been packed with people.  As can be seen from Figure 8 below, even the relative height of the vaulted ceiling of the walkway would have provided little respite from an otherwise restrictive space.  Evidence apparently suggested that shops, cafes (Figure 6), fullonicae and even latrines were dotted around the perimeter of the site in these purpose built spaces, resulting in a richly layered smellscape (Forichon, 2019) experienced by the workforce, and by spectators as they entered and left the perimeter of the site.

Figure 6: Circo Maximo’s own reconstruction of a poppea / café

Figure 6: Circo Maximo’s own reconstruction of a poppea / café

Figure 7: Photos of extant tabernae spaces

Figure 7: Photos of extant tabernae spaces

Figure 8: a covered walkway at the edge of the tabernae area

Figure 8: a covered walkway at the edge of the tabernae area


I did not see the latrines which co-existed with the shops of the tabernae area, although their presence would surely have been felt by visitors in such a confined space.  I was struck by their likely co-existence with the shops, and reminded of visits to concerts in purpose built modern stadia and concert venues (London’s Wembley Arena, Belfast’s King’s Hall and Dublin’s Point Depot) where, by the end of the night on any given event, toilets became blocked, slippery, smelly and generally unsavoury spaces.  Assuming each of the Circus’s 150-250,000 visitors made at least one latrine trip on a day’s visit to the site, the chances are that these latrines must have also become blocked and equally pungent relatively quickly.  Associated smells may have been limited by the proximity of purpose-built fullonicae, which could have disposed of liquid urine quite quickly and effectively.  Equally, though this type of facility would have created their own distinctive sensory environments for both workers and onlookers.

The Arch of Titus

Figure 9: detail of the virtual reconstruction of the Arch of Titus

Figure 9: detail of the virtual reconstruction of the Arch of Titus

The Arch is a key feature of one of the InfoPoint stops, and is reconstructed in much detail, suggesting that it was at least as impressive as its namesake in the Roman Forum.  However, that reconstruction has been decidedly whitewashed, as shown in Figure 9 above.  While still impressive, it remains difficult to assess whether the arch had a similar colour scheme to other monuments in the imperial era.  Surprisingly, much purported original material was available to view in a relatively compromised external position, as shown in Figure 10 below.  The material on view undoubtedly attests to both the size and quality of the structure. This material was somewhat weathered, but still impressive – it struck me as I was walking around modern Rome that perhaps its closest modern equivalent in terms of visual impact is the Vittoriano which is often dazzling to the eye when struck directly by sunlight. I have since seen almost new Carrara marble in London’s Spencer House visitor attraction and it quite literally gleams even in small quantities, again suggesting that the arch could have had a noticeable visual impact.

Figure 10: marble fragments of the Arch of Titus dot the site

Figure 10: marble fragments of the Arch of Titus dot the site


Visiting the archaeological site certainly brought the detail in 21st Century excavation reports to life.  Those reports actually seem to have downplayed the scale of the extant evidence.  While a comparatively small area of the site has certainly been uncovered, it is nevertheless quite an extensive space.  Interacting with the remains, both real and virtual, enabled a number of conclusions on the site’s likely sensory environment.  The virtual/augmented reality elements of the new visitor experience added a further sensory experience which could itself be productively explored in future research.   Many questions certainly remain on the site and its usage, but this visit represented a useful first step in assessing how the sensory experiences within the Circus Maximus could be productively explored in a sustained research project.

A celebration of Mair Lloyd’s ‘Living Latin’

Many of you know Mair and the enthusiasm she has for reminding us that Latin was, and can be, a real language, more than grammar grind and reading a bunch of fusty old texts…! I hope you’ll join with me and Mair’s other supervisors – Regine Hampel, Uschi Stickler, Linda Murphy – in congratulating Mair on her amazing achievement of winning the prestigious AOUG Vice-Chancellor Sir John Daniel Award for Education and Language Studies (2016).

AOUGMairMair, with her enthusiasm and dedication, has bridged boundaries and brought a lot of people and ideas together. By sharing supervision between the Classical Studies and Modern Languages departments we have learned much from each other (and the ways we work with language and think about language). By asking pertinent questions in her research, Mair has made Latinists across the country aware of the value of technology for teaching and learning, and by travelling to the US and participating in a Latin immersion course as a student, Mair has herself experienced the power of Living Latin for real communication.


