The Institute of Classical Studies Library holds the archive of the illustrator and experimental archaeologist Peter Connolly. Connolly was known for his work on ancient weaponry and particularly for his reconstruction of the Roman saddle.
A saddle needs to provide a secure seat to the rider while transferring its weight from the spine of the horse to its flanks. When it comes to ancient saddles the evidence is scarce as the literary sources are sometimes vague while much of the archaeological evidence has disappeared because organic material is only preserved under certain climate conditions.
The Connolly archive offers a chronological development of his research on the saddle and an understanding of his working methods.
On one draft of a talk, he gave on the subject Connolly reveals how he first became interested in exploring how a Roman saddle would work; it was a conversation with the archaeologist Mark Hassall. The aim was to solve the mystery of ancient sources about that piece of Roman military equipment and challenge the accepted opinion that the Romans did not use saddles but just saddle blankets decorated with horns. Reconstructions made at the time had been following on from that idea and Connolly originally illustrated his books with those reconstructions.
Connolly was convinced that there might have been a wood frame to which that blanket, and horns would be attached. For his research Connolly looked carefully at all the remaining evidence but it was his decision to build it and test it that made the difference. By showing that the Roman did use saddles successfully, he changed the understanding of the Roman army that previously was thought to not have a functional cavalry.
Connolly used himself as a model for his illustrations; keeping the photos he took of himself on photo albums that he collated himself. These photo albums were the core of the research he undertook for his publications along with the notebooks full of notes that he took during his extensive journey visiting museums and archaeological sites.
It is through his photographs and notes that we can see how his understanding of the Roman saddle changed. Connolly built a model of the saddle to try at home before constructing one that could be used on a horse.
In his photo album Poses 1 a young Connolly took photographs of him in equestrian poses that he would then use for his book The Greek armies, first published in 1977. (Figs. 1 and 2) Here there is no saddle, just the artist sitting on a stool with some cloth folded on top as not much is known of the saddles of the period. Connolly would then rework the image combining the photograph with the Alexander mosaic from the House of the Faun in Pompeii. (Fig. 3)
In the photo album Poses 2 the saddle has evolved; it is no longer a stool but a wooden horse in which we can see the four pommels. Already comparing the study poses, Connolly appears much more stable than in the earlier photographs. (Fig. 4) However, the studio does not compare with real life and the saddle had to be tested on the field, on a horse. The reconstruction of the saddle was tested by Connolly himself, his riding instructor and eventually the Ermine Street Guard. A re-enactment group with whom Connolly collaborated regularly. (Fig. 5)
Connolly used reenactment to develop his model for the Roman saddle and the photographs he took of himself using a saddle show his working method. The reconstruction of the saddle was based on the remaining pieces of bronze and ancient visual representations but more importantly, testing the saddle in the field. Connolly learned to ride a horse in order to be able to test it and was happy to demonstrate how it worked, as in one case in front of Princess Anne during the event commemorating the Institute of Archaeology’s Jubilee. The value of reenactment as a valid tool for historical research has been recently acknowledged and this is a pioneering case that could be used by others working on the field.
Connolly’s research was groundbreaking as it challenged the traditional views on the saddle. His approach wasn’t always well received, particularly at the beginning. The difficulties of transferring practical knowledge to the academic field is shown in the correspondence between Connolly and other researchers during the preparation of the articles that they co-authored. Nevertheless, this working method enormously influenced those who worked closely with him as Connolly had pushed them to “experience” antiquity and to understand how artifacts could be used. This influence can be seen today by the fact that Connolly’s replicas are still used today at the University of Leicester.