Research And Reconstruction
End Of Year Report November 2012
This was my 25th season re-enacting and I wanted it to be special. Comitatus launched two large new projects in terms of Classical Greek re-enactment and gladiators, and the events programme was massive. We worked hard over the winter organising the events, so many that we had to pass many on to other groups. We had lots of new recruits and the move towards group equipment meant there was lots of kit making which had to be done. But it did ensure a consistent high quality of presentation throughout the year. And some of us spent many hours training and learning new skills which is many ways is perhaps the most important aspect of the hobby.
I recall lots of recruiting events and meeting new friends. Lots of stalls, tables, setting up and hard work. Days without natural light in the Royal Armouries, and interesting days in York Guildhall and the racecourse. Networking and organising, clients and their quirkiness. Short days and dark nights. Plus the intense and brilliant Viking Festival with fire dancing, battles and markets.
The March training weekend was awesome. The investment we put into that weekend in terms of time, money and commitment gave me grey hairs. Sharp weapons, gladiators, horses, lots of riders, frosty mornings, sunny afternoons and lots of conviviality. For many it was the first time in an arena but our discipline meant that everybody avoided injury. Records show 19 members rode which is a record for us.
I really remember the excitement of the first real event. The crowd line at Wallington was pretty awesome, and I remember taking the time to look at them as I soaked in their applause at the axe throwing. It was a good crowd and I enjoyed their appreciation of what we do. They were right to applaud us. But we also experienced snow, ice and rain! Each morning we woke up to frozen tents and it was a hard weekend but a successful one, 8,700 visitors is a good figure for any site.
Our gladiator events were good because they appeal to lots of clients, can be a single day event, and fire the public’s imagination. Our gladiators will go from strength to strength. There was no lack of blood sweat and tears, even some skill. A big development for Comitatus but done with excellent kit and great commitment. The amount of excellent top quality gladiator kit will continue to grow.
Then we had our first ever Greek show at Sewerby Hall. That was a massive step because it was a new show, new script, massive amounts of new kit, and technically very difficult. The first show was good, the second was very good and the Greek shows just got better. It was a great moment for some of us seeing it all come together, and a massive moment for me which I will remember for a very long time.
The shows incorporated elements of stunt riding, with horses lying down, riders vaulting on to horses, all done bareback, with bareback archery too. It was a very pure form of riding - just bridle the horse, hop up and off we went. Some members put together their own brilliant kit, and the group turned out everything we needed to field a mercenary unit smoothly and relatively cheaply. We will add a file of hoplites to the show next year. I loved the Greek wrestling, the hunting games and commitment we all showed to make things work. By Sledmere this show was “really rocking” and it was a privilege to take part in it. We owe our excellent horses to Mark and Ben Atkinson at www.actionhorses.co.uk
Their yard works with most of the cavalry groups in the UK and it is always interesting to see what other groups do. The Atkinson’s have devoted over 15 years to providing highly trained horses and riders for Film, TV and Live Events. They have done advertising, feature films, blockbuster movies, TV, documentaries and stunt shows around Europe. It is always a pleasure to listen to Mark teach, his words are equine poetry. Ben rides a horse better than anyone I know. Over the winter he taught us the trick riding we use in the Greek cavalry shows. Most of all they constantly teach me the difference between a horseman and a rider, and set a standard for all of us to aspire to. We expect a great deal from our riders, and Mark and Ben help them achieve it, and then show them how they can continue to improve.
I even toyed with the idea of using music during the displays. Our shows are designed to be entertaining and educational, and I finally felt music would distract from the message, not help it. Catherine our commentator is the very best in the business, she does not need music to conduct a crowd or to lead them where she wants them to go.
The Roman events benefited from the skills learnt for the Greek shows. After riding bareback in the Greek shows saddles seemed so unnecessary, but allowed us to get away with so much. Small elements of the show changed and we generally tried to make the skill at arms as challenging as possible. What really pleased me was the way we constantly re-evaluated what we were doing during the shows. We were capable of changing the show at any time, the arena layout etc. to make things safer, better, or more exciting. We stage professional shows and we behave in a professional way.
I loved the hose archery at Sewerby Hall, with trees all over the place. All the riders did well. I remember riding down the crowd line milking the applause, turning around a certain tree, getting the horse in balance quickly before dropping the reins, taking the shot, then steering the horse without reins around the trees before blasting for home. But my favourite arena is Sledmere House, with its long straights and fast corners. The shows were great fun, very exciting and something to remember on dark winter nights.
We had no real issues of authenticity to comment on over the year. The group sets very high standards and everybody knows what is expected of them. We have the best collection of late Roman military equipment in the world. We have Roman saddles than I can remember, and our saddles are now used across America and Europe. It was interesting to see the equipment used by Greek UK re-enactors at the Bedford Water Festival. We benefit from some excellent European suppliers and our Greek assemblage is the better for it. Records show we used six riders and six horses in shows. We certainly had our best ever rider line up, although Jose had to go back to the USA at the end of the season. We will need to fill that fourth spot in 2013. A record 24,000 people came to see us, plus whoever saw us at Bedford. The crowds give us great feedback and great encouragement.
It is a compliment to have so many people try and recreate what we do. In some cases, such as Jurjen’s group on the continent, they have spent some time taking what they can from us and use good quality equipment and horses. I applaud their efforts. But in too many cases when I click on a photo I see poor quality equipment draped over a re-enactor sitting a horse looking nothing like a Roman cavalry mount. Every type of saddle is used, sometimes with a sheepskin over the top. I hope the will to improve is there, but too often I am told that authenticity does not really matter to the public. It does, and the public care.
One good place to start learning about Roman cavalry are the books of Peter Connolly. I do not think I would be doing what I do now if it was not for his books. Sadly, I went to his funeral last May. He was the technical illustrator of Russell Robinson’s book, The Armour of Imperial Rome, 1975, and his own books brought the ancient world to life for several generations of students. As a school boy in West Cornwall Connolly’s books fired my imagination and introduced me to artefacts and the idea of reconstructing the past. “Greek Armies” came out in 1977 to help me paint my first war gaming armies, and books on the Roman army and Hannibal culminated in “Greece and Rome at War” in 1981. I give second hand copies of this book to kids in Comitatus to enable them to enjoy the pictures, and maybe read the text at some point as they get older. His illustrations will be used for years, and perhaps that is his best epitaph.
Wherever you were on the campsite or in the arena during 2012, it was hard not to hear three young Americans. It was great to get to know you and share some of your time in the UK. You worked hard for your MA’s and I look forward to seeing you again one day.
At Sledmere I remember trying to explain, to a re-enactor from another group, the intensity of experience Comitatus members have over a weekend. From period camping, the fire light, the sounds of nature at night, the hangover, lack of food, the physicality of the shows, the contact with members of the public, the skill at arms, the aches and pains and the all encompassing weather. He listened politely, before asking if our costumes ever got ruined!
But perhaps most of all I tried to explain the camaraderie and reliance we share with our friends. We all rely on each other. For example, I explain the show to Ian and he sorts out the infantry. I explain the show to Katie, Colin or Mark and they sort out the horses. Real life sometimes gets in the way. Family commitments, illness, work all stop members attending. But while those attending shows constantly changes, the camaraderie stays the same. So let me say a big thank you to everyone involved, for your hard work and enthusiasm and in making Comitatus so special. It is a little bit of magic.