The award Mair has received is in the name of Sir John Daniel, an educator who has always encouraged the use of technology, and promoted learning in unconventional ways and places, so it is quite fitting! Mair’s research is about making learning better and more enjoyable. She has discovered that ‘good Latin learners’ read with engagement and with fluency, and has demonstrated that Latin is a language that can be brought to life and can be used.

‘Tweeted’ reactions to her organisation of the ‘Living Latin’ panel at the 2016 Classical Association conference in Edinburgh (for which she secured the attendance of leading exponent of Living Latin, Prof. Tunberg from the University of Kentucky) illustrate this point:

@MairLloyd‘s enthusiasm makes Vygotsky accessible even at 9am in the morning. Great introduction to the theory behind Living Latin #LL#CA16

#CA16@MairLloyd is absolutely brilliant. There are many layers to language learning. Learners can help each other in the process.

This panel on spoken Latin as a learning method (with taster lesson from Terence Tunberg) was absolutely brilliant

The Living Latin panel. It has been mind-blowing. And we all spoke some Latin!

The panel on Living Latin is so mesmerising and inspiring it is difficult to tweet… sorry! Blog to follow. #CA16

Mair’s exploration of learning to read in Latin has highlighted aspects of reading that have not been extensively explored in modern languages either  – i.e. exploring reading with comprehension in the target language without resorting to translation or checking unknown vocabulary, and reading with engagement. She has used an innovative approach to evaluation of this type of reading that includes reading and drawing.

Her research has been far more extensive than that which is presented in her final thesis, and she will be submitting a range of further papers and conference presentations outlining findings related to learning of Ancient Greek and the development of interaction and collaborative Latin learning through Information and Communication Technology.

Mair’s thesis, Living Latin: Exploring the communicative approach to Latin teaching through a sociocultural perspective on Latin learning, is an investigation of the current approach to the ab initio teaching of Latin in Classics departments in UK universities and how this aligns with the aims and aspirations of students. Drawing on Second Language Acquisition theory and practice in Modern Language teaching she has examined how the implementation of methods and activities based on a communicative approach to Latin teaching can help students to attain their ab initio Latin-learning goals. She then explored the explanatory value of a Vygotskian sociocultural theoretical perspective (as applied to modern language learning) in the analysis of learning events during communicative Latin teaching and interpersonal interaction in Latin. The research forges new links between the Department of Classical Studies and the Department of Languages.

Mair came to the research having noticed her own difficulties as a beginner getting to grips with reading Latin, compared with the faster progress she felt that she had made as a beginner learner of French. She intuitively felt that the more interactive use of French might actually be helping her to read more easily in French, and that Modern Language theory and practice might have some benefits in the teaching of Latin. Like many learners of Latin and their teachers, her aim was to be able to read and enjoy original texts in order to be able to gain insight into and appreciate the life and perspectives of the writer and the ancient world.

Although a number of classicists have previously looked to Modern Language theory and pedagogy to inspire their approach to Latin teaching, Mair has established that little or no attention has been paid to demonstrating the benefits of these approaches for Latin teaching or determining how well their effects are explained by language learning theories. The results of her survey of UK University Classics departments showed no evidence of awareness of curricula underpinned by theoretical positions. Despite having no previous knowledge of language learning theories herself before beginning her research, Mair has analysed current approaches and classified them according to the theoretical and pedagogical concepts drawn from Modern Language research. To achieve this, she has drawn on research conducted by fellow postgraduate students and brought together a range of different perspectives on theory, history of language teaching and methodology, supplemented by her own insights into the field. She has demonstrated that much current Latin teaching practice can be classified as behaviourist and structuralist with a heavy emphasis on cognitive skills, but shows very little evidence of developments in modern language teaching which focus on interaction, context, collaboration and emotional response and have been strongly influenced by a Vygotskian sociocultural theoretical perspective.

