Ab initio – or from the get go

So when was the first record office established in Gloucester? 1930s? 1940s? 1950s? Well, thanks to a chance conversation a year or two back I think I now have a more radical, and surprising, answer. I was chatting to Giles Standing, then The National Archives Transforming Archives trainee at Gloucestershire Archives (and now working for the Diocese of Lichfield). It transpired that we had both studied Roman archaeology, and had both been involved in publishing. Moreover, Giles was editing for book publication the collected essays of his former tutor at the UCL Institute of Archaeology, an eminent scholar of Roman Britain, Mark Hassall (whom I then only knew by reputation). And, since I still operate as a small publisher in my spare time, would I be interested in publishing Mark’s work?

Yes, of course! And now, two years later, I find myself typesetting Mark’s essays (meticulously edited by Giles), which happen to include a paper on ‘The Tabularium in provincial cities’. The Latin word tabularium means record office (or to put it in modern parlance, ‘heritage hub’!) and Mark had assembled evidence from Roman sites in continental Europe about what archives such an office might contain. He prefaces his remarks with the caveat that there is hardly any evidence from Britain itself, but that (because Roman bureaucracy was pretty standardised) what he describes is very likely to have existed in the cities of Roman Britain, and especially in the coloniae, of which Gloucester (Glevum) was one of three.

He then goes on to list the categories of archives, and they begin to sound eerily familiar. There would have been the city charters and constitutions, lists of magistrates and councillors, minutes of council meetings, decrees (perhaps the equivalent of our local byelaws), maps and surveys, contracts and leases. By analogy elsewhere, the Roman record office would have been a room or office attached to the basilica (or town hall) and presided over by the tabularii publici curator, the city archivist.

As a young man Mark was involved in archaeological excavations in Gloucester and Cirencester, and his tabularium essay was originally published in a tribute volume to an archaeologist whom he had worked under in Gloucestershire, John Wacher. Although his paper does not mention it, Mark would know well that in Gloucester the site of the basilica was excavated in the late 1960s and is now occupied by Marks & Spencer. The Emperor Nerva, who in 97 AD was apparently responsible for founding the colonia of Gloucester (and presumably therefore for instigating the first city archivist to look after its first charter) sits astride his horse nearby. I walk past his statue every day – from now on I’ll treat him with a little more respect.

 

John Chandler

VCH Gloucestershire

A Lost World in a Footnote: the Victoria County History

For nigh on twenty years I came here occasionally, sent by archaeologists to look at large maps, and I was always intrigued by the tiny glass-fronted room where the duty archivist watched over us – the goldfish bowl, as the staff call it, apparently. Strange that for more than two years now I have sat in that same room, toiling over parish histories and supervising the Victoria County History (I’ve even heard a whisper that it’s now called the headmaster’s study, but I’m not supposed to know that). Continue reading