Mair therefore sought out examples of Latin teaching and learning that resembled more closely the situation in modern language teaching where interaction through oral communication involving both speaking, listening comprehension and negotiation of meaning in the target language is a regular component. She found them in the form of a week-long ‘immersion’ programme at Lexington in the USA. This ‘Conventiculum’ proclaimed the benefits of learning Latin through interaction in Latin and collaboration with other learners as well as interaction with original texts, though once again this seemed to be based on an intuition of the benefit rather than having a firm theoretical perspective. As a participant observer at this event, Mair was able to gather data on the experience of beginner and more experienced learners, including her own reactions, to their ‘immersion’ in Latin and the types of activity and interaction and they engaged in.

Data collection at the Conventiculum included asking participants to read a short passage in Latin and to make a drawing of what this passage evoked for them. They were asked to do this both before and after the event. They were encouraged to envision the scenes described in the passages without making a translation into English. This represented an innovative way to examine readers’ responses to the passages. It enabled readers to avoid the mediation of another language (as would have been the case if comprehension questions in English were given) or adding complexity by questioning in Latin. It also allowed a more personal response to the text. Readers noted the mood of the scene evoked, for example. This method has not been employed to any extent in modern language learning, where despite attention to so-called ‘intensive’ and ‘extensive’ reading (for specific information or for gist), there has been little attention to reading and understanding entirely within the target language and in understanding what is meant by ‘engagement’ in reading.

In her analysis of the data gathered from the communicative Latin teaching and interpersonal interaction in Latin at the Conventiculum, Mair explored the explanatory value of a Vygotskian sociocultural theoretical perspective (as applied to modern language learning). Her findings indicate that this may be a positive way forward in understanding how reading in Latin and engagement with original texts can be facilitated and become more enjoyable for learners of Latin and other ancient languages.


MairUschiVivaSince receiving her award, Mair has passed her viva and can look forward to soon being Dr Lloyd, author of Living Latin: Exploring a Communicative Approach to Latin Teaching through a Sociocultural Perspective on Language Learning. Look out for more from Mair, as she has no intention of stopping here, with publications in the pipeline and Ancient Greek to deal with next…

On behalf of the OU Classical Studies department and CREET, and especially from the four of us who supervised you, congratulations Mair, and bona fortuna! As Uschi put it at the AOUG Award Ceremony, Mair fabulosa est!

Seventh Conference of Italian Archaeology

Phil Perkins and Eleanor Betts represented the OU Classical Studies department at the Seventh Conference of Italian Archaeology, which was held at the National University of Ireland, Galway on 16th-19th April 2016. Scholars from 15 countries presented papers and posters on the archaeology and cultural history of Italy from prehistory to the modern period. Whilst the primary theme of the Conference was the archaeology of death, our papers considered some recent developments in Italian archaeology.

Phil Perkins presenting on the exciting recent finds from Poggio Colla

Phil Perkins presenting on exciting recent finds from Poggio Colla

Phil spoke about the final excavation seasons at Poggio Colla and their context in Northern Etruria, focusing in particular on the remarkable stele which was discovered in Summer 2015. The stele was built into the wall of the earliest temple and bears one of the longest inscriptions known in Etruria. Phil will be presenting on this, and more, in the Accordia Lecture Series on 3rd May.

You can also find out more about the stele and the initial reading of the inscription, here (at 08:54 to 15:16 minutes in the Italian news programme).

Susanna Harris presenting her Etruscan cloak experiment in Galway

Susanna Harris presenting her Etruscan cloak experiment

Eleanor organised and presented in the panel ‘Moving Bodies: Multisensory Approaches to the Ancient Mediterranean’, which was in many ways part of the homage to the work of Ruth Whitehouse which marked the conference. The papers were wide-ranging in their chronological spread, and what they had in common was their application of phenomenology to ancient sites and fieldwork methods in Italy and Malta. The five papers presented were by Sue Hamilton and Ruth Whitehouse, Reuben Grima, Claudia Lambrugo, Susanna Harris and Eleanor Betts. Robin Skeates wrapped up the session, drawing out the main themes of the presentations, and giving much food for thought for the future of sensory archaeologies. You can read more on these papers and the discussion at Sensory Studies in Antiquity.